Kronomyth 3.5: THE REICH-Y HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Ken Russell’s gonzo Lisztomania is a polarizing film; you either love it or you hate it. I thought it was brilliant, but my tastes tend to lean toward the unconventional. The film starred Roger Daltrey and featured a musical score of famous Wagner and Liszt themes adapted and arranged by Rick Wakeman. In a move of inspired economy, Daltrey lends his golden voice to several songs in the film, and Wakeman makes a cameo on screen as a golden warrior. Both the film and the score are way over the top, but you need to approach them with a sense of humor and adventure. Unfortunately, critics can be a humorless lot sometimes. I think Lisztomania is a work of art, and Wakeman’s score artfully reproduces the grandiose styles of Liszt and Wagner in a contemporary rock setting. Is it as inspired as The Six Wives of Henry VIII? No, it isn’t. But Daltrey is a vast improvement over Ashley Holt, and Wakeman is working with some pretty impressive material here (Liszt, Wagner). I would rank “Dante Period” with the best of Wakeman’s instrumental bits, and the songs with Daltrey (“Love’s Dream,” “Peace At Last,” “Orpheus Song,” “Funerailles”) are as good as anything that appeared on the generally less maligned McVicar. The other vocal tracks, “Hell” (featuring Linda Lewis) and “Excelsior Song” (Paul Nicholas), are much stranger and intentionally less sentimental, dark where Liszt’s voice (Daltrey) is light, which is by design. If the film turned you off, then the soundtrack probably isn’t a sound investment. Both are in questionable taste (which most people could deduce from the giant penis on the album cover). Maybe your world already has too many freaks, frankensteins and goosestepping gestapo agents in it already, but mine doesn’t (at Liszt not yet, although I understand the powers that be are working on it).
“Sonja put it very well once when she said, ‘You have the whole of your life to write the first album, and six months for the second.’” – Francis Monkman, in a 1998 interview.
Kronomyth 2.0: A WOMAN DREW HER LONG BLACK HAIR OUT TIGHT AND FIDDLED WHISPER MUSIC ON THOSE STRINGS. Second albums are often problematic as bands struggle to create within the pressurized environment of the music machine. It’s a kind of curse when your dream becomes your job. (There are worse curses, of course.) Signs that Curved Air was caving under the pressure can be seen in the fact that the band had effectively split into two creative camps. It wasn’t a division of vision, so much as an effectual means of generating new material for the next album. Darryl Way and Sonja Linwood struck up a songwriting partnership for the first side of Second Album and scored their biggest hit with “Back Street Luv.” Francis Monkman’s eccentric, wordy and wonderful ideas are explored on the second side. Despite this division, there was nothing in the music to suggest that the band was going in different directions. If anything, they sharpened their collective aural attack on Second Album. Monkman’s work on the VCS3 stands as some of the most sophisticated keyboard prog of its time (he’s also an underrated guitarist) and the rhythm section of Pilkington-Miksa and Ian Eyre gives the music a very solid bottom end. Where the first album featured Linwood and Way on vocals (an approach that occasionally invited comparison to Jefferson Airplane), Linwood is the lone voice here most of the time, which allows the listener to luxuriate in her subtle shades and tones. Listening to “Young Mother,” “Back Street Luv,” “Puppets,” “Everdance” and “Piece of Mind,” one can only marvel that music listeners didn’t carry Curved Air home on their shoulders and declare them kings. Their first two albums are certainly as good as anything to come from the established masters (Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, etc.) and, in fact, slightly ahead of most of them in terms of sophistication and execution. [Note: This is a placeholder review, since I’ll really need to inhabit this music before I can come back with a decent report of it.]
Kronomyth 16.0: TURBREWLENCE. Every five years or so, Steve collects all the bits and pieces from his home recording studio and releases them under the Homebrew brand. Homebrew 3 features demos of songs that appeared on Turbulence, Quantum Guitars and Natural Timbre plus a fine assortment of fragments, unreleased songs and instrumentals. Unlike the first two Homebrews, you won’t find any windows into classic Yes material on Homebrew 3. What you will find is another treasure trove of good ideas that, with a little polish, might have graced any number of Steve Howe, Yes or even Asia albums. Homebrew 3 contains quite a few unreleased songs, and I’ll admit that there is a certain pleasure in hearing Steve sing these days, as it brings another layer of melody into the mix. In fact, listening to songs like “Suddenly” and “Just A Passing Phase,” I’m reminded of the demo recordings of XTC (Homespun). (Steve Howe and XTC? Now that would be a pairing for the ages!) While you can hear the ladle scrape the bottom of the barrel once or twice (e.g., “Getting Through”), what impressed me on Homebrew 3 is how deep the barrel goes. Howe seems to have an endless supply of good ideas, and what the Homebrew releases lack in production quality they make up for in variety. Here, you’ll hear Steve Howe’s acoustic side, electric side, sense of humor and sense of wonder in a generous assortment. Yes fans will feel at home on the Homebrew releases, perhaps even moreso than some of the proper Steve Howe solo albums like Turbulence. I understand that many might feel the Homebrew sessions are non-essential, but in a world with so little magic, I’ll take it where I find it, and I found more of it than I expected on Homebrew 3.
Stephen Stills is a musician’s musician, a point that is often overshadowed by his strong songwriting. He came to national prominence in Buffalo Springfield, a post-Byrds folk-rock band that had its biggest hit with Stills’ politically charged “For What It’s Worth.” When that band folded after a few years, Stills joined The Byrds’ David Crosby and The Hollies’ Graham Nash in what is arguably the most successful supergroup of all time, Crosby, Stills and Nash.
CS&N changed the shape of rock & roll by blending their multiple and distinct musical personalities into a sum that was somehow greater than its considerable, individual parts. Their first record featured a song written earlier for Stills’ then-girlfriend, Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The second CS&N record reunited Stills with former Buffalo bandmate Neil Young, beginning an on/off affair as CSN&Y broke apart and reunited in various permutations over the years.
In the Seventies, Stills released a string of solo albums in between occasional CS&N reunions. His first featured a major hit with “Love The One You’re With” and an all-star cast that included Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr and Cass Elliott. After his second solo album, Stills formed another “supergroup” with The Byrds’ Chris Hillman and various CSN sidemen dubbed Manassas. The group’s first release, a double album, showcases the many sides of Stephen Stills to fine effect. After Manassas, Stills switched to Columbia Records, and later recorded a one-off album with Neil Young (Long May You Run). The next two decades saw a decline in solo albums but an increase in CSN activity.
Stills might have enjoyed a long retirement of racing cars and sailing boats. Instead, he formed a blues supergroup, The Riders, in 2013. While his voice has grown craggier over the years, it’s great to see him back in the saddle.
“Everything was sweeter with Harry.” – Van Dyke Parks, as quoted in a 2013 article in The Telegraph.
Kronomyth 4.01: IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF PLATTERY. John Lennon basically handed this hit to Ringo on a silver Platters. John recorded a stylized version that sounded a lot like his Rock And Roll recordings at the time and gave it to Ringo to re-record. Ringo apparently liked the version so much that he kept John’s guide vocals and guitar and simply re-recorded his own version on top of it. If you’ve heard John’s version, you’ll hear that that the two are almost identical; Harry Nilsson’s backing vocals are really the only difference, but what a difference they make! (It’s a wonder Ringo wasn’t shadowed by a small army of backing vocalists all the time: shopping, in the shower, on the phone.) Ringo and Harry also made a music video for this song featuring Ringo in his spaceman costume and Harry Nilsson in a bathrobe. The B side is the elpee track, “Call Me,” a likeable pop song in the mold of “Don’t Pass Me By.” The piano is provided by a young David Foster, who would go on to take over the L.A. music scene in later years.
Kronomyth 3.2: MY CANDLE BURNS AT BOTH ENDS. The second hit single from Ringo was a rollicking number co-written by songwriter Vini Poncia, who was introduced to Ringo by producer Richard Perry. (Perry had produced The Anders & Poncia Album back in 1969.) At the time, it was Poncia’s highest-charting hit; two years later, Poncia would top the charts with Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’.” In 1975, David Hentschel had a minor UK hit with an instrumental version of “Oh My My” that was more suited to roller rinks than the radio. The flip side is the elpee track “Step Lightly,” a country-rock song with clarinets that sounds better than you’d think.
“I don’t know if I want White America to remember or to forget that Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary. Dig it, oh, dig it, oh, right on, dig it, yeah.” – Stephen Stills, “America’s Children.”
Kronomyth 3.0: CROSBY, STOOL, NASH AND YOUNG. This is one of the best concert recordings you’ll ever hear, in which Crosby, Nash and Young come out smelling like flowers and Stills comes out smelling like fertilizer. That last point is a shame, since Stephen Stills is far more talented (and, one would presume, less annoying) than 4 Way Street lets on. Credited to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the shows were a mix of solo performances and group performances, divided pretty evenly between the acoustic set (the first side) and the electric set (the second side). It’s an interesting approach that effectively brings the solo material (“Love The One You’re With,” “Chicago,” “Laughing,” “Southern Man,” etc.) into the CSNY fold. The record begins with a tease: a snippet of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” that, if captured in full, would represent Stills’ best performance. (You have to wonder why he didn’t block the release of this album, or at least listen to it before signing off on it.) The solo performances are often arresting and shine a charming light on their authors’ personalities: Nash comes across as gracious, Crosby as spacey and funny, Young displays a dry sense of humor. The remaining trio provides minimal accompaniment while the other is playing; Stills adds some tasteful guitar to the proceedings, Crosby and Nash provide supporting harmonies as needed. Neil Young’s songs sound as good as you remember; highlights include his introduction to “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and a epic performance of “Southern Man.” Crosby delivers mesmerizing performances of “Triad” and “The Lee Shore” that stand with some of the best work he’s ever done. Sadly, this is probably the last great recorded performance of David Crosby, as drugs would soon take their toll on his voice and mind. Nash debuts a new song, “Right Between The Eyes,” and does a good job on “Chicago” (the expanded compact disc reissue adds a nice version of “King Midas In Reverse”). As for Stills, it quickly goes downhill after “49 Bye Byes” as he launches into the political patter of “America’s Children,” proving nothing except that the man can’t preach and play piano at the same time. The electric side is consumed mostly by two 13-minute performances, and “Carry On” does for too long. The performances from Crosby (“Long Time Gone”) and Nash (“Pre-Road Downs”) are good, and I’ve never heard a performance of “Ohio” I didn’t enjoy (Stills should have learned a lesson from Young and let his music do the talking). My grousing aside, about eighty percent of 4 Way Street is brilliant (or at least very good) and belongs in any serious shortlist of the best live rock albums from the era. As its name implies, the performances represent an intersection of four individuals who were each going in their own directions musically. You’re invited to stop and listen for a while, since it’s a rare alignment of stars you’re witnessing.
“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” – Brian Eno, in a 1982 interview with The Los Angeles Times, as verified by Quote Investigator.
Kronomyth 3.0: THE VELVET OVERLORD. With Nico and John Cale out of the picture, Lou Reed was the unquestioned overlord of the Underground, opening the door for him to deliver the sweetest, strangest record you’ve ever heard. Remember how you felt the first time you heard “Sunday Morning?” Apparently, that was just a warm-up for “Candy Says” (sung with complete innocence by Doug Yule) and “Pale Blue Eyes.” The Eno quote above may have referred to VU’s first record, but when it came time to pilfer from The Velvet Underground, this is where the artists of tomorrow came. Without “What Goes On,” there is no “Mother Whale Eyeless” and those transcendently strange rockers from Eno. Without “I’m Set Free,” The Pixies and songs like “Velouria” aren’t nearly so magical. Artists and critics may have liked to say that they preferred “Sister Ray,” but I suspect most of them played “Beginning To See The Light” and “That’s The Story of My Life” behind closed doors. As charming a record as it is, The Velvet Underground isn’t a sell out. “The Murder Mystery” proves that Lou Reed didn’t need John Cale to create art (in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of including it here), and you just need to scratch the surface of songs like “Candy Says,” “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free” to see the darkness underneath. Without Cale as a creative foil (a role that Yule doesn’t try to fill), the dual guitars of Reed and Sterling Morrison become more prominent, a style that would carry over into Reed’s solo career. It’s tempting to see The Velvet Underground as a Lou Reed solo record, which makes the opening and closing cameos from Yule and Maureen Tucker (on the wonderful “Afterhours”) all the more essential. Somehow, the record finds a balance between its members despite the magnetic presence of Reed, something The Pixies were able to achieve as well (though not easily, it seems). Truth be told, I expected The Velvet Underground to be a letdown after the loss of Cale. Instead, it’s a liberation. One thing worth mentioning is the yin/yang relationship that this record has with Nico’s The Marble Index. Where Nico challenges you to follow her distresses in a dark dreamworld, Reed comes back with the report, “I met myself in a dream and I just want to tell you everything was alright.” Here’s to hoping they’re both seeing the light now.
Kronomyth 3.1: STARR WARS. This was a Christmas present come early: Ringo crooning the old Johnny Burnette song with Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson hamming it up behind him. Originally recorded in 1961, the Burnette version was revived for the film, American Graffiti, which appeared a few months before the release of Ringo. Completing the Star Wars connection, Ringo recorded an early music video of “You’re Sixteen” with Carrie Fisher for his 1978 television special, Ringo. The flip side is another elpee track from Ringo, “Devil Woman,” featuring a really sharp horn arrangement from Tom Scott and some fine drumming from Ringo’s regular stand-in, Jim Keltner.
Na Poi is basically Fela’s attempt to set the act of making love to music. It starts out with a simple riff and a spoken intro that Fela refers to as “talk talk chorus,” then expands the riff into a full-blown groove complete with the usual horns, drums and bass. The song is basically one long, extended groove that changes very little over the course of twenty-five minutes; Fela’s future wives (all 27 of them) could only hope that Fela was more imaginative behind closed doors, although the song’s stamina boded well. Fela would revisit the song over the years in several versions. I’m not sure why; it’s not one of his better ideas, but maybe the salacious nature of the song appealed to him. The original album also included “You No Go Die… Unless,” which is in line with the better music from this period: strong groove, powerful singing, complex horn charts and lots of music crammed into the crevices. The song echoes a personal philosophy of Kuti’s that his destiny and death were in his own hands, which could be seen as an active challenge against a Nigerian government that might have it otherwise. Fela Kuti has released dozens of records, and Na Poi wouldn’t make my list of his best dozen efforts (it might top the list of his dirty dozen). While Kuti expected a lot from his band, he wasn’t a perfectionist as a producer. Na Poi feels like it was recorded live in a single take (which is probably the case); in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t bootlegs around from the period that sound as good. You could argue that a celebration of sex (“Na Poi”) and death-defiance (“You No Go Die… Unless”) are quintessential themes for Kuti, but Na Poi is not one of his most essential recordings. [Note: Some of the re-issue information below may pertain to later recordings of Na Poi; hopefully, I’ll sort all that out in the coming months.]