Saturday, 23 February 2019

A Complete Introduction To Chess

  

This is a truly wonderful, invigorating, life-affirming compilation from the now defunct Chess Records, launched by Chicago brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in the late nineteen forties. The label was responsible for bringing to the world the sound of blues, early rock 'n' roll, original r 'n' b, some jazz and soul too. Artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon were introduced to the world and notably to the young Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, of course, and all the many UK blues-influenced bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Blues Breakers, Eric Clapton and many more. Then, lest we forget, there was Chess's biggest artist, the legendary Chuck Berry, who inspired so many.

The box set covers 4 CDs. They cover the development of the label, its artists and changing musical trends.

CD 1

This is a CD full of early blues material plus some ground-breaking early rock 'n' roll numbers. There is a case for 1951's Rocket '88 by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats (pictured) being the first true rock'n'roll record, (but many plead the case of 1949's Rock Awhile by Goree Carter). Chuck Berry's 1956 offering Maybelline pre-dated any Elvis rock 'n' roll recordings. Then there is the intoxicating rhythm of Bo Diddley's self-titled track. Lowell Fulson's Reconsider Baby was subsequently covered by Elvis. Thereafter it is blues all the way with iconic numbers such as Bo Diddley's I'm A Man, Elmore James' Dust My Broom, Muddy Waters' Hoochie Coochie Man and Mannish Boy. Stuff like this would provide The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and many pub bluesers with covers for decades.



CD 2

This kicks off with Chuck Berry's rocking Rock 'n' Roll Music. The classics come thick and fast now - Jimmy McCracklin's quirky, infectious The Walk, Howlin' Wolf's totally iconic Smokestack Lightnin', Berry's Johnny B. Goode, Dale Hawkins' Susie Q, Etta James' (pictured) magnificent I Just Wanna Make Love To You and Howlin' Wolf's The Red Rooster. The Stones used the latter for Little Red Rooster. Some really good cuts on here. There is also some rock 'n' roll- style doo-wop soul in Harvey & The Moonglows' Ten Commandments Of Love and some jazzy, swing in (I Don't Know Why I Love You) But I Do by Clarence "Frogman" Henry.



CD 3

Here we have Chess beginning to delve into soul, with numbers like Rescue Me by Fontella Bass, the Northern Soul classic Landslide by Tony Clarke and also jazzy material like Wade In The Water and The "In" Crowd by The Ramsey Lewis Trio. These two also became Northern Soul floor-fillers. Chuck Berry (pictured) contributes two stonking rockers on this disc in The Promised Land and No Particular Place To Go.



CD 4

Some copper-bottomed blues still finds its way on to the final disc - the lively Wang Dang Doodle by Koko Taylor (pictured) and I'd Rather Go Blind by Etta James. Gritty, urban "blaxploitation" soul/funk arrives for the first time now in the shape of the marvellous, evocative Woman Of The Ghetto by Marlena Shaw; the impossibly funky Evil from, would you believe, Howlin' Wolf; and the psychedelic, hippy, trippy funk of I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun by Minnie Riperton and Rotary Connection. Why, even Muddy Waters went funky with Tom Cat.



There is classic soul like Solomon Burke's Let Me Wrap My Arms Around You and Irma Thomas's Good To Me. Also Northern Soul stompers like The Valentinos' Sweeter Than The Day Before and Hold On by The Radiants. We also get some novelty recordings in the infuriatingly singalong Here Comes The Judge by Pigmeat Markham and Chuck Berry's My Ding-A-Ling. The less said about that one, the better. Other than it is the only duff track in one hundred of them.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007)


History Song/80s Life/Northern Whale/Kingdom Of Doom/Herculean/Behind The Sun/The Bunting Song/Nature Springs/A Soldier's Tale/Three Changes/Green Fields/The Good, The Bad & The Queen    

This was the first collaboration between ex-Blur Damon Albarn, ex-The Clash Paul Simonon, ex-The Verve Simon Tong and Fela Kuti's ex-drummer Tony Allen. It is a reflective, melancholic, sometimes miserable message for the new millennium. Its appeal however, is quite a seductive one. All very muddy art rock and "noir". It is a real grower, however, and worthy of several listens before you find it seeping into your consciousness. I listened to this for the first time after hearing 2018's Merrie Land and I prefer this one. Both have hidden depths, but this has more, I feel. There is something quite beguiling about it.
         
History Song is a Joe Strummer meets Madness shuffler of a song, full of understated atmosphere. 80s Life is a sad-sounding number with a melancholic vocal. There are fifties doo-wop influences on it and some fetching keyboards too. 

Northern Whale is a quirky, mournful and moody track, it sounds world-wearily cynical. All that nineties joie de vivre has completely evaporated. I a no surprised, I was never convinced by it. There are some nice keyboard breaks on it too, very "Heroes" era David Bowie or Brian Eno

Kingdom On Doom is a Madness-influenced once again doom-ish creation. Herculean has a big pounding bassy industrial backing and a muffled, echo-ey, haunting vocal. There are lots of doom-laden soundscapes all over this one.

 

Behind The Sun uses a similar effect on the vocal, rendering it plaintive and coldly mysterious. The bass from Simonon and Allen's gentle cymbal work are both captivating. This one eats into you. A sumptuous bass helps to introduce the very Paul Weller-esque The Bunting Song. On the collective's second album, 2018's Merrie Land, Albarn's vocals are very influenced by Suggs of Madness and Joe Strummer. On here, there are far more echoes of Paul Weller's contemporary work such as 2000's There's No Drinking After You're Dead from the Heliocentric album. Indeed, Weller's voice on 2012's Sonik Kicks is very influenced by this, in turn.

Nature Springs is a beautifully low-key, slightly ghostly number. Once more, the bass is sublime as is the chugging rhythm. There is a classic slice of Simonon dub half way through. 

A Soldier's Tale is bleak and eerie, and as with all the album, packed full of atmosphere. Three Changes has a deliciously resonant bass thump and another Weller-styled vocal. These songs really are ones that hear and immediately think you want to listen to again. There is nothing immediately catchy about them but they demand repeated listens. Funnily enough, there is something in Albarn's vocal delivery that brings to mind Liam Gallagher of all people. It is in the phrasing. The drawn-out bit at the end of each line.

Green Fields is arty and slightly sixties psychedelic-influenced in vague places, but essentially dour. Its keyboard sound is almost prog-rock as well. 

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is a lengthy, infectious bass-driven number with an intoxicating vocal. Good stuff. Its madcap keyboard "wall of sound" brings to mind parts of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass or even Wizzard's bizarrely experimental Wizzard Brew. As it builds up into a cacophony, though, you can't help but think of Roxy Music's Ladytron.

As I said earlier, this album demands repeated listens.




Merrie Land (2018)


Introduction/Merrie Land/Gun To The Head/Nineteen Seventeen/The Great Fire/Lady Boston/Drifters And Trawlers/The Truce Of Twilight/Ribbons/The Last Man To Leave/The Poison Tree             

Now, I have to confess, that among my sizeable music collection, I own no Damon Albarn material. I know very little about him, so my review is from a very detached position. The album was recommended by a friend.

This is the second album from The Good, The Bad & The Queen collective. The first was in 2007, and I am not familiar with it, so please forgive my ignorance. Both albums feature Paul Simonon on bass, Simon Tong on guitar and Tony Allen on drums. Albarn has worked with ex-Clash bassist Simonon before, and also guitarist Simon Tong from The Verve. I was interested to find that the drummer Tony Allen, long term member of Nigerian "hi-life" legend Fela Kuti's band is on the album. Unfortunately, though, his powerhouse rhythms are not really ever used to their full extent. He is seventy-two years old, mind.

The work is Albarn's take on contemporary England (not a subject I want to dwell on here for too long) and quite a lot of the meanings are somewhat oblique and not immediately apparent. It is not a "there's no future in England's dreaming" fist pumper of an album. The vignettes that make up each song are far more subtle than that. You can pick up bits here and there, this line and that line, then it drifts off in another direction and you think "what's that all about?". I used to have the same problem with Joe Strummer's solo work. I didn't quite get what it meant, but it always sounded as if it meant something deep. Am I making sense? Probably not. Basically, Albarn's not happy with things in 2018. He makes a reasonable fist of expressing a whole spectrum of emotions with an earnest empathy and his heart seems to be in the right place.

 
   
Merrie Land, the title track, sounds so much like Madness, vocally, it could almost be them. It has an affecting, understated beat, like some of the quieter tracks on The Clash's Sandinista!, such as If Music Could Talk or The Crooked Beat. Paul Simonon's influence is strong throughout this album, as is that of the afore-mentioned Joe Strummer's solo work. Some medieval, folky recorder sounds introduce another Suggs soundalike song, Gun To The Head. The "we don't care" refrain is pure Madness. The dreamy latter part of the song borrows heavily from David Bowie's Blackstar album. 

Nineteen Seventeen begins in a slightly freeform jazz style, before the ghost of Blackstar Bowie appears again, all over it.

The Great Fire continues very much in the same haunting vein. The captivating rhythm is once again such a contemporary Bowie one. Albarn says something about being on Preston station at one point, although, to be honest, quite a lot of the song's meaning passes me by. The music actually takes over. Indeed, that is the case for much of the album, despite its melancholy message. There is an infectious looseness and quiet ambience to the music that counteracts the supposed bleakness.

Lady Boston sounds so like a Joe Strummer solo song to me. Everything about it screams Strummer. He would have loved it. It ends with an evocative bit of Welsh male voice choir. 

Drifters And Trawlers is a quirkily rhythmic groove with more Strummer overtones. The Trace Of Twilight has a Talking Heads-style intro (from the Speaking In Tongues era) and a captivating, shuffling beat. Great bass line from Simonon, too. The lyrical fade-out is very reminiscent of The Specials

Ribbons is the one track that really brings to mind the great Billy Bragg, both lyrically and vocally.

The Last Man To Leave is the most bleak and hard-hitting, lyrically, although, musically it is probably my least favourite, with a semi-spoken vocal and a 1930s Berlin Alabama Song-style beat. 

The final track, The Poison Tree, is a poignant closer, complete with tinkling piano, sweeping strings and seagull sounds. It reminds me of something but I can't put my finger on what, infuriatingly. Maybe something off More Specials. Or even something The Beach Boys did in their early seventies period.

It is a short album, which is something unusual these days (and actually quite refreshing) and it is a work that I feel has hidden depths. This is review is done on first listen. It as a work that justifies several listens. Musically I find it quite invigorating and uplifting, which is an odd reaction to have to an album that is essentially sad and sardonic, but the musicianship is excellent and the soundscape addictive.




Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Three Degrees

The Three Degrees (1973)


Dirty Ol' Man/Can't You See What You're Doing To Me/A Woman Needs A Good Man/When Will I See You Again/I Didn't Know/I Like Being A Woman/If And When/The Year Of Decision
                                        
BONUS TRACKS

TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)/Love Is The Message/Dirty Ol' Man (Tom Moulton Mix)


The debut album from one of the Philadelphia label's leading lights, the female vocal threesome beloved, apparently, of Prince Charles. This is a pretty typical seventies soul album - riding on the back of three killer singles and one great instrumental and the rest is "filler". In this case, the filler is pretty good, however.

Firstly, the sound quality is excellent on this BBR (Big Break Records) remaster. Nice and warm and bassy and in good seventies stereo.

The group have taken a bit of flak in subsequent years for the track I Like Being A Woman which has Sheila Ferguson proclaiming that she doesn't want to be the equal of her man and she just wants his love. Written by a couple of men, ironically, that sort of song was ten-a-penny in seventies soul. It was all pretty harmless, really, she just wanted a bit of "good lovin'". Too much was written into it. However, the line "..that's when I become your slave..." raises eyebrows in Sheila's spoken part.

The three singles are the vibrant, accusatory Dirty Old Man; the iconic, beautifully melodic and harmonious When Will I See You Again and the slightly lesser hit in the still catchy Year Of Decision

The instrumental is the infectious TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) by MFSB featuring the girls on occasional vocals. 

Tracks like Can't You See What You're Doing To Me and the soulful A Woman Needs A Good Man, with its addictively funky and brassy mid-song break, are pretty typical of the rest of the album's material. 

I Didn't Know is a punchy, upbeat song that could easily have made a good single. If And When is a big, dramatic ballad.

Perfectly enjoyable for a half hour's listen. Nothing unbelievably special though. Well, actually, When Will I See You Again is special, it has to be said.



International (1975)


Another Heartache/Take Good Care Of Yourself/Get Your Love Back/Lonelier Are Fools/Distant Lover/Together/Long Lost Lover/Here I Am/TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)/Loving Cup  
                                           
BONUS TRACKS

Midnight Train/Nigai Namida/La Chanson Populaire/Somos Novios (It's Impossible)/When Will I See You Again (Japanese Version)/TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) Tom Moulton Mix


This was the second of the Three Degrees' Philadelphia International albums from the mid-seventies and, unfortunately, by mid-1975, the Philly Soul was beginning to run out of steam a bit. This is still a classic soul album of its era, however, and there is still some good material on here. The latest BBR Records remastering (with bonus tracks) has truly excellent sound quality - full, warm and bassy and crystal clear percussion.

Another Heartache is a delicious, slow-tempo ballad, with sweeping string backing and a lovely bass line, while Take Good Care Of Yourself was the catchy, singalong hit single from the album. It has that effortless, recognisable mid-seventies Philly soul sound. It is a bit of a When Will I See You Again remake, however. 

Get Your Love Back was a very minor UK hit. It is an underrated, lively, Northern Soul-ish number full of verve, attack and a superb lead vocal from Sheila Ferguson.

Lonelier Are Fools finds Sheila in full Diana Ross mode on a sumptuous ballad. Distant Lover is a cover of the Marvin Gaye song from 1973's Let's Get It On. It is full of great orchestration and more good vocals. It does the song justice. 

Together is a bit of a standard-sounding smooth soul ballad, typical of its time, but none the less appealing when taken at face value. The problem was that, while a couple of albums like this are most pleasant, you can't just keep putting similar stuff out year after year. The two Three Degrees albums and three or four offerings from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes are classics of their period and genre, it has to be said, though.

The very Motown-esque and infectious Long Lost Lover was also a minor UK hit too. It deserved better, actually. Both this and Get Your Love Back were excellent singles. 

Here I Am is a big, bassy, dramatic ballad with a huge vocal and some sumptuous brass backing. TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) was not really a Three Degrees number, it was the Philadelphia house band MFSB. The girls just provide the backing vocals, and because of that it finds its way on to the album. No matter, though, its great and was a big hit too. 

Loving Cup ends the album in Motown style once more, with another upbeat number. The album is what it is - enjoyable mid-seventies soul, perfectly executed.

** The bonus tracks feature a great soul track in Midnight Train; the girls singing in Japanese on Nigai Namida and a version of When Will I See You Again; an Italian ballad in Somos Novos and an awful Eurovision-style French number in La Chanson Populaire.





Check out more soul reviews :-
Billy Paul
Gladys Knight/Pips
The Commodores

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

The Love Generation - Classic Hits From The Flower Power Era


 

This is a wonderful, uplifting and spirit-raising compilation of hits from the late sixties/early seventies. The title of "flower power" hits is a little bit of a misnomer, as they are not all peace and love-inspired songs man, but they all cover that carefree period. Basically, they are pretty much excellent examples of rock, blues rock, country rock and sometimes folky music from a period of superb creativity and atmosphere. There are are some interesting songs across the collection's four CDs, and while they are not copper-bottomed rarities, as such, there are some long-forgotten numbers that I enjoy listening to again when I give this a whirl. Examples are Incense And Peppermints by Strawberry Alarm Clock, Green Tambourine by Lemon Pipers (A song I remember my parents had as a single when I was around eight, it brings back nice memories), My Friend The Sun by Family and Up, Up And Away by the 5th Dimension. Also so evocative and so redolent of the “summer of love” are the two Jefferson Airplane numbers, White Rabbit and Somebody To Love and The YoungbloodsLet’s Get Together.

The sound quality is generally very good, although it is dependent on the original recording. What is also important is that all the songs are the originals, something that is not always the case on sixties compilations.

Personal favourites are the blatantly Dylanesque Catch The Wind by Donovan; the anti-war anthem Eve Of Destruction by Barry McGuire; Everlasting Love by Love Affair, with Steve Ellis's marvellous lead vocal; Silence Is Golden by The Tremeloes; Pentangle's quirky folk of  Light Flight; The Band's The Weight and Peter Sarstedt's evocative Where Do You Go To My Lovely? Also, one can't help but like the hippy-ish nonsense of Good Morning Starshine by OliverAquarius by the 5th Dimension and Scott Mackenzie's iconic San Francisco.

There is also some great rock to be found on here in the shape of  Devil’s Answer by Atomic Rooster, On The Road Again by Canned Heat, American Woman by Guess Who and Paranoid by Black Sabbath. Check out Melanie's wonderful cover of The Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday too. I have always found Keith West's Excerpt From A Teenage Opera to be very odd, however.

There are too many great songs to praise them all. Here is the full track listing.

CD 1

1. California Dreamin' - The Mamas & The Papas

2. Somebody To Love - Jefferson Airplane
3. Good Morning Starshine - Oliver
4. Aquarius/Let The Sun Go In - 5th Dimension
5. Summer In The City - The Lovin' Spoonful
6. Let's Go To San Francisco - Flower Pot Men
7. Black Magic Woman - Santana
8. Incense And Peppermints - Strawberry Alarm Clock
9. Catch The Wind - Donovan
10. Carrie Anne - The Hollies
11. The Days Of Pearly Spencer - David McWilliams
12. I Can Hear Music - The Beach Boys
13. Where Do You Go To My Lovely - Peter Sarstedt
14. Kites - Simon Dupree & The Big Sound
15. Happy Together - The Turtles
16. Green Tambourine - Lemon Pipers
17. American Woman - Guess Who

CD 2

1. In The Year 2525 - Zager & Evans

2. Paranoid - Black Sabbath
3. Light Flight - Pentangle
4. Ob La Da, Ob La Da - Marmalade
5. Everlasting Love - Love Affair
6. Albatross - Fleetwood Mac
7. Sunny Afternoon - The Kinks
8. Venus - Shocking Blue
9. Can't Let Maggie Go - Honeybus
10. Games People Play - Joe South
11. Spinning Wheel - Blood, Sweat & Tears
12. My Friend The Sun - Family
13. Silver Machine - Hawkwind
14. Living In The Past - Jethro Tull
15. Devil's Answer - Atomic Rooster
16. Hi Ho Silver Lining - Jeff Beck

CD 3

1. San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) - Scott Mackenzie

2. Eight Miles High - The Byrds
3. Daydream - Lovin' Spoonful
4. Need Your Love So Bad - Fleetwood Mac
5. White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
6. Brand New Key - Melanie
7. Winchester Cathedral - New Vaudeville Band
8. Dear Delilah - Grapefruit
9. Dedicated Follower Of Fashion - The Kinks
10. Excerpt From A Teenage Opera - Keith West
11. Silence Is Golden - The Tremeloes
12. Up, Up And Away - 5th Dimension
13. Little Girl - Syndicate Of Sound
14. And The Sun Will Shine - Feliciano
15. You've Made Me So Very Happy - Blood, Sweat & Tears
16. Oh Happy Day - Edwin Hawkins
17. Joy To The World - Three Dog Night

CD 4 

1. Woodstock - Matthews Southern Comfort

2. Darling Be Home Soon - The Lovin' Spoonful
3. The Weight - The Band
4. Mr. Tambourine Man - The Byrds
5. It Ain't Me Babe - The Turtles
6. Everybody's Talkin' - Harry Nilsson
7. Get Together - Youngbloods
8. Ruby Tuesday - Melanie
9. Mama Told Me Not To Come - Three Dog Night
10. Eve Of Destruction - Barry McGuire
11. Universal Soldier - Donovan
12. All I Ever Need Is You - Sonny & Cher
13. Dream A Little Dream Of Me - Mama Cass
14. Light My Fire - Jose Feliciano
15. The Letter - Box Tops
16. Magic Carpet Ride - Steppenwolf
17. On The Road Again - Canned Heat


All simply great stuff. Get hold of this compilation if you can.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Lou Reed

Lou Reed (1972)


I Can't Stand It/Going Down/Walk And Talk It/Lisa Says/Berlin/I Love You/Wild Child/Love Makes You Feel/Ride Into The Sun/Ocean         

This is a strange album, released after the demise of The Velvet Underground, before they gained "cult" kudos and before Lou Reed gained his own David Bowie-inspired respect. Apart from BerlinGoing Down and Wild Child, all the material had been recorded before by The Velvet Underground while Reed was still with them. Most of The Velvet Underground versions have now come to light on "deluxe editions" of their albums. The versions on this album are, on the whole, far more "rock" in their sound, with more punch to them and a general feel of being more complete.

A lot of critics, over the years, have given this album a serious pasting. I do not have the same problems with it, in fact I like it.
                                        
I Can't Stand It is a rocky, riffy, latter-day unsurprisingly Velvet Underground-influenced number to kick off the album in fine glammy style (of course, as I mentioned earlier, it was also recorded before this album's release by The Velvet Underground, when Reed was still with them). Yes, the production is slightly grainy and tinny, but personally I don't find it too detrimental. It is still a good track. I have to say, though, that the "2014 remaster" that is on the remastered The Velvet Underground album is the better version. 

The next track, Going Down, has Reed going quiet and reflective, as he always could, over a fetching backing of piano (Rick Wakeman, would you believe), guitar (Steve Howe, would you even more believe) and female backing vocals. Again, I really quite like this one. 

A catchy riffiness and solid rock beat makes Walk And Talk It another more than acceptable track. The original Velvet Underground "demo" is much more laid-back and melodic, having none of the latter version's almost punky rock attack. There is a case for both versions. I like them equally.

 

Lisa Says is an enjoyable amalgam of two tunes - the first half of the track slower and rock piano/guitar-driven, the latter half lively, carefree and upbeat before it reverts back to the majesty of the first passage. It is the first half of it that forms the basis of the Velvet Underground "2014 remaster" original. 

Berlin is the first version of the song that appeared on the 1973 album of the same name. It is a long more appealing version, with a laid-back jazzy beginning and some solid slow rock parts in the middle. Personally, I would have preferred this version on the later album.

I Love You is a short but catchy philosophical number with more muscular, mid-pace rock bits and a strong vocal from Reed. The Velvet Underground "session" recording of it is almost completely different, without the rock parts. It has a much looser vocal over a slightly jarring keyboard backing. The original "demo" is even more grainy and sparse, although plaintively moving and featuring some atmospheric guitar. This new version is a vast improvement. 

The rocking, typically Lou Reed Wild Child was, apparently a Velvet Underground "demo" from 1970 but there is no recording available of it. It is the most "glam rock" - driven by riffs, drums and bass - instantly infectious track on the album. Reed's vocal and lyrics are quite Dylanesque in places.

Love Makes You Feel is an airy, vaguely hippy track in both its sound and lyrics. It ends with some rolling drum work and a very Velvet Underground guitar break. The original Velvet Underground "demo" is once again slower and less powerful. The guitar bit at the end is still there, but with less of the thumping drums. 

Ride Into The Sun is a muscular number with some seriously good guitar soloing from Steve Howe. The old proggy could rock after all. It has a bit of a Doors vibe to it, for me. The Velvet Underground's "session" version is far more hippy-ish, led by some churchy organ and a quiet, plaintive vocal from Reed. It sounds very Beatles-esque, (something the later version on this album does not), featuring Lennon-esque vocals and a Sun King bass line. 

Ocean is another Doors-esque, psychedelic-influenced number that, even in its new, Lou Reed incarnation sounds very Velvet Underground. It is a throwback to those druggy days. Despite some good parts, it is a bit of a mess, I have to admit. The Velvet Underground "session" version is more trippy and actually is the better one, in my opinion. In fact, their "demo" version is even better than that one too.

Overall, for me, this album is nowhere near as bad as many would have you believe. What were good Velvet Underground unreleased tracks are given an impressive rock makeover and are certainly listenable and energetic.


Transformer (1972)


Vicious/Andy's Chest/Perfect Day/Hangin' Round/Walk On The Wild Side/Make Up/Satellite Of Love/Wagon Wheel/New York Telephone Conversation/I'm So Free/Goodnight Ladies
        
Lou Reed’s Transformer, from 1972,  was an odd album to be honest. After The Velvet Underground had sort of drifted away at the end of the sixties, and nobody paid much attention to his debut album from earlier in the same year, it was time for Lou Reed’s solo career to be given a shot in the arm. The perceived mythology, similar to that which accompanies Mott The Hoople’s history, is that an ailing artist needed some help to break it big in the world of glam rock and there was only one person who could offer that - David Bowie. Personally, I am not convinced that either Mott or Reed went cap in hand to Bowie, begging for his all-knowing assistance. Bowie had only been acceptably successful himself for a few months, it must be stated. Anyway, whatever the motivations or true story behind it all, David Bowie and his band mate Mick Ronson produced the album and played on it, together with the far more than just competent bassman Herbie Flowers.

Was it therefore, given Bowie’s influence, a “glam album”? In certain places, yes. Ronson aded some guitar riffery and Reed glammed it up on some of the tracks, thinking, I guess that this was the thing to in 1972. In many ways, he sounds a bit confused by it all, and certainly it was an album the like of which he never came up with again. His music moved in a different direction from then on. 

Nevertheless, it was a massive success and it still the album people talk about when they discuss Reed’s career as being his best.

                 
Vicious starts the album with a chainsaw cut of a riff from Mick Ronson, stabbing in alongside Reed’s laconic vocal. It sounded “glam” and sat well alongside RCA stable-mate Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Roxy Music’s first album. Some crazy guitar at the end of the song. 

Andy's Chest presumably referred to Andy Warhol and it was a weird, laid-back track that features an lazy, almost whispered vocal Reed, before a crystal clear drum kicks in, a chugging rock rhythm and Lou starts going on about shaving off a bear’s “baby hairs”. All very odd. At fourteen I listened to this album and hadn’t got a clue about it. I still haven’t in many ways! It is clear, in later years, though, what a gay album it was. I didn’t even particularly get the references on Walk On The Wild Side, incredible as it may seem, or the pictures on the rear of the album (of a transgender model and Reed in a gay peak cap, hand on hip and blatant bulge in jeans get-up). I just thought he looked glammy.


Perfect Day is a masterpiece of superbly orchestrated, atmospheric ambience that sees Reed talking about his perfect day that everyone can relate to, even if it was probably going on about drugs, or had a darker message in the “you’re going to reap just what you sow” fade out lyric.

Hangin' Round was another Hang On To Yourself glam pastiche. Reed rocks out on this one, far more than on most of the album. Some more intriguing, beguiling lyrics abound, as they do on all the album. 

The afore-mentioned Walk On The Wild Side is just wonderful, of course. Herbie Flowers’ magnificent, hypnotic, throbbing bass providing a sparse backing, together with some gently shuffling percussion. Reed’s tales of the often tragic characters from his days with Andy Warhol at his Factory Studio. Lyrics about transgender, giving head, drug taking and male prostitution seemed to completely slip through the Radio One censors’ net, incomprehensibly! Whatever, it is marvellous and takes right back to summer of 1973. What a record. Bowie is not on saxophone, as popularly thought, but Ronnie Ross.




Make Up is a slow tuba backed number that has Reed telling his audience “we’re coming out of her closet” and telling of wearing make-up, with a decidedly effeminate vocal at times. Nobody caught on to this at all. Certainly not in my teenage circles, many of whom had this album. Bizarre.



Satellite Of Love was the second hit single after Wild Side and tapped in to the Bowie/space travel thing. It has an addictive piano coda and an affecting vocal and backing vocals from Thunderthighs (who also backed up Mott The Hoople). The “bridge” bit about “being bold with Harry, Mark and John on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday..” always mystified me - firstly, what a naughty girl/boy, secondly, why was that verse in it? It bore absolutely no relevance to the rest of the song. 

Wagon Wheel has a T.Rex-inspired Get It On riff. One of the most rocky numbers on the album.

New York Telephone Conversation is a short, almost spoken waste of time, really. Very camp. Some probably love it. Sorry! Not for me. Thankfully it’s over pretty quickly. 

Another T. Rex Slider style riff introduces I'm So Free, complete with “Oooh Oooh” glammy back up vocals and a Beatles reference in the "I’m Mother Nature’s Son.." lyric. 

Goodnight Ladies is a slowed-down, Berlin 1930s jazzy farewell. Some nice clarinet and New Orleans-style backing. Completely incongruous with the rest of what was a very incongruous album.

As I said, I never quite knew what to make of this album. All these years later, I still don’t.


Berlin (1973)


Berlin/Lady Day/How Do You Think It Feels/Men Of Good Fortune/Caroline Says 1/Oh Jim/Caroline Says II/The Kids/The Bed/Sad Song        

This album was completely critically panned upon its release in mid-1973. Lou Reed’s previous album, Transformer, although distinctly demi-monde in its subject matter and characters had a real glam rock verve to it, under the influence of producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson. It was probably Reed’s most accessible solo album. Berlin was anything but that. It was, shall we say, a difficult listen. A concept album of sorts, covering the tragic end of a relationship between two characters, Caroline and Jim. Their marriage descends into depression, spousal violence, drug abuse, promiscuity, prostitution and eventually suicide. Not really ideal subject matter for a best-seller. Not that Reed cared. He would release what he wanted to release. He had a chance to build on the camped-up fun of the previous album and decided to make one of the most depressing albums of all time.

Musically, it is impressively delivered - atmospheric and at times captivating. Cream bass legend Jack Bruce and recent Bowie drummer Aynsley Dunbar are part of the session band used. Reed’s semi-mumbled, often laconic drawl seems to be perfect for this material. It is, as is pretty clear, not the easiest of listens, taken as a bleak, depressing whole, but there are highlights and, certainly, the album has now been totally re-assessed in later years and many now consider it a work of genius.
                        
The brooding, mournful Berlin sets the scene for what is to come perfectly, with, initially some background chatter similar to that which opened Roxy Music’s debut album, but instead of bursting into life as that one does, it delves deep into bleak piano-driven soundscapes. 

Lady Day is a powerful and soulful number somewhat distanced from the rest of the album’s material in ambience. It has an appealing hook and a solid vocal. It wouldn’t have been out of place on the previous album, and can be listened to in isolation from the rest of the album as a stand alone regular rock song. 

The same can be said for the staccato, quirky How Do You Think It Feels. The drums on this track sound just immense, as does the blistering electric guitar solo. Both these songs often appear on “Best of Lou Reed” playlists/compilations without depressing their listeners.


Men Of Good Fortune has a simply beautiful bass/piano  backing to it and it bursts into to powerhouse drum passage and the music soars majestically around Reed’s sad, plaintive vocal. An underrated great song from the album. The sound on the remastered version is superb, by the way. 

Caroline Says 1 is also an excellent riffy, potent and vividly orchestrated song. At times it sounds almost joyful as the flute underpins the vocals, where Jim is moaning about Caroline. Again, taken out of context, it is a pretty fine rock song. 

The horn-driven, punchy Oh Jim has a similar effect when listening to it. In fact, I have just listened to these first six songs and I feel ok! Lyrically, of course, they have their moments, but musically, it packs an enjoyable punch. The second, acoustic part of “Oh Jim” starts to see things sink, though, fast. 

Caroline Says II is just so sad - “why is it that you beat me, it isn’t any fun..”. It really is a tragic song. At the same time it is sensitively delivered and incredibly moving. “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore…”. Ironically, the refrain is very musically uplifting. Despite its harrowing subject matter, I really love this song. I sort of feel bad saying this. Sort of guilty.

Then we get the album’s denouement. Tracks like the heartbreaking, virtually unlistenable The Kids, particularly at the end, The Bed, which is similarly upsetting and Sad Song are a dispiriting bunch of songs to deal with. They end the album and most people would be feeling pretty down by this point. There is a strange sort of cleansing feeling at the end of it all, however. 

Sad Song has a bizarrely stirring, almost cathartic effect. Listening to it again, I had forgotten how musically perfect it is and how great it sounds. It is like watching a disturbing film, you can acknowledge the atmosphere and the points it has to make. It is a work of genius? Actually, maybe it is.



Rock 'n' Roll Animal (1974)


Sweet Jane/Heroin/How Do You Think It Feels*/Caroline Says 1*/White Light/White Heat/Lady Day/Rock 'n' Roll                                                   
* not on the original vinyl album release

After the disturbing, acquired taste and overall shock of 1973's Berlin album, Lou Reed won some of the perplexed fans back with this barnstorming, full-on guitar-powered rock live album. Featuring a blistering dual lead guitar attack from Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (who went on to play with Alice Cooper), it is full of swaggering rock grandeur and elevates four Velvet Underground tracks and three Lou Reed solo numbers (from Berlin) into veritable, majestic anthems. The quirky, drugged-up, trance-like enigmatic vibe of the Velvet Underground originals is replaced by a clean, muscular, almost glam rock performance and Reed's slightly vulnerable Velvets voice is given a street-suss makeover such as he started to develop on 1972's Transformer. It is one of rock's truly great live albums.

The greatness of this album begins from the very start. You can imagine the atmosphere in New York as the two guitarists come on stage and launch into some searing, exhilarating guitar interplay that lasts for a tantalizing, teasing four minutes of crystal clear sound before the man himself arrives, like a rock 'n' roll caesar greeting his adoring populace. After two minutes you think it is going to break into the Sweet Jane riff, but it teases you again until finally it arrives "da-da-da-dah-Dah..." and the crowd breaks into applause and you know he is on stage - "standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand..." drawls Reed. There you have it - one of the best live introductions of all time, if not the best. Simply wonderful stuff. The remastered sound quality is fantastic too. Just turn this mother up loud.

The Velvets' paranoid drug anthem Heroin is turned into a grandiose masterpiece, full of crashing cymbals, shredding guitar and intoxicating, dare I say addictive, atmosphere on the quiet parts, with Reed's voice completely captivating. The organ break in the middle is positively Deep Purple-esque. There are some excellent funky, rhythmic parts near the end too, plus some stonking guitar. This rendition really does justice to what is difficult song to play, surely.

The original album only contained five tracks and did not include the next two tracks (also, the remaining six tracks from the complete concert were released on 1975's Lou Reed Live). How Do You Think It Feels and Caroline Says 1 were actually played before Heroin in the original set list. The former track is brought to a new life by some stunning guitar and impressively solid drums. The latter is far more upbeat and rocky even than its version on Berlin. It is given a sort of Ziggy Stardust glam makeover, which, although depriving it of some of its intrinsic sadness, gives it a new riffy verve and vigour.

 

The Velvets' effervescent White Light/White Heat has the breakneck, punky vibe that David Bowie used when playing it live in 1972-73. There is a bit of a funky feel to Reed's delivery of it here, though, at times. 

The slow and stately Lady Day is bestowed with a crunching backing which while again removing some of the original's pathos turns it into a much more powerful number. This album, and the original concert, end with The Velvets' wonderful Rock 'n' Roll, which here is ten minutes plus of rhythmic, guitar-powered heaven. It features a quirky funky guitar break in the middle played out between the two guitarists most effectively. Then the bass and drums join in. Brilliant.

If you are wondering, the original concert set list is below. A playlist can be made using this album and Lou Reed Live:-


ORIGINAL CONCERT SETLIST

Sweet Jane/How Do You Think It Feels/Caroline Says 1/I'm Waiting For The Man/Lady Day/Heroin/Vicious/Satellite Of Love/Walk On The Wild Side/Oh, Jim/Sad Song/White Light/White Heat/Rock 'n' Roll


Whatever way you listen to these tracks, they are simply superb live recordings. Seventies rock music at its absolute finest.



Lou Reed Live (1975)


Vicious/Satellite Of Love/Walk On The Wild Side/I'm Waiting For The Man/Oh, Jim/Sad Song
       
This album featured the remaining six tracks from Lou Reed's storming late 1973 New York City concert that were not included on 1974's Rock 'n' Roll Animal (and the subsequent expanded CD release). By digitally arranging the tracks along with the others you can create the entire original set list.
                                 
Vicious showcases the double lead guitar attack of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and has that same up-front power that Sweet Jane has on Rock 'n' Roll Animal. It has more "oomph" to it than the slightly tinny version that appeared on 1972's Transformer. The guitars are far more solid and chunky. For me, it is an improvement. 

Satellite Of Love is also turned into a glammy, guitar anthem, as it has no piano on it. That is a shame but this version still gives it a real robust ebullience. Reed's vocal is a little slurred in places but stirring in others.

Despite its delicious, melodic bassy simplicity, I should imagine that the iconic Walk On The Wild Side is quite difficult to reproduce, atmospherically. Reed and his band make a reasonable fist of it here. The bass is good, as are the backing vocals and Reed's vocals suitably understated. It is not given the in your face rock makeover that the other tracks on both albums are awarded. In this case, it is obviously a good thing. The sublime beauty of the original is not lost. It is pity to lose the saxophone solo at the end, however.

 

The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting For The Man has a lively, funky backing crammed full of vitality and still retaining a lot of that sleazy Velvet Underground vibe. 

Oh Jim retains the pathos of the original, but has added rock strength here when compared to the original version on the Berlin album. It features some captivating, extended guitar/drum interplay in the middle. It eventually segues into the heartbreaking Sad Song, whose chilling lyrics are somewhat washed over by the excellence of the guitar and organ backing. On Berlin it is a disturbing, distressing song, here, perhaps wrongly, it it just a great rock number, loaded with killer guitar. The five songs from Berlin that appear in the full setlist are, because of their rock makeover, nowhere near as mortifying as on the original studio album.

Listening to the whole concert (including the Rock 'n' Roll Animal tracks) gives one the right experience of the blend of tempo and feel to the songs as you expect from a well-constructed set list. Heroin, for example, is not a "second song in" track. Its correct place is where it is, at six, followed by the upbeat relief of Vicious.

The sound on this has not been remastered to the level of Rock 'n' Roll Animal so you need to turn it up a bit more, which is a minor irritant if listening to a playlist arranged from the original setlist. It is still reasonable sound, though. Apparently, Hunter and Wagner's guitar have been reversed from right to left channels in the stereo reproduction from Rock 'n' Roll Animal. This would spoil the listening experience for many people. Personally it doesn't bother me. By the way, what was with Lou's "Henry V" hairdo on the rear cover?




New York (1989)


Romeo Had Juliette/Halloween Parade/Dirty Blvd./Endless Cycle/There Is No Time/Last Great American Whale/Beginning Of A Great Adventure/Busload Of Faith/Sick Of You/Hold On/Good Evening Mr. Waldheim/Xmas In February/Strawman/Dime Store Mystery       

After a career so intertwined with New York City, quintessential wry New Yorker Lou Reed finally put out an album dedicated to the city. It was a wonderful album, possibly the best of his solo career, and yes, that includes the ever-so slightly overrated Transformer. It is full of muscular guitar riffs, strong, confident vocals and an ear, as always, for a killer melody. All manner of subjects are covered - ecology, the environment, corrupt politicians, AIDS, parenthood, urban street life, abusive relationships and many more. It was as if after years in the comparative wilderness, Reed had undergone a renaissance. Personally, I hadn't bought a Lou Reed album since Berlin, but I bought this, and loved it.

It was a solid, powerful rock album dealing with serious matters. Remember this was 1989, this was no throwaway vacuous pop album, and, thankfully, there was no synthesiser to be heard. Things started to change with the release of this album.
                     
Romeo Had Juliette begins with a powerful electric riff before Lou's instantly recognisable voice arrives to remind just how strangely suited to rock was his semi-spoken, expressive vocal. The song is full of Springsteen-esque street imagery. It gets the album off to a seriously great start. 

Halloween Parade is a heartbreaking, mournful and tender song about those lost to the AIDS epidemic. Characters like those in Walk On The Wild Side are those mentioned, but they are now gone, as Reed sings, their voices never to be heard again. Reed is now sad and reflective and the awful reality of it all. 




Dirty Blvd. continues the street scene thing begun on Romeo Had Juliette in another captivating guitar-driven number. A huge Stonesy riff accompanies he chorus and Reed's cynical lyrics are a glory to behold.

Endless Cycle has a fetching melody, but it tells a dreadful tale of child abuse. As on his 1973 "Berlin" album, Reed manages to cover awful subject matter very convincingly. Beneath the despair, the song has an infectious feel to it. 

This Is No Time is a thumping, protest song against corrupt politicians, destructive patriotism and "phoney rhetoric". 

Last Great American Whale uses an ecological metaphor to express Reed's woe at the loss of the American ideal, or any sort of morality. It is sung starkly against a moving solo electric guitar backing. "Americans don't care much for anything, land and water the least...". It sort of says it all for 1989 or 2020 - you bet your ass they don't. As Lou says - "stick a fork in their ass and turn 'em over - they're done". I must say it is refreshing to hear an American sticking it to his own country so virulently.

Beginning Of A Great Adventure is a jaunty, but low-key little song about possible parenthood, in the lyrical style of David Bowie's Kooks, to a certain extent. Far more cynical, of course. 

Busload Of Faith has the riffs returning for a punchy, upbeat number that once again tells us just what we need to get by in this miserable old world. There is hope in Reed's outlook - but only just - we need a busload of faith. 

Sick Of You has the same carefree-ish sound of Beginning Of A Great Adventure with some brilliant rapped-out lyrics on all sorts of contemporary politics and politicians that an understandably pissed-off Reed is sick of. It references "the Trumps" too, from a time when he was comparatively harmless. The invective sort of spews out like Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. There is some great additional guitar in the middle passage too.

Hold On has Reed laughing demonically over a chunky guitar opening and he begins an aggressive but melodic rant about "the statue of bigotry.." amongst many other things. Again, it is full of great lyrics - it just keeps on giving. So much of it is so relevant today, too, sadly. 

On Good Evening Mr. Waldheim Reed raps his invective out over another riffy backing against Austrian politician and ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim but also against The Pope and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. I'm not quite sure why Jackson has got Reed's goat, something about hypocrisy, I believe. Basically, old Lou is fed up with the whole damn lot of them. I know how he feels. 

Xmas In February is a bleak, vocal and guitar song denouncing the Vietnam War and the plight of the veterans. 

My own favourite on the album is the barnstorming, fist-pumping Strawman, with its mighty guitar sound and spat-out invective against politicians. "Does anyone really need a billion dollar rocket?..". No.

The album ends with the evocative, beguiling Dime Store Mystery. It has Lou going all religious, as he always did occasionally. It features some killer guitar in the middle. Lyrically, it ends an album of questioning and righteous anger with a bit of pious reflection. Overall, this was a mighty album, one of the best of its time. Highly recommended.