FLASHBACK: THE WHO’S LIVE AT LEEDS

Four years ago today, I posted my review of Live At Leeds by The Who on Amazon.com. Two-and-a-half years before writing the review, I had been listening to the CD non-stop. Around that exact same time, I had started seeing LeAnne Martin, who would – about four-and-a-half years later – become LeAnne Martin-Maddux.

Is there anything more romantic to tell your wife than, “Honey, I think of you every time I listen to The Who’s first live album”?

By the way, I don’t know if the images in the videos are actually from the Leeds show. However, the songs sound exactly as they do on the album. And you may click on the hyperlinks throughout the piece to read my reviews of other albums by The Who.

A Valentine’s Day gift to all rock ‘n roll fans

The Who’s Live At Leeds, recorded on February 14, 1970, is unquestionably deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest live recordings in rock ‘n roll. One should put aside whatever reservations he or she might have about live albums and embrace it in all of its bombastic glory.

As rightfully skeptical, however, as one should be of a live album as an introduction to a band, Live At Leeds might be the best disc in The Who’s catalog to serve as such. True, more succinct and more comprehensive compilations are available, but Live At Leeds – released the year prior to the masterpiece Who’s Next and the compilation Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy – is a superb brew of hits, covers, and epics. Plus, at the time the album was recorded, The Who had one foot on either side of the dividing line between their early R&B-influenced pop songs and the ambitious, larger-canvas rockers of the late 60s and early 70s.

The first of the hits on the album is “I Can’t Explain,” which (although it isn’t here) was and continues to this day to be the opening number to almost every Who concert. About halfway through the CD’s set list come what Pete Townshend calls “three selected hit singles…the three easiest”: “Substitute,” “Happy Jack,” and “I’m A Boy”. They might be easy and simple, but they are also catchy, intelligent, and even – in the case of “I’m A Boy” – a bit risqué. Each of these songs is presented in a no-frills fashion.

Two epics follow on the heels of these less-than-three minute pop songs. On their second LP, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was impressive but brittle. In this live setting, it is pumped up significantly. The spectacular “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” from their 1969 LP Tommy, is arguably the highlight of the set. The whole of Tommy was played at the original Leeds concert, and is available on disc 2 of the 2001 deluxe edition of Live At Leeds. The Who was wise to select this one particular track for the expanded 1995 remastered version.

Two other classic hits are given mammoth treatment at the end of the show. “My Generation” runs for almost fifteen minutes, and is interspersed with lyrical and musical references to songs from Tommy (including some riffs that had originally appeared in “Rael I” from The Who Sell Out). I have never personally cared much for “Magic Bus,” which runs for nearly eight minutes. However, it was definitely a crowd pleaser, and the band did a fine job of mixing it up here.

Finally, the band revisits its roots with four covers throughout the disc. These are the obscure blues numbers “Fortune Teller” and “Young Man Blues” and the rock `n roll classics “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”. The Who made the former two tracks very much their own, but the latter two feel a bit perfunctory and surprisingly uninspired.

Several better-known songs – such as “The Kids Are Alright,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “Pictures of Lily” – were not performed at the Leeds concert. However, they are not that noticeably absent on the disc. The Who wisely treated Live At Leeds as an opportunity to present themselves in not-so-obvious ways. John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell,” the opening number, was never included in a studio version on a Who album. The Who Sell Out – the band’s first great album – is represented not by the ornate hit single “I Can See for Miles,” but by the poignant “Tattoo”. As mentioned before, Tommy is represented by “Amazing Journey/Sparks” rather than by the classic “Pinball Wizard.”

The greatest thing about The Who in a live setting is that each member played as if he were the only one on stage. John Entwistle and Keith Moon don’t just keep the beat, they rise above the surface of the songs. Pete Townshend was never quite the soloist that his contemporaries were, but given the chance to spread out, he proved himself to be at least as good of a riffer and every bit as inspired as his fellow axemen. Roger Daltrey literally and figuratively speaks for himself, especially on “Young Man Blues,” which might be his finest performance of the show.

Live At Leeds was pretty much by accident the first Who concert made available to record buyers. The band had done an extensive tour in support of Tommy, and planned to release a live album afterward. Townshend balked at the idea of listening to and sifting through all of the shows, so he scheduled two dates to be recorded specifically for a live album. When the mics failed to record John Entwistle’s bass at Hull City Hall on February 15, the concert at Leeds University became the show for the live LP by default. However great any of the shows might have been, it is hard to imagine them being as good as or better than the one at Leeds. Whatever the case might have been, rock fans of every generation are lucky to have at least one of them preserved for prosperity.

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AMAZON FLASHBACK: ALL MOD CONS BY THE JAM

This is my Amazon.com review from November 15, 2006. Perhaps I should have said in the third paragraph that the cover of The Kinks song “David Watts” was an indication that Paul Weller’s main influence was shifting from Pete Townshend to Ray Davies. After all, the influence of The Who is still pretty evident on this album. Otherwise, I am pretty happy with this review, and a couple people have made some nice comments about it on Amazon.

I have always been a bit bothered by the fact that 1978’s All Mod Cons is considered by many to be The Jam’s best record. If nothing else, this misjudgement steals the thunder of their actual best record, 1979’s Setting Sons (click for my Amazon review). AMC is simply not consistently impressive enough to qualify for this distinction. Granted, it was the record that sprung the band back to life after the critically and commercially lackluster This Is the Modern World. Thus, it allowed them to secure a legacy with even greater follow-ups. So while I agree that AMC was the most important album of The Jam’s career, it only consistently pretty to really good, and indisputably great in only one case.

The trio of songs that open All Mod Cons includes the vitriolic title track, with verses that stumble over themselves as the guitar, bass, and drums stomp along in unison. “To Be Someone” seamlessly goes from dreams of stardom, to its realization (including guitar-shaped pools and cocaine), to its disappearance, all in the course of 2-1/2 minutes: “And the bread I spend is like my fame – its quickly diminished.” Thankfully, Jam leader Paul Weller doesn’t sound the least bit glib until “Mr. Clean,” one of the weakest spots on the record. It’s not that great of a song to begin with, but it is also unjustifiably venomous toward the square community. (Not everyone can be a cool, rich, devil-may-care rock star like you, Paul.)

The record picks up slowly but very surely after this. “David Watts,” sung by bassist Bruce Foxton, is too faithful to the original version to be any sort of revelation, but it is enjoyable for the very same reason. It is also a subtle indication that Weller’s main influence for the time being would be Ray Davies, not Pete Townshend.

Still, the jaunty pop tune “It’s Too Bad” – also a very enjoyable but not revelatory song – sounds like a re-write of The Who’s “So Sad About Us,” which The Jam also covered.

In fact, the more you get to know The Jam, implicit and explicit homages to The Who abound. For example, not only did The Jam cover a few Who songs, they also covered songs that The Who themselves covered, like “Heat Wave” and “Batman.”

Weller also tosses in a few beautiful and affecting acoustic love songs, “English Rose”  – the original name and inspiration for the band that would become The Stone Roses – and “Fly”. Finally, there is the impassioned manifesto “In The Crowd”, which is part of Weller’s live show to this day, the punky “Billy Hunt”, and the Clash-y, staccato “A-Bomb in Wardour Street.”

AMC closes with a mini-mini-opera, the frightening hate crime tale “Down In the Tube Station at Midnight.” This is one of Weller’s two or three finest songwriting moments. His conviction is genuine, the music is sparse but rock solid (with Foxton’s bass mimicing menacing footsteps), and the lyrical imagery is vivid from start to finish, with brilliant lyrics like “They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right-wing meetings.”

Weller, showing a keen ability to read the news one day and recreate it in song the next, comes so completely into his own on this song that it squashes all claims that he was a Pete Townshend wannabe or a punk poseur, which were baseless to begin with. (But I must say that he sings with such force that his English accent, which is perfect for The Jam’s blend of punk/pop/mod-rock, might sound a bit unintelligible to American ears.)

The Jam’s All Mod Cons had to happen. As evidenced by their subsequent string of top 40 hits, including four #1s, they simply had too much great stuff in them for their career to be stillborn by a sophomore slump.

Weller’s lyrics on AMC were more trenchant than before, and he, Foxton, and drummer Rick Buckler benefited more than ever from being great players, which was more important to their sound than being great musicians. And even if Weller’s songwriting slips in a few spots (e.g., “Mr. Clean”, “The Place I Love”), one should keep in mind that he was barely 20 years old when the album was being recorded. All Mod Cons was where The Jam became great, but over the next few years, they would become even greater.

(The video above is the 36-minute DVD that is included with the 2006 deluxe edition of All Mod Cons.)

MY LIFE WAS FOREVER CHANGED BY LOVE

Nine years ago today (apparently), I posted the first of almost but not quite 100 CD reviews on Amazon.com. To commemorate that red-letter day in music criticism, here is that review, complete with what I am sure were ultimately ineffectual attempts to take The Beatles down a notch.

I remember that hot and sunny July 4th in the year 2002. Having read more than enough about how great this CD was, I headed up to Harvard Square early in the afternoon determined to buy this CD, which I had never heard a single note of. When I got home, put it in my CD player, and heard the gentle, tip-toeing opening notes of “Alone Again Or,” my life forever changed.

There is something way too beautiful about this CD. (Or, more correctly, there are too many beautiful things about this CD.) It sounds like nothing I had ever heard before or have heard since, and is, to the extent that such a thing can be ascertained, one of the greatest CDs ever recorded.

Released in 1967, Forever Changes has the general sound and feel of a hippie record. That is, it is easy to guess it was recorded in the late 60s. However, it is a bit too dark at times to have been written by hippies. The lyrics are often ominous and apocalyptic, eg, “And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub” and “They’re locking me up today, they’re throwing away the key, I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me.” The clearest indictment of the hippie mentality, however, occurs on the first track, the impeccably beautiful “Alone Again Or”: “Yeah, I heard a funny thing/Somebody said to me/’You know that I could be in love/With almost everyone./I think that people are the greatest fun.’/And I will be alone again tonight my dear.” Note that the singer is quoting someone else in between the lyrics “You know” and “the greatest fun.” It is clear from the song that he is too in love with one particular person to be in love with everyone. And when Arthur Lee sings “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow,” he is clearly resigned to the fact that the scars of wars never heal, even after the wars themselves have ended. (So much for peace and love.)

“Alone Again Or” – written by the band’s guitarist, Bryan Maclean, who also wrote the gorgeous “Old Man” – is surely one of the greatest opening tracks on any CD. (If it is not enough to convince you that you are in for a real treat, go ahead and stop listening.) The opening notes of the song, though quiet and nonintrusive, sound soaring, and are enough to give a robot a spine-tingling sensation. The harmonies on the song are warm, embracing, and ever-so-slightly subdued (and put to shame some of the annoying harmonies found on Rubber Soul). The song’s strings underscore the song’s melancholy lyrics, while the trumpets – which get the solo – provide a musical accentuation of the aforementioned vocals.

While this song alone is worth the price of admission, the entire CD is a cup that runneth over. While soft and gentle – but at times ominous – acoustic riffs and arpeggios are sprinkled generously throughout, Love doesn’t forget the value and power of an electric guitar, as demonstrated on “A House is Not A Motel” and “Live and Let Live.” The brass and strings – on “Alone Again Or,” “Old Man,” “You Set the Scene,” and elsewhere – adorn each song in an unpretentious and unforced way that The Beatles could have only dreamed of when they made Sgt. Pepper.

The lyrics always sound emotional and sincere when sang in Arthur Lee’s fragile and ghostly voice, whether they are all-too-simple (“And you don’t know how much I love you”, “I feel shivers in my spine”), or slightly more profound (“Served my time/Served it well/You made my soul/A cell”, “There’s a man who can’t decide if he should fight for what his father thinks is right.”) Sometimes, alas, the lyrics are too obscure for their own good: “I feel real phoney when my name is Phil,” “I believe in magic, Why?/Because it is so quick,” and the classic “The snot has caked against my pants.”

But perhaps lyrics such as these just add to the eccentricity of the CD, as they always sound poetic and interesting. Only on a CD as strange and beautiful as this one would such lyrics be forgivable. And Love manages to deal with the overdone themes of popular music (unrequited love, uncontrollable lust, etc) in refreshingly unique ways on “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain, “and “Bummer in the Summer.”

The only problem that I have ever had with this CD is the first two tracks are so powerful that they threatened to overwhelm the entire disc, and I sometimes had trouble moving beyond them. And while “Alone Again Or” will always be one of my all-time favorite songs, I have since learned the folly of my ways.

I would like to say that anyone with an ear for great music will like this CD. However, any record that is as unique as this one is bound to not sit well with some people, and that I can forgive that. It does not spoonfeed it virtues to the listener the way punk or power pop does. Its appeal is simply not obvious enough to be widespread. One will either sink into this CD as if it were quicksand, or it will just sound too unexpected to be likable. It is, whether you like it or not, one of the greatest masterpieces of popular music, even if it isn’t right up there with The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 or Michael Jackson’s Thriller in terms of sales. And don’t let the constant references to minor-key acoustic guitars and apocalyptic lyrics scare you. This CD has always made me feel like I was sitting atop a mountain on a sunny day in California, even though I had never been there until eight months after I bought it. Having been there since, Forever Changes always takes me right back.

(PS – The remastered edition with seven bonus tracks – including alternate takes and 3 songs that did not apprear on the original record – is the one to get, and is well worth whatever extra money you will spend on it. And I recently saw Arthur Lee perform live with a new band in Boston. The whole of Forever Changes was played, along with at least a half-dozen other Love nuggets. I met him and got his autograph after the show. I am a happier person nowadays. – blakeus13@hotmail.com)

Yes, that is my slightly hairier head singing along with Arthur Lee at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Lee knelt down in front of me when he realized that I was singing along with every word of “Old Man.” (Photo courtesy of love.torbenskott.dk.)

Me again, looking on in awe when Arthur Lee climbed down from the stage and into the crowd. (Photo courtesy of love.torbenskott.dk.)

BOOK POST #1: PROFESSOR ALASDAIR ROBERTS – AMERICA’S FIRST GREAT DEPRESSION

Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. In March, Roberts moderated a roundtable event at Suffolk (click for my report) in which participants such as Boston Police Department Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey discussed the police’s handling of the Occupy movement throughout the nation.

In April of this year, Cornell University Press published Roberts’s latest book, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837.

Professor Roberts spoke to me by phone about his latest work.

Your academic credentials include a law degree from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University. However, this book reads very much like the work of a professional historian, and in a good way! How much research did you have to do in order complete a monograph on what, in your own words, “might seem an obscure topic”?
I have done historical work previously in my career … A large part of my dissertation at Harvard was based on archival work about the New Deal and Progressive Era reforms in the United States.

As a native of Canada, how much American history did you learn growing up?
Well, you absorb a fair amount of American history, and of course, there’s a large amount of shared history. For example, in this book, there’s a discussion about the border troubles along what is now the Canada-U.S. border. That’s part of your history, but it’s a part of Canadian history as well.

You write, “The crisis of 1836-1848 does not loom large in the public consciousness — certainly not like the Great Depression of the 1930s …” Did it, however, loom large in the minds of 19th-century Americans?
I would think so, yeah. The 19th-century economy was much more turbulent than the economy we’ve experienced up until very recently. It was punctuated by a series of severe economic crises, and that decade would count as one of them.

How did what you call “America’s first great depression” compare in length and severity to the capital-G Great Depression?
Economists who attempt to do a kind of retrospective assessment of how the economy failed using conventional economic indicators have tended to suggest that actually the depression of the 1930s was more severe. But if you look at it a little more broadly, and look at social and political and diplomatic dislocation, I think the two crises are probably more comparable.

Indeed, you could argue that in some respects social and political instability was worse in the 1840s than it was in the 1930s.

Your previous books dealt with contemporary issues such as government secrecy in the digital age, the administration of George W. Bush, and global capitalism. What prompted you to turn back the clock 170-some years?
Blacked Out [the book about government secrecy] might be a bit of an outlier, but the other three books [including America’s First Great Depression] actually have a lot in common … This current book, even though it’s based a long time ago plays on many of the same themes that the three preceding ones did. It’s all about managing that tension between liberty and order in a country which is embedded in a global economy.

The idea of looking backward came to me because I was down in Washington [,D.C.] in 2009, listening to a government official talking about the predicament which he said the the United States was going to be in in the coming years … And he said that we as a country have never been in this position before. The moment he said that I thought, “No, that’s not right.”

Actually, for the larger chunk of American history, that’s been the predicament: how do you reconcile domestic aspirations with the constraints of a globalized economy. And that’s basically what this story is about, even though it is a very old story.

Of the build-up to the Panic of 1837, you write, “This was a real estate bubble, and eventually it would burst … The banks were poorly regulated and often indiscriminate in lending.” Should this seem eerily familiar to present-day readers?
Yeah, there is a similarity. The economy was booming, credit was very easy, there was a lot of foreign investment coming into the country because there was a perception that there were easy profits to be made. People were borrowing excessively, and then when the economy began to stabilize, it deteriorated very rapidly. So yeah, there is an analogy to our recent predicament.

Were the creations of the first police departments in America, including those in Philadelphia and Boston, direct responses the social unrest that resulted from the long-term economic consequences of the first great depression?
Yeah, I think it is. Because of urbanization, it probably would have been the case that governments in the major cities eventually established some kind of police force. But the fact that they established police forces when they did, in that period, was a direct response to the disorder that had been triggered because of the depression.

It was the intensity of the rioting in the late 1830s and early 1840s that made city governments realize that something had to be done to maintain order.

The events in this book took place as many as seven decades after the Declaration of Independence. Considering the United States’s reliance on Great Britain as a buyer of American cotton and a creditor, as well as America’s uneasy position as a military inferior, was this independence literally and figuratively just on paper?
There was an assertion of political independence, but of course there was economic interdependence, and economic interdependence complicates the claim of political independence. That’s what makes the period so interesting but also so complex.

During this time, the United States avoided military conflict with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory and certain other areas of disputed land. However, the U.S. seemed okay with going to war with Mexico following the 1845 annexation of Texas, to which Britain made no claim. Was this an attempt by the United States to show its military strength to Great Britain without having to actually fight it?
Britain’s main concern was maintaining good commercial relations with the United States and Mexico, particularly the United States … The impression was that a war with Mexico would be over quickly, if not immediately, and it didn’t raise any of the delicate problems that would have been raised by a potential war with Great Britain … I think there was a sense that a successful war with Mexico would restore American pride. Some commentators at the time said immediately after the conclusion of the Mexican war [1846-1848] that the most important result of that war was showing the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe what a powerful country the United States was.

How did the war with Mexico, which was lengthier and more expensive than originally estimated, payoff it in terms of how it advanced American political and economic interests?
It turned out very favorably for the States … In the longer term, one of the big advantages of the outcome of the war was the acquisition of all of this new territory, including California. In the short term, one of the immediate effect was helping to rehabilitate the United States in Europe, and in European financial markets, and giving a boost to American pride and self-confidence.

MUSIC POST #1: THE HISTORY OF THE “LONDON CALLING” RIFF

I used to think that The Clash was pretty cool when I was a kid and I saw the videos for “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” on MTV. Then I got to the age when I realized that I was supposed to think that the band and its 1979 (1980 stateside) album London Calling were among the greatest things to ever happen to music. I went along with it for a while, making sure that several Clash CDs were plain for everyone to see in my collection.

When I really made a point of listening critically to London Calling, I found that I didn’t love it. Not that it isn’t at least very good, nor do The Clash not deserve to be thought of as one of the most important bands of the post-Beatles era. But c’mon, the lyrics to the song “London Calling” are sing-what-rhymes stupid.

At some point, I started to discover several songs – some old, some new – that were driven by the same staccato chord progression that “London Calling” is. I seriously doubt that I have found all of them, or even most of them. Below are the ones that I have happened upon.

Clear Light, “Sand” (1967):

I discovered this band by virtue of the happy accident that it was alphabetically right behind another band that I was shopping for called Clear. Produced and engineered by 1960s luminaries Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick, Clear Light’s one album is a hearty serving of West Coast psychedelia.

This the earliest instance of the “London Calling” chord progression that I am aware of.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Walk On the Water” (1968):

This was the first song that I heard in which that familiar sound emanated from one of the guitars.

Although CCR was formed across the bay from San Francisco, there were not – unlike Clear Light – freaky people who wore flowers in their long hair. In spite of being somewhat against the grain with its 99.44% pure rock ‘n roll, Creedence was the most successful and popular American band (click for my Amazon.com review) of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Apart for the band’s endorsement from Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, however, its cred is minimal nowadays.

The Clash, “London Calling” (1979):

There it is: the hook that I have been writing about this whole time. It certainly has a hypnotic toughness to it in this context. The Clash was a basically a punk band. Clear Light was psychedelic and CCR was rock ‘n roll, and both were American. Therefore, there is a good chance that The Clash had never heard to two aforementioned songs.

But I wonder if Clash leaders Joe Strummer and Mick Jones thought that they had come up with something completely original here, or if they had heard the progression somewhere that I still haven’t.

Tom Petty, “The Last DJ” (2002):

Speaking of “sing-what rhymes stupid,” which I did in the second paragraph above, who has milked that cow longer and more lucratively than Tom Petty? I am glad that he has a lot of money and that so many people get such a kick out his songs, but I think he sucks.

Liz Phair, “My Bionic Eyes” (2003):

I will not say for certain that Exile In Guyville (click for my Amazon.com review) was the greatest album of the ’90s. I will also not disagree with anyone who says that it was. The two albums that our Phair lady released in the ’00s were probably among the worst of the decade. One of them included this song, complete with those old reliable “London Calling” chords.

And there you have it. Comment or email me if you know of any songs that I have missed. (blakesmad@gmail.com)

I think that I have a blog now.

Hello all (or both of you).

It has been many, many a year (like, at least 7) since a friend of mine told me that of all the people in the world whom she knew, I should have a blog. Now, I think that I do. I reckon that I will check in every now and then with thoughts on music, books, politics, comedy, television, movies, podcasts, food, and quality highlighters.

I will happy accept advice from any and all of the more accomplished bloggers out there. In fact, I can give you my password and let you fix it up yourself if you want to.

In the meantime, you can check out my assorted online work for DigBoston, The Somerville News, and Amazon.com.

And no, those are not my glasses in the picture.