BRYAN FERRY – These Foolish Things

By the summer of 1973, Roxy Music had released two fantastic, groundbreaking albums mixing pop and glam rock with a heavy dose of experimentation to produce an art-rock sound which sounded quite unlike anything heard before.  The second of those albums, ‘For Your Pleasure’ – released in March 1973 – captured the early Roxy’s most avant-garde side at its peak.  With Roxy’s career barely out of the starting blocks, frontman Bryan Ferry began work on a solo career.  His first album, ‘These Foolish Things’ – a covers record – was released in June of that year.

Releasing a covers album to kick-start a solo career could be seen as a bad move since – although often popular with the less demanding listener – they’re not always seen as particularly creative.  Ferry, however, already had Roxy Music with which to be as experimental as he wished (after all, rock music in the early 1970s rarely came in a more experimental package than some of Roxy’s best offerings at that time – and certainly not as downright sinister as ‘The Bogus Man’) and with the band’s growing popularity, the time was right for Ferry to branch out and attract a few of those less demanding listeners. ‘These Foolish Things’ could be seen as Ferry’s outlet for something a little more fun; but fun, of course, is a relative concept: although his first solo album dispensed with the oddness of his band set up, as well as any pretence of breaking new ground, Ferry did not approach the project with any less professionalism or intensity.  By his drafting in of various Roxy cohorts to help out musically, there was no fear of his solo record sounding half-baked or rushed in any way.  In short, Roxy’s musical brilliance combined with Ferry’s almost faultless personal selection of cover tunes ensured ‘These Foolish Things’ couldn’t fail.

Kicking off with ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, Ferry’s style is an instantly recognisable one.  His vocal style in keeping with that of the early Roxy recordings, he tackles Dylan’s wordy piece with an assured delivery.  Musically, Dylan’s simple chord structure and sharp vocal tack are re-worked into a world of seventies pomposity (but in a good way). There’s a solid base of piano, which is augmented by a jagged violin, courtesy of Eddie Jobson.  Initially, the presence of a small choir of female backing vocals (provided by The Angelettes) may seem a little cheesy, but in a wholly 1970s fashion, they provide a great counterpart to Ferry’s rather more unusual lead.  Repeated listens increase the enjoyment; once you’ve got to grips with Ferry taking Dylan’s sharp wit and protest and twisting it into a sub-Roxy workout, the finer points of the tune start to reveal themselves.  The lead guitar breaks near the end are impressive without bombast and the string section gets to cut a bit looser.  If you factor in the various overdubs of thunderclaps, telephones and whispers etcetera, it’s a little over the top (in a way which power pop merchants Jellyfish would wantonly embrace some years later), but in all a great opening statement; one which happily celebrates seventies excess without sacrificing general accessibility.

Bringing things down a notch, Ferry indulges his love of soul music on a version Kitty Lester’s ‘River of Salt’.  A brief number, this captures a vocal style which has far less edge – nodding towards the style Ferry would use more on the later Roxy works into the 1980s – but with the softness comes a musical greatness.  While perhaps the harmonica is inessential, Ferry’s electric piano line is lovely and John Porter’s bass line has a real presence – as it does on most of the other numbers.   The Goffin/King written ‘Don’t Ever Change’ falls in a well-judged middle ground; the version here led by bass and an often light-hearted piano.  While Ferry’s Edith Piaf-esque warbling isn’t always warranted, it doesn’t detract too often.  Like the harmonica on ‘River of Salt’, the odd element on this number comes from a slightly odd keyboard accompaniment, which adds very little musically; while not reaching into ugly territory, it hovers in the background as a mild distraction.  Luckily, the bass and piano – and as with all versions of this song, the hard struck piano chords on the chorus are absolutely pivotal – are never far away.

Taking on the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is a brave move, but Ferry pulls off the task with relative ease and a lot of style.  Following a great drum intro from Roxy’s Paul Thompson, Ferry steps in to deliver that well known opening line: “Please allow me to introduce myself, a man of wealth and taste”; his suave delivery and sinister edge far more devilish than Jagger’s high camp.  Not to take anything away from the Stones – their 1968 recording will always remain the definitive version – but this is magnificent.  Ferry is in fine form throughout, but his band is even better: the drums lay a dominant force throughout, while the guitars have a hefty glam rock clang. Across nearly six minutes, this piece is a veritable tour-de-force; once the mood has been set and Ferry steps up a gear, horns lend a brassy arrogance, The Angelettes “woo-woo” relentlessly and Jobson’s keyboards swell in a seventies abandon.  Individually, these elements could have created a cacophonous racket, but the arrangement is so good, balancing everything almost on a pin-head, becoming ever more intense as it rolls along. As Ferry cackles during the coda, the whole band is unstoppable – almost at the point of combusting.  ‘These Foolish Things’ is loaded with great moments, but if you’ve never heard this version of ‘Sympathy’, that should be enough alone to warrant purchasing this album.  Ferry’s approach to the sixties other most popular band – The Beatles – is just as distinctly his own, without ever appearing disrespectful towards the fab four.  In a superb rendition of ‘You Won’t See Me’, the piano dances throughout playfully interacting with another upfront funky bass line.  Holding the two elements together is a simple guitar chugging out muted chords.  Ferry sounds like he’s in his element vocally; it’s possibly even one of his strongest performances.  In and out in two and a half minutes, it’s an almost faultless reimagining of one of The Beatles’ lesser known cuts; its arrangement much more interesting than the hurried approach featured on their ‘Rubber Soul’ recording.

Ferry’s treatment of Erma Franklin’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ presents what is perhaps the album’s lowest point; due to Ferry being a vocalist as opposed to singer, there’s just so many reasons why he ought to have given this a miss.  For the most part, his vocals never stretch beyond a wobbly croon and naturally this song demands more from its performance.  Luckily, his carefully chosen band ensure this doesn’t fall on its arse – Porter’s bass is rock solid and high in the mix, while the drums also carry a nice tone.  The Angelettes are in good shape too and pull Ferry through with their backing harmonies.  Ferry’s angular voice is perfectly adaptable to a lot of adventurous arrangements – as it is to some softer stuff too – but this kind of big soul music doesn’t entirely suit.  Hearing him hammer his way through rock ‘n’ roll standard ‘You’re So Square’ is far preferable.  Backed with a busy band and rinky-dinky piano, he gives the number his all.  Obviously, he’s not Elvis Presley, but then he would never pretend to be. Within two minutes, the breezy slice of old school rock ‘n’ roll is over, making its exit via Ferry’s chuckle – suggesting that this was not only fun, but perhaps the album sessions’ most spontaneous recording.  Like ‘Piece of My Heart’, Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks of My Tears’ could have gone either way, but somehow Ferry manages not to suck the life from this soul classic.  His voice is relatively strong and the mid-range vocal allows him to throw in a little vibrato without anything sounding too forced.  The Angelettes could have delivered a better performance – one which sounded better than a quick session job – and it’s a pity the horn section sounds like a high school band, but overall it’s not so bad.  In the context of the rest of the album, even the less essential tracks like this (and ‘Piece of My Heart’ to a lesser extent) aren’t entirely without charm, and it’s not like Ferry ever suggested his version of ‘Tracks of My Tears’ would rival the Smokey Robinson take from ’65 after all.

The horn section are in good shape on ‘It’s My Party’ punctuating a piano-led romp through the old Lesley Gore hit.  Although that brass and female vocals push this towards TV variety show territory, Ferry’s choosing not to change the gender of the song celebrates 1970s sexual freedoms and androgyny with a knowing wink.  With a huge amount of reverb on the drums and guitar combined with a slowness of pace, The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is somewhat ominous, particularly once Ferry hits the lower registers. The Angelette’s contribution doesn’t perk things up any – barely a substitute at all for Mike Love and the Wilson brothers’ close harmonies, while a wandering gypsy violin only adds to the impending sense of doom while Ferry and co crawl their way across the four minute mark.  It ought to be terrible, perhaps even deserved to be, and yet, by some miracle, it isn’t terrible at all; its dreariness comes across as irony.

‘I Love How You Love Me’ – a number from the Phil Spector stable – appears in an over-egged rendition, with its fist-clenched emotions swamped by a harpsichord.  On the plus side, there’s a thoughtful and well played tenor sax solo which really reinforces the fifties feel – which lends a necessary sense of balance against the seventies camp. On first hearing, it doesn’t appear as enjoyable as some of the other tunes here, but repeated listens really allow it to shine; mostly due to that impeccable sax, but also some nice piano lines lurking beneath the wall of sound.   Stevie Wonder’s ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ is suitably funky, but not all of the elements work as well as they perhaps could’ve.  Ferry’s piano – at the back of the mix and swamped in echo is fabulous – as is his forthright distinctive lead voice, and there’s yet another brilliant bassline from Porter. The horns are a little less forthright than before, but alone that wouldn’t have weakened the end result; that dubious honour goes to The Angelettes, whom despite sterling work on ‘Hard Rain’, sound no better here than Bananarama on a karaoke machine.  This is perhaps a deliberately styled choice, but it’s not good.  The title track contains some decent elements, but is a little overlong at almost six minutes.  Taking an old standard from the thirties, Ferry croons gently against a piano and muted trumpet, as if he were being played back on an old gramophone – a nice touch.  After a minute and a half, Ferry could have thought about bringing the arrangement to a close, effectively using it as a coda for the album.  Instead, he chooses to give it an extended arrangement with full band in tow, resulting in a mix of seventies pop/rock and cod reggae.  It ought not to work: there are times when the drummer, bassist and rhythm guitarist appear to be playing different tunes entirely, but of course, such a seemingly chaotic (but, in reality, meticulously structured) approach should be expected of the Roxy gang… Ferry’s performance is fine enough; he should also be commended for holding together an arrangement which should never have got off the ground. However, despite best efforts, ‘These Foolish Things’ (the album) still offers more enjoyable works.

The album was a chart success, peaking at #5 in the UK.   Even though Ferry didn’t manage to repeat this winning formula to such a high standard on other solo discs released over the next few years, ‘These Foolish Things’ has weathered the passing decades extremely well.   While time has decreed that David Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups’ is glam rock’s most popular covers album of 1973 (actually released after Ferry’s debut), ‘These Foolish Things’ is potentially classier; it’s certainly superior in terms of consistency and definitely less disposable.  With this debut release, Ferry makes a covers disc seem as if it were a vital musical statement and not just some contractual filler – a rare gift, indeed.

October 2011

STATUS QUO – On The Level

In 1970, Status Quo found themselves in need of a change in direction.  The psychedelic pop of their first two albums had all but become a musical irrelevance.  Experimenting with blues and rock over their next few albums, they eventually settled upon a brand of boogie rock – a sound they would make their signature.  By the time ‘On The Level’ was released in 1975, the ingredients of ‘classic’ Quo were all in place.  The four-piece line up of Francis Rossi (guitar/vocals), Rick Parfitt (guitar/vocals), Alan Lancaster (bass/vocals) and John Coghlan (drums) were as tight as ever and this album, alongside the previous year’s ‘Hello!’,  features their now easily-recognizable style in its purest form.

‘On The Level’ features Status Quo’s first number one single, the no-nonsense three-chorder ‘Down Down’ (released prior to the album in November 1974).  In lots of ways, although it doesn’t appear until the beginning of side 2 (this is another of those albums which, for people over a certain age, is still thought of as a piece of two-sided black plastic), it’s the track which sets the tone.  Much has been said of this track over the years, and as one of Quo’s signature pieces, it will be familiar to almost all, so in some ways very little else needs to be said.  However, the album version differs slightly from the oft-heard single release:  extended by over a minute and a half, the band builds tension and excitement via a couple of fake endings and reprises.  It’s essential Quo, no question.

The same thoughts could easily be applied to the opening number, ‘Little Lady’: you know there are three chords, you know what they’ll do…it’s just a question of how well they’ll do it – and here, they do a top job.   In terms of simple, no nonsense rock music, this is a real statement of intent; Rossi, Parfitt, Lancaster and Coghlan tear through the track as fast as they can muster.  The chords come fast and the vocals (shared by Rossi, Parfitt and Lancaster) revel in what passes as harmony almost throughout.  Particular high spots here include a riff used as interesting filler before the instrumental break and a softer edge enjoyed just before a furious solo.  During this soft moment, Coghlan employs interesting drum and cymbal fills lending a relative complexity somewhat missing elsewhere, making up for his otherwise slightly thin sound.  Also predictable, ‘What To Do’ is rhythmically tough and lyrically simple – so in many ways, quintessential Quo.  Attempts at shared solo highlights the “minimum overdubs” approach, as playing wanders from fairly dextrous to a little wobbly, but that’s all part of the fun, once again.

After a jangly intro coupled with a slightly uneasy vocal, ‘Most of The Time’ comes in with a standard blues-rock punch.  The power of the rhythm really shines, but it’s the lead guitar work – complete with a raw live in the studio edge – which leaves the biggest impression, with a decent amount of attitude combined with string-bending solos.  It’s so good that it’s almost a disappointment once Rossi’s unfussy lead vocals re-emerge and the band revert of safe bluesy rhythms until the inevitable fade out.  The formulaic three chord boogie of ‘I Saw The Light’ represents Quo on auto-pilot, yet still pleases – probably because of the predictable nature; the diddly-diddly (technical term) solo adds an extra element of joyousness.  By the time Rossi, Parfitt and co hit their stride with this sort of thing, it’s so effortless for them – a fact even more obvious on ‘Over and Done’ which, although taking a similar approach, manages to up the stakes by adding a basic but easily memorable chorus.  Bringing that chorus together with one of Rossi’s best vocal performances, there’s no doubt that ‘Over and Done’ is certainly one of the album’s best cuts.  Factor in a heady mix of dirty and clean guitar tones and a cheeky lead fill creeping in occasionally over the top of its main chord structure, it’s a wonder why this track isn’t much better known outside the Quo fan base.  Since ‘Down Down’ was the only track from ‘On The Level’ to be released as a single – and then, some months before the album appeared – ‘Over and Done’ should perhaps be seen as the great Quo single which never was.  With such a good melody and chorus on hand, it’s easy to forgive a few dodgy notes in the guitar solo!  ‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘Over & Done’ are so enjoyable, it’s easy to get swept along by the otherwise ordinary ‘Night Ride’, a tune where The Quo take three chords and stomp through three minutes without any of those previous offerings’ flourish. Three part harmony vocals flesh out the arrangement, while another string-bending solo just about manages to stay in tune.  It may fall by the wayside – especially in comparison to Quo’s best – bust take another listen… Lancaster’s rock solid bass work is just lovely.  High in the mix, he attacks the tune like a real pro, and that’s just enough to make ‘Nightride’ spinning semi-regularly, even if you don’t find yourself loving it.

There are a couple of tracks included where the band breaks from their tried and tested formula.  The first of these, ‘Broken Man’, has a lighter, almost jangle-pop feel.  There’s something in there that’s still unavoidably Quo, but feels a little quirkier; probably, in part, to a noticeably different lead vocal, courtesy of Alan Lancaster.  Lancaster’s vocal here has come under fire in the past for being a little flat, but frankly it more than suits the task in hand and is a hundred times better than Rossi’s previous attempts at lightness during ‘Most of the Time’s somewhat unnecessary intro.  The album’s ballad (if you can call it that), ‘Where I Am’, is really lightweight; in fact, the closest ‘On The Level’ gets to a dud.  The guitars move from their dirty, boogie shuffling and adopt a clean toned, metallic and almost country-esque sound.  It doesn’t achieve anything beyond its opening couple of lines, ambling along for just under three minutes.  Even a background tinkling – from what could be a banjo, but likely is just more guitar overdubs – doesn’t add enough musical colour to make this change in pace interesting.

Luckily, although coming close to ending the second side, this flimsy experiment isn’t the last word regarding ‘On The Level’.  In proper Quo tradition, they make sure the album reaches a fairly raucous climax.  Their chosen cover tune – in this case, a stomping version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ – may not bring anything new to the band’s repertoire (not even slightly), but it’s still a great showcase for this classic four man 70s line up.  Lancaster steps up to the mic once more, and for anyone unsure of his contribution to ‘Broken Man’, this should set the record straight.  His ragged vocal tears into this Chuck Berry number with a rawness it really deserves.

Like the single release of ‘Down Down’, ‘On The Level’ was a resounding commercial success, becoming the second of four Quo albums to reach the top spot on the UK album chart.  Status Quo continued to release solid albums throughout the remainder of the seventies but few ever matched the quality or intensity of this 1975 disc.  If you’re ever keen to step outside the comfort zone of those familiar hits and see what Quo’s best album fillers sound like, ‘On The Level’ is the album to get.  It may not always be as adventurous as 1973’s ‘Quo’, or as intense as parts of ‘Hello!’, but It does every damn thing you’re expecting…occasionally a little more…and that’s more than enough!

January -March 2010/January 2012/May 2012

ERIC CLAPTON – There’s One In Every Crowd

Due to his superb body of work recorded with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the psychedelic power trio Cream, by the beginning of the 70s Eric Clapton was considered one of the world’s best guitarists. Fans had nicknamed him “God”. Huge acclaim indeed.  Clapton’s mix of blues and rock also bought him critical praise (although not immediate album sales) with the short-lived Derek & The Dominos, another hugely talented band which came to a somewhat premature end due to various excesses.

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Released in the summer of 1968, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s self-titled debut album featured a solid set of blues and R&B styled material which was well received by the record buying public.  While the throaty John Fogerty provided the band with an interesting vocalist, much of the material didn’t always hint at the greatness their next few albums would achieve.  Following that debut, the band went into recording overdrive.  Over the course of their next three releases – the almost faultless ‘Bayou Country’, ‘Green River’ and ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’, all released in 1969 – CCR perfected their blend of blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll, creating a sound which was very distinctly theirs.

The band entered the new decade in a typically prolific fashion, with 1970 yielding another two releases.  Both ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ and ‘Pendulum’ are a little more hit and miss than the band’s three releases from ’69, although Fogerty’s gift for writing almost timeless melodies and hooks is still very much in evidence. The first of the year’s releases, ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ dropped in the middle of summer 1970.  At the time, it was just another album in the Creedence catalogue, but as the years passed, it would eventually become a cornerstone of the band’s recorded output.

The album opens full throttle with ‘Ramble Tamble’ capturing Creedence showing more aggression in their playing than during a lot of the blues and southern rock grooves which filled some of their earlier discs.  The intro takes on a great blues tone, before the band takes blues based material and cranks the speed dial.  The guitars have a strong presence and Stu Cook’s (almost) two note bass line remains solid, but it’s Fogerty’s voice which truly shakes the listener.  His ‘oooh’s are more raggedy than ever before and to compensate for this, the band clearly pushes themselves to the limit.  After a couple of minutes, this subsides.  Where Creedence would’ve often decided previously this would be the right time to move on to a new number, ‘Ramble Tamble’ is aptly named.  What follows is a lengthy, slow instrumental passage which indeed rambles, highlighting one of the reasons why Creedence stood alongside the likes of The Grateful Dead as one of the great live bands of their time – readily accepted by the psych crowd as well as the bluesy rockers.  A simple, ringing riff leads the way over the next four or so minutes, rarely breaking from its original pattern.  There’s a sense of tension building within, and by the time things start to obviously shift, Tom Fogerty adds a slide guitar lead which constantly threatens to do more than it ever actually does.  Underneath the slide, the band gradually quicken their pace, winding things up in a very clockwork fashion, before returning to the original riff which began the seven minute journey.  It’s an interesting opener – the extended jam band feels seemingly more suited to closing one side of the LP – but it certainly shows the band in good form.  It may appear to be an epic way to begin a new disc, but in terms of rambling jams, ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ still has a bigger one up its sleeve…

A faithful run-through of the blues standard ‘Before You Accuse Me’ isn’t essential listening by any means, but while it’s musically pedestrian for Creedence, Fogerty’s vocal is still fantastic, as his distinctive style is well suited to this well-worn number.  Creedence originally recorded a version of the number as far back as 1968 for inclusion on their debut, but this was shelved.  While this second attempt is the first of a few filler tracks on ‘Cosmo’s Factory’, Creedence’s version of this number is, naturally, very professional – and a hundred times better than Clapton’s take on it nearly two decades later. It even manages to outdo Bo Diddley’s rather wobbly original cut (released as a b-side in 1957), so the fact that it could rank as filler is a great testament to the high quality of CCR’s previous output.  Run-throughs of rock ‘n’ roll standards ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘My Baby Left Me’ are fun, yet just as inessential, with both numbers showcasing plenty of old school guitar twang and some great, naturalistic drumming from Doug Clifford.  While these numbers probably geed up the crowds during live shows, as part of this album they just feel a little too lightweight.

The John Fogerty penned ‘Looking Out My Back Door’ is loaded with naive charm. Its pre-rock ‘n’ roll, country-ish sound is a throwback to times already gone by 1970; musical times which were concurrently being explored by The Band on their early albums [albums which, several decades later – just like Creedence’s  – sound so much more timeless than those recorded by other late 60s-early 70s acts].  Most of ‘Back Door’s structure comes from Stu Cook’s simple basslines and Clifford’s equally unfussy drumming, laying down the roots of a backporch groove, while the muted guitar strings provide a great choppy rhythm.  There’s an unobtrusive twangy guitar solo en route and some incredibly understated bar-room piano, but essentially, those strings and that drum are all that’s really important.  Fogerty’s lyrics compliment the upbeat musical nature with bizarre takes of things dancing on his lawn: “a giant wearing cartwheels, a statue wearing high heels”… “tambourines and elephants playing in the band”.  Over the years, the idea of seeing such hallucinations while relaxing on a back porch have led to allegations that ‘Back Door’ is a drug song.  Film-makers The Coen Brothers’ added more fuel to the argument when their movie ‘The Big Lebowski’ showed Jeff Bridges listening to the song in his car whilst smoking a joint.  Fogerty, meanwhile, refutes such theories, instead claiming this was a song he wrote for his young son, “in a Dr. Seuss style”.  Since he also asks if you’ll “take a ride on the flying spoon”, it’s all rather questionable.  The line between Suess and soft drugs is a fine line indeed.

For maximum uptempo grooves, ‘Travelin’ Band’ really hits the spot.  Fogerty’s throaty style is fantastic during this tale of a band on the road.  Musically, it doesn’t push any new boundaries, but the band is in good shape and Stu Cook’s fairly eventful bassline really helps carry the number.  Fogerty’s first guitar solo is mixed at the back, underneath the horn section, while his second is much more upfront – where it should be.  He fills the musical spaces in a succinct and somewhat unfussy manner, capturing the kind of energy this feel-good number deserves.  This may be just bread and butter music for Creedence – a band capable of so many more intricate styles – but they’re on fire throughout these two minutes.  In terms of pure rock ‘n’ roll, this is a track they would rarely equal.

Recognisable right from the bat with its shrill lead guitar riff, ‘Up Around The Bend’ represents the mix of country, rock and blues which remained CCR’s staple sound.  The music works around a mid-paced, driving beat which never fails to push that feel-good button.  Stu Cook’s basslines are high in the mix and incredibly solid, providing something more interesting from the rhythm section since Doug Clifford does seldom more than mark time with his drums.  Fogerty’s vocal combines just the right levels of rasp, and the hook is instantly memorable.  In all, it’s such a good tune, it’s even possible to forgive Forgerty’s fudging of the lyrics to rhyme “wind” with “bend”.  Going one step further, Fogerty even throws in some well-placed “doo doo doo’s” during the fade out, just to ensure you’ll be singing this one for days.  ‘Up Around The Bend’ has earned a rightful place alongside ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘Proud Mary’ as a piece of Creedence gold. ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ is much softer, a semi-acoustic piece with strong sixties folk-rock leanings and fantastic harmony vocal. From the ringing guitar leads which open the piece, through the soft but solid backbeat, right down to the passionate lead voice, it’s a small slice of musical perfection.  Whether Creedence’s intentions or not, it looks forward to more the easy-listening hippie sounds from those singer-songwriters who would make their names over the following couple of years.

‘Run Through The Jungle’ is the album’s angry political statement.  A rocking blues, this number is often thought to be another rallying cry against the Viet Nam war (to be placed alongside ‘Fortunate Son’), but Fogerty says the song’s anger isn’t quite so specifically directed.  He actually wrote it with regard to his dislike of guns in general, and the increasing popularity of firearms (licensed or otherwise) across the US by the end of the sixties.  His biting, angry lyric is given a suitable musical backdrop as the pumping bass adds a sense of aggression.  The lead guitars take a backseat once more since the solos are provided by a crying harmonica, also played by Fogerty.  It doesn’t quite live up to the levels of paranoia Love bought the world on their ‘Forever Changes’ LP a couple of years earlier (tales of blood in the water and more besides), but you can still sense the feeling of America’s unrest within these three minutes.  And, as if that anger wasn’t quite obvious enough, CCR dress this tune with an unsettling intro and coda as the sounds of guitar feedback and backwards tape loops provide a screaming effect, once heard never forgotten.

One of the most soulful numbers within the Creedence cannon, ‘Long As I Can See The Light’ captures Fogerty in a more restrained mood, showcasing the whole of his vocal range: beginning with softer soul-edged notes, gradually building, then eventually hitting his trademark rasp on the last verse and fade.  The music is even better, however, featuring relatively little guitar.  A retro sounding electric piano takes the reins (always welcome) while the solo is provided by a soft sax break.  With regard to the more reflective sounds of CCR, this is not just an album highlight, but an absolute career highlight not to be missed.

Although it’s the number which makes ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ a fondly remembered record for some people, an eleven minute take on ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ is overlong – and so obviously the work of a band desperately trying to flesh out the album’s second side.  The first five or so minutes are a faithful retread of the soul classic, with the addition of a slightly harder guitar and a featured guitar solo.  Fogerty’s vocal is fine, although not a patch on some of his performances elsewhere on the album.  The other six and a half minutes present the band in jam mode: Stu Cook appears unwavering from his chosen bassline, Tom Fogerty’s rhythm guitar constantly reminds the listener of the original ‘Grapevine’ riff, while John Fogerty fills the spaces with an extended guitar solo until the fade out.  Never as interesting as The Grateful Dead’s meandering jams, or perhaps even Hendrix’s more aggressive moments, even a four minute cut of this track could be considered possible filler; to give over half of the album’s second side to such a bloated jam just further highlights the relative lack of original material Fogerty wrote during the first half of 1970.  The only real interest comes nearing the track’s end, once Cook offers more of a lead bass – it’s obvious his playing style is a match for any of the other great rock bassists of the period (except for perhaps Jack Bruce, whose overtly aggressive style is in a league all of it’s own).

‘Cosmo’s Factory’ was extremely well received upon release, reaching number one in the US, UK, Australia, Norway, France and Canada, and remains a strong fan favourite. If any obvious criticism could be levelled at the album, it would be that no matter how good CCR are musically, four cover tunes on an album is at least two too many.  However, the good moments of the album rank among Creedence’s best ever recorded works:  the presence of Fogerty  originals ‘Up Around The Bend’, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain?’, ‘Looking Out My Back Door’, ‘Run Through The Jungle’ and ‘Long As I Can See The Light’ combine to make ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ an indispensable disc.

May 2010/October 2011

Posted in 70s

SCORPIONS – Lonesome Crow

Recorded in October 1971 and released in February 1972, eight years after the band’s original formation, the Scorpions’ debut album ‘Lonesome Crow’ contains just over forty minutes of music which represent a young band feeling their way.   Barely touching on the direct style of Germanic hard rock which would become their signature, unsurprisingly, the album isn’t often spoken of very positively among rock and metal fans.  This is a great pity since, if taken on its own merits, ‘Lonesome Crow’ contains some superb musical performances, even though it doesn’t really excel in the actual song writing department.

Like Thin Lizzy’s debut, or the three criminally underrated discs by Deep Purple Mk I (released between 1967-69), ‘Lonesome Crow’ is an album that isn’t very representative of the band Scorpions would evolve into a few short years later. If it gets mentioned at all, it’s usually for it’s being the only Scorpions album to feature founding guitarist Michael Schenker on all tracks.  Looking beyond that, the album ought to be re-appraised for its interesting musical qualities, particularly those from the rhythm section.  Combined, drummer Wolfgang Dziony and bassist Lothar Heimberg are fantastic pairing, and while Dziony isn’t always stunning as a drummer in his own right, his interplay with Heimberg is top notch on various tracks featured here.  Heimberg, however, is a fabulous bassist, with his complex basslines often lifting the band’s experimentation above mere meandering.

It’s Dziony whom gets to open the album; during the intro for ‘I’m Going Mad’, he at first breaks into a fill which sounds like it could power a drum solo, before his toms lay a basic pattern which is intercut with woodblock percussion.  This is complimented by a solid bassline from Heimberg which has plenty of peaks and troughs; Rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker fills spaces with a basic chord structure, over which his brother Michael lays down a couple of reverbed leads.  Aside from a selection of wordless ahh’s, vocalist Klaus Meine is given relatively little to work with initially.  Even the inclusion of an early Deep Purple-esque spoken vocal adds little to the general mood, by which point ‘I’m Going Mad’ sounds like a bunch of half-jammed musical ideas welded together in the hope of something igniting.  It’s enjoyable in a pseudo Uriah Heep kind of way, but the number doesn’t entirely work as an opening statement. Even when the band hits their stride during the closing moments – with Michael Schenker’s playing featuring a harder edge and Meine’s vocal nearing a full-on wail – there’s a sense that the track ought to have had a little more overall structure.

For the next couple of songs, there’s a marked improvement.  ‘It All Depends’ demonstrates how the fledgling Scorpions can hold their own in a hard rock environment.  This number is a little more direct than the opener, thanks in part to a main riff which resembles Black Sabbath’s ‘Rat Salad’.  Also giving a sense of urgency is an extensive use of muted strings – undoubtedly influenced by Ritchie Blackmore’s work on Deep Purple’s 1970 cut ‘Flight of the Rat’ – and Dziony’s Ian Paice-esque drum fills.  The amount of general Deep Purple influence cutting through this number cannot be understated; the feel is all there, and the general tone of Michael Schenker’s lead guitar work really hammers the influence home.   Even though Meine’s vocal performance is limited to a short verse leading into what is essentially a two and a half minute showcase for Michael Schenker’s ferocious playing, he also seems to relish the brief opportunity to cut loose.  While Mr Schenker undoubtedly believes he is the star of this show and we all should be listening to him, nothing he plays is nearly as fascinating as Heimberg’s busy basslines.  Heimberg is amazing here and his lead bass work could certainly rival that of anything to be heard on the much bigger albums of the day – be they by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Uriah Heep.

Uriah Heep could have recorded ‘Leave Me’ as part of their ‘Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble’ debut.  Not only do Meine’s lead vocals occupy a similar space throughout to those of David Byron, but listening to the overblown choir of backing vocals, any comparisons with Heep are absolutely unavoidable.  Taking a slightly more laid back route than the previous numbers, Meine is given ample opportunity to stretch his vocals, while Rudolf Schenker’s rhythm guitar work takes an untypically jazzy tone.  Michael Schenker’s lead work is superb during his first solo spot, and while he takes an obvious blues-rock stance, his playing is slightly more subdued than previously; he wisely recognises that ‘Leave Me’ is a very vocal piece.  He can’t hold it in forever, mind, and for his second turn in the spotlight, the entire band quickens their pace in order for him to shoehorn in a more obvious hard rock solo.

The opening bars of ‘In Search of the Peace of Mind’ with its twin leads would suggest we’re headed for a hard rock blast – something more akin to the sound Scorpions would hone to perfection over their next two releases.   And then, after a brief foray into Uriah Heep-esque choirs, things take a u-turn.  The hard rock mood dissipates as quickly as a balloon struck with a pin, and Schenker pulls out the acoustic guitar.  While the main musical refrain is pleasing enough, its flowery nature soon becomes in need of something grittier.  That grittiness soon comes, but when it does, it doesn’t quite know what to do to make an impact.  Dziony hits harder behind his kit, though never making it far out of the musical starting blocks, while Meine’s rock voice sounds very uncomfortable (and not especially tuneful).  A couple of good musical ideas sound like they could be lurking within, but on most levels, this is a tune which just does not work.   The atmospheric, spacey ‘Inheritance’ has a similar mood in places, but fares much better due to a top vocal performance and Michael Schenker’s guitar prowess.  Those looking for a chorus are as likely to be left wanting (as is most of ‘Lonesome Crow’s wont), but musically, Schenker’s blues runs, rock posturing and general bluster is just about strong enough to carry this number alone.

‘Action’ is one of the album’s best offerings, with the band sounding much tighter than on many of the album’s other cuts.  The real draw here is that aforementioned connection between Heimberg and Dziony, as the walking basslines find a great space between the jazz-rock drum patterns.  Over the fusion rhythms, both Rudolf and Michael Schenker are able to play a simple guitar line.  Simplistic it may be, but it’s just enough to help everything gel.  While still somewhat distanced from straight hard rock, Meine’s lead vocal stretches outside of its previous cagey approach, to break into a few louder tenor moments, far more akin to the vocal style he would adopt over the subsequent Scorpions releases.  The arrangement is still rather more flowery than that of the Scorpions’ work which would follow, but here, they prove they are capable of hitting hard, and particularly so during Michael Schenker’s brief but sharp lead guitar solo.

While most tracks on the album have their moments, everything gets dwarfed by the grandiosity of the title cut, which closes the album, filling thirteen-and-a-half minutes of the albums second side in the process.  A long intro featuring drones and echoes gives way to a lead bass riff – clear and precise – accompanied by gentle jazzy guitar inflections and Klaus Meine’s lead voice – booming with a presence rarely heard on the album prior to this moment.  Meine has still yet to settle on the signature sound he would adopt from 1975’s ‘In Trance’ onward, and granted, his heavy accent makes any of the lyrics hard to pick out; still, it must be argued this is a powerful vocalist in the making.  Despite this, as the rest of the band break in to the track’s first instrumental break, it’s obvious that despite his best vocal efforts, he’s kicked to the kerb by the rest of the band.  Michael Schenker’s lead work is bracing, containing a great fiery passion, under which Heimberg plays busy bass runs, possibly surpassing many of his already fantastic performances.  At the end of this instrumental tour de force, ‘Lonesome Crow’ could have reached a natural conclusion, since in many ways the track has already reached its peak, but there’s much more to come.  After such a rock-filled lead break, it’s time for the Schenker brothers to step back and let Heimberg take control… His bass solo is jazz-rock oriented, and although you’ve already heard Heimberg achieving similar results during ‘Action’, this is certainly no weaker; throughout a couple of minutes, he holds a commanding presence.  Dziony backs him suitably with a jazzy backbeat.  It’s easy to imagine that both Heimberg and Dziony had been playing with such jazz-rock ideas during quiet moments in rehearsals, but it’s far more impressive that such a jam could take pride of place within such an epic number.  Naturally, soon enough Michael Schenker wants back in on the action, and throws a brief solo over the jazz-rock bones.

The second half of this long workout is noticeably weaker, since it is entirely constructed of filler and repetition.  A couple of minutes of drums played at a relatively funereal pace – coupled with Klaus Meine wailing – really loses momentum.  Even the addition of vibrato filled guitar leads does nothing to help.  ‘Lonesome Crow’ could have dispensed with these couple of minutes, but it’s soon clear this is mere mood setting, a lull in which to prepare the listener for Michael Schenker’s killer lead guitar work waiting around the corner.  Breaking into his second major solo, Schenker’s spiky leads sit atop an equally busy lead bass, with the band settling into the groove which began the number, bringing things full circle.

Unsurprisingly, given its preference for experimentation, ‘Lonesome Crow’ was not a great commercial success.  Back in the early 70s though, bands were rarely dumped straight away if they were not an overnight sensation: and luckily so for Scorpions, since they obviously came with plenty of potential – they just needed more time to refine their sound.

After the album’s release, the band suffered a major loss of personnel as bassist Lothar Heimberg and drummer Wolfgang Dziony left the band.  By 1974, lead guitarist Michael Schenker moved on too, joining UFO for their third album ‘Phenomenon’ after having been invited to fill the position after Scorpions supported the UK rockers on tour. Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker, meanwhile, were left to pick up the pieces. They couldn’t throw in the towel just yet…

July 2011