Some bands find strange places in your brain. They’re ones that you like at one point, then one day wake up and are embarrassed you ever did – and then on yet another day, you decide they weren’t that bad after all.
Everyone’s got a few of these musical guilty conundrums. Some we outgrow, some we don’t. And that’s totally cool. Everyone also hopefully reaches that point when you don’t give a flying fig for popular opinion and just try to like something because you like it.
Of course, I’m talking about The Doors. I’ve gone through many cycles with The Doors over the years – from liking them like any teenage boy does for their leathery brooding cool, to mocking their pomposity, to finding them hugely overrated to, in these weird pandemic days, finding their songs a bit of a comfort.
Jim Morrison was a pretentious git in many ways and paid the price by dying before he hit 27, yet he also was soaked in that elusive star swagger that’s fuelled singers from Elvis to Bowie to Lizzo. Backed by a terrific band who added heft to his hippie-god musings, he created a sound that feels both cliched and raw at the same time. The Doors always danced on the edge of kitsch and cheese, but they often would, as they put it, “break on through to the other side.”
Crank up “Riders on The Storm,” “Light My Fire,” “Crystal Ship” or “Strange Days” and you’re floating in a patchouli-scented haze of angsty mood. The Doors generally lacked a sense of humour, yet their music could often be quite funny – “Hello, I Love You” always sounded to me like the kind of thing a lounge-act singer coughs out at the end of the night, while I dare anyone but a 17-year-old to get through the hysterics of “The End” without smiling a little.
The Doors had more than their share of dogs, whenever Morrison’s indulgences overpowered generic bar-band romps, and limp songs like “We Could Be So Good Together” or “Easy Ride” sound like parodies of the band. Their albums remain a heady time capsule of the era, with great songs mixed in amongst the dross.
Jim Morrison died four months before I was even born, so it’s kind of weird he’s been this perpetually returning pop culture revenant. Like a lot of people, I got a bit into The Doors during the hype fest for Oliver Stone’s bombastic biopic (itself now nearly 30 years old!). I think the pendulum has swung again away from The Doors a bit, where it’s not as cool to admit you like them as it is Bowie or the Kinks or Prince. They’re so alpha-male, so unconcerned about the wider world, so, so … ego.
I often find Morrison’s dead stoned stare kind of annoying, yet still… when the tinkling chords and thunder crashing of “Riders on the Storm” kicks in, I’m swept away.
In a way, The Doors to me are a part of the greater problem when consuming any pop culture in an age of 24-7 hot takes – it’s hard sometimes to know what you feel and separate it from what the world around you tells you to feel. It’s the Chuck Klosterman dilemma of overthinking a song so much it starts to fray into pieces.
Jim Morrison was the bombastic lead character in his own story, and the songs reflect that, all from the perspective of a young man full of piss and vinegar, the centre of his own personal universe, the Lizard King. It’s both the appeal and the tragedy of The Doors that Jim Morrison didn’t live long enough to come to the point where we realise we’re not the main story at all, that you’re just another human, plodding along and trying every day to make your small narrative life’s big epic.
So yeah, sometimes The Doors were ridiculous and silly, sometimes they were sweeping, dark and profound, sometimes they were both at the same time. I think after decades of intermittently listening to them, I’m kind of finally starting to be OK with that.
Rockwell was pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder.
But for a few minutes in 1984 you couldn’t get away from his hit single “Somebody’s Watching Me.” It spun, haunted, out of radios everywhere, helped by the presence of the then-untainted Michael Jackson singing the insanely catchy chorus. It tapped into that universal phobia – “I always feel like / somebody’s watching me.”
Rockwell had a niche, and he was good at it. He could sell suspicion – “People call me on the phone, I’m trying to avoid / But can the people on TV see me or am I just paranoid?” – and his songs were filled with bouncy keyboards and drum machines providing a catchy beat. For some reason, this very American singer periodically put on a dire British accent, which just added to his askew appeal.
The delightfully creepy/silly video for “Somebody’s Watching Me” features Rockwell repeatedly showering (while wearing shorts!), standing at his own grave (!!) and being haunted by strange white people. It’s amazing.
The common thread coursing through both of Rockwell’s major albums was an unsparing paranoia about the world – it’s a surprisingly bitter perspective that stands out in the glossy era of ‘80s pop hits. He followed up “Somebody’s Watching Me” with another stalker anthem, “Obscene Phone Caller.” It’s another ridiculous earworm of a tune, with its heavy-breathing phone call chorus and Rockwell’s pained delivery of awkward lines like “Why did you have to pick me / out of all the people in the directory?”
He covered George Harrison’s extremely cynical “Taxman,” and for the difficult second album Captured, his next singles were songs like “Peeping Tom” (the phone caller’s distaff cousin, I guess), “He’s a Cobra” and “Captured (By An Evil Mind).” The back cover of Captured is a kitschy delight, with Rockwell pictured shrunken down in a gilded birdcage with a giant woman staring in at him. They’re always watching him, you see.
I spun my cassette of his album Somebody’s Watching Me an awful lot in 1984. It’s still a delightfully cheesy slab of ‘80s synth-Motown. Follow-up Captured didn’t do very well – but I bought that cassette. I might’ve been the only one. Then Rockwell pretty much vanished after putting out a third and final album that nobody ever heard of.
I had absolutely no clue who Rockwell really was back in the day; he was like another Ray Parker Jr who had a huge hit and never topped it. Turns out he was actually the son of one of the biggest men in music, Motown founder Berry Gordy, and was born Kennedy Gordy and changed his name to avoid appearances of nepotism. Instead of a one-hit wonder, Rockwell was actually from the house of endless hits.
What was it that made Rockwell’s music so freaked out about the world around him? And why did he vanish as quickly as he arrived? Post-fame, Rockwell hasn’t had a great run of it, including some arrests and lawsuits.
“I needed to just be a regular guy, and that’s why I disappeared. I came from a king, Berry Gordy, and I’m like a prince,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016.
I always wondered if Rockwell’s background played a part in the very specifically constrained, paranoid perspective of his best songs. Was there something there about growing up the son of a rich, famous music legend that made him want to sing about obscene phone callers and peeping toms and tax men?
One of more endearingly clumsy bits on “Somebody’s Watching Me” goes, “And I don’t feel safe anymore, oh, what a mess / I wonder who’s watching me now (Who?!) – the IRS?” First single off his first album and the guy’s already worried about the government coming after him.
I wouldn’t argue that Rockwell was some great lost legend – his voice was on the average side and his albums outside of the paranoid singles tended to be swamped by overproduced painfully generic dated ‘80s R&B. He always sounded vaguely insincere when singing about love instead of fear – for example the ballad “Knife,” in which love, you guessed it, cuts just like one. But I still have a guilty enjoyment of his two extremely tense, worried albums, where everybody is out to get you and you always feel like there’s somebody watching you.
Am I just paranoid? Baby, in 2021, that almost feels like a prophecy.
My favourite guitar player isn’t a household name.
The thing about music criticism I’ve realised over the years I’ve dabbled in it is, all criticism is fundamentally a very personal thing. You can look at something in the broader cultural context, you can use all the fancy words you want to describe it, and yet in the end you often have to go with your gut. Does this move you?
There’s many guitar players out there who I dig, whose technical mastery is next to none. You can’t ignore Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell or Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, George Harrison or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince or Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. And I like pretty much all of ‘em.
But when it comes to the guitarist who moves me the most, who evokes pictures in my brain that none of the rest do, it’s Richard Thompson I turn to every time. He is a comfort for me in troubling times.
Thompson is not a rock god celebrity, although among a certain brand of music fan he’s certainly well loved. And for me, he’s among the most soulful of guitar players, his work reaching deep into some kind of elemental place. From his early days with folk-rockers Fairport Convention to his stunning collaborations with his former wife Linda Thompson and on to his venerable solo career, Thompson’s distinctive yearning sound is one I turn to again and again in life to get a break from the world.
I first cottoned on to Thompson with his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, full of gently askew humour and pathos, with the cutting observations and forensic bits of detail in his songwriting that also make him one of our best lyricists. The “hit” single from that album, “I Feel So Good,” with its chorus, “I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight” – sums up Thompson’s worldview – happy, yet a bit bitter, nostalgic, yet optimistic. When I listened to that cassette I picked up at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban California years ago, I was transported to a new place. I’ve been going back there ever since.
Most of those who we think of when we think of the greatest guitar players are men, and the vast majority of them play with a very masculine, dominating swagger – picture Eddie Van Halen soloing, Pete Townshend windmilling. Swagger is a very big part of the rock guitar sound and hey, I love it, too.
Yet Thompson, unlike a lot of guitar gods, doesn’t play with a lot of ego. There’s little boasting in his sound, but instead a kind of cathartic release, whether he’s finger-picking a gentle ballad or soaring into dazzling long rides. There’s a great quote about the legendary Howlin’ Wolf attributed to producer Sam Phillips that I often think of whenever I listen to Thompson: “This is where the soul of man never dies.”
There’s deep riches in Thompson’s catalogue over his 50-year career I never stop enjoying exploring. The heartbreaking character portraits of “Beeswing” or “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” or the explosive release of “Wall of Death” or “Calvary Cross,” where you can feel Thompson getting lost in the song’s story, his guitar jams a pivotal cog in the machine of songcraft rather than just being showy.
“I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song,” he once told The Guardian. The slow stair-stepping chord progression of “Calvary Cross,” with its building tension and release, floors me every time I listen to it, and when I dive into the never-ending joys of sprawling live versions of it.
Look, I’m not any kind of technical music critic. I’m a listener, who’s darned clueless when it comes to the ins and outs of how gorgeous sounds are made. Hendrix made amazing, unmistakable sounds with the guitar, but how he made ‘em, I couldn’t tell you.
So with Richard Thompson, for me, it’s all about how the music hits the gut. And he moves me.
I keep trying to write a blog post about The Fall, and failing.
This is not a blog post about The Fall.
The Fall were a post-punk band from industrial Manchester who were insanely prolific, yet the very definition of a cult act. Frontman Mark E. Smith stomped, snarled and muttered his way through an endless sea of clattering albums over 40 years until his death at age 60 in 2018.
For some people, The Fall are everything. For some, if they’ve even heard of them, they’re just annoying noise.
I have a greatest hits collection, the ironically titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The first song on it is “Repetition,” and it sums up the band’s gritty ethos with the first words Smith utters – “Right noise!”
When Mark E. Smith died, I started listening to them more and more and scooping up albums any time I saw them. I often do that when someone famous dies, I go back to their work, and get a bit obsessive about them for a spell. It’s morbid but I bet I’m not the only person who does it.
The Fall has a song on their 2001 Album Are You Missing Winner? I listened to like five times yesterday. That’s not their best known or loved album, and the song, “Crop-Dust,” is probably not even in their 100 best songs. I kind of love it.
It swirls in and out like a deranged anthem from another world, distorted and spooky, hypnotic, and Smith starts barking away like a lost dog. A YouTube commenter says, “It sounds like a drunk Mark E. Smith phoned the vocal in after getting trapped inside a telephone box.” It really does.
At least 60% of people I know would hate that song.
The late John Peel memorably summed up The Fall by saying, “They are always different; they are always the same.”
In January 2018, the same month Mark E. Smith died of cancer, I nearly died of something I didn’t even know I had. I’ve kind of divided my life since then into “before, and after.” I began listening to The Fall a lot that year, spurred on by editing news stories about Mark E. Smith’s death, and listening to 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong over and over and over. It was a weird time in my life, and the snarling chaos of The Fall seemed to help it make sense.
Every time I turned around, there was a new album to discover. There’s still a dozen or two I haven’t listened to. I like The Fall a lot, but I wouldn’t call me expert enough in their strange universe to write about the sweep of their career, of their deeper meaning.
Music is weird because it’s like a fingerprint on your brain. The things I see when I hear Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” or Crowded House’s “Distant Sun” aren’t the things you see; the soothing void “Crop-Dust” plunges me into might just give you a migraine.
Sometimes you want right noise, you want a secret language that you feel like only you can understand.
I listen to The Fall a lot, and I’m nowhere near the bottom yet.
My first memory of Yoko Ono is of making fun of her.
It’s unfortunate, but I remember listening to John Lennon and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy many years ago with friends, long after John was shot and killed. We all loved “Watching The Wheels,” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the other Lennon tracks, but the Yoko ones that alternated with his were… jarring.
Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” slammed open the barn doors after the laid-back charms of album opener “Starting Over.” What was this weird, defiant prancing melody? Yoko suddenly starts screaming “Why death? Why life? Warm hearts / cold darts” and holy moses, what a mood-changer. When the song dissolves into a cackling chorus of Yokos moaning and groaning and ululating their way into a mock orgasm, we couldn’t help it – everyone listening burst into laughter. (To be fair, it is a kind of funny, chirpy song.)
I keep coming back to Yoko’s oft-maligned solo work in recent years, much of which has that same fierce, uncompromising power in that same way “Kiss Kiss Kiss” bursts into the room. Yoko, more than 50 years after the Beatles ended, still gets people going. She didn’t break up the Beatles, of course, who were going to split no matter what happened. But for far too long, she’s been painted as the villain in their story.
Yoko turned a lot of people off with the defiantly experimentalUnfinished Music No. 1 and No. 2 she did with John before the Beatles even broke up. The fact the couple posed stark nekkid on the cover of Two Virgins didn’t help, and to be honest, these two albums are very odd, hard to listen to, noodling noise compared to what both did later. Appearing with John live in the late 1960s, her howling anarchy put a lot of people off. While it’s definitely intense and abrasive, 50 years on the catharsis of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” feels passionate and raw – Yoko went for it. She didn’t care what they said about her sex, her race or her boldness – she just yelled.
The controversy around her shaped much of the reaction to Yoko’s own solo albums of the 1970s like Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling The Space. They’re less experimental than her most-out there stuff (like recording her own miscarriage), and as a result they hold up pretty well, marrying compulsively offbeat grooves with her infinitely flexible voice, a yowl one second and a croon the next. I don’t argue that all Ono’s work was great – lyrics generally aren’t her strong point, and few singers could make lines like “We’re all blind and crippled mates / Frustrated would-be presidents of united states” work.
These albums still dazzle with as much energy and invention as the great krautrock records of Can and Kraftwerk, her howling as passionate today as Kim Gordon and Courtney Love’s would be decades later. Listened to today, a propulsive stomp like Fly’s epic trance “Mindtrain” sounds a lot more modern than some of the stuff John, Paul and George were doing in 1971.
Yoko pushed Lennon in uncompromising directions too, although for the most part his ‘70s work was actually far less inventive and more nostalgic than Ono’s. She and Lennon released Plastic Ono Band albums with almost identical covers and titles in 1970, but while his is part of the canon now with super-deluxe reissues, her own angrier, rawer Plastic Ono Band is somewhat forgotten.
From the very first song, a chattering, shrieking psych-freakout called “Why”, it’s an in-your-face statement that even manages to make Lennon’s stark and powerful “Mother” opening his own album feel a bit restrained. In an era filled with Carpenters and ABBA, Yoko was singing song titles like “I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window,” “Angry Young Woman” and “What A Bastard The World Is.”
Yoko’s 88 years old now and John’s been gone for 40 years, but she’s still sharing her art and her music – her latest, Warzone, was released when she was 85! Listen to 2014’s Between My Head And The Sky, which starts off with Yoko’s patented screeches and moans packing way more power than a senior citizen rocker should.
In everything, Yoko goes for it. Sometimes that “it” can be a bit much, but nobody would ever accuse her of holding back onstage.
Yoko is a pioneer shunned in her own time – imagine in 1970 a Japanese woman with a very big voice daring to demand her place at the side of one of the most famous men on the planet, on doing her own creative work wherever it led and seemingly never, ever embarrassed of being who she was?
Yoko had to fight racism, sexism and Beatle fanboyism all of her life, and it still lingers to this day. The criticism back in the day was that Yoko didn’t know her place. Yoko always knew her place. Yoko’s even been pretty big in the clubs in recent years), and her spirit of independence, defiance and confidence can still be found everywhere in 2021 among brave young artists.
Bob Dylan is 80 years old today. Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world.
Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more.
In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan:
1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives.
2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:
3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”
4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works.
5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:
7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”
8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece.
9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.
10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days.
11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:
12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami.
13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State.
47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.
48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.
49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer.
50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times. Whoo-ee, ride me high.
51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory.
52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”
52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood.
53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”
54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”
55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right.
56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”
57. This photo:
58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound.
59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history.
60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…” few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak.
61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.”
62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem.
63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour.
64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”
65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan.
66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track.
67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:
68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”
69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing.
70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe.
72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it.
73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:
74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”
75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house?
76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog?
77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it:
78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness.
79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.
Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!
There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.
Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.
But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine.
I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after.
And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü.
Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again.
Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo?
But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me.
The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined.
It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.
Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold.
1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition.
Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”).
The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death.
Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace.
There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat.
Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything.
George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.
George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes. Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life.
Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle.
The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend.
She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.
Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House.
I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living.
I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live.
Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time.
Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here.
The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together.
I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now.
And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries.
That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever.
Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life.
It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.
If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.
Today would’ve been Lou Reed’s 79th birthday, and I still miss his battered, cynical voice in this troubled world.
He’s still the only artist whose lyrics I’ve got tattooed on my arm, and I’d easily put him in my personal top 5 pantheon of musicians I return to again and again. But he wasn’t easy – Bowie or Prince could challenge but they never really scared you; Dylan and Costello have taken missteps in their career but never quite sabotaged it as badly as Lou could (Dylan’s born-again phase comes close, though).
Yet he was also an amazing next-level jerk an awful lot of the time, as even a cursory read through Lou biographies and manyrather tense interviews will attest. He would not put up with fools, or even innocent questions, and there’s a bloody battlefield of journalists mauled on the field by Lou Reed who didn’t all deserve their wounds. Whatever demons drove him in life led him to lash out a lot, too.
But boy, Lou Reed could write a song, whether it’s the clatter and loneliness of the Velvet Underground or the brief moment he spent as a pop star with “Walk On The Wild Side”; the anguished family dynamics of Berlin or the strutting prophet of New York.
And there’s Magic and Loss, his 1992 song-cycle about death and dying that is honestly one of my favourite albums of all time – and yes, I’ve got words from the title track tattooed on my arm, and yes, I’d be happy enough from the great beyond if someone cranks that epic title song up at my funeral. Lou was kind of a genius, you know?
I only saw him live once, from a distance in Seattle, but as much as I love Lou Reed’s music that’s probably as close as I wanted to get. I’d probably have been a suffering fool in his eyes.
Lou Reed offended, an awful lot of time, from the Velvet Underground singing about heroin to an album full of feedback to the rather ear-scraping and awkward collaboration with Metallica that was his abrasive final work. Sometimes it felt like he was just playing a role, a demented character he’d created. Sometimes it didn’t. But he did mellow out in his final years before his death in 2013 (I’m thinking the zen calm of his wife Laurie Anderson helped a lot).
We live in an era where a lot of past behaviour is being questioned and analysed through new eyes. That’s a good thing. There’s a murderer’s row of celebrities who have been shamed and scorned and sometimes even jailed.
Some of these fallen stars I stopped caring about the moment their misdeeds came about, others I have made the decision to continue reading/listening/watching their work in full awareness of how flawed they were. That’s the choice any of us make when we consume art. A lot of artists are jerks, or worse. Lou Reed never hid his cantankerous side and it’s certainly not breaking news. Lou Reed wasn’t a nice guy an awful lot of the time, but he made some beautiful music for me.
In the end, you take what you want to take and leave what you want to leave. There’s a bit of magic in everything. Lou Reed left me a lot.