Tuesday, April 06, 2010

As much as it might happen to thrill the pants off folks (and me!) for this blog to inform them of the sheer genius emanating from the grooves on the latest 8" picture disc documenting the eastern European neo-folk noise underground I just scored on ebay, it doesn't mean I can't listen to, enjoy and indeed inform you of great bands, artists and records who've sold records well into the millions. Some people - a lot of people: start w/ Louis Armstrong, make your way through to Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, the Kinks and Black Sabbath, take a sharp left at the Eagles and don't stop until you reach Nirvana, OK? - who once moved a whole lotta units actually made good music, too, ya know. These two albums I'm talking about are examples, and lately I've been playin' them a lot.
In one regard, David Bowie is a lot like the Beatles: he divides camps into those who love him and those who loathe him; those who hailed him as a saviour of rock in the early '70s and those who think he just about killed it. When I'm talking of "camps", or at least one of said camps, I speak of self-professed "rock 'n' roll purists" (AKA tedious dullards). There is a school of thought that the man was, is and forever shall be a Rock 'n' Roll Imposter, a charlatan, a sham artist, a flake, a fraud and all of the above. I don't need to defend the guy (for one, it's not like I'm a diehard Bowiephile anyway), but the token response I usually give to such accusations is: A) His best music (from 1969-'79) rocks and it rolls; B) If he's a rip-off artist, he certainly chose the right people (VU, Stooges, NY Dolls, Roxy, Neu!, Barrett, Bolan, Scott Walker et al) to steal from; and C) "Rock" or not, the question is whether to music is any good. The answer is a Yes.
Whilst his early material borrowed heavily from the Barrett/Bolan (ca. Tyrannosaurus Rex) school of pixie-damaged acid-folk, and his late '70s albums saw him going for the cold, stark Germanic sound of Cluster/Neu!/Kraftwerk, on 1973's Aladdin Sane, by which time he was a bonafide superstar in the UK and a major cult in the US, he was knee-deep in Stooges/NY Dolls-drenched decadence, and the music here "rocks" almost as much as its obvious influences. The opener, "Watch That Man", sounds like it could've been lifted from the 'Dolls' second album: it's all fuzzed-out HM guitar chords and '50s piano rolls rolled into one; the title track just oozes drugged-out '70s suburban sleaze, like you can hear it blasting in another time from the bedrooms of a pubescent Joan Jett or Darby Crash; and the best track here, "Panic In Detroit", has a Bo Diddley shuffle coated in choppy guitar lines, the result being not even half a mile from the primitive stutter of the Stooges' first album.
I bought this album back in the mid '90s, the same time as I bought all my other '70s Bowie records. It was a time when folks were still ditching vinyl for CDs en masse (the complete opposite of today's predicament!) and great albums by "classic rock" artists (The Who, 'Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Kinks, you name it) were going for next to nothing. I wanted some back catalogue, I'd exhausted (or at least thought I had) a good deal of the mandatory punk and u/ground essentials one considers de rigeur, and in some cases I wanted to finally and belatedly wrap my ears around whatever the fuss was all about.
Bowie's best album ain't Aladdin Sane - it's 1977's Low, a near-masterpiece which ably bridges the gap between Cluster's electro excursions and the ambitious sonic adventures of Wire's Chairs Missing - though it's high-energy trashbag rock 'n' roll, one of the best for its day, and why on earth anyone who's a fan of Bowie's highly-regarded influences wouldn't get a kick out of it remains a mystery to me. I'm only here to tell you good news: Aladdin Sane is a great record.
I wish had some kind words for the musical works of the Rolling Stones post-Brian Jones, but I'd be struggling. It's not like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street are anything you'd call in this lifetime "bad" records, it's just that, at least for me, they don't rate that highly above a zillion other bar bands of the 1970s. I've got 'em, and I even play them once every 18 months or so, but they don't give me the massive kick of their late '60s records: Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. I wrote about Their Satanic... here, and it remains my fave 'Stones album, but since its sound and approach (bubblegum psychedelia) is so far removed from 99% of the band's ouvre, and since most 'Stones devotees loathe it and barely even recognise it as a Rolling Stones album, I can rate Beggars Banquet as an equal best as well. After all, both records sound like they were made by different bands.
There's little to add in a critique of an album praised by those you love and loathe. Everyone - the critics, the band - got it right, and the group mastered a sound that was almost equalled in the following year's Let It Bleed but never duplicated or even remotely approached in any of the post-'69 efforts. Completely ditching any hints of the previous year's headlong dive into faux-psychedelia, Beggars is an almost entirely acoustic-based white-boy blues album: a musical style which, in lesser hands, would make the kind of record I wouldn't usually poke with a very long stick.
What makes Beggars Banquet work isn't just the strength of the songwriting and the stripped-back arrangements - there's 10 songs and not a dud in the lot - but the downright nasty tone of the material. Mick & co. come across like a bunch of boozing, nihilstic, misogynist arseholes, and whilst I don't necessarily buy into their self-created myth as rock 'n' rolls ultimate bad boys, when a record sounds as menacing as this, for once I'm convinced it's not a pose. And Beggars Banquet has space. The songs are stripped right back to almost nothing, the boorish barre chord nonsense of their '70s work never hinted at here. There's really only two songs here which approach the sound of rock 'n' roll as most people know it, and they're also the most well known: "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" (two "classic rock" tracks wholly deserving of their rarified status among MOJO subscribers).
I didn't grow up on the 'Stones. I guess there was a time when suburban flakes did grow up listening to bands like the Rolling Stones. Perhaps that time was then and it remains so today, but when I was growing up, I didn't know anyone who listened to the band that was under 35. I took the leap when I was 25, by which point I'd finally come to realise that the concept of "classic rock", and even some of the bands therein, wasn't a fascistic cultural conspiracy dreamt up by ad men and pop culture proprietors. Listening to hardcore can do that to people if it catches their ear at a crucial developmental stage of their life. I got over it. Like Charlie Parker said: there's only two types of music: good music and bad music... and this is good music.


Andrew said...

now this here shizz is fine rock considerings me old china. But - what about hating The Beatles? "cuase i do. And i know why, but others do? DO YOU?

Let me know skypilot.

Stewart said...

There is an earlier David Bowie that is kinda fine. It is a bit of an early Johnny Farnham kinda phase during which he sings these quite entertaining folksy-rock uh ... "ditties". Check out Uncle Arthur, Sell Me a Coat and She's Got Medals.

Pig State Recon said...

Right on both counts here, Dave. Aladdin Sane is surely the best Ronson/glam-era Bowie LP. It's fuller/tougher sounding than Ziggy Stardust but still focused and biting in a way Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs just weren't. And while I could never really choose which late 60's/early 70's Stones I thought was their best, I agree that stripped down felt mighty refreshing & freeing following the over-the-top paranoid bombast of Satanic Majesties.

Now: when you gonna do that Springsteen post you promised us a couple years ago? The blogosphere appreciates this newly MOR Lexicon Devil.

Dave said...

Andrew: I effin' LOVE The Beatles, you know that!! I've written about 'em several times on this very blog.

Stewart: I know the Bowie record you speak of. Even Bowie himself hates that stuff, and would probably prefer that it remains out of print forever (which it isn't).

Michael: The "new MOR" Lexicon Devil? Sheez, you know I WAS thinking of reviewing some Randy Newman and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young... but now you've got me all paranoid. Perhaps I should just stick to dumb punk records and free jazz. No... next it shall be Michael Nesmith.