Posts Tagged ‘Love and Rockets’

Machine Head
Deep Purple
1972

The biggest sin of “Sins of the ’70s Week” was the sin of omission. I forgot Deep Purple! Yeah, yeah, yeah, the freaks said/man those cats could really swing (“Space Truckin’ ”). Some of these songs do have a sort of big-band swing to them, but most of them are having a bad night in Suck City. Jon Lord’s organ sometimes sounds like a harpsichord. So does Richie Blackmore’s guitar. And yet this band has a good claim on the invention of heavy metal.

I loved this album and spent many hours tormenting my parents with it. These days I smile as each song begins but after a couple of minutes I want them to end. I have no patience with the berserk Bee-Gees falsettos, the alleged lyrics, and the solos, which are always Blackmore first, then Lord, unless they decide to mix it up and have Lord go first, then Blackmore. (Improv jazz bands that always give you the tenor sax solo followed by the trumpet solo followed by the piano solo, or the piano solo followed by the tenor sax solo followed by the trumpet solo, make me feel like Ricardo Montalban as Kahn. I grow fatigued.)

Of course you can’t discuss Deep Purple without tripping over “Smoke on the Water.” Duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-DUH-DUH, duh-duh-DUH, DUH-DUH. It’s slow, it’s turgid, it takes forever to end. It’s like building blocks for beginning guitarists. You can’t get to “Stairway to Heaven” without first mastering “Smoke on the Water.”

“Smoke on the Water” is also a rarity among rock songs in that it reports on an incident that happened to the entire band. You don’t get a lot of journalism in this genre. If you’re paying attention to Deep Purple’s lyrics you’re in trouble, but while forcing myself to pay attention this evening I was surprised by the stripped-down Hemingway ending:

We ended up at the Grand Hotel.
It was empty cold and bare.
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside,
making our music there.
With a few red lights, a few old beds,
we made a place to sweat.
No matter what we get out of this,
I know, I know we’ll never forget
smoke on the water
and fire in the sky.

In the 1940s, legendary editor Maxwell Perkins said that there will always be a new class of sophomores who will discover Thomas Wolfe and be entranced by him. There will always be a new class of middle-schoolers who will discover “Smoke on the Water” and be entranced by the damn thing. This year at our chess club, one of my middle-school girls told her BFF, “I just heard the most awesome song.” I asked her what it was and she handed me an earbud and pressed Play. Duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-DUH-DUH, duh-duh-DUH, DUH-DUH.

Longest instrumental lead in a song that actually has words
Here’s something else about Deep Purple. In this contest I just dreamed up, they smash their puny human opponents with “Lazy.” “Lazy” begins with a jazzy riff that doesn’t open the door for the singer until 4:22, daringly late for a song that ends at 7:22.

First runner-up: Boston, “Foreplay/Long Time,” Boston (1976)
Boston owes a lot to Deep Purple’s influence (check out “Never Before” on Machine Head). “Foreplay/Long Time” is almost exactly the same length as “Lazy” (7:47), but Boston only strings us along until 2:45, when the singer enters and declares that he has to keep moving along so he can keep chasing that dream. Tough luck, honey, I can’t stay and commit to a healthy relationship.

Second runner-up: The B-52s, “Planet Claire,” The B-52s (1979)
And we’re still in the ’70s. Fred Schneider doesn’t start singing until the band has run through all of their outer-space sounds at the 2:30 mark. The song ends two minutes later. (The Foo Fighters do a cover of “Planet Claire” that clearly show this song’s debt to the Peter Gunn theme.)

Worth mentioning: Love and Rockets, “Body and Soul,” Hot Trip to Heaven (1994)
The actual singing begins at 2:20, but throughout the song a woman sighs suggestively every four seconds. “Body and Soul” runs a mesmerizing 14:14 and, as the reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes at Allmusic.com, “they [Love and Rockets] sound like they’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on.”

Note: As you can see from the comments on this post, the first and second finishers are actually Mike Oldfield for “Tubular Bells” and Pink Floyd for “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5).”

 

Bruce Springsteen says he learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than he ever learned in school. I’m grateful to have graduated from a much better school system than the one Bruce was stuck in. I learned more in 3 minutes in any class at Somerset High, Somerset, Massachusetts (Go Raiders!) than I ever learned from Deep Purple, Three Dog Night, or Tommy James & The Shondells. But Springsteen was right to emphasize 3 minutes, and not just because “a 4-minute record, baby” doesn’t scan as well and anyway is too reminiscent of a 4-minute mile.

Three-minute records (which I take to mean 3:01 to 3:59) are still the bread and butter of popular music, even though the format they were created for, the 45rpm, no longer exists. This length gives you enough time to sink into a song but not enough time to drown. (In general. There are 2-minute songs that drag and 4-minute songs that fly. Anything by Coldplay is automatically too long.)

I’m guessing that most of the music I listen to (and you, too) is in the 3-minute range, with the next group following at 4:01 to 4:59, followed by 5 minutes, 6 minutes, etc. The number of recorded pop songs longer than 10 minutes thins out quickly, and for every triumph past that mark (The Door’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” Love and Rockets’ “Body and Soul”) you trip over something like Mountains’ live version of their own “Nantucket Sleighride,” which weighs in at a hard-to-overlook 17:34.

I can only assume that back in 1972 the band performed their masterwork behind a screen of chicken wire to protect them from volleys of beer bottles. “Nantucket Sleighride” is a symphony as imagined by a quartet of metal-munching hippie delinquents. “Nantucket Sleighride” goes on so long that is has themes, movements, fugues, moods, tempos, lyrics, tides, a guitar imitating a triangle, a tugboat yearning for its mate, and what I think are wet blankets fired from a circus cannon.

The boys in Mountain, who did their best to out-bloat Wagner, produced a song that will never be included in any list of the 1 million songs you should listen to before the universe explodes. However, I took a lot of drugs to this album, Sludge Hammer*, and thanks to the miracle of nostalgia and disjointed synapses I still find “Nantucket Sleighride” to be audacious and irresistible.

What happens to pop music after 17 minutes and 34 seconds? That way lies “Tubular Bells,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, prog rock, Yes, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Phish, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, probably Yes again, motels, money, murder, madness, and today’s special guests, The Allman Brothers Band.**

The Allmans’ Eat a Peach (1972) is generally thought to be the band’s high point, though not by this critic. Give me the economy of Brothers and Sisters (1973) any day. I don’t care that Eat a Peach has all those live tracks because that’s where the problem is: “Mountain Jam,” which is not only 33 minutes and 41 agonizing seconds long, it was inspired by Donovan. Apparently, it’s impossible to keep Donovan out of a music blog these days.

I was bludgeoned by “Mountain Jam” at an Allman Brothers concert in 1975 and I didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt. The Allmans in those days packed enough amplification to sterilize everyone not wearing lead dirndls. I didn’t wear my dirndl that night and now you know why I’ve never had kids. Somewhere around the halfway point of “Mountain Jam,” my mind floated away and I could no longer hear the music. All I could do was stare at the band. If I had gone to a Bangles concert in 1985 and they had played a 33-minute version of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” I’m sure I would’ve lost containment then, too. But at least I would’ve been staring at The Bangles. The Allmans, even when they were flush with youth, were not stareable.

“Mountain Jam” makes the Allmans’ 22-minute “Whipping Post” from their At Fillmore East live set sound like a model of musical frugality. When I was 16 I thought the crescendo of “Whipping Post” was rock’s answer to the 1812 Overture. Now I just hear it as everyone barking at everyone else.

Is it possible to produce a 15-minutes-or-more recording that won’t put people to sleep or send them to their Kindles to read another chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey? Probably not, but one interesting attempt that I know of is The Byrds’ 16-minute go at their iconic “Eight Miles High,” from the album Untitled/Unissued (1970). It’s focused, it’s well-played, it crosses the line into jazz, and if I’d gone to that concert instead of to the Allmans’ I’d have 16 kids today. Oh, wait.

Reader challenge: I can’t think of any particularly lengthy songs (say 12-15 minutes or longer) after about 1990. If you can, please enlighten me. I have a hypothesis that song lengths have decreased since the hippie era, at least at the long end, but I need data. Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler are disqualified. Come on, people, let’s move like we have a purpose!

* OK, the real name was Live (The Road Goes Ever On).

** Special D just raised her hand and asked where Pink Floyd is on this list, but I don’t see the point of her question.

Hot Trip to Heaven
Love and Rockets
1994

Tubular Bells
Mike Oldfield
1973

Key Lime Pie
Camper Van Beethoven
1989

Today I will spare you a rant about the vanishing concept of the “album,” a group of songs that are thematically linked or that fix an artist in time. That concept didn’t even exist until The Beatles came along, and if the album is no longer needed in an era of music on demand, well, The Beatles aren’t around anymore either. Things change and I like change.

But I do want to recall for a moment one aspect of the album experience, and that is having to buy an entire album just to get one song.

You might remember Love and Rockets from their 1989 hit, “So Alive,” which sounds very 1970s to me, like a lazy lounge version of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong.” They also did a good job with their cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” Love and Rockets was a sort of goth/psychedelic act with an enthusiastic though small following. I wasn’t enthusiastic about them until I heard “Body and Soul” from Hot Trip to Heaven.

Like most people, I love a 3-minute record with a beat. But I also like a lengthy, mesmerizing song. I write better in a trancelike state (I also write better after I’ve had my shoes shined) and I find that playing lengthy, mesmerizing songs at work keeps people from bugging me. “Body and Soul” (which has nothing to do with Billie Holiday) is a 14-minute chunk of musical hypnosis, even at the 6:45 mark where the song abruptly picks up speed.

(The lyrics are another issue. The main theme in the first half of the song is “Body and soul,” which isn’t explained. In the second half it’s “Spin the wheel,” and I can’t shed any light on that one, either. Love and Rockets graduated from the same school of lyrical obfuscation as did Screaming Trees.)

The rest of the album I never listen to, though a couple of songs (“Trip and Glide” and “Be the Revolution”) are almost sort of catchy. But in 1994, if you wanted to own “Body and Soul” by Love and Rockets, you had no choice but to buy the entire album. That was about a $12 song. The cover art looks cool if you leave the CD sitting on your desk, but people listening to iTunes tend to snicker when they see any CD sitting on my desk so this is not the benefit it once was.

Another example from my experience is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, a snippet of which became the theme from The Exorcist. The actual title is “Tubular Bells, Pt. 1,” and it weighs in at a hefty 25:49. Don’t let that figure deter you – you don’t have to listen to the entire epic. Thanks to your computer, you can start precisely at 17:04 and immediately get to the meaty, mesmerizing part. It even has an announcer to introduce the dozens of instruments Oldfield played, as he played them. When I bought this album in the ’70s, I had to memorize where on the vinyl I wanted to go and hope I dropped the needle in the right place. (Side two, the cleverly named “Tubular Bells, Pt. 2,” is a mere 23:20. I probably played that side once. It’s way too short.)

Sometimes buying an album to get just one song resulted in a happy surprise. I wanted Key Lime Pie because of Camper Van Beethoven’s cover of the 1960s’ psychedelium masterpiece, “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Camper Van was an early indie band with a violin and a sly sense of humor, as you can see in their legacy to contemporary music, “Take the Skinheads Bowling”:

Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes
Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same
There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything

For years I took out this CD and skipped to track 13, “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” played that song a couple of times, then popped the disc out of the machine. Even though David Lowery of Camper Van went on to form Cracker, a band I like, it never occurred to me to listen to anything else on Key Lime Pie. But then one day at work I slipped the CD into my computer just as a co-worker came over to speak to me. Before I could punch in track 13 the music started and I found myself listening to the entire album. I loved about half of it! That’s a whole lotta love in my snobby world.

My experience with Key Lime Pie proves that you should always make time to talk to your co-workers. You should always be prepared for change, too. I don’t know what’s going to happen to albums, but I’m looking forward to finding out.