Features | Retconning

IV: Classic Rock

By Mark Abraham | 7 November 2006

It’s a joke, ‘cept not, ‘cause classic rock itself is the punchline to a joke constructed by radio stations for years. What exactly is rock? Like, you don’t really need me to tell you that Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones or Patti Smith are great right? Maybe you don’t need me to tell you these albums are great, either, but I picked them either because they’re rare, they’re overshadowed by other catalogue items, or they’re just schlocky enough that you’ve never really thought about them. But also because they’re all really good, and because I think they demonstrate just how vibrant rock could be, and all the different ways you could fall into playing rock. So while Retconning is never a "best of" list, this one really isn’t, but beyond that, let’s just have some fun with what rock can be. Here are some albums I love — some sheepishly, some proudly, but all now in public.

Mott the Hoople :: Mott (1973)

This could fit on the glam list I’ll do eventually, but let’s face it: All the Young Dudes as a title aside, Mott the Hoople is the Rock Hudson of camp. While the wide pastures of glam could contain such disparate figures as Bowie, Roxy, the Dolls, Rundgren, and T. Rex, Mott the Hoople was always staring fitfully from the sidelines, pruning the balls they had to reject Bowie-penned rockers, to break from the sleek sound of the Bowie-produced Dudes, and to allow Ian Hunter to lead the group headlong into this strange concoction of wide-eyed anthems that prove that rock is always either anticipating or living it’s own midlife crisis. Here we have “Ballad of Mott (26th March 1972, Zürich),” a song about the band’s almost-breakup; here we see Hunter’s weirdly creepy desire to become his partner’s parents to watch her as a child (“I Wish I Was Your Mother”); listen where the chorus of “Violence” is slurred just a tad at the precise moment Graham Preskett’s violin enters the mix. Bandmates Mick Ralphs, Pete Watts, and Dale Griffin might be the most pristine in rock, but they helped take Mott the Hoople’s fifth album to that well of self-analysis. Just take those angles in; what you’re hearing is an attempt to bring rock back to personal tragedy after Beggar’s Banquet had sent it off on a quest of cosmic importance five years before.

Terry Reid :: River (1973)

If Mott is a wading pool, here’s your route to the ocean, and even if the latter half betrays Reid’s folk persuasions (more Perhacs than Page), the river bed he carves draws tributary from Little Feat, the E-Street Shuffle, and a pinch of Shugie Otis. Raise Van Morrison’s voice a few octaves to pull this soulful treasure off; it’s a little too ready-made for college-dorm-room air-drum antics at times (“Dean”), but generally Reid keeps things from getting too overblown, centering the momentum of the songs on his rhythm section. The wishy blues of “Avenue,” with oddly constructed melodies and that beautiful ranging chorus that hiccups the song against itself, are always a treat. “Things to Try,” skittish acoustics bubbling over a wild drum pattern that seems way too fast for the track, gives Reid a chance to croon beautifully through another wonderful counter-intuitive melody; when he says “Come on give me the moonlight / Come on give me the stars” you’ll want to, because he could probably make them shine differently, because I can’t think of another album that sounds so traditional — nondescript, even — and yet still every song is a cargo hold of surprises. And, I mean, this isn’t going to please everyone: the bongo/clavinet swirls of “Live Life” cinch the fact that this album is either directly or indirectly the inspiration for a whole lot of music you may hate. Don’t read it backwards, though. In 1973 this shit wasn’t nearly so insipid, and Reid is playing cards with feeling, rather than playing cards that already mean something.

Sparks :: Kimono My House (1974)

If Hendrix asked “are you experienced,” the Maels asked “are you megalomaniacal?” People still have trouble describing this shit: incomprehensible lyrics, given Russell’s (the guy with the pouty lips) penchant for complex melodies that shift against diction; wild guitar-led self-image anthems that musically are only really comparable (sort of) to some Queen; the camp outfits; the musical theatre fetish. But once you cut past the mirror-gaze sentiments of the song titles you tap into a pretty politically dense album. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” makes fun of soldiers heading out to meet local prostitutes; “Amateur Hour” snarks “She can show you must do / To be more like people better than you” at sexual education; “Falling in Love with Myself Again” is fucking hilarious: “I bring home the bacon and eat it myself / Here’s to my health.” Those opening three tracks are so phenomenal that I sometimes forget how fabulous the rest of them are: “Here in Heaven” (a love letter demanding “Juliet” will stay faithful till she dies and gets to heaven too); “Thank God it’s not Christmas” (template for new waves, Blondies, and Belle and Sebastiens everywhere); “Talent is an Asset” (just the twee part of the last bracketed clause); and “Equator,” a song structured like it has Body Intergrity Identity Disorder, all slipping noises that result in a hilarious jazz-scat to end the album. Kimono My House never fails to make me laugh while listening to it, because it has a sense of humor, even if it isn’t specifically supposed to be funny. Ron (the guy dressed like a banker) has enchanted keyboards, but his world is freakin’ wonderful, because every movement is a vector that leads straight to another insane hook. The first album to really represent our hyperactive world, the Maels (along with Dinky Diamond, Martin Gordon, and the wild carnival guitar antics of Adrian Fisher) figured out how to undercut the solemn with the absolutely silly.

Slapp Happy :: Casablanca Moon/Analbasac Noom (1974/1980)

The basic story here: Slapp Happy recorded Casablanca Moon in 1973, backed by Faust. Polydor, pissed at the lack of commercial potential on the album, refused to release it. The band switched to Virgin (home of future collaborators Henry Cow and past collaborators Faust) and re-recorded the album with session musicians (released first as Slapp Happy, and then as Casablanca Moon). Then, in 1980, Recommended got their hands on the original album and released that as Acnalbasac Noom. Both albums have essentially the same running order; both are gorgeous explorations through the limits of rock and roll music. The original version, Faust creeping on the back end like a gremlin, is more insular, thick, and claustrophobic, Dagmar Krause’s vocals the thin thread that ties these raw segments together. The rerecord is far more expansive; the addition of session musicians, a string section, and increased studio time allowed the band to explore all sorts of textures and styles of music (a tendency already implicit in its songwriting). Anthony Moore’s compositions are transformed from one to the other, but it isn’t always easy to say which is better. Is “A Little Something” better as a short, predominantly acoustic bossa tune, or does the wild string break on the rerecord add something to Krause’s thing vocals? The opening two tracks (“Casanblanca Moon” and “Me and Parvarti”) always struck me as more powerful on the original; the rerecord tends to indulge in the accompaniment. On the other hand, the more amibitious tracks like “Michelangelo” and “Slow Moon’s Rose” tend to benefit from the increased orchestration. Either way, this dual pit stop before the band would leave “naive rock,” as guitarist Peter Blegvad called it, for the far more experimental pastures of the Henry Cow collabs In Praise of Learning and Desperate Straights is a beautiful place, the only rock and roll noir I can think of, with villains, heroes, and pop hooks stuffed into every crevice.

Elton John :: Captain Fantasic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)

Best album’s an award normally granted to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1974), which happily seemed to capture both sides of the John split: the bitch queens out on “Benny and the Jets” and throws down the rock messiah gauntlet on “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”; Bernie Taupin Live Aids Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland into moral parables for the madman’s troubled self on “Candle in the Wind” and the gorgeous title track. But that fantastic opening quartet dwarfs the rest of the album, and while I love the bitch, the bitch is responsible for “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” John’s descent into the silliest camp ever. One Caribou (1974) later, kill the queen and you get Captain: ’75’s fantastic chart heart attack, the first album ever to debut at number one, an album purchased on the strength of the bitch persona for which it also stood as grave marker, an album that bore a single heart-wrenchingly invested in suicide and nine other tracks that ranged from dismal to decimating. The bitch, the honky cat who stares at you grinning from the cover is a ruse; inside, John’s a shallow husk of his stadium persona, constructing claustrophobic minor-key shelters around lyrics Taupin wrote about John trying to kill himself, drug himself, and negate himself. Whether Taupin just felt enough time had passed to broach these topics or this is some sort of intervention John is forced to perform, it’s impossible to separate the emotion here from John’s struggles to come out, and the tracks here undulate outwards with the precision of the dull razor blade edge John describes in “Writing” — they rip your flesh. “Bitter Fingers” squeals like a precocious child about how hard it is to write songs when you’re sick of “tra la la and la di das”; “Tower of Babel” presents the music industry as a Babylon of license over complex chord progressions and Davy Johnstone’s fascinating guitar work; the title track also features Johnstone riffing out over the chorus, and John’s inflection on “Mmm hmm / Couldn’t fool us” is one of the most memorable four part harmonies that lasts less than three seconds ever (the song is also, very possibly, my personal favorite rock track ever); “Curtains” has John trying to out-“Tommorrow Never Knows” the Beatles, exploiting every trick in Ray Cooper’s percussive bag; “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” brews sleezy funk that somehow manages to be sleezy and poignant; “Gotta Get a Meal Ticket” is what the aforementioned “Saturday” hould have been. But the real gem here is that single, the strangled and choked declaration that “Butterflies are free to fly.” If “Yellow Brick Road” takes place in the penthouse, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” takes place in the basement. Taupin is in best form here, with line’s like “Prima Donna lord you really should have been there / Sitting like a princess perched in your electric chair” run at odd meters across John’s slow half-beat cadences, as Johnstone, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olson (who always arranged their own backup vocals) up the intensity like crazy. It’s dreary, but when the band kicks in well over two minutes into the song on the word “strangled,” every little thing falls into place. Here was a vocalist at the height of his career, this fantastic captain, telling you that everything about him is a lie. What captures the character of the seventies more than that?

Runaways :: Runaways (1976)

Pigeonholed early on as a Monkees-style put on masterminded by Kim Fowley — and, let’s be the clear: to Fowley, that’s exactly what they were — the Runaways worked hard to shed that image throughout their career. It shouldn’t be surprising (although it may be sickening) that so much laugher and criticism met the five young women who formed this band (of which only Joan Jett is still a household name), but the garage/proto-punk/wicked single “Cherry Bomb” (wrapped into lead vocalist Cherie Currie’s name or not) managed to put paid to notions that the band was, as Fowley marketed them, jailbait on the run. Lita Ford’s guitar squalls on that single are intoxicating, but the real treat is the way she and Jett play off one another throughout, and the way bassist Jackie Fox and co-founding drummer Sandy West grunge up everything from the faux-beat of early Beatles (“You Drive Me Wild”) to the pop flirtations of the Velvet Underground (their cover of “Rock and Roll”). “American Nights” hints at the direction former bassist Mickie Steele would take with the Bangles and anticipates the work of the Go Gos, reimagines the Flaming Groovies, and how they do it all at the age of 16 (well, Ford was 17, but still). “Dead End Justice,” the curious closer, takes the swagger of David Johansen and the story-telling weirdness of the Volman/Kaylan lineup of the Mothers of Invention and inverts it. Presumably telling the story of how they became “runaways” in the first place, all it really serves to do is scream that these teenagers weren’t prepared to be boxed in. That explosion at the end, followed by the baroque piano that closes the album, is the sound of resistance.

Thin Lizzy :: Jailbreak (1976)

Bands like Bad Company and Thin Lizzy have suffered because of two myths. First, they are the boring templates upon which more complicated rock was built (false, because rock had already gone off the Houses of the Holy [1973] deep-end). Second, that they dumbed down rock for mass consumption. There’s a certain amount of truth to that — after all, Phil Lynott’s ode to working class boys (the ones who are “back in town”) has become the go-to masculinity jock-up for hockey games everywhere (proving that a black man can succeed in hockey) — but to keep it that simple requires us to ignore how important class identity is. Zeppelin was playing to romantic notions of mythologies and writing championed among the middle class; Deep Purple was playing to Ian Gillian’s own obtuse neuroses; Thin Lizzy had been around for the exact same amount of time, forging a union with Irish working class audiences and exploring that style of life in Dublin. That Jailbreak is their best album is tempered by the fact that it’s best known for it’s choruses (“Oh oh Romeo”; “Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak!”; “The boys are back in town”) despite the fact that Lynott’s lyrics in between provide excellent depictions of his environment. It’s not quite as overtly political as Springsteen, but you get the same issues — untethered, “Born in the USA” and “The Boys are Back in Town” get muddied. And, musically, while the net result might be shit like Nickleback, that’s Zep’s fault too, and we have to keep in mind context: wah pedaled solos, duel harmonic guitar leads, chunked up chords, and suddenly inchoate metal bands had a template to go with the attitude they were purloining from Plant and Gillian. Early Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are just Thin Lizzy sped up with some Alice Cooper attitude. Plus “Fight or Fall” anticipates Elvis Costello like nothing else I’ve heard. I had to pick at least one straight ahead no-arguments ROCK album, and this is it.

Dennis Wilson :: Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)

Growing increasingly disillusioned with the Mike Love Beach Boys oldies act, the once fun-loving Wilson brother recorded this introspective masterpiece — a feat which, given brother Brian’s overwhelming influence, is pretty fascinating. Pacific Ocean Blue might be the first reflexive rock album (maybe Lennon has him beat here), because Wilson basically fluked into the Beach Boys, dallied in the Manson family, and then spent the early seventies sad. Other artists have comeback albums or autumn albums after a life of making albums; Wilson released his debut album more than a decade after he had begun his career as a musician. The bulk of Pacific Ocean Blue was recorded in 1976, but parts as early as 1970, including the opening of “River,” which owes obvious debts to Brian’s failed work on SMiLE, as well as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Crafting gorgeous vocal harmonies over thick, reverbed blues rock, Wilson was able to tap into all sorts of depressions. “Friday Night” plays with the blues like there is no way to end the format. “Dreamer” juxatoposes thick reeds with wild horn fanfares. “Thoughts of You” sounds like Nilsson being tortured. “Pacific Ocean Blues” greets you with atmospheric steel guitar, deliberates on why the pacific ocean is blue (it’s because all the things that live there get killed by humans), and uses its vocal chorus to parody everything we love about the Beach Boys. Dennis doesn’t surf here anymore, is the point, and the final trio of songs — the agonizing “Farewell My Friend”; the navel-gazing mandolin-laced “Rainbows”; the closing “End of the Show,” which states “For everything you’ve ever dreamed of / It’s over” — knock that point home.

Sound :: Propaganda (rec. 1979; rel. 1999)

So, this is a little punk, yes, and the influence of Wire is hard to ignore, but given where the band would go, this sounds positively Springsteen. This album was never actually released; recorded at singer Adrian Borland’s parents’ house, the band was already in the studio recording 1980’s Jeopardy (Borland’s response to Unknown Pleasures) before this could be marketed. It was, however, compiled in 1999 (right before Borland’s death), and shows how a rock band could fall into the new wave nexus like anybody else. The riffs here are bright and thick, already sounding better than Wire’s 154 — had this been released, they would have come out at the same time — and the addition of Bi Marshal’s horns and clarinets on various tracks makes this especially interesting given the kinds of textures that were being drawn into more proper postpunk. You can here all the roots of Sonic Youth (especially on “Night vs Day”), but you can also hear the influence of Big Youth (“Physical World”), anticipations of the Replacements (“Statik” and “Words Fail Me”), and the shadow of the Detroit rock scene looming like a lighthouse. It’s a lovely (non-)record, easily ranking with the bext of late seventies rock, and one example of how classic sound went underground to build the indie rock of the eighties. Y’know, before they became new wave and all.

Mekons :: Fear and Whiskey (1985)

The Mekons are blessed, of course, and the way they shifted from their Gang of Four beginnings to whatever this blend of country, rock, drinking tunes, and duets for robots is should be legendary, because this shit is an opiate. Jonny Langford rips the band through all sorts of creation myths (it is hard to be human…again); it’s fitting, if this is indeed the place where alt-country was born, but the biggest thing about this album is just how it manages to be unremittingly poppy and experimental at the same time. If “Trouble Down South” isn’t the most haunting thing you’ve ever heard, I’m amazed, but what makes the Mekons great is their refusal to sound like anything, and the shift into “Hard to be Human” is just delicious, as is the decision to graft country aesthetics onto rock riffs to express socialist politics. “Darkness and Doubt” references “Bang a Gong” and John Wayne’s ascension while it purports to be a benefit concert for striking miners; “Psycho Cupid” is offered as part 2 of a “social surrealist soap opera”; “Country” fakes a Springsteen riff before opening up into a weird U2-type exploration of exiles at home; “Abernant 1984/85” sounds like a Allman Brothers/Pogues mash-up; the final two songs are the most obviously country, but the net result is the same: this album fucking rocks because it’s genius, a fucking Frankenstein of great politics, great music, and whiskey-soaked “renegade Marxist analysis.” If that’s not rock and roll, I dunno what is.