Like most of their counterparts, The Rolling Stones released their first album in a blur, taking whatever was in their live act and throwing it together in hustled recording sessions to get the thing out as quickly as possible. Although the album, released in 1964, relied heavily on covers and didn’t therefore show much in the way of songwriting from the group, it displayed that they could hone the raucous energy of their live shows, focus it, and create intense studio performances. More than anything though, England’s Newest Hit Makers showed that these five Brits could play music generally associated with black American artists with gusto, and even though they hadn’t yet learned to transcend the originals, they were immediately able to instill this borrowed material with their own distinctly dark charisma. Here is a song-by-song review. (Songs included are from the American version of the album, along with “Mona”, which was included on the UK version of the disc.)
13. “Now I’ve Got A Witness”- The cleverest thing about this instrumental is the title, which seems to answer a question asked by a song on the second half of the album. Otherwise, it’s the epitome of filler.
12. “Can I Get A Witness”- They didn’t seem as comfortable as Motown at this point as they would be later in their career. This one feels hemmed in by the studio setting.
11. “You Can Make It If You Try”- With a sauntering rhythm in place, this one still finds a way to build momentum. The falsetto backing vocals are a bit of a surprise that livens this one up a bit.
10. “Carol”- Charlie Watts tears into the rapid tempo of this Chuck Berry cover. It’s pretty much note for note with the original, and the ham-handed fade-out doesn’t win it any points. Still, the source material is pretty unassailable, so a reasonable facsimile of that will get you by every time.
9. “Little By Little”- An early credit for Nanker Phelge (the pseudonym used by the band when the whole group was considered to have contributed to the song,) this one also got an assist from Phil Spector. And, speaking of hit makers, Gene Pitney joins Ian Stewart on piano. It’s a bizarre offering, with lyrics veering from romantic paranoia to the narrator’s dead mother, but it shows the band’s idiosyncrasy well enough.
8. “Route 66”- The band’s choice to give this classic road anthem the rhythmic feel of a Berry number creates something weirdly akin to “I Saw Her Standing There.” Again, it’s a classic to begin with, which cuts both ways, because just as it would be hard to screw it up, it would be equally hard to put a definitive stamp on it.
7. “Honest I Do”-Showing they can slow down their blues to evocative effect, the Stones do a really nice job on this Jimmy Reed number. The slower tempo allows for us to more easily hear the interplay between Keith Richards and Brian Jones as well as the steady-as-it-goes bass work of Bill Wyman.
6. “Not Fade Away”- The same caveat about covering a classic exists, but the Stones deserve points for amping up the Bo Diddley beat and creating something slightly different. Good call by Mick Jagger as well to play it straight instead of hiccuping his way through a Buddy Holly impersonation.
5. “Mona (I Need You Baby)”- An early example of Richards’ using effects to create atmosphere that elevates a song into another realm. The shimmering reverb takes the pot holes out of the slowed-down Bo Diddley beat and turns the ride into a float downstream. Jagger responds with a lovely, lonely vocal that demonstrates the versatility he could always summon when needed.
4. “Tell Me”- Proof that they could not only write songs, but also adhere to a radio-friendly formula and not lose their identity. Jagger slips into pop-soul mode effortlessly and Richards not only contributes the lovely acoustic guitar intro but also some tender backing vocals. As tough as the image might have been (check out the unsmiling album cover), they always understood that the ballads would have to be a big part of the equation.
3. “I Just Want To Make Love To You”- Richards and Jones’ guitars are as much of the rhythm section as Wyman’s bass and Watts’ drums. It’s why the song seems to shake the air. It’s also interesting to listen to the album in sequence and hear how, after the poppier songs that start the album (“Not Fade Away” and “Route 66”), Jagger seems to truly come alive belting out this blues. Incendiary stuff.
2. “I’m A King Bee”- They walk a fine line here between winking innuendo and sinister intent, and it’s a line that they always straddled far better than anyone else. Jones’ slide part is the first time we hear one of his integral contributions on something other than a core rock instrument. The band would always “aw-shucks” their blues covers and point people to the originals, but there is no doubt that they could super-charge them without much strain, and this is a prime example.
1. “Walking The Dog”- You can look high and low through the 50-year catalog of the Stones and you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that’s so much fun. Jones acquits himself quite well on harmony vocals, Jagger sings with confidence way beyond his years, and the swagger that the rhythm section emanates is irresistible. The song is kind of an outlier, just shy of a novelty, but every moment of it is fantastic.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Preorder my new book, due in November, by using the link below.)
The media painted it as an artistic comeback for Bob Dylan from the poorly-received Self Portrait, but in fact 1970’s New Morning was formulated at roughly the same time (and released just four months after) its infamous predecessor. As a matter of fact, the album has its own quirks and peculiarities that make it a bit of an outlier in the Dylan catalog, albeit an enjoyable one. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “If Dogs Run Free”- Lounge-act kitsch also attracted The Beatles around this time (their goofy novelty song “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” is evidence of this), so maybe Dylan can be forgiven. While there’s no doubt he was in on the joke, it doesn’t mean that the joke was all that funny. This one would have been better suited to the erratic weirdness of Self Portrait.
11. “Father Of Night”- The lyrics have some interesting things to suggest about a God who births both the good and the bad, but they are ultimately let down by the song’s repetitive melody and brevity. Dylan usually is right on with his choices for album-closing songs, but this one sends New Morning off in forgettable fashion.
10. “One More Weekend”- A bit of the old rasp in the voice helps authenticate this bluesy, randy ode to getting away from it all, if only for a couple of days. It’s a bit of a throwaway, but a fun one nonetheless.
9. “Time Passes Slowly”- Slowing down the pace of life is something that clearly appealed to Dylan around this time. This song is a sweet little ode to that kind of lovely lethargy. The piano is somewhere between gospel and jazz, while the urgency in Bob’s vocal suggests that the quiet life isn’t easily obtained or sustained.
8. “New Morning”- The preponderance of downright happy songs are what makes New Morning such a refreshing listen. There’s nothing fancy going on with the title track, but that’s only right since the simple pleasures are what Dylan is espousing here.
7. “Three Angels”- Dylan ingeniously contrasts the bustlings of city life with a trio of heavenly statues watching them all. Bob speak-sings the lyrics while the mournful music swirls around him. The message about man’s obliviousness to spirituality might be overdone a tad, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it in the end.
6. “Went To See The Gypsy”- The common critical consensus used to be that this song was inspired by a visit to Elvis Presley (the line “He did it in Vegas and he can do it here” is supposedly the giveaway), but Dylan has since denied meeting him. Whatever the case, the song works as a meditation on the chasm between living life in public and staying out of the limelight. Considering the emptiness of the narrator’s visit to the gypsy and his final transportation back to a small Minnesota town, it seems that Bob was contemplating the proper road to take.
5. “Winterlude”- It’s one of the most charming songs in the Dylan canon, all coy come-ons and sweet nothings that amount to a romantic proposal that’s impossible to resist. The niftiness of the wordplay is impressive, the warmth of the music is enchanting, and, as cheeky one-liners from Bob go, “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine” ranks right up there.
4. “If Not For You”- I think that this song would have prospered even more if a middle ground could have been reached between the muddled arrangement that Dylan chose and the overly lush take that producer Phil Spector created for George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. None of that can mask the fact that this is one of Dylan’s sweetest and most direct love songs, making it an excellent tone-setter for an album full of gentle reflections on love, life, and happiness.
3. “The Man In Me”- Maybe the Coen did us all a favor by making this The Dude’s unofficial theme song in The Big Lebowski, because they captured its essence in the process. It is indeed the perfect embodiment of amiable aimlessness, echoed by Al Kooper’s wandering organ. Dylan’s “la-la” refrains reveal in their own special way more about the inner workings of the narrator than any verbose verses ever could.
2. “Day Of The Locusts”- Dylan’s freaked-out experience during his reception of an honorary degree at Princeton University inspired this fascinating track, one of the few in Bob’s career which can be considered nakedly autobiographical. The skepticism of higher education is a recurring theme in Dylan’s career from “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Foot Of Pride,” and it manifests itself here in darkly comic fashion. This is one of the most vibrant musical tracks on the album as well, gathering momentum throughout and featuring a memorable chorus that Dylan cathartically belts.
1. “Sign On The Window”- The album’s standout is marked by some lovely interplay between Dylan’s forceful piano playing and Al Kooper’s wistful keyboards. The female backing vocals are well-utilized as well and it’s a nifty little gospel-tinged melody with melancholic undertones. Dylan’s lyrics, perhaps his best set since John Wesley Harding, and his emotional performance are truly what make this one so special. The narrator’s yearning for an unassuming homestead and a large brood in the last verse is made even more touching by the contrast of his struggles to get there in the first few verses and the bridge. “That must be what it’s all about,” is what he concludes about his dream life, but it doesn’t mean it will be an easily achieved dream.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
If you’re a pop music fan of any kind, I highly suggest you check out Grace Of My Heart, the 1996 movie that prominently features “God Give Me Strength,” the collaboration between Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach that led to Painted From Memory. It’s fun to watch the film and spot who the different fictional characters are supposed to represent. It would take only casual knowledge of that era in music to recognize stand-ins for Carole King, Lesley Gore, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. I don’t know if the 60’s were really like that, with every major musical personality haphazardly interacting with each other, but it’s a fun fantasy to indulge.
In the film, the main character, a King stand-in played by Illeana Douglas, gets up the courage to perform a composition she wants to record herself in front of the Wilson stand-in, played by, I kid you not, Matt Dillon. Eventually, she does record it, with the help of the Spectorian producer, but it turns into a “River Deep-Mountain High”-like flop because it’s just too personal for mass consumption.
Listening to the song in the Costello-Bacharach version, you can sort of hear it in that context, as this massive account of a break-up that may cut a little too close to the bone for everyone in the audience. The verses are an eloquent evocation of sorrow, as would be expected from a songwriter like Elvis and a tune-spinner like Bacharach. In the bridge, however, things are amped up to a harrowing level, as the emotions turn to the darker side: “See, I’m only human/I want him to hurt,” sings Costello, and his barely-controlled voice bellow betray the wounds accrued from this experience that no span of time could ever hope to heal.
In the first two refrains, Costello uses a soft falsetto to sing the title phrase. In the last one, he uncorks another powerful howl, one you might call cathartic if you actually believed it would lessen the narrator’s pain in any way. “God Give Me Strength” manages to transcend the specificity of its Hollywood origins, even as it hangs onto its stature as a work of unbearably painful honesty.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
(E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)