Odds & Ends: The 1970s
A - N

The B-52s -- The Damned -- Devo -- The Dictators -- The Gang of Four -- Generation X -- The Germs -- Grin -- V/A: The Harder They Come -- The Faces -- Joe Jackson -- Nils Lofgren -- Nick Lowe -- Bob Marley & the Wailers -- Motorhead -- Nazareth -- Willie Nelson

Quentin Tarintino and all these aging boomers running amok are all morons, there's precious little worth saving from the tackiest decade of the century. Bellbottoms? Pretending to talk to truckers on CBs? Billy Carter crushing beer cans against his head? Pet rocks? Mood rings? ABBA? Kiss? The Carpenters, Cassidys, Osmonds, and Partridges (I can't tell the difference half the time)? Shag carpeting? Fuschia? Don't get me started on how ugly the fashions were....

Truth be told, though, there were a lot of great records released in the '70s - perhaps more than in any other decade, since it wasn't until the latter half of the '60s that people figured out how to make consistent albums and not singles + filler. The music scene was a lot more wildly eclectic than in the hippies-with-fuzzy-guitars '60s, too, which means that this page (and the upcoming '80s and '90s pages) really will cover quite a lot of diverse ground. The small list below is only the beginning....

The B-52s: The B-52s (1979) ***1/2

The world needs a band like the B-52s; but like a mule hybrid that can't breed, the last thing the world needs is any other band that sounds like the B-52s (sorry, Bis and Shonen Knife). This is definitely one weird record, one that might as well have landed off Saturn when released in the late '70s - heck, it sounds Martian today! The B-52s were yet another group of slacker college-dropout art students who formed a band as an artistic experiment, and one can tell, but that doesn't get in the way of them having a good time. These party animals meld retro-'60s surf and spy-guitar sounds with a jittery new-wave sci-fi outlook. Their riffs, beats, and production are as junky and thrift-store as their outrageous fashion sense, and none of them aside from guitarist Ricky Wilson (who later died of AIDS) are more than amateurish musicians, yet they make such goofy fooling around work - a feat a lot of other bands have since fallen flat on their faces with. This isn't a terribly consistent album, though, and I have a limited tolerance for such grating silliness (as do most normal folks, like you probably). However, when I'm in the mood small doses of this platter quite shag my rug - I can even put up with Fred Schnieder's extremely gay vocal antics (I mean, find me a more stereotypical gay man - besides Liberace. And Elton John), and the girls sound like they OD'd on Yoko Ono imitations. "Rock Lobster," is justifiably considered their signature song, with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson imitating the sound of such fictional creatures as the bikini whale. It's seconded by the quite danceable "Dance This Mess Around," and thirded by "6060-842" a telephone song that really rocks (whoa! Did I use the word "rocks" to describe a B-52s song? Well, yes - it's probably the most guitar-friendly number they've ever put to plastic). The cover of "Downtown," was a bad idea, but it fits in with their early '60s junk-rock roots. Like I said (and you probably know already from exposure to this band) catchily biting as swamp mosquitoes, but also as annoying. And if nothing else on this album is as danceable as the three songs I just mentioned (the opener "Planet Claire" is a spacey, almost-ominous drag) it's so unlike anything else that had existed before that I'm glad it exists.

Reader Comments

Rich Bunnell, cbunnell@ix.netcom.com

I'd give the first B-52's album four stars for sheer weirdness and the fact that I just love a lot of the songs. "Planet Claire" a drag?!? That's one of the best opening tunes of the modern music age! I just love that well-done spy riff and the way that Kate Pierson's vocals match up perfectly to the spacey synthesizers. "Dance This Mess Around" is very, very annoying however -- I can't see how it's a highlight to you and every other human being, but "52 Girls," "Rock Lobster," "There's A Moon In The Sky," and "Lava" are all excellent songs. Get their second album "Wild Planet" though, critics called it a step down but it's a much better album, easily a 4.5 or a 5. Don't go any further than that though because their third album "Whammy!" is a pile of generic synth sludge with maybe one redeeming track on it, and that's when you take the good individual pieces of various songs to make the equal of one song.

The Damned: Damned Damned Damned (1977) ***1/2

As every scholar of punk knows, the Damned were notable mainly for their firsts: they released the first UK punk album (this one), had the first punk record to make the UK Top 40 (the blistering classic "New Rose"), were the first UK punk band to tour America, the first to break up (in 1978) and the first to reform (in 1979). What this album demonstrates at this date, however, is how closely the original UK punks resembled good ol'fashioned stripped down classic rockers - after playing this back to back with the Faces, I'm hard pressed to see the difference. The Damned were basically a crew of drunken louts who bashed out short songs about girls and the mindless anger and boredom one feels as a youth - in short, they can't help but be pretty good with all those classic elements going for them. There's not another three-chord classic as great as "New Rose," here, but the followup, "Neat Neat Neat," comes close, and "Fan Club," even displays a rudimentary grasp of musicality beyond their hit-and-run approach. Guitarist Brian James writes all of the songs, except for drummer Rat Scabies' thrillingly primal blast, "Stab Your Back," and an appropriately sloppy cover of the Stooges' "1970" (titled as "I Feel Alright" here). Yeah, the ballad (!) "Feel the Pain," drags, and Nick Lowe's production is way too thin, barely hinting at the band's power (probably due to the fact that this was all pretty much recorded live, too, without any overdubs), and the songwriting is nothing to give Jagger/Richards any reason to worry, and the band can't play very well (they're punks, after all) except for Scabies, one of the greatest punk drummers of all time. The Damned sound like they must have been on speed during the entire time of the recording (and actually were, as I hear it), which enables this album to break the velocity record already broken the year before by the Ramones. Like the Faces before them, this basically amounts to good sloppy, drunken fun and not much more.

The Damned: Music For Pleasure (1977) **1/2

Not. Misproduced by punk-clueless Nick Mason of Pink Floyd (!), the real problem lies with the band's lackluster performance and lack of memorable songwriting. Slowing the pace down a few steps to a reasonable punk mid-tempo and playing tighter (but missing the crazy drunken looseness that made the first LP so exciting), the Damned lie naked as the limited, technically incompetent sub-metal pounders they are. Song after song grabs one semi-memorable James after the other and latches it onto a gratingly tuneless shouted pub-chorus, with practically no stylistic variety - it grows incredibly tedious and monotonous quickly. Problem children who don't cry wolf, the Damned (expanded to a quintet with new guitarist Lu, not that it makes one whit of difference in their basic sound) mostly whine about parents and girls, strike stale and supremely silly poses, and protest against political punks because they could never pay attention in school and just wanna run around. Some of the tracks like "Stretcher Case" and the single "Sick of Being Sick" hold up just fine, but mostly this amounts to a poorly-played, run-of-the-mill '70s hard rock album. One of the most mistitled albums in history.

The Damned: Machine Gun Etiquette (1979) ****1/2

Wow - you'd figure that after breaking up, hobbled by the loss of their chief songwriter, Brian James, the Damned wouldn't have much to offer from their reunion record. Think again - the Damned reemerge as a vastly improved band, leaning less towards simplistic bashers and bringing in strong psychedelic goth and pop elements. Not only has the band's playing improved to the level of basic competence (though there's still plenty of good sloppy fun, thankfully) along with Dave Vanian's crooning - that's to be expected - but without James, the rest of the members show themselves as surprisingly good songwriters. It leads off with their UK Top 40 smash, Rat Scabies' "Love Song," a typical Damned basher but with a really good pop melody and killer bass hook (courtesty new member Algy Ward, ex-Saints) - great! "I Just Can't Be Happy Today," relies much more on keyboards than guitars, as the band tries hard to stretch their musical boundaries beyond punk. Surprisingly, it works, and old Damned fans won't be disappointed as about half of this album consists of the bands' familiar three-chord hard rock. Only a sloppy cover of the MC5's "Looking At You," and Vanian's silly goth ballad "These Hands," can be truly said to be weak points, and those are more than made up for by the album's best cut, Vanian's stunning goth masterpiece, "Plan 9 Channel 7". The bonus tracks on the reissue are well worth getting to know, too, except for two more poorly performed covers, "Ballroom Blitz," and "White Rabbit," but among the bonuses is the B-side, "Rabid (Over You)" which is one of the band's best-ever songs - how did a song this good and pop-catchy wind up thrown away on a B-side?! An important transitional album between post-punk and punk rock proper, and good rock'n'roll for fans of any genre.

Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) **1/2

The album that could have been, but wasn't, from a band that looked cool and were geniuses at packaging and image but left quite a bit to be desired in the musical department. Inspired equally by the cold robot-synth pop of Kraftwerk and the smirking, smarmy "social commentary" of Frank Zappa, Devo peddled their snake oil "philosophy" of de-evolution to the masses who didn't care 'cause they were too busy boogieing to that great disco tune, "Whip It." In essence, de-evolution means that mankind are devolving and growing stupider due to the dumbing-down influence of advertising, television, and other forms of simple-minded mass media. Hardly a novel idea, I should point out, but Devo do get credit for compiling a complete multi-media package that remains superficially smart and compelling. The music is unique, consisting of all herky-jerky rhythms, silly cheesy synths, and nerdily declaimed vocals. Perhaps the best example of Devo's musical approach can be found on their deconstruction of "Satisfaction," - yes, the Stones'. Devo are creative enough to reassemble the song without its main guitar riff, relying mainly on some warped version of the backbeat to carry the song, and taking all the sex out of a song that was originally about nothing but sex -- in other words, a genuinely interesting novelty number and twist on a classic. Devo try an interesting, novel approach on every other number here (all the rest originals), with no track sounding the same, but "interesting" and "novel" are not synonyms for "good". By my reckoning there are about four solid originals here. "Uncontrollable Urge," (about the sex drive) and "Gut Feeling," (again demonstrating disgust with the sex drive - see, these guys in Devo genuinely feel they would be happier as efficient robots) are cut from the same cloth, psuedo attempts at guitar rock, but catchy. "Space Junk," has a neat guitar line and a nifty stuttering bridge, but the only true knockout is the slightly sinister "Mongoloid" about a mutant who's evolved differently from the race and must hide this fact. The rest of the album, unfortunately, is pretty putrid. "Come Back Jonee," is an abysmal slice of Chuck Berry nostalgia (musically speaking, that is, not lyric-wise). "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')" is a profoundly unappealing slice of unintentional (?) misogyny - the singer is disgusted by his baby's menstrual cycle, apparently, and it ends with the charming, "I think I missed the hole." Yuck! "Praying Hands," sounds like a parody of bad Bowie. "Shrivel Up," is as awful as a song with that title can sound. "Too Much Paranoias," while not as offensive as the rest, doesn't work either. And "Jocko Homo," has to count as one of the most annoying songs ever, as the band simply chants the question, "Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!" over and over and over and over.... Gag me with radiation, dude. I've got their greatest hits and another album of theirs, and neither are any better; in sum, this band seems to have been much stronger on image than actual music.

The Dictators: Go Girl Crazy! (1975) ****

Formed by sometimes rock critic Andy Shernoff and produced by Blue Oyster Cult engineer Sandy Pearlman, the Dictators were a loud belch in the face of flabby mid-'70s post-hippie rock dulldrums. As the product of a gang of megafans ready with a theoretical idea about what roots '70s rock ought to return to, the Dictators draw from all corners of rock's trashier territories - though they're not the most professional of musicians, that doesn't stop them from tackling Beach Boys harmonies, Ronettes drum struts, and heavy metal guitar excess, all wrapped up with genuine Bronx cheer panache. The Dictators are the missing link between the good time back-to-basics rock'n'roll of the MC5, Flamin' Groovies, and New York Dolls, and the trash-aesthetic roar of the Ramones, Angry Samoans, and Beastie Boys, all of whom owe a sizable debt to the Dictators' breed of burping slob-rock. The Dictators are All-American boys who stink and sweat, subsist on a diet of burgers, are addicted to bad TV (even - no, especially - wrestling), and can't get through each three to four minute tune without cracking at least a half dozen smarmy jokes. Armed with a stack of ripped-off Blue Oyster Cult riffs which they hot-dog with amateurish gusto, the Dictators update pre-Beatles '60s rock for the self-conscious '70s, covering not only "California Sun," (great!) but also "I Got You Babe," (which I've never been able to enjoy, but that's just me). Just to prove they're punks (which they aren't), the Dictators follow the unsubtle, I-dare-you-to-call-this-racist (which it isn't) "Back To Africa" with a powerful, amusing anthem called "Master Race Rock" -- which is a funny title for them, considering that the Dictators are Jewish. Neither song are nearly as offensive as the titles suggest - heck, they're not offensive at all except for the titles; the Dictators are just cracking a few jokes, and luckily the music is strong enough (and actually rocks, an almost unheard of rarity among joke-rock bands) to support the fun and games. The masterpiece of their "Teengenerate," rock'n'roll comes at the very end: a genuine surf-rock/hard-rock classic, "(I Live For) Cars and Girls," - "The fastest car and a movie star/Are my only goals in life/It's the hippest scene/It's the American Dream/And for that I'll always fight!" For '70s slackers, a motto to live by.

The Dictators: Bloodbrothers (1978) ***

The opener, "Faster & Louder," points the way towards hardcore (or at least the Angry Samoans) and the musical direction the Dictators have taken since their debut (this little movement called punk happened between those years). And harder and heavier = better, right? Well, in this case, no; gone are the girl-group and surf elements of the early Dictators, replaced by a mainstream metal sound - such a shift makes the Dictators considerably less distinctive (there were a thousand bands touring America at the time who sounded a lot like this) and the fun quotient's not as high, either. The mono-dimensional harmonies and guitar roar force the songs into a same-sounding mold, with the same approach on nearly every track (contrasted with the debut, in which every song was a distinctly different gem). The fact that lead guitar slinger Ross "The Boss" Funichello employs practically the same sub-Blue Oyster Cult chord progression as a hook in nearly every song walls off the Dictators from heavy metal glory by virtue of their limited musical capabilities, and Handsome Dick Manitoba's (now relegated to lead vocals, replacing Andy Shernoff, now relegated to bass playing) borscht belt schitck voice I personally don't find very appealing. But all is not lost -- the album works for the most part as good headbanging, if nothing else. The Dictators gently put down trendy bohemian alienation ("I'm so strange"), travel to the Twin Cities where little girls sell themselves for ten dollars, pen an ode to a professional wrestler (so what else is new), and sing "Stay With Me," without a trace of irony (Manitoba gets drunk and acts like a fool 'cause "I'm only half the man I used to be since you left me"). The unironic arena-rock anthem, "I Stand Tall," is their nadir, but they do have the good taste to end the album with a cover of the Flamin' Groovies classic "Slow Death." After this, their third album, flopped commercially like the previous two, the Dictators called it a day.

The Faces: A Nod Is As Good As A Wink (1971) ***

After losing singer Steve Marriott to Humble Pie, the three remaining members of the Small Faces recruited Jeff Beck Band alumni Rod Stewart and Ron Wood to join them in making their way as the second-best white blooze band of the early '70s. As a second-rate Stones, these guys are pretty fun, and they've got their own playful, lighthearted identity that places their music in a different category than the sinister, druggy Stones. It seems that Paul Westerberg of the Replacements spent his youth playing nothing but Faces records, only the 'Mats turned out much better than the lads they were aping, since the Replacements had something the Faces didn't: solid songwriting talent. Or maybe the Faces did have a couple of good songwriters in the band, except that Wood and Stewart saved their best material (and performances) for Stewart's concurrent solo albums. Ronnie Lane was a decent songwriter but a shaky singer, and unfortunately Lane sings on half of these tracks. He's moderately amusing in small doses, but you can't help thinking how improved a nice ballad like "Debris," would sound with a real singer - like Stewart. "You're So Rude," and "Last Orders Please," are just dumb jokes - humor is pretty overrated in music, methinks; I mean, you can only hear a joke so many times, and 98% of musicians aren't good comedians (at least not intentionally) - Lane is no exception. Geez, "You're So Rude," verges on being pretty mean-spirited - as is, it's just mindlessly sexist. But it's not the dumbest song on here - that would be "Miss Judy's Farm," which like the Stones' "Brown Sugar," is a song about having sex with a slave. Only in "Miss Judy's Farm," Stewart plays the role of the field slave beckoned in to give the massa's mistress some sugar. You are such a stud, Rod. Thankfully there's a terrific raver that delights in bashing a groupie (but Stewart still has sex with her - what a gent), "Stay With Me," the Faces' only American hit. "Too Bad," is almost as exciting, with great Wood slide guitar work -- it makes up for the flat Chuck Berry cover, "Memphis," (which is actually a good song, but you wouldn't know it from this version). Despite all my reservations - like for instance that half of these songs aren't very good - I have to give this record a decent grade because it's loud, raucous, and fun. You can tell by listening to this that there's not an instance of tape here catching any of the Faces sober. Maybe that explains why they couldn't write more songs that don't sound like they were written off the cuff five minutes before they entered the studio. You see, the fun quotient would've been raised considerably if they had some solid songs to bash out.

The Faces: Snakes and Ladders: The Best of the Faces (1976) ****

As I pointed out in the review above, the Faces never played sober, and that's what's great about them. That means that even on a best-of, they're too drunk to come up with a consistent album, but what the heck, these guys are more fun than a Saturday night barfight. Not that I'd ever gotten into a barfight, mind, or particularly like bars very much, but this is great party music. Play it loud when you've got a six-pack in you or would like to feel like you've got a six-pack in you but don't want to bother with the downsides of drinking (hangovers, impotence, liver damage, all that crap). "Pool Hall Richard," is the rockingest song about pool halls that I've ever heard, and how come there aren't more rock songs about pool halls? And I don't even play pool! "Ooh La La," is another great Lane song that practically defines the term "misogynistic," - I know, that term is way overused by feminists every time some male says anything negative about any woman, but trust me, "Ooh La La," really is a virulently anti-woman song. I think it's a laugh, myself, 'cause I can't take it the least bit seriously, it's so stupid -- makes me wonder just what some bitch did to wound poor Lane's heart as a lad that turned him so sour against the female race for the rest of his life. "You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, or Anything," is classic Stewart pop and should've been a hit single, but I don't guess it was - though when you hear it, you'll vaguely remember hearing it somewhere before. Given the evidence, I probably wouldn't bother with these boozehounds' original albums, and just keep blasting out these sloppy excerpts instead.

The Gang of Four: Entertainment! (1979) *****

Political protest has always had its place in rock music; unfortunately, 95% of the time political analysis doesn't go any deeper than Rage Against the Machine's rally cry, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me to!" or the MC5's slogan "Dope, rock'n'roll, and fucking in the streets." The Gang of Four, however, were intently serious in their attempt to dissect the hegemony of capitalism and "common sense" - certainly too serious; you'll never here these stone-faced Marxist university students crack a joke beyond their flip choice of a name (an homage to a group of Maoist revolutionaries). Too deeply enamored of political theory for their own good, the Gang of Four were hypocritical PC prigs before PC dominated the university systems; like too many revolutionaries, they champion the common man in theory but have contempt for him on the individual level - like the leaders of men, they see men as pawns on a chessboard, mechanical animals who blindly respond to stimuli in predictable patterns. Which is to say that the Gang of Four have no dose of humanity in their coldly calculating view of the human race and its foibles, but such a mechanistic coldness is what makes their outlook so compelling to listen to, if only for the reason that one never hears such frank puritanism in the non-PC, hedonistic realm of rock. I could spend another paragraph describing the theories of Foucalt, Derrida, Adorno, and Marx, and how the Gang of Four apply such received insight to their lyrical content, but I'll try and give my best shot at condensing such complexities: Power rules the world, and dynamics of power undergird every facet of human relationships. The various media, corporations, and state collude to brainwash the populace with "common sense" ideas about sexuality, a woman's place, shopping, heroism, and almost everything else - ideas that are so much more powerful because they are "common sense" and therefore are in the realm of the non-political and beyond debate (even though these ideas are certainly very political).

The Gang of Four's strategem is to disorient the listener and recontextualize "common sense" notions so as to provoke him or her into realizing what a facade they've bought into. The means of doing so includes not only the harsh, programmatic lyrics declaimed by John King, but by an unsettling, abrasive mixture of punk and funk that turned out to be much more revolutionary than any of the Go4's slogans. Go4 apply a fragmented, somewhat Beefheart-ish approach to music-making that one never knows where the music will turn; they purposely never lock into a groove static enough for conventional dancing, but their uptight boogie can be as irresistibly funky in its own way as their idols, P-Funk. Guitarist Andy Gill shoots out angry splinters of guitar shards, never soloing but concentrating on very choppy, unpredictably ugly riffage that make him a genuinely interesting guitar anti-hero. The rhythm section of drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen more than keep with Gill's guitar driving the rhythm, making for one of the most novel power-trio arrangements this side of the concurrent Police. The Minutemen (who often sound like a Go4 tribute band), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fugazi, and Steve Albini's Big Black were all bands that offered a considerably inferior take on the Go4's method, and it's hard to imagine the harsh, programmaticly PC riot-grrl bands without the Go4 as a touchstone. Whether you like this album or not - and it can be difficult for your average pop listener to take - it undisputedly stands as one of the most influential debuts in rock. The Go4 bemoan that natural's not in what most people feel is "human nature", that the heroes built up by history are "Not Great Men". Most of all, though, the Go4 despise "romance" as an ideological tool of the powers that be; it's not love, it's a "Contract" in the bedroom, and baby I'm going to throw you away like the other "Damaged Goods" I buy at the supermarket; "love will get you like a dose of anthrax/And that's something I don't want to catch." The brainwashed everyman turns on the television at "5.45" to calmly witness another atrocity on the nightly news, where "At Home He's A Tourist" who buys a cat because his life seems somehow empty - perhaps if he "Found That Essence Rare" and bought it at the mall, his life would improve as they say in the advertisements?

The reissue appends the four-song "Gang of Four" EP that contains such typical examples of dialectic as "Outside the Trains Don't Run On Time," and "It's Her Factory," (the housewife's home). I don't always find this pleasurable listening, because the Go4 are suspect of human pleasure, but it's compelling, and quite unlike anything that came before it. Unfortunately, the band was never as interesting as they were on the debut, and swiftly began to slide, in large part due to their downplaying of Gill's guitar.

Reader Comments

Samuel Day Fassbinder, bk170@lafn.org

Sandwiched in between ENTERTAINMENT! and SONGS OF THE FREE was an album called SOLID GOLD, which has some great lyrics -- check out "Why Theory" and "Cheeseburger" -- it has the musical qualities of SONGS OF THE FREE but is one of Gang of Four's most direct lyrical statements. I'd give it four stars and recommend its purchase.

The Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (1982) ***1/2

Originally I planned on giving this album a lower grade, but it has grown on me over time. With bassist Hugo Burnham replaced by Sara Lee, the Gang of Four's rhythmic attack has softened to their detriment; also, the Go4 have adopted a much more commercialized and accessible sound. Gill's guitar is no longer front and center, but the drums are, making it more conventionally danceable than previous Go4 efforts -- in fact, the sarcastic "I Love a Man in Uniform" became a dancefloor smash in the U.K. (and considering political events in 1982, a quite timely release, eh?). This polished album finds the Go4 in the territory of gloomy Eurodisco for the most part, with the dark atmosphere overshadowing the songs to an extent and some real melodies for a change, but the hectoring political rectoric and King's wounded wail make this unmistakably the Go4. The band sounds even more pessimistic and defeated by social realities than previously (not that they weren't bitter and defeatist in the first place). The defining concept of this album is alienation; as perhaps their most haunting song puts it, "We Live As We Dream, Alone." Having struggled through the propaganda of capitalist society, the Go4 find themselves on the other side of the common humanity - a very lonely place. The first three songs are easily the strongest songs, and the remainder don't quite reach the quality established earlier by "Call Me Up" (dating as an escape from the horror of being by one's self alone), "I Love a Man in Uniform," (military service as an escape from the horror of not having a purpose in life), "We Live As We Dream, Alone," (there is no escape).

Generation X: Generation X (1978) *** [UK version]; ***1/2 [US version]

Billy Idol made his fortune by cynically repackaging punk attitude in the guise of empty '80s video-drome arena rock, but his original band's debut LP is a credible first-generation Britpunk document, a slightly uneven collection of driving hard glam-rock pumped up with a '77-punk forcebeat and tightly crunching guitar sound. Though somewhat more polished and commercially poised than their more violently anarchic contemporaries, Gen X's sound is tought, tight, fiercely hooky, melodically more than adequate, rather formulaic -- like a biting into a box of hard candy. While little here can truly be called classic, it's all mostly entertaining and reasonably memorable -- britely dyed-blonde Gen X were obvious phonies from the get-go, but when is that such a problem with glam-punk? The improved US version deletes two of the weakest tracks (neither "Too Personal" nor "Invisible Man", while decent filler, are particularly necessary) and replaces them with two excellent singles, "Your Generation" (their snotty answer to the Who) & "Wild Youth" (silly & dumb but irresistable -- this is Billy Idol, c'mon), plus a definitive punk rip through John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth". Seeing as how those 3 songs are the album's highlights, the UK version makes for only mild historical/collector interest. The rest is pretty good, too; if Idol's lyrical posturing seems clumsy and naive on anthems like "One Hundred Punks", "Youth Youth Youth" (the nadir of the LP, and the one track that actively annoys me with Idol's hoarse, tuneless chant), and the ode to '60s rock'n'roll TV "Ready Steady Go" ("I was in love with the Beatles / A-whooh! / I wish in love with the Stones / And no satisfaction! / I was in love with Bobby Dylan / Cause I'm in love with rock and ro-ro-ro-roll"), well, he's Billy Idol, after all -- not too ight-bray, what do you expect? In sum, a lot of good, lightweight neo-punk fun, and after two more lackluster Generation X followup albums and Idol's mostly obnoxious solo career, not to mention bassist Tony James' embarrassing opportunistic Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the unquestionable career highlight of all involved.

The Germs: M.I.A.: The Complete Anthology (1993) **1/2

One of the most horrendously overrated of American hardcore bands (and that's saying something), the Germs had one thing going for them -- Pat Smear's careening, untrained guitar shooting off wild sparks of uncontained energy -- and a lot of serious flaws, the chief one being lead singer Darby Crash. Crash epitomizes the term "spoiled brat", a whiny little Hollywood rich kid for whom punk meant an excuse to act like a drunk asshole and crash Daddy's Ferrari. This collection contains the Germs' Joan Jett produced album, G.I., in addition to a handful of early singles and later attempts at a soundtrack to William Friedkin's abysmal Cruising. No one denies that the Germs were completely musically incompetent - they even wound up being the worst band to show up for Cheech and Chong's auditions for Up In Smoke, a showcase designed to pick the worst bands in L.A. so none of them would sound better than Cheech and Chong's band! The problem is that some folks call incompetence "amateurism" and pretend that all one has to do is strike a rebellious pose and spew out unstructured white noise for great rock'n'roll. That lie doesn't work with the majority of this refuse, some of which verges on the genuinely unlistenable, particularly the Radio Shack tape-recorded "productions" of their early singles. Smear is the only member of the band who can play his instrument at all, and he can't carry the music all by his lonesome, especially when he's vying with Crash's gurgling "singing" (Crash sounds like he's an especially unmusical Mongolian warrior drunk on sake - not a pleasing voice). Sure, some of the lyrics are kind of intelligent (actually, the correct term is incoherently pretentious), but how are you supposed to tell when you have to read the lyric sheet to understand a syllable? The mike, Darby, the mike! There are a handful of good "tunes", thankfully, and at least one great one - "Lexicon Devil," in which Crash reveals his philosophy of life: "Gimme gimme this, gimme gimme that!" That line sums up Crash's futile toddler "rebelliousness" -- does this brat ever need potty training. "Richie Dagger's Crime," actually verges on being musical, and few punk songs capture frustrated desperation as well as "Not All Right." Despite all the nasty things I said above, there are enough moments like the ones I mentioned above to make this less than a complete waste of time, but not enough to explain the Germs' posthumous reputation as demigods of L.A. punk. Unsurprisingly, Crash died of a heroin overdose in 1980 (the day after John Lennon's death, in fact). Smear spent years in obscurity before joining the Foo Fighters. Another early member, Belinda Carlisle, found success in a much different band, the Go Go's.

Grin: 1+1 (1972) ****

Though it lacks the crisp, easy professionalism of his later solo work, this may very well be the apex of Nils Lofgren's career. Fronting a raggedly right power trio, Lofgren is at his peak the with fiery, clever and deceptively facile guitar work and charmingly bantamweight pop-rock songwriting he precociously made a career of (he was barely 21 at the time of this release, the band's second album). Commercial failure remains a mystery, as this platter of hyper Stonesy rockers (entitled "Rockin' Side") and the flip "Dreamy Side" of Rundgren-ish/McCartney-esque soft ballads sounds consistently invigorating and enjoyable. Lofgren hands over a few too many lead vocals to his less-talented bandmates, which makes me wince on the greasy redneck sleaze of "Slippery Fingers" (there is nothing sexy about a horny redneck), but guest Graham Nash's backup vocals fly "Hi, Hello Home" to heaven. The final two ballads slip into sappiness, but other than those and "Slippery Fingers," each song stands up as an excellent, well-crafted and catchy example of pop-rockcraft. When I first popped this CD in and heard the opener, "White Lies," I immediately had to push repeat after it finished; it's the most immediately catchy number, if maybe not the best - I haven't made up my mind yet. The storyline of "Lost a Number" (which most clearly displays the Rundgren influence) might not make very good logical sense, and "Moon Tears" isn't a very good metaphor, but most of the time the lyrics are adequate for the task at hand, and Lofgren's guitar makes up for it (coming from the Keith Richards rhythm school, but with the added ability to solo when he has too - never too long and always tastily exciting). Probably a bit too lightweight to be called a lost classic, but more consistent song-for-song than anything Neil Young & Crazy Horse ever released (for whom Lofgren was also briefly a member).

Various Artists: The Harder They Come (1972) *****

I'm not a particularly big fan of the genre, but given my limited knowledge I'd probably call this the best reggae album I've ever heard, and a deserved classic. Reggae's fatal flaw as a musical genre is that the lazy chocka-chocka rhythms and ganja-damaged spacey melodies often make individual tracks indistinguishable from the other -- i.e., it all sounds the same. You could say the same about much blues and thrash metal and hardcore punk and electronica, and you'd have a point, but for some reason reggae seems particularly susceptible to sliding into the ears as all just one long sticky drone. Hence, the best way to hear reggae is on multi-artist compilations -- there are just enough differences betweeen songs to make them individually distinguishable, yet the inherent sameness keeps the momentum flowing like a highly developed concept album. This soundtrack to the cult classic of the same title (pretty groovy flick; I found it amusing that they had to use so many subtitles since the Jamaican patois is as intelligible to other English speakers as Chaucer) provides a solid overview of the nascent musical style. Jimmy Cliff, who played the role of the film's anti-hero (an aspiring musician who turns to crime after getting double-crossed by an industry bigwhig), provides four of the album's highlights, which are more slickly produced and poppily brighter than the surrounding tracks, but nevermatter -- they're all keen. "You Can Get It If You Really Want," is such a sunnily uplifting little number with infectiously positive, simple lyricism that it'd make a dandy little English lesson to sing along to; maybe I'll try it sometime with my highschool students. The achingly soulful "Many Rivers To Cross" is worthy of Sam Cooke, and believe me, that's high compliment from meself; the title track walks as tuff as it's billed; and "Sitting Here in Limbo," more mainstream early '70s of a ballad than reggae, would've made a fine album closer. But! "You Can Get It If You Really Want," and "The Harder They Come," are reprised at the end of the album -- they're good songs, but totally unecessary to hear them twice. If I wanted to do that, I could just flip the freakin' record over to side one! The best explanation I can think of is that people smoking pot heavily might just not have the motivation to move to the other side of the room and flip the record over, or maybe just forget or something....potheads are like that. Don't smoke too much pot, it makes you lazy and curl up in your bean bag in front of the Playstation munching Doritos listening to too much reggae and Dead, which leads to bad personal hygiene from not feeling motivated enough to bathe and worse dreadlocks -- white boys should NEVER wear dreadlocks! Anyone tempted into the reggae lifestyle should pause long enough to read Mario Varghas Llosa's highly amusing essay "My Son the Rastafarian" as a warning of the potential dangers of such a course. Anyway, the soundtrack offers more than just Cliff. Toots and the Maytals patent two standards with "Sweet and Dandy" and the oft-covered "Pressure Drop." Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town," chants along dandily with its bizarrely antiquated English diction (there's that Jamaican lingo at work again). And lest I forget, there's the film's most prominent outlaw anthem, "Johnny Too Bad," by the Slickers (who aren't), crafting the loping low-rider menace-groove a couple of decades before anyone pretended to care about South Central L.A.

Joe Jackson: Get Sharp! (1979) ***1/2

Though he lags behind Parker and Costello artistically in the great Angry Young Man triumverate of late '70s New Wave singer-songwriters, somehow he was the one who wound up with all the hits, scoring on his debut with "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" that succeeded in becoming a very popular and very useful catchphrase, even to this day. "Pretty women walking with gorillas down my street," now tell me this doesn't speak to the things you see every day of your life. It's catchy, but I find the chorus grows treacly and obnoxious after a while, like that "How Long Has This Been Going On," song by Ace (hey, notice how similar the chorus sound if you think about it? I'm embarrassed to have noticed this). The hyperkinetic closer, "Got the Time," was covered a decade later as a thrash metal classic by Anthrax. Joe Jackson doing a thrash metal album? Now that would be cool, even more so than Elvis Costello's gangsta rap version of "Sweet Child O'Mine." Like Costello and Parker, Jackson is an ugly guy who's pissed off because he's not having any luck with women, and just about half of these songs are about his problems with the opposite sex. The other half of the songs are, you know, political and stuff, complaining about "Sunday Papers," and all that, but they're not very good for the most part. He may mock those "Happy Loving Couples," he claims he never wants to be a part of, but those "Pretty Girls," get him wound up really tight - "Don't talk to me about women's liberation/They already got me right down where it hurts." But hey, he's got some really cool shoes! Don't chicks dig guys with really cool shoes?

Nils Lofgren: Nils Lofgren (1975) ***1/2

Much better known, if remembered at all, as a sidekick to Neil Young and later Bruce Springsteen, Lofgren's spirited, if decidedly lightweight, rock'n'roll never found the mainstream acceptance it clearly aimed for (and deserved). His first solo album (after stints fronting his band Grin and playing lead guitar in Crazy Horse) relies on Lofgren's multi-talents as a wunderkind, backed up only by a trusty rhythm section while he hops around on various keyboards and guitars. Lofgren's an excellent, pithy guitarist who makes his sharp riffs seem appealingly understated and casually easy -- just like his modest journeyman voice and overall approach to music-making. I really like this album, but I can sort of see why Lofgren never made the big time: unlike Young or Springsteen, he never comes across as a rock demigod, but as just an ordinary (albeit really talented) guy. There's no sense of strain in his music, as even the rockers are curiously relaxed (the forced urgency of his plea to one of his idols, "Keith Don't Go (Ode To The Glimmer Twin)" falters for this reason). I was about to seriously underrate this album when I first heard it, because it seemed to lightweight and inconsequential, but that's a mistake -- there's much to be said for Lofgren's easygoing charm that reminds me a bit of Chuck Berry. Lofgren doesn't have much to say except girl stay true to me (first side) and rock'n'roll will save (side two), but hey, what's so wrong with that? And his effortless pop sense keeps his little ditties on the right side of tuneful -- like his guitar work, his song structures make a virtue of keeping short and too the point. Tracks like "One More Saturdary Night," "Back It Up," and "I Don't Want To Know," ring out like offhand classic rock staples that never were, and due to Lofgren's understated average-guy charisma, what doesn't leap out at me the first few times catches me up with repeated listenings. Call it Springstreen for those who'd rather take the Boss without the operatic bombast and melodrama. And his version of Goffin/King's "Goin' Back," trumps the Byrds, that's for sure.

Nick Lowe: Pure Pop For Now People (1978) ****

Lowe was already a seasoned pro, having served time in the seminal pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz (which also spawned a couple of Rumour members), by the time this collection of New Wave pub rock readymades constituted his first solo album. Perhaps more famous (and important) as a producer (the Damned, Pretenders, Elvis Costello) and a crucial founder of the legendary Stiff Records, Lowe shows himself a sturdy pop craftsman with a wicked sense of humor. On the cover, Lowe portrays himself in various '70s rocker cloths - ex-hippie, black-clad rebel, Neil Young-ish folkie, Eddie Money-ish dork with a Stars'n'Stripes wide tie - in a delightful sendup. Take a listen to the music within and you'll find a similarly minded sendup of various '70s pop-rock styles, most of which are delightful. Lowe's been around long enough to get jaded, and there are several mocking homages to the sleazy industry, such as the hilarious "They Called It Rock," and a tribute to the Bay City Rollers sung with a straight face. There's fake Bowie ("I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass"), some lovely faux-naive power-pop balladry ("Tonight"), Chuck Berry at punk pace ("Heart of the City" where alligators roam and women stop, turn, and double back when they see our stud), faux-political power-pop ("So It Goes," perhaps the only song to gleefully glorify roadie violence), faux-reggae ("No Reason"), a song "borrowed" from Elvis Costello without proper credit ("Little Hitler" to which Costello wrote "Two Little Hitlers" in protest), and perhaps the best song, "Marie Provost," which recounts the true tragedy of a silent film actress who died alone in her mansion and wasn't discovered for days, during which time her pet dog feasted on her corpse ("She was a winner/But became the doggie's dinner"). The second side isn't as strong as the first, as it ends with the album's only truly bad song, "Music For Money," the title of which sums up Lowe's cynical attitude towards showbiz. Lowe has gone on to a become a successful cult artist, penning songs for one of his idols, Johnny Cash, and marrying, and divorcing, Carlene Carter (of the famous country music Carter family). I've got a couple of his followup records and they don't interest me very much, as Lowe eventually began churning out the hack work he parodied on Pure Pop For Now People, but I'll get around to reviewing those later albums eventually.

Reader Comments

John Schonholtz, jschonho@yahoo.com

Great site, by the way. You have excellent taste.

Anyway, I don't know which one of Nick Lowe's followups you have, but the one to get if you haven't already is _Party_of_One_(1990), not only the best of his later albums but the most like PPFNP (call it Pure Pop for Then People). The other keeper of his more recent records is _The_Impossible_Bird_(1996), but that one's a downer.

Keep up the good work!

Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (1973) ****

From the classic LP cover picturing Marley imbibing a huge joint of a substance currently illegal in most of North America since the 1930s, the Wailers took the rest of the world with their first internationally distributed album with an audacious bang. Until the early '70s reggae superstars paddled across the waters from their tiny crowded Caribbean onto greater shores, most internationally prominent music came from first world nations such as the U.K. and U.S.A.; the Wailers -- Bob Marley (guitarist, ladies' man siring a litter of 30+ with his seed at last count), Peter Tosh (bassist, angry political rabble-rouser assassinated in 1987), and Bunny Wailer (the drummer with the harmony group's sweetest voice) -- were the first third-world superstars. But important social impact aside, which has wound up making Marley something of a secular saint in his homeland, the music holds up well today, if like all reggae -- and you knew this was coming -- it all tends to sound way too samey. While the rock-solid groove prominent on Natty Dread isn't quite in place yet, and it doesn't possess as many strokes of genius as the inspired songs on Burnin', this flows together as the most consistent early Marley album. A little too consistent, in fact, which can be fatal in reggae -- for the life of me I can't hum a single snatch of the final few songs on the album, except that they vaguely remind me of the first few songs on the album. In reggae, it always helps to put your best material first, so that people can remember them when they're still paying attention. The most well-remembered song, though, was "Stir It Up," an infectiously meaningless slice of cool groove. Marley writes all but two of the tunes, which is unfortunate since Tosh' oppression-o'-the-black-man plaint "400 Years" and "Stop That Train" (not the same song as the Harder They Come track) are just as strong as Marley's, and Tosh's different style gives the album some much-needed variety. While "Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)" is a charming little bit of pop fluffery, the urban tuff stride of "Concrete Jungle," the exceptionally strong opening track forges Jamaican reggae's new-found rock-influenced urgency.

Bob Marley & the Wailers: Burnin' (1973) ****

The first side of the final release by the original Wailers may very well be the strongest side of reggae music ever recorded -- four out the five songs are timeless classics that practically define the genre, and "Put It On" isn't too shabby, either. Marley wisely allows Tosh and Wailer more room, resulting in a more varied and overall successfull album than the year's earlier release. Few albums start as strongly as Tosh' immortal "Get Up, Stand Up," one of the catchiest, angriest, and most effective political anthems ever written, as evidenced by the "stand up for your rights" refrain so effortlessly entering the popular lexicon -- even if you've never heard the original, I'm sure you know exactly how the chorus goes already. And if you have heard it, the chant will always remain in your head whenever you're being pinned against the wall by riot police -- hey John Lennon, this is the right way to write about politics, not your overbearing nursery rhyme "Power To the People" blather. Then, as relief, comes Wailer's sunny gospel "Hallelujah Time," which almost lives up to its title. But the biggest hit of all is track #3, Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," an outlaw anthem that's a protest against institutional oppression by the police, a damn fine narrative in a bluesy troubles-I-done-seen mode, and a major pop hit for Eric Clapton -- Marley's original remains definitive, despite Eric. "Burnin' and Lootin'" hasn't reached the same iconic status as the previous three, though it's just as strong lyrically and musically; obviously, though, the vision here is much too dark and violent to gain much mainstream play, with Marley muttering insurrectionious thoughts about drugs and "cleansing all pollution tonight." It would have made a perfect encore for 1999's Woodstock III.... With such a strong first side, it's too bad side two can't carry the momentum. While it has some fine songs such as "Small Axe" and Tosh's universalist anthem "One Foundation," the group seems to run out of catchy songs and energy, as it drifts into one hazy undifferentiated mass. Perhaps side two would've sounded better if it didn't have side one to contend with; "okay" is never a fair matchup against "brilliant". Aside from that, the album closes with "Rastaman Chant", a traditional song that sounds as tuneless as billed, and seems to go on forever despite its relatively concise 3-1/2 minute length, and it really bums my trip, dude.

Bob Marley: Natty Dread (1974) ****

I'm no big fan of reggae -- I generally find the beats nap-inducing rather than hypnotic, and the melodic sameness doesn't help my appreciation -- so I was genuinely (and pleasantly) surprised when I took a chance on this mid-'70s Bob Marley album, his first recorded after the breakup of the Wailers (which included Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston). Marley ranks as one of the finest performers of the decade regardless of whether you care for the form, and he lays down a gritty, but sensous rock-solid groove that stands as one of the decade's most important new sounds: one can close the eyes and instantly be transported to crowded tin shacks and dusty tropical heat, ready to sullenly raise one's fist behind the backs of the oppressive soldier man and the hypocrites (all I need now is a blunt of ganja, 'cept I don't smoke ganja). I can tell this is one of Marley's best because it contains several of his signature tunes, and there's not a bum track in the bunch -- the only problem I have is that the limitations of reggae are the limitations of reggae; after a while, despite Marley's charisma, the groove grows rather monotonous, and melodicly it's not the most versatile music in the world (most of the songs are essentially catchy chants). Which isn't to say that "No Woman, No Cry," is one of the most lovely love songs in this hemisphere or the next - ah, remember us sitting in the goverment courtyard eating porridge, toasting to friends gone, for my feet are my only carriage... It's far and away the best track on the album, but Marley has an undeniable gift for universalist political propraganda: just take the title of "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)". The final track "Revolution," culminates Marley's rebel music vision, but in "Rebel Music (Three O'Clock Roadblock)" he's worried about the cops busting him for carrying certain herbal substances on his person. Supposedly one of the greatest reggae albums of all time, but I wouldn't know -- all I know is that I've never liked reggae before, but I like this album. Take that as a strong recommendation.

Motorhead: Overkill (1978) ***1/2

The ugliest band in the world. Led by Lemmy, a pint-sized speed-freak who assualts bass like it was rhythm guitar and as the human pockmark holds the title as the ugliest man in rock, Motorhead pioneered a ferocious blues-based brand of hard, speedy rock that owes equally to metal and punk but can't really be classified as either. Allegedly every Motorhead song sounds basically like all the other Motorhead songs, but since I haven't heard every single Motorhead song, I can't make a definitive statement on that issue -- all I can say is that, like their minimalist, ass-kickin' brethren AC/DC and the Ramones, every song sounds the same but different enough so that it doesn't get boring. When I said that they were the ugliest band in the world, I wasn't referring to their photogenic representation (though thumbing through the inner sleeve photos isn't for the weak of stomach); I'm referring to their sound. Mean, dirty, sleazy, so raw it hurts like anal sex in a toilet in Ulaanbaatar. Not that I've ever had that kind of experience, hell I've never even been to Mongolia, much less had anal sex with a sweaty, unshaven goat-herdsman stinking of mare's milk, though I admit I have often fantasized about such a scenario. Anyhow, most of the songs, you know, uh, kick ass. There's not much more than I can say beyond that. It's Motorhead, and they sound like Motorhead. Sure, there are a few duff tracks like "Limb From Limb" and "Metropolis" (conveniently the two worst tracks are also the final two tracks, so I can pop this out of the CD player after #8). But "I'll Be Your Sister," "Damage Case," "No Class," "I Won't Pay Your Price," and the title track corrode your insides uglier and more threateningly than most anything else at the time, and lay the foundations for the speed and thrash metal subgenres. Of course, there are no melodies, albeit some throat-ramming hooks. Like I said, this is Motorhead.

Motorhead: No Remorse (1984) ****

If you must own only one Motorhead album - and if you're a normal person, only one Motorhead album is really all you need - this 24-track double LP (one cassette which I've got; I hear that the CD reissue adds five more bonus tracks) is it. Basically delivering the bestest of the studio tracks with a clutchful of live stuff and rarities, it throws in a few dubious selections ("Metropolis") but mostly is a good overview of the classic Motorhead years. And I don't think "Killed By Death" is available elsewhere except on later compilations, which aren't as good as this first, definitive Motorhead compilation. Most kick-ass song: "Ace of Spades." Don't forget the joker!

Nazareth: Hair of the Dog (1975) ***1/2

According to the liner notes, probably the only gold 8-track in rock history. That should tell you everything you need to know as to whether or not you'll enjoy this album - it's the ultimate example of mid-'70s mullethead rock. Picture some blue collar long-hair hanging out in the parking lot, leaning against his red Camaro, arms folded, "I got some whiskey, cocaine from a friend, and I gotta keep moving on" -- if this image sounds cool, like the kind of guy you wish you could be, kicking ass and getting into bar fights over some Daisy Duke-wearing not-so-sweet young thing, then this album will rock your world. If that image reminds you of the type of guys who you tried to avoid as much as possible in highschool, then maybe you ought to avoid this album, too. Basically, it's dumb, macho, sinisterly violent hard rock, with hard Sabbath riffs crossed with Aerosmith raunchy boogie, but with more melodic underpinnings than either of those two bands. The lead singer screeches like Axl Rose's godfather, his trachea irrepairably damaged by endless swigs of Scotch whiskey, screaming hilariously stoopid macho like "Now yerr messin' with a SUNUVA BIIITCHHH!" The snake-hipped, swinging title rock remains justifiably a staple of radio and a classic hard rock anthem, and "Miss Misery" isn't too far behind. And they have good taste in covers - both Randy Newman's "Guilty" and Nils Lofgren's "Beggars' Day," are done justice; let's pretend their sappy, overblown massacre of the Everly Brothers' "Love Hurts," wasn't a massive worldwide hit - in fact, let's just completely skip over it every time I play this CD, why don't we? "Whiskey Drinkin' Woman" plods to a generic Southern rock boogie, like some Lynyrd Skynyrd outtake, its lightness setting up for the heavy dark quasi-prog epic closer, "Please Don't Judas Me." The reissue adds a pair of decent B-sides, "Down," and "Railroad Boy." Now I'm off to pick up underage highschool girls, cause like the man said in Dazed and Confused, "I keep getting older, and they stay the same age."

Willie Nelson: The Red Headed Stranger (1975) ****

The album that made Nelson a bonafide star at 42 after years of paying his dues as a struggling singer-songwriter (he penned such standards as "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Night Life," and "Hello, Walls," all massive country hits for other performers), finds Nelson cannily making a play for the crossover rock market -- in the early '70s, not only did he ditch his suit & tie for the long-haired hippie cowboy look, but took a cue from current rock trends and set at his unique take upon the rock opera concept album. It's one of the first "country opera" (oxymoronic as that sounds) concept albums I'm aware of (the previous year Nelson had taken a stab at the same idea with Phases and Stages), and if you're a rock fan who's slowly realized via Gram Parsons that country music isn't all hokey Garth Brooks crap but worthy of respect and are wondering where to begin (as I'm supposing most people reading this review are), might I humbly suggest this record as a decent starting point. Nelson's most famous album (perhaps not his best, since I haven't amassed a decent collection of his '70s work yet), contrasts interestingly with concurrent rock concept albums, as it possesses certain virtues endemic to country that nearly every rock concept album lacks -- namely, straightforward thematic coherence. Nelson isn't straining to set pompously inflated social commentary to music, he's just trying to tell a story, like the best country singers always do, and the storyline's very easy to follow: in the year of 1901, a preacher (the Red-Headed Stranger referred to) finds his wife with another man. The preacher cries like a baby and howls like a panther at night, until he decides to set out and find his departed wife. When he does find her, he kills her, but is crafty enough to manipulate events so that he gets off in self-defense (because killing a woman is okay if you shoot her while she's trying to steal your horse). The first side of the album tells this tale through a series of related songs and brief song fragments (the "Time of the Preacher Theme," is repeated three separate times). If Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash told this story, it might seem scary, but laid-back nice guy Nelson mainly just sounds stoic and melancholy, as he usually does. The second side finds the preacher ruminating on the past and trying to find some solace in another ("Can I Sleep In Your Arms"), making this one of the great breakup albums of all time - and my favorite isn't the hit, "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," but the overlooked "Hands On The Wheel," in which Nelson bitterly moans about "the same old damn tune," to the album's strongest melody, wondering whether, like all of us after some bitch has just stomped all over our heart, whether love's just some con job that he was weak enough to fall for. And what about that guitar solo at the end - Nelson's Mexican-influenced picking is as understatedly pleasant and underrated as his singing. The musical backing is as spare, dry, and lovely as West Texas, where Nelson learned to finger his guitar from late nights listening to the Mexican radio - and did I say this was country music? Shame on me - the full term is country & western, of which this leans decidely to the western adjective. That high, lonesome sound paints a picture of dusty wide open spaces for miles and miles in the middle of the desert, where trees and people are few and far between - listening to this album, one gets the urge to kick up one's cowboy boots on the front porch on a hot afternoon, wasting the hours away in siesta until the sun goes down.

Willie Nelson: Sings Kristofferson (1979) ***

On paper, the idea of gifted interpreter Nelson covering the tunes of gifted songwriter (but incredibly poor singer) Kris Kristofferson sounds like a can't-miss; unfortunately, the results, though somewhat fine, disappoint. The problem comes with the Nelson/Kristofferson pairing: Nelson's laid back drawl and spare arrangements laid on top of Kristofferson's sentimental, easygoing ballads adds up to country & western slackerdom. Let's face it, both of these guys take it a little too easy in their work, and while on an individual basis the songs work out okay as cry-in-your-beer-over-your-woman weepers, over the course of an album, my attention starts to nod. Not that the songs aren't good: Kristofferson only ocassionally hits greatness (mainly he's just another competent post-Dylan soft-rock folkie), but when he does, he nails the emotions of regret and nostalgia perfectly. No one's ever written a song about waking up hungover, depressed, and lonesome as poignant as "Sunday Morning Coming Down," -- if rock'n'roll is Saturday night music, country is the day after a wild night music. I prefer the Johnny Cash version, though. The same I can say for the second best song here (the one familiar to all you rock'n'rollers), "Me and Bobby McGee," - Nelson's uptempo bluesy honkytonk (well, uptempo for this album!) arrangement and lyrical liberties can't cover the fact that this is Janis Joplin's signature tune. On the other hand, I prefer Nelson's dry reading of "For the Good Times," to Al Green's somnabulent version. Kristofferson's unquestionably a softie, and his songs generally concern his chosen subject, "modern romance" - which by the '70s definition seemed to mean sleep around a lot and feel sad about the lack of emotional attachments, a subject treated definitively by "You Show Me Yours (And I'll Show You Mine)", a pun (Kris means show me your naked emotion and I'll show you mine, not show me the other things the phrase is usually meant by).

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