BETWEEN THE CRACKS: THE 100 BEST ALBUMS YOU DON'T HAVE
Note: These are a few of the 100 entries I am at this time working on for this book project.
Okay, we all have seen the lists of the absolutely greatest LPs, singles, movies, TV shows, books, etc. of ALL TIME. I’ve done them myself, they are fun, they show off your quirks and personality to an extent, and, let’s face it, an awful lot of the selections is repetitive. Who could deny Citizen Kane, or Sgt. Pepper, or “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay”? So, why not go a whole different approach and list those albums you are pretty sure the other guys either don’t have, haven’t heard of, or will strongly disagree with? Well, that’s what this list is all about – quirks, quirks, quirks.
When it comes to music, again let’s be honest, we all tend to get mired in the tastes of our own generation. Our great grandparents who dug the shit out of Rudy Vallee could not be expected to shift gears radically enough to fully appreciate the aesthetics of a Van Morrison. Or could they? I love the best tracks from Nirvana (definitely not of my g-g-g-generation) but can’t stand most of the grunge crap that came afterwards. And I still think that 99 percent of rap music will be in history’s dustbin (98 percent for everything else). But damn, that one percent rocks like a motherfucker.
And another thing...those lists that make you split hairs over which Beatles albums are in the top ten. Sheeeeeiiiittttt. All the Beatles, most of the Stones, most Elvis, most Al Green, Otis, Booker T., Bob Dylan, etc. albums belong in the pantheon. So stop wasting list space and do what I’m doing. Go for stuff that maybe you ain’t got. I’d love to see your list, baby.
These are in NO particular order of importance. Got that?
Canned Heat - Living the Blues
Canned Heat did what no other 60's rock group can claim. They singlehandedly made the term boogie a national music joke. It became at least as corny as wannabe hipsters flashing the peace sign back in the day. Their second lead singer, Al Wilson, was so bad that alleycats still hold their ears. But this double-LP has got some fine moments and you know it has to be good because only one song on the whole thing ever makes it onto Canned Heat’s greatest hits packages. They do terrific remakes here of “Walkin’ By Myself” and “Pony Blues” and a wow-inducing acid-drench-a-thon in the little heard “One Kind Favor.” On LP number one the highlight is the nearly 20 minute “Parthenogenesis” which is a hodgepodge of the band’s solo moments and contains the most incredible blues jew’s harp playing I have ever heard. This is a visionary track, blues taken to a Sgt. Pepper level of creative out there. The only bad moment is the obligatory, but thankfully brief, drum solo. Also incredible is Al Wilson’s raga-ish chromatic harp solo.
If that isn’t enough the entire 2nd LP is one song – the dreaded “Boogie.” But it starts off with a primal wail of feedback-drenched elephant honk that is almost better than “Ball and Chain,” Janis Joplin’s only great song thanks to that criminally underrated garage band of hers, Big Brother and the Holding Company. When the band comes in together on the boogie, they have left John Lee Hooker way behind. Understand Hooker cannot be topped, ever, but these boys know that and decide to instead blow the doors off the auditorium (did I say this was recorded live?). Even the bass solo here is good. Once again a dreaded drum solo. Nothing’s perfect. If you can pick this up cheap, go for it. I’ve got an expensive retooled vinyl copy. Bliss!!!!
Kraftwerk – The Mix
Many of you will remember this musical oddity from the mid-seventies, a quartet of nerdy engineer-looking Germans sitting deadpan in front of an intimidatingly large bank of synthesizers and playing a repetitive-themed song called “Autobahn” that in a long, slow, hypnotic pulse suggested the monotony of freeway driving. It was a clever piece, a novelty of its day, and these Germans spearheaded a small but influential music subgenre now termed “krautrock.” They also created one of the funniest shticks of any group ever. Ralf and Florian, two for-real music engineers and nerds supreme, formed the group basically to tinker with computerized music. They took their nerdiness to showbiz level, wearing business suits when everyone else on the scene was sporting glitter. When they were accused of sounding “fascist” they donned blazing red shirts (Commie colors for you babies) with Nazi-youth looking uniforms, completely turning the accusations on their head. The late Lester Bangs wrote one of his best pieces ever on Kraftwerk and in his interview with them he egged on their Teutonic bluster and it was obvious they all had a sporting time of it all and, more importantly, all got the joke.
This CD marked the first time in years Ralf and Florian recorded again as Kraftwerk. The reason is because the rudimentary noises of “Autobahn” became the foundation of much of hip-hop’s sampling and their pioneering electronics exploded into a new worldwide technology. No wonder they didn’t get to the studio much. What they do here is take some of their best-remembered tracks and give them a thorough updating. Their redo of “Autobahn” is sheer genius, taking that slow brontosaurus pulse and giving it a T. Rex’s bite. The weird humor ain’t left ‘em either, with a hilarious synthesized yodeling coda. And those zooming car sounds that livened up the original have been recreated to sound like a speedway in your house. The lead track here, “Robots,” is maybe the most danceable German song to come out of the rock era, yet fully retains that goosestepping attitude that makes the Germans, well, the Germans. After listening to this song there should be no doubt that the future belongs to the robots and, like it or not, they will have a sense of humor.
Roger Miller – Golden Hits (Mercury 826 261-2)
There are several Roger Miller CDs and compilations but trust me, this is the ONE. In the mid-sixties, during the reign of the Beatles and Stones, came this twang-talking peckerwood from the Deep South who had a string of the most unclassifiable hits ever. They weren’t exactly pop, not exactly country, certainly not folk, or were they? Miller, like Woody Guthrie, Dylan, and hell, I can’t think of ‘em all at the moment, was an American original, a guy who could write just as well about hoboing around the country, with an admission he’d steal in a minute, as visiting England for the first time. What made Miller a great artist was his extraordinary wordplay, a love of words and the very sound of them. No other songwriter could have come up with this great couplet: “Roses are red/Violets are purple/Sugar’s sweet/and so is maple surple.” And make it all sound as natural as cornbread and molasses.
Lagniappe: I worked under a grant to teach creative writing to inner city 7th graders for a year, a book in itself (the title: Gorilla Pimp, the endearment bestowed upon me). Anyway, for a few classes I decided to play these youngsters songs with interesting and surprising lyrics that I knew they would not have been exposed to. One great revelation was that the kids, my kids, were utterly fascinated by the mystery of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The way they grappled with the idea of non-literal meaning is a high point of my creative life. Against my better judgment I played Roger Miller’s hilarious ode to stumbling upon a mess o’ moonshine “Chug-a-lug.” For days these black children were heard up and down the halls of Hickory Ridge Middle School singing “Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug/Makes you wanta holler hi-dee-ho.” Ah, the stories I will tell my grandkids.
Lester “Roadhog” Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys (aka The Statler Brothers) – Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School (Mercury Records)
I once proposed a serious article on the making of this classic comedy LP to a very serious magazine putting together their very serious annual All Music Issue and was met with a collective “huh?” from the editors. Such is life.
Imagine if you will the entire Monty Python cast forced with shotguns at their backs to travel the rural American South visiting the worst imaginable backwater honky-tonks with their only time off being to watch Hee-Haw reruns. Then as a reward they were paid extravagant sums of money to come up with a comedy album based on these experiences. Well, Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School is it, only it was The Statler Brothers, and not Monty Python doing the work. It would be hard to tell the difference, because this is about the most surreal take on cornpone humor ever waxed, and the album circulated for years to audiences who had no idea it was The Statler Brothers. Just like Monty Python’s Holy Grail, I knew guys when the LP came out who could perform this entire LP with every guttural “Alll-Right” spoken by the deep-voiced Roadhog imitated to perfection. What this hilarious fraud pretends to be is a live recording of an unbelievably bad country band at a rural high school dance, where fights break out, lyrics to country classics are mangled beyond recognition, guitars are wildly out of tune, and in the most politically correct of times the Cadillac Cowboys have the audacity to start naming a roster of country music greats and when Roadhog comes to the name of Charley Pride he pauses then says, “He’s the only n..., the only n..., (long breath), the only name that ain’t on our list. Alll-Right.”
The Cadillac Cowboys’ take on “Sixteen Tons” simply must be heard to be believed. Words alone cannot begin to describe this vocal trainwreck. Likewise a version of “Hey Joe.”
This is just side one. Side two is “The Saturday Morning Radio Show No.2" where besides the Cadillac Cowboys we get a sampling of the “local” talent. If you have never heard a country radio station from waaaaay back yonder, then this will be the only introduction you ever need. The liner notes and photos and cover art also are alll-right and howdy-howdy, doth quote the Roadhog.
Masters of Reality – Sunrise on the Sufferbus
As a long-time music scribe I have vented my spleen times a-plenty on the lack of good drumming in today’s music. Oh, there are some inventive programmers out there who can tart things up a bit, but name three drummers in the last decade who were really anything more than glorified timekeepers. Many drummers nowadays cannot even accomplish that. Imagine my shock and amazement when I was driving in Memphis to nowhere in particular and this track comes on the radio where the drums are going off like a string of M-80s and the rhythm is not only nitro-fueled, but there are more drum fills, thrills, and spills than the days of Keith Moon and his monster drum kit. I kid you not, I literally pulled over to the side of the road so that I could hear the name of the band so I could find out who this four-handed drummer was. It had been years since I had heard drumming of such jaw-dropping virtuosity. And all to back up a minimalist power chord band.
The good news was that it was indeed a new band, the bad news was that it was Ginger Baker, GINGER BAKER!!!!!, on drums. But that bad news was actually good news, except for the fact that it took a sixtysomething year old legend to make me pull over to the side of the road. Baker had recorded only sporadically over the years since his heyday with Cream and Blind Faith, and he obviously preferred jazz to rock and polyrhythms from his African jaunts to hanging out with long-haired boys with Marshall stacks. How the band, Masters of Reality, talked Baker into this one-shot album would probably make an interesting story in itself. As is, the album is as good as it is curious. There are killer hard rock tracks such as the aforementioned pull-to-the-side-of-the-road tune, “She Got Her Dress On,” lovely ballads with some super-slick drum licks, and a song by Baker about his pet American peeve – that he can’t get a good cup of tea out of us Yanks. The song is clever and funny, but the drumwork! – damn! After this album Baker went back to Arizona to play jazz only and play polo. Believe you me it is our loss and the horses’ gain.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Star Club (Bear Family version)
Maybe it’s just a holdover from adolescence, but I always enjoyed those “who’s better?” debates. You know, who’s better, B.B. King or Albert King? The Beatles or the Stones? James Brown or Otis Redding? I even like those apples and oranges comparisons such as “who’s the better guitar player, Chuck Berry or Jeff Beck?” Debates spark interest and interest sparks excitement.
Okay then, I’ve got one for you. Who’s the better piano player, Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer for those of you born after that fad) or Jerry Lee? My opinion? Hands down it’s Jerry Lee. Why? Well, Emerson can undoubtedly whip out a decent “Toccata and Fugue” by Bach that might even impress classical snobs, but honestly who would you rather see play a piano with his ass, Keith Emerson or the Killer? If your answer is the former rather than the latter then don’t ever go clubbing with me.
Jerry Lee Lewis is a category unto himself because no one else would dare to be like him. Right here in Memphis there is an excellent “tribute artist” who does a killer Killer named Jason D. Williams, but compared to the real deal Jason seems positively civilized. Which Jerry Lee isn’t and never has been. His live recording in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, the joint that the Beatles made famous, is all the proof you’ll ever need that civility is overrated. Think about it, during the same year the Beatles were eating up the charts in America and Jerry Lee Lewis was reduced to playing prom dances, someone came up with the idea of putting this twentysomething year old rock and roll has-been in the whore-saturated Reeperbahn club that was already attracting Beatles tourists.
There is much conjecture among Jerry Lee afficionados about what he was on when this recording was made. The playing is so hard, ferocious, and unrelenting that it seems as if Jerry Lee, and not Elvis, should be dubbed the atomic-powered singer, because nuclear fission seems to be about the only thing that could explain this much entertainment combustion. Or lots and lots of amphetamines (my guess).
The set is backed by the Nashville Teens, the British group that despite its wimpy-sounding name came up with a pile-driving hit cover of “Tobacco Road,” and they do an admirable job trying to keep up with the rocket sled. Jerry Lee starts off with a growl then explodes into a version of “Mean Woman Blues.” During his take on “Money” he goes off into a jaunt of singing “ha-ha-ha-ha” repeatedly and makes it sound good. Then he yodels a verse’s worth or so, and on it goes. The crowd recognizes real rock and roll danger when it sees it and after about the sixth time of chanting “Jerry Lee, Jerry Lee, Jerry Lee” between songs, the Killer has had enough of the fan worship and snarls out “alright already!” On this one night in 1964 in Hamburg, Germany it is hard to believe that anyone, anyone, could have topped this pompadored force of nature who makes sure he gets in at least one self-reference per song. And just think who all he has outlived.
The Cramps – Off the Bone
The year was 1977 and in Memphis the rumor went ‘round like a shot that the first ever punk rock band was to play in town, an unknown group called The Cramps, a name that had pretty much everyone scratching their heads. Word was they had been doing some recording in Memphis, with Alex Chilton, of all people, producing. The Cramps were cloaked in mystery and menace and by the time they actually played this gig, people were whispering that they ate live children.
The day before their show, I was driving down a major midtown avenue and saw what had to be the strangest looking white couple I’d seen in a decade or two strolling hand in hand down the sidewalk. The guy, was tall, lanky, with a rooster’s comb of unruly and obviously dyed black hair; the other, the girl, had a permed electric frizz, kohl-rimmed eyes and seemed half the man’s height. “Hey honey,” I said to my then wife, “I’ll bet that’s those Cramps. What do you say we give them a ride?” “Don’t you DARE!” was the answer, thus ending at least one story I could tell the grandkids.
I’ve always been surprised The Cramps never rose beyond their hardcore cult following. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them on a best-of list of any kind. But boy do they deserve something. Even in that early era of shock rock and shock jocks and shock everything else, The Cramps always went to the brink and jumped off. They were no pose.
To see what I mean check out one of the few available videos of them on Urghhh! A Music War, the punk documentary, and tell me they don’t raise your eyebrows higher than anyone else. Lead singer and front madman Lux Interior looks like what Elvis’s twin brother might have had he been born completely deranged and hidden in a closet for most of his life, having been forced to listen to that pretty Elvis’s music. In this video Lux, shirtless, does Jim Morrison’s leather pants one better by wearing a pair that covers only half his ass and doesn’t quite make it covering his pubic hair. He does just about everything but backflips and those leather britches still manage to stay up. Then he takes his microphone and performs fellatio on it, but does it in such a maniacal, exaggerated way that you will be on the floor laughing, as I was. And his main squeeze, Ivy Rorshach, impassive as the sphinx, watches and plays her guitar. Is she real or a mannikin? Only a window dresser would know for sure.
Okay, okay, the music. Off the Bone is kind of, sort of a greatest hits package, but a band this weird can’t really fit completely into one compilation. But as an album standing on its own merit, this album packs more genuine rockabilly dementia and warpage than a hundred Stray Cats. Take their take of Charlie Feathers’ “I Can’t Hardly Stand It.” Feathers was about the most out there of the rockabillies to start with, with more vocal hiccups and spasms than all the early hitmakers put together. But Lux Interior takes Feathers and pushes the vocals so far into outer space that there’s no oxygen left – and in space no one can hear you hiccup. But hiccup he does, incredible vocal belches that have everyone I’ve ever played this song for in stitches. Oh, and when he comes to the verse, he sings it with a perfect tremolo effect that is the work of his double-jointed vocal cords and not the recording studio. The Cramps infused rock and roll with a Creepy magazine ghoul flavor and found the most obscure covers imaginable to amp up beyond endurance. I could rave about this album for many more pages, but I’ll leave you with an example of Lux Interior’s poetic muse from the song “Human Fly”: “I’m a human fly/and I don’t know why/and I buzz, buzz, buzz/and it’s just becuzz...I got 96 tears/and 96 eyes.” As I say, they certainly deserve something.
The Blackwood Brothers – Greatest Hits (or whatever you can find)
There is a CD out finally of what purports to be the Blackwood Brothers greatest hits but the truth is no Blackwoods greatest hits package has ever done this unheralded great vocal group proper justice. The Blackwood Brothers, in case you’ve never heard of them, are the biggest gospel group in history. One could even say in all seriousness that they were the Beatles of the gospel world; such was the power and respect for them in their glory days. They became a national phenomenon in 1954 about a month before Elvis, who was thoroughly besotted with the group, recorded “That’s Allright, Mama.” They were already huge in the South and Midwest, but a succession of appearances on the highly-rated Arthur Godfrey Show catapulted them nationally. They were signed to RCA, the big time indeed, and were racking up record sales. Disaster struck in July 1954 when the 10-seater Beechcraft they flew to their gigs crashed on a practice take-off in front of thousands of fairgoers. Two members were on the ground. Two died on impact.
The funeral for the two members in the plane crash was held at Ellis Auditorium (where Elvis soon thereafter performed) and is reported to have been the biggest funeral service in Memphis until the King himself died. People who still believe that white music did not cross over to black audiences should note that so many requests were phoned in to Ellis Auditorium that the balcony was reserved specifically for black mourners. And it was full.
After the crash, the Blackwoods regrouped and brought in one of the great bass singers to ever overshadow a stage, J.D. Sumner, who later toured with Elvis. Sumner was like no one before or since – a revelation as a singer, who brought a rhythmic, boogie beat to the staid gospel field, a superb songwriter (you’ve got to hear his vision of heaven as a Hawaiian Eden in “Paradise Island”), and he was a great entertainer who could bring down the house with his deadpan ad-libs. At the other end of the quartet was Bill Shaw, a high tenor as good as any competitor on the roster at Atlantic Records. Bear Family last year put out a terrific, if expensive, box set of the group’s pre-1960 recordings. But the Blackwoods recorded many more treasures after that, up until the departure of Sumner for the Stamps Quartet (which was owned by the Blackwoods). One example of their vocal aerobics is their cover of the Dixie Hummingbirds’ “The Devil Can’t Harm A Praying Man” where they morph their style from black gospel to white and back again, all in homage to the black gospel groups the Blackwoods openly adored. If there’s one group America needs to rediscover before the historical rust obliterates this music form, it’s the Blackwoods and their singular gospel quartet style.