What I’ve Been Listening To: Carole King: Tapestry

From the first to the last note Tapestry beautifully shines, truly making it a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Carole King’s Tapestry set a new standard in the singer-songwriter category. The benchmark has yet to be surpassed, almost 46 years after the album’s release in February 1971.

Apart from its great music, I will always connect Tapestry with the time in the mid-70s when I started to get into music. My sister had the record and was playing it all the time. Recently, I got a vinyl copy of this gem as well. I had owned it on CD for many years, but nothing beats the vinyl experience!

While Tapestry brought Carole King on the map as a solo artist, at the time of its release she already had been a successful songwriter for other artists for more than a decade. Together with her lyricist and first husband Gerry Goffin, Carole had written a number of major hits during the 60s, such as The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and, not to forget, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).

But back to Tapestry, which was Carole’s second studio release. Her debut, Writer, did not receive much initial attention, though that changed when Tapestry became popular. It’s one of those rare albums where I almost find it impossible to point out obvious highlights – each of its 12 tunes is simply outstanding, making it worthwhile to listen from the first song to the last song.

The opener I Feel The Earth Move is one of only a few up-tempo tunes on the album with a dose of rock and blues. Another great song in this category is Smackwater Jack. It is also one of three tunes from the 60s Goffin-King songwriting era. The other two are the beautiful ballads Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and Natural Woman.

If I would have to choose my favorite from Tapestry, it would be You’ve Got A Friend, both musically and in terms of its exceptionally beautiful lyrics. It is one of various tunes featuring James Taylor, who also recorded his own version, which became one of his signature songs.

Another tune I’m particularly fond of is Way Over Yonder. In addition to great lyrics, Carole’s singing and piano-playing are outstanding. But what’s really giving me the goose bumps is the background vocal (Merry Clayton) and the tenor sax solo (Curtis Amy).

Speaking of additional musicians, Tapestry features numerous of them, though most of the songs are dominated by Carole’s powerful voice and piano. Additional instrumentation is oftentimes in the background, especially for the ballads, which gives the songs great dynamic. Some of the fantastic musicians include Danny Kootch (acoustic and electric guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Charles Larkey (bass), Carol’s second husband at the time. Oh, and there is Joni Mitchell, who shares background vocals with James Taylor on Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, including more than 10 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It is No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Here is a great clip of You’ve Got A Friend with just Carole and her piano – that’s all you need!

What I’ve Been Listening To: Fleetwood Mac: Rumours

This 1976 jewel is another album I recently purchased on vinyl.

Rumours was the first Fleetwood Mac album I listened to and taped on a music cassette when I was a teenager many moons ago. So when I recently spotted it while browsing through vinyl records at a great “old-fashioned” record store not far from my house, I had to buy it!

Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album certainly doesn’t sound anything like the band’s origins in 1967 when Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood left John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers to form Fleetwood Mac, together with slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and bassist Bob Brunning. Of course, the band’s transition to mainstream, pop-oriented rock had started with their eponymous album in 1975, featuring for the first time what would become Fleetwood Mac’s most successful line-up: Fleetwood, Lindsey BuckinghamStevie Nicks, John McVie and Christine McVie.

More than 40 years after its release, Rumours still hasn’t lost any of its magic. The album produced four singles that charted in the Top 10 in the U.S., which remain staples on many pop rock radio stations to this day: Go Your Own Way, Dreams, Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun. Dreams was the most successful of the bunch, hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and staying there for one week. Interestingly, the song was the band’s only No. 1 hit on that chart, selling more than a million copies.

Other album highlights include The Chain, the only song credited to all five members of the band, and Gold Dust Woman, one of three tunes that were solely written by Nicks. And then there is Never Going Back Again, a jewel written by Buckingham, which showcases his excellent acoustic guitar skills.

Speaking of Buckingham, in my opinion, he is one of the most remarkable guitarists who managed to develop his one signature style. There is really no one else who sounds like him! I was a bit surprised to see he was “only” ranked 100th in Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. After initially using Gibson and Fender guitars, Buckingham worked with guitar builder Rick Turner to create his own electric guitar, The Turner Model 1. He has used it ever since. Pretty cool in my book!

Earlier this month, Rolling Stone reported that Buckingham and Christine McVie are working on a duet album, which they are aiming to release in May. While it includes contributions from Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, the album will be released under the moniker Buckingham McVie. The same story also refers to a previous interview with Fleetwood, in which he confirmed the band had recorded new music since Christine McVie’s return in January 2014. But he added very little of that material includes Nicks, so for the time being, a new Fleetwood Mac album seems to remain, well, a rumour!

I’d like to finish this post with a great clip of Go Your Own Way, which is from the band’s Dance Tour ’97. BTW, I saw Fleetwood Mac in 2013 in New Jersey, just a few months before Christine McVie returned, and they sounded just as awesome as in the clip.

What I’ve Been Listening To: Led Zeppelin IV

Led Zeppelin IV remains a gem, more than 45 years after the album’s release.

Why do a post about Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album now? Well, why not? I don’t really need a specific reason ever to write about great rock music, especially this 1971 classic. But the fact I’m musing about this album today is not entirely a coincidence either.

Yesterday, I went to an old-fashioned record store not far from my house, Revilla Grooves & Gear, and purchased three records – my first “new” vinyl albums in three decades! I’m saying “new,” since this great store almost exclusively sells previously owned vinyl records, as well as vintage Hi-Fi equipment – a place to get lost and find true treasures! And, yes, by now you probably figured it out: one of the LPs I got is Led Zeppelin IV, which until yesterday I had owned on CD only.

The first Zeppelin tune I ever heard was Stairway to Heaven, which must have been in the late 1970s. At the time, I was starting to take (Spanish) guitar lessons. The song’s acoustic opening was an immediate draw, and it wasn’t long thereafter that I asked my guitar instructor to teach me how to play it – took a while to figure it out! In fact, I’ve been practicing it again lately. But I’m no longer playing as much as I used to and have lost a good deal of dexterity, so doing it justice nowadays is not easy!

Since an 8-minute song is a tough proposition for any mainstream radio station, they always faded out Stairway during the transition to the hard rock section. I still vividly remember when I listened to the song in its entirety for the first time. I thought, ‘oh no, how could the band have ruined this beautiful acoustic masterpiece with this aggressive hard rock ending?’ Well, then, I primarily was into folk/acoustic guitar music and hardly listened to hard rock, except perhaps Deep Purple, though I don’t exactly remember whether I had already “discovered” them.

Anyway, in my case, Zep definitely was an acquired taste, including Led Zeppelin IV. Initially, I would mostly listen to Stairway, in part to play along with my acoustic guitar, and stop the tune as it transitioned to the hard rock part. But soon I did not only start to “accept” the hard rock ending, but came to realize how absolutely brilliant the tune’s build and transformation is. I also noticed that the other songs on the album weren’t “so bad after all!”Today, Led Zeppelin IV is one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite bands.

While Stairway to Heaven is the most obvious song that comes to mind when thinking about Led Zeppelin IV, there is a lot of great additional music on this album. It all starts with the opener, Black Dog, which was also released as the record’s first single in December 1971. The song features one of the coolest riffs in rock, which I was surprised to read was credited to John Paul Jones, not Jimmy Page. The single’s B-side, Misty Mountain Hop, also has a great riff. In this case, it was Page who came up with it.

Another standout on the album is The Battle of Evermore. Written by Page, this folk tune nicely illustrates that Zeppelin was more than just a terrific hard rock band (of course, Stairway shows that as well). The song, which has a mystic feel to it, features acoustic guitar and mandolin, and Robert Plant singing duet with Sandy Denny. Denny, an English singer/songwriter, was best known as the singer for the folk rock band Fairport Convention.

In addition to the many great songs on this album, I also like to highlight John Bonham and his drum-playing. While I don’t want to pretend I’m a drum expert, if I would ever start taking up the drums, which I actually have considered, Bonham would definitely be one of my idols. And once I would reach an appropriate level, I would try to learn the drums part for Stairway – I imagine a steep climb! Apart from the great guitar parts, I’ve always admired Bonham’s drumming on the song.

And what better way to finish this post than with Stairway. Here is a terrific clip of Zep’s performance of the iconic song at Madison Square Garden in July 1973. It’s taken from The Song Remains the Same, the concert documentary released in October 1976.

 

 

What I’ve been listening to: The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East

Like many other folks in the U.S., I haven’t been exactly cheerful over the past few days. Music including this 1971 classic can be great to overcome the post-election blues.

I certainly don’t want to trivialize the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, which does concern me a great deal. Turning to the blues in this situation may also seem to be ironical. But I find there is something in this great music that puts me at ease, providing a welcome distraction from all the post-election media coverage and analysis.

At Fillmore East is the third album by The Allman Brothers Band. I agree with critics who consider it to be one of the best live albums in rock music. It captures material from three concerts the band performed at Fillmore East, a legendary late 60s/early 70s music venue in New York City, which also featured other icons like Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin.

Even though the Allman Brothers had already released two excellent studio albums, their eponymous debut (1969) and the follow-up Idlewild South (1970), it was At Fillmore East that gave them their commercial breakthrough. It’s really not a surprise, since the band was such an amazing live act.

At Fillmore East showcases the Allman Brothers’ outstanding musical craftsmanship. It features long jams mixing blues and rock with country and jazz elements. Of the seven songs on the original release only two are Allman Brothers compositions: Dickey Betts’ In Memory of Elizabeth Reed from Idlewild South, and Gregg Allman’s Whipping Post. Both are among the album’s highlights blending amazing dual lead guitar parts by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts with the treffic sound of Gregg Allman’s Hammond.

Statesboro Blues nicely showcases Duane’s slide guitar work. Another standout is Stormy Monday. The tune starts off as a slow blues, picks up to a jazz grove driven by Gregg’s organ and then slows down again to a blues tune. It’s just brilliant!

Released July 1971, At Fillmore East reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and received RIAA Gold certification in October that year. Eventually, it was certified platinum in August 1992. The album is No. 49 on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was one of the 50 recordings the Library of Congress selected in 2004 to be added to the National Recording Registry.

At Fillmore East is the last album the band released when all of its original members were still alive: Duane Allman (slide guitar, lead guitar), Gregg Allman (piano, organ, vocals), Dickey Betts (lead guitar), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Jai Johanny Johanson (drums, congas, timbales) and Butch Trucks (drums, tympani). A few months after the album had come out Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident.

What I’ve been listening to: Dire Straits

The other day, I saw on Facebook that Dire Straits’ inaugural album had its 38th anniversary – a good reason to listen to the 1978 gem.

When I heard Sultans of Swing for the first time as a teenager, I was immediately hooked on Dire Straits. Since they would always fade out the song on the radio, which drove me nuts, I needed to own it myself. So I bought the vinyl album that includes Sultans of Swing, not realizing I could have gotten the single instead. I’m glad I did what I did, since I would have missed out on great music otherwise!

While I’ve had Dire Straits’ eponymous studio album for 30-plus years, I could not play it until recently when I got a turntable, a device I had not owned in close to 20 years. You wonder what took me so long! So with a turntable finally in place again and the album in my vinyl storage shelf, it was the perfect opportunity to pull it out and listen to it in its entirety. Of course, I could have done the same via Apple Music, but it simply is not the same experience.

Sultans of Swing is the first song on the album’s B-side. It’s the best known tune from the record. The single climbed all the way up to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 8 on the U.K. Singles Chart.

Water of Love is another song that Dire Straits released as a single in some countries. While it wasn’t as successful as Sultans of Swing, it’s one of my favorite other tunes on the album. I also think Down to the Waterline, the B-side of the Water of Love single and the album’s opener, is a gem. Other songs I like in particular include Setting Me Up and In the Gallery.

To me and I guess to most other Dire Straits fans, most of the band’s appeal came from Mark Knopfler and the amazing sound he got out of his Fender Stratocaster. His melodic and sparing way to play the guitar with his fingers rather than a pick created a very transparent and distinct sound. There is simply no other guitarist who sounds like him.

While it is fair to say that Mark Knopfler was Dire Straits’ dominant force, a band is never just one guy. So this post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the other musicians on the album: David Knopfler, Mark’s brother (rhythm guitar, vocals), John Illsley (bass, vocals) and Pick Withers (drums).

Dire Straits is best remembered for their 19985 studio album Brothers in Arms and the hit single Money For Nothing. And while that’s undoubtedly a terrific album, their 1978 debut will always remain my favorite.

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Listening to: Highway 61 Revisited

With Dylan’s Nobel prize in literature, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve been listening more to his music recently, including the 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

I don’t have a strong opinion whether a singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan should receive a Nobel prize in literature. I lean toward ‘no.’ It’s not because I question his genius or because of his apparent reluctance to acknowledge the honor. My argument is he is already so well established that he doesn’t need it. On the other hand, the prize could put a relatively less known writer on the map beyond the literary world.

But the ongoing debate about whether or not Dylan should accept the award definitely made me pay closer attention to his music. Combined with my new quest to listen more to entire albums rather than just an artist’s greatest hits, this led me to Highway 61 Revisited, which is No. 4 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

I’ve always liked what you could consider obvious Dylan gems, such as Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, Lay Lady Lay, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Hurricane, to name a few. But I will admit that it was not until recently that I started listening to some of his albums in their entirety. 

In fact, a previous attempt in the early 199os to get more deeply into Dylan’s music ended with disappointment. Inspired by a good friend and big Dylan fan, I decided to see a Dylan show. Leading up it to get into the mood, I listened to Before the Flood, Dylan’s excellent 1974 live album with The Band, which essentially is a greatest hits compilation. But the only song I recognized during the concert was Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Strangely, it also was the opener of the show. All other tunes were unknown, at least to me.

But on to the main topic of this post, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s sixth studio album, which was released in 1965. The album continued his transition to “electric.” While Dylan had introduced electric instruments on his previous album Bringing It All Back Home, featuring an electric and an acoustic side, Highway 61 Revisited was all-electric, except for Desolation Row, the album’s last song. 

Columbia Records didn’t understand and initially resisted the album’s title. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan discussed the deep connection he felt to Highway 61, which explains the title: “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began (a reference to his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota). I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down to the deep Delta country…It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

Highway 61 Revisited features some of Dylan’s classic tunes, including the opener Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man and the title song. With a running time of more than 6 minutes, Like a Rolling Stone broke the mold of the then-typical 3-minute song. Initially, radio stations were reluctant to play such a long tune but relented when the song became popular. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts and also became an international hit.

A number of the album’s other songs – Tombstone Blues; It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry; From a Buick 6; and Highway 61 – are heavily blues-influenced tunes. Many of them have been covered by other formidable artists, especially the second song, including The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Taj Mahal and Toto

While it’s fun to listen to the blues tunes, I think the album’s standout is Ballad of a Thin Man with its rather creepy music and lyrics. Based on comments Dylan has made over the years, the song expresses his disgust for certain reporters, who would ask him endless questions. In 1975, a journalist called Jeffrey Jones told Rolling Stone he attempted to interview Dylan at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival and claimed the song was about him. But Dylan refused to give him the credit, saying there were “many Mr. Joneses” at the time.

One my other favorite tunes on the album is Queen Jane Approximately. It’s a little reminiscent of Like a Rolling Stone, both in terms of the sound and the lyrics. 

My thoughts about Highway 61 Revisited wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the excellent musicians who backed Dylan: Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Charlie McCoy (electric guitar), Paul Griffin (piano, organ), Al Kooper (piano, organ), Frank Owens (piano), Harvey Brooks (bass guitar), Russ Savakus (bass guitar), Joe Macho, Jr. (bass guitar), Bobby Gregg (drums) and Sam Lay (drums).

Some of these guys were or would be associated with other well-known artists. For example, Mike Bloomfield was a member of the Paul Butterfly Blues Band while Al Kooper was a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and the band’s initial leader. Paul Griffin also worked with Steely Dan, Don McLean, the Isley Brothers and Van Morrison, among others, and played on Blonde on Blonde, another iconic Dylan album.

What I’ve been listening to: The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl

For people who know me or have read the blog, it should not come as a big surprise that I would choose the newly released live album by The Beatles. I started listening to The Fab Four almost 40 years ago and never stopped.

Yesterday, the widely anticipated remixed, remastered and expanded version of The Beatles’ live album was released. Live at the Hollywood, which originally appeared in 1977 on vinyl and was titled The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, captures episodes of rock & roll history that happened more than 50 years ago. It’s simply a must-have for every Beatles fan, especially folks like me who never got a chance to actually see The Beatles in concert.

The album includes material from three shows The Beatles did at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, on August 23, 1964 and August 29 & 30, 1965.

Producing a professional record from these performances was no easy feat. The task to produce the initial record from 1977 was given to none other than George Martin, The Beatles’ former producer. His first challenge was to find a working machine that could play back the three-track concert tapes. Once Martin did, he noticed the tape deck overheated while running, threatening to destroy the concert tapes! In addition, the sound quality of the tapes was pretty poor.

Together with recording engineer with Geoff Emerick, Martin came up with the solution to cool the machine with blowing cold air from a vacuum cleaner while transferring the material to a 16-track machine – literally a pretty cool idea! Working with a 16-track machine allowed for filtering, equalizing, editing and mixing the music. I have the original vinyl album from 1977, and I must say the result of Martin’s and Emerick’s work is beautiful. It’s also another impetus to get a turntable, which I currently don’t have!

The remixed and enhanced version of the album was produced by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son who previously collaborated with his now deceased father on the soundtrack for Love, the Cirque du Soleil production based on the music by The Beatles. Following is what he said about the latest production, according to thebeatleseightdaysaweek.com, the companion web site for the forthcoming Beatles film documentary “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” by Ron Howard:

“A few years ago, Capitol Studios called, saying they’d discovered some Hollywood Bowl three-track tapes in their archive. We transferred them and noticed an improvement over the tapes we’ve kept in the London archive. Alongside this I’d been working for some time with a team headed by technical engineer James Clark on demix technology, the ability to remove and separate sounds from a single track. With Sam Okell, I started work on remixing the Hollywood tapes. Technology has moved on since my father worked on the material all those years ago. Now there’s improved clarity, and so the immediacy and visceral excitement can be heard like never before.”

So how about the actual music? It is a mix of songs from The Beatles’ first five studio albums Please Please Me (1963), With the Beatles (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Beatles for Sale (1964) and Help! (1965). The album includes many hits from these albums, such as A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, She Loves You and Can’t Buy Me Love. The new version also features four previously unreleased songs: I Want to Hold Your Hand, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, Baby’s in Black and my favorite of these additional tracks, You Can’t Do That.

While I love The Beatles’ original songs, I have to say I’ve always been particularly fond of their covers of rock & roll songs. A number of these gems are on this live album, including the fantastic stage-setting opener Twist and Shout, Dizzy, Miss Lizzy, Boys, Long Tall Sally and the Chuck Berry classic, Roll Over Beethoven.

I think the best way to finish this post is to take a look at what the great George Martin said in the liner notes to the 1977 original album. Following are some excerpts:

“I was not in favor for taping their performance. I knew the quality of the recording could not equal what we could do in the studio, we but thought we would try anyhow…”

“The chaos, I might almost say panic, that reigned at these concerts was unbelievable unless you were there…The Beatles had no “fold back” speakers, so they could not hear what they were singing, and the eternal shriek from 17,000 healthy, young lungs made even a jet plane inaudible…”

“The fact that [the tapes] were the only live recordings of the Beatles in existence (if you discount inferior bootlegs) did not impress me. What did impress me, however, was the electric atmosphere and raw energy that came over…”

“Those of us who were lucky enough to be present at a live Beatle concert – be it in Liverpool, London, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Sydney or wherever – will know how amazing, how unique those performances were…And for the others who wondered what on earth all the fuzz was about, this album may give a little clue…” 

Well said, George!