Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pissed A Tequila-Anaconda

The most reckless thing about Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, released December 13, 1977,  is her appearance in blackface on the cover, reprising a Halloween costume she wore earlier in the year, going as a black man who complemented her on an L.A. street 

“As he went by me he turned around and said, ‘Ummmm, mmm... looking good, sister, lookin’ good!’ Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him,” Mitchell said. “I bought a black wig. I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pan- cake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’”

The double album has enough jazz inflected moments to please fans of Court and Spark and Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the album did sell enough to go gold. But the reviews were not kind, including the one below by Rolling Stone's Janet Maslin who called it "an instructive failure".

In retrospect, Blue turns out to have been the album that displayed Joni Mitchell at her most buoyant and comfortable — with herself, with the nature of her talents, and with the conventions of pop songwriting. From that happy juncture, she has moved on to more graceful and sober self-scrutiny (For the Roses and Court and Spark), to dramatic musical experimentation mixed with failed social commentary (The Hissing of Summer Lawns), to ever-more-seductive singing (Miles of Aisles) and to rambling, hypnotic flights of fancy (Hejira). She has dabbled with jazz and African tribal music, ventured deep inside herself and fled far away. But, always, the unpredictable caliber of her work has been as exciting as it is frustrating. Now, for once, she has gambled and lost. The best that can be said for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.

 Since Blue, Mitchell has demonstrated an increasing fondness for formats that don't suit her. Not that this awkwardness can't be occasionally successful: on Hejira, she clung so resolutely to even the stray flat notes that the impression was an attractive one of stubbornness and strength. But, increasingly, Mitchell's pretensions have shaped her appraisal of her own gifts. At her best, she is a keen observer but not a particularly original one, and she has never been an interesting chronicler of experience other than her own, though the new LP finds her trying. Instead, she has been inexplicably inclined to let her music become shapeless as she tries to incorporate jazz and calypso rhythms that eventually overpower her. Her most resonant lyrics have been simple and concise, spinning out images rather than overburdening them, but lately the endearing modesty of "California" or "Just like This Train" seems far behind her. These days, Mitchell appears bent on repudiating her own flair for popular songwriting, and on staking her claim to the kind of artistry that, when it's real, doesn't need to announce itself so stridently.

 Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a double album that should have been a single album. It's sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been riffs, songs that should have been fragments. At its worst, it is a painful illustration of how different the standards that govern poetry and song lyrics can be, and an indication that Joni Mitchell's talents, stretched here to the breaking point, lend themselves much more naturally to the latter form. Her writing works best when it's compact, yet the record's expansive mood forces her to belabor, in the title song, the precious contrast between a snake (or a train, as well as the author's baser instincts) and an eagle (or an airplane, plus a longing for "clarity") for nearly seven minutes. Mitchell's music has evolved into a kind of neutral background, rolling on endlessly in either a languid spirit ("Jericho") or a nervous one ("Dreamland"). Somehow, she has chosen to abandon melody at a time when she needs it urgently.

 The painful banality of Mitchell's lyrics — there is nothing said here that she hasn't said better before, except those things she should have kept to herself — is almost the least of her problems. Behind a treacly title like "The Silky Veils of Ardor" lurks an even treaclier notion: that the romantic visions of love put forth by certain folk songs are one thing, that reality is another, and that the singer apparently yearns for both. "It's just in my dreams we fly," the song concludes, with a reference to "The Water Is Wide." Or, as a dialogue balloon on one of the inner sleeves puts it, "In my dweems we fwy." The album offers what is, one can only hope, the ultimate in cute cover art.

It also offers the ultimate in potshots: "Otis and Marlena," a facile, snidely sung song about tourists who come to Miami "for fun and sun While Muslims stick up Washington." This leads into "The Tenth World," a mostly instrumental percussion track featuring Jaco Pastorius (who plays on a majority of the record with distinction, but without much helpful influence), Airto and Chaka Khan (who hums). Here and elsewhere, there seems to be the notion that blacks and Third World people have more rhythm, more fun and a secret, mischievous viewpoint that the author, dressed as a black man in one of the photos on the front jacket, presumes to share. On the numbing, sixteen-minute "Paprika Plains," we also learn about Indians, who "cut off their braids/And lost some link with nature." 

"Talk to Me" is the LP's most enduring number: as a terrible, embarrassing song about feeling terribly embarrassed, it has a scary appropriateness. But even though there are no real solutions to the album's mysteries or explanations for its lapses, Joni Mitchell's resilience has been demonstrated often enough to make speculation about such things appear superfluous. She's bound to be back when the time is right and her mood is less drowsy, less disengaged than it seems here. Until then, we're left with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, in all its recklessness.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Four Turkeys in a Big Black Car

In December of 1977, Brian Eno released his most diverse album of the 1970's, Before And After Science. Having collaborated with David Bowie on two albums recorded in Berlin, Eno was stepping out on his own with an album he wasn't completely satisfied with.

  Side One offers Eno's last foray into rock music of the decade, including the single "King's Lead Hat", an anagram of Talking Heads with whom he had originally hoped to record the song. You can easily imagine David Byrne singing this song. Phil Manzanera is playing the frenetic guitar. 

The opening track is a funky Bowiesque number with two bass players and Phil Collins playing drums. Yes, that Phil Collins. 

"Kurt's Rejoinder" makes history by sampling a 1930s recording of ‘Sonate in Urlauten’ (or ‘The Ursonate’)– a phonetic poem by Dada affiliate Kurt Schwitters . 

Side Two is mostly instrumental, a return to the spacious sounds of Another Green World. Though Eno questioned the quality of the album, Before And After Science got very good reviews. 'Heroes' may have topped the NME chart, but Eno's album finished at No. 14, just ahead of the Jam’s In the City. Eno would have to wait until the following year to learn the album, released in the Spring of '78 in the States, had finished No 12.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Kinda Soft, Kinda Mean

On December 10, 1977, Dr Feelgood were filmed performing at Queen Mary College in London. Guitarist John "Gypie" Mayo is now completely comfortable in his role as guitarist, having replaced Wilko Johnson earlier in the year. The Nick Lowe penned "That's It, I Quit" is from the September 1977 release Be Seeing You, produced by Mr Lowe himself. ( Nick Lowe recorded the Feelgood's "Keep It Out of Sight" a year earlier).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Think Of A Number

In December of 1977, Wire released Pink Flag, my favorite album of the entire year.

Wire had one foot planted firmly in the punk rock gutter.  But the other foot was in the college educated, art rock. On Pink Flag, they play with the basic concepts of songs, how they should start, how they should end and how long they should be. 

The second track on Pink Flag is "Field Day for the Sundays". It is 28 seconds long.

"The shorter songs developed naturally," Graham Lewis told Rolling Stone. "When the words ran out, Colin said, 'That's it.' We went, 'Yes, why not?' It used to drive the punks nuts. They'd sort of get pogoing, and then it would stop. We always thought it was really funny."

Humor played a large role in what Wire were up to. ("Brazil" got its title because some members thought it had a rhythm that sounded like something off a Sergio Mendes record). 

"As we played, our skill level was going up and we were getting tighter, and the tighter we got, the funnier it was with the stopping and starting," said Lewis.

"As we played, our skill level was going up and we were getting tighter, and the tighter we got, the funnier it was with the stopping and starting," said Lewis.

Wire could do it all. Is there a faster punk song on record than "Surgeon's Girl"? Or a more melodic bit of power pop punk than the love song "Fragile"?

Called a punk suite by Robert Christgau, this 21 song album clocks in at under 36 minutes. It's the best 36 minutes of 1977.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nah Pop No Style

In December of 1977, the Jamaican teenage reggae duo Althea and Donna released the single "Uptown Top Ranking",  a #1 smash hit in the U.K. The story about "Uptown Top Ranking" is well known.  Heading for oblivion, the single was accidentally played by BBC D.J. John Peel on his late evening show. Not sure how a D.J. accidentally plays a record, but in any case Peel received letters from people saying how much they liked it so he kept playing it. Daytime BBC D.J.s soon following the example and by February it was the top song in the U.K. 

It's a catchy song, sung over the dee jay track of Trinity's "Three Piece Suit", with indecipherable patois lyrics that turn out to be exactly the kind of thing teen age girls would write--  men who cat call them when they walk on the road (See me pon the road I hear you call out to me ), driving around in Mercedes Benz (See mi in mi Benz and ting Drivin' through Constant Spring ), dancing with the most popular guy in tan leisure suits. (Watch how we chuck it and ting Inna we khaki suit and ting ) And telling the world they don't care for pop music. They love reggae (Nah pop no style, a strictly roots ).

Sly and Robbie played on the album.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Yam! Bam!

In December of 1977 Belgian singer Roger Jouret, better known as Plastic Bertrand, released "Ca Plane Pour Moi", an infectious and silly international hit that was actually sung by the record's producer, Lou Deprijck. That would explain why Bertrand only received 0.5% of the royalties. 

This is not the only time a performer would find fame by lip syncing somebody else's vocals (Milli Vanilli anyone?), though it would be thirty years before Bertrand would admit it. 

 (Wham! Bam!)
My cat "Splash"rests on my bed
She’s swallowed her tongue
While drinking all my whisky.
As for me,
Not much sleep, worn out, bullied
I’ve had to sleep in the gutter
Where I've had a vision
Hou! Hou! Hou! Hou!
In four colours
 Let’s go!
One morning
A chick came to my place
A cellophane doll, chinese hair
A sticking plaster, a wooden face
She’s drunk my beer from a a big rubber glass
Hou! Hou! Hou! Hou!
Like an Indian in his igloo
 That’s cool with me
That’s cool with me
That’s cool with me, me, me,me, me
That’s cool with me

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Cocaine Afternoons

Jackson Browne : Running On Empty

On December 6, 1977 Jackson Browne released the best album of his career, Running On Empty. I didn't ever feel a need to buy a copy of the album. It was blaring out of speakers pointed outside dorm room windows throughout my teenage years. But it's only when you listen to the entire album that you realize what a cool concept this is: A live album about a musician's life on the road, recorded onstage, in rehearsal rooms, in Holiday Inn suites and on a bus. Only complaint: David Lindley's lap steel guitar is almost too present on the record.

This is the 70's so it should be no surprise how often cocaine is mentioned :

In "The Road ": Coffee in the morning cocaine afternoons
 In "Cocaine" : Cocaine, running all 'round my brain
In "Nothing But Time : I got a broken white line (I'm still sober)

From Rolling Stone's Paul Nelson:

As our finest practicing romantic, Jackson Browne has been stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again for so long that the road probably looks like a realistic way of life to him. Whether or not he knows it, he's been writing about highways and their alternate routes since his beginnings, so the subject matter of Running on Empty aren't all that different from those of his first four LPs. But the approach is. This time, Browne has consciously created a documentary, as brightly prosaic as it is darkly poetic, with a keen eye for the mundane as well as the magical. Running on Empty is a live album of new material about life on the road as conceived and recorded by a band of touring musicians in the places they spend most of their time (onstage, backstage, in hotel rooms, even on the bus). Since there are two separate concepts here, the audience gets an unprecedented double feature: ten songs they've never heard Browne sing, and a behind-the-scenes look at the "the show they didn't see." Ostensibly, the Gawain of rock and roll has scaled down his heroic obsessions, re-covered the Round Table with Formica and invited us in for a cup of truck-stop coffee, thus proving a point we knew all along: that small gestures can be just as meaningful and revealing as large ones.

 Ironically, when Browne tries for specifics, he achieves both facts and universals. But his inclination to ease up makes sense here because he's really running two different, very dangerous races: one positively mythopoetic (the Road and its metaphorical implications), the other presumably maudlin (musicians on the road). The first can barley be done justice to within the confines of a pop record, while the second has rarely risen above its inherent cliches.

If a full-fledged mythology of the road didn't exist, we'd undoubtedly have to invent one, but the job has already been done by the same people who gave us the sky and the sea: i.e., practically every artist and thinker who ever lived. On the road, there's that old gray magic, asphalt camaraderie and the special language of musicians who mark time by gigs and guitar cases. Section guitarist Danny Kortchmar's "Shaky Town" captures perfectly all the desperate exhilaration of playing "a thousand bands" on "those one-night stands," and Browne raises the hair on the back of your neck with his passionate singing. There's "Nothing but Time" on the bus and "Cocaine" in the hotel room, both recorded on location. On one song, tour photographer Joel Bernstein sings harmony on the chorus. Funny things happen when you're subtle, rueful and witty "Rosie" (written by Browne and his production manager, Donald "Buddha" Miller), a groupie the sound mixer craves leaves with a star, so the mixer must, if he wants any loving that night, once again take himself in hand. In "You Love the Thunder," Browne forges a temporary relationship with a kindred spirit, only to realize "You can dream/But you can never go back the way you came." Browne looks back on his life in "Running on Empty," a pragmatic hobo's lullaby and the hymn of the Harvard cowboy. It's what daydreamers have nightmares about: 

Sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own 
I don't even know when that road turned onto the road I'm on.... 
You know I don't even know what I'm hoping to find 
Running into the sun but I'm running behind. 

Best of all, there's a finale. "The Load-Out" is Jackson Browne's tribute to and summation of every aspect of live performance: the cheering audience out front, the band playing hard-nosed rock and roll, the backstage crew loading up the trucks -- and, always, the road to the next town. Packed to capacity with the data of first-rate reporting and with music so warm and soaring it belies the album's title, this song flows triumphantly into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Stay," where Browne tells us he doesn't ever want it to end. 

 What I really like about Running on Empty probably has little to do with the generosity or genius of its dual concepts, with the songwriter's craftmanship skill, with how much I admire the music of David Lindley and the Section, but rather with Jackson Browne himself. In other words, as impressed as I am with Jackson Browne's art, I'm even more impressed with the humanity that shines through it. Maybe they're inseparable, but I doubt it.

From Robert Christgau's B+ review ( the best scire he would give any Jackson Browne album):

Out of the studio -- this was recorded on tour -- Jackson sounds relaxed verbally, vocally, even instrumentally. He cuts his own meager melodies with nice ones by Danny O'Keefe and Danny Kortchmar. He does a funny and far from uncritical version of "Cocaine" and a loving and far from unfunny version of "Stay." I consider this his most attractive album. But his devotees may consider the self-effacement a deprivation. 

From Billboard:

Presented here are 10 new selections from this gifted singer/songwriter, all recorded live onstage, as well as in hotel rooms, from a recent cross-country tour. The material deals mainly with experiences of the brief road encounters, loneliness and roadies -- all done with Browne's evocative, haunting and penetrating insight. Music is a mix of soft rock ballads and pounding, uptempo tunes with the Section (Craig Doerge on keyboards, Danny Kortchmer on guitars, Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, as well as David Lindley on electric fiddle and lap steel) supporting Browne's piano. Best cuts: "Running On Empty," "The Road," "You Love The Thunder," "Love Needs A Heart," "The Load Out."