Tag Archives: I’ve never heard…

I’ve Never Heard… Falling Into You by Celine Dion

We’re back! And no – this is not an April Fool. Here’s another one of my occasional posts on canonical and/or huge-selling records that I never got round to hearing in full. This time, we’re shunning the critical canon and going pop.

At one point, this was going to be a post on Garth Brooks – to really plug a gap in my knowledge of ultra-successful music. I mean, regarding Brooks I knew nothing at all other than: Stetson, stage shows, millions of records sold, Chris Gaines.

But Chris Molanphy on Hit Parade did a Brooks episode that filled those gaps in my knowledge, and frankly left me uninterested in hearing any more. So I decided to go with an ultra-successful pop record instead. Whitney I discounted – at least for the time being – on the basis of her having pretty widespread critical appreciation, especially now. So it was a toss-up between Shania and Céline. I went with Céline. Seemed like there’d be more to dig into. Let’s dig in, then.

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Well known and widely read it may be, but Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love, an examination of Celine Dion’s 1997 album of the same name, feels like a period piece these days.

As he says himself, Wilson is not a poptimist by instinct. Not, at least, when he first wrote his book as part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of slim volumes on classic albums. Wilson grew up an indie kind of guy, and his dislike for Dion and her music was sharpened by the fact that he lived in Montreal – in Dion’s Francophone heartland – when the success of Titanic made her truly inescapable. His book, then, was a critique of his own tastes and that of self-declared indie hipsters as much it was as a critique of Dion’s music. It was an attempt to reach a poptimistic position on an artist that indie fans routinely held in contempt by a writer to whom it didn’t come naturally.

Now, to generalise hugely for a second, music fans who are younger than me – which is to say Millennials* and Zoomers – don’t have a rockist indoctrination to shake off that Wilson and I had (or have – it’s always a work in progress). They like what they like, and that’s frequently a bit of everything, from pop to progressive metal. Now they’re at an age where they have achieved media prominence and get to write books, books such as Wilson’s don’t need to be written anymore.

That Celine Dion’s music needs no aesthetic defence in 2021, then, is one of two starting points for this piece. The other is that – obviously – I’m not familiar with her music at album length, despite the album I’ve picked to write about, 1996’s Falling Into You, having sold somewhere around 22 million copies, including possibly one to my mum, if I’m not misremembering. It was certainly in the house.

Of course, saying something needs no critical defence doesn’t mean that I’m going to like all of it. Simply that, I won’t be discussing where pop sits in an aesthetic hierarchy compared to rock, jazz, folk or any other kind of music, because that whole idea is dumb. And in 2021, that much shouldn’t need saying.

So here goes. Let’s fall into Falling Into You.

*

It starts big. Really big. Jim Steinman big.

Chris Molanphy, the aforementioned writer and presenter of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, recently did a deep dive on Steinman. He’s a braver man than I. Steinman’s songs are high-calorie confections, too rich to be enjoyed in quantity, in sequence or on repeat. Even getting through It’s All Coming Back to Me Now once for this piece was a bit of a slog for me, unused as I am to the Steinman diet. The unedited version that begins Falling Into You – seven and a half minutes long – is a minute or two more than I needed, and the five-minute radio edit is an improvement.

That said, there’s much to be admired here. Dion’s voice is a subject we’re going to return to again and again in this piece, but if you want to hear one song that shows off what she can do, pretty much her full range is here, and it’s incredibly impressive. Most importantly for an artist who’s often been accused of peddling fake emotion, I believe her: on this song, every howl and every whisper lands as sincere.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that I believe Dion has experienced such operatic emotions in her own relationships. It’s always a mistake to assume the artist necessarily writes or performs from personal experience (another subject we’ll come back to) or that the first person “I” in a song is the same as the singer’s own perspective. But while I’m listening to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, I don’t experience a disconnect between text and performer. It never rings false to me. That is, I think, pretty key to selling a Steinman song, and it’s a real skill – one that Dion’s detractors have never really credited her with.

The production and playing are as impressive as Dion’s vocal. Obviously, everyone featured on a Celine Dion record is going to be a top-drawer musician, but it’s interesting listening to this so soon after doing one of these posts on Springsteen – one of Steinman’s all-consuming influences – to compare Bruce’s and Jim’s music.

Springsteen’s songs may be epic and stadium-sized, but they always sound like they’re being played by a bunch of doofy bar-band guys. Take Bruce’s pianist Roy Bittan out of the E Street Band, though, and give him Tim Pierce, Eddie Martinez, Jimmy Bralower and Kenny Aronoff to play with, and the effect is very different. From the opening basso-profundo chord, Bittan is here less doofy bar-band guy, more Wagnerian piano-forte overlord. Since they were recording in late 1995 and not, say, 1987, the drums and guitars commit no grave lapses of taste. But Martinez does do something rather adventurous and flashy with his whammy bar early on – it’s a detail, not featured loudly, but it’s a reminder that this is the guy who had widdly-widdly-widdled all over Run-DMC’s Rock Box, fifteen years before.

I’m not sure when the phenomenon of multiple producers on a single album became a thing, but it’s evidently something that began a little earlier than I’d imagined; Falling Into You lists eight different production teams. After It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bittan, Steinman and Steven Rinkoff (Steinman’s long-time recording engineer) exit the stage for a while, and David Foster takes over.

Now, Foster has had a hand in some great records. As great as Boz Scaggs’s Jojo. As great as Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. But on the whole, Foster’s discography, especially as a producer, is a dispiriting list. This is a guy who worked with Michael Bolton multiple times.

On Falling Into You, his first production vehicle is a Diane Warren song. My cup runneth over.

Because You Loved Me, from the film Up Close and Personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the sort of song that gives Celine Dion a bad name. She agreed to record it, I suppose, and so is author of her own misfortune, but still. Of course, I knew the song – have heard it hundreds of times, in fact – but it’s even more oppressive when listened to closely than it is heard on the radio in the background.

This record does not have a hair out of place. The sheer amount of industrial effort that goes into making a record like this is evident in every note, and you can’t help but think: all that expertise, all that time, all that work, for this? There is, as with every Warren love song, no reality here. No musical jagged edges, no lyric that suggests a genuinely human point of view – nothing personal or idiosyncratic. No sentiments that haven’t been worn smooth like a shiny pebble. Dion does a professional job with it, as you’d expect, but the overall effect is emetic. Let’s move swiftly on. We’ll have to deal with Foster again later, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.

Falling Into You, the title track, is one I had mixed feelings about at the time. On the one hand, it sounded very, very different – in a good way – to the rest of pop radio in 1996, with its Latin American percussion, martial snare rolls and prominent cavaquinho, and I appreciated the fact that Dion was willing to undersing for an entire song if the moment called for it (those who criticise her for oversinging – which she is guilty of at times – seldom praise her when she doesn’t).

On the other hand, its intimacy was bound to make a 14-year-old boy go “urgh”, and the fact that this was Celine Dion – only in her twenties, but clearly not an artist aimed at teenagers – getting all sensual and breathy made it all the more uncomfortable. That the song featured a Careless Whisper-style saxophone solo just added to the problems.

Today, saxophone apart, I think the song is really quite lovely. The backing track is, apparently, the same one as the Marie Claire D’Ubaldo original, including her backing vocals. There’s not a lot to choose between the two recordings. Dion’s vocal is, as you’d expect, smoother and more virtuosic; D’Ubaldo is a little more fragile, occasionally just slightly flat. What a contrast, though, to the vacuous Because You Loved Me. Wilson talks a couple of times in his book about how much more comfortable Dion seems when singing in French – how much better a singer she sounds – and we’ll put the hypothesis to the test later. But listening to Falling Into You, I wonder if it’s not as much to do with having a text she relates to as it is simply a French/English thing. Dion’s said herself how much she loved these lyrics, and you can tell that from her performance of them.

Make You Happy is by Andy Marvel [insert Andrew Marvell/To His Coy Mistress joke for the Eng Lit majors], who’d scored a big hit a year before as producer and co-writer of Diana King’s Shy Guy. It starts with a florid piano fakeout, but Make You Happy is, like Shy Guy, a reggae song, or a species of it. It’s reggae as understood by groups like Ace of Base: programmed R&B-ish drums, an offbeat guitar skank and just enough syncopated movement in the bass to suggest Jamaican music, while remaining at heart a Euro-pop record. Dion sounds like she’s having quite a good time singing it, particularly the verses, during which she gets to stay low in her range, where her rather pointy voice is at its fullest and warmest.

It’s hard to feel strongly about this kind of thing one way or another. It could do with a middle eight, or losing a minute of its length, but perhaps what this kind of record really needs is the blank affect of a Linn Berggren vocal; Dion’s effervescence gets a little wearying after four and a half minutes, which include a chunky 30-second fadeout.

Seduces Me, all sincerity and Spanish guitar, finds Dion back in breathy mode. Written by John Sheard and Dan “Sometimes When We Touch” Hill (I know. We won’t go there), its main problem seems to me a mismatch between performance and text. Halfway through the song, the softly picked guitars are joined by drums and bass. They’re not ’80s-style enormo-drums, as you may have expected, but they still act as a cue for Dion to ramp up in volume and intensity.

The thing that can make much of Dion’s music predictable and a bit samey (and this is true of many artists’ music, in all honesty) is the predictable shape of the recordings in terms of arrangement and vocal delivery. It doesn’t matter how hushed the opening is when you know that three minutes later, Dion will be projecting at full volume, drums will be crashing and reverberating, and politely distorted guitars will be chugging away in the background, while strings saw portentously on top. I like Falling Into You (the title track) precisely because it rejects this template for something less generic. The arrangement of Falling Into You (for which Marie Claire D’Ubaldo and her production team deserve most of the credit, in fairness) grows organically from and is thematically appropriate to the song, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps Seduces Me was intended to play to the Think Twice audience. The difference is that, while Think Twice is a breakup song where a degree of melodrama is natural, or even welcome, Seduces Me is a come-on. It’s rarely a good idea to get your partner in the mood by screeching at them about how hot they make you. Frankly, that’s red-flag behaviour.

Next up, a cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – one of the ur power ballads. The Carpenters’ Goodbye to Love was released three years before All By Myself, granted, but where the Carpenters’ record married sentimental ballad and distorted rock guitar solo (for which inclusion Richard Carpenter received hate mail), Carmen brought together sentimental ballad, big drums and solid, four-square weight. It’s a slow and stately trudge of a song. Bring all those elements together, and you have the power ballad as we know it today.

By the time Dion recorded her cover of All By Myself, the form had long since been codified. The key to a successful power ballad in the 1990s was to strip back some of the excesses the form had been subjected to in the 1980s: underplay the “power” aspect a little – dial back the reverb and processing on the instrument sounds, and keep it a little more raw and organic. In other words, to blur the distinction a little between power ballad and plain old ballad.

Unfortately, that’s not what happened here. Instead, producer David Foster (sigh) empties his bag of studio goo all over the song, mixing together sounds and techniques that had long since become cliches through overuse. There are some ghastly choices here: synth sounds that were dated when the record was released and are laughable now, drums that are cavernous but too undermixed to support Dion’s skyscraping vocal, choirs (or god help us choir pads) that are wholly extraneous and do nothing but signpost their own unreality. It’s bewildering this record got made this way in 1995.

When evaluating a commercially successful but artistically disappointing record, there will always be some whose rebuttal is: well, it sold a gajillion copies, you can’t argue with success. And that’s true up to a point. But I’m sorry, this is Celine Dion singing All By Myself. Any producer – I really do mean any producer – could have paired this artist with this song and had a massive hit with it. Some would also have made a decent record at the same time. Foster didn’t.

What he did do was to go for the iconic. To which end, he challenged Dion to hit that note. And what a note it is: a throat-shredding half-tone climb from E5 to F5 on the “more” of “anymore”, as the key rises from A to Db. Her voice clearly suffers under the strain, and she has always dropped the key substantially in live performance to avoid damaging her vocal cords, but as a once-and-once-only moment, it’s certainly impressive. Perhaps other producers wouldn’t have dared her to go there (Carmen’s original stays in the same key for the outro) and we wouldn’t have that moment, but one note doesn’t redeem an entire track, and ultimately Foster made a barely passable record out of a great song, despite having a singer of fearsome technical ability to work with.

We move on from that dissapointment to probably the album’s nadir. Declaration of Love sounds like someone called in Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band to play the backing track. Ric Wake, who produced Make You Happy, is back as producer and, boy, does he have a stinker. The R&B-flavoured horn-rock sound of imperial-phase Phil Collins seems to be the template here, with the brass credited to “George Whitty & the G.W. Horn Machine”.

Fantastic name apart, these people (if people they be, not synth patches – I’m not wholly convinced they are real, so plastic and tame do the horns sound) are not the Phenix Horns by a long chalk, and the production choices betray no indication that Wake had listened to any new music since 1990 at the latest. The bass tone is that horrid, super-hyped mega-deep but annoyingly clicky active tone you used to get on Sting and Seal records in the nineties, while the lead guitar sounds like a bad Clapton impression.

Saddled with a lemon of a song and a pudding of an arrangement, Dion falls back on her worst instinct as a singer: if the material isn’t there, go big in the performance. From her opening “Come on, wooooh!” to her adlibs during another long fadeout, the effect is punishing. It’s the inverse of her work on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: she completely fails to sell the lyric or the emotion of the song. Granted, she was given lines like “Just like Juliet belonged to Romeo/You can stay prepared that I won’t be letting you go” to work with, but still. I’m amazed this one got through preproduction with no one binning it.

At the halfway stage, then, we’re not doing so well. Despite my best efforts to be generous in my assessment, we’ve seen Dion and her team hit the mark squarely only with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and Falling Into You, and score a glancing blow with Make You Happy, while notching up a lot of misses. How will we get on with Side B?

A promotional single in Mexico and Germany, Dreamin’ of You leads off side B. It’s an adult-contemporary love song, written and produced by Canadian guitarist, songwriter and producer Aldo Nova. With Nova programming the drums and playing much of the arrangement himself, it’s a little airless and lacking in interaction, but the song is a solid construction that gets a lot out of its parade of E major chords. Again, it’s a little dated in 1995, but it pretty much nails what it’s going for.

Another Aldo Nova song, this time produced by David Foster, I Love You is a doo-wop pastiche that might have fit on one of Mariah Carey’s early records. Foster’s production is once again a disgrace: what would otherwise be a sweet little retro album track is pumped up with steroids and made pretty tough to take.

Nova’s song is knowingly silly; in 1996, no one wrote a chorus like “I love you, please say you love me too” without their tongue at least a little bit in their cheek. It’s practically Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. A small-band arrangement of this song to complete the old-school vibe would have worked fine. It could have been done a cappella, even. But Foster won’t do subtle and he won’t do small, so all the sounds are huge and fake and airless, with nothing organic in the mix save for Dion’s vocal and some electric guitar by Michael Thompson. Even all the harmonies are Dion’s, so there’s no human interaction in the arrangement at all. Nova throws a key change into the middle eight, and another one going into the final repeat choruses, but it’s not enough to stop the song feeling hugely over-extended at five and a half minutes long, and the mismatch between form and content sinks the song entirely.

If That’s What it Takes allows us the opportunity to test Wilson’s hypothesis about Dion being a better singer in French, as it’s an English-language remake of her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore (So that You’ll Love Me Again), which was released on her 1995 Francophone album D’Eux (About Them – I’m learning French at the moment. Can you tell?).

There is a difference. Her singer is gentler, more lyrical, more legato. And yes, I prefer the French version. It’s not even close. But, how much of that is ascribable to the differences between how the two languages must be sung and how much is specific to Dion herself, I can’t untangle. An expert in Francophone pop may be able to tell you more.

(Surprisingly, the song was a hit in its French version in the UK; as a rule, UK record buyers haven’t always been that receptive to non-Anglophone songs until recent years. I suppose, being fair, a lot of Jamaican music with lyrics that aren’t immediately intelligible to most white British listeners have been successful in the UK, going back at least as far as Desmond Dekker. But the only other hit I can think of in the 1990s with lyrics in French is one verse of Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s 7 Seconds, unless you count Encore Une Fois by Sash, which I wouldn’t.)

Anyway, to get back to If That’s What It Takes, it’s fine. Its melody is perhaps a little nursery-rhymeish (which I find much less of a problem in French), but it’s undeniably hooky, and writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s production – a sort of adult-contemporary dance pop – works a lot better than David Foster’s attempts to pass off his programmed backing tracks as the work of a band.

I Don’t Know is another song from D’Eux translated into English. This is one of the most musically interesting pieces on the record. It’s in 12/8 time, but with a percussion track from a drum machine that suggests 4/4 and a simple synth pad providing the only harmonic backing, the chord changes seem to fall at odd moments when you first hear the song. It takes until the chorus comes along to get used to what’s happening and or the entry of a guitar playing arpeggios in the second verse to properly orient the ear.

From there, it gets ever more stadium-epic, sounding oddly like Wall-era Pink Floyd; Dion’s evocation of “Brutal machines, unbending laws” even sounds like a Roger Waters line. It’s way over the top, but Dion sings it with customary full-bore commitment and pretty much gets away with it. She’s never averse to going big, in French or English, and whether it succeeds or fails seems to rest so often on whether she feels a personal investment in what she’s singing. As with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, the litmus test is whether you believe her – and I do.

It’s followed by another cover. A biggie. River Deep, Mountain High.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of people, I don’t regard covering River Deep, Mountain High as sacrilege. Far from it. I’ve never been a fan of the Phil Spector wall of sound, and always felt that the song was a comparative trifle, completely buried under Spector’s murk, the whole enterprise only partially redeemed by the ferocity of Tina Turner’s vocal. A Céline Dion version produced and arranged by Jim Steinman sounded, actually, like quite a good idea; a smart marriage of singer, song and production sensibility.

Better, unfortunately, in theory than reality. The whole thing has an unpleasantly synthetic unreality; despite the presence of human musicians Tim Pierce on guitar, Kasim Sutton on bass and Jimmy Bralower on drums, it sounds like it was all done on MIDI keyboards. The horn stabs and sound effects are a very bad idea. Once again, you have to give Dion credit for a full-tilt vocal, especially in the last minute or so of the track, but this is not the version to make me finally get this song. It still seems to me to be held in unwarrantedly high regard.

Another Jim Steinman production, this time in partnership with Jeff Bova, Call the Man was written by Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, the team behind Dion’s English-language breakthrough Think Twice. Hill and Sinfield are an interesting pair. Sinfield had been King Crimson’s lyricist (and occasional synth player) in the early seventies, but tacked towards pop in the early 1980s after hooking up with Hill. As a partnership, they then wrote songs for such non-avant-garde pop acts as Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Dollar and Bucks Fizz, gaining a number-one single with the latter’s covertly anti-Thatcher Land of Make Believe.

There’s not much that’s subtle about Call the Man, however. The “man” seems pretty plainly Jesus, a point underscored by Dion’s performance of the song at the 1997 World Music Awards with a 30-piece gospel choir. As big gospel-pop songs go, it’s definitely not a bad one; Sinfield and Hill write their pop with a certain level of intelligence, and Sinfield’s opening verse contains the striking image, “across the floor, dreams and shadows play like wind-blown refugees”, so he was at least trying. The guitar solo by Ottmar Liebert is rather nice too. Another decent effort.

And so, with Celine at 6-6-1 for the album, we come to Fly, the closing track. This is another translation of a song (Vole) from D’Eux. Halfway between a Disney ballad and chanson, with a very late-1980s bell-like synth piano sound, this one also sounds better in French. That said, the sheer range of Dion’s vocal here is impressive, and the arrangement and vocal sensibility are in harmony with each other in a way that’s not always the case elsewhere on Falling Into You. I’m feeling in a good mood, so reckon Dion finishes the album 7-6-1 – a winning season, if only just. She’s not making the play-offs with that kind of record.

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Why did I pick Falling Into You rather than Let’s Talk About Love? Not because Falling Into You celebrated its 25th birthday a week or so back. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the release dates when I picked the record to write about to notice that it was shortly to hit that landmark. It was purely a coincidence.

There were, instead, three reasons, really. First, there’s already a discourse around Let’s Talk About Love, thanks to Carl Wilson’s book. He concentrates on the record as a cultural artefact rather than a musical one, but nonetheless I couldn’t come to it completely fresh having read his work on the album. The other reason is that, as big as Falling Into You and its singles were, they don’t have the continuing cultural omnipresence of My Heart Will Go On and, by extension, Let’s Talk About Love. I didn’t want to deal with all that baggage: Titanic. The Oscars. Elliott Smith. Falling Into You represents a period where Céline Dion had already become one of the most successful musicians on the planet and so was in something akin to a business-as-usual phase of her career, as much as sales of 20 million can be considered “usual”. That phenomenon was interesting to me. Finally, and this may be a suprise, it’s her biggest-selling studio album, in terms of both verified units and estimated total sales.

So, as a business-as-usual mega-selling Céline Dion record, how does it hold up?

It’s not a wholly satisfying, cohesive listening experience. It’s too long, for a start; 14 songs and 67 minutes long, in the version I heard, with eight out of the 14 songs lasting more than four and a half minutes. This kind of bloat was common in the second half of the 1990s, once the record-making habits instilled by the limitations of vinyl had been shrugged off and forgotten by the industry.**

The inclusion of so many songs in so many different styles that contributes to that bloat was presumably a deliberate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. Those who liked their Dion big and epic got the Jim Steinman tracks; those who liked her singing adult-contemporary ballads got the David Foster songs; those who liked Ace of Base-style Swedish reggae got Make You Happy.

The record is at its best, though, when there’s less sense that the songs are going for a precisely defined target market, and are instead a little more idiosyncratic: the title track and the English translations If That’s What it Takes and I Don’t Know. These are good enough, particularly Falling Into You, to bump the overall score up a mark or two, to slightly more than five out 10.

What’s a shame is that it’s always evident, when listening to Falling Into You, how a sympathetic producer could have made a really good record with Céline Dion. Not by forcing her into a non-pop box, excising the silliness, goofiness and occasional lapses of taste that make her who she is, or by making her ultra-contemporary and cool, but by being more selective with material, more ruthless with editing, and avoiding the kind of sickly arrangements favoured by David Foster.

Falling Into You is not, I suspect, a record to convince the non-fan. It didn’t convince this non-fan, at least. But it did show me that Dion’s music has more aspects to it than I’d realised.

Still from the Falling Into You video

*Millennials are getting on a bit now. The oldest millenials – hi! – will soon hit forty.

**Running times of records were for many years circumscribed by the physical limitations of the medium when releasing albums on vinyl. You couldn’t fit more than around 23 minutes on one side of a record without sacrificing an excessive amount of low end. As a consequence, most classic rock-era double albums fit comfortably on one CD and are only a few minutes longer than 1990s “single album” releases like Falling Into You.

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

So long, 2019

And farewell to the decade, too. It’s been quite the ride for me. I hope everyone who reads this has made it to the end of the year unscathed.

I’m still finding it hard after the election results here to muster any optimism about our country’s short-term future, and the longer-term picture is apocalyptic. Yet, what choice do we have but to carry on in our daily lives? And eight years (nearly) since I started it, doing this remains a big part of my life. In the next few weeks, I’ll probably do what I did at the start of last year, and think of a few themed posts to give structure to my output. Maybe more live records, maybe something else (debut albums, comebacks by reformed bands – a few ideas come to mind).

In the meantime, to see out the year, here are some links to my favourite pieces from this year, including my first proper crack at film reviewing (The Kindergarten Teacher) and a couple of TV things.

Take care now, and see you in 2020.

Live – Donny Hathaway

Never Any Clapton: Hello – Lionel Richie

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

The Kindergarten Teacher

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can’t Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

Things We Lost in the Fire – The Masters Lost in 2008’s Universal Backlot Fire

Mix Techniques

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Alternate Tunings

 

 

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

I’ve Never Heard… The Wall by Pink Floyd

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

Last time, we looked at the Eagles’ Hotel California. Let’s see what we quietly desperate Brits were up to while the heads on the West Coast were getting mellow.

While considering myself something of a Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always avoided the band’s last two albums with Roger Waters at the helm, The Wall and The Final Cut. The latter’s reputation for impenetrable bleakness proceeds it, while The Wall is a concept album with more than a hint of the theatrical about it, and that’s never really been my thing. Frankly even after having my opinion on Floyd turned around by hearing Dark Side of the Moon properly, I still scorned The Wall.

Presumably The Final Cut is a still more gruelling experience than The Wall, but I can’t imagine there’s a darker album that’s racked up anything like The Wall‘s sales. At 80 minutes long, it’s a punishing listen. I went been through it all four times in 48 hours, and frankly, it left me in a rather odd mood.

It begins with the band at its most aggressive. In the Flesh?, rather than beginning the story of Pink, the album’s anti-hero, seems to address the band’s audience, although whether the narrator is Pink or Waters (or whether there’s a meaningful distinction to be made at this point in the record), is up for debate:

Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise

Roger Waters’ strained, cracking voice (the dominant one on the album, with David Gilmour getting comparatively few lead vocals and Richard Wright none at all) is accompanied by a heavy riff in 6/8 time that sounds oddly like Queen – grandiose and stadium ready – but without Queen’s warmth or exuberance.

Let’s stop a minute to discuss sound. Dark Side of the Moon remains to this day a hi-fi buff’s demo record. Alan Parsons’ production and engineering work is among the most impressive accomplishments in popular music. The Wall is a very different sounding beast. By this time, the band was working with Bob Ezrin, who’d made his rep producing mainly hard rock and metal acts, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and the Babys among them. He gave Pink Floyd a bigger, colder and less intimate sound than they’d had before, with a huge, undamped kick drum. It’s an arena-sized sound for a band that knew they’d be recreating the songs in arenas. Some sources claim The Wall was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums, but this isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm. Either way, the sound of the record is an integral part of the experience, and given the enormous dynamic range of the material, its natural home would seem to be CD and other digital formats, even as it arrived in stores a couple of years too early for them.

The album continues with The Thin Ice. The song, split vocally between Gilmour and Waters, again sounds like a prelude to the main story. We’ve not yet met Pink’s overbearing mother, but what other persona could Waters be adopting?

At this point, we do finally meet our protagonist, Pink, and the rest of side one tells us the story of his early years: the death of his father during the war (Another Brick in the Wall Part 1), his schooling (The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2) and his suffocating relationship with his mother (Mother). About Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, though I should say that I find it a more powerful experience in the context of The Wall than on the radio; I never really felt the depth of Waters’s fury when he and Gilmour yell in unison “Hey! Teacher!” – the anger is palpable.

Anger may be The Wall‘s defining emotion, but Mother ends the first side on a note on a note more of dread than rage. The knotty structure of shifting time signatures defeated Nick Mason, so Toto’s Jeff Porcaro was brought in as a sub, and he aced it, as you’d expect, but the complex rhythmic structures only work because they’re part of a composition that’s harmonically and linguistically simple; otherwise they’d just be showy. Here, as elsewhere on side one, Waters makes effective use of straightforward, childlike language to tell the child Pink’s story:

Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oh, Mother, should I build a wall?

Mother seems to me to be the heart of side one, the song that really sets up the story, and it’s followed at the start of side two by another one of the album’s key texts. Goodbye Blue Sky, while very pretty, is also extremely ominous. At this point in the story, we assume, Pink is no longer a child, yet he’s unable to let go of his memories of the Blitz, of life under constant threat: “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.”*

The rest of side two tells of Pink’s growing alienation and psychological disintegration, with One of My Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now the centrepieces of the suite. One of My Turns features Waters’ most ragged (deliberately so, I think) vocal performance, by turns darkly hilarious (“Would you like to learn to fly? Would you? Would you like to see me try?”) and profoundly despairing, as when his voice drops in pitch and intensity over the course of the final phrase “Why are you running away?”

This leads into one of the album’s most troubling songs, Don’t Leave Me Now. Over an extremely unconventional harmonic structure (Eaug |D♭maj7 | B♭7 |G Gaug), Waters’ strangulated vocal is that of a man at the end of his rope, while what he’s actually saying is horrifying. He gives two reasons for needing his departing wife: “to put through the shredder in front of my friends” and “to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”. Until this point, our sympathy has been with Pink, even as he turned into a macho swaggering cock on Young Lust. After Don’t Leave Me Now, whatever sympathy we have for him is tainted, even if we read the beating he alludes to as metaphorical rather than physical.

By the end of side two, Pink’s wall is complete (Goodbye Cruel World), and side three begins with the beautiful Hey You. The song is credited solely to Waters, but Hey You’s arrangement seems to have come mostly from Gilmour – the unconventional use of a modified Nashville tuning (in which the lowest four strings are replaced by strings an octave higher, and in this case a low E two octaves higher) suggests the input of a guitarist, while the sinuous fretless bass playing is credited to Gilmour. Gilmour takes the lead vocal for the first half of the song, too, with Waters taking over as the intensity increases when Pink realises he can’t escape the wall he’s built for himself. One of the song’s strongest musical touches is the way the opening four notes of the Another Brick in the Wall melody reappear two minutes in as a heavy riff under Gilmour’s lead guitar.

Nobody Home goes some way to humanising this new version of Pink. Alone and despondent, he produces an inventory of all the things his success has bought him, and how none of it matters as he’s still alone.

I’ve got the obligatory Hendrix perm
And the inevitable pinhole burns,
All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.
I’ve got nicotine stains on my fingers,
I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain.
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.
I’ve got wild staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooh, babe, when I pick up the phone
There’s still nobody home.

Waters’ voice is a strange instrument, brittle and somewhat stiff, with a papery top end that sounded like that of an old man even when he was in his twenties, but on Nobody Home, singing near the bottom of his register until the end of the second verse, over a backing of piano and orchestra, his performance is hugely effective, and I can’t imagine any other singer, however accomplished, doing better.

Vera and Bring the Boys Home return us to the themes of side one. Pink (and, of course, Waters, whose father died at Anzio) remains haunted by the war, what it did to those who fought, and what it did to those left behind. In that context, Vera Lynn carries huge metaphorical weight, not just for Pink (and Waters) but for anyone of the same generation. Younger listeners, I suppose, cannot hear this song quite the same way as those for whom hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again was part of a foundational shared cultural experience, but nonetheless I find it very moving.

Side three ends with Comfortably Numb, about which you probably don’t need to be told. More than just one of The Wall‘s most famous tracks (in the UK, the most well known is Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, which was a number-one single, but I can’t speak for other countries), it’s one of the band’s most iconic songs, with Gilmour’s guitar solos justly held up as some of the best in rock music history.

Side four sees Pink completely unravel and imagine himself as a fascist dictator and his concert as a huge rally. It begins with The Show Must Go On (the first line of which is “Must the show go on?”), the sense that something is wrong heightened by the incongruous Beach Boys-style backing vocals that are actually out of tune with the track. Then we get a horrifying reprise of In the Flesh (without its question mark), in which Pink is now an Oswald Mosley-like Blackshirt, railing against gays, Jews and black people and screaming how they should all be shot. It’s extremely unsettling.

Run Like Hell begins with one of Gilmour’s most exciting riffs, a series of triads with delay played over a D pedal tone. The song maybe never quite lives up to its riff, but it’s narratively essential, as it’s here that the crowd at the gig become a rioting mob, chasing after the “riff-raff” inventoried by Pink during In the Flesh. Waiting for the Worms switches back to Pink’s POV as he barks orders and hatred through a megaphone, while also restating the album’s most recognisable musical leitmotif: the grinding 4-note E minor riff from Hey You, itself the opening notes of the melody from Another Brick in the Wall.

At this point, Pink puts himself on trial, and is found guilty by the judge, who orders that the wall be torn down, and the album ends with a sprachgesang-ing Waters over the dance-band style melody we heard right at the start of the album, before the heavy riff of In the Flesh? crashed in.

So, what of the quality of the album itself? Of course, its sheer scale, musically and thematically, is impressive, and among concept albums it’s notable for its sheer dedication to its own premise. Everything here advances the story in some way, and the way it’s programmed into four suites, with its crossfades and segues, is both elegantly designed and technically accomplished.

Not all the music, though, is to my taste. While I’d concede its narrative importance, the track Young Lust is a low point – Pink Floyd were not a band made for louche Stonesy R&B, and Gilmour’s growled vocal is unintentionally comic, I think. He just doesn’t convince. The Happiest Days of Our Lives, while containing some cool bass playing from Waters, doesn’t add much to the album’s critique of the education system, and the dwelling on the beatings doled out by wives to their schoolmaster husbands is juvenile.

My bigger problem with the album, though, is that it seems to be telling two stories, both of which work well on their own terms, but don’t quite fit together. I find myself completely won over by the story of the young Pink, never quite able to process the loss of his father and brutalised by a harsh education system. I buy that an overprotective mother could damage her son still further trying to compensate for the loss of a husband and father from family life. As the child grows up and finds a void within him, it seems psychologically reasonable that he’d look to fill it with things, while finding it hard to relate to other people emotionally, eventually building a protective barrier around the parts of his psyche that are most damaged. All of that seems to me psychologically realistic, well handled by Waters’ songs and successfully brought to life by the band.

What doesn’t quite work for me (thematically, rather than musically), is the jump from that to Pink’s hallucinating that he’s a fascist dictator. It doesn’t seem outlandish that someone in Pink’s position might harbour a fascination with the enemy his father died fighting, but in terms of him imagining himself their leader, it feels like a chunk of the story has been missed out along the way. Side four feels cut off from the rest of the album’s themes, even as the music is successful on its own terms. Of course, it was Waters’ misgivings about his relationship to his fans, his profound estrangement from them on the 1977 In the Flesh tour, that led to the creation of The Wall in the first place, but it feels to me like in the process of writing The Wall the early-years material took on a life of its own, and ended up becoming the more compelling part of the story.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The Wall is still a massive achievement. That it took me until the age of 36 to hear it is partly a reflection of my own taste, partly a function of the band’s unfashionability for much of my adult life, and partly to do with its reputation as dark and misanthropic in a way I didn’t feel like I wanted in my life. Now I’ve heard it, I can’t say I’ll come back to it often, but it’s pretty radically altered my perspective on the band and Waters in particular. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

*I haven’t mentioned the Alan Parker movie adaptation of The Wall, as we already had enough to get through, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t say at this point that Gerald Scarfe’s animation work is extremely impressive throughout, and his visualisation of Goodbye Blue Sky is one of the most haunting moments in the film.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

 

I’ve never heard… Hotel California by the Eagles

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

I decided I’d listen to some of these records, to hear those songs in their original context, and see what I made of them. I’ll be doing one of these posts every couple of weeks or so. They take a bit of putting together.

Let’s start with one of the big daddies of classic rock. Hotel California.

*

I’m British, so while I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea what place the Eagles hold in American music culture, it’s not my culture. I didn’t grow up hearing them on the radio every single day, so I don’t share the revulsion born of over-familiarity that a lot of US music fans have for the band. The Eagles were a familiar presence on my radio, but not an inescapable one.

Nevertheless, I’ve schooled myself in the history of LA rock ‘n’ roll as best I can from books, documentaries and hundreds (or probably thousands) of hours of listening, so I know what these guys are, who they were before they became the Eagles, what dues they paid and a fair bit about how they behaved once they attained success. I get why so many are so strongly anti-Eagles — and sure, they’re the perfect symbol of the gradual reduction in intensity of meaning and feeling in LA music in the second half of the 1970s — but I can’t share the hatred.

That’s because I remember hearing Hotel California, the song, on the radio for the first time in the car with my parents and my dad telling me there was a good guitar solo coming up, and bam! There it was: possibly the most exciting minute or so of music I’d ever heard, aged seven or eight. I still remember that feeling and I’ve never totally lost it, so you can, I hope, trust me to be even-handed here.

Let’s dive right in. By the time of 1976’s Hotel California, the Eagles had become genuine superstars off the back of their last studio album, One of these Nights, and, especially, their world-dominating best-of, Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975. The band must have known that everyone was watching, and so they began their new album with the strongest one-two punch they had: Hotel California and New Kid in Town.

I’ve already mentioned the title track’s famous guitar solo, but it deserves a bit more comment. Don Felder and Joe Walsh are both excellent technicians, but technique is not really what makes their playing on Hotel California so great. Many guitarists could play what they played, with a bit of practice. But before something is played, it has to be conceived, and that’s the hard part. What I find most impressive about the solo is the way the duo really listen to each other and answer each other’s phrases. They’re not having a contest to outdo each other; it’s a tag-team effort. They complement each other, pick up each other’s cues and ratchet up the tension until, of course, they hit that famous harmonised triplet melody. But note that bassist Randy Meisner chooses that moment to switch from his reggae-ish pattern to straight eights, boosting the tension still further. These guys had ears, all of them.

Their producer, Bill Szymczyk, had ears too. The album sounds glorious. There’s so much space around the wide-panned instruments. Lightly strummed acoustic guitars create a lush but not suffocating pad, the bass is thick without being overhyped and the drum sound is marvellous in its depth and woodiness. It’s not that the band’s pre-Szymczyk work sounds wimpy (for all Glenn Frey’s issues with Glyn Johns’s minimal miking technique for drums, the drum sound on, say, Take it Easy is still great), but Hotel California does perhaps have that extra bit of low end while retaining the crispness in the midrange.

The song? Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a classic, of course – I’m not going to be contrarian about it. An intriguing opening verse, an instantly memorable chorus, those vocal harmonies, that endlessly compelling cyclical chord sequence… Hotel California has endured for a reason. Its creators were smart and put the thing together with expert, practiced craft.

As to its meaning, here I may be a little bit dismissive. This is a case where we need to trust the tale, not the teller. “Hotel California” is not merely a symbol of the place the band found themselves by 1976, even if that’s what Frey and Henley thought it was. As author Barney Hoskyns put it, “they thought that maybe the one way we can be at peace with ourselves is to make clear we realise how obscene this [drug-fuelled music-biz hedonism] is, even while we are revelling in it. We’ll sing about Hotel California and then you won’t think we are living in Hotel California. But unfortunately they missed the whole point. They simply are Hotel California.”

Sung by Glenn Frey, in what’s surely his best recorded vocal, over a precision-tooled but pillow-soft backing of electric piano, acoustic guitar and unobtrusive drums, second track New Kid in Town is another allegory song. This time, as the song’s co-writer JD Souther said, they were singing about their own replacements: the younger, hipper bands on the Sunset Strip that may not have had the Eagles’ sales or money, but had the critical adoration that they could never attain, and appeared to be having more fun than them, too.

The song’s triumph is to sound like it has less to do with their it’s-tough-at-the-top insecurities and more to do with life as lived by the bulk of the band’s audience: the former athletes, star students and big men on campus who turned around one day to find some new boy in the year below had taken centre stage away from them, whose self-images never quite recovered and whose lives never quite measured up to the promise they showed in their late teens, before they’d had a chance to make any real mistakes. Frey does more than than simply acknowledge those lives, he sounds genuinely like he cares.

He could almost have had us fooled. Unfortunately, Life in the Fast Lane shows us the other side, possibly the true face, of the Eagles: the band that flew their groupies in by Lear jet and had even Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler amazed at the amount of coke they got through during a mix session at Criteria in Miami. Their arrogance* and self-satisfaction permeates every last bar of Life in the Fast Lane, and it’s pretty disgusting.** For all the use of the distancing pronoun “he”, it sure sounds like they’re singing about themselves.

The song also shows us the band’s big musical weakness. As much as they wanted to be taken seriously as a hard-rock act (and they did: they hired first guitarist Don Felder, then Bill Szymczyk and then Joe Walsh specifically for that reason) this band did not, could not, rock. It wasn’t in them. Don Henley was a pretty good drummer, but he wasn’t a rock drummer, and the song lacks propulsion and energy. It’s called Life in the Fast Lane but it drags. Walsh does his best, but it feels like he’s got to pull the whole band along with him. If it’s not their worst song, I can’t imagine what is.

Wasted Time, which ends side one, is a Henley-sung piano ballad, and a welcome change in tone and atmosphere after Life in the Fast Lane. It’s more proof of the Eagles’ adaptability as writers and performers that they could move into more overtly soul-influenced territory and make it work, and as ever it’s astutely arranged and well sung. The problem for me, and I appreciate this is a personal response, is it rings a bit hollow after Life in the Fast Lane.

Things get worse at the start of side two. The symphonic reprise of Wasted Time retains nothing of what worked about the vocal version, and replaces it with the bombast of Jim Ed Norman’s ghastly orchestral arrangement, misconceived in every imaginable way. The album then bottoms out with Victim of Love, credited to Frey, Henley, Felder and JD Souther, though initiated by Felder. The guitarist had expected to be singing the lead vocal, but, impatient at his inability to come up with a satisfactory take, Henley cut the vocal himself while manager Irving Azoff took Felder out to dinner. Relations between Felder and the rest of the band never recovered. The odd thing is, since the song’s in James Gang territory anyway, it would have been a better fit for Joe Walsh’s yowling style. The problem, once again, is the lack of authority from the rhythm section. What should be a brutal brontosaurus stomp is more a sort of petulant plod.

Speaking of Walsh, he pops up with Pretty Maids All in a Row, a slightly unexpected, Neil Young-ish piano ballad, though Walsh’s voice is more similar to Crazy Horse singer-guitarist Danny Whitten’s. It’s really nice, and for me it’s probably the best song on the album that’s not the title track or New Kid in Town.

Try and Love Again is the album’s showcase for Randy Meisner, the band’s bassist and the singer of stratospherically high harmonies. Meisner’s vocal on Take it to the Limit was a live crowd pleaser, and had taken the song to number one when it was released as a single, so it’s slightly surprising that his song appears so late in the album’s running order – especially since it’s a breezy slight return to the band’s early sound, with its chiming Take It Easy-like guitars. Perhaps, to be cynical, the difference is that Frey and Henley don’t have a cowriting credit on Try and Love Again, while they did on Take it to the Limit.

The album wraps up with The Last Resort, a divisive song in the band’s canon. Some find it preachy, mean spirited and hypocritical, while for others it’s profound and moving, the first flowering of the environmental concern and social conscience tbat Don Henley, if not Frey, would trade on during his successful 1980s solo records. I’m somewhere in the middle on The Last Resort. It’s not a total loss musically, though it could have done with a proper B section to break up the verse-after-verse song structure.

The problem is the lyric. As a critic of the material social history of California, Henley ain’t Mike Davis. Some of his punches land a little, but I do wonder whether Henley realised he wasn’t the first person ever to have doubts about the westward expansion of white America, or environmental damage, or organised religion, or even the efficacy of capitalism itself – he sure sang it like he’d come to some profound truths revealed to him alone. The less said about the strings and the key change, meanwhile, the better.

So we reach the end of Hotel California. Listening to it and thinking about it at length over three or four days hasn’t led me to change my opinion about the Eagles at all really, which surprises me a little. Their craft and skill as arrangers and vocal performers is unarguable. At their best, they wrote songs that stand up alongside anything else pop music has thrown up. The album probably deserved to sell in the numbers it did, just for its first two songs. This, though, is all stuff I already knew.

Yet, as an album (and remembering this is from the same milieu and era that gave us Younger than Yesterday, Tapestry, Forever Changes, Judee Sill, After the Goldrush, On the Beach, Blue, The Gilded Palace of Sin, Happy Sad and Small Change to name just the first 10 that come to mind), Hotel California is pretty spotty. The first two songs tower over everything else, and the only other songs that provided me any listening pleasure were Wasting Time and the songs by Walsh and Meisner. The inescapable conclusion for me is that they’re a band best experienced through a compilation or playlist, and that Hotel California sold on the strength of its first two singles rather than the quality of the album as a whole.

eagles HC

*Even the band’s friend Ned Doheny said, “The whole scene just got a lot more desperate. You can hear a lot of it on those Eagles records. There’s a lot of bile in those records, a lot of arrogance.”

**Lest you think I’m being unfair to Henley, in November 1980, paramedics treated a naked 16-year-old girl for drug intoxication at his house. Henley was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine, quaaludes and marijuana, and for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Other than that, he’s a great guy.