Tag Archives: Nashville Skyline

Bad first songs

OK, “bad” is hyperbole in most cases here, but go with me.

A bad opener is a much rarer beast than the bad last song, at least among albums that are any good. Most artists seem to be better at recognising the best place to start than the best place to end. Nonetheless, missteps happen; some of the records I’d count among my very favourite have opening tracks that don’t quite get things rolling.

Asked to name a favourite band, I’d plump for the Beatles. Asked to pick some favourite songs, or albums, the Beatles would figure highly. But – controversial opinion alert – they weren’t always the best judges of how to get start their albums off.

Revolver has been the consensus “best” Beatles album for about 20 years, and it’s probably true that it contains the highest concentration of fantastic songs on any Beatles record. While the album is such a monolith in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that I can’t imagine any other song plausibly taking its place, Taxman has always felt like one of its weakest tracks for me. It’s full of interesting bits – the jerky, stop-start rhythm, McCartney’s bass playing and guitar solo – yet it never quite coheres into a song I find myself compelled to listen to. And while acknowledging that a 95% top rate of tax is pretty eye-watering, it’s not like the Beatles were short of cash at the time, so I can’t bring myself to care all that much for Harrison’s plight.

It wasn’t just Revolver, though. Sure, the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does important work in establishing the concept of the album as a whole, but it doesn’t much flatter the band. By the middle of their career, the Beatles had lost some of the dynamism and power captured in their early recordings (I’m talking strictly as players here), and there is, as Ian MacDonald observed, something about their attempts at heavy rock in the second half of their career that calls to mind a middleweight puffing themselves up in an attempt to pass for a heavyweight. Magical Mystery Tour‘s opening title song, meanwhile, is similarly unsatisfying, partly because its lyrical idea is so shopworn, and partly because there’s not much melodic development.

But let’s leave the Beatles so I can put the boot into another one of my very favourites, Joni Mitchell.

For the Roses is a pivotal and somewhat underrated album, one that is very close to my heart. It’s certainly a transitional piece (it came out between Blue and Court and Spark and shares characteristics with both), but it has a character of its own, and four or five songs that are genuine career high points. Yet its opener, Banquet, is one of Mitchell’s least successful songs: a shrill, irritating melody and a series of overwrought metaphors. I nearly always skip it. Like Taxman, which feels weak as soon as Eleanor Rigby starts, Banquet is shown up by the brilliant second track, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Many people would argue that Rainy Day Women gets Blonde on Blonde off to a shaky start. Me, I’m always happy to hear it. For me, the weakest Dylan openers are Desire‘s misbegotten and botched Hurricane and Nashville Skyline‘s godawful version of Girl from the North Country, a duet with Johnny Cash that brings out the worst in both singers. I’d actually prefer the album to start with Nashville Skyline Rag, which is hardly earth-shattering, but is a great deal of fun. Mel nominated Oh Mercy‘s Political World, too – I don’t know the album that well but it’s sure no Where Teardrops Fall.

Any discussion of good albums with bad first songs has to include R.E.M.’s Out of Time and its opener, Radio Song, which features a cameo from KRS One. While it has a certain goofy charm, I don’t think I could argue with anyone who suggested that the album would be better if it started with its second track, Losing My Religion. I asked my colleagues Sara and Nick to give me a couple of suggestions for bad opening songs on good albums: they both said Radio Song. So there you go. It’s unanimous.

Steely Dan’s seventies records have maybe five lacklustre songs between them, but would anyone object too strenuously if I cited Katy Lied‘s opener Black Friday as probably the album’s weakest track? Its shuffle groove is just a bit pedestrian. I almost always start listening from track two, the wonderful Bad Sneakers.

Among lesser known but, to me, very important albums, the two albums that Belly released in the 1990s, Star and King, both start with tracks I’ve never much cared for. Puberty, which begins King, just sounds messy and unfinished, and Someone to Die For, from Star, while explicable from the point of view of having what’s ultimately a slightly weird and creepy album begin with something weird and creepy, has always felt too obvious an attempt at spookiness to me; what’s so compelling about Star is that even its pop songs are a bit off-kilter. Track two, Angel, just sounds like a much more natural opener, and more representative of the band generally.

Of course, some bands have a knack of aceing it. But that’s another post.

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.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.