Tag Archives: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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.

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Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

jansch dog
Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings