Musical Musings

Musical Musings

The best Rock 'n' Roll album ever

Boy, you hear all sorts of flak about this one! I once browsed through a book that purported to contain a list of the best Rock albums. The album that guy listed as number one most of us probably have never even heard of. I know I never had. But there are more objective criteria available with which to decide the matter. Popularity should be near the top of anyone’s list, of course. My definition, however, is not just popularity, but staying power. By that I mean the ability of an album to remain popular for a long period of time. For example, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time. I believe it has sold over 25 million copies so far. But over 20 million of them were sold within the first five years after the album came out. When was the last time you heard a song from Thriller on FM radio? ... That’s what I thought!

One good candidate for best rock album is Fleetwood Mac’s
Rumours, which came out in 1977. To date (1995) it has sold over 17 million copies (it got a boost in 1992 when Bill Clinton used “Don’t Stop [Thinking About Tomorrow]” as a campaign theme song). It’s an excellent album, not a clunker in it. But it certainly is not my favorite album of all time.

My personal choice for the one album that thoroughly satisfies the dual criteria of excellence and staying power is
Dark Side of the Moon, by The Pink Floyd. I shall refer to this album as DSM for short. DSM came out in 1973. It wasn’t a smash hit that year, certainly nothing like Thriller. But it sold well. The biggest hit song on the album, “Money,” only made it to number 13 on the charts. But “Money” stayed popular for years afterward, and still gets a good amount of air play. DSM itself settled into the top 200 list of best-selling albums for a very long stay. It remained in the top 200 for 591 weeks.—more than 11 years (Richie Unterberger of All Music Guide says it spent 741 weeks on the Billboard charts). And the only reason it dropped off the top 200 chart when it did was because CDs were becoming popular at the time, and the top 200 list was restricted to vinyl record sales at the time. As soon as the list of the top 30 CDs was published, it was obvious that DSM was near the top of everyone’s list for CD upgrades. It appeared on the first top 30 CD list and remained there for over a year, outlasting even Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required—a then-current and very popular album. This record of longevity is one that is likely never to be broken.

In 1992 The Pink Floyd digitally remastered DSM, and the new version was released in the spring of 1993 as a special 20th anniversary issue on CD. Only 140,000 copies were made; they were snapped up by Floyd fans in less than a week. To date well over 14 million copies of DSM have been sold in all forms (record, tape, and CD), and it shows no signs of slowing down. Anyone who has listened to this album knows why it has such staying power. The whole thing hangs together in way that surpasses just about every other album that was ever made (it was brilliantly engineered by Alan Parsons). Every song segues seamlessly into the next one. A common theme runs through the album—so much so that you might swear that several of the songs have the same basic melody line, although in fact each one is different. The sax and guitar solos in “Money” are righteous, but the guitar solo in “Time” is incredible. Every aspiring rock guitarist should be required to learn it by heart. And some of the lyrics in DSM are classics. Besides the obvious choices from “Money,” how about these from the song “Time”?

      Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
      You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
      And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you
      No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
      Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
      Things that either come to nought, or half a page of scribbled lines
      Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
      The time is gone the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.

That last line is a true classic. I rate it right up there with Robert Frost’s repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Then there is this little gem from “Brain Damage”:

      The lunatic is in the hall
      The lunatics are in my hall
      The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
      And every day the paper boy brings more.

Outrageous! And from the same song comes this stanza that was once reprinted in Psychology Today in connection with an article on prefrontal lobotomies:

      The lunatic is in my head
      The lunatic is in my head
      You raise the blade, you make the change
      You re-arrange me till I’m sane
      You lock the door
      And throw away the key
      There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.

Oh, and one last thing. If you do happen to be one of those who owns a copy of DSM, have you ever heard the lines at the very end, spoken while the “heart beats” are fading away? I’ve talked to many people who love the album and yet have never heard these words. You aren’t likely to hear them unless either you play your music very loud (my kids were teenagers when we first got the album in 1973—enough said?) or you happen to own one of the import copies (it was released as a quadraphonic record in England with many of the cuts different from the U.S. version). Anyway, at the very end of the album Jerry Driscoll (the doorman at Abbey Road studio) says:

      There is no dark side of the moon, really.
      Matter of fact it’s all dark.


My nominations for the next nine best rock & roll albums of all time, in order:

      2 Eagles: Hotel California (1976)
      3 Joe Walsh: The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get (1973)
      4 Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
      5 Led Zeppelin: IV (actually unnamed, but referred to as “IV”; 1969)
      6 Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1977)
      7 Jethro Tull: Benefit (1970)
      8 The Who: Who’s Next (1971)
      9 Yes: Fragile (1971/1972)
      10 The Pink Floyd: The Wall (1979)

There are a couple of close calls here, and this list could change, particularly with regard to the last four entries. The first three Led Zeppelin albums (at least) probably belong on this list. There are also some excellent Eagles, Joe Walsh, and Fleetwood Mac albums as well. But the number one album—DSM—will never change.

One last point: Note that eight out of the top ten albums on my list are from the much-maligned 1970s decade. Could the critics be wrong? Perish the thought!

The best jazz piano improvisation of all time

There is no contest here; the hands-down winner is Dave Brubeck’s piano solo on “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)” in the album Jazz at Oberlin, recorded live at Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, March 2, 1953. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which performed at this concert, included besides Brubeck, Paul Desmond on alto sax (one of the all-time greats), Ron Crotty on bass (a real double-bass fiddle, not an electric imitation), and Lloyd Davis on drums, who played the entire concert with a fever of 103° according to the liner notes. In the liner notes, James Newman remarks that the “rhythmic vitality” of Brubeck’s solo on “Foolish Things” increases to “Bartokian proportions.” You have to hear this one to believe it.

The best lines in Rock and Roll songs

Here is an eclectic collection of various outrageous lines from Rock and Roll songs, each a winner in a particular category.

Best put-down ever: Bob Dylan, “Positively Fourth Street”

      Yes, I wish that for just one time
      You could stand inside my shoes
      You’d know what a drag it is
      To see you

Best allusion: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Eleanor Rigby”

      Eleanor Rigby … lives in a dream
      Waits at the window, wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door

Best pun: Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glen Fry, “Hotel California”

      Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends

Best double-meaning: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Penny Lane”

      Behind a shelter in the middle of a roundabout
      A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray;
      And though she feels as if she’s in a play
      She is anyway.

Double meaning second place: Eagles, “Life In The Fast Lane”

      They went rushin’ down that freeway,
      messed around and got lost;
      They didn’t care they were just dyin’ to get off.

Best newly coined word: Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”

      If you took all the girls I knew
      When I was single,
      And brought them all together for one night,
      I know they’d never match
      My sweet remagination;
      And everything looks worse in black and white.

Simon combines “recall” and “imagination” to great effect in this line, even though he subsequently said he doesn’t remember singing it that way. Careful listening should convince the reader that “remagination” is exactly what he sings here.

The Allman Brothers Band and “One Way Out”: a phenomenon

The Allman Brothers Band (referred to as “ABB”) has a number of songs that could be considered “signature songs”: “Ramblin’ Man,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Whipping Post,” “Jessica,” “Mountain Jam,” and “One Way Out” (“Midnight Rider” became famous only after Greg Allman recorded it on his solo album Laid Back). Of all of these songs, “One Way Out” has possibly the strangest story to tell. Based on a song written by Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II (nobody is sure whose version came first, so the authorship is murky), it was substantially reworked by ABB, so much so that any resemblance between the ABB version and the Sonny Boy Williamson II version is, to put it mildly, purely coincidental. Even the lyrics are almost totally different. Here is the original version by Sonny Boy Williamson II:

      Raise your window,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      Raise your window,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      ’Cause the man out there might
      be your man, I don’t know.
      If you raise your window,
      I can ease out soft and low.
      If you raise your window,
      I can ease out soft and low.
      Your neighbors gonna be talkin’
      that stuff me don’t know.
      Ain’t but one way out,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      Ain’t but one way out,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      If I get away this time,
      I won’t be caught no more.
      Ain’t but one way out,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      Ain’t but one way out,
      I ain’t goin’ out that door.
      If I get away this time,
      I won’t be caught no more.

Now here are the lyrics as sung by the ABB:

      Ain’t but one way out baby ... Lord, I just can’t go out the door
      Ain’t but one way out baby ... Lord, I just can’t go out the door
      For there’s a man down there ... might be your old man I don’t know
      Lord you got me trapped woman ... up on the second floor
      If I get by this time I won’t be trapped no more
      So raise your window, baby ... so I can ease out soft and slow
      And Lord, your neighbors, no they won’t be
      Talking that stuff that they don’t know ... no!

      [instrumental break]

      Lord, I’m foolish to be here ... on the first place
      I know some man gonna walk in ... and take my place
      Ain’t no way in the world ... I’m goin’ out that front door
      For there’s a man down there, might be your old man, I don’t know
      For there’s a man down there, might be your old man, I don’t know
      For there’s a man down there, Lord, it just might happen to be your old man
      Oh, it just a might be your man ... mmm-mm-mmm-mm-mmm-mmm
      Lord, it just a might be your man ...
      Oh, baby, I just don’t know.

But it is not for the lyrics or the musical arrangement that this song by ABB stands out. It is the recording. “One Way Out” was recorded during the final concert at the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971. No studio version of the song was ever recorded (or at least, released). It first appeared on the album Eat A Peach (1972). Subsequently it was released on the ABB albums Dreams (1989), A Decade of Hits 1969–1979 (1991), At Fillmore East: Deluxe Edition (2003), and Gold (2005)—all the same version recorded at the Fillmore East. The same recorded version was used in the soundtracks of Almost Famous (2000), Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), Lords of Dogtown (2005), and Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed. It was also included in Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, a box set accompanying his 2003 documentary The Blues. That is a total of six different albums and five film soundtracks. All of them the same live recording made June 27, 1971, at the Fillmore East.

Even though Dickie Betts made several mistakes during the intro riff of the song, producer Tom Dowd evidently felt that the recording of “One Way Out” made in the early hours of that June morning at the Fillmore East was the definitive take on the ABB song. That version runs 4 minutes and 58 seconds (4:58). On the 2006 release titled
Eat A Peach Deluxe Edition the original version (on disc one) is duplicated on disc two, which is the complete ABB set from the June 27, 1971, Fillmore East concert; the second cut is timed at 5:08, presumably to account for applause at the end of the song. A different version was recorded on two albums: Macon City Auditorium: Macon, GA 2/11/72 (2004), recorded after the death of Duane Allman but before the addition of Chuck Leavell to the band, timed at 6:49, and Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY: 5/1/73 (2005)—a 7:42 version. These are also live recordings, although neither of them gets any air play to speak of. Millions of people have heard the Eat A Peach version thousands of times. It is one of the few signature pieces of any band that exists in essentially only one live-recorded version.

To the best of my recollection, I’ve never heard either of the two longer versions.

Stan Getz

Stan Getz was a tenor saxophonist without peer—ever. His first recorded solo, on a Woody Herman album where he didn’t even get a credit, propelled him to musical stardom with a few seconds of the most melodic, haunting notes I’ve ever heard from a musical instrument. The late, great John Coltrane, himself a tenor sax man of no mean proportions, once said of Getz: “Let’s face it, we’d all like to sound like that—if we could.”

’Nuff said?

There are two—and only two—saxophonists whose sound is so unmistakable that the instant they start playing, you know who it is. Stan Getz on tenor sax is one of them. The other one is Paul Desmond on alto sax. Kenny G on soprano sax has a number of “copy cats,” some of whom are very difficult to distinguish from the original. Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax (one of my personal favorites) has been imitated by others, notably the fellow who played the solo at the end of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” I would have been willing to bet good money that the soloist was Gerry Mulligan. It wasn’t Gerry; it was Ronnie Ross, who had taught David Bowie to play the saxophone when Bowie was just a kid. David repaid the favor by getting Ronnie the gig with Lou Reed. Ross nailed the solo on the first take.

Musical irony

Pérez Prado, who was known as the “king of mambo” (as was also Tito Puente), had a number one smash hit in 1955 called “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” It was a cha-cha.