Rapids

Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of  his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.

The Rain Song

The “born in the wrong generation” brand of false nostalgia that some young people subscribe to is stupid; it glosses over all of the ways the world used to be so much worse to live in for so many people. People are surely entitled to feel nostalgic for the times they’ve lived through themselves, but to long for times you only know through other people’s artifacts is disingenuous. With all that being said, however, goddamn would I not have liked to have been alive to see Led Zeppelin in all of their glory! Whatever shit went down in the 1970’s, it would have been worth it. I have seen Robert Plant in concert, and he still has L’Oreal-girl hair, but he’s a lion in winter now. If I had seen the lion at the height of his powers, I would never, ever, miss an opportunity to be an insufferable bore about it at parties.

Psalm

I’ve been listening to this song repeatedly lately, and pretty much in general throughout my life and have always found it very meaningful. If the title doesn’t tip you off, yes, it’s about faith and redemption, which are things Roxy Music fans are in need of after their inflatable pleasures have worn thin. Interestingly enough, when I was younger, I somehow completely missed the religious implications, explicit as they are. The idea of interpreting the lyrics spiritually never occurred to me, heathen as I am. For a very long time, what I heard was not an ode to Jesus, but a homoerotic ode to another man. The lines about trying on his coat and walking in his garden? Homoerotic. The lines about someday making his house your home? Homoerotic, while also possibly angling to subsume a rival man’s identity, Talented Mr. Ripley-style. Now, that’s not entirely a far stretch; the language of religious praise very often overlaps with the language of romance, and if you’ve ever studied art you may have noticed the loving care lavished on Christ’s naked torso in all of those Crucifixion paintings. But I think most faith-based people very strongly prefer not to make that overlap any more explicit, despite the best efforts of lapsed Catholics like Madonna. Meanwhile, in a more specific context, as far as I know, Bryan Ferry is a pretty solid not-gay on the Kinsey scale. But the idea of a vaguely homoerotic obsession and rivalry narrative appeals to me a lot more than one about finding God’s grace. So if you’re making another man’s house your home, it’s because you’ve seduced him and stole his identity, and you’re sliding down to the singles’ bar in a tuxedo of lies.

The Prettiest Star

Please take a moment of silent awe for what may be the only recorded collaboration between David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie and Bolan were frenemies whose clashing egos made for one of the great rivalries in music history. Bolan was full of great ideas and made many trailblazing breakthroughs in music and image, but Bowie kept overshadowing him and stealing his thunder. This is a prime example. A romantic ballad featuring Bolan’s instantly recognizable lead guitar, it was a failed single in 1970. Bolan’s playing is outstanding, while Bowie is in earnest mode, emoting like a leading man in a Hollywood musical. It’s a slightly weird combination of Bowie’s theatrical tendencies and Bolan’s fluid pre-glam psychedelic style. A few years later, when both players had become big stars and even bigger rivals, Bowie re-recorded the song, with Mick Ronson taking over on lead guitar. The tune is the same, the arrangement is similar, but Ronson’s style couldn’t be more different. Bowie has gone full Ziggy, his earnestness gone, the camp factor turned up to 11. It’s apocalyptic cabaret on crack now. This is the version everybody knows, while the earlier, arguably better version is a rarity. It certainly shows how much David Bowie changed his outward style in just three years; how he could twist his own sentiments from romantic sincerity to drag-queen burlesque; and, unfortunately, how he didn’t mind erasing other people’s contributions. Bolan was pissed that his work had been thrown away, and he hadn’t been informed or invited to the rerecording. The two didn’t talk again for several years. David Bowie was a great collaborator, but only with people who could accept that their spotlight would always be the less bright.

Post World War Two Blues

 

Call this the thinking person’s answer to Don McLean’s American Pie. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great song, and quite a bit darker than people give it credit for. But. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing more grating than people who lived in the 60’s’ nostalgia for the 60’s, and there’s nothing that defines knee-jerk nostalgia for the 60’s more than American Pie. I’m sure that coming of age in the 60’s was really *wonderful* for everybody who experienced it and I’m right jealous, ok? But also let’s acknowledge the glaringly obvious; it was a very, very different, considerably less rosy coming of age time for everyone literally anyplace else besides the United States. For people coming of age in the UK, the golden age of the Youthquake, the Sexual Revolution, the Age of Aquarius and all of those other neat things was marred by memories of the trauma and deprivation of the war years, in ways that Americans, flush on the fat of the land, couldn’t begin to imagine. (Never even mind what people growing up a little bit further east had to go through.) So when noted songwriter and history buff Al Stewart took a look back on his postwar upbringing and early 60’s young manhood, he wasn’t waxing nostalgic for the old juke joint and Chevy; he was recalling years of rations, shortages, cold and hunger. Though Buddy Holly may have been a shared point of interest, the worlds and viewpoints couldn’t be more different. For the generation of Americans who are still patting themselves on the back for how cool the 60’s were, there’s a generation of Europeans whose lens has considerably less vaseline smeared on it.

Poor People

Alan Price is kind of an overlooked figure of the swinging sixties. He was a member of The Animals, a regular session and tour musician, and also had some popularity in the UK as a solo artist. I guess mostly he’s known as a guy who played with one hell of a lot of famouser guys. His solo music can be best described as…very English, very very English. He can make a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover sound like something that belongs in an East End music hall. If he had one great defining solo moment, it was the O Lucky Man soundtrack. It had some very clever and charming songs, which made for an ironic contrast with the lesson of the movie, that shitty things will randomly and incessantly happen to you no matter what you try to do in life. Yeah, that shit’s depressing, but, again, good songs.

The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch

My, my, my… Brian Eno continues to surprise even if you think you’ve figured out his methods. We’ve all heard by now of his oblique strategies; starter packs are available for purchase. Throwing out sounds, ideas and words at random then finding some means of binding them together has served Eno and his collaborators very well. I always presumed that this particular title was a result of just such witchery. There’s no cohesion to those words being together. But, nope, Eno took inspiration from a true tale of a young man named William Underwood – a Negro in the parlance of his time – from a place called Paw Paw, MI who claimed to possess pyrokinetic powers. Being the 1800’s, of course, science had no means to either disprove or explain those claims, but the man was documented by observes breathing fire (though not, to my knowledge, barbecuing kittens.) The nineteenth century was full of such delightfully credulous tales of pseudo scientific quakery, and more of them should be revived in pop culture. The weight of real context lends a whole new meaning to a self-consciously flippant song; suddenly there’s a story that you really want to know more of. This could be the seed of the next AHS.