The opening of Shine On has always evoked strong images: the changing light of sunrise, beams of light breaking cloud cover, color rolling across a vast sky. Pink Floyd here achieves something that rarely happens in popular music: an instrumental passage that implies narrative. I often think about Fantasia – the child’s introduction to classic music – which invites us to contemplate how passages of music can tell entire stories. People working within the confines of the three-minute pop song don’t have to think about creating musical narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end. They say whatever they have to say in a few words and even fewer chord changes. Pink Floyd, of course, liked to go beyond the pop song formula, and they experimented with longer song structures and extended instrumentals. This particular narrative is only about 13 minutes, but it could have easily been a longer piece. It’s an epic composition.
Well, you couldn’t find more of an all-American classic than Born to Run. In typical Springsteen fashion, even the love songs are loaded with ambiguity. Bruce Springsteen has made it his life’s mission to remind us that even the greatest things – love, family, the open road – are never without bitterness and heartache, and that’s life for ya. It’s a message that millions of people have lined up to hear, so it’s clearly very much on point. I always thought this was a fairly straightforward love song, but taking a look at the lyrics, no, of course it isn’t. She may be the one, whatever that means, but she’s probably bad news anyway. And that, frankly, rings true, because as I’ve said before and will repeat again, love songs that don’t allow faults and ambiguity don’t reflect real life as most of us experience it. Fuck romance, it’s a sham. Whoever ‘the one’ may turn out to be, they’ll most likely break your heart and fuck you over.
Bob Dylan is talking about his ex-wife again, wondering where and how something that began so beautifully went wrong. You and everyone else alive, Bobbo. As much as I feel sorry for the pain of your failure to stay married – and everyone’s – in the long run it was the whole world’s gain. The gain of songs like this one is the lucky by-product of burned-out love. The fuel of creativity is the only thing that redeems our interpersonal failures. If it didn’t feed some artistic drive, all that heartbreak would be for nothing. Not everyone, of course, has an artistic drive to fuel, or knows how to channel their frustrated emotions into productive ends. It’s for those people’s sake that great artists have to suffer. The Bob Dylans of the world suffer and write about it to redeem the pain of all the not-Bob Dylans who don’t have an outlet to give their own suffering dignity and meaning. It’s almost Christlike.
Whatever she’s selling, it ain’t seashells, though if you bought the album you can’t be blamed for expecting something nautical from the looks of Jerry Hall on the cover. Bryan Ferry’s wordplay, meanwhile, is pure beat poetry. An indictment of our modern life, circa 1975? Yes, but sexy. She sells you your fantasies of yourself, and herself on the side, and you’re buying it. You’re a consummate consumer and you need it.
You know what I think rock music has always needed more of? Woodwinds. The lowly flute has been sorely underrepresented in rock, despite Ian Anderson’s most heroic efforts. So here’s a rare non-Jethro Tull flute song, courtesy of the Grateful Dead. It hardly qualifies as a rock song, but if there’s another thing the rock world needs more of, it’s classical-inspired compositions. Actually, that’s not a thing rock musicians need to be dabbling with, for the risk of appearing hopelessly pretentious. Rock stars who think they can be composers often find that their ambition far outstrips their skill set. But for a three minute mini-suite with flute, the Dead pull it off nicely.
David Bowie at some point had a concept for a song that would be ‘an erotic drone’ and this was an attempt to get there. The concept fell away with the groove, I guess, which is a relative rarity for Bowie, who doesn’t let go of big ideas very easily. But even the most concept-driven of musicians must sometimes just let themselves get lost riding the groove. It’s not an erotic drone, but it’s certainly sexy, and it’s best appreciated as an exorcise in voice. It’s a generous showcase for an outstanding team of session vocalists, and it’s all about the vocal interplay, the sheer musicianship of singing, if you will. Some critics initially dismissed Young Americans deep cuts like this one as ‘thin’ or filler, but that’s entirely missing the point. You can’t blame listeners in 1975 for being primed for another grand narrative of the apocalypse from David Bowie, but Young Americans was a turn in a different direction, one that’s since come to be recognized as one of the classics. It’s not a concept album with grand designs, it’s a musician’s album, with a focus on tunes and vocal performance. That’s not being ‘thin’ with the material; that’s a virtuoso performer showing a different side.
If you’ve only ever heard this on the radio, you may be missing out on the bizarre freakout that is Tommy. The Who’s hit single still pops up a lot on those radio stations that claim they play anything, but it’s barely a trace of the weirdness from whence it came. The mother album was weird enough – a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball prodigy loosely inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba. It was a mountain of terrible ideas pulled off through sheer conviction, birthing the concept of concept albums on the way. But was that enough for The Who and their vision? No, they had to have their vision visualized, so they made a movie, with schlock auteur Ken Russell. That’s when things got really weird. You can enjoy it a lot more if you think of it less as a feature film and more as a very long music video. Also if you’re drugged to the gills. It’s certainly a feast of surreal images, and unexpected guest performances of various quality (Tina Turner, thumbs up; Jack Nicholson, not so much.) Ann-Margaret earned herself an Oscar nomination, presumably for the scene where she’s doused in baked beans. Roger Daltrey was not nominated for any awards, despite being very limber and blue of eye. Elton John’s guest appearance is another highlight. Sir Elton is no actor, but that’s not what the role requires. It’s the perfect Elton John cameo; it suits him both musically and aesthetically. It’s exactly the perfect collision of talent that could only happen in the musical wild west of the mid seventies, when movies of concept albums could get made and earn awards.