Sage & Spirit

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.

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Right

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.

Pinball Wizard

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.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole (not like you!) Pablo Picasso was an asshole. As artists are wont to be. He had an ego inversely proportionate to his height and really got around with the ladies despite being a dick. You can get away with a lot of bad shit when you’re an undisputed genius, and picking up girls is the least of it. The point of the song is  not so much Pablo Picasso’s personal proclivities; it’s shooting down the sacred cows we resent and admire for the privilege their singularity grants them. The genius gets to do what he wants, the things other people work for are handed to him, and his legacy remains blameless; you, in the meantime, are just some asshole.

Over Fire Island

And now, two minutes of ambiance. If you’re so inclined, Brian Eno has hours’ worth of ambient music to nod off to, but I think a few minutes is enough. On Another Green World, Eno transitioned from traditional – if weird – pop based song structures towards the aural wallpaper concept he would thoroughly pioneer over the next few years. The great thing about the instrumental parts here is that they are still recognizably self-contained songs. They’re fun to listen to, whereas the point of the later discreet ambient music for bus stops is that you can’t really listen to it at all. Fire Island, for whatever it’s worth, is a strip of land off the coast of Long Island that has been known since the 1970’s as a vacation destination for the gay community. So this may well be Brian Eno’s big rainbow-flag moment, presented in a characteristically oblique manner.

Out in the Streets

I love hearing Deborah Harry pay homage to one of her biggest influences. She does such a great – and straight faced – job reinterpreting The Shangri-Las’ classic single. In fact, Blondie blows the original away. Girl group tropes delivered with a nudge and a wink have always been the basis of the Blondie sound, but this tribute is totally heartfelt, and therefor far less campy than the original. The Shangri-Las’ mildly naughty bad-girl image was the thing that set them apart from all of the other girl groups in the sixties, but their singing was never quite on par with the Motown groups. They weren’t exactly risque, but their songs were deliberately melodramatic in the spirit of pulp comic books and other teen-based entertainment of the time. Harry puts a more adult spin on the material and finds some real heart in it.

One White Duck

Actually the full title is One White Duck / 010 = Nothing at All. I don’t understand the mathematics of that at all. The tone of mixed up bitter and wistful is easy enough to understand even if all the lines aren’t, though; apparently Ian Anderson was just going through a divorce when Minstrel in the Gallery was written. You can take all the archaic and Elizabethan themes you like for inspiration, but those real life feelings will sneak in anyway. On a typically ambitious album, this track stands out for being so plainspoken…well maybe ‘plain’ is not the word given the wordplay, but close to the bone, definitely.