Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Beatles - From Then To You (Purple Chick)

More Christmas-related rarities for you . . .

Between 1963 and 1969, The Beatles sent out annual Christmas songs and messages on flexi-disc (produced by Lyntone, a London firm which wasn't really a label as such, but more of a record pressing plant for hire, specializing in small-run stuff) to members of their official fan clubs in the UK and US. The idea for these Christmas records came from Tony Barrow, the Beatles' press officer. As the volume of fan mail grew exponentially in the wake of the band's meteoric rise, the group fell further and further behind in answering the torrent of cards, letters, and club membership applications. Barrow suggested, as a way to assuage increasingly pissed-off fans, that the Beatles should look to Queen Elizabeth, who sent out annual yuletide greetings to her subjects via TV and radio. In his words, they should "follow her fine example, but in their own way." It was intended to be a one-off method of damage control with fans in 1963, but it became an annual Beatle tradition, a nice bonus for joining their club and a unique way to acknowledge all of their fans.

The early Beatles Christmas records (1963, pictured above, and 1964) were casual affairs, seemingly thrown together at the last moment by a group with a lot of other things pending on their schedules. But that isn't to say there wasn't any preparation involved. Barrow wrote the script for these two records, which the band followed more or less. What's great about these early ones is that, in them, fans got an extended glimpse at the 'offstage' Beatles - goofing off, acting silly, laughing and joking, having fun and being totally comfortable and casual with one another. It wouldn't last.

Things began to get a lot more involved beginning with the 1965 Christmas record. The Beatles started to take a more active part in the writing of the record, which featured more extensive skits and song parodies. This trend continued through the next two releases, including the 1966 Pantomime - Everywhere It's Christmas disc. The 1967 flexi-disc was the most elaborate yet, with the group members playing several different characters in sketches revolving around fictional bands auditioning for a BBC radio show.

The '67 disc was titled Christmas Time Is Here Again!, and featured an original song of the same name played throughout the record. This song was the only segment of any Beatles Christmas record to receive official release (it was eventually put out in 1995 as the B-side on the "Free As A Bird" 7" single).

In the 1968 release, you can start to sense a band on the verge of falling apart. The 'group' dynamic was all but long gone - members recorded most of their segments separately. John's contribution that year included a particularly biting 'fable' called "The Ballad of Jock & Yono", obliquely calling out people (including band members) critical of his relationship with Yoko Ono:

"Once upon a time, there were two balloons called Jock and Yono. They were strictly in love, bound to happen in a million years. They were together man. Unfortunate timetable, they seemed to have previous experience which kept calling them one way or another (you know how it is). But they battled on against overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends. Being in love, they clung together even more man. But some of the poisonous-monsters-of-outdated-busloadedshitthrowers [said very garbled and quickly, but you get the general idea] did stick slightly, and they occasionally had to resort to the dry cleaners. Luckily, this did not kill them and they weren’t banned from the Olympic Games. They lived hopefully ever after and who could blame them?"
By 1969, it was over. The band had effectively split by the time this Christmas record was recorded, so everyone's segment was recorded separately. There's a LOT of John and Yoko on this one, with scant contributions by George and Ringo. Actually, if you think about it, the progression of the seven Beatle Christmas records from 1963 to 1969 closely follows the history of the band - from the happy, carefree early days of the group, to the increased experimentation of their middle years, to their final estrangement and breakup.

In 1970, in the aftermath of the band's dissolution, the UK fan club collected all seven of the Christmas records and released them on vinyl (for members only) that December on a disc entitled From Then To You. The record was repackaged in the US as The Beatles Christmas Album and released by the American fan club to its members in the spring of 1971. For most US fans, this was the first time any of them had heard the 1965, 1966 or 1967 records - American fans got ripped off in those years. Instead of receiving the flexi-disc, all they received in those years was a crappy postcard with a holiday message from the band.

Outside of these fan club releases and the one song mentioned above, the Beatles Christmas records have never received official general release. There were attempts to produce bootleg releases in the early 1980s, but lawyers representing the band beat those efforts back. After that, nothing widely available containing all of these records existed . . . until the Purple Chick bootlegs appeared in the last decade.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I acquired this in 2008 during my frantic gathering of Purple Chick Beatles-related releases in the wake of Rolling Stone's thoughtless magazine article. Purple Chick's version contained all seven records, along with outtakes, sketch snippets and portions of their early holiday radio shows. Here's the lineup for you:
1. The Beatles Christmas Record 1963
2. Another Beatles' Christmas Record 1964
3. The Beatles Third Christmas Record 1965
4. Pantomime Everywhere It's Christmas 1966
5. Christmas Time Is Here Again 1967
6. Happy Christmas 1968
7. Happy Christmas 1969
8. Hello Dolly
9. Speech - Take 1
10. Speech - Take 2
11. Speech - Take 3
12. Speech - Take 4
13. Speech - Take 5
14. The Lost Christmas Message
15. The Lost Christmas Message II
16. Messages For Radios London And Caroline
17. Jock And Yono
18. Once Upon A Pool Table
19. Christmas Time (Is Here Again)
20. ITN News Interview
21. A Saturday Club Christmas
22. Newsreel Interview
23. Christmas Show Interview

(Tracks 9-15 are outtakes from the 1964 Christmas session)
If you've never heard these before, you're in for a treat. Get ready for another side and dimension of the Beatles you may have never been aware of. For the most part, these are excellent and essential parts of the Beatles oeuvre, and as such I can't for the life of me figure out why they haven't been put out on an official album yet. EVERYONE needs to hear this great stuff.

But, you all are first! So, for your holiday listening pleasure, The Beatles' From Then To You, released by Purple Chick sometime in 2007 (I only have it in .m4a - sorry). Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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* * * * * * *

My friend, the writer and frequent NPR guest Colin Fleming, has done a few things over the recent holidays related to this post - here they are for your edification and enjoyment. Great job and good stuff as always, Colin!

NPR - When The Beatles Gave Fans A 'Crimble' Present (21 Dec 2014)
The Tom Dunne Show - The Beatles Christmas With Colin Fleming
Vanity Fair - A Guide to the Strange, Little-Known, Hard-to-Find Beatles Christmas Recordings (17 Dec 2014)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cocteau Twins - Snow EP

I've got a few posts pending that I have to finish (so check back in the next few days, as I'll probably be backdating them on this site) . . . But I thought I'd kick off my annual series of Christmas-related posts with this: the Cocteau Twins' uber-rare, hard-to-find Snow EP.

The early 1990s were sort of a rough period for the Cocteau Twins.
The band was just coming off of its enormously successful 1990-91 worldwide tour for their critically-acclaimed album Heaven Or Las Vegas - this was their first tour as a headliner and their first live performances since 1986, so EVERY show was a sold out affair. Singer Liz Fraser and her longtime mate, band co-founder and principal songwriter Robin Guthrie had recently become parents to a little girl. The third member of the band, Simon Raymonde, had also recently married and had become a father. So it seemed that, after years of struggle and toil, the group was finally reveling in the financial and spiritual benefits of their efforts.

But behind the scenes, all was not well in their world. The Cocteau Twins had long been in conflict with their label, 4AD Records, and label head Ivo Watts-Russell, over both financial and artistic differences. And apparently Watts-Russell had finally had enough; nearing the end of their tour, the group was informed that 4AD had released them from their long-standing contract. So at the beginning of 1991, the band was without a representative in the UK (Capitol Records was their U.S. distributor).

But more significantly, Guthrie's life took a turn for the worse. He had been a long-standing alcohol and drug abuser during the '80s, but his addiction became even more pronounced and debilitating during the Heaven Or Las Vegas tour. His problems with booze and dope not only threatened the stability of the band, they caused severe stresses in his family life, resulting in an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Fraser. The Cocteau Twins were very close to falling apart, personally and professionally, right at the point where they had achieved their greatest comfort and success.

To his credit, upon his return to England Guthrie made a concerted effort to get clean and get his life back on track. But it took damn near three years for him to do so - the band's follow-up to Heaven Or Las Vegas, Four-Calendar Cafe, wouldn't be released until late 1993. During that entire three-year period, the Cocteau Twins made no recordings whatsoever . . . with one exception: the Snow EP.

Simon Raymonde talked about the making of the EP a few years later for a music magazine:
"There's a Christmas record that comes out on Capitol Records (the Cocteaus' US label) every few years. And they were trying to get all their bands to do a cover version of a Christmas song. I didn't think that's what it was at the time. I thought it would be like sitting next to Frank Sinatra. But in fact it would've been, y'know, Skinny Puppy, doing 'Merry Xmas Everybody.' Anyway they'd said, Would you do one? And Liz suggested — it must have been for a joke — 'Frosty The Snowman.' Then Robin went, Yeah, good title, people will think it's a normal Cocteau Twins song with a title like that."

"Once we'd got the music down, I wrote down the lyrics on a piece of paper and said to Liz, Hey, look at these, and we were laughing away. As we were going through it I was listening to Liz's reactions and thinking, this is never gonna get done. She was going, 'He's a very happy soul' — me sing that?! No way, I could not in a million years... 'with a broomstick in his ' — you've gotta be fucking kidding!'"

"I just didn't think she'd do it."
But she DID do it - the Cocteau Twins recorded "Frosty The Snowman" in the fall of 1992. The planned Capitol Christmas album never got off the ground, so the band let the song be included in the December 1992 Volume CD Magazine (issue #5).  The response to their version of "Frosty The Snowman" was so positive, that their new label (after 4AD, they signed with Fontana Records) suggested they back it with another Christmas song ("Winter Wonderland") and release it as a holiday single. The resulting Snow EP had an extremely limited release (one day only) in December 1993 in the UK.

I started looking for this release in the late Nineties, and it took me forever to find a copy of this EP. After several aborted attempts, I finally got my hands on a copy just before I left Texas at the end of the decade; I forget what I paid for it, but it was enough. However, it's nowhere near what sellers are demanding for this CD nowadays - I checked a couple of online retailers, who have copies of this EP for sale for $100 or more. Now THAT'S a rarity!
In addition to owning the CD, I also own a 45-RPM version of this EP, pressed on colored vinyl:


I suspect that this vinyl version is even more rare and valuable than the CD - but I don't care. I'm not about to part with EITHER of them . . .
. . . except, of course, to let you all, my devoted readers, have a chance to hear this music! So, for your holiday listening pleasure, here's the Cocteau Twins Snow EP, released in December 1993 on Fontana Records, and distributed in the U.S. by Capitol Records. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mark E. Smith - Pander! Panda! Panzer!


I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I think Mark E. Smith is an out-and-out musical genius, and it has been his innate intelligence and iron leadership that have, by force of will alone, kept his band The Fall alive and relevant for over 35 years and counting. A working-class bloke who is unusually well-read, his lyrics are sprinkled with literary references to William Blake, Christopher Marlowe and H.P. Lovecraft (among many others), and refer to historical events including the Protestant Reformation and the death of Pope John Paul I. And mixed in with these literary allusions are heaping dollops of his wicked and bitter, yet funny and thought-provoking sense of humor. Here are but a few of my favorite Fall lyrics:
- "The Wehrmacht never got in here . . . but it took us six years" (from "Middle Mass")
- "You're a walking tower of Adidas crap at a cobblers four times a month" (from "Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun")
- "I was very let down with the budget/I was expecting a one million quid handout/I was very disappointed/It was the government's fault" (from "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem")
He's no musician, and he doesn't possess what would remotely be described as a golden set of pipes. But for most of his career, Smith has wisely surrounded himself with a superb and ever-rotating group of instrumentalists, musos who are not only very good at what they do, but who also are able to translate Smith's sometimes dense and abstract vision and words into music that sounds like nothing else currently out there. That's another attribute of The Fall that doesn't get discussed enough - for nearly four decades, Smith has been able to constantly change his band's musical style, without following the current trend du jour (be it punk, New Wave, alternative, Madchester, grunge, etc.) and without pandering to his audience. And yet in every iteration, with every new Fall lineup, each album and every song produced over the years is immediately recognizable as being by "The Fall". There's a lot of truth in what DJ John Peel once said: "The Fall are always different, always the same."

But Smith's literate and sometimes off-kilter wordplay can be VERY strong medicine, not only for those uninitiated into the whys, hows and wherefores of The Fall, but indeed for longtime fans as well. And like any powerful medicine, it goes down best either in small doses, or with something to ease its administration - such as the excellent music backing up those dense lyrics, provided by his Fall bandmates or by one of many groups Smith has fronted as either a member (Von Sudenfed) or as a guest (Mouse On Mars, Inspiral Carpets, D.O.S.E., etc.) over the years. Unadulterated Mark E. Smith is hard to take . . .

. . . Which is why I have problems with this album, his second spoken-word solo release (the first being 1998's The Post Nearly 
Man).  Similar to his earlier solo work, the disc consists of Smith reciting his poetry/stories in his inimitable voice, with absolutely no musical accompaniment - it's just pure Smith, through and through. Sometimes he sounds like he's reading at the bottom of a mineshaft, other times within a boiler tank, but in the end it's just him and his words. Unlike The Post Nearly Man, however, Smith disposes of breaking his readings down into manageable parts - Pander! Panda! Panzer! has no track listing; it's just one long, uninterrupted 42-minute long track. There aren't a ton of new ideas on this disc; a lot of stuff on it is essentially a rehash of the first spoken word album - "Enigrammatic Dream", for example, is reprised here. And Smith even goes so far as to plagiarize from The Fall; at one point here, he simply reads the lyrics from "Idiot Joy Showland" off of 1991's Shift-Work (not one of the band's most deathless works). Sad to see this from him . . .

Here's the bottom line: I'm a HUGE Fall fan, and I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this album. But in the end, Pander! Panda! Panzer! comes off as forty-plus minutes of non-stop ravings from a deranged old man. It makes me sad to say that, since it's been my experience that Mark E. Smith has rarely made a misstep in his career. But in my opinion, this is one of them. If you're going to issue what essentially is an artistic conceit, at the very least make it somewhat accessible to the audience you're trying to reach. I know that that's not Smith's style, but still . . .

As such, I can't recommend this disc . . . even the most rabid Fall fan will be hard-pressed to get through it all. There are some nuggets of gold encased in his long stream of words (hence the saying, 'Amidst madness, wisdom lies therein') - good luck holding out long enough to hear them.

However, if you're looking to test your endurance, here you are: For your consideration, Mark E. Smith's Pander! Panda! Panzer!, released on Action Records in 2002. Enjoy (if you can), and as always, let me know what you think.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Poll Results: "Rolling Stone recently updated its '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' list . . . but none of the following albums appeared on either the 2003 or 2012 list. Which in your opinion are the most glaring omissions?


I'm a little late in posting these poll results - pardon. There's a lot here to go over.

When Rolling Stone first compiled "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003, a lot of critics rightly pointed out that it seemed that the list was heavily weighted towards 'classic' rock releases from the '60s and '70s.  Nine years later, they decided to give the list another go, I assume to correct the earlier mistakes in judgement and bring a new, fresher, hipper take to the compilation by bringing more modern sounds into the mix.  All in all, I can't say that their attempt was completely successful - their latest album list looks remarkably similar to the earlier one, with what are for the most part only minor changes and deletions.

Rolling Stone cheated a little in updating their list - they had to make room for new artists and albums, but at the same time it was as though they couldn't bear the thought of reducing the level of recognition previously afforded to those older artists/groups.  So in many cases, what the magazine did was to reduce the total number of albums a classic artist had on the list and consolidate their music onto a representative compilation album, which they would then rank just as highly as the artist's previous albums on the '03 list.

For example, in 2003, both volumes of Robert Johnson's King Of The Delta Blues Singers were included, at #27 and #424, respectively. But for the 2012 survey, the magazine replaced both albums with The Complete Recordings, a single release containing all of Johnson's music. For Robert Johnson, this move makes sense - he never did any albums, so The Complete Recordings is the definitive compilation from a music pioneer. But they made similar moves that made less sense - like deleting Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River and Cosmo's Factory discs, replacing them in 2012 with the Chronicles, Vol. 1 compilation - but still retaining the band's album Willy And The Poor Boys on the new list. The magazine did a similar sort of thing with Otis Redding, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds and James Brown, reducing their multiple entries on the 2003 list to one or two representative (and highly ranked) albums/compilations on the 2012 list - a backhanded, BS way for Rolling Stone to have its cake and eat it too.

Anyway, let's get to the REAL changes in the polls . . .

Losers:

The two bands that apparently suffered the biggest loss of reputation between the 2003 and 2012 lists were No Doubt and, most especially, Nick Drake - and deservedly so, in my opinion.

Nick Drake died in 1974 and for nearly 25 years was virtually unknown; posthumous awareness of his music really didn't begin to rise until the famous Volkswagen Cabrio TV commercial in 1999, featuring his song "Pink Moon".


His mainstream popularity peaked in the early 2000s - just about the same time that Rolling Stone began its initial album survey. So, without a doubt, that wave of Nick Drake adulation/nostalgia found its way into the 2003 list, which featured all three of his studio albums (Bryter Layter at #245, Five Leaves Left at #283, and Pink Moon at #320). By 2012, only Pink Moon remains. Personally, while I am impressed with Drake's guitar technique and lyrics, after a while, all of his stuff starts to sound a little bit samey. Frankly, a little bit of Nick Drake goes a long way . . . I'd always felt that his newfound glorification was just a wee bit overblown, so I can fully support Rolling Stone cutting back on recognizing his music.

As for No Doubt - well, I never understood the attraction for this group in the first place. In my mind, this band was an inferior doppleganger of the more superior West Coast "Third Wave Ska" bands in whose wake No Doubt developed - bands like Fishbone and The Untouchables. I remember when Tragic Kingdom came out - I was living in Cambridge, MA during the summer of '96, and the local alternative station played songs like "Just A Girl", "Spiderwebs" and "Don't Speak" to death. Every time I heard one of those 'blah' songs, that was my cue to change the channel. I felt that the band brought nothing new or particularly exciting to the table, and their links to ska were tenuous, if at all. At their top-dollar best, No Doubt was a 'OK' pop band with an attractive lead singer - not exactly a groundbreaking formula, and especially not one deserving of multiple "best album" recognition. The 2003 list had both Rock Steady (#316) and Tragic Kingdom (#441) - both are gone from the latest list. Good riddance.

Other artists taking a drubbing between the 2003 and 2012 lists include Roxy Music (Avalon and Country Life deleted, Siren and For Your Pleasure dropped three spots each, to #374 and #397 respectively), Alanis Morrisette (Jagged Little Pill removed - thank God), and Hank Williams, Jr. - apparently the 2012 committee didn't take to kindly to Junior's recent politically-charged comments; his compilation, formerly at #225, is completely out.

Winners:

If anything, the 2012 poll is Radiohead's critical coming-out party. Five Radiohead albums now grace this chart, with Amnesiac and In Rainbows joining the three band albums that made the 2003 list (The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A). Kid A made the most remarkable improvement in its critical reception between the polls, rising more than 350 spots, from #428 in '03 to #67 in '12. The other big gainer in the new poll is Kanye West. Three of his albums (Late Registration at #118, The College Dropout at #298, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #353) are all new entries.

It seems that for the new poll, Rolling Stone made a rather obvious attempt to show itself to be eclectic in its selections, and tried to move away from honoring the usual hoary rock chestnuts considered "classic" by its aging editors and critics. In some cases, this works - for instance, it's good to see The Arcade Fire's Funeral (at #151), Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out (at #272) and The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs (at #454) on the list; recognition of these great works are, in some cases, long overdue.

But in other instances, the magazine goes too far in its attempt to be hip and modern. In my opinion, it's a big stretch to believe that albums by Vampire Weekend, The Arctic Monkeys, LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A. somehow rise to the level of "The 500 Greatest". And some new entries, like Manu Chao's Proxima Estacion Esperanza, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linux, and the compilation The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto, just leave me (and I'm sure many others) scratching my head in bewilderment. In my mind, it helps if the music you're calling the 'greatest ever' has been heard by more than a couple of music critics  . . . especially if these albums replace deleted ones by The Beatles (With The Beatles, a shocking removal), Massive Attack (Mezzanine) and Roxy Music (Country Life), or rank higher than Gang Of Four's Entertainment! and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If it's not something that a reasonably informed and open-minded music lover is aware of, then it simply shouldn't be on the list.  Poorly done by RS, in my mind; there are plenty of other albums that are probably more deserving of honor . . .

The Poll:

. . . all of which leads back to my question: what omitted albums do you feel should have been on the updated list? I listed an number of albums for this poll, selected according to their renown, influence or representation of a specific genre of music. Here are the results:
10 (58%)   Combat Rock - The Clash
8 (47%)     Skylarking - XTC
8 (47%)     Boston - Boston
4 (23%)     The Specials - The Specials
4 (23%)     In My Tribe - 10,000 Maniacs
4 (23%)     Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes
4 (23%)     Broken English - Marianne Faithful
3 (17%)     My Life In The Bush of Ghosts - Brian Eno & David Byrne
3 (17%)     The La's - The La's
3 (17%)     Standing On A Beach/Staring At The Sea - The Cure
2 (11%)     Signals, Calls & Marches - Mission Of Burma
2 (11%)     United States Live - Laurie Anderson
2 (11%)     Swordfishtrombones - Tom Waits
2 (11%)     Technique - New Order
2 (11%)     Diesel & Dust - Midnight Oil
2 (11%)     The Stax Story (Vol. 1-4) - Various Artists
2 (11%)     Colossal Youth - Young Marble Giants
1 (5%)      The Trinity Session - Cowboy Junkies
1 (5%)      The Rise & Fall - Madness
1 (5%)      Atlantic Rhythm & Blues, Vol. 1-8 - Various Artists
1 (5%)      Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 - Various Artists
1 (5%)      Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 - Billie Holiday
0 (0%)      Emperor Tomato Ketchup - Stereolab
0 (0%)      Computer World - Kraftwerk
0 (0%)      Only The Lonely - Frank Sinatra
0 (0%)      Heaven Or Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins
0 (0%)      Labour Of Love - UB40
0 (0%)      1979-1983 (Vol. 1 & 2) - Bauhaus
0 (0%)      Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James - Rick James
0 (0%)      The Whole Story - Kate Bush
I completely concur with these poll results. Combat Rock, I've already said more than enough here about how great I think this album is. Boston is the second-best selling debut album of all time in the U.S. (just behind Guns 'N' Roses Appetite For Destruction), with over 17 million units sold. And Skylarking, whether accidentally or not, is one of the most perfect 'song cycle' albums ever made, and one of the few discs I can listen to from start to finish without skipping over songs - everything just fits. I would have liked to have seen more votes for Computer World, hugely influential in the worlds of electronica, early rap (listen to the beat in "Planet Rock" again sometime) and alternative music (I'm looking at you, Coldplay), and for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, another influential album that's also one of my personal all-time favorites.  But I guess you can't have everything.

Anyway, here's a link to the overall 2003 and 2012 RS500 lists that I put together, showing the differences between the two polls: album movements, deletions and additions. Thanks to everyone who participated.  I'll try to come up with another poll topic very soon.