Monthly Archives: October 2019

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to….Aerosmith (The Columbia Years)

  – 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –

It used to be easy to categorise the different phases of Aerosmith’s career. By the 1990s, there were two distinct phases – old Aerosmith and new Aerosmith, or – if you knew your stuff – good Aerosmith and bad Aerosmith. But looking back now in 2019, those iffy albums recorded for Geffen between 1985 and 1993 can now been seen as some kind of weird, golden mid-period for the band. Because no matter what you thought of Dude (Looks Like A Lady) or Love In An Elevator, things got far, far worse when the band entered the 21st century.

Aero1

As horrific as the band’s newer material is, one thing is for sure: that classic first run of studio albums recorded on the Columbia label between 1973 and 1982 is brilliant. Blistering rock and roll, with each album building on the last until it all started to fall apart in a drug-fuelled blaze of glory. Just like the editions on AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones this Buyer’s Guide will take you through the highlights and lowlights of Aerosmith’s first decade.

Start off with: Toys In The Attic (1975, Columbia Records)

Aero2It might include two of the band’s biggest showpieces – Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion – but the brilliance of the their third album is in the space it has to breathe. From the non-stop rock of the title track through to the piano-ballad of You See Me Crying, Aerosmith show that they’re more than just long-haired heavy rockers. The plaintive Uncle Salty shows a band tackling a serious topic, Adam’s Apple proves that Joe Perry can write a sick guitar riff equal to Steven Tyler’s raspy vocals, and Big Ten Inch Record is sure to put a dirty smirk on your face. On the flipside, No More No More might just be the greatest song about touring in a rock and roll band, and Round And Round shows a heavier side of the group. Jack Douglas, given full production duties after co-producing their previous record, manages to capture the essence of a band just as they changed from New England wannabes to national rock stars.

Follow that with: Get Your Wings (1974, Columbia Records)

Aero3There’s a charm to the band’s sophomore release that they only ever got close to recapturing on 1985’s Done With Mirrors, another album which pre-empted bigger things. If their tentative, toe-in-the-water debut proved they can play, the follow-up showed a maturity in their songwriting skills. The band sounds like America’s best-kept secret, and co-producers Jack Douglas and Ray Colcord are struggling to keep a lid on everything. With the same sense of space as its breakthrough follow-up, Get Your Wings finds Aerosmith starting to hit their stride, with Lord Of The Thighs – strangely not picked as a single – serving as the blueprint for the band’s sleazy rock for the rest of the decade.

Then get: Rocks (1976, Columbia Records)

Aero4Public opinion usually places this record as the band’s greatest achievement, but for me it’s a little overcooked. Gone are the nuances of Get Your Wings and Toys In The Attic, and I instead we get 34 minutes of balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, that doesn’t let up for a second. By this time, Aerosmith and Jack Douglas were masters at their game, and the album sounds effortless as a result. But if anything, it’s just too much. Even the now-traditional piano ballad closer Home Tonight is far from subtle; it feels like enjoying a meal too quickly, and burning your mouth as a result.

Criminally overlooked: Night In The Ruts (1979, Columbia Records)

Aero5Joe Perry claimed that by 1978 they had gone from musicians dabbling with drugs, to drug addicts dabbling with music. A year later, things were really starting to come off the rails. Mid-way through recording sessions, Perry literally quit the band over spilt milk (Perry’s wife Elyssa threw a glass of milk over Tom Hamilton’s wife Terri, in a heated argument backstage). With Perry only contributing guitar parts for five songs, the remaining parts were completed by  Brad Whitford, Richie Supa, Neil Thompson, and Jimmy Crespo. Perry-clone Crespo stayed on as the band’s lead guitarist as the album, originally titled Off Your Rocker, was released as Night In The Ruts. It’s an uneven affair but definitely has its moments. Chiquita is perhaps the greatest deep cut the band ever recorded and Cheese Cake, Three Mile Smile and Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy) all show the band at their best.

The long-shot: Rock In A Hard Place (1982, Columbia Records)

Aero6The band limped on into the new decade as rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford followed Joe Perry out the door. Replaced by another Perry-clone, Rick Dufay, the new blood revitalised the band into a record that is far stronger than it deserves to be. Costing an estimate $1.5 million to record (a fortune at the time) due to Tyler’s constant drug-fuelled procrastinations, the album reunited them with Jack Douglas. The opening salvo of Jailbait, Lightning Strikes, Bitch’s Brew and Bolivian Ragamuffin feels like the last death-rattle of a band that could really have imploded there and then, had fate not intervened a couple of years later.

Avoid like the plague: Classics Live! (1986, Columbia Records)

Aero7After the band reunited and decamped to greener pastures with Geffen Records, their old record label was left with the rights to the material from their first decade. Both Classic Live! and Classics Live II feel like cynical cash-ins, to benefit from the band’s resurgence, but the first volume is particularly bad. Featuring overdubs by stand-in guitarist Jimmy Crespo, and re-touched drum sounds akin to ZZ Top’s re-worked CD remasters of their ‘70s albums, it doesn’t sound like a genuine live album. The album’s only saving grace is the inclusion of a studio outtake, Major Barbra, originally recorded for Get Your Wings.

Best compilation: Gems (1988, Columbia Records)

Aero8After 1980’s Greatest Hits included a couple of singles edited for radio (effectively removing key elements of songs, e.g. Sweet Emotion without the talk-box intro section!), Columbia issued a more representative compilation in 1988. Cashing-in on the band’s Permanent Vacation comeback, with cover-art reminiscent of the Rocks cover, Gems is a heavier album of deep cuts drawing from their first seven studio albums. The cherry on top is the studio version of Richie Supa’s Chip Away The Stone, previously only available as a live version.

Best live album: Live! Bootleg (1978, Columbia Records)

Aero9A sloppy mess of a double-LP live album, Live! Bootleg was released while the band were in no state to record a follow-up to Draw The Line. It was originally intended to be a warts-and-all recording, akin to the bootleg live recordings the cover art suggests. It actually sounds great; the band are just a mess, full of flubbed-guitar lines and incoherent vocals, and I love every minute of it. It’s not all stadium-rock bonanza though – we get a club recording of Last Child, a rehearsal space run-through of Come Together and a 1973 radio broadcast of I Ain’t Got You and Mother Popcorn.

*

Yes, Aerosmith might not sail the same seas as the Led Zeppelins and Rolling Stones of the stadium-rock world, but to me they’re essential. I’m so glad this was the first band that really stung me; I’ve always found it easy to look beyond the questionable Geffen years and everything that came after it. Their first decade was brilliant and includes everything I look for in a rock band. For me, there’s simply nothing better than Toys In The Attic blasting out of the stereo on a hot summer’s day.

Aero10

 

Rocks In The Attic #801: Stevie Wonder – ‘The Woman In Red (O.S.T.)’ (1984)

RITA#801Crikey, I’m not sure this film would get made these days. It wouldn’t fare well in the #metoo era.

A remake of the French film, Pardon Mon Affaire Gene Wilder writes and directs himself in a male super-fantasy where he attempts to start an extra-marital affair with a model at the advertising agency he works at. It’s a super-fantasy because he’s Gene Wilder and she’s Kelly LeBrock. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but it just comes off tasting bad.

Gene Wilder is one of my favourite comedic actors. He’s easily the best thing about Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, fantastic in the early Mel Brooks films, and his partnership with Richard Pryor is wonderful from Silver Streak (featuring a pre-The Spy Who Loved Me Richard Kiel playing a besuited henchman with steel teeth) to Stir Crazy (“I can’t feel my legs!”) and See No Evil Hear No Evil (“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a woman?”). This film feels like a bit of a mis-step though. I’m sure it was very amusing back in 1984, and I certainly enjoyed it in my youth when I didn’t know any better, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It has its moments – mainly from the supporting cast of Gilda Radner and Charles Grodin – but the whole thing just feels awful. Somehow, I always remember that collection of inner-city vignettes (including a man copping a feel of a woman whose shoe gets stuck in a grate) to be from the opening section of this film, but that’s from Stir Crazy. I must mix up Gene Wilder films in my mind.

RITA#801aThe music is brilliant though; the film’s saving grace. Essentially a Stevie Wonder album (it comes four years after the brilliant Hotter Than July), all but one song was written by him. He shares vocal duties with Dionne Warwick on two songs, and Warwick sings lead on one track. Officially, I’m not sure if it would be credited to ‘Various Artists’, or to Stevie Wonder & Dionne Warwick, but I like to see it as a Stevie Wonder album, with a guest singer.

Like Hotter Than July, the album has its moments of pure synth gold – from the funky title song, to Love Light In Flight to Don’t Drive Drunk. The last song ended up being used in an educational video for the Department of Transportation’s drunk-driving prevention PSA. I’m not sure if Stevie Wonder is the kind of person to take driving advice from, but I appreciate any promotion for such a great cause.

But like Hotter Than July, The Woman In Red also has its one startling moment of pure cheese. Mega-hit I Just Called To Say I Love You echoes the horrible feel of the previous album’s Happy Birthday, not to mention 1982’s clanger with Paul McCartney, Ebony And Ivory. These songs feel like the technology starting to detract from the songwriting, and the trouble is that the synths Stevie was using in the early ‘80s were starting to become widely available. As a result, these songs sound like everything bad about ‘80s music that followed after.

Hit: I Just Called To Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder

Hidden Gem: The Woman In Red – Stevie Wonder

RITA#801b

Rocks In The Attic #800: Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’ (1970)

RITA#800Post number 800 of this humble blog finds us with one of the greatest albums in rock and metal, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

It’s one of those cornerstone records, like AC/DC’s Highway To Hell or Led Zeppelin IV, which just feels bigger than the sum of its parts. If the Beatles’ 1969 swansong Abbey Road served as the blueprint for rock albums for the 1970s, then Black Sabbath’s celebrated second album surely served as the heavy metal equivalent. The musical leap from Come Together to War Pigs feels like light years, but the two album openers were released only 12 months apart.

Released in the same year as their doom-laden debut album, Paranoid arrived in September 1970 on the Vertigo label in the UK (and Warner Bros. in the US market). The record company, satisfied with the band’s debut, asked for more of the same. Black Sabbath was recorded in one day, a marathon sprint of twelve hours, but for Paranoid the band were afforded the luxury of a whole six days to record.

Black Sabbath File Photos
Much has been written about hit-single Paranoid being written in five minutes, tossed off to make up one last song for the album. Bassist Geezer Butler claims it was done and dusted in two hours, from the moment Tony Iommi came up with the monster guitar riff, to the band laying down the track to finish off the album. But as good as the song is, its oversaturation on rock radio makes it one of the least interesting things about the record.

Things start off with War Pigs, the quintessential long-form metal song. A languorous opening and ominous sirens announce something big is on the horizon, before the song stops dead. Bill Ward’s hi-hat counts in Iommi’s stabbing power chords, as Ozzy Osbourne sings the opening verse. This leads to the main riff, before it breaks down again. Clocking in at almost eight minutes, the song doesn’t ever get boring.

Black Sabbath File Photos

After the comparatively throwaway title track, the band slips into neutral on the stoner favourite Planet Caravan, before picking up speed again on the album’s other big guitar centrepiece, Iron Man. Across those first four songs, Iommi provides some of the genre’s greatest guitar riffs – War Pigs alone has half a dozen different sections – and it makes for the best ‘side’ of metal until perhaps the second-side of AC/DC’s Back In Black or the first side of Def Leppard’s Hysteria (both of which would have been categorised as metal before history downgraded them to heavy rock).

RITA#800cSilverchair’s debut Frogstomp from 1995 is a good example of a Sabbath-influenced metal album that matches the riffs-per-song ratio of Paranoid. But for the rest of the band’s career, Iommi would be a little less generous with his riffs. Paranoid’s less celebrated second side is therefore more representative of the albums that followed: moderate-tempo doom-based rockers with screaming banshee vocals, usually based around one or two killer riffs per song.

Paranoid was the first Sabbath album I heard, and so it was my gateway into the band. After digesting everything I could from Aerosmith and AC/DC, I skipped the Allman Brothers and shifted to the ‘B’ section of the record shop. But like AC/DC’s albums, I was always a little let down by Sabbath’s mid-90s CD remasters. Aerosmith’s CD remasters had great little fold-out booklets with photos and artwork from the albums’ promotional campaigns. In comparison, AC/DC, Sabbath and Motörhead had nothing in their reissues – usually just a tracklisting. I’d have loved an essay, or some retrospective liner notes, but maybe record companies don’t think heavy metal fans can read?

Hit: Paranoid

Hidden Gem: Planet Caravan

RITA#800d

Rocks In The Attic #799: Various Artists – ‘Go (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#799Following hot on the heels of his breakthrough hit Swingers, Doug Liman’s Go is a quirky little film dealing with youth culture at the end of the 1990s. It borrows liberally from Quentin Tarantino, in particular the time-switching of Pulp Fiction, as it intertwines three stories set in one day in Southern California and Las Vegas.

In the first story, a group of supermarket workers head to a weekend rave and get caught up in a drug deal that goes bad, in the second story one of their co-workers heads off to Las Vegas with another bunch of friends, and the final story covers the tale of a pair of TV actors forced to take part in an undercover drug sting.

As much as I admire 1996’s Swingers, the film that made a star out of Vince Vaughan and boosted the profiles of Jon Favreau (also its writer), Heather Graham and Ron Livingston, I’ve always found it quite bleak. For a Vegas (and Reno!) film dealing with the seedier side of the city, away from the neon glamour of the tourist traps, I much prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, released in the same year.

RITA#799aI found 1999’s Go to be much more of a fun ride than Swingers, although admittedly not as groundbreaking. It has an ensemble cast, featuring both Timothy Olyphant and Katie Holmes in early roles, and I’ve always wondered whether this was the film that Tom Cruise saw before he set his sights on Holmes. Or maybe he was just a Dawson’s Creek fan.

Sadly, Swingers and Go were the last small-budget indie films that Doug Liman directed. His talents were obvious and his subsequent filmography shows how much he impressed Hollywood with these two films. His next project after Go was 2002’s The Bourne Identity, and he followed this with similarly-sized blockbusters as 2005’s Mr. And Mrs Smith, 2008’s Jumper, 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow and 2017’s American Made. He’s currently in post-production on a sequel to Edge Of Tomorrow, taking its name from the alternate title of the 2014 film: Live, Die, Repeat And Repeat.

The soundtrack to Go is very much of its time – all big beats and samples, typified by the inclusion of Fatboy Slim’s Gangster Trippin’. When I first heard the soundtrack was getting a vinyl reissue, I thought that it was another example of record companies scraping the barrel, and so I sat on it until I was able to pick it up in a sale. I’m so glad I did, as it’s chock-full of gems. No Doubt’s New and Len’s Steal My Sunshine get top-billing alongside the Fatboy Slim track, but it’s the lesser-known tracks that I’m here for.

Jimmy Luxury’s Cha Cha Cha, featuring a sample of the Tommy Rowe Orchestra, is a funky little gem, Air’s Talisman is one of the many highlights of Moon Safari, and Lionrock’s Fire Up The Shoesaw is just fabulous, not only for its stuttering sample of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, but more for it’s delicious sample of Fight At Kobe Dock from John Barry’s score to You Only Live Twice (the title song of which, of course, was sung by Nancy Sinatra).

Hit: Steal My Sunshine – Len

Hidden Gem: Fire Up The Shoesaw – Lionrock

RITA#799b

Rocks In The Attic #798: The Grateful Dead – ‘American Beauty’ (1970)

RITA#798One of New Zealand’s better radio stations is The Sound, broadcasting on 93.8FM in Auckland. The station was originally called Solid Gold, catering for ‘60s and 70’s music, until their core audience presumably died off and stopped listening. In 2012, it rebranded as The Sound, concentrating on classic rock (i.e. Dad rock) from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their tagline is “We’ve got your record collection”, which sounds more like the beginnings of a ransom demand than a reason to tune in.

Earlier this year, I saw a competition posted to their Facebook page: “Here’s your chance to earn the ultimate ‘trainspotting’ title! If you can name all 20 albums correctly in this photo, we’re sending you some epic vinyl to add to your collection.” [I’ve included the photo here you can play along at home!]

RITA#798a
I looked at the image and could identify at least half of them at first glance. Most record collectors can identify the top two inches of an album cover with ease, from years of flicking though the racks of record shops, but trying to identify them from the LEFT two inches of the sleeve was much more difficult.

I spent the train home from work trying to figure out the ones I was missing. By the time I got home, I had all but 3 or 4. I asked a couple of friends for help, as I suspected that the ones I hadn’t got were alien to me. Moo helped me on one of them (#2), but I was stuck on the rest. By the end of the night, I had just two left to get – #6 and #11.

My cunning wife managed to find out #6 – an album more famous in my current corner of the world than anywhere else, and so I was left with #11. At first, I thought this was the Beach Boy’s Endless Summer, one of those great hand-drawn covers of the 1970s. Eventually, I thought of a solo artist famous for having hand-drawn covers, and traced it back to the band he was originally in. Phew, after six or so stressful hours, I submitted my entry and went to sleep.

I didn’t hear anything else about the competition for a number of weeks. Then, one day I spotted a new comment addressed to me on the original Facebook post: “Congratulations! You will be taking home a few of the albums that feature in this competition. Thank you for all of your entries. Watch this space to see if you’ll be the next Acoustic Sunrise Trainspotter.”

Great! I still don’t know whether I was just the first person to get them all correct, or if it was just a random hat-pull of the correct entries. And there was no mention of what I had won. The wording of the competition was quite vague; it didn’t say whether there’d be one winner, or many, or indeed what the winner/s would receive.

When I finally heard from the radio station, they declared me the ‘ultimate vinyl trainspotter’ (their words, not mine) and said I had won a 5 x LP package. They sent the first four in one package: Bob Dylan’s Street Legal and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, neither of which I had in my collection, together with Talking Head’s Talking Heads: 77 and Boz Scagg’s Silk Degrees, both of which I did have. All four were brand new sealed reissues. I put the Talking Heads and Boz Scaggs records to one side, to re-gift at a later date.

The fifth and final LP they were to send me was Led Zeppelin’s debut. The radio station then emailed and said there was a delay, and asked would I prefer a copy of Led Zeppelin II instead, as they had that one in stock. I didn’t mind, I have all the studio albums anyway, but I was just hoping that whatever they sent me would be one of the latest reissues with the bonus material. The parcel arrived this morning; it was a copy of Led Zeppelin IV, not II – I guess the people who work at radio stations don’t necessarily need to know anything about the artists they play – but thankfully it was the recent reissue with the bonus disc of alternate mixes. Brilliant!

In terms of the Grateful Dead, I’ve probably eaten more Cherry Garcia ice cream in my life than I have listened to Jerry and his band. I couldn’t even hum one of their songs. I don’t hold anything against them personally, but I think the barrier for me is their fans. I think I may have an allergy to tie-dye, as the very sight of it turns my stomach. When I think of the Grateful Dead, I just think of old, skeletal hippies with long grey hair, grooving on down to some indeterminable sludgy rock;  waves of fans, appearing at baseball stadiums in beat-up old winnebagos to watch the band do their thing above a small fleet of microphones, each recording the concert for bootleg releases that nobody will ever listen to.

Turns out I needn’t be afraid. Listening to American Beauty, their fifth studio album, they sound a lot like Crosby, Stills & Nash crossed with the Band. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t anything this tuneful and melodic. I think I was expecting LSD-fuelled 17-minute guitar solos that go nowhere. Maybe they came later in their careers?

Hit: Truckin’

Hidden Gem: Candyman

RITA#798b

Rocks In The Attic #797: The Cars – ‘Greatest Hits’ (1985)

RITA#797What does the rock band Queen and the new-wave band the Cars have in common? Both bands have great albums and great singles, of course, and both featured a fantastic central songwriter. But the answer is in the man who was an integral part of each band’s respective success: Roy Thomas Baker.

Much has been written about Cars frontman Ric Ocasek in recent weeks, following his death at the age of 75 – a fantastic songwriter, and a great producer in his own right – but an important element of the Cars’ success was the Englishman who produced their first four albums.

Baker never seems to get enough credit for producing the first batch of Queen albums (Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera, before being called back for Jazz). Under his guidance, they turned from long-haired heavy rockers to pop superstars, and while it’s likely the genius of Freddie Mercury would have shone through under any producer, it’s hard to imagine those albums being helmed by anybody else.

After his success with Queen, Baker was snapped up by CBS Music and moved to America. There, he replicated his success with Queen by producing the Cars’ first batch of records on Elektra, eventually becoming the Senior Vice President of A&R at the label.

So with Baker producing both band’s first four albums, including a run of fantastic pop-rock singles, it’s not hard to see the Cars as America’s answer to Queen.  There’s obviously the Weezer connection to the ‘90s alternative-rock scene, but they seem like an important link between punk, rock and pop, that led to bands like the Foo Fighters, the Strokes, the Arctic Monkeys and the Killers dominating the early 21st century.

Plus, Drive is such a killer song, and there’s another comparison: both the Cars and Queen were such an integral part of Live Aid.

Hit: Drive

Hidden Gem: Tonight She Comes

Rocks In The Attic #796: Sammy Davis Jr. – ‘At The Cocoanut Grove’ (1963)

RITA#796Excuse me… are you reading “Yes I Can”? By Sammy Davis Jr.? You know what the title of that book should be? “Yes, I Can If Frank Sinatra Says It’s OK”. ‘Cause Frank calls the shots for all of those guys. Did you get to the part yet where uh… Sammy is coming out of the Copa… it’s about 3 o’clock in the morning and, uh, he sees Frank? Frank’s walking down Broadway by himself…

I finally got around to reading the book Tommy Pischedda spotted in 1982’s This Is Spinal Tap, an old beat-up copy I found in a second-hand bookstore. Tommy’s right: Sammy does owe a lot of his success to Frank’s guidance, but it’s clear from the start that he was supremely talented and worthy of breaking out from the Will Mastin Trio, the cabaret group he toured in with his father, Sammy Davis Sr. and the eponymous Mastin.

Listening to Live At The Cocoanut Grove, Sammy’s a natural mimic, adept at impersonating his favourite singers (even Elvis) as well as using his own voice. Between sings, he drops stand-up worthy one-liners, and you get the impression that the audience are there as much to laugh as they are to be crooned to.

RITA#796aYes I Can was a slog though. After a long, painfully detailed telling of his climb to fame, and the accident that led to him losing an eye – he crashed his car and hit a protuberance on the steering wheel (the accident led to car-makers redesigning dashboards and steering wheels to avoid such hazards) – the second half of the book dealt with his day-to-day activities as a household name in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Co-writers (ghost-writers?) Burt and Jane Boyar appeared more and more frequently in the book in its last third, which dealt with Sammy’s inability to control his financial affairs, and I was just happy to finish it.

Maybe those limeys in Spinal Tap didn’t enjoy it either.

Hit: I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Hidden Gem: Hound Dog

RITA#796b