Tag Archives: Atlantic Records

Rocks In The Attic #750: Aretha Franklin – ‘I Never Loved A Man Like I Love You’ (1967)

RITA#750This is far from being Aretha Franklin’s debut album, but it feels like the start of something. Released in 1967, as the first album of her contract with Atlantic Records, it’s actually her tenth studio album following her true debut on Columbia back in 1961.

Jerry Wexler, co-partner of Atlantic alongside Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, must have been rubbing his hands with glee as he produced the title track with Aretha and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section at FAME studios in Alabama. That song would be strong enough to carry a record of lesser material – as seemed to be the norm throughout much of the 1960s, particularly with regard to soul and R&B releases – but Aretha was only just getting started.

The album kicks off with Respect, her cover of Otis Redding’s song from 1965’s Otis Blue. I seldom believe that a cover version can better the original, but Aretha’s version of the song completely eclipses Redding’s original. It’s so good, it makes his version sound like the weaker cover song.

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Having recorded the song at Atlantic Records’ New York studios (but retaining the Muscle Shoals studio musicians), co-producer Arif Mardin is credited with overseeing Aretha’s rearranged version of the song. It’s clear that magic was being captured during the session. “I’ve been in many studios in my life, but there was never a day like that,” Mardin says. “It was like a festival. Everything worked just right.”

Fifty years on, the song has been diluted somewhat by its overuse in advertising commercials, films and TV shows, but I like to think that some of its original impact remains as an anthem for both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements.

Hit: Respect

Hidden Gem: Save Me

Rocks In The Attic #604: Yes – ‘90125’ (1983)

RITA#604Is it wrong to feel a certain amount of shame for preferring this to the more celebrated Yes albums? Probably, but just listen to those awesome samples on Owner Of A Lonely Heart. It reminds me of the kind of thing John Barry was doing on the soundtracks to A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights – sampling in its infancy using a Fairlight synthesiser, already well-established from its use by Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Thomas Dolby.

Of course, diehard Yes fans will argue that this isn’t really a Yes album, but nobody’s really arguing. It’s a Yes album in name alone. Ex-Yes members Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums) joined forces with founding Yes member Tony Kaye (keyboards) and a non-Yes player in Trevor Rabin (guitars / vocals). Even with three ex-Yes members, together with the production duties of ex-Yes vocalist Trevor Horn, they still didn’t feel confident to label the project under the Yes banner. They chose the name Cinema, not the greatest band name ever, but then again there’s been a lot worse.

However, when former Yes vocalist Jon Anderson joined the recording late in the process, there was too much history involved. And of course, the record company (Atco, a division of Atlantic Records) would have been chomping at the bit to get a new Yes album in the can, with a ready-made fan base.

The material couldn’t sound any different to the folky prog that Yes were known for. It’s very much a record of its time, sounding like the kind of BIG SOUNDING, generic American AOR that would be used on soundtracks to big Hollywood films. The finger pointing probably lands on Trevor Horn’s production more than anything else, as you could imagine a lot of the material played on analogue equipment in the previous decade. The use of the Fairlight, alongside Horn’s slick production turns it into something else.

Hit: Owner Of A Lonely Heart

Hidden Gem: Hold O

Rocks In The Attic #474: Various Artists – ‘Stax – Number Ones’ (2010)

RITA#474Stax Records: my favourite record label, hands down. Grittier than Motown, a talent pool for Atlantic, and a tale of a rags to riches underdog in a socially conscious and racially integrated framework, Stax has got it all. The 2007 documentary (Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story) is essential viewing, but I’m waiting for the big budget Hollywood film to tell the story. Idris Elba as Otis Redding, anyone?

Brother and Sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton started a country label, called Satellite Records, out of their garage in the late 1950s, but it was when they started recording R&B and changed their name to Stax that they got the attention of Atlantic Records, who picked them up with a distribution deal.

Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, The Staple Singers, and of course, the Stax house band Booker T. & The M.G.s.; the label’s roll-call read like a who’s who of ‘60s and ‘70s soul acts. There’s something there for everyone, and a bunch of great number one hit singles, as this collection attests.

The Atlantic partnership proved to be the best and worst thing to happen to Stax though, and this is why it would be great subject material for a film. By distributing their records, and sometimes using the Stax studios to record artists on their own label, Atlantic acted as a protective big brother to Stax; but not for long.

In 1967, Atlantic was sold to Warners, and Stax fell by the wayside. Jim Stewart asked for the return of the Stax masters, but found out that Atlantic’s cuntish lawyers had included a clause in the 1965 distribution contract that gave away the rights to the Stax material to Atantic. Betrayed by his more savvy business partners and by his own naivety, Stewart eventually drove Stax into bankruptcy after a few short years as an independent. Such a shame.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about Stax. It was probably through my Dad, who has a great compilation – Atlantic Soul Classics – which captures (exploits?) a couple of acts from the Stax roster. I’ve since picked up that album on vinyl. After that, it was probably going back and discovering Booker T. & The M.G.s via the Blues Brothers. Good times.

Hit: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay – Otis Redding

Hidden Gem: Who’s Making Love – Johnnie Taylor

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to….Led Zeppelin

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

Led Zeppelin rose from the ashes of the Yardbirds in London’s ultra-hip late ‘60s Flash scene. In 1968, ex-session guitarist Jimmy Page recruited fellow colleague John Paul Jones on bass, and looked north to the Midlands for gigging vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. Success came thick and fast, especially after they cracked the USA with the release of their second album. The flame burnt fast though. In 1980, the band screeched to a halt when Bonham was found dead, the victim of one (or twenty) too many double vodkas the day before.

27 Feb 1972, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia --- Led Zeppelin performing in Sydney, Australia (L-R) John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, John Bonham and Jimmy Page --- Image by © S.I.N./CORBIS

I once had a letter – a letter! – printed in the NME. It was in response to an article where they claimed that Radiohead were ‘setting a new global blueprint’ by not releasing any singles or doing any press to promote Kid A in 2000. “Ever heard of Led Zeppelin?” I asked in my letter.

No singles? No press? And for the duration of Zeppelin’s twelve year career? It just goes to show that you can sell a heap of records entirely on word of mouth and an exhaustive touring schedule. It helps that the albums are nearly all close to fantastic too.

This was a very hard buyer’s guide to put together. How do you choose between so any great records, when tasked with only choosing three essential albums? Which ones do you leave behind? They’re all essential (and there are at least fifty good reasons to listen to the band)! Remember, it’s a buyer’s guide, so the following choices are aimed at those who are not well versed in the band’s back catalogue (if any such people exist at all).

Start off with: Led Zeppelin II (1969, Atlantic Records)

LZ1If the band’s self-assured debut set the scene, their second effort nine months later is the sound of them hitting their stride. Mainstream rock radio has taken some of the charm out of this record – redefining it almost as a greatest hits record – but there are still some surprises to be found. The interplay between the musicians on The Lemon Song is a prime example of how confident they had become in such a short space of time – just one highlight on an album full of highlights. Recorded at a number of different studios across England and America, while the band was touring, it’s an album of contradictions. It sounds heavy and light all at the same time; tight but loose; joyous and melancholic. Like the glare of a full moon in the roasting midday sun.

Follow that with: Led Zeppelin IV (1971, Atlantic Records)

LZ2IV is undoubtedly their masterpiece and the band were so sure about it, they released it without an official title and without the words ‘Led Zeppelin’ appearing anywhere on the cover or the record itself. The glaring hit on the album is Stairway To Heaven, despite never being released as a single, but the first side starts with two of the band’s biggest songs – Black Dog, a time-shifting stop-start rock masterpiece; and Rock And Roll, the band’s ode to late ‘50s music with the little help of a Little Richard drum pattern (by this time the band were well known for their musical kleptomania). The real gem of what used to be my choice hangover record throughout my teens however is the final track, When The Levee Breaks – the band’s last full-on blues cover (of a Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie blues song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927) and featuring quite possibly the finest drum intro ever committed to vinyl.

Then get: Led Zeppelin III (1970, Atlantic Records)

LZ3Imagine Metallica following their self-titled Black Album with a jazz record, or the Sex Pistols recording a country and western album after their sneering 1977 debut. That’s about the level of genre-flipping between Led Zeppelin II and Led Zeppelin III. To write songs that would form the basis of the album, Plant and Page retreated to a cottage in the Welsh countryside without electricity or running water. You can almost smell the rustic setting as the band replaces heavy blues for eastern-tinged bluesy folk, on what is undoubtedly the album where Zeppelin proved they were more than just long-haired headbangers.

Criminally overlooked: Coda (1982, Swan Song)

LZ4It is what it is – a bunch of left-over songs from various stages in their career, released as a bookend to the band’s 12-year reign – and for that reason it usually gets the cold shoulder. But some of these tracks were simply left off albums due to the space limitations of a single-disc LP. So to fulfil some contractual obligations to Atlantic Records, we get a Led Zeppelin III outtake, a Houses Of The Holy outtake, three In Through The Out Door outtakes, a couple of live songs and a drum workout – Bonzo’s Montreaux – which for me is the thundering highlight of the album.

The long-shot: In Through The Out Door (1979, Swan Song)

LZ5A lot of people don’t like the band’s final studio record because Jimmy Page’s guitars take somewhat of a back seat compared to prior albums. In his place, the keyboards of John Paul Jones play a more prominent role on what is arguably the most challenging record to unlock. Like most, I wrote In Through The Out Door off when I first heard it, but it’s grown on me over the years and while some of the keyboards sound a little too carnival-y, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

Avoid like the plague: The Song Remains The Same (1979, Swan Song)

LZ6There really aren’t any Zeppelin albums to put into this category but at a push I’d have to offer this, their first officially released live album – a soundtrack to the convert film of the same name. What’s not to like? Well, it was pompous, overblown music like this that resulted in the British punk explosion from the summer of 1977 onwards. Who wants to listen to a sleep-inducing  twenty seven minute rendition of Dazed And Confused? Not me, that’s for sure. Where prog bands such as Pink Floyd can easily fill one side of a record with one song, Zeppelin really struggle to keep interest levels up. It may have been a joy if you were there, stoned out of your mind, but you’d need a lot of drugs to find this song exciting at home. The concert film struggles to pique my interest too – so ponderous that they had to intersperse it with cinematic cut-scenes. There are great moments on this record – not least Bonham’s amazing drum work – but this is probably the Zeppelin record I play the least.

Best compilation: Remasters (1990, Atlantic Records)

LZ7My introduction to the band, Remasters was the first Zeppelin compilation; a greatest hits set from a band that didn’t release any singles in the UK (until Atlantic spoiled it with a 1997 release of Whole Lotta Love). What to include? What to leave out? The decision, as always, went to Jimmy Page – still very much the leader and figurehead for the band ten years after they split. The double-CD / triple-LP set was just a sampler for the full box set of recorded material that Page had digitally remastered, but is now universally seen as the definitive Zeppelin collection, no matter how many times they repackage it.

Best live album: How The West Was Won (2003, Atlantic Records)

LZ8Still to see the light of day on vinyl, How The West Was Won was released to very little fanfare in 2003 as a triple-CD; which is a shame as it’s by far their most exciting live album. The result of two West Coast shows on their 1972 American tour, the band sound very energetic and the atmosphere is electric. Page considered the band to be at their artistic peak during this period, and it shows. There’s definitely something to be found here that just isn’t evident on the Song Remains The Same soundtrack / snoozefest. By that time, Zeppelin were just going through the motions, showing the fatigue of another endless American tour. On How The West Was Won, they sound very much like what you’d expect from the band that had just released Led Zeppelin IV; the biggest band in the world.

I don’t tend to listen to much Led Zeppelin these days. I played their records so much through my teens that I know them like the back of my hands. When I do hear them though, blasting out of a car on a summer’s day or on the stereo as I’m flipping through the racks at a record store, it brings a massive smile to my face. I understand Led Zeppelin aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. I get that. Not everybody can have great taste in music.

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Rocks In The Attic #361: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop’ (1996)

RITA#361I used to be a big pusher of this album. Released to very little fanfare in 1996, the band didn’t even promote the album because eternally troubled singer Scott Weiland was convicted of buying crack cocaine, and spent a year on probation when they should have been out on tour. So I saw it upon myself to spread the word. I especially tried to push Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart on people, thinking it to be one of the best things the band had ever recorded.

With the benefit of hindsight, nineteen years later Tiny Music… doesn’t sound as good as I thought it did back then. It’s nowhere near as strong as the band’s first and second albums – but I still think it got a bad deal. If they had toured the album, and if Atlantic Records had supported it a bit more, would it be a different story? Who knows?

As a run of albums, these three records – Core, Stone Temple Pilots (or Purple) and Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop – are a great little body of work. Unfortunately the band went downhill straight after. You can even hear the cracks start to appear on this album – some of it sounds rushed, which it probably was if the singer’s around the corner from the studio buying crack.

Regardless of how I see the album in today’s light, I still regard Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart as one of my favourite ever songs. It’s got everything a rock song should have – a crashing, jazz chord intro, a staccato, shuffling rhythm on muted guitar strings, some nice vocal effects making it sound like there are two Weilands singing the song, a great jazzy guitar solo – I dig it – a true hidden gem of ‘90s rock.

I have all of the first three STP albums on coloured vinyl; this one is on a beautiful blue marble vinyl. The other plus of having it on vinyl is that the great opening instrumental, Press Play is extended from 1:21 to 4:27. What a groove!

Hit: Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart

Hidden Gem: Daisy

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to…AC/DC

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

“I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made eleven albums that sounds exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made twelve albums that sound exactly the same.” So says, AC/DC lead guitarist and fifty-nine year old Scottish Australian schoolboy, Angus Young. While other bands have been cursed by following the same formula over and over again (Francis Rossi, please stand up), AC/DC have turned it to their advantage.
ACDC0Over fourteen studio albums, the band have stuck to a blueprint of blues-based heavy rock. 99% of their songs follow the same format – counterpoint guitar riffs from brothers Angus and Malcolm, steady 4/4 drum beats, driving bass lines, soaring vocals and finally, a solo from Angus. There’s no room for piano, no room for strings and the only backing vocals you get are from the rest of the band, who are about as tuneful as an after-hours pub karaoke session.

Lead vocal duties divide the band into two eras – the band’s formative years were helmed by fellow Scottish Australian Bon Scott, but his untimely death in 1980 saw the band enter a more commercial phase under the screams of flat-cap loving Geordie Brian Johnson.

But regardless of what you may have heard, there are differences between their albums. Each of their 1970s albums follow a progressive arc, until they settled on their massive world conquering sound as they entered the 1980s. Albums since that point have struggled to find that same high level of quality, acting mainly as a springboard for the band to go out on the road for yet another world tour.

Start off with: Highway To Hell (1979, Atlantic Records)

ACDC1The album that saw the AC/DC break America was also their swansong with Bon Scott, who would die just months later. Up to this point all the studio albums were produced by former ‘60s Australian beat group stars Harry Vanda and George (older brother of Angus and Malcolm) Young.  For Highway To Hell, the band would enlist the production duties of Robert John “Mutt” Lange – notable amongst other things for producing Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and marrying Shania Twain.

Lange’s production revitalised the band. Overnight they changed from a noisy rock band from the backwaters of Australia into a household-name stadium rock band. Aside from the title track – typically played by the band in their live shows to open their encore – not much else from the album has survived into the band’s live set to this day; but this is probably the most consistent of all their albums.

Follow that with: Back In Black (1980, Atlantic Records)

ACDC2After Bon Scott’s death, the band could have called it a day. Most bands would have, if they’d lost their lead singer. But AC/DC were always more about guitars than vocals. After auditioning half of London for the job (including Gary Holton who would go on to play Wayne in TV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), the band settled on Brian Johnson. The resulting album is a tribute – a relatively sincere one, considering the medium – to their fallen bandmate. Opener Hells Bells sets the scene with a tolling bell, before the band slowly introduce their new banshee vocalist.

Back In Black, also produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is probably AC/DC’s most commercial-sounding record. Singles such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long saw the album become the best-selling rock album of the 1980s. It’s currently tied with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as the second best-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

Just like VHS beat Betamax as the consumer’s choice of video in the 1980s (a fact commonly attributed to the pornography industry selecting the fledgling VHS technology as the way forward), Back In Black outstripped all other contenders in record sales by being purchased by every strip club in America. You Shook Me All Night Long has soundtracked a lot of lapdances – it’s not heavy rock, it’s stripper rock! Def Leppard would achieve the same feat later in the decade with Pour Some Sugar On Me, from their best-selling Hysteria album – a song that sounds like it’s describing a sexual act, but was probably written about their one-armed drummer Rick Allen making a cup of tea.

Oh, and Shoot To Thrill? The best middle-eight instrumental section in rock music, hands down.

Then get: Powerage (1978, Atlantic Records)

ACDC3Powerage is AC/DC’s greatest achievement – the last thing they did before they crossed over into the mainstream. At this point, it’s all still them; there’s no ‘hit-making’ hot-shot producer in the background to claim any credit. The album is no-frills rock ‘n roll from start to finish, although it does come with a celebrity endorsement – Rolling Stone Keith Richards earmarked it as his favourite AC/DC record.

Aside from Sin City, not much else from the record has survived into the band’s live set to this day. Still, opener Rock ‘N Roll Damnation is almost the quintessential AC/DC song, and Riff Raff has one of the band’s longest intros, building up for over a minute and finally released when Angus Young bends an open D-chord that sounds as sick as anything.

But it’s the slow-burn of songs like Down Payment Blues that really wins people over, on Powerage, the most introspective of their records.

Criminally overlooked: The Razor’s Edge (1990, Atco Records)

ACDC4In March 1990, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry mentioned to Guitar World magazine that ‘people put us down for [using outside songwriters], but I wonder how an AC/DC record would sound if they’d pull somebody like Jim Vallance into the songwriting process. Would they get another one-song record with Heatseeker, or would you get a whole album that was that cool?”

At the time, AC/DC were actually in the process of doing something along these lines. While that September’s The Razor’s Edge was written in its entirety by Angus and Malcolm Young, it was produced by Bruce Fairbairn – the man who had produced Aerosmith’s successful comeback albums, Permanent Vacation (1987) and Pump (1989).

It’s almost a cliché to disregard any of the post-Back In Black albums as cannon-fodder (pun very much intended); but The Razor’s Edge saw the end of a run of ‘80s albums where the band had very much lost their way. From this point on, with albums produced by the likes of Rick Rubin and Brendan O’Brien, they spent a bit more time and effort on their studio output.

The album’s opener, Thunderstruck, is another contender for the quintessential AC/DC song and concrete proof that they were still as relevant to ‘90s rock music as they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The long-shot: For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (1981, Atlantic Records)

ACDC5The third and final album produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange fails to match the quality of its two predecessors, but it does have its moments. It’s so close to Back In Black and Highway To Hell in its chronology that you can almost hear some of the magic of those records in its grooves. Of course, on the other side of the coin, the album’s other next-door neighbour is 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, where their mid-‘80s rot really set in.

The album-opening title trackremains a firm live fixture – they’ve closed their sets with the track for the last thirty three years – and the track serves as the true peak of their creative accomplishments. It was all steadily downhill from this point on.

Avoid like the plague: ’74 Jailbreak (1984, Atlantic Records)

ACDC6An EP – usually priced as a full-length album – containing just twenty four minutes of material, ’74 Jailbreak is a cynical cash-in release on the behalf of Atlantic Records. It’s essentially a small collection of leftover songs that didn’t make the international releases at the start of the band’s career (several of these early albums were combinations of songs from more than one Australian release, with some omissions made in the interests of running time).

This really is what you buy only when you have all of the other AC/DC albums, even the questionable mid-‘80s ones.

Best compilation: Iron Man 2 (O.S.T.) (2010)

ACDC7AC/DC must be one of the only major bands in the world without an official ‘greatest hits’ compilation. Sure, there are box-sets – Bonfire (1997) and BackTracks (2009) – but these aren’t compilations in the true sense of the word. The band has avoided issuing a simple collection of their singles – something I really respect them for.

Of the two soundtracks they have released – 1986’s Who Made Who (the soundtrack to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive) and 2010’s Iron Man 2 – it is the later release that stands as the nearest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ release, split roughly 50/50 between the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson eras.

It’s just a shame the film is so boring!

Best live album: AC/DC Live (1992, Atco Records)

ACDC81978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It captured the live sound of the Bon Scott era, but its raw energy was plagued by a muddy Vanda / Young production. 1992’s AC/DC Live doesn’t suffer from that problem. Taken from 1991’s The Razor’s Edge tour, the album offered an authentic live recording of the band. Bruce Fairbairn had got close to capturing that sound on record (on The Razor’s Edge) and was invited back to produce the live record.

Live At Donington, the album’s companion piece video, is also worth checking out. Recording during their third headlining appearance at the British rock festival, it’s essentially the same set as can be found on the AC/DC Live record (and on every subsequent tour for that matter). One nice little bonus extra on the DVD / Blu Ray version is a commentary track comprised of an interview with the Young brothers as they talk though the concepts and directions behind each of their albums. You know, those albums that are supposedly all the same…
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Rocks In The Attic #314: The Rolling Stones – ‘Metamorphosis’ (1975)

RITA#314Metamorphosis is the Stones’ third post-Decca compilation (after the two Hot Rocks releases in ’71 and ’72 respectively). It’s hardly their best forty eight minutes committed to vinyl, but I guess by this stage the barrel was being well and truly scraped.

A hotchpotch of demos, outtakes and alternate versions, the album has little in the way of hits – although Out Of Time is a well known pop hit of the ‘60s. The album was released on the same day as the first Atlantic Records compilation of the band’s material, Made In The Shade, and any cursory glance over that album’s tracklisting – pulling together material from Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St., Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll – suggests a much better way to spend an hour of your time.

The album’s one saving grace is its cover – a trippy Kafkaesque illustration of the band as various man-size bugs, clothed in late ‘60s garb, holding masks of their human form: the Stones as we know them. Both Brian Jones and Mick Taylor are present, making the band an odd-looking sextet. And speaking of guitarists, most of the tracks on the first side were recorded with session musicians – namely Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan.

I have tickets to see the Stones very soon, in Auckland, and I can’t wait. They’ve always eluded me in the past – I’ve been busy doing other things, or tickets have been too expensive – but I just had to get tickets this time. Time is running out and all that. I remember hearing about a few European gigs they did back in 2003, supported by AC/DC. Man, that would have been a great show.

We have tickets in the cheap seats; well, standing actually, and they weren’t cheap either! But it’s okay – I’m not sure I want to be that close to a rapidly aging Mick and Keef. The word on the street is that Mick Taylor may be making an appearance, and that would just make my night, but I’ll be happy just to see the band before they pack it in for good.

Hit: Out Of Time

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Know Why