Perhaps I’m still a little cranky about the state of music these days. (That always seems to happen after one of those Super Bowl halftime shows.) But as great as rock music can be, the extraordinary heights it can deliver us to, there are also plenty of “what were they thinking” moments. Here are my top five … or perhaps “bottom five” might be a better title.
(Oh, and, starting today, I have a set of standard disclaimers regarding these Shoulblog lists. You can read it here.)
5) Thorn Tree In The Garden. The band was Derek and the Dominoes. The album was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The star was Eric Clapton, but the band also included Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock and other rock giants. The double album was loaded with blues-rock classics: I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, Key to the Highway, Little Wing and of course, the title track, Layla, which is one of the all-time classic songs. If I ever had the gall to make one of these “top five” lists for best songs ever, Layla would probably come in at No. 2. Go see Eric Clapton in concert, and Layla is the last song he will play. It’s the perfect “last song,” the ultimate ultimate. But on this album of classic, someone had the idea of making Layla the penultimate song, following it with a soporific acoustic song called Thorn Tree In The Garden. Mind you, it’s no “Her Majesty”-like ditty thrown in for a laugh at the end.; it’s ostensibly a full-fledged song, at nearly three minutes. You spend that entire three minutes thinking, wow, what a letdown.
4) Sweet Home Alabama, with lyrics. It would have made a great instrumental, wouldn’t it?
3) I Want You To Want Me Live At Budokan. It’s a truly awful song in the first place. It’s the soundtrack for the word “insipid.” But then Cheap Trick performed it live in front of what sounds like a million screaming kids, and the wretchedness is magnified. It gets my vote for the worst song ever.
2) Spanish Moon, transferred to CD. The Little Feat double-live album Waiting For Columbus is one of the best live albums ever, with absolutely brilliant performances of all of their best songs. The song Spanish Moon never really thrilled me in the studio version, but the live version really, well, came to life.
Musically, it’s like a bell curve: it starts small, with just the percussionist; then the drummer joins in. A few bars later, the bass player is added to the mix, then an organ and a guitar, the Tower of Power horn section, and finally the vocals. Soon the full band is grooving through the song, following the same driving rhythm established at the very beginning by the percussionist. It peaks … and then one by one, the instruments drop back out, until its just the guitar, bass and drums. The guitarist takes an extended solo, and then exits with a flourish. Same for the bass player. When he is done, it’s just the drummer—and the crowd, which is clapping along ecstatically. The drummer finishes the last few beats, and the crowd keeps clapping, in time, until it finally erupts in an enormous ovation. I can’t think of any recording that better captures the potential exuberance of a rock concert . I must have listened to it a million times on vinyl, and when CDs came about I eagerly bought a copy and put it on to play.
Except when the CD was created, I guess they had to make some compromises to go from a double album on vinyl to a single compact disc. They cut out a song or two, OK fine. But as I listened to Spanish Moon for the first time—it was the end of Side 2 on vinyl, and it’s track 9 on the CD—they faded out the ending! Of all the songs that made it onto the disc, they had to pick that one to truncate. Unbelievable. Of all of the musical crimes against humanity, that would be the most egregious, except for…
1) Let It Be, the wimpy organ version. Let it Be is indisputably one of the greatest songs in rock, a brilliant moment of clarity amid the disastrous breakup of the Beatles. Even today, hearing those first piano chords can instantly change your day and compel you to stop what you’re doing and listen. But when I hear it on the radio, my attention is always on alert, waiting for the veritable fork in the road. It’s that point when the radio station will reveal itself as either a voice of responsible programing, or just a money-grubbing embarrassment. It’s at exactly 1:58 into the song, after the second chorus has ended, and the music breaks into a solo.
But which solo?
The album version has George Harrison taking control with a brilliant, soulful guitar solo, one of the greatest guitar solos in music history. At that exact moment, the experience is transformed from a hymn sung up by the congregation, to an anthem bestowed down upon us from the heavens. “Hark, the Angels Come,” indeed.
But on the single version, the one that was anthologized on the “Blue” (1967-1970) album, the guitar solo is mixed out and replaced by an organ solo. True, it’s a Billy Preston organ solo, and on any other song it would probably be cool. But once you’ve heard the album version, hearing the organ version can be nothing but abject disappointment. What is probably a top-five song from the album becomes a song that struggles to make it into the top 101.
So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any? Make use of that comment box below!