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The Daily Record: “Wonderful Crazy Night”–Elton John (2016)

In Rich's House of Vinyl on January 13, 2017 at 4:17 am

 

For the next few weeks, I’m going to post brief “Daily Record” surveys of albums released in 2016. The plan is to post them in chronological order from their 2016 release dates. Last night I wrote about David Bowie’s Blackstar. Tonight, I’ll move on to Elton John’s Wonderful Crazy Night, released in early February 2016.

Right after Christmas, I realized that I’d only heard three albums released in 2016. This is very odd for me, since I’m usually at least a little better at keeping up with pop music. But, while I did hear more Top 40 radio than I would have imagined, I seriously fell down on album-listening.

Wonderful Crazy Night was one of those three albums. Of course, Blackstar was one of the others. The third will turn up in a future entry.

Now, I have been an Elton John fan forever. He was probably my first favorite rock star. I’ll even defend his first “down” period (1977-1982 or so), though I have to admit that I can’t find much EJ music from ’84 all the way through 2000 to recommend. Scattered songs here and there, but the albums suffer from all matter of problems, from questionable production choices to lazy songwriting.

Beginning with 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, Elton began to turn things around, and I’ve been generally pleased with his albums since then. I was looking forward to Wonderful Crazy Night  and I was intrigued with the pre-release buzz that the album was going to be an upbeat album, filled with rockin’ songs reminiscent of his classic ’70s singles. In short, it was going to be a whole lotta “Crocodile Rock,” as opposed to John’s previous album, The Diving Board, which was sort of a whole lotta “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

Of course, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is one of my all-time favorite songs and I actually liked The Diving Board very much. Sure, it didn’t exactly rock, but it had gravitas, which seemed to work well for EJ. Plus, it had a spare, stark production sound and plenty of piano.

So, when Wonderful Crazy Night was released, I dutifully bought it and listened a few times but compared to the stately and grounded The Diving Board, the new album seemed a little bit too lightweight. I’d listen to Wonderful Crazy Night, then it would float away and I’d go listen to Blackstar again.

Elton’s new album was competing with the gravitas of his own last album as well as that of his recently deceased peer–Bowie and John were born mere months from each other in 1947. Wonderful Crazy Night soon got filed away for much of the rest of the year.

A funny thing happened though. In anticipation of this post, I started listening to  Wonderful Crazy Night over the past few weeks and I let it sink in a bit more than I had last February. It’s grown on me, and it clearly fits in nicely with his fine string of 21st century records. I’m still not sold on every song on the album, but the upbeat songs like the title track and “Looking Up” are fun and most of the ballads are pretty OK, even if they don’t have the depth of the songs on The Diving Board.

Tonight, “I’ve Got 2 Wings” is my favorite Wonderful Crazy Night song. It’s a true story, the biography of Utah Smith, a traveling preacher who roamed the United States with an electric guitar and a pair of paper angel wings he wear while playing and singing gospel tunes. I had never heard of Smith before I heard this song, but I’m finding myself touched by his life story tonight, for reasons that I can’t completely explain. Maybe I’ll delve further into the Utah Smith story and report on it sometime soon. For now that, here’s a bonus song from Utah Smith. Just still photos, but check out the wings!

 

The Daily Record: “Blackstar”–David Bowie (2016)

In 2016 music, Rich's House of Vinyl on January 12, 2017 at 3:23 am

 

There is, of course, a real danger in saying that one is going to perform any sort of creative ritual “daily,” but, hell, I live on the edge. I’ll try to post short Daily Record posts here for awhile, beginning with a set of records released in 2016.

Today’s “Daily Record” is David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Released just over a year ago, two days before Bowie’s death. I have already written about how Bowie’s death hit me and about Blackstar itself, so I will keep this entry brief (and, in fact, I’ll keep all future Daily Records brief).

I bought Blackstar late in the morning after Bowie’s passing. I’ve listened to it many times since then, so many times, in fact, that I released in late December that it was pretty much the only album released in 2016 that I paid any serious attention to it. I am making up for that now, but for the time being, let’s talk briefly about Blackstar.

Knowing that Bowie was seriously ill during the recording of Blackstar and died just days after its release certainly colors the perception anybody will have when they hear the album, but minus those circumstances, I’d still rank Blackstar among Bowie’s best work. It’s probably among my favorite five Bowie albums, and I’ve heard my share. It is of course, a spooky work. It’s sad. It’s horrifying. But it’s all beautiful, transcendent and, dammit, pretty funny at points. I mean, the chorus of the song I’m listening to right now is “Where the fuck did Monday go?” over and over. And it’s weird and funny and oddly life-affirming knowing that Bowie, in the midst of a serious illness, sat or stood in a recording studio near his home in New York City and sang that line over and over again.

Blackstar isn’t merely “oddly” life-affirming though. It’s gloriously, oddly life-affirming.

So, I’ve listened to a bunch of 2016 albums recently. I like all of them in different ways and if this latest “Daily Record” iteration takes off, I’ll write about them all before I move on to older records. But Blackstar is the king of them all. My favorite record of 2016.

 

Where’s That Confounded Bridge?

In 1970s, 1973, British bands, Led Zeppelin, Rich's House of Vinyl, rock on August 12, 2016 at 10:22 pm

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Earlier this week, my 20-sided dice told me to listen to Led Zeppelin’s classic 1973 album, Houses of the Holy. I listened to it several times. I will now report my findings.

I have no specific memories of March 1973. Just hazy impressions.

I was in second grade at a smallish Catholic school in southeastern Pennsylvania. Each morning, I’d eat breakfast while I listened to powerhouse AM Philadelphia radio station WFIL on the radio. After I’d leave my house to walk to school, I would turn around at two or three specific spots to wave to Mom, standing inside the front door. Eventually, of course, there was no looking back, and I’d make the short trek to school.

My second grade teacher had a name that to this day I probably wouldn’t be able to spell. I am sure there was a basic second grade routine, but the details are lost to me now. Friday mornings, all the kids from first through eighth grade would walk in two neat rows over to the church for Mass. Our First Holy Communion would be happening in May, so it’s a safe bet that we were practicing for that.

In short, my life in March 1973 was about as different from that of Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert “Don’t Call Me Bob” Plant’s life that year as you can possibly imagine.

In fact, it might sound improbable, but I think I was unaware of the existence of Led Zeppelin in 1973, despite their lofty status as Rock Gods. I certainly liked music, and my tastes were gradually being formed, but no one was guiding me toward the kind of heaviness that Zeppelin represented. I can safely say that I had no idea that Led Zeppelin had released their fifth album, Houses of the Holy, in the spring of my second grade year.

Despite this, Robert Plant and I did share one common interest in 1973: spinning tales of the endless journeys of thousands of adventurers on some kind of mystical quest.

When school ended each day, I would wait for the old man crossing guard to part the traffic on Concord Road and I’d head down the long catwalk back into our neighborhood. As I walked, I’d often gaze at the ground and imagine that it was the terrain for some kind of epic journey being taken by massive groups of explorers or soldiers, facing danger at every turn. On rainy days, water streaming down the street would become mighty rivers on which imaginary sailors took endless, perilous journeys. Some survived, some did not, but the journey/battle/quest went on forever. At least in my mind. Each afternoon on my way home from school, I’d pick up the story where I’d left off the day before.

Though I certainly hadn’t heard the song, I was essentially acting out “No Quarter,” a dark story song from Houses of the Holy. It’s a mysterious song about a shadowy group of (presumably) men who are facing a raging snow storm and the “winds of Thor,” as they walk “side by side with death,” while “the devil mocks their every step.” The point of the march? To “carry news that must get through” and to “build a dream for me and you.”

I don’t know precisely what Plant was getting at with those lyrics, but hearing them now reminds me of those tales I’d make up during those walks home from school so long ago. Tales that existed completely in my head for more than 40 years, until I mentioned them to my wife Donna last night.

Of course, I guess Robert Plant and I both have Homer to thank for putting these kinds of stories in our heads. And in the head of any kid who ever grew up anywhere over the last few millennia.

I missed out on Houses of the Holy in 1973. When I think of the music from March 1973 that might have resonated with me, I find that it’s the soul songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 from late March of that year that feel the most foundational to my musical tastes. In short, the songs by the Spinners, Stylistics, O’Jays and so many more are the ones that I was probably hearing the most those mornings on WFIL, and they’re the ones that sank deep into me. Bands like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd–whose Dark Side of the Moon was also released in March 1973 and whose popularity has arguably eclipsed that of Houses of the Holy–would have to wait for me to catch up to them.

But I did catch up eventually. I’m sure that I had heard all eight songs from Houses of the Holy on rock stations like WMMR by the time drummer John Bonham’s death brought Zeppelin to an untimely end in 1980. I got over my fear of “heavy” music and began to dive into Zeppelin’s albums, first by borrowing them from my high school classmate Dave, and then by buying them one by one for about $5.00 at my local Listening Booth record store.

And so it was that about 10 years after its release, I heard Houses of the Holy for the first time. I don’t remember the first time I listened to it, beginning to end, but I was likely amazed at how I’d already heard every song from the LP on ‘MMR. Houses of the Holy was just that damn important to the burgeoning “classic rock” culture of the early 1980s.

I don’t know that Houses of the Holy was universally acclaimed at the time of its release, but I think it holds up well. It’s a diverse album, ranging from raging Zep stompers like “Dancing Days,” “Over The Hills and Far Away,” and “The Ocean” to the ethereal “The Rain Song,” still one of the most gorgeous songs Plant has ever sung (and dig those mellotron-generated strings!). Plus, you get a goofy reggae tribute, “D’yer Mak’er” and the James Brown parody, “The Crunge,” both rare displays of a Zeppelin sense of humor. Where is that confounded bridge, anyway?

During my college years, I was falling in love with all kinds of new music, but I wound up burrowing deeper into the classic rock canon as well. More than a few times, Houses of the Holy would be the soundtrack to college dorm backgammon matches. Yes, indeed, I knew how to party.

Houses of the Holy and I sometimes spend years apart, but every now and then I rediscover it and listen to it for days or weeks on end. This is what happened after I met an online friend named Tommy back around 2008 or thereabout. He was a big Zeppelin fan, and he reignited my love for Houses of the Holy. I never met Tommy in real life and he is now sadly gone. But I feel his presence, along with the presence of those still here–Rick and Greg from college, Dave and Joe from high school–with whom I’ve shared the mighty Houses of the Holy through the years. And even the presence of seven-year-old me, telling myself the story of “No Quarter,” as I walked home from school, long before I’d ever heard of “No Quarter,” Houses of the Holy, or even Led Zeppelin itself.