537 Essential Rock Albums pt. 19.

181. Leonard Cohen – Songs from a room

Len started life as a Canadian poet and then novelist. His novels caused controversy because of the sexual content but otherwise failed to ignite. It wasn’t until someone had the bright idea of putting his stuff to music that his career really took off.

I first heard Len singing ‘Suzanne’ on a compilation album and was smitten.

This was Len’s second album. It is extremely Spartan in production which is something I really like as it allows the lyrics and melody to shine through. It is a sombre album as befits the break up of a long relationship on an idyllic Greek island. It is also one of my favourite Leonard Cohen album. The lyrics are enigmatic and expressive. It sets a mood. Leonard was able to take a personal slant and twist it into something of a wider perspective.

You get the impression of life being one long epic story in which we play our parts. Leonard was steeped in the bible stories and used them to good effect on songs like ‘The story of Isaac’ with its twist at the end about America and its Imperialist ambitions. I got the impression that I was fighting in this war and was that partisan.

I particularly liked ‘You know me well’ and ‘Bird on a wire’ as I like songs that I have to think about and keep going back to. I do that with a lot of Len’s songs. They are steeped with nuance and packed with meaning.

This is a brilliant album.

182. Loudon Wainwright – School days

I bought this album second hand after hearing it being played in a Guru Maharaji shop in Manor House in around 1970 when it first came out. All the new followers of the great guru were bringing all their possessions and signing over their houses so that the good guru could live in style in his penthouses and maintain his fleet of limos.

I was immediately taken with ‘School days’ and then got into the rest of the album. I loved the humour on songs like ‘Glad to see you’ve got religion’ and ‘Four is a magic number’. It seemed to be taking a different stance to everything else at the time, a cynical edge, and I liked that.

This album is more restrained and serious than his later albums. It was irreverent and perceptive and I like the subject matter. It had some bleaker songs like ‘Hospital lady’ with its subject of death.

This was different to anything else I’d heard before. Loudon’s voice, content and style were quite unique. I’ve never grown tired of it.

183. Joni Mitchell – Court & Spark

This was quite a departure from Joni’s usual style as she’d added a lot of jazzy stuff and even some big productions to her usual Folk style. I did not like it so much but there were still enough of the paired back songs and well crafted songs with lovely lyrics such as on the title track ‘Court & Spark’. Even some of the bigger productions worked such as ‘Help me’ and ‘Car on the hill’. But the stand-out track was ‘Free man in Paris’.

Joni has always been the greatest female artist. All of her albums have something to give. I’m not sure about ‘Twisted’ though.

184. Fugs – It crawled into my hand honest

You could tell from the cover that this was no Boy Band. This was the revolutionary Fugs preaching their brand of liberation, anarchy, revolution, hedonism and sexual freedom. They stood for the liberation of the sixties in all its manifestation; Drugs, sex, Music, Race, Poetry and Political questioning. You were in no doubt as to what they thought of the government, war and the reactionary forces of the establishment. They wanted to let it all out of the bag.

This was social politics to music. Their view of the turgid society were were swamped by was summed up in ‘Wide wide river’ in which the chorus was ‘River of shit’. Their view on drugs was summed up in the track ‘Marijuana’ in which they chanted all the names of marijuana in different languages and psychedelics on ‘Crystal liaison’. Their views on sex were spread through the album on numbers like ‘Grope need’ and ‘The divine toe’. Their views on straight America on ‘Johnny Pissoff’. Their views on war – ‘Irene’.

There was no ambiguity about their views or lack of originality or experimental ideas.

This was an album of its day, full of sixties ideology and wonderful possibility. It was a revolution all on its own

185. Dead Kennedys – Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables

The Dead Kennedy’s were the best Punk Band to come out of the States. They not only had a great sound, great musicianship but also very high levels of song-writing with thought-provoking lyrics.

Jello Biafra had a great mind.

There was a great deal of politics in this album including ‘California Uber Alles’ and ‘Lets Lynch the landlord’.

There was a lot of satire and cynicism on numbers such as ‘Kill the poor’ and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’.

It is fair to say that the band were not too fond of the establishment and the result was an aggressive, innovative and disturbing album which was an inspiration as well as both an intellectual and visceral experience.

186. Randy Newman – Good ole boys

Randy is an expert at assuming a persona and writing songs from that perspective. His words are all carefully selected and superbly arranged to great melodies. This album is a masterpiece at the understated. Everything is very carefully arranged and given a light touch. This is typified by numbers such as ‘Mr President have pity on the working man’. It seems to come from a different age altogether. It is not of the present world. The songs sound simple but that belies a complexity. They are just so effortless.

There are a number of stand out tracks. My favourite is ‘Rednecks’. It was a song that took the part of Lester Maddox the segregationist Governor of Georgia. Lester is an easy figure to despise and oppose because of his overt racism. But this song questions whether the overt Racism of the South was any worse than the covert policies of the Northern States. It revolves around the hypocrisy of Northern attitudes to race. It was a complex song that made you think about the covert and overt aspects of racism. Another great song was ‘Birmingham’.

This was an album that painted a picture of the Southern States.

187. Ry Cooder – Chicken skin music

Ry grew up in a family steeped in Left-wing politics and open to all races. It was a very liberal, forward thinking environment for a young man to spend his formative years and it shows in his attitudes.

When he formed his first band, ‘The Rising Sons’, it was not surprising that is was multiracial, which was extremely unusual for that time in the mid sixties, and very eclectic in styles.

Chicken Skin Music reflects that. It contains songs from the black Blues of Leadbelly, Country songs, Mariachi styles, Rock, Hawaiian, a touch of Soul and even a Gospel influence.

The whole album is so smooth it glides along on ice. Ry’s slide guitar, finger picking and easy voice create an effortless sound that is so pleasant on the ear that it makes you smile to yourself. This isn’t easy listening though. It is just damn good music.

Leadbelly’s ‘The Bourgoise Blues’ is still as appropriate as ever. The battle against racism hasn’t been completely won yet. Irene was the name of my Mother-in-Law and ‘Irene’ was her song. We played it at her funeral and it is an appropriate song to close the album

188. Elvis Costello – Get Happy

This was Elvis’s fourth album and still retained that Punk aggression and sentiment while expanding the sound into a bit of a soul/Motown influence.

Elvis displayed all his song-writing skills demonstrating that his powers had not dried up. You certainly got value for money with ten tracks on each side and no fillers. He was adept at picking up a theme and exploring it. The Secondary Moderns were the other side of the Grammar School system. The brightest 8% were creamed off at eleven and 92% of the kids thrown to the wolves in the Secondary Modern Schools. I don’t know what the Yanks made of this.

There were songs about having seen and done too much and the seedy side of life.

My favourite Tracks were ‘New Amsterdam’, ‘5ive gears in reverse’, ‘I can’t stand up for falling down’, ‘Black and White World’, ‘Beaten to the punch’, ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘I stand accused’. It wasn’t short on clever lyrics, catchy songs, attitude and good driving music.

189. Beatles – Help

This was made up of songs from the Film ‘Help’ coupled with a number of others. Like previous albums it was mainly Beatles compositions. There were only two covers. ‘Act Naturally’ was the Buck Owens Country & Western song that they obviously thought was appropriate to Ringo’s role in the Film and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ was a cover of the Larry Williams song.

The album featured the two singles that had come out of the film – ‘Help’ and ‘Ticket to ride’. There were two George Harrison songs – ‘I need you’ and ‘You like me too much’, and a lot of attention for what was basically a Paul McCartney solo ‘Yesterday’. There were some interesting songs such as ‘You’ve got to hide your love away’, ‘You’re gonna lose that girl’, ‘It’s only love’ and ‘I’ve just seen a face’.

It was a nice album, not quite as strong as its predecessors but maintaining the Beatles at the top without breaking any new ground.

190. Bob Dylan – Desire

Bob Dylan released this album in 1976 at the height of the Rolling Thunder Tour and it has a lot of the feel of that. He created a new type of sound that featured strongly the violin of Scarlet Rivera who he literally stumbled on in the street. It also featured a writing collaboration with Jacques Levy.

This was part of the Bob Dylan renaissance after coming out of his appalling nadir he had produced two good albums in ‘Planet Waves’ and ‘Blood on the tracks’, this was the third in the current revival and it was going to continue on with the album ‘Street Legal’. Bob was experiencing another purple patch.

Bob was also experiencing the break-up of his marriage to Sarah. A lot of songs come out of break-up and misery. ‘Sarah’ was one of those and ‘Isis’ with all its strange rambling tale of journeys, mystery, riches and separation was another. It’s probable that ‘Oh sister’ was as well.

‘Hurricane’ showed a wish to get back into songs with a political theme as Bob took up the case of the black middle-weight boxer Rubin Cater who he felt had been set up and spuriously convicted in some racist trial.

I enjoyed ‘Joey’ but was a bit bemused by this sentimental glorification of someone who was basically a Mafia thug.

‘Mozambique’ was like an advert for a great get-away in a lovely country with friendly, pretty people. Perhaps he’d been signed up by the tourist board. ‘One more cup of coffee’ had a Mexican feel to an ambiguous story that sounded almost a Western gunfight over a senorita.

There were a lot of collaborations on the other tracks with a number of interesting sounds, harmonies and violin enhanced songs.

I loved the sound the violin created along with the effects of the Rolling Thunder Review with the supporting cast. There wasn’t a weak track on it and it is one I go back to a lot.

ho like an interesting read!

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