Over the years I have amassed plenty of Jimi Hendrix reading and listening material and I have decided to share it. (I also wanted to use this shade of blue in one more post) Jimi is easily one of the most important guitarists to have ever picked up an axe, and, like Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Eddie Van Halen — there was pre-Jimi and then there was everything after. His influence lit up the music world, no doubt about that! So I’m gonna use a couple of posts to show some of the cool photography and say a little bit about the paraphernalia I have. (All of the pics that follow come from the following books: ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky by David Henderson, Jimi Hendrix • Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro and Caeser Glebeek, Black Gold by Steven Roby and Mitch Mitchell’s, The Hendrix Experience). While it is true that Prince, the recently departed (and may he rest in peace) Paisley Park hero was a great guitar player, Jimi was the original king of purple style and sound.
Before the books though, let’s talk music …briefly. Here is how I would rate the Jimi Henrix material that I’ve heard or had or both over the years.
Are You Experienced? ***** Brilliant! My vote for his best. Never gets old even though I have probably played it well over 500 times in my life. Some albums like this one, Van Halen 1, Led Zeppelin 1, the Ramones first album, any package of Chuck Berry’s best hits, are so influential that literally a million people learn how to play guitar by listening to the brilliance contained within and with-on. There isn’t a tune on this album that isn’t a guitar-driven masterpiece and the best: Purple Haze, Manic Depression, Love or Confusion, I Don’t Live Today, Third Stone from the Sun, and the awesome title cut are still far and beyond what most people can hear, never mind play.
Axis: Bold As Love ****1/2 A very close second to Are You Experienced? Jimi, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Noel Redding expanded on the brilliant music that made them famous and redefined rock and guitar playing. There are a couple of numbers that are derivative (Ain’t No Telling, Little Miss Lover) but the best ones (If 6 Was 9, Little Wing, Spanish Castle Magic, Up From the Skies, Castles Made of Sand and the title cut) are amazing and Jimi’s use of the studio and new pioneering effects makes this as much of a groundbreaking record as the first.
Electric Ladyland **** While many people think this is Jimi’s magnum opus, I disagree. Side 4 is brilliant, Side 2 is very good and combined with Side 4 would’ve made a great (single) third disc. Side 3 is kind of boring; the sound painting tale of Mermanism is dated and Side 1’s 15-minute blues jam Voodoo Chile is too long and has likewise very dated lyrics. Is the album ambitious? Yes. Some great tunes? Absolutely! All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Crosstown Traffic, Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland), Gypsy Eyes, Still Raining, Still Dreaming, and House Burning Down are all classic Jimi. But it’s just not the solid double album it could’ve been, unfortunately.
Band of Gypsys *** This disc is just so-so and the band was likewise. To me, anyone but Mitch Mitchell playing with Jimi was akin to anyone but John Bohnam or Keith Moon playing with Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend, respectively. Also, some of the “songs” are really just jams that are trying to be Sly and the Family Stone or something. This era is often heralded as Jimi searching for a new sound or a change in direction, but I think in many ways he was floundering. Machine Gun and Them Changes are great and if nothing else this disc shows that Jimi’s capabilities as a live guitarist were never in doubt even if everything else was.
Everything released after Band of Gypsys is suspect because Jimi died in September of 1970. The studio product is especially crappy, except for a few bright spots. It’s important to remember that Jimi was a perfectionist in his writing, playing, and even his live sound. He would be totally bummed at some of the stuff released after 1970 that, of course, he had no control over.
The Cry of Love ***1/2 This a pretty good record and has some really great tunes: Freedom, Angel, Ezy Rider, In From the Storm, Drifting and Straight Ahead. Completed post-1970 by engineer Eddie Kramer and Mitch Mitchell it might not be exactly what Jimi would’ve done had he still been alive to complete it, but it is close. There are also no obvious acts of sabotage or douchebaggery that would appear on subsequent releases. An important thing about this disc is that it proves that Jimi didn’t lose his creative drive in 1968, but was playing some absolutely amazing guitar and bringing solid riffs and tunes into the studio up until his death.
Rainbow Bridge **1/2 A mix of studio and live stuff that sounded maybe ok in 1971. Much better stuff would emerge later. Dolly Dagger, Room Full of Mirrors, and Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) are good rips but I don’t think they were completely finished. Some great guitar, but aimless and the movie of the same name, which was seen by every Hendrix fanatic at a stoned-out midnight movie showing circa 1975-1985, was one of the dumbest things ever put to celluloid.
War Heroes ** A friend had this album but we didn’t play it much. More for the outtakes pile.
Hendrix in the West ** Live album. Weak set list but the performances aren’t bad. It was obviously getting to the point where anything that could be milked was. Does anyone need to hear Jimi playing Blue Suede Shoes given the wealth of live material that was obviously available and would be released later? I think not.
Crash Landing * The first of the Allan Douglas-produced albums. Totally worthless and criminal considering Douglas brought in session musicians to fill out what was already substandard material and then claimed co-writer credit on 5 songs. Without Jimi on the cover, no one would’ve bought this pile of shit.
Midnight Lightning * See above. Douglas hacks his way to another shitty Hendrix album, this time aided by Jon Bon Jovi’s cousin Tony Bongiovi. I never bought either of these albums, but a roommate had them, so I’ve heard them and then promptly never listened to them again.
The Essential Jimi Hendrix Volume Two *** I bought this because it had the Experience playing a cover of Them’s Gloria in the studio on an inserted 33 1/3 single with the album. It was actually pretty genius packaging. The song was a bit of a disappointment though and the rest of the album had already been released.
Jimi Hendrix: High, Live and Dirty *1/2 Also known as Bleeding Heart, or Woke Up This Morning and Found Myself Dead or…any of the other 14 names it was released under throughout the years. Basically Jimi’s private jam tapes from The Scene in 1968 that were stolen when he died. Or not…These jams included many rumored people but one person definitely there is a very drunk Jim Morrison yelling various obscenities. Supposedly, Janis Joplin was also in the audience that night. Talk about the planets aligning. Johnny Winter was long alleged to be the second guitarist but he swore to his dying day that he never met Jim Morrison. So it might’ve been Rick Derringer. The thing is…for a boot…some of this stuff is pretty good. I had the record while I was in college. The version of Red House and Tomorrow Never Knows have a lot of great guitar goin’ on. Interesting, but ultimately exploitative.
Kiss the Sky **** A fairly good compilation. I bought it on cassette for my car. Has some of my favorite Jimi songs including Third Stone from the Sun, All Along the Watchtower, Are You Experienced?, and Purple Haze. Also contains the b-side Steppin’ Stone from the Izabella single, the live Killing Floor from Monterey and a slammin’ live version of I Don’t Live Today from San Diego 1969.
Jimi Plays Monterey ****1/2 Yes! This is what I’m talking about. Jimi and the Experience taking the US by storm at the Monterey Pop Festival. Great versions of Killing Floor, Hey Joe, Can You See Me?, Like a Rolling Stone, Wild Thing, Foxy Lady, Purple Haze, and Rock Me Baby. Then and now a totally live wake-up call to anyone who plays guitar.
Radio One/BBC Sessions ***** Two things: The best Jimi stuff post-1970 was previously unreleased live stuff because 1) he was dead so he wasn’t making any new material and 2) it is really Jimi and the Experience (mostly) at the height of their creative powers, not a bunch of disco musicians hired by Alan Douglas to fill out Jimi’s studio sketches. Also, pretty much all of the stuff released by artists who appeared on some program associated with the BBC (The Beatles, The Stones, Zeppelin, Yardbirds) has been great and the Jimi Hendrix Experience is no exception. Fantastic versions of many songs, including never before released stuff like the supremo guitar workout, Driving South. I have both of these discs and they are phenomenal.
Live at Woodstock **** Iconic and pretty good, even though I think the band at this performance was lacking and it’s not terribly well recorded. It was a great Jimi performance, however and obviously this version of The Star Spangled Banner is one of the most defining 5 minutes of the whole 1960s decade. Other bright notes are Izabella, Spanish Castle Magic, Hear My Train A Comin’, and Villanova Junction, which I always liked for its jazzy, minor key overtones. Overall, not of the caliber of Monterey or BBC for sheer guitar awesomeness, but important nonetheless.
The Ultimate Experience **** An interesting, if slightly flawed compilation. The track listing was the result of a poll of his most popular recordings in Europe. My girlfriend has this disc and it has some of Jimi’s classics mixed in with lesser known songs like Wait Until Tomorrow, Angel, Highway Chile, Long Hot Summer Night, and Gypsy Eyes. It also includes Wild Thing from Monterey and The Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. I think the disc flawed only because it omits some better material from all of the studio albums in favor of some of what I just listed (minus Angel and Gypsy Eyes) and also includes Burning of the Midnight Lamp, which is my absolute least favorite song Jimi recorded.
Blues ** I wanted to like this, but unfortunately I didn’t find it that enjoyable and it contains more Douglas hackery (splicing various takes together, pulling out stuff Jimi probably never would have released, etc, etc). Anyone who has spent more than a month listening to Jimi Hendrix knows he could play the f*ck out of the blues and that many of his songs were based around very bluesy motifs. Guitarists especially know this. That’s what makes all of the popular acclaim for this album stupid. It doesn’t deal with the fact that it was just another cynical ploy to extract money out of people for Hendrix material that was average at best.
Jimi Hendrix ***1/2 — Another Midnight Movie Treat for many years and I’ve also had it as a DVD for a long time. It’s a pretty good movie and features a compilation of performances from throughout Jimi’s career and interviews with interesting people: Jimi, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Fayne Pridgon and The Ghetto Fighters and not interesting people like Lou Reed (did he and Jimi even meet ever?). All of the time Jimi appears onscreen playing guitar is movie gold though and for many years it was all that was available.
Woodstock and Live at Berkeley *** — I have both of these DVDs. From a guitarist standpoint, there is something educational in watching any performance Jimi gave, of course. There is some blistering guitar work to be found but there is a spark missing from these later-year performances that was definitely there in 1967, early 1968. Jimi seemed very tired, physically and spiritually. Both movies are very instructive for how they illustrate the messy backdrop of the times that Jimi is immersed in and one can only imagine how that affected his mood and the performances. The Live at Berkeley movie especially has a lot of the political stuff that had completely overtaken any and all counterculture conversations (especially in Berkeley) by early 1970. Definitely worth viewing as an education, but not necessarily the best music Jimi ever played.
So that’s it for Part 1…hope you enjoyed it. There will always be new Jimi Hendrix releases and I’ve heard some here and there, but I’m not fanatic about hearing every version of Hear My Train A-Comin’ that he recorded or played. The early stuff is what I return to again and again, although I did recently get some enjoyment out of listening to Cry of Love for the first time in a long time. Part 2 in this “series” will deal with the books I have and two others I had at one time and Part 3 will be very guitar specific. Stay tuned!
It occurred to me the other night that Led Zeppelin was, at the height of their career, the world’s best JAZZ band! Of course the concept began began with, and revolved around, Jimmy Page. Onstage he was the lead soloist of a combo that would sometimes do 30-minute versions of Zeppelin studio material/cover songs. In the studio, whether as a guitarist or producer, he constructed Zep’s body of work with the precision and care of Mozart or Wagner, layering instruments and tracks into sonic artworks of beauty, power, mystique and awesomeness. Everybody knows all that already, but approaching it from the angle that they weren’t really a rock band means you might hear something different the next time you encounter a Zeppelin tune. I’ve been listening to them since the 1970s and believe it or not, this happened to me recently. So let’s have a go! (as they say in the (UK)
As the Yardbirds were dissolving in 1968, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant came up with a strategy for the group that would become Led Zeppelin based on what they had seen in the USA on the Yardbirds’ final tour – music that was outside the milieu of the radio-friendly singles market. Both Grant and Page thought that the group that would be Zeppelin could take on American heavies like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly and do way better with the same formula. Interestingly enough, as related in Hammer of the Gods, Page had been considering a group in the Pentangle mode, because of his love and respect for artists like Bert Jansch, in particular, and acoustic music in general. Page is quoted as saying, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.” However, once Page heard and saw John Bonham play he quickly scotched the acoustic idea (at least full-time) and heard everything Zeppelin would become. From the beginning, Zeppelin focused on albums in the studio and explored a wide range of improvisations live. Many of these improvs were blues-based but because of Page’s wide range of influences and the outstanding abilities of Jones and Bonham, the music careened into many different directions with dynamics, including acoustic-based music, that would eventually be known as Zeppelin’s Light and Shade. Robert Plant would also help take the band into interesting directions as he became a more confident frontman and writer. As the group was in the process of launching their career, the world’s first supergroup, Cream, was calling it quits. Not only was Cream lauded by fans in the same way that Zeppelin would be soon (for their ability to just play), they were also taken to task by critics for their “excesses”, which would become a major point of attack by critics against Page and Zeppelin as the 60s gave way to the 70s.
Led Zeppelin has never said their approach had more to do with jazz than pop music, which was still the only alternative at the time. CLASSIC ROCK didn’t exist and even though The Beatles had been successful releasing a 7 minute single (Hey Jude), they were The Beatles and had earned the right to do that. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that music be produced in the conventional format and many bands like The Yardbirds and Cream, were constantly pressured by management that valued hit singles over a sound or a good album that would’ve sold in the newly emerging markets. Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about this because their manager, Peter Grant, never pressured the band for music and took anyone who did to task. He was savvy enough to see where the money was in the coming decade and left Jimmy and company alone to do what they wanted. While there are some to this day who view Grant as a gangster and bully because of his tactics, he was the first manager who ensured that the artists he represented got a huge percentage of the credit and compensation for their music and performances. Page insisted on complete creative control as a bargaining chip for Zeppelin’s record deal and Grant made sure he got it. He was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin and was a major factor in their success and has been recognized as a major game-changer in the history of popular music. With his help the band racked up album and concert sales that blew away everyone’s expectations. Not only was the writing and playing good enough to swing multiple generations of fans into Led Zeppelin’s corner, the band took their improvisation ethic to new heights and their live shows became an ever-changing exercise in a variation on a theme. This isn’t what most people think of when JAZZ is discussed, and heavy rockers and serious jazz artists would be equally offended by the term, but the basic drive and aspirations of Miles Davis and Jimmy Page or any of a number of ALT artists, which Zeppelin definitely were at the time, are primarily the same. It matters little what ends up on the disc. So much of that genre classification is all about selling units to consumers. A Led Zeppelin concert from the early days always had “songs”, but the highlights of the show were long improvised workouts on certain studio recordings — How Many More Times, Dazed and Confused, Trampled Underfoot, No Quarter, Whole Lotta Love,Moby Dick and whatever Jimmy picked as his “solo” spot (White Summer/Black Mountainside). As time went on the band was able to create long pieces that didn’t contain the same amount of improvisation but were arranged and conceptualized extended pieces of art: Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same/The Rain Song, Kashmir, Ten Years Gone, In My Time of Dying, Achilles Last Stand. None of this stuff is really ROCK music even if it sounds like ROCK music. It’s played with rock instruments and played at high volumes but the combination of instrumental prowess and artistic vision in the writing and live interplay produced something more than what most bands, even of that era, were capable of. It really does compare favorably to the best jazz and how the best jazz bands functioned without sacrificing any of the heaviness or youth signals (lyrics, stage theater, drama) that fans responded to.
Before I started playing jazz music I always thought the version of Dazed and Confused (from The Song Remains the Same movie) was a bit too long and went through one too many “movements”. If it had been up to me, I thought there were two that could have been cut without losing anything from the performance (and this still might be true…improvisers are always in the process of editing and perfection is completely relative). Watching it recently, I thought the band’s performance was and is completely phenomenal. I’ve never liked the “fantasy” sequences in this movie because the band’s ability to take an audience through a half hour of music, power, drama and performance is totally cool and would certainly have been enough even in 1976. Is some of the drama silly? Of course, but the band didn’t take themselves as seriously as everyone else did and the limits of what could be done in a live performance were still expanding. Throughout the song Jimmy Page employs power chord thud, blues and country fills, dramatic wah-wah arpeggios and harmonics, slashing funk chords, avant-garde bowing and noise ripples and plenty of ripping riffs and zipping lines. When he was at his best Jimmy, like all of the great guitar improvisers, was a great synthesizer of all his influences and whatever was floating in his imagination at the time. By 1973 not only was the band firing on all cylinders live, their confidence level was completely off the charts. There is also maturity seen (and heard) in these shows that doesn’t exist in the early days and there is none of the dissipation and exhaustion that creeps into the band by later in the decade.
In 1973 Dazed and Confused was still a major centerpiece of Zeppelin shows. Typically, it occupied the 10th slot of the set, preceding Stairway to Heaven. In 1997 artist and Led Zeppelin bootleg expert extraordinaire Luis Rey analyzed Dazed and Confused in his book Led Zeppelin Live: An Illustrated Exploration of Underground Tapes. He split the song (1975 live version, which ran even longer than 1973) into 12 basic sections as a means of identifying the changing parts and progression of the piece. You can check the Wiki link for the actual sections and I think they’re pretty close in general to this version, at least the overall substance. Obviously some of this was rehearsed prior to the tour and Zeppelin played the set they rehearsed pretty much at all shows on a tour with only the encores varying from show to show. BUT…as was said at the time and what is obvious if you listen to enough copies of shows from their tour, within the general framework, there was plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity, especially as far as Page is concerned and he certainly took advantage of that freedom.
Dazed and Confused was originally “picked up” by The Yardbirds after seeing Jake Holmes perform it in New York City when he opened for the band in summer of 1967. The title, bassline and general vibe of the song were lifted intact, but the lyrics were rewritten and even before Led Zeppelin came into fruition it served as an instrumental vehicle for all of Page’s guitar wizardry. (In 2010 Holmes filed a copyright infringement suit and is credited with inspiration and no doubt got a bunch of cash as the writing credit remains with Page). Zeppelin started playing Dazed at its first rehearsal and did a brisk 6+ minute version on their first album. But the song was in a constant state of evolution and serves as a very good barometer of how the bad grew over five years. As the song begins the confidence level I was talking about is evident in the dramatic intro and sung verses. Nothing is rushed and Bonham’s drum punctuations keep the song from being a dirge. Notice how Page varies the main riff every time he plays it, either with different phrasing, bends or playing the harmony notes of Jones’ bass riff at one point. At about the 4 minute mark the band is off!! and the camera starts to focus on Bonham and then Jones and Bonham as they follow and react to what Jimmy is doing. Along with all of his many other talents, John Bonham was easily one of the most reactive drummers that ever rock and rolled and Jones is also amazing. The fact that all of his brilliant lines are finger-picked also adds a layer of fluidity and depth to the song. Notice how Jimmy breaks his first set of riffing with some funky slash chords, setting up his next high-register solo. That’s improvised composition in action. As the song comes to it’s first breakdown the camera catches Bonham and Jones trying to puzzle out where Jimmy is going (5:38). Even though the band has been playing this song for 5 years at this point, but there is obviously no formula employed here. It’s called spontaneity and there was never a band as heavy as Zeppelin who pulled off this type of spontaneity so well. I love the interaction between Jones and Bonham at the 6 minute mark — it shows the essence of what I’m talking about so well. As guitar players we are usually told to “sing” our lines to make better improvisation. Notice how Bonham seems to sometimes “sing” his hits (6:19-6:25). You can hear snatches of the 3-years in the future riff for Achilles Last Stand in the arpeggios that set up the “San Francisco” bit. Excellent casual flamenco-esque strumming by Page on the “San Francisco” bits before bringing the wah-wah to lead to another heavy crescendo. Up and down the band goes, bringing everyone in Madison Square Garden with them. Isn’t this exciting? Robert Plant’s various vocalizations (scatting) have the same dynamic spontaneity throughout the song. He knows when to sing and then drop out and let the band play again. The “I Knows” that he brings in to accentuate the heavy part that comes in around 7:50 don’t mean anything and he isn’t really singing. His voice is just another instrument in the mix that adds another layer of excitement as the final bit of CRUSH and the segue before the song devolves into complete and total weirdness (and I mean that in a good way). Same with the “Aahs” and “Oohs” as the bass and drums are dropping out. The band leaves as Jimmy takes over on bow at about 9:00. So far the song has been paced beautifully highlighting the band’s talents for improvisation and live drama. Ethereal swoops and echo feedback replace the power of the band and it becomes a completely sonic “event”. The “song” has been left far behind. At 10:20 the Tolkien theater or Mars the Bringer of War (whichever you prefer) is in full effect with bow smacks on an echo-driven guitar with accompany send-outs to the audience. While I’m sure this was the inspiration behind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel” violin solo“, it doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as it was made out to be. Sure, it’s not a 4 minute rock song, but John Cage and others outside the mainstream were doing stuff like this for years and Led Zeppelin’s fans, while maybe not classical music aficionados, ate it up. You don’t hear anyone screaming or heckling or any audience noise at all until Page does the dramatic slaps… and there is much rejoicing!! As Page continues bowing [the fantasy takes over and] Plant joins him with vocal accents as they fill the Garden with horror movie sounds that I’m sure were pretty awesome to an audience looking for a trip to another world (and under the influence of whatever they could get their hands on before the concert). See the internet and smart phones didn’t exist then kids. The rest of the band joins in with ambient noise effects before they return with the crunch and the blast at around the 16 minute mark. Once again the segue, helped by those little touches of Jones’ and Bonhams’ ambiance and impeccable timing, is perfect. There is another shot of John Bonham as the song kicks into the familiar riff that leads into the guitar/vocal interplay between Plant and Page. Bonham looks like such a serious (and sober) drummer on this performance doesn’t he? Very attentive to what Page and Jones are doing. A whole bunch of awesome, rapid-fire Page soloing follows on the same rhythm gallop. Back in the 70s this is what earned Page universal acclaim as the best guitarist of the era and it’s pretty impressive even today. The song breaks down into a funky rhythm that employs a prominent Hendrix-y 9th chord as it’s anchor. Jimmy has been playing guitar for almost twenty continuous minutes and has yet to repeat himself. Another dramatic major, happy sounding break leads into a different interaction with Plant (along with a bit more theater that totally pleases the audience). And once again Page is off with an Over, Under, Sideways Down-style riff and Jones and Bonham follow him until the song breaks again for another interaction with Plant in a higher register. The scene with the longhair is puzzling and says to me “we don’t have the film of that part of the performance.” Why that bit is chosen or what it’s supposed to represent I’ve never been able to puzzle out. At about 23 minutes the song breaks down again and goes into something that sounds vaguely like Black Sabbath before climaxing into chaotic noise and spiraling to earth and the final familiar strains of Dazed and Confused as you know it from the record are heard again. On the familiar outro figure Page once again takes off with screaming obbligatos and fleet-fingered wah chording and Jones and Bonham turn the rhythmic vibe into something that gets them smiling at each other (26:35-26:50) before a final burst of feedback and Plant’s echoes signal the ending chord slam and Bonham drum thrashing that finishes the song. While there was probably some post-production employed to really tighten the song up, other versions from the tour are extremely close and sound almost as good. Silly or dated as this might seem to some there is literally no one else in the history of rock who pulled this off as well, then or now.
Given the nature of the above song and performance, Led Zeppelin has a lot in common with other “jamming” bands like The Grateful Dead, Cream and The Allman Brothers, much more than most “headbangers” would give them credit for. It’s interesting that many of the heavy bands that Zeppelin influenced picked up on the heaviness and the occasional acoustic ballad, but were not adept at either live improvisation or long orchestral-like pieces of music. All of that more or less faded out with the 70s. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and everyone who followed into the 80s did not play 30 minute songs and did very little improvisation, except for their feature solos. That whole approach to writing and performance became strictly the domain of “jam bands” most of whom descend from the California sound of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, there is a lot of that to Zeppelin as well — Robert Plant in particular was a huge fan of San Francisco bands and it definitely shows in his Zeppelin lyrics and his solo material. This is probably why Page and the rest of the band take umbrage of the title Heavy Metal to describe their music, because they weren’t, especially when compared with what came along in the 80s and beyond. (Notice that most of the time Page isn’t using that much distortion live compared to heavy guitarists of later years). The heaviness that Zeppelin brought was always balanced with nuance and other elements, which is very clear by analyzing Dazed and Confused, always one of their heaviest songs. Guitarists of the next generation would by and large take the obvious and simplest elements of Zep’s heavy music and make it louder, heavier, faster and, in some cases, more intricate and in the process lose the elements that gave Zeppelin’s music it’s timeless depth, dynamics and (live) spontaneity.
Of course, I was and am a big fan of the later heavy music and have seen many of those bands and played more than a few of those longs in my own bands. However, there is something slightly intense and magical about the ability of a group of musicians being able to improvise or approach music with the type of dynamics and movement inherent in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you like, there comes a point when the quality of the music or performance renders all description and classification useless because there ain’t enough adjectives to really convey what goes on!
Lately I’ve been listening to and playing a WHOLE LOTTA Led Zeppelin. Killin’!! Was there ever a more awesome band? I think not. They’ve been in the news lately for a multitude of reasons, not that this is the reason for my listening party. I’ve never really stopped ever since that first blast a million years ago when I was a wee lad with long hair and an attitude. So much has been written and said about them you’re probably thinking, what could I possibly learn from reading another line? Well, hehehe, actually, I dunno. At the very least there will be some cool links to the far corners of the online Zeppelin universe, some personal anecdotes, and maybe some of my usual stupid humor. Hey you got a couple minutes! That’s why you’re here. Unlike other stuff where I’ve written one LONG post, I’m gonna break this up into dispatches, almost like I’m Carl Kolchak or something. Be honest, when’s the last time you thought about that guy…The NIGHT STALKER? The 70s were pretty flippin’ rad if you were there, weren’t they?
Of course the undisputed kings of 70s rock music were Led Zeppelin. 40 years later and they still have the power to excite, as they did in 2007 at their first BIG reunion concert ever (except for Live Aid in 1985, but Phil Collins played drums at that show so it can’t possibly count). Many people were under the impression that a tour and possible new music was going to emerge from the joint efforts of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham, the son of the late, very great John Bonham. However, 7+ years later, the world and 3/4 of “Led Zeppelin” are dismayed that Robert Plant isn’t interested. This has annoyed Jimmy Page to no end, but Jimmy has been annoyed since Live Aid as we will see in a later installment. I respect Robert Plant for his decision. Outside of Pete Townshend, (maybe) I can’t think of anyone from those years who has actually managed to have as interesting, successful and varied career (Roger Waters? Don Henley?). The easiest thing for him to do would be to say “sod it, I’m onboard”, but he won’t, or hasn’t thus far. Some have estimated that a Zeppelin world tour would be the first BILLION DOLLAR (yes that’s with a “B”) tour ever. That’s pretty amazing for a band that hasn’t existed since 1980, isn’t it? The might Zep has been getting a lot of long overdue accolades and they even appear on television shows and stuff now. (Dave Letterman must think there are people in his audience who doesn’t know the Zep story or who “Sonny Boy Williams” and other blues musicians are).
Another interesting item is that the estate of former and late Spirit guitarist Randy California and ex-Spirit bassist Mark Andes are suing Jimmy Page and the band for ripping off the Spirit song Taurus to create the initial theme of Stairway to Heaven. Randy had a pretty cool career in his own right; playing for Jimmy James (later Jimi Hendrix who gave him the name “California”) in New York before Jimi made the trip to England and rock and roll stardom. While still a teenager Randy co-founded Spirit, who headlined on various dates in 1968 and 1969 with the up and coming Led Zeppelin. Randy died tragically in the Pacific Ocean in 1997 while rescuing his son. The actual court filing is kind of a trip and can be viewed here. One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the allegations on how Stairway came about have been pulled from 3rd party books on the band or music magazine interviews. I guess maybe info of that nature is pertinent and would be admissible in court. (I found this on ACHILLES LAST STAND, one of the longest-running and best Zep websites on the net) So is there a case? It’s a good thing Zep’s former manager Peter Grant is no longer in the land of the living because I’m sure there would be hell to pay!
You can listen to the two intros side by side below. The operative word in that sentence is, of course, intro. Stairway, as everyone knows, goes through multiple movements and is a completely different song from Taurus. The other thing to remember is you can’t copyright a chord progression — the descending minor figure played in both songs is not exactly the same. The bass notes are identical from the “A” to the “F#” but in Stairway there are counterpoint notes on the high E string that don’t exist in Taurus. After the “F#/D” chord the progressions and songs are completely different. So basically we’re talking about an A minor chord with a descending bass note run. Personally I’m not sure that California deserves a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven for that. So much of music is recycled and there were probably at least 15 contemporaries of Fernando Sor who played similar lines back in the 1800s. It’s interesting to note that the lawyer bringing the case, one Francis Malofiy, was “admonished by the judge” in another case involving a copyright lawsuit against Usher and 19 other people. Judge Paul Diamond suggested Malofiy should be “considered for disbarment” and the case was thrown out of court. Ruh Roh!! I’m not a legal pro but this lawsuit would have been way more topical and appropriate in, I dunno, 1975 maybe?
Finally, Led Zeppelin I, II, and III were re-released last year as deluxe editions, with new outtakes, and songs/performances never heard, except on bootlegs. Jimmy’s money quote to Rolling Stone was:
“Everything is being transferred from analog to a higher-resolution digital format,”…”That’s one of the problems with the Zeppelin stuff. It sounds ridiculous on MP3. You can’t hear what’s there properly.”
Umm…Jimmy, babe, dude, whatever…perfectionism is great and all, but my mp3s of the mighty Zep sound just fine. But I guess if you got the jack to spend on the umpteenth reissue of any of these albums, go for it! Me I’ll watch this instead:
Iwas looking for something in my closet the other day and came across this magazine. Always loved the cover art. Brilliant! It’s hard to believe this almost 21 years old already (it was the 12/93 issue). How time flies. But the Song Remains the Same doesn’t it? The mystique, magic and music of Led Zeppelin continues to hold up to the present day. A quick glance at the other names on the cover yields some nods of recognition and maybe even a few “oh yeahs”, but it’s not like the legacy of Smashing Pumpkins or White Zombie is setting the world on fire. I guess people still buy magazines (do they?). I’m so out of touch since I found this here internet thing. Like much of the print world, I do believe most printed publications are also available to be viewed online or people just don’t bother anymore since there are exactly zero musicians in the western hemisphere who can’t be found online in some form or another. The other attraction, at least back in 1993, was that songs were tabbed out with painstaking detail, which, in the case of a song like Zep’s Ten Years Gone, was a bit of an undertaking best left to the professionals. However, even this feature, along with gear and music reviews has been usurped by advances in computer applications and the mighty online community. It is a nice little reminder of what used to be and inside were other reminders of things that used to be.
Can you believe this image? Have you ever seen anything like that? No, not Robert Plant playing guitar, although I don’t think there are many pics of him out there playing an axe at what looks to be a LZ session (maybe the “outdoor” recording of Black Country Woman). (Both pics are courtesy of Eddie Kramer) I mean the very crappy text/image spacing between Robert’s picture and the text at left. I didn’t manipulate, that’s how it is in the magazine. What’s really funny is a guy named Michael Chatham is given a “typography” credit at the beginning of the article. There’s something you don’t see very often, but maybe it wasn’t his fault. Blame the temp who was doing paste-up or whatever. Anyhow, this interview with Andy Johns and Eddie Kramer details recording the band at various times during their career; Kramer on II and then Johns taking over for III and IV before Kramer came back for Houses of the Holy. Interestingly enough, according to Kramer, III started out at Electric Ladyland in New York but a roadie affiliated with the band spilled Indian food on one of the studio carpets and refused to clean it up. This led to a row between Kramer, who had a major role with Jimi Hendrix in planning and getting Electric Lady built and the band who backed the roadie. So long-story-short, they told each other to piss off for a few years. Another interesting tidbit involving Kramer and Page is that the middle section of Whole Lotta Love was mixed basically the same way as the “sound paintings” (1983) on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland record. “…we just flayed, around the console twiddling every knob we could. While the Altec console might have limited our options, especially the panning effects, we somehow managed to stretch our limitations and create a very effective mix.” (The Altec console used to mix Whole Lotta Love had exactly 2, count ’em, 2 pan pots. Wow!) Both engineers gave Page high marks as a producer and as a band, Zeppelin were very quick in the studio once the arrangement was set and the tricky bits of timing had been worked out. Neither Bonham on the basic tracks or Plant on the vocals took more than a few takes to get what everyone hears and has heard over the past 40+ years. Jones and Page would overdub as much as was necessary to fill the song out and because the band, especially Bonham were so easy to record, the mixing was almost never a laborious process either. Johns recollections of IV include Stairway coming in as a finished piece, placing mics on a stairway landing and then adding heavy compression and a bit of reverb to the drums for the very awesome When the Levee Breaks, which Bonham was very happy about and not getting Four Sticks right even after 3-4 tries at the mix. Although they found something they could live with, he blamed too much initial compression during the recording and this was the one regret of an otherwise perfect set of sessions.
In one way I think I’m the typical Zep head when it comes to their albums — I through Physical Graffiti are as close to perfect as a band can get. Presence is ok, In Through the Out Door was less than ok and a harbinger of THE END. Overall, my favorite album is probably Houses of the Holy, not so much because of the songs, even though they are all good and several are fantastic. No it’s that shimmering brightness combined with CRUNCH that wasn’t really captured as well on any other album. Houses of the Holy was recorded at Mick Jagger’s mansion, Stargroves, in the English countryside and maybe it was the mood the locale created or maybe because it was the band approaching the pinnacle of their career or the sounds they were able to get from the rooms that were used. While Kramer didn’t have much to say in this issue about the recording of Houses of the Holy, he recalled in the infamous book Hammer of the Gods that all four members of the group were dancing in a line on the lawn as they listened to the Dancing Days playback. As others have said, “the album sounds orange” (a reflection of the color of the cover art) and I agree. Those who go more for the Zeppelin blooze riff-fests don’t like this record as much and I like those albums too, but sometimes the sound, especially on Physical Graffiti has a very muddy quality to it. Some of the tracks for Graffiti had been recorded at the Houses of the Holy sessions which is why they sound a bit different, but the tracks recorded specifically for the record (Kashmir!) suffer from a lack of clarity. Just my opinion.
The final interesting bits of the magazine’s profile of LZ are thus: An interview with Robert Plant that sounds like it could have been done yesterday, or in 1984 and some quick musical tabs of some of Jimmy’s best riffs. At the time it was great to see the latter. I literally smacked myself on the side of the head when I realized how overcomplicated I had been trying to make the outro to What is and What Should Never Be. It really is dead easy and any of the footage now available shows how completely simple it is. The Albert Hall 1970 is a good place to start. The interview with Robert is funny in that he pokes a bit of fun at Jimmy Page and the idea of “going to prison to go around the world playing Black Dog”. Of course around the time he was giving this interview plans were being made for the big Page/Plant reunion that would commence recording during the following year. The project was acoustic and very different than a straight-up reunion, including a limited long-term commitment, which was probably part of the attraction. Plant says as far back as 1993, “I don’t think of myself as a rock singer anymore”, and part of the reason is he can’t. All of the wild screaming that many associate with Zeppelin (from hearing the records, especially the early ones) is no longer doable. The guy is closing in on 70, so he deserves some slack. In the 20 plus years since this interview he has been a very successful solo artist and collaborator and has earned much respect outside of the Led Zeppelin milieu. While there is definitely some attraction to playing great music with top-notch musicians like Page, Jones and Jason Bonham, he’s a guy who can pretty much call anyone he wants to a session, so the avoidance of a big reunion (then or now) is completely understandable, even though it’s still a hot topic.
One of the strangest most far-out rumors that dogged Led Zeppelin throughout their career was the one that alleged they (minus John Paul Jones) had made a pact with Satan, dark master of all things heavy. This surfaced in the mainstream in books like Hammer of the Gods and most people, including the band, wrote this off as silly legende right out of the realms of Anton LaVey and the Manson Family. When I wrote about Gimme Shelter I explored some of the very strange connections between famous rock stars and people who maybe felt a little too comfortable on the dark side of the street. These “satanic” rumors also dogged the Stones for years and having a very popular song titled Sympathy For the Devil can lead to a whole lot of misunderstandings. Some (referencing Hammer of the Gods again) believe that by Presence and specifically Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Robert was looking for a way out from what he saw as the intensely negative vibe that was starting to surround the band and his life. Statements he made after the 1977 tour (notable for it’s junkie overindulgence, sub-par performances and ultra-violence) and the death of his son Karac hint that these feelings had only increased. Childhood friend John Bonham’s death was supposedly the final nail and ever since then Led Zeppelin as it was has ceased to exist for Robert Plant. Or so the story goes. Personally, I don’t believe that Robert and the rest of the band signed anything in blood to Satan, but maybe there is a case for a more nuanced reading of “dark forces”. I found out a couple days ago that during the period Peter Grant was negotiating Robert’s first solo record deal in the early 1980s, Robert sold all of his rights to the first 10 Led Zeppelin albums away to an unknown buyer. He retains creative control and the whole issue of what he gets from reissues and new product like the 2003 DVD is not so clear, but think about that! You want to talk about cutting the cord! Was it a financial decision? Was it about wanting to make it completely on his own post 1980? I dunno, maybe. The figure he got for his rights (and you can read an informative thread on the official Led Zeppelin forum) was $7 million. Obviously he would’ve made much more than that had he hung on to them; this was before compact discs came into existence. But Robert is quite wealthy and has succeeded in his quest to be a respected bona-fide artist outside of the realms of Led Zeppelin. Perhaps that was his only consideration. Perhaps, he wasn’t (and isn’t) entirely comfortable with Led Zeppelin’s legacy, especially outside the music. While the Zeppelin Devil Pact is silly and unsubstantiated, the band’s image as egocentric, intoxicated barbarians was earned and well-deserved. Some of it was all it good fun and one would be hard-pressed to find a band in the 70s that didn’t indulge in mindless hooliganism from time to time. But since the better half of Robert has always cultivated an intelligent and spiritual vibe, it is possible that he made a decision in the early 80s to close the door, let go and move on…permanently, as in “I’m not that guy anymore”. If nothing else, there was probably an intense desire to not let those crazy days be the complete Robert Plant legacy and he has certainly spent the last 30+ years ensuring that Led Zeppelin would not be his whole story. But it will forever be a huge part of his history and legend and as he says in the following clip, The Song Remains the Same!
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Keith Richards coming into his own as a bona fide guitar hero and entertainment personality, albeit a very notorious personality. If you missed the first part of this expose, you can find it HERE, and the most popular post I’ve ever done, Gimme Shelter, is also chock-full of Keith or, “Keef” goodies. Following the release of Let It Bleed and the infamous 1969 American tour, Keith and The Stones would tour Europe and release two more powerhouse albums before returning to the States for an even more infamous tour in 1972. The albums, Sticky Fingers (parts of which were recorded on the ’69 tour in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and the genre-defining Exile on Main Street, which was basic-tracked in Keith’s rented house in the south of France with the help of the new Rolling Stones Mobile (recording) Unit, would cement the band’s reputation as the swaggering high priests of outlaw rock and roll. These two records also completed the HOLY 5 (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street) run of Stones albums that is pinnacle of their career. All of these albums are very much driven by the guitar style Keith mashed together from all of his favorite blues, country and early rock and roll influences to recreate an updated form of rock and roll that is distinctly American. In that way, this period is very reflective of Keith’s artistic sensibilities and long-standing fascination with American culture in a way that nothing after 1972 would, not even his solo records.
During this time another British band was making their own indelible mark on rock music and as the 70s progressed they would eclipse the Stones in sales, popularity and sheer awesomeness. This, of course, was Led Zeppelin. The two bands had quite a bit in common, especially in the early 70s, the use of the mobile unit to record their groundbreaking records out of the confines of urban recording studios, for instance. There are many interviews with Keith and Jimmy Page that illustrate how much of the sound of these seminal recordings (the Stones 5 and Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti) owe as much to the ambiance of their recording settings as they do the songs, players and instruments. Tales of the Stones recording Exile while dinner was being cooked upstairs or Keith ducking out of a session to put his son to bed (and not reappearing for 5 hours) align with Led Zep lore of the sound of John Bonham’s drum sound on When the Levee Breaks, captured in a Headley Grange hallway or all 4 members of the band dancing on the lawn after hearing first playbacks of Dancing Days. Recording these albums in this fashion allowed for greater artistic isolation because both groups were removed from urban environments, and was reminiscent of the old days when blues/country artists recorded in hotel rooms, kitchens, or on street corners. I believe this allowed both bands to bring a level of authenticity that approached high art to these recordings. Another similarity, one that Led Zeppelin embraced from the very beginning of their career, was that neither band had to be concerned with having a hot single out every two or three months and both had reached the superstar status level that afforded them the luxury of having to answer to no one, as long as the kids kept buying records and concert tickets. The Stones and Led Zeppelin had their own record labels by the mid-70s and this was a very big step (and one that isn’t talked about very often in the current file sharing discussions) of wrestling control away from record company executives and putting it firmly in the hands of the artists who were making the music. Not only was the music written and played in a very sympathetic environment, using all of the latest technology available, but the band (and a very willing engineer or two) recorded and produced the music as they saw fit. Personally, I think this has a whole lot to do with why these albums still rank as some of the best ever made and are very hard to beat for the sound of the BLUUZE excitement that jumps off of them when they are played.
LET IT BLEED
A very menacing record – the sound, the lyrics, the subject matter, the way Keith has developed his slashing chord jabs and the relentless, insistent pulse of the rhythm section. 1968-1969 were bloody years and the Stones had their finger square on the pulse of what was happening. Let It Bleed was released in the USA immediately after Altamont and it’s so evil that it might as well have been the soundtrack. John Lennon seemed to believe that “Let It Bleed” referred the last Beatles album and it probably did. Mick Jagger had always been jealous and competitive of The Beatles and their success and with this record he finally came out on top. While Let It Be is a half-assed collection of songs and jams from an aborted pre-Abbey Road movie idea, Let It Bleed is a tightly-focused statement on the state of the world as the Stones saw it at the time. While soon-to-be jettisoned Stone Brian Jones and soon-to-be Stone Mick Taylor both appear on the record, along with a special guest appearance by Ry Cooder who plays slide on Monkey Man, it’s pretty much a total Keith show.
Gimme Shelter kicks off the record with it’s dramatic, almost cinematic, building intro. Keith’s playing in open-E tuning and the treble chords in the intro set the listener up for the main body of the song because once the descending riff (a variation on Under My Thumb) kicks in he is beating you over the head with it. Charlie Watts is locked in on Keith once the song kicks in and never strays. On top of this rhythmic heaviness, there is some slide guitar, a short Keith solo, a bluesy harp and apocalyptic lyrics provided by Mick, and a female vocal break provide by Merry Clayton that is so intense it was blamed for the miscarriage she suffered after the session. It’s 4 1/2 minutes of mayhem and this is the first song on the record! It’s evil twin brother kicks off side 2. Midnight Rambler, a song that sketches the Boston Strangler, is even more intense than Gimme Shelter. Keith has described it as a blues opera and he and Mick wrote all of the various parts together while vacationing in Italy. Played in an E position with a capo on the 7th fret, the song is a perfect example of how much power Keith gets out of a very basic and compact approach to guitar. Thousands of blues-influenced songs use this E position on the first fret, but putting it up at the 7th fret and swapping in a “D” chord and progression instead of the standard 12-bar B-turnaround, turns the whole form inside out without diverging too far away from it. You can hear it’s the blues, but it’s also much more than the blues. I find the tone of the studio version of this song to be really amazing… it burps, kind of… and staggers along like a pervert in a dirty raincoat clutching a long knife. Keith used the same guitar on Gimme Shelter and Midnight Rambler and he recalled in 2002:
That was done on a full-bodied, Australian electric-acoustic, f-hole guitar. It kind of looked like an Australian copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used. I played it on Gimmie Shelter too… It had all been revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great. It made a great record… (I got it f)rom some guy who stayed at my pad. He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind. You know, Take care of this for me. I certainly did! But it served me well through the album. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOMidnight.html
Monkey Man and Live With Me are two more nasty songs from this very nasty album. The first finds Keith locked in on one of his prototypical riffs; a hard-knuckled adaptation from Chuck Berry that sounds as if it might be in open tuning, but it is in standard C#/E major. This is the kind of hammer-time guitar thing that has made Keith a guitar hero and he probably spent days playing it over and over until it was exactly right. Cooder’s slide part that happens as a break before the final “I’m a MONKEY!!” is probably open-E. Really nice layering of guitars and a tinkling piano above Charlie’s insistent drums. Monkey Man is a silly song lyrically, but a great music track. Live With Me is a swaggering ode to sleaze that features Mick Taylor on guitar and Keith on bass, which he likes to do from time to time. In concert, the propulsive bass line would be doubled on guitar with those slashing standard-tuned guitar chords played against the rhythm. Saxman Bobby Keyes makes his first appearance with the Stones on this track. On the softer side of things is a very bluesy adaptation of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain that features Keith on acoustic picking and electric slide and Ry Cooder on mandolin. I believe the acoustic is in standard tuning and has a capo on the 3rd fret and Keith uses really cool finger-picking patterns to bring the desolation and loneliness of this song to life. Extra chords were added to the Robert Johnson version so it is a bit more complex than a 3 chord blues. You can hear shades of this same progression in I Got the Blues from Sticky Fingers. Country Honk is the original version of Honky Tonk Women (although the electric single version was released first) and was supposedly inspired by the gaucho cowboys Mick and Keith saw on their trip to South America (see how I tied that together?). Keith was always fascinated with the cowboy lifestyle from an early age and for sure the band is channeling a little bit of Hank Williams and white boy honky tonk music on this one. For this song you can leave it in standard or tune it to open-G and merge with parts Keith plays on the electric version which is definitely in open-G. You Got the Silver is Keith’s lead vocal debut and he plays acoustic and electric slide guitar in open-E/D, with a capo on the 1st or 3rd fret so the song is in the key of F. (Whether you tune to D or E is a personal preference). The atmosphere of this song is simply 60s beautiful and is easily one of the best songs the band ever did. Originally Mick also sang on the track and there are alternate versions out there with him on vocals, but Keith’s vibe is really cool and that makes the album version definitive. Let It Bleed and You Can’t Always Get What You Want round out the album and on both Keith is playing various acoustics and electric/slide guitars. When I saw the Stones on the 1981 tour they played Let it Bleed, which was great because it had never been a concert song before. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (played in open-E or D [acoustic] on the record and usually played in open-G with a capo on the 5th fret live) was a concert staple throughout the 70s.
Let It Bleed was a critical and commercial success and really was the next big step (after Beggars Banquet) of the Stones’ new image to the world. As with the rest of the studio albums during this period, the best songs would be hits and favorites of legions of fans for decades to come and still make up a big part of any Rolling Stones set list. Musically, lyrically and artistically Let It Bleed is more than an album and is probably second only to Exile on Main Street as the best record the group ever did.
GET YER YA YAS OUT
I include this in the group of must-haves because it’s much more than a live album. A case could be made that it isn’t really a live album as there were a few overdubs done after the fact and any close listening to bootlegs from the tour or clips from the movie Gimme Shelter (like the one above) prove this. Not everything was changed and certainly all of the ingredients for a great live album were already there, but given that the band was on a creative roll and probably wanted to put their very best into their first real live album, it’s understandable they would play around with it. Another crucial component is Mick Taylor. His guitar playing gave the album a very HEAVY blues virtuoso feel in spots and it was smart to make the most of what he was now bringing to the band. He had only been involved for a few months prior to the tour but it was very clear from the beginning he was going to change the sound in a big way. The album rocks from beginning to end and some cuts like Midnight Rambler, Jumping Jack Flash, Live With Me, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy For the Devil have such a powerful sound and energy that it’s almost breathtaking. Taylor’s slide solo on Love in Vain (which he plays in standard tuning) is simply brilliant as is his solo (the 2nd one) on Sympathy. The rapid-fire negotiation of the 4 parts to Midnight Rambler come off perfectly and that song is so sizzling it is downright scary. The band would never sound like this again on a live release and that has everything to do with Mick Taylor, Keith’s good health and the band working with the realization that they have expanded their capabilities and execution and are firing on all cylinders. The maelstrom that was the late 60s probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that this was the first time the Stones had played America with powerful amps and PA systems. They rose to the challenge perfectly and this is a great transition from Let It Bleed to their next offering.
Sticky Fingers is a really good indication of how SMART The Rolling Stones are. They were always able to integrate whatever was going on at the time into their sonic palette and produce records that were simultaneously timely and timeless (This would also be true of Some Girls). Quite a feat when you think about it. Everything that would follow in the 70s: the debauchery, self-destruction, failed 60s ideals, tired and overplayed musical styles and the indulgences of the “ME” decade is contained in the lyrics and music of this record and really all Keith Richards and Mick Taylor did was further define the twin-guitar style that had already worked for the band for the better part of 7 years. Even though the 70s would be the era of long songs and jams, the Stones always kept it pretty tight around the blues wail/pop song format that had served them throughout the 1960s. While Brown Sugar or Bitch seem like a far cry from Satisfaction or The Last Time, musically they aren’t in terms of complication or excess. The refinement of the riffs, rhythms and parts, a much bigger sound, combined with Mick Jagger’s envelope-pushing lyrics only illustrate how the band grew over time. There are some interesting tidbits about these two songs that anchor each side of Sticky Fingers. Brown Sugar was a Mick Jagger composition right down to the rhythms and salacious subject matter. Keith turned it into a tour de force by adapting it to his open-G tuning, layering electric and acoustic guitars together and adding a very patented Chuck Berry ending to the song. Brown Sugar was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the ’69 tour and as I relate in the post on Gimme Shelter, part of the reason that the band ran into trouble on with various components of the counterculture on that tour was because of the fact that they had already moved on from the 60s (after the drug busts of 1967, the failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Brian Jones’ death) and were already channeling a new decade. While many people from the hippie movement at the time thought that the Stones were an anachronism of a bygone era, the band glided effortlessly into the 1970s more successful than ever. Bitch, on the other hand, was a mess of a song that began without Keith, who showed up to record that day with a bowl of cornflakes in his hand. After listening to the band struggle with it for a few minutes he strapped on his guitar, simplified the riff and WHAMMO! Instant 70s AOR hit.
The rest of the album shows the band’s dedication to American roots music whether it be country; Dead Flowers, Wild Horses, the blues; I Got the Blues, You Gotta Move, or (what became) definitive 70s rock; Sway, Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’. Sister Morphine and the very unStonesy Moonlight Mile round out the record. Thanks to their always on-point music savvy and the addition of Mick Taylor, and a horn section, including saxman Bobby Keyes, the Stones had developed a formidable sound that greeted the 70s with sass, hipness, and their always insistent energy. Taylor’s fluid lead lines gave songs like Moonlight Mile, Sway and the Santana-esque 2nd half of Can’t You Hear (the first part is a brilliant Keith G-tuning workout) a big rock virtuosity that was perfect for the 70s. Jagger would say after Taylor’s departure that he had really enjoyed writing with the guitarist because he didn’t come from as limited a background as Keith and his more lead-based style allowed for departures from the typical Stones raunchiness. Sister Morphine featured slide guitar maestro Ry Cooder, who has long been rumored to have been the one who turned Keith on to open-G tuning and was also not the first person to be turned off by the druggie vibe that was becoming more a part of what the band (at least some of them) represented. A review I read of this record from a long time ago mentioned that there were enough overt drug references in the lyrics that one could get high simply by sniffing the record jacket. The nastiness of the lyrics combined with the very up front chugging of the band made this a very obvious and in-your-face record, much more so than any of the others of the “5 group.” The band would bury much of this on the next album and in some ways, that made all of the danger and debauchery even more bawdy and sinister.
A word about open tunings, a guitar technique Keith uses quite a bit. There are a few things to remember about using different tunings that players should keep in mind. 1) Keith was a pretty good rock and roll guitar player and had certainly come up with some genre-defining riffs before he started changing tunings, so don’t assume everything post ’68 is played in something other than standard tuning. Plenty of songs that some people think are in open-G aren’t. 2) Don’t assume that the tuning a song might have been recorded in is how it was played live (Jumping Jack Flash, You Can’t Always Get What You Want). Certain things, like that open-G, suspended chord sound one hears in the riff to Brown Sugar, are fairly obvious, but also keep in mind, that 3) it’s possible to play these songs without changing the tuning. I’ve watched Chris Spedding play Brown Sugar in standard tuning and Mick Taylor never played in open tuning as far as I know. Chris told me a story about how he played in front of Keith once and Keith mentioned that he liked the DRONE sound that playing with an open tuning gives to a song like Brown Sugar. That’s really what you miss if you play it in standard tuning — there is none of that sympathetic ringing that can give you a really big, sometimes slightly dissonant sound. Obviously that sound won’t work on everything and as a guitar player you have to use your judgment on what is best for you in various musical situations. From personal experience I can tell you I don’t favor two or more guitars in a band tuned to an open tuning. That gets really weird, especially live. I think a big part of the Stones sound during this period was that Mick Taylor remained in standard and played complimentary parts to Keith’s riffing. Even when they were doubling lines in a song like You Gotta Move, the sound is full without being disorganized because Keith plays his lines on an open-C tuned acoustic and Mick Taylor doubles on a standard-tuned electric. This is just my opinion and really only applies to roots style music. Bands like Soundgarden certainly employed various open tunings with more than one guitarist tuned out of concert tuning to great effect.
EXILE ON MAIN STREET
While some might disagree (certainly Mick Jagger always has), this record represented the pinnacle of the Rolling Stones creative vision and execution. While the band would enjoy hits, tremendously profitable tours and notoriety for the following forty years, they never topped Exile and once again, while the group and some assorted special guests were absolutely crucial to the way the record turned out, this is Keith’s album. It has everything that has been the hallmark of his style throughout his career: subtlety, the guitar as a vehicle for the song, slashing riffs, ingenious production, compact leads and a tremendous ability to recreate musical styles in a way that makes the songs sound absolutely authentic. It’s not just his guitar that’s at work here either. In some ways Keith is the equal to Page or McCartney when it came to using the studio almost as if it were another instrument and the production quality of Exile, controversial for it’s buried wall of sound mix, is exactly the same as his guitar style. He wears his influences on his sleeve and if you listen to those old records then it’s obvious he and the band got this album exactly right. He also deserves a whole lot credit for the vocals (lead and back up). In some cases they completely make the song. I don’t know how long the following song will be available (it seems to come and go from Youtube) but notice how the whole band wakes up on this version of Dead Flowers after Mick and Keith sing the first chorus. Many people have remarked on this quality of the band, especially live: when Keith wants to rock, there is no stopping the the band. His vocals are also a feature on “Exile” songs like Rocks Off, Casino Boogie, Soul Survivor, Torn and Frayed, Sweet Black Angel, Tumbling Dice and Sweet Virginia. While many rock and rollers don’t know this, gospel music is a big influence on the Stones’ sound. Keith is a HUGE fan and while many people would not see how church music could work with dirty rock and roll songs about nasty habits listen to Sweet Virginia, Tumbling Dice or Torn and Frayed again. What has kept Keith in the music business for over fifty years is the fact that he was always more than a guitar player into one style of music. Also, take it from someone who was there, Mick and Keith sharing a mic was one of the most ubiquitous and iconic photo images from the early/mid 70s.
Much has been made of the recording conditions in France for some of the basic tracks. Andy Johns, who was the engineer for the sessions gives a nice rundown on how it all worked HERE. The environment was hot and steamy, guitars went in and out of tune (you can hear this on the intro to All Down the Line), but in some ways it didn’t matter because the band was dialing in their cosmic blues infused slop rock where problems like wiggy tuning only added to the ambiance. Because the band (like Zeppelin and more after them) had been forced to flee Britain as a result of high taxes, there was an extreme sense of dislocation among members of the band and their entourage. This more than likely added to some of the jittery, nervous energy that can be found on parts of the record.
If there is one song that encapsulates the Keith Richards’ style during this period, Tumbling Dice is it. The “hit” that Exile on Main Street produced is an awesome open-G tuned, capo on the 4th fret (key of B) exploration of lead/rhythm ambiance. Except for a brief solo before the final verse the song is a perfect example of what Keith calls “guitar weaving,” two guitars playing sympathetic parts with enough restraint that a listener will have a hard time detecting which guitarist is doing what. What’s interesting is Mick Jagger is playing rhythm guitar on the recorded track and Mick Taylor is playing bass. The Exile sessions revolved around Keith’s “schedule,” or lack thereof, and whoever was around when he felt like playing/recording ended up on the track. Keith’s vocal track on the record, Happy, is another example of a song in the same Tumbling Dice tuning and an altered line-up, with producer Jimmy Miller filling in for Charlie Watts on drums. Hip Shake, as shown above, is another great example of Taylor and Richards weaving their guitar parts together. Ventilator Blues is the only song Mick Taylor received a songwriting credit for as it is his swampy guitar riff that drives the whole song. Bobby Keyes was actually the brains behind the rhythm of the song as Charlie Watts recalled later. Other highlights include the very emotional, gospel inspired Let it Loose with the guitars through a Leslie speaker and a gospel choir, recalling Al Green or Otis Redding perhaps. Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down is given a loud, jamming performance featuring Mick Taylor’s slide and Mick Jagger’s harp. Rip This Joint is the fastest song the band has ever done and sounds like Little Richard on steroids. All of the instruments, including gospel choir arrangements were layered in to give the songs on the album a complete sound. No instruments or players really stick out as even a lot of the vocals are buried. While some, including Mick Jagger write this off to heavy drug use, I think this is the way Keith hears this music. His first solo album, released some 25 years later sounded similar. The rhythm section, guitars, saxes, harmonica, piano, vocals, percussion all kind of swirl together creating a sound tsunami that carries the listener away. This makes for a very dense and murky audio experience but I think it sounds very close to Phil Spector, Memphis or Chess Records. When the album mixes are BIG ROCK, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Dirty Work, the blues-inspired songs sound generic, flat and innocuous to me. The manner in which Exile was recorded and mixed is so important to not only how Keith wrote and played music, but also to the sonic concept of authenticity. The second part of the recording process took place in Los Angeles and various thing were cleaned up and added or overdubbed. But the basement feel and sound permeates the record and closes the book on the Stones’ glory days.
Plugging a Les Paul or a Telecaster into a Fender Twin or an Ampeg SVT with a little bit of delay or reverb and a nice healthy dose of volume and you have pretty much what you need for the Keith Richards Exile on Main Street sound. (The Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitar that he was playing on the ’69 tour was stolen in France during the making of the album). He was never much of an effects guy although there is a phaser used on Rocks Off and Keith would continue to employ slow phase on ballad songs (Comin’ Down Again) throughout the decade. The 1972 Americas tour was the debut of the prodigious use of Fender Telecasters, some of which were tuned to the open G (GDGBD) with the low E string removed. All Down the Line, Soul Survivor, Rip This Joint, Happy and the amazing Tumbling Dice are all very obvious open-G songs, most, if not all of them played with a Telecaster probably. This contrasted nicely with Mick Taylor’s Les Paul sound, especially when Mick’s slide guitar came into the equation, like on the following clip. There are quite a few great clips from the ’72 tour and they all ROCK!
Following the release of Exile, the ’72 tour of the Americas and the ’73 tour of Europe were grand affairs. Not only did the denim-clad rowdies turn out in droves, but celebrities and the jet-set crowd were in attendance thanks to Mick Jagger’s marriage to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias and his hobnobbing at all of the hottest spots the early 70s had to offer. Of course, these habits didn’t sit well with his guitar playing partner whose habits put him with a completely different class of people, described by others in and around the band as “the dregs of the earth.” This division, which had begun in France between those who took a lot of drugs (Richards, Taylor, Keyes, producer Jimmy Miller) and those who were much more restrained (Jagger, Watts and Wyman) became more pronounced. This led to sub-par material and acrimony between Keith and Mick Jagger. Mick was bored with rock and roll and was already making his views on this known as Exile was being released. His lifestyle and ambitions did not include being stoned to the point of incapacitation. Post-1972 he would be a lot more opinionated and forceful in his musical ideas for the group, whether that would him at odds with Keith or not. This happens and usually the result is the end of the band. That was certainly true with The Beatles. The Rolling Stones would carry on, but it would be different. While they would enjoy success and failures for another 40+ years they wouldn’t be the same important BAND anymore. They would gradually become an institution and much of that is simply a byproduct of longevity and the fact that there was a time, especially between 1968-1972 when there was no one playing and recording better music.
THE 70s and BEYOND
Even though nothing after Exile would be as much of a complete statement, there were some bright spots in the 70s and early 80s. I was a huge fan of the band growing up and heard all of the following as they were released so I’ll give a brief review of each.
Goat’s Head Soup — A very boring album. The band sounds tired even though Mick Taylor plays some ripping guitar in spots. He more than likely co-authored Winter, which is a really good song, way better than Angie in my opinion. A big rift between Mick Taylor and Keith also starts to emerge during this time and will culminate with Taylor’s departure after the next album. Keith is not down with the big soloing thing that has taken over rock circles (remember this is 1973…the biggest band on the planet is doing half hour versions of Dazed and Confused). But Taylor is completely down with being a LEAD player and is capable of bringing that to the music. On Exile Keith still had it together enough to bring in good stuff and force the guitar weaving style he enjoys so much. But starting with this album, the material isn’t as good or is just flat out derivative. They get it back on the next album a little bit, but Mick Taylor will begin to lose interest and feel constrained by the limitations of Keith’s vision of the band.
It’s Only Rock and Roll — Very underrated in my opinion. The title track is great, Dance Little Sister is awesome and has a great Taylor doing Keith solo on it. Keith channels his rhythm skills into a great reggae feel on Luxury, which I think is the best reggae-influenced thing the band ever did. The jazzy Latin-esque Time Waits for No One features a great groove, great lyrics and a very progressive style guitar solo from Mick Taylor. Perhaps his best moments as a Stone. Fingerprint File is flat-out amazing! Mick is doing an Isaac Hayes impersonation, but it doesn’t have the feel of bored parody…yet. He would definitely get there later in the decade. He plays the phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the wah-wah guitar and Mick Taylor plays bass and it’s a great performance from all three. My favorite on a very good album. If You Can’t Rock Me, Short and Curlies, Til The Next Time and If You Really Want to Be My Friend are all solid songs and are played with great 70s feel and enthusiasm. This is the first record by Mick and Keith as The Glimmer Twins and Ron Wood, who was in the band shortly after the release, had a lot to do with the title track. This would be the last appearance of Mick Taylor until some of the songs worked on during his tenure are brought back for Tattoo You. Ron Wood will join the band for the 1975 tour of the USA.
Black and Blue — Even though Fool to Cry and Hot Stuff were popular, this album sucks and many people said the same thing at the time. I’m not of the opinion that the Stones did 70s dance music very well or that they ever should’ve tried. Miss You was a great tune and a smash hit, but this album isn’t and by his own admission Keith was so strung out at this point he was pretty much useless.
Love You Live — An abomination when compared with Ya Yas. The whole band sounds bored and remember what I said about Mick’s parody of Isaac Hayes? It’s in full effect on this record.
Some Girls — The last GREAT Stones album. Keith is clean, Ron Wood brings a whole lot of new energy and punk rock/new wave and disco have helped give the band a new lease on life. This is Mick Jagger’s album and not only did he write some great songs and lyrics, he also plays so much guitar that several songs have a patented Lynyrd Skynyrd 3-guitar sound. (The two bands had played together in England in 1976…coincidence?). The disco-influenced Miss You was a huge hit and the rockers like Lies, When the Whip Comes Down, Respectable and Shattered are fast, furious, smart and nasty. Just what you would expect from the Rolling Stones. Faraway Eyes is funny and has a nice chorus and pedal steel from Woody. Just My Imagination I could’ve done without. The real musical gems of the record are Beast of Burden and Before They Make Me Run. Both of these songs are primarily Keith’s and were written during the period he was facing a possible lengthy prison term for a heroin bust. His riffing is smart and original on this record and he and Woody work together very well. Wood’s tenure in the Stones has certainly had some very low points, but up through ’83 he played his ass off. While he never had Mick Taylor’s chops and big sound, Woody certainly had a great touch and a few tricks up his sleeve. He really makes Some Girls come alive and this was a great soundtrack for the late 70s.You didn’t have to be a “rock guy” to like it.
Emotional_Rescue — I remember hearing this record a lot at the time, but I can’t remember why now.
Tattoo You — The last solid album (still a step down from Some Girls), culled from recordings in the vaults going back to Mick Taylor’s time in the band. The record has enough rockers, Start Me Up, Little T & A, Slave, paired with some really good ballads, including Worried About You and Waiting On a Friend to offer a really good balance of songs and they managed to make it all sound current and right for a live setting. As I said earlier, I saw the Stones on this tour and they really delivered well — long sets with a lot of surprise numbers — and the new stuff sounded really good. It was a total party!
Tattoo You was pretty much the end though because everything released after ’81 sounded a bit too formulaic for me. I checked out Dirty Work and Undercover and saw them live a couple more times, but for me the late 60s and early 70s were the peak and there was and is a whole lot of other music to listen to. But Mick, Mick, Ron and KEITH gave me a whole lot of great rock and roll and GUITAR BRILLIANCE over the years and for that I am very thankful. I learned so much about music and rock and roll from listening to and playing the Rolling Stones music and any player can find oodles of goodies contained within any one of a number of tunes that will definitely be of use the next time a chance to ROCK OUT comes along.
One final thing… I really enjoyed the Chuck Berry Hail Hail movie (on Youtube in its entirety). Great cast of characters (Chuck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, The Everly Brothers, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Bobby Keyes and a whole lot of Keith!). Oh and Little Richard! Any movie with Little Richard is going to be AWESOME because he is one crazy dude!