Captain Fantastic

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(Pictured: Elton and tennis star Billie Jean King, to whom “Philadelphia Freedom” is dedicated.)

Regular consumers of this pondwater may remember that my favorite album is Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart on this date in 1975. It occurred to me not long ago that I have never tried ranking the tracks, as with other albums in the category The Re-Listening Project. So:

13. “House of Cards.” This was the B-side of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” although unlike the other bonus tracks appearing on the 2005 Deluxe Edition of the album, it was originally intended to be on Captain Fantastic but was left off. And that seems to have been a good decision: the lyric is overstuffed with gambling metaphors related to love, and the whole thing just kind of sits there for three minutes.

12. “One Day at a Time.” “One Day at a Time,” written by John Lennon and originally on Mind Games, is as sappy as the sappiest work of Paul McCartney. The tune and arrangement are pretty, but Elton’s jolly, music-hall-style performance, which originally appeared on the B-side of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” makes it a pleasant goof at best.

11. “Bitter Fingers.” When I do these rankings, songs that are perfectly fine end up toward the bottom because I like other stuff better, and this is one of them.

10. “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket.” This is a cousin to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but in the context of Captain Fantastic, it doesn’t really fit. Elton might better have saved it for Rock of the Westies.

9. “Better Off Dead.” Nigel Olsson’s way-up-in-the-mix drum-whacking drives one of the better refrains on the album: “Cuz the steam’s in the boiler, the coal’s in the fire / If you ask how I am then I’ll just say inspired.” Also inspired: the backup vocals by Nigel, Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone, and company. Elton wouldn’t sound like Elton without them.

8. “Tower of Babel.” This, too, is perfectly fine, although it probably suffers by having to follow the album’s title song.

7. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” This, which was not on the original album, wears out its welcome at six minutes in length, but at its particular cultural moment, it was going to be huge no matter what.

6. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” This always seemed a weird choice for a single: too long, too slow. Elton is said to have refused to allow his label to release an edited 45, although some radio stations cut it themselves, as they did with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Philadelphia Freedom.”

5. “Writing.” When I first heard Captain Fantastic, this was the song I liked the best. It’s got one of the most charming arrangements in Elton’s catalog, and on an album intended to be autobiographical, it’s the most autobiographical song on it.

4. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”/”Curtains.” These two songs run together at the end of the original album. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” about lost love, is squarely in my wheelhouse. And so is “Curtains,” which is about the losses time inflicts upon us and how we remember. When I spoke at my high-school graduation, I quoted some lines from it, in my peroration about—wait for it—the losses time inflicts upon us and how we remember: “And just like us / You must have had / A once upon a time.”

3. “Philadelphia Freedom.” I am not sure I ever loved a song on the radio more than I loved this in the spring of 1975. I didn’t buy the 45, however, holding out for the forthcoming Elton album, only to find that it wasn’t on the album. And it was probably just as well, since it doesn’t fit the album’s autobiographical theme. But its Philly soul glide would have sounded pretty good next to . . . .

2. “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows.” The lyrics of “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” are in English, but they don’t mean anything. It ranks up here because the music accompanying that gibberish is so tremendous.

1. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” When I started working up these rankings, I didn’t think this would be #1, but here it is. It may be one of the great album-opening tracks by anybody. It defines the best of mid-70s Elton, with a little bit of everything he and Bernie liked to do. It’s both a ballad and a rocker with a dash of country music thrown in, and it’s a perfect first chapter for the autobiography to come over the rest of the original album.

Roll It

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(Pictured: Linda, Paul, and Denny Laine at work in the studio, 1973.)

This post has appeared here before, I think, or parts of it. Since it has been 45 years this week since Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run spent its first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1, I’m going to bring it back, or out, or whatever, for another installment in our ongoing series, The Re-Listening Project. This time we’ll start ranking the tracks at the top instead of counting them down.

1.  “Band on the Run.” Nobody ever lists the opening of “Band on the Run” among the all-time great guitar riffs, but they should. It sounds great on the radio off a jingle, in a song-to-song transition, or as a segue. When you put in the CD or play the album, there’s that second of two of anticipation before the riff comes knifing out of your speakers, and that’s pretty great, too. (Both Paul and Denny Laine are credited as guitarists on the album, but I don’t know who played it.) The transition to the middle section (“If I ever get out of here”) and “Well the rain exploded with a mighty crash / As we fell into the sun” are further proof that Paul is better at crafting songs than everybody else who crafts songs.

2.  “Jet.” Like “Band on the Run,” “Jet” has a radio-ready opening riff that sounded hotter than hell, especially on AM radio. The song itself is surely more about sound than sense, because the lyrics don’t make any. Over the years, Paul has offered several different explanations for what it’s supposed to be about, none of which seem especially convincing.

3.  “Bluebird.” One of the loveliest songs Paul ever wrote, no matter which band he was in.

4.  “Helen Wheels.” In the UK, this was a non-album single in 1973 and didn’t appear on Band on the Run at all. It was in the middle of Side 2 on the original vinyl release in the States, although on the 1993 and 1999 CD reissues, it was moved to the end to reflect its status as a UK bonus track. On the 2010 Archive Edition, it’s exiled to a second disc of extras. And it makes three of Paul’s greatest riffs on the same album.

5.  “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.” This was never released as a single (except as the B-side of “Band on the Run”), but classic-rock stations played it far more often than anything else on the record except for the title song. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Paul never played it in concert until 2011.

6.  “Mrs. Vandebilt.” That rolling, thumping bass and “ho . . . hey ho.”

7.  “Let Me Roll It.” In his original 1974 review of Band on the Run, Jon Landau calls this “a parody of and tribute to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band style.” I suppose one can hear it that way.

8.  “Mamunia.” Imagine being so talented that you can knock off something this good for a middle-of-Side-2 filler spot.

9. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” This is OK, I guess, although the bits that reprise “Jet” don’t do much for me. On the 1976 Wings Over America tour, the band performed it as a medley with Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” and there’s something about that juxtaposition that makes “Picasso’s Last Words” work better. Maybe it’s that there’s simply less of it.

10.  “No Words.” I listen to Band on the Run a couple of times a year, and whenever “No Words” comes on, it’s like I’ve never heard it before. It makes no impression whatsoever.

The reason I chose to list from top to bottom instead of bottom to top, countdown-style, is that my ranking of the album tracks is basically the track listing, except “Helen Wheels” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” get moved up and “Picasso’s Last Words” and “No Words” are flipped.

Band on the Run was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys awarded in 1975, part of a group that also included Elton John’s Caribou, Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Back Home Again by John Denver, and the eventual winner, Fulfillingness’ First Finale by Stevie Wonder. It was the first of four Album of the Year nominations Paul would receive as a solo artist. Band on the Run remains his best-selling and best-reviewed album, and if any of Paul’s 1970s albums is going to endure for a hundred years, it will probably be the one.

High-Flying Bird

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(Pictured: “Bernie, what does this mean here, ‘I saw it as you flew between my reason’?”)

I do not love Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player the way I do other albums from Elton John’s classic 1972-1977 period. Nevertheless, it found its way into the car CD player recently, so here’s a ranking of the tracks. If you haven’t heard it for a while, it’s here.

13.  “Jack Rabbit.” This was one of two songs on the B-side of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and is a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of the album. It’s a country song that runs 1:50, but there’s even less to it than that.

12.  “Texan Love Song.” Elton sings as a patriotic Texas redneck who hates communism, “fairies,” rock ‘n’ roll, and everything else brought to America by “out-of-town guys.” Despite an attempt at a drawl and an ostentatious mandolin, Elton still comes off as the exact sort of long-haired English dandy the Texan would shoot from his porch.

11.  “Midnight Creeper.” According to Wikipedia, Elton was going for a Rolling Stones-ish sound on this. News flash: Wikipedia is wrong. 

10.  “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again).” Also on the “Saturday Night’s Alright” B-side, and as crankable as the A-side. Also a reissue bonus track.

9.  “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” Big and cinematic and like nothing else Elton had done to this point. It’s easy to imagine it appearing on any of his next three albums, but not on his previous three.

8.  “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol.” This feels a bit like a companion piece to Honky Chateau‘s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” in which the bored teenager of the latter song bought a guitar instead of committing suicide and found a calling in life.

7.  “Teacher I Need You.” I keep thinking as I listen to this album that I like Elton’s performances and the production on this album more than I like the songs he’s singing. He and the band sound great, but the songs at the bottom of this list just kind of disappear right after I hear them.

6. “Blues for Baby and Me.” Spoiler: of the top six songs in my rankings, four of them are ballads.

5.  “Crocodile Rock.” Nobody really needs to hear this song again, but if you manage to forget being sick of it, you can’t deny how incredibly hooky it is. Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.

4.  “Elderberry Wine.” This was the B-side of “Crocodile Rock,” which is pretty good value for your 95 cents right there. Although it’s got a bit of Bernie Taupin’s reflexive misogyny (the singer is nostalgic for the woman who used to wait on him hand and foot), it also rocks like crazy.

3.  “Skyline Pigeon.” This first appeared on Empty Sky with Elton accompanying himself on harpsichord and organ. This full-band version, with Elton in much better voice than he’d been in 1969, was cut during the Don’t Shoot Me sessions but remained unreleased until 1988, when it turned up on a UK compilation, and in the States on the Rare Masters box set in 1992. (By that time, it had become famous through its association with young AIDS victim Ryan White, whom Elton befriended, and at whose 1990 funeral he performed the song.) Why it was shelved in 1973 I can’t imagine, as it’s a near-textbook example of the radio-friendly Elton sound the world couldn’t get enough of in the mid 70s. In some alternate universe, it was a #1 single for weeks and weeks.

2.  “High Flying Bird.” This is the last track on the original album, which means Don’t Shoot Me is book-ended by two of Elton’s most beautiful ballads. As so often happens, Bernie’s lyric is largely gibberish, but as so often also happens, Elton rescues it with a hook-laden melody and then sings the hell out of it.

1. ” Daniel.” This opens the album, with Elton on electric piano and Mellotron instead of acoustic piano, giving it a feel that is unique in his catalog. When he reprises the first verse right at the end (“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane”), the sadness at the heart of the song is fully revealed, in the kind of goosebump moment that is one of the reasons we love music.

The Real Early Seger

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(Pictured: young Bob Seger.)

We are continually frustrated around here by Bob Seger’s refusal to reissue much of anything he recorded before 1975’s Beautiful Loser. Six of his first seven albums—everything except for 1972’s Smokin’ O.P.’s—are out of print, and some of it has never been released on CD. There was an album called Early Seger: Volume 1 back in 2009, but it was a disappointment: it had one cut from Back in ’72, two from Smokin’ O.P.’s, and three from Seven, but some had been modified with new overdubs in 2009, and several previously unreleased cuts were from the mid 80s, which is hardly “early.”

Clearly Seger feels that after 1975, he was a better musician doing better songs. But we creative types are often not the best judges of our own work. I can’t tell you how often I’ve written stuff I don’t like, only to be told no, this is good, don’t be so hard on yourself. No doubt people have said that very thing to Bob Seger.

There’s an argument that many of the early Seger albums are uneven, yes. But the title track from Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man is an all-timer and its 45 B-side, “Tales of Lucy Blue,” is pretty good, too;  “2 + 2 = ?” is a rockin’ artifact of an angry time. Noah is an album Seger has explicitly disavowed; around the time it was recorded he was replaced in his own band for a while by a singer named Tom Neme, under shadowy circumstances. But “Noah” sounds like a hit single that should have been and an all-time classic that never was, and “Death Row” blazes.

Mongrel, released in 1970, is the final album under the name of the Bob Seger System, and it contains two ragers: “Lucifer” and a seven-minute version of “River Deep Mountain High” that kicks every ass in the neighborhood. The 1971 album Brand New Morning is another one Seger has promised to keep in the vault until time shall be no more; done to fulfill a contractual obligation, it’s just him with guitar and piano. (Predictably, it’s actually pretty good; hear the whole thing here.) Smokin’ O.P.’s likely remains in print because it contains two concert staples, “Let It Rock” and “Heavy Music,” the latter going back to Bob Seger and the Last Heard in 1967.

In 1973, Seger put together a new band for Back in ’72. It was the first to feature his longtime sax player Alto Reed, then still known by his given name, Tommy Cartmell. It also included guitarist Bill Mueller, percussionist Sergio Pastora, keyboard player Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker, and singers Shaun Murphy and Marcy Levy. The group was known as the Borneo Band. They aren’t the only musicians on Back in ’72; Seger is also backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as well as a couple of Funk Brothers, among others. It’s the album with the original “Turn the Page” and “Rosalie,” Seger’s ode to Detroit radio legend Rosalie Trombley.

The Borneo Band didn’t last long. The story goes that Seger fired them “for being unreliable,” whatever that might have meant. (Sims, Oldaker, and Levy later joined Eric Clapton’s band.) Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band after that, and their first album was the last of his now-rare early albums, Seven, in 1974.

Early in 1973, Seger and the Borneo Band played in a recording studio in Cleveland, most likely for a radio show. There’s a bootleg of the session, known as The Cleveland Connection. It’s loose and rockin’ and pretty damn good. Six of its 10 songs were never recorded by Seger anywhere else. Highlights include “Higher and Higher,” Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” and a 13-minute jam on “Turn on Your Love Light.” The Cleveland Connection is available at the bootleg site ROIO, along with some other live Seger material from the 70s and 80s as part of a series called Transmission Impossible. Find them here.

Plausibly Related: Seger ranks #91 on Vulture’s best-to-worst rankings of all 214 artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t find much to argue with on Bill Wyman’s list. I wouldn’t rank the Ramones in the Top 10, but at least it wasn’t the Velvet Underground, and I always presume that Nirvana will rank too high for my taste on lists like this. It has lots of apples-to-oranges comparisons among vastly different genres and styles, but credit Wyman for getting #214 right, and for accurately describing Sammy Hagar’s proper place in the Hall. The article also provides a lot of insight into how the Hall works, and why. Spend time with it this weekend and you won’t be sorry.

All I Can Do

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(Pictured: the young Cars.)

Several years ago—2004 sticks in my mind, but I don’t remember precisely—I bought a CD player with a recording well. My old player had died, and this new one would let me make CDs of some of my favorite vinyl albums. But it didn’t work right often enough, and it wasn’t long before I gave up on it entirely. But I still have a few of the CDs I managed to make, and one of them ended up in my CD bag on a recent trip: the Cars’ 1979 album Candy-O.

If you asked me to name my favorite albums of all time, I suspect I’d name many albums before I got to Candy-O, if I ever got to it at all. But listening to it the other day, all I could think was damn, this is a great record. And I wondered how come I don’t listen to it more often, because it’s every bit the equal of my all-time faves. Listen to it yourself while I rank the tracks on the album:

9.  “You Can’t Hold on Too Long.” Every time I do one of these Re-Listening Project posts, I find myself apologizing to the songs at the bottom of the list, which usually end up here not because I actively dislike them, but because I like other songs more.

8.  “Got a Lot on My Head.” See previous entry.

7.  “Since I Held You.” Ranks ahead of “You Can’t Hold on Too Long” and “Got a Lot on My Head” because it’s a little more commercial than they are. This could easily have been a single.

6.  “Lust for Kicks.” The little synthesizer hook on this isn’t so much a hook as it is ear candy. Yummy irresistible ear candy.

5.  “Nightspots.” First track, side two, jittery like everybody in the band had six cups of coffee first.

4.  “Double Life”/”Shoo-Be-Doo”/”Candy-O.” These three tracks run together for 8 1/2 minutes at the end of side one, and we often played ’em all together on my college radio station. “Double Life” is the edgiest and most futuristic track on the record; “Shoo-Be-Doo” is 96 seconds further out on the edge; “Candy-O” is the hardest-rockin’ thing the Cars ever put on vinyl.

3.  “Let’s Go.” This was one of my favorite songs of the summer in 1979, a season in which so many future staples of the classic-rock format were released that it seemed almost like a coordinated reaction to the disco era. What we didn’t really notice then was that you could dance to “Let’s Go” too.

2.  “It’s All I Can Do.” This was the second single from the album, and if I were making a list of the all-time greatest #41 singles (hey, there’s an idea), “It’s All I Can Do” would be near the top. Few records have a more pleasing introduction, and if you can keep from singing along with “It’s all I can do / To keep waiting for you,” you’re not me.

1.  “Dangerous Type.” From the bottomless low end of it to the glockenspiel flourishes as it gets ready to fade, the Cars use the whole sonic palette to make “Dangerous Type” into something ominous, intense, relentless, and the single best thing they ever did. It goes on for 4 1/2 minutes, the last couple of minutes of which are positively spellbinding—and when it’s over, you’re not ready for it to be.

If Candy-O doesn’t get the same critical praise as the Cars’ debut album from a year before, it’s largely due to the difference between hearing something that’s utterly fresh and hearing the latest iteration of something we’ve heard before. Compare the reaction to Boston vs. Don’t Look Back, for example, and consider also that like those two albums, everything the Cars had spent years creating since their formation was on The Cars, while Candy-O had to be made in a matter of months and in the wake of the first.

I was both surprised and not surprised by how much I liked Candy-O after hearing it again for the first time in a while. Also surprising: how good my vinyl copy sounded, considering it was 25 years old when I copied it to the CD.

It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It

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(Pictured: the Stones rehearse in 1978.)

Some of the most interesting listening on my car travels comes when I fill up the CD bag in a hurry. On a recent trip, I carried the Rolling Stones compilation Rewind: 1971-1984. It’s a best-of that came out in 1984 as one last cash grab by Warner Brothers and EMI at the end of their distribution deals with Rolling Stones Records. Two years later, it became the first official American Rolling Stones release on CD, and I’m pretty sure it was among the first CDs I ever bought. What follows is a ranking of the tracks on the album.

13.  “Undercover of the Night.” Even as I recognize that the Stones are playing the hell out of this, I can’t claim to like it.

12. “Miss You.” You’d have to go back to 1964 or 1965 to find Stones music that sounds as dated as “Miss You.”

11.  “Hang Fire.” This is fine. It’s down here because I like other things more, that’s all.

10.  “Beast of Burden.” I have nothing against this song either. This list is a numbers game.

9.  “Emotional Rescue.” When I was writing for a few years ago (in a post that’s no longer available online, and I have no offline copy of it), I called this one of the world’s worst songs. The only thing I remember saying about it is that Mick sings it like he’s being squeezed through a door. I wish I could remember the rest, because when it came up in the car the other day, I didn’t mind it all that much.

8. “Angie.” This song is a mess, really. The lyrics make no damn sense at all, and the way Mick turns “Angie” into three syllables–“ah-EEN-jeh”—has grated on me since 1973. But on a gray morning recently, when I wasn’t all that thrilled with the prospects of the day, it sounded different. I had never felt the pain in it quite so vividly—pain not so much in Mick’s voice, although it’s there, but in the acoustic guitar, piano, and the aching chorus of strings that underpins it—and it knocked me sideways.

7.  “Start Me Up.” If you wanted to prove to somebody that nothing else sounds like prime Rolling Stones, this might be the song to play first. And you might need only the introduction to get the point across.

6.  “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” All of these songs sound great on the radio, but if we were ranking them that way, “It’s Only Rock and Roll” would be higher than #6.

5. “Waiting on a Friend.” The best and most sincere love song the Stones ever did, and it isn’t about a woman.

4.  “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” Maybe the most menacing thing they ever recorded apart from “Gimme Shelter.” The introduction is what it sounds like when something is chasing you in a nightmare, and the nightmare doesn’t stop until the record is over.

3.  “Fool to Cry.” Rewind is sequenced effectively, rockin’ for seven tracks, then backing down with “Emotional Rescue” and “Beast of Burden” before getting to this. I could listen to that ghostly electric piano for half-an-hour, except the sadness of it would drive me away long before that.

2.  “Brown Sugar.” For a long time, I have ranked “Brown Sugar” as the greatest of all Rolling Stones singles. It’s everything that makes them great in three minutes and 51 seconds—a sound nobody else could get and a lyric of unparalleled sleaze, especially for a #1 song. But listening to it in the context of Rewind, I came to a different conclusion.

1. “Tumbling Dice.” Where “Brown Sugar” is the Stones rockin’ hard at full throttle, “Tumbling Dice” is the Stones, well, stoned—we’re invited to a party that’s been underway for a while, with wine and weed and girls and gambling, four things Mama told you to stay away from. It’s a groove I could live in for days. And ever since the summer of 1972, when this first hit the radio, I have wondered: what the hell did Keef do to his guitar to get the sound of that opening riff?

Rewind is a mighty enjoyable 55 minutes, although I would have included “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the only Top 20 Stones single from the 1971-84 period missing from the disc. (Trivia footnote: the Stones would make the Top 20 of the singles chart only twice more after 1984: with “Harlem Shuffle” in 1986 and “Mixed Emotions” in 1989.) The album has become a collector’s item, out of print and long ago replaced by other Stones compilations.