Long Distance Voyages

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(Pictured: Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues onstage in 1981.)

It’s not a rock-critic wisecrack: the Moody Blues’ Michael Pinder once claimed Mantovani as an influence. It seems to me that if the Moodys hadn’t adopted the style of highly orchestrated rock that became their trademark, somebody else would have.

In 1972, I was hooked by the AM-radio version of “Nights in White Satin.” When I finally heard the whole thing, including the poem “Late Lament,” I was in the middle of my teenage bad-poetry-writing years, and it blew my mind. (Today, I cringe almost as hard at “Late Lament” as I do at my own poetry.) Several of the Moodys’ most iconic performances had come between 1968 and 1973, but apart from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone” in 1978, they were not in current radio rotations for most of the 70s.

Then came 1981, and Long Distance Voyager. Nearly every superstar act had a record out that year, but Long Distance Voyager ended up one of the year’s biggest hits, doing three weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 as July turned to August, powered by the hit singles “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice,” which went to #12 and #15 respectively. “Gemini Dream” has a “Ride My Seesaw” vibe, but also a forward-looking 80s production style; three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama. “The Voice” is all lush and wooshy, and too much of both for oldies radio today. “Meanwhile” is probably the best thing on the album. “Nervous” needs a more distinctive title; its “Bring it on home / Let’s bring it on home / Your love” refrain is lovely in that distinctive Moody Blues-ian way.

So as I listened I thought, “Hey, this is better than I remembered.” But then came the final act, a suite by singer/flutist Ray Thomas: “Painted Smile,” built on a clown metaphor your fourth-grade niece could have come up with; a positively dreadful 30-second poem/link called “Reflective Smile”; and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” three minutes of embarrassing bombast climaxing with:

He struts, he strolls
His life is rock and roll
He’s the veteran cosmic rocker
He’s afraid that he will die

Teenage bad-poetry-writing me would have dug it, I’m afraid.

I had such a strongly negative reaction to the last part of the album that it ended up coloring my reaction to the rest of it, but on further reflection, Long Distance Voyager is actually OK. It would start another long stretch of radio hits for the Moodys, with eight more entries on the Hot 100 and a strong presence on MTV before the end of the 80s, after which they started their long afterlife playing alongside local symphony orchestras.

Reading List: In addition to listening to a lot of music this past month, I also read Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America by Jesse Jarnow. The Weavers were born out of an era in which people like Pete Seeger (a founding Weaver) believed that folk music could transform America from the capitalist rat race into a just society all by itself, but the Weavers’ idealism crashed head-on into the anti-communist panic of the 1950s. Seeger, a tireless genius who never compromised his beliefs even when threatened with jail, is a highly underrated historical figure, but his fellow original Weavers, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, were equally brave and interesting.

Also worth your time is Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir. I don’t read a lot of rockstar memoirs; I’m more interested in a biographer’s dispassionate examination of a perfomer’s life and work than I am in 300 pages of “and then I wrote _____.” But Born to Run paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful, tenacious individual even more interesting than the one you think you know from the records you’ve listened to for over 40 years.

Blues singer Robert Johnson is one of the most mythologized figures in music. Authors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow have spent over 100 years between them tracking down Johnson’s story, and they’ve published it in the brand-new Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Johnson wasn’t the plantation savant he’s sometimes believed to have been; he was a trained and serious artist who worked hard at his craft. Although he didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads, and the jealous husband who murdered him didn’t mean to kill him, the Johnson that emerges in Up Jumped the Devil is plenty interesting even when grounded in reality.

The Stranger Off the Shelf

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(Pictured: Billy Joel and his accordion, 1977.)

Billy Joel’s album The Stranger is not one I’m going to consciously pull down from the shelf and put on these days. But I used to. For several years after it came out in 1977, I played it as much as any record in my collection. I bought the super-deluxe CD/DVD reissue in 2008, listened to it a couple of times, and then put it away again. But it’s on the memory stick I keep in the car, and when it came up the other day, I listened to it more closely than I had in years. Take it down off the shelf and listen yourself while I rank the tracks.

9. “Only the Good Die Young.” Not long ago I wrote that I need never hear this again. In the summer of 1978, however, having just had my heart broken by a girl who got religion, its strong anti-good-girl vibe was right in my wheelhouse.

8. “She’s Always a Woman.” Billy’s attitude toward women on The Stranger is sometimes toxic. (See #9.) To the extent that “She’s Always a Woman” makes any sense, he’s calling his girl a bitch goddess. The tune is pretty, though.

7. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” This is one of Billy’s best lyrics. For years, I chased after a version I remembered hearing on the radio in 1978, without the sound effect of a noisy car pulling out at the end. A while back, I found it. It’s way better. The best version, however, might be this one.

6. “The Stranger.” Every time I do one of these rankings, some song I like gets pushed down the list because are other songs I like better. “The Stranger” is one of the more compelling songs Billy Joel ever did. The whistling theme that opens it, and that reappears at the end of the album, may be a little bit too on-the-nose, but I like it. Back in 1978 and 1979, as a solitary and self-dramatizing figure walking across campus on dark and chilly nights, I may have whistled it to myself a few times.

OK, every time.

5. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Of all the Billy Joel songs in the world, this the Billy Joel-iest, stuffed with Long Guyland-isms. The first scene is so evocative that you can almost see the checkered tablecloths and smell the pasta sauce. When it was a separate song, the original title of the second scene was “Things Are OK in Oyster Bay.” The third scene is populated by characters easy to conjure up in detail. It doesn’t all work, though. The honkin’ New Orleans saxophone is cheesy and overblown in the second scene, and in the third one, about “Brender and Eddie,” Billy gets a lyric badly backward: “Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy / And Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.” In 1977 Long Guyland, surely Eddie would have been the provider people had doubts about and Brenda the high-maintenance spouse who deserved better. But (see #8 and #9) Billy’s gotta Billy.

4. “Get It Right the First Time.” Four singles were released from The Stranger, and this could have been the fifth.

3. “Vienna.” For a song that features an accordion solo, “Vienna” is pretty non-cheesy. And when Billy sings, “Slow down you crazy child / And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while,” it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.

2. “Everybody Has a Dream.” This might be the purest thing the man ever did. He’s not snide, he’s not contemptuous, and he doesn’t do any of the other things that make Billy Joel haters hate Billy Joel. He sings it like he’s channeling Ray Charles.

1. “Just the Way You Are.” This is plush like shag carpet—you can sink into it. Joel’s Fender Rhodes piano is beautiful; the sax, by all-world alto player Phil Woods, sounds as effortless as breathing. And while Billy comes off a bit of a jerk—don’t change your hair, don’t try to talk, and don’t be surprised if I fail to acknowledge you—you can tell what’s in his heart even as he blunders around with the wrong words. And the glorious arrangement more than makes up for it.

The Stranger moved something like 10 million copies. Rolling Stone ranked it at #70 on its list of the 500 best albums of all time. Its place in history is secure, as it its place on my digital shelf. It’s not coming down like it used to, but I don’t mind hearing it now and then.

Who Is Gonna Make It

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(Pictured: Joe Walsh onstage in a Long Run T-shirt, 1979.)

I can still remember the day, 40 years ago, late in September or early in October, when the Eagles’ album The Long Run came in the mail to the campus radio station. I was on the air that afternoon. We took it out of the package and put it straight on a turntable to play . . . not the lead single, “Heartache Tonight,” but what we had been told album-rock radio was pushing: “The Disco Strangler.” I front- and back-announced it with what I felt to be the appropriate degree of hype, considering it was the followup release to one of the most popular albums of the 70s by a massively successful band. We tracked the whole thing later that night, and I remember listening on my radio in the dorm.

The Long Run became fairly significant in the lives of The Mrs. and me. We saw the Eagles on their tour to promote it; we played it constantly, on the air and off; it’s her all-time favorite album. I burned out on most of it in the relatively distant past, but here’s a ranking of the tracks on The Long Run after coming back to it for the first time in a while.

(Do I need to link to any of these tracks? You know them all, right?)

10. “Teenage Jail.” A big riff, but that’s about it.

9. “The Disco Strangler.” Don Henley and Don Felder viewed this as a topical, anti-disco song, which marked it as an artifact of 1979. And for that reason, little else in the Eagles catalog sounds so dated.

8. “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks.” One of the things Eagle-haters hate about the Eagles is that they took themselves so damned seriously. The very fact that “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” exists marks it as a placeholder. Given their self-image, it’s doubtful they would have kept a such a goof on the album if they had anything else to put in its place.

(There exists a series called Soul Pole, studio outtakes and other weirdness compiled by producer Bill Szymczyk for distribution amongst the band members and crew. What I’ve heard of it is more silly or stupid than funny, and it confirms for me that apart from Joe Walsh, the Eagles lack the humor gene.)

7. “King of Hollywood.” Man, there’s a lot of filler on this album. And a certain irony in Henley singing a song about a Hollywood high-roller taking advantage of eager young women.

6. “In the City.” Not only is there a lot of filler on The Long Run, two of the songs came from outside the band. Walsh had recorded “In the City” for the movie The Warriors in 1978, and his original is better.

5. “The Long Run.” “Who is gonna make it? We’ll find out in the long run.” The Eagles’ success and legacy were secure by 1979, but Henley wouldn’t miss the chance to boast about it one more time.

4. “Heartache Tonight.” There was never a doubt that this would go to #1. It showed up on surveys at ARSA the same week it was released in September 1979. It debuted on the Hot 100 on October 6 at #52 and went to #15 the next week. It recorded its first local #1s that same week, and went 9-7-2 and finally to #1 on the Hot 100 on November 10, 1979. But it lasted only as single week at the top.

3.  “Those Shoes.” Time and again, not just in the studio but onstage too, the Eagles didn’t seem to play the songs as much as they played the parts and then bolted the parts into place. “Those Shoes” doesn’t feel spontaneous, either, but the big thump and talkbox make it a unique item in their catalog.

2. “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Timothy B. Schmit brought the germ of this song with him when he joined the band, and it was the first thing on The Long Run that got finished, in March 1978. It has one of my favorite guitar solos in the Eagles’ catalog, played by Glenn Frey. Joe Walsh is the keyboard player.

1. “The Sad Cafe.” I have said this a couple of times before: even if the Eagles hated each other by 1979, they must have loved each other once, because if they hadn’t, they could not have made “The Sad Cafe.” It’s five minutes and 35 seconds of perfection, the best thing in their catalog, and a perfect farewell. As it was in the beginning, they’re a band again at the end.

(Coming Thursday: another ranking of another ubiquitous 70s album.)

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.