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Flashback: The Kinks’ “State of Confusion”

30th June


When Malcom McLaren’s term “New Wave” landed in the lap of Seymour Stein at Sire Records, where the phrase was promptly used to soften the image of the punk songs that would never have found their way to radio otherwise, it’s a safe bet that the last band either man had in mind at the time were The Kinks, a group in their third decade who, by 1983, had already danced themselves into the sunset of their creative peak. Unwilling to be typecast by the dead era they helped define–an era when all you had to do to make it big was grow some bushy hair, sing about holding some girl’s hand, and package the whole thing as “The British Invasion”–The Kinks happily spent the early 80s graffitying its tombstone instead by cranking up the amps and thrashing their way around the globe from one arena to the next, chasing the glories of younger bands that they themselves made possible twenty years prior–Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Jam–and producing that great document of the arena rock era in the process, 1980’s One for the Road.

But even as they thrived amid one of the most unlikely resurgences rock ‘n roll had ever seen, few anticipated that the band would also find themselves on the crest of that “Wave” so many rode into the 1980s, storming MTV with their video for “Come Dancing,” one of a handful of powerful singles to emerge from 1983’s State of Confusion, and marking the last time they would ever crack the top ten (“Come Dancing” shot to #6 in the US while, once again, the album and single bafflingly failed to make a dent in their native UK.) And as more contemporary artists went to such desperate lengths to cash in on the latest momentary fad–streaking their spiked hair with every hue in the rainbow and discovering fashion in the torn and pinned-together clothes that the pioneers of punk wore, not to make a statement but because it was all they could afford–the Kinks stuck to their guns, strapping on the same guitars they’d wailed on for decades and invoking the nostalgia of memories paved for parking lots and bowling allies built where dance halls were. That the recipe worked as well in 1983 as it did in 1963 confirms a certain timeless chord in rock ‘n roll that anyone with the talent and authenticity can strike.

The Kinks: “Come Dancing,” State of Confusion (1983)

Yet someone writes in the Rough Guide to Rock that songs such as “Come Dancing” were “outposts on lackluster albums.” This has to be the opinion of someone who either didn’t listen to the record or wasn’t there to begin with. To be fair, some of the album’s best cuts were either condemned to cassette-only versions (the peculiarly Dylan-esque “Long Distance”) or tardy reissues (“Noise,” “Once A Thief”), but a “lackluster” record it is not. It’s as though the longer The Kinks defied widespread predictions that they wouldn’t even make it into the 70s as a commercially viable act, the more critics insisted on fulfilling their own prophecy with dismissive reviews. For a band that wasn’t supposed to survive the 70s, it sure is no small accomplishment that they cranked out five instant classics in 1983.

What is even more of a wonder is that the most harrowing among them, the divine “Property,” slumped into obscurity amid the album’s other hits. Along with “Better Things,” “Property” is one of the strongest ballads Ray put to paper since “A Long Way From Home” in 1970. The furiously performed title track speaks for itself, and mammoth hits “Come Dancing” and the prom-closing “Don’t Forget to Dance” are the stuff of rock ‘n roll immortality now. State of Confusion did serve up a couple of clunkers in the merely noisy “Young Conservatives” and “Labour of Love,” but what album DIDN’T include filler in those days? In that context, State of Confusion plays like the masterpiece that it is, closing with Dave’s delightfully blistering “Bernadette” and marking the end of Mick Avory’s tenure as the Kinks’ drummer. State of Confusion is every bit a classic now as it was in the 80s, and hardly warrants the dismissal and neglect it increasingly endures.

State of Confusion Outtakes:

Long Distance

Once A Thief


Flashback: Mark Knopfler’s “Ragpicker’s Dream”

14th June

Mark Knopfler

It is anyone’s guess as to whether the former Dire Straits crooner and guitarist still gets chicks for free, but The Ragpicker’s Dream, the third in a growing sequence of brilliant solo albums released in the wake of Mark Knopfler’s former band, proves that he doesn’t get money for nothin’. Despite the speckles of genius Knopfler bestowed upon the music world with Dire Straits, the gritty, stylish honesty of the solo albums that have followed suggests that his old band’s demise was actually one of the best things that ever happened to rock ‘n roll. The break up facilitated Knopfler’s much-needed escape from the glaring spotlight of fame that Brothers in Arms imposed on him–a spotlight he never cared to stand in too long (he relishes the smaller venues his solo career allows him to perform in now that he doesn’t need to be the Sultan of Swing any longer.)

One of the problems with making a great record–especially one that makes a lot of money for people who had very little do with making it (the kind of people Pink Floyd sing about on Wish You Were Here’s “Have A Cigar”)–is that those same people then want you to make the same record again. And again. And again. And only in exchange for your life will they accept anything less. Just ask Joan Osborne, a tragically underrated singer who’s a hell of a lot more invested in the full-throated wail of “Right Hand Man”–complete with its meaty “I am the female Captain Beefheart” guitar licks—-than in the timid and predictable chart grab of “One of Us.”

But when she turned to her label a couple years later with a collection of rip-roaring rock that had clearly left behind all the mushy blather about God being “just a slob,” the label returned the album with a pink slip and wished her the best. Righteous Love, the consequently long-delayed follow-up to Relish, clung to its low spot on the charts for about five minutes before making its way to remaindered bins and flea markets across the country as her audience fled to less challenging thrills. If only someone could have been by Joan’s side as she dreamed of the transient glory she would someday capture: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Joan Osborne: “Right Hand Man,” Relish (1995)

But Knopfler is no one-trick pony, and his solo work proves that, rather than merely the British J.J. Cale, he is a massively talented guitarist who brings as much curiosity as skill to the music he makes–a curiosity no Dire Straits album would ever have allowed him to indulge, especially after Brothers in Arms turned him into yet another of Rock ‘N Roll’s temporary gods. Most fans came to expect a certain sound from Dire Straits: the instantly captivating guitar licks and shuffling rhythm of “Money For Nothing” or “Sultans of Swing,” the chiming organ of “Walk of Life,” or the jangling hooks of “So Far Away.”

But the conventional boundaries that confined Dire Straits ultimately became so exhausted that the band had nowhere left to turn. 1991’s On Every Street, the band’s farewell album, showcased Knopfler’s increasing enthusiasm for, among other sounds, the twang and wail of Nashville, playing with country legend Chet Atkins as well as the Notting Hillbillies. The days of MTV videos and duets with Sting were clearly a thing of the distant past. Any further projects with Dire Straits would only have typecast a talent whose borders stretch well beyond rock ‘n roll’s tired roads. Enter albums like Golden Heart with its flutters of fiddle and bagpipe, or the acoustic blues and ambient folk of Ragpicker’s Dream–an album which, six years later, sounds more like one of this dwindling decade’s top ten records with each passing listen.

When not recording solo, Knopfler is lending a hand on projects by performers as artistically opposed to his pop-rock past as Waylon Jennings, whose final album, Closing in on the Fire, features a ballad to which Knopfler contributes a guitar solo. On his own work, though, such nods to Nashville are becoming more routine than anomalous–cutting whole albums with torch-bearers of twang like Emmylou Harris. So it’s no great shock Ragpicker’s Dream expands Knopfler’s creative vision as widely as it does. It’s a rock album one minute and a ragtime session on the street corner the next.

Mark Knopfler: “Why Aye Man,” Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)

The album’s track list, including titles like “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville” and “Hillfarmer’s Blues,” reads more like a lost set of outtakes from the career of Dock Boggs, the late, Appalachian banjo master. While some of the songs on Ragpicker’s Dream might have gotten Boggs’ toe tapping, though, Knopfler’s homage to J.J. Cale continues. Brooding, slick guitar solos emerge throughout the album, from the frenetic licks of the sprawling opener and single “Way Aye Man” to more laid-black tutorials in country blues such as the title track or the ferocious “Marbletown.”

Sprightly and deeply textured, the soundscapes of songs like “You Don’t Know You’re Born” and “Coyote” bloom with bass, flickering drum beats, horns, percussion and Knopfler’s sly guitar. The production is crisp, clear and abundant with influence, making for an unusually varied set of songs that are at once spare and luxurious, as the haunting, folkish “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” gives way to “Daddy’s Gone to Nashville,” a blithe and thoroughly convincing tribute to Hank Williams. “It’s hard to find love anywhere / hard to find love anywhere,” he laments on one of the album’s many moving ballads, his earthy vocals caked in the Delta dust they yearn for. While it may very well be hard to find love anywhere, albums like The Ragpicker’s Dream guarantee the love of those who feel alienated by the fluff that passes for “rock” in an industry becoming more subversive and superficial by the hour.

In Memoriam: Del Shannon

6th June

Memorial at the Buddy Holly Crash Site

Just five days before Del Shannon pressed a .22 caliber to his head and pulled the trigger, leaving his wife to find him dead in the den with the rifle next to his body at their home in Santa Clarita, CA, he played the last gig of his life on February 3rd–the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. He played it at the Civic Center in Fargo, ND–exactly where Buddy’s plane was headed the night it smashed into a frozen Iowa cornfield at 170 mph just minutes after taking off into a gusty snowstorm, leaving another wife to dig her way out of the wreckage of a broken heart just six months after marrying the man. She did, somehow–but not before miscarrying Buddy’s only child.

It was an especially inopportune time for Shannon to die–as if there is ever an “opportune” time. He had nearly completed a record with Jeff Lynne in the wake of Lynne’s monumental success producing The Traveling Wilburys’ debut and Tom Petty’s ridiculously successful Full Moon Fever album. Shannon was no stranger to success himself–his hit single “Runaway,” the song he would sing for the rest of his life, sold at a clip of 80,000 copies a day back in 1961–but, as with so many pop stars of Shannon’s era, the world with its ever-diminishing attention span quickly moved on to the next fad and the next (prog rock, punk, disco, new wave–none of them exactly suited to the quivering falsetto of a country rock has been.) Shannon’s response was not an unusual one: alcohol. Lots of it. Such cruel reversals of fortune are not easy on anybody, but for a former truck driver who worked his way out of a furniture factory and into the big time on nothing but raw talent, balls, and a song he wrote while working at a carpet store, it had to be an especially difficult wound to his pride.

Del Shannon Performing “Runaway” in 1988
(At 53 years-old, Shannon’s voice was in stunning form here)

Even more tragic was the quality of the music he’d been brewing with Lynne in those sessions, which produced the posthumous and poignantly titled Rock On! in 1991–an album that went on to become one of Shannon’s best-selling records. There was something about Lynne’s signature pop sound and the enduring miracle of Del Shannon’s voice that culminated in some of the finest music the man had ever made–tracks like “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” or “Walk Away” restored Shannon to the throne of his forgotten legacy, one that Richard Cromelin described as “haunting vignettes of heartbreak and restlessness [that] contain something of a cosmic undercurrent which has the protagonist tragically doomed to a bleak, shadowy struggle.” How was anyone to know, though, that all along he was singing about himself, that somewhere amid all the gloss and syrup of early ’60s pop production stood a man alone with demons he could only face in front of thousands of fans. Maybe that’s what Joan Baez meant when she said that “the easiest relationship is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”

That’s both the mystery and tragedy of Shannon’s premature demise. He took his own life just as it seemed he was catching on again. Tom Petty, a friend of Shannon’s who infuriated him by stealing the equally doomed Howie Epstein from Shannon’s band when Ron Blair quit The Heartbreakers in 1976, reconciled enough with him to produce his Drop Down and Get Me LP in 1982, which featured Shannon backed by Petty’s Heartbreakers (“His voice is like a siren,” Mike Campbell would say.) The album wasn’t exactly a commercial success, but it earned Shannon a minor hit with his cover of Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love,” reawakening critics to the flame of a talent that still burned as brightly as ever. Shannon scored another hit a few years later when Michael Mann chose “Runaway” as the theme song for his short-lived TV drama Crime Story in 1986. And it was yet another irony in Shannon’s life that another legend who died in the midst of a stunning resurgence–Roy Orbison–left a spot open for Shannon on the next Traveling Wilburys album, a no-brainer given Shannon’s established relationship with Petty and Lynne.

Del Shannon with Tom Petty

“It just doesn’t make sense,” so many would say to themselves as they turned on the news the night of February 9th to learn that Del Shannon had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head the night before. But who can say what tormented voices swarm the mind of a man who puts the butt of a gun to his head with the full intention of finishing the job? It’s only nonsensical to we who have not fallen victim to those demons. Though Shannon had reportedly quit the bottle years before when he returned from a creative oblivion to pair with Petty for Drop Down and Get Me, no amount of resurgent glory was powerful enough to push away his pain. “I hated the taste of booze,” Shannon would tell the NY Times of his alcoholism, “But I liked where it took me–oblivion.”

Shannon’s widow, Bonnie LeAnne Tyson, blames her husband’s suicide on the anti-depressants he was taking at the time, a known impetus for suicide. As an article at puts it, the morbid legacy of psychiatric drugs in the lives of people like Shannon constitutes a “hidden war against artists . . . the powerful psychiatric drug Prozac, which WHO magazine described as the drug ‘thought by some to have a darker side,’ would bring his renewed hopes and dreams of a revitalized career to an abrupt end.” Bonnie would later argue that her husband was “a well-informed and physically healthy man and father, [who] died violently after taking Prozac for only 15 days.” Ultimately, one can’t help but consider the bleak irony with which Del Shannon himself became the “Runaway” he always sang about.

Special Feature: The day after Del Shannon died, his good friend Tom Lazaros wrote a song in his memory called “That Runaway Man.” Check out the video here. The Shannon-esque falsetto chants of “Why, Why, Why” in the background are absolutey heartbreaking.

Neil Young’s “Reactor”: Kicking Against the Pricks

26th May

Neil live

When you’re talking about an artist like Neil Young, whose muse suffers from the most acute schizophrenia any songwriter’s ever experienced—a countrified Pantera one minute and Tim Hardin the next–you don’t have to look too hard to find the criticism of pot-bellied goobers who tolerate only what they hear on one of those “classic rock” stations they turn up in their rusted trucks on the way to a beer pong tournament.

Take this poor bastard’s attempt at criticism of Neil Young’s Reactor, the greatly misunderstood garage rock tutorial he put out with Crazy Horse in 1981, in an customer review—typos preserved. “There is one song on it ‘T-Bone’ where he repeats the same lines over and over. That ain’t song writng,” he says, supporting it with the equally misguided assertion that you “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that. You know it stinks becasue I’ve never seen Neil play any of the songs from this album live,” he continues. The problem, of course, is that “Southern Pacific,” Reactor’s most recognizable single, is actually a mainstay in Neil Young’s live shows (I’ve got the bootlegs to prove it.) And when he does perform it live, the crowd always responds with a roar of familiarity.

This is just more of the entirely unfounded pretense with which so many close-minded fans fuel misinformed criticism. Reactor, like 2003’s brilliant Greendale, only asks that his audience expands their minds and tastes just enough to accommodate a muse whose range continues to widen despite age. While many of Neil’s peers languish in the dust of past triumphs, Neil is not afraid to indulge newer visions and look forward–both as an artist and as a man (For once, Rolling Stone got it right when they voted Greendale the #2 album of 2003 just behind Warren Zevon’s highly emotional swan-song, The Wind. At least someone still knows the sound of art when they hear it.)

Those who express disappointment in albums like Reactor or Greendale because they didn’t mail in yet another collection of “Neil Young-ish” singles the way Silver & Gold or Prairie Wind did were never fans in the first place. They crave merely a single patch in the quilt of Neil’s total artistic range. They are the morons shouting “Judas” at Dylan in 1965 whose hopeless anonymity is a fitting fate.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Southern Pacific

“That ain’t songwriting,” some say about tunes like Reactor’s epic “T-Bone” in which, yes, Neil howls “ain’t got no t-bone” for nearly 10 minutes, “Never see Bob Dylan write something like that.” Really? Let’s take these lines from Dylan’s song, “Wiggle Wiggle,” the opening track from his 1991 album, Under The Red Sky.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like satin and silk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a pail of milk,
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, rattle and shake,
Wiggle like a big fat snake.

Now, call me crazy, but I’m fairly certain that this fails to meet the aforementioned reviewer’s standards for “songwriting”. That is exactly the point: Neil Young’s Reactor is much-maligned for applying an aesthetic fraught with ruthless feedback and distortion to a weak selection of songs, but to object to Reactor on those grounds completely misses the point.

If this album’s flaws are more of the same-old Neil Young “flakiness”, it is the same “flakiness” that characterizes rock ‘n roll’s legacy–a legacy Neil Young defines as accurately on Reactor as on any other record. Reactor’s snotty abandon and feedback-laden indifference constitute the kind of temperament that great rock ‘n roll thrives on, and if it fails to conjure greatness on Reactor, then it is, at worst, a powerful tribute to the soul of rock music.

A boundless ambition pervades Reactor that is at once charming and confounding: the frenzied wail and shriek of “Shots“, the thumping, deceptively political railroad anthem, “Southern Pacific”, the 10 minutes of Neil Young shouting “ain’t got no t-bone!” amid Crazy Horse’s famous thrash-and-grind sound. These performances exemplify what is great about rock ‘n roll far more powerfully than any of those contrived classic rock anthems poisoning FM radio every day.

Neil Young: “Be The Rain,” Greendale

Reactor and, later, Greendale, are miraculous examples of a musical and lyrical ambition that refuses to give in to the ravages of time and age. If people would get a grip on their attention spans for long enough to engage with a story that lasts longer than the 3-minute FM radio single, the rewards are great. People who don’t have the capacity to do so need to toss their Neil records and listen to more chick-rock.

Take a chance on Reactor. Listen to something different, something that refuses to make friends, something too sincere to earn air time on any of America’s thousand shitty classic rock stations. Few experiences are more gratifying than getting weird looks from other drivers when you crank up this album on your car stereo at a red light with the windows down. It proves you’re listening to something that’s true. Reactor is the real thing: are you?

Special Treat: The excellent blog known as That’s Fucking Dynamite recently posted an mp3 for this killer and extremely rare Neil Young tune called “Sea of Madness,” which appears to be a live take from Neil’s appearance with CSN at the original Woodstock. Check it out here.

UPDATE (6-2-08): Here is yet another special treat, courtesy of Andrew Ronan–a live, solo acoustic performance of “Shots”–the song that would later appear on the Reactor album–performed here in a live set from 1978. It is an absolute must-hear. Download it here.