Marcia and I are hitting the road for a few weeks tomorrow, heading up to Northern California, Oregon and Washington (State). Posts may be a bit spotty while we’re away, as is usually the case, though I will inevitably take too many photos, and equally inevitably share them here when I get back, for better or for worse. As a holding pattern until my next update, I return to my periodic “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series, with a selection of great tunes below that are all road-trip worthy classics of (my) canon. This is the 22nd installment of this series here, so if these songs hit your sweet spot, you can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article). Happy listening, as always! And see you (virtually speaking) on the back side of the trip!
Who They Are: Having covered The Beatles in the prior installment of this series, it seems apt to cover their media-fueled alleged rivals, The Rolling Stones, as a next step forward. As was the case with The Beatles, I’m presuming that if you’re musically savvy enough to have any interest in my website, then you’re also culturally savvy enough to know who The Rolling Stones are. There’s the legendary songwriting, performing and production team of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, yeah, along with stalwart and epic drummer Charlie Watts and a series of increasingly brilliant guitarists (Brian Jones to Mick Taylor to Ronnie Wood), plus creepy bassist Bill Wyman (until the early ’90s) and then the excellent Darryl Jones, who sadly is still treated as a side-man, three decades into his tenure with the group. Keyboardists Ian Stewart (RIP), Nicky Hopkins (also RIP), and Chuck Leavell have also been long-time, under-credited live and studio contributors to the group’s catalog, alongside sax-man Bobby Keys (also RIP), background singer Bernard Fowler, manager-producer Andrew Loog Oldham, and many, many others, perhaps most notably Merry Clayton, famed for her thrilling guest vocal spot on “Gimme Shelter.”
When I First Heard Them: As with The Beatles, it’s hard to nail down exactly when I first heard The Rolling Stones, since they would have been utterly ubiquitous on radio through much of my childhood, and I listened to the radio a lot in my early years. While my parents had some Beatles albums when I was a kid, the Stones were neither culturally nor musically up my folks’ alley, so there was nothing at home to bolster and build on what I might have heard on the radio. The first Rolling Stones album that I acquired and came to know deeply was their 1972 double-album masterpiece Exile on Main St., which remains my favorite record of theirs to this day. Their 1978 release Some Girls was the first record of theirs that I acquired and loved in its original release cycle, staunchly defending it with my friends as a stone cold rock n’ roll classic, when many of those same friends were aghast that the group had “gone disco” with the record’s dance-worthy, rhythmically-rich singles and deep tracks. I can’t say that I’m a particular fan of the Stones’ latter-day work, since the last album of theirs that I truly, deeply loved was 1981’s odds and sods collection Tattoo You, though 1983’s Undercover mostly pleased me, while offending most every other serious music critic I knew or read. I will give the Stones credit for releasing one of the better Anno Virum tributes with their 2020 single “Living in a Ghost Town.” It’s allegedly part of a new album project; I guess if the rest of it is as good as that one track is, then I might have to amend my views on their contemporary album catalog. Watch this space.
Why I Love Them: I’ve answered this question 39 times already in this series, and in every prior case, as I’ve started typing, the answer was pretty clear to me. But for The Rolling Stones? Errrmmmm . . . not so much. Mick and Keith are stereotypes and caricatures of rock n’ roll icons that don’t normally appeal to me, at all. The Stones’ music is anchored in the blues tradition, which doesn’t normally move me much. Their live appearances over the decades have become more about spectacle than about substance, and their studio albums have (as noted above) not much moved me since the years I was in college. Brian Jones and Bill Wyman are among the most odious figures in rock history for a variety of icky-factor reasons, which is usually enough to keep me from supporting or sustaining bands that welcome such awful human beings into their ranks. The Rolling Stones are obviously deeply influential and popular, but by that rubric, I’d be inclined to like Lady Gaga, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Radiohead, and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom I actually detest, deeply. So on paper, there’s not a lot there that would make them score highly on my dance card, but in reality, I have them on our family playlists at the house and in the car pretty much all of the time, varying which songs from which albums I sample over the years, rather than just including or excluding a small collection of stable and stalwart songs in short bursts. Rock n’ roll’s lineage contains a gazillion Rolling Stone wannabes of various levels of attainment, but when in the mood for that sort of thing, I guess it seems much preferable to go to the fresh-water wellspring itself, rather than drinking stale and flat water that’s been poured between way too many interim vessels along the way. It’s mostly rock n’ roll (with some dressing up at times), and I like it, like it, yes I do. (Although as the list below will make clear, I don’t necessarily favor the obvious hits). So, at bottom line, I guess I love The Rolling Stones just because I love The Rolling Stones for being The Rolling Stones and making the very best Rolling Stones music there has been, is, or ever will be, for better or worse, in sickness or health, and until my death does us part, while Mick and Keith (and probably Ronnie) live on and on, once and future kings of the post-apocalyptic cockroach culture, world without end, amen.
#10. “Lady Jane,” from Aftermath (1966)
#9. “She’s So Cold,” from Emotional Rescue (1980)
#8. “Start Me Up,” from Tattoo You (1981)
#7. “Shattered,” from Some Girls (1978)
#6. “Sympathy for the Devil,” from Beggars Banquet (1968)
#5. “Tumbling Dice,” from Exile on Main St. (1972)
#4. “Miss You,” from Some Girls (1978)
#3. “Gimme Shelter,” from Let It Bleed (1969)
#2. “Street Fighting Man,” from Beggars Banquet (1968)
#1. “I Just Want to See His Face,” from Exile on Main St. (1972)
Who They Are: John, Paul, George and Ringo. From Liverpool. If I have to say more than that to explain The Beatles, then I’m frankly stunned, shocked, and amazed that you are actually reading my website. If this is you, please check in via the comment section on what actually drew you here, and why you keep you reading me. “Know Thy Audience” is as key a concept in the internet era as “Know Thyself,” so I’m legitimately interested if there are any readers here who are not at least a little bit Beatle Savvy.
When I First Heard Them: Earliest childhood: The Beatles were a ubiquitous part of my younger days, as was likely the case for any musically-sentient kid in the 1960s. My favorite album of theirs when I was young was Beatles VI (1965), culled from my Dad’s record collection. That was one of Capitol Records’ kluge releases for American and Canadian markets, combining album cuts and singles from what’s now known as the “core catalog” as released by EMI in the United Kingdom. (It was not until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that the catalogs on both sides of the Atlantic aligned). Beatles VI was released near the tail end of the era when the Beatles were still recording cover songs in the studio and playing increasingly futile live shows, where the primitive amplification of the era wasn’t up to the task of drowning out a stadium full of screams. There aren’t (m)any widely-loved classics of the Beatles canon to be found within Beatles VI‘s grooves, but it’s still a favorite record of mine. As with so many things, our positive childhood moments resonate differently than those we experience when we’re older and, nominally, wiser. As a young’un, I also appreciated the fact that The Beatles released material that worked for musically-oriented grown-ups as well as it did for curious chiddlers: I have most fond early members of Yellow Submarine (the film, and its songs), and of hanging out with a friend who had the Magical Mystery Tour album, which I think inspired my earliest critical musical conversations with a smart peer.
Why I Love Them: The Beatles so transformed rock music as a self-contained, self-composing, and self-aware quartet that it’s honestly hard, all these years on, to really sense just how transformative they were. They’re like the Citizen Kane of rock n’ roll: radical and revolutionary in their own time and own approach, but then so influential upon everything that followed, that it’s hard to see, after the fact, just what was so special about them when the broke every mold that tried to contain them. They were blessed with three titanic songwriters, four brilliantly unique personalities, some of the best technical support ever provided any rock group (looking at you, George Martin and Geoff Emerick), and a quartet of player’s players, great and innovative at what they did, and how they did it. (If you’re a rider on the popularly reductive “Ringo was a crap drummer” bus, then, well, please don’t bother commenting to explain your silly position; as far as I am concerned, if the only thing he ever did was create and play the rhythmic pattern on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” then his standing as an idiom-altering icon would be secured). As a youngster, I mostly appreciated the singalong and clever lyrical elements of The Beatles’ work, but as a musically-literate adult, I even more deeply adore the ways that they truly reinvented Western instrumental and vocal music, merging four-on-the-floor early rock tropes with Eastern music, jazzy music hall fare, Sinatra-esque balladry, Stockhausen-styled experimentalism, dark cabaret, smoky blues, and whatever else crossed their interest horizon. They also set the standard in terms of groups having distinct and defined personalities, publicly and privately. The fact that I could start a long flame war on pretty much any active internet site by stridently declaring that Paul is the best (or, at least, my favorite) Beatle, half-a-century after the group’s demise, is a stellar summation of the ways that the Fab Four still live in the cultural consciousness of the musically literate elements of the Western world. And probably the Eastern one, too. And all the ones in between. (Note: I credit the cuts below to the canonical UK release albums of The Beatles’ catalog, and not to the American versions in which I first heard many of them).
#10. “A Hard Day’s Night,” from A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
#9. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” from Beatles for Sale (1964)
#8. “The Fool on the Hill,” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
#7. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” from The Beatles (1968)
#6. “A Day In the Life,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
#5. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
#4. “Revolution,” from “Hey Jude/Revolution” single (1968)
#3. “I Am The Walrus,” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
#2. “Eight Days A Week,” from Beatles for Sale (1964)
#1. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from Revolver (1966)
Who They Are: A German experimental/industrial band formed in divided Berlin around 1980. Their name translates in English to “Collapsing New Buildings,” a lightly-veiled critique of the ephemeral and flimsy modern architecture of their home city in those days. The original group included vocalist/guitarist Blixa Bargeld, homemade-instrument percussionist N.U. Unruh, bassist Beate Bartel, and synth player Gudrun Gut. The female half of the band left soon after their inception, and a stable line-up developed over the next few years including Bargeld, Unruh, guitarist Alexander Hacke, metal drummer F.M. Einheit, and bassist Mark Chung. That version of the band fractured around the recording of their 1996 album Ende Neu, and after a brief period of instability, a new line-up emerged, which remains constant to this day: Bargeld, Unruh, Hacke (now on bass), Rudolf Moser (metal drums), and Jochen Arbeit (guitar), with Ash Wednesday (keyboards) as a key long-term live-only member. The group are justifiably famed for their instrumental innovations, with a wide range of found, manufactured, and “junk” instruments featuring prominently in their creative pantheon.
When I First Heard Them: As was often the case in pre-Internet days, I’d heard of Einstürzende Neubauten via the music media before I actually heard them; being already interested in early industrial music, what I’d read about their efforts to bring junkyard elements to experimental rock music deeply piqued my curiosity. The first recording I actually heard by the group was the track “Wardrobe” on the utterly brilliant 1985 Some Bizzare Records sampler album, If You Can’t Please Yourself You Can’t, Please Your Soul, which has already featured prominently in this series, as it’s also where I first heard fellow-industrialists Coil. “Wardrobe” was weird and disturbing and wonderful, and it made me a Neubauten believer; I quickly acquired their then-current release, Halber Mensch, which utterly blew my mind. I’ve diligently stayed abreast of their group, solo, and collaborative works through the ensuing decades, and have been richly rewarded by the awesome scope and structure of the songs and albums they’ve released together and in various side configurations over the years. I’ve never seen Neubauten live, alas, but I did get to see Blixa Bargeld during his time as a founding member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Their November 1990 concert at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, would be my choice if asked to name the best live show I’ve ever seen; watching Cave and Bargeld duet on “The Weeping Song” was one of the finest concert experiences I’ve ever had, easily, bar none, and hands down.
Why I Love Them: In their early days, I would have justified my adoration of the group simply for their innovative approaches to making noisy, industrial music with non-traditional instruments. I saw my own creative aspirations mirrored in that approach, as that’s the sort of thing that I was doing with my own original music at the time, though I was doing it nowhere near as well as Einstürzende Neubauten did, obviously. But somewhere around the time of that transitional 1996 Ende Neu album, the group began to do something truly extraordinary, by making beautiful, accessible music with their noisy, non-traditional instruments. They can still whang and clang with the best of them, all these years on, but if that was the sole name of their creative game, they would have quickly grown stale and tired and dated; the magic of their latter work is their ability to swing between the dark and the light, the accessible and the off-putting, and the recognizable and the strange. The group are also blessed to have one of the most unique and riveting vocalists in modern rock music history in the person of Blixa Bargeld. He moves, between and within songs, from hair-raising shrieks and screams, to smooth, warm baritone stylings, as each song dictates, and as each word demands. Bargeld’s lyrics (usually sung in German) can be poetic, personal, and political in equal measure, and they are delivered with a passion and fervor often absent in experimental musical circles, where distanced, arch and wry delivery are more the norm than soul-baring, heart-shredding shrieks from the center of the self. Couple that titanic vocal presence with a mature, stable, dynamic and powerful instrumental ensemble, and you’ve got something truly moving and unique.
#10. “Ich Bin’s” from Fünf Auf Der Nach Oben Offenen Richterskala (1987)
#9. “Halber Mensch,” from Halber Mensch (1985)
#8. “Ten Grand Goldie,” from Alles in Allem (2020)
#7. “Feurio!,” from Haus der Lüge (1989)
#6. “Stella Maris,” from Ende Neu (1996)
#5. “Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego),” from Halber Mensch (1985)
#4. “Blume,” from Tabula Rasa (1993)
#3. “Haus der Lüge/Epilog,” from Haus der Lüge (1989)
#2. “Die Interimsliebenden,” from Tabula Rasa (1993)
#1. “Youme & Meyou,” from Perpetuum Mobile (2004)
Who They Are: A brilliant English post-punk/experimental rock band formed in 1976 by Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert, and Robert Gotobed (later Grey), along with early member George Gill, who departed before their landmark debut album, Pink Flag, released in 1977. With producer Mike Thorne as a key part of their creative team, Wire released two more increasingly-experimental studio albums before splintering in 1979; Lewis and Gilbert continued working together as Dome, and Thorne and Gotobed worked with Newman as a solo artist. The group re-formed in 1985 for a highly-prolific recording and touring period, though they refused to play their earlier catalog at this time, going so far as to tour with a group called Ex-Lion Tamers, who played old Wire songs as a live opening act. Wire’s catalog of the period blended live, studio, and remix work in unusual and fascinating ways, including a series of singles that grazed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (most especially with “Eardrum Buzz” from 1989), an album of “semi-live” reinterpretations of period pieces, and (perhaps most perversely) an album called The Drill, dedicated to live and semi-live versions of their iconic 1987 cut “Drill,” which stands as the alpha example of the style of monotonic, metronomic music the group dubbed “Dugga.” In 1990, Gotobed left Wire, feeling that his drumming approaches were being side-lined in favor of electronic rhythms; his colleagues recognized his departure by re-naming the group “Wir” for one album, then they too returned to their various solo projects. The core four reunited (again) in 1999 (Gotobed began using his birth surname Grey at this point) for another brilliant run of studio albums. Gilbert departed around 2007, and Wire released two albums as a trio before adding touring member Martha Fiedler McGinnis for a brief spell, then bringing full-time studio/live member Matthew Simms onboard. Their most recent release, 10:20, is another classic of the idiom they’ve worked frequently over the years, reinterpreting studio songs on stage, then taking them back into the studio to capture the ways that their concert experiences altered them. It’s a brilliant approach, that has regularly reaped strong dividends throughout their creative run.
When I First Heard Them: I was a bit late to the Wire party, having initially heard of them in the early ’80s (during their first hiatus, though at the time, it wasn’t expected that they would ever return), after many groups and artists I admired cited them as important creative inspirations. The first Wire album I acquired was their sophomore disc, Chairs Missing (1978) , which utterly blew my mind. I nabbed Pink Flag soon after that, but the final piece of their original three-record run, 154 (1979) proved highly elusive for some reason; I finally found it in a record store in London, Ontario, after a long, long search, and paid a pretty price for it, though it felt like a worthwhile investment, for sure. (Once again, kids: life was different when you had to hunt for things in brick and mortar stores, rather than just immediately downloading anything that captures your interest in real time). I was thrilled when I learned that Wire were re-forming in the mid-’80s, and was even more thrilled by the early fruits of that reunion, with the Snakedrill EP (1986) and The Ideal Copy album (1987) remaining among my very favorite items in their catalog. My wife and I had tickets to see them in Washington, DC on the tour supporting The Ideal Copy, but were unable to attend when she experienced an unexpected medical emergency requiring urgent surgery the day of the show. (We did, happily, finally get to see Wire live together when we were living in Chicago, many years later). I’ve stayed actively, eagerly abreast of their work since that time, both within the Wire framework, and through engagement with their various solo projects. I was working as a music critic at the start of their third active phase around the turn of the millennium, and I was tickled to bits when they contacted me to use a review I wrote of that period’s first studio product (2002’s Read & Burn 01) as press text for their next touring cycle. I also had a Wire-inspired adventure in 2013 that I documented on my website, here; it remains one of the most widely-read things I’ve placed on the web over the years, and I was (once again) tickled to bits when Graham Lewis connected in the comments section of the original post. Give it a read, especially if you’re a music nerd and/or a map nerd.
Why I Love Them: It’s probably a recurring theme at this point in this series, but Wire hit a sweet spot for me in large part because they manage to blend highly-weird approaches and textures with highly-accessible melodies and rhythms, which can often be appreciated in equal measure as toe-tapping rock, and as smart experimental compositions. I always adore groups who think hard about what they’re doing, make smart music as a result of those thought processes, and then manage to frame those intelligent compositions in unusual, yet still engaging and accessible, styles. Wire’s core songwriting team (Newman on melodies, Lewis on lyrics) routinely craft memorable, hummable, quotable songs, then work with their band-mates to present them not as frozen, static moments in studio time, but instead as bits of a sonic tapestry that can be unwoven and re-knit in a variety of appealing fashions. Some of my very favorite Wire moments are found as B-side remake/remodels, or on albums like 10:20 or The Drill or 1989’s IBTABA, where the borders between new and old, and live and studio, are blurred to exploit the best elements of all available idioms; I can’t readily think of any other artists who hew to such an open-ended, open-minded approach to reinventing their own catalogs as a core tenet of their long-term creative process. If you forage through the 29 years worth of Best Album reports on this website, you’ll see Wire appear over and over again, with their 2003 release Send standing as my album of the year for that particular cycle. At bottom line, they’re brilliant, they’re prolific, and they’re deeply, strangely, wonderfully unique. What’s not to love?
#10. “Feed Me,” from The Ideal Copy (1987)
#9. “Torch It,” from Manscape (1990)
#8. “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” from Change Becomes Us (2013)
#7. “Fishes Bones,” from Nocturnal Koreans (2016)
#6. “Playing Harp for the Fishes,” from Silver/Lead (2017)
#5. “Mannequin,” from Pink Flag (1977)
#4. “A Serious of Snakes,” from Snakedrill EP (1986)
#3. “Finest Drops,” from IBTABA (1989)
#2. “The Agfers of Kodack,” from Send (2003)
#1. “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” from 154 (1979)
Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!