Occasionally you’ll hear the fab-blind discuss how soulful various songs and albums were.
Usually we just laugh to ourselves when we hear the word beatle and the word soulful in the same sentence, unless the sentence is, ‘The beatle were soulful of crap it was coming out of their mouths!’ We decided to find out exactly what sounds people are mistaking for soul. We came up empty handed.
Our first stop was Fab4Fan’s infamous Rankopedia to see what the consensus is for the most soulful beatles songs. Incredibly, there is no such category. The closest we found was ‘which beatle fan has the brownest nose and emptiest wallet.’ So a few weeks ago we created our own poll, Most Soulful Beatle Songs. Ten thousand opinionated members, and we only got two votes, not a good sign. Searches elsewhere turned up little more than slanted reviews with the word soulful getting battered like a piece of tempura. We’re left to our own devices to get to the bottom of this one.
The problem now becomes, how do you judge soul? Just to clarify, we’re talking about soulful music as opposed to soul music. There doesn’t seem to be any working soul-o-meters these days, they all disappeared with STAX. Lets define it first, and work from there. We can all agree that a fair definition of soulful music is music that is passionately sung and performed, full of both feeling and expression.
Now we need to identify a fair starting point, a point of reference to level the playing field. You can’t just listen to an FF song and decide, ‘yup – thats pretty soulful, way more than Yellow Submarine.’ The only way to do this fairly is to compare two performances of the same song, then we can begin to gauge who’s got the soul going on.
You see an ad for food that looks so great that next time you go out you make it a point to pick up some of that delicious looking delicacy. When you sit down to feast, you discover it only vaguely resembles what you saw in the photo or the commercial, and it tastes like the ass end of a mule on laxatives. Continue reading →
On April 2, 1968, a young guitarist was invited to sit down and record his first major label solo album in Nashville. This was no ordinary guitarist, this young man began to learn the instrument as soon as he was old enough to hold it, started touring with his fathers country band before age 12, recorded an album of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis songs at age 14. When he was 16 he was invited on stage by Merle Travis himself, who after being upstaged was so impressed by the kid’s musicianship took off his hat and remarked to the crowd, ‘Well folks, tonight there’s a better guitarist in the house than me.’ He went on to master flamenco, jazz and create his own complex and unique style, unequaled to this day.
Occasionally we get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of FF saturation in the world today. When this happens we like to grab an album as far from the banality of mainstream reality as we can get. Luckily, with our music collection it isn’t hard. Straddling the gamut from great lyricists, songwriters, and brilliant musicians to the most hideous outsider crap we’ve been able to acquire, there’s always something worth listening to.
This session was organized by none other than the legendary Chet Atkins, Mister Guitar himself. Upon hearing a tape of this aspiring, unknown player, Chet proclaimed Lenny Breau to be, ‘The Greatest guitarist ever to walk the face of the earth.’ Thats no small praise. For the sessions Chet brought in a successful co-producer named Danny Davis whose previous work helped polish country artists and bring them to a more mainstream, pop audience. Davis made it his goal to commercialize the album in order to get disc jockeys more interested in playing it. As much as he tried to dumb down the music so the beatle-brained public wouldn’t have a seizure upon hearing an original idea, Lenny was not to be tampered with. His mind and playing too free to be confined to the rigid structures of conventional pop.
There’s a lot more truth in a horrible singer playing an out of tune guitar while croaking out inscrutable lyrics than there is in a corporate reach-around. Hell, at least its interesting. Think about whats easier to relate to, four millionaires solving crimes in a Yellow Submarine while singing about love, an acid casualty singing about becoming a vegetable, or Congresswoman Matilda Parker singing about mosquitoes and the dangers of malaria?
Although Lenny disliked rock music and held great disdain for the entire genre, at Davis’s insistence, and not wanting to disappoint his idol and mentor Atkins, he was persuaded to record some popular tunes during the two recording sessions, alongside of his original idea of laying down several originals, and his jazz, country, bebop, flamenco and classical takes on some jazz and country standards.
Several months later when the album was finally released Lenny was shocked to find that so many of the tunes were left off in favour of the more commercial, radio friendly numbers like King of the Road, Monday Monday, and inexplicably, A Hard Days Night. Even so, the flashes of brilliance overshadowed their inclusion.
It was during one of these moments that I grabbed ‘Guitar Sounds’ from the collection and popped it on. As the inspired playing started to slowly melt away the revolting memory of being subjected, against my will and beyond my control, to hearing almost the full Abbey Road album. My stomach began to unclench, my hands began to stop trembling. I was going to make it. Until suddenly…
The album received great critical acclaim, but not even the inclusion of an FF tune could breach the barriers of bad taste built by the beatlemania brigade, and sales were minimal. Nobody cared. A few months later Atkins arranged for another recording, this time in Lenny’s comfort zone; a club in front of an audience of his peers. The choice of material was completely his choice. The result, The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau…Live!, has been called one of the most important jazz guitar albums ever recorded.
Lenny Breau led a short and tragic life, and although he released many incredible and unprecedented albums, he died penniless and virtually unknown, like most great artists. Conversely, Hootie and the Blowfish and REO Speedwagon both had huge hits covering the beatles. Lenny’s albums are mostly out of print now, while Magical Mystery Tour is still gets pumped out like a clogged toilet.
Anyway, I can’t leave you with that horrid song as the last thing ringing in your head, here’s Lenny playing The Claw by Jerry Reed, from …Live!
This is a clip from the documentary ‘The Genius of Lenny Breau.’ It was filmed during the recording of his first album.
A lot has been said about the originality of the ‘greatest band of all time.’ The influence of their inventions has been felt far and wide, exalted and referenced as groundbreaking and unequaled to this day.
Lets take a look at some of this groundbreaking work, and maybe try put it into perspective.
They were heralded as one of the most original bands ever when they released the song Twist and Shout in 1964. I’m not quite sure just what is so original about recording a cover of an Isley Brothers song. The way they performed it, with all of them singing ‘Whooo!’ at the same time?
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that aside from Brian Epstein inventing a way to shape them into something marketable, the beats pretty much played variations on the same couple of songs and covers until Rubber Soul in ’66, their first original album. Aside from some new instrumentation (George Martin) and their constant use of marijuana, what exactly was so original? It was a bunch of pretty rock songs. The same goes with the groundbreaking Revolver.
This brings us to their piece de resistance, Sgt Pepper. They spent over six months in the studio recording and mixing it, released it in ’67. There was a lot of groundbreaking equipment and technical tricks used in the studio. A lot of elaborate instrumentations and sound effects were used. Some tunes were longer than the average pop song. In the end, they had an interesting collage of songs and sounds based lyrically on drugs, leaky roofs, articles in the newspaper, circus posters, meter maids, corn flake commercials and one about spirituality. Musically they took influences from 30’s music, skiffle, rock and carnivals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems more like using whats at your disposal than inventing anything. They achieved massive commercial and critical success. Whats new?
Lets take a look at something else that was happening at roughly the same time. Don Van Vliet, an up and coming R&B singer, changed his persona to Captain Beefheart and started a group named The Magic Band in ’65. They became quite popular and put out a few early singles covering blues songs to great local success. He began to form his own ideas about what music was and what it should say, and recruiting Ry Cooder on guitar they went in the studio to begin work on their first album, Safe as Milk. This was a bold, delta blues inspired work of poetry and intensity. Shortly afterwards, they were dropped from their label after the song Electricity was considered too negative. Although it didn’t reach commercial success, this album was hailed internationally, finding many fans and supporters.
Although Lennon was hugely impressed with Safe as Milk (note the posters behind him), it appears Beefheart wasn’t quite as taken with him.
Vliet then decided to take the band somewhere new. Holed up in his isolated home drawing on free jazz, sea shanties and blues, he sat down and began to compose on the piano, an instrument he couldn’t play, in order to avoid falling into the traps of convention and theory. He wanted to hear what was in his head, and what was in his head couldn’t conform to anything he’d heard. He ruled his band with an iron fist, demanding 14 hour practice sessions, forcing them to learn impossible chords and timings and live in virtual poverty until the album was complete. At one point he locked guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo in a shed after he was suspected of listening to a beatle song. There was to be no outside influences. He spit fire, bled poetry, lived music and the band honed its teeth for 8 months.
While Howlin’ Wolf was in England trying to wean British blues masters away from their obsession with even bar-counts, Vliet was creating his own musical language and universe. What he came out with polarized the music world, shocking people with its stunning originality and its musical ties to nothing. Its lyrics spoke of the environment, genocide, immigrants, Vietnam Vets, and poverty, among other things. The double album Trout Mask Replica was recorded in Van Vliet’s home over a period of one weekend, as opposed to the five months it took the FF to record their double album, The White Album.
Perhaps an extreme example, but this is originality as an uncompromising force to be reckoned with. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to listen to it, just turn on your radio and you’ll be safe from the threat of ever hearing it, but you do have to acknowledge it. Wanna tell me what the FF did that was so groundbreaking again?
Don Van Vliet, retained that original spark until he retired from the music biz in 1982 after MTV rejected Ice Cream for Crow as being too weird. Also in 1982, the remaining FF continued recording generic safeness; Ringo released Stop and smell the Roses, McCartney was singing duets with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and George Harrison released Gone Troppo (I had to look it up too).
I’d never just want to do what everybody else did. I’d be contributing to the sameness of everything.
-Don Van Vliet
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band performing Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do from Safe as Milk, live from Cannes in ’68.