Robert Plant – Pictures At Eleven

Following the death of Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, there was some uncertainty about whether the band would continue on with someone different behind the kit. Eventually, the members of Led Zeppelin announced that they couldn’t continue on as they were, and the remaining three members went their separate ways. About a year and a half later, Robert Plant released his debut solo album,Pictures At Eleven. 

Probably in keeping with what was felt fans wanted, the album has a very Zeppelin-esque feel to it, with Robbie Blunts guitar finding a tone very similar to that of Jimmy Page’s. But the album still had moments of Plant moving out of his comfort zone and into new musical territory. There was a heavier use of synthesizers on a couple of songs, and a notable difference in the feel of the rhythm section. Phil Collins, the drummer from Genesis, played drums on most of the tracks, delivering a looser R&B back beat than what was typically associated with Led Zeppelin. Cozy Powell, who played on only two songs, had a heavier style of drumming, more akin to John Bonham’s sound. Overall, the album delivered what Zeppelin fans wanted but still gave Plant a chance to forge something new.

In subsequent solo releases, plant would continue to diversify his sound. He also worked on a variety of other non-solo musical projects, including the Honeydrippers and a duet album with bluegrass musician and singer Alison Krauss. 

Throughout his recording career Robert Plant has released over 35 albums, including his work with Led Zeppelin and other projects. He has a new album coming out this October. 

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

After the breakup of The Beatles, each member of the Fab Four pursued a solo path. Not surprisingly, the often outspoken John Lennon went on to have a very successful post-Beatle musical career. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, also became a much stronger voice in the advocacy for pacifism and anti-war politics.

He took a hiatus from his musical career after his son, Sean was born, deciding to focus more on being a dad rather than a musician. However, after a near tragedy at sea while on a sailing trip, he decided to go back into the studio, only this time it would be together with his wife, Yoko Ono.

The album they made together wasn’t so much a duet, as it was a collection of songs written and performed by each of them. All of the songs focused on  relationships, more specifically,  the ups and downs between John and Yoko. Resembling conversations between the two, the sequence of the songs alternated between one song by John Lennon followed by a song by Yoko Ono. It’s easy to tell, this was a very personal album for both of them.

Although he lived to see the release of his final album Lennon never lived to see the success it achieved. John Lennon was tragically shot outside his New York apartment by Mark David Chapman, on December 8th 1980 and died shortly after. It was one of the saddest days in music history.

Carol King – Tapestry

Brisk Sunday mornings are meant for simpler, mellow sounds. No crunching guitars. No heavy blues. No complex, changing rhythms.  No belting out of the lyrics. Just good quality, we’ll crafted songs performed with a great blend of style and emotion. There is no better singer/songwriter in that realm than Carole King. 

Tapestry is her masterpiece.

But don’t take my word for it. In 1972, Tapestry grabbed four Grammys, including Best Album. With more than 25 million copies flying off store shelves, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time. And in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named it as one of the 500 best albums of all time. 

Not too shabby for your second album, Carole. 

Kansas – Point Of Know Return

I was totally blown away the first time I heard Point Of Know Return. I had actually gone to the record store to buy the previous Kansas album, “Leftoverture.” That album was sold out, so I bought their newer, fifth album instead. Although I had already heard a couple of songs off this album that had been played on the radio, I was not ready for what I experienced when listening to it. 

This was complex, and intelligent music. It had the rawness of Midwestern U.S. rock and it had progressive rock elements from the U.K. bands I was into, like Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes. Plus, the lyrics were cool as s***. There was a song about Albert Einstein, who has always been an intellectual, political, and philosophical hero of mine – “Portrait (He Knew).” There was another about Howard Hughes – “Closet Chronicles.” And the collective remainder were spiritual or thought-provoking in their lyrics and acoustically beautiful or complex and powerful in their musical composition. It was an album that inspired, challenged and provoked introspection all at the same time. It remains one of my all time favorite albums.

I loved this album so much that I eventually upgraded it to a “Half Speed Mastered” edition. These were audiophile pressings that more accurately captured the dynamic qualities of the original recording, versus the mass-produced typical commercial release which sacrificed quality for quantity. It was definitely worth the extra price.

The Beatles – Revolver

Americans got ripped off with Beatles’ seventh album. And it wasn’t the first time either – but it wold be the last.

With Revolver, the fab four continued to expand their sound and experiment with different, often unorthodox recording techniques in the studio for the time. (They were expanding and experimenting with other things outside the studio too. But let’s not go there right now.) Backwards recording, post recording speed and pitch variations (varispeeding) and artificial double tracking, which adds a slight delay to a voice or instrument and plays it back with the original, so one voice sounds like two, or four sound like eight, were all used here. 

Although these techniques are now commonplace in modern recording studios, they were truly groundbreaking at the time. The Beatles would continue expanding on what could be done in the studio on their next album,  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

I know, all that is really cool (at least if you’re a music nerd like I am) but what you really want to know is right now is just how did American’s get ripped off  by this album? 

Well here it is…

Although The Beatles had started their own record label, Apple Records, their records were still released through major record companies. To the whole world outside of the United States, The Beatle’s albums were released through Parlaphone records. In the U.S., The Beatles were released through Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t like releasing albums with too many songs on them – and apparently 14 was too many. For Revolver, they only wanted theirs to go up to 11. So U.S. record buyers didn’t get “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing ” on their albums.

This wasn’t the first time Capitol had made changes to a Beatles’ album. Most early albums by them had song omissions and/or reordering on the U.S. editions. Fortunately, Revolver would be the last time it would happen. Starting with “Sgt. Pepper’s” Capitol stopped messing with what should be better off left alone.

Yes – 90125

Progressive rock was in its prime in the 1970s. And there was possibly no band more at the forefront of prog than Yes. But then punk rock and disco worked their influences into popular music. Going into the ’80s, Prog bands were suddenly labeled as self-indulgent and pretentious dinosaurs.

I agree with the pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in a good way. I mean, hell, if you’ve got that level of talent and creativity, by all means, flaunt it. Show off. Impress me. Blow me away with your virtuosity and showmanship. But dinosaurs? Oh, hell no! 

Dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn’t adapt. With 90125, Yes proved they were more than capable of adapting to the changing music scenes. Their songs became more short and concise. There was a greater emphasis on the underlying rhythms than on extended solos and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. 

But that’s not to say there wasn’t any of the virtuosity Yes was known for – there was plenty. It was just more focused. The interplay between the instruments had the complexity that Yes was known for, yet the production of the album gave the songs the underlying character of pop simplicity. The vocal arrangements throughout the album were equally impressive, at times becoming the focal point in the songs, or as in “Leave It,” the entire song.

Then there’s the case of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the first, and only number one single for Yes. It became so popular they even released a 12 inch dance remix of it. Now, if you had told me in the ’70s that a song by Yes would be played in dance clubs in the ’80s, well, I’d be handing my life savings over to you right now. I would have lost that bet big time. But there it was. 

But the big thing was, they still sounded like Yes. They still sounded like the prog band their fan base dug. They were still pretentious and self-indulgent – they just did it in a way that nobody  noticed. On 90125, Yes had learned to adapt and survive…and thrive. Something the dinosaurs couldn’t do.

Neil Diamond – Moods

Moods was an album that defined Neil Diamond. It contained a wide variety of material that made it universally enjoyable to listeners both old and young. It’s one of those albums that’s perfect to listen to on a warm summer afternoon or a brisk autumn morning. A great album for setting the tone to start off your day with a hot cup of coffee or to mellow out after a rough one sipping on a bourbon or a glass of wine.

Diamond once said he had a love-hate relationship with songwriting. He said he found it “extremely satisfying when it worked,” but hated that it “forces you to dig inside yourself.” 

But it’s that digging that makes his music so good.

Queen – A Night At The Odeon

Christmas eve, 1975. A sold out show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. One of the first times Queen played Bohemian Rhapsody live. A performance broadcast live on the BBC but never released (except as a bootleg recording) until 2015.

Queen was a band that not only did some incredible stuff in the studio, they knew how to put on one helluva show at their concerts. A Night At The Odeon is Queen captured live and in top form only a few weeks after the release of their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. In that short time, the album had already sold over one million copies, becoming Queen’s first platinum album, and Bohemian Rhapsody had just become the band’s first number one single in the U.K. 

From Brian May’s dual echo guitar extravagance in Brighton Rock to Roger Taylor’s blister pounding drum solo in Keep Yourself Alive. From John Deacon’s distinctly solid bass lines throughout to Freddie Mercury’s unbelievable four octave vocal range, this is Queen holding nothing back to give the audience, in the theatre and across the radio airwaves, a Christmas eve they would never forget.

Yesterday would have been Freddie Mercury’s 71st birthday. Sadly, he lost a long battle with AIDS at the way too young age of 45. 

Happy Birthday Freddie.  

Peter Gabriel – Security

Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album after leaving Genesis was titled Security in the United States and Canada, but the rest of the world knew it simply is Peter Gabriel’s fourth album. Just like his three previous solo albums the album featured only his name on the cover. Even the spine did not designate any title for the record. Gabriel didn’t want the album to have a name, just like its predecessors. But at the insistence of Geffen Records, who Gabriel had just signed with, he was forced to choose one for its release in the US and Canada. In those countries only, a sticker was placed on the shrink-wrap outside the cover noting the album’s name.

The album was recorded in Gabriel’s home studio where he had amassed a huge collection of then cutting edge synthesizers, drum machines, and full digital recording equipment. For the starting point of all the songs, he recorded rhythms and beats from his travels throughout the world and rather than sampling them, reproduced them on the drum machines and electronic instruments so they could be more easily manipulated. He and the other musicians on the album then improved over those beats and rhythms, structuring the songs. It was a radical approach for its time, but one that’s not very distant from the way many electronic and Hip Hop artists compose their music today.

When listening closely, it’s interesting to hear a simplicity in most of the lead instruments, yet a complexity in the rhythms underlying them as well as in the way the individual pieces are put together to form the whole of the songs.

Shock The Monkey, a song about jealousy, became Peter Gabriel’s first top 40 hit in the United States. 

Styx – Pieces Of Eight

It’s funny how the music we listen to can become the soundtrack for our lives. Many songs or albums can bring back memories that you recall every time you listen to them. For me, “Pieces Of Eight” by Styx always brings back a memory of a time I literally thought I was going to die. I’m going to cheat a little bit today and reprint something I wrote a long time ago on my other blog, The World According To Mr. Flying Pig. I hope you enjoy it.

Having just released their enormously successful “Pieces of Eight” album right on the heels of the equally popular “The Grand Illusion,” Styx was at the height of their popularity when they were scheduled to play at the Michigan State Fair in 1978. There was no way my friends and I were going to miss the show. The concert was general admission, so we decided to get to the fairgrounds early in the morning to make sure we would be near the front of the line when the gates opened and be able to get spots right up front by the stage. 

As the day went on, the crowd size increased, and so did the heat. Since there were four of us, two from the group would occasionally break out from the crowd to get some fresh air, see the sights, and get something cold to drink. It was almost time for the gates to open when the last two wanderers returned to the crowd. When they arrived, I was totally parched, due in equal parts to the heat and all the bodies packed together in close proximity to each other. Not to worry, they had both came back with refreshments! A nice, tall paper cup filled with Coke, or iced tea, or lemonade, or whatever – just let me have some. I grabbed the cup from Rick, and before he could say anything, pulled a nice big drink through the straw. I had swallowed the first gulp and was working on the second when I realized that Rick had replaced the icy cold whatever in his cup with warm sloe gin.

As a warm rush hit me and my vision began to quickly fade into a white fog, I felt my knees buckling and I knew I was going to pass out. With the noise of the crowd around me fading into the distance I heard the gates to the concert area being opened. Thoughts of being trampled to death by the crowd began to swirl around in what was left of my consciousness. Just as my legs turned entirely into rubber, I felt someone grab me under both arms, stopping me from totally collapsing. Barely hanging on to consciousness, I could feel myself moving through the crowd, but had no idea where I was going or what was going on. A few seconds later, when the breeze from the open air hit me, the fog began to lift from my vision almost as quickly as it had set in and the strength returned to my legs. My good friend Doug had grabbed me as I was collapsing and pushed me through the gate, into the open air. He probably saved my life that day. 

Amazingly, after a few moments, I felt as if nothing had happened at all. We all stood in the open air for a short while, everyone asking if I was all right. I told them I felt fine now, but I would really like something cold to drink. Because of this, we ended up not getting right up by the front of the stage like we had planned, opting instead, for seats near the front of the grandstands – farther back than originally planned, but still good seats by any token. Styx put on a great show that night, playing nearly all their songs from “Pieces of Eight” and “The Grand Illusion” as well as a lot of their earlier songs.

I’ve been to many concerts since then – too many to count, really – and I still rank this concert as one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Because of the course of events preceding the show, it definitely was my most memorable. I don’t know if I ever thanked my friend for saving me from being trampled that day. So Doug, If you ever happen to read this, THANK YOU! and I’m sorry you didn’t get to be right up front by the stage.