The Velvet Underground & Nico

It was ignored by most rock critics when it was released in 1967. Its songs were near to never played on the radio. Its initial sales were next to dismal.

Yet…

By the 1990s it was regarded as one of the most influential rock records ever made. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #13 in its list of the greatest rock and roll records of all time. In 2006, it was one of only a handful of rock albums ever added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, recognized for being either culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Spoiler alert: It’s all three.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined to fail.

Yet…

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined for legendary success.

The Nice – Nice

“Won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group from England: The Nice.”

And so begins side 2 of the third album by the band where Keith Emerson earned his reputation as one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll. At this early stage in his career, Emerson had yet to begin his pioneering work using the Moog synthesizer. That would come a couple of years later in the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. So here, his talents are limited to just organ and piano. That is, if you could ever refer to Emerson’s playing as limited. Listening to “Nice” you can’t help but feel that it’s the instruments themselves that are limited in Emerson’s hands.

It’s easy to tell here how influential Keith Emerson was to ELP – and not just because both The Nice and ELP had keyboards as the main lead instrument. Like ELP, the songs on “Nice” integrate rock and roll with heavier doses of classical and jazz than do the psychedelic musings of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the dark, moody prog of King Crimson, Carl Palmer’s and Greg Lake’s respective bands prior to ELP.  Then there’s the many pieces of Nice songs that were incorporated into later ELP tracks.

The standout track however, at least to me, is the live track  “Rondo ’69”, which was based on the polyrhythmic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by jazz master Dave Brubeck, from his 1959 classic “Time Out“. “Rondo” became a keyboard showcase at Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts in the years to come.

I hate to admit it, but until the 1980s, when I started to expand my musical appreciations, I thought Rondo was an ELP original. Yeah, not even close. It’s pure Brubeck; the song is merely reinterpreted by Keith Emerson and the other members of The Nice. But I give them credit for the improvisational midsection. It was very…Nice.

Eagles – Live

The Eagles’ first live album was an obligatory record to both their record label and their fans. Unbeknownst to most of their fans but all too well-known to their record company, personal differences within the group had reached a boiling point by the time they finished “The Long Run”, the Eagles’ final studio album. Although no official announcement had been made yet. The Eagles had broken up.

The Eagles still contractually owed their record label another album, but there was no way the members were going to be able to work together again anytime soon. As Don Henley put it in an interview after the band’s breakup was made official, the only way that would happen would be when “hell freezes over”. Eagles fans were hungry for a live album, so the solution was easy.

Fourteen years later hell did freeze over. The Eagles put their differences aside for some time together on the road and in the studio and the result was a second live album by them that also included four new studio tracks. Appropriately, that fifteen song album was titled “Hell Freezes Over”.

Suzi Quatro – Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words

Suzi Quatro’s music never got the recognition it deserved. That’s not to say she didn’t find success. I just think that through no fault of her own, she should have found a lot more.

Suzi found her biggest musical success in the UK and Europe which is kind of sad considering she grew up in Detroit.

Suzi started her rock and roll career in 1964. A career that seemed to go virtually nowhere until she moved to England in 1971. The success of her career from that point forward went on to inspire the careers of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), and Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart). “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” was Suzi Quatro’s second most successful album in the US.

Before “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” came out, most people in the US only knew Suzie Quatro as Leather Tuscadero, the character she played in 7 episodes of the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. I hate to admit that I’m one of them. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t check out her back catalog afterward; more about that later.

Propaganda – A Secret Wish

If you want to really grab my attention and make me listen to your debut album, open it up with my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream” put to elegantly dark music.

I remember exactly why I bought Propaganda’s debut, “A Secret Wish” in the late summer of 1985. I had never heard of Propaganda. I knew none of the members in the band. I had never heard any of their songs. No one I knew had heard of them. I was going through a difficult breakup and needed some comfort music. I bought a sh!t load of records that day, all by artists I had never or only barely heard of, just so I could hopefully jump into something new that was close and personal to me…anything but a new relationship. Music was the only thing I could think of to turn to.

I don’t remember any of the other records I bought that day. Only this one, because it immediately touched me personally with Poe’s poetry of a false awakening. With its innovative use synth pop combined with progressive rock, the rest of the record continued to pull my attention away from memories and thoughts I needed to abandon at the time.

“A Secret Wish” will forever be a special album to me because of the timing of when I first discovered it and because it is some of the most kick-ass and innovative music I have ever heard. But mostly, it’s special to me because it opened with lines from my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem put perfectly to music.

“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream”.

Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! – Live! (Quadrophonic)

An amazing live performance by two legends. Recorded at what was probably the most incredible location to ever see a rock festival: inside the crater of the Diamondhead volcano in Honolulu Hawaii.

The Sunshine Festivals used to happen every year on New Year’s eve and day, and on the Fourth of July. The first festival was organized in 1970 and had about 12 thousand people in attendance. By 1979, it was attracting over 75 thousand people and had to be shut down due to concerns over the environmental concerns being caused by the huge crowds.

This blistering performance by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles was recorded on New Year’s day in 1972.

Listening to this performance in quadrophonic (a 1970’s analog version of surround sound that preceded home theater systems) really adds to the listening experience of this record. Well, I guess technically, I’m not listening to it in quad, but I find Dolby Pro Logic surround sound (an analog surround sound from the 1990’s that predates Dolby Digital surround sound) brings out the same effect as quad. If it’s not the same, it’s darn close. (I’m thinking they didn’t try to totally reinvent the wheel for analog home theater surround sound). The ambience of the venue is capture perfectly here, with the rear speakers making me feel like I’m sitting right in the middle of the crowd.

I really need to look into picking up some more quad albums.

Yes – Yessongs

Sometimes two records just aren’t enough for your first live album – especially when your most popular songs were the epics Yes was famous for in 1973. Add into that the extended solos and improv jams, plus a excerpts from Rick Wakeman’s first solo album and you start to wonder why they didn’t go for four.

I’ve been wanting to listen to this album for a while, but I had to find the right time. More accurately. I had to find enough time. I love listening to “Yessongs” its entirety. It reminds me of what an incredible live band Yes was.

When you listen to the first five Yes albums, it’s easy to write off their musicianship as multiple take, over dubbed and edited together studio wizardry. Then, when you hear “Yessongs” it becomes an eye-opening – or rather, ear-opening experience; they really are that good. So good in fact, by the time I get to the end of “Yessongs”, I wish they had gone for four. It always leaves me wanting more. Then again, this was only 1973; Yes had plenty more to offer up after this.

The Black Keys – El Camino

Some records grab you right from the opening riff. “El Camino” by Ohio duo The Black Keys is one of those albums. The rest of the album follows suit, with a driving collection of rough and ready blues rock. Although The Black Keys formed in 2001 and “El Camino”, the band’s seventh album came out ten years later, don’t let that fool you. This is old school garage rock with a modern twist.

If you know anything about classic cars, I know what you’re thinking about the album cover: that is NOT an El Camino. In remembrance of their early days, for this album, The Black Keys wanted to use a picture of a van similar to the one they used to tour in their early days. So why call the album “El Camino”? Well, in Spanish “El camino” means “the Road”. The album title is actually also another nod to their early days since it was on the road touring that The Black Keys earned the musical reputation leading to the success they have today. Also, knowing the “El Camino” is a classic muscle car, the van on the cover was done in jest. The Black Keys knew it would drive the car enthusiasts nuts.

Frank Marino – Juggernaut

First there was the band Mahogany Rush. Then there was Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Finally it was just Frank Marino.

I suppose the writing is on the wall when your lead guitarist and vocalist start tagging their name in front of the band’s.

Frank Marino is a Canadian rock legend who, much in the style of Hendrix, played a combination of hard rocking blues and jazz guitar. “Juggernaut”, the second solo album by Marino, had a slightly more ’80s feel than his earlier work in the ’70s but still found him staying true to form; doing what he does best. Really, the music didn’t change that much from Mahogany Rush to Frank Marino’s solo material. It’s still some of the best guitar playing you’ll hear on any record.

Joe Walsh – The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

I’m not one to try to rank in detail, my all-time favorite rock albums. The list I would give today would probably be very different from one I would give you next week, so why bother. I will say this however, no matter what day I ranked them, Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” would consistently place in the top 20.

The album contains such a myriad of styles it would be hard for anyone to not find something they like on this, Joe Walsh’s second album. The songwriting and playing are the strongest of any of his solo work; possibly even better than his albums with The James Gang and The Eagles. At least one of the albums by each of those bands, while Joe Walsh was a member, would always be in my top 20 list. That speaks volumes to his talent, versatility, and creativity. He is definitely one of my all time favorite rock artists. By the way, don’t ask me to rank them in detail either. I’d run into the same problem I’d have with albums.