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”.

Merle Haggard – That’s the Way Love Goes

Back in the late 1980s I worked on-air at two radio stations in Michigan at the same time. One was a rock station near Bay City and Saginaw, the other was a country station in Bad Axe, a small town in the center of the thumb. It was there that I really came to appreciate the music of Merle Haggard and other country artists of that era.

Merle Haggard has become a legend in country music. During his musical career, he released an amazing 63 studio albums, writing or co-writing most of the songs on them. “That’s the way Love Goes” was his 38th album and one of my favorites by him. The Strangers are his backing band throughout this album, as the were for many of Haggard’s records. Their sound was a perfect fit for his distinct voice and style that was a bit rougher around the edges than some of the slick country sounds coming out of Nashville in the 1980s.

Merle Haggard was an artist who wrote and played music on his own terms. He forever changed the sound of country music and helped define an era of authenticity in it that many feel may never be equaled.

That’s the stuff a musical legend is made of.

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.

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.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

The story of Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut album is one to file under “If at first you don’t succeed”.

When record producer David Kershenbaum first heard the songs Joe Jackson was working on for what Jackson hoped would eventually be his first album, he liked what he heard so much, he immediately had Jackson signed to A&M records. To gain traction for “Look Sharp”, the first single from it, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”, was released ahead of the album. It went nowhere, in the US or Britain. A second single, “Sunday Papers”, was released. Same thing. The third single, “One More Time” followed suit. Things weren’t looking too sharp for Joe Jackson. But finally, the album “Look Sharp” was released…and it went nowhere.

It made no sense. It was a great album with great songs bouncing between new wave and punk. What went wrong?

I’m not sure who made the final decision, but they did what was really the only thing that made sense at that point. They re-released the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”. It was a hit! “Sunday Papers” and “One More Time” soon took off as well. Radio stations even started playing songs from the album that weren’t released as singles. A short while later Joe Jackson had his first gold record in the US and Britain, just like they had planned all along.

And the moral of the story is never underestimate the power of “try, try again”.

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

My first introduction…real introduction…to David Bowie was on the Midnight Special, a late-night television show that in 1973, broadcast a David Bowie concert featuring songs from his upcoming album “Diamond Dogs”.

It’s funny, because I would’ve sworn the music that aired that night was from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour. But I like to check my facts. So before queuing this album up, I found out that show actually aired in 1973, before the “Diamond Dogs” album was released. To my surprise, the broadcast actually contained more music from Bowie’s earlier recordings – only a couple of songs are from the “Diamond Dogs” album. Still, it was the songs performed from this album that really made an impression on me.

When I finally bought a copy of “Diamond Dogs” (I think it was my older sister who actually bought it first, but I was more than content stealing her copy to listen to for a few years), I was enthralled. It was a dark concept album with songs of a post-apocalyptic dystopian world from George Orwell’s worst nightmares. Actually, I’m not sure I got all that back then – I was only 11 or 12 years old (I’m not even sure if I had even read 1984 yet back then). But I know I dug the sh!t out out of the music and the other-worldly lyrics.

What blew me away with “Diamond Dogs” wasn’t just the lyrics and music; it was the remembrances of that Midnight Special concert I had seen a year or so before. It was Bowie’s music, following in the footsteps of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, taking rock music to a whole new conceptual level, and the visuals that accompanied it.

“Diamond Dogs” was so much more than music as strictly entertainment. The album was a sociopolitical statement galvinized in the fear of things to come. But more than anything, “Diamond Dogs” was rock and roll presented in its best form: music as art.

Jim Croce – Photographs and Memories

Jim Croce was one of the most prolific singer songwriters ever. “Photographs and Memories” is a greatest hits package that proves that point. Throughout his career his songs have evoked emotions and painted musical scenes like no other.

He sang mostly his own songs, but was known on occasion to interpret one by other songwriters. When he did, he alway made it his own. Along with the ones he did pen – songs like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, “Operator”, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song”, and “Time in a Bottle” – I personally can’t imagine “I Got a Name” being performed by anyone except Croce.

Unfortunately, Jim Croce’s life and songs were cut short when he died in a plane crash while on tour in 1973. He was only 30 years old.

Japan – Oil On Canvas

I remember the first time I heard the band Japan. They were like so many classic rock artists I admired yet they were like nothing I had ever heard before. The Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Ferry and The Talking Heads, were all in there at some measure, as were a few other bands that are best described as trend setters, not followers. But it was the combination of those influences that made Japan so unique. Japan was musical artistry in every sense of the word.

Still, I always wondered, was their sound all studio wizardry or could they actually pull their songs off live. I never had a chance to see Japan in concert but that question was still answered when I ran across a copy of “Oil on Canvas”, the only live album Japan released during their short recording career, from 1978 to 1981.

Fortunately, “Oil on Canvas” was a double LP, because a single record would not have been enough. As a matter of fact, Japan’s live performances here are so good. two records still leave me wanting more. The band absolutely nails the feeling of their studio recordings yet at the same time breathes new life into the songs, mixing them up and changing just enough to let you know they have no intention of performing a studio carbon copy.

The history of rock has always been filled with somebody’s favorite artist that didn’t make it for one reason or another. Its future will forever hold the same. Though the sounds and styles of these bands may differ drastically, one factor is always a constant: they are always true artists. I think Japan knew this when they released their only live record. That’s why they chose a name for it that alluded to true artistry; a name alluding to one of the most classical forms of artistic expression.

Oil on Canvas.

Neil Young – After The Gold Rush

Neil Young is a deeply philosophical guy. You can tell this from the lyrics in his songs. “After the Gold Rush” is a deeply philosophical album based on the script for a deeply philosophical film of the same name. A film that was never made.

The story was one of self-discovery – an end of the world tale that revolved around psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory that deep inside, many of us are on a quest for wholeness. Weaved into the story was the Kabbalah principle of searching for the relationship between the realm of God and one’s own mortal existence.

Deep stuff.

On a perhaps shallower, but no less gratifying level, it’s just some great music.