Sunday 6 March 2011

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 25 Rockin’ & Rollin’ Greats

25 Rockin' & Rollin' Greats (1972, Vinyl) | Discogs

(#117: 2 December 1972, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Rock Around The Clock (Bill Haley)/Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates)/Be-Bop-A-Lula (Gene Vincent)/Wake Up Little Susie (The Everly Brothers)/Long Tall Sally (Little Richard)/The Great Pretender (The Platters)/Surfin’ U.S.A. (The Beach Boys)/Stagger Lee (Lloyd Price)/Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins)/Let’s Have A Party (Wanda Jackson)/It Hurts To Be In Love (Gene Pitney)/Rockin’ Robin (Bobby Day)/Glad All Over (The Dave Clark Five)/Lucille (Little Richard)/Shake Rattle & Roll (Bill Haley)/Sheila (Tommy Roe)/Wipe-Out (The Surfaris)/Lawdy Miss Clawdy (Lloyd Price)/Bird Dog (The Everly Brothers)/Cumberland Gap (Lonnie Donegan)/Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) (The Shangri-La’s)/Rip It Up (Carl Perkins)/Oh Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison)/Bony Moronie (Ronnie Hawkins)/Please Don’t Touch (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates)

Intended as a companion volume to entry #116 – the bad cop to its predecessor’s good – 1972’s last “new” number one album suggests a wider picture of confused nostalgia; although glam and teenybop were now well established in the singles chart, and the Philly Sound was on the rise, many of the year’s biggest hits were recycled oldies from the fifties or pre/parallel-Beatles sixties. Certainly there was another craving for the simplicities of the old, direct rebellion that the classic rock ‘n’ roll sides and artists appeared still to propose. In World’s End, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Let It Rock boutique (with its attendant jukebox, furnished by castoffs from Ted Carroll’s Rock On stall in Shepherds Bush Market) was doing brisk business, and in August 1972 the hugely successful London Rock and Roll Show played at Wembley Arena; Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Little Richard and (topping the bill) Chuck Berry all turned up and were welcomed as heroes. Of these names, only two turn up on this compilation, and none of their two tracks apiece is the original recording.

Despite K-Tel’s primary selling point of Original Hits by Original Artists, the packaging for this album is subtly and cunningly different; “ORIGINAL HITS” and “ORIGINAL STARS” are both emblazoned across the cover, but there is no conjunctival “BY THE” to connect them. Together with the seemingly random nature of the rest of the material selected, it will not do to have this as a definitive response to the world which Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell et al had hitherto inhabited and defined, although at the same time its fished-out-of-the-dreck stance almost makes one want to damn “official” histories; this was probably closer to the chaotic melée of rock history as it stood at the time – listening to it is akin to sitting in somebody’s front room and sifting through their inexplicable collection of oldies (but isn’t everybody’s record collection inexplicable to all bar their owners?). Unsorted dustbin rejects, uncleared drains and cartons, idly dusted shelves, with (as yet) no Greil Marcus or Rhino Records to make their sense of it all.

“Rock Around The Clock” is a predictable off-kicker, but listening to the live versions of this and “Shake” is enough to query how either could have caused so much fuss; this “Clock” is stiff and unswinging, although both guitars and drums make an eleventh-hour sprint towards animation (the drum ending clatters like a sauced-up sarcophagus), and Haley’s giggle (“We’ll be go-oing strong”) suggests another night, another paycheck, keep them happy with memories of what once were. “Woah, that’s all!” he chuckles at the end of “Clock”; you were expecting the next step forward? Whereas the Little Richard selections – in their original form, some of the bloodiest and most apocalyptic yet sheerly happiest of rock ‘n’ roll (no wonder Eric Dolphy found the transition from Richard’s backing band to Mingus’ front line so natural) – these manifestations of “Sally” and “Lucille” are extracted from a long medley, clearly from the early seventies, with most of the roughness and cheek cancelled out by the showbiz house big band, Richard’s own approach more carefully gospel than raucously ripping anything up. Not that he should care: “Ooo mah soul,” he whispers to himself as “Lucille” fades out and into whoever knows what – his hijacking of Dick Cavett’s show was all he needed to do in the seventies to prove that he still counted (all the dead gunslingers who got what they wanted but lost what the original had).

Most of the remaining tracks are the original recordings (despite the copyright dates ascribed to them) but only “Be-Bop-A-Lula” really hurls forward the notion of freed, unalloyed sex and colour which supposedly attracted so many of us to this music in the first place. Vincent clings to his “team”s and “love”s like the last atoms of oxygen available on Earth, continually shivering and shaking as though he cannot believe the war is over and he’s free to fuck; Cliff Gallup’s guitar persuades, teases and injects (although the Western Swing influence still rides high in his playing), fifteen-year-old drummer Dickie “Be Bop” Harrell yells at the end of each verse to let his parents know he’s there and fires machine gun snare fusillades at Vincent’s final quatrain of “my baby love.”

The rest is tributaries and digressions. Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” (a more sophisticated measuring out of C&W and R&B elements) warns merrily not to try it, but the Everly Brothers (who might at one time wanted to be the Louvins, but did they realise how many young men would subsequently want to be them?) know that the game’s a bogey, that if you do not own yourself – if you are subject to small town Americana pseudo-morals, or the power and influence of your parents and your friends (“Susie”), then you know full well that someone’s going to walk right over your blue suede shoes the second you come out of the house (those acoustic guitars, sharp as sharks’ teeth, like the sharks who are going to step on your head, never mind your shoes, the minute you become an adult). But that doesn’t negate the possibility of small triumphs; “Bird Dog” is sneakily triumphant; joker Johnnie will probably end up in the joker’s jailhouse, or, worse, a middle-aged neurotic wretch, just as Phil and Don wrap up their mortgage payments.

“The Great Pretender” is definitely a re-recording, and a bloated and ponderous one at that; Tony Williams’ grief at his societal duplicity is still real (as is his subsequent influence in both subject matter and delivery on Smokey Robinson – his “like a clown”) but now rather hammed up, and the superfluous piano flurries indicate, pace Stan Freberg, that the original minimalism of “clink-clink-clink” was there for a reason. Worse, the syrup-of-figs string arrangement all but drowns the song (and there is audible tonality/pitch disagreement between voices and strings). Better to venture a year forward, to Richard Manuel’s quiet but intense reading of the song on The Band’s Moondog Matinee, or even fifteen years to Freddie Mercury’s end-of-pier-synthesiser version (as with Manuel, the song acts as a premature obituary, Mercury having in 1987 recently tested positive for HIV) or, best of all, a decade forward to Lester Bowie’s loving, adoring dissection and reconstruction of the song (and he doesn’t bother to conceal its ineffable, unreachable core of acid sadness).

Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” is an unapologetic Buddy Holly ripoff (at least in part, since it’s only when the second verse begins that Roe audibly switches to a Holly impression) with a curious attitude towards the object of its desire (“She looks a little nosy”). But following it up with “Wipe-Out” joins some important dots, namely the influence of the fast-paced, treble-heavy Holly/Crickets drum patterns on surf music (although some of Roy Orbison’s Sun sides also predicate surf music more directly, e.g. “Go Go Go”). And out of all this, and the absent Chuck Berry (who at the time of this album’s spell at the top was number one in the UK singles chart with “My Ding-A-Ling”), came the Beach Boys. “If everybody had a notion across the U.S.A.” (and the Sometimes A Great Notion spell of “Goodnight Irene” briefly returns to view) and it’s impossible not to feel good for these young Californians, with their already skilful fusing of soon-to-be-outdated tropes (the Johnny and the Hurricanes organ solo) with eternal truths (the roaring Berry guitar). So much joy, so much life ahead of them...

Some of the diversions here are completely unexpected. Lloyd Price begins his “Stagger Lee” with his own, familiar prelude, before his “down” ushers in the door-kicking drums and band. The old, old story which will eventually pass through Riot and Superfly and then outward again into hip-hop. But this is not quite the familiar version of gambling and violent death; here Stagger and Billy merely argue about a “girlfriend,” make a mutually beneficial deal and agree to get on with each other in future. This is in fact the now extremely rare alternate version of “Stagger Lee” recorded at the behest of Dick Clark and American Bandstand (since Clark was loath to have his teen audience exposed to a performance which downright celebrated gambling and murder). It did come out as the “official” 45 version but the original has prevailed and is what you almost invariably hear on compilations and oldies radio. The odd thing about this reading, however, is how much more committed and urgent the band sounds than they do on the explicit original; the tenor sax dragging itself through two choruses, drums and piano hammering, even the Ray Conniff-style chorus (“Go, Sta-gger Lee!”) sounding as though willing blood to be shed. As with Elvis’ supposedly watered-down “One Night,” what cannot be said accentuates and accelerates the dynamism of what is eventually expressed (Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was recorded at the same session with the same personnel and is pleasing enough, if not a patch on his quietly seductive 1952 original).

The only female journey undertaken on this record says enough in itself; there’s Wanda Jackson, rasping her way through and beefing up Presley’s “Let’s Have A Party,” and half a decade later we encounter (bizarrely) the Shangri-La’s, a group of nice, mild-mannered girls from Queen’s trying very hard to portray themselves as street toughs (in direct contrast to most other girl groups of the period, streetwise and hard-centred but attempting to come across as dainty and sweet). Now the fight that Wanda had in her tongue seems to have evaporated, and we are left with one of Shadow Morton’s oblique (virtually Cassavetes-like) character studies; “Sand” alternating between strident lament, piano and drums falling like axe hammers over Mary Weiss’ “oh no”s, and groundless, ghostly fingersnaps of a deceased world, the seagulls evoking not a beach but the backdrop to Hitchcock’s The Birds.

There is Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” presumably present because of the then-recent hit cover by Michael Jackson; the original sounds fuller but less harmonically ingenious than Jackson’s. We get one of the rare piccolo solos in rock and a strange wolf-whistle/rattle coda but it’s hardly the essence of anything. Neither the Pitney nor Orbison selections really belong here; each man assumed the two faces of coping with loss or grief or betrayal, Pitney suffering in clear, loud view, blasting his pain into our ears and hearts, and Orbison the lifelong fatal stoic, heroically standing tall and attempting to remain erect as the world shits upon him. Pitney comes off worse here; he needed to suffer in slow motion and was rarely convincing uptempo. “It Hurts To Be In Love” starts off like a Northern Soul wannabe with its “The In Crowd” drums hijacked by a Del Shannon high keyboard figure and Pitney’s pain is quickly revealed as a dangerous obsession (“KEEPHERTOMYSELF!”), wanting to preserve his Other in pickle rather than run the risk of any further bird dogs queering his trail.

When Pitney was permitted to be happy, he acted bewildered, dazed (“Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”). But the Big O always sounded triumphant when he was let off the hook – the nailbiting payoff of “Running Scared” which may too betray its own hazardous notions of possession, and the slowly-dawning suprise and smile on the singer as the “Pretty Woman” turns around and walks back to him. He expected tomorrow just to be like tonight and last night but that’s not going to happen any more, and no wonder this went to number one in our Beatles-dominated 1964; we know he’s more than earned the right to be happy.

Then there are the other survivors. Carl Perkins makes a surprisingly decent fist of “Rip It Up,” recorded for the 1970 album Boppin’ The Blues with an early manifestation of NRBQ (two of whose number, Steve Ferguson and Terry Adams, would go on to work with Carla Bley – and using Adams’ clavinet as lead instrument here was an astute arrangemental choice). And honorary Canadian Ronnie Hawkins does a gutsy, knowing take on “Bony Moronie,” recorded in Nashville (in 1972) for his Rock & Roll Resurrection album; the Hawks are nowhere to be seen, but he rolls by regardless, virtually willing on the Canadian rock history which he pretty much invented (in all senses). “Hang on to me, brethren!” he remarks as the track fades, and you can hear them doing so.

This leaves a quartet of British tracks. The presence of “Glad All Over,” a great record but not, strictly speaking, a rock ‘n’ roll record, is surprising (especially as canny businessman Dave Clark is normally notoriously reluctant to license DC5 tracks to compilation albums). Moreover, the marked differences in Mike Smith’s vocal performance suggest this to be an alternate take (rather than a re-recording). Still, it is popstrologically my birth song and a remarkable work of sonic art; listening to it now conjures up not so much the Beat Boom (since Clark and producer/engineer Adrian Kerrigan were meticulously careful in their use of studio echo, compression and bass response to make DC5 records sound louder and less immediately dated than their contemporaries) as an early reaction to ska; listen to the carefully layered factors of nearly hymnal organ set against ceaselessly chattering single-note guitar and rasping saxophone and you could be forgiven for thinking this an early manifestation of 2-Tone, in particular The Beat.

Then there are Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, shaking in a more decidedly British fashion than Gene Vincent. Kidd’s vocal dips on the verses of “Shakin’” now remind me of (of all people) Midge Ure (although he only really gets going with the sensuality thing on fadeout) and although the record is skilfully assembled and executed (that unexpected 6/8 drum break midsong, guitarist Mick Green’s careful shepherding along of nascent British rock) it doesn’t have the apocalyptic impact of the subsequent cover by Canada’s Chad Allen and the Expressions (a group who would eventually become The Guess Who; Burton Cummings sings, Randy Bachman rips his guitar to shreds). Likewise, “Please Don’t Touch” is a bit like Kenneth More trying to get a bit saucy, although its more determined dynamics point pretty clearly to the Beatles. Again, Kidd issues some promising growls, too late for the record to have more impact.

And finally, the man who started it all here, Lonnie Donegan, and “Cumberland Gap” still sounds by some distance the most askew, noisy and future-anticipating thing on this record; it starts out as a typical fast-paced steam train skiffle shuffle, but something else possesses Donegan and his group and the pace steps up to beyond the point of hysteria – Denny Wright’s guitar solo and the group’s response to it are unhinged, Donegan screaming and hiccuping throughout, and by the time of the final verse he has gone even beyond music hall capers into unintelligble yelps. Not even in sight of the two-minute marker, it sounds like the ultimate ejection and rejection of everything that came before it; no more cosy “family” routines on variety shows, no more snigger-unworthy novelty numbers – this was blood and sweat and punk twenty years before it happened, Donegan’s whine willing the infant John Lydon to come under its waterfall. Still a future to be had, therefore, and 1973’s entries will demonstrate at some length how some of its brightest pupils handled it.