Tag Archives: Mercury

The Platters: Rock

The mid- and uptempo sides of ‘50s ballad legends

Like many of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding acts, the decades have largely reduced the Platters’ memory to their hits – “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But, also like many of their colleagues, there was a great deal more to the Platters catalog than these iconic singles. Bear Family’s generous thirty track collection explores beyond the group’s familiar ballads, and focuses on mid- and uptempo tracks from the Mercury years of 1955-1962. The set’s most rocking tunes, including “Bark, Battle and Ball,” “Don’t Let Go,” “Hula Hop,” “I Wanna,” “Out of My Mind” and “You Don’t Say,” reach back past the pop balladry to the group’s R&B roots; but even the slower songs, including bass vocalist Herb Reed’s interpretation of “Sixteen Tons,” are more juke joint than supper club.

The group revs up the standards “On a Slowboat to China,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Let’s Fall in Love” to show tempo, giving a sense of what they might have sounded like at a hop. All five Platters get lead vocal spots, and the group is supported on several tracks by the orchestral direction of Mercury’s David Carroll. Also heard here are Wrecking Crew regulars Plas Johnson, Barney Kessell, Earl Palmer and Howard Roberts, and on the scorching opening pair, saxophonist Freddie Simon and guitarist Chuck Norris. Bear Family’s crisp reproductions of mono and stereo masters are housed in a tri-fold digipak with a 36-page booklet of photos, liner notes and a detailed discography. This is a novel view of the Platters’ catalog, but one that sheds new light on their range. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Herb Reed’s Platters’ Home Page

Thin Lizzy: Johnny the Fox (Deluxe Edition)

Expanded look at the follow-up to Jailbreak

With the success of the Jailbreak album earlier in the year, Thin Lizzy was poised for major stardom. Both the album and its key single, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” were commercial successes, and numerous album tracks had become turntable hits on FM and college radio. The band climbed the ranks from opener to headliner and was slated to go out in support of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, but just as they were to ascend to the major leagues of U.S. rock stardom, songwriter, lead vocalist and bassist Phil Lynott was bedridden with hepatitis. He continued to write as he recovered, but by the time the band recorded this follow-up album and commenced to touring, the steam heat of their commercial breakthrough had cooled.

The band had recorded Jailbreak under label and management pressure, but for the follow-up they recorded under the pressure of fame slipping through their fingers. Though the band plays well, and guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson further refined their twin-guitar sound, opinions are split as to whether the album was recorded too hurriedly. Gorham feels the sessions were rushed and that the songs weren’t all fully fleshed out by their final takes, while the band’s manager notes that the tour-record-tour-record treadmill was simply how it was done in the mid-70s. Sessions began at Munich’s Musicland Studio, as much for its tax advantages as its sound, but quickly relocated back to the same Ramport Studio where, together with producer John Alcock, the band had recorded Jailbreak.

Lynott doesn’t write directly of his illness and recuperation, but it’s clear that the months off the road led to deep introspection. “Fool’s Gold” casts the pursuit of illusory rewards in multiple settings, not least of which was the wild night life that landed Lynott in the hospital. A contemplation of the daily misery essayed in the news, and Lynott’s appraisal of his religious background led to “Massacre,” in which he questions, “if God is in the heavens / how can this happen here?” The album’s lyrics are often allusive, rather than direct, and the band’s sinewy bass punch is supplemented by heavy guitar solos. The album’s single, “Don’t Believe a Word” scored in the UK, but stiffed in the U.S., and though the album went gold, it failed to spark the excitement of Jailbreak. The resulting U.K. album tour was a success, but the U.S. leg was canceled after Brian Robertson was injured in a London bar fight.

As with Jailbreak, the quality of the recordings and the final mixes nagged Scott Gorham. On the second disc of this reissue, Gorham and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot have reworked three of the album tracks, broadening the stereo image, clarifying the instrumental mix, pulling a few things into tune (notably, the horns on “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed”), and in one case (“Don’t Believe a Word”), augmenting the guitars. Their intent was to “enhance them to the point where they sound like they were done in 2011,” which many will find a strange goal for an album that’s cherished for its representation of the mid-70s. Still, it’s clear that Gorham and Elliot feel there was something more to be had from the original session tapes, and the original mixes are safe and sound on disc one.

Beyond the remixes, disc two provides its real treats. A trio of BBC sessions from late in 1976 shows the band’s tremendous prowess as a live unit, and instrumental run-throughs of four album tracks show how the band developed their songs. Neil Jeffries’ exceptional liner notes place the album in context within the band’s career, and offer thoughtful details and analysis. Fresh interview material with Gorham, band managers, and cover artist Jimmy Fitzpatrick complement quotes from period interviews with Lynott. Whether you find the remixes to be an interesting reinvention or revisionist claptrap, the remainder of the bonus material on disc two makes this a worthwhile upgrade from previous single-disc reissues.  [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Thin Lizzy: Jailbreak (Deluxe Edition)

An expanded look at a ‘70s rock classic

The Irish hard rock quartet Thin Lizzy hit their commercial peak with this 1976 release, capitalizing on the twin guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, kicking off a string of four gold albums, and launching themselves onto the U.S. singles chart with Phil Lynott’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The album’s impact was far greater than its single’s success, with numerous tracks turned into turntable hits by FM radio, reiterated to this day on classic rock stations. Lynott was a triple threat as a soulful vocalist, powerful bass player and poetic song writer. His lyrics were both intricate in their imagery and memorable in their verbal hooks, and his melodies were rooted in ‘60s pop but hearty enough to stand up to the power of ‘70s guitar rock.

By 1976 it had been three years since Thin Lizzy had struck with “Whiskey in the Jar,” and in the album rock era, their previous five albums, though showing artistic growth, had made little impact on the market. 1975’s Fighting launched the power chords and heavy riffing that powered Jailbreak, but critical praise hadn’t turned into radio play or unit sales. Given one more chance by their label, they were assigned John Alcock as their nominal producer; Alcock showed the band how to record in a more disciplined and focused manner, and provided them the connection to the Who’s Ramport Studio in which Jailbreak was recorded. The result was the most popular album of the band’s career, but as detailed in the 20-page booklet, this wasn’t achieved without a certain amount of disagreement. Neither of the band’s guitarists liked the sound of the album, and Robertson felt “Running Back” was too pop and boycotted its sessions.

Gorham’s distaste for Alcock’s sound led him, along with Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot, to remix, remaster and in spots re-record album tracks for the bonus disc. Some will blanch at the liberties taken, including new rhythm guitar parts, rearranged backing vocals and redubbed sirens on the title track, but the new mixes do seem more powerful than the originals, and according to Elliot, better reflect what the band did with these songs on tour. The deluxe 20-page booklet includes new interviews with Gorham, detailing his deep disdain for the album’s original sound, and providing motivation for the remixes. The new mixes themselves generally thicken, refine and clarify what was on the tapes, but those weaned on the originals may find the larger alterations disconcerting.

In addition to the remixes, disc two will thrill Thin Lizzy fans with an alternate lead vocal for “The Boys Are Back in Town,” four exceptionally tight and powerful BBC session recordings laid down the month before the album’s release, an extended rough mix of “Fight or Fall,” a previously unissued session track (the slow guitar jam “Blues Boy”), and a terrific early live version of “Cowboy Song” titled “Derby Blues.” Derek Oliver’s exceptional liner notes provide a solid recounting of the band’s history, detailed context for the album’s creation (including well selected quotes from period interviews with Lynott and Robertson), and deeply informed commentary on the individual songs. Whether or not you care for the remixes, you’ll come to appreciate that Gorham still cares, thirty-five years later, and you can always spin the original master on disc one. This is a terrific upgrade from the original album. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song

jameyjohnson_thatlonesomesongGritty country self-portrait

Johnson’s second album took a lot of people by surprise, even those who’d enjoyed his 2006 debut, The Dollar. As engaging as was his first album, particularly for his moving baritone voice, what emerged two years later was a much darker, much deeper songwriter. Despite writing chart-topping hits (including George Strait’s “Give It Away” and Trace Adkins’ “Ladies Love Country Boys”), Johnson lost both his record deal and his wife, and hard living caught up to him. Retreating to his writer’s pen, Johnson poured his pain into this set of songs, initially released independently, and subsequently picked up by Mercury. It’s doubtful that an album this hard-core country could have been recorded under the watchful eye of a major label, particularly as a follow-up to a commercially stiff debut. Luckily for listeners, Johnson followed his own road and let the label play catch-up.

The reckoning at the album’s core is front and center in the opening song’s catch line, “the high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high.” Johnson imagines himself in prison, rummaging through the emotional wreckage left in the wake of a wasted, out-of-control life. He lingers over the painful moments, as if they’re a cilice worn in repentance, as if to hasten redemption. The music lingers as well, with slow waltzes, instrumental passages verging on country jams, and dripping steel guitar codas that wind down as last gasps of contrition. The recovery sought in this suite (the songs often segue without gaps) is to be found in a crooked line of ups and downs that bounce between the realities of a gritty present and the dreams of a hopeful future. You can hear Johnson writing his way out of the hole he’d dug, working through admission, decision, inventory, amends, awakening and sharing.

By opening and closing each song informally, as if the band is warming up to a groove and searching for definitive endings, Johnson gives the album a compelling, off-the-cuff storytelling device. There have been few country albums – not songs, but albums – in recent years that have this one’s thematic focus. Rodney Crowell’s recent string of autobiographical albums comes to mind, but few others compare. If Waylon Jennings had ever stopped to doubt his most painful life choices, he might have written an album like this. Allen Reynolds “Dreaming My Dreams,” made famous by Jennings, is sung here in a dissipated voice that recasts the song’s idle wondering into a quiet prayer for salvation. Johnson was clearly touched by something larger when he wrote this album, finding a route to recovery and having the external awareness to write about it. It’s not pretty, but it certainly is breathtaking. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Jamey Johnson’s Home Page
Jamey Johnson’s MySpace Page

Blue Ash: No More, No Less

Power-pop classic finally on CD after thirty-five years

At the time of its 1973 release, No More, No Less, received glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, Creem and Bomp, and the band was on their way with opening slots for Aerosmith, Bob Seger and Nazareth, and even Dick Clark gave them a spin on American Bandstand. By the following year, however, a lack of sales led to the dissolution of their contract with Mercury. The band managed one more album in 1979, but essentially disappeared without making a lasting popular mark. Further, unlike fellow cult pop heroes such as the Rubinoos, Blue Ash’s unreissued catalog left their legacy in the hands of a small but influential cadre of fans: Chicago columnist Bob Greene mentioned Blue Ash in an end-of-the-70s best-of column, the Records covered “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?),” and Scram’s Lost in the Grooves highlighted the No More, No Less as a lost treasure. While the band’s debut continued to languish in the vault, a 2004 two-CD set Around Again served up demos and outtakes that suggested what we were all missing.

Apparently the haggling over rights and the location of master tapes appears to have been settled, because thirty-five years after its initial release, the original dozen tracks are finally on CD. Best of all, this is a rarity that lives up to its hype, delivering on all the promises of early-70s power pop. Blue Ash, like Big Star, The Raspberries, Badfinger and less commercially successful peers such as the Flamin’ Groovies and Hot Dogs, melded the best of mid-60s harmony with the beefier guitar and drum sounds of the early-70s. They then pressed this combination into the compositionally economic mold that commercial FM borrowed from its AM cousins and used to dethrone its free-form older brothers. The results are effervescent three-minute radio gems that pack musical adventure into a tightly scripted form: guitar solos that sting with energy rather than drag with excess showmanship, Keith Moon-inspired full-kit drumming that serves as a motor rather than an gaudy accessory, melodies that lay their barbed hooks in the first verse, and choruses that lend themselves to immediate sing-a-longs.

As much as the band set out to make pop music that reflected the Beatles, Kinks and Beau Brummels, they did so in a new context. The album’s two covers are instructive: Dylan’s then-unreleased acoustic-and-harmonica travelogue “Dusty Old Fairgrounds” was rearranged into a blazing Who-styled drums-and-guitar rocker, and the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” mimics the original’s gentler verses, but lays down heavier rock for the choruses. That stretching between the sweet pop and rock dynamic characterizes much of the album, as the group employed Byrdsian jangle, Left Banke harmonics and even Brewer & Shipley styled country folk-rock, and then turned around to lay on guitar and rhythm section muscle. The opening “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?),” the wishful “All I Want” and the closing “Let There Be Rock” offer the glam-guitar energy of Mott the Hoople and Slade, and though “Smash My Guitar” never attains Who-like ferocity, it still manages to play out its angst with a one-take real-life smashup.

The traditional hard-luck broken hearts of power-pop turn up on “Plain to See,” and the nostalgic tone of the Flamin’ Groovies is heard on “I Remember a Time” and “Wasting My Time.” There are country influences on “Just Another Game,” bubblegum on “Here We Go Again” and West Coast folk rock (with wonderful accents of volume-pedal guitar) on “What Can I Do for You.” It’s easy to tag all these influences and fellow-travelers in retrospect, but in 1973 these sounds were simply part of the atmosphere, rather than icons already ripened for imitation. Blue Ash interpreted their ‘60s influences in the context and conventions of their times. What’s surprising is how undated it still sounds, particularly compared to the radio pop of just a few years later. By sticking to the basics of guitar, bass, drums and a hint of piano, by relying on classic pop melody and craft, Blue Ash minted a timeless classic. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]