Friday, September 3, 2010

The Little Things: 20 Underrated Moments in Rock & Roll

We all love a big, hooky chorus and a catchy riff, but sometimes it’s the little things that keep us coming back to our favorite records: a quick grunt here, a flubbed guitar there, a little sonic detail tossed in at the caprice of an extra-creative producer. Some of these small elements have built their own legends, like Roy Orbison’s feline growl in “Oh! Pretty Woman”, Roger Daltrey’s primal scream at the climax of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and the cold-ending of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”. Some are less celebrated, and therefore, riper for rediscovery. So tune up your ears and get nice and vigilant as we go on the lookout for the following 20 magnificent moments that deserve to be memorable ones, too…



1. Elvis’s ghost appears 21 years before the King dies…

Of all the versions of Rodgers and Hart’s standard “Blue Moon” that have been recorded, the most stunning is the one cut by Elvis Presley in 1956. Completely bizarre even by early Rock & Roll standards, Elvis’s voice and the sparse backing of percussion, guitar, and bass are caked in reverb, making it all sound as though it’s being transmitted from beyond the grave. Elvis links the verses with strange falsetto cries, the one at the 1:38 mark being particularly intense. This was as scary as Rock & Roll got before artists like The Velvet Underground, Nico, and The Beatles went avant garde in the late ‘60s. And speaking of The Beatles…







2. The Beatles think sensitive ballads are totally hilarious…

On the precipice of moving beyond the ‘50s Rock & Roll that so deeply influenced their first few records, The Beatles cut a pretty little ballad called “If I Fell” for the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. The tune couldn’t have been more out of step with the guys’ budding Dylan infatuation, which would come to the fore on their next album. Perhaps John and Paul were a bit self-conscious about the retro-quality of “If I Fell”. That might explain why the latter was unable to suppress his giggles at the tail of the second bridge (Paul cracks on the word “vain” at the 1:45 mark). The culprit certainly couldn’t have been pot, since their intro to the wicked-weed via Dylan was still a good seven months away.







3. Keef’s premature discharge…

Few Rock & Roll songs have been pored over as obsessively as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and few guitar riffs are as deeply ingrained in the collective pop-culture consciousness. Yet, somehow Keith Richards’s big flub at the 2:34 mark has inspired little text. Switching on his fuzz box to launch into the final chorus, Keith farts out a single note, which apparently so discombobulates him that he comes in late on the next riff. A mistake, perhaps, but it puts a funky little exclamation point on the climax of the Stones’ signature hit.







4. Mary Weiss falls in l-u-v…

Has any other group delivered as many way-way-way-cool spoken asides as The Shangri-La’s? Their eternal question of “Is she really going out with him?” at the outset of “Leader of the Pack” was so memorable that Joe Jackson constructed an entire song out of it. Even groovier is Mary Weiss’s improperly spelled declaration that kicks off the attitude-soaked “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, l-u-v.” Once again, the line took on an additional life when David Johansen appropriated it for the intro of The New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss” eight years later.







5. The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil & an armadillo…

Justifiably frustrated with the tame sounds of Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane were determined to get as freaky as they desired on their third (and, in my opinion, greatest) record, After Bathing at Baxter’s. The album launches with The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil, a surreal, feedback-riddled ode to A.A. Milne and folk-singer Fred Neil. Or something. Perhaps it’s an ode acid. Yes, definitely acid. An ode to acid. Lots and lots and lots of acid. How else could one explain Grace Slick’s melisma of “Armadillo” during the first bridge (1:11) or Marty Balin’s spoken interjection of that same cryptic word that follows (1:16)?







6. Baker gets a boost…

People love to gush on and on about how “Clapton is god,” but for my money, his six-string contributions to Cream were utterly dwarfed by the otherworldly singing and bassing of Jack Bruce and the tribal thump of Ginger Baker. For all his effortlessly nimble and monstrously muscular ventures around his gigantic kit, Ginger Baker’s most memorable moment in my mind arrives by way of a simple kick drum during the fade of “White Room”. And, in all fairness, it really has more to do with producer Felix Pappalardi than Baker. For whatever reason, Pappalardi decided to raise the level on Baker’s kick to a superhuman level, making the final moments of the record its mightiest.







7. Clayton cracks…

I tried to limit each artist referenced on this list to a single entry, but those bloody Stones offered up too many instances of fleeting genius to trim. Certainly Merry Clayton’s entire cameo halfway through “Gimmie Shelter” rates as one of the greatest performances in Rock & Roll, but it’s the way her voices cracks on her third frenzied shout of “Rape, murder” (3:01) that elevates it to something beyond the beyond. The Stones never had a problem sounding unhinged, but it took a guest to provide their most unhinged moment.







8. Roy Harper’s damage control…

Under normal circumstances, re-recording a song because of a screw-up is an artist’s nightmare (Pete Townshend was so irate that the cleaning staff at Talent Masters Studios broke the tape of “Rael” that he threw a chair through the control room’s glass partition). But imagine if the song in question is 12:25 long! This was the case with the most epic epic on Roy Harper’s quartet of epics, Stormcock. After cutting the best take of “The Same Old Rock”, a venom-spewing screed against organized religion, Harper realized he’d skipped a line. Rather than attempt to recapture the magic take from scratch, he simply faded out his acoustic guitar and sang the line a cappella. The moment (6:04) adds an extra dimension of mystery to an already mysterious… and absolutely gorgeous… recording.

(Hear it here)

9. Bowie gets bitchy…

Much like when Hendrix would take a completely innocuous phrase like “Aw shucks” and transform it into the most lascivious come-on you ever heard, David Bowie does the same at the end of his Lou Reed-tribute “Queen Bitch”. After wailing the final chorus, he spits an impromptu “You betcha!” (2:58) potent enough to erase two years-worth of Sarah Palin’s folksy idiocy from your memory.







10. Bolan loses it in the count-in…

You can tell that Marc Bolan the serious musician intended to count in “Baby Strange” with a simple “1 and 2 and 3 and 4”. That’s pretty clear. But Bolan the Imp only allows him to get halfway through it, interjecting a spew of funky gibberish, and transforming the count into something like “1 and 2 and BUBBLY BUBBLY BOO BOO YEAH”! As goofy/insane as the exclamation is, after hearing it one or two times, it’s impossible to imagine “Baby Strange” beginning any other way.







11. Seagulls over Brighton…

The Who were on a constant quest for transcendence, which they achieved with some of their most famous recordings (see the primal scream referenced in the introduction to this article). But there are moments of powerful transcendence secreted in some of their more obscure tracks, as well. One hits hard during the third verse of “The Dirty Jobs”, a magnificent yet underappreciated number from Quadrophenia. As the band’s energy level peaks, a seagull-like cry invades the track (2:46), which somehow hits that same emotional g-spot as the scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (well, for me, at least). Perhaps the sound effect was meant to conjure images of gulls soaring over Brighton Beach, the spot where the Mod Opera’s main character Jimmy has his most significant experiences. Whatever its purpose, the cry’s plaintive quality, coupled with Daltrey’s emotionally bare vocalizing, makes for a truly transcendent moment. When The Who’s catalogue was subjected to a really misguided remixing in the ‘90s, the gull cry was edited out of “The Dirty Jobs”. I sincerely hope someone lost their job over that moronic decision.







12. Van’s breakdown…

Van Morrison’s voice is as expressive an instrument as, say, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar or John Coltrane’s sax. Fearless, powerful, and endlessly imaginative, Van’s voice does things no human pipes should be able to do. Just listen to Astral Weeks to dig what I’m saying, but if you really want to hear him at his most outre´, spin “Cul De Sac”, an underrated track buried on side B of his altogether underrated LP Veedon Fleece. The song is a loping country-soul number of the sort The Band did so well. Nothing terribly strange here. At least, not until Van apparently decides enough is enough with his band’s low-key restraint and starts, well, freaking out. He does his best approximation of an escaped mental patient as he starts making weird grunting noises through his nose at the 4:38 mark before letting loose a truly terrifying primal scream 17 seconds later, only to resume his nutso grunts with increased fervor (5:25), sounding quite like a pig rooting out truffles. Brilliant!

13. John Cale stumbles…

John Cale’s avant garde background seems eons away for the majority of “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, a poppy piano-based number that isn’t really that different from Elton John’s more creative songs. The song plods along excitingly in that manner for it’s first 3:09. Then, following a brief piano/guitar break, a reverb-drenched bass thuds through the floor, and Cale stumbles in on the off-beat to howl the refrain like a feral freak until the track’s completion. That introductory moment when Hell breaks loose across “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend indicates the unpredictable direction the rest of the Fear album… and Cale’s career… would take.

14. Bonzo’s funky prelude…

I remember praising the brilliance of John Bonham’s hi-hat rhythm that leads into “Night Flight” to my Led Zep-crazed friends when I was in high school, and they could never see what the big deal was. Surely, for a band that paid as much attention to detail as Led Zeppelin did, this barely audible 2-second bit of hi-hat is a relatively minor moment. Yet I think it’s such a funky little spin on the usual “1-2-3-4” count-in that it defines why Bonham’s style was so much more than the “BOOM-CRASH-BOOM-CRASH” beat it is so often pigeonholed as better than all the soloing in “Moby Dick” (which lasts for roughly four and a half months).







15. Joe Strummer thinks he’s a chicken…

The best songs by “The Only Band That Matters” were seething wake-up calls to the injustice and oppression looming over us all. On the title track of The Clash’s greatest record, London Calling, Joe Strummer puts a particularly fine point on this by “cock-a-doodle-do-ing” like a rooster. It’s a moment that might have been undignified coming from a less confident singer. Coming from Strummer after 2:38 of prophetic growling about punters nodding out amidst the threat of nuclear war, that cockcrow is the ultimate wake-up.







16. The snarl…

Chrissie Hynde made a career out of subverting sexual stereotypes about women in Rock & Roll. She decked herself in tattered jeans and leather jackets in stark contrast to Debbie Harry’s miniskirts. She hunched before the microphone like a scoliosis patient with her Telecaster slung down at her knees. Her scraggly hair hung in her face to such a degree that you couldn’t really tell what she looked like at all. And, yet, she oozed sexuality as much as Harry or Brigitte Bardot or Jagger or anyone else because of her uncompromising lyrics (see “Tattooed Love Boys”), her unflinching attitude, and her huskily expressive voice. If you can hear Hynde’s from-the-diaphragm snarl 15 seconds into “The Wait” without getting a little turned on, check yourself into the local morgue, because you’re dead.







17. Revving up…

The Revillos’ debut was one of the most exciting albums of 1980, and its title track gets started in a manner that both peaks that excitement level barely two songs into the record and sums up the Revillos’ cartoony appeal. After the sound of a motorcycle racing off and a psychotic little guitar riff play at chipmunk speed, the tape slows down to normal speed like an elastic band snapping back into place. Yet the band still races through “Rev Up” at hyper-speed. A rush in every sense of the word.







18. The Damned do Lorre…

The Damned rarely took their Goth-leanings or Monster Movie-obsessions very seriously, which suited the band just fine. Take “Grimly Fiendish”, their sizable UK hit that paid tribute to the villainous Grimly Feendish from the comic books Wham! and Smash!. They deliver this ode to a very “bad boy” as if it’s an outtake from The Who’s cartoony masterpiece The Who Sell Out (the mood of Edwardian gloom is reminiscent of Entwistle’s “Silas Stingy”, while that “bad lad, bad boy” chorus is lifted straight from “Our Love Was”). An extra element of comic book ghoulishness was left off the version in the official running order of the Phantasmagoria album and the A-side of the “Grimly Fiendish” single. Someone (chief singer Dave Vanian, perhaps?) utters the title in a sniveling imitation of cinematic villain Peter Lorre in the “Bad Trip Mix” included as a bonus track on the Phantasmagoria CD and the “Grimly Fiendish” 12” single. It’s a neat moment repeated throughout the song (first appearance: 00:29) that helps make the “Bad Trip Mix” the definitive mix.







19. The other Elvis’s ghost screams at us from Mars…

The punks scoffed at Elvis Costello, because even in 1977, they could tell his heart was more into Cole Porter-style song craft than Johnny Rotten-style raving. Yet, Costello is one of the all-time great ravers. His screams are unparalleled. If you can figure out how he got his vocal cords to squeeze out those screeches in “Playboy to a Man” without the aid of helium, please drop me a line. Another amazing example of his lunatic yelping can be heard 6:02 into the pounding “Tokyo Storm Warning” from Blood and Chocolate. Costello lets off a scream at the track’s climax that, when bolstered by a burst of repeat-echo, sounds like a ray gun zapping down from another planet.

20. Kristin Hersh thinks she’s a goat…

Of all the angular elements that comprise the Throwing Muses sound, the most potent one is Kristin Hersh’s voice. She could scream as violently as her buddy Black Francis from The Pixies, belt as powerfully as Grace Slick, and coo as delicately as George Harrison. On "Colder", the opening song of the Muses’ first consistently great album, House Tornado, she detonates all her vocal fireworks, culminating in a round of bizarre bleating at the 3:01 mark. It’s chilling and thrilling and as memorable a moment as any other on this list.

So, what are some of your favorite underrated Rock & Roll moments?
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