Monday, June 27, 2016

Psychobabble’s Twelve Greatest Rarities and Reconstructions (a slight detour in the Great Albums Series…)

In a perfect world, all the great music that great artists have recorded would end up on The Great Albums. I’m sure I do not need to tell you that this world is far from perfect, and I’m also sure you’re aware that a lot of great music was not released in its own time. Perhaps its creators misjudged its quality and decided to leave it in the vaults. Perhaps its creators intended it to be part of a greater concept, and when that concept evaporated, some great songs went out with the bathwater. Perhaps its creators were riddled with self-doubts and believed naysayers who didn’t understand the vision behind the work. Perhaps the music consisted of demos never intended for public consumption or the band broke up before they got a chance to put out the great music they’d created.

Here at the Psychobabble Preservation Society, I believe that this great music should not be punished for failing to see release when it was it made, and I believe that Psychobabble’s Great Albums series should not be punished with its absence. After all, much of it eventually saw release, even if that release was absurdly belated. So what follows is an unusual detour in The Great Albums. The albums may be reconstructions of ones that were supposed to be released but weren’t or they may be compilations of unreleased songs spanning different eras (occasionally peppered with a few tunes that managed to slip out on B-sides or flop A-sides). However, they all contain some music as essential as anything the artists properly released, regardless of whether or not the artists even wanted these rarities and reconstructions to be released.

(Note: I usually try to assemble the albums in this series according to how I personally rate them—from least great to most great—but I decided that chronological order makes more sense for this atypical installment).

1. The Great Lost Kinks Album by The Kinks (1973)

As the sixties came to an end, rarities compilations began emerging with greater frequency. Some, such as The Turtles’ Wooden Head, commemorated bands that ended with the decade. Some, such as The Byrds’ Preflyte, looked back on the beginnings of bands that had changed so much that they might as well have become different ones. The Great Lost Kinks Album was a different story: a contractual obligation archive sweep consisting of songs its chief creator would have preferred to leave in the archives. As these collections go, Great Lost is one of the messier ones because not everything on it had been lost. “I’m Not Like Everyone Else” was the B-side of a smash single, “Plastic Man” had been released as a moderately successful A-side, and “The Way Love Used to Be” had appeared on an LP just two years earlier. The greatness of this stuff is another matter. Favoring outtakes from The Kinks greatest LP, The Village Green Preservation Society (I’m sorry…did I say The Kinks’ greatest LP? I meant the greatest LP) and the aborted solo album Dave Davies’ made with the help of his day-job coworkers, The Great Lost Kinks Album is packed with absolutely wonderful songs that definitely deserved to be heard. “Pictures in the Sand”, “Mister Songbird”, “Groovy Movies”, “This Man He Weeps Tonight” (which had already been on the B-side of the flop “Shangri-La” single), and “Pictures in the Sand” are rollicking, joyful tunes, as marvelously written and rendered as anything Ray and Dave Davies were writing in the late sixties. “’Til Death Us Do Part” (written for the feature version of the UK TV series that inspired the US’s All in the Family), “Rosemary Rose”, “Lavender Hill”, and “There Is No Life without Love” find the Davies brothers in more sighful mode, while “Misty Water” rollicks and sighs in equal proportion, making for what may be the most enchanting track on the collection. One man who most definitely was not enchanted by The Great Lost Kinks Album was Ray Davies, and he successfully forced Reprise Records to discontinue the disc after a mere two years on record shop shelves, sadly forcing some great music back to rarity status for decades. Fortunately, everything on The Great Lost Kinks Album can now be obtained on various deluxe editions and box sets, though the original compilation remains out of print and will likely stay that way.

2. Odds & Sods by The Who (1974)

No such legal matters afflicted a rarities compilation issued a year after The Great Lost Kinks Album. Odds & Sods was officially sanctioned by The Who, compiled by John Entwistle, and adorned with some delightfully wise-assed track notes by Pete Townshend. The music was delightful too, fulfilling Entwistle’s wish to create a sort of Bizarro World Who’s Greatest Hits. The music spans more time than that of The Great Lost Kinks Album, with a track dating back to The Who’s earliest days as The High Numbers (the flop single “I’m the Face”) and nearly shimmying up to the present with 1972’s “Long Live Rock”, one of The Who’s essential anthems. Much of this material had been part of grander concepts. “Little Billy”, a classic example of Townshend’s ability to take odd subject matter and make it deeply moving, was to be an advert for the American Cancer Society. “Postcard”, “Now I’m a Farmer”, and “Naked Eye” were under consideration for a 1970 EP. “Pure and Easy”, “Too Much of Anything”, and “Put the Money Down” were leftovers from the sci-fi Rock Opera Lifehouse that ultimately became Who’s Next, while “Long Live Rock” had been intended for another scrapped multi-media project called Rock Is Dead… Long Live Rock, which ultimately became Quadrophenia. Their original purposes make these songs valuable markers in The Who’s convoluted history. Their quality makes them absolutely essential to the band’s body of work, and “Naked Eye”, “Little Billy”, “Glow Girl”, and “Pure and Easy” easily qualify as some of the band’s greatest work. In fact, I personally rate Odds & Sods as the Who’s second greatest album (after Sell Out).

3. Metamorphosis by The Rolling Stones (1975)

What is probably the weakest compilation on this list comes from its biggest artist, though that’s not really the Stones’ fault. Half of the songs on Metamorphosis actually aren’t Rolling Stones recordings at all; they’re demos of Jagger/Richards songs intended for other artists with only Mick’s vocals providing the weak illusion that they are Rolling Stones recordings. The instruments were provided by studio musicians under the guidance of Andrew Loog Oldham, who may have compiled Metamorphosis to once again let us know how much he wanted to be Phil Spector (the Stones’ former manager, Allen Klein, rejected an alternate track lineup Bill Wyman compiled as The Black Box because it contained to few Jagger/Richards compositions to line Klein’s pockets to his liking). Though many of these demos on Side A are disposable—“Try a Little Harder” is much too cheery to be on a record with “Rolling Stones” printed on its cover, “Out of Time” is superfluous since it is the exact same backing track as the one Chris Farlowe used for his version of the song, “Heart of Stone” is an overproduced spaying of the Stones’ lean version, “Each and Every Day of the Year” is the definition of lethargy, “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind” is simply a bad song—“I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys” is a neat girl-group pastiche and “(Walkin’ Through the) Sleepy City” is a terrific piece of pop in The Kinks vein, its overproduction making it all the more magical. Metamorphosis earns its place on this list with Side B, which mostly consists of actual Stones recordings. There are some killer jams (“Jiving Sister Fanny”, “I’m Going Down”) and funky oddities (“Family”, with its “Sympathy for the Devil” rhythm and disturbing lyric of severe familial dysfunction; a snarly version of “Memo from Turner” that is the side’s one non-Stones track). Best of all is a version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Why”, one of the Stones’ very best covers, and a couple of outtakes better than some of the songs that ended up on the albums for which they were recorded: the Between the Buttons-era idyll “If You Let Me”, and “Downtown Suzie”, an exhilarating Bill Wyman composition that really deserved a place on Beggars Banquet. Metamorphosis may not be the Stones’ most timeless album, but its best songs make it an essential one.

4. Coda by Led Zeppelin (1982)

John Bonham’s shocking and sudden death left Led Zeppelin without an anchor and Atlantic Records without Led Zeppelin. As a means to fulfill contractual obligations— and according to Jimmy Page, thwart the multitudinous bootlegs— a collection of six outtakes and two live recordings was released as the coda to Led Zeppelin’s career. Some critics were hard on Coda, but then again, critics were always hard on Led Zeppelin back in those days. The truth is, it may not be as essential as Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy, but it’s a great opportunity to hear the wanton marauders in more lighthearted mode than they usually were on vinyl. Their live (with studio overdubs) version of Ben E. King’s “We’re Gonna Groove” is one of their funkiest and most fun covers. With its powerful, climbing riff, “Ozone Baby” captures the classic Led Zeppelin sound better than anything on In Through the Outdoor, the album for which it was recorded. “Darlene” is a joyful fifties takeoff, while the grinding “Wearing and Tearing” is the band’s not-so-convincing attempt to impersonate a contemporary punk act. Coda also delivers as a tribute to John Bonham, who not only layers on a variety of percussion for “Bonzo’s Montreaux”, possibly the only Rock & Roll drum solo that isn’t a chore to hear, but also crafts his most intricate pattern for “Poor Tom”, a fabulous Led Zeppelin III outtake. He gives the somewhat formless “Walter’s Walk” form with his immensely mighty work. Really, the only thing here that should have disappointed those bellyaching critics was a superfluous live version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, especially when interesting oddities such as “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” were still languishing in the vaults. They would see release at the beginning of the next decade, and are now appended to Coda as bonus tracks.

5. Scoop by Pete Townshend (1983)

Keith Richards famously opined that Pete Townshend’s demos are better than The Who’s proper recordings of those songs. Keith Richards tends to exaggerate, and this opinion is no exception, but Townshend always did put an incredible amount of care into his home demos, experimenting with different tape machines, synthesizers, and sounds at home before presenting a finished product to Roger, John, and Keith that really was worthy of release. In 1983, he and producer Helen “Spike” Williams combed through his archives and selected 25 tracks for release on another bootlegger-thwarting compilation called Scoop (as in a scoop of the zillions of demos he clearly had in his closet). The results are astonishing. Scoop is a wild, woolly trip, bouncing between eras, styles, and sound experiences like Tommy’s pinball. A rough, voice-and-guitar recording of “So Sad About Us” from 1966 suddenly shudders into a drum-machine and synth experiment called “Brrr” from the late seventies. The bizarre juxtaposition alerts the listener that chronology will be damned and rules will not apply as we listen to Townshend at his most playful (“Squeezebox” played even wackier than The Who version, the gibberish spouting “Piano: Tipperary”, the country frolic “Cookin’”), mesmerizingly intimate (a guitar-only demo of “Behind Blue Eyes”, the gorgeous jazz pattern “To Barney Kessell”, the beautiful Quadrophenia rejects “You Came Back” and “Unused Piano”), and experimental (the gusty voice and viols piece “Zelda”, the hilariously dated “Body Language”, an unused Quadrophenia link track recorded with children’s toys called “Recorders”). His warped solo version of “Melancholia”, Smiley Smile tribute “Goin’ Fishin’”, and Lifehouse leftover “Mary” are among Townshend’s best recordings, period. Scoop is a rare thing indeed: an important document of an artist’s artistry and a really wonderful listen. Plus, Pete plays drums! Quite well! 

6. VU by The Velvet Underground (1985)

VU lies in that shady area between rarities compilation and recreation. Most of the tracks included on this collection were intended to appear on what was to be The Velvet Underground’s second LP for MGM recorded in 1969, but “Temptation Inside Your Heart” and “Stephanie Says” were both recorded in 1968 when John Cale was still in the band. However you want to categorize VU, everything works together perfectly well, the two older tracks fitting in with the mood of the ’69 sessions. Had The Velvets not gotten dropped from MGM amid a management change, fans would have received a sunny record to contrast the band’s dusky and gloomy eponymous album. Actually, Loaded, the record they made after signing to Atlantics’ Cotillion Records, ended up serving that purpose, but despite signature songs such as “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”, that album was not as consistently fine as VU. “I Can’t Stand It”, “Foggy Notion”, “She’s My Best Friend”, and “One of These Days” recapture the classic pulse of the band’s first album but with clearer production and smilier disposition. “Lisa Says” and the sweeping, majestic “Ocean” are moodier in sound but brighter lyrically than much of the band’s previous work. Lest you fear Lou Reed had gone soft, check out the two jolliest sounding tracks on the record: a bouncy curse on Valerie Solanis, the woman who’d shot Andy Warhol, called “Andy’s Chest”, and the Mo Tucker-sung ditty “I’m Sticking with You”, a song of romantic devotion that somehow works in references to lynchings and the Vietnam War. The Velvet Underground & Nico was The Velvet’s greatest Rock & Roll album. VU is their greatest pop album.

7. Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 by Bob Dylan (1991)

Bob Dylan was the first artist with his very own legendary bootleg: the so-called “Great White Wonder”. That should hint at how high-demand his vault material was. The first healthy hunk of it to get official release was the 1975 release of some 1967 Basement Tapes sessions, and Biograph—the box set that mapped out how great box sets are assembled—had a nice selection of oddities among the familiar material. Neither of those releases dumped unreleased Bob into fans’ laps the way Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 did. Over three discs, we are treated to an alternate history of Bob Dylan, witnessing him move from acoustic troubadour to electrified piss-taker to born-again sermonizer with songs innately unfamiliar or rendered unfamiliar via alien renditions as our sign posts. The monolithic “Like a Rolling Stone” is chiseled down to a piano waltz under two minutes. Subterranean Homesick Bluesshifts from Side A Rock & Roll clatter to Side B acoustic guitar/voice simplicity. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Crypicks up serious steam. “If Not For You” is delivered as the true Dylan/Harrison collaboration we’ve always desired. “Idiot Wind” goes intimate. The greatest gifts of The Bootleg Series are its tracks not readily available by their writer on his proper discs. Some are familiar from other artists: Nico (the divine “I’ll Keep It with Mine”), Manfred Mann (the kicking “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”), Rod Stewart (the classically folky “Only a Hobo” and “Mama, You Been on My Mind”). Other are new revelations, such as the ripping Highway 61 orphan “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”, the swirling “Shes Your Lover Now” from the Blonde on Blonde sessions, the shoe-gazing country “Wallflower”, and the monumental eight outtakes from Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that tent pole Disc One. If you’re like me, you might think this collection would have been better off as Rare and Unreleased 1961 – 1976 (with the spellbinding “Blind Willie McTell” as a bonus track, of course), because Dylan’s Christian phase and eighties MOR is not to everyone’s tastes, but that still leaves nearly fifty essential pieces to snap into one of twentieth century music’s most essential jigsaw puzzles.

8. Incesticide by Nirvana (1992)

All of the artists on this list had begun their careers a long time before their first rarities collection was released. The one exception is Nirvana, a band who’d taken over the Rock scene completely after releasing only two albums. So the outtakes, demos, radio recordings, and between-the-cracks singles that comprise Incesticide were an attempt to satiate fan demand in the days when bands no longer released two or three albums a year (just think: Nirvana had been releasing LPs for three years by 1992. During their first three years of album making, The Beatles had put out six). The great surprise of Incesticide is that it captured who Nirvana was better than their too-grungey and unmelodic debut or the too slick Nevermind had. There is still some of the poppiness that helped Nirvana cross over from grunge cult band to mainstream stars in the single “Sliver”, the feminist “Been a Son”, and the “Teen Spirit”-sibling “Aneurysm”. There’s some of the dense grunginess of Bleach in “Dive”, “Stain”, and the genuine Bleach bonus-track “Downer” (though all of these are better songs than almost anything on the debut). There are also tracks much weirder and daring than anything on either album, such as “Mexican Seafood”, which sounds like Cobain had recorded it while sitting on the toilet after eating too much Mexican seafood, and “Hairspray Queen”, which sounds like he’d recorded during a rubber-room stay. Such pieces give an early taste of what was to come on In Utero. Charmingly, there’s also a lot of room for another key side of Nirvana: their enthusiastic and eclectic fandom. The guys pay tribute to Devo, The Vaselines, and in what may be the most radical move of all, classic rock staples Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin! Incesticide probably isn’t the best Nirvana album, but it may be the ultimate one.

9. First Rays of the New Rising Sun by Jimi Hendrix (1997)

Like Curt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix died much, much too early in his career, similarly only releasing three studio albums during his lifetime. He was in the process of recording his fourth when he overdosed in 1970. Like Electric Ladyland, it was too be another double album, but a more accessible, less experimental one full of lean, funky, potential singles such as “Freedom”, “Room Full of Mirrors”, “Dolly Dagger”, “Ezt Rider”, “Izabella”, and “Stepping Stone”. “Angel” and “Drifting” were two of Hendrix’s dreamiest, loveliest songs. The songs he completed indicate that First Rays of the New Rising Sun would have been another monumental Jimi Hendrix record had he gotten the chance to finish it. Immediately following his death, a lot of these songs surfaced on sloppily assembled collections like The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge. Considering how ransacked the Hendrix archives would be, its surprising that all of the Rising Sun tracks would not be thoughtfully reconstructed until 1997. Forgiving the cheesily photoshopped cover, which looks like a still from a karaoke video, First Rays of the New Rising Sun is the ideal presentation of Hendrix’s lost classic, frontloading it with the most polished tracks to give an idea of what a perfect single-disc it could have been and finishing off with the less finished ones, making them feel like a run of really good bonus tracks. With Are You Experienced, Axis, Electric Ladyland, and Band of Gypsies, First Rays of the New Rising Sun caps off the essential Jimi Hendrix collection.

10. Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft by Guided by Voices (2000)

DGC released Incesticide because Nirvana fans needed satisfaction (and I’m sure that DGC did too with a few extra Nirvana-generated dollars). Robert Pollard released Suitcase because Robert Pollard needed satisfaction. It would not be outrageous to assume that Bob is the most prolific artist…well…ever. Unlike most artists of his day, there was no way he was going to take two or three years to complete enough material for an album. It would take him more like a weekend. So Guided by Voices regularly filled the gaps between “proper” LPs with an endless spew of EPs, singles, mini-albums, and fanclub releases. But was that enough for Bob? Nooooope. So in 2000, he assembled the first Guided by Voices rarities box set. To date, there would be four more—take a second and digest that: Guided by Voices have released four four-disc rarities box sets (as well as two other box sets each containing a sizable fistful of rarities). That’s more music than most bands release during their entire careers! Of course, it shouldn’t be too big of a shocker that the best stuff was on the first set. But… man!...what great stuff! “Bottoms Up (You Fantastic Bastards)”! “Dorothy’s a Planet”! “Pink Drink”! “Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)”! “James Riot”! “Supermarket the Moon”! “Flesh Ears from June”! “Shrine to the Dynamic Years”! “Ha Ha Man”! “Tobacco’s Last Stand”! “Perch Warble”!!! Motherfucking “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus”!!!! Yes, all of those songs are as great as their titles. Hell, even mundanely named shit like “A Kind of Love”, “Meddle”, and “Messenger” are fab! Plus, in 2000, Suitcase probably pacified all of those shortsighted GBV fans who’d been outraged by the band’s embracing of high fidelity on their latest album Do the Collapse. But don’t hold that against Suitcase. It’s a groove.

11. Rolled Gold by The Action (2002)

During the mid-sixties, The Action were one of the leading mod combos in Britain, bashing out Northern Soul covers with silky voiced front man Reg King. As tastes began to change during the psychedelic era, even the rootsiest bands were expected to progress with the times. This resulted in some embarrassing music (for example, all of the Animal’s forays into psychedelia), but The Action were more than up to the task. Instead of jumping headlong into weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness, they prodded their tight rhythm section toward more open vistas and wrote a truly impressive and thoughtful selection of songs. Reg King’s voice remained as clear and expressive as it had been when The Action were playing Motown covers. After releasing singles on Parlophone for a couple of years, that label’s George Martin signed them to his own imprint, AIR, so they could finally cut their first LP. The Action completed an album’s worth of demos and one fully orchestrated track produced by Martin before EMI decided the album was not worth releasing. The universally ecstatic reviews that greeted the sessions’ wide release in 2002 (the tracks had received less attention when put out as Brain in 1995) show just how wrongheaded EMI was. Rolled Gold is superb even though the arrangements are much simpler than the lavish ones Martin surely would have concocted had a proper album been green lighted. Perhaps that is for the best, because this disc sounds progressive and raw. One could imagine brass or sitars or Mellotrons on rough and ready tracks like “Love Is All”, “Strange Roads”, “Brain”, and “Look at the View”, but they don’t necessarily need such accoutrements. Rolled Gold signifies one of the greatest shames on this list, since The Action never got the chance to get a taste of the success the other artists enjoyed, but it would have been a downright tragedy if we’d never gotten to hear the wonderful music reconstructed on Rolled Gold at all.

12. The SMiLE Sessions by The Beach Boys (2011)

In 1966, the burgeoning pop press became aware of a project promised to be unlike anything the world had ever heard. An avant garde comedy album. A “teenage symphony to God.” A record that would “make Pet Sounds stink.” The teasers were plentiful, but as we all know, The Beach Boys’ SMiLE never materialized. In its place was a thin interloper called Smiley Smile, which sounded more like a collection of hastily made demos than the operatic record Brian Wilson had been making for close to a year. Over the next several years, bits of the original sessions started to leak out. “Cabin Essence” and “Our Prayer” appeared on 1969’s 20/20. “Surf’s Up” on the 1971 album of the same name. In the eighties, the bootlegs began bobbing to the surface. All of these little leakages confirmed the whispers that SMiLE would have contained magnificent, visionary music. If The Beach Boys were never going to release the unfinished music Wilson recorded during the SMiLE sessions, fans were going to get their hands on it by other means and assemble their own versions of the album. This is the main reason SMiLE is so unique: it is the first album that forced fans to interact with it directly. They had to make their own edits and running orders on cassettes. They enjoyed debates on how it was supposed to be heard and what tracks were really intended to be included in the mythic “Elements” suite that would have climaxed the album.

Yes, we will never hear a completed album by The Beach Boys called SMiLE, but as clever reconstructions go, the SMiLE Sessions box set is beyond anything SMiLE obsessives could have ever expected. The disc-one approximation of the unfinished album is pieced together similarly to the “Purple Chick” bootleg, which used Brian Wilson’s solo recreation from 2004 as a blueprint to edit together a pretty complete album out of The Beach Boys’ original recordings. The 2011 recreation improves on the bootleg with slicker edits and a refusal to use any parts recorded later than 1971 (in a couple of instances, “Purple Chick” used bits from the 2004 album). The four discs of session highlights that follow provide a fascinating peek behind the curtain of Wizard Brian’s lost (but now found) masterpiece, but it’s that first disc that can now stand as one of the greatest albums ever made and easily The Beach Boys’ best… even if it doesn’t quite make Pet Sounds stink. In a reissue-crazy environment that sees rarities and recreations released regularly, the release of The SMiLE Sessions is something else. It is not merely an opportunity to hear some amazing music for the first time. The SMiLE Sessions is more like discovering that the Loch Ness Monster exists or proof that whirring UFOs actually do abduct dirt farmers and spirit them into the sky. The SMiLE Sessions is mythology made real.
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