Category Archives: Iconic Albums
History tells us that The Allman Brothers’ first two albums didn’t exactly set the world on fire. History didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense to me, so I asked my trusty resource for all things 60’s and 70’s, my dear OLD dad. Since my work involves travel in six or seven different time zones, we set up a convenient time to Skype and did a digital interview of sorts while I took notes on my laptop.
“Where on earth are you?”
“BA. I’m only four hours off . . . I think.”
“Sounds about right. Looking forward to a midnight dinner?”
“No, I can’t wait that long. I grabbed an empanada to get me through the night. Let’s talk Allmans.”
“You’re doing Fillmore East?”
“First, then I’m skipping ahead to Brothers and Sisters. But I’ve been listening to all their albums and there are things I don’t understand.”
“Well, you know your dad has all the answers . . . ”
“You’re about a .280 hitter, but you’re the best I’ve got.”
“Thanks for the heartfelt endorsement.”
“Anytime. First, I want to understand why their first two albums didn’t do dick. What was it, Dad? Did people turn stupid towards the end of the 60’s? I don’t know how you can listen to those records and not get excited about that band. In terms of sheer musicianship, the first is easily one of the greatest debuts in music history and Idlewild South was just as strong—and even more diverse. There are songs on both albums you still hear today—“Midnight Rider,” “Revival,” “Whipping Post”—so, what the hell, Dad?
“First and foremost, The Allmans were perceived as a blues band and the market was flooded with blues bands. We had the British blues bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, we had blues rockers like Savoy Brown and Ten Years After and we had Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield in their various incarnations. Even bands like Big Brother who weren’t considered blues bands always threw a few blues numbers into the set list. I also think there was some prejudice operating then—they were from the Deep South, and the Deep South was considered seriously un-cool at the time.”
“That is so weird—nearly all the great early rockers—Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard—were southern boys. Were you hippies too stoned to remember that?”
“You should remember from our trip down south following the trail of the Freedom Riders that things had become pretty polarized with the civil rights movement, and that polarization extended to music. When you thought “south,” you pictured George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, Lester Maddox with his ax and Bull Connor with his dogs and firehoses—the ultimate pigs.”
“Hmm. So how did all you enlightened hippies get over your stereotypes?”
“I know you’ll hate to hear this, but I think Creedence had a lot to do with breaking down that barrier.”
“I’ve grown up, dad! I may not like John Fogerty’s raging ego and their music seems faux southern to me, but I get their impact. Bill Haley wasn’t that good, either, but I gave him his due.”
“And don’t forget The Band.” I could see him smirking on my laptop screen, delighting in rubbing my red spot with back-to-back mentions of two of my least favorite groups.
“Yes—but isn’t it curious that a band from El Cerrito, California and another band from Toronto had to teach Americans how to appreciate southern music?”
“When people are stuck, sometimes you have to take the back door approach.”
“I guess. Another thing that seems to be unique to your era—the Allmans hit it big with a live album. I can’t imagine that happening today.”
“Live albums were a lot more important back then. You never would have heard of Peter Frampton if it weren’t for live albums.”
“I wish I hadn’t. Why do you think they were more important? What killed them?”
“There was sort of a shared ethic among music fans back then—if you couldn’t make it on stage, you were shit. The stage was the real test, not the studio. For a while it looked like Grand Funk Railroad was going to be the next big thing, but when they went on tour, it was obvious they didn’t have the goods, and they never recovered from that, because word got around.”
“How did word get around without the Internet? You mean to tell me that people picked up their landline phones in Boston and warned the people in Denver to sell their Grand Funk tickets for whatever they could get?”
“You know, it’s kind of a mystery to me, too. It just sort of happened—someone you knew picked something up in one of the trade papers, or you ran into someone who just dropped into town, or a DJ would hear something from an old buddy DJ back in New York and pass the word over the air in San Francisco. Looking back, I don’t know how they got all those people to the March on Washington either—it was just word-of-mouth, reports in the black newspapers of the day and maybe some flyers handed out at churches. Maybe we exchanged information on the astral plane while we were sleeping. All I knew is that—well, when Tull came to play Berkeley, I remember really looking forward to it because they had a reputation as a great live band. What I don’t remember is where I heard that or how I knew it.”
“So what killed the live album?”
“You already know that. Music videos, for one. Concerts are too scripted today; they’re too predictable, too staged. There’s too much tech involved. The great live albums today are from less popular artists who do small venues—Richard Thompson is the prime example.”
“I was just thinking—Nirvana’s Unplugged was on Rolling Stone’s list of great live albums—and that was produced by MTV. Solid album, I don’t think it counts as a real live album.”
“I agree. The excitement of a great live album is it captures things you don’t expect, the things that didn’t happen in rehearsal and aren’t part of the script. You know that from the Bill Withers album—the way he let the crowd determine where to go with the song. And when you’re talking about At Fillmore East, you’re talking about an album that’s full of surprises. They’re creating in the moment—pretty exciting stuff.”
About six months ago I started looking for a live album to review. I’d done a few—Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Swiss Movement, and Full House Live—but wanted to do more. My original thought was to do Live at Leeds, as I felt the need for another Who album in the catalog.
That proved to be problematic. I always prefer reviewing the original version of an album rather than the “deluxe edition” or the “enhanced version” because I want to capture what the artist intended at the time of creation. I ran into a problem with the original Live at Leeds, because a good chunk of it is devoted to snippets from Tommy embedded within a version of “My Generation,” and I can’t stand either of those overrated productions. I was excited about the 1995 remaster because there was enough material from The Who Sells Out to balance the Tommy shit. And hey, “Tattoo” sounded great, the live version of “Substitute” was off the charts—but it all turned out to be an illusion. For the remastered version, new vocal overdubs were recorded to “address occasional flaws in the original tapes or performances.”
That’s called cheating!
My next choice was At Fillmore East, and I was delighted to learn that The Allman Brothers insisted there would be no overdubs. “We didn’t want to go back and overdub anything, because then it wouldn’t have been a real live album,” remarked Gregg Allman in Alan Paul’s Allman Brothers bio, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers.
Thank our lucky stars that The Allmans were men of integrity.
At Fillmore East is one of those albums you can hear nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times and still pick up something new every time, whether it’s some remarkable cymbal work by Jaimoe, or subtle but incredibly effective rhythm guitar support from Dickey Betts or a pattern by Berry Oakley that may not have been flashy but serves as the glue that holds it all together. While it’s only natural that your attention is drawn to Gregg Allman’s always solid lead vocals or the wondrous sounds coming from Duane Allman’s guitar, those showpieces would have been far less effective had the band supporting the brothers had been second-rate musicians. Hardly “just a blues band,” the stylistic variations you hear on At Fillmore East encompass influences from jazz, blues, rock and country, all played with unusual intensity and commitment.
That commitment developed and solidified during their formative years, when they practiced around the clock, playing every gig they could get. While officially they had no leader in the traditional sense, Duane Allman modeled the behavior, values and group norms that would guide The Allmans through their rise, as described by those who contributed to the oral history in One Way Out:
- Work Your Ass Off: John Hammond Jr. recalled, “I asked Duane how he got so good and he said, ‘I took speed every day for three years and played every night all night.’ I think this was partly true and partly apocryphal but he really couldn’t get enough. He was just phenomenal.”
- Cut the Crap: Jaimoe said it best: “The whole thing was just about playing music— no agenda, no egos— and it was good.”
- Give It Your All: Butch Trucks summarized Duane Allman’s leadership style as follows: “Duane was capable of reaching inside people and pulling out the best. He made us all realize that music will never be great if everyone doesn’t give it all they have, and we all took on that attitude: Why bother to play if you’re not going all in?”
But even with all that commitment, even with their success in melding diverse musical influences into a compelling sound, and even with two excellent albums to their credit, The Allmans had been unable to gain much more than passing notice from the general public. According to Gregg Allman, the epiphany came after playing a series of shows in both Fillmores:
We realized that we got a better sound live and that we were a live band. We were not intentionally trying to buck the system, but keeping each song down to 3: 14 just didn’t work for us. We were going to do what the hell we were going to do and that was to experiment on and offstage. And we realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A lightbulb finally went off; we needed to make a live album.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 117). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
And boy, did they ever!
The festivities begin with “Statesboro Blues,” the old Blind Willie McTell number that turned Duane Allman into a slide guitar genius after hearing Jesse Ed Davis play the slide on Taj Mahal’s version. Here The Allmans raise the bar on the classic warm-up-the-crowd number, holding nothing back from the intro to the thrilling conclusion. Duane takes over the intro, electric ropes of sound flying off his fretboard, establishing the baseline theme while enhancing it at the same time through soaring bends and one crushing full chord to highlight the syncopation. The multi-faceted rhythm section is beautifully understated, giving Duane all the room he needs to fly. The intro is followed by two verses of absolutely delightful interplay between Gregg and Duane, Gregg delivering his lines with breezy confidence, and Duane responding with a series of remarkably varied fills that emphasize the playfulness of the piece. The verses melt into the solo, where we hear Duane’s bending talent on full display, hitting and sustaining blue notes that fall outside the typical quarter or half-step bends of the run-of-the-mill guitarist. “How the fuck did you do that?” I scream into the speaker as Duane lays out a flurry of notes and rhythms that seem humanly impossible. The next verse comes in stop-time format, an absolutely brilliant decision that re-focuses our attention away from Duane and prevents us from mourning over what we feel was a too-brief solo. Dickey Betts then enters for his solo, displaying his nice-and-easy touch within the blues scale while reinforcing the melodic aspects of the piece. Towards the end of his solo, Berry Oakley asserts himself with complementary runs, giving this passage a nice bottom boost. When Gregg Allman returns to the mike, the band eases up a bit for Gregg, who now takes center stage with a more impassioned vocal that stretches across his range, incorporating slight intrusions into falsetto as he pushes the limits of the melody. Now the drummers cue the band that it’s time to drive this baby home, and in response to the cymbal bashes and stepped-up intensity, Duane, Berry and Gregg let it all hang out, with full confidence that Butch and Jaimoe have their backs. In the end, this “warm-up” song becomes a performance that most bands would give anything to serve up as the closer, given its dramatic build and smashing ending. “Statesboro Blues” is a message to the audience—the brash confidence of that time-honored phrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Next up is their version of Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong.” It is very difficult for anyone to match Elmore James’ intensity, but The Allmans had a couple of things going for them. First, Duane Allman was a better guitar player than Elmore James, who kept his riffs pretty simple and relied on stuttering rhythm and primitive distortion to make his style unique. Second, Berry Oakley chose not to adopt the bass part of the original, which is just a reinforcement of the two-beat syncopated pattern. Instead, Berry chose to do a fluid run, giving The Allmans’ version more swing. You experience the effect most intensely when the band accelerates the song in the passage following the guitar harmony crescendo, where things really get hot. Another crucial choice was Gregg Allman’s decision to sing like Gregg Allman and not to attempt a pale imitation of Elmore James almost manic, sinful preacher vocal style. Gregg picks up the swing in the rhythm pretty quickly, varying his phrasing to suit tempo and rhythmic emphasis. And while The Allmans cut some of Thom Doucette’s harp solos from the final album mix, they kept this one because it fits so well with the feel of the song. In the end, The Allmans made “Done Somebody Wrong” their own, making comparisons to the very impressive original version completely meaningless. Both rock like a bitch in heat.
Doucette’s harp contributions did not make the cut on the mis-titled “Stormy Monday” (the T-Bone Walker original bears the ludicrously stretched “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” on the record label). The Allmans’ version is loosely based on Bobby Blue Bland’s early-60’s version (called “Stormy Monday Blues”), a more soulful version with strong bass featuring Bobby’s inimitable command of phrasing and vocal dynamics. After the intensity of the two opening numbers, the relative stillness of “Stormy Monday” is surprisingly soothing, like a cool shower on a hot, humid day. At first, the band pretty much sticks to the original chord pattern of alternating 7th and 9th chords with minor 7th enhancements in the couplet that closes each verse, though they do depart from the pattern occasionally on the closing chord. Gregg Allman’s vocal is suitably subdued in the opening verses, as are the guitar fills, but there are subtle builds and disappearing drum rolls in the background that let the listener know the band has no intention of leaving this thing on simmer forever. Duane’s solo begins at about the three-and-a-half minute mark, sweet, subtle and gorgeously fluid in the first go-round that rises to a more pronounced and assertive attack in the second. This is the point where Dickey Betts tosses in some short but incredibly effective countering chords, Berry Oakley breaks out of the dominant bass pattern and Gregg starts warming up on the organ. Gregg’s solo is accompanied by more swing and syncopation in the beat, accentuating the jazz influence in the piece. Dickey Betts then enters with a solo that communicates a certain tenderness until he lets it rip in the second go-round, earning a well-deserved round of applause as he fades nicely into Gregg’s final turn at the mike. “Stormy Monday” is not an easy song—it combines a melancholy sweetness requiring a light touch with the discipline to take the emotional peaks just far enough an not an inch further—but The Allmans aced the test.
Side Two opens and closes with “You Don’t Love Me,” a cover of a Willie Cobbs song that hit #1 in Memphis back in 196o but failed to cross the Mason-Dixon line due to typical record company bullshit. However, many guitarists knew the song because of its memorable guitar riff, so it’s not surprising that The Allmans would rescue the piece from oblivion. In doing so, they kept the basic rhythmic shift in the verses but ratcheted up the speed from the somewhat laid-back tempo of Cobbs’ original. They also extended the length from two-and-a-half minutes to just a tad over nineteen, filling up the entire second side. Some critics have whined about the length of some of The Allmans’ extended jams, most notably the astonishingly arrogant self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau. Without quoting his often tortured English, Christgau’s basic argument was this: while Jerry Garcia and the Dead jam with a destination in mind, The Allmans never really go anywhere you don’t expect them to go.
While I’ve heard some Allman jams that didn’t quite work out (even they disliked their version of “Mountain Jam” on Eat a Peach), I’ve also heard some Dead jams that certainly qualify as mind-numbing experiences. That’s the nature of improvisation—sometimes your shtick works, sometimes it doesn’t. To apply the “pointless” label to all the jams on At Fillmore East sounds like the view of a man who already dismissed the band as inferior to Jerry Garcia and company before he put needle to vinyl.
“You Don’t Love Me” has a definite intent that evolves into a coherent structure that is as clear as a sunny day but is hardly “predictable.” The first third of the piece is designed to highlight the talents of each of the soloists—Duane, Gregg, Dickey and Doucette all get a chance to shine in between the renditions of the verses. That segment ends when Duane Allman wraps up a blistering solo with a held blue note while the band support diminishes to a fading drum roll. The nearly two-minute interval that follows is Duane Allman making love with his guitar in front of a hushed crowd—he fondles, he tries different moves as he probes for the sweet spot, then drives deep and deeper with a series of erotic wails before collapsing into a deep-note bend, the sound of a man spent after a great fuck. Once Duane fades, Dickey picks up the theme, at first supported only by cymbals. The drummers then begin to complement one another, increasing their intensity in sync with the faster picking on the guitar. This intense interplay continues for a minute until the band syncs to a new rhythmic variation with Berry Oakley entering the space. Dickey Betts follows his instincts and decides to add a touch of country to the piece, gradually bringing this segment to an end with a return to the essential blues flavor of the song and revealing unexpected speed and dexterity in a breathtaking blitz of picking. And just like magic, he takes the fade chord and guides the band back to the snappy rhythm of the song itself. The closing passage is humorously triumphant, as the band follows yet another delightful variant of the chord structure to a path that leads to a brief rendition of “Joy to the World” before wrapping things up with the triumphant finale. Pointless? Directionless? Bullshit! “You Don’t Love Me” is a first-rate improvisation that reveals both the strong unity of the band, each member’s remarkable individual talents and the spirit of good humor that marks any successful improvisation.
After four covers, it’s nice to hear three straight Allman compositions, all memorable contributions to music history. The Allmans separated themselves from the rest of the pack in many respects, but one of the most remarkable features of the band is the quality and quantity of instrumentals. This is important because it’s much harder to come up with a viable instrumental than a straight song—the music has to be that much stronger to compensate for the absence of lyrics. Dickey Betts understood the challenge inherent in instrumental composition:
Writing a good instrumental takes months, which makes them totally unlike a solo, though people often think a song with no vocals is just a bunch of solos put together. It’s a completely different process. Slow blues solos are just your heart coming out, but all the solos happen too fast to even think about. They’re the closest thing to Zen that I do. If I think about it, it’s gone. It’s ruined. If I’m stuck or I need a mental rest, I’ve got licks that I can hang there until I get my mind together to start something else, but it’s mostly instantaneous and instinctive. It’s like touching a hot stove; you don’t think you’re gonna jerk your hand back. You just do it. The instrumentals, on the other hand, are very studied. It’s called architecture, and for a good reason. It’s much like somebody designing a building. It’s meticulously constructed, and every aspect has its place. Writing a good one is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody. My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love. Even instrumentals that are just for fun, like Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” talk to you.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (pp. 206-207). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
The first instrumental on At Fillmore East is “Hot ‘Lanta,” and the basic feelings this piece evokes are those you experience in a steamy night in the big city—excitement, tension, constant motion, a sense of intrigue mingled with a sense of danger—all the things that make Saturday night in the city a deliciously naughty adult experience. The use of the minor key accentuates the grittiness and dark side of the city, much like it does in The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” but the comparison ends there. “Hot ‘Lanta” is a more complex composition combining minor seventh and ninth chords with half-step moves more common to jazz than rock ‘n’ roll. The first passage establishes the theme with the paired guitars flying in beautiful unison over Gregg Allmans’ organ support, but what really stands out is Berry Oakley’s bass, a fascinating, continuous flurry of high-speed runs and melodic counterpoint that continues through all three solos until the drummers take over for a few minutes, trading complementary blows. After a restatement of the theme, the music shrinks to a whisper of distant rolls and sweet guitar that slowly build with the encouragement of Butch Trucks’ timpani into the ending crescendo. Think of “Hot ‘Lanta” is movie music at its best—with imagery so vivid you can do without the film.
Next is the unedited version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” that appears on the original album, not the edited version that appeared on the 1992 expanded edition and caused quite a controversy. I love the swells Dickey Betts plays during the introduction; the sound he creates reminds me of the Ondes Martenot used on several Radiohead songs. Comparing The Allmans to Radiohead may seem like an off-the-wall comparison, but that’s only if you buy into the belief that The Allmans were little more than a Southern roots band. Au contraire! We’ve already seen how they integrated influences from four major musical genres and how well they handled non-standard rhythms that are relatively rare in rock. In One Way Out, Dickey refers to The Allmans as a progressive rock band, a label we normally associate with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, with the marriage of rock and classical music, and with adjectives like “overblown” and “pretentious.” Others have labeled The Allmans a “fusion” band, a label that has the advantage of greater accuracy but still falls short of capturing The Allmans’ essence. My point here is that when you listen to “Elizabeth Reed,” you’re listening to something unique, innovative and far beyond established rock boundaries of their time.
The swells eventually fade and the dominant theme emerges, expressed through a double lead alternating between melody, harmony and counterpoint; beneath the gorgeous lead guitars you’ll hear Berry Oakley punctuating the rhythm while adding a different counterpoint phrase to the mix. After a stunningly-well executed crescendo, the band shifts to a Latinesque tempo featuring the secondary theme, leading to a diminuendo that opens the floor to the soloists. Before exploring the solos, I have to give credit to Berry, Butch and Jaimoe—the rhythmic support of the solos is pure sustained energy channeled through stunning precision arising from the ability of those three musicians to listen intently to the cues served up by each soloist. Without those guys, the solos would have gone nowhere except in fruitless search of a foundation.
First up is Dickey Betts, who eases into his moment in the spotlight while the rhythm section gradually raises the intensity level; eventually he finds his sweet spot after a few superficially dissonant bends that are actually departures into modality. Once freed from the limitations of the scale, he soars to the heavens. Gregg Allman comes next and here I will confess that we pianists are absolute snobs and have a tendency to view organists as a lesser species, so when I tell you that Gregg Allman’s work on “Elizabeth Reed” is my favorite organ solo ever, it should impress the hell out of you. The man knew his instrument, its inherent limitations and its strengths. Those strengths are sustained rhythmic emphasis and thematic fills, and this solo is all strengths.
Now we arrive at the point where producer Tom Dowd attempted to substitute Duane Allman’s original solo with a “better” one from another Fillmore East performance in the 1992 edition. Dude! You produced one of the greatest live albums ever! The recording quality and performances are exceptional! Why fuck with that? I don’t have any issues with the original solo—it’s actually one of my favorite passages on the album because it highlights Duane’s picking ability, which like all of his other skills, is truly remarkable. He earns several “How the fuck did you do thats,” both in the opening passage and in the midtone segment where he stays low on the fretboard. When Duane goes Coltrane on us and gives us the guitar equivalent of “Giant Steps,” all you can do is soak it all in and let the waves of sound ride over every fiber of your soul.
Side four is devoted to twenty-three minutes of “Whipping Post,” making it the longest piece on the record. That’s a good thing. Whenever I listen to the five-minute studio version on the first album, I feel cheated.
Berry Oakley gets things moving with his famous overpowering bass line, delivered in 11/4 time. Gregg Allman had no idea he had written the intro in 11/4 time; the pattern just felt right. Without that “missing beat,” the pattern would have become tiresome in about four measures and the song would have lost all sense of momentum. The fact that the choice was intuitive rather than deliberate makes all the difference in the world—this is a song about existential pain, and it simply had to be more about the feel than the math.
My old piano teacher is probably spinning in his grave, but he needed the exercise.
The build to the first verse is simple and effective, a layered repetition of the main riff to communicate a sense of building existential anxiety. Gregg Allman’s vocal is more than heartfelt—it’s soul-felt. The pain of humiliation at the hands of a woman he naively but genuinely loved is more than he can bear as he realizes that both the woman and his friends have played him for a fool:
I’ve been run down and I’ve been lied to.
And I don’t know why, I let that mean woman make me a fool.
She took all my money, wrecks my new car.
Now she’s with one of my good time buddies,
They’re drinkin in some cross-town bar.
Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feel,
Like I been tied to the whippin’ post.
Tied to the whippin’ post, tied to the whippin’ post.
Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.
This is far more than the injured pride of an arrogant male; this is sincere outrage about making yourself completely vulnerable to a person you love only have that person exploit your precious gift for selfish reasons. That woman is a LOWLIFE BITCH! Tie HER up to the whipping post and let me at her! And that whipping will be anything but the titillating kind for which I am renowned on two continents!
Please excuse my burst of empathy, but Gregg Allman went “all-in” on this vocal and if you can’t feel his pain, you’re either a robot or a very nasty person.
Duane takes off in high-speed flight, supported as always by The Allmans’ once-in-a-generation rhythm section and Dickey Betts’ raw rhythm guitar. Duane’s tone and intensity mirror the sting of the whip; it feels like a furious assault on body and soul. When he takes it down a notch for a few moments with a series of soulful bends, it feels like the blows have ended only to leave the victim writhing in pain. The even more furious finale to the solo reinforces the stings and the sense of having been overwhelmed by the pain and humiliation. Gregg’s rendition of the second verse is just as intense as the first, a stark refusal to deny the existential agony that burns in his soul. Dickey Betts steps in for his solo, opening with licks in the mid-range that express a sense of dark uncertainty as the survival instinct begins to kick in. Interestingly, what follows is a series of tentative riffs that move in and out of key, as if the man is half-heartedly looking for a way out of the darkness. When Dickey finally goes high, we return to consciousness of the pain and a sense of anxiety . . . perhaps there’s no way to escape the darkness. The agitated, high-speed riffs that follow reflect this frustration—the feeling the pain will never end.
What follows is a shift into something more like free jazz than blues rock for a minute or so before the band settles on a melancholy theme to provide a baseline for even more free-form improvisation. This is the most beautiful passage in the song, a melange of sweet guitar, spinning cymbals, drum roll punctuations and gorgeous, melodic bass. It collapses back to the urgent intensity of the main theme, highlighted by dissonant guitar harmonies at the ends of the phrase. A wild crescendo leads us to a false ending, a moment of silence before Gregg sings all but the last line of the chorus—a false ending within a false ending that opens the way for Dickey Betts to give us a truncated version of “Frère Jacques” (almost as if the injured party is seeking solace in childhood innocence) which in turn signals Duane to add his reflections. These reflections manifest in music akin to a raga, leading to an almost spiritual segment of sweet high bends—and then, suddenly, the siren-like attack of the main theme appears briefly, only to fade and allow Gregg to complete the circle and sing the last line of the chorus. In twenty-three minutes, our man has experience the sting of pain, the depths of depression, waves of anxiety, flashes of false hope—but in the end, the pain remains: “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.” Try to imagine “Whipping Post” with a happy ending where the woman comes back, apologizes for her cuntiness and all live happily ever after, and you’ll understand why the song had to end with the man still struggling from the trauma he has suffered. “Whipping Post” is one performance that deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, and is clearly one of the most memorable performances ever captured on record.
At Fillmore East captures one of the great American bands at their too-brief peak, and what The Allmans accomplished here cannot be understated. They were the first to synthesize the four main streams of American music—blues, jazz, rock and country—into a satisfying whole. When you listen to At Fillmore East, you hear the spiritual descendants of Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Jimmie Rodgers in the form of one deeply committed group of musicians.
The Allmans broke a lot of rules to get there, but you can’t make progress by sticking to the tried-and-true. The most important ethic shared by the band members was a spirit of defiance—not angry defiance, not adolescent defiance, but positive, creative defiance. This spirit manifested itself in the early decision to bring Jaimoe into the band in defiance of the segregational mindset and in rejecting the advice from industry pros concerning what they needed to do to make it to the top. One of the most fascinating passages in One Way Out features Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks talking about their refusal to sell out:
BETTS: We were just so naive. All we knew is that we had the best band that any of us had ever played in and were making the best music that we had ever made. That’s what we went with. Everyone in the industry was saying that we’d never make it, we’d never do anything, that Phil Walden should move us to New York or L.A. and acclimate us to the industry, that we had to get the idea of how a rock ’n’ roll band was supposed to present themselves.
TRUCKS: They thought a bunch of Southern guys just standing there playing extended musical jams was absurd. They wanted Gregg out from behind the organ, jumping around with a salami in his pants. They wanted us to act “like a rock band” and we just told them to fuck themselves. We were playing music for ourselves and for each other.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 65). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
Vive le résistance!
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Wow! This is the first new review I’ve written in sixteen months!
During my absence from the ether, I have had good times (intensive theatre training last summer and plenty of great sex) and bad times (I’ve been seriously underemployed since losing my job last year).
Don’t worry about me—something will turn up sooner or later. Dammit.
Anyway, I’m not the kind of girl to sit on her tushie all day and bemoan the cruel twists of fate and the vicissitudes of capitalism. No sirree, Bob! By the way, who the fuck was Bob? No—I have used the opportunity presented by the lousy economy in La Belle France to develop my intellectual and spiritual capabilities to such an extent that I am now operating on a higher level of consciousness. I have penetrated the secrets of the ages, discerned the underlying truths of existence and achieved a mystical state of inner peace and utter contentment. I can rise above the petty concerns of daily life and perceive the inherent unity of being within the cosmos.
I can now hold in my mind two completely opposing thoughts without tension or anxiety. I perceive the truth in both sides of a question and experience no desire for resolution or compromise. Allow me to demonstrate this amazing skill with A Night at the Opera:
A: A Night at the Opera is a masterpiece of the recording arts, an achievement that rivals Sgt. Pepper.
B: A Night at the Opera is the most overproduced, over-recorded and overblown creation in music history.
A: Freddie Mercury was a brilliant composer and one of the greatest lead singers of all time.
B: Freddie Mercury was a born ham whose vocals were consistently over the top and whose lyrical efforts fell somewhere between unintelligible garbage and syrupy cliché.
A: A Night at the Opera is a delightful cornucopia of diverse musical genres that combine to create a one-of-a-kind listening experience.
B: A Night at the Opera is a bizarre barrage of incompatible sounds from a band focused more on providing thrill-based entertainment than artistic excellence.
A: As a whole, A Night at the Opera is a boffo performance that leaves the listener begging for more.
B: When broken down into its separate components, A Night at the Opera is exposed for what it is: complete fluff made to sound artistically significant though the use of sophisticated recording techniques.
Okay, all that stuff about higher consciousness is total bullshit. The truth is I’ve rarely encountered an album that elicits as many contradictory feelings as A Night at the Opera.
Perceptive readers with photographic memories may remember that Queen was once on my no-fly list of artists I would never, ever review. This aversion was primarily driven by my feelings about two songs: “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.”
Especially “We Will Rock You.” I hate that fucking song.
I can’t tell you how many times I’d be enjoying the ebbs and flows of San Francisco Giants baseball when the idiot who ran the PA system at Candlestick or PacBell decided to play “We Will Rock You” at maximum volume. All the morons in the stands immediately started clapping their hands and pounding their feet in a chilling display of automaton unity. I found the experience not only annoying, but truly frightening, like I’d slipped back in time and found myself in the middle of a Nuremberg rally. I didn’t hear “We Are the Champions” quite as much, because the Giants only made it to the World Series twice while I lived in the City (losing both times), but I also found that song disturbing and manipulative—a call to all the self-made losers with deservedly low self-esteem to pretend they’re winners for a few measly minutes.
You may have noticed the same psychological dynamic in play at Donald Trump rallies.
So Queen languished in silence on my verboten list until one day I walked over to my parents’ place, let myself in and heard the song “Good Company” playing on the home stereo. I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, and stopped to listen for a while.
My dad walked by on his way to the kitchen, saw me standing there and said, “Hey, Sunshine.”
“Who’s this, Dad?”
“That’s Queen. A Night at the Opera. I hadn’t pulled it out since . . . shit, long before we moved here. It’s not bad.”
“I like this song,” I said, wiggling my butt and tapping my foot to the snappy beat. “I don’t remember ever hearing it. What’s the rest of the album like?”
He laughed and said, “Whatever you want it to be.”
That curious comment piqued my interest, and after listening to A Night at the Opera several times, I think dear old dad was onto something. It’s a record that complements several different moods, so it’s pretty likely that the average listener will find at least one song they like. I also noticed that A Night at the Opera is much more satisfying when listening to it all at once, for despite its incredible diversity, there is a unity in the architecture that derives in part from Queen’s use of complementary keys linking the different tracks, and in part from the energy and commitment you hear in every piece. On the flip side, the pieces by themselves range from brilliant to despicable, from quite beautiful to quite a mess. At the time of its release, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded, and there were several moments when I was tempted to scream at my speakers, “For fuck’s sake, leave some empty space in there once in a while!” The constant layering, overdubbing and patching does get fatiguing after a while, and the over-engineering leaves some of the tracks sounding contrived and fake, as if parts of A Night at the Opera were recorded by androids on amphetamines.
Let me give you a tip: if you listen to A Night at the Opera as a 20th century example of opera buffa—a form of opera that is a kaleidoscope of comic scenes and ridiculous characters—it makes for a much more satisfying experience. Like the Marx Brothers’ film that is the album’s namesake, opera buffa was designed to be over-the-top, and if there’s one phrase that describes Freddie Mercury and Queen, it’s over-the top.
Unfortunately, that includes “despicably over-the-top,” as we hear in my nominee for the worst opening song of all time, “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To . . .)”. And it all starts so well! We hear a Liberace-like piano passage that melts into the something-wicked-this-way-comes sound of Brian May’s four-note vamp and brace ourselves for what promises to be an exciting ride. Instead, we’re treated to a Freddie Mercury rant about his unpleasant experience with Queen’s ex-manager, a sad display of verbal diarrhea filled with name-calling and mean-spiritedness. Freddie’s vocal drips with overwrought nastiness as he chews up both scenery and soundstage in a wholly embarrassing display of immaturity. The psychology behind the call-and-response line “Do you feel like suicide? (I think you should)” blew me away every time I heard it—was Freddie trying to impress us with his respect for moral boundaries by encouraging his enemy to off himself and take the responsibility off his shoulders? I can’t even begin to diagram those psychological gymnastics. The lyrics completely overshadow some superb performances by the band, especially Roger Taylor’s powerful yet nimble drum work. “Death on Two Legs” is not only awful, but feels out-of-place with the generally playful energy of the rest of the album.
Freddie does much better in the first of three music hall numbers on A Night at the Opera, “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” What you hear on the record is Freddie’s voice miked through headphones to give the vocal that Rudy Vallee-like megaphone sound. It’s a pleasant and microscopically brief diversion that leads us to Roger Taylor’s “I’m in Love with My Car,” a rather plodding rocker about the ancient male obsession with automobiles. Roger can’t sing to save his life, but Brian May’s guitar work is pretty solid, and the background harmonies are first-rate.
“You’re My Best Friend” is a John Deacon composition that bears an eerie resemblance to the theme song for the disgustingly heartwarming American 70’s sitcom, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which goes like this . . .
People let me tell you ’bout my best friend,
He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me till the end.
People let me tell you bout my best friend,
He’s a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy.
And is very similar in syrupy sentiment to . . .
Ooh you’re the best friend that I ever had
I’ve been with you such a long time
You’re my sunshine and I want you to know
That my feelings are true
I really love you
Oh you’re my best friend
Queen missed out on huge royalty opportunity by failing to pitch this sucker for the network bigwigs.
The song is the polar opposite of “Death on Two Legs,” dripping with saccharine instead of venom. It also features that horrible Wurlitzer sound that was the bane of many a recording in the 1970’s. Fortunately for Queen fans who attended their shows, Freddie Mercury refused to play the song on that “tinny and horrible” instrument. Hooray for Freddie! “You’re My Best Friend” is sweet, nice, warm, cuddly and pleasant, and for all those reasons, I hate it with a passion.
Brian May’s “39” is a fine piece of work, a modern folk song with a nice easy flow about a group of space-travelers who departed Earth for a year-long voyage only to run into one of those nasty little time warps and wind up returning a century after their departure. Since I happen to be an aficionado of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it all makes perfect sense to me! Those spatial anomalies can be pretty tricky! I love how Queen incorporated patches of an operatic soprano in the background vocals to reinforce the opera buffa presentation. Responding to an offhand wish expressed by Brian May, John Deacon taught himself how to play one of those monstrous double basses on the track, giving the song a more natural sound than the other tracks on A Night at the Opera.
We finally get to some serious rock marked by heavy guitar, throbbing drums and deeply satisfying bass in “Sweet Lady,” a solid piece of evidence that Freddie Mercury was indeed one hell of a lead singer. This is one track where I wish they had placed Freddie’s voice in a more prominent, less-crowded space in the soundscape à la “Another One Bites the Dust,” because his lead vocal really is a fine piece of work. That said, the background vocals and harmonies are very strong here, and the arrangement blends exceptionally well.
Our second music hall number, “Seaside Rendezvous” is campy, corny and relentlessly charming. After hearing this song, one could argue that Freddie Mercury was born about thirty or forty years too late and would have absolutely thrived in the London Vaudeville scene. The arrangement is marked by superb timing and plenty of boop-de-boop call-and-response insertions that demonstrate a full commitment on Queen’s part to pay suitable tribute to the genre.
Too bad we have to flip over to Side 2 and find ourselves having to slog through the interminable “The Prophet’s Song,” a purely theatrical progressive rock piece with no redeeming value whatsoever except for the curiously pleasant sound of a toy koto. Based on a bad dream about a great flood, Brian May’s story uses many of the fear-inducing clichés uttered by third-rate preachers whose one marketable skill is knowing how to induce fear into the stupid. One critic referred to the language as “Shakespearean,” proving only that music critics can’t tell the difference between great poetry written in iambic pentameter and highfalutin’ nonsense:
He told of death as a bone white haze
Taking the lost and the unloved babe
Late too late all the wretches run
These kings of beasts now counting their days.
From mother’s love is the son estranged
Married his own his precious gain
The earth will shake in two will break
And death all around will be your dowry
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Take your fire-and-brimstone and shove it up your ass. As is true with nearly everything you read in the holy book of your choice, the language in “The Prophet’s Song” is faithfully boring, deliberately ambiguous (that’s why you need faith!) and completely devoid of meaning.
Next we have “Love of My Life,” a favorite of Queen fans the world over. I suppose if you’re into kitsch and embarrassing displays of excessive sentiment, the song might work for you. Freddie emotes and over-emotes to the point that I want to slap him silly. I scoured this piece for a speck of evidence that the whole thing might be a put-on, but unfortunately I came up empty. “Love of My Life” is Barry Manilow-quality stuff, completely weightless . . . but it works in the context of opera buffa, so I’ll give it a pass (double meaning intended).
My favorite song on A Night at the Opera comes next, the subject of the love-at-first-listen experience described at the beginning of this piece. “Good Company” is a hoot, a tightly-performed Dixieland number combining good fun with a very clever set of lyrics. Brian May managed to duplicate the sounds of Dixieland horns through his Red Special guitar, a feat made possible by patient engineering and the fact that the old recordings rarely captured the clarity of the horn section unless Louis Armstrong was in the room.
The story describes what is now a 21st century crisis—the increasing demands of career and the sacrifices one chooses to make in pursuit of success lead to a compartmentalized, truncated life, separating us from the relationships we need to nurture our humanity:
Now marriage is an institution, sure:
My wife and I our needs and nothing more
All my friends by a year
By and by disappear
But we’re safe enough behind our door.
I flourished in my humble trade
My reputation grew
The work devoured my waking hours
But when my time was through
Reward of all my efforts:
My own Limited Company
I love a great pun, and “Limited Company” is a beaut, linking a form of business ownership to the utter loneliness of the workaholic. Appropriately for the musical era, our story ends with one of life’s many lessons:
I hardly noticed Sally as we
All through the years in the end it appears
There was never really anyone but me
Now I’m old I puff my pipe
But no one’s there to see
I ponder on the lesson of
My life’s insanity
Take care of those you call your own
And keep good company
“Good Company” is not only a great ass-shimmying song, but the moral of the story really hit home with me as I continue to ponder what the fuck I want to do in life. As inconvenient as it is live within a tight budget and as frustrating as it is not to have any sense of direction regarding how I want to earn the money I need to survive, I don’t ever want to reach the point where “I ponder on the lesson of my life’s insanity” and lose touch with everyone who matters to me.
Call me admirable for my idealism or a fucking idiot on my way to the poorhouse, but there you have it.
This brings us to the reputed pièce de résistance of A Night at the Opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The most expensive single ever made on the most expensive album ever made, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was #1 on the UK charts for nine weeks after its release, and for another five weeks after its re-release in 1991. In the USA, the song only made it to #9 and #2 respectively. Whatever measure you use, it is one of the best selling-singles of all time.
Since the best-selling single in history is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” record sales are a poor measure of artistic merit.
I’ve read various analyses of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and have to conclude that most were written by frustrated English majors trying to apply classic literary interpretations to a non-literary work to imbue it with a significance far out of proportion to its context. The most common analyses focus on the nihilism of the lead character and his connection to his mother. The latter theme is drawn from the “confessional” passage and is described by author Sheila Whiteley as “affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution.”
Translation: women produce babies and kiss boo-boos.
This literary speculation is all very nice, but I doubt Freddie Mercury composed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a volume of Nietzsche and a copy of Oedipus Rex on his nightstand. Let’s cut to the chase: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is at its heart a theatrical work in the context of opera buffa. The story itself is pure cliché: a young hood does a very naughty thing and runs home to mama because he’s really an insecure nobody who adopted a tough-guy persona but never really came to grips with real life. James Cagney had a mother obsession in White Heat, so it’s not like the gangster-mother connection was anything new. And guess what? Gangsters are by their very nature nihilists! They don’t believe in society’s values—that’s why they’re gangsters!
The point I’m trying to make is that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is supposed to be melodramatic, over-the-top and sentimental, like a bad gangster movie. It’s entirely possible, as some have intimated, that Freddie Mercury wrote it to help him deal with the sins of his youth or some lifelong struggle with identity, but since he’s currently unavailable for either interviews or psychoanalysis, we should let him rest in peace.
It’s theater, people! Just enjoy the fucking show!
Stripped of all the hoo-hah, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a brilliant musical composition presented in six sections. Both the libretto (we can freely apply that term, given the operatic influence) and Freddie Mercury’s performance are delightfully melodramatic, occasionally schmaltzy and (at times) hysterically funny.
Introduction: This segment is 100% Freddie Mercury in five-part harmony, and is quite lovely. The panning is quite sophisticated and well-executed, reflecting the inner dialogue of the character as he shifts from victim (“I’m just a poor boy”) to false bravado (“easy come, easy go, little high, little low”). The segment fades gracefully into sound of soft piano and bass.
Confessional: Here our hero confesses to his mother, demonstrating he’s not much of a tough guy after all. Like a virgin fuck, he gives it up too early! A real tough guy would have held out for a verse or two, and I believe that’s the point. Our character is undereducated and unsophisticated, and though he tries to present himself to the world as a guy who knows the score, he’s really just a vulnerable, frightened human being. Freddie Mercury’s vocal is simply outstanding, balancing “sweet and forlorn” with bursts of angry self-pity (“But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away“). His closing line, “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” is the classic play for sympathy, and a counter-intuitive hint that he’s going to try to beat the rap in court.
Bridge—Guitar Solo: Brian May steps in with a majestic guitar solo, and given that he only had seventeen seconds to pull this off, it’s absolutely remarkable how complete this tiny passage feels. Bravo!
The Opera: I have to confess something here. Whenever this passage starts to play I . . . well, I get the giggles. Forget your image of a sophisticated, educated, fashionable French-American woman who moves gracefully through the world in perpetually good taste. I get the giggles! And when Freddie Mercury breaks into “Mama mia! Mama mia!” I laugh so hard I cry! Yes! I think the opera passage is the ultimate hoot! From the very start, the words and music fill your head with visual images so effectively that it feels like you’re actually watching the courtroom drama unfold before your eyes. I picture “the little silhouetto of a man” as the classic Scaramouche from commedia del’arte, twirling his waxed mustache and pompously taking his place on the bench or at the counselor’s table. The back-and-forth “we will not let you go/let him go” calls up images of old grey men on the “no” side competing with weeping women with darting handkerchiefs screaming for the poor boy’s release. And then the “mama mia . . . ” Excuse me while I compose myself and get the giggles out of my system . . .
Rock Passage: Okay, it’s time to rock! Queen simply had to kick some ass here to reconnect the composition to the present day, and boy do they ever! Rock is the perfect genre for expressing defiance, and now that our hero has lost his bet on a sympathetic jury, he reverts back to the adolescent who simply can’t understand how the world can be so fucking unfair. The band really lets it rip here and Freddie’s vocal is one of his best pure rock efforts.
Fade: Our hero now finds comfort in the nihilism that led to his entirely predictable demise. What I love most about this passage is Brian May’s counterpoint guitar licks: subtle, supportive and exactly the right thing at the right time.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is by far the best “suite” produced during those years when the form was popular. Unlike most suites, this is a tightly-woven composition with no wasted space (unlike the “suite” on Abbey Road, where Ringo’s drum solo qualifies as the definition par excellence of wasted space). Unfortunately, as good as it is, “Bohemian Rhapsody” did trigger a disastrous consequence: the explosion in music videos. Nothing in music history has damaged appreciation for music as much as the modern music video—but we’ll leave that rant for another day.
It was a long-standing British tradition to end theatrical performances with a rendition of “God Save the Queen” (or King, if the inferior gender happened to be on the throne at the time). Queen appropriately celebrates the ritual with Brian May’s multi-layered rendition of the royal anthem, closing the curtain on a remarkable theatrical performance.
I still haven’t resolved my push-pull feelings about A Night at the Opera. If I had tickets to see a performance at my local theatre, I’d make sure to come late so I wouldn’t have to hear “Death on Two Legs,” and I’d probably powder my nose and grab a cigarette during “The Prophet’s Song” and “Love of My Life.” But at the end of the play, I would stand with the rest of the audience and join in with what I would expect to be a thunderous ovation. On A Night at the Opera, Queen demonstrated the one quality I hold most dear in musicians: full commitment. They had a vision and they made that vision come alive, and while they might have crossed the line into excess and muddle now and then, the end result is still a delightfully satisfying experience.
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