This is a complete rewrite of a review I published during my first year of blogging when I tried very hard to obey the common wisdom that short posts are the way to go because no one has time to read anymore.
Looking back on those reviews today, I would describe my writing as “utterly vacuous crapola” . . . which also happens to reflect my feelings about most contemporary music criticism. If the purpose of music criticism is to present a point of view that might enlighten, educate or inspire a reader to form a different opinion, then arbitrarily limiting the word count is the dumbest approach imaginable.
Although it took some time to sing “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” my approach now is to ignore word count, make the necessary apologies for my long-windedness and write as many words as demanded by the subject matter. Hence, an empty piece of garbage like the Spice Girls’ debut album earns as few words as possible, while richer pieces of work like Setting Sons or Dig Me Out deserve a more complete analysis.
This probably isn’t the only review I’m going to revisit, but I decided to start with this one because: a.) with all the political tension in the world today I thought it would be nice to listen to something completely apolitical; b.) Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler formed a highly simpatico duo, and; c.) with people all over the globe are feeling pretty grumpy these days with this bitch of a pandemic, I figured we all need something to make us smile—and Neck and Neck is an absolute hoot!
The concept of “feel” in music is usually associated with the style of music in play: this song has a Latin feel; that song has sort of a jazzy feel. In that sense, the most obvious “feel” on Neck and Neck is American Country (with the exception of their cover of the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grapelli number “Tears”). But there’s another aspect of feel that has nothing to do with style but is much more important—the feel that involves the relationship between the musician and the music (if soloing) or the relationship encompassing the music and multiple musicians. It has nothing to do with “playing the right notes,” but playing the notes in ways that resonate with emotions and spirit.
Since jazz and rock aren’t terribly concerned with the right notes, the contrast is best demonstrated in classical music, where sounding the right notes is more important. When I listen to Herbert von Karajan’s take on Schubert’s No. 9 Symphony (also known as the Great or Great C Major), the musicians play all the right notes but the music sounds cold and dead to me. On the other hand, the same work conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch is a bona fide aesthetic experience that thrills me to the depths of my soul. Somehow Sawallish managed to inspire a rather large group of professional musicians to not only nail the notes but imbue the music with the same passion he felt for the work.
Though the guitar work on Neck and Neck is best-of-class, it’s the feel of the album that is most impressive. Both Atkins and Knopfler had already achieved recognition as guitar masters, so neither had anything to prove to the other. Knopfler grew up listening to Atkins, but Chet wasn’t the type to put on airs and welcomed the opportunity to play with someone as committed to guitar excellence as he was. Though each displayed a signature style, both men were finger-pickers, in itself a distinctive approach to the electric guitar that allows for more precise string muting and the opportunity to pluck strings with a distinctive snap. All of these varying influences—combined with superb song selection and a fabulous supportive cast of music pros who left their egos at the door—merged together to make Neck and Neck an album that . . . well, it just feels damned good to listen to it, from beginning to end.
The festivities kick off with “Poor Boy Blues,” an upbeat country tune based on an old blues number, modified by a British emigré named Paul Kennerly whose primary claim to fame involved producing and marrying Emmylou Harris. The vocal is a duet featuring Chet and country star Vince Gill, both men adopting a tone of shy melancholy reflecting the modesty of a poor country boy asking for the hand of his best girl, knowing his bank account balance is equally modest. The first distinctive guitar sound you hear comes from neither Chet nor Mark but steel guitarist par excellence Paul Franklin, who had done some work with Dire Straits. Our first Chet-Mark duet doesn’t begin until 1:22 when Knopfler starts picking on his Pensa Suhr in the center-left position; Chet responds at about 1:43 in the center-right position (one billion thank yous to Ingo Raven and Jean-François Convert, who sorted out all of the album’s guitar work on Ingo’s Mark Knopfler Guitar Site). As Ingo points out, those positions remain constant throughout the album, so you can easily identify who is playing a particular solo and study the stylistic differences between the two guitarists. The back-and-forth continues throughout the song, delighting the listener with remarkable displays of clean finger-picking (Knopfler also deserves credit for the overdubbed rhythm guitar and strumming). Regular readers know I am prone to bitch about the excessive use and misapplication of reverb in popular music, but I’ve got nothing to bitch about here—the reverb on all three guitars is as clean and clear as a mountain stream, a clarity obviously facilitated by the talent of the guitarists. “Poor Boy Blues” is not only a great opening number but a sort of overture anticipating the good times still to come.
The legendary Don Gibson-Patsy Cline “Sweet Dreams” follows, the opening notes reserved for Floyd Cramer’s lovely piano, which will provide counterpoints and fills throughout the piece. With Paul Franklin supplying the dreamscape through his lovely slides, Mark’s solos emphasize the bluesier aspects of the song while Chet explores the melodic side. The result is a perfectly sweet and respectful cover of a country classic, much sweeter and gentler than Roy Buchanan’s more aggressive but equally superb take on the song.
The album’s good vibes are most apparent in the remake of the frequently-covered jazz classic “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with Knopfler playing the role of Doubting Thomas to Chet’s desire to transform himself into an ’80s teen idol:
There’ll be a change in the weather and a change in the scene,
I’m gonna start wearin’ leather and change my routine,
I’ll wear dark glasses, maybe a toupee,
I’ll get down and boogie and become risqué.
I’ll start wearin’ makeup, like Jackson and Prince,
You’ll see me riding in my Mercedes-Benz.
Nobody wants you when you just play guitar,
There’ll be some changes made tomorrow; there’ll be some changes made.
Oh, man, I do NOT want to even imagine Chet Atkins in drag. Thankfully, Knopfler responds: “You know, Chet, you’re never going to get to play that rock ‘n’ roll.” “Well, why is that?” Chet queries. “You’re kinda country . . . just a little bit old?” “That hurts!”
Chet then continues with a reference to a famous Dire Straits song: “Want your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” In response Mark suggests that “them groupie girls ain’t what they’re cracked up to be,” but Chet is determined: “Well, I’d really like to find out . . . for myself, don’t you know? I’ve had a kind of quiet life down here on Music Row.” At this point, Mark backs off and allows Chet to keep his fantasy, opening the way for some competitive fun between the two great finger-pickers, seasoned by laughter and playful banter (“I learned this in summer bible school” . . . (Chet to Mark): “Pretty good but you’re no Mark Knopfler” and “Don’t make me look bad now . . . respect for your elders!”) The comedy is superb and the guitar duet even better—“There’ll Be Some Changes Made” is an absolute gas.
The boys tone it down a bit for another Don Gibson classic, “Just One Time.” It’s the perfect song for Mark Knopfler’s very limited vocal range, and with a bit of help from Chet on the harmonies, he gives us a sincere and subtle performance. “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” written by longtime country songsmith Randy Goodrum won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Poor Boy Blues” took the complementary vocal award). The arrangement has classical overtones, with fiddler Mark O’Connor tilting his performance towards that more formal approach, and the sweet tones coming from Atkins and Knopfler combine with that mournful fiddle to create a show-stopping moment of melancholy serenity. Absolutely beautiful.
My only complaint regarding Neck and Neck has to do with the placement of “Yakety Axe,” a remodeling of Chet’s 1965 hit featuring a new arrangement and lyrics courtesy of Merle Travis. After “So Soft, Your Goodbye,” there I am feeling all snuggly, cuddly, safe and warm and WHAM! Chet’s sharp-toned picking ejects me from dreamland long before I was ready. I have no problem with the song (the picking is pretty damned hot), but jeez, give me a moment to get out of my comfy little corner of the world, for fuck’s sake!
We return to dreamland courtesy of the sound of acoustic guitar and violin in a cover of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s “Tears.” I’m delighted that they chose this version of the song as opposed to the Django-only rendition, which features some of his most aggressive guitar work; the Grappelli version replicated here is grounded in a slower tempo, allowing the listener to better appreciate the melody and counterpoint coming from both guitar and violin. It’s also nice to hear both men apply their exquisite finger-picking skills to the acoustic guitar, still creating beautiful tones without internal wiring.
“Tahitian Skies” combines acoustic, electric and steel guitar, with Knopfler doubling up on acoustic guitar and electric guitar solos. Mark O’Connor adds a touch of mandolin to yet another dreamy and delightful track. Speaking of dreams, next up is “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a remake of the 1924 hit that spent seven weeks on top of the charts. The highlight here is Knopfler’s amazing arpeggios in his first solo—I’m absolutely convinced the man used all eight fingers and both thumbs to pull it off.
The good times had to end sooner or later, and here they end with the only original contribution on the album, Mark Knopfler’s “The Next Time I’m in Town,” a song about a guy saying good-bye to his long-distance lover as he gets ready to climb into the cab of his big rig or grab a cab to catch the last flight out. Featuring a larger cast than any of the other numbers on the album, it forms a perfect farewell number that gives O’Connor and Franklin a chance to take their bows along with the two leads and Vince Gill to participate in the three-part harmony on the stop-time rendition of the chorus—which also serves as a nice farewell to the listening audience:
Now it’s been something seeing you again
In this time we’ve had to spend
You’ve been so good to be around
I thank you for that special thrill
Keep me going on until
The next time I’m in town
Let me close with a little tip for you: Instead of fretting about Election Day in America, this fucking relentless and oppressive virus and the fact that all life on the planet may be wiped out in oh, fifty years or so . . . put aside a measly 39 minutes of your crummy day to listen to Neck and Neck. Even when things are going to hell and a handbasket, we all have the right to smile every now and then . . . and I can’t think of a better reminder that there is a lot of good in this world of ours than Neck and Neck.
I knew I’d have to deal with Elvis sooner or later, and since I’ve been building up my inventory of 1950’s reviews recently, sooner seemed better than later.
Though I loathe almost everything he did after he entered the U. S. Army, I love the Elvis of the Sun and early RCA years. That Elvis was a young man whose entire body and soul became electric when playing the music he loved. His many biographers describe a kid who everyone else considered a little weird, carrying his guitar wherever he went and singing to no one in particular. When he tried to hook up with bands in Memphis, he was rejected by several who told him he’d never make it as a singer.
You may think that the musicians who rejected him were out of their minds, but not really. Elvis was an original. He didn’t fit the mold of a singer at that time. He synthesized the feel of gospel and blues with a rockabilly kick and a love of Hank Snow, so you couldn’t peg him to any of the existing genres. What made him seem even more alien was that he had to move while singing, something that would later drive the recording engineers at RCA up a wall because the bastard kept moving off the spot they had marked for him. Finally, they gave in, surrounded him with mikes and let Elvis be Elvis.
He wouldn’t have made it that far had it not been for a lucky accident. Sam Phillips of Sun considered him little more than a possible ballad singer until, at the end of an unfruitful recording session, Elvis and his boys started playing around with “That’s All Right” and Sam heard exactly what he’d been looking for: a white guy who captured the sound of the black guys.
To his credit, Elvis always gave the black guys the credit they deserved.
Elvis had a tragic flaw, though. He was clearly a submissive person. You see this in his relationship with his mother and later in his relationship with Colonel Parker and the U. S. Army. The word submission implies weakness in our macho culture, but that’s based on a one-dimensional view of power. A submissive person is one who manifests strong devotion to a cause or to a person. Mother Teresa was certainly a submissive, and she was certainly no wimp. The fact that Elvis demonstrated incredible perseverance during the years when everyone thought he was an odd duck is clear evidence that Elvis wasn’t a wimp either. What happened to Elvis was he picked the wrong object of devotion to manage his career. Once Colonel Parker arrived on the scene, the songs started to get cute, the delivery more polished and that marvelous kinetic energy faded into memory. A stint in the military only served to strengthen his devotion to conformity, and while he still topped the charts for a while and made oodles on his movies, the thrill was gone.
This album captures the real Elvis, the Elvis consumed by the music, the outcast with the guitar. The first rock ‘n’ roll album to top the charts, it represents a very special moment in musical and cultural history. I’m reviewing the original release, not the extended version that appeared in the 90’s. That release really pissed me off because the powers that be chose to open the extended version with “Heartbreak Hotel,” which lacks the revolutionary impact of the original opener, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Imagine you’re a teenager in the 1950’s, and puberty is starting to rear its hairy head. You haven’t paid much attention to music because the music your parents play is pure elevator music. You know if you hear Patti Page singing “Doggie in the Window” one more time you’re going to throw some bricks through the window of the local pet store. You’re hanging around in your room after dinner, thinking about how much you hate the frozen peas you had to eat to earn a scoop of Neapolitan for dessert. You know you should do your homework, but you just don’t feel like it. While you’re suspended in this state of Sartrean nothingness, your mother yells down the hall that one of your friends is on the phone. “Wanna go to the malt shop?” “Yeah, sure.” You lie about having done your homework and head down to get a malted fix from the soda jerk. Your friend sidles up to the jukebox and says, “Wait until you hear this,” drops a dime into the slot and presses a couple of buttons. This is what you hear:
You feel every cell in your body come alive and get a dawning sense of why you’ve been having funny sensations in your nether regions. You can’t help it: you’ve got to dance. When it’s over, you reach for a dime to play that song one more time. After about five more spins, you see it’s time to go home because your mother would kill you if you missed watching Uncle Milty with the family. You arrive in time, fling yourself on the floor in front of the bulbous tube, and lo and behold! Uncle Milty is introducing . . . Elvis Presley!
Look at that sucker move! How does he make his legs go every which way? You consume the visuals in a way you’ve never consumed green peas, greedily taking in the way he combs his hair, the clothes, the shoes, that guitar he’s banging like there’s no tomorrow. Man, this is it! This is what I want to be! I want to make music and drive those people wild!
“Blue Suede Shoes” is a hell of an opener, in large part because of the shock of the stop-time opening where Elvis belts it out with maximum intensity. While I love Carl Perkins’ version, and bemoan the fact that he rarely gets credit for his contributions to rock, Elvis’ version is so much sexier. The best rock ‘n’ roll has the curious effect of lifting our spirits and fanning our flames, and Elvis was one of the first to work that kind of magic.
I think one aspect of Elvis’ music that made him a bit more palatable to the mass audience than Little Richard or Chuck Berry had nothing to do with race, but with his willingness to sing tender ballads. Practically speaking, if you can make mothers all over America love you, then they’re more likely to let their kids have some fun with the rougher material. While that kind of marketing mentality would never have occurred to Elvis, his balladeering did the trick. “I’m Counting on You” allows him to show his softer side and demonstrate that his voice can be sweet as well as rough. His vibrato is superb and his range combined with his feel for the song make it a keeper.
Now that he’s made it safe for us to proceed, Elvis kicks in with a rockabilly version of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” His breathy vocal in the stop-time verse is killer, and makes me forgive him for the “she knows her place” message in the lyrics. Elvis sings this one with trembling restraint, slight cockiness and flashes of power. The classic wrap-up coda is a kick! Next up is “One-Sided Love Affair,” a bouncy honky-tonk boogie number with Shorty Long having a great time on the ivories. This is where Elvis shows his command of tone and phrasing, creating syllables like “you-ah”, “co-ohs” and “love-ah” while occasionally echoing the cadence of a pulpit preacher. The coda features three different approaches to the final line, all expressing a different mood: head-shaking, coy and finally, determined.
“I Love You Because” opens with whistling and acoustic guitar before Scotty Moore introduces a rather complex counterpoint to Elvis’ crooning. The effect is rather charming. The song is quite simple, but flows better than the rather stiff “Love Me Tender” that helped launch his forgettable movie career. The boys get moving again with “Just Because,” where Scotty shines with that oh-so primitive sounding electric guitar that captures a magic that the software of today can never emulate.
Elvis’ version of “Tutti Frutti” can’t touch Little Richard’s original, and he almost sings it like he knows it and can’t wait to get it over with. He does much, much better with “Trying to Get to You,” where his varied phrasing and dynamics can really shine. He really lets it go on the bridges, growling it out at a comfortable spot in his high range, and what he does with the word “true” (something like true-ooh-uh-ooh-ooh flittering over the scale) is Elvis at his best. I love the way he returns to the higher register to belt out that closing line.
The low-register Elvis opens “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” a rockabilly number enhanced with a flurry of blue notes on the piano and a solid attack on the ride cymbal during the bridges. Once again, the combination of Elvis’ deft movement through the scale and his delightfully twisted drawls are the high points. It’s followed by a sweet country song, “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)” where Elvis sings in a soft, almost meek voice over Scotty’s mandolin-style guitar picking . . . until they kick it up a notch and add some toe-tapping rhythm to the mix. The rhythmic shift doesn’t really work very well, but who knows—maybe they just got antsy playing the slow stuff.
Elvis takes on that hoary classic, “Blue Moon,” a song I loathe no matter who’s doing it. What I like about this track, though, is that the sound is terribly primitive, as if recorded in someone’s living room with a tape recorder that could have used some extra head cleaning fluid. The original album ends with the criminally ignored “Money Honey,” clearly the equal of Clyde McPhatter’s original chart-topper. The chord slide that runs through the song (like what you hear on Dave Clark’s “Catch Us If You Can”) is fabulous, and D. J. Fontana has his best outing on the entire album with his drum work, demonstrating command of both the high hat and the good old-fashioned drum roll. Everybody’s on fire on this cut: Floyd Cramer on piano, Scotty with an unusually dissonant guitar solo and of course, Elvis, who works this one as more of a band member than a front man.
When the album is over, you know you’ve heard something very special that captures one of the exciting moments at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. You couldn’t have invented anyone as perfect as Elvis Presley to serve as the point man for the rock revolution—and that’s not because of his race. His race gave him a huge advantage with the mass market of the time, but that’s certainly not his fault. He wouldn’t have even made a tiny dent into that market if he had been a run-of-the-mill white guy offering the same old slop. It was his stark originality, his devotion to his music and his insistence on singing in his unique style that made him a star.
The question of his influence is another story. While Elvis inspired millions to pick up a guitar, his musical influence is actually quite limited. His vocal approach is so singular that when people try to emulate it, the sound is a weak shadow of the original. More importantly, he wasn’t a songwriter, making him dependent on other people to supply the music. While he worked with some great craftsmen like Lieber and Stoller, that set-up could never lead to a Revolver or a Village Green Preservation Society. The deliberate destruction of his talent at the hands of Colonel Parker further weakened his impact. From the standpoint of musical influence, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard had far more. Elvis’ real influence came from his unrestrained enthusiasm and the feeling that you get from listening to his early work that he was truly, genuinely and unmistakably into his music.
Most of the people in my generation consider Elvis a joke. They were brought up on stories of the bloated Elvis, the drugged-up Elvis, the strange recluse living in a strange house in Memphis. His sad decline and the legions of impersonators make Elvis as much an object of derision as an object of worship today. Personally, I’d rather remember him as the kid on this album, playing his heart out with exuberant joy and helping create a whole new universe of music without even trying.