Tag Archives: Essentials

The Essentials: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n Roll

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

The pages of history textbooks are filled will legions of folks who shaped the world, but – academia being what it is – many important people receive cursory mentions or none at all. Like Joan Jett.

Don’t get me wrong – there were important women rockers before her, and any music fan worth his or her salt should be able to list them – and she shared space in the record racks and ink in the rock magazines with a number of equally important contemporaries, albeit ones who were blazing trails in different genres. But few, male or female, rocked as consistently hard and steady as Joan Jett during the ’80s. Beginning with the I Love Rock ’n Roll album, which was released on November 18th, 1981, she taught a generation of gals and guys that either gender could make like Chuck Berry.

It was a long time coming, of course. She first dented the door to the men’s room that was rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1970s with the Runaways, though – success in Japan aside – they never transcended to popular acclaim. Her first solo album in 1980, originally a self-titled release before being rechristened Bad Reputation in January 1981, did achieve greatness – but few heard it. She finally kicked down the door in early 1982 with help from MTV, and the video for the chart-topping title track to her second LP. (Rock radio, at least in my neck of the woods, ignored her until then.)

The song, as the album as a whole, mixes elements of new wave, punk, glam rock and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll into a delectable whole. It’s hot, heavy, loud and gritty or, as my mother-in-law might say, “it’s rough, it’s tough, and it’s got the stuff.”

The cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, is equally audacious.

It’s also the album’s slowest song.

What makes an album great – and essential – isn’t any one song, of course, though some may be better than others. It’s the album in total. And in the case of I Love Rock n’ Roll, that means the other eight tracks on the LP – and they’re as solid as the two singles. What teenager (or adult, for that matter) couldn’t identify with “Victim of Circumstance”?

And who hasn’t known a “Nag”?

Like the title track, “Crimson & Clover” and several others on the LP, it’s a cover song, in this case one by a doo-wop group called the Haloes, who had a No. 25 hit with it in 1961. One of the other covers is one of Joan’s own, the Runaways’ “You’re Too Possessive” (from that band’s overlooked 1977 Waitin’ for the Night album):

There’s also the original “(I’m Gonna) Run Away”…

…and “Love Is Pain”:

On the original pressing of the LP (which I had), there was this Christmas treat –

After the holidays, Boardwalk replaced with Joan’s own “Oh Woe Is Me,” which had been the b-side to “Crimson & Clover.”

The success of the album, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, led to a resurgence of interest for Bad Reputation, and paved the way for her strong third and fourth albums, Album (1983) and Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984). True, they followed a similar pattern – a mix of killer new songs and choice covers – but it’s a pattern that didn’t grow old then, and doesn’t sound old now when or if you listen to them.

Side 1:

  1. I Love Rock ’n Roll
  2. (I’m Gonna) Run Away
  3. Love Is Pain
  4. Nag
  5. Crimson & Clover

Side 2:

  1. Victim of Circumstance
  2. Bits and Pieces
  3. Be Straight
  4. You’re Too Possessive
  5. Little Drummer Boy
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The Essentials: Olivia Newton-John – Totally Hot

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
The history of rock ’n’ pop music is awash with artists whose careers were propelled by the 45. Aside from best-of collections, their LPs often seemed to be afterthoughts. They generally included recent singles and b-sides, covers of well-known songs and, depending, show tunes. Many a Motown artist followed that basic formula, but it wasn’t unique to them. Many others did, too. There was a reason for that: The 45 was king.

But one need look only at the Beatles’ discography, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, to see the evolution of the album within the rock world – they never released a single from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. (They also released songs only available on 45s, of course, so maybe they’re a bad example.) The gradual growth of the album as a cultural force can also be attributed to the rise of FM radio, where many freeform stations focused on album tracks; the record labels themselves; and economic and social forces larger than the the music industry.

Don’t get me wrong: the single was never deposed from its throne, though its power was muted for the longest time. A casual fan bought the 45 but not the LP, just as today many fans prefer downloading (or streaming) just the hit, while hardcore fans picked up both – especially when the b-side wasn’t included on the album. Or, if the song was from a pricey double-LP movie soundtrack that featured many other artists, one might prefer the single.

The last was the main reason why I picked up “You’re the One That I Want,” Olivia Newton-John’s smash Grease duet with John Travolta, in late June 1978. The album cost about as much as a month’s worth of my allowance! I was 12, soon to be 13, and had recently seen the movie – the first of many, many times that summer – and was instantly smitten with the blonde student from Australia. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was always a high point of the film; it still is. Here’s a 1978 live performance of the song:

Another high point: the introduction of saucy Sandy at the film’s end. (No, it’s not a great movie, per se, but it’s great all the same. I’ve never not watched it and found myself wishing I hadn’t. And in the decades since that summer, it’s safe to say I’ve seen it a lot.)

Now, Olivia had been making music since the early 1970s but – given my age and other circumstances – I was unaware of her. True, like most moviegoers in the summer of 1975, I heard a snippet of “I Honestly Love You” in Jaws. But I was more focused on the shark than the soundtrack.

Grease, in other words, was my introduction to her. And Totally Hot, the LP she released in November of 1978, cemented my fandom. Just as, in Grease, sweet Sandy morphs into saucy Sandy, Olivia underwent a metamorphosis of her own that year, though I wasn’t aware of it: from adult contemporary to pop-rock.

Some folks reading this, I’m sure, are arching an eyebrow and/or snickering. At some point in time it became hip to dismiss “adult contemporary” music as manipulative musings aimed at the overly washed; pop as lightweight dross; and pop-rock as diluted pablum. One need only to flip through the history books – or the red and blue versions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide – to see what I mean.

But me, I’ve never cared about what others thought of my likes and dislikes. As evidenced by my blog, I enjoy many styles of music – from rock to pop to disco to country to R&B and more. Prog-rock, however, bores me to tears, and a lot of punk is just noise to my ears, but if someone enjoys either – hey, more power to them. (As John Lennon sang, and they may be the most profound lyrics he ever wrote, “whatever gets you through the night/it’s all right, it’s all right.”) Commercial music, such as ONJ’s, can light a life as much as any other.

Anyway, I’d argue that the lead single, “A Little More Love,” is the utter definition of pop-rock in its purest, best form. It possesses a catchy rhythm, cool guitar licks, and a seductive vocal.

(It also has a lyric I often sing to my cat: “It gets me nowhere to tell you no.”)

The second single, “Deeper Than the Night,” is equally as brilliant:

But two hit singles, both of which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, do not make a great album. What makes Totally Hot essential – to me, at least – are its other eight songs, which include the propulsive opening salvo of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting”…

…the inviting “Talk to Me”…

…and “Borrowed Time,” which – like “Talk to Me” – was written by ONJ…

…and, of course, the funky title track.

Some songs, such as the country-flavored “Dancin’ Round and Round” or Eric Carmen-penned “Boats Against the Current,” would’ve been at home on her more adult contemporary-styled albums, such as Making a Good Thing Better (1977), Don’t Stop Believin’ (1976) or Have You Never Been Mellow (1975), but work just as well here. Sweet and saucy aren’t mutually exclusive, as Grease made it seem.

I’ll close with this: That picture up top? That’s my original copy of Totally Hot, which I received for Christmas ’78. Despite the many albums lost and/or traded in through the years, most notably during the run-up of Diane and I moving in together in 1990, I never parted with it. And while I don’t usually play the LP – I bought the Japanese import CD years ago, and generally listen to my ALAC rip of it – I’m playing it now. At the end of a bad day, it lifts my spirits. There’s no better thing I can say about an album than that, I think.

The songs:

 

The Essentials: Stephen Stills – Manassas

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In today’s age, the double album seems almost quaint: two vinyl slabs that, combined, hold anywhere from 70 to 100 minutes of music. But they were a Big Deal back in the day, as that second slab substantially upped the cost to the consumer. Instead of $5.99-7.99 (plus tax), which was the average price of an LP when I began buying them in the late 1970s, a fan had to plunk down almost twice that ($9.99-11.99) – unless it was an Elvis Presley compilation on Pickwick, that is. I picked up the 2-LP Double Dynamite for $3.99 at a Montgomery Ward. (Of course, one look at the song list explains the low cost.)

Many double (and triple, for that matter) albums captured live shows; others were compilations that sometimes included previously unreleased material or hard-to-find b-sides. Double LPs of all-new material, on the other hand, were relatively rare, though any music fan worth his or her salt can reel off dozens of such titles, including ones by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Allman Brothers, not to mention Pink Floyd, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Husker Du.

Most, though not all, now fit onto one CD, and play no longer than many “albums” released as one disc in the ‘90s and ‘00s, when it seemed (at least to me) fairly common for new releases to clock in at over an hour; and, in the download/streaming age, time constraints just seem moot. But most CDs that run longer than 45 minutes contain – dare I say it? – songs that should have been left in the vault. In the days of limited space, only the best of the best were pressed onto vinyl.

Yes, of course, exceptions abound. But they’re exceptions.

Anyway, with fans and critics of a certain age being who and what they are, lists proliferate of the greatest double albums of all time. Here’s one; here’s another; and here’s yet another. If you Google the term, you’ll find dozens more.

And yet, on just about every list I’ve seen, one stone-cold classic – “a sprawling masterpiece,” according to AllMusic – is usually overlooked: today’s essential pick, Stephen Stills’ Manassas.

Stills, of course, first turned ears as the driving force behind Buffalo Springfield in the mid-‘60s; and again with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Young in 1969 and ’70. He released a great, self-titled solo debut in 1970; a near-great second solo set in ’71; and, in 1972, paired with former Byrd-Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman to found Manassas, a talented group that could play just about everything, including rock, folk-rock, country, bluegrass, Latin and the blues.

Among the group’s personnel: steel guitar great Al Perkins and phenomenal fiddler Byron Berline, both of whom had played with Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers; keyboardist Paul Harris; Blues Image founder (and percussionist extraordinaire) Joe Lala; and CSNY alum Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels and Dallas Taylor on bass and drums.

Oh, Stones bassist Bill Wyman sits in on one song, too. (According to Dallas Taylor, Wyman was ready to leave the Stones for Manassas – but wasn’t asked.)

Manassas, the album, is a mosaic of musical styles accented by top-notch playing and great songs. Split into four thematic sides (“The Raven,” “The Wilderness,” “Consider” and “Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”), it alternately reflects and resonates with the soul; delves into the philosophical; and rocks with precise abandon. It’s an electric album. It’s an acoustic album. Some songs are imbued with hope, others heartbreak and longing.

And it’s hook-laden.

One highlight: “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” which features a wondrous Hillman intro, a cool mesh of Cuban rhythms and country overtones, gorgeous guitar solos, and harmonies that can’t be beat.

Another: “Fallen Eagle,” a song I sing to myself whenever I see too much of Donald Trump on TV.

And another, “Colorado”:

And another, “How Far”:

Oh, and there’s this gem from Side 4 (“Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”): “The Treasure (Take One),” a winding treatise on love and “oneness.”

By virtue of my age, and the lack of non-CSN songs played on the radio, I didn’t discover the album (and its followup, Down the Road), until Feb. 12, 1984, when I picked them up at the Hatboro Music Shop. The double-LP set came with a cool fold-out poster that featured a photo montage on one side and the lyrics on the other; and, as I often did in those days, I read the lyrics along with the songs as they unfolded.

I was blown away by it. I still am. And I’m forever mystified as to why it slipped – along with Stills’ other early ’70s solo sides – into semi-obscurity. It did well, chart-wise. After its release on April 12, 1972, it peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, where it shared space in the Top 10 with David Crosby & Graham Nash’s self-titled debut and Neil Young’s Harvest.

Side 1 “The Raven”:

  1. Song of Love
  2. Medley: Rock & Roll Crazies; Cuban Bluegrass
  3. Jet Set
  4. Anyway
  5. Both of Us (Bound to Lose)

Side 2 “The Wilderness”:

  1. Fallen Eagle
  2. Jesus Gave Love Away for Free
  3. Colorado
  4. So Begins the Task
  5. Hide It So Deep
  6. Don’t Look at My Shadow

Side 3 “Consider”:

  1. It Doesn’t Matter
  2. Johnny’s Garden
  3. Bound to Fall
  4. How Far
  5. Move Around
  6. The Love Gangster

Side 4:

  1. What to Do
  2. Right Now
  3. The Treasure (Take One)
  4. Blues Man

Here’s the album in full, courtesy of YouTube: