Tag Archives: Essentials

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:

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The Essentials: Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams

(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 September 1977, Linda Ronstadt released her eighth album, Simple Dreams. Although not her best work (Heart Like a Wheel is that), it’s a sublime masterpiece. It captures her at the peak of her creative powers, melding yesteryear classics and contemporary offerings into a delectable whole. In a sense, it follows the formula she and producer Peter Asher established with Heart Like a Wheel – but it strays from it, too, by expanding the palette several hues. There’s pop, rock and country, in other words, but also two songs from the dawn of true Americana music – the Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry” (1933) and “Old Paint,” which dates back even further, to the late 1800s.

In some ways, the set epitomizes what I like to call Southern California soul – it’s tasteful and tuneful, emotive, and never slick. Linda is a singer in service to the songs. Oh sure, her voice is on full display – but every note she sings is aimed at putting the songs over; she doesn’t show off. Her rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” which topped out at No. 3 on the singles chart, is one example…

… and her cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” which topped out at No. 5, is another.

Because of my age and ignorance, I was unaware of Linda Ronstadt until the following autumn and Living in the USA, and didn’t become a fan in earnest until 1980, when I bought Mad Love.  And as a kid on a tight budget, I didn’t pick up Simple Dreams until March 1st, 1983 – not because I didn’t want it, but because four of its songs were featured on her Greatest Hits Vol. II, which I got in October or November of 1980. These two, for instance:

But I quickly wished I’d bought it sooner. Its strength comes not just from the hits and those two radio staples, but such exemplary tunes as the aforementioned “I Never Will Marry” and “Old Paint,” not to mention the Eric Kaz-penned “Sorrow Lives Here.”

Here’s the track list of the album:

Side One:

  1. It’s So Easy
  2. Carmelita
  3. Simple Man, Simple Dream
  4. Sorrow Lives Here
  5. I Never Will Marry

Side Two:

  1. Blue Bayou
  2. Poor Poor Pitiful Me
  3. Maybe I’m Right
  4. Tumbling Dice
  5. Old Paint

Aside from its contents, the LP is notable for selling 3 1/2 million copies within its first year of release; knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the top spot of Billboard’s album chart, a position that album had held for 29 weeks; and being home to two singles (“Blue Bayou” and “It’s So Easy”) that were in the Top 5 at the same time – a feat that hadn’t been achieved since the Beatles in the ‘60s.

So why spotlight Simple Dreams now? The Rhino label has reissued the album in honor of its 40th anniversary, that’s why. The set features remastered sound and three bonus tracks from Linda’s 1980 HBO concert – “It’s So Easy,” “Blue Bayou” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” I can’t speak for the CD, but the LP sounds great; and the bonus material is a delight – if you purchase the LP, they come on a separate 45-sized single (though it plays at 33 1/3 RPMs).

But it does beg the question: Why not release that live set in full – on both DVD and CD? It just seems a no-brainer to me. Someone uploaded the entire show to YouTube a few years back…a tad dark, but enjoyable all the same. Enjoy it before it goes away!

The Essentials: The Bangles’ All Over the Place

(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.)

Although it seems daft to me now, in the early and mid-‘80s I often bought albums on cassette, and cassette only. I’d love to say that, for a time, I did so due to me taking not one, but two buses to travel to and from Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), which for a time I did, and that during those hour-or-so trips I listened to music via a Walkman clone. Or that I later purchased them for the tape deck that I installed in my ’79 Chevette.

The truth is, however, that I bought them because I bought them, which I’d been doing off and on since my folks gave me a cassette deck that plugged into my Radio Shack compact stereo/turntable in the late 1970s, though the trend picked up steam after Christmas 1982, when they presented me with a Sanyo Mini AM/FM Cassette Recorder Stereo. Sometimes I went with the cassette because the vinyl wasn’t in stock; and other times just because. In some cases, I eventually bought the same album on vinyl – but there was no rhyme or reason as to what got duplicated. Some touchstone albums in my life, such as Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Lone Justice’s debut and Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., never made the jump to vinyl (though all, in time, made the leap to CD) while others that weren’t did.

Another touchstone album that I never picked up on vinyl: the Bangles’ All Over the Place, which – says Wikipedia – was released on May 23, 1984. I didn’t purchase it until the fall, however – on October 15th, a Monday, according to my desk diary, four days before another touchstone album, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name…, came into my life. (It may seem incongruous to love both, yet I did…and still do.)

That is, I didn’t buy the vinyl until yesterday, when I stopped in HHH Records a used-vinyl store near me, and found it for $4. (Clean LP, no pops, crackles or snaps.)

As I wrote in my long-ago review of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday album, thanks to Rolling Stone, I’d been aware of the Bangles since March 1983, though I didn’t actually hear them until their videos for “Hero Takes a Fall” and “Going Down to Liverpool” received play on MTV in the spring and summer of ’84.

(Leonard Nimoy’s friendship with Susanna Hoffs’ parents accounts for his appearance in the video, from what I’ve read.)

The band was the focus of a Michael Goldberg-penned article in Rolling Stone that September and, presumably, a review around the same time, though my lack of access to the RS Archives means I can’t confirm the latter (and I have no memory of reading one).

Wayne King did offer a less-than-glowing review of their debut LP in the September issue of Record magazine, however. The words that would’ve caught my eyes: “bouncy guitar group sounds,” “soaring vocals” and “mid-‘60s fixation.” The criticism itself…eh. I’d already seen the videos. They sounded good to me. It was just a matter of when, not if, I invested in the LP…or, in this case, cassette.

To my ears then and now, All Over the Place echoes the mid-‘60s, specifically the Beatles and Byrds, while sounding very much of its own time. I.e., it’s both retro and modern, and – simultaneously – ahead of the curve. “Hero Takes a Fall” is one example. Another is “Tell Me”…

And another is “Dover Beach.” (Check out Vicki Peterson channeling her inner Dave Davies at the 3 minute mark.)

Really, to me, All Over the Place – despite topping out at No. 153 on the Billboard charts – is reason enough for the band (Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, Debbie Peterson and Michael Steele) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (Additional reasons came along later in the decade, of course.)

Anyway, here they are on Late Night With David Letterman in November of ‘84…

Side 1:

  1. Hero Takes a Fall
  2. Live
  3. James
  4. All About You
  5. Dover Beach

Side 2:

  1. Tell Me
  2. Restless
  3. Going Down to Liverpool
  4. He’s Got a Secret
  5. Silent Treatment
  6. More Than Meets the Eye

Here’s the album in full, via YouTube…

I should mention, the playlist includes a bonus track tacked onto the CD at some point in time: a cover of the Grass Roots’ first hit, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which the Bangles released as the b-side to “Hero Takes a Fall.” (As I point out in my (un)Essentials essay on Jan & Dean’s semi-classic, semi-kitsch Folk ’n Roll album, however, the Grass Roots weren’t the first to release the song. The surfer duo was.)