Concert Review – Paul McCartney live at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre

At a spry and still-boyish 75, Sir Paul McCartney brought his career-spanning One on One tour to Tinley Park, IL for two shows this summer (and first-ever visit to the area). Of course, Beatle devotees could have easily filled a concert venue three times the size of Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, so it was a curious choice, though McCartney has been in the habit of visiting new places in recent years. A born showman, music and performing are in his DNA. This becomes abundantly clear when watching him perform. He obviously still loves what he does and basks in the interaction with his audience. And though he’s joked about one day being wheeled onstage to croak out yet another rendition of “Yesterday,” it is almost certain McCartney will keep playing for fans as long as he is physically able to.

Again, one can recite all of McCartney’s superhuman accomplishments ad nauseam. Along with Prince, he is perhaps the most musically gifted pop artist of all time. Had he been nothing more than the pretty pin-up idol who played all those amazing basslines on Beatle records, his legend would still rest assured. The fact that he was also a mutli-instrumentalist with a voice that could sing ballads and rockers with ease, as well as being one-half of the greatest songwriting partnership of all time is surreal. He’s been almost too good his entire career. He spoiled his audience with his genius at an incredibly young age and must now carry that weight (of expectation) a long time.

Even this he does with supreme grace. During the second of the two Tinley shows, McCartney opened with “A Hard Day’s Night”. A blinding spotlight caused him to miss his microphone stand, so he quickly stopped the show and, lifelong pro that he is, immediately charmed the audience with the offhand quip, “Hey, it’s live!” and started the show again. So we got to hear the iconic opening chord twice, which can only be a good thing. Once Paul’s voice kicked in, it was Beatlemania all over again for those in attendance.

McCartney followed up with a rocking “Junior’s Farm” from peak-era Wings, and then another early Beatles favorite, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Jet” from the classic Band on the Run album. All were delivered with great energy and the sound mix was excellent throughout. He also threw in an obscure (but well known among DJ’s) solo track “Temporary Secretary” from 1980’s synth-heavy McCartney II. Again, McCartney had to stop the show as the sequencer sample that starts the song was off-rhythm. And again McCartney joked that this was how the audience knew for sure that the band was really playing live. Having seen McCartney many times since he returned to regular touring in 1989, the early flubs added a refreshing spontaneity to what is normally a tightly-scripted and highly-polished show.

While McCartney has indeed lost part of his legendary upper register with age (as have virtually all rock veterans still on the touring circuit), he still delivered vocal moments that brought the house down. At one point near the end of “1985,” he nailed the signature belt and got rapturous cheers. Having shown up at the venue before the gates opened, I was able to hear his pre-show sound check of about 9 or 10 songs not in the regular set. All of them sounded great and his voice was still strong and commanding. For other songs in the set, the sound mix and great vocal harmonies, particularly from drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., made up the difference.

For all of his storybook achievements, McCartney still carries himself as a working musician. Touring with the same band he has since 2001, he works much, much harder than he has to. He hustles and sweats. As a living Beatle, McCartney could do the Dylan thing and come onstage, stoic and aloof, and go through the motions of a self-serving set list without any audience engagement. Most people would still go home happy knowing they got to see him and the iconic Höfner bass. Instead, McCartney takes you on a journey through music history with stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, the impetus for certain songs, as well as loving tributes to Linda McCartney, Beatles producer George Martin, George Harrison and John Lennon. He also swaps back and forth between bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano and ukulele (as a great tribute to Harrison on “Something”). It was an impressive display of his unmatched talent.

For an epic three-hour show, the pace flew by. There was an easy blend of moods and tones, from classic rockers to stately piano ballads and a nice acoustic interlude where McCartney played with casual flair as if in your living room or at the local coffee house. After the acoustic set, which included Beatle classics “And I Love Her,” “Blackbird,” and Quarrymen charmer “In Spite of All the Danger,” McCartney and company went back into full-band mode for the final third of the show that played like a jukebox loaded with the greatest of greatest hits: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Band on the Run,” “Let it Be,” pyrotechnic showstopper “Live and Let Die,” and audience sing along “Hey Jude”. The man’s back catalog  simply cannot be beat.

As if the set list was not generous enough, McCartney came back for an encore that played like a full show in itself: “Yesterday,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” “Hi Hi Hi,” “Get Back,” and the majestic Abbey Road finale “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” which climaxed with a blistering three-way guitar dual between McCartney, Rusty Anderson, and Brain Ray and perhaps McCartney’s greatest couplet, “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make”.  As the final A chord reverberated from his sunburst Les Paul, the medley’s conclusion pretty much summed up the unflagging energy and optimism he’s radiated throughout his storybook career.

As the key custodian of the Beatles legacy, Paul McCartney gives his audience far more than they can reasonably expect from him at 75. His onstage energy and generosity of spirit continue to shine brightly. Of the four Beatles, he was always the most outgoing and eager to please, characteristics that have often made him an easy target for critics and certain rock purists. But there has never been an easy way to deny his staggering talent. Someone with his level of popularity will always polarize the public. The true legacy lies in the songs; anthems of peace, hope, compassion and love. Listen to what the man said.

Review: You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen

Another tablet of grim mortality and haunting beauty from the master

Continuing a late-career renaissance that began with his return to the concert stage in 2008, Leonard Cohen is redefining the creative life span of the singer-songwriter. At 82, Cohen has just released his latest album You Want It Darker, a collection teeming with poetic, bittersweet power.  Following 2012’s excellent Old Ideas and 2014’s solid Popular Problems, Cohen continues to delve deeper into his obsessions (spirituality, mortality, relationships gone wrong) with the unwavering eyes of a man who knows his time is running out.

The album opens with the title track, an instantly classic Cohen meditation that manages to sound atmospheric, sinister, and sensual all at once. Cohen’s voice is now far removed from the one that was featured quite meekly on 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.  His gravelly baritone now carries the weight of deep authority and hard-earned wisdom. It is not for everyone and certainly not a Top 40 staple, but it’s become a distinctive signature that fully compliments his writing style. When he sings “I’m ready my Lord,” with the gravity and resignation so clear in his delivery, it is like the encapsulation of his entire body of work and personal quest.

Produced by his son Adam, along with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, You Want It Darker benefits from simple, tasteful arrangements that wisely place Cohen’s voice and poetry front-and-center. Each song is ruminative in a way only Cohen can pull off: the sacred and the suffering all delivered with biting wit as on “Leaving the Table,” where he bids adieu to his infamous ladies’ man persona with the words “I don’t need a lover/The wretched beast is tame.” On “Treaty,” he owns up to the existential angst of his years by admitting “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.”  This is not easy listening, but that is not what the Cohen faithful seek.

Along with the pervasive gloom (or simply the mood of mortality now fully felt and expressed), Cohen also writes with characteristically heartbreaking beauty: “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” may be about a lover or about God (or both), but the haunting images of desolation and darkness only serve to underscore how lost the singer would be “if I didn’t have your love to make it real.” As on the album cover, Cohen might be ready to step into the light, but he still has one arm draped over the darkness. If You Want It Darker is Cohen’s final artistic statement, it is a faithful and uncompromising summation of all that has come before and a shining inspiration to any artist in search of longevity and relevance well into seniority.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week

Beatles 101 for the post-Anthology generation

The story never gets old: four talented working-class boys jump on a nascent musical movement and ride off on a world-conquering hero’s journey filled with joy, brotherhood, tragedy and triumph. For over 50 years, the details of this story have been forensically sifted through by fans, critics, scholars and detractors to the point where seemingly nothing new could be said about the Beatles and their music. So what is the point of a Beatles documentary in 2016, aside from presenting a fresh take by a first-rate director? Aside from educating a new generation on the genius and integrity of the band, Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week turns out to be as fun and affecting as its subject matter.

Featuring candid and affectionate new interviews with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (as well as miscellaneous historians, musicians, and celebrities), the film focuses mainly on their hectic and often chaotic touring life from the early to mid-‘60s, before Beatlemania turned sour and led the foursome to an inspired, but insulated studio existence.

While worthy of a documentary of its own, the formative Hamburg/Cavern years are fast-forwarded through in order to get to Howard’s real focus: the Beatles’ impact on American culture, beginning with their arrival at JFK International Airport in February of 1964 amidst fan and press hysteria before taking the stage for their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unbeknownst to most of the 73 million viewers who tuned in to the performance, the Beatles were already polished and road-hardened veterans of their craft, as capable and charming in press conferences as on stage. Along with their unique appearance, this gave them an otherworldly aura before their true legend as first-rank artists even took root.

From there, the documentary speeds through its 2 hours and 18 minutes in a blur of energetic performances (many unearthed for the first time), had-to-be-there-to-understand fandom, and warmhearted commentary. Howard places this in proper context, with many of the tumultuous cultural shifts of the ‘60s (the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement) providing a tense backdrop for the escapism of Beatlemania. The band not only shaped the times, but were very much shaped by the times, which goes a long way in explaining why their impact has never been fully replicated since.

It’s almost incomprehensible how much artistic growth and life experience the Beatles managed to compress in the short amount of time covered by this documentary. In the span of 7 years, the music went from innocent, joyful pop to avant-garde surrealism, just as the group morphed from cheeky, suited-up mop tops to world-weary hippie wise men. If you were to write it as fiction, no one would believe it. As it stands, it did happen and this film is concrete proof (in addition to all of the other luck that surrounded the band throughout its journey, they were the most well-documented entertainers of their time). There is still nothing comparable to the phenomenon of Beatlemania at its peak. Their value as artists and entertainers is largely unquestioned. As we learn in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, the human beings behind the myth were equally worthy of the adoration.

 

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is currently streaming on Hulu and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18.

Arrested Development – The Troubled Legacy of The Police

[The following piece was first published in 2009]

I had a very odd reading experience recently. As a fan of rock history, I try to keep up with any decent biographies that crop up, especially of favorite artists.  While at Borders a month or so ago, I came across Chris Campion’s Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of the Police and the Rise of New Wave Rock. Being a huge Police fan, I eagerly grabbed the first serious bio written about the band (outside of the principal players) in ages, forked over the money, and headed home expecting a fun and insightful look at the blond trio’s compelling story.  At the book’s conclusion about 270 pages later, I found myself a bit depressed by Campion’s thoroughly clinical and joyless take on the subject matter.  While well-written and detailed in its research, the book is startlingly imbalanced.

While not an Albert Goldman-level hatchet job, Campion’s book is more a damnation than a celebration of the band. Not every rock bio has to be fawning in its approach or devoid of journalistic integrity, but with most of the best ones you at least get a sense that they were written by fans.  While detailed in recounting the group’s calculated and meteoric rise, Campion has virtually nothing positive to say about the band and offers no additional insights about the music itself. There is no real acknowledgment of their incredible talent as players and no appreciation for the songs or albums. The book is really about the group’s cunning management via the equally legendary Miles Copeland, with the implication being that it was clever strategy and not the songs themselves that drove the Police to world domination in the early ‘80s.

The book is symptomatic of a larger problem that faces the Police: history has not been kind to the band.  By 1983, there was no doubt that the trio had secured a place in rock history among the greats. The group released their fifth album Synchronicity, which catapulted straight to no# 1 along with what has since become their signature single “Every Breath You Take,” a deceptively seductive song about a stalker.  They were already being written about as heirs to the tradition of intelligent and crafty pop once staked out by the Beatles, and with their similar upward trajectory as well as their own Shea Stadium moment on record, there was no denying the similarities. They straddled that fine line of being a pop group (girls loved them), while having rock cred as players with chops (guys loved them too).  And by this point most critics, once resistant to the band’s lack of punk credibility, photogenic looks and unavoidable presence, had come around. Synchronicity and the world tour that followed, was largely greeted with enthusiastic praise. And the group topped Rolling Stone magazine’s annual reader’s poll that same year. From that point on, the group was minted and poised for greater and greater things.

Perhaps it was the decision, largely driven by chief songwriter/bassist Sting, to call it quits while at the very top, another Beatlesque move calculated to leave the audience wanting more. Or maybe it has to do with Sting’s largely MOR solo output since disbanding the group. One way or another, time has robbed the band of its once-omnipotent aura.  Their legacy has not grown in stature in the way that, for example, Led Zeppelin’s or Pink Floyd’s has.  They no longer crack the top 10 of any 100 best album, song, or band-of-all-time polls. Though songs such as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and the indomitable “Every Breath You Take” have withstood the test of time, the Police have not fully transcended their era like most of the elite, classic-rock greats have. They have not joined “The Canon” as once expected, which is a shame as, based on talent alone, they are certainly worthy.

While not doing himself any favors with the guardians of rock history as a solo artist, particularly with his lute and “winter” music (not to mention bragging about his tantric sex practices), Sting is a uniquely talented and complicated figure. Most songwriters are either gifted with a strong sense of melody or a unique way with words. Sting was one of the few in rock history gifted with both. His Police songs have pop hooks that would’ve made Lennon and McCartney envious and his best lyrics (when he stepped away from the rhyming dictionary) dealt with power, control, and twisted love in a way far removed from most pop song conventions. Long before Live Aid, Sting was writing about the plight of the Third World in “Driven to Tears” (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta).  And from his dark, but spiritual meditations on 1982’s Ghost in the Machine to the more personal and psychologically troubled songs on 1983’s Synchronicity such as “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Sting rose to the level of first-rank songwriters (all this without mentioning his keening, signature tenor and melodic bass playing). Though rife with intellectual pretensions, his best Police songs (and loose album concepts) were all the better for the scope of his ambition. The ‘80s really needed him, but he certainly would not have made it to true superstar status alone.

The Police is drummer Stewart Copeland’s band and without his initial drive and vision, Sting most likely would’ve ended up an unknown jazz wannabe or fringe songwriter at best.  He dragged Sting along on the crest of 1976’s punk rock movement in England, added muscle and firepower to his singing/bass playing, had the concept and name for the band, and contributed a completely unique (to rock) polyrhythmic drumming style that would become a key signature of all great Police music. He was also the most interesting member of the band to watch in a live setting with his manic energy and long, flailing limbs seemingly all over the kit at once.  While by no means a songwriter’s drummer (he completely lacked the restraint and humility), he was the last of the truly great stickmen before the plague of the infamous gated drum sound of the mid-‘80s took over. He was also the perfect foil for Sting’s more introspective personality.

By his own admission, Sting would not have been able to fully flourish as a songwriter without Andy Summers’ equally unique guitar playing.  With his long history in the music business (he was a contemporary of Beck, Page, and Clapton), Summers was probably the furthest thing from punk possible. But his sophisticated extended chords and use of space, textures, and echo effects were also very far removed from the self-indulgent and pointless guitar solos coming from the lazy dinosaur acts at the time. In that sense, he was the perfect guitar hero for the New Wave era, as well as the ideal third element needed to fully alchemize the Police magic. For all of his subsequent success as a major solo star, Sting has never worked with better players; guys who were in a position to challenge his lesser ideas and toughen up his songs.

In 2007, 30 years after “Roxanne” first charted, the Police finally bowed to inevitable and gave fans the official swan song tour. One of the last major holdouts of the big bucks reunion lure, the band hit the road for a world tour that extended well into 2008, eventually becoming one of the most commercially successful of all time.  This spoke volumes about their enduring popularity, at least with first-generation fans of the band that had waited 23 years since the final Synchronicity show in Sydney, Australia to see them perform live once again. But did they deliver on the (too) high expectations? Reviews were largely positive across the board (if you discount Stewart Copeland’s infamous blog entry ripping on the tour’s debut in Vancouver). While the performances lacked the coked-up intensity of the early ‘80s, the reunion was a huge gamble that paid off more than it didn’t. No one was screaming “fiasco” and none of the band members embarrassed themselves. Sting still had the voice and ripped physique, Stewart still had the hyperkinetic chops and wowed audiences with his star turn on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Andy was the overall MVP of the tour, nailing impressive solos on “When the World is Running Down…” and “Driven to Tears.”  While the early performances never fully gelled, by the time they returned to the states in early 2008 they were as tight and muscular as they’d ever been (taking into account several key and tempo changes in the material). Once again, the future held promise. And once again, the band made the same decision: to walk away at the top. Or perhaps the decision was to walk away from potentially killing one another in the studio.

In some ways, the Police deserve credit for sidestepping the typical rock and roll pitfalls. There were no drug casualties. There was no poor reunion album to tarnish their recorded legacy (they are 5 for 5 there).  They never overstayed their welcome (something U2 missed the boat on ages ago). They’ve wrapped up the loose ends with one another and with their fans. And the songs have lasted. They still sound crisp, particularly on the first three albums, due to the tasteful three piece power-pop aesthetic.  As with the perfect instrumental combination of guitar, bass, and drums, the artful blend of existential lyrics and upbeat, catchy hooks will always work in rock and roll. The Police were masters of the form. They started as pseudo-punks, but eventually created their own unique sound, which is something very few acts in rock history have accomplished.  They are Hall of Famers, but deserve much more credit than they’ve been given and they certainly deserve a better book than Chris Campion’s disheartening work.

A Good Time Victory Lap

Here they come and they are not monkeying around

Fifty years (!) past the original wave of Monkeemania comes a new album from 1966’s made-for-TV pop group the Monkees. Having slowly gained more and more credibility with the passage of time and excellent touring work, the surviving members of the group (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and custodians of the brand are marking this milestone anniversary with an onslaught of Monkee product. While reissues of the TV show and classic back catalog of albums are a no-brainer, there was genuine risk involved in putting together a new studio album. Past attempts at doing this (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) have produced greatly mixed results. Considering how most people engage with vintage acts today, there really is no need to even do so. It is much easier for an act like the Monkees to simply trot out their old hits, of which there are many. The only reason to produce a new record would be to add to an already significant legacy, which in the case of the Monkees is a pretty Herculean task.

Thankfully, the brain trust at Rhino Records including John Hughes, Mark Pinkus and the ever-reliable archivist Andrew Sandoval came up with the perfect strategy: go back to the Brill Building formula of the early records while aiming for the high-water mark of 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This involved digging up unfinished recordings from the group’s heyday along with enlisting a new crop of tunesmiths simpatico with the Monkees’ aesthetic. Another key decision was paring the surviving members with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne as their producer. His sensibilities along with his multi-instrumental and songwriting talent prove to be a perfect fit for gently guiding the Monkees into 2016. Each member of the Monkees also contributes strong original material (and instrumental support) to Good Times!

 So the big question here is did they pull it off? As a longtime follower of the group (being a child of the ‘70s re-runs of the show) and more than familiar with all of the larger-than-life, bizarre twists and turns in their history together, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Good Times! is far better than could reasonably be expected and a true gift to fans. Perfectly conceived and beautifully executed, it arrives as an effervescent time capsule of the ‘60s and more than achieves its lofty goal of standing tall with their best work.

The album opens with the title track “Good Times,” salvaged from a surviving demo by the late songwriter Harry Nilsson who posthumously gets to sing along with old friend Micky Dolenz (much like the Beatles created “Free as a Bird,” but done here with a more seamless vocal mix). It’s a rollicking start, reminiscent of a Ray Charles R&B groove and a nice showcase for both singers. In fact, Dolenz sounds great throughout the entire record, whether singing lead as he does on most tracks or providing some of his signature harmony parts. Though his voice has a slightly more mature timbre to it, his range is still incredibly strong and he sounds vibrant (and youthful) on tracks like Andy Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer” and the stomping “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)”. With Davy Jones now gone, Dolenz lives on as the voice of the Monkees.

Speaking of Davy Jones, he is thoughtfully (and effectively) included on Good Times! in the form of a vintage recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”. Tastefully completed, the song is Jones through and through, providing the requisite corny (but welcome) love song that was his stock-in-trade on all Monkees albums. It’s a real treat hearing his boyish vocals once again. Peter Tork, the group’s soul and multi-instrumentalist is also perfectly showcased on this album. On both “Little Girl” (originally written by Tork as a song for Davy) and Goffin & King original “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” his voice sounds the best it ever has, warm and supple. His banjo prowess also makes a few key appearances as well.

This brings us to the wild card of any Monkees reunion: the appearance of Michael Nesmith. The once-ornery Texan has always hovered as a big question mark over any attempts to re-kindle the brand since they originally disbanded in 1970. Having made significant contributions to music since going solo and well worthy of inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own, never mind as being a member of the Monkees (his genre-defining work with the First National Band and coming up with the concept that would later morph into MTV), Nez has always had a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to any reunion projects. He did spearhead the spiritual follow-up to Headquarters, 1996’s Justus, but has kept his touring participation minimal. That said, any serious attempt at a new Monkees record needed his voice in the mix. His Monkees songs have always been among their best, providing the deep cuts in the catalog that bear repeated listening. On Good Times!, Nesmith again provides the gravitas: “Me & Magdalena” is easily one of the best things the Monkees have ever recorded. Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the song is wistful, breezy and bittersweet with the classic Mike and Micky vocal harmonies front and center. The Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller-penned “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is Head-trippy, with Mike’s spacey vocals sounding straight out of ’67/’68. Nesmith also contributes “I Know What I Know,” a plaintive piano ballad that is a real departure from the rest of the material here (as well as their entire canon). The song starts off quite naked and gives way to fuller orchestration. It’s unlike anything in the Monkees discography and makes for an effective penultimate track on the album.

Everyone involved in this project deserves major kudos. There is a lot of heart and soul behind Good Times! and if it proves to be the group’s swan song on record, it is a more-than-worthy one. Faithfully retro without being kitschy, it covers the group’s entire trajectory, from the innocence of the first two albums and the psychedelia of the middle period, straight through to the roots sound of the Nesmith-led late ’60s work. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. As promised, you’ll have a good time.

 

P.S. The iTunes version of Good Times! includes two bonus tracks that are equally notable: Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying” is worthy of inclusion on the album proper and the melody and harmonies of “Me & Magdalena” work nearly as well in the up-tempo second version. Worth seeking out.

Reign of Disdain

He looks like a million dollars, is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion with only three-and-a-half years on the main roster, and is poised to be a main eventer for as long as he remains healthy. So what the hell is the problem with Roman Reigns and why is the so-called “WWE Universe” so openly hostile towards him? I mean, this guy is getting some of the greatest heel heat since John Cena. The problem is, again like Cena, he’s another polarizing babyface (good guy in pro-wrestling parlance). It’s all pretty simple really and could’ve easily been avoided by anyone who is even halfway familiar with Wrestling 101, which excludes most of the current WWE writing staff.

Roman Reigns has been very poorly served by WWE booking (basically, those in charge of charting the pre-scripted course all WWE talent follow). This comes from the top down, so ultimately it falls on owner Vince McMahon’s lap. It has nothing to do with Roman Reigns, who is a much better athlete and performer than he needs to be and is still a young talent learning the game. Reigns could easily coast on his looks and size much like Kevin Nash did for his entire career, but Reigns has much more heart for the business than that. The real shame is that Reigns, originally a cool villain, was organically gaining traction with the fans before Vince decided Roman was “THE guy” and proceeded to force him down the everyone’s throat as a fan-favorite waaay ahead of schedule. Now Reigns gets the same dueling chants that follow Cena to this day: woman and children love him; men and smart marks (knowledgeable fans), not so much.

Reigns made his main roster debut in November 2012 as part of a super-cool heel group of young talent called The Shield. Decked out in S.W.A.T. gear, it was a great gimmick and the right balance of talent with Dean Ambrose as the brains and mouthpiece, Seth Rollins as the Shawn Michaels-like wunderkind worker, and Reigns as the silent, but deadly muscle. All three were genuinely over with the WWE audience and could’ve ridden the wave of this gimmick (and merchandise sales) for at least another two-to-three more years than they did. Instead, they were disbanded in June 2014 to allow for each member to become an individual star, with a top spot specially earmarked for Reigns. He had the right size, the right hair, and the right pedigree (being part of the same Anoa’i dynasty that produced Yokozuna, Rikishi and, in a roundabout way, The Rock). His key weakness, not being particularly dynamic on the microphone, was actually a plus while part of The Shield, creating an aura of mystery around him. So there was no way this could not work, right??

Wrong. It was too clear and simple for the WWE not to mess up. They turned Dean Ambrose into the second coming of Brian Pillman, gave Rollins the heel spot, and tried making Roman the fan favorite. What happened? Ambrose gets over with his goofy shtick, Rollins gets over with his unbelievable athleticism, and Reigns gets rejected by the majority of fans who see through the backstage machinations and pandering. Had Reigns been allowed to remain a villain for at least another year or two, and been aligned with a brilliant mouthpiece like Paul Heyman while building up a great highlight reel as the company’s top bad guy, fans would’ve naturally clamored for him to emerge as a hero down the line, as they have for all great company heels dating back to “Superstar” Billy Graham. Heyman managing both Reigns and Brock Lesnar (another heavyweight superstar weak on the mic, but nonetheless super-over due to intelligent booking) could’ve been epic, filled with great teases until the time was right to present Reigns vs. Lesnar as the climax of a long-term, well-thought-out storyline – and finally the beginning of Roman’s face turn.

All of that aside, the truth is that whether fans like it or not Reigns is still money. As the company learned with Cena, the polarized audience reaction still translates into cash. The kids who snatch up the t-shirts and dolls are with Roman. And the “smart” fans continue to buy tickets to root against him. As in any form of entertainment, the worst reaction is no reaction. Passionate dislike can be unbelievably profitable, just ask Floyd “Money” Mayweather. But it’s also a bit jarring when it is obviously not the kind of reaction the WWE or Reigns had in mind. In the long run, the brand name supersedes the individual stars of the WWE anyway. As CM Punk once said in his infamous “pipe bomb” promo, the wheel keeps spinning regardless.

So where do Reigns and the WWE go from here? He is undoubtedly a star and we seem to be stuck with him in this current role for quite a while (WWE can be quite obstinate that way). Right now, he is embroiled in the early stages of a feud with A.J. Styles, probably the best possible opponent for him, both athletically and storyline wise, until Seth Rollins returns from his untimely injury. So far, both Reigns and Styles are “good guys,” but the seeds have been planted for several interesting possibilities. As we saw in their match at Payback last weekend in Chicago, Reigns was nearly booed out of the building in his first title defense as champ, while Styles definitely ascended to the next level as a believable main eventer. The match itself, while almost comically overbooked, succeeded in sustaining fan interest in their feud. But now a clear-cut villain must emerge in order to take this rivalry to the next level. Will it be A.J. Styles and his New Japan posse the Bullet Club or will WWE go with an Attitude-era swerve and give us an unexpected, dramatically-effective heel turn from Roman Reigns? Though I wouldn’t bet on the latter, only time will tell.

My Super-Deluxe Top 10 Music List…Volume 1

A fellow music-lover recently asked me via Facebook to compile a Top 12 list of most influential albums in my life. The rules were simple: do not overthink the process or take too much time. Of course, I did neither. While I did spare him my endless annotations and explanations for each choice, I definitely overthought the whole thing. My basic list was simple enough to put together. Each was a clear enough milestone in my life and musical education. But a funny thing happens when you put together lists like this for public view, especially as a self-professed music historian: a bit of self-consciousness enters the fray. Each of the artists I chose has such a diverse, wide-spanning catalog of music I love. How do I best represent that? Do I go with the albums that helped me discover each artist (and thus, the most personally influential)? Do I go with the cooler entries in the catalog to show off my insight and “superior” taste? Or do I simply go with what I believe to be the best albums made by each?

The critic in me finds these distinctions interesting.  Most Influential Albums is a very personal list tied to specific life experiences and might not always have the same resonance for others. Coolest Albums is a list I’d put together for inside and hardcore fans. And Best Albums is a list of the records I’d throw in a time capsule for posterity. The choices were pretty tough. Categorization of any kind is often hazy.  I honestly believe that if you ask most people to compile a Top 10 list of anything, there would be a substantial difference in the response depending on the intended audience. I’m certain that writers for Rolling Stone or Mojo often put together contrarian lists filled with underground obscurities just to be hipper-than-thou. My list is filled with artists firmly planted in the mainstream (no Velvet Underground or Big Star anywhere to be found, though I respect each). I make no apologies for that. While I love many undiscovered artists, a large part of being truly impactful as a musician is world domination, which is how I was exposed to most of them in the first place. For this blog entry, I have put together a Top 10 Most Influential Albums list identical to the one I sent my friend, but have also included the highly nebulous “coolest” and “best” albums by each artist as well (there is occasional overlap for each act represented). Again, keep in mind that this list represents most personally influential, not most influential of all time.  I’m still waiting for “all time” to come and go so I can put that list together. Might be a while.

My Top 10 Most Influential Albums (in order of release date)

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1. The Monkees by The Monkees

This is the first album I ever owned, passed down from relatives, and set the template for much of what I still look for in music: well-crafted melodies, sunny pop harmonies, and concise songwriting all delivered in tasteful analogue production. The early Monkees albums were the product of a Tin Pan Alley mindset. Later albums (from Headquarters on) only benefitted from the Monkees asserting their independence and taking more control of the music. Probably the coolest album they ever did was the soundtrack to their totally freeform movie Head. It has a loose cut-and-paste quality much like the film itself and was well ahead of its time. But without a doubt, their best album is 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., a combination of the Brill Building approach (the use of professional outside songwriters) and the greater hands-on musical involvement of Headquarters. They were a misunderstood pop phenomenon from the very beginning. Thankfully, time and hindsight have placed them in a better light.

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2. Abbey Road – The Beatles

I’ve been a Beatles fan since early childhood. There are pictures of me at 3 years old listening to the White Album on headphones. What can I say, I’ve always had excellent taste in music. Abbey Road is the first album I actually went out and bought as a pre-teen and is still my favorite Beatles album.  You can’t go wrong with any Beatle record, but something about Abbey Road hooked me early. It has pretty much everything that made them great: catchy songs, great vocals, tight ensemble playing, and clever production. Abbey Road has the advantage of maturity and Ringo’s one and only drum solo on record. There is whimsy, silliness, joy and deep heartache on this record. Perhaps the greatest swan song ever committed to vinyl. If you’re looking for the coolest Beatle records, the common choices are Revolver or The Beatles (aka the White Album). In my opinion, their best records are A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and my desert island choice Abbey Road.

 

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3. The Wall – Pink Floyd

I casually discovered Pink Floyd on classic rock radio as a teenager, but never put together the vast catalog of great songs until a neighbor threw a Saturday afternoon yard sale where I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Final Cut on vinyl. The former two already had legendary reputations, so I bought them to satiate my curiosity and was blown away. At their peak (the ‘70s run from Meddle to The Wall) Pink Floyd were as great as any band that’s ever existed, each album loaded with classic songs on par with the Beatles. I was 16 when I first heard The Wall all the way through and it was the perfect soundtrack to that angst-ridden period of my life. The music had space and beauty to it, but it was Roger Waters’ lyric-writing that took me on the deepest ride. In terms of cool Pink Floyd albums, hipster types might opt for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, if for no other reason than to pretend that they know who Syd Barrett is. Musos might opt for Animals or Meddle. I love all of their work and they’ve since become one of the seminal bands of my life, so choosing their best is tough. It’s a toss-up between The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, with Dark Side getting a slight nod due to a tighter narrative (a single disc versus the four sides of The Wall) and greater cohesion.

 

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4. In Through the Out Door – Led Zeppelin

Zep purists would find this choice abominable. It’s not my fault that this, not Led Zeppelin IV, was the first Zeppelin album I was exposed to. With punk and New Wave having shaken up the music industry at the time, the mighty Zep now represented the old guard and were the target of snotty derision (along with other ‘70s institutions like Floyd and Yes). They responded by incorporating new sonic textures onto their heavy blues and hard rock palette. Synth-heavy and a bit proggier than anything in their prior catalog, this album still rocked. Some have noted that it’s the album where bassist John Paul Jones got to shine most, relying heavily on his keyboard arrangements and production ideas. To my ears, it has the same epic, symphonic scope as Abbey Road. I still rate it highly and listen to it more often than the others. If I had to choose their coolest record, I’d have to go with Led Zeppelin I. If you take that and III, you have everything they ever were distilled to its very essence: a heavy new form of blues on one hand and beautiful English folk textures on the other. And if I had to choose the best album by Led Zeppelin, first I would cry at having to make such a cruel decision and then I would put on the man pants and go with Physical Graffiti, probably the greatest and most listenable double-album in the history of rock and roll.

 

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5. Synchronicity – The Police

The biggest and best band on earth in 1983. This album was omnipresent and the single “Every Breath You Take” was inescapable. The band’s good fortune was having the release of Synchronicity dovetail perfectly with the explosion of MTV. As a then 14 year-old, the ballad “Every Breath You Take” did not set me on fire (the sinister stalker subtext flew completely over my head at the time), but the industrial aggression of “Synchronicity II” certainly did. The Synchronicity tour was my first concert experience and as far as concert initiations go, it’s hard to top this band at the peak of its powers on what looked to be their final tour until 2007’s highly-successful reunion. As with Zep, Floyd, and the Beatles, I soon snatched up everything else in their back catalog. Looking back, the coolest Police album is probably the first, Outlandos d’Amour. It has the spiky pseudo-punk energy and passion. Their best is Regatta de Blanc, where all the elements came together to create their classic, signature sound. It has the best balance of energy between all three members before Sting grew too domineering.

 

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6. So – Peter Gabriel

By the mid ‘80s, Peter Gabriel had managed to make a successful transition from prog god in Genesis to edgy and credible  solo star. Beneath the genial, photogenic façade was a slightly twisted mind (just revisit the video for “Shock the Monkey”). After releasing several solid solo albums and signature singles (“Solsbury Hill,” “Games without Frontiers”), So was the album that finally made him a superstar. For the time, the production was state-of-the-art with a polish that gleamed brighter than a new Ferrari. This was adult pop that would set the tone for many grown-up artists, including the solo work of Sting and Don Henley. Overall it has aged pretty well too, with many of its biggest hits still staples of classic rock and pop radio such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “That Voice Again” and “Red Rain”. Still, his coolest and best album is Peter Gabriel 3, aka “Melt”. It’s not as polished and for that particular set of songs, that’s a plus. The album has space to breathe. It pulses along with menace and ultimately, in album-closer “Biko,” catharsis.

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7. Nevermind – Nirvana

The perfect marriage between the energy of punk and Beatlesque pop hooks. This was Cobain’s musical ethos in a nutshell, polished to a perfect diamond. He would later grow self-conscious about the slick production work and rebel with the low-fi In Utero, but in reality Cobain’s songwriting and Nirvana’s raw power were never better showcased than on Nevermind. The album still plays like a greatest hits compilation (“Smells like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come as You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” etc.), though its culture-shifting success would ultimately have very dark ramifications. Nirvana’s coolest album is Bleach and their best is Nevermind, non-punk production and all.

 

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8. Achtung Baby – U2

A Sgt. Pepper –sized reinvention by the world’s most popular band at the time. U2 hit a slump with critics and some fans with the overly-earnest Rattle and Hum project (following the mega-triumph of The Joshua Tree in 1987). Achtung Baby finds them on the verge of a breakup, with the tidal wave of grunge firmly approaching. The album sessions were turning into a Let it Be nightmare until Edge came up with the signature riff of “One,” which gave them the courage to soldier on. From album opener “Zoo Station” to funereal denouement “Love Is Blindness,” Achtung Baby soars along with great power and genuine risk-taking. They laid everything on the table and came up aces. Their coolest record is Boy, brimming with idealism, punk-influenced song structure, Edge’s echo-laden chime and Bono’s then pubescent-sounding voice. Their best is a toss-up between Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree.

 

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9. The Eminem Show – Eminem

Following the post-grunge fallout of the music industry in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, where everything devolved to teen pop, Disney starlets and American Idol, pop-culture was devoid of the all-important lightening rod rebel figure. Out of this apathetic scene emerged a young white rapper so gifted with words and cursed with anger that the world couldn’t help but take notice. Like most everyone in rock and pop music, he benefitted greatly from cleverly appropriating an African-American art form. But he did so with reverence for the bedrock. I would put Eminem’s first three albums up against anything in the classic rock, pop, or R&B canon for sheer creativity. For me, his personal peak was The Eminem Show before substance abuse temporarily derailed his focus and talent (he would powerfully rebound with 2010’s Recovery). His coolest album is The Slim Shady LP. His best is The Eminem Show, though he will probably be most remembered for The Marshall Mathers LP.

 

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10. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela

As someone weaned on rock guitar, I’ve also always loved nylon-string playing, whether it be classical, flamenco, etc. Rodrigo y Gabriela are the perfect synthesis of both styles, having started as metalheads in their native Mexico before evolving into a fierce, brilliantly synchronized nylon-string duo while busking in the streets of Ireland. Rodrigo y Gabriela captures them at an early peak, with fiery, passionate and sexy playing throughout (the male/female energy exchange is subtle, but powerful), as well as classic covers of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion”. The concept behind their brand was too ingenious not to work. Rodrigo y Gabriela is their coolest record as well. Their best is probably 11:11, though 9 Dead Alive is not too far behind.

 

Bonus Cuts:

Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails: This looked to be the natural heir to grunge – hook-filled songwriting couched in Industrial music soundscapes and revitalized synth and drum programming.

What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? – Oasis: Shamelessly “borrowing” from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, etc., these cheeky Manchester brothers still had a genuine sibling swagger all their own. And it felt damn good to hear these familiar sounds again in the mid ‘90s.

Lonerism – Tame Impala: For someone constantly bemoaning the state of today’s music scene, discovering this album was a godsend, like coming back full-circle to something you love. Essentially a one-man band on record, Kevin Parker channels the psychedelic ‘60s, plays bass like McCartney and sings like Revolver-era Lennon, all while sounding fresh and relevant (e.g. “Elephant”). Catnip to these ears.

 

My thanks to Andy Pulliam for the initial inspiration for this piece.