Friday, June 3, 2011

Great Albums That Never Were

In this edition of Macaroni Waffles, I'm going to point out a few rock albums that should have been some of the greatest projects ever, but for various reasons didn't happen and didn't come out as planned.

5. Bob Dylan's acoustic '80s album -- the 1980s were for the most part not good to Bob Dylan's music career. Despite some success with Infidels and the fact that the songs on Oh Mercy are so good, there is a lot to dislike. I mean, there's good stuff peppered here and there, but a string of forgettable stuff. His worst albums come from the mid-1980s. Somewhere around 1985, Dylan had said that he thought his next album would be just him on guitar and harmonica again. As a kind of break from the thing he was doing at the time with horn sections and back-up girls and lots of musicians. When the next album came out, only one song fit that description. The rest of the album, Empire Burlesque, was an overproduced disco-sounding thing that mostly didn't work. A perfectly good song, "Someone Got a Hold of My Heart" was rewritten into a passable one that opened the album. And the final acoustic song, "Dark Eyes", is good, but doesn't feel like it belongs with this record. If Dylan had done the acoustic thing he wanted to originally, it would have hearkened back to his albums of the early 1960s and been fascinating. Imagining "Dark Eyes" sitting amid other tunes like it is tempting. As it is, Dylan would only briefly do acoustic folk again for his albums of covers in the early '90s, particularly Good As I Been to You. And he would never return to it.

4. Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash -- Sorry to have Dylan on here twice, but this is another one that I just can't get over sometimes. In the late 1960s Cash and Dylan got together and recorded songs with the intent of releasing a joint album. Unfortunately, the only track we ever got was a reworking of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country". It's not a bad take on the song, though it loses a little bit of something. And unfortunately, there are bits where some lyrics are blown in the take that got used. Still, the idea of their voices coming together is an intriguing one and I wish more of those sessions were released. I think a couple others might have been in various places or bootlegs, but the project as intended never materialized.

5. The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- I know what you're thinking: "What are you talking about? They released Sgt. Pepper! It was the best album ever!" This is true. But the Sgt. Pepper that we got wasn't quite the one originally planned. Firstly, the track list for side one changed. This isn't an uncommon thing. Track lists often change as artists figure out where they want things, or record companies demand changes. Part of the concept to Sgt. Pepper was for each track to segue into the next, like it was a concert. This happens quite successfully at both the beginning and end of the album. Now, as Lennon said most of his contributions could have gone anywhere. I actually think the first REAL concept album is The Who Sell Out. But I digress. Originally, the slightly different order of the first side was designed for more of that segue sense. In the end, it doesn't make much of a difference, but for example the little organ bit that opens "Fixing a Hole" was to segue off of "Mr. Kite", if I recall correctly. Furthermore, three tracks originally recorded for the album didn't make it on. "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were rushed out when EMI demanded a single. They work fine off the album, but definitely have the same sound. And George's "Only a Northern Song" wasn't released until included in the Yellow Submarine film, leaving poor George only one song on the album.

However, none of this really compares with the biggest crime of the original release: it's stereo mix. The album was planned for monophonic sound. It was all mixed for mono. Understand, this was not unusual at the time. Heck, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys preferred it (due to his deafness in one ear). Especially when experimentation with tape loops and sound effects and all became part of the sound, doing a stereo mix meant having to figure out how to spread the sonic experience across that gulf. The album was always meant to be released in mono, but at the last minute someone at EMI I think wanted it in stereo. If I'm recalling correctly, a small number of albums were pressed in the original mono mix, and are rare collector's items today. So a rushed stereo mix was put out, which mostly consisted of putting all these vocals on one side and all these on another side. That's why it's so easy to make karaoke versions of Sgt. Pepper's songs just by playing with the balance. For example, turn on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and switch it all to the left (I think it's left), and all Paul's vocals disappear. It's a great album, but a bad mix. In the 1990s a special edition mono release of the album was planned, with collectible packaging, but it never got released. It would not be until the Beatles "remasters" appeared a couple years ago that the original mono mix would get a proper release.

2. The Who, Lifehouse -- The great fabled project of Pete Townsend. This was to be his follow-up to the smash rock opera Tommy. It was more audacious in concept, with some fantastic songs. There was supposed to be an accompanying movie with it. Footage was shot of the band playing live. There was this whole added element of an audience essentially living with them at the theater, which never really worked. In the end, the project got out of hand and was never properly nailed down. No one besides Pete seemed to really understand it, and as the group tells it, he had trouble communicating it fully. But one theme that is evident is that of the meaning of life being a musical note; it had this great cosmic scope that the music inspired us and bound as all as the inspiration for our music but also for civilization. It encapsulated an idea very present in 1970s rock that music would save us all. The story was a futuristic world where everything was waste (hence "teenage wasteland"). Most of the songs ended up released on Who's Next. The greatness of the songs from the Lifehouse project translated to what many believe to be the best Who album. But the album as released also suffers from losing some of that original context. It's an irresistible opening to the album to start with "Baba O'Riley"'s synthesizer. But that's not where the story starts. Lyrics like "Out here in the field I fight for my meals" seem a little silly out of context. Townsend has stated that his intention behind "teenage wasteland" being about literal waste, not about "getting wasted" is not usually understood. Similarly, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is a fantastic rock song, and an obvious album closer. But it's not really the closer. The appropriate closing song is "The Song is Over". This track ends with a little epilogue about a single note "playing so free". It sort of sits there with no context on the album and then is overshadowed by "Won't Get Fooled Again". But originally, as I've said, that was the whole point. The line was a call back to another song that was recorded but didn't make the album, "Pure and Easy". It begins the story like a fairy tale: "There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by." Then the story segues into the rise of civilization and the quest to understanding the note. And without that song, "The Song is Over" loses so much of it's power. I personally think that "Pure and Easy" just wasn't recorded properly for the song. There's too much in that recording. I think it should have started basic and then the instruments come in gradually. Instead, the track we finally got released on Odds and Sods starts with the drums like a standard rock song. It was just wrong conceptually for what Pete was saying, I think. But that's just me. Anyway, while "The Song is Over" does still end with a bit of irony, it's not the harsh joke of "meet the new boss/same as the old boss". It just plays out into something of a hopeful tomorrow. And that's a better closer.

For years upon years the Lifehouse legend grew and festered. People wondered about what the original concept was, how the songs were integrated, what was the story. Finally in the last decade the BBC went to Townsend and they put together a complete version of Lifehouse. Now, it's not quite as it would have been with The Who, but it's Pete's story and his music. There is a highlights CD that's a little hard to find called Lifehouse Elements which has an extra track. But the only way to get the complete Lifehouse Chronicles was to buy it directly from Townsend's company Eel Pie. Unfortunately, that was a limited edition 6-disc set, and is no longer available on his site. So now the only way to hear the BBC Radio version of the complete Lifehouse is to hunt for it. It'll set you back some cash, but if you simply must hear it, there you are. Still, you can order the book of the radio script, so that's something.

1. The Beach Boys, Smile -- This is the grand-daddy of them all. The single most legendary album that never was. After Brian Wilson's brilliant Pet Sounds was released, his plans for the next album were more grandiose. He wanted to take The Beach Boys to higher levels, and really be respected for artistry. The Beatles were fond of Pet Sounds (and indeed, Wilson was fond of their Rubber Soul, leading to a kind of friendly rivalry). McCartney even came by when Wilson was working on one track, "Vegetables" and according to rumor Paul can be heard munching celery on the original track. Anyway, Smile was supposed to be bigger and better than anything before. To take The Beach Boys into new symphonic directions. The lyrics were poetic, written by Van Dyke Parks. The piece was to have a very American flavor to it, sweeping through the history of the nation with references to the American Indian and Plymouth Rock. At one point Wilson called his concept "a teenage symphony to God" as a rock album. "Good Vibrations" was released as a single and went to number one. And yet, there were musical themes planned that were really all going to feed into "Good Vibrations" as part of Smile. All the innovation of the single was to be nothing compared with what the album would do.

And then it all fell apart. Brian became obsessive about getting things just right. He worked and worked and worked on one track "Heroes and Villains" over and over and over again. Drug use and the weight of his genius were not a good mix, and he was coming apart at the seams. When McCartney played "A Day in the Life" for him, it was heartbreaking. Smile could have been THE album of 1967. And then Sgt. Pepper came out. He just sort of went insane. There was to be an "elements suite" to the album featuring pieces for Fire, Earth, Air and Water. Famously, Brian conducted the Fire sessions in a plastic fire chief's hat. He just went insane. To the point where he ultimately had a complete nervous breakdown. As years went by, he refused to get out of bed, getting fatter and fatter, ultimately reaching about 340 pounds by the early 1980s. The smoking, the cocaine, the enabling from his brother Dennis all took their toll on Brian and he wasn't the same for a good while. The group had to struggle on, trying to find out how to keep going and keep Brian involved when he wasn't himself. Brian Wilson's story is truly fascinating and horrifying. And inspired a great Barenaked Ladies song.

Come 1967, the Beach Boys did put out a record. As if in answer to the poor shell of what the project began as, it was called Smiley Smile. The title seems a joke, but appropriate for a diminishing of what the project was. This album included some songs from the failed project, but most stripped down re-recordings. Other Smile songs would continue to pepper the next five albums through Surf's Up, the title track being another Smile remnant. The promise of what could have been kept being dangled in front of us, and never in the full form it should have had.

Brian finally got back on his feet again, but the ghost of Smile never went away. For years it hounded the group. In the 1970s, the Beach Boys were signed to Reprise records with the hope that Smile would then be released, as part of the contract. When it wasn't delivered, $50,000 was deducted from the band's next advance. And so ultimately 2004 rolled around and Brian Wilson figured "enough is enough" and went ahead with a solo version. This recording is readily available. While it is basically a sense of what the album's sequence might have been, and gives the best idea yet of how the album would have sounded, it still isn't perfect. But it did win Brian Wilson his first Grammy award. It also led to Mike Love suing him, though the case was thrown out.

And yet, the song isn't quite over yet. The word this year is that the original Beach Boys Smile sessions will finally see the light of day with an official release this summer. Of course, the album was never completed, and some parts not recorded. We will never get the full 1967 Smile that existed in Brian's head. But we'll finally get to hear what all the fuss was about. A box set like this was rumored in the 1990s (several times), but never released. Finally, though, it is going to make some audiophiles smile. The album could have been an American masterpiece, fusing classical music with rock and roll and bridging that gulf from Sgt. Pepper to Tommy. At least now we can hear a hint of what might have been: the greatest rock album that never was.

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