Happy 50th birthday, Plastic Ono Band!

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Released 11 December 1970, Plastic Ono Band was John Lennon’s first proper solo album. While he’d done four prior solo albums, they were all collaborations with Yoko Ono, not 100% his own songs.

There were also two Plastic Ono Band albums released that day, with slightly different covers, though most people are only familiar with John’s album of that name. Yoko’s POB only reached #182 on the U.S. Billboard chart, and none of the six songs became singles.

John’s POB was the very first solo album by him I got, in January 2002. At the time, John was still my favorite Beatle, so it made sense to start my journey into the band’s solo work through him.

These songs are so raw and emotional, strongly influenced by the Primal Scream therapy John had recently undergone with Arthur Janov. He’s laying his heart, soul, and mind bare for the world to see, exposing these deep pains and traumas which had stalked him for so many years.

The first time I heard the opening track “Mother,” maybe two years before I got the album, I deeply sobbed through almost the entire song. That was one of the most emotional listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Penultimate track “God” is also one of the three songs which always gives me full-body goosebumps, getting stronger and stronger with each “I don’t believe in…” declaration. (The other two are The Monkees’ “Zor and Zam” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven o’Clock News/Silent Night.”)

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks. (Though it just seems wrong for there to be any bonus tracks! The album was already perfect as-is.)

“Mother” (#3 in Switzerland, #9 in Austria, #10 in The Netherlands, #12 in Canada, #26 in West Germany, #30 in Japan, #43 in the U.S., #57 in Australia)
“Hold On” (includes John’s impression of Cookie Monster)
“I Found Out” (he so gives the finger to everyone in this song!)
“Working Class Hero”
“Isolation”
“Remember” (ends with a reference to Guy Fawkes Night and the sound of an explosion)
“Love”
“Well Well Well”
“Look at Me”
“God”
“My Mummy’s Dead” (only 49 seconds long)
“Power to the People”*
“Do the Oz”*

My favorite tracks are “God,” “Love,” “I Found Out,” “Mother,” and “Working Class Hero.”

The album reached #1 in Canada and The Netherlands, #3 in Australia, #4 in Norway, #5 in Japan, #6 in the U.S., #8 in the U.K. and Sweden, and #39 in West Germany.

POB is widely considered John’s greatest solo album by far, and it’s always been my personal favorite as well. Many of those incessant best-of lists rank it quite highly.

It goes without saying that I highly, highly, highly recommend this album!

My Quadrophenia story, twenty years later

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Though I first listened to Quadrophenia on 18 November 2000, my history with the album truly began in 1993. I’d been looking at my parents’ fairly paltry vinyl collection since I was a kid, but I wasn’t drawn back to it till I was thirteen and getting into classic rock and pop. Since we no longer had a record player, I had to make do with reading the story booklet and looking at the photos.

Being that classic kid who read too much and understood too little yet again, I twisted myself in knots trying to figure out just what the title meant. I thought it was a real word whose definition eluded me!

A certain lyric in “Doctor Jimmy” also greatly unsettled me for years. When you only read lyrics instead of hearing them actually sung, let alone in the context of a complex story being told through a rock opera, you tend to miss a lot of important details.

Jimmy isn’t really saying he plans to rape a virgin. He’s reached the end of his rope and isn’t thinking straight by a long shot. There’s so much clutter swirling in his head, with the four warring parts of his personality. Jimmy’s angry, confused, a hot mess who needs help.

That lyric is also nothing next to some of the jaw-dropping awfulness featured on The Rap Critic’s Worst Lyrics episodes. The all-time worst I’ve heard is the Lil Wayne guest verse in “Karate Chop,” comparing rough sex to the beating of Emmett Till.

17–19 November 2000 was my very first weekend staying on campus at UMass instead of obediently going home to Pittsfield like an overgrown little kid with no life. It’s no fun being a victim of learnt helplessness, even if in my case it wasn’t the result of deliberately malicious intentions. I also only transferred after two years of community college. While that saved lots of money, it didn’t do my emotional, psychological, or mental maturity any favors!

That Saturday afternoon, I walked into town and went to Mystery Train Records. What luck, I found Quad in the used CD section for only $16! I was hungry for a third Who album after Tommy and Who’s Next, and had heard so many people on my lists highly recommending it as one of the best albums to get early in one’s fandom journey.

Was I blown away when I got back to my single dorm room on the first floor of Chadbourne! I loved Quad so much, I played it twice that day, and many more times in the coming weeks. Love at first listen. When I finally quit trying to overanalyze the story and title, and just listened without prejudice, I got Quad.

This album would’ve meant so much to me during junior high. It’s a story just about every adolescent who’s ever lived can deeply relate to—not fitting in, being different from the others, feeling alienated from everyone around oneself, not getting along with parents, being bullied, feeling on the verge of cracking up if one more straw hits the camel’s back.

Each of the four bandmembers is represented by one of the warring aspects of Jimmy’s psyche. Roger’s theme is “Helpless Dancer” (a screen name I’ve used at a few message boards), Keith’s theme is “Bell Boy,” John’s theme is “Doctor Jimmy,” and Pete’s theme is “Love, Reign O’er Me.” The themes appear as instrumentals in the title track and “The Rock.”

In “Quadrophenia,” they’re played separately, signifying how fractured Jimmy’s state of mind is, at war with himself, wanting and trying to be so many disparate things to so many different people.

In “The Rock,” they initially appear individually, but gradually start merging, faster and faster, until finally they emerge as one and Jimmy makes peace with himself in “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

Twenty years later, Quad is still an emotional tour de force every single time. It’s been with me through half of my life and counting, and never lets me down. Words shall never express my deep love and gratitude to this wonderful band and all they’ve meant to me for so long.

Happy 45th birthday to The Who by Numbers!

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Released 3 October 1975 in the U.K. and 25 October in the U.S., The Who by Numbers was the band’s seventh studio album, and my tenth Who album. I bought it together with Who Are You at Newbury Comics on Amherst’s Main Street, 15 March 2001. Being only 21 at the time, the album didn’t resonate with me on the same deep, personal level it does now (though I still loved it).

WBN has been called a musical suicide note (which thankfully was averted!), written when Pete was on the cusp of his 30th birthday and feeling really alienated from the current musical climate. This was also the guy who famously wrote the line, “Hope I die before I get old.” He really meant it. That wasn’t a mere metaphor, but the genuine wish of a 20-year-old who didn’t want to become old, boring, and irrelevant.

The songs of WBN aren’t the kinds of songs that could’ve been written in Pete’s early twenties. By the time he began writing material for this album, he’d gone through more of life and was now facing down the sobering, depressing reality of hitting middle age.

Pete has said he felt empty and was crying his eyes out when he wrote those songs, “detached from my own work and from the whole project.”

The band took turns designing their covers, and WBN was John’s turn. His artwork cost all of £32 to make, in contrast to the exorbitant £16,000 of the previous cover on Quadrophenia. Probably unsurprisingly, Pete chose the Quad cover!

WBN reached #8 in the U.S., #7 in the U.K., and #29 in New Zealand.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“Slip Kid” (released as a U.S. single but didn’t chart)
“However Much I Booze”
“Squeeze Box” (retch) (#1 in Canada, #2 in Ireland, #10 in the U.K., #11 and #16 on two U.S. charts, #26 in New Zealand, #45 in Australia)
“Dreaming from the Waist” (the B-side of “Slip Kid,” one of Pete’s least-fave songs to perform, and one of John’s fave songs to perform)
“Imagine a Man”
“Success Story” (John’s song)
“They Are All in Love”
“Blue, Red, and Grey” (sung by Pete)
“How Many Friends”
“In a Hand or a Face”
“Squeeze Box” (live at Swansea, 12 June 1975)*
“Behind Blue Eyes” (ibid.)*
“Dreaming from the Waist” (ibid.)*

My fave tracks are “Slip Kid,” “Dreaming from the Waist,” “How Many Friends,” “Success Story” (full of John’s trademark dark, quirky humour), and “Imagine a Man.”

Happy 50th birthday, Abbey Road!

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Released 26 September 1969, Abbey Road was The Beatles’ last studio album in terms of when it was recorded. Though the painfully spotty Let It Be was released in May 1970, the bulk of it was recorded before AR.

This would’ve been the perfect swan song to go out on. The album is absolutely brilliant, lightyears away from LIB. Though some people complain about all the song snippets on Side Two, they work perfectly in the musical context. Without all these miniature songs blending in and out of one another, it wouldn’t be the same album.

Recording began 22 February 1969, with producer George Martin agreeing to work with the band again on strict condition they let him produce it “the way we used to do it.” They also had to promise to adhere to a reasonable measure of discipline and behave themselves properly.

It seemed an impossible proposition after the acrimonious mood during the recording of their previous two albums, but in spite of continuing interpersonal tensions, it was a much more enjoyable experience all around.

The resulting album was a compromise between two schools of style. John wanted a traditional album with distinct, unrelated songs, while Paul and George Martin wanted a running theme like they’d done on the most overrated album of all time. Side One follows John’s style, while Side Two famously adheres to the latter vision.

John, never one to mince words, wasn’t exactly fond of the resulting product. He would’ve preferred his songs on one side and Paul’s on the other, and lit into Paul’s lightweight “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as granny music. As for Side Two, John thought the medleys were “junk…just bits of songs thrown together.”

The band did little to promote AR, though it shot to #1 regardless, in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Spain, and West Germany. Over the last fifty years, critics have by and large highly praised it. It’s in my own Top 5 of fave Beatles’ albums.

Track listing:

“Come Together” (#1 in the U.S., #4 in the U.K.)
“Something” (#1 in the U.S., Australia, West Germany, Canada, and New Zealand; #2 in Norway; #3 in Ireland; #4 in the U.K.; #5 in Sweden; #11 in Austria)
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“Oh! Darling”
“Octopus’s Garden”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (recorded the last time all four Beatles were in the studio together, and a forerunner to doom metal)
“Here Comes the Sun”
“Because” (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played backwards)
“You Never Give Me Your Money” (first of the mini-songs)
“Sun King”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“Polythene Pam”
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
“Golden Slumbers” (a poem from Thomas Dekker’s play Patient Grissel, written 1599 and published 1603)
“Carry That Weight”
“The End”
“Your Majesty” (an ultra-short snippet after fourteen seconds of silence)

My fave tracks are “I Want You” (which wasn’t so popular originally), “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “The End.” I love the emotionally expectant mood of the final few songs (not counting hidden track “Your Majesty”), this tension building and building till the most perfect, bittersweet swan song ever.

Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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Note: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of an album review, and thus consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Tommy was recorded from 19 September 1968–7 March 1969, and inspired by Pete’s guru Meher Baba (25 February 1894–31 January 1969). This is particularly meaningful in the context of Tommy because Meher Baba voluntarily went silent on 10 July 1925 and remained so till his death. He communicated with an alphabet board and hand signals. To this day, many of his followers observe Silence Day on 10 July.

From the early days of The Who, Pete wanted to break out of the box of three-minute pop singles, and to explore deeper themes even within said short songs. Traces of his magnum opus Lifehouse can be heard as early as 1966’s “I’m a Boy.”

Pete’s musical evolution continued full-force with the very uncharacteristic (for the era) nine-minute title closing track on A Quick One. This song has six different movements, telling one continuous story.

The Who’s 1967 album closes with another mini-opera, “Rael,” which continues with the brief “Rael 2” on the CD remaster. The roots of “Sparks” and “Underture” are heard here. “Glow Girl,” the closing bonus track (which also appears on 1974’s Odds and Sods), is about a plane crash ending in reincarnation and the refrain “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl.”

This became “It’s a Boy,” only “Of course, Tommy was a dear little boy,” as Pete wrote in the liner notes to O&S.

A number of Tommy‘s songs were originally written for other projects or about other subjects, but Pete repurposed them. In August 1968, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he went into great detail about this album in progress. He described the storyline better than the final product!

Pete later regretted spilling so many details, since he felt compelled to follow them precisely instead of editing and revising his story as he felt necessary. The other three bandmembers loved his ideas, however, and gave him complete creative control.

Working titles included Journey into Space, The Brain Opera, Amazing Journey, Omnibus, and Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy. In that era, “dumb” was the standard word for “mute,” though of course we know today that mutism doesn’t mean one is stupid. It wasn’t used to be deliberately offensive and hurtful. Context and intent are so important in looking at things from bygone eras.

Pete settled on Tommy because it was a nickname for soldiers in WWI, and a common British name of the time. Being the self-admitted pretentious guy he is, Pete prefers to call this album Thomas.

John wrote and sang “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” because Pete couldn’t bring himself to handle such dark subjects as bullying and child molestation. Contrary to what certain people are still convinced of, Pete has long campaigned against child abuse, and was molested himself.

All evidence has cleared Pete and the thousands of others wrongly accused during the mishandled Operation Ore. Real fans know this, and Pete himself admits he did something really stupid and dangerous to try to take down the real abusers. Unlike a certain other person (coughmichaeljacksoncough), he doesn’t have a decades-long history of huge red flags and creepy behaviour with kids.

Unusual for the band at the time, many songs were more vocally-driven than instrumental. Tommy has a less hard rock sound in its studio version, though it absolutely cooks live.

Though Keith probably didn’t write “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” he got songwriting credit for suggesting the idea.

After rock journalist Nik Cohn (born 1946) poorly reviewed a working version, Pete suggested Tommy might become a pinball champion. Mr. Cohn, a huge pinball fan, immediately changed his tune. And thus was born one of the most overplayed songs in the history of classic rock radio.

Co-manager Kit Lambert wanted an orchestra, but Pete was firmly against it. That was too pretentious even for him, and their budget and schedule wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Like 1973’s QuadropheniaTommy had Sides 1 and 4 on one LP and 2 and 3 on the other, to accommodate record changers. These devices played multiple LPs in sequence without a human flipping them.

Tommy was #2 in the U.K. and #4 in the U.S., and reached gold status in the U.S. on 18 August. It had mixed critical reviews, but saved The Who from breakup and bankruptcy. Final track “Listening to You” was a genuine song of thanks to their loyal fans who stood by them for so many years, in lean times as well as prosperous.

Over the years, Tommy has been adapted by several opera and dance companies, and became a movie in 1975 and a Broadway musical in 1992. The Who played the album live until 20 December 1970, and used shorter portions throughout the decade. They revived it in its entirety during their 1989 reunion tour, often called The Who on Ice because of all the extra musicians and backup singers.

Tommy is truly the miracle that turned The Who’s entire career around forever.