Tag Archives: Van Morrison

Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers.  For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms.  “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.  Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.

I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ.  He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and  -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on.  In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.

As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls.  It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it.  (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.)  The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.

The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager.  It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans.  I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape.  It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.

“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well.  Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll.  (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)  It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Videos galore, dear readers!

Studio Version of “London Calling”:

The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:

Joe Strummer & The Pogues:

And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”:

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The Waterboys – This Is The Sea

This Is The Sea, like many early R.E.M. and Smiths albums was the soundtrack to my youth.  Being the youngest of 5 kids, my older siblings had fantastic taste in the mid-80’s, and between the ages of 6 and 11 , these were the groups I listened to.  This Is The Sea is nostalgic for me, but in the best possible way.  I can listen to it now, remember sitting in my older brother’s room but still find something new and interesting in it 20 some years later.

Like U2 in the mid-80’s, The Waterboys seemed to be concerned with the big questions in life (love, soul searching, and English politics), and the bombastic music reminiscent of Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound reflects that.  Even from the very beginning of the album, the listener is not left off the hook.  “Well here we are in a special place.  What are you gonna do here?” Mike Scott demands in the first line of “Don’t Bang The Drum”.  Don’t worry, he’s going to tell you throughout the album in case you were wondering.  In its own way, “The Whole Of the Moon” is an 80’s version of Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey” with its theme of stretching yourself too far.  Instead of opting to burn out instead of fading away, Scott’s target in the song reaches too far, too soon, and too high.  What would otherwise be a a great song, is marred by a string of high-school book poetry containing lines about unicorns, wide oceans, and fairy boats at the climax.

I recently read Scott wanted This Is The Sea to be an 80’s version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. (The Waterboys would later cover “Sweet Thing” from Astral Weeks on their next album, Fisherman’s Blues. It doesn’t exist its own time-frame like the free-form jazz  of Astral Weeks, or the theme of looking backwards.  This Is The Sea tries too hard sometimes even when its achieves the glory it is looking for on songs such as “Old England”, “Don’t Bang the Drum”, and the title track.  But Scott certainly picked up Morrison’s M.O. of repetition especially on the acoustic “This Is The Sea”.  In “Madame George” Morrison’s on-going lament and good-bye to Madame George only reinforces the sadness of the song.  Scott sings “that was the river, and this is the sea” (with river repeated) and it becomes all too clear the river is indeed long, and you have to take it in order to reach the sea, and in Scott’s world – a new life.

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Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria”

“London Calling” or “Anarchy in the UK” are usually seen as the two definitive anthems of punk, but I think that Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria” is the perfect punk song.  Smith turns a rock and roll classic sing-along into a snarling nightmare fueled by rage, disgust and irony.  It even begins with the sinister line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

The version by Them is a classic by itself, and I’ve seen numerous artists cover it.  (Including Springsteen do a stellar version in 2008.)  Along with “Satisfaction”, “Hound Dog”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Louie Louie”, “Gloria” sums up the sound of rock and roll.  It opens up the possibilities of what happens when a group of people get together and plug in their instruments.  Van Morrison, usually known for his soulful jazz vocals, gives a vocal performance that lies somewhere between a sexual snarl, and triumphant yell.

As much as the Them version came to define the garage rock sound of the early 60’s, Smith’s version truly embodies the punk ethos musically and lyrically.  It’s sometimes thought that punks detested all rock and roll prior to their arrival.  But it’s obvious that Smith has a love for the original, but in keeping up with the punk attitude creates an irreverent version of a stone-cold classic.  Whether Morrison is after the girl, Smith actually achieves her lust and it’s not enough to just have the experience, she “has to make her mine, make her mine”.  The ways Smith growls the lyrics you have to wonder whether this is mere lust or an exorcism of past demons through sexual acts.

Check out Them’s “Gloria”

And Smith’s version:

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Songs to Listen to in the Summer

Here in Baltimore, after days of obnoxiously cold weather in May, it’s finally beginning to feel like late spring/early summer.  As such, I decided to make a playlist on my Ipod of “summer songs”.  Not all of these songs are about summer, but I was looking more for a feel here.  The idea was to start out  with more up-tempo, and then end up with songs that conjure up feelings of 100% humidity and you’re exahusted.  Here’s what I came up with:

Walt Whitman’s Niece – Billy Bragg & Wilco

Chain Gang (Live) – Sam Cooke

Spirit in the Night – Bruce Springsteen

Everyday People – Sly & the Family Stone

Heat Wave – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Where Did Our Love Go? – The Supremes

Pressure Drop – Toots and the Maytals

Piece of My Heart – Big Brother and the Holding Company

Taper Jean Girl – Kings of Leon

Dead Flowers – The Rolling Stones

The Weight – The Band

Sweet Illusions – Ryan Adams & the Cardinals

TB Sheets – Van Morrison

What are yours?

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Bad Bob Dylan Covers

Bob Dylan is the go-to man for cover songs.  Especially if an artist wants to achieve some credibility.  Most of the Bob Dylan covers are decent, but nothing spectacular.  There are exceptions – Van Morrison’s version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” gives depth and darkness that Dylan’s original only hinted at.  Jimi Hendrix’s amped up “All Along the Watchtower” set the standard for covers of any artist. Geogre Harrison adds beauty to  “If Not For You”.  Then are Bob Dylan covers that are not only embarrassing, but simply just an insult.

Here are some of the worst that I’ve come across:

Sheryl Crow – Mississippi. One of Dylan’s masterpieces (of which he has four different released versions – all of them great) Crow turns in a slick country-pop version.  The Dixie Chicks also did a cover of this song, and their version is only slightly better.

Guns N’ Roses – Knocking on Heaven’s Door. A song about death is turned into a party anthem along Axl’s over-emphasis on the word door (“dwoooo-awww-wwoooor”).

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Subterranean Homesick Blues. While you could argue  “Subterranean Homesick Blues” had an impact on what would become rap, the Chili Pepper’s version of this song is misguided and utterly forgettable.

The Grateful Dead – Ballad of a Thin Man. The Dead take one of Dylan’s nastiest lyrics and turn into a snooze-fest.  That makes the chorus – “you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is” – somewhat ironic, and was probably lost on most of the audience.

U2- All Along the Watchtower. U2’s version found on Rattle & Hum, is bad for several reasons.  Usually I’m all for Bono ad-libbing on stage, but his announcement of “All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth” in the middle of the song is not one of his finer moments. While Bono tagged “rock and roll stops the traffic” on a fountain during “Pride” in the movie Rattle & Hum is shown during “All Along the Watchtower” adding even mores woes to an already failed attempt at the song.

Karen O & The Million Dollar Bashers – Highway 61 Revisited.  Dylan’s version is a warped, nightmare of a song disguised with absurd lyrics.  Karen O just seems to think it’s silly.

My Chemical Romance – Desolation Row. Another of Dylan’s masterpieces, My Chemical cut out 9 minutes of the song and scream through some of Dylan’s best lyrics.  Up there with Crow for having the worst Dylan cover.


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Digging Through the Vaults

As you probably know I’m pretty excited about the remaster of Exile on Main St, along with the previously unreleased tracks that accompany it.  Usually I’m a bit wary of this type of thing, as most unreleased tracks by artists are unreleased for a reason.  If the recently released single “Plunder My Soul” to promote the remaster is any indication, the rest of the tracks will be high quality.  So here are few my other favorite “previously unreleased” tracks from the vaults.

Bob Dylan – “Blind Willie McTell” (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3).  Arguably the greatest unreleased track ever, and one of Dylan’s finest songs.  Originally from the Infidels sessions,  the haunting “Blind Willie McTell” finds Dylan on piano backed by Mark Knofler on guitar.   Named after the great American blues singer Blind Willie McTell who developed a rag-time finger picking style which he played on a then unpopular 12 string guitar.  He is noted for never playing a song the same way twice.  (A feat which Dylan is sometimes known for on his “Never-Ending Tour”).  Dylan gives one of his best vocal performances, as he traces American history though references to slavery and music. At the end of each verse he tells us that “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”.  Well, no can write a rock song like Bob Dylan.  (I might actually try to really write about the song at some point.)

The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Demo Sequence) (The Anthology Vol 2.). This one might be cheating, since “Strawberry Fields” is an official track.  Much has already been discussed about “Strawberry Fields” and its influence on music, but I find that the demo sequence gives an added depth to the story.  The studio version of “Strawberry Fields” is usually noted for its psychedelic sound, but the lyrics reflect on John Lennon’s childhood, loneliness, and self-doubt.   The demo sequence with just Lennon  on acoustic guitar, peels away the wall of sound and reveals the sadness that is at the heart of “Strawberry Fields”.  (Thanks to Ned for bringing my attention to this one.)

Van Morrison – “Wonderful Remark” (The Philosopher’s Stone).  “Wonderful Remark” was a song that originally released on the soundtrack to The King of Comedy, and then released on 1990’s The Best of Van Morrison. This version while of high quality, like most of Morrison’s songs in the late 80s and early 90’s borders on adult contemporary.  The version on Philosopher’s Stone is the one to beat – and like the demo version of  “Strawberry Fields” strips away the excess – with just acoustic guitar, drums, and flute.  Ranks up with “Madame George” as one of Morrison’s best.

Elliot Smith – “A Fond Farewell” (From a Basement on a Hill).  Really any song from this posthumous album could be included since Smith was one of the finest songwriters of his generation.   “A Fond Farewell” would be remembered for its beauty if Smith were still alive, but his suicide has made the song even more memorable.  Looking back it’s hard to tell if Smith was talking about himself or an actual friend.

What are your favorite previously unreleased tracks?


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Best Live Albums

U2 is planning on releasing a DVD of their current 360 tour.  U2 is one of the greatest live bands ever, yet they insist on releasing live DVDs of all their tours.  As more and more bands put out live DVDs instead of live albums (and sometimes a live CD is included as a bonus disc to the live DVD) the live album is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  As such, I’ve decided to include a list of my favorite live albums.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert at Philharmonic Hall

While the “Royal Albert Hall” show might be more historically significant, I prefer this one.  Recorded on Halloween Night 1964, it shows the two sides of Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s.  There’s the political folk of “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “With God On Our Side”  alongside the surrealism of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.   Dylan is evidently stoned delivering some of his funniest stage banter.  There’s also a hilarious introduction to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” where Dylan clearly forgets the first verse and asks audience how it begins.  For anyone who thinks that Dylan is always serious, this is worth checking out.

Sam Cooke – One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

If anyone thinks that Sam Cooke is just easy listening, one listen to this album will put you straight.  Cooke tears through a tight set of classics (“Cupid”, “Chain Gang” “Bring it On Home”) as if his life depended on it.  This is the sound of a performer clearly in command of his audience.  At the end of “Sentimental Reasons” when he shouts out “everybody!” –  clearly wanting the crowd to sing along – Sam Cooke is wanting everybody in the world to be united in the power of music.  Live at the Harlem Square Club is the sound of everyone “Havin’ a party”.

Van Morrison  – It’s Too Late To Stop Now

It’s Too Late To Stop Now, might be my favorite live album of all time.  Unlike a lot of other live albums I love, It’s Too Late To Stop Now is clean and precise.  Van Morrison isn’t so much a performer here, but more of a conductor of an eleven piece band (including a string section).  It’s a fantastic mix of celtic folk, jazz, soul, r&b and roll are rolled into one fantastic document.  The highlight of the album is “Cypress Avenue”.  Where the album version was a haunting jazz number, on this live album Van Morrison transforms into a 10 minute tour de force including several false endings.  Clearly the stuff of legend.

Bruce Springsteen –Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75

Someone told me recently that Springsteen was too cheesy.  I agree, sometimes he can be.  But not here.  This album is the sound of a man who knows he’s got the world’s greatest rock band behind him and is ready to take on anyone who thinks otherwise.  The solo piano version of “Thunder Road” makes a song that has been overplayed (though still great) sound new and refreshing.  “Spirit in the Night” (always a great live song) is played with such intensity that when Bruce dramatically breathes hard during the bridge you wonder if he’s actually serious.  And this is only in the first three songs.  The version of “Born to Run” here is the closest that Springsteen would ever come to punk.  And just to prove that he could still have fun the second half contains the famous “Detroit Medley” a medley of old soul hits.

The ClashLive at Shea Stadium

Better known as the live album where The Clash blew the Who off the stage.  Even though it’s not the classic Clash line-up (drummer Topper Headon is not on drums) this live album is better than the earlier live compilation From Here To Eternity for a number of reasons.  First of all the song selection is far superior.  No Clash live album is complete without “Clampdown” or “Tommy Gun”.  Since they were opening for the Who, Joe Strummer knows he’s got his work cut out for him and forces the audience to listen to them.  “Everybody please stop talking in the back,” He snarls at one point.  “It’s too loud.  It’s putting us off the song.  Stop yakking!”  They close the show with a furious version of “I Fought the Law”.  Too bad The Clash imploded not too long after this, and The Who decided to keep touring for decades.

Those are some of my favorites.  What are yours?

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