The Ten Best Rock & Roll Albums of All Time (1-4)

The Ten Best Rock & Roll Albums of All Time – A Completely Subjective List in No Particular Order

  1. The Beatles. Please Please Me. If this had been the only album The Beatles ever made, they would still be in contention for being one of the best r&r bands of all time. It starts out with Paul’s jubilant count in –unique at that time I believe- to “I Saw Her Standing There.” In his last live appearance ever, John Lennon, at that moment bitterly at odds with Paul, couldn’t resist covering this galloping rock and roll number. Anybody could have written “Yesterday.” There are very few composers capable of penning a genuinely rocking song. This first Beatle album ends with “Twist and Shout.” I’ve actually heard it said that The Beatles, as compared to the Rolling Stones, never really rocked. Anything the Rolling Stones ever recorded is just pitter patter compared to The Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.”
  2.  The Bo Deans. Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams.  The most authentic and atmospheric and enigmatic album I know of. Somehow it conveys the impact of a thousand nights playing to the same anonymous, faceless, enraptured audience at a hundred different blurry bars on freezing nights in a wintery mid-west. The spare arrangements don’t need another note or another instrument. The lyrics are so grounded and revealing–they’re obviously the true stories of the band–their real girls, their dream girls, their families, their days, their nights, their loves and their losses. And the stellar drawl of their voices make it all valid. When this album ends, you have to look around to remember where you are. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, with its gritty vocals, brusque arrangements and cow girl atmosphere, this just might be the sturdiest, most utterly romantic album ever recorded.
  3. The Rolling Stones. “Some Girls.” This album salvaged the1970’s musically, coming out just as that dreadful, rotted and decayed decade was at last  grinding to a stop. Keith and Mick picked through the wreckage, salvaged bits and pieces of music, dabbed at styles, collated images, pieced together a trenchant commentary, wired it all up, got juiced, then spilled the entire mess into a microphone. In the early Sixties, when you had to take sides, I unhesitatingly chose The Beatles. No looking back there. But in the 70’s, as the former Beatles ricocheted off each other and squabbled through the decade, the Rolling Stones coalesced and came up with this shudderingly coherent record.
  4. Buddy Holly & The Crickets Legend. A Double album in a strangely desirable package. My first acquaintance with Buddy Holly came in 1966 when my favorite song on the USA Capitol release of The Beatles’ “The Beatles Sixth” album (and ever since then my favorite single recording of all time ) was “Words of Love.” I was slightly taken aback when the credit was one “Buddy Holly” and not Lennon, McCartney. Jump ahead eleven years to a record store on First Ave. in the E. 80’s (?) and this “Legend” album appeared as I flipped through the racks. I recalled “Words of Love.” Good enough for The Beatles, good enough for me. I asked the clerk, “Buddy Holly? He’s all right or what?” “He’s great.”  “Really? He’s great?” “He’s great.” I bought the album, got it to my apartment, and played it through. Through and through. Again and again. Lots of liner notes, photos. I’ve been a knocked out Holly fan from that moment to this. When I hear any Buddy Holly song, as it comes to an end, I can hear the next song as they’re sequenced on the “Legend” album. I still think The Beatles’ cover of “Words of Love” surpasses Buddy’s version.  The lead is less twangy and the singing–John Paul and George on a single mike at midnight on the outskirts of London–is breathier and more ardent, but “Legend” introduces Buddy Holly’s music in a staggering tour de force. The best of Buddy Holly is very good indeed and the album as a package of music and information, with its cover design, creates a wonderful ambiance, part of my criteria for greatness. The songs meld together perfectly. Norman Petty, who produced most of these tracks, was apparently a bit of a stinker but in the late 50’s in the middle of nowhere he was masterfully releasing timeless recordings.

Coming up:  Elvis Presley Sun Sessions, Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline, and Blood on the Tracks.

A Really Big Show

The “behind the scenes” look at the Ed Sullivan Show in Sidereal Days is based on photographs and descriptions supplied by such informed “we were there,” rock & rollers as Ringo Starr and Jerry Allison, the great Cricket (Buddy Holly and the…) drummer. The various biographies of Buddy Holly provided written and photographic documentation of his two appearances on the show, and The Beatles Anthology is rich with similar data and accounts of their first appearance on the show. (The 73 million viewers in 1964 would be the equivalent of 146 million viewers in 2012. Even the viewership of the Superbowl doesn’t come close to that.)

Ed Sullivan himself is a vivid and familiar figure but a great plus for me in researching the Ed Sullivan material for the book was to see in person appearances by Ed Sullivan and his number 2 man, son-in-law Bob Precht, in the movie Bye, Bye Birdie.  I had to scrub the initial description of Precht I’d written because I’d made it up.  Figured no one would know or care what he actually looked like.  Bob Precht’s brief, fortuitous appearance was the only good thing about that otherwise execrable movie.

The dilapidated state of the production equipment used on the show and described in the book is accurate. Most of it, painted in clumsy khaki, was military surplus. The high drum riser that makes it impossible, during the rehearsals, for Billy Tuck to hear his band-mates actually happened to Jerry Allison when Buddy Holly and the Crickets appeared on the show. The Crickets appeared and performed with that handicap. The Sparrows explain things to the set designer (who was the actual set designer) Bill Bohnert.  Bohnert muses aloud about an earlier drummer whose complaints about the same issue were disregarded.  He’s thinking of Jerry Allison.

All the incidents and preparations described in Sidereal Days were fact-based and realistic.  The man who chauffeured the Sparrows around, “Louis Savarese” was a real person and an actual chauffeur.  His appearance in Sidereal Days and his claim to fame is the fact that in February 1964, it was Louis Savarese who chauffeured The Beatles aroundNew York.

Speaking of The Beatles… While their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is pretty familiar to most of us and has been seen by most of us somewhat recently, it’s a real education to see a rerun of the ENTIRE Ed Sullivan Show. We hear what a jolt the appearance of The Beatles was to the culture of the day. But to see their performance in the context of the rest of the show—including the TV ads and the other acts—is to witness one era being snapped shut like a cheap suitcase and carried out the door.  An amazing and instantaneous transformation.


Recording Peggy Sue

A favorite of the fictional Sparrows, Buddy Holly was a favorite of a pretty wide spectrum of people. John Lennon had a Buddy Holly poster in his bedroom at Mendips in Liverpool. British Prime Minister (and successor to Margaret Thatcher) John Major wore heavy black rim glasses in honor of the Lubbock flash. Cream covered Well…All Right. The Beatles mirrored the line up of Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets and became pretty much the second members of a band in rock and roll history to have individual identities.

Although Words of Love was #1 in the hearts of the Sparrows, #2 would be Peggy Sue. The story of the song is fairly well-known. Buddy wrote it as “Cindy Lou” and visualized the appropriate drum beat as being what is known as paradiddles. It’s a drumming pattern that a drummer taking lessons would learn early on. Jerry Allison, the Crickets’ stellar drummer, was embarrassed to play such an elementary beat and only agreed to when Buddy changed the name of the song to Peggy Sue, Allison’s steady girlfriend. Norman Petty, the band’s producer, suggested the song needed a chorus and came up with the absurdly simple yet incomparable “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue” based around an F chord smack in the middle of a A,D,E song.(The Rolling Stones went two “prettys” farther in 1979’s Beast of Burden.)   And Petty didn’t stop there. He close-miked Buddy’s steady, down, down, down strum on the Fender Stratocaster guitar so it shows up on the recording as an intimate purring, so the recording becomes in and of itself an indelible part of the performance. (Another amazing coincidence…the fictional Sparrows’s fictional producers do the same darn thing!)  Petty set it up so Allison was playing in a separate room, away from the vocals and guitars. Then he modulated the drumming, bringing it in and out of the mix, so the drums roll through the song like waves washing up on a beach. But the effect in the song was mysterious and theatrical.   It was like waves on a beach at night or rain spattering on a windshield. Buddy’s normal west Texas panhandle singing voice gets tinny and effeminate on two of the verses, namely the two verses that end with his elongated enunciation of “Peggy Sue.” He draws out Peggy Sue, stretching out the three syllables in the name to twelve hicuppy syllables. Maybe thirteen. It only happens twice. Nobody else does it quite like Buddy.

In any hit parade, this song is marching just behind the flags.

Words of Love

In my book Sidereal Days, the fictional Sparrows, to a man, are fans of Buddy Holly. The common bond that unites all of them when they make their first tentative efforts to form a band is that they all love Holly’s song Words of Love. I also think this very early Holly song is one of the greatest songs in rock & roll’s repertoire.

In the novel, the Sparrows perform a version of the song but it’s described as being a less jangley, twangy version of the song than the one Buddy Holly recorded and released with his band, the Crickets.The fictional version of the song, as described in the book, is actually based on the version recorded and released by another band a bit later, too late for the Sparrows, in the sequence of the novel, to have heard or been aware of. The other band members were also, to a man, huge Buddy Holly fans.

It was October 18, 1964. In a residential suburb in London located near the northwest corner of Regents Park, the Beatles had already recorded I Feel Fine and Chuck Berry’s Rock & Roll Music and a number of other songs. John Lennon and George Harrison were playing 12 string Rickenbacker guitars, Paul was playing his Hofner bass and Ringo was playing on a guitar case. They were finishing up the days work at close to midnight.

The Beatles had played Words of Love as part of their live performances since 1958. Holly had sung both lines of the song’s two-part harmony on his recording, double tracking his voice, an innovation developed by the venerable Les Paul. When the Beatles performed the song in their live appearances, the harmonized vocals were shared by John and George. On this night, three Beatles, John, Paul and George, gathered around a single microphone in Abbey Road Studio number 2 and in three takes finished off the only Buddy Holly song they ever formally recorded and released. The 12 string guitars created much more of a chiming rendition than Buddy Holly’s gritty west Texas version and the Beatles, with John’s dominant, breathy voice, produced a much more romantic and more “mature” version than Holly’s, if that’s the right word for a song that’s more sensual, soaring and romantic. More like the version that the fictional Sparrows perform in concert. Such a coincidence!