12 Angry Men: The Midlife Crisis Collection (Part Two)

Yes, they’re back, those undesirable, middle-aged, ‘legendary’ white males, with more songs that you probably couldn’t release on a major label today, more’s the pity… Check out the first six mid-lifers out of the traps here.

Lou Reed: ‘The Gun’ (1981)

39 at the time of recording, Lou brings the white heat of a Scorsese or Tarantino movie right to your door, taking on the character of a gun-wielding psychopath – maybe not that much of a stretch… But this shocking, seemingly stream-of-consciousness piece expunges a lot of bile that seems to have built up in Lou over the 1970s, fuelled by alcoholism, drug addiction and…everything, really. Key moment: the terrifyingly blank ‘Watch your wife…’. Quite brilliant, if totally unacceptable these days.

John Martyn: ‘Never Say Never’ (1981)

If Grace And Danger generally portrayed Martyn’s more tender/wistful feelings about his marriage breakup, the following year’s Glorious Fool was decidedly more barbed. ‘Never Say Never’ is Exhibit A, with a 32-year-old John opening up with ‘Shut up! Close your mouth!’. Things get weirder/more intense from there, propelled by Phil Collins’ battering drums reverberating mightily off the Townhouse studio’s stone walls.

Neil Young: ‘Don’t Cry’ (1989)

Neil (43 at the time of recording) surveys the detritus of a relationship breakup from a scarily blanked-out perspective, though his real feelings about the matter are maybe revealed by some of his most extreme guitar tones on record. Exciting, life-affirming stuff, even if the lyric suggests otherwise.

Robert Fripp/Peter Hammill: ’Disengage’ (recorded 1978, released 1985)

Fripp, 32 at the time of recording, lets it all hang out with his pals Peter Hammill on vocals and a Mr P Collins on drums (yes, Philip again…), a seriously paranoid tale of a relationship schism from a certain ‘Mrs Marion’ with Hammill delivering a deranged, brilliant vocal over a mixed-meter groove and some exciting modal riffs. Funny, scary, and pretty warped.

Frank Zappa: ‘We’re Turning Again’ (1982)

42 at the time of recording, Uncle Frank skewers 1960s heroes Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and The Byrds, and the piano motif may take that mickey out of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Ike Willis even pops up with an impersonation of legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite. Apparently guitarist Steve Vai was so offended by ‘We’re Turning Again’ that he refused to play it live, though Frank later said he was just making fun of the whole sixties media circus. For FZ-haters, it probably contains everything they despise in one song, but for fans it’s a typically provocative mix of ‘happy’ music and uncompromising lyrics.

Randy Newman: ‘My Life Is Good’ (1983)

39 at the time of recording, this track came from 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, the thesis of which seemed to be that there was something very rotten inside The American Dream. The ‘beauty spots’ of LA and Miami were struggling, and toxic celebrity was the true currency of Reagan’s America. But, in this song, he’s completely complicit in the whole thing, totally part of the scene, and he hates himself for it. Luckily for us…

Neil Young: Freedom 30 Years On

It’s probably fair to say that Neil had a dodgy old 1980s; at least that’s the critical consensus.

In 1983, he was sued by Geffen for delivering ‘unrepresentative’ albums. But by 1988, he was back on his original label Reprise (Sinatra’s invention, natch) and had delivered This Note’s For You, ironically just the sort of record that had got him into such trouble at Geffen.

But it was the follow-up Freedom, released 30 years ago this week, that really got Neil back on track. He retained This Note’s fine rhythm section (drummer Chad Cromwell and bassist Rick Rojas) and co-producer (Niko Bolas) and delivered a dizzyingly diverse selection, by turns sweet and savage, mostly recorded live in the studio.

I don’t particularly dig country, but love ‘Hangin’ On A Limb’ and ‘The Ways Of Love’, simple heartfelt love songs (Linda Ronstadt’s contributions sure help). I don’t dig grunge, but I love ‘Don’t Cry’, ‘Rockin’ In The Free World and the raucous cover of Lieber and Stoller’s ‘On Broadway’.

So how does he do it? I’d cite four major differences between Young and the also-rans – intelligent lyrics, a great drummer, Neil’s sense of space and his lead guitar playing (‘Don’t Cry’ features a few of his most unhinged solos). Of the former, the album’s title seems to refer to a few tracks’ investigation of freedom in Reagan’s America, especially the scarily prescient ‘Rockin’ (‘There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead/Don’t feel like Satan/But I am to them‘), epic ‘Crime In The City’ and Peckinpahesque ‘Eldorado’. ‘Rockin’ could almost be Young’s ‘Born In The USA’.

The gentler tracks arguably take one back to the feeling of freedom long before Reagan was around. This Note’s For You outtake ‘Someday’ – complete with chain-gang chanting and tubular bells – and the gorgeous ‘Wrecking Ball’ still sound like timeless classics, both romantic and anthemic. Conversely, ‘Don’t Cry’ gives Lou Reed and Bret Easton Ellis a run for their money, a chilling, blanked-out vision of a love affair gone wrong (with closing gunshot?).

Freedom was a gamechanger for Young, a near-perfect distillation of styles that would see him through the ’90s and beyond. It’s still an absolutely essential work and rightly seen as one of his greatest albums. What a pleasure to revisit it this week.

Neil Young: This Note’s For You

Neil+Young+This+Notes+For+You+507216Reprise Records, released 11th April 1988

The general critical consensus maintains that Neil had a rotten ’80s.

He made folk albums, rockabilly albums, synth-rock albums, undercooked Crazy Horse albums and country albums.

But you can’t say he wasn’t prolific, and hey, he’s Neil Young – there’s always something good going on somewhere.

But none of these projects came anywhere near the commercial jackpot, to the extent that his label boss David Geffen sued him for ‘unrepresentative’ product!

But, with the release of 1988’s This Note’s For You, Young was getting back on track. He had returned to the Reprise label of his peak years and was gigging with a hard-hitting ten-piece band The Bluenotes (later changing its name to Ten Men Workin’ after a legal challenge from Harold Melvin) which featured a hot horn section and cracking new drummer Chad Cromwell.

Neil had ten new songs in the can too, veering between two-chord R’n’B stompers and love ballads in the ballpark of his teenage hero Roy Orbison. He was also playing as much if not more lead guitar than he ever had in his solo career, this time in the biting, incisive style of Alberts King and Collins.

Lyrically, the songs were basically about workin’ hard, lookin’ for love, not sellin’ out and havin’ a good time, but with more humour than Bruce or Billy Joel. ‘I’m a married man – respect my happy home!’ he barks on the strident, irresistible ‘Married Man’.

Neil gave writer Paul Zollo some cool insights into the writing of the song in the book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’:

‘Oh, I like that song. I think I wrote that in my car. I have a ’54 Caddy limo. I was on my way down from Northern California to play with the Bluenotes. I was on Highway 5. Our driver was listening to tapes and I was playing my guitar…’

Neil’s tremulous voice croons ‘You have changed my life in so many ways’ on ‘Can’t Believe Your Lyin’, and it’s both touching and amusing. ‘Ten Men Workin” and ‘Life In The City’ are driving old-school R’n’B gems while ‘Sunny Inside’ is almost Brian Wilsonesque in its charming naivety.

Then there’s the title track, the standout cut on the album (though it inexplicably fades way too soon). A rum, anti-product-placement protest song which nevertheless manages to mention four big brands (and of course mocks Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ campaign), it defiantly has its cake and eats it. It’s also a total blast.

In a delicious irony, the old hippie who had spent most of the ’80s in purgatory made one of the great vids of the decade (winning Video Of The Year at the 1989 Video Music Awards), with notable help from writer Charlie Coffey and legendary director Julien Temple. Temple talked about his motivations for making the video:

‘Beer companies and the like were beginning to take over music. A lot of beer ads were using rock musicians. The line between videos and commercials was blurring. We managed to get banned from MTV and win the Video Of The Year award. That was the peak of my video-making career…’

The clip mostly mocks the series of Michelob beer ads which featured the likes of Genesis, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. And it didn’t scrimp on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston lookalikes.

What’s also notable and totally unprecedented is that Neil decided to use a live take of the song for this video, completely different to the album version. Which major star would have the balls to do that today?

This Note’s For You was not a hit, only reaching #61 in the US album chart. But Neil was laying down a marker for the classic follow-up Freedom. And he had also tapped into something very prescient by focusing on guitar-led soul, blues and R’n’B forms, echoing the resurgence of Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Jeff Beck, Albert Collins and Gary Moore, and emergence of hotshots like Jeff Healey and Robert Cray.

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.