A series of books that uses the formula: take a rock band, analyse their albums and songs one by one, publish.
Having had eyes opened to the On Track series by taking on the Blue Oyster Cult tome, one of several from the Sonicbond publishers appearing regularly over the past twelve months, here’s a shelf full of their output that features some of the bigger names from the annals of rock history.
Their general and refreshing philosophy is to harness the enthusiasm and expertise from fans/writers rather than encourage the sort of in-depth and occasionally academic analysis that some of the major artists of the twentieth (and Twenty-First) centuries have earned. Cough…Dylan…cough…cough.
Every album, every song is the watchword so with that in mind we encounter authors who’ve appreciated this/their music for more years than they probably care to mention and whose task is to enthuse readers in the same way. The series often feels like chatting to a mate (preferably in the pub) and debating the qualities of your favourite band and their best (and worst moments). Some of which you’ll agree with wholeheartedly and some maybe less so. Bearing that in mind, without further ado…
Andrew Wild takes on a couple of bands, starting off with Queen, that’s typical of the very readable quality and not unafraid to take songs and events to task when others may take on a rose-tinted approach. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk of Brian May atop Buck House with similar disdain to my own. For Queen, many feel that the early days are the best; a period when they were an albums band that had a few singles which slowly led them to become a singles band whose albums contained said songs with what could be construed as extra padding.
We Will Rock You – “a dumb song from an intelligent band” and “cheap…stupid…obnoxious…commercial” – ouch but agreed, I always preferred the fast version anyway. 1979 seems the turning point when the eye became more focussed on the singles market, yet coming full circle with Innuendo and The Miracle returning to the album as a statement format, albeit less coherently than in those first half dozen albums.
But Queen always had four individuals who brought different sides to the band – John Deacon popping his head above the parapet on the odd occasion with some absolute stone cold (crazy) crackers.
Wild’s more challenging task comes in assessing the work of The Beatles is to go where so many have been before and when the man to turn to is Mark Lewisohn. A thankless task and one that he takes on by attempting the ‘same picture in a different frame’ philosophy in his A-Z guide to every song.
It’s mind-boggling at times to look at the detail that’s gone into say Help! – it’s just where the book flopped open – and root through all the takes, versions on albums and singles, live references. Someone somewhere (not me) may find the time to interrogate the quality of his work and will no doubt find some irritating little errors but for most of us, we should simply applaud him for his research and painstaking attention as well as his courage for attempting a most challenging task.
For a more in-depth musical analysis of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer legacy, you can chase up the likes of Endless Enigma that often contains the sort of analysis that sends us non-musicians into the mysterious world of double time and minor fifths and beyond and can often be as mind-boggling as the music of the trio known for some of their excesses.
However, there’s no denying that for a short while, they were Kings of the world, even during the early Seventies golden era of heavy and progressive rock, although as Mike Goode suggests, it was never cool to like ELP. Carrying an ELP album was much more likely to get you the attention of the wrong sort or possibly a fellow fan rather than act as a babe magnet. Wilde calls the band “the undisputed kings in a Top Trumps of progressive rock heroes – faster, bigger, better” and they did set their stall out in a grandiose manner which matched their music.
And while on the one hand, they went to and beyond excess, there were regular moments on ELP albums where they offered something completely different. Usually along the lines of something very serious (that’s your Tarkus or Karn Evil 9) and technically challenging (Toccata maybe?), something fun (Benny The bouncer, The Sherriff) and a Greg Lake acoustic number (Affairs Of The Heart, Lucky Man).
Brain Salad Surgery their crowning moment and without doubt, prog rock of the finest vintage although the question of how the can get from that, via Works, to Love Beach in a couple of steps may be one that’s beyond the scope of On Track. While many regard the latter as the nadir of ELP and it does have some howlers – Taste Of My Love is worse than it sounds – the side long Memoirs Of An Officer And A Gentleman did and still does save the album for me. By contrast, In The Hot Seat was a poor final farewell and perhaps typical of how many bands just hung around too long.
A brief appreciation of a selection of the many live offerings and maybe the greatest number of compilations ever from a band/record company. However flawed some of their work may admittedly be, ELP were also groundbreaking and with an underappreciated sense of humour.
In examining the work of Jethro Tull, Jordan Blum does test us out by throwing in a few testing phrases – “it’s perpetually machinelike and dumbed down, with Barre outwardly neutered in implementing purely serviceable skill” (describing Papparazzi from the lamentable Under Wraps album obviously) – it seems surprising that Jordan hasn’t referenced any of the excellent David Rees Tull work in print. However, he has a good go at assessing a huge catalogue of work of a band and leader in Ian Anderson that’s always challenged.
Obviously, a massive fan of the concept works – handy when you choose your favourite tracks and the top two happen to be a whole album – his recommended playlist kicks off with two ‘tracks’ that are essentially whole albums and while including some of the more obvious choices, pulls a few from the hat. It may have some readers, like me, maybe heading for their rarely played copy of JTull.Com to listen again to Wicked Windows.
What is made clear is the number of what are called “Anderson’s penchant for philandering narrators” – without wanting to list them, there’s an opportunity for an original concept in releasing a compilation in The Saucy Side Of Tull that might vie for favour with the likes of The Acoustic Jethro Tull.
He also risks the wrath of fellow Tull fans in an interesting and very bod personal ranking of the albums. Choosing a top five might be relatively easy when it comes to ranking the whole Tull catalogue yet with twenty-one to work with, it gets interesting. Broadsword (one of my faves) ranks very low yet you might then look what’s sitting above and wonder(aloud) where you’d place it.
He quite rightly draws attention to the quality of Ian Anderson’s recent solo work (or is it just Tull under another name?); Thick As A Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus to which I’d personally add the acoustic/flute sets – The Secret Language Of Birds and Rupi’s Dance. However, it’s gratifying that despite the scurrilous suggestion, we’d both come to the same conclusion that despite any doubts over the current ragged state of Anderson’s voice, they’re records that are better than anything Tull did since Stormwatch in 1979. Good call.
Sonicbond’s own Stephen Lambe adds his own opinions to the Yes catalogue, already showing his progressive chops having written the Citizens Of Hope & Glory overview of the progressive rock genre. He’s a man after my own heart, confessing to a predisposition to anything by Yes, however, doesn’t hold back from a few home truths when necessary.
A band who last year celebrated a 50 year anniversary, the Yes reputation lies mainly with their Seventies output. Reading this book, it becomes clear how patchy the last twenty years worth of album releases really are and how their live show has (and still does) mainly rely on their first twenty years. He doesn’t hold back on the disregard and often open hostility for Open Your Eyes and the general apathy about Heaven And Earth – as he says, a shame if it were to be their final studio work – and the general mish-mash of their output of the last twenty years that has seen their impressive live ethic focussing round their earlier work.
His tome looks at some deeper unsung and oft underappreciated cuts and nice ot see that great minds think alike as he names Our Song and To Be Over, two songs from very different periods yet vastly underrated. Kudos to for avoiding although acknowledging the stream of live albums and compilations although the necessary mention of the single most played recording in the Ainscoe house, the 1978 radio broadcast of the Wembley gig and yes Stephen, Starship Trooper alone is worth the price of entry.
The early days of Deep Purple and Rainbow get covered by Steve Pilkington with more than a hint of good humour and a distinct absence of rose-tinted glasses. Steve’s background in melodic hard rock appreciation is well founded and he’s the type who believes single edits (we’re talking Smoke On The Water and Highway Star) are “a crime before God and we shall not speak of them again.” Sound words. Having said that, he notes the massively extended workouts on the likes of live versions of Space Truckin’ that quadruple the original length and You Fool No One doing similar – note, Made In Japan, the landmark live album, and also Made In Europe get a full appreciation alongside the studio output.
Bearing in mind that Deep Purple were/are a band whose in house dramas and personnel changes often resembled a soap opera, the book acts as a reminder that Deep Purple existed before In Rock and had a bloke called Rod Evans singing for them. Then there are the Coverdale/Hughes years when they still cut it with classics like Burn and Stormbringer. Of course, as the series philosophy demands, it’s not just about those songs. Guaranteed to have fans thumbing through their collections (for the target audience are surely the sort who will have not just the vinyl and CDs but the original well played pressing or possibly clicking away on the streaming services) so seek out some of the lesser appreciated gems that are uncovered. Cue the Tommy Bolin material dominated by the default Coverdale lyrical direction that Steve sums up nicely in Drifter – “a ramblin’ man…on the road to nowhere…born a loser…beyond the law.” Must be the gipsy in him.
The brief Rainbow section, almost naturally, is commanded by Rainbow Rising (plus some more extended tracks that appear on On Stage). Eyes Of The World and Lost In Hollywood (we’ll not mention the live version of the latter that usually included band solos and tested the patience and bladders of the audiences) were the last of the classic Rainbow sound before a new dawn beckoned.
Steve concludes with his standard epilogue – Rainbow going AOR/MOR/melodic hard rock with whatever flavour of the month’s sidemen Blackmore had on board at the time. Purple continued and do so to this day producing a pretty healthy catalogue with the occasional classic – Steve quotes Perfect Strangers title track and surely would include Birds Of Prey from 2017’s Infinite.
Steve also takes on the first of the most recent release in the series featuring The Rolling Stones in a similar way by looking at their 1963-1980 early years, coming up with the same conclusion that these formative and early days were the ones that defined them. You can plot the development of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership, getting an ever-increasing number of originals on the albums until eventually, they sit as pretenders to Lennon/McCartney. Granted they have written some belters – take your pick from Jumping Jack Flash, Gimme Shelter or Street Fighting Man (which are a few personal faves).
No doubt that the Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers trio may well be the peak and much of what followed struggled to match, there’s a chance to dig deeper and appreciate the fact that the Stones rarely stood still with varying degrees of success as they dipped their toes into the likes of reggae and soul-tinged efforts yet remained at their best when it came to basic rock and roll. Come the late Seventies did their best to keep up with the trends of new wave (She’s So Cold), punk (Shattered) and disco (Miss You) signs of the times. The epilogue of What went next – “flashes of brilliance amongst bouts of filler” – might well sum up the majority of Stones albums to be fair.
Whether or not he accepts the challenge to unpick (and in the case of Deep Purple and Rainbow’s consent line up changes, unpack) the latter days, it remains to be seen. Perhaps a darkened room may help.
Out imminently is Genesis where Stuart Macfarlane avoids the standard lists of ‘deeper cuts you should hear/appreciate more’, offering his own attempt on ranking the albums (I’m guessing he’d place The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway on top) or variations such as the ten worst Genesis songs (Who Dunnit? may well top that particular list for Stuart). However, it’s still good to know that even for seasoned old fans like me, the Genesis veterans, there are odds and ends to add to the trivia bank and plenty to pore over. Even just a few pages in, Conqueror on the largely ignored From Genesis To Revelation album is likened to the Liam Gallagher style of drawn-out word endings and it turns out that the album is actually LG’s favourite Genesis album. In turn that begs the thoughts that if he has a favourite, he must have listened to them all to form that opinion (cue vision – not of angels – but of Liam nodding his way through The Cinema Show or Watcher Of The Skies). Perhaps he should have a go at Throwing It All Awayyyyyyy, or In the Cayyyyyyyyyyyge. I digress.
I love his description of Get ‘Em Out By Friday as “a song about bad landlords” which must be a first in any genre and Supper’s Ready as “an accidental or opportunistic epic” but similar to the On Track studies of Queen and Yes, the unique and groundbreaking early output gives way to a commercial eye. Albums like Abacab offer a nod to the dramatic with something like Dodo/Lurker yet little else that might please the original fans. Other notable moments are the nod to Fading Lights; what many would consider being the last song on the last ‘proper’ Genesis album, anticipating that it could be their parting shot and a dignified one at that. Having said that, there’s a good case for the strength of the opening sequence of the ‘…and then there were two…’ final farewell of Calling All Stations that evolved into an overload of songs that trod the same ground.
Ultimately, Macfarlane doesn’t hide his love of The Lamb album and is perhaps more sympathetic than most about how bad side two of Genesis is – yet we share a bizarre liking for Silver Rainbow… However, it proves a legacy that saw Genesis, or at least Banks and Rutherford (with Collins as the best of the lot) as a set of musicians who wanted to be songwriters.
Phew. And breath. There may be the occasional slips with factual odds and ends which can slip the net and will get ironed out in the next batches, but with presumably with plenty more in the pipeline, a little Sonicbond library is starting to build up nicely and indeed, indulge us fans of a certain age with a set of friendly reads and opportunities for some healthy and hopefully good-humoured debate.
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