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Various Artists | The Sound of the City (EMI)
Black American blues music was taken up avidly by white English and American middle class boys around the early 1960s with varying degrees of artistic - if frequently more commercial - success. Artistically the Rolling Stones were rather good at it and Cream may have sounded white but managed to maintain the fiery spirit of the black originals that they covered but, many other groups' covers sure do pale when we listen to the originals now. On the first volume of this extensive five double CD set, 'Chicago', to hear Howlin' Wolf sing Spoonful is genuinely electrifying as are many of the early R'n'B standards contained herein. The rhythm sections surely make the difference. Not only driving, rocking beats but swing. Everyone from the Byrds to your neighbour's hamfisted punk combo take Roll Over Beethoven around the block but they don't swing like Chuck. Perhaps those artists who let black influences simply come through as they might rather than attempting to fully emulate them achieve something more durable and honest. Jim Croce may be a case in point. Two hippie era white rock groups heard on CD2, the Shadows of Knight and The Buckinghams inflict the worst white bread R'n'B upon us. The city's 1960s/70s pop integrates all the ongoing black styles in a seemingly natural way. Most of the tracks on the second disc delight; Jackie Wilson still takes us Higher and Higher and to hear originals of great songs like You're No Good and the lovely Um Um Um Um Um Um is fabulous. Only the cloyingly syrupy Chi-Lites made me hit the 'next' button. Fifties doo-wop harmony singing is well represented on the first disc and may come to work its magic upon you if you can settle in it.
I could settle into little on the New Orleans set. John Martyn's great version of Small Town Talk beats the dreary older version contained here by one Bobby Charles hands down, and songs like Lawdy Miss Clawdy and I Hear You Knocking should be taken out of history '1984' style or at least be confined to tacky '50s compilations. There is a very strong flavour to all things New Orleans and it makes me at least quite uncomfortable. In the case of the other four cities here I always feel I'm on safe American soil but this city's vibe makes me feel like I've got involved in some creepy voodoo business in some Haitiian nightmare.
The trip to Memphis, however, is packed with top drawer tunes of every persuasion including, as they say, true classics like The Box Tops' The Letter, Al Green's Take Me To The River (which makes the Talking Heads cover sound like a plod), Sam the Sham's Wooly Bully (drive to the diner singing this. You know it makes you happy) and even the beautiful, resonant Thirteen by Big Star if you please. There's tons more old blues, the expected country entrants-Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Johnny Ace- and several interesting instrumentals: Travis Wammack's (almost surf) guitar fun Scratchy, the delightfully cheesy Last Night from the Mar Keys and the eternally cool Over Easy by Booker T and his MGs. You will play this collection a lot.
The New York set obviously reflects the greatest cultural melting pot in the world. Jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker each provide a sophisticated tune which like so much non-pop music in the entire series may become stepping-stones to unfamiliar genres. Again, on the first disc you may know several songs from the cover versions e.g. On Broadway, If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, Spanish Harlem and Sally Go Round The Roses. They are mostly refreshing, uncommercialised, original artefacts and sometimes feature extremely clever arrangements. The Flamingos original version of I Only Have Eyes For You is a case in point, where the backing vocalists sing extremely short, compressed, abstract phrases that contrast with the lovely, long lead vocal line. I could not have imagined a more beautiful reading than Art Garfunkel's. The Cuban and Puerto Rican influence is well represented throughout the NY double, but the American Italians were the big thrill. The rock/soul of the La Bamba-like Good Lovin' by The Young Rascals is as infectious as ever. Dion may well be a rock great. Was he inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame a few years back? Dunno. He will be inducted into mine. One of those artists you will have to check out for yourself for, like Tim Buckley, Lee Hazlewood and Bert Jansch, his legendary status still doesn't get him played on the radio too often. His reading of Leiber and Stoller's Drip Drop is as raw and direct as something of the Beach Boys Party album and his voice is as beautiful as any Beach Boy. The second CD takes in punk, pop, new wave art rock, soul, disco and rap. Dissent rears it imposing head in famous songs like The Message and Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent but the most moving piece of dissent and perhaps the most powerful song you will hear in aeons is Society's Child by the then seventeen-year-old Janis Ian. An absolute massive hit in 1967 America, it deals frankly with the then untenable notion of teenage interracial relationships. With its soulful blasts of Hammond, cheesy 1960s harpsichord and tidal waves of tension, it is quite different to the lightweight singer songwriter work of her 1970s albums.
The most instantly accessible and perhaps best album in the series is the Los Angeles package. Who knows why every kind of genre featured has a light, sunny, cool feel? Perhaps it's the heat. Whether it's the Bangles rocking out, Merle Haggard sharing his Working Man's Blues or Bill Withers questioning the appearance of a new male presence in and around him and his girl no one gives off a chaotic, neurotic, oppressed or hassled vibe. No one breaks sweat. And talking of genres, they are not so much of the black blues, Cuban/Latin styles and other ethnic varieties so much as different kinds of pop/rock. LA is, as we are often told, a very young place and its contribution to American music culture is its pop. And there's nothing wrong with that. The entire collection is full of those stepping stones, great new discoveries and lots of simply great songs you hoped you would own one day from the likes of The Stone Ponies, Ornette Coleman, Ricki Nelson and Ritchie Valens to name four diverse artists that were a nice surprise. You will surely find a dozen such tracks to mow your lawn man. The LA collection is truly great.