Skip to main content

Reviews: Rolling Stones, Lefty Frizzell, Ramones, Tower of Power, Blaze Foley

A classic Rolling Stones deluxe to a Lefty offering to The Ramones again — a load of reviews from Spin Cycle.

Fifty years.That’s how long Beggars Banquet’s been around, and of all the Rolling Stones archive projects of recent years, its anniversary reissue (ABKCO)is probably the most contentious yet.Yes, it contains a fresh remaster of the stereo LP, the restoration of the original sleeve (as opposed to the projected one that has hitherto been resurrected), a one-sided 12-inch single and a flexidisc; but no, there’s still no room for the hours of out-takes that are known to be out there,including ones that have seen the official light of day since release.

Image placeholder title

The behind-the-scenes reasons for ABKCO’s refusal to delve into the archive have been discussed (or, at least, speculated upon) many times in the past; instead, let’s celebrate what we get.Like Satanic Majesties last time around, though, this is a deluxe offering; the actual LP cover presented as a slipcase from which we extract a gatefold jacket featuring the alternate artwork, high quality printing and good, heavy card.

It’s unclear whether the album itself has been remastered since its last reappearance, back in 2013 - nothing really leaps out when you listen.The 12-inch, however, is a revelation, the dedicated mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil” stretched out over an LP’s worth of vinyl to sound louder and clearer than ever before.Famously, the rest of the album’s mono mix simply folded down the stereo master, so we understand why this track alone was featured.But still it’s a shame the b-side was wasted with an etching.

The flexi is more of a curio, a phone interview that Jagger gave with a Japanese journalist in 1968, but it’s a nice bonus, and the whole package adds up to something that, while not a strictly necessary purchase, is nevertheless one that you will probably want to own - particularly if you’ve not already bought that last remaster, or a mono pressing.

Plus, it’s Beggar’s Banquet - not, merely, one of the greatest Stones albums of them all, but one of the finest LPs of the sixties, and ones whose most vivid observations seem as relevant in these times as they did back in ’68.You should probably have a copy in every room.

Bear Family’s penchant for behemothic box sets has always been a reissue industry standard.Indeed, even today, with the majors bombarding us with similarly weighty, career-long round-ups (Nazareth, Judie Tzuke and Kate Bush are the latest), the Bear still stands head and shoulders above their efforts.

Rock boxes, after all, seem to focus only on past albums as-they-were-released, with a few unreleased bonuses or b-sides to sweeten the load.Bear Family, on the other hand, offer up everything.Every released track, every studio take, every false start… if it’s out there, they find it, and rock collectors can only gaze on enviously as their country-loving cousins unwrap… for example, Lefty Frizzell’s An Article from Life.It’s subtitled “the complete recordings,” and you know what?That’s an understatement.

This is not Bear Family’s first excursion into the Frizzell archive. Back in 1992, Life’s Like Poetry felt as though it was the very last word in the country legend’s story, 330 tracks (across twelve CDs) comprising every studio recording Frizzell cut for Columbia and ABC, and then some.

This time around, thirty-one further tracks have been added to the dozen discs, remastering has ironed out some historic imperfections, the accompanying hardback book is 264 pages heavy (its predecessor was just 152), and to add further heft to the project, an additional eight CDs feature a reading of David Frizzell’’s biography of his oldest brother.

In terms of content and appearance alone, then, it’s a breathtaking package, but it’s when you start playing through the discs that the true value of the box is revealed.Frizzell’s music and legacy are both so vast that they do not need to be repeated.But the early discs in particular are utterly astonishing, as he steps all-but fully formed from his very first recordings, the demos he recorded in 1946, and in a world that still awaited the birth of rock’n’roll, Frizzell pursued a musical agenda that could itself have ignited that explosion.

It’s astonishing, even if you know Frizzell’s work, just what a vast impact he made on the music of the era, and on the generations that followed, as well.Arguably, Frizzell blueprinted all that country music would become and while it’s true, as the discs wander towards the late sixties and seventies, that the excitement of his early work faded, he’s scarcely the only pioneer you can say that about.

Besides, his output was scaled back, too.Between 1968 and his death in 1975, Frizzell paid just fifteen visits to the studio, and recorded fewer than fifty songs.At the other end of his career, he recorded almost as many in under three years.But that statistic works to the listener’s advantage; it means the bulk of the box set is unfettered brilliance, with a disc-and-a-bit’s worth of radio recordings upping the excitement even further.

If you own the earlier box, it’s up to you whether the added tracks - mostly confined to the demos and transcriptions - and improved mastering merit another purchase.(Spin Cycle reckons it does.)But if you don’t… if your knowledge of Frizzell is the odd greatest hits collection, and maybe an LP or two, this is the most in-depth box set of the year.

From classic country to late seventies punkFour albums into their lifetime, was it time to become ever-so-slightly bored with the Ramones?Certainly there was an inevitability to every new release that they did very little to discourage - the bellowed count-in, the speedball pop riffery, the lyrics poised just on the far side of taste and decorum… and then, the radio cracks open their latest 45 and “Don’t Come Close” was…

…nothing like anything you expected.A sixties pop ballad, an acoustic base, words of more than minus-two syllables - Heavens to Murgatroyd, da bruddahs have grown up!And, suddenly, Road to Ruin loomed more like a hot line to Harvard than the wun-chew-free-faw remedial class we’d been conditioned to expect.

Of course, it didn’t turn out quite like that.“I Wanna be Sedated,” “I Just Want to Have Something To Do,” “Go Mental,” “Bad Brain,” there was frenzy aplenty once you dug into the grooves. But there was also “Questioningly,” “She’s The One” and a cover of “Needles and Pins,” and if you really wanted to bang nails into coffins, a remake of the b-side “It’s a Long Way Back to Germany” that sounded like another band entirely.

First impressions were indeed correct.The Ramones had grown and we just had to get used to it.

None of which detracts from Road to Ruin’s 40th anniversary repackaging (Sire/Rhino), which follows the previous three reissues by pairing the original album with a brand new mix, a healthy helping of out-takes and mixes, a live show and a vinyl version of the modern mix.Which, between them, might not alter your opinion of the original album, but they do add oodles of background and atmosphere to what we might whisper was their first disappointing LP.

They also reveal just how deliberately the band was shifting its gears, as out-takes “S.L.U.G” and “I Walk Out” continue in a more-laidback vein, and a triptych of acoustic numbers (you can guess which ones) take things even further.But if it all gets too much (and the anniversary mix is even more sedate), a “Sedated” megamix makes a mutant mockery of every Stars on 45 style medley you have ever been subjected to, and reminds you of every reason you ever had to love this band.

Likewise, a New York New Year’s show at the end of 1979 is as much demented delight as you could ask for.So, while the album still underwhelms, and the liners seem oddly skimpy, and utterly unrevealing, there remains sufficient joy within this package to send you hey-ho-let’s go-ing on, and awaiting (with curiosity, if nothing else), what ought to be the next in the series, the Phil Spector produced End of the Century.

Okay, let’s get funky.Opening the celebrations for their fiftieth anniversary (their first LP, East Bay Grease was released in 1970), Tower of Power are unquestionably ranked among the leviathans of American funk.

Releases have not come thick and fast in recent decades. Their last studio album was in 2009, and was just their seventh on twenty years.And the earliest of those were not among their best.

But, across four sides of vinyl,Soul Side of Town (Artistry) is unquestionably a powerful reflection upon the currents and grooves that fired the band through the early seventies prime, a wildly twisting melange of period sounds and sensations, fronted by Marcus Scott’s similarly era-heavy vocal yelps and whispers.Or, as he murmurs across the intro of “After Hours,” “that’s some sticky funk like we used to play back in the day….”Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait for the next LP.

Ethan Hawke’s Blaze is already rated among the best music-related movies of the past few years (since Inside Llewyn Davis, probably), the story of country singer Blaze Foley that actually merits its self-proclamation as “a gonzo indie country western opera.”

Foley himself died in a shooting thirty years ago, and left little in terms of a recorded legacy - two locally (Austin, Texas) released 45s, a single LP and a cassette-only live album.Indeed, it would be a new century before his legend truly surfaced.

Even today, his best known song, “Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac,” was merely the b-side of his first single.But the a-side, “If Only I Could Fly,” titled Merle Haggard’s 2000 album, and other songs picked up attention elsewhere, while tributes by Lucinda Williams, Kings of Leon and his friend Townes Van Zandt furthered Foley’s renown.

Blaze isn’t even his cinematic debut - Kevin Triplett’s Duct-Tape Messiah documentary was released in 2011. The new movie’s soundtrack (Light In The Attic/Cinewax), however, is destined to raise Foley’s work to new heights, its contents songs rounding up seven Foley originals, alongside Blind Willie McTell’s “Pearly Gates,” Van Zandt’s “Marie” and Williams’ “Drunken Angel.”

Ben Dickey’s vocals fill in well for Foley’s own, and the gatefold sleeve is both richly decorated with movie scenes, and packs an LP sized twelve-page booklet featuring a great interview with Dickey and co-star Sybil Rosen.A fabulous package for a magical movie.