Friday, January 15, 2010

SONG #70 & #71: Breaking Glass, The Great Curve

DAVID BOWIE, STAGE, 1978 (Reissued 2005)
Original version from Low, 1977

Original version from Remain In Light, 1980

Gotta love this shuffle thing-- SO much serendipity going on here!  I'm going to try to tie at least three threads together in this one.  Wish me luck.

For thread #1, let's talk first about the live album format.  Many of you are probably not fans (I play with someone who steadfastly refuses to listen to them).  There are some good reasons not to like some live albums, especially if they fall into one of the following categories.

First Category:  Remember these songs?  Want to hear them again with a bunch of arena echo?  Tom Petty has a great line about these albums; he thinks they should all be called "Greatest Hits Played Faster."  Often, these are albums by bands who really shouldn't be putting out a live album in the first place because there's really nothing to be gained but poorer sound.

Quintessential example:  Bryan Adams, Live! Live! Live!

Second Category:  We just toured!  Have a glorified souvenir!  These are hastily assembled and put out around Christmastime in the hopes that they'll be a good gift for surly teenagers who are hard to buy for.  Often, they're a recording of the last night of a tour, when the band hates one another and is completely out of gas.  These present the band at its worst and emphasize the most rote part of their act.  Nothing like an impatient, tossed-off version of an old hit.  If a band can wait fifteen years into a career to sling one of these out, then you've really got a pile of crud on your hands.  It's like getting a bag of fossilized bones.  The "Hello, Cleveland!" record.

Worst offender: The Who, Who's Last

Third Category:  We've made three studio albums in a row; time for a rest!  On these, the band wants a vacation, so they deliver an album to fulfill a contractual agreement and to regroup and write new tunes.  On these, the band fills 3/4 of the album with sketchy recent material, and then puts the same two or three megahits on the end to try to lure in unsuspecting buyers.  More than anything, these albums just sound tired and packaged.  They don't really sound like a concert, which should be the goal of any live album, or present the songs in any interesting way.

Worst offenders: Any Rush live album; any Rolling Stones live album after 1969

Fourth Category:  I would now like to be taken seriously as a major artist.  Some live albums get made because the artist has had a top 10 hit, has a little clout and always wanted to put out a live album.  These records are rough.  Foghat Live!, anyone?

Dismissing live albums in general is a mistake, though, because done well they offer an equally important aspect of a band's career.  A musician spends a lot more time crafting a live show than a record.  Think about it this way; I've been a working musician for 25 years.  Granted, I've been a student or had a day job for all but two of those years, so I'm not the most busy example, but I work pretty steadily.  I've played on about 20 albums.  In contrast, I've played at least 600 shows.  That means I've spent thousands of hours crafting and creating live concerts, and that's true for most bands with any longevity.  Doesn't that suggest that the live show is pretty important, and that, for a great band, the live show offers something worth hearing alongside of the album?  If you never hear a band live, do you have the whole story?  And if that band is good enough to know that making an album is a different art than creating a live show, then there's a chance that a live album can be revelatory.

So I would argue that live albums are well-worth it if they:

1) Are a better representation of the band than the studio albums.  Some bands never get it together except on stage, and therefore the live album is where the band's best work resides.  That's true for a lot of jam-oriented bands (most obviously, The Grateful Dead and Phish) but I think it's also true for some newer acts.  I prefer the New Pornographers live album on iTunes to their last two studio albums, for example.

2) Feature arrangements that are noticeably different.  If a live album is indeed just a replaying of an album, then there's not much point.  But if the band does different things with the songs, either stretching them out, changing the feel, or rearranging them entirely, then you're having a new listening experience with familiar material.

3) Are a well-sequenced, considered piece of art instead of just the "greatest hits."  A great live show has ebbs and flows, and the artist carefully considers song order.  The same is true of a good live album.  If it can re-create that sense of seeing the band live, then that's a valuable artifact.  The reason live bootlegs enjoy so much popularity is that bootleggers understand that they're capturing history with a live album.  Moreover, songs feel different and have different meanings when they're surrounded by different songs than you're used to.  "Baba O' Riley" is a different track when opening Who's Next than it is as song #6 in a Who concert.

4) Provide a longview of a band's career.  Tom Petty's Live Anthology that he released at Thanksgiving is the best thing on my iPod right now; I can't stop listening to it.  It's a brilliant re-conception of his 35 year career.


4a) Capture a snapshot in time.  While I will never listen to all 762 Pearl Jam live albums, I'm glad that they're out there.  Twenty years from now, people will help us distill all that information, and we'll be glad that they have so much source material to work with.

5) Allow you to reconsider your sense of the band or artist.  These are the most valuable.  A live album gives a band a second chance to win over an audience, and when it can, it's a win-win for everyone.

A live album that can do all of those things?  Well, that belongs in your collection.  These two tracks come from live albums that fit all of these requirements.  Moreover, they're great and rare examples of a record company doing something exactly right.

The Bowie live album Stage came out in the middle of Bowie's "Thin White Duke" period, when he was trying to see if a man who was 68.2% cocaine could continue to function.  The records from that period are considered among his best.  You would think that Stage would be of interest.  Instead, it slunk quickly out of print and has been considered "inessential" (thank you, Allmusic) since its release.  A classic example of revisionist history-- Rolling Stone loved it in its original review in 1978, but has given it two out of five stars in every one of its album guides ever since.

Talking Heads released The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads in 1982 as a stopgap while trying to finish up Speaking In Tongues.  They yanked it off the market when they put out the soundtrack to Stop Making Sense (also excellent) so there wouldn't be a competing live album, and it also stayed out of print for two decades.

In 2004 and 2005, these albums were re-released as part of full-catalog remastering programs.  They were both completely reconsidered, given new track listings and running orders and terrific explanatory liner notes.  Stage is now the complete Bowie set from that period, in sequence.  For the Heads album, disc one features every original the band played during its 1977-1979 tours, and disc two is their complete 1980-1981 set, in order.  Each album now represents these bands, in their most interesting periods, playing the exact concerts that you would have heard if you'd gone to see them.  Moreover, the tapes have been remixed and mastered with a little historical context and perspective, and they sound fantastic.  So let's recap: record companies reclaim old, forgotten albums, make smart, considered decisions about them, and re-release them with generous bonuses and improved everything (sound, packaging, etc)?  How often can you say that?

Since I bought these albums five years ago, they've become not only among my favorite live albums, but they've led me to reconsider my relationship with both these artists.  In particular, Talking Heads (along with The Smiths, but that's another blog) have grown in my estimation in the last six years more than any other band.

And that leads me to thread #2-- bands you grow to love after your initial lack of interest in them.

I never really thought much of David Bowie, and I still think the first phase of his career (Major Tom to Ziggy) is overrated.  However, in 2001, I bought a used vinyl copy of Station To Station, his 1976 album, and fell completely head over heels for it and the rest of that period of Bowie's career.  I listened to it for months-- it lived on my turntable.  I find the music from those albums haunting and weird and totally moving.  When Stage was re-released, I jumped at it, and it was like finding a great lost album.  The sound is spectacular, as is the band backing Bowie.  The first thing you notice is how well they play with one another.  Even though this period features music that is frequently described as cold and detached and mechanical, this band plays with groove and feel and they are watertight.  There are few bands around today who can play this well.

"Breaking Glass" comes from Low.  I first heard that record in the summer of 2000 when I was studying and housesitting in Oxford, England.  The family owned about eight CDs, and Low was one of them, so I first heard the record cleaning up their filthy kitchen.  (Did I mention their ill-behaved backyard chickens who attacked one another?  In a tiny downtown backyard?  That was some summer.)   "Breaking Glass" was immediately my favorite track, but I thought the record's sound was underwhelming.  Low may just have been named best album of the 1970s by Pitchfork, but I prefer all of the versions on Stage.  Sadly, the live version of "Breaking Glass" is not available for listening to on the internet, so I'd recommend listening to the studio version provided below, and then listen to the Stage clip on iTunes.  Can you hear the difference?  The Low version now sounds a little tentative and unformed.  Live, the contrast between the verse and chorus become the central tension of the song, and the wild, angular guitar of the chorus becomes the song's anchor.

I love these lyrics-- they feel like an update to "Norwegian Wood"-- if that song's about a relationship gone bad due to weed, this song has white, powdery film all over it.  It's a great description of obsession and staying with something that you know is doing you harm:

Baby I've been breaking glass in your room again / Listen
Don't look on your carpet; I drew something awful on it / See
You're such a wonderful person, but you got problems
Oooooh, I'll never touch you

Those are the complete lyrics; I think they're really effective because they're so short and shameful, and the song serves only to communicate this obsessive confession.  "You're such a wonderful person, but you've got problems" sums up so many bad relationships, doesn't it?

"The Great Curve" originally comes from the album Remain In Light, which is an album that it took me almost thirty years to appreciate.  I get it now, but I still far prefer the live versions of all of its songs.  Its best known for the hit "Once In A Lifetime," but other tracks (like this one) are a better indicator of what the band was after: an attempt to build songs around a single, repeated groove.  There's a lot of Fela in these songs; in fact, one of the outtakes from Remain In Light is called "Fela Riff-- Unfinished."  It's incredible that this song is the same band who made '77, an album of little three minute rock songs played laconically and without any frills or musical pyrotechnics by a nerdy quartet.  Only three years later, Talking Heads had evolved into a completely different animal, with double digit members on stage.  The band on "The Great Curve" clip linked below is diverse in terms of race, gender, training, background and approach.  It makes for a unique blend that I find totally engaging and that can make music that is global without being "World" music.

Like "Breaking Glass," these lyrics have a paranoid bent to them.  It seems to me to be a song about confusion and searching for meaning, finding some sort of connection only in "she" who is "moving to define" and has "messages for everyone" in "a world of light... she's gonna open our eyes up."  "She" might be "a woman's hips" or she may be inspiration or she might be music itself.  I don't really know, but I think they're evocative and fit the music perfectly.  I also think the song is more effective here, as a full-speed set closer, then where it sits on Remain In Light, in the middle of side one.

I lost interest with Talking Heads around the True Stories record in 1986, and I'd never loved them that much in the first place, so I spent years wondering why so many of my music friends spoke of them in hushed tones.  This live album has led me back to them with a vengeance, and now I'm a slobbering fan of the first four albums.  Props to my boy Quinn, who was always waaaaay ahead of me on this one.

That leads us, finally, to thread #3, which I'll call the Secret Weapon, or The Adrian Belew Factor.  Adrian Belew, the guitarist who first came to prominence in Frank Zappa's band, is on both of these albums.

Belew has had a truly astonishing career; check this out:

1977-1978-- Frank Zappa's band
1978-1979, 1990-- David Bowie's band
1979-1982-- Talking Heads
1981-Present-- King Crimson
1982-Present-- Solo Career (including top 40 hit "Oh Daddy")
1985-1989-- The Bears

and those are just the highlights.  Belew has played in four of the most admired bands in rock history, and can walk into just about any Starbucks without being recognized.  That's a great career.  And I think he's the secret ingredient that allowed me finally to find a way in to Bowie and Talking Heads' music.

It's undeniable that some people just simply and dramatically improve the projects they work on.  Throughout rock history, there are guys like Belew who sit just outside the spotlight but who are the straw that stirs the drink.  I think it's probable that what allowed me back into these artists' catalogs was my love for Belew's guitar.  Once you know he's in both bands, his tone in unmistakable on both of these tracks, and on the live Talking Heads clip, he's having so much fun and performing at such a high level that you can't help but love him.  Go to 5:18 and listen to his solo from there to the end-- it's completely original and thrilling (so original that the cameraman can't find him).  That's the great thing about being a lifelong music listener-- eventually, my path crossed with these terrific songs in the way that allowed me truly to hear them, and now I can pass them along to you.  it's a great lesson to remember: being a critical listener means not only having an opinion, but being willing to revisit it.

So today's nominations for the comment section are:

1) Recommendations for live albums worth owning.
2) Most unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll.

Have a great MLK weekend.  See you on the other side.

David Bowie (studio version):

Talking Heads (live version 1980):
The whole concert is on YouTube-- it's one my favorite things to watch.


  1. These are great calls. I'm in a Talking Heads renaissance as well, driven by Stop Making Sense and the kid's chapter book The Strange Journey of Edward Tulane. I've read the book to the girls 3 times already and it's probably Georgia's favorite book. Total masterwork of children;s lit. Anyhow, it's the story of a china rabbit that gets lost, has many adventures and eventually gets to go home. I've cried each time we finish the book!

    Anyhow, after I read it the first time I just started humming "Home, it's where I want to be but I guess I'm already there" even though I hadn't listened to a talking heads record since around 1989. I added the song to my iphone mix and now the girls regularly request "the Edward Tulane song" on our morning drive to school. This is a welcome break from the Michael Jackson mania that has ruled since his passing and has also led me to rediscover more of their back catalogue. Agree on the guitar sound/parts. Really, really good.

  2. For me, there's a live album that falls squarely into the fifth category. And, I'm in the trust tree, right? Up in the nest? No judging? UB40 live in Moscow. That was my introduction to reggae, which I can now see owes more to 80s Brit pop than to Marley, but I listened to that CD a lot in 9th grade. That and Otis Redding. I was definitely slightly schizo. (I fully expect to be ridiculed for any UB40 mention on this blog- Jeff, do you even have any UB40 in this collection?).

    Next live album that was on heavy rotation was Sting's Bright On The Night. The size of his ego is matched by the strength of those songs and the talent of his band: Darryl Jones (there's a guy who's had an amazing career), Omar Hakim, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis.

    Never spent much time with Bowie or Talking Heads. I know more about them than I do about their music, key tracks aside. My favorite thing Bowie-related, truthfully, is the Flight of The Conchords bit about him.

    I had a chance to meet David Byrne when I was living in NYC. A friend who worked for Nat Geo was producing a documentary about Brazilian music, and she asked if I would be the "sound guy" for the interview with David Byrne. It took place in someone's apartment on the upper westside, overlooking the Hudson. It was one of those crazy hot and humid summer days in NYC, and Byrne showed up on his bicycle, said he'd ridden up from Chelsea or Tribeca. He was drenched. He brought his own makeup and had to show me how to use the mic I'd borrowed. I remember him being very polite and...weird, but as soon as the camera was rolling he transformed, totally charismatic. When the interview was over, he handed me the clip-on mic, weird Bryne reappeared, grabbed his bike and got in the elevator. Precisely how I would have imagined the afternoon going.

  3. The 20K list is classified, I'm afraid. I did see UB40 on the Rat In The Kitchen tour, and they were, hands down, one of the worst live acts I've ever seen. I left after about 20 minutes, driven to the parking lot out of sheer bewildered boredom. The Moscow crowd must have been more inspiring than Merriweather Post Pavilion. Totally agree with you about Bring On The Night-- terrific record.