There are some much loved records on the lower reaches of the Cash Box album chart, those ranked between 101-150. The Stones “Exile On Main St” (#114) & “Harvest” by Neil Young (#115) had both held the #1 position earlier in the year & if you have recently added these 50 year old records to your collection then you are doing the right thing. Further down the list, rising four places to #139 was a group who took their name from a steam-powered dildo in William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch” & who named their debut LP from the Bob Dylan song “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. “Can’t Buy a Thrill” is a refreshing , erudite take on Rock, “post-boogie” if you like. In late 1972/early 73 we were discovering the well-crafted delights of tracks beyond the two Top 20 singles though did we know that it would retain its crispness for half a century or that we were listening to the starting point of great American artistry? Only a fool would say that.
In 1972 Steely Dan were a six man band. Donald Fagen (keyboards) & Walter Becker (bass), college friends from back East, in Los Angeles as staff writers with ABC, had a bunch of songs that it was probably best they recorded themselves. They had met Denny Dias through a “Must have Jazz chops. Assholes need not apply” advertisement & he joined session man Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitars. Drummer Jim Hodder knew Skunk & as Fagen was unsure of his vocal abilities David Palmer added his voice. Palmer sang lead on just the two tracks, more in the live show, & his short stay in the group means that he gets little credit for his contribution. I do know that when I sing “Like the castle in its corner in a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble & I stay here just the same” from “Dirty Work” it’s his perfectly pitched, yearning vocal that I’m aiming for.
For all Becker & Fagen’s love of Beatnik Jazz (& conversation) & R&B “Can’t Buy A Thrill” is a record made by a young band who had been listening to the radio in the 1960s, their teenage years, when there was a Pop & Rock explosion. “Do It Again” & “Reelin’ In The Years”, those two classics that still merit airtime, are epic singles, the guitars of Denny & Skunk (& Elliott Randall on “Reelin’…) come correct & shine brightly. There are Jazz inflections, bossa nova rhythms but these are songs with hooks & choruses written by two young men intending to write hits. I could have chosen any track, “Midnight Cruiser”” & “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me” were certainly in the frame, but “Change of the Guard” with its sprightly tenderfoot optimism, even idealism, makes the cut here. It may be an outlier from the rest & the acerbic seeds of the group’s sardonic lyrics that Steely Dan would cultivate are certainly present on “Can’t Buy A Thrill”. There’s an argument to be made that it is the most varied, most accessible, even the best of their records & I would listen to that reasoning. Myself, I prefer the jaded urbanity of their later lyrics matched to the sophisticated perfectionism of their music – I guess that makes me a Dapper Dan Man.
By 1972 Joe Walsh had established a reputation as a guitar hero with three studio albums by the James Gang, attracting the admiration of the likes of Jimmy Page & Pete Townshend without his power trio achieving the mega-success of theirs. The Blues-Rock of “James Gang Live In Concert” (1971) shook the foundations of New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. On a couple of tracks Joe put down his axe to play an atmospheric Hammond organ, an indication perhaps that his musical ambitions went beyond an impressive, grandstanding 18 minute long jam on a Yardbirds’ song. He left the Gang, recruiting drummer Joe Vitale, a classmate at Kent State University & bassist Kenny Passarelli to form Barnstorm. So was this new album, “Barnstorm”, at #128 on this week’s chart, a group effort or a Joe Walsh record? His name was there on the disc’s label, the gig posters of the time have “JW & Barnstorm” on the bill It was a little confusing but despite the contributions of his new buddies (they wrote two of the tracks) I’m going with “Barnstorm being Joe’s solo debut.
Joe had followed his long time producer Bill Szymczyk out to the Caribou Ranch studio in Colorado & the Rocky Mountain way was having an effect. There’s a more pastoral feeling to his music now & an expanded instrumentation, Vitale brought along his flute, Joe his ARP synthesizer. “Barnstorm” is creative, adventurous &, on tracks like “Birdcall Morning” beautiful. Szymczyk’s skill in layering assorted acoustic & electric guitars gives the songs texture & substance on possibly the best of Joe’s releases. I chose the one hard-edged track, “Turn To Stone”, a song he revisited on “So What” (1974) because those trademark chunky, still melodic power chords are what Joe does so well. The record, with no single to promote it, was not a commercial success, the following year Barnstorm recorded “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get”& it made the US Top 10. Joe was having a good time having a good time in the early 1970s, in 1975 at the urging of his producer with no vowels in his name he was recruited by the Eagles, a regular job that he probably needed. Earlier this year there was news of a new record by Barnstorm, now that would catch my interest.
A story about a deaf, dumb & blind boy, you know “Tommy” (1969), had made the Who transatlantic stars. A monumental “Live At Leeds” (1970) repeated the rock opera’s double platinum status while the group’s composer, Pete Townshend, struggled in his home studio with the next concept. The plot of “Lifehouse” was so convoluted, the vainglorious ambition so far-reaching – music that could be adapted to reflect the personalities of the audience, culminating in a universal chord merged from biographical data – that Pete became alienated from the rest of his uncomprehending group members & estranged from his mercurial co-manager Kit Lambert who was in New York shopping around an unauthorised movie version of “Tommy”. “Lifehouse” remained unfinished when a new Who album was required & eight tracks from the unfinished project were used on “Who’s Next” (1971), a triple platinum landmark in early 1970s Rock. Interest in the Who, particularly in the US, had never been greater.
While Pete was seeking that elusive universal chord he became interested in the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba & had, with fellow acolytes, recorded a couple of albums inspired by & in tribute to Mr Baba. Initially in limited quantity Decca, the Who’s US label approached Pete about an official release, he took a couple of tunes from both , three “Lifehouse” demos & a couple more unreleased tapes he had stashed away & “Who Came First” became Pete’s first major label solo album. Over the years we have heard more of Pete’s home tapes. They lack the robustness of Daltrey’s voice & the intensity of the Who in all their glory but the tunes, the arrangements are all there & the gentler dynamic is charming. OK, the favourite country songs of Pete’s mystical mentor may not be to everyone’s taste but “Who Came First”, at #116 on the chart, with early versions of “Pure & Easy” & “Let’s See Action” is an insight into Pete’s process & a fine collection. The Who did record “Time Is Passing” I think that I prefer the homemade version on this record. Ronnie Lane of Faces was another Baba believer & in 1970 they recorded “Evolution” together for the “Happy Birthday” record. As “Stone” the song was later recorded by both of Ronnie’s groups, Faces & Slim Chance. It’s a lovely song, some great acoustic picking by Pete & a welcome addition to “Who Came First”. So, while we’re here…