One day, one year, it was in the 1980s I remember that, I was listening to Little Feat’s “The Last Record Album” with a friend. I made the blindingly obvious statement that Track 3, “Long Distance Love”, is as good as a song as any I had heard. “Yeah”, said my friend, “I was in the studio when they recorded it”. What the….! In 1975 Clive’s musician brother was preparing a live LP that would sell by the lorry load, the best selling record of 1976 in the USA. He got to see some Rock & Roll places, do some Rock & Roll things so he was probably telling the truth. If he was making the story up then that’s OK. Go big or go home, a day in a studio with Little Feat back then was as big & as good as it gets.
“The Last Record Album” is the 5th LP by Little Feat, formed by guitarist Lowell George & keyboard player Bill Payne in 1970. It’s an album I love. Back in the winter of 1976 I took a month off work for rest, recuperation & hibernation. Every afternoon, my house husband duties done, I lit one up & listened to this record. It’s not Little Feat at their very best, individual talents demanded & deserved a greater in-band democracy at the expense of the slitherine, swampy rhythms of their earlier work. The ominous funk of the final 2 tracks, “Somebody’s Leavin'” & “Mercenary Territory”, really tie the album together & they still chill. Lowell George, the predominant songwriter, contributed only 3 songs of the 8. The poignant life-on-the-road, almost-country ballad “Long Distance Love” has a simplicity & an instant attraction. Lowell had previous. One of the delights of any Little Feat LP was his quieter, reflective, emotionally honest songs which needed little more than his affecting slide guitar as embellishment.
Back in Hollywood in 1970 Lowell, already with a rep as a fine slide guitarist, was a member of the Mothers of Invention. He presented Frank Zappa with his song “Willin'”, a trucker/stoner anthem. “Give me weed, whites & wine & you show me a sign, I’ll be willin'”, you know it. Frank wasn’t about to record a song about dope & Lowell was shown the door. More likely “Willin'”, a song so good that Little Feat recorded it twice, indicated that it was time for Lowell to get his very own thing. The original Little Feat quartet had an idiosyncratic take on the Blues with a little country & rock & roll seasoning. Along with “Willin'” the regretful “I’ve Been the One”, made more plaintive by the lonesome pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, cooled down the sometimes hectic pace & marked the arrival of a deft, precise songwriter.
The 2nd record “Sailing Shoes”, added a little more West Coast polish to their sound. It was a critical success (because it’s a stunning record) but I guess that if you make one of the great opening tracks to an LP, the storming “Easy To Slip”, throw in lyrics concerning marijuana psychosis, then you have no complaint when it becomes one more song the radio won’t play. The narcotic title track, a reworked “Willin'” & the remarkable, accurate, funny even surreal “Trouble” are of a piece on this LP. “The footprints on your ceiling are almost gone”…what a line & where did that come from ? Robert Palmer, with the help of some of Feat & the Meters funked the song up & some of the subtlety was lost. The later version by Lowell’s daughter Inara & Bill Payne is a stab of beauty.
For “Dixie Chicken” the group was remodelled into a sextet. A new bass player, an extra guitarist & some congas provided an injection of funk & made Little Feat a killer live band. Individually they had the imagination & ingenuity of a jam band, collectively their insinuating, infectious rhythms were irresistible. Lowell took the lead on “Dixie Chicken” with a collection of fine songs. The quiet one, “Roll Um Easy”, was sweetened up by Glen Campbell & a good job he made of it too. 1974’s “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” was missing one of his solo efforts but no matter. Here was the sound of a band at its peak, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, a consolidation aiming to boogie your sneakers away & succeeding.
I spent the summer of 1979 on a Greek island. Back then the homogenised Eurotrash holiday “culture” was yet to reach our isolated retreat. There was a small club, we once heard Ian Dury being played, breaking the chain of Bee Gees hits, but they were, you know, not our kind of people (a-hem !). I loved the place but there was no music, bouzouki on the radio, the Walkman hit the shops while we were away. There had always been a soundtrack to my life it was strange not having one around. One night in a beachside taverna I was talking to a young Scandinavian who read the British music press but not between the lines. I told him that, out of it all, I missed Little Feat & Steely Dan the most. He told me that Lowell George had died 6 weeks ago. It should not have been too much of a surprise. His rock & roll habits were taking a toll, obviously out of shape, his contributions to the band he formed diminished. After over 15 years of obsessive listening, of paying too much attention to the minutiae of Rock’s Rich Tapestry, the shock was more just how long this bad news had taken to reach me. Man, I had never been so far out of the loop.
On returning to England I found punk’s little brother Two Tone all over Top of the Pops. The bloody Police too (not on my watch mister). The end of the year was marked by “Fear of Music” & “London Calling” & there was a new Lowell George solo LP in the shops. “Thanks I’ll Eat It Here” was released just days before his death. It’s a record that covers the many fields of his varied musical interest & as such can take its time to reveal the concordance between the cover versions, a re-recorded Feat classic, the experiments & the extensive personnel. It is though a lovely piece of work marked by the charm, humour, talent & personality of its creator. Thank goodness it is because it’s the only solo LP we were going to get. It includes the last great Lowell George song. “Twenty Million Things”, another of his short, oh so sweet anthems for the lovelorn slacker. A little beauty & we all need some of that.
Little Feat completed an album after Lowell’s death & then stopped for 10 years. He, of course, died too young, just 34, but heroin is the meanest drug I know & it’ll get you if you’re not more careful. The music he made with his bandmates across the 1970s is everything I want from rock music. It’s greasy & groovy, it surprises, it’s not too serious, it’s for the head, heart & the hips. Little Feat still don’t fail me now & Lowell George’s songs, whether rocking out or quietly reflecting, still hit the spot.