Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”

album cover for Sticky Fingers

I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” this week. It’s no secret that I’ve become a fan of the Stones over the past year, listening to these weekly albums. I already loved “Exile on Main Street,” but have since fallen also for “Let It Bleed” and “Beggars Banquet.” From this album, I had heard a few songs before, but only really knew “Brown Sugar.” Of course, by the end of the week, I’d found another favorite album. I finished the week by watching the excellent film “Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre” of the band performing the full album in 2015.

The first track “Brown Sugar” cannot be denied, kicking off the opening with one of Keith Richard’s most iconic and representative guitar riffs. Jagger compared the groove to rock n roll classic “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon. The lyrics are a different story, though. Jagger sings about a slave-owner raping slaves “just around midnight.” The chorus of “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Just like a young girl should.” makes us question the opinion and intentions of Jagger. A couple decades later, he thought better of it, stating “I never would write that song now.”

Wild Horses

“Wild Horses” is one of the Stone’s most successful anthemic country-rock ballads. The writing is credited to Jagger and Richards, however Gram Parsons worked with them. A bright strummed acoustic guitar opens on the track, joined by a second acoustic guitar. An electric guitar plays a simple melodic line to lead into the vocals: “Childhood living is easy to do…” This electric guitar and amp are set to just under the “breaking point” for the sound, so it’s a clean sound with a slight touch of warm distortion.

After the vocals begin, that first acoustic guitar begins to play muted individual high notes, plucked seemingly randomly. It’s really an odd thing for what started as the rhythm guitar to do. The second guitar picks up the role of rhythm strummed chords. These are the only instruments we hear throughout the first verse and chorus.

The verse follow a chord progression of iii-I-iii-I-ii-IV-V-I-V-IV. The first line and second line of each verse has the iii-I-iii-I pattern. The third and fourth line of each verse begins with ii, and then a hop of IV-V to resolve to I, then hops in the opposite order of V-IV to leave close the pattern. This means that the second line ends with V-IV to continues on to iii at the beginning of the third line.

The chorus stays in the same key, however, it FEELS like a key change. This is a change UP, though from major to minor; so it has that anthem feel, but without the joy. This is enhanced by the addition of drums and bass for the chorus. It feels like a change from G major to A minor. This progression for the chorus is: ii-IV-V-I-VII♭-IV-V, again using that IV-V hop to move to the tonic chord.

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

The song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” just blew me away. At first, it was the rhythmic interweaving of the two electric guitars with the vocals; But after about 2 1/2 minutes, the rock stops and the track rolls into an extended jazz-soul mid-section. The groove becomes gradually more Latin; Mick Taylor’s guitar solo that takes us out feels a little like Santana. Put simply, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a 2 1/2 minute rocker that’s capped by an atypical but brilliant jam.

Richard’s guitar kicks open the song with a great guitar riff. He frequently uses open-G tuning (aka keef tuning), and that’s likely the case here. Marty Schwartz gives an good demonstration, make the importance of open-G. This also gives visual to what we hear: some stylistic slides up and down the neck between notes. This sliding technique played a major role in the guitar work of one of my heroes: Johnny Thunders. I assume that Richards picked it up from Chuck Berry.

Drums and bass join in the center, punching through the spaces left by the rhythm guitar. The guitar drops down to a lower pitch to signal the start of the next section. Jagger jumps in between the drums and guitar, “Yeah! You got…” A second rhythm guitar in the left channel, matches the first. This one with a little more bite.. And then the two guitars begin to rapidly trade riffs back and forth, left and right. “…satin shoes! Yeah, you got nasty boots.”

This back and forth weaving of guitar riffs full of bursts and riffs runs through the verses. For the choruses, the guitar join together in strumming chords that ring out in a fully overdriven wash of guitar. It’s a totally rock n roll sound. The chorus lacks the punch of the verse, due to the lack of rest and the softer upper-range singing. But this allows the chorus to grow in intensity leading up to the jam.

Moonlight Mile

“Moonlight Mile” closes the album; It became one of my favorite Stones songs this week. It has the unique distinction of being mostly written without Keith Richards. He created a short guitar riff years previous that he called “Japanese Thing” but hadn’t found a use for. Jagger and Taylor stayed up late, after Richards had gone, writing “Moonlight Mile” around “Japanese Thing.” I suspect the Richards bit may be the motif that opens the song and forms the basis of the verses. The remaining music and instrumentation hints at the sound of Japanese music.

Again, they open the track with a single guitar panned hard right. This is joined by an electric guitar playing high notes picked close to the bridge to get a Japanese-sound. This playing of this guitar switches back and forth between this sound and harder strummed slide guitar lines. Watts plays a nearly orchestral drum beat primarily on the toms.. The second chorus, glissando strings provide a lush that enhance the Japanese sound during the bridge. A loosely-played piano drums along in the center channel.

The lyrics talk of estranged life on the road, it’s vaguely lonely and homesick. This sentiment was part of the original idea for “Wild Horses” as well, though narrative elements related to Jagger and Richard’s relationships filled the verses.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young "After the Gold Rush" album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. Other than the title track, this album was new to me. Growing up, I heard his earlier album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” from my parent’s CD collection. I loved his hard guitar playing style and still do. I remember seeing him play with Pearl Jam on the 1993 MTV Music Awards. I was excited by this mad man that looked like Stephen King’s cousin taking a break from tilling the garden to beat the shit out of a guitar on stage. I still love that wild vibrato-bar abusing solo. The chorus of “Rockin’ In the Free World” repeated in my head for weeks.

“Southern Man” grew on me the fastest, probably because it’s the more rocking track. The song takes the Southern United States to task for the age of slavery and the continued gap between white and black; Even if slavery has ended, the “white mansions” still stand in contrast to the “little shacks.” This because wealthy white families were still living on benefits of the slavery that left black families with a poor start.

The two verses each consist of three rhyming lines, the middle line being a slant rhyme, followed by a non-rhyming two line refrain. The chorus has four lines, two couplets. All of the rhymes consist of monosyllabic words: head/said, last/fast, black/shacks/back, brown/round/down. The voice of the song is that of an outside observer, calling out debts unpaid and hypocrisy.

Southern man better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

“Oh Lonesome Me” is actually a cover of a Don Gibson song. Presumably audiences in 1970 would recognize this country song. Neil Young certainly played it much slower, giving it a more lonesome feel. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to cover it. Elements of Young’s song reminded me of a much later song “Truck On” by Simple Kid from 2003.

The song has a very slow country-blues feel, coming from the acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, and especially the harmonica. I just really love the sound of this song. It rolls and hangs, pulling itself a long. The piano here, as on much of the album, is used a rhythm instrument playing chords. The chord progression also brings that lonesome blues feel: I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-v-I-IV-iv-VII♭-IV-I-I-IV. It’s interesting how that I-V-I-IV section uses a minor v and the IV falls to a minor iv; This makes the typically strong blues progression sound meek and worn, that is.. lonesome. Young’s version feels more raw and vulnerably emotion making the earlier versions seem cautiously upbeat and jaunty.

The title track, “After the Gold Rush,” seems to tell of deterioration of the planet leading to mankind evacuating. Though, it seems more like either a poorly planned escape or an involuntary eviction, since their new home is in the sun. The track opens with tender piano, with a gently bouncing left-hand bassline and syncopated chords on the right. Except for a vocals and eerily sorrowful french-horn solo, the piano is the only instrument on the track. The piano even takes rests, making the accompaniment sparse. This enhances the dreamlike narrative of the lyrics, by allowing focus to fall solely on the vocals.

The middle-verse reminds me of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, especially “Five Years“. Bowie started recording that album a year after Young released “After the Gold Rush.” When Bowie wrote, “News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying; Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying,” was he listening to Young?

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

Carole King’s “Tapestry”

Carole King Tapestry album cover

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Carole King’s 1971 album “Tapestry” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I’ve been more than aware of this album for years. From basement sales, I’ve managed to pick up two copies of it based on the feeling that I should appreciate it. And each time I’ve tried it, I would be disappointed. 

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

One of the best songs on the album, “It’s too Late,” has a wonderful vocal performance and accompaniment. I contradict my previous assessment of the album’s weaknesses by then talking about this track. However, I do want to talk about what I liked. On this song, poet Toni Stern wrote the lyrics with Carole King writing the music. King’s piano provides the main rhythm and chords for the song, with bass guitar, drums and congas further filling in the chord progression and rhythm. An electric guitar panned left and an electric piano panned right interact with each other across the centered piano chords. The syncopated rhythms of the melody and upbeat tempo of this minor key ballad seem to encourage King to sing with wonderful energy and confidence. 

With “Way Over Yonder,” King provides a soulful track performed with a gospel sentiment. Melody drives the song, carried well by King’s vocals. This is also one of the looser performances on the album; The loose performance, with the piano coming in and out of swing and syncopated time, lends the song a greater human emotional feeling. The slow pace along with three steps leading to each chord change gives the song soul.

The lyrics focus on a life of happiness and sweetness as a goal in life. This vision is presented like a gospel hymn on the promise of heaven. “I know when I get there, the first things I’ll see, is the sun shining golden. Shining right down on me.” Whereas those hymns have an overall optimistic sense of hope; I appreciate that this song has more a sense of longing.

King provides her own take on her song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” which was originally famously performed by the Shirelles. The Shirelles version, I believe, is featured in one of my favorite movies, “Big Wednesday.” Both versions are performed like a doo-wop ballad. However, the chord progression is not the 50s doo-wop progression, but rather a I-IV-V-I-V-IV♭-IV-iv for the verses. I love the sound of the V-IV♭-IV-iv. The use of the borrowed IV♭ feels like we’re going into a key change, but then we’re brought back to the IV, which gets dropped to a minor at the end of the line. The chord progression is emotionally very effective. 

Overall, I’m still not a fan of this album.  Martika did a great high-energy pop version of “I Feel the Earth Move” in 1989. Having grown up hearing that cover, I find Carole King’s more straight-forward performance to be a lackluster start of the album. So, the album was actually more enjoyable for me if I skipped the first track. However, most of the songs I would love to hear as performed by other musicians, with the exception of “It’s too late” which I love as is.

Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.

David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”

David Bowie Hunk Dory album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1971 LP “Hunky Dory” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This was Bowie’s fourth album and my second for this “To My Ear” project after “Ziggy Stardust” about a month ago. I’m doing it backwards, I suppose. “Hunky Dory” came out about 7 months before “Ziggy Stardust” and a line of artist progress runs between the them. Sometimes, I feel this album shows Bowie as an actor seeking a role, which he later finds in Ziggy Stardust.

The album opens with “Changes” which immediately hits me with the same sense of theatrical found on “Ziggy Stardust.” I love this about both albums: they as much about music as they are performance. The peculiar first verse hints at the idea of Bowie as the actor in search of something.   In the first verse, the performer reflects and almost confesses. “So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse how the others must see the faker.”

Musically, I love the dynamic difference between the verses and choruses of “Changes”. Bowie sings the verses gently over a quiet accompaniment of piano, bass guitar, and strings with no percussion. It’s theatrical with the lights down low. Then drums march along during the chorus which has more of a 50s rock n roll feel with a bit of boogie-woogie.

Life On Mars” is the best track on the album. The chord progression originated from a french song, “Comme d’habitude” which was also rewritten with English lyrics as “My Way” by Paul Anka. As much as I like the Sinatra song, especially the Sid Vicious cover, I believe “Life in Mars” is a superior song.

The lyrics tell the story of “the girl with the mousy hair” who is to meet her friend at the movies to escape her unhappy mundane life at home. However, her friend doesn’t show up and “the film is a saddening bore”. What isn’t much different than her own dull life is something she’s already seen in countless other movies. The titular line “Is there life on Mars?” is a cry for something more than Earth has to offer. Bowie performs the song over cinematic accompaniment that opens with beautifully played piano, that dances like a snow-globe ballerina. I love that the song begins with a single note that rings for a full second. Strings play majestically with the first chorus. It’s overall a beautiful song that demonstrates fully the principal of elevating the mundane.

One of my other favorite tracks is “The Bewlay Brothers” because of it’s sense of memory, love, and loss. The fairly basic accompaniment mostly consists of piano, acoustic guitars, and watery electric guitar. The lyrics begin with the word “and” relaying the story in third-person perspective, “And so the story goes they wore the clothes; They said the things to make it seem improbable: Whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Then with later verses, Bowie switches to first-person perspective. It does not seem that the characters change, only the perspective.

The endearing song feels like it tells the overall story of two brothers lives together. Lines of the song share emotionally-charged snapshots of moments in their lives.  The general feeling is that those times are in the past and they cannot return. The repeated final line calls out to leave current circumstances and live like they used to: “Just for the day, Please come away.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels