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January 4, 2021

Wishing a very happy birthday to Michael Stipe of R.E.M.!

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Classic Album Sundays The Story of Joni Mitchell ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’

Joni Mitchell is one of my favourite musicians of all time, an artist who helped evolve popular music into an artform, inventing a new language. She did this both musically with an expansive range of her own guitar tunings and lyrically, painting pictures with words. Mitchell is able to evoke feelings that most of us are unable to express in words, submerging us into emotive stories. Her songs lead us to dig deeper into our own psyches in a way that is poetic, unexpected and profound.

I have been making my way through her discography, almost chronologically, and you can hear the progression of her artistry – the melodies becoming more complex, exploratory, her guitar-playing evoking different colours through 57 different open tunings. I have had various obsessions with most of her albums through to the end of the seventies (I will soon embark upon her work from the 1980’s onward) and my initial favourites were albums from her folk years.

Clouds belied her age and bore an old soul with ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ – a song that should have been written by an older person looking back over their life of which Mitchell has said she prefers the version she performed in her 50’s. However, Mitchell had endured some tough life experiences by the time she had written this masterpiece. As a young girl, she contracted polio and spent a lot of time alone in hospital – an enforced solitude that allowed her to create a rich interior life. She had also been married, divorced and had given up her daughter for adoption as she had no idea how she would be able to both work and care for a young baby on her own. It seems she had already lived a lifetime.


Listen: Joni Mitchell ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

In my late teens my favourite album of Mitchell’s was Ladies of the Canyon that includes favourites ‘The Circle Game’, a bittersweet reflection of time being out of our hands, slipping away with the seasons and her big hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ decrying environmental degradation. The record also features her poignant performance of ‘Woodstock’ a song she penned but was made famous through a jauntier version by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Mitchell never made it to the legendary festival and instead, through a series of mishaps, ended up watching it on television. The song’s lyrics embodied the voice of her generation and her performance has an almost dirge-like quality that signals the end of sixties idealism. She said she would have never been able to write it had she actually been able to perform at the festival as instead she would have been backstage witnessing the great egos of artists and show biz impressarios rather than seeing the concert through the eyes and ears of the audience.

Blue seemed to question the values of this generation (free love is only free for a man she would later quip), and she dug deep, revealing more of her own personal life than ever before. There were reflections on past loves including Leonard Cohen (‘A Case of You’), her first husband Chuck (‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’) and Graham Nash with whom she lived but ultimately turned down his marriage proposal (‘My Old Man’). And for the first time, she sings about the daughter she put up for adoption on ‘Little Green’.

The album was her biggest seller to date, only topped by her next record Court & Spark – the album that saw Mitchell abandon the notion of performing acoustic and solo and instead saw her ‘go electric’ featuring an actual band of jazz musicians and friends like David Crosby, Graham Nash, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Jose Feliciano, members of LA Express and The Crusaders and even a cameo from comedy duo Cheech & Chong. The record stands as her most successful album ever, reaching number one in her native Canada, two in The States and spotlights her biggest hit single ‘Help Me’ and the wonderful ‘Free Man in Paris’ about her good friend and agent David Geffen.

And here lies the turning point. At the height of her success, Mitchell defiantly took a creative U-turn into more experimental territory with an album that clearly states, ‘I’m not going to do what you think I will do, nor what you may want me to do, as I have chosen the path of an artist rather than a commercial hit machine’. Rarely does popular music witness one of its biggest artists turn their back on the machine and chose artistry over financial success and popularity, but with The Hissing of Summer Lawns that is exactly what Mitchell did, shocking some of her less adventurous fans and critics. In her own words: “I got interested in moving away from the hit department, to the art department.”

She once said that music was like her life – she didn’t want to stay in one key or one modality, so rather than repeat the formula that won her awards for Court & Spark, Mitchell used it as a launch pad to continue her musical evolution. Her seventh studio album was her most challenging to date with its intricate melodies and harmonies woven together to sonically portray her narratives, weaving around the rhythm of her lyrics. She took exhilarating musical leaps and she had the band that allowed her to do it.

While old friends Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor helped out with some backing vocals, it was the instrumentalists who helped push her music forward. In her own words, she “cut the players more slack, went more towards jazz, began to use the colours of their background more.”

Once again she recruited members of L.A. Express including drummer John Guerin, bassist Max Bennett and also keyboardist Joe Sample and guitarist Larry Carlton also from The Crusaders whose Wilton Felder also appears on a couple of songs. There is a large cast of musicians appearing on different songs helping give each track its own sound. She forays into freeform jazz territory but it’s not quite jazz – it’s Joni Mitchell music.

Nowhere does she take a more experimental approach than on ‘The Jungle Line’, a song that features one of the first samples on a commercial record. Its a field recording of Africa’s Drummers of Burundi that underpins a solo Mitchell on Moog and acoustic guitar and it sounds futuristic – like something Bjork would do two decades later. The song pays homage post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau and paints Mitchell’s own impressionistic picture of city life, drug use and the music industry. Her stance is critical and questioning – a gaze cast not only on urban living, but even more so on American suburban life on the rest of the album.


Read: The Story of Crosby Stills Nash & Young ‘Deja Vu’

With The Hissing of Summer Lawns nobody could any longer call her a ‘confessional songwriter’ (try to find any reference to ‘I’ in this album’s lyrics). Instead, much of the album is devoted to the ennui and the superficiality of upper middle-class America, especially the trophy wives. These were the baby-boomer women who were moulded and bound by the ideals of 1950’s nuclear family, indoctrinated by beauty and manners rather than creativity and intellect. These women were encouraged to marry and have children rather than a vocation of their own and many were strangers to their own innermost feelings and dreams. Many of the characters in The Hissing of Summer Lawns have succumbed to the boredom and claustrophobia of suburban living and a nagging sense of unfulfillment.

The album’s opener, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’ casts the Gallic nation as a beacon of excitement and liberty – a place a young girl dreams of visiting (the song reminds me of the dreams and disappointments of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Ballad of Lucy Jordan’). Mitchell sings, “Under neon signs/A girl was in bloom/And a woman was fading/In a suburban room’. The teenage years of Rock N Roll is almost like their early battle carry only to have “been broken in churches and schools/And molded to middle-class circumstances.”

Edith of ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ falls under the spell of The Kingpin, a two-timing married ‘big man’ whom she meets at the disco, competing against other expectant women to call him her own and becoming one of the ‘women he has taken, who grow old too soon’. Even though it may seem she has more freedom than the wife left at home, her choices are still limited and small in vision.

The women in ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ are more like Joni- ‘I’m leaving on the 1:15, you’re darn right, since I was seventeen, I had no one over me’ – these are the women who eventually stand up against patriarchic values, much like Mitchell did when she left her husband Chuck, a man who went back on his promise to help her raise her daughter by another man and who didn’t want to let her break away from their musical performing duo. She felt she had to break out on her own, as many women were beginning to do in that era.

‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ portrays a modern version of the high maintenance Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the title track, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ opens the second side and is about a woman who chooses to stay in a marriage where as a trophy wife, she is treated as an object in her husband’s portfolio.

In ‘Harry’s House – Centerpiece’, the protagonist looks at his wife and conjures up the young, bikini-clad version of her – a girl full of life and vivacity who now breathes the dead air of a claustrophobic suburban life sequestered away. The businessmen receive the same critical stare: ‘A helicopter lands on the Pan Am Roof like a dragonfly on a tomb. And businessmen in button downs press into conference rooms, battalions of paper-minded males taking commodities and sales, while at home their paper wives and their paper kids, paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid’.

The song has two motifs, sliding into the jazz standard ‘Centerpiece’ by Harry Sweets Edison and Jon Hendricks – the gaiety reflecting the couple’s early courtship. Mitchell’s vocal ability within this more standard sound of jazz made some fans long for her to do a traditional jazz album, but Mitchell’s take on jazz would never be bound by limitations.

When the album came out in 1975, many of her fans and critics didn’t get it – they couldn’t detect running theme nor understand the social commentary. And they certainly could understand why she would move away from the musical styles that had bode her so well, that had catapulted her into international stardom. The album was often ridiculed and slated as pretentious.

But once again Mitchell marched to her own drum and looking back we can say she was ahead of her time as for many this became one of her best albums. Prince says it was the last album that he loved all the way through, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns is an obvious inspiration to the works of other female artistic iconoclasts like Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey and Julia Holter. It’s my favourite Joni Mitchell album, at least for the moment, as there is much more to discover.

– Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy

Join in our monthly Album Club featuring albums voted upon by our Members. For £10 per month, Members have access to three events hosted by Colleen: The Album Club, Classic Album Pub Quiz and the Safe & Sound Webinar with tips on how to improve your sound system and home listening experience. Sign up here.

 

The post The Story of Joni Mitchell ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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CAS Talking Heads ‘Remain In Light’ with Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy

This months episode looks at July’s album of the month Talking Heads Remain In Light. Recorded at Compass Point Studios and produced by Brian Eno the album drew on the influence of artists such as Fela Kuti. The album also pushed to dispel notions of the band as a mere vehicle for frontman and songwriter David Byrne.


Read more: The Story of Talking Heads ‘Remain in Light’

 

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Mark Kimber The Story of Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

By 1985 Trevor Horn was world-renowned for his bold production having worked with the likes of ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Malcolm McLaren. With well over a decade of experience in the music industry, beginning with session and studio work in London and expanding through his time with Yes and The Buggles, he was well equipped to amplify Slave To The Rhythm’s conceptual ambitions. Under his supervision, Grace Jones entered the studio on a weekly basis to record a new version of the song, sticking to predefined thematic and lyrical boundaries to weave a cohesive thread through the album’s eight songs. Gradually the tracks became wildly divergent, and Horn showed typical monetary disregard by stretching the budget to an eye-watering $385,000.


London: Sunday 30th June 2019 2019 3:00pm – 5:30pm

The album spanned a broad sonic range, incorporating elements of funk, r&b, and go-go. Matching its singer’s outsized persona, the songs often have a cinematic quality; on album-opener ‘Jones The Rhythm’ Horn creates a coliseum of sound and Grace sounds gladiatorial in its centre. ‘Operattack’ uses vocal slicing and echo machines to create a horrific, hall or mirrors effect that wouldn’t sound out of place on a musique concrete experiment. And on ‘The Crossing’ sound imposes a moment of tranquility, as synths glide over fields of crickets with nocturnal elegance. The visual elements of Grace’s music had rarely been rendered with such clarity as they had here.

Described as “a biography” in its liner notes, the album is underpinned by sections of spoken word taken from an interview with journalist Paul Morley and a reading of the Jean-Paul Goude biography, Jungle Fever, by actor Ian McShane. The latter famously explored the photographer’s romantic relationship with Grace, which had begun shortly after the pair met in the late ‘70s. Goude shared in her hedonistic lifestyle but also became Grace’s stage manager and album-cover designer, using digital techniques and avant-garde style to create iconic images such as the impossible pose which appears on the Island Life sleeve. The pair had remained intimate until Grace became pregnant with her son, Paulo; at which point Goude decided he was no longer interested.


Listen: Grace Jones ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

Goude has come under fire for his depictions of black women, in which he typically enlarges fetishised aspects of their anatomy and darkens their skin tone. Although his work was often seen to reinforce reductive stereotypes, its undeniable that his close and lengthy relationship with Grace at the peak of her career gave him an unrivalled level of insight to both her public and private lives.
But Goude often writes in an abstract and poetic style, opening the album by describing rhythm as “both the song’s manacle and its demonic charge”. When he does mention Grace directly, its couched in awkward, objectifying terms – on ‘The Fashion Show’ he states: “all black people were just, you know, “do it to me, sock it to me” and all that stuff, and there she was, you know, singing “La vie en rose” in French. It was great, you know. So I thought what a wonderful perspective.”

By casting herself as a “Slave To The Rhythm” Grace seems all too aware of these points. Rhythm is not only the percussive tempo of a song, but the relentless machinations of the industry built around her image, her music, her life, and her style. The word “Slave” denotes the ultimate lack of control, but Grace wields it in a way that suggests both the joy of musical surrender and the discomfort of a life spent filtered through the gaze of others.
Her revealingly guarded interview with Morley is positioned as a subtle riposte to Goude’s words – an assertion of control regarding the private details of her life. Her interviewer’s attempts to pierce beyond the persona are met with sly irreverence. A question about relieving teenage boredom receives the enigmatic response: “I floated on a cloud”.


Listen: Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ Legacy Playlist

Nevertheless, Slave To The Rhythm still feels like one of Grace’s most personal releases. Whilst it is ostensibly an album focused entirely on the performer, its subtext reveals an effort see beyond herself – a panoramic view of the world that made her a star and its murky history of exploitation, greed and unfettered desire. Far from a simplistic criticism of this culture, Grace seems to recognise the sense of moral entanglement that is impossible to avoid in the entertainment industry. In a culture that is so contrived and transactional, no one can be entirely innocent.

Despite fading from the public eye during the ‘90s, she has remained an active and flamboyant performer who refuses to conform to our preconceptions of a septuagenarian. As the boundaries between gender and sexuality are broken down her career path is inspiring in its refusal of the norms society once hid behind. But despite reuniting with Paul Morley for her aptly titled biography, I’ll Never Release My Memoirs, she still remains a mystery. Like a musical mirage, the version of Grace Jones which appears before us will always be dazzling, inspiring, and ever so slightly out of reach.

The post The Story of Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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CAS Sigur Rós ‘Ágætis Byrjun’ with Gabriel Szatan and Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy

“We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don’t think we can’t do it, we will.”

This claim may have seemed ridiculous when it was posted on the website of Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós back in 1999. But now, almost two decades on, few could dispute the enigmatic band’s radiant impact on modern rock music.


Read more: Album Of The Month – Sigur Rós ‘Ágætis Byrjun’

The post Sigur Rós ‘Ágætis Byrjun’ with Gabriel Szatan and Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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CAS The Wailers’ ‘Burnin’ with Don Letts and Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy

Our latest edition of Classic Album Sundays on Worldwide FM focuses on Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burnin’, featuring guest British film director, DJ and musician Don Letts.

Tune in to hear Don’s memories of meeting Bob and helping introduce him to the punk sounds of London in the late seventies.

Check out our Album Of The Month blog for The Wailers ‘Burnin”
Take a listen to our The Wailers ‘Burnin” Legacy Playlist here and our The Wailers ‘Burnin” Musical Lead-Up Playlist
You might also like Don Lett’s Top Five Albums Of All Time

The post The Wailers’ ‘Burnin’ with Don Letts and Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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Mark Kimber The Story Of Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’

By the end of the 1960s Neil Young was catching the ear of many influential figures – not least his old band mate Stephen Stills, who was now part of the Grammy-winning folk-rock super group Crosby, Stills & Nash. The band were keen to have him onboard as a sideman, but Young was insistent that he be given a full title credit as a condition for his contributions. Stills frequently found himself fighting with Young for control over the band’s songwriting, and has famously said that the latter “wanted to play folk music in a rock band.”


Joins us at one of our Neil Young After The Gold Rush events:

London – Sunday 19th May 2019
Los Angeles – Sunday May 19 2019
Washington D.C. – Sunday May 19th

 

Young’s dogged self-determination, despite its interpersonal downfalls, was a major artistic virtue that fed directly into what was perhaps his first true masterpiece. After The Gold Rush had its beginnings in an unlikely place. Dean Stockwell, a former child star of the ‘40s and ‘50s, had been encouraged by his friend Dennis Hopper to write a screenplay whilst the pair were in the jungles of Peru producing a film entitled The Last Movie. Hopper assured Stockwell that he had the relevant connections to help get the film made, and once back in the US the latter retreated to his home at Topanga Canyon in the Los Angeles Mountains to commence the writing process.

A fellow resident of the canyon and a close friend of Stockwell’s, Young was suffering through a prolonged period of writer’s block and was under growing pressure from his label to record an album of new material. After learning of the writer’s creative endeavour he was intrigued to learn more and asked Stockwell if he could read a draft of the story. The script, which has since been lost, was an unconventional, non-linear narrative with religious and psychedelic undertones. It loosely detailed an end-of-the-world scenario centred on the local Californian environment, in which a biblical flood threatened to pull the state into the ocean. Captivated by this messy but intriguing tale, Young recalls: “I was writing a lot of songs at the time, and some of them seemed like they would fit right in with the story.”


Listen: Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

Ironically Hopper’s proximity to the project scared off any interested executives, and before long the film seemed destined to remain in limbo. Nonetheless, Young was fired up and undeterred, commencing work immediately on what he imagined to be the soundtrack of this deeply counter-cultural Hollywood film. Finding time to write and record was difficult, as large swathes of 1970 were blocked out by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s huge US Tour and further live obligations with Crazy Horse. In the precious gaps between shows, Young made initial recordings at Hollywood’s Sunset Studios, yielding “I Believe In You” and “Oh Lonesome Me” but quickly realised he preferred the atmosphere of the Canyon, continuing the process at the home studio set up in his lead-lined basement. It was here that his ensemble of bassist Greg Reeves, drummer Ralph Molina, and guitarist Nils Lofgren assembled.

The studio was a small and sweaty space, adjoined to a side control room from which producer David Briggs kept an eye on proceedings. The youngest of the ensemble, eighteen year-old Lofgren was brought in to play keyboards despite being a relative novice at the time of recording, highlighting Young’s unconventional laid back approach. Accordingly the musician recalls that “Neil didn’t mind rehearsing a bit” but they “didn’t belabour stuff.” It’s often considered that Young was attempting to merge musicians from both Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crazy Horse on this album, and Stephen Stills even appears on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to provide backing vocals.

The basement’s make-shift setup influenced the stark and plaintive sound of After The Gold Rush. Young featured solo on piano throughout the album, most notably on the title track which is often praised as the centrepiece of the album. Charting a surreal and fantastical course through three verses, the song starts in a medieval era of knights and peasants and ends in outer space with the remnants of humanity, after the world has descended into apocalypse.


Listen: Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’ Legacy Playlist

The song was designed to directly mirror the plot of the proposed film, and Young invited Stockwell to sit in on some of the album’s sessions. The writer was impressed: “If you could calculate the amount of human energy that goes into the making of one of his songs, you would have a really fucking high number, man.”
Explaining his thoughts behind the environmentally conscious song Young recalls: “I recognise in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”

But stepping out of the failed film’s shadow, After The Gold Rush as a whole fits neatly into Young’s continued development as one of the finest songwriters of the North American tradition. Young’s ability to convey nuanced emotion through potently simple chord sequences and unvarnished yet poetic lyrics is exemplified on songs such as “Birds” and “Only Love…”, which highlight the often overlooked yet effortless sonic beauty of his music. The fact that the album allows such space for this aspect of Young’s work to blossom reveals why it remains one of the most beloved in his expansive catalogue.

Despite producing no major hits and suffering a ferociously critical review from Rolling Stone, the album truly kicked off Young’s celebrated solo career, preceding game-changing albums, such as 1972’s Harvest, and was quickly re-considered as one of the finest albums of the 1970s by the very publications who had tore it to pieces just a few years prior. It’s a testament to how swiftly Young’s career was ascending – from folk-rock’s resilient underdog to one of the standard-bearers of the great American songbook.

The post The Story Of Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’ appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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CAS Classic Album Pub Quiz on Zoom: Friday 22nd January

Join Classic Album Sundays founder Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy on Friday 22nd January at 8pm GMT for our Classic Album Pub Quiz hosted on zoom. Grab a drink (BYOB), test your musical knowledge and you may even win a prize! If you would like to join us, subscribe as a Punter from £5 here. You can unsubscribe at any time so feel free to try it out once. Just do what you feel comfortable doing.

Attendees will receive an email with a private zoom link an hour before the event starts. Join us for some laughs and perhaps even learn something new. Doors open at 7:45 and the quiz will start at 8 pm sharp and finishing around 9 pm. The Pub Quiz will be in four sections, each with a specific theme, and will include trivia, album covers and lyrics. If you want to make up a drinking game to go along with it, be our guest.

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This event is open to our Punter, Member, VIP Member, Contributor, Benefactor and Angel subscribers. 

Participants will receive a Zoom invitation a couple of hours before showdown.

Time and Date: Friday 22nd January at 8pm GMT

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