Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Open/Close: A selection of great albums that start as well as they finish

It's been a while since I've posted on SMM. No excuses--just the unpredictable rhythms of life that sometimes stir a current that takes you in strange directions. Riding the waves hasn't gotten me too far, a few thousand words deep into other projects, but not closer to anyplace special. Missing having a place to talk music with like minded obsessives, and with the permission of the venerable KKafa, who answered the door when I knocked, I'm back. 

SMM is a place I always find the kind of unique connection that good writing and great music can make in a life. And I really missed that.

So, hello. Again.

Our theme is “Open/Close.” I looked through my library for songs about openings and closings, and when I came across the 1998 hit, "Closing Time", by Seminsonic, and felt the familiar, shuddery revulsion that ubiquitous, somehow pseudo-anthem always brings up, and used that as impetus to get a little creative on the theme.

I decided to look at great opening and closing tracks from albums. How important is the first introductory burst of sound from the opening of an album, the signal of what is to come? If it's weak, a song you really don't like, the album as a whole might be doomed. It's a great song, an epic introduction, you'll never forget that perfect sensation of hearing it for the first time. Example: REM's "Radio Song", from 1991's Out of Time, was such a grave sonic let down for me that it kind of ruined the band, once my near beatific favorite, for me permanently. Whereas, "Up The Beach", from Jane's Addiction's explosive Nothing's Shocking, was akin to perhaps seeing the Red Sea part under the hand of Moses. Or something similarly miraculous. Oddly, both albums, while wildly different in so many ways it seems silly to compare them, could have been vastly different, even better, had they been tracked differently. Out of Time really should have opened with "Losing My Religion", that strident, minor key pop mediation on anger, played on a very non-top 40 mandolin; Nothing's Shocking would have been even more epic had it opened with "Coming Down the Mountain", an pure avalanche of a song.

The opening, then, is of the utmost importance. As is the ending. And how many albums end as memorably as they started? It's surprisingly few. But, then, that is my opinion and comes from my lament at the seemingly lost art of the full length album, and the collection of songs as a celebration, not just the single. Growing up, the 45, then the cassingle, was always secondary to the whole LP. The best bands put out the single, and the B-side was the 'unreleased' material. Kind of essential to the rest of the album, a completion of the experience as a whole.  But, B sides that are better than the A is another topic entirely. 

I scrolled through my Spotify feed (Sadly, I don't have a single CD, LP, or cassette in my possession right now), and found what I thought might be a good start to, and by no means exhaustive or exclusive, list of a handful of the greatest pairings of opening and closing tracks to feature on an album.

In no specific order, I posit the following opening and closing tracks to be the GOAT

The Rolling Stones, Goat's Head Soup: Side A, track 1: "Dancing With Mr. D"; Side B, Track 5: "Star, Star".  Wicked, naughty, steeped in dark arts,  these two songs provide the caps to my favorite Stone’s album ever. 1973's Goat's Head Soup, is a druggy, boogie down trip. There’s a strangely sinister vibe to the whole collection. "Mr. D" concerns death, and possibly meeting the devil  to discuss matters related to how the narrator might exit this world for another. "Star, Star" is...well, if you haven't heard it, you've heard about it.  It's classic Jagger bravado, and might be the response to Carly Simon's mysterious "You're So Vain."  It doesn't really ever make itself clear on that, but it is a celebration of the activity that culminates in the ‘little death’...to draw a connection. If there's a reason people thought rock n roll might be the devil's music, Goat's Head Soup makes for pretty compelling evidence.

AC/DC, Highway to Hell: Side A, track 1: "Highway to Hell:; Side B, Track 5: "Night Prowler" This classic opens with one of rock’s greatest travelogues, an invitation to travel straight to rock n roll hell, set to an instantly iconic guitar riff. The whole album is amazing, but starting with such a striding opening salvo, you are along for the ride, no matter where it takes you--I said it was hell, right? AC/DC proceeds to walk you along the same dark, dirty path as the Stones did, and they distinguish themselves as the only band that makes the Devil seem like a cool guy you want to hang out...The album closes out with the dark, blues dirge  "Night Prowler", a sinister soliloquy of a serial killer, delivered by Bon Scott in his signature howl. The song generated a lot of controversy, so it's best just to dig it as AC/DC's unique take on the blues.  On a strange note, the last words ever recorded by Bon Scott, as the song and the album fade out are "Shazbot nanu nanu", the famous catchphrase of one Mork, from a place called Ork...it was meant to be funny, but it is perfectly sinister here.

Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain: Side A, Track 1: "Let's Go Crazy" is about as close to church as one can get. The man in the pulpit is calling the faithful to the ceremony, and it's impossible not to heed the call. Side B, track 4, "Purple Rain" is epically beautiful, achingly sad, and elegiac.  And it was somehow transcendent when it was new, a gospel tune over a rock orchestra, and a searing guitar solo to end. The song has never lost that sense of mournful beauty. It's poignant now, more than ever, as Prince's going home hymn. When I get to heaven, I too, hope to hear "Purple Rain" playing me in.  

The Who, Who's Next--not a question so much as dare to step up to a fight. Side A, track 1: "Baba O'Riley" is arguably the greatest, most imitated, most triumphant rock anthem. Ever. If you like rock n roll, have ever been moved by the power of simple chords, pumped at high volumes, chances are, "Baba O'Riley" set you down the road to glorious ruin and riot. The name is still a misnomer, even to people who love the song. The lyrics are strange and a bit more like a medieval pastoral than a stadium sing along. But, when Townshend sets the windmill going, and you're invited to scream the words that so aptly sum up so much of our collective youthful glory ("Teenage wasteland!"), you have to believe in the power of three chords and the truth. Side B, Track 4 is "Won't Get Fooled Again", which contains so much legendary greatness it is hard to call it just a song. It's a call to arms and poetic in its anger. The song gives eloquence voice to rail against  your frustrations and limits, and is a license to break the rules that keep you tied down. It crescendos with the greatest scream ever recorded in modern music. It's the song Whitman might have recorded, had he been born 100 years later. And, in the end it's the greatest 'eff you' ever recorded.

Who's Next, one of rock's great albums, starting and ending with two of the most powerful songs ever recorded , is one the greatest rides you can ever take in the grooves of a vinyl record, and the greatest fulfillment of rock music's transformative promise. And, my obvious vote for greatest opening/closing set in rock history.

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