(pt. 1)

By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2009

Of all the unreleased archival recordings released last year, Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968, by Neil Young, was maybe the album most people were very desirous to listen to. This being obviously due a popularity that has never been any less than "respectable", but also to the (hoped for) high quality of the concert (in both sonic, and artistic, terms), an excerpt from which - the song that gives the album its title - having been widely known, and greatly appreciated, at least since the (old) days of Young's triple best-of, Decade.

So it was with a certain amount of interest that I read the review by Jon Savage that appeared in the pages of the UK monthly Mojo magazine (# 182, January 2009). In the end, the review could be considered as a satisfying read, even though I was a bit surprised that Savage didn't consider Joni Mitchell's song The Circle Game - an "answer record" to Sugar Mountain - as worth mentioning in this context. Maybe this is something that Savage considers to be a bit too widely known to be worth of mention, but in my opinion - well beyond its obvious value in this framework - the anecdote appears to be a perfect example of that multifaceted "long distance dialogue" that in those days many artists considered as being perfectly normal but that in today's "insular" framework has almost disappeared. (And younger readers need to know about those things, right?)

And since I was curious to see how other reviewers had rated the album, I did the logical thing: I checked on the by now well-known "aggregator" called Metacritic. Of all the newspapers and magazines that were featured, I chose one of the "paperless" kind: Pitchfork.

Published on December 5, 2008, by Marc Masters, the review immediately appeared to me as one of those that make me raise one eyebrow, so many things in there that I found questionable. Until I found a sentence that made me raise both my eyebrows: "(...) this recording reveals an eager, nervous version of Young - a version that existed briefly, soon gone in the flash of his subsequent solo success."

(For a moment I thought I was reading The Wire, from the pompous tone, to the absence of facts that - be it by chance, or by planned strategy - most of the time goes hand-in-hand with that type of language.)

But what really happened to Young after "the flash of his subsequent solo success"? There are no doubts about the success we are talking about, of course, Harvest being Neil Young's one and only best seller. Putting conjectures aside, what's certain is that Danny Whitten - the guitarist who had been Young's collaborator for a long time - was asked to leave the group just before a long tour due to his precarious health conditions, and died due to an overdose the same night. The subsequent tour was - in terms of both repertory and visual presentation - as self-damaging as possible for an artist who for the first time was confronted by a mass audience in arenas; the same being true of Time Fades Away, the live album recorded during that very tour (interested readers will find - somewhere on the Web - a petition to sign, asking for the album to have its first-ever release on CD).

After Time Fades Away, an album called Tonight's The Night was supposed to come out, but probably due to its being too funereal, it was replaced by the "happier-sounding" (!) On The Beach. Then it had been Homegrown's turn to be released, but due to its being "too depressed-sounding", the more "happy-sounding" (!) Tonight's The Night was chosen as its replacement. One doesn't need to be one of Neil Young's hardcore fans to know about this stuff. So?

Since the review mentioned another recent album in the "unreleased archival recording" series by Young, Live At Massey Hall 1971, I decided to input its title in the proper window and press the "search" button.

I found a review: written by Rob Mitchum, it appeared in Pitchfork on March 13, 2007. Here, too, were quite a few things that I found questionable, though there was nothing so scandalous as in the previous review. Until I saw this sentence: "(...) while "See the Sky About to Rain", stripped down from its Rhodes-heavy On the Beach version, reveals itself as a neglected gem, featuring surprisingly complex key-tickling."

Let's put aside the "surprisingly complex" bit, and also the part about the "neglected gem" (those who considered this track as being the very best of Side One were not few!). The bit that made me smile was the writer's nonchalance when throwing on the page a word like "Rhodes"; which in a magazine like, say, Keyboard would obviously need no introduction or explanation, but which in a "general interest magazine" such as this - and in an age when most keyboards we listen to play sampled sounds - would be de rigueur to define a bit more clearly by adding the words: "electric piano".

Except the electric piano featured in the version of See The Sky About To Rain that appears on the album On The Beach is not a Rhodes: it's a Wurlitzer.

Here it's always possible to say that it's just a minor thing, that this is not what is really important, and what do we want, these being just record reviewers, and so on and so forth (and I know quite a few people who say just this kind of things). So let's try to really make things clear now.

Mistaking a Wurlitzer for a Rhodes is not like mistaking a Chamberlin for a Mellotron. For a reviewer, it's a serious mistake. If we remember the sound of the electric piano that appears on all the albums by Miles Davis from the end of the Sixties onward - or of all those fusion groups from the same period - we already know what a Fender Rhodes sounds like. Talking about the Wurlitzer (the first track that came to my mind was that nice, old single by The Small Faces, Lazy Sunday) there is a reference ready to a group that's surely known to most: The Doors. The third track on Side Two of their album Morrison Hotel, Queen Of The Highway, has a Wurlitzer (with that impossible-to-mistake vibrato sounding so similar to the one featured on See The Sky About To Rain, even if the "touch" and the chord voicings by Ray Manzarek are obviously quite different) as its main instrument. While the world-famous intro and solo to Riders On The Storm are played on a Fender Rhodes.

But it in this case all one needed was to read the album's liner notes! The original vinyl version of On The Beach lists players and instruments for each track, and under the one discussed here the keyboard that's listed is a Wurlitzer; the same being true of the CD version (there is only one CD version, by the way); while if one owns only a "burnt" copy, or a file, bearing no further indication (a record reviewer!) all one has to do is a search on, say, Wikipedia, and... voila! So?

Beppe Colli 2009

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2009