Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ecstatic Melancholy Showbag #2

The 2nd showbag, 13 more songs you need to hear!

1) Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks 'News From Up The Street'

From the opening minor chord pulse of bass and acoustic, there's no mistaking that all's not well in town, but with a seductive longing playing brilliantly against the simmering trouble, this song is a special creature indeed. An unexpected mixture of western swing, folk-country and barbershop torch ballad heading way over in left field. The harmonies are creepy creamy and Hicks' voice has a simply gorgeous ethereal quality, not unlike Gerry Rafferty, from the first words "ride your pony in, take a letter to.." I'm hooked. The lead guitar and violin both take the song behind the barn at various times and have their way with it, gently, mind. A saucy and sinister sweet shiver of a song.

2) Beth Orton (feat Terry Callier) 'Pass In Time'

Heartbreaking mothers and daughters business laid plain and bare; memories that weigh and regrets that sting. So much feeling and meaning packed into a few economical verses. Orton & Callier weave wonderful moans and sighs around each others voices, their pitches wander unsettlingly at times in the long fadeout, but it's just so, you wouldn't change it for the loss of truth. The vibes and bass throb are sonic delight with prickles of acoustic cutting through. The strings swell, sting and sob, as they should. A painfully simple but profound meditation for the ages. "Come on now, come on now child, you're here just a while". Take note folks.

3)  Phoebe Snow 'Poetry Man' 

One of the most sensual and thrilling evocations of the male of the species committed to tape. The spooky guitar chord permutations are tiny little seduction refinements as Phoebe tries to sneak her way into her muses psyche with this bewitching spell of a song. The chiming bells, the snaky trumpet, the strings up in the stratosphere, the insistent shakers; "you're hiding something sweet, please give it to me"; the spell is cast! There is a palpable unfulfilled desire, but there also seems the ability to entrap and bewitch because she sounds like a savvy woman of the world, her voice can't help it, but it's almost like Phoebe doesn't want to use her powers this time, she wants this connection to unfold naturally because he sounds special; "I get a giggling teenage crush". She's just loving feeling like a smitten teenage girl again. This is delightful and single minded desire has rarely sounded so intoxicating and gorgeous.

4) Eric Matthews 'Poisons Will Pass Me'

A funereal organ leads the procession, with first a lone violin then a black hearse full of exquisite strings swooping down behind mournful Mr Matthews. Whatever the poisons are, seemingly a doomed relationship, it does seem terminal. Not even the slightest shard of sunlight in the enveloping gloom. Oddly, though, the final moments of the string arrangment indicate a release at the end, not the release of death, more like a unlikely lucky escape. Perhaps Eric had one. Stunning orch-pop from Sub Pop, where Eric was a pleasing anomoly.

5) Split Enz 'Semi-Detached'

'Stalking shark' piano reverb rumble sets the uneasy tone. Trouble is surely afoot. Slightly fuzzy sonics set a sound palette that is at once cavernous and claustrophobic. Synth scales and sharp guitar weave in an out of each others reverb wake. Tim Finn beautifully and tragically describes his mental torment; "bodies frozen and in my head the pain is here to stay, panic seems to close for comfort, save me", he then asks "who's gonna be there when the going gets rough, who I wonder?" in weary despair. Tim's striking tenor then u-turns into the stratosphere leaving the aching pit of your stomach lagging behind. A little later he confides "I think I heard a neighbour say, he'll amount to nothing, he's pathetic". Absolutely heartbreaking stuff, beautifully capturing the tragic but time-honoured tale of artist who suffers from (insert mental health issue(s) here) on top of (or below?) having to deal with the cruel, unthinking judgements of other as they valiantly try to turn their passion into sustaining career. A thunderous, squalling instrumental section leaves Tim hanging alone from a cliff with a trickle of slowing piano notes, some wordless moans, a synth wash and the death rattle of a cymbal. Hard to say where he ended up, but no change I think. In some ways a forerunner to 'Dirty Creature' and Tim's honest and evocative heart on fingertips musings are a gift to those who know within this unweildy, admirably brave and angular beauty.

6) Joni Mitchell 'Song For Sharon'

Like the snake around on her arm in the song, the guitar motif intro coils around your interest and grabs quickly with the help of a cymbal rattle.  In an open letter to an old friend reflecting on the past and on their divergent paths, Joni covers so much ground in what surely must be one of her finest achievements. She runs her musical fingers over dense and cross-cutting textures of love, lust, loss, suicide, hope, despair, faith, desire and regret through its multitude of deeply involving verses. Her singular and stunning vocal shifts assuredly through doubting and downcast fragility to tortured ecstasy and shades between. The backing vocals are a revelation too, sounding for all the world like a skyfull of banshee archangels when they burst in at key moments. The backing is just so, with the band providing a sumptuous sonic bed for Joni, only sparingly rising above a delectable simmer and with greater effect for it. There is variation enough in the playing though that it never feels stale depsite the epic length. 'Song For Sharon' is truly cinematic in scope and extraordinarily evocative, the subtle changes in light and season, age and outlook are masterful. Genius.

7) Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane 'Street In The City' 

A humble introduction with a guitar scale warm up and hum of a wakening string section give little indication of the Off-West End musical that is about to unfold. Pete Towshend unfurls his morning in the city, gradually filling it with character strokes and delicious little details. Backdrop after backdrop lifts and the stage curtains spread ever wider to reveal more of his city in a masterful and involving manner, matched perfectly by the widening scope of the backing and arrangement. Like a cheeky paper boy, Pete delivers his quirky observations of the little nothing moments of daily life quite matter of factly, but with the swooping strings and dramatic stop-starts, everything seems so deeply significant and painfully melancholy. Some of the lyrics seem like overheard gossip (the woman with the bun in her hair, the man charged with telling lies) especially when Pete has a go at Fleet Street machinations in the next verse, but they could just as well be his own observations or inner voice that can't stop judging. Who knows. The uncertainty is a plus. The vocal is a revelation for one unlikely to win any great vocalist laurels, one of his finest and most tender; "what a shame, whose to blame, for the pain with his sin". Pete does love his musicals and it all works a treat here in this condensed form, perhaps better at times than some of his sprawling rock operas. This is probably his crack at a Penny Lane too, but typically for him it is a crankier, seedier and more subversive place. There are more back alleys, grimy windows and falling knickers; no 'Cambridge Rapers' in the papers of Beatle McCartney's Lane. The acoustic playing is strident and crisp as a chill sunny morn. An unexpected diversion mid-song into Dan Hicks style western swing is like an intermission between Acts; you feel as it might lead to another verse or two, but doesn't, just a brief lyric reprise. Perhaps Act 2 is a whole other song. Pete's dramatic gasp towards the end is a lovely touch too, perhaps in ecstasy at the bewitching magic of his song.

8) Fleetwood Mac 'That's All For Everyone'

An intoxicating meditation of a song, more a melodic chant or incantation really, that fondly recalls The Beach Boys 'Ti I Die' with its weary fatalism and 'cork on the ocean' like gentle lurch of piano, soft percussion and dreamy vibes. Lindsay, Christine and Stevie moan, coo and weave together beautifully through the gorgeous melody. I'm not sure if the protagonist is planning on leaving town or leaving life, but it sounds like calm and complete surrender; "must be just exactly what I need". Brief and bleak but strangely reassuring and absolutely gorgeous.

More to come...stay tuned

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ecstatic Melancholy Showbag #1

Here is the first of my Ecstatic Melancholy showbags, a series of playlists highlighting songs that I dearly wish were better known and able to be enjoyed by more people. They might be neglected and overlooked tracks from well known artists or albums or great songs from 'cult' musicians who should be more widely appreciated and better known, full stop. In each showbag will be 13 songs, a baker's dozens, for just that little bit extra.

Grizzly Bear 'Alligator'(Choir Version) ('Friend' EP - 2008)

Daniel Rosen's very welcome fingerprints are all over this 'choir version' of an originally much shorter piece from their first album 'Horn Of Plenty'. Uneasy, buzzing synth noodling leads into the muted, chilly vocal warning; 'It's a fear, it is near, the shape becomes ever clear'. Conspiratorial interplay of shimmering guitars and restless percussion morphs into a grinding lumber as the rhythmic hook kicks in and we discover the nature of the danger; 'you are my alligator'. The tension drops a little as the song settles briefly into hooky groove, but only briefly, as the grind intensifies again through cutting guitars and crashing cymbals. The cacophany then drops away to leave simmering cymbal rattle, thick piano reverb groan and a sinister trickle of treble notes underneath more bleak lyrical fatalism. The glorious harmonies spike and a sudden skyful of trumpets and horns herald an ecstatic, shivering resolve. After a few breaths, piano keeping the pulse, the unsettled rhythmic heartbeat returns and fades into the distance with the 'alligator' refrain. A breathtaking study in dynamics and restrained suggestion with extraordinary sonic range; a melodic horror story that moves from sinister, black and white celluloid contrast and crackle, to widescreen technicolour bloodfest and back again in 5 minutes. It deserves to be the centre-piece of an album, but sadly remains only available on their 'Friend' EP. My choice for their greatest achievement to date.

2) Emitt Rhodes 'Better Side Of Life' ('Mirror' - 1971)

With it's 'White Album' stylings, cleverly wrong-footing 'oompah' rhythm and staccato piano chord strikes, Paul McCartney would be proud to have written this one. Rhodes is obviously a McCartney fan and fellow whizz with an 8 track machine (he played and sang EVERYTHING on this track) but the 'Son of Beatle' comparisons that everyone (including me obviously) who writes about him make do him something of a disservice. Emitt penned several great songs in a burst of youthful creativity that lasted through his earliest work with Merry-Go-Round in the late 60's and a couple of lovely solo albums in the early 70's. These songs stand on their own, this one in particular, and demonstrate an enviable off-handed ease in performance and true melodic flair. His lyrics have a fair whack of insight and pathos that can go unnoticed due their often strident and sunny sounding melodic clothes, 'You don't have to be alone to feel alone, you can have someone, and still be alone'. Indeed Emitt. Indeed. Truth be told,'-esque' wise, this is probably as much Lennon as it is McCartney, and maybe that's why it stands out. It's the perfect marriage played out by someone who knows their strengths intimately and how to make John & Paul-isms play together nicely rather than grizzle and tussle.

3) Bob Dylan 'Blind Willie McTell' ('Infidels' out-take - 1983)

A mythic song in which Bob wends his way through the poverty and misery, magic and mystique of the Deep South early last century and stands eternal witness to the greatness of blues musician Blind Willie McTell; 'I know that no one can sing the blues like...' All of this to devastating effect. I'd love to single out a lyric, but it's Bob so it's all highlight and every line is loaded with meaning and worthy of mention. This track is the golden child of a time of relative creative poverty for Bob. Consider much of Bob's other output of the early 80's; freeze dried production, bad synths and Dylan often sounding smug, cursory and disinterested. Where did this vocal come from? It's rich, committed, passionate and nuanced. The simple piano, acoustic guitar (courtesy Mark Knopfler) and vocal arrangement was a good call; hard to get wrong and hard to date, and it may have saved this precious miracle from the sad sonic fate of its contemporaries. But it's more than the arrangement that lifts this song above its brothers, it is simply one of the very greatest songs of all time. Dylan seems to be singing for his soul and writing poetry for the ages; clever because it's great, not great because it's clever, where the inverse has often been the case with Bob. The melody aches like little else. In two words, Absolutely stunning.

4) Gillian Welch 'Caleb Meyer' ('Hell Among The Yearlings' - 1998)

This track has a chilling inevitability about it from the first. The frantic guitars drag you like a pack of startled sled dogs, like it or not, to the nasty encounter late in the song. Gillian Welch takes her craft to another level with this performance. In her other work, of which I've heard enough but not half, the care and craft is evident and she plays her protagonists very well, but this one stands higher in the pack. She absolutely inhabits this part. The proverbial role of a lifetime probably. Her slightly pinched, acidic tone and sinewy phrasing are perfect. The tale of the wife left alone in the house in the woods while her husband's away on business, and the opportunist monster coming by to try to have his way with her, is superbly drawn and unfurled. The conclusion is poetically graphic rather than sadistically so. It has weight and gets the point across without trying too hard to shock; 'Then feeling with my finger tips, a bottle neck I found, I drew that glass across his neck, fine as any blade, then I felt his blood pour fast and hot, around me where I lay'. A superb deathly dark example of that wily beast alt. country.

5) Nick Lowe 'Cupid Must Be Angry' ('The Convincer' - 2001)

At once wry, playful, yearning and sadly poignant lyrics spill forth from Mr Lowe with a rare voice. It has refined and peaked with advancing age; there's more weight and authority to the modern version; kind of a smoky, dry honey these days. Intimate and insinuating. His vocal chords and tonsils resonate and rattle with knowing echoes of Orbison, Cooke and King Cole. Brilliantly captured too. The lean and minimalist production is supremely tasteful with no overplaying or excess notes; lots of atmospheric space with beautiful and excitingly subtle details within. An organ stab here, an unexpected synth shiver there, a trumpet pokes through for a few seconds never to appear again, it doesn't need to - don't have it noodling just because you've got one in the studio! The melody is that of a relaxed master, not revelatory, just the product of someone who instinctively knows how to pull and dig and lift and cut in all the right places without sweaty over-thinking or arch cleverness. It kind of sounds like surgery, it sort of is. They only let experts do that too. Mr Lowe is one. The greatest living 'classic' songwriter (hummable melodies, story songs - see Nelson, Cash, Orbison, Young, Wilson yadda yadda) who is still at the top of his game IMHO. Who else is likely to make a new album that can stand alongside his greatest work from 30 years ago with all his powers intact; honed even. Richard Thompson maybe? A duo album chaps please.

6) Matt Walker & Ashley Davies 'Evil Feelings' ('Soul Witness' - 1999)

This song is both the clear standout and the brilliant oddity on a what is otherwise a well crafted but not life changing blues jam album filled with tasteful and skilled dueling between Walker's guitar and Davies drums. This track is a very different creature despite still having plenty of guitar and cavernous, propelling drums. The difference is that this was a co-write with one David McComb, whose influence is writ huge! The melody is more textured and the lyrics more arresting than its album fellows; 'take the black road, by the beach, drive north all night, 'til the car breaks down, get out strip, walk into the water, keep on walking 'til you like what you've found.' Jesus. 'Evil feelings, melt in your mouth like snow in spring.' Fantastic, creepy stuff. Prominent piano is by subtle turns pretty and bone chilling. Walker also sparks a few spinal shivers with some thrilling vibrato notes on the acoustic, particularly on the foreboding intro. Walker's voice deserves praise too, it has assured confidence and gravity, yet it also manages a floating fragility. What frustrates me though is this song was the exception on the album. I'd like to hear an album from Walker where the likes of this is the rule. Maybe he's done one since. I should have a look.

7) Richard Thompson 'The Ghost Of You Walks' ('Action Packed' compilation - 2001)

Oh Richard! how I love your spooky guitar work, it's those tiny permutations that get me all excited and despite their tini-ness make the huge differences in mood. This track is masterful and he could have just gone with a lazy fade out, and no one would have felt short changed, yet he throws in THAT guitar scale right in the dying seconds. The last run of notes is just exquisite. That's artistry when not a second gets wasted and every second can be part of something special. The scale I'm harping on about is a brilliantly uncomfortable run of notes that evinces perhaps better even than the superb lyrics precisely where the protagonist is at; alone, miserable, confused and with things hopelessly unresolved in the relationship that he's mulling over. You don't know where the scale is heading from one mili-second to the next; will it end hopeful, no it won't, oooh, maybe? it flips through minors and majors giving no obvious clues to where it might settle. Brilliant. I have gone on about that scale haven't I, it deserves it. More generally though, I love it when this charming and nervy chap picks at the emotional sores and turns his torch on to the ugly bits. He's a true master at laying bare the murky bits of the heart and soul.

8) John Jacob Niles 'Go Way From My Window' (live, circa early 60's)

I first came across a snippet of this song on the Martin Scorcese doco about Bob Dylan, 'No Direction Home', and couldn't believe my eyes and ears. A strikingly singular and elastic tenor that could give you vertigo as it catapults into choirboy-who-just-saw-the-devil territory; spilling from a gaunt, pale, bone white-haired old man strumming a lap harp. He dramatically emotes 'go way way way from miiiy bed-siiiide and both-ther me no mo-or-ore, bother me no mo-ore'. Breathily fey and starkly mannered yes, but utterly compelling due to the absolute conviction and complete lack of irony and self consciousness. Some people who I thought would embrace Mr Niles after hearing this song (Antony and Joanna Newsom fans mind) find this to be "too much" (compared to those two??) and "kind of creepy". Well, Jacob's appearance does sort of remind me of the tall, spindly 'evil incarnate' old man with the walking cane from the 'Poltergeist' films, but despite long being terrified of those films, I love this song and and I like John Jacob. Bob D really likes him too. I'll side with Bob. That validates my argument for him better than anything I can argue probably. The spoken introduction to this performance is great as well, "I wrote this song in nineteen hundred and eight", among other smile inducing pre-vocal gems.

9) Robert Wyatt 'The Last Straw' ('Rock Bottom' - 1974)

This track hails from Robert Wyatt's first album after being paralysed from the waist down due to an enebriated fall from a third story bathroom window; it may be informed by that tragedy to a greater or lesser degree. His voice sounds part 'ballad head' Neil Young (as opposed to 'angry lumberjack' head), part Elmer Fudd's Cockney cousin, part cheeky chimney sweep; actually, the last two could be one and the same. Anyway, in other words, it's great. His voice has a natural (under)watery quality, so at the rocky bottom of an emotional ocean, where he situates himself in this song, is perfect territory for him; 'Seaweed tangled in our home from home, reminds me of your rocky bottom.' The lyrics are few and concise yet cryptic and wonderfully enigmatic. I was going to try, but I won't. Just listen, and more importantly, feel. The fact he spends a fair amount of his vocal time wailing beyond words says a lot. He sings painfully prettily and vocalises a liberating and soul spilling trumpet line through the woozy, glistening wash of piano, synths, slippery sonic bass pulsations and rattling cymbals. It's odd and it's unconventional and lots of people don't and won't get this kind of song and performance; it's a sad thing. I say it's lovely and bittersweet true soul from one of the greatest soul vocalists.

10) The Czars 'Little Pink House' ('Goodbye' - 2004)

John Grant, last year's 'Mojo Magazine' 'Album of the Year' winner for 'Queen Of Denmark', led this underrated group before that first solo album and this song recalls/imagines an attempt to come of age with a prostitute? and finding out that he's not a lady's man?; 'I learned what I was and what I was not, supposed to be.' The opaque and cryptic bridge from his 'teacher' is a thing of wonder, 'bleeding heart, lily-of-the-valley, snapdragon, rambling rose, you'll never make it in this world, if you're not one of those'. It seems she's telling/ warning him there's only a few ways to be, and reading between the lines now, you better be sure because there's consequences for each one. Is he any of them? He says he chose her from several options; 'you were the one I chose.' I have always thought Grant was implying with this character (or is it him) that this visit taught him he was gay, but I'm not so sure now I've read the lyrics as I'm typing. Ah, who gives a! It's a fascinating song with a restrained, sultry simmer; gorgeously sung and played, and it deserves your ponderance.

11) Bruce Springsteen 'Meeting Across The River' ('Born To Run' - 1975)

Apparently Bruce's producer didn't want Bruce doing more of this kind of piano ballad material; what a short-sighted f*^kwit! This remains a glorious oddity in his canon and it minds its own business near the tail end of 'Born To Run'; overshadowed in public consciousness by the brilliant bluster of the panoramic title track and 'Thunder Road', among others. This track, with it's modesty and fragility, is worth nursing in your soul like an fallen baby bird. A gorgeous piano refrain and yearning, muted trumpet underpin the sad tale of the luckless petty criminal who tries to seal 'just one more deal' to turn his rotten luck around, despite the protestation of his little lady; 'Jerry says she's gonna walk, cause she found I took her radio and hocked it, but Eddie man, she don't understand, that two grands practically sitting in here in my pocket, tonight's gonna be everything that I say, and when I walk through that door, I'm just gonna throw that money on the bed, she'll see this time I wasn't just talking, them I'm gonna go out walking.' The all consuming but painfully naive hope is extraordinarily poignant. As Bruce tries to convince himself the intensity ramps up then finally releases, with his plan to just 'go out walking' when the deals done, just beautifully. This is a gritty little character driven indie film waiting to happen. Grainy black and white with lots of grey buidlings, shadows and cigarette smoke. Someone should make it happen.

12) 'Million Dollar Baby' Richard Swift ('Dressed Up For The Letdown" - 2007)

These are a few of my favourite things; bittersweet harmonies right out of 70's radio fantasy-land, soaring but melancholic choruses, a diverting turn at a pretty bridge, a beautiful minor drop or two, such as on 'pulling my car to the side of the road, to watch you let go', a supremely tasteful solo by a guitar player serving the song, not his ego, who has clearly listened close to George on later era Beatles and lots of early Steely Dan. All these things are in this song, resplendently. It is classic songwriting and it is the kind of song I like to try to write myself and (bleedingly obviously) to listen to a lot. It moves me no end. Mr Swift, who in another song on the same album details how he's too chubby, plain and bald for big record companies to get behind him, shoulda and woulda 'made it big' 30 years ago with tunes like this. Sadly, today's music scene is criminally blind to genuine talent unless you play its plastic games, compromise your work with buckets of blanding polish and are lucky enough to be very pretty too, in which case, you should know I'm bitter and I probably hate you.

13) Stevie Wonder 'I Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer' ('Where I'm Coming From' - 1971)

A heartbreaking piano led lament that tracks the seasons of a doomed relationship. It was revived by Stevie as a stunning solo piano piece for the Michael Jackson funeral tribute, which is where I first heard it. I was left slack jawed by the song and Stevie's paralysing performance and went hunting for the original. It has a beautifully mournful orch pop arrangement and a revelatory vocal range that foreshadows his extraordinary vocal on 'Lately' 8 or 9 years later. His lungs are simply mythic, can he hold a note or what? For one of the funkiest men on the plant, I just love Stevie sitting behind a piano singing tragic ballads. He's not wasted that way at all. I love the haunting coronet? is it? or french horn? and cliff falling piano notes of defeat as reality hits brutally hard after each desperately hopeful verse. Such beautiful elements; very much 'ecstatic melancholy' and hence a perfect place to end the first 'EM showbag'. Thanks for reading, now, good listening!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Roy Orbison - The 'Sun Years' Reclaimed

Roy Orbison’s time at Sun records from 1956-1958 is seen by some critics and music fans alike to be a mostly unsuccessful and undistinguished period in Roy’s 32 year long recording career. The widely accepted view is that it was a period of missed opportunities, some poor choice of material and that Roy was misunderstood and misused by the label and its owner/ producer Sam Phillips. Some critics even feel that he was unconvincing as a rockabilly artist. These perceptions do have some grains of truth and are partially justified. His glittering string of compelling & innovative hits at Monument from 1960-1965 are rightly felt to be his finest work and the Sun period was troubled & inconsistent; however, there is much of interest and great worth among Roy’s Sun recordings. Some songs cut during this period were not released until years later, and were far stronger than some of the eight sides that made up his four Sun Records 45rpm releases.

His first Sun single, 'Ooby Dooby', is deserving of its status as an incendiary rockabilly classic, but it is the only Sun recording of Roy’s that is widely known. It was only a minor hit at the time (US #59), and it would be a further four years until Roy made the charts again, but cluey younger musicians picked up on its vibrancy & Roy’s crackling guitar work at the time of its release. Bob Dylan, in his autobiography ‘Chronicles’, notes the song and describes it as ‘deceptively simple’. Lou Reed mentions it in a 1990’s interview as a big influence when he was first learning to play guitar. In the early 70’s it was energetically covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Dylan, Reed & CCR; quite a roll call of fans for a seemingly throwaway nonsense song.

Beyond ‘Ooby Dooby’, only one song is relatively well know from Roy’s time at Sun, its b-side; 'Go, Go, Go', later to be known as 'Down The Line’ after Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it with that title. Roy's original version is, strangely, for a peerless singer like Roy, a disappointment vocally. The track rocks along well enough with some superb guitar work, but Roy sounds awkward and wrong footed. He seems to start in the wrong key and uses a forced and affected deep voice, perhaps trying extra hard to sound tough to match it with his Sun contemporaries. It has a disconcerting effect and is ultimately unconvincing. The vocal improves as the song progresses, but this track falls short of ‘Ooby Dooby’ and some lesser-known tracks recorded during the Sun Years. Roy’s second Sun single ‘Rockhouse’ is also not a great vocal, Roy sounding a little small, tinny and timid. It is ‘rockabilly by numbers’.

A better choice for a single at some point would have been ‘Mean Little Mama’. It was not released until 1961 when it was part of a compilation LP of Roy’s Sun Recordings that Sam Phillips released to capitalize on Roy’s newly found large scale success post 'Only The Lonely'. On this gem of a track, Roy finds the voice he was perhaps looking for on 'Go, Go, Go'. He snarls and spits out the words throughout; “Well-a-why do you treat me so mean? BAM! BAM! (crack the rhythm section), you’re the meanest thing I’ve ever seen!!”. I believe every word this time and he even growls some of the lines. This is primal, sexy, dangerous rockabilly. It is his finest, toughest moment as a rockabilly singer and I challenge anyone to say he was an unconvincing rockabilly singer after listening to this track up loud.

'Mean Little Mama' also contains a stupendous guitar solo that bristles with hormonal lust and the frustrations of the protagonists’ troubled relationship. Clocking in at 1:56, it is a study in tight, snappy, economic rockabilly with not a note or nuance wasted or extraneous to requirements. A true neglected gem. ‘You’re Gonna Cry’ and ‘Problem Child’ also rock hard, have strong vocals and Roy sounds very much in command. They too would have made strong singles. The alternate take of ‘Problem Child’ even has a ‘go down, girl, down’ refrain on the outro that Roy surely did not intend to mean what it does nowadays, but it certainly gives the take an extra edge.

Roy’s fourth Sun single, the uber strange ‘Chicken Hearted’, has been scorned and seen as an blushing embarrassment by some, Roy included. But this is by no means the case. I contend that it is a landmark recording made with no sense of its importance by all involved in it. It was most likely seen as nonsense throwaway, but it is much more than that. Where else in music at that time or any other has a singer shown so much vulnerability and even boasted of ineptness and cowardice “I’d like to be a bad boy, but I ain’t got the nerve, I’m chicken hearted”. He was no good with the girls either. The song wears a cloak of humour but beneath that it cuts deep. If this track had been more widely heard, it may have spoken to the experiences of many young people and reflected their stifled dreams, fears and frustrations, though no one would have wanted to openly admit it.

The hilarious chicken-wing flapping sax solo perfectly compliments the chicken-ish sentiments of the lyrics and the monolithic stuttering guitar solo is a revelation. Did Neil Young hear this? I’m starting to wonder. This song is uncommonly, unnervingly and blushingly honest. The musical equivalent of a ‘naked in the classroom’ dream, it is revolutionary and the ‘frustrated, hopeless loser’ theme and persona would continue to be present and evolve in Roy’s work in the years to come. It was never expressed as bluntly and matter-of-factly as this though. The song is also uncommon for its extra long musical intro and vocal entry mid-musical verse. Roy turned up late to class as well as being naked and paralysed with fear and embarrassment! Right down to the jangly, jagged rhythm guitar scrapes, it perfectly captures nervy, pimply, awkward adolescence. But alas, the single had little airplay and promotion and it stiffed. It was his final Sun Records single.

Another long neglected but groundbreaking Orbison track from this period is ‘(Cat Called) Domino’. Two versions of the song were cut, one at Sun and the other at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis. The Petty version, unreleased for over 40 years, is superior because the stunning lead guitar playing is mixed much higher. In the Sun version, it is swamped by the tack-on clickety-clack rhythm track. ‘Domino’ was covered in the early 80’s by goth-punk band The Cramps, who perhaps picked up on the sexual ambiguities and the slightly twisted adolescent tale must have appealed to them. In the song, Roy spends the whole time describing Domino, the hot guy that all the girls are after, rather than the girls that he wishes would notice him instead of Domino. It is almost obsessive in its descriptive detail of ‘Domino’ and borders on homo-erotic. Does the protagonist secretly want Domino himself. The feeling is, briefly, well, just maybe, even if the lyrics dispel that notion in the end. Name another geek-rock-cum-homoerotic rockabilly song from that period and I’ll eat my loafers. It also contains probably the first recorded 'surf guitar' riff, along with that clickety-clack surf rhythm track, predating the breakthrough of the Beach Boys, Link Wray, Dick Dale and the surf guitar movement of the early 60’s by several years. It was too soon, and this song, like ‘Mean Little Mama’, ‘Chicken Hearted’ and several others, slipped through the cracks.

This period of Roy’s career is in dire need of re-evaluation. There were obvious mis-steps and some average material and performances during his tenure at Sun, but a few of the Sun cuts are beyond compare. Roy also flagged his future command of melancholy balladry with some lovely work in 'I Never Knew' & 'The Clown' particularly, but it's the lesser known rockabilly numbers I've highlighted that really impress. Greater attention to and appreciation of this period is crucial to the understanding of Roy’s evolution as an artist in the primordial soup of early Rock & Roll.

Essential Orbison Sun era listening (1956-1958): 'Mean Little Mama', '(Cat Called) Domino' (Norman Petty alt. version), 'Problem Child', 'You're Gonna Cry', 'Ooby Dooby', 'I Never Knew', 'It's Too Late', 'The Clown'.

20 neglected Neil Young gems

The songs in this list may fit any or all of the following criteria to attain their 'neglected gem' status; they aren't in the public consciousness but should be, they have never been anthologised by Neil, they are rarely if ever played live by Neil, they aren't mentioned enough by critics and are stuck unfairly in the shadow of a better known or more widely loved song (or songs) on the albums they hail from. So, roughly chronologically, here goes...


1. 'Flying On The Ground Is Wrong' Buffalo Springfield ('Buffalo Springfield') 1967

Neil admitted in a late 60's interview that he pinched the melodic ideas from Roy Orbison's 'Blue Bayou', and after giving them a few idiosyncratic twists of his own, came up with this gem. It's an opaque and cryptic examination of a troubled relationship, but lines like 'I wish I could have met you, in a place where we both belong' and 'if I'm bright enough to see, you're just too dark to care' still get to the heart without any trouble at all. A sweet bridge rises 'sometimes I feel, like I'm just a helpless child, sometimes I feel, like a king, but baby, since I have changed, I can't take nothing home'. I'm not sure exactly what's changed and what he can't take home, but anyone who loves this song could pin their own specifics in that spot. Neil certainly knows how to build a vessel for them. Richie Furay sings this officially released version, but Neil recorded a solo vocal/ guitar demo which appears on the Buffalo Springfield box set and has performed it live on occasion over the years.

2. 'Here We Are In The Years'
('Neil Young') 1968

A perceptive lament mourning the death of innocence and small town charms, and rueing the steamroller effect of rampant capitalism and crass commercialism. After a gentle, disarming piano led intro, the arrangement swells and Neil opines that 'people planning trips to stars, allow another boulevard, to claim, a quiet country lane'. A charming horn interlude is followed by a dead stop, then a drummed heartbeat, then his quiet reflection; 'so the subtle face, is the loser, this time, here we are in the years, where the showman shifts the gears, lives become careers...'. We may not see the slow rot set in and are just too often distracted with trifles and ambitions to notice the small, unique things disappearing. When we look back for them, it may be too late. 'Let us out of here' indeed. The fade out, with deep piano chords reverbing into oblivion, is the perfect final touch in a production that tugs, prickles and shimmers in all the right places. 'I've Been Waiting For You' is another one to (re)visit on 'Neil Young'. Bowie recognised it greatness with a cover 6 or 7 years back and Neil has been playing it again on tour this year.

3. 'Round & Round'
('Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere') 1969

A wall of chiming acoustics herald the arrival of one of Neil's most sublime songs. The steel string picking is audiophile delight and Robin Lane's harmony vocal, whether floating above Neil's, or worldlessly vocalising behind him, is perfection. When they both move beyond words in the outro, moaning and cooing sweetly together, it is just superb. 'Running Dry' is another fascinating and at times chilling song which usually gets passed over for the 'big three' from the album (Cowgirl, Cinnamon Girl & Down By The River)

4. 'Country Girl'
CSN&Y ('De Javu') 1970

This is one of Neil's towering achievements. It was the song that really clinched it for me with Neil. I was ready to 'go steady' with him, so to speak. 'Philadelphia' piqued my interest in a big way, but this one put it beyond doubt. That film sent me scurrying to my parents LP's because I knew they had a shabby old copy of CSN&Y's 'De Javu'. The rustic faux-colonial cover art had always put me off listening to it prior to that, it positively screamed 'hokey folk'. I was thrilled to discover how wrong I was. 'Helpless' has always been the more famous, 'conventionally pretty' sister, as it were, but this lugubrious lass is the one I'm after. I reckon this 'Country Girl' is much sexier.

'Country Girl' is a great argument for Neil's greatness on every level of his craft. The vocal is rich and full of nuance, building from tender fragility in the early verses, to pained ecstasy in the apocalyptic climax, where he wails 'country girl, I think you're pretty, got to make you understand, had no lovers in the city, let me be your country man!'. It is one of his most passionate and accomplished vocal performances. With glass knife CSN backing, it is four-part harmony vocal heaven. The lyrics are among his most curiously enigmatic and gorgeously evocative, 'winding paths through tables and glass, first fall was new', just the first of many examples. The song structure is one of his most complex and masterfully dramatic. The arrangement, from foreboding timpani and vibes intro to wailing harmonica and organ drenched fadeout, is within spitting distance of genius. From the line 'if I could stand to see her crying' onwards, I get chill after sweet chill. With this ambitious and near symphonic epic, Neil sets himself in the rarified company of Orbison, Wilson & Spector. Comparable with Springsteen's 'Meeting Across The River' in the sense that they are styles they both handle brilliantly, but sadly, have rarely repeated.

5. 'L.A.'
('Time Fades Away') 1973

Some days this is my favourite Neil Young song. The gleeful fatalism is so black and bleak, yet utterly involving. The piano and steel dance beautifully around the fractured melody with the rhythm section striking a fantastic fuzzy lumber. 'When the mountains erupt and the valley is sucked into cracks in the earth, will it finally be heard by you, L.A.', wails a hoarse, frazzled Neil. Then he taunts 'city in the smog, city in the smog!! don't you wish that you could be here too?'. Actually, if it sounds as good as this there, I do! It's L.A. as festering wound and Neil is picking at the scab. A stunning live performance of a then new song from a live album of all new songs that remains, unforgivably, never released on CD.

6. 'Alburquerque'
('Tonight's The Night') 1973 - rel. 1975

This knocks me flat. It is one of the most desolate and deeply melancholy songs I've ever heard. The steel just rips at my heart. Of course I love it like an only child though. 'I've been starving, to be alone'. Jesus. The rain-trickle piano run leading into the chorus is the very definition of tasteful. Who knew the word 'Alburquerque' could sound so pretty and tragic. Neil rescued it from Bugs Bunny and slow death by comedy. THIS is American Country. Take note fools.

7. 'New Mama'
('Tonight's The Night') 1973

Whereas every other song on the album is suitably ramshackle and teeters tantalisingly on the verge of falling apart, this is the peaceful eye of the storm. Everything comes into clear focus. A hushed acoustic tune with tightly pitched and achingly fragile harmonies. The sun comes out for these few minutes, but even here it is brief and broken. Neil's song of bliss at the birth of his child is amazing because he makes happiness seem so hopelessly melancholy, the drops into minor don't help either! 'New Mama's got a sun in her eyes, no clouds are in my changing skies, each morning when I wake up to rise, I'm living in a dreamland'. Strum. Bam! The ground drops away. There is always 'the other' lurking nearby and he always acknowledges it; 'changing times, ancient reasons that turn to lies, throw them all away', he warns. Great, brave and honest songwriting. The accapella close is a thing of delicate wonder. The following track on the album 'Lookout Joe', a street-urchin ramble with a demented gospel bridge, also deserves your love and attention.

8. 'Revolution Blues'
('On The Beach') 1974

I love every facet of this. The cutting bile in the vocal...Neil's stellar and spooky guitar work. The other stars of the piece are the phenomenal Levon Helm and Rick Danko from 'The Band'. Crazy Horse could never have played this. It makes me wish Neil had worked with this rhythm section more. Shit, I nearly forgot Mr Crosby. Handy rhythm guitar work from him. What a line up! The skittish, nervy arrangement and cavernous sound are thrilling. I've seen barely twenty-somethings dance to this morbid 'sociopath funk' in a club. Clever clever DJ! I nearly knocked over a trail of fellow clubbers as I reported with haste to the dance-floor in salute. My favourite Neil Young song (most days anyway). Forget about the Charles Manson allusions. This song deserves so much more than to just be 'the song about...'.

9. 'Pardon My Heart'
('Zuma') 1975

The prettiest melody on 'Zuma' sumptuously wrapped in hushed backing vocals and a perfect acoustic guitar and minimal piano arrangement. 'You brought it all on, oh but it feels so wrong, you brought it all, no no no don't believe this song'. Gorgeously opaque and intriguing. The tickling piano and echoing, fuzzed out electric guitar solo are sublime. If you're not moved by this you must be stone dead.

10. 'Will To Love'
('American Stars 'n' Bars') 1977

This one divides fans in a similar way to 'Trans', loved by a passionate and discerning few and derided by many. What's not to like? Overlong? Nup, I'd say meditative. Over-extended metaphor? Yeah maybe, but who cares? he's written some daft lyrics in other well loved songs. Just listen to the hypnotic, watery dance of the acoustic and the vibes, the crackle of the open fire nearby, Neil's subdued moans and woozy 'la la la la's'. It's not for every occasion, but when it's time, it's time!

11. 'Lotta Love'
('Comes A Time') 1978

Nicolette Larson's sunny disco pop version was the hit, but this is the definitive article. Crazy Horse is in the mellowest form of its long life as Neil reels off pretty chords and shards of broken sunlight with off-handed ease. The bastard. 'So if you are out there waiting, I hope you show up soon, 'cause my head needs relating, not solitude'. The stops and starts squeeze the heart and the whole thing is one big sigh. Just lovely. While were at it, stop by 'Peace Of Mind' and 'Already One' next.

12. 'Sample & Hold'
('Trans') 1982

Buried under synth stabs and strangled by a heavy vocoder, you'd never know this contains one of Neil's most breathtaking melodies, specifically the 'we'll send it out right away, satisfaction guaranteed, please specify, the colour of skin and eye, we know you'll be happy' section. That is unless you actually bothered to listen to 'Trans' more than once and didn't frisbee it off a cliff or snap it in half. Neil knows it's a great melody because he tried to do it for 'Unplugged', but ultimately abandoned the idea. I'd be fascinated to hear how it sounded and why it didn't quite work. Anyway, I digress. Neil's tale of mail-order livin' lovin' robot maids is concurrently hilarious and poignant. 'Computer Age' & 'Like An Inca' are also neglected gems from this widely misunderstood album.

13. 'Get Back To The Country'
('Old Ways') 1985

A call to barns instead of a call to arms. A shit hot country stomper with one of Neil's terrific scalded cat vocals. 'When I was a younger man, got lucky with a rock 'n' roll band, struck gold in Holly-wood, all the time I knew I would..'. Cornball and hokey yes, but passionate and strangely vital too. I'd head down the barn for a hoe-down with him any night of the week.

14. 'Around The World'
('Life') 1987

One of Neil's most effective songs from his wobbliest decade. The production is ridiculously overblown and ham-fisted, but it works fine that way. I love the complete genre change from bludgeoning rock to glittery synth pop on the 'fashion change, style change' line. Very clever. Crazy Horse find a classic groove and beat you over the head with it just as you want them to. Neil's spoken 'chat up' section is hilarious; 'hey, you're out of sight, so skin tight, you're looking good tonight, hey', as a synth riff noodles behind him. From the same album, 'Mideast Vacation' is another neglected gem. Neil's trusty Les Paul 'Old Black' wrestles with crashing, squalling synths and the lyrics are most intriguing; 'I was Rambo in the disco, shooting to the beat' and even better 'when they burned me in effigy, my vacation was complete'. A real grower this one, give it a few tries.

15. 'One Of These Days'
('Harvest Moon') 1992

Thankfully Neil has remedied this songs relative obscurity by playing it on the 'Prairie Wind/ Heart Of Gold' show. One of his greatest sets of reflective, melancholy lyrics is set to a sweet, yearning melody and couched in a beautifully understated arrangement. The refrain 'One of these days, I'm gonna sit down and write a long letter, to all the good friends I've known' gets more insistent and heartbreaking as the song progresses. This one hits hard. One for the ages from a wise old owl.

16. 'Big Green Country'
('Mirrorball') 1995

The album was not liked by most critics when it was released, but by my reckoning there are at least 3 hands down classics on 'Mirrorball', and this is one of them. A pile-driving groove from Neil and Pearl Jam underpins one of his most stunning vocals. His voice gliding above the sinewy rhythm track with trademark sour lemon bite; 'Over the fields in the big green country, that's the place where the cancer cowboy rides, pure as the driven snow before it got him..'. Cinematic imagery. A slap in the face intro. Searing and cutting guitar work. Fantastic!

17. 'Out Of Control'
CSN&Y ('Looking Forward') 1999

A gem of a piano ballad with a classic Neil Young self-absorbed, self-mythologising lyric ('tear myself down, build myself up, tear myself down again'). The moment where he breaks back into the chorus after the CSN crooned 'sky is fire, hell is blue' bridge, with 'that's why I'm..', and the chords turn themselves inside out, I get goose bumps every time. Melancholy mastery.

18. 'Horseshoe Man'
('Silver & Gold') 2000

I like this for similar reasons to 'Out Of Control', I just love Neil sighing and pining at a piano. Another gorgeous and deceptively simple melody with more aching and insightful lyrics; 'He takes the pieces in his hand, shakes them up like he doesn't care, he says that there will always be heartbreak, because love is everywhere'. Beautifully arranged and tastefully played. Ditto my final comment from 17.

19. 'Carmichael'
('Greendale') 2003

I love the leisurely 2 minute 45 intro with casual riffing & thick chords on 'Old Black'. Carmichael the cop is a sympathetic protagonist, and the line about no one parking in his car park for a year after he died is inspired and painfully bittersweet. I don't much like the album as a whole, but this one has some real pathos and enough melody to stand on its own, unlike most of the other dull three chord exposition plods. 'Bandit', with it's 'so loose it buzzes' low E-string, is also a shining light in a drab bunch.

20. 'Here For You'
('Prairie Wind') 2004

'No Wonder' was rightly judged to be the flawed (almost) masterpiece on 'Prairie Wind', and the title track and 'It's A Dream' (which were pleasant enough but overlong and repetitive) received much of the analysis. This track though is the emotional crux of the album for me, his open letter to his daughter Amber telling her he'll 'be there'. It escapes mushy sentiment with a sparse, warm production and plain, heartfelt language. The only time sugary strings swoop in is during the gorgeous bridge that features some of his finest lyrics of the decade; 'In the spring, protective arms surrounding you, in the fall we let you go your way, happiness I know will always find you, and when it does, I hope that it will stay'. The word 'stay' positively luxuriating and sunning itself over the kind of sublime chord change that I hadn't heard Neil nail in at least 5 years. I punched the air and whooped when I first heard that change. He'd made my heart fall from a sigh once again, only to catch it with an optimistic harmonica solo and a new verse.

Neil Young Album Reviews - 'The Doom Trilogy'

Archive reviews of the three albums that have collectively come to be known as Neil Young's 'Doom Trilogy', following the huge critical and commercial success of 'Harvest' in 1972. Arguably some of his very his finest work and frustratingly some of his least known and lowest selling...

‘Time Fades Away’ (1973)
[archive review from 2005]

What an incredible portrait of an artist under pressure! After the huge success of ‘Harvest’, the demand for Neil was such that he was expected to grind through a seemingly endless tour playing to massive, expectant crowds. This live album chronicles some moments from that tour & not always the best ones. What a brave decision to release a rough live album containing all new songs directly after a world beating success. The songs are generally not among his finest, but they are truly perfect examples of songs written under immense pressure & the burden of great expectation. That is to say under the pressure of a now enormous fan base expecting him to equal or better 'Harvest', while he is being driven into the ground with the nightly grind of live shows, in a new city almost every day & living out of suitcases. This album is rough as guts but should be cherished for capturing the absolute truth of a moment in time. Neil deserves plaudits for ‘keeping it real’ & making no attempts to clean it up, or smooth it over (or bury it for that matter!). Neil’s’ voice shows all the strain of the months of live performances & the band nearly buckle under the pressure of performing so much new material to often critical and impatient audiences largely expecting faithful 'Harvest' reproductions. Who even has time to rehearse when you travel all day & play at night? A couple of these songs sound like the band first heard them at sound check that afternoon. Somehow though, against massive odds, it works.

The title track is a fast, countrified boogie about a middle aged man's broken down relationship with his drug-dealing son. It has an energetic, speed-freak abandon in the performance & Neil seems to be running on not much more than nerves. It is not a great song & the lyrics are sloppy & vague, but the sadistically gleeful feeling & energy carry it along. Who is this guy? Not the guy who sang that lovely ‘Heart Of Gold’, surely? ‘Journey Through The Past’ is a brief, teasing return to ‘Harvest’ stylings; a sweet reflection on the past very much in the expected mellow, confessional singer-songwriter style & it gives a false sense of security after the disconcerting title track. “Ah! there he is again”, ‘Harvest’ fans sigh with relief, “glad that’s over!”. But no! in crashes ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’, a cracked-voice rant digging at religious hypocrisy with lots of out of tune whoops & interjections from the band. I love it! It is rough, cheeky, indignant & full of life.

Track four ‘LA’ is the high watermark for me. A jet-black humoured & disturbingly gleeful imagining of the apocalypse in Los Angeles. With a slow but determined slop rock grind, the song builds unflinchingly in intensity as it progresses. The steel guitar pleads & the piano tinkles in a beautiful dance around an aching, fractured melody. 'Don’t you wish that you could be here too?' Neil accuses rather than asks. If it sounds as good as this on those shaking streets, then damn the fucking earthquakes, I’ll be there! 'LA' is inspired, under-rehearsed, make it up as you go rock & roll at its best. This is one of my very favourite Neil Young songs. Definitely in my top 5. ‘Love In Mind’ shows that the melancholy romantic still lurks somewhere behind the frazzled madness & it’s a brief & beautiful solo piano ballad to end side one.

Beginning side two, the autobiographical ‘Don’t Be Denied’ is a bit of a let down. Some critics feel it is the highlight of the album & a canon classic. I find it painfully plodding & melodically impotent. I also find the repetition of the one chorus line ‘don’t be denied’ ad nauseum, lazy & dull. I suppose though he was trying to hammer the point home with no pretty poetry or rhymes that might distract you & let you forget it. By the by, the theme of repetition (in different forms & with different meanings) is one he returns to often, most notably in the albums ‘Reactor’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, with varying levels of inspiration & success. ‘The Bridge’ is another short piano ballad with a pleasing melody & it is lovely & heartfelt if not a bona-fide classic. It also has some sweet harmonica. Neils’ singing on the ballads is as sweet & beautifully pained as ever. The strain in his voice is not as evident as on the rocky shouters.

It is only on ‘Last Dance’ that the album tips over the edge of madness & total collapse that it had been brilliantly teetering on. It is even more rambling & sloppy than the rest of the album & without a tune to hold it together, it descends into utter confusion. Maybe that is where it had to go, as it does sum up the album perfectly in a way. It doesn’t make for good listening though. Listening to this track again as I write, there is some nice guitar work half way through & some stunning piano work, but overall it is still an ugly mish-mash.

Where is the blueprint for this album in rock history? Where is the map to help listeners to navigate it? I just know that this is a vital & precious album for the circumstances it brilliantly captures & for what Neil bravely let it be where precious few others would have.

‘On The Beach’ (1973)
[archive review from 2005]

Is this album really worth all the fuss? Is it really the holy grail we all made out, or is it just because it was for so long out of print & so many people had not heard the lions share of the album until 2001 (apart from the two tracks on ‘Decade’) & could only judge it by repute & desperate hope. Well I had this on LP & knew it well, so I hope my opinion is fairly balanced. I should also say that the release of the also long unavailable ‘Reactor’ did nothing to change my opinion of that album & as for ‘American Stars & Bars’, well I’m going to go town on that one later, so I think this album is worth a lot of fuss.

Starting with the perky ‘Walk On’, a rebuttal to his critics who had savaged him for ‘Time Fades Away’ & the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour probably, it is a disarmingly open & breezy first track which gives little indication of what is to come. Neil catches our interest with breezy pop so that he can have our full attention when he starts to scratch at sores. ‘See The Sky About The Rain’ is appropriately titled. It is foreboding; the rain clouds are coming & they stick around for the remainder of the album, lifting only in the dying verses of the final track. ‘See The Sky’ has some trite lazy rhymes, & doesn’t really hit its stride until mid song, but when it does, it is superb. The chugging organ combined with Neils’ wordless wailing & moaning is just sublime.

‘Revolution Blues’ is the crucial track on this album. A snaky, simmering, muted rock song where the repressed rage shockingly bursts to the surface. ‘I hate them worse than lepers & I’ll kill them in their cars’. Much has been made of the Manson references, but what interests me more than playing ‘spot the reference’ to those events, is the bravery & willfulness of writing a song from a murderers perspective & so soon after the events that it supposedly alludes to. Who else would have dared? Good taste has been questioned, but not in question are the quality of the song & the performance. R.B. has some of Neils’ most incisive & evocative lyrics & is a vocal tour-de-force. Every nuance & phrase is just right as he spits out the bile & indignation. Absolutely stunning.

‘For The Turnstiles’ is another perceptive, observant & wise reflection on the world around him & the concepts of fame & success. It has some lovely tight, high country harmonies & steel & banjo work. This song is brilliantly concise & its relative shortness & modesty do nothing to diminish its greatness. It is another great Neil lyric, with too many great lines to pick just one. Closing side one is ‘Vampire Blues’, the weakest track on the album. The song deals with pressing themes such as ecological exploitation & capitalist greed, but despite the noble intent & its function in the overall sweep of the album, it is not particularly interesting melodically & is a little too vague & plodding for mine. The vocal is a good one, with some humourous moments & the organ stabs work well, but it struggles to hold me after the two sinewy, toned performances directly before it. Strangely though, for a song with this title & theme, it is light relief before side two!

Australian radio host Richard Kingsmill said in 1996 that the title track was the song his brother feels is the archetypal Neil Young song. His brother is probably right. It has a downtrodden plod, a melancholy, fatalistic tone & with lines like ‘the world is turning, I hope it don’t turn away’ and ‘all my pictures all falling, from the wall where I placed them yesterday’ it is pure Neil Young. He is the eternally blue boy whispering & moaning his woes into our souls where they resonate with our own. His voice slips up the register in the choruses & back down for the verses & it works a treat. I love the lazy bongos & the slow dripping guitar solo is supremely tasteful & oozes feeling.

‘Motion Pictures’ is so subdued it is almost as if Neil is turning his head away from us briefly & whispering to his ex-wife before once again resuming his focus on the listener in the next song. It is a hushed contemplation of & kiss-off to their failed relationship. There is some tasteful steel work again & this track continues the melancholic, reflective tone. It is subtly melodic, but has the hard task of sitting between the two sprawling & endlessly quotable epics sitting either side of it. Ultimately it is somewhat swamped. Which brings us to ‘Ambulance Blues’.

Attempts by Neil thus far in his career to end his albums with a supreme epic had failed in large measure. Think ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ & ‘Last Dance’. Here though, the best is saved until last & this is probably rightly felt to be the greatest, most deeply textured & ponderable lyric of his career. A twisting acoustic, lyrical journey over ten minutes, it is Neils’ own ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. The lyrics are so loaded with vivid imagery & emotion that you could write a whole essay unravelling it. ‘Oh mother goose, she’s on the skids’. That line is perversely both hilarious & sad in equal measure. I love that line. It is a sort of ‘things ain’t cooking, in my kitchen’ moment; an unexpected savagely melancholy turn that has great effect when it hits. ‘An ambulance can only go so fast’; He realizes that sometimes even the best & most rapid help still takes time to arrive and sometimes it takes too long. Like Dylan’s ‘Tangled’, it drags us through several places, times & characters & conjures a complicated web of moments & moods & points of focus. To complete the picture, a weaving, weeping violin tracing beautiful lines around the weary vocal.

'Ambulance Blues' holds interest despite its mammoth length & by the end Neil seems to be at relative ease with his world & with himself again. He seems to have been able to shake off his souls disquiet & sadness. There seems to be resolution with the 'hook & ladder' critics who had dogged him in recent times, offering to 'get together for some scenes'. He also rejects all the damaging rock star ego bullshit that many of his contemporaries had been engulfed by, realizing 'there ain’t nothing like a friend, who can tell you’re just pissing in the wind'. ‘On The Beach’ is always in my top 3 Neil albums at any given time, probably just edged out by 'Tonight’s The Night’ as his all time greatest album. It argues a great case for him on every level of his craft; as lyricist, social observer, singer, guitarist, composer; and there are few weak links. It is a cohesive & truly great album.

‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1975)
[archive review from 2005]

Recorded before ‘On The Beach’ but released after, messing up train spotters analysis of his artistic evolution at the time no doubt, this is THE great Neil Young album. It needs to be judged by different criteria than his other albums because of the context in which it was recorded & its intentions. On many other Neil Young albums, sloppiness & out of tune-ness would be far less forgiveable, and this album is guilty of both on a regular basis, but it is a triumph of pure gut feeling, emotion & inspired, brilliant spontaneity over & above style & polish.

The title track is by turns seductive & bone chilling. Neil eases us into the song with the enticing but somehow unsettling promise ‘Tonight’s The Night’ over & over before his voice cracks into the sorry tale. So much has been said about this song, & said very well, I don’t want to say much more except that it is a superb song & performance & it truly is ‘as real as the day is long’. ‘Speakin’ Out’, it just occurs to me, is something of a dark twist on a mid 70’s Beach Boys song off, say, ‘Beach Boys Love You’. Monolithic banging rhythm piano with lyrics like 'I went to the movies, the other night, the plot was groovy, it was out of sight, I sat with my popcorn, out looking for good times’. But it’s a twisted take on one & the chorus goes somewhere else entirely, but the start does sound like a mid 70’s overweight & zombified Brian Wilson banging out a warped nursery rhyme. This actually predates ‘Love You’ by four years though. But I digress. This has a great expressive & pained vocal & some sweet stoned piano tinkling & steel.

‘World On A String’ is a stomping dismissal of rotten old fame & fortune. The musicians all sing different lines on the refrain. A very early (maybe even first) take; they hadn’t properly worked out (or were too out of it to notice or care) which line went where & wrongly anticipated which line Neil would sing. It is hilarious & it epitomizes the rough & ready spontaneity of the album. ‘Borrowed Tune’ is singular & incredibly intimate; you can feel the ‘ice frozen six feet deep’ & the loneliness & emotional isolation. The sparse piano/ vocal arrangement let’s no frills or excessive instrumentation get in the way of the bleak & uncomfortable emotions. ‘Come On Baby’ is a frenzied, drug-addled rock out recorded live in 1970, with Danny Whitten on guitar & lead vocals. It is an inspired inclusion, brilliantly reminding us of what was lost & of the lifestyle that inevitably led to the loss. The topic, lyrics & performance are all perfect in a functional sense as well as the song being strong in its own right.

‘Mellow My Mind’ is an extremely whacked out country dirge & it is brave & brilliant that Neil didn’t attempt to fix his most strained & out of tune vocal ever ‘lonesome whistle on the railroad track, ain’t got nothing on those feelings’. Wow! ‘Roll Another Number’ continues the stoned, whacked out rambling, but to me is the weakest track. It’s a bit too much of more of the same & the melody doesn’t really grab. 'Albuquerque’ on the other hand is extremely evocative. I feel like I’m on a lost highway at night when I hear it: completely alone & desperately depressed with no idea where I’m going, nowhere to go & no one to care. It has a subtly beautiful melody & has some pained steel work. An under appreciated gem.

On ‘New Mama’, the sun bursts through the black clouds, but it is broken & brief. This one makes me teary sometimes. It is so fragile & beautiful & at times innocent sounding, but the lyrics reveal a wisdom & a sad knowing that can only come from experience & understanding of the ‘other’, the opposite of what he is talking about; what he has come from & gone through in recent times. The playing & harmonies are supremely tight & focused in this, making this song something of an oddity on the album, but not at all out of place. It gives the album balance & relief. ‘Lookout Joe’ is a fascinating, fuzzy, rumbling rock song. It has cryptic, Polaroid snapshot lyrics & a wonderful sludgy abandon in the performance & sound. The bridge lifts into a twisted gospel prayer & Neils’ lead guitar stabs gloriously falling back down from it. Another big favourite, this would make any Neil ‘best of’ that I had a hand in.

‘Tired Eyes’ I took an initial dislike to, probably because it seemed too rambling & too far removed from my frame of reference. It did not deserve my dislike though. It is crucial to the album. At this point Neil is so weary & so far gone, he doesn’t even bother to sing or maybe can’t sing anymore. He speaks the verses deadpan & seems to have no emotional reaction to the events of the song. He only lifts into song in the choruses with his whacked out band supporting him in fractured, uneven harmony. He sounds devoid of feeling & emotionally barren. The album ends with another version of ‘Tonight’s’; more rambling & wobbly than the first.

This album seems to have been a tribute offering to his friends lost & a catharsis for Neil so that he could move on for his own well-being & for those he loved & for those who loved him. After hearing it, you cannot doubt that he needed desperately the release of making this album. The album is also a warning; Neil put himself through a lot of pain & torment, in the manner of a method actor, to capture the feeling & (un)reality of the darker aspects of the music world & perhaps to warn others of its danger. Neil might just as well have slit his wrists into the boiling vinyl wax, for it is that brutal a journey. Nakedly emotional & unflinchingly honest, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a gift & a lesson to humanity.

20+1 Essential Roy Orbison tracks

These are 20 (+1) of Roy's greatest performances. I have selected primarily songs he wrote or co-wrote himself to demonstrate the extent and range of his unique compositional skills. All but two were written by Roy. The songs that make the list do so because I consider them to be varying combinations of several things; extraordinary and groundbreaking compositions, extraordinary performances, or find Roy flourishing in new or unexpected territory. Some qualify on all counts. So, roughly chronologically, here goes...

Sun Records era (1956-1958)

1. 'Mean Little Mama' (Orbison) [1957]

'Rockhouse' & 'Go Go Go' are more often compiled as examples of the Sun era because they were singles. This, however, is Roy's finest and toughest rockabilly performance. Period. On those former tracks, his guitar work is very impressive, but his vocals sound nervous and fall a bit short of the mark (particularly on 'Go Go Go' where the key seems awkward and he's trying too hard to sound tough). On 'Mean Little Mama' you can put Roy's vocal up against anyone; Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck, Little Richard!...and in my book he would take home the trophy with this absolute belter. You believe he's really been beat round by the bitch, such is the conviction and venom in the vocal. 'You're Gonna Cry' & 'Problem Child' also have superior vocals to the more famous Orbison Sun tracks and in my opinion are better performances all round. I was shocked to hear Roy snarling the words when I first heard MLM. I'd been a fan for 3 or 4 years and this was a whole new card up his sleeve for me. Featuring more pile-driving solos from Roy & matched with the terrific vocal, this is incendiary stuff. Criminally overlooked by Sun until it was released as an afterthought on a 'cash in' compilation circa 1961.

2. 'Cat Called Domino'
(Orbison) [1957] Norman Petty demo version

Roy invents surf rock about 5 years too early in this proto-punk bone rattler. Recorded at Buddy Holly producer Norman Petty's studio, this demo version is superior to the officially released Sun version because the clickety clack drumstick track that overwhelms the Sun take is absent and the stupendous dirty solos simply rip out of the mix. Never one for blustering machismo and quite assured of his own hetero-sexuality, Roy lyrically strays much closer to homo-erotica than his contemporaries ever would have dared. He objectifies and obsesses over 'Domino', the titular protagonist, perhaps even more so than the girls he struggles to pick up because of him; 'He's six foot two with a real dark tan, got all the women in the palm of his hand'...'He's got long sideburns and solid style, baby blue eyes and a crazy smile'. The Cramps paid tribute to the songs subversive qualities and rockin' credentials with a cover in early 80's. Essential rockabilly.

3. 'Chicken Hearted'
(Justis) [1958] alt. version

The officially released version was Roy's fourth and final Sun Records single. It hardly sold and Roy apparently hated it, maybe feeling that the lyrics were daft and embarrassing. It may even have been the final straw for him with Sun Records, who he felt were leaving him to languish. The song was considered then, and still is by many, a total turkey (no pun intended), but Au contraire! I'm calling it that this song invented geek rock 35 years before Weezer et al. There is nothing else like it from this period, or any period! It's also another case where the alternate version is superior. This one has more curious lyrics too. In this take, Roy's protagonists whispered, half-spoken admittance of his blushing cowardice, in the R&R climate set by his then more successful contemporaries, is quite bizarre. He almost seems to be boasting. The protagonists girlfriend 'slipped and fell, now she's hanging from a cliff', but he can't rescue her because he's scared he might slip. 'I'm scared of my own shadow, I'm scared of what I ain't, I've no inspiration, I'm candy yellow paint' he deadpans. 'I ain't got no nerve, I'm chicken hearted.' Wow! Truth be told, the lyrics and delivery cut closer to the bone of true teen experience and state of mind than most Chuck Berry & Beach Boys songs. The lyrics just get weirder. In the last verse, his parents are in jail, but he's too hopeless to 'go to work to make their bail, I guess my folks will have to stay there, cause I'm just like a snail, I'm chicken hearted.' WTF? Brilliant! All this topped off with a fucking hilarious laugh-out-loud 'chicken wing flapping' sax refrain and a nervy, stuttering three note guitar solo that perfectly compliment a wondrously odd tale of teen anxiety and awkwardness. Neil Young might have taken close note of the guitar solo if anyone had heard it at the time (they didn't!)

Further recommended Sun Records era listening (1956-1958) 'Ooby Dooby', 'You're My Baby', 'Problem Child', 'You're Gonna Cry', 'I Never Knew', 'It's Too Late', 'The Clown'.

Monument Records era (1959-1965)

4. 'Only The Lonely'
(Orbison/ Melson) [1960]

Roy's third single for Monument records set the stage for 5 years of incredible success, with every single he released reaching the Top 50 in the US or UK (almost always both). Springsteen said that 'some R&R reinforces friendship and community', but that Roy's ballads were 'always best when you were alone and in the dark'. He's spot on, but Roy's tale of isolation did unite a community, the community of lonely people, together in being alone. 'Only The Lonely' is a lonely person speaking to and for every lonely person. Who knew a string of nonsense 'dum dum's' could convey so much feeling and ache. Who had ever heard an ex-rockabilly sail proudly and brilliantly into falsetto like that and state his vulnerability so explicitly in song. No one. This was new and exciting territory for Roy and for music in general.

5. 'Running Scared' (Orbison/ Melson) [orig. 1961/ 'Black & White Night' version 1987]

'Only The Lonely' had played with conventional song structure, but Roy threw out the textbook entirely for this. Four portentously building verses followed by an outro, or is it a bridge...a bridge to oblivion certainly. The song ends on a precipice. The climb and the build in the arrangement seem to set the final confrontation on a windy cliff top at twilight in my mind. A brilliant paranoid fantasy that is only relieved with the final word 'me'. By that stage it hardly matters though, fives seconds of relief after two minutes of tension doesn't balance the wager. The final note, an A in full voice, is beyond just about anyone in popular music. Soaring above the din of the Monument mini orchestra, it is absolutely a 'hairs on the back of the neck' moment. The 'Black & White Night' version is also jaw-dropping. I love the broken 'me-eeee' as opposed to the straight 'meeee' of the original. Managing to arrest interest, unravel a tale and resolve it in barely over two minutes, it is pocket psychodrama at its finest. Roy and his producer Fred Foster were proving a formidable team by this point.

6. 'Crying'
(Orbison/ Melson) [original version 1961/ 'Black & White Night Live' version 1987]

The live version from 'Black & White Night' is my all time favourite performance of my all-time favourite song. It is hard not to gush but I will try. Perhaps I'll say why I prefer the live version as a way of keeping my fan saliva in check! On the original, the tom tom's on the intro have always sounded too thin and insubstantial by comparison. I want ominous and they just don't give me ominous. On the live version they are full and foreboding. I also prefer his voice in the B&W Night version. It has even more shades and textures to it 25 years later and he uses it masterfully. The song itself is another masterful deconstruction of songwriting conventions, there are changing time signatures, irregular and uneven bar structures, pre-bridges, post-bridges, weird bits generally. It really excites the songwriter in me. The last minute or so is beyond compare. Goose bumps and tingles! Crashing percussion, doomy piano, fallen angel backing vocals, searing strings. I give up. Just listen to the damn thing! The only version of this to avoid is the 1985 re-recorded version which is relatively sterile & limp.

7. 'Working For The Man’
(Orbison) [1962]

An involving story song in less than 3 minutes, with superb prickly guitar work and ballsy chain gang backing vocals. Probably it didn’t need the strings that dilute it’s toughness a little, but that’s a minor quibble. Roy, who most often sounds like a tortured phantom, sounds very definitely flesh and blood, 50 degree oil-field tough, and has his feet firmly in the Texas dirt. You can really believe he might end up with a beer in one hand and a woman in the other by the end of the day. A pleasing extension of his range vocally and thematically.

8. ‘Leah’
(Orbison) [original version 1962/ 'Black & White Night Live' version - 1987]

A tense collision of fantasy, reality, dream and memory all expertly blended to conceal the truth until late in the piece. The economy and simplicity of his words, and avoidance of flash imagery is quite amazing when you consider the visionary depth of the song. ‘Leah’ is a perceptive and finely textured psychological parable. The live version from 1987 is superior. I prefer his voice breaking into falsetto as he wails ‘Lee-e-e-aah’ in this live version to the strained full voice in the still striking original.

9. ‘In Dreams’ (Orbison) [1963]

Much has been said of this song and its unsettling use in David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’. I won’t retread territory others have covered very well suffice to say that certainly it is another deeply psychological song and deserving of its reputation as one of Roy’s three or four greatest songs. His voice is at its richest and the melody is one of his most affecting.

10. ‘Falling’ (Orbison) [1963]

'Crying' usually gets the nod when people talk of Roy’s greatest vocal. I’ll lump for ‘Falling’ instead. It is his most powerful vocal and also his most assured up to that point. In ‘Crying’ & ‘Running Scared’, you get the sense of a brilliant young prodigy let loose with a fine instrument for the first time, handling it superbly, but surprising even himself with what he can achieve vocally. Although they add wonderfully to the drama, you can sense the bristling nerves. By the time ‘Falling’ hit the studio, he knew his voice intimately and is utterly commanding. The almost howling pleas near the cataclysmic conclusion are some of the most extraordinary moments you will hear from a vocalist; 's-AAA-YY that you love me, don't leave me now, now that I'm falling for you-oo-oo-oOOUUU!.' Combine that with wonderfully neurotic lyrics, a blood and thunder arrangement and his sexiest ever rhythmic groove and...Voila! This is my pick for his most underrated masterpiece.

11. ‘Blue Bayou’ (Orbison/ Melson) [1963]

Something of an oddity among Roy’s biggest hits; if they weren’t tough, bluesy rockers ('Candy Man', ‘Mean Woman Blues’, 'Workin' For The Man’) then you can bet they were psychodramas taking varying routes to an ‘end of the world’ conclusion. 'Blue Bayou' is quite different. Set to a gentle heartbeat with rolling harpsichord, it ends with a woozy fade for a change. Nostalgic and reflective, a melancholy yearning replaces the by now trademark high drama. Effortlessly evocative, it’s Roy’s own ‘Strawberry Fields’ or ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

12. ‘It’s Over’
(Orbison/ Dees) [1964]

Probably the most florid set of lyrics from the Orbison pen are redeemed by another gut wrenchingly powerful vocal and absolute conviction. The panoramic, percussion heavy production also helps to lift the potentially overwrought gush about fading rainbows, 'setting suns before they fall', and whispering winds into the realms of high art. 'It’s Over' is probably his most crushing tale of adolescent despair. He’s not just ‘crying over you’ this time, but rather, 'it’s over, it’s Over, IT’S OVER!!!' This one seems absolutely terminal. The brilliant finality of this song may have been a cruel curse for Roy. It left nowhere for an artist who so brilliantly doled out emotional tension and melodrama to go. He wisely swang back to bluesy pop/rock with a few twists for his next single (‘Oh! Pretty Woman’), knowing another big ballad would have impossible shoes to fill close in its wake. From then on though, even the best of his pocket psychodramas would seem like somewhat lesser variations. His voice couldn't soar any higher and he couldn't sound any more devastated than in ‘It’s Over’.

13. ‘Oh! Pretty Woman’ (Orbison/ Dees) [1964]

Usually seen as the stellar-success-ending giant that could never be surpassed, I feel ‘It’s Over’ must share that burden. ‘Oh! Pretty Woman’ ranks as one of the catchiest pop/rock songs ever. With a widely accessible lyric and instantly recognisable snare/ guitar riff combo, it was never going to fail. The riff pre-figures ‘Day Tripper’ ‘Satisfaction’ and spades of other circular riff opened songs. The perfect blueprint for the beat boom.

Further recommended Monument Records era listening (1959-1965) 'Uptown', 'Blue Angel', 'Love Hurts', 'The Actress', '(They Call You) Gigolette', 'The Crowd', 'Shahdaroba', 'Mean Woman Blues', 'My Prayer', 'Sunset', 'How Are Things In Paradise', 'Borne On The Wind', 'Goodnight'.

MGM Records era (1965-1973)

14. ‘Ride Away’ (Orbison/ Dees) [1965]

Roy’s first single for MGM. A glorious evocation of riding the open road and dissection of a failed romance that led him to seek it out. As with ‘Blue Bayou’, the melodrama is toned down and the mood is one of calmer reflection. The ending is sublime, with the drums switching to a gallop and the backing vocals hitting a melancholy minor chord behind him; 'Too-night, I’ll rii-i-iide away.' It makes me want to ride into the sunset on a Harley with a tear running down my cheek.

15. ‘Communication Breakdown’
(Orbison/ Dees) [1966]

Roy seemed to be the voice wailing in the wilderness for everyone with a broken heart in ‘Crying’, ‘Falling’ & ‘It’s Over’. They were ‘universal’ type songs. This is much more pointedly personal, yet also more detached and analytical in approach. There is emotion for sure, but not the pure emotion beyond all reason of the aforementioned songs. It details the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage to his wife Claudette quite plainly, maturely and without blame. The one note morse code guitar line is reminiscent of 'Witchita Lineman', but this came a year or two before it. A very welcome variation in style with another great melody.

16. ‘Blue Rain’
(Orbison/ Melson) [1973]

For mine, this is Roy’s answer to Brian Wilson's ‘Til I Die’, in the sense that for both men it was an unexpected yet quite stunning restatement of all that was great about them, in a period of career wipe-out, bad clothes, worse hairstyles and worryingly bulging waistlines. The imagery in 'Blue Rain' is quintessential Orbison, and the production is gloriously rich and fulsome, with stunningly arranged piano, vibes, woodwinds, harp and strings. It contains probably the highest note Roy ever hit when the song explodes into the final chorus. It also contains some of his highest sustained pitch verses too; 'Why did you make me love you, then break my heart in two?, and leave me alone, here in the rain, to crr-i-yy for you, tomorrow will be-eee, ff-iilled with the lonely.' Gorgeous stuff. The end is a perfect, shimmering sigh. ‘Blue Rain’ is Roy’s greatest song and greatest performance of the 70’s bar none. All the more amazing when you consider it appeared on one of his most lacklustre albums, ‘Milestones’, in 1973. Littered mostly with uncharacteristically wobbly covers of classics such as ‘Drift Away’ and ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, some tracks sound like pre-take warm ups. Considering the state of his relations with MGM at the time, perhaps they were!

Further recommended MGM-era listening (1965-1973) 'Maybe', 'Crawling Back', 'Cry Softly, Lonely One', 'You'll Never Be Sixteen Again', 'Best Friend', 'Pantomime', 'Time To Cry', 'She', 'Memories', 'Walk On', 'Southbound Jericho Parkway', 'Zig Zag', 'Sooner Or Later', 'Beaujolais', 'It Takes All Kinds Of People', 'Harlem Woman', 'Danny Boy', 'God Love You', 'It Ain't No Big Thing (But It's Growing)'.

Virgin Records/ Wilbury era (1987 onwards)

17. ‘Life Fades Away’
(Orbison/ Danzig) [1987]

From the soundtrack of the film 'Less Than Zero' and produced by one Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chill Pepper's and latterly, the saviour of Neil Diamond's critical reputation). Lyrically and thematically, 'Life Fades Away' is a new twist for Roy. In most of his early 60's classics, he is pure emotion; full of life and passion but tormented and strangled by wretched circumstances. In this, as the protagonists death approaches, he is detached and world weary. I find the repetitive 'yeah, yeah, yeah's' a bit lazy (surely another line or two of lyrics could have replaced a couple of 'yeah's'?) but that's a nit pick. This returns Roy to a level of artistic achievement he hadn't reached since the early 70's, possibly even the late 60's. It's on par with say, 'Walk On', if not quite 'Crying' or 'It's Over'. Rick Rubin sounds like a kid in a candy store as he plays with sawing strings, those wonderful trademark Orbison rhythmic quadruplets (bup, bup, bup, baah!) and a 'world is ending' conclusion ('I long to be, at! forever more, one last thing to say, life fades...a..waayy!!). Heavy handed female backing vocals aside, this, along with 'Wild Hearts' two years previously, was a clear sign of a waking giant.

18. 'Handle With Care'
- Traveling Wilbury's (Traveling Wilbury's) [1988]

The perfect reintroduction of Roy to the masses. The Orbison persona is brilliantly synthesised into a four line bridge sitting atop that classic step up chord change on the 'I'm so...tired of' line. Wonderful stuff. Roy is musically welcomed back into the fold. He's still wailing beautifully in some tortured wilderness, but the Wilbury lads try to coax him out in song; 'Everybody, got somebody, to leeeeea-n on'. Roy is not so sure, he tells them again 'I'm so tired..' but eventually gives in and sings the 'everybody, got somebody' part in harmony with the musical angel who sought him out in the mid 80's; Jeff Lynne. The other three Wilbury's crash in on 'lean on/ dream on', and Roy is back.

The hand of fate has always seemed very much involved in the Wilbury album. So much so that it's really quite spooky. Roy's lead vocal on 'Not Alone Anymore', a tour-de-force as I will detail later, ends side one of the album and he only features prominently on side two twice, both times in a very ghostly fashion, on pointedly spiritual songs. He wails wordlessly behind George & Jeff on 'Heading For The Light' and then appears as the spiritual/ emotional epi-centre of 'End Of The Line', which it tragically was for Roy. He echoes out of earthly existence with 'end of the line, line, line'. His four lines are a beautiful parting missive from someone who had endured so much pain in life and in song, 'Well it's alright, even when push comes to shove/ if you got someone to love/ everything'll work out fine/ we're going to the end of the line.' Given that the album was released 4 weeks before he died, there was no cranking up the reverb to give the performance more gravity after the fact. It just had it in spades already. Roy sounds absolutely content and at peace. What a way to go out.

Interestingly, the Wilbury's wasn't the first time Roy had been involved in an all-star collaboration with musical friends. In 1985 he had recorded an album with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis & Carl Perkins to celebrate 30 years of Rock & Roll. Unfortunately, the contrived nature of that album, as opposed to the pure chance genesis of the Wilbury's, and the flaccid material, left that one falling flat. Roy's solo 'Coming Home' and the four-way back slapper 'Waymore's Blues' hold up though.

19. 'Not Alone Anymore'
- Traveling Wilburys (Traveling Wilburys) [1988]

Where 'Life Fades Away' had consciously aped Orbison conventions, this is more subtle in that conceit and the better for it. Harrison & Lynne's cooing 'sha-lala's' and 'not alone's' are spot on and really tug at the heart. How on earth did a man who was heavy smoker for over 30 years sound like this at 52? It's the hand of God or some higher power at work here methinks. If there is to be any criticism, the production is a little too clean and synthesised to say that it is utter perfection (imagine a piano driven rather than synth-organ version!) but it suited the times and sat with the rest of the album just so. The vocal giant had truly woken.

20. 'You Got It'
(Lynne/ Orbison/ Petty) [1989]

The first single from his 'comeback' solo album 'Mystery Girl' and released posthumously in 1989. The circular descending riff leading in to the 'do-do-do-do, oh yeah-ah!' section is stupendously good. The one and only concert performance of this song was at the Belgian 'Diamond Awards' Festival in November 1988. Roy had lost probably 20 kilos and was looking better, healthier and more stylish than he had in nearly 30 years. Even more importantly, he was creatively back on track and receiving love and plaudits from scores of musical admirers. Less than three weeks later, he was felled by a massive heart attack and robbed of a chance to see his name in the top 10 again after waiting so very long. Knowing all this, the ecstatically received performance is bittersweet and hard to watch. Thankfully, he at least saw the Wilbury's album go Top 10 and turn Platinum. He certainly knew the industry loved him again, I just wish he'd been around long enough to see how much the public did when he released a strong album. 'You Got It' is pop perfection and its huge success was no sympathy vote.

21. 'She's A Mystery To Me'
(Bono/ The Edge) [1989]

The second single is the clincher on 'Mystery Girl'. Written by U2's Bono & The Edge, lyrically Roy is pushed into new psychological territory. His voice is tested and is not left wanting. The flights of falsetto are utterly sublime. Roy died breaking new ground for himself artistically, having lost none of his incredible power.

Further recommended post-MGM era listening (1974 onwards) 'Hung Up On You', 'Still', 'Blues In My Mind', 'Mother', 'Waymore's Blues' (Class of '55), 'Coming Home' (Class of '55), 'Wild Hearts Run Out Of Time', 'Last Night' (Traveling Wilburys), 'End Of The Line' (Traveling Wilburys), 'In The Real World', 'Windsurfer', 'Heartbreak Radio', 'I Drove All Night', 'That Lovin' You Feelin' Again' (solo version), 'Til The Heart Caves In'/'Killzone' (k.d. lang & T. Bone Burnett - different versions of Roy's final, but never recorded song).