Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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).

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