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The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor' Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?
The Beach Boys performing live in 1972

Photo courtesy of the artist

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The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor' Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?

Popular wisdom dictates that the 1970s saw the Beach Boys' long, slow sunset. But 'Sail On Sailor,' which encompasses two hidden-gem LPs, shows them to be at the top of their game.

GRAMMYs/Dec 2, 2022 - 03:58 pm

Hindsight might be 20/20, but still: the fact we ever let strangers from 50 years ago dictate our understanding of music history cost us dearly. Case in point: the Beach Boys.

Through the lens of the critical aggregate, the story of America's Band goes something like this: Their imperial phase crescendoed with 1966's Pet Sounds: that album earned five stars across the board, while satellite albums like 1965's Today! and 1967's Wild Honey hover around four. 

Which, fair. But here's where it gets strange.

If we're to take the critics at face value, 1971's Surf's Up is just about the final Beach Boys album worth hearing at all. (Their almost outsider-music-strange 1977 fluke The Beach Boys Love You and their polished 2012 reunion album That's Why God Made the Radio are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

A full 10 post-Pet Sounds albums generally earned lukewarm to flat-out scathing reviews. Some of them might be your bag; some might not be. But here's the implication: the Beach Boys' downfall began with 1972's Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and 1973's Holland. (The Rolling Stone Album Guide gave both two stars, which tracks with the rest.)

Half a century on, it's difficult to listen to either in good faith and believe that to be true. Because whether or not you dig these tunes as much as their early hits and mid-'60s masterworks, the songwriting, performances and production are at a high caliber that's borderline inarguable. This isn't the Beach Boys at a low ebb. It's the Beach Boys at the top of their game.

A new boxed set out Dec. 2 provides just the portal to reexamine these albums — or hear them for the very first time. Containing both remastered albums and a litany of alternate takes and live tracks, Sail On Sailor - 1972 recontextualizes both Holland and Carl and the Passions not as creative drop-offs, but proof they maintained the flame longer than many thought.

The punchy, mid-fi Carl and the Passions — “So Tough” is a sampler platter of eight diverse personalities. (Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965, had temporarily left the band at this point.) "He Come Down" is an inspired gospel pastiche; "Marcella" is one of their most radiant and infectious rockers; the mystical, intoxicating "All This is That" is like a realm unto itself.

At the top of 1973, they released the mellow, thoughtful Holland. Also featuring South African additions Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, the album may somewhat hinge on two uptempo R&B tracks, "Sail on Sailor" and "Funky Pretty." But it's a top-to-bottom marvel, from the elliptical "Steamboat" to the California Saga suite to Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale), its fantastical bonus EP composed by Brian Wilson.

"There are some great songs on that record," Brian Wilson wrote of Holland in his 2016 memoir. "'Steamboat' kicks ass. I really like 'Only With You' and 'Funky Pretty,' too. It's a damn good record no matter where or how we made it."

That same year, Mike Love dismissed Carl and the Passions in his own memoir, calling it "a disjointed rush job, hastily assembled between live gigs… More than anything, the album emphasized how confused we were about our brand."

But Elton John heard it differently.

"This is an album which I have loved for a long time," John gushed in the liner notes for the album's 2000 reissue. "This album is a step away from Pet Sounds, but still has moments of breathtaking genius and experimentation. When this record was released, I remember how different and fresh it sounded. It still does."

Together, the eclectic, driving Carl and the Passions and misty, faraway Holland act as two sides of the same coin. They are twin portals into the Beach Boys during the pivotal year of 1972, and can also  reset fans' understandings of their creative vitality throughout that entire decade.

"It's the culmination of the [album-oriented rock] Beach Boys," says Howie Edelson, the creative consultant to the Beach Boys' Brother Records who played a major role in assembling Sail On Sailor. "They needed a lot of help to be pushed up the hill to become AOR. Because, as you know, Sunflower is this aural delight. But it ain't FM!"

"I'll put Holland alongside any Crosby-Nash album, or any Neil Young, or any Stills, or any Jackson Browne album." Edelson continues to GRAMMY.com. "They're all emanating from the same vibe and process."

But before we understand why the world didn't see it that way, it's worth examining the conditions that led to Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and Holland.

Igniting A Flame

This era of the Beach Boys is partly defined by two ace South African musicians who had joined their ranks: guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar.

Carl Wilson had found the pair via their band the Flame; enthused, he asked them to join his band. With original member Dennis Wilson in front of the stage rather than behind the kit due to a serious hand injury, Chaplin and Fataar gave the once-innocent, striped-linen act propulsion and brawn.

"The members they brought on board are from South Africa during apartheid," Jerry Schilling, who managed the Beach Boys in the '70s and '80s and manages them again today, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think that's beautiful. I think that's what music does."

This new formulation of the Beach Boys hit the road hard, in a staggering live run that would crescendo in 1974 — when their Endless Summer compilation rocketed them back into the zeitgeist. "They didn't spend that much time off the road," Edelson says; for a dynamic example of their live prowess during this time, check out their full Carnegie Hall performance from Thanksgiving 1972, featured on Sail On Sailor.

"We can play harder rock than we've ever been able to before with Blondie and Ricky," Mike Love reported at the time, according to the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "Brian is still writing for the group; this is being fused with the new element of creativity within the group from the other fellas. Dennis is into strings and orchestrations; he wants to do classical things."

This quote speaks to the teeming, multifarious nature of the Beach Boys at the time. "It's like three different bands," Edelson observes. "I always think of them as an organization or conglomerate rather than a group."

Blondie Chaplin Ricky Fataar

Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although Brian Wilson was and is a once-in-a-generation phenom, this "organization" thrived even when he was in the backseat, as a non-proactive member.

"I would say that Brian Wilson — after six years of writing, arranging, performing, producing, playing and singing — downshifted," Edelson says. The music he made was more personal, with less of a frantic need to compete on the Billboard Hot 100.

"He might not have been competitive, but he was just holding his work to another standard," he continues. "There was no product or filler. Everything he created during this period was absolutely authentic. If he didn't end up finishing it, it stayed unfinished."

"We know that Brian Wilson is a genius, and it tells me that a genius like Brian was able to delegate," Schilling says. "He let the band show their talents as well, which is quite amazing."

The various chemical reactions within the expanded band made for startlingly variable music, from the oddly Band-sounding "Hold On Dear Brother" to the luxurious strings of "Cuddle Up" and beyond.

"The band was disjointed, recorded across random studios separate from each other," marvels Joshua Henry, who produces the rediscovered cult singer-songwriter Bill Fay. "Which makes the brilliant moments even more amazing."

This could have led to a behemoth triple album, like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass two years prior. "I thought that Carl and the Passions should have been three separate albums," Carl Wilson later reflected. "I wish that Brian had been strong enough to produce the record, because it could have been an ass-kicking, great record."

In the end, the band had to stuff all of their multitudes into 35 minutes — and instead of a feast, fans got an appetizer plate. "It's a pu pu platter. And a pu pu platter can be a meal, but it's a pretty weird f—ing meal," Edelson quips. "It's like, 'Did you eat?' 'Yeah, I ate, but I didn't really have a meal.'

"And that's the downfall of Carl and the Passions," he says. "It feels as though it's a taster for several large meals that don't come."

A No-Confidence Vote

What else contributed to Carl and the Passions being a flop in the marketplace? For one, the title was confusing to consumers — a tip of the hat to Carl Wilson's leadership, and a casually assembled pre-Beach Boys band. Whatever the motivation, it was released as something of a bonus disc to their masterpiece.

"It did not just come out as Carl and the Passions. You got Carl and the Passions — which didn't even say 'Beach Boys' on it — and Pet Sounds as a double LP," Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd explains to GRAMMY.com.

As Boyd explains, a settlement with Capitol Records meant the band temporarily retained the rights to their post-1965 albums, so Warner/Reprise released Carl and the Passions as a bundle with Pet Sounds.

"The bright idea was every time they put a new Beach Boys album out, they attached one of the old ones from the late '60s that people didn't get to buy because Capitol didn't promote it or whatever," Boyd says. Mark Linett, who co-produced Sail On Sailor, characterizes it as "the confusion of these two completely disparate records that have no connection."

Edelson posits that Carl and the Passions' release only six months after Surf's Up made it slip through the cracks, and that second disc of live tracks — a la The Byrds' sprawling 1970 album (Untitled) — "would've probably pushed the album into a more positive space."

"I think the artists may have been ahead of the record companies," Schilling admits.

Leaving This Town

For Carl and the Passions' follow-up, the Beach Boys and their pivotal new manager, Jack Reiley, decided to decamp to the Netherlands for a change of scenery. But it wasn't that simple: each member and his family, as well as their staff, had to relocate to a different continent. On top of that, they dismantled and shipped their entire studio.

"Oh, the cost was tremendous," Brian Wilson later recalled, as per the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "I mean, the equipment in the first place cost $190,000 to build. . . it's an elaborate system. But the shipping costs, too, were tremendous to bring back." (Getting the increasingly fragile Brian to commit to the move was a Sisyphean ordeal on its own.)

Given their new, bucolic climes, Carl Wilson predicted they'd make music that would "breathe the atmosphere of this country — peaceful and relaxed."

And it does, sort of. Due to any number of factors associated with being so far from home, Holland swirls with a darker energy — even when it peps up for highlights like the hard-rocking, Chaplin-sung title track, "The Trader" (sung and especially beloved by Carl Wilson) and "California Saga: California."

"It seems like we were writing and singing about a California we were remembering," Brian Wilson wrote in his memoir, "but the truth is we were writing about a California we were imagining."

In the second section of "California Saga," "The Beaks of Eagles," Love recites a moody, primeval poem written by Al Jardine and his first wife, Lynda, based on Robinson Jeffers' poem of the same name.

"Lenin has lived and Jehovah died/ While the mother-eagle hunts the same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry," he intones. And "Only With You" is a stunning piano ballad sung by Carl Wilson, suffused with melancholy and longing.

The 10-minute, six-section bonus EP Mount Vernon and Fairway — named after the location of Mike Love's childhood home in Baldwin Hills — was a burst of invention increasingly uncommon for Wilson at the time. And it bears the influence of Randy Newman's Sail Away, which Wilson clung to like an emotional life raft at the time.

"He's so far away from home. He's in Holland. He's scared and slipping away. He turned 30, and he didn't wear 30 well," Edelson says. And while Sail Away is full of dry, mordant character studies, Edelson thinks Wilson connected more to the Stephen Foster- or George Gershwin-style orchestration, and its portrait of American life — however satirical.

"It was this little piece of this unsophisticated, plain America," he says. "He didn't see all the things that we also saw. He just heard home, and he was a guy who needed home badly on every level."

Wresting The Waters

Although it earned stronger critical marks than Carl and the Passions (Rolling Stone hailed its “occasionally unnerving simplicity of viewpoint as at its frequently ornate perfection), Holland didn’t exactly rocket them back to 1964 fame.

This was despite an ad campaign that quizzically trumpeted a return to fun in the sun: "Holland is the best Beach Boys album in years," it read. "No qualification to that statement — this is music which captures the first freshness of those summer-y surfing days."

One reason why the album didn't do well, Edelson opines, comes down to the visual aspect of both. "The Beach Boys never had great cover art, in an era where you needed to have great cover art," he says, adding drolly: "I mean, Holland is brown. And the other one is just red."

Despite landing a modest FM hit in "Sail On, Sailor" — Holland was basically subsumed in the marketplace the following year by Endless Summer.

"They were the biggest band of '74 without a new album out. It wasn't like they were touring Holland; they were just touring," Edelson says. He evokes the Fab Four's bestselling 1973 greatest-hits compilations: "They could have topped Holland. But it's like the Beatles had gotten back together in '76 and had to top the Red and Blue albums."

Following the Endless Summer surge in interest and popularity was the infamous "Brian's Back!" period. Despite the rapid evolution of the band even with Brian Wilson absent or half-engaged, they hung their destiny on their once-driven leader. Then came the jukebox-like covers album 15 Big Ones, and the strange and handmade Love You.

"They believed, perhaps incorrectly, that by 'going back,' they would be able to finally move forward — e.g. Brian as the taskmasker 'hit machine,' which simply didn't exist anymore. It didn't even exist in 1968 let alone 1976," Edelson says.

"Despite the fantastic publicity and sold-out arenas," he adds, "that creative misstep caused them to lose important FM traction."

The Beach Boys Main Embed Photo

The Beach Boys in 1972. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Beach Boys eventually split into competing and often warring touring factions, commanding what Linett calls "mutual, divergent and, at times, completely incompatible fanbases." The rest is history; today, Mike Love's Beach Boys and Brian Wilson's solo band soldier on in separate markets.

But to get a handle on this heretofore misunderstood chapter in the Book of Beach Boys, a line from Carl and the Passions' benediction "He Come Down" springs to mind.

"Hey-yon-du-coma-nauga-ton means 'Avoid the suffering before it comes,'" Love sings, evoking Sanskrit. "Krishna said a long time ago: 'To let the arrow fly, first pull back the bow.'"

"In other words, you can meditate and dissolve stress within, and have enough effect on the environment to change your trajectory just enough to where there's no terrible collision that's going to screw you up, or your family, or society," Love explained to Edelson during a recent GRAMMY Museum event.

The Beach Boys would go on to suffer much worse calamities than bad reviews — like the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, and Brian's mental state entering freefall before his eventual salvation. 

But on Holland and Carl and the Passions, you hear a band riding high, feeling the turbulence, but battening down the hatches and holding on tight. Through restful waters and deep commotion. Feeling frightened, unenlightened. But sailing on.

Brian Wilson Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Creative Genius. But The Beach Boys Are More Than Just Him.

A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys Tribute Concert To Feature Performances By John Legend, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, Weezer & More; Tickets On Sale Now
A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys Tribute Concert To Feature Performances By John Legend, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, Weezer & More; Tickets On Sale Now

Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded lineup that also includes Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Pentatonix, Lady A, and many others.

GRAMMYs/Jan 26, 2023 - 05:44 pm

A few days after the 2023 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy, along with Tenth Planet Productions and CBS, will present A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys, a special tribute concert honoring the legendary, GRAMMY-nominated music icons, the Beach Boys. Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded performer lineup that includes GRAMMY-winning artists and past and current GRAMMY nominees including Beck, Brandi Carlile, Fall Out Boy, Andy Grammer, Hanson, Norah Jones, Lady A, John Legend, Little Big Town, Michael McDonald, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, Pentatonix, Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Take 6, and Weezer, who will all celebrate and honor the Beach Boys’ everlasting music and impactful career.

Tickets for A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys are available now.

A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys will air on the CBS Television Network and will be available live and on demand on Paramount+ at a later date. More info on the event is below.

WHEN:

Concert:
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Doors: 5:30 p.m. PT
Concert: 6:30 p.m. PT

WHERE: 
Dolby Theatre
6801 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

Take A Look Back At The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds | For The Record

Family Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter
Justin Roberts

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

interview

Family Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter

Are you curious as to whether there's actually good children's music out there — and/or whether you should be part of the Academy? Meet Justin Roberts — a terrific family-music artist deeply involved with the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter.

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2022 - 02:09 pm

At first listen, Justin Roberts' new album is squarely for the kiddies. His sharply enunciated vocals are high and dry in the mix, leaving no room for misinterpretation. The rhythms bounce like Motown; the high-glucose melodies leap and bound.

But what if you listen to Space Cadet not as a family-music record, but as a straight-up power pop record? Because Roberts is a diehard fan of everyone from Brian Wilson to Scott Miller of Game Theory and the Loud Family — and thanks to his knack for ear-snagging compositions, he's up there with those eccentric geniuses.

"I just try to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult — things that get stuck in my head and/or move me emotionally." the four-time GRAMMY nominee says from his Chicago home. "And I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music."

Part of this philosophy — call it the Give Kids A Little Credit clause — came from his experiences working in a preschool at age 20.

"I was surrounded by a lot of children's music of the time, and some of it seemed really saccharine or preachy to me," Roberts tells GRAMMY.com. "Kids are so smart and emotionally intelligent. I might try to tell them a good story, or give them something that relates to their life. But I don't try to tell them what to do."

By dignifying children and parents and serving the song above all else, Roberts has amassed a spectacular body of work in the family-music sphere. And his latest, Space Cadet — out July 15 — is one of his very best.

Using an accessible and age-appropriate palette, Roberts rockets in several directions — from jingle-jangle madness ("I Have Been a Unicorn") a zonked suite of movements ("Space Cadet") to tender balladry ("Whole Lotta Love in This World").

Aside from helming this sometimes-misunderstood musical space, Roberts has left another profound mark on music — that of a Recording Academy leader.

A former Trustee and President of the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter, Roberts remains active in the Academy's Advocacy efforts — and even testified in front of the Senate Judiciary to help pass the important Music Modernization Act.

Below, check out a premiere of the official video for "Space Cadet." Then, read on for an in-depth interview with Roberts about his approach to family music, what he tried to convey with Space Cadet and how his experiences with the Chicago chapter shaped him.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I almost hear this more through the lens of power-pop than family music. What first compelled you to write songs this way — tightly constructed and hyper-melodic with no dull moments?

I mean, I've been making music, and this is my 16th album. So, I think it has changed over time and I try different things. But I started off doing very folky-type records with acoustic guitars and all that, and gradually started writing for a band.

And I found, even early on, that the influences of what I listened to as an adult worked really well for kids. I worked at a preschool briefly and would play Sam Cooke songs for the kids — or a Ramones song if it was lyrically appropriate. I'm just a big fan of really melodic pop music, and a giant Brian Wilson fan. I love hearing music with a lot of things going on.

I write on the computer, primarily, when I'm doing demos. And if I hear something in my head, I add another vocal part or vibes or whatever it is to the demo, and then get in the studio and reconstruct that with actual musicians. Like real string quartets and things like that.

Something I learned early on from working with kids is that they'll take in a really simple, saccharine-type song, and they'll memorize it. But they'll also take in whatever you give them. So, I just tried to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult.

That makes me make things that get stuck in my head and move me emotionally — and I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music.

Power pop can be summed up with a handful of acts — Cheap Trick, the Raspberries, et al — but its reverberations are everywhere. It seems to resonate within the family-music sphere too.

Yeah, exactly. There are tons and tons of ways you can make music for kids.

You know, I was working at a preschool in the early '90s — right out of college. I was playing in a band in Minneapolis, and I had the idea that it has to be really simple — like an "Itsy Bitsy Spider" kind of thing — or the kinds of folk music that were prominent in children's music in the '50s and '60s.

But then, as I was working with kids, I just found that they love anything. I started writing songs in ska or whatever kind of style that I wanted, and I just tried to make it honest. And it seemed to be something that they wanted to hear again and again.

I feel that people of all ages respond to music that's simple and fun. What loses kids, musically speaking? What elements cause their attention to wander?

That's a good question. I mean, there's a big difference between what I do on an album and what I do live. Because after I write the songs, I have to figure out a way to perform them. Because a kid's show is such an interactive thing that you have to constantly keep the audience engaged.

You can't just play songs; you have to find ways to make them a part of the show. Whether it's hand motions, call and response, or various dances — things that will keep them engaged in the variety of those [events] is really important.

When I'm making the album, I'm assuming it's going to be people driving around in their car, or listening in their living room or kitchen. There's going to be a variety of contexts and ways of paying attention. In general, I don't try to predict what people are going to like or not like. I put things on records that I like.

When it comes to family music, there's a fine line between sweet and saccharine. What tools are in your arsenal to not tip over into corniness?

It's probably my own inner critic, which is very strong. Maybe the time that I delve closest to that is when I'm doing a more heartfelt ballad. I'm hoping that it feels real, because it usually is when I'm writing it.

[Space Cadet] has a couple of those, just to give a little break from the 26 musicians, like on "Little Red Wagon" and "Everybody Get On Board." "Whole Lotta Love in this World" was something I hadn't really written anything like, although I'm a huge fan of those '70s drummers that used to play with fingerless gloves and do all these silly fills in ballads.

But I guess it's just a gauge of my own emotion when I'm writing something. And if I don't believe myself, then I stop writing. In general, if it moves me or makes me laugh as an adult, that's usually when I keep writing what I'm writing.

You mentioned Brian Wilson. The title track of Space Cadet has a totally Wilsonian feeling — it moves gracefully through disparate movements.

The thing I enjoy about that song is that it's definitely about a distracted ADHD-type kid — or me, as a person! [Laughs] It has, like, 20 different parts in it — three pre-choruses. And it has that scatterbrained feeling in the song itself.

Has a child ever offered you criticism — harsh or constructive — that compelled you to pivot your approach?

The funniest criticism I ever got was from [one of these] interactive kid shows where I'm often giving direction to the audience. I was, at one point, playing in L.A., and a maybe 8-year-old girl raised her hand. I said, "Yeah? What do you need?" And she said, "Why are you always telling everyone what to do?" [Laughs]

So, for the rest of the show, I was like, "This is just a suggestion. You don't have to do it!" I had to think about that for hours after the show was over.

What do people not understand about family music that you wish they would?

There's a huge variety of music being made now, in every genre you can imagine. There are a lot of people with their hearts in the right places, making great music for families.

One of the great compliments I often get is: not only do parents continue to listen to music after they drop their kids off at school, but I have adults now whose kids are 23. And they still like to listen to my records, which is the greatest compliment.

Can you talk about your relationship with the Academy over the years — and your work with the Chicago chapter, specifically?

After my first GRAMMY nomination [for Best Musical Album For Children for Jungle Gym at the 2011 GRAMMYs], I got a call from the Chicago chapter, asking me to run for the board. Which I did, and I lost. I ran again and lost. And, I think, the third time, I got on, and I served on the chapter for many years.

Eventually, I became the president of the Chicago chapter and a trustee for two terms. But the main thing that really got me involved in the Recording Academy, beyond just being on the board, was the Advocacy work that we were and are doing in D.C.

I started going to GRAMMYs On The Hill as a governor, and was very into trying to change laws to support creatives and musicians. Eventually, I went to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary for the Music Modernization Act with Smokey Robinson and helped propel that along to pass, which was amazing.

I'd always thought of the Recording Academy as just being about the GRAMMY Awards. But I learned about what they do with MusiCares and Advocacy, and the power of our members to change laws and make sure creative people are being treated fairly.

That's the whole reason I was in the Recording Academy — to make sure that stuff was happening. And being part of it was a powerful experience.

Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music

Bob Dylan's Latest Box Set Proves He Remained Stellar In The '80s. These '60s Classic Rock Artists Did, Too.

Bob Dylan

Photo: Deborah Feingold | Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment

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Bob Dylan's Latest Box Set Proves He Remained Stellar In The '80s. These '60s Classic Rock Artists Did, Too.

A revelatory new box set, 'Springtime In New York,' proves that Bob Dylan was still a force of nature in the '80s. It's worth reexamining other classic rock artists' output during the rocky decade.

GRAMMYs/Dec 9, 2021 - 10:10 pm

What do you think of when you consider 1960s artists in the '80s? Washed up, adrift, lost in a sea of emerging technology? You're not alone — Bob Dylan considered himself as such in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles.

"I hadn't actually disappeared from the scene, but the road had narrowed," he wrote. "There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him." (He also calls himself "whitewashed and wasted out professionally" and "in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.")

This is coming from the guy who gave us "Every Grain of Sand," "Jokerman" and "Blind Willie McTell" during that decade, went full wild-eyed Christian-preacher mode in concert, and destroyed the universe on "Late Night With David Letterman" backed by fiery punk band the Plugz. Whatever his internal state at the time, he was selling his creative output short.

Read More: Here's What Went Down At Bob Dylan's Mysterious "Shadow Kingdom" Livestream Concert​

This suspicion — or conviction — that true Dylan heads have always had is now Gospel truth. Springtime in New York, a five-disc smorgasbord that arrived in September, strips away the sometimes-overbearing production of albums like Empire Burlesque, revealing their core components: Dylan in the midst of a spiritual awakening, backed by killer accompanists like the Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler.

So, Dylan has been handed a liferaft from the '80s, a decade thought too often as a sinking ship for him and his contemporaries. Sure, some '60s artists hit creative snags in big ways, and admit as much. Paul McCartney's film and soundtrack Give My Regards to Broad Street didn't quite make it out of the era; the now-prolific David Crosby only released one album, Oh Yes I Can; so on and so forth.

But does this hold true for George Harrison, who rejoined the music industry with a blazing smile on Cloud Nine? What about the Kinks, who handled the curves of the arena-rock and punk eras then hit a grand slam with State of Confusion? Or Jethro Tull, whose Crest of a Knave earned them their first GRAMMY (to the chagrin of Metallica fans)?

Clearly, there's a larger disconnect at play. So let's examine 10 excellent albums by artists most associated with the '60s who put out great work in the '80s.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy (1980)

Believe it or not, Lennon's final album — the one that gave us jewels like "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" and "Watching the Wheels" — earned scathing reviews upon its release.

NME, in particular, wished Lennon had "kept his big happy trap shut until he had something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko Ono." The critics changed their tune after Lennon's slaying mere weeks after its release. But even if he were still with us (and how sweet would that be?), Double Fantasy would remain a milestone.

Picture this: After four chaotic decades in which Lennon lost his mother young and made (and unmade) the most significant rock band of all time, he had a transformative experience on a yacht from Rhode Island to Bermuda, in which a severe tempest forced him to take the wheel alone for several hours. He whooped sea shanties and took it as a baptism.

"I was so centred after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos – and all these songs came!" he later said. They were unlike any others he'd written.

The Rolling Stones — Tattoo You (1981)

It's fascinating to watch the "Beatles or Stones?" debate percolating in the media again, because we get to be reminded of how it's a false dichotomy.

"The Rolling Stones [are] a big concert band in other decades and other areas when the Beatles never even did an arena tour or Madison Square Garden with a decent sound system," Mick Jagger said recently. "They broke up before that business started — the touring business for real."

As the Stones' ultimate stadium-rock monument, Tattoo You has always been well-regarded in their discography. But now that a new 40th Anniversary Edition — released in October via Polydor/Interscope/UMe — offers us a fresh remaster, we can remember that the true integrity of the album is in the songs.

"Start Me Up" has taken on new life in a variety of advertisements, from Windows 95 to the Summer Olympics, and that's because its hook and riff are unforgettable. And "Waiting on a Friend" remains one of their most heart-tugging and elusive tunes — one that only 20-something skirt-chasers could write after deepening and wizening with age.

Joni Mitchell — Wild Things Run Fast (1982)

Coming off her imperial run of albums in the '70s, Mitchell was a bit muted in the '80s.

Synth-pop production and era-specific politicking had a freezing effect on 1985's Dog Eat Dog; 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm leaned heavily on duets with Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Don Henley, and other superstars. (Still, don't write off that last one — Courtney Barnett's a vocal fan!)

That said, her first album of the decade, Wild Things Run Fast, is an imperfect yet deeply satisfying album with distinguished collaborators, like saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Steve Lukather and bassist (and then-husband) Larry Klein.

"Chinese Café" is one of her most underrated, luminous album openers ever, segueing gracefully into the romantic standard "Unchained Melody." And the gems keep coming, from the exquisite "Moon at the Window" to the percolating "Be Cool."

Overall, if you skip the squealing guitars on "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care" and "You Dream Flat Tires" on Side 2, Wild Things Run Fast fits snugly with her '70s fusion-era masterworks.

Read More: For The Record: Joni Mitchell's Emotive 1971 Masterpiece, Blue

The Kinks — State of Confusion (1983)

As only brothers in an all-time-classic rock band could experience, Ray and Dave Davies have had a fractious relationship for decades, both creatively and personally.

Not only was their band, the Kinks, banned from American stages at the height of their fame, but their fraternal tensions led to bizarre incidents like when Ray stamped on Dave's 50th birthday cake.

Today, they're getting along famously and working on new music. But through all the noise in the press, it's worth remembering that the Kinks weathered fundamental shifts in the music industry better than many of their peers. Dave's 1984 tune for the band, "Living on a Thin Line," is a perfect example — it was even featured three times in a classic Sopranos episode.

Also worth celebrating from their '80s period: State of Confusion, a gleaming pop album with hints of punk and new wave. "Long Distance" and "Come Dancing" are the obvious classics of the bunch — Rolling Stone called the former "astonishingly Dylanesque," and the latter, a memory-lane ode to their late sister, Rene, was their biggest hit in more than a decade.

But throw on the whole program and then spelunk deeper into the Kinks' '80s output. You won't be disappointed.

Yes — 90125 (1983)

Breathe a sigh of relief: Many of the greatest prog bands are still with us in the 21st century. Jethro Tull have their first album in decades out soon; Genesis are currently circling the globe on a thrilling reunion tour; the indefatigable Yes just released The Quest.

The latter band has experienced uncommon longevity, having weathered the deaths of key members Chris Squire and Peter Banks and only taking relatively brief hiatuses during their 53-year run. And like King Crimson, Yes only seemed to grow teeth as the '80s dawned.

The new-wavey album marked the return of the honeyed singer Jon Anderson, who had left in 1980. And "Owner of a Lonely Heart," especially, was a thrilling costume change that helped prove Yes could easily retrofit their elaborate jams into danceable pop.

The Beach Boys — The Beach Boys (1985)

Becoming a Beach Boys diehard is a three-pronged process: you get into the experimental '60s material, you realize the early pop hits and '70s albums rule as well, and then their entire history unveils itself as one gorgeous, flawed continuum.

This love story between you and America's Band also means getting to know their central angel: Carl Wilson. When their resident innovator, Brian Wilson, began to fade into the background in the late '60s, his brother stepped in as the band's lionhearted musical director until his 1998 death.

Granted, the Beach Boys' '80s period isn't the first era you should check out, per se. But it doesn't deserve outright dismissal by any means. Their self-titled record, the first since drummer (and middle Wilson brother) Dennis' drowning, carries hard-won poignancy that makes it an essential listen.

Three tunes especially deserve your attention: "Getcha Back," a driving co-write between Mike Love and Terry Melcher; "She Believes in Love Again," a heartfelt Bruce Johnston ballad with a charming yacht-rock veneer; and the elliptical "Where I Belong," which Carl never believed he truly finished.

Read More: Brian Wilson Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Creative Genius. But The Beach Boys Are More Than Just Him.

Jethro Tull — Crest of a Knave (1987)

By now, Crest of a Knave is saddled with the reputation of besting Metallica's …And Justice For All in a GRAMMY category some believed they shouldn't have been in: Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental. (Tull leader Ian Anderson cheekily responded by taking out a Billboard ad reading "The flute is a heavy, metal instrument.")

This is a shame for multiple reasons. Not only is Crest one of Tull's heaviest albums — especially the skyscraping opener "Steel Monkey" — but it contains stone-cold Tull classics throughout. Here, the '80s textures are a feature, not a bug; the sequencers and programming underpin Anderson's songs, which are often set against urban sprawl.

In "Steel Monkey," a knuckleheaded high-rise worker touts his sexual prowess; in "Farm on the Freeway," a profitable farmer loses his generational land to steel and asphalt; in the exquisite "Said She Was a Dancer," an aging Western rock star (Anderson himself?) unsuccessfully hits on an emotionally distant Muscovite.

Read More: Jethro Tull's Aqualung At 50: Ian Anderson On How Whimsy, Inquiry & Religious Skepticism Forged The Progressive Rock Classic

George Harrison — Cloud Nine (1987)

Harrison was more solid in the '80s than you might think: the Traveling Wilburys and Somewhere in England's "Life Itself" are alone worth the price of admission.

But any discussion of his output during the decade must begin with Cloud Nine, conceived and marketed as his comeback. Make fun of the album cover all you want — it radiates positive vibes and perfectly advertises the colorful, Jeff-Lynne-produced music therein.

"That's What It Takes" is an elevating ode to resilience; "Fish on the Sand" makes one wish he did a chunky Byrds thing more often; the jubilant "Got My Mind Set on You" (including its video) is a psychological tonic for anyone going through it.

Cloud Nine would be the final album Harrison would release during his lifetime; his posthumous 2002 album Brainwashed is equally, if not more radiant. What a treat for Harrison fans, that after a few half-engaged '70s albums borne of frustration with the music industry, he reminded the world he had what it took.

Neil Young — Bluenote Café (2015, r. 1987-88)

This idiosyncratic Canerican's '80s period is mostly full of pranks and left-turns, but there's more "there" there than just making David Geffen mad.

1981's Re·ac·tor and 1982's Trans have aged fabulously, touching on electronic music and krautrock while tenderly addressing Young's communication breakdown with his nonverbal son, Ben. Then, there's 1988's This Note's For You, his swinging, bluesy takedown of corporate sponsorship.

He made that album with the Bluenotes, an assortment of old affiliates outfitted with a brass and reeds section. While it's a worthy curiosity today, Bluenote Café, an archival live album containing selections from Young's tours with the Bluenotes, is thrilling in a whole new way.

Throughout, the horns aren't just a pastiche — they legitimately rock. After 23 mighty, blaring songs, including his Freedom classic "Crime in the City" and underrated epic "Ordinary People," you might feel pleasantly exhausted.

That said, if you're not right there with the audience member shrieking "Woooo!" during "Welcome to the Big Room," you might be made of stone. If you're seeking out selections from Young's ever-growing Archives series, miss this one at your peril.

Lou Reed — New York (1989)

The adjective most often pinned on Lou Reed is "streetwise," but New York takes that tag and defines it literally. The rudimentary chord progressions, learnable after three guitar lessons, seem etched in chalk; the dense torrents of lyrics illustrate Reagan-era America.

"Those downtown hoods are no damn good/ Those Italians need a lesson to be taught/ This cop who died in Harlem/ You think they'd get the warnin'," the Velvet Underground leader intones in "Romeo Had Juliette," and the details spill out from there like that unfortunate law officer's blood.

Really, New York feels less like a rock record than a work of dense, engrossing journalism; no matter where or when you commune with it, there you are — right amid the social unrest and urban decay he's describing.

"Outside the city shrieking, screaming, whispering/ The mysteries of life," goes "Xmas in February" — as good a summation of Reed's boots-on-the-ground, head-in-the-ether art as any.

Daniel Lanois On Why A 1,000-Year-Old Tree Informed His New Album, Heavy Sun & Working With Bob Dylan, U2

Poll: From The Beatles' "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" to Taylor Swift's "Christmas Must Be Something More," What's Your Favorite Holiday Song?

Mariah Carey (L) in 2016

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

 

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Poll: From The Beatles' "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" to Taylor Swift's "Christmas Must Be Something More," What's Your Favorite Holiday Song?

Now that the pumpkin-pie hangover has lifted and we're all back to work, it's time for the burning question of the holiday season — what's your favorite Christmas song?

GRAMMYs/Dec 1, 2021 - 02:31 am

Christmas music may be an acquired taste, but there's one underrated thing about the yuletide canon — it's fluid, mutable and elastic.

Sure, you've got the usual chestnuts like "Little Drummer Boy" and "Jingle Bells," and those aren't going anywhere. 

But why can't Joni Mitchell's downcast "River," which is evocatively set against a wintry backdrop, join the party? Or Leonard Cohen's "Dress Rehearsal Rag," with its reference to Santa Claus wielding a razor? What of Big Star's "Jesus Christ," a quaalude-fueled Christmas hallucination from their disheveled 1978 masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers?

This holiday season, let's celebrate the stone-cold classics, like Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas is You," as well as some less-heralded entries by B.B. King, the Pretenders, Low, and more.

Check below for this year's Christmas music poll and let us know of your favorite holiday song. The poll closes on Dec. 14, so don’t delay!

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