Rock Opera: Klaatu - Hope

Klaatu hope

If you know one thing about the obscure prog rock band Klaatu, it's that in the late 1970s they were rumored to be the Beatles. Of course, that wasn't the case, as legions of Beatles fans later realized when they, you know, actually listened to the first Klaatu album. But they were a pretty good, if undervalued band. 

Haling from Toronto, these three studio musicians thought that "the music should speak for itself." Hence, no bios, photos or interviews with the band, not even credits indicating who played or wrote the songs. And since they were signed to Capitol Records, some bonehead reporter for the Providence Journal thought it must be the fab four reunited.

At any rate, when all these Beatles rumors surfaced, sales for their first album soared. And admittedly, there are a couple of Beatlest-esque tunes on the first album, notably "Subway Sub Rosa" and "Little Neutrino." Meanwhile the band shrugged off the rumors since they were busy in London recording their second album, the rock opera "Hope," with the London Symphony Orchestra. And The Carpenters released had a hit single with their version of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft."

And I've got to say, "Hope" is one helluva an album. Although it clocks in at just over 40 minutes, it is ambitious and grandiose musically and thematically. It tells the story of an ancient race or planet of space travelers and a lonely lighthouse keeper at the end of space or who the heck knows what. There is a story here, which is why I think this qualifies as a rock opera more than just a concept album, but I wouldn't be able to explain it to you. Still, I would put it up there with SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. It's that good an album.

While the whole album is excellent, I view "Long Live Politzania" as the best cut. Ok, and some of the vocals on this album do sound a bit like George Harrison but I think it's just coincidental. The guitar work on "Madman" is also excellent. The music has a '70s extravagance that you will either love or hate. There are elements that compare with Queen, King Crimson, Supertramp, the Beach Boys, fellow Canadians Max Webster and others from that era.

Unfortunately, at some point the truth behind the rumor ("Klaatu is Klaatu!") surfaced and there was a huge backlash against the band. This was unfortunate because the band had nothing to do with these rumors. The band recorded three more albums before breaking up. 

The first three albums are excellent while I consider the last two a bit more hit-or-miss. There's also an excellent box set called "Sun Set" which includes all of Hope with all of the London Symphony Orchestra sections fully restored. The albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and from the official Klaatu website.

Since live footage of Klaatu is relatively hard to come by, here's a 1974 live performance on CBC Music Machine with a song from their first album. 

You can also find more rock opera reviews at www.rock-opera.com


Rock Opera: Joe's Garage

Joes garage

For a lot of people, Joe’s Garage remains one of the most approachable of Frank Zappa’s works. Technically, a triple album when released on vinyl in 1979, it's long since been reissued as a double CD combining Acts I, II and III and clocking in at just under 2 hours.

Although the title track has the usual Zappa key and tempo changes, it has a catchy sing-along chorus and just the right amount of humor to not overwhelm the casual listener.

Zappa narrates the story as the “Central Scrutinizer,” providing the necessary explanations that keep the story moving along as Joe moves from Garage Band to degenerate rock star, a criminal and ultimately gives up on his musical dreams to worker at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Facility. It’s got the usual rock opera themes of dystopian society, music is illegal, yada yada yada. (In tribute to Zappa, we snuck in a few references to "Louie, Louie" in Underground Radio.

The lyrics range from profane (“Crew Slut”) to comical (“Why Does It Hurt When I pee?”) and occasionally profound:

Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is the best

Considering the album was released in 1979 against the backdrop of government censorship of rock music, it’s an appropriate and compelling social satire.

The album has several epic guitar solos and an occasional ‘70s disco-funk influence, but overall the album holds up. The penultimate song is the instrumental “Watermelon in Easter Hay” a signature Zappa song, that his son Dweezil regards as one of his father’s greatest solos. It’s a truly majestic piece of work, intended as the product of Joe’s tortured imagination. Here's a video of Dweezil Zappa playing it:

You can also find more rock opera reviews at www.rock-opera.com


Sgt Pepper Revisited

SgtPepper alt 1
It was 50 years ago today, the Beatles' album "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released, ushering in a new sound for the Beatles, but also for rock music in general. For many, Sgt Pepper's is considered a breakthrough album, for others, including some of the Beatles themselves, an over-blown affair. Not to miss an anniversary, Apple has released a newly remastered version of the album, undertaken by none other than Giles Martin, son of the Beatles' original producer George Martin. Fans of the album will want to pick up this new version, regardless of what this or any other review says. 

The reissue is available in several forms, but in this review I'll cover the "Deluxe" 2 CD edition which includes the remastered original album along with a second disk of 18 never-before released alternate takes as well as remastered versions of the singles "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" that were recorded earlier in 1967, but weren't on the original album. There's also a "Super Deluxe" version which includes 2 disks of alternate takes, the original mono mix, the 1992 25-year documentary film on DVD, a blu-ray audio disk and a 144 page hardcover book with details on all the recorded tracks, photos, hand-written lyrics etc.

Beyond the 50th anniversary, the impetus for the reissue is that the original stereo mixes of Beatles albums are rather outdated. Back in '67, few people owned stereos. So while the Beatles were heavily involved in the mono mixes, none cared enough about the stereo mixes to actually be involved, instead delegating the task to the Abbey Road audio engineer Geoff Emerick. Because of the limitations 4-track recording, many of the original stereo mixes are panned quite hard left and right. While that extreme panning (for example hearing the drums widely separated from vocals) can be dramatic on occasion, the new reissue sounds much better. Not only does it sound more modern, it is much more vibrant.

Sgt Pepper studioThere's a richness to the new release that makes the drums, bass and occasional guitar fills crisper and more natural sounding, without sacrificing anything. While the improvement is most pronounced when listening on headphones, even with a decent car or home stereo, the original stereo album sounds flat by comparison. There's a punch to the new mixes that is unmistakable.

The sound is most noticeable on the opening title track and "Reprise," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," "Getting Better," "Fixing A Hole," "Lovely Rita," "Good Morning," and "A Day In The Life." Admittedly, that's pretty much the entire album. To be clear, every track sounds much better.

As with most "alternate takes" disks, I would have to say this one is also a bit of a mixed bag. Almost by definition, alternate takes are those which were not chosen for the original album, usually being obviously inferior. Still, they provide an interesting perspective. The Beatles are at times funny, sharp, flat, off-key, out-of-time, but always sounding good. It makes the Beatles more human and less like pop geniuses to hear the takes before they've been subject to the magic of George Martin's production wizardry. The remastered versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" are superb, but only a few of the alternate takes will be worth more than a few listens. The unadorned version of "Good Morning" is excellent and I found take 1 of "A Day In The Life," arguably the Beatles' greatest song, fascinating. If you're a fan of the Anthology albums, you'll love the disk. If you're a casual fan, it's less compelling.

At this point, I may as well state the obvious: I'm a huge fan of this album and the reissue. I don't think "Sgt Pepper's" is necessarily the Beatle's best album -- I would rate "Revolver" higher-- but it holds a special place for me as the first album I bought. And it still sounds fresh, innovative and compelling, 50 years after it's release.

The only down side to listening to the remastered version, is that not only does the original sound flat in comparison, but so do the rest of the Beatles' albums. I can only hope that Apple remasters the rest in the coming years. And for fans who just can't get enough, check out the PBS show "Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution" as well as Rolling Stone's excellent coverage including the back story on every song


Rock Opera: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Ghoest-brothers2

Note: This story is also posted at www.rock-opera.com

This next one is a bit of an odd-ball to me. It's not exactly a rock opera, but it's close enough to warrant examination. "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" came together in 2013 as a joint project of John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett. Ok, that's quite a parentage right there. Their efforts yielded a star-studded band, an album, a "hardcover" box set and a touring cast. While there's some rock to this whole thing, "Ghost Brothers" is more alt-country-musical than rock opera. So it's important to judge the project on that basis, rather than comparing to a traditional rock opera like "Tommy."  If you are looking for big soaring guitar solos, this is not gonna cut it. 

But if you like the roots rock music of Mellencamp, Elvis Costello or The Blasters, then it might be right up your alley. However, before every musical number there's a dramatic exposition that takes place. It starts off with the narrator (Stephen King) introducing the tale as a back-country DJ known as the Zydeco Cowboy. These narrative elements are done well with professional actors, and they help move the story along in a way that is hard to do with just songs. But if you just want to listen to the music, you'll be hitting the skip button quite often. The songwriting, the vocals, the playing, the production are all top notch, conveying a real sense of emotion and some nice swampy southern sounds. Standout songs for me include "So Goddamn Smart,"How Many Days," "Tear This Cabin Down."  To be clear, I'm way more a fan of "alt" than "country."  Your mileage may vary. 

Personally, I find this album interesting, but, even with Elvis Costello on board, this is too far afield for repeated listening. It's a good effort, just not my cup of tea. 

Check out more rock opera reviews at www.rock-opera.com


Springsteen Relives The River

Springsteen

I managed to catch Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live this week at The Palace at Auburn Hills, Michigan.  I'm not the biggest Springsteen fan, but I have friends who have been telling me for years about his epic live shows.  If you've never been, it is definitely a revival experience.

His current 2016  tour commemorates the 35th anniversary of his 1980 double album "The River." (Interesting historical fact, the original River tour began in October 1980 at Crisler Arena in nearby Ann Arbor.)

For Springsteen fans, this was definitely a homecoming concert. Springsteen and the latest incarnation of the E Street Band play the entire double album, and then proceed into a lengthy repertoire of hits: "Bad Lands," "Promised Land," "Rosalita," "Dancing in the Dark," "Because the Night," "Born In The USA," and even the old Isley Brothers song "Shout" with Bob Seger joining the band on stage. (Further historical fact, Seger joined Springsteen on stage at Crisler Stadium back in 1980 to sing "Thunder Road.")  

For a man who has crossed the 65 year mark, Springsteen has a remarkable amount of energy. This was a three and a half hour all-out high-energy show, with no breaks. Springsteen is certainly not phoning it in. He was out in the audience, crowd surfing, and getting the audience up on their feet. The band is impeccable with Max Weinberg's powerful drumming, Steven Van Zandt on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Nils Lofgren on lead guitar, and Jake Clemons stepping in for his uncle, the late, great Clarence Clemons.  

Die hard fans seemed to know the words to every song, even the deep cuts off The River that never got much airplay. The audience was a sea of old people reliving their youth, dancing to the music and enjoying the vibe. When Springsteen and band are giving it their all up on stage, it's hard not to appreciate their energy and enthusiasm. 


Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated?

Goodbye Winterland front

With those memorable words, Johnny Rotten ended the final Sex Pistols concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in January 1978. Rotten parted company with the band, though they released a few other singles without him as well as the miserable Julian Temple film "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle." 

Although most reports from this era say they weren't playing very well, concert footage from Winterland and bootleg albums, tell a different story.  Yes, there are times when the band appears to just want to get things over with --particularly on "No Fun," the Stooges song that served as an encore. The vocals are rough, Steve Jones guitar is occasionally out of tune and Sid's bass playing is not always excellent. But it's still much better than I had expected.  

It also seems that in San Francisco, the band found a receptive audience. The show was recorded for local San Jose radio station KSAN and so bootlegs are available if you know where to look.  The sound check bootleg is particularly good.  


Underground Radio - Open Source Rock Opera

Zack and rob studio 4x3 with titles

My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more.

We even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra! And it's the first rock opera to include sound effects from Mars, courtesy of NASA and the US taxpayers at a cost of $18 billion. NASA also does some other cool things besides supporting rock operas. As far as we know, this is also the first rock opera to be recorded entirely in GarageBand

Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.

All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it.  If anyone wants to re-mix the songs, we're happy to share the GarageBand or LogicPro files. 

The project is now fully funded on Kickstarter but if we can raise more money towards defraying the mixing and mastering costs, that is appreciated. We're looking for input about what else we should provide backers in return for hitting our "stretch goals".  For example, we could provide more bonus instrumental tracks, chord charts to the songs, higher quality loss-less audio files, a digital tour booklet,  tour poster, album covers etc. Let us know your input in comments or on the kickstarter page.

Update: The music and Libretto are now available for free download at www.rock-opera.com. You can also listen at SoundCloud.

 

 


Searching for Sugar Man

Sugar man

I admit, I'm late to the party. How did I miss this? If you have any interest in music, you have to watch "Searching for Sugar Man." It's the story of Detroit singer songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who issued two albums in the early '70s, faded into obscurity yet became the voice of a generation in South Africa.

This is like discovering some bootleg Dylan album produced by Phil Spector that got shelved for 40 years. If it was fiction you'd say it was too far-fetched. Yet, it's all true. Checkout the trailer below.


S.F. Sorrow - The First Rock Opera

Sf sorrow

If you ask most people to name a rock opera, they'll probably come up with "Tommy" and not much else. Until recently, I had assumed The Who's "Tommy" was not only the definitive rock opera but also the first.  But as I learned listening to the public radio show SoundOpinions, Pete Townshend was beat out by a year with a release of the album "S.F. Sorrow" by the UK band The Pretty Things.

The Pretty Things started out as a typical UK R&B band with a claim to fame of being hairier, dirtier and raunchier than The Rolling Stones. The Pretty Things' first two albums ("The Pretty Things", "Get the Picture" both released in 1965) are steeped in American rhythm & blues with cranked-up fuzz guitar. The music is not to everyone's taste, but if you like '60s garage rock sound, it's brilliant. By their fourth album they were stretching beyond the form and had the idea to create a collection of songs that told a story. 

S.F. Sorrow was recorded at famed Abbey Road studios in London, in 1967 where the Beatles and Pink Floyd were also recording. The music and production is definitely of an era; if you can get past the occasional sitar, woodwinds and backwards tape studio effects, it's a brilliant album that combines melody, lush vocal harmonies, and psychadelic garage rock full-gain Marshall stack guitar solos in ways that I'd never imagined before. It makes S.F. Sorrow a tremendous discovery. Many of the songs sound like they could be from some long lost Beatles bootleg session. Standout cuts include "S.F. Sorrow is born", "She Says Good Morning", "Balloon Burning", "Baron Saturday", "The Journey" and "I See You."  Also "Mr Evasion." And "Talkin' About the Good Times." Ok, I like almost everything on this album.  There are a few clunkers for sure, but overall these fit in with to the broader '60s context and make the best songs stand out even more.

Alas, S.F. Sorrow album got little support in America. The band continued to record for many years, with a somewhat evolving crew of bandmembers and still tours to this day. Unfortunately, The Pretty Things never really got the recognition they deserved for their early blues-based albums, their pioneering pyschadelic sound or their creation of the first ever rock opera. 

Here's a YouTube video with most of the original lineup of The Pretty Things live from Abbey Road in 1998 recreating "S.F. Sorrow" in it's entirety along with some help from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. (Skip ahead to 3:15 where the music starts.) 

This live session was also issued as the album and DVD Resurrection.  Thanks again to Sound Opinions, for a great show on Rock Operas.


Royale - Sci-Fi Yacht Metal Record


  Royale_band

Sci-Fi Yacht Metal?  Ok, I can't resist.  Chicago band Royale has a Kickstarter project to fund the recording of their debut album.  $10 gets you the digital release later this fall.  Or splurge and get a jam track named after you.  If the song 1981 is anything like the rest of their set, this sounds like it will be a great album.  

These guys are all top-notch musicians hanging out at Chicago Music Exchange.  The music has a great atmospheric vibe to it.  Sort of chill with great melodic guitar.  If only it were a full blown rock opera...  That would be even better.

Here's a YouTube video for 1981.  I think it conveys everything you need to know about this band:


John Surette - Tomorrow The World

Tomorrow the world

John Surette of '80s Massachusetts punk band "Boy's Life" put together a Punk Rock Opera called "Tomorrow The World."  This is another successful Kickstarter rock opera that I missed out on.  It was performed live in Boston and the music is available for $7 on BandCamp.  The production and sound quality are top-notch and the music has plenty of pop power punk hookage to keep it interesting.  Well worth the price of admission.

Live video posted below:


Luke Carr Sound - Storming The Beaches

Luke carr sound

I don't know how I missed it, but apparently lots of folks have been developing rock operas over at Kickstarter. One that I am particularly impressed with is Luke Carr's "Storming the Beaches with Logos in Hand."  Luke Carr is out of Santa Fe and it's a sort of Sci-Fi rock opera about an alternate version of North America history where there's an advanced Native American culture, a failed industrial revolution and a war. 

It's probably too late to get in on the Kickstarter action, but this looks pretty epic.  Here's one of the videos from a recent live gig.  

According to Carr's blog, the album is expected in 2014.  It sounds superb.