52 Weeks of Music

The Beatles – Please Please Me

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on March 9, 2009

I’m running a couple of weeks behind on this blog and it’s mostly because I haven’t been completely sure where to go next.

It’s tempting to look at a period of music as a watershed, but in reality music is constantly evolving – different areas may be regressing or stagnating while others leap forward. And often what seem to be great leaps are really incremental steps, a unique combination of influences or a uncommon talent taking things to that next level.

A few artists who first appeared in the late sixties have always stood out for me – they were giants who had a profound affect almost all the music I love from the decades since. This is my musical watershed and I’m kind of daunted by tackling it. I wanted to be sure I had all the pieces in place first. To look at it another way these posts are all part of one big story that I am writing one chapter at a time and once I’ve moved on from a chapter I can’t go back to edit, revise and fill in the blanks. I’ve been a little obsessed with setting the stage properly, introducing all the characters.

To make matters worse, for perverse reasons of my own, I’ve been trying  to avoid one particular character and haven’t been able to find a way to tell the story properly without them. But today I decided to give up, just include them in the story and move on. And so this week we have The Beatles…

Please Please Me was the Beatles debut album – recorded in a day when the single of the title track became a hit. It shows a group of solid musicians completely at home with their swag of tunes. The album is pure pop, but certainly not pulp – rich, complex harmonies, unexpected arrangements and loads of energy are apparent throughout. There is a depth here that goes way beyond the bubblegum lyrics and catchy hooks.

Allmusic Review

It’s no surprise that Lennon had shouted himself hoarse by the end of the session, barely getting through “Twist and Shout,” the most famous single take in rock history. He simply got caught up in the music, just like generations of listeners did.
allmusic ★★★★★


Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on February 24, 2009

Bob Dylan’s first, self-titled album contained only two original songs, the rest of the album was made up of covers of folk classics. The album only sold about 2500 copies and didn’t attract Dylan much popular success. It wasn’t until the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963 that Dylan really burst out of the Greenwich Village folk music scene and onto the national stage.


Bob’s folk music roots are still apparent throughout the album – however his approach, themes and attitude were already at the radical end of the genre. It’s not that folk music was a stranger to protest songs – it had long been rooted in life and hardships of the downtrodden – but somehow Dylan brought a new immediacy, a raw edge and a power. As one of the producers on this album, a young african american named Tom Wilson, put it:

I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane…I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. [Dylan] played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted.

The album was recorded across numerous sessions between April 1962 and April 1963. Dylan’s song writing abilities were improving so rapidly at the time that 20 odd songs recorded in these sessions were discarded as Dylan wrote new, better songs.

The songs themselves range from political protest songs of rare potency like “Master of War”, “Oxford Town” and “Hard Rain” to standards like “Corrina, Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance” and passive-aggressive love ballads like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.

Many of the tunes are adaptations of traditional, folk and spiritual tunes, each with their own Bob Dylan twist – “Girl from the North Country” for instance is a unique take on “Scarborough Fair”. Like a true artist in his prime Dylan was begging, borrowing and stealing every bit of inspiration he came across and turning it to his purposes.

The most lasting artifact of the album, and purhaps Dylan’s entire career, is the opening song “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Shortly after Freewheelin’ was release Peter, Paul and Mary released a cover of the song which promptly rose to #2 on the Billboard charts and was a key factor in Dylan’s subsequent rise to prominence. The song comes in at #14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Allmusic Review

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the record that firmly established Dylan as an unparalleled songwriter, one of considerable skill, imagination, and vision.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7097724

James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on February 11, 2009

The godfather of soul, the hardest working man in show business, the most sampled artist of all time – all big claims, but arguably all true.  Brown was personally at the forefront of numerous musical styles over a period of decades including soul, rhythm and blues and funk. His rhythms and vocal style also had an enormous influence on hip hop and breaks.


This weeks album, Live at the Apollo, was recorded at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1963. Brown funded the recording himself after his label refused because they felt that a live album with no new tracks would never succeed commercially.

Along with Abbey Road, the Apollo must be one of the most legendary venues in popular music. It has been the launching pad for artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Lauryn Hill.

And of course Mr Please, Please himself.

The album was a watershed for Brown and for Soul music in general. It hit #2 on Billboard Pop Album Charts, stores couldn’t keep up with demand and radio DJs would play it in it’s entirety – a level of popular success unheard of for the genre, for a live recording and for James Brown.

The album itself jumps between hard driving songs like “Think” and “Night Train” and soulful ballads like “Lost Someone” and “Try Me”, but never really lets up in energy and intensity.

The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, on which it appears at #24, claims that it “may be the greatest live album ever recorded”. While that might overstating it slightly it is certainly a wonderful portrait of one of the best live acts in amazing form.

Allmusic Review

An astonishing record of James and the Flames tearing the roof off the sucker at the mecca of R&B theatres, New York’s Apollo … this should be one of the very first records you ever own.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7097540

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Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on February 5, 2009

Even before this new musical style called blues was being invented, perfected and evolved into rock and roll, a separate form of music with similar ethnic and geographic heritage was following it’s own trajectory. From it’s roots as ragtime and dixieland in the late 1800’s, jazz was moving toward swing even before Son House and Robert Johnson had started recording.

From the early 1920’s through to his death in 1974, “Duke” Ellington was a giant of the jazz, or as he called it “American Music”, scene. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899 he was said to have inherited an elegance and fine manner from his mother and self confidence from his father. His childhood friends noticed his noble airs and dubbed him “Duke”.

Ellington considered himself a composer and band leader first and pianist second, treating his orchestra as his primary instrument. And what an instrument they were – his orchestra featured some of the greats of jazz, many of whom stayed with him for decades.


I’ve picked this week’s album, Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete), mostly because I fell in love with the story behind it.

The story goes something like this…

By 1956 the Duke and his band were in a bit of a flat spot. They had been a major part of the establishment for the best part of three decades and with rock and roll on the up and up – jazz, and big band jazz in particular, was under threat.

Music festivals were a relatively new thing at this point (the Newport was founded in 1954) and so were live recordings of concerts. And audiences were generally fairly sedate.

On July 7 1956, after some drenching thunderstorms, Duke Ellington’s orchestra took the stage to kick off the closing night of the festival. Or at least some of them did – for some reason four of the band had failed to make it on stage.

After a rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” and a couple of standards Ellington and his band left the stage. They returned at the end of the evening with the full compliment and started off with “Take The A Train” followed by recently composed and under-rehearsed medley called “The Newport Suite”. These fell flat and the band moved on through a couple of other lack lustre numbers that also failed to give any indication of what was to come.

The band then went back to some of their earlier material with a pair of blues called “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” – these songs were to be joined by an interlude from saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.

At the proper moment, Gonsalves dug in with his tenor and started blowing. Somewhere around the seventh chorus, it happened. A young blonde woman in a stylish black dress sprung up out of her box seat and began to dance. She had caught the spirit, and everyone took notice — Duke included. In a few moments, that exuberant feeling had spread throughout the crowd. People surged forward, leaving their seats and jitterbugging wildly in the aisles. Hundreds of them got up and stood on their chairs; others pressed forward toward the stage. Sam Woodyard and Jimmy Woode kept driving the beat mercilessly. The power of that beat, and the ferocity of Paul’s solo, is what stirred the crowd to those heights. Duke himself was totally caught up in the moment. The audience was swelling up like a dangerous high tide.

Gonsalves played 27 choruses before Duke let him quit and then he apparently collapsed in exhaustion. But 7000 people in the audience wanted more. The band played a couple more numbers and then the concert organisers tried to call it a night, but neither Duke nor the crowd were having any of it.

When the next song “Tulip or Turnip” drew to a close concert organiser George Wein jumped up, grabbed the mic and told everyone “That’s it! End of story”. This is and the altercation between Ellington and Wein that followed can be heard on the track colourfully titled “Riot Prevention”. Wein insisted Duke call it quits, but Duke wasn’t to be dissuaded.

“Let me tell them good night,” he pleaded. “Can I tell them good night. . . ”

“No more music, Duke. . . ”

But I let him approach the microphone for a final adieu, one last “We love you madly” for the masses. They quieted as Duke stepped up and began to speak.

“Thank you very much, Ladies and Gentlemen.” The roar began again. Duke continued over the din. “We have a very heavy request — for Sam Woodyard! And “Skin Deep”!

And so the band kicked on with a raucus, 9 minute song with a number of wild drum solos – definitely not the thing to calm a mutinous crowd. However once the noise had died down the band moved onto a soothing classic called “Mood Inidgo” and Ellington farewelled the crowd:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we certainly want to thank you for the way you’ve inspired us this evening.

You’re very beautiful, very sweet, and we do love you madly. As we say good night, we want to give you our best wishes, and hope we have this pleasure again next year. Thank you very much.”

And that was the end of that. This concert, and the recording of it,  propelled Ellington into the second half of his career and on to another couple of decades of success.


But the recording itself was largely a fabrication. During the concert there were a range of stuff ups that resulted in the much of the recording being lost – the main example being the famous Gonsalves solo which he played into the wrong mic. Ellington and the band went into the studio shortly after the gig and rerecorded significant chunks, mixed these recordings with the original and some canned applause and released it as a live album.

But the story doesn’t even end there… In 1996 someone, somehow incredibly located the recording captured by the mic that Gonasalves did play into and in 1999 a new version of the concert, which mixed the original recording and the lost pieces, was released. And finally the original concert could be heard in it’s entirety. This recording, tittled Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete) is this weeks album. It’s a small piece of musical history and one of those rare moments of beautiful madness.

The quotes in this story all come from Duke Ellington at Newport, 1956As told by Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein – a first hand account of the evening by the festival organiser.

Allmusic Review

Highly recommended.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7096753 (not album version)

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Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry Is On Top

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 29, 2009

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame puts it “While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.”

Chuck Berry was born in Missouri in 1926. By age 22 he’d spent several years in jail, got married and worked as a factory worker, janitor and beautician. In early 1953 he started playing with Johnnie Johnson’s Trio, covering Nat “King” Cole and Muddy Waters and mixing it up with some country or hillbilly songs.

“Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction,” said Berry. “The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.”


In 1955 the band traveller to Chicago and Berry began stealing the limelight in his band with his outlandish showmanship.

Around this time Berry came to the attention of Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records, the label that Waters had recorded with throughout his career. Leonard was concerned about the decline in the popularity of Chicago blues and was beginning to look elsewhere for the next big thing.

Berry’s first track with Chess, “Maybellene” a reworking of a classic country & western hit, was released in August 1955. The song went to #5 and in doing so changed the course of music history.

The song was significant not just because its musical style hinted at the rock and roll that was to follow, but also because it signalled the start of “black” music gaining wide spread popularity with mainstream, young, white America.


Throughout the late 1950’s Berry continued to record with Chess with considerable success. This week’s album “Chuck Berry Is on Top“, Berry’s third album, was recorded at peak of his popularity in 1959.

During this period Berry’s band was made up for a number of blues legends and pioneers of the emerging rock and roll scene including Fred Below, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Johnnie Johnson. Their contribution to Berry’s success should not be discounted and the lack of credit passed on to them has been the subject of some dispute.

Beyond the catchiness of his tunes, much of Berry’s appeal lay in writing  lyrics that described the experience of being a teenager in the Fifties. As he put it “Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening.” His broad popularity was at least in part because his music was truly of the time – girls, dances, riding in cars and getting in trouble at school are all regular themes.

The influence of this music is hard to overstate. The Ramones and the Beach Boys, not to mention half the top acts of the sixties and every Rockabilly band ever, are only a heartbeat away from these songs. It’s a fair bet that anyone who has played rock and roll learned these songs at some point and the list of people who have covered these songs ranges from David Bowie to NoFX, Queen to the Grateful Dead.

But while pioneering and influential, the album stands on it’s own above all as a fun collection of music. Enjoy!


Allmusic Review

While this may be merely a collection of singles and album ballast (as were most rock & roll LPs of the 1950s and early ’60s), it ends up being the most perfectly realized of Chuck Berry’s career.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7096481

Muddy Waters – Hard Again

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 19, 2009

In the late 50’s & early 60’s Muddy travelled to England. During this time his music reached new, white audiences for the first time, but he was at the start of a quiet period in career.

During the 1960s a new breed of artist, who owed much to Muddy, began rising to prominence – acts like Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Brian May.  However the black audience began turning away from blues music. Perhaps as a symptom of this Chess, the label Muddy had recorded with since the early days, also began to turn their attention elsewhere. Muddy continued recording and performing, but without the success he had experienced in Chicago.

In 1976 Muddy performed at the legendary “Last Waltz” farewell concert for “The Band“, sharing the stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Ringo Starr. This concert proved to be another turning point for Muddy as it signified his return to form and elevation to new heights of popularity.

In 1977 Muddy switched record labels and teamed up with Johnny Winter to kick off the second phase of Muddy’s career. This week’s album, aptly titled Hard Again, was the first recording in a collaboration that was to last the rest of Muddy’s life. Together they recorded three more albums over the next 4 years before Muddy’s health began to deteriorate.

Muddy played his last concert in 1982, filling in in Eric Clapton’s band at a gig in Florida. In 1983 Muddy died of a heart attack, at home in bed.


Aside from Robert Johnson, no single figure is more important in the history and development of the blues than Waters.

In 1987 Muddy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The above quote is taken from his entry.

Allmusic Review

Great blues from one of the dominant voices of the genre.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7095994

Muddy Waters – His best 1947 to 1955

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 13, 2009

I did a Google search the other day for “52 weeks of music” and guess what…. it’s not an original idea. Result #1 Flickr: 52 Weeks Of Music & Blythe :

Every week – take a song that you like, and then using your Blythe dolls, take a picture to capture the lyric, title or message of the song.


Next up is Kahit Na Ano, a blog which periodically features posts containing a photo that relates to a song along with the song title & song lyrics. Interesting idea but again not quite what’s going on here.

Then there’s 52 weeks which is about “Reviewing a South African band every week for 52 weeks”.

Ok, so maybe we’re not just rehashing an old idea.

While I’m rambling… I thought I’d start making a list of artists that I want to cover in next 12 months and I very quickly got to 37. And I’m not counting the 4 posts I’ve either published or started on already. And those are just the artists I really, really need to mention. And there are several that I think I’m going to have to do more than one post for.

Oh well, better get a move on.

One last thing before we get to Mr Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters – from here on in best-of albums will be considered cheating. Except for today.


Unlike Son House and Robert Johnson the inclusion of Muddy Waters here goes beyond historical significance. Muddy Waters is my quintessential blues-man. I love his music and whenever I think of blues it’s his foot stomping rhythms and warm, smiling voice that come to mind.

Muddy was born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi (like House and Johnson) on April 4 1913. He earned the nickname Muddy because he loved playing in mud when he was young.

As a young man learning the blues Muddy was aware of and imitated both House and Johnson.

At age 18 Muddy opened a juke joint featuring moonshine, gambling, a juke box and Muddy himself occasinoally singing and playing guitar. In 1941 Alan Lomax recorded Muddy in his juke joint. Listening to himself on record for the first time was a key moment for Muddy, as he realised he could make it as musician.

In 1943 Muddy took a train to Chicago to try his luck as professional performer. He worked menial jobs by day and played clubs and parties at night.

Muddy’s first successful recording came in 1948 with “I Can’t Be Satisfied” & “I Feel Like Going Home”. Shortly after Muddy sealed his status as a star when “Rollin’ Stone” became a big hit. This song was to have a huge impact over the years being the inspiration for the name The Rolling Stones, for Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone” and for Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”.

This week’s album, His Best: 1947 to 1955, starts off with these early recordings and progresses chronologically through to the mid 1950’s with classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy”. It provides a picture of this first period of Muddy’s career in which he continued to make a name for himself playing and recording in Chicago, and periodically returning to the deep south.


Allmusic Review

allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7095106

Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (almost)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 5, 2009

You might have noticed that last week I cheated slightly – while I picked an artist who was there at the start, I picked a recording that was from late in his lengthy career. This wasn’t an accident, I just felt that it would be good to start with something fairly accessible and Son House’s early stuff is a bit harder to get into. The recording quality isn’t great and the overall feel, while being historically important, isn’t as catchy or fun as that London gig.

There will be no cheating this week. In part because I think it’s important to go back to those early days and in part because this week’s artist had an extremely short career.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson  was born on May 8 1911 in Mississippi. Not much is known about his life and what is known is based on often conflicting and imaginative annecdotes. The only concrete evidence of Johnson’s existence is his music, two photographs, two marriage certificates and a death certificate. Some of the problems in researching Johnson’s life are beautifully documented in Searching for Robert Johnson.

Johnson spent most of his youth in Mississippi and Tennessee. He married twice, losing his 16 year old first wife and first child in childbirth.

Son House remebered Johnson as a boy who followed him around and tried to imitate him with little success. The fact that Johnson managed to go from novice guitarist to being one of the greatest blues-men of all time in the space of two years helped feed the “devil legend”:

According to a legend known to modern Blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar from Johnson and tuned it, giving him mastery of the guitar, and handed it back to him in return for his soul. In exchange Robert Johnson became able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.

This story was also fed by the fact that Johnson died so soon after the legendary meeting.

Johnson was an itinerant musician, travelling from town to town in the deep south, busking on street corners and playing juke joints. He recorded twice; in San Antonio Texas in 1936 and in Dallas Texas in 1937.

Johnson died on August 16 1938 at age 27. As with many other details of his life, there are a number of conflicting stories of his death. One was that the devil was claiming his due, another that he was poised with strychnine by a jealous husband, another that his death was as a result of syphilis and another that he had Marfan’s Syndrome.

Johnson was not immediately an influential musician – to most of his contemporaries he was one of many and it wasn’t until the 60’s that his work really started to stand out. Led Zepplin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones were all fans of his work.

This week’s album is The Complete Recordings – although I’ve removed the alternate takes of many of the songs so it fits on a single CD, so many we should call it The (in)Complete Recordings.


Allmusic Review

The Complete Recordings is essential listening
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7094832

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Son House – Delta Blues and Spirituals

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 1, 2009

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to start this thing – if you’re going to go through 52 albums which one goes first? I was tempted to go with something that means to most to me, but then I started thinking about context & how to set the scene. There’s going to be plenty of time for those favourites. So if you are going to set context where do you start? Do you go back to the Beattles or the Stones? Back to Buddy Holly & Chuck Berry? Muddy Waters? What about Duke Ellington? They have to fit in there somewhere. Then I started thinking about a couple of names I’d heard a lot about, but hadn’t listened to a whole lot; Son House and Robert Johnson. These old blues legends, in my mind at least, seem to be very close to the source of contemporary music. So if we’re going to start let’s start with Son House, only because he recorded a few years earlier than Robert Johnson…

Son House

Son House

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr was born in 1902 in Mississippi and grew up in Louisiana.

House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music. House was an important influence on Muddy Waters and also on Robert Johnson. A seminal Delta blues figure, he remains influential today, with his music being covered by blues-rock groups such as The White Stripes.

Son House died in 1988. The CD this week, Delta Blues and Spirituals is a live recording:

Recorded live for an enthusiastic audience at London’s 100 Club on June 30 and July 14 of 1970 during House’s final European tour, Delta Blues and Spirituals is a great last look at a true blues legend. Though Son House would live another 18 years after this recording, he would only perform for five more, and by most accounts he was only a shadow of his former self relatively shortly after this collection’s release. Thus, Delta Blues and Spirituals remains one of the last vibrant documents of one of the most essential fathers of Delta blues at the top of his game. – http://www.answers.com/topic/delta-blues-and-spirituals


Allmusic Review

Overall, the disc makes for a compelling listen from start to finish, and definitely serves as more than just an impressive historical footnote.
allmusic ★★★★☆

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7088000