Just for the record: The best of the year dished up on a platter
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
Welcome to 2019, and here’s hoping that, on the vinyl frontier, we chug ahead at a steady 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute and all is better than last year. Let’s not kid ourselves, 2018 was a grim year for original music. According to figures released by BPI (known as the British Phonographic Industry in the pre-digital era), the year’s best-selling albums were either editions of the Now That’s What I Call Music compilations or soundtracks from musical films, such as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and A Star Is Born. Only four of the top 10 releases in the UK were by individual artists – indicating a worrying loss of relevance in “the album” as an artistic concept and cultural force.
Sales continued to drop. Last year, 46 million copies of physical and downloaded albums were sold in the UK. In 2010, that figure was 120 million. Almost two-thirds of music is now streamed by such services as Spotify and others, as more and more consumers cherry-pick tracks without ever listening to albums in their entirety.
Vinyl’s fortunes, however, continued to rise. Sales of LPs steadily increased; ditto cassettes, surprisingly, with UK sales figures now the highest since 2004. (One wonders what they’re played on. Old Sony Walkmans found in the attic, perhaps?)
Over in the US, the dinosaur formats fared just as well. According to BuzzAngle, which monitors the music industry there, album sales on vinyl and cassette both increased significantly: vinyl by almost 12% from 8.6 million copies to 9.7 million, and cassettes by nearly 20%, from 99,400 to 118,200 copies. While that is nowhere near the 42% rise seen in streaming, it’s nevertheless impressive for formats that were written off as obsolete by the industry more than 30 years ago. As this column has noted, the popularity of the physical format does appear to be driven by the reissue or “heritage” market, with BuzzAngle reporting that two-thirds of vinyl sales are of decades-old albums by Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and others. Significantly, more than a quarter of all these sales were of albums by the Beatles, which brings us to …
Get back … to 1969
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s last public performance, the lunch-hour “rooftop concert” on the top of a Savile Row, London, building that was filmed for the closing sequences of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be, a documentary about the rehearsal and recording of the group’s 12th and final studio album.
The open-air gig, on January 30 1969, lasted just 42 minutes. The Beatles performed Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got a Feeling, One After 909 and Dig a Pony before police broke up the unannounced concert following complaints it was disturbing the peace. While the Plod prematurely pulled the plug on one of the 20th century’s greatest musical acts, there is some suggestion that the group may have welcomed the disruption. Conditions certainly were grim up there, this being midwinter in London.
According to the recently published The Roof: The Beatles’ Final Concert by Ken Mansfield (Permuted Press), Paul McCartney kept warm by jumping up and down on the makeshift stage, ostensibly to see if it would support the PA. Ringo Starr had to borrow his wife’s red coat, while George Harrison thawed out his icy fingers on cigarettes that were lit by Mansfield, then manager of the US branch of the group’s Apple Records label. John Lennon, moaning that his hands were too cold to play his guitar, performed in Yoko Ono’s fur coat. Lennon would have the final word as the band unplugged and shuffled offstage: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition …”
Lindsay-Hogg’s film has not been officially available since the 1980s, when it was released on VHS, but a DVD edition has reportedly been in the works since 2011. One convincing explanation for its continuing non-appearance is that the film offers painfully candid insights into the dynamics that led to the Beatles’ coming breakup, such rancour running counter to the warm nostalgia and “heritage” fervour that comes with the rerelease programme.
There will be no anniversary Let It Be reissues this year. The tapes of these messy recording sessions were finally handed over to producer Phil Spector who cobbled them together, controversially, for the Beatles’ final album, Let It Be, which came out in 1970. (McCartney has since announced a new version of the film will be released next year.)
Initial copies of the vinyl album that followed (Apple Records PXS 1) are highly prized. These were limited edition boxed sets which featured the 11-track record along with a lavish book featuring photographs from the recording sessions and elsewhere. Copies are currently trading online at between R6,000 and R40,000 apiece, depending on condition.
There may or may not be some half-century fuss about the Yellow Submarine movie soundtrack, but the big item on the Beatles reissue programme this year, come September, will focus on Abbey Road, the acclaimed album that arose from the final recording sessions in which all four Beatles participated before their break-up in April 1970.
The year, needless to say, was a staggering one for us old farts. Rock continued to, uh, rock out, as the decade drew to a close; it remained an exciting and visceral era, with acts from both sides of the Atlantic turning in memorable, groundbreaking albums. This is hugely speculative, but we can, in more or less chronological order, expect lavish 50th-anniversary vinyl (and otherwise) reissue editions of the following:
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou Country, Green River and Willy and the Poor Boys – three staggering albums released over an 11-month period. True, they were all recently reissued on vinyl, but pristine copies of these well-worn gems will be welcome.
Led Zeppelin’s first two releases. Admittedly, I and II have recently been given the remastered, reissue overhaul, but this space is worth watching – presumably for contemporary, unreleased concert recordings. Ditto Neil Young and his self-titled debut solo album. It was given a sonic clean-up some years back, but there could be some renewed vinyl activity here. Expect more, however, from the 50th anniversary hoopla surrounding Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the album recorded with garage rockers Crazy Horse and released just three months later. The second volume of his Archive series is also slated for release this year. (See below.)
The Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin. A country-rock gem, and an absolute must-have in any collection.
The first Genesis album, From Genesis to Revelation. Major revisiting of the prog-rock thinking cap stuff starts with this.
Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis; expect a seriously searing soul reboot; an absolutely essential must-have in any collection.
Al Green’s Green is Blues: not that essential, perhaps, but as a debut album a reliable precursor of what was to come with Green’s subsequent soul masterpieces.
Joe Cocker’s debut, With A Little Help From My Friends. The so-called “Sheffield steel” started here, but within a few years would be noticeably dulled. But this is startling stuff, all the same.
Joni Mitchell’s Clouds: one of many extraordinary albums from this immensely talented artist, whose work is in dire need of reappraisal.
Ditto maverick Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s sophomore outing, Our Mother the Mountain.
Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand!, a pioneering, psychedelic consciousness-raising proto-funk brew that mixed righteous anger with effervescent party politics. From here on in, the getting down got seriously deep.
The Who’s Tommy, a rock opera that spawned a myriad imitators. See me, feel me, touch me, etc.
Crosby, Stills and Nash’s self-titled debut, brimful with brilliant melodies and counter-cultural forelock-tugging. Launching the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter hippy aesthetic. Could Woodstock be far away?
No. Although the soundtrack album for the movie documenting the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair would only be released a year later, expect much in the way here of celebrations marking the festival’s half-centenary.
Elton John’s debut, Empty Sky. Five will get you ten that there’ll be heaps of fizz here, given Elton biopic Rocket Man is coming to the big screen in the not too distant future.
Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis. The second coming (and versions thereof) of the King goes into overdrive at this point.
The Doors’ Soft Parade. Their weakest studio album, but that won’t matter to the faithful.
A lot happened to the Rolling Stones in 1969: co-founder Brian Jones died shortly after his dismissal, and the group introduced his replacement, Mick Taylor, at a free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969. Expect some noise about this, although they ended the year with one of the best releases of their career, Let It Bleed. Unfortunately, the grim business that was the free concert at the Altamont speedway, outside San Fransisco, would follow. See 1970’s Gimme Shelter, the riveting documentary by Albert and David Maysles, for further details on the killing that put paid to the Sixties dream.
Further to Woodstock, the first Isle of Wight Festival should throw up a commemorative vinyl edition, considering it had Bob Dylan, the Band and the Who as headliners.
Santana’s eponymous debut album. They were an unheralded triumph at Woodstock and, given their youthful guitarist/bandleader’s Hispanic roots and the Latin American influences in their music, perhaps world music’s first true pioneers. Nick Drake’s debut, Five Leaves Left. Progressive English folk from a brilliant songwriter who would only find a wider audience after his death in 1974, aged 26.
Janis Joplin’s debut solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Much in the way of shouty, shouty stuff but hugely influential, all the same.
The Band’s self-titled second album. One of the greatest records of all time. Period.
Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, the first of his Stax masterpieces.
Diana Ross and the Supremes called it quits with the release of their final single, Someday We’ll Be Together. Expect much in the way of retrospective compilations. Frankly, it’s not hard to go wrong here.
Rod Stewart’s The Rod Stewart Album hinted at the sense of community and warmth that would characterise his albums over the next couple of years. Sadly, by 1973’s Atlantic Crossing, it would all be over, and he’d be reduced to a somewhat desperate figure in the company of many (considerably) taller actress types. Tragic.
Finally, Grand Funk Railroad release their debut, On Time, and later in the year, its follow-up, Grand Funk, marking a worrying and bombastic turn of events in the affairs of rock.
Which brings us to the new and coming releases on my radar.
Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar), released January 18, has been getting a lot of press; following four albums of subtle, folked-up indie rock, the singer-songwriter (and sometimes therapist, actor and stand-up comic) has turned to the dark electronica of Portishead, Suicide and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree for inspiration. Judging by the cover art, the birth of her son two years ago has also been a guiding force.
You can hear the album’s lead single, Comeback Kid, here:
Portland, Oregon’s The Delines exploded on the Americana scene with Colfax, their stunning 2014 debut. Then singer Amy Boone, who formed the band with husband Willy Vlautin just two years earlier, was taken out in a horrific car smash which broke her legs in several places. Recovery has been slow, but new album The Imperial (Decor), sees the group return in fine fettle. Out next week.
There’s no release date or title yet, but a posthumous Leonard Cohen album, featuring unreleased songs he was working on during the recording sessions for his last album, You Want It Darker, is in the works. Elsewhere, Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, premieres at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
The trawl through the late Prince’s vast vaults continues, and a raft of unheard material is also scheduled for release.
As previously mentioned in this space, the Specials release Encore (UMC) next month, the first new album from the ska revivalists in 37 years. Advance sales have been strong, and it’s already an Amazon bestseller.
Elsewhere, 2019 will see new material from the Raconteurs (with former White Stripe Jack White), the Who (Pete Townshend reportedly wants more input from Roger Daltrey), Robert Smith and the Cure, angry US singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, trippy alt-country left-fielders Lambchop, venerable British institution PJ Harvey, former Pulp singer and frontman Jarvis Cocker, alt-folkie Joan Shelley, former Go-Between Robert Forster, new traditionalist Rhiannon Giddens, country saviour Margo Price, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Among others. A new album from the Rolling Stones is a possibility. My hot tip of the year is going to British trip-folkie Michael Kiwanuka, who is working on new material in the studio with producer Danger Mouse. On analogue tape, according to Mojo magazine.
Boxed sets on the horizon
Later this year, Blondie release The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1985, which features all their albums remastered from original analogue tapes along with two discs of B-sides and other rarities. Neil Young’s Archives Volume 2, which covers the years 1972 to ’82, is reportedly coming out in May. Start saving now.