Album: Exile on Main St.
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Released: May 12th, 1972
Highlights: Rocks Off, Tumbling Dice, Sweet Virginia, Torn and Frayed, All Down the Line
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Throughout the history of rock music, such combination has been both the fuel to the creative fire that led bands to greatness and the spark that paved the way to their explosive demise. By 1970, The Rolling Stones were no different: they had been basking under that lifestyle since the early days of their career. And, while running away from the Queen’s taxmen and exiling themselves in a Belle Epoque 16-room mansion in the south of France, they would take that mixture to a new height. Only, instead of imploding because of it like they had almost done in 1967 during the recording of “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, they thrived, writing eighteen incredible tracks, burning them onto a record that is as messy as it is spectacular, and proving that – as time has shown – they might as well be immortal demigods walking among us.
The making of “Exile on Main St.” – which included shipments of drugs big enough for the addicts of a small country, drunk parties, the discovery of Nazi memorabilia in the mansion, and interminable unproductive sessions – is so legendary within the lore of rock that it often precedes people’s listening of the album. However, the record does not come off as smaller than its legend; it absolutely surpasses it. Surely, “Exile on Main St.” is not for everyone: its length and number of tracks may cause some to perceive it as unfocused; moreover, due to a producer that was often hanging out with the junkies that converged towards the mansion, an inexperienced Mick Jagger had to take the reigns of the mixing, causing it to be inconsistent, as the vocals were buried by the guitars and the lyrics became unintelligible.
Ultimately, though, “Exile on Main St.” plays like an interactive songbook that travels through the history of American music, with each page that is turned revealing a group of British lads tackling a genre as clumsily, energetically, and instinctively as possible. There is, obviously, rock and roll in “Rocks Off” and “All Down the Line”; blues in “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie”; country in “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed”; soul in “Let it Loose”; and gospel in the gorgeous “Shine a Light” and in the weird “I Just Want to See His Face”, which sounds like something a hidden recorder would have captured if it were planted in a room where a bizarre, potentially satanic, cult takes place.
That is, however, not the only reason why “Exile on Main St.” is so great. In drinking from the genres and musicians that inspired them and coming up with their own versions of the music they loved so deeply, The Rolling Stones are captured operating at the peak of their powers in terms of songwriting and performance. Running loose and conducted by sheer instinct and talent, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor deliver droves of guitar riffs and licks that land like punches to the heart of anyone who loves rock music; while both Jagger and Richards come up with more than a dozen remarkable melodies and lyrics that permeate, without a tiny bit of exaggeration, every single song. “Exile on Main St.” is a transcendent and unstoppable force of nature; a moment in time in which The Rolling Stones cased something far bigger than themselves and the universe around them while being totally unaware of what they were doing. It is, without a drop of doubt, the greatest rock and roll record of all time, and it is quite suiting it was produced under the circumstances in which it was.
Album: London Calling
Artist: The Clash
Released: December 14th, 1979
Highlights: London Calling, Rudie Can’t Fail, Spanish Bombs, Death or Glory, Train in Vain
It is quite fitting “London Calling” came out when it did: the final days of the 70s. Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon were not clairvoyants; therefore, they could not possibly know rock was reaching the end of its golden days, as during the following decades it would be, commercially and critically, surpassed by other genres. However, something must have certainly told them the tide was changing, for “London Calling” feels a whole lot like rock’s last hurrah. The signs are right there on its cover, whose typography and black-and-white picture are a nod towards Evils Presley’s first record. Yet, while Elvis looked absolutely thrilled and held his guitar up in his debut; Simonon was captured in a moment of sheer anger, swinging down his only functioning bass. The contrast between up and down might have been accidental, but, given what was to come, it seems almost prophetic, as if it were announcing rock’s journey had come to an abrupt and spectacular end as it hit the floor.
If it was indeed written as an end-of-times statement, “London Calling” certainly fits the bill, and not just because its title track is an apocalyptic march in which Strummer sings about zombies, floods, nuclear fallout, and war. “London Calling” seems like a final punctuation mark because it explores the past of rock music by tackling the genres that originated it; talks about its present in the form of a few scattered punk numbers; and, then, when it is time to look towards its future, it merges rock so well and deeply with other unusual genres that it reveals to its listeners that rock’s destiny is not to rule forever, but to be swallowed whole and become a part of something else. In such case, the key to the record’s message lies in “Revolution Rock”, one of its last and most overlooked tracks, in which The Clash seamlessly covers a reggae number while Strummer – like a preacher – enthusiastically declares the coming of a new rhythm.
As a punk band that was not afraid to dabble in a few big political subjects, mostly related to the stance one must take when facing the system, it is not surprising to see The Clash take it upon themselves to personally kill rock; after all, the punk movement itself was a loud rejection of most of what came before it, so it is no wonder that – in “London Calling” – The Clash tries to shape the musical future. On the other hand, it is utterly baffling that a band that belonged to punk – the subgenre with the three chords and a lot of speed – would reveal itself to be so utterly flexible, but that is precisely what The Clash does here, tackling ska (“Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”), a piano ballad (“The Card Cheat”), rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), an acoustic folk tale (“Jimmy Jazz”), somehow anticipating part of the post-punk sonority (“Lost in the Supermarket”), toying with rap beats (“The Guns of Brixton”), and producing their most fiery and acid punk declaration (“Clampdown”).
Due to its vast experimentation, which is almost entirely successful and invariably played with the utmost level of energy, “London Calling” is a smart kind of implosion. The Clash tears apart the building on which the group had been standing, but – in doing so – they proceed to construct a new platform they could climb onto, and which they would explore to full extent on the triple album “Sandinista!”. Many years after the release of “London Calling”, rock still lives; however, its existence has been filled with ups and downs since 1979. “London Calling”, then, does not stand as a true last statement, but as the final party that was thrown when the genre was at its peak. Still, it might as well have been rock’s last breath, because nothing ever since has come close to surpassing it.
Album: Bone Machine
Artist: Tom Waits
Released: September 8th, 1992
Highlights: Dirt in the Ground, Who Are You, Black Wings, That Feel
In “Swordfishtrombones”, Tom Waits transitioned from a mysterious young man who sat at the piano of a bar to touch his audience’s hearts with gorgeous lyrics and inspired melodies to a clinically insane bum who built a band with instruments found at the closest junkyard. It was a shift that breathed new life into a career that had grown somewhat stagnant while also paving the way towards some of the weirdest and wildest experimentation in the history of Western music. Coming almost one decade after “Swordfishtrombones”, and with two fantastic and odd albums separating them, “Bone Machine” does not abandon the image associated with its predecessors: it is still, in essence, music that sounds as if it were made by throwing a lot of disjointed pieces together in the midst of a mad stupor. With it, however, Waits moved his act from the filthy junkyard to the gates of hell.
That is to say “Bone Machine” is one dark record. It shuns the humor, carnival spirit, and drunk sadness of the trilogy that preceded it and it chooses to explore, in lyrics and music, subjects that are nothing short of depressive. There is horrifying apocalypse (“Earth Died Screaming”), the meaninglessness of life (“Dirt in the Ground”), resentment towards a lover who takes pleasure in breaking hearts (“Who Are You”), suicide (“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”), social degradation into brutality (“In the Colosseum”), the atmosphere surrounding a mysterious assassination (“Murder in the Red Bar”), the devil himself – possibly – expressing a sinister kind of pleasure upon witnessing the destruction of the moral fabric that holds humanity together (“Black Wings”), and the attempt to hide the pain one feels when leaving the sometimes deadly comfort of familiarity (“Whistle Down The Wind”).
The greatness of “Bone Machine”, though, is not just in how Tom Waits approaches these matters with lyrics that are nothing short of spectacular; after all, that is par for the course for an artist as gifted as he is. “Bone Machine” augments its darkness by sounding not like a funeral where everyone weeps for the misery of life, but by coming off as some twisted celebration of death and destruction. Stripped from the complex instrumentation that was born in “Swordfishtrombones”, the songs here sound almost primal: percussion, invariably, serves as the guiding thread that unites them all; and over these wicked drums Waits and his band deliver melodies, piano arrangements, and guitar lines that drink heavily from the saddest blues numbers, as if they were conducting a frantic séance that summoned the spirit of Robert Johnson himself. Like a twisted maniac, Waits is clearly having a blast in dissecting our tortured existence, turning “Bone Machine” into an album that basks under the life-sucking vortex of a gigantic black hole.
Thanks to such consistency in mood and a powerful display of songwriting, “Bone Machine” easily qualifies as Tom Waits’ most solid work. Its ups do not go as high as those of “Rain Dogs”, but it is steadily reaching high marks throughout its running time. Instead of sulking when faced with the horrors of living, Tom Waits opts to stare down whoever is throwing this amount of trash at us, bang on a drum as maniacally as possible, and prove that he is loving the act of swimming through all the sewage. When listening to “Bone Machine”, one cannot help but smile towards old, crazy, and wise Tom, and join him in making some noise inside a basement directly connected to the furnaces of Satan. The alternative, after all, is sinking to the bottom of a garbage-ridden river.
Album: The Wall
Artist: Pink Floyd
Released: November 30th, 1979
Highlights: Mother, Goodbye Blue Sky, Hey You, Comfortably Numb
In July 1977, Roger Waters – Pink Floyd’s bassist and one of the two pieces of the songwriting duo that guided the band through its most successful era – spat on heckler during a concert. Following the show, upon reflecting on the situation with a much calmer mind, Waters landed on the dilemma of how the traumas that happen as a consequence of human interaction lead people to isolate themselves from the world. The embryo for “The Wall”, which has unquestionably grown into the most popular concept album of all time, then, came to existence. Like all records that attempt to merge the storytelling mechanisms of an opera with the formats imposed on popular music, it lives and dies in the balancing of its wish to tell a story with the fact it must ultimately deliver a solid array of tracks. And, like most of them, it mixes moments in which such balance comes apart with occasions when thematic coherence is joined by musical quality to propel a handful of tunes to a very high status.
Thematically, “The Wall” holds together quite well. Pink, the album’s main character, is solidly developed: the titular wall he builds around himself is perfectly explained, as he suffers at school in the hands of tyrannical teachers (“Another Brick in the Wall”), loses his father in the devastation of the Second World War (“Goodbye Blue Sky”), and becomes a helpless human due to an overprotective mother (“Mother”). All these happenings turn him into an adult that is emotionally distant from others (“Nobody Home”), sexually promiscuous (“Young Lust”), unable to nourish a healthy marriage (“Don’t Leave Me Now”), and ultimately hopeless (“Waiting for the Worms”). It all escalates when Pink hallucinates he, now so deeply hurt and isolated, transforms one of his concerts into a Neo-Nazi rally (“In the Flesh”); decides to halt all the madness (“Stop”); and undergoes a psychological self-analysis that leads him to tear down the wall (“The Trial”).
Where “The Wall” ultimately does not succeed is in its songwriting. For a band accustomed to producing records with less than ten tracks, making one with twenty-six numbers is quite a leap, a fact that is aggravated by how David Gilmour is missing in action through most of the album. The result is mixed: the simpler soft-rock approach of “The Wall”, which is very different from the group’s previous experiments in psychedelia but not completely unexpected considering the pop tendencies of “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”, yields great pieces of music. However, they are outnumbered by tunes that do not go anywhere, serving as moments in which the plot is advanced but the role of “The Wall” as a rock album is forgotten, such truth becomes increasingly more evident as the record goes along, reaching a peak in the operatic conclusion of “The Trial”.
With a subject matter that is invariably easy to relate to (after all, feeling like building a wall around ourselves in order to save our souls from future heartbreaks is something all humans have been through), it is not a surprise “The Wall” is so universally beloved, as it shows how deeply inside a dark well of isolation one can go. At the same time, its fame sometimes clouds the lack of solid songs that permeates its running time, which makes it seem a little too overly indulgent for its own good. Still, as far as rock operas go, few have been more successful and critically acclaimed, and certainly none of them have been able to become so culturally relevant.