April 13, 2015 | Scott
This coming Saturday 18th April is Record Store Day 2015 – held on the third Saturday of April every year, it started in 2007 as a celebration of the spirit of independent record shops and has now become a global event with many artists releasing unique records and CDs as well as making one-off appearances in shops and marketplaces. In these days of digital downloads it seems that the idea of owning a physical copy of a single or album still has a place in many people’s hearts; it’s certainly popular here at Balcony Shirts as we like thinking about records – but not just any old records…
Barking Bard Billy Bragg released the wonderfully-titled ‘Talking To The Taxman About Poetry’ album in 1987. Almost as good was the subtitle ‘The Difficult Third Album’, which refers to the oft-repeated adage that you have years to write your first album as you can use all the best songs that you’ve written up to that point, then your second album has the best of the rest alongside the material that you’ve come up with in the meantime – but when you get to your third album you’ve got to start more-or-less from scratch, which can sometimes result in some less-than-wonderful releases.. After that anything can happen, with some artists going on the create their best work and others falling by the wayside. There are numerous examples of very successful bands and artists taking their eye off the ball for no apparent reason and putting out music that is at best not up to their usual standard and at worst, well, not really up to anyone’s standard at all. We thought it would be interesting (and let’s face it, quite funny) to look at a few examples of what might be called ‘Bad Albums By Big Artists’ – the old saying ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ has rarely been more appropriate than here.
‘Having Fun With Elvis On Stage’ by Elvis Presley was released in 1974. It was ranked at number one in Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s book ‘The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records Of All Time’ which described it thus:- ‘In the three years between the release of ‘Having Fun With Elvis On Stage’ and his death Presley made some truly horrible records that stand today as vivid arguments against barbiturates. But at least on those recordings Elvis was ghastly in the context of performing a song. On this record, we don’t even get to hear the music’. Yes, this mind-bogglingly odd release consists purely of onstage comments from The King, compiled in a manner that could politely be described as ‘confusing’. As the AllMusic review of the album puts it – ‘some have called ‘Having Fun With Elvis On Stage’ thoroughly unlistenable, but it’s actually worse than that; hearing it is like witnessing an auto wreck that somehow ploughed into a carnival freak show, leaving onlookers at once too horrified and too baffled to turn away‘. Not exactly ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ then.
And in case you were wondering who and what was at number 2…
Lou Reed – the godfather of punk, the poet of New York and surely one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. The first Velvet Underground album sold poorly when it was released in 1967 but is now seen as a classic – as Brian Eno famously observed, ‘everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band’. He went on to enjoy great commercial success with the ‘Transformer’ album in 1972, although it’s follow-up ‘Berlin’ was less-accessible and therefore was found confusing and difficult to listen to by many. However this was nothing compared to ‘Metal Machine Music’, which was released in 1975 and is a regular contender for the Worst Album Of All Time. It’s an hour-and-a-bit of electric guitar feedback recorded then played back at different speeds. Rolling Stone magazine called it ‘the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator’, Trouser Press considered it to be ‘four sides of unlistenable oscillator noise’ and many people who’d bought the double album when it was first released took it back to the shop fearing that they had been given a defective copy. To this day no one is really sure if the whole thing was a contractual obligation to his record company or Lou’s idea of a joke. It makes ‘Lulu’, the astonishingly bad album that he made with Metallica (one reviewer described it on it’s release in 2011 as ‘a catastrophic failure on almost every level’) sound like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. It is doubtful that anybody who bought ‘M.M.M’ then started a band as a result – they were more likely to start a suitably noisy piece of heavy machinery.
For many The Clash are not only one of the best punk rock bands, they’re also one of the best bands of all time. At the height of their fame in 1983 Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon made what in hindsight could be seen as the rather dubious decision to sack guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon, then assembled a new line-up which then went on to record a set of songs written by Strummer with the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes. Sadly the resulting album ‘Cut The Crap’ falls so far below the standards set by their other work that it been disowned by band members, all but forgotten by even the group’s most fervent supporters, and is rarely if ever mentioned in books and films on the band. One reviewer likened it to ‘the cast of The Young Ones pretending to be The Clash’, and the situation was made even worse by (a) it’s only good track ‘This Is England’ being released as a single so you didn’t need to buy the album to get it, and (b) Mick Jones releasing a fine album with his new band Big Audio Dynamite at around the same time. All in all not the best way for the group once famously described as ‘the only band that matters’ to bow out.
The Who have often been called ‘The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In The World’. Their original drummer Keith Moon is almost as well known for his crazy antics as he is for his extraordinary playing – his nickname of ‘Moon the Loon’ may go some way towards explaining his decision to sing rather than play drums on his 1975 solo album ‘Two Sides Of The Moon’ despite being by his own admission tone deaf. It’s been labelled ‘the most expensive karaoke album in history’ which only goes part way towards describing it’s often bizarre contents – songs by The Beatles, Harry Nilsson and indeed The Who all fall foul of Keith’s er, ‘pioneering’ approach to pitch and tuning, whilst Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys reportedly burst into tears upon hearing ‘Don’t Worry Baby’. And no, they weren’t tears of joy. Even the presence of such luminaries as David Bowie, John Sebastian and Joe Walsh can’t rescue an album that is so dreadful that it’s attained cult status among students of the genre.
Moonie’s monstrosity consisted solely of ill-advised renditions of great songs – which brings us to the always-iffy subject of cover version albums. Bob Dylan‘s 1970 album ‘Self Portrait’ is an early example in that although it contained a few original songs by The Big Zim it also included not-particularly well-performed renditions of such unlikely material as ‘The Boxer’, ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Let It Be Me’. Even the staunchest Bobcat has trouble defending the album, with the Rolling Stone review beginning with the now-infamous opening line ‘What is this sh*t?’, while Guterman and O’Donnell stated that ‘this album represents the most precipitous drop, the most astonishing stumble by a major performer in rock ‘n’ roll history’. Then again putdowns such as these virtually pale into insignificance next to those awarded to ‘Thank You’ by Duran Duran. Released in 1995 and intended by the band to be a homage to the artists that influenced them most, it has since been described as ‘the single worst album in the history of recorded music’ and topped a Q magazine poll of the worst albums of all time in 2006 when it was described as ‘abysmal on every level. Sometimes things are redeemed on some sort of kitsch value, but it doesn’t even have that’. Other infamously bad examples include Westlife‘s 2004 Frank Sinatra tribute album ‘Allow Us To Be Frank’ and ‘Urban Renewal’, an unbelievably peculiar collection of Phil Collins songs covered by hip-hop artists. But for many the soundtrack to the 1978 film ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ takes the prize. A high budget collection of Beatles songs (produced by George Martin no less) and featuring contributions from the likes of Aerosmith, Earth, Wind & Fire and Billy Preston alongside Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees (at the time two of the biggest selling acts in the World) the whole thing went wrong at pretty much every opportunity. Have you ever wondered how ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ would sound if Frankie Howerd sang it? Well titter ye not missus, because here’s your chance to find out. Back to AllMusic again – ‘this is an absolutely atrocious record, one that was simply beyond saving. There’s really no excuse for such mind-boggling mismatches as George Burns‘s ‘Fixing A Hole, Alice Cooper‘s ‘Because’ and Steve Martin‘s ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ ‘. Somehow you don’t need to hear it to know that they’re correct do you? Incidentally the movie fared little better, with Newsweek memorably describing it as ‘a film with a dangerous resemblance to wallpaper’.
But it’s impossible to consider this subject without giving special mention to The Shaggs and their extraordinary story. The band were formed by Austin Wiggin in Fremont, New Hampshire in 1968 and consisted of his daughters Dot on lead guitar and vocals, Betty on rhythm guitar and vocals, Helen on bass and Rachel on drums. Austin’s mother had visited a palm reader who had made three predictions – that he would marry a blonde woman, have two sons and that his daughters would be in a successful pop band. The first two came true so he took the girls out of school and bought them musical instruments, despite them having had minimal exposure to any music and indeed not having shown any particular interest in the subject. He paid for music and vocal lessons, named them The Shaggs after a hairstyle which was popular at the time and arranged for them to play regular Saturday night shows at the local town hall where they were heckled and had cans thrown at them. Undeterred he financed recording sessions at Fleetwood Studios near Boston, during which the sound engineers couldn’t tell whether the girls had played the songs correctly or not. Their legendary album ‘Philosophy Of The World’ was released in 1969 – journalists were more often than not bemused by it’s contents, with Rolling Stone describing them as sounding like a ‘lobotomised Trapp Family’, The New Yorker calling it ‘hauntingly bad’ and future Brownsville Station songwriter Cub Koda advising anybody listening to the the album to ‘rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationship between talent, originality and ability. There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one’. On the other hand Frank Zappa considered them to be ‘better than the Beatles’, Lester Bangs called ‘Philosophy Of The World’ ‘one of the landmarks of rock ‘n’ roll history’ and Kurt Cobain ranked it his fifth favourite album of all time, calling it ‘so obviously the real thing’. Have a listen by clicking on the album cover (in fact you can hear any of the afore-mentioned aural atrocities by clicking on the relevant album cover – how cool is that?) and see what you think .
There are of course many other examples, not least ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ by Elvis Costello And the Attractions – E.C.’s own liner notes for the CD re-issue begin with the words ‘Congratulations! You just bought the worst album of my career’. Then there’s David Bowie‘s 1987 release ‘Never Let Me Down’, which the man himself described a few years later as ‘such an awful album. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes’. And how about ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ by The Rolling Stones (‘a load of cr*p’ – Keith Richards) or ‘Be Here Now’ by Oasis – as The New Musical Express memorably put it, ‘an overcooked dog’s dinner knocked up by five dusty-nosed egotists and a producer who approached his craft with all the grace of a man overfilling a sausage’. We could go on (after all, we haven’t even mentioned the legends that are The Portsmouth Sinfonia) but instead we’ll finish by saying that the best way to listen to any of the above, especially on Record Store Day, is on vinyl.
Stop Press – news has just reached us that Dorothy ‘Dot’ Wiggin of The Shaggs has formed (you’ve guessed it!) The Dot Wiggin Band, released an album ‘Ready! Get! Go!’ on Alternative Tentacles Records and is out gigging even as we speak. See you down the front!
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