“Here comes the thunder. Here comes the rain. I sure hope the lightening don’t strike me again. Cyclones and typhoons, tornados too. Baby they should name a hurricane after you.”
Live albums. Good or bad? The first live album that I really loved was “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” by Van Morrison. There are lots of great reasons why – I was at a concert at The Rainbow where some of the songs were records; the sound is brilliant; the performances are more dynamic than the recorded versions; there are a lot of previously unrecorded covers; Van Morrison is fantastic.
Other great live albums? “The Last Waltz” and “Rock Of Ages” by The Band, “Live Rust” and “Weld” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Live 1969” by The Velvet Underground, “Wings Over America” by Wings and “Stage” by David Bowie. I was never really a fan of “Four Way Street” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or “Before The Flood” by Bob Dylan and The Band. “Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne is a very good album – some of it was recorded live on stage, some of it was recorded in rehearsal, one song was recorded on the tour bus, “Cocaine” was recorded in a hotel room at the end of a rock’n’roll evening and “The Road” is a hybrid of a recording in a hotel room and a performance on stage. Best of all is “Before The Dawn” by Kate Bush.
Why bother releasing a live album at all? The cynics would say that it is a cheap way of delivering more product to fans who are desperate to hear everything by their favourite artist. Not being remotely cynical, I can’t agree with this argument (that I’m having with myself). Going to a concert can be more exciting than listening to a record and a good live album can replicate the experience. A live album can also develop the ideas that exist in the original recording and demonstrate a different perspective to a familiar song. For example, when The War Of Drugs now play “Under The Pressure” live, they have extended the middle section so that the tension builds as the drummer gets more and more impassioned until the song explodes for the last few minutes. Whilst the original was good, the live version is at another level. There is something special about hearing raw emotion which can occur live but is not always present in a studio recording.
Loudon Wainwright III started his recording career by releasing two albums (“Album I” and “Album II”) which featured his singing and an acoustic guitar. They are excellent. When he released “Album III”, there was added instrumentation such as bass, drums and electric guitar. Although this album produced a hit (“Dead Skunk”), it was a foretaste of the problems that Loudon Wainwright was to encounter for the next twenty years before he got control over his own recordings. The dichotomy that he faced was that he craved success (he even called one of his albums “Fame And Wealth”) and he was willing to go along with the suggestions made by record company executives that he make his music more accessible in order to sell more records. The best songs on “Album III” are those where it’s just him and a guitar (“Red Guitar”, “B-Side” and “New Paint”). This mixture of acoustic and over-produced songs was to be repeated on subsequent albums.
An added complication with Loudon Wainwright are the expectations placed upon him by his audience. It is always annoying when I go to one of his concerts and he asks the audience what they want to hear. There’s always someone that doesn’t know many of his songs who has a loud voice and will shout out for “Dead Skunk” or “Swimming Song”. These are two of his weakest songs but are well known. They are, to my mind, simplistic and one dimensional. They are funny (for the first thousand times) but are not invested with the raw emotion of his best work. On “Attempted Mustache”, there are some lovely songs featuring just an acoustic guitar (“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”, “I Am The Way” (which happens to be recorded live in concert) and “Bell Bottom Pants”). These are not necessarily the saddest songs on the album but to my mind, they are the most enjoyable.
Loudon Wainwright is a natural entertainer and he thrives on positive audience feedback. One of the ways he gets feedback is to make people laugh. This can be a problem when people who don’t really know his work go to a concert and think they are going to a comedy show. The litmus test of a good Loudon Wainwright audience is the response to “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” It’s a desperately sad song – it’s a bit weird but it’s definitely not funny although some people find it hilarious when where the man dies, goes to heaven and is reunited with his amputated arm and his dead dog. Laughing at these moments always seems inappropriate. Nevertheless, I feel that his record companies assume that making people laugh at his songs is a way to make them become hits. As I said before, Loudon Wainwright always wanted fame and was willing to go along with that and perpetuate the myth that he is a comedian. Perpetuating your own myth is a risky approach and is as likely to fail as it is to succeed.
I’ve been waiting forever for the hot weather to break and today we finally got some rain. I’ve been anticipating this for a few days now and singing “Natural Disaster” to myself non-stop. The lyrics to the first verse are in the opening paragraph to this post. Loudon Wainwright has released two versions of this track and they are completely different.
“Final Exam” is Loudon Wainwright’s seventh studio album. It is, to my mind over produced apart from one song called “Fear Of Flying” just featuring Loudon Wainwright and a guitar. There are some great lyrics: “Who’s afraid of flying – I’m just afraid of crashing” or “Jesus can you save me? I’ll become Jehovah’s Witness. The stewardess is smiling but I know she’s scared shitless”. It’s sung in a slow mournful voice and so there’s a perfect mixture of humour whilst the basic premise of not really enjoying flying evokes a bit of sympathy. The track before this is “Natural Disaster”. The production includes everything. Electric guitar, bass, drums, horns, backing singers and sound effects. The sound of thunder is actually quite well done but the overall effect is of a jolly jester laughing about a failed relationship. The audience members who laugh at “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” would laugh themselves silly at this version of the song. Listen to old Loudon, describing the weather! What a funny guy he is.
The version of “Natural Disaster” on “A Live One” is completely different. This is (obviously) a live album and was released a year after “Final Exam” although most of the songs were recorded beforehand. It features just Loudon Wainwright and his acoustic guitar. It’s clear that “Natural Disaster” was originally stark, slow and sad before it was over produced for the studio album. In the song, he regrets a failed relationship and wonders how he could have prevented things going wrong. When he sings “There I was stranded in an inferno”, he sounds incredibly vulnerable and helpless. Later, he sings “Tidal wave – total eclipse – panic on the beach” and the desperation he manages to infuse into the word “panic” is far from funny. This is the same song – the same singer – the same words – but the emotions generated are completely different. I love this version.
“A Live One” is one of three and a half live albums that Loudon Wainwright has released. (The “half” is the second side of “Unrequited”). They are all excellent with the mixture of humour and pathos that makes him a unique talent. It was the only album he released between “Final Exam” in 1978 and “Fame And Wealth” in 1983 although all the performances were recorded between 1976 and 1978.
The album starts with half a minute of audience noise with lots of people shouting things out; probably asking for “Dead Skunk” or “The Swimming Song” although it’s not clear. Loudon Wainwright quietens the audience by shouting “AW SHUT UP”. That’s a great start to any album. He then plays “Motel Blues”, a very sad and lonely song. There are thirteen songs on the album and another of my favourites is “Whatever Happened To Us” which includes the archetypal Loudon Wainwright mixture of humour and pathos: “We used to be in love but now we are in hate. You used to say I came too early but it was you who came too late.”
“Kings and Queens” makes reference to the King of Sweden, Princess Anne, King Hailie Selassie, Princess Grace, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Napoleon, Pocahontas, Queen Isabella Ferdinand and Columbus. Towards the end when he sings “You’re a year older than the Princess Anne/I don’t mean it as an unkind cut”, he repeats “I don’t mean it” over and over and then.as a aside explains “that’s kind of a Van Morrison”. Humour and pathos.
“Red Guitar” is one of his best songs. It is good on “Album III” and it’s good here. It concerns him smashing his guitar in a rage and making his wife upset. “Kate, she started crying when she saw my sorry smile”. At the time he wrote the song he was married to Kate McGarrigle. He decides to buy a new guitar but “some junkie stole my blonde guitar, God works in wondrous ways.” It’s astonishing.
In conclusion, there are four things I want to say. 1) A good live album can replicated the experience of seeing a live act. 2) Loudon Wainwright is better when he is only accompanied by an acoustic guitar. 3) Loudon Wainwright can be very funny and he can also be very sad. 4) Here comes the thunder. Here comes the rain. Hurrah.