Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Welcome to Hollywood, Hey Man, Can You Spare a Quarter?

Scattered in bits and pieces across the internet (including on this blog in a few places, like my purchases from Record Store Day this year, my discussion of unusual voices, and as performer of one of my favourite b-sides), my love for Leon Russell is not even close to a secret. Indeed, I've even a noticeable affection for the look he rocked throughout the 70s in particular: salt-and-pepper beard, top hat, and hair to his shoulders.

But I'm actually here to talk about something else in Leon's career, besides his "solo" work that began with 1970's Leon Russell. I do forget on occasion that Leon's come up a bit in the public conscious since Elton John began to emphatically display his love of Leon's work, enough that they released a joint album, The Union, in October, 2010. Still, the parts that jump out to me are often stranger bits, less known bits or more uncommon bits--simply because I was not given a purely singles-based method of hearing the man's work.

It all came from my father's encouragement to listen to Gimme Shelter: The Best of Leon Russell, a two-disc anthology of work only released with the man's work visibly attributed to him. In large part, this meant it covered his solo work. But that anthology is (was--it's out of print) chronologically arranged, by effective recording time, rather than release. That means the set opens with "Hello, Little Friend," from a 1971 album entitled Asylum Choir II, credited to "Leon Russell and Marc Benno." At first glance, it appears to be one of a number of duo albums Leon did (another big one would be One for the Road with Willie Nelson). However, this is actually the sequel to the comparatively obscure Look Inside the Asylum Choir, credited to, well, The Asylum Choir, released in 1968.

Leon, to this point, was known primarily for his session work on more famous tracks by more famous artists--The Ronettes, Jan and Dean, Gene Clark, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds--and continued to be as part of The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio session musicians used to fill out and back other artists. Now, alongside this, Leon arranged music for other artists ("This Diamond Ring" for Gary and the Playboys, for instance), and arranged the Midnight String Quartet's rather kitschy but then-popular 1966 album Rhapsodies for Young Lovers, a set of pop and classical pieces designed for, well, "young lovers." That particular album did quite well that year, hitting #17 on the Billboard charts over the course of 59 weeks. Leon, of course, played piano for it.

So it's not a surprise that Leon's first release was with a fellow studio musician and not carried by either of their names alone. Marc Benno was less prolific with his involvement in the recordings of other artists, but did share that background. But the album they released is not the sort of boring rehash one might expect of studio musicians trying to make a name for themselves while simultaneously hanging onto past credits, nor the kind of defiant experimentation that would leave them with a purely niche group of fans.

 Original cover art.

Well--I shouldn't go too far with the latter. If anything, it is more likely that: there are strains of early Mothers of Invention, almost, in their first album. Recorded sounds--a shattering glass to accompany the words "break my heart," in just the right place, a phone conversation, a fake news report--litter the album, but it's all infused with Leon and Marc's fully-realized pop sensibilities, and produced by their own hands. The advantage, I suppose, of having the clout of established positions in music and yet no existing fanbase to please. To get only a hint of the peculiarities of an often emphatically-psychedelic album, here's on of my favourite tracks from the album, "Icicle Star Tree":

Strains of Sgt. Pepper and Sir George Martin's production waft in and out of that track, while strange and swirling harmonies and instrumentation play against each other, readily bringing to mind sounds like the ending of "A Day in the Life," or some other Beatles track I can't bring to mind, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the song (though I associate it strongly with my endless viewings of Yellow Submarine--if this connection happens for anyone else, please comment and ease my wandering mind, here).

"Indian Style," begins with the symbolic (doubtless over-simplified and wince-inducingly inaccurate, unless someone can tell me otherwise) representation of a Native American village or other group, followed by the intrusion of cavalry bugles and gunfire. Not the most US-positive representation, but this was the late 60s and the rock music scene, so perhaps that isn't surprising. It shifts into an enjoyably shuffling pop song with almost swaying vocals from Leon and a strong guitar line from Benno, but propelled by Leon's usual percussive piano playing.

"Soul Food" makes Leon's affection for gospel apparent early in his career, albeit only in a less dominating form than it would occasionally take later. But he matched it with some of his more energetic key-tickling, leading into one of Benno's most visible guitar lines in the album.

No further headlining recordings were issued by Leon or the Asylum Choir in the 60s, though sessions were recorded in 1969 for a second album. In 1970, Leon Russell was issued and began Leon's solo career with songs that would occasionally be hits for him but more often for others. What is often considered his signature song, "A Song for You," opens that album, and future Joe Cocker hit "Delta Lady" opens side two. 

Just a word, here, on Leon, fame and covers: Joe Cocker's rendition of "With a Little Help from My Friends," (a Beatles song, which I specify because Leon had the balls to name a song "I Put a Spell on You" on his debut, despite Screamin' Jay Hawkins more famed song of the same name) was used to open the classic, or at least nostalgia-infused, sitcom The Wonder Years. That stinging, beautiful progression of guitar bends that opens the song is played by none other than Leon himself. I feel like if anything should make people fall to their metaphorical knees in appreciation and see cause to listen to his work, it's that. It's something many people have heard and never known it was him. And, of course, Leon arranged it, too, so he wrote that bit in to play it, no less.

Let's not just ignore Jim Keltner's fantastic drumming, but that's not what we're talking about today.

Anyway, having finished my aside: in 1971, Asylum Choir II, origin of the first four tracks on Gimme Shelter, was released with the credits I mentioned--Leon's name was too big not to use it as a selling point, so the title became the place that "Asylum Choir" existed, rather than the "band" name. "Sweet Home Chicago" opens the album with an organ matched to a distant and wonderfully skrawky blues guitar from Benno. It soon turns to something like the meeting point between Look Inside and Leon's solo work: mostly normal, but produced with a peculiar touch and a number of extra unnecessary but wonderful layers. Now the rootsy, bluesy nature of Leon's Okie origins comes to bear, something that would eventually transform into his country alter-ego, Hank Wilson, who would release albums of nothing but country songs, mostly covers of classic Hank Williams, George Jones, Jimmie Rodgers and so on.

But Asylum Choir II bounces back to more unusual  styles with "Down on the Base" and its peculiar depiction of a military base over a bouncing bass line countered by insistent piano from Leon--which, incidentally, proves this was a studio band: both instruments are Leon. But, from this song, it launches into "Hello Little Friend," one of the four songs for which Leon receives sole writing credit on the album, and one of the ones included on Gimme Shelter. It's a pretty spacious production job, anchored by an organ mixed into the background behind a very upfront vocal from Leon.

Leon expels perhaps his most unusual experimental streak in one of the album's later tracks, "When You Wish Upon a Fag," which may be one of the few videos on YouTube to bear a title like that to be (so far) safe from puerile commentary. Of course, the song starts, "Caution can be harmful to your heart and to your health/You can never be quite sure so find out for yourself," it's pretty clear this is a British usage, and refers to cigarettes. It's still not near so out there as a lot of tracks from their first album, but the conceit is pretty clever.

For all that the albums might seem kitschy, experimental, or perhaps just banal in their rootsy elements, these are fantastic and fantastically catchy albums and this is apparent at any listen. Unfortunately, you cannot find Look Inside the Asylum Choir too readily in the United States. New copies run for lower end import prices most of the time, so one is left to settle for Asylum Choir II, which was issued on CD with a jumbled and slightly edited version of side 1 of Look Inside as bonus tracks.

If you are a vinyl fan, be aware that Look Inside was issued with three different album covers. The original is the roll of toilet paper above. Apparently this was "controversial (?!) and removed for later issues, which bore one of these two covers:

You've got your information, folks. Go out and treasure these albums. If you enjoy knowing things people don't, you'll even have a bit of a step up on some people who respect Leon. And overall, you'll have steps up on a lot of people period.

More importantly--and my own reasons--there's the obvious: these are really good albums of some fantastically groovy, catchy stuff that makes you want to sing along, clap your hands, snap your fingers and otherwise catch its rhythm.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...