EML’s Favorite Albums – THE PRETENDERS: “Learning to Crawl”

Though many music writers and critics believe The Pretenders debut album Pretenders is their best work (in 2013 Rolling Stone Magazine named it the 13th best debut album of all time), I prefer their third album Learning to Crawl on the strength of its outstanding tracks like “Back on the Chain Gang”, “Middle of the Road”, “Show Me”, “Time the Avenger” and “My City Was Gone”. While I’d liked their 1980 breakthrough hit “Brass in Pocket” well enough, it was the bittersweet “Back on the Chain Gang”, with its jangly guitars, haunting lyrics, Chrissie Hynde’s distinctive lilting vocals, and the chain-gang chant in the chorus that really caught my attention. To this day, the song remains one of my favorites of the 1980s.

Learning to Crawl was literally a phoenix rising from the ashes, as it was recorded in the wake of upheaval and tragedy for the band and, as such, many of its songs deal with various aspects of loss. In June 1982, after they finished touring in support of their commercially and critically disappointing second album Pretenders II, Hynde and fellow band members guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers fired bassist Pete Farndon over his diminishing performance resulting from his escalating heroin abuse. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure brought on by his own cocaine abuse. (Sadly, Farndon would die 10 months later by drowning in a bathtub after passing out from a heroin binge.)

Band lineup for the recording of Learning to Crawl, including Malcolm Foster, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde and Robbie McIntosh

Hynde and Chambers decided to soldier on in grief. In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Hynde said, “What else were we going to do? Stay at home and be miserable, or go into the studio and do what we dig and be miserable?” A month after Honeyman-Scott’s death, Hynde hired Big Country bassist Tony Butler and Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, along with Robbie McIntosh (who would go on to become the band’s lead guitarist) to record a new single “Back on the Chain Gang” along with its B-side “My City Was Gone” (with its now iconic thumping bass groove that the execrable Rush Limbaugh later adopted as the theme for his radio show).

The single was released that September, and would become The Pretenders’ highest-charting single in the U.S. (“Brass in Pocket” is their highest-charting single in the UK.) Hynde wrote “Back on the Chain Gang” as a tribute to Honeyman-Scott and dedicated it to him. The song was also written during her strained on-and-off relationship with Kinks front man Ray Davies, and recorded when she was three months pregnant with their daughter. They split up for good six months later.

Through the rest of 1982 and into 1983, in between having and raising a baby and mourning Farndon (who died in April 1983), Hynde would periodically return to the studio with Chambers, new guitarist Robbie McIntosh and new bassist Malcolm Foster to record songs for an album she would name after her baby daughter Natalie’s first attempts to become mobile. In a sense, Learning to Crawl could also be a metaphor for The Pretenders regaining their footing as a band. The album was finally released in January 1984, receiving unanimously positive reviews. With regard to the notion that the album’s songs are mostly about loss, in that 1984 Rolling Stone interview Hynde was dismissive, saying, “It’s just a collection of 10 measly songs. It’s not a real important deal. I hate this sort of romantic or sentimental take people have on it—you know, the tragic demise, the reawakening. It wasn’t like that at all. I even regret naming the album ‘Learning To Crawl’, because it just sounds pathetic. I mean, I’m not sentimental.”

Be that as it may, many tracks do speak to a sense of loss, whether it be missing a loved one on “2000 Miles”, happier times on “Back on the Chain Gang”: “I found a picture of you / Those were the happiest days of my life.”, the “pretty countryside” surrounding her childhood home of Akron, Ohio ruined by urban sprawl and over-development on “My City Was Gone”, or one’s dignity and reputation in the wake of an adulterous affair on “Time the Avenger”: “Nobody’s permanent / Everything’s on loan here / Even your wife and kids / Could be gone next year”.

The band’s strong and incredibly tight musicianship is nicely showcased on several tracks. One of my favorites is the rousing album opener “Middle of the Road”, with its aggressive driving beat and stellar guitar work. Highlights for me are Chambers’ blasting drumbeats, McIntosh’s dazzling guitar solo in the bridge, and Hynde’s angry growl as she launches into her blazing harmonica solo toward the end. It’s such a great song, and I never understood why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it peaked at only #19 on the Billboard Hot 100).

Another favorite is the stunning “Show Me”, a hopeful plea for love and humanity as an antidote for mankind’s inherent tendencies for conflict: “Welcome to the human race, with its wars, disease and brutality / You with your innocence and grace restore some pride and dignity to a world in decline.”  The shimmery chiming and jangly guitars are gorgeous, and I love the intricate music touches such as the spacey little ascending guitar chord that plays when Hynde sings “Welcome here from outer space”.

“Time the Avenger” starts off with an infectious head-bopping beat, throbbing bassline and simple guitar riff, then gradually builds into a storm of Hynde’s and McIntosh’s intertwining riffs that’s downright exhilarating. The band seems to give a nod to Johnny Cash on “Thumbelina”, a lively rocker with a chugging train-style rhythm beautifully expressing the cross-country journey of a mother and her child as they head toward a new beginning.

One of the earliest songs recorded for the album was the beautiful cover of the Persuaders’ hit “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”, in which guitar was played by Billy Bremner, bass by Andrew Bodnar and piano by Paul Carrack (formerly of Squeeze, Ace and Roxy Music). “Watching the Clothes” is not a particularly strong track, though I do like its frantic punk rock vibe. The lyrics speak to the boredom of dealing with chores, but also to toiling in the service sector at a dead-end job: “I’ve been kissing ass / Trying to keep it clean / So that the middle class has a clean routine.”

In the years following the release of Learning to Crawl, The Pretenders would unfortunately continue to experience more internal upheaval and numerous changes in lineup. From what I can tell, some of it seems to stem from Hynde’s perfectionism and mercurial nature. Soon after recording sessions began for their next album Get Close, she declared that Chambers was no longer playing well and dismissed him. Discouraged at the loss of his bandmate, Foster then quit, leaving Hynde and McIntosh to record the rest of the album in New York and Stockholm with assorted session musicians. Despite all the upheaval, the Pretenders are still going strong in 2020, and in July dropped their 11th album Hate For Sale, which is actually pretty good.

EML’s Favorite Albums – STEVIE WONDER: “Songs in the Key of Life”

Stevie Wonder

For as far back as I can remember beginning as a pre-teen, I’ve been a huge fan of Stevie Wonder; one of the earliest 45 singles I ever bought was “My Cherie Amour”. Of all the many albums he released over a career spanning more than 50 years, my favorite is his magnificent masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.

Born Stevland Morris in 1950, he became blind shortly after his birth (he was born six weeks premature, and the oxygen-rich atmosphere in the hospital incubator aborted the growth of his eyes and caused his retinas to detach, resulting in blindness). Despite his handicap, he was a child musical prodigy, learning to play piano, harmonica and drums as a young boy. He signed with Motown’s Tamla label when he was only 11 years old, and first became known professionally as Little Stevie Wonder. In 1963, his single “Fingertips, Part 2” topped the Billboard Hot 100, making him the youngest artist to ever have a #1 song on that chart. He eventually dropped “Little” from his name, and in 1966 came roaring back as Stevie Wonder with his electrifying hit “Uptight”. From that point on he would practically rule the charts for the next 20 years.

Released in September 1976 when he was 26, Songs in the Key of Life was Wonder’s 18th album. It’s generally regarded as his magnum opus, and the culmination of his “classic period”, which began in 1972 with the releases of Music of My Mind and Talking Book, the latter of which included the song “Superstition”, which featured the distinctive sound of the Hohner Clavinet keyboard that came to define Wonder’s sound. His next three albums produced during this highly creative period – Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life – all won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, making him the only artist to have won the award for three consecutive album releases. In 1976, when Paul Simon won the Best Album Grammy for Still Crazy After All These Years, he quipped, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.”

Surprisingly, Songs in the Key of Life almost didn’t happen. Despite the fact that by 1975 Wonder was one of the most successful music artists in the world, with his three previous albums all critical and commercial successes, he seriously considered quitting the music industry. He’d become interested in humanitarian issues in Africa, and wanted to emigrate to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Fortunately for his music fans, he reconsidered and went on to sign a lucrative new contract with Motown to continue recording more albums.

The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sound studio in Hollywood, with some sessions recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, the Record Plant in Sausalito, and The Hit Factory in New York. According to Wikipedia, during the recording process, Wonder would often stay in the studio 48 hours straight, not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak,” he said. A total of 130 people worked on the album, including notable jazz and R&B artists Herbie Hancock, who played Fender Rhodes on “As”, George Benson, who played electric guitar and sang backing vocals on “Another Star”, and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, who sang backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain”.

Songs in the Key of Life album

That Wonder’s creative flow kept going til he peaked is an understatement, as he ultimately recorded an astonishing 21 songs, released as a double album and a bonus 7-inch 45 featuring four tracks, along with a booklet containing all the song lyrics and credits. Incorporating a wide range of genres and music styles, including soul, R&B, pop, funk, jazz, gospel, Afrobeat and even classical, Songs in the Key of Life is widely considered one of the greatest albums ever recorded and his signature album. It’s the best-selling album of his long career, and ranks #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s most-recent 2020 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2002, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The album is Wonder’s celebration of love, a testament to his faith, and his belief in the idea that love can conquer hate. In the booklet that accompanied the album, he wrote: “’Songs in the Key of Life’ is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love+love-hate=love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea.” Opening track “Love’s In Need of Love Today” sets the tone for the album with Wonder’s heartfelt plea for people to put hate aside and try and love one another, a message that certainly bears repeating today: “Hate’s goin’ round/Breaking many hearts/Stop it please before it’s gone too far.

Some of the album’s highlights are the big hits “I Wish”, a joyously upbeat song that sees Wonder reminiscing on the joys of his childhood, and “Sir Duke”, a jazzy tribute to the legendary Duke Ellington, both of which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though not released as a single, “Isn’t She Lovely”, a loving ode to his baby daughter Aisha, went on to become one of his most beloved songs. But the album’s full of many more outstanding tracks and deep cuts like the gorgeous love song “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, the enchanting and hopeful “If It’s Magic”, the bittersweet “Summer Soft” and the pleasing multi-cultural gem “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”.

Two of my personal favorites are the spectacular Side 4 epic tracks “As” and “Another Star”, both of which were released as singles but failed to crack the Top 30. The soulful “As” has a beautiful, almost gospel feel, and encapsulates the album’s overall theme of the enduring power of love. Wonder sings “Did you know that true love asks for nothing/Her acceptance is the way we pay/Did you know that life has given love a guarantee/To last through forever and another day.” Wonder goes on to list all the ways his love will endure, then the song immediately segues into “Another Star”. An electrifying eight and a half minute long masterpiece, this song is one of my favorites on the album, and ranks among my all-time favorites of Wonder’s many great songs. I love the exuberant Latin beat, sunny keyboards and soulful guitars, but the highlights for me are the exhilarating horns, head-bopping percussion and Wonder’s jubilant vocals that warm my heart and bring a tear to my eyes. Though the lyrics speak of an unrequited love, Wonder extolls the virtues of his love interest with such joy that you just cannot help being swept up in his bliss. Both songs really showcase his phenomenal songwriting, musicianship and vocal abilities.

Wonder also addressed issues of racism and social injustice on such tracks as “Pastime Paradise”, “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”, the latter two of which he co-wrote with radio DJ, poet, songwriter, producer, rapper, and community activist Gary Byrd. On the brilliant and haunting “Pastime Paradise”, Wonder speaks first to those who remain stuck in the past, clinging to their racist and bigoted beliefs, then to the victims of that institutional racism, bigotry and other forms of oppression, “living in a future paradise/looking in their minds for the day that sorrow’s gone from time.” He admonishes us to start “living for the future paradise”, and “Shame to anyone’s lives living in a pastime paradise.”

On “Village Ghetto Land”, Wonder uses a sedate classical minuet as a lovely musical backdrop that sharply contrasts with the biting lyrics that speak to the harshness of ghetto life: “Broken glass is everywhere/It’s a bloody scene/Killing plagues the citizens unless they own police/Children play with rusted cars/Sores cover their hands/Politicians laugh and drink – drunk to all demands.” The urgent, jazz/funk infused eight and a half minute long “Black Man” speaks to the accomplishments of often-overlooked people of color: “Heart surgery was first done successfully by a black man/The railroads for trains came on tracking that was laid by the yellow man/Friendly man who died but helped the Pilgrims to survive was a red man/Farm workers’ rights were lifted to new heights by a brown man/And the leader with a pen signed his name to free all men was a white man.” The song ends with a dramatic spoken call and response by teachers and students of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble in Harlem, shouting out the names and accomplishments of notable people of color as well as whites.

I’ve already made note of the album’s incredible legacy, but want to elaborate a bit more by referencing some of the accolades other noted artists have heaped on Songs in the Key of Life. Elton John once wrote “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of ‘Songs in the Key of Life’. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” In an interview with Ebony magazine, Michael Jackson called Songs in the Key of Life his favorite Stevie Wonder album. George Michael cited the album as his favorite of all time, and along with Mary J. Blige, he covered “As” in 1999. Michael also performed “Love’s in Need of Love Today” on his Faith tour in 1988, and released it as a B-side to “Father Figure”. He also performed “Village Ghetto Land” at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988. He later covered “Pastime Paradise” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” in his 1991 Cover to Cover tour.

Rapper Coolio sampled the haunting groove of “Pastime Paradise” on his 1995 single “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Prince called it the best album ever recorded, Mariah Carey has named it one of her all-time favorites, and Whitney Houston also remarked on the influence of the album on her singing. In an interview with webzine CLRVYNT, heavy metal singer Phil Anselmo described a live performance of many of the album’s songs with reverence: “Watching Stevie Wonder and just being in his presence is truly like watching a living, breathing miracle right before your eyes. It really is. It was stunning, and it still stuns me to this day.” (Wikipedia)

Stevie Wonder was unquestionably one of the most important and influential musicians of the 1970s, and Songs in the Key of Life was his greatest triumph in a career spanning five decades.

EML’s Favorite Albums – ELTON JOHN: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

One of my favorite albums from the 1970s is the monumental double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. While I don’t feel it qualifies as a true masterpiece, I think it comes pretty close, and is an album I’d want to have with me on that proverbial desert island. Though my younger sister became a rabid Elton John fanatic from the moment he released his tender and heartfelt debut single “Your Song” way back in 1970, it took me a while to warm up to him and his music. I mean, I liked him well enough, but can’t say I became a huge fan until the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (though I now more fully appreciate the brilliance of his early albums like Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water.)

Since its release in 1973, the album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and is widely considered John’s finest work. It contains several of his signature songs like “Bennie and the Jets”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Candle in the Wind” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, as well as the epic – and my personal favorite – “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, and ranks #91 on Rolling Stone magazine’s most recent list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, although at the time of its release, the magazine gave it a negative review: “This new record is a big fruity pie that simply doesn’t bake. But, oh lord, how it tries.” Well, that reviewer sure ended up with pie on his face!

Bernie Taupin wrote all the song lyrics for the album over a period of two and a half weeks, then John composed most of the music in three days while staying at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. He’d wanted to write and record the songs in Jamaica partly because the Rolling Stones had just recorded their album Goats Head Soup there. Unfortunately, difficulties with the piano and sound system, as well as logistical issues arising from the Joe Frazier-George Foreman boxing match and unrelated political protests then taking place in Kingston, caused him and his musicians to rethink their plans. They ended up recording the album at Château d’Herouville, the same studio in France where he’d previously recorded Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Though not a concept album per se, many of its songs touch on disillusionment and a nostalgia for a childhood and culture left in the past. The artwork for the album was fabulous, both inside and out, and vividly displayed in a tri-fold format. The outside cover art was created by Ian Beck, and inside illustrations were drawn by David Larkham, Michael Ross and David Schutt. Here’s a photo of two-thirds of the inside, which features a drawing and lyrics for each track:

elton-john-goodbye-yellow-brick-road-inside

Given all the flamboyance, tabloid sensationalism, fame and infamy of Elton John’s illustrious and colorful career, it’s easy to sometimes overlook the fact that, in addition to being a great composer and vocalist, he’s also an incredible pianist. Perhaps no other song showcases his piano-playing skills than the epic album opener “Funeral For A Friend”. Together with its companion track “Love Lies Bleeding”, the fantastic 11-minute long piece is a grandiose and dramatic melding of classical music and progressive rock, and was reportedly conceived by John as the kind of music he wanted played at his own funeral. I was blown away the first time I heard it, and to this day it remains my all-time favorite of his many great songs. The bittersweet lyrics of “Love Lies Bleeding” tell of a lost love: “Oh it kills me to think of you with another man. I was playing rock and roll and you were just a fan, but my guitar couldn’t hold you so I split the band. Love lies bleeding in my hands.”

Next up are three of his most famous and beloved songs. The beautiful piano ballad “Candle in the Wind” is a sort of tribute to Marilyn Monroe, with lyrics spoken from the perspective of a fan trying to reconcile the myths and legends attached to the legendary and tragic actress. “Loneliness was tough. The toughest role you ever played. Hollywood created a superstar. And pain was the price you paid. Even when you died, Oh the press still hounded you. All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude.” (The song was later reimagined in 1997 as a tribute to Princess Diana after her own tragic death.) Davey Johnstone’s guitar work is particularly outstanding on this track.

The stomping glam-rock gem “Bennie and the Jets” is, according to Bernie Taupin, a satire on the greed and glitz of the early 70s music industry. John was initially set against releasing it as a single, as he thought it would flop, but it went to #1 in the U.S. and Canada, and endures as one of his most popular songs and biggest hits. Unfortunately, the song was (and still is) overplayed to death on the radio, and I grew tired of it decades ago, though I still acknowledge its brilliance. The title track “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is probably my second-favorite track on the album, as I love the great piano-driven melody and soaring vocal harmonies in the choruses.

John’s brilliant piano skills are also strongly evident on the folk-inspired “This Song Has No Title”, the exuberant “Grey Seal”, the haunting, cinematic torch song “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” and the dramatic tour de force “The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934)”, with its bouncy honky-tonk style piano and sweeping orchestrals. “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is a fun, reggae-infused nod to the place where John penned his lyrics, and is one of the lighter tunes on the album. A song that piqued my sexual curiosity when the album came out (I was 19 at the time) was “All The Girls Love Alice”, with lyrics that tell a tragic story of a young lesbian who died in the streets. Though the lyrics are depressing, I love the powerful driving beat, abrasive, wobbly synths and distorted psychedelic guitars that give the song such an edgy and dangerous vibe.

Side 4 is the weakest part of the album overall, keeping it from being a perfect work in my opinion, though none of the tracks are terrible. John and company dial up the energy on “Your Sister Can’t Dance (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)” (probably my least-favorite track on the album, as I’m also not a fan of his big 50s throwback hit “Crocodile Rock” either) and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, which I do like, mainly for its hard-driving and edgy vibe, great piano and guitars. “Roy Rogers” and “Social Disease” have an Americana vibe, a genre John has visited many times through his career with varying degrees of success, and he succeeds pretty well here.

The final side is redeemed by the sultry closing track “Harmony”. The song is a piano-driven love song with more of those sweeping orchestrals and John’s wonderful vocal harmonies. He assures his recalcitrant loved one Harmony that she and he are pretty good together and may as well make a go of it: “Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company. Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea.”, ending things on an optimistic note.

EML’s Favorite Albums – COLDPLAY: “A Rush of Blood to the Head”

Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head

I distinctly remember the first time I heard British band Coldplay’s magnificent song “Clocks” on the radio in the spring of 2003. Though they’d already released a number of singles over the previous three years or so, I had not yet heard any of them because I listened to crappy radio stations in St. Louis, where I lived at the time. I was blown away by the song and immediately fell in love with it’s haunting piano melody. Given my love for “Clocks”, I rushed out (pun intended) and purchased their CD A Rush of Blood to the Head. It was their second studio album, and is my personal favorite of all their albums. I also became a big fan of Coldplay, who to this day rank among my top ten favorite bands of all time (the Beatles, Stones and Fleetwood Mac will forever be my top three, but I digress). The band is comprised of four underrated musicians: front man and lead vocalist Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer Will Champion.

After the popularity and success of their first album Parachutes, the band was under tremendous pressure to deliver an album at least as good – something all artists and bands with successful debut albums have experienced. I’ve heard many say they liked Coldplay’s early music (“Yellow” from Parachutes is one of their most beloved songs), but don’t much care for their later stuff, which they claim sounds too polished, too over-produced, too sappy or too ‘pop’. A Rush of Blood to the Head, with its piano and guitar-driven sound, is generally considered more acceptable to those earlier fans.

The album was released on August 26, 2002 in the UK, debuting at #1, and a day later on August 27 (my birthday) in the U.S. Besides topping the chart in the UK (where it would become the 10th best-selling album of the 21st Century), the album also reached #1 in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Switzerland. It won three Grammy Awards (one of them for “Clocks”, for 2003 Record of the Year), and the 2003 BRIT Award for Best British album.

Though every song on the album is excellent, there are a number of standouts, the two greatest being “Clocks” and “The Scientist”. With its repetitive piano progression, including a descending scale in the chord progression that creates such a hauntingly beautiful sound, “Clocks” is considered one of Coldplay’s finest achievements. That breathtaking piano melody is accompanied by a somewhat minimalist atmospheric soundscape of synths, guitar, bass and drums, yet the whole thing sounds incredibly powerful and compelling. The lyrics are rather ambiguous, but seem to address the conflicts of being in a relationship that causes pain, yet you cannot or do not want to escape it. Martin begins by singing about his situation: “The lights go out and I can’t be saved / Tides that I tried to swim against / You’ve put me down upon my knees / Oh, I beg, I beg and plead.” Then he ponders “Am I a part of the cure? Or am I part of the disease?“, finally concluding “And nothing else compares / You are home, home, where I wanted to go.”

I think it’s a masterpiece, and one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and it boggles my mind that it wasn’t a bigger hit (it only peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100, though it did reach #1 on the Adult Alternative chart). It’s my favorite song of the 2000s, and my fourth favorite song of all time. Surprisingly, “Clocks” was originally not intended for inclusion on A Rush of Blood to the Head. The band planned to use it on their third album, however, their manager Phil Harvey strongly pushed for its inclusion.

“The Scientist” is a gorgeous love song of apology, and another of Coldplay’s most beloved songs. The track starts off with just a melancholy piano riff and Martin’s sad vocals, then eventually a strummed acoustic guitar enters, followed by drums, bass and finally Buckland’s electric guitar. In an interview with VH1, Martin stated: “The song was a turning point. I don’t think we’ll ever top it. It was inspired by George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. We really wanted to do a piano ballad with loud guitars at the end, because we didn’t think many people had tried that, so Jon put this really distorted guitar on the end of it.” Well, I think it’s another masterpiece, and most definitely one of the band’s finest songs.

Though Coldplay has never been known for writing many political songs, they were inspired to write “Politik” a few days after the 9/11 attacks. The song touches on the then-current state of the world, where whole countries and religions were being vilified over the horrific actions of a relative few. Martin implores people to seek the truth and see the bigger picture: “Give me real, don’t give me fake / Give me strength, reserve, control / Give me heart and give me soul / Open up your eyes.” They decided to make “Politik” the first track on the album, and its bombastic opening consisting of an aggressive, banging piano riff and crashing cymbals all but demand that we pay attention.

The beautiful “In My Place” was the first song they wrote after finishing Parachutes, and the first single released from A Rush of Blood to the Head. Buckland’s gorgeous chiming guitar is a highlight of the song. Another favorite of mine is “A Whisper”, with its dramatic chord progressions, glittery synths and spectacular guitar work, especially the shimmery chiming guitar run in the final chorus. The title track “A Rush of Blood to the Head” is a darkly beautiful song about wanting to undo all one’s wrongs and start over anew: “He said I’m gonna buy this place and watch it fall / Stand here beside me baby in the crumbling walls / Said I’m gonna buy a gun and start a war / If you can tell me something worth fighting for / Blame it upon a rush of blood to the head.”

Some songs on the album have a pleasing guitar-driven folk-rock feel, namely “God Put a Smile on Your Face”, “Green Eyes” and “Warning Sign”. Closing out the album is the lovely and introspective piano ballad “Amsterdam”. Like a few of their other songs, the instrumentals build as the track progresses into a dramatic crescendo in the final chorus, before fading out at the end, a right proper finish to a phenomenal album.

I finally saw Coldplay perform live on their Head Full of Dreams Tour in August 2016, at the historic Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Though it was a huge venue, with over 70,000 people in attendance, they still managed to make it feel intimate.

EML’s Favorite Albums – TEARS FOR FEARS: “Songs From The Big Chair”

Songs From the Big Chair

One of my favorite albums of all time is Songs From the Big Chair by British band Tears For Fears. Released in February 1985, it was their second album and also their most successful from both a critical and commercial standpoint. Even though it contains only eight tracks, with five of them running more than five minutes long it feels almost monumental in scope.  Every track is brilliant in its own right, and there isn’t one wasted second on the entire album. The band released five of the tracks as singles, including the massive worldwide hits “Shout”, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Head Over Heels”.

I’d first learned about Tears For Fears two years earlier when I heard their song “Change”, one of the singles from their excellent 1983 debut album The Hurting, on the radio. I really liked that song, but shockingly, never heard “Mad World” until years later. That song was a huge hit in Britain, but received practically zero airplay in the U.S. where I live. Two years would pass before I would hear another song by them, and when “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” hit my eardrums, it was love at first listen. The song was actually the third single from Songs From the Big Chair to be released (after “Mothers Talk” and “Shout”), but the first to receive radio airplay in the U.S. in the spring of 1985.

In the creation of Songs From the Big Chair, Tears For Fears moved away from the predominantly synthpop feel of The Hurting, and toward a more sophisticated and fuller orchestral sound that would become their signature style – a style of music that I dearly love. In addition to band front men Roland Orzabal on guitar and lead vocals and Curt Smith on bass and backing vocals, other working members included Ian Stanley on keyboards and backing vocals, and Manny Elias on drums and percussion. Under the guidance of producer Chris Hughes, the new Tears for Fears sound helped make Songs from the Big Chair become one of the biggest-selling albums worldwide in 1985, as well as receive near-unanimous critical acclaim.

The album was originally to be titled The Working Hour, but Orzabal fought to change it to Songs From the Big Chair, inspired by the 1976 television film Sybil starring Sally Field, about a woman with multiple personality disorder who feels safe only when she’s sitting in her analyst’s “big chair”. Orzabal and Smith have both stated that they feel each of the album’s songs had it’s own distinct personality.

The album opens with “Shout”, a bombastic protest anthem that makes you want to stomp your feet and pump your fists in the air. The song was a stylistic departure for Tears For Fears, with explosive percussion, screaming synths and a lengthy killer guitar solo that propelled it straight to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. I love how the song builds to a spectacular crescendo, and it’s arguably one of the most musically and lyrically satisfying songs ever recorded. Next up is the brilliant “Working Hour”, a gorgeous and dramatic song with jazzy overtones courtesy of the soulful wailing saxophone, accompanied by incredible guitar work, sweeping synths and resounding percussion that send chills up and down my spine. Orzabal passionately sings about being a slave to one’s work: “This is the working hour. We are paid by those who learn by our mistakes.”

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a truly exceptional song, and perfection from start to finish. It’s also very likely their most catchy, radio-friendly song, though the lyrics deal with a rather dark subject. Smith has stated “It’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.” Interestingly, Orzabal and Smith were ambivalent about the song, and initially didn’t want to include it on the album. They felt it’s syncopated shuffle beat wouldn’t fit in with the timing and feel of the rest of the album. That said, I think Orzabal’s intricate guitar work is absolutely fantastic, and I love the powerful driving rhythms and both his and Smith’s impassioned vocals. It’s become Tears For Fears’ signature song, as well as one of the most beloved songs of the past 40 years. It ranks among my top 10 favorite songs of all time, and I never tire of hearing it.

“Mothers Talk” has a progressive rock feel, with an intense galloping beat as a foundation, over which the band layers a fusillade of cinematic synths, along with a lively mix of jangly and chiming guitars, and lots of unusual sounds. They slow things down on the mysterious and jazzy “I Believe”, a live recording of their song about primal therapy. The highlights here are the haunting piano work and gorgeous sax played by Will Gregory, their touring saxophonist at that time.

Tracks 6 & 7, “Broken” and “Head Over Heels”, play like one long continuous song, with “Broken” serving as both a dramatic introduction and ending to “Head over Heels”, which is essentially a love song. Taken together, they’re a musical masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. The piano riff at the beginning of “Head Over Heels” is magnificent, and the synths, strings, guitars and percussion are all glorious. The song segues into “Listen”, an epic, nearly seven minute-long track of such incredible beauty it almost makes my heart ache. The lush instrumentals and cinematic synths are spectacular, then calm to a peaceful interlude as Curt Smith softly croons the hopeful lyrics “Mother Russia badly burned. Your children lick your wounds, your wounds. / Pilgrim father sailed away. Found a brave new world, new world. Listen…” The song ends with Orzabal and guest vocalist Marilyn Davis chanting the lines “Cumpleaños chica, no hay que ocuparse”, which roughly translates to “birthday girl, don’t worry”. They seem to be telling us that everything will work out alright (though now, some 35 years later, I’m not so sure.)

Songs From the Big Chair is one of the most beautiful and flawlessly-produced albums I’ve ever heard, and is a true masterpiece on every level. Tears For Fears also released a deluxe version of the album featuring a total of 33 tracks, some of them additional songs and others remixes or edits of the eight original songs, as well as a seven and a half minute long interview with Orzabal and Smith discussing various aspects of the album.

I saw Tears For Fears in concert on their Seeds of Love Tour in 1990 (with Debbie Harry opening), and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.