There are an awful lot of places to mark the birth of Rock and Roll, but one of the most common is 1954, the year of Elvis' first single and Bill Haley's epoch-ushering "Rock Around The Clock." Universal has picked this year as rock's 50th birthday, and to celebrate they're issuing landmark albums as they were originally bought by teens across the land. Haley's is included, of course, as is The "Chirping" Crickets by Buddy Holly and company, one of only two albums Holly released during his life. The biggest stunner, though, is After School Session, a debut from Chuck Berry that plays like his Greatest Hits record. Berry kicks ass in so many styles here - from the rapid-fire "School Day" to the bluesy "Deep Feeling" and tropical "Havana Moon," it's surprising he fit all this into his first year-and-a-half of recording sessions.
Columbia Legacy goes another route for the R'N'R birthday party on Get Down With It, a collection of Little Richard's '60s recordings for Okeh: They present a side of LR that's little remembered, when he abandoned his early piano-heavy small group recordings for Soul in the vein of Otis Redding and Ike & Tina. This is not your granddad's Little Richard, and certainly isn't the first disc of his stuff newbies should buy - but the star's energetic vocal performances make it a fascinating chapter in his still-continuing career.
2004 is also the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' first US appearance, and Hip-O has just put out a very fine primer on the resulting tectonic shift: The British Invasion is a three-disc set that isn't comprehensive (it couldn't possibly be), but is a reasonably priced supplement to the records you already own by the Beatles, Stones, et al. It reminds us that some hits which sound like another era ("Whiter Shade of Pale," "Nights in White Satin," "It's Not Unusual") actually charted within this movement, and it rescues more obscure charmers (Georgie Fame's "Yeh Yeh," Peter & Gordon's "A World Without Love," and many more) that have yet to be featured on a million movie soundtracks. It's a helluva lot of great music to have been made in four short years.
More than a decade later, a more modest Brit invasion took place; while punk and new wave and disco flourished around them, Rockpile (to quote member Nick Lowe) "specialized in playing Chuck Berry music four times faster than anyone else." The group's deliciously retro Seconds of Pleasure is fresh out from Legacy, augmented by a half-album's worth of rare bonus tracks, including four Everly Brothers covers. (Rockpile co-star Dave Edmunds is the subject of his own reissue this month, a hits comp called From Small Things.)
From the department of dubious revivals: Rhino has decided it is time for us to revisit Fleetwood Mac. Their three biggest albums - Rumours, Tusk, and the self-titled one - are now the subject of heavy-duty reissues, two of them double-discers. I'm trying hard to dig them, but I can't much. I just keep thinking of the audiophile nerds I've met who make sheepish admissions along the lines of "Yeah, the music on this album may not be that great, but it's so well recorded..."
Finally, a trio of reassessments:
The Paul Simon Songbook is a fascinating peek at early versions of some Simon and Garfunkel standards, all recorded by the songwriter in England while he thought S&G might never take off in popularity. The tracks are raw and unproduced, and there's something bracing about hearing them ("I Am A Rock," particularly) without the sweet harmonies that would soon adorn them.
Johnny Cash himself picked the songs on Life (Legacy); in fact, he delivered the track listing four days before his death. It's a sequel to the Cash-curated Love, God, Death set, and while there is naturally one unreleased track here (1977's "I Can't Go On That Way") the main appeal is for Cashoholics who like the idea of him making them a mix tape, one freeflowing enough to let tracks jump from decade to decade.
There's a similar feeling of intimacy with a songwriter on The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1 (Nonesuch), a recently recorded disc on which Newman revisits some of his favorites, singing with no accompaniment other than his own piano. It's a stunning performance, a chance to yank these brilliant songs out of the sometimes dated styles of their original recordings; and the benefits of the spare recording style are doubled by the sound of age in Newman's voice: You can't say this for most singers, but the sad insights of this songwriter's words are even better as delivered by an older man.
A man, come to think of it, who was just hitting his teens when rock and roll was born, and witnessed all of these records when they appeared the first time around. Now if only the sharp observer behind "Rednecks" and "It's Lonely at the Top" would turn his pen on the state of the Union, 50 years down the road... •
By John DeFore