On December 31, 1977 The Ramones played a New Year's Eve concert at The Rainbow in London. The show was recorded and released as It's Alive in 1979 with 28 songs in a running time of 53 minutes.
In his memoir, Commando, Johnny Ramone writes of that night :
I think our peak, our greatest moment, is that New Year's Eve show of 1977 into 1978. I think that's our greatest moment as a band.
The recording of It's Alive was probably the best show that The Ramones ever did. We knew they were recording for a live album, and we were ready. Whenever it was important, we would rise to the occasion. I would concentrate more; I would try harder.
My french isn't strong enough to pick up the fact that this goovey song from Brel's final album is an offensive, anti-Flemish tirade. Guess I just like it for the atmosphere.
Brian Eno : R.A.F.
This B side to "Kings Lead Hat" anticipates the Eno/Byrne sound montage recordings of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by using sound elements from a Baader Meinhof ransom message made by public telephone at the time of the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking. You can find this on Eno's Vocal box set.
William Onyeabor : Ride On Baby
This one popped up on shuffle while I was driving today and I couldn't figure out what album this was from until I snuck a peek at my phone at a stop sign. It comes from the first album by Nigerian one man band synth master William Onyeabor, one of David Byrne's favorite musicians.
Eddie Hazel : I Want You ( She's So Heavy)
1977's greatest Beatles cover comes from Parliament-Funkadelic lead guitarist Eddie Hazel's Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs album. Nine minutes of bliss.
This was a brutal chore, cutting down my favorite songs of 1977 to just 25. In some cases (Wire, Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Sex Pistols) , the songs I selected had to represent everything on the album. There were also some great singles on the R and B side that had to make the list. And then there were a handful of songs that didn't make a huge impression in 1977, but have stayed with me all these years ( Dwight Twilley, NRBQ, The Saints).
1. Donna Summer I Feel Love
2. David Bowie 'Heroes'
3. Dwight Twilley Band Looking for the Magic
4. The Clash Complete Control
5. Wire Three Girl Rhumba
6. Chic Everybody Dance
7. NRBQ Ridin in My Car
8. Elvis Costello Watching the Detectives
9. Television See No Evil
10. Ramones Sheena is a Punk Rocker
11. The Saints This Perfect Day
12. Sex Pistols God Save the Queen
13. Fleetwood Mac Dreams
14. Marvin Gaye Got to Give It Up
15. Parliament Flash Light
16. Heatwave Boogie Nights
17. Eddie and the Hot Rods Do Anything You Wanna Do
18. The Babys Isn't It Time
19. Electric Light Orchestra Mr Blue Sky
20. Talking Heads Psycho Killer
21. Richard Hell And the Voidoids Blank Generation
22. Metro Criminal World
23. The Jam Away From the Numbers
24. Cerrone Supernature
25. Ian Dury Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll
Four tracks from 1977 that I must mention before the year is out.
The Big Man himself, Clarence Clemons, played sax on this Chicago power pop band's self-titled debut album. Patient listeners will hear Clemons at the end of this shoulda-been-a-smash that shouldn't be confused with the "rapey" Christmas classic.
An in house producer for Stiff Records, who once spent time in The Pink Fairies and as an early member of Motorhead, Larry Wallis released "Police Car"/"On Parole" produced by Nick Lowe, and backed by two members of Eddie And The Hot Rods; bassist Paul Gray, and drummer Steve Nicol. Like everything Lowe touched in 1977, it's a solid slice of pop.
Yes, I did a post about Hawkwind's surprisingly pleasing Quark, Strangeness and Charm already, but the single "Hassan I Sahba" deserves its own mention. The driving Eastern inspired number is an audience favorite during blissed out live shows. There are many people who say Quark is their favorite Hawkwind album.
From the highly regarded pairing of German electronic group Cluster and Brian Eno, in full ambient mode, comes this decidedly upbeat instrumental. Eno was everywhere in 1977 and he'd be everywhere in 1978. Only Bruce Springsteen is likely to get more mentions next year if I can convince myself to continue...
These were the ten most popular posts about the music of 1977. Feelgood and Klaatu fans caught wind of the posts and helped make them go viral ( at least by my standards, more than 7700 people viewed the first story). The rest of the stories are about bands with giant fan bases so I can't take much in the way of credit.
1. On April 9, 1977 NME published an article with the headline "WILKO EXITS FEELGOODS". The band's songwriter, guitarist and main focal point busted up the band following a disagreement about what songs should be on the Sneakin' Suspicion album. The title track of the Top 10 album, released in May of 1977, reached number 47 in the UK charts.
2. In September of 1977 Klaatu released their second and, many fans say, best album, Hope. Revealed to be a bunch of Canadian studio musicians and not the reunited Beatles as their record label suggested a year earlier, the trio had to record something astonishing or go down in history as a hoax. Fans say they recorded something astonishing, out-engineering almost every prog rock album released in 1977.They point to the George Harrison sound a like title track and the Bohemian Rhapsodic "Loneliest of Creatures. Even so, radio refused to fall for Klaatu a second time. Definitely worth a listen.
3. On April 26, 1977, three days before the release of their first single, The Jam performed four songs for John Peel's BBC sessions .They led with the new single, the future UK Top 40 hit "In The City", followed by a song many in the band believed would be the next single, "Art School". The next tune is "I Changed My Address". All three came from the debut album. They rounded up the set with "The Modern World", another UK Top 40 hit, from their second album. ( The Jam had 18 straight UK Top 40 hits so this is not a surprise.)
4. Even The Beatles said there would never be a live album because they couldn't play well among the 17-thousand screaming fans and abysmal stage monitors. Eventually the band learned to play both their instruments and the fans, knowing the slightest smile or rocking head could set off waves of shrieks throughout the crowds. Thanks to a clean up job by producer George Martin, Capitol Records finally believed it has something worth releasing and on May 4, 1977 The Beatles Live at The Hollywood Bowl hit record shops. One side is from The Beatles 1964 show. The other from the '65 show.
Interesting to note that by 1976 The Beatles no longer had any say in what could or could not be released by the record label. So in 1976 we got Rock n Roll Music ( featuring the hit "Got To Get You Into My Life"), this live album and a compilation called Love Songs, both in 1977.
5. When visiting my cousins on the Upper East side, I liked to head off on my own, speed walking downtown checking my progress by the street signs. 62nd. 56th. 49th. 42nd. I had all the nervous, frenetic energy that came with being thirteen and taking ones life in one's hands, venturing into the dangerous city alone in search of cheap secondhand record stores and bookshops.
Marquee Moon would have been the perfect soundtrack to such ramblings, but the Walkman was still a few years away and I, like most of America, completely missed Television's debut album. The album actually did chart in the UK, reaching 28 with both an abbreviated title track and "Prove It" entering the UK Top 30.
6. In 1977 former Neu guitarist Michael Rother released his debut solo album, Flammende Herzen (Flaming Hearts). Rother is joined by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit with former Neu producer Conny Plank at the helm. I should think Neu fans would love this album: soaring guitars and motorik beats to keep you between the fog lines as you race down the autobahn in your mind.
The U.K. version of The Clash is the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere partly because of its innocence is of a piece -- it never stops snarling, it's always threatening to blow up in your face.
On April 8, 1977 The Clash released their debut album in the UK, considered by many to be the greatest punk album ever released. American audiences had to wait until 1979 before CBS Records released a modified version of the album which exchanged some album cuts for mostly singles.
8. March 25, 1977 is kind of an inauspicious date for Elvis Costello and his fans. It's the date Stiff released his first single, "Less Than Zero", a song that has the prescient line "Let's talk about the future now/ We'll put the past away". Though produced by Nick Lowe, and considered by many to be a classic in the Costello song catalog, this mix of "Less Than Zero", with a slightly more prominent organ, was not the breakthrough single.
It has often been cited that on January 3, 1977 George Gill, Wire's main songwriter and lead guitarist, left the band to form The Bears. But Wilson Neate's definitive 331/3 book, Pink Flag, states that Gill was still with the band until the end of February. In any case, Gill's departure helped the band strip down its sound to its core: no guitar solos, shorter songs, no rock and roll theatrics. Dropping all Gill songs but "Mary is a Dyke" from their setlist, Wire immediately set to work writing the songs that would make Pink Flag one of the greatest debut albums of all time.
In April of 1977, a true curiosity entered UK record stores, a track by track easy listening remake of Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram as performed by a big band orchestra. Why would anyone make such an album? The answer lies in who made the album. Paul McCartney himself.
Here at last is my list of the 50 best albums of 1977. As you may know, I've spent the past year--musically at least --in the year the two sevens clashed. Many of the albums I've loved the longest survived the year. There were a few I did not really know ( Pacific Ocean Blue, The Belle Album, Heart of the Congos, Suicide, ) that made the list. Some sentimental favorites that I actually owned within a year of their release ( News of the World, The Stranger, I Robot, Deceptive Bends) probably took the place of something more deserving but it's my list so fuck off.
Wire Pink Flag
Television Marquee Moon
The Clash s/t
Brian Eno Before and After Science
Talking Heads '77
Elvis Costello : (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
Elvis Costello My Aim Is True
David Bowie Low
Steely Dan Aja
Ramones Rocket To Russia
Bob Marley Exodus
Cheap Trick : Downed
Cheap Trick In Color
Fleetwood Mac Rumours
The Jam In the City
Sex Pistols Never Mind
The Saints Stranded
Dennis Wilson : Farewell My Friend
Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue
Al Green The Belle Album
David Bowie Heroes
Kraftwerk Trans Europe Express
Earth Wind and Fire All'n'All
The Ramones : Swallow My Pride
The Ramones Leave Home
James Taylor JT
Ian Dury New Boots
Culture Two Sevens Clash
Cheap Trick s/t
Iggy Pop : Lust for Life
Iggy Pop Lust for Life
Richard Hell and the Voidoids Blank Generation
The Damned Damned Damned Damned
Dwight Twilley Band Twilley Don't Mind
Billy Joel The Stranger
Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane : My Baby Gives It Away
Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane Rough Mix
The Congos Heart of the Congos
Dead Boys Loud Young and Snotty
Queen News of the World
The Stranglers : Hanging Around
The Stranglers Rattus Norvegicus
Vibrators Pure Mania
Peter Gabriel s/t
Electric Light Orchestra Out of the Blue Iggy Pop The Idiot
Alan Parson Project : I Robot
Alan Parsons Project I Robot
Weather Report Heavy Weather
Dave Edmunds Get It
Parliament Funkentelechy Vs The Placebo Syndrome
Eddie and the Hot Rods : Quit This Town
Eddie and the Hot Rods Life On The Line
Garland Jeffreys Ghost Writer
Mink DeVille Cabretta
Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter
10cc Deceptive Bends
LESTER BANGS ( with the points he awarded to his entries in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll)
Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation 30;
Peter Tosh: Equal Rights 15;
Ramones: Rocket to Russia 10;
Iggy and the Stooges: Metallic K.O. 10;
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols 5;
Ramones Leave Home 5;
The Persuasions: Chirpin' 5;
Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 5;
The Saints: I'm Stranded 5;
Now living in New York City as a freelance rock critic, the legendary Lester Bangs did what every critic has always dreamed of: fronting a band with the Voidoids Robert Quine on guitar, along with Jody Harris of the Contortions, jazzman David Hofstra on Bass and Jay Dee Daugherty of the Patti Smith Group on drums. On his 1977 John Cale produced single, "Let It Blurt", Lester sounds like a cross between Richard Hell and Captain Beefheart.
Music is personal.
That explains Blank Generation's earning the top spot on his year end list. He's a bit of a homer with five NYC entries making his Top 10 list ( Hell, The Ramones, The Persuasions and Suicide). Bangs visited Jamaica--the island, not the borough-- with a pal who was trying to sign Peter Tosh, catching a glimpse of the reggae artist dressed in " a navy blue tracksuit and militant black beret, (yelling) as he practiced high flying karate kicks in the parking lot". Coleman and Suicide provide the dissonance Bangs enjoyed --that bit of mad rage in all of us.
1978 would likely be the year that the great 3:00 pop song ( or new wave tune) made its return, but short and succinct could also be found in 1977. Yes, while Joni Mitchell took an entire side of an album for a song called "Paprika Plains" and the Grateful Dead needed more than 16 minutes for its "Terrapin Station" suite, some artists cut straight to the point.
Here are six 1977 songs under a minute:
Wire : Field Day for the Sundays
At 28 seconds, Wire's shortest song on Pink Flag still found time for a false ending and a repeat chorus. My favorite album of the year featured six songs under a minute and NO guitar solos.
Godley and Creme : Cool, Cool, Cool (Reprise)
It's probablycheating to include a reprise in this list but I'd argue these are the best thirty seconds on the bloviated Consequences.
Earth Wind and Fire : In The Marketplace (Interlude)
At 43 seconds, this experimental tune might have been on one of Brian Eno's albums, Instead, it's a small scene setter on Earth Wind and Fire's finest album, All 'n'All.
Kraftwerk : Endless, Endless
Yes, it's another reprise. The final track on Kraftwerk's magnificent Trans Europe Express runs 55 seconds and leaves the perfect after-taste in your mouth.
Desperate Bicycles : Handlebars
From the Do It Yourself English punk rockers, the 58 second "Handlebars" ends with a rallying cry for every would be musician : "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it!"
The Damned : Stab Your Back
Drummer Rat Scabies gets sole songwriting credit on this minute long gem from the Damned Damned Damned which repeats the title 24 times.
The 1977 Village Voice PAZZ AND JOP poll is a good contemporaneous look at what rocked the world for American rock critics who, for the most part, missed U.K. only releases like The Clash debut, Wire's Pink Flag, Ian Dury's New Boots and Brian Eno's Before And After Science. It would take time before many would recognize albums we now take for granted like David Bowie's Low, Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, the Bee Gees side of Saturday Night Fever and any of the three Iggy Pop albums released in 1977, The Idiot, Lust For Life or Kill City.
1. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 412 (32)
2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia) 367 (33)
3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 327 (26)
Television : Torn Curtain
4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.) 318 (26)
5. Steely Dan: Aja (ABC) 266 (23)
6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire) 238 (23)
7. Talking Heads: Talking Heads: 77 (Sire) 170 (17)
8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.) 160 (16)
9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (AM) 153 (15)
Garland Jeffreys : Lift Me Up
10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic) 121 (11)
11. Jackson Browne: Running on Empty (Asylum) 113 (9)
12. Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane: Rough Mix (MCA) 105 (10)
13. Kate andAnna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) 104 (12)
14. Al Green: The Belle Album (Hi) 89 (10)
Al Green : All n All
15. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon) 83 (8)
16. Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind (Atlantic) 80 (9)
17. Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (Atco) 75 (6)
18. The Kinks: Sleepwalker (Arista) 74 (8)
19. Graham Parker and the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury) 72 (10)
20. Neil Young: American Stars 'n Bars (Reprise) 69 (8)
21. David Bowie: Heroes (RCA) 66 (7)
David Bowie : Joe the Lion
22. The Persuasions: Chirpin' (Elektra) 63 (7)
23. James Taylor: JT (Columbia) 61 (7)
24. The Jam: In the City (Polydor) 61 (6)
25. Ramones: Ramones Leave Home (Sire) 60 (8)
26. The Beatles: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol) 60 (7)
27. Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams (Asylum) 59 (7)
28. The Beach Boys: Love You (Brother/Reprise) 59 (6)
Said poll organizer Robert Christgau of his fellow critics:
This year, the critics rejected albums by Mitchell, Stewart, the Cult, Scaggs, Thin Lizzy and Dylan while Bowie ceased to bust blocks, leaving only seven best-sellers: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman (heavy sales among leprechauns), Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Beatles and Linda Ronstadt (who with the failure of Eno's Discreet Music is now the only artist to have made the last four Pazz and Jop polls, usually in the bottom five). And barring a punk breakthrough of proportions much larger than I think likely--although every night I gaze at the image of Maureen Tucker over my bedroom door and pray that I'm wrong--the only potential 1978 biggie I spy lurking amid this year's works of art is this year's sleeper, Cheap Trick. More and more, rock critics see themselves as guardians of an aesthetic of insurrection, and fuck what people are going to buy.
Neil Young handpicked the songs on this three disc classic, which begins with Buffalo Springfield's "Down to the Wire" and goes up to the minor Stills Young hit "Long May You Run". Best of all are some previously unreleased tracks like the Tonight's The Night era "Winterlong", "Deep Forbidden Lake" and "Campaigner" which has the memorable line "Even Richard Nixon has got soul".
This is how I--and many fabs--first discovered Roxy Music. The greatest hits collection, released during the band's hiatus, gives short shrift to Siren but adds the For Your Pleasure era single "Pyjamarama". Not available on CD
A collection of indisputable classic country hits by George Jones, aka The Greatest Country Music Singer. Jones considered "The Window Up Above" the best song he ever wrote. He hit #2 in 1960 with the song. Mickey Gilley knocked John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" out of the top spot with his 1975 cover.
On December 17, 1977 Elvis Costello interrupted his own performance of "Less Than Zero" to perform "Radio, Radio" on Saturday Night Live. Costello waved his hands at his bandmates and announced to the audience "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here."
Actually there was a reason. Record company reps wanted Costello to play the catchy tune to helps sell copies of My Aim is True. But for Costello, that was already the old record and besides, the song is about former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley. Nobody in America knew who Mosley was.
But they might understand the point of "Radio, Radio", a protest song about corrupt commercial radio stations whose playlists rarely included punk rock songs or anything that wasn't paid for by a major label.
There was panic on the studio floor. We were not even certain if we were still on the air, but the light on the central camera stayed on through the first verse, and my eyes darted around looking for signs that someone was still calling the shots. The Attractions drove on through the song and I sang it for all I was worth. It felt good, but it was hardly a revolutionary act. I took a full bow at the waist, the way The Beatles had on Thank Your Lucky Stars, unplugged, and walked straight off the set past the cameras before the applause ended, followed by various scampering Attractions. Then it was over.
Only later did Costello learn from Bill Murray that producer Lorne Michaels has been giving Costello the finger during the performance.
It would be more than ten years before Costello was invited back to Saturday Night Live.
On this very same night, in this very same city, David Bowie went onstage at Max's Kansas City to introduce a band he helped get signed with Warner Brothers: Devo. Original plans were to have Bowie produced the debut album. Instead the honors went to Brian Eno.
Still, there are rumors of a jam session involving Devo, Bowie and Eno and there may even be a tape somewhere.
On December 13, 1977 Robert Flack released her sixth album, Blue Lights in the Basement. It's a beautiful album that went gold in the US thanks to her hit single with her Howard University friend Donny Hathaway, "The Closer I Get To You". Hathaway had been suffering from clinical depression when Flack tracked down Hathaway in a hospital:
"I tried to reach out to Donny. That's how we managed to do the song we did last year. I felt this need because I didn't know what to do. I couldn't save him, I knew he was sick. But I knew when he sat down at that piano and sang for me it was like it was eight or nine years ago because he sang and played his ass off."
In January of 1979, Hathaway leaped to his death from the 15th floor of the Essex Hotel in New York City. Flack announced that "The Closer I Get to You" would forever be a dedication to Hathaway, and that all money made from the song would be donated to Hathaway's widow and two children
In December of 1977, Suicide released its debut album. For six years the duo of Alan Vega and synth-man Martin Rev performed for baffled, often hostile audiences in New York City's Lower East Side. While Rev made the most out of a $10 Japanese keyboard, Vega sang songs of doom with an echoey rockabilly voice.
You've truly got to be in the right mood to listen to this album, a bright, sunny day at the beach may not be the best location. The highlight, if you will, is a ten minute epic called "Frankie Teardrop"which ahas been called the most terrifying song ever. It's about a factory worker who, despite working ten hour days, can't make ends meet and is facing eviction. He snaps, killing his six month old son and his wife before turning the him on himself. Vega's screams may be may the most blood curdling thing you ever hear.
"Oh, my God! That's one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard. I love that record," Bruce Spingsteen told Rolling Stone.
"23 Minutes Over Brussels," included as a bonus on the CD reissue of Suicide's classic, eponymous debut album, gives some indication of the public's reaction to this confrontational duo in their heyday. Recorded on June 16, 1978, when Suicide were supporting Elvis Costello at the L'Ancienne Belgique ballroom, it shows a riotous crowd pelting the duo with chairs and bottles.
Utilizing a primitive drum machine, Martin Rev's mutant fuzz organ, and Alan Vega's blues holler, Suicide had been performing for six years before unleashing their debut at the height of punk. With their roots in the New York art scene, their provocative name, nihilistic attitude, and the lack of rock 'n' roll accoutrements such as a drummer or guitarist, they often aroused violent reactions in their bewildered audiences.
Arriving in a sleeve full of slash-and-blood imagery, and sounding like a nightmarish netherworld, Suicide's technical and musical innovations make it sound almost contemporary today. "Cheree," lifted as a single, is a piece of sweet electronica, while the manic electro-billy of "Ghost Rider" proved to be a massive influence on the likes of 50ft Cell and The Sisters of Mercy. Psycho- monologue "Frankie Teardrop" is unnervingly intense and features the most spine-chilling scream committed to vinyl, while the album concludes with the icy mechanized cellos and haunting vocals of "Che."
Suicide's harrowing vision of 1970s America has won praise from acts as diverse as Spiritualized, Nick Cave,and Bruce Springsteen.
The most reckless thing about Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, released December 13, 1977, is her appearance in blackface on the cover, reprising a Halloween costume she wore earlier in the year, going as a black man who complemented her on an L.A. street
“As he went by me he turned around and said, ‘Ummmm, mmm... looking good, sister, lookin’ good!’ Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him,” Mitchell said. “I bought a black wig. I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pan-
cake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’”
The double album has enough jazz inflected moments to please fans of Court and Spark and Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the album did sell enough to go gold. But the reviews were not kind, including the one below by Rolling Stone's Janet Maslin who called it "an instructive failure".
In retrospect, Blue turns out to have been the album that displayed Joni Mitchell at her most buoyant and comfortable — with herself, with the nature of her talents, and with the conventions of pop songwriting. From that happy juncture, she has moved on to more graceful and sober self-scrutiny (For the Roses and Court and Spark), to dramatic musical experimentation mixed with failed social commentary (The Hissing of Summer Lawns), to ever-more-seductive singing (Miles of Aisles) and to rambling, hypnotic flights of fancy (Hejira). She has dabbled with jazz and African tribal music, ventured deep inside herself and fled far away. But, always, the unpredictable caliber of her work has been as exciting as it is frustrating. Now, for once, she has gambled and lost. The best that can be said for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.
Since Blue, Mitchell has demonstrated an increasing fondness for formats that don't suit her. Not that this awkwardness can't be occasionally successful: on Hejira, she clung so resolutely to even the stray flat notes that the impression was an attractive one of stubbornness and strength. But, increasingly, Mitchell's pretensions have shaped her appraisal of her own gifts. At her best, she is a keen observer but not a particularly original one, and she has never been an interesting chronicler of experience other than her own, though the new LP finds her trying. Instead, she has been inexplicably inclined to let her music become shapeless as she tries to incorporate jazz and calypso rhythms that eventually overpower her. Her most resonant lyrics have been simple and concise, spinning out images rather than overburdening them, but lately the endearing modesty of "California" or "Just like This Train" seems far behind her. These days, Mitchell appears bent on repudiating her own flair for popular songwriting, and on staking her claim to the kind of artistry that, when it's real, doesn't need to announce itself so stridently.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a double album that should have been a single album. It's sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been riffs, songs that should have been fragments. At its worst, it is a painful illustration of how different the standards that govern poetry and song lyrics can be, and an indication that Joni Mitchell's talents, stretched here to the breaking point, lend themselves much more naturally to the latter form. Her writing works best when it's compact, yet the record's expansive mood forces her to belabor, in the title song, the precious contrast between a snake (or a train, as well as the author's baser instincts) and an eagle (or an airplane, plus a longing for "clarity") for nearly seven minutes. Mitchell's music has evolved into a kind of neutral background, rolling on endlessly in either a languid spirit ("Jericho") or a nervous one ("Dreamland"). Somehow, she has chosen to abandon melody at a time when she needs it urgently.
The painful banality of Mitchell's lyrics — there is nothing said here that she hasn't said better before, except those things she should have kept to herself — is almost the least of her problems. Behind a treacly title like "The Silky Veils of Ardor" lurks an even treaclier notion: that the romantic visions of love put forth by certain folk songs are one thing, that reality is another, and that the singer apparently yearns for both. "It's just in my dreams we fly," the song concludes, with a reference to "The Water Is Wide." Or, as a dialogue balloon on one of the inner sleeves puts it, "In my dweems we fwy." The album offers what is, one can only hope, the ultimate in cute cover art.
It also offers the ultimate in potshots: "Otis and Marlena," a facile, snidely sung song about tourists who come to Miami "for fun and sun While Muslims stick up Washington." This leads into "The Tenth World," a mostly instrumental percussion track featuring Jaco Pastorius (who plays on a majority of the record with distinction, but without much helpful influence), Airto and Chaka Khan (who hums). Here and elsewhere, there seems to be the notion that blacks and Third World people have more rhythm, more fun and a secret, mischievous viewpoint that the author, dressed as a black man in one of the photos on the front jacket, presumes to share. On the numbing, sixteen-minute "Paprika Plains," we also learn about Indians, who "cut off their braids/And lost some link with nature." "Talk to Me" is the LP's most enduring number: as a terrible, embarrassing song about feeling terribly embarrassed, it has a scary appropriateness. But even though there are no real solutions to the album's mysteries or explanations for its lapses, Joni Mitchell's resilience has been demonstrated often enough to make speculation about such things appear superfluous. She's bound to be back when the time is right and her mood is less drowsy, less disengaged than it seems here. Until then, we're left with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, in all its recklessness.