Willie shakes off his outlaw-cowboy image for a blissful, understated set of holiday pop standards perfect for any occasion.
Pretty paper? You mean like rolling paper? Sorry, folks; in spite of wild Willie’s stoner reputation, the title track of this fine Christmas album is actually about wrapping paper. Way back in 1963, presumably pre-weed, Nelson was inspired by a disabled street vendor’s cry to write a touching song about holiday loneliness. Within weeks Roy Orbison fought off a 102° fever to render a poignant vocal version that took his version of “Pretty Paper” to #15.
Skip ahead to the mid-’70s as Willie’s career is finally catching fire thanks to “outlaw country,” a rebellious, rootsy response to the processed Nashville sound. But even as the Wanted! The Outlaws compilation takes off, restless Willie is ready for greener musical pastures. Strolling his Malibu neighborhood, he bumps into neighbor Booker T. Jones, leader of ’60s soul combo Booker T. and the MG’s. Willie invites Jones to produce his next album, a collection of American pop standards from the 1920s-1940s. No one had expected the 1978 Stardust LP but everyone loves it; the gently jazzy release quickly hits multi-platinum status and garners rave reviews.
Willie’s CBS contract gives him complete artistic control over his releases, and a year later this artist decides to cut a Christmas album (unlike most holiday releases, this one is not a greedy label’s cash grab). Nelson calls up Jones again (or maybe just shouts over the back fence) and reassembles his talented Stardust backing band. Again they choose a handful of Great American Songbook numbers, this time all Christmas-themed. They add a couple traditional carols and two originals, including Willie’s Orbison hit “Pretty Paper,” which becomes the title track.
Willie Nelson: ‘Pretty Paper’ (1979)
Result: 29 minutes of pure, understated holiday joy. This is largely due to Willie’s nasal crooning, which has a great storytelling quality that brings story-songs to life (as heard on his brilliant conceptual song-cycle Red Headed Stranger). He even turns the familiar “Jingle Bells” into a thrilling sleigh adventure.
Willie Nelson: ‘Jingle Bells’ (1979)
All this is underpinned by Willie’s own fine work on nylon-string Spanish guitar. Nelson is doubled beautifully by Jody Payne on electric guitar, while Mickey Raphael adds sweet fills on harmonica. But the secret weapon is Booker T. Jones himself on organ, prominent throughout and very recognizable to fans of his ’60s work. Still, the effect is minimalistic and subdued, with only a couple instruments audible at any one time. It’s tasteful as hell, frankly.
On “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” Willie spins some jolly tales for the kiddies with appropriately bouncy backup; on more reflective tunes like “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” he’s restrained and emotional. For me the highlight is “Winter Wonderland,” with Willie’s intimate, romantic vocal clearly aimed at his snowman-building, face-unafraid partner. The soulful instrumental “Christmas Blues” even evokes the heyday of Booker T. and the MG’s.
Willie Nelson: ‘Winter Wonderland’ (1979)
Hearing Pretty Paper for the first time just now, I was quite floored by its splendid display of holiday cheer. Like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, it sets a warm, festive mood without being too manic or maudlin. From tree-trimming to gift-wrapping to family feast, it’s hard for me to picture a holiday setting where this wouldn’t be ideal. (For the record, the 8-track is also perfect, effortlessly breaking its twelve songs into four equal programs with no broken or repeated songs.) With this Pretty Paper of blue, may all your Christmases be white — and all your Christmas “trees” be green. (Some stoner humor I think wild Willie would appreciate.)
Gordon Lightfoot, ‘Gord’s Gold’ (‘Cash Box’ magazine, December 13, 1975). Click to enlarge.
Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits collection, Gord’s Gold, released in November of 1975 grabbing #34 on the US charts and #8 in his native Canada.
The LP contains a number of re-recorded tracks that first released in the 1960s. Apparently Lightfoot no longer enjoyed listening to the originals. I’ve always been partial to the 1974 track “Sundown” (US #1). Have a listen.
Gordon Lightfoot: ‘Sundown’ (Live on ‘The Midnight Special,’ 1974)
EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER, ‘PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION’ (1971); PHILIP GLASS, ‘NORTH STAR’ (1977)
Two classically-themed musical suites inspired by the visual arts: a mail-order offer you can’t refuse.
Want to be sophisticated but don’t have the time? Can’t get to the big cities to take in those fancy gallery shows? Now you can enjoy great works of the visual arts in musical form while you drive, work, or relax. Every month Art-Tracks™ brings you important collections of paintings and sculptures in musical form on convenient 8-track tape cartridges. With Art-Tracks™, essential cultural works are as close as your tape deck. Subscribe today and get our first two releases free of charge — much cheaper than a Master of Fine Arts degree!
Did you miss the 1874 showing of Viktor Hartmann’s watercolors in St. Petersburg, Russia? No worries; composer Modest Mussorgsky was on the scene and recreated ten of the paintings in a suite for piano called Pictures at an Exhibition.
Nearly a century later, prog-rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer discovered the work and arranged it as a live performance piece. They chose their four favorite “paintings,” embellished them with original material in the same style, and linked it all with Mussorgsky’s stately “Promenade,” meant to suggest strolling a gallery and viewing the artworks.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer: ‘Promenade’/’The Gnome’ (Live, 1971)
Art-Tracks™ subscribers will find the album similar to the band’s other early works: searing power-trio performances with vocals and Emerson’s keyboards underpinned by Lake’s frantic bass work and Palmer’s intense drumming.
Lake’s delicate acoustic original “The Sage” foreshadows his later works “C’est La Vie” and “Still… You Turn Me On.” Like the Hartmann paintings that inspired them, “The Gnome” is dark and misshapen, “The Old Castle” and “The Hut of Baba Yaga” are grand and imposing, and “The Great Gates of Kiev” (painting shown here) is awe-inspiring. It’s like art for your ears!
Emerson, Lake & Palmer: ‘The Sage’ (Live, 1971)
Though they have toured, probably NOT coming to a museum near you are the sculptural works of Mark di Suvero — given that they are typically made of steel I-beams, weigh up to ten tons, and can stand 40 feet tall. di Suvero’s astonishing works and astounding technique — he often works alone using welding tools and crane — were captured in the 1977 documentary film North Star: Mark di Suvero.
In his score for the film, minimalist composer Philip Glass created short, separate pieces for the nine featured sculptural works (and a tenth track, “Montage”). This soundtrack was issued as Glass’ sixth album, 1977’s North Star, which we are proud to offer in convenient tape format to Art-Tracks™ subscribers. (Regrettably Glass’ first name is misspelled on the 8-track artwork.)
North Star sounds a lot like Glass’ signature work, the abstract opera Einstein At The Beach, which was composed just before this. Like Emerson, Glass trades off on organ and synthesizer, playing his familiar repetitive keyboard figures at lightning speed with subtle variations each time around. A male and a female vocalist sing phrases such as “ee-aa,” “do-si-na,” and “dobba dobba dobba”; sax and flute join in as well.
Philip Glass: ‘Etoile Polaire (North Star)’ (1977)
Appropriately, di Suvero’s jagged “Ik-Ook” is reinvented as a tinny Farfisa piece and the solitary “Etoile Polaire (North Star)” becomes an equally lonely organ and vocal number. The massive, complex work shown here, “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore),” is met with a Glass interpretation just as intense and overwhelming. With di Suvero’s enormous sculptures scattered across the globe, the 8-track version of his work becomes all the more appealing — and time-saving!
Philip Glass: ‘Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore)’ (1977)
Join Art-Tracks™ today and become a connoisseur of the visual arts while you work and play—through the miracle of 8-track tapes. Next time someone asks if you saw that amazing gallery show, you can say, “No, but I HEARD it!” Thanks, Art-Tracks™!
Kool and the Gang’s “Open Sesame” (also known as “Open Sesame (Groove With The Genie)”) appeared on the album of the same name in late 1976. The single had some success on its own, reaching #55 on the US Hot 100 and #6 on the R&B chart, but is probably best-remembered for appearing on side three of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Another single off the LP, “Super Band,” fared less well, landing just outside the Hot 100 at 101.
Have a look at a pretty awesome 1976 promotional clip for “Open Sesame” filled with swirling capes and fog machines.
EIGHT TIMES TWO: VELVET UNDERGROUND, ‘1969 LIVE’; LOU REED, ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ANIMAL’ (1974)
Two very different versions of a classic song, performed live by two very different Lou Reed bands.
The song: Written circa 1969, Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” exists in two markedly different versions that share the same chord sequence and chorus. The early Velvet Underground version issued on the 1969 live album has a slow, thoughtful tempo and abstract lyrics about having a dream and waiting for a loved one.
For the 1970 album Loaded, Lou rewrote the song as a midtempo rocker with more concrete lyrics about a working-class couple that enjoys life’s simple pleasures, not unlike John Cougar’s later “Jack and Diane.” Both versions were recorded with a lilting bridge section (“heavenly wine and roses”) that was spliced out of the Loaded version to make it more commercial.
The Velvet Underground: ‘Sweet Jane’ (Live, 1969)
Velvet Underground version: This charming early take feels more like a sketch than a finished song. Like earlier Velvet Underground numbers “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” the mood is quiet and reflective. In 1987 laidback alt-rock band Cowboy Junkies did a note-perfect recording of this live take (complete with abstract lyrics and “heavenly wine and roses” bridge) and had a 1988 hit with it.
Lou Reed version: While the Loaded version was quite a departure from the 1969 original, this astounding 1973 live take reinvents the song yet again into a true rock epic. It’s prefaced by a three-minute dual lead-guitar introduction that sounds like a glam version of the Allman Brothers. The audience then goes wild as Lou swaggers out on stage as the classic “Sweet Jane” riff begins. Reed sings the Loaded lyrics (“standin’ on the corner, suitcase in my hand”), audibly emboldened by his awesome backing band. The song was always meant to become a rock anthem, and it’s thrilling to hear it achieve that destiny — live on stage, before your ears.
Lou Reed: ‘Sweet Jane’ (Live, 1973)
Velvet Underground album: By late 1969 the Velvet Underground was in the process of reinventing itself, having moved out of the shadow of early benefactor Andy Warhol while trying to shed its decadent junkie image. Over the years the playing of the notoriously loose band had gotten tighter, especially with the arrival of bassist Doug Yule. Almost by accident, clean soundboard recordings were made of gigs in San Francisco and Dallas. In 1974 Lou Reed’s management dug out the tapes and issued a double live album to capitalize on Lou’s recent success with Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal, boldly placing Reed’s marketable name on the 1969 Live album cover.
Lou Reed album: In late 1973, a year before releasing 1969 Live, Reed’s management sought to make him a mainstream rock star by elevating his “erratic and unstable punkiness… into punchy, swaggering grandeur by using the best arrangements, sound and musicians that money could buy” (Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone). (Featuring guitar legends Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, Reed’s Animal live band was so hot that it was soon poached by Alice Cooper.) The album itself is a classic of live rock; tracks such as “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” resonated with a mainstream audience, helping it reach a #45 chart placement and (eventually) gold record status.
Velvet Underground deep track: My favorite from this set is the sprawling, hypnotic, ten-minute “Ocean,” which Reed would revisit on his first solo album. The abbreviated 8-track version omits this and the superb, jammy “What Goes On,” but offers the melancholy love song “Over You,” great evidence of Reed’s underrated talent at writing simple pop songs.
Lou Reed deep track: The album’s highlight is easily the sprawling take on “Heroin,” rock music’s most unabashed love song to a dangerous drug. Yet Reed’s subversive lyric takes a back seat to the breathtaking band performance, really one of the finest live rock recordings ever. The band joyously transitions from very slow to very fast tempos, organ and dual guitars interweaving gorgeously to make this already ambitious song truly epic.
Lou Reed: ‘Heroin’ (Live, 1973)
Best version: The ethereal 1969 Live version of “Sweet Jane” led to (I believe) the song’s greatest commercial success at the hands of Cowboy Junkies. But the Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal take is the one for the ages, turning the already tough Loaded arrangement into a thrilling widescreen rock classic.
Best album: 1969 Live is kind of a miraculous release; really strong band performances, well-recorded and issued at a time when the Velvets were unknown to most rock fans. But Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal mixes Reed’s songwriting talent with some of the business’ best players to create a perfect storm of rock brilliance.
Best 8-track: For the reasons above, Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal is the cartridge that belonged in every ’70s rocker’s car stereo and home console. But the 1969 Live tape deserves notice for improving on its original vinyl version by cutting it in half. Actually known as “Highlights Of 1969 Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed,” the tape offers a less intense journey into the Velvets’ often scary underground while providing some of the band’s strongest material. And its fiery, extended version of “Rock ‘N’ Roll” frankly gives the Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal take a run for its money.