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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: McLemore Avenue

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: McLEMORE AVENUE (1970)

1) Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End / Here Comes The Sun / Come Together; 2) Something; 3) Because / You Never Give Me Your Money; 4) Sun King / Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam / She Came In Through The Bathroom Window / I Want You (She's So Heavy).

There are good records and bad records, exciting records and boring records, «straight» records and «freakout» records, and then there's McLemore Avenue — a record whose only purpose is to stress the greatness of a different record. In a «where-did-that-idea-come-from?» fit of bizarre brain impulse attack, Booker T. puts together what must have been the first authentic case of musical cosplay in pop/rock history, and I do mean the visuals as well, because one look at the album cover shows that this is one album that couldn't have appeared on store shelves prior to 1970 (or, at least, very very late 1969).

It is cozy for me to know that, of all Beatles albums, it was Abbey Road that struck Booker T. as such an otherworldly experience that he fell into a «must cover Abbey Road!» sort of trance, because it is totally in line with my own perception of Abbey Road. However, it is also obvious that the man could hardly hold any false hopes of improving upon the tunes by covering them, or even of uncovering any hidden potential of the songs that was not already revealed (immediately or gradually) on the original LP. The only rational purpose of putting out a record like this would be to get people to say to each other: «Say, that Abbey Road must be really special, eh? I mean, did you ever hear of any American band covering any Brit band record in its entirety? Should be real good if people worship it that much!» Plus, there may be irrational purposes at work, but we're not gonna talk about those.

Recreation of the songs was not achieved in a «carbon copy» manner. First, as if to over-stress the importance of Abbey Road's «medley principle», almost all of the tunes here are arranged in medleys, with ʽI Want Youʼ stuck as a long spasmodic tail to the end of ʽShe Came In Through...ʼ and ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ glued with ʽCome Togetherʼ either because they both have the verb «come» in the title or because, for some reason, Booker thought that such a sequencing would be «natural» (I am not at all sure). Second, not all of the songs are covered — actually, Booker short­changes not only Ringo (with the lack of ʽOctopus' Gardenʼ, which is understandable, if not very forgivable), but also Paul, omitting both ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ (which he may have thought too juvenile) and ʽOh Darlingʼ (which is really hard to explain, considering that ʽOh Darlingʼ was easily the most R&B-ish song on the album, heavily influenced by the Louisiana sound — then again, maybe it was that very closeness that prompted Booker to reject it).

Nor are the remaining songs done all that close to the originals, either. Plenty of variations are introduced, what with ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ largely redone as a jazz number and with the instrumental break in ʽSomethingʼ replaced with a surprisingly aggressive blues-rock jam section as Cropper breaks out the deck of nasty swamp-blues slide licks. And, of course, as Booker T. loyally continues the tradition of imitating vocal melodies with his organ, you will note that some stuff works better than other — for instance, the opening religiously-solemn lead part on ʽGolden Slumbersʼ is fabulous, but as they make the transition into ʽCarry That Weightʼ, the same sub­dued tone fails to clearly mark the contrast between the «lullaby» and the «work chorus» parts of the medley. But then, is there any use in such dissection, when McLemore Avenue was never meant to be treated as a number of distinct parts in the first place?

It is quite probable that, provided you have not heard of this album before, you will be tempted into hearing it at least once, at least out of sheer curiosity — and that one listen it certainly de­serves, because, after all, there is no way that the leading instrumental R&B outfit of its time would be covering the leading rock band of its time without the results being at least somewhat entertaining. The problem is, it is impossible to judge McLemore Avenue on its own merits or by its own standards — and as much as I can respect all the solos that Booker T. and Steve Crop­per are playing here, every time they're on, I'm like «God, it's so cool the Beatles didn't use this chord sequence in 1969!» Even on ʽI Want Youʼ, where you'd think there'd be a good chance of Cropper blowing John Lennon's lead guitar out of the water... well, no, he doesn't. Why? Not his song. Not his idea. Not that kind of guy. It's just a Booker T. thing, you know. A hunch, and everybody had to follow up on it.

I'd like to give this one a thumbs up, just because of the awesome craziness of the idea, but I can­not. It's a curio — certainly more memorable because of the idea itself rather than its actual exe­cution. It certainly isn't executed any worse than any other Booker T. album: it's just that this time around, they set themselves an unbeatable standard, and, uh, they didn't beat it. Then again, I'd guess we'd rather have them select Abbey Road and be left beaten by it than have them select, say, The Archies, and beat it.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoy this album, because I like being able to hear these songs a bit differently. I feel the same way about George Benson's "The Other Side of Abbey Road," which also proves your point about this album uniquely creating a must-cover-this-in-its-entirety state in some artists.

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  2. NIce muzak. Still muzak. For the guests in the waiting room at the Stax offices. Curiously, but not surprisingly this album is the Booker T. & The M.G.'s choice of the audiophiles.

    Instead the next, IMO their best album, Melting Pot.

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