By Matt Meade
People who talk about popular music as if it matters like to take certain things as a given. Robert Johnson is the starting point for rock and roll music (rock wouldn’t be rock without the blues, and the blues wouldn’t be the blues without RJ (and the legendary peddling of his own soul, but that is a story for another day)). Other generally accepted, but still debatable, assumptions include: Elvis delivered rock and roll to the masses, Bob Dylan ushered in the era of the rock and roll auteur, and Marvin Gaye had the most perfect voice in the history of popular music. All are among the safest assumptions. More dubious assumptions made by music snobs and record geeks include: You should ever listen to The Sex Pistols (or PiL for that matter); The Arctic Monkeys have ever / will ever do anything relevant; Michael Jackson is somehow better than Prince… The list goes on.
Over the next week, I would like to slaughter a few sacred cows, and try to explain my position and convince you that these cows would make delicious hamburgers. I’d like to re-consider 7 records that are universally considered to be great records and explain why they are mediocre at best. It’s easy to find people who would laud these records, and adopting others’ opinions is more convenient, but it doesn’t always mean it’s right. Decide for yourself.
1. The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
I can’t prove it, but I have a theory that the now famous outfits seen on the album cover for The Gilded Palace of Sin came before the music. The day Graham Parsons bought the Nudie suit adorned with pictures of naked women, and pot leaves, and a giant cross, he must have realized, “I better make a record to match these pants.” And thus the world has the hyper tight country of The Flying Burrito Brothers and their debut record, The Gilded Palace of Sin. I am reasonably sure if Graham had purchased a beret and a turtleneck that we could very well be talking about the beatnik Jazz record Graham Parsons released in 1969 called Blew All Over with his band the 9th Avenue Bee Bopping Cats.
In this rock n’ roll version of It’s a Wonderful Life, Graham Parsons never makes Gilded Palace of Sin and instead Blew All Over is a top 10 record, Parsons never overdoses on morphine, and instead lives to the age of 70 and ends up walking through music’s version of Bedford Falls (Cleveland) while the angel trying to get his wings (Jaco Pastorius) shows him all the lives that changed because Parsons pretended to be a jazzman instead of pretending to be a cowboy. CCR ends up only playing Pentangle style folk, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s only outlet is as local professional wrestlers, and Ryan Adams forms a metal band called The Hung Over and he never makes Heartbreaker. All because of Graham’s suspect fashion choice.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all the things people write about The Flying Burito Brothers
is are true. The songwriting is succinct (the record is a clinic on chorus-verse-bridge-outro song form), the approach accurately mimics the Bakersfield sound (there are twangy telecaster leads to spare), the harmonies are impeccable (being that they are delivered directly from the pop vintage provided by Graham Parsons and Chris Hillman formerly of the Byrds), and this endeavor introduced an entire generation of rockers to country music (these guys were on the forefront of the country rock hybridization that is still going on today. Have you heard Conor Oberst lately?), but should we really assume that had The Flying Burrito Brothers never existed that no one in the rock and roll world would have ever heard about Hank Williams and Buck Owens?
After all, this record came out the same year as Nashville Skyline. Buffalo Springfield released “For What It’s Worth” in 1967, two years before this album jangled its spurs into the record stores. The Band was playing with Ronnie Hawkins as early as the late 50s, when Parsons and Hillman were in highschool. Are you really telling me that it’s because of “Sin City,” with all its artifice, is responsible for the existence of bands like Wilco, The Old 97s, and Will Oldham? Are you telling me this record has something to do with Neil Young’s career? I’m not convinced.
But what about the music? If the songs are good, nothing else matters. But that’s just the problem. All of those other rock and roll bands are using country music as a delivery system for their ideas, their emotions, their joy and pain. The Flying Burrito Brothers are a little more concerned with trying to show off the shuffle pattern they learned from listening to a Jimmie Rodgers records. When Graham Parsons et al. sing about sin, I just don’t believe them. They don’t seem to be singing about something they need to be delivered from. They are singing about a theme they picked at random from Dust Bowl Ballads. They could have just as easily ended up singing about mountain tops, train tracks, or Jesse James’ murder. This all seems too inauthentic to deserve the kind of attention it gets. Everything from the name of the band, to the too tight Nudie suits, to the fact that they even gave up titling their songs halfway through the second side of the record (“Hot Burrito #1,” “Hot Burrito #2”…). It all comes off as a little instructional.
I don’t care if I can learn how to play the pedal steel guitar from listening to this record, the songs on this record are stiff and stale, practiced and calculated. There is nothing messy about it. There is nothing desperate about the way country music is used to express an idea.
And the greatest gilded sin of all is that there are no cry breaks.
Now, if you’ve been listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers your whole life, then you might not know what a cry break is. Allow me to explain. Sometimes, when country singers are so distraught about the loss, or pain they are singing about, their voice cracks and they sing out of tune for a second. They do this for effect and it resonates with the audience. It makes the listener feel that tug of their heart strings just a little bit more. It’s a unique tool available to country music practitioners. A single cry break might have saved this whole self-indulgent endeavor from itself. But these pop stars just couldn’t bring themselves to sully the pristine vocal harmonies they were constructing.
Then again, a cry break may have been the greatest sin they could have perpetrated. It could have sounded phony and calculated and disrespectful to the original material. But I ask you, how would that be any different from the rest of the record?
The whole act finally unravels as the record comes to some kind of weird crescendo in the revivalist rant-rap that serves as the final “song” on the record. Graham Parsons plays the part of the old square/ hanky holding preacher as he plays out a scene that puts on display how the youth perceive the establishment’s perception of the youth. It’s some sort of ill-conceived reflection of a reflection of a reflection, the end of which is Graham Parsons’ stuck up square of a character discovering that Hippies ain’t so bad after all. I am not sure what this final piece is meant to communicate, but whatever it is, it surely doesn’t work as a great rock and roll song. It is closer to the skits on Stankonia that I deleted from my iTunes long ago. Those poor vinyl buying saps in the early 70s had no such option. I pity them.
When all is said and done, what do you have left? I can surely appreciate the musical acuity, but that has sunk more rock records than it ever saved. If I squint my eyes I can sort of see how these guys made an impact on the main stream 45 years ago, but is it relevant today? I think nostalgia has clouded the minds of anyone who champions this band, because all I hear are some easy listening tunes written by music geeks. And now that we have all been introduced to how good country music can be, why don’t we all just listen to some Hank Williams?
Song I would listen to if you held a gun to my head: “Christine’s Song,” though it kind of goes on for way too long. Or maybe, “Dark End of the Street.”
Listen to this Instead: A.M. by Wilco, or anything by Townes Van Zandt
Check in tomorrow for part 2... Hint: The most tragically overrated band of the 70s.