Saturday, October 10, 2015
With a Little Help From My Friends - Joe Cocker
A&M SP 4182
My belated tribute to Joe Cocker who died last December. I think it has taken me so long to get around to this because I have mixed feelings about his career. I have to admit that I hated him when I was a kid. My introduction to him was his hit single "You Are So Beautiful" which they used to play all the time on the crummy soft-rock/adult contemporary radio stations my father listened to in the car. That song made my skin crawl. Then I saw him on "Saturday Night Live" and thought he was ridiculous. My opinion of him changed in my senior year of high school when I saw "Woodstock" and finally perceived his talent. I became a fan of his first three albums. I haven't much interest in him after that. I've heard tracks from most of his 1970s albums, none of which appeal to me. His hit single with Jennifer Warren "Up Where We Belong" nauseates me and I've never bothered to explore his post-1970s catalog. I do like those first three records though, especially this one which was his debut album. The album consists largely of covers of well-known songs. My favorite is the title track which of course comes from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It boasts an extraordinary and dramatic arrangement that radically transforms the song to the point where it is hardly recognizable as the same song. Cocker howls his way through the song supported by soulful harmonizing from female background singers with his back-up band (including Jimmy Page) making a racket behind him. It is an exciting song but I don't consider it an improvement over the original. I think the song was better served by the charm and warmth that Ringo brought to his performance of the song rather than Cocker's histrionics which overwhelm the message of goodwill and amity at the heart of the lyrics. I still dig the arrangement, although when I feel like hearing Cocker's version, I usually reach for the "Woodstock" soundtrack album which has an even more over-the-top and kinetic performance. My other favorite track is a cover of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" which benefits greatly from Cocker's soulful vocal augmented by Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway and Patrice Holloway's strong backing vocals. I consider this the definitive version of the song. Cocker comes close to cutting the Animals with his smouldering version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." I give Eric Burdon the edge for his intensity, but the groove on this arrangement is fabulous. I'm also impressed by the way Cocker revitalizes the 1926 pop standard "Bye Bye Blackbird." The song is given a soul-style treatment that makes it sound contemporary and Page contributes a stinging guitar solo that gives it some fire. Cocker is less successful with a pair of Dylan covers. "I Shall Be Released" seems like a natural fit for him, but I find it dull and over-wrought. My favorite part of the song is Stevie Winwood's swelling organ lines. "Just Like a Woman" is worse. The song is undermined by Cocker's exaggerated vocal and a fussy arrangement. I greatly prefer the simplicity and directness of Dylan's original. He also covers the comparatively obscure "Do I Still Figure In Your Life" which was a 1967 single by Honeybus. The song provides a good vehicle for Cocker's impassioned emoting. There are three original songs that Cocker co-wrote with Chris Stainton which are easily the worst tracks on the record. I've had this record for decades and played it a bunch of times and I still can't remember any of them even after I've just finished listening to the record. "Sandpaper Cadillac" is the best of the three thanks to Page's fuzzy guitar riffs and some appealing shifts in tempo. "Change in Louise" is energetic and reminds me of Procol Harum if Gary Brooker had laryngitis. "Marjorine" has a music hall flavor to it. For some reason Cocker chooses to sing some of it in a high, almost falsetto voice, that irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard. The song features both Jimmy Page and Albert Lee on guitar and I'm still bored by it. I think the weakness of the original songs is emblematic of Cocker's career. He was a great interpreter, but I don't think he was a great artist. He was heavily dependent on outside material and I think Chris Stainton was largely responsible for the imaginative arrangements that make Cocker's first two albums so compelling. Once Stainton left, Cocker's sound suffered. Despite my misgivings about his taste and vision, there is no denying that the man was a fantastic singer, among the best of his era. Even the weaker songs on this album sound wonderful. Like Janis Joplin, he redefined rock singing by incorporating soul and rhythm and blues techniques into the orthodox style of rock singing creating an intoxicating synthesis that is still thrilling to me 46 years after it was recorded. Recommended to people who think it would have been cool to hear Ray Charles perform with a loud rock band.