Greetings mighty signifiers of all things past and prevalent - and fellow believers in that now crusty era when music actually meant music (rhythm, melody, harmony); when sweat, brains and blood trumped immaculate Pro Tools' efficiency. This line of thought leads to my latest revelation, one not spectacular when you consider that it is simply Anyway, when perusing that motherlode of streaming video for archival performances by Philly Joe Jones, Shirley Bassey, Electric Light Orchestra, Little Feat, Seals & Crofts, Moondog etc., I noticed a consistent statement from the punters: "Remember when the radio offered timeless music? What happened to great songs?" Ah, the kids understand. Even thinking of radio as a music outlet is a joke these days, as unfunny as the mechanized, dynamics-deficient, teenage pablum sold from the major and minor labels. White Stripes? Strokes? P Diddy? Rockstar Supernova? In the 70s -- said the graying guy -- the radio held wonderful secrets and promoted great music. Pity, those days are gone. And that is where this month's Blast from the Past comes in. Remember when FM radio would play an entire side of a new LP? Or when the same station would play jazz, hard rock, country and in the wee hours of the morning, space-age electronic bachelor pad music but essentially all in one night? New reissues from John Coltrane, George Harrison, The Pretenders and Gram Parsons seek to replicate a similar mindset, an analogous programming guide to those days of A&R turntables, Advent speakers and Pioneer receivers if you will.

Fearlesss Icon, Leader of the Old School
John Coltrane - Fearless Leader [Prestige] is a gorgeously remastered and annotated six-CD box set covering the master saxophonist and composer's Prestige sessions of May 31, 1957 to December 26, 1958. Coltrane's incredibly rapid artistic evolution soon led to his breakthrough Impulse! years (and his Capitol Blue Train period) but Fearless Leader's representation of nine sessions and 11 separate albums marks a high point in jazz that has never been equaled. From the first track of disc one, "Straight Street", all of the elements that we have come to know and love about Coltrane -- innovative melodic/harmonic and soloist logic, gorgeous tone and blues feeling -- are in full evidence if not full flower. From the post bop inspired Coltrane into the more modally based The Believer, Soultrane and Traneing In, culminating in his early dark masterpiece, Black Pearls, Fearless Leader explores Coltrane in all his invigorating power, beauty, spiritual intelligence and rapacious curiosity.

Nine sessions and 11 albums? Prestige's practice -- as was that of other labels in the late 50s/early 60s -- was to sometimes spread the results of a single session over multiple albums. Fearless Leader keeps most of the original albums intact, with new and original liner notes and full chronologies of every session. As far as the breakdown of individual CDs, Lush Life, The Believer, Soultrane, The Last Trane, Settin' The Pace and Black Pearls comprise the first four CDs; with The Standard Coltrane, Bahia, Standout and tracks taken from The Believer session making up the final two discs. With amazing bands that include bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Red Garland on every cut (gigging outside their main job with Miles Davis as was Coltrane), backing musicians include Art Taylor, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Sahib Shihab, Jimmy Cobb and Mal Waldron, players who would all build substantial bodies of work in years to come.

Drop the laser anywhere on this set for a thrill: first track disc three, "Come Rain or Come Shine" with Coltrane gorgeously stating the melody before flying off on a typically sun-streaked solo. Same disc track seven "I Want to Talk About You", a lilting ballad that soars from note one with Coltrane's revelations, which come fast and flowing. "Spring is Here" from disc five, an uptempo swinger that features another typically dense Coltrane solo with an equally interesting outpouring from trumpeter Wilbur Hardin. But the contrast between solos is incredible, again showing Coltrane's full mastery at such an early stage in his career.

Excellent new commentaries and track-by-track descriptions, original artwork and liners and complete breakdown of session personnel all contribute to make Fearless Leader an invaluable keepsake and informative document of Coltrane's early years. And it sounds as modern now as it did some 45 years ago.

Hynde's Hindsight
The Pretenders and Pretenders II marked the entrance of dynamo hum-merchant Chrissie Hynde into the global rock'n'roll consciousness. Some 30 years after the albums' release (1979 and 1980, respectively), they still show her to be a powerful, prescient figure. Reissued on Sire/Rhino, these double-disc fold-out digi-pak sets feature original artwork, wonderful period photography and commentaries as well as freshly scrubbed sonics. Those reveal The Pretender's scorching performances (though Hynde's vocals are strangely louder than on the original LPs). While the Pretenders influenced Shirley Manson's Garbage, their influence seems largely lost on today's rockers. But then, the 1970s were still an era when rock ruled, when hip-hop was still a minor gleam in Flavor Flav's gold tooth. The Pretenders were masters of rock'n'roll attitude with originality. "Precious", "The Phone Call", "Up The Neck", "Tattooed Love Boys", "Mystery Achievement" and the big hits -- "Kid" and "Brass in Pocket" -- are bright gems of blazing wit and heroic melodic ingenuity. Ringers James Honeyman Scott (guitar) and Martin Chambers (drums) helped give The Pretenders charisma and sonic punch while Hynde's dirty girl persona predated Christine Aquilera and tons of foul-mouthed and ultimately less talented hip-hop divas by decades.

As kids, we always wondered what Hynde meant when she sang "I shot my mouth off and he showed me what that hole was for" in the odd-metered "Tattooed Love Boys". Hmmm, we thought she was literally singing about "changing tires". The Clash may have sparked more political protest and awareness but the Pretenders -- who were ¾ English to Hynde's Ohioian roots -- wrote better songs. The second disc of Pretenders is equally fun. It includes the single "Cuban Slide" (Bo Diddley beat), original demos of "The Wait", "Brass in Pocket" (much slower), "Stob Your Sobbing", "Kid" (more rocking and raucous!), "Tequila" and live versions of "Sabre Dance", "Mystery Achievement", "Precious" and "Tattooed Love Boys" (all absolutely riveting, punk-influenced locomotives that confirm The Pretenders' manically ferocious grit as a live act). This is the first time these tracks have been issued.

Pretenders II held the hits "I Go To Sleep", "Talk of the Town" and "Message Of Love", with perhaps only the final track matching anything from their first album. The band had already begun to mature and guitarist James Honeyman Scott's death would essentially finish off this incarnation of The Pretenders but they were already in flux. Much of the album is filler (along with a surprisingly overproduced and lightweight drum sound) save for the hits, while Hynde perfected her lust-filled persona in tracks like "The Adultress" and "Bad Boys Get Spanked". Still, this was erotic stuff for the late 70s when Carole King and even Joni Mitchell still cloaked sexual desire in Laurel Canyon poetry. The hits retain their panache and show where Hynde was headed - MOR territory better suited to her advancing age and growlingly tremulous vocals. Disc two of the set offers never before released live tracks (perhaps the better reason to own this double disc), including "Higher and Higher", "The Wait", "Kid" and 15 more.

Making Love to A Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee
"She puts her head into the fire and makes your red hots perspire" sang Don Vliet on the first track from Doc At The Radar Station #1, one of two new Astralwerks reissues along with Ice Cream For Crow. These albums sounded bizarre when they were released in '80 and '82 respectively and they sound just as weird today. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band played together like a single organism operating on the same skanky, performance-art- espousing, country-bues-riffing, fractured-rhythm-smashing freakout, with Don Vliet singing lyrics that made his pal Frank Zappa blush. His drummer rarely if ever used his hi-hats, addressing each rhythm strictly on the toms to give the music a peculiarly primal projection while Vliet sang lines like "hit me where the lover hangs out". "You used me for an ashtray heart", "a natural glue that holds fast and slow and every other motion" and "She always shows up when I'm up/She never shows up when I'm down" were typical Van Vleet's witticisms.

With their unusual accumulation of chamber, funk, blues, Dixieland and rock'n'roll, no other band sounded anything remotely like Captain Beefheart who produced as original an American art form as anything from Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollack, Miles Davis, Charles Bukowski or John Coltrane. Both Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow are must- have reissues for collectors (though you wonder why Astralwerks chose to reissue these particular discs when CP's career stretched back to '67). They are prime examples of Captain Beefheart's mystical art - though only Ice Cream features a single bonus track, "Light Reflected Off The Oceans Of The Moon".
Hello Buckaroos!
Buck Owens practically invented the Bakersfield sound currently pursued by class acts like Jim Lauderdale. His music has been covered by everyone from the Beatles and Dwight Yokam to Carl Perkins. Buck Owens 21 #1 Hits [Rhino] confirms Buck's cornball, pre Hee Haw genius and also his deep-seated country soul. Aided by ace guitarist Don Rich, Buck and the Buckaroos coined a perfect combo of pop confection, brilliantly concise arrangements and performances and a certain then unheard-of country modernity that made both rock'n'rollers and the Nashville faithful real fans. It's all here from obvious barn burners like "Act Naturally" and "Together Again" to a protest song "Waitin' in your Welfare Line", the ode to the party life "Sam's Place" and thesteel guitar infused ballad "Your Tender Lovin' Care". It's mostly a toe-tapping damn fine time and pure Americana.
Almost cut my hair
A rich kid with a trust fund who dreamed up country rock discovered Emmylou Harris -- and heavily influenced classic records like the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet and The Byrd's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, --Gram Parsons is paid remastered homage on Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions [Reprise/Rhino]. Far from a slumming heir with crass consumption on his mind (his grandfather owned one third of Florida's citrus fields), Parsons really loved traditional country. In the early '70s, this was viewed as the music of Republicans and Vietnam war supporters by the supposedly hip longhairs who Parsons counted as his friends and colleagues. Parsons' albums GP ('72) and Grievous Angel ('73) are now the stuff of legend. This multi-disc set restores the original albums to their proper glory while the third disc includes alternate takes and early mixes pre overdubs. These reissues sound far more like real country than anything you'll hear on modern country radio, from Parsons' yearning vocals to honky tonk piano, yawning steel guitars and Emmylou Harris' angelic harmonies.

Parsons sings of working man's blues, drinking man's blues and bad woman blues like no rich kid you ever heard and his tunes stand the test of time as quintessential folk music, a memory of some lost America. Who would think of writing a song about "my baby walking the streets of Baltimore" or to cover a swinging George Jones tune like "That's All It Took"? GP includes a radio promo interview with Boston's WBCN and Parsons and Emmylou performing "Love Hurts" and "Sin City" live on the radio. An album of beautiful harmonies and traditional country music, Grievous Angel is simply one of the greatest albums of the 70s, its beautiful tunes a portrait of one artist at his zenith. Every track is exceptional, from the beautiful acoustic opener "Hearts on Fire" and Buck Owens-ish medley of "Cash on the Barrelhead" and the lilting "Hickory Wind" to the plaintive gospel closer "In My Hour Of Darkness". An instrumental "Return of the Grievous Angel" and a radio interview round out the disc. Disc three Alternate Takes from GP & Grievous Angel shower much light on the sessions, providing alternate angles and completely alternate insights. Tempos are slowed, steel guitar ladled on and arrangements are either more electric or acoustic but the song's soul remains true.
All Things Must Pass?
As with Apple's excellent remastering of George Harrison's landmark All Things Must Pass album in '04, here they revisit his 1973 follow-up, Living In The Material World. Typically lambasted as dour and preachy, the album still created a handful of bright hit singles like "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" and the title track. Undergoing a real sonic scrubbing, the reissue is a revelation of instrumental detail. Punchy songs like "Sue Me, Sue You Blues" and "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" prove that George could still deliver the goods - well, at least for one album before he lost interest and began investing his time in movie making and Formula 1 racing. Additionally, the epic "Who Can See It" is as lovely as a dusty stained glass window; "Be Here Now" is dour if rather glistening in delivery; the sprightly "Try Some Buy Some" could have been a good B side from All Things while "That is All" is a sobby, heart-on-the-sleeve bit of soul fluff. So sure, George's voice is failing and his sense of humor is MIA but a few choice moments make this a deal for Harrison fans. A second DVD disc includes a live "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" performed at the Tokyo Dome December, 1991 (with Eric Clapton on board) and alternate and demo versions of select tracks.
What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-1977)
Gathering rare tracks once available only to crate-digging hip-hop diehards, this four-CD 91 song behemoth showcases extraordinary soul grooves, regional funk flamers, one-hit wonders and '70s esoterica that'll make your next party go down like Dynomite! What It Is! features southern soul icons (Rufus Thomas, Don Covay); superstars (Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield) and talented lesser knowns (Black Heat, Black Haze Express). The then-unknown Cyril Neville vocalizes with the undercover Meters on "Gossip" complete with Leo Nocentelli on psychedelic sitar. Tabla and Moog mash up on Ananda Shankar's "Jumpin Jack Flash". Santana sibling Jorge leads Malo in the chilled Latin rock hit "Suavecito". Rasputin's Stash declares "No jive, gimme five" on "Mr. Cool". All rare, all totally funky, What It Is! makes a wholehearted case for destruction of the click track and Aretha Franklin for President.

So we've completed this month's journey down the memory of lane of FM radio 1970's style. Next month we get back to business with hard on jazz, beat music and destructive way-out sounds designed to bring down the government. Heyah!