Graded on a Curve:
Joe Cocker,
With a Little Help From My Friends

Joe Cocker was without a doubt one of the best—and certainly the most spastic—of the singers of the late 1960s to mid-70s. In addition to that gravelly and richly soulful voice that has so often earned him comparisons to Ray Charles, Cocker was perhaps the premier interpreter of other peoples’ songs of his time.

And it goes without saying that Cocker was one galvanizing front man. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He didn’t just stand before the microphone and sing. No, he twitched, gesticulated, swayed, waved his arms about wildly, wriggled his fingers, played air guitar, and in general looked like a guy being attacked by a swarm of maddened paper wasps. I’ve only ever seen two people match him when it came to sheer spasmodic magnificence. One was John Belushi, who joined Cocker on stage on a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live and matched the Mad Dog twitch for twitch. The second was a guy at the gas station outside Philly where I used to work, who did a long honking line of crank and proceeded to perform a picture perfect Cocker. That guy was me, and man did that crank burn. I don’t know what it was cut with, but I suspect wasabi and pulverized Fireballs.

Cocker began his career with obscure groups like the Cavaliers and Vance Arnold and the Avengers, then moved on to The Grease Band in 1966. But it wasn’t long before word of the nuclear vocal chords on the apprentice gasfitter from Crookes, Sheffield spread, and soon he was recording under his own name and playing Woodstock (the boring film is worth watching just for his electrifying performance). Later he was front man of the legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which boasted more than 30 musicians, with Leon Russell serving as bandleader, and made for one brilliant album.

But what Cocker was chiefly renowned for were his interpretations of songs by artists as varied as The Beatles, Dave Mason, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Box Tops, and Randy Newman, and innumerable others—interpretations that as often as not blew away the originals. Unfortunately, Cocker was also an alcoholic, and the stories (not all of them true, I’m sure) of his coming onto stage, throwing up on the audience, and then passing out are legion.

Three things; (1) I chose to review 1969’s With a Little Help From My Friends even though at least three of my all-time fave Cocker tunes (“Hitchcock Railway,” “Delta Lady,” and “Dear Landlord”) are on his 1969 sophomore album, Cocker! Why? (2) I reviewed With a Little Help when I really should have reviewed his live Woodstock and Mad Dogs and Englishmen performances, which are both mesmerizing and superior. Why? (3) I reviewed With a Little Help despite its absolutely atrocious cover photograph, which makes Cocker look like one fat and very ugly female opera singer hitting a high note. All I can think is that Tom Wilkes, who was responsible for album design, must have really hated Cocker. Who knows, maybe Cocker threw up on him.

But With a Little Help From My Friends it is, and it turns out Cocker had lots of friends—24 of whom assembled to make the album, including Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, Albert Lee, Matthew Fisher and B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum, David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and oodles of sessions musicians, to say nothing of the great American soul singers Merry Clayton and Madeline Bell. And that’s probably the real reason I chose to review this particular LP.

LP opener and Dave Mason cover “Feelin’ Alright” is one of Cocker’s trademark tunes, and one funky rock’n’roller. It opens with that instantly familiar piano riff by Artie Butler and some really cool maracas and tumba by the mysterious “Laudir,” who sounds like a cheesy magician who plays the lousier borscht joints in the Borscht Belt. Then Cocker comes in singing, “Seems I’ve got to have a change of scene/Every night I have the strangest dream,” and on he goes until the Stonesy chorus, which features the guitar of David Cohen and back-up vocals by Clayton and Holloway sisters, Brenda and Patrice. Then Butler plays one cool solo, accompanied by some very funkadelic drums by Paul Humphrey. And on it goes until the end, when Cocker lets out a couple of great shrieks. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is a slow soul number, with Cocker letting it all hang out while Chris Stainton throws in on piano and Clem Cattini does his thing on drums. The song’s highlight, aside from Cocker’s soulful vocals, is the amazing guitar solo by Jimmy Page, which comes out of nowhere and proceeds to singe your eyebrows off.

Cocker co-wrote “Change in Louise” with pianist and long-time mainstay Chris Stainton. It’s not the LP’s best tune by any means, but it boasts a hot chorus and Cocker grows increasingly frantic as the song goes on, while Stainton plays some nice piano, Henry McCullough (who played with the likes of Spooky Tooth, Paul McCartney and Wings, and The Grease Band) lays down some understated but sweet guitar, and the Wheetman sisters provide backing vocals. Cocker constantly returns to the refrain, “Who else but me can see the change in Louise?” To be honest, I don’t see it. Well, she has become a man-eating half-human half-snapping turtle, but otherwise she seems about the same.

Cocker and Stainton’s “Majorine” is my least favorite track on the LP, in part because Cocker sings much of it in a strange high-pitched voice, and in part because the melody does nada for me. Both Page and Lee play on the track, but I’ll be damned if I can hear them; rather, its Stainton on piano who does all the heavy lifting, along with Clem Cattini on drums. About the song’s only highlight is when Cocker—whose vocals are restrained throughout—sings, “Marjorine, we all want you back/But you will not get in the sack, no.” Which is kinda sexist, so I guess I shouldn’t like it, but damn it nothing else of any interest happens in the song, and I’m grasping for straws here people.

As for Cocker’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” I’m not crazy about it either, and I’m beginning to kick myself for picking this LP to review. Cocker sweetens it up, lounges it up even, and while Fisher’s organ is spot on and Tommy Eyre throws in some understated piano, I can’t find much else good to say about it. Page plays guitar but once again I don’t hear him, and Cocker is the picture of restraint, when I prefer him in “Mad Dog” mode. Semi-obscure singer-songwriter Pete Dello wrote “Do I Still Figure in Your Life,” a slow and soulful number that is, once again, a bit too restrained for my tastes, although the chorus, which features the backing vocals of Madeline Bell and the Wheetman sisters, is sweet, as is Steve Winwood’s stellar organ work. And the piano playing is emotive, although the credits unfortunately fail to mention who’s playing the damn thing. My guess would be Stainton, but it could be the ghost of Putzi Hanfstaengl (the Harvard-educated American who served as Hitler’s court jester and piano player; read up on him, he’s fascinating!) for all I know. Anyway, it’s a pity when you compare this version to Cocker’s take on the song at Woodstock, where he really lets loose. And the same goes for most of the other tunes on this LP.

“Sandpaper Cadillac” is yet another Cocker-Stainton composition, and again its Stainton’s organ and piano work that dominates. Cocker’s vocals—sadly restrained, again. Jimmy Page—there but not there. As for the lyrics, they’re flat out strange. So far as I can make out, Cocker is full of woe because his car is deceased (“My car is dead and gone, Lord/And I just can’t carry on”). Ah, but his car “wants to be free, I know/And it’s calling out to me, yeah,” so maybe its death is a good thing. Then Cocker’s walking along “with a gold-plated pussycat/Somebody’s pouring blood on its back” and said cat is all alone without a bone and Joe knows it just as he knows his car and cat “are going bad/And I need everything I can, Lady.” And I’ll give 5 bucks to anybody who can tell me what the hell is going on, because something is happening here but I don’t know what it is, do I, Mr. Jones?

I have always disliked “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” I don’t care whether Nina Simone, The Animals, Santa Esmeralda, Elvis Costello, Arthur Brown, The Moody Blues, Julie Driscoll, Lou Rawls, Cyndi Lauper, or Joseph Goebbels (it’s on his 1944 ReichMusik LP Goebbels Sings The Animals) is doing it. The tune has always irked me and ranks way up there on my Top 100 Most Hated Classic Rock Songs, right behind “Black Magic Woman” and John Lennon’s “Woman.” As for Cocker’s moody, soulful, and slowed-down version, it’s my least unfavorite, which isn’t even English but you get the idea. Tommy Eyre’s organ is like, happening, maaaan, and Henry McCullough plays some big riffs on guitar, and Eyre plays a long and cool solo on what sounds like the electric piano to my undereducated (they were kicked out of school in the eighth grade for liking “Joy to the World”) ears. And McCullough plays a brief freak-out towards the end, bringing some passion out of Cocker.

“With a Little Help From My Friends” is a stone(d) classic, and several evolutionary leaps above the Beatles’ song. It’s a marvel, really; Cocker and Company transform what is essentially a pleasant little ditty into a full-blown rock opera, and Ringo, you might as well go back to singing “No No Song” (remember that one?). It opens with some organ by Tommy Eyre, lots of mighty cymbal crash by B.J. Wilson, and one very cool guitar riff by Page. Then it quiets and Cocker sings those immortal words, “What would you do if I sang out of tune/Would you stand up and walk out on me?” Then comes the mighty chorus, featuring Bell, Hightower, and the Wheetman sisters singing back up, and they join in on the second verse when they ask the questions (“Does it worry you to be alone”) to which Joe responds (“No no”). Then Page plays a gigantic guitar riff and the back-ups wail and Joe wails right along with them and it’s just so, like, groovy, peace people. And the soft-loud dynamic continues with the loud predominating until Cocker lets out one of the greatest screams this side of Roger Daltrey’s ear-splitter on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” then the song gets louder and faster, Cocker singing a mile a minute to the accompaniment of what sounds like a horn but there are no horn players on the credits, so who knows. Anyway, it’s amazing stuff, and my favorite adaptation of a Beatles’ song by a Liverpool kilometer.

Cocker closes the album with Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” While Cocker’s version may not be as bewitchingly sad and lovely as Richard Manuel’s of The Band, whose is? The song opens with some marvelous guitar by McCullough and simple drumming by Mike Kellie, then Cocker comes in, sounding appropriately mournful. Meanwhile Winwood enters playing some soulful organ, and the Wheetman sisters join Cocker at the end of the chorus. It’s a lovely version, although I hear strings and have no idea where they came from or who plays them. Anyway the sounds grows richer and richer until the end, when Cocker reaches and reaches until he finally slows and sings, “I… shall… be… woah… I shall be… released… mmmm.”

Like so many baby boomer acts Cocker ultimately went the schlock rock route, demeaning himself and wasting his vast talent on treacle such as 1983’s collaboration with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” 1997’s “Tonight,” and dozens of equally unpalatable tripetunes. But forget that. Forget it. What matters is the Cocker on his early albums and on Live at Woodstock and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. That Cocker had a voice that could shake the world, and he got a lot of help from his friends. If his takes on “The Weight” and “Feelin’ Alright” and “Let It Be” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “The Letter” and “Hitchcock Railway” don’t blow you away, there’s something wrong with you. Really. You need help. Or maybe Putzi Hanfstaengl is more to your tastes. He evidently could play some kick-ass Wagner. Had Hitler up and doing the Swastika. It was the big dance craze back then.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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