The Complete Johnny Cash Mercury Recordings (review)

The Complete Mercury Recordings brings together Johnny Cash’s five albums for Mercury made between 1986 and 1991, as well as various bonus tracks and also the supergroup album Class of ‘55

Class of ’55, released in 1986, is very much the best album of the bunch.  Cash teams up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison for the LP.  It is, in many ways, a sequel to the live The Survivors album from a few years earlier, which featured Lewis and Perkins, but not Orbison.  There are some wonderful moments in this enjoyable nostalgia trip, most notably the tribute to Elvis, We Remember the King, and the eight-minute romp through Big Train from Memphis.  But one thing is clear – this isn’t a Cash album, even if he does take centre stage for a couple of numbers. 

Cash’s tenure at Mercury really began with Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, released in 1987.  It’s a decent effort, opening with Cash belting his way through Elvis Costello’s The Big Light.  Cash had never been against recording songs by “modern” songwriters, and in the past had embraced the music of Dylan, Kristofferson and Springsteen.  He would go on to record Hidden Shame, also by Costello, while at Mercury, before recording all manner of contemporary songs during his final decade with Rick Rubin.  The rest of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town is less interesting, although perfectly enjoyable, but it barely made a dent in the country music charts. 

The next two albums had specific themes.  Water From the Wells of Home is essentially a duets album, with so many guest stars that one sometimes forgets that it was even issued under Cash’s name.  There are expected collaborations with members of the Cash family, but also Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney, and Glen Campbell, among others.  However, the star power didn’t help to produce a distinguished product or make it do better in the charts than its predecessor.  Instead, it’s actually rather dull.  It is presented in the current set with two bonus tracks that are early mixes of songs on the album. 

The next album was also a special project, with Cash revisiting his hits and signature songs on Classic Cash.  The 20-song album presents us with no surprises, but it does remind us that, despite the mediocre albums of the 1980s, Cash was still capable of making good music.  None of these remakes are better than the originals, but they are one of the few occasions where an artist revisits their hits in the studio later in their career and the results are very good – Sedaka’s remakes in the late 1980s (due to a change of label) for his Timeless greatest hits album were also examples of where the practice works.  Classic Cash is undoubtedly the best of the Mercury albums, although purists will tell you otherwise.  But it has the best songs and the best performances – and it sounds even better in the “early mix” disc or all twenty songs that sounds considerably less “eighties” than the final versions (which are also included). 

The two final albums, Boom Chicka Boom and The Mystery of Life, are very much like continuations of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.  They are fine, but unexciting.  The liner notes of the new boxed set gives us a clue why – Boom Chicka Boom was pieced together from sessions spread over two years, and some of The Mystery of Life, Cash’s final album for Mercury, were leftovers from his first, Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.   Listeners of country music didn’t care about the music that Cash was making at the time – and it appears that Cash didn’t care either. 

It’s nice to have all of this material in one place, and the alternate takes etc are nice to have, too.  The music is solid country – but solid recordings were not enough to reboot a career that had been declining in sales for fifteen years.  Some of the re-recordings of songs available on earlier albums give us a clue as to the problem here.  Take a listen to the Mercury version of The Ballad of Barbara, and then listen to the version on The Last Gunfighter Ballad from ten years earlier.  They sound almost the same.  Sure, production techniques had changed a little, but Cash sounded no different, and neither did the arrangements. 

In short, in the late 1980s he was making the same albums as he made in the late 1970s.  Each one of the albums over that ten year period had moments that were very good indeed, and some albums were better than others (The Baron, Johnny 99, Rockabilly Blues), but country music had changed and Cash hadn’t changed with it.  There’s evidence a-plenty here that Cash was no longer interested in recording in the studio, and perhaps he would have walked away from it completely if it hadn’t been for Rick Rubin coming on the scene and persuading Cash that he could be relevant again.  Certainly, no-one buying the predictable The Mystery of Life in 1991 could have predicted the final chapter in Cash’s career.

Destination Victoria Station: the Lost Johnny Cash album.

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A few years ago, Sony released a 63CD set called “Johnny Cash: The Complete Album Collection” which also included an album originally issued on the Supraphon label and another which was only issued in the UK.  Bearing this in mind, it seems somewhat surprising that there is still a “lost” Columbia album that hasn’t been reissued since its initial release back in 1975.

“Destination Victoria Station” was released by Columbia Special Products and could only be bought at Victoria Station restaurants, meaning that it was unavailable outside America even back in 1975.   This is basically an LP in which Cash sings about trains – one of his favourite subjects from the Sun years through to his final recordings in 2002.   Eleven of the twelve songs included are familiar to Cash fans – but not necessarily these performances of them.

Five songs previously recorded by Cash were here given a makeover to either a lesser or greater extent:  Casey Jones, Hey Porter, John Henry, Waitin’ For a Train, and Wreck of the Old ’97 were all re-recorded for the project, some in very different arrangements.  Meanwhile (and rather bizarrely) two more songs had new vocals added to the backing tracks used on previous recordings.  These are Orange Blossom Special and Wabash Cannonball.  The title song, Destination Victoria Station, was a brand new studio recording of a brand new song, which was later given a live outing on the UK-only album Strawberry Cake – an album perhaps best known for having an IRA bomb alert in the middle of the concert, causing the audience to be evacuated (all of which is heard on the LP).  Thankfully, it was a hoax.   The remaining four songs are taken from Cash albums ranging from 1968 to 1975.  Folsom Prison Blues is taken from the 1968 live album recorded at Folsom Prison, whereas Texas-1947, City of New Orleans, and Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy come from obscure LPs from the early to mid-1970s.

This mish-mash of sources and recordings should result in a rather shoddy album, but that isn’t true.  In fact, it is actually a cut above most of what Johnny Cash was releasing at the time.  On the eight new performances, Cash is in splendid form.  He gives the remakes a rather different, less frenetic, more relaxed feel, to their previous studio incarnations, with them having more of a fatherly-tone in the storytelling – and most of these are story songs.  Only Orange Blossom Special is something of a disappointment, with the new vocal appearing to be half-hearted, but I wonder if it ever did work particularly well in the studio compared to the exciting live performances that came later.  The new song is appealing enough, even if it was never going to be a classic Cash composition – and it’s placing as the final track leaves the album with a rather bland ending.  It’s also nice to hear some of the reissued tracks here too.  City of New Orleans never deserved to be stuck on the rather appalling Johnny Cash and his Woman album, and Texas 1947 (from Look at them Beans) is as good a train song as Cash ever sang, and deserves to be much better known.

While Destination Victoria Station is not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t included in 63CD boxed set.  The fact that it is a themed album means it holds together as a listening experience much better than other LPs of the period such as John R. Cash, the Junkie and the Juicehead, and Look at Them Beans which mix the great with the not so great, and the secular with the sacred.  The likelihood of it ever appearing on CD now appears to be slim – although it would be nice to see it appear in the Bootleg series, pulling together the other “lost” Cash Columbia sides at the same time.  In the meantime, the vinyl edition from 1975 is kicking around on eBay or Amazon marketplace surprisingly cheaply, and is well worth your time if you are a Cash fan.

Johnny Cash 1970-86: A Re-evaluation

Prior to 2012, just a handful of the many albums recorded and released by Johnny Cash during the final decade and a half of his tenure with Columbia records had made it to CD.  Despite this, Cash had entered the 1970s with his popularity at an all-time high following the success of the two prison live albums and his TV series.  What’s more, Cash was as prolific during the period 1970 to 1986 as he had ever been, releasing over 30 albums.  So, why is the second half of Cash’s years at Columbia so neglected?

One of the answers might lie in Cash alienating some of his listeners, particularly during the early 1970s.  Ever since the move from Sun to Columbia, Cash had recorded a vast amount of gospel and sacred music, most of which would have been palatable even to non-believers.  However, starting around 1970 there were a few years when the religious material took on a new fervor that is often hard to swallow.  The Man In Black album opens with The Preacher Said “Jesus Said”.  Not only does the song have a rather awkward title, it’s like tuning in to the audio equivalent of the God cable TV channel. This isn’t Cash singing hymns or gospel music, this is Cash literally preaching to his audience – and he even brought in Billy Graham to help him.

The same album is even concluded with I Talk to Jesus Every Day, which is slightly less in-your-face, but is still enough to make many reach for the stop button before the album has concluded naturally.   A similar, preacher-like number, Here Was A Man was included at the end of the Johnny Cash Show album, which featured performances from the TV series.   Worse was to follow in the self-indulgent double-LP soundtrack to Cash’s The Gospel Road documentary.

Perhaps these types of numbers would have been easier to swallow had they not so often been coupled with tracks that found cash not just in sentimental, but saccharine mode.   Is there anything more vomit-enducing than, The Greatest Love Affair, the final track of The Baron LP?  Or the well-meaning-but-awful No Charge from Look at them Beans.  Cash had always had a penchant for these types of songs, but prior to the 1970s he had always managed to tread a thin line between putting over a sweet sentiment and making the listener want to hurl.

But what of the rest of Cash’s vast amount of recordings from this era?  Is it worthy of re-evaluation?  The answer is a resounding “yes”.  The road from 1970 to 1986 was a rocky one, and Cash fell over a few times along the way, but there is some really great music here amongst the saccharine and the mundane.

Look at them Beans (was there ever a worse title for an album?) opens with one of Cash’s greatest studio recordings, for example.  That opening track, Texas-1947, fits the singer like a glove.  Cash was a natural storyteller, and here he gets to do that with spoken verses and a wonderful, exciting chorus with Cash in total command, sounding like he’s having a ball.   Likewise, The Ballad of Barbara on The Last Gunfighter Ballad is a wonderful, catchy original that is well-produced and again finds Cash telling a story as only he can.  The title song of The Baron only works because of the great performance – the story of the song is predictable and manipulative, but Cash makes it work so well that it was the inspiration of a TV movie a few years later.   Cash also made mistakes – My Old Kentucky Home from John R Cash might have had acceptable lyrics in 1975, but in 2013 a song in which wife-beating is almost celebrated leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.

Despite his declining popularity during these years, Cash’s enthusiasm for what he did never seemed to wane, and he had a knack for finding great songs and making them his own.  There is a wonderful clip of him on The Late Show with David Letterman in which he enthuses about Here Comes That Rainbow Again, a song by Kris Kristofferson he had just recorded, before going on to sing it.   Seven years earlier he had successfully turned the Jagger and Richards song No Expectations into a Cash special on the lovely Gone Girl album.  His recording of the country standard Song for the Life from the same album remains the best version of the song and is still intensely moving.  He even took Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman and gave it the gravitas that Springsteen’s own recording lacked.

While some of the albums of the period are workmanlike, they are not dull and Cash always seems to be engaged.  He was also willing to take chances.  His album The Rambler  is almost a stage monologue interrupted by songs.  It fails as an album, but it is still a fascinating record and includes a couple of a very good songs, including Calilou.   Even each of the live albums of the period were memorable.  The 1972 prison album recorded in Sweden contains one of Cash’s very best performances in the intensely moving Jacob Green about a young man who kills himself after being arrested and thrown into jail for possession.  The 1975 live album Strawberry Cake is a much more relaxed affair, and even includes the theatre being evacuated due to a bomb scare.  And The Survivors finds Cash introducing Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as surprise guests – and both are on superb form.

If there is a problem with Cash’s 1970-86 recordings, it is that there are too many of them.  Had some of the more mundane tracks been put to one side, and the albums been put together with the view of quality over quantity, we would be discussing some really classic albums.  One could even make the comparison with Elvis Presley – there is some great material on his 70s albums, but there is also some dross that was included in order to make more product.  But there is a significant difference – Elvis was recording that much because his contract made him, whereas Cash seemingly recorded because he got enjoyment from it, as is shown by the fact that he left behind numerous recordings from the period that were never even released at the time.   Cash himself sang “some were for the money, and some were for myself”, and that is something which comes through on these recordings – recordings that don’t deserve the neglect they have suffered for thirty years.