Pros: This is some of the most dazzling (and revolutionary!) rock instrumental playing ever.
Cons: It all gets just a tad routine by the end.
(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a Booker T. & the M.G.s fan.)
Overall Score: 12/15
Best song: “Green Onions” and “I Got a Woman”
Worst song: “Lonely Avenue”
Booker T. & the M.G.s might not have come up with rock 'n' roll's most famous albums, but they started a revolution. Everybody knows the title track by heart, even if they don't recognize it by name. Go on YouTube and listen to it—you've heard it before. If you've ever seen a film that takes place in the '60s, then you've heard it before. Nostalgia filmmakers don't just love that song because everyone who actually lived in the '60s remember it, but also because it's a very atmospheric instrumental! Instrumentals work great in movies! Why “Green Onions” and movies seem like they were made for each other. The one drawback of that piece being so popular over the years is that people have grown so used to it that they probably forgot how positively earth-shattering that song was. Booker T. & the M.G.s have a sound that's been said to turn “goat p*ss into gasoline.” That statement will probably make sense once you sit down and listen to it. And I mean without the distraction of movies!
Some might wonder why these guys didn't have a singer. But once you give this record a spin, I hope you'll realize that it wasn't because they didn't have anyone good turn up at the auditions! These four guys are so good at their instruments that you'd have to be some kind of jerk to think they needed a singer. Easily the most interesting “factoid” about these guys was that this was an interracial band back in 1962. Two members were black and two members were white That wasn't just waaaaay before The Dave Matthews Band, but it was even before Martin Luther King, Jr. lead the March on Washington. However, taking just one listen to this album, isn't it obvious that black people and white people were destined to get along with each other, after all? Don't you hear those amazing rhythms that black drummer Al Jackson and white bassist Lewie Steinberg concoct together? ...And organist Booker T. and lead guitarist Steve Cropper play off of each other in amazing ways. In fact, after a moment of hearing the “conversations” the organist has with the guitarist, it's clear that a lead singer only would have gotten in the way!
I do know that The Beatles were huge fans of these guys, and it's been said that the idea of a melodic bass originated here. In early rock 'n' roll, the bass guitarist was easily the lamest member of the band, because he usually just played ploddy whole notes or half notes while all the other guys got all the action. Not here. Lewie Steinberg always manages to find a bass-groove that's equally as catchy as the song's main riffs. Al Jackson, otherwise known as The Human Timekeeper, not only earns that nickname, but he also finds the time to insert some of the tightest, most ear-dazzling fills that I ever would've deemed imaginable. The man is good both in the fast paced songs (“I Got a Woman”) in which he gets to exercise his exceptional speed, as he is in the slower songs (“Comin' Home Baby”) where his drumming becomes an integral part of the song's texture.
The title track was an original composition, and so was its direct but obviously inferior sequel “Mo' Onions,” but these guys' actually specialized in covers. It might be easy to look down upon a covers band, but hearing how they radically reinvent (and in most cases, improve) those songs, they become as fresh as ever. In particular, there's a snappy and maniacal reworking of Ray Charles' “I Got a Woman,” which for my money is miles better than the original. The most famous song they cover is “Twist and Shout.” I doubt seriously the people who originally wrote that song could ever have imagined someone coming along and inserting all these dazzling instrumental fills in it!
Now, I've been doing a lot of gushing over this album, and I'll have to backpedal some of that slightly. While this album has a fantastic beginning, it definitely plateaus by the middle. I'll smack around anyone who would dub the title track “generic '60s dance music,” but I wouldn't raise much of a frenzy over someone applying that label to songs like “You Can't Sit Down.” Now, electric guitar and keyboard players from all walks of life are still going to positively drool over the last half of this album, but it's a little too easy for the rest of us to tone out that stuff. Especially since they put a bunch of slow songs in the middle of this album, one right after another, which gets a bit cumbersome.
The last half of the album, by itself, would be an 11, but the powerhouse of the songs that open the album are what turns Green Onions into a mightily strong 12. If you decide to give it a whirl, I hope you'll discover that it's quite a bit more than '60s instrumental dance music. (And I'd better not catch any of you calling it “elevator music.” I've seen that written before on the Internet, which resulted in me having to give my computer monitor the middle finger. Surely, my computer monitor doesn't deserve such abuse over those dumb, thoughtless comments.)
Green Onions A+
Oh holy buggar. This could be the most famous rock 'n' roll instrumental in history. If you don't recognize it by its name, go you YouTube or listen to a 30-second clip of it on Amazon.com, and you'll recognize it. It might have become so over-saturated in society that it lost its sting for anyone wanting to sit down and listen to it on the rock 'n' roll album from whence it arose. But I hope not! This instrumental kicks massive butt. I mean, everything about it. That menacing electric organ riff that starts it off, those straight-ahead and toe-tapping drums. Steve Cropper is one of the best electric guitarists in history, and you'll hear the dude going completely at it. Bass guitar? ...This is completely revolutionary bass guitar. It plays melodically, a technique that Paul McCartney would later use for Beatles music. I heard a story of The Beatles once getting on their knees and thanking Booker T. & the MG's for all this inspiration... Well, I don't believe necessarily everything I read, but The Beatles sure had a lot to thank these guys about. The evidence is in the music! ...Also, this song was recorded in 1962, but I hear everything as clear as a bell! (A bell that was recorded well as that.) Everything about this packs a kick.
Rinky Dink A-
Well, the famous song is over... But that's not a good reason to turn this album off yet, because there's a lot more fun to be had! These guys might not have had a singer, but a few seconds hearing Booker T.'s electric organ jams, I hope it's obvious that it's far more effective than any singer would have been. ...In fact, a singer might have distracted us too much from the instruments! This song is characterized by a bouncy and bubbly electric guitar riff... I love how the riff is played although the riff itself isn't anything to lose control of your bladder over... The drumming is fantastic here... Whenever there's even the slightest chance for a lull, he comes up with a great drum fill like clockwork. Steve Cropper's sort of muted, minimal lead guitar contributions are easy to miss, but they fit the song's mood just about perfectly!
I Got a Woman A+
Yummy! We all probably know this song best as that old timey song written by Ray Charles. But this version completely updates it! (I don't know if it's just the sort of albums I listen to, but songs from the mid '50s sounds about 120 years older to me than songs from the '60s.) I know Booker T. & the MG's are one of the first racially integrated bands of all time... and, really, I don't know why that whole Civil Rights movement had to happen when there's a song like this to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that black people and white people can get along after all. Martin Luther King made a speech, but this is PROOF! It's way more fast paced than Charles' original, and... I don't even know how they're making that bubbly, scratchy sound I'm hearing subtly in the background that's giving this such a crazy pace. Steve Cropper won $1,000,000 for the subtlety he expressed in the previous song, but if you want to hear him show off, then look no further than here. All those acrobatic stunts he pulls off will make any guitarist—no matter how acclaimed he is—cower. ...Holy crap, I'm gushing. ...The organ is similarly manic, the drumming is wild, and the bass is so good, that I can enjoy this song just paying attention to it.
Mo' Onions A-
Well it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor! But I suppose that's only a sort of song that comes around once in a lifetime. All the same, if you enjoyed “Green Onions” for any reason other than it sounds famous, then come around here and listen to the sequel! I'll complain about one thing and say that it sounds a bit dreary whereas the first one was punchy and menacing. I've never heard the electric guitar make such freaky stabs as it's making here! I'd have to say the star of this show, unconditionally, is that bass guitar. At a few points, it creates this really unusual growling sound that I've never before witnessed in a bass guitar. ...Now, this song's theme is a bit of a disappointment, as I suspect that this was meant to be more of an atmospheric piece. All the same, a memorable theme is nice, isn't it? Twist and Shout A This is a nice song to hear... just because the version of this The Beatles did later is still heavily, heavily played to this day, so it gives people an obvious idea what, exactly these guys did with covers. ...Made them flashier and awesome! I mean, those drums are absolutely loaded with fills, and I never would have suspected a lead guitarist could sound so cluttery keeping with the groove. Booker T. and his organ pretty much stick to the main riff. And that seems about right for it. After all, that's a hella catchy riff, and they didn't want to end the momentum!
Behave Yourself A-
They slow things down for what would probably constitute a “ballad.” And it's another amazing moment! Booker T. is this band's namesake, but this is the first time we ever really got to hear the man work. This song is pretty much just a showcase for his insanely rapid-fingered soloing skills. He gets so complicated in there that I'm surprised that a human being is capable of playing such notes... I might have thought it was a computer if only I knew this album was released in the early '60s! Gradually, the other instruments build-up, notably a rubber-band-like bass groove that plays along with that clunky drum rhythm. Steve Cropper never takes center stage, but if you feel like it, you can hear some of the tight, muted licks he does hidden in the background.
Stranger on the Shore B+
Well, this album is amazing, but it ain't perfect! I'm in such a gushy mood right now, that I was growing a bit concerned that I would end up overrating this album... This song is still pretty great, though. It's much slower than the previous song, and it unfortunately is about as dreary as I accused “Mo' Onions” of being. The instrumentals don't do anything jump-out-of-your-seat impressive... Booker T.'s organ solos seem kind of standard, and Cropper's lead guitar is nothing to write home about. The song itself (originally by Archer Bilk) is nice, but nothing I'm jumping out of my seat over.
Lonely Avenue B+
Kind of like “Electric Avenue?” Except it doesn't suck... Although this is the third slow song in a row. I'm not sure why they're doing that to us since my godlike wisdom would assume that it's best to spread the slow songs evenly amongst the faster ones. ...But maybe they just wanted the album to start out like a party before people started getting sleepy? Booker T.'s doing amazing things with his electric organ again, although not quite as awe-inspiring as the grooves he found in “Behave Yourself.” Cropper gets a chance to shine, too, of course. ...I like this, of course. The slow groove they create is something lovely to slow-dance to, if you're in a '60s mood.
One Who Really Loves You A-
Some nerd in spectacles love you, Booker T. & the M.G.'s! (Hey, I don't wear glasses, thank you so kindly.) Anyway, it appears as though the party has picked up slightly, although if you're still shell-shocked from what you've heard early on in this album, I doubt this one will seem that unusual to you! The instrumentals are jamming away in a most-pleasant way, although they clearly saved their best stuff for other things in this album. Their instrumentals are effortlessly tight. ...Just the effortless parts means this isn't as impressive as some of these other songs, which they clearly put a lot of effort into!
You Can't Sit Down A-
You can't sit down! The party is still going on!! I know how a “normal” person would complain that this album sounds like cheesy '60s party music, and they fail to notice how awesome these guys are at playing their instruments. ...But in this case, I actually would understand where that sentiment comes from. They're playing within one of the most generic chord progressions ever in rock 'n' roll. Of course they're playing very well, and it's a lot of fun to hear them. In good fashion, Steve Cropper gets a shot at playing some awesome licks, and he trades off with Booker T. who takes the song off to its fade out. ...Would it also be worth complaining that most of these songs are fade-outs? You'd think with a band as instrumentally skilled as this, they'd come up with real endings! (...I might be somewhat trying to make up for all that gushing I was doing earlier... this is not a perfect album. Just a very good one!) Also, where's the bass?
A Woman, A Lover, A Friend A-
...Yeah, they seriously left all the good stuff for the beginning of the album. I mean, it's been on a very slow decline ever since. But at least those of us who are left sticking around can expect some more entertaining organ solos. Booker T. plays some of those rapid-fingered solos like some sort of maniac.
Comin' Home Baby B+
It's the closing track, and unfortunately you won't be able to expect something to knock your socks off. This is a slow and quiet song with a bass mostly playing bouncy half-notes while Booker T. continues with his (still awesome) electric organ jam exercises. I like listening to Alan Jackson's drumming on this one. Not only keeps the beat, but that woody thwack he comes up with is sort of what makes this texture. The watery guitar is something to behold, also. ...Surely, this album goes out with a whisper. But it's an interesting one!
Booker T. and the M.G.'s were probably the most famous instrumental-rock band of all time, and their method of rock 'n' roll instrumentation was utterly revolutionary. Of course everyone knows this album's title track by heart, but it's certainly worth sticking around for the rest!