May 29, 2018
Released In 1972
Released By Elektra Records
I think any serious music fan starts to identify record labels they can depend on to get more of what they need. Even in the streaming era, every label has a “new releases” playlist that will help you keep up with their catalog. Elektra was one label I picked up on fairly early in my record buying days, starting with The Doors and moving on to The Stooges, MC5, Love, and Tim Buckley. Those were some of my favorite artists of the late ’60s to early ’70s, which was the peak era for the label. Originally a purist folk company, Elektra seized the day to champion some of the most advanced examples of what rock music had to offer as the psychedelic era atomized with the rise of both hard rock and the singer-songwriters.
So when I was flipping through the New Arrivals at Record Grouch, one of the finest emporiums in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I was definitely intrigued by this Tiptoe Past The Dragon, by one Marlin Greene, when I flipped it over and saw the Elektra logo. I was already interested in the vibe presented by the cover, which made me think early-’70s folk-rock even before I checked the date. But here was an Elektra release that I’d never heard of, and one that was obviously a prestige issue as there was a full-color fold-out lyric sheet within. Also, the musicians supporting Greene’s vision were all stellar, including luminaries from the house band at Muscle Shoals, where much of the album was recorded.
Before handling over any shekels, however, I did my usual: checked to see if it was on Spotify and dropped the needle on a few songs at the listening station to make sure it wasn’t obviously terrible or in worse shape than the visual inspection promised. It passed with flying colors — sold. All this happened before I did any research into who Greene was and how he had earned the pull to produce his own album and marshal the forces who played on it. It turns out that he was a Muscle Shoals stalwart from the early days of the studio, contributing his guitar, production, and songwriting skills to dozens of singles during the ’60s, including playing on Percy Sledge’s immortal (if overplayed) “When A Man Loves A Woman.” I haven’t gotten around to watching that Muscle Shoals documentary yet, but I will be curious to see if he gets any airtime next to more familiar names like Barry Beckett, Eddie Hinton, Chuck Leavell and David Hood, all of whom are found on his album.
Greene’s soul years followed early attempts at being a balladeer in the Roy Orbison mode, making Dragon the third act of his career. His wife, Jeanie (or Mary) Greene is also a notable figure, singing with Elvis Presley on tour and on classics like “Suspicious Minds” and others. Greene wrote and produced this hidden gem for her in 1968, which definitely inspired the Isaac Hayes groove that Portishead and Tricky made such great songs from. There’s also an Elektra album from her with the confusing title Mary Called Jeanie Greene and something I will now need to keep an eye out for! Good thing I didn’t fall down this rabbit hole while in the record store because I might never have been seen again…
Even without that backstory, after living with Tiptoe Past The Dragon for a few weeks, I found my initial feeling of being modestly charmed by Greene’s talents soon transitioning to being deeply impressed by his almost casual mastery of his craft. One first impression that stuck was that his voice is not the most distinctive instrument and is probably one reason that kept Dragon from rising above other releases in 1972. For someone who came out of the single-driven soul market, I also respect Greene’s commitment to the album format, which is a polite way for my inner A&R man to say, “I don’t hear a single.”
That said, there are two breakout songs come at the top of side two, both of which I can imagine on the radio, whether the country funk of “Ponce De Leon,” driven by some stomping piano from Leavell and superb drumming by Roger Hawkins, or the strutting, exploratory W”Who’s The Captain Of Your Ships Of Dreams.” The tight, nearly nasty rhythm guitars on the latter give the album a boost when it needs it. “Fields Of Clover,” a beautiful ballad and the album’s longest song, comes next and features gorgeous pedal steel from Leo La Blanc, who also does fine work on “Good Christian Cowboy.” This slightly corny song, complete with a “clip-clop” rhythm, was co-written with Wayne Perkins, who also helped compose “Fields Of Clover.” He’s known for contributing guitar solos to Catch A Fire by Bob Marley & The Wailers and almost joining The Rolling Stones… uh-oh, the rabbit hole again!
Side one starts more quietly with the sorrowful “Grand Illusion” floating by on a skein of finger-picked guitars and including a toy piano solo played by Jeanie Greene. Great stuff, but maybe not the killer opening track Greene needed to grab new listeners. “Masquerade Ball” follows and if its shimmering guitars sound familiar to you, consider the fact that Terry Manning was one of the engineers on this album and his protégé Chris Bell was supposedly hanging around, learning the ropes he would master so beautifully in Big Star. “Jonathan’s Dream” is a sunny instrumental tribute to Richard Bach’s classic fable, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and comes complete with ocean and bird sounds. If you grew up in the ’70s (and read the book a dozen times, like me), you would totally understand!
“My Country Breakdown” is a clever bit of social commentary, combining a hint of yodeling with the trenchant observation: “There’s a storm cloud over yonder / Made in the U.S.A.” The hints of darkness throughout the album lend additional poignancy to the references to make-believe (masquerades, dragons) or to lifestyles (“Forest Ranger,” “Gemini Gypsy“) that seem to promise freedom from the demands of a rapidly fragmenting society. Even studio rats like Marlin Greene wanted to escape the bleakness of the Vietnam Era and the implosion of the Nixon administration. If you’re seeking a little relief from current events in 2018 (just a hunch), Tiptoe Past The Dragon could be just what you’re looking for, with great songs, rich production, and only the best rabbit holes.
A country-western stargazer with a keen ear for the contemporary renovation.
One of the music-related what-ifs I like to noodle on is “What if the recording process had evolved differently?” For example, what would your favorite songs sound like if clean, mistake-free studio recordings hadn’t come to represent the definitive version of songs? What if campfires, car horns, and breaking waves were standard background fare? Maybe it’s sacrilege to ask these questions while on the topic of Marlin Greene, who helped produce one of American recording history’s canonical studio moments. But I kept coming back to this idea while listening to Tiptoe Past The Dragon, which exhibits a refreshing looseness. It started during the instrumental break in opening track “Grand Illusion,” which incorporates high-pitched, metallic malleted notes (Glockenspiel? A child’s xylophone?) that serve as a total left-turn when it comes to tone. They’re so playful, as are the beach sounds that bookend “Jonathan’s Dream,” and the breathy dragon warnings in the “title track, despite that song’s deadly serious subject matter. But the looseness really sinks in during “Fields Of Clover,” which proceeds at a glacial pace and paints a vivid picture of idealized Southern life, with lyrics about “weatherboard houses where you’re welcome for sure” and “wildflowers growing right up to the door,” and long, luxuriously bent pedal steel notes that seem to go on forever. There might as well be crickets chirping in the background, like time has stopped in appreciation of a perfect rural twilight moment. Such a far cry from the taut soul sound you so often hear when spinning an album that was made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In Greene’s case, knowing how to record hit songs means knowing how to break a studio rule or two.
There it stood in its imposing enormity. Its breathing was surprisingly high-pitched for such a massive creature. It was a mistake, however, to assume that the unearthly beast offered any kind of welcome to passers-by. Its black eyes and booming growl made sure of that. The man born Marlin Greene had been warned that outrunning or outmaneuvering it were not options. “It may appear slow because of its size, but only hubris allows such an assumption to exist for more than a few seconds,” one friend advised. “Well, what is the solution if I wanted to leave town?” Marlin asked. “That no one has ever left should tell you there isn’t one,” the friend answered. Marlin gave a look of soul-crushing disappointment. Perhaps as a balm, the friend quickly added, “At least, one hasn’t yet been discovered.” “What if one were to sneak by while it slept?” Marlin inquired. The friend considered Marlin’s thought for a moment. “To my knowledge, no one has ever tried that. We don’t know when it sleeps, or even if it does.” Marlin remained optimistic. “Then it’s worth a try.” The friend wanted to know why Marlin would want to leave the village. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s out there beyond the hill, beyond the dragon. That giant thing guards an entire unseen world.” “Before you act on such poppycock logic, perhaps you could teach the guitar to someone else.” Marlin quickly realized the implication. “Do you not have faith in me?” The friend’s reply was painfully blunt. “I have faith in the dragon.” Undeterred, Marlin went to work. The solution, which had arrived in a dream, was the easy part: Play a song that would put the dragon to sleep. But what song? He certainly didn’t know any with lethargic qualities such that a listener would be relaxed into slumber. I shall write one, he concluded. And so, over the next few days he went about strumming on a guitar and humming melodies until he was satisfied enough with an idea to try out. “I have something I want to play for you,” Marlin said to his friend. “Is that so? I’m not much inclined towards music, but since we are friends, I shall give you a few minutes of my time.” The friend sat down. Marlin began to play a pillowy chord progression. The friend’s head began to droop forward. Then Marlin offered an earnest singing voice: “Seems I see a promise shining / But my vision must be tried.” It wasn’t needed; the friend was already asleep. Filled with hope, Marlin decided to test out his song on the dragon that night. He reasoned that if a dragon can be considered an animal, and most animals sleep at night, it would be an easier task to put the dragon to sleep after dark. Upon sunset, Marlin left his home with guitar in hand and nervously walked to the edge of the village where the dragon had been his entire life. Despite the hour, the dragon did not appear tired. Its snarl suggested that passage was a ridiculous thought. Marlin made eye contact with the dragon, hoping that it might coax some benevolence out of the creature. Ironically, a deafening growl from the dragon put that idea to rest. I’ve come this far, he thought to himself. I might as well give it a try. And as with his friend, Marlin began to strum that soothing melody. Nothing. The dragon returned the melody a defiant stare. Marlin continued with his plan. He began to sing those words that had worked once before: “Seems I see a promise shining / But my vision must be tried.” Still nothing. The dragon continued to stare. When Marlin had run out of words, he stopped playing. The dragon’s stare remained unchanged. With slumped shoulders, Marlin turned to go back to his house in the village. Distracted by defeat, he tripped on a hole in the ground. His guitar flew from his hand and hit a nearby rock, causing a thundering racket. Terrified of what certainly must come next, Marlin braced for the dragon’s wrath. But it didn’t arrive. Instead, the dragon stared as it seemingly always had. But why?, Marlin asked himself. And then the answer arrived: a wheezing snore. The dragon was asleep with its eyes open! Marlin, fighting confusion and excitement, came to his senses and snuck past the dragon as best he could. Two days passed. No one in the village had seen or heard from Marlin. On the third day, the villagers gathered to mourn his likely death. Prayers were said and kind words were shared. But then — he appeared. Mourning became rejoicing. “Where have you been?” the friend demanded. “I went to see what’s out there beyond the village.” Of course, the obvious question was on everyone’s mind. “How do you get past that terrible beast?” his friend asked. “It was actually quite simple,” Marlin replied. “All you have to do is tiptoe past the dragon.”
Wow, this is really lovely. I’m not previously familiar with Marlin Greene, though possibly only because I didn’t retain his name from my read of Peter Guralnick’s excellent Sweet Soul Music — he played lead guitar on classic Percy Sledge singles, and I know all about most of the people he was associated with back when he was making records in Memphis in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This sweet, mellow album of soulful country, or countrified soul, came out of Muscle Shoals and features some real heavyweights, including the Muscle Shoals rhythm section themselves. But what really makes this album work comes from Greene himself — his laid-back vocal delivery, catchy tunes, in-no-hurry rhythms, and introspective vibes all make this a perfect album to spend some time with on a long holiday weekend like this one. The funkier jams, most notably “Who’s The Captain Of Your Ships Of Dreams,” are the ones more likely to make it to future mixes, but the fact is, this is a great sustained listen all the way through. Other highlights are very different from the aforementioned — “Masquerade Ball” gives weight to the things I read that said Greene’s playing was a big influence on young Chris Bell, who was soon to form Big Star. A lot of great music has come out of Memphis over the years, and it’s always a good idea to keep digging past the most famous names. When you’ve got a music scene this fertile, there’s an excellent chance that some real gold got overlooked at the time. Tiptoe Past The Dragon is a prime example.
For those of you who are long time readers and followers of Off Your Radar, I’m sure I won’t be the only one to voice thoughts noting a stylistically complimentary vibe between this little 35 minute LP of Marlin Greene’s and the kind of aesthetic we discussed in the round for Issue 53: Joe South and Games People Play, as picked by fellow contributor Melissa Koch. The slightly more psychedelic vibe of South’s album isn’t present on Tiptoe Past The Dragon, but the two records being only four years apart and Greene and South both residing in the country rock/folk rock spaces makes the interconnected leap of “Recommended If You Like” pretty much a given. Still, even if the aesthetic of Greene’s preferred style is easy to pin point from a distant or quick glance, the former Alabama State Trouper songwriter definitely assembled his own array of musical talking points that show Dragon not to be a simple copy-the-style-formula kind of effort. Just take a listen to the unexpected oddity that is “Jonathan’s Dream” and the almost New-Age quality of a vocal-less track featuring, among more expected sounds of slide guitar, the light rhythmic tapping of snare drum rim shots, and a modest melodic motif on the keys with the sounds of gentle waves crashing and seagulls cawing. The latter pair’s inclusion remains a head-tilter as the record goes on, but artistically Greene weaves them in there well, with a seamless transition to the track that follows (“My Country Breakdown“), which not only ticks up the tempo a few clicks but adds a touch of swinging syncopation to the prior faintly established melody and, most notably, brings lyrics back into the picture (yet does not connect the songs through title, even with this almost callback-like approach.) The track lengths through this 35 minute experience are a bit surprising as well: some songs just barely reach over two minutes, while others go less than two, while still, even if just for a single song, listeners also get a seven-plus minute epic in “Fields Of Clover” — unusual for the country and folk rock genres alike. Collectively speaking however, any flashes of the unexpected on Tiptoe Past The Dragon probably shouldn’t instigate too much disbelief when one takes into consideration that Greene is a prolific man of the music industry: musician, composer (for himself and many others), engineer, producer, and arranger. Then top off the accolades with the more “well known” factoid that Greene co-produced Percy Sledge’s rendition of “When A Man Loves A Woman” and the idea that this man would diversify what could have otherwise been a very straightforward folk rock record suddenly seems par for the course. The only real drawback to Greene’s creativity is that his love of sonic nuance doesn’t translate well with the sound quality of the recording. Lack of some definition leads to finer details of string plucks, drum hit releases, and even Greene’s own vocal tone, running together more than they need to and that’s a plain shame. Remix and remaster, anyone?
This album insert only helped further the fantastical elements of Greene’s work. (Click here for the full image).
My wife and I were wearing plaid. Each of us had gone over the top to pull out the grungiest of grunge-era fashion — we even wore scowls as we walked into ’90s night at a local bar. We had assumed, of course, that we shared the ’90s experience with the other patrons. We expected Seattle and Halifax, angst and ambivalence, walls of feedback sometimes dressed up in drum machines and melodrama. What we got instead was the realization that the young people in attendance weren’t there. They didn’t really get the ’90s. For them, it was a vague notion of something picked up from their parents CD collection and media’s backward gaze. The DJ somehow managed to misinterpret even our most sacred and important anthems as something cheerfully ironic. Here we are now. Entertain us. That’s what the ’70s is for me. Sure I was there, but I was too young to really be a part of it. Too new to music to really understand the nuance. But having grown up in a rural town and partied with remote townies all my life, there has been no shortage of people playing the bands of the ’70s (most unsuccessfully) while some sort of drama unfolded around a campfire. A girlfriend and I fought our final fight in just such a circumstance while her insufferable uncle plucked out Eagles’ “Hotel California” through the crackles of burning wood. That may be the moment I swore that the ’70s, as a musical era, was dead to me. If pressed, I would admit that Led Zepplin’s “D’yer Maker” was a great track but as with any self-respecting antagonist, I would be compelled to insist that Sheryl Crow did it better. As I listen to Marlin Greene’s Tiptoe Past The Dragon, I am reminded that there was more to the ’70s than someone’s nostalgic interpretation. The overlap with artists like John Denver and Arlo Guthrie can still be heard today in the echoes of the latest from The War on Drugs. These are songs with a measurable intention to last. The opening track “Grand Illusion” has a vulnerability to it while “Jonathan’s Dream” is brief, instrumental, and deliberate in its breezy reflection. Strictly speaking this is a country record. But the beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter. The light and bubbly sincerity of it all makes for an experience which a listener can appreciate outside of memories sullied by too many repeats of the “classics” at every acoustic jam you’ve ever witnessed. Marlin Greene was mercifully obscure among that set — and that leaves him open to be special to you.
Country music has a bad rapport over here in the UK. Whenever I’m caught listening to music with even a slightly twangy guitar riff, I feel tension descend. I notice the eyes of my European peers dart frantically in my general direction, and just like that, I’m completely aware that everyone within earshot has just imagined what I would look like in a cowboy hat. For those of you now picturing the same thing… I look fantastic, okay? For some reason, they just seem to suit the shape of my head… but I digress. Tiptoe Past The Dragon is not your conventional country album, Marlin Greene’s work is poignant and skillfully crafted to ensure that it is emotionally layered to appeal to the desires of its widest possible audience. Greene’s melodies have a sort of angelic innocence about them that feels wholesome and endearing but when you take a closer look at his lyrics you can see that there is a world-weary cynic beneath all those shimmery guitar tones. The juxtaposition between Greene’s catchy melodies and heartfelt lyrics is so seamlessly executed throughout this album that it enables more passive listeners to let their current disposition influence how they feel about the album. To put it simply, if you’re looking for a musical respite whilst you lick your wounds after an argument, Greene delivers. However, if you’re looking for something to put on to wind down with the family BBQ, again, Greene delivers. Although this duality is somewhat common among the country genre, Tiptoe Past The Dragon sets an exceptional standard for any up-and-coming artists to match and it would make a great addition to any blossoming music collection, even if you don’t look quite as good as I do in a cowboy hat.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
When I saw that the album that we were listening to this week was called Tiptoe Past The Dragon and that “Grand Illusion,” “Masquerade Ball,” and “Gemini Gypsy” were among the track titles, I hypothesized that the album was going to be Baroque pop or perhaps something with lots of harpsichords. Something fantasy-adjacent. Needless to say, my hypothesis was incorrect and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was, instead, an excellent example of the kind of album from the early ’70s where rock was getting a lot of country influence… or maybe country was getting a lot of rock influence. In any case, I really enjoyed this one. I love the playfulness that threads throughout the album. It makes a serious song like “Fields Of Clover” all the more hard-hitting and effective. I’m left with the question, though, about what exactly a countryfied Version of something like Lord Of The Rings would be like. I have to imagine that it would be almost as delightful as this album!
On this holiday weekend, I’m living two weeks in the future. Driving with the windows down, one of my favorite things ever to do, the sunlit fields and old houses of Virginia passing by as my husband and I go to celebrate our first anniversary together. As if the anticipation weren’t enough, I was handed Tiptoe Past The Dragon this week, and instead of pulling my mind back into the present, it only served to amplify my highway and vacation lust. Folk-inspired rock presented with that classic 1970s ease I associate with Alabama and that Muscle Shoals vibe provides a perfect backdrop for introspective listening, the kind where your mind wanders while your fingers tap out the beat on the steering wheel. Clashing to that mood, though, are the well-constructed lyrics of a seasoned songwriter. Fitting to the season, “Gemini Gypsy” struck me particularly hard, the lines “you love me for what you want to be” running through my mind as coincidental mentions of an ex-boyfriend sprang up recently. Somehow uncomplicated to take in, but layered and poignant, Tiptoe Past The Dragon would be as at home on a lonely drunken night as it would be spilling out from the living room speakers onto the light of a backyard summer fire.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Greene’s past as a journeyman roots musician and Muscle Shoals institution helped guide this record’s tricky maneuvering to a vibrant finish.
Maybe it’s just because I had started reading The Neverending Story when I got the email detailing the upcoming issues of OYR and I saw the title Tiptoe Past The Dragon, or perhaps it’s because Marlin Greene’s name appears right next to Mark Knopfler’s in my digital library, and the sole Knopfler album I have is the score to The Princess Bride, but I thought I had this album pegged as a folksy piece with a fantasy narrative woven throughout the songs. I won’t lie: I was a little disappointed when I listened to it and discovered it’s not exactly a concept album about saving kingdoms and slaying goblins and trolls, but my initial disappointment didn’t stop me from giving it a chance. Dragons may not be here, but a well balanced mix of styles, catchy songs, and Greene’s crooning voice are certainly all present. As a multi-instrumentalist with an ear for production, Marlin Greene bounces through genres seamlessly. I think the best, or at least my favorite, transition on the whole album is going from the tropical surfy vibe of “Jonathan’s Dream” leading directly into “My Country Breakdown,” which, as the title implies, swings toward country. A few songs later, the album goes psychedelic on “Who’s The Captain Of Your Ships Of Dreams” before breaking out the seven and a half minute “Fields Of Clover,” which brings back distinct memories of listening to Neil Young when I was away at summer camp (I hate to make the comparison to Young, because it feels lazy and uninspired, but it’s what the song makes me think about). Oh! And technically the title track mentions dragons in its lyrics, so they’re kind of here as well despite what I said earlier. It’s a shame that this is Greene’s only album, because clearly he knew what he was doing on both sides of the recording booth.
I have to think that Doug, our fearless leader here at OYR, had this record specifically in mind for Memorial Day weekend. What do we need while grilling up our spring favorites on this last weekend in May? We need relaxing, upbeat, charming tunes that sooth the day away, and maybe even blend into the breeze if you haven’t turned the speaker up loud enough. “Masquerade Ball” is a perfect starter. With its sugary “la, la, la’s,” it’s like an ice cold glass of lemonade. “Good Christian Cowboy” could easily be an ode to our fallen soldiers, and “Jonathan’s Dream” even comes complete with some waterfront sound effects! While Tiptoe Past The Dragon is not something I would normally listen to, I can totally see why it should be on everyone’s radar this Memorial Day and beyond.
What I really liked about this album was that it had that classic ’70s sound. Not the disco sound obviously, but that old recording studio equipment capturing the melodies of the instruments that just take me back to a time that I could only ever dream of. I always said that I was born in the wrong era, and I’ve always felt right at home within the sounds of the ’70s. It’s a reflection of the time too I suppose, or what I imagine the time to have been like; the music, especially in this album, is very laid back, happy, and carefree. Something you could sit in your backyard and listen to with a cold drink in hand, but also something to have playing in the car while you’re driving down an open road. This album is a really great one to kick off the summer with, especially the third track, “Jonathan’s Dream,” with those beach sounds, the waves, the seagulls, and the reggae-ish beat. The perfect formula. This album has such a nostalgic sound that it feels with me joy. Cheesy, I know, but there’s little more to describe something that makes me so happy, something I always feel discovering new (old) music as rich as this.
By themselves, the endearing songs Marlin Greene presents here are as straight-forward as they come for ’70s rock. Remarkable, yes, but no real stylistic or structural departures to really differentiate it from other AM rock stalwarts. It’s these songs together, sequenced in a dreamy, surreal manner, that really breaks the mold here. I imagine early in pre-production stages, Marlin Greene found an old corkboard, gently used but not too far gone like many of the styles and sounds on display here. Somehow, he got the idea to pin up all the musical notions and lyrical thoughts he might want to tackle on his next work, and only when they were all up there on that corkboard did the grand idea come to him: What if he did them all? He pulled out his most trusty folk-rock thread and stretched it as thin as it had ever gone in 1972, carefully tying around each pin on the board as he set about incorporating every burgeoning musical notion and standard practice into one record. Surprisingly, that thread never frayed. It stays firm throughout the whole thirty-five minute run-time as Greene gathers soul, funk, gospel, and rock of the AM, arena, southern, and pop variety under the gracious umbrella that is roots music. Of course, that thread has a fantastical sheen to it as well, something that the song titles and imagery excel at evoking. But perhaps this record’s fantasy inclinations seem more pronounced in 2018 because of the way that thread frayed in the decades to follow, shying away from the umbrella that allowed Ray Charles and Duane Allman to flourish, instead enabling Max Martins in cowboy hats to exploit the consumer patriot movement as much as possible. Who could imagine a record described as country in 2018 having a one-two punch like “Who’s The Captain Of Your Ships Of Dreams” and “Fields Of Clover,” especially after “Grand Illusion” opened up the album? Perhaps we need to stop looking at the dragon as a mystical past relic, and instead view the concept that country music fans were so refined as to enjoy this eclectic mix alongside their John Denvers and Boz Scaggs as the true fantasy myth. Who knows?
Far Cries And Close Calls by John Calvin Abney
Chosen By Davy Jones