The First 20 Years at the Top

by: The Shadows

Albums are all fine and well, but if you really want to know what made a band tick during the first half of the 1960s, you need to listen to the singles. It was singles, after all, that consumed the lion's share of the market -- singles by which a band's fame and acclaim were judged, and singles by which their star rose and fell. Three hits in a row, you were the biggest thing in the world. A flop for the fourth and you were dead meat. Most compilations today prefer to avoid this simple fact, preferring to delve into albums and archives in a desperate attempt to wrest away the last buck in the buyer's pocket. But there's still a handful that know how history is best served -- the Rolling Stones' Singles Collection and Cliff Richard's six-LP Story paramount among them -- and The First 20 Years at the Top is a worthy addition to that roll call. Three CDs compile every A-side and the majority of the B-sides the Shadows released in the U.K. between their formation in the late '50s and their departure from EMI in 1980. Programmed with strict chronology, the box paints a picture of the band that no other collection has ever managed -- and that includes the six-CD 1958-1966 box set. The set opens with the two 45s the band cut as the Drifters during 1958-1959, before they encountered a better-known American band of the same name. There, listeners hear the young rockers at their most guileless, innocent, and derivative; there, too, listeners discover that "Mary Anne," the 1965 single that introduced their singing voices to the record-buying public, was not that much of a departure after all. Both the band's first and third 45s (plus the occasional past B-side) were also unashamedly vocal numbers. Still, it was as instrumentalists (and, courtesy of Hank Marvin, guitar gods) that the Shadows made their name, and across the rest of disc one, and great swathes of the other two, their prowess is as breathtaking today as it ever was at the time. Even more rewarding is the discovery that the band's mid- to late-'70s output is often as striking as their '60s material. Having disbanded in 1969, the Shadows reformed in 1973 and, as though they'd never been away, proceeded to unleash both some startling pop ("Let Me Be the One") and some virtuosic instrumentals. "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Cavatina," and even Blondie's "Heart of Glass" aren't simply executed with consummate style -- that, after all, was the Shadows' raison d'ĂȘtre. They also pack a passion that is undimmed from the halcyon days of "Apache" and "Wonderful Land" -- 20 years at the top indeed! ~ Dave Thompson

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