11th Favorite Beatles Album: Magical Mystery Tour

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Magical Mystery Tour.
1967, Capitol. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Magical Mystery Tour is another soundtrack in The Beatles’ discography. But this time the record was embellished with a few singles on the American release. It’s a terrific blend of the band’s psychedelic and melodic-pop tendencies. It swings easily between the weird and the cute. Some of the band’s most enduring songs are here, as well as some of their most obscure. The band can do anything, and this record is a delight from end to end.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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Rule-breaking evidence.

I’ve broken my own rules several times on this blog. No compilation albums? Well too bad! Sometimes a band’s history is so fraught and disarrayed that a compilation album is one of the few things you have. And sometimes there’s an album that a bonehead like me doesn’t realize is a compilation until after writing the blog post! Hell, even the whole idea of my list being definitive was undercut by the realization that I made some mistakes and omissions. I’m going to make mistakes. As XTC brilliantly put it, I’m merely a man.

And I’m acknowledging right here that this selection is both a rule-breaker AND a mistake. It’s NOT a UK release, which is what I said I’d review, AND, given the incredible songs on it … it should probably be much higher. And yet – here it is at Number 11. How did I – a presumably moral and honest man – fall so far? Where did I go wrong?

I was a natural rule-breaker as a child, but all children are natural rule-breakers. Parenting is, basically, one big push to get your kids to manage and contain their natural instincts to hit, kick, steal, manipulate, scream and generally act like little assholes. In fact, rules were probably first established by cavemen and cavewomen who were getting sick of their whiny little cavekids. They wanted that bullshit to stop.

My parents turned out to be very effective bullshit-stoppers. So effective, in fact, that I quickly became a kid who was TERRIFIED to break the rules. I became one of those pain-in-the-ass, wet-blanket kids who tell their friends they shouldn’t copy each others’ homework, and pay the movie theater admission even though all their friends just sneaked in for free. (I did learn quickly NOT to be a tattle-tale, an important rule among kids.)

But I’ve discussed all this before, in that Stone Roses link above, and I probably have some rule somewhere about not repeating myself, so I’m just going to skip ahead and say that somewhere along the line I grew to understand that life is like that book, 50 Shades of Grey: rich people torture you and try to convince you that you enjoy it. And also, there are so many gray1 areas in life that it becomes almost impossible to follow all but the most basic rules: don’t kill people, don’t hurt people, change the toilet paper roll when you use the last bit.

So the fact that Magical Mystery Tour was a double EP in the UK, and I’m reviewing the US-released full-length LP even though I stated I’d review the UK releases … well, the gray area is that I didn’t realize there was a difference until I started putting this list together, and I wasn’t gonna go out and buy the UK version just to comply with some dumb rule I gave myself, so I just decided to review the US version. Is that gray enough?

You can read all about how Magical Mystery Tour came to be a double EP in the UK and an album in the US, and all about the details of the movie, in any number of books about the band. I have neither the time, nor space (nor the knowledge) to dive in too deeply. But basically, The Beatles made a weird movie for British TV called Magical Mystery Tour, in which regular folks rode around the country in a bus with the band, and this album is the soundtrack for it. (Well, actually, the British double EP is the soundtrack. This US version is the soundtrack PLUS a few other Beatle singles tacked on.) The movie used to play on the cool, 80s US late-night TV show Night Flight, and I saw it back then. If you’re sadly thinking, “Aw, man, I never got to see it!” let me tell you this: it was BORING. The idea was “let’s travel by bus and see what happens!” – and nothing happened.

But the soundtrack is great2! Magical Mystery Tour opens with a perfect opener, the title track, which starts with a trumpet fanfare and gets right to a driving beat, courtesy of Ringo.

Whenever I’ve written about any artist or song, I’ll always point out when I love the harmony vocals. I think this focus on harmony vocals comes from my love of The Beatles. The harmonies – classic three-part – on the “Roll up for the mystery tour” lyrics are terrific. The lyrics set the stage for all the wonder to come on the record. For the first thirty seconds the song really sounds and feels like one of the band’s early, fast-paced hits, like “I Saw Her Standing There,” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But the band transitions to the slower chorus, “… hoping to take you away …” They go back and forth between the parts with ease because of Ringo’s smooth playing. It’s a fun little song, but what makes it for me is the weird ending, beginning at 2:23. Also, producer George Martin’s horn charts throughout are really great. This is one of those popular Beatle songs that I forget about, then hear and think, “Hey, I really like that!”

This is a much different situation than I find myself in when I hear the next song, “Fool On the Hill.” For many years, its melancholy lyrics and haunting flute seemed to speak to me, and I adored it. Nowadays, I sort of find it tiresome. It’s still a great song, a brilliant Paul3 track, and I do like how the song turns a bit upbeat during the flute solo. But it’s not a favorite of mine. The instrumental “Flying” is notable as one of only two Beatles’ songs on their original albums with composition credited to “Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey” (the other being “Dig It,” from Let It Be), but otherwise sounds rather like music you’d hear while on hold during a phone call with your insurance company.

The fourth song on Magical Mystery Tour is one I have ANOTHER changing attitude on. I used to dislike it, and now it’s one of my favorites on the record. It’s the trippy, somber story of George Harrison’s friends driving on a foggy night in Los Angeles, “Blue Jay Way.”

George’s early contributions to the band, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “You Like Me Too Much,” sounded like attempts to write like Lennon/McCartney. But with every album he seemed to move closer to his own ‘thing,’ and “Blue Jay Way” is an example. It begins quietly and builds, with a droning quality that is filled out with Ringo’s terrific drum fills. He’s the master of the mid-tempo fill. The sounds are warped and distorted, and Martin’s string orchestration fits perfectly.

Next up is “Your Mother Should Know,” the kind of bouncy, music-hall style song that McCartney can write in his sleep (although it sounds nothing like “Yesterday,” which he famously DID write in his sleep). It’s a song about a song that, well, your mother should know. I do like the bass, particularly how it starts the song, and it is catchy as heck. And I find it interesting that on The Beatles (the White Album) John’s song “Cry Baby Cry” features the lyric “Make your mother cry/she’s old enough to know better.” What was it about Beatle mums not knowing things?

The final track on the British EP, and the last song from the film, is the iconic Beatle psychedelia number “I Am the Walrus.”

The song somehow manages to be catchy, weird, nonsense and moving all at the same time. I’d recommend reading more about this song, even if it’s just wikipedia. There’s more to this song than I can fit in a paragraph. It’s a ballsy John song, and after the first five songs really stands out, as if John said, “Okay, boys, step aside and let me show you something.” The nonsense lyrics clash (in a good way) with a powerful chord progression that seems stately and important, a feeling enhanced – once again – by Martin’s orchestral score. There are sounds galore throughout, including a recording of a radio broadcast of King Lear. A written description of the song would read like a total mess, so I’ll just say – listen to it. It’s wicked cool.

Okay, here’s where my dilemma with rating this work starts. Magical Mystery Tour, to this point, has been pretty good. These are all the new songs the band recorded for the movie. As a double-EP, it’s decent by Beatles’ standards, but not particularly awesome. However, on the US version, Capitol records added some singles the band had been releasing, and these are some of my favorite Beatle songs ever. Given how much I love these songs, the record should be higher than #11. But since most of the songs I love weren’t really for an album, and I did say I’m rating UK releases, well, I don’t think I can rank this one any higher.

But who gives a shit, right? Let’s get to the next song – the international hit “Hello Goodbye.” It’s a song about the difficulty communicating in a relationship. Like “Fool on the Hill,” it’s a song I’ve grown tired of. George’s buzzing guitar is still cool, and Ringo’s drums, too. He plays the snare on the 1 &3 at the start of the song, but from then on sticks mainly to high-hat and toms, then from 1:17 to 1:35 and again 1:55 to 2:15 he plays classic Ringo fills. But that keening violin throughout the song just grates on me nowadays. I do like the coda – beginning at 2:45, but it’s a song I rarely play.

One song I do play a lot is a song that, since I was about 10 years old in fifth grade, I have responded with wherever someone asks, “What’s your favorite song?” There’s something about “Strawberry Fields Forever” that has always drawn me in.

I was a shy kid who always wished I could be more confident, and I think the lyrics in the verses such as “no one, I think, is in my tree,” and their fumbling nature (“I think I know, I mean, er, yes, but it’s all wrong …”) really spoke to me. And I loved how weird the song sounded4 while retaining a melody. The older I got, the more I found to love about the song. George’s ringing guitar throughout, and Paul’s guitar fills at 2:58 and 3:11. Ringo’s excellent drumming, his strange fills and chugging beat near the end. Martin’s orchestration again perfectly suits the song. It’s still my favorite song. And speaking of Paul, this is one of the very few Beatle songs (particularly non-acoustic songs) that does NOT have a distinctive bass line.

A song that does have a distinctive bass line, and that may be my second-favorite song ever, is the wonderful “Penny Lane.”

You probably know the story – John and Paul decided to write songs about the memories and places of their childhood, and John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and Paul wrote “Penny Lane.” Two very different songs that are both great for different reasons. I love the bass in this song, how high it starts and how far it ranges. The lyrics are perfect, painting a scene with precision and perspective that makes the listener believe they’ve actually visited it as a child. John’s high harmonies throughout are wonderful, as are Martin’s horn parts. The two songs were originally released together as a double A-side single5

Next up is a song that was originally a B-side to the huge hit “All You Need is Love” (more on that in a bit), called “Baby You’re a Rich Man.”

Paul’s cool bass is paired with an oboe sound created by John using a “clavioline,” which creates an exotic, Indian feel. John’s vocals (on lyrics that may be a swipe at their manager, Brian Epstein, or may be a message about the power of spirituality in a material world) establish a sarcastic tone in the verse, as his sweet falsetto lines are undercut by his sneering follow-up comments. Ringo, as he’s done throughout Magical Mystery Tour, accents things with great fills, as at 0:49 and 1:45. The chorus is classic sing-along Beatles, with Paul’s bass driving the whole thing. And if you listen closely, you can hear George’s close picking on electric guitar across the whole song. It’s a simple, fun song.

The final track on the album is “All You Need Is Love,” a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, and also one I discussed when it appeared on Yellow Submarine. You can read about it there!

It always amazes me how The Beatles can seemingly throw together a record and still have it be outstanding. The four were clearly serious about the music they produced, and even if it was going to be part of a silly movie, they made sure the songs were strong. (Well, okay, maybe not “Flying.”) I’m happy I broke my UK rule for this record – the extra songs are outstanding.

TRACK LISTING:
“Magical Mystery Tour”
“The Fool On the Hill”
“Flying”
“Blue Jay Way”
“Your Mother Should Know”
“I Am the Walrus”
“Hello, Goodbye”
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
“Penny Lane”
“Baby You’re a Rich Man”
“All You Need is Love”

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12th Favorite Beatles Album: With The Beatles

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With The Beatles.
1963, EMI. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1996.

IN A NUTSHELL: With The Beatles is The Beatles’ second album, written and recorded in a hurry to capitalize on Beatlemania. It’s a testament to the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team that they could write so many excellent songs so quickly! And a testament to the entire band that they could execute so well these songs, and a slew of their favorite covers, and make a record that remains one of the best in the past 60 years.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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Way back in 2006, I released my first stand-up comedy CD, It’s Weird, Man. You’ll notice I said “first comedy CD.”

This is because when I recorded my album, I was hoping there would be more. I’d been doing stand-up for about 12 years by 2006, doing it in earnest for about 7, and I thought it was time to get some of my jokes on record. Rick Jenkins, owner of the best comedy club in the world, The Comedy Studio, in Cambridge, MA, gave me two nights to record in front of terrific weekend crowds. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire recorded my sets, and helped select and sequence tracks.

Then I called some old friends. I got in touch with an old acquaintance from my days in The April Skies, Larry Geiger, and he did all the amazing CD design and packaging work. I called Jake Crawford, still doing great work (then, as now) in The April Skies, and worked it out so the CD could be on his WiaB Records label. Then, oblivious to the changes that were already afoot in the delivery and consumption of recorded material by 2006, I went about having CDs manufactured.

The CD company said I could manufacture 300 CDs, or 1000, or 5000 or even more. I was sure that 5000 was the number I’d need, given the hilarious nature of my jokes. However, that was expensive, so I settled on 300, knowing that I could use the proceeds from selling those first 300 to finance a second batch of pressings, which I was quite certain would be 5000. Or more.

As of November, 2019, I’m still the proud owner of 237 copies of my CD, all of which are stored lovingly in a few moldy old cardboard boxes in the basement. My album is on all the streaming services, and approximately once every 18 months, I’ll get a check, out of the blue, for $9 or so. But despite all that loot, I don’t think that it was digital streaming that cut into CD sales, preventing me from reaching that second pressing. I think that reality simply didn’t live up to my grandiose expectations.

But what if it had? What if reality had actually EXCEEDED my expectations? What if I’d sold those first 300 discs, then the next 5000, then had orders for thousands more? What if some entertainment conglomerate had signed me to a contract, and the world was eager, yearning, even demanding more product from me? What would I have done? I didn’t have enough jokes for another record!

The Beatles, 1960, Hamburg. (l to r) Lennon, Harrison, Pete Best, McCartney, Stu Sutcliffe.

One thing I definitely could not do would be to “cover” other peoples’ jokes. I couldn’t decide to fill out my next album by recording Jim Gaffigan’s classic “Hot Pockets” bit, and throw in a bunch of old Joan Rivers jokes. Comedy doesn’t work that way. (Rather, it’s not supposed to.) However, music does! And lucky for The Beatles! When the album Please Please Me shot them to the top of the charts in the UK in 1963, and they needed more music on the market, they had a backlog of hundreds of songs from other artists that they’d been performing for years. They recorded some of those songs first, while Lennon/McCartney wrote a few more new songs, then recorded the new ones, and next thing you know, With The Beatles hit the stores.

Of course, the band’s first album, Please Please Me, was also nearly half cover songs, so this arrangement wasn’t unusual. The Beatles were great musicians, and they had logged hundreds of hours of live performances, so their cover songs6 were particularly strong. But Please Please Me included originals that had (mostly) been around for years. And as With the Beatles shows, even the songs dashed off by Lennon/McCartney are better than most of the stuff by other bands. Take, for example, the phenomenal lead track, “It Won’t Be Long.”

What a great opening track! Lennon’s double-tracked voice opens the album with an urgent message to all those Beatlemaniacs: it won’t be long! It’s got all the hallmarks of a terrific Beatle song: great melody, George’s cool, descending guitar riff (first heard at 0:13), Ringo’s sloshy drumming, and the catchy backing vocals – shouting “yeah” back and forth with John, and the “you left me” countermelody in the bridge, at 0:42. I guess it’s the bridge – it’s played twice, which is unusual in a bridge. I’ll call it the bridge just to point out that the song has an unusual structure – chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. Whatever you call it, I absolutely love when McCartney hits a higher note on the 5th “yeah” the second time through the bridge. It’s stuff like that that makes me love this band. The simple stuff.

Up next is a quiet piece, a slow dance after that frantic opening, Lennon’s “All I’ve Got to Do.” It’s got a bit of a Motown feel to it, and John’s lead vocal is really strong. McCartney plays chords on the bass through the verse, which sounds cool, but I mainly like this song because it leads into a classic: “All My Loving.”

It’s another song that opens with vocals, Paul’s this time. What stands out immediately is the triplet-strumming rhythm guitar by John Lennon. It’s really impressive, and Ringo makes it swing with his syncopated backbeat. The harmony “Oooo”s are classic Beatle, and I can’t forget to mention Paul’s walking bass line. Also – Paul harmonizes with himself on the third verse7. This is one of the songs the band played on their first Ed Sullivan Show performance in the USA, in February 1964, and since Paul can’t harmonize with himself live, George sang the melody and Paul took the high harmony.

On With the Beatles, George gets his first composition on a Beatles album with “Don’t Bother Me,” sort of a dour song with an upbeat rhythm. It’s a decent song, and has really cool guitar throughout, and a nice surf/country guitar solo at 1:18, but I think it’s safe to say George will do much better on future records8. Then again, not every Lennon/McCartney song was incredible – as “Little Child” shows. I mean, it has great vocals (particularly “I’m so sad and lonely”), and is a rocker, and Lennon shows off his harmonica chops … but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

The cover songs begin in earnest next, with the band covering my parents’ favorite song, “Till There Was You.” They were fans of the original from the Broadway musical The Music Man, which I prefer as well. George plays a nice solo, and McCartney can really sing, but … it sounds like filler. Even the next song, “Please Mr. Postman,” a Motown cover, sounds – to me – like filler. The harmonies are great, Ringo is terrific, but the 1961 original by the Marvelettes was so excellent that it makes me wonder why the band put this on With the Beatles.

This isn’t to say The Beatles cover songs couldn’t be excellent. Next up is a cover of the Chuck Berry classic “Roll Over Beethoven,” and it’s terrific.

I’m a Chuck Berry fan, and I love his stompin’ original version, but I like what the band does with it, as well. It’s less rockin’, but has a bit more swing, thanks to Ringo. He plays a heartbeat beat, and on my CD of With the Beatles (not so much on YouTube) I can clearly hear him accenting the “one,” really driving the song. Harrison’s guitar is really cool, and as usual Paul takes the opportunity to make the simple blues bass line more interesting than you’d expect.

The next song is one that both Paul and John later dismissed, rather coldly, and which many people – even Beatles fans – seem to dislike. But I really like it a lot: “Hold Me Tight.” Sure, Paul’s out of tune at certain points, but his voice matches the urgency of the handclaps, the insistent riff and Ringo’s drumming. And the three-part harmony, always a strength of the band, sounds great on the “You” choruses.

One of my favorite cover songs on With the Beatles is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” an old Smoky Robinson & the Miracles song.

This is a case of the band, and producer George Martin (who plays piano on the recording), selecting a great song. It also shows off Harrison’s knack for singing those difficult close harmonies. On most Beatles’ songs sung by Lennon, McCartney usually sang the high harmonies, and Harrison was usually the third part – often close to the melody and much subtler. Here it works (as in the original) as the main harmony. Lennon’s lead vocal is strong and soulful, and Ringo plays nice, odd fills in the bridge.

Ringo gets to show off his pipes on the next number, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Ringo (and George, to a lesser extent) tends to be overlooked, or even scorned, by many folks – both for his drumming and his singing. His crime seems to be that he is not John Lennon or Paul McCartney – just like everyone else who’s ever lived since the dawn of humanity. He’s actually an excellent drummer, and a fun singer, and “I Wanna Be Your Man” shows off both. It starts with a little guitar, and features a nice George solo, later. John and Paul wrote the song but neither loved it very much so they gave it to Ringo to sing. They also gave it to the Rolling Stones, who had a UK hit with it by dirtying it up a bit.

Next the boys are back to their cover-song ways with an obscure song by a group called The Donays, “Devil In Her Heart.” It’s a fine song, and George really does a great job on the lead vocal. Ringo’s fills are nice, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Similarly, John’s composition “Not a Second Time” is a fine song, but isn’t one I turn to very often. The melody is strangely complicated and meandering for a Beatles’ song9. McCartney’s bass is great, but I wonder why they chose a piano solo instead of a guitar?

But leave it to The Beatles to finish With the Beatles off with a bang, even if it is a cover song. It became one of their signature songs, even though it had already been a hit for R&B singer Barrett Strong10.

I do love the original, but The Beatles do a great job here. Ringo’s eight-beat bass drum gives the song an urgency, and the boys’ harmonies are terrific. It’s a great number that they really made a classic. John’s screams are cool, Paul’s bass notes leading to the chorus are sweet, and it’s simply a classic.

I’m not saying cover songs are bad, or that they should be avoided. In fact, With the Beatles shows that the band can truly play any style – from Broadway to R&B to rock ‘n roll – and make it work. I prefer the band’s albums with more Lennon/McCartney and Harrison songs, but With The Beatles is wonderful, no matter who wrote the songs! And it certainly sold more than the 63 CDs I managed.

TRACK LISTING:
“It Won’t Be Long”
“All I’ve Got to Do”
“All My Loving”
“Don’t Bother Me”
“Little Child”
“Till There Was You”
“Please Mr. Postman”
“Roll Over Beethoven”
“Hold Me Tight”
“You Really Got a Hold On Me”
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
“Devil In Her Heart”
“Not a Second Time”
“Money (That’s What I Want)”

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13th Favorite Beatles Album: Yellow Submarine.

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Yellow Submarine.
1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Yellow Submarine is an album that I find difficult to rate higher than any other Beatles’ albums simply because there are only 4 new Beatles songs on it! The band contributed four excellent new songs to the soundtrack, and a couple older favorites were added, and that’s the extent of the band’s contribution. Brilliant producer George Martin adds some orchestral background pieces from the movie, and that’s that.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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I’m 52 years old, so it’s no use lying, or even minimizing, what I’m going to say: I don’t mind kids’ music. I’m talking about music produced and aimed directly at kids, not music recorded by kids, although some of that’s pretty good, too11. I liked kids’ music when I was a kid, and I liked it as a parent, and I’ll probably like it again when I’m a grandparent.

I think somewhere over the past several years on this blog I’ve discussed my love, as a child, for the LP Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert. It was released in 1972, the year I turned 5, and it’s the first album I recall that was all mine, that wasn’t a family record, or one of my sisters’. I used to go to the basement every day to play its songs and, as my mom has recalled, “march around the basement.”

The album had fun songs with lots of activities, and a gatefold opening that included a map (for helping Cookie Monster with “The Magic Cookie“) and pictures and tips on how to best enjoy it. (“Get some pots and pans from your pantry to bang on!“) The songs on the album were purely for kids – fun, silly, simple. The only (subtle) tip of the hat to the larger world of pop and rock into which it was released was the cover art that seemed to be a nod to Simon & Garfunkel.

The other kids’ albums I remember from my childhood are selections from Walt Disney movies. I think we may have had a “Disney Greatest Hits” type record, and perhaps a soundtrack from Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although I may be conflating my memories of childhood jigsaw puzzles with childhood music. But the point is, these were orchestral, Broadway-style songs. Back then Kids’ Records were not interested in staying current with pop music tastes and sounds.

I moved on from Ernie and Bert pretty much directly to my sister’s Elton John albums and the 70s version of Weird Al Yankovic: albums of collected novelty songs sold on TV by companies like K-Tel and Ronco. But my childhood musical tastes – Ernie & Bert, Disney songs – have maintained through adulthood: the music I like continues to skew strongly toward good melodies. (This is probably a big reason why I love The Beatles.)

The Wiggles (and pals)

By the time I had kids of my own, in the late 90s and early 00s, an entertainment juggernaut had completely transformed kids’ music: The Wiggles. Many parents disliked The Wiggles when they first saw them, and I think a big part of it was that in the 90s it was unusual to see grown men performing for kids with no women. That may seem odd today, in 2019, but in 1999 it was really jarring to see. Myself, I immediately loved the band – mainly because my toddler son LOVED THE BAND. It was impossible for me to see him sing and dance along to the songs and NOT feel some love for the geniuses that gave that to him.

Dan Zanes & Friends

What I really liked about The Wiggles, however, was the fact that they took rock music sounds and styles and put them into kids’ songs. The Wiggles were a band, playing their own songs, on their own instruments, and they touched off a wave of “rock music” kids bands. The fabulous Dan Zanes & Friends12, The Laurie Berkner Band, The Imagination Movers … There were just so many! Then there was Choo-Choo Soul, a show that made R&B-style kids’ songs. It was the Golden Age of Kids’ Music for Gen-X Adults.

The proof was when bands for grown-ups began getting into the act. The wonderful They Might Be Giants released several terrific kids albums, including Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Def Leppard, Barenaked Ladies, even former freshmen, and one-hit wonders, The Verve Pipe, released kids’ albums. (Of course, Johnny Cash was ahead of everyone by 30 years.) Soon, parents were demanding rock music as kids music.

But leave it to the best band in the history of the universe to have presaged all of this kids rock music by a couple generations. The band, and Paul McCartney, in particular, had been writing Wiggles-style songs since the start of their run13. They also produced flat-out, old-school kids-style songs (i.e. not Wiggles-style) throughout their career. Catchy, singalong melodies were right in their wheelhouse. And although they usually sang about love, which any child will tell you is “icky,” many of their songs are about less icky stuff, like colorful submarines and counting with friends, and, in fact, would sound really good as the soundtrack to a cartoon movie!

For details about how the movie Yellow Submarine and its soundtrack came together, you should consult any Beatles biography, particularly one by Mark Lewisohn. Or, to save time, check out the Wikipedia page. Basically, the band was contractually obliged to produce four new songs for the movie, which they did. These songs were slapped onto some other old Beatles’ songs used in the movie, a few orchestral selections from the film, written by producer George Martin, were tacked on, and Voila! Beatles album.

So, basically, even without trying, The Beatles could produce an excellent album – albeit one that mostly sounds like it’s made for kids. In particular, the title song (originally released on the band’s Revolver album) seems aimed squarely at the elementary-school, let’s-sing-a-song age group. This is a difficult song to write about because it seems like it’s become a children’s staple – like “Old MacDonald.” Nearly every kid in America, Europe, perhaps the world, has heard and sung along to it. I’d wager more people know the song than know that it’s by The Beatles.

It was written together by McCartney and John Lennon14 expressly for drummer Ringo Starr to sing, and its simple, contagious melody and magical lyrics suit him well. Perhaps the coolest thing about the song is all the sound effects created for it. The band and its friends15 blew bubbles in water, rattled chains, and talked in tin cans to create the undersea atmosphere. It’s a fun recording, and if you haven’t listened closely to the original in years, it’s worth a listen.

One of the best things about the album is that George Harrison contributes a higher percentage of new songs (two of the four) than on any other Beatles album. The first is the weird, wonderful “Only a Northern Song.”

The song’s (hilarious) lyrics show Harrison’s justifiable frustration (“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/ What words I say …/ As it’s only a Northern Song.”) about the band’s publishing arrangement, in which his songs were owned by publisher Northern Songs, a company of which Lennon and McCartney each owned 15%, compared to Harrison’s 0.8%. This meant he made far less from the publishing rights to his own songs than John and Paul. It opens with a spooky organ, which suits Harrison’s laconic delivery. McCartney’s bass is terrific, and Starr’s drums fills are really great16. About 1:10 a section of crazy dissonance appears, then recurs at 2:30 to finish the song. It’s a song that benefits from listening on headphones, and for a song that the band (and many listeners) has frequently dismissed, it’s pretty cool.

Next, the band goes all-in on kids’ music again with “All Together Now.”

It’s a cute little number that has some cool Beatle-y things in it. For one, it’s one of their songs where both Paul and John sing lead – Paul on the “1-2-3-4,” etc., and John on the “sail the ship,” etc. I love when they sing in harmony, because their voices blend perfectly. But I also love when they are co-lead singers because I like to think of them as best buddies, and they sound like it when they trade off lines. It’s got a fun build up, from acoustic guitars, then adding bass guitar and drums and harmonicas and voices and I think some sort of saxophone. Then it speeds up at 1:15 through to the end. It’s a fun, goofy, terrific song for kids.

Speaking of John and Paul singing harmony, and acting like best buddies, the next song up on Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favorites from the band: “Hey Bulldog.”

There’s a cool story about recording this gem, and you can watch a video about it here. The song opens with Lennon playing a piano riff that is somehow both dark and upbeat at the same time. Harrison’s guitar joins in on it, with Ringo’s terrific tom-heavy drums, and finally McCartney adds his bass to the riff. Lennon’s voice is perfect on lyrics that are part nonsense (“sheepdog/ standing in the rain”), part koan (“some kind of innocence is measured out in years”), and part simple kindness (“if you’re lonely you can talk to me”). McCartney’s bass on this song is outstanding, constantly changing, holding down the low end while providing, basically, a second lead guitar. And while we’re talking lead guitar, check out Harrison throughout, but especially his solo at 1:13. Lennon and McCartney’s superlative harmony singing is on display, and I love how near the end they dissolve into silliness and banter and make each other laugh17. I ESPECIALLY love near the end, when they completely break down then pull it together for one final, terrifically harmonic “Bulldog,” at 3:03. It’s these tiny things that bring me joy, and really underscore the fact that I’m rather obsessed by this band.

So obsessed, in fact, that Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” his second number on Yellow Submarine, is a song I often find going through my head, especially when I’m stressed out and thinking, well, “it’s all too much.”

It’s a noisy, droning, psychedelic song, with a tooting organ riff throughout. Harrison’s voice, beginning about 1:03 sings a great, rangy melody that seems to ignore the crazy sounds around it. And this really suits the lyrics, which are a positive reflection on all the joyful wonder of the world. Ringo’s drums, once again, are really cool. He plays off-kilter fills that accent the song perfectly. The guitar is cool, played by both Lennon and Harrison. A variety of horns are added, McCartney & Lennon add harmonies, and the whole thing begins to sound on the verge of breakdown beginning around 3:45. From there it becomes a kind of meditative drone, as Harrison wails about 4:40 and the three singers sing “too much,” well, perhaps too much, but that’s kind of the point of it. It’s one of the band’s most distinctive songs.

Next up is another all-time great Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.”

The song was released as a single a year before the movie, but since it appeared in the film it was included in the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite Lennon compositions, including the lyrics, and one of my favorite performances by the band. Since it was recorded partially live, as part of “Our World,” a worldwide live TV broadcast, there’s a party atmosphere to it. As usual, McCartney plays lead bass and Harrison’s guitar solo is unforgettable. It’s a timeless classic, and actually has a bit of kids’ song cheer and simplicity to it.

The rest of the album, well, look. I’m not gonna try to bullshit you people: I can’t get through it. It’s a suite of 7 orchestral pieces by George Martin, the band’s longtime producer, that were written as the film’s score. There’s “Pepperland,” “Sea of Time,” “Sea of Holes,” “Sea of Monsters,” “March of the Meanies,” “Pepperland Laid Waste,” and “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.” I’m sure they are brilliant pieces, and I have Beatle-y friends who swear they are some of the best works to appear on any Beatles’ albums. But I am not a classical music guy, nor a recorded orchestra guy, and I haven’t seen the film in 35 years, so it just doesn’t connect with me.

So there you have it. Yellow Submarine is my least-favorite Beatles record, but still probably my 13th-favorite all-time record. It make me happy, it makes me feel good, and that’s what we were all taught music was supposed to do back when we were kids. It’s what I learned from Ernie and Bert, and it’s a big part of why I love The Beatles!

TRACK LISTING:
“Yellow Submarine”
“Only a Northern Song”
“All Together Now”
“Hey Bulldog”
“It’s All Too Much”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Pepperland”
“Sea of Time”
“Sea of Holes”
“Sea of Monsters”
“March of the Meanies”
“Pepperland Laid Waste”
“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”

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Here Come The Beatles!

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So, now that I’ve spent a good five or six years of my life on this blog, having listened to all my CDs, and ranked them, and counted down my Favorite 100, what should I do with all my free time?

Please Please Me

I got some advice from a variety of people who – bless them – were concerned with either my mental health or the functionality of my ears based on the list of Favorite Albums I finally generated. Much of the advice involved, frankly, impossible tasks relating to places to shove albums or keyboards, or techniques involving sharp objects and my ears which did not really appeal to me.

With The Beatles

A few people thought I should count down other favorite things: TV shows, books, movies, podcasts … Such lists don’t interest me as much as counting down albums. This is because I grew up in an era when Albums Mattered. The books and TV shows and movies a person likes – well, these things have always been interesting to discuss. But among my cohort – I’m going to throw out some numbers and say folks born between 1962 and 197518 – one’s taste in music and albums was important and defining, and often ascribed a listener to a tribe, of sorts.

A Hard Day’s Night

I wrote about this some in my write up of The Who’s Who’s Next album (#37 on my list). For many folks in my cohort, it mattered whether you listened to 60s Rock or Hard Rock or Top Forty or R&B or Metal or Hip-Hop or Punk or College Rock. It was shorthand, it was a marker, it told everyone else who you were.

Beatles For Sale

And like all stereotypes and labels it was pure bullshit. There is perhaps nothing more ridiculous and pathetic in my past than being a 15 year old white boy in rural PA in 1983 loving Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” or Yaz’s19Situation,” or Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” or The English Beat’s “Save It for Later” – waiting for the radio or MTV to play them, dancing and enthusing along to them whenever I heard them, learning the lyrics to sing along, even secretly buying the cassettes – but then going to high school and mocking those songs and their listeners20 while trying to build an oral argument for the genius of, say, Quiet Riot.

Help!

The music you loved back then mattered, and it mattered, frankly, too much. And yet, that residue sticks to me. My musical tastes have grown more diverse, and I no longer make a value judgement against fans of any type of music21. But the feeling that the music I like is important remains. I’m 52 now, and I don’t mind saying I like a little-known Buffalo Tom record more than any Rolling Stones record. Or that a record by my buddy’s band, The April Skies, means more to me than a Led Zeppelin album. These considerations define me.

Rubber Soul

And perhaps no tribe defines me more than The Beatles Tribe. I’ve resisted adding them to my rankings because I know I can’t compare them to other artists’ records. I’ve written before that they’d simply be the top of my list, then everyone would come after, so it seemed pointless to include them.

But now I don’t know what to do with myself, so I’m going to go ahead and rank them.

Revolver

I’ve decided that the albums I’ll rank will be UK versions. I’m only going to include records released while the band was active, so compilations, remixes22, bonus tracks, etc, will not be included. So here’s what will be included, in chronological order:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Please Please Me (1963), With The Beatles (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Beatles For Sale (1964), Help! (1965), Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), The Beatles (aka ‘The White Album’) (1968), Yellow Submarine (1969), Abbey Road (1969), and Let It Be (1970).

Magical Mystery Tour

US releases will not be included. This means the following titles are not included: Introducing … The Beatles (1964), Meet The Beatles (1964), The Beatles’ Second Album (1964), Something New (1964), Beatles ’65 (1964), Beatles VI (1965) and Yesterday … And Today (1966). Additionally, the American versions of the records listed in the previous paragraph will not be part of the ratings.

The Beatles

I’ve already begun re-listening to all these records, and what I am most struck by is this: The Beatles are fucking amazing. They’re not overrated in the least. They are collectively more impressive than any other band I know, with a higher percentage of good, great and excellent songs on their albums than any other band I can think of. And they sustained that percentage over the course of 13 records in eight years!

Yellow Submarine

I’m not saying all their songs are great, or even good. They had some clunkers, and there are definitely some songs of theirs that I could skip. But the number of misses is surprisingly low.

Another thing I’m noticing in revisiting all these albums and listening closely is this: each of the four Beatles, individually, is an excellent musician and performer.

Abbey Road

I’ll start with Ringo Starr, as he is often the most-maligned of the group. Because he’s not a drummer in the powerful, intricate and bombastic style of, say, John Bonham/Neil Peart/Keith Moon, Ringo is thought of by many non-musicians as a dud. However, go ask any drummer and they’ll tell you about Ringo’s brilliance. Better yet, listen to the drums in, say, “Here Comes the Sun,” or “Rain,” or “I Feel Fine,” or “I Saw Her Standing There.”

Let It Be

And George Harrison is an overlooked guitarist and songwriter. His rockabilly/Carl Perkins style set the tone for the band early on, and he always played something interesting, whether during a solo or as a background guitar. Paul and John are outstanding singers, and writers – obviously – and Paul’s lead guitar on songs such as “Good Morning, Good Morning,” and “Taxman” and “Ticket to Ride” is terrific.

So I can understand why I like these guys so much. They’re really good! And I’m going to have a blast listening closely to each of these 13 records. Deciding which ones I like best is not going to be easy, but for you, dear reader, I will do my best. Look for something new in a week or two! And thanks again for reading.

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A Hint of What’s to Come

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I’ve avoided them too long. I’ll finally decide what my favorite Beatles albums are. Rankings coming soon …

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My Favorite Album: London Calling, by The Clash.

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London Calling. The Clash.
1980, Epic Records (U.S.). Producer: Guy Stevens, Mick Jones.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: London Calling, by The Clash, is, in my estimation, a perfect record. It’s got multiple styles, fun, catchy songs, thoughtful and emotional lyrics, and top-notch performances from the entire band. The songwriting/singing pair of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is among the best songwriting duos in rock, and bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon are unsung heroes behind it all. It’s earnest but fun, careful but sloppy, and it has 19 songs, so you’re getting a lot. It’s my favorite album ever.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

One thing I’ve come to understand about myself after 52 years as a human is that I’m really not very competitive. Sure, I enjoy playing games, and I played lots of sports when I was younger, and I’ve always tried to do my best to win. And yes, I’ve always rooted for certain sports teams. And while it’s true that winning can bring some joy, particularly when one of my kids is a participant, the reality is that it doesn’t provide me with much long-lasting satisfaction. Winning doesn’t motivate me.

This is true in my personal and professional life, as well. I do try to ensure that my family and I are treated fairly in life, and I try to make sure that my career isn’t stagnating. I suppose these facts mean that I am aware of, and invested in, the sort of Competition of Life that one enters simply by choosing to be part of a society. But I’ve never been much of a scorekeeper, tallying successes and failures, credits and debits, breaks and slights, of myself and the people around me23. Scorekeeping doesn’t interest me.

However, where competition intersects with my life, I do expect it to be fair – despite the fact that most of what passes for “fair competition” in American society is not really fair. For all the talk of an “American Dream” and an equal playing-field, and mythology like “self-made” successes, the fact remains that family wealth, not hard work, is still the best predictor of “success” in America.

These two facts about my character – a disinterest in competition and an expectation of fairness – are probably why I’ve always disliked “Greatest Album” compilations. Art is certainly not a competition, and even if an argument could be made that it is, there’s no way such a list could be fairly assembled, giving equal weight to all albums ever recorded.

This is why I’ve selected my FAVORITE albums instead of the BEST albums. I can’t explain to you why an album by an obscure Beatles-rip-off band is great, or why I prefer a pop album by a rather desperate-sounding prog-rock band a bit more than a cherished album by rock legends. How is it that a cult country rock singer could have an album that’s more enjoyable to me than one by a universally acclaimed guitar virtuoso? I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I like. And the album I like the most (besides, of course, all of The Beatles’ albums) is London Calling, by The Clash.

I’ve written before about getting into The Clash. I worked with a guy who couldn’t believe I was in a band and the only Clash songs I really knew were “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah.” He let me borrow the box set The Clash on Broadway, and they immediately became one of my favorite bands.

I don’t really remember purchasing London Calling. I think it was soon after I returned the box set to my friend, but I’m not really sure. With nearly every other record on this list (perhaps every single record), I can recall how and when I got it. But London Calling just feels like it’s always been with me. I know for sure I had it in the early 90s, when I first got a CD player and upgraded my album and cassette collection to this new format.

London Calling has everything I want from an album. It’s got great guitars and tremendous lyrics, and each song has a power and energy that stick with you long after the music ends. The vocals are cool, whether it’s Joe Strummer’s tune-less snarl or Mick Jones’s reedy tenor, or, best of all, when the pair sing together. Even bassist Paul Simonon gets to sing one, and he makes it sound cool, too. The rhythm section is always correct – sloppy when it needs to be, tight at other times – with drummer Topper Headon showing himself as the band’s unsung hero, keeping everything intact as the album careens through multiple genres and sounds. Listening to it is a moving experience, covering any emotion you can think of. To me, it’s the perfect record.

And it’s long, too – 19 songs – so I’m going to stop blabbing and get to the songs, starting with the title track: “London Calling.”

It opens with a guitar fanfare answered by Paul Simonon’s mighty bass riff, calling listeners to attention. Simonon, famously, had never played a note before joining the band in 1976, but the London Calling album shows he learned a lot in a few short years. Joe Strummer furiously spits out the song’s “it’s-all-going-to-hell” lyrics, while Mick Jones softens the “London Calling” refrain with his melodic backing vocals. Jones is a great guitar player, but instead of a solo the album version of the song has backwards-guitar, creating an eerie sound24 that heightens the song’s desperation. It’s a standout opening track among rock albums, the type that makes the listener wonder, “How will they top that?”

The next couple songs might make a listener think they’re not going to try. “Brand New Cadillac” is a fine song, a cover of a UK rockabilly song by Vince Taylor about a girlfriend’s new car. It’s straightforward, and notable for drummer Topper Headon’s insistent bass drum and Jones’s guitar. And “Jimmy Jazz” certainly shows the band isn’t going to be constrained by their punk rock past. The song, about not giving up a suspect to the police, has horns, flanged guitars, and a Chicago blues feel. They’re both good songs, but they’re not on par with the opener, or, perhaps, the rest of the album.

Hateful” rides a Bo Diddly beat to its sing-along chorus. It features terrific vocals, and once again stand-out drumming from Headon. Joe Strummer writes all the band’s lyrics (usually), and he’s known for his political messages. However, this song is a personal song about drug addiction and its effects. Next is what may be (I’ll say this about five or six songs, I’m sure) my favorite on the album: “Rudie Can’t Fail.”

There’s flanged guitar all over London Calling, and it appears in the opening of “Rudie Can’t Fail.” I love how Joe encourages, “sing, Michael, sing!” and the terrific horn part in the intro. The rhythm section once again are unsung heroes, keeping afloat a ragtag song about young folks who don’t want to hear the complaints of the adults around them. They’ve got their chicken-skin suits and pork-pie hats, and that’s just fine. It’s a fun, bouncy, reggae-ish song, with chugga-chug guitars that’s fun to sing along. And not only can the band do fun, they can do serious, too – as on the awesome “Spanish Bombs,” another song that is my favorite.

The voices of Jones and Strummer blend so well on this song – one of the few where Strummer carries a tune. There’s a cool acoustic guitar strumming throughout, however I’ve heard that it was actually Jones’s electric guitar strings mic’ed separately from his amplifier, creating an acoustic sound. It’s really cool, as is all of Jones’s subtle guitar work throughout. The lyrics describe the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and makes connections with the IRA, whose efforts were in full force in the late 70s. The pair sing in pigeon Spanish on the chorus, roughly translated as “I love you forever, I love you oh my heart.” Strummer demonstrates his lyrical range by following this song up with “The Right Profile,” a horn-driven affair with great guitars, about the sad story of former matinee star Montgomery Clift, whose beautiful face was badly scarred in a car accident.

The genres and styles keep piling up on London Calling, as the excellent dance/pop, XTC-esque “Lost in the Supermarket” is up next. The lyrics, about a childhood in the suburbs and the false promise of consumerism, were written by Strummer, but he wrote it from Jones’s perspective, for Mick to sing.

The bass and drums provide a near-disco rhythm that Jones’s riff sits atop. The band has a penchant for opening songs with a chorus or bridge, as opposed to the typical verse, and here the chorus begins things. Mick’s chiming guitar, at 0:39, when the verse starts, sounds great. He plays and sings brilliantly throughout. Topper Headon’s dance beat is insistent, providing the sound of Jones’s “giant hit discotheque album.” It’s sad but upbeat, personal yet universal. And it leads into another song that is my favorite on the album: “Clampdown.”

This is perhaps the ultimate Clash song, the type of song I associate with the band: angry and righteous, yet fun and singalong good. It’s Joe Strummer at his best, from his mumbling opening through the final “I’m givin’ away no secrets!” It’s about the connection between fascism and corporate life – something anyone who’s had a corporate job has felt. I’d love to go line by line through all the lyrics, because they’re brilliant. But in particular, as a guy reflecting on 30 years of personal corporate bullshit, lines like “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power,” and “You grow up and you calm down …/ You start wearin’ blue and brown/ And working for the Clampdown” really resonate. The music behind the lyrics is excellent as well. Mick Jones sweetens Strummer’s vocals with his harmonies and backing vocals, and as usual, Topper Headon’s drumming is brilliant. Plus there are plenty of guitar licks that add the perfect touch, such as the call to action at 1:15. (Here’s a clip of them playing it live on the old US TV show Fridays.)

The band cools it down a little next, with a song written and sung by bassist Paul Simonon, the reggae-inspired “The Guns of Brixton.” The lyrics – about police violence and oppression – are still very relevant today. It’s a song that shows the band’s versatility, as does the next track, the irreverent cover of another old reggae song, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.” It’s fun ska, and Mick and Joe’s voices sound terrific against a horn section and sax solo.

But after those two digressions, they’re back on the punk power bus with the excellent (and once again, my favorite song) “Death or Glory.”

It’s a song about failing to live up to the punk and rock ‘n roll ideals, when “Death or Glory becomes just another story.” It’s a song with an interesting structure, as it begins with the pre-chorus and chorus before starting in on the verses. This song is another Topper Headon tour de force – his fill at 0:20 is brilliant, and the drum break from 1:33 to change style to disco is tremendous. It’s also one of Strummer’s best vocals on the record. He stays close enough to a tune as he ever does, and his emotion can’t be contained.

The next song, “Koka Kola,” is a quick, fun Mick and Joe collaboration with excellent guitar stabs from Mick, a bubbly bass from Simonon, and clever lyrics about cocaine’s unacknowledged place in the corporate world. “Know wut-a-mean?” After that, “The Card Cheat” brings some Wall of Sound production pomp to the record.

I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but in his autobiography25 he mentioned his admiration for Joe Strummer and The Clash, and this song – with its opening piano, horns and 60s-girl-group drums – sounds like the band is paying homage to The Boss. Each instrument was recorded twice so that the sound would be as huge as possible. Mick Jones carries the lead vocals and does a wonderful job on a consideration of what really matters in life. It’s a powerful song that I grow fonder of as I age.

While I have plenty of songs on the album that I think of as my favorite song, I only have a couple that are my least favorite, and the band kindly put them next to each other on the record! They’re not awful, but “Lover’s Rock,” a cheeky celebration of the birth control pill with a disco breakdown, and “Four Horsemen,” a straight ahead rocker about making the most of your life, are just okay, in my opinion. Certainly not skippable – but just a bit less than the others.

“I’m Not Down,” on the other hand, displays everything I love about London Calling – except for not much Strummer.

Mick Jones carries the vocals and plays great guitar throughout. Simonon and Headon are at their best, for example at about 0:55, when the song suddenly develops a calypso beat, or 1:31, when it takes on a Motown-style breakdown. And check out Headon’s fill at about 1:41! Jones wrote the song about persevering in the face of depression and hardship, lyrics that reference real events in his life, such as being beaten up by a gang of rockers in 1978.

Before the band wraps up the album, they throw in another reggae cover song, this time “Revolution Rock,” originally done by Danny Ray and the Revolutionaries. It’s got very Clash-esque, confrontational lyrics, and the band makes it their own. Then London Calling closes with one of the band’s most popular songs, “Train in Vain.” (Like many, you may have thought it was titled “Stand By Me.”)

It’s another song written by Mick Jones, and it famously was nearly left off the album because it was recorded so late in the sessions. (Original pressings didn’t list the song’s title.) It’s a fun, catchy number, with a great Simonon bass. But what I particularly love (it’s also my favorite song on the album!) are the honest, heart-achey lyrics. The following lines have always stuck with me as very good: “Now I’ve got a job/ But it don’t pay/ I need new clothes/ I need somewhere to stay/ But without all of these things I can do/ But without your love/ I won’t make it through.” It’s a soulful number, which is really evident in Annie Lennox’s great cover version. It’s a perfect closing track to what – to me – is about as close to a perfect album as any non-Beatles band ever made.

So there it is, folks. 100 Favorite Albums. It’s been so much fun writing these the past five or six years! I plan to keep doing some other music writing, but I’m not sure what. Whatever it is, it will appear here at 100favealbums.net. I really appreciate you reading, and I invite you to reach out and say hello.

And if you want to hear more from my list: here’s a Spotify playlist with a few songs from each album.

TRACK LISTING:
“London Calling”
“Brand New Cadillac”
“Jimmy Jazz”
“Hateful”
“Rudie Can’t Fail”
“Spanish Bombs”
“The Right Profile”
“Lost in the Supermarket”
“Clampdown”
“The Guns of Brixton”
“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”
“Death or Glory”
“Koka Kola”
“The Card Cheat”
“Lover’s Rock”
“Four Horsemen”
“I’m Not Down”
“Revolution Rock”
“Train in Vain”

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A Quick Recap of #’s 100 – 2

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Listen, I’ve spent 6 years doing this crazy project. I’m sure you’ve missed a record or two. So allow me to give you a quick recap …

REMEMBER: records by The Beatles were ineligible because they are too good to mingle with the mere mortals on this list.

ALSO REMEMBER: These are FAVORITES, not best ever …

100 – 91

100 – Boys and Girls in America, The Hold Steady.
99 – Back in Black, AC/DC.
98 – Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins.
97 – Empty Glass, Pete Townshend.
96 – De Nova, The Redwalls.
95 – Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones.
94 – New York Dolls, The New York Dolls.
93 – Songs in the Attic, Billy Joel.
92 – Fly By Night, Rush.
91 – Some Girls, The Rolling Stones.

90 – 81

90 – Appetite for Destruction, Guns N’ Roses.
89 – At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash.
88 – Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney.
87 – Blunderbuss, Jack White.
86 – Made in USA, Pizzicato Five.
85 – 90125, Yes.
84 – Moondance, Van Morrison.
83 – News of the World, Queen.
82 – The Joshua Tree, U2.
81 – The Wall, Pink Floyd.

80 – 71

80 – Freedom, Neil Young.
79 – Zenyatta Mondatta, The Police.
78 – Good Old Boys, Randy Newman.
77 – Dirty, Sonic Youth.
76 – Band of Gypsys, Jimi Hendrix.
75 – Astoria, The Shys.
74 – Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction.
73 – Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple.
72 – Let It Be, The Replacements.
71 – Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution.

70 – 61

70 – Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
69 – Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy.
68 – The Clash, The Clash.
67 – Skylarking, XTC.
66 – Aja, Steely Dan.
65 – Close to the Edge, Yes.
64 – Nevermind, Nirvana.
63 – Turns Into Stone, The Stone Roses.
62 – Pretenders, The Pretenders.
61 – Songs For The Deaf, Queens of the Stone Age.

60 – 51

60 – Z, My Morning Jacket.
59 – Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin.
58 – OK Computer, Radiohead.
57 – When I Was Born for the 7th Time, Cornershop.
56 – Blood & Chocolate, Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
55 – The Decline and Fall of Heavenly, Heavenly.
54 – Rumours, Fleetwood Mac.
53 – Riot Act, Pearl Jam.
52 – Superunknown, Soundgarden.
51 – If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry, Marah.

50 – 41

50 – Axis: Bold as Love, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
49 – Godspeed The Shazam, The Shazam.
48 – Animals, Pink Floyd.
47 – Fair Warning, Van Halen.
46 – This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
45 – Stay Positive, The Hold Steady.
44 – Learning To Crawl, The Pretenders.
43 – The Royal Scam, Steely Dan.
42 – Making Movies, Dire Straits.
41 – … And Out Come The Wolves, Rancid.

40 – 31

40 – Two Shoes, The Cat Empire.
39 – Are You Experienced, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
38 – Paranoid, Black Sabbath.
37 – Who’s Next, The Who.
36 – Life, Love and Leaving, The Detroit Cobras.
35 – Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices.
34 – The Cars, The Cars.
33 – Sign O’ the Times, Prince.
32 – Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet.
31 – Moving Pictures, Rush.

30 – 21

30 – Doolittle, The Pixies.
29 – Automatic For The People, R.E.M.
28 – Star, Belly.
27 – Van Halen, Van Halen.
26 – The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd.
25 – The Fine Art of Surfacing, The Boomtown Rats.
24 – Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin.
23 – We Love the City, Hefner.
22 – Tim, The Replacements.
21 – War, U2.

20 – 11

20 – Ghost in the Machine, The Police.
19 – Hey, Babe, Juliana Hatfield.
18 – Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
17 – Flood, The April Skies.
16 – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams.
15 – Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones.
14 – You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, Maria McKee.
13 – American Idiot, Green Day.
12 – Give the People What They Want, The Kinks.
11 – Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

10 – 2

10 – The Bends, Radiohead.
9 – Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan.
8 – Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
7 – Reckoning, R.E.M.
6 – Pleased to Meet Me, The Replacements.
5 – Oranges and Lemons, XTC.
4 – Let Me Come Over, Buffalo Tom.
3 – More Fun in the New World, X.
2 – The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses.

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2nd Favorite Album: The Stone Roses

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The Stone Roses. The Stone Roses.
1989, Silvertone. Producer: John Leckie, Peter Hook.
Purloined CD (U.S. Version), 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Stone Roses, by The Stone Roses, is a record I’ve listened to more than any other over the last 30 years. It’s a rock record with excellent guitar, drums and bass, with funky beats and terrific harmonies. Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni have taken bits of song styles and sounds and synthesized something original and fun, from dance club grooves to subtle tunes to raucous rock. The record has never sounded old, and it never gets old, even after years and years of listening.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

Last year, 2018, was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. Most people are familiar with the story from its multitude of productions, revivals, re-workings, the brilliant Mel Brooks movie, the equally-brilliant Bugs Bunny episode, etc. The original novel, in which a fanatical genius tries to reanimate dead flesh, was written as part of a lighthearted challenge from the poet Lord Byron to the teen-aged Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to write a scary story. Eighteen months later it was published anonymously, as the thought that a woman could conjure such a horrible idea was too shocking for the public.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that scholars finally accepted the fact that a talented young woman could, indeed, make up such a story on her own. But be that as it may, the idea of taking parts of formerly-living beings, sewing them together and reanimating them has fascinated humans ever since. She based her story on the real experiments of Luigi Galvani, an 18th century Italian scientist who, in attempting to expand on the observation that recently dead frog legs could be made to move when electricity was applied, zapped entire corpses with jolts of electricity26. And upon its publication, the book inspired the work of real scientists in the 19th century27.

Shelley’s novel remains popular after 200 years, sitting on lists of best novels and still regularly assigned in high school, in part because of the tempting notion that a possibility exists to keep life alive indefinitely. Something else that interests folks is the idea of taking parts from different Things and assembling them to create a New, Better Thing. For example, create the best NBA player. Create the best animal. Create the best rock group. It’s a fun exercise.

So let me assemble my Frankenstein Greatest Rock Album – not using individual musicians, but just by taking parts I generally really like in music. Let’s start with drums. I’d take, from my love of classic and prog rock, drums that are inventive and unusual. However, I also grew up on disco, and love a strong, danceable backbeat, so it can’t be too complex. But I do like the drummer to exhibit chops. That’s a lot of boxes for the drums to check, but just like Victor Frankenstein, my task is not easy, nor for the faint of heart!

via GIPHY

As for bass guitar, I like a grounded but cool bass line, one that gets people dancing, but that isn’t afraid to show off once in a while. It has to play off the guitar nicely, but not necessarily overshadow it.

As for vocals, it really doesn’t matter. A good voice is nice, but it’s not really necessary. Emotional singers are appreciated, but mostly I just like a good melody, and if there are some lyrical gems, they are appreciated, too. But word-salad, mumbled, esoteric meanings are fine with me.

Guitar is key. I’ve written this before. I like it crazy, I like it original, I like it subtle, or noisy, or soft, or cool, or jazzy, or effects-laden, or complex, or powerful, or simple. Whatever it is, it has to be interesting, and serve the song in a way that makes me want to listen repeatedly. Even if it’s just two notes that repeat, it has to hold my attention.

Other instruments are fine, but unnecessary. Then there are the intangibles. I like the sneer of punk rock, but the technical mastery of seasoned pros. Above all, there must be some sort of a Beatles vibe, and it would probably be best if this fictional band could come from Great Britain, and in particular, its working class.

But, you say, this task is impossible! How could there ever be a band or album like this, that could ever be stitched together from disparate pieces to create a living, breathing, Favorite Album?? Why, you say, this is madness!! I don’t think it’s Madness, as I’ve always found them a bit too ska-heavy to be perfect28. But I know an album that, from the first time I heard it at a party in 1990, has been in heavy rotation due to its Frankenstein-ian perfection: The Stone Roses, by The Stone Roses.

Sometime in the winter of 1990, as 1991 approached, I was at a party with my friend Cary, whose band I would eventually join. I was quite inebriated, and all I really remember about the party is that it was at an apartment in downtown Lebanon, PA, and I really loved the CD that was playing, The Stone Roses, and the host of the party said I could borrow it. I still have it. It is most likely my most-played, non-Beatles CD over the past 29 years.

The Stone Roses are a band that is largely unknown in the United States, but that is widely loved in the UK, where it came out of the hyper-fertile Manchester music scene that also produced The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Simply Red, The Happy Mondays and Oasis. In the late 80s The Stone Roses were at the vanguard of the “Madchester” scene, which was full of MDMA and raves29. The US, on the whole, never fully drank from the Madchester vessel, but some of its wannabe backwash reached our shores in the form of 3rd- or 4th-generation one-hit wonders like “Unbelievable,” by EMF, and “Right Here, Right Now,” by Jesus Jones.

In the U.K., the band, which officially broke up in 1996 after an 11-year career in which they released only two albums of original music, plus several singles, has had numerous chart hits, including a Top 20 song as recently as 2016, when they briefly re-formed. They caused a stir among the U.K. music press when they announced reunion shows in 2012. They’re popular enough in the U.K. that bucket hats there are often called “Reni hats,” after the band’s drummer, Reni, who typically wore one in the band’s heyday. Singer Ian Brown cameoed in a Harry Potter movie. Among rock musicians, they have enough cache that guitar monster Slash considered joining them in the 90s. (Although, reportedly, he was rejected due to his leather pants.) Their 2012 reunion tour was the subject of a feature film. It’s amazing to me that they’re so overlooked in the U.S., where they played the Coachella festival a few years ago to tiny crowds, while in the U.K. major newspapers still run stories on the enormity of their legacy.

I became rather obsessed with the band after hearing them. My band had more than a few Stone Roses affectations, and we covered a couple of their songs. I bought a few 12″ singles, even though I had no record player. I bought their singles collection (and rule-breaking Favorite Album #63) Turns Into Stone. I anxiously awaited their follow-up record, 1994’s Second Coming, and bought it on the first day it was available. I listened to their debut over and over. I read books about them. I watched BBC TV shows about them, and clips of old TV appearances and concerts. They remain – despite only two albums’ and several singles’ worth of material – among my favorite bands.

In fact, I’m as surprised as anyone that The Stone Roses is NOT MY NUMBER ONE ALBUM! I was shocked when the rankings were released by the Pricewaterhouse Coopers accounting firm, and nearly fired them over it. So let’s see what all my fuss is about.

The album begins with “I Wanna Be Adored,” a song that rumbles to a start after nearly 50 seconds of noise, an opening worthy of prog titans Yes. Then bassist Mani30 begins a simple, but catchy, bass line. At 0:56 guitarist John Squire plays a lilting guitar figure, with a nifty curlicue end. By 1:14, Reni’s bass drum is thumping along and then at 1:30 the rest of his kit kicks in, and the song’s main theme begins. Ian Brown’s few lyrics are funny and dark, and offer a boast superior to bluesmen and rockers of yesteryear: “I don’t have to sell my soul/ he’s already in me.” The song continues to build, and at 2:22 Reni mixes the drums up and begins to add more cymbals, until 3:00, when the band hammers a bridge that releases all the pent up energy that’s been building. At 3:40 it begins building again to the end. As a song, there’s not much to it. It’s just energy and attitude with a groovy rhythm section and cool guitars swirling throughout. It’s an opening statement as much as a song.

Next up is a song that’s more traditional in its composition and sound, but that retains its Stone Rosiness, perhaps my favorite of the album, “She Bangs the Drums.” (Actually, it’s hard to say if this is my favorite, as nearly every song is my favorite.)

“She Bangs the Drums” opens with Reni’s high-hat and Mani’s Peter-Gunn-esque bassline, then Squire’s guitar washes over things and Brown’s whisper voice enters. This is the first song to really showcase drummer Reni’s remarkable harmony voice, which enters on the second verse, about 0:45. As a huge Beatle guy, I love harmony vocals, and the voices of Reni and Brown blend perfectly. Brown’s lyrics are often indecipherable, but this is a pretty straightforward love song, and it has a line about feelings of attraction that I love: “She’ll be the first/ She’ll be the last/ To describe the way I feel.” This song is a classic pop song with incredible guitar and a fabulously catchy chorus (1:10). This is the type of song that I think should’ve been a #1 hit, but which only made it to #34 on the UK charts.

I have the US version of the Silvertone release, and that means the next song is “Elephant Stone,” a song that had many versions released over the years.

This one is all about drummer Reni, his bass drum, his snare, his toms. Sure, John Squire has a nice opening, and does his usual subtle trickery, on both electric and acoustic guitar, underneath the proceedings. Mani chugs along, and Brown sings psychedelic-influenced lyrics, which Reni supports superbly on harmony. But it’s all about Reni’s drums this time. He’s both smooth and aggressive, both at the same time.

Reni’s drums are amazing throughout the album, and that’s certainly the case on a song that is one of the band’s most popular, “Waterfall.” The song is also a showcase of John Squire’s guitar talents, too.

It opens with Squire playing an arpeggiated riff against Mani’s ranging bassline. After a verse, at about 0:33, Reni’s drums and harmony vocals begin, and both are just brilliant. He hits the snare on the upbeat before the “two,” where a typical backbeat falls, all the while making the whole thing swing. At 1:00, the beat changes slightly and the band continues to groove ahead, with Ian Brown singing lyrics describing a woman with steely resolve as a waterfall31. Each time he sings “she’ll carry on through it all,” Reni answers with a sweet drum fill. The song transforms (prog-rock-like) into a different piece of music at 2:50, with acoustic picking, which leads into John Squire’s remarkably cool guitar solo at 2:57. All the while Mani is pushing that hypnotic bass, and it all recapitulates at 4:00, with frantic Reni drums. I friggin’ love this song. Here the band plays it live on the BBC.

The next song is “Don’t Stop,” a sound collage with words that is kind of “Waterfall” played backwards. I don’t really like it – maybe this is why the album is only #2? – but I read a cool piece breaking down the making of the song. This is the link to it.

Up next is “Bye Bye Badman,” a song that eventually becomes a sort of danceable country tune. In a (very) good way.

It begins as a kind of lullaby, with wispy guitars and swooping bass. The lyrics are about the Paris riots of 1968, which the album cover art also alludes to, a display of the band’s socialist/punk credibility. At 1:05, Mani begins a rolling bassline and Reni adds a Western-swing style beat, which Squire supports with a country guitar. Reni’s fill at 1:33 is excellent. It’s a weird song. Squire plays a brief solo at 3:00 that repeats and stretches into the outro.

Up next is the brief, dark, barely veiled threat against the U.K. monarchy, “Elizabeth My Dear,” which is the English folk tune “Scarborough Fair” with scarier lyrics. The song seems kind of throwaway, which is what I think should be done with all monarchies.

(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” is a song that is sweet and mellow. It’s a good feature for Ian Brown, who really doesn’t have a strong voice, but somehow makes it work32. The lyrics are a kind of hallucinogenic love song in which a boy eats too much cotton candy because he loves the girl selling it. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the record, sort of a mid tempo, 60s-influenced pop number. And of course, Reni’s drums and harmonies are masterful.

The Stone Roses closes with a string of four songs that is among my favorite run of songs on any album. (It would be three songs, but I have the US version, which tagged an extra song on the end.) First on this list is the ominous, tough guitar/drum showcase “Made of Stone.”

The opening guitar and bass are terrific, then the band backs off to let Brown carry things for a verse. In the classic Stone Roses style, the song builds with each verse, adding layers of guitar, until the chorus hits at 0:48, where Squire’s acoustic picking supports Brown and Reni’s harmonies. The song has a mysterious mood, and it is reportedly about Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash33. But each time the chorus comes along, I can’t help singing along. And Squire’s guitar solo, about 2:37, is great. The ending of the song, from 3:52, is just fabulous, and ties everything together perfectly.

The next song, “Shoot You Down,” is a hushed tune with lilting solo guitar throughout about a man who wishes he hadn’t begun dating his girlfriend34. Squire is brilliant here, tasty and cool all through the song, culminating with nifty turns around 3:00 and a great closing by the whole band.

“Turns Into Stone” has one of the great intros in rock, which they extend to a Yes-like two minutes while swinging back and forth between Mani’s solo bass, or Ian Brown’s thin, solo voice, to full-band fanfare.

The song really kicks in at about 1:50 when Reni and Squire show up to once again steal the show with drums and harmony, and big guitar sound and stylish runs. Brown’s lyrics work best when they’re cocky, as here, where he avers that This Is the One She’s Waited For. The song has a sound I get lost in, especially from 3:02 to the end, where layers upon layers of voices and guitars wash over frantic, tribal drumming. It’s a song that really sets the stage, as the next song, “I Am the Resurrection,” truly is the one I always wait for.

The song opens with a marching drumbeat reminiscent of an old Pretenders song. The vocals start soon, and then the song builds, slowly, with every verse. This song is a long one, with multiple parts, and the band lets the intensity build with each verse and chorus, leading to a tantalizing note (0:58) which returns to the beginning with no payoff through three verses. After the first verse, Squire begins adding his patented dipsy-do’s, letting his sounds build along with the song. The payoff finally comes at about 2:24, when Brown declares “I am the resurrection.” His lyrics are, again, arrogant, pushing away a person (an ex? a journalist?) by not only being downright mean, but by comparing himself to Christ35. At 2:44, Squire plays a terrific solo that foreshadows the guitar extravaganza to come, beginning at 3:44. It’s a section, I’m sure, British music publication Q Magazine was thinking of when they named this song the 10th best guitar song ever in rock. I won’t say anything about it – just listen to Reni, Mani and Squire jam. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that fucking awesome? The original, U.K. version of the album ended there. The U.S. version, which I have, includes the song “Fools Gold,” which was a top-ten single in the U.K. and had such a dance-club following that the label tacked it on here. It’s a groovy, fun dance song with cool guitar riff, great wah-wah guitar and some kind of Treasure of the Sierra Madre-referencing lyrics from Brown.

So there’s my Frankenstein band and album: The Stone Roses. If you’ve read the Frankenstein books, or seen the movies, you know that usually these experiments don’t work, and that things come to a horrible end. And perhaps the fact that the band recorded so few songs is evidence that it didn’t work. But briefly, for one album at least, the dark potential of Mary Shelley’s imagination, as filtered through my musical taste, was realized. I love this monster, which never incited any angry mobs. Only dancing mobs of late-80s, U.K. music fans and me.

TRACK LISTING (1989 U.S. Version):
“I Wanna Be Adored”
“She Bangs the Drums”
“Elephant Stone”
“Waterfall”
“Don’t Stop”
“Bye Bye Badman”
“Elizabeth My Dear”
“(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister”
“Made of Stone”
“Shoot You Down”
“This Is the One”
“I Am the Resurrection”
“Fools Gold”

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3rd Favorite Album: More Fun in the New World, by X

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More Fun in the New World. X.
1983, Elektra Records. Producer: Ray Manzarek.
Purchased CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: More Fun in the New World, by X, is a punk record with more to offer than just slamming and raucous energy – although it has that in spades. Singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe find unusual harmonies on wordy songs about regular folks with regular problems. Guitarist Billy Zoom is a rockabilly wizard, and drummer DJ Bonebrake plays every genre with style and energy. It’s a fun, flaming masterpiece.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~

Tug McGraw

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that one of the top seven happiest days of my life36 was Tuesday, October 21, 1980. On that night, at approximately 11:20 pm, EST, a couple hours past my 8th grade bed time, I watched on TV as the Philadelphia Phillies won their first ever World Series championship.

I can still feel the goosebumps as, under an old afghan blanket my grandma had knitted, I lay on the couch – as still as possible, so as not to jinx any of the game action – and watched Kansas City Royals centerfielder Willie Wilson swing through a high fastball from Phils reliever Tug McGraw to end the game, and the series. After four years of playoff-caliber teams, My Phillies had finally won The World Series.

Mike Schmidt hits career home run #500, April 18, 1987.

My interest in the team waned over the next 12 years as the Phillies fielded mostly dreadful teams with forgettable players. That’s a stretch that can cause anybody to stop caring.

By the time the Phillies made it back to The World Series, in the fall of 1993, I hadn’t been paying close attention to them in years. I was living in San Francisco and had spent the summer reading about their games in The Chronicle. I couldn’t believe that the year I moved away from the team was the year they were finally good again! I couldn’t wait to sit down and enjoy my team face off against the Toronto Blue Jays.

John Kruk, 1993.

Another thing that happened in 1993, for which I was as equally unprepared as I was for a championship-caliber Phillies team, was meeting a beautiful young woman named Julia. We were introduced by Mimi, a woman I met in acting school and who worked as a waitress with Julia.

I was new to the city, or, rather, The City, so Mimi introduced me to all her friends, and by late summer of ’93 I was a regular at parties thrown, or attended, by Julia and Mimi and all of their friends. We were all in our mid-20s, having a blast in an incredible city, and that summer just seemed magical.

Julia and I hit it off, as friends, from the very start. We danced into the wee hours at The El Rio, in The Mission District, the very first night we met, then went to El Zocalo for pupusas after that. She was funny and smart and strong and interesting, and perhaps most importantly: she laughed at my jokes. We were friends first, then after a couple months our romance got off to a weird start thanks to a bottle of Port wine that, apparently, I thought was grape juice, given the volume I consumed. Soon after that, she asked me if I wanted to go get sushi with her.

I immediately said yes, agreed to the upcoming Saturday night, and immediately realized that Saturday was Game 1 of The World Series. Yes, The World Series, October, 1993, featuring The Philadelphia Phillies for the first time since 1980, when they’d brought me one of the greatest days of my life. First pitch was scheduled to start at just about the time I would be ordering unagi sushi and maguro sashimi with a woman I liked and who I wanted to impress. If I told her I had to cancel for my favorite baseball team, would she ever want to go out with me again?

1995, San Francisco.

I went out for sushi. Julia wore a belt with a baseball belt-buckle. She’s always maintained that my missing a World Series game was evidence of how much I liked her from the start. I’ve always maintained I was simply being polite to a new friend. I’m here today to set the record straight: I really wanted to go out with her instead of watching The World Series. You were right, Julia! (She’s never doubted it. And she’s also pointed out that I could have postponed and she’d have understood!) We’ve been together ever since.

I’ve written before about Julia’s interest in music: she loves music, but isn’t obsessed with artists37 or albums. She doesn’t always remember song titles or band names, but she knows what she likes. When we got together, I immediately went through all of her cassettes and found all kinds of great music I’d never listened to much before: Fishbone, Jimmy Cliff, Prince, Stetsasonic … But the band she introduced me to that I’ve loved the most is the band X.

One of the great things about Julia is that she always has a we-can-solve-it attitude toward problems, and this allows her to look at challenges in a different light and come up with clever solutions. An example of this is her cassette copy of the album More Fun in the New World, by X. It was a cassette she duplicated from an album someone had in college. Whenever I listened to her copy, one of my favorite songs was the opening track: “True Love Pt. #2.” On her copy, it was also the closing track. On the official album, “True Love Pt. #2” only appears once, at the end.

I asked Julia why she recorded More Fun in the New World out of order, and included a song twice. Bear in mind that in those non-digital times, one couldn’t simply press a button to hear a track. Hearing a track on a cassette involved the tricky, time-consuming business of fast-forwarding and rewinding until you homed in on the silence before a song. So why was her cassette out of order? “The last one is my favorite song on the record,” she said, “so I put it first so that I could hear it just by rewinding to the beginning.” And why twice? “It’s my favorite, so I’ll hear it twice!”

This explanation describes so much about her, about our differences, and about why I love her so much. To my mind, and many album fans, the album is a collection of songs, placed in sequence carefully by the artist, to be enjoyed as a whole piece of art. When making a copy of that art, it is imperative to keep it intact, as the artist intended. But Julia assesses situations differently. To her, it’s just a bunch of songs, and it’s your cassette. You can do anything you want! This is the spirit I love: You Can Do Anything You Want38.

I realize that in this age of Spotify and playlists, decades past cassette-duping as a common act, and well into the decline of THE ALBUM as an artistic statement, this story might not deliver as much impact as it once did. But for someone like me, who grew up worshiping the mighty album as the pinnacle of rock/pop music artistry, Julia’s actions were astounding! She put the LAST song FIRST!! Then left it on TWICE! It blew my mind. She’s always challenged my thoughts and beliefs, and this has made me a better person.

And I think I’m also a better person for having been introduced to X! They’re a strange band, a bit rockabilly, a bit punk, with odd vocal harmonies on songs with lots of words. But they kick ass, they’re thoughtful, and their songs are melodic and cool. For example, the true opening track of More Fun in the New World, “The New World.”

The song opens with a guitar fanfare from ace rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom, then gets right into a description of the decline in American manufacturing after Reaganomics, although they cleverly call the leader “What’s-His-Name,” allowing it to be a timeless song aimed at any political persuasion. One of the key facets of X is the co-lead vocals of then-husband-and-wife team, bassist John Doe and Exene Cervenka. They sometimes sing the same notes, an octave apart, and they sometimes find odd harmony notes, and it always sounds great. As with many other acts I’ve discussed, I don’t mind the unusual vocal sounds of X. On this song, the pair blend nicely. Doe’s syncopated bass during Zoom’s guitar line is really sweet. It’s a cool opener, subtly majestic.

The next song is sort of the co-title track, along with song one, of More Fun in the New World, and together they provide a good definition of the band. Whereas “The New World” is melodic and cool, “We’re Having Much More Fun” is the other side of X.

Billy Zoom is one of those guitarists who rewards close listening. Throughout this song, he adds little grace notes and riffs that sound terrific, for instance, around 0:32, where he places a curlicue before the band enters the chorus. Drummer DJ Bonebrake (who, remarkably, is the only band member whose stage name is their actual, given name!) pushes the tempo as the band hits the chorus. Exene and John sing about Los Angeles, one of their favorite topics, and even though I don’t wanna crawl through backyards and whack yappin’ dogs, they sure make it sound like fun!

The next song, “True Love,” keeps the energy high. The song is another incredible display of guitarist Zoom. His leads after each chorus are high energy, rockabilly blasts. Exene takes the lead this time on lyrics in which the Devil uses his pitchfork to force you into True Love.

The band settles down a bit next on the excellent “Poor Girl.”

This one features John Doe tearing up the lead vocals. The lyrics seem to be about a couple in the throes of heroin addiction, full of violence and apathy and regret. It’s clear that part of the reason the “Poor Girl” is poor is because the singer is a lousy partner. Drummer Bonebrake lays down a Bo Diddly beat in the verse, then pushes the tempo on the chorus, and Zoom’s riffs always sound perfect. It’s almost the quintessential X sound, whereas the next song, “Make the Music Go Bang,” IS quintessential X.

I’ve always thought the perfect title for a biography of the band would be X: Make the Music Go Bang. (Brilliant, Charming and Nasty). This song is one of my favorites on More Fun in the New World, although this album makes it difficult to pick a favorite. This is really a showcase song for guitarist Zoom, who plays a variety of solos, a great example of one being at 1:00. Doe and Cervenka share lead vocals in their typical style, Bonebrake provides a train-beat (referenced in the lyrics), Doe’s swooping bass is cool as shit, and the energy of the whole thing makes me want to dance and jump around.

The band makes quick work of the old Jerry Lee Lewis number, “Breathless,” which was featured in the Richard Gere movie of the same name (and which I saw the band play on David Letterman in my teen years). It really shows off Cervenka’s voice, and is fast and furious, as is the out-of-control rave-up “I See Red,” a sort of hate-song, as opposed to a love-song. “Drunk in My Past” is a pretty accurate first-person account of alcohol abuse set to a rock/swing beat with cool Zoom guitars.

What sets X apart, for me, from the usual punk-y rock band is the variety of songs styles and topics, and More Fun in the New World has lots of variety. A great example of their ability to do more than songs for moshpit soundtracks is the terrific “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”

The song is a jaunty number, and Cervenka and Doe immediately state what it’s about: “The facts we hate …” The song is a list of what troubles the band – the futility of two-party politics, the responsibility citizens bear for their government’s actions, even the lack of radio airplay for American punk bands. It’s all set on top of Zoom’s subtly brilliant guitar and Bonebrake’s powerful drumming, and it builds nicely to the end. It’s not the usual punk number.

After “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” More Fun in the New World contains a run of three songs that together make up one of my favorite trifectas on any album. The first is the infectious “Devil Doll.”

This song is furious and fast, and guitarist Zoom hits new heights in his playing. His solo at 1:30 is one of the best, perhaps topped only by his closing solo beginning at 2:33. The song is powered along by Bonebrake’s freight train pace, as Doe and Cervenka sing about, well, a woman with a crazy look. It’s raucous and wild and is followed by the equally raging “Painting the Town Blue.” This one tells the story of a woman with problems who’s leaving her asshole man. John Doe’s bass line is fun and bouncy, and the song has an unstoppable pace that makes me want to dance or yell or fight – so, maybe join a mosh pit? The band always has great energy, and their musicianship is top notch.

Next in the great trio of songs is a bit mellower, but great nonetheless, the rocker “Hot House.”

It’s got that introductory guitar, a bluesy, slinky feeling, and Doe voice is strong on lyrics that suggest a poor couple in love, perhaps using too many chemicals? The line “The whole world loves a sad sad song/ That they don’t have to sing” is brilliant, as are many of the band’s lyrics. I haven’t spent much time on them, but they’re worth paying attention to. Exene Cervenka is a poet, and the first songs the band wrote were her poetry set to music by John Doe. Sometimes they’re touching portraits of folks on the edges of society, sometimes they address issues, and sometimes they’re simply a celebration.

Such as my wife’s favorite song on the record, the one she had to hear twice, “True Love Pt. #2,” which is a near-funk workout with lyrics that are a celebration of musical influences.

2019, Massachusetts

It’s one of my favorites, too. I like the groove, I like the guitars, I love the lyrics calling out songs from Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It’s a fun song which bears repeated listening.

More Fun in the New World has two songs titled “True Love,” three, if you play one of them twice. Maybe that’s what this #3 album is all about – for me, anyway. I can’t listen to it without being astounded by all the great songs and superb performances. And I can’t listen without thinking about Julia! Thanks for introducing it to me, J!

TRACK LISTING:
“The New World”
“We’re Having Much More Fun”
“True Love”
“Poor Girl”
“Make the Music Go Bang”
“Breathless”
“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”
“Devil Doll”
“Painting the Town Blue”
“Hot House”
“Drunk in My Past”
“I See Red”
“True Love Pt. #2”

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4th Favorite Album: Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom

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Let Me Come Over. Buffalo Tom.
1992, RCA Records/Beggars Banquet. Producer: Paul Q. Kolderie, Sean Slade and Buffalo Tom.
Purchased CD, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom, is an album split evenly between spirited rockers and subtly seething quiet numbers, each one performed with emotion and power. Singer/Songwriter Bill Janovitz uses his voice to great effect, making the listener believe in everything he says – even when it’s obscure. Bassist Chris Colbourne and drummer Tom Maginnis provide steady backing for Janovitz’s rage and pathos and joy. Every number requires repeated listens, and brings the power each time.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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One summer, either 1971 or ’72 or ’73, when I was 4, 5, or 6, my dad became assistant coach of the Ebenezer team in the local “Teener Baseball” league. It’s a league for kids 13 – 1539, and it’s traditionally been the first experience for baseball players on “the big diamond,” the baseball field the same size they use in the Major Leagues.

The author, front, and his dad, top left. Circa 1972.

Because I was the young, baseball-loving son of the baseball-loving assistant coach, I was immediately made the team bat boy. If you’re unfamiliar with baseball, let me explain: when a player hits a ball, he drops his bat and runs to first base. The bat boy comes onto the field before the next batter and brings the bat back to the bench where the players sit. Very often there is no bat boy, and the next batter simply tosses the castoff bat towards the bench. But if you have an enthusiastic, 5-year-old coach’s son on the bench, it’s kind of cool to let him race out among all those big kids and grab the bat. (It can be scary, too.)

It was an honor to me, and I still remember how proud I felt to be entrusted with this task40. I felt a bit older than my years, and not just because I got to pick up bats in games. At practice, sometimes the older kids let me bat, and they’d cheer for how hard I hit the ball and how fast I ran. Sometimes they’d play catch with me. Sometimes they’d forget I was nearby and I’d hear them swear or talk about girls.

The entire experience was thrilling, as if I was given access to a world that kids my age never got to enter. Those Teeners seemed so big and mature, and I revered them. I still recall many of their names: Kevin Garmin, Dennis Natale, Jett Conrad, Chuck Fasnacht, and my favorite: star pitcher Scott “Honey Bear” Miller. Over the next few years more names cycled through as I continued my bat boy duties. Falk, Rittle, Groff, Witters, and so many younger brothers of players from previous seasons. All these big kids were doing stuff I couldn’t wait to do myself.

The Author, 1982. C/CF. That uniform was VERY uncomfortable in the heat and humidity.

Eventually I joined a Teener team of my own. Not Ebenezer, however. A series of … let’s say “issues” occurred, which led me to join an upstart crew in the summer of 1980, called The Orioles. I had finally arrived at “The Show.” Okay, I know that “The Show” means the MLB, but even though I played baseball another few years, even into college, I was never as successful again as I was as a Teener. Plus, it’s the league I always strived for, so for me, it was “The Show.”

My time had come. There I was, out on those same baseball fields I’d traveled to with my dad, sitting on the same benches in the same dugouts, this time with a uniform of my own. Why, my dad even helped coach the team one year, when our elderly Coach Bosh, who had coached my dad in the 50s, asked him if he would. I felt really happy to be living the Teener Ball Life.

When you’re a kid, the big kids are doing all the fun stuff. Driving cars, going to late-night movies, hanging out at The Mall … all you can do is wait. And eventually it’s you, and the people your age, who get to do these things, and it feels great. Your time has come.

Making music is another one of those things that older kids and adults did. In the 70s, the hairy grown men and sultry adult women making music felt as distant to me as the Ebenezer Teener team had. But by the early 90s I was in a band, writing songs, and realized that – holy shit! – my time had come! The people making music were now my contemporaries!

Many of these new acts connected with me because they took the music I grew up around – The Beatles, 70s AM radio, funk, Johnny Cash, disco, classic rock, metal, new wave, punk, even Saturday morning cartoons – and threw it all into a virtual blender of guitar, bass, drums and synths to create something new, but familiar. It was a sound for me, by my cohort, tuned to my tastes. I’d resisted new music for a while, but once I dove in, I stayed under for a long time.

Around this time I’d gotten my first place on my own, in a little cabin in a lakeside getaway village called Mt. Gretna. I was earning some decent money as a chemist, and I felt – suddenly – grown up. And for music, I turned to other new grown-ups, like me. Of course, Nirvana was in the mix, and my buddy’s band, Gumball. Dinosaur Jr., with J. Mascis’s furious guitar, was a favorite. Relative old-timers Sonic Youth were in heavy rotation by the lake, as were Scotsmen Teenage Fanclub. Brit shoe gazers Ride41 and twin Boston acts The Lemonheads and (#19) Juliana Hatfield were favorites. This is also the height of my hip-hop knowledge, as new grown-ups like De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, and slightly older kids Beastie Boys and Public Enemy spent significant time in my CD player. Then there was the “Greatest Hits,” of sorts, the soundtrack to the 1992 movie Singles.

But my favorite album among these new contemporaries, the one that connected with me immediately upon first listen, was Let Me Come Over, by Buffalo Tom. I bought it at a little record store42 where my band sold copies of its first cassette. At the same time, I picked up Green Mind, which came with a bright purple t-shirt that my daughter now likes to wear.

Let Me Come Over stuck with me from the very first notes of my very first listen. I still remember sitting in my cottage hearing the rumbling, introductory three-note bass line of the opening song “Staples.”

That’s bassist Chris Colbourn opening things up, with guitarist/singer Bill Janovitz building a structure of guitars around him. It’s all very simple, rather repetitive, but the band really makes it work. Janovitz is a cagey vocalist who sings with emotion to get the most out of his voice. He does cool things like subtly hesitating as he sings his first “Staple …” Drummer Tom Maginnis has a very Ringo-esque habit of slightly speeding the tempo when needed, as he does here about 0:40, as the second verse begins. Colbourne provides terrific vocal harmonies in verse two, and I love when the chorus first hits, about 1:20. Janovitz provides a noisy guitar solo. The band’s lyrics are usually a bit obscure, displaying Janovitz’s poet tendencies, but this song seems to be about someone who’s love has left and he has no idea why. I tend to shout along to all the songs on this album, even though I don’t know any of the words. It’s a record that demands to be played LOUD!

Next up is a moving song about either a horrible childhood or a lost love, “Taillights Fade.” It’s one of the band’s most popular songs.

This one really shows off all the features that I love about the band. The loud guitars, the emotional vocals, great drum fills. Janovitz really gives his all to the vocals – for example, at 0:46, and each time it repeats. I saw the band live in 1994, and it remains one of the most powerful rock shows I’ve seen. I love the descending bass after each line, and the dense guitar throughout. (By the way, “Cappy Dick,” who can’t help our protagonist even with assistance from Jesus Christ, was a comic sea captain who provided kids activities in the Sunday Comics for years.)

I love the sequence of the album – how it alternates between rockers and slow songs. After a sad song like the last one, the raucous entrance of “Mountains of Your Head” sounds particularly excellent.

The ringing guitars, the driving drums, the descending riff … I love this song. The voices of Janovitz and Colbourne blend so nicely on lyrics that seem to be about a lovers’ quarrel perhaps? (“What’s on your mind? / If it’s on your tongue you should speak.”) By the third verse it sounds like 13 guitars are strumming along, a dense sound that Maginnis’s drums keep grounded. There’s a nice little piano added at the end, too. The song leads into another beautiful, softer number, “Mineral.” Janovitz belts and emotes on lyrics that, to me, sound like a reflection on an unhappy childhood? Once again, numerous guitars chime and grind throughout creating a powerful soundscape. This song reminds me of being blown away at the 1994 SF concert …

Since I like the sequence of Let Me Come Over so much, I’m going to go straight through, which means that my probably-favorite song on the album is up next, the Faulkner retelling, “Darl.”

Perhaps another reason I love this album is that I was reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying around the time I got it, and this song is a frenetic first-person account (just as in the book) of the character named Darl. It’s sung by bassist Colbourne, with great harmonies from Janovitz. I love the syncopated melody, and – once again – how Maginnis quickens the pace when needed. There’s a cool guitar solo about 1:25, too. It’s a fast, fun, head-banging song that always sounds great.

The band changes gears once again with the swaying, sea-shanty-esque “Larry.” Like Led Zeppelin, Buffalo Tom has a fondness for song titles that are not part of the lyrics.

I don’t know what Larry is about, but Janovitz’s voice is as affective as ever, particularly around the 4:00 mark. It’s a sad, evocative song, and I don’t know why, but it really moves me. By the end it fades to squealing feedback that seems to sum up everything that’s come before. How can feedback summarize a song, you ask? I don’t understand it, either, but I sure do feel it. And I don’t feel it for long before the band bashes me with the riff-heavy “Velvet Roof,” a song that again, for some reason, again reminds me of a sad childhood. Maybe it’s the “scraggly hair and messed up shoes,” but I wonder if it’s about a kid’s memories of a crazy mom? Anyway, it’s a great guitar rocker with excellent work by the rhythm section.

I’m Not There” is not a song I enjoy, and I’ll leave it at that. But it does serve as the entry to “Stymied,” a mid-tempo, densely-packed, melodic song with a cool rhythm and bass guitar, that may be about a big lovers’ fight. Many of the songs on Let Me Come Over seem to be about violence and anger, and one of the best and most oblique, lyrically, is the terrific “Porchlight.”

It’s a story song with an upbeat, bouncing rhythm that seems to tell of, maybe, a guy who saw two friends (including an ex, perhaps?) die in a house fire (while making eggs?), one of whom left a voicemail for him earlier in the day? The lyrics have that Steely DanBelly thing I love so much of telling a story that kind of makes sense but maybe not? The music and melody are catchy, and once again – Janovitz’s vocal performance makes the song. Around 1:00 he punches the words “chill” and “king” in a significant way, then his voice cracks a bit on “I ain’t here on business.” (Was it a drug deal, [“It’s all work, anyway”] and that’s why he ran away?) Janovitz’s voice is always perfectly imperfect, and that’s why I love it. He sounds like a guy who has to get these thoughts and feelings out RIGHT NOW. Plus he writes awesome songs.

Like the lovely “Frozen Lake.”

If you’ve ever loved and lost, and found yourself pining away for that other person, well, “Frozen Lake” just might be the song you play fifteen thousand times in a row. I may or may not have done this in the fall of 1992. For me, “Porchlight” and “Frozen Lake” are the climax of the album. One fast, one slow, both examples of what I love about the album. That’s not to say “Saving Grace,” with its driving punk angst, or “Crutch,” with its layered, rippling beauty, and poetic lyrics, are lesser songs. They are both outstanding, a fitting closure to an amazing album.

Let Me Come Over is the sound of me realizing my time is now. It’s hard to believe that “now” is so many years ago, but the feeling of arriving stays with you forever. It combines the excitement of running onto diamonds and grabbing heavy, wooden bats for big kids, the anticipation and longing for a time when you’ll get to play, too, and, finally, the pride in handing your own bat to another coach’s son a few years later. You’ll feel it forever, even when it’s gone. You’ll never forget the feeling that your time is now. It feels, to me, a lot like Let Me Come Over.

TRACK LISTING:
“Staples”
“Taillights Fade”
“Mountains of Your Head”
“Mineral”
“Darl”
“Larry”
“Velvet Roof”
“I’m Not There”
“Stymied”
“Porchlight”
“Frozen Lake”
“Saving Grace”
“Crutch”

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