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 electricity1. And upon its publication, the book inspired the work of real scientists in the 19th century2.

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 perfect3. 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 raves4. 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 Mani5 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 waterfall6. 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 work7. 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 crash8. 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 girlfriend9. 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 Christ10. 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 life11 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 artists12 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 Want13.

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.
~~~~

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 – 1514, 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 task15. 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 Ride16 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 store17 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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5th Favorite Album: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC

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Oranges and Lemons. XTC.
1989, Geffen Records. Producer: Paul Fox.
Purchased vinyl, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC, is a collection of sounds and styles and ideas that delivers thoughtful, fun song after thoughtful, fun song. Main songwriter Andy Partridge keeps his mighty pen of cynicism largely sheathed in this effort, instead producing uplifting songs about the power of love – tempered, of course, by his biting wit. Bandmates Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are excellent, as always, and the production is over-the-top in a way that sounds like just the right number of kitchen sinks has been thrown in.

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

It’s not shocking to learn that I – a man who has spent the last 7 or 8 years maintaining a widely-read blog about all the records I like – was a child, in the 70s, with a very strong connection to music. The connection included (and still includes) physical reactions to the sounds. A friend and I were recently discussing the first time we experienced chills washing over us simply from hearing a song. It happened when we were kids, and for him it was CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” For me, it was The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

The technical term for that sensation is “frisson,” and it’s a regular, physical part of my music-listening experience, as are dancing18, laughing, whistling, singing, and even tears. The tears usually come from a lyric and melody that combine to heighten each other’s impact. For example, when I listen to The Replacements‘ “Here Comes a Regular,” I’m almost always on the verge of tears.

As a child, however, the experience of hearing a song could be too much for me to bear. The potential physical impact scared me, so I’d turn off these scary songs before I could find out what they might do to me. I was a 70s AM radio kid, listening to WLBR 1270-AM at the time, and it played only the blandest, mellowest, dentist-officeiest pop music of the era. The songs that frightened me WERE NOT the loud, horrorshow pieces that were popular then. WLBR didn’t play, so I didn’t hear, or even know about, Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I didn’t know about the scary punks or the creepy art-rockers.

The songs that scared me were the sad songs, and I’m not talking about the kitschy, melodramatic story-songs of the 70s. Songs like “Run Joey Run” or “Billy Don’t Be a Hero“or “The Night Chicago Died” seemed goofy to me even as a young boy – which isn’t to say I didn’t love them! And I could recognize the point of sad love songs, so these didn’t scare me. The sad songs that scared me were the ones that seemed to express adult concerns that I couldn’t understand. Oblique lyrics (to my 7 year-old mind), when coupled with a minor key, made me feel like things were somehow out of control. When singing grown-ups expressed concerns about things I didn’t understand, I felt a physical response that made me turn off the music.

I found the phrase “There’s got to be a morning after,” from “The Morning After,” the theme to the disaster-film The Poseidon Adventure, quite upsetting, as it seemed ludicrous that a grown-up would even raise the question of whether a new day would come. The Sandpipers’ folky hit, “Come Saturday Morning,” made me wonder why the prospect of visiting a friend would seem so … foreboding. And “MacArthur Park” (the Richard Harris version, not Donna Summer’s disco hit) was just … weird. I still feel residual Willies19 from these songs, even just hearing a few seconds while I prepare the link.

A classic scary song for me is the Diana Ross smash, “The Theme from Mahogany.” (It’s interesting that 3 of the 4 are movie songs, where emotional impact is paramount.) “Do you know where you’re going to?” the song asked, and it wasn’t the improper grammar that disturbed me. As a 9 year-old, I found this question too psychologically loaded, too philosophically complex, to bear more than even one verse. (Until just now, I’d forgotten, or maybe I never knew, that the song included the upbeat middle section!) It’s a song that made me shiver as a child, a different sensation than the frisson I described, and it still makes me unhappy, even as an adult. See, as a 52 year-old man, I STILL don’t know where the fuck I’m going (to)!

Thirty (!) years ago I certainly had no idea where I was going (to), but I had somehow decided to pursue a Biology Education degree, and so it looked like I was going to teach school. It seemed like a decent plan – there were plenty of teaching jobs, I’d always loved school, I’d get my summers off … So, I knew where I was going (to), but the destination, the (to), didn’t feel right. As much as I thought teaching would be great, and I’d be a good teacher, something about it felt like the wrong path for me. But I stayed on the path nonetheless.

My ’76 Plymouth Duster. (And tree).

In the Fall of 1989, my destination every weekday was the Elizabethtown Area High School, in Elizabethtown, PA, where I student-taught Biology classes with a creepy teacher who went to prison for his awfulness. I wore dressy clothes my sisters had picked for me, and drove a bright blue ’76 Plymouth Duster to school every day. That Duster had come with a fancy tape-deck, state-of-the art in 1989, that was probably worth more than half of what I’d paid for the car. Tapes in rotation for my morning commute that year included Vivid, by Living Colour, and Green, by R.E.M., and Oranges and Lemons, by XTC. Pretty soon it was whittled down to simply Oranges and Lemons.

I’ve written before about seeking out Beatle-esque bands in college and becoming an XTC fan. When Oranges and Lemons was released in the Spring of ’89, I went out and bought it on vinyl. I loved it, and part of loving a vinyl record for me in those days included immediately duping it onto cassette so it became portable. It’s a positive record, with upbeat songs celebrating life and love, and dollops of cynicism and doubt to keep things level. As I drove in my Duster each morning, aimlessly drifting toward a future of standardized tests and testy parents, the songs and messages on that cassette soothed my undiagnosed depression. They helped me make it through when I didn’t realize I could take control and decide for myself where I was going (to). The album resonated then, and as I got older and had kids and learned to manage my mental health, it just got better and better.

The opening track is one of the most affirmative and philosophically optimistic songs I know, and it sounds super-cool, too. The Middle-Eastern sound salad of “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

What a start! The song is a welcome letter and instruction manual, of sorts, (“Don’t hurt nobody/ Unless, of course, they ask you”) to newly born babies on planet Earth. It is crammed full of instruments and sounds, and gives the feeling of walking through a Moroccan bazaar (I assume.) I got into XTC as I looked for Beatle-y musicians, and this song is similar to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band20, in that beneath all the sounds, the rock instruments are doing fabulous stuff. The whirling electric guitar behind the vocals in the verse (0:15), the chop guitar in the chorus (0:42), the Colin Moulding’s bass throughout, and the excellent Middle Eastern guitar solo by lead XTC-er Andy Partridge (2:15). The song has numerous details that encourage multiple listens, and it’s a fabulous introduction.

The song effortlessly flows into what may be my favorite song of all time, the brilliant “Mayor of Simpleton.”

Speaking of “frisson,” this song almost always delivers it. The precisely meandering bass line is (dare I say?) McCartney-esque, the call-and-response vocals are beautiful, and I love the melody. But the lyrics make it for me, as Partridge ingeniously describes why he’s too dumb for the woman he loves, and why it doesn’t matter. “If depth of feeling is a currency/ Then I’m the man who grew the money tree /And some of your friends are too brainy to see /That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay.” For a person like me, who shivers and tears up at songs, those words resonate. The band put out a clever video for the song, and tried to make it a hit, and while it only hit #72 on Billboard‘s pop charts, it did reach #1 on their “Modern Rock Chart,” whatever that is.

XTC is an interesting band that started as a 5-piece then dwindled over the years. By the time of Oranges and Lemons, it consisted of Partridge, Moulding, and Dave Gregory – each of them guitarists and multi-instrumentalists. Partridge handled the bulk of the singing and songwriting, but Moulding contributed several, including the lilting “King For a Day.”

Due to Partridge’s extreme stage-fright, the band stopped playing live in 1982, but to support this album they made videos and did a few TV and radio performances, usually performing Moulding’s songs. This song has great vocals, including Partridge’s ringing harmonies, and terrific drums by session-man Pat Mastelotto, whose work on the entire record is great. The lyrics also express the view, shared by the band and expressed throughout the album, that money and consumerism isn’t as important as love and art. It has a tremendous bridge (2:10) that seamlessly leads back into the chorus. Sometimes, as my friend Johnny has pointed out, “Colin has Clunkers.” But this song stands out. “Cynical Days,” however, is a Colin Clunker. And Partridge’s “Here Comes President Kill Again,” while promoting a world-view I support, is rather boring.

Another blatant expression of the power of love is the aptly titled “The Loving,” which argues for a Christ-like love for all people. Partridge doesn’t refer to Christ – like me, he’s an atheist – but what he describes is just that. His call for love is more specific on “Pink Thing,” a celebration of fatherhood and his newborn child. (It’s been pointed out that the lyrics very well may refer to his penis. I prefer the former interpretation.)

It’s got a cool calypso beat, with nice guitar figures in the background, and the chord change in the chorus (“That man isn’t fit to enter heaven …”) is fabulous. As usual, the band’s harmonies are tops, and the jazzy guitar solo at 1:55 is really cool, and the ending (2:40 – 3:48) is great. In addition to addressing his child, Partridge assesses his relationship with his dad in the South African-themed “Hold Me My Daddy,” a song Partridge claims he and his father chose not to discuss.

The songs on Oranges and Lemons have a variety of styles. Colin Moulding gets introspective on the rolling, bouncy “One of the Millions,” a bit of an anti-self-help song that tumbles along on a terrific bass line and has some great transitions between acoustic and electric. The angry she-done-me-wrong songMiniature Sun” is a jazzy, barely-fit-together number. “Chalkhills and Children” is a dreamy ballad that sounds like it could have fit on the band’s previous album Skylarking. And nearly all the songs throw as many sounds and instruments as possible into the mix, including the fabulous “Merely a Man.”

The song opens with a ranging bass line and percussive dual rhythm guitars that together are almost (almost!) funky. The guitars are really cool, and again they approach (but only approach!) the late-era Beatles’ knack for putting multiple cool guitars low in the mix. Nifty guitar fills (1:00, 1:30, etc) abound, and Partridge does some near-scatting on lyrics that are as uplifting and once again espouse the power of love. By 2:00, a trumpet fanfare is added, multiple voices are singing along, and it begins to sound like several guitars have been added. It’s a cool song, probably over-produced, but I love it.

I really love what I think of as an XTC throwback song, “Across This Antheap,” which reminds me of their song “Meccanik Dancing” from the 1978 album Go 2.

XTC started out as an angular guitar band on the definite New Wave edge of the punk movement. By Oranges and Lemons, they’d transitioned into an arty pop band (I’ll refrain from making another Beatles reference … oh wait, I think I just did?), but this number, a long diatribe against a modern life that can trample the human spirit, shows the band still has a foot in the 70s scene – despite the languid intro, and trumpet and violins.

When I was student teaching at Elizabethtown High School, it was the fall semester, which meant I was listening to the album around Halloween. It makes sense, then, that the song “Scarecrow People” remains lodged in my brain.

It’s a warning about global environmental catastrophe, which, obviously, has gone unheeded. It uses the album formula of cool guitar and bass, with lots of noises thrown in. There’s a bridge, at 2:00, that transitions to a weird guitar solo at 2:24, then builds beautifully into the final verse, at 3:00. The song is more evidence that the songwriting on the entire album is brilliant.

The other song I remember as Halloween-y, and one of my favorites on the record, is the freaky, warbly “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” a collage of sounds that is the band at their most inventive.

The plodding, physical bass supports all sorts of percussive sounds, including an acoustic guitar that sounds detuned, a xylophone that sounds like dancing bones, and – as usual – excellent harmonies. It’s a song about the universality of human beings, and includes Partridge’s usual wit. The song always takes me back to the fall of 1989, driving my Duster to school each morning, but not really knowing where I was going (to). It turned out I never taught professionally, but Oranges and Lemons made my daily drive amazingly enjoyable. Elizabethtown Area High School was only a temporary stop on a 30-year ride that has had multiple stations along the way, and continues moving forward.

But maybe the destination doesn’t really matter much. Back in the mid-00s, when everyone was getting GPS consoles to put onto their dashboards, I instead got a subscription to Sirius satellite radio, and a bulky radio unit to stick onto the dash of my ’98 Saturn wagon. I realized then what that choice says about my outlook: I may not know where I’m going (to), but I’m sure going to enjoy the ride.

TRACK LISTING:
“Garden of Earthly Delights”
“Mayor of Simpleton”
“King For a Day”
“Here Comes President Kill Again”
“The Loving”
“Poor Skeleton Steps Out”
“One of the Millions”
“Scarecrow People”
“Merely a Man”
“Cynical Days”
“Across This Antheap”
“Hold Me My Daddy”
“Pink Thing”
“Miniature Sun”
“Chalkhills and Children”

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6th Favorite Album: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements

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Pleased to Meet Me. The Replacements.
1987, Sire Records. Producer: Jim Dickinson.
Purchased CD, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements, is a showcase for the songwriting genius of leader Paul Westerberg. From rip-roaring rockers to jazzy torch songs, the album covers a lot of territory. But the star of the show is Westerberg’s songs and their touching, evocative, subtle lyrics. The excellent rhythm section of bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars provide the muscle, and Westerberg’s guitar almost matches lost ‘Mat Bob’s past heroics.

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

You can’t believe everything you read. A big part of growing into adulthood is learning to understand what is, and is not, likely true, and what gradations exist in between. Right now I’ve got kids aged 20 and 15 years old. I’ve watched them come of age in a time where, for example, there is not just journalistic slant, but there are networks dedicated to telling lies to people and presenting it as truth, parroting elected officials who seem to make up stories daily. And they’re not just getting information from networks or traditional media. Nowadays there are a bunch of social media platforms that give any boob with a cellphone a place to present any old story as fact.

Not to sound too grandpa-Simpson about it, but in my day, if you wanted flat out, unprocessed lies, you didn’t (always) turn to the President. If you wanted the best in fiction-as-non-fiction, your best source was always: The Weekly World News.

Back in the 80s, The Weekly World News was what was called a “checkout tabloid,” a magazine printed on newspaper that sat among other such publications, like National Enquirer, Star and Sun, near the checkout lines in supermarkets. However, whereas those others often ran stories that largely dealt with celebrities, and that had a whiff of possible truth, Weekly World News focused on, well, lies. My friend Dan and I used to enjoy reading the stories and laughing our asses off. We had friends who claimed to believe the stories – “They couldn’t print it if it isn’t true!” one classmate angrily scolded us – but nobody really did.

These stories were easy to identify as false. However, I prided myself on also being able to sniff out falsehoods in any publications, particularly music publications. For me as a high schooler, any publication that could dismiss the genius of Rush, such as Rolling Stone regularly did21, could not be trusted. So when that magazine gushed about the genius of the band The Replacements, I scoffed. Rolling Stone loved The Replacements, and that was evidence enough for me that the band sucked.

The band did not suck. I’ve written about them twice now, and to recap: I joined a band, and the guitarist loved The Replacements, and pretty soon I did, too. As I was becoming a fan, the band was breaking up, and just about the time I was buying all of their CDs, they were releasing their final one, All Shook Down. As a new fan, and music-crit skeptic, I didn’t fall for the assessments of that record, which ranged from “meh” to “eh” to “ok, I guess.”

I thought (and still think) that All Shook Down is a great record! The song “Nobody” is one of my all-time favorites, a clever story of a guy who’s sure his ex is still holding a candle for him – just as he clearly is for her. “Attitude” is a fun ditty reflecting on main ‘Mat22 Paul Westerberg’s main problem in his life. “Merry Go Round” and “When It Began” were the supposed hits, “My Little Problem” was the rockin’ duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano.

Bob Stinson

But – as much as I loved the record, when I began listening to the band’s earlier output I understood the critics’ tepid assessment. All Shook Down is great, but those earlier records were brilliant. And Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite of those. Fans who were onboard the ‘Mats bus from the beginning often dismiss this album because original guitarist, Bob Stinson, brother to bassist Tommy, had left the band before it was recorded. I understand their point of view, but as someone who came to the band late, without the baggage of Bob in my own perception of the band, with a classic rock background and a latecomer to punk, Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite Replacements record.

I remember the first time I heard any part of the record. Dr. Dave and I have a cover band, JB and the So-Called Cells, and in 1991 we played at a bar in Hershey, PA, called Zachary’s. The band we opened for, Blue Yonder, played a song of theirs that was okay, but that had a super-catchy refrain: “I’m in love/What’s that song?/I’m in love/With that song.” I told a friend it was a good song; he told me, “They ripped off that chorus from The Replacements.”

The song they ripped off (or honored, you might say) is the wonderful “Alex Chilton,” still one of my favorite songs ever.

It opens with a metallic guitar fanfare from Westerberg, and stellar bass and drums from Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars, respectively. The rhythm section keeps this song teetering on the brink of collapse the whole way through. The lyrics are a tribute to Alex Chilton, who as a teenager hit #1 on the charts as a singer on The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Westerberg salutes Chilton for his work in the power pop outfit Big Star (“I never travel far/ Without a little Big Star”), who wrote and recorded some of the best guitar pop ever, and are largely forgotten by casual music fans. I love Stinson’s bass behind the chorus, and in the pre-chorus, leading up to Westerberg’s guitar solo at 1:50, and Mars’s habit of adding an extra snare hit some places, like at about 2:17. But what makes the song brilliant is the chorus: “I’m in love … with that song.” It’s perfection.

One of the great things about The Replacements is their ability to meld rip-roaring, punky music to meaningful lyrics that evoke real feelings. The band was famously dysfunctional, and sabotaged every break they ever got. And Westerberg wrote about it in songs like “I Don’t Know,” in which backing vocals by Stinson and Mars offer the band’s reaction to all the hype surrounding the band at the time.

“One foot in the door/ the other one in the gutter,” Westerberg sings. “The sweet smell you adore/ I think I’d rather smother.” Clearly the lyrics show mixed feelings about success. The song opens with weird laughter and goes right into a sax-driven rave-up. It’s a bit restrained from some of their earlier tracks, and the inclusion of horns (I’m sure) pissed off a lot of longtime fans. But the band addressed those fans’ concerns on the opening track, “I.O.U.,” in which Paul states: “I.O.U. nothing.” They really didn’t give a fuck about expectations. “I.O.U.” is another rave-up, this one showcasing Westerberg’s lead guitar work. He spent his teenage years trying to be the next Guitar Hero, until he decided he’d rather write songs, so he has some chops. Longtime fans would likely complain he should’ve kept Bob in the band for his guitar skills, but as Paul states in the song: “You’re all wrong and I’m right.”

Another song about being in The Replacements is the soft, jazzy “Nightclub Jitters,” a torch song about the impersonal nature of playing gig after gig. Tommy Stinson’s upright bass stands out on this track, which also features Westerberg on piano and a sultry sax solo. It seems like a departure for the band, but they’d been putting surprises on punk albums since “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” on Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg’s lyrics aren’t always self-obsessed messages from the band. In the song “The Ledge,” he takes on the topic of teen suicide, which was too hot of a topic in 1987 and got this video banned from MTV.

Stinson’s pumping bass and Mars’s driving beat propel the song headlong beneath a Peter Gunn-style guitar riff. I like the dual guitars on the song, and the fact that the band throws in a couple three/four measures in the chorus. Westerberg again shows off his guitar soloing ability, including an outro solo after the sound of someone leaping. Vocally, Westerberg always carries a tune as if he’s going to drop it, and while it sounds good here, I like it best when it’s applied to his more personal tracks. For example, on the mid-tempo gem “Never Mind.”

The title, and the attitude it signals, would end up being the rallying cry (or whimper) for Generation X, and it expresses the what’s-it-matter-anyway? feeling behind many of Westerberg’s lyrics. In this case, he can’t find the words to apologize, so decides to move on. (I’ve read this song is about his decision to fire Bob from the band.) Westerberg has an Elvis-Costello-esque gift for a clever turn of phrase, in this case “your guess is (more or less) as bad as mine.” The music is good, but this is one in which the melody and lyrics carry the load.

Westerberg’s lyrics also often rely on one catchy phrase, repeated for maximum effect. In the case of “Valentine,” it’s “If you were a pill/ I’d take a handful at my will/ and I’d knock you back with something sweet and strong.”

I like that after the introduction, Mars’s drums (0:22) seem to speed up the song slightly, providing some punk energy to this now-she’s-gone love song. It’s catchy as hell. The guitar work is pretty cool, if a bit buried in the mix, and Paul pulls off some (dare I say?) Bob-esque riffs (2:45) throughout. Westerberg’s voice is brilliant as ever, particularly on the last, desperate verse (2:20), where he moves the melody to a higher pitch. The song doesn’t match the old punk fury from the band’s early days, but they do include a couple rockers on Pleased to Meet Me. “Shooting Dirty Pool” is a bit like a Rolling Stones deep cut23. It also features a 13 year-old Luther Dickinson on guitar. “Red Red Wine” is NOT the UB40 song.

One of the things I love best about the ‘Mats is that every album has at least one Paul solo piece (basically) that is earnest and moving and demonstrates that there’s a deep well beneath all the crazy antics. On Hootenanny, it’s “Within Your Reach.” On Let It Be, it’s “Androgynous.” On Tim, it’s “Here Comes a Regular.” On Pleased to Meet Me, it’s “Skyway.”

It’s a simple acoustic guitar song about a boy watching a girl in the skyway of Minneapolis, the city’s elevated walkway system. But there’s so much more than that. He lacks self-confidence, wearing his “stupid hat and gloves,” waiting for a ride out in the cold, while she walks indoors with the office-job types. He dreams of meeting her, but when she finally ventures onto the street, it’s the same day he’s finally gotten up the nerve to go inside, and so they miss each other. But one gets the sense the diffident protagonist believes it’s his only chance, and he’s missed it. It’s a sweet song, and Westerberg’s delivery is perfect, as is the spare arrangement. It’s another favorite of mine.

Still another favorite song of mine (I know there are several, but that’s why the record is up here at #6!) is the celebratory “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

A simple 6-note riff opens the song, and it’s the foundation for all that follows. It’s another lyrical gem, describing a guy on the road who CAN’T (hardly) WAIT to get home to see his loved one. The imagery is fantastic, from being too drunk to write, to riding in a filthy band van24 to my favorite: “lights that flash in the evening/ through a crack in the drapes,” gorgeously describing someone waiting at home for him to arrive. There’s a horn section throughout that many fans dislike, and even some orchestral instruments, and I think it all adds to the song’s celebratory vibe.

So listen, you can’t believe everything you read. You can’t even believe this write-up. Go listen to The Replacements and decide for yourself. There’s lots to choose from, from the hardcore punk of Stink to the classic line-up double-live For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986. And just as I came to realize that the music critics were right all along, you might come to realize that Pleased to Meet Me is a tremendous record.

TRACK LISTING:
“I.O.U.”
“Alex Chilton”
“I Don’t Know”
“Nightclub Jitters”
“The Ledge”
“Never Mind”
“Valentine”
“Shooting Dirty Pool”
“Red Red Wine”
“Skyway”
“Can’t Hardly Wait”

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7th Favorite Album: Reckoning, by R.E.M.

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Reckoning. R.E.M.
1984, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.
Purchased Casette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: Reckoning, by R.E.M., is the work of a band doing its own thing, establishing a sound that would define them: thumping drums, jangly guitars, melodic bass, and poetic lyrics. This is the foundation from which the Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe legend grew, a bit more muscular than their debut. Whether blazing through danceable, upbeat numbers or creating somber moods, Reckoning shows a band discovering its power and unleashing it on the world.

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

“Be Yourself” is perhaps the advice that most parents would place at the top of their list of “lessons to be ingrained in their children as they grow to adults.” It’s a realization that materializes in many adults only after years of heartbreak and embarrassment25. We look back on our former selves, cringe and hope nobody remembers, (or write a blog about it), and vow to pass the lesson onto our offspring so they might avoid the same sort of humiliation. “Listen,” we say, “don’t get caught up in all the popular crap, and all the trendy styles and Jones-Keeping-Upwith. Don’t go along with the crowd just to fit in. BE YOURSELF.”

Children since Neanderthal times have responded with “But Orbuk and Kongko very cool; have nice stick and rock.” They’ve spent their teen years26 chasing the contemporary versions of the best animal skins and clubs and shiny leaves and trying to fit into the cool clan. Then one day (hopefully) they finally realize that their own path is the best path and settle into a gently-regretful adulthood. It’s always been true that one of the last parts of the human brain to fully develop is the part that says “Hey, I’m cool with just being me.” (At least I think the science says that.)

One reason, besides simple personal embarrassment, that many parents may look back and cringe is the fact that, in retrospect, it’s clear that many things considered “cool” in our youth were patently ridiculous and silly. When we think of our younger selves, we can recall recognizing “Wait, this doesn’t seem cool. This is utter bullshit.” But we can also recall thinking, “But, I guess since everyone else likes this, it must be ME who’s the weird one.” When we reach adulthood we realize: almost everyone our age ALSO thought it all was utter bullshit. But we all just went along with the crowd.

A case in point from my teenage years of the early to mid-1980s is Popular Music. Nostalgia is all well and good, and it can be fun to look back on the popular music of the 80s and revel in the wackiness and the computers and the poppiness of the era’s hit songs; and the bizarre-looking and, at times, courageous, musical acts; and the ubiquitous movie soundtrack songs. I myself listen to Sirius/XM’s “80s on 8 Big 40 Countdown” every weekend, even though it often plays songs I’d rather not remember. I find masochistic joy in reliving some of those crappy 80s hits.

But let’s face it: much of the music was bullshit. Well, let me rephrase that. The music – the notes and melodies – may have been just fine. The bullshit came because the notes and melodies were processed through a corporate Apparatus that quite unsubtly packaged and delivered its sounds and performers in a style that the Apparatus perceived to be following the cultural trends of the era27. But at the same time the Apparatus was creating those trends, thus engendering a phony, dog-wagging, entirely UN-organic, carousel of advertising and popular culture that enticed teens to hop aboard and just go with it, and deny their own natural understanding, which was: “This is bullshit.”

I’m quite sure this cycle continues today, and has always been part of Corporate America’s means of marketing products. However, in retrospect, having been a teen in the 80s – the MTV boom-days – the weighty hand of corporate nonsense is so evident in the popular music that it seems unbelievable that I didn’t recognize it at the time. But it never really dawned on me that styling was part of a marketing department’s role. I just took it for granted that if you were a man who played music, you didn’t look normal, like me. You looked like Billy Idol or Prince or Mötley Crüe or Elton John or Rush or Michael Jackson. I just didn’t see many “normal-looking” folks making music.

Okay, there was Huey Lewis, but come on. He already looked like he was about 50 years old in 1983.

Also in the 80s, I found myself drifting toward 70s-era Progressive Rock, featuring songs that were 20 minutes long, multi-part suites with 10-minute organ solos, played by mostly British bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or North American versions, like Rush or Styx. The more difficult it was, the more I liked it.

Of course, there were plenty of normal-looking folks making rock music in the 80s, playing songs that didn’t require a PhD in Fretboard-shreddery to play. Sometimes they’d show up on MTV, late at night. But they didn’t register with me: if you weren’t a technically brilliant musician, or a crazy-looking, leather-clad freak, I didn’t really think you were a musician. Until a night in 1983, (or maybe early 1984, on a rerun) when I stayed up late to watch my favorite comedian, David Letterman, and he introduced a band that looked suspiciously normal (except for the singer, who had a certain affect to him.)

I liked these normal-looking guys the first night I saw them.

I was hooked from the minute I saw them, and for years (pre-YouTube) I wondered if I’d really seen it. They played two songs, and the singer sat on the stage, ignoring Dave, between them. The songs were infectious and fun and fresh: so fresh that one song was “too new” to have a name. The bass, always my favorite part of rock music, was prominent and played great counter-melodies. The guitarist wiggled and gyrated. The singer just stood and mumbled. I’d heard their song “Radio Free Europe” before, and I knew their weird name – R.E.M. And now I knew I loved them.

But as much as I loved them, their normalcy was, well, WEIRD. This wasn’t the kind of stuff that everyone else I knew listened to. I could easily share my love of 70s hard rock or 80s metal, and my fascination with progressive rock was on the normal bell curve of typical, rural Pennsylvania teen music appreciation. (The left-hand tail, sure, but it was there.) But this little, jangly, frantic group of guys in jeans and shirts – no leather, no feathers, no spandex, no makeup, no multi-zippered jackets or single, sequined glove – seemed like they might be too weird. I bought the new cassette, Reckoning, but I didn’t tell any of my friends. I listened, but was more comfortable sharing my “enthusiasm” for the new Alan Parsons Project single or Rush album. But at home I couldn’t wait to see the MTV piece on them.

I wish now that I’d have sought out other fans, and let myself be, well, myself. (Eventually I did. In college, my high school friend, Josh, and I revealed to each other that we both loved the band!)

The song “too new to be named” on that Letterman show immediately became a favorite of mine. With it’s 12-string opening riff and bouncy beat, and a melody of garbled lyrics that falls on a desperate wail of “I’m sorry!,” the song “So. Central Rain” is a song that sticks.

If you like direct lyrics sung clearly and loudly, you won’t like much of what R.E.M. has to offer, at least not from this era. “So. Central Rain” is apparently about trying to reach a girlfriend to apologize, but if you pick up on that from singer Michael Stipe, I applaud you. The opening 12-string riff, by Peter Buck, is beautiful, and then bassist Mike Mills enters. His bass lines are McCartney-esque: melodic, widely ranging, and often – as on this number – taking the lead. Drummer Bill Berry’s heartbeat bass drum pulls it all together. R.E.M. were never afraid to boost their studio sound with instrumentation. In this song, a piano, played by Mills, is prominent. The band also uses harmony vocals brilliantly, with both Mills and Berry lending their “aahhs” on this track. I love Mills’s riff, about 0:50, which brings the band back into the second verse. This song is sad but happy, and remains a favorite of mine.

Part of the allure of R.E.M. for me has always been the mysteriousness of their lyrics and vocals. In the 80s I was deep into Yes, and their vocalist, Jon Anderson, despite having a vocal style directly opposite Stipe’s, strung apparent nonsense words together. Stipe does the same thing. Can anyone tell me what a “Harborcoat” is? Is this song about a chilly, elderly, Soviet couple? It doesn’t really matter to me – the song sounds super regardless of its meaning.

The song displays Mills’s penchant for counter-melody bass, and is the perfect example Buck’s fast-strumming, arpeggiated technique. Berry’s drums, particularly hi-hat work, are terrific. At 1:17, when three voices blend in the chorus, I get chills, every time. In the second verse, the backing vocals (Berry, I think?) at times obscure the main vocals in a cool-sounding way. There’s a nifty, noisy, harmonica-infused bridge (2:38), then after another verse, Buck’s guitar riff gets more muscular (3:22) to bring it all home. It’s a fantastic song, displaying everything I love about the band.

As does the next song, “7 Chinese Bros.”

The title is taken from a children’s book, Five Chinese Brothers, adapted from a famous Chinese legend, Ten Brothers, about ten brothers with amazing abilities who use them to help their family. One of the brothers can swallow the ocean, thus the lyrics in the chorus. I love how the bass enters at 0:11, over top of Buck’s riff. The drums thump throughout, and Buck’s arpeggiated guitar in the chorus is just super cool. Mills’s bass always appears in unexpected ways, such as at 1:38. I do love Stipe’s subtle vocals on this song. (A version of this song called “Voice of Harold,” with lyrics read from the back of a gospel record, appears on the rarities album Dead Letter Office.)

My favorite song on the record is the driving, danceable “Pretty Persuasion.”

It’s a fun, upbeat song, written early in their careers, with lyrics that don’t say a lot, however, the title says it all. The opening guitar line is pure Buck, shimmery and flowing. Mills’s high-pitched bass enters, then Berry starts his heartbeat drums. The backing vocals are sweet and the melody is catchy. It’s the kind of R.E.M. song I love. The band sort of replicates it with “Second Guessing,” another fast-paced song, with obscure lyrics. I love Berry’s drums in this song, little things like the quick fill at 1:27 before heading back into the verse. Also, this record SOUNDS really good. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter28 produced it, and they really gave it a full, deep sound.

As a teen, I really loved the faster songs, and I didn’t think much of the slow songs. As I’ve gotten older, these slow numbers have grown on me. In particular, I really like “Time After Time (Annelise).”

It’s a subtle song, with bongos and light guitar. It definitely shows off Stipe’s vocals, as he sings about (possibly) teen suicide? The song builds nicely, and has a cool guitar solo/break about 1:59, with what may be a sitar in the background? The song “Camera” is another slow song featuring Stipe, this time about a friend who died in a car crash. “Letter Never Sent” is mid-tempo, but it shows off the entire band’s vocal abilities, as counter-melody backing vocals from Berry and Mills highlight Stipe’s meandering melody. The lyrics sound beautiful. As usual guitar and drums sound great, and Mills’s bass provides still another melody to follow.

It says much about a band that they can get me to appreciate a song style I don’t usually like. In this case it’s country (or maybe country-rock?), in the form of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.”

It opens with a weird, funk-like bit of a song, the type that would fit nicely on Dead Letter Office (on which the band drunkenly covered “King of the Road.”) It’s a straightforward piece, with some piano thrown in and great harmonies in the chorus. Buck plays some tasty figures over top of Stipe’s lyrics, which take a dark turn in the bridge, where he admits he never really treated his wayward girlfriend all that great. This song was apparently written by Mills in a punk style, then the band got hold of it and created this version. Good job, men!

The album closes on a rip-roaring romp through America, a song reminiscing about old touring days in a van, apparently, with manager Jefferson Holt (“Jefferson I think we’re lost!”)

“I don’t see myself at 30,” Stipe sings immediately, and the song has a sort of free-wheeling, independent, young-adult vibe to it, sung by guys who aren’t concerned about reaching old age. Thirty-five years (!) after the album was released, with R.E.M. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and roundly regarded as sort of godfathers of alternative rock, this sentiment is kind of funny. But the song still kicks ass, a frantic and loose number with a nifty guitar. A great album-ender.

Just be yourself. What a good lesson. R.E.M. didn’t look like the other 80s pop music acts, they didn’t sound like anything else, and they didn’t seem to care what anyone thought about it. As a teenager in 1984, this was more frightening than any of the weirdoes I regularly saw on MTV. As a 51 year old with kids, this is far more inspiring than I recognized at the time.

TRACK LISTING:
“Harborcoat”
“7 Chinese Bros.”
“So. Central Rain”
“Pretty Persuasion”
“Time After Time (Annelise)”
“Second Guessing”
“Letter Never Sent”
“Camera”
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
“Little America”

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8th Favorite Album: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse

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Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
1979, Reprise. Producer: Neil Young, David Briggs, Tim Mulligan.
Gift, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is a brilliantly bi-polar record. A collection of intense, lovely, solo acoustic songs coupled with some raucous, electric barn-burners played by a band nearly out of control. As usual for me, this record is all about the guitar, Neil’s spiky, clashing, dirty squawk. But the acoustic numbers also strike a nerve, as Neil’s distinctive voice delivers the emotion in his imagery and stories.

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

Part Two.

(Sort of. I mean, I didn’t intend for this to be a continuation, but it’s a very similar theme from the last post, so let’s just call it Part Two.)

When we last left our intrepid hero, he was leaving his big-city college for the more familiar environs of a university set in the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky. He’s 20, still does not know what the word “intrepid” means, and he won’t know for another 31 years, when he looks up the definition for a little-read blog that he writes and realizes it does not describe him at all, yet likes how it sounds so he doesn’t change it.

We don’t pick up the story immediately, but we move ahead a few years, when his band has broken up and he is working long hours as a chemist in an aspirin factory. In a mere 30 years he’ll be sitting in his New England home, writing a little-read blog about himself and his taste in music and how the two relate. Back then there is no way to know this. At that point, he just realizes two things: 1) he doesn’t know what the word “intrepid” means; and 2) he has to get the fuck out of the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky.

Our hero has many interests and wishes to have opportunities to pursue these interests. Acting, stand-up comedy, writing … these are activities that lend themselves to being part of larger communities of people with similar interests. If he’d wanted to pursue opportunities in growing corn and raising dairy cattle, the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania’s farmland would have been the perfect place to meet other farmers and find a great opportunity for a career. However, those hills generated a relative lack of performance-oriented folk. And neither dairy cattle nor their farmers are generally known to be particularly excellent audiences for comedy, so our hero needed a new place to live.

Luckily for our hero, among the gang of fun chemists (and dull chemists) working in the aspirin factory was a guy named Weenie. He was actually named Bill, but they called each other Weenie, and along with two other goofy chemists, Rod and Wayne, who were also called Weenie, they did such things as invent the Weenie Of The Week Award, celebrating the most humiliating laboratory error of the week, and which included its own statuette, which looked like a dick. Weenie Bill was still a partial owner of a home in San Rafael, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and as it happened, he needed a tenant for the summer of 1993.

While not in the thick of city-dwelling performer types, San Rafael was close enough to San Francisco and its varied assortment of creative artists and flat-out weirdoes that a decent start could be made on a career in humor and performance. It was a nice home, with housemates vouched-for by Weenie Bill, and although it was 3-frickin’-thousand miles away, it was much warmer than Chicago, which was another potential choice. (Of course, Chicago was home to the Second City improv conglomerate, and the decision to reject that city may have left lingering regrets in our hero as to whether he, had different choices been made, could have become, on the one hand, a huge TV and movie comedy star, or, on the other hand, dead of an OD at 32.)

As our hero prepares for his 3,059 mile drive (Southern US route) to California, his Weenie buddies, who by this point think of his pending journey as evidence of his intrepid nature, even if he himself still doesn’t really know the word’s meaning, throw him a going-away party. At the party he’s given many cool items, including a pair of Chuck Taylors, his footwear of choice back then, a great book called Connections, by James Burke, and a CD: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been a Neil Young fan for a long time, and I’ve always admired his changing styles and approach to music. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work with his long-time garage band, Crazy Horse, featuring drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. While Neil Young solo can be folky, or country, or retro, or electronic, or 70s rocking, or 80s rocking, or 90s rocking, or 00s rocking, or big band (!), Neil Young with Crazy Horse is almost always loud and rocking and full of Young’s signature squawky-raunchy, electric guitar. I knew some of the songs on Rust Never Sleeps, but not all of them, and Weenie Wayne assured me that even though it wasn’t the typical 7-minute-guitar-solo-filled Crazy Horse record, that it would work its way inside me.

This is not the actual car I drove across the US. But it looked a lot like this one.

I brought a CD player along to accompany me and my 1985 VW Jetta on that drive across the US, and I first gave Rust Never Sleeps a listen on the first morning of my trip. Then I listened again. Then every morning, five or six days from Lebanon County, PA, to Marin County, CA, (I don’t really remember exactly) it became the first CD I’d select every day, part of my routine. I’d get up, get on the highway, and Rust Never Sleeps would put me further ahead of my old life.

So if you know the album, you’ll understand that the song that spoke to me most deeply on that journey into the new is the Crazy Horse-less acoustic number “Thrasher.”

It opens with a brief harmonica arpeggiated chord, then Young’s fabulous 12-string guitar begins strumming. I’ve read that Neil added overdubs to the songs on this album after recording, and I sometimes wonder if a second guitar was dubbed in on “Thrasher.” I’ve watched many videos of Neil performing the song, some from 40 years ago and some from more recently, and he never seems to play it live with the same flourishes and runs that are evident on the album. But be that as it may, the guitar is excellent – ringing and lovely. But it’s the song’s lyrics that make it a favorite29 for me. I’d love to do a line-by-line breakdown of the song, as others have, but that could be boring and pretentious and self-indulgent. But then again, this entire blog is likely all three of those things, so it could fit right in.

Instead, I’ll just point out that the song is about leaving behind the fearful, stuck-in-the-past folks (“they were hiding behind hay bales”) and striking out on your own (“hit the road before it’s light”) to experience the unknown that lies ahead. While some folks may hide from the new (i.e. the thrashers), it can inspire others (“when I saw those thrashers rolling by … I was feeling like my day had just begun.”) Those left behind may be too worried (“poisoned by protection,”) or too comfortable (“park bench mutations”) to act, but you just have to move on (“they’re just dead weight to me, better down the road without that load.”) It may be tempting to live in the past (“the motel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar,”) but only by pursuing your dreams will you live a life fulfilled (“When the thrasher comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun, Like the dinosaurs in shrines, But I’ll know the time has come To give what’s mine.”)

With each morning that I hopped into the Jetta, I was increasingly sure that my move was the right thing to do. Rust Never Sleeps pointed the way. The first half of the album30 is acoustic, just Neil, his guitar and his harmonica, and the songs are brilliant. I’m usually more of a music-guy than a lyrics-guy, but the stories and words on Side 1 are some of my favorite, right from the opening classic, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”

It opens with the unforgettable riff, and claims that rock and roll will never die (as I’ve written before, immortality has been Rock and Roll’s obsession since the beginning). The minor key, and Young’s plaintive voice, make the song’s lyrics sound uncertain, like a warning, like this indestructible rock and roll could crumble if it’s not allowed to change and make room for the Johnny Rottens31 of the world. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he sings, a controversial sentiment. John Lennon hated the lyrics. Kurt Cobain eventually included the words in his suicide note, which freaked out Neil32. But the idea that rust never sleeps (“it’s better to burn out/than it is to rust”), so you’ve got to stay active and curious to avoid it, is an idea I can get behind. This is one of the few songs on this live album in which you can clearly hear the audience.

Another great acoustic song I love on Side One is the lament/fantasy “Pocahontas.”

Young’s chopping acoustic guitar starts off, and Young carries the tune in his own warbly style. The song comments on the horrors of the American genocide of Native Americans, and wishes for an opportunity to speak with Pocahontas, and Marlon Brando, who famously refused his 1973 Best Actor Oscar® over the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. As the song builds, harmony vocals are added, along with some squawks and squeaks. It’s a lovely song.

The acoustic side is rounded out with “Ride My Llama,” a strange ode to Martians, weed and, well, riding a llama. It’s a cool, simple song that is fun to belt along to. The sweet, traveling love songSail Away” features Nicolette Larson on backing vocals, who had a 1979 hit with her yacht-rock version of Young’s “Lotta Love.” “Sail Away” is a song that would have fit perfectly on Young’s smash 1992 acoustic album Harvest Moon.

Neil stomps on the distortion pedal, to the delight of (l-r) Talbot, Sampedro and Molina.

Side Two of Rust Never Sleeps is all Crazy Horse. Thick, crunching guitars, long solos, desperate harmonies, sloppy-great drumming. It’s four guys having fun, like teens in their first garage band, working up a sweat and playing their hearts out.

The first song on Side Two is one of Young’s all-time classics, a song he originally wrote for Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Despite calling Neil out by name in “Sweet Home Alabama,” the two acts were very friendly with one another.) It’s the story of a young man left alone to defend his home from invaders, “Powderfinger.”

This is a song that begs to be played LOUDLY. Neil opens it with his voice, but the simple, two-guitar riff, first heard at 0:43, is what hooks the listener and always pulls the raucous Crazy Horse together before each verse. Young and Sampedro play beautifully sloppy guitar lines behind the verses, then Neil solos at 1:48, a signature, meandering affair. At 3:34, after the tragic end to the story, Young plays another searing solo, then the band, which provides background “oohs” throughout, harmonizes on the last verse. It’s a great song, and it’s fun to play as a band, as my buddies and I in Tequila Mockingbird recognize.

Welfare Mothers” is a noisy, riff-based stomp. He asks for us to “pick up on what he’s putting down,” and it seems like he’s putting down the 70s free-love ideas, or perhaps a social system that doesn’t take care of its vulnerable citizens, or the high price of laundromats. Whatever the case, it’s a fun romp with cool drums from Ralph Molina, and more crunchy solos, particularly the one beginning at 2:46 until the end. I could listen to Crazy Horse play all day.

Neil backs up Devo and the band’s crib-bound character, Booji Boy.

In the late 70s, Young became fascinated with the punk movement, and even more so with the punk-adjacent techno music of bands like Kraftwerk and Devo. (He directed and starred in a movie with Devo, 1982’s Human Highway.) There’s a punk energy in the unmelodic verses and changing tempos of “Sedan Delivery,” a slam-dance of a song about – well, I’m not really sure, but maybe drugs and the associated culture? The band is having a blast playing and singing, and the guitar does not disappoint.

The first side of the album seems important and serious, and the raucous second side gets away from this spirit a bit. However, Neil brilliantly brings the two sides together by finishing the album with a soaring, electric version of the album’s opener, this time titled “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”

It’s a great move. The introductory guitar sounds like a malfunctioning industrial machine, and the three notes punctuating it are distorted to an unrecognizable chord. Molina’s drums are pile drivers. Each verse is answered with a ferocious, wicked, metallic solo. The solo at 3:12 is particularly – unusual and excellent. The lyrics are nearly the same as “My My, Hey Hey,” with a change or two thrown in – – for example the album name, “Rust Never Sleeps” added, and Johnny Rotten’s name emphasized. It ends with the crowd noise that had been mostly removed in the rest of the record.

If there’s one thing I know about the word “intrepid,” it’s that it describes Neil Young’s artistic efforts. “Characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance.” I’d say that’s as good a description of Neil’s output as any. He’s been making his own music his own way for more than 50 years. It’s connected with millions of people over the years. Rust Never Sleeps was the soundtrack to one of the biggest events of my life. It inspired me to forge ahead. It still sounds great and important, and it continues to make me feel a little – (dare I say?) – intrepid myself.

TRACK LISTING:
“My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)”
“Thrasher”
“Ride My Llama”
“Pocahontas”
“Sail Away”
“Powderfinger”
“Welfare Mothers”
“Sedan Delivery”
“Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)”

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9th Favorite Album: Countdown to Ecstasy, by Steely Dan

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Countdown to Ecstasy. Steely Dan.
1973, ABC. Producer: Gary Katz.
Purchased, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: Countdown to Ecstasy, by Steely Dan, is a showcase for musicianship – a collection of songs from the days when Steely Dan was a band. Leaders Donald Fagan and Walter Becker write great songs, but talented guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias steal the show. The songs are fun and diverse and Fagan’s voice sells each and every one. They may be a dark, sarcastic duo, but Fagan and Becker write songs that their talented friends can devour.

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

My favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, was fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin’s33 old axiom, “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes.” However, she always pointed out that Mr. Franklin34 mistakenly left out one other guarantee in life. “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes,” she’d say, then add, “… and CHANGE! Everything changes!” For many folks, change may be scarier than either taxes or death.

I now believe Mrs. Meyers was even smarter than Ben Franklin35 in her assessment. As researchers push against aging and death, and billionaires, most of whom inherited or finagled their dough, convince more and more dumb Americans that taxes are bad, one can imagine a world where death and taxes become an uncertainty. (This confluence of events could hilariously lead to five quintillionaires remaining alone on Earth after devastating the planet in their race to “win,” lying atop their piles of money, unable to die36.) The fact that our relationship to death and taxes has the potential to change only proves what Mrs. Meyers said: change is certain.

Very little from the culture and society I knew in 1983, as a 15-year old in Mrs. Meyers’s history class, remains as it was back then. Everything has changed. Some things have gotten better, some things have gotten worse, but very little is the same. I’m fascinated by this change over time, and I’m happy it’s happened. In fact, it gives me hope that people can continue to improve their lives. You see, I’m one of those people who is not scared by change, but, in fact, am rather comfortable with it.

Now, for sure, the 1983, teenaged me would be horrified by all that’s changed since then. At that time I was a small-town kid, scared by the world around me and subconsciously trying to allay those fears by mocking, resisting and remaining willfully obtuse to anything new or different around me. Computers, gay people, strong women, the DH37, non-English speakers38, non-comedy movies, city-people, cats, non-Christians… At that time I wanted the world to be exactly what was in my head at that moment, and (I thought) I wanted it to stay that way forever.

My adulthood, however, has been shot through with change. I moved about 6 times in my early 20s, finally arriving in San Francisco, and moved three times in 8 years while I was there. Then I moved to New England and moved 5 times in 5 years before landing in my current home. I have worked at about 11 different companies since college, not counting the half-dozen or so little jobs I had before I joined the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve done stand-up comedy, acted in plays and performed improv for years – the one place where my love of never really knowing what the hell is coming next found a perfect setting. My adult life has been more about resisting stasis than resisting change. And one of the first big changes involved Dr. Dave.

Dr. Dave (l) and author on stage at Zachary’s, Hershey, PA, ca. 1990.

Dr. Dave has been mentioned frequently in this space. He’s my longest-serving best friend – we met just about two-and-a-half years after Mrs. Meyers’s history class, as freshmen in the Toxicology program at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. We bonded quickly over music, particularly The Beatles and Yes, plus the Phillies, Columbo, Caddyshack and the ridiculousness of a career in toxicology. And a million other things. But within two years he had jettisoned toxicology for pharmacy39, and I jettisoned the small private school in the city for a larger, public university in the country.

Given the nature of our personalities, our interests, and our friendship, it only makes sense that on the last day before I left the school forever, Dr. Dave drove me around the city of Philadelphia, the windows of his LeCar40 down, blaring the Steely Dan classic from Countdown to Ecstasy, “My Old School.” The lyrics expressed all the regret I had about choosing that school in the first place, and the refrain, “I’m never going back to my old school,” was the exclamation point on my entire time there.

I’m sure we were both a little sad that we’d be seeing less of each other, but moving apart wasn’t all bad. It allowed us to keep in touch (pre-internet) in goofy ways, like writing letters to each other on notepad paper shaped like pills, capsules, suppositories, hearts, livers, and other vaguely medical shapes, all courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, which showered undergrad science majors with weird gifts. (For years I had a small, clear-plastic-encased musculo-skeletal foot with the words “Roche – Naproxen®️” emblazoned across it.) We kept in touch, and visited each other, and played music together, and as our lives changed, and we changed, we stayed connected.

Dr. Dave (l) and author at Candlestick Park, ca. 1995.

Our musical tastes have certainly grown in different ways, but because we’re friends, Dr. Dave graciously compliments my blog posts on albums he thinks I’ve rated too high, or too low, and I do my best to listen to Classical music now and then. But no matter how much our lives changed, the connection has remained because deep down we are still the type of guys who love Columbo and Caddyshack and would drive around the city singing a fuck-off song to a place we’re happy to leave behind. And what a song it is.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got into Steely Dan because my eldest sister had a milk crate of 70s albums, and their record Aja was one of them. That was an entree into the world of Steely Dan. By my senior year of high school, I had Countdown to Ecstasy on vinyl, and a few others as well. The world of Steely Dan started out in 1972 as a rockin’, dirty, guitar-driven place that, as the 70s progressed, was further gentrified with each album until the decade ended with a sound that, frankly, was so sparkling clean that it was unrecognizable as rock41. Countdown to Ecstasy is the band’s second album, when they were still mostly a guitar-based rock band with jazzy overtones, instead of vice versa. And “My Old School,” with its phenomenal guitar work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, is a straight-up guitar jam, despite the prominent horn section (which was absent from this American Bandstand appearance …)

It opens with a few piano chords, a horn fanfare, and a cool drum intro, then singer/keyboardist/band co-leader Donald Fagan starts singing about a college drug bust. Steely Dan’s lyrics are black licorice – you love them or hate them, with no room for middle ground. I love them. They’re clever, but not in an Elvis Costello-esque wordplay style. Costello is like a witty TV show; Steely Dan is like a layered crime novel42, where nothing is what it first seems, and characters are waiting to double-cross our typically less-than-upstanding protagonist. References to Gino and Daddy G, the Wolverine to Annandale, oleanders in bloom … they all create a world for the listener to step into while guitarist Baxter plays guitar lines and solos that, frankly, still astound me. I was going to list all the cool guitar parts I like – but it basically amounts to the entire song! Co-leader Walter Becker is a great bassist, drummer Jim Hodder is fast and creative, and I still think of this song as one of my favorites.

Another of my favorites (and the album only has 8 songs, so they’re all favorites, really) is the album opener, “Bodhisattva,” which is like a jazz piece – a repeating chord progression over which the band takes solos and Fagan sings a few lines about a Buddhist spiritual guide.

When my son was in middle school he had a basketball coach who told the boys, “I want you to have fun playing hoops. You could have fun out there by throwing basketballs at each other and goofing around, but I want you to have fun by playing the game the right way. When you do something the right way, you experience fun a whole different way.” On “Bodhisattva,” Steely Dan sounds like a bunch of musicians having fun The Right Way. Guitarist and founder Denny Dias43 plays a solo, at 1:35, that is wide ranging and fun and an incredible 54 bars long! A full minute. After some more vocals and a back and forth between keyboards and guitars, Skunk gets his due, as well. He plays the outro solo beginning at 4:09. Two lead guitarists – as fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Judas Priest, or Thin Lizzy can tell you – is twice the fun.

But for an act that values “chops,” and makes songs like “Bodhisattva” sound easy, they have a way with a melody as well. “Razor Boy” has a catchy melody, and Fagan’s nasal voice delivers it perfectly. The vibraphone and pedal steel guitar give the song a caribbean-yet-country feel. The lyrics are typical Steely-Dan-opaque, sort of accusatory, somewhat menacing.

A particular style of Steely Dan lyric is the story song – full of characters and events, but obliquely described, much like “My Old School.” Another one is “The Boston Rag,” in which something happens to a dude named Lonnie.

Just what “The Boston Rag” is, one never finds out. But we do find confirmation that “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias are guitar maniacs Check out, for example, the solo beginning at 3:18, (Dias) and continuing at 3:48 (Baxter). Also, Jim Hodder’s drums in this song are very cool, very understated but key to moving the song along.

Speaking of songs in which the lyrics are indirect and ambiguous … what the hell is “Your Gold Teeth” about?

The music has a groovy, calypso feel, almost 60s jazz. It’s a real showcase for Fagan’s keyboard playing – the solo at 2:44 is really top notch. And it leads into an angular, tough guitar solo by Dias. The song’s melody is singalong catchy, but what am I singing when I sing about tobacco they grow in Peking? The year of the locust? And who is Cathy Berberian,44 and what are these roulades she sings? And how can I sing along to that last verse, where Fagan shows off his vocal skills?

Steely Dan would cease to exist as a touring entity and become a “studio only” band just a couple years after Countdown to Ecstasy. But although the band was filled to the brim with musical talent, on this album they were already bringing in hired guns when needed. Rick Derringer plays slide guitar on the funky Hollywood dis tune, 45Show Biz Kids.” He basically plays a solo through the whole song, answering Fagan’s lyrics with tasty fills. Then about 3:00 he takes over for the remainder of the song.

Although Steely Dan has an air – perhaps more than an air, a dark, dense cloud – of detached cynicism about them, they could pull the heartstrings with their songs and stories. Case in point is the lovely “Pearl of the Quarter.” Baxter pulls some beautiful pedal steel guitar, adding a sadness to this country-esque tune. It’s a rather tired story of a regretful man who fell for a “lady of the evening.” But the descending chords of the chorus, and the guitar overcome the story to create a true feeling of regret. Drummer Hodder’s crisp rolls and syncopation sound great.

The final song on the album is the wonderful “King of the World,” a dark vision of the end of times46. It’s a perfect Steely Dan album closer.

The song, for me, is really the Denny Dias show, as his guitar demands your attention from the opening four seconds, when a faint, wah-wah riff enters below the shuffling high-hat. He plays a delayed, waterfall sound behind the vocals, then nicely mimics the ham radio of the lyrics (0:38). There are great harmonies in the chorus, and with every verse, Dias builds on what he did before – but you have to listen closely. Once again, this song sounds like a group of musicians having fun. There’s a very 70s, hooting organ at 2:00, and bassist Becker plays a cool line behind it. Throughout it all, Dias lurks in the background. Then, at 4:17 he goes nuts with a jazzy solo that sounds like it went for three minutes, but the song fades out.

Steely Dan was a band that changed over the years, from a touring rock band to a studio collection of jazz/rock musicians. Sure, I like the early rockin’ stuff, like Countdown to Ecstasy. But I like the later stuff, too. Look, things change, people change. Dr. Dave and I have changed. But there’s another old saying, too: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The author (l) and Dr. Dave (far r.), c. 2018, still as cool as they were back in 1986.

TRACK LISTING:
“Bodhisattva”
“Razor Boy”
“The Boston Rag”
“Your Gold Teeth”
“Show Biz Kids”
“My Old School”
“Pearl of the Quarter”
“King of the World”

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10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

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The Bends. Radiohead.
1995, Capitol. Producer: John Leckie.
Purchased, 1999.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Bends, by Radiohead, is a mighty collection of guitars and weird sounds and swooping, swerving melodies. The band writes mini-symphonies, and singer Thom Yorke delivers them with power and conviction. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood throws a million different things into the background, rewarding multiple listens. The band evokes many emotions within a single song.

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

“Life is Suffering,” they say the Buddha said, but it’s very likely this is not true. Sure, Life IS Suffering – that is definitely true – but it’s doubtful the Buddha said these words. From a historo-linguistic point of view, he most certainly never said those three exact words, as certain as he never said, “Bro, check this out,” before speaking them. He didn’t speak English. But from a less ridiculous, more theological and philosophical perspective, it seems47 that he didn’t mean what those words together connote.

Still, I’ve always found solace in the words, despite my misapprehension of them. The fact that the basic state for humankind, perhaps for any-kind, all the way down to bacteria and viruses48, is suffering is an inspiring thought because it allows one to take pride in one’s happiness and in the simple joys, as they’re evidence that you’ve done work to overcome life’s basic state.

Of course, I’m a man in a (somewhat) advanced Western society, basking in all that my privilege affords me, so I try to stay aware of the myth that my suffering is just like everyone else’s. It isn’t. And the gap between my suffering and that of people in different situations than mine has very little to do with anything I’ve done. I’m the right collection of chemicals fortunate enough to be placed on the planet when and where I was, and then I didn’t fuck up my good fortune.

“What the heck are the blues?”

Still – I’ve had some shitty times. My blues are real to me, and my pains, well, they hurt. I’m lucky that they’re not compounded by the bullshit that society lays on those who don’t look like me, love like me, earn like me, or live like me. But this luck doesn’t do much to lessen the suffering that I, as a member of “Life,” endure. But there is something to help me endure it: music.

As a nerdy teen who listened to nerdy music, I spent hours in my room listening to records. The Blues are probably the natural state of most teen-agers, and it’s useful to find something to help them through it: books, music, comic books … For me, it was comedy – whether TV, movies, radio programs, stand up albums, funny songs – and rock music. In the 80s, when my concerns were acne and school dances and making the basketball team and trying to get out of band practice, well, a little rock music could help me work my way through it all. One meditative excursion through “La Villa Strangiato” or “Starship Trooper” or Gaucho or Van Halen II could perk a kid right up.

It also has helped me in adulthood. When my oldest kid was little, and I was moving into my mid-30s, I started to grow frustrated with almost everything about my life. Like many new parents, I was stressed out, unsure, lost in the care of others, feeling the weight of responsibility, and generally wigging out. My wife and I had recently moved across the country and we were both seriously questioning the decision. Everything about the “old life” seemed golden. Everything about the “new life” seemed horrible.

I was astounded by the deep love I felt for my kid, and this definitely helped guide me. But virtually everything else seemed to suck. My career was boring to me. I was trying to “make it49” in the stand-up comedy business, but family life seemed to be throwing up insurmountable hurdles. I fought often with my wife. And I drank too much, and even felt the pull of opioids, after a tumble down some steps gave me three broken ribs, a chest wall injury and a prescription for Percocet. The usual things that people turn to in such times – family, friends, therapists, community – weren’t really doing much for me.

But music was there for me. In particular, the Radiohead album The Bends.

I’ve probably written this before, but when I first heard Radiohead, in 1992, I thought they sucked. Their song “Creep” was all over MTV and the radio, and I couldn’t stand it. (Although Chrissie Hynde later did a version that I love.) At a party, in 1995 or ’96, a friend told me that The Bends was one of the best new albums he’d heard recently. I kept my mouth shut about how bad they sucked.

Then, in 1997, I saw the strange video for their excellent song “Paranoid Android,” and I picked up their record OK Computer. I became a fan50. I remembered my buddy’s praise for The Bends, so I went out and got it. It was just fine, but I didn’t become obsessed until I had that rough patch of life in the early 00s.

I’d listen to it regularly, always on headphones. I don’t even remember now how it became so important, or when, exactly, I started listening. But I have memories of lying down, baby asleep, house quiet, and letting the music work its magic. It soothed me, expressed feelings that I felt but didn’t understand, and kept me sane. I took to thinking of it as my “CD of Restraint,” akin to a chain that a werewolf attaches to himself while in human form to prevent his horrible, transformed lycanthropic self from running wild through the glow of a full moon.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if, without the record, I’d have gone on some killing spree, or would have awoken to find myself devouring a live goat at sunup. I don’t think I was that desperate. But it definitely helped my mental state at the time, from the opening winds of “Planet Telex.”

Phil Selway’s drums- in particular the strong bass drum – immediately grab the listener. Then Colin Greenwood’s bass enters with a loopy line, and all the sounds build to singer Thom Yorke’s entrance. His thin tenor sings lyrics that, frankly, probably resonate with anyone feeling down and out and wishing to wallow a bit. The chord pattern in the chorus, beginning at 1:20, is beautifully sad. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood adds cool guitar through the third verse, beginning at 1:55. I love the verses, and chorus, and how the band uses dynamics – a characteristic of most all Radiohead songs. When the bass re-enters about 3:40 and the song recedes with a little guitar riff outro, I find myself asking, “Was that the perfect song?”

And the band follows it up with another great song that hits you from the get-go. The title track, “The Bends.”

“The Bends” showcases Radiohead’s orchestral tendencies51 with an opening fanfare full of pomp. They scale things back so Yorke can sing – and once again, listening to the lyrics, I can see why I connected with them at the time. But despite the sad lyrics, the song is powerful and aggressive – as at 1:02, when another orchestral-sounding riff and bass set the stage for Yorke’s pre-chorus, then the guitars play simple chords as he sings. The band builds up to the chorus52 which Yorke sings with more power in each successive verse. This is another song that just sounds perfect to me – all the different pieces – and has one of my favorite guitar solos ever, beginning at 3:03, as Jonny goes back and forth between single notes and chords over top a furious band. It’s simple, but it’s wonderful.

After a couple barn-burning, aggressive songs, the band scales things back with “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” “High and Dry” shows the band can pull off the sad, acoustic numbers with ease – and while adding their own signature: guitar sounds, noises, and dynamic changes. It’s a lost-love song, and Yorke sings it well. The previous songs were sad but powerful – this one’s just sad.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is also sad, although the lyrics are about plastic surgery.

This is another of my favorite songs on the album. I think there are five or six favorites out of 12 great songs. It’s a showcase for singer Yorke, who sings sweetly until he opens things up, about 2:25, when he starts to really emote as the band goes nuts behind him. Then, at 3:34, he wonders if he could “be who you wanted, all the time.” It’s a song that still speaks to me, 25 years (!) after its release. (On a comment on the Official Video for this song, someone53 stated “Radiohead is the one band that can make you cry and cure your sadness at the same time.” I know what he means.)

The next song, “Bones,” returns to the guitar rock sound, albeit with a mid-tempo groove thanks to Selway and Colin Greenwood. I love when Yorke shouts “You got to feel it in your bones!” It’s a straightforward rocker that the band makes their own.

After rocking out, then slowing down, then rocking out, the boys mix things up with a song that seems to be one thing but – gloriously – can’t decide which it really is. It’s called “(Nice Dreams)” and it’s another favorite.

It’s a sweetly-swinging, 6/8 singalong song, almost like something you’d sing at camp as a kid. Swirling sounds support Yorke’s mystical lyrics. There’s great countermelody backing vocals the second time through the chorus, at 2:07. Then at about 2:24, it sort of goes a bit nuts, with Jonny squawking all kinds of squawks – or maybe it’s second guitarist Ed O’Brien. Then the song fades away – rather like a dream. A nice dream, actually. Perhaps a (nice dream).

The next song, “Just,” has a great groove, and nice doubling of the guitar and vocals. It’s one of the few songs on the record with lyrics that seem kind of angry. Jonny’s soaring guitar is really terrific, and the band again goes between soft and loud – they may be the band that does the most with dynamics outside of Pixies. In 2001, the Classical Music critic for The New Yorker magazine profiled the band and made connections between their songwriting and some of the “tricks” used by classical composers. Maybe that’s why the songs sound so good?

My Iron Lung” is another song, like “(Nice Dreams),” that has a section in the middle that comes out of nowhere, as if a different song was dropped in. This isn’t a criticism! I like it. It opens with a cool guitar riff, and a pumping, simple bass line that pushes it forward. It’s mid-tempo and peaceful, and builds in power, but nothing prepares the listener for the raucous section at 1:55. And while the lyrics say “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” this album means too much to me for me to agree. Even my least favorite song on the album, “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was,” is a song I like. The final song on the album, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” is another I don’t love … but it’s still very good.

Sulk” has all the majesty and pomp of the best Radiohead songs, its four-note guitar riff chiming like symphonic violins. Yorke emotes and howls the tale of disintegrating love.

“Black Star” is another of my favorites on the album. It has a swerving melody that Yorke sings at the top of his register. Jonny plays some terrific lines behind the verses. This song also has a harmony vocal, which is kind of rare for Radiohead, but it also has a tricky time-signature change, which is more common for them. It’s a song about things falling apart, and when the lyrics “this is killing me” appear at the end, it’s easy to see why it connected with me during the rough times.

I’ve had more rough patches since those days nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve had some amazing patches, as well. Either way, music has been an important tool in helping me through the pain and the glory. I often wonder if I’d like this record as much if I hadn’t stumbled onto it at that particular time. Who knows? Life is suffering, so I try to just accept the good things when I find them.

TRACK LISTING:
“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“Bones”
“(Nice Dreams)”
“Just”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Sulk”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

 

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11th Favorite Album: Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

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Damn the Torpedoes. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
1979, MCA. Producer: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
Purchased, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, is a collection of just 9 songs, but for Tom and the band that’s plenty to demonstrate their expertise. Petty writes simple songs that seem like they’ve always been in the air, and guitarist Mike Campbell adds exactly what’s needed. The Heartbreakers give each song the right spirit and feel, whether it’s a rockin’ ride or a subtle swing. And the record is only one of many excellent TP&HB albums.

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

I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.

But looking back over the first 89 albums, I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve only questioned the placement of one record. True, I realized mid-way that I’d probably missed a few of my favorites, and so I dealt with the issue of a static list in a dynamic world. But all-in-all, I’ve felt like I’ve done a reasonable job of listing those albums I love, and why. Number 11, however, marks my first egregious mistake.

I’ll divulge now for the sake of this album write-up: Damn the Torpedoes is the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on my Top 100. I really don’t understand how that happened. He’s got so many records that I love, that I’ve listened to so much, it just seems like there must be more than one Petty album on the list, right? So for album #11 I’m going to discuss several of his songs and albums, because there’s no way only one of his albums should be on my list.

First let me say that you should all go watch the 4 hour documentary by Peter Bogdonovich about Tom and his band, titled Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s excellent. It tells the story of Tom, a young Byrds and Beatles fan in the 60s, forming a hard-working, popular local Gainesville, FL, band, Mudcrutch, in the 70s, to World Domination as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Throughout it all, Petty just seems like a decent guy who likes to write and play songs. Who, in fact, doesn’t just like to write songs but admits that he’s never had writer’s block or any trouble at all writing songs. They just sort of come out of him.

And the amount of good stuff that comes out of him is rather astounding. Also rather astounding is the fact that he ended up in the same town, at the same time, as Mike Campbell, The Heartbreakers’ guitarist. Campbell has a sound that is unmistakable, the “Tom Petty sound,” playing leads and riffs that are typically spare, typically simple, and always cool. Take, for example, “Breakdown,” from the band’s 1976 first, self-titled album.

Listen to that little figure at 0:07, and then the main theme, an 8-second riff starting about 0:14. It’s classic Campbell. Also classic on that debut record is one of Petty’s most popular, enduring songs, “American Girl,” featuring another typical Campbell sound, the chiming guitar. Petty’s ability to meld singalong melodies with a ferocious backbeat is on display, as is his gift of telling a story, drawing well-defined characters, in a few lyrics. The band was more popular in the UK at this point, and released the single “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” there – and lip-synched it on TV! (Plenty of animated stars, but no keyboardist Benmont Tench in that performance.)

One of the great things about Petty is that in addition to all the hits you’ve heard on the radio54, he has so many terrific songs that were never huge. On that debut, there’s “Mystery Man.” On the band’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, there’s the rocking’ “Hurt,” and one of my favorite all time songs, “No Second Thoughts.”

I love the bass sound, the gentle drums and the harmony vocals. Also, I’m always impressed by Tom’s ability to write little novels in his songs. His nasally voice is used to great effect here. This album also contains the great radio tracks “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” An interesting fact (to me, anyway) about the high harmonies on most TP&HB songs: they’re sung by original drummer Stan Lynch!

After Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the band kept cranking out incredible albums. In 1981 they released Hard Promises, an album I had for years on vinyl. The band’s classic, “The Waiting,” is found on this album, a song that has some of my favorite Mike Campbell guitar, and great lyrics. But my favorite on the album is “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).”

It’s got the great, subtle, Campbell guitar, cool lyrics, and a nice bass line from guest bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The album features a duet with Stevie Nicks, “The Insider,” but doesn’t feature the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was recorded at the same time, but wound up on Nicks’s album Bella Donna. My picks for little-known gems on Hard Promises are “Nightwatchman” and “Letting You Go.” If you love Campbell’s guitar, listen to that “Nightwatchman” song. You’ll thank me!

Up next in the TP&HB discography comes 1982’s Long After Dark. I bought this cassette from the Columbia House Record Club back about 1983. I was a huge MTV fan, and this record featured the Mad Max-inspired MTV hit in “You Got Lucky,” a song that on first listen didn’t sound much like the band’s previous stuff, but still sounded good.

That spare Mike Campbell guitar is heard throughout, but on this song keyboardist Benmont Tench plays a synth, instead of the typical organ, giving a sort of 80s edge to the song. But it’s basic rock, and it has all the stuff I love about Tom and the band. The straightforward “Change of Heart” is also on Long After Dark, and it’s one of my favorites of his. My stand-out unknown track on this one is “We Stand a Chance.”

The next two records, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), from 1985 and 1987, respectively, scored a few hits, and one huge MTV blockbuster. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were fine songs that got lots of airplay55, but “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” written with The Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, had the iconic video (that in my opinion was better than the song itself!)

I remember my friends and I being impressed with the sitar sound, and I always liked the female backing vocalists. Of course, Mike Campbell’s guitar shines. The band also put out a live album in 1985, Pack Up the Plantation: Live, and included a scorching version of the old Byrds’ hit “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star.”

A few Tom Petty memories: 1) my best friend in high school, Dan, had an older brother he called Nature Boy who looked EXACTLY like Tom Petty. 2) My two older sisters went to Philadelphia to see Tom Petty in concert around 1983, and some would-be mugger attempted to steal my sister’s purse, but my other sister pounded on his back and drove him away! 3) Also, everyone – I mean everyone – in 1989 was listening to Tom Petty’s debut solo album (i.e. without The Heartbreakers) Full Moon Fever.

This record had hit after hit. Of course “Free Fallin'” was huge, but also “I Won’t Back Down,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “A Face in the Crowd” … all were hits. And “Love is a Long Road” got lots of airplay. He also had a few hits around this time with the supergroup he helped form, The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.).

So, that brings us to 1989, meaning he’s still got 30 years of music (almost: RIP Tom) ahead of him. Those first 13 years were incredible, but he kept doing what he’d done all along: put out great rock records. Into the Great Wide Open was a hit album in 1991, and it actually made me angry at Mr. Petty for some time.

A classic TP lyric was lifted from this song.

You see, he ripped off the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from The Replacements’ song “I’ll Be You,” after the band opened for him on tour. But I’m over it now. Anyway, the 90s saw great songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “You Wreck Me.” The 90s through 10s saw great albums: Wildflowers56, the She’s the One soundtrack, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, a Mudcrutch reunion, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. He kept cranking out great music well into his 60s.

I first remember Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a middle schooler, and in my mind they were lumped in with all the “skinny tie” bands back then. This was around 1979 to 1981, and acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and The Romantics were playing a punk-ish brand of guitar rock called “new wave.” It seemed that any act with a bit shorter hair and decent clothes that wasn’t playing blues-rock was painted with that new-wave, skinny tie brush – from Huey Lewis to Rick Springfield to Quarterflash to Tom Petty. (Even Billy Joel got into the act.)

In 1980, the songs “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were all over the radio. But I didn’t buy the record until years later, after college, when my cover band with Dr. Dave, JB and The So-Called Cells, began playing lots of Petty songs. It was then that I realized that not only do so many Petty songs SOUND great, they’re also REALLY FUN TO PLAY! This has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the man and his band.

Damn the Torpedoes comes out swinging with the smash hit “Refugee,” a song that will always remind me of playing backyard baseball and football up the street at the Starr’s house – it is the sound of 7th and 8th grade.

It starts with cool organ from Benmont Tench, a nice little guitar piece by Campbell, and then Tom’s signature vocal stylings. At 0:25, there’s a classic Mike Campbell bit where he slides back and forth between 2 notes, a subtle nugget that puts his signature on the song. (At 0:58 the video shows a close up of his left hand playing it again.) Petty sort of scats his way through the verses (albeit with real words), cramming syllables where they shouldn’t fit in as he begs his girl to stop pulling away. My favorite is the last verse where he suggests, “Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.” At 3:00, he also offers his signature scream, which has always reminded me of 80s shouting comic Sam Kinison.

Petty’s vocal stylings are used to great effect when he mumbles his way through the verses of the next song, the classic “Here Comes My Girl.”

I love the cool guitar slide at the beginning, and the rumble of Ron Blair’s bass. But in the verse, it’s Petty’s voice that carries it, talking the lyrics until 0:50, when he once again spits out the lyrics like a soundcloud rapper, flowing to the lovely chorus. It’s a heartfelt love song in which Petty describes how she makes him feel57. It’s one of his best vocal performances. Let’s face it, he’s not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but his voice is passionate and expressive. Stan Lynch’s harmony vocals through the chorus are terrific, too, as is Campbell’s squiggles and Tench’s piano in the verses. You could listen to most any Petty song a thousand times and hear something new in the mix each time.

On “Even the Losers,” Petty’s at his best in terms of melding great lyrics with great music. His description, through characters’ actions, of first love and how it crumbles is succinct and accurate and connects emotionally.

“It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me?” I love Campbell’s Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo, and once again Stan Lynch’s high harmonies hit the spot. The song brings back many memories of early relationships; as Tom sings, “life is such a drag when you’re living in the past.” (By the way: if you ever get time, and I know I already assigned homework with that other documentary, try to watch this documentary on The Making of Damn the Torpedoes. It’s really good.)

My favorite song on the album is the track “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”

One thing I’m always amazed by with Tom Petty is his ability to make a very simple riff so damned catchy! In “Shadow of a Doubt,” it’s four notes, played before each line in the verse. For me, those four notes make the song. It’s probably got my favorite Mike Campbell stuff, his wizardry allowing the listener to unearth new nuggets with every play. The band really rocks, and my favorite version of the song is this live version from the old early-80s Saturday Night Live competitor ABC’s Fridays. The lyrics are funny, discussing a girlfriend that Tom can’t figure out, someone who speaks in French while she sleeps! It’s got everything a Petty fan could ask for.

The rave-up “Century City” follows, a straight-ahead rocker about the good times ahead that Petty could probably write in his sleep. The song opens with what I believe are sounds from the old Defender arcade game. Also, I think Springsteen lifted the melody for his song “Pink Cadillac.” The band shines, as always. They also shine on “You Tell Me,” a groovy, piano/bass driven song about a scorned lover with great interplay between Campbell and Tench. Both of these songs are cool, and demonstrate that even the songs that weren’t hits are always worth a spin on a Tom Petty album. Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t tremendous.

“Don’t Do Me Like That” was a huge hit, a top ten Billboard smash, and the biggest hit for the band to that date, peaking at #10 in February, 1980.

The opening drums and piano sound important, the little organ riff sounds cool, and Tom’s fast-talking near-rap vocals about his best girl treating him bad are singalong-worthy, even though they’re hard to sing along to. Stan’s harmonies in the chorus are key, as is his little fill at 0:49 heading into verse 2. Campbell plays some sweet licks behind the vocals throughout, which are necessary, as the song doesn’t have a featured guitar solo. But the genius of Campbell is that he doesn’t require a solo to stand out. On the rocker “What Are You Doing In My Life” Campbell plays a slide guitar. Its honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies give it a country-rock feel. It’s another deep cut worth hearing from Petty, this one about a stalker fan.

The album closes after just 9 songs, an economy that I wish more artists would strive for. And it closes on the lovely, if lyrically ambiguous, “Louisiana Rain.”

The lyrics are vignettes of a traveling life, and they remind me of Bob Dylan58. In the chorus, the lyrics are reflected in the acoustic strumming, which somehow sounds like rain falling. It’s a simple song with a great melody and cool guitar, including more slide guitar from Campbell. It’s one of those album-ending songs that wraps up the experience neatly, and sticks with a listener, inviting a second, third, and many more listens.

The rhythm section, Stan (L) and Ron (second from right) wear the band t-shirt. That’s dedication.

Look, what can I say. Writing about 100 different albums is challenging, but even more so is SELECTING those records. If I look back at my list, there aren’t any records about which I’d say, “Damn, I should pull that one off the list59.” Yet there seems like there should be more room for Tom. He was a musical gift to rock fans, and as good as Damn the Torpedoes is, there is so much more. Go out and listen to him. I think you’ll agree.

TRACK LISTING:
“Refugee”
“Here Comes My Girl”
“Even the Losers”
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
“Century City”
“Don’t Do Me Like That”
“You Tell Me”
“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”
“Louisiana Rain”

 

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