17th Favorite: Flood, by The April Skies

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Flood. The April Skies.
2005, WiaB Records. Producer: Jeff Feltenberger.
Purchased, 2005.

IN A NUTSHELL: Flood, by The April Skies, is a collection of ten infectious tunes with a terrific sound and an Alternative Rock feel. Bandleader Jake Crawford writes great melodies, and delivers them with a weary, yet determined, style. His guitar lines are always interesting and the band behind him always delivers. Drummer Mark Tritico is a highlight throughout, playing subtly intricate beats and rhythms that always serve the song. It’s a little band on a little label, but the results are very big!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~
I’ve mentioned before that way back in the 80s I played the trombone in high school. I was really good at it, good enough to be in some honors bands and a trombone ensemble with little-to-no practicing. However, I never really liked it so after high school I rarely played it, and by about 25 I was done for good1. At some point in my late 20s, my mom told me she was sad that I’d stopped playing. “I always imagined seeing you as a big, famous trombone player on TV,” she told me.

It’s sweetly charming that my mom, by the mid 90s, figured that, among the rappers, boy bands, girl groups and other oddities in the United States’ cultural consciousness, some space still remained for a celebrity trombone player. The wave of the celebrity trombonists surely crested in the 1940s with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. There’s been nary a ripple since until, perhaps, Trombone Shorty today, whose TV appearances would only just barely, perhaps, qualify him as a “big, famous trombone player.” But still – I know what she meant. She meant the talent I displayed early on portended a larger role for that talent in my life than eventually materialized – a role she’d hoped would land me a spot on TV, I guess.

When I had kids of my own, I got some perspective on the child-activity-based forecasting done by most parents – including my mom. As my kids grew up, I realized that my predictions were based too much on the physical abilities of children. “That kid’s really fast! I’ll bet she’ll go to the Olympics!” “That kid built a Lego bridge! I’ll bet he’ll be an architect!” “That kid plays trombone really well! I’ll bet he’ll be a big, famous trombone player on TV!” However, I learned that those physical traits, even if they continue to develop and bring joy to kids and those around them, don’t account for all that is required to reach the equivalent status of “a big, famous trombone player on TV.” A larger necessity than physical traits is an innate DESIRE TO BE a big, famous trombone player on TV. The fast kid won’t go to the Olympics, but the fast kid who WANTS TO go to the Olympics might.

As a teenaged trombone player, I made lots of friends, I had fun times and laughed a whole lot. I didn’t love the music that we played in band, and I hated to practice. I was happy to be complimented as a talented trombone player, but had it been a talent that never revealed itself, I don’t think my life would’ve been much different.

Eventually I learned to play the bass guitar, and this was an instrument that I actually considered playing professionally – sort of. I was part of a band that wrote and performed songs and played wherever we could and tried to grow an audience and get a recording contract. Had things worked out the way we hoped, I’d have been a professional musician. Had things worked really well, I’d have been a big, famous bass player on TV. (This wasn’t as far removed from reality as one may think. We knew lots of people whose bands had videos on MTV. “Big, Famous” may have been a stretch; “on TV,” not so much.)

However, I myself wasn’t really trying to be a professional musician. I was trying to be a professional rock band member. There’s a difference. The other three members wanted to play their instruments. I just wanted to have some fun.

I’ve read dozens of rock and roll autobiographies. What I’ve learned from reading books by big names like Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Chrissy Hynde; and less-celebrated names like Andy Summers, Dave Davies and Tony Iommi, is that everyone who “makes it big2” loves doing what they do. You get the idea that if these people hadn’t become wildly popular and (for the most part) wealthy musicians, they’d still be in their little hometowns, old and gray, picking up the guitar every day, writing songs and playing music, making themselves happy.

It wasn’t really my deep ambition to create music, so after my band, The April Skies, broke up, I didn’t pursue music with much devotion. I continued getting together with Dr. Dave in our excellent band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, and I joined with friends to form other cover bands, such as Tequila Mockingbird and Two Legs Bad. But I didn’t have the drive to make music my life. The other three guys from my time in The April Skies did.

The April Skies, ca. 1992. (l to r) Cary Brown, Author, Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico. 3/4 of this band appear on Flood.

As of November, 2018, Drummer Mark Tritico is a professional drummer. Singer Cary Brown performs all over Europe with his band Ill River. And Jake Crawford, who led the band long before I joined, continues to put out music nearly 30 years later with The April Skies. He loves what he’s doing, and I love what he does.

So of course, I’ve heard of the band for years and years, ever since Cary, this kid I knew from high school, stopped me in the street while I was delivering pizzas in early 1990, to invite me to come see his band, The April Skies. About fifteen years later, long after I’d joined the band and left the band, I was still listening to everything the band put out. By the early 2000s, Jake had assembled his latest version of the band, and they were hitting the studio with Jeff Feltenberger, member of the roots-rock outfit The Badlees, who’d had some chart success in the 90s. Why don’t I let Jake take it from here:

Flood was the first record where we had a pre-production phase. We rehearsed most of the songs, and worked really hard for 2-3 months while gigging up and down the east coast. There was so much enthusiasm…” I myself LOVE that a bunch of guys with day jobs speak of enthusiasm to create art. “The studio was state-of-the-art. Big sound rooms. Every guitar and amp style you could want. Even a baby grand in the main room. It didn’t take long to see we were putting together something special. We just worked a lot harder at this group of songs than any previous effort. The tempo, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics and the vocal delivery. All of that was (producer) Jeff (Feltenberger). This record would’ve never happened if not for Jeff.”

As I’ve said, I’ve continued listening to The April Skies since I left the band, and I’ve enjoyed all their music. But something about Flood clicked with me from the first listen. At the time it was released, in 2005, I was working in a lab, and I’d play it on my portable CD player all the time. The album opener, “322,” is an atmospheric, slow-burner that builds powerfully.

All permutations of The April Skies have been able to take a page from the U2 playbook and build an exciting, terrific songs around just 2 chords – as is the case with “322.” The sound swirls between both speakers as Jake’s signature, trebley guitar repeats a simple riff. I think Jake’s always been more comfortable leaving vocal duties to other singers, but I like his voice, and on this album it’s quite strong. “When I heard my voice [on that song], it was life changing. I never sounded that powerful,” he told me. Mark Tritico, who drummed when I was in the band, plays on this record. He’s one of the most creative, yet powerful, drummers I’ve played with. I really like the syncopated rhythm he plays beginning at 1:10. At about 1:50 the song becomes a driving force, with Matt Mazick’s bass and Matt Higgins’s keyboards moving to the forefront. By 2:35, there’s a satisfying resolution, and the song fades quickly. Rte. 322 is a main thoroughfare in the band’s Hershey, Pa., town. Regarding lyrics, Jake says “some tornados had just cut thru this area. The fear and destruction it caused…felt like a great comparison to a few relationships I was privy to at the time.”

Next up is “Crutch,” a song that’s one of my favorites, and that sounds stylistically similar to an act that I couldn’t name. Then Jake told me recently that it was “My attempt at copying Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’.” I myself have always disliked that song. But I love this one.

I’ll be gushing about Tritico’s drums the entire album, and I love them in this song particularly. His snare sound is really great, as are his inventive fills, and his bass drum beat propels it all forward. It’s a catchy mid-tempo number, and the harmonies in the chorus are really strong. I love Jake’s guitar at 1:46 during the bridge, and the harmonies after 3:00. I especially love Tritico’s drums after 3:20 to his final, bubbling drum fill, which is one of my favorites in any song. Both Jake and Mark Tritico were in the band when I was, so maybe it’s because I know them, but I’m a fan of both. Their guitar, vocals and drums help make “You Are The One” a solid song that I would have released as a single.

Jake plays a terrific guitar. I can always pick out his trebley, pinched (in a good way) sound. His playing has always reminded me of James Honeyman-Scott, from The Pretenders. In “You Are the One” it’s less distinctive. But you can hear the typical “Jake” sound on the next piece, the fun, danceable “Long Way Down.”

This song is awesome! To my ears, it’s the lead single – fun, bouncy and danceable. The intro guitar solo sets the stage, and it drives. Regarding the lyrics, “I was lashing out a bit a people who took themselves too serious,” Crawford says. This song also features another member of the band from my years: singer/guitarist Cary Brown sings the high-pitched “Long Way Down” backing vocals. I could listen to this one all day. Jake’s guitar sound is also featured on “A Game,” giving the song a Middle-Eastern feel. His vocals are strong, and the harmonies in the chorus really make it. I love the little organ in the chorus, as well.

I think the melodies this band writes are tremendous. Every song is sing-along catchy. Even the songs Jake doesn’t write, like the lovely “Still,” written and sung by keyboardist Mark Higgins.

It opens with a simple drum beat, with the keyboards and bass, by Mark Mazick, driving the song forward. Higgins’s voice is a strong tenor, and the ranging melody is fabulous – particularly in the second verse. It’s a sweet love song, and Jake adds some nice guitar throughout. Higgins’s keyboards add atmosphere and depth to many of the songs, for example on “Shaking the Tree.” The ethereal organ, along with Jake’s pinched guitar, gives this rocker an 80s British Invasion sound. Tritico again shines here, giving the song a bit of a dance beat while Crawford sings, obliquely, about addiction.

Jake’s lyrics are great. They’re indirect, but clearly purposeful. On the lovely, rather epic, “In the Mirror,” a long-term relationship has ended.

Jake says, “I wanted to paint the not-so-great periods in a relationship so that they’d go away forever. I wanted to isolate those moments where maybe I made a joke I shouldn’t have, or said the wrong thing.” The transition to the chorus is lovely, and Higgins’s harmony vocals are terrific. My favorite parts are Crawford’s guitar solo, about 3:08, and the wonderful bridge, beginning at 4:40, which always gives me chills.

Quick story: when I was in the band, Jake would always play a particular acoustic piece he’d written that was just stunning and powerful, a slow ballad that was clearly personal and that always connected with whomever was listening. We always tried to get him to record it, but he wouldn’t do it. Flash forward 15 years, and the song, “Something to Shine About,” has been transformed into a rocker.

I love the little bass note at 0:13, and the piano. The transition, at 1:07, to the chorus is great, as are the harmony vocals. I also love how the band pulls back, around 3:30, with Tritico’s rimshots carrying the load. Jake plays a cool solo (that could be louder in the mix!) On re-working this old gem, Crawford says, “The band worked up this music. And somehow, the lyrics re-appeared and it seemed to work. Our original intent was for it to be more Pixies/Radiohead with the verses being quiet and the chorus very loud. It sounds kinda Springsteen to me.”

Obviously, my connection to the people who made this record enhances my esteem for it. But I’m sure I’d love this record whether or not I had a friendship and history with Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico and Cary Brown. Would it be #17? I don’t know, or care. What I do know is that the final song, “I Will Surround You,” is one of my all-time favorite album closers.

Mark Tritico has always been able to set a mood with a drumbeat, and the echoes added to his intro deepen the mood here. Jake’s subtle, unmistakeable guitar sound is featured in the introductory solo, at about 0:48. He expands on the solo theme at the end of the song, 4:24. It’s another song that does a lot with only a few chords. It also features Cary Brown on backing vocals again. The lyrics are about a relationship coming to an end. “I had a recurring dream about this song,” Jake told me. “Long before we recorded it, we would jam it out at rehearsals. It would go on and on. My dream, we were playing somewhere out west, at Coachella or some outside event in front of 60,000 people. It was sunny and it starts raining lightly. While we play this song on and on. When I finally wrote the lyrics (long after the music was recorded), it only made sense to plead to keep the life we created together. Didn’t work. But at least I got this beautiful song.”

This last quote, to me, explains why some folks keep hammering away at their art. It says everything you need to know about creative people, and what it means to be “successful” as an artist. To an artist, there are dreams of your art bringing fame and fortune, and there are dreams of your art making a difference on people around you. But in the end, you do it because you could end up with something beautiful – an outcome that’s even better than being big, famous and on TV. The April Skies succeeded with Flood.

Track Listing:
“322”
“Crutch”
“You Are the One”
“Long Way Down”
“Something to Shine About”
“A Game”
“Still”
“In the Mirror”
“Shaking the Day”
“I Will Surround You”

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18th Favorite: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)

IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!

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

My dad (r.) and me (l.) ca. 1969.

My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.

He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.

The 1950s and 60s were some times of incredible industrial and technological advancements. It was a time of “better living through chemistry,” when science was going to save the “free world” from the commies, JFK promised a “New Frontier,” and the country was still unaware of some of the unintended consequences of such advancements: thalidomide babies, dioxin poisoning, lung cancer3.

But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.

But he was not a thickheaded dope who would cling to his beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was a smart guy. Also, he was very attuned to the people around him. The well-being of his loved ones and the feelings of those around him – whether he knew them or not – were very important. So while he may have been nostalgic for the old ways, he didn’t value the past over knowledge or humanity.

Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.

Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.

My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.

After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said4 “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”

Happy Grandpa, happy grandson, 1999.

I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”

To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”

He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.

I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us5. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.

Elvis is one of the most perfect songwriters for my taste in music. He’s close to (but obviously well-behind) Lennon & McCartney, on a par with XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagan, and a few others6. They’re all artists who write catchy melodies, have terrific lyrics and can pull it off while getting super-energetic. (Well, except for Becker & Fagan, who tend to get super-jazzy instead of super-energetic.)

And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.

For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …

As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.

I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”

Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)

Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.

This song actually features some of Elvis’s subtle guitar work, but once again the star is the backing band. Nieve’s organ, Bruce Thomas’s Duck Dunn-esque bass, Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drumming … The lyrics are straightforward temptation-based. It’s a dance-fest of a song, just like the band’s furious reworking of an old Sam & Dave slow number, “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down).” The album is chock-full of hyper energy, found in songs like the straight ahead stomp of numbers like “Beaten to the Punch,” and “The Imposter.” (The band could definitely pull off these numbers live, too!)

Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”

Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.

These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”

The song has a weird, echoing drum sound, has a little out of time piece just after each verse, and one can actually hear a little guitar throughout. Bruce’s bass line keeps the song bouncing along, and the lyrics are standard Elvis complaints. This is one of a few songs that stretch out the album’s musical theme, straying from the 60s R&B template. Another is the ska song7Human Touch,” a plea to escape the modern world that “looks like luxury and feels like a disease.” “Possession“, with its clever couplet “You lack lust/ you’re so lackluster,” and “Black & White World,” which the band played on the BBC, where pianist Steve Nieve was forced to pretend to play guitar, are a couple super-catchy mid-tempo songs.

But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”

It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.

“Men Called Uncle” has a looping melody, with a plea to a woman to give up the older men in her life.

It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.

My favorite song on Get Happy!! is “High Fidelity,” a song I was SHOCKED was not included in the soundtrack to the 2000 film of the same name8.

Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyrics

Me and my dad. September 2018.

are again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.

Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.

Track Listing:
“Love for Tender”
“Opportunity”
“The Imposter”
“Secondary Modern”
“King Horse”
“Possession”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“New Amsterdam”
“High Fidelity”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“B Movie”
“Motel Matches”
“Human Touch”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“Temptation”
“I Stand Accused”
“Riot Act”

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19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

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Hey Babe. Juliana Hatfield.
1992, Mammoth Records. Producer: Gary Smith.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield, is a straightforward 90s guitar-pop gem. Hatfield writes infectious melodies and the band behind her makes them sound alive and urgent. Her voice can strain at times, but it always suits the song, so I don’t mind. The lyrics are sharp, and offer a new perspective on relationships and culture. Get out your cardigan sweater and retro-Bobby Brady shirt, and re-live the early 90s with Juliana!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
As I begin to discuss album number 19 in my list of 100 favorite albums, and considering the pace with which I am completing each post, I’ve realized I should be at Number 1 sometime around 2022. Since this process is dragging out so long, I thought it might be a good time to review the process and discuss how I got here.

It has also dawned on me that as we reach the Top Twenty, there could be some rather upset readers who begin to notice that A) their favorite record won’t be on my list; and B) their second-favorite record is ranked far lower than some lousy record by some dumb artist they never even heard of. This could cause the feeling among readers that “I just wasted 15 years reading this blog to find out this dude has shitty taste in music!!” (I will refund all the fees I’ve collected from any reader who makes this claim.)

Sometimes I reach an album and even I think to myself: “Really?? This record is this good???” But invariably, after I begin listening again, I realize: “Yes! This album IS THIS GOOD!!” Only once have I had a moment of doubt.

So once again, let’s review the process:

1) I listened to all* my CDs. This probably sounds more impressive than it really is. I know folks who have thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of all types of records. I only own a few hundred. I listened to them mainly in the car as I commuted to work. I only listened to CDs, so albums I have as computer files, or old cassettes, aren’t part of the pool. Sadly, I haven’t owned a turntable in a long time, in particular I don’t have one in my car, so all my vinyl records are ineligible, too.

* – I decided that Compilation Albums and Beatles Albums were ineligible. Compilation albums because these typically cherry-pick an artist’s best songs, which would be unfair; Beatles Albums because it’s me cherry-picking the 10 Best Albums in history ever, and so wouldn’t be fair.

2) I took notes and rated the albums 1 to 5 stars. This rating was based on my feelings after listening to the album. It wasn’t based on a considered, in-depth, song-by-song critique that analysed both the artist’s place in history and the importance of the release in the ever-expanding network of contemporary artistic expression; nor was it based on a fixed list of characteristics that excellent records must possess. It was simply based on how much I felt the old “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!” feeling while I listened.

3) I sorted by number of stars. Five stars on top, one-to-less-than-one-stars on the bottom. This provided what one would think was an objective-as-possible list of records ranked by “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness. However …

4) I accounted for my own self-knowledge. You see, the point of this endeavor was NOT to have an objective list of “best” albums, but to have a subjective list of “favorite” albums. So I had to balance out the “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness with some “I-have-a-soft-spot-for-this-record”-ness and some “Yeah-it’s-great-but-it-doesn’t-really-speak-to-me”-ness. This meant that some truly amazing records that I’d rarely listened to, like Sticky Fingers, ranked lower than some, well, less-excellent records to which I had strong historical attachments. Like Yes’s 90125.

This is because I wanted to write about why I love the records I love. I couldn’t say much about Sticky Fingers beyond, “Wow, I should’ve listened to this record more often!” But I could discuss 90125 for hours. (Sadly). (There was one record, though, that I hadn’t listened to much that catapulted into the Top 20 because of just how amazing it is, and that record is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX9.)

5) The list was set and could not change. This post explains why.

I don’t look at the list, except during a very specific time period: after I publish a post. When Number 20 went up a while back10, I pulled out my list, crossed Ghost in the Machine off, and looked to see what was Number 19: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield.

I can’t say I was shocked, as I’ve raved about this record ever since it came out, and I knew it was on my list. But when I considered some of the hugely popular records, important artists and highly critically-praised albums that I’ve already had on my list, I wasn’t sure this little indie release by this rather-unknown, never-hugely-popular singer/songwriter would really hold up as a Top Twenty Pick. But the thing is: I love all the records on this list so much that at any given moment in time, the 98th record might be number 4 and the 20th record might be too low to make the list. In my mind, there isn’t really a whole lot to separate any of the records on my list. Instead of calling them numbers 100 to 1, I should really count them down as numbers 1.099 to number 1. That would be a more accurate appraisal of my relative consideration for all these records. So if you’re truly aghast that, say, Axis: Bold as Love and OK Computer are ranked so much lower than Hey, Babe, think of them as record numbers 1.049, 1.057 and 1.018, respectively, instead of 50, 58 and 1911.

But numbers-schmumbers … I am NOT aghast by the state of my list! Hey, Babe is an excellent record! I first heard about Juliana Hatfield when her band The Blake Babies had a song or two playing on the old MTV show 120 Minutes. I thought they were ‘eh.’ I was living alone in a little cabin in the woods when 120 Minutes played the first single from Hey Babe, and I was hooked immediately. Kurt Loder did a little MTV News segment on her, and I went out and got the record. I’ve loved it ever since. It was never a huge hit, but it’s gotten some critical love upon its recent re-release.

The single that got me hooked is the first song on the album, “Everybody Loves Me But You.”

I have a history of liking acts with unusual vocalists. The Hold Steady, Sleater-Kinney, Rush … all these bands have somewhat divisive singers. Juliana Hatfield has a girlish, soft voice that strains to hit some notes, but I appreciate the punk spirit of singing the songs regardless. Her voice doesn’t at all hinder the terrific melodies she writes. This song starts with a cool guitar riff, and a descending bass line at about 5 seconds, then the main riff starts. She spits out the lyrics quickly. I’ve heard people criticize her lyrics as having too much “poor-little-girl-won’t-a-boy-save-me” emphasis. But I think this criticism unfair (and perhaps a bit sexist) – I’m a man, and I very-much relate to the first-person narrator that tells most of her stories. For me, most of the lyrics aren’t gendered. Anyone who’s ever felt the heartache of knowing one’s targeted “right person” never feels the same way for you can understand “Everybody Loves Me But You.” And her voice does some really cool things, like at 1:48 when she puts a flourish on the word “tired.” It’s a cool, catchy pop song with a cowbell breakdown at 2:30.

The album has a definite 90s, alternative sound, with distortion and furious strumming carrying the bulk of the guitar sounds. There is very little “soloing.” And the Pixies-ish loud-quiet-loud sound pervades. It’s all put to good use on “No Outlet.”

I like the guitar doodles behind the soft part, around 0:30, and how the song deftly transitions between loud and quiet. Around 1:40 there is a solo of sorts, just some long, held notes, until the song drags to a near stop at 2:40, then moves to a really nice bridge. It’s a really cool song with different parts and lyrics describing (I think) the frustration and regret (which men feel too) of physical connections made without the emotions that make them worthwhile. The riff heavy “Quit” is another dip into 90s motifs, including suicidal lyrics, that doesn’t work as well for me.

The acoustic song “Ugly” was ahead of its time, an introspective, woman-centered song a few years before Lilith Fair. It got a lot of publicity back in the day for its direct approach to the topic of women’s self-image. Then it got a little backlash for being too meek. To me, its just an expression by an artist of one thing she’s felt. And these expressions of self are part of what I love about the record.

For example, “Lost and Saved,” one of my favorite tracks for its music and for its lyrics that capture the craziness of falling for someone you shouldn’t.

It’s got cool dueling rhythm guitar coming from each speaker, and the drums, by Todd Phillips, really move the song ahead. Hatfield’s thin voice strains, but fits perfectly. What’s best about the song, though, is the chorus that swoops in (1:19), features great “ooo’s” and then falls into a creative guitar solo at 1:38 from guitarist Mike Leahy. It’s a catchy, 90s guitar pop song that I sing along with every time. In my mind the song is always paired with its follow-up on the record, “I See You.” It’s a song about obsession, and – like “Lost and Saved” – also features 90s folk-rocker John Wesley Harding on backing vocals.

It has another catchy melody that I find myself singing throughout the day when I hear it. I like the lyrics of this song: “I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely” is a phrase that many people knocked around by their heart’s status can relate to. Most of the songs on the record discuss non-existent, or really bad, relationships. The song “Forever Baby” tells the story of a woman who has settled for a way-less-than-ideal man. The lyrics are Elvis Costello-esque, with lines like “I hold him like a loaded gun/I know he might go off with anyone,” and “I see a long lost home in his eyes/He sees a nice hotel in mine.”

The relationship songs are good, but my favorites on the album are less direct, or, in the case of “Nirvana,” directly about a different kind of relationship.

It’s about Hatfield’s love of the band Nirvana, and it brilliantly expresses the effect that music can have on a listener. The song begins, appropriately enough, with feedback, and continues with crunchy chords from guitarist Clay Tarver. It’s an aggressive song that has a sweetly melodic chorus (1:13) much in the vein of many Nirvana songs. The harmonies are terrific, and I’ve always loved the lyrics “Here comes the song I love so much/makes me wanna go fuck shit up.” It’s the feeling I had when I heard Nirvana. And the bridge lyrics (2:20), about the effect of music, are also just right: “When the sound goes around/and goes in your ear/You can do anything/you have no fear!” It’s a favorite song of mine, and apparently Kurt Cobain liked it, too.

It’s a 90s album full of 90s sounds, 90s themes and 90s guest artists. Head Lemonhead, and fellow New Englander, Evan Dando appears on many songs, including The Lights, a slow meditation on lost love. But the best guest appearance is by Minutemen bassist, fIREHOSE leader, and all around terrific guy, Mike Watt on the song “Get Off Your Knees.”

Hatfield plays bass on all the songs except this one, which she turned over to Watt. And the bass really makes the song. It’s another of my favorites on the record, almost entirely because of the bass. It’s a fine, quick song, about something, obviously, but it’s all about the bass. Plus it serves as a nice introduction to the closing song on the album, the ambitious “No Answer.”

It starts off a bit searching, and unsure, but by 0:45 the sweet guitar by Mike Leahy brings it all back to a nice “doo-doo-doo” chorus. There’s a lingering guitar interlude which is allowed to build slowly to the second verse. At 2:25 Hatfield again salutes the effect a good song can have, singing “I jump in the car/turn the music on/I’m gonna be gone/Don’t know how long.” It’s another lost-love song, that after another sweet chorus breaks into an extended outro that cries out for a long car ride. It’s a terrific album closer.

Hey Babe is a totally early-90s record. In the early 90s I was unsure, changing … a young adult figuring things out and never thinking I’d one day be consumed with counting down favorite records and sharing my connections to them. I didn’t know what I was doing back then, and I don’t really know much more nowadays. I do know I have a list of records I’m counting down, and this one’s on the list. And now that I’m done writing about it I wonder: Shouldn’t it really have been higher on my list??

Track Listing:
“Everybody Loves Me But You”
“Lost and Saved”
“I See You”
“The Lights”
“Nirvana”
“Forever Baby”
“Ugly”
“No Outlet”
“Quit”
“Get Off Your Knees”
“No Answer”

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20th Favorite: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police

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Ghost in the Machine. The Police.
1981, A&M Records. Producer: The Police and Hugh Padgham.
Bootleg Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police, is a fun record full of infectious rhythms and catchy melodies played by three musicians who are among the best. Stewart Copeland’s drums shine, as always, Sting’s bass and vocals are top-notch, and Andy Summers’s guitar is subtle and joyful. The songs are repetitive but never tiresome, creating a bouncing, hypnotic feeling that makes them enjoyable again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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There was a time when teens enthusiastically used the telephone, so much so that they would call each other up and sing songs about the day’s events, as the following documentary from the 1950s shows.

After World War II, the percentage of US households with a telephone finally reached above 50%, and from that time until the end of the 20th century it is hard to conjure an image in one’s mind of the daily life of a typical American teen-ager that does not include the use of the telephone.

Whether it was to call to make definite plans, or just to shoot the shit, speaking on the telephone was a teenage necessity. Up until the mid-80s, most families only had one phone in their home; a few families had “an extension,” a second phone typically in the master bedroom, but multiple phones, even on the same phone number, was seen as a luxury. This meant anyone could answer the phone when you called, so teenagers who wished to speak to their friends on the phone had to be comfortable with the phrase, “Hello, Mrs. (Name), is Johnny there?” They also had to be prepared for the dreaded “chatty mom12” who would ask you questions about your day, your family, or your schoolwork, when you just wanted to find out if Johnny knew where the party was. And what girls were going.

Of course there was something more than mere camaraderie and friendship that made phones super-duper important to teens: sex. Or, more likely for most teens, not sex but just dating. Or, more likely for dorky teens like, well, some folks I know, calling people with whom you hoped to go on a date. Or, actually, most likely for – again – some people I know who, there’s no reason to name names, or to comment on hobbies they may have nowadays as 50+-year-olds, like writing blogs about records they like – but anyway … for some people, just thinking about the possibility of maybe calling somebody with whom they hoped to go on a date was an important reason to have a phone.

But teens in the 21st century have a much different relationship with phones than past generations. Teens of the past dreamed of having their own telephone line in their room. Teens in the 80s loved phone conversations so much that they’d call party lines just to talk to strangers. But teens today rarely talk on the phone. In fact, many say they dread talking on the phone. This is despite the fact that most teens carry a telephone13 with them so frequently that it’s become a national health crisis.

Some people look on this drop off in phone use as a bad thing, but let me tell you: teens aren’t missing out on anything by abandoning the telephone. Phone conversations as a teen were horrible, particularly conversations with someone you wished to date. Most people were not as cool as The Fonz on the phone.

First of all, there was the issue of who was going to answer the number you’d called. As mentioned above, moms could be a minefield of questions, but even worse – if you were a boy calling a girl14 – would be the brother, who, depending on whether he was older or younger, could hassle you either by intimidation or mockery. (My sole high school girlfriend had both an older and younger brother, so I was very accustomed to the brother situation.) There was also the issue of possibly getting an answering machine. How much information would you leave for random family members to hear? If you’d never spoken with the girl before (often times you didn’t have to ask girls for phone numbers, as their friends could be the conduit for phone numbers), how much information would be enough for them to know who you were? Answering machines had great potential for snipping the stem of any budding romance.

But believe it or not, worse than all that was the actual conversation! Once you say “hello,” what do you say? Do you go right in for the date-ask? Or do you suavely make small-talk first? If so, what do you ask? What if she gives one-word answers – do you have follow-up questions prepared? Some people would actually write out a script, or at least a bulleted list, before making a phone call. I recall in all my teenage phone calls with girls (granted, again, a small sample size) that there was typically a lot of breathing, throat-clearing, “um”s, and repetition of meaningless, mild interjections uttered purely to break the silence: “Okay …” “So …” “Well, anyway …” It was a situation fraught with anxiety, and I can’t think of a reason why phones were any better than using text, Snap-Chat, Kik or InstaGram to blunder through adolescence.

There have been phone call songs for nearly as long as there have been phones, with the first such song thought to be “Hello! Ma Baby,” made famous for most Americans by a high-stepping cartoon frog. In the 40s, through the 50s, the 60s, from both Motown and the British Invasion, through 70s mellow men and superstars and punks, and 80s MTV hits and boy bands and college bands and fake bands, through the 90s and 00s and even through the 2010s, phone songs have been produced. And even though phone usage among young people is fading, songs about the phone continue to be popular.

A song that most people may not associate with phones, but that I consider a “phone song” because it always makes me think of my trepidation and anxiety about phone calls, is the hit song from Ghost in the Machine, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

This album came out right around the time I was first starting to think seriously about going on dates with girls, and as a kid with little self-confidence the following lyrics pretty much summed up my thoughts about possibly calling a girl: “I resolve to call her up/A thousand times a day/And ask her if she’ll marry me/In some old-fashioned way/But my silent fears have gripped me/Long before I reach the phone/Long before my tongue has tripped me/Must I always be alone.” The song seemed to play on MTV just about every hour in 1981-82, and I identified with it immediately. Stewart Copeland’s drums are always fantastic on any Police song, and this one is no different. The piano and synthesizer is used to great effect, and Sting’s bass provides a bit of a reggae feel that makes the song bounce along.

My sister had this record in her Big Bin of Albums, where I found several records I grew to love. It was one of the first albums I put onto cassette, and was one of the first albums I bought on CD. I’ve always liked The Police, and Ghost in the Machine has been in heavy rotation since I started listening to albums.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” was the song that first caught my ear, but it’s not representative of the album as a whole. While “Every Little Thing…” is a typically constructed (i.e. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge) rock song, with the vocals carrying the song and the instrumentation supporting it, most of the rest of the album’s songs are riff-heavy, grooving, meditative, pieces that, while they retain a strong melody, can be rather hypnotic. They’re repetitive without being monotonous, as with the second single on the album, “Spirits in the Material World.”

It opens with a flourish of drums from the incomparable Stewart Copeland, then Sting begins a bass line that is slinky and mechanical and that never seems to fit the 4/4 time signature of the song. Synths warble and whiz and Sting sings a catchy melody of philosophical lyrics backed by his own harmonies. Copeland’s drumming is fantastic. I find myself just listening to his cymbal playing when I listen. It always makes me wonder how many arms he has. At about 1:40 a simple Casio-esque synth enters, repeating an 11-note riff. The song doesn’t change much throughout, apart from the chorus, but it has enough of a hook that I don’t find myself getting tired of the song. (Unless, that is, it’s on in the background – if I’m not focusing on it, it can be a distraction, like a distant car alarm.)

Andy Summers, guitarist for the band, doesn’t show up on that song – his guitar parts were all replaced by synthesizer for the final mix of the song, which may be why he brought along a ukulele when the band “played” the song on BBC TV in ’82. And he didn’t have much to do on “Every Little Thing…,” either. On the closing song “Darkness,” a slow meditation on depression featuring Sting’s self-harmonized vocals, his guitar also seems to be missing. On the track “Too Much Information,” another hypnotic groove about modern (ca. 1981) media, this time with Sting playing honking saxophones throughout, Summers’s guitar is really cool, but you have to strain to hear the weird chords and choppy figures he plays.

Summers does get a chance to shine, however, on “Demolition Man.”

The song begins with more Copeland flair, then the bass-guitar riff and background saxophones enter. Copeland’s drums are fantastic as always, and Sting sings first-person lyrics from a superhero of sorts. It’s a song that always makes me want to dance, even though it’s got a weird time-signature – or, more likely, just a measure of weird time-signature that I can’t place, and that gives the song an enjoyable off-kilter feeling. But the star of this song, one of my favorite Police songs ever, is Summers’s squeaking, squonking guitar solo throughout. He accents each line of the verses, and keeps of the work for the full 6-minutes of the song. Like most of the songs on the record, it’s repetitive, hypnotic, and enthralling.

Summers also wrote the song “Omegaman,” which has one of my favorite openings on the record. I like that opening riff, and I really like Sting’s vocals on this song, sung from the point of view of the last human on earth. It’s a quick song, with a nifty Summers solo at about 1:15. It was also going to be a single, but Sting refused to allow it, since it wasn’t one of his own songs. Another song that features Summers is the downbeat-yet-hopeful “Invisible Sun.”

It’s a song reflecting on desperate people keeping hope alive. The intro is really cool, with the vocals arising out of the background, and Sting’s vocals in the chorus, including harmonies, are great. Summers has some cool riffs and solos, which is always a treat. As good as the individual players are, Police songs rarely sound extravagant or self-indulgent (except for, at times, Copeland’s drumming, which I don’t mind!) For example “Secret Journey,” is a song about spiritual growth that on its surface sounds simple, but when you concentrate on what each player is doing, you hear how talented they really are.

And they can be extremely fun, too! One of their most infectious songs is the anti-White Power gem “Rehumanize Yourself.”

My mom used to love this song. When my sister would play it, my mom loved to hear her sing along. I don’t know how loudly my sister sang the line calling the Nazi a c**t, but I doubt if my mom noticed it if she did. It is definitely a fun sing-along song! The bass is fun, and all the weird sax sounds are cool, too. But I love listening to Summers’s odd chords played throughout the verses. Another fun one is the similarly-themed reggae number “One World (Not Three).” Earlier Police albums had more reggae songs than Ghost in the Machine, so this is a bit of a return to form. Copeland’s drums are the star in this one.

“Hungry For You” is a song that’s sung in French.

For years I’d heard that it was sung in French because the lyrics were so incredibly filthy that Sting didn’t want to sing them in English. They’re not really so filthy after all. It’s got a simple (single notes!), catchy guitar line, and it has the repetitive, hypnotic thing going on once again.

But the “filthiness” of the lyrics was overblown – just like the concern people have about telephone communication dying. The decline of telephone calls between teens is nothing to lament. The calls were stressful, often unproductive. Sting understood that. A better use of time than calling each other on the phone is to take some time and listen to Ghost in the Machine. Be entranced by the rhythms of Stewart Copeland, get caught up in Sting’s bass and vocals, listen closely for the strange chords and subtle phrasing of Andy Summers. Then text that girl or boy you’re thinking of – it’s so much easier than the phone.

Track Listing:
“Spirits in the Material World”
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
“Invisible Sun”
“Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)”
“Demolition Man”
“Too Much Information”
“Rehumanize Yourself”
“One World (Not Three)”
“Omegaman”
“Secret Journey”
“Darkness”

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21st Favorite: War, by U2

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War. U2.
1983, Island Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: War, by U2, is when the band put it all together, melding their signature sound with terrific songs up to the task of delivering their message. The guitar work by The Edge is like no other – furious, dive-bombing, alarming sounds; and the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., give it support with enough space for it to shine. Bono sings distinctive melodies and leads the charge on an album that keeps me coming back again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I am a repeat customer when it comes to entertainment. If there’s a book/movie/TV show/album that I like, I have no problem reading/watching/listening again. And again. And again.

As with most everything in my life, this characteristic ties to my love of, and immersion into, television in the 1970s and 1980s. It goes without saying that media was far different back then. Obviously, there was no internet, but there were also no DVDs or VHS tapes. Actually, by the late 70s some schools and some very wealthy people had VCRs to play videotapes, and by the early 80s some households had them, but they weren’t common. If you wanted to reread a book, it was easy. If you wanted to re-hear a record, you’d play it again. But if you wanted to see a TV show or movie, you were at the mercy of the TV schedulers and movie distributors.

Reruns and televised movies were my saving grace as a 70s TV fan. (That dancing guy is Fred Berry.) “Rerun” is a quaint term in today’s age of watch-whenever-you-want Netflix and Hulu and On-Demand, all of them appearing on TVs and computers and tablets and phones, on buses, at campsites, and even – sometimes – in livingrooms. It’s hard to tell if TV shows even “run” anymore, let alone whether they are “re-run.” The idea of a TV schedule is as antiquated as a butter churn. But in the 70s, dammit, there was a TV schedule, see, and what was scheduled was what you could watch, and you couldn’t watch anything that wasn’t scheduled, see, so there was a weekly magazine called TV Guide, and schedules were published by newspapers each week, and these told you when you could watch a show and dammit, that’s the way we liked it15!

There were three basic types of TV reruns: daytime reruns, summer reruns, and random reruns. Daytime reruns were old shows from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, like Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart! and The Brady Bunch and Dennis the Menace and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. They played all afternoon and into the early evening on UHF stations, which were non-network stations16 that didn’t play Soap Operas all day. You’d only get to watch during summer, or if you were home from school sick. If you were like my family, and didn’t have a TV remote control, on a day you were home from school sick you’d scan the TV Guide in the morning to determine which station had the best lineup of shows, turn to that channel and leave it. You may have to suffer through a dumb Petticoat Junction episode, but the rest of the day’s fare made up for it.

Summer reruns were a different sort of rerun. These were all the shows you loved to watch at night from September to May, but repeated during the summer months, while new episode production took a break. Did you miss that Mork & Mindy episode back in November, where Mork becomes a cheerleader for the Denver Broncos? Well, keep checking the TV Guide, because some August Thursday night, you’ll get to see it!

There were also random reruns, which were simply repeat episodes shown during the regular TV year. You’d generally have no idea a rerun was coming until your family sat down together (which was how people did it back then, believe it or not!) to see what Mary, Ted, Mr. Grant and the rest of gang at WJM-TV were up to this week, and after a line or two of dialogue, someone would blurt out, “This is a rerun!” It was so disappointing, like your grandma getting the same gift for you on Christmas that she got you on your birthday.

As for movies, before VHS there was – essentially – no way to see a movie you wanted to see, unless it was in the theaters or being shown on TV. (One exception was that high schools and middle schools would sometimes rent movies – I mean actual movies on 6 or 7 reels – and show them on a Friday night in the auditorium for students as an alternative to a dance.) Those UHF stations that showed old TV shows during the day often showed old movies at night. This is how I saw Tora! Tora! Tora! and Kelly’s Heroes and Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Seven Year Itch and The Odd Couple, and so many others. Those stations also showed old horror movies on Saturday afternoons, which is how I saw Scream and Scream Again and I, Monster and Psycho. To see more recent movies, you’d wait for Network TV to show one on their regularly-scheduled movie time slot.

This all changed when subscription cable TV services, like HBO, came around, and when cable blossomed and suddenly 70 channels required “content,” and when VCRs came down in price and video rental stores became ubiquitous. This became the Golden Age of Reruns, when a chubby teen in a little PA town could watch Stripes 15 times a month, or watch 10 episodes of All In the Family in a week. Just as I could with books and music, I could now dive deeply into my favorite movies and TV shows. And dive again, and again. And I did.

So, anyway17, here is a brief list of books, movies, TV shows and album that I am pretty sure are the most-consumed all-time by me.

Books:The Yogi Berra Story. I read this four times in three years (6th through 8th grade) for book reports for four different English teachers, then I read it several more times for fun.

Loop’s Progress, by Chuck Rosenthal. In the 90s I used to read this at least once a year. It’s funny and weird and somehow reminded me of my family, even though we’re completely different from Loop’s wacky family.

TV Shows: M*A*S*H. It’s not that this was my favorite show, although I did like it a lot. It’s that reruns played for two hours every night in high school – one hour’s worth from a Philly station, one hour from a Harrisburg station – and so now I can quote lots of dialog from the show, even the lame later episodes where Hawkeye is Christ, Buddha and Groucho Marx all at the same time.

Columbo. I had VHS recordings I made, I have the DVDs, I watch them on COZI … my all-time favorite TV show.

Movies: Caddyshack. I think we finally got “Prism,” a Philadelphia-area pay-cable channel, like HBO’s little brother, in 1982, and it seemed like Caddyshack was on four times a week. And I watched it four times a week. It’s still hard to say this isn’t my favorite movie.

The Shawshank Redemption. I think this movie still plays four times a week on channels across America, and I almost always watch it when I see it.

Album: Hands down, no doubt, absolutely, positively the album I’ve listened to more than any other album, even more than all those Beatles albums I love so much; even more than albums by Rush, the band with whom I most identified; even more than albums by Yes, the band that most impressed me; even more than albums by R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands I got way into later on … The album I’ve heard most often in my life is War, by U2.

My introduction to the record coincided with a Christmas gift I received in 1983, a small stereo with a turntable and two cassette players, for easy music pirating. I know it was 1983 because I had chemistry in 1983, as a junior in high school, and I distinctly remember my friend Rick (who helped spark my love of The Beatles, and who also warned me that the new Honeydrippers record would suck) sitting next to me in chemistry and asking if I’d ever heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He was so incredulous when I said I hadn’t that he took a poll of the hip, young chemistry students around us18 to find out who’d heard the song, just so he could be sure that I was the one failing at being hip. I was. Everyone else knew the song. “I’m bringing you a tape,” Rick said, and the next day he brought in a home-recorded cassette of War for me.

That evening I took it home to my family’s basement stereo, placed there so my dad could listen to big band and Canadian Brass records while he made fishing lures and built muzzleloader rifles, and I listened. I was hooked immediately. When I got my own stereo for Christmas, I listened to that cassette every night, at least twice, sometimes more. I was obsessed by its sounds and words, the guitar the melodies. It rocked, but it was unusual, it sounded like helicopters landing in my ears – but in a good way. At this time, U2 was not well-known, just an MTV band from overseas, like XTC or The Boomtown Rats. They’d had an MTV hit in “Gloria,” but the names Bono and The Edge were were mostly unknown. After several months, I probably backed off to a point where I listened to the album only 4 or 5 times a week.

The songs on War have an intensity that has defined U2’s career, but the album sounds quaint to me today. The sounds I hear in the album gives me a feeling similar to when I listen to early Beatles hits, like “Please Please Me” or “She Loves You,” like I’m hearing the beginning of a movement, the beginning of greatness.

And it all starts with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

The song opens with Larry Mullen Jr.’s unmistakable martial drum beat and backing violin. As is typical in a U2 song, Edge’s guitar riff, beginning at 10 seconds, is simple yet contagious. And by 40 seconds, he’s just scraping his strings along with the drums as Bono carries the melody. Like Edge, bassist Adam Clayton is very adept at playing a simple line and making it sound great – I particularly like his descending run during the “how long must we sing this song” line. Throughout the song, Irish violinist Steve Wickham offers counter-melody and aural highlights that give the song a poignant, haunting feel. The Edge offers great background harmony vocals and plays a solo at 2:42 that is, again, simple but effective. What really gives the song its power are the lyrics, using The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with which the Irish band was very familiar, as a call for an end to violence. They’re timeless lyrics, and the line “When fact is fiction/And TV reality” is particularly resonant in 2018 America. The drum beat, the insistent guitars, the violin, the vocals … it’s a terrific song, and I knew immediately why Rick had insisted I hear it, and why the live version of the song became an MTV smash.

I listened to this album so often that the song sequence is burned into my brain. When one song ends, the next song is immediately cued up in my brain. After “Sunday Bloody Sunday” comes another marching anthem, this one addressing nuclear war, “Seconds.”

The martial drums, the scraping guitar (this time acoustic), the simple-yet-effective bassline, the electric guitar noises, the human rights-oriented lyricsin many ways this is “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Junior.” Mullen’s drums are particularly cool-sounding from about 1:05 to 1:15, as he pounds that high-hat. The moaning background vocals always sounded a bit spooky to me, and when I heard Bono and Edge sing “Say goodbye,” at about 2:00, and the TV snippet that sounded like kids training to be soldiers (actually it was women soldiers from the documentary Soldier Girls), well, I always got a bit creeped-out over adults’ fears forced onto willing kids. This album was probably the first “serious” record I’d ever enjoyed.

The one song I definitely had heard before I got the record is the classic hit “New Year’s Day.” A video of the song, featuring U2 on horses in the snow (?), was played regularly on MTV.

This song is The Edge at his best, slashing, squealing, chopping, just wringing unusual sounds out of his guitar. After this album, Edge’s sound would sometimes feel redundant, less revolutionary than it did on “New Year’s Day.” He crashes into the song at 1:10, then his guitar continues a conversation with the rest of the instruments throughout. The section from 2:40 until the end of the song contains some of my favorite guitar-work ever. At the time I was hearing this, it sounded so different to me – and that guitar, together with the song’s pounding urgency and Bono’s powerful vocals (and Edge’s backing vocals), made the song particularly inspiring. The lyrics are about (as I found out through research) the Polish Solidarity movement of the early 80s. Let’s also not forget bassist Clayton, who once again plays a minimalist bass line that propels everything else.

And let’s say a word, too, about drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. Like Ringo in the Beatles, he’s often thought of as the weak link in U2. But even though he’s not flashy, he definitely has his on style, and it always fits the song. He gets to open “Like a Song …,” and his toms and snares in the opening and continues through the song in a tribal manner. It’s another soaring guitar, ripping song – fast and driving. Bono’s lyrics are a cry for peace. This song shows hints of their punk-rock beginnings. Which isn’t the case for “Drowning Man,” a love song that is a nice break from all the ruckus, but doesn’t do a lot for me. Although I do like The Edge playing an acoustic guitar.

The band mixes things up a bit here, going from a slow number to a vaguely Caribbean-sounding song, and one of my favorites, “Refugee.”

It’s another song that is buoyed by Mullen’s distinctive drumming. The Edge once again dive-bombs into the song, around 0:25, landing on top of Clayton’s bouncing bass. Bono’s lyrics harken to a time when American administrations welcomed refugees, a time that will return.

Up next is a song with a bass line that is almost funky, “Two Hearts Beat As One.” I’ve always loved Bono’s vocals on the verses of this song, how the melody he sings is not really a sing-along tune, but he makes it catchy nonetheless. The lyrics are a bit oblique, mixing angst and love. It’s sort of a dance song (“Can’t stop the dance/Maybe this is our last chance”), thanks to the rhythm section.

Red Light” starts out sounding like a Bananarama song, thanks in part to backing vocals by The Coconuts (!), backing singers from 80s zoot-suited pop oddity, and Island Records label-mates, Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Edge’s guitar is angular and weird, and at 1:48 he plays a one-note solo behind a trumpet, played by Kid Creole’s trumpet player, Kenny Fradley. Then at 2:18, there’s a cool little breakdown part. The lyrics might be about prostitution? Hard to say.

The Coconuts also appear on another favorite track of mine, “Surrender.”

This song is tied with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” for my album favorite. I love the opening harmonics from The Edge. It’s a very simple track with a terrific vocal melody and great Edge-work throughout. It’s a rather ethereal track, with odd guitar noises swooping in throughout, including a recurring bass guitar “boing,” as at 1:52. After 2:40, Edge plays a very creative guitar solo, definitely indicating that his future was going to include more pedals, more effects, more computers. Bono’s lyrics are about the desperation of everyday life, and The Coconuts provide great backing vocals, particularly after 4:40.

The album ends with one of the great album closers, “40.”

It opens with a cool distorted tape sound and Bono counting off the opening. The cool bass line is actually played by The Edge, as Adam Clayton had left the studio for the day. (It’s a bass line that Jane’s Addiction creatively nicked for their song “Summertime Rolls.”) The lyrics are taken directly from The Book of Psalms, Chapter 40. Where “Sunday Bloody Sunday” angrily asked “how long must we sing this song?” at the beginning of War, as the album closes the question is asked again in earnest. The band vows to “sing a new song,” further repeating Psalm 40, with a hopefulness that as human misery is relieved those old songs will be unnecessary.

When this album ends, I have the natural inclination to listen again from the start. It’s how I did it for years. The power and sounds of the guitar, the band, the lyrics and vocals … it all takes me back. And even though I’ve listened a million times, I still have some more listens in me for War.

TRACK LISTING:
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“Seconds”
“New Years Day”
“Like a Song …”
“Drowning Man”
“The Refugee”
“Two Hearts Beat As One”
“Red Light”
“Surrender”
“40”

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