My Favorite Album: London Calling, by The Clash.

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

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

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

This is true in my personal and professional life, as well. I do try to ensure that my family and I are treated fairly in life, and I try to make sure that my career isn’t stagnating. I suppose these facts mean that I am aware of, and invested in, the sort of Competition of Life that one enters simply by choosing to be part of a society. But I’ve never been much of a scorekeeper, tallying successes and failures, credits and debits, breaks and slights, of myself and the people around me1. Scorekeeping doesn’t interest me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It opens with a guitar fanfare answered by Paul Simonon’s mighty bass riff, calling listeners to attention. Simonon, famously, had never played a note before joining the band in 1976, but the London Calling album shows he learned a lot in a few short years. Joe Strummer furiously spits out the song’s “it’s-all-going-to-hell” lyrics, while Mick Jones softens the “London Calling” refrain with his melodic backing vocals. Jones is a great guitar player, but instead of a solo the album version of the song has backwards-guitar, creating an eerie sound2 that heightens the song’s desperation. It’s a standout opening track among rock albums, the type that makes the listener wonder, “How will they top that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but in his autobiography3 he mentioned his admiration for Joe Strummer and The Clash, and this song – with its opening piano, horns and 60s-girl-group drums – sounds like the band is paying homage to The Boss. Each instrument was recorded twice so that the sound would be as huge as possible. Mick Jones carries the lead vocals and does a wonderful job on a consideration of what really matters in life. It’s a powerful song that I grow fonder of as I age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Quick Recap of #’s 100 – 2

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

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

ALSO REMEMBER: These are FAVORITES, not best ever …

100 – 91

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

90 – 81

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

80 – 71

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

70 – 61

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

60 – 51

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

50 – 41

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

40 – 31

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

30 – 21

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

20 – 11

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

10 – 2

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

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2nd Favorite Album: The Stone Roses

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

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

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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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 electricity4. And upon its publication, the book inspired the work of real scientists in the 19th century5.

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 perfect6. 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 raves7. 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 Mani8 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 waterfall9. 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 work10. 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 crash11. 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 girlfriend12. 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 Christ13. 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 life14 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 artists15 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 Want16.

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 – 1517, 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 task18. 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 Ride19 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 store20 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 dancing21, 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 Willies22 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 Band23, 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 did24, 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 ‘Mat25 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 cut26. 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 van27 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 embarrassment28. 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 years29 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 era30. 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 Easter31 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 favorite32 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 album33 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 Rottens34 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 Neil35. 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’s36 old axiom, “Nothing’s certain except death and taxes.” However, she always pointed out that Mr. Franklin37 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 Franklin38 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 die39.) 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 DH40, non-English speakers41, 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 pharmacy42, 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 LeCar43 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 rock44. 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 novel45, 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 Dias46 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,47 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, 48Show 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 times49. 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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