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

Share



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

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

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

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

Whether it was to call to make definite plans, or just to shoot the shit, speaking on the telephone was a teenage necessity. Up until the mid-80s, most families only had one phone in their home; a few families had “an extension,” a second phone typically in the master bedroom, but multiple phones, even on the same phone number, was seen as a luxury. This meant anyone could answer the phone when you called, so teenagers who wished to speak to their friends on the phone had to be comfortable with the phrase, “Hello, Mrs. (Name), is Johnny there?” They also had to be prepared for the dreaded “chatty mom1” who would ask you questions about your day, your family, or your schoolwork, when you just wanted to find out if Johnny knew where the party was. And what girls were going.

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

But teens in the 21st century have a much different relationship with phones than past generations. Teens of the past dreamed of having their own telephone line in their room. Teens in the 80s loved phone conversations so much that they’d call party lines just to talk to strangers. But teens today rarely talk on the phone. In fact, many say they dread talking on the phone. This is despite the fact that most teens carry a telephone2 with them so frequently that it’s become a national health crisis.

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

First of all, there was the issue of who was going to answer the number you’d called. As mentioned above, moms could be a minefield of questions, but even worse – if you were a boy calling a girl3 – would be the brother, who, depending on whether he was older or younger, could hassle you either by intimidation or mockery. (My sole high school girlfriend had both an older and younger brother, so I was very accustomed to the brother situation.) There was also the issue of possibly getting an answering machine. How much information would you leave for random family members to hear? If you’d never spoken with the girl before (often times you didn’t have to ask girls for phone numbers, as their friends could be the conduit for phone numbers), how much information would be enough for them to know who you were? Answering machines had great potential for snipping the stem of any budding romance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

21st Favorite: War, by U2

Share



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

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

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

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

Reruns and televised movies were my saving grace as a 70s TV fan. (That dancing guy is Fred Berry.) “Rerun” is a quaint term in today’s age of watch-whenever-you-want Netflix and Hulu and On-Demand, all of them appearing on TVs and computers and tablets and phones, on buses, at campsites, and even – sometimes – in livingrooms. It’s hard to tell if TV shows even “run” anymore, let alone whether they are “re-run.” The idea of a TV schedule is as antiquated as a butter churn. But in the 70s, dammit, there was a TV schedule, see, and what was scheduled was what you could watch, and you couldn’t watch anything that wasn’t scheduled, see, so there was a weekly magazine called TV Guide, and schedules were published by newspapers each week, and these told you when you could watch a show and dammit, that’s the way we liked it4!

There were three basic types of TV reruns: daytime reruns, summer reruns, and random reruns. Daytime reruns were old shows from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, like Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart! and The Brady Bunch and Dennis the Menace and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. They played all afternoon and into the early evening on UHF stations, which were non-network stations5 that didn’t play Soap Operas all day. You’d only get to watch during summer, or if you were home from school sick. If you were like my family, and didn’t have a TV remote control, on a day you were home from school sick you’d scan the TV Guide in the morning to determine which station had the best lineup of shows, turn to that channel and leave it. You may have to suffer through a dumb Petticoat Junction episode, but the rest of the day’s fare made up for it.

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

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

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

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

So, anyway6, here is a brief list of books, movies, TV shows and album that I am pretty sure are the most-consumed all-time by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My introduction to the record coincided with a Christmas gift I received in 1983, a small stereo with a turntable and two cassette players, for easy music pirating. I know it was 1983 because I had chemistry in 1983, as a junior in high school, and I distinctly remember my friend Rick (who helped spark my love of The Beatles, and who also warned me that the new Honeydrippers record would suck) sitting next to me in chemistry and asking if I’d ever heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He was so incredulous when I said I hadn’t that he took a poll of the hip, young chemistry students around us7 to find out who’d heard the song, just so he could be sure that I was the one failing at being hip. I was. Everyone else knew the song. “I’m bringing you a tape,” Rick said, and the next day he brought in a home-recorded cassette of War for me.

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

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

And it all starts with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

22nd Favorite: Tim, by The Replacements

Share



Tim. The Replacements.
1985, Sire Records. Producer: Tommy Ramone.
CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Tim, by The Replacements, is raucous, funny, sad, and sloppy. But most of all, it’s full of amazing songs. Songwriter/singer Paul Westerberg’s lyrics are some of the best around, and his gruff delivery lends weight to them. Guitarist Bob Stinson plays a million riffs and terrifically odd solos, and his bassist brother Tommy plays bouncy lines with drummer Chris Mars. It’s a collection of songs that are both fun and heartfelt, rock music done right.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
This is the 79th album I’ve written about (not counting the 12 or so extras I did in the middle) over the past 100 years, and if you’ve been aware of this blog for a while, and you’re a somewhat normal human, you’ve read 1 or 2 of those posts in detail and then kind of skimmed or skipped all the others.

At least that’s what I’m counting on, since I tend to repeat all the same themes and stories in all of these posts. Instead of writing thousands of words, it would have been easier (and faster!) over 79 records to simply say at the beginning of each post, “I grew up in a small town in the 70s, used to drink too much, was nerdy and played bass in a band and liked MTV,” and then just start talking about the record.

So forgive me if I guide us all, once again, to small-town life in early 70s America. It’s one of only 5 topics I know. But anyway … in the 70s, in my little Pennsylvania town8, people didn’t really talk much about what would nowadays be thought of as important things. The grown-up men I knew talked about cars and hunting, the grown-up women talked about soap operas and grocery prices, the kids talked about TV and school and sports. Any other topics were “serious,” and so had very limited space available to them in the common scope of interpersonal discourse. You could discuss health at the doctor’s office and religion at church, you could tackle sex and money and drugs and other emotional topics in oblique, humorous ways, but other than that, “important” topics were taboo. Thank goodness for MAD Magazine, or I’d have learned nothing about real life back then!

Open discussion of difficult topics was something you only saw, at times, on TV shows, like All In the Family or M-A-S-H; or even The Waltons. My first recollection of “real” topics being discussed openly was sometime in the 70s, when Phil Donahue started talking on TV about “controversial” topics. But my family, and most people I knew, thought this was just trashy, inappropriate TV, its viewers no better than rubberneckers slowing down at a rollover, and it had no impact on the conversations taking place around me, except for the people now calling Phil Donahue a “faggot.”

As a kid, I took my conversational cues from the adults around me, learning what types of “serious” questions to avoid. So I never asked my folks why they thought my classmate, the painfully shy M., often had bruises or a black eye in elementary school. I knew the answer myself, and didn’t have to ask. When a friend in 5th grade described an incident of inappropriate sexual touching he’d observed between the weird kid, J., and J.’s dad, I chuckled along through my discomfort, knowing better than to tell an adult and make them uncomfortable too. When older teens tried to sexually assault my little friend after a Pop Warner football practice, I, like everyone else in the carpool, just talked about Happy Days on the ride home, and never said one word to any parents. There were clearly events happening around me that I understood weren’t right, but whose impropriety I understood ran too deep, and touched too many too-sensitive nerves, to bother the grown-ups around me for confirmation.

The within-family improprieties were the most confusing, submerged so far below the norms of everyday life that there was not even a way to tangentially discuss them. While I could have brought up that post-practice attack on my friend by saying, “some older kids were really mean to R.,” entirely avoiding the brief sexual aspect of the incident, there was no way to say, “a bunch of people saw J. and his dad grab each other’s weenies a bunch of times” without venturing into a dark cavern of indiscernible conversational paths leading who-knows-where, but each likely to put most of the blame on me for bringing it up. The typical message back then was “each family does their own thing, and it’s nobody else’s business,” and if kids were showing up to school with black eyes, or crapping in their pants in class once a week because they refused to go to the lavatory, well, so be it. It was nobody’s business but the family’s.

The good news is that this reluctance to address many formerly taboo topics, including child abuse, appears to have lifted over time. In my life, TV in the 70s and 80s was a big change agent for this openness. Shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were indirect, while others, like Webster and Diff’rent Strokes, and a shocking-for-its-time (1985) ABC’s After School Special titled “Don’t Touch,” were very direct. By the time I was a teenager and into my 20s, the anything-goes attitudes about child-rearing, and the community silence that held them in place, felt like a thing of the past. And statistics9 seem to bear out that this openness may have played a role in improving the lives of children.

Of course more improvements must be made, and all threatened children still need to be protected. But the fact is that efforts to improve the lives of American children begun in the late 60s and 70s did have a positive impact on human lives. Children and families are getting help. For the children who don’t get help, many turn to the arts, and always have. British Victorian-era writer Rudyard Kipling was a survivor of abuse at the hands of his caretaker and said in his autobiography that (to paraphrase) the lies abused kids must make up to survive become the seeds of creativity.

I’m thinking about this because The Replacements are a band of guys a bit older than me (and my age, in the case of bassist Tommy Stinson, who joined the band when he was 12!) who, as children, had lives that could have used some serious intervention; and who, when they didn’t get it, turned to rock and roll. I wish for their sake they’d have gotten help. But I’m glad they turned their pain into such amazing music! Their story is told brilliantly in Bob Mehr’s 2016 book Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. I’ve read it three times. It’s excellent.

One of the book’s chapters is titled “Jail, Death or Janitor,” which was lead Replacement Paul Westerberg’s answer for where the guys would’ve been if music hadn’t worked out. And they sing and play every song – whether it’s a rave-up rocker, a sweetly sad ballad, or a straight-up punk rock slap in the face – like their lives depend on it. That’s what I love about them. I’ve written before about how I got into them through the guitar player in my old band, The April Skies, and ever since the band got a hold of me, I’ve never lost any enthusiasm for them.

The endearing desperation that permeates their sound is heard right off the bat on Tim on the opener “Hold My Life.”

It’s a straight-ahead rocker, with a bouncing, catchy bass line from Tommy Stinson. Tommy’s brother Bob handles the guitar, which is somewhat buried in the mix. But as with most all Bob Stinson guitar, it’s always doing something interesting – little runs (like about 0:40), or hitting great chords (like behind the “Razzle-Dazzle” chorus), or playing vaguely Eastern-sounding solo (about 2:35). What carries most of the songs, however, are singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s lyrics and delivery. He’s an out-of-control guy in an out-of-control band, and here he’s asking for help – so he can keep up his self-destruction. In just a handful of lines his performance conveys a regret over life decisions, a reluctance to do anything about it and a disdain for anyone who’d tell him to do it differently.

Paul’s “F-you” attitude permeates all Replacements records, nearly every song, and that attitude led to one of the all-time great videos of an all-time great song: “Bastards of Young.”

The band came of age before the video-music revolution, and one reason they never reached the mass popularity of some of their peers, like R.E.M., was their reluctance to embrace the MTV era. The video’s realization of the band’s “F-you” ideals is great, but what makes it even better is that it allows the listener to really hear the words. It’s an anthem about growing up with little guidance or communication from parents, and the hollow legacy of misunderstanding it leaves. But it’s not a complaint, it’s full of pride. Plus it’s singalong-catchy as hell. Drummer Chris Mars pounds his kick drum through the chorus, Bob slashes throughout and plays a weird solo. The band played this song on their infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance, which got the band “banned for life” when a drunken Westerberg shouted “Play it, fucker!” to Bob before his solo. (At 2:22 he also gives a hilarious stage-wink to Al Franken, who was apparently freaking out off-camera.)

Westerberg’s lyrics are nearly always thoughtful, always clever. He likes wordplay and uses it effectively to give depth to his songs. For example, “Swingin’ Party,” a term that means not only a fun gathering, but also an execution by hanging.

It’s a slow-tempo song, with a touch of 60s lounge style. Bob plays nice arpeggios, and Tommy throws in cool bass touches, particularly in the chorus. But again, Westerberg’s lyrics and voice make the song, as he appeals to a love interest by touching on their mutual apprehension. He’s got a way with words (“If being alone’s a crime/I’m serving forever/If being strong’s your kind/Then I need help here with this feather”) that belies his drunken-maniac personality, which probably has enhanced the “cult of Westerberg” that has built over the years. (By the way, this song was also covered by pop superstar Lorde a few years back.)

Another aspect of Westerberg’s lyrics that I appreciate is that you never feel like he’s bullshitting you – it always feels like he means what he sings. He’s not afraid to be vulnerable or goofy, but is always honest, and the directness in a song like my album favorite, maybe co-favorite, “Kiss Me On the Bus,” deepens one’s appreciation.

It’s a fun, bouncy number about wanting a little affection, and the descending three chords that come in right at 17 seconds are the sort of musical touch that draws me into a song. Mars’s drums drive it forward, and Tommy’s bass behind the chorus is great. The way the band builds to “Kiss me on the bus,” with a little guitar run (1:27), can give me chills. Bob plays a nice little Country-Western solo (1:47) then throws in cool chords as sleigh bells chime along. The song is a quick burst of pop perfection. (The band also played this song on SNL after changing clothes with each other.)

The band began their career as a full-on punk band, and that energy and excitement carries through all of their songs. On “Lay it Down Clown,” a song about a drug deal, I think, they enhance that punkiness with a piano (by Westerberg) and slide guitar. On “Dose of Thunder,” a clearly pro-drug piece, the punk takes on a classic-rock outtake feel, albeit with a terrific sloppy-noise guitar from Bob. The uber-catchy “I’ll Buy,” sort of a love song, is almost a punk/50s rock-n-roll number, and features Bob’s best guitar on the album. The frankly mean “Waitress In the Sky,” which was written as a mean joke for Paul’s sister, a stewardess, doesn’t sound punk but certainly retains its snotty attitude.

My favorite song on the album – or maybe co-favorite – is the salute to the radio stations who played all those punk songs; and all the DIY’ers; and all the weird and cool stuff that big-time radio wouldn’t touch: College Radio. The college radio stations were typically found way down in the FM stations around 88, 89, 90 MHz, where the big time stations never were. These numbers were found on the far left side of any radio dial, whether a car, boom box or clock-radio. So if you wanted to hear cool music, you knew to look way over to that side: “Left of the Dial.”

The song opens with charging, clarion guitars that back off about 0:20 to allow Westerberg to sing while Tommy plays ping-pong bass notes and Mars clicks his sticks. Then the full band pours in, and the song continues this soft/loud approach throughout. It’s a stop and start sound that beautifully calls to mind a distant radio station found in a traveling car, late at night, fading in and out. The lyrics are actually about a woman with whom Paul was smitten, Lynn Blakey, who toured with another “college radio” band, Let’s Active, just like him, and who he heard talking on college radio late at night. There’s a wistfulness to the song, a feeling of the loneliness of being on the road, but – rather brilliantly – the words address the feeling indirectly, and it seeps through in the performance. Bob plays a great guitar throughout, and there’s also a cool, weird dueling-guitar sort of thing with Paul and Bob at 1:40 that builds into another take on those opening guitar chords, at 2:04, and it ALWAYS gives me the chills. “If I don’t see you / In a long, long while / I’ll try to find you / Left of the Dial.”

There is much to love about The Replacements, but what really grabs me are Westerberg’s lyrics. His clever wordplay, and his ability to turn a phrase are Elvis Costello-esque. He doesn’t always tell others’ stories with his songs, but in “Little Mascara,” he shows off this ability, too.

It’s a story of a woman who’s been left behind by her no-good man, and her new guy is telling her she’s better off without him. All she’s lost is “a little mascara” by crying over him. Paul’s rough voice sounds great on it. The song’s got a Classic-Rock opening, and at 2:08 Bob plays a really cool, very “Bob solo.” Bob was a punk guitarist who worshiped prog-rock virtuoso Steve Howe, from Yes, so on that basis alone he’s one of my favorite guitar players. He was later kicked out of the band, and died at 35 of organ failure from long-term drug use. His childhood abuse at the hands of a stepfather, as described in Trouble Boys, was heartbreaking.

The band sounds like they know heartbreak, and not just the lost-love type of heartbreak, either. And Paul can place that feeling in the center of any song, and he often did. On the album closer, “Here Comes a Regular,” he describes the lifetime of loneliness and pain that accompanies such heartbreak.

It’s a song about a life spent in a bar, the attachments with others one makes there, and the knowledge that – like you – those other folks are really attached to the bar, not the other regulars. Phrases like “I used to live at home / now I stay in the house,” and “Am I the only one that feels ashamed?” are terrific. But Westerberg pulls a neat trick by adding a sing-along chorus that gives the song a feeling of connection and warmth and keeps it from being purely heavy and dark. He’s a songwriter who seems to naturally understand the complexity of humans, and incorporates it into almost every song. I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites.

It’s 2018, and there is still child abuse and there are still topics some parents or communities will keep hidden from children. But I think the situation is improving. And for everyone who’s been hurt or had their spirits trampled, in large ways and small, there will always be music to help you through it. And for those folks who turn to creating music to help themselves through it all, and thereby help millions of others, I’d like to say Thank You. I’ll try to do my part by keeping the conversations public and loud.

Track Listing:
“Hold My Life”
“I’ll Buy”
“Kiss Me On the Bus”
“Dose of Thunder”
“Waitress In the Sky”
“Swingin’ Party”
“Bastards of Young”
“Lay It Down Clown”
“Left Of the Dial”
“Little Mascara”
“Here Comes a Regular”

Share

23rd Favorite: We Love the City, by Hefner

Share



We Love the City. Hefner.
2000, Too Pure. Producer: Hefner.
CD, 2000.

IN A NUTSHELL: We Love the City, by relatively unknown British band Hefner, is a record of brilliant melodies that provide enough cover for leader Darren Hayman’s soul-baring lyrics that the listener doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Whether singing about sadness and loss or giddiness and love, or even politics or sex, the band will have you singing along with gusto, so you won’t be able to cry. And that’s what keeps me listening again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was young, elementary school through high school, and even into college, I was a big fan of Charlie Brown. At Ebenezer Elementary School, I regularly bought Peanuts books (basically comic strips in paperback format) from the Scholastic Book Club to supplement the pile of Peanuts books my sisters and I had received as hand-me-downs from older cousins. In addition to these books that compiled daily strips, such as Thompson Is In Trouble, Charlie Brown, and You’re a Pal, Snoopy, we owned a slim, square book called Happiness is a Sad Song, featuring Linus on the cover, a radio by his side, looking anything but happy. It confused me.

The book contained several single-sentence declarations of happiness, such as “Happiness is having something to look forward to,” and “Happiness is waking up, looking at the clock and finding you have two hours left to sleep,” accompanied by drawings of the classic Peanuts crew: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, etc. Most of the statements described happiness very well to me, and made sense. But a Sad Song? It says right there, it’s “sad,” not “happy!” How can a sad song be happy? It was one of those weird, grown-up, inexplicable things that made no sense to young me, like my grandma’s claim that Coke was “too sweet.”

And now, as a weird grown-up, I have to say that I completely understand what Linus meant. (I also understand now that my grandma was a diabetic, which is why she drank that disgusting TaB cola.) Sad songs do make me – and many other people – happy. And it turns out that it’s not just because I’ve been clinically depressed at various times in my life, and it’s not because I’m generally unhappy or a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. I may be all those things, but the reason sad songs make me happy, it turns out, is, well, complicated. But it’s been shown to be more than a weird, grown-up contradiction.

There have been sad songs everywhere for as long as there have been songs, I’m sure, but I’m not going to get into requiem music or folk songs or songs from other cultures. I deal in pop/rock, and sad pop/rock songs are typically – but not always – about lost love. The Adele mega-hit “Someone Like You,” scientifically proven to provoke tears, may be the best example of a lost-love sad-song. It’s extra-sad because not only is the music sad, but also its lyrics are not just “I’m sad ’cause you left,” but “I’m sad ’cause you left, and I’m trying to be happy for you,” which increases the sad-factor by at least 3.7x, if scientific studies are to be believed10. People love lost-love/breakup songs.

The 70s light-rock band Bread made a career out of sad break-up songs: “Diary,” “Everything I Own,” “If,” “Lost Without Your Love.” Each was a top-15 hit between 1971 and 1976. Their brand of mopey, depressive Loser-abilia landed in the sad-song sweet-spot – the early 70s, an era which must be the apex (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of sad pop songs. The charts were filled with maudlin odes to all kinds of woe. In addition to break-up songs, like “Alone Again (Naturally),” “All By Myself,” and “Without You,” were scores of songs about tragic death. There were tragic deaths of young husbands (“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia“), tragic deaths of young wives (“Rocky“), young fiancees (“Billy Don’t Be a Hero“), young apparent fiancees (“Run, Joey, Run“), the young singer himself by his own hand (“Seasons in the Sun“), young sailors by the dozens (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“) and an Irish Setter (“Shannon“). By 1976 the music world was so depressed, it NEEDED punk rock and disco!!

Songwriters know the world loves to cry along to music, and they do their best to oblige. In the early 60s, songs about the death of young lovers, such as “Last Kiss11and “Leader of the Pack,” filled the airwaves. Known to record executives as “sickies,” these songs were churned out by people who thought young death was a hit-song formula. Although death is an easy way to jerk some tears, the formula for sad songs doesn’t have to include it. Country-Western songwriters probably understand the formula (if there is one) best; on Malcolm Gladwell’s terrific podcast “Revisionist History,” he makes the case that it’s because they write with a specificity that their pop/rock counterparts can’t match. He also posits that the 1980 George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which (spoiler-alert) IS about death, is the saddest song ever written. I heard it for the first time on that podcast in 2017, and I think he may be right. (Here is Alan Jackson singing the song at Jones’s funeral in 2013. Bring a tissue.)

Sad songs aren’t always due to the careful planning of the songwriter. Songs can be sad because of the time and place you experience them. For example, the Wings song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” while a bit wistful and downbeat at first, isn’t a particularly emotionally devastating song. However, I experienced it as a boy along with a significant accident in my family, and to this day I find it too sad, and I always turn it off. Similarly, and probably more bizarrely, I remember the fun Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations” playing on the car radio one summer day while driving to a Little League baseball game that was supposed to be the first game in which I’d play – and a sudden rainstorm washed out the game. I still have a tinge of sadness whenever I hear it. Also, songwriters’ lyrics aren’t always what gets you: one of my favorite sad songs, “Nwahulwana,” by Wazimba & Orchestra Marrabenta Star De Mocambique, is sung in a language I don’t even understand.

The thing is, aside from “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I’ll listen to, and enjoy, sad songs as much as any other songs – even though they can evoke chills and tingles and regretful memories, and sometimes bring tears to my eyes. Two of my favorite Beatles songs are “For No Oneand “I’m So Tired,” two of their perhaps lesser-known sad breakup songs. Elton John’s 80s period wasn’t as interesting to me as his 70s stuff, but I’ll always stop to listen to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” I love The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg’s knack for tugging heartstrings, whether it’s over unrequited love (“Within Your Reach“) or being a misfit (“Here Comes a Regular“). When Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell killed himself, his song “Seasons” revealed new depths of sadness, yet I’ll still listen to it regularly.

That being said, I certainly don’t set out to buy records that are sad. I like melody, guitar and drums. When those parts are there, I’m happy, and if some emotion can come along as well? That’s just icing on the cake. And Hefner checks all the boxes. They’re an indie band active in the UK around the turn of the millennium who never hit it big, but who did catch the ear of influential BBC DJ, John Peel. They never had any hits, but you don’t need hits to make my list – or to be well-loved by your fans. I still remember the first time I heard a Hefner song. In 2000, I was a new dad in a new city, and I met another new dad/new city guy named Jon. He’s an amazing guy who, apart from being a PhD in some kind of linguistics/robots/speech stuff, also publishes novels, plays in an original rock band, and has an amazing breadth of musical knowledge and appreciation. When I met him, he was also a DJ at a local radio station, and he gave me a cassette of one of his shows.

I listened in my car, driving to work, and the first song was this catchy, sunny melody that somehow seemed dark and desperate. It sounded like something from the late 70s, and the obviously British singer, despite a definite warble to his voice, had a confidence and earnestness that stood out. I thought it must be some established rock act that I’d always heard about yet never listened to, the type of artist that sells few records but has all the critics’ ears – like Nick Cave or The Soft Boys. By the time the singer was screaming at the end of the song, I had to know who it was! The band was Hefner. I fell hard for the band – as hard as bandleader Darren Hayman seems to fall for every woman in every song. I fell so hard that I eventually spent more on a single Hefner record than I’ve ever spend before or since, $40 for an import-only live album called Kick, Snare, Hats, Ride.

And that song I’d heard was “We Love the City.”

Up front I wrote about sad songs, but “We Love the City” isn’t sad in a “somebody died” kind of way, or with a “Someone Like You” directness. The sadness is revealed slowly, with singer/songwriter Darren Hayman first singing lyrics lamenting the London subways and his girlfriend’s distance. As a subtle guitar line begins to accompany him, he describes a love/hate relationship with London, then turns rather suddenly to a series of comparative adjectives (“I am intrigued, not merely curious,” etc.) before the source his despair is revealed – his realization that his girlfriend doesn’t really love him. The song has what I think of as a “classic Hefner buildup,” the band’s, and more specifically Hayman’s, specialty: slowly ramping up the intensity, verse-by-verse, until his emotions are laid bare. What saves it from being pathetic and embarrassing are the clever lyrics and – more importantly – the excellent melodies he writes. Every song is singalong catchy.

Take for example the song “Good Fruit.” I sang along to this song happily for a long time before I really listened closely and realized its lyrics describe a situation most any human can relate to: someone breaking up with you just when you thought the relationship was reaching a deeper level.

The song features Amelia Fletcher from another band I love, Heavenly, on vocals. It’s a simple song, using a subtle melodica, and it gets to its hooky verse quickly. Hayman has the look and sound of an unlucky-in-love schlub, careless with his heart, too eager to fall in love, and never embarrassed by his declarations. He imbues all these songs with such emotion, and when he sings “you should stick around/ to hear me hit the ground,” it’s clear that he’s not actually considering jumping off a building, but that his heart has been pushed off the ledge. I really connect with this song, maybe because I’ve felt this way in my life but always kept it to myself, so it’s good to hear somebody singing it and making it real.

But Hayman and the band aren’t depressive and mopey. They’re actually rather funny, as that video above shows, and as this video, featuring fake nudity (always funny), for a song from a different album shows. But what Malcolm Gladwell noted about Country & Western songs is true of Hefner: the songs’ lyrics have a specificity – details, observations – that provide an emotional impact. Take, for example, “Painting and Kissing,” which describes (in a very catchy, bouncy melody, of course) the typical fizzling of a short, intense relationship.

The song basically has two chords, and the opening scratchy guitar plays both of them. Hayman gets specific with his vocals immediately, stating her name (Linda), where she lives (Holloway Rd.), where they met (The Wig and Gown)… There’s an organ break between verses, and as he builds intensity with each verse, he throws in terrific phrases that present a clear image of him and the relationship. “After a week or two … she was my girlfriend/but I couldn’t call her my girlfriend.” “The first time she came to my house/she brought Chardonnay/ Now I buy Chardonnay.” All the while the exasperation in his voice increases, until “On March the 23rd” she dumps him. At 3:45 the song stops for Hayman to plead for her return, and then those damn two chords continue, mimicking the rut one’s emotions can fall into. It’s a simple, terrific song, and for anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of an unbalanced love equation (i.e., the person who cares too much) the song is right on target.

It’s not a sad song per se, it’s just one with emotion and feeling presented baldly in a way that’s not often heard in rock. And although most of the songs are from Hayman’s perspective, he can sing from a different perspective, as he does in “She Can’t Sleep No More,” a jaunty, country-sounding song with interesting guitar behind the vocals, that tells the story of a woman who let the right man get away.

Hayman also uses his clever lyrics and untethered feelings on songs about being in love – ostensibly with someone who loves him back, although as a listener I do wonder if his partner might be a bit overwhelmed at times. “From Your Head to Your Toes” describes the entirety of his feelings for his love in a kind of lullaby. In “Hold Me Closer,” a piano based song with terrific vocals from Amelia Fletcher, he sounds fine, until he admits he owes her his eyes and lips and hands… In “Don’t Go,” he sounds more concerned than is typical about his love possibly leaving – and doesn’t seem to notice how bossy he sounds. On “As Soon As You’re Ready” he tries to dial back his intensity, but ends up sounding desperate all the same.

He also uses his lyrical gifts to harshly, and quite humorously, skewer former British PM and foe of the common people Margaret Thatcher in “The Day That Thatcher Dies.”

It’s almost funky, for Hefner, with a kind of dance beat and horns. Children gleefully sing “Ding-Dong! The witch is dead!” as Hayman discusses his political growth. As with love or sadness or sex, Hayman is direct and emotional about his politics.

Hayman’s voice and singing style make him sound like he’s baring his soul on every single note. But if Hefner’s songs were simply needy, emotional exsanguinations, We Love the City would be horrible. What makes it work are the terrific melodies behind the words. Words are always secondary for me12. But when they work well with the melody and the performance, it’s magic. Take, for example, “The Greedy Ugly People,” which bounces along just like a heart under new love’s spell.

Hayman sets himself and his new girlfriend apart, from those horrible folks who don’t understand love. It’s a lyrical us-against-the-world motif that draws the listener in, too: “I’m not a greedy, ugly person,” the listener says. “I know just what you mean!” A simple scratchy guitar opens the song. The verses and the chorus have a great melody, then a counter melody enters “Love don’t stop no wars …” which also sounds great. I also like guitar, and most of the songs have something interesting happening on guitar – like the little bit behind the vocals here, about one minute.

In the terrific “The Greater London Radio,” the music really supports Hayman’s words, creating a feeling of a chilly winter night, and adding horn flourishes at the end to signal his return to his love.

It’s regal and warm and the swirling organs create a symphony behind the vocals. It may be my favorite song on the album. Or perhaps my favorite song is the multi-part, Broadway-esque (and I can be a sucker for show tune-type songs) “The Cure For Evil.”

To be honest, whatever song I listen to is my favorite on this record – I love them all. But this song seems a step beyond the others. It eventually becomes a duet between Hayman and Fletcher, and this time it’s not just Hayman’s anxieties set to music, but also their impact on someone else. It starts with a simple piano phrase, and – as is typical – builds with each verse. He tries to explain that he’s a bit emotionally unwound, but that he’s growing and trying and at least aware of his own issues. There’s nice subtle guitar work, then at about 1:22, the song begins to bounce a bit and by 1:58 it hits its full stride. About 2:30 Fletcher (and a banjo!) enters. It marches along, horns enter, end then by 4:00 the big finale (with flute!) hits.

The band has an understanding of the emotional impact of music. I wasn’t really up on pop music taxonomy by the time this record came out, but perhaps they were an “Emo Band?” They don’t scream much, or wear makeup and black trench coats, but Hayman puts his feelings right out there, and I can empathize with all of them. Since they’re wrapped up in interesting sounds and great melodies, I can listen time after time. Linus was right: Happiness is a Sad Song. Or a Love Song. Or an Angry Song. As long as the melody’s catchy and the words are sincere.

Track Listing:
“We Love the City”
“The Greedy Ugly People”
“Good Fruit”
“Painting and Kissing”
“Hold Me Closer”
“Don’t Go”
“The Greater London Radio”
“As Soon As You’re Ready”
“She Can’t Sleep No More”
“The Cure For Evil”
“The Day That Thatcher Dies”
“Your Head to Your Toes”

Share

24th Favorite: Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin

Share


Houses of the Holy. Led Zeppelin.
1973, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Bootleg cassette, 1986.

IN A NUTSHELL: Houses of the Holy, the fifth album by the mighty Led Zeppelin, is eight different songs, eight different genres, and all kinds of cool. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham are in fine form whether playing famous riffs, supporting lush orchestral works, or taking on funk and reggae. It doesn’t sound like other Zep records – and that might be why I love it!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I generally modify all sentences I write so that I don’t make grand pronouncements stating “Everyone who …” I do this to avoid making generalizations that are easily challenged by an example or two that therefore render my statement false. However, I stand by this grand pronouncement: Every artist abhors plagiarism.

I mean any kind of artist, anyone who creates. Creativity – all creativity, whether drawing stuff, building stuff, writing songs, writing stories, it doesn’t matter what – is at its very core about personal ideas. It’s about having an idea in your head or your heart or your soul or wherever they come from, and shaping and building that thing into something that people around you can experience. It’s about allowing others to experience something within you; it’s about sharing your self with others.

However, creativity is a weird thing. The raw materials of creativity are pulled from the surrounding world, and most people experience that world – at least in part – via the art around them. Books, movies, songs, visual art … it all becomes – along with everything else in the artist’s life – another input to creation.

And although, when compared to painters or composers, some may consider their output culturally flimsy, rock/pop musicians are creative people. The list of musicians who graduated from, or attended, art school is a who’s who of pop music13, from Pete Townshend and Keith Richards through A$AP Ferg. Musician/novelists include country-rocker Steve Earle and John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats. Musician/painters include John Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell and The Replacements’ Chris Mars. Musician/Actors include almost every musician who ever had a hit record.

So, being creative types, musicians bring in all sorts of inspiration into their work, and some of that inspiration is bound to be the music they are listening to. And there can be a fine line between “inspiration” and “borrowing.” Sometimes the borrowing is intentional. Clearly John Lennon knew the Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me” when he wrote “Come Together.” I don’t know why he didn’t credit Berry, but he ended up recording an album of Rock ‘n Roll covers as part of his settlement with the publisher of Berry’s songs. (And backed Berry on an episode of The Mike Douglas Show, a very 70s moment.) And many artists have reworked classical works to generate hit songs. The practice of sampling songs is just another form of this process.

And that process is not just part of crafting modern pop music. Such borrowing is part of the fabric and history of classical music. And “borrowing” in other arts is routine. Authors like John Updike and others are fond of updating classics.

But sometimes (or often, some would argue) you don’t realize you’ve borrowed something. This (apparently) happened to George Harrison in the 70s. It happened to Rolling Stones Keith and Mick in the 90s, but they realized it and gave k.d. lang a writing credit, even though they’d never met her. And sometimes the difference between conscious and unconscious borrowing creates some Blurred Lines. (Ha! Get it?)

Giving proper credit is what separates “borrowing” from flat-out stealing, to my mind. If you don’t credit the source, you’re a thief. Sting, in a very Sting-like way, on the album notes for Dream of the Blue Turtles, carefully pointed out his own copying of the romance theme from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for the song “Russians.” Credits (and therefore royalties) have been given to sampled records since at least the early 90s.

I say all this because this post is about Led Zeppelin, and if I thought no one would know – or if I was a good enough writer to disguise it – I would completely steal four pages from Chuck Klosterman’s 2005 book Killing Yourself to Live right here. On pages 197 to 201 of that book, he explains the popularity of Led Zeppelin with men, and posits that “every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” In a resonant few hundred words he concludes “Led Zeppelin sounds like a certain kind of cool guy; they sound like the kind of cool guy every man vaguely thinks he has the potential to be, if just a few things about the world were somehow different … For whatever the reason, there is a point in the male maturation process when the music of Led Zeppelin sounds like the perfect actualization of the perfectly cool you.”

I understand this phase, I’ve gone through this phase, I’ve watched others go through this phase. (And as a big fan of the amazing “all-girl” tribute band Lez Zeppelin, I think some women go through this phase as well!) My freshman year roommate at college listened to nearly nothing else, had a collection14 of Led Zeppelin posters and pounded John-Bonham-Air-Drums nearly constantly, accompanying all the mighty Zep that silently roared through his drug-fuzzed brain. About that time I caught the bug, too, and I began listening, near constantly, to all the LZ tapes I’d made in high school.

I’d go in cycles regarding which one was my favorite. Dr. Dave gave me a cassette of their debut, Led Zeppelin, with the editorial comment “Their first. And their best!” And I agreed sometimes. Then I’d switch to those deemed “the best” by most fans, Led Zeppelin IV15 or Physical Graffiti. Even the widely disparaged In Through the Out Door would bubble to the surface. My Led Zeppelin Phase lasted several months, and all along I thought they were the perfect band. Fragments of that phase remain with me.

I can’t explain why Led Zeppelin main songwriters, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, were so reluctant to credit the sources of many of their songs. (If you don’t know, some of “their” songs, like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song,” were actually adapted by them, with credit only given to the original writers after lawsuits.) They were young, sure, but both had been around the music business for years before Led Zeppelin began, so they knew their way around contracts and rights. They either thought no one would know, or they thought they’d changed it enough to disguise it.

And this sort of ties into why I love Houses of the Holy. While many Zeppelin albums are filled with reworked blues, lifted from old African American blues artists, or acoustic folk pieces, closely “inspired” by obscure folk artists, this album has eight songs that are unique, independent and demonstrate a variety that many Zep albums (and I love them all, still) lack. I guess you could say “the song doesn’t remain the same.”

Ha! That’s a (very funny) reference to the romping opener on the album, “The Song Remains the Same.”

It’s a galloping opener that immediately grabs you with its buzzsaw guitar and suspenseful fanfare until the main riff enters, about 0:22. Led Zeppelin is a collection of four talents unsurpassed by any other rock band, and bassist John Paul Jones (who is my favorite member, although I play bass and so have a special fondness for bassists) starts showing his skills immediately, bouncing behind Page’s guitar. Page has a nifty solo, and then the song slows to allow the mighty Robert Plant to start singing. My only complaint about this song is Plant’s voice, which is slightly speeded up, giving his already high-tenor sound a kind of mosquito-esque timbre. His lyrics are about the joy of experiencing music. I love Jones’s descending bass line behind his verses. I also like the shifting tempos, which drummer John Bonham directs with ease. Page has a couple brilliant solos left in his bag of tricks, and at times sounds to be playing four or five other guitars in the background. From Page’s solo at 3:47 until Plant enters again at about 4:50 is one of my favorite 60-seconds-worth of rock music. It’s a fantastic opening track.

The next song is more fantastic, and completely different. I didn’t like the effects on Plant’s voice on “The Song Remains The Same,” but his unaffected vocals on “The Rain Song” steal the show.

It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. The acoustic guitar opening the song sets a mellow, mellow vibe, and the two-note hook, at about 30 seconds, is simple and classic, and calls to mind The Ventures’ classic instrumental “Sleepwalk.” Plant enters, soulfully reviewing the seasons of his love, and after each verse Page beautifully calls to mind rainfall on a series of descending runs (1:08). The band has never been shy about putting orchestral arrangements in their songs, and they revel in the lushness on this song, taking time to let the music swell and ebb, nearly 3 full minutes without vocals. So much happens in those three minutes – Jones plays lovely piano, Page deftly supports it all, and John Bonham finally enters, with some soft triplets. It’s a lovely piece, and Plant has barely sung at all, but the last half is his. His melody lags behind the music, helping give the entire piece a hypnotic, drowsy feeling. Behind the second verse, the Bonham’s drums are gradually building the song’s momentum until, just about 4:55, Page’s acoustic sets up the crash of drums to transition the song into Full Power Mode. It pulls back for the final verse, and resolves with a last acoustic coda. This song is wonderful and should not be blamed for any bullshit 80s hair-band faux-metal cheesy-asspower ballad” that DJs of the era may have tried to characterize as “Zeppelin-esque.” Puh-leeze.

We’ve heard Heavy and Soft, so why not combine the two? Zeppelin have always been the masters at mixing hard rock with acoustic, and they may have perfected it on the radio hit “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

This is the blueprint for Zeppelin, perhaps the most Led Zeppelin song Led Zeppelin ever played. The first minute and a half is country-folk, almost CSN&Y-sounding, but Bonham crashes in at 1:26, and Plant uses his signature wail on a series of koan-like snippets that, what the hell, at least sound good when he sings them. Page/Jones/Bonham pound through the verses, then transition at 2:20 into a sort of funky break with a great Page solo. The three sound like they’re having so much fun playing together, and their transitions across all Zeppelin songs are unequalled, moving songs between time signatures, keys, tempos with ease. In this song it’s done with an ascending run at 3:00. They can do anything.

Even funk! Although it’s their own brand, probably the only funk song ever played in a 9/8 time signature, “The Crunge.” It’s the least-danceable dance song ever recorded, basically four guys jamming in the studio with Jones overdubbing some curlicue organ. It’s a fun and funny song, one that many Zep fans don’t like. But I appreciate it, even if Plant’s lyrics are afterthought-like. The song has no bridge – a section in many pop songs that is different from the verse or chorus. In a nod to James Brown, the creator of funk, who often directed his band live in the studio to “take me to the bridge,” Plant asks for the bridge many times, to no avail. It’s a bit of humor from a band that can sometimes seem very serious.

Is there anything else this band can do? Well, if they can put their stamp on funk, why not try it on reggae, as well?

The title, “D’yer Mak’er,” is not pronounced “Die-uhr Make-uhr,” as me and a million other teen music fans thought for years16, but instead is a phonetic spelling of the country Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae. It’s another song some Zep fans hate, but I love the big drums, the clear Jones bass, and the sound of Page’s guitar, especially the picking behind the vocals. Plant avoids the temptation to affect an island patois in standard “girl, you hurt me” lyrics.

After showing its fun side, Zeppelin gets dark and dreary and psychedelic (and still friggin’ awesome!) on the chilling “No Quarter,” a song that I used to dislike but grew to love – maybe due to hearing it while inebriated so often. One of the amazing things about Bonham’s drumming is that he sometimes seems to be drumming in a different time signature than the rest of the band. At 1:00, when the main riff starts, Bonham plays on the “two,” but skips the “four” in every other measure. It’s a melodic piece of drumming, just like when he mimics Plant’s rhythm, at 2:28. He’s both deft and powerful, great attributes for a rock drummer. Plant’s voice sounds underwater, telling of knights journeying in bad weather to deliver a message. At 3:00, the band goes into a prog-rock jam that sounds like something off a Yes album, before Plant re-enters. More Bonham fun: listen to his drums from 5:20 to 5:35. He’s brilliant.

We’ve heard so many different styles, but how about straight-up pop rock song? Well, I give you one of their most popular songs, “Dancing Days.”

But of course it’s not so straight-up – just listen to that weird, dissonant chord 5 seconds in! The wailing guitar by Page sounds cool, and Jones plays a strange synthesizer that isn’t noticeable at first, but by the second verse is peeking through. Plant relives his teenage years (which may have included a lion with a tadpole in a jar?) with a voice as controlled yet muscular as ever.

The band still hasn’t played a typical arena-rock, riff-centered, macho song yet. But they finish the album with an all-time great, one of the most distinctive riffs in rock history, on “The Ocean.”

It’s another classic Bonham song, who introduces the song with a little rhyme, then powers ahead with a 4/4 beat, with 3/4 thrown in every fourth measure. I imagine Page coming up with this riff, and whereas most drummers would ask him to hold the last note an extra beat to keep the entire thing 4/4, Bonham instead rose to the challenge and just incorporated it. Plant is at his upper register, wailing in his best blues style about heading out of town. Page’s solo at 1:35 is subtly cool. I wrote about transitions earlier, and check out what the band does just before 2:13, throwing in a measure to ease into Plant’s “na na.” Later, at 3:17 they transition into a sort of 50s rock-and-roll style coda to bring the song and album to a close. It’s a great ending, in the show-biz tradition of big bands or stage extravaganzas, and I have to agree with Plant when he exclaims, “Oh, it’s so good!”

Led Zeppelin were so good indeed. They had a sound of their own that could be applied to any style, I’d say. I don’t dislike their blues, and I love their folk-rock, but I love when they’re borrowing entire styles from elsewhere instead of borrowing songs. Houses of the Holy has everything I love about the band.

Track Listing:
“The Song Remains the Same”
“The Rain Song”
“Over the Hills and Far Away”
“The Crunge”
“Dancing Days”
“D’yer Mak’er”
“No Quarter”
“The Ocean”

Share

25th Favorite: The Fine Art of Surfacing, by The Boomtown Rats

Share


The Fine Art of Surfacing. The Boomtown Rats.
1979, Columbia. Producer: “Mutt” Lang and Phil Wainman.
Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Fine Art of Surfacing, the third album by Ireland’s The Boomtown Rats, is at times cool, skinny-tie new wave and at times theatrical, Broadway bombast. It’s all tied together by terrific guitar and organ work. Bob Geldolf’s warbling voice on clever, insightful lyrics is the constant throughout all the songs. He pulls no punches, whether his topic is violence, suicide or humans’ indifference to suffering, but it never feels heavy, and it always makes you want to dance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I’ve enthused and reminisced and admitted embarrassing facts about the early days of MTV several times in this little project of mine. I try not to overdo it, but the channel had an impact on me. The launch of MTV in late summer, 1981, coincided with my first semester of high school, and due to the combination of my love of music, my age and the marketing geniuses at the channel, it left a mark on me. I think music fans of all ages have a time in their life when they first realized the importance of music in their lives, and the events and experiences of that realization remain a part of them as a music fan, and as a person, for the rest of their lives.

My friend’s dad was a young man in New York City in the 1950s, and he went to all the little jazz joints and saw all the big jazz names – Miles, Bird, Monk, ‘Trane – in tiny clubs with a handful of other folks. He speaks of those days – of seeing Monk drive off to get ice cream with friends just before a brilliant set at The Five Spot – with intensity and reverence, in details as if they happened a few days ago. One can tell that all other musical experiences in his life are measured against those days. He may have heard things he’s liked better, maybe he hasn’t pulled out a jazz record in several years, but those days and nights in Manhattan jazz clubs set the bar.

I worked with a guy who saw The Beatles live in San Francisco twice and had an 8mm home movie of his family black-and-white TV showing their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I know folks who got into The Grateful Dead in the early 70s, have seen dozens of their concerts and traveled along with them. I know a guy who was bored by rock music until he heard The Ramones in ’76; I know people from New York City who experienced the Hip Hop and Rap revolution in the early 80s right in their own neighborhoods. Music fans often have a time in their life, be it one night or an era, that sets the stage for everything else. For me, it was MTV in the early 80s.

Before MTV, my knowledge of music was directly related to whatever came out of my radio, and whatever my two sisters played. My eldest sister had some classic rock albums. My other sister was a huge Top 40 fan, bought a lot of cassettes, and was the No. 1 Fan17 of Central PA’s nearly-went-bigtime 80s band The Sharks. I listened to all of it with them, but I didn’t really have my own music.

Before MTV, music was really a mostly-aural experience. You figured there were humans behind those sounds you heard, and you guessed they were playing instruments and singing, but as for what they looked like, well, if you didn’t get music magazines (and nobody in our house did, really) all you had to go by were album covers. If you wanted to see them perform (and you didn’t have a concert venue close by), you had to wait for them to appear on TV, on a talk-show or variety show, or music shows like American Bandstand or Solid Gold.

MTV changed that, by letting you see the bands behind the music. For many folks, this was when music all went south, when “image” – which had always been a considerable component of the pop music biz – became, to many, more important than the songs. But as a 14 year old kid, I wasn’t so impressed by the image of the acts; I noticed them, and I’m sure image helped suck me in. But the coolest part of MTV (for me) was all the music by artists that I’d never heard of before, particularly UK artists.

MTV was the entry point into the US for many UK and Irish bands, sparking what became known as “The Second British Invasion,” the first having been during the early/mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and a million lesser acts crossed the Atlantic to give the kids here a thrill. There were plenty of great US bands back around 198118, but the British bands were on the music video bandwagon early, and when a channel came on that needed 24 hours of programming per day, well, those UK videos were ready for the taking. By July 16, 1983, 20 of the top 40 singles in the U.S., including 7 of the top 10 singles, were by UK artists.

And it’s true, the acts did usually have an image. But I was already a fan of image, even before MTV. I loved Cheap Trick, and their zany guitarist Rick Neilsen. I was already a fan of the weird and catchy American band Devo. The Brits just seemed to have thousands more artists in that vein: bands who had a look that they incorporated into the music. Devo was nerdy, jittery, and futuristic in both style and sound. A Flock of Seagulls changed “nerdy” to “peculiar” but did the same thing. Adam and The Ants were pirates with a tribal beat. Madness were retro ragamuffins playing catchy ska songs with horns. JoBoxers and Dexy’s Midnight Runners did something similar without the horns and ska.

But I didn’t like the music because of the image, I liked it because the songs were catchy and fun. If it was all about image, I’d have never liked all the androgynous and cross-dressing British bands. After all, I was a 14 year old, rural 80s boy, unprepared for that level of tolerance and acceptance. But still I liked songs by The Human League and Eurythmics and even Culture Club, although I didn’t admit it to many. Other acts with an image I didn’t care for included Duran Duran, The Cure, Billy Idol … but still I liked some of their songs.

If so many of those acts seemed to be purely successful marketing achievements, well there were also plenty of British and Irish acts on MTV that were serious musicians, whose image just seemed to be about making music. XTC, U2, Peter Gabriel, Squeeze, The Fixx and The Jam. There were one-hit wonders, no-hit wonders, ska bands, more ska bands, and even a few acts I’d heard before MTV who were also part of this whole revolution.

As much as I loved many of these artists’ songs, I never really considered getting albums by them. I was buying albums by AC/DC and Rush and Yes. To me, as catchy and fun as the British Invasion songs could be, the bands didn’t seem foundationally sound enough to support an entire album’s worth of music. My sister, Liz, however, did have some cassettes by some of these bands. One of her best friends, a cool, funny girl named Leeanne, worked the best of all possible early-80s teen dream jobs: clerk at the Mall record store. She seemed to know everything about music, and if I saw her working at the mall I’d try to ask her about what was good. She seemed to know about bands before they even hit MTV.

I knew The Boomtown Rats, an established Irish band that, to me, seemed to be part of the Second British Invasion, solely from one song that played on MTV, and sometimes on AOR radio. That song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” the lead single from The Fine Art of Surfacing, was a piano song, with an orchestral arrangement. It seemed cute at first, with its Garfield-esque sentiments. Actually, the song’s lyrics are about one of the first of, sadly, many gun massacres at schools in The United States, the only country where, apparently coincidentally (?) random public shooting massacres are routine and civilians can own battlefield weapons. It’s a terrific song, with great vocals and harmonies, and a showcase for the band’s keyboardist, Johnnie Fingers. But with its epic, earnest arrangement, it’s not something I’d want an album’s worth of. As much as I liked the song on MTV, I never thought about buying The Fine Art of Surfacing. But Leeanne told me the band was good, and then I saw the cassette in my sister’s collection. I listened to her copy a lot, then finally bought my own. The energetic songs and interesting arrangements had me hooked. The band seemed to be more than a marketing exercise, and there was more to The Fine Art of Surfacing than a sad, epic piano song.

The album’s first track, “Someone’s Looking At You,” had me hooked right away.

I like the simple acoustic guitar that opens the song and sets the stage, and the way this introduction builds through the addition of voices, organ, drums, until it kicks in at 0:30 with electric guitar and singer Bob Geldof’s warbling voice stating “On a night like this/ I deserve to get kissed/ at least once or twice.” There’s cool electric guitar cutting through the verses, and a desperation to the group vocals beginning at 1:15. The vocals’ urgency increases through the second verse, on lyrics about paranoia and anxiety, until the chorus bursts at 2:08, with a bouncing bass from Pete Briquette behind it. Bob Geldolf’s voice is unusual and shaky; during the breakdown at 3:00 he sounds almost like a cartoon character. But his voice delivers emotion and connects those emotions to the lyrics.

An example is the song “Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby),” written by keyboardist Johnnie Fingers, who wore pajamas onstage, and so perhaps was inclined to write a song titled “Sleep.”

Geldolf’s voice sounds perfectly exhausted and distraught on lyrics about insomnia. The band was fond of including sounds and noises in the background of their songs, and “Sleep” features this, with moaning groans at 1:00 behind “sick and tired” lyrics, and a rhythmic “shushing” in the background at 1:20 while Geldolf’s voice spirals into dejection. It’s a very theatrical song that keeps enough of a foot in the rock door to keep me satisfied.

The song “Having My Picture Taken” includes sound effects and a photographer’s voice. Simon Crow’s drums propel a vaguely caribbean beat, and a rockabilly-ish guitar strums along. The chorus is sing-along great, and there’s a nifty guitar solo about 1:55. It’s a cool song about taking pictures with a sound that’s hard to define.

There’s much theatricality in the Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldolf. Geldolf did some acting, famously playing the lead character “Pink” in Alan Parker’s film adaptation Pink Floyd – The Wall. And his efforts mounting Live Aid certainly demonstrate a willingness to think on a grand scale. This theatricality is present on “Nothing Happened Today.”

With it’s workday whistle and call-and-response vocals, it sounds like it could be part of a Broadway show. As the title suggests, the song’s about nothing happening, apart from Harry Hooper buying a toupee. The song has some cool timbale drums and some (frankly, dated sounding) hooting synth sounds. But there’s nifty guitar guitar riffs in the background. It’s a short, peppy song – which is another type of song the band favors. “Nice N Neat” is three minutes of energy, guitar, drums and questioning religion. “Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)” is a bit longer, but retains the new wave keyboard sound.

My favorite of the New Wave, skinny-tie, keyboard songs is the frantic “Keep It Up.”

I think it’s about sex? “Snap me in your breach/ I wanna be your bullet.” Could be. It reminds me of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions composition, with words spit out fast, a whirly organ, and drums & bass propelling it all forward, forward. The backing harmonies are cool, and the chorus (0:47) is catchy as hell. Plus, it has a false ending (not shown on the video) which I almost always love.

The Fine Art of Surfacing is a great album, with great tracks, but my two favorites combine the new-wave energy with Big-Arena-Rock theatricality, and blend them with Bob Geldolf’s fine storyteller lyrics. I haven’t talked much about his lyrics, but he can turn a phrase and conjure an image with the best.

“Diamond Smiles” tells the story of a beautiful socialite’s suicide at a glamorous party, an act remembered by the society crowd as having been done with “grace and style.”

It starts with a subtle electric guitar and Geldolf’s pinched voice. The song has those Phil Spector-Girl Group drums that I love, which helps the build up of the song. Nice harmony vocals are added the second time through the verse, then the energy backs off for another round of verses. This builds to the chorus: “They said she did it with grace/They said she did it with style,” and Diamond eventually goes out “kicking at the perfumed air.” The lyrics say so much about a type of person, a type of social stratum, in such a clever, acerbic way. The song next goes into a long “la la” fade out. The song is singalong catchy and fun, yet dark and pointed.

Another song that comments on society, this time the office-job stiffs trying to stay sane until the end of the day, is the wonderful album-closer “When the Night Comes.”

This is one of my favorite songs of all time. I love the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar mixed with electric, even the swooping organ, and I love the spirit of the song, and Geldolf’s vocal performance. It’s bouncy, fun to sing, and I could listen to it every day. There’s an acoustic guitar solo at about 0:17 that sets the stage, then the bass takes over to support Geldolf’s barrage of words. They’re all about the drudgery of the working life, and the freedom most everyone is striving for. Meanwhile there are terrific oohs and ahhs, harmonies, whirling organ, piano … it’s a celebration in song! At 2:31, when Frankie decides to call the woman from work, there’s an ascending stop/start section that builds to a dual electric/acoustic guitar solo at 3:00, which slows at 3:28, then builds again, and it all just sounds like the ecstatic feelings you get when the one you asked on a date says yes! Of course, they wouldn’t be Geldolf lyrics if he didn’t remind you at the end of the song that you’re still chained to your desk …

I Want My MTV!” they said, and I understood. It was new and exciting, just like the best parts of being a teenager. And like being a teen, some of it was bullshit, some of it was uncomfortable, and some of it leaves you thinking nowadays, “what were we thinking?” But it left an impact on me, and without it I might not have discovered some favorite records – like The Fine Art of Surfacing.

Track Listing:
“Someone’s Looking At You”
“Diamond Smiles”
“Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)”
“Having My Picture Taken”
“Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby)”
“I Don’t Like Monday”
“Nothing Happened Today”
“Keep It Up”
“Nice N Neat”
“When the Night Comes”

Share

26th Favorite: The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd

Share


The Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd.
1973, Harvest. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s wildly successful album, is another record from Floyd that demands to be heard in its entirety, first song to last. Roger Waters may have written most of the songs, but this is a David Gilmour tour de force, both for guitar and vocals. It’s a timeless record deserving of its many accolades and commercial success. The themes of being human in a modern world still resonate today, nearly 50 years after its release.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
How To Get Drunk Like A Rural Pennsylvania Teenager In The Mid-1980s
Step 1: Make The Decision To Go Get Drunk
Teens around Pennsyltucky (where I grew up) in the mid-80s, having grown up in the 1970s, had a unique perspective on cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and all things mind-altering. The attitudes were, by today’s standards, a little crazy. For example, seeing kids 10 or younger walking down the street smoking cigarettes would elicit a “tsk, tsk” sort of reaction from most grownups, equivalent to the reaction you’d get if a kid drank coffee. People just didn’t worry much about tobacco use. My high school had a “smoking lav,” where students could – with parental consent – puff away to their lungs’ content. My cousin and I routinely, as pre-teens, sneaked off to buy snuff at the local convenience store, where no questions were asked – then we put a bit inside our lip, got lightheaded and nauseous, then stashed the remainder in a stone wall near our grandma’s house and fell asleep at her house watching horror movies on Dr. Shock.

Most adults were less blasé about alcohol, but even so by high school there was a small but significant percentage of parents who didn’t give a shit if their kids got drunk. Many of them bought the beer for “partying.” Their attitude was “it’s just beer, what’s the big deal?” Most of them had been drinking beer since their own pre-teen years.

NOTES: 1.) 70’s rural PA concern over wine-drinking by boys was 20, but only due to a believed correlation to homosexuality.
2.) Today’s concern level for coffee grows exponentially with sugar and fatted milk product addition.

“Drugs” were less well-understood by the adults around me. Most of them were either too old or too square to have been truly a part of the Woodstock generation, so marijuana was considered a huge jump in seriousness-levels over beer. TV shows and music of the 70s sometimes presented drugs in a rather matter-of-fact way, but most often the message all around was “Drugs are Horribly Evil!” In the late 70s, my mom conspicuously left an anti-drug magazine around the house, and it scared the daylights out of me. Many families were very religious, as well, especially as compared to today, and that religious emphasis on good vs. evil provided a moral backdrop for some on the evil of drugs.

So – Step 1: Make Decision … Many kids make this decision anywhere from 6th grade on. For me, I was a dorky kid who was scared of making my parents mad and worried about accidentally dying, so my decision to use alcohol came much later than many of my peers. I was out of high school before I had my first beer. Drugs were out of the question.

Step 2. Decide Who to Get Drunk With
The normal thing for most people to do would be to hang out with only one’s closest friends while drinking. These are the people you like, the people who are fun, the people most likely to be forgiving if you do something stupid, the most likely to help you out if you do something stupid and dangerous. I only had two friends who I knew used alcohol – most of my close friends were kind of dorky like me. So I hung out with them the summer after graduating high school, and eventually an opportunity arose.

Step 3. Figure Out What Type of Alcohol and How to Get It
Procuring alcohol posed a multivariate problem, the solution of which required careful consideration of impinging factors, each influencing the others producing a variety of, at times, seemingly irreconcilable possibilities. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn expert teen drinkers from 1980s rural Pennsylvania went on to careers planning and executing successful Clinical Studies of emerging biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals19.

Liquor was easiest, in some ways, as many kids could easily swipe a little from their parents. It was also cheapest, although it was customary to give the thief a few bucks for the effort. It was also gross to drink, generally didn’t last long, and induced vomiting at a rate higher than other comparators. As for wine, well, come on, nobody was bringing wine anywhere. (SIDE NOTE: This was the beginning of the wine cooler era, which did show up at some drinking events. Wine coolers were an example of goods in which the commercials and embarrassing celebrity endorsements were far more memorable than the products they advertised. Wine Coolers were also the “Hard Lemonade” of the era – a drink clearly aimed at the underage market.)

Beer was the winner. In Pennsylvania, the only way to buy beer was (and may still be) to either a) go to a bar and buy a six-pack20; or b) go to a Beer Distributor to buy cases and kegs. This would initially seem like a barrier for teen drinkers – having to go into a store for beer as a (generally) obviously not-yet-21 customer. However, there were countless middlemen (older siblings/ cousins/ random weirdos/ parents) willing to make the purchase for you for a fee. Also, plenty of bars and beer distributors were more concerned with making a buck than with laws and safety and were happy to pretend that some dude, barely able to grow a few whiskers and wearing a “Class of ’85” t-shirt in 1985, who arrived in a station wagon with a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper-sticker, was likely older than 21. You didn’t even need a fake I.D. Just pick out the cheapest beer possible, and go.

Step 4. Decide Where to Go
Although parents in the mid-80s were less likely to get their collective panties in a bunch over alcohol use than today’s grown-ups, the consequences of being caught drinking or drunk as a teen were clear (possible arrest, parents being informed, etc.), and the extreme consequences (your angry parent has heart-attack at news of arrest, etc.) were always in the back of my nervous, rule-following mind. So one had to be careful about where to go. Of course there were parties hosted by kids with out-of-town parents, and parties hosted by kids with scary, let’s-buy-booze-for-the-kids parents, but both of these seemed tailor-made for a police bust. For my money, the ideal place to go in rural PA was the woods. And the place to be seen in the woods (although technically not, as it was always super dark, but more on that in a bit) around my town was an old fire-watching tower called “Governor Dick.”

Governor Dick was named for a formerly enslaved man called Governor Dick who lived in the woods around Mt. Gretna and worked as a “collier,” or charcoal maker, back in the early 1800s. He apparently provided charcoal for the old Cornwall Furnace, an important ironworks in US revolutionary times, and was so well-liked that they named a section of the woods for him. He probably never guessed that 180 years later his phallic-sounding name would be commemorated with a phallic-looking tower and associated with barfing teen-aged drinkers all around the Lancaster-Lebanon area.

You’d park somewhere (somebody always seemed to know where) and you’d walk through the dark woods (somebody always seemed to bring a flashlight) and you’d stumble over roots and stumps (somebody always seemed to fall and get mildly injured) and try not to drop the cases of beer (somebody always brought bottles instead of cans) and eventually emerge in a clearing with one big tower in the middle and a million empty beer cans around it. Then up the tower, lugging that beer, where drinking commenced.

Looking back, I find it amazing that a) the cops didn’t follow the trail of beer cans (somebody always had to drink on the walk to the tower) and come visit the tower every 90 minutes; and b) nobody ever fell off – including the kids who always drunkenly dangled over the edge. (Somebody always drunkenly dangled over the edge – in those days there was only a waist-high railing encircling the top of the tower.)

Step 5. Play Some Music
Somebody always brought a boom-box; somebody always brought cassettes. The great thing about cassettes was that you could stash a few in your pockets, or girls could put some in their purses, and you’d have a lot of music handy. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as pulling songs out of thin air with a pocket computer, but it seemed pretty fuckin’ awesome to us. Key cassettes to bring along included Led Zeppelin’s symbols-titled release, popularly known as Led Zeppelin IV; The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and The Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975. (I hung out with a bunch of classic rock enthusiasts.) These were great drink-along, background music songs, for getting loud (Zep), getting weird (Peppers) and singing along (Eagles). But at the end of the night, when the drinking had slowed and most of the crew had begun hiking back through the deep, dark woods; when any craziness and danger had ceased; when the alcohol had massaged our emotions, and the folks who smoked weed had finished smoking their weed, one of the three or four of us who remained would pull out The Dark Side of the Moon, (somebody always pulled out The Dark Side of the Moon) and we’d just sit there and listen.

As with other Floyd albums, like The Wall and Animals, The Dark Side of the Moon is a record that pretty much demands to be listened to in one sitting, beginning to end. I don’t think I’m being very controversial in saying that Pink Floyd albums, particularly ones from the 70s, have far more impact as a singular artistic statement than as a collection of songs – even though many of the songs are brilliant in their own right. Founder and sometime bandleader, bassist Roger Waters, was fond of grand themes and he has stated that Dark Side of the Moon was “an expression of political, philosophical humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out21.”

Maybe so. The album begins with “Speak to Me,” featuring the wondrous sounds of human life: a heartbeat; voices. Then it quickly degrades into the unsettling reality of more depressing sounds: a cash register, crazy laughter, finally screams.” At which point “Breathe” begins.

Guitarist David Gilmour picks a lovely riff, Waters plays cool bass octaves and drummer Nick Mason plays some Ringo-esque drums behind nice keyboard work from Rick Wright and mournful pedal steel guitar by Gilmour. The band plays a nice long intro before Gilmour’s voice enters on lyrics from Waters that give a rather bleak peek into what lies ahead for a young adult: a life of toil, questions, futility. It’s clear why so many teens and young adults connect with this record. The song also demonstrates quickly that headphones are probably the best way to experience this masterpiece22. Gilmour’s subtle harmonies and guitar voicing, Wright’s organ flourishes, the “surround sound” production … it all is tailor-made for headphones.

And that’s certainly the case of the weird synthesizer piece “On the Run.” It’s got a pulsing, video game sound with footsteps, crazy voices, loud engines, and finally … a car crash? I don’t know but it sounds cool, and finally devolves into ticking clocks and alarms that signal the beginning of the brilliant song, “Time.”

“Time” is a song that reminds me, if I ever happen to forget, that David Gilmour is one of the most remarkable guitarists in rock music. After the clocks chime (a rather obvious sound-effect for the song, but so what? It sounds great…) there is a long, ominous build-up of metallic-sounding, echoing low notes coupled with Mason’s toms and Wright’s subtle organ, and this compelling introduction really sets up the entry of Gilmour’s voice, at 2:30, to sound all the more powerful. Gilmour also plays so many cool, bluesy riffs that it makes one’s head spin. Background oohs and aahs give way to Gilmour’s first solo at 3:30. He’s got such great tone and control, and I love at 4:28, when he eases back into the chorus chords, with the background vocals. It’s a solo that does so much in a minute and a half, and when it’s done he continues to throw in cool stuff like the little descending figure at 5:00, behind the vocals. The lyrics are another sort of warning to youth about time slipping through one’s fingers. The song nicely brings back a reprise of “Breathe” to end it. Keyboardist Rick Wright actually sings the chorus on “Time,” and he’s the main creative force, structurally, of the next song, too, “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Vocalist Clare Torry was asked to improvise over the track the band had already laid down, and what she delivered was masterful. It’s at once both uplifting and heartbreaking, and seems to say as much about the human condition as the lyrics in the other songs.

The song also features snippets of voices, which are heard throughout the album. Various everyday people were asked to respond to questions about topics like death and violence and their responses (such as “Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you got to go sometime.”) have become as memorable to fans as any of the songs.

The song that is memorable to even non-fans is the international smash, “Money,” which opened Side Two, back when albums had sides …

Floyd have a long history of using everyday sounds, like TV shows and chanting soccer crowds, in their songs, and the use of a cash register ringing – in 7/4 time, no less! – on “Money” is one of their best efforts. Despite the odd time signature, the song is a basic blues song, with a Pink Floyd twist. Gilmour’s vocals on a snarky commentary on “the good life” are outstanding. Waters’s bass line is one of the most recognizable in rock, and Mason’s drumming is particularly excellent. The song switches to 4/4 time for Gilmour’s guitar solo (at about 3:00), and it’s Mason who holds it all together. His playing is once again Ringo-ish throughout Gilmour’s terrific soloing, which has a cool breakdown part at about 3:48 then blasts into overdrive again at 4:30. By the way – let’s not forget the amazing saxophone solo by Dick Parry. “Money” continues the album’s prodding of young adult minds grappling with the question of “what it all means,” and fades out to more snatches of conversation, blending quietly into another Big Question song, the lovely “Us and Them.”

Dick Parry’s sax provides a gentle entry into Gilmour’s vocals. I was typically half-asleep by this point up on that tower, but concentrating on lyrics that made me think that Pink Floyd was opening my eyes to everything. (“For want of the price/ of tea and a slice/ the old man died” Ahhh, youth.) The harmony vocals from Wright are great, and at about 4:50 he plays a terrific piano solo, which also features the classic spoken words “… if you give him a short, sharp shock …” in the background. The song takes you away, it’s powerful and perhaps a bit overblown, but I still like it.

It gives way to “Any Colour You Like,” a headphone song if there ever was one. This song gave one time to reflect on the previous song, and paved the way for the double-barrel album closer, two songs strung together: “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.”

These two songs together may be my favorites on the album, although “Time” and “Money” are near the top as well. These are the only songs on which Floyd mastermind Roger Waters sings lead, and he does a great job on lyrics about the feeling of going crazy and a final summation of life, really. The backing vocals by the women vocalists provide a grandeur to the songs that probably helped embed the feelings deeply into that young adult brain of mine up on top of that tower.

Luckily, I never fell off of that tower. I eventually got my alcohol consumption under control without a major horror story – only a few embarrassments. I left the booziness behind, but not the album. When “Eclipse” starts, at about 3:50, with Wright’s organ cadenza, I’m transported on the sound-waves to my youthful self. I still feel moved by Waters’s list of the contents of one’s life. I understood that list differently as a 19-year old than I do as a 50-year old. Back then I thought, “Is that all there is?” Now I think, “Boy, I packed a lot into life so far.” But the feeling is the same – the feeling of being human. The Dark Side of the Moon is an album that stays with you for life.

Track Listing:
“Speak To Me”
“Breathe”
“On The Run”
“Time”
“The Great Gig In The Sky”
“Money”
“Us And Them”
“Any Colour You Like”
“Brain Damage”
“Eclipse”

Share

27th Favorite: Van Halen, by Van Halen.

Share


Van Halen. Van Halen.
1978, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, 1983.

IN A NUTSHELL: Van Halen, the debut album by the band, is exceptional for many reasons: Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, of course, but also Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, the sound of the record, and – perhaps most of all – its musicality. Van Halen is different from other hard rock/metal bands of the era because it adds interesting touches to everything it does. Even front man David Lee Roth’s shenanigans take a backseat to the record’s many charms.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(FURTHERMORE: Fair Warning, VH fans! This post is going to take a little longer than usual to get to the album discussion.)

Dad, ca. 1960. Cleanup hitter and star catcher in the thriving local amateur baseball league.

My dad was born in 1940, a little too late for The Greatest Generation, a little too early to be a Baby Boomer. He grew up in a small house on a small street in a small neighborhood of a small city, but to him it was just a house, a street, etc. Today’s faddish “free-range kids,” who are allowed to walk to a playground or bus stop on their own, experience freedoms that are logarithmically short of those in my dad’s boyhood, when (as he told it) his aging parents and much-older siblings left him alone to take on the world since about age three. This upbringing allowed him to independently figure out a lot of stuff, and the rest he covered up by becoming a powerfully-built man of silent intensity whose intimidating first impression discouraged questioning, and also belied his charming, funny and gentle nature.

Mom and Dad, Ocean City, MD. 1961.

It is April, 2018, as I write this, and my dad’s body is still alive, but the “dad” part of him has been wrung out of that body over the past few years, drip by drip, by the persistent, loathsome twisting of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. It’s been most difficult for him, and hard on everyone in the family, especially my mom, who’s still spry, still out for a good time, still deeply in love with everything and anything about that man of hers. I started to think a lot about my dad when I became a father and realized our relative experiences in fatherhood were very different, even to the point of where fatherhood began.

Dad and me, 1967.

My dad became a father as a 22-year old in 1962, the instant he got that phone call at work telling him that his wife and new daughter were resting comfortably. Then he hung up and went back to work at the machine shop, receiving, I’m sure, handshakes and backslaps all the way to the time-clock, where he had to punch back in after punching out to take the call. My entree to fatherhood was a gradual transition that began in the 90s, in my late 20s, when my wife and I decided we’d have kids. It wasn’t just having a kid at home, it was a feeling of being part of something larger than myself, of creating my role in this agreement between my wife and me, an agreement that would add two more partners in five years – young children, sure, but junior partners nonetheless. It was simpler for my dad and the men of his generation – a phone call, a smile and back to work.

Dad (l.), me (r.) and deer (front), ca. 1972.

But fatherhood is not simple23. Fatherhood in my dad’s era was akin to someone imagining a house, then building a house based on that image and trying to live in it. My generation spent more time drawing up blueprints. There’s no inherent superiority to either path: people have built habitable, wonderful homes for millennia without blueprints; and shitty blueprints make shitty houses. However, my dad’s experiences of having had to figure out everything in life on his own, and his tendency toward self-doubt, meant that he wasn’t up for questions or (heaven forbid!) complaints about the fatherhood-house he’d built. Even simple questions like “why not put a window here?” could be taken by him as a criticism and met with anger and silence, and so were never asked directly24.

Sisters and me with dad, in his annual hunting beard, ca. 1978.

So I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions. Certainly not “How should I behave as a man?” He was uncomfortable answering specific questions, such as how to treat girls and women, how to handle the romantic feelings I had about them, even what I should do on dates. My dad had figured out everything on his own, so he probably thought everyone else – including me – would figure it out, too. I observed him and learned to be helpful, courteous, kind, hard-working, and honest. (For the most part.) These aren’t really man-centered, but are qualities that anyone, male or female, from any social stratum or cultural background, could find valuable.

Me (l.) and dad (r.), 1985, before my prom. I know, I know, the gray tux and mullet. But check out the uncomfortable “should men be this close?” side-hug!

I don’t know who, really, could’ve answered the question “How should I be a man?” back then. The folks who feel they know the answers, and who’ve been spouting them forever (“You’re in charge! Show her who’s boss! Just act, deal with consequences later!”) are, frankly, assholes. Without another means to get the information (and not even being aware it was a question in the first place, really) most American men of my era were left to understand norms of masculinity, in particular those around gender, based mostly on what they saw around them. This meant not only the interactions between the people you knew, but also in the movies, TV shows, advertising and the world around you.

Mom and dad, ca. 1995, enjoying the Empty Nest years.

I don’t believe it was a failure on my dad’s part that led me, and most men, to be complicit in what’s now called “Toxic Masculinity,” a pervasive cultural attitude of strict, conformative gender roles that’s been reported to have negative physical and mental health effects on men, and most definitely has had a negative impact on women’s health. It wasn’t his fault that as a young man I found myself seething at a girlfriend who dared to make plans with friends without first consulting me; or surprised that a girl at a party hadn’t taken it as a compliment that my friend pinched her ass; or that I uncomfortably chuckled along with the crowd while a guy told us about his sexual assault of a blacked-out drunk girl in high school. My dad hadn’t told me anything about these situations, but from everything I gathered in the world around me, I was pretty sure I had handled all these situations pretty well.

Dad, ca. 2011.

As a father today, I want my own kids to have a better understanding than I had of the dynamics of society that often go unnoticed. My daughter is going to have a certain path, and for her I can treat her as a person, not as a girl, and focus on listening to her so that she can (hopefully) develop a sense that the men in her life should listen to her, and she should demand they do so. For my son I can try to make sure his perspective is broad enough to understand that his path is much different than many others’ and that he actually has some power to do simple things that will have a larger impact than it may seem. For example, telling a room full of guys that, indeed, that story of assaulting the drunk girl wasn’t funny and was sexual assault25. I can help him understand the difference between being a “guy” and being a “man.”

All of these thoughts about my dad and fatherhood have surfaced while considering not just Van Halen’s debut album, but many types of media from my youth. Van Halen is certainly not the first artist, or the only artist, to present women solely as objects of sexual pleasure. And sure, that drive to derive pleasure, shared by almost all people, is what’s kept humans on Earth for all these years – so it seems like something worth singing about. But like many bands of this era, in this hard rock genre, Van Halen’s message to teen-aged boys was that they should be out there bangin’ some chicks, any (hot) chicks, with little regard for said chicks’ opinions on the matter.

Everything about the band – their look, their sound, their actions – pointed toward the pursuit of some type of desire that was outside the terms of manhood I’d seen in my dad. My family didn’t discuss … that26. I had friends in middle school who loved the mighty VH, but I always left when they played their records. I felt there was something … bad about them. I felt the same way about punk acts as a pre-teen: I was disgusted by these musicians who seemed to disregard the decorum and dignity I knew my dad (and mom) valued, including issues around, you know … that. I ignored them for many years.

It wasn’t until sometime around 1983 that I heard their version of the classic Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me” at a friend’s house, and it suddenly clicked: this band sounds tremendous! By the time their mega-album 1984 came out, I had all their albums on cassette (many dubbed from my friend Rick’s vinyl) and I was listening near-constantly. Sure, the lyrics and front-man David Lee Roth’s antics continued to suggest that, still made me a little uncomfortable, but I just focused on the amazing guitar, the cool harmonies and depth of sound, and the overall sense of FUN the band exuded! There was, and is, much to love about Van Halen besides (or in spite of) that.

First and foremost is Mr. Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen, now considered a national treasure worthy of a Smithsonian Institution gathering, heard here introducing himself, his guitar, and the band’s version of “You Really Got Me.”

The solo at the beginning is called “Eruption,” and it sure does sound like one. This song introduced Eddie’s famous “two hand tapping” technique, which he didn’t invent but that he sure did master. All kinds of poofy-haired, pouty guitar players of the 80s tried to hijack his style, but what you realize when you listen closely to Van Halen records is that Eddie is so much more than flash. There’s a musicality to his playing that seems to require his technique. It’s like he had a sound in mind and had to learn the flash to get it out of his head; others learned the flash, then looked for some reason to showcase it. “You Really Got Me” has a straightforward, cool rock sound that the band makes their own. It makes use of bassist Michael Anthony’s terrific high harmonies, doesn’t strain Roth’s (let’s face it) limited singing abilities and allows Eddie to have fun throughout and play a solo (3:05 – 3:27) that sounded like nothing else at the time. I was hooked.

Van Halen may be the album I’ve listened to most often in my entire life. It seems like it was on a constant loop in my room from 1983 – 1985. That siren opening the album, leading to Anthony’s pulsing bass (which he pretends to play with his teeth in the clip below!) and Eddie’s unmistakable riff meant I was home from school and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

A dorkish, do-gooder kind of teen, I never really ran with any devils but this song made me want to27. I love Eddie’s simple strumming on the upbeat through the verses, which he nicely embellishes with all his harmonic tricks. Roth’s “singing” through the chorus is hilarious. The only way you’re going to appreciate Van Halen is if you make peace with these two facts: he’s a vocalist, not a singer; and he’s sort of a buffoon. Roth isn’t going to write brilliant lyrics, he’s not going to expressively melt hearts with his voice, but he’ll give you a show. And spout weird squawks, shrieks and phrases like (1:41) “God damn babe, you know you like this, I’m only gonna tell you one time, aaaahhhhhh.” Instead of worrying about Roth, listen to the SOUND of this album. The robust bass sound, and the way the guitar, which is clearly the star of the show, is pushed to the front, loud and clear, is really noticeable in Van Halen records. Eddie’s playing is actually subdued (for him) in this song, although his solos are terrific.

A secondary star, often overlooked because of how brightly Eddie shines, is drummer (and Eddie’s older brother) Alex Van Halen. He has the million-piece drum kit, like so many hard rock and metal drummers, but it’s not how many drums he hits that’s as impressive as how well he swings. In “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” it’s his swinging beat that, to my mind, makes it more musical than if played by a band with a different drummer. He keeps it from being a simple pile-driver of a song.

Eddie’s riff is great, and Anthony’s harmony lyrics in the chorus are strong as ever. It’s a catchy song, with a nice breakdown, at 1:54. The breakdown has great rhythmic punctuations, and some more of those fantastic Eddie harmonics. At 3:00 the iconic “Hey! Hey! Hey!” shouts are heard, and at 3:30 during the coda, the band again shows off their musicality with a fantastic ending instead of a simple fade-out. During that earlier breakdown, Roth asks us to feel sorry for the fact that he’s lost a lot of friends – apparently for having a girlfriend with a disease, with whom he’s not in love? I think it’s a waste of time to look too closely at Roth’s lyrics, which I once heard him state he writes during TV commercials, but I do think it’s interesting to look at Roth’s use of the term “love” throughout the record. Here he states clearly he’s not talking about love, and I don’t think he’s talking about “love” whenever he uses the term. He means that thing I dared not talk about when I first heard the band. I wasn’t talking about sex, and he’s not talking about love.

For example, in the fun and catchy “Feel Your Love Tonight.”

I can feel the love of those dear to me whenever I spend time with them. However, I don’t think this is the type of love Roth means when he apologizes for taking this girl “a little too far” in his car, an incident he seems to have told the fellas about behind the bar. In attempting to feel her love (tonight) he uses various tactics: he flatters (“you’re the prettiest girl I know,” although the modifier “I know” sort of undercuts the flattery a tad …); he makes plans (having gotten into work 10 minutes early, he proposes hitting the town after midnight); he warns of vague consequences (“use it before it gets old,” which seems rather alarmist for someone described as a girl); he disparages (“you’ve let your life grow cold,” which may actually touch a nerve, as her trips up and down his road indicate she may have some compulsive tendencies, and she could be the type to stew over her life circumstances …); and finally he begs (on bended knee, no less, which must seem a little bit creepy to her, right?) Anyway, clearly DLR didn’t spend much time on lyrics, and so defaulted to “let’s get laid” themes. But this nonsense aside, the song sounds terrific, with Anthony’s bass pulsing below Eddie’s riffs and Alex’s thumping swing moving it right along. It’s another song in which Eddie’s playing – even on chords in the verses – sounds distinct. The vocal harmonies are once again terrific, and of course, as a Beatles fan, I love the Fab Four-esque “Ooooh” in the chorus.

Roth doesn’t just want to feel “love,” he wants his gal to “show her love,” which I’m presuming does not mean he wants her to leave a cute note in his lunch bag. This request is made on one of my favorite songs on the album, a real feature for drummer Alex, “I’m The One.”

The lyrics may actually be about the love the crowd shows him at his concerts. But why are we discussing words when Eddie is playing stuff like the intro, from the beginning through the incredible run at 0:31? This is a song that demonstrates why Van Halen is different from all the other fast-fingered guitar bands from the 70s and 80s. That introduction, the descending, syncopated pre-chorus (first heard at 0:50), and even the goofy, yet well-done, “Shooby-doo-waa” doo-wop section (2:50) are musical touches that set the band apart. And Alex’s drumming is both bombastic and subtle (if that’s possible): the triplets heading into the second verse (1:45) are cool, and the way he controls the tempo, pulling back slightly through that pre-chorus. The harmonies are great, as usual, and, also as usual, Eddie’s guitar playing is off the wall.

A few of the songs aren’t as interesting as the rest, but even in the rather mundane songs like “Atomic Punk” and “On Fire,” there’s always Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drumming to keep a listener involved. On “Atomic Punk,” the brothers are locked together, Alex answering each of his brother’s riffs, and Eddie plays a solo (1:30) that isn’t particularly flashy, yet is brilliant nonetheless, finding notes that sound like they shouldn’t fit, yet fit perfectly. And Roth’s lyrics take a science fiction turn that’s rather unexpected. “On Fire” features an Edwin Starr-esque “Good God, y’all” from DLR.

One characteristic that definitely set Van Halen apart from many of the imitators was their reluctance (thank heavens) to record a Power Ballad28. They’d play some slower songs, sure, but “Little Dreamer” isn’t a power ballad – no screeching vocals, no “love forever” lyrics. It’s just the VH basics, slowed down: great guitar, great harmonies, and a guitar solo (1:47) that goes in a direction one wouldn’t expect.

I’ve written before that what makes me love VH is their sense of fun, and that sense is certainly evident on the rave-up “Ice Cream Man.”

The David Lee Roth version of the band29 has always loved playing cover songs (besides “You Really Got Me,” the band would also cover The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” 60s classics “You’re No Good,” and “Dancing In the Street“), and this is a fine example. It opens with acoustic guitar played by Mr. Roth himself, and singing lyrics well-suited to his persona, but he soon gives way to the full band. Alex again shows his penchant for swing, and the bass is fun, but this is a guitar highlight of the record. Eddie plays a solo at 1:42 that shows all his musical gifts. At 2:40, he and Roth do a call-and-response that’s loads of fun. And loads of fun is how I describe the mighty VH.

“Jamie’s Crying” is one of the band’s most popular songs, and it’s easy to hear why.

It’s got a mid-tempo groove courtesy of Alex’s drums, a terrific melody, a memorable riff and those harmonies again. The syncopated bars just before the chorus again show a musicality many lesser hard rock bands lack. After the second verse, the song picks up a dance beat for a few measures, giving it something else a bit different. Eddie generates a number of sounds in the song, and all fit perfectly. The lyrics are really asshole-y, however, mocking a woman who falls for a man who only wants to have sex with her, not a relationship. Her two choices are to feel sad about not being with him, or to have a one-night stand and then feel worse. Roth sings the song through a smirk, clearly relishing the woman’s heartache. I used to hear this song and think, “Yeah, well, it’s a man’s world. That’s how it goes.” Nowadays I think Roth sounds like an asshole. (I still love the music, though!)

Dad (l.) and me (r.), 2017.

Maybe my dad could have done more to make me aware of the world around me, of the privilege I’d been given for simply for having that Y chromosome. Maybe he could have listened to Van Halen with me and pointed out, “You know, these songs about women …” and provided a long discourse on the nature of power and control in human, patriarchal societies. (After all, he did like a few Van Halen songs, including “Big Bad Bill,” “Could This Be Magic?” and their version of Roy Rogers’s “Happy Trails.”) However, this was an impossibility for him for many reasons. But I’d say he did the job well regardless, as he raised three kids who continue to learn and develop and (hopefully!) model those characteristics we observed, even into our 50s. My dad didn’t have any plans for fatherhood, he just had a lot of love. The kind David Lee Roth wasn’t talking about.

Track Listing:
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“Eruption”
“You Really Got Me”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
“I’m The One”
“Jamie’s Crying”
“Atomic Punk”
“Feel Your Love Tonight”
“Little Dreamer”
“Ice Cream Man”
“On Fire”

Share

28th Favorite: Star, by Belly

Share


Star. Belly
1993, Sire Records. Producer: Belly, Tracy Chisholm and Gil Norton.
Purchased, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Star, Belly’s debut record, sounds different enough to be interesting yet retains enough jangle and melody to stay hooked into mainstream rock. It’s truly a showcase for leader Tanya Donelly’s voice, with songs that allow her to vary between sweet purrs and powerful belts while harmonizing beautifully. Guitarist Thomas Gorman’s charming riffs stay in the background so the vocals can shine.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Obsession. [uh b-sesh-uh n] Noun. The domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. (From Dictionary.com.)

I’ve heard stories, both troubling and hilarious, regarding individuals’ struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I don’t want to minimize this awful disease by claiming my idiosyncrasies are symptoms of it. Also, I’ve had sufficient (mild) diagnosed disorders of my own, and so I don’t want to allege any maladies to which I don’t really have a claim. However, in the everyday vernacular used outside a clinical psychiatric setting, I can say without hesitation that I can get obsessed by things.

Foods, shows, writers … in almost any area of human endeavor I can at times find myself pursuing the same ancient, midbrain impulse that compelled my ancestors toward water and shelter instead directed solely on one more Kurt Vonnegut novel or another tube of Tangy Buffalo Wing-flavored Pringles. I can fixate for days at a time, accomplishing work duties and household tasks using some robot-like space in my cerebral cortex while any remaining mindpower is drawing plans for obtaining, building scenarios for experiencing, and reliving satisfactions I’ve received from well-written, deftly humorous pages, or crunching, savoring and fashioning-duckbills-from those unmistakeable potato-paste pressed chips.

Obsessions of this nature generally aren’t harmful, apart from inducing a series of unpleasant visits to the bathroom and a tongue that feels as though it’s been repeatedly scraped against a cheese grater. (In the case of the Pringles, not the Vonnegut.) The effects aren’t long-lasting and often the obsession isn’t, either. A few days after binging, I’ll usually find myself disinterested in what I once desperately craved, and the balloon of desire that once swelled to inhabit nearly every cranny within my consciousness will have burst and withered to a flaccid swath of plastic among all the disregarded and obscure ephemera of my past. Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles? Did I really ever find these edible?

Some past obsessions leave me regretful, with painful memories. Girls from high school30, disgusting foods and time-wasting TV shows fall into these categories. Some leave me feeling wistful yet confused, as I’ll never again understand what I found so compelling about, for example, word-search puzzles. Others make me happy to recall, as I retain a bit of love for them, even if I no longer feel the magnetic pull they once imparted.

Some of my biggest obsessions have been with individual songs, and these past obsessions fall into all of the above categories. I’ve written many times about my childhood of music and record listening. I’ve been a music fan since I was really young, and I’ve gotten obsessed with many, many songs over the years. The earliest were cuts off my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert record. But the first song I remember being truly obsessed with, and listening to over and over, was The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which my sister had on a Beatles Greatest Hits (aka “The Blue Album”) 8-Track Tape.

It was sort of spooky sounding, with pinched, distorted vocals and instruments that sounded angular, watery and weird. The drums were somehow spooky, too, particularly throughout the choruses: mesmerizing and tribal. When they combined with the swooping orchestra it created a sound I’d never heard before. I listened as much as I could, which was easier to do – given my proximity to my sister’s 8-Track – than listening to some of the other songs I was obsessed with around that time. I didn’t have the records for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” or E.L.O.’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” To hear these, I had to listen constantly to the radio, hoping some DJ would find the psychic wavelengths I was sending and answer by spinning the disc. At some point, my other sister recorded “Mr. Blue Sky” from the radio, so at least then I could sometimes sneak a listen. I still enjoy all of these songs, although I wouldn’t say I’m still obsessed.

My freshman year of high school coincided with the launch of MTV, so while I was a fan of heavy rock like Rush and Van Halen, and proggy art-rock like Yes, I spent lots of time watching MTV. And many of my song-obsessions were MTV-video-based. I got obsessed with dozens, I’m sure, the charms of which usually wore off quite quickly. But some have lingered as favorites.

MTV played songs I’d never hear on the radio, so I stayed glued to the screen for hours at a time to catch “Save It For Later,” the ska-tinged English Beat number, with its happy, bouncy beat offset against minor chords from the strings and Dave Wakeling’s distinctive vocal style. Most of the bands with songs I obsessed over were British. When you watched MTV, you had to watch at the top of the hour, as that’s when the VJs would announce, “Coming up this hour videos by Talk Talk and Roxy Music,” bands whose names were never mentioned on the radio stations that reached my antennae. I’d hope for “It’s My Life” and “More Than This,” two songs I couldn’t get enough of. Two songs that were far too weenie and soft and synthesizer-based to share with my hard-rock friends, so I kept my interest to myself. I also obsessed over an obscure single called “Bears” by the obscure metal band Zebra, one of the hair-band clones with a nuts-in-a-vice singer that were becoming popular in the mid-80s.

College was when I really got into The Beatles. I’d say I was obsessed with all of their songs and albums. But what I remember playing most of all was the album Abbey Road, particularly the Side Two medleys, beginning with “Because,” and ending with “Her Majesty.”

These aren’t songs that were played on the radio much, as they are short pieces that blend into others. You’d occasionally hear the Joe Cocker version of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.” Every once in a while, if a DJ needed a smoke/bathroom break, you might catch the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley. But songs like “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Because” were new to me. I practically wore out my Abbey Road cassette. Also during college, I went through a long stretch of playing the Led Zeppelin song “Fool In The Rain” every day. It’s a song I think is just fine today, but my fascination with it is akin to that of the Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringles: did I really need to hear it every day? Just after college, it was the Concrete Blonde song “Joey” that burrowed into and resided within me for several weeks. Johnette Napolitano’s voice, the shimmery, distorted guitar, the 60’s Phil Spector drums … I’m over it now, but I still like the song.

So many other songs triggered my faux OCD in the years after college. I’d regularly dive into a song and wallow there through five or ten plays, and dive in again the next day for weeks at a time. There were two on the Singles movie soundtrack, the first and longest-lasting (I’d say I’m still somewhat obsessed, although I don’t play it five times in a row anymore) is Chris Cornell’s solo piece “Seasons.”

It wasn’t just the voice – one of the best ever in rock, I’ve said – and it wasn’t just the acoustic strumming, and it wasn’t just the hazy lyrics. It was all of it together. I’d generally play it along with the epic Singles track “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” from the tragic band Mother Love Bone. Other songs that commandeered my senses during the 90s were “Regret,” from New Order, a band I’d always dismissed but who I grew to appreciate in my late 40s. Another soundtrack song that remains today one of my all-time favorite songs is from the ubiquitous 90s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, Maria McKee’s beautiful “If Love Is A Red Dress.”

Since I’ve had kids, most of the songs I’ve become “obsessed” with are songs that my kids have loved. I guess you could say I was obsessed with The Wiggles and The Laurie Berkner Band in the early-to-mid 00s. Never the type of parent to roll my eyes at my kids’ music, I generally tried to get into it a little bit31, and tried to never mock it. So I found myself listening a million times to the songs they listened to a million times, which meant – perhaps – I did become a bit obsessed with, say, “That’s Not My Name,” by The Ting Tings.

I never loved Mika’s “Grace Kellyor Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as much as other songs on this list, but they are ingrained in my mind the same way as the others. However, they elicit fond memories of my kids’ childhoods as opposed to fond memories of time spent playing and re-playing them. I can’t really hear them without my mind flipping through an imaginary photo album of my two kids being goofy, funny, wonderful children.

So, you may ask, what’s this got to do with Belly’s record, Star? Well, I made my way to this album through a song I may have been most-obsessed with ever.

Tanya Donnelly, the singer/guitarist/leader of Belly, got her start in the successful 80s college-radio band The Throwing Muses, playing and singing alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Back in the early 90s I’d heard the band’s name many times. The morning DJs on my local Rock Radio Station at the time used the band as a punchline, incorporating it into lists (“… playing all your favorite rock, from bands like AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Throwing Muses, Aerosmith …”) and fake giveaways (“… first place gets the latest Throwing Muses record; second place gets two Throwing Muses records …”). They were presented as some worthless, sissy, college band, unfit for the macho rock played on the 100,000 Watt Flamethrower, or whatever bullshit tagline marketing had thought up to appeal to the Monster Truck enthusiasts and squealing-guitar fans (myself included) who listened. But I never heard any of their songs.

That is, until 1991, when their album The Real Ramona was released, and I heard Donnelly’s composition “Not Too Soon” played at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ. My band was playing there, and I was drunkenly dancing to Matt Pinfield’s DJ set after the show, and for some reason I heard the song and it immediately grabbed me. It’s the only CD single I’ve ever purchased.

A friend at the time who had some connections in the music industry pointed out to me that The Throwing Muses were “finally putting Tanya’s songs out there,” and said that he thought she was the more talented of the stepsisters. To this day I don’t know anything else about The Throwing Muses except for this song, so I can’t say whether his assessment was accurate. All I can say is that after playing this song a billion times, I was extremely ready to go out and get the first album by Donnelly’s new band32 Belly. When Star was released, I bought it right away.

Belly was getting a lot of airplay from their lead single, the cool, jangly “Feed The Tree.” It’s a good entry point to the album, as it’s got most of everything the album has to offer, plus a super-catchy melody.

For me, the defining characteristic of Belly is Donelly’s voice. In this song, she transitions from gentle, through spirited to full-on belting while providing harmony vocals all throughout. The first two verses are rather quietly, but as she enters the second chorus (1:23) she sings more fully. I also like how she glides up and over the “me and feed” lyrics (1:41), adding an extra note. By the final chorus, at 2:37, she lets loose with a healthy belting voice. Thomas Gorman’s guitar in the song is also really cool, particularly the dripping riff during the first verse (0:26) and elsewhere, and the solo at 1:46 – recorded in an era when guitar solos were about as untrendy as spandex. Her lyrics are also rather Steely Dan-ish in that they tell stories using imagery and indirect phrases (“This little squirrel I used to be/Slammed her bike down the stairs/They put silver where her teeth had been/Baby silver tooth she grins and grins”) but yet still get across a story with feeling – even if you’re never sure what the story is.

A good example of her lyrical style is on the barn-burner “Slow Dog,” which seems to be about a dog that may have been hit by a car and so needs to be put down? According to Donelly, it’s actually about all the ways we punish ourselves. Either way, I sure love singing along to “Maria carry a rifle …”

Gorman’s guitar riff is angular and harsh, and his brother Chris’s drumbeat gives the song an urgency, then turns into a fast shuffle for the choruses. Donelly’s harmonies are really cool over the little guitar figures. It’s a driving song – meaning it’s always driving forward AND I like to listen while I drive. It’s a shout-along melody, with the fun “ah – ah” sections in the chorus. It’s another song that I could see myself being obsessed with, and one of my favorites on the record.

Another song in a similar vein – angular guitars, driving beat – is “Angel.”

This song, however, is much stranger, with starts and stops, and a minor key that gives the song a bit of an eerie sound. I like the guitar line throughout the song and also the harmony vocals. The lyrics are about as obscure as lyrics can get, although the line “I had bad dreams/so bad I threw my pillow away” is pretty cool. This is a record with many odd songs that somehow not only work well, but improve with every listen. “Low Red Moon” is a track that also has an eerie vibe, with Donelly’s sweet voice carrying long stretches (0:18 – 1:14) of empty space that’s afterward filled by pounding drums and shimmering organ, and her full voice. I’ve grown to love this track. “Sad Dress” is another odd one that’s grown on me, a song in 6/8 that bounces above a buzzing guitar. Donelly’s voice is the star, once again, although Tom Gorman does play a nice little solo. The lyrics could be about drug use? Date rape? Simply a bad date? Regardless, if you wish to chew off your foot to get out of a dress, something unhappy is going on.

One of my favorites on the record is a catchy, punchy number that takes a little while to get going. “Full Moon, Empty Heart” features Donelly’s beautiful voice for a minute, then takes off.

There’s a lot of cool guitar feedback and other sounds behind her voice, particularly during the chorus. The lyrics are, well, geez, I don’t know: out the window backwards. It’s an interesting little song that, once again, took a few listens to catch on with me. I think it’s a testament to the record that repeated listens reveal more to enjoy.

One song I’ve loved since I first heard it is the fun, sing-along number “Gepetto.”

The lyrics are all imagery and Pinocchio, with the line “That kid from the bad home came over my house again/Decapitated all my dolls” taking me back to the bullies I knew as a kid. The song has a great beat, and fun “sha-la-la” backing vocals. Belly and Donelly have a penchant for bouncy, fun songs, but they do throw in an aggressive tune once in a while. The ferocious “Dusted” is a good example. It’s short and direct (well, apart from lyrics that may be about a kidnapping?)

I really love the rockin’ and/or weird songs on the album. Some of the slower songs on the album don’t do much for me, although Donelly’s voice and strange arrangements always make things interesting. One gentler song I do love, however, is the ditty about strained relationships (perhaps with frogs and birds?) “Untogether.”

It’s just a simple acoustic guitar with a little steel guitar in the background, but her voice carries it. And the lyrics – once again, I’ll compare them to Donald Fagan’s Steely Dan lyrics – are inscrutable, yet presented as a narrative that the listener should clearly understand. I like how she does that throughout the record. “White Belly” is another slower song that has cool guitar, and once again leaves some empty space for guitar lines (about 1:53) and vocals (2:34) to fill in. Donelly’s voice is great because it can be both airy and powerful, sometimes in the space of a few measures.

The album closes with an entreaty to a significant other, or listener: “Stay.”

The wobbly guitar effects and 60s girl-group riff provide a platform on which the song can build, and it does so subtly and steadily. Donelly’s harmony vocals are outstanding as always, and new sounds are continually incorporated, including a guitar solo about 2:00 that sounds like a violin, and then (I’m pretty sure, though none is listed on the credits) and actual violin. I don’t know who Solomon is, but I’ve grown to love not knowing what her lyrics mean. By about 4 minutes, Donelly proclaims “it’s not time for me to go,” and whenever I listen to this record, this part always makes me want to start it again, back at the beginning.

Most of my obsessions start off intense, then fade away like like so much Tangy Buffalo Wing Pringle-dust in the wind. They’re never long-lasting, and they’re difficult to understand when they’re done. My love for Star is sort of the opposite. It took a little while for me get into the album, but there was always something about the songs and the voice that made me want to listen again. The more I listened, the more I loved it. It’s a different sort of obsession.

Track Listing:
Someone To Die For
Angel
Dusted
Every Word
Gepetto
Witch
Slow Dog
Low Red Moon
Feed The Tree
Full Moon, Empty Heart
White Belly
Untogether
Star
Sad Dress
Stay

Share

29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

Share


Automatic For The People. R.E.M.
1992, Warner Bros. Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Automatic For The People is a record that sounds a lot like growing older while retaining your old-school punk identity. Soft yet intense songs take on death, reminiscing and aging parents, yet it’s not a downer by any means. The band plays relatively few traditional rock instruments, and brings in an orchestra, to boot, but the songs sound fresh and somehow R.E.M maintains its independent, DIY spirit throughout.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I have a distinct memory of being a kid, probably about 7 years old, and hearing my mom and grandma discussing a woman whose husband had died, and that he was “only 42.” Now, in my elementary school years – particularly on weekends and in the summers – my mom and sisters and I spent a lot of time together at my grandma’s house. My dad would be home doing weekend car-repair or engine-building or some other manly art whose seductive qualities of oily aromas and physical domination over metal and internal combustion never held sway over me as he might have hoped. Even his enticement of a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco of my own for the day couldn’t draw me to the garage, such was my fondness for trips to grandma’s house with my mom and sisters.

While my sisters and I played fun games, my mom and grandma would sit at Gram’s kitchen table and talk all afternoon, seemingly nonstop. It felt exhausting, so I stayed out of there. Sometimes my aunt or great-aunt would join them, and then it would be loud and exhausting, as they never provided a break in their patter to allow another speaker to enter, and so everyone had to use sheer volume to join in and make a point. These conversations were too loud to pique my interest (every kid knows the good stuff is always spoken about quietly), and their themes were too disjointed to follow in any case. A good conversation requires at least one person to be listening at least some of the time, and this never seemed to be part of the dynamics of the group’s discourse. So I never understood anything they talked about.

So the talk of the dead husband at “only 42” could have been about someone from church, a mother they knew, a character on The Guiding Light, or something they heard on The Fred Williams Show, the only person keeping WAHT-1510 afloat in the Lebanon, PA, AM radio marketplace dominated by WLBR-1270. Whoever it was, I had no idea why they kept speaking of 42 years old as if it was young. It was not young – it was ancient! I knew from reading the backs of my football and baseball cards that nobody who was any good was ever older than about 34. Sure, George Blanda played in the NFL into his 40s, but he’d stopped playing QB long ago and by then was only a kicker – not a real player. Once you were too old to play, you were better off dead, I figured.

As a now-50 year old, I would be saddened to hear that someone died at 42. (A real person, I mean, not a Guiding Light character.) However, I don’t think of 42 years as “young.” Improved diet and exercise has made 40+ year old athletes more common today than in the 70s, but the best of the best remain those in their 20s: i.e. Young Athletes. As for rock/pop musicians, it’s a similar story.

But this blog isn’t so much about artists as it is about albums. So if it’s rare for athletes and musical artists to be good into their forties (and I recognize the slippery nature of the word “good,” but I’m just going to leave it there), I wonder: is it rare for albums to be good into their 40s? Let’s take a look.

First of all, how to tell how “old” an album is? I don’t think it makes sense to look at the age of the artists. People and music mature at different rates. The Beatles made Please Please Me and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and all the records in between) in the span of 5 years, so the age of the musicians (early 20s to late 20s, in The Beatles’ case) doesn’t really correlate to the maturity of the music. I want to look at albums that are the musical equivalent of a 40 year old. So I need a way to compare peoples’ ages to albums’ ages, like folks do with their dogs and cats.

The average human lifespan, according to the googles, is 79 years. However, I don’t think all those years are really rockin’ years. I’d say the rockin’ years are really only between 15 and 65, giving us a rockin’ lifespan of 50 years. (Thirty years ago, the rockin’ years topped out at about 40, but since then the older generations, having grown up with rock music, have remained rockin’ longer. Plus there’s the fact that rock music is now music for the elderly, so 65 may actually be young.)

Now – how to convert those 50 human years to album years? Well, first we have to see what the average number of albums released is for any given band. I selected 30 rock bands somewhat randomly, meaning the bands that randomly popped into my head. I recognize this is not the definition of random, but this experiment isn’t really the definition of an experiment, either, so big whoop. I also chose bands, not solo artists, because solo artists put out all kinds of weird shit on record sometimes that can artificially inflate their numbers. (In the case of Hendrix, Petty and Costello, I only included albums recorded with bands.) Of the 30 bands I selected, the average number of studio albums released was 10.

So 10 albums per 50 rockin’ years equals 5 human years per album year. A band’s 3rd album? Like a 15 year old. Their 15th? Like a 75 year old. Athletes’ peak years of 20 or 30 would then be equivalent to bands’ 4th or 6th albums. This is unlikely to be true for all artists, but just like athletes, bands’ production matures at varying rates. If you’ve ever had a kid play youth sports, you’re familiar with the situation of the 7 year old whose skills are far beyond his playmates’, yet who by 15 years old is just one of the pack and no longer superior. Similarly, some bands have an awesome debut record and never come close again.

So, then, are there any 40 year old albums that are excellent? I mean MVP-caliber: a record operating at Tom Brady-level, not George Blanda-level. Well, there’s at least one on my list: Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s 8th full-length, studio album. And not only is it a 40-year old album in age, but it sounds very much like middle-age, as well, a record whose excellence lies not so much in energetic, innovative style, but in its richness and depth. It’s the sound of the confident yet self-aware and reflective nature of one’s 40s, without the anxiety of weight gain, hair loss, crazy pre-teens in the house, crazier parents on the phone, looming college bills, declining basketball skills, and everything else negative on the other side of the hill.

I was into R.E.M. from the moment I saw them on Late Night with David Letterman in late 1983.

They were fascinating, with a bouncy, bass-driven, jangly guitar sound and a singer who was unintelligible but compelling. When the band talked to Dave, after they played the hit “Radio Free Europe,” the singer shyly sat on the riser, then they played a song “too new to be named,” the wonderful “So. Central Rain.” I loved them. However, I was going through a musical identity crisis at the time, trying to get into the hard rock and heavy metal sound that was entrancing rural, white, male Northern U.S. teenagers at the time. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to seem weird, so I kept my secret love for R.E.M. hidden while claiming a fondness for more “acceptable” hard rock artists33. But I always bought their cassettes.

Automatic For The People was released in the fall of 1992, a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind brought college rock to the mainstream. It seemed like everything in rock music was now big and loud, with distorted guitars, howling vocals, pumped up bass and dance-beat drums. R.E.M. had, frankly, lost me a little bit with their 1991 mega-smash album Out of Time, the first album of theirs that didn’t play on a constant loop on my cassette player. Still, I went out and bought Automatic For The People.

And I was disappointed. Where were the jangly guitars? That strong, lead bass? The odd, moaning vocals? This album was all slow songs, mandolins, piano and orchestra. I put it aside. (At least it didn’t have any songs with a guest rapper, something from Out of Time that really confounded me, but that now seems quaintly nifty.) It wasn’t until I revisited it a few years later that it became one of my favorites.

Right off the bat, the album sounds different than anything else happening at the time, and different from what R.E.M. had previously delivered. “Drive” is a slow acoustic song referencing a 70s glam-rock hit that builds to crunching guitar backed by strings, yet somehow manages to put me in a mind of childhood.

It sounds rather menacing, and sets the trend for the album of simple songs that build intensity gradually by adding instrumentation and sounds. You might not notice, but when Pete Buck’s electric guitar pierces the gentleness at 2:00, and violins begin furiously sawing, it’s suddenly a far more intense song than that opening acoustic guitar signaled. As for lyrics, I learned as an R.E.M. fan from the beginning never to worry too much about meaning. Stipe’s lyrics are all about feeling, and this one feels like an older guy wistfully reminding kids to use their youth wisely. Plus, for years I thought he referenced infrequent Bugs Bunny nemesis Blacque Jacque Shellacque, which I loved. (He didn’t.)

It was an unusual song in general, and very unusual as a single. The entire album is unusual, clearly accomplished by a band doing exactly what they want, and it’s this spirit of self-determination that, to me, gives the album a truly punk spirit – even though few punk songs are waltzes that prominently feature a triangle, like the next song, “Breathe.”

Singer Michael Stipe has said the lyrics are about his dying grandmother, and her strength at the end of her life. But the instrumentation and the build of the song make it not sad and mournful but uplifting. Bassist Mike Mills’s backing vocals (“Something to fly!”) at 1:56 mix with drummer Bill Berry’s (“I have seen things/You will never see”) and give the song a touch that elevate it. Buck’s distorted (backwards?) guitar at 2:20 provide dark color, and as the song moves toward its conclusion it truly sounds like the most uplifting song imaginable about a person dying.

These themes and songs were quite unlike anything else in 1992, and I can see why it took me a few years to catch on. It’s a mature record, a 40-year old record, and I needed to be closer to 40 to get it. Closer to a time when one’s parents may be struggling with their health, when a song like the lovely reflection on loss “Sweetness Follows” has more resonance than it might to a typical 25 year old.

For a mellow album, Automatic For The People has quite a lot of feedback and distortion from guitarist Buck. There’s a feedback “solo” from 1:56 to 2:25 that is haunting and beautiful. Stipe’s voice is strong and charismatic, and while it was always Buck’s guitar and Mills’s bass that kept me coming back to R.E.M. over the years, this album is really a showcase for Stipe’s singing. The harmony vocals by Mills are also terrific.

But the album’s not all slow songs about death and loss. From the time Stipe branched out from his early word-salad lyrics, the band has had political songs (“The Flowers of Guatemala,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “World Leader Pretend“, etc.) and on the rousing “Ignoreland,” they issue a call to action for the 1992 national elections.

This upbeat rock song was one of the songs I liked when the album was first released. It has the characteristic Berry tom-happy drumming, and Mills all-around-the-neck bass line. The rhythm section is supplemented by producer Scott Litt on funky clavinet (heard about 1:40) and harmonica. Buck plays a simple riff, without his usual jangle, that complements Stipe’s (admitted) spleen-venting34. It’s got that upbeat, driving R.E.M. style that I’ve always loved. Similarly, the rather crazy and somewhat mindless but absolutely fun “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has their early upbeat style as well.

It’s one of Michael Stipe’s, and the entire band’s, least favorite R.E.M. songs, but I like it. I like the seeming nonsense lyrics (which may be about living in a cheap motel), Mike Mills’s organ, and the harmony vocals throughout. Mills and Berry are two of my favorite harmony singers35 in rock. Producer Litt uses their vocals as an instrument on the subtle ode to physical affectionStar Me Kitten,” extending the pairs oh’s and ah’s into unending notes – an homage to an old 10cc song. The band does great stuff without vocals, too, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”

The upbeat songs are the exceptions on Automatic For The People, however. Instead of loud songs with thumping beats, the band here finds power in a smoldering energy that builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Man On The Moon,” one of the biggest hits on the record, is a lilting country-western tune that bursts into a full-throated, sing-along chorus. It’s an ode to the surreal 70s comedian Andy Kaufman. In another hit, “Everybody Hurts36,” Stipe’s lyrics hearten the discouraged while the simple song swells into an orchestral storm. (All the strings on the album were written and arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, by the way.)

The record is all about subtlety. It celebrates the gray and undistinguished facets in a world where so many wish to see black and white. This may be why it appealed more to the aging me than it did to the younger me. The perspective gained from several more trips around the sun can enhance the world around you. It can put you in a place where a song like “Nightswimming” can move you nearly to tears.

The simple, circular piano of Mike Mills carries Stipe’s lyrics that somehow conjure both the excitement of childhood and the melancholy of reflecting on those happy memories. Each verse builds gently, adding strings until an an oboe solo and full orchestra enter. It’s the kind of song that I would’ve hated as a kid watching R.E.M. on David Letterman in 1983. But as a middle aged man, it trips a certain nostalgia trigger – not nostalgia as in “this is the music of my youth,” but as described in Don Draper’s Carousel pitch on Mad Men: “a place we ache to go again.” It’s a powerful song (and Mike Mills’s favorite R.E.M. song, according to his Dan Rather interview.)

It’s true the album has all this slow, orchestral, emotional music. But yet, to my ears, it retains that punk/alternative spirit of “we’re doing this our way.” The songs don’t sound like a band just decided to write the same old shit but add some strings. The ode to 50s screen star, and tragic man of his era, Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” uses mandolin, accordion and a thunking rhythm to support a catchy melody. Like the rest of the record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in pop/rock from 1992 – it just sounds like R.E.M. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and one of two songs about Montgomery Clift that I love (the other being “The Right Profile,” by The Clash.)

Ah, middle age. It’s an astonishing place to find oneself, with more past stretching out behind you than future that lies ahead. You look over your shoulder and it can seem like that’s where all the best stuff lies. But Automatic For The People is a middle-aged record (40 years old in human years, remember?) that shows it’s possible to maintain excellence as you age and grow. In the final song on the record, “Find The River,” lyricist Stipe seems to make the point that all there is to life, really, is experience and memories. Maybe the question of whether 40 year olds can be excellent is moot; perhaps experience and memories are where “excellence” lies as our personal river approaches the ocean that awaits us all. (Or maybe that’s just old-man-talk!)

Track Listing:
“Drive”
“Try Not to Breathe”
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“Everybody Hurts”
“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
“Sweetness Follows”
“Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Ignoreland”
“Star Me Kitten”
“Man On The Moon”
“Nightswimming”
“Find The River”

Share