30th Favorite: Doolittle, by The Pixies

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Doolittle. The Pixies.
1989, 4AD. Producer: Gil Norton.
Purchased, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Doolittle sounds a lot like every Alt-90s record that came after it, but don’t blame The Pixies for that. Black Francis howls and barks, screams and hollers, and it sounds just beautiful against Joey Santiago’s surf guitar and Kim Deal’s confident bass. The songs are singalong-catchy and downright weird, with lyrics about ancient people and modern problems. It’s a raucous, high-energy affair that still sounds up to date.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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It’s true I have a lousy memory. I may have written about this before. I don’t really remember. But while tasks and events and people may slip from my mind as if they’re wearing a Crisco-slathered raincoat, certain items do cling tenaciously to my memory glands (or however that works). In particular, stories I’ve read leave a lasting impression.

However, that’s all they leave: an “impression.” And just like pushing a little green army guy into a wad of Silly-Putty only leaves behind the most basic information on the soldier (Kneeling with bazooka? Tossing hand grenade? Prone with gun?), of all the hundreds of thousands of words I read each month I am generally left with only the bare minimum of what any reasonable person would consider a “memory” of the information. My enthusiastic description to my wife of any 8,000 word essay I read in The New Yorker is usually along the lines of: “It was about this woman whose mom died.”

However, the impression I’m left with is generally distinct enough to describe the larger point of the essay: “Her mom died, and she realized she never asked her about her years as a truck mechanic in the 50s.” Twenty years later I’ll forget where I read the story, and I’ll forget major details of the story, like how she went about discovering the stories from her mom’s truck mechanic past. But when someone brings up the topic “Truck Mechanic,” a little librarian in my mind will race to the card catalog (periodicals) there1, hurriedly flip through it, then send word to my mouth to say, “I read this really cool story one time about a woman whose mom was a truck mechanic in the 50s!”

Then I hope my interlocutor doesn’t ask any questions about the article.

I bring this up because I read an essay one time in the late 80s that, even though I forget many (or most) of its details, it relates to a very specific time in my music-appreciating life. As background for the story, it’s important to recognize that in America, up through the 80s, rock music, though aging into its 30s and experiencing all of the attendant regret, sadness and resignation that early middle-age carries, was still a source of fear and anxiety for many people across the country. The once powerful and kick-ass Heavy Metal – which by the end of the decade had morphed into “Hair Metal,” essentially shirtless, hyper-coiffed middle-aged dudes in leather and spandex singing 90s boy-band style ballads and dancing 90s boy-band style choreography – was particularly viewed with suspicion and distrust.

This was the era of the “Satanic Panic,” when everyone from nursery school teachers to bored teenagers and fantasy game nerds were swept up in a tidal wave of hysteria that envisioned an America populated by The Believers-style Satanist cults preying on our youth. Lives were ruined by this literal witch-hunt2. And music, particularly Heavy Metal music, was in the witch-hunters’ crosshairs. Heavy Metal music was supposedly an avenue that Old Scratch used to infiltrate teens, riding the driving beat, fiery guitar-work and shrieking vocals straight into their lives to stealthily pluck their souls while they banged their heads with abandon.

I’m getting to the article, don’t worry.

It was a downright silly idea that left us music fans shaking our heads over these dorky do-gooder adults’ actions. But it wasn’t really all that funny. In addition to the appalling overzealousness of Satan-addled prosecutors, crazy shit was happening in music, too. Like Judas Priest being sued for causing suicides (the family that sued lost); and Ozzy Osbourne being sued for the same thing (with the same outcome). Times were really out of control. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the media’s role in all of this. The typical human gossip story cycle occurred, in which the papers first published story after story warning “Oh my gosh! Satanists might be here!!” and then a few years later asked, “Why were we all dumb enough to think Satanists were here?”

But anyway, sometime during all this hysteria some small-town boy killed his parents. Or shot a friend, perhaps a neighbor. I don’t remember the details, see, but I know there was violence perpetrated with a gun, and much was made about the changes recently seen in the boy. A story, perhaps in People Magazine or syndicated by UPI, described the boy, the violence and its aftermath. He was an outstanding concert pianist3 with a love of classical music, but the article stated that he’d recently begun listening to Heavy Metal and hard-core punk rock. It was one of many changes of escalating alarm that culminated in homicide. The article made the point that “when his music changed, he changed.”

But this story IS NOT the story that left the impression on me. The impression-yielding story was an essay written in response to the above in which a young woman pushed back against the idea that music was wreaking so much havoc. This young woman knew the boy, and she pointed out what now seems obvious but at the time flew in the face of the national attitude towards rock music and its potentially devastating effects: the boy didn’t change when his music changed, but his music changed when he changed. In the common narrative, she argued, the actual cause-and-effect had been flip-flopped.

This isn’t a difficult point to understand. Few of us remain fans of all of the entertainments we enjoyed as youth or young adults. My sisters’ disco singles and milk-crate of albums didn’t change me into a Sesame Street hater; they just came at a time when I had outgrown my Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert LP. As new people are met and new experiences encountered, as one’s perspective and life changes, it makes sense one’s art appreciation would change as well. There was a time in my life I wouldn’t have given Doolittle a listen. Then I started to change, and a time came when I played it nonstop.

By 1989 I had heard of the Pixies, but I hadn’t heard any of their songs. They remained one of those mysterious, non-classic-rock bands of which I remained suspicious. In the fall of 1989 I was student teaching when I heard/saw their song “Here Comes Your Man” on MTV. It was catchy, but I didn’t buy the album. A year later I heard another track from Doolittle, and didn’t even know it. I was attending a gig in a bar I worked at by a band I would join a few months later, The April Skies. They were playing with another local band called The Sociables. I knew both bands played mostly songs they’d written as opposed to covers, and The Sociables’ songs were, well, forgettable. Then they played a song that knocked my socks off, a catchy, energetic number with a shout-along chorus and varying voices that were mellow and screaming. “Holy shit,” I thought, “these guys are awesome.” Then the rest of the songs were, well, forgettable again.

After the show I said to my friend, Jake, from The April Skies, “They should write more songs like that one!” “Dude,” he said, “that’s a Pixies song. ‘Debaser.'”

Within a few months I’d be playing in a new band, meeting new people, going to big cities, and hearing about terrific bands from all the people I’d meet. My perspective on life was broadening, I was hearing stuff I hadn’t heard before. I bought my first CD player and bought my first CDs, and in addition to albums by The Beatles, one of them was Doolittle. And the first song on the album was that awesome song I’d heard The Sociables play, “Debaser.”

The song opens with a few bouncing bass notes, an ugly, dissonant chord (which is one of the hallmarks of the band’s sound), and then at 0:07 the main riff. The leader, main songwriter and lead singer of the Pixies is a character named Black Francis, the nom de guerre of Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black. His vocal style is unique, a sort of in-tune shouting, at times screaming, and even when it morphs into melody it retains a dark, menacing quality. He also writes unusual lyrics, many with Biblical imagery4. “Debaser” is about his desire to “debase the norm” with his music, and references the surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou, by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, famous for a scene in which an eyeball is (seemingly) sliced by a razor5. It’s one of those songs that definitely sounds better the louder you play it, the better to accentuate the screaming “I am un (pause) CHIEN (pause) ANDALUSIA” lyrics. It also features bassist Kim Deal’s gentle backing vocals (1:44), another common feature of the band’s sound. David Lovering’s drumming is tight, and surf-rock guitarist Joey Santiago’s playing sounds terrific. It is the quintessential Pixies sound.

There was a documentary produced a few years ago about the band, and its title describes another key component of the Pixies sound: loudQUIETloud. Kurt Cobain admitted lifting their sound for the quiet-loud-quiet masterpiece “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A good example of it is in the frantic “Tame,” a song about … relationships, maybe?

Black Francis’s howls (0:22, 0:53) are terrifying, but the drums and bass keep the song pumping and catchy. Also terrifying are the banging metal guitars and Francis’s heavy breathing (1:13), even when it’s sweetened by Deal’s harmonies (1:24). It’s a frightening song, certainly scarier than whatever Motley Crüe or Slaughter were doing at the time to raise Satan-hunters’ concerns. (Although they looked pretty normal on TV.) But what makes the band, and the album, great for me are the band’s abilities to wed catchy melodies to their traumatizing sound. For example, my favorite song on the album: “No. 13 Baby.”

As usual, Deal’s bass sets the listener’s ears so that when the distorted guitars enter behind Francis’s whine (0:15), they don’t sound so discordant. The lyrics are (probably) about a woman he admires, with an interesting tattoo. Santiago’s guitar is unmistakeable, and Lovering’s drums take the band through the song’s changing time signatures with ease. I love their break together, around 1:07. There’s an energy to this mid-tempo song, and it cries out for singing along by the listener. Then it transitions beautifully to an instrumental section (2:07) that is sweetly hypnotic, and features Santiago’s distinctive guitar work.

The combination of loud-QUIET-loud with melody-CHAOS-melody – with a bit of sneakily changing time signatures – is all over the songs on Doolittle. One of the best is the scarily-titled “Wave of Mutilation,” which is actually a description of the weather phenomenon El Niño.

This time the blare of guitar leads the charge and the bass trails behind. Kim Deal is an excellent bassist, finding melodic bass lines that play off the angular chords of Santiago and Francis. It’s got a great chord progression in the pre-chorus (0:39, behind “you think I’m dead” lyrics), and is really just a terrific 2 minute pop song. The band shows throughout the record that their sound definitely has one foot (at least) in the pop genre. Consider the college radio smash “Here Comes Your Man,” which Black Francis wrote as a 14 year old, with it’s lilting melody, odd lyrics and beautiful harmonies. The band also sends up the pop love song genre on the catchy surf-guitar number “La La Love You,” crooned earnestly by drummer Lovering. Its mindless, lovey-dove lyrics are undermined by Francis quietly counting off the first-sex basepath to “home run.” The guitar work on the song is excellent.

Another pop song, complete with string section, yet done in true screaming Pixies style, is the environmental warning song “Monkey Gone To Heaven.”

It’s got a great melody, and the instrumentation is perfect together. Folks may complain about an indy punk band like Pixies using orchestral backing, but it sure sounds damn fine to me. The song also has a break down that fans love to sing along to, and that includes that screaming Black Francis craziness. It’s a simple, cool song.

However, I tend to prefer some of the more raucous tunes and the strange characteristics of them. For example, the menacing laugh of Black Francis in the watery rave-up “Mr. Grieves,” complete with a show-tune ending. (Here’s a cool a cappella version by TV On the Radio.) Or the simmering “Hey,” with cool guitar until the song boils over with “the sound the mother makes/when the baby breaks.”

One of my favorites is the off-the-rails, machine-gun-paced “Crackity Jones,” which blisters through in a minute, twenty-four seconds.

It almost goes by too fast to say anything, but I like Francis’s vocal effects, Santiago’s guitar, the Spanish lyrics. And now it’s probably complete! Other short songs on the record include the driving, distorted Bible story-themed “Dead;” the Pixies version of an 80s power ballad, “I Bleed;” and the kinda-WesternThere Goes My Gun.” “Silver” is a song that I still can’t really get into.

The album closes with the band’s fabulous take on the story of Samson, “Gouge Away.”

It’s got everything the band is known for: loudQUIETloud; Deal’s bass and backing vocals; atmospheric guitars; Francis’s screaming; and a melody that sticks in your head. The album is an unstoppable whirlwind of energy and sound, something that actually sounds dangerous in a real way, not like the cartoon villains of Hair Metal that so disturbed the nation way back when. And it was played by four people who looked like they worked at your bank.

The Pixies, and their album Doolittle, didn’t change me. I think it has powerful music, but I don’t know if it’s that powerful. But when I was finally ready to hear it, it sounded like I should’ve been listening all along.

Track Listing:
“Debaser”
“Tame”
“Wave of Mutilation”
“I Bleed”
“Here Comes Your Man”
“Dead”
“Monkey Gone to Heaven”
“Mr. Grieves”
“Crackity Jones”
“La La Love You”
“No. 13 Baby”
“There Goes My Gun”
“Hey”
“Silver”
“Gouge Away”

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31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush

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Moving Pictures. Rush.
1981, Anthem. Producer: Rush and Terry Brown.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rush is a band that has divided people for years, but I’ve always been firmly on their side! Moving Pictures is a record that displays the band’s virtuosity, but also packages it in a more radio-friendly, catchy style. It’s still easy to get carried away by the grand displays of talent; it takes me back to my awkward teen years when I knew I had discovered “The Greatest!” Amazing bass and drums, cool guitar, and great songs.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I am not the greatest. Whatever category you have there, I’m not the greatest. I don’t box or play baseball or paint, so I’m certainly not greatest at those pursuits. But even among the things I do, and the things I’ve done and the things I am, I’m not, and never was, the greatest. I’m not the greatest writer6. I’m not the greatest bass player. I wasn’t the greatest comedian or actor or playwright or chemist. I’m not the greatest QA guy or husband/father/son/brother/friend.

Don’t worry! I’m not spiraling down a depressive pit of despair! I’m generally satisfied with my abilities, or my abilities to improve my abilities. It’s just that I think any discussion of a person as “greatest” at anything is, practically speaking, silly and not worth my time and energy.

Perhaps it’s my career in science that provides me with an analytical view of such things, but to my mind the term “greatest” implies something measurable. “Among his friends, Roy has the greatest number of guitars.” We can all get together, count guitars and there can be no dispute. The term “best” is a little more slippery, but in a scientific setting it can be (and is) tied to actual data. Statisticians use “best fit” to assess data points. Drug researchers review study results (data!) to select the best drug candidate.

Given the inextricable relationship between measurements and assessed hierarchy, it’s clear that the further away from science (measurable things) one moves on the continuum of human pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to proclaim something “best” or “greatest.” And since art is about as far from science on that continuum as possible7 calling something the “greatest” in art simply doesn’t make sense. What are you measuring to call it the best?

In this modern, commerce-obsessed, capital-worshiping era, there is at least one measurable aspect of art: sales. However, when most people are speaking of “great art” or “great artists,” I don’t believe they’re basing the assessment on money. For example, the highest-grossing films ever don’t have much overlap with best films selected by critics or the general public. Unless you’re a middle school teacher, you’ll rarely hear many serious debates over whether The Avengers or Furious 7 is the better film. The same goes for best-selling albums vs. critics‘ and listener picks, although there seems to be more overlap in this arena. Best-selling books vs. critical picks align very closely over history, but this is because the books critics love are purchased over and over for centuries. But year-by-year the best-selling books are rarely the winners of well-known literary prizes.

Whenever I hear an artist, or a work of art, called “The Greatest,” or “The Best,” I nod along and grit my teeth like a high school English teacher hearing a stranger use the malaprop “for all intensive purposes.” I understand it’s my own pet peeve, and I have enough wherewithal to keep it to myself that I wish The Oscars® awarded “Most Well-Liked Picture” instead of “Best Picture.” But it’s everywhere you look, particularly in music writing. “Greatest Album.” “Best Guitarist.” “Greatest Songs.”

I get what people mean when they say “greatest.” When people talk about the Great Guitarists, for example, they usually mean somebody whose style and ability blows you away. So I recognize that people will say The Greatest guitarist is Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix or Prince or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Brad Paisley or Albert King or Keith Richards or Randy Rhodes or Yngwie Malmsteen or Catfish Collins or Stevie Ray Vaughn or John Mayer or George Harrison or Billy Gibbons or … or … or … I mean, come on. It gets ridiculous after a while. Especially when you consider the question: “Who gives a shit?” The Ramones did this, and it was awesome, so who cares whether or not Johnny Ramone played a solo? The Edge played three notes in this song, big deal! Technical ability is impressive, and it’s fun to discuss the styles and merits of all types of artists – writers, composers, dancers, sarangi players – but when it comes right down to it, art is not a contest. Artists are not contestants. No artist can be “the greatest8.”

That’s how I feel about it now. But there was a time, as a teen, that I had no doubt about who were the greatest and I had no problem letting you, or anyone else, know who they were and why. And the Greatest Band was Rush. And the Greatest Guitarist, Bassist and Drummer were Alex Lifeson9, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart, respectively. And I would argue all day with you about that.

There is little doubt today why I had so few girlfriends as a teenager.

I’ve written before about first getting into Rush via the drummers in my high school marching band, about long teenage hours spent in my basement, letting their music take me away. Their songs were attractive to a kid like me: socially awkward, interested in puzzles and games, confident about little besides my schoolwork, always feeling stuck on the outside looking in. Their songs and lyrics made them sound like they were just as awkward and outsider-y as I was, yet they reveled in it! They were dorks like me, but were proud to be dorks, churning out album-side-long, hard-rock epics in the days of 2-minute, 3-chord punk songs and repetitive disco beats. They were happy to be respected by their fans even if the cool kids (i.e. critics) mocked them. They were a fantasy of self-confidence brought to life for a kid like me, idols for reasons beyond simply their music.

And when things like “greatest” mattered to me, as individuals they were always ranked highly in all the lists I could find. Neil Peart on drums10. Geddy Lee on bass11. Alex Lifeson on guitar12. This seemed to validate my appreciation of them despite their lack of cool-kid-cred.

The band has embraced their nerdiness, playing it up in a Hollywood movie, I Love You, Man. Their equally-nerdy fans are known to be a bit obsessive and do things like bring glowing drumsticks to concerts to “play” along. Family Guy loves poking fun at the band’s fans, who include the guys from South Park, who produced a video to introduce the band at concerts in the late 00s.

Even though I’ve changed a lot since those teenage years of proclaiming “the greatest!” and even though my tastes have broadened and changed, the deep bond I formed with the album Moving Pictures remains. I’m no longer worried that I won’t fit in, I’m no longer seeking excellence outside myself to validate what’s inside myself. But I still love this record. I still get a tingly sense of awe when I hear that swirling synthesizer chord I’ve heard a million times, the one that opens Moving Pictures, and their most well-known song, “Tom Sawyer.”

That synth growls beneath Peart’s tight drum beat, and right off the bat I’ll just have to say it: You’re going to have to deal with Geddy Lee’s voice. Many folks can’t get over that hump, and if that’s you, well, this write-up is going to seem twice as long as usual. The bass and drums really carry the song from the beginning, on those majestic four-note motifs after each verse (starting at 0:14) and the snaking bass line that begins at 0:39. While playing bass, Lee also plays foot-pedal synths (as shown in a glimpse of his funky shoe at 0:45). You may wonder why you have trouble out on the dance floor with “Tom Sawyer” after the synth solo at 1:39. That’s because during the solo the song shifts out of the comfortable 4/4 time signature into the two-left-feet-generating 7/4 time signature. The song hangs there during Lifeson’s amazing guitar solo at 2:01, while Lee’s pulsing bass and Peart’s flurry of drums move through changes with ease. It builds to a satisfying conclusion around 2:36 and sticks the landing like a gold-medal gymnast back in 4/4 for the final verse.

It’s these instrumental freak-outs, with deft transitions between parts and time signatures, played by three guys who seem to be loving what they’re doing, that endear the band to fans. That and the lyrics, by drummer Peart, which are typically about self and art and people, and sometimes present his convictions very directly. They are lyrics that are at times ripe for parody, but those of us who sang along as teens never found them funny. “Tom Sawyer” was a message to us fans to stay true to ourselves.

Another style of lyrics that Peart writes are stories, particularly of the futuristic, sci-fi variety; for example a society in which driving a car is against the law, and the thrill of breaking that law. That’s the story of “Red Barchetta,” always my favorite on the album.

This is the song that made me want to be a bass player, and for years I thought of it as my “second-favorite song” behind only “Strawberry Fields Forever.” From Lee’s opening runs behind Lifeson’s ringing harmonics all the way through his little bass solos during the outro of the song, I air-bass-guitared along to this one a million times. Lifeson plays a subtle line behind the verses that I love13. The song really kicks in, and I get my flashbacks to youth, after the first verse, at 1:16. The story of the freedom of driving, and the thrilling music behind it – back then it sounded like escape to me, and even though I didn’t realize it, escape was what I wanted. The drums are amazing – the 20 seconds between 1:30 and 1:50 show Peart’s inventiveness, supporting a simple 4/4 back beat with brilliant kick drum fills. It’s got “lead bass” (as opposed to “lead guitar”) throughout, creating a dual lead situation during the wonderful guitar solo of Lifeson at 3:24. Peart’s drums behind the last verse, around 4:00, just swing, with that cymbal on the upbeat and the couplets on the kick drum. This song meant so much to me 35 years ago, and it’s wonderful to listen nowadays and to experience bits of those feelings once again. As hard as those teen years could be, this song brings back only the good vibes.

We’ve established that the three members of the band are quite proficient, but like true nerds everywhere – comparing calculus solutions or topping off their friend’s robot with the perfect flame-shooting nozzle – the band wallows in their virtuosity on the wonderful instrumental “YYZ.”

“YYZ” is the three-letter airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport, the Canadian band’s home airport, and the main riff is actually built on the Morse Code signal for the letters Y-Y-Z. (I told you they’re nerds.) I don’t have much to say about the song other than “holy moley, it’s so fucking good!!!” I love the back and forth, as the band trades solos; I love Lee’s inventive playing; and I particularly love Lifeson’s Middle Eastern sounding solo, beginning around 2:20.

The band returns to a more grounded, standard pop format, yet still with a Rush spin, on the AOR radio hit “Limelight.”

Of course, as “pop” and “radio-friendly” as the song is, once again dancefloor denizens would be stymied by its odd time signatures, switching deftly between 7/4, 3/4 and 6/4 with a few odd 4/4 bars thrown in. It’s got a strong melody, and while Lee’s high-pitched voice is front and center, it’s a tame version, with few screeches. Lifeson’s guitar solo at about 2:42 is one of my favorites of all time14. It begins with long, atmospheric sounds which gently progress, with more distinct notes added. It shows a guitarist who doesn’t hue to the Classic Rock formula of “more notes=better solo.” The lyrics express Peart’s ambivalence about stardom, thoughts on how a shy, introverted man makes his way through international acclaim from millions of fans. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.”

By Moving Pictures, the band, which had been routinely placing album-side-length, 20 minute songs about dystopian futures on their albums, had scaled back these efforts to 10 minute songs about Coleridge poems and nature. On this album, an 11-minute epic comparing New Yorkers and Londoners is featured: “The Camera Eye.”

The song starts with gurgling synthesizers that bubble beneath the entire song. I haven’t pointed out yet, but you may have noticed, the band really likes introductions and fanfares to their songs, and this one is no different. I love how it builds through the first 2:20 to the alarm-bell synth, which begins the main guitar riff. The song stays in standard 4/4 until the verse at about 3:35, where it switches to either alternating 6/4 and 5/4, or simply 11/415. It’s stuff like this that makes us fans love them, as it just seems like they’re having a great time. Plus it sounds really cool! I love stuff like the bass at 4:00, and the switch to a mellow interlude at 4:40. And Peart’s drumming: I mean, come on. I haven’t said much about it, as what can really be said? He’s a student of drum history and technique, and his own creativity and ability are overwhelming. His speed across well-tuned toms is one thing, but check out the perfectly phrased fills between 5:50 and 6:00, slowing the song’s pace with an intricate tap on the breaks, then the funky high-hat and kick drum between 6:10 and 6:20 as the song revs back up. I find it so much fun to listen to.

I think the band is at their best when they’re fun16, and through five songs they’ve been that. However, “Witch Hunt” isn’t fun, and isn’t a song I really connect with. Of course the playing is brilliant, and the anti-hatred lyrics are excellent and particularly relevant today given the state of American policy efforts. But it’s slow pace and repetitive nature leave me a bit cold.

The closing piece, “Vital Signs,” steps up the fun once again.

The band has said they were big fans of all kinds of music, and that fandom was reflected in what they wrote. In the late 70s, new wave and ska were happening, and this song sounds like the band’s spin on The Police or Talking Heads. I love Lifeson’s chopping guitar, and the slinky bass line Lee plays throughout. (As an MTV fan in the early 80s, I loved this video for Peart’s Montreal Expos hat!) The snare sound at about 0:40 is very strange for Peart, very 80s/Casio sounding. After 1:10 it’s back to normal. It’s a fun, catchy song with more burbling synth, and it’s nearly danceable, as it stays in 4/4 throughout! They are living their lyrics here, deviating from their norm!

I’m comfortable with my fandom now, despite the fact that cool-kids of a certain generation may still regard my love for the band as a bit silly. I can laugh about the earnestness with which I devoured their lyrics and learned their sounds, and argued with all-comers about their musical brilliance. I get it – they could overdo it, and we fans could overdo it as well. But the fact remains that they were important to me, and I still love a lot of their music. Back when an assessment of “The Greatest” was important to me, I thought Rush were the greatest. And now I finally understand why: they made me feel great, too.

Track Listing:
“Tom Sawyer”
“Red Barchetta”
“YYZ”
“Limelight”
“The Camera Eye”
I. New York
II. London
“Witch Hunt”
“Vital Signs”

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32nd Favorite: Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet

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Girlfriend. Matthew Sweet.
1991, Zoo Entertainment. Producer: Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet.
Purchased, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Matthew Sweet writes catchy pop songs and beautiful sad songs, and sings perfect harmonies over flowing melodies – and then brings in angular, ripsaw guitars to disrupt everything. And it sounds amazing! 70s punk guitar virtuosos Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd take over most of the songs, and lap pedal steel king Greg Leisz fills out the tear-jerker pieces. It’s perfect guitar-pop that demands I make a Sweet pun.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Damn. I forget what I was going to write about. It was completely relevant, too, and really captured my experiences with this album. That’s what I try to do on this website, give some background as to why I like a record, and how I came to like a record; to help provide an assessment apart from simply what it sounds like. There are a million lists out there of “Best Records Ever,” in which some person (or group) with a modem (or media jobs) tells you “this is awesome because …” as if they can judge works of art by tallying up some checkmarks they’ve made like they’re evaluating participants in a sheep-blocking competition.

But I can’t do that. I can’t remove my own self from the evaluation of the record. And my experiences are different with each record, so none of my imagined checkmarks would ever line up between albums. It would be like judging sheep-blocking where participants also bring pigs and raccoons and fish to be judged. So I don’t claim that I’m ranking these records objectively. I never said they’re the best; I said they’re my favorites.

Great, now I’m further away from remembering what I was going to say than I was at the start. But I am now quite used to forgetting. I’m very forgetful. My wife and kids can attest to the fact that whenever I leave the house there is about a 50/50 chance that I’ll come back in about 30 seconds later because I’ve forgotten my wallet, or the car keys, or my phone, or the shopping list or some combination of all those things, and others. It used to frustrate me. Now I’m used to it. It still bugs/amuses my family.

I forget to complete tasks – leaving half-folded laundry in the living room I’ve walked away from. I forget to start tasks – leaving my wife to call the garage to schedule an appointment a week after she first asked me to do it. I forget I performed tasks – leaving hardware store clerks confused when I call to tell them I lost the tool I rented, and they inform me that I returned it a week ago. Yet my memory for trivia is such that I appeared on Jeopardy! several years ago.

Memory is a strange thing. My wife, J., can remember entire plot lines of shows we’ve watched just by seeing one brief glimpse of it while channel-surfing. Me: “Hey, look, an old X-Files! I don’t remember this one!” J: “This is the one with the missing elephant, and the aliens impregnating the zoo animals.” But she’ll read stuff I write about our relationship and say, “I don’t remember any of that.” She remembers details she sees; I remember feelings from experiences I’ve had. (And trivia.)

Much of my forgetfulness I can’t explain beyond that fact that it’s just who I am. Maybe I had the information in my brain, and then I just lost track of its location in there. And maybe some stuff was never in there in the first place, and literally went in one ear and out the other, if that’s indeed how hearing works and heads are built. (Otherwise, it only figuratively slipped out.) But some stuff I can explain. For example, I don’t remember a whole lot of stuff from my 20s when I often drank so much that I blacked out.

A black out is really weird. It’s a real-life Quantum Leap17, an abrupt shift of reality in which, in an eye-blink, you go from having a normal, if drunken, time and then open your eyes to find yourself transported in space and time. You’ll be doing something … laughing, dancing, talking with friends … and then you wake up. But it’s different than waking up from a normal sleep because it’s generally very sudden and riddled with anxiety over questions like “Why do I still have shoes on?” “Whose house am I at?” and “How did I sleep so soundly lying on their brick walkway?”

In my 20s, those black outs were alarming and shameful, but I disguised my alarm by laughing along in the next-day’s amusing task of piecing together the night’s events18; and I hid my shame by pretending I wasn’t embarrassed by having been rude to some people and incoherent to the rest. I eventually settled down, did some work on my personal issues and as of February, 2018, haven’t blacked out in a long, long time. And now, years later, the alarm and shame of the blackouts has turned to a sadness over all the stuff I forgot.

Some of the best stuff I forgot19 is stuff related to music, specifically around the time I was playing music in a band, The April Skies. We played tons of shows, in tons of clubs, over a couple of years and I remember very little of that time. Some of that is just old age, and if my former bandmates were to say, “Remember the time we played with …” I’d immediately pull up the memory and join the conversation. But some of those memories never formed. I used to laugh about forgetting such things, but 26 years(!) later, it all seems sad and like such a waste. There are many, many shows and events from those band years that I don’t remember, and since memories are really all that’s left of those pre-ubiquitous-video years, I don’t have much.

In 1991, we played the prestigious “CMJ New Music Showcase,” in NYC. We had just gotten representation in New York City, so this was the first of what promised to be many trips there to play gigs. And it was my first time ever in The Big Apple. I took such a big bite of it that I remember almost nothing from the weekend. I do remember meeting Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who spoke with my bandmates and me about his love for “that new Nirvana album.” And I remember (thanks to a little prodding from Skies leader Jake) that we played a terrific set at The Nightingale Lounge. The rest is a blur.

Including Blur, on their first US tour and who we saw perform as part of the festival that weekend. See, as performers we got into all the shows for free, and we went to a bunch. But I only remember snippets. I remember Blur were very loud, and more raucous than their pretty-boy looks and house-beat songs would lead one to believe. I sort of remember Toad the Wet Sprocket nearly putting me to sleep, just like their songs on the radio did. I clearly remember Britain’s Slowdive … but actually I don’t, as I was informed by Jake that we never went to their show. (We did, however, see the tremendous Berserk!) And that’s just a little bit of all I don’t remember from that weekend. My memories are just a few drops in an otherwise empty mug of everything we did.

Worst of all, I remember very little of a performance by a guitarist who I’d never get to see again, performing songs from a new album that, although it had just been released, I’d already played a bunch. The album is Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet. The guitarist was Robert Quine, and even though I don’t remember details of that show, I do know I woke up the next day thinking, “I gotta go see that guitar player again!” Quine was in the 70s punk outfit Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and played for Lou Reed and others. His guitar work, along with that of former Television honcho Richard Lloyd, who also plays on the album, and Sweet’s catchy songs and (dare I say?) Beatle-esque harmonies propelled that album into heavy, heavy rotation back in ’91 – ’92, and it’s never fallen out of orbit.

I first heard of the record from the single that was released that fall, “Girlfriend.” It was all over MTV, which was pretty astounding, as MTV was then transitioning to mostly NOT playing videos.

If you’ve read about other albums I love, you’ll know that GUITAR is very important to me, and GUITAR is all over this song, from the very first rising sound of sustained feedback, which bursts into a boiling solo on the left speaker while some crunchy chords chop through the right. A bouncing bass and oh-so-1991-housebeat drums enter next, and by 33 seconds in I’ve already decided this is one of my favorite songs ever. That guitar player on the left speaker is Robert Quine20, and this song is just one on the album featuring his inventive, ranging guitar work. (He could pull it off live, too!) But it’s not just the guitar. The melody is catchy, and those harmonies, all performed by Sweet himself, are terrific. Check out the “ahh” at 0:50 and the “saw you comin’ my way” at 1:14. The lyrics are a plea, and turn a bit creepy at the end (“I’m never gonna set you free”), but meant something to lonely young men of the era, so I’m told21. Quine’s guitar is great throughout, but his solo at 1:46 is fantastic – swooping and wailing all over the place. The song has so much packed into a guitar-pop record.

Guitar is all over the place on this record, and it’s not just Quine. The aforementioned Richard Lloyd also laces the Sweet sounds with some sour spikes of angular guitar. The opening track, “Divine Intervention,” places Lloyd front-and-center.

That opening riff sounds all wrong, but it sounds so right! And the squawking lead guitar alongside it hits all the weirdest notes possible. Sweet’s voice is tinny and high-pitched, with a tone not too dissimilar from Neil Young’s. The song’s lyrics can be interpreted many ways, but he claims they were his “coming out as an atheist,” although I could see believers taking a different message from it. The harmony vocals he sings with himself – for example the “Divine – Intervention” at 1:47 – really make the song, and his bass line22 and Ric Menck’s sloppy drums boost it from a typical mid-tempo slag. But Richard Lloyd is the real hero, particularly the soloing at 1:55 to 2:30 and 3:30 to the false ending at 4:20. (Sweet uses a Beatle-y “Strawberry Fields” ending on the song.)

Girlfriend is full of catchy little songs overrun with nuclear guitar assaults, as if a painting of kittens was trampled by muddy boots, but the result was way cooler than the original painting. Take one of my favorite guitar bursts on the album, “Evangeline,” another song commandeered by Lloyd’s ruckus.

At 0:15 the loopy riff starts over Fred Maher’s drum beat and Sweet’s playing. It’s a catchy song with lyrics about the eponymous comic book hero Evangeline, as sung by another character, Johnny Six. It’s more of what I love – terrific harmony “Ah’s” and “Evangelines” (2:00!) in the background, and that guitar. The solo at 2:10 is brief and brawny, but the one he pulls off at 3:58 is sublime.

Okay, okay, enough of the guitar lust, right? I hear you. It’s dialed back on some of the album’s slower songs like the sweet, country love-letter NOT to Winona Ryder23, “Winona.” The song features lap pedal guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz, but Mr. Quine does show up for a sweet solo. Leisz and Quine team up again on the sad, sad “You Don’t Love Me,” a tear-jerker on the order of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” My favorite slow song on the album, again featuring Leisz, is the lullaby “Your Sweet Voice,” which reminds me of quiet bedtimes with my kids when they were little, falling asleep in their tiny beds as I read them stories.

As much as I love that softer side, it’s the electric guitars that keep bringing me back. This album came out in a magical year in rock music, and is what the 90s were supposed to sound like: catchy as hell with loud guitars. Instead it morphed into all those Matchboxes and Blowfish and Crows, Counted. That shit sounded week next to a song like “I Wanted to Tell You24.”.

Once again it’s Quine poking his sharp axe through the jangle of Sweet’s pop songcraft. I really like the chorus, starting about 0:54. You could probably read one of the previous paragraphs again here … blah, blah GUITAR; blah blah HARMONIES. It’s a song about regret, and Quine’s solo basically runs through the entire song. But the piece at 2:18 is special; the one at 3:33 is even better. The song has a counterpart, of sorts, in the Lloyd-guitar-fueled “I’ve Been Waiting,” another perfect pop gem, this one about desire. “Does She Talk?,” a rebound-romance questioning song, and “Holy War,” a wish for peace, feature different takes on the guitar/vocals motif.

The album was written and recorded around the time that Sweet was divorcing his first wife, and the blood from the event is splattered all over the record. “Thought I Knew You” is an acoustic breakup song with Sweet’s pal Lloyd Cole strumming along. “Day for Night” has frenzied Quine action behind words of guilt. “Don’t Go” is a desperate plea.

But of course, the divorce songs I like best are the ones with the most guitar and harmonies, like the terrific headphones-enhanced-song about the after-effects of a breakup, “Looking at the Sun.”

I guess the bottom line is this: life is hard, and you’ll need as many memories as possible as you get older. But the memories in your head will evaporate, the edges will fade and increasingly the details will wash out. If you did something stupid, like drink so much alcohol that you forget a bunch of them, the best you can do is to try to recreate some feelings. Perhaps a great collection of songs from the era could trigger those feelings? In any case, take a lot of pictures and videos and look at them when you can. Because, as Sweet sings sadly, beautifully, “Nothing Lasts.”

Track Listing:
“Divine Intervention”
“I’ve Been Waiting”
“Girlfriend”
“Looking at the Sun”
“Winona”
“Evangeline”
“Day for Night”
“Thought I Knew You”
“You Don’t Love Me”
“I Wanted to Tell You”
“Don’t Go”
“Your Sweet Voice”
“Does She Talk?”
“Holy War”
“Nothing Lasts”

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33rd Favorite: Sign O’ the Times, by Prince

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Sign O’ the Times. Prince.
1987, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Prince.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A double-album masterwork of songs spanning different genres, from psychedelic to funk to slow jam to guitar pop, all played by Prince, with a little help here and there. Prince finds several characters for his voice to inhabit and plays fantastic guitar throughout. The songs may be grooving, they may be rocking, they may be sing-along cute, but they’re always fun. The man’s creativity was off the charts.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was nine years old, and my taste in music was solely geared towards catchy songs I heard on WLBR AM-1270, I really dug the 10CC hit “The Things We Do For Love.” It’s totally 70s soft-rock shlock, the kind of song I would really dislike today, yet find myself listening to on Sirius 70s on 7 when I hear it because I get lost in memories of bringing my baseball glove and a tennis ball to school and spending recess working on fielding grounders against a brick wall. (It also classifies as a “Pool Song,” a name my sisters and I have for songs we heard as kids while at the community pool in the late 70s summers, a pool that blasted WLBR over the loudspeakers25. There’s always a soft spot in my heart for “Pool Songs,” no matter how lousy or uncool.)

I’d sing the song to myself sometimes, but I never took the time to learn all the words, I’d just sing the ones I knew. “Like walking in the rain and the snow/ When there’s nowhere to go/ And you’re feeling like a part of you is dying.” This was the bulk of my lyrical knowledge of the song, a couple lines listing just one of what I imagined were dozens of “things we do for love” throughout the song: a walk in crappy weather when you don’t feel well. I’d sometimes think, “I wonder what other miseries the song lists? Exactly what deprivations will I be signing up for eventually when I’m in love?” I thought maybe I’d gain some insight into the expectations for a person in love. But when I finally took note of the entirety of the song’s words, I was confused because the lyrics only mention one thing done for love: those lousy walks. I figured there had to be more than that. I was right.

To tally up all the “things” we’ve done for love, we first must consider the word “Love.” It’s a weird one. If we use a definition that includes all romantic interest from big crushes, to first girlfriends, and even short-term girlfriends, well, then I can say I’ve embarked on a self-improvement plan, carried books through school hallways, and unwittingly driven an ex and her new boyfriend home from the airport. But were they really done for “love?” Actually, they were done to interest a girl who didn’t know me; to try to get a girl to make out with me; and to try to rekindle a doomed romance.

The definition for “love” can be really broad, so let’s limit it to a form of “love” that will likely stand up to all linguistic scrutiny: long-term commitment. It’s January, 2018, and I’ve now been together with my life partner, J., for almost 25 years. Technically she’s my wife, but that seems so legalistic. Since we started to fall in love a quarter century ago, I’ve found myself doing many things for love in addition to walks in crummy weather. I’m sure she has her list, too.

Pay Off Student Loan: Soon after we got together and rented an apartment together in San Francisco, through a series of corporate-level occurrences at my day job as an analytical chemist, I came into a rather large sum of money. It wasn’t “retire at 27”-type money, but it was “wow, we could have lots of fun with this!”-type money. I started dreaming of a couple weeks on an island beach somewhere. J., however, noted that the amount of dough would pay off the rest of my student loans, with enough left over for a fancy dinner and night on the town. I paid off my student loan. It seemed lame at the time, but I now (grudgingly) realize it put us in a better financial position in the long run.

Go to Clothing-Optional Spa: San Francisco sits in the southern-central area of a tremendous realm of hippy-dippydom known as Northern California. The region has long been home to all sorts of unusual, New Age and otherwise outside-the-mainstream spiritual pursuits. Among these is The Heart-Consciousness Church, which one must join to attend the famous hot-spring spa they own, Harbin Hot Springs26. J. had heard of the spa and wanted to go. I thought a hot-spring spa sounded delightful, and, being a nice, young man from rural PA, figured “clothing-optional” meant that, sure, maybe a few freaks would be nude, but that most everyone would be wearing some sort of garment. They weren’t. And neither did we! It was actually very relaxing (after a while), but I probably won’t go back. But I’m so happy to have a story with which to quickly embarrass my teen-agers! (This story basically repeated itself – from initial discomfort to mortified teens – 25 years later, except the words “Clothing-Optional Spa” were replaced by “Zumba Class.”)

While we’re on the topic of teen-agers, now would be a good time to mention this one. Become a Parent: It’s not that I didn’t want to have kids, it’s more that I never really thought one way or the other about it. However, after a few years of surface-level discussion, J. told me that her “eggs are getting old,” and so it was time for me to get on-board with the idea. Of the Things I Did For Love, this is the most important. And there’s probably no better reason to have kids than because you’re in love with someone. I’m really proud of my kids and my family – no matter what I might have said (or continue to say (or will say in the future)) during times of frustration and stress!

Buy House. Work: Okay, this is a little disingenuous, as I’m sure I’d be living somewhere, and I’d definitely have a job, regardless of my Love status. But since I am generally lazy, I’d probably rent an apartment. And since I am generally lazy, I’d probably have a lower-level job, perhaps involving a Fry-O-Lator. And although I’m sure J. would love me even if I manned a Fry-O-Lator and we lived in an apartment, making those choices out of sheer laziness would never fly. So one of the Things She Does For Love is help me to not be lazy.

Drive Around San Francisco Looking for Potential Urban Garden Spaces for a Master’s Thesis While Listening to Sign O’ the Times: When J. and I began dating, in 1993, I had lots of respect for The-Artist-At-That-Time-Just-Recently-Known-As-A-Symbol-Instead-of-Prince. He was clearly a musical genius. And I really loved his soundtrack album Purple Rain. I liked some of his songs, particularly “Raspberry Beret27” and “Alphabet St.,” but I wasn’t really a fan. J., who was a fan of music but not interested in obsessing over artists and songs, like I was, had diverse musical tastes that ran from hip-hop and soul to punk and 80s new wave. And she really liked Prince a lot. (She also listened to classical music a lot, which was unsettling to me at the time.)

She was working on her Master’s Thesis, and it required her to drive all over the southeast corner of San Francisco mapping open spaces. I drove her around in her 1984 Chevy Cavalier station wagon so that she could write and think easier. I needed music to accompany the task, the Cavalier had a cassette player, so I looked through our collection of cassettes – nearly all of them dubbed from albums, with hand-written labels. J. honestly didn’t care what we listened to, and since I’d heard all my stuff a bunch I decided to pick one of her tapes for the drive.

She’d been fond of making fancy labels for her cassettes, and they revealed many artist names I recognized, but that I’d never listened to much: Fishbone, X28, Jungle Brothers, 808 State, Tom Waits, Stetsasonic. One cassette stated, in capital letters, “PRINE.” I thought, “Oh, that must be John Prine,” another guy I’d heard of but never listened to.

On closer inspection, the label revealed tiny letters below the PRINE: “sign o the times.” It wasn’t John Prine, it was misspelled Prince, and it was a record I’d heard was great29. I mentioned it to J., and she said, “Yeah! Let’s listen to that!” I was a bit skeptical, but I pulled it out of the case – for love. Then we headed to the car to map potential gardens all over Bayview Hunter’s Point. We took several trips around that neighborhood over the course of several weeks, and my recollection is that most of the time we listened to Sign O’ the Times. And I became a big fan.

After writing about 67 albums30, I have a pretty good idea of the types of records I like. And I’m the first to admit there’s not a whole hell of a lot of variety. But whatever variety there is in my entire CD collection today, believe me when I say that in 1994 there was a whole lot LESS variety. J. has been a big influence in expanding my tastes and getting me to listen to artists I otherwise wouldn’t have delved into. The truth is that even though I gravitate to the basic, guitar-drum-bass rock sound, I really do appreciate variety. And what I really love about Sign O’ the Times is that its songs and sounds are so diverse. It all sounds like Prince, but it’s Prince’s take on different styles.

The first track is the title track, and it’s one of the best on the record. A serious report on the state of affairs in 1987 set to a slow groove and funky guitar31.

The groove is set by an electronic kick drum and bleeps and bloops, then a synth-bass riff and snare are added but they back off by 0:30, allowing the power of the lyrics to resonate. There’s a lot of open space in this song, generating the feeling that “this ain’t a song about a cute girl in a purple hat.” In the second verse Prince starts to add some guitar figures into the mix. I love what he does on the guitar throughout the song. For such a flamboyant guitarist, he really serves the song by keeping things subtle here. After the second verse the guitar joins in the riff and the song starts to move. He keeps playing behind the bridge (1:47), too. His voice is excellent and soulful, and despite the dim view of the landscape, the song ends on a hopeful note, advising folks the best strategy in tough times is to fall in love. At about 3:45 a gentle guitar solo finishes things off. It’s a simple song, but he packs so much into it.

That uplifting spirit at the end carries over into the super-upbeat, happy pop of the next song, “Play In the Sunshine.” It’s a frantic, nearly frenzied song with fun bursting through the speakers.

I can’t tell if the drums and bass are programmed or played32 but either way they’re addictive to the ear. This is the first of several songs on the album in which Prince pulls the terrific trick of making the listener part of the album, for example the multi-voiced background vocals (the first chorus, at 0:53, and throughout) and raw energy to give the listener the feeling of being at a performance. There’s a shredding guitar solo about 2:36, as the fake crowd chants for him to “play.” They keep it up throughout his teasing “No!” responses until he relents at 3:44 with a … xylophone solo? Okay, I’m sure it’s a synth, but imagining Prince pounding the pipes (which I have no doubt he could play) sure is fun. It’s a raucous song about loving your enemies “’til the gorilla falls off the wall,” among other things, with a slow-jam coda. The man’s creativity is boundless.

He can even work wonders with a simple dance beat, as he does next on the full-on electric funk of “Housequake.” I remember J. and me dancing in our seats to this one, drawn into the song by Prince’s insistent lyrics that we do so, and feeling like we were part of the record by his use of studio “audience” sounds. Prince uses horns a lot on this record, particularly on the dance numbers, even on this mechanized beat. He does it again on “Hot Thing,” one of many songs on the album about Prince’s love of women, let’s say. It’s got a Totally 80s sound, but does have a great sax solo about 2:38 and again around 3:20 and 4:40. He blends “real” instruments with synth sounds brilliantly, as on “It,” a cold computer stomp (again about his love of … women) with a surprisingly soulful guitar solo. The beat calls to mind The Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” and throughout the record, the studio vocal tricks give some songs a psychedelic 60s feel.

This sound is explored quite a bit on the record, the prime example being the trippy-lyrics and splash-cymbal pop of “Starfish and Coffee.”

It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. Its four chords, story of kids in school befriending the “weird” kid and singsong melody reminds me of a kid’s song. So it’s not surprising that Prince sang it with The Muppets. The strange snare sound and swirling background sounds add to the psychedelia. He has a gift for melody, such as in the singalong jam of frustration, “Strange Relationship,” and the nifty little “Forever In My Life,” about his love of one woman.

Prince has seemingly thousands of voices inside him, and he continues his focus on the love of a single woman in a falsetto that recalls Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind and Fire, or the old soul group The Stylistics, in the album closer “Adore.” It’s a classic slow jam, with build-ups, releases and a conclusion that sounds like falling asleep in the arms of your love. It’s a style he does well, as heard on the lovely, romanticSlow Love,” where the horns and slow swing recall a standard sung by Sinatra or Ella.

Another bit of psychedelia comes on a song that seems to have its own genre, the weird, wonderful “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

It’s not about last century’s New York witticismist, but instead about a waitress who (apparently) takes a bath with Prince – but he leaves his pants on (?). Okay, it doesn’t make sense, but it sure is a great song. I don’t know what genre song this is – which makes it perfect for this record. It’s obviously R&B, but it’s got more folk-style lyrics (and does reference Joni Mitchell33) and its chord changes seem more like jazz. At about 2:45 he uses a descending melody that he’d build into the hook of a hit song a few years later.

In “Ballad,” and all over Sign O’ the Times, he shows he can use studio tricks to great effect, but just in case you wondered how much of the party he’s created is computer-generated, he also includes the horn-heavy groove of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” (mostly) recorded live in Paris. It’s a foot-stomping salute to fun, with an 80s-style rap from Sheila E., that plays like an homage to James Brown.

This is a double-album, and the story of its origins is pretty fascinating. But I couldn’t discuss all that, or go into as much detail on all of the songs as I’d have liked. I’d have loved (not really – I’d be too embarrassed) to delve into the psycho-sexual meanings behind the freaky, groovy “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” I’d have loved to spend time on the Gospel/R&B/nearly-Metal “The Cross.” Almost every song on the record has some subtle sound, oftentimes guitar, sometimes sitar or weird synth, that makes it interesting. It’s a really terrific blend of styles and sounds.

And let’s not forget about the hits, either! Speaking of Sheila E., her drums34 are all over the smash “U Got the Look,” which featured a memorable MTV video. I think it’s a great song.

Yes, it’s boy-meets-girl-in-the-world-series-of-love, but Prince has shown his lyrics don’t have to make a whole lot of sense to be good and fun. The video features an intro, but the song as heard on the record starts about 1:37 with a Sheila E. flourish on the timbales. It’s a goofy, funny song with a great beat and a terrific co-vocal by Sheena Easton. There’s all kinds of guitar squawks throughout, different voices, weird sounds … I love it. And the chorus of “Your face is jammin’/ Your body’s heck-a-slammin’/ If love is good/ Let’s get to rammin'” … well, that’s just comedic genius. The guitar wails (4:44 on the video) all the way to the end.

Another big hit, with wailing guitar, and also with a video all over MTV in 198735, is the rocking pop of “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man,” in which Prince’s honesty about simply wanting a one night stand is actually a decent move.

I like the drums in this song. They sound real, and Sheila E. isn’t credited, so I guess Prince plays them, along with everything else on the song. The cool little bass riff after every line. The power-chord guitar that enters at 0:40, and the harmony vocal that enters along with it. The breathy background vocals and oohs and ahhs throughout. What I really like (surprise!) is the guitar. There’s a solo that starts about 2:43 that turns into a series of frantic, repeated squeals that I love. I used to think the repetition was created using an echo, but I think he actually played each riff twice, as there are subtle sound differences each time. It then goes into a slow, quiet section of Prince’s jamming with himself on dual guitars before the riff returns to end the song.

One of the most important – perhaps THE most important – effects of being in love is getting changed by love, allowing that gravitational pull between you to rearrange you and expose you so you can discover new ideas and see facets of yourself you hadn’t recognized before. Maybe it’s a naked hot spring. Maybe it’s an excellent album. Whether a relationship lasts a long time or a short time, we’re all better off for the experience. Maybe that’s what that 10CC song was supposed to mean.

Track Listing:
“Sign O’ the Times”
“Play in the Sunshine”
“Housequake”
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
“It”
“Starfish and Coffee”
“Slow Love”
“Hot Thing”
“Forever in My Life”
“U Got The Look”
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
“Strange Relationship”
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
“The Cross”
“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
“Adore”

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34th Favorite: The Cars, by The Cars

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The Cars. The Cars.
1978, Elektra Records. Producer: Roy Thomas Baker.
Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Cars’ debut record has a sound all its own, yet compatible with everything. They’ve got straight-ahead pop, guitar rock and weird/eclectic covered, and it all sounds great. Guitarist Elliot Easton particularly shines with subtle riffs and awesome solos that are never flashy, but are memorable nonetheless. Ben Orr and Ric Ocasek share lead vocal duties, and both use their distinctive voices to great effect.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“She likes you; but she doesn’t like-you-like-you.”

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out the first time I heard this response from any friend of any cute girl whose feelings for me I’d inquired about as a youth, but the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard it makes identifying the very first time akin to identifying the very first drop of saltwater in a wave that blindsided me and sent me tumbling through the surf.

When I say “youth,” I’m really talking about the Middle School Years – grades 6 through 8, ages 11 through 13. Before sixth grade, I assumed girls were either a) gross; or b) mightily impressed by me, so trying to find out their feelings about me served no purpose. By ninth grade, I’d gained enough insight into girls, high school social norms, other kids’ perception of me, and the variable nature of teenage feelings that I knew better than to ask the question. But during middle school, the question was always, “Does <girl’s name> like me?”

Middle School is a maelstrom of hormones, cliques, discomfort and vague desire through which only a fool (or a genetic freak with early-onset beauty) would attempt to steer the Good Ship Romance. But despite these circumstances, most of us find ourselves as pre-teens stowing the mizzenmasts and battening down the hatches of our hearts, and setting a course for certain doom anyway.

The best protection against that doom is to do some initial legwork to understand the lay of the land. It seems odd as adults to ask the friend of <girl’s name> to ask <girl’s name> if she likes you, and then to have the friend relay the answer back to you. But in Middle School, where feelings are in constant flux, the tactic serves multiple purposes.

The first, and most obvious, is that it’s protection for the inquirer against being humiliated face-to-face. Secondarily, there’s this: it provides protection for the object of the question, too. Most 12 year olds are uncomfortable offering a “yes!” to such a question asked directly by the inquirer, and so may say “no” just because it’s easier. The friend approach helps prevent false answers.

A final benefit to asking ahead is this: such are the vagaries of the pre-teen heart that simply receiving the second-hand information that <boy’s name> likes you could be enough to spur reciprocal feelings in <girl’s name>. It’s nice to be liked. At the very least, such second-hand questioning will cause <girl’s name> to contemplate the prospect of <boy’s name>, vis-a-vis cafeteria seating, bus-riding, popularity bell curve, cuteness, niceness, grossness, and all other Middle School considerations. So even if your efforts are all for naught, just knowing you’re in the other person’s thoughts for a little while can make the inquirer feel good.

Throughout Middle School, my main <girl’s name> was H. Sure, there were some other <girls’ names> who I inquired about, but most often it was H. I was like Kevin, from the TV show The Wonder Years, in his single-minded pursuit of Winnie Cooper. H. was more popular and more attractive than me, so to improve my chances I did what I could from 6th to 8th grade to try to move along to the leading edge of the Middle School Popularity Bell Curve. Given my financial and physical limitations, this effort mainly involved being extra nice and really funny. And it sort of worked!

My concerted effort to be nice and funny worked to move me up in the Middle School social hierarchy. However, 'Nice' and 'Funny' weren't the the romantic levers I'd hoped they'd be.

By the end of 8th grade I was less likely to be picked on by cooler kids, but I was no closer to winning H.’s heart. The word I began to receive now, and the rep that would follow me for so long that it actually became a positive characteristic in my life, was that I was “really nice.” This meant girls like H. “wanted to be friends.” They liked me, but none of them liked-me-liked-me.

Oh, by the way: eventually, in 10th grade, after 5 long years of effort, H. did show a few weeks of interest in me. It ended suddenly when, at the high school after returning late at night on the buses from an out-of-town marching band event, H. asked me if I wanted to “take a walk around the lockers” with her. It was late at night, we were alone in a dimly-lit, secluded area of the school, and she asked me to “take a walk” with her. So I walked with her. That’s it. I didn’t try to kiss her, I didn’t hold her hand, I didn’t even walk extra-close to her. I just walked next to her and cracked jokes. And that was the last of the interest she showed in me. Clearly, many of my romantic wounds were entirely self-inflicted.

The curse of being “liked” but not “liked-liked” reminds me of the band The Cars because they seem to be a band that everyone thinks is great, but few really love. Of course, there are die-hard fans, but while I know people who are enthusiastic, in-your-face proponents of artists from The Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Sleater-Kinney, I haven’t met many Cars Super Fans36. The Cars tend to be a band that comes up late in a conversation about rock bands, that everyone agrees is terrific, that everyone likes just fine, but that doesn’t spring to the forefront when naming Greatest Rock Artists. In fact, they were just named to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility – which is a long time to wait, even if it is a mostly bullshit honor. They’re the pudgy 13 year old of rock bands, the one who’s really nice and makes everyone laugh. They go for walks with pretty girls who ask them to go for walks.

Part of the reason they’re overlooked, I think, is that they have a sound that is contradictory – distinct enough to be readily identifiable, but universal enough to be overlooked. Just like I tried to be nice to everyone in Middle School – from the jocks and cheerleaders to the brains to the weird kids – The Cars sound nice with any number of genres. Could you play The Cars next to The Beatles and The Stones? Sure! That’s Classic Rock! How about The Cars with REO Speedwagon? A.O.R., baby. The Cars right after R.E.M.? Why, that’s 80s College Rock – and you could play Depeche Mode next, as The Cars’ keyboard sounds will link them nicely.

The Cars don’t really sound like Soul or R&B. But you know what? Play them after Donna Summer, and you’ve got a 70s station. Play them after Michael Jackson and you’ve got an 80s station. And they’re just edgy enough that you could play them with early punk, like The Clash, and modern enough that you could play them with ’00 rock acts like The Killers and The Strokes.

The Cars are nice to everyone, and so the pretty Middle School girl of music fandom is always going to like them, but never going to like-them-like-them37. By the end of their career, they started to do different things to be more popular – more computer sounds, fewer guitar solos; the musical equivalent of the high school freshman drinking-and-puking and buying-designer-jeans. And sure, it made them a little more popular, but just like barfing and tight jeans, they might regret those choices now. The early records are when they really shined.

The Cars is one of the rare records that I don’t remember buying. It seems like it’s always been with me. I thought it was part of my sister’s milk-crate-of-70s-rock, but I checked with her and she never owned it. I know I was a fan of some of the non-radio songs in early high school, and I know I owned the cassette, so I’m going to make an educated guess and say I bought it from Columbia House during my 1982 freshman-year initiation into their record club.

Considering the comparison I made to the nice-boy-who-doesn’t-get-the-girl, it’s interesting that one of the album’s biggest songs is “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

True, as sung by the distinct, warbly voice of Ric Ocasek, the lyrics state “she used to be mine,” and lovable losers never even had the girl to begin with. But I know whenever H. had a boyfriend I felt like “she used to be mine,” despite the actual facts. The song demonstrates classic Cars song structure right off the top with a musical introduction. The band likes to start each song with something interesting that ties into the main song, but that’s also distinct on its own. In this case, it’s Elliot Easton’s strumming. Keep listening to Easton, because at 0:35, when “Here she comes again” is sung, he shows off another cool Cars song feature – the guitar line that you don’t notice at first because the song is so catchy, but when you listen again you realize is really pretty awesome. Easton is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, and in addition to his nifty, bluegrass-ish mini-solo around 1:00 (which he also plays under the chorus), he plays a great solo at 2:00.

The song shows off all the best of The Cars, featuring terrific harmony vocals, musical drumming by drummer David Robinson38, restrained keyboards from Greg Hawkes39, and Ben Orr’s subtly rolling bass line. Orr also sang lead on many songs, which answered a question I had about the band for many years: how come sometimes the vocals are oddly robotic and sometimes they aren’t? Ocasek and Orr have very similar voices, but when Orr sings lead – as on “Just What I Needed,” – the singing is a bit better.

It starts with another musical intro, this time pulling a trompe l’ oreille (“Fool the ear.” I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I know there is a common art term called “trompe l’oeil,” or “fool the eye,” so I thought I’d look fancy and use it here.) causing the listener to expect the song to start on a certain beat, but have it start on a different one. Easton’s guitar throughout is once again masterful, and even though Hawkes’s swooping synthesizer (0:47) dominates the song, the guitar is worth listening for throughout. Robinson’s drumming is great, particularly the rolls before the chorus (0:45) and his trick beginning at 2:05, where he begins on a typical rock beat, hitting the snare on the ‘2’ and the ‘4’ for four measures then switching to the Native American-sounding beat of the snare on the ‘1’ and the ‘3’ for the next four. I love little things like that! Easton’s solo, at 1:48, is brilliant and concise. His playing throughout the record is a big reason the album is so high on my list.

Ocasek’s voice does provide a certain intangible quality to some of the songs, for example the driving new wave sound of “Don’t Cha Stop.” Luckily, his style obscures the lyrics some – which are a little too direct for my taste. Anytime the words “wet” and “mouth” are used together in a song, I get a little skeeved out.

But anyway, another cool intro, another cool guitar riff. This time there’s a nice keyboard riff by Hawkes, behind the chorus. But as always, it’s Easton’s guitar, once again, that thrills me. What can I say? The solo at 1:22 is a little song all by itself, and his riff behind the vocals around 1:55 sounds great. Like everything on the record, there’s so much going on in each little 3 minute pop song that repeated listens are gratifying.

And the band plays unusual pop songs, too. For example, the slow and weird “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It’s got all kinds of sounds (which the band recreated pretty well live) and lyrics that rhyme “psilocybin pony” with “flick fandango phony.” Ocasek’s voice is required for lines like that. It also adds something to what is one of the mellowest songs ever about having a good time40, “Good Times Roll.” It has a cool, buzzing guitar sound, and the playing and harmony-singing is great all around. It’s catchy and fun, but by 3 minutes, with the repetitive lyrics and mid-tempo beat, it starts to sound like a sad guy in his lonely apartment talking to himself while drinking NyQuil for kicks.

The second half of the record (what we used to call, back in the olden days, “Side 2“) is when the band really starts to shine. The songs are placed close together, almost like Side 2 of Abbey Road. And it starts with another introductory musical phrase in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.”

Flanging drums and guitars open it up, and then Ocasek whines (in a good way) leading up to another Easton guitar part I love that often goes unnoticed: the subtle riff beginning at 0:28, behind the “You can knock me …” lyrics. The harmony “aaahhhs” (0:38) really help build up the tension for the satisfying release of the “You’re all I’ve got tonight” chorus. Hawkes’ synthesizers dominate, but once again, I find the song to be an Elliot Easton showcase. Throughout the song he fills the background with squiggles and lines that make it sound cool, particularly beginning in the second verse to the end. He’s got a great solo at 1:55 and then, beginning at 2:55, he rips off a minute-long solo that’s spectacular. I love his guitar! Lyrically, the song is sort of a nod to the “Love-the-one-you’re-with” philosophy, I suppose, although here it sounds a bit more selfish than Stephen Stills’ 70s number made it out to be.

It ends abruptly and rolls right into my favorite song on the record, “Bye Bye Love,” which has a great little Ben Orr base line in the intro, at about 0:10.

I like how Orr sings the song, and the “Always with some other guy” line fits in well with the theme of lovable loser. (Although, given Orr’s looks, I get the feeling he didn’t have much difficulty attracting pretty girls.) The drum fills in the chorus are really great, and while the keyboards take a bigger role here than in some songs – for example, answering the vocals during the second verse, and the video-game solo at 2:11 – Easton does get to pull off a terrific solo at 3:24. The song also has one of the coolest endings in rock.

And that ending includes the beginning of the next song, “Moving In Stereo,” a looping, whirring synth sound that drops into a simple guitar pattern. Orr’s voice uses an eerie effect, and swings back and forth from speaker to speaker as he sings about how easy it is to “fool with the sound.”

The bass swoops in repeatedly, making the most of its single note. This is a song that, for heterosexual men of a certain age, regardless of one’s standing on any type of curve, cannot be heard without a flashback to teenage interest in actress Phoebe Cates as seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s another one of The Cars’ weird-sounding songs, spare in instrumentation, mostly synth and open spaces and Orr’s distorted voice, then a repetitive buildup to about 3:56, when bass and guitar play a cool figure. Orr sings one more verse, getting increasingly spacey, until …

“All Mixed Up” begins. It’s got another tricky introduction, with Robinson’s cymbals appearing on the “wrong” beat. Easton’s guitar enters (about 5:11) and plays a subtly tremendous descending run. It’s a very sad-sounding song to me, and about 5:55 it becomes almost orchestral. Robinson’s girl-group, Phil Spector drums at the end of the chorus add some pageantry to lyrics that resonated with a lonely boy who wanted to believe that everything would be alright. I like the background vocals on chorus, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Hawkes’ saxophone solo to end the song is quite fitting.

Luke Skywalker. Rick, from Casablanca. Ducky, from Pretty In Pink. Why, even Brad Hamilton, from Fast Times. Many guys didn’t get the girl. But it didn’t mean we weren’t awesome in our own right, with facets waiting to be discovered by just the right person. It’s easy to overlook some people, and some bands. Maybe The Cars don’t immediately spring to mind when you’re naming great bands, maybe they’re in that second or third wave. Maybe they seem weird or uncool at first. But there’s no doubt they’re one of the best, and The Cars is an album you’ll like-like, if you just give it a little chance.

Track Listing
“Good Times Roll”
“My Best Friend’s Girl”
“Just What I Needed”
“I’m In Touch With Your World”
“Don’t Cha Stop”
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”
“Bye Bye Love”
“Moving In Stereo”
“All Mixed Up”

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35th Favorite: Bee Thousand, by Guided by Voices

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Bee Thousand. Guided By Voices.
1994, Scat Records. Producer: Robert Pollard.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriting genius Robert Pollard leads his original crew of GBV bandmates through 20 songs of melodic brilliance. It’s the Thriller of the early 90s lo-fi movement, a collection of songs you just can’t get out of your head. There are sounds of doors slamming, guitars falling out of the mix and it all sounds like it was recorded on an 80s answering machine cassette. But they’re such great songs, I can’t stop listening.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(Parts of this post were originally published in 2013.)

In early 1993 I decided to move to San Francisco. I lived in my hometown, a strange place, but not strange in a good way. I didn’t really fit in, and so I decided to move to somewhere that seemed even stranger, a place that seemed like it would accept almost anything. I couldn’t wait to get there and start feeling like I fit in somewhere.

I met lots of great people and had loads of fun and found a place where I really felt at home. By 1993, The City (as it’s been known for years, with the grand, implied question being, “Really – is there any other?”) already had a long history of welcoming weirdos and misfits – from Emperor Norton, in the 1850s to the Beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 60s and Gay and Lesbian people41 in the 70s – so I was sure there was a place for me.

And it really was nerd heaven. Among the young, single artistic crowd I gravitated toward, most everyone I met was really into music and books and movies and technology. We were all misfits, and it didn’t feel like there was a “cool” crowd, the usual group of meatheads and plastic smilers that had appeared throughout my life, taking joy in humiliating and excluding me and others like me. And misfits like me, especially those not far removed from high school, have a keen sense of who the “cool” crowd is. They’re the group around whom we feel the disorienting duality of a) not wanting to be part of, and b) desperately wanting to be part of. But in San Francisco, I could just talk about books and music and movies and technology and not worry about that bullshit.

That’s how it seemed, at first. But after a few weeks in town I realized that, even in my nerdy corner of SF, there was, of course, a “cool crowd,” a collection of those exclusive, snobby folks desperate to dominate others to mask their own insecurities. But unlike those classic 80s teen movies, they weren’t jocks or cheerleaders, they weren’t the children of the wealthy elite. This group was hidden in plain sight out in Freak City. They dressed like everyone else, went to the same places as everyone else, had the same habits as everyone else … and that was what made them so devious.

In bars and at concerts … especially at record stores, and most especially in snooty record stores42 … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there43, but who went to great lengths to assert that they WERE NOT, in fact, typical anything. These people believed, and were out to prove, that they were the coolest of the uncool. They reveled in the fact that their style was unstylish and their tastes were distasteful. Like Bizarro is to Superman, these people were the direct opposite of the usual cool crowd, which made them the cool crowd’s scarier equal.

They were the Hipsters. The Hipster Bullies. And no matter how dorky and awkward you felt, you’d feel even more so when you realized these folks were even dorkier and more awkward than you … and that they sneered at you for not being dorky and awkward enough. You’d meet them at every party.

king kong kardsOh, you think you’re goofy because you still collect baseball cards as a 25 year old? Meet Tiberius (so he claims) in the goatee, Buddy Holly glasses and (authentic) Atari t-shirt. He collects King Kong Kards from the 70s and calls your hobby “jejune” … just like that jock thought (apparently), the jock in the lunch line in 10th grade who yanked the baseball cards from your back pocket, right in front of J., your secret crush, and quizzed you on the player stats like a gameshow host for an audience of cackling lunch ladies and your relieved-not-to-be-the-target friends, making loud buzzer sounds every time you got one wrong, which made J. laugh harder than you’d ever seen44.

Are you proud to be a fan of Bugs Bunny cartoons? Meet Ladybug (yes, Ladybug) in the cat’s eye glasses, cocktail dress and faux pearl choker. She has a Master’s degree in Pop Culture Studies (!) and wrote her dissertation on Warner Brothers animation cels from before WWII. She’ll explain why you should hate Bugs, who’s humor, she insists, is “too obvious” She’ll ask you, “… you can’t seriously like that shit, can you?” in front of 6 other grinning people who await her discourse on some Soviet cartoon goat from whom, she claims, “the essence” of Bugs was stolen.

There were thousands of these types out there, folks who’d been mocked and assaulted – verbally and physically – for their other-ness for as long and as hard as I had, and had responded by stockpiling their geekiness, building it up and molding it into a heavy club, making weapons of their Pez Dispenser collections, graphic novels and ironically-worn small-town-diner t-shirts. They clubbed first and asked questions later, assuming every new person they met was the lunch-line jock – even a guy like me, in sky blue Chuck Taylors and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.

For a guy like me who liked music, The Music Appreciation Hipster Bullies45 were the worst. There was a lot out there that I hadn’t yet heard. I was looking for new stuff, but there wasn’t much to learn from these folks. Bring up any band to any of these guys (and gals) and you were sure to get one of three responses:

1) (Dismissive snort). They suck.
2) (Dismissive snort). They USED TO BE good
3) (Dismissive snort). They’re okay, but they’re really just a rip-off of (insert obscure band from Japan/Finland/Ann Arbor).

But I gamely fought through the Hipster Bully bullshit to learn about Guided by Voices and Bee Thousand. There was a record store called “16th Note,” on 16th St. in The Mission District. It went out of business about 6 months after it arrived in 1994. But on one of my visits, a song on the sound system caught my ear, so I asked the dude behind the counter – who looked not dissimilar from myself – what it was.

“It’s the new GBV.”

“GBV?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“You’ve never heard of Guided By Voices?” he asked in a way that – for a second – made me wonder if the words “Guided By Voices” were somehow indistinguishable from “The Rolling Stones.” He continued his belittlement with a sigh and a quiet “Wow,” then came around the counter and pulled out the CD Bee Thousand. In a bored, bemused tone that clearly indicated his patience with my ignorance was growing thin, he told me that he thought it was a good record, their fifth or sixth record, but that it wasn’t as good as their early stuff. The early stuff, he said, was pure brilliance, and, unfortunately, was NOT carried by the lame, hippy store owner. But he played a couple songs from Bee Thousand for me, said he’d forgotten it was so comparatively mediocre to the old stuff (though brilliant in its own right, he assured me) and I bought it immediately, wondering how I’d missed out on such an obviously prestigious and prolific band.

I looked into the band right away and – this being pre-internet (or perhaps nascent-internet) – I couldn’t find much more than a one-page Spin magazine article. “How did everyone know about GBV but me?” I wondered46.

Now first of all, let me say this: the guy was obviously a good salesman who saw right away in me someone susceptible to anyone potentially scholarly47. Fine. He played that part well and made the sale. But I bought it because it was good, not because of what he said. And I eventually learned that his talk about how good the band “used to be” was utter horseshit. I mean, maybe it was good and maybe it wasn’t – but that Hipster Bully didn’t know. True, the band had put out several previous records, but each one was cassette-only, with a couple hundred copies made. I guarantee he never heard them before! They weren’t widely released until 1995. He just knew they existed and saw an opportunity to bully me about my (lack of) music knowledge. The dick.

GBV is a band that lends itself extremely well to cult-like, possessive appreciation with an air of exclusivity. The band is singer/songwriter Robert Pollard and a cast of musicians that has been around since the mid-80s. Pollard is one of the most prolific songwriters of the past 50 years, having released over 100 albums (solo and GBV) since he began recording, and having published over 2000 songs through BMI48. He’s estimated he’s written over 4,000.

Of course, “prolific” doesn’t equal “good,” but Pollard seems to have an extremely high percentage of good songs. He has a knack for melody and sound, and his lyrics are cool and strange, nonsensical yet accessible in the vein of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, or David Byrne, of The Talking Heads, or even Jon Anderson, of Yes49.

Pollard’s backstory lends itself to worshipful adoration as well. He’s a former fourth-grade teacher and father of two who didn’t leave his day job until his late 30s, after the success of Bee Thousand, when GBV took off. He seems like a cool guy who was both a D1 college athlete and music nerd.

The records he makes tend to sound charmingly amateurish – not in the songwriting or performance, but in the way they’re recorded. It’s a sound that was popularized in the 90s by bands like GBV and Sebadoh and Pavement, and categorized as “lo-fi50.” The records were often recorded in basements and bedrooms on old equipment and on the fly.

The song that caught my ear at 16th Note is a perfect example of all that is Guided by Voices: the lo-fi sound, the irresistible melodies, the chiming guitars, the inscrutable lyrics. Behold “Tractor Rape Chain.”

Any song that – four seconds in – features a screen door, chatting voices and then – at 17 seconds – a bass that doesn’t enter the song at the same time as the rest of the band is definitely flaunting its lo-fi credentials. The feeling of the song is amazing – there’s a sense of sadness and loss to the verses, in lyrics about love coming apart. Yet the ranging vocal melody of the chorus, at 1:04, is uplifting, and dovetails beautifully with the ringing guitars and bass. The chorus/title lyrics are a mystery, and potentially off-putting. Pollard is certainly a word-salad expert, tossing in words because they fit the sound of the song, and there is differing opinion on what, if anything, they mean. Some have said they’re just words, others have proposed the strange idea that they refer to the lines that tractors make in fields of rapeseed. Either way, the melody cries out for the listener to belt them out, before they descend into the wistful feeling of “speed up, slow down, go all around in the end.”

The album opens with clarion, fanfare guitars and beautifully struggling, faux-British harmonies asking us if we’re “amplified to rock!” As the intro to “Hardcore UFOs” ends, the vocals fall out of the mix (0:53), making us wonder if GBV is still amplified. But it doesn’t matter.

Even when, at 0:58, the guitar goes out of tune, or at 1:22, when it appears the plug may have fallen out of it, the melody and confidence of the band carries the song. The lyrics are, well, words anyway. But there’s something about the song – and the balls of the band to make it the lead track – that hooked me right away. The song, and the album, have the punk spirit of “fuck you, this is the song, take it or leave it!” that I love. Plus it’s catchy as all heck!

The fact that Pollard was older than most of his 90s grunge cohort meant that he could reach for inspiration from his music fandom in the 60s and 70s without hiding behind irony. “Ester’s Day” sounds like Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. The song “Echoes Myron” sounds like it could’ve been an AM hit in 1968.

Of course it would’ve been recorded more clearly and used orchestra strings. But the band’s harmonies on the bouncing melody sound right in any era. The “Men of wisdom …” harmonies, at around 0:45, are terrific, as are the vocals in the bridge at 1:17. The lyrics feature the phrase “Or something like that …,” which probably describes their meaning as well as I could.

And despite Pollard’s “advancing age” as compared to his contemporaries, in the 90s he and his band put on one of the best live shows you could see, with lots of songs, lots of beer, and lots of high kicks from the singer51. I saw them in the summer of ’94 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. And they are still doing it: I saw them again in 2014, and it was also one of the best shows I’ve seen! And selections from Bee Thousand are always featured. Such as the aggressive rocker “Gold Star for Robot Boy.”

It’s more ringing, chiming guitars – almost a buzzing sound. The recording gives the drums a boxy sound, but the singing carries it. The lyrics actually mean something this time, reflecting his experience as a fourth grade teacher, where the kids who did whatever the teacher said were rewarded. He says he felt like such a pupil when he entered the record industry.

You may have noticed that the songs tend to be short, under 2 minutes. Their brevity and the unfinished nature of most of the songs reminds me of Paul McCartney’s solo album McCartney. Songs such as “Demons Are Real,” “You’re Not an Airplane,” “Peep Hole,” “Awful Bliss,” and “Yours to Keep” barely (if at all) reach one minute in length. But they do display Pollard’s musical gifts. Other songs, like “Her Psychology Today,” could have been baked a little longer. One of my favorites of the weird and brief wonders on the album is the strange but excellent “Kicker of Elves,” which sounds sort of like a Britpop demo.

It’s a song with weird lyrics about, well, elf-kicking, that has inspired fans to make weird videos of it, and play weird covers of it. It’s one minute and four seconds’ worth of Robert Pollard melodic genius.

There are 20 songs on the record, and almost all of them are great. I love the swampy weirdness and perhaps risque (?) lyrics of “Hot Freaks.” I love the haughty pomp and meaningless-yet-wistful lyrics of “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” I love the unfinished feeling and out of tune guitar on the Broadway-esque “A Big Fan of the Pigpen,” with its “Ba-ba-ba” chorus. And I really, really love the droning, Sonic Youth noise-pop qualities of “Smothered in Hugs.”

It’s a really remarkable melody. Pollard has a knack for writing these things – when the chorus kicks in, about 1:26, I get chills. Even though I have no idea what he’s singing, and even though the drums and guitars sound like sloppy kids, I love it. I’m not sure what it is about these songs that I love so much, but I think it’s all the great melodies. The guitars may be repetitive, as in “The Queen of Cans and Jars,” but I can’t keep the song out of my head. The drums may sound like tin foil, as in “Mincer Ray,” but I don’t seem to notice. The tempo might randomly change throughout the song, like “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” but I’ll keep listening.

Maybe I need a scientist to figure it out, as Robert Pollard claims to be in “I Am a Scientist.”

I am a lost soul/ I shoot myself with Rock and Roll/ The hole I dig is bottomless/ But nothing else can set me free,” he sings. And maybe – in this instance – his words do actually mean something. I love this music – why try to figure it out? It’s the melody, the sound, the words … The Hipster Bullies were right about GBV – they are a special band. But the Hipster Bullies were wrong about everything else, and they still are. Music isn’t exclusive, it’s for anybody. Share it with as many folks as you can! And the music you like doesn’t suck. If it sucked, you wouldn’t like it! It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.

Track Listing:
“Hardcore UFO’s”
“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
“Tractor Rape Train”
“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
“Hot Freaks”
“Smothered In Hugs”
“Yours To Keep”
“Echoes Myron”
“Gold Star For Robot Boy”
“Awful Bliss”
“Mincer Ray”
“A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
“Queen Of Cans And Jars”
“Her Psychology Today”
“Kicker Of Elves”
“Ester’s Day”
“Demons Are Real”
“I Am A Scientist”
“Peep-Hole”
“You’re Not An Airplane”

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36th Favorite: Life, Love and Leaving, by The Detroit Cobras

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Life, Love and Leaving. The Detroit Cobras.
2001, Sympathy for The Record Industry. Producer: The Detroit Cobras.
Purchased, 2004.

IN A NUTSHELL: A barn-burning, rip-snorting, foot-stomping run through fourteen quick songs with energy and excitement bursting through every number. Singer Rachel Nagy can belt, croon, moan and howl, and her partner in ROCKIN’, guitarist Mary Ramirez, makes everyone move. The songs are old R&B and rock n roll covers, but the band makes the songs their own while keeping the wild-eyed, rebellious spirit of the music intact.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Rock music continues to move further away from the Main Stream of popular music, having branched away sometime in the mid-80s, and briefly rejoined at times (90s alt-rock, 00s guitar pop), but now cutting a trickling path to nowhere, a course that Jazz, Funk, Blues and Folk music have followed, destined to one day join Swing, Barbershop Quartet, and Ragtime in an evaporating shallow pool of once-popular music genres.

But back in the day, when it was still a music of rebellion and resistance and teenage revolt, musicians in the rock realm who wanted to play for audiences had a choice to make. It was an either/or decision that would have huge ramifications on their future, that could be put off for a while, but at some point would have to be addressed: Covers or Originals?

Covers, if you aren’t aware, are songs that others have made popular52 but played by someone else. Originals are, well, original – songs written and played by the artist. Almost every rock musician started out playing covers. In fact, almost every musician of any type, on any instrument, from any region of the world, started out playing covers. When you’re learning to do anything, you typically copy something or someone else.

Even the greatest band in the world, ever, was a terrific cover band, perfecting scores of other peoples’ songs for their early Hamburg, Germany, shows, in part because of the number of songs needed to fill the incredible length of their shows there – sometimes as long as 12 hours! Many of their early hits were covers, such as “Twist & Shout,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Money,” and “Rock and Roll Music.”53

I say they learned covers “in part” to fill time because there is also another, even better, reason for a band to play covers: AUDIENCES LOVE THEM! At a bar or a nightclub, when there is a live band playing songs the crowd knows and loves, the energy is palpable, immediate. People are dancing and singing along, and if you can keep them doing it the excitement builds and builds. I know from experience that when you are the musician onstage playing songs the people love, and you get to feel that energy coming back to you – whether it’s from 10 friends at a backyard party or 200 strangers at a nightclub – you start to feel like you’re Mick Jagger, Bono, Beyoncé …

On top of that, bar and nightclub owners sell lots of booze to happy, dancing, singing people, so they pay good cover bands good money54 to keep the crowd enthusiastic. In the early 90s, there was a band that played the East Coast called The Armadillos. They sold out clubs nightly from New Jersey to Florida, playing high energy classic rock and new wave covers, keeping thousands of folks sweaty and happy for four hours a night. They made a good living, and were living the dream.

Except they weren’t, entirely. My band played originals and opened for them a couple times, and their members told me that although they had fun whipping a nightclub crowd into a frenzy with some Elvis Costello or Rolling Stones, what they really wanted to do was to play their original songs to an appreciative crowd. But I saw firsthand what most cover bands know: that as soon as you announce from the stage, “This next one is an original …” the audience takes it as a cue to clear the dance floor, freshen drinks and start conversations. I’m sure the band had nights when their original songs brought down the house, but what they were best known as was a Top Notch Cover Band, and that sterling reputation probably impeded their loftier goals. People wanted to hear them play “What I Like About You,” not something unknown – no matter what it was. They had a bit of local success with their original material, on the coattails of 90s Pennsylvania alt-rockers Līve, but eventually called it quits55.

Of course, playing originals is no picnic. Back in the day56, you could join an established cover band and start making fifty or a hundred bucks a night for yourself. Or start one with friends and be making some dough within a couple months. Playing your own songs, however, meant years of long van rides to big cities, lining up demo recordings, bull-shitting promoters and bookers, ass-kissing other bands and basically playing mostly to audiences of friends and family – all the while trying not to kill the other equally-desperate, equally-destitute band members snoring next to you in your van. A few months of that, and playing “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” to a room full of drunken meatheads and bimbos while earning a little bread starts to sound enticing. The grass is always greener …

Whether you enjoy seeing cover bands or original bands doesn’t matter to me. And I make no value judgment on any musician’s path to the sweet joy of performing live music – music is joy, so hallelujah. And even bands known for their original music play covers from time to time, and there are several styles of them.

Some bands seem to attempt a note-for-note reproduction, or at least very faithful version, of a well-known original. For example, there’s Pearl Jam’s version of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Or No Doubt’s take on Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” The Rolling Stones did it a lot in their early years, and Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” is one example. (I’m going to cram this into a parenthetical – because it’s not a well-known original. However, the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was well-known to me as a kid because my dad had it on an album he used to play all the time. When I heard They Might Be Giants’ version back in the 90s, I was SO HAPPY!)

Then there are examples of bands reaching to other genres for songs to cover, which can be really cool when done well, demonstrating that “genres” are really just Record Company constructs. Check out new wavers The Talking Heads reaching back to R&B legend Al Green; or funk superstars Earth, Wind and Fire taking on The Beatles. One of my favorites is punk blasters Husker Dü putting an aggressive spin on folk-rockers The Byrds.

Some covers are songs that I didn’t even realize were covers, originally done by bands I didn’t even know were bands. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had their biggest hit with a song by some band called The Arrows. Teenage new waver Annabella’s band, Bow Wow Wow, gained MTV superstardom with an old single by The Strangeloves. And R.E.M. leapt tall buildings in a single bound with their version of a song by The Clique.

My favorite covers are ones in which the original song is messed with in some way, usually made a bit weirder or funnier. Husker Dü makes the list a second time with a scorching version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. Grunge guitar superstar J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. blew the doors off The Cure’s goth pop alterna-hit “Just Like Heaven.” My all-time favorite cover is the geniuses of Devo totally dismantling and reassembling the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction.” (Something they pulled off spectacularly live, as well.) If you enjoy these types of covers, I suggest you seek out the AV Undercover Series, online, and immediately watch GWAR cover Kansas.

I should take a bit of time to mention a terrific cover song originator: Bob Dylan. I know it’s heresy, but I can’t stomach Dylan’s singing. I’ve tried. Shoot me, mock me, stop reading this blog, I don’t care57 – I don’t get his appeal. He’s a tremendous songwriter, however, who – like Marvin Hamlisch and John Philip Sousa – probably shouldn’t sing his own songs. But there are many covers of his songs out there, and here are a few great ones. The White Stripes’ “One More Cup of Coffee.” XTC’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Neko Case’s “Buckets of Rain.” Nina Simone’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Albums of cover songs are usually specialty albums. They’re typically put together to raise money for a cause, or to salute a certain artist. Sometimes bands put them out to fulfill a recording contract or to celebrate a long career or give a nod to the past. Or all three. Rarely are albums of covers simply released as an album, as rarely do cover bands get to release albums.

However, The Detroit Cobras are a different sort of cover band. I’ve written before about my attempts to stave off old-age by digging into “new music” over the years. In the early 00s I was at it again, falling hard for guitar bands like The Mooney Suzuki, The Strokes and The White Stripes. Diving into The White Stripes caused me to brush up against other Detroit-based, guitar-rockin’ bands, such as the excellent Dirtbombs and The High Strung. At this time I heard The Detroit Cobras, went out and bought Life, Love and Leaving – and had NO IDEA these were cover songs!! I thought the band just had a throwback style, until I saw the songwriters’ names and read a little more about the band.

The band has always had two constant members: singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez. They started the band, which has cycled through several other members. And they also select all the music, since the band has no ambition to write their own songs. They seek out lesser-known 60s soul and garage rock and then pour their hearts into it. The goal is to play songs that sound good and keep your attention, exactly as an excellent cover band should do! In fact, Life, Love and Leaving sounds very much like a great 14-song set by a kickass live band.

For example, “Hey Sailor58,” originally by Mickey Lee Lane, sounds exactly what you’d want to hear first from a band as they hit the stage.

It starts with a little arpeggiated chord as a prelude to driving guitar riffs. The melody is catchy and singalong, and there are plenty of opportunities for the crowd to sing backing vocals with the rest of the band. Particularly on the chorus, where a tambourine shakes behind the call and response nonsense words. Before the second verse, another riff is added (0:55) to carry the song to the final verse. The lyrics are about a song, or sex, but either way it’s a good time opener that gets me, and the imaginary audience I’m in when listening, moving right away.

Just as in a great live set, the second song on the album starts almost immediately after the first, giving the crowd no chance to rest. Three quick snare beats, and “He Did It,” a Ronettes song, is off and running.

Another slick guitar riff opens the song, and Nagy’s voice is stellar as it scrapes across a wide-ranging melody. Once again, sing-along background vocals are irresistible, giving the song quite a girl-group feel. There are cool drums throughout, and a nifty harmonica solo and a strong finish for Nagy. The song’s upbeat sound is contrary to rather sad lyrics about a lover leaving. But despite the lyrical content here, and throughout the album, Nagy’s voice never sounds weak or desperate. It’s as fiery as the terrific concert posters the band is known for.

She is obviously a polished singer, able to belt it out on the rocking scorchers. But she can do more than belt. Her take on the mid-tempo groove of Solomon Burke’s “Find Me a Home59,” which takes the set down a notch in energy to set the table for what’s to come, is terrific.

The lyrics are about tracking down her man, and the smokiness of her voice particularly suits the spoken lines throughout. The drums play a great shuffle beat behind Mary’s guitar chords. She’s a terrific rhythm player, who powers most of the songs forward, including the next song, the energetic Chiffons number, “Oh My Lover.”

The ascending chords she plays behind the verses ring nicely against the tom-tom beat. It’s a quick, peppy song with lyrics that go from “don’t say we’re through” to “now his fiancee I will be” in less than one and a half minutes. The audience I’m imagining being part of is now revved up and needs a little cool-down, which the mournful, lost love themedCry On,” originated by Irma Thomas, provides.

It’s a showcase for Rachel’s belting, emotional side, and features a subtle organ shimmering behind the vocals beginning in the second verse. The rhythm guitar on the chorus features a terrific, watery sound. Like any great band, they know not to overdo anything, and this little gem ends in two minutes twelve, just long enough for a quick slow dance, or for the crowd to get a breather, before the Solomon Burke gem “Stupidity” begins.

The call-and-response opening gets everyone back on the dance floor for another foot stomper, this one proposing a new dance step, The Stupidity. There’s a pumping bass behind it and Ramirez’s guitar matches the controlled sloppiness of the drums. The band is going to keep increasing the energy throughout the next section, not allowing the crowd to rest. Nagy’s shout, and the terrific backing vocals, on the Mary Wells song “Bye Bye Baby,” gives it more oomph than the typical mid-tempo piece. The lyrics show a toughness that definitely runs throughout many of the songs, particularly the excellent, “Boss Lady60,” originally done by Davis Jones and the Fenders.

This is probably my favorite song on the record. I love the strong lyrics and the tight drumming and just how the song sounds like it’s out of control. Of course, I have to mention Rachel Nagy’s voice. When she calls for hip-shaking and starts naming dances, about 0:50, she just nails it. And the return to the “Shake it Baby” shouting by the end has that audience in my head in a frenzy. And they remain there for the rip-roaring Gardenias number “Laughing At You.” Its lyrics are mocking an ex who done her wrong, which is also the theme of the “F you to an ex” mid-tempo cool-down, “Can’t Miss Nothing.” It’s an old Ike & Tina Turner song with a groovy bass line.

The band picks up the pace on another of my favorites, the 5 Royales’ number, “Right Around the Corner.”

The “Yaki Taki” introduction will immediately call all sweaty dancers back to the floor in the Detroit Cobras show I see in my head through this record. The band is hot, the guitar lick behind “where my baby stays” is nifty, the drums are driving and Nagy’s voice takes us all for a ride, celebrating her baby’s proximity. There is a little guitar solo at about 1:05 that goes to show a solo can be cool and exciting even if it’s simple. By this point, the audience can feel the show’s about to end, so they are grateful for the relatively long song, clocking in at 2:27! The peppy “Won’t You Dance With Me,” by Billy Lee and The Rivieras, keeps the folks on the dance floor moving to the walking bass line, but there’s a sense of finality at the end. So when the quiet slow dance of Clyde McPhatter’s “Let’s Forget About the Past” ends with four soft bass notes, one expects the band to announce “Good night!” and leave the stage.

Which makes Otis Redding’s “Shout Bama Lama” the exhilarating encore of the record!

It’s such a fun song, and Nagy’s smoky yowl knocks it out of the park. “She’s bustin’ bricks now,” she calls out, part of a story about stealing chickens. But the story doesn’t matter – all that matters is that this band can play and entertain and make everything seem fun and exciting. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Whenever I listen to this record, I invariably start at the beginning and listen straight through. The individual songs are great, but together, in order, they take me to that perfect night out with a perfect band. The band might play covers, the band might play originals – it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the connection between the band and the listener, and this record connects with me!

Track Listing
“Hey Sailor”
“He Did It”
“Find Me A Home”
“Oh My Lover”
“Cry On”
“Stupidity”
“Bye Bye Baby”
“Boss Lady”
“Laughing At You”
“Can’t Miss Nothing”
“Right Around The Corner”
“Won’t You Dance With Me”
“Let’s Forget About The Past”
“Shout Bama Lama”

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37th Favorite: Who’s Next, by The Who

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Who’s Next. The Who.
1971, Decca Records. Producer: Glyn Johns and The Who.
Purchased cassette, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings it all together perfectly, then blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece. The different parts of the band play off each other perfectly, and no band has ever made more inspiring anthems.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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One of the more ridiculous aspects of popular music appreciation in my youth during the 70s and 80s was the existence of strict lines between musical genres, which delineated boundaries in a multi-combatant Cold War pitting synthesizer against guitar; dancing against head-banging; innovation against broad appeal; and, very often, white against black. This war was waged by the fans of the music, not the musicians themselves – although they’d sometimes take snipes at other artists. Most people who were more than casual music fans knew which side they were on – and they also placed those casual music fans in their own enemy-combatant group. And for many fans, the disgust for the other sides was real.

It is quite true that the genre- and sub-genre-fication of music has only continued and expanded since that time. During my youth we didn’t have Emo, techno, drum ‘n bass, dubstep, death metal, nü metal, rap metal, metalcore, mathcore, rapcore, gangsta rap, trap-rap, snap rap, trip hop, glitch hop, homo hop, crunk, wonky, bounce, or Kenny G61. But the animosity between genres doesn’t feel as intense today. I’ve talked to my teenagers about it, and while there may be types of music they don’t like, kids don’t harbor the same judgments against those who enjoy different music. If my era was the Cold War, today seems like the post-Soviet/post-Colonial era, when the number of nations and identities grew yet the global existential fear declined.

Key to taking part in the music-appreciation war was picking a side for yourself. As with street gangs, the mafia or the military, affiliation seemed to run in families. If one had an older sibling with a record collection or musical bent it was very likely to be passed down. When my older sisters were hitting the disco, I was a Village People fan. My one sister moved into AOR rock, owning a magic milk crate of music I’d explore, and my other sister was strongly Top-40 and a fan of dancing. They definitely influenced my induction. I became an AOR soldier, listening to Classic Rock62 on the radio and proudly declaring my allegiance to Cheap Trick, Styx, Rush and Led Zeppelin.

But I was also a double agent for the enemy, Top-40, taking my secret orders via MTV. A key factor in defending one’s territory is the era in which one comes of age. An 18 year old in 2001 may have wanted to fight against “Terror;” in 1981 it was “Communism.” Musically, I came of age in the MTV era, starting high school the month after the channel debuted. Many kids around me, other Rock Music fans, thought MTV was the enemy. I mocked it to many friends, but I was 100% on its side.

As I said above, the disgust for other music types and its fans was real. Popular music is continuously changing, and rapidly so, and such change can be difficult to understand, particularly when you’ve invested so much in your identity as a music fan. We rock fans felt like our music was under attack in the late 70s and 80s, that this music that teenagers past had fought to make mainstream – a blues-based music of electric guitars, with a steady backbeat and strong vocals – was being pushed aside by phony-sounding drum machines and computerized keyboards. It galled us that nerdy guys who pushed buttons in a studio were being regarded the same way as talented guitarists and singers who’d spent years on their craft.

Rock fans started using the language their parents used 25 years earlier to dismiss Rock and Roll and its lack of diverse instrumentation: “That’s not music!” They often used the language of hatred to describe other music: “fag” music, “n*****” music. These terms were used all around me by other rock fans. (My family and I didn’t use “the N word,” but I realize now that it was really a linguistic choice akin to our decision not to swear – meant to connote respect for the dignity of language, sadly, more than the dignity of people.) “Rage” is not too strong a word to describe rock fans’ feelings.

I described the scenario as a war, but here’s the thing about a war: it requires two sides, minimum, who want to fight. Looking back at that time 40 years later, I don’t believe anyone else was really fighting against Rock Music. My rock friends and I felt under siege, perhaps, but I don’t think fans of pop or R&B or disco or punk thought much at all about Rock – except, perhaps, to wonder why its fans were so pissed off. (Okay, punk fans definitely thought about Rock Music: thought it was bollocks.) The “war” was really just a bunch of us whiny rock fans angry about … something. But it certainly wasn’t music.

While 1979 rock fans held “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago, in which anyone bringing a disco record63 to that night’s White Sox game got in for $0.98 in return for allowing the record to be destroyed, and started a riot that caused 40 arrests and canceled a baseball game; disco fans’ counter-attack was simply to keep dancing in the clubs.

The stress of the siege, this changing musical landscape, even caused fissures within the Rock Music Army, where factions developed and judgments were made. The fans of the loud, heavy metal rock were bone-headed thugs. The fans of prog rock were fantasy freaks and dorky nerds. The fans of newer, punkish rock were arrogant, pretentious. Fans of the more weenie side of rock were poseurs. The music you liked and the artists you chose to align yourself with were opportunities for character assessments. It was a tribalism based on what cassettes you owned. It was – frankly – exhausting.

I wouldn’t break from the constraints of my tribe, or begin valuing other tribes, until some years after high school. And I still consider myself in The Beatles’ tribe, which means I still feel superior to any other tribes that might exist out there64. But as early as my senior year in high school I did have my eyes opened to the nonsense of tribalism by an exchange student from Austria on a school trip to Philadelphia. His name was Christian, and the school trip was one of those ostensibly educational jaunts organized by a club or a class in which an hour is taken to, say, look at an old building, then the remaining three hours go to spending money on clothes, accessories, and other decidedly non-educational products.

A few of us went to Zipperhead, a now-closed Philly punk rock store made famous65 by the Dead Milkmen, then to a nearby record store. This is where I purchased Who’s Next on cassette. Many of the songs on the album were rock radio staples by 1985, and I couldn’t wait to get home to listen. I sat next to Christian on the bus ride home, and the cassette got us talking about music. He said of course he knew The Who, and was very familiar with the album. But, he said, he didn’t own it. “It’s old,” I remember him saying. “I like new stuff.” We talked about music, and he knew a lot about the rock that I loved. But he knew a lot more about bands like Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat and Yazoo (who were known in America as Yaz). He spoke about them with the same interest and excitement as I spoke about mine. In some spirit of international harmony, I continued the conversation with him with a consideration I probably wouldn’t have offered to an American synth-band fan. And he also wanted to hear about what I liked, and said he’d check out some of those bands that he didn’t know well, like Rush and Van Halen. I told him I’d do the same, and I eventually bought Upstairs at Eric’s, by Yaz, and enjoyed it!

Back at school, back among my rock music friends, a kid with a don’t-rock-the-boat personality, I didn’t further pursue many other “new sounds” of the era. I’ve written before about missing out on great music of my youth, and it remains a bit of a regret. I don’t think I would’ve connected with Christian’s synth-based bands (although I did enjoy that Yaz record), but there were other guitar-based bands of the era that I could’ve connected with. That bus ride with Christian stuck with me, and planted a seed on my journey to musical peace, love and understanding. I eventually got past the music-based character assessments and began to seek out music that I’d have hated – and whose fans I would’ve hated – in years gone by. Who cares what music you like, anyway? It’s not what we listen to that makes us who we are66, it’s how we treat the people around us.

But look: all that lovey dovey stuff is fine, but let’s not gloss over the fact that the cassette I bought that day was FRIGGIN’ AWESOME! It was, and is, Classic Rock 101, a guidepost in 70s Rock by one of the best bands of the last century (and one that didn’t mind getting into the thick of the era’s genre wars). I loved listening to it on my Walkman, feeling like I was inside the songs, the sounds. The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings all that together perfectly, and blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece.

And it doesn’t make sense to start any description of the record anywhere else except the opening track: “Baba O’Riley.”

One of the band’s most iconic songs, and famously misbranded “Teenage Wasteland” by the masses, “Baba O’Riley” immediately introduced listeners to a sound they’d never heard much before – and certainly not on a Who album: the synthesizer. The opening sounds both space age and classical, like a robot string quartet that’s stuck in an infinite loop. At 0:42, its intricacy is exploded by three simple chords on piano, chords that are the basis of the entire song. Moon’s brilliantly untidy drums enter at 0:56, followed by Entwistle’s bass and Daltry’s vocals at 1:16. The song’s power builds, like an old-time gas engine sputtering from startup to a mighty roar, full-tilt once Townshend’s guitar enters at 1:48. The lyrics are about young people seeking freedom, and really only sort of make sense in the context of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, which is a story I don’t want to spend time on67, but which is summarized pretty nicely here. And to the dismay of millions of stoned youth since 1970, Townshend has said the song WAS NOT a celebration of teenagers getting wasted, but about the bleakness of that reality. But regardless of meaning, it’s undeniably an anthem, which makes Pete’s quiet two measure vocals, about 2:16, extra powerful. The song’s aimed directly at the heart of 70s teenage rock fans: anger, defiance, guitars and drums. Pete plays a nice little solo about 3:10 that leads the band into the extended ending section, in which that robot string quartet is brought to life by a violin solo (of all things!) played by a buddy of Keith Moon’s, Dave Arbus. The ending is perfectly built to whip those screaming, wasted teens to a frenzy – introducing the album as a piece of art to be reckoned with.

Pete Townshend wrote most of The Who’s songs, and Roger Daltrey sang most of them. But very often they’d share vocal duties, typically Daltrey taking the roaring parts and Townshend taking the more sensitive, as heard on “Baba O’Riley.” That’s the case on the raucous drum-extravaganza “Bargain,” as well.

This song may be the most representative of all four members’ skills, not only on this album but maybe of their career. And it opens with a strummed guitar and a lilting synth. Moon’s thunderous entry, at about 0:10, is one of the great drum intros in rock. Daltrey is in excellent form on a love song to God, written by Townshend for his spiritual guru Meher Baba. Townshend throws in cool little guitar licks, like at 0:25. He’s a unique Guitar God – a rhythm guitarist at heart, who never much deals in the blues wailing or fleet-fingered flashiness of many others. He’s distinctive and great, but this song is all about Keith Moon’s drumming, for me, a rumbling, tumbling unstoppable force. He gallops into the bridge, at about 1:30, leading into Pete’s quiet vocals. Behind these vocals (1:49), John Entwistle’s masterful use of countermelody on the bass is featured. From 2:20 to the end, the song builds through a synthesizer melody while Moon goes crazy. The final verse features more Townsend style and then a few verses of Moon. From 3:46 to the end, there’s a relentless ferocity that is set off nicely by Pete’s acoustic guitar at the end. It’s a pretty incredible song.

That outro features the three instrumentalists in the band, and they’re also featured on the song “Going Mobile.” It’s a jaunty road song, almost country in its feel, and Townshend handles the traveling lyrics nicely. Amazingly, the song was recorded live in the studio68!

Perhaps even a better drum song than “Bargain,” I can’t truly describe Moon’s playing. If you’re so inclined, listen to this isolated track of just the drums. It is astounding. At 1:57, Townshend plays one of his coolest solos ever, using an envelope follower69 to create another spacey sound. Most amazing is how effortlessly the trio pulls out of Pete’s solo, about 2:53, to change musical direction. To do that live demonstrates the hours of work the band spent playing together, communicating sonically together. It’s brilliant.

But just because Roger is missing from a song doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. He gets to shine on the tender (for The Who) “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” a country-western effort, though Roger’s power makes it much more. Behind lyrics on the beautiful, yet fleeting, nature of love, there are excellent harmony vocals throughout, an excellent skill of the band, often overlooked70. Entwistle’s bass rolls along merrily, and Townshend plays a terrific acoustic solo. Daltrey’s masterpiece on the album, however, is the excellent Townshend song “Behind Blue Eyes.”

This is actually a divisive song, I’ve learned over the years. Some people are very put off by it’s needy lyrics and bombast. I’ve always loved it. When I was a teen I was a sucker for aggressively macho emotional lyrics like “if I swallow anything evil/put your fingers down my throat/If I shiver please give me a blanket/Keep me warm, let me wear your coat,” and I still love the song today. Pete’s acoustic, and the band’s backing vocals are once again excellent during the opening. Then about 2:12 the mayhem starts. Check out how Keith Moon – going against all common sense – plays his fills WHILE ROGER SINGS instead of in the vocal breaks, where every other drummer would put them71! Pete adds nice guitar fills throughout, as well, then the band pulls everything back into the gentleness for a very satisfying ending.

If it all sounds very serious, these songs about troubled teens, spiritual love, human needs, allow bassist and all-around musical genius John Entwistle to lighten things up with his ode to an angry wife, “My Wife.”

Like George Harrison, on Beatles records, Entwistle typically had at least one composition on each Who album. Lots of terrific ones, like “Boris the Spider,” “Success Story,” “Trick of the Light,” and “Had Enough.” He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played all the horns on all The Who albums, including this song. It’s a humorous romp with funny lyrics, and even though he’s not as strong of a singer as Daltrey or Townshend, Entwistle does just fine carrying the song.

Two songs that have always seemed connected to me, maybe because they ended Side 1 and began Side 2 on my old cassette, are “The Song Is Over” and “Getting In Tune.” However, I think it’s more than just their proximity in sequencing. It’s that, collectively, they form a kind of Winter/Spring for the album. Maybe “The Song Is Over,” but another one is coming, so we’ll be “Getting In Tune.”

“The Song Is Over” is melancholy from the beginning. “The Song” in question is a love that has been lost, as Pete sings. About 1:15, the power comes with Roger’s section. Moon and Entwistle play nicely off one another between verses, for example at about 1:30. Piano actually carries much of the song, played by frequent Rolling Stones collaborator, Nicky Hopkins. Once again, much should be said about Moon’s drumming, but anything more than a simple, loudly exclaimed “Holy Shit!!!!” is superfluous. The controlled mayhem of his sixteenth notes from 5:30 out are … “Holy Shit!!!!”

Getting In Tune” also features piano by Hopkins, with Entwistle playing a lovely melody behind. This song features his patented “lead bass” style, a countermelody throughout the song. I love this song, even though it could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded 80s monstrosity known as the “Power Ballad.” It’s lyrics are quite a bit beyond Power Ballad, however. Backing oohs and aahs are again wonderful, and the song ends in typical berserk style.

The album closes with one of my all-time favorite songs, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

As with “Baba O’Riley,” a synthesizer pattern opens the song, but this time there’s an electric guitar chord with it, a bit of foreshadowing of the grandness to follow. The band enters at about 0:30, and Roger begins singing an anthem of resistance that could have been the fight song for us angry Rock fans back in the day. The backing bass, particularly the descending runs in the choruses, and Moon’s drums (again: “Holy Shit!”) hold everything down. Pete’s guitar riffing and stylish, one-of-a-kind rhythm playing throughout bring extra life to it. It’s an 8 minute song, and his guitar after about 3 minutes through the bridge and to about 3:40 is simply inspired playing. Afterwards he plays a really nifty double-tracked solo, leading up to (at 4:28) the first (and smaller) of two momentous screams from Daltrey. We’re only halfway through, and the song keeps getting better. More incredible singing, incredible Entwistle/Moon and incredible Pete, soloing better than he ever has, leading to the 6:33 mark, when the synth comes back in with some rather ominous tooting for the next minute or so. Moon gives a couple drum fanfares, and then comes the best rock and roll scream ever: 7:45. Whenever I hear this song, I can never really tell when he’s gonna do it, and I don’t try to figure it out because it sounds so much better when it’s sort of a surprise. It’s a powerful song, it means a lot to many people, and if you can make it through the band’s performance of the song for the first-responders of September 11, 2001, at the Concert for New York City, and watch the effect of the song on the audience without tearing up, you’re a different sort than me.

The last two lines of the song (and the album) “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” may be the most profound couplet in rock music history. Sure, they’re a rehash of the old saw “The more things change …,” but in the context of the song, and the path the singer has traveled, they mean much more. They mean personal integrity, staying true to one’s self. At the start, the song sounds like a defense of the old guard (“The men who spurred us on/Sit in judgment of what’s wrong/They decide and the shotgun sings the song”). But the perspective seems changed by the chorus and second verse. “I’ll take a bow for the new revolution;” and “Smile and grin at the change all around me;” and “The change it had to come/We knew it all along.” These lines seem to reveal the song as welcoming of the new. And yet, by the end, there’s a realization that the new is really just a rehash of the old, and the same fights are going to reappear anyway. The New was feared; then it was welcomed. Either way, it didn’t matter. Old vs. new is really a pointless debate. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. All you can do in the face of it is to maintain your Self, and keep doing what you do.

It seems true in both the political and the personal worlds, but it’s also true in the musical world. Whether it was disco, new wave, country, funk, whatever – at the end of the day, what’s the point of getting angry and fighting? And, also, what’s the point of hopping on a bandwagon? The best reaction is neither indignation nor fawning, but to simply stay true to yourself. Pick up your guitar and play. Just like yesterday.

Maybe back in the day, we should have taken that message more to heart.

Track Listing:
“Baba O’Riley”
“Bargain”
“Love Ain’t For Keeping”
“My Wife”
“The Song Is Over”
“Getting In Tune”
“Going Mobile”
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

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38th Favorite: Paranoid, by Black Sabbath

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Paranoid. Black Sabbath.
1970, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Rodger Bain.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Heavy Metal pioneers are more melodic, more virtuosic and less Satanic than their name and reputation would lead you to believe! Tony Iommi has an unmistakable sound, and rhythm section Geezer Butler and Bill Ward pull the songs in wonderful directions, getting almost funky at times. Singer Ozzy Osbourne’s unaffected voice is perfect for the band’s songs of warning and lament. Together, they create a relentlessly inventive soundscape.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I could have had it worse. Many kids did. I knew kids who were physically attacked by Them – heads held in toilets; red-bellies; sometimes, but usually not, beatings with fists. Some were shaken down for money by Them, preferring to go without lunch for a day and reorganize tomorrow’s school-day routine than to put up an argument and wind up with both toilet-water hair and no lunch. Having clothes ruined by Them in broad-daylight cafeteria food assaults was not unheard of.

I myself was only called names and intimidated by Them. I think because I was kind of big – tall and chubby – and most of Them (the boys, anyway) were small, I was a potentially more complicated target for assault than smaller kids. Also, by middle school I’d developed a quick wit and kept a quiver-full of self-deprecating jokes at the ready, barbs that always flew back to prick only myself, causing laughter – or at least distraction.

By my senior year in high school, I’d made friends with as many of Them as I could. Not friends in the way that we’d hang out together, but friends in the way that I could nod in the hallways and say, “‘sup Stew?” or “Hey, Hitzy” and they’d nod and offer a “Moore …” in return. I cultivated many of these relationships by initiating talks of earlier times, the elementary school years, when many of Them seemed angry or dirty72 but not particularly threatening. I’d offer reminiscences of class projects we’d shared, or youth sports and lousy teachers. Some of Their parents were friends with my parents, so I’d ask, “How’s your mom?” And I’d (frankly) try to seem as book-dumb as They were, since my membership in the “smart kid” classes, and its typically accompanying smugness, was a clear trigger for Them.

This was a chancy path, however. If They felt you were trying to ingratiate yourself with Them, They’d sense your fear and use it as a weapon against you. “Hey, I need a ride tonight. You have a car, right?” There was a clear threat in these two sentences, and it presented just the very tip of a string that would have only dubious consequences if pulled this one time. I had friends in high school who found themselves in precarious circumstances73, the type that I avoided by simply being friendly-but-not-too-friendly.

They were the Treads. They were a 70s/80s teenage Public School archetype, one that may still be extant, although I’m sure it’s evolved. They were most brilliantly portrayed as “The Freaks” of McKinley High School in the wonderful TV show Freaks and Geeks. Some schools called them “Druggies” or “Stoners,” some schools called them “Burnouts” or “Roaches.” The lore at my school was that “Tread” was adopted due to the big-treaded workboots (typically with red shoelaces, for some reason) They all seemed to wear.

Individually, most could be funny or charming, even kind, but in a group they were terrifying. When I was 12, my friends and I were waiting for our ride after Pop Warner football practice and found ourselves the last people in the twilit school yard, where pickup had been arranged. This was in the late 70s, a time when it was assumed by everyone that the coach had done his job properly when he asked us through a cloud of cigar smoke emanating from the rolled-down window of his idling car, “You kids got a ride?” then drove off after we nodded our replies. Cell phones didn’t exist, payphones weren’t installed at the school (and we didn’t have change in our practice unis, anyway), and so we just had to hope that a parent hadn’t forgotten us – or if they had, that one of the other parents in the carpool would remind them by calling to ask where the kids were. (And wouldn’t get a busy signal or no answer, as it was the pre-answering machine era, too.)

It got dark, so we moved under the dusk-to-dawn light near the school entrance to wait. It was then that a group of about five of Them came out of the darkness. We were much younger than these highschoolers, but They still stopped to call us fags and menacingly try on our football equipment while making crude jokes, then fling it around the parking lot. Then They recognized Richie in our group, whose older brother Steve was a Tread. They began to “jokingly” threaten him with sexual assault while the rest of my group just sat there trying to will a car to arrive. They were standing in a circle around the kneeling 11 year old, and he was firing F-bombs at Them while They chuckled and began unzipping Their flies.

A car pulled into the lot, and given the distance and dim light and quick-moving kids, nothing about the scene seemed out of the ordinary to the driver – just some older kids (who were probably known by the parent) hanging with us younger kids. We didn’t tell the driver, though we all agreed in low, muffled voices that those kids were jerks, and Richie stated for a fact that Steve was going to find out about this74 and those kids would be sorry.

I’m sure it is not an actual fact, I’m sure that if photographs of the incident existed they would demonstrate that it is a total fabrication, but in my mind’s eye all of the Treads that night were wearing Black Sabbath t-shirts. This is because I associated the band and its merchandise not with any music – I don’t know if I’d heard a Black Sabbath song until my freshman year of high school – but only as the uniform choice of hateful, angry teenagers. All the Treads wore rock t-shirts from a variety of bands, but the hateful-est, angriest seemed to always wear Black Sabbath.

I knew the name Black Sabbath as a band because I’d seen it on shirts that were clearly concert-related. During Middle School, when I was still heavy into The Village People, and just finding out about Cheap Trick and Devo, I learned the names of rock bands mostly from Treads’ t-shirts. Led Zeppelin, featuring a picture of some eunuch angel screaming over his lost genitalia (perhaps?). Bad Company, with a picture of cute dogs (it seemed). Deep Purple, which I figured probably wasn’t about the Donny & Marie song.

The Black Sabbath shirts were the grossest, most shocking shirts, with devil babies, scenes of demonic torture and clearly Satanic imagery. In those days I was a Christian, and those images inspired fear in me almost to the same degree the creepy bullies wearing the shirts did. And even as I grew to be a rock fan and learned to take such imagery with a grain of salt, I still assumed Black Sabbath was a band I’d never enjoy. I figured their music must be as bad as the people who’d worn their shirts.

Of course, leave it to Dr. Dave to set me straight, once again. Our band, JB & The So-Called Cells, was rehearsing and he kept playing this simple riff, five notes over and over. Then he’d break into a crunchy, longer melodic part and our drummer – a big Black Sabbath fan – would join in, clearly knowing the song in-depth. When I asked what it was, he was shocked to learn I had never listened to Black Sabbath or heard of “Fairies Wear Boots.”

It starts with that slow picking riff Dave played75 then at 0:14 bass and drums join in. This introduction76 really has everything that I love about the band – Tony Iommi’s thick guitar sound, Geezer Butler’s jumping, stretching bass lines, and drummer Bill Ward’s powerful and tricky fills (from 0:40 to 0:50 and 1:03 to 1:15). And then at about 1:15, the hidden beauty of the band is unleashed: they’re really a swinging, funky band! (This song’s more swing than funk – but we’ll get back to funk.) Singer Ozzy Osbourne joins in, and he could really sing! His sneering, unaffected voice suits the band’s lyrics, which are often dark, although in this case they’re about seeing fairies (in boots) after using too many drugs. “Fairies Wear Boots” also has the Black Sabbath calling card of several themes in a single song, jumping between rhythms and melodies, and eschewing the typical verse/chorus/verse/bridge song structure. I particularly like when the band hits 2:40, and Iommi plays a riff that sounds out of tune, briefly, then oozes into place. They jam for almost a minute, then at 3:30 effortlessly transition to a different part; then at 4:10, they do it again! It’s in sections like these that you can hear what talented musicians these guys are – something I never would have thought of “Black Sabbath” as a high school freshman, meekly carrying some Tread’s lunch tray for him, hating those words on his concert jersey. When I happened upon the used CD in the mid-90s, I couldn’t resist buying it.

You may still be scratching your head over my reference to “funk” above, but the example I give you is in the drums on the stellar “Hand of Doom.”

The song starts with a Butler bass groove, and drummer Ward immediately plays a funky drummer beat. By 0:45, the funk has disappeared, but it returns. Ozzy sings lyrics that are vehemently anti-drug, telling a tale of a path to death77. The band rips into a different section at about 2:05, which again swings, thanks to Ward’s foot. Iommi plays a cool solo at 4:25, then the band returns to the funky section. The song really packs so much into 7 minutes, taking the listener on quite a journey.

Regarding their lyrics, given their name and their Satanic imagery, you may find it surprising that many of their songs are warnings against the evil in humans’ hearts and deeds. Bassist Butler was the main lyricist, and he’s fond of shining light on humanity’s darkness – not celebrating it. This album came out in 1970, and many songs make reference to the war in Vietnam78, and it’s hard not to think it was on their minds in the terrific “War Pigs.”

One of the first things I notice about this song (and the entire album) is how great it sounds. Each instrument is crisp and clear, from Butler’s menacing bass line to Iommi’s growling guitar. (Iommi played with strings that were extra heavy to give his guitar sound, well, extra heaviness.) The song builds wonderfully, through Ward’s high-hat and Iommi’s squiggles and Ozzy’s sneering, angled voice. I love the bass through the riff starting at 2:06, before the second verse. Once again, Ward plays with a funkiness uncommon in heavy metal. And again – if the band is satanic, they sure do ask God to smite the evil quite a lot. The band again shows off their serious chops during Iommi’s solo beginning at 3:30. The solo features a common Iommi trick – two different solos played at the same time, similar but slightly different, giving a crazy feeling to the sound. It’s an incredible song – lyrics, sound, instruments – one of my favorites ever79. And it has a great finale, too, beginning at 5:45 (a section called “Luke’s Wall” on the US release). Iommi’s double guitar solo delivers all the way to the crazy speed-up ending.

Butler’s lyrics also take on the growing threat of nuclear war – a fear that, unfortunately, is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War – in the wild “Electric Funeral.” It features more double-tracked guitar, and furious bass work, and has an ominous fade-out.

“Electric Funeral” is a companion song to one of the band’s most famous: “Iron Man.”

The story told in “Iron Man” may be the result of the annihilation described in “Electric Funeral.” And musically, both songs feature simple, repetitive riffs. This was the first Black Sabbath song I ever heard, thanks to a tuba player during my freshman year of high school marching band, who played the riff nearly nonstop80. It’s now one of their most famous songs, and – not meaning to damn it with faint praise – it’s probably every 7 year old’s favorite heavy metal song. And it is, frankly, scary sounding – particularly the beginning. The song features another Sabbath trick – guitar/bass/vocals all playing the same melody. This leaves drummer Ward to stand out – for (just one) example, the fills beginning about 1:18. The song also again highlights the band’s ability to switch rhythms and styles – which speaks to Ward’s ability. At 3:10, they go into a furious Iommi solo, then switch back to the main riff at 3:40. Then they change again for the ending part beginning at 4:40 (more double-tracked Iommi soloing). I’m amazed by it every time – it’s powerful and impressive.

The musicians are so good, you may ask yourself “Do they even need a singer?” Well, you can find the answer on the instrumental “Rat Salad,” a song that shows off the instrumentalists. It’s a great song, but it is missing something: Ozzy.

Singer Ozzy Osbourne became the most famous member of the band, eventually becoming a caricature of himself in one of the first celebrity “reality” shows, The Osbournes. It played up his seemingly burned-out mental state and unintelligible speaking. But in Black Sabbath, in the early 70s, he was just a front man with his own unique style. It’s on display on the title track, a pop hit around the world.

Butler has said the song was written in about 3 minutes, and it isn’t throwing shade81 to say it sounds like it. It’s simple, with a revving engine guitar a driving beat and Ozzy’s syncopated, direct delivery. It’s got a great bass, and another great Iommi solo at about 1:23. The lyrics are actually quite sad, about the desperation of mental illness. But it’s a barn-burner of a song, nonetheless.

After all this Heavy Metal Rock, you may want to chill out a bit. I imagine even the Treads needed some time to decompress, meditate and think about all the havoc they’d wreak the next day on soft-spoken teens just trying to get through a day and get home to watch Mork & Mindy reruns. And for that, the band gives you “Planet Caravan.” I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ingested an illegal drug, but this song makes me think I should do it more often. Its “wow, man, far out” lyrics are sung through distorted effects, and Butler’s McCartney-esque bass line bounces along behind them. Iommi plays a jazzy, angular solo and subtle piano chords play in the distance. It’s a welcome break in an otherwise pounding album.

I have mixed feelings about The Treads. On the one hand, they caused me a significant amount of anxiety, creating the worst sense of fear a person can have: the fear of violence visited upon you simply for being yourself. On the other hand, they were clearly kids who were reflecting and diverting the shit they were receiving at home onto anyone and everyone to whom they could distribute it. There’s not much more to be said about them, except I hope they got the help they needed. And I hope they’re still listening to Black Sabbath. Maybe, like me, they learned a lesson from the band that’s applicable to many parts of life, even the Treads themselves, even dorky Village People fans, too: things that seem dark and scary can actually have a lot more facets than we first realize.

Track Listing:
“War Pigs/Luke’s Wall”
“Paranoid”
“Planet Caravan”
“Iron Man”
“Electric Funeral”
“Hand of Doom”
“Rat Salad”
“Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots”

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39th Favorite: Are You Experienced, by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

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Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased (MCA Records 1993 edition), 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Mr. James Marshall Hendrix is such a unique musical force that at times I swear he must be from a different planet. He can play any style of song, sings wonderfully and his playing resonates with me in a way that few others can emulate. It’s as if the words his guitar sing make more sense than those his voice sings. And Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are simply one of the greatest rhythm sections ever – able to match and support Jimi’s brilliance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“Just be yourself,” is advice that Americans are given all the time, and it is generally excellent advice, particularly when applied to the “big-picture” aspects of life: sexual orientation; finding true love; choosing a career. It’s advice given by both high school students and folks on their deathbeds. Big thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote brilliantly to persuade us. Funny guys like Bernie Mac said the same thing in fewer words.

In the 21st century, the advice has become so ingrained that it’s achieved two particularly American forms of cultural affirmation: advertising and backlash. “Just Be Yourself” is the rather contradictory pitch for selling such hugely popular, herd-endorsed products as Coca-Cola, Converse sneakers, and Subway82. High-end products advise you to, apparently, just be your very wealthy self. Teeny-bopper body-spray gives your self a pause to think before you stink83. Advertisers know that Americans relish their identity as unique individuals, and that we’re complex enough to buy the world’s most popular soda in order to express it. (To be fair, I doubt that anyone watches an ad and runs out to buy a product. And to be extra fair, it’s not just Americans.)

The backlash comes mostly from people who seem obtuse enough (or get paid to appear obtuse enough) to take a global, general idea and misapply it to specific instances where it clearly won’t apply. (Saying everything that pops into your head isn’t what being yourself means, it’s what being a dick means). Others set a strict definition for what “Be Yourself” means, then set out to show why that definition is bullshit.

In a country like America, with no true native identity except the bit that remained after European conquest, one would think that being yourself would have been encouraged and valued since the days of powdered wigs. But while a few quirky individuals were celebrated for their nonconformance – men like Ben Franklin and Andrew Jackson – most people felt the surest path to success was to identify the norm and hew to it closely.

But by the mid-1900s, the devastation of conformity was being explored in culture and media. Sci-fi novels like Brave New World; realist dramas like Death of a Salesman; non-fiction collections like Notes of a Native Son; and countless other sources explored questions of difference, human purpose and The Self.

By the end of the 60s, the Civil Rights movement, Feminism and the Hippie movement were all parts of a changing American landscape that encouraged people to break from established (and myth-based, it must be said) expectations. The 70s brought a wave of pop psychology movements, such as est and Primal Therapy, that further encouraged people to strive for their authentic self. By the 80s, celebrities from Bob Hope to Magic Johnson were singing songs to kids in public service messages around the idea.

Rock and roll music started as outsider music. As such, a large part of its purpose was to elevate the self, to push the theme of the “Us” of individuals vs. the “Them” of conformity. Early rock and roll songs, like “Yakety Yak” and “Summertime Blues,” flipped the bird at conformity; 60s girl groups sang songs about rebels. By the late 60s and early 70s, freak flags were flying and individuality was downright expected – at least in our artists and musicians.

Still, artists continued to encourage us all – because it probably can’t be said enough – to “just be yourself.” During my music listening years artists from British synth-poppers, to R&B funk bands, to heavy-metal growlers, to Irish folk-rockers, to alternative supergroups have continued to pound away on the message. Current superstar Frank Ocean even included a voicemail from his friend’s mom about it on his latest album.

Yet despite all this encouragement, and all the pressure placed on Americans from every cultural source, despite even the efforts of most American parents since the latter half of the 20th century, the journey to becoming one’s true self continues to be difficult. In my lifetime, I can think of only a few people who seemed entirely comfortable following the “Be Yourself” guidance at all times, and the first example I came across in my life – and perhaps still the best example – is my schoolboy friend Josh.

Josh has come up before in these pages – as one of the kids in high school who warned me the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration would probably suck. I first met him in 6th grade, the year the three elementary schools in my hometown school district flowed together as tributaries to the main river of Cedar Crest Middle and High Schools. He was a friend of my fifth grade buddy, Bruce, and that’s how I met him. He was striking and unforgettable – even as a sixth grader.

He was taller than everyone – well over 6 feet by the time we graduated – with brown hair that sprouted from his head like a lawn left untouched during a two-week vacation. By 11th grade his unkempt hair had been groomed into a disciplined battalion of standing hair, giving him a look somewhere between Billy Idol and The Fonz. (His hair was dense and sturdy, allowing him to stand playing cards in it – a skill that I alerted Late Night with David Letterman about for their Stupid Human Tricks segment. They called me, but he was too young to appear on the show.) He mostly wore flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled severely, up past his elbows, and he tucked those shirts into old, worn-out jeans or slacks that he cinched tightly around his waist. He clearly was not attempting to fit into any popular fashion style, nor did he seem aware that such considerations existed among the rest of us. This has remained constant in the 40 years I’ve known him.

He talked slowly, walked slowly, moved slowly, belying the speed at which his brain worked. You see, he was also brilliant. (Something else that has remained constant.) His breadth of knowledge was astounding, its depth remarkable. By high school he could discuss the influence of Mao’s wives on Far East politics with the World Cultures teacher; quadratic equations on imaginary numbers with the Calculus teacher; Bundesliga soccer with the gym teacher; and Bugs Bunny and Mad Magazine with me – all within the space of an hour. And yet, because of his appearance, I still had friends in other grades who thought I was hanging out with someone from the Special Ed classes84. He read constantly, doodled incessantly, laughed frequently and told stories better than most professional speakers. He’s the kind of person that – 35 years later – if you today spoke to any student, teacher, staff or administrator from the school at that time, they’d immediately say, “Oh, Josh? Oh yeah, I remember him!” and then regale you with an improbable tale of either his brain, his stories or his style85. He was truly himself – more so than anyone I’ve personally ever known.

And the only music he listened to was Jimi Hendrix. This was unusual for a high schooler in the early 1980s. Back then, in my hometown, at my public high school, boys tended to listen to pre-hairband heavy metal – your Judas Priests, Iron Maidens, Scorpionses – or Top 40 – your Michael Jacksons, Madonnas, Huey Lewis & the Newses – or 70s Classic Rock – your Journeys, Led Zeppelins, Styxes86. And pretty much everyone who had it watched MTV.

But not Josh. He claimed Jimi was the only artist worth listening to, and he lived that ideal to a degree such that even though he knew everything about everything else, if asked about music videos or trending acts like The Police or Prince or Ratt he knew very little beyond the fact that they couldn’t hold a candle to Jimi. (The only other artist I heard him praise in high school was a then-little-known blues guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, who Josh knew before anyone else heard the name.) I associate Josh with Jimi Hendrix not only because of his fervent fandom, but also because both are so much their own unique selves. Josh and Jimi were both like no one who I’d seen before.

Though he was a great friend, I didn’t go along with his fervor right away. In fact, I used to tease him quite a bit about his Jimi-thing – even though most people would agree that my taste was far more suspect. I bought Are You Experienced in the early 90s when it was re-released – an event that seems to happen every few years. And I eventually caught the Jimi bug myself. This is the third Jimi album on my list (he’s the second artist, after Elvis Costello, accorded such an internationally distinguished honor), and it hasn’t gotten any easier to write about what makes him so special to me.

Jimi’s playing and singing connects with me on a level that is not really intellectual. It’s a feeling I get from direct communication via his guitar. There are some artists – Bob Dylan comes to mind – that many fans love because the words are so meaningful, who’s music, these fans believe, is sometimes awesome, sometimes very good, but either way his words carry the weight. This is how Hendrix’s guitar is for me – not simply the playing, but what the playing is communicating. I love many guitar players, am astounded by their cool sounds and incredible talent, but Jimi’s playing truly speaks to me. Take, for example, “May This Be Love.”

This is a gentle song, one of my favorites on the record, that – as with every track – actually showcases drummer Mitch Mitchell; in this case, his subtle genius. (Other songs will demonstrate his bombastic genius!) But I am drawn to the guitar. After the initial squiggly scales, and within the first 35 seconds, the basic guitar pattern is set: descending runs and arpeggios supporting the waterfall lyrics. To me, however, it’s more like the lyrics were tagged on to support what the guitar is saying. It happens again at about 1:07, after he sings “lazy-minded fools,” and the guitar plays a looping run. What the guitar is saying seems far more direct than the lyrics. But the solo, beginning at 1:52 and supported by incredible rhythm guitar from himself, is where I really find myself aware of the connection.

The lyrics are dreamy in that one, but even in songs with a direct story line Jimi’s guitar is the main voice I hear. As in, for example, the old-school blues of “Red House.”

It’s the basic blues story of girl-done-left-me-but-I-got-a-backup, and Jimi sings it really well87. But his guitar sings it even better, with a tone that’s somehow both clean and distorted. The solo beginning at 2:13 is both cool and moving and, combined with all the fills throughout, lifts the song beyond “simple” blues.

But of course, it’s not just Jimi playing – it’s a band. And rhythm section Mitchell and Noel Redding are a dynamic pair that more than hold their own playing with the master. The song “Manic Depression,” another of my favorites, is a drum song that ended up on a guitar album.

It’s a riff-based song that Mitchell takes over. His driving rhythm and fills propel the song forward – what he does after 2:30 is fabulous. The guitar riff itself is cool, plus so long that it backs the entire verses. I have no idea how he sang (lyrics) and played this at the same time. (Which he did live, as this horrible-sounding recording shows.) I don’t know if Jimi had manic depression, but I feel like this song has helped me with whatever is going on in my head.

Another song that I’ve enjoyed hearing (and playing with Dr. Dave and our band JB & the So-Called Cells) is “Fire,” which is another hot one (sorry) from this album. It’s similar to “Manic Depression” in that it’s got incredible drums behind a riff-heavy song.

Of course The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a 60s pop act, and they always place their versions of 60s pop on every album. “Can You See Me” is one of these songs.

But their versions always sound heavier, weirder … better than what most others were doing with pop songs then. The lyrics hint at Jimi’s origins from outer space88. But once again, his guitar says more than the words.

His guitar really talks to me on the song “Love or Confusion,” where he uses it, plus all the effects available in a 1967 recording studio, to create something almost orchestral. There’s a symphony of guitars surrounding Noel Redding’s bouncing bass. Jimi solos behind his singing, and when the song modulates at 1:27 it sounds even more orchestral than before. The whole song is a burst of energy.

I Don’t Live Today” is similarly orchestral in its approach to guitars, with layers of droning and sustained chords. It also has a nice riff and a great drum freakout by Mitchell, after about 2:30. “Remember” is a great pop song in which Jimi astounds in what he plays while simultaneously singing.

There are a couple other terrific, famous songs on Are You Experienced. The first track is the sultry “Foxy Lady.”

With its shimmering opening, chugging pace and whispering “Foxy,” it’s become a song that immediately says “swingin’ 60s” to me. I love the guitar fill at the end of each chorus, for example about 0:58. The band sounds terrific, and once again Jimi’s swaggering voice is put to good use. It’s a great song, not too unusual. What is unusual is the lead track, “Are You Experienced?”89

This song is one I used to tease Josh about, for its unconventional, industrial sounds didn’t seem like music to my high school ears. It’s another song in which Mitch Mitchell’s subtle playing amazes as much as Jimi’s inventiveness. He plays a marshal beat while Jimi’s symphony of guitars rings and noodles over a droning guitar scratch. At 1:41 Hendrix offers to “prove” he’s experienced, and what he does with that guitar demonstrates an experience that seems to come from behind the stars. (More on that in a bit.) I used to tell Josh that I preferred Devo’s version of the song. It’s not true, but I do like the way they squeeze in the melody from “Third Stone From the Sun.”

With Jimi’s guitar saying so much, you may wonder why he even bothers to include lyrics90. In that case the perfect song for you – and simply a perfect song – is the beautiful “Third Stone From the Sun.”

From the opening chord, a wondrous soundscape is created, then at 0:33 Jimi plays a little riff that signals the beginning of the main melody. I highly encourage you to listen to this song in headphones and listen to the solo beginning at 1:25 and the otherworldly spoken words behind the guitar. Noises and sounds flow through much of the rest of the song, swirling and buzzing around your ears. There’s a program on TV about the “Ancient Alien” idea, in which the claim is made that aliens arrived hundreds of thousands of years ago to either start off the human race or speed along its technological development. I typically think it is bullshit, but if they had an episode exploring whether aliens deposited Jimi Hendrix on Earth, and they used this song as evidence, I think I’d believe them. Actually, they could use this entire album. And all of his others.

Maybe he does come from outer space. But if he does, then I think Josh did as well. But I strongly (strongly!) suspect neither did. I think they both had (have) the gift of an individual spirit, an understanding of themselves within the greater world, and that’s allowed them to do what so many of us strive for: to simply be Josh and be Jimi.

Track Listing:
Hey Joe“*
Stone Free“*
Purple Haze“*
51st Anniversary“*
The Wind Cries Mary“*
Highway Chile“*
“Foxy Lady”
“Manic Depression”
“Red House”
“Can You See Me”
“Love Or Confusion”
“I Don’t Live Today”
“May This Be Love”
“Fire”
“Third Stone From The Sun”
“Remember”
“Are You Experienced?”
* – Not on the original album, these are singles (A and B sides) that were added to the record for this MCA release. Although my rules state that I can’t include album extras in my judging, I’ve broken the rules before. And I probably did here, too!

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