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.
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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 loudspeakers1. 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 Springs2. 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 Beret3” 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, X4, 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 great5. 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 albums6, 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 guitar7.

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 played8 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 Mitchell9) 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 drums10 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 198711, 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 Fans12. 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-them13. 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 Robinson14, restrained keyboards from Greg Hawkes15, 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 time16, “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 people17 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 stores18 … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there19, 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 seen20.

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 Bullies21 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 wondered22.

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 scholarly23. 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 BMI24. 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 Yes25.

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-fi26.” 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 singer27. 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.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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 popular28 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.”29

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 money30 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 quits31.

Of course, playing originals is no picnic. Back in the day32, 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 care33 – 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 Sailor34,” 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 Home35,” 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 Lady36,” 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 G37. 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 Rock38 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 record39 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 there40. 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 famous41 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 are42, 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 on43, 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 studio44!

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 follower45 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 overlooked46. 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 them47! 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.
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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 dirty48 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 circumstances49, 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 this50 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 played51 then at 0:14 bass and drums join in. This introduction52 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 death53. 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 Vietnam54, 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 ever55. 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 nonstop56. 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 shade57 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 Subway58. 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 stink59. 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 classes60. 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 style61. 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, Styxes62. 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 well63. 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 space64. 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?”65

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 lyrics66. 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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40th Favorite: Two Shoes, by The Cat Empire

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Two Shoes. The Cat Empire.
2007 (USA), Virgin/Velour Recordings. Producer: Jerry Boys, Felix Riebl, The Cat Empire.
Purchased, 2007.

IN A NUTSHELL: Is it ska? Is it jazz? Is it world music? Whatever it is, it doesn’t have a guitar – but I still can’t get enough of their joyous party sound! The Australian band features co-lead singers in mellow Felix Riebl and frantic Harry James Angus, and together with a tight-as-a-drum rhythm section and DJ the band bounces from style-to-style, always inviting the listener in to have a good time.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I was a kid, I thought The Golden Rule was the most important standard for humans to follow. I attended a Methodist Church when I was little, and church (Sunday School, more precisely) is where I first learned about it67. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes for kids (or just normal people who are like, “Why all the fancy language in all these old religious books?”) it’s stated as “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

I heard about it in my own church, but it’s a common tenet of most religions (often called “The Ethic of Reciprocity”) and has been around forever. In the Christian faith, it appears as part of Jesus’s famous “Sermon on the Mount,” which is sort of like His version of George Michael’s Faith album: it’s not a true “Greatest Hits” collection, but most of the stuff you remember from Him is in it. But regardless of where you heard The Golden Rule, and who first started the idea, it’s definitely a good way to get folks to consider those around them and to work on being less selfish.

I held onto the belief in the supremacy of the Golden Rule into my twenties, when – while working as a chemist at an aspirin factory – my buddy Weenie Bill laughed at me for saying it was the most important rule. When I asked why he laughed, he said he thought I was joking, then explained that he believed it was far more important to treat people the way THEY would like to be treated, not the way YOU would like to be treated. The Golden Rule was actually selfish, he said, unnecessarily putting yourself into the equation. “What does it even matter how you want to be treated?” he asked. Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule would state: Do unto others as they would like you to do unto them. More plainly: Treat others the way they want to be treated.

It turns out Weenie Bill isn’t the only one who ever found the Golden Rule problematic68. Way back in the 1700’s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about his problem with it69. Next, well, there were a bunch of other critiques, and then, during World War II, Karl Popper suggested, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, what has come to be known as “The Platinum Rule,” or Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule, in which the other person’s desires are placed before one’s own70. Of course, Weenie Bill’s Golden Rule (WBGR) has problems of its own (e.g. if you’d like me to whack you in the face with a meat cleaver, I’m going to politely decline), but it is a guidance by which I’ve tried to live. I try to treat you the way you’d like to be treated.

The difference between The Golden Rule and The Platinum Rule is similar to the difference between being “nice” and being “kind,” a distinction I became very aware of when my kids reached school-age and they realized there’d be all kinds of misfits, assholes and dorks they’d have to interact with in life. When they complained about kids, my first instinct was to encourage them to “be nice.” However, this advice seemed superficial, an invitation to duplicity; akin to “say something positive to them, but when they’re gone say and do anything you like.” However, if I encouraged them to “be kind,” it implied that one’s responsibility to others didn’t end when they were out of sight. I felt like it encouraged respect for others, not simply an absence of hostility. When you are “nice,” the focus is on yourself and your actions. When you are “kind,” others get the spotlight.

One might assume that to abide by WBGR I’d have to divine all the intricacies of others’ beliefs and feelings; to delve and prod into strangers’ personal lives; to set aside all aspects of my own morality to be able to meet everyone else’s pleasures and demands. However, it’s not as impossible as all that. The first step, really – and perhaps the only step necessary – is to understand that others have perspectives and experiences that are as valid as your own. Everyone in the world says, “yes, yes, of course I know that!” But it actually IS a bit of work to set one’s self aside and listen to another’s perspective. “Stop complaining!” is often my first thought when confronted with another’s point of view. “We all have problems.”

In the moment, that work of setting one’s self aside is tough. However, on my own I can do such things as read books and articles about people different from me. I can watch movies that aren’t my usual type. I can attempt to move outside my comfort zone in social situations and talk to as many folks as I can. I can listen to others and resist my first impulse to scoff71, something that becomes easier to do the more I broaden my experiences. I suppose such activities would be derided as “politically correct.” (A term I find humorous, even ridiculous. I have yet to figure out how I’ve built any political capital by trying to enhance my kindness.) But I just chuckle at the notion, and try to understand the perspective of someone who finds kindness such a chore.

One of the byproducts of this effort to continue to live by the WBGR (which remains challenging and elusive, even after 25 years of living it) is that I’ll often look at aspects of my life and consider them in the context of the larger world. This is why, when I looked at the 60 albums already on my list in preparation for Album #40, I said to myself, “Wow! Not a whole lot of diversity in that group!” Sure, Jimi Hendrix is black, and Sleater-Kinney are women, but this doesn’t make my list very diverse. Both are guitar-based acts, and my list is mainly white guys with guitars. But while these observations can spur me to seek out new (to me) artists or styles, I can’t pretend to like what I don’t like. The fact is that if you’re not guitar-based rock, you’ll have a tough time cracking my list regardless of your ethnicity or gender. Johnny Cash, Pizzicato Five, Randy Newman, Fiona Apple, Cornershop … Other than these five acts, my list has been super-extra guitar-rock-heavy.

And now let me add to the “different” list Two Shoes, by Australia’s The Cat Empire. They’re a band that doesn’t even include a guitar!

I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard a song by the band. In 2007 I was riding in my car, probably taking a kid somewhere, not two blocks from my house, when the don’t-call-it-an-oldies-station-cuz-they-mix-in-new-tracks-among-the-80s-songs Radio Station played a bouncing, horn-fueled, dance-insistent song that stayed in my head the rest of the day. I looked up the song the minute I got home and ordered the CD on Amazon. That song, which was a Top-40 hit in their native country, was called “Sly.”

It opens with a simple, killer electric piano riff, thumping drums and a trumpet fanfare that introduces singer Felix Riebl’s fast-tongued yet self-possessed style. When the band shouts “Show us the money!!” at about 0:25 it’s clear that this is a fun group looking to show us a good time, and they succeed impressively. The lyrics are standard “I saw a beautiful woman” fare, with terrific dance-step allusions thrown in. At about 0:52 the full Cat Empire sound is introduced when Harry James Angus’s trumpet blows a counter melody, continuing to build the fun. After a quick breakdown at 1:03, the main melody re-enters, the band shows their jazz roots on an Ollie McGill piano solo about 2:00. Then it’s just a joyous celebration to the end. Whenever I hear this song I get a big smile. It’s fun and infectious, a sonic party72.

Indeed, The Cat Empire is a fun time, party band, and they’re proud to announce it on the song “Party Started,” which features another key aspect of the band’s music: dual lead singers, with both Riebl and Angus taking turns.

The band incorporates a multitude of musical styles into their sound, and on this song they include hip-hop, with scratching from the band’s DJ, Jamshid “DJ Jumps” Khadiwhala, and a sort-of rap from Angus. The lyrics are clever and require multiple listenings to catch all the funny lines about the fun parties the band throws, and at about 3 minutes the horns come in to help deliver a false ending (and I always love a false ending).

The two singers have distinct styles, with Felix Riebl’s voice deeper and melodic, while Harry James Angus sounds frantic and more out of control. But he’s an exceptional vocalist – his live scat breakdowns are brilliant – as evidenced on “Saltwater.”

It almost sounds like a novelty song from the 40s, a bit Spike Jones-y. But it turns into a fun ska song – with terrific scatting from Angus about 1:45 – about crying over a lost love. But at about 3:00, another common Cat Empire trick is pulled, in which the style of a song shifts in an instant. In this case the swinging ska becomes a smoky lounge vamp.

The band has its roots as a jazz act, so these switches feel organic, never forced. The band shows off their chops on songs like the Latin-jazz “Sol y Sombra,” where the players – particularly pianist McGill – solo over a fine salsa groove. The Latin style is heard on the title track, “Two Shoes,” as well. And given the album was recorded in Cuba, with some Cuban horn players, it makes sense that their jazzy ska would show the influence of the island’s sounds. Riebl and Angus blend well on a song full of creative internal rhymes about dancing your troubles away.

Those island sounds are also on full display on the terrific “In My Pocket.”

Angus has a unique voice, but it fits the band well73. It also fits the cool, nonsensical lyrics, as well. Drummer Will Hull-Brown is a master of all styles and rhythms, and introduces the chorus (about 1:18) with a terrific flurry. It’s a song that makes my feet want to move – especially as it builds through the 4:00 section to the final chorus.

Angus’s trumpet takes center stage on one of my favorite Riebl songs, “Lullaby.” It starts slowly but picks things up by the 28 second mark, DJ Jumps making his presence felt once again.

It takes the “Sly” blueprint, slows it down a bit to more of a groove, but leaves Riebl’s fast-talk rapping about a lady he loves in place. At 3:20, Angus plays a trumpet solo that makes me wish more contemporary artists used a trumpet. He’s a very talented guy, a multi-instrumentalist and leader of a 1930s-style traditional jazz band in Australia.

He’s also the writer, and singer, of the band’s funniest song, an uptempo reflection on lost potential and life perspective, “The Car Song.”

It’s a 60’s soul song, as close to straight-ahead rock as these guitar-less wonders get. And songs about high school, lost opportunities and long-held dreams are always favorites of mine, so I hold it closely in my heart! The chorus (about 1:15) sounds like classic Motown, with a sing-along “someday!” and fun “Woo-hoos.” At 3:00 it breaks into a section of solo trade-offs from turntable, piano, drums, and fuzz bass before the exultant final chorus comes around again. (There’s a funny video for the song that I didn’t post as the main video because it’s a shortened version of the album track. But I think it’s a great video.)

They’re a wonderful band, with a terrific message of love and peace within their bouncing rhythms. “Protons, Neutrons, Electrons” uses a Tin Pan Alley style to espouse the idea of letting go. Even their serious songs are fun. “The Chariot” demonstrates the band’s weapons of peace: its instruments. It’s a history of the band, and posits a world where love can triumph over hatred. It’s packed with a fiery ska beat, irrepressible dance rhythms, Riebl’s charming rap/sing and Angus’s blaring trumpet, and it’s one of my favorites.

The record ends with “The Night That Never Ends,” another multi-part, multi-style gem, and the perfect album closer.

It’s begins as a sultry lounge song, then turns to a quiet lullaby. Riebl and Angus harmonize, either on voice or on voice and trumpet. It’s another ode to fun and partying, and begins to build at about 3:00, then at 3:30 becomes a wild klezmer song like you’d hear at a Jewish wedding reception. It’s a song that invites everyone everywhere to come and join the fun.

And The Cat Empire is a band that invites everyone to come join the fun. (I highly, highly recommend seeing them live!) Their blend of styles and sounds from around the world, all of shaped by dancing and joyfulness, never sounds old or unexciting. They’re reaching out to everyone by understanding, and incorporating, the “other” around them. They’ll do unto you what YOU want to do – because you want to have a good time, right? That’s so kind of them.

Track Listing
“Sly”
“In My Pocket”
“Lullaby”
“The Car Song”
“Two Shoes”
“The Chariot”
“Sol y Sombra”
“Party Started”
“Protons, Neutrons, Electrons”
“Saltwater”
“The Night That Never Ends”

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41st Favorite: … And Out Come The Wolves, by Rancid

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… And Out Come The Wolves. Rancid.
1995, Epitaph. Producer: Jerry Finn, Rancid.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Nineteen powerful, hook-laden, short and fast songs come at you in rat-a-tat style that overwhelms – in a GOOD way. Bassist Matt Freeman is a master, and co-guitarists/vocalists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen put their limited vocal abilities to excellent use on melodies that will stick with you. Don’t hold it against them if they sound like some other bands that came before them: this is a record that stands on its own!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
In fifth grade, at Ebenezer Elementary School (yes, that was the name), my terrific teacher was Mr. Keesey. This was in 1977, ten years after the big splash made by the Summer-of-Love, and the ripples of the Hippie culture were still being broadly felt, even in my little PA town. His thick, round glasses, close-cropped brown hair and penchant for pull-over sweaters made Mr. Keesey look far more “straight” than “hippie.” And while I’m sure there were hippies of all shapes and sizes, Mr. Keesey’s short stature74 only intensified his outward appearance as a square. But he brought the Hippie message of peace and love to my classroom.

Mr. Keesey was Ebenezer’s “celebrity teacher,” a prize for certain lucky kids in their last year in elementary school, supposedly a cool, fun guy, (a reputation my older sister confirmed when she had him three years before me) with a place-your-desks-anywhere policy and a wooden tower in his room that allowed for activities both six feet off the ground, or in the secluded Underneath. On the first day of class I knew he was different than anybody who’d ever stood in front of my classrooms when he delivered a monologue stating he didn’t think of himself as the leader who made rules and yelled at kids for breaking them, and forced everyone to do whatever he wanted them to do; but instead thought of the classroom as a shared space for all of us, in which we all make the rules together and help each other to stay within them. He said he’d play guitar for us some days, we’d have class outside some days, and we could call him “Jim.” He invited anyone to challenge him to a game of chess on the chessboard on top of the tower, and pointed out the big, round signs hanging in the room, each with a single word: “IALAC.”

This stood for “I Am Lovable And Capable,” and Jim wanted us to say that phrase to ourselves whenever we saw the signs.

To put it mildly, this was NOT a teaching style that I, or any of my classmates, had ever seen before!! It was as if an egg-headed, rod-fingered alien had come to Ebenezer to speak to us from a beautiful future we could not comprehend. Either that, or a hippie. The level of unease felt by my classmates and me at this (for our school) radical style of pedagogy was such that, while we loved the tower and the chess and the signs and the rule-making, no one ever took him up on the invitation to call him “Jim.” He was always “Mr. Keesey.” We all respected him so much that we felt we HAD to call him that.

He put us into groups for math and reading, and I got put into the “smart-kids” group, with my buddies, Greg and Bruce, and a girl, Juli, who would later go on to graduate high school a year early to attend M.I.T.75 For Reading/Language Arts, our group used a cool workbook called The Dopple Gang, a hip, 70s, cartoony book that reminded me of a groovy paperback version of The Banana Splits TV show.

Mr. Keesey was big on reading. Together as a class we read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Hobbit; The Phantom Tollbooth; and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In our individual groups, we took part in a reading program called “SRA,” a color-coded system by Science Research Associates76 in which students read a group of ten or twelve individual non-fiction stories at their own pace, answered 20 questions after each story, and then, when a sufficient number of questions had been correctly answered, and all stories in a color were complete, moved to the next color. The readings and questions got progressively more advanced as you moved through the colors. If you made it through all the colors, you’d end up reading 100 to 150 stories. In our group, Juli flew through the colors. Greg, Bruce and I did not.

I’m sure there have been many times in my educational career when I bent the rules, sneaked a look at a classmate’s paper, or “borrowed” homework answers from a friend; but I generally didn’t cheat. School was one of the few things I felt really good at, so proving I could do well on my own was a point of pride. So to this day, as a 50 year old man, I remain ashamed of the enormity of the cheating scheme undertaken by my buddies and I on those damned SRA cards.

You see, kind and trusting cool-guy that he was, Mr. Keesey allowed us to sit anywhere to do our SRA reading, and – so we could grade our own work – gave us access to the SRA Teacher’s Box that contained individual answer-key cards for each story. So as Juli’s performance really started to outpace our own, and my two pals and I felt completely outclassed, we realized we could choose to read our SRA while sitting in corners, or underneath the tower, or even out in the hallway. And since the Answer Cards fit neatly against the pamphletized stories, it was not difficult to select a story, select an answer card and scuttle off to a dark place to cheat like hell. As Juli completed four or five stories in 30 minutes, we could complete three or four ourselves, instead of the one to three we could do on our own. (We never did the same number or more than Juli: we were smart enough to realize nobody would buy that.) We finished the entire SRA reading program in a few months, several days after Juli, while many kids never made it through one color on their own. We felt like stars, winners. I did for a brief time, anyway.

We’d answered Mr. Keesey’s love and kindness with – at least in this instance – cheating. It felt wrong to me then, and it feels wrong today. I’m sure many kids did the same; perhaps even Juli, that vaunted intellectual prodigy, was cheating as well. (After all: she was no dummy.) And maybe, ol’ Jim knew what was happening but figured the benefits of providing an opportunity for ten year olds to take on individualized reading projects with little oversight outweighed the risks of a few sulking, pride-wounded boys cheating. (After all, we weren’t graded on the SRA program.) Still, I wish I’d done the reading without cheating.

I don’t dwell on this episode much, but I was reminded of it while considering my #41 album … And Out Come The Wolves, by the band Rancid. This is because many people – whether they understand it this way or not – think of Rancid as cheaters. Nobody really uses that term when discussing the band, but it’s what they think. The band “cheats” because they sound, unapologetically, like The Clash. Some people are very anti-Rancid over their sound. And I wonder – as someone who’s felt guilty about cheating – if maybe some folks’ dislike for the band is driven by the guilt they feel over their own past indiscretions77. “These guys are cheating, and they don’t even care!!!”

When I heard the band’s hit “Time Bomb” on the radio in late 1995, I was immediately taken with the band. Singer Tim Armstrong’s slurring singing on lyrics about their music scene, the punky/ska beat, the fun video … I liked it. I liked the organ, and the catchy chorus and I went out and bought … And Out Come The Wolves.

As a big Clash fan, I was excited that someone was trying to carry on in their tradition. As I’ve written before, I tend to seek out artists who sound like my favorite artists. All music is loaded with the musical inspirations of those who write it; there are very few truly “original” artists out there. And the ones that do sound like no one else, I guarantee you’d hate. And while it’s true that any punk or punk-ish band since 1977 will bear some resemblance to The Clash (punk itself being a rather specific, sound-limited genre), Rancid’s double guitars, dueling singers and ska-influenced tracks made them particularly ripe for the comparison. Sure, the band’s mohawks and chains seemed a bit dated in 1995, but I didn’t care – the songs were great! But I found when I played the album for others my age who also loved The Clash, most were dismissive, at best; others were downright angry. “If I wanted to hear The Clash, I’d listen to The Clash!” “They’re totally ripping off another band!” “What’s this retro bullshit??” They thought the band was cheating.

But creativity is weird. It’s a personal experience that isn’t as simple as finding an answer key and secreting it away to a hidden spot. A band of young Clash fans in their basement writing songs inspired by their heroes haven’t cheated at all.

Actually, they’ve added their own twist to the sound they love. Consider the bass in “Maxwell Murder” (particularly beginning at 0:58) and compare it to any bass line by Paul Simonon on any Clash song. I think you will hear a difference.

It’s less than a minute and a half of energy and power, and Matt Freeman’s frenetic bass is the engine. His bass solo at about 0:59 is one of the coolest I’ve heard – and is unusual in a punk rock song, where the fast pace of songs relegates many bassists to simply bashing through the root notes of chords. As with most of the songs, the lyrics border on unintelligible, but in this case they seem to be about a hit-man.

Freeman’s bass is one of the defining features of the album (and the band) and powers such songs as their follow-up hit, “Ruby Soho,” and “Disorder and Disarray,” one of many songs about these punks’ discomfort with the big record labels who descended on them in the wake of the success of bands like Nirvana and Green Day.

But what really powers the album is – believe it or not – the sequencing of the songs and the very small space left between the songs. Nineteen short songs that are fun and catchy and powerful and that come at you in rat-a-tat fashion, each one a wave at the beach that smacks into you just as you groggily rise in the surf from the last one. It’s a relentless album, and it’s difficult to recreate that feeling in words, but if you have 50 minutes or so, try to listen all the way through.

After “Maxwell Murder” comes “11th Hour,” a D.I.Y. anthem calling fans to action. It features two other key aspects of the Rancid sound: squawking, somewhat-in-tune vocals and harmonies (that sound awesome, somehow) and guitars that play off each other, not unlike the two guitar sound of The Clash (it must be said.)

Guitarist/singers Tim Armstrong (the lefty) and Lars Frederiksen (the righty) also frequently trade off lead vocals, as in “Roots Radicals.”

It’s a hyper-catchy song, with a jumping bassline, and Armstrong and Frederiksen harmonize brilliantly, particularly given their limitations. The band wears their “if-we-can-do-it-you-can-do-it” ethos on their sleeves, and many of the lyrics (like those in this song) tell the band’s story. I think for many kids in the rock era, bands like Rancid78 were a key to coping. Songs like the excellent “Listed M.I.A.” (Which may be the most upbeat song about suicide ever!) talk about the hard times; songs like “The Wars End” tell you things can get better.

A terrific triumvirate of totally torrid tunes (sorry about that) begins with the excellent “take me away from the big city” lament of “Olympia, WA.”

The riff is killer from the beginning. Armstrong leads the snarling verse, then the excellent, singalong chorus begins at 0:45, with Freeman’s bass leading the charge. It’s one of the most-fun choruses to shout ever! It’s followed up by another shout-along classic, “Lock, Step & Gone.” It’s more of the same: awesome bass line (with another bass solo, about 1:22!), dueling guitars, sneering harmony vocals. But somehow it doesn’t sound the same.

That one is followed closely with another favorite of mine, “Junkie Man,” featuring lyrical help from poet/Basketball Diarist/”People Who Died” guy Jim Carroll.

I think it may actually be about Carroll, a well-known junkie who definitely could tell you what the story is, as the song asks. It’s got a neat scratchy breakdown, with spoken words written by Carroll.

There are 19, YES NINETEEN, songs on this album. Some are better than others, most are great, a few are merely very good. “Daly City Train” is another autobiographical gem. It’s a ska song, and it’s fun and rocks and makes me want to shout and dance along – as almost all of the songs do. At 2:40 it features a kind of rap that may be the most unintelligible rap I’ve ever heard. And I love it!

So many great songs. “Journey To The End Of The East Bay.” “She’s Automatic.” The super-excellent “Old Friend,” which I can’t believe I didn’t write about more! “As Wicked.” “You Don’t Care Nothin.” “The Way I Feel.” Any of these songs would be part of a great mix-tape, and when they’re placed end-to-end with hardly a break, they’re a battering ram. Just as the band states on the song “Avenues and Alleyways.”

So, listen. I’ve forgiven myself about that fifth grade cheating incident. I swear. But I understand if you were in that class with me and worked your ass off to get through the Blue cards, only to find out the “smart kids” were cheating their way all the way through Brown!!! It’s just not right. And it might trigger your senses of justice and vengeance. And that’s fine, take it out on a cheater like me. But don’t hold it against a band like Rancid. They didn’t cheat! They just wear their influences on their sleeve. And if you get past your resentment, you’ll find there’s an excellent record waiting for you to hear!

Track Listing:
“Maxwell Murder”
“The Eleventh Hour”
“Roots Radicals”
“Time Bomb”
“Olympia WA”
“Lock, Step & Gone”
“Junkie Man”
“Listed M.1.A.”
“Ruby Soho”
“Daly City Train”
“Journey To The End Of The East Bay”
“She’s Automatic”
“Old Friend”
“Disorder And Disarray”
“The Wars End”
“You Don’t Care Nothin”
“As Wicked”
“Avenues & Alleyways”
“The Way I Feel”

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42nd Favorite: Making Movies, by Dire Straits

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Making Movies. Dire Straits.
1980, Warner Brothers. Producer: Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Iovine.
Bootleg Cassette, 1985; Purchased, 2002.

IN A NUTSHELL: Nobody plays the guitar like Mark Knopfler – perhaps the most distinctive guitarist in the rock era. He writes grand, moving epics – six-minute movies in song. And though he’s not exactly a singer, he knows how to use his voice to imbue the songs with emotion. The band, particularly drummer Pick Withers, is excellent, and Bruce Springsteen’s keyboardist, Roy Bittan, helps to give the songs a certain majesty.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I like guitar players. I like baseball players. Is there a relationship between the two? Well, first a little79 background.

Since 1957, sociologists have modeled the way in which new technologies are adopted by the general public. The first model, upon which all others have been based, is the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. It was established by researchers Beal and Bohlen and was developed by observing how farmers integrated new ideas and products into their farming operations.

The model was of little general interest outside a few economists and researchers until the computer boom of the 80s brought increasingly technologically sophisticated products to all types of marketplaces. Marketing folks scoured and devoured the research, finding applications for it among consumer products from Teddy Ruxpin and home computers to hospital infusion pumps. Geoffery A. Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm became the bible for how to reach members of a population with differing orientations toward new ideas. And today, with major advancements in computerized technology seemingly creating obsolescence in mere weeks, most Americans have become familiar with some of the terms created by those obscure 1950s researchers: “Early Adopters” and “Laggards.”

I have never been an early adopter. Around 1981 my high school purchased a few computers, and kids like me in the “honors” program were given first crack at taking the school’s inaugural Computer Class. I was one of the very few to decline. Since then, I have been a Laggard in nearly all cultural and technological developments, catching onto the tail ends of everything from VCRs to DVD Players to Blu-Ray Players to streaming media. I don’t have anything against technology, it’s just that I don’t really pay attention to developments until my VCR or DVD Player breaks down and I need a new one.

This Laggard-ness should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog about rock music albums. That’s right, I maintain a dead website type (the blog) about a dead music genre (rock) as heard on a dead medium (the album). I’m three for three.

Oh, and I typically start my blog with a personal essay, which has also been declared dead.

So given my laggardness and my interest in things that everyone else has already apparently forgotten about, it should also be no surprise that I’ve decided to compare famous guitar players to famous baseball players: the best in the world at a dying instrument as compared to the best in the world at a dying game. Perhaps, as the march of progress continues to quicken its pace, and the interval required for nostalgia to suffuse into popular culture narrows from 20-plus years to 10, and 5, and etc., I’ll be lucky enough to catch the second wave of interest in baseball and electric guitar – ironic though it may be – like a Victorian gentleman awakening in the midst of a Brooklyn Steampunk festival. (Shit. I just realized that the game Guitar Hero debuted nearly 15 years ago. I already missed the second wave!! Maybe it’s time for me to go buy a Wii and get started playing.)

Besides sharing their apparent anachronistic nature in today’s society, guitar- and baseball players share other qualities that make them ripe for comparison. For one, both pursuits are singular actions: guitar playing and batting a ball80 And in both actions, there can be a wide difference between how you are taught to do it as a beginner and how you end up doing it as a professional. Plus, each individual has a unique style, such that fans can sometimes tell a guitar player from simply hearing a note or two just as they can identify a baseball batter just by seeing some guy impersonate the way he swings the bat. Beyond that, as the careers of guitarists and athletes progress, fans form ideas and opinions about them that become as much a part of their mystique as their actual performance on the stage or ball field.

So here’s what I’ll do: I will pick a famous guitar player and explain why, in my opinion, he is the equivalent of a famous baseball player. In my comparison, I’m only going to use baseball batters. I’ve ruled out pitchers, except in one necessary case, just to make the comparisons more uniform. One more thing: I have at times had readers from outside the United States, and even though the web has shrunk our world immensely, I doubt if these readers will know most, or any, of the names and attributes of American baseball players. So, I’ve asked my friend Mark B., originally from Costa Rica, and a big fan of both baseball and soccer, to identify soccer players who match the attributes I’ve ascribed to my baseball players.

Jimi Hendrix = Babe Ruth (Pelé): The best ever. Sure, sure, in an artistic arena the use of a superlative is quite subjective. And even in a sport with statistics out the hoo-ha, there can be some debate about calling a player “the best.” But in terms of recognition, iconography, history … there can be no one else to pair with Jimi; and no one else to pair with Babe. And my personal reason why Ruth is the undisputed best: he wasn’t only among the greatest hitters of his generation, he was also among the greatest pitchers!!

Eddie Van Halen = Willie Mays (Cristiano Ronaldo): Both of these players performed with a flair that was unseen before they hit the big time. And in both cases, this “flair” often overshadowed how great they really were. In some cases misguided folks have claimed that both were little more than that flair. This argument is laughable. Mays’s stats and Van Halen’s playing demonstrate brilliance born from years of hard work. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t have fun and be awesome at the same time!

Keith Richards = Mickey Mantle (Georgie Best): Two people who lived their lives in such a way that nobody expected them to live past 40 years old. Alcohol & drugs & amazing feats with a guitar and a bat. Both are widely acknowledged all-time greats; both are widely acknowledged high-functioning addicts. Given the money and free time afforded both ballplayers and rock stars, I’m sure some others could have been on this list instead – but these are the two greatest.

Eric Clapton = Stan Musial (Lionel Messi): Two guys who led their all-time-great careers and lives in a very understated, workmanlike manner. Sure, Clapton had the drugs and alcohol battles, but despite that, he always seemed like a decent guy who just happened to have developed an extraordinary ability – just like Stan the Man! Both of these guys were young phenoms who ended up being the sort of person who’d live on your street, and somebody’d have to tell you, “Hey, did you know old man Musial/Clapton used to be a ballplayer/guitarist?” They always let their ability speak for itself.

Steve Howe = Hank Aaron (Eusebio): Both of these guys are two of the best ever, with multi-faceted abilities, and yet they both seem to be overlooked when speaking about the best ever. Maybe it’s because they both played for rather unpopular bands/teams: Yes and the 50s-70s Braves. But when either is mentioned among rock guitar/baseball fans, everyone acknowledges their greatness.

The Edge = Barry Bonds (Diego Maradona): Two guys who get a lot of grief because of performance enhancers – chemicals, in Bonds’s case, and pedals/effects/sounds in Edge’s case. But the thing is, in the era they both played in, this was how it was done81. Most everyone else was doing the same thing, and they didn’t reach Edge/Bonds levels. You may personally downgrade either one, but both will have a huge legacy despite their accoutrements.

David Gilmour = Mike Schmidt (Francesco Totti): These two guys are inextricably linked via my friendship with Dr. Dave. Both remind me of him, as they’re two of his favorites. But also, they both have a complete game, play with power and minimal flashiness, and are undisputed greats. A Gilmour solo and a Schmidt swing are both displays of beautiful power.

George Harrison = Yogi Berra (Rivelino): These two can sometimes be overshadowed by the incredible teammates they had in their career: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Paul McCartney, John Lennon … But both are recognized greats in their own right, and would have been a success wherever, and with whomever, they played.

John Squire = Nomar Garciaparra (Marco Van Basten): “Who?” you may ask. And that’s the point. These two started their careers on an incredible trajectory, displaying once-in-a-generation talent, plus a special something that made them seem destined for greatness. However, drugs/injuries, etc, derailed their careers. But you can’t take away those first 6 or 7 years they had – they stack up against anybody’s.

Prince = Rickey Henderson (Ronaldinho): Both of these guys were such characters, almost caricatures of themselves – with Prince becoming an unpronounceable symbol, and Rickey always calling Rickey “Rickey” – that you could sometimes forget how awesome they really were. Both could do it all. Prince was more than a falsetto voice, Rickey was more than a bunch of steals.

Mike Campbell = Joe Morgan (Arjen Robben): These two are perhaps forgotten among guitar greats and baseball Hall of Famers, but they are instantly recognizable to any fan. Morgan’s arm-flap batting stance and hustle around the basepaths82, Campbell’s spare, haunting creativity. Their teams/groups wouldn’t have been the same without them, as any fan knows.

Mark Knopfler = Robin Yount (Zinedine Zidane): Guys who did things their own way, who toiled in relative obscurity for for Dire Straits/Milwaukee Brewers until they had massive success (Brothers in Arms/1982 World Series) and won a bit of fame. Knopfler plays jazz and rock without a pick, Yount won MVPs as shortstop and centerfielder, without an endorsement deal. They went about their business being incredible until everyone else finally realized it.

I was aware of Knopfler’s band, Dire Straits, from their very beginning, as their debut hit single “Sultans of Swing” was part of my 6th grade soundtrack, along with “Heart of Glass” and “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).” I thought the song was okay, although I often got it confused with the song “Driver’s Seat,” by one-hit-wonder Sniff ‘n The Tears83, for some reason. Then MTV came along a couple years later, and it seemed like the band’s “Skateaway” was played every hour, almost as often as “Jessie’s Girl.” I found that song too mellow and grew to hate it. I preferred the energetic early-MTV fare, like The Producers and Saga.

As has happened so often in the music-appreciation realm of my life, I met Dr. Dave at college, and my opinions started to change. We both played on the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science baseball team, for a ridiculous coach that held practices early mornings in the gym. It was, February, 1987, and the previous evening the Grammy Awards were broadcast. As we ran our 5:30 am laps, I mentioned to Dave that Paul Simon’s Graceland had won Album of the Year. I remember Dave saying, in his distinctly Dave way, “Fuck the Grammys! Dire Straits lost to fucking Phil Collins last year. That award means shit!84” He was speaking of the band’s smash 1985 album, Brothers In Arms85. Thus began my formal introduction to the band. I eventually bought several of the band’s cassettes, but Making Movies is the one that’s always stood out the most to me.

One of the first songs I remember Dave playing me has become one of my favorite songs from Making Movies, “Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s a simple-sounding song that opens with Knopfler’s characteristic finger-picking on an old-timey resonator guitar. One of the key features of Knopfler’s guitar style is that he exclusively plays using his fingers on his strumming hand instead of a pick86. Not only is this song’s introduction finger-picked, but he uses fingers on everything else, as well. Knopfler’s voice doesn’t nearly match the giftedness of his guitar playing but it’s certainly distinctive, and his stylized singing conveys great emotion. In this case it’s the pain and anger (and even unfounded hopefulness) of heartbreak, telling a story of lost love based on his real-life relationship with American singer Holly Vincent87. It’s a rare Dire Straits song in that the guitar (though obviously excellent) takes a backseat to the vocals. The song effectively uses dynamics: quiet, matter-of-fact verses and emotional bursts in the chorus, with each chorus building in intensity. The drumming, by Pick Withers, is excellent, using rolls and accents in the choruses (i.e. 2:25 – 2:45) that make the song more than just a simple rock lament. It’s a beautiful song, and Knopfler’s mournful guitar does come to the forefront in the subtle guitar outro, beginning at 4:50. (By the way, listen for the little finger snaps from Knopfler, after the lyrics “hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” (0:57) and “band accompanies me” (3:31). I love little things like that.)

If you listen to this album and think, “Hey, it sort of sounds like a Bruce Springsteen album,” it may be because producer Jimmy Iovine had been an engineer on several Springsteen albums, and also because Iovine brought along E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. Together they helped add a sweeping, majestic sound to the record, evident on the lead track “Tunnel of Love.”

Opening with a snippet of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz,” from the musical Carousel, Bittan’s piano enters with a fanfare to herald the epic song that follows. It’s about the intense feelings of young love set at an amusement parkin this case Spanish City, a seaside park from Knopfler’s youth – and the pull of memory as one ages. Once again Knopfler’s limited vocal abilities are put to fine use, imbuing the piece with emotion. But his guitar is the star of this song. He riffs and solos beautifully behind the lyrics throughout the song. The song pulls way back at about 5:00, filled with tasty guitar figures, setting the listener up for the ferocious solo to come, beginning about 5:55. This is a Robin-Yount-Hall-of-Fame caliber solo88 to end the piece, building from quiet spaciousness to furiously fast finger picking, and throughout reflecting the wistfulness of the lyrics. It’s a tremendous song.

As is another long one, a song I’d originally disliked though came to appreciate and love, the aforementioned MTV favorite “Skateaway.”

Pick Withers’s kick drum opens the piece and the song does one of those cool things where the drum beat sounds like the “1” is on a certain beat, but then when the organ enters you find the “1” is somewhere else. I love that. Knopfler’s squawky guitar enters, setting a mysterious mood, which is probably correct for me because 35 years on and I still don’t know what the lyrics mean – unless it is what it is: just a story about a young woman rollerskating. (Okay, I just read a theory that sounds accurate – that the song is about the movies we make in our heads to accompany the songs we hear. That sounds right!) Knopfler’s guitar fills take center stage once again behind his vocals, throwing in things like the run from 2:33 to 2:44 which is super cool. And by the way – he plays all those fills while singing when he plays live, which is rather astounding. It’s a mellow song that kicks into a slightly higher gear when the chorus comes around. Bittan’s organ fills out the song nicely, and bassist John Illsley does some really cool stuff during Knopfler’s outro solo, after 5:00.

Making Movies is not very long – only 7 songs. Of course, “Tunnel of Love” and “Skateaway” are both 6-plus minutes. But it’s an economical package, with most all of the fat stripped away. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity of sound on the record, but that’s not a knock: it is a concentrated dose of Knopfler guitar, unusual vocals and lyrical stories. “Expresso Love” follows the blueprint to a tee.

It’s a song about his love for a woman, and the concerns he has about it. I’ve wondered what “expresso love” is89, but it seems like it’s a love that is really intense, therefore only taken in small doses. The song has a cool girl-group drum beat going into the chorus, and that Knopfler guitar, of course. That guitar is featured on all of the songs, except for “Hand In Hand,” which is very piano-driven, and – to my ears – is the most Springsteen-y song on the album. The lyrics are a bit sad-sack, and while it has a nice melody, I miss the guitar. As for the song “Les Boys,” it has some guitar, but it’s a too oompah-sounding for me, and even though I’m a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the lyrics are too repetitive and pointless. (Okay, they’re glad to be gay – and?)

I prefer the solid rock sound of “Solid Rock,” Dire Straits’s version of hard rock.

This is the Dire Straits’ version of hard rock, with a driving pulse and Knopfler nearly shouting his lyrics. (He never really sings). It’s all chugging piano and guitars, and he throws in cool little guitar stuff – like the first time he sings “Long will live/Solid Rock” in each chorus, he does a little “blip” sound (first heard about 0:43), which I just love. Although its shouted title sounds like a fist-pumping salute to the longevity of rock and roll90, the Solid Rock in this song is actual rock: sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, albeit used as a metaphor for human relationships. Knopfler plays a deftly intricate solo, as usual, and the song seems to end too soon.

I love Mark Knopfler’s distinctive guitar playing. When I’m thinking about guitar players I love, his name doesn’t immediately pop into my head, but when I listen to Making Movies, I remember just how much I love his style. (And when I think about him doing it all without using a pick, I’m astonished!) It’s the same way with baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount – except for the part about using a pick. I love that different people can be so good at doing the the same thing, yet do that thing in a style they share with no one else. It speaks to both the individual and the communal nature of human beings. And it brings lots of joy to fans like me.

Track Listing:
“Tunnel of Love”
“Romeo and Juliet”
“Skateaway”
“Expresso Love”
“Hand In Hand”
“Solid Rock”
“Les Boys”

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