Tag Archives: 1977

48th Favorite: Animals, by Pink Floyd


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Animals. Pink Floyd.
1977, Harvest/Columbia. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1984. Purchased, ca. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album that takes the listener on quite a journey through society, this record has so much incredible David Gilmour guitar that I almost lose my mind!! Roger Waters’s voice is as effective as ever, and the whole band sounds great – even through the druggy interludes. I could do with fewer of these slow spots, but the songs and the playing more than make up for it. It’s an album designed for a listen in one sitting.
I’ve seen fewer than one episode of that wildly popular old 90s TV show Friends. This is weird because, as a 49 year old, I am firmly and completely a part of that limiting descriptor called “Generation X,” and Friends is supposed to be one of our generation’s “touchstones[ref]And one that has (apparently) held up well, to boot.[/ref].” And I’m not ashamed to say[ref]Not being ashamed of things we should be ashamed of is probably a hallmark of Gen-X. I am guilty of it.[/ref] that I’m a big fan of almost all of our touchstones.

I devoured 70s Saturday morning cartoons, can recite entire Bugs Bunny Show scripts, and know most of the words to most of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was first released, and I watched the Quincy, M.E., punk rock episode when it first aired. I played Pac Man in the arcade for a quarter a game. I wished I could afford an Alligator shirt, but still never stooped to wearing the Sears “Braggin’ Dragon” brand instead. I watched Late Night with David Letterman when it was still “A Melman Production,” and watched MTV when it only showed music videos. I raved over Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, bought Nevermind the month it came out and had tickets to Lollapalooza #1[ref]Which was cancelled in Hershey, PA, because Skid Row had sworn on the outdoor stage there earlier that summer, angering the locals.[/ref]. I read (most of) Infinite Jest, saw Pulp Fiction in the theater several times, chuckled about the Y2K bug panic, and I felt old about MP3s and iPods and most everything else after 2002.

But I only ever saw part of one single Friends episode, the one where Nana dies twice, which was cutely titled – in that annoying Friends way – “The One Where Nana Dies Twice.” I remember there was a funny bit about someone’s grandma having a bunch of packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Despite the show’s apparent touchstone-dom, I never connected with it. I was never part of a big, close-knit group of friends, so I think the premise never resonated with me[ref]Then again, I’ve never been to outer space, but I sure loved Star Trek: The Next Generation.[/ref]. I’ve always been more inclined to have one or two close friends, who may or may not know one another. Maybe this is part of the reason that I was more drawn to The X-Files during the Friends era. (And why I was one of the fans who DID NOT want Scully and Mulder to get romantic.)

When I think of “friends,” I don’t think of Friends: it’s not a large group, it’s a small group – maybe one other person. On TV and movies, they’re commonly called “buddies,” and there are examples galore out there. Scully and Mulder are of the “opposites attract” variety – she is skeptical, detached, reserved; he is high-strung and borders on gullibility. The most famous example is a pair whose friendship was created specifically to mine the deep vein of humor found in such an attraction: Oscar and Felix, from The Odd Couple – a success as a stage play, a movie, and multiple TV shows. From the manly/nerdy Martin and Lewis to man-hungry/good girl Laverne & Shirley to sunny/cranky Ernie and Bert, and in countless cop movies, Opposites has been a tried and true basis for fictional friendships.

Some fictional friendships are based on shared childhoods – people who connected in school and remained close. The Geeks, in Freaks and Geeks, fit the bill for me as a threesome – the maximum number allowed to meet my “buddy” standard. This means the Freaks don’t work for me because they’re a larger group. Raj, Dwayne and Rerun, from What’s Happening! are definite examples. Grown examples of childhood friends include Jerry and George, from Seinfeld, and Patsy and Eddy, from Absolutely Fabulous. Sadly, neither pair makes a good case for the mental health of individuals who remain close friends with childhood pals.

Some fictional friends are thrown together by circumstance, for better (as is the case with Red and Andy in The Shawshank Redemption) or for worse (as with Barton and Charlie in Barton Fink.) Some are friends for no apparent reason, like The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, or Ren and Stimpy. Still others just seem meant for each other, like Rhoda and Mary, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, John Winger and Russell Ziskey, Spongebob and Patrick.

Whatever the source of the friendship, these one-to-one (or at times three-person) relationships have been more typical in my life than the large-group Friends model. This has changed somewhat as I’ve gotten older and my wife[ref]My best friend![/ref] and I have made friends with our kids’ friends’ parents, and we’ve developed friendships with groups of couples. But despite these changes, the single “buddy” remains my Platonic Ideal[ref]I think I’m using this correctly. I know very little about philosophy, and I’m hoping many of my readers will know even less than me.[/ref] of the term “friend.” And the buddy I’ve remained closest to the longest is Dr. Dave.

We’re not exactly opposites, although we are quite different. We didn’t meet as kids, although having met as freshmen in college, we pretty much did. We were kinda thrown together by circumstance, being two of about nine folks majoring in Toxicology when we got to college – not as stressful as Shawshank Prison, but probably weirder. More than anything, we just sort of connected over The Beatles, music, Mel Brooks movies, Bugs Bunny, the Phillies, Columbo, and so many other little things.

As you, dear reader, will likely understand if you’ve had a close friend for thirty-some years, it’s difficult to adequately cover all the big ways in which Dr. Dave has been important to me. Instead, I’ll just list a few concrete examples of the little things he’s done, such as: 1) getting me to try asparagus for the first time; 2) teaching me how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs on the bass; 3) telling me I should give Pink Floyd’s Animals another shot after my initial rejection of it. Another friend in high school, Rick, had duped his copy of the album onto cassette for me as part of a pre-digital-music data-dump of multiple Pink Floyd albums. I’d listened to it once, then never really went back to it. My initial assessment was that it was too depressing, and as a seventeen year-old, rural Pennsyltukian in 1984, I had Van Halen albums to consume and couldn’t be bothered with depressing stuff. (Which today sounds a bit depressing, in and of itself[ref]Although (spoiler alert) I do still love me some Van Halen.[/ref].)

At some point in college I’d transferred to a school a couple hours’ drive from Philadelphia, where Dr. Dave lived. He’d sometimes visit, and I have a vivid memory of him walking up the stairs to my crappy college apartment, having just arrived from a two-hour drive, and announcing, “Dude, what a ride!! I listened to Animals, the whole time!” I expressed doubt about his choice, but he made an excellent case for the album’s merits, countered my suspect assessment of it, and I soon found myself listening to my cassette version, instead of just rewinding it each time I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, on Side A.

Like most (all?) Pink Floyd albums from the 70s to early 80s, Animals is a Concept Album, with its (few) songs unified on the themes of class politics, Capitalism and societal decay. So, sure, my initial assessment of “depressing” may have some basis in fact. But the album’s soaring guitars, earnest vocals, and the fact that the sheep defeat the dogs, make it far from a negative experience.

And as depressing as some of the themes may be, the record actually opens (and closes) with a sweet, folky song, “Pigs on the Wing 1,” about the value of love (or friendship!) among the indignities in life.

These indignities are symbolized by Flying Pigs, and, one can infer, the waste products discharged therefrom. As one might expect from a Concept Album titled Animals, and confronting class politics, this begins the continuing metaphor of the album of human types as animals.

First up are humans as those shaggy, friendly best friends of humanity, “Dogs[ref]Since this is a metaphor, it has nothing to do with any old Disney film.[/ref].”

Writing about 17-plus minute long songs can be challenging. In the past, I’ve gone deep into the weeds to write about such songs, using hundreds of words to comment on parts played and sung by all the members of the band. For “Dogs,” two words may be sufficient: David Gilmour.

He opens the song, which he wrote with bassist Roger Waters, strumming difficult chords on acoustic guitar and singing a cynical take on how to succeed in the modern world. The lyrics are quite bitter in that fist-raising, indignant, beautiful way that young idealists have – and that old fogies like me tend to dismiss as “immature” and “out of touch with the real world,” mainly because we realize we had a chance to make a difference and that chance passed us by. Lines like “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to / So that when they turn their backs on you / You’ll get the chance to put the knife in” leave little doubt about young Gilmour’s perspective.

These lines also lead in, about 1:48, to the first of his many brilliant guitar solos in this song. I love listening to the song, a slight difference from merely loving the song, to hear where Gilmour takes me – his solos seem to carry the listener along. They’re filled with great sounds and subtle intricacies, movement and emotion. Often times on this album I think of the band as merely platform onto which the lyrics and Gilmour’s guitar have been placed for careful consideration. The next solo is truly epic: beginning at 3:40, the song takes a turn to a commanding, pomp-filled tone, and Gilmour plays a double-tracked solo, with added touches layered underneath (listen closely from 4:30 to 4:45), that swirls into the type of section heard in many Pink Floyd songs, and of which, frankly, I could do with less.

I’ve barely ever used any marijuana in my life, so I may be way off base, but I associate these moody, open spaces in Floyd songs, oftentimes containing non musical, natural sounds (in this case dogs barking), with stoned teenagers exploring their minds while keyboardist Rick Wright holds a note for several minutes, and Gilmour gently strums the same two chords repeatedly. Of course, as boring as they can be, these long interludes do provide the framework for such wonderful beauties as Gilmour’s next solo, at about 5:32. I love this entire solo, especially the sort of “laughing” notes, around 6:20. Roger Waters’s bass during this solo is actually pretty cool (Gilmour himself has mocked Waters’s bass-playing ability), with nice, bouncy chords.

The song could easily end at about eight minutes, just after the really cool chicken-scratch guitar Gilmour plays during the vocals at 7:30, but this being Floyd, there are about 9 minutes left. And they’re a terrific nine minutes. And of course, this being Floyd, before we get to the terrific part, bongs gurgle everywhere as we sit through three-and-a-half minutes of Gilmour’s voice echoing while Wright holds a few notes, drummer Nick Mason taps a cymbal and those damned dogs bark some more[ref]I should point out, however, that this interlude, during Wright’s swirly synth noodling, is the point at which, when he was in third grade, my son exclaimed “I love this song!!” when I played it for him as background music while he did a bit of homework. So there’s that.[/ref]. At 11:40, Waters takes over the vocals, and the song becomes his – sort of a jaunty melody. Although Gilmour is probably the better pure singer, I sort of like Waters’s voice better. It has more of an edge, a sneer.

But holy shit, if Gilmour’s guitar doesn’t take over and steal back the glory!! The solo beginning at about 13:27 is his fourth of the song, and each one has been different and spectacular. This one is a trip up and down the neck, until it falls into a sort of Galaga insect-esque descent at 13:55. The finale (because such an impressive song requires a finale!) starts about 14:10, with more soloing and finally Waters putting the finishing touches on the song, singing a list of characteristics of the everyman in the song – the dog? The victim of the dog? both? – and Mason shows off his drumming chops.

Besides the fact that Dr. Dave introduced me to it, another reason Animals reminds me of friendship is that it’s so much a Gilmour/Waters-sounding record (despite the fact that only “Dogs” is credited to both of them, and the rest are Waters songs). I like to imagine the two friends playing and laughing together, like Dr. Dave and I would if we were Gilmour and Waters. However, this is pure fantasy. The two seem to really have a shared distaste, if not outright hostility, for one another. They’ve shared a stage once since 1981 (okay, fact-check: three times), and seem unlikely to do it again. But while they were together, they sure recorded some great stuff! For example, “Pigs (Three Different Ones).”

In this song, we meet three humans of the “Pig” variety, those at the top of the Social Ladder, according to Mr. Waters. This song is carried by Waters’s vocal performance; sneering, growling, falsetto, talking … Waters uses several techniques effectively throughout. The fretless bass on this song is tremendous, starting right at about 0:10, and I thought I’d be complimenting Waters for it; however, it was Mr. Gilmour who took over bass duties for this song, and he nailed it. This is a good song for paying attention to the stuff going on in the background. For example, the guitar is really cool-sounding and echo-y during the verses, and Nick Mason breaks out the cowbell just before 2:00. There’s nice piano work (actual piano, not synthesizer) around there, as well, and nifty little guitar doodles, too.

The lyrics are quite harsh, once again full of righteous indignation at the powerful class. And as someone who grew up far, far from power and wealth, it feels good to hear Waters spew these lines, I must say. And one little tidbit that many Americans may not realize: the “Whitehouse” in the third verse IS NOT the U.S. presidency! It’s in fact a woman named Mary Whitehouse who was a moralistic crusader against sex and violence in 1970s Britain.

As you may expect, I’ll again fawn over Gilmour’s guitar playing in this song. Even during the repetitive, extended “bong section” of this song, from about 4:00 to 8:00, he does some little string bends on his chords that lift up the playing. Then comes a “talk box” solo, at 5:10, that brilliantly mimics a wah-wah trumpet. The mid-to-late 70s were huge for the Talk Box. Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Rufus … it was everywhere, and it’s interesting to see an “artsy” band like Pink Floyd use it. The song does sag a bit during this part (although be sure to listen to that bass during it!!), and this 11 minute song likely could have been five minutes. But they finish with a flourish, ramping up the energy on a final solo and an almost-disco bass line!

The last of the animal types we’ll meet are those from the big herd, the massive group of folks who aren’t the dangerous dogs or the gluttonous pigs. The you and the me, even if we’d rather not admit it: “Sheep.”

This song, both lyrically and sonically, is actually quite uplifting. Sonically, it has a driving urgency and a satisfying guitar ending that sounds like release. Lyrically, although the sheep at first seem meek and hopeless, they do set upon the dogs and defeat them in the end. The Rick Wright electric piano at the beginning sounds a little too Al Jarreau for my liking, but it ends soon enough, with a growing bass that signals more of Waters’s sneering voice. And sure, at this point in my post I should just say “Gilmour, Gilmour, Gilmour.” But I mean, come on. The stuff he does from 2:26 to about 2:50 is just insanely good. And he does stuff like that throughout the whole song (3:30 – 3:50, for example)!

It builds to a near frenzy by about 4 minutes, but then … spark one up. We’ve got another 3 minutes of mellow to enjoy the drugs’ effects. After swirling synths and burbling bass, there’s a distorted 23rd Psalm to occupy your mind. The song builds to a very effective guitar fanfare at about 8:07 to signal the death of the dogs and the sheep’s success. On an album with three very long songs, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but the guitar in Sheep may place it atop that list.

To end the album, we again revisit those dreaded flying pigs, in “Pigs on the Wing 2.”

Same song[ref]Interestingly (to me), to take advantage of peculiarities of 8-Track Tape players of the 70s, the two songs were joined into one by way of a guitar solo by the band’s touring guitarist/bassist, Snowy White. This allowed the final song on the album to blend into the first as the tape started from the beginning. This version only appeared on 8-Track Tapes.[/ref], slightly different words, a recapitulation of the original point: it’s good to have someone else to help you avoid the pigs’ shit (and the dogs’ teeth, for that matter). That’s the point of friends in a nutshell right there, isn’t it?

So thanks, Dr. Dave. And Julia, of course. And Dan and Josh and Rick. And Josh S. and Adam and Ximena. And Mitch and Kim and Ed and Tiger and … holy cow! Weird, I’ve always felt like it’s been one buddy, one friend, for me. But when you start to actually name them and count them up, it turns out I’ve been lucky to have more buddies than I can really even comfortably list! Thanks to all of you, named and un-named!! Because of you, I’ve never worried very much about those flying pigs.

Track Listing
“Pigs On The Wing 1”
“Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
“Pigs On The Wing 2”


54th Favorite: Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac


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Rumours. Fleetwood Mac.
1977, Warner Bros. Producer: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut.
Purchased, ??? (Seems like it’s always just been there).

IN A NUTSHELL: One of the most popular and enduring albums in rock music history, I’ve heard it so much that it’s hard to tell if I like it, or if I just find it familiar! But I think it’s because I like it: Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing throughout is what keeps me coming back, along with the terrific vocals from Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The rhythm section is top-notch, too, although the thin, wimpy drum sound is hard to take.
{Portions of this piece were first posted June 6, 2013}

If you saw The Mona Lisa tomorrow, for the first time ever and with no prior knowledge of it, and it was hanging inside the screened-in porch of your uncle’s fishing cabin, between one of those paintings of dogs playing poker and a Bob Ross mountainscape, would you recognize it as a masterpiece?

Okay, in that context maybe you would. But if she wasn’t “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world,” would you look at her and immediately decide, “Oh. My. God. This painting HAS TO BE the most famous painting in the world!”?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts that my mom would make was something called “No Bake Cheesecake,” by Jello. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my mom wasn’t a great baker. She was, and remains, an excellent baker of cookies, cakes and those twin Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies Shoo-Fly Pie and Whoopie Pies.

But she has never been the kind of baker to go much beyond the types of desserts that a mediocre sports announcer might describe as being “in her wheelhouse.” So back in the 70s, to add some variety to our menu of desserts (which also served as our breakfast menu[ref]Which reminds me of the old TV ad for the cereal Cookie Crisp, in which a boy sharing breakfast with a friend in the backyard (?) asks, “Cookies for breakfast?” to which the cartoon cereal spokes-magician Cookie Jarvis replies, “Heavens No!!” – CJ’s admonition confused me because cookies were standard breakfast fare at our house.[/ref]) my mom would “mix things up” by mixing up things like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake.

I loved it. Then again, I loved all of the pre-packaged, imitation foods of the day: Tang, Space Food Sticks, Spaghettios (with Franks!) and perhaps my favorite of all non-desserts: Mug-O-Lunch. I never thought of Jello No-Bake Cheesecake as anything other than simply cheesecake. It was the only cheesecake I knew. The texture of the filling was creamy, a little stiffer than pudding, but not as firm as, say, imitation butter in a tub, and this very sweet, yet slightly tangy mass was plopped and spread into the loving embrace of a margarine/graham cracker crust. “Cheesecake” was officially my favorite dessert.

When I got to college I started dating a woman, M., who, by any standard available, would be described as “out of my league.” In addition to being more popular and more attractive than me, she was also far more worldly and came from a much wealthier family than me. We didn’t have much in common, but somehow we stayed together for about a year and a half. (If pressed, I’d attribute the tenacity of our relationship to mental illness, alcoholism, self-loathing, lack of communication skills, and an appreciation of a well-told joke; each distributed between us in relatively equal, though constantly varying, proportions.)

I went out to dinner with her and her family sometimes, typically near her parents’ home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and often at very nice restaurants. This fact alone attests to the differences between M. and myself, as “going out to dinner” in my family had always meant subs or pizza, McDonald’s or The Red Barn. We just weren’t a family that spent much money going out to restaurants.

At one of my first fancy restaurant dinners with M. and her family I was excited to see “New York Cheesecake” listed on the dessert menu. I loved cheesecake, and even though it seemed pretty pricey[ref]One slice probably cost as much as three of the No-Bake boxes of mix from which I guess I figured it was prepared.[/ref], I knew her family was the type that wouldn’t object to me ordering a slice.

When it arrived, I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I didn’t know what the fuck this tannish-gold, giant wedge of not-quite-set Quikrete was that had been placed in front of my face. But my hosts saw my look of distress, clearly, because someone asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Although I hadn’t been completely domesticated by this time in my life, I did have enough couth to understand I needed to be tactful and polite. Thinking quickly, I remarked “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t had the New York style before.”

I ate the cheesecake and pretended to enjoy the lightly-sweetened density of what I now know to be a well-made, tasty cheesecake, but my mouth yearned for the sugary, creamy pudding of the Jello brand. I told everyone I liked it[ref]One of many of a variety of lies that M. and I shared between us.[/ref] but I vowed to never order New York Cheesecake in a restaurant again. Maybe I was the crazy one, preferring the boxed, No-Bake dessert to what the rest of the world knew to be authentic cheesecake, but that’s the version that was familiar (and delicious!) to me. I knew it, I was comfortable with it and I really liked it[ref]I’m happy to report that I now enjoy many kinds of cheesecakes. And if I were to eat a No-Bake Cheesecake, I believe I would still enjoy it, as well.[/ref]!

Just as with taste in cheesecakes and other delicacies, one’s appreciation for art is subjective. Some people don’t like Jello No-Bake Cheesecake, just as others claim The Mona Lisa isn’t really even all that great in the first place. Taste is subjective, unstable, prone to drifting. Your mood can affect your tastes; your friends can affect your tastes; your station in life can affect your tastes. Is it really surprising, then, to think that simple familiarity could affect your tastes? We’ve probably all had the experience of songs “growing on us” with repeated listenings, and I’m sure we’ve all grown weary of many others[ref]For example, I never have to hear “Hotel California” ever again. Thank you.[/ref].

I thought about the effect of The Mona Lisa hanging inside your uncle’s cabin[ref]Or “The Fishing Cabin Conundrum,” as it will now be known.[/ref] because I’ve been having trouble clarifying my impressions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. Now, I’m sure many of you just cringed at my comparison of a 70s soft-rock album to a work of art by Leonardo DaVinci, but in terms of familiarity, I think the comparison is reasonable. Various websites list Rumours as having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and as of December, 2016, it is the 6th best-selling non-greatest-hits record ever in the US. Ask a few friends to name 5 famous paintings and 5 famous rock records, and I think there’s a good chance The Mona Lisa and Rumours would both make most lists.

As may be the case with seeing The Mona Lisa today, it is hard to appraise Rumours solely on its artistic merits without constantly recognizing “Hey, this is Rumours!” There are so many songs on the album that have been played so frequently throughout the years since its 1977 release that the album has almost become part of the ambient world: the birds chirp, cars drive by, “You Make Loving Fun” plays, someone coughs, the sprinklers turn on …

Try this test: I will name a song and then give you a line and see if you can sing, or hum, at least 75% of the entire song in your head. (Bonus points if one or more of the songs plays in your head the rest of the day!)

“Dreams” – Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
“Don’t Stop” – Don’t stop/Thinkin’ about tomorrow.
“Go Your Own Way” – Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do.
“You Make Loving Fun” – Sweet, wonderful you/ You make me happy with the things you do.
“The Chain” – And if you don’t love me now/ you will never love me again.
“Second Hand News” – Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass/ And let me do my stuff.
“Never Going Back Again” – Been down one time/ Been down two times.
“Gold Dust Woman” – Well did she make you cry/ Make you break down/ And shatter your illusions of love.

These are songs from my entire radio-listening life – some (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Don’t Stop,” “Dreams”) were soft-rock hits from childhood, played on WLBR, AM-1270, in the 70s[ref]Songs such as these are what my sisters and I now refer to as “pool songs,” because when we’d go to the Annville-Cleona Pool each day in the summers, WLBR was blaring from the loudspeakers.[/ref]; some (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News”) were Album-Oriented Rock staples, from my teen and young adult years; still others (“Never Going Back Again,” “Gold Dust Woman”) have been played on Oldies radio (or what is euphemistically now called “Adult Album Alternative” radio) for years. I can’t remember NOT having this album. I think my sister had it in her famous milk-crate of music. In high school I had a cassette tape of it, and soon after I began buying CDs, I bought it on CD. After all this time, I don’t know if it’s Jello No-Bake or bakery-fresh: I’ve heard it too much to tell anymore. It probably should be either higher or lower than #54 – based on whether familiarity has either enhanced or devalued my love of it – so right near the middle of the list is probably perfect placement.

The album begins subtly, with the approaching rumble of acoustic guitar that opens “Second Hand News.”

One of the things I love about this song is that acoustic guitar – particularly the four little chords Lindsey Buckingham plays after the first line of verse, there at 0:08 and again at 0:12. Little guitar things like this are found throughout this album, placed there by the renowned perfectionist Buckingham. He is an underrated guitar player, a name that doesn’t spring to mind among the Jimi Hendrixes, Eric Claptons and Eddie Van Halens of the world, but folks who know realize he’s got the goods[ref]The fact that, like Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, he plays without a pick is pretty cool, too![/ref]. Fleetwood Mac is an excellent vocal group, with three top-notch singers in Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, each of whom is equally comfortable on lead or harmony. On this song, Nicks’s harmony vocals in the chorus (particularly 1:08 – 1:12) really make the song. Buckingham plays a cool, compression-heavy guitar solo that begins about 2:31, but before getting there, as the vocal harmonies and rhythm section are building, several guitar parts ring and sustain in the background. Again, these are the types of little touches on songs on this album that I love. The lyrics are a plea to an ex[ref]I’ll give you one guess who. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the soap-operatic drama within the band …[/ref] to keep certain privileges available to the singer even after the breakup. We’ll hear more about this and other breakups throughout Rumours.

In addition to singing, Buckingham, Nicks and C. McVie also write songs. Each has their own style, and since I started with Buckingham, I’ll stay there for now with another breakup song, “Go Your Own Way.”

This time the song starts with an electric guitar approaching the listener, and a chiming acoustic guitar once again provides subtle support (0:05). This song may be overplayed, and you very well may be tired of it, but let’s take a second to consider the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, a “Fleetwood” and a “Mac,” respectively. This song is really theirs, with McVie’s fun, rolling bass line propelling it, and Fleetwood’s tribal drumming carrying it. I like Fleetwood’s drumming, although I don’t care for the drum sound on this album. It’s thin, as if it shouldn’t be noticed, with a snare that sounds like a kid slapping water in a pool. But the actual drumming is really great. McVie is one of my favorite bass players because his bass lines are generally cool-sounding, but blues-based and in the pocket, with their “coolness” emanating not from virtuoso dexterity, like The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea or Geddy Lee, from Rush, but from their simplicity. There’s nothing special about the bass line behind the “You can go your own way” chorus, and that’s what makes it special! This song is a break-up song, once again about Nicks, and has fantastic electric guitar, with goodies through the entire song (like that ringing feedback at about 0:54) and a terrific solo at the end (2:39).

Do me a favor and go ahead and google ‘fleetwood mac rumours band turmoil‘ and read the 288,000 results – that way I don’t have to cover it all. Basically, long-term couple Nicks and Buckingham, and husband/wife John and Christine McVie were splitting up during the writing and recording of Rumours. This means all of the songs pack a wallop of emotion, as the band members were playing on sometimes venomous songs written about each other. This is like having two couples setting their court-ordered marriage-counseling transcripts to music and handing them around to say, “here, sing this.” AND – having the other band members take the transcripts and complete amazing performances despite the pain and anger and, frankly, awkwardness. Nicks tells her side of the story on the extremely popular “Dreams.”

Nicks truly has one of the all-time great voices in rock. It’s a smoky, husky voice, strong yet delicate, as at about 0:35, where she sings “it’s only right.” The rhythm section again is on display, and a two-note bass line has never sounded better. Fleetwood’s drums are still thin[ref]I’ll stop mentioning that now. But geez.[/ref], but his part is great, particularly the “heartbeat … drives you mad” at 0:52. And as is the custom in a Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham era) song, Buckingham’s guitar is the unsung hero of this piece. True, it’s Nicks’s voice that triumphs on this warning about regret to her ex, with particularly nice overdubbed harmonies against her own lead vocal, but the subtle, eerie guitar sounds that her ex provides really add shape and color to the piece.

Buckingham and Nicks may be thought of as the John and Paul of Fleetwood Mac, but the band’s George wrote most of the hits. I’m referring, of course, to keyboardist Christine McVie who, by my (Wikipedia) count, wrote eight top-20 songs for the band: “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” “Think About Me,” “Hold Me,” “Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” and two from Rumours, including “You Make Loving Fun.”

This song is often thought of as a yacht-rock, mellow, 70s-Love’s-Baby-Soft-Rock, but I’m here to make the case that (as is getting to be a theme here) it’s actually an awesome guitar song. Sure it has that uber-70’s, squawky Hohner Clavinet sound right off the bat, but by 0:12, Buckingham is overlaying super-tasty little guitar figures – the kind of stuff that’s lost when heard on AM waves through a transistor radio, especially when those lush harmonies of the chorus (0:50-0:59) are so very strong. The second verse of the song is a straight-on guitar solo, coming out of a nifty Buckingham noodle at 1:19, and when the chorus returns, he keeps pumping out the sweet riffs, particularly at about 2:40, after the “you, you make loving fun” vocals. The outro of the song begins at 2:50, and of course features more guitar. I also want to point out how much joy I get from the bass note that John McVie hits during “believe,” in the chorus, for example at about 1:54-1:55. I don’t know music theory – is it a 7th? A 9th? A suspended-myxolidian-13th? Who knows, but it sounds really great and makes me smile – and shows the immense professionalism of J. McVie, as he shines on a track on which his wife’s lyrics are a love letter to the man with whom she was having an affair. (Awkward!)

Her other big hit on the album is “Don’t Stop,” which – frankly – I never need to hear again – although it does have some great Buckingham guitar, but then again, what song doesn’t? Well, “Songbird,” for one. This McVie song is a beautiful solo piece for her (with a few touches of acoustic guitar.) I can’t hear it without remembering a friend, a jazz musician and man of immense talent and extremely good looks, who sang this song solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, to his new bride at their wedding. I remember thinking, “Great. He just spoiled weddings for every unmarried couple here: no man will EVER live up to that!”

Although I think of this record as the prototypical 70s rock record, and that was an era of studio excess and hours of recording, there are a few relatively simple songs on the album. For example, Buckingham has (basically) a solo performance piece on the poison-pen kiss-offNever Going Back Again,” which features his lovely fingerpicking guitar style. One of these simple, (relatively) production-light songs is my favorite on the album: the Stevie Nicks-penned “I Don’t Want to Know.”

The Nicks/Buckingham vocals are terrific on this song about all the feelings involved in a breakup, and the sense that all you can do to survive is to remain ignorant[ref]This is the strategy I’ve lived since the Armageddon of election day – I can’t bring myself to hear any so-called news.[/ref]. There’s another cool Buckingham background guitar riff, heard, for example, at 0:29, and J. McVie plays another simple, damn-near-perfect bass line. As diverse as this record is, this is the song that best captures the entirety of Rumours, lyrically, musically, and instrumentally.

But the song that defines the spirit of the album is the only group-penned song on the record, attributed to Buckingham, Fleetwood, McVie, McVie and Nicks, a song that touches on both the discord between the couples and the strength of the quintet, “The Chain.”

It opens with an ominous-sounding bass drum behind a twangy acoustic guitar. Of course, multiple guitars are layered on top as the band harmonizes, and an electric piano enters during the chorus. The first part of the song is angry, accusatory, referring to a partner’s indifference to “The Chain.” This collective pain and anger is the theme of the album, really, but what elevates this song is the second half, beginning about 3:05. John McVie plays another simple line, and Buckingham wails on another highly compressed solo as the band affirms: “The chain will keep us together.” When people speak about the album, they often ask “How could this band go through all that turmoil, and still produce such a great album?” And this song answers the question: The Chain keeping them together is The Music. The first half’s accusatory declaration, “I can still hear you saying that you’d never break the chain,” which implies a sort of dare to the partner (“Oh, what? Now you’re just going to leave the band because of this??”) is answered by the second half response: “The chain will keep us together.” The Music is more important than anything to them, even love, or even a sense of emotional self-preservation. That’s hard to believe for non-artists like you and me, but simply the level of commitment to one’s art that is required for success such as theirs.

Maybe the answer to The Fishing Cabin Conundrum is this: WHO CARES? The Mona Lisa can be good, and so can Jello No-Bake Cheesecake. It doesn’t really matter if I like Rumours because it’s been so ubiquitous in my life, or if it’s because I think the songs are excellent. The fact is, it’s been a part of my life, and I like it. As Stevie Nicks sang, “I don’t want to know the reasons why …”

Track Listing
“Second Hand News”
“Never Going Back Again”
“Don’t Stop”
“Go Your Own Way”
“The Chain”
“You Make Loving Fun”
“I Don’t Want to Know”
“Oh Daddy”
“Gold Dust Woman”


66th Favorite: Aja, by Steely Dan


Aja. Steely Dan.
1977, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Bootlegged from vinyl ca. 1983; bought ca. 1992.

aja album

66 chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: Jazz/Pop/Rock fusion that’s complex and gets more rewarding with each listen. The musicianship on display is outstanding and the songwriting is excellent. The lyrics – obscure and strange, yet somehow meaningful – could occupy a semester’s course in American Lit. But intricate though the songs may be, they always retain a pop appeal.
In retrospect, childhood is very much like blacking out from drinking too much alcohol.passed out Maybe you’re one of those lucky, normally-functioning people with typical psychological issues that, 2 fingerswhile filled with traps and binds that can derail important aspects of your life, have at least never caused you to wake up in the lobby of a strange apartment building in your underwear, with no recollection of how or why you went there, your medulla oblongata – the only portion of the brain with some bit of functionality remaining after half a bottle of Two Fingers tequila and a couple six-packs of beer – having apparently made the executive decision that your beer-soaked pants were more necessary to keep your head off the tiled floor, than to keep your flabby legs and tighty-whitie-clad behind protected from strangers’ view. Perhaps – unlike me – you’ve never had the experience of blacking out from alcohol consumption. Well, reflect on your childhood and you’ll have a decent facsimile.

Surely you’ve experienced someone connected to your past – a parent, a friend, a sibling – santatelling a story from your childhood[ref]The story doesn’t have to be embarrassing, but if it is it really adds to the faux blackout experience.[/ref] that is confirmed by everyone else, but that you have no memory of. “Really? I hid behind the dryer for the entire party? I couldn’t recognize that Santa was Uncle Bob?!” Maybe you’ve seen photographs to prove it really happened, and maybe your brain has made those photos into fake memories, but no matter how you try, you can’t really piece together what you were thinking or why you made those choices. These fully blacked-out memories of childhood are like myths of ancient gods. The best you can do is memorize them and appreciate they were real to certain people in the past, but there’s no point in trying to make them part of your reality.

More troubling, in a certain regard, are the many parts of childhood that you do remember, but which make no sense in retrospect. These memories peanut butterare scenes from the boozy night that your brain captured before its memory-retaining functions began fully aborting – the lip-synching to old Wham! songs to entertain folks you don’t know; the argument with the history major dude over the legitimacy of the Ancient Astronaut Theory; that jar of peanut butter and the very large spoon. These events from a blackout are like those incidents from childhood that you know happened, but that have never made any sense – your uncle coming to stay at your house for a week; your friend’s mom always insisting you leave his house before his dad came home; your parents suddenly dropping you off at their friends’ house to play with that weird girl, and your aunt picking you up after dinner there and telling you mom and dad are busy, so you’re having a sleepover at her house.

willisThese experiences, the ones that don’t make sense, help make adulthood seem very mysterious to a child. Adults do things that don’t make any sense, and when you ask them why, they say “It’s complicated,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” Or if you do badger them enough to get a story, it’s one that doesn’t add up in your 8 year old brain. “Mom had a procedure, and the doctor helped her, and she’s okay now, but she’ll be sad for a while,” said dad. Geez – I don’t know what a procedure is, or why the doctor helped, but if it was just going to make her sad, why did she decide to have it in the first place??

Kids are generally kept in the dark by parents, just one of the many ways griffinadults treat children poorly. But as a parent, and in defense of parents’ actions, I’d like to say that the fact is that children are self-centered, unsophisticated louts who – even if they are capable of understanding some of life’s complexities – will usually be bored by any serious topic as soon as they realize its impact on their own life is merely tangential. I’m not being mean – it’s just the way kids’ brains are built. So as a parent, you try to give kids enough true information that their brains can handle[ref]There are lots of things kids just don’t understand. Irony comes to mind – particularly on great shows like Family Guy, where the distinction between laughing WITH Peter Griffin and laughing AT Peter Griffin is blurred in such a way that is pleasing to adults, but difficult for kids. Of course, you could pause the show every two minutes to explain, but I preferred the “You can’t watch that until you’re older” method. At least for the first kid. All subsequent kids are assumed to be the same age as the oldest, just to make household management simpler.[/ref] while avoiding outright lies that a) mess with their heads; and b) are difficult for you, the liar, to keep straight!

So, between kids’ brains, parents’ information-filtering, and the fact that almost EVERYTHING ELSE IN A KID’S LIFE seems really friggin’ cool to a kid, adulthood is a vast, incomprehensible realm of mysterious responsibilities, strange customs and boring “fun,” and kids’ fleeting experiences there – waiting in line with mom at the bank, going to the auto parts store with dad – are so weird and dull that they’re happy to return to their Matrix of childhood.

When I was a kid, probably up through 7th or 8th grade, I never really cared much about the “adult world.” It was full of stuff that didn’t make sense – like barbershop quartet concerts, scheduling septic tank pumping, and an quartetoft-mentioned-yet-unfulfilled desire to visit the Strasburg Railroad. It was a bizarre world, like Narnia, but with far fewer sword fights, lions and centaurs. But, naturally, as I moved through high school, the world of adults became more interesting while remaining largely indecipherable. Sure, everyday concerns like paying insurance premiums and tidying up after myself now made sense, but other facets I’d never considered – relationships (both romantic and with friends), jobs, the future – made adulthood a puzzle that, no matter how much I resisted or how long I procrastinated, I was going to have to delve into and solve.

Through high school, I felt like I was rushing at an inevitable, boring coyoteadulthood just like Wile E. Coyote toward a phony tunnel painted on the side of a desert plateau. Music was one of the ways I resisted. Albums were a deep pool of teenage rebellion I could submerge within. I liked music that the adults around me hated: Van Halen, U2, Rush and R.E.M. and Yes. Nothing too crazy, I know, but then again, I wasn’t all that rebellious. I FELT rebellious, but I was a good student, never got in trouble, never went to parties, obeyed my parents, went to church … But still, my love of music made me FEEL like I was a rebel, flipping the bird at my parents and adulthood. I’ve written before about my oldest sister’s milk-crate of 70s albums that she left at home when she moved to California. That crate was one source of weapons to arm my (admittedly feeble) internal rebel army, containing 70s Arena Rock Classics from bands like Styx and Kansas and Journey[ref]I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder how different I’d have turned out if that crate instead contained albums by The Ramones and Iggy & The Stooges and The Buzzcocks. Would I be MORE well-adjusted, and so write a crappier blog, or LESS well-adjusted, and so would have already attained my artistic dreams (while admittedly be dead now from a drug overdose)??[/ref]

There was one album that was quite different from the others in that crate. Its songs were definitely rock, definitely of a nature that my brass-band and Bacharach-loving parents wouldn’t have cared for. But while the guitars and drums were intricate and cool, there was a complex, jazzy nature to the music as well, making me feel that I’d better listen a second (and third) time because I likely missed something the first. Also, the singer’s nasally, indifferent voice didn’t sound like the seemingly nut-viced, castrati-esque screechers in the other albums. what doesBut perhaps the biggest difference was the lyrics! No songs encouraging me to keep believin’, or asking “…let’s live together,” or encouraging a wayward son. The lyrics were unusual, bordering on incomprehensible, but they drew me in. They definitely meant something, they weren’t the word-salad efforts I’d heard from bands like Yes and R.E.M. There were clearly characters, obviously actions were taking place, or had taken place, but the stories were obscure. As with the music, the lyrics made me want to listen again. I wanted to know more.

This album, Aja, by Steely Dan, reminded me of adulthood. And while it is true that I was diving into music, in part, to avoid it, this record cast a different light on that supposedly boring road of adulthood that lay ahead, and made me think dan_1that maybe there were aspects of it – bends, rough patches, hidden paths off into the brush – that I hadn’t considered. The music sounded like something whose comprehension required a certain level of maturity, and the lyrics – hinting at bitterness and resignation, yet celebrating friendships and good living – reminded me of those inscrutable explanations from mom and dad; but these stories seemed like they hinted at truths about life. Listening to Aja made me feel like an adult, like I was in on that big mystery that had loomed before me for so long. The other records were an escape from the inevitable: Aja offered a new perspective on it.

dan_2Steely Dan are, effectively, the songwriting team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In the early 70s they had a regular band behind them, but as the years went by they stopped touring to focus on recording, so the duo dropped the band and began making records with session players they’d hire – typically jazz musicians, but always people who could read the music charts they’d write for the songs. They’ve built a dedicated fanbase over the years full of the types of people who maintain online dictionaries of the band’s lyrical references and databases of all kinds of Steely Dan content. Some folks consider Aja the best album they ever made.

Becker and Fagen got me thinking about adulthood right off the bat with the song “Black Cow.”

Now, as someone who grew up in rural PA, you can bet I’d seen my fair share of big black cows,black cow but it made no sense for a band to write a song about one. The song opens with a very stylish bass figure, and starts the album with a subtle, “chill” kind of vibe. It’s got a bit of a dance groove, and jazzy guitar chords from jazz great Larry Carlton accenting each measure. When the vocals begin, those guitar chords turn into background phrases that are reconfigured throughout the entire song – the type of sound that made me want to listen again. It’s a mellow song, the type that non-Dan fans might dismiss as “background music,” but a close listen reveals a lot happening throughout. The backing vocals are very strong, as are Donald Fagan’s lead vocals. I’ve read that he never felt he was a good singer, but I appreciate his laconic style. As the narrator tells his story, it becomes clear that the black cow he’s talking black cow 2about isn’t the type I saw down the road at Showers’ Dairy Farm. He tells a tale of being fed up with the party-girl woman in his life. He’s had enough of her druggy lifestyle (“you were high/it was a cryin’ disgrace”), her lies (“you change your name”), the all-night talks to get her through (“I’m the one/Who must make everything right/Talk it out ’til daylight”) … “Finish your childish drink and leave,” he tells her[ref]I’m not sure if it’s an ice-cream, non-alcoholic Black Cow – owing to her childishness, or the alcoholic Kahlua drink, owing to her party-girlishness, but either one works in the story.[/ref]. Coming from a family with parents who didn’t drink, didn’t argue, didn’t lie, didn’t talk things through all night … well, this was a snapshot of adulthood that I found intriguing. Finally it seemed like some adult was letting me in on the way things really were.

The next song, the title track “Aja,” offered even more grown-up sounds, and lyrics that confused more than they enlightened, but still made me think I was on a path to understanding.

This is a song that – for many Steely Dan fans – is considered The Masterwork: the perfect fusion of rock and pop and jazz[ref]If that description makes you nauseous, you are not alone. Like many artists with albums on my list, Steely Dan is an acquired taste.[/ref]. I’m not going to spend much time breaking down the song, as it’s too complex a song for me to do well, and other writers have done a find job of it already. But it’s 8 minutes of music that, as with the opener, sounds “chill,” but takes a variety of excursions, with excellent solos by guitarist Denny Dias, an original dan_peanutsmember of the band, super-session-drummer Steve Gadd, and jazz titan Wayne Shorter on sax. The complexity of the music has always drawn me in, as have the strange lyrics that, as with most Steely Dan songs, has a narrator who knows exactly what he’s talking about and seems not to care whether you do or not. I, along with many Steely Dan fans, have spent time trying to decipher their meaning. Lines like “double-helix in the sky tonight/throw out the hardware/let’s do it right” are ripe for interpretation. I’ve always imagined it’s a simple story of a man trying to fit in among glamorous, upper class people (“up on the hill/they think I’m okay/or so they say”) but who finds that he always feels better with his girlfriend, Aja (“Aja/when all my dime dancing is through/I run to you”), who is Chinese (“Chinese music always sets me free/angular banjoes sound good to me”). That’s what I think now, but as a teen-ager facing adulthood the possible meanings seemed endless.

Next up in my peek behind the curtain of adulthood is the paean to losers, “Deacon Blue.”

The song opens with some nice chords and Fagen’s nasal voice, “This is the day/Of the expanding man…” The lyrics go on to describe a man imagining his life as a jazz saxophonist, in which he beds many women, steps up to bandstands to take solos, and drinks enough booze to die in a car crash. But it’s a dream he knows he’ll never attain. My own father dan5seemed forever saddened by perceived lost opportunities and dreams unattained, and “Deacon Blues” spoke to me about adulthood at a gut-level, in a way I didn’t understand intellectually[ref]I wasn’t really sure back then whether the guy really was a sax player – and if so, how did he die so often and keep coming back?[/ref]. It made me think there was something sad, yet beautiful, about being a grown-up, that maybe there was more to those people carrying their unattained dreams with them, the “losers of the world,” than I understood. It sort of made them seem like winners just for continuing to carry that baggage. Musically, I love the little guitar licks throughout the piece, again played by Larry Carlton. And, although it sounds like damning with faint praise, I again LOVE the backing vocals. It’s a song to which The Wall Street Journal devoted page space last year, almost 40 years after its release, and probably one of the most unlikely songs to make the U.S. Top Twenty in 1978. I have in my head an idea for a movie script in which a man in his 50s decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. The film ends with him approaching the microphone at his first appearance at an open mike night, and “Deacon Blues” plays over the closing credits. I don’t know anything else about the story, but I know it will be a terrific ending.

Becker and Fagen next do their version of 70s funk in one of their most famous songs, “Peg.”

This is a song that – overplayed though it may be – always puts a smile on my face. It reminds me of being ten or eleven, and listening to songs on AM-1270, WLBR. It’s a “Pool Song,” so designated because it’s the type of song my sisters and I remember being played at the A-C Pool, dan4where we spent many summers in our youth, and where WLBR played over the loudspeakers all day. And although it brings back memories of childhood joys, a close listen of the song reveals it’s as “adult” as all the others. The lyrics, which seem to speak of the narrator’s relationship with a starlet of some sort, are again obscure, and the music is more complex than most of the other disco tracks of 1977. It starts with a cool fanfare[ref]Which sounds horn-like, but I believe is actually Don Grolnick on the Clavinet.[/ref] set over descending electric piano chords, and a sweet bass guitar backing, then the main song is introduced by perhaps my favorite three snare hits in all of pop music (at 0:13). The drums, by session man (of course) Rick Marotta, keep the song bouncing along, and – together with Chuck Rainey’s popping bass – provide a rhythm funky enough to be sampled by everyone from hip-hop artists like De La Soul[ref]My hip-hop knowledge begins in 1989 and ends in 1991. This song still sounds “dope” to me.[/ref], to horrible, videogame-sounding, Norwegian techno doofuses. And of course, only a duo as obedient to their own muse as Steely Dan would interrupt a dance groove with Club Potential by inserting that cool, undanceable intro back into the song (1:26). That break is followed by a phenomenal solo by guitarist Jay Graydon, the 8th or 9th guitarist brought in to try to meet the demands of Becker and Fagen. About the only thing I don’t like about the track is the prominence of full-throated 70s/80s yacht-rock singer Michael McDonald.

It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this album. I really love “Aja” for its drum breaks and style, “Deacon Blues” for the feeling, and “Peg” for the groove. But maybe my favorite of all is the album’s closer, “Josie.”

That guitar opening is so spooky-sounding. I had a friend who used to play those opening chords on his guitar, and they are difficult chords – stretching the hand into stress positions for sure. It’s got a great groove, and again bassist Chuck Rainey shines – throwing in subtle sounds and nice slides. Jim Keltner’s tight drumming carries the song, and Walter Becker himself plays the guitar solos throughout. Lyrically, it’s another song that sure seems to be about something … Sometime in college I read that it was a song about an orgy. If so, dan6it’s certainly the least-sexually-described orgy ever in the history of orgy descriptions. I researched Roman prayer[ref]Wikipedia plus one other website is what I consider “research.”[/ref] (since Josie “prays like a Roman/with her eyes on fire”) and I guess the orgies of Bacchanalia might be what Fagen is referring to. But since wild parties of all types are often referred to as “Bacchanals,” it seems to be stretching things to say the song is “about an orgy.” To me it sounds like everyone is just really excited that Josie is back! I think – as with almost every Steely Dan song – the lyrics are written quite brilliantly in that, as general as they are, they are sung with a purpose so as to seem specific to each listener. In other words, the guy[ref]I’m pretty certain it was a dude who wrote the piece.[/ref] who said the song’s “about an orgy” had an orgy in mind, so that’s what the song became for him.

The songs “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” are in the vein of the others. Both have a groove: “Home At Last” is a slow jam about finding one’s place (and one of the few songs I’ve heard tip a hat to that piney Greek wine, retsina), while “I Got The News” is a bouncy gem with typically coded lyrics that will mean something to you.

Adulthood is weird. Even as an adult it’s weird. It’s like sobriety after years of blackout drinking. You find yourself doing all sorts of things you never thought you’d do, and – even worse – enjoying things you never thought you’d enjoy!! roadrunnerThe mystery continues to unfold throughout your years, and if you thought it would all make sense by the time you were a grown-up, well, you were sorely mistaken. That tunnel painting on the side of the plateau that you’re rushing towards will become an actual tunnel, and you’ll enter it and run through it and never understand how it happened. And when you turn to look back through it you’ll see your teenage self bracing for impact. I don’t understand how I got here on the other side, but I know that music – including Aja – helped ease the way.

Track Listing:
“Black Cow”
“Deacon Blues”
“Home At Last”
“I Got The News”


68th Favorite: The Clash, by The Clash


The Clash. The Clash.
US Version: 1979, Epic. Producer: Mickey Foote.
Purchased ca. 1994.

the clash album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: A record full of energy and fun, even if the lyrics are serious. Strummer/Jones is one of many binary characteristics of the group and their sound, and these create a tension and uniqueness in their sound. It’s a record of quick songs, with different styles, and all of them sound like they could fall apart any second, but it’s hard not to love the chaos.

vyvWithin social groups there are few condemnations as malicious as the epithet “Poser.” Attacks on appearance, style, family members, taste, intelligence … all of these can be mean and hurtful. But the term “poser[ref]Or “Poseur,” for those who prefer a Continental panache to their hurtful terminology.[/ref]” assesses all of these characteristics – a person’s total self-image – and dismisses them entirely in a single word.

It is a word that at once a) observes the distinction between “us” and “them;” b) emphasizes that line of demarcation; and c) unconditionally places the object of the term on the “them” side. But the Poser is not only one of “them,” the Poser is even worse: rosenberg a spy, possibly a double-agent; a non-believer simply playing a role among strict disciples of the faith – whether it be punk rock, skateboarding or football team fandom – who is quietly mocking the devotees by constantly sitting on the edge of the conviction pool even though dressed as if ready to take the plunge. To people who have their entire “self” completely invested in an identity as part of a group, there may be no greater crime.

costumesEven people apart from a group tend to sneer at The Poser. In mainstream, Wonder-bread, American society for the past fifty years, about the only thing worse than being a real hippy or punk rocker or Wiccan has been to be a PRETEND hippy/punk/witch. Google the words ‘why people hate posers‘ and you can read all about their reasons. People don’t appreciate it when they believe someone is trying to be something they are not. To be a poser is to be reviled. But like everyone else, each poser has a unique story, and maybe the poser’s story is useful in understanding any particular Pose.
no posers
When I was twenty-two, I nearly died. Not in some “Oh my gosh, reapermy fly was down for the entire job interview!!” kind of way, but in a “Do we know his next of kin?” kind of way. In a way in which friends are screaming “Holy shit!! OH MY GOD!!! HANG ON, E!! HERE THEY COME!!” while you – shivering and naked in a cold, dark forest campground at midnight, resting your head against the cool metal of the hood of your friend’s light-duty pickup, hear faint, distant sirens. In a way in which, as your friends’ shouts begin to sound muffled and slow, as if they’re shouting under water in a slo-mo replay, and the darkness you see inside your eyelids turns yellow and bright, you start to feel as if you’re weightless and floating and warm and you know that everything is going to be just all right for the rest of …

In a way in which you wake up on a hospital bed shivering so hard that you feel you might rattle off the edge, and you discover the joy of warmed blankets, while your buddies stagger into your emergency room and joke and laugh and say “You really had us worried there, E!” fishingYou were with your friends – five neighborhood buddies who you’ve played pickup sports with since fourth grade – because one of them invited you to go on their annual early Spring weekend fishing trip out to a secluded campground at Raystown Lake. Sure, it’s nearly a three-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, and it’s supposed to be unseasonably chilly, even for the last weekend in March, and you’re not really much of a fisherman[ref]Despite your dad’s best efforts, including days and days of early-morning fishing trips as a child over to Speedwell Forge Lake.[/ref]. But it’s an opportunity to drink beer in the woods and joke around. And besides – you’re a year out of college, supposedly looking for a biology teacher position, but still working at that dumb summer job that’s been extended through winter, and you have no idea of what else you’re going to do, either this weekend or the rest of your life. So you say, “Why not? Let’s fish! What’s the worst that can happen?”

Of course, since you’re going to the woods toinhaler drink beer, and since both the woods and beer have at times given you asthma attacks like the ones you’ve had since you were a kid, you are sure to pack your trusty inhaler. You never had an inhaler as a kid, but when you first got one in college you were AMAZED at how quickly and thoroughly it knocked out any wheeze of any size. It’s often called a “rescue inhaler,” and it’s rescued you many times over the past few years.

You had fun the first night, Friday, even though you drankfishfail a lot more than you probably should have – not uncommon for you. Saturday was too windy to be enjoyable in the boat on the lake, and it seemed to suppress the appetite of the fish, as well, but you and the guys goofed around some more, hiked up a big hill/little mountain, and generally had fun. And as the day wound down, and a new fire was lit, and more beer passed around, you weren’t feeling all that great, so you finished your one measly beer[ref]Which elicited much gentle mocking from the gang.[/ref] and climbed into your sleeping bag fully dressed, inside the old, moldy canvas tent J. brought with him.

Having had asthma since you were a child, you’re very familiar with the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps and diarrhea – a peculiar symptom of your outbreaks ambulancethat your doctor has told you is particular to your body’s response to allergens. But upon returning from the dark campground lavatory, everyone else having gone to their tents, the embers in the fire pit still smoldering, you just know that the puffs you’ve had on your inhaler are not going to stop the tingling wave now rushing up from your diaphragm, you know that this is a different feeling than any you’ve had before, that the electricity running down your arms and legs isn’t a usual asthma symptom. So, hoping the others aren’t passed out from too much booze, you wake them up with squeaky gasps trooperintended to be shouts and let them know they’d better get an ambulance out here to the wilderness pretty damn quick. Emerging groggily from the tents, they’re all a little confused, but when you start disrobing because you’re so fucking hot, and then lean against a truck and defecate because you’ll never make it back to the latrine, well, they start to figure out that it isn’t a prank. And T. – who’s recently graduated from State Trooper school, and so trained in emergencies – takes over the situation and sends D. off to the payphone located way over at the campground’s main building. And you just lean against that cool truck and try to breathe, even though each breath feels like you’re trying to suck a billiard ball through a drinking straw[ref]You also crack a very dark joke or two, which greatly disturbs your buddies. You’ll feel bad for that later, as it was probably weird for them to hear you make jokes about death while you were dying, but you won’t feel sorry: a comic must stay true to his muse.[/ref]. And the next thing you know, you’re shivering in the E.R.

So that’s what I mean when I say I almost died. And before it happened I’d always had vague notions of doing creative things. I’d dreamed of being a stand-up comic, but I also wanted to act in plays and write songs in a band and write stories and … geez, I don’t know, just get out and make stuff and do stuff and say yes to life. questionBut I felt trapped in my little Pennsylvania town, and I had no idea how or where or even if people did these kinds of things that I wanted to do. But lying in intensive care for 3 days gives a person a lot of time to think. I realized that the rest of my days were a gift from my friends, the paramedics, and the ER staff. It was time to take advantage of that gift and look for opportunities to do the things I’d always imagined. My decisions over the past 27 years or so have been greatly influenced by the belief that I’d better say yes today, ’cause I might not have the chance tomorrow. I’ve kept a grainy photo taken the morning I left on that trip as a sort of reminder of my gift.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/fish-truck.jpeg” captiontext=”The author (L) and J. (R) in what was very nearly the last picture ever taken of the author. Photo by author’s mom, through her kitchen window.”]

So several months after the camping trip, when an opportunity to join an established rock band came along, one that kangolwas writing its own songs and playing out regularly, I couldn’t say no. It was the pre-Nirvana era of jangly college rock and trippy guitar pop, and this band, The April Skies, was ambitious and good. I dove in head-first, started wearing clothes like the other guys did, cut my hair in weird ways[ref]In my defense, I was going bald early and knew I didn’t have much time left to experiment with it.[/ref], and began listening to music I’d never listened to before. I discovered The Replacements, The Pixies, and The Stone Roses, and I found I really loved them. I wasn’t doing it to be cool or to be part of a group, I was just enjoying myself. I took a temp job at an aspirin factory so I could take days off when the band played out of town.

That’s where I met R., who, it turned out, despite being a genius-level chemist basically running part of the analytical ramslab at the ripe old age of 23, and despite looking perhaps more like a Romanov than a Ramone, was a soaked-to-the-bone punk rocker. He was intrigued by my band and our music, which I typically described as “pop-punk-alternative” and hearing this he said, “You must be a Clash fan, right?” Now, obviously, I’d heard of The Clash, and I knew such songs as “Rock the Casbah” and “London Calling” and “Train in Vain” (aka “Stand By Your Man”), but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I told him. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t turn away in disgust, he never once uttered the word “poser.” He simply said, “I have to bring you something.”

The next day he brought in the CD box setclash broadway The Clash On Broadway, an extensive compilation that had recently been released. I knew about the superhuman reviews and comments and opinions that had been stated about the band for years. I figured they were probably pretty good. I had no idea they were as amazing as advertised. I took that box set home, and I must have played it 4,000 times if I played it once. I couldn’t believe how fun, tuneful, serious, loud, diverse and incredible the band was. As one did in 1991, I immediately transferred the CDs to cassettes, and I played them relentlessly. The Clash were actually better than advertised. And if R. had simply dismissed me as a “poser,[ref]Which maybe I was, but I think the term “Dilletante” is more apt, although even that makes me sound far less devoted to my artistic pursuits than I’ve been.[/ref]” I may have never found out. I began buying Clash albums, and their self-titled debut[ref]Okay, it was their debut in the U.K., but in the U.S. it wasn’t released until after their SECOND album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, so technically wasn’t their U.S. debut. The U.S. version also has a few different songs and a different running order. The version I bought is the U.S. version. Whew![/ref] was one of the last ones I got.

strumjonesIt’s been observed many times over the years that The Clash’s main songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones followed a blueprint established by The Beatles’ Lennon/McCartney, and it’s a pretty decent analogy. Strummer was Lennon’s rocker with a poet’s soul, and Jones was McCartney’s melodic, musical genius. And The Clash kicks off with a song, “Clash City Rockers,” that immediately establishes the beauty of this configuration.

After a quick run-through of the song’s chords, Strummer starts spitting out lyrics strumjones2in something close to a tune, but with an insistence that implies more concern for lyrical content than melody. Then, at about 28 seconds, Jones brings a (relatively) nicely sung melody to the song, and backing vocals, that keep it from being a simple shout-fest. The lyrics are a type of celebration of the new (in 1977) punk/D.I.Y. culture, and include a couple tweaks of contemporary music like Disco and David Bowie in a parody of a British nursery rhyme. There’s an energy to the entire song, an energy that continues through the album, that makes it feel important and necessary.

Of course, the band became well known for their politically-charged songs, as in the title-says-it-all “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”

What I really love about this song is Mick Jones’s guitar work. Just as he made “Clash City Rockers” more interesting with his vocals, he raises this song with the cool fills and leads he plays throughout. At 15 seconds, he throws in a syncopated riff that plays nicely against the driving rhythm of Strummer’s strumming and becomes a counter-melody for the song. He also again adds harmony vocals that lift the song to something more than angry lyrics and a couple chords. There’s a definite synergy to Strummer and Jones, which to my ears makes the whole greater than its parts. But there are other parts besides Strummer and Jones.

simononBassist Paul Simonon and drummers Tory Crimes[ref]Nee Terry Chimes.[/ref] and Nicky “Topper” Headon were the rhythm section, with Crimes leaving the band after recording The Clash[ref]Although it’s a bit more complicated, as Headon re-recorded some drum parts on the US version. It’s like a friggin’ soap opera.[/ref]. The drumming is great throughout the album, and Simonon’s bass is particularly strong on the reggae and reggae-influenced songs, for example “Police & Thieves.” It was written and originally recorded by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin, and is one of my two co-favorite songs on the record. Simonon plays sloppily but melodically, a style that perfectly suits the band. And the lyrics of this cover, expressing a view held by many people on the fringes of society, fit perfectly for a band like The Clash, as well.

strummer fingerThe left-wing, populist lyrics are a mainstay of The Clash. And as great as they lyrics can be, one of the beauties of the band is that their locution and pronunciation are so poor when singing that even if you’re annoyed by such views, they’re easy to ignore because you can’t understand them most of the time anyway! A song that combines all the characteristics I’ve described is the wonderful “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” my other co-favorite song[ref]Although, there are so many greats here it’s hard to pick one.[/ref]. It has intelligible vocals by Strummer, with lyrics about wealth distribution, racial harmony, and put-downs of a system out to value profits over people, excellent harmonies and cool guitar fills by Jones, a strong, reggae bass line and terrific drumming.

All of these songs, the entire album, have a nearly-off-the-railsclash concert feeling that gives them an immediacy, like hearing your favorite band live playing a song they just wrote. But the production and arrangements make the songs sound complete and finished. It’s one of many dichotomies within The Clash[ref]Poet Strummer/Musician Jones; Great Lyrics/Unheard Lyrics; Punk Rock/Good Production; etc, etc.[/ref], and they create a great tension that elevates the band. Take for example “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song about drug laws and prison. It’s got a raucous fury to it, but it starts with a drum beat that almost sounds like a drum machine. It’s controlled chaos.

Similarly, “Hate & War” is a pop song with a slight disco feel, but it’s thoroughly 70s punk rock as well.

And speaking of punk rock, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention clashthe straight-ahead, safety pin through the lip, 11-inch mohawk songs that also reside on The Clash. They sound powerful and angry, especially when placed alongside the more melodic efforts. I’m talking about songs like “White Riot,” and “London’s Burning,” and “Career Opportunities“. It’s an album chock full of great songs. Complete Control and Janie Jones are two others that stand out, along with a cover of the great 60s gem by The Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law.” And “Garageland” has one of the great opening lines in rock n roll.

The Clash is a record for everyone. Fun songs, great energy, thoughtful lyrics, diverse sounds and styles … It’s a record that gives the appearance of being a punk rocker, but there is so much more to it – which is an excellent lesson. Many things in life are more than what they appear to be. That mild-mannered chemist might be a punk rocker. Your goofy friends might be heroes. And there might even be more to that “Poser” than his outward appearance suggests!

Track Listing
“Clash City Rockers”
“I’m So Bored With the USA”
“Remote Control”
“Complete Control”
“White Riot”
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
“London’s Burning”
“I Fought the Law”
“Janie Jones”
“Career Opportunities”
“What’s My Name”
“Hate & War”
“Police & Thieves”
“Jail Guitar Doors”


83rd Favorite: News of the World, by Queen


News of the World. Queen.
1977 Elektra. Producer: Queen
Purchased ca. 1997


mouseIN A NUTSHELL – A 70s Rock record with much more on display than “70s Rock.” The band shares songwriting and musical duties, taking on a number of musical styles, and it tackles them all while displaying the characteristic “Queen Sound.” WOULD BE HIGHER IF – “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” weren’t on the album.

I’ve been a sports fan since I was a little kid. My dad was somewhat of a high school sports star in the late 50s, excelling in both football and baseball for the Lebanon High Cedars. newspaper This was an era when local newspapers abounded, and since the digital age was a few decades away, you had to see the stories in print or miss them forever.[ref]Of course, you could always go the library to look at Microfiche, but boy that was time-consuming.[/ref] So, my mom kept a shoebox of newspaper clippings of my dad’s athletic feats, chronicled in the Lebanon Daily News, and my sisters and I loved looking through that box to read all about a guy who seemed much cooler and more confident than the guy who lived with us. The clippings helped inspire me to play sports, as did my dad’s continued role in the community as a Teener Baseball coach, which also provided me the opportunity to be a batboy surrounded by men of 13, 14 and 15 years old.

batboy 1

My family was a family of sports fans.[ref]For the most part, anyway. There was a definite scale of rabidity among us.[/ref] We loved the Philadelphia Phillies, a passion that originated with my mom’s mom, Gram Bender, who watched and listened to games religiously until her death in 1991. We were huge Penn State Football fans, as well, watching the games on TV on autumn Saturdays, and reliving them again on The Penn julieState Football Highlight Show, with Ray Scott and George Paterno, the next morning before church. And while my sisters weren’t encouraged to play sports (after all, this was real-life 70s in rural PA – not an American Girl story set in 70s San Francisco) it was expected that I would play.

So I played football, basketball and baseball, and enjoyed (nearly) every second of it. [ref]I didn’t, however, like that – since I was “big for a nine year old” – I had to practice against the scary 12 year old football players. When I told my dad I was going to quit over it, he quickly told the coaches to put me back with the 9 year olds, so I didn’t quit. I don’t remember seeing the look of terror in my dad’s face when I said I wanted to quit football until it reappeared 8 years later when I told him I wanted to be a stand up comic.[/ref]

Here’s a picture of me in my Ebenezer Midget Football practice uniform, ca. 1976. Note that the uniform appears to have originally been bought by the organization ca. 1956, at the Dawn of the Facemask. [captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img031-297×300.jpg” captiontext=”The fabric of these pants was likely carcinogenic. Luckily I only wore them for one season, after which the team bought new ones.”]

Here I am after I made the Ebenezer Midget Baseball team, also in 1976.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img030-287×300.jpg” captiontext=”Believe it or not, this is how infielders were instructed to field grounders in 1976. I guess that Disco Dancing style affected everything.”]

Here’s a shot my mom took to “show off my number,” but which I’ve always thought of as the “pee on the tree” shot.
But I hear you, dear reader. “So yeah, yeah. You liked sports, big deal. What’s the point? And will you ever write about the album?”

The point is, as deeply as I loved sports, I had several other interests as well. (And yes, this will tie into the album. I swear.) School, TV, making model cars, comedians … I also liked music – both listening to it and making it. My sisters and I were encouraged to play instruments, trombonesand we all took piano lessons and at least a little bit of a second instrument. I myself played the trombone from fourth through twelfth grade – played the concerts, marched in the parades, and performed at the football halftimes and the marching band competitions.

I had lots of interests, and it never occurred to me that some people would believe that certain interests were incompatible with others.

For example, music and sports.

Where I grew up – and there’s really no other way to say it – playing an instrument was thought of as “gay” for a boy, and being an athlete was thought of as “not gay.” gay band And while I think the term “gay” in this case meant simply “effeminate” or “weak,” and didn’t imply discernable sexual activities or appetites, I also believe that many struggling, closeted, self-loathing (and married) gay men in positions of authority existed (and probably still do) who looked to stamp out any perceived evidence of residual homosexuality in others in a pathetic attempt to crush some recurring seedlings of humanity within themselves, a humanity they couldn’t bear to allow to sprout, let alone flourish and thrive. In other words, lots of male coaches who should’ve just gone and blown some dude [ref]Lovingly and happily, I mean, with self-permission granted – not just with random truckers at I-78 truck stops – which I’ll bet was happening – thus exacerbating his inner strife[/ref] instead of inflicting their internal dramas on kids who just wanted to both play music and play sports.

coach spikeOne such example may have been my freshman high school basketball coach, Coach Spike, a wee little man who – like many men in the early 1980s – attempted to pull off that Patented John Oates Look. As with many tiny men, he deflected attention from his small stature by trying to look and act both cool and tough. A youthful history teacher in his late 20s, he relished the fact that several people had at times mistaken him for a student at the school – mustache notwithstanding – but connected these misapprehensions only to his arch coolness, not to his schoolboy height.

As a fourteen year old freshman, I myself hadn’t played a lot of organized basketball. Back then, there weren’t today’s numbers of attempts by parents to amplify a child’s limited evidence of intrinsic athleticism into a modest leg-up on the competition for future University admissions by spending thousands of dollars to form “travel” youth sports leagues. I just played in the driveway with neighborhood friends, and a little bit at the YMCA. In both cases the fact that I was a bit taller than most of the other kids seemed to obviate any need for actual coaching.screech hoops[ref]Although I’d like to take a moment to mention Delmar Cook, my YMCA coach in 6th and 7th grade, a hunchbacked, crew-cut man in his 60s whose only coaching in basketball shooting technique was to shout, “Bing-Bing! Just get that feeling! Bing-Bing!” as he sank repeated left-handed set shots from twenty-five feet away with the consistency of a windshield wiper.[/ref]

So at basketball tryouts my freshman year, I lacked a lot of the polish of some of my teammates. However, I was rather tall, pretty athletic, and displayed a nerd’s gift for dutifully following instruction, so it wasn’t a surprise that I made the team. (My disdain for Coach Spike aside, he did know his sports and he was adept at coaching technique and skills.)

I didn’t play a whole lot in games, which was okay with me. I knew that others on the team were much better than me, and it was actually a relief to not have many opportunities to make a fool of myself during games. But I loved practices, and being part of a team, and I could tell that I was improving. Feeling pretty proud of my progress, I looked forward to being a part of next season’s JV team. After the last game of the season, the last of several blowout losses, a long-faced Coach Spike – weary from the losses and clearly not comprehending how his brilliant coaching could have been so mishandled by us sorry bunch of 14 year olds – gave a rambling speech about us boys as a team and as individuals, and what to expect in the years ahead.

I doubt if anyone else on the team remembers much of the speech, but I still remember one particular line. “Some of you guys really have a lot of high school basketball ahead of you. And some of you guys … well, you should just stick to the band …”

spongebob band

Let me state clearly here that out of 14 boys on the team, there was precisely ONE of us who was also in the band. I understood. He clearly meant to single me out to the team as both a) a lousy basketball player and b) a sissy musician probably lacking What It Takes to ever succeed. [ref]Wee Little Spike apparently forgot his early assessment of my game, as several years later we played together in a pickup game, and some guy mentioned that I was a good player, to which Spikelet replied, “Oh yeah, I know he’s good. I coached him.” What a dick.[/ref]

This theme of sports and music as incompatible was repeated the following basketball beefseason when, as a sophomore on the JV team (having ignored Spike’s directive) I was told by my coach that the varsity football coach, a doofus called “Beef,” had asked him about me and my interest in playing football. I found this extremely exciting, being scouted for my athletic ability! Beef was also a (universally recognized awful excuse for a) Guidance Counselor at the school, and sure enough I was soon called to his office to “discuss my academic plans for eleventh grade.” {cough cough} We discussed no such topic. He immediately began quizzing me about my experience playing football. I don’t think I mentioned my carcinogenic pants, but I told him I’d played before. Beef also mentioned my JV coach’s strong assessment of my attitude and effort. “We’d love to have you play next season,” he said with a beefy smile.

“I’d like to,” I said. “Would I be able to also stay in the band?” I asked.

Beef immediately frowned, as if he’d just bitten into mealy apple. “Maybe for one year,” he said. “Maybe.” Then he chuckled, trying to invite me into a little joke of his. “I mean, you’d have you choose between band and football, though, right? Right?” I knew my parents really wanted me to stay in the band, and more than this I realized Beef was a jerk – a grown up version of all the teen-age jerks I knew. I decided to stick with the band.

trombone eric

So why bring this up in the context of Queen?

queen band 1

Well, it confuses me that so many people would find incompatibilities where they clearly do not exist. Musician and athlete are clearly compatible skills, as evidenced by NBA Champion/Tuba player Malik Rose; deceased NBA Forward/jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale; Guided by Voices genius/high school athletic hall of fame member Robert Pollard; or MLB Center Fielder/jazz guitarist Bernie Williams. Heck, Super Bowl kicker Steven Hauschka and former NCAA basketball hero (and Celtics bust) Pervis Ellison even played the trombone, just like yours truly did!!

But my frustration isn’t really with the single example of music and sports. It’s with people limiting themselves or (worse yet) others based on ideas not founded in reality. It’s with people carrying preconceived notions around with them and using them to randomly set boundaries. It’s with people choosing to never allow possibilities, to never say “Let’s see what happens,” or “Let’s give it a try” because they are halted by their own limited attitudes. brainI think people should widen their experiences and interests as much as possible. You’re a human being, with a brain with more computing power than it can ever use, that can comprehend and appreciate limitless sensory inputs. Why not push those limits and see what happens?

On the album News of the World, Queen explores their limits and succeeds in producing a record full of different song styles, with members taking on tasks outside the norm, allowing themselves to see what happens when, say, the drummer plays all the instruments and sings, or the lead singer sits out a song, or this Arena Rock Behemoth of a band takes on the blues or jazz or lite rock. And it works. Nobody said, “But you’re Queen. You can’t do that!” Or if they did, they were ignored. And that’s what I love about this album.

In the late nineties, I began to consider my CD collection, and I started to grow concerned that I had no albums from many Classic Rock acts I’d loved from radio play. Acts like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Queen. So I went on a little purchasing spree of AOR staple acts. I had read an interview with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash in which he expressed his appreciation of News of the World. So, seeing a copy at my favorite local record store, I decided this would be the place for me to start on my Queen shopping list.

queen 75Queen is one of the few acts in rock and roll, the few artists in any medium, probably, for whom the descriptor “bombastic” seems to be an understatement, yet who are brilliant precisely because of this grandiosity. It is a difficult perch on which to balance, and songs like the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the artsy, studio enhanced romp “Bicycle Race” likely cause some listeners to lose interest quickly. But News of the World demonstrates that there was a lot more to this band than over-the-top arena rock. Many think of the band as pretentious, over-produced 70s dinosaur rock.

To those people, I offer this selection from News of the World: “Sleeping on the Sidewalk.”

I’ve enjoyed playing the “Name the Artist” game on this one with friends over the years, and none have yet guessed correctly. While one-of-a-kind superstar Freddie Mercury doesn’t appear on the song at all, making it hard to guess the group, the piece does offer lots of what I really love about this record: the sound! I’m not an expert in sound engineering by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something about the way this record was recorded that seems to make each instrument ring out clearly, hyper-distinguishable.

Guitarist Brian May (who sings the song, brian mayabout the trials and tribulations of a professional musician, in an unruffled, blasé style) plays very crisply, even in this bluesy, raw recording, and his guitar has that crunchy hint of distortion that is easily identifiable. This guitar sound is heard throughout the record, and always draws me in. Another key aspect heard here, and throughout the album, is John Deacon’s bass. He has a very clear, neat sound that I can instantly recognize as the “John Deacon sound.” It’s not just the tone of the bass, but it’s also his style of throwing in extra notes and the percussive sounds of his fingers on the strings. For a song that doesn’t really sound like Queen, it sure sounds like Queen!

But maybe the bluesy stuff isn’t drawing you in, maybe you’re more of a punk rocker. You might enjoy this track, penned by drummer Roger Taylor (who also played rhythm guitar and bass on the song): “Sheer Heart Attack.”

It’s a punk-styled song, but the sound is certainly less raw than the contemporaneous punk music in 1977. The lyrics seem like they’re actually making fun of punk rockers. roger taylorAnd the flanged drum fill at 2:55 is nothing you’d ever hear on a Sex Pistols song. So it’s not really punk. But as an aggressive, driving rave-up, I think the song works. And it’s different from anything you might expect to hear on a Queen record.[ref]Curiously, Queen has an album titled Sheer Heart Attack, but this song isn’t on it.[/ref]

“But no,” you might say, “blues and punk doesn’t do it for me right now. I’m in more of a mellow, 70s light-rock mood, but with a Latin feel. I doubt there’s anything like that on the record.” And you would be wrong. How about “Who Needs You.”

This mellow song, written by bassist John Deacon, has great vocals from Mercury –freddie using his “indoor voice” this time, not the operatic flash typical of many familiar Queen songs. He sounds just the right level of hurt for Deacon’s “I Will Survive“-esque lyrics. Both Deaconjohn deacon and May play Spanish guitar on the song, throwing nice Latin runs into the background. May’s electric guitar, again featuring the distinctive “May sound,” adds wonderful color to the bridge, behind Mercury’s vocals. And his nylon-string acoustic solo is beautiful. Of course, the backing harmonies are tight and choir-like – a hallmark of the “Queen Sound” throughout their career.

But maybe 70s soft rock is still too modern-sounding for you. Maybe you prefer pop standards from the mid-twentieth century, crooned with a simple piano and bass arrangement. For you the band offers “My Melancholy Blues,” a Freddie Mercury solo number about, well, The Blues.

queen band 2

I don’t know a great detail about the inner workings of Queen, how the members got along, or how they created their songs. But the fact that the members switched instruments and shared roles says to me that they were a band who – at least for this one album – put their egos aside and let the music guide them. Many bands I admire had this same flexibility, with members switching roles easily: The Beatles, R.E.M. It demonstrates an openness, a lack of false boundaries.

football trumpetThey seem like people who wouldn’t have a problem with a trombone player being on the football or basketball team.

Queen sure didn’t have a problem with members’ multiple roles. Check out the song “Fight From the Inside,” written and performed entirely by drummer Taylor (with some lead guitar work by May, and backing vocals from May and Mercury.)

Taylor’s lyrics are, I think, meant to sort of inspire young people to stick up for themselves. It’s a straight ahead rocker, and demonstrates there’s a lot more to Taylor than simply drums and a pretty face.

As much as Queen is most identified with Freddie Mercury, and perhaps Brian May, may mercuryall members shared quite equally on the songwriting duties on News of the World. Bassist Deacon contributed one of my favorite tracks – a song about sticking up for yourself and chasing your dreams – “Spread Your Wings.”

It features everything I love about the Queen sound. Deacon’s bass, May’s guitar, Taylor’s cool drum fills, Mercury’s belting. May’s guitar solo in the final minute is subdued yet powerful. And by the way – how cool is it that Deacon wore a Chicago Blackhawks jacket for the video?[ref]Not that I’m a fan of the team, but still …[/ref]

queen leap

Guitarist Brian May wrote my two favorite songs on the album. The first is another rocker whose lyrics compress the ups and downs of romance into two verses, “It’s Late.”

Queen’s sonic bombast is on display here – Freddie’s flash, the multi-layered backing vocals, crushing drums, howling guitar – but it seems a bit muted somehow, reigned in, making the song seem more powerful to me. Deacon’s bass work is up and down the fret, but never ostentatious. May’s sound is May’s sound, and he plays a variety of solos throughout. The buildup to, and execution of, the “It’s late, it’s late, it’s late” chorus (for example, just around 2:55) can give me chills. And I love the middle jamming section from about 3:20 to 4:30. The song teeters on that sonic rock edge between Big and Too Big, and for me it leans the right way.

freddie deadMy co-favorite song is “All Dead, All Dead,” a sad song sung by May, and all the more touching given Mercury’s early death in 1991, at age 45.

(The fact that its lyrics are actually about Brian May’s boyhood cat doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the song.)

May’s vocals are heartfelt, and his guitar work is subtle and interesting. As usual, Deacon’s bass support offers more than simply support, but features prominently in the composition.

News of the World – it must be said – features the smash hits “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” two of May and Mercury’s most famous songs, both of which certainly make the Jock Rock Hall Of Fame. I’ve heard these songs so much in my life that I’m now done with them. But they’re there if you’re interested!

queen last

This record makes me happy. It makes me happy to know that no “Coach Spike” ever told drummer Roger Taylor, “maybe you should stick to drums;” or told bassist John Deacon, “maybe you should stick to writing rock songs.” There was no “Beef” to tell Freddie Mercury and Brian May they’d have to make a choice between rock or jazz and blues. And the band rewarded all of us with songs for everyone – even songs that meathead coaches like Spike and Beef can forever appreciate.

We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Sheer Heart Attack
All Dead, All Dead
Spread Your Wings
Fight From the Inside
Get Down, Make Love
Sleeping on the Sidewalk
Who Needs You
It’s Late
My Melancholy Blues