Tag Archives: 1979

8th Favorite Album: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse

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Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
1979, Reprise. Producer: Neil Young, David Briggs, Tim Mulligan.
Gift, 1993.

IN A NUTSHELL: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is a brilliantly bi-polar record. A collection of intense, lovely, solo acoustic songs coupled with some raucous, electric barn-burners played by a band nearly out of control. As usual for me, this record is all about the guitar, Neil’s spiky, clashing, dirty squawk. But the acoustic numbers also strike a nerve, as Neil’s distinctive voice delivers the emotion in his imagery and stories.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Part Two.

(Sort of. I mean, I didn’t intend for this to be a continuation, but it’s a very similar theme from the last post, so let’s just call it Part Two.)

When we last left our intrepid hero, he was leaving his big-city college for the more familiar environs of a university set in the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky. He’s 20, still does not know what the word “intrepid” means, and he won’t know for another 31 years, when he looks up the definition for a little-read blog that he writes and realizes it does not describe him at all, yet likes how it sounds so he doesn’t change it.

We don’t pick up the story immediately, but we move ahead a few years, when his band has broken up and he is working long hours as a chemist in an aspirin factory. In a mere 30 years he’ll be sitting in his New England home, writing a little-read blog about himself and his taste in music and how the two relate. Back then there is no way to know this. At that point, he just realizes two things: 1) he doesn’t know what the word “intrepid” means; and 2) he has to get the fuck out of the bucolic farmlands of Pennsyltucky.

Our hero has many interests and wishes to have opportunities to pursue these interests. Acting, stand-up comedy, writing … these are activities that lend themselves to being part of larger communities of people with similar interests. If he’d wanted to pursue opportunities in growing corn and raising dairy cattle, the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania’s farmland would have been the perfect place to meet other farmers and find a great opportunity for a career. However, those hills generated a relative lack of performance-oriented folk. And neither dairy cattle nor their farmers are generally known to be particularly excellent audiences for comedy, so our hero needed a new place to live.

Luckily for our hero, among the gang of fun chemists (and dull chemists) working in the aspirin factory was a guy named Weenie. He was actually named Bill, but they called each other Weenie, and along with two other goofy chemists, Rod and Wayne, who were also called Weenie, they did such things as invent the Weenie Of The Week Award, celebrating the most humiliating laboratory error of the week, and which included its own statuette, which looked like a dick. Weenie Bill was still a partial owner of a home in San Rafael, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and as it happened, he needed a tenant for the summer of 1993.

While not in the thick of city-dwelling performer types, San Rafael was close enough to San Francisco and its varied assortment of creative artists and flat-out weirdoes that a decent start could be made on a career in humor and performance. It was a nice home, with housemates vouched-for by Weenie Bill, and although it was 3-frickin’-thousand miles away, it was much warmer than Chicago, which was another potential choice. (Of course, Chicago was home to the Second City improv conglomerate, and the decision to reject that city may have left lingering regrets in our hero as to whether he, had different choices been made, could have become, on the one hand, a huge TV and movie comedy star, or, on the other hand, dead of an OD at 32.)

As our hero prepares for his 3,059 mile drive (Southern US route) to California, his Weenie buddies, who by this point think of his pending journey as evidence of his intrepid nature, even if he himself still doesn’t really know the word’s meaning, throw him a going-away party. At the party he’s given many cool items, including a pair of Chuck Taylors, his footwear of choice back then, a great book called Connections, by James Burke, and a CD: Rust Never Sleeps, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been a Neil Young fan for a long time, and I’ve always admired his changing styles and approach to music. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work with his long-time garage band, Crazy Horse, featuring drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. While Neil Young solo can be folky, or country, or retro, or electronic, or 70s rocking, or 80s rocking, or 90s rocking, or 00s rocking, or big band (!), Neil Young with Crazy Horse is almost always loud and rocking and full of Young’s signature squawky-raunchy, electric guitar. I knew some of the songs on Rust Never Sleeps, but not all of them, and Weenie Wayne assured me that even though it wasn’t the typical 7-minute-guitar-solo-filled Crazy Horse record, that it would work its way inside me.

This is not the actual car I drove across the US. But it looked a lot like this one.

I brought a CD player along to accompany me and my 1985 VW Jetta on that drive across the US, and I first gave Rust Never Sleeps a listen on the first morning of my trip. Then I listened again. Then every morning, five or six days from Lebanon County, PA, to Marin County, CA, (I don’t really remember exactly) it became the first CD I’d select every day, part of my routine. I’d get up, get on the highway, and Rust Never Sleeps would put me further ahead of my old life.

So if you know the album, you’ll understand that the song that spoke to me most deeply on that journey into the new is the Crazy Horse-less acoustic number “Thrasher.”

It opens with a brief harmonica arpeggiated chord, then Young’s fabulous 12-string guitar begins strumming. I’ve read that Neil added overdubs to the songs on this album after recording, and I sometimes wonder if a second guitar was dubbed in on “Thrasher.” I’ve watched many videos of Neil performing the song, some from 40 years ago and some from more recently, and he never seems to play it live with the same flourishes and runs that are evident on the album. But be that as it may, the guitar is excellent – ringing and lovely. But it’s the song’s lyrics that make it a favorite for me. I’d love to do a line-by-line breakdown of the song, as others have, but that could be boring and pretentious and self-indulgent. But then again, this entire blog is likely all three of those things, so it could fit right in.

Instead, I’ll just point out that the song is about leaving behind the fearful, stuck-in-the-past folks (“they were hiding behind hay bales”) and striking out on your own (“hit the road before it’s light”) to experience the unknown that lies ahead. While some folks may hide from the new (i.e. the thrashers), it can inspire others (“when I saw those thrashers rolling by … I was feeling like my day had just begun.”) Those left behind may be too worried (“poisoned by protection,”) or too comfortable (“park bench mutations”) to act, but you just have to move on (“they’re just dead weight to me, better down the road without that load.”) It may be tempting to live in the past (“the motel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar,”) but only by pursuing your dreams will you live a life fulfilled (“When the thrasher comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun, Like the dinosaurs in shrines, But I’ll know the time has come To give what’s mine.”)

With each morning that I hopped into the Jetta, I was increasingly sure that my move was the right thing to do. Rust Never Sleeps pointed the way. The first half of the album is acoustic, just Neil, his guitar and his harmonica, and the songs are brilliant. I’m usually more of a music-guy than a lyrics-guy, but the stories and words on Side 1 are some of my favorite, right from the opening classic, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”

It opens with the unforgettable riff, and claims that rock and roll will never die (as I’ve written before, immortality has been Rock and Roll’s obsession since the beginning). The minor key, and Young’s plaintive voice, make the song’s lyrics sound uncertain, like a warning, like this indestructible rock and roll could crumble if it’s not allowed to change and make room for the Johnny Rottens of the world. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he sings, a controversial sentiment. John Lennon hated the lyrics. Kurt Cobain eventually included the words in his suicide note, which freaked out Neil. But the idea that rust never sleeps (“it’s better to burn out/than it is to rust”), so you’ve got to stay active and curious to avoid it, is an idea I can get behind. This is one of the few songs on this live album in which you can clearly hear the audience.

Another great acoustic song I love on Side One is the lament/fantasy “Pocahontas.”

Young’s chopping acoustic guitar starts off, and Young carries the tune in his own warbly style. The song comments on the horrors of the American genocide of Native Americans, and wishes for an opportunity to speak with Pocahontas, and Marlon Brando, who famously refused his 1973 Best Actor Oscar® over the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. As the song builds, harmony vocals are added, along with some squawks and squeaks. It’s a lovely song.

The acoustic side is rounded out with “Ride My Llama,” a strange ode to Martians, weed and, well, riding a llama. It’s a cool, simple song that is fun to belt along to. The sweet, traveling love songSail Away” features Nicolette Larson on backing vocals, who had a 1979 hit with her yacht-rock version of Young’s “Lotta Love.” “Sail Away” is a song that would have fit perfectly on Young’s smash 1992 acoustic album Harvest Moon.

Neil stomps on the distortion pedal, to the delight of (l-r) Talbot, Sampedro and Molina.

Side Two of Rust Never Sleeps is all Crazy Horse. Thick, crunching guitars, long solos, desperate harmonies, sloppy-great drumming. It’s four guys having fun, like teens in their first garage band, working up a sweat and playing their hearts out.

The first song on Side Two is one of Young’s all-time classics, a song he originally wrote for Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Despite calling Neil out by name in “Sweet Home Alabama,” the two acts were very friendly with one another.) It’s the story of a young man left alone to defend his home from invaders, “Powderfinger.”

This is a song that begs to be played LOUDLY. Neil opens it with his voice, but the simple, two-guitar riff, first heard at 0:43, is what hooks the listener and always pulls the raucous Crazy Horse together before each verse. Young and Sampedro play beautifully sloppy guitar lines behind the verses, then Neil solos at 1:48, a signature, meandering affair. At 3:34, after the tragic end to the story, Young plays another searing solo, then the band, which provides background “oohs” throughout, harmonizes on the last verse. It’s a great song, and it’s fun to play as a band, as my buddies and I in Tequila Mockingbird recognize.

Welfare Mothers” is a noisy, riff-based stomp. He asks for us to “pick up on what he’s putting down,” and it seems like he’s putting down the 70s free-love ideas, or perhaps a social system that doesn’t take care of its vulnerable citizens, or the high price of laundromats. Whatever the case, it’s a fun romp with cool drums from Ralph Molina, and more crunchy solos, particularly the one beginning at 2:46 until the end. I could listen to Crazy Horse play all day.

Neil backs up Devo and the band’s crib-bound character, Booji Boy.

In the late 70s, Young became fascinated with the punk movement, and even more so with the punk-adjacent techno music of bands like Kraftwerk and Devo. (He directed and starred in a movie with Devo, 1982’s Human Highway.) There’s a punk energy in the unmelodic verses and changing tempos of “Sedan Delivery,” a slam-dance of a song about – well, I’m not really sure, but maybe drugs and the associated culture? The band is having a blast playing and singing, and the guitar does not disappoint.

The first side of the album seems important and serious, and the raucous second side gets away from this spirit a bit. However, Neil brilliantly brings the two sides together by finishing the album with a soaring, electric version of the album’s opener, this time titled “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”

It’s a great move. The introductory guitar sounds like a malfunctioning industrial machine, and the three notes punctuating it are distorted to an unrecognizable chord. Molina’s drums are pile drivers. Each verse is answered with a ferocious, wicked, metallic solo. The solo at 3:12 is particularly – unusual and excellent. The lyrics are nearly the same as “My My, Hey Hey,” with a change or two thrown in – – for example the album name, “Rust Never Sleeps” added, and Johnny Rotten’s name emphasized. It ends with the crowd noise that had been mostly removed in the rest of the record.

If there’s one thing I know about the word “intrepid,” it’s that it describes Neil Young’s artistic efforts. “Characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance.” I’d say that’s as good a description of Neil’s output as any. He’s been making his own music his own way for more than 50 years. It’s connected with millions of people over the years. Rust Never Sleeps was the soundtrack to one of the biggest events of my life. It inspired me to forge ahead. It still sounds great and important, and it continues to make me feel a little – (dare I say?) – intrepid myself.

TRACK LISTING:
“My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)”
“Thrasher”
“Ride My Llama”
“Pocahontas”
“Sail Away”
“Powderfinger”
“Welfare Mothers”
“Sedan Delivery”
“Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)”

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11th Favorite Album: Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

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Damn the Torpedoes. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
1979, MCA. Producer: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
Purchased, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, is a collection of just 9 songs, but for Tom and the band that’s plenty to demonstrate their expertise. Petty writes simple songs that seem like they’ve always been in the air, and guitarist Mike Campbell adds exactly what’s needed. The Heartbreakers give each song the right spirit and feel, whether it’s a rockin’ ride or a subtle swing. And the record is only one of many excellent TP&HB albums.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.

But looking back over the first 89 albums, I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve only questioned the placement of one record. True, I realized mid-way that I’d probably missed a few of my favorites, and so I dealt with the issue of a static list in a dynamic world. But all-in-all, I’ve felt like I’ve done a reasonable job of listing those albums I love, and why. Number 11, however, marks my first egregious mistake.

I’ll divulge now for the sake of this album write-up: Damn the Torpedoes is the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on my Top 100. I really don’t understand how that happened. He’s got so many records that I love, that I’ve listened to so much, it just seems like there must be more than one Petty album on the list, right? So for album #11 I’m going to discuss several of his songs and albums, because there’s no way only one of his albums should be on my list.

First let me say that you should all go watch the 4 hour documentary by Peter Bogdonovich about Tom and his band, titled Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s excellent. It tells the story of Tom, a young Byrds and Beatles fan in the 60s, forming a hard-working, popular local Gainesville, FL, band, Mudcrutch, in the 70s, to World Domination as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Throughout it all, Petty just seems like a decent guy who likes to write and play songs. Who, in fact, doesn’t just like to write songs but admits that he’s never had writer’s block or any trouble at all writing songs. They just sort of come out of him.

And the amount of good stuff that comes out of him is rather astounding. Also rather astounding is the fact that he ended up in the same town, at the same time, as Mike Campbell, The Heartbreakers’ guitarist. Campbell has a sound that is unmistakable, the “Tom Petty sound,” playing leads and riffs that are typically spare, typically simple, and always cool. Take, for example, “Breakdown,” from the band’s 1976 first, self-titled album.

Listen to that little figure at 0:07, and then the main theme, an 8-second riff starting about 0:14. It’s classic Campbell. Also classic on that debut record is one of Petty’s most popular, enduring songs, “American Girl,” featuring another typical Campbell sound, the chiming guitar. Petty’s ability to meld singalong melodies with a ferocious backbeat is on display, as is his gift of telling a story, drawing well-defined characters, in a few lyrics. The band was more popular in the UK at this point, and released the single “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” there – and lip-synched it on TV! (Plenty of animated stars, but no keyboardist Benmont Tench in that performance.)

One of the great things about Petty is that in addition to all the hits you’ve heard on the radio, he has so many terrific songs that were never huge. On that debut, there’s “Mystery Man.” On the band’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, there’s the rocking’ “Hurt,” and one of my favorite all time songs, “No Second Thoughts.”

I love the bass sound, the gentle drums and the harmony vocals. Also, I’m always impressed by Tom’s ability to write little novels in his songs. His nasally voice is used to great effect here. This album also contains the great radio tracks “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” An interesting fact (to me, anyway) about the high harmonies on most TP&HB songs: they’re sung by original drummer Stan Lynch!

After Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the band kept cranking out incredible albums. In 1981 they released Hard Promises, an album I had for years on vinyl. The band’s classic, “The Waiting,” is found on this album, a song that has some of my favorite Mike Campbell guitar, and great lyrics. But my favorite on the album is “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).”

It’s got the great, subtle, Campbell guitar, cool lyrics, and a nice bass line from guest bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The album features a duet with Stevie Nicks, “The Insider,” but doesn’t feature the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was recorded at the same time, but wound up on Nicks’s album Bella Donna. My picks for little-known gems on Hard Promises are “Nightwatchman” and “Letting You Go.” If you love Campbell’s guitar, listen to that “Nightwatchman” song. You’ll thank me!

Up next in the TP&HB discography comes 1982’s Long After Dark. I bought this cassette from the Columbia House Record Club back about 1983. I was a huge MTV fan, and this record featured the Mad Max-inspired MTV hit in “You Got Lucky,” a song that on first listen didn’t sound much like the band’s previous stuff, but still sounded good.

That spare Mike Campbell guitar is heard throughout, but on this song keyboardist Benmont Tench plays a synth, instead of the typical organ, giving a sort of 80s edge to the song. But it’s basic rock, and it has all the stuff I love about Tom and the band. The straightforward “Change of Heart” is also on Long After Dark, and it’s one of my favorites of his. My stand-out unknown track on this one is “We Stand a Chance.”

The next two records, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), from 1985 and 1987, respectively, scored a few hits, and one huge MTV blockbuster. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were fine songs that got lots of airplay, but “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” written with The Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, had the iconic video (that in my opinion was better than the song itself!)

I remember my friends and I being impressed with the sitar sound, and I always liked the female backing vocalists. Of course, Mike Campbell’s guitar shines. The band also put out a live album in 1985, Pack Up the Plantation: Live, and included a scorching version of the old Byrds’ hit “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star.”

A few Tom Petty memories: 1) my best friend in high school, Dan, had an older brother he called Nature Boy who looked EXACTLY like Tom Petty. 2) My two older sisters went to Philadelphia to see Tom Petty in concert around 1983, and some would-be mugger attempted to steal my sister’s purse, but my other sister pounded on his back and drove him away! 3) Also, everyone – I mean everyone – in 1989 was listening to Tom Petty’s debut solo album (i.e. without The Heartbreakers) Full Moon Fever.

This record had hit after hit. Of course “Free Fallin'” was huge, but also “I Won’t Back Down,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “A Face in the Crowd” … all were hits. And “Love is a Long Road” got lots of airplay. He also had a few hits around this time with the supergroup he helped form, The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.).

So, that brings us to 1989, meaning he’s still got 30 years of music (almost: RIP Tom) ahead of him. Those first 13 years were incredible, but he kept doing what he’d done all along: put out great rock records. Into the Great Wide Open was a hit album in 1991, and it actually made me angry at Mr. Petty for some time.

A classic TP lyric was lifted from this song.

You see, he ripped off the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from The Replacements’ song “I’ll Be You,” after the band opened for him on tour. But I’m over it now. Anyway, the 90s saw great songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “You Wreck Me.” The 90s through 10s saw great albums: Wildflowers, the She’s the One soundtrack, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, a Mudcrutch reunion, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. He kept cranking out great music well into his 60s.

I first remember Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a middle schooler, and in my mind they were lumped in with all the “skinny tie” bands back then. This was around 1979 to 1981, and acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and The Romantics were playing a punk-ish brand of guitar rock called “new wave.” It seemed that any act with a bit shorter hair and decent clothes that wasn’t playing blues-rock was painted with that new-wave, skinny tie brush – from Huey Lewis to Rick Springfield to Quarterflash to Tom Petty. (Even Billy Joel got into the act.)

In 1980, the songs “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were all over the radio. But I didn’t buy the record until years later, after college, when my cover band with Dr. Dave, JB and The So-Called Cells, began playing lots of Petty songs. It was then that I realized that not only do so many Petty songs SOUND great, they’re also REALLY FUN TO PLAY! This has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the man and his band.

Damn the Torpedoes comes out swinging with the smash hit “Refugee,” a song that will always remind me of playing backyard baseball and football up the street at the Starr’s house – it is the sound of 7th and 8th grade.

It starts with cool organ from Benmont Tench, a nice little guitar piece by Campbell, and then Tom’s signature vocal stylings. At 0:25, there’s a classic Mike Campbell bit where he slides back and forth between 2 notes, a subtle nugget that puts his signature on the song. (At 0:58 the video shows a close up of his left hand playing it again.) Petty sort of scats his way through the verses (albeit with real words), cramming syllables where they shouldn’t fit in as he begs his girl to stop pulling away. My favorite is the last verse where he suggests, “Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.” At 3:00, he also offers his signature scream, which has always reminded me of 80s shouting comic Sam Kinison.

Petty’s vocal stylings are used to great effect when he mumbles his way through the verses of the next song, the classic “Here Comes My Girl.”

I love the cool guitar slide at the beginning, and the rumble of Ron Blair’s bass. But in the verse, it’s Petty’s voice that carries it, talking the lyrics until 0:50, when he once again spits out the lyrics like a soundcloud rapper, flowing to the lovely chorus. It’s a heartfelt love song in which Petty describes how she makes him feel. It’s one of his best vocal performances. Let’s face it, he’s not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but his voice is passionate and expressive. Stan Lynch’s harmony vocals through the chorus are terrific, too, as is Campbell’s squiggles and Tench’s piano in the verses. You could listen to most any Petty song a thousand times and hear something new in the mix each time.

On “Even the Losers,” Petty’s at his best in terms of melding great lyrics with great music. His description, through characters’ actions, of first love and how it crumbles is succinct and accurate and connects emotionally.

“It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me?” I love Campbell’s Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo, and once again Stan Lynch’s high harmonies hit the spot. The song brings back many memories of early relationships; as Tom sings, “life is such a drag when you’re living in the past.” (By the way: if you ever get time, and I know I already assigned homework with that other documentary, try to watch this documentary on The Making of Damn the Torpedoes. It’s really good.)

My favorite song on the album is the track “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”

One thing I’m always amazed by with Tom Petty is his ability to make a very simple riff so damned catchy! In “Shadow of a Doubt,” it’s four notes, played before each line in the verse. For me, those four notes make the song. It’s probably got my favorite Mike Campbell stuff, his wizardry allowing the listener to unearth new nuggets with every play. The band really rocks, and my favorite version of the song is this live version from the old early-80s Saturday Night Live competitor ABC’s Fridays. The lyrics are funny, discussing a girlfriend that Tom can’t figure out, someone who speaks in French while she sleeps! It’s got everything a Petty fan could ask for.

The rave-up “Century City” follows, a straight-ahead rocker about the good times ahead that Petty could probably write in his sleep. The song opens with what I believe are sounds from the old Defender arcade game. Also, I think Springsteen lifted the melody for his song “Pink Cadillac.” The band shines, as always. They also shine on “You Tell Me,” a groovy, piano/bass driven song about a scorned lover with great interplay between Campbell and Tench. Both of these songs are cool, and demonstrate that even the songs that weren’t hits are always worth a spin on a Tom Petty album. Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t tremendous.

“Don’t Do Me Like That” was a huge hit, a top ten Billboard smash, and the biggest hit for the band to that date, peaking at #10 in February, 1980.

The opening drums and piano sound important, the little organ riff sounds cool, and Tom’s fast-talking near-rap vocals about his best girl treating him bad are singalong-worthy, even though they’re hard to sing along to. Stan’s harmonies in the chorus are key, as is his little fill at 0:49 heading into verse 2. Campbell plays some sweet licks behind the vocals throughout, which are necessary, as the song doesn’t have a featured guitar solo. But the genius of Campbell is that he doesn’t require a solo to stand out. On the rocker “What Are You Doing In My Life” Campbell plays a slide guitar. Its honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies give it a country-rock feel. It’s another deep cut worth hearing from Petty, this one about a stalker fan.

The album closes after just 9 songs, an economy that I wish more artists would strive for. And it closes on the lovely, if lyrically ambiguous, “Louisiana Rain.”

The lyrics are vignettes of a traveling life, and they remind me of Bob Dylan. In the chorus, the lyrics are reflected in the acoustic strumming, which somehow sounds like rain falling. It’s a simple song with a great melody and cool guitar, including more slide guitar from Campbell. It’s one of those album-ending songs that wraps up the experience neatly, and sticks with a listener, inviting a second, third, and many more listens.

The rhythm section, Stan (L) and Ron (second from right) wear the band t-shirt. That’s dedication.

Look, what can I say. Writing about 100 different albums is challenging, but even more so is SELECTING those records. If I look back at my list, there aren’t any records about which I’d say, “Damn, I should pull that one off the list.” Yet there seems like there should be more room for Tom. He was a musical gift to rock fans, and as good as Damn the Torpedoes is, there is so much more. Go out and listen to him. I think you’ll agree.

TRACK LISTING:
“Refugee”
“Here Comes My Girl”
“Even the Losers”
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
“Century City”
“Don’t Do Me Like That”
“You Tell Me”
“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”
“Louisiana Rain”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MTV was the entry point into the US for many UK and Irish bands, sparking what became known as “The Second British Invasion,” the first having been during the early/mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and a million lesser acts crossed the Atlantic to give the kids here a thrill. There were plenty of great US bands back around 1981, but the British bands were on the music video bandwagon early, and when a channel came on that needed 24 hours of programming per day, well, those UK videos were ready for the taking. By July 16, 1983, 20 of the top 40 singles in the U.S., including 7 of the top 10 singles, were by UK artists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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68th Favorite: The Clash, by The Clash

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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.
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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” 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. 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 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. And the next thing you know, you’re shivering in the E.R.
flatline

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.

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, 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,” I may have never found out. I began buying Clash albums, and their self-titled debut 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 and Nicky “Topper” Headon were the rhythm section, with Crimes leaving the band after recording The Clash. 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. 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, 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”
“Garageland”

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81st Favorite: The Wall, by Pink Floyd

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The Wall. Pink Floyd.
1979 Harvest/EMI. Producer: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie and Roger Waters
Gift ca. 1984.

The-Wall-high-resolution-png

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – Audacious Rock Opera describing a sad descent into madness, but with terrific songs and absolutely amazing guitar by David Gilmour. It’s as iconic an album as there is in the rock era, with several songs still played on the radio today.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – This record honestly could fall anywhere between Top Ten and 150. My feelings about it are SO dependent on my mood and how much time I have to spend and what’s going on in my life. So I guess it would be higher if I’d written the list another day!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My dad has always been a hard worker.

micrometerHe was a tool and die maker back when he was still working – a profession that seems easy to learn, but is difficult to master, and that certainly has never paid a wage proportional to the knowledge and skill required to perform the duties. He spent forty hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for almost 50 years, standing on concrete floors in poorly ventilated machine shops whose temperature was controlled by opening or steel poodleclosing a garage door at one end; hunched over drafting tables and hot, loud machines, grinding and cutting metal to ludicrously exact specifications – tasks that most days sent him home covered with little curls of metal embedded in his clothes and balding head, like he’d been sitting all day petting a steel poodle.

Evenings and weekends he worked some more – fixing our cars, redoing rooms in the house, making repairs, maintaining our yard. For “fun”, he did more work: building engines, crafting muzzle loading rifles, making fishing lures… washing machine 1He most certainly identified with the diligent Ant in that Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper. My mom has always been an Ant, too. She was a housewife, and she didn’t delegate her “responsibilities” very much at all. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry (at a Laundromat in winter, or using a big old wringer washer and galvanized steel tubs in the summer), made beds, shopped, banked, paid bills, registered kids for school and community groups, made appointments, chauffeured kids … Later she got a few part-time jobs – cafeteria lady, waitress, bologna factory worker – and STILL did all the other stuff she’d already been doing.

This photo of my mom and her two colleagues hung in the lobby of the Weaver's Lebanon Bologna Factory store (on Weavertown Rd.) for years! It might still be there.

My folks would watch a little TV in the evening, and go for drives in the country on a Sunday afternoon, but that was about the extent of their R&R. They were ants, and the work had to get done – whether it had to get done or not.

ant grasshopperYet somehow, they ended up with a big Grasshopper for a son.

I wouldn’t say I’m lazy, but those around me probably would. I’ve been known, at times, to do some hard work, but like that grasshopper, I’d much prefer to be singing and dancing.

I always thought that my aversion to hard work was a problem, a blight on social order. I seemed to lack some sort of gene, and I felt second-class because of it. But then I read a book that changed my perception of myself. When my kids were little, I read them the best book in the world – much, much better than that stupid ant and grasshopper fable. Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

hero frederickIn this book – which was deviously hidden from me as a child – all the mice work really, really hard to prepare for winter, just like the ants in Aesop’s fable. Meanwhile, Frederick just sits on his ass and watches the weather. The other mice get annoyed, and ask why he isn’t helping, and he keeps saying “Don’t worry, I’m helping, I’m getting … words and colors and warmth!” All the other mice are pissed. But they don’t lock him out of the den – like the mean old ants did with that fun-lovin’ grasshopper. Instead, when the winter gets desperate and dark, they ask, “Hey, slacker, where’s that warmth and color you were gathering?” And Frederick responds. He tells them wonderful stories and keeps them all amused and happy while supplies grow thin. And then all the other mice are like, “That Frederick don’t work for shit, but he sure can tell a story! He’s all right!”

Frederick is the perfect role model for young, lazy goofballs.

Frederick is a celebration of The Charming, Lazy Bullshitter. This sounds like a knock but I mean it in a positive way! Charming, Lazy Bullshitters (CLBs) get a bad rap, but that’s because there are so many folks who TRY to be the CLB, but who just really don’t do it very well at all. But if you’re fortunate enough to have a GOOD CLB in your midst, you’re happy to know him or her.

To be the good kind of CLB, you have to be friendly and inconspicuous. This is where the Grasshopper went wrong. He danced and sang and told the ants they were saps for working. Of course they thought he was a dick – he WAS BEING a dick! But Frederick was quiet, contemplative. When the other mice challenged him, he didn’t say “Suckers!” He convinced them that he was actually doing work – and he did so nicely.

fred chow lineThe good CLB doesn’t take much away from the group, either. Once winter came, Frederick didn’t cut to the front of the line, or eat more food than anyone else, or say dumb stuff like, “Hey, who ate the last kernel of white corn? I was saving that!!” In fact I think he probably took even a little less than his share. He clearly knew how to work his angle, so I guarantee he played it cool in the chow line.

The most important aspect of Frederick’s CLB act – and the most difficult part to master, and probably the point where most lousy CLBs fall down – is pryor et alin the payoff: the stories he shares. He clearly has some skills with words, and the mice around him love the tales he tells. He’s like Richard Pryor or Joan Rivers or even Aesop, back in the day.The stuff he comes up with is so good that the other mice shake their heads and wonder, “Where does he come up with this stuff!!??” He keeps those mice so enthralled that they even forget they’re all starving together!!

Good CLBs don’t always end up as professional performers. Many workplaces have the guy who doesn’t do Jack Squat and who everyone else complains about – the bad CLB. Equally common – but far more difficult to spot – is the good CLB. laughing officeThe guy who asks you about your weekend, and spends fifteen minutes discussing the awesome Pentatonix concert you went to; the woman who remembers everyone’s birthday and talks about the celebration you had; the senior director who comes over to the cubicles and tells funny stories about things that happened at the company before you were hired. These are the people who you enjoy around the office, but don’t know what it is they actually do all day. They are the workplace lubricants, making it easier to accomplish your tasks, even though they aren’t really helping you do any actual work.

An example of Charming Lazy Bullshitting just occurred here, in this blog post, as I spent the last several paragraphs blabbing about some unrelated topic instead of actually typing up some stuff about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “But wait,” you say. “You do that with every album write up!” To which I say, “Indeed! But this time I don’t have a point! I’m just trying to avoid hard work.”

hard work

Because, you see, writing about The Wall is going to be hard work, and I find hard work to be … hard. Considering The Wall and describing its place among all the records in my collection creates a challenge that is unique to Rock Operas: whether to judge the work as a musical story, or as a collection of songs. Or figure out something else.

You may think it’s not such a big deal, but that’s most likely because you’ve never decided to sit down and waste spend years of your life considering which 100 albums are your favorites, and how to rank them from 100 to 1, and then writing about your endeavors for a few dozen folks to not read. If you’ve ever attempted such a task, you know what I’m talking about.

To most readers, it probably seems that The Wall should simply be judged for what it is: a rock opera – a singular narrative told through a collection of rock songs.rock operaBut if judged as a Rock Opera, then I have to consider the story. My appreciation of a story is greatly affected by my mood – much more so than it affects most collections of songs. There are times I listen to The Wall and find it almost overpowering in its emotion and depth, and other times that I get to “Goodbye Cruel World” and I think, “Man, I hope he finally ends it all here and just moves on to the good songs.”

So if it’s a record I can’t appreciate any old time, and there are other records I COULD listen to any old time, then I can’t rank The Wall as highly as those others – even though when I’m in the mood, it may be among my favorites.

“Okay, okay, enough already,” you say. “So big deal, then, just judge it on its songs, what’s the big whoop?”

The Big Whoop is this: some of the songs on the album – on most ANY Rock Opera album – are pretty lousy as simply songs. Works on The Wall such as “Stop” and “Vera” are very short fragments, rather unlistenable to me outside the context of the album. So if I judge it as just a collection of songs, the record will be too harshly judged.

the wall wallI discussed this dilemma with the famous Dr. Dave. He made a very wise point (as he nearly always does) – stating that surely the fact that a band attempted such a work of artistry should merit some consideration. This was, I think, Dave’s cut-the-bullshit-and-admit-the-record’s-fucking-awesome way of guiding me in my thoughts.

It’s hard to overstate how HUGE a record The Wall was when it was released in late 1979. I was a 12 year old 7th grader, listening to AM radio and curating my Village People cassette collection whenvillage people The Wall arrived, and even I could feel its presence everywhere. I remember B., a friend at both school and Sunday school – one of the rare crossover friends – who had older brothers and was therefore always a step or five ahead of me in musical awareness. He proclaimed the album a masterpiece in 7th grade, and I was excited to tell him I had seen a commercial on TV for it. He asked me what song was on the commercial and I replied, “Something about a wall.” He was unimpressed.

My oldest sister – a high school senior that year – purchased the record on vinyl soon after it came out. I remember my other sister and I being perplexed by the fact that The Wall contained sounds such as people talking, and a baby crying and a plane crashing – evidence to us that a) it was some kind vinyl wallof strange music (crying babies? Crashing Planes??!!) and b) maybe our big sister wasn’t the same girl anymore who used to play Barbies with us on snow days.

There was a mobile home park near my house across the street from Lions Lake (now “Ebenezer Lake”), and it sat on land about 8 feet higher than the road, Jay St. That eight feet of earth was held back from the roadway by a retaining wall made of white cinder blocks. Soon after the release of The Wall, a well-rendered, spray-painted graffito showed up on this wall stating “Pink Floyd The Wall” in an approximation of the script on the album cover. It looked really cool! So cool that it seemed to be repainted every so often, enough that it was legible a good 15 or 20 years after its first application.

The most important and memorable graffito of my life appeared on this wall ca. 1980.

So before I had ever even listened closely to the album – I’m counting neither my aural glimpses through my sister’s bedroom door, nor the time I listened to “Program One” of the 8-track tape repeatedly on a malfunctioning Mego 2-XL Talking Robot toy that my cousin had – I was well-aware of the album’s existence as a cultural marker.

The album was an enormous hit, and several of the songs frequented AOR radio stations in the 80s and 90s, and are still played today on rock oldies radio. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” even spent four weeks at Number One on the Hot Singles chart in 1980, surrounded by such fare as “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl,” by The Spinners, and “Desire,” by Andy Gibb.

It wasn’t until sometime in my senior year of high school that my good friend Rick, appalled that I had never listened to The Wall, recorded it on cassette tape for me and I finally listened to it for the first time. floyd cassetteI recall being blown away. I listened to that cassette a lot, and I finally went out and purchased the CD as part of my First Grand Conversion of Musical Formats in the early 90s.

It’s difficult to describe The Wall briefly and do it justice. It is a double album length rock opera about a rock star, named “Pink” (aka “Mr. Floyd”), and his descent into madness, as told through flashbacks to his childhood and deep dives into his troubled psyche. It’s quite an audacious undertaking by the band, and a testament to Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s founder, bassist, main songwriter and guiding creative force for The Wall, that the end result succeeds so well.

There is much to love about the album – its songs are cool and interesting, they’re diverse, and the musicianship is terrific. But what I think I love most about the record are two things: the interplay between Roger Waters’s and David Gilmour’s voices, and Gilmour’s amazing guitar work. Waters and Gilmour have had their differences over the years, but their singing voices always seem to get along.

roger dave

A song that features both aspects is the aforementioned “Mother,” where Waters sings Pink’s lines, and Gilmour sings the title role:

The song has other characteristics that I love. For one thing, the “Pink” lines are in 4/4 meter, but the “Mother” lines are in 3/4. This subtle shift makes the song more interesting, but also works extremely well as an storytelling device, juxtaposing the two characters and rendering musically the distance between them (one of the first “Bricks” in Pink’s “Wall”). Also, I like how the Mother’s lyrics slowly turn from loving to creepy. gilmour 1Gilmour’s wonderful, evocative lead guitar work is featured in “Mother.” At about 2:52, the band snaps out of Mother’s 3/4 and Gilmour plays a typically understated yet direct solo – saying so much in so few notes. Gilmour is one of those rock guitarists – like Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler, Eddie Van Halen, or Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – whose sound is immediately recognizable. His guitar work connects with me on some level that is hard to describe; it’s like I know what he means when he plays.

One of the most famous songs on the album also features the shared vocals and stunning Gilmour guitar: the scary description of Pink’s debilitating drug use – which nonetheless immediately became an anthem for recreational drug users upon its release – “Comfortably Numb.”

Waters sings the verses and Gilmour sings the chorus. The music feels a bit dreamy and floating, and sounds like I imagine having “hands just like two balloons” might feel. But Gilmour’s hands are definitely nimble enough in the solos. gilmour 2He plays two this time, (2:04 – 2:34 and 4:31 – end) and the sound and feel of both amaze me with every listen – even 35 years later. When asked what effects he uses to get that “Gilmour sound” on “Comfortably Numb,” Phil Taylor, Gilmour’s guitar technician of more than 40 years, said this: “It think it’s just pretty much him. He is obviously using a couple of effects, like a Big Muff and a delay, but it really is just his fingers, his vibrato, his choice of notes … I find it extraordinary when people think they can copy his sound by duplicating his gear. In reality, no matter how well you duplicate the equipment, you will never be able to duplicate the personality.”

A third song featuring my two favorite components is “Hey You,” with the boys sharing vocal duties, and Gilmour being Gilmour, and also playing some wonderful fretless bass.

“Hey You” is a sad song and since The Wall tells a sad story, all of the songs have varying degrees of sadness to them. Many are slow songs. I’m not typically a fan of collections of slow, sad songs, but they work here as a part of the larger story. But there are a couple of rockers on the album, and even with their tinges of sadness, I could listen to them any time.

“Young Lust” is a reflection of Pink’s desires as he makes his way in the world.

But with it’s reference to needing a “dirty woman” – just the type of woman “Mother” said she’d never let get through to him – it sounds more sadly desperate than sexy. It has (again) fabulous guitar playing, showing that Gilmour can evoke anything with that axe. roger bassAlso worth mentioning is Roger Waters’s’ bass playing on this track. He is the main visionary, songwriter and singer in the band (and particularly on The Wall) and sometimes it seems like “bass player” is indeed the fourth item on his To Do list. But on this song he plays a sort of funky, bouncy, 70s-sounding bass line that helps give the song a feeling of fun. The song ends with Pink calling his girlfriend and hearing a man answer – the type of non-musical addition that challenged my sister’s and my view of music back in 1980.

Non-musical additions such as this certainly add some emotion and context to the songs, helping to place them squarely into the narrative of the piece as a whole. But such additions – to my taste – can sometimes takes away from the songs. There are times when I’d rather hear more of the actual song, and perhaps have another verse help carry the narrative. For example, the very good “One of My Turns” uses TV clips and the sounds of a room being destroyed.

However, the song is rather short, and ends before I want it to end. It makes sense as a narrative pieceone turns (Pink wigs out (one of his ‘turns’), his lady friend leaves, he suddenly finds himself alone) but I’m a music fan, and I want to hear more music. I want another Gilmour solo, I want more vitriolic lyrics spat with gusto through Waters’s snarl. I think the narrative could’ve been achieved with another verse instead of the added sounds.

gilmour 3Similarly “Goodbye Blue Sky,” is excellent, and deserves to be a lengthier song, but instead has been whacked down to a measly 2 min 48 seconds, with two verses and a single chorus, in order that it fit into the structure of the record.

I understand that not all songs can be “Hey Jude” length – no matter how good they are – but several songs on The Wall sound – to my ears – incomplete.

And then there are the final six songs, Side Four of the vinyl double album. It contains the songs “The Show Must Go On,” “Run Like Hell, “Waiting for the Worms,” “Stop,” “The Trial,” and “Outside the Wall.” This is where the album really gets too theatrical for my tastes. Now, as I’ve said before, I grew up listening toni tennilleto my mom’s Broadway musical cast recordings – Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady – and I appreciate the craft and musicality of good show tunes. However, I’m really a rock music fan, and Side Four sounds too much to me like show tunes. Again, the songs fit nicely into the story of Pink, and the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals throughout the songs (featuring none other than Toni Tennille, of The Captain and Tennille fame) are really cool. But in terms of songs, the only one that connects strongly with me is “Run Like Hell.”

Ah, David Gilmour. I know, I know, again with the guitar. But he is a genius, you gotta admit. nick masonI should mention drummer Nick Mason here, who seems like a solid drummer, but who I never think about much. This song lets him play a nice, fat disco beat. While I’m at it, I’ll mention keyboardist Rick Wright, who was fired from the band soon after the recording of The Wall. There isn’t a lot of standout keyboards on The Wall – it’s mostly supporting instrumentation. Which, given my love of Gilmour, is okay with me.rick wright

Of course, the biggest song on the record, the one that struck a chord with listeners worldwide, even in the midst of a global, near-debilitating case of Disco Fever, was that ode to the terrors of elementary school, “Another Brick in The Wall, Part II.” (Here it is paired with the introductory song, actually called “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.”)

There’s a little something for everyone here. Even the sunniest, most well-adjusted folks on Earth probably had a few miserable moments in elementary school. So this is the song where we all get to tell the teachers, “Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone!” It actually conveyed a punk rock sentiment that was somewhat controversial even as late as 1980. It’s a really cool song, with Mason and Waters providing a rhythm that sounds just funky enough (of course, not really funky) to attract the era’s disco-infected masses. Need I even mention that it also has amazing guitar work by David Gilmour? Probably not, but it does.

roger waters sing bass

The Wall was clearly a massive creative undertaking that took substantial work, patience and sustained attention to detail to create. It is exactly the sort of thing a Lazy, Charming Bullshitter such as myself could never do. It tires me out just thinking about it. But I think Frederick would agree with me that us Lazy, Charming Bullshitters are forever grateful for the hard workers around us, such as Pink Floyd. As long as they keep doing the heavy lifting, I’ll do my best to stay out of their way and blab about it afterwards.

TRACK LISTING
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
Mother
Goodbye Blue Sky
Empty Spaces
Young Lust
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
Goodbye Cruel World
Hey You
Is There Anybody Out There?
Nobody Home
Vera
Bring the Boys Back Home
Comfortably Numb
The Show Must Go On
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Stop
The Trial
Outside the Wall

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