Tag Archives: 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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31st Favorite: Moving Pictures, by Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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47th Favorite: Fair Warning, by Van Halen

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Fair Warning. Van Halen.
1981, Warner Brothers. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1983. Purchased, ca. 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: A record by a band that I describe in one word: “fun!” Eddie Van Halen’s guitar heroics are all over the place on this album, and he always plays with a sense of enjoyment and laughter. David Lee Roth is the clown prince of cock rock, and the band’s rhythm section is second to none. This album has all the hallmarks of a VH classic. It might not be for everyone, but if it’s you get it, you’ll want to get it!
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Everyone likes to have fun, right? At least a little bit? I’m sure there are a few people you can think of who seem completely disinclined to have fun. I myself have a relative or two who seem to need a lesson in fun. But I’d venture to say even those dour folks you know who seem to have gone to some weird face gymnasium to build up their Zygomaticus muscles (major and minor) to ensure their lips can never curl into a smile have some little thing in their lives that they consider fun: weather-stripping the house, perhaps, or looking at their Commemorative Spoon collection. Fun means different things to different people, but it’s a universal feeling, known across cultures, throughout history.

Popular music has often celebrated fun, as well. Hit songs from the past 60 years that extoll its virtues include those by Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, Sly & The Family Stone, Madness, Wang Chung and Tom Tom Club. (Less popular musical artists, such as Bruce Willis and Charles Manson, have also cut tracks about fun). Plenty of other songs describe such fun activities as jumping around, driving around, going on vacation, going to parties, playing basketball, playing baseball, playing cards … even cosplay (sort of). Throw in fun activities like dancing and sex, and it becomes damn difficult to think of a song that isn’t about fun. (Songs by 70s-sad-sack-sap-spewers Bread notwithstanding.)

Despite the universal appeal of fun, and despite the fact that it’s a standard topic of song, musical artists devoted to fun are not typically held in the same regard by critics as those artists with a more serious worldview. The most-admired rock and roll artists from the Turbulent 60s® had at a bare minimum at least one phase, or important work, that touched on universal human and political themes. Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did, of course, as did The Beatles, James Brown and Marvin Gaye … even good time party-boys The Rolling Stones had their “Street Fighting Man” era. Through the 70s, gravity reigned: The Who wrote operas; Led Zeppelin wrote serious-sounding songs about serious-sounding subjects; prog rockers like Yes and Genesis and Rush demonstrated a serious devotion to virtuosity and Grand Ideas; and earnest dudes with acoustic guitars became unlikely pop stars. Then punk came – and while its pogo-ing fans were having fun, what The Critics™ responded to was the bands’ anger and passion. Fun was certainly a big part of the 70s Disco Movement, but the music itself wasn’t taken very seriously.

The 80s were a heyday for fun-themed music, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the scourge of Hair Metal. MJ was always a critics’ favorite, and Madonna eventually got there, but the music of the 80s that The Critics tended to love – more serious artists like Tom Waits, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü – weren’t really all that popular in the U.S. in the 80s; they were niche acts. Popular, fun acts like Huey Lewis and The News and Bon Jovi and all the other Hair Metal acts were already starting to sound tiresome to critics (and record buyers) by the time the 90s dawned. The lasting 80s rock bands – U2, R.E.M. – were serious bands with some (at times embarrassing) fun thrown in.

Fun mostly took a backseat in 90s pop music. Sure you had some goofballs out there, and the decade’s “Swing Revival” tried to encourage us that fun could be had for a mere 2 years of dance lessons and a few $500 Zoot Suits. But from Gangsta Rap to Grunge to College Music, the 90s were not really an era of much musical fun. Just ask Cher, from Clueless. (Although, to be fair, inter-genre pairings in the decade did produce a pretty fun soundtrack album for Judgment Night.) The music of the 2000s may have had some fun – I was having my own fun with a couple of young kids, so I kind of missed a lot of what happened in that decade. But I’m going to take it for granted that once again, fun was an afterthought for most of what was considered critically-acclaimed music.

I sort of understand why Fun wouldn’t be more critically-appreciated as a musical topic. The fact is, nobody experiences fun the same way, and what’s Fun for one person probably isn’t for another. For example, statutory rape, mass murder and poorly-conceived-and-unsubtly-executed-double-entendres aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, so it might be difficult for some folks to just accept “hey, it’s fun!” as a reason for finding redeeming qualities about the music. Also, part of what is expected from the arts – any of the arts – is a reflection of the human condition by an artist. The more complete that reflection is, the more deeply a listener will respond to an artist. So, if only the sunny, fun side of life is being reflected by an artist’s work, it may make the listener feel like the artist is either disingenuous or lazy.

However … some musical artists have been celebrated for their achievements in Fun. The recent death of Rock and Roll architect and future only-Rock-and-Roll-name-in-Music-History (according to Chuck Klosterman) Chuck Berry elicited heaping mounds of rightfully-deserved praise on the man.

 

And something that stood out to me in all of the obituaries, memorials and tributes to the man was how much FUN his music was. Of course, there was a lot of talk about his impact on the sound of Rock and Roll, and about his lyrics, which were the first in rock and roll to express stories poetically about people. But the fact is that his music was always FUN, as well!

He wrote about driving around, about school being boring, rock and roll, the USA, and cars – both fast and not so fast. He had a few serious songs, like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” but even they sounded fun. He had a signature guitar sound and performance style that wowed audiences, and nobody expected him to get very philosophical with his songs. Nobody clamored for “a different side of Chuck Berry,” in which he plumbed the depths of his mind and soul for multi-layered reflections on life’s true meaning. Listeners wanted Chuck Berry to kick ass, and ass is what he kicked.

It’s in this ass-kickin’, fun-havin’, let’s-just-rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry spirit that I love the band Van Halen. They can be as goofy as that duck-walk, and as dumb as a song about playing guitar, but they have a signature sound and performance style I love, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen is an innovator and sound-generator who stands apart even in a crowded field of rock guitar virtuosos. They are my Chuck Berry

I remember hearing and seeing Van Halen as a middle schooler in the late 70s. There was a pair of brothers who lived up the street, the Starrs, and they LOVED Van Halen. I was still in my disco/pop phase, so I thought the band – with its scarves and poofy hair and loud guitars and tight pants – were just silly. (Somehow, grown men dressed as a Cowboy, Indian, Biker, Construction Worker, Cop and Army Man didn’t seem all that silly to me. Go figure.) As I moved through high school, Van Halen videos would turn up on MTV, and I sort of shrugged. They weren’t really my thing. But that changed when they released their 1984 album in my junior year of high school, and – pop music fan that I was – I bought in. My good friend and high school music guru Rick immediately told me that 1984 was lame, and brought to school the Van Halen Canon to that point, all on cassette tape. I bought in big-time, and was just becoming a super-fan when lead singer David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth left the band in 1985. Neither his new schtick nor the band’s new direction interested me much, so I kept delving into those cassettes.

Being a fan of the “classic” DLR-era Van Halen is a bit like being a fan of The Three Stooges, an act I also greatly enjoy. With both acts, you’re just going to have to accept that a) much of the stuff they do is ridiculous; b) some of the stuff they do is going to miss the mark; and c) you’ll meet as many people who hate the act, and judge you for your love, as you will those who understand. But fuck them. An interesting thing about being human is that you can’t really control what it is that’ll make you laugh or tickle your music-receptors. Both tastes, all tastes, evolve, for sure, but I find that certain stimuli abide, and never lose their power to excite. And the opening of the Fair Warning album, the song “Mean Street,” excites me every time.

It opens with some weird, fabulous guitar nonsense from Eddie. This album was the band’s fourth in four years, and fans were expecting guitar histrionics and brand new sounds from Eddie every time out, and it sounds like he wanted to get some of it out of the way right off the bat. Then its a simple, driving riff that propels the entire song. I’m not going to get into D.L. Roth’s lyrics just yet, but I will say that I doubt that this son of a wealthy ophthalmologist, from a long line of wealthy doctors, has really only ever known the Mean Streets, as claimed. One of the finest, and least-appreciated, aspects of Van Halen albums has always been bassist Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals. They are perhaps the “Larry Fine” of the band, if we’re going with a Three Stooges analogy; always providing a small, key piece to lift group performances to a higher level. At about 2:20, above, Eddie begins a really cool guitar solo that almost sounds Arabic in places. He’s known for playing very fast, but it’s not just the speed that’s amazing: it’s the style and the sound, as well. His brother, Alex, pounds a great drum track throughout, especially during the nice little breakdown part, at about 3:15, and then it’s on to the end of the song. Just as The Three Stooges were smart enough to make short films, Van Halen knows that it’s in their interest to keep songs compact, and I rarely hear a song of their’s that I think “Okay, time to end it, boys.”

Van Halen appreciation is easiest if – regardless of gender – you are at peace with your inner 13-year-old-boy. You’ll need that comfort to fully comprehend the genius of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers.

But as with every goddamned song Van Halen ever made, the focus should be squarely on Eddie and what he says with his guitar, instead of what any lyrics might say. (And I’ll get into lyrics soon … I swear.) This song opens with a nice, gentle swing beat courtesy of the terrific Alex Van Halen, and cool bass harmonics by Anthony. Eddie’s guitar squawks give way to a fluid solo, about 0:40, and the entire thing builds to a very strong intro riff about 0:49. The band often throws interesting little song-structure things into songs, like, for instance, at 1:18, when they end the verse with a little syncopated run, or the syncopation behind the pre-chorus, heard about 1:29. It’s things like this that elevate them above other “flashy guitar” bands of the 80s. Anthony’s bass line is particularly nice in the chorus, where – once again – his strong harmonies help lift the song. We Van Halen fans awaiting a scorching solo actually have to look elsewhere, as Eddie confines his histrionics to background wails and runs.

I remember reading a quote from David Lee Roth – who, during those wild and woolly early MTV days was always good for a hilarious quote – regarding his lyrics. I scoured the internet looking for it, but I couldn’t come up with it. But I recall him stating words to this effect: “nobody comes to Van Halen because of the lyrics. I write them during time-outs watching football on TV.” However, this lack of effort hasn’t left him as a lyricist without personal style. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could pull off such lyrics as “Who’s that babe with the fab-oo-lus (sic) shadow?/It’s only one scene but to me it don’t matter.” Just as some people will never find Moe poking Curly in the eyeballs funny, some people will never appreciate the ridiculous humor of Roth’s lyrics. But I still find myself laughing when I hear lyrics like those in “Sinner’s Swing.”

Couplets such as “She looked so fucking good so sexy and so frail/Something’s got the bite on me I’m going straight to hell” crack me up. And Roth can perform the lyrics well, too; I won’t use the term “sing,” as his delivery varies between singing, speaking, barking and laughing. He doesn’t try to be earnest about thrown-together lyrics such as “No one is above suspicion, no one’s got it wired/I’ll eat it with my fingers want my iron in that fire,” but unleashes them with an implied wink, as if to say, “come on, we’re just having fun!” Alex again shows he’s one of the more inventive drummers in rock, even in the first few seconds as he doubles the main guitar riff on drums. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, even though – once again – Eddie’s role is mostly left to background runs, although at 1:40 he unleashes a seemingly Galaga-inspired solo that is both impressive and typical. The signature vocal harmonies on the chorus’s “G- g- g- g- g-/Get out and push!” (I do believe Roth when he says he doesn’t spend much time refining the lyrics) are also terrific.

But goofiness aside, just as you’ll find that The Three Stooges are actually far more clever in their wordplay than one would expect given all the slapstick, Van Halen songs are often more interesting musically than expected. A great example of that is the song “Hear About It Later,” a piece that begins with a cool, subtle build-up to a Dave scream. But at the end of the verse, at about 1:18, the band throws in some nifty triplets as Roth sings “tried and convicted, it’s winner take all.” It’s little things like this that elevate their songs beyond the standard hard-rock, guitar-wanking BS.

Similarly, about 2:25, the song smoothly transitions to a nice minor chord in the bridge – again unexpectedly. Then there’s a breakdown at 2:40, and Eddie begins his solo, which sounds like it could be part of a different song. But that’s not a knock – it’s a fantastic bit of playing, and it makes the song interesting, especially when he leaves the solo and the band enters the bridge again. Also, for all I’ve said about Roth and singing and lyrics, he really does have a knack for writing catchy melodies. The song’s got a really great ending, with Eddie playing quintuplets as it draws to a close. Look, it’s not The Brandenburg Concerto, but it is a step or two beyond what one expects from a Guitar God band. And I love it.

Another song I love is the (sort-of) “hit” from the album, the fun, propulsive “Unchained.” It’s classic VH, with excellent guitar, cool harmonies, great drumming, unexpected musical nuggets, and silly-terrific lyrics by Diamond Dave.

This is a song that I think I could listen to just as the isolated Eddie Van Halen guitar track, and I’d be happy. The entire time he’s making simple stuff sound cool with squawks and flanges and other inventive sounds. Musically, the syncopated rhythms during the pre-chorus – about 0:40 to the descending syncopation around 0:53 – once again show there’s more to the songs than just “4/4, play chords.” At 1:49, Eddie unleashes a weird, noisy solo. Lyrics such as “blue-eyed murder in a satisfied dress” are classics. Plus – as with the entire album – there’s a depth of sound on this (and every DLR-era) Van Halen album. My high school chorus director loved the sound of Van Halen albums, and credited their richness to producer Ted Templeman, who gets a vocal credit on this song during the breakdown section, beginning about 2:15. Whatever the case, the entire production is perfectly suited to hold and feature Eddie’s guitar heroics.

The band does a few other things on the album. “Push Comes to Shove” is a subtle, nifty guitar feature, with a disco beat and DL Roth’s crooning about the vagaries of love, while Eddie creates some excellent, angular, reggae-inflected gems and blasts off a terrific, guitar-hero solo. “So This Is Love?” is a shuffling, good-time boogie with – you guessed it – phenomenal guitar. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park/One Foot Out the Door” is a punk song (the latter) with a weird, blobby, guitar-generated introduction (the former). Alex kicks some double-bass drum ass on it, but overall it’s a pretty weak song on which to end a great album.

So, anyway, listen: these are some pretty scary, lousy times in the USA. Your life could use a little more fun, so why not get some from the music you’re listening to? I find it fun being impressed by Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drums, and enjoying Michael’s harmony vocals and “Diamond” Dave’s ridiculousness … Maybe you’ll find fun somewhere else. But try to make a place for it in your music listening: life’s really too short not to!! In the immortal words of Diamond Dave: “Don’t waste time/g-g-g-g-g get out and push!”

Track Listing
“Mean Street”
“Dirty Movies”
“Sinner’s Swing”
“Hear About It Later”
“Unchained”
“Push Comes To Shove”
“So This Is Love?”
“Sunday Afternoon In The Park”
“One Foot Out The Door”

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