Tag Archives: 1984

7th Favorite Album: Reckoning, by R.E.M.

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Reckoning. R.E.M.
1984, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.
Purchased Casette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: Reckoning, by R.E.M., is the work of a band doing its own thing, establishing a sound that would define them: thumping drums, jangly guitars, melodic bass, and poetic lyrics. This is the foundation from which the Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe legend grew, a bit more muscular than their debut. Whether blazing through danceable, upbeat numbers or creating somber moods, Reckoning shows a band discovering its power and unleashing it on the world.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“Be Yourself” is perhaps the advice that most parents would place at the top of their list of “lessons to be ingrained in their children as they grow to adults.” It’s a realization that materializes in many adults only after years of heartbreak and embarrassment. We look back on our former selves, cringe and hope nobody remembers, (or write a blog about it), and vow to pass the lesson onto our offspring so they might avoid the same sort of humiliation. “Listen,” we say, “don’t get caught up in all the popular crap, and all the trendy styles and Jones-Keeping-Upwith. Don’t go along with the crowd just to fit in. BE YOURSELF.”

Children since Neanderthal times have responded with “But Orbuk and Kongko very cool; have nice stick and rock.” They’ve spent their teen years chasing the contemporary versions of the best animal skins and clubs and shiny leaves and trying to fit into the cool clan. Then one day (hopefully) they finally realize that their own path is the best path and settle into a gently-regretful adulthood. It’s always been true that one of the last parts of the human brain to fully develop is the part that says “Hey, I’m cool with just being me.” (At least I think the science says that.)

One reason, besides simple personal embarrassment, that many parents may look back and cringe is the fact that, in retrospect, it’s clear that many things considered “cool” in our youth were patently ridiculous and silly. When we think of our younger selves, we can recall recognizing “Wait, this doesn’t seem cool. This is utter bullshit.” But we can also recall thinking, “But, I guess since everyone else likes this, it must be ME who’s the weird one.” When we reach adulthood we realize: almost everyone our age ALSO thought it all was utter bullshit. But we all just went along with the crowd.

A case in point from my teenage years of the early to mid-1980s is Popular Music. Nostalgia is all well and good, and it can be fun to look back on the popular music of the 80s and revel in the wackiness and the computers and the poppiness of the era’s hit songs; and the bizarre-looking and, at times, courageous, musical acts; and the ubiquitous movie soundtrack songs. I myself listen to Sirius/XM’s “80s on 8 Big 40 Countdown” every weekend, even though it often plays songs I’d rather not remember. I find masochistic joy in reliving some of those crappy 80s hits.

But let’s face it: much of the music was bullshit. Well, let me rephrase that. The music – the notes and melodies – may have been just fine. The bullshit came because the notes and melodies were processed through a corporate Apparatus that quite unsubtly packaged and delivered its sounds and performers in a style that the Apparatus perceived to be following the cultural trends of the era. But at the same time the Apparatus was creating those trends, thus engendering a phony, dog-wagging, entirely UN-organic, carousel of advertising and popular culture that enticed teens to hop aboard and just go with it, and deny their own natural understanding, which was: “This is bullshit.”

I’m quite sure this cycle continues today, and has always been part of Corporate America’s means of marketing products. However, in retrospect, having been a teen in the 80s – the MTV boom-days – the weighty hand of corporate nonsense is so evident in the popular music that it seems unbelievable that I didn’t recognize it at the time. But it never really dawned on me that styling was part of a marketing department’s role. I just took it for granted that if you were a man who played music, you didn’t look normal, like me. You looked like Billy Idol or Prince or Mötley Crüe or Elton John or Rush or Michael Jackson. I just didn’t see many “normal-looking” folks making music.

Okay, there was Huey Lewis, but come on. He already looked like he was about 50 years old in 1983.

Also in the 80s, I found myself drifting toward 70s-era Progressive Rock, featuring songs that were 20 minutes long, multi-part suites with 10-minute organ solos, played by mostly British bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or North American versions, like Rush or Styx. The more difficult it was, the more I liked it.

Of course, there were plenty of normal-looking folks making rock music in the 80s, playing songs that didn’t require a PhD in Fretboard-shreddery to play. Sometimes they’d show up on MTV, late at night. But they didn’t register with me: if you weren’t a technically brilliant musician, or a crazy-looking, leather-clad freak, I didn’t really think you were a musician. Until a night in 1983, (or maybe early 1984, on a rerun) when I stayed up late to watch my favorite comedian, David Letterman, and he introduced a band that looked suspiciously normal (except for the singer, who had a certain affect to him.)

I liked these normal-looking guys the first night I saw them.

I was hooked from the minute I saw them, and for years (pre-YouTube) I wondered if I’d really seen it. They played two songs, and the singer sat on the stage, ignoring Dave, between them. The songs were infectious and fun and fresh: so fresh that one song was “too new” to have a name. The bass, always my favorite part of rock music, was prominent and played great counter-melodies. The guitarist wiggled and gyrated. The singer just stood and mumbled. I’d heard their song “Radio Free Europe” before, and I knew their weird name – R.E.M. And now I knew I loved them.

But as much as I loved them, their normalcy was, well, WEIRD. This wasn’t the kind of stuff that everyone else I knew listened to. I could easily share my love of 70s hard rock or 80s metal, and my fascination with progressive rock was on the normal bell curve of typical, rural Pennsylvania teen music appreciation. (The left-hand tail, sure, but it was there.) But this little, jangly, frantic group of guys in jeans and shirts – no leather, no feathers, no spandex, no makeup, no multi-zippered jackets or single, sequined glove – seemed like they might be too weird. I bought the new cassette, Reckoning, but I didn’t tell any of my friends. I listened, but was more comfortable sharing my “enthusiasm” for the new Alan Parsons Project single or Rush album. But at home I couldn’t wait to see the MTV piece on them.

I wish now that I’d have sought out other fans, and let myself be, well, myself. (Eventually I did. In college, my high school friend, Josh, and I revealed to each other that we both loved the band!)

The song “too new to be named” on that Letterman show immediately became a favorite of mine. With it’s 12-string opening riff and bouncy beat, and a melody of garbled lyrics that falls on a desperate wail of “I’m sorry!,” the song “So. Central Rain” is a song that sticks.

If you like direct lyrics sung clearly and loudly, you won’t like much of what R.E.M. has to offer, at least not from this era. “So. Central Rain” is apparently about trying to reach a girlfriend to apologize, but if you pick up on that from singer Michael Stipe, I applaud you. The opening 12-string riff, by Peter Buck, is beautiful, and then bassist Mike Mills enters. His bass lines are McCartney-esque: melodic, widely ranging, and often – as on this number – taking the lead. Drummer Bill Berry’s heartbeat bass drum pulls it all together. R.E.M. were never afraid to boost their studio sound with instrumentation. In this song, a piano, played by Mills, is prominent. The band also uses harmony vocals brilliantly, with both Mills and Berry lending their “aahhs” on this track. I love Mills’s riff, about 0:50, which brings the band back into the second verse. This song is sad but happy, and remains a favorite of mine.

Part of the allure of R.E.M. for me has always been the mysteriousness of their lyrics and vocals. In the 80s I was deep into Yes, and their vocalist, Jon Anderson, despite having a vocal style directly opposite Stipe’s, strung apparent nonsense words together. Stipe does the same thing. Can anyone tell me what a “Harborcoat” is? Is this song about a chilly, elderly, Soviet couple? It doesn’t really matter to me – the song sounds super regardless of its meaning.

The song displays Mills’s penchant for counter-melody bass, and is the perfect example Buck’s fast-strumming, arpeggiated technique. Berry’s drums, particularly hi-hat work, are terrific. At 1:17, when three voices blend in the chorus, I get chills, every time. In the second verse, the backing vocals (Berry, I think?) at times obscure the main vocals in a cool-sounding way. There’s a nifty, noisy, harmonica-infused bridge (2:38), then after another verse, Buck’s guitar riff gets more muscular (3:22) to bring it all home. It’s a fantastic song, displaying everything I love about the band.

As does the next song, “7 Chinese Bros.”

The title is taken from a children’s book, Five Chinese Brothers, adapted from a famous Chinese legend, Ten Brothers, about ten brothers with amazing abilities who use them to help their family. One of the brothers can swallow the ocean, thus the lyrics in the chorus. I love how the bass enters at 0:11, over top of Buck’s riff. The drums thump throughout, and Buck’s arpeggiated guitar in the chorus is just super cool. Mills’s bass always appears in unexpected ways, such as at 1:38. I do love Stipe’s subtle vocals on this song. (A version of this song called “Voice of Harold,” with lyrics read from the back of a gospel record, appears on the rarities album Dead Letter Office.)

My favorite song on the record is the driving, danceable “Pretty Persuasion.”

It’s a fun, upbeat song, written early in their careers, with lyrics that don’t say a lot, however, the title says it all. The opening guitar line is pure Buck, shimmery and flowing. Mills’s high-pitched bass enters, then Berry starts his heartbeat drums. The backing vocals are sweet and the melody is catchy. It’s the kind of R.E.M. song I love. The band sort of replicates it with “Second Guessing,” another fast-paced song, with obscure lyrics. I love Berry’s drums in this song, little things like the quick fill at 1:27 before heading back into the verse. Also, this record SOUNDS really good. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter produced it, and they really gave it a full, deep sound.

As a teen, I really loved the faster songs, and I didn’t think much of the slow songs. As I’ve gotten older, these slow numbers have grown on me. In particular, I really like “Time After Time (Annelise).”

It’s a subtle song, with bongos and light guitar. It definitely shows off Stipe’s vocals, as he sings about (possibly) teen suicide? The song builds nicely, and has a cool guitar solo/break about 1:59, with what may be a sitar in the background? The song “Camera” is another slow song featuring Stipe, this time about a friend who died in a car crash. “Letter Never Sent” is mid-tempo, but it shows off the entire band’s vocal abilities, as counter-melody backing vocals from Berry and Mills highlight Stipe’s meandering melody. The lyrics sound beautiful. As usual guitar and drums sound great, and Mills’s bass provides still another melody to follow.

It says much about a band that they can get me to appreciate a song style I don’t usually like. In this case it’s country (or maybe country-rock?), in the form of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.”

It opens with a weird, funk-like bit of a song, the type that would fit nicely on Dead Letter Office (on which the band drunkenly covered “King of the Road.”) It’s a straightforward piece, with some piano thrown in and great harmonies in the chorus. Buck plays some tasty figures over top of Stipe’s lyrics, which take a dark turn in the bridge, where he admits he never really treated his wayward girlfriend all that great. This song was apparently written by Mills in a punk style, then the band got hold of it and created this version. Good job, men!

The album closes on a rip-roaring romp through America, a song reminiscing about old touring days in a van, apparently, with manager Jefferson Holt (“Jefferson I think we’re lost!”)

“I don’t see myself at 30,” Stipe sings immediately, and the song has a sort of free-wheeling, independent, young-adult vibe to it, sung by guys who aren’t concerned about reaching old age. Thirty-five years (!) after the album was released, with R.E.M. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and roundly regarded as sort of godfathers of alternative rock, this sentiment is kind of funny. But the song still kicks ass, a frantic and loose number with a nifty guitar. A great album-ender.

Just be yourself. What a good lesson. R.E.M. didn’t look like the other 80s pop music acts, they didn’t sound like anything else, and they didn’t seem to care what anyone thought about it. As a teenager in 1984, this was more frightening than any of the weirdoes I regularly saw on MTV. As a 51 year old with kids, this is far more inspiring than I recognized at the time.

TRACK LISTING:
“Harborcoat”
“7 Chinese Bros.”
“So. Central Rain”
“Pretty Persuasion”
“Time After Time (Annelise)”
“Second Guessing”
“Letter Never Sent”
“Camera”
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
“Little America”

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44th Favorite: Learning To Crawl, by Pretenders

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Learning To Crawl. The Pretenders.
1984, Sire Records. Producer: Chris Thomas.
Gift (cassette), 1984. Purchased CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: A record with driving, punk-spirited songs with strangely grown-up lyrics about aging, parenthood and loss. But Chrissie Hynde’s terrific voice and songwriting, and cool guitar from Robbie McIntosh and Billy Bremner, keep the record from being a downer. It’s a rarity – an album I still love, but now for different reasons.
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Big sisters get a bad rap in modern media. They’re generally portrayed as mean, conniving, dissatisfied, misunderstood, dangerous, violent … Well, I’m here today to say that in real life, big sisters are pretty frickin’ awesome. I have two terrific ones, and none of the words above describe them (typically). They’ve been important in many ways, including how they’ve helped inform my 100 Favorite Albums! They’ve both been responsible for several of the albums directly, and indirectly they’re responsible for all of them: for they’re the first two people whose musical tastes I tried to emulate and, later, influence.

I’m the youngest of three kids, and I have two older sisters. I’m five years younger than Anne and three years younger than Liz.

The author (in blue) begins his indoctrination into sibling dynamics.

The kids in every family have their own special dynamic, a mode of interaction passed on through the brood that sets boundaries on things like appropriate deference, teasing, displays of emotion, connectedness and play. The results of these dynamics are evident to all. Some families have raucous, screaming kids; some families have quiet, reserved kids; some hang out in a big bunch; some appear to be single children unaware of the siblings around them.

I’d venture to say that in all cases the rules of engagement among the kids are set by the eldest child. This is only fair, since the eldest child is the one who was so rudely stripped of her role as the lone sponge in an ever-widening, depthless pool of parental love; forced to not only share that ocean of affection with others but also to pretend that half an ocean – then a third, and a fourth, etc, depending on how many more damn smelly babies that formerly fawning, duplicitous duo called parents decides to keep bringing home – is just as good as a whole ocean, as if she can’t do simple arithmetic.

There was a trio of brothers in my neighborhood, The Poetzel boys, and they were on one extreme of this spectrum of sibling conduct, with an eldest son, Deaner, who clearly had never accepted the division of his ocean. Their parents both worked, which was still rather unusual in my mid-70s, rural Pennsylvania town, and sometimes after school they’d be locked out of their house for an hour or so. They’d spend the afternoon on their back patio screaming, shoving, fist-fighting, throwing rocks and slinging weaponized buckles at each other in bloody belt-fights. These melees frequently ended with Deaner crying frantic tears of regret as he attempted CPR learned from the TV show Emergency! on a younger brother who likely learned how to feign unconsciousness from watching the same show.

In my family the eldest child didn’t view us new ocean dwellers as combatants to be dominated and subdued, but as vulnerable neighbors in need of guidance and instruction. If this sounds like a euphemistic description for “bossiness,” I don’t mean it to be. I never thought she was bossy – I thought she was the coolest eldest sibling a kid could have – creative, fun, exciting and full of love. She still is!

My other sister and I often talk about how lucky we were to have such a big sister. Her creativity made playtime exciting! For example: the three of us often played Barbies, in which my job was to handle many of the leading male roles with my G.I. Joes. (As a hearty, red-blooded, five year-old boy, I insisted on calling the game “G.I. Joes,” not “Barbies.”) At some point my sisters got a Barbie-sized Supermarket, which included Barbie-sized packages of frozen foods and other products. My big sister, using cardboard and markers, designed and produced dozens of products for sale at the store, with individualized product names and brand names and packaging designs and advertising campaigns and jingles.

The fun of playtime was always what was going on inside our heads, and Anne would plunk real stuff into our imaginations every time we were together. Whether it was playing school in our basement “classroom” surrounded by individually hand-drawn class photos hung on the wall of each of the thirty students; or decorating an HO gauge train set at Christmas time, watching her deftly build Olmsted-quality backyards, farm pastures and a baseball field with colored, sprinkled dust; or walking our Barbies (I mean G.I. Joes!!!) into the 6′ x 6′ house she built on a slab of ply-wood my dad cut, onto which she had glued linoleum and carpet remnants, drew and shellacked hardwood floors, erected walls of cardboard that were painted and wallpapered and hung with lights and shelving, with doorways cut appropriately between rooms; a house that in the end seemed almost too beautifully museum-quality to actually tramp combat boots throughout.

When I got a little older, both of my sisters joined the Disco Revolution and went dancing on weekend nights instead of playing G.I. Joes with me. By then she was in high school, and even though we didn’t play anymore, she did have a crate of albums that had a huge impact on me. She continued to be cool and creative, and still did remarkable things as she got older, like move across the country to Yosemite National Park as a barely-in-her-20s young woman – the sort of move I’d never known anyone to ever do, except for people who’d joined the Army.

During her time in California (and before that, while she was away at college), in my teenaged brain, she seemed like an unknowable Goddess – a figure I’d worshiped since childhood and who sent me gifts and spoke to me sometimes, but who I figured I would never – could never – really know. Her gifts and communications were like blessings. For example, when the Preppy Look was in style in the 80s, and I was raging against it in my head – mainly because I knew I was too chubby and too self-conscious to try a new style, and those fashionable clothes were well out of my family’s price range, anyway – she sent me a modest yet stylish striped sweater that fit me and looked good, allowing me to experience a bit of modern fashion and, more importantly, a bit of self-esteem. When she visited during my season of JV basketball, she watched me play, then weeks later sent photos she’d taken of the game – proof that my dreamlike experience as a bonafide high school athlete who earned some playing time wasn’t just a dream.

We didn’t speak much, as long-distance phone calls were pricey back then, but she sent us cards and letters. And she sent gifts. She sent the gift of music.

And just as she didn’t ask me if I wanted that sweater, she didn’t ask me what kind of music I liked. She’d just send me cassettes that she thought I should hear. The first one I remember getting was Speaking in Tongues, by Talking Heads. Their hit “Burning Down the House” was huge on MTV at the time, and I’d seen them perform on David Letterman, but I wasn’t really a fan. And even though I was probably bummed that she hadn’t sent me an old Rush cassette, I listened and found I really liked it. She later sent me a cassette of The Pretenders’ self-titled debut, which we’d listened to in her sweet ’64 Mustang before she moved away.

Another one I got from her around that time featured a song she’d told me about during a phone call or a visit, a song I’d never heard, but that she thought summed up her life as an aging 21-year-old quite nicely: “Watching the Clothes.” The album was Learning to Crawl, by The Pretenders, and even though I’d already heard a lot of the songs on the radio I couldn’t get enough of it. My Goddess sister had delivered once again.

I’d been a huge Pretenders fan since I started watching MTV. (Ok, more precisely, I was a huge Chrissie Hynde fan.) But by the time 1984 rolled around, those early MTV days of 1981 seemed like ages ago to me. And so much had happened to the band in the interim: in 1982 original bassist Pete Farndon was fired by the band over his drug use; two days later 25 year-old guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a heart attack from too much cocaine; then a few months later, Farndon himself died of a heroin overdose. Band leader Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were forced to start over amid all that emotional trauma, and Learning to Crawl was the introduction of the new band.

“Watching the Clothes” seemed strange to me as a teenager: a song about watching laundry? But even though the lyrics seemed odd, I liked the song.

I still do, particularly the solos guitarist Robbie McIntosh rips through. Beginning at 0:58 he plays a simple ascending chromatic scale that amps up the energy and builds the tension until the band re-enters. At about 1:46 he tears off a sort of rockabilly solo that carries the song to its riff-coda ending. Throughout the whole song, Chambers plays a beat that sounds very washing machine-esque. It’s a punk-y song, for sure, aggressive and intense, but it’s about … watching laundry? But maybe there’s a reason for that …

As a huge MTV watcher, the first song I ever heard from this album was the classic “Back On The Chain Gang.” The video was played constantly in the fall of 1982. (The song was released as a single before the entire album was finished recording.) It’s a touching song about the death of Honeyman-Scott, and it’s one of those rare songs that’s gotten better with age.

The song has a bit of a honky-tonk feel, and Tony Butler plays a bass line that conjures hard work the way the song “Working In A Coal Mine” did. Billy Bremner plays a countrified guitar riff that makes the song, and throws in nice harmonics (about 2:00) that I always listen for. Great song that it is musically, it’s the lyrics and subject-matter (a lost friend, and moving forward) that have made the song improve with age: the more people you meet in life, the more you cherish those for whom you can say “…a break in the battle was your part … in the wretched life of a lonely heart.”

It’s a great song, but what happened to the rockin’ band who sang “Stop snivelin’! You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man!?” Perhaps I can find that punk spirit on the driving, souped-up hit “Middle Of The Road.”

This song has one of the great openings in rock, Martin Chambers’s tumbling drums into those unmistakeable three chords. The guitar riff is busy but cool, and the backing hoots are sing-along fun. Hynde’s vocals are some of her gruff’n’sweet best, snapping out long strings of words about growing older, growing up. Chambers’s excellent, driving drums really command the song, which builds to a creative solo by McIntosh, at 1:42. The band sounds like they’re having fun, as Hynde counts them back into the final verse, through her harmonica-solo closing, which starts with a grunt and a sort of meow. It’s a terrific song, even though she sings “I ain’t the cat I used to be/ I got a kid, I’m thirty-three!” which doesn’t sound too punk. But hold on, I’m starting to recognize a pattern … So these lyrics on these songs … why … I believe they’re all about getting OLD!!! No wonder I’ve liked this record more and more as I’ve gotten older!

No song on the record is more obviously about aging than the fantastic “Time The Avenger,” which, even as a teenager, has always been my favorite song on the album.

Right away, the drums and riff give the feeling of time, constantly ticking. Hynde uses her sultry voice to tell the story of an aging Lothario who’s beginning to realize it’s all slipping away, who’s wondering whether it all had a point. I love the guitar harmony as the second verse starts, and I love the chorus, how Chambers deftly moves the band through the syncopation (at 1:48) of the “Time, time, hear the bells chime” vocals. And the guitar behind the chorus vocals is really cool, particularly the harmonics at about 2:13. Former Pretenders guitarist Honeyman-Scott had a style all his own, using chords, arpeggios and harmonics where others might play runs, and Robbie McIntosh does an amazing impression of him on this song.

On “Middle Of The Road,” Hynde briefly addressed parenthood, and on a couple other songs she dives deeply into the topic. “Show Me” is a song that sounds a bit soft at first, but that’s grown on me since the first listen way back when – and now that I’m a parent, it can at times weirdly cause me to get a bit verklempt.

Despite its rather casual, light pop sound, the bass line is really cool and Chambers’s distinctive drum fills are notable throughout. McIntosh’s guitar has a shimmery delay, and he plays with a very Pete Buck of R.E.M. style. Hynde’s voice is beautiful, but it’s the words that get me – particularly since I’ve been a parent. If you’re a parent, or an auntie, or have had a special baby/toddler in your life, this song presents all the wishes you have for that child – what you want for the child, and what you want FROM the child – in a world that, as we age through it, can very often feel like it’s gone down the shitter. And those wishes boil down to one word: Love.

The song Thumbelina also treads in this territory, describing a road trip with a child set against a sweet country swing. Even though I loved this record as a teenager, the wisdom of lyrics like “What’s important in this life?/ Ask the man who’s lost his wife” were lost on me. I didn’t care about the song meanings, I just liked the rock. And now, as a 50 year old, I can especially appreciate these reports from adulthood – even when they turn a bit curmudgeonly. Such as on the excellent groove, and growth-at-all-cost shaming, of “My City Was Gone.”

The bass line, again by Tony Butler, is a classic as is the bluesy soloing by Billy Bremner. The lyrics are once again about growing older, the frustration over the loss of childhood and its memories. Bremner uses harmonics beautifully and his solo at about 2:38 is classic.

There are a few songs on the album that I can take or leave. “I Hurt You” has some cool vocal tricks and a menacing tone, but doesn’t meet the standard of the rest of the album. “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is a cover that is done well, much like a satisfactory bar-band can pull off a cover, but that I generally skip. The closing song, however, is one for the ages – if you don’t mind Christmas songs.

“2000 Miles” has a lovely guitar figure throughout, with a chiming effect that makes the quick run played before the verse (0:33) sound terrific. But the star of this song is Hynde’s amazing voice, pulling such feats as singing two words, “He’s gone,” and easily stretching them across 5 beats and about 10 syllables in a way that makes the song a challenge for other singers. From the very beginning, Chrissie Hynde has been an extremely talented vocalist, and this song, about a lover far away for the holidays, demonstrates she’s still got the chops.

Learning To Crawl is remarkable for tackling grown-up subject matter in its lyrics while retaining the band’s youthful, punk-y aesthetic. I liked it as a teenager, and I like it today. I still like the way it rocks, but I also appreciate it for different, old-man-type reasons, too. It’s a rare record that can accomplish that trick!

I’ve gotten to know my sister much better over the years than I did as a child. We’ve grown closer – all three of us siblings have. She’s no longer unknowable – she’s now just totally lovable! When she sent me this cassette over 30 years ago, I don’t think she was sending a message about life. I expect she just knew a good record when she heard it. But who can truly know the ways of the Goddess?

The author's eldest sister, still cool after all these years.

TRACK LISTING:
“Middle Of The Road”
“Back On The Chain Gang”
“Time The Avenger”
“Watching The Clothes”
“Show Me”
“Thumbelina”
“My City Was Gone”
“Thin Line Between Love And Hate”
“I Hurt You”
“2000 Miles”

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71st Favorite: Purple Rain, by Prince and The Revolution

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Purple Rain. Prince and The Revolution
1984, Warner Bros. Producer: Prince and The Revolution
Purchased: ca. 1990

prince album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Classic 80s soundtrack from one of the decade’s biggest stars combines funk, rock, and R&B with some super-catchy melodies. The drums sometimes sound like they’re programmed by Casio, but it’s still an all-time dance party classic album.

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sue prince

A NOTE TO READERS: Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson is quite diligent about removing any versions of his songs from the internet. He’s sued fans for posting videos, his record company sued a mom for posting a short clip of her toddler dancing to his song (the mom countersued and won), and he’s just been generally hostile to the notion of his music (or his versions of others’ music) being played without him being compensated.


Now, as a person who believes art has value and should be valued, I am fully on his side in his wish to get paid. Sure, sure, he’s a kajillionaire and it’s not like he needs more money. But I think anyone who makes art should be compensated. It’s hard to think of any other item besides music that the general public just assumes they should have for nothing.


However, as a person writing a blog about music on a (somewhat) regular basis, the fact that I can’t easily get videos of his songs is super-annoying. So this is my warning to you, dear readers: don’t be surprised if ALL THE LINKS to ALL THE PRINCE VIDEOS in this blog aren’t working when you try to listen.

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box
Cardboard has a very distinctive smell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it just from having a few boxes around your house from Amazon deliveries, and stores like BJ’s and Costco, where they make you cram your purchases into weirdly shaped, practically useless cardboard containers instead of bags.

But if you’ve ever spent a little time in, for example, warehousea 240,000 square-foot warehouse, stacked 30-feet high with cardboard boxes – a warehouse that includes a sizable section reserved for thousands of flattened, ready-to-build cardboard boxes that – as part of your job – you will fold, origami-by-numbers style, into a wide array of box types to contain a broad range of soon-to-be-expired chocolate products – you’ll know the smell of cardboard. Even today, on the morning after a pizza delivery, the ancient brain part I share with muskrats and weasels will immediately extract that cardboard scent from the surrounding pepperoni and sauce; and as I carry the box to the recycling container the smell carries the summer of ’87 back to me in striking detail.

My distant relative reminisces about his youth

I turned 20 in the summer of 1987, and it was a year of transition for me. My sophomore year at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science had just ended, and I had decided that in the fall I wouldn’t return, but would instead matriculate at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

get job I needed a summer job, and I wanted one that paid the most money. I applied and interviewed at several places, and I took jobs and quit jobs at both Sears and Rent-A-Center before I got the call that changed my life: it was The Hershey Company saying that I was the man for their Chocolate Factory job. At $4.50 an hour (75¢ more than either of the other places) it was a bulging wage, the magnitude of which indicated just how much money the chocolate industry was raking in.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many experiences that, when divulged in conversation, spark the imagination of trebekmy interlocutor such that a smile crosses their face and the single word “Really?!?” is spoken, drawn out to a grin, and paired with twinkling eyes, so as to imply the unspoken words “I want to hear more about that!” These experiences include appearing on the game show “Jeopardy!”; being a professional stand-up comic; and playing at CBGB’s with my old band. However, none of these experiences elicits as much excited anticipation from a listener as does the statement, “I used to work at The Hershey Chocolate factory.”
It conjures wonderful imagery in a person’s mind, of drinking from chocolate rivers, eating vibrant flowers and gloriously floating amid bubbles of Fizzy Lifting Drink. I’m surprised I was never asked, “Did you have your own Oompa Loompa?”lifting drink

Chocolate has a strong effect on the brain, and a residue of that effect is the insistent belief, often spoken directly to me, that working with the stuff eight hours a day is some sort of a dream job. However the truth is that after a oompafew 8 hour overnight shifts in a warehouse folding cardboard boxes and stuffing Hershey Kisses into clear plastic tubes, even a jolly little Oompa Loompa will find himself searching Trivago for flights back to Loompaland – Snozzwangers and Vermicious Knids be damned!!

To earn those exorbitant wages I worked third shift at a Hershey Chocolate warehouse, 11 pm to 7 am, from Sunday to Thursday night. At first glance, this schedule sounds terrific! “Why, that’s basically Friday, Saturday and Sunday off!” But in reality, those three days are camouflage for what amounts to, basically, nearly – but not quite – one measly day of rest.

3rdshiftYou see, after four days spent sleeping, and five nights spent awake, you’ll arrive home from work at about 8 am on Friday. Your body will want to go to sleep that Friday morning, as usual. No matter what you try to do to try to manage your body’s need for sleep – nap, exercise, coffee, alcohol – you are unlikely to enjoy a “day off” on Friday. Or if you do stay awake to enjoy the day, you won’t be able to enjoy that Friday night, like all of the other college students at home for the summer. You’ll have to sleep at some point, so you’ll have to choose: Friday night or Friday day. On Saturday the effects of your Friday choice will kick in, either by being unable to get out of bed until mid afternoon, or by falling asleep in early evening, thus wiping out a good deal of that day, too. damocles Then you’ll spend all day Sunday reflexively counting the hours and minutes until it’s time to leave the house at 10:30 pm for your “Monday,” a Sword of Damocles preventing you from experiencing much of anything that could be described as “relaxing.” It all boils down to not quite a full Saturday to relax.

That summer demonstrated that I never wanted another third shift job again. I could tell it was unhealthy and I felt miserable. golfAbout the only positive aspect of it was that my dad was also worked 3rd shift that summer, and so several times during those few months I met him and some of his colleagues after work to play golf. Then again, in retrospect, while it was indeed nice to hang out with dad, I don’t know if the experience really classifies as “positive:” walking 5 miles in the morning heat and humidity, inhaling cigar smoke from dad’s buddies’ cheap-o cigars (smoked to “drive off the bugs,” which therefore chose to swarm around me), frustrating myself by playing a ridiculous game at which I was horrifically bad, all while nursing the compounding effects of irregular sleep patterns. But it was the best thing about the summer of ’87.

The warehouse was uniquely situated with regard to 80s American social groups. It sat in a town, Hershey, with quite a bit of wealth, and it was within a 15-mile radius of both urban Harrisburg and rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. The summertime workforce drew from the populations of all of these areas, so students from Williams and Bryn Mawr anticipating their fall semesters abroad folded boxes alongside Harrisburg Area Community College part-timers and Evangelical pastors-in-training at Lancaster Bible College.

We worked on boring, little assembly lines, syrupemptying large containers of soon-to-expire chocolate products, and placing their contents into smaller containers and specialty displays. For example: if a box of 24 Hershey’s Syrup bottles was due to expire in two months, we’d empty the box and bundle sets of 8 bottles with an ice cream-themed cardboard display box that someone on second shift had origamied. They’d be shipped to stores in the hopes that syrup eaters would find them more enticing if they were presented in a different setting than simply crammed next to jars of Nesquik powder and Fluff on the Giant Foodssugary shit shelves. fluff

We Oompa-Loompoid workers were randomly sorted into teams each factory lineSunday night and each team was assigned a “line” (i.e. “Mr. Goodbar,” “Hershey Kisses,” “Kit Kat”) on which it worked for a week at a time. There were only a total of about 30 people on the night shift and we got to know each other in the shallow-yet-sometimes-too-deep way that one gets to know someone when jabbering together as a means to stay awake all night. goodbarYou’d get to talking with someone, never making eye-contact, just focusing on opening boxes of Mr. Goodbars and sliding the box to the hands next to you, and soon enough the conversation with … Jess? Jen? … you’d never get it straight, but anyway, your tale about a crazy party you attended freshman year might segue into her story revealing she had a bowel resection as a nine year old.

That curly haired girl from Muhlenberg College hasn’t had a solid BM in ten years

One thing we did share was music, as each line was allowed a boom box. boomboxIn those (mostly) pre-individualized music days, we shared music as a group might share a large cauldron of soup. In this diverse group, few people enjoyed the same kind of soup, so at the beginning of the week a general soup-cooking order was established – Bill will make Chicken Noodle Tuesday, Jane and Ted will make tomato on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday we’re all gonna have to eat Gladys’s nasty Borscht with Lentils and Okra – (i.e. Contemporary Christian Music or Christian Rock.)

Most folks selecting the music were, sadly, Top 40 aficionados, so WINK 104 was the usual music choice. I can still recall the hit songs from the summer 87 summerof ’87 without having to double-check my facts on Google. And I still get nauseous from each of them, like someone getting a whiff of tequila the morning after barfing from drinking too much. “Who’s that Girl,” by Madonna. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. “I Want Your Sex,” by George Michael. “Shakedown“, by Bob Seger. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston. “Mary’s Prayer,” by some guy. I think those were the only 6 songs played that summer.

Other people brought cassettes to play, or tuned in to classic rock or Christian rock.

prince singNow, by 1987 I was very aware of the musician named Prince. When I was in middle school he had a hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” that my sisters loved, and that I liked, too, in my 12-year-old disco fan way. By the time I got to high school, he was well-known as a freaky-looking, sexually ambiguous R&B singer, whose hits “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette” were in constant rotation on MTV.

By the summer of ’87, he was just some guy making music that I never really cared for much. It’s true, as my friend Josh had pointed out back in high school, after we sat through a slideshow by Josten’s that used a Prince song as background, that he was obviously a phenomenal guitar player and I was a fan of guitar. But I still wasn’t interested. Apart from the few songs MTV played, I didn’t listen much to R&B, and Prince’s songs were way too sexual-sounding for me to get into. prince guitar

But a whiff of cardboard box today can place me back at the exact moment my opinion of Prince was altered. I was on a line at the warehouse, opening and sliding boxes in the middle of the night, when someone (I think the blonde woman with acne scars – that’s all I remember) who had control of the boom box for a night brought along a cassette of Purple Rain to play. I remember that the energy in the line picked up immediately, and most everyone around me sang along to every song, did little dances as they worked, performed the “I Would Die 4 U” hand motions when appropriate, and generally had a blast. It seemed that with every passing song I thought, “hey that one wasn’t too bad …” then girded myself for the follow-up that I assumed I’d hate. But it never really came. I found myself moving from grim acceptance of that evening’s poor soup choice – a soup I’d never really tasted much of at all – to wondering where I could get the recipe. It really just took one listen. Or maybe two, as I recall that the general consensus was that the cassette should be played again immediately.

prince smokePurple Rain is the soundtrack to a supposedly very bad movie starring Prince. It appears on every list of best-soundtracks-of-bad-movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen the movie, so I don’t know how bad it is, but I do know that the soundtrack is very, very good.

If I were on the staff at Championship Vinyl and asked to name my all-time, top-five Side One, Track Ones, Purple Rain’s opener would definitely be on the list: “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/06763e656dcd371299f&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

It’s one of Prince’s most famous songs, still receiving airplay today on Oldies stations that, for the sake of their vain, faint-hearted listening audience (i.e. me) don’t refer to themselves as Oldies stations. The eulogeic introduction, with steady and swooping organ, oddly sets the stage for the song’s theme of celebrating life. A drum beat enters at about 40 seconds, and the spoken words start to swirl and echo, disintegrating around the instrumentation. The beat is simple and driving, and it carries the song throughout. A good dance song requires that kind of simplicity, and it meshes well with the simple four note hook that the keyboards play. I’m always a fan of the stuff going on in the background in songs, the things you might not notice on first listen. (This is one of the joys of being a Beatles fan.) And what I like in this song is the distorted guitar answering the keyboard’s hook throughout. It’s a simple riff, but it sounds really cool back there. The entire song is fun and bouncy, prince guitar 2and who doesn’t like shouting along to the words “Let’s go crazy!” in any song? Prince also has a knack for knowing where to go – chord-wise – when moving from verse to chorus, as demonstrated at the 1:32 mark. These changes make his songs seem … I don’t know how to explain this well, but almost like they are part of nature, like they existed and he just unearthed them somehow. This is another bit of pop-music genius that he shares with the Beatles.

As fun and danceable as this song is, it’s very much – to me – a guitar song, as well, due to the crunchy riffing and two strong solos. The first appears at 2:40, with Prince wailing like the hair metal boys who were just starting to pop up around 1984. Then he reenters with a stunning cadenza at 3:54. This is the part of the song I remember impressed Josh back in high school. It also helps to bring the song to a dramatic close, one suitable for a song that began with such an unforgettable opening.

prince logoPart of my problem with Prince songs has been – and continues to be – his use of drum machines (or anyway, drums that sound like machines.) Even in a great song like “Let’s Go Crazy,” the drums aren’t much to write about. The second track on Purple Rain, “Take Me With U,” at least begins with some cool drum flourishes:

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/ffd09d8d88107468c9e&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

The bass drum plays a heartbeat, which is particularly noticeable against the opening lyrics, “I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart.” As with “Let’s Go Crazy,” another catchy, simple riff – this time played by synthetic orchestra – carries the song. The cool, hard-to-detect, interesting bit in this one is the very subtle acoustic guitar (0:21, 0:30, etc) that provides an answer to the riff’s melody, an answer that later in the song is played by violins (or, anyway, synthetic violins.) It’s a prince pointcatchy duet with Kardashianesque 80s personality Apollonia, and again showcases Prince’s ability to create songs with changes (0:47) that have a truly “natural” feel. A great sing-along song about true love, it always struck me that in the bridge, Apollonia sings “I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion …” and not, “I don’t care if we spend the night in your apartment you share with 3 other people, in which you have a bedroom off the kitchen in a converted pantry …,” a living arrangement I once had. It suggested a bit of a gold-digger attitude that confirmed Apollonia probably wasn’t the woman for me.

And maybe the fact that I think of myself as an underdog is why I always liked the next song, and found myself a little surprised that Prince wrote it:

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/5f0161904b908c53739&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

“The Beautiful Ones” is about a situation that I find it hard to prince jacketbelieve Prince has ever found himself – falling for someone who’s not interested in him. Musically, it’s the kind of song that made me write off Prince for many years – full of synthesizer blips and noises, sung in an overly emotional, falsetto voice. But I came to enjoy the song over the years, mainly because I connected with the lyrics, having spent many teen/young adult years feeling like I always fell for girls who had no romantic interest in me. I never blamed it on The Beautiful Ones, however; I always just figured I was a loser. So, when Prince goes nuts vocally from 3:20 through the end of the song, I could relate to the emotions expressed – the anger, frustration, sadness.

As much as I liked the songs on Side One, Side Two of Purple Rain was always my favorite side. It’s only four songs, but they are great ones.

revolutionMy least favorite of the bunch is probably Prince’s biggest hit ever, the number one song of 1984, “When Doves Cry.”

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/acf8749f37ef562c1e5&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

There’s not much to say about it. It’s a decent song, but I’ve heard it too much in my life to leave it on the radio if it comes on. However, I’ll say this: it’s pretty cool that a dance song has NO BASS in it! As a bass player myself, I find that pretty astonishing. If you never noticed, give it another listen! Also – Prince is a kook. Who thinks up a creepy line like “Animals strike curious poses/they feel the heat between me and you”? AND makes it sound so good? The line always reminded me of this classic Jonathan Winters bit.

Up next on side two is “I Would Die 4 U”

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/30ac63901784d2917ff&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

prince lisaApart from the fact that it particularly annoys me that Prince always uses “U” and “4” and “2” and “B” for the words “You” and “For” and “To/Too” and “Be,” this is a fun song. There’s not much to it in terms of instrumentation, although I do like the tiny bass glissando at the beginning of the song. Prince again writes a catchy melody, and he delivers its desperate lover lyrics perfectly. I particularly like the vocal bridge from 1:24 to 1:40, delivered rapid-style, harkening back to some train passengers’ lament about Professor Harold Hill.

The song runs directly into “Baby I’m a Star,” its second half.

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/8689c449bba56feea7c&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

Both songs have fake-sounding drums, and limited instrumentation. They have barely a hint of guitar, they’re repetitive and over-produced, with layered synthesizers carrying the bulk of the background. Given my typical taste in music, I should hate these songs. Yet somehow I love them. prince listenBoth are fun, with a bounce-along beat and shout-it-out lyrics. In both songs, Prince absolutely kills the vocals. In “Baby I’m a Star,” he produces some of his signature squeals and screams (2:30 – 2:38), and what sound like several different voices advise a girl to hop aboard his unstoppable train to stardom early.

The title song closes the album. It was another smash for Prince.

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/3bd1a861f24a711de11&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

It’s an epic ballad with wailing guitar and lost-love lyrics emotionally delivered. It’s the kind of song that all those bullshit, poufy-haired, over-produced, extra-cheesy, L.A.-hired-gun-songwriter-written, 80s “power ballads” strived to be. But “Purple Rain” is the real deal. Astoundingly, the song was recorded live (with overdubs added later), something I’m sure none of the hair bands who cranked out “power ballads” ever attempted. It’s sometimes mentioned as the best song from the 80s and features more demonstrations of Prince’s guitar prowess, and another shout-along chorus and closing “oh-oh-oh.” I don’t know what purple rain is, but I do know that the early 70s folk band America mentioned it in their big hit “Ventura Highway,” as well. Somehow I doubt Prince lifted it from them.

Before I close this out, it’s worth mentioning the song “Darling Nikki,” a song whose lyrics (well, actually just one word) caused the era’s snooty, Washington, D.C., busybody housewives to insist that records be labeled if “Explicit Content” was found anywhere within – a practice that continues to this day, even online. PMRCIt caused all kinds of hoopla, with congressional hearings that were carried live on the then-new, and still-boring, cable channel C-Span. (If you have the time, please watch Frank Zappa Dee Snider and John Denver testify before congress. They make the goofballs in congress look incredibly silly.) I always found it odd that this one word in one song raised such a ruckus, while in the same era Cindy Lauper had an entire hit song about the word and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a huge hit that offered sexual advice seemingly direct from the Playboy Advisor, yet nobody seemed to care. In 1984, Prince definitely had a firm grip on America’s … mind.prince leap

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the cigar smoke. Maybe it’s just a really great album. Something about the record hooked me that summer. You never know where you’ll find enjoyment. Amid cardboard and chocolate and people whose names I’ll never remember, I discovered a classic, mid-80s funk gem. And I think of it whenever I open an Amazon package or a pizza box.

TRACKS
Let’s Go Crazy
Take Me With U
The Beautiful Ones
Computer Blue
Darling Nikki
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m A Star
Purple Rain

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72nd Favorite: Let It Be, by The Replacements

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Let It Be. The Replacements
1984, Twin/Tone. Producer: Steve Fjelstad, Peter Jesperson, Paul Westerberg
Purchased: ca. 1992.

letitbe album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Excellent rock songwriting, with terrific lyrics and strong performances. Leader Paul Westerberg is a treasure, and the band plays in a ragged style, almost as if trying to hide their talent beneath a layer of punk patina. The album has some of my favorite songs from the last 40 years. But for a few so-so songs, this would be top 20, easy.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
kendrickAs 2016 begins, my son is nearing 17 years old and is quite a music fan. He likes a lot of different musical styles, but his favorite is hip hop, which – given my advanced age – all sounds
kind of the same to me.

steviewOur tastes do cross paths at a few places. He loves the “Stevie Wonder Channel” he made on Pandora, and since I’ve played “Oldies” in the car ever since he was a baby, he has a fondness for 60s and 70s classic rock and pop.

Because he knows I’m a music fan, he is always on the lookout for new songs that I might like. He’ll often play a song for me and say, “Dad, I think you’ll like this one …” Typically he picks songs that have a strong bass line and a discernible melody in the chorus. When I do like a song, it makes him happy. If I don’t like it he’ll argue a bit, then tell me I have no taste.

80snerdThe other discussion he enjoys having with me regarding new music is the “What would people think …?” discussion. As in, “Dad, what would people think of this song when you were in high school? Would it just be totally crazy?”

The answer varies. For the hip hop songs, I think the answer is almost always “Yes, it would sound crazy,” because when I was in high school the only “hip hop” we knew was “Rapper’s Delight,” and a little Run-DMC, which sound quite different from anything by, say, Future. But some non-hip-hop songs from 2015, for example “Uptown Funk,” would’ve fit in quite nicely at my school’s Friday night dances after basketball games.

A good example of what it looked like when the author “boogied” during 80s high school dances.

But my usual answer is “I don’t remember how crazy it would sound.” It’s not that grandpaadvancing age is calcifying the once robust, agile fluidity of my cortex … Okay, that’s partly it. But mainly the reason I can’t remember is because of the fact that as music evolves, sounds that once were unusual or “crazy” come to sound normal, like they’ve always been there. So I don’t recall what sounded crazy, and when.

There is music all around us – in stores, on TV, in our cars – and our ears and brain recognize it as Music. And of course we listen to music for pleasure – buying it on Spotify or iTunes, or even on old-fashioned CDs and previously-old-fashioned-but-now-new-fashioned vinyl and cassettes. And our ears and brains adapt to the changes in popular music rather readily.

ears musicSome may argue that the more music changes, the more it sounds the same. Recording technology has certainly improved, but while music professionals might notice profound taylor bandchanges in music recording technology, without the thoroughly trained, hypersensitive cochlear apparatuses of a professional, can one really distinguish the sonic improvements in, say, Taylor Swift’s latest record as compared to her first in 2006? I don’t think so. Improvements in technology don’t change the fact that Taylor Swift makes catchy ditties with typical song structure and recognizable musical sounds, just like hits from 2006 and 1986 and 1946. Even Benny Goodman could have played “Shake It Off,” but his version would have come with a full big-band complement of trumpets and saxophones. Good Time Charlies in 1938 would’ve swung their chicks right along to a snappy number like that.

awful musicBut consider a few words in that sentence a few lines up: “recognizable musical sounds.” How do we as listeners adapt to new musical sounds and incorporate them into our personal basket of “recognizable” musical sounds? When does a “crazy sound” stop sounding crazy?

When truly new-sounding music hits the masses, the tendency is for it to be rejected by a large segment of the music-appreciating public. But if the new sounds can gain a foothold with a critical mass of music appreciation pioneers, the sounds begin to be heard more often, rite springand the next thing you know you can’t tell why you ever thought the new sound was so cacophonous in the first place; it’s now quite mellifluous.

This initial mass rejection of new sounds before subsequent mass acceptance has a distinguished history Probably the most famous example is that of riots in 1913 Paris over a wild new ballet by Igor Stravinsky.

Around the same time, the American media was observing a new kind of popular music, and railing against this “Satan’s music,” called “ragtime.” joplinRagtime was the first American music to cause a “true upheaval which had moral and economic consequences, other than musical consequences, in American popular culture,” according to composer and historian Max Morath. troubleIt’s the kind of music that Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man called “shameless music/That’ll grab your son and your daughter/With the arms of a jungle animal instinct.”

Now that it’s 2016, and Ragtime music is over a century old, and we’ve all grown up with its old-timey sounds in our lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when this music could have sounded devilish and crazy. It’s difficult to conceive of what it was like to experience that change of sound. And since these changes were taking place at the very dawn of recorded music, it’s difficult to get a good idea of the popular music landscape into which this “shameless music” was thrust.

So let’s jump ahead to Rock and Roll, music from an era that started well after “The Charts” were firmly established, tracking America’s music listening and buying habits, thus providing a clearer window to peek through into the world of the listening public.

zenithImagine it’s 1955, and you’re listening to your favorite song on the family Zenith radio, Tony Bennett’s beautiful 1954 Number One Smash “Stranger in Paradise.” You’re thinking of your sweetie, and the fine times you’ve had together, the finer times you hope to have. Music, you think, can’t get any better than this … As the song ends, and your warm feelings are lingering, the DJ announces the next number, featuring a new sound coming out of Philadelphia, and heard in the new Glenn Ford film, Blackboard Jungle.

It’s Bill Haley and His Comets, performing “Rock Around the Clock!”

You nearly leap out of your chair with fright!!! “This isn’t music!!!” you scream. “Where are the violins? This guy can’t even sing – he, he, … he BARKS!! And what the hell is that sound at 44 seconds in??!! It sounds like a bumblebee caught in a tin can? cannibalAnd where are those drums coming from, some kind of voodoo ceremony, or cannibal dance? I mean, I like Big Band Swing okay, but I’ve never heard anything like THIS!!”

Watch that video, and check out the woman dancing at 50 seconds. Could you ever fathom pants that tight moving in that manner along to Tony Bennett or Mario Lanza? This new sound must have sounded downright insane.

You, the Tony Bennet lover, might think that that crazy music was just a fad when Doris Day sets things back to normal in 1956, but in 1957 Elvis Presley comes along, and the next year Chuck Berry is duck walking all over the airwaves with that electrified guitar, and he’s not even trying to sing in any way that you recognize as singing! elvis etcFolks like Little Richard aren’t even trying to sing words; they’re just making up gibberish, and by now that Bill Haley song from 4 years ago doesn’t sound too crazy at all. In fact, compared to Chuck Berry, it sounds downright QUAINT! And once Pat Boone comes along to rephrase these songs in a way a Tony Bennett fan can really appreciate, you’ve become very accustomed to the rock and roll sound. Maybe you’re not a fan, but it no longer sounds like something from an outer space jungle insane asylum.

This script for the introduction of “new sounds” to popular music is repeated often. The Beatles entered the American airwaves and sounded different from the usual fare and were immediately dismissed by many critics and other music fans. unionjackBut in another year “The British Invasion” is in full swing, clogging the airwaves with anything vaguely Beatle-esque, and by 1968, nobody can remember what sounded so crazy about the 1964 version of the band.

Likewise, punk rock sounded like screaming knackmaniacs tossing electric motors down a marble staircase when compared to popular hit songs of the era, and most people didn’t get it. But by 1979, the top song of the year is “My Sharona,” a nifty new wave song whose success couldn’t have happened without listeners’ collective ears getting broken in by that edgy, repetitive, stripped-down punk sound.

All those examples of listeners’ ears adapting are from either before I was born, or before I began paying attention closely to musicalnirvana sounds. However, I clearly recall an adaptation my ears made that, in retrospect, renders cute my ears’ first confused apprehension of a new sound. It occurred in the very early 90s, near the end of the dreaded scourge of Hair Metal. In an era of phony-baloney, pretend-loud, pseudo-aggressive music by bands like Warrant, Kurt Cobain’s indecipherable mumbling and screaming, over the band’s boom-boom crunch in Nirvana’s famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded gloriously unholy and new. However, listening to the song twenty-five years later, it’s hard to remember what sounded so wild about it.

The point is that peoples’ ears are ears2only ready for new sounds when they’re ready for new sounds. Some folks get onboard earlier than others; some folks can hear the music in the noise more clearly than others. Music only clicks with the listener when the listener is ready, either after priming by the sounds of an evolving genre, or because a listener is just out there searching for something new. And when I hear The Replacements today, it’s hard to imagine how crazy I thought they sounded at first.

Although, to be fair, I’d never actually HEARD them when I thought they sounded so crazy. I should have learned from Billy Joel: “there’s a new band in town/but you can’t get the sound/from a story in a magazine/aimed at your average teen.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.13.46 AMI have a recollection of being in high school and reading a little about The Replacements in an issue of Rolling Stone.

At the time, a friend had recently tried to get me into the mid-80s punk rock music by playing songs by a band called The Meatmen, from an album called (rather hilariously) We’re the Meatmen … And You Suck! In listening back to this song today, it’s hard to believe how crazy, unmusical and uninteresting it sounded to me in 1985. It sounded like guys who had picked up guitars and meatmenjust started whacking away on the necks and shrieking along. It was amusing in that way, amusing enough that a couple friends and I actually made up and recorded some songs for fun in which we did just that. And although the Rolling Stone article stated, quite accurately, “The Replacements mix country and blues with hard rock Rolling Stones-… style,” the description didn’t register. All I knew was that I’d already heard some of this new “punk rock,” and I thought it sucked and that the people who played it sucked. (Spoken like a true Rush fan!)

mats bandI heard about the band again over the next several years, read their name in articles, saw some records in record stores and all along thought they were lousy, screaming creeps banging unrelentingly on their instruments. And maybe they were. But I still wish I’d given them a chance back then.

I was finally forced to actually listen to the band when I joined a band myself, The April Skies, which featured a lead guitarist/songwriter, Jake, who had a Replacements obsession. Maybe obsession is too strong a word. Call it a fascination. Or a condition. Nah, it was obsession. He talked about them all the time, and at rehearsal he often played a simple riff over and over, a catchy little thing that went like this (7 seconds in):

When I finally heard the full song – during a long drive in a van on the way to a faraway gig – I was blown away. The catchy melody, the interplay of bass and drums, the singer’s expressive voice, the lyrics evoking a young person’s desire … it sounded like the perfect song. How could this be coming from a band I knew, just KNEW – from reading a short article and hearing a couple songs by a completely different band six years ago – to be a bunch of talentless losers??

“I Will Dare” features lead guitar from Peter Buck of R.E.M., who were traveling the same College Radio circuit as The Replacements in 1984. paul hairAlso, Replacements’ lead singer and main songwriter, Paul Westerberg, plays a catchy mandolin to end the song. I love everything about this song, from Chris Mars’s four-on-the-floor drumbeat at the beginning to Westerberg’s plea, “Come on!” before the second chorus, to guitarist Bob Stinson’s sort of out of tune run at 3:11. Westerberg has a distinctive rock voice that strains against years of cigarette soot to reach the correct notes, but reach them he always does. If I were writing about my top 100 songs of all time, I think “I Will Dare” would break the top ten. I remember being young and experiencing all the feelings this song expresses, the thrill of the danger in seeking reciprocated love, the desire for a call on Thursday – or Wednesday, better still! And no songwriter can turn a phrase better than Westerberg (“How young are you?/How old am I?/Let’s count the rings/Around my eyes”). More times than not, I’ll get chills listening to this song. It just has that effect.

paul singWesterberg has a talent for mining a deep vein of a particular form of 70s/80s suburban teen angst, from the days before the internet brought everything everywhere right to your fingertips. It’s a mixture of boredom (“There’s nothing to do in this town…”), doom (“… and I’ll never get out of here…”), doubt (“… and I’m such a loser, nobody will ever like me …”) that is spiked with deep pride (“… but all those folks from other places who think they’re better than me and my town can kiss my ass!”) A good example is the beautiful “Unsatisfied.”

There isn’t a whole lot to the lyrics, but put chrismarsto this tune, and sung in Westerberg’s moving style, they say so much more than their content. Westerberg adds a wonderful lap steel guitar to the song. I don’t know of another song that makes me feel so much like I did as a fifteen year old in rural Pennsylvania, even though I didn’t hear the song until I was in my twenties!

The topic of teenage angst is handled even more directly in the sweet “Sixteen Blue.”

It’s the third song I’ve written about, and still there’s nothing on the album that sounds like The Meatmen, mats concert 1nothing even reminiscent of the boast Westerberg made in that Rolling Stone piece: “A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin … You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat.” These are great, straight-ahead rock songs. “Sixteen Blue” has some really nice lead guitar courtesy of Bob Stinson, mirroring the sadness of the lyrics.

But despite a yearning for something new, something to break up the monotony, The ‘Mats aren’t the types to go in for something new just to keep up with those around them.

In the song “Answering Machine,” our protagonist, the Unsatisfied, Blue Sixteen year-old, hoping that a special someone Will Dare with him, is thwarted by a newfangled object in 1984.

The song expresses a “What is wrong with these people?” mats band dresssentiment, an exasperation that no one else can see just how useless a useful machine can be to a human seeking connection. The song features just Westerberg and his guitar, and this arrangement enhances the song’s emotional and informational message.

mats tommy leapThe band also expresses their contempt for another 80s touchstone, Music Videos. The rousing, punky “Seen Your Video” was an attack on the MTV generation, on style over substance, and a poke at R.E.M. (or so I’ve read – either in All Over But the Shouting or Our Band Could Be Your Life, two books I HIGHLY recommend), friends of The Replacements who were just getting some attention on mainstream radio, and were starting to make videos for their songs.

It’s an instrumental (mostly) that’s catchy and aggressive, with nice guitar lines throughout. This is the first song I’ve mentioned here that even smacks a bit of punk rock. But there are others on the album.

“Favorite Thing” is a raucous ode …

a raucous ode to … something. Punk rock? Rock and roll? The way Westerberg sings it, I always thought it was to a person, but the lyrics seem to be about a lifestyle (“It’s really hip, with plenty of flash”), a desire (“Wanna be something/Wanna be anything”), perhaps even a future (“I think big once in a while”). Once again, it’s that 70s/80s small town adolescent, wishing for something but not sure what.

Another fine, funny punk song is about bass player Tommy Stinson’s health problems, “Tommy Gets his Tonsils Out.”

“He gets his tonsils out?” you may ask. “How old is he, twelve??!” tommyWell, actually, he was twelve when he joined the band in 1979, and he dropped out of school three years later to go on tour, after the band’s manager obtained legal guardianship of him so Tommy could legally enter the bars they played. He’s led a very Rock and Roll life. This song is plain fun, with witty lyrics gently teasing the young teen. It’s somewhat of a throwback to some of the band’s earlier, rougher, punkier tunes, but it’s a much tamer and mainstream sound than the early songs.

mats fingerAnother humorous song is the raunchily titled “Gary’s Got a Boner,” dealing with another teenage angst-filled topic, sex. “We’re Coming Out” is a barn-burner about … something. The band also covers the Kiss song, “Black Diamond,” which I generally skip over.

I prefer the less punky songs on the album, something that might annoy long-time, hardcore ‘Mats fans. But the album, and its famous album cover, definitely has a punk feel – especially the title. Giving an paul guitaralbum the same name as an album by the greatest band ever is a pretty “punk rock” thing to do. Also punk-rock is the embrace of the “other,” particularly in one striking case – the song “Androgynous.”

It’s a song that I used to mistake as a case AGAINST boyish girls and girlish boys, bob skirtbut a close reading of the lyrics reveals a sophisticated, sincere and broad-minded take on the issue of gender identity. “Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?” Westerberg asks, a prescient view of societal changes to come in the next thirty years after this recording. “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls/will be laughed at/the way you’re laughed at now,” he sings, and sure urinals still exist, and girls still play with dolls, but more and more “unisex” restrooms are found nowadays and toys are becoming much less rigidly gender-specific. The song’s become a bit of an anthem in the LGBTQ community, performed last summer by Miley Cyrus, Joan Jett and transgender singer Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, to raise funds for Cyrus’s “Happy Hippie Foundation” for homeless, LGBTQ and vulnerable youth.

As someone with close relationships with people whose gender and sexual identity has been a source of significant personal struggles, the fact that a song by a favorite band of mine has become such an anthem makes me very happy.

mats busIt’s hard to believe how radical an idea androgyny was in 1984 – the simple fact that a boy could want to look girlish and a girl look boyish (even if they’re a straight couple, as the song describes) was rather shocking back then. And it’s hard to believe how shocking 80s punk music sounded to me back then. When my son asks me if a song from today would’ve sounded crazy back then, all I can think is that so much sounded crazy back then – both in music and society – and it’s a damn shame we let that so-called craziness prevent us from trying to understand. I probably missed out on some damn fine music, and others probably missed out on a whole lot more.

TRACK LISTING
I Will Dare
Favorite Thing
We’re Comin’ Out
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
Androgynous
Black Diamond
Unsatisfied
Seen Your Video
Gary’s Got a Boner
Sixteen Blue
Answering Machine

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85th Favorite: 90125, by Yes

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90125. Yes.
1983, ATCO. Producer: Trevor Horne
Gift, 1983.

90125

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL – Quintessential glossy 80s rock from 70s Prog Rock kings who somehow manage to cram all the characteristics of Prog (weird song structures, harmonies, virtuosity, bizarre lyrics) into 4 minute pop songs. If I hadn’t played it every day in 1984, it probably wouldn’t make the list! WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had played it four times a day. Or if it had fewer sound effects, samples and Casio-esque keyboards.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(Parts of this post were originally posted in March, 2013)

First, let’s hear Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters’ front man, Dave Grohl, on the concept of GUILTY PLEASURES:

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. [It’s] not cool.” Don’t think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why not? Fuck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.”

Amen.

I recall a discussion from early in my senior year of high school, in the fall of (gasp) 1984 (!!),with friends Rick and Josh about a report we had recently heard.

class of 85
The word from the radio, or maybe MTV, was that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin! Duh!!) had reunited to cut an EP. This was Earth-shattering good news. I myself was giddy with excitement.

plant pageNeither Rick nor (especially) Josh would ever be described as “giddy,” but they were both interested, though also cautioned (especially Josh, as he has always been wise beyond his years) that there was a decent chance the EP would suck.

I was incredulous at the suggestion. “How could anyone imagine this EP could suck!!???” I wondered. “Weren’t Robert and Jimmy half of the greatest hard rock band in the history of this world and Middle Earth?? Weren’t they such a kickass band that even their slow songs fuckin’ rocked?” I chuckled at the suggestion that anything produced by such a collaboration could suck. Sure, based on their post-Zeppelin output, I didn’t expect the EP to be as good as Led Zeppelin. But clearly, there was no way it would suck. Even the new band’s name, “The Honeydrippers,” boded well, as in my adolescent mind it was somewhat reminiscent of the vaguely raunchy lyrics from Zep’s “The Lemon Song.”

walkmanI chuckled to myself. “You’ll see,” I thought. “This will blow your walkman right off your belt clip!”

I have a memory of watching MTV when the channel unveiled the World Premiere of the video for The Honeydrippers’ new song. Maybe it’s a purely conjured memory, but in my mind I can see Mark Goodman welcoming viewers to the unveiling of “the first single from the new EP titled The Honeydrippers, Volume 1” (which indicated to me that more great volumes could be on the way!!), “Sea of Love!”

marc goodmanThis was it!! Page and Plant, together again!! YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!” my 17 year old brain screamed, “ROCK AND ROLL!!!!!!!!!!! Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!! Long Live Rock!! I need it every night!!!”

And I settled myself down to watch Glorious Rock Majesty unfold:

Okay, I don’t expect you to watch every second of every video I post. But just watch the first minute. Twenty seconds is enough to realize that this is NOT going to be another “Immigrant Song.” And by the 42 second mark, when a coiffed, mustachioed and generally hairy dude in a Speedo appears, waving beaters over – but never actually playing – a xylophone, it was clear to my teenage self that everything I thought I knew about Plant and Page was completely wrong. This was not Hard Rock. This was not Rock and Roll. For Christ’s sake, this wasn’t even Soft Rock. This was not any kind of Rock that I could even imagine. This was music that my PARENTS would appreciate, and if there’s one thing I know that my parents DO NOT appreciate, it is ROCK MUSIC.

parents

beavisThis was … this was … THIS WAS BULLSHIT!! My wiser friends were right – there had been a chance the music could suck. And suck it did.

At the time I claimed to like the song, out of some sense of loyalty to Plant and Page, or maybe a kind of faith in Led Zeppelin. I claimed to like it, but I knew … It Sucked.

It took me a long time to realize that it didn’t really suck all THAT bad, and an even longer time to realize why such (apparently) debauched Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll guys like Plant and Page would make an entire EP of songs like this one.

It’s because it’s always high school in your brain. “Sea of Love” might have sounded schmaltzy and lame to me, it may be light years away from “Out on the Tiles” and “Achilles Last Stand,” but it’s a song Plant grew up to, a song that must have stirred something in him as a teen recordyouth that continued stirring throughout the intervening 25 years. What the song continued to bring to him was something my 17 year old, mostly-id brain couldn’t understand. But for Plant, the connection was still strong.

Your youth just stays with you, and you can’t really explain why.

elderly danceOne part of youth that has stayed with me (without me even realizing it until recently!) is the Yes album 90125.

It is an album that I hadn’t listened to in at least 25 years when I started this project. In fact, I had forgotten about it entirely, until I was trying to put together a list of albums that I figured would have been Top Ten for me back in 1984-85. I remembered I used to play the cassette, which one of my sisters got me for Christmas in 1983, regularly. For a long stretch I played it daily. I loved that cassette – every song.

I stopped listening to it sometime in college. During and after college, my musical interests began to change. I had grown to love The Beatles, but became less interested in other classic rock – especially acts that stressed virtuosity – and more interested in college-radio acts.

new bandsI became obsessed with melodic, punkier music by bands like REM and XTC, or Elvis Costello and the Attractions. By the time a friend loaned me a box set of The Clash (a band I’d heard before, but never really took seriously [after all, they had no intricate, 5 minute guitar solos, no confusing time signature changes, and their singer didn’t sound like his nuts were in a vise]) my entire perspective on music had been altered radically.

So I never thought much again about 90125 – or if I did, I scoffed and mocked my younger self for ever being so silly as to listen to it. 90210I reached a point where I couldn’t remember whether 90210 was the TV show and 90125 the Yes album, or vice versa. I also held a bit of a grudge against the album, actually, as it had been my entree into the bizarre, bombastic and rather ridiculous world of Progressive Rock, or “Prog Rock.” For a while I was quite embarrassed by a two-year deep dive I had taken into Prog Rock’s multi-chambered, cavernous world of Moogs, Mustaches and Music School Maiar. But in the interest of being as thorough as possible in documenting my musical tastes, I bought a used copy of the disc ($1.99!!). And when I put it into the CD player in my car, and the songs began to play, a wave of good feelings returned.

Obviously, not everything about adolescence is memorable, fun or positive, but I found myself enjoying the music, and thinking about old friends and old times that I hadn’t thought of in years. I sang all the lyrics to songs I hadn’t heard in 25 years or more. It all came back to me, including what it was I liked about the album. (Which isn’t always the case for me, when listening to favorites from my youth.) I felt like Plant and Page must have felt when they heard music from their teenage years, my parents’ teenage years. It stirred up that youthful excitement with just one play. Just as the younger me couldn’t understand why they’d play crap like “Sea of Love,” I don’t expect most readers to understand why I love this record. But I’ll try to explain it.

90125 is very much, extremely, entirely and in totality a Time-Capsule-1983 work.

83

On grand display are synthesizers, multi-tracked and hyper-compressed guitars, flanging drums, and computer-generated sounds and effects of the type that today are easily embedded in everyday items such as greeting cards and bottle openers, but at the time seemed to have been created by a DARPA-funded team on loan from NASA. The music at times sounds entirely created by robots playing instruments that have been loaded with Artificial Intelligence.

robots

There’s a sterile quality to the album, apparent even in the album artwork. It has a sound that, were I to first hear the record today, I would find unappealing. I’ve become more devoted than ever to the sounds of instruments I can identify, with minimal effects placed between the artist and the listener. But I’m also a fan of songs and melody, regardless of how they are produced, and the great songs and melodies on 90125, coupled with the punch of memories and reminiscence, make the record a favorite – even though I’d forgotten about it for years!

The record opens with one of the most iconic 80s songs of all time, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” I feel confident calling it iconic (even though it didn’t make VH1’s Top 100 Songs of the 80s) because it is a song that exemplifies the 1983 rock sound, just as “Great Balls of Fire” says 1957, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” says 1967. “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” like Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” is a song that sounds like it could only have ever been a hit during one particular 10 -month stretch in history, from Spring of ’83 through Winter of ’84.

yes 83

It also has one of the more “artsy” videos of the era:

What the song really has going for it, beneath all the gunshot sound effects, synthesized string section blasts and drum samples from the band Funk, Inc., is Chris Squire’s super catchy bass hook (the same riff that’s played on guitar to open the song.) Probably the last adjective one would ever use to describe the band Yes would be “funky,” but in fact, this song does have a bit of funk to it. Enough for it to have been sampled by a few different hip hop acts, going back to 1985. As strange as it feels to write this, it’s a Yes song to which one might dance. (And in fact, a dance remix version of the song hit #9 in the UK a few years back.) It’s strange to write it because most Yes songs recorded in the 15 years prior to 90125 were … well, let’s just say NOT conducive to (non-interpretive) dancing.

There are many places for you to read about the varied history of the band Yes, but – befitting an act whose album artwork and musical stylings albumsconjure images of multi-part Fantasy Novel sagas – it would take up the equivalent of two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to completely tell the story. (There is a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted solely to band members present and past! It even has a chart showing the timeline of all 19 members!!) trevor rabinSuffice it to say that the 90125 edition of the band had an 80s pop sensibility, but tried to keep the Yes sound (distinct vocals, inscrutable lyrics, excellent musicianship) intact. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was proof that the concept could work … for about 10 months. It has a catchy melody over the bass line, and if you don’t mind nut-in-vise male singers, then Jon Anderson’s vocals sound good, too. Trevor Rabin’s guitar work is mostly buried under all that computerese, but he is a great player and his solo on the song is weird and cool.

The next song on the album is “Hold On,” which caught enough of the tail end of that 10-month stretch of history to reach number 27 on the singles chart.

The main feature of this song is the vocal work among Anderson, Rabin and Squire (who, if you checked out that earlier chart, you’ll see is the only consistent member through all versions of the band). Its lyrics are a simple yet uplifting message about strength in hard times. (Although – as with all Jon Anderson lyrics – don’t look too closely at the lyrics because even seemingly direct meanings can be derailed by passages like this:

jon 2“Talk the simple smile
Such platonic eye
How they drown in incomplete capacity
Strangest of them all
When the feeling calls
How we drown in stylistic audacity
Charge the common ground
Round and round and round
We living in gravity”

When you’re a Yes fan, you learn to just deal with these types of lyrics, like a fan of Woody Allen movies just deals with the fact that he married his step daughter.) But another cool feature of the song is the bass and guitar work of Squire and Rabin. musicianThe song sounds like a basic 80s pop song, but if you are a fan of 70s bombastic Yes (as I am) you can pick out the musicianship on display beneath the 80s gloss and (frankly) fruity keyboards. Both players mix in some interesting fills and complex runs, and while I’ve never been a big fan of drummer Alan White (I much prefer the jazzy Bill Bruford in my Yes music) he also produces some rhythmic moments that aren’t your typical Madonna/Michael Jackson 1983 sound.

phys maxmax(Side Note: If you’re interested in Awesome 80s Style – including the strange hybird look of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” video crossed with the Mad Max movies, check out this clip of Yes playing “Hold On” live in 1984!)

Continuing with the uplifting theme, the next song is “It Can Happen.”

(It’s TOTALLY worth watching a little bit of that video, too, just to see the haircuts and outfits. This is classic 10-months-in-’83-’84 fashion.) I want to dislike this song, with its multiple sections of varying tempos, repetitious, nonsensical it-can-happen lyrics and background-keyboard whirr, but I can’t. The melody is catchy, there’s enough guitar and bass to keep me interested (especially the repeating high end bass flourish Squire adds), and the song builds nicely throughout. squireWhen it finally reaches the last chorus after the guitar solo (about 3:27) I find myself fighting the urge to pump my fist and shout along, as I probably did every day for that 10 month stretch. It shouldn’t be surprising that Yes crammed about 12 different melodies into a 4 minute song, as previous Yes albums included songs that lasted the entire side of an album, with multiple, named sections. But the fact that they were able to do this and produce hit pop songs with the formula is pretty astounding.

close

Another characteristic of the “classic Yes” sound from all those 70s albums is the vocal harmonies. Part of the reason people like me begin to get obsessed with a band like Yes is the virtuosity. Yes displayed incredible instrumental abilities throughout its run (all 19 members, I suppose … although I only know about a dozen of them …) and on top of that, sang tight harmonies on difficult melodies WHILE THEY WERE PLAYING! It was like Crosby, Stills and Nash singing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” while playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on their guitars. (And I’ll admit, some of their songs sounded about as deranged as this description. But it was impressive.) This type of yes 84musical wizardry causes some people (the nerds, like me) to bow down and worship and causes other people (the punks) to want to hock a loogie at the band (and not in appreciation.) Anyway, this prog-rock staple of vocal harmonies was placed into a pop song format on the song “Leave It.”

(Another time-capsule video worth watching a bit of. The editing on this video was CUTTING-FRIGGIN-EDGE in 1984). It’s a song about being on the road, I guess, but once again, we’re dealing with Yes and sometimes the lyrics are best left un-read. Regarding the vocals, even though they are enhanced with studio effects, the singing on the song is pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that the band later released an a capella version of the song, which inspired a capella groups from every high school, college and community choir to record their own versions. Here are six of the millions.

Songs like this bring up the point that most of the cuts on this album – whether played by robots, or by guys with their nuts in a vise – just sound cool. Were I to hear them today for the first time, I may not appreciate the sound, but the 17 year old me found them really cool, and for some reason that sense is still with me today.

coolThis is why these a capella groups cover this song in particular, and why the album itself was so popular. According to Wikipedia the album sold around 6 million copies worldwide. It didn’t sound much like anything else out at the time (I can’t think of any other pop records that might have had a song like “Changes,” with its shifting 4/4, 6/8, 4/4, 12/8 time signature) but then again it sounded EXACTLY like everything else. The Yes sound was made palatable to the masses, and they liked what they heard.

“Our Song” is what passes for a Yes barn-burner – the closest the band ever gets to real Rock and Roll.

I keep saying one should ignore the band’s lyrics, but I can’t stop harping on them. They’re so amusing! I think this song is about the city of Toledo, and that the song is in the key of C. I know the lyrics rhyme “Britannia” with “grabs ya.” But whatever the lyrics, I sing along to this song all the time, and I don’t give a fuck what it really means. The guitar and bass work are really great, playing together like co-leads, like dueling guitars in a Southern Rock band. It’s a rocker and probably my favorite song on the record.

“City of Love” and “Hearts” close out the album. “City of Love” is a dark, throbbing guitar workout, with all the components I’ve already discussed on full display: excellent guitar and bass, tight harmonies, fruity keyboards, silly lyrics (“Justice/Body smooth takeover”), great melodies, and shiny production.

Hearts” is a sort of Yes 80s power ballad, in the same way that “Our Song” is a Yes rock and roller. That is to say – it’s not REALLY a power ballad. It’s slow and has some seemingly romantic lyrics (although: “Be ready now/Be ye circle” ??? I don’t envision many teenage girls in 1984 writing that on the back of their notebooks.) And it has a really great sing-along chorus, and multiple rocking guitar solos – all staples of the 80s power ballad. But it’s not exactly a song a couple could dance to, with its plodding, hiccuppy drums and strange keyboard interlude. But still, it’s a song that sounds really cool. As the entire album does.

90125 sounds like nothing else. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, upon listening again after so many years, I don’t know if I’d love it so much if I didn’t have such a strong, almost Pavlovian, response to it. But there’s no denying that it is a unique record, a melding of styles that shouldn’t fit together, but that somehow do. It’s the Centaur of rock records – a combination that sounds ridiculous, and is ridiculous, but somehow seems to fit.

centaur

TRACKS:
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
“Hold On”
“It Can Happen”
“Changes”
“Cinema”
“Leave It”
“Our Song”
“City of Love”
“Hearts”

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