Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M. 1986, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Gehman In My Collection: Duped Cassette, 1987; CD, 1995.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Lifes Rich Pageant, the 1986 album from R.E.M., is a record that epitomizes the R.E.M. sound. It starts with Peter Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar, but it’s the rhythm section of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) that really drives the songs. The pair also supply the stunning backing vocals that wind around Michael Stipe’s confident lines. Stipe is the star of this record, his voice finding new wrinkles yet always returning to his distinct, resonant baritone. I can’t forget to mention Mills’ bass lines, as well. His countermelodies underpin most of their best songs, and this record contains many of them.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20.
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I’ve been lucky enough to have many, many friends throughout my life and no enemies. I’m in my mid-50s now, and over those decades I’ve lived many years in each of three main areas (hometown, San Francisco, Boston). I still remember names and details of friends going all the way back to those first neighborhood friends I had before I started kindergarten. (Steve and Richie – great at sports; Jon, Mark and Deaner – brothers who fist-fought regularly.) I’ve had school friends, and college friends, work friends from about a dozen different companies, not to mention neighborhood/parent/UU friends. Then throw in the music communities and acting troupes and improv groups, and two different stand-up comedy scenes, and it turns out I’ve known and befriended lots of different people.
But the truth is I rarely stay in touch with any of them, except my current crew of regularly-seen people, the ones I go to dinner parties and cookouts with. There are a handful (Dr. Dave, Dan) I’ve known for more than thirty years who I keep in touch with regularly. There’s a larger handful who I’m in touch with maybe a couple times a year, and who remain important links in my life’s chain. And then there’s a huge group of people, any friend from any era who I feel like I could call tomorrow and start a conversation that would be fun and refreshing. But between the memories and catching-up there would definitely be awkward instances where we both try to remember each others’ kids’ names, job situations, and other important details.
And then there is the person I’ve known the longest, Josh. When I discussed one of my favorite high school albums (that I’m still a bit embarrassed to like so much, even now), I related a story in which Josh predicted that the “new Led Zeppelin” record I expected would probably be crap. Josh and I have an interesting friendship in that we regularly go years without speaking or communicating (he’s not much of an emailer), yet whenever we do it’s as though the conversation picked up right where it left off two, three, five years prior. We generally discuss books, TV shows, movies and (of course) music. We’ll reminisce a bit about old times (we met in 7th grade) and catch each other up on any family news. It’s a nice friendship.
The first big lapse in communication was after high school. I think it may have been well into our junior year of college before we reconnected by phone. My theory is that we were both eager to discover ourselves at college without any input or pressure from our hometown, so we didn’t really make an effort to keep in touch with people. (We haven’t discussed this – I’m just assuming.) When we finally did catch up, I recall one of the biggest revelations was that we were both big R.E.M. fans. When we saw each other in person again, he gave me a cassette with Lifes Rich Pageant on one side and Document, R.E.M.’s 1987 release, on the other. (I had Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, but for some reason stopped there.) I immediately loved both. It was the beginning of the music-sharing phase of our friendship, a phase that lasted well into the CD era.
Two R.E.M. albums landed on my 100 Favorite Album list, Reckoning and Automatic for the People. I gave the backstory of my R.E.M. love there, but basically I saw the band on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 and was hooked. I can’t say for certain that Lives Rich Pageant is my 3rd favorite R.E.M. record, I just know I love it. It kicks off with “Begin the Begin,” and one of the greatest album-opening songs ever.
I love how Peter Buck’s simple, clean lick morphs into sustained feedback while Michael Stipe’s baritone enters ominously. Bill Berry’s drumming is wild but precise – he’s such an underrated drummer. If you listen closely you notice he’s doing lots of cool little beats and fills, all while joining bassist Mike Mills on backing vocals! It’s a very aggressive song for R.E.M., and it displays my favorite aspects of the band. First is the melodic bass guitar. At the end of each verse (0:15) Mills plays a syncopated, ascending line that sits beautifully against the guitar and vocals. Next is Stipe’s voice, one of the most versatile in rock. At 1:03 he ups the energy (“Silence means security!”), and he builds it throughout the song. As usual, his lyrics are rather obtuse (Myles Standish proud?), but that’s just one more thing I love about the band. (By the way, they played an excellent version of this one at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.)
The band keeps the energy rolling with “These Days,” which shares many features with the first song. Mike Mills is particularly strong, with a great bass line and terrific high harmonies. Berry’s drumming is again top-notch. Stipe will rearrange your scales on this one, but his lyrics can sometimes mean something big. Take, for example, my favorite song on the record, “Fall on Me.”
It’s a song about the environment and what humans are losing in its destruction. (In 1986, and well before, everyone knew this bullshit was coming.) Buck opens with a nice acoustic guitar figure, but it’s the vocals that give me chills. Stipe’s wide-ranging tune is lovely, and Mills and Berry sing two different melodies in the chorus. (You can really hear them on the terrific MTV Unplugged version.) In the bridge, at 1:28, Mills takes over the lead. Throughout, Buck’s cascading, chiming guitar echoes the song’s sentiments brilliantly. It’s a short song, but it packs so much into it. The band sticks with the environmental theme on “Cuyahoga.” It’s probably strange that I love the two notes that Buck rings throughout the song after Stipe’s phrases, but I do. More great drums, harmonies and bass!
After a couple mid-tempo numbers, R.E.M. picks it back up with the frenetic “Hyena.
In trying to write a little bit about each song, I’m realizing that all of my favorite R.E.M. songs have the same components: great drums, cool bass, excellent backing vocals. “Hyena” throws in weird noises and piano at the beginning, too. Then Berry’s drum starts driving things, and it really picks up. Mills and Berry sing a countermelody to Stipe’s scratchy growl. This one is also one of my favorites – that riff, the voices, the drums. It’s so good. “The only thing to fear is fearlessness,” Stipe sings, a clue that maybe these lyrics are about community standards and fears? Next up is a little mystery snippet called “Underneath the Bunker,” which has a nice, middle-eastern guitar thing, but is altogether eh. They keep things slow on the sweet “The Flowers of Guatemala,” a sleepy song perhaps about mushrooms? Possibly? At 2:19 Buck plays a simple, cool solo.
“I Believe” throws a banjo in at the beginning, then Buck’s patented arpeggiated chords enter.
It’s another song that drives forward, with R.E.M.’s rhythm section shining yet again. But this song – like much of the album – really belongs to Stipe’s voice. He is an assured vocalist with a unique sound and style. The lyrics are reflective of childhood, and fun to sing along. “What if We Give It Away?” is a bouncy number with a terrific theme of community, and a fun riff. Plus – as on all these songs – there are many guitar noises in the background that makes the song sound big and full. Then the band unleashes their early punk sound on the raucous, totally frantic “Just a Touch.” Mills’ bass is all up and down the neck, and Berry keeps things pumping along. Stipe’s voice again stands out, as does the brief organ solo around 1:45. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, but they seem to be about a rumor running amok? What else could “I can’t see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green” mean?
I don’t always love the R.E.M. slow-paced songs, but one exception is the lovely “Swan Swan H.”
It’s a spare, acoustic number calling to mind a folk song sung around a campfire. Again, it’s Stipe who makes the circular, looping melody work. It’s got nice accordion, too. The song mentions Johnny Reb and wooden greenbacks, and I’ve heard people say it’s about the US Civil War, but I can never tell what his lyrics are about. I do know I saw them sing this on MTV one summer and loved it ever since. The record closes with Mike Mills taking lead vocal duties, with solid support from Stipe, on a cover song “Superman.” It’s a fun number, even though the lyrics are a bit stalker-ish. However, they sounded even more so in the creepy original version.
Someday soon I’ll give Josh another call, and I’ll tell him I mentioned him in this. We’ll talk some about the band, I’m sure, and what books we’ve read recently. Maybe we’ll share a couple memories. Then we’ll go our separate ways and connect again in several months or years. But I think about him a lot because I listen to R.E.M. a lot, and I might not if it weren’t for him.
Blood & Chocolate. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1986, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley.
IN A NUTSHELL: Often referred to as an “angry young man,” Elvis Costello has never been angrier than on this collection of 11 rough, bitter and spiteful tunes – and they sound TERRIFIC! The Attractions play loud and straight, offering little adornment, and Costello sings of the women who done him wrong and the ugliness around him, the only state his vengeful eyes can see. It’s a bit overwhelming, but the tunes are great and his vocals are, too!
I have been bobbing in a great sea of anger for months. All of America has.
You see, a giant, orange, talking turd has recently spent a year tapping into many white Americans’ hatefulness, bigotry and low self-esteem to cause a flatulescent release of their previously (mostly) un-vented anger. What were they angry about? Well, the temerity of America to elect an African American as president – twice! And this anger drove them to ensure that no smart-ass woman was going to follow him there. “We’d rather have a childish business failure who is clearly lying to our faces – as long as he’s a white man,” they said. (I’d typically find links to references for all these claims, but if you’re reading this and don’t believe what I’m saying … well, my links won’t help you.) This stinky piece of shit will soon be president.
While this was happening, a large group of intellectual people who have difficulty disguising their condescension toward the less well-educated whites around them (but who make a bit of an effort if the dimwit in question is a person of color) were filled with rage over the phony “journalists” on TV and interwebs and newspapers who realized that they’d get better election-year ratings and more “likes” if they pretended that debunked stories of one candidate’s email servers were the equivalent of the enormous totality of evidence that the other candidate was profoundly disturbed and unworthy of the presidency, thus keeping the race close.
The outcome of this election has also caused tremendous anger within myself. Anger at fellow whites who have now made me feel like I should apologize to every woman and every person of color and every immigrant I know or meet, or perhaps wear a sign that says, simply, “Did Not Vote for Hateful Orange Turd.” Anger at whiny, entitled “millennials” whose mommies never told them that their snowflake-specialness and wall of participation trophies wouldn’t be enough to ensure a perfect candidate ran for president every time. Anger at the entire American process which is patently undemocratic, and the Myth of the Constitution that is taught in schools, and so perpetuates the dysfunction of the system. And anger at myself for getting so angry. I really shouldn’t allow myself to get so angry that I’m in the state I am now: questioning the value of long friendships and family connections; questioning the worth of the u.s.a. as a place to keep my kids safe and among decent folks; questioning whether it’s even worthwhile counting down my favorite albums.
As a child I was taught that getting angry was a bad thing. “Well, getting mad won’t help!” my mom often told me at times when it was most unhelpful – for instance, when I thought a teacher gave me an unfair grade; or when the baseball game I was looking forward to playing in was rained out; or if someone at school said something mean to me. Each hurdle in life was to be faced with a smile, and if you couldn’t overcome a hurdle without anger, well, then it was probably better to just accept the fact that you weren’t crossing it and learn to adapt to life on this side of the hurdle. With a smile.
I would try to follow mom’s guidelines, but I still found myself getting angry in certain anger-inducing situations. And so, since I wasn’t supposed to get angry, I started feeling bad about myself for not being able to control my anger. Finally, after a game of intramural basketball (of all things) in college, I decided to change. After a particularly troubling loss, a referee told me, “You’re good, but you’d be a hell of a player if you didn’t get so angry out there. When you play angry, your game gets worse.” This sweaty, pot-bellied, middle-aged man in Sansabelt poly-stretch pants couldn’t have known, but the best way to reach me with any message is to wrap it up in flattery of my (rather spare) athletic abilities. I endeavored to learn to let stuff roll off my back, to shrug off small slights and injustices, to transform myself into the “happy-go-lucky guy.” (I recognize now how closely the “happy-go-lucky guy” mirrored my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.”)
The only problem with the “happy-go-lucky guy” is that he isn’t me! I spent 10 years ignoring anger and pretending to be “chill” about things that really upset me, while still feeling the anger rise within me, and having it burst out in weird, unexpected ways, just as it did in my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.” And then, afterwards, I’d still end up feeling guilty about it. I was right back to where I was as a child! It took a good psychotherapist and a good girlfriend and several years of living to reach the point where I am now: still unsure of how to best relate to feelings of anger, but at least conscious of them, and their effects on me. The biggest change since the “happy-go-lucky-guy” days is that I now clearly understand that the FEELINGS of anger are normal, and they are separate from, and different than, the ACTIONS of anger. This understanding has made me, I think, a better person and has clearly made me a better parent/husband/friend than I otherwise would be.
The reason this distinction helps is that – first of all – it allows me to feel okay about being angry. Anger is normal – even the Dalai Lama himself gets angry sometimes. Secondly, when these feelings are identified as separate from the actions of anger, it allows me to ask the question, “So, what am I going to do about it?” When feelings and actions of anger are mingled, chaos reigns and solutions are not easily reached. This mingling of feelings and actions is often described as a statement of “When I get mad, I …” For example, “When I get mad, I scream at people!” “When I get mad, I break things!” “When I get mad, I stop passing to my teammates and take all the shots myself!” It gives the holder of the feelings license to act in ways that may be hard on others, or dangerous, or not conducive to winning basketball games. After all, if anger is a typical human emotion, and part of my anger is throwing a lamp at you, well, we’re all just going to have to accept a few lamps whizzing around as just part of my anger “thing.”
However, if actions are recognized as separate from the feelings of anger, this can lead to any range of actions on my part. I now have a selection of responses. I can scream and shout, I can write a letter, I can vent to a loved one, I can make some art, I can call a timeout and explain to my teammates that #40 continues to set up on the three-point line and drain his shots, and somebody (Bob, I’ll just give you a look, no need to name names in the huddle … for now) has to get on him and get a hand in his face!!!
I can write a blog post that references a human piece of shit who will be the most powerful person in the world. I can mock the ridiculous babies who voted for him. I can hug my family and keep them close. I can continue to support and work for the policies in which I believe. I can get together with my liberal friends, who – like me – have supported everything that the piece of shit stands against, and we can vent and chat and plan our actions and feel secure in the knowledge that it’s not we who are fucked up, it is the turd’s supporters. I can pity those ugly turd voters, for their hate and ignorance and childishness won’t get them what they think they want; and it won’t change who I am, or what I believe, or what I know: that – as Dr. Martin Luther King said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
And when my anger subsides, I can continue to choose love as my guiding principle. That will be the best “Fuck You” to those supporters of President Turd – because when I have reached that place I won’t even feel like I’m saying “Fuck You,” but those assholes will still think I am.
And I can listen to music. And it just so happens that my #56 album is one of the angriest albums I know: Blood & Chocolate. I didn’t plan to listen to the angriest album I own during the angriest weeks of my country’s existence since 1865, it just worked out that way – the universe has a sense of humor. Or maybe just a good sense of timing – it’s hard to find humor right now.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, my girlfriend’s little sister announced, “Elvis Costello’s new record is called Blood & Chocolate! Isn’t that such a cool name??!” I remember thinking, “That poor kid. Doesn’t even realize he’s a has-been. She should get into a hot new band, built to last, like Night Ranger.” However, I did think “Blood & Chocolate” was an excellent name for an album, immediately conveying the basic duality of human relationships.
Costello writes, in his autobiography of 2015, that the album was recorded while The Attractions were not getting along with each other. The band was angry about their limited participation in his most recent album, King of America. Costello was struggling with the realization that The Attractions weren’t capable of playing some of his newer songs properly. The tension was palpable. Producer Nick Lowe captured it by recording the band playing at near-concert volume, and using limited overdubs to make the sound on the record immediate and loud – like a cry of pain when you smash your thumb. In the autobiography, Costello compares the songs to “freshly inflicted wounds,” and “blurred and unfortunate Polaroids that people used to keep to document their worst desires and unhappy love affairs before we had the blessings of phone cameras.”
The tone of the album is set immediately on the clattering chords that open it, sounding almost like a cranky child banging on a guitar in frustration.
“Blood and Chocolate/I hope you’re satisfied what you’ve done,” Elvis sings on “Uncomplicated,” as the band slams their instruments again and again on a single note. “You think it’s over now/But we’ve only just begun.” The lyrics are a bit obscure, but their delivery indicates it to be about a fearful man who won’t accept the fact his girlfriend is gone. It’s simple to him – he wants her back. Keyboardist Steve Nieve plays some of his whirling organ riffs, familiar to Attractions fans, but other than that the song is really instrumentally unadorned. It’s a one note song in many ways, and that one note is anger.
The next song presents a more fiery, less smoldering anger that allows The Attractions to really shine. If there could be any doubts about the song’s theme, they are erased by the title: “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”
Elvis has always been fond of these songs with vocal-only openings. Bruce Thomas’s busy, roller-coaster baseline propels the song, and Steve Nieve’s chiming keyboards in the choruses sound really great. Drummer Pete Thomas is perfectly sloppy and wonderful. But it’s Elvis’s furious vocal delivery, spitting venom at a lover who’s found someone else, that makes the song work. He never seems to give himself easy lyrics to sing, fitting the words in very tightly within the melody, but he definitely has a sense of humor, as in the lines “He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter.” (Pork sword – heh.) The effect of the song is not unlike watching a customer ahead of you in line chew out a clerk and storm off. However, instead of feeling uncomfortable and awkward, I want to hear more.
Luckily, the next song is even better – and just as bitter. Elvis packs even more words into the melody of “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and this time their target isn’t one person.
It’s clear from reading the lyrics that the song is about the approaching end of the world, and his indifference to it. And hearing its references to the KKK, and imagery of bleak life around the globe while the wealthy thrive makes me wonder if Mr. Costello had a crystal ball back in 1986 that projected 30 years forward. Once again, he fires these lyrics off with intensity, and heightening the rage is the fact that there are no breaks from singing – verse and chorus follow verse and chorus, with barely a break to catch breath. The song is reminiscent of a silly old falsetto 60s song, “Bread and Butter,” (which I first heard on a TV commercial) but the band elevates it under Nick Lowe’s wall-of-noise production. There’s a nifty backwards guitar line at the end, but other than that the song is simple, relentless fury.
It might sound like it’s all too much, all this anger, but the melodies and sound and Elvis’s charismatic voice keep it from overwhelming me. And he also has a different take on the emotion on songs like the cleverly titled “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.”
On this track, the anger turns inward, becomes sadness. It’s a day-in-the-life of unrequited love, and its lyrics’ descriptions of that condition are reminiscent of The Beatles’ excellent Revolver track “For No One.” Musically, I really like the chord progression as the song moves from verse to chorus, for example beginning about 0:55, and at 1:14, as Steve Nieve’s organ subtly bolsters Elvis’s vocals, which are – as with every song on Blood & Chocolate – squarely front and center in the recording.
There are a few of these slower, more contemplative songs about misery and sadness on the album. “Battered Old Bird” is a slow burn of a song describing a horrible landlord and his wretched tenants. “Poor Napoleon” is a mid-tempo diatribe against love that tips its hand early with the opening lines “I can’t lie on this bed anymore/it burns my skin/You can take the truthful things you’ve said to me/And fit them on the head of a pin.” This album is listening perfection on those days when nothing’s going right, and fuck everybody anyway!
The melody ranges far and wide, and Elvis performs it brilliantly, always coming home to a sing-along chorus that references “the cigarette girl in the sizzle hot pants,” which conjures great imagery of a woman content to serve the men around her. In reading all the lyrics from the album, trying to tease out what it is that has piqued Elvis’s anger and caused it to rage so deeply and with such strength, I get the sense that much of it has to do with women who aren’t “cigarette girl”-ish enough. He’s been burned by women who don’t see their relationship in the same way he does, who’ve acted on their displeasure to seek out new romances, leaving him behind to write great songs with clever lyrics about it all. He can’t get over it. He won’t get over it. He explains it pretty clearly on one of my favorite songs ever, the emotionally haunting “I Want You.”
I first heard this song when I purchased a “Greatest Hits” album of Costello’s. Without listening closely to the words, it sounded sort of like a love song, similar to John Lennon’s epic Abbey Road piece, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” My good friend and Beatles fanatic Dr. Dave had recently gotten engaged, so – as I often did – I decided to celebrate by sending him a CD of songs. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll put this Elvis Costello love song next to Lennon’s song, and it’ll be cool because they have the same title, which is repeated frequently throughout the piece!” Then I listened to the lyrics and realized, “This isn’t really a celebration of love …”
The song opens with an acoustic love poem, sung troubadour-style, that ends (0:48) with the word “breath” sung on an unexpected note, followed closely by a startlingly discordant chord. The song builds over the next 6 minutes, adding instruments every few lines, intensity increasing as Costello again fumes over a woman who chose to be with another man. His imagery throughout conveys with withering directness his deep feelings of hurt and, what else, anger. “It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for/It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing/It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.” After each sordid detail he reminds us “I want you.” It’s another vocal masterpiece, but Elvis’s guitar is nice in subtle ways as well. He makes great use of his tremolo bar, and plays a fittingly clamoring guitar solo midway through (3:21). By about five minutes, the song has dispensed all the wisdom it has (“The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark/It scares you witless/But in time you see things clear and stark.”) and Elvis is left crooning against Nieve’s organ. It’s a song that always sends chills up my spine. (There is also a tremendous version that I highly recommend by list-member Fiona Apple, accompanied by Elvis himself.)
The album ends on what sounds like a happy note, “Next Time Round.”
At a minimum, the song could be considered … hopeful … perhaps. I mean, it does at least consider the possibility that there will be a “next time.” The despondency of some of the other songs is gone, but the lyrics do reveal the bitterness that seems to have become his best friend on Blood & Chocolate. There is nice harmony singing throughout, and Bruce Thomas’s bass pumps the song along. It’s an upbeat-tempo song that leaves the listener, if not happy or satisfied, at least a little less prone to smashing one’s hand through the glass in a frame around a picture of an ex.
What a wonderful, necessary and brilliant thing, this human endeavor called “art.” Imagine if all that pain and hostility and rage inside Costello were bottled up and unexpressed; or worse yet, imagine if it had been diverted to something destructive and hateful – like becoming a fraudulent Orange Turd bent on destroying the u.s.a. Instead, he took it and made something great with it. Blood & Chocolate is a reminder that anger isn’t bad, that it is part of our lives. It’s also a reminder that we should use our anger and do something constructive with it – like working against everything the stinky turd (whom most Americans did not vote for) and his cry-baby supporters stand for. I’ve started already.
“I Hope You’re Happy Now”
“Tokyo Storm Warning”
“Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”
“I Want You”
“Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”
“Battered Old Bird”
“Crimes of Paris”
“Next Time Round”
1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.
IN A NUTSHELL: A concept album exploring the cycles of life. Lush orchestration, witty but deep lyrics and full of catchy melodies, this album could be compared to some by a more famous British band, but it stands on its own merits. Some songs run together, some stand on their own – and perhaps their most famous song, “Dear God,” is featured as well.
Consider the term “Beatle-esque.” (Or perhaps it’s “Beatlesque,” which is admittedly easier to type, but just doesn’t look right.) It is a word that is thrown around a lot in pop culture, probably the most common Pop-and-Rock-Music Related “-esque” word there has ever been. A quick check of the googles returns 25,400 results for “Beatle-esque,” as compared to a surprisingly small 4,470 for “Rolling Stones-esque,” a stout 10,500 for “Bob Dylan-esque” and a surprisingly strong showing of 7 for “Men Without Hats-esque.”
I’ve listened to my readers, and both of them have said, “enough with the Beatles stuff.” But the issue of what the term means is supremely important to Album #67. Without delving a bit into the concept, I’d simply be writing some stuff about a record, instead of boring you regaling you with insights and stories from my boring fascinating life. Certainly my interest in the term is largely what brought me to Album #67, so I want to take a little time to consider its meaning.
When you consider that The Beatles released their first single in the UK, “Love Me Do,” in October, 1962, and their final album, Let It Be, in May of 1970 it is shocking to realize how many different styles the band packed into such a tiny window. For comparison’s sake, let’s say theirs’ was an 8-year recording career. As I type this, it is now 2016. In February of 2009, the Grammy awards were held celebrating the recording industry’s achievements for 2008. The Best New Artist award was handed to Adele. In the past 8 years, she’s released three albums, and each has been wildly successful by sticking to a winning formula of heartfelt ballads and a few upbeat pop songs sung by an extremely talented vocalist. In the same span, The Beatles released 13 albums and twenty-four singles that weren’t on any album. The hit songs were as diverse as “Please, Please Me,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Come Together.” I’m not trying to make a case for or against either artist. Both have their merits, and the music and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, so any comparisons will be challenging. However, it is easy to see that – given the breadth of diversity in their respective musical careers – the term “Adele-esque” is going to be a more precise descriptor than “Beatle-esque” will ever be. So let’s look at some of the meanings of “Beatle-esque.”
The other very Beatle-esque characteristic of the Beatles from the early-to-mid-60s era was their image as cute-boys-who-sing-and-act-charmingly-goofy-and-a-bit-naughty-yet-non-threatening-to-preteen-girls. While The Beatles made terrific music, they also starred in movies that inflated this image, bantered with reporters in a disarmingly snide manner, and offered witty quips whenever the opportunity arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands – from The Bay City Rollers to New Kids On The Block to One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer (and even Boys Who Cry!) – has continued. I guess the band has to take some responsibility for all of them. However, they obviously found the phenomenon troubling. You see, by 1965, they were clearly a worldwide phenomenon, and the entertainment industry was capitalizing on the whole enchilada, music and image. The next year The Monkeesdebuted on American TV, both singing and acting Beatle-esque. But by 1966, the only thing not Beatle-esque was The Beatles.
Finally, after Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles became an anything goes, kitchen-sink, music-first-image-later band, unbound by styles or labels and as such helped engender the use of the term “artist” to describe pop/rock musicians. This Beatle-esque characteristic of dedication to artistry has continued to touch musicians from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to Beck to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar.
As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, I’d been familiar with the band XTC for many years. They were one of many new artists that were suddenly part of my consciousness, and it seemed like their catchy number “Senses Working Overtime” was played routinely. But by 1986 they’d escaped my consciousness. That year I was in the gym playing pick-up basketball at PCPS, in Philadelphia, when WMMR played what I thought was a rather disturbing song called “Dear God,” with children’s voices bashing religion, and when I heard the announcer say it was XTC, I thought, “Wow, that old MTV band is really desperate for airplay, being controversial just to get it.” But I did find the song intriguing and catchy, and I grew to like it. Three years later I kept hearing XTC referred to as Beatle-esque, so I went out and bought their LP Oranges and Lemons on vinyl the week it was released. That album made me a fan of the band. After a drunk guy in a Skylarking t-shirt told me at a party that Skylarking was even better than Oranges and Lemons, I went out and got it on vinyl as well.
Skylarking has many hallmarks of a “concept album:” many songs related to a main theme (cycles of life), that are connected to each other (many run together with no break between them), and containing first-person lyrics sung from a definite point of view. The record was produced by longtime artist and producer Todd Rundgren, who suggested the idea of a concept album, but who famously did not get along with the band, causing a rift that exists to this day! I find the album is best-appreciated if one can listen to it from start to finish. However, as with all great albums, the tracks are strong enough that they stand out by themselves, or in any order.
The album opens with nature’s sounds of summer, various chirps, croaks and whistles that eventually set the rhythm for the first two tracks, “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass.”
“Summer’s Cauldron” sounds to me like a hot summer day, when the humidity is so dense that you just want to lie in the shade, close your eyes and wish for a breeze. Colin Moulding’s bass is gooey and thick behind the bugs and birds and Todd Rundgren’s melodica, and Andy Partridge sings mostly nonsense lyrics that still perfectly describe the feeling of a summer’s day. After the first verse and chorus, Partridge’s voice is doubled an octave higher, and backing vocals and counter melody from Moulding and Dave Gregory are added, increasing the song’s summer lushness. It builds to the 3:22 point, where the second song, “Grass” begins.
XTC songs are usually written and sung by guitarist Andy Partridge, and the ones that aren’t are written and sung by bassist Colin Moulding. “Grass” is one of Colin’s songs, and it’s an ode to, let’s say, the youthful physical expression of fondness and attraction set in the great outdoors. It’s a natural segue from the first track, and features orchestration (including pizzicato violins behind the verses that sound great) that helps continue the summer feel. It ends with the outdoor orchestra of bugs and birds that began the song, completing one of many cycles on the record.
Another Colin song, “The Meeting Place,” follows, and it’s sort of the enantiomer of “Grass.”
This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a winter rendezvous, with coats on the ground, where someone might hear. The song has a nice circular guitar riff, and in the second verse Partridge sings a counter-melody that I love. It’s a great number, and gives the listener a feeling – together with “Grass” – that a love songs may abound on this album. Band leader and renowned prickly cynic Andy Partridge dashes those ideas immediately with the caustic next song, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”
Nobody writes biting, revenge lyrics quite like Partridge. He’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics. It’s a catchy song with cool vocals and more great bass guitar from Moulding. Third XTC member, Dave Gregory, plays a marvelous, bouncy guitar solo starting at 2:06. This song does call to mind for me a breakup I had many years ago with a Supergirl. When I first heard the song soon after I thought, “Yes! This is perfect!” So many years later now, and I don’t remember why it connected. But I still like the song – cruel though the lyrics may be.
The rich, orchestral linked-together songs continue with two rainy spring-themed songs: the lovely “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” and the rather whiny “1000 Umbrellas.”
What I love about both these songs is are the lyrics. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” presents lovely imagery of the colors on a rainy day. And the music behind it sounds like a warm, drizzly late-spring morning. At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement transitions the tune to “1000 Umbrellas,” a song that I don’t love despite it’s super-clever rhyme scheme and wordplay from Partridge.
The song that was a terrific closing number to Side One when I had the album on vinyl, and that is now just a cool song in the middle of all the tracks, is the celebration of Mother Nature “Season Cycle,” a fun, catchy number with lyrics that manage to rhyme “cycle” with “umbilical” in a way that you’ll love if you’re an Andy Partridge fan, and despise if not.
I love the background vocals on this song, and of course the lyrics. They ask who could be responsible for something so glorious as the world we inhabit. He lands briefly on the idea of a supreme being, but rejects it quickly and finally decides it’s so beautiful that Earth and heaven are one and the same. One of the reasons I took to Partridge’s lyrics when I first heard them is that at the time I was questioning the religious beliefs I’d grown up with, and this song mirrored thoughts I’d come to on my own – that the world around us is so wonderful, why would we ever seek to imagine something better, or more beautiful? The idea of a “better place” sounded silly to me, as it (apparently) sounded to Partridge, as well.
The cycle of life among humans is explored on what was once Side Two. Whereas Side One mostly described the world around us, Side Two describes us within the world. “Earn Enough For Us” and “Big Day” both take a rather dim view of the human experience of marriage, while “Another Satellite” takes a similar view of relationships. “Earn Enough For Us” is what passes for a guitar track on this album, a driving pop rock number with a somewhat McCartney-esque bass line and lyrics describing a common worry for men in the late twentieth century and today, despite rising gender equality in America. “Big Day” is a Colin song that points out that the glory of the wedding can fade pretty quickly. “Another Satellite” is a cool-sounding song on which Partridge uses his venomous lyrics and astrophysical wordplay to target a would-be suitor – and makes the listener think that maybe Supergirl did the right thing in dumping his ass.
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a nifty jazz piece with lyrics that either argue for more introspection, or advise against it – depending on your outlook. Colin’s “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a deceptively light, tribal take on the deep topic of humans’ historical urge to punish others to elevate themselves. Colin’s other song, “Dying,” is what my friend Johnny might refer to as one of “Colin’s Clunkers.” See, it seems like every XTC album has a song or two by Colin that, well, just don’t live up to the typical XTC standard. Thus Johnny, a big XTC fan, coined the term “Colin’s Clunkers.”
The most famous song on the album, the one I heard on the basketball court back in the day, is Andy’s slam on religion and belief, “Dear God.”
It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because of the lyrics – which though biting and focused on Christianity, are an honest questioning of the nature of faith – but also because I like the acoustic guitar riff. This song was incredibly controversial for a song that wasn’t really a hit. It was even controversial among the band and producer Rundgren – though not because of the content. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to the listener to have a child sing a verse, but that’s my only quibble with it. When I first heard it, I thought it was a blatant attempt at publicity by the band. But after I became a fan, I realized it was just an artist expressing his view – one not too dissimilar to that “Smart Beatle,” John Lennon. And as an atheist myself, I find it nice to hear some non-religious viewpoints out there in the media once in a while. Whatever your viewpoint, it’s a song most listeners won’t forget.
So, is the band, and this album “Beatle-esque?” Well, they’re definitely not a boy band, but they do make some catchy guitar pop songs, and they sure threw in a lot of orchestral pieces on the songs, and I think they’ve got an artistic drive to what they do … But really – what does it matter? Being a Beatle fan brought me to XTC and Skylarking, but it isn’t what kept me listening. I kept listening because I love the music.
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”