Tag Archives: 80s Rock

80th Favorite: Freedom, by Neil Young


Freedom. Neil Young.
1989 Reprise. Producer: Neil Young and Niko Bolas
Purchased: 1990.


chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL – Rock chameleon Neil Young explores the meaning of America’s favorite word – Freedom – in a diverse set of songs full of strange sounds, unexpected choices and musical structures that help elucidate meaning from the lyrics. He is a man free do do anything, and he makes the most of his opportunity.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – The melodies were a bit stronger, and a couple acoustic songs went electric.
oh the places“You can do anything you want,” my parents often told me, “if you put your mind to it.”

To be honest, I don’t remember those exact words being spoken – it wasn’t like a parenting mantra for them. But it was definitely a belief system that they tried to instill – the idea that I shouldn’t be limited in my pursuits by anything (other than my own lack of interest.) However, I’m not sure they actually believed in that belief system. Or rather, it wasn’t a belief system they acted upon.

There are many folks on Earth who claim to believe in a god, but when challenged to put that faith into action – even basic action – choose to defer. “If you’re a Christian, why don’t you go to church?” “If you’re a Jew, why do you work on Yom Kippur?” “If you’re a Pastafarian, how come you don’t drink beer?”

pastafarianThese are the types who show up for church only on Christmas and (maybe) Easter; or the aunt and uncle who sometimes come to a Seder, but who don’t even belong to a Temple. When asked if they believe, they’re sure to say “Yes, of course!” But when probed on the subject, they’re sure to say, “Mind your own business.”

prayerMy folks took this approach with the religion of You Can Do Anything You Want. They instructed my sisters and me in its creed, and never dared come out and say it was bullshit … but they didn’t actively assist in any life pursuits, either. As kind, loving parents, they naturally knew there was no reason to tell a 12 year old boy, “You’ll never play baseball in the big leagues.” But when told by that same 12 year old, “I want to be a doctor,” neither did they say, “Well, make sure you take college-track courses in high school.”

In fact, they didn’t have many examples from their own lives of people who did Anything They Wanted. People they knew got jobs as steel workers, or in some other industry related to steel. PA mapSince the turn of the 20th century Lebanon had been a big Steel Town, a little brother between Pennsylvania’s twin steel cities Bethelehem and Pittsburgh. The old Bethlehem Steel Plant (pronounced “Beth’-lum Steel”) was central – both geographically and economically – to the City of Lebanon.

It was a sprawling, military-base-looking series of redbrick buildings that spanned a good two to three city blocks in length and a city block or more in width. The plant straddled Lincoln Avenue, and there was an MP-like guard in a hard-hat standing in a little guard box near where the street crossed the railroad tracks. Beth SteelThe guard would direct the flow of traffic as needed, ensuring no cars would crash into any of the forklifts, light trucks, or men that were busy loading up railcars to ship steel around the globe. There was an inspiring, martial urgency that I could feel humming around me whenever my family drove down Lincoln Ave. Even on Saturday nights, when my family took this route home from visiting my Grandma’s house, hurrying to make it back by 10 pm for The Carol Burnett Show, that guard and the hustle and bustle surrounding him were evidence of the round-the-clock importance of whatever it was that was happening inside those brick buildings.

steel foundryMost kids’ dads worked at The Beth’-lum Steel. Many other dads worked at the Lebanon Steel Foundry or Cleaver Brooks, a manufacturer of industrial boilers, or Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. Still others – like my dad, and my uncles, and their friends, and most of the grown men I knew – worked inside the dozens of machine shops, tool and die shops, pattern shops, and other associated metal working businesses situated within the county.

deer hunterLebanon was a Steel Town, and this didn’t necessarily mean that everyone traipsed into and out of the Big Factory every 8 hours, like a scene from The Deer Hunter or All the Right Moves.

But it did mean that almost everyone worked in a job that owed its existence to Big Steel.

beth steel 2

So in this context, what would it really mean to my parents that “You can do anything you want”? Theoretically speaking, sure, you could go be a doctor or a lawyer. But practically speaking, why would you do anything else except for Steel? You’re really going to spend $8,000 a year to go to college for four years[ref]More years, and more money, if you’re really serious about this “Doctor” or “Lawyer” thing …[/ref] when you could make almost twice that much right now with just a high school diploma?

steel workerThere was a perceived safety in steel, and there were enough people inside those brick buildings whose steel paycheck was paying off a few costly semesters of college they’d dropped out of to make it seem like college was the risky path to choose. The religion of You Can Do Anything, when put into actual practice, sounded like a choice for suckers. Like asking a Christian to be good and go to church each Sunday when he can just ask Jesus to forgive his sins on his deathbed and wind up in the same place.

From WWII up until about 1981, the American Dream was really at its height for families in my hometown. Most families were single-income, and that income earner likely only had a high school diploma, yet he[ref]Despite the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement, those single earners were overwhelmingly male.[/ref] earned enough to buy a house with a yard in a safe neighborhood.

70s dreamSo there wasn’t an enormous financial motivation to following one’s dreams. No one was getting rich, but very few were mired in the dire straits that can sometimes force a person to dream big and do everything possible to attain those dreams. No one thought that this hard-earned American Dream of Middle Class comfort could evaporate so quickly. It seemed like Steel had always been there, providing jobs and glory, and that it would remain so forever. No one expected that by 1984 it would end.

My own dreams didn’t necessarily include going to college. I wasn’t exactly sure whether Bill Murray, John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd had gone to college, and they were what I dreamed of becoming.

snl 78I took all the college prep courses in high school, mainly because the Guidance Counselor (such as he was) had told me it was the best choice for me. Still, my mom remained unsure. Before my sophomore year of high school, she had a lengthy discussion with me about whether I should take general ed courses instead, and start attending Vo-Tech. She suggested plumbing might be a good trade for me to look into.

I didn’t know if the Vo-Tech offered Saturday Night Live training courses, but I knew for a fact that the Vo-Tech kids mostly scared the shit out of me, and there was no way I was going to get on a bus with them each day and risk getting beaten up just so I could learn how to pipe poop. I convinced her that college was my dream path, but didn’t mention Saturday Night Live.

I kept that dream inside my head, where it more resembled a nighttime, sleeping dream than what one would call an “aspiration.” I had vague notions of making people laugh and performing, but actually penguindoing so seemed about as real as dunking a basketball against a team of giant penguins in capes. It never occurred to me to investigate a path to attain it. One time I did discuss my dream briefly with my parents, but their angry response ensured I never asked again. It seemed more productive to just write a letter to SNL to see if they’d bring a 16 year old from rural PA, with no stage experience[ref]Except for playing trombone solos in church, which I did emphasize in my letter.[/ref] in for an audition. I still await their reply, and assume that no formal decision has yet been reached.

My parents’ response was evidence that while You Can Do Anything You Want was the theory, in actual practice it was When We Said “Anything” We Didn’t Really Mean to Imply “Anything.”

These circumstances left me with a lifelong fascination with those who did go on to follow their dreams and Do Anything They Wanted. And perhaps the strongest example in rock music of a person who not only does what he wants, but also does what he wants regardless of trends, expectations, common sense or record company threats, is Neil Young.

Neil paris

The late 80s were a tough time for my lifelong love affair with music. Having grown accustomed to the Classic Rock sound of AOR radio, and falling particularly hard for the 70s prog rock shenanigans of Rush and Yes and the like, but being disgusted classic rockby the pseudo-heavy-metal Hair Bands that proliferated and too timid to give a chance to most anything that didn’t feature the guitar front and center, or that wasn’t heard on any radio stations I could get, I waded chest-deep into the murky waters of Eighties Records from Sixties and Seventies Bands. In doing so, I missed out on lots of excellent bands while they were at their creative peak, and paid lots of money to listen to a lot of crap.[ref]Some of which, admittedly I still have a taste for.[/ref]

Raise your hand if you rushed out to buy that Emerson, Lake and Powell record in 1986! (You know, the band formed when elpowellCarl Palmer – the “P” in 70s prog rockers ELP – was replaced by Cozy Powell after a quick search through the likely small stack of applications received that met the requirements of a) 70s Rock Drummer Still Alive in 1986 and b) Last Name Begins with “P.”)

And raise your other hand if you ALSO had no idea who Husker Du was in 1986!

knee to bellyGreat! You are now in perfect position to be kneed in the solar plexus, which is how I feel when I realize what the fuck I was listening to in the 80s, and what I COULD HAVE BEEN listening to instead![ref]Although I should point out that this time was also spent getting DEEPLY into The Beatles, so it wasn’t all wasted.[/ref] I’m sure I’ll dive more deeply into this topic in future posts, as it’s a sad, desperate era in my musical timeline soothed only by the balm of the flagellant-like spectacle of writing about it in embarrassing, humorous detail for public consumption. But suffice it to say that when you realize you spent money on an album like the 1987 Jethro Tull release Crest of a Knave but didn’t know The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me (also from 1987) was even a thing until sometime in the mid-90s, you get the same mortified feeling you have waking up in your underpants on a stranger’s couch, vague memories of tequila shots and police cars swimming below the surface of your mind, suddenly aware that you’ll never again get a chance to NOT barf into that guy’s washing machine.60s 80s

But during this dark time in my life of music appreciation, Neil Young’s 1989 gem Freedom appeared.[ref]Most likely prolonging my stay in the chilly, but unpleasantly-warm-in-spots 80s Classic Rock pool.[/ref] I was in the best cover band ever at the time, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, playing bass next to Dr. Dave and his guitar, and we immediately learned a couple songs from the album to add to our repertoire.

For long-time Neil Young fans, the album opener is quite exciting. It’s a live recording of just Neil and his acoustic guitar, the sounds of an enthusiastic audience cheering along as he belts out a new song, “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

It’s something Young also did 10 years earlier on the excellent album Rust Never Sleeps.

On Freedom, this choice sets up the entire work. It is an opening plea: you have been given a gift, listeners in the Western world. Don’t blow it, like others have, using it to proliferate environmental destruction, machine guns, wasted lives. Create something good. Then he goes on to show us what one man can do with this freedom.

His use of that freedom is displayed on the very next song, the epic slice of life narrative “Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)”:

It’s an acoustic guitar driven riff rocker, but it immediately signals it will be unusual with the loud organ and vaguely out-of-tune guitar notes that begin the song, then fade out in the first 5 seconds. It’s a musical choice that is reminiscent of neil acoustic2the opening chord of The Beatles’ “Her Majesty.”[ref]The song was famously intended to be placed between two other tracks on Abbey Road, but was spliced out, leaving it with an introductory note that was actually the final chord from the previous song.[/ref] The lyrics tell several tales from the gritty city, almost like a darker, less goofy version of the film Slacker set to music. Each of the vignettes describes a crime, or a lost person, or both, evoking sadness and hopelessness. Except for a verse about a music artist and a record producer who conspire to build a hit song by hiring an outside songwriter. I find it wonderful to know that Neil lumps these two in with corrupt cops, drug dealers and arsonists. It’s evidence of his commitment to Anything He Wants to Do, his faith in following his muse, that he considers hiring folks to touch up his work just more Crime in the City.

To my ears, what really makes this song a Neil song, as opposed to just another acoustic guitar ballad you might hear on Sirius/XM’s The Coffeehouse, are the recurrence of that initial organ note and out of tune guitar after each verse (for example, around 1:25 and 2:56), and the way those organ/guitar notes turn into very brief waltz interludes after the third (~4:25) and fourth (~6:03) verses. This is a strange song. There isn’t a chorus, but horns enter in the middle, helping to build the energy and keeping it from ever becoming boring. Plus there’s Neil’s subtle acoustic soloing throughout. This is a song by a man who can do whatever he wants on a record, and his artistic vision hits the jackpot here.

The Latin-flavored “Eldorado” is similar in structure and sound to “Crime.”

It begins with a gentle Spanish guitar sound and grows more electric. Neil’s always interesting, signature electric guitar soloing is featured throughout. neil guitar3His electric guitar solos, throughout his career, remind me of Thelonious Monk piano solos. At first they can sound out of tune or mistake-filled or simply weird, until the music continues forward and your brain catches up, and you realize what the instrument has been saying fits perfectly. It’s a definite kind of genius. “Eldorado’s” lyrics are once again dark tales of a dangerous life. And this time the strange interjections of sound aren’t waltzes, but thunderous claps of pegged guitar noise (~4:48) that appear from nowhere, like sudden summer storms.

Young’s fascination with strange blasts of sound, even in otherwise un-blastful songs, shows up repeatedly on Freedom, a preview of what would come on his next few records with his band Crazy Horse – 1990’s Ragged Glory and the live albums Arc and Weld. The noisiest two are “Don’t Cry” and his remake of the 60s hit “On Broadway.”

“Don’t Cry” features an anvil and more cloudbursts of sound from Young’s guitar, including a shotgun sound that reappears throughout (for example ~1:01).

The guitar solos are ugly noise, but they fit a song with lyrics about an ugly breakup. neil guitar2It ends with Young’s always edgy voice and a final shotgun crash of electric tumult. His version of “On Broadway” also uses the ugly sounds of his guitar as a comment on the ugly sights on Broadway ca. 1989.

Times Square in 1989 was a far different scene than that of today – a rundown fortress of seedy porn theaters and seedier people. And Young’s version – with his caterwauling vocals and the band’s sloppy playing and more solo guitar that sounds like jet aircraft falling linda ronstadtfrom the sky – reflects that seediness, doing away with the “If I Can Make It Here …” wonder featured in other popular versions of the song. The whole thing devolves into Neil screaming over the din for someone to “Gimme some crack!” It is a brilliant mess.

Proving that he can Do Whatever He Wants, Young also places some extraordinarily romantic and moving soft numbers on the record as well. Two are duets with Linda Ronstadt, her full, gorgeous voice sounding extra beautiful when paired with Neil’s thin tenor. “Hangin’ on a Limb” is the first of the two.

It’s a song about a traveling musician’s love for a woman, written as only a traveling musician can. “There was something about freedom/he thought he didn’t know,” they sing, reflecting the pull the road must have on some performers. The song offers a different perspective on what it means to be free, a path that isn’t without sacrifice or negatives. It also includes much sweet acoustic soloing from Young.

The other Linda Ronstadt performance comes on “The Ways of Love,” written from the perspective of two people in a new love, aware of the fact that this new love – wonderful though it is – is crushing others who now have been displaced.

It starts with one of those rolling acoustic riffs that Young features in many songs (e.g. “Needle and the Damage Done“) and that sound so inviting. A nice lap pedal steel guitar fills in, as the drum alternates a snare and a tom, giving the song a Western feel. As in “Broadway” and “Don’t Cry,” Young uses the music and arrangement to support the meaning of the song, this time falling into a regal march during the chorus (~0:46), as the vocals sing “Oh! The Ways of Love,” implying that this love is so grand, so important, that the feelings of others who’ve been left behind – sad though they may be – are simply insignificant. As with “Hangin’ On a Limb,” the lyrics here show a different, negative aspect of freedom that is often unconsidered.

neil guitar

Two other romantic songs, balancing out the noisiness, are “Wrecking Ball” a soft piano-driven piece about a desire to meet a woman at a dive bar and spend the night dancing, and “Too Far Gone,” which seems to describe the morning after the evening spent dancing at The Wrecking Ball.

The song “Someday” has some of Neil’s most poetic lyrics, poetic in the sense that I don’t always know what they mean (Rommel’s ring?) but they speak to me nonetheless, especially when put to music like Neil produces. “We all have to fly/Someday.”

My favorite song on the album is “No More,” one of the tracks J.B. and The So-Called Cells played back in the day.[ref]And still do, when we get the chance![/ref]

It has a bouncy bass line from bassist Tony Marsico. But the bounciness doesn’t indicate a happy song. In fact, this is an anti-drug song in a minor key, describing the downward spiral of drug abuse. That bounciness just serves to outline the false happiness that drugs can bring. Neil’s electric guitar throughout the song is inspired, grungy wonder.

Freedom closes with an electric version of the acoustic opener, “Rockin’ in the Free World,”[ref]Again, just as he did on Rust Never Sleeps.[/ref] a hit for Young on MTV back in the day, and another prominent song in the J.B. and The So-Called Cells’ setlist.

Neil Young is a wild man in this video, crazy hair, crazy pants, crazy guitar. He bashes and jumps around, putting everything he has into a little movie for a TV network. He is free. He’s free to rock, to create, and he just did it over the course of 12 different songs, and he thinks you can, too. neil acousticYoung is free both politically and creatively – he can’t really be censored by anyone but himself, and he makes the most of the opportunity by making record that no one else would make, that sounds like no one else would sound. He is a Bodhisattva in the religion of You Can Do Anything You Want, guiding us lesser travelers toward what each of us truly can be.

“We all have to fly/Someday,” he sang. Maybe that Someday is soon for me. While I await that reply from SNL, I’ll do what I can to keep Doing Anything I Want.

Rockin’ in the Free World (Live Acoustic)
Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)
Don’t Cry
Hangin’ on a Limb
El Dorado
The Ways of Love
On Broadway
Wrecking Ball
No More
Too Far Gone
Rockin’ in the Free World (Electric)


82nd Favorite: The Joshua Tree, by U2


The Joshua Tree. U2.
1987 Island Records. Producer: Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno
Purchased ca. 1989


squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – All of the sonic characteristics you’ve come to expect from U2 – weird ringing guitars, thumping drums, Bono in full-on Bono-mode. It’s a collection of so many great songs and cool sounds that it’s hard to believe they’re all on one record.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – There was a bit more diversity of sound – and if the last two songs were placed differently on the record.
mad jawsWhen I was a kid in the 70s, my sisters and I loved to read Mad Magazine. Mad in the 70s was The Simpsons or South Park of its day – irreverent satire that was equal parts childish and intelligent. It introduced Real World concerns to my 9 year old mind – like war, sex, racism, abortion – and did so with humor and wit and real intelligence. Mad Magazine made me want to learn more about the world even while I was laughing at the funny drawings of naked people and politicians.

Mad artists, like Don Martin, Dave Berg and Al Jaffee are still well-remembered by my sisters and me, and even today many conversations among us include the words, “It’s like that Mad Magazine bit, where …” The magazine is a touchstone.

alfredOne of the best-remembered pieces from our childhood is a two-page spread written by Tom Koch entitled “Rewriting Your Way to a PhD.” The piece brilliantly shows the progression of a boy’s story about visiting his uncle’s pig farm, beginning as a “What I Did Last Summer” essay by an eight year old, through secondary school refinements, and on into college and grad school, where that same story becomes a PhD thesis on pig farming.

porkyIt cleverly reincorporates a second-grader’s perceptions – the pigs’ tiny eyes, his uncle’s aroma – into increasingly complex essays. I have a memory of my sister reading it aloud to the rest of my family, and us laughing and laughing, ultimately reaching the highest goal possible for Family Laughter – the point at which my dad’s entire head turned bright pink and tears flowed from his eyes, forcing the removal of his glasses. When we reached that point, we knew that whatever the topic, it was destined to become a part of family lore.

We’d all been in the familiar circumstance of “improving upon” past school projects and handing them in to unwitting new teachers. The piece is particularly close to my heart because in three years of middle school I wrote a total of 8 book reports on the same two books – The Yogi Berra Story and The Don Drysdale Story. (I had two different English classes in 8th grade, providing me an extra go-around with both!) books

My sisters and I still use the expression “Pigging it” when referencing a project at work in which we blatantly pull ideas from previous projects. As in “I didn’t have this year’s report ready, so I just took last year’s and Pigged it!”

sister work

As funny as I find the Pig piece, it also demonstrates an obvious (it would seem) truth: people improve as they age and gain experience. When you’re a second grader writing about your uncle’s pig farm, you have neither the skills nor brainpower to put together a decent essay. But with just a few years of growth and learning and experience, you can write a college level essay!

Think of all the things you like to do: woodworking, cooking, banjo playing, crosswords. Whether you are an expert, a novice, or somewhere in between, you can look back on the progress you’ve made from a year ago and most likely see marked improvement. And the more experience you have, the better-developed you expect your talents to be. As you tie off that last suture on your latest kidney transplant, you aren’t thinking to yourself, “Man, I was so much better at this when I did it the first time.” (If you are, keep it to yourself.)

And your patient is likewise happy to know this isn’t your first. In people’s minds, Age + experience = improvement.

Except when it comes to rock bands.


To many people, the worst thing any rock act can do is make a second record. The only thing worse than a second record is a third record.

I remember going into a record store in 1994 in San Francisco, a store on 16th St. in The Mission District called “16th Note.” A cool song was playing, and I asked the (hipster, naturally) clerk what it was.bee thousand

“It’s the new record by Guided by Voices,” he said, almost making eye contact, but straining to remain aloof in the empty store.

“I never heard of them,” I said. “Are they local?”

The clerk suddenly looked at me, like a drill sergeant eyeing a new recruit. “They’re from Ohio,” he said with a dollop of disdain.

“I like this song.” I smiled.

He scoffed, audibly. “It’s okay. But their old stuff was so much better.”

Twenty-one years later, it’s hard to take that guy at his word. By 1994, it’s true, the band had recorded about half a dozen records. But only one of them was released on an actual record label, and all the others had pressings of a few hundred. Okay, maybe this guy had been their neighbor and was acquainted with their catalog.

Or maybe he was just some record store douche who enjoyed lording his (supposedly) exceptional musical tastes over everyone else.[ref]He also, at one point in our conversation, apologized with false modesty for his “jazz breath” when he complained that Thelonious Monk was never properly recorded live. So really, all signs point to him just being a douche.[/ref]

cool musicA statement along the lines of “Their early stuff was much better” can say so much more about the person speaking than it does about the band itself. In the case of the record store guy, it said, “I think I’m better than you at listening to music.”[ref]An odd “skill set” to boast about, reminiscent of the time an asthma doctor told me, “You’re a really good breather.”[/ref]

“The early stuff was much better” can mean that a listener wants you to know they’ve been at it for the long haul. They may state it as a way of welcoming you into the club (“Let me play the good stuff for you!!”) or they may mean it as a way of stating you’ll never truly be part of the club (“Even if I play the good stuff, you’ll never really understand.”) Either way – welcoming or hostile – it’s evidence of a listener’s “Artist Clubhouse” mentality.

Many listeners form a deep emotional attachment to particular musical artists. This attachment can be particularly strong when the artist is new and not widely known. Fans of new acts have to work hard to listen to their music. This was particularly true before the dawn of digital music, long before services such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp allowed anyone with a mobile device to hear all the music from any band anywhere.

woolworthsIt used to be that if the radio didn’t play it, you had to find it in a record store big enough to carry obscure artists, because you sure wouldn’t find it in the record bin at Woolworth’s or JC Penney’s. And it was especially, triply difficult before MTV started playing weird, foreign bands in the early 80s, giving access to acts that just a year earlier would’ve faded quickly into obscurity.[ref]And who instead faded a little less quickly.[/ref] Before MTV (and for MTV era bands who didn’t look cool) non-radio bands were only accessible through word-of-mouth and extensive touring.

As a listener, having to work to find a band (whether by going to a concert or clicking on a “Suggestions For You” button on your music app) makes them a little more special to you. You’ve paid your dues, so to speak. Just like when you join a club. But the Artist Clubhouse feelings are tricky to manage. Because whether the year is 1973 or 2014, when you catch an artist that few people know about (yet?), when you experience a new band who excites you and moves you, you feel tingly and giggly and want to share the band with everyone you know. (Well … most everyone …)

You have power. A power borne of knowledge. Knowledge that few recessothers hold, but that everyone will eventually HAVE TO know. You are like the first kid on the playground who knows – for real – how babies are made, and you get to decide which of the other kids can be trusted with the knowledge.

And which ones will just ruin it by telling everyone.

Because you don’t want EVERYONE to know since once EVERYONE knows, two things will happen: 1) It will no longer seem all that cool[ref]Okay, true, sex will always be cool, but it won’t SEEM as cool. Until you actually do it, then it will be very cool.[/ref] and 2) You will no longer be held in esteem for bringing the knowledge – you’ll just be one more kid who knows how it’s done.

That’s the inherent conundrum in liking an Unknown Band: you want everyone to know how great your New Favorite Band is, as their continued success likely depends on more and more people knowing about them. BUT – you don’t want EVERYONE knowing about them because then they won’t seem as cool. And neither will you, as you won’t be one of a couple hundred, you’ll be one of millions.

clubhouseThe old clubhouse can’t hold that many people. And in such a big club you’ll certainly have trouble continuing your duties as Club doorman AND password-creator AND Keeper of the Member List.

Once the club is that big, you’ll find yourself wistfully thinking back to a time when You Alone Held the Key. This may influence your opinion of the band’s new songs, and make you wish for the old days. “Their old stuff was better,” you’ll say.


However, it isn’t ALWAYS the Artist Clubhouse mentality that causes folks to lament a band’s newest work. Sometimes a band does change significantly in ways that you, the listener, just can’t appreciate.

I think most music fans are willing to give their favorite artists a break when they try new things. We humans are always changing, so it’s natural that a musician would reflect it in their art. neil youngSome musicians are constantly changing, and this change itself excites the fan base. A good example of this is Neil Young. His releases have included many genres: rock, country, new wave, 50’s rock and roll, blues, folk, whatever it was that Trans was … and his fans either love them or hate them, but either way can’t wait to see what Crazy Ol’ Neil will put out next.

But what about a band like, say, Genesis? If you only know Genesis as the purveyor of a string of Big 80s pop hits, with seemingly good-natured elf Phil Collins goofing his way through the videos, you may be surprised to learn that just ten years earlier they weren’t a Three-Suburban-Dads-Looking synth rock band, but were a full on Five-Hippies-Multiplexing-Drugs-Looking prog rock band!


If you’re a huge fan of “Throwing it All Away” or “Follow You, Follow Me,” it may trouble you to click this link.

And if you were a huge Genesis fan in 1974, going out to watch their crazy stage show, with front man Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower or a transvestite fox or a lymph node thing or just a plain old weirdo, altering your mind on whatever psychotropic substance you liked in preparation for their 16-minute songs featuring intricate guitar/keyboard/drum/bass interplay, then certainly when you heard “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” in 1986, it would be understandable to hear you say, “Well … their old stuff was better.”[ref]Just as it would be understandable that fans of the new stuff would say “Their new stuff is better.” A popular novel was written about just such a fan.[/ref]

I myself don’t like to think of art in terms of “Better” or “Worse.” I try to think of it as “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like.” And the fact is – better, worse, whatever – some bands just leave some listeners behind as they grow. For me, the band Radiohead comes to mind. They went from Rock to Not Rock over the course of 15 years[ref]Much more quickly than that, actually.[/ref], and more power to them. But I couldn’t stay on that carnival ride. Their old stuff was better. I liked their old stuff.

u2 band 1

Thoughts of music fans, and their interest in a band’s “old stuff” will – for me – forever be attached to U2’s The Joshua Tree. This record came out in 1987, my second year in college. I had gotten into U2 in high school, and they were one of three contemporary bands (R.E.M. and Van Halen being the other two) whose new records I looked forward to. Most of my other favorite bands‘ best days were behind them.[ref]Of course, Van Halen’s were as well, but in 1987 I was still trying to pretend it wasn’t true, and that Diamond Dave would be back soon.[/ref]I had loved U2’s album War, and most of The Unforgettable Fire, and I was hoping – as was rumored – that the next record would be a return to the helicopter guitars and anthemic vocals that I loved so much about the band.

I can still recall the Spring of ’87, leaving the PCPS gym and crossing Woodland Ave. with my girlfriend, red rockshaving heard “With or Without You” for the first time on the gym’s PA system, and asking “What was that song?” And her replying, “U2’s new one. It’s really bad.” And me saying, “I’ll say. Man. Their old stuff was so much better!” That’s the opinion I held about The Joshua Tree for a long time. “Their old stuff was better.”

As I said, I was waiting for “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Part II,” and – let’s be honest: “With or Without You” is not that!

Of course, the song became a huge hit, their first Number 1. But to a guy waiting for something different, the song sounded like some crappy ballad. Maybe it still does. But to my ear, the song has improved greatly with age. (Maybe because I turned it off the first million times I heard it in the 80s and 90s!) The song has a lot of what most U2 songs offer – cool sounds and an impressive build-up to a sonic release point. I find a lot of U2 music sounds very similar, and usually that’s a bad thing for me. But with U2 I find it easier to take.

u2 concert

Many of their songs – fast or slow – have a march beat to them, as if John Phillip Sousa were whispering in drummer Larry Mullen’s ears; and chiming guitars from Edge that often don’t sound all that much like guitars; and a simple Adam Clayton bass line that finds the right notes underneath it all to support what’s happening up top.

singersAnd then there’s Bono. He sings with an earnestness, with a commitment to the lyrics (whatever they may be) that is, obviously, ripe for mocking. But there are far worse things to be than earnest in this world. Bono’s a conduit between Bruce Springsteen in the 70s and Eddie Vedder in the 90s – the wailing white guys who are gonna belt it out, and believe the shit out of it, regardless of what you or I might think.

“With or Without You” has all of these characteristic time coverU2 features, and also that classic U2 build, this time finding the apex at about 3:01, with Bono’s wailing “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” I’ve gotten over the fact that it doesn’t sound like an outtake from War. And after I heard four or five more songs from the record – The Joshua Tree was a HUGE HIT on rock radio – I decided that maybe it was as good as the old stuff after all!

The track that really caught my ear was the opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s a scene in the movie (and book) High Fidelity in which the record store geeks select their Top Five “Track 1, Side 1” songs. “Where the Streets Have No Name” would definitely make my Top Five.

It seems a little silly now, but I remember my friends and I LOVING that video, feeling inspired by it, somehow empowered by it. We didn’t know what the lyrics were about – and it seems theories still abound – but something about the band on a roof, with throngs of Los Angelinos tying up traffic, and police not sure what to make of the whole thing, Bono singing “burning down love, burning down love” … just trust me, it meant something to us in 1987. roofThe coolest thing about the song, to me, is The Edge’s intro and outro guitar riff. It’s just six notes played over and over, but with delay and effects it ends up sounding like he’s playing four guitars at once. edge guitarOnce the lyrics begin, Edge switches to his typical “Chukka-chukka-chukka” guitar strum[ref]A sound that once caused a friend to comment, “he’s gotta figure out something else to do with that damn guitar of his.”[/ref] that is unmistakably the U2 Sound. This song also has a familiar build and release, to about the 4:54 mark.

The Chukka-chukka-chukka of The Edge is also prominent on the excellent “In God’s Country.”

I love Adam Clayton’s bass line in this song. adam claytonAs all his lines are, this one is simple (I count four distinct notes), but it provides a nice counter-melody to the vocals – it’s usually the melody going through my head when I think about this song. There is also a noise at the end of the line, a percussive clunking – like someone with a sinus problem making glottal noises. I don’t know if it’s a bass noise – I don’t know what it is, but it’s always interested me. The song is propelled forever onward by the guitar, bass and drums, a particular kind of energy that I associate with U2 songs.

I’ve always found Bono’s lyrics somewhat perplexing, sometimes amusing.[ref]For example, from “The Unforgettable Fire:” “Face to face/In a dry and waterless place.” Ok, so then it’s dry AND waterless? Got it.[/ref] They’re often political, and frequently deeper than I guess I can go. sleep drugI figure the depth has to do with him being Irish, as Ireland has a long history of symbolic verse and allusive poets. In the case of “In God’s Country,” the lyrics are really pretty, with lots of desert imagery. Although for years I thought he was singing “Sleep comes/Like a Drum” and I wondered how drumming and sleep could ever be related – or if the point was that they WEREN’T related, and therein lay the point! I was quite relieved to learn the actual lyric is “Sleep comes/Like a drug.” It makes much more sense.

A different type of song on the record, and probably my favorite, is the bluesy (for U2) style of “Trip Through Your Wires.”

A word should be said here about The Edge’s singing. He’s sung lead on a few U2 songs over the years (most memorably “Numb,” from 1993’s Zooropa) but I really like his work as a harmony vocalist. For me, he’s up there with The Stones’ Keith Richards and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony as all-time great rock harmony singers.[ref]As always, The Beatles are ineligible for this category.[/ref] These skills are on display throughout “Trip Through Your Wires.” It’s a simple song, a love song (I think) and also features Bono playing harmonica. There’s not a lot to the song, yet I find it larry mullenirresistible. It’s a slow song, with lots of space, and features a cool break filled by Mullen’s bass drum triplets. In addition to sounding different from typical U2, the song also does NOT have the typical “U2 buildup.” It’s one of their least flamboyant songs.

concert 1

Another great, simple slow song, which includes my favorite vocal performance on the record, is “Red Hill Mining Town.”

It’s a song about the plight of miners during the UK coal mining strikes in the 80s. It’s got Bono’s earnest vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars and Clayton’s understated bass and Mullen’s Sousa drums and that patented build and release (4:00). It’s got the whole U2 package.

There are so many great songs on The Joshua Tree. One that I often forget about, but then hear and think, “I love this song!!” is Bono’s ode to a dead friend and his New Zealand home, “One Tree Hill.”

This song features The Edge’s guitar trickery, but it’s more subtle this time, and holds up really well on repeated listens. In fact, I find I hear something different in his guitar each time I listen.

Of course, the album’s biggest song was the worldwide super-smash hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

I worked in a Hershey’s Chocolate warehouse (it wasn’t a warehouse made of chocolate, but it was where chocolate was warehoused) in the summer of 1987, third shift – 11 pm to 7:00 am – for three months. u2 1987A diverse group of people worked there, with diverse musical tastes – including Contemporary Christian, Country, R&B, Heavy Metal and College Rock – and there was only one radio. So – of course – the radio station that was least offensive to the most number of people was selected to accompany the drudgery of chocolate factory work: Top Forty. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was making its climb that summer, all the way to the Number One spot in August, which means Top Forty radio played the song about twice every hour, every day. That means I heard it about 16 times a night. It was like being inside a bunker under siege by US forces.

still haventTo this day, when I hear the song’s quiet opening notes and that gentle tambourine I flash back to the smell of cardboard boxes, old chocolate and hot forklift engines; to the uneasy feeling of sleep deprivation and forced chit-chat with people whose names and faces I knew I’d forget when the summer ended. I can’t really hear the song objectively anymore, but I feel like I should at least mention that it’s on this record.

So, The Joshua Tree was not exactly like what had come before from U2. And time has shown that the band had a lot more changes up its collective sleeve in the 25-plus years since its release. One song that hinted at where the band would go next, sonically, was the intense and noisy (and INCREDIBLE-to-see-them-play-live) “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

I’ve seen U2 play this live several times, and it’s always intense and excellent. In some ways, this song is the one I was looking for in 1987 when I was hoping for a return to War. It has a million guitars, sounding like jets and devastation. The lyrics, about the US’s role in El Salvador’s civil war, echo the sounds. The song is driving and powerful, and Mullen and Clayton’s rhythm section nails down a musical feeling of unsettling dread. But the song’s sound has a fuller quality to it than was heard on previous records. It has a depth of sound – whether from more overdubs or more synthesizer use, or just better production methods – that had been missing from previous albums. In the band’s next album, 1991’s Achtung, Baby, this fuller sound was built upon, with more synths and overdubs coming into play. I see “Bullet the Blue Sky” as the transition song – a bridge between the 80s U2 and the 90s U2.


It’s clear that in The Joshua Tree, U2 was not simply “Pigging It.” True, they built on what came before, but it was different and new. But maybe – come to think of it – they were, because maybe all development is “Pigging It.” We tweak and change, we hope we’re improving, but it’s the perspective of the reader/listener that decides what’s good. I’m sure that second grader’s mom MUCH preferred the essay about his uncle’s farm to his windy blabberfest about swine. In 1987 I thought “new” U2 meant “bad” U2. But at some point it became “the old (good) stuff.” And nowadays, I don’t think it’s Bad or Good. It’s just what I like!

Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared


85th Favorite: 90125, by Yes


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


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.”


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.


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, [ref]Even though it was certainly not rock[/ref] 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.


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.


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” [ref]By that I mean pretentious and weird[/ref] 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. [ref]But why fight the urge? If the song moves me, the song moves me, right? I should be happy to hear something I like![/ref] 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.


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 [ref]Listen from 12:00 – 13:30 if (when) you get impatient[/ref] 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! [ref]Dr. Dave and I have spent hours laughing about the band’s lyrics throughout their history.[/ref] 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.


“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
“Hold On”
“It Can Happen”
“Leave It”
“Our Song”
“City of Love”


90th Favorite: Appetite for Destruction, by Guns N’ Roses


Appetite for Destruction. Guns N’ Roses.
1987, Geffen Records. Producer: Mike Clink
Purchased ca. 1990.


chipIN A NUTSHELL – Punky, bluesy rock and roll with fantastic guitar work. Varied, multipart songs and interesting production and arrangements make it a candidate for repeated listening. Axl’s voice can get old, and you’ll have to bear with some lyrical clunkers, but for loud guitar rock, it’s hard to beat this one. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – all the songs were nearly as good as the five best on the album.
kids 1Among the earliest Rules for Life we learn as schoolchildren is this: “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” This rule is so clichéd that simply writing it feels wrong – like using a question mark where it? doesn’t belong, or mispeling a word. Equally clichéd is the assertion that it’s one of the first Rules for Life children recognize as being utter bullshit. It’s been shown again and again that covers of books (and their analogous counterparts in non-published realms) are actually very useful in judging contents.

This fact is precisely the reason I, as a boy, read so many Matt Christopher books

matt christopher

and so few by Laura Ingalls Wilder.


When it came to music, I found cover-judging to be equally useful. My sisters had many albums, and my 9 – 12 year old self could readily identify by their covers which records would be worthwhile hearing, and which were clearly awful. Pictures of the band on the cover were always the first clue. For example, pictures of dour faced long-haired dudes in women’s winter coats, who look like they may have been drawn by the same guy who drew the covers for the Narnia books, were definitely BAD.


Hairy guys who reminded me of the scary grown-ups I’d once encountered at a campground shower – guys who owned vans and swore and who weren’t at all embarrassed to talk about their dicks in the presence of a seven year old boy and his dad – were absolutely BAD.

england dan

Spacesuit-wearing black dudes, no matter how smiley they were, were nearly as scary as the hairy cock-talkers, and so were BAD as well. (This was rural PA in the 1970s – I lived in a rather bigoted area, and I was part of the culture, warts and all)

bros johnson

Bands with ridiculous costumes were BAD …


But bands with AWESOME costumes were AWESOME.

village people

Albums without pictures of the band were a bit harder to decipher. For example, an album may have a really nifty picture on the front, that made an eleven year old want to know more about the music inside …

crime of cent

But then turn it over and … scary hairballs are present – even (un)dressed in a way that REALLY reminded you of a campground shower.

crime back

Some albums had covers that were so boring you just KNEW that the music had to be horrible.


While other covers were so FUN, that you could just tell the album would be chock full of hits!


Okay, I guess you can tell that my cover-judging didn’t always work so well for albums. (Unless you are a big Village People or KC and the Sunshine Band fan.)

But the point of this is that I’ve had a tendency to base my decisions on immediate first impressions, and – just as Malcolm Gladwell writes – I’ve been forced to reconsider many opinions because of it. Including the Guns n’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction. My first impression was NOT based on the album cover. It was based on the rock music culture present in the late 80s.


… Keep in mind the state of popular music by the late 80s. Today, in 2014, we’ve become accustomed to the fact that the popular music industry has splintered into multiple genres, and we can listen to only the ones we want. The music delivery systems available today – Pandora, Spotify, all the Radio Apps, satellite radio, music channels on Cable systems, etc, etc – allow every person in America with the proper means to listen to individual slices of different musical categories whenever they wish.

I have Sirius Satellite Radio in my car, and I switch frequently between 80s alternative music, classic rock, (both well-known and obscure), garage rock, 90s alternative, and popular oldies that don’t always seem so old. Plus I’ll sometimes turn to the jazz, folk or bluegrass stations.

And these stations only represent a tiny, late-twentieth century white boy slice of all that is truly available.


Music listening today is a buffet. Not unlike CiCi’s Pizza, but with far less diarrhea.

Music listening in the 80s was a prison mess hall – you had no say in what was served. The only choice a listener had was in the type of radio station he or she chose, and (except for Classical, Country or Oldies) your choice was either Top 40 or Album Rock.

left ofSIDE NOTE – There was also College Radio, a term that in the 80s meant exactly what it says, but eventually came to define an entire genre of music (well, genres [plural], really) and then exploded into the “90s alternative” behemoth. The only problem with College Radio in the 80s was that if you didn’t live within 2 miles of a college (and I didn’t) you weren’t hearing it.

mtvSUB-SIDE NOTE – Then, 30 years ago, MTV came on the air, which I’ve written about before. This delivered all kinds of fad sounds and weirdos to my teenaged attention, but you had to watch for hours and hours to hear the really good stuff. And unlike radio, you couldn’t listen in your car, where most radio listening occurs, plus the visual component made it a poor choice for background music, so you didn’t hear as many songs as you would on the radio.

So, anyway, you had Top 40 or Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and by the early 80s I was – for the most part – an AOR kind of guy. This meant lots of 60s and 70s rock, like The Stones, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Lynrd Skynrd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, CCR, Clapton …


What stands out most about that list (apart from their impressive woolliness (except Elton)) is that by the early 80s all of these acts were either dead (Hendrix), defunct (multiple), dead and defunct (Skynyrd), wheezing into middle age and coasting on their reputation (Stones, Who), or had completely transformed to Top 40 pop (Elton). AOR was quickly becoming an Oldies radio format.

The search for new blood took radio programmers and music industry types to a sub-genre of music that shared a few characteristics with those AOR stalwarts: a blues-based, guitar-driven style of music, although rooted more in Black Sabbath darkness than Beatles sunnyness. It was called Heavy Metal. At the beginning of the 80s, bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and The Scorpions began finding their way onto AOR stations. metal
Programmers selected the catchy songs from their albums, leaving out the pounding ones, as AOR tried to stave off the dreaded “Oldies” label.

What you may notice about these metal bands is that while they have the hair of the 70s bands (except for Judas Priest’s Rob Halford) their dress is more stylized than their AOR counterparts. Spandex pants, lots of leather, tank tops and patterned, loose jacket/shirt items … While the guys in the 70s acts dressed like your high school aged neighbor working on his car in the driveway (Elton and Beatles’ “Peppers” outfits notwithstanding), the metal guys dressed like no one you’d meet on the street. Unless your street was Castro Street.

castro (Okay, hang with me here, folks. Don’t worry, I’ll edit all this stuff later, I swear.)

So, it’s the early 80s. AOR is trying to stay modern by playing pop-sounding Heavy Metal by guys dressed in fancy outfits. MTV is now emphasizing the visual aspect of performers, making the appearance of the acts as important (or more so) than the music they’re putting out. top 40Plus, Top 40 programming remains a stew of musical forms of the day, a place where acts as different as Olivia Newton-John and Blondie can both hang out in the Top Ten alongside The Commodores and The Charlie Daniels Band, and record-buyers are accustomed to catchy pop, regardless of genre.

This confluence of music, tastes, radio, and television – swirling like thunderclouds around the heads of the ever-present, cocaine-binging record executives desperately trying to squeeze more dough from the listening public’s pockets – smashes together, creating a Perfect Storm that unleashes on the world one of the great musical disasters of the late twentieth century: HAIR METAL.

perfect storm

The spectacle of hair metal was awful. It consisted mostly of goofy songs about sexy chicks and partying played by guys with bleached and teased poofy hairdos, who wore tight leather and spandex pants and danced around making faces of agony and pretending they were playing heavy metal music, while in reality they played the same schlocky pop songs that radio counterparts like Madonna and Huey Lewis were putting out.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m as big a fan of schlocky pop songs as anyone, and some of the Hair Metal songs were really catchy and fun to listen to. What bothered me was that these acts were playing Phil Collins pop, but pretending they were AC/DC. And now these same poofy pop songs were being played on AOR stations, alongside Hendrix and Cream, where DJs were keeping a straight face while saying shit like, “Here’s the next single from the band Nelson, and it’s a real hard-rocking one …”

Everyone was casually pretending that hair metal bands were rocking hard, even as all the evidence said otherwise. It was as if MTV, radio, people at parties, and even some of your friends, were all conspiring in some intricately plotted and precisely executed prank against you.

You: “Dude, this song by Firehouse sounds pretty much just like a Whitney Houston song, right?”
Other Person: “What? No! No, no, no. This is rock and roll! Whitney sings that pop crap!” [Other Person snickers and winks at some unseen person behind you.]


Hair Metal was having a weird effect on existing bands, too. Take Def Leppard, for example. In 1980, they were kind of a mini Judas Priest, a British heavy metal band with a penchant for melodies, but whose songs stomped and crunched. Here is the song “Wasted,” from their debut album On Through the Night.

By 1983, they were on the pop path, but still keeping one foot in the hard guitar rock world … barely …

By 1987 they were firmly in “Who’s Judas Priest?” mode.

In their defense, Def Leppard was a new(ish) band trying to make a career of it, so you could argue they were trying to stay afloat.

But what to make of 70s AOR stars like Ted Nugent, and members of Styx, and Journey, among others, who formed new bands like Damn Yankees and Bad English for the sole purpose, it seemed, to go on TV and pretend to rock hard while belting out turgid power ballads written for them by Diane Warren – even though 10 years earlier they ACTUALLY WERE rocking hard? (Depending on your definition … but still …) trumanWere they in on the prank, too? Was I in a musical Truman Show?

(The Diane Warren reference begins to touch on the concept of the “Power Ballad” that spewed forth from the Hair Metal scene like pus from a lanced boil. I don’t have space to write more. I’ll just leave it at “pus from a lanced boil.”)

So this is the musical environment into which a long-haired, motorcycle riding, chain-smoking, shaky alcoholic 26 year old – who spent his time hanging around the Millersville University student housing complex looking for freshman girls instead of a job – walked into with a copy of Appetite for Destruction under his leather-jacketed, wobbly, under-the-influence arm. Dickhead Doug, as I called him, was a self-professed metal-head, but admirer of Hair Bands, a man of indiscriminate rock music taste, who could break down, track by track, the Metallica album Kill ‘Em All, while in the next breath speak of the majesty of the new Lita Ford album. The man’s rock knowledge ran deep, but his ability in 1988 to distinguish musical shit from Shinola was quite suspect. (As was mine, admittedly – but if you’re reading this blog, you know that already.)

During the Winter Break of 1987-1988, I was awoken in the wee hours of the morning by this song blasting at ultra-volume in my living room:

Aroused from a deep sleep by that clarion call of an opening riff, which I had never before heard, I was disoriented and rather scared. And it was being played LOUDLY – as in the neighbors won’t have to call the cops ’cause they’ll hear it themselves 4 miles away LOUD.

The thing about Dickhead Doug was that he wasn’t my roommate at the time – he was the brother of a roommate’s girlfriend, and – it being college, and us being college-aged guys – it was just sort of okay (sort of) that he’d at times wander into our apartment. He often slept off his drunks on our couch. I guess we’d given him a key? Who knows. Anyway, he was (rather) welcome to use our apartment. However, no matter what arrangement we’d all made, it was NOT OKAY for him to come in and BLAST his HAIR BAND BULLSHIT FANTASY HARD ROCK DEBARGE-SOUNDING CRAP at 2 in the morning!!

dudeI went to the living room, angry, and he greeted me with a huge grin on a shining face, as if to say “I knew you’d love this band!!” It turned to a look of shocked disbelief when I made him turn it off. He made the case, earnestly yet drunkenly, that this album was going to be enormous, one of the biggest ever, that it was a defining statement of hard rock, carrying the torch of heavy, guitar-based rock and roll, pouring gasoline on that torch, and thrusting it boldly forward to scorch the musical landscape of the cusp of the 1990s.

crueI seemed to recall he had said the same thing about Motley Crue’s Girls Girls Girls just three months earlier.

He turned the music off, but assured me I’d be hearing more from this band. I went back to bed holding a huge grudge against Guns N’ Roses, and I held it for many years. I continued to believe – even as the evidence said otherwise – that the band was a poofy hair band playing sappy pop, and that their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was severely over-rated, an example nothing more than marketing success.

Sometime around 1990, before the band’s Use Your Illusion records came out, after repeatedly hearing from friends that the record was actually good, I finally bought the cassette and realized I’d been entirely wrong.

Appetite for Destruction is a terrific blend of heavy metal riffs and punk rock attitude, full of songs that are allowed to develop and grow, and whose interesting structures hold up well on repeated listening. The musicianship of the players is excellent (except for the drumming …) and if you can bear Axl Rose’s at-times screeching voice, and his violent lyrics, you’ll find the melodies are catchy. As usual, it’s Guitars and Melody with me …

gnr 1The album opens with the aforementioned “Welcome to the Jungle,” Dickhead Doug’s wee-hour alarm bell. This song has become ubiquitous in North American macho culture, with that opening riff and swelling, menacing introduction pumping up the crowd at everything, it seems, from high school football games to women’s professional lacrosse, from tractor pulls to church services. (The sound on those links may no longer work: it seems Axl Rose has an army of people scrubbing the audio from any unauthorized use of the song – even in homemade videos!!)

It’s become so ubiquitous that you may forget how great a song it really is. It’s got several parts that sound cool on their own, and when put together make an excellent rock epic. That build up at the beginning, that starts with Slash’s reverb-y riff and grows to an explosion of the main riff, gnr 2and the guitar pattern, with Axl’s lyrics of the harsh Big City … it’s a tremendous rock song. I love Axl’s stuttering “n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-knees.” I love how Slash has a mini guitar solo between verses, and how things sort of cool off in the mellow “When you’re high” section. There are very nice, quiet guitar parts there, which finally ends with a fabulous Slash solo. Then it goes into the middle “Jungle Section,” with drummer Stephen Adler pounding out a tribal beat on his toms, while bassist Duff McKagen rolls back and forth on a scale and guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin squawk and scratch, until Axl asks the musical question, “You know where you are?” Answers it for the listener, “You’re in the jungle, baby,” and finally declares, “You’re gonna die!” leading to the final “Welcomes” and the cool signature riff, and Axl spouting one of the best hock-a-loogie “Hooah”s in popular music history, certainly ranking alongside that of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax.” axl teaseI should have known the song was brilliant immediately, even at 2 in the morning, but I was stuck on the belief that it was just another hair band song (despite what my ears told me), a belief egged on by the appearance of Axl in the video – Someone had teased his hair up like all those other pretty-boy singers pretending to rock, and even though the hair looked out of place on him, I figured a Whitney Houston-esque power ballad would follow shortly.

However, the next song I heard from them was something different.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” is a song that many folks have tried to shoehorn into the “Power Ballad” genre. The song is a love song, and it came out in the 80s, but it bears little resemblance to a typical hair band power ballad. There is no acoustic guitar intro, no violins, no head-sway-inducing sing-along chorus that testifies to the depths of one pretty man’s love for one pretty woman (despite what he’s sung in the album’s other 9 songs about bangin’ lots of chicks) … The song is actually a rather up-tempo, rockin’ number – okay, mid-tempo – that sounds more like the Stones than Air Supply. Much like “Jungle,” the song has an introduction that instantly became a recognizable, classic riff. And the guitar is very cool throughout the whole song. During the verses, there’s a clean, arpeggiated guitar part beneath the vocals that is one of those little things slash 2 that makes the song for me – the type of thing you don’t notice at first, but pick up on with repeated listening. The Beatles threw in millions of these little things, and as a huge Beatles fan, I’m always listening for such things in any song. Slash also plays a terrific, long, multipart solo in the song. And McKagen’s bass lines support the entire piece, and also hold up well in repeated listening. On this album the band always has something interesting going on in the songs, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. The guitar noises underneath the “Where do we go” section, the acoustic strumming that’s heard throughout. Sure, the lyrics are a bit corny, but what do you want from Axl? Fucking poetry?? Come on – you know better.

axl finger

The next song I heard off the album was Paradise City.

This song is a straight-ahead arena-rock song, with a heavy, grinding riff. The song again demonstrates GnR’s penchant for blending disparate parts into a single song. It has an intro, verse/chorus, “so far away” bridge, and galloping outro/solo section to finish it all. Axl even throws in a referee whistle near the beginning (at 1:20), I guess to signal the rest of the band that it’s time to change. This is a song whose lyrics I don’t understand – something about a guy on death row, maybe? slash 1They don’t make a lot of sense (“The surgeon general says it’s hazardous to breathe/I’d have another cigarette/ But I can’t see/Tell me who you’re gonna believe.” Wait – what?) But whether I understand them or not, they are fun to sing along to. In this song, Slash’s guitar is the star. The main riff is cool, the riff in the bridge is cool, and the solo that finishes off the song is truly mind-blowing. It’s fast and wild – at times it seems out of control, almost like some kid monkeying around on a guitar pretending to play – but it always hangs together. I enjoy listening to it because I always hear something different each time.

By this point, I was thinking maybe GNR was a little more than a typical hair band. But I remained wary – a poofy Whitney Houston song could be around the corner. But the next song I heard, “Mr. Brownstone,” was NOT a Whitney song.

This is my favorite song on the album. It’s short and sweet, a basic 3 minute pop song. I love the drums and the riff, and the tune is great. Duff’s bass has a cool, crunching sound to it, and once again – as with most of the songs on the album – there are little guitar things going on in the background that make the song enjoyable with repeated listen. I especially like the rapid fire vocals of the “I used to do a little” section. It’s a song about the band’s struggles with heroin and it’s an example of some of Axl’s better lyrics.

Axl was frequently castigated (and rightfully so, I think) over his misogynistic, homophobic and racist lyrics. But some of his lyrics are rather insightful. For example, the song “It’s So Easy” was frequently cited as an example of Axl’s misogyny and attitude of violence. And the song’s lyrics can certainly be read that way. The song could be seen as some asshole bragging about paradise how easy his life is, treating people badly and not giving a shit about it. However, my take on the song is this: the lyrics say “it’s so easy/when everyone’s trying to please me.” This lyric, to me, puts the onus on the people around the singer of the lyrics. He’s saying “everyone’s trying to please me, and because of that, it makes it so easy to be a misogynist, hateful dude.” There are stories all over the news about privileged kids, or athletes, who have had people fawning over them their entire lives, and who become complete pricks. In my opinion, “It’s So Easy” is taking a swipe at the enablers and hangers-on who help create such a situation, not glorifying the violence it leads to. Plus, the song really rocks.

Some other parts of the album that I really love include the song “Nightrain,” with it’s blues-rock riff and classic, blues tough-guy lyrics. Although, he states he’s been drinking gasoline, and I sure hope that’s just a hyperbolic boast. I once siphoned old gasolinegasoline out of a snow blower and accidentally ingested about a teaspoon and felt sick for days. If he’s really been drinking gasoline, I can say for certain that’s where his bad attitude is coming from.

I also love the album’s closing number, “Rocket Queen,” which is a pretty straight ahead rock song for four minutes, then switches to a mid-tempo jam for the final four minutes. It’s another GnR song with great guitar and bass lines, and multiple parts that blend together nicely, and it would be one of my favorites, except it includes recorded sex-type noises in it, and songs that do that (“Hungry Like the Wolf,” etc) always make me a little uncomfortable. And I always wonder about the producer’s decisions in these songs: “You hit that D7th suspended chord, just before going into the bridge. Do you think a pre- or post- orgasm moan sounds better for that part?”

Songs like “You’re Crazy,” which plays like a straight-ahead punk rock song, and the pounding riff-rock of “Anything Goes” (which has an awesome talk-box dueling guitar solo, beginning about 1:45) are songs that set this album apart from other hard rock albums of the era. iz duffThe guitars and bass on the album – courtesy of Slash, Izzy and Duff – are excellent throughout. But I do think this may be the best record with the worst drumming ever. Let me clarify – the drumming isn’t awful, it just doesn’t add much to the songs. Considering the other excellent musical performances on the record, the drumming on these songs is rudimentary, to my ears. As I’ve mentioned, the songs have lots of sections, and therefore changes, which should provide lots of opportunities for interesting fills. But drummer Stephen Adler uses basic fills – for example, the two snare hits in “Paradise City” at the end of each verse. I feel like he could have added much more to the songs. They’re big songs, they need big drums.

I admit my response to this album was colored by my initial impression of the band, which was formed by everything I heard EXCEPT the music! The album had the misfortune of being released among (and promoted as part of) the shittiest pop genre of the last 60 years (including EDM). And I fell for the marketing. So I have to be more careful – no matter what book covers say about their books.

bok cover

Welcome to the Jungle
It’s So Easy
Out ta Get Me
Mr. Brownstone
Paradise City
My Michelle
Think About You
Sweet Child o’ Mine
You’re Crazy
Anything Goes
Rocket Queen

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