Tag Archives: Classic Rock

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

Share

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

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

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

I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A classic TP lyric was lifted from this song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Share

12th Favorite: Give the People What They Want, The Kinks

Share

Give the People What They Want. The Kinks.
1981, Arista Records. Producer: Ray Davies.
Purchased cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, is the band’s thumping, guitar-driven version of new-wave rock music. Singer/songwriter Ray Davies is a master of deep, witty lyrics set to catchy melodies, and brother Dave plays a terrific guitar throughout. The songs are angry and funny and full of emotion. I don’t think it was meant to be a rock-opera, concept album, but since I first heard it almost 40 years ago, it’s always sounded like one to me.

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

You probably know we are living in The Information Age, but did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first coined by Robert Leghorn in 1960? I first recall hearing the term in 1983, in 10th grade history, when my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, asked if we knew what age we were living in. Some of us guessed the Nuclear Age or the Space Age. She said no, those were generally considered to be just a little earlier, and then she told us, “You are living in the Information Age!”

I was unimpressed. Most of the other ages – Bronze, Iron, Stone, Industrial, Nuclear, Space – conjured images of strong people working hard, or smart people creating new things. Men and women from these past ages seemed heroic. And even those less-heroic Middle Ages at least included some mysterious, bizarre people and activities that were interesting. But THE INFORMATION AGE? How boring. It sounded like a world of encyclopedia salesmen.

This era is also known as “The Digital Age,” or “The Computer Age,” and these terms provide an image that, while definitely not as cool as a dude in a tunic smelting some copper, would have at least provided more context than “Information Age.” “Information” is a term so inclusive that it loses any meaning. But what I’ve come to understand from living through the transition to the information age, is just how information-starved I really was back in 10th grade. Specifically, a little more information certainly would’ve been helpful in my pursuit of good music.

Billy Joel summed up the problem of pre-Information-Age music fans quite succinctly, and in rhyme, in the song “It’s Still Rock n Roll to Me.”

It doesn’t matter what they say in the papers/ ‘Cause it’s always been the same old scene/ There’s a new band in town/ But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine/ Aimed at your average teen

-Billy Joel

In those days, the two easiest means of finding out about bands and music were a) the radio, and b) siblings and friends. One problem with (a) was that if your family listened to boring 70s AM radio, and you lived in the middle of nowhere, far from big cities and college towns and the diversity of radio formats they offered, you weren’t exactly hearing the cutting-edge new stuff. The problem with (b) was that it all depended on what your sibling liked. You could borrow friends’ music and listen, but again, you only found out what your friends liked.

But I had a different way to find out about new music. Beginning in about 1979 or 1980, my family was a member of the Columbia House Record Club. Click that link, or do a little web-searching on your own, and you’ll find out all about the club. Basically, it was a mail service. You bought 12 records for a buck, then agreed to buy 6 more records over the next year. It was one of those deals, like adjustable-rate mortgages, that if you stayed on top of things, you could maybe make work, but if you didn’t pay attention to, you’d get screwed big-time. The deal you agreed to with Columbia House was that whatever crappy record they sent you each month, you would buy – UNLESS you sent them a postcard to say you didn’t want it. I spent my high school years terrified of running out of postcard stamps, diligently rejecting every Olivia Newton-John, Debarge, Alabama, Night Ranger, etc., album they tried to send me.

Each month they also sent a little booklet containing a list of hundreds of albums available for purchase. At 12 years old, I had a back door into this exclusive Club (I’ll just call it “The Club”) because my older sisters were members. (I don’t mean to brag.) I pored through that booklet regularly, figuring it was how the savvy music-enthusiast performed research. What I didn’t recognize as a 12-year-old was that the booklet provided the absolute least amount of information possible about a record to still qualify as “information.” The Club had to cram as many album descriptions as possible into a flimsy, 4″ x 6″, 6-page booklet, which included sections for Country and Western, Jazz, Easy Listening, and Soul, in addition to “Rock and Roll,” the genre of listener my sisters had self-identified as in their first purchase. So, the Music Guide editors ruthlessly enforced a character limit per album description.

Only a few of the listings would include a picture of the album cover. Most just were represented by a bulleted blurb. In either case, the artist and album name would be listed in bold-face, and sometimes truncated. For example, the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album You’re Gonna Get It! might be listed as “T. Petty/Heartbreakers, ‘You’re … Get It’

Next would follow entirely unhelpful bits of reviews from music magazines, literally single words that meant nothing to a music fan. “Exciting!” – Crawdaddy. “Rollicking!” – Cashbox. If no positive words could be culled from any reviews written about the album in any recognizable magazines, then The Club staff would add a few empty, pseudo-tantalizing phrases to the description: “Hitmaker Petty at it again.” “‘American Girl’ rocker impresses.”

Finally, a few song titles would be listed – but only the shortened titles of singles, and then some other few-lettered songs. For example, “Listen…Heart,” “Need … Know,” “Hurt.” These words meant the singles “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know,” and the song “Hurt,” because it’s only four letters long.

I don’t know if nepotism played a role, but by 1982, the spring of my freshman year of high school, I was allowed entree to The Club. I found a 12-for-a-penny offer sheet – probably inside the Sunday Parade magazine, next to a classically unfunny Howard Huge cartoon – and scoured my sisters’ Music Guide for the details that would guide my initial selections.

I quickly realized it was a waste of time. Instead, I just chose 12 cassettes containing songs I’d heard on the radio, or that I knew my friends already liked. I still remember the titles of most of those first 12 selections. And I still remember the date they arrived: Friday, March 5, 1982. I was at a school event that evening, telling my friend Bruce about my new cassettes, when he told me that John Belushi had died that day.

One cent bought me some Greatest Hits cassettes: The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Yes. I also chose Crimes of Passion, by Pat Benatar; Business as Usual, by Men at Work; Permanent Waves, by Rush, and Get Lucky, by Loverboy. And I picked two albums that have appeared on my 100 Favorite Albums: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police; and Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, the album that sent me down the path of love for hooky, guitar-driven, fast-paced rock..

The Kinks are surely one of the most well-known and important bands of The First British Invasion in the ’60s, not to mention in the entire history of rock music. Guitarist Dave Davies is sometimes credited with “inventing” heavy metal on the song “You Really Got Me.” His brother, bandleader/songwriter Ray Davies, was McCartney-esque in his ability to write songs in most any style, including mod pop, British music hall, even disco. His lyrics could be funny, biting, insightful and moving.

By the early 1980s, the aging British bands of the 60s and 70s were trying to stay modern and MTV-ready in any way possible. The Stones tried disco. The Who cut their hair. David Bowie went full-on Top 40. Paul McCartney, well … I don’t know exactly what that was. But The Kinks, who’d always sort of done whatever they wanted, musically, continued to just be The Kinks.

From the first time I heard Give the People What They Want in full, until this very day, I’ve thought of it as a concept album, as a story of a man’s descent into madness over the pressures placed on his artistic soul by the heavy weight of corporate and economic realities. I’ve never heard Ray Davies speak of it in those terms, but when he writes a blog, he can dispute my take on it. The lead track, “Around the Dial,” begins the tale with a story of a missing DJ.

It’s difficult, in 2019, to express how important radio DJs were in 1950s-80s American culture, but they really were influencers, taste-makers, and local celebrities. The song opens with a radio being tuned followed by crashing power chords. I love the sound of Mick Avory’s drums on this record – it’s a live, Albini-esque, In Utero sound. The song’s a driving number, and Dave’s lead guitar nicely answers the vocals throughout the verses. I like Jim Rodford’s bass line, too. The song is basically a punk song, and at 2:00 Dave actually hits some of those ringing, Ramones-style chords. There’s a nice bridge at 3:06, then that radio tuning sound comes back (3:38) and we head to the end. Ray’s voice is excellent, his ability to enunciate and shout in tune is pretty terrific. The character singing the song doesn’t know what’s happened (“Was it something that you said to the corporation guys upstairs?”) but the second song provides a pretty big clue.

The title track indicates that those corporation guys wanted the DJ to play some whack, bullshit, popular crap.

Ray Davies is clearly dubious of entertainment for the masses. “Blow out your brains, and do it right /Make sure it’s prime time and on a Saturday night.” The song has a great guitar riff, and nice dueling guitar parts leading up to the first verse. The guitars sound like they’re in a Replacements song, a band that was just getting off the ground in 1981. It’s a raucous, lovely mess of a song, with great vocals and thumping bass.

The next song, “Killer’s Eyes,” opens softly, and in the Give the People What They Want Rock Opera I’ve built in my head, the DJ is considering his own dark thoughts, and his companions’ are concerned that his leaving his job is an ominous sign. (It’s actually about Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.) It’s got a great chord progression, and more great, subtle lead guitar from Dave, and I love Ray’s last run through the chorus, at 3:30.

Of course there’s biting wit in all the songs, but it wouldn’t seem like The Kinks if there wasn’t at least a bit of light humor in the proceedings as well, and “Predictable” provides it.

Dave’s cool-sounding guitar opens the song, which turns out to be a sort of reggae song with a rock beat. It’s about a man who’s life has gotten, well, predictable. (In my concept album, the DJ is questioning his home life, pressure mounting.) I like how the guitar and bass transition to the chorus (0:30), and the double guitars throughout. Ray’s girlfriend at the time, Kinks-enthusiast and superstar Chrissie Hynde, provides backing vocals. I also think it’s not unintentional that a song called “Predictable” is rather repetitive.

In my story for Give the People What They Want, the DJ is not only feeling “Predictable,” he’s also angry that his wife is too materialistic. (This will be important later!) It’s summed up in the terrific “Add It Up,” one of my favorite tracks on the record.

It’s an aggressive song, with Dave’s alternating chiming guitar and power chords driving it. Rodford’s bass sound is rich, especially on the little runs (0:42) he fills in. Ray’s voice is awesome in this song, ranging across a difficult melody, at times with delicacy and others with rage. Hynde coos the “Cartier! Gucci!” backing vocals, and Dave harmonizes on the “Add it Up” choruses. It’s a pounding song that always prepares me for the next one, the album hit, and the Sound of Freshman Year, Fall 1981, “Destroyer.”

This song was everywhere that fall. It had everything teenage boys of the era loved: loud guitars, shouting lyrics, and a singalong hook. As a fan of The Kinks, it’s cool to hear the band reference both “Lola,” the band’s 1970 hit about a surprising date, and “All Day and All of the Night,” the band’s 1964 hit, from which the guitar riff is borrowed. Dave’s guitar really shines on “Destroyer.” The tone is great on all the little fills he plays throughout. There’s cool piano in the background, and the band’s backing shouts add to the power. Lyrically, the song’s about mental health, and in my story the DJ finally cracks. On the rest of side 2 we will find out what happened to him!

In “Yo-Yo,” the DJ’s wife is realizing something’s wrong with him. Dave’s guitar arpeggiates behind Ray’s voice on what starts as a soft number. But at 1:24 it’s back to power chords as we get the DJ’s crazy take on things. It’s a cool guitar song, particularly through Verse 3 (beginning 2:28). The song transitions into “Back to Front,” a rave-up with excellent guitar. Dave Davies isn’t often mentioned among the Guitar Greats, though Rolling Stone ranked him at #91 all-time, but he’s a furious, inventive talent. In this song, the DJ’s friends have had enough of his bullshit. Everyone has left him.

Even, we find out, his young daughter.

“Art Lover” is one of those songs that, if one doesn’t listen closely to the lyrics, sounds really creepy, if not downright horrifying, as a grown man eyes little girls. By the end we realize he’s a parent separated from his child, trying to get a glimpse of what he’s lost. It’s a sad song. And as someone who finds himself missing the days of parenting toddlers – long days at the playground, relaxing with a coffee while making sure nobody breaks an arm – I do find myself looking at active little kids with a sense of loss, and I try not to look creepy about it.

But maybe The DJ lost the kids for a good reason? “A Little Bit of Abuse” suggests he took out his frustrations on his wife. (At least, in my very specific reading of the album as a story of one DJ’s descent into madness.) It’s a bluesy, gritty guitar song, with great harmony vocals throughout. The lyrics actually offer a very 70s/80s view of spousal abuse, in which the battered partner shares blame because they stay. This idea can come from a place of encouragement (“You DO have the power to leave!”), but it also misses the complexities of the issue.

In any case, “Art Lover” and “A Little Bit of Abuse” are a one-two punch of desperate sadness. What could follow? Well, how about the song that may be my favorite (non-Beatles) song of all time: “Better Things.”

It’s got a cool sound, cool guitars, great melody, and lyrics that offer nothing more than simple kindness and a blessing: “I hope tomorrow you find better things.” Everything’s gone down the shitter for our DJ, but everyone – even he – can hope for improvements. I love how the guitar answers the melody throughout, and the ringing sounds Dave pulls from it. To this point in The Kinks’ career, many had grown accustomed to Ray’s cynical lyrics. It may have been shocking to hear him earnestly wish, “hoping all the verses rhyme/ and the very best of choruses, too.” It’s a song that, when I’m feeling down, can bring me deep, deep joy.

So, I don’t know. It’s true, we’re in the Information Age, but was all of this stuff I just wrote here TOO MUCH information? Does anyone care about my Columbia House memories? Did anyone need to read about a story I invented for an album I really, really love? Maybe not. But this is, after all, the Information Age. I’m here doing my part, the equivalent of an ancient Pict, grooving in a forest, making bronze tools. I’m providing information, and the information is this: Give the People What They Want is a record I love!

TRACK LISTING:
“Around the Dial”
“Give the People What They Want”
“Killer’s Eyes”
“Predictable”
“Add It Up”
“Destroyer”
“Yo-Yo”
“Back to Front”
“Art Lover”
“A Little Bit of Abuse”
“Better Things”


Share

26th Favorite: The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd

Share


The Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd.
1973, Harvest. Producer: Pink Floyd.
Bootleg Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s wildly successful album, is another record from Floyd that demands to be heard in its entirety, first song to last. Roger Waters may have written most of the songs, but this is a David Gilmour tour de force, both for guitar and vocals. It’s a timeless record deserving of its many accolades and commercial success. The themes of being human in a modern world still resonate today, nearly 50 years after its release.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
How To Get Drunk Like A Rural Pennsylvania Teenager In The Mid-1980s
Step 1: Make The Decision To Go Get Drunk
Teens around Pennsyltucky (where I grew up) in the mid-80s, having grown up in the 1970s, had a unique perspective on cigarettes, drugs, alcohol and all things mind-altering. The attitudes were, by today’s standards, a little crazy. For example, seeing kids 10 or younger walking down the street smoking cigarettes would elicit a “tsk, tsk” sort of reaction from most grownups, equivalent to the reaction you’d get if a kid drank coffee. People just didn’t worry much about tobacco use. My high school had a “smoking lav,” where students could – with parental consent – puff away to their lungs’ content. My cousin and I routinely, as pre-teens, sneaked off to buy snuff at the local convenience store, where no questions were asked – then we put a bit inside our lip, got lightheaded and nauseous, then stashed the remainder in a stone wall near our grandma’s house and fell asleep at her house watching horror movies on Dr. Shock.

Most adults were less blasé about alcohol, but even so by high school there was a small but significant percentage of parents who didn’t give a shit if their kids got drunk. Many of them bought the beer for “partying.” Their attitude was “it’s just beer, what’s the big deal?” Most of them had been drinking beer since their own pre-teen years.

NOTES: 1.) 70’s rural PA concern over wine-drinking by boys was 20, but only due to a believed correlation to homosexuality.
2.) Today’s concern level for coffee grows exponentially with sugar and fatted milk product addition.

“Drugs” were less well-understood by the adults around me. Most of them were either too old or too square to have been truly a part of the Woodstock generation, so marijuana was considered a huge jump in seriousness-levels over beer. TV shows and music of the 70s sometimes presented drugs in a rather matter-of-fact way, but most often the message all around was “Drugs are Horribly Evil!” In the late 70s, my mom conspicuously left an anti-drug magazine around the house, and it scared the daylights out of me. Many families were very religious, as well, especially as compared to today, and that religious emphasis on good vs. evil provided a moral backdrop for some on the evil of drugs.

So – Step 1: Make Decision … Many kids make this decision anywhere from 6th grade on. For me, I was a dorky kid who was scared of making my parents mad and worried about accidentally dying, so my decision to use alcohol came much later than many of my peers. I was out of high school before I had my first beer. Drugs were out of the question.

Step 2. Decide Who to Get Drunk With
The normal thing for most people to do would be to hang out with only one’s closest friends while drinking. These are the people you like, the people who are fun, the people most likely to be forgiving if you do something stupid, the most likely to help you out if you do something stupid and dangerous. I only had two friends who I knew used alcohol – most of my close friends were kind of dorky like me. So I hung out with them the summer after graduating high school, and eventually an opportunity arose.

Step 3. Figure Out What Type of Alcohol and How to Get It
Procuring alcohol posed a multivariate problem, the solution of which required careful consideration of impinging factors, each influencing the others producing a variety of, at times, seemingly irreconcilable possibilities. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn expert teen drinkers from 1980s rural Pennsylvania went on to careers planning and executing successful Clinical Studies of emerging biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals.

Liquor was easiest, in some ways, as many kids could easily swipe a little from their parents. It was also cheapest, although it was customary to give the thief a few bucks for the effort. It was also gross to drink, generally didn’t last long, and induced vomiting at a rate higher than other comparators. As for wine, well, come on, nobody was bringing wine anywhere. (SIDE NOTE: This was the beginning of the wine cooler era, which did show up at some drinking events. Wine coolers were an example of goods in which the commercials and embarrassing celebrity endorsements were far more memorable than the products they advertised. Wine Coolers were also the “Hard Lemonade” of the era – a drink clearly aimed at the underage market.)

Beer was the winner. In Pennsylvania, the only way to buy beer was (and may still be) to either a) go to a bar and buy a six-pack; or b) go to a Beer Distributor to buy cases and kegs. This would initially seem like a barrier for teen drinkers – having to go into a store for beer as a (generally) obviously not-yet-21 customer. However, there were countless middlemen (older siblings/ cousins/ random weirdos/ parents) willing to make the purchase for you for a fee. Also, plenty of bars and beer distributors were more concerned with making a buck than with laws and safety and were happy to pretend that some dude, barely able to grow a few whiskers and wearing a “Class of ’85” t-shirt in 1985, who arrived in a station wagon with a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper-sticker, was likely older than 21. You didn’t even need a fake I.D. Just pick out the cheapest beer possible, and go.

Step 4. Decide Where to Go
Although parents in the mid-80s were less likely to get their collective panties in a bunch over alcohol use than today’s grown-ups, the consequences of being caught drinking or drunk as a teen were clear (possible arrest, parents being informed, etc.), and the extreme consequences (your angry parent has heart-attack at news of arrest, etc.) were always in the back of my nervous, rule-following mind. So one had to be careful about where to go. Of course there were parties hosted by kids with out-of-town parents, and parties hosted by kids with scary, let’s-buy-booze-for-the-kids parents, but both of these seemed tailor-made for a police bust. For my money, the ideal place to go in rural PA was the woods. And the place to be seen in the woods (although technically not, as it was always super dark, but more on that in a bit) around my town was an old fire-watching tower called “Governor Dick.”

Governor Dick was named for a formerly enslaved man called Governor Dick who lived in the woods around Mt. Gretna and worked as a “collier,” or charcoal maker, back in the early 1800s. He apparently provided charcoal for the old Cornwall Furnace, an important ironworks in US revolutionary times, and was so well-liked that they named a section of the woods for him. He probably never guessed that 180 years later his phallic-sounding name would be commemorated with a phallic-looking tower and associated with barfing teen-aged drinkers all around the Lancaster-Lebanon area.

You’d park somewhere (somebody always seemed to know where) and you’d walk through the dark woods (somebody always seemed to bring a flashlight) and you’d stumble over roots and stumps (somebody always seemed to fall and get mildly injured) and try not to drop the cases of beer (somebody always brought bottles instead of cans) and eventually emerge in a clearing with one big tower in the middle and a million empty beer cans around it. Then up the tower, lugging that beer, where drinking commenced.

Looking back, I find it amazing that a) the cops didn’t follow the trail of beer cans (somebody always had to drink on the walk to the tower) and come visit the tower every 90 minutes; and b) nobody ever fell off – including the kids who always drunkenly dangled over the edge. (Somebody always drunkenly dangled over the edge – in those days there was only a waist-high railing encircling the top of the tower.)

Step 5. Play Some Music
Somebody always brought a boom-box; somebody always brought cassettes. The great thing about cassettes was that you could stash a few in your pockets, or girls could put some in their purses, and you’d have a lot of music handy. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as pulling songs out of thin air with a pocket computer, but it seemed pretty fuckin’ awesome to us. Key cassettes to bring along included Led Zeppelin’s symbols-titled release, popularly known as Led Zeppelin IV; The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and The Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975. (I hung out with a bunch of classic rock enthusiasts.) These were great drink-along, background music songs, for getting loud (Zep), getting weird (Peppers) and singing along (Eagles). But at the end of the night, when the drinking had slowed and most of the crew had begun hiking back through the deep, dark woods; when any craziness and danger had ceased; when the alcohol had massaged our emotions, and the folks who smoked weed had finished smoking their weed, one of the three or four of us who remained would pull out The Dark Side of the Moon, (somebody always pulled out The Dark Side of the Moon) and we’d just sit there and listen.

As with other Floyd albums, like The Wall and Animals, The Dark Side of the Moon is a record that pretty much demands to be listened to in one sitting, beginning to end. I don’t think I’m being very controversial in saying that Pink Floyd albums, particularly ones from the 70s, have far more impact as a singular artistic statement than as a collection of songs – even though many of the songs are brilliant in their own right. Founder and sometime bandleader, bassist Roger Waters, was fond of grand themes and he has stated that Dark Side of the Moon was “an expression of political, philosophical humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out.”

Maybe so. The album begins with “Speak to Me,” featuring the wondrous sounds of human life: a heartbeat; voices. Then it quickly degrades into the unsettling reality of more depressing sounds: a cash register, crazy laughter, finally screams.” At which point “Breathe” begins.

Guitarist David Gilmour picks a lovely riff, Waters plays cool bass octaves and drummer Nick Mason plays some Ringo-esque drums behind nice keyboard work from Rick Wright and mournful pedal steel guitar by Gilmour. The band plays a nice long intro before Gilmour’s voice enters on lyrics from Waters that give a rather bleak peek into what lies ahead for a young adult: a life of toil, questions, futility. It’s clear why so many teens and young adults connect with this record. The song also demonstrates quickly that headphones are probably the best way to experience this masterpiece. Gilmour’s subtle harmonies and guitar voicing, Wright’s organ flourishes, the “surround sound” production … it all is tailor-made for headphones.

And that’s certainly the case of the weird synthesizer piece “On the Run.” It’s got a pulsing, video game sound with footsteps, crazy voices, loud engines, and finally … a car crash? I don’t know but it sounds cool, and finally devolves into ticking clocks and alarms that signal the beginning of the brilliant song, “Time.”

“Time” is a song that reminds me, if I ever happen to forget, that David Gilmour is one of the most remarkable guitarists in rock music. After the clocks chime (a rather obvious sound-effect for the song, but so what? It sounds great…) there is a long, ominous build-up of metallic-sounding, echoing low notes coupled with Mason’s toms and Wright’s subtle organ, and this compelling introduction really sets up the entry of Gilmour’s voice, at 2:30, to sound all the more powerful. Gilmour also plays so many cool, bluesy riffs that it makes one’s head spin. Background oohs and aahs give way to Gilmour’s first solo at 3:30. He’s got such great tone and control, and I love at 4:28, when he eases back into the chorus chords, with the background vocals. It’s a solo that does so much in a minute and a half, and when it’s done he continues to throw in cool stuff like the little descending figure at 5:00, behind the vocals. The lyrics are another sort of warning to youth about time slipping through one’s fingers. The song nicely brings back a reprise of “Breathe” to end it. Keyboardist Rick Wright actually sings the chorus on “Time,” and he’s the main creative force, structurally, of the next song, too, “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Vocalist Clare Torry was asked to improvise over the track the band had already laid down, and what she delivered was masterful. It’s at once both uplifting and heartbreaking, and seems to say as much about the human condition as the lyrics in the other songs.

The song also features snippets of voices, which are heard throughout the album. Various everyday people were asked to respond to questions about topics like death and violence and their responses (such as “Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it – you got to go sometime.”) have become as memorable to fans as any of the songs.

The song that is memorable to even non-fans is the international smash, “Money,” which opened Side Two, back when albums had sides …

Floyd have a long history of using everyday sounds, like TV shows and chanting soccer crowds, in their songs, and the use of a cash register ringing – in 7/4 time, no less! – on “Money” is one of their best efforts. Despite the odd time signature, the song is a basic blues song, with a Pink Floyd twist. Gilmour’s vocals on a snarky commentary on “the good life” are outstanding. Waters’s bass line is one of the most recognizable in rock, and Mason’s drumming is particularly excellent. The song switches to 4/4 time for Gilmour’s guitar solo (at about 3:00), and it’s Mason who holds it all together. His playing is once again Ringo-ish throughout Gilmour’s terrific soloing, which has a cool breakdown part at about 3:48 then blasts into overdrive again at 4:30. By the way – let’s not forget the amazing saxophone solo by Dick Parry. “Money” continues the album’s prodding of young adult minds grappling with the question of “what it all means,” and fades out to more snatches of conversation, blending quietly into another Big Question song, the lovely “Us and Them.”

Dick Parry’s sax provides a gentle entry into Gilmour’s vocals. I was typically half-asleep by this point up on that tower, but concentrating on lyrics that made me think that Pink Floyd was opening my eyes to everything. (“For want of the price/ of tea and a slice/ the old man died” Ahhh, youth.) The harmony vocals from Wright are great, and at about 4:50 he plays a terrific piano solo, which also features the classic spoken words “… if you give him a short, sharp shock …” in the background. The song takes you away, it’s powerful and perhaps a bit overblown, but I still like it.

It gives way to “Any Colour You Like,” a headphone song if there ever was one. This song gave one time to reflect on the previous song, and paved the way for the double-barrel album closer, two songs strung together: “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.”

These two songs together may be my favorites on the album, although “Time” and “Money” are near the top as well. These are the only songs on which Floyd mastermind Roger Waters sings lead, and he does a great job on lyrics about the feeling of going crazy and a final summation of life, really. The backing vocals by the women vocalists provide a grandeur to the songs that probably helped embed the feelings deeply into that young adult brain of mine up on top of that tower.

Luckily, I never fell off of that tower. I eventually got my alcohol consumption under control without a major horror story – only a few embarrassments. I left the booziness behind, but not the album. When “Eclipse” starts, at about 3:50, with Wright’s organ cadenza, I’m transported on the sound-waves to my youthful self. I still feel moved by Waters’s list of the contents of one’s life. I understood that list differently as a 19-year old than I do as a 50-year old. Back then I thought, “Is that all there is?” Now I think, “Boy, I packed a lot into life so far.” But the feeling is the same – the feeling of being human. The Dark Side of the Moon is an album that stays with you for life.

Track Listing:
“Speak To Me”
“Breathe”
“On The Run”
“Time”
“The Great Gig In The Sky”
“Money”
“Us And Them”
“Any Colour You Like”
“Brain Damage”
“Eclipse”

Share

37th Favorite: Who’s Next, by The Who

Share

Who’s Next. The Who.
1971, Decca Records. Producer: Glyn Johns and The Who.
Purchased cassette, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings it all together perfectly, then blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece. The different parts of the band play off each other perfectly, and no band has ever made more inspiring anthems.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
One of the more ridiculous aspects of popular music appreciation in my youth during the 70s and 80s was the existence of strict lines between musical genres, which delineated boundaries in a multi-combatant Cold War pitting synthesizer against guitar; dancing against head-banging; innovation against broad appeal; and, very often, white against black. This war was waged by the fans of the music, not the musicians themselves – although they’d sometimes take snipes at other artists. Most people who were more than casual music fans knew which side they were on – and they also placed those casual music fans in their own enemy-combatant group. And for many fans, the disgust for the other sides was real.

It is quite true that the genre- and sub-genre-fication of music has only continued and expanded since that time. During my youth we didn’t have Emo, techno, drum ‘n bass, dubstep, death metal, nü metal, rap metal, metalcore, mathcore, rapcore, gangsta rap, trap-rap, snap rap, trip hop, glitch hop, homo hop, crunk, wonky, bounce, or Kenny G. But the animosity between genres doesn’t feel as intense today. I’ve talked to my teenagers about it, and while there may be types of music they don’t like, kids don’t harbor the same judgments against those who enjoy different music. If my era was the Cold War, today seems like the post-Soviet/post-Colonial era, when the number of nations and identities grew yet the global existential fear declined.

Key to taking part in the music-appreciation war was picking a side for yourself. As with street gangs, the mafia or the military, affiliation seemed to run in families. If one had an older sibling with a record collection or musical bent it was very likely to be passed down. When my older sisters were hitting the disco, I was a Village People fan. My one sister moved into AOR rock, owning a magic milk crate of music I’d explore, and my other sister was strongly Top-40 and a fan of dancing. They definitely influenced my induction. I became an AOR soldier, listening to Classic Rock on the radio and proudly declaring my allegiance to Cheap Trick, Styx, Rush and Led Zeppelin.

But I was also a double agent for the enemy, Top-40, taking my secret orders via MTV. A key factor in defending one’s territory is the era in which one comes of age. An 18 year old in 2001 may have wanted to fight against “Terror;” in 1981 it was “Communism.” Musically, I came of age in the MTV era, starting high school the month after the channel debuted. Many kids around me, other Rock Music fans, thought MTV was the enemy. I mocked it to many friends, but I was 100% on its side.

As I said above, the disgust for other music types and its fans was real. Popular music is continuously changing, and rapidly so, and such change can be difficult to understand, particularly when you’ve invested so much in your identity as a music fan. We rock fans felt like our music was under attack in the late 70s and 80s, that this music that teenagers past had fought to make mainstream – a blues-based music of electric guitars, with a steady backbeat and strong vocals – was being pushed aside by phony-sounding drum machines and computerized keyboards. It galled us that nerdy guys who pushed buttons in a studio were being regarded the same way as talented guitarists and singers who’d spent years on their craft.

Rock fans started using the language their parents used 25 years earlier to dismiss Rock and Roll and its lack of diverse instrumentation: “That’s not music!” They often used the language of hatred to describe other music: “fag” music, “n*****” music. These terms were used all around me by other rock fans. (My family and I didn’t use “the N word,” but I realize now that it was really a linguistic choice akin to our decision not to swear – meant to connote respect for the dignity of language, sadly, more than the dignity of people.) “Rage” is not too strong a word to describe rock fans’ feelings.

I described the scenario as a war, but here’s the thing about a war: it requires two sides, minimum, who want to fight. Looking back at that time 40 years later, I don’t believe anyone else was really fighting against Rock Music. My rock friends and I felt under siege, perhaps, but I don’t think fans of pop or R&B or disco or punk thought much at all about Rock – except, perhaps, to wonder why its fans were so pissed off. (Okay, punk fans definitely thought about Rock Music: thought it was bollocks.) The “war” was really just a bunch of us whiny rock fans angry about … something. But it certainly wasn’t music.

While 1979 rock fans held “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago, in which anyone bringing a disco record to that night’s White Sox game got in for $0.98 in return for allowing the record to be destroyed, and started a riot that caused 40 arrests and canceled a baseball game; disco fans’ counter-attack was simply to keep dancing in the clubs.

The stress of the siege, this changing musical landscape, even caused fissures within the Rock Music Army, where factions developed and judgments were made. The fans of the loud, heavy metal rock were bone-headed thugs. The fans of prog rock were fantasy freaks and dorky nerds. The fans of newer, punkish rock were arrogant, pretentious. Fans of the more weenie side of rock were poseurs. The music you liked and the artists you chose to align yourself with were opportunities for character assessments. It was a tribalism based on what cassettes you owned. It was – frankly – exhausting.

I wouldn’t break from the constraints of my tribe, or begin valuing other tribes, until some years after high school. And I still consider myself in The Beatles’ tribe, which means I still feel superior to any other tribes that might exist out there. But as early as my senior year in high school I did have my eyes opened to the nonsense of tribalism by an exchange student from Austria on a school trip to Philadelphia. His name was Christian, and the school trip was one of those ostensibly educational jaunts organized by a club or a class in which an hour is taken to, say, look at an old building, then the remaining three hours go to spending money on clothes, accessories, and other decidedly non-educational products.

A few of us went to Zipperhead, a now-closed Philly punk rock store made famous by the Dead Milkmen, then to a nearby record store. This is where I purchased Who’s Next on cassette. Many of the songs on the album were rock radio staples by 1985, and I couldn’t wait to get home to listen. I sat next to Christian on the bus ride home, and the cassette got us talking about music. He said of course he knew The Who, and was very familiar with the album. But, he said, he didn’t own it. “It’s old,” I remember him saying. “I like new stuff.” We talked about music, and he knew a lot about the rock that I loved. But he knew a lot more about bands like Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat and Yazoo (who were known in America as Yaz). He spoke about them with the same interest and excitement as I spoke about mine. In some spirit of international harmony, I continued the conversation with him with a consideration I probably wouldn’t have offered to an American synth-band fan. And he also wanted to hear about what I liked, and said he’d check out some of those bands that he didn’t know well, like Rush and Van Halen. I told him I’d do the same, and I eventually bought Upstairs at Eric’s, by Yaz, and enjoyed it!

Back at school, back among my rock music friends, a kid with a don’t-rock-the-boat personality, I didn’t further pursue many other “new sounds” of the era. I’ve written before about missing out on great music of my youth, and it remains a bit of a regret. I don’t think I would’ve connected with Christian’s synth-based bands (although I did enjoy that Yaz record), but there were other guitar-based bands of the era that I could’ve connected with. That bus ride with Christian stuck with me, and planted a seed on my journey to musical peace, love and understanding. I eventually got past the music-based character assessments and began to seek out music that I’d have hated – and whose fans I would’ve hated – in years gone by. Who cares what music you like, anyway? It’s not what we listen to that makes us who we are, it’s how we treat the people around us.

But look: all that lovey dovey stuff is fine, but let’s not gloss over the fact that the cassette I bought that day was FRIGGIN’ AWESOME! It was, and is, Classic Rock 101, a guidepost in 70s Rock by one of the best bands of the last century (and one that didn’t mind getting into the thick of the era’s genre wars). I loved listening to it on my Walkman, feeling like I was inside the songs, the sounds. The sonic power of The Who is undeniable – Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar, Keith Moon’s unbelievable drumming, John Entwistle’s ferocious bass, Roger Daltrey’s soaring voice – and Who’s Next brings all that together perfectly, and blends in synthesizers, country-rock and introspective lyrics to build a masterpiece.

And it doesn’t make sense to start any description of the record anywhere else except the opening track: “Baba O’Riley.”

One of the band’s most iconic songs, and famously misbranded “Teenage Wasteland” by the masses, “Baba O’Riley” immediately introduced listeners to a sound they’d never heard much before – and certainly not on a Who album: the synthesizer. The opening sounds both space age and classical, like a robot string quartet that’s stuck in an infinite loop. At 0:42, its intricacy is exploded by three simple chords on piano, chords that are the basis of the entire song. Moon’s brilliantly untidy drums enter at 0:56, followed by Entwistle’s bass and Daltry’s vocals at 1:16. The song’s power builds, like an old-time gas engine sputtering from startup to a mighty roar, full-tilt once Townshend’s guitar enters at 1:48. The lyrics are about young people seeking freedom, and really only sort of make sense in the context of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, which is a story I don’t want to spend time on, but which is summarized pretty nicely here. And to the dismay of millions of stoned youth since 1970, Townshend has said the song WAS NOT a celebration of teenagers getting wasted, but about the bleakness of that reality. But regardless of meaning, it’s undeniably an anthem, which makes Pete’s quiet two measure vocals, about 2:16, extra powerful. The song’s aimed directly at the heart of 70s teenage rock fans: anger, defiance, guitars and drums. Pete plays a nice little solo about 3:10 that leads the band into the extended ending section, in which that robot string quartet is brought to life by a violin solo (of all things!) played by a buddy of Keith Moon’s, Dave Arbus. The ending is perfectly built to whip those screaming, wasted teens to a frenzy – introducing the album as a piece of art to be reckoned with.

Pete Townshend wrote most of The Who’s songs, and Roger Daltrey sang most of them. But very often they’d share vocal duties, typically Daltrey taking the roaring parts and Townshend taking the more sensitive, as heard on “Baba O’Riley.” That’s the case on the raucous drum-extravaganza “Bargain,” as well.

This song may be the most representative of all four members’ skills, not only on this album but maybe of their career. And it opens with a strummed guitar and a lilting synth. Moon’s thunderous entry, at about 0:10, is one of the great drum intros in rock. Daltrey is in excellent form on a love song to God, written by Townshend for his spiritual guru Meher Baba. Townshend throws in cool little guitar licks, like at 0:25. He’s a unique Guitar God – a rhythm guitarist at heart, who never much deals in the blues wailing or fleet-fingered flashiness of many others. He’s distinctive and great, but this song is all about Keith Moon’s drumming, for me, a rumbling, tumbling unstoppable force. He gallops into the bridge, at about 1:30, leading into Pete’s quiet vocals. Behind these vocals (1:49), John Entwistle’s masterful use of countermelody on the bass is featured. From 2:20 to the end, the song builds through a synthesizer melody while Moon goes crazy. The final verse features more Townsend style and then a few verses of Moon. From 3:46 to the end, there’s a relentless ferocity that is set off nicely by Pete’s acoustic guitar at the end. It’s a pretty incredible song.

That outro features the three instrumentalists in the band, and they’re also featured on the song “Going Mobile.” It’s a jaunty road song, almost country in its feel, and Townshend handles the traveling lyrics nicely. Amazingly, the song was recorded live in the studio!

Perhaps even a better drum song than “Bargain,” I can’t truly describe Moon’s playing. If you’re so inclined, listen to this isolated track of just the drums. It is astounding. At 1:57, Townshend plays one of his coolest solos ever, using an envelope follower to create another spacey sound. Most amazing is how effortlessly the trio pulls out of Pete’s solo, about 2:53, to change musical direction. To do that live demonstrates the hours of work the band spent playing together, communicating sonically together. It’s brilliant.

But just because Roger is missing from a song doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. He gets to shine on the tender (for The Who) “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” a country-western effort, though Roger’s power makes it much more. Behind lyrics on the beautiful, yet fleeting, nature of love, there are excellent harmony vocals throughout, an excellent skill of the band, often overlooked. Entwistle’s bass rolls along merrily, and Townshend plays a terrific acoustic solo. Daltrey’s masterpiece on the album, however, is the excellent Townshend song “Behind Blue Eyes.”

This is actually a divisive song, I’ve learned over the years. Some people are very put off by it’s needy lyrics and bombast. I’ve always loved it. When I was a teen I was a sucker for aggressively macho emotional lyrics like “if I swallow anything evil/put your fingers down my throat/If I shiver please give me a blanket/Keep me warm, let me wear your coat,” and I still love the song today. Pete’s acoustic, and the band’s backing vocals are once again excellent during the opening. Then about 2:12 the mayhem starts. Check out how Keith Moon – going against all common sense – plays his fills WHILE ROGER SINGS instead of in the vocal breaks, where every other drummer would put them! Pete adds nice guitar fills throughout, as well, then the band pulls everything back into the gentleness for a very satisfying ending.

If it all sounds very serious, these songs about troubled teens, spiritual love, human needs, allow bassist and all-around musical genius John Entwistle to lighten things up with his ode to an angry wife, “My Wife.”

Like George Harrison, on Beatles records, Entwistle typically had at least one composition on each Who album. Lots of terrific ones, like “Boris the Spider,” “Success Story,” “Trick of the Light,” and “Had Enough.” He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played all the horns on all The Who albums, including this song. It’s a humorous romp with funny lyrics, and even though he’s not as strong of a singer as Daltrey or Townshend, Entwistle does just fine carrying the song.

Two songs that have always seemed connected to me, maybe because they ended Side 1 and began Side 2 on my old cassette, are “The Song Is Over” and “Getting In Tune.” However, I think it’s more than just their proximity in sequencing. It’s that, collectively, they form a kind of Winter/Spring for the album. Maybe “The Song Is Over,” but another one is coming, so we’ll be “Getting In Tune.”

“The Song Is Over” is melancholy from the beginning. “The Song” in question is a love that has been lost, as Pete sings. About 1:15, the power comes with Roger’s section. Moon and Entwistle play nicely off one another between verses, for example at about 1:30. Piano actually carries much of the song, played by frequent Rolling Stones collaborator, Nicky Hopkins. Once again, much should be said about Moon’s drumming, but anything more than a simple, loudly exclaimed “Holy Shit!!!!” is superfluous. The controlled mayhem of his sixteenth notes from 5:30 out are … “Holy Shit!!!!”

Getting In Tune” also features piano by Hopkins, with Entwistle playing a lovely melody behind. This song features his patented “lead bass” style, a countermelody throughout the song. I love this song, even though it could be considered a forerunner of the dreaded 80s monstrosity known as the “Power Ballad.” It’s lyrics are quite a bit beyond Power Ballad, however. Backing oohs and aahs are again wonderful, and the song ends in typical berserk style.

The album closes with one of my all-time favorite songs, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

As with “Baba O’Riley,” a synthesizer pattern opens the song, but this time there’s an electric guitar chord with it, a bit of foreshadowing of the grandness to follow. The band enters at about 0:30, and Roger begins singing an anthem of resistance that could have been the fight song for us angry Rock fans back in the day. The backing bass, particularly the descending runs in the choruses, and Moon’s drums (again: “Holy Shit!”) hold everything down. Pete’s guitar riffing and stylish, one-of-a-kind rhythm playing throughout bring extra life to it. It’s an 8 minute song, and his guitar after about 3 minutes through the bridge and to about 3:40 is simply inspired playing. Afterwards he plays a really nifty double-tracked solo, leading up to (at 4:28) the first (and smaller) of two momentous screams from Daltrey. We’re only halfway through, and the song keeps getting better. More incredible singing, incredible Entwistle/Moon and incredible Pete, soloing better than he ever has, leading to the 6:33 mark, when the synth comes back in with some rather ominous tooting for the next minute or so. Moon gives a couple drum fanfares, and then comes the best rock and roll scream ever: 7:45. Whenever I hear this song, I can never really tell when he’s gonna do it, and I don’t try to figure it out because it sounds so much better when it’s sort of a surprise. It’s a powerful song, it means a lot to many people, and if you can make it through the band’s performance of the song for the first-responders of September 11, 2001, at the Concert for New York City, and watch the effect of the song on the audience without tearing up, you’re a different sort than me.

The last two lines of the song (and the album) “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” may be the most profound couplet in rock music history. Sure, they’re a rehash of the old saw “The more things change …,” but in the context of the song, and the path the singer has traveled, they mean much more. They mean personal integrity, staying true to one’s self. At the start, the song sounds like a defense of the old guard (“The men who spurred us on/Sit in judgment of what’s wrong/They decide and the shotgun sings the song”). But the perspective seems changed by the chorus and second verse. “I’ll take a bow for the new revolution;” and “Smile and grin at the change all around me;” and “The change it had to come/We knew it all along.” These lines seem to reveal the song as welcoming of the new. And yet, by the end, there’s a realization that the new is really just a rehash of the old, and the same fights are going to reappear anyway. The New was feared; then it was welcomed. Either way, it didn’t matter. Old vs. new is really a pointless debate. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. All you can do in the face of it is to maintain your Self, and keep doing what you do.

It seems true in both the political and the personal worlds, but it’s also true in the musical world. Whether it was disco, new wave, country, funk, whatever – at the end of the day, what’s the point of getting angry and fighting? And, also, what’s the point of hopping on a bandwagon? The best reaction is neither indignation nor fawning, but to simply stay true to yourself. Pick up your guitar and play. Just like yesterday.

Maybe back in the day, we should have taken that message more to heart.

Track Listing:
“Baba O’Riley”
“Bargain”
“Love Ain’t For Keeping”
“My Wife”
“The Song Is Over”
“Getting In Tune”
“Going Mobile”
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Share

59th Favorite: Led Zeppelin, by Led Zeppelin

Share

Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin.
1969, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Home bootleg, 1988. Purchased 1997.

album led zeppelin

59 nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Debut album from one of the most iconic bands of the rock era. It’s a record of heavy guitar blues, quite different stylistically from the sound that would come to define them later. The musicianship is incredible on both the slow, thick, oozing songs and the upbeat, hard-charging ones, and they all serve as a basis for laments about Robert Plant’s love-life. This record is one of the seeds of Heavy Metal.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
dalailamaOne would think there are very few “once in a lifetime” situations in life. The very name – Once In A Lifetime – seems to imply there would be very few. It seems unreasonable to expect that someone would, say, return from space on a Monday, catch and land a 350-pound tuna on Tuesday, stumble upon a new dinosaur species on Wednesday and finish off the week experiencing all that goes into the first few days of being identified as the 15th Dalai Lama. No, Once-In-A-Lifetime events are special and rare!

However, a different perspective reveals that you likely experience handshakeseveral Once-In-A-Lifetime situations each week, and possibly (depending what kind of job you have) dozens per day! Every time you meet another person for the first time, you have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll never meet that person for the first time again.

As that old shampoo commercial used to say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” anxietyThe value of a good first impression is understood by most everyone; the fear of making a bad first impression is part of what is reportedly the third most common psychological problem in the country, Social Anxiety Disorder. There are thousands of tips out there for overcoming fear of first meetings; for making good first impressions at work, during a job interview, and on your first day at a job; for making good first impressions on dates, both for women and for men; even for making good first impressions on a new pet!! It is clear, we as humans – social animals that we are – value first impressions.

First Impressions cut two ways. On the one hand, you want to make sure the other person thinks positively of you. But you also want to be sure you’re accurately assessing the other person. I’ve fumbled both of these objectives at various times. There were the innumerable times, for example, that others’ first experience with me included some kind of drunken, ridiculous, perhaps-borderline-illegal actions on my buffalopart, characteristics that are hard to forget. I’ve also completely discounted people upon meeting them, only to find out later that I was completely misguided.

It wasn’t just the booze that kept me from making a good first impression. I used to be really unsure of myself while sober, and lack of confidence is a real first-impression-killer. First dates were very difficult – but I had very few because it was even harder to ask women out! Typically, I’d ask someone out while I was inebriated – probably not wasted-drunk, as it’s unlikely a woman would’ve said yes to someone in that state. But I’d be a little tipsy, a little more charming than usual, and the invitee would usually also be a little tipsy, a little more amenable than usual, and somehow we’d agree to go somewhere together. Then I’d get to the restaurant, for example, and I’d … eat!

boo-radleyYou see, I was a nervous, quiet, shivering mess at first meetings. I often chose not to say anything. I’d just smile and nod in response to even the most innocuous direct questions. I barely asked others questions and I avoided eye-contact. Meeting me was like meeting Boo Radley: unless some “Scout” figure vouched for me, you were left rattled and bewildered and shooed me off your porch. Worst of all, I clung to those first-meeting symptoms for second, third, etc, meetings as well. Such were the depths of my affliction, the family of my good friend Dr. Dave thought I was a Selective Mute for the first three years I knew them!

I eventually overcame my problem by becoming a professional standup comic. ermSee, the booze had tricked me into thinking I had a certain … “something.” I didn’t, but that certain “something” would magically develop within me after just a few years of grimly trying to get the attention of strangers in the sad cafes and empty bars of entry-level comedy work. That “something” is this: a high baseline comfort level among people I don’t know. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire has spoken of the “Jedi mind-trick” that comedians develop to convince a room full of strangers that they should listen. And although I learned the trick, I can’t explain the trick; but it definitely has something to do with confidence. And it is probably the only real transferable skill from stand-up comedy to the real world.

wingmanAs a child of the 70s and a teen of the 80s, I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of Led Zeppelin. Before I ever knew any of their songs, I saw their posters at carnivals as prizes for games of chance – typically featuring a flying man or a creepy old dude in a cape holding a lantern. When I reached middle school, I saw their t-shirts on the tough, scary 8th graders who looked like they’d beat me up. By my teen years, each school year began in Zep-tember, and they were one of my “most important bands.” The writer Chuck Klosterman, posterin his book Killing Yourself to Live, opines that “…every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” He then goes on to hilariously, and believably, make the case that they are the only band for which this is true. For me, it was as a high-schooler, when I listened to Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin “IV,” … Nearly all the Led Zeppelin. About the only Zep I didn’t pay attention to was the first one, which many of my like-minded friends had assured me was not rockin’ enough. I took them at their word – I never explored.

Sometime in 1988, my friend Dr. Dave sent me a cassette tape in the mail. I was learning to play bass, and was making plans to travel to Dr. Dave’s house to play music with him and his brother, the beginnings of the world-famous band JB and The So-Called Cells. On one side of cassettethe tape were a few songs that he, on guitar, and our drummer friend, Chris, had recorded in hopes I could learn the bass parts: Heart’s “Barracuda;” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting;” perhaps AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” He had recorded the songs on a cassette that was blank on Side 2. But the cassette case indicated, in Dr. Dave’s unmistakeable handwriting, that Side 1 contained “Led Zeppelin: Their First. (And their best.)” I ended up listening to Side 1 far more than Side 2. It immediately hooked me. The first song was like nothing I’d heard before.

I was explaining earlier that feigned confidence, the ability to “act like you know,” has been a valuable life lesson. When you are in a new situation, just act like it’s part of your regular routine, and you’ll place yourself ahead of the game. For example, if you’re a rock band and you’re going to release a debut rock record, you’d do well to start off with a song that assures every listener that, indeed, you are fully in command of the situation. Maybe a song like “Good Times, Bad Times.”

zep-poster“Good Times, Bad Times” is the first song off of the first album by Rock behemoths Led Zeppelin, and it is likely my favorite “Side 1, Track 1” from any debut album, and certainly Top-5 for all albums. It presents the type of First Impression that everyone strives for, announcing the band as confident, able and interesting – someone I’d definitely like to hear again soon. What makes it so special for me is the fact that the individual players – drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant – display such astounding gifts on the song, but their virtuosity doesn’t overshadow it. The song is a powerful statement, and it retains its direct, visceral feeling throughout: I noticed its power long before I considered the individual components. And the individual parts are stunning.

bonhamLet’s first consider John Bonham’s drums. Run the googles on “good times bad times drum lesson” and you’ll get pages of people trying to explain how he did what he did. The song begins with two simple notes repeated a few times, with musical tension built by his cymbals and cowbell. Then, at 15 seconds, Bonham throws in a really cool fill to herald Plant’s first verse, going directly into a pulverizing back beat, with an astonishing kick drum pattern. The drumming is solid and heavy and awesome throughout, and that kick drum pattern is so astonishing that there are several web videos devoted simply to it, and even the wikipedia page for the song mentions it. I defy you to name another bass drum part from a debut album first track with which Wikipedia concerns itself.

I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that to make a really great first impression in life, you need to have a terrific rhythm section.jpjones And he was absolutely correct. If you don’t want to be known as the new band with the drummer who’s too good for it, you need a bassist who’s just as sparkling. And John Paul Jones is that. He gets to show his cool, savvy playing in breaks after the chorus – such as 0:58 and 2:04. And if you focus your ears on his bouncing, fluid playing through the entire song, you’ll hear how he anchors Bonham’s playing to the guitar work of Jimmy Page while never sounding boring. As a bass player myself, this is the kind of playing I love – something that isn’t too flashy, but isn’t simple, either. It makes listening enjoyable, but holds the song together, as well.

pageJimmy Page is by most accounts the mastermind behind the band Led Zeppelin, having founded the band, written most of the music and produced all the albums. “Good Times, Bad Times” introduces everyone to Page’s main style: Riff Rock, in which he plays a melodic phrase (a “riff“) over and over while the singer sings. What’s cool about Page, is that he changes things up. There’s one riff for the first verse, beginning at 0:20. But for the second verse, at 1:00, he plays a completely different riff, keeping the song from getting boring, and also better supporting singer Robert Plant’s lower register. This change is the kind of subtlety you’ll find throughout Page’s songwriting and playing. Plus, his solos, at 1:29, atop the furious attack of Bonham and Jones, and after 2:06, answering each of Plant’s verses, are excellent and interesting and air-guitar-inducing.

plantRegarding singer Robert Plant, there’s little to be stated. If there’s ever been a better voice in rock, I’m unaware of it. His ability to both scream and purr effectively are top-notch, but equally impressive is the fact that he can carry a melody while doing either, AND do so expressively. He’s an emotional, interesting singer: his half-speaking, half-shouting, half-singing (which I’m aware is three halves, but Plant is that good!) through the last verse is excellent. His lyrics tend to lean heavily on the “my woman done left me” theme on this album, but he’s singing the blues so I guess it makes sense. It’s true he became the blueprint for every screeching, girly-haired, hyper-sexualized hard-rock belter for the next 20 years, but he did it first: it was HIS first impression. And I think he nailed it.

Plant gets his chance to really shine immediately after, on the quiet/loud heavy blues of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”

The song opens with a sweet acoustic guitar – a frequent stylistic choice for Led Zeppelin’s entire 10-year recording career, and one that would be hijacked by every goofy hair-metal band throughout the 80s.page-acoustic The song is a showcase for Plant, whose indecisive lyrics explain that he has to leave, but that he’s never going to leave … The band shines as well. For example, I love that Bonham comes in strong at 1:02, and 2:02, but that he holds back a little bit, so that he has a little extra explosiveness remaining at 2:27 when the band comes in with full power. The ending of the song is nice, too. Page is not just a screamer on guitar, and songs like this one and – obviously – “Black Mountain Side” show off his subtle and moving acoustic work, as well. (By the way, that’s Viram Jasani playing tabla on “Black Mountain Side.”)

John Paul Jones’s versatility is on display alongside Page’s acoustic guitar on the terrific “Your Time Is Gonna Come.”

Jones plays the organ, along with bass pedals, and immediately creates a dark, chilling atmosphere. Page strums away on acoustic guitar, while Bonham kind of pounds away on the drums, almost like he’s playing a different song. However, it works fabulously, and Bonhamjpjones-organ knows when to ease back and allow Plant the space he needs to lament about one more woman who’s bringing him down. For a guy who supposedly got laid a bunch, Plant sure seems to have been predisposed to choose ladies who treat him badly. The sing-along chorus is great fun, especially during the outro, where Page wails away to the end.

Jones shows off his organ skills on the traditional blues cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me,” too. Plant displays a talent for harmonica on it, as well, as the band trades solos between the verses about an unforgettable woman. The song ends concert1with Plant and Page mimicking each other after 5:37 in what was surely one of their most popular on-stage routines. The slow blues also carry the day on “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Like all of the songs on this album, this one is perfectly suited to Plant’s vocal talents – even though, once again, he’s chosen a woman bound to break his heart. It’s also perfectly suited to Page’s soulful blues guitar. At 1:52 he begins a two-minute solo that must be one of the all-time greats in recorded rock music. It includes furious runs, long-held notes, wide-open spaces, and continues behind Plant on the final verse, in which he throws in great licks, such as the one at 4:19 that sounds like he’s laughing. Note also that during the solo, Bonham tosses in some more of those kick-drum triplets.

My friends told me back in the day that this album wasn’t rockin’, and that’s probably due to all the slow blues jams on it. concert2But the song “Communication Breakdown” is a crunching rocker, which totally stands up alongside the band’s Heavy Metal output in later years. By the way: Plant again is having problems with his lady. The band is on fire throughout, and even gets to contribute backing vocals en masse at the end. But what’s awesome about Led Zeppelin, and this album in particular, is that fact that they don’t have to play fast in order to sound metal and bad-ass. The song “Dazed and Confused,” probably my favorite track, is as slow as any they’ve cut, but the power of Bonham’s drums, Jones’s bass, Page’s guitar and Plant’s vocals create a sound that is the essence of Heavy. Just listen to the first minute.

I love the extended, controlled rolls that Bonham fills in throughout, for example at about 1:22. It must be pointed out that for most of his career, Bonham played mostly four- and five-piece drum kits, bonham1 meaning that he didn’t have scores of finely-tuned equipment encircling him, creating a fortress of batterie within which he sat. He limited himself, and this limitation elicited creativity and interesting performances. For example, listen carefully, and you’ll hear his toms repeating Jones’s bass line throughout the song. Plant sings about … what else, this time claiming it may be the devil’s fault for his women-problems. Page takes an extended solo, beginning with a spooky section at 2:09, in which he uses a violin bow to create his demon sounds, and then crashing into something else at 3:31. Bonham goes nuts, about 4:58, calling the band to transition back to the main riff, about 5:07, and that change is where I tend to get chills. This song is amazing.

The closing track on Led Zeppelin is a close second for favorite on the album. It starts with a simple, memorable exceedingly cool bass line from Jones – perhaps the coolest bass line in Classic Rock.

It’s a strange, multi-part song that starts off as a straightforward blues riff rocker, and Plant again lamenting yet ANOTHER woman who done him wrong. But then, about 2:09, Page plays a sort of fanfare solo that seems to end the song. But Plant has more to say about his problems … At 3:39, against another spooky violin bow section, Plant blames his women problems on his immaturity – although it’s hard to see how immaturity alone could lead to eleven children. zep-band-1He seems to state that all those kids give him a lot of joy, but then reveals, after another break in the song at 5:30, that his joy is actually due to a schoolgirl(!) named Rosie who he’s going off to see!! Bonham plays a shuffling beat, and at 6:09 the song shifts again as Plant proclaims that he is going to get Rosie because he is, after all, “the hunter,” and his wail at 6:57, celebrating his “gun,” is among the most fabulous screams in rock history. I think the fact that he views himself as hunter, implying these women are his prey, really sheds some light on his love-life problems: perhaps when these women find out he’s still out hunting, they’re prone to leave? Or to do a little hunting of their own? Just a thought. As the band returns to the main riff, I believe his final yearning for his woman to come home (I don’t think he means Rosie, by the way, I think it’s the woman he was singing to in the first verse) is likely to fall on deaf ears. But that could lead to another terrific song on Led Zeppelin II about her leaving him!

zep-band-2By the end of Led Zeppelin, the listener is fully comfortable with this new acquaintance and ready to deepen the relationship. It wasn’t weird or objectionable, there were no awkward silences or boorish actions. The new visitor just let you know that it knew what it was doing and that you could look forward to more interactions in the future. Sure, Robert Plant may have dwelled a bit too much on his problems with women, but he was charming enough that it wasn’t an issue. This was a perfectly executed First Impression.

Track Listing:
“Good Times, Bad Times”
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
“You Shook Me”
“Dazed and Confused”
“Your Time Is Gonna Come”
“Black Mountain Side”
“Communication Breakdown”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”
“How Many More Times”

Share

69th Favorite: Jailbreak, by Thin Lizzy

Share

Jailbreak. Thin Lizzy.
1976, Mercury Records. Producer: Jon Alcock.
Gift ca. 2003.

jailbreak album

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: A Classic Rock touchstone, featuring a song you’ve heard everywhere. Leader Phil Lynott writes stories about people searching and backs them up with powerful dual guitars. It’s another case of guitars, melody and drumming – the typical story for my favorite records. And nobody’s more surprised it’s in the top 70 than me!!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Have you ever taken on a “simple project” around the house? If you have, garageI’ll bet the initial idea you had was easily described in one simple sentence. “I’m going to clean out the garage.” No matter how cluttered and messy your garage is, you could easily conjure images in your head of “before” and “after” scenarios and imagine the work needed in between the two: “I’ll lug some stuff out, I’ll pack some stuff in boxes, I’ll put it all back inside, I’ll go drink a beer.” This is the stage of the project at which the wise folks among you will take a considered look the level of clutter in your garage and decide that the apparent quick, direct path to completion – “lug, pack, restore, beer” – is a fantasy, and just skip ahead to that beer.

In reality, the path to completion on virtually ANY project is never quick and direct. Using garage cleaning as an example, we’ll start with the “lugging” phase. Before you can lug that cardboard box of shopping cart wheels that you got for a dollar at that flea market – (Remember that feeling? “Don’t worry, honey! All these wheels for a dollar?! – I’ll make some fun things for the kids!”) – you’re going to have to take it off the top of that ugly dresser garage 2that your spouse got for free from the side of the road – (Remember that feeling? “You’re never going to refinish that thing! Who cares if it’s free, we don’t need it!”) – but to get close enough to the box you’ll have to lean across the old snowblower – the one you didn’t get rid of when you bought the “new snowblower” because “parts!” – and that means you won’t have the right angle to get your hands under the box of wheels, which – as you’ll recall from the near-disaster of placing the box on top of the old dresser – is REQUIRED because the packing tape holding the bottom of that box together is about 60% scuffed off the box, meaning that box is just waiting to vomit 23 two-pound wheels all over everything the moment it’s lifted. But you can’t move the old snowblower because it’s helping to stabilize the ugly dresser, so if it moves, the whole mess comes down.

will hunting
You’re going to have to solve about 14 of these mensa-admission level logic problems, spelunkand do so within 30 minutes if you expect to have any shot of keeping this to a single-day project. And as you spelunk your way through the caverns of junk you’ve amassed over the years, it may be helpful for you to consider this: if your garage has this much crap in it, and it’s so poorly organized, what makes you think it’s worthwhile to even try to make a fresh start of it? This project is already a failure.project fail

As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” And who can argue with that? The point is that just as the simple steps of “lug, pack, restore, beer” are a wild underestimation of the project of cleaning a garage, most personal projects are far more complex, and require many more decisions, than can adequately be planned out in one’s head, and therefore – as Burns so eloquently put it – gang aft agley.

Take, for example, a hypothetical plan to … let’s say … listen to all of your CDs and then rank them and select the top hundred favorites to write about in a blog you’ll update regularly. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? daffyLet’s make it simpler by saying you have pretty many CDs, but by no means an exhaustive list of classic albums from the past 50 years, or the number that a typical audiophile would have. So maybe you have, say, 357 CDs. This is the point at which – again, if you were a wise individual – you would say to yourself, “Okay, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll get to it some day,” and then you’d go get that beer. Because this is a problem destined to gang aft agley.

The biggest agleying issue I’ve faced has been just how friggin’ long it takes for me to put together a goddam post!!! That’s due to two things: 1) I have a full time job and a family; and 2) I’m a windbag, with no editor.

blahThe lengthy time to post causes a secondary, more abstract – yet possibly larger – problem: I finished listening to all my CDs in late 2013, so my list is stuck in time. I’ve bought a few records since then, some of which could be Top-100 level albums. But now that my list is complete, there’s no way to integrate these new records into it. If The Stooges’ Raw Power, which I recently got, would be, say #37, then each album lower than that would bump down one. Since I’m now writing #69, I’d have 30 albums on this website out of order. Additionally, my #100 is now #101, and so should be removed from the list. Listen, it’s taken me this long to get here, I can’t just suddenly decide to add MORE RECORDS to the project!!!

So I can’t add any new records – the list is “As-Of-January-2014,” and that’s just how it has to be. But there’s also a BIGGER issue with the list: it assumes that the decisions I made about each record were actually ACCURATE at the time I listened! Let’s take a quick look at the process I used for making my list.

carradioI listened to my CDs in my car on my way traveling to and from work. I recognize factory-installed sound systems on 2007 Toyota Corollas aren’t exactly the highest fidelity, audiophile quality systems on which to hear music. However, I have a life. I couldn’t spend 25-grand on state-of-the-art sonic accessories, quit my job and sequester myself away from my family for six months while I worked on my artistic masterpiece. Besides, my car is where I hear most music anyway, and this method leveled the playing field for comparing music by ensuring they’d all be heard on the same lousy system.

I selected CDs randomly and listened to each only once (again, I have a life), gave it a rating of one through five, and jotted a few notes about what I liked. That’s not a lot of information upon which to build a serious case for the merits of one album vs. others. So that’s a source of error.

favorite thingBut the biggest source of error in my evaluation of my records was the algorithm I developed for translating my 5-points-plus-notes evaluation system into a measure of “Favorite.” The algorithm is this: I just sort of went with what I felt. Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t trying to find the BEST, I was trying to find my FAVORITES. There were a few records that I recognized as excellent works of artistic vision and inherent merit that just, you know, didn’t do it for me. Then there were records that I recognized were probably not going to wind up on many critics’ lists that I just LOVED! There were a few records I’d rarely listened to that blew my socks off in that one listen. But it’s hard to make a case that a record I’d heard once or twice should be considered a “favorite.” It was a struggle, and I spent a few weeks arranging and rearranging the albums into what I hoped was the most precise list possible.

Until – at a certain point – I decided: Who gives a shit? It’s a fucking made up list of pop records that a few caseydozen friends are pretending to read! And so I didn’t put more thought into it. There are bound to be records misplaced throughout the list, right? I don’t listen to the albums again until I’m ready to write about them, at which time I get a chance to confirm whether I still agree with placement.

The biggest placement error on the list so far has been The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, which landed at the rather lowly level of number 95. I’ve listened to that record a lot in the time since I published the post and it has certainly climbed my list of favorites since then. I’m guessing it would now fall somewhere in the top 35 … but there’s nothing I can do about it now. True, it sucks, and I’ve been in a back and forth with The Rolling Stones’ lawyers about it, but as I’ve explained in several phone calls with Mick and Charlie the list is set.

thin lizzy bandNumber 69 on my list, the excellent Jailbreak, by vastly under-appreciated Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, is probably my next biggest mistake. But their lawyers won’t be contacting me: you see, I think this one should be lower on the list – maybe in the 90s, or even in the dreaded “Buffalo Bill Near-Miss List” of record numbers 101-110. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great!

Thin Lizzy is a band whose name I knew before I ever knew any of their songs. thin lizzy logoThey’re one of those 70s bands with a distinctive, stylized script logo that I’d often seen sewn onto the denim jackets of some of the scary rocker kids around my town. I didn’t know that I knew one of their songs until sometime in Middle School when I realized they sang the catchy, oft-played 70s rocker “The Boys Are Back in Town.” That song always sounded Southern Rock to me, and so I just figured they were a bunch of white guys from Alabama or Florida or some other place I’d never live in a million years making kickass double-guitar boogie rock. I was quite surprised to learn sometime later that they’re actually Irish, and led by an Irish black man, Phil Lynott.

phillynott fingerPhil Lynott played bass guitar and sang for Thin Lizzy, and he wrote most of the songs as well. I watched a documentary about the band, and he seems to have been a quintessential sad, brilliant artist. His reputation in Ireland is immense, and he is held in esteem there as “Ireland’s First Rock Star.” I didn’t know any of this information when I heard their songs on the radio. AOR radio used to play the songs “The Boys are Back In Town” and “Jail Break” in the 70s and 80s, but given Scary Rocker Kids‘ love of them, I always figured they were some metal band. I got the first inkling that I may be interested in them when I lived with my punk rock friend Eric, and I noticed he owned a copy of Jailbreak. At some point in the 2000s, the band I’ve played in since the late 80s, JB and The So-Called Cells – featuring the phenomenal Dr. Dave on lead guitar – decided to play “The Boys are Back in Town,” and Dr. Dave loaned me the CD so I could learn my part. I listened to the other songs as well and thought, “this is a great friggin’ record!!”

back coverI didn’t listen to it much in the next several years, but when it came time to work on this project, I duly pulled it from its sleeve in one of my nerd-binders full of CDs and brought it to the Corolla for an official listen. In that one listen, I was blown away. I don’t know if it was the traffic that day, the weather, the blend of the morning’s coffee, or what, but after one listen I gave it exceptionally high marks. But when it came time to look at all my ratings of all my records, and compare them with each other, I realized that I didn’t remember much about Jailbreak. As highly as I had rated it – a rating that may have landed it in the top 20 based on number and comments alone – when I looked at it next to some other albums I loved, I just couldn’t justify placing it so high up on the list. When everything shook out, it landed here at 69. So there you are.

And it is definitely the kind of music I tend to really like! Jailbreak is full of dual-guitar majesty, fantastic drumming, and strong melodies – confirming yet again that guitar, drums and melody are the way to my musical heart. The album opens with the riff-rocker title track, “Jailbreak.”

The standard M.O. for 70s hard rock songwriting is on display, and it’s a fine, fine example. Led Zeppelin were masters of it; AC/DC has made a 45 year career out of it. Aerosmith, too. It’s a two-step process: 1) take a cool-sounding guitar riff; and 2) build a song around it. What makes this one interesting are the little things happening around the riff. For example, a lot of cool wah-wah guitar – first heard right around the 15 second mark. brian downeyAnd the drumming by Brian Downey, with lots of fills and hi-hat flourishes, and techniques that aren’t flashy but are kind of mind-blowing on repeated listens – like the fill around 43 seconds to lead into the first chorus. Lynott has a distinctive, growly voice and he uses it well throughout the song and the album. In this song, as in many on the album, he takes on the persona of a character and describes his circumstances. The tale of breaking out of prison is one that connected strongly with teens in the 70s – and probably of any era. There’s a nifty instrumental breakdown starting at about 2:13 that sounds like the rock band version of a jailbreak – even without the sirens that are added to the track. It’s a strong, very cool opener on this underrated album.

The biggest draw for me about the album may be the twin guitars played by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. One of the best examples of their cool-sounding interplay is the song “Angel From the Coast.”

“Dual guitars” in classic guitar rock, as heard in bands from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Judas Priest,thin lizzy guitars 2 are typically featured two ways: 1) playing the same riff, but in harmony; or 2) playing two separate parts. Gorham and Robertson do both throughout the record. On “Angel From the Coast” one riff starts off the song, and the second guitar comes in at 7 seconds with a separate counter-riff. Later, around 1:26, their harmony work is featured in a guitar solo (duet?), which by 1:42 turns into a true back-and-forth between guitars. They sound great together, like they’re having fun playing off one another, before they dive back into the opening riffs. Anytime a band features two guitars doing things like this, I’m going to give them a good, long listen – as will others: I think noted guitarist and former cover-band player Eddie Van Halen may have lifted the main riff for one of his songs. Lynott’s voice is rocking as ever on (dare I say? Bob Dylan-esque) lyrics with sad imagery of desperate people. This Angel From the Coast appears to be a heroin shipment.

The band’s most famous song, “The Boys are Back in Town,” also features excellent dual-guitar interplay, along with some excellent bass work by Lynott.

I think this song warrants its place as a 70s hard rock mainstay, still heard and played in 2016. thin lizzy band 3 It’s a cool sounding jam, and its lyrics are in the typical Phil Lynott style – taking the point of view of someone and telling a tale. What I find interesting about the narrator in this case is that he’s apart from the action, describing someone else’s deeds. One gets the feeling that the narrator isn’t really part of the gang of boys who are coming back to town this summer, but just a local admirer. I’ve heard rumors that the song is about Viet Nam vets returning home, but I’ve also heard Lynott wrote it about the band’s rowdy fans. Either way, it’s a song that’s established itself in popular culture to a degree that could easily sour it for some people. but the fact it’s been overplayed doesn’t change the fact that it’s an excellent song!

Lynott’s storytelling lyrics are also on display in the softer, slightly jazzy “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.”

I particularly enjoy Brian Downey’s drumming on this song, which features his tight rolls and distinctive fills.phil lynott Also, there’s a terrific guitar solo that I’m not sure which of the stellar guitarists plays. Another bouncy, less rock and roll song is the breezy “Running Back,” which is not about Walter Payton or Jim Brown, but is a musician’s lament of leaving love behind to hit the road. It’s a song direct from the 70s, with a chill electric piano and a blaring sax solo which – to my ears – really neuter a potentially great rock number. Another soft number, albeit with great, subtle guitar work from Gorham and Robertson, is “Fight or Fall,” a call for unity in the vein of The Youngbloods’ 60s hit “Get Together.” The rocker “Emerald” is a shout out to the ancient tribes of Ireland, and “Warriors” is a boastful 70s riff-rocker. The album shows that Lynott was a versatile talent, a songwriter with a knack for melody and lyrics, and also a terrific bass player and singer.

Thin Lizzy was a great band, and Jailbreak would have been a very good record with just those songs I’ve listed. But what I think inspired me to rate it so highly is “Cowboy Song,” one of my all-time favorite songs. I don’t know if it’s the great riff – played in harmony by both guitars and bass – or the sad Desperado lyrics, but something about this song connects with me.

If you click on that video, be sure to listen at least well past the 44 second mark, the point at which the song’s riff starts. thin lizzy band 2It’s a simple musical figure, but it’s super-catchy and has a yearning quality that suits the wanderer’s perspective of the lyrics. Lynott’s voice is expressive, and there’s a tinge of sadness – he clearly relates to roaming the land, taking whatever gigs he can find, while he searches for that woman he once knew. It’s a song I could listen to on repeat, a song I’d likely place on a CD to take on a deserted island. It’s a song that speaks to me loudly enough to bump a very good album up to a top 70 album!

So, look. We all make mistakes in life. But we don’t have to regret all our mistakes. I love Jailbreak, and I’ll keep listening to it. Ranking it at #69 may have been an error, but it’s certainly better than dropping a box of shopping cart wheels on a snowblower. And how many mistakes in life can we say that about??

TRACK LISTING
Jailbreak
Angel From The Coast
Running Back
Romeo and the Lonely Girl
Warriors
The Boys are Back in Town
Fight or Fall
Cowboy Song
Emerald

Share

80th Favorite: Freedom, by Neil Young

Share

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

Freedom-f10966783f3ba3330f8e5ab1c7b6b6

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 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 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 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.

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! 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. 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.” 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.

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,” 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.

TRACK LISTING
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
Someday
On Broadway
Wrecking Ball
No More
Too Far Gone
Rockin’ in the Free World (Electric)

Share

91st Favorite: Some Girls, by The Rolling Stones

Share

Some Girls. The Rolling Stones.
1978, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: The Glimmer Twins
Purchased ca. 1988.

album some girls

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – The Stones prove they can play most any style of 70s rock you want: disco, country, new wave, blues, punk … it’s all in there, and they do it all amazingly well. An awesome guitar record that bears repeated listening from a band at the peak of its abilities and confidence. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had an emotional connection to more of the songs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
In 1991 I was playing bass in a band called The April Skies, and we got booked to play a few shows at the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan. manhattanThe CMJ Music Marathon is sponsored by what used to be called the “College Music Journal,” an organization for college radio stations to introduce new music and bands, and help aspiring music industry collegians learn about the business. The Marathon was 3 or 4 days of music industry seminars and discussions, and 3 or 4 nights of concerts throughout Manhattan – some of which I was sober enough to completely recall 25 years later. We saw great concerts by just-beginning-to-break, early 90s alternative big-wigs like Blur, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Matthew Sweet. bandsWe saw even better concerts by unknown bands, like the fabulous Berserk, out of Baltimore, whose song “Giant Robots” remains one of my all time favorites.

I also got to meet, and speak briefly with, guitarist Vernon Reid, reid of Living Colour, who asked our band if we’d “heard the new Nirvana album [Nevermind] yet?” We said we liked it, and he said, “It’s like …” and he paused for a bit, slowly extending his fist to nearly-arm’s-length, and then extending it fully with a jerk, “… BOOM!!” (There have been worse ways to describe it, I guess.)

Also, Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier – who looked like she must have been 45 years old, I swear – signed an autograph for me. To give to my sister. I swear!kier

It was a lot of fun, and – even though the Dean of American Rock Critic Assholes, Robert Christgau, didn’t think so – a great experience. But strangely, of all the memories that stick with me from the experience, one of the most-enduring was a poster I saw plastered onto walls and fences all over lower Manhattan advertising the new album by a rapper named MC Lyte. The album was called Act Like You Know.mc lyte

I was not much of a rap fan then, and aside from a single album by De La Soul, I didn’t own any hip hop. What attracted me to the poster was the name of the album. It stopped me in my tracks: Act Like You Know. It struck me, like a slap in the face, that here was some advice that I had been searching for for 24 years. The title was a revelation; in the words of Evan Dando, “the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete…” MC Lyte was at the Marathon, too, and drummer Mark and I stood in line to get her autograph. I didn’t know anything about her music, I just wanted to see her up close. She was short.

The phrase “Act Like You Know” was a revelation to me. Like all humans, I had been in a number of uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unfortunate situations throughout my life. My response to all of these, regardless of the circumstances, chiefhad been to stand as still as possible, making as little sound as possible, staring as straight ahead as possible, trying to blend in to any background possible. I was like “The Chief,” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I didn’t know any other way to act. But here was a suggestion that sounded like it just might work …

See, my parents themselves didn’t know how to “Act Like They Knew.” If presented with an uncomfortable social situation – which for them could encompass watership downanything from getting the wrong order from the pizza shop, to being asked if they liked their kids’ elementary school – they never considered acting like they knew what to do, or how to respond. They had no trouble simply standing there, looking confused, smiling a little, and making the situation logarithmically more awkward by the second for everyone involved. My parents basically taught me to freeze at any inkling of trouble. They may as well have been cottontail rabbits. I guess it could have been worse – they could have been opossums, and I could have spent my adolescence falling to the floor to play dead whenever a girl talked to me. (To be fair, they taught me all kinds of other useful stuff, like how to be polite and how to take a fish off the hook without being stabbed by the outstretched, spiky dorsal fin.)

crappie

“Act Like You Know” is a simple idea, and actually not difficult to master. Whenever you find yourself in a situation in which you feel like you have NO FRIGGING IDEA what you should do, or how you should act, Act Like You Know what you should do, and do it. It’s a childhood game – we all loved to play “Let’s Pretend” when we were little, and most of us didn’t need help from others to learn it, and “Act Like You Know” is just an extension of that.

A pretty girl asks you if you’re going to the dance this Friday night? Pretend you’re a suave, worldly bondJames Bond-type gentleman, smile a little bit and say, “I think I am. Are you?” It beats saying, “Uh … I get really sweaty at dances,” which may or may not have been a response I uttered in high school when I found myself in such a situation. (Whether I did or not is beside the point.)

Your boss asks you if you can write up a report on flange-modulation in the thermal duct industry? Pretend you wrote your Master’s Thesis on flange-modulation, and tell him he’ll have the report in a week. (Then get to the library REAL QUICK and figure out something to say!)

airplaneA flight attendant tells you the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated due to food poisoning and asks you if you can land the plane? Pretend you don’t speak English and babble some gibberish until she asks someone else. (Let’s not go overboard – Acting Like You Know doesn’t give you superpowers.)

I’ve come to believe that one of the key attributes of successful people – and you can define success however you want – is their ability to Act Like They Know. The instances where “Act Like You Know” could have helped me in my early life are multitudinous. Here are a few examples:

When L., an attractive 11th grade feature jugheadmajorette, who had asked a friend to ask me – a freshman trombone player – to ask her out, ended our miniature golf date in her car by saying, “You can kiss me goodnight,” and I grinned and said, “Uh, goodnight!” and ran out of the car. Without kissing her. Somehow – and I remember this plainly – I wasn’t sure she really wanted me to kiss her goodnight, and instead of Acting Like I Knew what the words “You can kiss me goodnight” meant, I ran away like a bunny.

When Dr. Dave’s warm, friendly South Philly family would greet me with a hug or – heavens above! – his mom or grandma leaned in for a kiss on the cheek, I – being from a place where folks barely say hello to people they know, let alone move their faces within a foot of near-strangers – stood there like Hymie, from Get Smart!, hymiegenerating endless comments from Dr. Dave’s mom such as, “Boy, he’s a shy one, isn’t he!” and “Look at him just stand there like that!” Instead of Acting Like I Knew where to land a greeting kiss, or how long and tight to hug, or what to do with my hands … I just stood there.

Of course, the danger in Act Like You Know is that you can overdo it, or use it in situations where it’s not warranted, and find yourself becoming a dreaded Bullshit Artist. tarlekBut as often as not, you’ll find the people in any given situation with you are Acting Like They Know at the same time you’re Acting Like You Know, and you are all simply figuring out the situation as you go along. The bottom line is this: in a society, there are only basic guidelines to follow on how to interact with others, and very, very few hard-and-fast rules; and even these – don’t breathe on other people, don’t squeeze other people, keep your clothes on – are so basic that if you are either mentally healthy or properly medicated, you don’t have to worry about breaking them. So relax, pretend, engage.

friendly

Although it’s true, as I’ve written before, that almost all rock music is based on what came before it, it is also true that popular musical styles are always changing. Since the 50s, teens have been the main consumers of popular music, and if there’s one thing teens want more than anything, it’s to be different than the old fuddy-duddies who came before them.

So while popular music since the 50s may have kept the typical structure of 4/4 time, strong backbeat, repetitious melody and standard instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars, keyboards), it also changed dramatically to include rock and roll, folk rock, guitar pop, music evolvespsychedelic rock, R&B, blues rock, funk, heavy metal, disco, prog rock, punk rock, new wave, noise rock, hip-hop, electronic music, and a million other sub-genres that meld any or all of the above.

Within this changing landscape, it can be difficult for a band to sustain a career. One day your sound is cutting edge, the next day you sound and look like somebody’s prank. It may be even more difficult for an established band to navigate the changing musical landscape. Some bands hop on every trend and try to meld themselves with the latest sound – a situation perfectly satirized in the brilliant film This Is Spinal Tap.

ac aeroSome bands, like AC/DC, just keep doing the same thing they always did and ignore the changes around them, whether it’s 1976, 1990, or 2008.

Some bands, like Aerosmith, do a weird thing where they try to act like they’re doing the same thing they always did, but actually completely change everything about themselves from, say, 1973 to 1998. Styles change, tastes change, and it’s not easy for a band to Act Like They Know what to do in any given environment.

70s

The 1970s was a decade of wild diversity and change in the popular music industry. Singer/songwriter folk, funk, glam rock, Philly soul, punk rock, disco, blues rock, progressive rock … they all simmered together in the 70s musical stew. Right now, in 2014, it’s difficult to remember, but there was a time when not only a) people listened to music on the radio, but also, b) that radio station might play a song by Gloria Gaynor, followed by John Denver, followed by Bad Company!

In that era of the musical buffet, The Rolling Stones – an aging dinosaur of 60s blues rock – hit the studio in 1977 and emerged with a record that demonstrated perfectly how a band can Act Like You Know. Some Girls is ten tracks of The Stones playing disco, new wave and punk – along with their usual country and blues – and they manage it all with a nonchalance and ease that says, “Don’t worry, folks. We know what we’re doing.”

1978

Throughout the Stones’ history, they’ve Pretended several times, and the results didn’t always fool anybody. (See the psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request) But they get it right on Some Girls.

I’ve written before about my history with The Rolling Stones and how I had heard so much of their music on the radio over the years that I rarely felt compelled to buy their albums. I also didn’t have many friends who were Stones aficionados. I knew many Beatles maniacs, some U2 crazies, and a few Doors Fans but none of my friends were really Stones people.

In 1987, I transferred from one college to another, and one of the first friends I made at the new school was a smart, funny guy named Dean Z. Dean and I were both education majors, and we’d spend our time laughing, arguing politics (at the time I was a Conservative prick; hard to believe, considering that now I’m such a Liberal prick) and talking about music. Dean was the first big Stones fan friend I had. He did an AWESOME Mick Jagger impression, and I have vague memories of being at parties with him, and the two of us performing – typically at the very end of the night, when only the most drunken, keith 2014depressed, socially-inept audience remained – a Mick/Keith pantomime to “Start Me Up,” or “Gimme Shelter,” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” He was a great Mick; I did a mediocre Keith impression, but come to think of it, so does Keith these days. Dean’s friendship inspired me to finally buy an album, and so the next summer – having a love for the song “Shattered,” and a memory of being frightened by the album cover as a 10 year old – I went out and purchased Some Girls.

When I listen to Some Girls, the first thing I notice is all the guitars!! Mick is credited with playing the guitar on five of the ten songs, and the third guitar (in addition to stalwarts Keith Richards and Ron Wood) provides a solid frame onto which Keith and Ron can hang their cool, dueling licks and solos.

The guitar layers are particularly well-displayed in their cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” mick guitar The Temptations’ version of the song is remembered (obviously, I guess, as they were a vocal group) for the vocal harmonies, and beautiful falsetto of lead singer Eddie Kendricks. The Stones, however, Act Like They Know how to play a harmony-laden soul song, turn it into a guitar song, and make it work as such. I feel like with every repeated listen I hear another guitar riff that I hadn’t noticed before. The song itself is a masterpiece of lyrics and longing, and Mick does a great job interpreting it in his unmistakable “Mick” manner. The vocal harmonies from Keith are excellent, as always, and – in what is a constant throughout Some Girls – drummer Charlie Watts smashes 8th notes on his kick drum repeatedly. By the end of the record, I start to think of it as “Charlie’s kick drum record,” as he works those 8ths frequently, throughout. Here, the Stones play it live – and Mick does a lot of guitar-holding:

The most famous song on Some Girls is no doubt “Miss You,” which turned out to be the last of the Stones’ 8 number 1 hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. miss you On this song, the Stones Act Like They Know how to play disco music, and once again they pull it off amazingly well. The song reached number one in the summer of 1978, sandwiched between #1 hits “Shadow Dancing,” by Andy Gibb, and The Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady,” and surrounded by such 70s fare as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and Frankie Valli’s “Grease.”

{Side note on 70s Awesome-osity: holding down the #19 and 20 spots were Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” and Heat Wave’s “Grooveline“!}

I find it impressive that a rock and roll band from the 60s could hit number one in this environment, not by offering a nostalgic piece of recycled British Invasion, but by embracing the style of the day and making it their own. Many acts have tried this tactic over the years and failed miserably (Fairly recent example: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell). keith ron 2The song itself has been heard so often in the past 36 years that you might think you never have to hear it again. But as with “Just My Imagination,” it has lots of cool guitar flourishes and riffs from Wood and Richards that are easy to miss without paying close attention. When you listen again, pay attention to their dueling guitars – you’ll hear the song differently. Out in the front of the song is Bill Wyman’s disco bass line. Just as Charlie Watts’s kick drum is featured throughout the album, so is Wyman’s bass. wyman He plays interesting lines, and adds flourishes to all his parts. In “Miss You,” the bass is one of the signature parts in the song, hopping around Mick’s vocals like a playful puppy.

Since I’m focusing so much on the guitars, I should mention two songs that for some reason in my head always get lumped together: “Respectable” and “Lies.” On these two, The Stones take on punk rock. Both songs have a breakneck pace, driving guitars, and Mick shouting and garbling his vocals. And again, the third guitar of Mick’s provides a foundation for Ron and Mick’s leads and fills. What I really find interesting about both songs, and what makes the song – to me- really feel like a Stones Take on punk rock is Charlie Watts’s drumming.

wattsIn many punk and new wave songs the drummer plays “ahead of the beat,” smacking the snare just a millisecond before the beat, giving the song a propulsive feel. A good example is Pete Thomas’s drumming in Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” However, in the Stones’ version of punk and new wave, Watts hits the snare just a bit behind the beat, in a bluesy fashion. The songs remain aggressive and driving, but continue to have that Stones-Thing happening. And Watts’s kick drum is on display again – pounding out eighth notes like a hammer, especially furiously on “Lies.” Just for fun, here are the Stones on Saturday Night Live in 1978 playing “Respectable.” (Added bonus: the Russian commercial that plays before it.)

Other highlights of these punk songs are Keith’s harmony vocals on “Respectable,” and Mick’s strong vocal performance on “Lies.” Wyman’s bass parts roll along nicely as well.

Speaking of Keith’s singing, I have to mention my favorite song on the album, “Before They Make Me Run” sung by Keith.

I love Keith’s barely passable (and at times barely audible) vocals, and the loose feel of the song. And most anyone can relate to the sentiment keith ronof the lyrics – in jobs, relationships, or any scenario: “I’m gonna walk before they make me run.” Mick isn’t credited with guitar on this one, but Keith and Ronnie again do their dueling thing beautifully.

Other songs on Some Girls include the slow, raunchy blues of the title track, in which Mick describes the pros and cons of various types of women in lyrics that raised quite a controversy at the time, and for which he later apologized. It’s got great electric guitar and harmonica throughout, and nice acoustic guitar layered deep in the mix.

Beast of Burden” is another slow blues, and probably the second most recognizable song on the album. It’s got one of my favorite Bill Wyman bass lines, and an outstanding harmony vocal performance by Keith. tour t shirt

When the Whip Comes Down” is a rocker with my all my favorite parts of the album thrown in: lots of guitars, cool bass line and Charlie’s hammer kick drum. (Also worth mentioning is the song’s lyric couplet “When the shit hit the fan/I was sittin’ on the can.”)

Far Away Eyes” is a great Stones country song, with kind of a jokey vocal performance by Mick.

The song that got me into this album in the first place is “Shattered,” which closes the album. On this driving song, with it’s loopy bass line (played by Ronnie Wood) and Mick’s shouted, hiccupping vocals, the Stones demonstrate their mastery over the angular New Wave style of music that bands like XTC and The Cars were pumping out in the late 70s. Charlie’s drums again lag just a bit behind the beat, giving the song a definite “Stones Sound.” It’s a song about the stress of living in New York City (“To live in this town/You must be tough tough tough tough tough!!!) complete with Yiddish lyrics and descriptions of late 70s urban decay. This video fits the song perfectly:

The entire album – from “Miss You” to “Shattered” – has a grubby, dirty 70s New York City feeling.

70s subway

Many of the songs make reference to NYC, and as the Cultural Capital of the World it is the city where the disco and punk explosions were the biggest and loudest. The Stones were Acting Like They Knew in the place where it was most difficult to pull it off, and the result is an album that doesn’t sound like they were Acting at all. They Knew all along

TRACK LISTING
Miss You
When The Whip Comes Down
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
Some Girls
Lies
Far Away Eyes
Respectable
Before They Make Me Run
Beast of Burden
Shattered

Share

97th Favorite: Empty Glass, by Pete Townshend

Share

Empty Glass. Pete Townshend.
1980, ATCO. Producer: Pete Townshend and Chris Thomas
Purchased ca. 1997.

empty glass

squirellIN A NUTSHELL – Driving guitar rock with emotional lyrics and energetic vocal performances. Lots of catchy songs, and a few that grow on you with repeated listening. Great background vocals and harmonies, and interesting song structure, give the songs an operatic feel. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had even more guitar.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I grew up in a rather small town in a made-up state in the 70s. Generally, this meant my sisters and I experienced typical American life about 15 to 18 months after everyone else did. “Hey, TIME magazine says there’s a hot new fad called “Pet Rocks!” Not in our town. Maybe they’ll show up at The Mall next summer, as the rest of the nation buys their first Bean Bag Chairs. I’m surprised the Bicentennial didn’t happen in my town in 1977!

Living life in my town was like watching a DVR’ed TV program, only we couldn’t see the green bar in front of us showing how far behind we were.
dvr

But we could tell. We were behind the curve. I heard about things like ATMs and home computers and microwave ovens, but nobody I knew really USED those things – they seemed to be part of the made-up Hollywood world, the type of thing that Johnny Carson made jokes about, but that “real” people didn’t use, like plastic surgery, dresses for men and airplanes.

So considering how behind-the-times we seemed, it’s surprising that we had Cable TV in my little part of town for as long as I can remember. antenna 2 Cable TV was introduced in the US as early as the late 40s but hardly anyone had it. In the 70s, most of my friends and relatives still had unsightly antennas on their houses, which pulled in TV signals broadcast through the atmosphere and delivered those signals to a heavy wooden box with a bulbous blue screen protruding from it.

tv set

(Basically, it’s magic.)

And those signals weren’t always clear. Depending which way the house’s antenna was pointed, and which channel you were trying to watch, if you wanted a clear picture and sound the antenna had to be adjusted. This gave the viewer three options:

1) Shinny up the side of the house, crawl onto the roof and move it around, while a partner watched the TV and shouted, “A little more! A little more! STOP!! No! Too far! Go back! STOP!! No! Too far!” …

adjust

2) Buy a futuristic automatic antenna adjuster device, adjust 2like my grandma had, upon which you turned a dial marked with the four cardinal directions, and somehow the TV antenna moved, enabling you to get perfect(ish) reception, which in turn allowed you to make a list to keep on top of the TV with cryptic tuning instructions like “Ch. 15 – WNW. Ch 27 – E. Ch. 8 – SW +4” …

or 3) Forget the adjustments altogether, and just find one “best position” for your antenna, where most of the “good” channels got the least-poor reception, and where the “lousy channels” didn’t come in as clearly. (Although, the lousy channels always seemed to have some kind of super-receptive-power that enabled you to always be able to clearly view boring shows like Big Blue Marble or Masterpiece Theater even though over on the “good channels” every episode of McHale’s Navy or Baretta seemed to be constantly phasing in and out of static and snow!)

It made TV viewing frustrating.tv broken But my household didn’t have to deal with all the frustration. We had a big, black, ropy Tarzan-vine of a cable looping onto the side of our house from the heavens (I guess) which carried brilliantly clear pictures and sound directly into our TV set. I don’t know if my neighborhood was part of some consumer test group, or if someone on the Township Board of Commissioners had blackmailed a TV executive somewhere, but for some reason cable TV was the only aspect of 70s life in which my family was AHEAD of the curve.

It wasn’t Cable TV as is commonly thought of today, with 2,713 individualized networks catering to every interest known to (or conjured up by) humans. There were only a few channels, all of them “Broadcast TV,” all of them found on either the VHF or UHF dials on a conventional television of the day. uhf vhf

But with Cable TV, these broadcast stations were wired directly into our living room, meaning the signals were always clear. Meaning, also, that we could receive signals not only from the handful of channels available from local cities, like Lancaster and Harrisburg, but that we could also receive clear signals from channels in the faraway big city of Philadelphia! aussie2This meant I got to watch shows like “Wee Willy” Webber, and Dr. Shock’s Horror Theater and watch commercials for Krass Bros. Clothing (“Store of the Stars!”) and Tastykakes (“All the good thing’s wrapped up in one”) and Frank’s Soda (featuring Patty Smyth and her band Scandal, years before She Was The Warrior) all from 100 miles away. It’s easy to see why I watched so much TV.

In the 80s, Cable TV started to expand beyond UHF and VHF channels. Suddenly Cubs baseball games were always on, and there were channels that showed movies (without commercials!) or showed ONLY SPORTS – which sounded like a great idea – sports all the time – darts2but before ESPN had broadcast rights for major American sports, they showed sports like Australian Rules Football and Darts and the opening round of the professional slo-pitch softball championships (!!) so it wasn’t very impressive. None of those new channels impressed me, really, except for one:

mtv

All Day, All Night, All Music, they said, and that’s what it was. It began broadcasting on August 1, 1981, and by October of that year, my family – which had been years behind every other technological advance and breakthrough product since before the advent of indoor plumbing (my parents’ childhood homes both had outhouses until well after WWII) – was among the vanguard consuming the product responsible for the downfall of substantive, meaningful popular music and the recording industry as a whole.

And I loved it.

When people discuss early MTV and its music, the focus is frequently on interesting-looking bands, typically English, who played catchy pop, but made their reputation as much through their looks as their music.newwave But one of my earliest MTV memories is seeing a music video featuring an older, shaggy guy playing guitar in a pool hall while harassing the players, and angrily singing a driving, catchy song that ended with a series of ascending chords, played with larger and larger windmill motions, building up the anticipation for a final exclamation that just … felt awesome!! (In the parlance of my 14 year old self). rough

The video is for the first song off Empty Glass, “Rough Boys,” one of my favorite songs of all time. I didn’t know what the song was about (and I still don’t know for sure), but that really didn’t matter. I just knew that the power and energy seemed to encapsulate my emotions about life as a teenager in my little town. And watching Pete play and sing as he jumped around the tables intensified those feelings. I’d jump around myself as I watched, as long as my sister wasn’t around.

I’ve read, maybe in Townshend’s excellent autobiography Who I Am that the song is a response to the punk rockers of the 70s (the album states the song is dedicated to his kids, Emma and Minta, and The Sex Pistols), an attempt to capture some of their anger and energy, and lyrically the song describes Pete’s desire to better understand where that anger and energy comes from.

“Gonna get inside you
Gonna get inside your bitter mind”

With its lyrics about leather and tough boys and biting and kissing, much has been written and discussed about Pete’s sexuality and how this song fits into the topic. I don’t remember being aware of all this as a teenager, I just remember loving the song. And I still do.

Pete Townshend is, of course, a founding member and chief songwriter of The Who, probably the third most famous rock band to come out of the 60s, along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

who 60s

When I first heard the songs on this record (or – more accurately – watched them, on MTV) I was aware that there was a band named The Who, and I knew some of their songs, but it didn’t really register with me that Pete was part of that band. Many listeners, I’m sure, immediately compared Empty Glass to albums by The Who, and reviewed the record in the context of Pete as a Famous Musician and Songwriter. To me, Pete was just another British guy on MTV making cool songs and videos. Not unlike Thomas Dolby or Gary Numan.

dolbynuman

(Kidding!)

The next video I remember from this record, and the biggest hit of Pete’s career, was the song “Let My Love Open the Door,” a catchy, keyboard-driven song with a solid, danceable backbeat, that reached Top Ten in the US in the Fall of 1980.

This well-known song was quite different from anything else in the Top Forty that week, with lyrics that are typical of the entire Empty Glass album – heartfelt and emotional, and not shy about human feelings. The deeply spiritual Townshend has said that the lyrics are meant to be about a larger love than person-to-person, intending them to be about God’s love in times of crisis or doubt. As an atheist, I can’t go there personally, but I appreciate the intent. For me, the lyrics have always been a strong testament to the power of friendship and family, and how we all need others in our lives to make it through the days. Plus, it has an infectious beat and a cool hook. And the video – like most Townshend/Who videos from this era – was simple footage of the band playing – the type of video I always found most inspiring back in the day.

playing pete

These two songs were favorites of mine for a long time, but I never thought about buying the album until I noticed it kept popping up on various “Best Of” lists of 80s albums. I’ve written before about my general distrust of Best Of record lists, but when I saw a used copy of the LP in a record store in San Francisco, I picked it up to hear what the hubbub was about.

Pete’s solo songs have an operatic quality about them – probably not surprising, since he’s the father of the Rock Opera.

tommyquad

And I Moved” is a song that displays these operatic qualities. Granted, the only thing I know about Opera is what I learned from Bugs Bunny, bugs opera so maybe it’s not operatic, but it sounds grander than most rock songs, and even though it’s a mid-tempo song, it has a weightiness and a quick, driving drumbeat that makes it sound important. It’s a somber song, with oblique lyrics, and upon first listening I disliked it. But as I’ve listened more, it’s grown on me. As with all the songs on the album, Pete’s sings with The Three E’s: Energy, Emotion, Earnestness. Throughout Empty Glass, he sounds as if he believes his words are the most important words he’s ever known. This could be a negative if performed by the wrong singer, or with the wrong material but it works for me on this record.

Also operatic, to me and Elmer and Bugs anyway, is Pete’s frequent use of backing vocals that answer the main melody, like The Chorus in a stage musical, providing background information or counterpoints to supplement what is sung in the main melody. (All of the songs have excellent, interesting backing vocals, something that is often missing in rock and roll created after the 70s.) Pete used this technique with The Who frequently. It’s on display in the song “Gonna Get Ya,” a march of sorts, with a compelling bass line and Pete’s urgent voice. There’s an extended instrumental section in the middle that again, as in the ascending chords in “Rough Boys,” builds the song to an emotional, frantic finale. (My only quibble with this song are the shouted words “Girl, I’m Gonna Do Ya!”, which sound creepy, even coming from a Rock Icon).

bloody

Pete’s plaintive vocals can, at times, almost make me feel bad for the guy. In the song “I Am An Animal” the vocals and lyrics flip among anger, hurt and sadness, and the quality of his voice is such that I just want to give him a big hug. He clearly has more on his mind than sex and drugs and rock and roll, and offers the listener a candid glimpse into his emotional life. But he spares us further direct microscopic examinations of his hurt and sadness on the album, which is a good thing. We all have met people who are “over-sharers,” and know the awkward experience of wondering, “Do I put an arm around this person I met five minutes ago who is now sobbing to me about his colon issues?” But despite Pete’s emotions on display throughout the record, he never makes me feel uncomfortable as a listener.

The best display of emotion is the song of furious anger, “Jools and Jim.” This is Pete’s response to some rock critics who in the late 70s had questioned the relevance of 60s and 70s rock to an audience now steeped in punk rock, and in doing so mocked Who drummer Keith Moon’s death. moon

“Typewriter tappers/you’re all just crappers …. Typewriter bangers-on/you’re all just hangers-on …” he sings (or shouts, really), and he goes on to ridicule the lack of spiritual and emotional depth of critics in general. But even in the middle of his fury, the thoughtful Pete slows the tempo and offers to meet the two for drinks, “’cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me …” I think it’s rare for a rock musician to display such depth and self-awareness, especially a famous, wealthy rock musician whose head is on the mythical Mount Rushmore of Rock. Even in the middle of a rage, Pete is thoughtful. My only complaint with this song is that the song ends with the curious phrase, “Oklahoma! Oklahoma! Oklahoma! OK!”

Animated-dancing-red-question-mark-picture-moving

I have been on a quest for nearly 20 years to find out why this state slogan is put here, and what it has to do with the rest of the song. It is one of my Great Unanswered Questions of Rock, and if anyone can send me the answer, or post it in the comments, I will be forever in your debt. This song is also one of my favorites on the album, a great tune to blast at high volume, and proof that Pete, nearing 40 years of age, could still hang with the young guns on the scene.

My town was ahead of the curve on cable, but I was late to this record. I may have given the impression that Pete is very serious throughout the record, but the songs are truly great. And just to show that he could tone down the seriousness at times, here’s a (likely) drunken Pete with a goofy video from the record for a song called “Keep On Working.”

TRACK LISTING
Rough Boys
I Am An Animal
And I Moved
Let My Love Open the Door
Jools and Jim
Keep On Working
Cat’s In The Cupboard
A Little Is Enough
Empty Glass
Gonna Get Ya

Share