Tag Archives: Guitar Rock

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

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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.
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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”

 

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36th Favorite: Life, Love and Leaving, by The Detroit Cobras

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Life, Love and Leaving. The Detroit Cobras.
2001, Sympathy for The Record Industry. Producer: The Detroit Cobras.
Purchased, 2004.

IN A NUTSHELL: A barn-burning, rip-snorting, foot-stomping run through fourteen quick songs with energy and excitement bursting through every number. Singer Rachel Nagy can belt, croon, moan and howl, and her partner in ROCKIN’, guitarist Mary Ramirez, makes everyone move. The songs are old R&B and rock n roll covers, but the band makes the songs their own while keeping the wild-eyed, rebellious spirit of the music intact.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Rock music continues to move further away from the Main Stream of popular music, having branched away sometime in the mid-80s, and briefly rejoined at times (90s alt-rock, 00s guitar pop), but now cutting a trickling path to nowhere, a course that Jazz, Funk, Blues and Folk music have followed, destined to one day join Swing, Barbershop Quartet, and Ragtime in an evaporating shallow pool of once-popular music genres.

But back in the day, when it was still a music of rebellion and resistance and teenage revolt, musicians in the rock realm who wanted to play for audiences had a choice to make. It was an either/or decision that would have huge ramifications on their future, that could be put off for a while, but at some point would have to be addressed: Covers or Originals?

Covers, if you aren’t aware, are songs that others have made popular but played by someone else. Originals are, well, original – songs written and played by the artist. Almost every rock musician started out playing covers. In fact, almost every musician of any type, on any instrument, from any region of the world, started out playing covers. When you’re learning to do anything, you typically copy something or someone else.

Even the greatest band in the world, ever, was a terrific cover band, perfecting scores of other peoples’ songs for their early Hamburg, Germany, shows, in part because of the number of songs needed to fill the incredible length of their shows there – sometimes as long as 12 hours! Many of their early hits were covers, such as “Twist & Shout,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Money,” and “Rock and Roll Music.”

I say they learned covers “in part” to fill time because there is also another, even better, reason for a band to play covers: AUDIENCES LOVE THEM! At a bar or a nightclub, when there is a live band playing songs the crowd knows and loves, the energy is palpable, immediate. People are dancing and singing along, and if you can keep them doing it the excitement builds and builds. I know from experience that when you are the musician onstage playing songs the people love, and you get to feel that energy coming back to you – whether it’s from 10 friends at a backyard party or 200 strangers at a nightclub – you start to feel like you’re Mick Jagger, Bono, Beyoncé …

On top of that, bar and nightclub owners sell lots of booze to happy, dancing, singing people, so they pay good cover bands good money to keep the crowd enthusiastic. In the early 90s, there was a band that played the East Coast called The Armadillos. They sold out clubs nightly from New Jersey to Florida, playing high energy classic rock and new wave covers, keeping thousands of folks sweaty and happy for four hours a night. They made a good living, and were living the dream.

Except they weren’t, entirely. My band played originals and opened for them a couple times, and their members told me that although they had fun whipping a nightclub crowd into a frenzy with some Elvis Costello or Rolling Stones, what they really wanted to do was to play their original songs to an appreciative crowd. But I saw firsthand what most cover bands know: that as soon as you announce from the stage, “This next one is an original …” the audience takes it as a cue to clear the dance floor, freshen drinks and start conversations. I’m sure the band had nights when their original songs brought down the house, but what they were best known as was a Top Notch Cover Band, and that sterling reputation probably impeded their loftier goals. People wanted to hear them play “What I Like About You,” not something unknown – no matter what it was. They had a bit of local success with their original material, on the coattails of 90s Pennsylvania alt-rockers Līve, but eventually called it quits.

Of course, playing originals is no picnic. Back in the day, you could join an established cover band and start making fifty or a hundred bucks a night for yourself. Or start one with friends and be making some dough within a couple months. Playing your own songs, however, meant years of long van rides to big cities, lining up demo recordings, bull-shitting promoters and bookers, ass-kissing other bands and basically playing mostly to audiences of friends and family – all the while trying not to kill the other equally-desperate, equally-destitute band members snoring next to you in your van. A few months of that, and playing “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” to a room full of drunken meatheads and bimbos while earning a little bread starts to sound enticing. The grass is always greener …

Whether you enjoy seeing cover bands or original bands doesn’t matter to me. And I make no value judgment on any musician’s path to the sweet joy of performing live music – music is joy, so hallelujah. And even bands known for their original music play covers from time to time, and there are several styles of them.

Some bands seem to attempt a note-for-note reproduction, or at least very faithful version, of a well-known original. For example, there’s Pearl Jam’s version of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Or No Doubt’s take on Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” The Rolling Stones did it a lot in their early years, and Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” is one example. (I’m going to cram this into a parenthetical – because it’s not a well-known original. However, the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was well-known to me as a kid because my dad had it on an album he used to play all the time. When I heard They Might Be Giants’ version back in the 90s, I was SO HAPPY!)

Then there are examples of bands reaching to other genres for songs to cover, which can be really cool when done well, demonstrating that “genres” are really just Record Company constructs. Check out new wavers The Talking Heads reaching back to R&B legend Al Green; or funk superstars Earth, Wind and Fire taking on The Beatles. One of my favorites is punk blasters Husker Dü putting an aggressive spin on folk-rockers The Byrds.

Some covers are songs that I didn’t even realize were covers, originally done by bands I didn’t even know were bands. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts had their biggest hit with a song by some band called The Arrows. Teenage new waver Annabella’s band, Bow Wow Wow, gained MTV superstardom with an old single by The Strangeloves. And R.E.M. leapt tall buildings in a single bound with their version of a song by The Clique.

My favorite covers are ones in which the original song is messed with in some way, usually made a bit weirder or funnier. Husker Dü makes the list a second time with a scorching version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. Grunge guitar superstar J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. blew the doors off The Cure’s goth pop alterna-hit “Just Like Heaven.” My all-time favorite cover is the geniuses of Devo totally dismantling and reassembling the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction.” (Something they pulled off spectacularly live, as well.) If you enjoy these types of covers, I suggest you seek out the AV Undercover Series, online, and immediately watch GWAR cover Kansas.

I should take a bit of time to mention a terrific cover song originator: Bob Dylan. I know it’s heresy, but I can’t stomach Dylan’s singing. I’ve tried. Shoot me, mock me, stop reading this blog, I don’t care – I don’t get his appeal. He’s a tremendous songwriter, however, who – like Marvin Hamlisch and John Philip Sousa – probably shouldn’t sing his own songs. But there are many covers of his songs out there, and here are a few great ones. The White Stripes’ “One More Cup of Coffee.” XTC’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Neko Case’s “Buckets of Rain.” Nina Simone’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Albums of cover songs are usually specialty albums. They’re typically put together to raise money for a cause, or to salute a certain artist. Sometimes bands put them out to fulfill a recording contract or to celebrate a long career or give a nod to the past. Or all three. Rarely are albums of covers simply released as an album, as rarely do cover bands get to release albums.

However, The Detroit Cobras are a different sort of cover band. I’ve written before about my attempts to stave off old-age by digging into “new music” over the years. In the early 00s I was at it again, falling hard for guitar bands like The Mooney Suzuki, The Strokes and The White Stripes. Diving into The White Stripes caused me to brush up against other Detroit-based, guitar-rockin’ bands, such as the excellent Dirtbombs and The High Strung. At this time I heard The Detroit Cobras, went out and bought Life, Love and Leaving – and had NO IDEA these were cover songs!! I thought the band just had a throwback style, until I saw the songwriters’ names and read a little more about the band.

The band has always had two constant members: singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez. They started the band, which has cycled through several other members. And they also select all the music, since the band has no ambition to write their own songs. They seek out lesser-known 60s soul and garage rock and then pour their hearts into it. The goal is to play songs that sound good and keep your attention, exactly as an excellent cover band should do! In fact, Life, Love and Leaving sounds very much like a great 14-song set by a kickass live band.

For example, “Hey Sailor,” originally by Mickey Lee Lane, sounds exactly what you’d want to hear first from a band as they hit the stage.

It starts with a little arpeggiated chord as a prelude to driving guitar riffs. The melody is catchy and singalong, and there are plenty of opportunities for the crowd to sing backing vocals with the rest of the band. Particularly on the chorus, where a tambourine shakes behind the call and response nonsense words. Before the second verse, another riff is added (0:55) to carry the song to the final verse. The lyrics are about a song, or sex, but either way it’s a good time opener that gets me, and the imaginary audience I’m in when listening, moving right away.

Just as in a great live set, the second song on the album starts almost immediately after the first, giving the crowd no chance to rest. Three quick snare beats, and “He Did It,” a Ronettes song, is off and running.

Another slick guitar riff opens the song, and Nagy’s voice is stellar as it scrapes across a wide-ranging melody. Once again, sing-along background vocals are irresistible, giving the song quite a girl-group feel. There are cool drums throughout, and a nifty harmonica solo and a strong finish for Nagy. The song’s upbeat sound is contrary to rather sad lyrics about a lover leaving. But despite the lyrical content here, and throughout the album, Nagy’s voice never sounds weak or desperate. It’s as fiery as the terrific concert posters the band is known for.

She is obviously a polished singer, able to belt it out on the rocking scorchers. But she can do more than belt. Her take on the mid-tempo groove of Solomon Burke’s “Find Me a Home,” which takes the set down a notch in energy to set the table for what’s to come, is terrific.

The lyrics are about tracking down her man, and the smokiness of her voice particularly suits the spoken lines throughout. The drums play a great shuffle beat behind Mary’s guitar chords. She’s a terrific rhythm player, who powers most of the songs forward, including the next song, the energetic Chiffons number, “Oh My Lover.”

The ascending chords she plays behind the verses ring nicely against the tom-tom beat. It’s a quick, peppy song with lyrics that go from “don’t say we’re through” to “now his fiancee I will be” in less than one and a half minutes. The audience I’m imagining being part of is now revved up and needs a little cool-down, which the mournful, lost love themedCry On,” originated by Irma Thomas, provides.

It’s a showcase for Rachel’s belting, emotional side, and features a subtle organ shimmering behind the vocals beginning in the second verse. The rhythm guitar on the chorus features a terrific, watery sound. Like any great band, they know not to overdo anything, and this little gem ends in two minutes twelve, just long enough for a quick slow dance, or for the crowd to get a breather, before the Solomon Burke gem “Stupidity” begins.

The call-and-response opening gets everyone back on the dance floor for another foot stomper, this one proposing a new dance step, The Stupidity. There’s a pumping bass behind it and Ramirez’s guitar matches the controlled sloppiness of the drums. The band is going to keep increasing the energy throughout the next section, not allowing the crowd to rest. Nagy’s shout, and the terrific backing vocals, on the Mary Wells song “Bye Bye Baby,” gives it more oomph than the typical mid-tempo piece. The lyrics show a toughness that definitely runs throughout many of the songs, particularly the excellent, “Boss Lady,” originally done by Davis Jones and the Fenders.

This is probably my favorite song on the record. I love the strong lyrics and the tight drumming and just how the song sounds like it’s out of control. Of course, I have to mention Rachel Nagy’s voice. When she calls for hip-shaking and starts naming dances, about 0:50, she just nails it. And the return to the “Shake it Baby” shouting by the end has that audience in my head in a frenzy. And they remain there for the rip-roaring Gardenias number “Laughing At You.” Its lyrics are mocking an ex who done her wrong, which is also the theme of the “F you to an ex” mid-tempo cool-down, “Can’t Miss Nothing.” It’s an old Ike & Tina Turner song with a groovy bass line.

The band picks up the pace on another of my favorites, the 5 Royales’ number, “Right Around the Corner.”

The “Yaki Taki” introduction will immediately call all sweaty dancers back to the floor in the Detroit Cobras show I see in my head through this record. The band is hot, the guitar lick behind “where my baby stays” is nifty, the drums are driving and Nagy’s voice takes us all for a ride, celebrating her baby’s proximity. There is a little guitar solo at about 1:05 that goes to show a solo can be cool and exciting even if it’s simple. By this point, the audience can feel the show’s about to end, so they are grateful for the relatively long song, clocking in at 2:27! The peppy “Won’t You Dance With Me,” by Billy Lee and The Rivieras, keeps the folks on the dance floor moving to the walking bass line, but there’s a sense of finality at the end. So when the quiet slow dance of Clyde McPhatter’s “Let’s Forget About the Past” ends with four soft bass notes, one expects the band to announce “Good night!” and leave the stage.

Which makes Otis Redding’s “Shout Bama Lama” the exhilarating encore of the record!

It’s such a fun song, and Nagy’s smoky yowl knocks it out of the park. “She’s bustin’ bricks now,” she calls out, part of a story about stealing chickens. But the story doesn’t matter – all that matters is that this band can play and entertain and make everything seem fun and exciting. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Whenever I listen to this record, I invariably start at the beginning and listen straight through. The individual songs are great, but together, in order, they take me to that perfect night out with a perfect band. The band might play covers, the band might play originals – it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the connection between the band and the listener, and this record connects with me!

Track Listing
“Hey Sailor”
“He Did It”
“Find Me A Home”
“Oh My Lover”
“Cry On”
“Stupidity”
“Bye Bye Baby”
“Boss Lady”
“Laughing At You”
“Can’t Miss Nothing”
“Right Around The Corner”
“Won’t You Dance With Me”
“Let’s Forget About The Past”
“Shout Bama Lama”

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75th Favorite: Astoria, by The Shys

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Astoria. The Shys
2006, Sire. Producer: Dave Cobb
Purchased: ca. 2007.

album shys

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Driving, poppy guitar rock by a band with a knack for melodies, sung by a singer with just the right amount of desperation and sneer in his voice. Sometimes the songs border on formulaic, but excellent performances save them.

WOULD BE HIGHER IF – More of the songs were as good as the very best ones on the record.

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I used to be pretty dang hip.backus

Pretty dang hip enough to write a sentence like “I used to be pretty dang hip,” immediately indicating that I probably wasn’t all that hip, as nobody since 1870s-era Colorado prospectors has said “pretty dang” anything in earnest (likewise the term “hip,” but substituting 1940s-era Bebop royalty for Old West claim-jumpers), yet leaves open the possibility that perhaps I was rather “hip” after all, bebopsince I am savvy enough to state it in such a preposterous way.

Having been a nerd my whole life, I’ve written a lot about the idea of “coolness” in this blog.

Having never been cool, I’ve been forever obsessed with the notion, much like sports announcers who’ve never played sports can seem to be over-the-top loony about dudes playing with balls.

However, although they’re often conflated, latest music“Hipness” is a different quality than “coolness.” Being cool is being cool. But staying “hip” is all about knowing what’s new and not missing what’s coming down the pike.

Being very hip is like being very good at that hot-for-a-moment video game, Guitar Hero, in that you are aware of what’s ahead,fonz and you’ve got it covered at exactly the right moment. When that hot new director/writer/musician is becoming all the rage, the hip folks out there were already familiar with them, and are already eying who’s on their tails. This is much different than being “cool.”

A “hip” person can be very uncool – for example, the music nerd who has rarely spoken to another human, but who’s just downloaded the latest tunes by Sauce Twinz and Silver Matter onto his phone in his parents’ basement. And a cool person can be quite un-hip – for example that popular girl in my high school in the 80s who sometimes wore a Barry Manilow t-shirt.

barryIn my twenties I tried to stay on top of the music scene and keep abreast of what new stuff was out there. I subscribed to Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, and later on Blender. I watched MTV 120 Minutes, and later, when MTV stopped showing videos altogether, MTV2. I frequented record stores and paid close attention to their “New Arrivals” shelves, and their chalkboards with funkily-calligraphed “Upcoming Release Dates” listed. I went topatchouli see concerts, and paid attention to the openers, and took the Xeroxed music ‘zines handed to me by shaggy, good-natured dirtbags while I waited in line and tried not to inhale their patchouli oil and BO.

I was Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” personified; billy idolI was on a bus, on a psychedelic trip, reading murder books …

As I moved through my thirties, my quest for hipness took on the subtle acridity of desperation. It was no longer about the music, but it was about me – and the inescapable, quickening pace of middle age. It became imperative that my musical tastes NOT recede into the realm of oldies. I hoped to will myself to remain “young” by frequently stripes hold hivesscouring away the inactivity-induced gunk in my brain’s music-processing gears with sonic blasts of new guitar rock. I introduced new music as often as possible. I kept those gears spinning on fresh blasts of White Stripes, The Hold Steady, The Hives, Franz Ferdinand …

I believed I was staying hip …

I maintained my machinery in this way into my forties housewife– perhaps not as diligently, but always with the intention of staying hip and warding off “Oldies.” Like a young, 60s
housewife in the swelling tide of the Women’s Liberation movement desperately trying to ward off feelings of personal discontent by fervently cleaning her house, I kept seeking out guitar-based rock to stay young. It was challenging work keeping those gears clean – work for which a father of active, free-time-sucking elementary school age kids is ill equipped – but I did my best.

But as I approach 50 I’ve come to realize this: the level of griminess of my mental musical gears plays no role whatsoever in my hipness. And in fact, I’m not even equipped to stay “hip” – musically, anyway. My music-appreciation machinery works perfectly well for guitar-based rock music, and it always will. gearsBut guitar-based rock music isn’t the kind of music that makes one “hip” in 2015. I can clean and polish and lubricate my gears all I want, but the fact of the matter is that they aren’t connected to the proper chains and pulleys to stay musically hip. In fact, the gears, chains and pulleys performing the tasks of popular music comprehension and appreciation were long ago replaced by software, fiber optics and WiFi. axel fThe transition started in earnest right around 1985, when “Axel F.” topped the charts. Even then it didn’t seem like much of an upgrade to me. My apparatus worked fine! Why change?

My machinery can still be used to comprehend and appreciate parts of some new non-guitar rock music. My 16-year-old son will at times say, “Dad, listen to this! I think you’ll like it!” kendrick tylerThen he’ll play me some hip hop song by Kendrick Lamar or Tyler the Creator or someone else, and I’ll say, honestly, “This sounds pretty cool!” and I’ll bop my head along to it for a while. Just like how old cordless home telephones used to sometimes pick up snippets of local radio stations, somehow my mind’s appreciation apparatus can decipher enough of the song to make some sense of it. But it is fleeting, and I quickly find myself looking for a melody to hum. And then it goes away.

loudMy dad, in the 70s and 80s, would every now and again hear one of his kids’ songs and ask, in a certain way that indicated he may begin whistling along to it at any moment, “Hey, who’s this playing?”

But the songs he noticed always had some connection to the music he understood, if not enjoyed. It may have been a Lynyrd Skynyrd honky-tonk or a mellow jazz throwback, but it was always something that his own apparatus could decipher. (He was also keenly debbie harryinterested in all things Blondie, but I suspect Debbie Harry may have triggered different apparatus within him than music appreciation.) However, let’s be clear: whistling along to Chuck Mangione in no way made my dad “hip.”

I am now 48 years old, the age my dad was when Jane’s Addiction released Nothing’s Shocking. I think he had as much ability to appreciate “The Mountain Song” as I do the latest by 31 Grammy.

He wasn’t hip, and neither am I.

The fact is, being a fan of guitar rock is simply band geeksno longer a method of staying hip. Rock music has become like jazz was when I was a kid. There were some folks who liked it back in the 70s and 80s, and some folks who were awesome playing it, some folks who still listened to it – even a few kids my age, mostly the band geeks who I associated with – but Miles, Coltrane, Thelonious, Dizzy … their most popular stuff had been made decades before and they weren’t going to be replaced. Everyone new was just rehashing their old stuff.

rock godsAnd really, that’s where we stand with rock music in 2015. Since the heyday of the late 60s and early 70s, everyone’s been rehashing the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, James Brown, Janis Joplin, The Ramones, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. Or they’ve been combining elements of those artists. Everything that’s new in rock music isn’t really “new” – at least not in a way that’s keeping me hip. And nothing is going to keep my favorites from becoming oldies, either.

There’s new stuff out there – as there always must be – and folks from newer generations than mine are making it, using instruments I don’t recognize as such, and assembling the apparatus to appreciate it. And it sounds better to them than guitar rock, just as guitar rock sounded better to me than The Dorsey Brothers.

Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!” we all used to say, long liveand I guess the music hasn’t really died. But my son told me recently, “Rock music is good because it’s the music that everybody likes.” This statement reveals that indeed the music hasn’t died, but the spirit has. Rock music was never supposed to be the music everybody likes. It was supposed to scare you. Oh well. Time marches on. I keep marching in place.

Luckily for me, while I was sitting around trying to will my music to remain relevant, there were artists out there who didn’t care what was popular or hip or making money. They just wanted to play their guitars loud and shout some melodies into a mike. And I found a great place to hear them sometime around 2006 – Satellite Radio.

As a longtime fan of Howard Stern, undergroundI rushed out and bought a Sirius receiver when he moved his show there. Howard and his gang of weirdoes remained funny, but just as good were all the channels of music available. One of the best channels for new (and old) music that is right in my wheelhouse is Little Steven’s Underground Garage, programmed by Bruce Springsteen’s Mobster-playing sidekick, Steven Van Zandt.

It features “Garage Rock,” which is a term that casts a wide musical net to encompass everything from 50s Rock and Roll, to old Stones and Beatles to unknown 70s proto-punk, to 80s throwback bands, and grunge and new guitar acts. It was on this channel that I first heard – while driving in my hip Saturn station wagon – a song that immediately knocked my socks off

The song was The Shys’ “Never Gonna Die, and was featured as one of the “Coolest Songs in the World This Week” on The Underground Garage, so it got played quite a bit. The song has everything I like in a guitar rock song. It opens with a guitar call like an alarm ringing, drums that kick in to support it, then the whole band plays the riff and a desperate-voiced, coolly straining singer shouts a salute to youth, young love, and having enough fun to be stupid about it. I heard this song a couple times on Sirius, then got on the Amazon machine and ordered a copy of the album, Astoria, immediately.
shys 2

I was hooked on the album from the start, particularly the song “Two Cent Facts,” my favorite on the record.

It’s got a lead guitar line throughout, behind the vocals, a feature that I almost always take to, and a pretty awesome guitar solo at 2:00. The drums drive it along, and it has a catchy, sing-along melody. The vocalist, Kyle Krone – also the main songwriter and guitarist in the band (with help on songwriting by keyboardist Alex Kweskin) – is one of those rock singers who infuses his take on a song with much emotion. kroneIt’s a style that makes me feel young and emotional myself. He also hesitates a little bit on a few lines, and all together, his style is slightly reminiscent of Roger Daltry’s voice in “My Generation.”

As shown in both “Never Gonna Die” and “Two Cent Facts,” the band has a serious knack for catchiness. Krone knows what he’s doing as a rock songwriter. On “Call In the Cavalry,” he turns a simple little riff into the basis for a pub rock shouter.

It’s a simple song, with snotty brit-punk vocals Krone’s raspy voice always sounds good to me, especially singing these teenage fun-seeker songs, just a tad out of control, shys 1perhaps, but it seems to always suit the song. The band plays loud guitar pop songs that are fun to sing along to. It’s this way throughout Astoria – seemingly one fun rock song after another. However, songs like “Call In the Cavalry,” and the rocker “Having it Large,” also serve to demonstrate the inherent problem in a songwriter who can so easily deliver catchy hooks: the songs can sound a little like a beer commercial. I could easily hear a voice over either song …

beer party

“The nighttime is calling you. Are you ready to answer? New from Budweiser! Your favorite cocktail flavors in a light beer!! Apple-tini! Cosmopolitian! Sex-on-the-Beach! Each in a satisfying light beer! It’s new BUD LIGHT BARF!”

There’s a fine line between a great, catchy song and a beer jingle. To me, Astoria stays on the great-fun-song side of that line. This album is in some ways the flip side to Album #76, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. shys 3My appreciation for that album was all about the emotional and spiritual connection I feel for it, a connection that at times I’m just not in the frame of mind to indulge. I appreciate Astoria for its raucous fun and mindless joy, which is also something for which I have to be in the mood.

But not all the songs are mindless. Astoria features an honest-to-goodness “protest song,” a rally-the-people, Spirit-of-1969 call to action, called “The Resistance.”

It’s got a cool little backward guitar section in there, that as a Beatles fan I greatly appreciate. I also like the subtle reference to The Beatles’ own protest song, “Revolution,” in the lyrics “Count me out, count me in.” The song’s guitar riff is very cool, and the whole song has a rock and roll spirit that I really appreciate. But is it a formulaic “protest song?” In a way, you can almost hear the boys at rehearsal saying, “Hey! Let’s write a protest song!” Maybe it is out of a can, but I think the band does it really well and I love the result.

They also move away from the pub rock thing in the bluesy, classic rock-sounding “Waiting on the Sun.”

There’s lots of great little lead guitar doodles behind the vocals. krone 2The guitar has that Gibson sound, a rock and roll sound that always connects with me. Once again, Krone’s voice carries the song. He puts his all into it, singing lyrics that offer the Morning After response to all those previous Happy Party songs. He’s a talented guy who’s released a couple solo albums, and at least one pretty great solo Summer Pop Song.

On Astoria, he also composed the multi-part punk/pop epic “Open Up the Sky,” which closes the album. This song features a slow section, a fast section, some gibberish sounds reminiscent of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” and an extended guitar solo (about 4:30 to the end) by Krone to close out the song.

But I like his punk/pop rockers the best. The album title track is a particularly good one.

I’m a sucker for a song with a bouncy bass line. And when a little bit of organ is thrown over the top, I’m typically going to stick around to hear more. It’s all put together well here, and Krone uses his desperation voice, warning a girl that “the spotlight is fucking contagious,” and reminding her that she’s his “Astoria.” The neighborhood in Queens? Maybe. The US’s early 19th century Pacific Coast colony attempt in northern Oregon, which failed miserably? Possible, I guess. shys silhouette

But what does it all mean? I don’t know. The great thing about rock and roll is that it doesn’t have to make sense. With a good rock song, you can sing along and dance and shake and that’s enough. If you have the correct apparatus in your head, it will always sound good, even when you’re so old you shake and dance without meaning to. The music will take you right back to what made you feel so good in the first place. I’ve realized now that finding the music that keeps you young is NOT accomplished by staying hip and updating your apparatus. The music that keeps you young is the music that turns the gears you’ve had all along.

TRACK LISTING
Never Gonna Die
Call In the Cavalry
Waiting On the Sun
Astoria
Having It Large
The Resistance
Radio Rebellion
Two Cent Facts
Alive Transmission
Madly In Action
Open Up the Sky

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