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6th Favorite Album: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements

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Pleased to Meet Me. The Replacements.
1987, Sire Records. Producer: Jim Dickinson.
Purchased CD, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Pleased to Meet Me, by The Replacements, is a showcase for the songwriting genius of leader Paul Westerberg. From rip-roaring rockers to jazzy torch songs, the album covers a lot of territory. But the star of the show is Westerberg’s songs and their touching, evocative, subtle lyrics. The excellent rhythm section of bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars provide the muscle, and Westerberg’s guitar almost matches lost ‘Mat Bob’s past heroics.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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You can’t believe everything you read. A big part of growing into adulthood is learning to understand what is, and is not, likely true, and what gradations exist in between. Right now I’ve got kids aged 20 and 15 years old. I’ve watched them come of age in a time where, for example, there is not just journalistic slant, but there are networks dedicated to telling lies to people and presenting it as truth, parroting elected officials who seem to make up stories daily. And they’re not just getting information from networks or traditional media. Nowadays there are a bunch of social media platforms that give any boob with a cellphone a place to present any old story as fact.

Not to sound too grandpa-Simpson about it, but in my day, if you wanted flat out, unprocessed lies, you didn’t (always) turn to the President. If you wanted the best in fiction-as-non-fiction, your best source was always: The Weekly World News.

Back in the 80s, The Weekly World News was what was called a “checkout tabloid,” a magazine printed on newspaper that sat among other such publications, like National Enquirer, Star and Sun, near the checkout lines in supermarkets. However, whereas those others often ran stories that largely dealt with celebrities, and that had a whiff of possible truth, Weekly World News focused on, well, lies. My friend Dan and I used to enjoy reading the stories and laughing our asses off. We had friends who claimed to believe the stories – “They couldn’t print it if it isn’t true!” one classmate angrily scolded us – but nobody really did.

These stories were easy to identify as false. However, I prided myself on also being able to sniff out falsehoods in any publications, particularly music publications. For me as a high schooler, any publication that could dismiss the genius of Rush, such as Rolling Stone regularly did, could not be trusted. So when that magazine gushed about the genius of the band The Replacements, I scoffed. Rolling Stone loved The Replacements, and that was evidence enough for me that the band sucked.

The band did not suck. I’ve written about them twice now, and to recap: I joined a band, and the guitarist loved The Replacements, and pretty soon I did, too. As I was becoming a fan, the band was breaking up, and just about the time I was buying all of their CDs, they were releasing their final one, All Shook Down. As a new fan, and music-crit skeptic, I didn’t fall for the assessments of that record, which ranged from “meh” to “eh” to “ok, I guess.”

I thought (and still think) that All Shook Down is a great record! The song “Nobody” is one of my all-time favorites, a clever story of a guy who’s sure his ex is still holding a candle for him – just as he clearly is for her. “Attitude” is a fun ditty reflecting on main ‘Mat Paul Westerberg’s main problem in his life. “Merry Go Round” and “When It Began” were the supposed hits, “My Little Problem” was the rockin’ duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano.

Bob Stinson

But – as much as I loved the record, when I began listening to the band’s earlier output I understood the critics’ tepid assessment. All Shook Down is great, but those earlier records were brilliant. And Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite of those. Fans who were onboard the ‘Mats bus from the beginning often dismiss this album because original guitarist, Bob Stinson, brother to bassist Tommy, had left the band before it was recorded. I understand their point of view, but as someone who came to the band late, without the baggage of Bob in my own perception of the band, with a classic rock background and a latecomer to punk, Pleased to Meet Me is my favorite Replacements record.

I remember the first time I heard any part of the record. Dr. Dave and I have a cover band, JB and the So-Called Cells, and in 1991 we played at a bar in Hershey, PA, called Zachary’s. The band we opened for, Blue Yonder, played a song of theirs that was okay, but that had a super-catchy refrain: “I’m in love/What’s that song?/I’m in love/With that song.” I told a friend it was a good song; he told me, “They ripped off that chorus from The Replacements.”

The song they ripped off (or honored, you might say) is the wonderful “Alex Chilton,” still one of my favorite songs ever.

It opens with a metallic guitar fanfare from Westerberg, and stellar bass and drums from Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars, respectively. The rhythm section keeps this song teetering on the brink of collapse the whole way through. The lyrics are a tribute to Alex Chilton, who as a teenager hit #1 on the charts as a singer on The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Westerberg salutes Chilton for his work in the power pop outfit Big Star (“I never travel far/ Without a little Big Star”), who wrote and recorded some of the best guitar pop ever, and are largely forgotten by casual music fans. I love Stinson’s bass behind the chorus, and in the pre-chorus, leading up to Westerberg’s guitar solo at 1:50, and Mars’s habit of adding an extra snare hit some places, like at about 2:17. But what makes the song brilliant is the chorus: “I’m in love … with that song.” It’s perfection.

One of the great things about The Replacements is their ability to meld rip-roaring, punky music to meaningful lyrics that evoke real feelings. The band was famously dysfunctional, and sabotaged every break they ever got. And Westerberg wrote about it in songs like “I Don’t Know,” in which backing vocals by Stinson and Mars offer the band’s reaction to all the hype surrounding the band at the time.

“One foot in the door/ the other one in the gutter,” Westerberg sings. “The sweet smell you adore/ I think I’d rather smother.” Clearly the lyrics show mixed feelings about success. The song opens with weird laughter and goes right into a sax-driven rave-up. It’s a bit restrained from some of their earlier tracks, and the inclusion of horns (I’m sure) pissed off a lot of longtime fans. But the band addressed those fans’ concerns on the opening track, “I.O.U.,” in which Paul states: “I.O.U. nothing.” They really didn’t give a fuck about expectations. “I.O.U.” is another rave-up, this one showcasing Westerberg’s lead guitar work. He spent his teenage years trying to be the next Guitar Hero, until he decided he’d rather write songs, so he has some chops. Longtime fans would likely complain he should’ve kept Bob in the band for his guitar skills, but as Paul states in the song: “You’re all wrong and I’m right.”

Another song about being in The Replacements is the soft, jazzy “Nightclub Jitters,” a torch song about the impersonal nature of playing gig after gig. Tommy Stinson’s upright bass stands out on this track, which also features Westerberg on piano and a sultry sax solo. It seems like a departure for the band, but they’d been putting surprises on punk albums since “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” on Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg’s lyrics aren’t always self-obsessed messages from the band. In the song “The Ledge,” he takes on the topic of teen suicide, which was too hot of a topic in 1987 and got this video banned from MTV.

Stinson’s pumping bass and Mars’s driving beat propel the song headlong beneath a Peter Gunn-style guitar riff. I like the dual guitars on the song, and the fact that the band throws in a couple three/four measures in the chorus. Westerberg again shows off his guitar soloing ability, including an outro solo after the sound of someone leaping. Vocally, Westerberg always carries a tune as if he’s going to drop it, and while it sounds good here, I like it best when it’s applied to his more personal tracks. For example, on the mid-tempo gem “Never Mind.”

The title, and the attitude it signals, would end up being the rallying cry (or whimper) for Generation X, and it expresses the what’s-it-matter-anyway? feeling behind many of Westerberg’s lyrics. In this case, he can’t find the words to apologize, so decides to move on. (I’ve read this song is about his decision to fire Bob from the band.) Westerberg has an Elvis-Costello-esque gift for a clever turn of phrase, in this case “your guess is (more or less) as bad as mine.” The music is good, but this is one in which the melody and lyrics carry the load.

Westerberg’s lyrics also often rely on one catchy phrase, repeated for maximum effect. In the case of “Valentine,” it’s “If you were a pill/ I’d take a handful at my will/ and I’d knock you back with something sweet and strong.”

I like that after the introduction, Mars’s drums (0:22) seem to speed up the song slightly, providing some punk energy to this now-she’s-gone love song. It’s catchy as hell. The guitar work is pretty cool, if a bit buried in the mix, and Paul pulls off some (dare I say?) Bob-esque riffs (2:45) throughout. Westerberg’s voice is brilliant as ever, particularly on the last, desperate verse (2:20), where he moves the melody to a higher pitch. The song doesn’t match the old punk fury from the band’s early days, but they do include a couple rockers on Pleased to Meet Me. “Shooting Dirty Pool” is a bit like a Rolling Stones deep cut. It also features a 13 year-old Luther Dickinson on guitar. “Red Red Wine” is NOT the UB40 song.

One of the things I love best about the ‘Mats is that every album has at least one Paul solo piece (basically) that is earnest and moving and demonstrates that there’s a deep well beneath all the crazy antics. On Hootenanny, it’s “Within Your Reach.” On Let It Be, it’s “Androgynous.” On Tim, it’s “Here Comes a Regular.” On Pleased to Meet Me, it’s “Skyway.”

It’s a simple acoustic guitar song about a boy watching a girl in the skyway of Minneapolis, the city’s elevated walkway system. But there’s so much more than that. He lacks self-confidence, wearing his “stupid hat and gloves,” waiting for a ride out in the cold, while she walks indoors with the office-job types. He dreams of meeting her, but when she finally ventures onto the street, it’s the same day he’s finally gotten up the nerve to go inside, and so they miss each other. But one gets the sense the diffident protagonist believes it’s his only chance, and he’s missed it. It’s a sweet song, and Westerberg’s delivery is perfect, as is the spare arrangement. It’s another favorite of mine.

Still another favorite song of mine (I know there are several, but that’s why the record is up here at #6!) is the celebratory “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

A simple 6-note riff opens the song, and it’s the foundation for all that follows. It’s another lyrical gem, describing a guy on the road who CAN’T (hardly) WAIT to get home to see his loved one. The imagery is fantastic, from being too drunk to write, to riding in a filthy band van to my favorite: “lights that flash in the evening/ through a crack in the drapes,” gorgeously describing someone waiting at home for him to arrive. There’s a horn section throughout that many fans dislike, and even some orchestral instruments, and I think it all adds to the song’s celebratory vibe.

So listen, you can’t believe everything you read. You can’t even believe this write-up. Go listen to The Replacements and decide for yourself. There’s lots to choose from, from the hardcore punk of Stink to the classic line-up double-live For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986. And just as I came to realize that the music critics were right all along, you might come to realize that Pleased to Meet Me is a tremendous record.

TRACK LISTING:
“I.O.U.”
“Alex Chilton”
“I Don’t Know”
“Nightclub Jitters”
“The Ledge”
“Never Mind”
“Valentine”
“Shooting Dirty Pool”
“Red Red Wine”
“Skyway”
“Can’t Hardly Wait”

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

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

prince album

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

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sue prince

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


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


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

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

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

My distant relative reminisces about his youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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72nd Favorite: Let It Be, by The Replacements

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

letitbe album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Favorite Thing” is a raucous ode …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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