In the orthodox rock ‘n’ roll canon spread in the late 70s and early 80s by the curia of rock critics – the likes of Dave Marsh, Griel Marcus, Robert Christgau and the rest of Rolling Stone’s round-table of critics – the nadir of popular music was the six-year stretch between Elvis departing for the army, and the Beatles landing in New York.

The reason – this according to a claque of people who build careers “criticizing” an art form that was immune to criticism – was that for those six years, control of the pop music industry reverted back to what had it had been before the rise of Sun records and “black” radio; groups of full-time, professional “song pluggers” cranking out music by the bushel basket in the Mad Men-era equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, in places like the legendary Brill Building, where is songwriters cranked out songs in bulk lots, matched them up with casting-agency generic singers, who recorded the songs with groups of anonymous studio musicians with all of the ceremony of running groceries past the scanner, applying mass production tactics not much different than Eli Whitney or Henry Ford had brought to their products.

According to this mythology, on the other hand, 1954-58, and again after 1964, music was the production of legions of plucky songwriter-performers, during Elvis’ heyday, and again from the Beatles through roughly Woodstock.

According to their orthodoxy, music in the early 70s started slipping, with the creative process falling into the hands of  “corporations ” , From which it was saved first by the punks, then by the “new wave” and then…

… well, it doesn’t matter. History has gone on. The curia has obsolesced itself; who on earth reads Rolling Stone anymore, much less remembers, much less pays attention, to Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau or Dave Marsh?

Of course, both impressions were an illusion; a few songwriters, whether working in a song mill in Manhattan or in a row house in Liverpool, have always hoarded a disproportionate share of talent and sales.  And plucky independents have always existed and upset the machine on occasion.

I list all of that background by way of saying something that would otherwise sound like the ravings of a curmudgeon; for all of the “critics” caterwauling about music before ’54, from ’54-’58, or during the early ’70s, the notion that every generation of parents has held – that all music sounds the same – has never been more true.

It’s not just a curmudgeonly illusion; it does largely sound the same, because most of what passes for popular music today is written and produced by, literally, the same five people.

The Summer Of 1985

Years ago, I was working in an “oldies” station.  Still being in the middle of a radio career, and trying to keep my options open (I’d always wanted to do news and talk, and was chafing with life as a disc jockey – but “when in Rome…”, as they say), I asked the station’s program director what it was that made a song an “oldie”.

He replied that music directors operated on two key bits of psychology:

  • People are intensely emotionally attached to music that connected with them during puberty; music mixes with raging hormones to create a powerful, almost chemical bond.
  • People are also mentally and emotionally attached to the music that was in their lives when they were in their late teens and early twenties – but for slightly different reasons.  It was the music that was current, and on their minds, and affecting their emotions, about the time their brains were finally, belatedly getting formed and becoming adult.

I was sitting in a Culver’s the other day.  They were playing Sirius FM’s “Original MTV Veejay” station – the station where Martha Quinn and the rest of the original MTV VJs (no, I can’t remember anyone but Martha Quinn) voicetrack the songs that were in vogue from 1981-86ish.

And for some reason, they played a 4-5 song sweep of nothing but music that was on the radio and MTV when I moved to the Twin Cities, 30 years ago next month.

And, just like my old program director said, it was incredibly evocative.  I remembered how it felt driving across the prairie for the last time as a North Dakota resident, listening to Rain on the Scarecrow.  Driving down 494 and turning onto the Southtown Strip for the first time as “Money for Nothing” played on the radio.  My first rush hour on 494 at Cedar, racing to my first job interview in the Cities to the tune of “Shout”, in WLOL.  Watching MTV after a long day of cold calling and seeing “Take On Me” for the first time.

And I started writing this post on my phone.

(Warning:  immense number of embedded videos below the jump.  You’ve been warned).

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The Street’s Alive, Secret Debts Are Paid

Born to Run  – for my money, one of the ten greatest albums in the history of American rock and roll, and of that list, one of my 2-3 favorites – turns thirty years old today.

No, wait – 1975?  That’s forty years go.


I’m going to re-run a post I first did on the album’s thirtieth anniversary.  Which is, itself, kind of a chronological whack in the head; I’ve been blogging long enough to cover two decennials of this album.

But it was one of my favorites when I first wrote it, and I’m glad to put it out there again.

Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run thirty years ago today.

Thirty years. The album is twice as old as I was when I first heard it.



I hear the album today, and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. If Rock and Roll is a matter of crystalline moments that still cut and shine through the tarnish of the years and the background noise of everyday life, Born To Run is the mother of all diamonds.

I remember being a seventies-addled junior high kid, watching the guy at Mother’s Records in Jamestown – the one across from the high school – drop the needle on the first copy of Born To Run I ever saw, on the one hand thinking “no way it’s better thanBoston“, on the other hand looking at the sleeve – a 26 year old Bruce leaning on a 33 year old Clarence (with a Fender Freaking Telecaster Squire, in the middle of the heyday of the Gibson Les Paul, no less!), presaging the joy and tension and just plain ENERGY in the album, and thinking “Wow. That’s rock and roll”.

Clarence Clemons, Bruce, and Miami Steve, at Bruce’s UK debut in support of Born to Run, at the Hammersmith in London.

And then – Thunder Road:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch. As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again

A girl! Dancing on the porch! Sign me up!

Outtake from the Born to Run cover photo session.

All prelude of course, to the burst of energy to come that washed over me, that shot a chill up my spine:

With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
This two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks…

Bruce has done better albums (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love), he’s had records that sold more albums (Born In The USA) – but no album, before or since, has ever had moments like Born To Run.

It breaks my heart just a little that two of the three guys in this 1975 pic – organist Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons – are gone now.

Moments – it’s a prosaic word, but in the world of Mitch, as applied to Rock and Roll, it has a very specific meaning that, for purposes of explanation, I should make clear; a “moment” is something, some tiny snippet of a song, that sends a chill up your spine, that rattles you to the core of your being. They can be huge and dramatic (Roger Daltrey’s scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”), or light and subtle (Susannah Hoffs’ cooing “to a perfect world” at the end of “Dover Beach”, from the first Bangles album); they can be part of a great song (the final “to bring the victory Jesus won…” in U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, the murderous guitar hooks in Big Country’s “Where The Rose Is Sown”, the bridge in Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’”), a mediocre one (the final coda in the Alarm’s “Blaze of Glory”, the bridges in the Babies’ “Isn’t It Time”), even a crappy one (Neil Schon’s entrance in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”), it can beat you over the head (the beginning of Barry Goudreau’s blazing final solo in Boston’s “Long Time”), it can seduce you (the mournful, whispered chorus of Richard Thompson’s “Jenny”, Aimee Mann’s transclucent last line of the last verse of Til Tuesday’s “Coming Up Close”). You get the picture.

Moments are ephemeral, unpredictable. Most artists never have one (Laura Brannigan and Dee Snider searched their whole careers in vain); most albums never send a single chill up a lonely spine. A single such moment can redeem an otherwise mediocre career; the world could forget the Monkees, Roxette, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cars and Abba tomorrow, but I’d love them for a grand total of maybe fifteen seconds worth of moments among them (brief snippets of “I’m A Believer”, “It’s All Over Now”, “These Are Days”, “Bye Bye Love” and “SOS”, two-second flares of pop brilliance that are all I need). A talent for such moments – the ability to create more than one or two on a couple of albums – is a rare thing indeed, almost mythical. Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Chuck D, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Westerberg, Chrissy Hynde (until about 1985), Bono/The Edge, Stuart Adamson, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs, Aimee Mann – it’s a small, select list.

The Born to Run era E Street Band; Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Bruce, Roy Bittan, Danny Federici, Gary Tallent.

And in no album are there more such moments jammed so tightly together, moments enough to define the careers of a dozen other artists, moments that, thirty years later, still thrill and chill and drag you out into onto the Jersey Turnpike of the mind in Dad’s jalopy. None. Ever:

  • Thunder Road – “…roll down the window”, “it’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling outta here to win…”
  • Tenth Avenue Freezeout – “While Scooter and the big man bust this city in half!”
  • Night – Almost too many to count – the frenetic opening, the raw harmonies of the first verse, the bridge (“Hell, all night, they’re busting you up on the outside…”)
  • Backstreets – The crescendo when the entire band joins, the exit from the bridge (“…but I hated him, and I hated you when you want away – whoooooah”, raw with aching and longing and unrequited pain)
  • The title cut – Again, too many to catalog; “Boom” Carter’s half-bar drum intro, “Beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones…”, the moment when Bruce counts off the beat to the last verse…
  • She’s The One – The band stomping into the Bo Diddley beat from the intro, heavy enough to crush rocks but deft enough to dance to – in fact, impossible not to dance to.
  • Meeting Across The River – All the sly little moments that tell us the song is about a couple of desperate losers looking for the big break; “Here, stuff this in your pocket, it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend…”
  • Jungleland – Too many to list; the first “Down…in…Jun…gle…Laaaaand”, the glorious guitar solo, “…in the parking lots the visionaries dress in the latest rage…, and of course, the song’s cornerstone “…and the poets down here write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be…”

Born To Run is the encyclopedia of rock and roll – one moment at a time.

And thirty years later, it still crackles like static from the speakers, feeling barely controlled, throbbing with potential energy (“Backstreets’” ominous buildup) and thundering with explosive release (“Night”), careening from smokey barroom to dragstrip to rumble to backseat like one of those lost weekend evenings from your teens – or the teenage years you imagined other people having – packed into a sleeve.

Born to Run is one of those rare records that feels as good today as the day it was released; it hasn’t aged or dated itself one iota; one of those bits of art that will long outlive its creator.

One moment at a time.

My writing has changed a bit in the past ten years.  So has Bruce’s.

But Born to Run has stuck with me, through my own 35 or so years of over-the-top fandom, like few other albums ever.

Politics?  Who cares.  I mean, yes – between 1975 and 1987 Bruce wrote a cavalcade of songs that couldn’t resonate with conservatives more if he had campaigned for Steve Forbes in 2000 – but again, some things are just more important than politics.

Anyway.  I’m outta here for the rest of the day, hanging out with the Duke Street Kings.

Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay

It was sixty years ago today – when Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets officially reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  This is generally regarded as the beginning of the “Rock and Roll Era”.

Mark Steyn wrote about the song – and its sixteen-month path from recording to the top of the charts, and music history – last year.

Read Steyn, of course; it’s worth it.

The parlor game for me, of course, is noting what parts of pop music history are before and after the half-way mark of Rock and Roll history.

Music that was released closer to Rock around the Clock than to the present day?

  • All Rolling Stones albums up through Undercover.
  • All of Prince’s albums before Sign O The Times
  • Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms
  • Tears for Fears Songs From The Big Chair
  • Every Springsteen album up through Born in the USA  – and Live ’75-’85 is coming up pretty soon, here.
  • Every Bob Dylan album you probably remember
  • All Tom Petty albums up through Southern Accents 

And the 1/3 point?   July 9, 1975?  Anything before then is half as far from the beginning of the era as from today.

  • Who’s Next
  • The entire Beatles’ catalog
  • Born to Run
  • Pretty much the entire Stax/Volt catalog
  • Every song Bachmann Turner Overdrive ever put on the Top 40
  • The first three Rush albums
  • The entire singer/songwriter fad

And the 1/4 point?  Music that is three times as far from today than from the beginning of the era, before July 9, 1970?

  • Tommy
  • Everything “Sixties”: Hendrix, the Doors, the entire hippie thing.

Anyway – read Steyn.

I’ve Seen All Good Bassists

Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.

Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.

Much Noise, Signifying…:  Speaking for me?  Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.

As to the former, the musical talent?  It was always the band’s long suit.  I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:

Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984.   It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.

But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).

But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.

Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?

Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music.   Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:

It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song.  In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.

But it wasn’t the last.

So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan?  Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:

The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin.  They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.

And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.

The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do.  Far and away.  Assassinate me?  Bring it.

No Respect: I  wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes.  The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:

In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”

Of course, the Hall of Fame – for whatever it’s worth, which is really not much – is dominated by critics.  And critics have always savaged the band, except for their brief flirtation with New Wave during the Rabin years.  Dave Marsh wrote in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide:

Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …

Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide.  And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.

At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…

…are the rock critics.

RIP Chris Squire,

Doakes Sunday: Sounds And Fury, Signifying Music

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

I’m working my way through two inches of abstract of title to a parcel of real estate, preparing to write an Attorney’s Opinion on Title, while listening to “Truckin” by the Grateful Dead.  Enjoying my job today, the music is a big part of it.

What do other SITD readers listen to?

Joe Doakes

The last ten songs on my rotation:

  1. “Take It Inside”, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
  2. “It’s All I Can Do”, Cars
  3. “Lonely Road of Faith”, Kid Rock
  4. “It’s Not Over”, Allison Krause w/Mark Chesnutt
  5. “No Mercy”, Nils Lofgren
  6. “The Closer”, Marah
  7. “Mama Said”, Metallica
  8. “Beautiful Girl”, INXS
  9. “Sign O The Times”, Prince
  10. “The Rising of the Moon”, The Clancy Brothers


Rage For The Machine

Ben Beaumont-Thomas of the Guardian on the Roland TR808 drum machine, which turns 35 this year:

It struck a chord as an instrument that truly reflected the 80s. “Home computers were coming on the scene, and it just fitted in with that,” says Joe Mansfield, a drum machine collector who wrote this year’s pictorial history Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. “It sounded futuristic, what you thought a computer would sound like if it could play the drums.” It began to seep into the mainstream, as the backbeat to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, and across the Atlantic to the UK into, firstly, the industrial and post-punk scenes, where Graham Massey of Manchester acid house act 808 State first encountered it.

 “It had that industrial heritage, but had that soul heritage,” he says. “The Roland gear began to be a kind of Esperanto in music. The whole world began to be less separated through this technology, and there was a classiness to it – you could transcend your provincial music with this equipment.” Massey made hip-hop with the 808, and then, because he couldn’t afford anything else, used it for house too, making “dense, jungle-like” tracks that also deployed the 909. “On the 909 the kick was a bit more in your chest, a bit more of an aggressive drum machine. The 808 almost seems feminine next to it … the cowbell on the 808, that’s the thing that says mid-80s R&B to me – SOS Band, big dancefloor anthems, which were a massive thing in the north-west of England. It wasn’t just nerdy DJ culture, it was a ‘ladies’ night’ kind of music.”

It was a commercial flop – but the TR808 has influenced music of the 1980s through 2010s the same way the Fender Stratocaster influenced the fifties through the seventies.

No, really; you’ve heard it, whether you know it or not:

When I bought my first multitrack recorder (a Fostex four-track cassette machine), I got the next generation – smaller and cheaper, not more authentic-sounding.  And while the sound quality of digital sampling drum simulators, software and hardware, has improved, they haven’t done much to improve the control a producer has over the way his “drummer” plays.  Trying to make drum “loops” on a computer just isn’t the same.

No Waves

In my heart, I’m still a rock and roll musician.  The urge to start another band – if only for the fun of it – someday still lurks deep in my heart.

But it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to make the time.  The last time I played a gig in public was July of 1996.  The last time I actually had a band was the winter of 2001 – we never played out.  And the last time I actually saw a band live in a bar was probably sometime in the fall of 2002.

So when I was walking up Wabasha in downtown Saint Paul back around the end of March, by the Amsterdam Bar, and saw a poster for “Katrina, formerly of The Waves” doing a show on April 4, the idea of actually seeing it flashed briefly, then went out.

And then I stopped, and turned around, and looked at the poster.

And thought “why not?”

And so when I got home, I got on Ticketfly, and ordered a ticket.  And thought; “how do I do club concerts anymore?

Going Down To Uppertown To Do Nothing:  We’ve talked about Katrina and the Waves; their past as a “one hit wonder” that shouldn’t have been here in the US, combined with a slew of really excellent pop music that had a bunch of hits in Canada and Europe.

Of course, the Waves broke up in 1999, after a brief comeback in 1997 in the UK; their lead-singer, the iron-lunged Katrina Leskanich, has had a spotty solo career since then.

So I figured why not?

Red Wine And Jack Daniels:  I’d never been to the Amsterdam before (at least not since it was “Pop”, back around 2010-ish).  The front of the house – the bar and restaurant – is “bohemian” with an uptown sheen.   The back of the joint – the “Hall” – affects “rock and roll club”, all black and worn and rough-hewn, without the whole “sticking to the seats” and “getting pounded by bouncers” experience that the real thing always gave you back in your twenties.

I got there late; I missed the first act, and caught the last two songs of the mid-card act, “The Flaming Ohs”, a band I first saw during Ronald Reagan’s first term, and didn’t like much during the second (and only two of whose original members are still alive).

I was a little gratified to notice that on this, my first venture back to a club in 12 years, I was actually right around median age; lots of forty and fiftysomething fans turned out for this, the band’s first stop in the Twin Cities since Mikhail Gorbachev was in power.

Walking On Stage Light: The surest sign everyone involved had grown up?  The band got onstage promptly at the advertised time, 9:50:

I started taking a selfie at 9:50; as i was trying to get the light right, Katrina walked on stage. Yep, that’s her.

And they were on!

That’s them; Katrina, along with bassist Sean Koos, drummer Kevin Tooley, and guitar player Jimi K Bones.

The setlist was concise, and actually a pretty decent mix of crowd faves from the eighties and Katrina’s new stuff (or, for all I know, stuff from after 1988; let’s be honest, I didn’t pay that much more attention to them than anyone else…):

  • Rock and Roll Girl
  • Red Wine And Whiskey – it’s always been my favorite Waves song
  • Going Down to Liverpool – including a nice shout-out to the Bangles, whose cover of this song opened the door for the Waves making it in the US
  • That’s The Way – their very underrated single from their 1986 followup album, a song that should have been a big hit.
  • Sun Coming Upper – the single off of her new album.
  • Texas Cloud – another new one, with sounds like it was written on a long Stevie Ray Vaughan jag
  • Show Me Every Scar – at least I think that was the title; I wasn’t familiar with it.
  • Where The Roses Grow – another new one, but a good one.
  • Do You Want Crying – another great one from the eighties
  • If You Can – again, guessing at the title, but it was a good tune…
  • Don’t Want No Washed Up Man – a waved-up cover of an Etta James song
  • Walking On…wait for it… Sunshine.

Katrina, during some between-song patter.  Turns out she’s working on a book on diners – and she’d never heard of Mickey’s Diner.  Some had dragged her over there after she’d gotten into town from Milwaukee earlier in the day Saturday.  She approved.

Cry To Me:  Katrina is not Katrina and the Waves.  That’s neither and both bad and good.

Comparing the material from her post-Waves albums, it’s easy to see how the
Waves-era material benefited from being a team effort (“Walking on Sunshine” was written by Waves guitarist Kim Rew; “Do You Want Crying” by bassist Vince De La Cruz).  A team effort that catches a stray bit of fire, like the Rew/De La Cruz/Leskanich efforts did for couple of glorious years in the eighties, is a rare and largely very focused thing.

The newer material is all over the map; “Texas Cloud” sounds like one of the ZZ Top songs that Leskanich performed in cover bands before the Waves made it big; “Sun’s Coming Upper” was moody and introspective and a big swerve from the stuff that put the band on the map.

I went there expecting a musical roller coaster ride; most gigs from musicians that have been and out of the public eye for a generation are.  The muse is a fickle critter.

The band – journeyman session drummer Kevin Tooley,  guitarist Jimi K Bones (of one of later-era versions of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, as well as Kix),  and bass player Sean Koos (another former Blackheart, among many other bands) was actually a lot tighter than I’d ever seen the Waves;  they took what could have come across as a Holiday Inn lounge nostalgia act and made it crackle with energy.

Bones takes a solo.

And that was by no means a given; the show at the Amsterdam was the final stop on a fifteen-gig tour that started Saint Patrick’s Day in New York.  And for bands that aren’t currently lighting up the Top Forty, that means road travel, not flying, for the most part.

Second sign that everyone had grown up in the past thirty years?  The show was over not too terribly long after 11, and most of the crowd hit the doors; there was no chanting for an encore.

Which meant it was a nice, relaxed little group that greeted Leskanich and the rest of the band when they came out into the hall about half an hour later.  I got a chance to talk rock and roll history with Bones, and tell Leskanich how much I’d enjoyed her music.  Nothing major, just fun.

Sort of like the show as a whole.

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Open Letter To Thom Yorke

To:  Thom Yorke; Leader, Radiohead
From: Mhitch Berge, uppity music buff
Re: Marketing Idea

Mr. Yorke,

While I’ve never been a big fan of Radiohead’s music, I’ve always enjoyed your marketing innovations.

You were the first major artist to put all your music online.  You were the first to try a “pay us what you want” pricing model.

Of course, other models have come and gone.  But I’m going to propose something to vault you ahead of everyone else.

Post your master recordings online.

Make the Logic or ProTools masters (or get really radical and export them to GarageBand and Audacity) available for anyone to download, remix, re-record, add their own vocals, or whatever.  Become the first open-source superstars.

Have your people call my people.

That is all.

Perfect Storm Of Awful

Over the weekend on the Northern Alliance, King Banaian, Ed Morrissey and I got together for the long-threatened “Worst Music of the Seventies” episode.

We picked some true horrors between us; “Last Song” by Edward Bear, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” by Lobo, “Convoy” by CW McCall, and on and on.

But the general consensus was, the worst of the lot was “I’ve Never Been To Me” by Charlene, one of Ed’s nominations.

If you’re of a certain age, or were accidentally exposed by other means, you’ve heard the song.  But just in case you haven’t heard it, I’ll put it right here for you.

WARNING:  You can’t un-hear this song

I remembered the song all too well – although not as well as I thought I did, which only means that the human psyche is designed to protect itself.  It came out in 1977, not 1979, as I thought I remembered. But I wasn’t completely off; Mary McGregor, most famous for her 1978 hit “Torn Between Two Lovers) released, heaven help us, a cover of the song in ’79, which was the one I remember playing at my first radio job.

But as Ed, King and I played some of the worst music of all time, I took my mind off the pain by looking up factoids about the various songs.  And I learned some amazing stuff; careers started, lost and restarted; major names in the industry slumming between major breaks, or prostituting themselves to find their first major break.

And the story behind this wretched, wretched song was far from an exception.  It involves the classic story; a girl, a songwriter, a producer, and a douchebag disk jockey.

The Girl:  Charlene (born Charlene D’Angelo, although her first stage name was Charlene Duncan, after her her first husband, a justifiably obscure record producer.  She had some chops; she was 23 when she was signed to a subsidiary of Motown.

Yes, Motown.  Signed by no other than…

The Producer:  Berry Gordy, the Father of Motown and one of America’s legendary musical impresarios.  And he’s listed as one of “I’ve Never Been…”‘s producers.

Of course, not everyone Gordy signed was a Temptations or a Four Seasons or a Marvin Gaye, or even a Flaming Ember.  Gordy had his finger in a lot of different musical pies, and had a staff of people who cranked out music in all sorts of genres.

Which leads us to…

The Songwriters:   The song was written by Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch.  You may not have heard of them; not everyone can be Lennon and McCartney, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King.  Someone has to be Freddie and the Dreamers, Billy Crudup, or Neil Sedaka.  And that was where Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch fit into the music business.

Not without success, mind you; Miller wrote a string of hits for Stevie Wonder (“A Place in the Sun”, “Heaven Help Us All”, and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”), Diana Ross (“Touch Me in the Morning”) and a trove of other music that hovers just outside the edges of the American musical conscience.  And Hirsch was a professional co-writer, having teamed up with Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Doc Pomus, Gerry Goffin, Carole Bayer Sager, Paul Williams and a dog’s breakfast of lesser lights; he scored hits, albeit minor ones, for everyone from Ray Charles to Air Supply.

Together, they teamed up and, in the style of the times, wrote “I’ve Never Been To Me”.  And they gave it to…

…well, everyone.  R&B singer Randy Crawford did it first;  Nancy “Not The One From Heart” Wilson and Walter Jackson both did it the same year Charlene first released it, and the covers (including MacGregor’s, which was the only one to make serious bank before 1982) kept coming.

The lack of sales dogged Charlene; after her second album, Gordy dropped her.  She retired from the music business, and moved to England, where she married a Brit, Jeff Oliver.   Sh was working in a candy store in London in 1982.

The Douchebag Disc Jockey:  Scott Shannon is legendary in the radio business.  This may be good, or it may be bad, depending on your point of view; as a mid-market program director in the mid-eighties, he was one of the prime movers behind “CHR”, or “Contemporary Hit Radio”, which was what “Top Forty” became by the early nineties.  He also was one of the pioneers of the “Morning Zoo” format.   By the early nineties, he was one of the people that smaller-market program directors – including my boss at the time, at KDWB – worshipped and emulated.

If you don’t have a big background in radio, you might have heard of him one of three ways:  he had a really awful TV and radio countdown show back in the nineties; today, he’s one of the hosts of a show called “Dish Nation”, an ultra-cheapo knockoff of “TMZ” which takes footage from various morning radio shows around the country and edits them into a half-hour…well, ultra cheap knockoff of TMZ.  And he’s been the voice-over guy in all of Sean Hannity’s breakbeds since Hannity went national.

But in 1982, he was working as a program director in Tampa, looking to make a splash and make it to the bigs.  And while vaccuuming out the oldies bin, he came across Charlene’s 1977 flop.

And started playing it.

Nobody knows why.  Shannon officially said he liked the song; the more I read about the song’s resurgence, the more I think it involved an intoxicated wager that he, and the world, lost.

No matter; Shannon played it, and played it to death.  Major-market program directors in those days were basically herd animals; if they saw a PD adding a song to his playlist, they’d stampede to follow suit.  No, seriously; “Roxette” became a hit in the US because one PD, KDWB’s Brian Phillips, added them; dozens of other PDs ran in a panicked mob to add the song, not wanting to be left out of…well, whatever it was.

And so Charlene Oliver was dragged out of retirement, put into her wedding dress (really) and dragged out to an English major house to record a video, and became a star, briefly

The Aftermath:  The song went to #3.  And then disappeared.   As, basically, did Charlene.  Motown featured her in a huge publicity campaign, including the movie “The Last Dragon”, featuring cameos and music by a raft of new Motown stars (Vanity, DeBarge, Rockwell, and others, including Charlene).   The others garnered a brief career boost; Charlene faded back into obscurity.

So just remember, kids; talent and hard work might get you someplace.  But being in the right place at the right time has no substitute.

The Strat Turns Sixty

2014 was the sixtieth anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster.

You may not know guitars – but you’ve heard them.

NPR did a pretty decent story on the the anniversary, and the guitar, last week.  Leo Fender designed the “Strat” as the followup to the much-more-conventional but also legendary Telecaster.

A “Telly”

The thing that jumps out at the non-guitar player is the body shape – a radical double-cutaway design (allowing the guitarist to easily get to the highest notes on the neck).

For the musician, there was the vibrato bar – the “whammy bar” – at the bridge, immortalized by a generation of surf-rockers and, in a much-modified form, Eddie Van Halen:

The “whammy bar”, up close

And for guitarists who really, really dig into it?  The “Strat” was an incredibly versatile instrument.

The Strat’s pickups, switch, “pots” (volume and tone knobs) and wiring, from the inside.

Its three “pickups” – the three little oval bars, basically microphones that turn the vibration of the strings into electrical signals that are sent to the amplifier – are connected to a five position switch that allows the guitarist to select which of the three pickups, or which combination, are live.    The one closest to the bridge picks up more treble, and is most useful for playing solos; the one closest to the fingerboard is usually lower and bassier, and is usually used for playing rhythm.  The one in the middle is…well, in the middle.

The cool part is that the “in between” positions, 2 and 4 respectively, the signals from the fingerboard or bridge pickups are out of phase with the middle pickup.  It gives you a funky, reedy tone that is hard to describe, but impossible to miss (think “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, or “Smoking Gun” by Robert Cray, or “The Core” by Eric Clapton).

The Strat has been the instrument of choice for an army of guitarists, all over the spectrum; from bluesmen like Eric Clapton (who has been pretty exclusively identified with Strats for the past forty years) and Robert Cray, through rockers like Jimi Hendrix, to peripatatic fretboard stylists like Mark Knopfer and Richard Thompson, to jazz and big band players, the Strat has been there and done that.

And it almost didn’t turn out that way.   The Strat’s first couple of years of sales were disappointing; Leo Fender fielded criticisms of the Strat’s bright, sharp sound, causing him to design a followup,  the “Jazzmaster”:

A Jazzmaster – most easily identified with Elvis Costello, J Mascis, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Mick Jagger (during his brief, late-seventies flirtation with playing guitar) and…yours truly, whose primary axe has been a Jazz for, um, 36 years. Mine is heavily modified, by the way – I have a third, Gibson “Soap Bar” pickup between the two stock pickups, wired out of phase, like a Strat – which actually gives a version of the Strat’s signature sound. It’s complicated – but sounds pretty awesome. But I digress.

The “Jazz” was designed to address the Strat’s “shortcomings”; the pickups were wired for a thicker, warmer sound, with more muted trebles and fuller bass and midranges. It was a more conservative design, both aesthetically and electrically.

But in the interim, rock and roll happened.  And the Strat – a relative bargain at the time – became, sharp tone and all, the preferred instrument of a generation of rock and rollers.

So successful was the Strat, of course, that the Gibson company – which had been producing the iconic, heavier, more-expensive “Les Paul”, reacted by producing a “Les Paul Junior”, with a lighter double-cutaway body; it’s better known today as the “SG”:

SG, Les Paul and Strat. I’ll take one of each, thanks.

And, notwithstanding a brief flash of Beatles-driven popularity for Rickenbacker guitars (brought back by Tom Petty in the late seventies), that’s been pretty much bedrock of the rock and roll guitarist’s arsenal ever since.

I’ve never owned a Strat – yet.  Someday.

Make An Antique Noise

I joke that I never go to churches where the music was written in the past 100 years.

It’s a joke.

Sort of.

I’ve been to a church or two that feature “modern worship music” (which, as we’ve discussed, is not the same as popular music with a faith-based theme).  And almost without exception, the stuff leaves me cold – aesthetically and, sorry to say, spiritually.

So I was interested in this piece by a church worship leader who’s approaching the question from the other side – as a former ModWorMu fan who warmed back up to traditional hymnology, for theological more than aesthetic reasons.


On A Winter Night…

…in the winter of 1980, on an evening where the air was cold and dry enough to tickle your nose a little, not a lot different from this one, I asked a girl to come out on the floor near the end of the high school dance, for one of the slow songs.

And to my shock, she said yes. 

And you could smell the heating in that old high school building, and the smell of a whole bunch of high school kids – flop sweats, cheap booze, cheaper cologne, and anticipation, as we – well, I – stumbled awkwardly out onto the floor.

And the band counted four, and they started into a pretty faithful cover of this song:

And for four minutes, the world felt perfect.

Rethinking The Seventies: The Eagles

If I’ve learned one thing after leaving my post-adolescent years, it’s that there are few things in the world more useless than rock critics.

Not every rock critic.  Not all the time.  But as a job classification, rock critics are somewhere between supermodels and professional reality-TV contestants in terms of useful output generated per unit of input.

Of course, part of my emnity with rock critics is embarassment over the way the adolescent Mitch ate up the crap they were peddling.   I managed to evade some of the more embarassing adolescent gaffes of the eighties, of course – photos of me with a frizzy seventies perm, or supporting Gary Hart – but I sure did drink up the whole jug of “rock critic as social commentator” koolaid.

I’ll forgive myself for missing it, of course, because like any teenager, my perspective started in junior high; nothing that came before counted, naturally.  Even moreso – growing up in rural North Dakota, my main window into pop culture, and pop counterculture, was through the issue of Rolling Stone that came to the Jamestown Library every week.

And in RS, every week, the “great” critics of the day – Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Cameron Crowe – and the not so great (the execrable Parke Puterbaugh) held forth on the changing culture…

…through the medium of the album review.  The self-important, “English majors gone wild”-style attempts to turn snark about this week’s entertainment product into commentary on Deep Thoughts-style reviews that you went to Rolling Stone for.

Anyway – the geist of that particular zeit, was “old is bad – new is good”.

Same as it ever was and ever shall be, of course.

And so by the time I became aware of the musical world outside Jamestown, the new and loud and snotty – the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, reggae, ska, punk in general – was in.  The old and measured and, worst of all, commercial – everything from Led Zeppelin and Bad Company to Linda Ronstadt and Elton John – was out.

And one of the big losers in that calculus was The Eagles.

And truth be told, I was always fine with that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always had a few Eagles songs that, deep in the back of my musical consciousness, I’ve loved.  “Take it to the Limit” is one of my favorite last-call songs ever.  “Already Gone” is one of my favorite guitar raveups – I’ve always wanted to play it in a cover band.  And the guitar player in me has spent hours dissecting all of the glorious technical nuance in “Hotel California”.

Last week, I wound up watching the movie “History of the Eagles”, covering the band’s story up through their breakup in 1980 (and the sequal, covering their various solo careers and reunions after 1994).

Lessons learned:

  • The re-united Eagles are an extraordinarily un-compelling band whose muse has left them.
  • But that implies that the Eagles had a muse to lose.  And up through about 1977, they did.

The snotty teenage Mitch chose to ignore the latter point – and never really stopped until last weekend.

But the more I learn – or re-learn – about the Eagles in their original incarnation, the more I think I may have short-changed my adolescent self.

Videos below the jump.

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A Friday Trifle

I’m just happy I was able to recognize most, but by no means all, of the singers and other musicians, in this BBC Music promo vid…:

…of one of my favorite songs in pop music history.

You Have No Thought Of Answers, Only Questions To Be Filled

It was thirty years ago today that Steeltown by Big Country was released. 

Of course, people who were of music-listening age in 1984 might, might, remember Big Country for its single real American hit, “In A Big Country”, from their debut album The Crossing.   The follow-up passed with nary a whisper, but for maybe a few days’ worth of airplay for the one US single. 

On the other side of the pond, it was another story, of course; Big Country was a major headliner in Europe, especially Scotland, for the rest of the decade; they were one of the Rolling Stones go to opening acts for most of the decade, which ain’t haggis.

But except for a brief flash of FM airplay, Steeltown came and went, and marked Big Country’s demise in the US market (except for a brief return to college and album radio in the early nineties with The Buffalo Skinners, which, again, was mostly for the big fans).

It’s a shame – because if anything, Steeltownwas a better record than the hit The Crossing; harder-edged, it started somewhere and went somewhere. 

Of course, being a Scottish pop-culture production from the middle Thatcher era, it started on the political left and stayed there.  It should be unsurprising that Steeltown was a stridently anti-Thatcher/Reagan/conservatism record.  The opening cut, “Flame of the West”, was a pretty by-the-numbers swat at Reagan; the title cut, a burly poison pen note about the decline of the (newly-privatized) British steel industry; the medley “Where the Rose is Sown/Come Back to Me”, a post-Falklands war broadside at militarism and jingoism and, in the second half, the lot of the discarded disabled veteran (both presented and reduced, of course, through First World War-vintage imagery) . 

I’ve wondered over the years; maybe I latched onto the album as hard as I did because I was clinging to the idealistic, overheated post-adolescent liberalism I’d always believed in. 

Or maybe because the music was just so damn good.

In retrospect, it was mostly the music. 

Here’s the title cut – a live version from the height of the band’s era. 

The video’s got the inevitable hagiographic imagery of classical British labor – lots of jump cuts to footage of Brit steel mills from the golden age of British industry. 

But the part to focus on?  The music – Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson’s interleaving guitars over bassist Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki’s pounding martial beat – interacting with the crowd of pogoing Scots with mad and drunken abandon, all piles up into a musical attack that makes Metallica sound and feel like Hannah Montana.

Of course, I love “Tall Ships Go”…

…as a showcase what the band had done with their flavor of celtic-flavored guitar technique since The Crossing. 

But the album’s real highlights are “Where The Rose Is Sown” /”Come Back To Me”…

…which are both wonderful examples of songwriting and production, even in the live performances above; nuanced-yet-bombastic, powerfully evocative backgrounds with heart-stopping highlights.

But all those are just words. I’ll explain it like this; the first time I heard the little guitar figure at the end of each choruses in “Rose”, I just stood there, jaw dropping, heart palpitating, one of those musical moments that stays with you a lifetime, if you’re lucky.

The other? “Just a Shadow” :

…which for my money is one of the best ballad of the decade – not only for the guitar work (people thought Adamson and Watson were playing synths, like most every other Brit band of the era) and, as always, Adamson and Butler’s vocal interplay (they were perhaps the best vocal duo of the decade)…

…but for the song itself. 

The highs may not be quite as high as that first blast of discovery on The Crossing , with its “In A Big Country” and “Harvest Home” and Close Action”, but the effect is more consistent, less shrill, more complete. 

In a just world, it would have been a hit.