Idle Musical Thoughts

I mentioned this on the show over the weekend – this past Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the recording of “rock around the clock”, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That song’s appearance on the Billboard top 40 later on in the year is generally considered the beginning of the “rock ‘n roll era” – and, more significantly, the beginning of “youth culture”, the existence of a separate culture for adolescents in this country, something that never really existed before.

Having a nice round number like 60 makes it very easy to play the mental game is played for years regarding music history; seeing what side of pop music history’s “halfway point” different milestones fall on.

The halfway point in pop music history, as of last Saturday, was April 12, 1984.

What that means is “Hungry like the Wolf” by Duran Duran, “I Ran” by Flock of seagulls, “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, Thriller by Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen’s first six studio albums – up through Nebraska (and in about six weeks, Born in the USA) are all closer to the beginning of rock ‘n roll history than to the present day.

You can also break rock and roll history up into thirds; 1974 and 1994.  That means “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, “Imagine” by John Lennon, the entire golden age of Motown and Stax, Who’s NextDark Side of the Moon, and most of the Rolling Stones’ best stuff is twice as far from the present day as it was from “Rock Around The Clock”.

Or maybe into quarters?  1969, 1984 and 1999 are the cutoffs.  That means Woodstock, Tommy, most of the Beatles’ catalog…pretty much everything “Sixties” is three times from the present day as it was from the beginning of the era.

I think I’ll stop this train of thought at the next station…

Rethinking The Seventies: Fleetwood Mac

In the seventies, back before Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen completely rebooted the sales charts, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac was the ultimate, inescapable soundtrack of the last half of the decade.

And as such, being the hipper-than-thou, too-literally-cool-for-school wanna-be rock’nroll animal, I hated it.

Hated the nasal yawping of Stevie Nicks.  Hated Christine McVie’s banal cooing, and Mick Fleetwood’s shaggy dissipation and calculated (or coke-ulated) English off-beatness.  Hated especially Lindsay Buckingham’s “Look at how avant-garde I am, while selling 13 million copies!”, and John McVie’s…well, no.  I always liked John McVie.

It was a few years later – when Nicks basically adopted the Heartbreakers as her backup band for her first couple of solo albums – that I started to think maybe they deserved a chance.  But it was just a start.  And I didn’t follow up on it…

…until about 2009.  When I saw a Fleetwood Mac concert on TV.  And they were…pretty good musicians.  And they did a…

…well, pretty fair live show.

And I did a little digging.

Less Than The Sum Of History:   Fleetwood Mac’s history, for those who pay attention, reads a little like Spinal Tap:  the band has actually gone through four major line-ups, and innumerable minor changes to boot.    And while I knew about all of them when I was an obnoxious teenager, I never really paid much attention until recently.

Fleetwood and McVie started in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – the band that also launched Eric Clapton, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, “Cream” bassist Jack Bruce and original Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar, among dozens of others – during the British blues craze of the mid-sixties, when a generation of young Brits looted and pillaged the American blues tradition.  Also starting with Mayall were guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green.  Spencer, Green, McVie and Fleetwood started “Fleetwood Mac” in 1967 (McVie’s girlfriend, keyboardist Christine Perfect, left blues-rock band “Chickenshack” and joined the band after an album or so, and married McVie in 1969).

I did say blues, right?

That’s Spencer, an over-emoting Kirwan and Green, from about 1969.

Green and Spencer then went on to have a couple of classic seventies-style drug-induced meltdowns, leading the band to reform with a dizzying array of other musicians – including this line-up with singer-guitarist Bob Weston and American singer-guitarist Bob Welch, which yielded some progressive-y blues…:

…and some scandal (Weston banged Mick Fleetwood’s wife Patti Boyd, who would also be the fulcrum of the long feud between George Harrison and Eric Clapton)…

…leading Fleetwood to fire Weston, Welch to leave for a brief solo career, and the rapidly-divorcing McVies and Fleetwood to settle on a new front line, the American duo (and also-splitting-up couple) of Nicks and Buckingham.

Which was the band’s definitive line-up, the one that gave us Fleetwood Mac and Rumours and superstardom and excess…

…but we’ll come back to that. Here’s one of their big singles, “Go Your Own Way”

…and “Second Hand News”…

…and the big kahuna, “Don’t Stop”…:

On the “con” side, it was the ultimate manifestation of ’70′s California pop music; the first cousin of everything the Eagles, Jackson Browne and all the other west-coast pop artists I trained myself to detest were doing.

On the “pro” side? They were very good at it. Fastidious musicianship (even from a band that built sand castles out of cocaine); a style that got more unique over and music done as a craft rather than a nihilistic “art” form…

…that I had pretty much adopted as my thing at the time.

The song that started me thinking that there was something worth listening to? “The Chain”:

Suddenly, the notion that I’d grown up with – that Fleetwood Mac was a soulless, bloodless, hits-in-their-sleep Brill Building pop corporation – was self-serving, short-sighted, solipsistic and just plain dumb; it’s a great song.

So I’ve actually listened to some Fleetwood Mac over the past few years. Not gonna shell out $200 for the concert…

UPDATE:  as you can see from the comments, the “stub” version of this article – and the entire series – has been floating around my drafts folder, and occasional accidental publications, for four and a half years. 

But I’m finally getting it written!

Rethinking The Seventies: Baseline (Reboot)

(NOTE:  I first ran this piece almost a year ago – April 17 2013 – fully intending to follow through and write this series.  And then…I didn’t.  But now I am.  So I’m going to re-run the piece from waaaay back when, and try to do a new piece roughly every Friday).

As I noted when I started this series a week or so ago, part of the reason I didn’t care much for most of the music of the seventies was because, in my drive to be just plain different than everyone around me, I figured if I was in for a dime, I’d best be in for a buck; go all-in with the punks and whatever else was cooler-than-thou.

When I was a kid in the seventies, I was too tall, coulda used a few pounds; the athletic gene skipped a generation (or at least the “willing to put up with coaches” gene did).  I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t especially smart, I wasn’t “in” with any crowd.  I had greasy hair and terminal social awkwardness.

But I did read Rolling Stone.  I knew what the cool kids were listening to in New York and LA and Chicago, and I sought it out; the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Generation X, to be sure, but all sorts of other stuff that was “alternative” in its day; Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, all of them were off the beaten pop path at that point.  That they all became the top forty within half a decade is one of the glorious things about early-eighties music.

And I buried my teenage identity in pretty much anything that the kids in North Dakota weren’t listening to.  The guys?  They dug Bad Company, Shooter, Trooper, Rush, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss and the like; the girls were into Dan Fogelberg, Styx and the Bay City Rollers and God only knows what else. The music geeks thought Chicago and Alan Parsons and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were just dreamy.

So I was pretty insufferable.

But it needs to be added that it was, in many ways, a terrible, terrible decade for pop culture.

Maybe it reflected a hangover from the turmoil of the sixties.  Maybe it was a measure of a society floating aimlessly and beginning to decay after a couple of decades of purpose and dynamic growth.  Maybe it was just all those baby boomers.

But like polyester clothes, The Brady Bunch and the Chevette, much of the music of the 1970s was a reminder that times were really not good.

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Things I’m Supposed To Like But Can’t Stand: The B-52s

I first heard about the B-52s in probably tenth grade.

“They’re so fun!”, I was told.  ”They’re, like, a party band!”

I was directed to listen to “Rock Lobster”.  They were indeed a party band.

I hated party bands. And I hated the B52s.

“But Mitch!”, you might respond, “how could you possibly hate the B-52s?  They were fun!”

Music wasn’t supposed to be fun.  Not to me, anyway. I was an over-tall, under-coordinated, anti-popular kid, a fish-out-of-water, sick of high school cliques and pecking orders, all hormoned-up with no place to go, already banging my head against the bars of small-town life.

Music for me was about channelling explosive adolescent rage.  I listened to the Who, and the Clash and Generation X and the Sex Pistols (and the bleeding passion of Beethoven and the crusader-esque purposefulness of Händel and the over the top expressionism of Tchaikowski, for that matter), and Springsteen in my rare introspective moments.  For me, music wasn’t about dancing; it was about breaking things and people, and furious adolescent angst.  The sound in my imagination at age 15 was me windmilling an open A5 chord on a Les Paul Standard through four Marshall stacks cranked to 11.  No wussy third tones.  No subtlety.  No shelter.  Certainly no murtha-farging “parties”.  Just pure un-subtle angry noise, blowing away the things that broke my heart and the lies that left me lost and brokenhearted…

…whatever they were.    It was a song, so they weren’t so much something I “knew” as “felt”. 

And I didn’t feel “party”. 

But I’m digressing.

The B-52s?  Yeah, they were “fun”.  And I was not.  I was very, very un-fun.  They played intentionally cheesed-up Farfisa organs, and I was all about the teeth-clenched throb of a Hammond B3 through an overdriven Leslie speaker.   They were lightweight, eggheaded college kids, and I was not.  They went to parties, and God knows I was never invited to parties.  Screw ‘em.

Oh, yeah.  Lead singer Fred Schneider’s voice annoyed the bejeebers out of me.  No, it wasn’t “homophobia”; at that age, I literally didn’t know what “gay” meant (and even if I did know what it meant?  I loved Freddy Mercury’s voice).   I didn’t actually know that guys could dig guys until college.  (Note to my 3-4 high school friends who, it turns out, were gay?  Even though you were all the girls’ best friends, and you actually did sit by the piano before play practice playing show tunes?  Hand to God, never figured it out until after high school.  And figuring it out didn’t make me like y’all any less – or show tunes any more).  So no, it wasn’t that Schneider was gay, even if I had known at the time what that meant.  No, it was that his voice annoyed me like few other sounds ever have.  I could literally listen to fingernails scraping on chalkboards all day long – but Schneider’s voice sent me racing for the volume knob.   And it still does.

But time went on.  My tastes in music broadened.  I lived a little more life.  Moved to the big city, started a career, ended a career, maybe mellowed out ever so slightly, knocked around, worked in bars…

…when “Love Shack” came out:

Nope. Still hated the B-52s. Part of it was residual disdain for “Party…” anything.

Part of it was that I had to play the damn song so ungodly often. I was at KDWB at the time; we’d play it every couple of hours on the air. Then I’d work my money gig, at the bars, and play it at least once a night, 4-6 nights a week, sometimes more. But then I played a lot of music way too much back then; I actually bought a car that had no radio, I was so sick of music.

But even with that context, the B52s still annoyed me half to death.  That voice.  That beat.  That contrived retro-sixies triviality.  Blech. 

And they still do.

Except for anything involving Kate Pierson.

Then, all is forgiven.

That is all.

I Will Confess…

…I’ve pondered the idea of this band covering this song:

…although it was more one of those “what if Napoleon had a B-52 at Waterloo” sorts of things.

Oh, yeah – it’s the E Street Band playing “Highway to Hell” in Perth Australia, as a tribute to native Perthian Bon Scott.

(Closed circuit to Tom Morello; lower your damn guitar.  You look like you need more fiber in your diet with your guitar cinched up around your ribcage.  That is all).

Pay Me My Memorial Down

Leni Riefenstahl was the world’s first notable female filmmaker, and the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.  She created innovations in the technique and aesthetics of film still used not only in cinema, but in the filming of crowds and athletic events; some of the techniques you see at the Super Bowl are evolutions of techniques Riefenstahl pioneered in filming the 1936 Olympics.

But it’s not considered polite to applaud Riefenstahl in public with out an emphatic verbal “asterisk”, because of her association with the Nazi Party.  Her best-known work, Triumph Des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is an epic documentary and one of the world’s best known and most influential pieces of propaganda.

And so Riefenstahl was ostracized for the rest of her long life (she died at age 101 in 2002) as a Nazi impresario, for her association with a regime that killed 11 million people directly and triggered a war that swallowed tens of millions.

I write a fair amount about music in this blog.  And when a major musical figure passes away, I often try to write something.

And in his way, Pete Seeger was one of the most important figures in popular entertainment, ever.

Not necessarily because of his music.  Oh, he had a few classics of American folks music, to be sure.  And dozens of forgettable songs – but that’s true for any songwriter, or any artist in any genre for that matter.

Many conservatives writing about Seeger’s passing note that he was a committed Communist.  It’s true – he was, and in a way that seems straight out of Orwell, as during this episode after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in 1939:

In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”…The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.

For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?

It’s impolite in polite society to laud Riefenstahl after her association with a regime that murdered over 10 million people.  Fair enough.

So why does Seeger escape any questioning for doing so much to support a regime that may have killed five times as many?

But as Howard Husock noted in his classic essay on Seeger, his most lasting impact on American culture may have had little to do with music.

Because there was a time when Hollywood’s political ideals weren’t all that different than the rest of the country’s.  Seeger was a vital part of a movement that changed all that:

Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser… Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.

This led to the creation of the “Popular Front”, whose mission was not so much to assault capitalism as to co-opt it.  And one of the institutions it marked for co-option was the entertainment industry.

And Seeger was a key cog in that machine:

It took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.

 

It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.

Seeger did not, himself, “make Hollywood leftist”.  But he was a key part of that transition.

Forget his music.  That was his real legacy.

The Buzz

I’ll admit it – handbell choirs were one of those things that swept protestant churches in the 1980s that annoyed the bejeebers out of me.  They were everywhere.

But as with many things related to music (and disaster preparedness) [1] the Mormons have it all over the rest of us goyim.

Case in point; a handbell choir doing “Flight of the Bumblebee”:

[1] And, lately, videography; the last few years of vids from the Mormon Tabernacle’s music department have been visually stunning.

For The Tourists

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey - Bruce Springsteen’s first major-label record.

In those forty years, he’s released seventeen studio albums (#18 due in mere days), been bootlegged more than almost any other artist, written a staggering amount of material, developed a repuation as the best life performer in the business, and been recognized as the best American songwriter of a generation…

…and gone through some creative doldrums (1990-2000) that make even the unabashed fanboys (like yours truly) rub our heads and change the subject to Darkness on the Edge of Town.  

And even for a committed fanboy, it’s hard to explain to a newbie exactly what it’s all about.

Steven Hyden – who notes that he attended the same concert at the Target Center that I did, back in 1999 – takes a “Hot Or Not”-style whack at the oeuvre, giving an “Overrated”, “Underrated” or “Properly Rated” to an assortment of mileposts in Springsteen’s career; the studio albums, live albums, outtakes collections, live performances, members of the E-Street Band, videos, and various bits of pop-culture ephemera. 

And I’m only going to quibble with Hyden on three of his ratings;

First:  Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez was a lousy drummer.  Listen to “Kitty’s Back” or “Incident on 57th Street” or even “Rosalita”, from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; the beat speeds up and slows down without warning, and that’s what they decided to put on a major-label release.  How much worse were the out-takes? 

Second?  While “Fire” is a good song, and “Light of Day” is a great one, “Because The Night” is still the best Springsteen song not originally released by Springsteen:  It’s just a fact.

And while Hyden and I agree – Darkness on the Edge of Town is both of our favorite Bruce album - Hyden focuses on its rock-critic-friendly cynicism and world-weariness.  For me, it’s nearly the opposite; the record resonates for anyone who identifies with deep isolation, with a place outside the American mainstream, whether you’re across the river from Manhattan or across 100 miles of sod from a city that gets more than two TV channels. 

(And while he’s right – Live from Hammersmith Odeon is far and away the best “official” live release of Bruce’s career, the very unofficial “Live at the Capitol Theater”, recently posted in its entirety on Youtube, may count as another essential, if lower-gloss, live recording worth listening to)

On the other hand, Hyden distilled perhaps the iconic image of the young, male, non-Jersey Springsteen fan in his review ofBorn to Run:

There’s a particular brand of vanity that exists in certain kinds of young men between the ages of 19 and 27 where it’s vitally important to present a façade that is equal parts masculine, feminine, tough, and sensitive. For instance (and this example is purely hypothetical and not at all autobiographical), this certain kind of young man may drive around alone late on rainy nights — he actually chooses to drive when it rains because it is appropriately evocative for his inner emotional geography — while listening to Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland.” And when he feels himself starting to cry, he will look in the rearview mirror in order to stare at his own tears. He knows he will never tell anyone that he cries alone to the sounds of the Big Man’s titanic blowing, but he guesses that strangers will sense it, and this will make him appear soulful. (Forgive him. He is a little naive and very silly.) It doesn’t matter that the lyrics of “Jungleland” have virtually nothing to do with his life — he’s pretty sure that the only people for whom “kids flash guitars just like switchblades” represents reality are Danny Zuko and Kenickie. But this song is still his avatar, and he’s confident it always will be.

And on some of those dark, rainy nights, he still just may.

(Except for the crying.  Because – dude).

Anyway – you be the judge.

Harmony

Phil Everly died over the weekend.  He was 74.

Rock and Roll, we are told, started as a blender-mix of rockabilly and R&B.  Elvis put a rockabilly delivery onto a rhythm ‘n blues beat.  Chuck Berry sped up the blues to rockabilly speed.  Johnny Cash did rockabilly over a persona that could have made Howlin’ Wolf go “wow.  That’s the blues”.

And the Everly Brothers brought the final piece of the “billy” half of rockabilly – the tight, keening vocal harmonies that characterized bluegrass music – out of the holler and onto pop radio.

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Things I’m Supposed To Hate But Like A Tiny Bit Of: America

Since the subject was Crosby, Stills and Nash, it’s probably time to turn to one of their seventies Cali-pop offspring; America.

The band – three American air force brats who met in England during the mid-sixties – generally wrapped up all that was the worst about the entire California pop scene that Crosby, Stills and Nash helped spawn; oblique, tired-sounding minor-key noodling wrapped in ornate three-part harmony that never made me want to dance, sing, fight, cuddle or do much of anything but change the station.

Ventura Highway?  Horse With No Name?  Muskrat Freaking Love?   Whatever else they did?  Never could stand it.  Bores me stiff.  Move along.

Except for Sister Golden Hair:

Why, of all of America’s somnolent oeuvre, do I like “Sister?”

I dunno.  Because it has a beat?  A slide guitar?

Maybe because the vocal harmony harkens back to doo-wop more than Haight-Ashbury?

Dunno.  But in a band whose entire catalog works on me faster than an Ambien/NyQuil speedball, “Sister Golden Hair” makes me smile.

Why ask why?

Things I’m Supposed To Love But Usually Can’t Stand: Crosby, Stills, Nash, And Occasionally Young

Ever since I’ve been involved in music, it’s seemed there’s been one crowd or another telling me who I’m supposed to like.

In college, the music majors all dug the Alan Parsons Project.  ”It’s like…above rock”, they mewled.  Perhaps it was; it was also beneath interesting.

There were others.

(Below the jump, because of all the videos)

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The Band I Always Wanted

Some guys grew up fantasizing about the car they wanted, someday.

For others, it was the gun, the girl, the guitar.

I did all of those, naturally (’67 Mustang, HK91, Marisa Tomei, 1959 Les Paul Standard).

But above all?  When I was a kid – and not so much a kid – I used to fantasize about the band I’d have someday.

Usually, the dream focused on some combination of two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums.  Nice and flexible, allows for all sorts of combinations of guitar sounds.  Sorta like Tom Petty and the classic Heartbreakers (here with an added sax player and background singer, which I’d also dig):

Of course, through much of the eighties – and (koff) the nineties, I thought it’d be fun to have something a little bigger, less garage-y, frighteningly tight, and danceable.

Like INXS:

Although that’d mean recruiting someone else to sing. And lead singers are a pain.

At various times, I’ve thought “screw it – I’m gonna go full Stax/Volt”:

And truth be told, that’s where I’m at right now; a band that is something like the classic Asbury Jukes lineup, complete with the horn section.

But then I remember all the crap that goes into keeping all the personalities in even a four piece band together, and I think “screw it; I’ll do a power trio”:

Of course, as always, I’ll stick with “whatever I can find”.

Er, when I start another band…

Politically Incorrect

Tom Gross at NRO notes a facet about the late Lou Reed – who passed away Sunday after a long battle with liver failure – that has gotten rare mention in the media; he was one of New York’s few arts intelligentsia who were staunchly pro-Israel:

I mention Reed’s Jewishness because not a single obituary I have read of him in the mainstream press mentions it, when for Reed it was an important factor.

Reed, who died yesterday of liver failure at the age of 71, was born Lewis Allan Reed to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. He said that while “he had no god apart from rock ‘n’ roll” his Jewish roots and standing up for Israel meant a lot to him. He was a frequent visitor to the country, last performing in Tel Aviv in 2008, and his aunt and many cousins live in Haifa and other Israeli towns.

Reed even had an Israeli spider named after him to thank him for his support for the country.

Like Gross, I remember his “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”, from 1989′s New York album.

By way of going after the former UN Secretary General (who’d served in the SS during World War 2, Reed rips into Jesse Jackson – famous for supporting Farrakhan and the PLO, and for his “Hymietown” jape, noting that some of the civil rights workers murdered in the sixties in the deep south were Jewish.

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The Original Wrapper

Lou Reed died over the weekend, proving once and for all that only Keith Richards can ingest absolutely every recreational chemical known to modern science and live to tell the tale forever.

It took me a long time to really get into Lou Reed – which may seem really counterintuitive, if you know me and my taste in music (and if you read the “Music” category of this blog, you do, sort of; I haven’t written about everything, just yet).   After all,everyoneknows Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the godfathers of punk – right?

Sure. 

But even though the Venn diagram among the different outbreaks of “punk” in New York in the seventies has tons of overlaps, there was a yawning gap between the joyful, garage-band-y noise of the Ramones and the New York Dolls (and their Cleveland descendants, the Dead Boys) and the Greenwich Village scene that spawned Reed, crawling as it was with high-art pretension.  The likes of Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs saw and were seen among the rat-bitten warrens of the Village, hobnobbing with and encouraging the likes of the largely unlistenably shrill Patti Smith, the campy “Stilettos” (featuring a young Debbie Harry, who’d form “Blondie” by the mid-seventies), and of course Reed and the Velvets. 

It probably wasn’t until I moved to the Cities and started doing music here that I took a step back, at the urging of my band’s old drummer.  “Forget all the BS”, he said, “and just focus on the fact that he’s a guy who loves doing basic rock and roll”.

And in one sense it was true – the classic Lou Reed was all about the joy of playing the most basic rock and roll, simple and unadorned and pared down to its most basic components, filtered through a layer of New York grime.

Usually. 

Reed was also an experimenter.  In “The Original Wrapper” (from 1986′s Mistrial), he wryly claimed the title of the orignal, well, rapper – since he never so much “sang” as “spoke in rhythm”.  He delved through jazz, experimental music, screeching noise…

…even some pared-down pseudo-classical music – as in this very, very, very pre-MTV video for his classic “Street Hassle”, featuring a spoken-word coda by Bruce Springsteen around the eight-minute mark:
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So I’m going to find my old copy of “Rock and Roll Animal” this week here, and give it another spin.

And All Is Right With The World

Our government is doing its best to show you who serves who, here.

In a few years, the Chinese are going to be able to yank our nation’s chain and say “bark for your meal, bitch”.

Our state is run by bobbleheads, and the only pro sports team we have that isn’t a perennial embarassment is the WNBA team, which is itself a form of perennial embarassment.

But before you stick that .40 S&W in your mouth, just wait.

Because someone released the entire September 19, 1978 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Capitol Theater in Passaic NJ concert – one of the greatest concerts ever recorded, ever, ever, in really really high quality audio.

All three hours and 55 minutes of it.

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I Heard It On The NARN

Here’s Cam Winton’s website.  You don’t have to live in Minneapolis to help Cam shock the world.

Here’s my piece about Daniel Henninger’s piece saying we should just let Obamacare collapse from its unwieldy incompetence.

And since it was “Springsteen Cover Saturday” in honor of Bruce’s 64th birthday last Monday – here’s my series on why Springsteen resonates with conservatives.

I Will Carry You Home While The Westerlies Sigh

This is an update of a piece I wrote five years ago. 

It was 30 years ago today that Big Country’s The Crossing was released.

In America, Big Country has that “one-hit wonder” patina about them, which only goes to show that when it comes to music, too many Americans are ignorant clods.

While The Crossing‘s “In A Big Country” was, indeed, their only real entry into the Top40 in America, it’d be hard to overestimate what a blast of fresh air the album was in 1983.

1983 was a great year in music; it was also the year that provided many of the decade’s musical punch lines; “Putting On The Ritz” by Taco, “Mr. Roboto” by Styx, “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, Kajagoogoo and Culture Club and Asia and Naked Eyes and Laura Branigan and not one but two Jim Steinman bombast-fests (Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”) duked it out with some of the great pop music of all time; “Little Red Corvette”, Michael Jackson’s entire Thriller album back before he turned into a walking freak show, and a long list of other classics.

Amid all the good and all the bad, there was a definite trend; it was the era of the synthesizer.  The battle between analog instruments like the guitar, bass, physical drums and mechanical and electromechanical keyboards like the piano and organ on the one hand and purely-electronic ones like the synth and the sequencer had just begun. 

(And if you’ve listened to pop radio lately, you know that the electronics won.  But we’re getting fifteen years ahead of ourselves). 

Some declared the guitar dead.  Articles in Rolling Stone said that the new wave (heh heh) of cheap electronic technology would finally euthanize the venerable analog stringed instrument.  It was the year Yamaha’s revolutionary DX7 synthesizer hit the market, bringing digital Frequency Modulation technology down to around $1,000 for the first time, making it possible for pretty much anyone (with $1,000) to create any sound they wanted, save it onto cassettes (or, for a few bucks more, floppy disks!), play it onto the first inexpensive digital sequencers and MIDI processors and “drum machines” and essentially run a “band” from ones’ keyboard. The future of music, said the wonks, was pasty-faced geeks with hundred dollar haircuts in flamboyant suits, pecking away at keyboards as masses of lobotomized droogs bobbed away in the audience.

Straight into the face of those predictions charged Big Country – a band from Dunfermline, Scotland that mixed technical “wow” with actual fun (the Scottish football-hooligan atmosphere that accompanied their shows and appearances), they blew the knobs and faders off of the synth-wankers that glorious autumn.

The band wrapped itself in “Scotland” – but ironically, none of the band’s members were native Scots.  Bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki were from London, guitarist Bruce Watson was Canadian, and guitarist and singer Stuart Adamson was from Manchester (although he grew up in Dunfermline.  His impenetrable brogue was the real thing).

The “wow” came partly from technology (really cheap technology, like the MXR Pitch Transposer and the e-bow, basically a hand-held electromagnet that acts like an electronic violin bow, giving a guitar infinite sustain), great guitars (the lads favoredYamaha SG2000s and Fender Strats) clever engineering and pure guitar technique to wrench amazing impersonations from their instruments; they loosely modeled bagpipes, Irish fiddles, and all manner of supercharged traditional instruments which, combined with the Gaelic-y arrangements and playing technique, roused talk of a “Celtic revival” in that year that also brought U2, the Alarm and Simple Minds to the charts.

And of course, there was great musicianship; Butler and Brzezicki were superb session musicians before Big Country; Adamson and Watson were excellent in a more restrained, controlled way.

Adamson and Watson rarely played power chords, sticking to carefully-orchestrated one-and-two-note patterns over their carefully-built sound-setups to create a distinctive, loud, joyful noise.

Nearly every song on the album was a keeper:

  1. “In a Big Country” – hardly needs explaining, right?
  2. Inwards” – like German techno, played on guitars. By humans.  Who are having fun and not praying for imminent nuclear war.
  3. Chance” – A hit single in the UK, unknown here, but a gorgeous song; spare, evocative guitars and vocal harmonies that, in Tony Butler’s career as a spectacular backup singer, are among his best. Actually one of my two favorite songs on the album.
  4. 1000 Stars” – An infectiously danceable bit of Cold War paranoia.
  5. The Storm” – As Scots-Gaelic as the flat side of a claymore.
  6. Harvest Home” – An irresistably danceable song (in the “Sword Dance” vein, rather than “Dancing With The Stars”, or even “Dance Fever with Denny Terrio”), drawn from that bottomless well of Rock and Roll inspiration, the Jacobite Rebellion and the diaspora of Scots afterwards.
  7. Lost Patrol” – Never liked this one all that much; another one of those “Gaelo-Teutonic techno on guitars” things.
  8. Close Action” – My other favorite.
  9. Fields of Fire” – The other single in the US, and one of many great bagpipe impressions…
  10. Porrohman” – A fun bit of guitar-effect wizardry to try to pick apart, but it did in fact get tiresome and shrill after a while. Hey, one out of ten ain’t bad…

The album was a huge splash in 1983.

But the band never really had much impact in the US after their debut; they only charted with one more single (“Wonderland“, from the next year, one of my favorites) which peaked at #86, while Steeltown, my favorite Big Country album, barely dented the album charts in the US (it debuted at #1 in the UK).  Steeltown’s marquee single, the spectacular “Where The Rose Is Sown“, a Falklands War protest of sorts, didn’t show up at all.

I think I spent sixty hours over my “interim” period in 2004 (my college was on a 4-1-4 system – January was spent on one, all-day class for the whole month) learning how to play and imitate every single song on the album. I had the bagpipe thing figured out, anyway…

Adamson, after years of fighting alcoholism,  committed suicide in December of 2001.  The band knocked around in limbo for most of the last decade, held up with legal wrangling among the surviving members and the Adamson estate. They re-united last year, with former Alarm frontman Mike Peters singing lead, and Watson’s son Jamie sitting in on guitar.

I’m gonna down a Newcastle and break out the SG in honor of the anniversary.

 

This Time It’s For Trivia

This was the band I always wanted to have when I was in high school or, even moreso, college:

I mean, not necessarily with Steve Van Zandt (AKA “Silvio Dante”) sucking up all the oxygen – but a horn-based Stax/Volt knockoff kind of thing. 

Oh, don’t mind me.  I’ve been having one of those weekends where every single earworm was an Asbury Jukes song.  Which is far from all bad.

But here’s a a trivia question.  Look at the guitar player in the pink shirt (Bobby Bandiera) with the white guitar.  That very guitar appeared in a major motion picture (along with the rest of the band). 

Any guesses?