One of my blog resolutions (besides “laughing over the online graves of so many liberal blogs”) is to spend a little less time on politics this year, and a little more on some of my other main subjects – history and of course music.
Music’s gotten short shrift lately; I wrote a grand total of thirteen posts about music all last year, and three of them were obituaries.
So it’s time to do a sort of musical palate-cleanser, I’m just going to reprise something that was going around social media the week of New Years; the top ten albums that affected you as a teenager.
Which is of course, a curve-ball; there are albums that have had a bigger influence on my life than some of these; “Shoot Out the Lights” by Richard Thompson, most of the Dire Straits catalog, and so on.
But here’s a start, in rough ascending order.
Gordon Lightfoot, “Gord’s Gold”
Yep. You heard that right. Loved that album back then. Still do. Part of it was just that Lightfoot had a real way with a hook. Part of it was that I learned a lot about playing acoustic guitar from listening to him.
And part of it was because even then, I very counterintuitively liked Lightfoot’s persona. Not sure why that very un-teenagery image grabbed me, but it did. So sue me.
Styx, “The Grand Illusion”
This one’s going to be a little counterintuitive. If you know me, it may even come as a shock.
I detest Styx. Especially anything sung by Dennis DeYoung. However, one of the defining things about my identity as a teenager – really, the first part I liked – was as a guitar player and a rock and roller.
And “Come Sail Away”, “Fooling Yourself” and “Miss America” were the first songs I figured out how to play on guitar by ear, without any help or sheet music or anything. And once I figured them out, the dam broke and I learned *hundreds* of songs just by listening to the radio. Indeed, throughout high school my evening homework-time ritual was to tune in KFYR in Bismarck and listen as I did my reading and math; if I heard a song I liked, I’d grab my guitar and figure it out along with the radio.
And so as much as I loathe Styx, being able to play “stump the band” with the best of them was a yuuuge influence on me as a teenager.
Yeah, I’ll cop to it; the album had the whole “Chrissy Hynde meets teenage hormones” bit. And you had the same issue, back then (assuming you’re a straight male of a certain age, a lesbian with impeccable taste, or a hetero-curious gay guy, I suppose. I dunno).
Anyway, the album (especially James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar parts) was just as manic and all-over-the-place as I was back then. Listening to Honeyman-Scott, I started to think “maybe I can do this “lead guitar” thing.
And that was a very, very big thing for me.
And did I mention Chrissy Hynde?
To a genation of hipper-than-thou punks, “Boston” was to music what WalMart was to shopping.
But even at the nadir of my hipper-than-thou punk phase, I loved this album. The *sound* of the record itself was just freaking thrilling. I think even before I knew anything about *producing* music, I was drawn to the whole idea of production as art, and this record is why.
Case in point: the wall of guitar feedback from 1:49 to 1:57 of this song. Feedback was nothing new – Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend had made it an art form – but this particular little squall was a simultaneously a raw blast of power combined with a subtle harmonic progression (like opening up the drawbars on a Hammond organ) and and rhythmic, like using feedback as a drum fill. It was a little production filigree, a gorgeous little instrumental aside that turned a run-of-the-mill seventies pop-rock song into something you could dissect for hours, and years, and write about (ahem) forty years later, and always find something new in. It was about as organic as Splenda – it was the product of layering guitars like a Phil Spector “wall of sound”, and more high-tech processing than a Queen album. But who cared? It – among many similar little bits of production magic – was just glorious and made you feel glad to be alive.
Also – “More than a Feeling” was the first guitar solo I ever learned how to play. I sat down when I was probably 15 and learned the whole thing, note for note, like someone trying to learn how to order food in Japanese phonetically.
And once I knocked that out, I was a lead guitar player – ergo, for the first time in my high school life, I was cool.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Damn the Torpedoes”
This album was, and is, my audio encyclopedia of everything that is great about rock and roll.
Seriously – it’s hard to even count the number of ways this album smacked me, 37 [koff koff] years ago.
But goodness knows I’ve tried; this article here did as good a job of it as I’ve ever managed to pull together myself.
And the song “Even the Losers” gave me hope, back then; sometimes, even us losers did get lucky. And it probably did the same to you.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, “Men Without Women”
Men Without Women is a glorious record in its own right – all huge hooks and raw, blazing emotions and pure brilliance. It’s still one of my three favorites of all time.
Beyond that? There wasn’t a lot of musical diversity in rural North Dakota when I was a kid. Seventies R&B never really spoke to me.
And I listened to Mw/oW, and a light went on over my head, and I wandered into the back room at the station I was at at the time, and dug out a bunch of Sam and Dave and Smokey Robinson and Four Tops records, and felt that clicking sound when ideas drop into place.
Mw/oW opened the door, first to Stax/Volt, then Motown, and an entire new world of music.
John Denver’s “Greatest Hits”.
When I was 14, I was a little too tall, coulda used a few pounds. I was a junior high loser, never made it with the ladies…
I’d heard a few John Denver songs. They sounded accessible. And so I bought a copy of his Greatest Hits for $3 in a cutout bin, because I figured (correctly) it’d be a good way to each myself at least something on guitar.
And it worked!
“Follow Me” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were the first songs I ever managed to play coherently, reading from book of sheet music. “Back Home Again” was where I had my “ah hah!” moment on how fourths and fifths play together, and how to do a rolling sixth (which you use in every Chuck Berry song, and thus most everything the Rolling Stones and Mike Campbell ever played). “Take Me Home, Country Roads” taught me how relative minors work – and you can’t play anything on Born to Run without relative minors!
“Sunshine On My Shoulders” is the perfect song for teaching yourself the basics of fingerpicking (the whole thing is a languid eighth-note pattern – hard NOT to play right!). And “Rocky Mountain High” is a great little workout on how chords fit together (and, I discovered after thirty-odd years of being too cool for it, not a half-bad album or song); combine that with your finger-picking from “Sunshine”, above, and kablooie, you’re Mark Knopfler. Just like that!
So while I hushed up about the whole “I own a John Denver record” thing by about eighth grade, it was that record that was the key to playing the guitar, and playing the guitar was the key to whatever self-confidence I had as a teenager – including the self-confidence I needed to walk up to Bob Richardson and apply for my first radio job.
So it’s kind of a big deal.
The Clash, “London Calling”
Mostly first and second takes, recorded rough and ready, it was sort of the “do it yourself” album that spoke to my chaotic nature, making me think “I could do this!”.
Also, nobody else at Jamestown High School was into the Clash in 1979. Which made me, for the first time in my life, way way way ahead of the curve.
Maybe the last, too – but let’s not get side-tracked, here.
Also, so good that I thought “I am going to have to get much better at what I do to do this”.
Bruce Springsteen, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
I know, no surprise, if you’ve read this blog at all. But I don’t care.
If you’ve known me *since* high school, you probably remember me talking about this album. The best album ever written about isolation – which certainly spoke to a kid in one of the most isolated places in the country.
Still my favorite album of all time.
The Who, “Who’s Next”
But let’s forget about “all time” here.
I was a nerdy, gawky, athletically inept teenager in a town that revered athletes. This album showed me that the guitar I was plinking away on could be my weapon of mass destruction, my full contact sport, my identity. With a windmilling slash at my Fender, I slew dragons.
If you knew me in high school, you knew I wanted to be Pete Townsend. I had enough gashes and bruises on my hand from “windmilling” accidents to prove my dedication.
Apropos not much.