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.
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.
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.
Today is “One Hit Wonder” day.
I thought I’d honor a few that don’t get nearly enough attention – and maybe, just maybe, should have been multi-hit wonders.
Did Donnie Iris ever have another hit after “Ah Leah?”
Not sure he needed to:
Canada’s Honeymoon Suite was one of a thousand five-piece pop-rock bands from the eighties – Loverboy, Glass Tiger, Survivor, Scandal, Limited Warranty, and on and on.
But “New Girl Now” from 1984 was freaking cool song:
(And yeah, I know – “Feel It Again” hit the top forty too. But barely. I mean, come on).
Speaking of Canadian bands – let’s not forget The Kings (and one of the most atrocious reconstructed videos, for one of the coolest one hit wonders ever…)
Some German wave-pop? 1982′s “Major Tom” by Peter Schilling counts:
Opposite extreme? One I didn’t expect to find – this live version of Little Steven (aka Miami Steve, aka Silvio Dante) and the Disciples of Soul’s “Forever”, which grazed the top forty for a week in 1982:
That should do for this year…
I know, I know. ABC was a Brit synth-pop band, famous for their haircuts and their beeping/squawking genre.
Worse? It was part of the generation of “British Soul” that gave us a few useful apeings of sixties and seventies American soul music (Simply Red, Allison Moyet, Eurhythmics) and a whole lot of dreck.
And ABC, over the course of three major US albums (and many more in the UK) a bunch of the eighties music I’ve filed under the “I’d just as soon forget” file; The Look Of Love, Poison Arrow, When Smokey Sings, and on and on.
ABC – it’s really mostly singer Martin Fry, honestly – could largely be forgotten with no great loss…
…except for “All Of My Heart”, the third and least-known single off of their US platinum-seller Lexicon of Love…
…which is a song Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or the Four Tops (or, in the deeper recesses of my imagination, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes) could have done with a straight face. Of the whole mediocre raft of eighties Brit synth-”soul” singers, Fry was one of precious few that could carry Smokey’s gig bag (in the same way that Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall could at least hint toward the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs’ vocal chops).
And it doesn’t get much better than that – among eighties Brit “soul” haircut pop.
There’ some important news to report.
If you know how to party say yeah…
Steve Van Zandt (Sopranos, Lilyhammer, Underground Garate, the E Steet Band) is putting together the Darlene Love comeback album he promised…three decades ago.
He plans to get back on schedule in style:
To make it worth the wait, he’s enlisted many of his famous friends to accompany the singer, who recently reentered the spotlight after being featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, the acclaimed documentary on backup singers. Speaking to Rolling Stone on the red carpet before Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s Cheek to Cheek taping in New York City Monday night, he listed a who’s who of songwriters.
“I’m writing,” he says. “Elvis Costello’s writing. I’ve talked to Bruce [Springsteen] about a song.” Additionally, Van Zandt says he’s been in touch with the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann – who wrote the Spector-popularized hits “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Walking in the Rain,” among others – as well as Mike Stoller, coauthor of early rock hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and singer-songwriter Carole King.
“Everybody I know that is a great songwriter, I’m talking to,” Van Zandt says. “We’re hoping to have an all-star album for Darlene, which she deserves.”
Is anyone but me amazed Mike Stoller is still alive?
In the whole history of pop music, the whole “hypstr chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over campfire-style guitar-strumming” is the third worst genre ever hatched (behind only “hypstr chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over plinky pianos” and, worst of all, “hypster chicks warbling out-of-tune protest-y songs over ukuleles”). Wanna call that part of the “war on women?” I’m OK with that. The genre is that bad. Someone’s gotta say it. I’ll take the hit for the betterment of humanity.
On the other hand? If you are a progressive, this song is the call to action you need…:
…because if you are a “progressive”, Elizabeth Warren – Cherokee chieftain that she is – is the only intellectually honest choice for President in 2016.
You don’t have to believe me. The out-of-tune chick warbling partly in-tune over the politely-strummed, co-op-approved campfire guitar has spoken.
Longtime friend of the blog “Barry” emails in regard to my muted rip on the Monkees last week (which, in my defense, was less a rip on the Monkees than an example of how pop culture likes to follow up success with as many copies of the successful as they can paste together):
In defense of the Monkees I offer the following article from CNN, a source I know you regard as unimpeachable:
My opinion that the Monkees are underrated is suspect, however, because when you go to the dictionary and look up “nerd” you find my picture. FWIW.
Barry and the CNN piece are right, of course – and there’s a big potential series of music posts in the whole story. The Beatles were among the first superstars to write their own music; the Monkees were among the later products of an entertainment industry that had specialized trades to do that sort of thing.
Anyway, read the whole thing…
For every Beatles, there’s gotta be a Monkees.
For every New York Dolls, there’s a Kiss.
For every Springsteen, there’s a Meat Loaf.
Indeed, for every Madonna, there’s gotta be a Martika or a Keedy or a Regina.
For every artist in popular music that makes changes by him or her or themselves, there’s going to be some record company’s attempt to create the same thing only bigger and better.
And so for Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, there was Billy Idol.
If you’ve got sixteen minutes to spare, here’s an answer to the question “so was the E Street Band ever any more than three chords and a big finish?”
That’s “Kitty’s Back” – a deep deep cut from 1974′s The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle,from 1975′s legendary Hammersmith Odeon gig.
It’s frustrating, sometimes, to observe that the E Street Band hasn’t played anything like this in a couple of decades.
It was July 1, 1984. I took off from Jamestown at around 5AM in – what else? – my ’73 Monte Carlo
with a 396, Fuellie heads and a Hurst on the floor, and drove through a long, hot July day. Poring over my Amoco map of the Twin Cities – where I’d never driven before – I got to Saint Paul, pulled off the Marion Street exit and parked up by the Cathedral (where a friend of mine had parked the car when we drove down to see The Who in 1982), and made my way down Kellogg to downtown Saint Paul around 2 in the afternoon.
I wandered down to Saint Peter and then Wabasha street, back in the days when there were still stores between Fourth and Sixth streets across from Dayton’s and Ecolab, dazzled by the hustle and bustle of downtown Saint Paul.
I did mention I was from North Dakota, right? And that “hustle and bustle” were very relative concepts? Compared to Fargo – the biggest city I’d ever spent serious time in – Saint Paul was kinda hustly and bustly.
In those days, anyway.
Some of the landmarks from my wandering are still there; the Coney Island still has the exact same hand-scrawled paper “Under Renovation” sign today that it had back then, I think; I thought about eating at Mickey’s Diner, but it was too crowded and I wanted a damn beer. Others – the Burger King/Taco Johns in the funny glass building on 5th, across from Daytons; Daytons itself; Brady’s Pub, where I stopped for a burger and a beer for lunch, Gallivan’s - are long gone.
After lunch, I wandered down Fifth to the Plaza in front of the old Civic Center.
It was getting toward three in the afternoon; I heard some noises inside, and it sounded like the band was getting into its soundcheck. The plaza – including the long row of stairs leading to the endless rank of doors – was thronged with people, mostly looking for tickets. I walked past, listening to the sound of a bass guitar tuning up.
And I figured “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
I walked to the very leftmost of the long row of doors that overlooked 7th and Kellogg, and gave it a furtive tug, expecting to find it locked.
It wasn’t. It pulled open a few inches; I could hear someone tapping on a drum set.
Understand – I was never much of a rule-breaker. I was always terrified of being in trouble.
But I checked to make sure nobody was watching, inside or outside, and slipped indoors.
I hustled across the concourse to a gate, stepped inside…
…and saw the E Street Band, down on the stage, a level below me. Nearest me was the Big Man, with his sax, wearing sweats and a cap. Danny Federici was on the riser behind him, checking registrations on his Hammond. Nills Lofgren was warming up downstage. Max Weinberg tapped drums as the sound guy rang out the room. Gary Tallent played some scales; Roy Bittan noodled on the keyboard. Then they stopped, chatted, and then Max counted four, and they launched into an instrumental of “Glory Days”, as the sound crew adjusted levels.
I grabbed a seat, and watched the band, and listen to the sound guys tweaking the levels, and just marinated in the whole wanton lawnlessness of it all.
About the time the song ended, someone tapped my shoulder. It was a roadie, in a black t-shirt and jeans. I half expected to get my ass kicked – and it would have been worth it, honestly.
“Excuse me, sir…”
“Yeah, I know”, I responded, getting up. “I’ll leave”.
The roadie nodded. “Thanks”. He was downright polite about the whole thing. “Hey, before you go – how did you get in?”
I showed the roadie the unlocked door, and he thanked me as I stepped back out onto the plaza. I walked down to Kellogg…
…as a white Olds Cutlass with a “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band “Born in the USA Tour 1984″ Tour” decal rolled past. In the passenger seat was Bruce.
He waved back.
I walked down to Paddy McGovern’s for another beer. I had some time to kill.
So technically that – and not the actual concert, still 5-6 hours away – was the first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live.
Eventually – the doors opened at 7, I think – I got into the building legally, found my seat (row 59 on the floor), and waited for the show. And waited.
And finally – right around 9PM – the lights went down, the crowd got on its feet, the band filtered onstage in the dark, and a spotlight picked out Springsteen at the mike. He counted off four, and Bittan’s skirling synths and Weinberg’s drums kicked off “Born in the USA”.
The rest of the show? It’s a blur – and yet vast swathes of the show are as clear in my head as if I’d just seen the show:
I think the band stepped out for a brief intermission here.
And then the band left the stage.
And returned a few minutes later to play an encore:
They left the stage again – but the crowd would have none of it.
The concert let out around 1AM. I debouched onto the street with the rest of the crowd, and made a beeline for my car, up by the Cathedral.
And as I walked up Cathedral Hill, I thought – yeah, it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.
And as I walked up a side street toward my car, I looked back at Saint Paul, all lit up and teeming with people and knew it; I just had to start angling my life plans toward getting out of North Dakota after I graduated.
(For those who were around at the time? No, it was the second night of the tour. I didn’t get tickets for the first night, June 29, at the Civic – the opening night of the entire tour. The one where they filmed the “Dancing in the Dark” video, in which a very young Courney Cox, planted in the audience, was introduced to the world via a “live” vid produced by Brian DePalma. Sure, you remember it.
But it was pretty cool anyway. Here’s a fanpage with a ton of scanned memorabilia from the June 29 show, and a much less complete set of swag and quotes from the show I was at. And here’s the complete audio from the June 29 show – the opening night of the Born in the USA tour, two nights earlier).
Oh, yeah – the ticket? For 59th row on the floor? $16.50.
I can’t stand Madonna.
Madonna the expert player of the media? Forget Madonna, I’m over Lady Gaga, and I’m bored with whatever comes next. Whoever it is. Already.
Her “signficant artist” phase? Her coffee-table photo book “Sex” got all those pretensions sent back to the clubs pronto.
The original Madonna, of “Holiday” and “Like a Virgin” fame? She came out during my too-good-for-dance-club music phase, and oozed “manufactured pop treacle” to me.
Nope. Don’t much care about Madonna.
Yeah, I know – she was the “woman who rawks”-du-jour about this time twenty years ago. She was the Annette Funicello of the Grunge generation – or as a rock critic dubbed her, the “Queen of alt-rock angst”.
And I hate angst.
Well…other peoples’ angst. Mostly. Not so much my own.
But I digress.
And her musical heyday was, to be blunt, not my own. I’d just gotten out of a couple of years of working in bars, and was pretty much tired of music everyone else liked, and had three kids to take care of instead of listening to music. So when my stepson brought home a copy of Jagged Little Pill, I pretty much disliked it even before I heard it.
But seeing that she’s turning 40 (!) on Sunday, I figured it’d be a good time to unpack this particular love-hate relationship.
She tends toward the shrill – but it’s a really intense kind of shrill, one that wears me out. There are times it seems like she does the same half-dozen songs forty different ways.
But every once in a while she writes a song I wish I could have written myself:
And in her day – I discovered right after her day – she had one of the best touring bands in the business, which took what could – should – have been a live train wreck suitable only for women’s studies classes and feminist coffee shops and turned it into some damned fine, solid, in-tune-and-on-beat, tight performances:
That’s Taylor Hawkins on drums – currently with the Foo Fighters, and likely the best drummer to come out of the alt-rock genre. The bass player? Chris Chaney, one of the most underrated bass players around (and wasting away in the current incarnation of Jane’s Addiction). And a couple of guitar players, including a guy with a Fender Jaguar, which was very au courant in Seattle in the nineties, and not a bad instrument if you couldn’t handle a Jazzmaster.
Anyway – I know it’s wrong. But them’s the facts.
It’s one of the driving forces behind radio station formatting; people tend to become most attached to the music that they heard in adolescence – from about 12 to the early-mid 20s. That’s the time of one’s life when hormone-addled emotions grab and internalize emotional markers for the rest of peoples’ lives.
Music is, of course, one of the most emotionally immediate art forms.
And so for the past sixty years, radio stations have banked their economic futures on playing music that resonate with each succeeding demographic group’s musical emotional markers.
If you’re one of the first wave of Baby Boomers, then, the Beatles were Top Forty radio when you were in your teens and twenties; as you moved through your thirties and forties, they became “classics”. And as you slide toward the tail end of your big-money earning years, they become “Oldies”. And in 10-15 years, you’ll start seeing “nostalgia” stations playing sixties music.
Presuming music radio still exists, of course.
But as I’ve noted in this series – at least in re yours truly – there’s a separate emotional motivation – the one that leads to staking out one’s own identity. In my case, it involved seeking out music that everyone at Jamestown High School wasn’t already listening to – at that time, the punk, new wave, and other non-top-40 stuff that was starting to make waves by the mid-late seventies – and eschewing the stuff that was popular at the time – the Linda Ronstadts, the Bee Gees, Barry Manilows, Andrew Golds, Eagles, Olivia Newton Johns, Kisses and Bad Companys and Seals and Croftses and whatever else dominated the charts during that post-Watergate, post-Beatles, pre-Reagan era.
And at the intersection of those two emotional drives was Boston. Or at least their first album.
On the one hand – it was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies. You look up “overproduced” in the dictionary, you see a drawing of Tom Scholtz, the group’s founder / guitarist / keyboarist / songwriter / dictator / superego / producer / electronic research engineer / sole remaining original member. There was not a spontaneous bit of music, or an unaltered natural sound, anywhere on 1976 debut album. It was the product – in both senses of the word – of Scholtz’ manic vision and Epic Records’ marketing plan. And that was the stuff that teenage punks were supposed to eschew up and spit out
On the other hand? It was the most perfect example of “corporate rock” of the seventies.
To a generation of kids, discovering the big wide world and out-of-town radio and girls is inextricably tied in with Tom Scholtz’ shimmering acoustic guitar; with Barry Goodreau’s mega-multi-tracked guitar pyrotechnics; with Brad Delp’s every-bit-as-enhanced-as-Kim-Kardashian’s-butt vocals; above all, with the overall sound, which is no more spontaneous than a meal cooked by a molecular gastronomer…
…and no less gloriously perfect.
And for all of Pete Townsend’s purported dabbling into psychoacoustic research into patterns of sound that humans can not resist, it’d be hard to find a better example of any such phenomenon than “More than a Feeling”, “Long Time”…
…and probably half a dozen other moments on the first album
If I were an eccentric billionaire, I might well pay a couple of psych grad students a few grand to determine whetherBoston- or especially “More than a Feeling” and “Long Time” – don’t have some sort of pavlovian, autonomic response among a generation of guys from 45-53 or so.
And so while the obnoxious teen punk Mitch Berg didn’t say it too loud? In a place that punk never talked about, even with his closest musical friends, Boston – and Boston – got quietly grandfathered in on the list of “music I’ll keep listening to with unironic joy”. And there was always a copy of Boston lying around somewhere – a cassette in an unmarked case, in the case of an, er, friend of mine.
In the wake of the breakup of the Beatles – who were probably the last musical group in history on which nearly everyone in the music-fan world, black, white, “serious”, pop, alt, mainstream – agreed, many different currents in pop music battled for public mindshare.
One genre that’d been largely waiting in pop music’s wings since before the Beatles got of the plane in New York was the various incarnations of folk music – both the “impure”, Bob Dylan strain that was mixing in rock and roll influences, and the more purist variety that was horrified by Dylan’s experimentation.
Naturally, over time, both subgenres mixed, frayed, developed orthodoxies, and apostates from those orthodoxies, and…well, became pretty much like any other genre of music.
And with the disappearance of the Beatles, and the retirement of the Formerly Fab Four to their single neutral musical corners, and the rest of the British Invasion either moving to consolidate their niches in pop culture (the Stones, the Who) and the deaths Hendrix and a slew of other sixties’ pioneers (Janis Joplin) and overrated hangers-on (Jim Morrison), some space appeared for some of those subgenres to make a move for center stage, as it were.
And of all of folk’s subgenres, one – the “Singer/Songwriter” – was most perfectly placed to reflect the zeitgeist of the decade. The seventies were a mewling, neutered, utterly un-funky decade, clogged with self-doubt and angst and anxiety about what one really, reallywas - and so were the Singer-Songwriters.
Loosely modeled after Bob Dylan, but with an extra helping of bathetic sensitivity and a little light on the inventiveness and the insight, the singer-songwriters were a little like the nebbishy folk musicians that’d clogged Greenwich Village and Haight Ashbury and Cedar-Riverside a decade earlier – but they’d skipped “Howl” and read “Bell Jar” instead.
They were many; John “Welcome Back Kotter” Sebastian, Dan Fogelberg, John Denver (soon to be subject of one of these pieces), Jim Croce (ditto), Jackson Browne (yep), John Prine (probably), Lobo and Terry Jacks and a zillion similar (not a chance).
But towering high above all of them, at least on the decade’s sales charts was James Taylor.
Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:
I need a mood-sensing iPod to play only songs that fit my mood; otherwise, I must click to skip songs that don’t fit my mood and that annoys me, which puts me in a bad mood. For example:
Doctor My Eyes
Does Anybody Know What Time It Is (Chicago Transit Authority album long version)
Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina (Patti LuPone version)
Don’t Cry for Me, Eileen
should Not be followed by Helen Reddy scolding me “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Steve Jobs would have understood this. Get on it, please.
All I know is come tax time, my MP3 player ran “Money Changes Everything”, “Gimme Some Money” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” back to back.
One of the key tenets of being a late-seventies, early eighties musical “rebel” was rejecting not only the bland corporate rock and jet-set superstars of the seventies, but affecting a studied boredom with the sixties. The Beatles were fun, but they were old news. The Stones had turned into a multinational enterprise more famous for their glam lifestyle than any actual music they’d done since 1972 or so. Don’t even start talking about the Moody Blues, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers…
But there were two survivors of the British Invasion that still demanded respect. The Kinks (of whom more later), who were sort of like the garage band we all wanted to have, run by Ray Davies, the same too-clever, too snarky, too-cool-to-be-a-hipster kind of guy we all aspired to be (or better yet, little brother Dave, the guitar anti-hero who spawned many a punk imitator)…
…and The Who.
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 Next, Dark 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…
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!
It’s been my ear worm all day:
And it probably will be tomorrow too.
(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.
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.
…that my blog doesn’t have nearly enough arctic fox or eighties hair-metal references.
I live to serve.
…is one thing.
Doing all 100 in one 12 minute take, and with only one little tiny flub?
Now that is impressive.