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.

One HIt Wonder Day 2014

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…

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Secretly Enjoy

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.

This Could Be Really Good

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?

That’s Rock And Roll

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.

Daydream Revisionist

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…

Things I’m Supposed To Like But Never Really Did: Billy Idol

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.

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Today’s Musical Palate-Cleanser

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.

When Scooter And The Big Man Busted This City In Half

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. 

The old Saint Paul 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.

I waved.

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 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:

  • Born in the U.S.A. - In its full, bombastic glory.
  • Prove It All Night - Nils Lofgren – who was a world-class guitar hero and solo artist for over a decade before joining the E Street Band – got to take an extended solo, trading licks with Bruce during an explosive, eight minute version of those Darkness-era classic.  
  • Out in the Street -  This was where Patti Scialfa ran out onto the stage and made her debut; it took me completely by surprise (I had avoided reading any reviews of the show’s first night, two nights earlier).  
  • Reason to Believe – As I recall, it was a sort of rockabillyish arrangement of the Nebraska classic. 
  • Atlantic City - I had always dreamed about doing a full-band arrangement of this song.  This one was it; huge, thunderous, everything I’d thought it should have been.
  • Open All Night -
  • Mansion on the Hill  – Open All Night and Mansion on the Hill were kind of a test; after the powerhouse opening, switching to a couple of numbers with just Bruce and Nils on acoustic guitar.  Some of the crowd wanted to rock – but for the most part, people stayed tuned in.
  • Darlington County - After the downbeat Nebraska segment, the party started again. 
  • Glory Days
  • The Promised Land Then as now, one of my favorites.
  • Used Cars
  • My Hometown - along with Used Cars, another slower sweep – although My Hometown was a gloriously intense full-band arrangment.
  • Badlands – Aaand the reward to everyone for hanging in there during the quiet part of the set; the roof may not have come off the Civic, but it sure came off of me.
  • Thunder Road

I think the band stepped out for a brief intermission here. 

  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Hungry Heart
  • Dancing in the Dark 
  • Sherry Darling
  • Nebraska
  • Pink Cadillac
  • Fire
  • Bobby Jean
  • Ramrod
  • Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)  – We didn’t quite realize how lucky we were; they stopped performing this one on tour not long after, and only played it rarely live for many more years.

And then the band left the stage.

And returned a few minutes later to play an encore:

  • I’m a Rocker  – It had been kind of a light, trifling garage-rocker on The River – but here, it was an epic, thundering anthem.
  • Jungleland  – The lights came down, and Bruce started the first verse…and forgot the words.  And as he stole a look at a cheat sheet, the crowd of 18,000 finished the verse until Bruce got back on top of the lyrics.
  • Born to Run (segue into) Street Fighting Man  – This medley alone was worth a blog post of its very own.  The band tore through “Born To Run” the way it was meant to be torn through.  And then – as the band vamped through the ending of the song, Bruce counted four, and the house lights came on, and the band ripped into a full-electric version of by far my favorite Rolling Stones song.  And I stood on my chair – I hadn’t actually sat in it since intermission – and looked around at 18,000 people dancing in the aisles.  And I got a little dizzy from the sheer sensation of the whole thing; it may have been the most perfect rock and roll moment I’ve seen.

They left the stage again – but the crowd would have none of it.

  • Detroit Medley  – of which not much needs to be said.

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.

Things I’m Supposed To Hate, But Kinda Like Anyway: Madonna

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.

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Things I’m Supposed To Hate But Kinda Like: Alanis Morrisette

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.

Rethinking The Seventies: Boston

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.

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Reconsidering The Seventies: James Taylor

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.

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Tech We Can Use

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

Dear Apple,

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

Doctor Wu

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.

Joe Doakes

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.

Reconsidering The Seventies: The Who

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.

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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…

Reconsidering 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!