It was sixty years ago today – when Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets officially reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This is generally regarded as the beginning of the “Rock and Roll Era”.
Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.
Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.
Much Noise, Signifying…: Speaking for me? Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.
As to the former, the musical talent? It was always the band’s long suit. I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:
Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984. It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.
But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).
But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.
Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?”
Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music. Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:
It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song. In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.
But it wasn’t the last.
So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan? Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:
The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin. They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.
And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.
The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do. Far and away. Assassinate me? Bring it.
No Respect: I wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes. The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:
In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”
Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …
Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide. And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.
At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…
I’m working my way through two inches of abstract of title to a parcel of real estate, preparing to write an Attorney’s Opinion on Title, while listening to “Truckin” by the Grateful Dead. Enjoying my job today, the music is a big part of it.
What do other SITD readers listen to?
The last ten songs on my rotation:
“Take It Inside”, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
Ben Beaumont-Thomas of the Guardian on the Roland TR808 drum machine, which turns 35 this year:
It struck a chord as an instrument that truly reflected the 80s. “Home computers were coming on the scene, and it just fitted in with that,” says Joe Mansfield, a drum machine collector who wrote this year’s pictorial history Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. “It sounded futuristic, what you thought a computer would sound like if it could play the drums.” It began to seep into the mainstream, as the backbeat to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, and across the Atlantic to the UK into, firstly, the industrial and post-punk scenes, where Graham Massey of Manchester acid house act 808 State first encountered it.
“It had that industrial heritage, but had that soul heritage,” he says. “The Roland gear began to be a kind of Esperanto in music. The whole world began to be less separated through this technology, and there was a classiness to it – you could transcend your provincial music with this equipment.” Massey made hip-hop with the 808, and then, because he couldn’t afford anything else, used it for house too, making “dense, jungle-like” tracks that also deployed the 909. “On the 909 the kick was a bit more in your chest, a bit more of an aggressive drum machine. The 808 almost seems feminine next to it … the cowbell on the 808, that’s the thing that says mid-80s R&B to me – SOS Band, big dancefloor anthems, which were a massive thing in the north-west of England. It wasn’t just nerdy DJ culture, it was a ‘ladies’ night’ kind of music.”
It was a commercial flop – but the TR808 has influenced music of the 1980s through 2010s the same way the Fender Stratocaster influenced the fifties through the seventies.
No, really; you’ve heard it, whether you know it or not:
When I bought my first multitrack recorder (a Fostex four-track cassette machine), I got the next generation – smaller and cheaper, not more authentic-sounding. And while the sound quality of digital sampling drum simulators, software and hardware, has improved, they haven’t done much to improve the control a producer has over the way his “drummer” plays. Trying to make drum “loops” on a computer just isn’t the same.
In my heart, I’m still a rock and roll musician. The urge to start another band – if only for the fun of it – someday still lurks deep in my heart.
But it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to make the time. The last time I played a gig in public was July of 1996. The last time I actually had a band was the winter of 2001 – we never played out. And the last time I actually saw a band live in a bar was probably sometime in the fall of 2002.
So when I was walking up Wabasha in downtown Saint Paul back around the end of March, by the Amsterdam Bar, and saw a poster for “Katrina, formerly of The Waves” doing a show on April 4, the idea of actually seeing it flashed briefly, then went out.
And then I stopped, and turned around, and looked at the poster.
And thought “why not?”
And so when I got home, I got on Ticketfly, and ordered a ticket. And thought; “how do I do club concerts anymore?
Going Down To Uppertown To Do Nothing: We’ve talked about Katrina and the Waves; their past as a “one hit wonder” that shouldn’t have been here in the US, combined with a slew of really excellent pop music that had a bunch of hits in Canada and Europe.
Of course, the Waves broke up in 1999, after a brief comeback in 1997 in the UK; their lead-singer, the iron-lunged Katrina Leskanich, has had a spotty solo career since then.
So I figured why not?
Red Wine And Jack Daniels: I’d never been to the Amsterdam before (at least not since it was “Pop”, back around 2010-ish). The front of the house – the bar and restaurant – is “bohemian” with an uptown sheen. The back of the joint – the “Hall” – affects “rock and roll club”, all black and worn and rough-hewn, without the whole “sticking to the seats” and “getting pounded by bouncers” experience that the real thing always gave you back in your twenties.
I got there late; I missed the first act, and caught the last two songs of the mid-card act, “The Flaming Ohs”, a band I first saw during Ronald Reagan’s first term, and didn’t like much during the second (and only two of whose original members are still alive).
I was a little gratified to notice that on this, my first venture back to a club in 12 years, I was actually right around median age; lots of forty and fiftysomething fans turned out for this, the band’s first stop in the Twin Cities since Mikhail Gorbachev was in power.
Walking On Stage Light: The surest sign everyone involved had grown up? The band got onstage promptly at the advertised time, 9:50:
I started taking a selfie at 9:50; as i was trying to get the light right, Katrina walked on stage. Yep, that’s her.
And they were on!
That’s them; Katrina, along with bassist Sean Koos, drummer Kevin Tooley, and guitar player Jimi K Bones.
The setlist was concise, and actually a pretty decent mix of crowd faves from the eighties and Katrina’s new stuff (or, for all I know, stuff from after 1988; let’s be honest, I didn’t pay that much more attention to them than anyone else…):
Rock and Roll Girl
Red Wine And Whiskey – it’s always been my favorite Waves song
Going Down to Liverpool – including a nice shout-out to the Bangles, whose cover of this song opened the door for the Waves making it in the US
That’s The Way – their very underrated single from their 1986 followup album, a song that should have been a big hit.
Sun Coming Upper – the single off of her new album.
Texas Cloud – another new one, with sounds like it was written on a long Stevie Ray Vaughan jag
Show Me Every Scar – at least I think that was the title; I wasn’t familiar with it.
Where The Roses Grow – another new one, but a good one.
Do You Want Crying – another great one from the eighties
If You Can – again, guessing at the title, but it was a good tune…
Don’t Want No Washed Up Man – a waved-up cover of an Etta James song
Walking On…wait for it… Sunshine.
Katrina, during some between-song patter. Turns out she’s working on a book on diners – and she’d never heard of Mickey’s Diner. Some had dragged her over there after she’d gotten into town from Milwaukee earlier in the day Saturday. She approved.
Cry To Me: Katrina is not Katrina and the Waves. That’s neither and both bad and good.
Comparing the material from her post-Waves albums, it’s easy to see how the
Waves-era material benefited from being a team effort (“Walking on Sunshine” was written by Waves guitarist Kim Rew; “Do You Want Crying” by bassist Vince De La Cruz). A team effort that catches a stray bit of fire, like the Rew/De La Cruz/Leskanich efforts did for couple of glorious years in the eighties, is a rare and largely very focused thing.
The newer material is all over the map; “Texas Cloud” sounds like one of the ZZ Top songs that Leskanich performed in cover bands before the Waves made it big; “Sun’s Coming Upper” was moody and introspective and a big swerve from the stuff that put the band on the map.
I went there expecting a musical roller coaster ride; most gigs from musicians that have been and out of the public eye for a generation are. The muse is a fickle critter.
The band – journeyman session drummer Kevin Tooley, guitarist Jimi K Bones (of one of later-era versions of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, as well as Kix), and bass player Sean Koos (another former Blackheart, among many other bands) was actually a lot tighter than I’d ever seen the Waves; they took what could have come across as a Holiday Inn lounge nostalgia act and made it crackle with energy.
Bones takes a solo.
And that was by no means a given; the show at the Amsterdam was the final stop on a fifteen-gig tour that started Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. And for bands that aren’t currently lighting up the Top Forty, that means road travel, not flying, for the most part.
Second sign that everyone had grown up in the past thirty years? The show was over not too terribly long after 11, and most of the crowd hit the doors; there was no chanting for an encore.
Which meant it was a nice, relaxed little group that greeted Leskanich and the rest of the band when they came out into the hall about half an hour later. I got a chance to talk rock and roll history with Bones, and tell Leskanich how much I’d enjoyed her music. Nothing major, just fun.
To: Thom Yorke; Leader, Radiohead
From: Mhitch Berge, uppity music buff
Re: Marketing Idea
While I’ve never been a big fan of Radiohead’s music, I’ve always enjoyed your marketing innovations.
You were the first major artist to put all your music online. You were the first to try a “pay us what you want” pricing model.
Of course, other models have come and gone. But I’m going to propose something to vault you ahead of everyone else.
Post your master recordings online.
Make the Logic or ProTools masters (or get really radical and export them to GarageBand and Audacity) available for anyone to download, remix, re-record, add their own vocals, or whatever. Become the first open-source superstars.
Over the weekend on the Northern Alliance, King Banaian, Ed Morrissey and I got together for the long-threatened “Worst Music of the Seventies” episode.
We picked some true horrors between us; “Last Song” by Edward Bear, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” by Lobo, “Convoy” by CW McCall, and on and on.
But the general consensus was, the worst of the lot was “I’ve Never Been To Me” by Charlene, one of Ed’s nominations.
If you’re of a certain age, or were accidentally exposed by other means, you’ve heard the song. But just in case you haven’t heard it, I’ll put it right here for you.
WARNING: You can’t un-hear this song
I remembered the song all too well – although not as well as I thought I did, which only means that the human psyche is designed to protect itself. It came out in 1977, not 1979, as I thought I remembered. But I wasn’t completely off; Mary McGregor, most famous for her 1978 hit “Torn Between Two Lovers) released, heaven help us, a cover of the song in ’79, which was the one I remember playing at my first radio job.
But as Ed, King and I played some of the worst music of all time, I took my mind off the pain by looking up factoids about the various songs. And I learned some amazing stuff; careers started, lost and restarted; major names in the industry slumming between major breaks, or prostituting themselves to find their first major break.
And the story behind this wretched, wretched song was far from an exception. It involves the classic story; a girl, a songwriter, a producer, and a douchebag disk jockey.
The Girl: Charlene (born Charlene D’Angelo, although her first stage name was Charlene Duncan, after her her first husband, a justifiably obscure record producer. She had some chops; she was 23 when she was signed to a subsidiary of Motown.
Yes, Motown. Signed by no other than…
The Producer: Berry Gordy, the Father of Motown and one of America’s legendary musical impresarios. And he’s listed as one of “I’ve Never Been…”‘s producers.
Of course, not everyone Gordy signed was a Temptations or a Four Seasons or a Marvin Gaye, or even a Flaming Ember. Gordy had his finger in a lot of different musical pies, and had a staff of people who cranked out music in all sorts of genres.
Which leads us to…
The Songwriters: The song was written by Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch. You may not have heard of them; not everyone can be Lennon and McCartney, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King. Someone has to be Freddie and the Dreamers, Billy Crudup, or Neil Sedaka. And that was where Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch fit into the music business.
Not without success, mind you; Miller wrote a string of hits for Stevie Wonder (“A Place in the Sun”, “Heaven Help Us All”, and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”), Diana Ross (“Touch Me in the Morning”) and a trove of other music that hovers just outside the edges of the American musical conscience. And Hirsch was a professional co-writer, having teamed up with Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Doc Pomus, Gerry Goffin, Carole Bayer Sager, Paul Williams and a dog’s breakfast of lesser lights; he scored hits, albeit minor ones, for everyone from Ray Charles to Air Supply.
Together, they teamed up and, in the style of the times, wrote “I’ve Never Been To Me”. And they gave it to…
…well, everyone. R&B singer Randy Crawford did it first; Nancy “Not The One From Heart” Wilson and Walter Jackson both did it the same year Charlene first released it, and the covers (including MacGregor’s, which was the only one to make serious bank before 1982) kept coming.
The lack of sales dogged Charlene; after her second album, Gordy dropped her. She retired from the music business, and moved to England, where she married a Brit, Jeff Oliver. Sh was working in a candy store in London in 1982.
The Douchebag Disc Jockey: Scott Shannon is legendary in the radio business. This may be good, or it may be bad, depending on your point of view; as a mid-market program director in the mid-eighties, he was one of the prime movers behind “CHR”, or “Contemporary Hit Radio”, which was what “Top Forty” became by the early nineties. He also was one of the pioneers of the “Morning Zoo” format. By the early nineties, he was one of the people that smaller-market program directors – including my boss at the time, at KDWB – worshipped and emulated.
If you don’t have a big background in radio, you might have heard of him one of three ways: he had a really awful TV and radio countdown show back in the nineties; today, he’s one of the hosts of a show called “Dish Nation”, an ultra-cheapo knockoff of “TMZ” which takes footage from various morning radio shows around the country and edits them into a half-hour…well, ultra cheap knockoff of TMZ. And he’s been the voice-over guy in all of Sean Hannity’s breakbeds since Hannity went national.
But in 1982, he was working as a program director in Tampa, looking to make a splash and make it to the bigs. And while vaccuuming out the oldies bin, he came across Charlene’s 1977 flop.
And started playing it.
Nobody knows why. Shannon officially said he liked the song; the more I read about the song’s resurgence, the more I think it involved an intoxicated wager that he, and the world, lost.
No matter; Shannon played it, and played it to death. Major-market program directors in those days were basically herd animals; if they saw a PD adding a song to his playlist, they’d stampede to follow suit. No, seriously; “Roxette” became a hit in the US because one PD, KDWB’s Brian Phillips, added them; dozens of other PDs ran in a panicked mob to add the song, not wanting to be left out of…well, whatever it was.
And so Charlene Oliver was dragged out of retirement, put into her wedding dress (really) and dragged out to an English major house to record a video, and became a star, briefly
The Aftermath: The song went to #3. And then disappeared. As, basically, did Charlene. Motown featured her in a huge publicity campaign, including the movie “The Last Dragon”, featuring cameos and music by a raft of new Motown stars (Vanity, DeBarge, Rockwell, and others, including Charlene). The others garnered a brief career boost; Charlene faded back into obscurity.
So just remember, kids; talent and hard work might get you someplace. But being in the right place at the right time has no substitute.
The 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.
…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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.