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.
This is an update of a piece I wrote five years ago.
It was 30 years ago today that Big Country’s The Crossing was released.
In America, Big Country has that “one-hit wonder” patina about them, which only goes to show that when it comes to music, too many Americans are ignorant clods.
While The Crossing‘s “In A Big Country” was, indeed, their only real entry into the Top40 in America, it’d be hard to overestimate what a blast of fresh air the album was in 1983.
1983 was a great year in music; it was also the year that provided many of the decade’s musical punch lines; “Putting On The Ritz” by Taco, “Mr. Roboto” by Styx, “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, Kajagoogoo and Culture Club and Asia and Naked Eyes and Laura Branigan and not one but two Jim Steinman bombast-fests (Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”) duked it out with some of the great pop music of all time; “Little Red Corvette”, Michael Jackson’s entire Thriller album back before he turned into a walking freak show, and a long list of other classics.
Amid all the good and all the bad, there was a definite trend; it was the era of the synthesizer. The battle between analog instruments like the guitar, bass, physical drums and mechanical and electromechanical keyboards like the piano and organ on the one hand and purely-electronic ones like the synth and the sequencer had just begun.
(And if you’ve listened to pop radio lately, you know that the electronics won. But we’re getting fifteen years ahead of ourselves).
Some declared the guitar dead. Articles in Rolling Stone said that the new wave (heh heh) of cheap electronic technology would finally euthanize the venerable analog stringed instrument. It was the year Yamaha’s revolutionary DX7 synthesizer hit the market, bringing digital Frequency Modulation technology down to around $1,000 for the first time, making it possible for pretty much anyone (with $1,000) to create any sound they wanted, save it onto cassettes (or, for a few bucks more, floppy disks!), play it onto the first inexpensive digital sequencers and MIDI processors and “drum machines” and essentially run a “band” from ones’ keyboard. The future of music, said the wonks, was pasty-faced geeks with hundred dollar haircuts in flamboyant suits, pecking away at keyboards as masses of lobotomized droogs bobbed away in the audience.
Straight into the face of those predictions charged Big Country – a band from Dunfermline, Scotland that mixed technical “wow” with actual fun (the Scottish football-hooligan atmosphere that accompanied their shows and appearances), they blew the knobs and faders off of the synth-wankers that glorious autumn.
The band wrapped itself in “Scotland” – but ironically, none of the band’s members were native Scots. Bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki were from London, guitarist Bruce Watson was Canadian, and guitarist and singer Stuart Adamson was from Manchester (although he grew up in Dunfermline. His impenetrable brogue was the real thing).
The “wow” came partly from technology (really cheap technology, like the MXR Pitch Transposer and the e-bow, basically a hand-held electromagnet that acts like an electronic violin bow, giving a guitar infinite sustain), great guitars (the lads favoredYamaha SG2000s and Fender Strats) clever engineering and pure guitar technique to wrench amazing impersonations from their instruments; they loosely modeled bagpipes, Irish fiddles, and all manner of supercharged traditional instruments which, combined with the Gaelic-y arrangements and playing technique, roused talk of a “Celtic revival” in that year that also brought U2, the Alarm and Simple Minds to the charts.
And of course, there was great musicianship; Butler and Brzezicki were superb session musicians before Big Country; Adamson and Watson were excellent in a more restrained, controlled way.
Adamson and Watson rarely played power chords, sticking to carefully-orchestrated one-and-two-note patterns over their carefully-built sound-setups to create a distinctive, loud, joyful noise.
Nearly every song on the album was a keeper:
“In a Big Country” – hardly needs explaining, right?
“Inwards” – like German techno, played on guitars. By humans. Who are having fun and not praying for imminent nuclear war.
“Chance” – A hit single in the UK, unknown here, but a gorgeous song; spare, evocative guitars and vocal harmonies that, in Tony Butler’s career as a spectacular backup singer, are among his best. Actually one of my two favorite songs on the album.
“1000 Stars” – An infectiously danceable bit of Cold War paranoia.
“The Storm” – As Scots-Gaelic as the flat side of a claymore.
“Harvest Home” – An irresistably danceable song (in the “Sword Dance” vein, rather than “Dancing With The Stars”, or even “Dance Fever with Denny Terrio”), drawn from that bottomless well of Rock and Roll inspiration, the Jacobite Rebellion and the diaspora of Scots afterwards.
“Lost Patrol” – Never liked this one all that much; another one of those “Gaelo-Teutonic techno on guitars” things.
“Fields of Fire” – The other single in the US, and one of many great bagpipe impressions…
“Porrohman” – A fun bit of guitar-effect wizardry to try to pick apart, but it did in fact get tiresome and shrill after a while. Hey, one out of ten ain’t bad…
The album was a huge splash in 1983.
But the band never really had much impact in the US after their debut; they only charted with one more single (“Wonderland“, from the next year, one of my favorites) which peaked at #86, while Steeltown, my favorite Big Country album, barely dented the album charts in the US (it debuted at #1 in the UK). Steeltown’s marquee single, the spectacular “Where The Rose Is Sown“, a Falklands War protest of sorts, didn’t show up at all.
I think I spent sixty hours over my “interim” period in 2004 (my college was on a 4-1-4 system – January was spent on one, all-day class for the whole month) learning how to play and imitate every single song on the album. I had the bagpipe thing figured out, anyway…
Adamson, after years of fighting alcoholism, committed suicide in December of 2001. The band knocked around in limbo for most of the last decade, held up with legal wrangling among the surviving members and the Adamson estate. They re-united last year, with former Alarm frontman Mike Peters singing lead, and Watson’s son Jamie sitting in on guitar.
I’m gonna down a Newcastle and break out the SG in honor of the anniversary.
Mention Irish rock megastars U2 to people, and the reactions you get will span the gamut.
To kids today, a generation after they first came out, it’s probably all about Bono – the peripatetic, bombastic lead singer who’s parlayed a magnificent singing voice and a global pop following into a second career as a global charity leader (and, it needs to be said, arch-capitalist).
To someone who came of age in the nineties? I’d imagine U2 was to them what the Rolling Stones were to me growing up in the late seventies and early eighties; dissipated celebrities noodling with making sense of their megastardom, albeit with less drugs and model-banging, but with a lot more artistic pretension ladled on top.
To hipsters of all eras? Once they left Dublin, they were trayf.
And U2 has been all of that to me, too (except maybe the hipster bit).
But mostly, U2 is the band that tied together two big strands in my own life. And the main catalyst for this, their breakthrough album War, was released thirty years ago today.
And the strands it tied together for me, and with style, were faith and rock and roll.
It was thirty years ago today that Men Without Women by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul was released.
“What? By who and the whaaa?”
Shaddap, siddown and listen.
If there was a place in America that was hermetically sealed against the influence of rhythm and blues music, it was rural North Dakota in the seventies and eighties.
Although that may have been a function of life in the Berg house. I grew up playing classical music – my parents liked that – and then switched to whatever bits and pieces of Rock and Roll leaked through in late junior high. Of course, R&B at the time – the mid-seventies – had more than a whiff of the sort of excess that was off-putting, for purely trivial reasons; bands with a dozen people in lamé suits and purple pimp-wear was a hard sell to a narrowly-focused Scandinavian kid. See The Ohio Players, and get back to me.
But bits and pieces leaked through. Long about eleventh grade, I was working at KEYJ, and some shards of R&B leaked through to me; the gleeful-unto-overflowing soul of Smokey and the MIracles, the naked pain of Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, and best of all, the raw, unbridled, hormones-with-sweat groove of the Stax/Volt bands, especially my then and always favorites, Sam and Dave.
And along about my freshman year of high school, I ran into Bruce Springsteen. And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ve read my writing about his music, how his music impacted me as someone who became a conservative, and the influence his band had on me when it came to music.
But in the days when only Al Gore had access to the internet, stuck in the middle of the prairie, it was hard to get news.
And I’ve never been more bummed about the slowness of news to reach North Dakota than I was about this time 29 years ago. In the summer of 1983, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was walking by a bar. I saw a poster for a band, “Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul”. I remembered the name, but kept walking; I didn’t know much.
It was months later, early in my junior year of college, probably in October of 1983, that I read Jay Cox – always one of the better music critics, in those days – doing his “Ten Best Albums of 1982” piece, in the end-of-the-year edition of Time Magazine.
And #2 on the list was Men Without Women, by LIttle Steven and the Disciples of Soul – the first solo project by the erstwhile “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, Springsteen’s longtime second guitar player, recorded with a who’s who of obscure Jersey Shore and New York musicians. Cox raved about the album – a collection of Stax/Volt-style horn-driven soul with a hard, emotionally naked edge to it.
It was months before I read the Cox review in Time. The album couldn’t be found in Jamestown, of course. I conjured up a reason for a road trip to visit friends at NDSU in Fargo, went to Mother’s Records…
…and there it was.
I raced to Jamestown to find a turntable.
And it’s hard to describe how hard the album smacked me.
We’ll come back to that.
Men Without Women was a throwback in many ways. In musical style, it was horn-driven R&B, a genre that’d retreated to America’s self-styled roadhouses for years. Black R&B was ditching the horns for cheaper synths; white rock and roll (forget about synth-pop) was driven by the guitar.
But the bigger throwback was the recording style. In the fifties and sixties, most “Rhythm and Blues” and early Rock and Roll had been recorded by gathering the band around a few microphones connected to a tape deck, and playing until they got a cut they liked. Listen to “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen; it was recorded on a single microphone, with the band gathered around; one of the reasons the vocals in the song are so famously inscrutable is that the singer was literally yelling over the band to be heard. It was only a little more crude than the usual style of recording at the time.
In the mid-sixties, the Beatles led the rush to multi-track recording; Sergeant Pepper had been recorded using linked four-track tape decks, allowing musicians and engineers to layer many parts on top of each other. By the late sixties and early seventies, eight-track decks at Motown allowed musicians to record, overdub remix, and partially-re-record tracks; recording engineering became an art form unto itself, and that only accelerated as 16, 24, 48 and 64 track studios became the technical lingua franca of the music industry. By the mid-seventies, the Rolling Stones were able to recordExile on Main Street with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman laying down tracks in the Caribbean, ship ’em to Keith Richard and Ron Wood for guitar tracks in London, and thence to Mick Jagger in New York for vocals.
For Men Without Women, Van Zandt – who’d just left the E Street Band to try to establish a solo career – took a huge step back, stylistically and technologically. Recording the old-fashioned way – capturing a live performance – was risky. It depended on capturing a really, really good live performance. For the MWOW sessions, Van Zandt gathered the whole band around a couple of microphones (after a few rehearsals), and had them play the songs straight through; most of the cuts on Men Without Women were done in one or two takes. Van Zandt overdubbed a few guitar and wind tracks later – but it was a very sparing production job. Most of what you hear was exactly as it came out on the floor of the studio.
And it worked. It was huge, raw, sloppy in places, and just a glorious collection of music.
One of the reasons? What a band.
The Disciples featured a group of musicians that were household names among obscurantists and music wonks. The horn section was borrowed from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – and is best known today for having been, mostly, the horn section from the Max Weinberg Seven, of the old Conan O’Brien show. Bassist Jean Bouvoir, a black guy in a striking white mohawk, had just left the seminal shock-punk band The Plasmatics. Drummer Dino Danelli was most famous as the drummer for The Young Rascals, a sixties-era “white soul” band; organ player Felix Cavaliere was also a former Rascal (and was only involved in the recording sessions, not the touring Disciples). A few other players – percussionist Monte Ellison, and cameos from the Gary “U.S.” Bonds and the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg and Danny Federici on a few cuts – rounded out the lineup for the big, beefy, breakneck recording sessions.
The result? Men Without Women was compared to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet – both were raw, horn-driven, R&B drenched sets. But while the Stones album exuded cynical dissipation, and sounded like a hangover set to a rave-up (and before you jump all over me – it’s my favorite Stones album), MWOW was eagerly earnest, with a big, sincere heart right out on its leather sleeve.
I’ve been doing this series of “Thirty Years Ago Today” anniversary posts about great music of the eighties for quite a while now.
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered in writing this series; for many of the records I’ve covered – The RIver, Shoot Out The Lights – it hardly seems like it’s been thirty years, since the records seem (to me, anyway) so very timeless; they’re no less a soundtrack in my forties than they were in my teens and twenties.
With others, though? They’re definitely archaeological artifacts; Boy, U2’s first album, hinted at greatness and timelessness to come, but it was very much a time capsule for an idealistic post-punk do it yourself world of music I craved being in at the time. Zenyatta Mondatta and Blizzard of Ozz seem like museum exhibits showcasing one of those rare times in music when pretty much anything went.
And it’s one of those latter that brings us to today’s anniversary. It was thirty years ago today Prince released 1999.
And it may have not only been one of the greatest albums of the eighties – but if you had to pick an album to serve as a time capsule of what The Eighties were, musically, you could pick a lot worse.
If you saw The Eighties as…:
an inflection point in R&B between the funk of the seventies and the hip-hop-inflected R&B of the nineties, 1999 was a key turning point. While there was no hip-hop on the album – the term was still on the fringe of pop music culture in 1982 – 1999 linked the big-funk-band ’70s with the technology-driven groove that has dominated R&B for the past twenty-odd years. Listen to “DMSR”, and tell me that’s not made for sampling.
an era driven by unprecedented change in music technology: In spades. There’d been synth-pop albums before 1999; there’d be many after. But when it came to integrating bleeding-edge technology (synths, a top-of-the-line Linn drum machine) with tradition (Prince’s signature Hofner guitar, a cheapo knockoff of a Fender Telecaster), 1999 was the gold standard. Listen to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, or the title cut, for two of the most glorious melanges of style…ever!
a period of glorious intermingling between “black” and “white” music: There’s a story – possibly apocryphal, although I remember it came from a decent source back (koff koff) years ago – that John Mellencamp, who was just starting to wiggle his way toward critical respectability, came out to do an encore at a show, carrying a boom box. As the story goes, he said “This is a great rock and roll song”, held the boom box up to the mike, and played “Little Red Corvette” for the audience. This was kind of a big deal for me; you didn’t get exposed to a lot of “black” music in rural North Dakota in those days. And learning from Mellencamp (for whom I didn’t much care at the time) that there was in fact a link between R&B and R&R kicked loose a brick in my mind that got me thinking, and sent me – thirty years ago this coming winter – into the back room at the radio station I was working at, to dig out some old Motwn records and start piecing together the great rock and roll tradition for myself.
Minneapolis’ musical glory days: this was the album that blasted the Twin Cities onto the musical map.
It’s all of that. And it was anything but timeless; how many albums give themselves a shelf-date? The world didn’t end in 2000; everyone had a bomb but we all didn’t die any day, not yet. “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999” is a statement of ironic nostalgia.
I first started this series, “The Real Eighties”, at a time when I was getting fed up with my kids’ schools throwing “Eighties”-themed parties that went as deep as “Flock of Seagulls”, Members Only jackets, and “Walking On Sunshine”.
And I’ve written about an absolute ton of music in this past three years. Check it out for yourself. And there’s a bunch more to come.
But the original motivation for the entire series was my inner monologue responding to some bobblehead who’d sniveled that “eighties music was so stupid”.
And I thought “then you haven’t heard Shoot Out the Lights, by Richard and Linda Thompson which, as it happens, came out thirty years ago today.
And that day, June 8 of 2009., I started the whoooole three year long series by starting the article you’re reading. This piece has been sitting on the schedule for 33 months, now.
Rock and roll is full of breakup songs; boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy pines for girl.
What rock and roll is not full of is music that slices into the bloody mess when the real, true love of one’s life slowly erodes, and then quickly collapses, into a mocking ruin.
There’s a reason for that; it’s easy to write breakup songs. Breakups come and go; they’re the stuff of a million songs.
But music about the breakup of a relationship with some mileage – marriage, children, commitment, a shared body of life’s work? Not so much. The pain doesn’t lend itself to three chords and a hook line – and the pain and loss is just the beginning, leading to layers of recrimination, crippling self-doubt and worse.
It was thirty years ago today that Richard and Linda Thompson released “Shoot Out The Lights”.
The album and attendant tour happened as the couple’s nine year marriage spiraled into the toilet; by the time the album was released, The couple – who’d met in one of the middle incarnations of the classic British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, of which Richard was a founding member – had put out five albums before. All were commercial outliers and critical blockbusters, capped by 1974’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, generally regarded as one of the great accomplishments of either of their careers.
The previous year had been a period of immense stress; the Thompsons’ marital breakup was exacerbated by professional turmoil; they’d been released from one minor-label contract, had recorded an entire album floated by Thompson’s friend, the late Gerry Rafferty, a process that led to the end of the guitarists’ friendship. But in the aftermath of the Rafferty fiasco, the Thompsons – their marriage foundering, with Linda pregnant with the couple’s third child – went into the studio with producer Joe Boyd, and produced an album that was…
…not about marital discord. So they said. And that’s been their story for thirty years, and they’ve stuck by it religiously.
And yet there are mixed messages, as the album ping-pongs between the battlin’ Thompsons. The album opens with “Don’t Renege On Our Love”
Remember when we were hand in hand?
Remember we sealed it with a golden band?
Now your eyes don’t meet mine,
you got a pulse like fever.
Do I take you for a lover, or just a deceiver?
Well simple is simple and plain is plain,
if you leave me now, you won’t come back again.
Don’t renege on our love, don’t renege on our love…
(Pardon the terrible sound quality)
It was followed by Linda’s “Walking On A Wire”:
I hand you my ball and chain,
You just have me that same old refrain.
I’m walking on a wire, and I’m falling…
Too many steps to take, too many spells to break,
too many nights awake and no-one else.
This grindstone’s wearing me, your clothes are tearing me,
Don’t use me endlessly,
it’s too long, too long to myself…
Where’s the justice, and where’s the sense?
When all the pain is on my side of the fence,
I’m walking on a wire, and I’m falling…
The songs bounce back and forth, each of them a subtle nuance on the theme, each a classic in its own way; Richard’s bouncy, funny ode to crushing frustration “A Man In Need” led to LInda’s gaunt “Just The Motion“…
When you’re rocked on the ocean, rocked up and down , don’t’ worry
when you’re spinning and turning round and round don’t worry
’cause you’re just feeling seasick, you’re just feeling weak,
your mind is confused and you can’t seam to speak,
it’s just the motion,
it’s just the motion…
…about the seasickness that comes from having your world completely submerged in stress.
There are two observations you can make about Shoot Out The Lights. For starters, Richard Thompson is the world’s greatest living guitar player. No, I know – you’ve got your Steve Vais and and your Yngwie Malmsteens, and they’re all great – but nobody on the planet teases the warped psychological nuance out of a Strat plugged into a Twin Reverb like Thompson, as here on the album’s brutal title cut…:
…with the same version of the Richard Thompson Band I first saw at First Avenue in 1986, with the lovely Christine Collister filling the Linda role.
The other? That was a harrowing dissolution – as you read between the lines of the so many songs, especially Linda’s “Did She Jump (Or Was She Pushed)”. I can’t find a video with Linda – but Richard does it great justice:
There’s enough cheating hearts to sink a hundred country western albums; enough emotional shrapnel to make Robert Smith say “sack up buddy”, were it not delivered with either a nudge or a keening wail…
…or with “Wall of Death” capping the whole thing off.
It’s nothing as trite as “It’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all”…
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
…but it’s in the ballpark.
If you don’t own a copy, it’s an injustice to music.
It was thirty years ago today that Controversy by Prince was released.
We’ll come back to that.
Rhythm and Blues – R’nB – music had been through several phases over the decades, intertwining with “white” pop music on and off (on in the fifties through the late sixties, off in the seventies).
And in about 1990 it went back to “off”, and stayed there.
But for a brief stretch of time – part of a decade, really – R’nB and rock and roll and white pop co-mingled in a dizzying melange of creativity.
And after about 1990, black and white music split again, never again to meet.
So for about five years in the eighties, black and white music intersected and overlapped again – rock, R’nB and everything in between…
…when “everything in between” included everything that was going on in the early eighties – twitchy synth-pop, the fragments of punk, the beginnings of rap, and of course classic rhythm and blues.
And Controversy covered it all.
It started with the title cut, a slinky funk rave-up:
As usual, Prince recorded almost all the instruments – but the beginnings of the “Revolution”, one of the great funk bands and one of the great rock and roll bands, were starting to coalesce; Bobby Z Rivkin, Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark, Dez Dickerson and Matt Fink (on drums, keys, bass, guitar and keys, respectively) all turned up on Controversy.
And while the previous couple of Prince albums – Dirty Mind and Prince before that – had seen some experimenting, Prince was starting to cover a lot of stylistic turf. It included his first shot at politics…
…the groaningly-simplistic gospel-via-synth-pop “Ronnie Talk To Russia”, to perhaps the greatest late-night slow-dance grind ever…
…”Do Me Baby”.
I’m covering Controversy party because it’s a great album – and mainly because it sets up the burst of untramelled creativity Prince launched in about a year that’d lead to one of the most amazing decades a single artist has ever had in the pop music era.
It was thirty years ago today that Warren Zevon released one of the five greatest live albums of the rock and roll era – and perhaps the best summary of his own career that he’s ever managed. The album was Stand In The Fire.
Zevon, of course, died a few years ago, after a long battle with lung cancer. Which was a jarring experience; rock stars aren’t supposed to die of long-term wasting diseases. They’re supposed to flame out in car crashes like Johnny Ace, or drug overdoses like Keith Moon or Jimi Hendrix, or on epic drinking binges like Bon Scott, or drug-induced sudden flashes like John Entwistle, or suicides like Pete Ham or Kurt Cobaine, with enough loose ends and unresolved potential to do a romantic-era British poet proud.
Zevon certainly showed the potential to join that crowd; he floated to his commercial and creative peak on a cataract of booze, and a drug or two as well.
And sometime in the early eighties, he hit close enough to bottom to realize he needed to change his ways. He gave up drinking, went into recovery…
…and, like a lot of artists who give up addictions, seemed to lose a bit of his spark for a few years, releasing albums that, for some time, didn’t quite have the same feel they’d had before. Zevon got his muse back, of course – a different one than he’d had on Exciteable Boy and Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School – but he was writing some great music before his diagnosis with cancer, which led him to finish his final, Final album, The Wind, just before he died.
And I’m going to speculate that Zevon was very, very glad he had the twenty-odd years of sobriety after he went through spin-dry.
But I wondered – if Zevon had checked out after 1980’s Stand In The Fire, would he be regarded as one of the greatest untold stories in rock history?
Stand was recorded during a two-night engagement at The Roxy in Los Angeles. Recorded with a group of obscure-ish but impeccably tight LA sidemen (David Landau and Zeke Zirngiebel on guitars, Roberto Piñon on bass, Bob Harris on keys and Marty Stinger on drums), the album featured an audibly blotto Zevon singing gloriously over-the-top versions of a slew of Zevon classics, and shoulda-been classics
The title cut is a big, brawny three-chord anthem featuring a simple but layered call-and-answer chorus that you can hang a side of beef from. Next is “Jeannie Needs a Shooter”, which started life as one of many songs Springsteen didn’t use on The River; he gave it to Zevon, who rewrote it into one of the great “teenage death-rock” songs of all time. A hilarious “Exciteable Boy” is followed by a taught, glorious “Mohammed’s Radio”, full of ad-libs (“Even Jimmy Carter’s got the highway blues!”) and ended by wonderful, four-part a-capella ending; the song, like most of this album’s highlights, eclipses Zevon’s studio originals.
“Werewolves of London” is big, boomy, sloppy, and full of drunken ad-libbing (“I ran into Jackson Browne drinking a Piña Colada at Trader Vic’s; his hair was per-feeeeect!“)
Side two (speaking in vinyl terms) was even better, opening with a brawny “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “The Sin”, Zevon follows by steaking “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” back from Linda Ronstadt, who’d had a big hit the song) and the albums’ highlight, a jackhammer-y “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, which had been a fairly perfunctory ode to la vida local on his 1977 major label debut, but turned into an over-the-top, anthemic foot-stomper here, and closing (in its original version) with a rafter-shaking cover of “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger”.
The album rarely pops up on “best-of” lists today. It’s a shame – because it was one of the great achievements of the golden age of the “live album”, which, it occurs to me, is something you just don’t see anymore. Stand in the Fire, like Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan, showed the listener a side of the artists that they’d never have gotten otherwise, and captured the energy and spontaneity of great live performers doing what they did best. In Zevon’s case, it sent off the seventies with a shout and a stomp and a double for the road.
If you can find it, it’s an amazing record. Give it a shot.
It was sometime in early November, 1980. It was my senior year of high school. I was visiting friends in Watson Hall at Jamestown College – which, in a few years, would be my own home for three years.
I was keenly aware of a bunch of things; that I was on the brink of having to go out and take on the big world, on the one hand. On the other, I had no idea what I was going to do. Ideas swirled through my head – college, the Army, moving somewhere else and joining a band and playing guitar for a few years, the usual stuff…
…that’s faded with the years, of course; “what am I going to do with my life?” has pretty much answered itself over the past few decades.
What happened next hasn’t faded a bit over thirty years, though.
I was walking down a hall on the second floor, heading toward the bathroom. The place smelled like a guys’ dorm – dirty laundry and disinfectant. There was a low din of voices and TVs and boomboxes.
And echoing down the hall on someone’s stereo through an open dorm door came a sound that stopped me in my tracks; a howling, mournful harmonica over a foreboding, minor-key acoustic guitar part. I turned toward the sound as the vocal started:
I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young,
they bring you up to do like your daddy done.
Me ‘n Mary, we met in high school, when she was just seventeen.
We drove on out of the valley, out to where the fields grow green…
We’d go down to the River, and into the river we’d dive,
oh, down to the River we’d ride…
“Valley? Doing “what your daddy done?”
In that way that adolescents find to link everything to their own situation, I found resonance. Jamestown was a valley! Everyone expected I was going to be a high school English teacher, like Dad!
I leaned up against the wall and listened some more:
Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote
and for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We drove down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest,
no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.
That night we went down to the river,
and into the river we’d dive.
Oh down to the River we did drive.
This was…well, friends of mine, anyway.
I choked back my (believe it or not) crippling shyness and walked to the open door as the harmonica solo kicked in. “Er – ‘scuze me – sorry, but what’s this playing?”
“The new Springsteen!” said the guy (who in two years, it turned out, would be my next-door neighbor), hunched over a nursing textbook. “Great, ain’t it?”
He had no idea.
It was thirty years ago today that The River came out.
The last of what Springsteen fanatics call “The Holy Trinity” (along with Born to Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town)
The lasting impression of The River for me, though? In some ways, it’s Bruce’s most satisfying album.
Greetings from Asbury Park and E Street Shuffle were both fun, funky, disjointed romps that swerved from Bleecker Street to the Jersey Shore, from Greasy Lake to Puerto Rico, all full of shadowy characters and inside jokes. Born to Run was a classic, of course – but in much the same way that the Beach Boys were classics, drenched in the culture of young lower-middle America; it raced at full throttle, but covered a small piece of turf. Darkness On The Edge Of Town, still and always my favorite Bruce record notwithstanding, is an album about finally growing up.
The River? It’s about being a grownup. It’s about ups and downs, joy and depression, faith and abandonment. It’s about pulling up your pants and moving on with your real life.
It’s a double-album – which, it occurs to me, means nothing today. Back in the seventies and eighties, when vinyl records were still king and were complex enough that their manufacture required the clout of a huge record company, complete with pressing factories and huge distribution operations, a single vinyl disc held about 30-40 minutes worth of music. The double album was the sign of huge commitment on the one hand, and huge motivation on the part of the artist.
And so it was with The River. Springsteen had grown over in the previous five years into an amazingly prolific songwriter. Steven Van Zandt told the story; when they recorded Born to Run, Springsteen had maybe one extra song written. By the time the legal wrangling with his previous management ended and he released Darkness on the Edge of Town three years later, he had dozens, including a couple of albums’ worth that were candidates for inclusion. He started giving music away; he gave Patty Smith his live staple “Because The Night”, recorded for Darkness but not included; it became her only Top Forty hit. Likewise “Fire” (Robert Gordon and the Pointer Sisters), “Hearts Of Stone” (Southside Johnny), “This Little Girl” (Gary “US” Bonds), and a slew of others.
And by 1980, when Springsteen had his legal, fiscal, artistic and personal houses in order for the next big step? He had hundreds of songs. It’d be more accurate to say he had hundreds and hundreds of pieces and clips and riffs and lines, which he’d combine and break apart and recombine with other riffs and lines and passages in various combinations, into songs where different lines would pop up over time in different songs. Listening to his four-CD box set “Tracks”, released in the late nineties, you can hear lines and passages in songs you’ve never heard, that popped up much later on other songs…
…and the sessions for The River (and for the next two albums, Nebraska and Born in the USA) were like tsunamis of music.
At any rate, torn between making an upbeat rocker about growing up and getting on with one’s life and a darker, harder “Son Of Darkness”, Bruce released both.
Disc one starts with the glorious, redemptive “The Ties That Bind”…:
…which is, truth be told, among my favorite Springsteen songs ever. Thirty years later, I’m not sure if I can even pin down why; “you walk cool, but darlin’ can you walk the line/to face the ties that bind/ you can’t break the ties that bind”; it’s a little bit of emotional tough love combined with the single most infectious chorus hook I had heard in my life to that point, and still one of the best.
There was also the joyous romp, “Two Hearts”…
…which has been a live, top-of-the-lineup staple at Bruce’s shows for most of the past thirty years,
Following closely, “Out In The Street” – the album’s homage to “Born To Run”…
…only for people who have to cut back on the “Suicide Machines” and keep their hands off other peoples’ engines because they’ve got to be at work in the morning.
And perhaps my favorite – at least at the moment – “Jackson Cage”, a dark-but-irresistably-danceable thrill ride about…well, growing up and watching doors starting to swing shut…
…albeit from a little bit of distance, yet.
Disc One was all about the hope and the joy – from the beach-bar singalong “Sherry Darling” to the gloriously cheery “I Wanna Marry You”, awash in faith in the whole boy meets girl thing.
It was on disk two that things start to unravel. “Fade Away” (my favorite back then, and the followup to “Hungry Heart”, which became Bruce’s first Top Forty hit single), a song that actually sparked my push to learn how to play the organ – was the flip side of “I Wanna Marry You”. The “boy meets girl” thing has by this point gone terribly awry:
Dave Marsh once described The River as an album full of upbeat songs about death, and down-beat, “downer” songs about hope and redemption. The bookends, of course, are “Cadillac Ranch” – a four on the floor barroom singalong raveup about mortality..:
And of course, the title cut…
…about shelving your dreams but holding on anyway. It resonates with me, thirty years later, like few pieces of music ever.
And for me, it all leads up to “The Price You Pay” – the song that ties all those themes together, and sends them off with a hopeful nudge (this version has an out-take verse that’s not on the album)…:
…that, truth be told, has stuck with me during the hard times as much as anything else Bruce has written:
Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay
Pretty dismal, really; everything Moses hoped for got yanked away at the last moment. Just like the guy in The River. Just like the lady in Jackson Cage.
And yet we soldier on:
So let the game start, you better run you little wild heart
You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay,
and girl before the end of the day,
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
And that may be the great life lesson, here – or as close to one as a pop album ever gets. Life’ll kill ya. Wear a helmet and get out there.
The teenage years are huge, raw and dramatic. Hormones drive all that rawness to the surface and beyond, making (it comes as no surprise to parents with teenagers) everything – discipline, moralism, sex, food, music – immediate, dramatic and skin deep in way that’s both intensely powerful and utterly trite.
Boy by U2 was the perfect album to reflect that teenage reality. And it’s thirty years old today.
Boy introduced America to four 20-ish guys from Dublin – Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Dave “The Edge” Evans and Paul “Bono” Hewson – who seem improbably young today:
U2 in 1980 - Mullen, Bono, Edge, Clayton
They’d gotten together as teenagers (initially with Evans’ older brother Nik) in 1976 – and quickly discovered that they stank at trying to play covers, and started writing their own songs. After a year and a half of gigging around Dublin, the band won a contest sponsored by CBS records in 1978, and used the proceeds and exposure to CBS management to produce a three-song “extended play” record and a few singles that were largely heard only in Ireland and, with their first “big” single, “I Will Follow”, the UK.
“I Will Follow” is, of course, the album’s instantly recognizable, iconic anthem – and, really, the template for much of U2’s next ten years. It’s anthemic – you can’t not shout along. It’s ambiguous – is it about faith, or love, or politics, or…who can tell? (It’s actually about the death of Bono’s mother in 1974, but really, like all art, it’s about whatever the listener wants it to be about).
“I Will Follow” is just one of many cut from the same cloth: “The Electric Co” featured a Bono vocal that veered down the thin line between glorious and histrionic…:
…and “Out Of Control”, an infectious call-and-answer between Bono and Edge that set up three decades of one of the most distinctive lead/harmony pairings in the history of rock and roll.
So what was important about Boy? Other than being an album that gloriously captured all the joy, angst and brio of of being, well, boy?
Bono, the singer? The guy had pipes, all right – but his singing was often sloppy and undisciplined. He’d grow, by War in 1982, into one of rock’s most powerful singers – but on Boy, the promise of the future was liberally mixed with sloppiness on the one hand and unpolished histrionics on the other. Larry Mullen was a powerful, physical drummer – perhaps the band’s most conventially-capable musician in its early years, but not especially a standout.
Adam Clayton – reportedly the least proficient musican in the band when it had started? As U2 rose to prominence, stories circulated about how the band had built much of its stripped down, minimalist style around Clayton’s developing skill on the instrument. True or not, it shows in the arrangements on Boy; the bass lines really tie the songs together, powerful in their simplicity. My theory’s always been that the simplicity started out as lack of development – and evolved into style.
That would certainly explain The Edge. Also a newbie when the band started, Evans wasn’t, and has never been, a guitarist with raw pyrotechnic technique, along the lines of a Van Halen or a Randy Rhodes. He wasn’t one with a deep, developed style spanning genres, like Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler or Nils Lofgren. And despite the first review in Rolling Stone, which compared his style with Neil Young in terms of unpolished ambiance, he wasn’t a raw, ragged improviser. What he is – or what he was starting to develop into, thirty years ago today – was a meticulous student of the tonal and harmonic possibilities of the guitar, its chordal structures, and the colorations of the guitar’s instrument/special effect/amplifier chain. Evans used the guitar sometimes as harmonic coloration (“Shadows and Tall Trees”, “An Cat Dubh”), sometimes as a borderline-percussion instruments (“I Will Follow”, “Electric Co”), in a way that was much, much more analytical and meticulous than Young, much less dependant on his own dexterity and fingerboard acrobatics than any of the guitar deities of the era or since. The Edge of the Boy era didn’t change the way people looked at the guitar just yet – that’d come in a couple of years, on War, The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree (of which more in two, four and seven years, respectively). What would be instrument-changing by the middle of the decade still seemed lo-fidelity in 1980.
The album sounds like it was recorded in a garage – early reviews pointed out its raw, unpolished sound. It was a bit of an illusion – while far from overproduced, the album’s rawness was intentional and studied and, in its own way a work of art that’d become part of a vital idiom of the music of the next decade.
Because in a very real sense, and in more than one way, it was a template for the entire “Second British Invasion” of the eighties, of which U2 was one of the lynchpins.
And many of those groups – from the big, dramatic arena-rockers like Big Country, Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel, to more eclectic groups like Irish folk-punks The Pogues and girl-group memorialist Kirsty MacColl – had their sounds defined by producer Steve Lillywhite – who produced Boy, which became his first big international success, if you discount his work on Peter Gabriel’s Melt.
And the sound that Lillywhite would make into his trademark, at least through the eighties and into the nineties – big, raw, passionate, meticulously unpolished, clean yet cacaphonic – would define U2’s archetypical sound (as it did that of his other protegès) to the point where the band felt the need to escape it in the next decade, via its collaborations with Brian Eno and others through the nineties, before returning to him in the early ’00s. Lillywhite was, along with Jimmy Iovine, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Quincy Jones and Keith Forsey, one of the iconic producers of one of the great eras in pop music.
So in a real way Boy was not just U2’s debut, but the debut of the eighties’ style of anthemic, passionate arena-rock as we came to know it.
Dire Straits had come out of nowhere in 1978 with the mega-hit single “Sultans of Swing”, which introduced the world to the guitar style of Mark Knopfler, a former schoolteacher and guitar virtuoso who’d melded the styles of Chet Atkins, Richard Thompson and Eric Clapton into a thrilling melange of rootsy beauty.
Still, the first two albums – Dire Straits and Communique – were unsatisfying. They had their moments, to be sure – but by the time one listened to them both back-to-back, it was easy to write them off as an eccentric hybrid of country and pop; niche players worth a listen, certainly, but nothing that was going to take over the world.
We know how the story ends, of course. After 1982’s EP Love Over Gold, which established the band’s chops as a makers of quirky but consequential pop, came Brothers In Arms, which made them into Europe’s biggest superstars, record-movers and touring machines in the same league as Michael Jackson and Springsteen at the peak of their games.
Connecting the quirky alt-country band and the international pop powerhouse was Making Movies.
In an era of great pop songwriting, Tunnel had complex, literary lyrics – the title cut’s mad chase between a pair of lovers and the soldiers in the amusement park, starting with Bittan’s Rogers and Hammerstein-via-E-Street Band intro…
…and swerving between invocations of Chuck Berry, a sly latin influence, and a backstory that reads like a Dashiell Hammett short story.
And in place of the four-piece pub band from the first two albums, Knopfler stripped the band down to a power trio – John Illsley on bass, Pick Withers on drums, and himself – and added some judicious keyboards from Roy Bittan of the E Street Band. And in place of the air-tight, three-minute guitar-centered song arrangements came a wide-open, almost symphonic sound, with songs that stretched out toward eight minutes on the title cut, allowing room for the band to stretch out, and use Knopfler’s guitar virtuosity for atmosphere rather than mere fretboard acrobatics. “Skateaway”, a six-minute streetscape built around a reedy Stratocaster improvisation, really showcased Bittan’s organ and piano work, which paid subtle homage to Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in using the piano to evoke the atmosphere of a busy New York street and its star, a coquette on a pair of skates.
The song, with its off-handed asides to conversations up and down the street as the rollerskating heroine skittles through traffic, is almost a prototype of “Money For Nothing”, four years later – a song about an overheard conversation.
And “Romeo and Juliet”, an exhausted, last-call love song and one of Dire Straits’ most enduring masterpieces, stars Knopfler playing…the dobro, an instrument that hadn’t poked its nose out of the world of bluegrass in thirty years.
(Recorded months before MTV debuted, the video in all its painful lock-step literalism shows how very much in its infancy the art of the music video was).
While the album led with a lot less of the “geez, what an amazing guitar player is Mark Knopfler” than the first two albums, his virtuosity is, if anything, more amazing for its subtlety. Check out the skirling timbres of the soloing in “Tunnel of Love” – the tone of the Strat fills out from the middle as the solo progresses, accentuating the sub-dominant notes in his slinky patterns in a way that, thirty years later, I’m still getting new insights into. Or “Skateaway”, which is an etude on the uses of the nuance of the out-of-phase pickup pair and the volume pedal. It may be one of the most subtly gorgeous albums in the history of the electric guitar.
Making Movies made the case that pop music could be literary, virtuosic – a work of layered, nuanced beauty. It’s one of the reasons that this part of the eighties was such a glorious era in popular music. Because I can see someone making an album like this today; I just can’t see it being the jumping off point for a huge popular success.
We didn’t grow up with a lot of “black” music in North Dakota. Part of it was that North Dakota is, well, about the whitest place in America. It was even moreso back in 1980.
So one just didn’t run across a lot of R and B in North Dakota back then.
Still, every once in a while you’d get little whiffs of it. Kids from the college would bring music from other parts of the country. Something like R and B would get on the radio once in a while.
And every once in a while, something would turn things upside down.
30 years ago today Prince’s Dirty Mind was released. And it probably wasn’t until the next year, when I was at college, that I actually heard it. But it changed everything.
I’ve written in the past – the period from about 1980 through about 1986 was one of the best in pop music history precisely because the traditional racial barriers in pop music dissolved; it was a stretch of time when white hard rock got spun by street-corner DJs into beats for rappers; where white musicians pillaged R and B for influences, and black guys played rock and roll…
…and nobody blurred music’s traditional distinctions better than Prince. 22 years old when Dirty Mind came out, it was a grab bag of things; one of the better rock and roll records of the year (pardon the atrocious dropouts in the video below) – like any “new wave” record of the era, but with soul…:
…while also doing R ‘n B in the same tradition as, say, Sly Stone, but accessible, but still very, very R’nB…
… while still turning on the funk, by way of showing that he did, in fact have…
…the album’s eponymous dirty mind.
28 years before Barack Obama’s fans started talking about “post-racial society”, Prince’s band was the real thing. Actually, the album featured Prince playing every single instrument – but the touring band, on a tour that really put Prince on the map as a performer, included Bobby “Z” Rivkin on drums, Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman on keys, and Andre Cymone and Dez Dickerson on bass and guitar, respectively.
I’m trying to picture that happening today; a great, half-white funk band; a great half-black rock and roll group; a group that just plain makes it all work, and does it memorably.
Given the stupendous success The Police achieved by the mid-eighties, it’s hard to remember that they started out as a very fringe-y band.
Outlandos D’Amour in 1978 was a hoot – a demented lashup of punky reggae or reggae-y punk, infectious and madcap fun and impossible not to dance to. Reggatta De Blanc was more of the same, but more confident and less elliptical.
And so we – my music-geek pals in North Dakota, and music buffs in general – waited eagerly for The Police’s next effort, Zenyatta Mondatta.
And thirty years ago today, it came out.
And I reacted with a “huh?”
I had loved the first two albums.
And I would eventually like Ghost in the Machine, and especially Synchronicity.
But Zenyatta Mondatta, then as now, leaves me completely cold.
I was one of few, of course; the album made them superstars. “De Doo Doo Doo De Daa Daa Daa” and “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” were their first top forty hits in the US.
And it wasn’t because it didn’t showcase some really cool musicianship. Andy Summers was an amazing guitar player; Stewart Copeland was a tight, propulsive drummer. Sting was…
…well, Sting was a decent singer and a capable bass player. But he bugged me.
Now, the things that bugged me, the tics and voice and arrogance, would go on to make Synchronicity a great, great album four years later.
But on Zenyatta? It just bugged me.
And so I sat out the next year or two, Police-wise.
This week was still a great one, by the way. Stay tuned.
Black Sabbath? Zzzzzz. Ozbourne’s nasal yawp combined with Tony Iommi’s guitar playing (he sounds he’s fingering notes with his nose) has always bored me stiff. Who cares?
The superannuated, drug-addled caricature on “The Osbournes?” I’ve seen maybe twenty minutes of the show. I regretted every one of them:
And his career in between? Nope. Largely don’t care about that, either.
But it was thirty years ago today that Osbourne changed metal forever. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Blizzard of Ozz:
Blizzard took Osbourne’s ageing, cartoonish persona and updated it with an approach that owed much (under the hood) to punk’s frothing energy. Seventies metal’s lugubrious plodding was tossed out the window; this was music you could mosh to!
The real star of the album, of course, was Randy Rhodes, a 24-year-old guitar phenom…
…and classical guitar buff who ushered in the age of the “guitar player who could do anything”.
Seriously. Check out “Crazy Train”:
That’s a plain, vanilla (figuratively and color-wise) Les Paul Standard. I’m seeing this for the first time as I’m writing this; he’s not using a Floyd Rose whammybar to get those howling glissandos. It’s pure freaking technique. And thirty years after it came out, and 28 years after Rhodes’ death in a plane crash at age 26, it amazes me now more than it did then – and it amazed me a lot back then.
With Eddie Van Halen, you always got the impression you were listening to someone who was pushing back the limits of what a guy could do on the guitar. With Rhodes, you felt that the guy just lived at the limits to enjoy the view, rhetorically speaking; he was less a pioneer than someone who’d internalized “amazing”.
Ozzy? Pfft. Who cares. Keep it all.
But Blizzard of Ozz still thrills me to listen to.
In the summer of 1982, I was 19, and the economy for teenagers wasn’t a whole lot better than it is today.
But I lucked out, and got a job – a full-time (48 hour a week) gig at a radio station in Carrington, North Dakota – a little town of about 2,000 people about forty miles north of Jamestown.
I held a lot of jobs at that little station over that summer; morning guy, afternoon guy, production guy, sometimes news and play-by-play guy…
…and in my “spare” time, “Music Director”; I added and pulled songs from the rotation, and kept things in some kind of rough order.
Now, I wasn’t a country-western kind of guy; I was more into Springsteen, the Clash, the Pistols, the Iron City Houserockers, that kind of thing.
And even if I had been a country kind of guy, it was a terrible time in the history of country-western music. The dominant subgenre of the era, “Country Crossover” – an extended attempt by Nashville to get country to cross over to the pop charts and audience – led to some of the most dismal, sterile, vapid country-pop music in the history of the genre. Kenny Rogers, Barbra Mandrell, Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, Eddie Rabbit and a long slew of pseudo-pop crossover acts dominated the charts; the few “traditional” country artists – George Strait, Randy Travis, the Gatlins, and the just-emerging Judds and a very young Ricky Skaggs – were outlying curios, while the “Outlaw Movement”, the paleotraditional mob led by Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, were vaguely threatening (but extremely successful – which should have told somebody something).
Now, being a rock and roll guy who’d grown up in a not-overly-music household, most of that was pretty opaque to me at the time, and didn’t become clear to me for quite a while. Country, to the 19 year old me, had divided into two camps; poppy country and twangy country. And to me, there wasn’t much to tie either of them to the larger American musical tradition.
Hey, I said I was 19.
At any rate, on a boring Sunday afternoon I was flipping through the stacks of old albums – and I found a copy of this record:
It was something…not “unfamiliar”, per se; I’d learned a little bit of bluegrass while learning the guitar a scant four or five years before. But this wasn’t the generic rip-roaring “Hillbilly Techno” that I remembered; this was a meandering trip across middle America heard with a Kentucky accent with guitars and mandolins in the background.
And on about the second listen, it slammed into me like a runaway coal cart.
Emmylou Harris had had quite a career already; in the less-than-a-decade after she’d gotten into the music business (after starting out as a teacher), she’d played the Washington DC bluegrass circuit, recorded with and been the muse for former Byrd Gram Parsons, struck out on her own after his death, and had a brief but productive run at mainstream country chart success, doing ever-so-slightly traditionally-themed music that pushed country pop’s progressive envelope; Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Luxury Liner were brilliant, glossy records that had a sharp twang but an ear for the modern. Harris was on the far modern fringes of the genre.
Roses In The Snow was her “back to basics” effort; a return to the bluegrass form. But rather than diving straight back into traditional mountain music, Roses interpreted other genres – honky-tonk, pop, country swing, even top-forty pop – through a bluegrass lens. Recorded with an all-star cast of traditional musicians – Brian Ahern and Albert Lee on guitar, Emory Gordy on bass, Ricky Skaggs on a whole slew of instruments, and guest-vocal shots from Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Linda Ronstadt, and Willy Nelson sitting in on guitar – the album smoked with all the proficiency of her seventies-era “Hot Band”, but with a twang that came less from Texas than from up the holler.
And it was spectacular.
The title cut – a blistering-yet-poignant raveup written by Ruth Franks and featuring The Whites on backup vocals – set the stage; this was no dozey Barbra Mandrell record:
(This version from the early nineties, featuring her “Nash Ramblers” backing band)
The old traditional “Wayfaring Stranger”, the Stanley Brothers’ classic “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”, a duet with Skaggs, and “Green Pastures”, with Skaggs and Dolly Parton, extend the title cut’s theme – traditional mountain country music is about the constant loss that pervaded rural American life until not all that long ago.
“I’ll Go Stepping Too” (sung with Skaggs and Tony Rice), Bill Halley’s “Miss the Mississippi” and the A.P. Carter paleocountry classic “”Gold Watch and Chain” are steps through the traditional country playbook; the traditional “Jordan”, featuring Skaggs, Rice and Johnny Cash, is an intricate, gorgeous standout.
But stuck at the end of Side 1 was the album’s standout; a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”.
(again, this is with the Nash Ramblers)
Where the original Simon and Garfunkel song was largely a vocal production piece that was both gorgeous and just a little bit hollow – nobody could possibly believe show-biz prodigy Simon could identify with the protagonist any way but literarily. Harris’ version rings with the weariness a million boys and girls from the holler, and every other corner of rural America, who went to the big city in search of something better, or at least different, for their lives. You can hear echoes of the Okies moving to California to find land and water andmountain folk moving to Cincinnati and Chicago for jobs, and World War II veterans knocking around port cities all over the place, “laying out their winter clothes, and wishing they were home”, awash in isolation and alienation…
It’s one of the rare cover versions that completely obliterates and excellent original.
The album – the first after the death of Bon Scott barely 17 months earlier – was a gloriously snotty blues-rock romp, the kind of thing every garage band in the world – including mine – thought they could pull off.
Of course, few garage bands had a leather-lunged shrieker like Brian Johnson, or a blues-rock machine like Angus Young or – to me, the band’s signature – a metal-shredding rhythm player like Malcolm Young to base their sound around.
Here’s the part that blew my mind; Back in Black, with 49 million copies sold, is the second biggest-selling album of all time (that’d be worldwide; it’s #5 in the US), and the biggest ever from a band.
The Houserockers were led by Joe Grushecky, a high school special education teacher who had never quite put away that rock and roll jones. He started “the Brick Alley Band” in 1976, plugged away building a huge reputation on the Pittsburgh bar circuit, and in 1979 released Love’s So Tough, an album that was…
…like a zillion other debut albums by bands on shoestring budgets; with tinny production by a couple of no-name fader jockeys, Love’s So Tough stood out in some of the details, mostly a keen eye for the anxious desperation of his fellow working stiffs, and and a raw spirit that cut through the crappy production.
Cut through it enough to draw some big label attention; the band was picked up by MCA records, and paired with “Miami” Steve Van Zandt – Bruce Springsteen’s second guitarist – for their major label debut.
The result was Have A Good Time…
The Iron City Houserockers (from L): Marc Reisman, Joe Grushecky, Eddie Britt, Gil Snyder, Ned Rankin, Art Nardini
And at a time when rock critics on both sides of the Atlantic were swooning over the “anger” and “grittiness” of the so-called “punks”, it was the real thing.
Part of it was the band. Van Zandt (who produced five songs before leaving the project, turning it over to Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, who were themselves at the top of their commercal game at the time) has a long history of overwhelming his productions with serial waves of bombast (see Lone Justice’s Shelter); it took a strong band not to get lost in Van Zandt’s huge, pounding vision. And the Houserockers were up to the task. Grushecky sang and played rhythm guitar; the rhythm section of Art Nardini (bass) and Gil Snyder (drums) anchored a band of…
…bar room players, and on the surface nothing more, really; Eddie Britt was a serviceable lead guitar player; Ned Rankin played classic barroom piano and organ; much of the band’s sound hinged around harmonica whiz Marc Reisman.
Individually, then, they were just another bar band.
But they were much more than the sum of their parts, especially hitched to Grushecky’s music – where again, the right combination of time, band, producer and inspiration transcended the obvious limits.
On Love’s So Tough, Grushecky’s music had been like cut-rate Springsteen, or leaner and meaner Bob Seger.
But on Have A Good Time, driven by first by Van Zandt’s rock and roll myth-chasing and then by Hunter and Ronson’s then-peaking creativity, the band and the music exploded into something vastly more than the sum of its parts.
The title cut sets the stage; the song attacks from the first bar with a ferocity that The Clash never approached:
You never fit quite right in school
Went out and broke all the rules
Talk so loud and act so cool – that’s right
Only sixteen when you left home
Thought you could make it on your own
Because you were born with the right to roam the night
You said “don’t put those chains on me
I am young and I am free
And I’ll be what I want to be” – that’s right
Have a good time but get out alive
Don’t you know only the strong survive
Have a good time but get out alive
You always did what you wanted
It didn’t matter who you hurt
But you didn’t hurt no one like you hurt yourself
You took anything that you could get
Did it all with no regrets
You tried so hard but you can’t forget your past
Don’t you know this life is killing you
You act crazy but don’t be a fool
Do what you want to do but keep in mind
Have a good time but get out alive
Don’t you know only the strong survive
Have a good time but get out alive
After one long night
When Bobby was involved in a senseless fight
He woke up in jail with a broken old man
The old man was staring down at him
He said “boy you better wipe off that stupid grin
And learn something now while you still can”
Have a good time but get out alive
Don’t you know only the strong survive
Have a good time but get out alive
Much of the album was cut from the same cloth; three of the five other Van Zandt-produced tracks (“Blondie”, “Angela” and “Don’t Let Them Push You Around”) are subtle as buckets of scrap steel to the forehead, blazing gems of rock and roll ferocity that mocked the art-school pretensions of the “punks”.
Hunter and Ronson’s seven tracks are more subtle; “Pumping Iron”, “Running Scared” and “We’re Not Dead Yet” sound like Bob Seger songs fed through Hunter and Ronson’s glam pub rock in a way that, miraculously, stripped off the glam; “Hypnotized” is a paranoid minor-key rocker that falls flat, as does the ballad “Price of Love”.
But it’s the end of Side Two that gives us the album’s biggest, riskiest moment. It’s two-song couplet, “Old Man Bar/Junior’s Bar”, that is the most thrilling, sobering moment on the whole album.
“Old Man Bar” starts with an accordion playing an Italian-sounding lament, with keyboardist Gil Snyder singing in a voice that sounds – honestly – sixty years old with forty-five years of three packs a day.
Going down to Dom’s Cafe, just to have a drink
The old men in their same seats down the row…
Telling tales of World War Two for anyone to hear,
their insides lined with scars that never show.
Old Man Bar is where I am and where I’ll be
Old Man Bar with a jukebox full of memories
Old Man Bar until they kill the neon light
I hope nobody sees me here tonight.
I hope nobody sees me here tonight.
A sad, almost depressing song about the kind of bar, and patrons, you see on every seedy tumbledown strip wherever you are.
And the song – the according, and Mick Ronson’s mandolin part – keen to an arthritic, tired stop; the record courts four…
…and Snyder slams the snare to launch “Junior’s Bar” – a song with the same chord progression as “Old Man”, but with the whole band telling the story of a man thirty years younger:
Going down to Junior’s Bar, just to have a drink
hoping for a one-night rendezvous.
The girls down there, all at the bar, dressed up and looking good,
Gonna show them all my new tattoo…
Junior’s Bar, where the band is playing just for me,
They move the crowdn they play real loud
It’s a poor boy’s symphony
Junior’s Bar, until they kill the neon light
I hope I don’t go home alone tonight
I hope I don’t go home alone tonight
“Junior” was as glorious a rock and roll anthem as has ever been played; the original featured Ellen Foley on a delicious background vocal, and a guitar solo that may have been played by Britt, but had Van Zandt all over it.
I can’t even find the audio for “Old Man”; here’s “Junior”, again with a newer incarnation of the band.
Have A Good Time… was uneven album; the band’s full promise would be revealed a year or so later, when Amercan roots-rock impresario Steve Cropper would produce Blood On The Bricks, one of the most perfect albums in the history of rock and roll.
But the highlight moments on Have A Good Time… – the title cut, “Blondie”, “Angela”, “Old Man Bar/Junior’s Bar” – are, in the annals of America’s brief “heartland rock” phase in the eighties, among the best songs ever; harder-edged than anything Springsteen has ever done, sharper and more immediate than Bob Seger at his best.
The idea of American Rock and Roll may never have been carried off better.
It does for everyone. It’s a fact – or at least, it’s as close to fact as three generations of marketers have been able to determine – and since a lot of them got very rich, they must have known something.
When I was in music radio, a program director told me that programmers and music companies track demographics by when listeners reached adolescence; teenage emotions and hormones and angst and lack of perspective (between ages 12ish and 25ish) combines with whatever music happens to be happening at the time to create a bond that tends to follow people through their lives. Which is why “classic rock” stations are so huge, and “college rock” and “alternative” stations traditionally were not; they like to catch people with their adolescent memories about the time that they also start to earn lots of money to spend with advertisers.
Of course, somewhere along the way that emotional connection and immediacy fades. People get perspective. They grow up. They get other emotional focuses – children, careers – that depend less on big hyped up emotions than on being slow, steady and there.
So I don’t feel music the way I used to. Oh, I still love music – but it’s different. It’s more mental. I take apart a song’s production, lyrics, the mechanics of the whole thing in a way I didn’t when I was a teenager. I enjoy playing guitar (and a few other instruments, too). I don’t get the highs and lows from music the way that I did when I was 17 – but now that I have a 17 year old, I can see all the things about that age that I don’t miss, too.
Few songs illustrate the change, for me, better than Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass. Townshend’s first solo album came out thirty years ago today.
The album – recorded as Townshend and The Who were recovering from the death of Keith Moon – was a grab bag of different themes, which could be summed up as “I’m Pete Townshend. I’m almost forty, and nobody knows anything about me other than via the band I’ve been in since I was 18 – which has just collapsed. Who am I?”
Who was he?
He was a chain yanker. Even if Townshend had been a musical nonentity, I’d love him for his love of yanking writers chains; reading his old interviews were like watching a Monty Python sketch unfolding in real time. (Dave Marsh’s essential bio of The Who, Before I Get Old, has a zillion stories about Townshend’s love of popping the media’s balloon). And he yanked madly on Empty Glass; “Rough Boys”, dedicated to the Sex Pistols and his daughters, started the whole “uh, is he gay?” thing…:
He was also a pop songwriter. “Let My Love Open The Door” was inescapable in the summer of 1980
And he was a big chunk of The Who; a few of the songs (Gonna Get Ya, Jools and Jim) played like Who demos.
Most intriguing, though – back then, to me as a Christian who oozed rock and roll – was that Townshend was a relentlessly inquisitive spiritual seeker whose music had always knocked about the idea of faith. While Townshend was still a few years away from sobriety, the best parts of Empty Glass are all about his relationship with his higher power – “A Little Is Enough” and especially the title cut, which oozes fatigue for the distractions of this world…
Why was I born today
Life is useless like Ecclesiastes say
I never had a chance
But opportunity’s now in my hands
I stand with my guitar
All I need’s a mirror
Then I’m a star
I’m so sick of dud TV
Next time you switch on
You might see me…oh.what a thrill for you
I’ve been there and gone there
I’ve lived there and bummed there
I’ve spinned there, I gave there
I drank there and I slaved there
I’ve had enough of the way things been done
Every man on a razors edge
Someone has used us to kill with the same gun
Killing each other by driving a wedge
The song was originally recorded as a demo by The Who – and it was a lot more nihilistic; “Killing each other, then jump off the ledge”.
And yet at a time in his life when he was drinking a bottle of Remy Martin a day, Townshend saw God as the eternal bartender:
My life’s a mess I wait for you to pass
I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass
And truth be told, I’ve seen worse explanations. (And on his subsquent solo albums, we’d see better – but we’re a few years away from that).
And so while the windmilling, guitar-smashing attempt to make art out of adolescent angst long ago wore thin on me, Empty Glass, and “Empty Glass”, still click for me. Not the same way they did thirty years ago. Maybe better, in their own way.
NOTE: Among conservatives who are too young to remember Townshend’s musical glory days, he’s perhaps, tragically, most famous for his arrest on child porn charges a few years back. Althought Townshend was never charged, and the police took pains to say they believed his story about researching the subject for a book exploring alleged abuse when he was a child, some social-conservative bloggers don’t believe it.
To which I reply “where the hell have you been?” Does anyone believe there’s a crime anywhere in Western Civilization where the police are less likely to accept “I was doing research!” for an answer without some pretty good reason, and mountains of proof, than anything to do with the sexual abuse of children? That a prosecutor is likely to give up on a career-building celebrity case, on one of the most emotionally-wrenching topic there is, without damn good reason? It’s a crime that is as close to “guilty until proven innocent” as any in the Western justice system; people look crosswises at you for uttering the phrase “Kiddie Porn”. And yet the police, and the prosecutors, let Townshend walk away without a single charge or a slap on the wrist.
What does this tell the discerning observer?
At any rate, I’m writing this to say that the post is about the album; any discussion of the kiddie porn incident will be deleted without any warning or fanfare.
Oh, sure, they have to keep up with the latest trends and whatnot. And that, to be sure, is a gruelling job. It takes a huge nasal sinus cavity to even hold all the cocaine that it takes to get to the bottom of that kind of story.
But every five years or so, they can kick back and relax for at least one issue – because that’s the turnaround cycle for the obligatory “WOMEN WHO ROCK” issue of whatever it is they’re doing. In it, accompanied by cheesecake-via-the-“gritty”-filter photos of the “women who rock” in question, we are solemnly informed that the walls of the hitherto-all-male, mysogynistic, testosterone-guzzling world of Rawk ‘n Rawl have been breached by a new pack of ladies who, lest we doubted it, do it all on their own terms.
Over the past thirty years, we’ve been visited with the notion that The Runaways, Suzi Quattro, Joan Jett, Cindy Lawson, Kat Bjelland and Lori Barbero, Lita Ford, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Jennifer Trynin, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morisette, and any number of women in between (as well as any number of slightly poppier varieties – Katrina Leskanich, the Bangles, the Triplets – and dancier, style-bending ones like Madonna and Gwen Stefani) have imprinted their stilettos on the face of Rawk and Rowl, combining millenia of inborn feminist wisdom with hooks you can hang Stiv Bators’ man-tackle on (plus they’re babes to boot!)
Note to all music critics and “editors”: Stop. It has all been done.
Thirty years ago today, in fact; January 19, 1980; the date The Pretenders was released.
And there has never been, and never will be, a woman in rock and roll who can hold a Telecaster to Chrissy Hynde.
And since then, really, the whole “women who rawk the boyz club!” story has been utterly obsolete.
It’s hard to describe the impact that The Pretenders had on music at the time. I remember the first time I heard the record, on the turntable at Mother’s Records in Jamestown, as clearly now as the day it happened; the initial suspended-fourth chord wash that kicks off “The Wait“, the most distinctive, succinct-but-glorious intro since “A Hard Day’s Night”, ending in…
…that grunt. “Huuunnnnnh!”. Snotty, loud – and sexier than anything the 16 year old Mitch Berg had ever heard on record.
But women – and riot grrls – had done “sexy” before; if Otter Tail Power could have attached electric leads to the crowd of ninth-grade boys gathered in front of Mother’s Records in Jamestown when The Runaways’ first poster went up in the window, they could have jump-started every stalled car in town through that cold January.
Of course, there was so much more to The Pretenders, and Pretenders, than Hynde. Producer Chris Thomas, who’d worked with the Sex Pistols, and would go on to make INXS superstars using many of the same signatures, defined his style on this record – the bright, clear guitars, the percussion that dared you not to dance or slam or have sex or whatever grabbed you, the crisp, paradoxical clean-ness of an album that was a high point of a fundamentally grungy genre.
And of course, the band – in its original form, one of the tightest, most incendiary bands in the history of New Wave, Post-Punk or whatever the hell they were. Pete Farndon, the dark, leather-clad, greaser bass player…
…was a solid yet fluid technician who filled up immense space behind Hynde’s eccentric rhythm guitar style and the booming, aggressive, almost Keith-Moon-ish drumming of Martin Chambers…
…the gleefully “bloke”-y powerhouse drummer. Together, they were the most distinctive rhythm section of the whole genre.
And of course, James Honeyman-Scott, a spectacular, explosive guitarist in the Dave Davies mold…
…whose style – frenetic yet harmonically gorgeous, which could jump from strangled thrashing to chiming anthemic figures so fast it left me wondering “hunh?” – was, along with Mike Campbell, the biggest single influence on my guitar style at the time.
And of course, Hynde.
She snarled – but with a literate edge.
She oozed smart – in a way that had every teenage boy with a majoritarian libido walking doubled-over.
You just knew your mom would hate her, and you were dying to prove it. She oozed “sexy” in a way that was utterly unlike any of the other icons of the day, the Farrah Fawcetts and the like, did; she exuded an edge that went beyond confidence to a sort of muted menace – which made her all the sexier.
Together? They were like the second coming of the Kinks, (a band Hynde admired so much she married Ray Davies, in addition to covering “Stop Your Sobbing” on the debut) only harder, more intense. They were – Hynde’s domination notwithstanding – an ensemble; their parts interleaved with the sort of effortless grace and gleeful confidence that came from relentless practice to get that good. They were four musicians at the absolute peak of their craft.
There were really many sides on display on Pretenders; the ferocious, articulate post-punk of “Precious“,
“Tattooed Love Boys” a controversial, relentlessly un-PC 7/4-time sprint driven by Honeyman-Scott’s disjointed signature guitar figure, Hynde’s muffled, grinding rhythm guitar and a demented shuffle of a drum part.
“The Phone Call”, “Up the Neck” and, perhaps the best pop-punk song ever written, the frenetic-yet-glorious “The Wait”; the cool, shimmery brit-pop of “Kid”, and their debut single, “Brass in Pocket“; the slow departure “Lovers Of Today”, an almost R’nB-like ballad which presaged the group’s cover of “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” a few years later; the quirky, almost funky “Private Life”, which you can almost hear Prince covering; the hilariously off-beat Farndon/Honeyman-Scott instrumental “Space Invader” (yes, it was an homage to the video game); a very faithful cover of the early Kinks’ single “Stop Your Sobbing” which served as an audio mash note from Hynde to Ray Davies, one of her idols and, eventually, boyfriend…
Clocking in at five minutes and change, and driven by a bass line that almost serves as a percussion track on its own, the song pays audible homage to Stax/Volt soul music, linking an almost-paranoid, minor-key verse with the most irresistable sing-along chorus of the genre. It features one of Honeyman-Scott’s most inflammable guitar solos, and impenetrable yet delectable background vocals, and sends the album off with a glimmering, unforgettable bang.
The album was a shooting star, a brash explosion of sound and sexuality and gritty-but-shimmering atmosphere, as explosive and ephemeral as any great moment coursing across the ether. It hit, it exploded, it kicked open doors that (whiny music editors notwithstanding) never really closed, even if those who came after could never fill the gap like Hynde at that moment, with those bandmates, at that time.
It was never the same after that, of course; Hynde – the undeniable boss – fired Farndon for his excessive drug use in ’82, as their long-delayed second album was nearing completion; Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose himself that same week at age 25. Farndon, shattered, died of an overdose himself less than a year later.
The Pretenders were never the same; they were never really a band again. They were the Chrissy Hynde show, with special guests. And they were amazing special guests, at times; Hynde’s tribute to her fallen bandmates, “Back On The Chain”, brought in Big Country’s Tony Butler on bass and Rockpile’s Billy Bremner on guitar; on Learning To Crawl, she enlisted crack session guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bass whiz Malcolm Foster; the Pretenders later included the likes of Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Bernie Worrell.
Which, of course, undercuts the entire “Women Who RAWK!” conceit; the Pretenders weren’t great because of Chrissie Hynde’s chromosomes; they were great because, for a two year stretch thirty years ago, four great, theretofore-unknown musicians got together and did something much greater than the sum of its parts. Which doesn’t sell magazines quite like “Women Who RAWK” does, I guess.
That’s not to say that Hynde didn’t go on to write and record a lot of great music. But nothing topped Pretenders.
It was thirty years ago today that London Calling by The Clash came out.
If you get 100 people off the street to free-associate what “punk rock” means, I suspect the answers you get will depend on the subjects’ ages and whatever social label they wear on their sleeves (or through their noses).
People under 30 – the ones who were born long after “Punk” was dead? They’ll probably think attitude-thick genre museum bands like Green Day and Blink 182, people who’ve kept the superficial elements of the punk form – buzz-saw guitars heavy on rhythm and light on solo pyrotechnics, three-minute songs, lots of attitude (justified or not).
People under 40 who see themselves as maybe just a tad counterculture? Maybe they’ll slip in references to Rancid, Social Distortion, the Dead Kennedys or Henry Rollins, and mumble something about rejecting this and anarchy that and dystopic the other thing, and some of the other adolescent catchphrases that “punks” repeated at the time, and maybe even dye their hair pink, don a pair of greasy black stovepipe jeans and a ripped t-shirt and stick a safety pin through their nose for good measure.
But just about anyone of any age who can remember the term “Punk Rock” will list London Calling as the peak of the genre. Perhaps if you were sentient at the time – and, at 16, I barely was – you can recall some of the hype and hyperbole over the record; to one critic or another, the Clash were “the only band that matters”; Dave Marsh famously opined that the Clash “is a band that can do anything they want, right now”. At a time when music was changing faster than it had since the first radio station banned the first Elvis Presley record from airplay, The Clash were the band that was pushing the change further, and faster, than anyone.
The funny thing, though? The part that two generations of critics, poseurs and after-the-fact fans miss, thirty years after the fact? London Calling largely wasn’t a “punk” record.
The ironies keep coming, though. While London Calling wasn’t “punk”, it did more to further “punk”‘s alleged goals, at least as far as music was concerned, than every other punk record combined. It effected more change in mainstream musical taste than any other punk record. It kicked the Top Forty open to ragged, raw, “do-it-yourself” music more than any record, ever. Its’ appearance on the Billboard charts kicked off the greatest disturbance in the Top Forty force since FM radio stopped being “alternative” – the glorious, four-or-so year period in the eighties where the “alternative” was the mainstream.
London Calling covered the waterfront, style-wise: from brutal, hard punk rock (the title cut, “Clampdown”), giddy ska (“Wrong ’em Boyo”, “I’m Not Down”), balmy bar-band reggae (“Rudy Can’t Fail”, “Revolution Rock”)…
…and quite a bit that you can’t classify at all; “Spanish Bombs”, which sounds like the Kinks rendering Ennio Morricone; “Jimmy Jazz”, a slinky, boozy “blues” number which is to jazz what Chris Gaines was to alt-rock; “Brand New Cadillac”, a menacing minor-key-inverted cover of “the first British rock and roll record” by Vince Taylor which sounds like…well, like the Clash doing rockabilly.
I think I played my first copy until it turned white from the needle tracking. And even today, it’s got something for just about every mood; over the weekend I had ‘Rudy Can’t Fail” coursing through my head – partly because we used it as a bumper on Saturday, but also because it’s one of the catchiest songs of the decade.
But for my money, London Calling has two moments that stand out. And if it’s only for “my money”, that’s OK; it’s my review.
On those days when I’m feeling very 47 years old and the world’s been beating me about the head and shoulders enough to get me down, I spin “Death Or Glory”:
What’s it about? The gruelling life of a rock star, for all I care. But it’s three minutes and change of exactly why I love music; it grabs me in the liver and says “Dance, mofo!”+
And I do.
The other moment? “The Card Cheat”
I didn’t really “get” this song when I was 17. I think I was probably into my thirties before I really figured it out. And today, if someone asks me why London Calling is so great, it’s my answer.
It’s a musical version of a noir film – speaking of genres I didn’t appreciate until I was older. What’s it about? Flailing against the darkness, or seeking and failing to find one little bit of immortality, or maybe just crap from Mick Jones’ notebook?
I dunno. But between the Irish Horns’ ruffles and flourishes and Jones’ dork-fingered piano playing, it wrenches a noir beauty out of the garage-band genre.
The Clash couldn’t live up to the hype, of course; nobody could live up to the kind of hype that they got in their day. The followup, Sandinista, was ambitious but shrill; Combat Rock gave me the sense that Strummer and Jones thought they were too good for the whole “pop star” thing – it was like a punk-reggae Dennis DeYoung record.
But London Calling is still timeless, as these things go.
A program director at a radio station I used to work at let me in on the great secret of music radio – which let me in on an even greater secret of psychology.
People tend to be most attached to whatever music they were listening to when they were going through or immediately after puberty. Chalk it up to hormones; the same motivation that makes every little slight or setback into a dramatic battle royale also gives music – the most emotionally-direct of the arts – a special place in most peoples’ perceptions. It’s why for any given generation, “Oldies” music tends to focus on the music that was current when the listener was between 12 and 21 years old; the part of their life when lifelong emotional buttons get put in place, ready for the pushing.
And if you do the math, it was about thirty years ago that a slew of music came out that, thirty years later, fits that bill for yours truly. I think there’s a fair case to be made that each of them is an extraordinary record. A few of the records are on the list because they are extraordinary, whether I cared for them much at the time or not. But most of them are there because they stuck a flag in my psyche thirty years ago, and I can still see why today.
It was thirty years ago today that Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes was released.
We’ll come back to that.
It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t there exactly what music was like in the late seventies. There was great music, to be sure; and a lot of the music I turned my nose up at at the time, I’ve softened on over the years; Fleetwood Mac doesn’t bore me as stiff as it used to; bits and pieces of the treacly corporate pop of the era have grown on me since I was a pissed-off teenager. And the bits and pieces of pop genius that leaked back out to me after years of sleeping on ’em have occasionally made me shake my head and wonder what I was thinking.
But still, with all that, the mainstream in 1979 was a dismal place. Linda Ronstadt was the mainstream. Billy Joel was edgy stuff. A generation of nebbishy California singer-songwriters – Robert John, Sammy John, Roger Voudouris, Alan O’Day, Rupert Holmes and a slew of other pre-MTV fodder – sold millions upon millions.
But most of it was dreary stuff; formulaic, mechanical pop treacle. “Rock is dead”, sang The Who, and it kinda showed; and while rock may have lived on via the dinosaurian touring machines that dominated the industry of the day, rock and roll – the danceable, three-minute song you could dance to or sing along with or pump your fist to – was on the ropes.
Oh, sure – there was Springsteen – who had roared back from three years’ legal limbo the previous year with Darkness on the Edge of Town, the second installment in “The Holy Trinity” that started with Born to Run and would end with The River in 1980 – but he didn’t exactly light up the Top 40 singles charts. Bob Seger was hitting on all cylinders – Night Moves was a huge smash as an album and as a single, but Seger was a palpable outlier.
And then, thirty years ago today, came Damn the Torpedoes.
I hadn’t personally had much of an opinion of Tom Petty; I only knew of him through a lukewarm review of his second album, You’re Gonna Get It, a sophomore slump that shamed many artists’ debuts.
So, truth be told, the Halloween release date passed without my noticing.
But a little less than two weeks after the album’s release, on November 10, 1979, the band appeared on Saturday Night Live. Buck Henry hosted that night, and he introduced “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!”, and I watched as a scruffy, Strat-slinging Petty counted Stan Lynch into the opening drum kick to “Refugee”. by four counts into the song, as Ben Tench’s howling Hammond B3 led the band through a dark, edgy reading of the soon-to-be classic, I muttered to myself “Damn. I love this”. In as many words. Mike Campbell played the interlacing lead guitar parts like God and Chuck Berry and Keith Richard had created them to be played; sparely, economically, not a wasted note or a dropped impact. And Petty bit off every word, every teeth-clenched yelp, like it was now or never.
Or that’s how I remembered it.
Via the miracle of YouTube, I actually found that performance; it’s the first time I’ve seen it since that chilly night thirty years ago:
(NBC Universal, curses opon them, blocked the video)/
Youtube has the potential to deflate an awful lot of adolescent memories; things that seemed so amazing back then often ring a little duller today.
Not this one. Oh, Petty sounds a little hoarse; he has a little trouble hitting the high notes. The band drops a note or two here and there. The drums are badly miked; it sounds like Stan Lynch is playing on empty Cap’n Crunch boxes. I watched it, and thought “this ran into me like a runaway supertanker thirty years ago”.
But I can see why I reacted the way I did. I still do – thirty years and a whole lot of music and not a little jading later. It was raw – like one of the garage bands I was playing in – yet it sounded polished. Beyond that? It had an emotional “snap” to it that, up to then, I just didn’t year on the radio.
The next morning, between Sunday School and church, I took $7 from my paycheck at the station, ran over to the record section at White Drug and grabbed the only copy in stock off the rack. And four or five of us – Mike Aylmer and Matt Anderson and Keri Kleingartner, I think – sat in one of the classrooms and skipped church and listened to the whole thing on a cheap turntable, all the way through.
And it blew me away – but I didn’t know why until maybe ten years ago.
For many Americans educated in the public school system, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers were the first real explanations of why Americans fought in World War II, and what they did. And it served that purpose because they were among the first vehicles to make history accessible to people.
Damn the Torpedoes was similar. It was a 37 minute and 36 second trip through the best of American rock and roll since the Beatles had come and gone, without filtering it through all the baggage of the concept of the Rock Star.
Refugee sounded like The Band with the twang beaten out and the grit pounded in. “Here Comes My Girl” was the Byrds via the bayou. “Louisiana Rain” sounded like an outtake from Exile on Main Street, replacing Mick Jagger’s verbal posturing with Petty’s laconic backwater drawl. “Don’t Do Me Like That“, with its pulsing piano/organ attack, and “You Tell Me” with its dark, slinky refrain, both sounded like Stax/Volt songs that had gotten lost on a Gainesville backroad on a muggy night, wandered into a redneck roadhouse, grabbed a guitar and a bottleneck slide and a Budweiser, and stayed for the after-hours party. (The simile is even better than I thought when I first wrote that last passage; Stax’ house bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn sat in on “You Tell Me”. Can I call ’em or what?)
As to “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”, “Century City”,and “What Are You Doin’ in My Life?” – well, they’re all Petty; little bits of every nook and cranny in the history of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry through the Stones, jumbled into Petty’s own supercharged pop-via-Memphis sensibility. And unlike just about every other “album” of the era, there was not one second of “filler”.
The highlight, of course, was Even the Losers – long since my favorite song on the album, and in fact one of my favorite songs ever.
Is it possible that there was an American teenage boy of that era that couldn’t not only relate to the song, but know what it was about without needing to know the lyrics?
Well, it was nearly all summer we sat on your roof.
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon.
And I’d show you stars you never could see.
Baby, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.
Damn. That was me. Well, if I smoked. And had a girlfriend. One that’d let me take her up on the roof. Otherwise, just like that. Someday.
Baby, time means nothing, anything seemed real.
Yeah, you could kiss like fire and you made me feel
Like every word you said was meant to be.
No, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.
Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.
They get lucky sometimes.
And amid Ben Tench’s howling B3 and Stan Lynch’s muscular, aggressive beat and Petty’s hard-chewed delivery, you could only pray to yourself “good Lord, yes – maybe we will get lucky sometime”.
It all led up to the bridge; Tench drops the Hammond to a lower register, and Lynch switches to the highhat:
Two cars parked on the overpass,
Rocks hit the water like broken glass.
I should have known right then it was too good to last.
God, it’s such a drag when you’re livin’ in the past.
It’s the kind of passage Springsteen wrote all the time. But he wrote it through the lens of his crew of characters; Zero and Blind Terry, Mary with the waving dress, Crazy Janey and the Mission Man, Puerto Rican Jane, the visionaries in the parking lot underneath the Exxon sign – the whole cast of wild-eyed misfits with their ’69 Novas and their boardwalks. And damn, it was good.
Seger? Yeah, him too; “I woke last night to the sound of thunder/how far off, I sat and wondered. Started humming a song from 1962…”. Of course, I was born with two weeks left in 1962. It wasn’t about me. It was about a guy, Seger, who wrote a lot of great music, and it’s only resonated more as I’ve gotten older.
But Tom Petty’s secret? He wrote that bridge about Mitch Berg, age 16, of Jamestown North Dakota.
And about you, fella, whoever you are.
And as I sat in that church classroom on November 11, 1979, as the chill fell outside and the congregation sang in the background, I thought it was a pretty neat trick.
A little background: As I wrote some time ago, the question “which decade was the best” in pop music of the Rock and Roll era is a misleading one. Popular music in the rock and roll era has really been divided into ten distinct eras (see the linked article above for explanations).
Pre-Rock and Roll (1948-1953)
Early Rock and Roll (1954-1958)
The Brill Building Era (1958-1962)
The Golden Age of the 45 (1962-1968)
The Album Age (1968-1972)
The Malaise Era (1973-1979)
The Alternative Era (1980-1986)
The Style-Over-Substance Era (1987-1992)
The Return Of The Seventies (1993-2000)
The IPod Era (2000-Present)
Each of these eras – 4-10 years long – had its own unique personality; music moved in a direction. Not always a good one, but a direction.
And it was thirty years ago tomorrow that my favorite among these eras really got its start. Not just an album (tune in tomorrow), but the beginning of a year-and-change period in time when pop music changed more, faster, than had ever happened before. It was a dizzying time to be listening to, and taking part in, music. It wasn’t just that there was plenty of experimentation going on; it was that for about five years or so, the underground became the mainstream.
Think about it. Check out the Top 100 songs of 1978; mostly depressing bilge. The last remnants of the Disco boom (and, in the case of Chic, Yvonne Elliman and the Bee Gees, some of the best of the genre) were about the only memorable thing about the entire year. Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow were still big hitmakers. In the meantime, groups like the Cars, the Police, the Talking Heads and Dire Straits were a mildly-threatening insurgency; Tom Petty and AC/DC were snotty rockers riding in on the ragged edges of punk and new wave; The Clash was an obscure bunch of pub punks; Prince was a teenager in Minneapolis; Bruce Springsteen’s only Top 100 hit, said Billboard, was Manfred Man’s vandalism of “Blinded By The Light” the previous year.
Now, jump ahead a mere six years, to 1984. Nary a Ronstadt or an Air Supply to be found; even Elton John, one of the few throwbacks on the charts, had had to radically update his approach to get his second big burst of success. The stuff that dominated the charts was the stuff that was on the fringe of the fringe in ’78, like Prince, The Police, Springsteen, Dire Straits – or groups that didn’t exist in any publicly-visible form in ’78, like Duran Duran, the Pretenders, Big Country, U2…really, pretty much the whole list.
Over the next year and a half or so, I’ll be celebrating the thirtieth anniversaries of a couple of dozen albums that changed pop music forever, more drastically than anything since the Beatles and Elvis.