Friday, October 21, 2016

My First Album (s): Beatles 'n Stones

This is a great topic: first album. Cassette, CD, 45…

I wrote a lot for this, dividing my firsts up into multiple categories that involved the traditional first purchase, but extended to some stranger places: my mom’s record collection; the first record store I ever went to (Viva Kemp Mill Records!);  my earliest memories of flipping though records in the Kmart and being a little scared of the KISS, Ozzy and Sabbath stuff; all the way to the pawn shop that was right next to the comic shop I used to frequent every day after middle school, where I bought a then almost 10 year old copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black, for a quarter…the first tape I bought, my first 45... I thought I remembered more specifically, but it's hard to put a finger on the actual first of whatever category I actually money down on. I do remember some purchases: the vinyl pressing of USA for Africa, which was...whatever, in retrospect, but did have a blistering live version of Springsteen doing Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped", which to this day gives me the shivers when I hear it.

I realized, though, my musical memory is endless, each recollection better than the one before, so many stories that spring up from hearing even a two second scrap of a tune. Music, for those who love it, resides in what the soul must be. And the knowledge that one possesses of their musical past and how it has built towards their ever-living, always sound-tracked present, has to reside somewhere deep in the physiology, someplace close to the DNA, the stuff that makes us who we are.

After considering the many, many options I could qualify for “first”, I decided to go with this: My friend’s older brother’s LP collection.

David S. was a fourth grade rock god to me. He knew more about the Stones and the Beatles than anyone I knew. Which is to say, he was the first one to tell me about those two bands, and therefore was the ultimate authority. All his facts and tidbits and knowledge, especially of lyrical content and album cover art must have to come to him from a much older, very educated older brother  (I remember thinking his parents were his grandparents when I met them—grey and old; David was a ‘mistake’ baby).

He came over to my house for a playmate (though we didn’t call it that back then) and we spent much of the afternoon pouring over the covers of the stack of albums he brought and listening to the music. Tattoo You was really fascinating to me, with the tribal images of Mick and Keith looking like Maori warriors. Beggars Banquet was somehow a little scary looking, a place I shouldn’t be; Sticky Fingers was titillating dirty because we could pull on the zipper in the pants. Some Girls was fun in a more innocent way: the die-cut, movable features was a lot like the pop-up books I still liked at that age. He also had a copy the Beatle’s Yesterday and Today with the infamous butcher scene, though it must have been a reprint. Sgt. Pepper’s was what really grabbed me, and we poured over that famous cover scene for what seemed like hours. Abbey Road was awesome, too, due to the fact that he explained the legend that Paul was dead and this was representative of his funeral and that each Beatle was a member of the funeral party. Mind you, all of this intense scrutiny of the art work and the head-spinning tales David was telling me—the stories beyond the songs—was done to a soundtrack of what could arguably be considered the greatest rock music ever recorded. Like so many, The Beatles and the Stones hold exalted status for me in the pantheon of rock, and regardless of how far afield I stray, sometimes for good, often for worse (I went to see Quiet Riot in the 8th grade, Bon Jovi and Cinderella in 9th), I always go back to the Beatles and Stones. It doesn’t make me unique; it just means I have a pure rock pedigree, good genes, if you will. 

We eventually got around to the White Album and then, because I wasn’t really as singularly obsessed with music as David, I took us out to play war in the construction site nearby and David eventually, incensed and bored, stalked off and went back to my house. My mother had to take him home. It was a great day, one that sparked my musical journey, despite David not wanting to be my friend anymore (he was really offended at the joy I took rolling around in the dirt, shooting a fake machine gun and running myself through freshly hung drywall in effort to emulate fabulous special effects like in the movies). A great day, but one that in retrospect shows me that perhaps even at that age, I was already lacking any kind of particular, obsessive focus that if I had may have led me down a very different path in life. David might have become a rock star for all I know—he had the singularity of mind to do what it took to make great music. He had the pedigree; he knew the legends and the stories and the myths; he knew what the songs were about, especially the dirty ones, even if we didn’t really know what was going on—Jagger’s penchant for “make sweet love” as a lyric, while ubiquitous, didn’t mean much to me then, other than I knew I should giggle when I heard it. He had the moves and the ability to mimic, especially Mick Jagger. Have you ever seen a 4th grader strut and prance and mime the vocals of Mick Jagger? No? You should—it’s a lot less creepy and whole lot more entertaining than those little kids who always seem to be part of any Elvis Presley impersonation festival.

What is amazing, though, is how certain sounds, and in this case, album sleeves, certain images, especially the visual and aural beauty of rock music, can work to blow open your understanding or perception of the world around you. Up until then, I’d been grooving to things like the AM radio, or stuff that my dad would sing around the house. I had a few soundtracks to movies I loved (Star Wars, The Muppets), but otherwise, like a typical nine-year-old kid, my musical sensibility was scattered at best, influenced by what was accessible to me. I didn’t have that ever-important older sibling to act as my musical sage, guru and guide. So, I made do with what was available to me and, given the passion music stirred in me, I worked pretty hard at finding sounds after that fateful day when David S. brought over all those records. It’s been a good journey, one that gets better the longer it goes on. In terms of the metaphorical quest, this is one that needs no end, as the longer the way, the greater and more abundant the rewards.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

My First Cassette: The Joshua Tree

purchase [The Joshua Tree]

In October of 1987 I purchased The Joshua Tree, so well matched for the most beautifully dark and moody time of the year in windy and wet-leaved Wisconsin. It was a 10-minute walk from the Exclusive Company record store on Main Street to my home on Hickory Street. I felt a foreign cool carrying home that cassette in the Exclusive Company’s famous black bag with silver writing. I had hoped I would bump into a girl who’d ask me what I bought at the Exclusive, and we’d open into a conversation about the hit songs. Of course at that time, nobody knew what else was on a tape unless you bought it and listened to it all the way through. That’s where the value was, of course: the surprises only you could access through the purchase.

Within the first year I had purchased The Joshua Tree, my first cassette and first music purchase ever, I probably listened to it over 100 times at night as I fell asleep. In this capacity, it was rivaled only that year by side one of New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies and side two of the Cure’s Standing on a Beach singles collection. I could only listen to one side because I had the kind of tape player that didn’t switch sides naturally and instead when it reached the end of a side it banged rather than clicked to a finish. If I had the energy, I’d wake up and flip it.  

I cried over getting dumped to this tape; I sprinted home with Sun Country Peach Wine Cooler on my breath to meet curfew listening to this tape, twisting the jack of my cheap headphones expertly to avoid it playing into only one of my ears; I psyched myself up before swim races listening to “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “In Gods’ Country” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. I remember walking the five minutes to Sunday Night bible study feeling edgier from listening to it, ready to challenge my very friendly CCD teacher.  I get goose bumps now realizing how naïve and lame I must have sounded talking about how Bono didn’t stand for American politics nor institutionalized religion.

It took a couple months before I started fast-forwarding through the Joshua Tree in order to skip the hits and start with “Bullet the Blue Sky”.  Before the tape could bang to a stop, I’d get up and turn it over for the darker and more drifting side two, usually waking up again during the rolling “In God’s Country” and the harrowing “Exit”.

Bullet the Blue Sky, with Bono’s sudden grunts and groans, Larry Mullen Jr’s barrel-chested drum approach and the Edge’s thick guitar is audaciously akin to “Whole Lotta Love”. Even the melody is similar. In hindsight it’s also the tune that sonically, along with Bono’s spoken-word delivery (“…pealing those dollar bills/slappin’ em down ‘100’ ‘200’ and I can see those fighter planes…”), probably foreshadows 1991’s ultra-cool but tepid Achtung Baby.

Until this week I hadn’t listened to this nearly perfect album for over ten years and not until now did I realize how bluesy it is, almost a futuristic dark Americana sound. At the time I was mostly seduced by Bono’s conviction and the Edge’s guitar playing, which develops on the signature infinite guitar sound (originated by Michael Brook) that he started on the Unforgettable Fire. A lot of people had their hands producing this effort including Brian Eno, Flood, Daniel Lanois and even Steve Lillywhite. It’s a wonder it doesn’t sound disjointed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My First Album: Tea For The Tillerman

Cat Stevens: Father And Son

Unlike my predecessors in this theme, I’m pretty confident that Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman was actually the first album I owned.

I’ve written before about how my interest in rock music started in the summer of 1969, listening to the AM radio on the way to day camp. And the following summer, I remember that the cool, sophisticated counselors (who were probably all of 16 or 17), were listening to Cat Stevens. I became a fan, and I asked someone (parents? grandparents?) for a copy of Tea For The Tillerman, which I received, and listened to repeatedly.

I remained a Cat Stevens fan for years—the first concert I went to without my parents was to see him at Madison Square Garden with my friend Laura in, it appears, 1976. I remember that we sat way up in what were then the “blue seats,” but it was still great (although not everyone agreed).

My wife is also a big fan, but by the time that we got together he had already converted to Islam, changed his name and stopped performing until his return in the mid-2000s. And a few years ago, I wrote a piece about him over at Cover Me.

Tea For The Tillerman is, undeniably, a great album. It was both a critical and commercial success, and pretty much every song is a winner. It was the record that made Stevens a household name around the world.

In some ways the most unusual song on the album is “Father And Son,” originally written for an abandoned musical theater project about the Russian Revolution (which sounds like it could have been Max Bialystock's second idea). It features a dialogue between a father, sung by Stevens in a lower register, and a son, sung in a higher register, in which the son expresses his desire for independence and the father argues in favor of a more traditional future. Despite its initial historical inspiration, the song captured the generational divide of its era in a way that showed both the conflict it caused in families without neglecting the love. By the way, in the Cover Me piece there is a great version of the song by Johnny Cash with Fiona Apple.

Stevens, shortly after the song was released, was quoted as saying that "I’ve never really understood my father, but he always let me do whatever I wanted—he let me go. 'Father And Son' is for those people who can’t break loose."

This was probably not the favorite song on the album of the 9-year old me, but the 55-year old me, who has two adult children, and recently lost a father he was very close to, has found it quite touching and perceptive. It’s probably a sign that it is a good song, when it resonates with you as a child and as an adult, right?

Friday, October 14, 2016

My First Album: Who's Next

purchase [Who's Next]

What is an album? Do they still exist?

If you are following SMM, you probably don't need a lesson about "albums", as out-dated as they are. A concept from the past - before iTunes and $0.99 singles online.

I started buying music for myself with my allowance at about age 12, and naturally I could only afford 45's. ( that's a vinyl disk that spins at 45 RPM (er ... rotations per minute). Your typtical teen had a leather covered "album" filled with these disks. 45s had an :A: side and a :B: side -with the big hit on the A, the lesser on the B.

True "albums" were collections of hits and lessers that spun at 33 1/3 RPMs. And they cost more than 45s - you had to save up to buy an album, and so you considered if it was worth it (45@ $1.25... album @ $%8.00...?)

But a 33 1/3 RPM album gave you 30-40 minutes of the band's music. More or less non-stop (you had to flip the platter half way through...) but often, there were 3 or more :hits: on an album

My first album was likely a Motown album. I'm no longer sure: that was going on 50 years ago (1966?)

However, the first album that came with my own/personal "stereo" (purchased with my own money) was Who's Next  - and *that* I remember well because I nigh on wore out the grooves of the album, playing it again and again. 

It was - and still is- an album incomparable: there's not a single bad song in the entire package. An album you could listen to from start to end without lifting the needle (no electronic skip - only manual)

And although Daltry and Townsend aren't what they used to be, it's not for nothing that they were the half-time NFL show back in 2010.  OK...OK, nowhere near their prime, but - all things considered - a "primo" production. And the NFL half-time show is mostly made up of songs from Who's Next.

Who's Next 40 years later - the NFL half-time show:


It's a tricky one this, as, of course, is honesty, weaving a devious path between credibility and risibility. Achieving both, no doubt. And the heightened self-aggrandisement of claiming that coveted hipper than thou award is no mean attraction. So I lie. There, I've said it. L.A.Woman was not my first album. That was Sgt Pepper, but my sister bought me that because she wanted it. And it wasn't my second. That was Pictures at an Exhibition (E.L.P.), and my parents, bless them, bought me that, based on my instructions. But it was my third, and the first, bought with my accumulated savings from Christmas and birthdays. So it counts, don't it? Sort of. And I am so grateful of that, because, let me set the record straight, for once and for all, it is and remains one of the finest recordings of this and last century.

Let me take you back. I was 14 in 1971. That's a good age to be becoming obsessed by music and it was a good year to be becoming obsessed by music. Now, better people than I have already laid down the challenge that this was the year of the lodestone, most notably, David Hepworth, UK eminence grise of music journalism, sometime presenter of The (Old Grey) Whistle Test, the "serious" grown up big brother of Top of the Pops, clips from each show which litter my previous posts. He was also responsible, in one form or another, for the magazines, amongst others, Smash Hits, Q, Mojo and The Word, often alongside laconic sidekick, Mark Ellen. This is what he says about that year, even going so far as to write a book about it. But I knew none of that then, I was just eagerly lapping up all the sounds exposed to my wide ears. Most afternoons were spent visiting my friendly and local record shop, Complete Audio Systems, of Eastbourne, Sussex, known to one and all as Cas(s)music. With an astonishing indulgence, they happily allowed a stream of spotty schoolboys to put on headphones and nod away for hours listening to side 1 of this, side 2 of that, even if purchases were, well, infrequent. The owner clearly seemed to have a U.S. west coast bent, presumably explaining my enduring love for the obscure and arcane offerings from late 60s and early 70s California: It's a Beautiful Day, Stoneground, Tonto's Expanding Headband, all equally devoured, alongside more familiar fare, Zappa, the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. Christ, I must have been an insufferable and precocious brat, but happy and fond-remembered days. The Doors, of course, I knew from their big hit single some 4 years previous, but was certainly unprepared for the splendour of the set piece magnum opus that saw my headphones ripped off, replaced by those of my chum Nigel. The storm became ridden and  I was instantly smitten.

 The cover, reproduced at the top, above, had something to do with it, originally having the picture of the band printed onto the yellow inner sleeve, visible through a perspex window, rather than later versions where it was printed as one, all on card. Gone was movie star looks love god Morrison, now a bearded grizzly bear stared balefully out. (I should add I had a thing about beards in those days ahead of being able to grow anything myself. For me the Beach Boys became hip the minute I saw the cover of Live In Concert, ahead even of hearing the songs.......Even Mike Love. Hell, especially Mike Love!) As was my wont, I duly went back and read the inkies of the day, Melody Maker and N.M.E. (New Musical Express) to discover the backstory of booze and bedevilment. I never got round to hearing any more of the record before I was back at the shop, paying my near £2 (about $2.50 today) for my own pristine copy.

Unusually I never quite took to the title track. I found it too long, too loud and too, um, obvious. Yes, I have warmed more to it in the intervening years, but my tastes were more to the mellower aspects, Riders and my lasting favourite, Hyacinth House, below. (AKA, probably, the "cocktail music" epithet made by fast exiting erstwhile producer, Paul Rothschild) I was so convinced as to the perfection of this song that I insisted on playing it to my mother, whose tastes were more of the Jim Reeves persuasion. I forget her opinion, but I felt it helped explain that awful question so beloved of parents, so what sort of music is it that you like? I never felt comfortable saying "rock", as that would have meant "and roll" to my disapproving mother.

But there was also my introduction, more than likely, to any concept of the blues, as a genre and as a genre with a history. Their cover of the John Lee Hooker staple, Crawling King Snake, certainly had an effect on me, the line about getting down on your hands and knees (baby) in particular playing strange tricks on my pubescent mind. Spider on the wall? Wooooo, way too much for my limited understanding to contain and possibly having laundry outcomes. (TMI...)

Luckily I could fall back on the mysticism of Morrisons poetry, and, at 14, yes, it was poetry and, yes, it was mystic. Bob Dylan may just have now been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature, but I know who I would have awarded it to in 1971. And, however corny, today, 45 years on, indeed do I still feel and share the "immaculate" we is, even if I were never stoned.

I could play more, point you to more, but time and space have their purpose. I know the Doors have swung in and out of favour, aided and abetted by innumerable books and films, a mythology as much as anything. The naysayers can go take one, I won't and don't listen. How many records from 45 years ago do you still play? How many records of 45 years ago still gain plaudits? It's true, often only of this generations and of any generations awkward teens, but that is truth enough for me.

You mean you don't already own this? Buy!
O, and that book by David Hepworth? There too.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

HARVEST/FALL: "Harvest Festival," XTC

Click and listen: Harvest Festival

When I was informed of the "Harvest" theme that was to take place these couple of weeks on Star Maker Machine, XTC's "Harvest Festival" immediately sprung to mind. And there's good reason for that: "Harvest Festival" is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. It features a gorgeous melody that builds from a simple piano to a full-blown symphony of sounds, Beatlesque in the best sense of the word. Its beauty and honest grandeur never fail to move me.

If you'll forgive me a bit of overemoting, consider this: if you're not an XTC fan already, this may be one of the most beautiful pop songs you've never heard. I strongly encourage you to listen to it, not just read about it -- stop reading this now if you must, but listen.

In what I consider the Spring-to-Winter cycle of Apple Venus, the 1999 album it comes from, "Harvest Festival" lands, naturally, at the beginning of Fall. After the buildup to Summer ("Green Man"), the bursting forth of the fruit ("Fruit Nut"), and being brought back to earth after a summer romance ("I Can't Own Her"), we turn once again to the serious business of harvesting the crops, returning to studies, and preparing for the chill of winter. In some cases this means formalizing romantic bonds with weddings. As XTC's Andy Partridge has said about writing this song, he commingled the ideas of the harvest festivals of his childhood in England with marriage. (The harvest festival in Great Britain follows the summer holiday as children return to school, and is traditionally held on or near the Harvest Moon, the full moon occurring closest to the autumn equinox. Students bring in produce to display, and then distribute it to local people in need.) In a way, the song exists in two times at once: in Andy's childhood memories, and in the future, when he and his classmates have grown.

As "Harvest Festival" begins, the festival is called to order with a few piano notes and the sound of chairs sliding back as people stand (in this commingled imagining, both for the festival and for a wedding). Partridge recalls the beauty and tradition surrounding the festivals, mixed with the effects of youthful hormones kicking in, then moves forward through the end of those school years, losing touch, and then reconnecting as old schoolmates marry. In all, it's a cycle of life in terms of not only the harvest, but of growing up as well.

See the flowers round the altar
See the peaches in tins 'neath the headmaster's chair
Harvest festival

See the two who've been chosen

See them walk hand in hand to the front of the hall
Harvest festival
Harvest festival
What was best of all was the
Longing look you gave me
That longing look
More than enough to keep me fed all year


And what a year when the exams and crops all failed
Of course you passed and you were never seen again
We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed
Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen

See the flowers round the altar
See that you two got married and I wish you well

Friday, October 7, 2016

Harvest/Fall Future Islands, Seasons (Waiting On You)

Purchase: Seasons (Waiting On You)

I think a lot of folks came to Future Islands via The Late Show with David Letterman. It was the band’s Late Show debut and they put on a masterful rendition of the hit single, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”—a buoyant, bouncy gem with a church-hymn-worthy chorus and a soaring dance-infused rhythm. I fell in the love with the song, and Letterman, ever a musical enthusiast and never one to shy away from promoting the bands he believed in, did too. But it was more than the song Letterman liked: lead singer and main songwriter Samuel Herring is blessed with many talents, but his peculiar dance moves are more akin to combat defense positions and he cuts quite a figure on stage.

Lettermen went a little nuts for Herring’s bombastic neo-slide moves and the YouTube version of their performance went on the garner millions of views. Views on YouTube have become a strange kind of modern currency, and the more one has, the greater one’s prowess in the modern social media arena. Or something like that—I had a kid in a summer class I taught tell me that he was a “famous YouTuber” and that he made money from having so many subscribers to his channel. I went to his channel and it was pretty much videos of him playing video games and putting his finger in his nose for comedic effect. But, one of those legends along the bottom of the screen did read that he had subscribers in the multi-thousands. And that equates to money? I’m digressing, I know, but, wow—if all it takes to earn cash these days is to put up poorly shit videos of bodily functions and boogers, then I ought to be a freaking mogul…

So, Future Islands, an eclectic, North Carolina born, Baltimore based synth pop band that is very worthy of accepting the throne from former synth-pop greats such as New Order, rose to fame because their incredibly talented singer/songwriter cuts a very strange rug? Yeah, that’s modern music. No need to actually pay attention to the sound itself, the lyrics or the vibe that gets spun by a group of musicians. Nope—just watch the video and click like. It’s a sad kind of world we’ve created, and those of us who remember the world before the internet, lament the state we find ourselves in (even if it’s just a sort of stasis, before we move on to the next fad). It seems sad and a bit incomprehensible to me that we can no longer rely on great music (albums) to be enough if it doesn't come with some strange, and useless viral hype. This applies to new music, I suppose. And, not all of it, I know: I'm generalizing.  But the changes that music industry has undergone are confounding, as well as myriad, and it seems odd to me that a song like Seasons grows a following because of social media, a phenomenon that is a far removed from music as can be...

Seasons is a gorgeous song—there’s no weird dancing in the video, and in the listening, we can judge the band on its true merits. As we should. And we can love the song because we are moved by what counts: melody, beat and soulful expression-what good music is really about.

But, lest you think I’m a grumpy, pessimistic old man (I am, don’t worry), you should know, despite the unwarranted attention Future Islands got due to the goofy dance moves, Seasons went on to be named the best song of 2014 by the Pazz & Jop critics' poll in the Village Voice, Pitchfork Media and Consequence of Sound. (Wikipedia)  

Monday, October 3, 2016

Harvest/Fall: Old Man

purchase [ Old Man]

Being of age 60+ (perhaps the fall of my life) and having worked for 40 years or more, it seems natural that I consider what I have sown and what I will reap at the end of the road.

I wasn't going to do a post about Neil Young's Harvest. It seemed so trite - theme: Harvest/Album: \Old Man/Song. However, someone needed to do the post for many reasons: because (more than my previous post about John Barleycorn being the quintessential Harvest song), this is the bottom line. There is nothing more fundamental than the album with the name of the theme, No? What say about an album titled Harvest with the song Harvest? It may be Young's best.

Of the 10 tracks on the album ... 1/2 of them are pantheon classics. Need I list them? No sooner had CSNY hit the top of the charts, than they began to fall apart. And, as part of this process, Neil Young (previously of Buffalo Springfield - along with Stephen Stills) was off on his own - I guess he was the first of the CSNY group to produce his own after the success of the 4-some, and t'was the Harvest album.

From the album, Heart of Gold may be my fave, but ... we need to focus on the harvest/fall aspect: Young's song about what you sow and harvest. (Old Man) may not seem at first to fit the theme. But I would contend that the back story to the lyrics is very much one about harvest - the end of a season, the reaping of what you have sown. I think that - on examination - you would have to agree that the deeper meaning of Young's lyrics are very much about harvesting what you have sown in your life.

Even beyond that - <take at look at> the power of this performance: maybe one of the best indicators of what Neil Young is/is capable of. The lyrics - if you dig - are phenomenal. Low key but powerful. The guitar is simple/basic, but powerfully on target - half way between folk and rock, soft and yet rough. I guess this is why he is at the top of the list of "the best".

Sing: "Doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you"