Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More Envelopes, Please

Even though the Grammy Awards won't be handed out again until next February, we're looking back this week at the peculiar spectacle that is the Best New Artist award. (Click here for part 1.)

1978: The winner: Taste of Honey. The losers: the Cars, Elvis Costello, Chris Rea, Toto. Until the Milli Vanilli fiasco of 1989, this was the most laughable miss in Best New Artist history. "Boogie Oogie Oogie," my foot.

1979: The winner: Rickie Lee Jones. The losers: the Blues Brothers, the Knack, Dire Straits, Robin Williams. This provides evidence for a contention I've made previously, that 1979 was one of classic rock's greatest years--all but Williams were getting significant AOR airplay that year, and have endured, more or less, in the classic rock era. (Did you remember that Robin Williams made a record? It won the Best Comedy Album Grammy.)

1986: The winner: Bruce Hornsby and the Range. The losers: Simply Red, Nu Shooz, Glass Tiger, Timbuk 3. At least the lone hits by Glass Tiger ("Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone") and Timbuk 3 ("The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades") were tolerable: "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz is one of the worst records of the 1980s. And Simply Red has had a better career than all of them put together.

1990: The winner: Mariah Carey. Among the losers: Black Crowes, Wilson Phillips. Regardless of how you feel about Carey's diva antics or dull records, she's had a longer and more successful career than almost everyone else who's won this award since 1959. How the voters resisted picking Wilson Phillips, given the girls' Beach Boys/Mamas and the Papas pedigree, I have no idea.

1994: The winner: Sheryl Crow. Among the losers: Green Day, Counting Crows. Another decent pick, it seems, but how good, we won't know for a long time.

1995: The winner: Hootie and the Blowfish. Among the losers: Shania Twain, Alanis Morrisette. This was an easy pick back then--remember how massive a pop-culture phenomenon they were? So massive, in fact, that the albums following their 14-million-selling debut album, both of which sold multi-millions, were perceived as failures, and the band is perceived now as a 90s relic on a par with Beanie Babies and the Psychic Friends Network.

Among the others who were nominated for Best New Artist but lost over the years: Jefferson Airplane, Cream, the Byrds, Elton John, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Foreigner, and Bad Company. (And Susan Tedeschi, who lost to Christina Aguilera in 1999.) What does all this prove? Nothin', except that giving an artist a Grammy Award (no matter what the category, but especially with Best New Artist) isn't the same thing as making them a star.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Envelope, Please

The 2005 Grammys will be awarded in early 2006. But in the old days, they were presented at the end of the calendar year. In fact, the 1959 Grammys were presented 46 years ago tonight. That ceremony included the first awarding of the Best New Artist Grammy. Best New Artist is easy to make fun of, mostly because we can't predict the future. But the people who vote are supposed to be insiders, so you'd think they'd have a better track record for picking stars. Fact is, the winners of the Best New Artist Grammy occasionally become insignificant within about five minutes of winning it. Other winners don't. A few representative years follow, courtesy of The Envelope, an exhaustive site archiving information on every entertainment award you can think of.

1959: The winner: Bobby Darin. The losers: Edd Byrnes, Mark Murphy, Johnny Restivo, Mavis Rivers. The pattern of insignificance is thus set: Edd Byrnes was a teen idol famous solely for a supporting role on TV's 77 Sunset Strip, and for a profoundly stupid novelty hit with Connie Stevens based on his role. Murphy and Rivers were jazz performers; Restivo was a rockabilly singer.

1962: The winner: Robert Goulet. The losers: the Four Seasons, the New Christy Minstrels, Peter Paul and Mary, Allan Sherman, Vaughn Meader. This was the Grammys' first big miss on artists (the Seasons, PP&M) who would play significant roles in musical history yet to be made. As for the others, Sherman was famous for parody songs and Meader was famous for his impression of John F. Kennedy. There was precedent for giving the award to a comedian--Bob Newhart won it in 1961.

1964: The winner: The Beatles. The losers: Petula Clark, Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Morgana King. Evidence here of the popularity of the Brazilian/bossa nova sound at this moment in history. However, thanks to British performers like the Beatles and (to a far lesser extent) Clark, it was already irrelevant by the time the awards were handed out in April 1965.

1969: The winner: Crosby Stills and Nash. The losers: Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Oliver, the Neon Philharmonic. The strongest batch of nominees in the award's history up to this point, despite Oliver and the Neon Philharmonic.

1972: The winner: America. The losers: Harry Chapin, the Eagles, Loggins and Messina, John Prine. Strong field: for the first time in the award's history, every nominee would go on to a decent career.

1976: The winner: Starland Vocal Band. The losers: Boston, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Wild Cherry, the Brothers Johnson. It's one-hit wonder night at the Grammys.

Coming tomorrow: More odd choices from the late 70s to the mid 90s.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Trouble With Fame

I've complained in this space before about the induction criteria for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you're still on the musical map 25 years after your first record, you'll probably get in, regardless of whether you've had any demonstrable impact on rock and roll beyond your longevity. (ZZ Top, the Bee Gees, I'm talkin' to you.) Also, the Hall casts its net a bit too widely sometimes, inducting performers only tangentially related to rock--including some, such as Nat King Cole, who had no love for rock at all. Such decisions actually minimize the achievement of artists who truly deserve to be honored for their real contributions to the form.

From the Hall's press release today announcing the 2006 inductees:
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria considered includes the influence and significance of the artist's contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Past Inductees include: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Cream, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones.
This year's inductees are Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynryd Skynryd, and the Sex Pistols. How many of them could you append to that excerpt from the release without making it seem like the Sesame Street game of "one of these things is not like the others"? Berry, Domino, Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, Cream, Springsteen and the Stones ought to have statues out in front of the building instead of just plaques inside.

In my view, two of the 2006 inductees are clearly separated from the others. Black Sabbath singlehandedly invented half-a-dozen genres of heavy metal--all the death and doom bands who followed them in the last 35 years are mostly recycling their ideas, and Ozzy Osbourne remains sui generis. The Sex Pistols were the most famous of the punks to emerge in the late 1970s--while others lasted longer and recorded more, few had the musical and cultural impact the Pistols did. You could argue that they represented a significant victory for fuck-you attitude over conventional talent, and that they opened the way for other performers, in both music and in other fields, to make careers the same way.

You can make a good Hall of Fame case for Skynryd, too, I suppose. They inspired a slew of loud, Southern-sounding rock bands in the 1970s--I suspect that a lot of current country artists and their fans were Skynryd fans in high school. Unlike Sabbath or the Pistols, however, there wasn't really a sense during Skynryd's peak period that they were doing anything groundbreaking. Blondie belongs in the ZZ Top wing, if that--we're talking about a group here that scored half-a-dozen hit singles in a little more than two years, then vanished from the scene. If, according to the Hall, they represent the height of New York new wave, New York new wave is less influential than advertised.

Jazz musician Miles Davis is an interesting choice. Not a good one (and I'm a fan), but an interesting one. In the 1960s, Davis began working with rock musicians and integrating rock rhythms into his music, to the point at which many observers believed it had ceased to be jazz at all. But it wasn't rock, either--and at times, it wasn't especially musical, no matter how you define it. Perhaps he can be credited with inventing jazz-rock fusion--which was controversial among both jazz and rock fans during its 70s heyday--or with influencing the development of hip-hop or even techno, although he didn't invent either one. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Are his contributions to rock and roll in the same league as those made by Berry, Dylan, or the Beatles? If not, what's he doing on the list?

The Hall is also inducting Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, founders of A&M Records, for lifetime achievement as non-performing contributors. I'm fine with that. They're not being recognized alongside performers (although Alpert had a Number One song as a performer in 1968, "This Guy's in Love With You," and recorded several hit albums as leader of the Tijuana Brass). And they did sign and record many popular artists of the 70s and 80s.

Ozzy Osbourne has criticized the Hall of Fame as "useless." He sees it as an elitist institution because it doesn't let the fans choose the inductees. But that simply doesn't hold up. Part of what got Sabbath in--and Skynryd and ZZ Top and lots of others--is the fact that their old albums remain in their record companies' back catalogs. Fans vote on them with their dollars year in and year out. That counts for a lot, even though snooty elitists like me believe it shouldn't count so much.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Top 5: Sly and the Family Methodist

On Thanksgiving Day 1981, I was filling in on the morning show at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. The show was nearly over when a listener called to ask me how come I hadn't played any Thanksgiving songs yet that morning. This was neither an idle nor playful query--the tone of her voice indicated that her gorge had been rising for a couple of hours with every non-Thanksgiving song I played. So maybe it wasn't the most tactful thing I could have said when I replied, "Ma'am, if you can think of one, I'd be happy to play it." She had no ideas--except to hang up on me. I've had 24 years to think about it now--so here are some songs that might have been appropriate in response to her request.

Let's take the serious ones first, before we go all flippant.

Any number of selections from the hymnal of your choice. Despite my irreligious opinions, I still know my way around the Methodist Hymnal. For Thanksgiving, you could choose "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" or "For the Beauty of the Earth" or "We Gather Together" or even the Doxology. In other words, classic religious hits from my childhood, which take me back to the pew on Sunday mornings, chafing in a tight clip-on necktie and Sunday shoes. I am guessing this is what my caller was asking for, unless maybe she wanted "Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Go," in which case she shoulda said so.

"Thanksgiving"/George Winston.
This is the opening track on Winston's landmark album December, an instrumental that can paint numerous pictures, depending on the frame of mind you're in: a quiet country road with harvest bounty in the adjoining fields, as seen in the fading light of a late November afternoon; the last mile of a long and wearying journey home; or the quiet contemplation of how fortunate you are to have what you have.

"Bless This House"/Perry Como. This doesn't mention being thankful, exactly, but when I worked at the elevator-music station, we'd play it around Thanksgiving and Christmas and the phones would blow out. Even though the recording sounds cheesy (Como abandons his usual amiable cool for an emotional delivery, backed up by a mixed chorus that sounds painfully lame to modern ears), the lyrics are simple and sentimental, and the very concept is largely foreign to our jaded age, there's something moving about it even now. Perhaps it's the song's depiction of a world unambiguously bounded by a few simple verities. After all, that's the world where all those TV ads about family holidays come from, isn't it? The one we're supposed to want to get back to, for just a while?

And now, the ones that stretch the definition of "Thanksgiving song" a little:

"Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)"/Sly and the Family Stone.
Well, why not? Part of reaching our fullest potential as human beings involves being true to our true selves, whatever they are. Should we not be grateful to someone who permits us to achieve that potential?

"I Thank You"/Sam and Dave, ZZ Top, and others. Sometimes, we receive something from another person not because we've done anything to earn it, but out of the goodness of that person's heart. (In a Christian context, it might be called grace.) You'd have to be thankful for that, wouldn't you? For example: "You didn't have to love me like you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you."

Honorable mention Thanksgiving songs: Anything by the Grateful Dead.

I'd like to add just one more thing before I go off to both contemplate my good fortune on this Thanksgiving Day--and to induce a turkey-and-football coma that I expect to last through the weekend: I am, as always, grateful to you for reading this nonsense all the year through. You didn't have to click it but you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Double Life

You may have heard this week that the Cars are reforming--sort of. Guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes have recruited Todd Rundgren to take Ric Ocasek's place after Ocasek declined to rejoin. Other new members are bassist Kasim Sultan, a former member of Rundgren's legendary band Utopia, and Prairie Prince, formerly of the Tubes. (Name-dropper alert: I met Prairie Prince about a dozen years ago, when he was playing the fair-and-festival circuit in the Paul Kantner/Jack Casady version of Jefferson Starship.)

I see a problem with this: the fact that they're going to call the band the New Cars. (At least I presume the "N" is going to be capitalized--there's a subtle difference if it isn't.) That adjective and similar sequel signals have only worked sporadically over time: New Christy Minstrels, New Riders of the Purple Sage, New Seekers. Such name tinkering automatically calls attention to the fact that you're one generation removed from the real thing. Remember the Jeff Lynne-less Electric Light Orchestra Part II, or Kantner's flirtation with renaming his band Jefferson Starship: the Next Generation?

I thought not.

Without Ocasek's inexpressive and disembodied voice, it's hard to imagine the New Cars being much like the old Cars at all. (Ben Orr, the only other member to take a lead vocal, on "Drive"--but not on "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend's Girl," as the story linked above claims--died in 2000.) Rundgren's voice is a lot warmer, so even if the rest of the band manages to recapture the tight, electronic sound of classic Cars, I'm afraid the New Cars are going to sound like a tribute band.

(I have deleted a comment that was made to this post, which pointed out that Orr did indeed sing "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend's Girl." Which is fine. But calling me a moron was unnecessary, and doing so anonymously was cowardly.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lennon, Springsteen, and Some Bad, Bad Ideas

Some musical stuff that's washed up in the surf over the weekend:

--A website called Pitchfork has an extensive article on the worst album covers of all time. Apart from the snark (author Brent DiCrescenzo describes the cover of Neil Young's Everybody's Rockin' by saying, "Neil seems carved out of wax, propped up inside a faux-retro diner, begging for the sweet release of a grease fire"), it also provides some interesting thoughts on the role of album covers throughout rock history, and their likely future in a world where physical objects containing recordings will be replaced by digital downloads. During the vinyl era, you might not have bought an album exclusively for the art, but a cool cover was certainly a bonus. Think of the classic Pink Floyd covers, or the Vargas drawing on the Cars' Candy-O. Or click "comments" to provide a favorite of your own.

--An AP posted a story on the upcoming 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, with various celebrity reminiscences of the event. (Closed circuit to the lead singer of Slayer: You needn't worry about your personal safety when going out in public. Not for the reasons you think, anyway.) A few weeks ago, The Mrs. and I had the chance to visit a traveling exhibit of Lennon's artwork. Heretofore, I'd never been all that impressed with Lennon's visual art, but seeing so much of it in one place gave me a new appreciation for it--mostly for its humor. His series of drawings done for his son Sean were the highlight of the exhibit for me. In those drawings, there's no sense that he was trying to create art--they're just the work of a father using any means at his disposal to make his child laugh, and that makes them especially funny and touching.

--Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, released 30 years ago, has gotten the deluxe anniversary treatment, with a newly remastered audio disc and two DVDs, including a concert recorded around the time the album was released. The reviews I've read have been almost hyperventilatingly positive--this one might be the single most positive review every written about any work of art, anywhere, anytime. But if there's any album that can bear up under such praise, Born to Run is probably it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday Random 10: Four in the Morning

Our Friday theme is usually a random list of tunes, but let's try something different this time. What if we picked a random year, looked at the record chart from this date in that random year, and then picked 10 records from that chart at random? What kind of a Random 10 would we end up with?

The random year is . . . 1985. (I was getting ready to begin my yearlong tenure hosting a Top 40 morning show, which would debut the week after Thanksgiving.) The random records from the chart that week are as follows:

3. "Head Over Heels"/Tears for Fears. (peak) In the sweep of history, Tears for Fears came and went in a hurry, with three big hits in 1985 and little else afterward. This one is nowhere close to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," but miles better than "Shout." They both made it to Number One; this didn't.

9. "Saving All My Love for You"/Whitney Houston. (falling)
Remember how impressive she was when she first appeared? Her debut album contained several songs that were good enough to have become standards, although they really didn't. But as the rest of her career attests, it's hard to be that good all the time.

23. "Oh Sheila"/Ready for the World. (falling) This record had been Number One for a week earlier in the fall of '85, but now it's one of the most obscure chart-toppers of the 80s. Listening again from 20 years' distance, it's a bit hard to understand why it was so big to begin with.

29. "Sisters Are Doin' it for Themselves"/Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin. (climbing)
In which Aretha takes Annie Lennox to soul school, and pretty much demonstrates who the principal is.

44. "Emergency"/Kool and the Gang. (climbing)
For a while in the mid 80s, few groups were as reliable as Kool and the Gang--although today, when you run down the song titles ("Misled," "Fresh," "Emergency," "Victory"), it's hard to recall what some of those reliable hits sounded like.

80. "Four in the Morning"/Night Ranger. (falling)
Despite their hard-rock credentials, Night Ranger actually specialized in singalong pop songs: "Sentimental Street," "Goodbye," and this.

85. "Communication"/Power Station. (falling) Quick, who were the guys in Power Station? Very good: 40 percent of Duran Duran, one guy from Chic, and Robert Palmer. Although he left the group shortly after the album was released, several of his later hits in the 80s and early 90s were clearly influenced by Power Station's drum-heavy sound.

90. "A Love Bizarre"/Sheila E. (debut) Being a Prince protege couldn't hurt at this moment in the 1980s, and while this song turned out to be a fairly sizeable hit, Sheila E. had already had her best moment a year earlier: "The Belle of St. Mark."

97. "Don't Lose My Number"/Phil Collins. (falling) Remember also that 1985 was a high point in Collins' solo career, with a boatload of hits from No Jacket Required. Although this one was on its way off the charts, Collins' duet with Marilyn Martin, "Separate Lives," was in the Top 10.

100. "Freedom"/Wham. (falling) I still own a copy of Make It Big, and regardless of how you feel about Wham, there's no denying that it contains several singles that are essential to understanding what the 1980s sounded like. "Freedom" wasn't really one of them, but still.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared because it contained only nine songs when I first put it up. Christ, what a moron.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bad Liver and a Broken Heart

Last month I wrote about Van Morrison's Back on Top as the perfect October album. It occurs to me that Small Change by Tom Waits may be the perfect November album--at least for the cold and gray part of November, between the falling of the last autumn leaf and the first winter snowflake.

Waits has had a couple of careers--his latter-day one as a Broadway and film composer and actor, and his earlier one recording succeeding chapters in the biography of a skid-row lowlife. From 1976, Small Change is representative of the latter period. Waits plays piano and growls out lyrics that are alternately funny, poignant, and bizarre, backed mostly by a jazz trio. The net effect is like sitting on a barstool very late at night next to a sloppy yet charismatic drunk, after you've had about one too many yourself.

Despite flashes of humor (the hilarious "Step Right Up," in which Waits does a sales pitch for something that will turn a sandwich into a banquet and double on sax, or "Pasties and a G-String," in which you and Waits are on your barstools at a strip club, or "The Piano Has Been Drinking"), Small Change is mostly bleak: for example, "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" are tales of a man who's on the downhill slide for damn good reasons. So Small Change really is perfect for those November days just after the colors of fall have stolen away, when they're still close enough to remember but far enough away to be irretrievably lost; when it's cold enough to make you want a shot of something strong to chase away the chill. Not that Small Change is going to warm you up any--but you'll understand why you're cold.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Top 5: This Much Is True

In the fall of 1983, I got sacked at my first full-time radio job. At age 23, married six months and with no money in the bank, I was deathly afraid of being unemployed. So, when I was offered a job in a little town in Illinois, for the same money I'd been making, I took it. The Mrs. and I packed up our lives and moved to the prairie.

One of the first things I learned when I got there was this: Just as a prospective employee does his best to sell himself to an employer, so a prospective employer does its best to sell itself to an employee--and what I'd been told by these people when they were selling themselves to me didn't match what they actually intended to deliver after I bought. For example, they told me I'd be on the air in the afternoon. Technically, this was true--although the shift was actually 5PM to 8PM. This was partly my fault, because I didn't ask, but if I'd known that was the shift, I wouldn't have taken the job.

The second thing I learned there might have been the most important radio lesson I ever got. It was certainly one that would be reinforced a lot during the years to come. The lesson is: Just because a person has enough money to own a radio station doesn't mean they have a clue about running one. The station's owner had been a major-market executive who apparently bought his hometown station somewhere in the South, and then acquired the construction permit for the Illinois station and put it on the air. He had lured a general manager of his acquaintance from Houston and a news director from Louisville. He should have been content to sit back and watch the place grow--but instead, he micromanaged from a distance, and seemed to have set a wildly impossible corporate goal: The station was out not just to compete with the established station in town, but to take all of its business and drive it off the air. Thus, in only a few months of existence, it had already changed formats twice and would re-tweak almost continuously while I was there, searching for the magic bullet. Such a goal was, of course, staggeringly unrealistic, especially when the established station in town had been on the air since the 1950s.

And they weren't remotely close to scoring an economic knockout. The station I had come from was incredibly profitable, so I was used to cutting 20 or 25 commercials per day, some days. But this station wasn't billing nearly as much, so on a typical day, I'd cut five commercials if I was lucky. On Thursday of my first week, when one of the sales reps asked how I was adjusting to the "heavy" production load, I looked around to see if there was somebody else in the room he was talking to, because he couldn't be referring to my minuscule assignments. (I think that was the same day I went home to our one-bedroom basement apartment and told The Mrs. that I'd made a horrible vocational mistake.) The lack of commercials would lead to a serious problem by the end of the year--the salaried employees got half paychecks one week in December because there simply wasn't enough money in the bank to pay everybody.

Because the jocks wrote the commercials we recorded, we worked pretty closely with the sales department, and I was able to size the department up pretty quickly. It was, as small-market sales departments often were back in the day, populated by eager young hustlers looking to make a mark in the world, eager older hustlers who believed they could sell anything, and eager ne'er-do-wells trying to find something they wouldn't fail at. The general manager was also the sales manager, and he had his hands full making professionals out of these people. Some became pros, others didn't.

Then came the the week after Thanksgiving, when I'd been there about four weeks. That was when the owner came to town for the first time during my tenure. A memo was quietly circulated to the jocks that while he was in town, we were to avoid announcing the names of certain artists on the air (Kool and the Gang and Culture Club are two I can remember), because the owner would not approve of artists who were black or gay.

I didn't discover until a couple of years later how close I'd come to losing my job that week--not for anything I did, but because the owner, listening to the station on the way in from the airport, decided he didn't like the sound of it and wanted to fire everyone and start over. The general manager had to talk the owner out of it, and the primary argument he used was that he had just hired this talented young guy who had uprooted his newlywed wife and moved to town just four weeks before.

Not that it was entirely awful working there. The program director was a nice-enough guy, a radio nomad who'd been almost everywhere without ever making it out of the minor leagues. I soon discovered it was because he had no patience for details, and so never dealt with them. The news and sports directors were far too talented for where they were. The morning guy had never worked in radio before, but had a natural gift of gab that eventually curdled into an ego far beyond what his talent entitled him to. The midday guy ended up in Orlando a few years later, I think. The night guy was a pleasant and quiet man, the person who had the answers to any question a new guy might want to ask--whether it was about station procedures, or candid assessments of the station and the people working there. (That seemed to be a night-guy trait, in my career, at least--night guys often knew where the bodies were buried and weren't afraid to tell you.)

So anyway: Twenty-two years ago this week, there I was, on the prairie, wondering why the hell I'd come, but hoping to make the best of it, somehow. And here are the top five songs according to Cash Box from this week in 1983. We were playing them all--and lots of others, because we were uncluttered by commercials.

5. "Making Love Out of Nothing at All"/Air Supply
4. "True"/Spandau Ballet
3. "All Night Long"/Lionel Richie
2. "Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Bonnie Tyler
1. "Islands in the Stream"/Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

The really interesting story from that station involves the sordidly entertaining way in which my tenure came to an end less than six months after I started. But that's another post another time.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Friday Random 10: No Longer Really Hip

It's one of Bartlett's Laws of Radio that if there is a station in your town promoting itself as having "the best variety" (or the more weaselly "a better variety"), it will generally be the dullest station in your town. Yes, it might play music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s up to the present, but it will play only the blandest and safest records from those eras. My laptop music stash on the other hand, really does contain a better variety than most people's laptop music stashes, as this week's Friday Random 10 reveals, and it's anything but dull. Schizophrenic, maybe, but not dull.

"Prelude in F Minor"/Swingle Singers/Keyboard Classics.
A few years ago, I bought tickets for The Mrs. and I to see this old-school acappella group, thinking it would be nice for her, since she's an acappella singer herself. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the show--and Keyboard Classics is positively breathtaking. (How this tune got on my laptop, however, I have no idea.)

"Patches"/Clarence Carter/AM Gold: 1970.
This was Carter's biggest hit, but what a catalog beyond this: "Slip Away," "The Dark End of the Street," "Snatchin' it Back," and, of course, "Strokin'."

"If I Had You"/Kenny Burrell/For Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman. Christian is one of the unknown pioneers of music--one of the first virtuosos of the electric guitar, who played with various Goodman bands in the 30s, and died at age 25 in 1942. He influenced nearly everybody who picked up the guitar for a generation thereafter--including Burrell.

"Ask Me Now"/Thelonious Monk/Jazz Moods: Round Midnight. Monk was capable of hearing things other people couldn't, and translating them to the piano. Occasionally, that makes for challenging listening. That's not the case here--Monk was also capable of simple and beautiful playing, which is the case here.

"High Fives"/Simply Red/Blue.
Some albums you put on and like from the start. Others take a while. Simply Red's Blue was one of those. Seven years after its release, it's a Simply Red disc I find myself returning to more than most.

"St. Thomas"/Sonny Rollins/Saxophone Colossus. Almost every jazz player has a signature song, and for Rollins, this is it.

"Diary"/Bread/Anthology of Bread.
How many people do you suppose are walking around right now who were conceived to the sound of Bread, the quintessential makeout music of the 1970s? In the age 25-35 cohort, I'm guessing a lot.

"I'll Get Over You"/Crystal Gayle/Greatest Hits. When I was a country DJ, Crystal was one of my favorite artists, and this is my favorite song of hers, in which her words claim she will survive the loss of her lover, but the way she sings them leaves some doubt.

"Mr. Train"/Anomoanon/Joji and "Poor Paul"/Mardo/Mardo. Anomoanon's first two albums were based on A) Mother Goose tales and B) Robert Louis Stevenson poems, so Joji, which is based entirely on the band's own ideas, is a departure. Mardo, meanwhile, calls itself a "swaggering rock band" and a "straight-driving caffeinated rock combo." "Poor Paul" confirms both. Both of these found their way to my laptop via a Salon magazine music sampler, and both of them help confirm the sad fact that I am really no longer hip.

But I used to be.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fast Lane, Same Car, High Mileage, Still Runs Great

Yesterday, in the rack of shiny new DVDs at the public library, sat the two-disc Eagles Farewell I Tour set, recorded in Australia. You may have seen this concert already. Excerpts from it were broadcast on NBC and Bravo over the summer--almost continuously, it seemed, at least for a couple of weeks. I hadn't, so I grabbed it.

It's always fun to go to a concert by a band with a huge body of work and hear songs you don't expect. Example: The Mrs. and I saw Steely Dan several years ago. We expected to hear "FM" and "Deacon Blues," but were seriously surprised to hear "The Boston Rag," "Dirty Work," and "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More." (You've probably had similar experiences yourself.) If you went to an Eagles concert and they didn't play "Hotel California," "Life in the Fast Lane," or "Tequila Sunrise," you'd probably feel hosed. But you wouldn't necessarily expect "New Kid in Town" or "Already Gone." The Eagles can mix it up with solo tunes by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Joe Walsh--and while you might not be surprised by "The Boys of Summer" or "Life's Been Good," hearing "Sunset Grill" or an old James Gang tune like "Walk Away" would be another matter entirely. So the set list was pleasantly surprising--unlike the list on the live portion of the Hell Freezes Over album, which any Eagles fan could have predicted with a reasonable degree of accuracy before the album came out.

There are a couple of new songs on the set. Walsh provides "One Day at a Time," a breezy song about regaining his sobriety that's too literal to be clever. The other new song, "No More Cloudy Days," is almost instantly forgettable. There is, however, a gorgeous version of "Hole in the World," which was first released a couple of years ago. Henley reveals that the band began writing it on the night of September 11, 2001. ("Hole in the World" was supposed to be the first song from a forthcoming studio album that never materialized. Given the weakness of the new songs on the DVD, that's probably not a bad thing.)

The DVD looks and sounds great, and the Eagles themselves look pretty good, too--a little heavier and a little less hairy, maybe, but then again, aren't we all? (Unless we're Timothy B. Schmit, who looks exactly the same as he did in the '70s.) They could bill themselves as "The Eagles featuring the Eagles," as the four official members are outnumbered by additional drummers, keyboard players, horn players, and guitarist Steuart Smith, who stands in the front line playing most of Don Felder's parts without being billed any higher than the other backing musicians.

The usual caveats about Eagles concert material still apply here: Don't expect a lot of variation from the recorded versions--they tend to play their records note for note, although Walsh cuts loose a bit on "One of These Nights," probably because he didn't play on the original, and Frey sings "Take it to the Limit," originally sung by Randy Meisner. Also, I suspect that like 1980's Eagles Live, which was extensively cleaned up in the studio after the fact, this concert has also had some post-production work done on it--in a couple of spots, a singer's lip movements don't precisely match what's supposedly coming out of his mouth. But those are minor objections, and they come with the territory of being an Eagles fan. If you're one, you'll probably enjoy the DVD.

Oh--and I don't believe for a minute they're saying "farewell" to anyone. They'll be back.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

One Day in Your Life

November 8, 1975, was a Saturday. Actress/party girl Tara Reid and pro basketball player Brevin Knight were born. In pro wrestling, golden bad-boy Nick Bockwinkle defeated perennial champion Verne Gagne to win the heavyweight championship. Serial killer Ted Bundy committed two more murders. Fighter planes from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were scrambled to chase UFOs, and two people in France claimed to have seen space creatures who were picked up by mysterious cars. The United States opened an embassy in Mozambique. In football, Iowa beat Wisconsin, 45-28.

On TV that night, David Bowie appeared on Cher's TV variety show and sang "Fame." Candice Bergen hosted Saturday Night Live. (The musical guest was singer Esther Phillips. Trivia question--she had a hit song at that very moment. What was its title? Answer below.)

Oh--and it was a pretty good day for Elton John. On November 8, 1975, his Rock of the Westies debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart. It was only the second album in history to do so--and the second time Elton had done it in 1975 alone. On the singles charts, Neil Sedaka's duet with Elton, "Bad Blood," was Number One at WLS in Chicago. Elton's "Island Girl" was Number 2. (Rock of the Westies debuted at Number 8 on their album chart--unable to dislodge John Denver's Windsong from the top spot.)

Elton was not quite so dominant at other major Top 40 stations across the country. At WABC in New York, "Fly Robin Fly" by Silver Convention topped the singles chart. KHJ in Los Angeles placed War's "Low Rider" at Number One. At WAKY in Louisville, the number one song was "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You" by the Statler Brothers, despite the fact that WAKY was a Top 40 station also playing Elton, Neil Sedaka, Silver Convention, and War, among others. Clearly, they didn't call themselves "wacky" for nothing.

Trivia answer: Esther Phillips started as an R&B singer known as Little Esther. In 1962, she scored a huge hit with the original version of the country/soul standard "Release Me." Jazz was her next field, and eventually, disco: In 1975, her disco version of Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes" got her on the fourth episode of Saturday Night Live.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Bells

A couple of nights ago, I took my own suggestion about listening to Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, and put it on for the first time in a long while.

I bought Tubular Bells a few months after it came out in 1974, and played it over and over, especially that fall, along with Sing It Again, Rod, an early compilation of Rod Stewart's greatest hits. I played them on the stereo in my room, I played them on Mom and Dad's big console stereo downstairs, I played them until the labels nearly wore off. Tubular Bells hasn't lost its ability to transport me back to that season--if I close my eyes, I can see myself in the room we called the sunporch, where the console stereo was, or in my own bedroom, putting the album on as the afternoon sun faded into evening and whatever AM radio wave I'd been listening to faded into static.

The first eight or nine minutes of the album will be familiar to anyone who knows the single edit used as the theme in The Exorcist. From there, Oldfield spends the next several minutes re-imagining the theme in a couple of different ways. Part one ends with the most compelling part of the album--a musical roll call with an announcer introducing different instruments, which respond by playing the same theme over an ominous backing track that pulses with urgency. More instruments enter and the music subtly builds, until the final announcement: "Plus . . . tubular bells!" Unlike the other instruments, which weaved unobtrusively into the mix from either the left or right speaker, the bells blast in at full volume squarely in the middle. Thirty-one years of listening to this record and that moment still induces goosebumps. But soon the bells fade into the distance, and part one ends quietly. (In vinyl days, this was the point at which you had to get up and turn the record over. But on CD, part two begins only a second or two after part one ends--and it seems too quick.) Part two is not nearly as distinctive as part one, but it does feature an odd growling and barking segment credited to Piltdown Man, the prehistoric human who turned out to be a hoax. Eventually he returns to his cave, and part two winds down as if it's going to end quietly, too--at least until the rollicking Sailor's Hornpipe unexpectedly kicks in. It ends the album on a weirdly incongruous note--weirdly incongruous, yes, but it doesn't keep Tubular Bells from being of the more unusual listening experiences you can have.

Oldfield recorded several other albums and singles, a few of which were hits in England, but Tubular Bells, album and single, remains his only American success. He recorded a sequel to it in the 80s; I have it on cassette somewhere, and should probably go and find it now. And because part of the pleasure of vinyl albums is tactile, I might also get out my old copy of the original Tubular Bells, just to hold it in my hands again, like I would do on on autumn afternoons, so many years ago.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Friday Random 10: What the Big Boys Do

Once again, we celebrate the coming of the weekend by firing up the magic music machine and seeing what comes out of it.

"15 Days"/The Silos/When the Telephone Rings. One of the original alt-country bands, sounding pretty good here.

"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"/Elton John/Honky Chateau.
Honky Chateau is the first album Elton recorded after achieving major stardom, and his confidence in the wake of his success is audible.

"Snowbird"/Anne Murray/AM Gold: 1970.
What the hell is this doing on here?

"Let's Stay Together"/Al Green/Let's Stay Together.
Wondrous stuff. In the end, it was kind of weird that Al Green found God; to lots of R&B fans in the 1970s, he was God.

"Helplessly Hoping"/Crosby Stills and Nash/CSN (box set). A recent article in Paste ("Making the Fantasy Band") mentioned this as one of the most beautiful harmony vocals in rock history, second only to the Beach Boys on "In My Room."

"Jack the Ripper"/Roy Buchanan/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. Cops a riff from "Taps" to begin with (albeit at triple speed), and takes off from there. The hardest-rockin' tune to turn up on a Random 10 to date.

"Domino"/Van Morrison/His Band and the Street Choir. From Celtic bard to R&B entertainer in three 12-inch vinyl steps, from Astral Weeks to Moondance to this.

"Some Guys Have All the Luck"/Rod Stewart/Storyteller: the Complete Anthology.
I notice Rod is back atop the album charts this week with his fourth album of standards. How nice for him.

"Man Smart (Woman Smarter)"/C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. Little bit of zydeco here, with a hilarious lyric:
Little boy sat down and cried
Old man passed him, asked him why
He said "I can't do what the big boys do"
Old man sat down and he cried too
"Valse Hot"/Sonny Rollins/Ken Burns Jazz: Sonny Rollins. Until Rollins made this record in 1956, most jazz, especially bebop, was played in 4/4 time. This tune is the first jazz waltz (3/4 time), although you might hurt yourself if you tried actually waltzing to it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Living Next Door to Alice"

Smokie, with songs written and produced by British bubblegum masters Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, scored six Top 10 hits in Britain between 1975 and 1977. Three of those made the American charts, but only "Alice" hit the Top 40. It wasn't an across-the-board hit in America, but it stayed on the Hot 100 from December 1976 through April 1977, so it was big in some places around the country but not in others.

Like a lot of other semi-popular groups of their era, Smokie has had a long afterlife. The group broke up in the late 70s (lead singer Chris Norman would make the American Top 10 in 1979, paired with Suzi Quatro on "Stumblin' In") reformed in the late 80s, and continues to play today. "Alice" even made it back to the British Top 10 in 1995, in a new version with a singer named Chubby Brown, retitled "Who the F**k is Alice?"

There's no explaining British pop taste, really.

"Living Next Door to Alice" is a Forgotten 45 in the sense that you don't hear it on the radio anymore, but it's definitely not forgettable if you do actually hear it. I can't think of another record that stays in my head like this one does. It was on the car tape I was listening to a couple of hours ago, and I expect to be humming the chorus for days:
I don't know why she's leavin' or where she's gonna go
I guess she's got her reasons but I just don't wanna know
Cuz for 24 years I've been living next door to Alice
If you want to risk it, click the Smokie Jukebox for a clip.

(RSO 860, chart peak: #25, February 26, 1977)