Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.

Since beginning this occasional series in 2017, I included this italicized explanation at the top of my picks until earlier this year: “As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.” What I hoped to convey with those words was this: “essential” does not necessarily equal “great.” Sometimes they are one and the same, of course, but as often they’re simply important, but flawed, chapters in the chosen artist’s development.

Such is the case with McCartney II, which was released on May 16, 1980. It was, is and likely will forever be a love-it-or-hate-it entry in Paul McCartney’s oeuvre. Some fans consider it an eccentric delight, as the 11 songs span the gamut from synth-pop to ambient electronica to new-fangled techno to old-fashioned blues to an acoustic ballad. Others, however, find the synthesizers, electronica flourishes and vocal distortions off-putting. I’m in the former camp, myself. While I don’t consider it a great album, per se, I do think it’s an important album that features glimmers of greatness.

Most fans know the backstory of the album, but for those few who don’t: Following the wrap-up of the Back to the Egg album, which was released in June 1979, the members of Wings – Paul and Linda, long-time compadre Denny Laine, and newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley – went their separate ways for a spell. With a 19-date U.K. tour slated to begin in November, and the expectation that it would expand to the rest of the world the following year, everyone had things on their to-do list that they wanted to address first.

In Paul’s case, that meant goofing off – first in Sussex and then in Scotland. In a 1980 Club Sandwich interview with rock writer Paul Gambaccini, he says that “I hired a 16-track machine and got an engineer friend, Eddie, to fix me up a thing where I just took one microphone into the back of the machine direct, so we didn’t use a big console. It’s very difficult if you’re trying to work on your own with a big console, so we bypassed it and just went directly into the back of the machine.”

In some respects, McCartney was looking to cast out the cobwebs he’d gathered during the on-and-off Back to the Egg sessions, which began in late June 1978 and didn’t end until March 1979. While BTTE was and is a fun set, it’s also flawed and formulaic – and, though it includes a nod to new wave, extremely safe. Like many of the era’s old-guard rockers, in other words, he was treading water.

For II, he changed things up. As he explained to Gambaccini, “Well, the whole thing about all these tracks was to do something different. ‘Coming Up’ was done as all the tracks were. What I did was to just go into the studio each day and just start with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to to turn out. It’s like a reverse way of working. After laying down the drum tracks I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track.” In the interview, he equates the process to sculpture: “It is very much like sitting down with a few lumps of clay and putting down one after another until it makes itself into a face or something.”

By the time he finished the working holiday, he had enough material for a double album – but shelved everything, as the Wings tour beckoned. 

And then Japan happened.

The plans to re-conquer the world were cancelled along with the sold-out 11-date Japanese tour; and McCartney found himself listening to his previous summer’s sonic adventures. From the same Club Sandwich interview with Gambaccini: “I wasn’t even thinking of it being an album until I got all the tracks together and played them on a cassette in my car; it started to sound like an album.” Then it became a matter of figuring out how to create a coherent set from the material. Paul, apparently, wanted to release everything as a double album, but then thought better – or, more likely, was reined by his record company. Some songs were edited for length, while others were left behind.

In a sense, McCartney II is a high-tech update on the 1970 McCartney album, which is also accented by oddball instrumentals alongside a few memorable tunes. In this case, the fun begins with the catchy “Coming Up,” which was also the album’s first single.

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The flip side of the 45, I should mention, features a live rendition of the song by Wings along with the Venus & Mars castoff “Lunchbox/Odd Sox.” In the U.K., the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts, but in the U.S. the live rendition – which is what most radio listeners heard, as deejays rebelled against the sped-up vocals – went No. 1.

“Temporary Secretary” is, depending upon one’s mood, funny, maddening or the audio equivalent of a dentist’s drill. (When I saw Paul in 2015 at the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, there was – and it may have been mine – an audible groan when, early on, he announced it as the next song.) In September 1980, it was released as a limited-edition U.K. single, believe it or not, and has supposedly taken on a life of its own in techno cubs the world over. (As I don’t frequent techno clubs, I can’t say for sure.) Its b-side was the interminable “Secret Friend,” which was added as a bonus track when II was released on CD in 1987.

The third track, “On the Way,” is a bluesy delight that was influenced by Paul having watched Alexis Korner on a TV show about the blues.

Another highlight: “Waterfalls,” which was the only song on the record that Paul wrote prior to beginning the one-man-band sessions.

It was also the second single released from the album, sneaking into the U.K.’s Top 10 while failing to crack the Top 100 in the U.S. The b-side, “Check My Machine,” is what raised the hair on the back of my neck, however; it features sped-up vocals and an absolutely killer beat – a true overlooked gem. (Like “Secret Friend,” it’s now a bonus track on the McCartney II CD.) 

Aside from “Check My Machine,” however, the album tracks I’ve featured are anomalies from the overall feel of II, which veers more toward the ambient and eccentric as it continues. For instance, “Frozen Jap” is an oddball instrumental built around a cool motif that conjures Mount Fuji.

“Darkroom” is another favorite of mine. Be forewarned, though: It’s an ear worm. One listen and you’ll be hearing it for days onward… 

The closing “One of These Days” is another overlooked gem. 

Paul told Gambaccini that he was inspired to write it after “a Hare Krishna bloke care round to see me. He was a nice fellow, very sort of gentle. After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit – I started writing something a bit more gentle that particular day. The song seemed right as a very simple thing, and it basically says ‘one of these days I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do with the rest of my life.’ I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.”

Like many U.S. fans, when I brought home the “Coming Up” single in April 1980, at age 14, I first preferred the b-side with Wings. And when the album was released a month later, I found the mix of the expected and the eccentric more of a curiosity than anything. But as the listens accrued, I began to appreciate the eccentric more and more. And, in retrospect, the synth stuff, sped-up vocals and the like led the way for me to appreciate off-kilter releases from other favorite artists, such as Neil Young, in the years to come.

We fans sometimes pigeonhole our favorites, after all, and expect their every release to build upon, or borrow from, what came before. But just as I, as a fan, enjoy a wide array of sounds, why can’t or shouldn’t a music artist expand their sonic palate, as well? In some ways, the success of the album – and it went gold in both the U.S. and U.K. – freed McCartneTy from the straitjacket that Wings had become to him. Ask yourself this: Would The Fireman have happened without McCartney II? I doubt it.

Anyway, in 2011, McCartney II was released alongside the original McCartney as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection (and can be heard on Apple Music). The set includes the unedited versions of many of the tracks as well as a few previously unreleased curiosities, such as the ambient “Blue Sway” (with Richard Niles orchestration) – a very cool track, that is – and the “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” Not everything jells, but that’s okay. They’re cool to hear, nonetheless.

 

As occasionally happens even in the best of times, though a more frequent occurrence since the pandemic hit, I had a fitful night’s sleep on Thursday, with every descent into dream-laden REM sleep disrupted by jagged imagery. The next morning, as a result, I sought out sounds to cleanse the unquiet residue clogging my mind: one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, and the three studio albums that followed it: A Sense of Wonder; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; and Poetic Champions Compose.

I should mention that, although released in March 1983, I didn’t buy Inarticulate Speech of the Heart until the latter days of my college years, though why I can’t say for sure. I picked up Moondance on cassette in January 1983, so liked at least some of his music, and David Fricke gave Inarticulate Speech of the Heart a rave review in Rolling Stone’s April 28th edition the next month. Perhaps it had to do with me being knee-deep into my Lou Reed phase at the time and/or being distracted by high-school graduation, and then seeing Crispin Sartwell’s negative review in the July issue of Record magazine: “Listening on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, like listening to inarticulate speech, is a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding experience.” Whatever the case, as I said, I didn’t pick it up until a few years later, when I spent my summer and winter breaks working full-time in a department store – and many lunch or dinner breaks flipping through the racks at the Listening Booth in the same mall.

In many respects, it taps into the collective subconscious; as Fricke observes, “It captures in a simple phrase that desperate expression of pain and need, as well as the floundering over words inadequate to communicate one’s joy over a new love or a gorgeous country sunrise.”

The same delay between release and purchase isn’t true for Van’s next studio album, A Sense of Wonder. Released in the spring of 1985, Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh lavished it with praise in the pages of Rolling Stone in its May 9th issue and Ric O’Mitchell did the same in the May issue of Record magazine. I subscribed to both, so reading those reviews is probably why I picked it up on LP along with, on cassette, Van’s classic Astral Weeks on the 17th of the month. (Friday was also payday, of course!)

By year’s end, I was raving about its lyrical and soulful acumen with the poet John Haag, who was one of my favorite professors once I reached the Penn State mothership in State College. I frequented his office for one-on-ones quite often, and our conversations routinely diverged to topics beyond poetry. He was high on the album, as well, and like me impressed with how Van quoted the poets and philosophers of yore within metaphysical (and melodic) meditations on this thing called life.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was next on my aural adventure. Released in the summer of 1986, it quickly became another favorite – and another that Haag and I discussed once autumn came and classes resumed. David Fricke primarily focuses on the yin-yang dynamics at play in the 12-song set in his Rolling Stone review, as Van’s bitterness at “copycats” seems at odds with his quest for serenity. To me, however, his search is powered by his recognizing the rancor within; the discordant pieces fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, if you think about it.

A few years later, my father borrowed a low-tech gadget from a workmate that enabled one to transfer Super 8 home movies to VHS; it required one to position the projector in front of a gadget that then reflected the moving images into an internal lens that, in turn, captured the pictures on videotape. When I discovered that an external microphone could be used to add sound, I created a soundtrack to match the reels, then recorded to the videotape while the film was captured. No Guru’s “Foreign Window” accented our 1970 visit to London and Buckingham Palace – and, when I hear it now, I see those images in my head. (About 10 years back, I had the original Super 8 footage digitalized and then re-did the soundtrack, swapping out many of the songs due to having a much larger library to pick from – but “Foreign Window” remained.)

By the time Poetic Champions Compose was released in September 1987, I’d graduated college and was working as an assistant department manager in the same department store where I’d previously whiled away my time as a sales associate. If memory serves, it was among the first CDs I purchased after splurging on a CD player. Jimmy Guterman’s review in the December 3rd edition of Rolling Stone accurately summarizes it: “Like Neil Young — another restless veteran who has been prematurely blackballed, only to persevere — Morrison follows his muse wherever he likes. And every time, those who have committed themselves to the journey have been rewarded.” 

Anyway, after those four servings of yearning, meditative music – and also due to having little sleep the night before – I fell asleep with ease Friday night, and stayed asleep until the next morning, when a certain feline fellow patted me on the cheek to inform me that it was breakfast time.

Such is life in these odd times.

There, atop the dresser in the photo to the left, is a portion of my record collection circa early 1982, when I was 16; I stored my 45s in a stack beside the turntable as well as in a shoebox on the floor that was situated beside another shoebox filled with cassettes. I also stored some LPs in a small rack near my desk, which was across the room.

After five years of intense music fandom, in other words, my entire music library clocked in at a little less than 100 LPs, about 40 cassettes, and maybe – and I’m likely stretching it – 100 45s. I’d yet to complete my Beatles collection, though – as the posters demonstrate – I was a big Beatles/McCartney fan. I owned the red and blue best-of sets (Christmas gifts both), plus everything from Rubber Soul onward (sans the Hey Jude collection), but it wouldn’t be until late 1987, after graduating college and landing a full-time job, that I owned everything Fab.

Similar situations occurred with other favorite artists. I fell in Mad Love with Linda Ronstadt in 1980 due to “How Do I Make You,” for example, but never picked up her first few LPs until the early 1990s, when they were only available as Japanese import CDs; and in late 1981, I bought my first Neil Young album, re*ac*tor, and then the one that preceded it, Hawks & Doves, but it took me most of the ‘80s to work my way through his backlog. 

It wasn’t that I wanted to wait, but records and cassettes were expensive. By the early ‘80s, new releases generally set consumers back $5.99 (the equivalent to $16 today) – but some were discounted to $4.99 and others priced higher, at $6.99 or even $7.99. Factor in sales tax, which in Pennsylvania was six percent, and buying an album was a major expense for a kid on a budget.

And once you consider other typical teen expenses, such as movie tickets, magazines and fast food, prioritizing a catalog item over a new release was an extravagance (just as hardback books were to paperback editions). That said, as I noted in my piece on Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album, I had a hierarchy of fallbacks whenever I walked into a record store; if A was out of stock, I’d look for B, and then C, and then, often, something totally unrelated would catch my eye and I’d walk out with that, instead. Later that year, I discovered a used record store where $7.41 bought three, four or more LPs instead of one, but the same basic rules applied. Wants waited.

I think of those times often, these days. If the streaming services existed back then, how much money would I have saved through the years? But, hand in hand with that, would I treasure specific artists and their oeuvres the same way I do now? Would the years-long journey that, as I outlined here, took me from the Byrds to Emmylou Harris have ended the same if it had occurred within a few weeks? I doubt it.

Which is to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the streaming services. Artists don’t get their fair share from the proceeds, which is a big concern, but another issue is whether the services actually help or hinder music discovery. As I noted last summer, the algorithms used by Pandora barely scratched the surface when I created a “personalized” station around the Bangles. While the results were fine for background music, they were sad for active listening. This Paisley Underground geek was not impressed.

Apple Music, which I subscribe to for simplicity’s sake – when driving in my car, or even hanging out in my living room, it’s easier to say, “Hey, Siri, play All I Intended to Be by Emmylou Harris” than work my way through the iPhone app – often denigrates the album as an art form, as does Spotify with its emphasis on playlists. I’ve added albums to my library only to discover, at a later date, the songs have been split between various collections or even different editions of the same album or, in the case of Juliana Hatfield, 22 “unknown” albums. (On the flip side, I’ve added specific best-ofs only to find the songs then listed under their original album homes.) It doesn’t impact the listening experience when I ask Siri to play the albums in question, but it does if I select the album through the app – which, if we ever return to our workplaces, is what I do in the office.

Anyway, at its best, music is the currency of the soul, and that soul isn’t as well nourished as it should be. Since 2000 or thereabouts, music artists have seen their revenue streams upended, first through the illegal-downloading craze and now via the streaming services. Live shows and merchandise sales is all they have – and for the young ‘uns, it’s likely all they’ve known. If you watch a live-stream and see a tip jar, and can afford it, send money their way – doesn’t have to be a lot. If an artist you like has set up a Patreon thing, and you can afford it, sign up. 

Don’t, however, feel compelled to blow your budget; and don’t feel guilty if you can’t or don’t contribute. (I’ve been very judicious, myself.) This pandemic’s economic fallout has caused many folks to lose their jobs – and even those of us who aren’t unemployed may well be, at some point, if the global economy continues to deteriorate. In some respects, then, this new reality isn’t all that different than the one many fans experienced during the 1960s, ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, when every visit to a record or CD store forced us to whittle our wants down from the many to the few or even just one. Me, I always felt guilty heading home with a single LP, but such was life – and is life, again.