Archive for the ‘R.E.M.’ Category

Sunday July 20th, 1969, marked a momentous moment in the history of humankind: Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module Eagle and descended a ladder to the surface of the moon. After touching ground at 10:56pm ET, he paused to say, “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The “a” is in brackets because it wasn’t audible on the transmission beamed to the 600 million people watching on Earth.)

The U.S. president – the 37th in the country’s history – was Richard M. Nixon, who took the oath of office six months earlier. His time in office was accented by chicanery, cynicism and brilliance, though much of that was yet to come. At this point in time, though he was viewed with disdain by some, his approval ratings were routinely in the 60s.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate began the year at 3.4 percent and ended at 3.9 percent. Everyone who wanted one had a job, just about. Inflation, on the other hand, was a source of concern: When Nixon took office, it was already high at 4.4 percent, and it continued to inch higher each month. 

When it came to foreign affairs – specifically, the Vietnam War – this very month marked two significant events: the first U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam occurred on the 8th; and, on July 25th, the “Nixon Doctrine” – aka the Vietnamization of the war – was announced. The plan was for the U.S. to turn over the defense of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese.

In the Philly region, it was an atypical summer’s day, topping out at a mere 78 degrees (Fahrenheit). The Phillies didn’t take advantage of the cool weather, however, as starting pitcher Bill Champion failed to live up to his surname in a 6-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium.

Among the movies playing in the theaters: Hook, Line & Sinker, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider, which was released on July 14th. As I’ve noted before, however, this was the era when it could take a movie six or more months to make it to your local cinema.

Aside from the moon transmission, TV was basically in yesteryear’s DVR mode – rerun season. It’s when folks caught up on episodes they had missed.

In the world of music, June and July 1969 saw the release of a few notable – and not-so-notable – albums, including Roberta Flack’s First Take, Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking, Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad, The Doors’ Soft Parade, and Yes’ eponymous debut. 

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 20, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the 19th).

1) Zager and Evans – “In the Year 2525.” The next time a baby boomer laments the state of today’s music, point them to this song. And laugh. Because on July 20th, 1969 – less than a month before Woodstock – this “prophetic” song was the No. 1 song in the land.

And for you Gen-Xers feeling smug right now, here’s R.E.M. covering it:

2) Blood, Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel.” Holding steady at No. 2 for a second week is this jaunty philosophical ode, which was penned by BS&T singer David Clayton-Thomas. 

To again leave the pop charts for a moment, earlier in the year Peggy Lee released an effervescent rendition of the song that reached No. 24 on the Easy Listening charts…

3) Three Dog Night – “One.” Dropping from No. 5 to No. 6 is this song, which I first heard in the mid-1970s on a commercial for a mail-order compilation. The song was written and originally recorded by Harry Nilsson, who released it in 1968.

And – yes, this is a trend – Aimee Mann recorded “One” for the For the Love of Nilsson tribute album in 1995. It also appeared on the soundtrack for Magnolia.

4) Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto.” Elvis continued his comeback with this classic song written by Mac Davis that tackles poverty. (Sad to say, 50 years later, it remains as relevant as it was then.)

A few decades years later, on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour, Natalie Merchant – accompanied by Tracy Chapman – sang the song.

5) Jackie DeShannon – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” One of the week’s “power plays” is this catchy plea for love, which jumps from No. 55 to 48. FYI: Jackie co-wrote it.

And, finally, Dolly Parton recorded a wonderful version of the song for her 1993 album Slow Dancing With the Moon. Here she is singing it a few months earlier on the CMA Awards… 

April 1983: high-school graduation was a month and change away. I’d yet to attend a concert, outside of some nondescript local band (named Lightning, if memory serves) that played the high school one Friday or Saturday night in ’81 or ‘82. That would change the following month, though, when I saw not one, but two cool shows: the Kinks at the Spectrum and Roxy Music (with Modern English opening) at the Tower Theater…

And, yes, we have been here before: That opening paragraph is borrowed from what I wrote 11 months back, when I covered this same stitch in time – but via Musician magazine (click here for that). So, instead of regurgitating a similar recap, I’ll turn straight to the newsprint. And I do mean newsprint: the newspaper-like Record came folded in fourths, just like its big brother Rolling Stone did in the early ‘70s, and the ink sometimes smudged on the fingers.

Ric Ocasek of the Cars, as evidenced by the picture up top, graces the cover. He’s the focus of an in-depth profile by David Gans that, as the Contents page reveals, uncovers the fact that the soft-spoken musician is warm, human and lovable. Who would’ve guessed?

Today’s top 5:

1) Holly & the Italians – “Dangerously.” Mark Mehler pens an excellent profile of Holly Beth Vincent, which opens with this: “One morning about a year ago, [she] awoke to perhaps the worst feeling a human being can have—none at all. ‘I felt like I was in a void,’ she says matter-of-factly, not unlike one of those ‘real people’ on television describing the onset of a migraine headache. ‘I had no control over my body. I didn’t know who or where I was.’”

That inability to move apparently didn’t stop her from grabbing for a pen and scribbling the lyrics to this song, which graces her second album, Holly and the Italians. According to Mehler, “it’s one of several tunes on the album dealing explicitly with the thin line between sanity and insanity; with remembrance; with violence and loss. But these subjects are handled with poignancy, melodic grace and occasional humor.” (For the complete Holly Beth article, scroll down.)

2) R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe.” Mehler also catches up with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who discusses the recording of his band’s first album, then tentatively titled 7,000 Gifts. “From what I can hear,” he says, “most albums consist of ten songs all sounding pretty much the same. It’s taking me a long time to come to terms with the fact that we’re actually in the middle of recording one ourselves.” The brief piece concludes with Stipe discussing touring: “I don’t like to drive the van. Driving from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin, in the middle of the night is no fun. But I can’t claim to be a martyr to rock ’n’ roll; it’s the life I chose.”

3) Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing.” At this point in time, Marvin was in the midst of a comeback – and sat for an interview with Gavin Martin. There’s far too much to recount, but I found and still find the last questions and answers  illuminating and sad.

4) Neil Young – “Transformer Man.” Stuart Cohn is not kind to Neil’s Trans album: “Neil Young’s much-vaunted experiment in electronic music is like one of those get-rich-quick schemes everyone comes up with now and then. It seems like a sure thing in the middle of the night as the drinks are flowing. But hungover in the cold light of dawn, you realize it wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

5) The Bangles – “I’m in Line.” Wayne King tackles the debut EP of “yet another all-girl group.” As you can see in the scan, he raises the question that “haunts most all female acts” – whether they play their own instruments on record – before dismissing it as irrelevant: “somebody has come up with what they used to call a hot platter, one so tight and sharp that it threatens to singlehandedly resurrect that deservedly-dormant phrase, power pop.”

He also singles out their “intricate and endearingly rough harmonizing” and equates the end of “I’m in Line” to the Move’s “Message From the Country.” He also pushes forth his view of how the band should evolve: “If the Bangles don’t yet articulate the tough sexual politics of a Chrissie Hynde, they at least may be close to finding that voice.”


 

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All in all, as I remember it, 1992 was a good year. In the spring, Diane and I flew the friendly skies to Californ-i-a, where we toured Hollywood and Beverly Hills, explored Haight-Asbury and Fisherman’s Wharf, and mined for gold in the hills of Nevada City. (That’s me, in San Francisco, above. I was 26.) And, in the fall, we saw one of my Top 10 Concerts of All Time: 10,000 Maniacs at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-03-06-amIn between, and before and after, we saw many good-to-great shows, beginning in January with John Mellencamp at the Philadelphia Spectrum and ending with…well, my memory’s blank. The early ‘90s have blurred together for me, and rather than list an act we may have seen in 1991, ’93 or ’94, I’ll share the certainties: Neil Young at the Tower Theater (from the very last row in the balcony); Bruce Springsteen and the Non-Street Band four times at the Spectrum; Shawn Colvin at the TLA; and Graham Parker with Lucinda Williams at the Trocadero. We also took in Billy Bragg, Nanci Griffith and others at the WXPN Singer-Songwriter Weekend at Penn’s Landing – unlike their mid-summer fetes nowadays, it was free.

Of the uncertainties: the Tin Angel, which is slated to close next month, opened its doors that year; and the Chestnut Cabaret was still open. I’m sure we saw shows at both venues. The Keswick Theater in Glenside was open for business, too, and we definitely saw a show or two there…though who, I can’t say. The Valley Forge Music Fair was another favorite concert stop – provided there was someone we wanted to see, of course. (And we did see Trisha Yearwood there on her Hearts in Armor tour…but that could have been 1993.)

Diane and I, by then, were also in the sandboxed universe of Prodigy.

In the wider world, Microsoft released Windows 3.1 in April; riots in L.A. erupted in April after four LAPD officers were acquitted of using excessive force against Rodney King; Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno was named as his replacement; the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho helped spark the antigovernment/militia movement that culminated in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing; and Bill Clinton won that fall’s presidential election.

Oh, and there was one other important event this year: Bob Fest!

And, with that, today’s Top 5: My Top Albums of 1992.

1) 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden. As I mentioned in this Top 5, I pretty much played this, the studio swan song of the 10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, nonstop – well, as close to nonstop as possible. It’s everything I love about music: It’s poppy, rocky, bright, light and deep, with melodies that soar and lyrics that, if one listens to them, mean more than most. The juxtaposition of the jangly with the profound is something I adore.

2) R.E.M. – Automatic for the People. Released on October 6th, the same day as Our Time in Eden, this classic offering from R.E.M. is just that – a classic. “Hey, kids, rock ’n’ roll…”

3) Neil Young – Harvest Moon. So, perhaps, my memory is playing tricks with me: Although I remember playing Our Time in Eden nonstop…this low-key classic from Neil Young, released on October 27th, received much attention from me (as did R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, for that matter). Of note, in typical Neil fashion, he toured with the album long before it was released; when we saw him in March, he pretty much played the entire album with just a smattering of past favorites.

4) Lucinda Williams – Sweet Old World. Above, I mentioned having seen Graham Parker and Lucinda in concert this year – one of the more unlikely pairings we’ve witnessed, really. Guitarist Gurf Morlix was with her, and he was just phenomenal; and by the time she and the band left the stage…well, I have no memory of Parker, who was the headliner. Which speaks volumes, given that I remember quite a bit about Lucinda’s set – “Hot Blood,” especially.

5) Suzanne Vega – 99.9F. Up until this point, Suzanne was a somewhat conventional urban folkie. On this album, however, she expanded her straightforward sound to include electronic textures and seductive rhythms. The title song is a masterpiece; and the album is, too.

There were quite a few other solid albums released this year: Juliana Hatfield’s solo debut, Hey Babe; Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town; Tracy Chapman’s Matters of the Heart; Robert Cray’s I Was Warned; the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On; Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience; Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts in Armor; the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall; Keith Richards’ Main Offender… and another longtime favorite of mine, Neneh Cherry’s jazzy Homebrew. Here’s “Move With Me” from it:

IMG_0896By December 1982, when this issue arrived in my mailbox, America was suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate, which had been inching upwards since before Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, accelerated that fall, and clocked in at an astounding 10.8 percent for the month. As this Bureau of Labor Statistics report documents. “the sharpest job cutbacks took place in the goods-producing sector“ and “every major manufacturing industry registered some decrease.”

Times were tough, in other words, and getting tougher.

But you wouldn’t have known it by me. I was 17, a high-school senior and, this month, spending money like there was no tomorrow. First, though: for Christmas, I received – among other things – a Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Radio Cassette Recorder (aka, a mini boombox) and the new Bob Seger album, The Distance.

The only problem: I had few cassettes. Thus, I dipped into my birthday and Christmas cash and, between Christmas and New Year’s, picked up the tapes for Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Zuma, Tonight’s the Night, After the Gold Rush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass; and Lou Reed’s Rock ’n’ Roll Animal and Berlin. I also joined the RCA Music Club and ordered Glenn Frey’s No Fun Aloud, The Eagles’ Live, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti on cassette. Two other albums that I bought, on vinyl, early in the month: the Velvet Underground and Nico and the VU Once Upon a Time two-LP collection.

The spending didn’t stop there, either. I took in a few movies, too: 48 Hours, An Officer and a Gentleman, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ciao! Manhattan.

48 Hours, which I saw at the now-defunct Eric Theater at the Village Mall in Horsham, was simply bizarre. The projectionist must’ve left the booth, as the theater snapped into darkness after the first reel for a good 20 minutes. We, a sparse afternoon audience, just sat there, eyes on the white screen, waiting…and waiting…and chomping popcorn. When the movie finally did kick in again, it was the third reel – so I never knew what transpired in the film’s second 20 minutes for the longest time.

Ciao! Manhattan, of course, is a somewhat arty film, which meant I took the train into Philly and walked from Reading Terminal to South Street, where it was playing at the TLA. The late Edie Sedgwick, who starred in it, had fascinated me since I’d read Jean Stein’s Edie: An American Biography earlier in the year. (The New York Times’ review of that book is here.) This may blow some people’s minds, but it was my fascination with Edie that led me to check out the Velvet Underground and, shortly thereafter, Lou Reed, as they were all part of Warhol’s Factory scene during the mid-‘60s.

Anyway, to the matter at hand: the Who grace the cover of this particular issue; they’d released It’s Hard in September and were in the midst of what they said was their final tour. Also mentioned on the cover: Jefferson Starship, Men at Work, Miami Steve, Jimmy Page, the Pretenders, ABC, Joan Jett and the Blasters.

Of all those names, the one that most excited me was Joan Jett…but there was no Joan Jett article inside! Oh, Dave Marsh, in his “American Grandstand” column, lambasted Jett consigliere Kenny Laguna for his role in the Bow Wow Wow “Louie Louie” ripoff “Louis Quatorze” – but that was it. No other mention.

Today’s Top 5:

IMG_09021) The Who – “Eminence Front.” Pete Townshend, says writer Jonathan Gross, “looks kind of ‘slip kid,’ thanks to a new, tousled, boyish coif and a lean year off booze and drugs. Rehabilitation has soothed his complexion and brought out the blue in his sad hound-dog eyes.” Townshend comes off somewhat obtuse: “What we’re doing is…what we’re saying…what we must do…keep everything that we’ve done and everything we represent and everything we stand for alone and solid so that it will remain a solid traditional pillar in rock which will always be a barometer.”

IMG_0898He’s more his sharp-edged self in a letter to the editor, chiding Dave Marsh for taking the Who to task for their sponsorship deal with Schlitz Beer in his October “American Grandstand” column: “To end his crass little ‘expose’ with an inference that the Who are now motivated only be greed indicates that this ace rock parasite, now working on a book about the Who, is taking leave of his senses.” Later, after reminding all of the weight the Who name carries, he notes that “Marsh is writing a book about us and not about the equally worthy Keith Jarrett or Tom Waits, Schlitz is using our concert tour as a way of keeping their name before the public. In a sense, they have been just as good to us in their patronage as Marsh has been in the past. They gave me this typewriter by the way; it has a memory erase section. Maybe Marsh should get one. If I was forced to choose between the two levels of exploitation—Marsh or Schlitz—I would think twice about having my life dredged over again by a critic and take the beer. Or at least the price of the beer.”

All that said – It’s Hard isn’t the first album any Who fan is going to reach for – it would likely be one of the last. Though Townshend, as evidenced by his Chinese Eyes set, was still capable of delivering the goods on his own, post-Moon he missed the mark when writing for the band. Perhaps that’s why “Eminence Front” was the set’s best song…he’s up front.

IMG_09052) The Pretenders – “My City Was Gone.” There’s a brief article by Suzanne Whatley on Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers, who were seeking permanent replacements for the late James Honeyman-Scott, who o.d.ed, and Pete Farndon, who – according to the article – split from the band after Honeyman-Scott’s death in June 1982. (He o.d.ed himself in April 1983.) The article states that “Hynde and Chambers cut a single, ‘Back on the Chain Gang,’ which has been released in England on the Real label. Accompanying the two Pretenders in the studio were guitarist Billy Bremner, late of Rockpile, and bassist Tony Butler, who played on Pete Townshend’s Chinese Eyes LP.”

Whitley adds that “[t]he B-side of ‘Chain Gang’  proves to be one of Hynde’s more interesting compositions. Titled ‘My City Was Gone,’ the autobiographical account of the singer’s return to her native Ohio finds Hynde surveying the overbuilt and now-unfamiliar terrain while weighing her memories with quiet, revealing despair.”

IMG_09033) Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – “Men Without Women.” Wayne King reviews longtime Springsteen sideman Steven Van Zandt’s debut LP, of which this is the title tune. Van Zandt’s vocal, he says, “evokes the nasal pitch of Keith Richards”; and the album, at a whole, “is a profound, deeply-felt statement of belief in the transcendent capacity of rock ’n’ roll; its joyful noise should inspire those who listen as greatly as it does those who create.”

IMG_09044) R.E.M. – “Gardening at Night.” Nick Burton tackles the debut EP of this new band from Athens, Ga.: “If you can imagine a cross between the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Jam, you’ll have a good idea of R.E.M.’s strange but effective hybrid approach. Chronic Town, a five-track EP, was produced on a garage band budget, and the resulting trashy sound makes for a striking aural backdrop.”

Burton wraps things up with: “It would be nice to add that R.E.M.’s lyrics match their musical sparkle, but Michael Stipe’s vocals are pushed so far back in the mix that it’s difficult to understand exactly what he’s singing about. I’ve listened to this record countless times, and I still don’t know if the songs deal with moody introspection or disco roller skating. But Chronic Town is worth checking out, if only for the music. Unlike so many EPs, this one’s consistently fascinating.”

IMG_09075) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).” Hey, no mention beyond the cover isn’t going to stop me from featuring the former Runaway when given the chance. Who else could I go with? Jefferson Starship, who by this point had devolved into an ordinary arena-rock band? Why bother? So, here’s Joan from October 1983 performing a Gary Glitter song that she recorded for her pre-I Love Rock ’n’ Roll album, Bad Reputation, which was given a big push after the success of her sophomore effort.