Archive for the ‘The Essentials’ Category

(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.)

The 1980s are given short shrift in the annals of pop music for many reasons, few of which have to do with the sounds that actually bounded from the speakers in one’s car or home, or boombox, or via the headphones of one’s WalkMan or WalkMan clone. There’s good, bad and mediocre music released every decade, after all, but as most folks who came of age during the decade will tell you, we had the hooks. The look? Aside from Sheena Easton, perhaps not – though, as the cool RetroWaste website details, the stereotypical shoulder pads and feathered hair didn’t really come into play until the middle part of the decade.

Fashion fads come and go, of course. Think of the bouffant and beehive hairstyles favored by many women from the ‘50s through the ‘60s, the collarless suits that bedecked the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or the Day-Glo threads worn by the hippies at Monterey Pop and Woodstock just a few years later. They look out of place in today’s world, just as the flapper fashions of the 1920s did by the time the boys came marching home from World War II. Some may roll their eyes and snicker, if not laugh, but that’s the way of the world.

Likewise, music styles come and go, with some songs, albums and artists forever relegated to the eras in which they first made their mark. But unlike skinny ties and overblown locks, or A Flock of Seagulls, great songs, albums and artists both reflect and transcend their time. We may sometimes turn to the music to reminisce, but as often we turn to it to accent the present. Love, lust, and life’s ups and downs, even silly dance crazes, aren’t the domain of any one generation, but all generations.

I thought of that Wednesday evening, when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Bangles on the May 10th, 1986, edition of American Bandstand. Here, in two performances split by an interview with Dick Clark, they convey not just the spirit of ‘80s music, but of good music of every era.

They’re songs most folks of a certain age, whether or not they were fans, know like the back of their hands, of course. “Manic Monday” topped out at No. 2, kept from No. 1 only by the legend who penned it, Prince, whose “Kiss” proved infectious. “If She Knew What She Wants” didn’t do quite as well – it peaked at No. 29 – but has gone onto become one of their signature tunes. You can’t listen to either without being put into an instant good mood.

I hasten to add that they’re on Bandstand not just promoting the two singles, but their second album, Different Light, which was released on January 2, 1986. I bought it that same week from a Listening Booth in the Willow Grove Mall, though it could well have been City Lights Records in State College, depending on when winter break ended. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was a college junior attending the Penn State mothership, and either home – and working, working, working as much as I could at one of the mall’s department stores – or already back at University Park. I’ve written about that time before, and even chronicled my top albums of the year here – but to save you the click, here it is in a nutshell: I was (and still am) a fan of new wave, old rock, heady pop, country, bluegrass and urban folk, and plenty of additional genres, including R&B, soul and what would come to be known as Americana. I thought nothing of playing the Three O’Clock and Hank Jr. back-to-back, though I’m sure fans of each would have objected to the other’s presence on my turntable or cassette deck.

At school, I didn’t watch MTV. Hell, I didn’t watch much TV, period, and the only time I generally heard Top 40 radio was when I was selling my plasma for pocket money. And when not with a needle in my arm, or out having a good time with that pocket money, I was in my dorm room doing school work – and since my pre-law roommate preferred studying at the library, I listened to what I wanted – and, as now, often listened to things again and again and again. The result: By semester’s end, my Different Light cassette became so worn that the songs from the flip side bled through whenever I played it. (Yes, I bought it again.)

To be precise: Different Light glimmers and glistens. The production is polished, but not too polished. The melodies captivate; the beats are sure and precise; the guitars echo those of the British Invasion, and are always in service to the song; and the harmonies flow through the soul like few others.

One highlight: The album’s third single, the delightfully goofy “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which closed out 1986 at No. 1.

Another: “Return Post,” which ruminates about a long-distance relationship. One thing I love about it: The harmonies pay homage to Revolver-era Beatles. Another thing I love: whether intentional or not, the nod toward Them’s “Gloria” in the coda. 

And another highlight: “Following,” a tale of obsessive love, which was penned by bassist Michael Steele.

And, finally, what turned to be the final U.S. single from the album: “Walking Down Your Street,” which reached No. 11 on the pop charts in April 1987. As I mentioned above, I rarely watched MTV in those days – so it was news to me when, a year or two ago, I discovered the video. It’s cute.

Anyway, some fans aren’t keen on Different Light, and usually cite All Over the Place as the band’s definitive work. I think the world of both, myself, and hear Different Light as an evolution of their sound. As Vicki Peterson says to Dick Clark of their music, “I think it’s always changing. It’s always growing and changing, and we’re happy with what we’re doing.” 

I’ll conclude with this: At the end of ’86, I jotted down my top picks for the year. Paul Simon’s Graceland was my No. 1; Different Light was my No. 2. But through the decades that have followed, the album I’ve listened to more often isn’t Graceland, but Different Light. It makes me think. Makes me smile. And puts me into a good mood.

It’s be in my theoretical Top 10 Albums of All Time list (sharing space with about 99 other entries), easy.

Side 1:

  1. Manic Monday
  2. In a Different Light
  3. Walking Down Your Street
  4. Walk Like an Egyptian
  5. Standing in the Hallway
  6. Return Post

Side 2:

  1. If She Knew What She Wants
  2. Let It Go
  3. September Gurls
  4. Angels Don’t Fall in Love
  5. Following
  6. Not Like You

 

(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.)

It’s easy to dismiss Hank Williams Jr. as a reactionary clown due to the conservative canards he long ago embraced, and a wide swath of America has done just that. At best, in their eyes, he’s the cartoonish buffoon who sings the Monday Night Football theme. At worst, they don’t think of him at all. Hank Who?

Which is a shame. From the landmark Hank Williams Jr. & Friends LP in 1975, when he embraced the outlaw ethos, through his last truly great album, Lone Wolf in 1990, he released a string of solid-to-stellar studio albums along with a truly stupendous live set, 1987’s Hank Live, and not one, not two, but three best-of collections. He was, as he brags in the live version of “My Name Is Bocephus,” the “platinum boy that does the rock ’n’ roll-country-blues.”

Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, released in November 1979, rates among his greatest works. Remember that the Iranian Revolution early in the year caused the price of oil to soar, which upended the economy as a whole. Auto sales plummeted, and inflation – which had been a scourge on working people for most of the decade – ratcheted past 10 percent. It was, for many, a bleak time.

As a result, as a whole, the album’s mostly downbeat. The title tune, for instance, tells of a life on the road, and the guilt that comes from a booze-fueled attempt to remedy loneliness. Like many a country song, in other words, it’s about cheating. The woozy rhythm accentuates the lyrics, which find the narrator begging for certain jukebox standards – including one by Hank Sr. – not to be played, lest he be reminded of his failing.

“Tired of Being Johnny B. Good,” the second track, reflects the era’s anger to a T. (In some ways, to share an observation from my wife, it’s a Tea Party anthem from a pre-Tea Party time. I’d only say that the lyrics are actually democratic – note the lower-case “d.”)

“Outlaw Women”…well, what can be said about this other than it’s a classic? Here’s a great version from 2004, with Hank joined by Gretchen Wilson.

Another high point: Hank’s bluesy take on the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.”

The album ends with Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings joining forces for “The Conversation,” in which they trade stories about Hank’s famous dad. Here’s the two of them from sometimes in the early ‘80s…

Say what you will about Hank’s politics (which are pretty much diametrically opposite of mine), but don’t let his outspoken stances get in the way of what is a damn good set of songs. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound is one of the touchstone albums in my life, in fact. It’s outlaw country at its best.

Side One:

  1. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
  2. Tired of Being Johnny B. Good
  3. Outlaw Women
  4. (I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs
  5. White Lightnin’

Side Two:

  1. Women I’ve Never Had
  2. O.D.’d in Denver
  3. Come and Go Blues
  4. Old Nashville Cowboy
  5. The Conversation

(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.)

As I write, it’s a gray, damp May morning in the Delaware Valley. And while the Earth’s revolutions around the sun push us, ever-so-slowly, into a soggy afternoon, I’m spinning back into the past – to one of my favorite years, 1985.

On the very first day of the first post-Orwellian year, a new channel named VH1 debuted on many cable systems across the nation, including mine. Its name was short for Video Hits One, and it aired music videos. And only music videos. But unlike its sibling channel MTV, its focus was less on the hot pop and rock hits of the day, and more on adult fare. Like jazz, soul, adult contemporary and even some country.

College, work, and life kept me busy. I was 19, attending the commuter-college paradise that was Penn State Ogontz (now Penn State Abington), and working as many hours as possible as a sales associate at a department store at the Willow Grove Mall. What free time I had was mostly music-centered – LPs, stereo, headphones, music magazines. But one day that late spring or summer, and I can’t remember when, I clicked onto VH1 – and was greeted by this video:

I bought the corresponding LP, Rhythm & Romance, not long thereafter, on July 17th, and was instantly smitten with the album as a whole. It marries the SoCal rock aesthetic, updated for the ‘80s, with a country heart. The opening track, “Hold On,” features a taut guitar solo. 

The third song was a Benmont Tench-Tom Petty song, “Never Be You,” that Maria McKee first sang on the Streets of Fire soundtrack the year before…though I didn’t learn that for quite some time. (This was pre-Internet, remember. Not all factoids were a mouse click away.) 

Other highlights include “Second to No One.” I never saw the video before now, and must say that it’s quite stunning.

Also: “Halfway House,” which include these truly insightful lyrics: “We’re all in the halfway house/Or so it sometimes seems/Trying to find the truth inside/Instead of getting by on dreams.”

“Never Gonna Hurt,” another favorite, is as spiky as Rosanne’s hair on the cover – it sounds like a lost Jam classic.

Actually – see the track list below? Those are the highlights. All 10 songs. Rhythm & Romance is one of those albums best listened to from start to finish.

A few years back, Rolling Stone published an excellent salute to the album in honor of its 30th anniversary. It included this surprising bon mot from Rosanne’s memoir, Composed: “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm & Romance,” especially the “sophomoric, navel-gazing songs.” It just goes to show that, sometimes, the artist is wrong. To my ears, Rhythm & Romance is a classic.

In the year since it was released, of course, Rosanne has released a string of good, great and equally essential albums; and Diane and I have seen her in concert many times. But whenever I hear or think of her, I can’t help but to think of this album.

Side One:

  1. Hold On
  2. I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me
  3. Never Be You
  4. Second to No One
  5. Halfway House

Side Two:

  1. Pink Bedroom
  2. Never Alone
  3. My Old Man
  4. Never Gonna Hurt
  5. Closing Time

(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.)

Following the success of the Harvest album and “Heart of Gold” single in 1972, Neil seemed sure to ascend to superstardom then and there. But, for reasons I partially covered on ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live, it wasn’t to be – just yet. The self-mythologizing Journey Through the Past movie and soundtrack in late ‘72, and the ramshackle arena tour that followed in early ’73, left the MOR fans he’d just won over scratching their heads. And after those same fans plopped the rough-around-the-edges Time Fades Away LP, released on October 15, 1973, on their turntables? They probably didn’t buy another Neil album until he released the polished Harvest Moon some 20 years later, if at all.

Their loss.

Time Fades Away features eight “new” songs, and is relatively short at 35 minutes. (I put new in quotes because, although seven songs are drawn from the ’73 tour, “Love in Mind” dates to early ’71.) While the album lacks the polished sheen, and practiced precision, of Harvest, it packs a punch that, in some respects, is more powerful. It’s his primal-scream moment. It’s raw, ragged, and emotive. What else can be said about “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and the apocalyptic-themed “L.A.”?

Or the potent “Don’t Be Denied?”

Another high point: the nostalgic “Journey Through the Past.”

Both rate among his greatest songs – and among his most unknown. One reason: Most of the million-plus folks who bought the LP, cassette or 8-track tape in the early ‘70s likely listened to it once, maybe twice, and then moved on. It was too raw, too ragged. Another: His memories of the tour colored his opinion of the music. He didn’t include any TFA material on the Decade anthology, for example. And, after the music industry transitioned to shiny platters in the 1980s, he refused to reissue it on CD until 2017, when compact discs were all but anachronisms – and then only as part of a box set with Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma.

No matter. It’s a great set. Shaky? Yes. If you go back to ’73, the odds seemed stacked against him – unknown songs performed in front of large audiences that would rather hear the known, and a backing band that’s not hitting on all cylinders. He pushes himself to the edge, time and again, and never falls into the abyss. It’s powerful stuff.

Anyway, I bought it on cassette about a decade after its release, on November 14, 1983, when I was a freshman in college. I played it to death that winter, and for the next few years. I even played “Journey Through the Past” on my old radio show, as the station had the LP in its massive library. Life being what it is, and like many other music fans, I eventually moved from analog to the aforementioned shiny platters. (It helped that I worked in a CD store for a time, and got an employee discount. My collection grew, and grew, and grew.) Fast forward a few decades and, perhaps as a Christmas gift to devoted fans, in late 2014 Neil released the album as a high-resolution FLAC download on his Pono store. While I haven’t played it to death in the years since – as my blog shows, I have a myriad of music interests – I’ve played it a lot.

It’s an essential. (And it’s also available to be streamed over at the Neil Young Archives.)

Side 1: 

  1. Time Fades Away
  2. Journey Through the Past
  3. Yonder Stands the Sinner
  4. L.A.
  5. Love in Mind

Side 2:

  1. Don’t Be Denied
  2. The Bridge
  3. Last Dance