Archive for the ‘Top 5’ 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.

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.

Life has been upended and, even once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, likely won’t right itself for years. My hunch is that most folks will continue to congregate via the internet and that, by and large, many retail establishments will fade away faster than they would have, otherwise. In the U.S., after all, department stores and shopping malls have been on the verge of disappearing for a decade-plus. Why deal with the hustle and bustle (and possible COVID-19 exposure) when one can order what one wants and needs online? Malls, especially, are destined to become relics…

…which saddens me. I spent many hours hanging out at a mall and even more working in one.

Anyway, earlier this week, I pulled out my deluxe edition of Wings Over America and re-watched the Wings Over the World TV special for the first time since the massive set’s 2013 release. For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Paul McCartney’s oeuvre, the 75-minute documentary – which first aired in the spring of 1979 (March 16th on CBS; April 8th on BBC 2) – chronicles his 1975-76 flight around the globe with his post-Beatles band, Wings. Unlike the 1980 Rockshow concert film, which presents a typical concert, it includes offstage footage alongside live clips, plus features a few archival delights, such as Wings Mach I performing “Lucille” at their first rehearsal in 1972.

I first saw it on that March night, a Friday, when it aired in the time slot reserved for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson – 11:30PM. I was 13, an 8th grader and, on Fridays, often stayed up late to watch Carson and, sometimes, the music-centric Midnight Special, which followed at 1:00AM. 

Life was different then. In my suburban enclave, our main street was home to many mom-and-pop shops, though the only ones I frequented were the record store, bookstore and newsstand. The movie theater, owned by Budco, got my business, too. Twenty minutes away was a relatively small shopping mall – it housed many wonders, including a video arcade where I spent much time and many quarters, and a movie theater with not one, but two screens. 

Back on point: Wings Over the World fueled my Wings fandom, which was already over the top, and the disco-light “Goodnight Tonight” (backed with “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”) – released a few weeks later – further fanned those flames. 

But McCartney and his old band, the Beatles, weren’t the only objects of my musical passion. Olivia Newton-John, as I’ve noted before, was Totally Hot; and, honestly, I liked pretty much everything I heard in those days, and most of what I heard came courtesy of WIFI-92, a Top 40 station in Philadelphia that usually provided the soundtrack when my friends and I played baseball, football and basketball in the street. “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb was played often that spring, as was “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Rickie Lee Jones.

In the wider world, the economy was – as it always was in the ‘70s – stumbling. As this census report summarizing the year notes, “The median money income of households in the United States was $16,530 in 1979, an increase of 10 percent over the 1978 median of $15,060. However, after adjusting for the 11.3-percent increase in prices between 1978 and 1979, the 1979 median was slightly lower than the 1978 median.” (For comparison’s sake, the median household income in 2019 was $63,688.) The NBC Nightly News on May 6th, 1979, features a report on the driving force behind the year’s rising costs: gasoline. (Or, to be precise, a lack thereof. Some states, including California and Pennsylvania, introduced even-odd rationing.) 

If you take the time to watch the Jessica Savitch-anchored broadcast in full, you’ll also see a report on a massive anti-nuclear energy rally in Washington, D.C., that was inspired by the previous month’s Three Mile Island meltdown, plus a profile of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). It’s a good reflection of the year. Another reflection can be found in these films: Manhattan, Love at First Bite, The China Syndrome and Norma Rae.

I didn’t see those films at the time, however. My $5/week allowance only went so far – 45s were a dollar and albums ranged from $4.99 to $7.99; add in the music magazines I bought and… it’s easy to understand why I listened to the radio.

With all that said: April 25th, 1979, was a Wednesday – a school day. The temperature was in the high 50s by the time I reached the bus stop in the morning and rose to 77 by the time I arrived home in the afternoon – perfect weather for outdoor fun. I’m sure we hit the streets to play a game of some kind while WIFI-92 blasted; and that night, after homework, I’m sure I turned on the TV to watch Eight Is Enough and Charlie’s Angels. 

I should add that, back then, a large chunk of music – aka disco – was little more than escapism set to a beat. As many of my entries on the 1970s document, the economy was rarely on a sure footing that decade – inflation and unemployment were part and parcel of the era. My hunch, as this pandemic fades, is that a similar silly fad will sweep the land. People need mindless diversion.

And, based on the charts from from Weekly Top 40, here’s today’s Top 5: There Was a Time… (aka April 25th, 1979):

1) Amii Stewart – “Knock on Wood.” Sad to say, this is the first version of “Knock on Wood” I heard – Eddie Floyd’s classic version would come in a few years. Anyway, this week, Amii’s disco-fied remake jumped from No. 3 to No. 1, a perch it would hold for all of one week. It’s disco, obviously, as disco was all the rage, and may well turn some stomaches as a result – but c’est la vie. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.   

2) Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive.” Holding steady at No. 2 is the stereotypical disco anthem, which was released on October 23, 1978. Within its first two years, according to its Wikipedia page, it sold 14 million copies.  

3) Blondie – “Heart of Glass.” Rising from No. 8 to No. 3 is Blondie’s breakthrough hit, which was on its way to No. 1.  

4) Frank Mills – “Music Box Dancer.” In retrospect, what I loved about WIFI-92 – and other Top 40 stations – is that they pretty much played everything that made the pop charts. The only genre they cared about, in other words, was “hit.” This tune is a great example: Originally recorded in 1974, and used as the b-side to a newer song, it found its way onto the airwaves due to the program director at an Ottawa pop station who heard and liked it. It gained traction and, over the course of several months, landed on the Easy Listening charts in the U.S. before transitioning onto the pop landscape. This week, it clocks in at No. 4, where it’ll hold steady for another week, then lurch to No. 3 and fall fast to No. 15. 

5) The Doobie Brothers – “What a Fool Believes.” Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, the infectious slice of blue-eyed soul lands at No. 5 while on its way to No. 1. Loggins released a version of the song five months before the Doobies on his 1978 Nightwatch album, but his remained an album track.

And two bonuses…

Rising up to No. 6 is this silky-smooth love song by Peaches & Herb, which – as I said above – flashes me back to 1979 with every listen. Here’s some trivia, though, which surprised me when I first learned it a few years ago: There have been seven Peaches through the years, and the one singing here (Linda Greene) is the second.

Debuting this week on the charts (at No. 79): “Deeper Than the Night” by Olivia Newton-John, the second single from her Totally Hot album, which was released in November 1978; it would eventually top out in the charts at No. 11 in early June