Posts Tagged ‘1983’

It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.

After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”

Those old sessions, also detailed in Shakey (pages 551-552), were essentially an extension of the re*ac*tor jams in 1981: 

Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’

Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.

‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.

‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it. Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”

Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.

The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”

In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.” 

Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.” 

Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.

A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.

In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepared me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right to me; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.

Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)

So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.

 

(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.)

On back-to-back days in November 1983, I bought two double-LP compilations by two paradigm-shifting British bands: the Who’s The Kids Are Alright and the Jam’s Snap! I thoroughly enjoyed both right from the start. The Who’s set is, obviously, the odds-and-sods soundtrack to the 1979 documentary film about Messrs Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle & Moon. The comprehensive Jam collection, which was released the previous month, contains 29 of the then-recently disbanded group’s songs, including their 16 U.K. singles, b-sides and the “That’s Entertainment” demo.

Both sets are great, but only one – in my estimation, at least – is essential: The Jam’s Snap! It’s one of the greatest best-of collections ever released, and remains my go-to choice when in the mood to crank the Jam.

If you’re curious about Paul Weller’s first group, it’s the best place to start. If you’re a longtime fan, it’s still the best way to experience the taut trio’s top tracks in rapid-fire succession. Even in the streaming age, where “new-and-improved” compilations and playlists are a mere mouse-click away, it’s the only such set that matters.

About it’s only competition: Compact Snap!, released in 1984, which trims eight songs from the set (so that it could fit onto one CD). I picked it up a few years after that, in late 1987 or early ’88, at a now-defunct CD-only store in Jenkintown, Pa., that was called (if my memory is right) 21st Century Sound. The excised songs were “Away from the Numbers,” “Billy Hunt,” “English Rose,” “Mr. Clean,” “The Butterfly Collector,” “Thick As Thieves,” “Man in the Corner Shop” and “Tales from the Riverbank.”

The original Snap! eventually made its way to CD in 2006, and both the original and “compact” versions are available on most streaming outlets. Give it a go.

The track list:

April 30th, 1983: I was a high-school senior. All in all, life was grand. And, as this was a Saturday, that meant me heading to the Hatboro Record Shop, where I browsed for an hour or so before settling on my day’s purchases: Roxy Music’s High Road EP on vinyl and Avalon on cassette; and Bananarama’s Deep Sea Skiving on cassette.

I won’t go in-depth about the month itself; I’ve tread this period of time too much as is. (See here, here and here.) Instead, the reason for this particular post: Roxy Music’s sleek yet powerful rendition of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” from the High Road EP. By the end of the month, in my second-ever concert, I witnessed them perform it in person. It blew me away.

Unfortunately, the above version comes from the High Road concert film, which was shot at a different stop on the band’s 1982 tour than the EP. A full-length live album from the tour, Heart Is Still Beating, was eventually released on CD in 1990, but it’s basically the soundtrack to the film with the songs in a different order.

Anyway, the 12-inch EP featured just four songs: “Can’t Let Go” and “My Only Love” on Side 1 and “Like a Hurricane” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” on Side 2. I thought that it had been lost to time…until I discovered it on YouTube a few weeks ago. Here it is:

IMG_1096April 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.

Back to this month: I continued a trend that began in late ‘82, picking up not one, not two, but five Lou Reed albums (his self-titled debut, Berlin, Metal Machine Music, Street Hassle and a 5-LP French compilation that, sadly, went AWOL during my Happy Valley days); four Velvet Underground albums (White Light/White Heat, their self-titled third LP, Loaded and Live at Max’s Kansas City); Roxy Music’s Avalon and 4-song High Road EP; and…Bananarama’s Deep Sea Skiving?! Yep. They were really saying something…

One funny story about Metal Machine Music. I’d read Diana Clapton’s bio of Lou, the no-star Rolling Stone Record Guide review and…I had to hear that double-LP set for myself. I just did. So, I hightailed it for my bedroom upon my return home, slipped the first of the two LPs from its sleeve and placed it onto my turntable…

Yeah, it’s bad. No, strike that. It’s worse than bad. But, I was 17. Optimistic. So I kept waiting for it to get better. A few minutes passed. Then some more. And then there was a knock at my door. My father, a concerned look on his face, entered. “Is your stereo broken?” he asked.

I never played it again.

Anyway, you might think from the list of purchases that I was a lunatic speed freak. In truth, though, I was just a quirky geek. I studied too much, belonged to the Chess and World Affairs clubs, went out some, and took the train into Philly on the occasional weekend to catch movies not available in the suburbs, like Ciao! Manhattan and Piaf: The Early Years. Musically, I veered from the esoteric to MOR; the month before, for instance, I picked up four Linda Ronstadt LPs (the new Get Closer, her first Greatest Hits, Hasten Down the Wind and Simple Dreams) in addition to four Lou Reed albums (Transformer, Live, Coney Island Baby and Legendary Hearts), the Mamas & the Papas’ Greatest Hits, Phil Collins’ Face Value and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

Twenty-three albums in two months sounds like a lot. Hell, it is a lot. But I didn’t shell out big bucks. Far from it. I frequented a used-record store that was a mere 15- or 20-minute bike ride away. For the price of one LP in a mall store (or the local indie shop I also frequented), I came home with three, four, sometimes five albums. I also belonged to the RCA Music Club, which served up large discounts – and, as the case with Phil Collins, when I forgot to send back the slip, sometimes received an album I wasn’t that interested in. To the point: in looking at what I bought that March and April, only four were new – Get Closer, Face Value, and the two Roxy Music releases.

Wait, make that five: I also bought, that March, the cassette of Bob Seger’s The Distance, which I’d received on vinyl for Christmas. (I did that, sometimes, on the assumption that store-bought cassettes sounded better than homemade tapes.)

IMG_1111Bob Seger was, and still is, one of my all-time favorites. (Above my desk, in fact, is a framed, limited-edition lithograph of the Against the Wind album cover.) Which is why, back in the day, I picked up this specific edition of Musician magazine; it features an excellent profile/interview of the Midwest rocker, by Timothy White, which focuses on The Distance.

He actually challenged himself when it came to recording the LP – no mid-tempo songs, no nostalgic numbers.

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One subject of discussion: songs he left behind and/or was still tinkering with. “I’ve got looseleaf notebooks, stacks of ‘em, with lyrics in them!” he says. “I have 100 finished songs in the can and 400 half-finished, dangling pieces like ‘Thunderbirds’ was…I’ve been writing for eighteen years, and I’ve got every tape I ever wrote on, and every notebook. I’ve always worked on the premise that the ones you continually remember are apt to be the best ones. I’ve got one I’ve been working on, off and on, for six years, called ‘Quiet Wars.’”

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He also talks about his burgeoning friendship with Bruce Springsteen: “I spent about six to eight hours with him in his car, driving around L.A., up and down the hills. Funny thing is, when you just talk to Bruce for brief periods of time you don’t get any sense of how deep he really is, since he’s quite shy, very reticent. But when he loosens up, you really see this guy is no dummy, that he’s extremely bright.”

Musician: Ah, but is he a good driver?

Seger: (Laughter) I didn’t really notice. I was too busy listening to his philosophies and to his album tapes. He’s got fierce moral values and principles—chiseled in stone—and you have to admire him for that. He told me the story behind Nebraska, and to see the dedication in his eyes and hear him speak about that record, it almost took on a life of its own in his mind. We stopped at the top of Mulholland and played each other’s records. I thought my tape deck was loud—his was ungodly. When we got to my stuff, me, [Jimmy] Iovine and Bruce were in his car at the top of Mulholland in this little shopping center, and this was about twelve o’clock at night. And this girl, way at the other end of the shopping center—a good 200 yards—was standing on her lawn in her bathrobe. We woke her up! And she was waving at us, motioning, ‘Turn it down!”

Anyway, onward to today’s Top 5:

IMG_11021) Bob Seger – “Roll Me Away.” In the interview, Seger recalls a trip he made in July 1980: “I climbed onto my bike and rode out of Michigan, straight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, covering 300 miles a day. Jackson Hole was where my back muscles gave out. It was an experience of renewal, but sometimes a punishing one: nearly freezing to death in northern Minnesota—in the summer!—two days later having to strip down to just a pair of shorts in the 105 degree heat of South Dakota; roaring by myself through the Badlands; slipping past the Tetons. You’re really embraced by nature and the elements in a way you just can’t be in a car, and the vistas aren’t chopped off by a roof or sun visor. Out on the plains, you can see storms coming from hundreds of miles away, wondering if they’ll swoop down on you or drift by. The sun seems hotter, the cold seems sharper, the night seems deeper.”

IMG_10972) The Three O’Clock – “She Turns to Flowers.” David Fricke’s “The Return of Garage: New Thrash from the Psychedelic Past” article was among my introductions to a West Coast music scene that, while I didn’t experience it first-hand due to living on the other coast, represented (and still represents) to me everything good about the ‘80s generation. “[C]onsider the case of the Salvation Army. (They now call themselves the Three O’Clock after the real Salvation Army raised a stink about their name.) The mock day-glo cover of their debut album on Frontier, The Salvation Army; song titles like ‘She Turns to Flowers’ and ‘While We Were in Your Room Talking to Your Wall’; and the odd backwards guitar solo suggest either severe acid damage or a novelty gag record. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The band plays with a raw punchy abandon, Clash ’77-style, and profess a respect for classy production values drummer Danny Benair says will be demonstrated on their upcoming EP.

IMG_1121“‘This band doesn’t just want to own crappy Vox amps with buzzes in them,’ declares Benair, who joined the group shortly after the album was made. ‘We take this style and put it out in a positive manner, which is pop songs with some strange twists. If we’re going to emulate anything, it’s the production qualities of the late 60s with the Beatles and early Pink Floyd.’

“The startling thing about the Salvation Army/Three O’Clock is singer/songwriter/bassist Michael Quercio, at nineteen barely old enough to remember the original psychedelic rush of Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play.’ His songs are not a lot of abstract nonsense in an ancient pop-art dialect but a natural expression—and dramatically engaging even in their rough demo-like form—of his influences. Where most of his friends grew up digging AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, Quercia swears by the Byrds, the Left Banke and Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett-era only.”

IMG_10983) The Bangles – “The Real World.” The Bangles receive a glancing reference in the article itself (for shame, David Fricke, for shame!), but are featured in the “Selected Guide to Boss New Wax” addendum: “More go-go than the Go-Go’s, this all-girl troupe (until recently known as the Bangs) play a spritely 60s folk-pop with shimmering Shangri-Las harmonies and crisp ringing guitars. Their new 12-inch EP features four solid originals, but they’ve been known to cover Love, the Seeds, Simon & Garfunkel and the Merry-Go-Round.

IMG_10994) Neil Young – “Mr. Soul.” Dan Forte reviews Neil’s January 25th concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco: “Having recently compared his 60s and early 70s output to Perry Como in the rock press, Neil proceeded to play ‘Heart of Gold,’ ‘Old Man,’ ‘Ohio,’ ‘Helpless’ and an hour’s worth of older compositions, proving in the process that some things never lose their relevance. While Crosby, Stills & Nash seem to be desperately trying to recapture their former magic, Young appears to have one foot firmly in the past with the other securely in the present and an eye cocked toward the future.”

Forte explains that the concert often jumped from the old into the new, such as in switching from “After the Gold Rush” to the vocoder-rich “Transformer Man,” which was from his new Trans LP. A paragraph later, Forte writes: “Young closed with his electronic-but-familiar version of ‘Mr. Soul’ (also from Trans). Again juxtaposing organic and synthetic (acoustic and electronic) with his encores, ‘Comes a Time’ and ‘Computer Age,’ he demonstrated the blanket critique that has followed him throughout his career: you either love him or you hate him, with no shades of grey in between.”

IMG_11055) U2 – “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Kurt Loder reviews U2’s third LP, War, which he says is their best yet. “It’s that rare concept album that holds up (with minor lapses) from beginning to end—perhaps because these four Irishmen have a more intimate acquaintance with war and suffering and the resultant unquenchable yearning for peace than most other modern-day rockers, the Clash included. When Bono Vox sings, ‘There’s many lost, but tell me who has won,’ he’s not just really saying something—he’s said it all.”

Loder later writes: “What’s perhaps most encouraging about War is the extent to which U2 have been able to breathe some air into their monolithic sound. Thus, the modal whomp that’s at the heart of their attack here recedes a bit to allow some welcome instrumental detailing—the elegant bass of ‘As the Seconds Go By,’ the chattering guitar figure of ‘New Year’s Day,’ the free-booting drums on ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’—along with the more characteristic muscularity of a track such as ‘The Refugee.’ This loosening up, while in no way vitiating their considerable power, has made them a lot more likable on a human level.”

And…one bonus:

IMG_11066) The Call – “The Walls Came Down.” J.D. Considine, in his Rock Short Takes column, spotlights the Call’s second release, Modern Romans, though he fails to mention this (to my ears, at least) classic song. He also gets singer-guitarist Michael Been’s name wrong and makes a daft comparison of the Call to the Doors: “[T]his album establishes the Call as a contemporary group actually doing what the Doors were reputed to have done. Not that they’re soundalikes—lead singer Michael Keen sounds more like a macho David Byrne that the Lizard King—but the call does achieve the same sense of drama and challenge the Doors went after. Only the Call do it without the bullshit factor.”