The Wonder Of Oz

July 21, 2010

Australia has been on my radar since the early ’70s, when my father bandied about the idea of moving the family there. He had a gig secured, but, at the eleventh hour, my mom put the kibosh on the venture.

I was five and pissed. Cornfields and cows did not match the allure of koalas and kangaroos.

I don’t think Australia was of much consequence to me again until later in the decade and the success of Olivia Newton-John in Grease and the dominance of the Bee Gees in pop culture.

I was eleven. Music and girls were beginning to occupy more of my attention. Olivia made quite an impression.

(twenty years later, she came into a record store where I worked and was every bit as fetching in the flesh)

Over the next few years, as I listened to more and more music, Australian acts like AC/DC, Rick Springfield, Little River Band, Air Supply, and Olivia were staples on the pop and rock radio stations I listened to.

1982 was Australia’s breakthrough year, though.

Our family trekked to the World’s Fair that summer. I’m sure that the world offered up all kinds of groovy stuff, but the only thing I really recall was thinking that, of all of the countries with exhibits, the women at the Australian pavillion were the most lovely.

(I was fourteen and now lamented a life deprived of koalas, kangaroos, and sheilas)

1982 was also the summer that Men At Work arrived in America and soon everyone was spreading vegemite on their toast.

Once I left school and moved on, I got to know a handful of people that were Australian expats. These folks did nothing to dispel my belief that I’d have been cool, too, if I’d grown up in Sydney instead of Sticksville here in the States.

(one of them seems to – literally – know every musician in Australia)

But, though I’ve come close to making the trek to the Australia, I’ve had to admire and imagine the country from afar, living vicariously through one friend’s old blog and a slew of music throughout the years.

(if anyone from Australia is reading and has a gig for two hard-working kids from the States, I think I could convince Paloma and the cats to make the trip)

Here is a quartet of songs by some Australian bands that I simply felt like hearing today…

Little River Band – The Night Owls
from Time Exposure

I knew Little River Band for songs like Lonesome Loser and Cool Change, but The Night Owls came out in the autumn of ’81 when I was really starting to pay attention to music.

I totally took to the song. It was a hit at an age when staying up late into the night was an still an exotic, mysterious venture.

Hoodoo Gurus – Bittersweet
from Mars Needs Guitars

Though Hoodoo Gurus arrived smack dab in my college years and got a lot of press, I don’t really recall hearing them much aside from the occasional trip home when I could listen to 97X.

Other than Bittersweet, I own nothing by the band, but I have taken a mental note (which I will likely lose) to keep an eye out for them when shopping for used vinyl.

INXS – The Stairs
from The Greatest Hits

INXS was simply a fantastic singles band and they left behind a string of songs during the ’80s that still bend my ear when they shuffle up on the iPod. And, I wouldn’t hesitate to put the stunning Don’t Change on a list of favorite songs from the decade.

The Stairs, though, might be the second favorite thing that Michael Hutchence and crew put out. I was pretty burned out on INXS when X, the follow-up to the mammothly successful Kick, was released. The album made me yawn.

But The Stairs had me the first time we played it in the record store where I was working at the time – the percolating intro building to a noisy buzz…Hutchence’s charismatic, impassioned vocals…the hypnotic, determined march of the song and a bit of arena rock guitar to drive it all onward…

The Black Sorrows – Harley And Rose
from Harley And Rose

I had never heard of The Black Sorrows when I grabbed a promo copy of Harley And Rose from a bin of CDs in another record store where I was working. There was no particular reason other than it was up for grabs.

One listen and I filed it as a keeper. Over the past twenty years, I’ve essentially forgotten about it and never came across the band again. But, here and there, the title song would pop to mind and I’d throw it on (or retrieve it from the mp3 catalog).

Checking their Wikipedia page, it appears that Joe Camilleri, the heart and sole constant member of the group, has had a long and distinguished career in Australia, so I suppose I need to make a mental note on him, too.

(and I need to ask my friend about him – he likely knows or, perhaps, has played with him)

Apparently The Black Sorrows evolved from Camilleri, who had already had success, and some friends who would gather and play covers of R&B, zydeco and blues songs.

The wistful Harley And Rose makes me think that it might be the result had Paddy MacAloon of Prefab Sprout grown up in some dusty Australia town and started out in a band playing covers of R&B, zydeco, and blues songs.


A Hole In The Middle Of Summer

July 17, 2010

Last summer, I noted that I’d watched Major League Baseball’s All-Star game for the first time in years.

This summer, I mostly ignored the game again.

I watched a bit of the home run derby competition (and what I watched was uneventful). I spent most of the time trying to figure out if David Ortiz had actually gotten busted for performance-enhancing drugs, if he had been investigated for such hijinks, or if there had merely been rumors.

(that grew wearying and I lost interest in the contest)

I actually tuned in for the game in time to witness some well-meaning, but disturbingly-executed pre-game ceremony honoring good-deed doers. It gave me flashbacks of Up With People performing at the Super Bowl in the ’70s.

I watched the player introductions, recognizing no more than one of every three names, and began channel-surfing before the first inning had ended.

From the mid-’70s on, into the first years of the ’80s, the All-Star game was must-see television for me, an event that was anticipated for weeks. With only a couple national games each week, it was the chance to see players that you mostly had read about or saw brief highlights of on This Week In Baseball.

(that show was also appointment viewing each Saturday afternoon)

But somewhere along the trip, baseball became less a source of fascination to me. There are a lot of reasons, but it occurred to me that I might well be collateral damage from the 1981 players strike.

The plugged got pulled on the season in mid-June. Cleveland’s Len Barker had pitched the first perfect game in thirteen years and Fernando Valenzuela had been a sensation pitching for the Dodgers.

There was no baseball for two months, essentially the entire summer.

And plotting the timeline, it was the summer of ’81 during which music was taking on an increasing importance in my world. The time that might have been devoted to reading boxscores in the sports pages or watching a game was spent listening to the radio and becoming acquainted with the hit songs of the day.

In August, as the beginning of a new school year was bearing down on us, the strike ended and the baseball season resumed with the All-Star game. I’m sure I watched and I would continue to watch, but things had changed.

Baseball was never quite as important to me and it only became less so by the time I headed off to college a half decade later. By the time another strike wiped out the World Series in ’94, the sport was on life support for me.

Even if baseball hadn’t abandoned me that summer, I imagine that music would have still eclipsed my interest in the sport. I was thirteen and music was part of the required trappings of being that age.

Here are four of the songs that were filling the space that baseball had left during this week in 1981…

Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl
from Working Class Dog

In 1981, I was unaware that actors weren’t supposed to sing (and, usually, with good reason). Of course, I doubt that I was aware that Rick Springfield was a soap opera star aside from a DJ mentioning it in passing.

But Springfield was a musician before finding success on television and there was no denying that Jessie’s Girl was insanely catchy (as were most of his hits during the decade). Though there would be friends in my future who had girlfriends that I thought were fetching, none of them drove me into a state like Jessie’s girl drove poor Rick.

Marty Balin – Hearts
from Balin

Would I have know of Jefferson Airplane and/or Starship when Marty Balin scored a solo hit Hearts? Perhaps I knew the band’s more recent hits like Jane or Find Your Way Back, but I doubt I knew classics like White Rabbit, Somebody To Love, and Miracles.

I certainly had no idea of Balin’s connection to the legendary band unless, again, that information was passed on to me by the DJs playing the song or, perhaps, Casey Kasem, whom I had discovered earlier that summer.

Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
from Face Value

Despite the dozens of hits that Phil Collins has had both with and wthout Genesis, I’d have to think that In The Air Tonight, his first solo hit, is the one for which he will be remembered. Not only are there the various urban legends about the song, but the cavernous drum sound would become Collins’ signature.

Add in the song’s use in the movie Risky Business and the television show Miami Vice as that program was becoming a phenomenon – as well as numerous commercials in the ensuing thirty years – and you have one of the more iconic hits of the early ’80s.

Greg Kihn Band – The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)
from Rockihnroll

The Greg Kihn Band had a handful of hit songs including the mammoth Jeopardy in 1983, but the power-pop act wasn’t really able to break out beyond fringe status.

However, they got a lot of radio airplay in my corner of the midwest with songs like Happy Man, Reunited, and Lucky. As my friends and I became more interested in music, several of them were especially devoted to the San Francisco band, snagging each new release as soon as it was issued.

Though Jeopardy might have been the bigger hit, that song has nothing on the lean, wiry and concise The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em). In under three minutes, Kihn had me hooked with the song’s singalong chrous and his stuttered vocal at the end of each verse.


No Jakes Were Actually Harmed

July 15, 2010

Donnie lived a few houses down from me as a kid. As we were the same age, we knew each other from school, but he was one of those second-tier friends we all have growing up – not your first choice but someone to hang out with if options were limited.

(or, if the kid’s family had a pool)

I actually hung out with Donnie a fair amount during those last summers before I could drive. There were only a handful of kids in our age group in the neighborhood, so, we needed every warm body we had to have a baseball game.

When we opted to play hoops, Donnie had the home-court incentive of having a court with an eight-foot goal on which some of us could dunk. So, we’d hang out at his house.

There was usually a boom box when we played hoops, especially during the summer, which meant an inevitible argument. It was Donnie’s court and, by law, Donnie’s decision.

I was good with most of his choices. I remember him having stuff like The Go-Gos and Missing Persons, and I vividly recollect him having Men At Work’s second album, Cargo, as he played that one into the ground.

And, then, overnight, he went metalhead.

He was the first metalhead I’d ever known.

Donnie was a slight kid, with lank strands of blonde hair. His eyes were rather beady and darted back and forth behind wire-rimmed glasses. His nose would twitch in a manner that made me think of a rodent.

The offbeat music of Men At Work suited him.

It created a juxtaposition that struck me as odd and comical when I’d look through his cassettes and find Krokus, Mötley Crüe, and Twisted Sister titles where The Fixx had been a week before.

He was quite serious about these bands that I knew mostly from leafing through Circus in the drugstore, having already read Rolling Stone.

(those were pretty much the only music magazines that the store stocked on a regular – or even erratic – schedule)

Sometime in ’84, my buddy Beej informed me of cassette that his brother David had. The tape had a home-made cover that made me think it could have been done by a very rambunctious six-year old with poor motor skills.

It was Donnie.

As best as we could make out, the band was called Room Of Doom and one of the songs had the same title.

(it did work for Big Country)

The songs were actual metal songs by other bands – and not instrumentals – over which Donnie delivered his own lyrics, sometimes using a cookie monster-style. I suppose that he was a bit of a visionary.

It was dreadful. I still remember one of the lyrics from Room Of Doom – “I met a man named Jake, so I killed him with a rake.”

I suppose that a rake could be wielded with menace. Maybe.

The tape made the rounds for a few days and was soon forgotten. I had forgotten about it until, for whatever reason, the incident popped into my head the other day.

Of course, in a post-Columbine world, Donnie would have likely been disappeared.

Then, again, in a post-You Tube world, he might have become a sensation.

The outcome was more mundane and less tragic. Donnie was just some kid who liked heavy metal. I saw him several years ago on a trip to our hometown. He was cruising the main drag of town near the movie theater.

Something loud was blaring from his car stereo.

It was like being back in 1984.

1983 saw heavy metal go mainstream with acts like Def Leppard and Quiet Riot selling millions of albums and getting airplay on radio and the fledgling MTV.

Though I suppose it could be debated as to what bands were or weren’t heavy metal, here are four songs from acts that, during the summer of ’84, I’m sure I saw while perusing Circus or heard on 96Rock…

Van Halen – Panama
from 1984

Panama immediately makes me think of MTV as the channel finally became available in our town in 1984 and, that summer, I must have seen the video for the song several hundred times (and we didn’t even have cable). I’d go over to my friend Beej’s house, we’d turn on MTV, and, more often than not, we’d hear the drone of the airplane that opened the video before the band crashed into the song.

What odds would you have gotten in Vegas that a year later, Van Halen would be no more?

Def Leppard – Bringin’ On The Heartbreak
from Vault: Def Leppard Greatest Hits (1980–1995)

Def Leppard’s Pyromania had been one of the best-selling albums of ’83 and I think that I heard just about every song on the album on the radio at some point. As it began to lose steam in ’84, the band’s previous album, High ‘N Dry, was reissued.

Bringin’ On The Heartache was remixed and gave radio something new to play from the band, but it was the video for the song Me And My Wine – a new track added to High ‘N Dry – that seemed to be on MTV when Panama wasn’t.

(we waited for almost three years to get MTV and the only two songs that I got to see that first summer were those two)

Ratt – Wanted Man
from Out Of The Cellar

By the time school ended in ’84, there was a lot of hard rock/heavy metal on the radio, but it was Ratt that had one of the songs of the summer with Round And Round. The song seemed to be everywhere that summer – especially blasting from cars – and it truly is difficult to dislodge it from the brain.

It didn’t get played as much, but I quite liked the more mid-tempo Wanted Man . It has a swagger and I always picture a spaghetti Western in my head when I hear the song.

Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve – A Whiter Shade Of Pale
from Through the Fire

HSAS brought together Sammy Hagar, Journey guitarist Neal Schon, bassist Kenny Aaronson, and drummer Michael Shrieve – the latter two had been in Santana together.

Hearing the group’s version of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale on radio might have been the first time I ever heard the song.

I don’t think that the original is quite as iconic here in the States as it seems to be in the UK, but it’s a beautifully trippy song and I could have done worse in experiencing it for the first time than hearing this version.