Little Guitars

June 16, 2011

When you grow up in a town of three thousand people and go to school with five hundred kids from that same small town, there are few, if any, strangers.

I more than likely met Brian when I started school at the age of seven.

We attended grade school together for eight years, sometimes ending up in the same homeroom and, even if we weren’t, our paths still crossed daily in the halls, cafeteria, or the random pick-up game of hoops on the playground.

Brian and I weren’t close friends but, when happenstance threw us together, we generally got along well.

Like most of the kids with whom we attended grade school, Brian and I moved on to the same high school. Our lockers weren’t more than a spitwad’s shot of each other and we had plenty of common friends.

Yet I remember nothing of him from those years. At some point, his family moved out of state and he would graduate elsewhere.

I probably hadn’t thought of Brian in fifteen years when my mom mentioned in a phone conversation that he had apparently killed himself. I think that all I said was “Huh” and my mom continued on, commencing to, like clockwork, grill me on the weather.

I don’t believe I’ve thought of Brian since that conversation which must have been ten years or more ago.

Then, a few days ago Van Halen’s Little Guitars – newly added to the iPod – shuffled up. The song had been on the band’s Diver Down which had been released during the spring of ’82 when we had been finishing up eighth grade.

I can only hazily recall what Brian looked like, but I can vividly picture him acting out Little Guitars in a homeroom game of charades one rainy afternoon.

If your life does flash before your eyes when it ends, as the credits to that flick roll for me, Brian will have made a handful of scenes, had a few lines, and end up listed as “Kid Playing Little Guitars”

Little did any of us know that there would be only one more Van Halen album with David Lee Roth after Diver Down.

(until a rumored reunion album – sans Michael Anthony – arrives this autumn)

Until such an album does or doesn’t materialize, here are four random song from the original incarnation of Van Halen…

Van Halen – Dancing In The Street
from Diver Down

Diver Down might have been Van Halen’s fifth album, but as the first four were released when I had little interest in music, it was essential my first exposure to Eddie and Diamond Dave.

The group had already had a smash that spring with their take on Roy Orbison’s (Oh) Pretty Woman and their version of Martha & The Vandellas Dancing In The Street seemed to be a declaration that summer was upon us – gurgling synthesizers, Eddie’s guitar heroics, and David Lee Roth’s vocal howl served the song well, successfully remaking the Motown classic as a hard rock anthem.

Van Halen – Little Guitars
from Diver Down

I suppose that it’s only fitting that Little Guitars, the song that tripped my memory banks, would pop up.

Diver Down was a mixed bag of an album that was never meant to be. When Pretty Woman – intended as a stopgap single while the band took a break – became a hit, Van Halen’s label pushed to quickly record a full album.

Little Guitars, though hardly essential Van Halen, is bright, loose, and sounds like a laid-back summer night.

Van Halen – Eruption
from Van Halen

One hundred and three seconds of sheer wickedness.

Sure it spawned legions of half-baked guitar apostles, but I can only imagine what it must have been like to have heard Eruption when it was first released.

Van Halen – Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love
from Van Halen

By the time I started listening to music, Van Halen had done their best stuff, so I discovered the first four albums over the ensuing years. I never really committed to the band (most likely because several friends were rabid to the point of grating about them).

I’ve probably spent more time listening to those early Van Halen albums in the last five years as I did during the twenty-five years previous. The more that time passes, the more I’m convinced that the original Van Halen was one of the truly great bands.

Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love is a sheer, sonic, adrenaline rush of a song with a nihilistic streak that’s gritty and menacing.

And Then, There’s A Giant Turtle Hurtling Through Space

June 12, 2011

Searching for late-night movie fare, I still find myself harboring hope that I might stumble upon some sci-fi, B-movie from the ’60s.

It’s something deeply ingrained from childhood. Living within spitting distance of the border of three states, we were within broadcast range of the television stations of two large cities and, as a result, we had a cornucopia of seven or eight channels at a time when most pre-cable viewers had half the choice.

(of course, reception was often determined by the time of day and meteorological conditions)

Late at night, there was often the opportunity to bask in the soft glow of fare that would someday provide reason for Mystery Science Theater 3000 to exist.

Sadly, sleepy-eyed kids of the 21st century escaping the bonds of bedtime for the first time won’t be dazzled by the spectacle of men dressed as prehistoric and futuristic creatures engaged in combat as buildings and cities crumble under the carnage of the combatitants.

(arigatou gozaimasu, Japan)

Instead, pint-sized people huddled under a blanket late in the evening are more likely to find little but hucksters pitching programs to help them lose weight, grow hair, or accumulate riches in real estate.

(arigatou gozaimasu, capitalism)

Pulling up the menu of free movies offered by our cable provider one night, my pulse quickened as I reached those filed under the letter G and a dozen or so flicks with Godzilla in the title appeared.

Unbridled joy turned into disappointment as I pulled up the synopsis of the first one and noted the date – 2000. Scrolling through the rest, each one was a product of the past decade and each had running times in excess of 100 minutes.

It’s Godzilla not The Shawshank Redemption. It’s understandable that two and a half hours would be required to tell the tale of Andy DuFresne and have him tunnel out of Shawshank, but if you can’t destroy Tokyo and have the good monster defeat the bad monster in under 75 minutes…

Of course, coming across a classic Godzilla flick as a kid was like hitting three cherries. More often than not, I’d have to settle for Gamera, the giant, rocket-propelled turtle.

With a nudge from nostalgia, I did a search for Gamera on YouTube and the first result was too intriguing to not click.

I recognized the footage immediately even if I didn’t recall the name of the flick (which happened to be Attack Of The Monsters). I should have remembered the name as I swear it seemed to air once a month or so on Science Fiction Theater, one of our independent station’s Saturday night offerings, in the late ’70s.

The plot, such as it was, revolved around two small boys getting whisked away to another planet by the lone survivors of an alien race – two Japanese women clad in futuristic garb – who intended two eat their brains like pudding.

The lure, of course, was Gamera as he battled some giant, bipedal pteradactyl and another rubbery beast with a ginsi knife for a head to save the day and the cranial contents of the young whippersnappers.

And, in the clip, the heroic battles were set to the music of Men Without Hats’ The Safety Dance.

While Godzilla has been, quite deservedly, celebrated in song, if there is a musical tribute to Gamera aside from those conjured by the obviously twisted mind of a YouTube poster, this office has not been notified.

Instead, here are four songs from the Billboard charts for this week in 1978 when I was ten and about a year or two away from music holding my attention as much as a turtle jetting through the cosmos…

Patti Smith Group – Because The Night
from Easter

I don’t know when I first heard the great Patti Smith’s lone radio hit. It certainly wasn’t in ’78 and I can’t really recall hearing it on the radio at all, ever.

I suspect that I heard Because The Night in college when, having heard a number of acts I loved mention Patti and/or cover her songs, I delved into her (then) relatively scant catelog and was smitten.

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street
from Right Down The Line – The Best Of Gerry Rafferty

From the opening notes, Baker Street makes me think of the pool as I was often there that summer and the song was always blaring from the radio or a car stereo.

Frankie Valli – Grease
from The Very Best Of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

Grease was the movie of the summer in ’78 and the music was everywhere. I doubt that I knew who Frankie Valli was or that Barry Gibb wrote the title song, but I liked it and, like Baker Street, it immediately conjures up summer for me.

Genesis – Follow You Follow Me
from …And Then There Were Three…

The first Top 40 hit for Genesis in the States, Follow You Follow Me came after the reduction of the band to a trio and its incarnation that would have considerable commercial success in the ensuing decade. I imagine it caused considerable angst for the long-time fans of the progressive act.

I had a college roommate who tried to indoctrinate me into Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as have several friends over the years. As much as I love Gabriel’s solo work, I’ve yet to really take to early Genesis, though.

Follow You Follow Me is a song that I’ve always adored. It’s mysterious, distinctive, and hypnotic.

June 5, 1982

June 7, 2011

As part of a semi-recurring series, I thought that I’d pull up the Billboard Hot 100 for this corresponding week from a year in the early ’80s and note the songs that were debuts.

I’m opting with 1982 again as it was the year during which I listened to more Top 40 radio than I ever would again.

(there are also a lot of missing issues during the Junes of the first half of the ’80s in Google’s online archive of Billboard magazine, but ’82 is there)

So, here are the songs which debuted on the Hot 100 during the week of June 5, 1982 as my final summer before entering high school was beginning…

Genesis – Paperlate
from Three Sides Live
(debuted #90, peaked #32, 14 weeks on chart)

Following the success of ’81’s Abacab, Genesis issued Three Sides Live – three sides of live material and – at least in the States – a fourth one consisting of studio material.

Paperlate – like Abacab‘s No Reply At All – featured the the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section giving the song some kick. More than just a lament over an undelivered daily, the ever increasingly commercial trio seems to be warning against slavish devotion to routine.

Ambrosia – How Can You Love Me?
from Road Island
(debuted #89, peaked #86, 4 weeks on chart)

When I pulled up the chart for this week in ’82, I wasn’t surprised that most of the songs debuting were well-known to me. Ambrosia’s How Can You Love Me? was not.

I didn’t recognize it as I listened to it, either, but it certainly surprised me as, like most listeners, I know Ambrosia for their soft rock smashes like How Much I Feel and Biggest Part of Me.

How Can You Love Me? is punchy, guitar-driven rock and maybe the world wasn’t ready for such a thing from the L.A. quartet and the song would prove to be their final hit.

Jeffrey Osborne – I Really Don’t Need No Light
from Jeffrey Osborne
(debuted #88, peaked #39, 15 weeks on chart)

There was essentially one urban station in our range that went by the moniker of The Blaze, but I didn’t spend much time there while surfing the dial. So, I wasn’t really familiar with Jeffrey Osborne’s time as the lead singer of LTD.

But several of his solo hits did make their way to the playlists of the pop stations to which I was partial, so I did hear I Really Don’t Need No Light on occasion. It’s actually a rather catchy, light funk track that I probably enjoy more now than I did then.

Chic – Soup For One
from Soup for One soundtrack
(debuted #87, peaked #80, 6 weeks on chart)

Not only did Chic notch some major hits during the late ’70s with Le Freak, I Want Your Love, and Good Times, the group’s members continued to have an influence on pop music into the ’80s.

Bassist Bernard Edwards worked with acts like Diana Ross, Adam Ant, Rod Stewart, Air Supply, ABC and Duran Duran. He also produced Robert Palmer’s Riptide as well as the debut album by The Power Station, whose line-up included Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson.

Meanwhile, guitarist Nile Rodgers produced pretty much every album during the first half of the decade including releases by Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, INXS, Madonna, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, and Thompson Twins.

And, yet, Soup For One – a song I hadn’t heard as the title track for a movie I’d never heard of – is pretty unmemorable.

Ashford & Simpson – Street Corner
from Street Opera
(debuted #85, peaked #56, 10 weeks on chart)

The songwriting duo of husband and wife Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson penned songs for most of Motown’s biggest acts, but only managed to reach the pop Top 40 twice as artists. Street Corner wasn’t one of them.

I didn’t hear Street Corner much, if at all, on radio at the time. The only time I really do recall hearing it was on America’s Top 10Casey Kasem’s weekly television countdown – as it was a much bigger hit on the R&B charts.

But the song did catch my ear at the time. It reminded me of songs like George Benson’s Give Me The Night and Brothers Johnson’s Stomp! from the previous summer, both of which I totally dug.

Larry Elgart & His Manhattan Swing Orchestra – Hooked on Swing
from Hooked on Swing
(debuted #83, peaked #31, 12 weeks on chart)

The London Philharmonic had reached the Top 10 with a medley of classical compositions in early ’82 and, later that summer, Meco would reach the Top 40 by stitching together some classic movie themes.

And, over the previous year, Dutch studio group Stars On 45 had also scored hits with medleys of songs by The Beatles and Stevie Wonder.

So, true to form, record labels proved willing to flog the medley equine until it was of no interest to anyone but Elmer’s.

Cheap Trick – If You Want My Love
from One On One
(debuted #81, peaked #45, 10 weeks on chart)

Sure, Cheap Trick had lost a bit of mojo since rocketing to superstardom a few years earlier with Cheap Trick At Budokan, but how could a song as stellar as If You Want My Love fail to even reach the Top 40?

This lack of love for Cheap Trick also baffled ticket-scalper Mike Damone that summer in Fast Times At Ridgemont High as he asked. “Can you honestly tell me you forgot? Forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander, or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?”

(of course, Damone apparently forgot the magnetism and charisma of Bun E. Carlos)

Glenn Frey – I Found Somebody
from No Fun Aloud
(debuted #77, peaked #31, 13 weeks on chart)

Though I’m not as opposed to The Eagles as The Dude was in The Big Lebowski – in which his abiding hatred of the group gets him tossed from a cab – I’ve never been much of a fan, either. Maybe it was the overkill of hearing their music so much on radio as a kid.

So, I had minimal interest in Glenn Frey’s solo debut. However, the languid I Found Somebody is pleasant enough.

Chicago – Hard To Say I’m Sorry
from Chicago 16
(debuted #75, peaked #1, 24 weeks on chart)

I know that Chicago has some seriously devoted fans, but I’ve never been much more than lukewarm toward most of their music. Here and there is a song I like, but, mostly, I’m indifferent.

Hard To Say I’m Sorry would prove to be inescapable that entire summer and remained so as we returned to school in September. I always found the version with Get Away – which I heard as often as the truncated single – to be a bit jarring.

Survivor – Eye Of The Tiger
from Eye Of The Tiger
(debuted #73, peaked #1, 25 weeks on chart)

Sure, the lyrics are pretty goofy – I think I realized that even in ’82 when Rocky III was one of the summer’s biggest flicks and Survivor’s theme was everywhere – but the music is sonic adrenalin.

Rick Springfield – What Kind of Fool Am I
from Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet
(debuted #57, peaked #21, 12 weeks on chart)

Though I don’t usually seek them out, when one of the dozen or so tracks on the iPod by Rick Springfield shuffles up, I’m likely listening to the entire song. The guy had some catchy tracks.

I would have guessed the the mellow rocking What Kind Of Fool Am I had been a Top 10 hit. It certainly seemed to be as popular as Don’t Talk To Strangers, the first single from Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet on the stations I was listening to.