Filmstrips And Fire Ants

April 25, 2012

I must have been part of the last generation of kids who got to experience a filmstrip during the course of their education. If I were a teacher, I’d be tempted to show one to trip the kids out.

But as a grade school tyke in the ’70s, few things were more welcome than being in class and having the teacher set up the projector. The anticipation would be palpable.

For fifteen or twenty minutes, you had a reprieve from the monotony of the day. Sometimes technical difficulties might result in a delay, taking more time off the clock.

I recall several filmstrips warning of dire consequences involving the migration of fire ants and Africanized honey bees northward and, thusly, toward us.

Sitting in the dark of the class room in 1978, it looked as though the shit was going to hit the fan in the ’80s and the insects would be taking over.

We’d all have to dress like John Travolta in The Boy In The Plastic Bubble to keep from being stung to death.

There might have been some influx into the Midwest of very angry bugs during the decade, but I don’t recall hearing of any issues.

For years, I assumed that the fire ants were just another filmstrip lie from childhood like the existence of the metric system.

“Oh yeah,” I’d sneer. “Where are the fire ants? How many grams is that?”

But Paloma and I made a recent trek to Texas and, yes, I met some fire ants and even got a couple bites which lived up to the hype.

I was actually hoping to bump into Willie Nelson.

I want a gig.

Not as a musician as, I am not. Just a gig as Willie’s assistant…picking up laundry, walking dogs, answering the phone, opening mail, caddying…

It would be the greatest, most Zen gig ever.

But getting stung by some fire ants was fun, too.

Just as the filmstrip foretold.

Thirty-four years ago, I was far more focused on the impacable march of the fire ants than music, but here are four songs that were on Billboard‘s Hot 100 at the time…

Bonnie Tyler – It’s A Heartache
from Super Hits Of The 70s: Have A Nice Day Volume 21 (1993)

I dig Bonnie Tyler’s raspy-voiced emotional breakdown It’s A Heartache which, until Total Eclipse Of The Heart hit five years later, seemed destined to make the Welsh singer a one-hit wonder in the States.

It’s A Heartache also reminds me of the NBA championship series from that spring as it was played over a montage following the final game. I’d wagered five dollars on the plucky underdog Seattle Supersonics and lost my allowance that week to my brother who had chosen the victorious Washington Bullets.

(and, please, can we jettison the Wizards – possibly the lamest nickname in pro sports – and return to Bullets)

Kansas – Dust In The Wind
from The Best Of Kansas (1984)

So, I’m ten-years old and I’m groggily sitting at our kitchen table, having been rousted out of bed at six in the morning for school.

There’s news coming from the radio and, then, a song – a pretty, acoustic song with soothing guitars and lovely harmonies – is playing. And they’re singing about everything crumbling to the ground and only earth and sky lasting.

I’m pondering whether it’s possible to – just once – get through a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles before they liquified into a slushy mush and Kansas is playing the soundtrack.

Paul McCartney & Wings – With A Little Luck
from Wingspan: Hits And History (2001)

Sure, Sir Paul wasn’t going to match the impact of The Beatles no matter what he did, but there is enough wonderful music in the Wings’ catalog that would have made for a fine career had he never been fab.

Though I wasn’t much interested in music at the time beyond what I’d hear secondhand, I loved the breezy With A Little Luck. I couldn’t go to the pool during the summer of ’78 without hearing it playing over the loudspeakers.

Genesis – Follow You Follow Me
from …And Then There Were Three… (1978)

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.

The Men Were The Men Back Then

April 22, 2012

Amidst the news last week of the deaths of Dick Clark and The Band’s Levon Helm was that of Greg Ham’s passing.

As I was a high school kid in the early ’80s, the name was immediately recognizable as the saxophonist for the Australian band Men At Work.

Men At Work arrived on American shores at a time when I had just developed enough interest in music to be listening to a lot of radio, but I hadn’t ventured much beyond mostly Top 40 stations. Most Saturday mornings, I’d tune for at least a portion of American Top 40.

The first time I ever heard – or even heard of – Men At Work was when Casey Kasem announced their song Who Can it Be Now? debuting on the countdown. It was August, 1982, and I had just entered high school.

By the end of that weekend, I seemed to be hearing the song hourly on one or more station as I surfed the band.

Men At Work was the first band that truly blew up on my watch. Who Can It Be Now? was quirky, New Wave rock full of irresistible hooks and punctuated by Ham’s honking saxophone bursts.

Within the next several months, both Who Can It Be Now? and Business As Usual, Men At Work’s debut album, had topped the charts. As 1982 closed out, the band’s second single, Down Under, was duplicating the success of Who Can It Be Now? and I received a cassette of Business As Usual for Christmas which I wore out.

I remember reading an article on the band over that break and quotes from the members that they were already tired of Business At Usual. The album had been released in their homeland in 1981 and the band had its follow-up ready for release.

(Columbia, who had signed the band after Business In Usual took Australia by storm, rejected the album twice before belatedly issuing it here – well played Columbia)

That follow-up, Cargo, arrived quickly on the heels of the debut in the spring of ’83. I recall a neighbor being the first of my friends to get a copy and how eager we were to hear it.

Cargo was a success, but not on the scale of Business As Usual, which would have been unrealistic to expect.

That autumn, Dr. Heckyl & Mr. Jive became the third single from Cargo to reach the Top 40 and the first hit by the band to not reach the Top Ten.

Just over a year after Men At Work had burst onto the scene, it was over.

Men At Work would issue one, final album in 1985, but during the lengthy break, the band was reduced to a trio of lead singer Colin Hay, Ham, and guitarist Ron Strykert.

Two Hearts came out as we began summer break before our senior year of high school, but it was greeted with indifference and Men At Work broke up with little fanfare.

Here are four songs from Men At Work…

Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now?
from Business As Usual (1982)

As catchy as Who Can It Be Now? is, the song’s accompanying video certainly hastened Men At Work’s breakthrough in the US.

MTV was about eighteen months from availablity in our are, but I caught the clip somehow and was amused and captivated by lead singer Colin Hay’s portrayal of a paranoid recluse and his lazy-eyed glances into the camera.

Men At Work – Down Under
from Business As Usual (1982)

Hailing from Australia made Men At Work an exotic import to us and Down Under played on that aspect with its playful, eccentric take on the band’s homeland.

(as well as teaching us about vegemite)

Men At Work – People Just Love To Play With Words
from Business As Usual (1982)

Though the two hits were the most memorable songs on the album, Business As Usual could have had another hit single or two had the band not had Cargo waiting in the wings.

Be Good Johnny got a lot of airplay, but the delightful People Just Love To Play With Words would have made an ideal choice as a third single.

Men At Work – Overkill
from Cargo (1983)

Cargo, like many a blockbuster follow-up, wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but it did contain Men At Work’s finest moment.

Overkill was as quirky and engaging as the previous hits, but it was also wistful. The song always made me think of rainy, empty streets illuminated by streetlights in the early morning hours as most of the world is asleep.

(perhaps because I so often heard the song on the radio that spring, as my friends and I – having finally gotten our driver’s licenses – would be out late, killing time)

Children Of The Corn

April 18, 2012

Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction was released in late summer of 1987, months before I started my sophomore year of college and a year before Sweet Child O’ Mine became a smash.

I started working in a record store that autumn and, not surprisingly, most of the music to which I was listening was more likely to be seen in video form on MTV’s 120 Minutes, not Headbangers Ball.

My introduction to Guns N’ Roses came from our manager who would blare Appetite as soon as the store would close. I dug the sonic adrenaline rush of the opening Welcome To The Jungle, but I dismissed the band as just another pile of hair.

By the following autumn – with Sweet Child O’ Mine‘s breakthrough – Guns N’ Roses had reached the masses.

(our manager had fled town after supposedly embezzling store funds)

In the spring of ’89, with Appetite For Destruction still selling enough to be in the Top Ten, the EP G N’ R Lies was released and I became a fan.

For the next half-dozen years or so, Guns N’ Roses were a staple of the pop culture landscape, much of the time for something lead singer Axl Rose had done, like start a riot.

(or hadn’t, like show for a concert)

Despite all of the nonsense, I couldn’t help but pull for Axl throughout the years.

Perhaps he was some spoiled, megalomanical brat.

Perhaps he was simply misunderstood.

But, he was a fellow Hoosier.

I could picture Axl as some small-town ne’er-do-well who might have hung out with my childhood buddy Will’s older brother.

And I couldn’t see the opening of the video for Welcome To The Jungle – Axl, a long-haired Midwestern punk stepping off a Greyhound in seedy mid-’80s Hollywood – and not think of a college housemate, a long-haired Midwestern punk and fifth-year senior working the closing shift at a Pizza Hut, at the time.

Axl was some guy I might have known who had made it out and was in the biggest band in the world.

As Axl and Guns N’ Roses were first taking the world by storm, I had never been more than a few hundred miles from home.

Most of the kids with whom I had grown up, most of the kids with whom Axl had grown up could likely make such a claim. The outside world was just that.

Our world was corn and basketball.

I love both, but there was a lot of corn, fields of the stuff in all directions – no matter where you live – in much of the state.

(there was just so…much…corn…)

It can make a kid growing up there a bit touched.

Sitting on the couch, blowing off class and watching MTV, seeing Axl shriek a love song to the daughter of one of the Everly Brothers as he shimmied with the mic stand…it seemed strange to think that he was once one of us.

It’s still hard not to pull for him.

Here are four songs from acts with Indiana connections…

The Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
from Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5 (1969)

I probably first knew of The Jackson 5 through their Saturday morning cartoon and likely didn’t realize that Michael and his siblings were from Gary, Indiana – no more than a couple hours away.

There’s really nothing to write about the ebullient pop/soul/bubblegum classic I Want You Back that hasn’t been said, but it’s still amazing to think that it’s a ten-year old singing the song.

Van Halen – Runnin’ With The Devil
from Van Halen (1978)

Yes, David Lee Roth is a Hoosier.

Indiana 1, California 0

Blind Melon – Galaxie
from Soup (1995)

I might have been one of the few people at the time that didn’t reach a point where Blind Melon’s No Rain and the “Bee Girl” would provoke visceral, involuntary rage. I still find the song winsome and charming.

Their follow-up album, Soup, received good notices, but was struggling to replicate its predecessor’s success when charismatic lead singer Shannon Hoon overdosed in late October, 1995.

As a fellow Hoosier, I felt especially bummed out at the news.

Galaxie, supposedly inspired by Hoon’s car, alternated between a melody that shifted from jittery to almost ethereal and back again with an effortlessness that draws me in each time I hear it.

Izzy Stradlin And The Ju Ju Hounds – Shuffle It All
from Izzy Stradlin And The Ju Ju Hounds (1992)

Debates about who does or doesn’t constitute Guns N’ Roses aside, guitarist and co-founder Izzy Stradlin was arguably the most musically indispensible member of the band.

Stradlin walked away from Guns N’ Roses not long after the release of Use Your Illusion in the autumn of ’91. Stradlin’s self-titled release with his band Ju Ju Hounds – with appearances from Ron Wood and Nicky Hopkins – was a favorite with the staff of the record store where I was working.

And, Ian McLagan adds Hammond on the laid-back and groovy Shuffle It All.