Harpsichord Everywhere

February 19, 2011

Often the dots of the universe connect in a surprisingly delightful and unusual manner.

Like sleep-addled groundhogs, Paloma and I poked our heads out last weekend, peered about, and realized that the tundra had thawed, leaving us with peerless weather and warmth.

We headed out.

Paloma manned the Sirius satellite radio that she had gotten me for Christmas, delighting in the array of options and searching for The Smiths.

Momentarily, she idled on the ’70s station long enough for the screen of the radio to display Maureen McGovern – The Morning After (’72) and the opening notes of the hit from the The Poseidon Adventure to play.

“I like that song,” I told her. “It has harpsichord in it.”

She quickly moved on, unswayed by the lure of the harpischord.

I vaguely remember The Morning After from the time, though I do remember the slew of ’70s disaster flicks – Airport ’75, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno – that featured all-star casts and would air as The ABC Sunday Night Movie.

A few days later, I happened to read Lawrence Welk, Pop Star over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I read with interest as Paloma and I will often watch when we come across an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.

JB noted that the song Calcutta, Welk’s Number One hit from 1961, features harpsichord.

Harpsichord.

I had to do a bit of sleuthing to find more songs with harpsichord.

There were a number that I immediately recognized, songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Mamas & Papas’ Monday Monday, Yardbirds’ For Your Love, Paul Muriat’s Love Is Blue, The Beatles’ Piggies, and Partridge Family’s I Think I Love You.

I might be able to bang out a few chords on guitar, but I’m not a musician. I don’t think that I ever really pondered the harpsichord I was hearing in those songs.

I’m not even sure that I knew that what I was hearing was harpsichord.

However, to paraphrase Marcia Brady, I don’t know how to build a clock, but I know how to tell time and, though I might know little about the harpsichord, I can still enjoy what it brings to a song.

Here are four songs with harpsichord…

Asia – Ride Easy
from Anthologia: The 20th Anniversary/Geffen Years Collection (1982-1990)

I was completely smitten with Asia’s self-titled debut in ’82 and – somewhere – I still have a poster of the album cover. That poster inspired me to suggest the Asia dragon as potential artwork when Paloma was searching for something to cover a tattoo.

(she didn’t find the idea as grand as I did, but, then again, she wasn’t a fourteen-year old boy in 1982)

Yet, grand is an appropriate description of the quartet’s debut album and it shouldn’t be surprising that a band whose drummer had a gong would find room for harpsichord, too.

Ride Easy was the b-side to Asia’s first hit, Heat Of The Moment, and not included on their debut album much to my dismay at the time as I’d only get to hear it when I’d punch it up on a jukebox.

Maureen McGovern – The Morning After
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

I seem to hear The Morning After at least once a week while listening to Sirius’ ’70s station on the morning commute to work and that’s fine by me.

There’s something about the song that I dig. Maybe it’s the sheer melodrama of it all, but, if you’re going to have a theme song about a luxury liner capsized by a massive tidal wave – and Ernest Borgnine is in the cast – I suppose that it’s no time to be timid.

Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
from Big Hits: High Tide And Green Grass

I fully admit that The Stones have been phoning it in for so long now that it has affected my view of them. And that makes it all the more astounding when something pre-Goats Head Soup pops up on the iPod.

Play With Fire is truly menacing and menace is a vibe which The Stones were once as capable of capturing as well as any band ever has.

Jellyfish – The King Is Half-Undressed
from Bellybutton

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993’s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.

Be forewarned, I listened to The King Is Half-Undressed the other morning as I hadn’t heard it for awhile. That was two days ago and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

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The Cabin

July 3, 2010

Not long ago, someone asked me to name my favorite place that I’ve ever visited and my brain immediately locked onto faraway places like Dublin, Paris, and Hong Kong.

However, over the past couple weeks, childhood memories have nudged a locale far closer and far less exotic into mind.

Sure, if anyone wants to hook Paloma and me up with round-trip tickets to Dublin, Paris, or Hong Kong, those tickets will be used, but – at this moment, here in the midst of summer – the place I think I’d most like to spend some time is a small cabin, nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in Upper Turkeyfoot Township.

Growing up, most summers would include two weeks spent in Western Pennsylvania, visiting relatives – a trek that lost appeal mere hours after arriving.

However, most summers, as much as a week of that time would be spent at the cabin belonging to a great aunt and uncle. It had been passed down to my aunt from her father who had purchased the rustic outpost not long after World War II.

It was place that was strictly a getaway where my father, his brother, and other relatives had often headed for some hunting during the winter months. Though hardly luxurious, it had considerable charm.

Provisions would be purchased at a small gas station that had a general store in a speck of a town nearby and the stocks would be replenished by periodic return trips.

The cabin was situated near several others on a dirt road that ran parallel to Laurel Hill Creek and up to a state road which passed over a small dam. Other, similar dwellings were spread throughout the area, usually clustered in threes and fours with some larger, more posh getaways sitting alone.

The days would be sunny with highs in the upper 70s or low 80s and little humidity – nothing but pure sunshine that warmed the spirit. My brother and I would head down the stone steps to the creek – which was no more than thirty yards from the cabin – and wade about in the water or fish from a perch on the rocks.

Oftentimes, the two of us would head out with our father and uncle and take a rowboat kept near the dam to do some fishing in the late afternoon or merely to explore the numerous channels.

In the evening, as dusk arrived and dinner digested, the family would sit on the screened-in back porch and the adults would talk or the radio would be tuned in to KDKA and to a Pittsburgh Pirates game.

If it was late enough in the summer, there might be a Steelers preseason game we’d watch through the snowy reception on the television.

When everyone would finally retire for the night, my brother and I would sack out on the couches on the back porch. I’d lie there in the cool, mountain air and stare out through the screen at the stars with the sound of the creek lulling me to sleep.

The last summer that we made the trip to the cabin was in ’82. I was headed to high school that autumn and my brother would do the same a year later. It became more difficult to coordinate schedules to make annual trips back east.

Here are four songs that I remember hearing while scrolling through the radio dial at the cabin during the late summer of ’82…

Asia – Only Time Will Tell
from Asia

Asia’s debut had been in my cassette player for most of the summer of ’82. By the time we made the journey to the mountains that year, Heat Of The Moment had given way to the album’s second single, Only Time Will Tell.

As much as I dug each and every track on Asia, from the first listen, Only Time Will Tell was the song I wanted to play repeatedly.

It was grand, majestic and an epic musical melodrama.

Or, it was overwrought, flaccid and a total sell-out for the band’s storied personnel.

I was fourteen, so it was the former.

John Cougar – Jack & Diane
from American Fool

Johnny Hoosier, as my friends and I called him, had gone from local, Indiana singer to the man with one of the summer’s biggest hits with Hurts So Good.

But I’d only heard Jack & Diane a few times on the radio before we headed out on vacation.

Two weeks later, when we returned home, I was hearing the song a half-dozen times or more a day.

Frank Zappa – Valley Girl
from Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch

I haven’t listened to a lot of Frank Zappa’s music, but I have encountered a few memorable characters that were insane for his work.

I thought that Valley Girl was fun, but the culture, trappings, and slang mocked in the song didn’t really take in the corner of the American midwest where I was growing up.

In fact, it seemed like the song was everywhere for a few days and then the stations I was listening to never played it again. It was as though it had never happened.

Journey – Only Solutions
from Tron soundtrack

As summer ended in ’82, Journey’s Escape had spent a year as one of the best-selling albums in the US. I actually remember hearing Who’s Crying Now for the first time on the drive home on our vacation the previous year.

During that year, there were the big hits – Don’t Stop Believin’, Open Arms, Still They Ride – but I heard almost every track from Escape on the radio at one time or another. They could have put out anything and it would have gotten played.

So, I suppose it wasn’t surprising that stations would jump on Only Solutions, a song that the band contributed to the soundtrack to the movie Tron. The flick was cutting edge at the time, but, for all the hype, it was a bit of a flop. I didn’t see it when it was in the theater and I don’t recall any of my friends seeing it either.

But I liked Only Solutions. Though it wasn’t quite as good as the best stuff from Escape, it was new stuff from Journey and that was good enough for me.


Contains The Hit Singles…

May 21, 2008

Like many music fans, my earliest introduction to music was Top 40 radio and I had little idea what might happen should I stray from the path of the mainstream. My trust was placed in radio; if it was worth hearing, wouldn’t I hear it there?

So, I began to gather the songs I liked, making crude mixes recorded onto blank Maxell cassettes by placing a tape recorder against the radio’s speaker. The term fidelity was merely a word in an REO Speedwagon album title and the main objective was to snag a recording of the song without the DJ chattering all the way through the intro.

To put it into evolutionary terms (with apologies to those of you from Kansas), I took the first tentative steps out of the primordial dreck and began to purchase music and, with no turntable, the cassette was the preferred medium. Styx’ Paradise Theater, Journey’s Escape, Foreigner’s 4, and The J. Geils’ Band’s Freeze Frame were among the first titles to make a dent in my allowance (insert your own primordial dreck joke here). All of them purchased from the token music section in my hometown’s five-and-dime store.

My interest in each selection was limited to having pristine versions of the album’s hits – the other tracks, obviously not worthy, were inconveniences to be fast forwarded through. The cellophane shrink-wrap would often have a sticker bearing the superfluous “Contains the hit singles…” I knew the hit singles as the radio and, on occasion, Kasey Kasem had already clued me in to them (how someone would know ahead of time what would be the hits was, like fidelity, a mystery to me).

My drift from the world of Top 40 began in the spring of 1982 as I began to channel-surf when Q102 would play a song I didn’t like. Two increasingly satisfying destinations being 96 Rock and Q102’s bitter rival WEBN – both album rock stations. They allowed me to get my fix of staples like Journey and REO Speedwagon, including tracks which I didn’t know as hits – to my surprise, it seemed that it was acceptable to listen to almost each and every song on Escape.

I finally threw caution to the wind when Asia’s self-titled debut was released. Heat Of The Moment was all over Top 40 radio and Only Time Will Tell (which I preferred) and Sole Survivor were played every bit as much on WEBN (technically, they were also listed as hits on the cassette’s sticker and, thus, were pre-approved for my listening pleasure).

I popped Asia into the cassette tuner/tape deck hybrid which had become my first stereo equipment (and referring to it as such is generous) purchase. Heat Of The Moment blared forth, followed by the other two songs I knew from radio. Nearly forty-five minutes later, the album had closed with Here Comes The Feeling and I realized that there were songs which the radio wouldn’t play for me which I enjoyed as well.

I was liberated. Sure it wasn’t as cool as my liberators being The Beatles or The Clash, but I was now free to choose what music I wanted to like, no longer yoked to the Top 40 charts for guidance.

Incidentally, Asia has recently released a new album with their original line-up for the first time since 1983. The tracks I’ve heard wouldn’t have been out of place a quarter century ago, alongside these selections from their debut.

Asia – Only Time Will Tell

Asia – Time Again

Asia – Wildest Dreams

Asia – Here Comes The Feeling