Shuffling Slowly Toward Sound Fidelity

May 15, 2011

It was during this week in 1982, that I graduated from grade school.

I’m not sure if it was because of our small town’s agrairian past – when not everyone went on to high school – or if it was the chance to inject excitement into the sleepy hum of daily life, but the event was treated with considerable pomp and circumstance.

As a kid that, like a lot of kids, had no use for formalities, I thought most of it was an inconvenient hullabaloo.

But there was an upside to losing a Saturday to ceremony, pictures, uncomfortable clothes, and time spent with adults – cash.

With some of that cash, I made a major purchase, a table top clock radio with a cassette player manufactured by Lloyd’s.

It had only been a year or so since my new interest in music had spurred me to relocate a radio from the basement to my bedroom. It had been on my old man’s workbench or the garage for as long as I could rremember.

It was a battered, oblong box – one corner of the grill covering the 45-sized speaker had separated from the unit and the cord was a scoliotic snake.

It served my purposes well during those early months as I explored the world of radio. And, in the time it took for me to open a cardboard box, it had become a childhood artifact.

This new purchase – what my buddy Beej dubbed “the Lloyds beast” – also made obsolete a portable cassette player from the ’70s that I used to listen to the handful of albums I owned.

(it was also used it to make primitive mix tapes of songs recorded by positioning the built-in microphone of the device as close as possible to the speaker of the radio)

This new acquisition – what my buddy Beej dubbed “the Lloyd’s beast” – was, though merely a small step toward fidelity, a great technological leap forward for me.

Beej had an older brother. He was already reading Stereo Review, yammering about specs and Hirsch-Houk Laboratories, and putting together a stereo system.

I would soon begin to eye the magnificent components he was acquiring and go in the that direction, too.

(as soon as I was able to scrape together the funding, a slow process that neccesitated my buying one component at a time over the course of an entire summer)

But, twenty-nine years ago, the “Lloyd’s beast” was possibly my most prized possession.

Here are four songs that I vividly recall from that time…

Human League – Don’t You Want Me
from Dare

Had I had interest in music a few years earlier, either disco or punk might have been the “new” sound that my friends and I would have adopted as our own. I’m grateful that, instead, New Wave and synthesizer bands from the UK turned out to be our find.

Human League’s Don’t You Want Me had to have been one of the first songs by a synth band I heard and I it hooked me. My buddy Streuss was obsessive about the band, spending the next year or so focused on collecting every single, 12″ inch single, EP, remix, and whatever else he could acquire by the Sheffield band.

Toto – Rosanna
from Toto IV

I have no qualms in acknowledging that I own most of Toto’s albums up through the mid-’80s and I rarely hit skip when one of their songs pops up on shuffle.

Rosanna was a constant on the radio during the summer of ’82 – all summer long – and I don’t think I ever tired of it. It’s still as joyously infectious all of these years later.

Kim Wilde – Kids In America
from Kim Wilde

We didn’t know much about Kim Wilde when she arrived with the New Wave bubblegum of her song Kids In America. She was a comely blonde and I imagine that’s all we needed to know.

But we did love the song. It bounded along. It had a chanted chorus. It was about kids in America and we happened to be kids in America.

It had it all.

J. Geils Band – Angel In Blue
from Freeze Frame

Although I was fairly lukewarm about the song Centerfold, I’d gotten a copy of J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame as a gift and most of the rest of the album I loved. I don’t think any of us knew that the band had actually been around for more than a decade and was known to music fans as America’s answer to The Rolling Stones (I, at that time, certainly didn’t).

Although it wasn’t nearly as big as Centerfold or Freeze Frame‘s title track, Angel In Blue – a wistful ode to a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the obligatory heart of gold – was a favorite then and, like that waitress, it hasn’t aged a bit.

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Nothing Like The Threat Of Armageddon To Stoke An Appetite*

November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, like the once annual airing of The Wizard Of Oz used to be, is an event.

Yeah, some people make it out to be dysfunction junction (and for them, maybe it is), but getting to watch football all day on a day which usually would be spent slogging through work is a brilliant concept.

And, of course, it is a chance to feast.

It’s like being king for a day.

Bring me gravy! I shall gnaw on this turkey leg in a slovenly fashion as these superhumans on the television perform amazing feats for my amusement!

OK. It’s not necessarily that dramatic and, as the Lions always play on Thanksgiving Day, the feats are not always amazing in a good way.

(though I cannot imagine how empty a Thanksgiving without the Lions playing the early game would be – it would be like a Halloween without a visit from The Great Pumpkin)

One Thanksgiving was spent living in London, eating some take-out pizza in an ice-cold flat.

And, in a cruel twist, my favorite team was making a rare Thanksgiving Day appearance. They would lose, in overtime after a bizarre coin toss snafu to begin the extra period.

It was a game that would have been maddening to have watched and it was maddening to miss.

Thanksgiving hasn’t been brilliant every year, but that year – no food, no football, no heat – is really the lone one I recall as being truly miserable.

As a kid, our parents dragged us off to mass. I mean, you have the day off school and can sleep in and lounge on the couch; the last thing you want to be doing at an early hour is trudging off to church.

When I was fifteen, the priest decided to use his sermon to rattle off a laundry list of accidental nuclear exchanges between the US and USSR that had been narrowly avoided.

(this was 1983 and two months earlier there had been all of the hullaballoo surrounding the television movie The Day After)

I kept having images of an extra crispy bird and excessively dry stuffing.

It was a bit of a bummer.

It was also a year when my favorite team had a Thanksgiving game. Detroit bottled them 45-3.

I had forgotten (or blocked it out) and had to research who played that season.

But, global tensions and football smackdowns aside, I have no doubt that the food was good.

That autumn, I was still listening to a lot of Top 40 stations, but Q95, an album rock station out of Indianapolis, had caught my attention as well and 97X was exposing me on a semi-regular basis to modern rock for the first time. Some of the songs on the radio that Thanksgiving…

Survivor – Caught In The Game
from Caught In The Game

Eighteen months or so after Survivor unleashed Eye Of The Tiger, the band returned with the follow-up to that album. There was hoopla with one of the stations promising “the premiere of new music from Survivor.”

And then I heard the title track. It was no Eye Of The Tiger.

Caught In The Game obviously had no chance to duplicate the monster success of Eye Of The Tiger and the song is rather generic. Of course, when it popped up on shuffle not long ago, it made me smile and prompted a second listen, so, there is something that I dig about it.

Human League – Mirror Man
from Greatest Hits

I actually don’t know if any of the stations I listened to at the time played Human League’s follow-up to (Keep Feeling) Fascination. 97X might have, but really I only recall hearing it on American Top 40 and it wasn’t there long.

Too bad as I thought Mirror Man was very cool, much prefering the song to the better known Human League hits Fascination and Human. The background vocals of Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall gave the song warmth and the song has oft been described as “Motown inspired.”

Culture Club – Church Of The Poison Mind
from Colour By Numbers

Though I wouldn’t have trumpeted it at the time, I quite liked Culture Club’s first two singles – Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Time (Clock Of The Heart) – and, now, I’d call both of them brilliant pop songs.

(there was no excuse for I’ll Tumble 4 Ya, though)

I thought that Church Of The Poison Mind was well done, too, but some of the production dates it in a way that keeps it from having the timeless vibe of those first two songs.

Blue Öyster Cult – Shooting Shark
from The Revölution By Night

I heard Shooting Shark sporadically and could never catch its name or even knew who sang it, but it mesmerized me. It was mysterious and trippy.

I eventually discovered that it was Blue Öyster Cult.

I knew a couple of songs by BÖC but a lot about the band’s lore as a friend had been an unwavering champion of the group since third grade.

He disavowed The Revölution By Night upon its release, but I made it the first album I ever owned by Blue Öyster Cult. It might not have been their best album – I’d opt for Fire Of Unknown Origin – but I still am mesmerized by the mysterious, trippy Shooting Shark.

*reposted – with some alterations – from Thanksgiving ’09


Fuzzy Memories Of A Record Store From The Past

April 24, 2010

Thinking of record stores not long ago, I realized that I didn’t have a chance to frequent indie record stores until college (at that point, there were a half dozen within a few blocks of each other).

Though my friends and I spent a good deal of time trekking to Cincinnati in high school, we usually stuck to the malls. The malls had everything we didn’t have in our hometown – record stores, book stores, arcades, food courts, escalators – in one place.

And a lot of girls.

(there were, obviously, girls in our town, but we had known most of them since first grade – mall girls were exotic and mysterious)

Somehow, though, there was one record store that I have hazy memories of being an occasional stop for us. It was a funky, little store, deeper than it was wide, tucked away in a strip mall setting.

I couldn’t come up with the name.

A bit of research leads me to believe it was called Globe Records and that name does sound right. There’s not much info on the store, though – there is a mention of incense which I remember this store selling.

It was a low-key place, lots of simple wood bins and racks. I seem to remember an open upstairs level which must have served as a good perch to monitor potential shoplifters.

There were large posters on the walls, haphazradly arrayed. I think the store’s backroom (and the stairs leading to the loft) might have been separated from the floor by a curtain of beads.

I can almost picture the place.

(I couldn’t have shopped there more than a dozen times and it was twenty-five years ago)

It had to have been one of the more bohemian places my friends and I had been at that time in our lives.

It would have been the spring of ’84 when my friend and I would have been hitting Globe Records as we finally had our drivers licenses. It was a time of great change in my musical interests as I had discovered alternative rock and we finally had MTV available to us.

Here are four songs from that spring that I remember hearing quite a bit…

Tracey Ullman – They Don’t Know
from You Broke My Heart In 17 Places

That Tracey Ullman is quite a talent and They Don’t Know was our introduction to her, especially as the video seemed to air each and every time I had the chance to vegitate in front of MTV.

Fortunately the song was an utter and complete earworm and, though I had little frame of reference at the time, it totally capture the girl group vibe of the ’60s. It also was written and recorded by the late, great Kirsty MacColl, but I wouldn’t become familiar with Kirsty until the following year when I heard her version of Billy Bragg’s A New England on Rock Over London.

The Fixx – Deeper And Deeper
from Greatest Hits – One Thing Leads To Another

The Fixx had become fixtures on radio the year before with Reach The Beach and that album’s subsequent hits Saved By Zero, One Thing Leads To Another, and The Sign Of Fire.

Personally, I always seemed to like the idea of The Fixx more than most of their music. I dug earlier stuff like Red Skies and Stand Or Fall, but most of their output was hit or miss for me (and One Thing Leads To Another grated on my nerves).

Deeper And Deeper was a keeper, though, revealing a bit more muscle in the band’s sound. The song appeared on the soundtrack to the rock fable Streets Of Fire, a movie which I managed to miss that summer.

Human League – The Lebanon
from Hysteria

In the spring of 1984, my buddy Streuss was eagerly awaiting the long-delayed release of Human League’s Hysteria. It had been two years since they had burst onto the musical landscape in the States with Don’t You Want Me and there had been no follow-up to its parent album Dare.

In the interim, Streuss had amassed everything he could acquire by the band – much of it as imports for us – including the dub remix collection from Dare credited to The League Unlimited Orchestra.

Of course, The Lebanon was a surprise when it arrived as the first single from Hysteria that spring – the synth-pop band who had an edict declaring “no guitars” had issued a song that was built heavily around guitars.

We didn’t care. We loved it and, though it might be a bit half-baked lyrical, I still do.

Nik Kershaw – Wouldn’t It Be Good
from Human Racing

Wouldn’t It Be Good wasn’t a very big hit in the States and I don’t recall seeing the video for the song. I think it was actually my friend Beej that turned us onto the song after he saw the video on the USA Network’s Night Flights.

The discontented vibe of the song – kind of a New Wave take on “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms” – tapped into our burgeoning teen angst. A couple years later, the song would reappear on the soundtrack for Pretty In Pink, but in a version by Danny Hutton, one of the vocalists for Three Dog Night.