Heading For The Dirty City

October 20, 2010

When I first started listening to music during the first couple years of the ’80s, this new interest meant something to do during the fall and winter when the elements made for longer stretches housebound.

Instead of jockeying with my brother for control of the television or Atari 2600 console, I could now opt for self-imposed exile to my bedroom and listen to music rather than read.

More music was listened to during the months of less daylight. This might have meant an increased likelihood of burnout and a need to shop for more music.

Of course, the selection of music in our Midwestern town was no more than a few hundred cassettes in wire wall racks and eight or so bins of albums and singles in a small variety store.

I reached a point at which I was becoming interested in music not stocked in this store (or stocked well past the date it had been available in the outside world). It needn’t be too exotic – Missing Person’s Spring Session M comes to mind – that an hour’s drive to the nearest record stores in Cincinnati had to be made.

This conundrum was made a stickier wicket as I wasn’t yet old enough to drive.

The first option was to provide explicit instructions with mom as to what to titles to procure. Complicating matters was release dates weren’t always available or accurate, so it was necessary to – with limited funds – prioritize a list of albums that might not even be out, yet.

(and, then, hope that mom could actually make sense of the request)

The other option was to blow most of the day accompanying mom on the trip and endure hours at outlet malls – kind of like a Midwestern version of running with the bulls at Pamplona – to spend forty-five minutes browsing through a record store or two and pick up a few cassettes.

However, this riddle was resolved by time and, by the autumn of 1984, me and all of my friends had our driver’s licenses.

None of us had cars, but that was merely a detail. Some of us had older siblings with cars and all of us had parents with cars.

Actually, transportation was usually provided by my buddy Beej. He’d tell his mom that he was taking the car to one of our houses and, thirty minutes later, four to six of us were headed for the glamour of the dirty city.

We weren’t old enough to do much than roam the malls and gorge ourselves on fried mozarella sticks at The Ground Round, but there were a half-dozen record stores to hit, so there was much to do.

It was our first taste of freedom and the open road, though, and we always returned with plenty of music. It’s probably why, even now, the cool weather triggers something in me that makes me want to buy music.

Here are four songs from albums that I’m sure I purchased on one of those roadtrips during the autumn of ’84…

Big Country – Steeltown
from Steeltown

Though just a year after becoming a sensation in the US with In A Big Country, Steeltown was greeted with a yawn in the States. It got excellent reviews and deservedly so as, even without a hit, it’s a better album than their debut.

The title track has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Cherry Bomb
from Glorious Results Of A Misspent Youth

Isn’t Cherry Bomb about as gloriously elemental as a rock song can be? Proof that oftentimes there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Zebra – Bears
from No Tellin’ Lies

When Zebra released their debut in 1983, a lot of music fans embraced their Zeppelin-like sound and a lot of critics slagged them for their Zeppelin-like sound.

Personally, I wore that first album out and though I didn’t spend as much time with the follow-up, it’s not a bad record. The odd and engaging Bears always reminded me of Rush (who I was also quite into at the time)

Bruce Cockburn – Lovers In A Dangerous Time
from Stealing Fire

Though Bruce Cockburn has achieved iconic status in his native Canada, the literate folk rocker remains an underappreciated artist south of his homeland’s border, though his cult following in the States is devoted.

I discovered his music when the righteously indignant If I Had A Rocket Launcher, from Stealing Fire, popped up on some of the rock stations I was listening to at the time. I bought the cassette for that song, but the wiry Lovers In A Dangerous Time, which kicked off Stealing Fire, is pretty stellar, too, and features some wicked guitar work.

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Bales Of Hay, Wheels Of Cheese And Liverpool

September 9, 2010

The first time I visited the UK, it was with a friend, TJ, and another friend of his, Donna, whom I didn’t know. It was a memorable two and a half weeks in a rented Daewoo, beginning in London, hitting both coasts and and so many castles – courtesy of TJ’s itinerary – that Donna and I began to refer to the trip as The Castle Hostage Tour.

TJ kept us plied with cigarettes and candy, resulting in a trek during which tensions flared only once or twice and those periods defused rather quickly.

For some reason, I seem to recall that one of those times when, if we had to spend another ten minutes in that Daewoo together, lives might be taken, occurred as we made our way to Liverpool.

Perhaps someone was out of smokes.

Perhaps someone had had one two many pints when we had stopped for lunch.

Perhaps it is merely the physics that disctate that, no matter how good of friends you might be – and the three of us remain friends fifteen years later – there is only so much time three humans can spend in a Daewoo together.

I remember the three of us reaching Liverpool as the sun was setting on the port city. We were muttering to each other under our breath as we settled into a booth in some dingily lit pub. The place was empty aside from a few grizzled, old characters at the bar who had the look of regulars.

I slumped in the booth, half-heartedly leafing through an abandoned newsheet. A headline caught my eye and the article had me laughing before I finished the first paragraph.

It was coverage of some local event that involved rolling wheels of cheese down a steep hill and participants scrambling after them. Apparently shenanigans and gravity ensued and there had been – as there were each year – a number of injuries.

Soon, the strife had passed and the three of us were laughing, pondering this insane sport over pints.

I thought of that evening when I read of the recent death of cellist Mike Edwards, a founding member of ELO. An immense bale of hay rolled down a hill and onto a road into the musician’s van.

Meeting your demise in such a fashion is out of your hands, but, should you concuss yourself while chasing a wheel of cheese down a steep hill, that one’s on you.

There’s been no shortage of bands from Liverpool to make an impact on the outside world (including that one mop-topped combo from the ’60s). Here are four songs from acts comprised of Liverpudlians…

Echo & The Bunnymen – Bring On The Dancing Horses
from More Songs To Learn And Sing

Echo & The Bunnymen was a band that I think I’d come across in print before I ever heard their music and, though the quartet were critical darlings, the name inspired no confidence in me.

But, when I finally heard their music I understood the hullabaloo regarding the Bunnymen. Their music was chiming, sweeping, cinematic, and grand and, though achieving commercial success commensurate to their critical acclaim in their homeland, Echo & The Bunnymen failed to escape the ghetto of cult act in the States.

A Flock Of Seagulls – Windows
from Telecommunications

I’ve expressed my affection for A Flock Of Seagulls in the past and recounted playing pinball with lead singer Mike Score.

This go ’round, I thought I’d offer up a more obscure track from the band, one which didn’t appear on any of the three studio albums by the original foursome. The twitchy, neurotic Windows must have been a song that didn’t make A Flock Of Seagulls’ debut as, musically and lyrically, it’s very much in the vein of that album.

The La’s – Timeless Melody
from The La’s

The La’s long ago secured their place as one of the more bizarre tales in the history of rock music. One album, despised by lead singer/songwriter Lee Mavers who bad-mouthed the critically-acclaimed album in interviews, minimal sales and scant attention.

Then, nothing. For twenty years there has been nothing but rumors of new music and strange stories about Mavers’ perfectionist ways scuttling the arrival of new music.

Now, The La’s are kind of a cool secret.

Most people are likely familiar with The La’s music from Sixpence None The Richer’s cover of There She Goes, but that version pales in comparison to the chiming goodness of the original. The La’s echoed the classic pop of the ’60s with the ringing guitars and effortless choruses and that lone album is now, like its influences, timeless.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Enola Gay
from In The Dark: The Best Of OMD

Paloma turned me on to OMD. I mean, I knew their hits like So In Love and If You Leave, but there was an entire body of work with which I was unfamiliar.

Anyhow, Enola Gay is a sprightly little number about the bombing of Hiroshima.


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.