I hate to think that I’m probably becoming one of those people who claim that there’s no music better than the music of their youth, and I certainly would like to believe that I’ve done my best to keep up with what’s new in the world of rock to the extent that I can as someone whose job and daily life really doesn’t “depend” upon knowing, for instance, that the new Decemberists record is perhaps their most disappointing. That said, I’d hold this song, and almost everything XTC did through the mid-80s, up against anything that calls itself “pop music” these days. “Respectable Street” sounds great on Black Sea, the album that also presented the XTC classics “Generals and Majors,” “Love at First Sight,” and “Towers of London”; but this performance amps-up the intensity to the nth degree. Tell me you’ve seen anything better on American Idol or even, for that matter, on the stage of the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
There’s a woman in my office who has “Face Dances, Part II” as her ringtone (which I assume means she’s about my age), and even though I hadn’t thought of or heard the song for years, the first time I heard those distinctive and quite pretty opening notes coming from her cellphone, I knew exactly what it was. (If ever a revival of “Name That Tune” gets on the air, I’m totally auditioning.) What I didn’t realize, and what I figured out in trying to find a free download of the song, is that it’s not from the Who’s 1981 album “Face Dances,” as I thought, but a single from Pete Townshend’s 1983 solo album, “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.”
“You Better You Bet,” from “Faces Dances,” was my first real exposure to the Who, and I seem to recall hearing the song often on the portable radio I carried with me more-or-less everywhere I went around my neighborhood as a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old, about the same time I’d often hear “The Pina Colada Song” on the air. (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey probably wouldn’t thrill to be associated with Rupert Holmes, but they go together in my mind, along with games of two-on-one, after-school football.) I had little knowledge that pop music had a past; I didn’t have a record player and my parents’ collection consisted of 8-track tapes of Slim Whitman, Bobby Vinton, Glen Campbell and the Statler Brothers. This is to say I didn’t think much of what I'd heard, aside from what I'd get from re-runs of the Monkeys and the Partridge Family, both of which I preferred to Boxcar Willie and his ilk. At any rate, back to the Who: I also seem to remember seeing the video for “Eminence Front” (“It’s a put on”) in heavy MTV rotation kind of around this time, and I even recall seeing in a concert video the dumbfounded-looking members of Who standing in the wings of Shea Stadium while the Clash rocked the place as their opening act.
All of this is to say that I began to become acutely aware of pop music right around the time that classic rock was drawing to a close (along with punk) and post-punk/indie music was beginning to emerge in popularity among the people (kids) for whom music meant something. Did it mean something to me? Obviously it did, but at that point of nascent awareness I couldn’t say what, and I never really bothered noticing the difference from one kind to another, at least not in a prohibitive way. What I did notice were the similarities. Having, thanks to that catchy ringtone, rediscovered Pete Townsend and the early-80s, post-Keith Moon version of the Who, I can hear many of the things that first interested me in pop music and still do—melody, a strong hook, harmony, lyricism—qualities that I was hearing just as clearly at the time and soon thereafter in Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, R.E.M., Simple Minds, the Cure, the English Beat, Echo & the Bunnymen, Big Country, the Jam, etc, etc. etc.
Pete Townshend’s “Slit Skirts,” from “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” is another song I must have heard hundreds of times on the radio in 1983. I always liked its tune and its dynamic, but I’m absolutely sure I didn’t know what to make of the lyrics, which begin with the announcement, “I was just thirty-four years old,” which must have seemed, like, old. Listing to the song now, when I remember thirty-four as being a not-so-bad age, I’m struck by its honesty, the way it is confessional without being cloying or self-conscious, and the way it just connects with my musical sensibilities. And as if to prove my point, who is that to be seen in Townshend’s rhythm section but the bass player and drummer from Big Country, as if to personify the progression and symbiosis, if you will, of pop music at that particular moment in music history. Maybe if I’d been born five years later I’d think Pete Townshend was a dinosaur and I’d be extolling the virtues of Biggie Smalls or a more revolutionary moment in music history, but I’m grateful to have become aware of rock-and-roll when it was at such an interesting crossroads, as opposed to the edge of a cliff where it seems to be these days.
I haven't lately had the time or the inclination to write anything here, but my friend Mauricio, who insists that the e-mail he sent to a handful of friends earlier in the week isn't blog-like, has written a nice little essay on what is I suppose as "lost" an album as one can find in this day and age, where everything seems a mere click away. Enjoy!
Hi kids - this will only hurt a bit...
Couple of days ago, after weeks of listening to nothing but Post Punk records by Gang of Four and Adam Ant, I desperately found myself in a singer/songwriter mood. But not for any of that precious Bon Iver/Jose Gonzalez stuff.... yes, They Are Great. Yes, this decade's crop of SSWs is quite lush. But I've been craving something that doesn't have the word Hip sewn on it's sleeve; I'm craving a singer that doesn't deliver his lines in a wispy-willow whisper (or a wimpy James Taylor whine) that says "I'm sensitive and sad but it's ok cause soon I'll be almost famous in Brooklyn."
I was looking for something that my dad would have listened to when HE was wearing hip on HIS sleeve, wherever Brooklyn was in those days.
So I started pecking around the Warren Zevon catalog. I had a few tracks, just the standards. Lawyers Guns and Money has been a long-time favorite; and if you haven't seen his appearance on the Larry Sanders Show, you just aren't living. But I've always hated the way his records sound - that glossy West Coast pro-production that's ruined so many decent records. But I had a suspicion that under all that shitty, dated LA trash, there were some gems to be found. I did manage to find some stripped-down demo recordings that lets his unique brand of sleazy pathos come alive without being buried alive by the Rock Jock Avalanche. (That shit should stay where it belongs. On Steely Dan records, where it's not just tolerable. It's fucking joyous).
But I digress....
After pilfering all the Zevon I could handle, I moved on to Kris Kristoffersson. If Johnny Cash is the Stones, then Kris must be the Beatles. I'd always liked his stuff when someone else was singing it (there's a couple of great KK tributes records out there) so I figured it was time to pony up $29.99 for the Essential Kris Kristofferson and hear the man deliver his own songs. It now sits proudly on my shelf with other artists in that series: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond (thank you Matt, for that last one).
But wait. That's not why I'm writing this either. I suppose I should get on with it before you send me the electronic equivalent of a spit in the eye. So, our story is propelled forward by the magic of internet consumer algorithms – through them I was led divinely through Zevon to Kristofferson, to finally land softly on the catalog of crazy old Harry Nilsson.
We've all heard Everybody's Talkin' and Coconut. You may know he's the original composer of the song "One", made famous in the 60's by Three Dog Night and most recently covered by Aimee Mann on the Magnolia soundtrack. And you may even have heard his own deliciously cheesy cover of Badfinger's "Without You" (I've been driving Yula crazy singing it around the Ithaca house at the top of my lungs, clutching my hands to my breast, channelling Bonnie Tyler and Bono. That's how I roll when left stranded upstate. Since quitting smoking, I don't even have to leave the house for cigarettes.)
Shit. Stay on track. Ok. Here we go.
But gimmicky little songs and the title track to Midnight Cowboy aside... it seems that Nilsson did indeed record one of the true lost gems of the 1970's.
The recording is not available on iTunes or Emusic, and it seems to be out of print on vinyl and CD. But there was quite a bit of chatter about if on the Internets, so I bought a copy from some little in shop in California, courtesy of amazon z-shops (who says mom and pop is dead. Knight, there's hope for Book Bin yet). I think this might be the first record in 5 years I've purchased sight unseen (sound unheard?). Turns out this chatter was no mere static.
Now, I've never been a fan of Randy Newman. He's always impressed me as the musical equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. And he looks strangely like a Jewish owl. Don't get me wrong - I love owls. And you all know I not-so-secretly hope to become a true New York Jew someday when I'm old(er). But Newman's performances were always too vaudevillian at best and downright douchy at worst.
But hand his songs over over to the John Lennon-obsessed Nilsson, with his creepy-crazy Brian Wilson production and drug-addled delivery and these songs take on a new light. Some of them remind me of Bill Fay (another semi-obscure British folkie from the 60's recently brought to light by Wilco's take of his "How To Fight Loneliness." But that's another story. See, I'm on task).
I'm on my third listening of NSN, and dare I say, a gem it is. It's anachronistic and weird; tinkling and soothing and baroque. I'm pretty sure Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Elliot Smith were fans of this record. The production is intimate, the arrangements uncluttered. There's classic Lennon/McCartney-style double-tracking all over it. Some of it sounds like something you might hear at a carnival in the 40's. And you can hear how Wilco might have arrived at their Beach Boys take on Americana.
Matt, something tells me you'll like this record; it's definitely no Walkmen ;-) It's delicate and nostalgic; familiar and strange and ultimately pretty easy listening for a Sunday morning or a bleary, boozy 3AM after many glasses of Malbec. Plus, there's a song about Dayton, OH on it, so you Midwestern kids can relate.
Knight, seeing how you're the senior member of the group, I'm guessing you must have come across this record before? Sorry, was that ageist?
And Steve, as the only officially sanctioned musicologist in the group (my credentials are trumped up and highly suspect), have you had this record spinning along on your old Victrola all this time? Please send your thoughts, gentlemen.
Ok, I'm done, sorry to put you through all this. Thanks for reading, kids. No. I am NOT high. Just nicotine-deprived (It's kind of like being high without any of the, you know, pleasure).
Now, go listen. You may hate it and think I'm a wanker. I am, but that's not news...
Point your browser here:
(actually, don't; if you have any questions, contact Mauricio at email@example.com)
While cruising my hometown mall on a recent respite from NYC, in search of a rubber raft to float down the Coles River, I heard “Pure” come over the PA system. It still weirds me out to hear “alternative” music in settings where it would literally have been unheard of back in the so-called day, but if the Fall can lend their music to sell Mitsubishi SUVs on TV then I guess anything is possible. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though. I mean this song is the definition of inoffensive, which may be why I don't think I thought much of it or the Lightning Seeds in the early ‘90s – despite Ian Broudie having been the producer of one of my favorite records, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupines. But I’ve got to hand it to him now; he wrote the perfect song for a Saturday afternoon at Sears. This little pop confection was muzak to my ears.
Every morning when I prepare to feed the cat, she stands there in the middle of the kitchen floor staring at me in anticipation. Imagine my horror today when the chorus of this truly awful song began playing over and over in my head. To remedy the situation I began thinking about the Red House Painters’ bizarre paean to one lucky feline, “Wop-a-din-din,” on my way to work, which got me to thinking of other songs about cats. (Commuting on the subway can sometimes be a bit mind-numbing.) I came up with two (it's a short commute), both by the Cure: “All Cats are Grey” and “The Love Cats,” the latter of which mercifully kicked Eric Carmen back into the depths of my musical memory, at least until feeding time tomorrow.