Saturday, December 13, 2014

Favorites of 2014

Nothing takes the fun out of determining a Top 10 albums of the year list like spending whatever free time you have in December desperately pawing through the albums on other people's lists you couldn't or wouldn't get to in an attempt not look so damned ignorant. So before that continues any further I have to make peace with my ignorance, and give what I got. As usual I spent considerably more time re-examining stuff from the 1970s than keeping up with the contemporaries this year. But who knows, those guys probably missed some stuff too.

As always, this list isn't "best," or even most worthy, just those that were released during the calendar year that I gave sufficient chance to, and enjoyed the most.

And now, on with the Dadrock Top Ten...

10. The Hold Steady TEETH DREAMS
It's missing the Roy Bittan-y piano that marked their best stuff but a nice comeback from their last record, with all the manic energy and shaggy doggedness, and when they rock out they almost kill me. I got the sense that some listeners were turned off by the massively hooky "Wait A While" but I can't imagine why.

9. Christopher Denny, IF THE ROSES DON'T KILL US
OK, so this is one of those I plucked off someone else's best-of list just a couple weeks ago and I'm a little suspicious of its new-ness to me, but there's no denying this guy, even if his songs aren't destined to last, has a voice I'll remember for a long time. Like John Fullbright (read on) Denny is probably best classified as a "country" artist but he's mixing in soul, gospel and rock, all of it a bit off-kilter.

8. The War on Drugs, LOST IN THE DREAM
Atmospheric, evocative and contemporary take on rock, a little more lustrous and hazy than I normally go for but I'll confess to giving them a shot mostly as a result of having come across a video of them impressively covering Springsteen's "The Ties That Bind." Speaking of legends, the chilly intimacy, chiming guitar and echo reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham's solo work.

7. The Both, THE BOTH
Veteran singer-songwriter Aimee Mann teams up with indy-punk guitar slinger Ted Leo for a set of charming power-pop duets. Suffers a little bit from that soft/loud thing but solid overall and at times catchy as hell. I mean, this song:

6. Bruce Springsteen, HIGH HOPES
When I heard this was a collection of leftovers, rerecordings and covers I was hardly excited (the shittiest album cover of his career didn't help) but Bruce is an exception to most rules, and naturally the political thread running loosely through this collection turned out to be especially prescient. The defining element of this album is the addition of guitarist Tom Morello who brings a blood-and-guts edge to Bruce's songs including vicious interpretations of "American Skin" and "Tom Joad." It doesn't always work when the Boss himself engages in profanity, but I get what he was going for here.

Bruce being Bruce, he soon issued a leftover-from-the-leftovers EP featuring the terrific, nonpolitical "Hurry Up Sundown" also worth a pursuit.


I understand where Weezer fans probably feel the joke is on them: They've been so disappointed waiting for a record that sounds like their classic "blue" album that when the band finally does so it comes with a glib apology: "Sorry guys I didn't realize I needed you so much. I thought I'd get a new audience. I forgot that disco sucks!" singer Rivers Cuomo confesses in the irresistable throwback "Back to the Shack." Weezer were so off my radar I hadn't realized they'd been out sucking, but I'm glad they're back anyway. This record, like "blue" is knowing and funny, and packed with angsty hooks. (See also the 50s inspired duet with Bethany Cosentino).

4. John Fullbright, SONGS
In a year without a great many revelations I was pleased to discover this Oklahoma singer/songwriter who sounds a little bit like a cross between Steve Earle and "Closing Time" era Tom Waits. The album's not perfect -- it drags at times and I recognized a guy acknowledging his own creative frustrations in "Write a Song" -- but his ability is plain as day as demonstrated in this crusher:

3. The Empty Hearts, THE EMPTY HEARTS
I was a born sucker for this supergroup including musicians from three turn-of-the-80s bands I've admired forever: Singer Wally Palmar of the Romantics; guitarist Elliot Easton of the Cars; and Blondie's great drummer Clem Burke. Together with bassist Andy Babiuk of the Chesterfield Kings they made a record based on the sounds they admired growing up -- not 80s new wave but pure 60s garage rock. It hardly breaks new ground but there's not a bad cut on it, and played exactly as you'd imagine old pros just doing what they love would.

2. Roddy Frame, SEVEN DIALS
The former Aztec Cameraman sings about a personal rebirth and practically has one right there on the record, his first in seven years. I don't know how much is autobiographical but if you told me he'd been through a soul-crushing divorce and went to find himself in San Francisco I'd totally believe you. You can practically smell the Pacific on "Postcard" referencing Fleetwood Mac with a chorus ripped right out of the Eagles' "One of These Nights." A sparkling, moving, grown-up record.

1. Chuck Prophet, NIGHT SURFER
"Look out all you losers, here I come!" Chuck Prophet warns the world on "Wish Me Luck" ("not that I really need it!"), an ironic keynote to a 13th solo album by a guy most people have never heard of. NIGHT SURFER isn't likely to break Prophet's remarkable obscurity, despite so much to recommend it. He's a strong songwriter, a wicked guitarist and an expressive, conversational singer with a gift of innovating his delivery in the manner of Jim Carroll. It's straight-ahead greasy rock-n-roll at its core but also well structured, with strings and precise background vocals counterbalancing Prophet's wild attitudes and observations.

I'd recommend going beyond the embedded vid for all of these records, and/or pressing the little blue triangle on the below mix of songs that caught my ear during 2014. Thanks to my tastemaking pals out there in the virtual world for the recommendations. What did you like this year?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Live a Little, Be a Gypsy, Get Around

What happens after you've accomplished it all and you haven't yet turned 30? The dilemma hangs heavily over Paul McCartney as he restlessly struggles to craft a post-Beatles life in Tom Doyle's biography MAN ON THE RUN. Based on a series of revealing interviews with the subject and richly detailed reporting, Doyle paints McCartney as far less calculated, and in a sense, more complex, than I would have guessed: In fact, Paul was adrift, depressed, and stoned for much of the 1970s even as he rarely dropped the jolly exterior and optimistic outlook he projected.

Cast as too domineering by George and too uncool by John (both accusations appearing accurate), the Beatle breakup left Paul with a kind of post-traumatic distress he medicated with pot, musical excursions both brilliant and banal, and life with a young family.

Periodic encounters with John Lennon recounted in the book illustrate a complicated and heartbreaking estrangement between the famed songwriting duo. John's public posture was many times more savage than what he'd share privately with Paul, whereas McCartney would frequently come off more flippant and careless than he'd intend, particularly his unfortunate "it's a drag, man" soundbite that carried the day upon Lennon's assassination. As Doyle tells it, Paul spent much of the 1970s in a vain search for a foil to provide the kind of competitive spark and counterforce that Lennon did, even if unconsciously so. The murder left him devastated and confused.

The book also provides a useful framework for understanding McCartney's inconsistent post-Beatle recording career, which even for us fans is something of a complicated narrative. McCartney's self-titled earliest effort largely resulted of therapeutic play in a home studio, while the 1971 followup RAM, conceived amid the legal unraveling of the Beatles, were both savaged by contemporary critics, although RAM's stature has greatly benefited upon reconsideration. "RAM was something of a marvel," Doyle argues. "Really the true successor to ABBEY ROAD, in its baroque detail and flights of imagination, it was variously funny, daft, touching and knowing."

Living a hippy lifestyle on a rural Scottish farm, Paul's next venture was, in his words, growing a band from a seed. Wings grew, all right, morphing from the dull, ramshackle outfit of the debut WILD LIFE, to the Peppery BAND ON THE RUN, to arena rockers of VENUS AND MARS to the radio popstars of SPEED OF SOUND and its successors. Part of this was Paul's unwillingness to reel in his outrageous versatility, but it was also his inability to keep another group together, with only himself, musically dubious wife Linda and ex-Moody Blues utilityman Denny Laine a presence throughout the Wings' career. One problem? He paid them too little.

The dissolving of  Wings Mark 2 (guitarist Jimmy McCullough and drummer Joe English, who joined following BAND ON THE RUN and accompanied the founding trio through the WINGS OVER AMERICA triumph) seemed to serve as another disappointing setback for McCartney, who even at the top of his game was always courting doubt. But, as Doyle points out, McCartney's growth from a guy who seemed lost without his Beatle bandmates to an artist who could fill a triple-live album almost entirely with non-Beatle cuts you know by heart in a matter of a only few years, is simply remarkable, even if it came with some filler.

The book takes us through McCartney's adventures in recording (the near-fatal chaos of BAND ON THE RUN's creation in Lagos and high-seas hijinx for LONDON TOWN); his idiotic drug busts in Scotland and in Japan; the deaths of Lennon and ex-Wingman McCollough, all leading to what Doyle suggests is the dawn of a calmer, more stable period to follow.

The below playlist includes representative cuts from Macca's singles, LPs and other projects during the decade:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Looking East

Sort of interesting thing I learned from Fink's AC/DC book.

There's no this:

without this:

Head East was a one of those Heartland boogie-rock bands who plugged away throughout the 70s but never broke out in the manner of contemporaries like REO Speedwagon. If they're remembered at all, it's for the enduring rocker above from their 1974 debut album FLAT AS A PANCAKE, whose syrupy cover I can picture from those Columbia House offerings. The riff apparently caught the ear of Malcolm Young, whose play on it blossomed into the ubiquitous AC/DC breakout. (We all know that jumped the shark years ago -- for me, it was when one of those "4 Jacks and a Jill" type bands performed it at a cocktail reception for real-estate executives I attended for work one time. Still get chills).

Head East had a second minor hit a few years later with "Since You Been Gone" but that song is best known for its 1979 performance by Rainbow. What I didn't know till just now was that Head East's version was also a cover of a song penned and performed originally by ex-Argent singer Russ Ballard. Ballard might be even less well-known than Head East, but his songwriting credits are many including the great power-poppy cut below, "Winning" later a cover hit by Santana and the great "New York Groove" made famous by Ace Frehley.

What's your favorite take of the three below?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thunder from Down Under

In part because none of the subjects of the book's title are willing participants in the story it tells, Jesse Fink's THE YOUNGS concerns itself primarily with tracking down other biographers' stories on the elusive and secretive family behind AC/DC, and it might have helped to have read those first.

This is not a book for the casual or curious AC/DC fan; it drops right in on the arcane and detailed, probing into who really played drums on their earliest recordings; how much of BACK IN BLACK was composed before the death of vocalist Bon Scott; the story of the graphic designer who has never been properly compensated for his iconic band logo, on and on. It's not that these stories aren't interesting in and of themselves (some are, anyway) it's the fact that telling the story of George, Malcolm and Angus Young is difficult without examining such things because they're uncooperative, insular and probably don't mind that there's a bit of mystery and irreconcilable truths around them. That's how they are.

And, Fink would argue, the best rock and roll band ever, at least until Scott died. There's a ton of testimony -- from himself and other admirers -- to that account, and where Fink has succeeded is making that case behind a few truths emerging from the arcane: Original producer, songwriter, man-behind-the-curtain and older brother George Young was determined to direct his brothers' band free from the interference and influences that might have brought down his band, the Easybeats; middle brother Malcolm (maybe not exactly middle, there were I believe 9 Young siblings in all) helped the sound come to life behind singularly muscular and efficient rhythm guitar and has been the driving force in the band for much of its career; and Angus is the diminutive boy genius guitarist and natural showman.

Readers will actually learn more about Scott, whom Fink argues was the soul of the band until drinking himself to death in 1980, citing his cheeky, clever lyrics that gave way to clunky, childish double-entendre in the Johnson era. The swift change to Johnson and the ensuing BACK IN BLACK tribute (if it was that and not leftovers packaged that way) was shrewd. "No replacement vocalist has given a band a better second act that Johnson did for AC/DC," Fink writes, although he adds it was only a couple of records before Johnson's vocals were shot and even less before he ran out of ideas as a lyricist. The Youngs eventually shut him out entirely from the songwriting process, repeating a pattern they'd exhibited with dozens of sacked band members, producers and associates throughout their career, many of whom make an appearance in Fink's book.

 Some time ago I came around to the conclusion that AC/DC wasn't the garbage Rolling Stone told me they were when I was an impressionable kid (Fink in fact tracks down and interrogates critic Billy Altman in his book, to little avail). If nothing more they're about the very best practitioners of the kind of thing they do. Fink's book helped to put its development into context, arguing the band's sound as a kind of unreached destiny of the Easybeats and other projects bearing George's influence along the way including a new-to-me project called the Marcus Hook Roll Band, whose "Natural Man" (above, featuring teenage Malcolm and Angus) was AC/DC/BC as the below cut clearly illustrates.

Filled with passion for the subject and dogged reporting, "The Youngs" might be the best AC/DC bio out there, but the definitive tale may still await.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Play Ball

Just in time for Opening Day, the Baseball Project is back. To say this thing is up my alley is a gross understatement: It's not only the old white-guys-from-the-80s musicians played in that power-pop-to-folk-rock style I like, but it's funny and baseball literate in the best way. I feel like they had to be thinking of me when they wrote:
I keep my eye on the sparrow
Keep my focus pretty narrow
I listen to the music and read books about its makers
I read books about baseball, the swingers and the takers
But what I love even more, is poring over box scores
Thirty seconds into this piece of power-pop homerism from R.E.M.'s great Mike Mills and I was already reconsidering my position:
Elsewhere the band writes about Pascual Perez, Lenny Dykstra, Dock Ellis, the Oakland A's, Henry Aaron...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Life is so Strange

A singer with multicolored hair and fishbowl bikini cups made quite the initial impression but I wouldn't have guessed back then that Missing Persons' SPRING SESSION M would hold up as well as it does 30+ years down the road.

The band consisted of squealing singer Dale Bozzio, a Playboy Bunny who stumbled into rock through husband Terry Bozzio, who was Frank Zappa's drummer. Dale became the delivery system for songs written by Terry Bozzio and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, another of Zappa's players. They recruited bass/synth player Patrick O'Hearn from Zappa, while keyboardist Chuck Wild arrived through a want ad. Originally known as "U.S. Drag" -- also a song title on the SPRING SESSION album -- the Missing Persons name referred to its members' commitments to other acts and might never have been a longterm project were it not for the fact this sexier Cyndi Lauper was fronting a creative, but very consciously new-wave band that could really play, and their shows around L.A. and a 4-song EP recorded at Zappa's studio became an early-80s phenomenon.

Debut album SPRING SESSION M (it's an anagram!) featured the spooky but exciting "Destination Unknown" -- a kind of fight song for my life and so many things in it (I'm reminded of its themes every spring when I take in the Mets' prospects). The guitar was clipped and new-wavy while the synths were complex, spacey and warm; Dale's vocals are appropriately quirky and the background singing and Terry's drumming are just outstanding. I posted a lip-synced performance above because I think it gives a better picture of what went into the song than the "official" video. They worked the same elements in different settings on songs like "Words," and "Walking in L.A.," crafting a record that was textbook new-wave without the shortcuts and cheap tricks (fake drums, labored detachment) that marked many of its contemporaries. It was really a kind of progressive pop that wasn't so disposable, only hidden behind sex and hairspray.

The band wouldn't hang on for long. Neither of their two follow-ups, RHYME & REASON (1984) or COLOR IN YOUR LIFE (1986) produced a hit and the band, built upon a marriage, didn't survive that breakup. Today those efforts live on only as parts of compilations dominated by SPRING SESSION cuts. Terry Bozzio went on to a lengthy jazz career; Wild and O'Hearn separately made marks in new-age; and Cuccurullo joined Duran Duran.

 You can't be sure of any situation. Something could change, and then you won't know.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Crash the Generations

My 7-year-old son is learning to play Jake Bugg's "Lightning Bolt" on guitar at the YMCA. It's with no small pride that I learned he suggested that the class learn it -- and that his young hip teacher had to look it up first.

And I'm thrilled -- only secretly -- on those days he comes home from the Y requesting I play some awful autotuned pop-rap he heard after school, and load it onto the playlist for trips in the car. He likes music. I like music. We share what we like with one another.

"Just about everyone I know gets excited when they talk about sharing their favorite music with their kids," says Garland Jeffreys, writing on a new website devoted to that very topic. And he's right. The site was inspired by the new song, "Collide the Generations" that itself was inspired by the musical relationship between Jeffreys and his daughter. The song sounds like an exciting new take on "Gimmee Some Lovin" and the video -- consisting of photographs submitted by fans of their kids -- is pretty cool too.

Garland Jefferies has been around since I was a kid. I can remember ESCAPE ARTIST getting some play on WPLJ in the early 1980s but nothing much ever seemed to come of it. Further explorations of his soulful and gritty stuff only reveals how massively overlooked an artist he is. Play this one for your kids:

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Hottest Band in the Land

Gene $immons doesn't need to squeeze another penny out of the KISS merchandise vault so I urge you: Do like I did and get the new biography NOTHIN' TO LOSE from your local library, and not from your local or virtual bookstore. I'll be returning my copy to Mid-Manhattan Library at 5th and 41st any day now so there's at least one out there.

The book, credited to Gene, bandmate Paul Stanley, and longtime KISS Kronikler Ken Sharp, is an oral history focusing exclusively on the period between 1972 and 1975 when KISS was formed, signed, released four albums, toured the country, and transformed from complete unknowns to fire-breathing arena superstars. It is a remarkable and absurd American success story.

Back in the 70s, my brother was a Kiss Army soldier, so I was quite familiar with the band, particularly the versions of songs off their first three studio albums whose live versions comprised 1975's careermaking ALIVE! double-set. Strongly influenced by prevailing critical opinions and a need to zig where my brother zagged, I outwardly expressed disdain for it all, even as I found the whole thing psychically and visually intriguing. Musically, I could take or leave them. Paul can be an exciting vocalist, and they had some fun rockin' tunes, but I found the lyrics idiotic even then. Their vision of being a heavier version of the Beatles was better conceptually than ever executed. They were a band for 9-year-olds when I was 11.

I learned some interesting things: Paul and Gene walked away from a record offer from their first band together, Wicked Lester, mainly because they themselves didn't believe in the music or the band's prospects. And they describe how they reached to find musicians to achieve their musical goals, even as it meant gambling on guys who'd prove difficult to work with: The sour and doubt-riddled drummer Peter Criss; and the talented but hard-partying lead guitarist Ace Frehley (whose own autobiography, NO REGRETS, skims over entire years he simply cannot remember). Weird, green, outer-borough Jews they may have been but KISS knew what they wanted. Their naked ambition to make it saw them hauling empty boxes disguised as Marshall amplifiers to shows, shop for costumes and props at pet stores and S&M shops and learn stage tricks from vaudeville magicians. They played local shows infrequently, giving audiences the illusion they were out touring the world while in reality they were incessantly rehearsing in a 23rd Street loft. Carefully manipulated appearances and press (thanks, Gene) helped them leapfrog contemporaries with more experience, bigger fanbases and better chops.

The big idea behind the kabuki makeup and stageshow was to consolidate the gains the band Alice Cooper had made in terms of rock theatrics, but advance them by making each member of the band as distinct as Alice Cooper the singer. It was brilliant (Alice Cooper, as noted in the below post, was just about to recede). And Kiss showed a terrific instinct for image-conscious management: they employed a gay game-show producer, Bill Aucoin, as their manager. Aucoin's lover, Sean Delaney, would take charge of their flamboyant stage show. And when they signed a record contract, it was with bubblegum maven Neil Bogart's upstart Casablanca label, which might have been the only company crazy enough to bankroll KISS through its spectacularly unprofitable early years when they toured like crazy but sold almost nothing and were all but ignored by radio. The music by definition almost always took a backseat. Even fully-realized early KISS classics like "Strutter" tend to be marred by muddy recordings, and the studio albums from this period (KISS and HOTTER THAN HELL from 1974 and DRESSED TO KILL from early 1975) were hasty affairs largely written and performed on the spot between punishing cross-country road trips.

A wealth of interviews with KISS' road crew -- not to mention remarks from bands unfortunate enough to share billing with KISS in those years -- will leave you with little doubt as to KISS' work ethic. Yet the 500-page book still doesn't tell quite enough: Paul Stanley of all people emerges as the most instrumental of KISS's creators: A young, ambitious frontman, graduate of a Manhattan performing arts high school, and a student of English psych-rock groups like the Move. We also get the impression he's a sensitive former fat kid. Of course, he's got his own autobiography in the works, perhaps he addresses the elephant of his sexuality and his other motivations there.

The band-approved bio never strays too far from the company line. While KISS's alleged skill at blowing other bands off the stage is repeated over and over, about the worst thing other quoted musicians have to say about them in the book was that their music was "dumb" or the act was "corny" (true and true). Most in fact speak about how gentlemanly and gracious they were. The book is admirable in scope: It includes remarks from the kids pictured holding the banner on the back cover of the ALIVE! album and the photographer who got the shot; club owners; DJs; roadies; PR folks; lawyers; and fans. There's a funny chapter devoted to a kissing promotion built around the cut "Kissin' Time" -- a Bobby Rydell cover the band had no interest in even recording but was snuck onto copies of the first album at Bogart's behest. The photos are great and include Gene Simmons' handwritten notes (he liked Paul's hilarious raps in ALIVE!).

The book ends as ALIVE!'s success and sold-out arenas begin at last to generate some money after years at the brink of financial ruin -- and before Gene's arrogant materialism and the band's refusal to evolve became an attribute of the KISS brand every bit as recognizable as the greasepaint. KISS would have a few more good tunes in the coming years but not a whole lot of new ideas. Their most recent album includes a song where Gene and Paul sing about, uh, a cruise ship -- "Take Me Down Below" -- with lyrics so stupid its as though they were daring us to recall Marty DiBergy: "...treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality. ... the musical growth cannot be charted..."

Of the LPs covered in the book, the debut album -- including songs like "Deuce" and "Strutter" that are as old as the band itself -- offers the best representation of what KISS was aspiring to. I even like the spiritedly ridiculous remash of "Kissin Time." (In general, I like the songs where Gene and Paul trade vocals, even the Catman gets in a verse in Kissin Time). The band itself have few good things to say about the rushed follow-up HOTTER THAN HELL, though it includes Gene's weird horror-movie love ballad "Goin Blind." DRESSED TO KILL contains their eventual breakout single "Rock & Roll All Night" but also, Gene reveals, stuff dating to their Wicked Lester days as they were typically crushed for time. From this I like Paul's Todd Rundgren ripoff "Love Her All I Can." Of course many of these tunes are best showcased on ALIVE! which as Paul remarks in the book, really puts the listener in the middle of the crowd, and at the just the right moment.

Here's a playlist I whipped up from the first three, plus the aforementioned naughty nautical from 2012. Enjoy! Rdio is free!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hello. Hooray!

Michael Walker's WHAT YOU WANT IS IN THE LIMO isn't nearly as salacious as the title or the cover art suggests, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a fast account of three bands (Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the Who); their respective 1973 albums (BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, HOUSES OF THE HOLY, QUADROPHENIA); and the associated American tours that, as the book's subtitle suggests, marked the birth of the modern rock superstar and the death of the 1960s.

That last point is the central theme and common thread linking these stories, as Walker argues how these three tours represented the moment at which the appetite for rock created by the musicians of the 1960s is sated only without what Walker calls that era's "boring poli-sci socio-overlay" of bands that felt they needed to be in solidarity with their audience. The tours of 1973 -- played in sports arenas, by bands that arrived by private jet, fueled by drugs, elevated by onstage theatrics, sleazed up by groupies -- illustrated a cold new remove from fans that is the common lot of the Superstar.

A key to this newfound power were strong-armed managers --Led Zeppelin's thuggish Peter Grant for one -- who flipped the traditional financial model, giving the entertainers the gate proceeds and forcing promoters to line up for a cut. This slick innovation afforded the excesses of drugs, private planes and bills for destroyed hotel rooms the tours became notorious for.

Having only recently suffered through Pete Townshend's dull autobiography, the Who's struggles to bring the innovative but then-underappreciated QUADROPHENIA to life were quite familiar; my takeaway from Zeppelin was a new appreciation for Robert Plant's desire for stardom and John Bonham's propensity to be a violent douchebag. That left the tale of Alice Cooper, whose theatrical shows reached a new peak in '73 just as the band was splintering under the strain of drink, drugs and the act itself. And though Cooper would be the first to fall, all three bands entered a decline phase following 73, culminating of course in the drink/drug related deaths of Moon and then Bonham by the decade's end.

I gave BILLION DOLLAR BABIES a whirl to accompany this book and was impressed with the muscle and glam (produced by Bob Ezrin who'd do a similar trick polishing Cooper's descendant KISS-- another topic I hope to get to soon). Overall, LIMO isn't as quite as electrifying as the albums or tours it covers but as a succeeds as a quick overview of the wild era that birthed them.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Any writer who's ever been frustrated by an inaccessible interview subject ought to appreciate the unique and daring workaround Dave Bidini finds in his gonzo biography of Canadian folk balladeer Gordon Lightfoot.

WRITING GORDON LIGHTFOOT has Bidini -- himself a Canadian musician -- writing about Lightfoot by writing to him, in a series of direct and slashingly revealing letters. These are interspersed with chapters detailing Toronto's 1972 Mariposa folk festival in which Lightfoot met Bob Dylan, and other goings-on that week in Canada and in the world (the Fisher-Spassky chess match in Iceland; the largest jailbreak in Canadian history; controversy over Bobby Hull's flight to the WHA; the solar eclipse mentioned in "You're So Vain" etc etc etc). His stuff on the jailbreak and hockey is often hilarious and serves to flesh out a sketch of the cultural landscape of the time.

The heart of the book are the letters, through which we learn that Lightfoot is not just famously private but may or may not be harboring resentment over remarks the writer himself had made in the past. Lightfoot is a huge figure in Canada, basically the first pop star to sing about Canada, but maybe also, a bit of an asshole, particularly in 1972. Telling that story while ostensibly addressing said asshole directly I found to be just astonishingly daring as a writer and one conclusion you could draw is that it takes one to know one. But as said above it's also very funny, and softens a bit as Bidini sort of takes in what he's done. I give it two lightfeet up.

Years ago, driving from Toronto to Montreal and back we tuned in a public-radio station doing a countdown of the most important Canadian songs of all time. As I recall it, Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" topped the list: I don't know if I'd ever heard it before then. Like many of my classmates in fifth grade, I owned a copy of his "Edmund Fitzgerald" on 45 -- what I didn't understand then was that it was true story, almost to the detail. The one that still gets me today though is "Sundown," a gorgeous song with vicious lyrics detailing a volatile relationship and substance abuse. Also a true story.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What I Like About Them

It's not entirely accurate to describe the Romantics as a band that never got its proper due. After all, they authored a song that will live for as long as there's consumer brands desperate to appear energetic and fun; and they were all over the place in 1983 behind the huge hit "Talkin in Your Sleep." Plenty of bands out there would do well to be remembered for less.

All the same, there was more to the Romantics than irresistible dance-rockers bludgeoned into oblivion in beer commercials.

The Romantics emerged from Detroit in the late 1970s bringing a lively mix of influences: Hard-rocking Detroit garage staples like vintage Bob Seger and the MC5, and an obvious affection for British Invasion pop of the Animals, the Beatles and the Kinks. They played with energy and style, though the red-leather suits and boofy hairdos would contribute to a sense of their datedness soon enough.

Their 1979 debut album deals one splendid power popper after another, leading off with the frenetic "When I Look In Your Eyes" -- an inside-out version of "What I Like About You" with the benefit of not having been played to death. Energetic rockers "Tell It to Carrie," "Keep in Touch" and "First in Line" roar to life behind the spastic drumming of Jimmy Marinos and simple licks from guitarists Mike Skill and Wally Palmar. Ramshackle delivery was part of the charm: Palmar sung lead of most of their songs with a slight lisp.

The following album NATIONAL BREAKOUT (1980) was nearly as accomplished as the debut but didn't reach the prophecy of its title: Despite candidates like the rockabilly opener "Tomboy," it didn't produce a hit. "What I Like About You" in the meantime was ascending: Its initial release charted as high as #49 in the U.S., but then it flew to #2 in Australia, then slowly crept into rock-radio playlists, and finally went over the top accompanying Budweiser commercials. At some level I think the song's appeal is in its cheerful immediacy: There's probably quite a bit not to like about this girl who really knows how to dance, comes over whenever you call, whispers in your ear, etc., but this isn't about that. Not right now it's not.

New guitarist Coz Cansler brings a louder, harder edge to STRICTLY PERSONAL (1981), the Romantics' third album which sounds more Proto Hair Metal than Retro British Invasion. Slightly toned down and slicker, IN HEAT (1983) would be their biggest seller, producing radio/MTV hits like "Talkin in Your Sleep" and "One in a Million" along with more underexposed rockers like "Rock You Up" and a sizzling cover of Richard and the Young Lions' "Open Up Your Door."

Personnel and management issues would eventually consume the Romantics. Mike Skill departed for PERSONAL but returned as a bass player for IN HEAT. But they were never quite the same after Marinos departed following IN HEAT (the Internet suggests he had a solo/frontman career in mind but it never took off). For the Romantics it was as if Keith Moon died: The 1985 album RHYTHM ROMANCE flopped commercially and critically. Years of lawsuits followed, some chasing down revenues lost to widespread and unauthorized licensing of "What I Like About You" (according to Wikipedia the song was used to promote Budwesier, Barbie Dolls, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Papa John's, Esurance, Disney, Sea World, Toyota and T.G.I. Fridays, among others. No wonder we're all sick of it). But it wasn't their only accomplishment, if you wanna love them some more.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Date with the Bee Gees

I learned something new on just about every page of David N. Meyer's new Bee Gees biography, although your mileage may vary. The Bee Gees aren't one of those bands I simply hadn't gotten around to: This was a group I'd spent most of my life purposefully avoiding.

A little context: I was in sixth grade when SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER went nuclear, though my opinion on the whole phenomenon would be expressed best by The Who, who said goodbye to "Sister Disco" and preached "Long Live Rock." This all fed a strong adolescent distaste for dancing, falsetto singing voices, music that girls liked, white satin costumes, "bands" that were really singers backed by studio pros and orchestras, on and on. It was an enduring prejudice of mine, surely injected at some level with racial and homophobic overtones, but one shared by almost all of my friends then, and many, I'd guess, still today. If nothing else, the Bee Gees of the 1970s and 1980s were awfully popular and what was cool about that?

As such they've become one of great challenges of the Desert Island Mix Tape project, and I accompanied Meyer's book by streaming the entire backcatalog of the Brothers Gibb at Rdio.

Let's begin with the book, which is deeply researched, and assertively told, mainly through revisiting contemporary accounts. The Gibbs (Barry, and his twin younger brothers Robin and Maurice) were born on the Isle of Man where their father Hugh worked as a semi-pro musician. They relocated to Manchester, then to Brisbane, Australia -- a common solution for post-war English families on the dole.

The Gibbs, Meyer writes, were delinquent middle-school drop-out pyromaniacs who otherwise were consumed by singing and encouraged -- but not overbearingly so -- by loving if insensible parents. Success as teen recording stars in Australia fed a hunger for more back in England, which came almost immediately through a fortuitous connection with manager Robert Stigwood, who had outsized ambitions of his own.

Some early Bee Gees recordings recall the Beatles, but others sound the Band, or the Kinks. Early masterpiece "To Love Somebody," Meyer writes, was the greatest Otis Redding song never performed by him. The Bee Gees wrote all their own songs (I didn't know that) and Barry emerges as a kind of brilliant craftsman in the medium of pop: He could crank out songs in almost any style, with a particular skill for capturing what was on or close to the edge of what's massively popular, carried through with wonderful three-part harmony singing ("a sound only brothers could make," as Stigwood described it).

At the same time, the Gibbs couldn't read a note of music, and, as Meyer notes, were often publically ridiculous and wrenchingly naive. Tensions emerge between alpha brother Barry and the melodramatic Robin (Maurice, the youngest, may have been the best pure musician of the three but adopted a conciliatory, "middle brother" role and didn't often engage in the ongoing competition for the spotlight between his brothers, Meyers writes). The brothers carried out these battles on the pages of the rock press with such tactless naievete it will make your hair hurt.

A reconciliation, Barry's discovery of a falsetto range, and a new producer (Arif Mardin) encouraging pursuit of a soul groove, led to 1975's groundbreaking MAIN COURSE album featuring "Jive Talkin'" and "Nights on Broadway," and it was off to the disco from there. Their tunes would provide the backbone for Stigwood's FEVER film and Barry would settle into a decade-long groove penning No. 1 singles for anyone (the Bee Gees, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, his doomed youngest brother Andy, etc etc).

The ensuing disco backlash and their subsequent participation in Stigwood's awful "Sgt. Pepper" film (to which Meyer devotes an entire chapter) again turned the Gibbs into a kind of inconsequential, non-rock joke. At the same time they very much lived like rock stars: Robin battled an amphetamine addiction most of life; Maurice drank to excess; and Andy's taste for cocaine killed him at age 30. Barry (a pothead, but mostly high on his own gigantic ego, Meyer suggests) outlives all three of his younger siblings.

Meyer's book is loaded with strong and wildly varying opinions on the Bee Gee's music and its critical reception. Jive Talkin' is "one of the best singles ever cut" while entire albums are dismissed as "shockingly weak" (E.S.P.) or "by any reasonable standard, terrible" (High Civilization). As such the book has encountered plenty of criticism from fans, including some who have pointed out enough factual goofs to cast some doubt on Meyer's larger conclusions. In the end though, even the most ignorant haters (like, uh, adolescent me) ought to be convinced of their importance and place in rock history.

Spinning nearly the entire BeeGee catalog (more than 20 original albums not including solo Gibb records) generally reinforced the common perception that even the worst Bee Gees album can be counted on to include two or three strong pop tunes. Beyond the early standards ("New York Mining Disaster," "Massachusetts," "To Love Somebody") I was surprised at the listenability of lightly-regarded LPs like 1970's off-kilter CUCUMBER CASTLE. The sterile, "light rock" aim of the latter records make them considerably less attractive in my opinion, but they might still surprise you. I stayed alive anyway.