Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Impossible to Verify: The 2015 Top 8

About this time last year, struggling amid a what-to-play-next crisis, I impulsively embarked on a plan to solve that issue by streaming every album on WXPN's "Top 885" all-time countdown, bottom to top. With the exception of a few handfuls of unavailable titles, and granting myself the option to play live albums, I tackled more than 400 of them this year, and I'm somewhere in the mid-300s now.

Given the scope of the project -- and the fact that the list itself was published in 2005 and so by definition pinned me back a full decade at least -- I didn't leave my ears a whole lot of time for new music discovery in 2015, and find myself even less familiar than usual with the contemporary year-end lists you see this time of year.

With a couple of exceptions I was tempted to listen to new stuff mainly in cases where I had at least some familiarity with the artist going in, and so as I review my favorites they're about as Dad Rock as ever. As I can't recommend 10, please enjoy selections from my top eight 2015 releases.

Robert Foster SONGS TO PLAY
The elderly singer of the 80s band the Go-Betweens comes off as an elegant Aussie Lou Reed jangle-rocker. Can't find an embeddable version of "Learn to Burn" but that's worth a listen too.

There's no denying Frank Turner knows how to write a rousing song, and this collection of 'em is an improvement on his last one but its getting to the point that I don't get what he's so stirred up about anymore. The weather? It's about half the record.

I detect Frank's "core" punk fanbase is dismayed at his increasingly listenable output -- writing lyrics to a song called "Get Better" all over his old album covers I think sends a message too -- but I'm looking forward to the day he's ready to truly abandon his roots, fuse that fist-pumping energy with some soul; swap out the barrelhouse pianny for a hammond organ, mandolins for horns, etc. etc. Still, this one fires you up!

The Front Bottoms: BACK ON TOP
Low-fi, funny-sad garage band with an incredibly expressive singer who manages to strain against the hopelessness at the heart of one catchy tune after another.

Franz Ferdinand Sparks: FFS
Churning out underappreciated, theatrical weirdness for 40 years, Sparks gets a jolt of new energy from younger collaborator Franz Ferdinand, themselves a bit of a quirky outfit I also like. A "pick any song" kinda record.

Joe's first "new" record in seven years is actually a double-album recorded with four different bands in four different cities. So it's literally all over the place, but as well executed, well arranged, and well played as ever, and several are lyrically interesting particularly on the ruminative title track. I particularly the New York and New Orleans sides, the latter producing the Beethoven-inspired selection below. I'm ready to start a campaign to get Joe into the rock Hall of Fame.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds: CHASING YESTERDAY
I admire the way the classic-rock ripoffs on this album are so plainly in sight. The very first song begins "There's something in the way she moves," while the one below borrows the melody and a lyric from David Essex's "Rock On." Other song titles include "In the Heat of the Moment" and "When the Song Remains the Same." About half of this album is great, and the other half isn't, but  that was enough for me this year.

This is the only guy on this list who was completely new to me this year, and I don't remember how I first encountered him, but this is fun stuff, 50s roots rock and a great singer with a dirty -- but not filthy -- edge.

Reflective, wordy, literate and sometimes funny, Josh Ritter captures both the golden light and chilling shadows of Autumn. There's some fire-and-brimstone -- opener "Birds of the Meadow" is creepy and "Henrietta, Indiana" is bleak -- but the same themes of religion and small-town folk are tackled joyously on "Getting Ready to Get Down," and "Cumberland" later on in the record, and all of it is interesting, listenable and evocative.

Here's a little more:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

You Really Got Me Now

If the Beatles' crucible were the rough-and-tumble clubs of Hamburg, Germany, Van Halen's were poolside backyards in sunny Pasadena. Greg Renoff's new book VAN HALEN RISING puts the reader in the crowds of teens paying $1 admission for illicit outdoor keg parties where an ascending Van Halen provided the entertainment, and forged its spirit.

An immersive, well-researched tale of pre-fame trajectory, VAN HALEN RISING also makes a convincing case for how revolutionary they were upon arrival — a conceit that's easy to overlook beyond the considerable chops of Eddie.

The Van Halen family arrived in California as Dutch immigrants in 1962 with little more than a piano to their name. Father Jan worked as a jazz clarinetist in Europe and followed relatives and a vague promise of opportunity to California, settling in working-class digs in suburban Pasadena.

His two sons, who didn't even speak English when they arrived, dutifully took piano and violin lessons until their restlessness for experimentation became too great and they morphed into aspiring rockers. Drummer Alex and guitarist Edward fronted a variety of cover bands playing under names like the Broken Combs, Trojan Rubber Company, Genesis, and Mammoth. The latter two names would be retired upon learning that other bands went by the same handles: The eponymous surname they eventually settled upon, Renoff reveals, came not from them but from an influential new frontman.

The Van Halens and David Lee Roth first came across one another as musical rivals, and they could not have been any more different. The son of a wealthy ophthamologist, Roth pursued stardom as obsessively as Eddie pursued guitar. Drawn to what he recognized were the area's best musicians, Roth auditioned to sing for them only to be rejected — twice. Undeterred, Roth eventually wormed his way into Mammoth against the better judgement of its existing members, in part by relieving Eddie of unwanted lead vocal duties, but mainly by possessing a PA system they needed to gig. Using the PA as leverage, Roth would at times loan the equipment in exchange for a chance to sing and others just as an excuse to hang around. When they could no longer stand to be in Roth's debt, they surrendered and made him the singer. Renoff calls this "the greatest rock and roll power play of all time."

Then a cover band noted for their ability to deliver note-for-note renditions of heavy rock classics, Mammoth were an odd fit for Roth, whose influences included cheeseball crooners like Louis Prima and whose tastes leaned toward Motown, glam and funk. Beyond that, he wasn't anyone's idea of a good singer. But his influence was a crucial ingredient in the Van Halen formula, Renoff notes. He got the band to lighten up on plodding, blues-rock jams and aim instead toward tight, melodic rock you could dance to. He convinced them to cover songs like Billy Preston's "Will it Go Round in Circles." He also injected the band with a sense of style, encouraging his bandmates to adopt flashy stage clothes instead of the jeans and flannel shirts they typically wore.

This new approach also required the band improve their singing, leading to the addition of bassist Michael Anthony. Anthony, whose soaring background vocals would become another distinct element of the Van Halen sound, proved to be "the final piece of the puzzle," Renoff writes.

As Van Halen graduated from backyard jams to club dates it had several brushes with success — most notably a doomed come-on from KISS' Gene Simmons who not surprisingly had per$onal goals in mind. But in a time when metal was dying, disco was soaring, punk was coming, and California was still exporting soft-rockers, the notion of breaking a heavy rock act was considered a longshot by the industry, and several labels passed.

In the end, talent won out. Ted Templeman, a house producer for Warner Brothers whose clients included both heavy-guitar acts (Montrose) and three-part harmony singers (the Doobie Brothers) caught them at an LA showcase. "I saw Ed and I was fucking knocked out," Templeman tells Renoff. "He was the best musician I'd ever seen in person."

Still, Van Halen was a hard sell: Templeman was careful to present them first to Warners' open-minded president Mo Ostin as opposed to its chief A&R man, Lenny Waronker, at the time a leading advocate of the soft-rock "L.A. sound." And as the label prepared for the release of their first album, members were horrified when an early version of the cover packaged them as though they were a punk band.

Renoff's case for Van Halen as rock revolutionaries was made not only by its fresh sound profile -- hard-hitting riffs with melody and vocal harmonies, accompanying Eddie's stunning virtuosity -- but also by the tours in support of their debut album. Aging metal masters Black Sabbath purposefully selected Van Halen to open a 1978 tour for them with the idea that casting an unknown would keep the fans' focus on them, but the scheme backfired spectacularly as Van Halen shocked one audience after another, while brashly going toe-to-toe with any musicians who'd outparty them. The tour so demoralized Black Sabbath that singer Ozzy Osbourne would soon set off on his own, and as the record took off -- peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard charts, but destined to stay in the top 200 for 169 straight weeks -- hard rock was the never the same.

Renoff ascribes the subsequent success of platters like AC/DC's BACK IN BLACK, the Scorpions' LOVE AT FIRST BITE and Judas Priests' SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE to the cultural breakthrough of Van Halen. While Van Halen were never a "metal" band per se -- Roth preferred the term "Big Rock" -- they influenced the genre with bands like Priest, KISS and others shamelessly borrowing their best tricks, while a generation of young guitarists had a new hero.

Monday, June 22, 2015

It All Depends Upon Your Appetite

Fred Schruers' new Billy Joel book had origins as ghostwritten memoirs, but was recrafted into a bio when the subject pulled out with cold feet. The result is something of a mess that resembles Joel's own career: There's some good stuff early on, then a whole lot of nothing, plenty of bombast and lots of applause.

Much of the early stuff, unfortunately, is marred by comments from a distance of 40 years: Important moments in Joel's career don't happen, they're reflected upon. Although Schruers endeavors to plumb a range of sources in addition to his own conversations with Joel, as in an autobiography it's Joel's own quotes and time-mellowed perspective that carry the narrative. That voice can be witty and perceptive but isn't necessarily objective or in the moment, leaving a book that will confirm fans' best impressions and leave nonbelievers to wonder what more there could be.

To those of us who came of age on Long Island as THE STRANGER exploded, Billy Joel is something of a birthright. But there are things I didn't know. His family fled a successful business in Nuremberg with the rise of Nazism. Joel's father Howard, himself a gifted musician, was left conflicted and bitter following World War II and would return to Europe alone when his family was still young, leaving Billy to bring himself up, countering a geeky piano habit with boxing lessons. Supposedly telling his Mom he preferred to matriculate at Columbia Records over Columbia University, Joel dropped out of high school so as to pursue life with a procession of local bar bands including The Echoes, The Hassles and a ridiculous heavy-metal duo, Attila.

In one of many unusual and troubled relationships Joel would forge, he hooked up with and later married the then-wife of Jon Small, his housemate and drummer in the Hassles and Attila. In addition to becoming the muse of "Just the Way You Are" among many other songs Elizabeth Weber would take over managing Billy's career after a solo debut album, COLD SPRING HARBOR flopped.

With the support of influential Philly radio station WMMR (which also championed Springsteen) Billy (like Bruce), was signed to Columbia Records. He relocated to the singer-songwriter capital of California, worked in a piano bar, and honed a backlog of songs into the PIANO MAN album.

Joel's songs were frequently inspired by interpretations of actual events in his personal life, and Schruers' book spends an awful lot of time quoting lyrics as though to show it. Wife Elizabeth, who had big ambitions as Joel's manager, is the "waitress practicing politics" who succeeds Jon Troy, aka "John at the bar/ quick with a joke/light up your smoke" (Troy is also "Johnny" in the terrific "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"). This practice would continue throughout Joel's recording career, and tiring of revealing himself in such a way is about the only explanation offered -- or pursued --  for Joel's retirement from the pop game, now going strong at 20+ years.

Joel's career proceeded through a hasty, snotty PIANO MAN follow-up (STREETLIGHT SERENADE); rebounded behind the return to New York contemplated in TURNSTILES before hooking up with producer Phil Ramone for the careermaking STRANGER album of 1978. Stylistic and thematic experiments would continue as Joel moved from the jazz influence of 52nd STREET to the rock and new-wave GLASS HOUSES to the doo-wop, 50s pop and soul he explored in the Brinkley Era.

Joel straightforwardly confesses his stylistic promiscuity and doesn't apologize for crowd-pleasing but acknowledges being called "derivative" -- as a criticism, at least -- wounds him. Critic Robert Christgau might have described Joel more accurately as "knowing nothing but going for the pop jugular." I'm generally down with those who've forgiven him for being too popular, too Long Island and too uncool in the 80s and 90s but I still haven't gotten around to assessing STORM FRONT or RIVER OF DREAMS with any seriousness. Schruers offers a little insight into how Joel did all this -- unlike many contemporaries, he wrote melodies first, then the lyrics, and was careful in almost all his songs to include elements in a minor key with sad or doubtful lyrics to match, providing his songs with a depth of feeling that many others working the three-minute symphony circuit could not, even if it cost him cred as the rocker he sometimes thought he was.

Unfortunately, Schruers devotes nearly half his book to examining Joel's largely uninteresting post-pop career. There's a complex legal tangle between the record label, Joel, his business manager and their lawyers (Lesson: After splitting with wife, don't trust financial affairs to her slimy brother). Then there's the divorces, affairs and re-marriages, the car accidents, the rehab stints, the homes on the East End and North Shore, various falling-outs with Elton John, his boats, his custom motorcycles. (Note to all rock stars and biographers: I don't care about your friggin' boats). The last 100 pages are practically unbearable with Schruers going so far as to quote school-newspaper reviews and blog posts in an attempt to flesh out a portrait of Joel as a crusty mensch with a gift for pop songs, forgiveness for his enemies, and weaknesses for his daughter, attractive women, and alcohol. We get that. The whole "Last Play at Shea" thing figures prominently as well: As previously noted, I found Billy's claiming the Shea musical legacy for himself to be personally distasteful, but that appears to have been a strategy by a remorseless road manager.

For all the hard work that went into Schruers' book, there was little insight into Joel that wasn't more efficiently and entertainingly executed in the New York Times Magazine article I linked to here a few years back. Let's hope the next swing breaks some windows.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dee Plus

Dee Snider probably doesn't need 400 pages to convince anyone that behind the lingerie and stage makeup he's just another kid from Long Island with oversized ambition and bravado but you also shouldn't be surprised that he uses them all.

His new-ish biography SHUT UP AND GIVE ME THE MIC tells the story of Dee from his high-school choir to Twisted Sister's rise and fall to whatever it is he's doing today with plenty of good humor, a lot of shout-outs to those who helped him along, and a little bit of the obligatory score-settling.

Twisted Sister, we native Long Islanders know better than most, wasn't just a short-lived 80s phenomenon but the product of years of reaching for the stars that culminated in a brief moment in the MTV spotlight. Some of the best stuff in the book concerns Twisted Sister's ambition to go beyond the local club scene when they didn't really have to: In the 70s and early 80s, Dee writes, being a popular band on the New York club circuit -- Rumrunners, Detroit, Hammerheads, Speaks, My Father's Place -- was a living in itself. Twisted contemporaries like The Good Rats (a heavy rock-jazz combo whose late vocalist Peppi Marchello sounds like a Dee Snider forefather) chose to remain local heroes instead of chasing the big time mainly because it was easier on their schedules and families while still affording them the sports cars and the good life, Dee contends.

Break through at your own peril. Twisted Sister futzed around with various glitter-rock looks and sounds before hitching onto the so-called "New Wave of British Metal" and modest success as the genre's American import and pet of Motorhead's Lemy Kilmister. Back in the USA, they secured a deal with Atlantic but resisted when the label assigned them producer Tom Werman despite the massive success he'd have with STAY HUNGRY.

Snider contends Werman robbed the band of its heavier character but at the same time he makes no apologies for imagining Twister Sister as a vehicle that would bring "metal to the masses." His songs in the meantime pandered blatantly to children and teens, and the associated videos, casting ANIMAL HOUSE actor Mark Metcalf completely out of context, bore still more markings of a disposable gimmick band.

Naturally, Snider was too busy counting the money to take notice, much less heed the advice of his own STAY HUNGRY mantra, and plowed into the much more expensive, much less successful COME OUT AND PLAY in 1985. By this point the band was fracturing -- you don't get the sense that Snider and Twisted founder Jay Jay French were ever particularly close, while bassist Mark "The Animal" Mendoza and guitarist Eddie "Fingers" Ojeda resisted the whole popularity grab -- although what was to be a Snider solo album was recast as the even less successful LOVE IS FOR SUCKERS in 1987. That really killed the band.

Dee's obviously a bright guy but hardly a giant. He reminds us often that he possesses the gift of being able to create on the spot, yet also confesses that every song the casual fan will ever know of Twisted Sister (The Price, We're Not Gonna Take It and I Wanna Rock) were written in a single day. His witty and courageous standing up to Congress amid the PMRC hysteria was admirable but won him little regard. His fame stuck around but his fortune was gone within a few years, necessitating a Chapter 11 filing. He moved out of Howard Stern's neighborhood, and eventually, back into the working-class Long Island from which he came.

Here's their Atlantic debut:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Little Rockin' Record I Want My Jockey to Play

While lots of my childhood friends intended to be musicians, some even succeeded, my secret desire was to DJ. Pat St. John, who worked afternoons on my beloved WPLJ, was about as cool as they came: Great voice, with what I realized later was a Michigan accent, and even within the tight confines of PLJ's "AOR" format, he always made you feel as though you were hearing just what he wanted to play.

The WPLJ I knew and loved has been dead for more than 30 years but I was pleasantly surprised to come across Pat doing weekend shifts on CBS-FM, the erstwhile "oldies" station.

That gig too ended just recently, as word came that St. John was headed to California to be a full-time grandfather -- and continue a part-time satellite radio show from a home studio. So while most of New York is (rightly) mourning the end of Vin Scelsa's career, here's a little shout-out to Pat St. John.

St. John's departure by the way accompanied an estate sale I didn't attend, perhaps luckily, because I probably would have bid my retirement account for the Joe Jackson gold record pictured here. Pat's final show on CBS, which I also missed, was said to have concluded with the extended version of his clever WPLJ "montages" which used bits of songs to tell a musical story and promote the station and its jocks. I loved to hear these come around as much as any single song, and in their own way taught me how much fun music can be. If these don't make you smile I don't know what will (the below two hosted by Pat's colleague Carol Miller, whom I wrote about here).

Thanks a lot, Pat. You were great.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Unfolding Enveloping Missiles of Soul

Pretty cool! A listening project I joined with some of my friends at Rdio was gathered together, edited and turned into a very readable and entertaining post spanning the career of the Beach Boys, published this morning on Modern Superior, "Toronto's premier podcast network and blog for content featuring comedy, pop-culture, film, craft beer, general nostalgia, music and more."

I meant at some point to get around to writing about the experience here but the idea came from my Rdio pal Dave Roberts and involved tackling one Beach Boys album a day for a month, or until they were done, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band. I got into it while concurrently reading Timothy White's excellent bio, THE NEAREST FARAWAY PLACE, which tells a comprehensive tale the sad and troubled family at the heart of so much great original American music.

As I relate in the remarks, I arrived in the Beach Boys story as the ENDLESS SUMMER compilation of 1960s hits arrived in my sister's record collection when I was a 4th grader. I was an instant fan but it was a mixed blessing for the band which at the time saw attention including mine diverted from their own efforts to stretch out musically. This so-called "progressive" period under Jack Rieley's management (roughly, the SUNFLOWER to HOLLAND albums) was something of a revelatory listen for me, and only reinforces the sadness of witnessing the group's spiral into the cruise-ship band they'd become by the 1980s.

Author Dan Gorman of the Modern Superior piece put together the below playlist of obscure but very listenable Beach Boys tracks:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

You Can Only Hope to Hear Me

Joe Jackson's A CURE FOR GRAVITY ends where the musician's career begins: Having established an aggressive-but-accessible new wave sound and a snotty persona to accompany it. The year was 1979.

Though I might not have been able to express it this way at the time, it was clear that the attitude even then was thick with bluster and irony. Joe Jackson didn't really look sharp: He was a skinny, balding geek desperate to convince himself of his sharpness. You gotta look sharp, he said, as though looking in a mirror. The same sentiment is more directly confessed --  "I wash my hair and kid myself I look real smooth" -- in the snarky "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" from the same album.

As a pissed-off, pimply 13-year-old it resonated deeply. Here was a loser I could get behind. Tight, tuneful, energetic. Sharp.

A CURE FOR GRAVITY -- the book is 15 years old, but I read it only recently -- documents how Joe got there, from piano lessons as a sickly child in the rugged port city of Portsmouth to his pursuit of a degree (in percussion) at the Royal Academy of Music in London where his classmates included a young Annie Lennox. In between, Joe (then an aspiring composer going by his given name of David) performed in a variety of styles, from piano bars to lounge acts, school jazz bands, a fringe theater group, and a struggling rock band, Edward Bear, which given the right breaks just might have consigned the artist to a career like Greg Hawkes of the Cars: the quirky, odd-looking keyboard player and nobody's idea of a front man.

This eclectic education helps to explain the frequent shifts in styles Joe would pursue following establishment of the "Look Sharp" sound of his beloved first two-and-a-half records (film scores, baroque pop, Latin, swing, jazz etc). At the time of this book he was pushing SYMPHONY No. 1, which I still haven't gotten around to yet but in my opinion most of what Joe has tried he's succeeded at: And not entirely because he's a pissed off guy determined to prove it but because he deeply believes in the power of music. The book is very candid and at times quite funny: Joe doesn't pull a lot of punches and writes eloquently, whether he's debating performance vs. art, recalling the random violence of the 70s club scene in depressed England, or discussing doomed relationships including a nightmarish first marriage.

I checked a box on the bucket list when Joe Jackson came to New York a few years back to support his recent collection of Duke Ellington interpretations. Longtime bassman Graham Maby was not there (dervishy percussionist Sue Hadjoupos from the NIGHT AND DAY group was) but the band otherwise was outstanding, highlighting Joe's skill as an arranger. The below video (from Paris about a month later) was about the same show we got. Dig the tuba-banjo-accordion reworking of "Is She Really Going Out With Him" at 1:34ish but really the whole show is great if you got the (1-2-3-4!) time.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Shout It Out Loud

For a guy who allegedly hates KISS, I finished my third book on the subject.

I'd learned in the last one I tackled that it was Paul Stanley, and not as I had long assumed, Gene Simmons, who was the real force behind KISS, yet as entertaining as that book was, there was much of the Starchild yet to be revealed. While I'm sure that was to some degree intentional (Paul is the last of the original Kissmen to pen a bio), Paul Stanley would have you believe that taking off the makeup, so to speak, was also quite difficult.

One other thing I guessed wrong: Paul wasn't gay, he was deformed! Turns out he was born with a condition called microtia which left only his left ear fully formed, and his deafness and deformity became the subject of childhood bullying leaving him deeply withdrawn, insecure and distrustful. On top of that, Paul writes, he lacked understanding parents and grew up with a troubled sibling, retreating almost completely behind the Starchild alter ego of his performances.

Teenage Paul sought treatment from a therapist on his own, and in a page out of the Brian Wilson-Eugene Landy playbook years later would hire the guy to manage the band to predictable results. One thing about KISS is, they never learn. Paul discusses one move after another -- personnel changes, management agreements, personal relationships, concept albums and so on -- that explode in his face like a stream of fire from Gene's mouth. And while Paul never really stops seeing himself as a deformed, picked-on, lonely kid -- in fact explaining just about all of his issues on it --  he comes to a good place realizing somewhat late in life (as I have) that his children are why he's here.

Today he describes a life of gourmet home-cooked Italian meals, oil painting, a loving family, and reflection gained from an irony-rich turn playing the lead in a production of Phantom of the Opera. And he's totally OK with the notion that anyone could put on the makeup and continue serving his role as the singer of KISS. In fact he wishes it so, explaining his seeming insensitivity to the fact that the band continues to tour (and rake in the cash) behind impostors in the costumes of Peter and Ace.

This perspective no doubt colors Paul's understanding of the band itself. While he pities Ace's self-destructiveness, and takes Gene to task for his phoniness and self-serving devotion to the KISS cause, he can't manage to even mention Peter without also ripping him a new one. Not only did the KISS drummer's sour demeanor undermine the mission of the band, but, Paul suggests, he's also an idiot and a lousy musician.
"Peter could barely read or spell, and he wasn't a thinker. Peter didn't understand the basics of song structure. Verse, chorus, bridge - it all meant nothing to him." 
"Peter was not what you'd call an intellectual. He seemed to get off on causing problems with the band."
"Peter seemed to resent everything he was given ... as far as I saw it, Peter never succeeded before he hooked up with us because he had no idea what it took to become successful or sustain success. He was along for the ride and couldn't help trying to hamper things and create strife."
 "'Detroit Rock City' in particular had a very challenging drumbeat, and it took a lot of effort and patience for [producer] Bob [Ezrin] to get Peter to play something he couldn't have learned to play on his own if his life depended on it." 
"Peter's chances of being able to sing a song off the cuff were about as good as my chances of throwing a penny and hitting the moon."
Me-ow. And those are but samples. I might have liked a more honest assessment of the music Paul was responsible for -- I've given it all a shot, and can't honestly say it's improved since 1974 -- but as the chronicle of the band's only fully devoted member FACE THE MUSIC is the best solo effort we're going to get from these guys. Rock on, Starchild.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Something Inexpressable

Sometime in Junior High Bob moved to town from Los Angeles and brought a lot of exciting things with him. He dressed differently -- corduroy OP shorts, and surf hoodies from Pier Connection. The music he liked was fresh and at times impossibly exotic for a suburban Long Islander like me -- names I heard for the first time, like Black Flag and Oingo Boingo, and those I was only scantly familiar with, like Devo and the Police.

Bob's house adjoined woods at the harbor and we spent a summer exploring back there. You could walk the beach all the way to the Vanderbilt property where we we'd hang out in an abandoned seaplane hangar. The mischief we got into then didn't involve drinking or drugs, but rather the thrill of being where we didn't belong, and breaking whatever we could find once we got there -- bottles, buildings, anything. One time we were on our way to the woods when Bob's dad suspected we were up to no good -- maybe the jar of gasoline we were carrying had something to do with it -- and after a lengthy interrogation Bob finally gave in: "We're gonna burn this G.I. Joe, awright Dad?!?" It didn't occur to me until just now what a great metaphor for growing up that was.

Bob's enthusiasm for smashing things aligned with his particular admiration for the Police and its energetic drummer, Stewart Copeland, and before long Bob was performing with a group -- my biology partner Andy on bass, the hilarious and tragic Chris, whose family could afford all the equipment, on guitar, and Andy's talented young cousin John singing and playing keyboards-- that may as well have been a Police tribute band and would go on to dominate battle-of-the-bands contests in a five-mile radius. Its not exaggerating to call the Police a kind of Beatles of our particular moment: They had a distinct sound and style, very modern, and they inspired fans to play. And while "album-oriented" WPLJ made it difficult to distinguish one New Wave band from the next it was clear to us that as early as REGATTA DE BLANC the Police were on their way to superstardom and we'd be the ones leading the charge.

That's all background for the state of mind reawakened reading Andy Summer's memoir, ONE TRAIN LATER. The Police guitarist tells an origin that was far more interesting than I'd known and insightfully articulates what went into the Police's unique sound.

About half the book -- the half I didn't know -- focuses on Summers' education as a guitarist, dating back to jazz lessons and a teenage apprenticeship under 1960s British R&B legend Zoot Money; informal jams with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton; and stints with psychedelic acts like Dantalion's Chariot, the Animals and Soft Machine. Those travels landed Summers in Los Angeles in the 1970s where he he had a short marriage to Robin Lane (later to front new wavers the Chartbusters) but bottomed out professionally, working as a part time music teacher.

Returning to England with a second wife in 1977, a chance encounter on a train with Copeland -- the event referred to in the book's title -- was critical in the coming together of the musical acquaintances. As Summers tells it, punk was the rage and Copeland was determined that the Police -- then with a hack guitarist named Henry Padovani, the Pete Best of this story -- be a part of that scene. Summers in the meantime sensed a musical kinship with singer Sting and describes how Sting's songwriting combined with inspiration from reggae and the reeling in of his own playing -- the Police, like the punks, didn't do solos -- came upon a fresh and exciting formula. Summers describes it as "the sound of tight compromise."

The Police won fans a few at a time on lengthy tours of the U.S. and the world. I imagined an early visit to LA won Bob, or at least his influencers there. Summers writes well of the experience."Each night despite the hours and the miles traveled, we work and push to galvanize the audience into heated response, beat them into submission, bend them to our will, seduce, collude, conspire, transform. We don't leave the stage until we've won."

My favorite Police album is probably REGATTA, though its followup ZENYATTA would be the first one I owned myself -- unwapped the plastic still in the mall to inspect the inner sleeve for lyrics, but found only photos and triangles. They were still ascending by the time GHOST IN THE MACHINE came around, headlining a concert at Madison Square Garden we all saw with the Go-Gos opening, but as it turned out both me and Andy were having issues. The Police sound was evolving toward Sting's taste for the jazzy world-beat thing he'd go for in his solo career. "Personally," Summers writes, "I like about half the album and hate all the un-Police saxophone shit." Right on, man.

1983's SYNCHRONICITY would of course be the coronation -- huge enough to keep Michael Jackson from his customary perch atop the pop charts and the first of what I'd consider the Holy Trinity of starmaking rock efforts that year -- Van Halen's 1984 and Springsteen's BORN IN THE USA would soon follow. Although Summers makes it clear the Police were inevitably headed toward oblivion by then -- not because of infighting but because Sting's muse had departed and there was little the band hadn't conquered -- he insists the Police had not yet reached their potential, and calls for a proper reunion tour (which would occur following the 2006 publishing of the book).

I haven't seen Bob for more than a decade but he was drumming for many years, and mutual friends tell me he's been blessed with a daughter who shares his legendary temper. Pianoman John is still performing and Andy still plays bass in cover bands for fun. Chris passed away tragically several years ago. I'm still listening.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tell Me What You See

It doesn't declare a winner, nor does it even argue for one; rather John McMillian's BEATLES VS. STONES filters the story of the Beatles through the perspective of the Rolling Stones and vice-versa, examining the obvious and subtle ways they informed, influenced, imitated and irritated one another.

As a guy well-versed in Beatle history, I appreciated McMillian's telling of familiar material from a unique angle; and as a guy largely ignorant of the Stones' story, I learned a few things.

Central to the story is an examination of the paradigm of the respective group's origins and early marketing: The Beatles were minor criminals from hardscrabble Liverpool presented by manager Brian Epstein as the huggable moptops-next-door while the Stones, hailing generally from better homes, economic conditions and opportunity around London, cast as menacing rulebreakers by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham.

These images were enduring, and played into a supposed rivalry fanned by the press. While the bands themselves largely got along, a bit of a frenemenship emerges. McMillian describes how John and Paul casually school the young Stones with an impromptu studio writing session, which no doubt sped the Stones' transition from blues interpreters to rock songwriters, which eventually, would spur the Beatles to new heights. Occasionally this would lead to the sincerest forms of flattery, as when the Stones followed SGT. PEPPER with SATANIC MAJESTY'S REQUEST, rankling the caustic Lennon in particular.

As their respective success and influence grew (not to mention their use of drugs), McMillian documents how they were perceived by the counterculture they played to ('Revolution' vs. 'Street Fighting Man'); and finally how their business interests collided, first when Paul and Mick pondered joining the band's interests; and finally when Mick enticed John to seek Allen Klein's representation despite knowing Klein to be a thief. This issue would eventually tear the Beatles themselves apart, just as the Stones enjoyed their greatest artistic triumphs.