[Interlude 02]: Electric Light Orchestra

I wrote this rather epic-length piece as part-discography, part-history, part-critique, and part-review of ELO in 2018. It’s a lengthy mind-purge, a musical data-dump of my thoughts about this band. As I continue to take a break from the primary mission of this web site’s writing series, I am posting it here just to get it out into the world.

But first: our last visit from Dazzler! It’s that sound engineer’s job to fix those “P” plosives, not Dazz’s. Get a pop filter on that mic, duder! [From Dazzler #22, ©Marvel]

It was roughly forty years ago that I acquired the first two rock albums that I can remember owning: A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra (henceforth referred to as ELO), and Rock n’ Roll Over by Kiss (henceforth not referred to at all). It would not be fair to say that these records were the sole vector leading to my eventual decision to pursue music recording, live sound, and occasional musical performance as a career, but they were both certainly a small but integral part of a vastly bigger canon of influence.

It’s a rather unlikely eventuality that these records have remained at all meaningful to me today. Shortly after bonding with them, or imprinting if you will – the way a baby bird imprints on its mother – my tastes veered away from the classic rock pantheon towards the more edgy punk, post-punk, and new wave genres before drifting away from rock music completely. If we consider some other bands that ELO fans might like, let’s say (I’m completely guessing here) Boston, Supertramp, the Moody Blues, Styx, or Steely Dan, I have never been a fan of any of them to any real degree. Only the Moody Blues have ever graced my record collection, and in their case it was a passing fancy. But somehow, even as my young tastes moved into Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Devo, and The Clash, and then into classic jazz and jump blues, world music, electronic experimentalism, and various roots genres – basically anything but modern rock and pop – ELO has remained a stalwart if incongruous wildcard in my lifelong playlist.

During the past few years, the music of ELO has drifted back into a phase of prominence in my (blue) world. Part of the reason for this must have to do with the notion that Jeff Lynne, the co-founder, lead vocalist, sole songwriter, guitarist, and producer of all of the ELO records (except for the first one, on which he shared the above duties with Roy Wood) has recently made a rather high-profile and successful decision to resurrect the band after decades of inactivity.

ELO was formed in 1971 by Lynne, Wood, and Bev Bevan, all of whom were then members of a successful pop band called The Move. ELO was to be a side project of The Move, inspired into action by the increasing presence of orchestral instruments in rock and pop recordings. Motivated by certain orchestrally ornamented Beatles records, Lynne, Wood, and Bevan wanted to incorporate a full-time string section into a rock band. This idea hadn’t really been tried before. Surprisingly, no one of note seems to have repeated the idea since ELO’s initial efforts drew to a close in 1986. The band’s first album was Electric Light Orchestra (1971; called No Answer in the U.S.). It consisted of long meandering prog-rock pieces, which were in vogue at the time. Anchored by cellos scraping away relentlessly (seeming to have been lifted straight from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus), ELO’s debut single 10538 Overture served as a strong statement of purpose amid an otherwise unremarkable album.

The follow-up album, ELO2 (1972), contained more of the same: five lengthy songs rambling along without much direction, punctuated by the novelty of strings combined with synthesizers: old meets new. ELO2 was given a breath of life via a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, which became the band’s traditional concert encore right through 2018. Wood left the band near the beginning of the album’s recording sessions, while bassist Richard Tandy was wisely promoted to keyboard player. His contributions to the band over the next fourteen years would be second only to Lynne’s. ELO’s On The Third Day (1973) had even less going for it than the mostly-forgettable ELO2, milking the prog angle until its last dying breath. Only Ma-Ma-Ma Belle – an energetic single featuring guest guitarist Marc Bolan of the band T-Rex – showed signs that the band were actually awake during the record’s production.

With the prog angle played out and the band seemingly bored with itself already, ELO should, by all rights, have been relegated to rock history’s footnotes: “Short-lived side-project of The Move” is about all they would have mustered at this point. But then Jeff Lynne, who had become the unquestioned driving force behind every ELO song, came up with a great inter-album single (Showdown) and then ditched the prog elements of ELO to focus on that other great trope of 1970s rock music: the concept album. Seemingly overnight, he elevated his production chops considerably, and decided to unashamedly embrace his love for the less weird and more pop end of the Beatles canon. He began to write lushy produced and insanely well-crafted pop songs. The result was Eldorado (1974), an album of loosely connected songs about a man quixotically daydreaming of bygone heroes such as “Robin Hood and William Tell and Ivanhoe and Lancelot” (as on the album’s biggest hit, Can’t Get It Out Of My Head). Along with rousing numbers like Poor Boy (the Greenwood), Boy Blue, and Eldorado’s title track – on which Lynne first unleashes his inner Roy Orbison, belting out dramatic lines with a powerful chest voice that had remained subdued in all previous ELO releases – this was a man who had finally found his footing.

A man. Not a band. There could be no doubt after Eldorado that ELO was all about Jeff Lynne. The others were along for the ride. Although Bevan and Tandy were still aboard, the string section had been swapping members in and out of the ensemble this whole time. After Eldorado, ELO finally landed a fairly stable trio of two cellists and a violinist (Hugh McDowell, Melvyn Gale, and Mik Kaminsky), and a permanent bassist (Kelly Groucutt), finally stabilizing the classic lineup of ELO by 1975. They soon recorded the first truly great ELO album, Face the Music, featuring the hit singles Evil Woman and Strange Magic. With all pretenses towards art-rock out of his system after Eldorado, Lynne devoted himself with laser-like focus to writing pure pop songs. By 1980, ELO had charted fifteen Top 20 hits in the U.S. (plus another five in the bottom half of the Top 40) and twenty Top 20 hits in the U.K., thus racking up more Top 40 hits than any other band in history. Another piece of trivia: they also hold the record in the U.S. for being that band who have had the most Top 40 hits without ever having had a #1.

Looking back on ELO’s output, this was never a band who were concerned with virtuoso musicianship, even during their prog phase. Lynne, Bevan, Tandy, and their crew always got the job done, presenting a level of playing that was solid and professional, but never impressive. Musically, the strength of ELO records was always in the arrangements, which included complex vocal harmonies mixed with a rock rhythm section, synthesizers, studio effects, and increasingly large string and choir sections, if not entire light orchestras. With Tandy and orchestral arranger Louis Clark helping him out, Lynne’s simple pop songs and uncomplicated musicianship were ornamented with deeply impressive layers of sound, interlocking melodic counterpoint, and sonic ear candy pulled from his endless supply of inventive ideas. Witness the soaring cosmic atmospheres that open A New World Record, the haunting ambient intro to Fire on High (the first track on Face the Music), and the gentle mockery aimed at legislators trying to ban “backward masking” on rock records such as Secret Messages (the backwards bit rather innocuously says, “welcome to the show”).

A lot of this inspiration came, once again, directly from The Beatles, who Lynne has been unflinching about praising as mentors. Returning the favor, John Lennon was once quoted as saying that if the Beatles had stayed together past 1970, they would have sounded like ELO. High praise for Lynne indeed, and in retrospect it seems perfectly natural for ELO to have taken over the Beatles’ mantle, releasing the first ELO record just a year after the Beatles dissolved. Considering the sheer number of hits produced, the penchant for studio experimentation, and the quality of the songwriting, ELO were truly the keepers of the Beatles’ flame.

Lynne would of course get to repay his heroes in the future: during his heyday as an independent producer in the 1990s and 2000s, he would oversee records for Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison – all three surviving Beatles – as well as playing with Harrison in the supergroup Traveling Wilburys. As an encore, Lynne would produce a 1995 Beatles reunion on which McCartney, Harrison, and Starr played along with two archival tapes of the late Lennon singing, to create the first new Beatles songs in 25 years. We’re unlikely to witness a repeat of this feat, especially with Harrison now gone.

Unlike the frequently poetic Beatles however, Lynne’s lack of interest in showy musicianship seemed to be a character trait that carried over to his lyrics. The man never seemed to have much of a point of view. He certainly had no Revolution in him – at least not without Wood around. In the Wood era, songs like 10538 Overture tell the story of an escaped prisoner, Kuima (from ELO2) laments a lost soldier, and In Old England Town unflinchingly catalogs various scourges upon modern life. Roy Wood’s influence resulted in the recording of obvious prog tropes like The Battle of Marston Moor (on Electric Light Orchestra), but ELO completely ceased to be the slightest bit political after Wood’s departure very early in the band’s history.

Case in point: Roy Wood’s influence on the first two ELO albums resulted in lyrics like

My, my Kuiama, don’t break your heart tryin’

To say how your Ma and your Pa passed away

And they left you to wander in the ruin and decay

Real mean, that bullet machine

Kuia I just shot them, I just blew their heads open

And I heard them scream in their agony

Kuiama she waits there for me

True blue, you saw it through”


Down, down, at the launching pad

Giant phallus stands erect

Ten thousand tons of waste throb then eject

Look out space, we’re gonna change our place

Down, down, in old England town

There was air and now there’s smoke

Let’s build more cars and drive away before we choke

Suddenly it’s always night time”

This all stopped after Wood took a powder in favor of lyrics that become more trite with each passing album – resulting in progressively bigger hits. Later in the band’s career, when Jeff Lynne wanted to stick it to the man in 1983, the best kiss-off he could come up with was “welcome to the show”.

Not only that, but post-Wood ELO records are remarkably cool in tone. When Jeff musters up just a little bit of grit in his voice during Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle, that’s one of the very few times in the ELO catalog that we hear him threatening to sound like a hard rocker. We do hear him getting a little bit rowdy on Do Ya’ (1976), but that’s a recycled Move song from his youth, which was apparently rather tame. Even while listing his grievances against the titular woman who done him wrong in Evil Woman, he sounds conspicuously composed. With that song now more than forty years old and with the two generations of feminism having come and gone since it was a hit, Evil Woman is the only post-Wood ELO song I can think of that might be considered even vaguely impolite, even by today’s rather tense standards. Consider that ELO’s commercial heyday precisely coincided with punk, and this relaxed demeanor seems even more surprising if not downright anachronistic (as opposed to anarchistic).

Lynne also comes across as rather quiet in his infrequent interviews, and strikes me as being a remarkably humble man. Perhaps even quite shy. Is the lack of any real lyrical point of view in the ELO catalog part of an unwillingness to raise controversy because he’s just a gentle man, or was it to make sure that record sales were uninhibited by the slightest hint of offense to anyone, anywhere, ever? Maybe this is another reason for the recent resurgence in the band’s popularity: Lynne’s unwillingness to risk offense or controversy works well within the current zeitgeist. This is the man who was so polite (or skittish) that he sang “one of these days you’re gonna break your glass” in Don’t Bring Me Down, because he was clearly not comfortable singing “ass”. Rather, he built a career singing about loneliness and lost love in a retro-1950s style reminiscent of his other heroes, like Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, and Del Shannon (all of whom he would work with post-ELO when not busying himself with Beatle members). Perhaps the reason why Lynne’s considerable talent was dismissed for so many years after the dissolution of ELO is precisely because of this. While bands like the Clash or Elvis Costello or Gang of Four sang about things that mattered, Lynne seemed to studiously avoid releasing anything other than carefully crafted electric light entertainment.

When you get right down to it, Jeff’s lack of lyrical ambition was so profound that he resorted to singing about the weather with shocking regularity. The Beatles were not completely immune from this habit either: witness Here Comes the Sun, I’ll Follow the Sun, Sun King, and Good Day Sunshine. Conversely, ELO seemed far too melancholy for so much sunshine, so Jeff typically sang about the rain: Rain is Falling, Love and Rain, and the entire Concerto for a Rainy Day – including Standin’ in the Rain, Big Wheels, Summer and Lightning, and Mr. Blue Sky. Lynne also sings of the rain during Ticket to the Moon, I Need Her Love, Kuiama, and of course in Showdown, where it’s “raining all over the world”, and Evil Woman in which we learn that “there’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in”. So that’s where all this rain comes from! Oh wait, the Beatles also did a song called Rain. That’s ELO’s whole career inspiration right there in that one song. If we wanna go really dark here, ELO’s weather report got pretty grim with Laredo Tornado and the forecast even calls for meteor showers (in Here is the News).

If Jeff Lynne was obsessed with rain, he was even more taken with the color blue: Mr. Blue Sky, Midnight Blue, Boy Blue, Blue (yes, just “blue”), Birmingham Blues, Bluebird is Dead – and its apparent prequel Bluebird – plus the album Out of the Blue. Not to mention singing of “my blue world” in Turn to Stone.

ELO’s science fiction themes (or really, lack thereof) are interesting to dissect as well. Although the band is deeply associated with intergalactic iconography, this material is completely absent in either lyrical content or album cover art until we pick up the discography where we left off above (after Face the Music), and come to the band’s sixth album, the holy A New World Record (1976). It is here that ELO’s iconic spaceship logo – inspired by the design of a Wurlitzer jukebox – first appears. The album hints at something slightly otherworldly on the closing track of side one, Mission (A New World’s Record) but the sci-fi references begin and end there. The follow-up record (and ELO’s commercial peak) Out of the Blue (1978) presents the spaceship logo on both the inside and the outside of the double-LP’s gatefold sleeve, now fully realized as a complexly rendered working interstellar craft. But there isn’t a single word of space fantasy present within the lyrics of any of Out of the Blue’s seventeen songs. The Out of the Blue stage show was semi-legendary for having a mechanical spaceship descend from the lighting truss during the gig (it is said that the band needed seven trucks just to carry that set-piece from city to city), but it doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the music.

The next record, the very disco Discovery (1979), also ignores any sci-fi trappings within the songs, and reimagines the spaceship logo as some sort of glowing art object being discovered by an Aladdin-like character. A little drama plays out on the front and back covers of the album sleeve: on the front he’s stealing the object from a treasure chest, while on the back he’s being chased over a dune by Arabs with scimitars. Next, ELO took some time to write five songs for the Olivia Newton-John movie Xanadu (1980) about a Greek muse with an affinity for roller skating who appears in California to help a painter.

It isn’t until the next proper ELO record, Time (1981), that the band fully embraced their interstellar legacy. Interestingly, the spaceship logo was retired for Time’s album art, but the music returns to the concept album format, this time dealing with time travel to the year 2095, tickets to the moon, robot girlfriends, and prisons on “satellite two”. If ELO are forever to be associated with science fiction or outer space, this is the record that justifies it. We could strongly argue that the conceit of a concept album was well past its expiration date by 1981 (although Styx did fairly well with Kilroy Was Here two years later), but ELO made Time work. The 1970s ELO hit machine seemed to have run its course after Discovery and Xanadu however. In a clear reaction to the new wave records that were all over the charts by 1981, Lynne tried to keep ELO relevant on Time by firing the string section – the element of ELO that initially inspired the band’s very existence – and letting Tandy’s synthesizers come to the forefront. The video for the single Here is the News shows the entire band simultaneously playing keyboards. Although Time’s singles aren’t as well-remembered as some of the band’s previous work, it is a strong record when taken as a whole, and may be their most underrated album. Their most over-rated? I’m just gonna say it: Out of the Blue has a fair amount of filler, and all of the songs sound too samey for my taste. It would have made a phenomenal single-LP, but the double format doesn’t work as well for me as it might.

The final two records by the original incarnation of ELO were Secret Messages (1983) and Balance of Power (1986), neither of which returned to any science fiction themes in either the songs or the cover art. But somehow, this band are nonetheless remembered for the spaceship.

After a fifteen year break during which he racked up many of the aforementioned production credits, Jeff Lynne unsuccessfully tried to resurrect ELO in 2001 with an album called Zoom. The record flopped and a planned tour was canceled. A video of a studio performance in California exists, and the cover art for both the DVD of that show and the Zoom CD featured a fresh take on the spaceship idea. The album art for several subsequent ELO compilation albums used new variations of the spaceship art prominently, such as All Over the World – The Very Best of [ELO], Ticket To the Moon – the Very Best of [ELO] volume 2, the Flashback boxed set, and Mr. Blue Sky – The Very Best of [ELO].

That last one featured brand new re-recordings of ELO’s hits performed by Lynne solo in the studio. The official line was that he always felt that he could have made the original recordings better, but the real scoop probably has something to do with the notion that he owns the masters to these new recordings, so he makes more money when the songs are licensed to films, television shows, and video games. In the 21st century music economy, licensing brings in far more money than record sales or live performance, so it’s only natural that Lynne wanted to avoid sharing that sweet cash with his former record label. Many other bands have used this ploy of re-recording their hits once their label contracts have expired. Off the top of my head I can think of the albums Spot the Difference by Squeeze, Forgeries by Def Leppard, Return the Gift by Gang of Four, and Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux by Blondie. There are hundreds of others. All of these records have attempted to sound like the original recordings in exacting detail so as to give listeners as much of the nostalgic original magic as possible, while still making bank for the artists who can now license the new master instead of the old one, which may be owned by a prior record label.

Between the release of the eleventh and final original ELO album (Balance of Power, 1986) and the doomed Zoom in 2001, a group of former ELO members (including Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminski, and Clark) had been touring as ELO Part Two with a new frontman (a Lynne look-alike no less), and they even released two albums worth of new songs. Lynne was not happy about this, but since Bevan was a founding member of ELO, he had legal rights to hit the road playing Lynne’s songs under a variant of the ELO name. And let’s face it, none of the other guys in the band were making even a tiny fraction of Lynne’s income, since he got all of the songwriting royalties, which were further bolstered by his magnificently successful career as a producer. The other lads presumably needed the cash.

When Bevan finally retired ELO Part Two in 2000, he sold his share of the ELO name to Lynne. Now sole owner of the brand, it is probably safe to assume that this turn of events inspired Lynne to release Zoom within a year. Lynne’s return to the band – his band – which had been in Bevan’s custodianship for some fourteen years was short lived. Save for a guest appearance by Tandy on one song, no former ELO members were invited by Lynne to participate in the making of Zoom. The failure of that record seemed to signal the end of ELO for good. ELO seemed to be relegated to the ranks of 1970s has-beens and bands who no one seemed very interested in discussing. ELO were considered deeply uncool at that point, and to say that they were ready for a critical reappraisal in 2001 would have been premature. The band’s classic hits needed to marinate for quite a bit longer before they matured to classic or legendary status instead of being simply dismissed as old or irrelevant.

ELO’s time for renewed respect finally came in 2014. The BBC persuaded Lynne to do a one-off show in London’s Hyde Park on September 14 of that year. The phenomenal success of that gig made Lynne realize that the time was finally right to give ELO another shot. In 2015 he did another seven shows in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and recorded Alone in the Universe — another record written, performed, and produced solely by himself (now as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”) with virtually no other musicians. Even Tandy – the sole classic ELO member to participate in the 2014 and 2015 gigs – was conspicuously missing from the record. Lynne supported Alone in the Universe in 2016 with 24 U.K. and European gigs (plus L.A. and New York), and then just four U.K. gigs in 2017. Sadly, Tandy’s health precluded him from being present for the 2017 shows. Lynne turned 70 that year, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Wood, Bevan, and Tandy.

The thirty-six gigs during the four years from 2014 to 2017 were all sell-out shows in arenas every bit as large, or larger, than the ones that ELO hauled their model spaceship to in the 1970s. The last of the 2017 gigs was recorded for a double-CD and DVD/Blu-Ray set called Wembley or Bust, and showcased Lynne and his thirteen-piece band of highly skilled session players performing in London. The line-up seen in the Wembley video has been stable since 2015, save for replacing Tandy with an understudy in 2017 and swapping in a new string trio in 2016 (this band has worse luck retaining string players than Roxy Music had with bassists – they had a different bass player for every single album). Naturally, the latest version of the spaceship appeared on the album cover, even if it didn’t show up above the stage at the gigs, except perhaps as projected on video. During the live shows that happened in 2014 through 2018, rear screen projection featured heavy use of outer space footage: galaxies, asteroid fields, and voyages through the cosmos. But lyrically, the record ignores the subject in the same way that every record except Time has, preferring to focus on Jeff’s old standbys: loneliness (see: album title), the weather (Love and Rain and The Sun Will Shine on You), and blue (Blue).

And now in 2018, here is the news: a proper U.S. tour would be staged, the first one in 37 years. Twelve shows. So, let’s forget Jeff Lynne’s career for a moment and talk about mine. After three decades spent working in the music industry, and after having worked on some two thousand live gigs in my career (ELO Part One only did 669, according to setlist.fm!), it’s pretty hard to get me excited about a concert. But somehow, I was inordinately giddy about this tour. The only question was: Tandy? The answer: No. His health was still not up to it. Nonetheless, after being vaguely aware of the Time tour happening in 1981, but being too young to go (my first concert would be a certain new wave band in early 1984), I finally had a chance to see ELO this year. Tickets were procured for the Chicago show, and for good measure I’d be attending a New York gig as well. I’d never visited Madison Square Garden before, and I had an $11 flight (using frequent flier miles) and a friend who’d let me crash at her house, so the trip to see the second show was a fun adventure.

Having spent essentially my entire life listening to the eleven original ELO records, and knowing all of them by heart – even the crappy songs on Secret Messages or On the Third Day – there was a sense that this show would bring one aspect of my life, and my career, full circle. I’d started off listening to A New World Record around 1978, and now, exactly forty years later, I’d finally be adding ELO to the very very long list of artists I’ve seen live. Interestingly, I’d seen ELO Part Two in 1998, at exactly the midpoint in this timeline. With four important classic-era members in that band (Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminsky, and Clark) ELO Part Two had much more ELO DNA in the band than Jeff Lynne’s ELO does, even if Jeff is absolutely and inarguably the only completely indispensable member of ELO. And with Tandy missing from the 2018 shows, there was definitely a sense that I was essentially going to see an ELO cover band.

But Lynne and his well-rehearsed team of professionals delivered a tight show consisting of seventeen ELO classics, plus the traditional Roll Over Beethoven cover, and a Traveling Wilburys tune. The U.S. tour was slightly pared down from the twenty-four song set list heard at the 2016/2017 shows. The 2018 gigs featured more or less the same set list, but subtracted five songs. U.S. audiences this year missed out on Xanadu, Last Train to London, Prologue/Twilight, and Ma-Ma-Ma Belle. Oddly, the immortal Strange Magic hasn’t been played since the 2014/2015 gigs.

Watching videos of very early ELO (back when Roy Wood was still in the band), we see some of the lads wearing animal masks (bizarre, and hard to find justification for), while the string players ran around the stage, rockin’ out just like the guitarists. It’d be unfair to expect that level of goofiness or raw energy from a show today; Lynne is now almost 71, and his players all appear to be in their forties or fifties. And let’s face it: so is his audience. There were almost no people who appeared to be much younger than their late thirties at the Chicago show. In New York a few more people seemed to have brought their teenage kids, but certainly there were very few people present under the age of forty whose presence was anything other than a placating gesture to their parents. The Chicago audience spent most of the show seated, which was a little frustrating; I wanted to be on my feet and grooving a little bit. The New Yorkers were better about that: all of old folk sat down to rest during the ballads, but were up on our feet for at least two-thirds of the show. Comparing this to the rock shows of my youth where the whole audience would be standing on our seats, dancing in the aisles and making a ruckuss, seeing the Electric Light Orchestra was an experience closer to seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra than to being at a rock concert. But, I’m positive that a lot of the audience preferred it that way. After all, it’s fair to say that most of the people present weren’t operating at the energy levels we were enjoying in the 1970s or 1980s.

Given that the band are older and the audience is older, the lack of energy coming off the stage was noticeable. Lynne’s large and very professional band delivered note-perfect renditions of nineteen songs. All of them were flawlessly performed, sounding precisely like they did on the classic records. None had the arrangements updated, and none were extended into longer jams or condensed into medleys. There was no showy virtuosity, and none of the members got to take a longer solo or improvise at any moment in the show. Note-perfect classic ELO, just how we remembered it from our youth, except played by different people. Like, again, an extremely well rehearsed ELO cover band.

The light show was great, and the five rear-projection banners behind the band were filled with predictable if quite welcome images of (are you sitting down?) outer space. If Jeff forgot a few lyrics here or there, or his voice is becoming too tired to deliver a full set every night, his backing singers were there to cover for him (one of the singers showed a bit of range by covering vocal parts originally sung by three rather diverse singers: Roy Wood, Kelly Groucutt, and Roy Orbison). If Lynne’s guitar playing isn’t as strong as it once was, his two guitarists have him covered. Even the mighty Richard Tandy required no less than three keyboard players on stage to adequately replace him (ok, one of them was doubling the string players to beef them up…). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got a little choked up during the Chicago show, and only slightly less so at the identical New York gig. Even having spent about $400 on the two tickets, I’m absolutely glad I went.

And yet I wonder what the show would have been like if Bevan, Tandy, or even Mik Kaminsky (the longest-standing of ELO’s many string players) were there (Groucutt died in 2009). Would we have seen tired old men dialing in a barely adequate performance? Or would the show have contained more of the strange magic that made ELO great, rather than the cold precision of Jeff Lynne’s crack team of hired guns? We’ll never know.

Having seen other reunions of old-timers in the past, I’ve experienced shows put on by people who were better off not having bothered, and I have also seen some surprisingly satisfying performances. Speaking strictly about bands whose entire classic line-up was present, I caught the first of several Wire reunions in 1987, and the original Buzzcocks way back in 1989. But these shows happened only a handful of years after the dissolution of bands that are a generation younger than ELO. Putting a little more time and life experience into the breakup/reunion gap, I’ve seen the original X a few times, a Bauhaus reunion in 1998 that was memorable, and one-off tour from the original Gang of Four lineup in 2005 that was very good. Ultravox reunited a few years ago, but didn’t tour the U.S.; their show on video was decent (but their album sucked). The Fixx are still completely intact and were satisfying to see live (for free at a street festival no less) in 2012. A Dead Can Dance show in 2005 was a disaster, as was the second Bauhaus reunion that year. But certainly, none of these projects had ever toured arenas. Bands with most of the original lineup are legion; I’ve seen 80% of Devo three or four times, I saw the original Duran Duran once in 1984, and various combinations of that band several times since then. There are plenty of other partially-intact classic bands. Lots. Some of them do bring the goods.

But these are bands associated with the punk, post-punk, and new wave genres. What about 1970s stadium rock? As I said in the beginning of this essay, I moved away from that fairly early on in life, and there aren’t that many bands of that era that I care about. And they’re also all even older than the new wavers, so there are even fewer of them alive. Maybe Rush. But they just disbanded, like last year. I said I wasn’t going to speak of Kiss again, but in 2000, I saw the sixth-to-last show their original lineup ever did. That was pretty spectacular, but again, that was nearly twenty years ago. What kind of energy are they bringing now (and with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley gone, why bother)? So I’m writing off stadium rock as an option.

Of bands that I liked in my youth, who might tour large venues, and who are all still alive, I’m struggling to come up with any further names that would reel me in. Every band I can think of has either lost members to the reaper, or they’ve already reunited, for good or for ill. Except one. After a fair amount of reflection, there is only one band – one – that I can think of who have never reunited, who are all alive, who could fill large venues, and who I would go to see for sure. One band.

The name of this band is Talking Heads.

With the exception of their 2002 show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, they haven’t gigged since 1984. I have almost all of their records, and I enjoy them. I’d go to a Heads reunion with some level of enthusiasm. All four members have remained active in music, and the quality of classic-era Talking Heads shows is semi-legendary (see their film Stop Making Sense, which is objectively a strong contender for being the best concert film ever). But there are two things at hand here: Talking Heads have been offered a lot of money to tour many times in the past 34 years and have always turned it down. Seems unlikely that they’d suddenly start accepting offers. And more crucially to the point of this essay, I just don’t have the emotional connection to that band that I have with ELO.

So, disregarding the complete lack of original members currently performing in ELO (aside from Jeff Lynne of course), the antiseptic quality of the slick performances, and my recent musings on Lynne’s repetitive themes and lack of ambitions as a lyricist, seeing a version of ELO this summer was truly some sort of bookend in my life as a rock music fan. It’s vastly overstating the case to say that my interest in the rock music of the past and present has suddenly reached a standstill and that I’ll be burning all of my old records… and CDs… and digital files… but it feels like there’s nowhere left for my interest in this sort of music to go from here. I’ve come full circle somehow, and seeing these ELO shows this summer definitely felt like I was reaching the end of a very long phase in my life.

What’s next?

[Interlude 01]: Einsturzende Neubauten

What the hell does Dazzler have to do with Einsturezende Nuebauten?
Roll with it.


As promised - or threatened - last time, a bit of a break is in order before I continue my march through the classic rock canon ....from a post punk perspective.  May is interlude month.  Below is something I wrote for an art history course.  We had to discuss an early artistic influence and track how our perspective on it has changed over time.  Felt like it was worth sharing with a wider audience.


As a teen in the 1980s, my circle of friends were drawn toward post-punk music. This style flourished during the late 1970s and early 1980s, feeding upon the new energy of punk, but funneling it into music somewhat more concerned with quality musicianship, a wider sonic palette, and lyrics leaning toward the political or self-reflective. Bands like Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Wire could be fairly abrasive at times, but this artfully moderated dissonance felt appropriate to disaffected youth of the 1980s who sought to reject what Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins were producing.  

German ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten emerged around this time. They took discord to unheard of levels. Their instruments included sledgehammers on metal, chainsaws on oil drums, and guitars abused in ways that would make Les Paul weep. All of my friends had Neubauten records, but no one ever listened to them. Neubauten were just too relentlessly abrasive, even for their target audience. They had dispensed with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure, and were making music by applying power tools to chunks of concrete salvaged from collapsed buildings.

Nonetheless, this band became a symbol for a subculture across the western world. It was less about Neubauten's art, and more about what their work represented. Neubauten's distinctive logo was many people's first tattoo, and was painted on many a guitar case or leather jacket. But no one could name one of this band's songs. Woe be the poseur, however, whose record collection was devoid of the token Neubauten album: always the first and most visible in the stack of records, but always last on the playlist.

And yet, I sensed that there was something more in Neubauten, something hidden, something that I wasn't quite getting. And this difficult German name?  What does it mean?  Turns out that Einsturzende Neubauten translates to "Collapsing New Buildings". Destroying structures.

Here, they perform "Autobahn" at one of the construction 
sites for the then-new titular German super-highway.


While exploring Berlin in the 2000s, I developed insight about Einsturzende Neubauten, who - at that time - I hadn't thought about for quite a while. A deeper reading of the subtext revealed that the group's members were born in the shadow of the Berlin wall in the late 1950s. After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the division of their nation into two politically different entities, and an occupation by no less than four foreign governments, the country began to rebuild. Fast cheap housing was needed for those displaced by the allied bombing of Germany's cities. These high-rise concrete apartment blocks came to be known as "neubauten". That's literally "new buildings", but in context, it refers specifically to post-war German housing developments. Block after mile of them, none built to last. In essence, "neubauten" - in mid-century German vernacular - was equivalent to "the projects" in the U.S. This certainly adds intrigue. We're not just talking about any "new buildings"; we're talking about "the projects" and all the baggage that comes with that.

Reading into "einsturzende", or "collapsing", are we simply observing that these cheaply built post-war neubauten were rotting (collapsing) by the late 1970s, or are we actively taking part in physically destroying the depressing results/reminders of a nation's dark past?  Is "einsturzende neubauten" a complaint about urban decay, or a manifesto toward change? Both?


As an adult in the 2020s, it has become clear that Neubauten's early work was more than just abrasive noise. This was assaultive performance art, every bit as valid as that of contemporaries such as Marina Abramovic (who had emerged just a few years prior). The video of Neubauten essentially performing a construction site (not performing "at" a construction site) is a demonstration of their frustration: growing up in poverty under the thumb of the occupying allied forces, born of parents who had been terrified children when Berlin was being bombed, and probably dealing with the shame of having some number of Nazis as ancestors (remember, however, that not every German citizen was a member of the Nazi party). 

"Autobahn" should therefore be read as a performance piece about post-war urbanity, about the creation and destruction of the urban environment - and by extension the environment - and about industrialization, occupation, and poverty. Of course these angry young people wanted to "collapse" what they saw around them. Variations on these feelings are universal even when circumstances are vastly different: "Destroy the Projects" seems like a perfectly apt name for an American hip-hop album today.

Although Neubauten were marketed like a "band", nothing in the "Autobahn" video supports that perspective, aside from the guitar hung around the vocalist's neck (which he only plays for a moment). They're dressed like construction workers, and one of them is even "playing" a shovel (I dig it!). Perhaps if they'd prioritized positioning themselves in the art world, we'd be studying them as part of a pantheon that includes Luigi Russolo (author of the 1913 Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises), Pierre Schaeffer (inventor of musique concrete in the early 1940s), controversial composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, and yes, John Cage (in the sense of, say, his works for prepared piano), or confrontational performance artists of the era such as Carolee Schneemann or Abramovic. (It should be noted however, that in ensuing years their work became increasingly musical and accessible).

As for Neubauten's influence, it is only in the past year or two, after being aware of them for nearly four decades, that I have begun to understand the legacy of my early exposure to this work. Instead of tolerating it for social status as a teen, and then ignoring it for a very long time, I now respect and admire it, and perhaps even draw inspiration from certain conceptual aspects of this art.  Some of my own art is made of sounds that "dispense(s) with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure". Sound familiar?  Scroll back up to my third paragraph. 

I've always felt that effective sound art doesn't need to be abrasive (although so much of it is), so the dissonance and implied violence of Neubauten is not at all appealing to me. But it might be said that Neubauten planted a seed that helped foster a desire to reject traditional musical forms, and to start looking for a sonic muse beyond just music. There was more to sound, it appeared, than Kraftwerk (another German act who wrote a far more accessible but equally influential piece of music about the Autobahn), or Depeche Mode. It seems clear (in retrospect) that growing up among the collapsing industry of the rust belt while being exposed to Neubauten's ideas and working methods had a slowly creeping philosophical influence that I didn't recognize or understand for several decades.

[Interlude 02]: Electric Light Orchestra, a rather epic-length appreciation.

25. Genesis

How can we resist more Dazzler? This moment in love is from issue #22, © Marvel, etc.


Off the top of my head, what do I know about Genesis? The original band were Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Peter Gabriel. If there were any other people involved, I don’t know about ’em. Genesis played lauded prog rock with elaborate stage shows. Gabriel split to go solo; I know his material well. His first two albums each have some good moments, but I don’t adore them. His third and fourth are both really super good. He also did a movie soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Passion of the Christ. If we ignore the content and topic of the film and enjoy Gabriel’s instrumental score as a stand-alone work, detached from the movie, it’s also really good. I have to admit that it was a go-to make-out album in the 1990s… provided my date didn’t associate the music with the film. That would have been a mood killer. After that, Gabriel kind of lost it, making a series of increasingly slick and significantly less interesting pop albums.

I’ve never heard a note of Gabriel-era Genesis, even though I’ve been aware of it for at least four decades. I’ve really been resisting the idea of listening to Genesis for all these years due to Phil Collins’ solo career in the 1980s. I was Not. A. Fan. This guy was on the radio constantly when I was an adolescent, and his songs were pretty much guaranteed to get the station changed, every time. He was a driving force in driving me toward college radio before I was old enough to drive. Genesis were also still making records at that time, in tandem with Collins as a solo artist; the band’s records in that era were almost as disposable as Collins’ solo work. I’ll bet they don’t play “Illegal Alien” at their shows anymore. Embarrassing, guys. So, Collins turned me off of ever wanting to listen to Genesis, even the potentially interesting early stuff. I’ve struggled with ol’ Phil’s appearances on records by people who I do like, such as his pal Peter Gabriel, or Robert Fripp, or the unimpeachable Brian Eno, but I guess the middle-1970s records by those people featuring Collins were made quite a while before his years as a pop star. This feeble justification is all I can muster, even while acknowledging that Eno did some signal processing work on The Lamb Lies Down… in exchange for Collins drumming on Another Green World. There was something in the air. If nothing else, there’s some Eno DNA in today’s listening, although that’s not always a guarantee of good music: Eno has produced some of my favorite records (as a producer and/or an artist), but to be fair he did also produce Coldplay.

Well. Genesis. This is the place, and now is the time. As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today (everything above is what has leaked into my skull via cultural osmosis). Going in with nothing else, I’m taking the music at face value. The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. If I change my mind later, you’ll never know. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Version: VJCP-98019 (Japan, 2007)

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
Twiddling quasi-classical piano. Who is the keyboard player? Rutherford or Banks? For some reason, I want to say Banks. Does this band have a full time bass player or is that Rutherford? So who is on guitar? Ok, now we get Gabriel’s unmistakable voice. This song does feel like something that would fit well on one of this first two solo albums. The mix is murky. After the noteworthy clarity of last post’s Van Halen recording, the thumpy upfront bass on this one combined with the guitar and keys getting lost within each other are diminishing the impact of the playing. This could be cleaned up. Sounds like a job for Steven Wilson. Or me. What’s this song about? Seems like we meet the denizens of Manhattan at night (including Rael, a graffiti artist; he’s the only one with a name), and something magical is about to happen. Is there a Christian allegory here? I don’t know much about Christianity, but there’s a thing with a lamb, right?

Fly On A Windshield
We segue right into the next song. Mellotron choirs. Are we into a concept album here? It’s got that vibe. The first tune felt like a bit of an overture, it set the scene, and now we’re into some storytelling. Something ominous is happening to our magical Broadway. Those dissonant strummed chords, atmospheric organ. A sense of tension, then – BAM – it gets huge. Not entirely predictable. Guitar solo is suitably melodic. I don’t hate this. This title; did Depeche Mode rip this off for “Fly on the Windscreen”? Seems likely; their song has some thematic similarities (“Death is everywhere / there are flies on the windscreen… and later “lambs for the slaughter”).

Broadway Melody Of 1974
Didn’t miss a beat, straight into the next song. At first, I didn’t notice that we were into a new song. The transition happens at kind of a random point. More evocative lyrics about New York, and a bunch of people get name-checked: comedians Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx, plus media theorist Marshal McLuhan, millionaire Howard Hughes, and murderous kidnapper Caryl Chessman. But also: the Madonna. Suppose I’ll have to resign myself to missing the point here. But one should expect religious allegory form a band called Genesis, yes?

Cuckoo Cocoon
As we merge right into the next tune, there’s some kind of flanger on Gabriel’s voice. Warm flute solo gets a little lost in the mix, which is still a little murky. Really, this could also be the arrangement too. The players might just be getting in each other’s way. Maybe sorting their parts out a little better would help. There have only been a few spots so far where any instrument got to shine or take center stage. Oops, this one is over already…

In The Cage
…and we’re into a heartbeat bass throb, Mellotron choruses, and some Hammond. Seems like Gabriel is singing about someone with a booze problem. This whole album is lyrically dense. Probably in a good way. There’s no way to interpret these words while listening to the music and writing all at the same time. This blog project is all about recording immediate impressions in real time. This record probably does have a bit more to unpack. There’s a lot of stuff flashing by really fast. It’s one of the few records heard for this project so far that immediately demands another pass. Perhaps. But, I mean, Phil Collins (shudder). But… Gabriel. And Eno. Wow, out of nowhere a synthesizer solo, pushed right up front and center in the mix. The solo is striking in quality (even if it does over-reply on arpeggios), but just materializes with no warning. This sounds like it is coming from a different record. We haven’t heard any obvious synth on this record so far, and now it’s the dominant thing in the mix for a fairly substantial section. Then some other stuff and another synth solo. There is a lot going on in this album, and I’m sure I missed a lot of it. This band doesn’t seem to rest for a moment, they’re always moving things forward and almost never repeat themselves, even within a song. There haven’t been many obvious choruses and certainly nothing at all resembling a pop hook. As we discussed with a few of the other bands in this series who have done concept albums, the pitfall of through-composing, and in particular chaining the songs together like this, is that the music can seem rambling and unfocused, while incomplete ideas can pass for songs simply by sandwiching them between two other maybe-finished (maybe not) ideas. I’m going to have to listen to this one again to really get a grip on it but so far it seems like perhaps Genesis had a bit more direction with this record compared to the results of some of the other prog-conceptual records heard recently. Provisionally. A fade… and so ends side one.

The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging
So… conspicuous consumerism?

Back In N.Y.C.
Early use of a sequencer in this one. Not bad for 1974. This album and Autobahn by Kraftwerk came out the same month. We might also be hearing some kind of square wave pulse triggering a gate. That was a way of getting sounds that we associate today with “sequencers” before there were sequencers. Our lead character Rael is back in this one. Maybe he’s been the protagonist all along. He is behaving rather poorly this time out.

Hairless Heart
Another proto-sequencer, this time much more relaxed in timbre, leads this mostly-instrumental track until Gabriel tells us:

“That night he pictured the removal of his hairy heart
and to the accompaniment of very romantic music
he watched it being shaved smooth
by an anonymous stainless steel razor. “
Yup, we can all relate(?)

Counting Out Time
This one has a really different feel, it almost feels like a proper pop song. Was this the result of record label pressuring the band for a single? Well, the lyrics aren’t precisely pop material. Rael is singing about finding himself a girl. Maybe there’s some humor here – in addition to a super-goofy sounding bridge section, the lyrics seem to imply that our boy is learning how to excite a girl via a book, which didn’t work? Failure to get good results from a copy of Kama Sutra or The Joy of Sex isn’t a common song topic. The seriously goofy carnival tone that the song modulates into halfway through probably isn’t helping the narrator get laid. Is that some kind of dopey masturbation theme?

Carpet Crawlers
Another stand-alone tune with a little more accessibility. More of a ballad. Did Genesis have any success in America before this record? There is a lot of American imagery in these lyrics. Had they toured here? Was it a reaction to the U.S., or an impression of it? There’s a floaty ambient thing here, but once again it seems over-arranged, or just messily arranged. This would work better if everyone was playing a little less. When the drums come in toward the middle, they’re super-buried. Really they’re not necessary at all. Some woody hand percussion would have sufficed here, if anything. Is the mix engineer slowly fading the hi-hat up? It’s distracting. Oh, there is a little teeny bit of conga buried in the right channel. I’d be interested to hear a version with more of that conga audible and none of the drum set.

The Chamber Of 32 Doors
We finish with another stand alone quasi-ballad that picks up a bit halfway through, the builds to a suitably big finish. This is fine. I’m not inspired to say more. And…. it turns out that this is the end of disc one, but there’s a second disc. I don’t especially fucking hate this record, but I can’t deal with writing about disc two. I’ll listen to it later.

Song for the IFTB Mix tape:

It’s full.

After dutifully posting one of these meandering investigations twice a month for just over a year, I’m kind of fried. Feels like I’m repeating myself, and it feels like I’ve explored the chosen topic fairly thoroughly for now. I don’t want these writings to become rote, or to bore you… or to bore myself. So I’m gonna take a break.

Before leaving you all, I’ll post two more things over the next month, which are already written. Both are very tangentially related to this series, really only because they’re about music. First will be something that I wrote for my MFA program about Einsturzende Neubauten (who are about as far from the topic of this blog as we can get!), and then an epic musing of 4000+ words about my oft-mentioned childhood faves, E.L.O., which I wrote upon seeing them play back in 2018.

Then we’ll observe and maintain radio silence for a bit. If and when I pick this series back up, some artists who are/were in the queue are:

J. Geils Band
Thin Lizzy
Tom Petty
Billy Squier
Blue Öyster Cult
Led Zeppelin
The Cardiacs
Van der Graaf Generator

…time will tell if we end up exploring their work.

Next: [TANGENT A] Einsturzende Neubauten, coming May 01, 2022

24. Van Halen

Yes!  For her third consecutive appearance - all completely unrelated to this blog - we have Dazzler again, this time rocking backing vocals with her pal Vanessa, and discovering the wonders of technology.  They better bring Dazz into the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon, or it's gonna be clobbering time.
From Dazzler #17, ©1982 Marvel.

And now:
The larch.

Or, at least Van Halen, anyway.

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Van Halen?  During his heyday, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was considered to be one of the greatest instrumental performers in popular music, while his frontman David Lee Roth was equally as well known for either his charisma or his juvenile antics, depending on your perspective.  Eddie's brother Alex was in the band, along with Michael Anthony (maybe?  Not sure).  Not bad; it's been a long time (if ever) since I've been able to name all of the members in one of the bands I'm discussing here.  Roth eventually left the band, to be replaced by Sammy Hagar, and then some other guy.  

Many of their songs are familiar to me; albums like 1984 and its many hits were inescapable when I was in middle school.  But as commonly stated within this series, I went really far out of my way to avoid Van Halen and their fans, after throwing my lot in with a group of friends more attuned to Talking Heads, Japan, David Bowie, and Joy Division.  I've never heard a Van Halen album all the way through.  Their big 1980s pop-oriented hits are still of no interest (i.e. "Jump" or "Hot For Teacher"), but perhaps their first album (which also had no shortage of well-known songs such as "Runnin' with the Devil", "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love", and "Jamie's Cryin'") will reveal something worthwhile.

Also, many people have told me that I look like Eddie Van Halen, and/or David Johansen from New York Dolls.  So if you want to know what I looked like as a younger guy, imagine some mash up of these two, but without Eddie's shaggy mane or David's glam-rock makeup.  Can't say that I see the resemblance, or that I ever got into either of these lads' bands, but whatever.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Van Halen
Van Halen (1978)
Version: Warner Brothers HDCD, 9 47737-2 (2000)

Runnin' with the Devil
The sound effect at the beginning of the song is totally gratuitous.  The big spacey album opening is something that E.L.O. started doing, and soon everyone else started ripping them off until it became a mandatory fixture for late 1970s records.  This is a super-perfunctory effort; it just sounds like a slowed-down backward cymbal or something.  But then we get into a moderate throbby groove with a little swagger.  Not a lot.  Just enough.  This record sounds pretty good for a 1978 debut.  The reverb sounds nice, but it's a little heavy for its era.  I don't want to say Van Halen were purposely predicting the reverb-drenched 1980s; its more like they just got lucky.  The record sounds a little lopsided with the guitars all panned left.  Since there isn't a second guitar, or any keys, or horns, there's nothing much happening in the right side.  But then these little mini-solos come in on the right, much too loud and seemingly out of nowhere.  It's a bad mix decision on a record that's otherwise pretty good sounding.  As a song, I find this one uninspired but adequately crafted.

I seem to recall that this instrumental guitar solo is what first gained Eddie his reputation for popularizing the hammer-on technique that made him famous.  He certainly demonstrates it confidently, and also abuses the crud out of his whammy bar. It's a bold move to put 102 seconds of mostly-unaccompanied guitar wankery (there are a few staccato hits from the rhythm section) as the second track on a debut album.  This is the kind of thing that would normally be buried somewhere on side two as filler; any sane band would have followed "Devil" up with another strong rock song.  Actually, any sane band would have just included "Eruption" as a solo section within a complete song.  But this risk seems to have worked; Eddie definitely got people's attention.  Masturbating in public has that effect.  "Eruption"?  This should have been called "Erection" because it's nothing but the man wanking (ok, fine, rather skillfully wanking).

You Really Got Me
Can't go wrong with a Kinks kover.  But we're three songs into this record and so far we only have one proper Van Halen song.  How strapped for material were these guys?  Did they get signed before they'd written more than a handful of songs?  This time, Roth's densely layered backing vocals take up space in the right channel, balancing the guitar a bit, but the record still feels lopsided to me.  Eddie does another solo here, and once again it was probably pretty radical and inventive for it's day.  Having recently listened to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and (a bit further back) Aerosmith and Uriah Heep, it is crystal clear that Eddie's guitar style was really fresh in 1978.  His playing was aped mercilessly for the next decade (or two) (or three) until the majority of the youth audience stopped focusing on rock music.  Roth gets into some auto-asphyxiative vocal histrionics after the guitar solo and then we're over and out.

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
Finally, another actual Van Halen song.  There's this weird slap echo in the right channel.  It's like a woody eighth-note delay on the snare.  It's distracting.  While this band are rockin' out, I just picture David Lee Roth in spandex mugging for a camera, being goofy. I wonder if I'd hear this record differently if I didn't know what this guy looked like.  I can't really take him seriously.  Eddie stomps on a flange pedal in the bridge.  That's not a real tape-flange.  It's easy to tell.  Too controlled, too precise, and too trebly.  Doubled guitar solo in each channel.  Eddie absolutely shines on this record.  His rhythm tone is razor-sharp (if a bit brittle at times) and his many leads are mapping new territory.  And there's no one competing with him.  Just a bass player and a drummer holding down the beat leaving Eddie and David Lee to take turns showing off in very different ways.  Neither of these guys got enough attention as children.  Their mamas ain't talkin' 'bout love enough when they were kiddies.

I'm the One
This one is a fairly frenzied rocker, fast and a little less controlled than the others.  Do I hear a double-kick drum?  That was also a fairly new trick in 1978.  Later acts would EQ all the low-end out of the double-kick so it was easier to really hear the rapid attacks of the beater on the drum head.  That clicky kick sound of the 1980s came from here, and is still used in speed metal.  Hey wait, a nearly a capella do-wop section comes out of nowhere in the bridge.  That's kind of fun, then we're right back into the chaos.  Seems like the band are having fun.  Overall, on this record they sound tight and rehearsed.  They don't have a lot of songs, but it seems that they've played the ones they do have enough times that they're locked in.  I don't enjoy them, but it is clear why this band became huge, they had their shit together.

Jamie's Cryin'
Another bit of swagger in this groove.  One of the problems with hard rock or metal guitar is that the leads and solos are often more preoccupied with demonstrating dexterity than with developing melody.  So few rock guitar solos are actually interesting as music.  Come to think of it, all the riffs from this record are already fading; none of them stick with me.  Eddie brings the innovative technique, but the hooks in the songs all come from David Lee's vocals.  There's no iconic guitar riff on this album like "Smoke on the Water" or "Iron Man" (as heard in recent posts for this series), or (say) "Back in Black" by AC/DC.  But this song's riffage comes closest to being memorable.  And once again, the right channel is used for secondary guitar parts, while Eddie is spending most of his time on the left.  Honestly a little Hammond or a sax or something would help round this band's sound out a bit.  But I can't see Eddie giving up any ground.

Atomic Punk
This one is a bit heavier, a little harder, kind of spirited.  More of the same otherwise.  Kind of fun.  I'm just listening, there's nothing new to add.  David's screams are funny.  None of these songs are over four minutes.  Was this even legal for bands in this style in the 1970s?  A bit like Boston (previous post), these guys seemed laser-focused on the charts, and got there.

Feel Your Love Tonight
Yeah, this is the song that wasn't a hit.  There are eleven songs on this record: eight shortish Van Halen songs, a guitar solo, and two covers.  All eight of the originals are attempts at commerciality, and three of them succeeded.  The rest are the almost-rans.  Still, three hits off this record is nothing to complain about.  There's not much to say about this music; there just isn't much substance to it.  Same thing: Roth is having fun goofing off, Eddie is biding his time between solos, the other guys are enjoying the ride.

Little Dreamer
I'll reiterate that this record is recorded well even if I don't agree with the lopsided mix and occasional excess reverb.  The mixes are consistent though; every song has the same tonal balance and the same soundstage.  They got tones they liked and then laid it down eleven times.  This doesn't sound like a first album.  The band are very confident, and there was a budget.  It's a little brittle sometimes though; I'd warm it up a notch.

Ice Cream Man
If I'd had to guess in advance which Tom Waits song* was most likely to be covered by Van Halen, this probably would have been it, largely due to the raunchy double-entendres.  Here's that warmth: a woody acoustic guitar and vocal.  Rhythm section took a coke break.  Until halfway through... then it's suddenly Van Halen again.  Tom's version definitely didn't have this solo on it.  In my post about The Eagles, I mentioned that Tom Waits probably makes more money from the many, many people who cover his 1970s songs than he does from sales of his own albums.  We can calculate how much Tom made from Van Halen's cover.  When this album was released in 1978, the songwriter's publishing royalty rate was 2.75 cents per song (the performer gets a different rate, see below).  Having written one song from the first Van Halen album, Tom got 2.75 cents for every copy Van Halen sold.  By law, this rate has increased steadily over the years; it is 9.1 cents today.  This album has sold 15.5 million copies.  That means at 2.75 cents per copy, Tom made $426,250.  At 9.1 cents per copy, that's $1,410,500.  Thus, his real pay has been somewhere between those two numbers, but probably closer to the low end, since presumably the record was selling better when it was newer.  He probably has to split that money 50/50 with his publisher, and then pay income taxes on his cut.  At the very least, he's netted $159,843 (half the lowest possible publishing rate minus a total guess of 25% tax rate), but it's probably a bit more than that since some portion of the records were sold after the royalty rate started going up. 
Compare that to how much Tom made for selling copies of his own Closing Time (1973), the album "Ice Cream Man" appeared on.  For performing on that record, Tom got a rate negotiated with the record label.  A good guess is 8% of the wholesale price; that was common for young emerging artists.  Albums cost about $7 then, so figure a $3.50 wholesale price.  The record went gold, meaning it has sold between 500,000 and 999,999 copies.  At an 8% rate for 500k copies at $3.50 per copy, that's $140,000.  He also got that 2.75 cents for writing the songs, times 12 songs on the album. So that's another 33 cents per album, times 500k albums, or $165k (to be divided by half again, as above).  That's a total of about $222,500 for writing and performing on 500k copies, double that if he sold closer to 999,999, and remember that he's earned more for copies sold more recently.  From that money, he had to pay the record label back for recording costs, his manager took a cut (10% usually), and he had to pay income tax.  It's hard to definitively state whether he made more money from Van Halen covering one song than he did from selling copies of his own album, but consider that "Ice Cream Man" is blues standard now, many people have performed it, and Tom is making cash from every one of them.  So for sure he's doing better from other people playing it than he himself has. (Also, that song came out in 1973, so all this theoretical cash has been trickling in slowly for 49 years).  
How much has Van Halen made from Van Halen (1978)?  They got zero for writing "Ice Cream Man" (because Tom wrote it), but if they got an 8% performance rate in 1978 (a reasonable guess), when records cost closer to $9 ($4.50 wholesale), that's about $5,580,000.  Subtract 10% for the manager, subtract recording costs (reported at $40k for this record), and divide by four (each of the four band members would get a quarter of the net total), and we're at about a million bucks per guy after taxes.  Plus the publishing money for the songs they did write themselves, but this gets complicated because each band member might own a different percentage of each song.

On Fire
Another uptempo rocker, the band pull out all the stops here and finish the album on a relatively thrilling note.  But the fade at the end is tragic.  This one really really needed a big finish and a cold ending; all the others on this album had one except "Jamie's Cryin'", which probably needed its fade for radio play.  Van Halen's debut shows them tight, confident, and forward-thinking right out of the gate.  They sound like a band who know each other's idiosyncrasies, and are able to function effectively as a unit. Having heard this album for the first time, I can't say I'm a fan, but it does show a high level of craftsmanship, and perhaps art in Eddie's guitar innovations (which I don't ever need to hear again).


*Post-posting research:
Yeah, I thought the lyrics on "Ice Cream Man" were different from Tom's, but that's artistic license for you.  Turns out that Tom was credited with writing "Ice Cream Man" on Closing Time, but there is also an older and conceptually really similar song  called "Ice Cream Man", written by John Brim.  So that brick of text about royalties?  Well, Tom didn't make squat from Van Halen, but John Brim did.  But as an example of how this crap works it holds up in theory so I'm'ma leave it up there for you.  At least six other bands have written songs called "Ice Cream Man", but the similarity between the Waits and Brim versions is worth noting; they might have both pinched it from some traditional blues thing that's been passed around like a social disease since the late 19th century century.  Like a "Stagger Lee" kind of thing (look it up, I'm out of here).

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I'm going to go for something obscure and loose.  "Atomic Punk" or "On Fire" both sound like the band are having fun.  Another quick listen... "Atomic Punk".

Genesis, coming April 15, 2022

23. Boston

This image has nothing to do with this post. But it's so nice to see an artist giving props to her sound engineer.  Comic books are not reality.  In reality, no fucking artist ever gives props to their sound engineer.  But sound engineers always totally imagine they're either crushing someone's head or tweaking their nipple when giving the "OK" sign.
From Dazzler #16, ©1982 Marvel Comics.

And now on to our post...

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Boston?  This band are oft-discussed in sound engineering circles: apparently band leader Tom Scholz recorded most of the band's debut as essentially a solo act in a home studio, playing most of the instruments himself.  That sort of thing is commonplace today, but it is impressive for 1975; at that time the technology to get the results he did was difficult and expensive to come by.  Some other musicians hung out at a pro recording facility to appease Scholz's record label, fooling the label into thinking they were a full band making the record in the approved studio while Scholz secretly did his thing at home.  Eventually, Scholz got another guy to sing on his completed instrumentals, so the album was effectively made as a duo.  Lots of people have been in the touring band over the years, but it's really Scholz's thing.  This record sold something like 17 million copies, but Boston has only made a few further records.  The only song I know off-hand is "More Than A Feeling", but I suspect that I'll recognize a few of the others.  That's all I've got, but it's more than I know about most of the other bands subjected to my scrutiny for this project.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Boston (1976)
Version: Epic (Japan) 25•8P-5192 (1989)

More Than A Feeling
Yeah, this does sound damned good for a home recording.  I'd turn the bass guitar down a notch.  I wonder how much of the legend about the making of this record is strictly true.  Stories tend to get exaggerated, blown-up, and mutated over time.  A lot of these lyrics are pretty unintelligible.  All these years I had no idea what he was singing, other than something about a Marianne.  I used to tour with a certain rock band whose singer was named Mari Anne.  Our road manager used to sing her name using the melody from this song.  He'd never just speak her name.  He'd always sing it, even if he was saying her name in the middle of a sentence.  So this song.  It's a competent arena rock song.  It has enough changes to keep it interesting and enough dynamics to make the big parts seem big.  Well recorded, mostly well mixed.  Catchy hook.  I've just heard it too damned many times to remain as objective as I try to be for this writing series.

Peace Of Mind
OK, yeah, this one sounds familiar too.  Not surprising.  I want to say that "the band" are doing a spirited take here, but I guess it's all Scholz, playing all the instruments, recording them layer by layer?  Well maybe it's all the more impressive that he made it sound so energetic.  I have personally recorded music as both an engineer and an artist in this way, and it's hard to find a way to replace the spirit of a group of players vibing off each other.  That's a really big deal.  Can't overstate that.  The guitar tones Scholz gets on this record are so much better than the ones I recently heard on more guitar-focused bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. He's got them dialed in.  But - ack - those parallel 4ths (or 5ths) here.  Can't escape them.  Maybe that's the single best part about having rejected this whole style of music as a youth.  None of the punk, post-punk, synth pop, or new wave canon uses this guitar technique at all.  But in these classic rock records, it's everywhere.  That guitar playing style is the line in the sand.

Foreplay / Long Time
Ha, I know this one too.  Used to hear it on AOR radio when it was current... and then for years afterward until I switched off any radio frequency higher than 92.1 FM.  It was all about the left end of the dial - college radio and NPR - for me from my early teens onward.  That clavinet riff in "Foreplay" is ballsy.  Ok, at about 2m 30s this "Foreplay" instrumental ends, and we're into a song.  Yes of course I know this one too.  This album really did spawn a lot of hits.  They're a bit formulaic; all three sound kind of samey.  Big harmonies, handclaps, acoustic guitar accents, powerful power chords, and some keys for accents.  Maybe the reason that I didn't remember having heard so much of this record is because the songs are kind of indistinguishable.  It's like one long rock song, custom-tailored to be broken into chunks, each of which was lined up and aimed like a "la-zher" at the 1976 pop charts.  Well, with each new take on the same old formula, Scholz kept hitting bulls eyes, so good for him?

Rock & Roll Band
Are we going to hear the same well-crafted song a fourth time?  This one is not sounding familiar so far, except in the sense that it sounds like the other three, but faster.  This lyric sucks.  The "story of the band" lyric is almost as lame as the "two lovers on the run" lyric.  I've mentioned the later trope a few times in previous posts.  Haha, in the third verse, our vocalist sings "sign a record company contract" in a falsetto voice that we haven't heard from him before.  That's because said record company has his balls in a vice.

This one is has looser boogie woogie beat with a little southern vibe, and a vocal that is significantly more buried in the mix than the other songs.  This one seems like filler; it's clear that they didn't spend as much time on it.  Are they singing about weed?  Scandalous!  What is Scholz's main instrument?  His drumming is uncomplicated but solid; his bass playing is perfunctory.  Come to think of it his keys and guitar work are also both fairly nondescript, but by no means poor.  He's good at playing everything, but he isn't outstanding on any particular instrument.  The solo section toward the end has a few surprises in it though, that's kind of fun to listen to.

Hitch A Ride
Seems like they front-loaded the hits on side one of this record.  Wonder how many people played side one to death and played side two like twice, ever.  Spreading the hits out is a less fan-friendly way to sequence an album, but it's a more art-friendly approach.  Make the kids listen to all the other stuff between the hits.  This tune has a bit of a gentler feel, until it explodes into a power chord and Hammond freak-out.  There is nothing about this album that sucks.  But by the same token, it feels a little calculated and kind of bland. I'm starting to appreciate some of the artists who take more risks.  There have been some phenomenal failures on some of the records I've listened to for this project, but ultimately, I suppose I admire the bands who at least tried to stretch out a little bit and do something new.  Boston were aiming at the top of the charts, they got there, and they got there with music that is competent but not impressive.  The record shows a high level of craftsmanship, but very little art. There isn't a single musical risk on this entire album, nothing that reaches for genius (with the definition of genius being: a truly original thought).  A bit like The Eagles (see my post on them), in that sense.

Something About You
All right.  I'm done.  The big parallel 4ths (or 5ths) right from the get-go.  Make it stop.  Have I heard this song before?  Does it sound familiar because it was a hit, or because it just sounds effectively identical to all of the hits?  Same as it ever was: spirited take but somehow also passionless, skillfully workmanlike in execution.

Let Me Take You Home Tonight
This herky-jerk rhythm in the intro of this song threatens to dare to be different.  Naturally, they get over it pretty quick and go into the ninth and last identical pop song for this record.  Parallel 4ths (or 5ths) and all of the other tropes from this band's limited bag of tricks are dutifully trotted out.  

One of the benefits of having four or five (or more) people in a band is that there are more people to come up with diverse and challenging ideas.  Even if we have one person who writes all the songs, the other players will flesh out the material with their own little details, contributing the peculiarities of their individual playing styles.  Scholz really needed to have some other people's personalities on this record.  It feels too homogenized.  There's no one for him to spark off of, to push him into new directions.  People who have devoted themselves to the mastery of one particular instrument could have brought more innovative or surprising moments to the music than one person who is "good enough" on many instruments (Scholz).  With Scholz on every instrument, the songs become super-predictable after hearing just a few of them, because we've only got one person's ideas across the board.  On top of that, there was clearly no effort being made to expand the boundaries of music, at all.  Not one note on this record is anywhere except exactly where we expect it to be.  It's a snoozer aimed at the masses, and the work of a craftsman of great skill, but not a true artist (if we concur with the idea that true art is not so different from true genius in that it must always surprise us).

Song for the IMDB mix tape:
We ought to go with "More Than a Feeling", but maybe "Something About You" would be good because it sounds like one of the hits but I'm not as sick of hearing it.

Van Halen, coming April 01, 2022

22. Moody Blues

This image has nothing to do with this post; I just thought it was funny. But it is from Dazzler #5 (©1980 Marvel Comics), and Dazzler is an X-Men character, and I mention X-Men below, so maybe it’s all related. Whatever.


I wanted to take a break from really aggressive stuff for a sec. Moody Blues were in the queue and their number is up. After Deep Purple and Moody Blues, maybe I should listen to Simply Red, Green Day, Yello, and… is there an “orange” band? I did Black Sabbath, so maybe Average White Band, Grey, and James Brown too?

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Moody Blues? Their singer is Justin Hayward. No idea who any of the other players are. There is an awesome record called Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. This two-LP set dramatizes H.G. Wells’ famed novel about Martian invasion, set to anthemic symphonic rock music that seems lifted right from the heyday of Jeff Wayne’s almost-namesake Jeff Lynne. Richard Burton narrates it, and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy plays a part. Justin Hayward does some of the vocals. Other than that, the only times I’ve heard Hayward’s voice is on “Nights in White Satin” (which has a nice wintery atmosphere to it), “Tuesday Afternoon”, and a much later track “The Voice” which I kinda like because it may as well be an E.L.O. tune (speaking of Jeff Lynne…). Oh, and this band had a really syrupy ballad that was a hit in the middle 1980s. What was that called? Maybe I don’t want to remember.

Chose Days of Future Passed (1967) because it has both “Nights” and “Tuesday” on it, and because it was clearly an inspiration for one of the most famous X-men comic book stories of the 1980s (not to mention one of the X-men movies), Days of Future Past (sic). I read X-men religiously from about 1979 to about 1997, so I’ve been curious about what might have inspired X-men scribe Chris Claremont to borrow the title. Yes, so it only took me like 40 years to get around to finding out.

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this music that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value. The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Moody Blues
Days of Future Passed (1967)
Version: DERAM 4767 (1997); this version wasn’t carefully selected, it was the one that happened to be available.

The Day Begins
Ok, judging by these song titles, it looks like we’re in for a concept album about – let’s just say it – “A Day In the Life”. Days of Future Passed came out in November, 1967, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles had been released in May of that year. Clearly 1967 was the year of peak Beatles, and they were influencing everything. This borrowing of ideas seems a little blatant on Moody Blues’ part though. But we’ll try to listen to it as its own thing. First ten seconds: nothing. Then – as if we’re slowly waking up – a really slow backwards cymbal swelling into a lush orchestra. Full pop orchestra. The orchestration feels a bit cinematic. Well-recorded. Present and clear, with just enough ambience. Material is vaguely sentimental though; I suspect this will be the tone for the whole record. Yeah, these skipping strings and happy flutes are already starting to creep up on being a bit “mid-century musical theater”. Just a little. Nice presence in the basses and cellos though. The winds and the strings give us a little melodic preview of “Tuesday Afternoon”, and then “Nights in White Satin”. Maybe they gave us a preview of the other songs too, but I didn’t recognize them. But where’s the band? We haven’t heard them yet. Four minutes in, we get a snippet of the same spoken verse that we’ll also hear in “Nights”, then some other bits of poetry. This feels a little self-serious. A shade pompous. Maybe the artist is trying too hard.

Dawn; Dawn Is a Feeling
More of the same, then, finally the band. Piano, drums, voice, bass. This piece still seems to be all about the voice and orchestra; the singer is really way out front. The rest of the band seem perfunctory, until 1m 50s, when they finally come to the fore. At that point, the voice becomes really thin and super-sibilant, and the strings get pulled back a bit, but then after a bit the old mix comes back. That’s weird. A bad edit or a dodgy artistic choice? It doesn’t work. Really jarring and it just sounds bad. Then the band vanish altogether and the instrumental orchestra comes back. We’re almost ten minutes into this record, we’ve heard the band for less than two minutes, and they’re not doing much.

The Morning; Another Morning
More sprightly flutes and harps. Some of this feels like it’s going to veer into Bob Thompson territory. A real populuxe vibe, like “Starfire” or “On the Rocks”. The song moves into double-tracked and hard-panned vocals about being a kid and flying a kite, with a vaguely country bass line. Ha! He sings “Her palace is an orange box” – there’s my orange! Speaking of oranges, isn’t it lunch time? This record isn’t doing a lot for me. The tone is just so campy. Mid-century mood music, a decade after its sell-by date. It’s like something that Danny Elfman would parody in a Pee-Wee Herman film score. Maybe it will pick up after lunch.

Lunch Break; Peak Hour
Oh man, this is even more Bob Thompson-ish! This belongs on one of those great 1990s Ultra-Lounge CDs from Capitol. There is a time and place for that stuff (vintage lounge and exotica is great to listen to when working on bigger writing projects), but the pop musicians called The Moody Blues and their songs are being totally sidelined here. Where are THE MOODY BLUES on this record? What exactly did the The Moody Blues have to do with this record? What was their contribution? Someone orchestrated this material and had Hayward(?) sing on it a little, and then let the band into the studio to do a few distant overdubs that are really inconsequential. It would not be surprising at all if this material had already been scored for some other project and was sitting on some composer’s shelf, and they just repurposed it when they got the gig to orchestrate this record. Ok, this is totally jarring: at 1m 52s the space-age lounge pop orchestra fades out (we’re still in the same “song” here though) and the band actually kicks in, for real, for the first time on this record. They’re playing something absolutely, totally different from the random lounge orchestra music that lead into this. They sound like an average 1960s pop band, bathed in reverb, playing a forgettable song. The band reach a climax, really rockin’ for the only time on this record. They’re recorded poorly, in stark contrast with how nice the orchestra sounds. This may be the only song on the record with electric guitar on it.

The Afternoon; Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) – Time to Get Away
This must be the beginning of Side Two. Here we are right into “Tuesday Afternoon”, with no extended orchestral stuff, just the song. This is a modestly pretty ballad, a product of its time. Acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and Mellotron. My regular readers know that I’m always up for a Mellotron. Then acoustic piano, all heavy left hand in the right channel, while Hayward sings in the left channel, before he’s quite conspicuously panned center, mid-word. Geez. Lay off the drugs guys. That doesn’t sound good. At 4:09 the band are abruptly cut; mid-phrase the orchestra picks up the song and carries on. This time, the orchestra is definitely playing music written specifically for this record, the melodies and harmonic structure are clearly the same. But it’s just not a great idea to have a band play for four minutes and then have them stop while the orchestra starts, in the middle of a bar, within the space of a beat. This record is so piecemeal. Fragmented, random. The orchestral stuff sounds nice, and the orchestrator and conductor knew what they were doing, even if their arrangements were a decade out of date. The issue here is that the band is not integrating into it. It’s like two very different records that were hamfistedly merged. After a bit, the orchestra vanishes again as band come in with another ballad, a completely different song. This one is a bit dark; Hayward is singing about the evening even though the next song is called “Evening”. He is also singing falsetto, with a melodic jump of a full octave that just sounds weird (between “live – all”, “see – where”, and “real – ly”). When the drums kick in and the tempo picks up, there’s a weird jerky rhythm; the tambourine is out of sync with the drums.

Evening; The Sun Set – Twilight Time
This one gives us another ultra-lounge theme with the orchestra then some interesting ethnic percussion. Sounds like an African talking drum and some kind of really high metallic-like thing. Hayward gives us an odd monotone vocal, then there’s some strings… weird squealy Mellotron, flutes, this song is odd and surprising. It also integrates the orchestra and band better than on any of the others, even if the band are playing unusual things that veer pretty far from pop or rock (with the band being simply percussion, bass, and Mellotron). This gives us a bit of an orchestral exotica flavor, once again recalling styles from the previous decade (listen to some 1950s Yma Sumac or Les Baxter). The song switches up again, with a groove that reminds me of “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO, a filtered vocal, and a soup of swirling layered reverberated backing vocals. This three-part segment of the record (it’s unfair to refer to it as a “song”) is the most interesting and musically diverse piece, from both a musical and sonic perspective. Then we get another clumsy fade out of the band and into the orchestra. Man, these people were really, really over-reaching. As this album progresses, I think I’m getting a grip on what they were trying to do. It’s ambitious and probably worthwhile, but due to either limits of 1967 technology, or limits on the musicians or technicians’ own skill sets, it just doesn’t work. It jumps all over the place really haphazardly.

The Night; Nights in White Satin
Here’s the big ballad. So much reverb. So much. But it works. The song has a fair bit going on, but also so much space. Those Mellotron strings. Acoustic guitar lost in space. The drums are way back there on the moon. A flute solo. Where’s Ian Anderson when we need him? (Oh, he’s in post #17). For once, the orchestra and band are playing together here, and this is really the only time on this record when it works. For the rest of this album, they either alternate, or one is maladroitly overdubbed on top of the other. There are some clashes between the Mellotron strings and the live string players, and the mix really is a struggle, but here at the end, someone is getting a grip on how to make the idea of this record work. But it’s still not quite there, and these efforts are too little too late. At about 4m 30s the band vanishes again, and the orchestra takes over until it’s time for another poetic voice-over. Really, when the orchestra plays by itself, this is an impressively well recorded record. But the parts with the band are the exact opposite, they sound so messy. Maybe it’s for the best that the band don’t do that much. If we got rid of all the orchestral bits, it seems like the band bits wouldn’t even fill one side of this album. Then this poem, so self-serious. The dramatic music that ends the album seems like it’s inspired by “Mars” or some other part of Gustave Holst’s The Planets. Actually wait, that ultra-lounge space-age pop stuff is, in itself, sometimes reminiscent of Holst’s “Jupiter” movement. Maybe that was the actual inspiration. It’s all coming together. A big cymbal crash ends the record as it began, and reminds us of the big piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life”. We could loop this record, fading the starting and ending cymbals in and out of each other to make a continuous… no, let’s not.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape: I’m not sure if that’s applicable here.

Next: Boston, coming March 15, 2022

21. Deep Purple

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Deep Purple?  They're a hard rock band from the U.K. who are often held up with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as the three bands who really laid the foundations for heavy metal.  It's likely that I've heard a few of their songs, probably many times, but I couldn't name any of them for you.  A few of the members' names are probably familiar... but I'm drawing a blank right now, aside from Ian Gillan, whose name came on my radar two weeks ago while I was looking into Black Sabbath (Gillan played with Sabbath for a bit after Deep Purple).  Last post, I also made a guess that Ritchie Blackmore is in this band.  That's probably right.  I do know that This Is Spinal Tap was famously influenced by this band (although - also reported last time - the famous Stonehenge gag from Spinal Tap came from a real event on a Black Sabbath tour; so these bands are intertwined in several ways).  Anyway, that's all I've got.

Have to pick an album to hear.  My web-search for "Best Deep Purple album" yielded the usual array of a few dozen listicles.  But first of all, this album cover is fucking hilarious:

...it makes me think of stoner girls in the 1970s with candles and incense and floaty scarves like Stevie Nicks and a boyfriend with a bitchin' Camaro who can barely grow a moustache.  Roach clips with little synthetic feathers on the end.  Bell bottoms.  Feathered hair.  Blue eye shadow.  All that shit.

Ok, but should I listen to it?  I can't take this seriously.  This cover is just so funny to me.  Also, according to a dozen listicles on the internet, this album, Burn, and a record called Fireball usually flip back and forth in the #3 and #4 positions in the Deep Purple catalog, while the records In Rock and Machine Head usually alternate in the #1 and #2 positions, with In Rock being #1 slightly more often.  The cover of In Rock shows the lads carved into Mount Rushmore.  So lame!  What a bunch of doofii.

Wait, I just remembered: "Smoke On The Water".  Yes, of course.  That's Deep Purple.  That's a huge one.  Which album is that on?  Machine Head.  Ok, Machine Head is just a tad below In Rock in the rankings, but we'll give it a go.  It's always good to have at lest one familiar song when I do these things.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today, aside from picking a record to hear.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Deep Purple
Machine Head (1972)
Version: Warner Brothers (Japan) WPCR 12255 (1996 / 2006)

Highway Star
Driving beat with tight playing right off the bat.  Can't help comparing this record to last post's Black Sabbath experience; after just moments it is clear that Machine Head is already a better record than Sabbath's Paranoid.  The difference in base-level musical competency is clear, and the production is better too.  Good driving rock with a dirty Hammond and some grit in the singer's voice.  That's Gillan.  Lyrics about a girl and a car call back to the Springsteen post last month.  The song's bridge has some interesting effects and an organ solo (mixed a little loud, and mostly consisting of arpeggios).  Band remain tight and this take seems energetic and committed as we go into a guitar solo that's also placed a little clumsily in the mix.  It's more interesting than the Hammond solo was, in that it's at least somewhat melodic... until the second half, during which the player resorts to weedly-weedly arpeggios even more egregiously than the Hammond player did.  Yes, it's fast but it's less interesting than the earlier, less manually challenging part.  Song finishes with a concert-style ending after six minutes; not sure this song needed to endure for quite this long, but I wasn't bored.  This song could be paired up with almost anything from Springsteen's Born to Run album, plus Rush's "Red Barchetta", and Queen's "I'm In Love With My Car" (and probably a bunch of others) as a 1970s homage to the waning years of 1950s car culture.  Worshiping these machines and forming some kind of emotional bond with them seems so out of date today.

Maybe I'm A Leo
Little bit of a cocky mid-tempo groove here.  This song just kind of chugs along.  Does its thing.  Playing and recording are both competent, nothing wrong with this record, but not enough right.  Once again, the dirty Hammond solo, and interesting kind of tremolo processing on what might be a Rhodes solo.  Good to see the keyboard player getting some space to shine in music this heavy.  Heavy?  It's really not that heavy at all, by today's standards.  Just sounds like basic rock.  But I guess in 1972, this was a bit weighty.  That Hammond is really adding a lot of the weight.  It's so distorted, in a nice way, but it's taking up more space in the mix than the guitars.  Keyboards really got pushed out of metal music for a long time, but in this case, this Hammond is doing more to fill up these mixes with crunchy goodness than the guitars are, byny a wide margin.  Then, once again, we have a guitar solo that begins with some feel and some melody, and then fades.  Hm, I kinda wanted to see where it went.  A great solo should reach a peak, a conclusion.  But we just get a fade.  
Super trite, low-effort lyric:
"Acting like a fool, I had to make her cry
Maybe I'm a Leo but I ain't a lion
I'm hurtin' for her so bad
I want her now".

Pictures Of Home
Back to a more energetic tune.  The organ player switches from a moderately gritty tone to a ridiculously distorted one at key moments; he's threatening to drown out the singer in the second chorus, and even fights with the guitarist during the solo.  Back off the otherwise effective Hammond, guys!  Drummer is on point, and drums are recorded as well as can be expected for 1972.  We're a couple of years out from the golden age of drum recording, which coincided with 24-track tape becoming standard just a little while after this record was made.  The narrator of this song is at the top of a mountain, cold and alone, missing home.  Seems like a song about loneliness, but verse three introduces some further themes:
"Here in this prison
Of my own making
Year after day, I have grown
Into a hero
But there's no worship
Where have they hidden my throne?"
Ah, the old "it's lonely to be successful" trope.  Yes indeed, it's rough and isolating to be famous.  Well, watch what you wish for, you just might get it.  This song is another tightly performed rocker, but it throws some surprises at us toward the end.  An organ solo is overdubbed atop the original organ (and guitars) giving us several layers of distorted Hammond; we don't hear that very often.  Then: a bass solo.  No.  Ack!  It's only eight bars long, but is there a more cliched bad idea than a bass solo?  This leads into a little bridge, a build, a pause... leaves us hanging in an effective way... and then into another guitar solo to fade.  Once again, this song needed to climax, not fade. Otherwise, there are enough little changes and surprises to keep this one interesting, even if the lyric is a bit trite.

Never Before
Funky, herky-jerk intro groove gives way to a pretty straight-forward rocker with few surprises, but nothing embarrassing about it.  Once again: this lyric.  Charitably, it may be construed as simple and heartfelt, very emotionally exposed... or it can be considered super-low-effort.  How long did it take our lyricist to come up with:
"Somebody, somebody
Come to my side
I'm tired, I'm crying
I'm sick inside
My woman, that woman
Just wasn't right
Help me, now
Please, my friend
I never felt so bad before
Never, never before"
I mean, we've all felt this way, but these guys are reasonably decent musicians, so a little more ambition with the words would have gone a long way toward elevating this music.  Did Gillan improvise these live while recording a first take, and then just leave 'em as-is?  These words feel like someone's first effort at writing a song... ever.  Any fourteen-year-old with the tiniest fledgling ability for self-criticism would have taken a look at this and thought "yeah, maybe I can do better than that".

Smoke On The Water
This guitar riff.  Nothing short of iconic.  What are the top ten legendary rock guitar riffs of all time?  This one must be on that list.  The band knew it too.  At the top of the song they play it over and over with very little else going on - like a freakin' manifesto - for almost a full minute.  It comes back a few times later in the song as an instrumental refrain.  This is yet another song that's been bouncing around in the background noise of my life since I was old enough to know what music was.  It's always just sort of been there.  But like just about all of the other bands discussed in this project, I've been doing my best to ignore it for the past four-plus decades.  Until today, I never listened to the words, at all.  These lyrics?  Are they true?  It seems like it's a narrative of a memorable event during the making of this record.  It's true that the Rolling Stones had a mobile recording truck that they leased out.  Did the band really witness the burning of a lakeside casino during a Zappa concert while making this record in Switzerland with the Stones' truck?  The song is a bit longer than it needs to be.  They get a whole lot of mileage out of their riff.  Weird phase-flange on the drums at the end.  Cool.

Are we in church here?  Organ solo.  Their Hammond is clean for once; good, you have to give us the clean version in order for the grit to have impact.  And then... they fade in the grit, and some phase effects.  Then we hear it clean again.  Then dirty.  Then clean.  Someone was stoned, but it works.  In concert, this 1m 23s Hammond intro probably lasts for like ten minutes as an extended solo.  When the band finally kick in they screw around with some bluesy staccato crap for a bit, then finally move into a bluesy boogie-woogie groove.  Couple of solos, and then another super-lame lyric fails to thrill us, accompanied by a twelve-bar blues groove from the rhythm section.  This jam is 7m 21s and feels like album filler.  They didn't have enough songs.  Cranking out a generic blues thing to soak up part of side two is an all-too-common cop-out.  Can't help but to point out that the song is called "Lazy".  Yup.  The last minute picks up the tempo and shows some spark, but still, this one is a big nope.

Space Truckin'
This song is a bit more lighthearted, a fun little rocker about partying in outer space.  Hate to say it, but as goofy as the words are, they're still the most creative lyrics on this album.  
"Well we had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
We meet with all the groovy people
We rocked the Milky Way so far"
Yeah... that's as good as this band can do, lyrically.  Sorry.  Gillan goes up into a shrieky falsetto for a few lines, a sound that would define metal music for the next twenty years.  Gotta love the timbale (or just high toms?) solo out of nowhere.  This 4m 32s song wears out its welcome a full minute before it ends; it was fun for a bit but doesn't know when to stop.  


Some post-posting research: 
Of course, the "Smoke On The Water" saga actually happened.  Crazy!

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Tricky.  "Smoke on the Water" would be the obvious choice, but it's a bit long for a mix tape. It's tempting to go with "Pictures of Home" - trite lyric, bass solo, and all - but it's only 35 seconds shorter than "Smoke".  Maybe a quick edit of one of these?  Are there single versions out there?

Moody Blues, coming March 01, 2022

20. Black Sabbath

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Black Sabbath? This is Ozzy Osbourne's band, but I think he quit after a bit.  I think Tommy Iommi is in this band.  Or is he in Deep Purple?  For some reason I get these two bands mixed up.  I know, I know.  Is Ritchie Blackmore in one of these bands?  He's Deep Purple, I think.  Eh, who cares.  Black Sabbath songs: "War Pigs" is famous, but I can't think of how it goes.  "Iron Man" is theirs, and also "Paranoid".  That's all I've got.

Have to pick an album to listen to: my web-search for "Best Black Sabbath album" yielded the usual array of a few dozen listicles.  There doesn't seem to be a consensus at all on their best record.  A bunch of titles all seem to jumble around for the top few spots.  Turns out that all of the Black Sabbath songs that I know are on their second album, Paranoid, which is occasionally at the #1 spot in rankings (and always in the top four at least), so that seems as good as any.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today, aside from picking a record to hear.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

But first...
What''s up with this?

The source image for both of these covers was clearly the same.  Look at them; the position of the fingers, and everything else.  Even the negative space between the baby's left pinky and shoulder is the same shape.  This is the same piece of art, re-purposed in two very different ways.  And both of them are creepy as hell.  There's got to be a story here, maybe this piece of art in its original unaltered form was famous in Thatcher's Britain. The Black Sabbath record is their album Born Again (1983). But Depeche Mode used this horrorshow first (1981) with the 12" version of their second-ever single, "New Life".  These bands couldn't be more different.  Aside from being British, I don't think anyone ever claimed that Black Sabbath and Depeche Mode had anything in common, whatsoever... and now they are forever united by deeply questionable choices in their album art. 

OK, and now we present...

Black Sabbath
Paranoid (1970)
Version: Japanese SA-CD, UIGY-9034 (2010)

War Pigs
This title is famous, but this song doesn't seem familiar at all.  We've got these big grindy chords played over a sort of loping rhythm section (really thin and badly recorded); then a siren comes in.  This whole extended section feels like it's leading up to something, like this is not the song, it's a teaser.  Not even an intro per se, just a kind of vamp while the band hunts for a song.  I'm thinking that just the band name "Black Sabbath" was probably a huge contributing factor to the whole "Satanic Panic" thing in the 1970s and 1980s.  Lots of bands got called out for their supposedly satanic content. There was no shortage of radio, television, and print hysteria over our kids being corrupted by the devil's music.  While parents were on a witch hunt against the relentlessly wholesome Electric Light Orchestra for their supposed backward messages (the band responded by putting completely innocuous real ones on their next album) a band called Black Sabbath just seem to be screaming for the attention of parents and preachers to piss off.  Ok, after this extended intro we get Ozzy singing nearly a capella lyrics that seem to be nearly a manifesto for this band:
"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death's construction"
Got the checklist handy?  We have witches, black masses, evil minds, sorcerers, death, destruction.  It's all right there.  Everything your parents and preachers are gonna hate.  But Ozzy keeps singing, and it turns out the lyric is a very plainly worded screed against war.  There's no poetry here, no metaphor, no subtext, no wordplay (I mean, he has already rhymed "masses" with... "masses".  Nice one, Oz).  He just says what's on his mind in a manner that couldn't be misconstrued by anyone:
"Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor"
Well, that's a message few parents or teachers or anyone remotely sane would actually disapprove of, unless your parents are these titular war pigs.  Well played, Ozzy.  Since we can't actually fault Black Sabbath's message, it seems that the people obsessed with saving our children had to pick on the band who wrote "Mr. Blue Sky" instead.  What the fuck were they thinking?  These religious-wrong nutjobs didn't have enough real social problems to tackle, so they went after music?  All of this said, this song is pretty dull.  Yeah, the guitars sound big, but the song is kind of tedious.  Not a whole lot happens, and it's got no energy, no spark.  It's got a lot of space, but not in a cool atmospheric way.  More like a "we couldn't think of anything good to play" kind of way.  This album is a cornerstone of metal, but the band just seem bored.  There's very little of musical interest.  The song is nearly eight minutes long, but what it has to say, musically or lyrically, is all said within three minutes.  A pop-single edit wouldn't cut anything really important.  The rhythm section is sloppy, as are synchronized guitar solos for the last two minutes.  Around 7m 17s, the guitarists get sloppier, fall way out of sync, and then just give up.  There may not be a more anti-climactic ending on record.  Ha, at the end there's an effect where the tape speeds up.  That's the best part of the song.

Is this the song during which Ozzy allegedly bites the heads off of live animals during concerts?  Who knows if that actually happened.  Probably not.  Maybe they were props, fake animals.  I can't be bothered to research that.  This song is also pretty thin on ideas, but if you have little to say musically, it's best to play faster so the few ideas are closer together and seem like more ideas.  I just made that up, but maybe I believe it.  Man, for music that's supposed to make you want to pump your fist in the air, make devil horns with your fingers, break shit, and be mad, this is really kind of tepid.  The band really sound like they're holding back.  And they really just aren't very good players.  There's a lot of slop here and the solos kind of suck.  But wait, this guitar tone in the solo, it's kind of twisted.  Honestly it sounds like something that early Devo would use (if the only Devo you know is "Whip It'" you have no idea... go listen to the album Duty Now For the Future).  Might be an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer or some similarly obscure and arcanely designed guitar pedal.  The mastering on this song is completely different from the rest of the album.  Way bassier, with a low end murkiness that doesn't need to be there.

Planet Caravan
Ah fuck, a ballad.  This is not what I want to hear this from this band.  I'm really really shocked to discover that one of the records that birthed metal is so fucking boring to listen to.  If this were a different band, I'd like the woody percussion on this song, and... oh.... wait.  This is also interesting vocal processing.  Sounds like maybe they ran his voice through a Leslie (the special type of loudspeaker usually used with Hammond organs) and some kind of filter.  Wait, then there's some weird electronic effect.  This is kind of trippy.  I kinda like this actually.  Completely not what I expected, at all, but these kinds of surprises are exactly why I'm doing this project. This almost sounds like Can or something.  Longish guitar solo kind of sucks though.  Go figure.  Sounds like a totally different band, but one I like better.  If they made a whole album like this, I'd be into it.

Iron Man
See, this is what I was looking for.  This one brings that bombastic heavy power to the music.  The sense of weight that gives this genre of music its name.  The recording is better than on the other songs too.  They spent more money on this one, it's easy to tell.  They knew it was going to be the iconic one.  But it's just as repetitive and thin on musical ideas as the others.  Ozzy just sings along with this repetitive guitar riff, over and over, it doesn't develop.  What is this song even about?  Certainly not the titular super-hero.  Seems like it's about a giant robot who was sent into space and has now returned as an enemy?
"He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he traveled time
For the future of mankind
Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold"
Maybe this is a metaphor for something, perhaps some kind of social isolation.  Ozzy normally doesn't like to get that arty with his writing.  He normally doesn't like to get arty at all.  Is this lyric a rare example of euphemism from the Oz, or just something he found in an issue of Amazing Stories, transcribed for our pleasure?  You decide.  Ah, then this tempo-change mid-song.  Things pick up, some new ideas come in.  Bass player is reaching a bit, trying to do something more interesting, but struggling.  Guitar solo is just as lame as the others.  But again: some more ideas here: after going back to the main verse, there's another tempo thing, and then another whole new section.  This is easily their most inventive song.  I'm still amazed that the playing on this album sucks so bad, but this song is one of the tighter efforts.

Electric Funeral
Here's another war tune, this one appears to be describing an atomic bomb blast.  Same as the others though: repetitive and simple.  The arrangement gets so amateurish toward the middle, with some even messier playing as Ozzy repeats the title over and over.  That part of the song feels more like a preview of some especially sloppy garage punk that would come along by the end of the decade.

Hand Of Doom
The biggest surprise on this record are how socially conscious the lyrics are.  We've had at least two anti-war tunes so far, and now we're unambiguously warning kids away from drugs, during the peak of their era of glorification.
We get:
"First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm
Disillusioning, you push the needle in
From life you escape, reality's that way
Colours in your mind, satisfy in time"
And soon:
"Oh you, you know you must be blind
To do something like this,
To take the sleep that you don't know
You're giving Death a kiss
Oh little fool now"
Maybe Ozzy's absolute refusal (or failure) to employ any sort of allegory in his music works in his favor here.  These lyrics are too plain in their intent to miss.  Fifty years ago this music may have seemed intolerably noisy and offensive to authority figures, but these lyrics are unimpeachably pro-social.  It's like the band's name and all the dark imagery was there to lure the malcontented kids in, but then the record is almost as full of messages as positive as anything by the mostly-insufferable Howard Jones.  Anyway, this is another long song (7m 8s) and it's boring as hell.  The second biggest surprise on this record is how dull it is musically.

Rat Salad
This is a quick instrumental.  Instrumentals are a bad idea for this band; they need Ozzy's words to add another layer of interest (such as it is) to partially bolster the instrumentalists' lack of musical invention.  The drum solo in this song is one of the worst in history.  It's just super lame.  Rote and sloppy.  And it lasts for nearly a minute of the 2m 30s song.  Man...

Fairies Wear Boots
Alrighty.  Fun delays on the guitar foreshadowing U2's The Edge, and then the album closer is about... well, let Ozzy say it:
"Yeah I looked through a window and surprised what I saw
A fairy with boots and dancin' with a dwarf,
Yeah, fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
Yeah I saw it, I saw it, I tell you no lies
Yeah Fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
I saw it, I saw it with my own two eyes".
This basically repeats for more than six minutes, until we get the big moral:
"So I went to the doctor
See what he could give me
He said "Son, son, you've gone too far.
'Cause smokin' and trippin' is all that you do."
Ok, yeah, whatever.  Nothing new to say about this song.  Same as the others.  Inexplicably, the playing is a notch tighter.  Wait, so is the mix.  This whole song feels like it wasn't just placed last on the album, but recorded last too, and by the end these guys got warmed up and figured out how to play their instruments better.  And they're sounding a little more inspired.  Still not a great song, but why didn't they have their shit almost-together to this degree on the other songs?  I'm also not crazy about the trite lyric, but musically, this is one of their better efforts.  The fade-out at the end is lame though.  They needed to just bring the song to a climax and end it properly.

Ok, I had to look a few things up after the fact.  Yeah, Ozzy left the band eventually, and was replaced by Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, who we'll be listening to next time.  During their 1983-1984 tour, Black Sabbath also used Bev Bevan, drummer from Electric Light Orchestra.  Maybe these rather different bands were in cahoots over the whole Satanic messages thing, or maybe its because both bands were from Birmingham.  During that tour, there was a mix-up about the size needed for a Stonehenge set-piece, which directly inspired one of the most memorable gags in the rock-mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap, released within a year of the tour's conclusion.  

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
It should be "Iron Man", but that one is too long for a mix, so we're going with "Paranoid", and maybe we'll hold "Planet Caravan" in reserve for a mix of trippy / ambient tunes. 

Deep Purple, coming February 15, 2022

19. Bruce Springsteen

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Bruce Springsteen? He comes from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and is proud of it. That should tell you something right there. I’ve been to Asbury Park, and I even played a gig there as a musician. It’s fucking dump. It’s the kind of place you leave as soon as you’re able to. It’s not the kind of place you sing about unless you’re singing about how depressed and depressing it is. What else? He calls himself The Boss. Forget that. He’s sure not the boss of me! His band are the E-Street Band, but the only band member I can name is Clarence Clemons on sax, and I already ripped on that guy a few posts back. His sax style is the worst. I want to punch it. It is not my wish to personally hurt Mr. Clemons per se, but I want to take a big metaphorical fist and punch that whole style of sax playing.

As for Springsteen’s songs, his Born In The U.S.A. album was a big deal when I was a teenager, so the title track and “Dancin’ in the Dark” and… was it called “Glory Days”?… those were on the radio all the freakin’ time. I was not amused. Did he also have one called “I’m On Fire” around the same time? In my world, it would have been much cooler to have Gang of Four or Fad Gadget on the radio, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen. In the Great Lakes region of the U.S.A., I would have settled for Depeche Mode at that time, but they were still too weird and underground at that point. They didn’t get any U.S. airplay for quite a while longer. I’m sure I’ve absorbed some of Bruce’s other music along the way, unfortunately. But I have to admit – this hurts, but I’m gonna be real vulnerable for you people – I kinda like the song “Born To Run”. I know, I know, this is costing me a lot of my counter-culture cred here. I’ll discuss that tune below since it’s the title track from this post’s album choice.

As always, this series is all about tabula rasa listening. I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions,written as the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value with no baggage. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Version: this time I’m listening to the HD Tracks master in 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sample rate. Let me tell you a few things kids: this HD audio shit is snake oil. I’ve been working in pro audio since 1989, and I teach digital audio theory at a college level. In a double-blind listening test (with playback levels matched and when you don’t know which version of something you’re hearing at any moment) you can’t tell the difference. These high-res files offer no boon to the listener. It’s a sham for the audiophile purists who also think mistakenly think that buying golden audio cables or something is going to make their home hi-fi sound better. It’s all placebo effect. There is actually a lot of benefit to doing the recording and mixing of an album at a higher resolution (I always do), but once the record is done, there is nothing lost by bouncing it to so-called “CD quality” (16-bit, 44.1kHz) for distribution and playback. The benefit in higher resolution is only gained during editing, processing, and mixing, and doesn’t offer anything useful during playback. (That said, data compressing to a lossy format like MP3 absolutely does degrade the audio noticeably). But the people who do the mastering for the HD Tracks releases sometimes take a fair amount of care with their work, and also get less pressure from record labels to detrimentally screw around with the dynamics (I have also heard HD tracks releases that were brick-walled, so there’s that). If these high resolution records sound better to you than normal resolution records, it’s because the people mastering them know who their audience is and they aren’t screwing around. But it isn’t actually because of the resolution. We would live in a much better sounding world if the better HD Tracks masters were just downsampled to CD resolution for all releases instead of… ok, I’m gonna rant about record labels, amateur engineers, and the loudness wars here. No, I’m not. I’m gonna stop.

Let’s torture ourselves with some Springsteen instead.

Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run (1975)
Version: HD Tracks (2014)


Thunder Road
Ha! Right before playing this record, I was listening to the mighty Roy Orbison. Took Roy off, put on Bruce, and the first stanza on the first song of this record colors its narrative with the line “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”. We’ve got voice, a piano, and some harmonica in the intro as we meet the narrator and his girl Mary. Band kicks in right on schedule, but the piano doesn’t give them any room. The mix engineer needed to have dipped the piano down a bit when the rest of the band started playing. It overwhelms the arrangement for the rest of the song. The piano needed to have been up and in front when it was the only thing accompanying Bruce’s voice, but when everyone else starts playing it’s just in the way and distracting. Even Bruce’s voice is struggling to be heard above the piano. Later in the song when the dreaded Clemons sax is meant to be featured, it is barely audible. What’s going on with the lyrics… this is a pretty wordy song full of some quasi-evocative imagery, but some of it hasn’t aged well. Bruce is asking his girlfriend (who has had her share of suitors) to go for a ride in his car because life sucks and going for a drive is the answer. I guess in 1975 that might have seemed like a good idea – we were still under the sway of the dregs of the American mid-century car-culture, encapsulated in the idea that the road is freedom. In 2022, this idea just seems dated, like he’s going to blow a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for no good reason. Take fewer trips people. Drive less.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Unlike “Thunder Road” which felt like a warm up for “Born To Run”, this one has an R+B feel, with an attempt at a bit more of a groove (not sure if it succeeds) and a widely-panned horn section. Having those horns spread out so widely across the stereo field is distracting. I’d pan them so that they feel more together, tighter, like a horn section would be on stage, and then maybe balance them opposite the piano, to be positioned on the other side. Bruce’s voice sounds like he’s straining. It rough, gravely, and expressive, but still kind of controlled. Like he’s fighting himself. Song doesn’t really go anywhere. Just does one thing for a while, except for this weird reverberant bridge where Bruce starts hollering “And I’m all alone, I’m all alone” as if from down the hall, and in a really odd tone of voice. This song is filler. Adjust your car use so that you fill up the tank less often.

This one jumps right in with a big drum fill and another feel similar to the title track. Thematically it’s the same: working a shitty job, daydreaming of your perfect Stepford girlfriend, and looking forward to taking off with her in your car. The band are tight and energetic here. The performance isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of diversity in the musical arrangements and lyrical ideas. I’m already kind of over this record. Two of the three songs have been functionally identical, and the title track is destined to be more of the same. The mix is just crap. Everything is just kind piled on top of everything else, there’s very little separation or clarity. The overall tonality is mid-rangey and murky. Geez, how would a worse master of this record sound? Bruce would want you to buy an electric car. Everything is moving in that direction.

Another wordy song with a long intro and a more portentous tone. Bruce and his friend or girlfriend (or maybe his friend who he wanted to be his girlfriend) Terry are growing up on the streets during “one soft infested summer” (what does that even mean?). Seems that growing up, or maybe the presence of another fella, pulled them apart. Their cars are mentioned. The track has that melancholy nostalgic feel to it, your first heartbreak and all that jazz. Band are tight once again and build the track adequately. This whole song is a murky mess though. This record is awful sounding. That slap-delay on Bruce’s voice toward the end of the song is just clumsy. Fossil fuels are killing us all.

Born to Run
At risk of repeating myself: one thing I never noticed about this song is how miserable the recording is. Someone really fucked this record up. Seems that Bruce wasn’t exactly a superstar yet when this was made, but it wasn’t his first album either; there must have been some budget in place. What works for me in this song is the exuberance and energy that the band bring to the recording. Their performances have sounded (at the very) least awake – and usually much better than that – on all of the songs so far, and on this one they really turn in a heartfelt take. It’s all drive (ha) and energy. Hearing it in context with the rest of the record for the first time ever, it does seem like the lyrics are just more twists on Bruce’s same themes, and the arrangements bring back the same sounds that we keep hearing. Really, I wish I hadn’t listened to this album. Experiencing all the second-rate attempts at essentially making this same song over and over sort of diminish the impact of the song “Born to Run”. Lyrically, we’ve got repeats of the go-to concepts of car culture, freedom from a dead-end life, and another dream-girl (this one is Wendy; we met Mary and Terry in two previous drafts of this song’s concepts). Bruce even name-checks the American dream in this one. This final draft of his thesis is the strongest version of Bruce’s obsession with chasing these ideas over and over again. Even little moments like the key change when he sings “Sprung from cages out on Highway 9” are effective songwriting tricks that he could have employed more often. Bringing the Hammond in mid-verse (when he sings “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims”) are the super-common little ideas that add musical interest. The glockenspiel is a nice arrangement touch that gets us one step away from rock instrumentation without going further than would be appropriate for what this band does. Gotta love the tremolo rockabilly guitar too, and the wah-wah guitar that comes in at 2:11 (“Beyond the palace…”). The drummer shows his worth in the bridge beginning at 2:37. Bruce has been polishing this idea for a while (maybe even on prior albums? I don’t know), and his warm-up efforts are found all over this album. Here the ideas come together in their best version. All he wants to say on this album is encapsulated in this successful song, and the rest of the sketches songs really become redundant. Increased public transportation infrastructure is one of many paths toward our survival as a species.

She’s the One
Another tragically shitty recording that really feels unnecessary after everything we’ve heard so far. Over nice Hammond arpeggios that later turn into piano arpeggios, Bruce tells us about meeting the perfect girl, but this one doesn’t get a name. But he does mention her French cream and her French kisses. What’s he doing with a socialist from Europe? She probably rides the Metro. Bruce needs to get back to the freedom-loving ‘Murican girls and their cars. But, in the long run, the object of your desire is going to be more impressed with your heart and your mind than with your fancy car.

Meeting Across the River
This one starts off as a pretty slow ballad. It would have been nice to hear this one right after the balls-out intensity of “Born To Run”. Then they can sequence “She’s The One” after this one. That would flow better. Accompanied by piano and a very distant and reverberant trumpet (conspicuously distant and reverberant… clumsily distant and reverberant…) Bruce’s pal Eddie replaces his quartet of girlfriends. Oh wait, seems that one “Cherry” left him. And he needs a ride, so apparently he doesn’t have his car anymore. Nice job, Bruce. Bruce wants to go through the tunnel “to the other side”. Yes, Bruce, that’s usually what happens when we go through a tunnel. We get to the other side. New Yorkers disdain the so-called “bridge and tunnel” crowd invading the city looking for fun on the weekends, and guess what: Bruce Springsteen is that guy. Stay in Jersey, Bruce. Once again tonight is “the big night” in a Springsteen song. The night it’s all gonna change, the night life is going to become worth living, the night fortunes will smile upon the dissatisfied. That’s his big theme, but these lives never really change, do they? Wanna change life? Electric vehicle charging stations grew by 64% last year. They’ll be everywhere before you know it. Invest in this tech.

This long album closer starts with strings (of course; a prerequisite on the epic album-closer) and a tinkly piano. The 9:33 running time makes it 15 seconds longer than “Free Bird” which closed our Lynyrd Skynyrd experience (previous post). But is it a better song? Well it develops in more dynamic and interesting ways, and the lyrics are more evocative, even if Bruce’s same-old themes are here once again: cars, the streets at night, hope in a darkened heart; dancing, getting laid, getting shot. All in a night’s work. There is, however a sax solo that goes on for more than two minutes. No, Clarence. Just no. On my time, John Coltrane can do that. Charlie Parker can do that. Several others can too. But not the inventor of the hideous 1970s/1980s rock sax sound. I gots other stuff to do. During this saxual assault, the rhythm section have the good sense to change things up a few times in an attempt to keep the song relatively interesting. At the end, the band invest a full half-minute in letting the dense arrangement die away to almost nothing (effective) and then another half-minute doing basically nothing (edit that!). Then Bruce comes in with his efforts at poignant lyrics as the song’s protagonist is carried away by ambulance, and no one cares. But don’t worry, “they wind up wounded, not even dead / Tonight in Jungleland”. Whew!

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
"Born to Run", clearly.

Black Sabbath, coming February 01, 2022

18. Lynyrd Skynyrd

(I had to begin a post about fuckin' Skynyrd with "dude").  
If any band epitomizes the inverse of my taste in music (especially in my teens and twenties), it's Skynyrd.  This band symbolizes the reason I got into Bauhaus and Talking Heads.  They're an icon for my decision to turn off classic rock and look toward Magazine.  They're an icon for everything I was rebelling against upon hearing Entertainment! by Gang of Four - or The Man Machine by Kraftwerk for that matter - or anything by Dead Kennedys - and fucking rejected not just Lynyrd Skynyrd, but everyone who liked them and everything they stood for.  Fuck this band.  Fuck their fans.  Fuck YOU.

OK, I'm'ma' calm down.  I'm fanning myself with one hand as I type this.  I have three hands.   So, eighteen posts into this series, I'm gonna tackle the band who wrote "Free Bird".  I've been working as a sound engineer for thirty years.  Every god damned night of my life, some stupid pinhead yells out "Freebird!" at whatever concert I am mixing.  It doesn't matter if it's a rock gig, a jazz gig, or a fucking gospel gig, someone without any sense at all thinks it's clever to yell "Freebird!" at some point in the show.  Every.  Night.  About three times out of the 2000+ live converts I've engineered, some smart-ass band has actually started playing it, and every single time, the audience has been dumbfounded.  Not because the band have the audacity to play the song, but because few of the people present actually understand that "Free Bird" is a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Usually, the dipshit who requested it doesn't even realize it's a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  They seem to think that "Freebird!" just something you're supposed to shout at a concert to show everyone what a jackass fratboy date rapist you are.

So yeah, fucking "Free Bird".  What else does this band play?  I dunno.  Is "Sweet Home Alabama" theirs?  I think so.  Man, this post is gonna be a slog.  What else?  "Gimme Three Steps"?  Is that Skynyrd?.  Oh and "What's Your Name Little Girl"?  That's them, right?  That's all I've got.  What else do I know about this band?  Not a lot.  Maybe one of the main guys is Ronnie van Zandt (is that spelled right)?  I wanna say a couple of the lads died in a plane crash.  The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Buddy Holly.  No, sorry, that was the real plane crash.  The O.G. rock n' roll plane crash.  

All right, I had to pick a Skynyrd album to listen to, because I hate myself, life, and everything about the universe, and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on purpose is the only way I can truly perform an adequate act of self -harm horrific enough to express my deep inner turmoil.   A quick web search for the oxymoron "best Lynyrd Skynyrd album" reveals that their 1973 debut Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) is universally in first place, followed by their 1974 follow-up, Second Helpings.  Third place album varies widely.  So Pronounced it shall be.  As for versions, the Songs of the South, MSFL, and AP pressings are well-rated, as are the original MCA pressings from Japan (but not MCA pressings from USA).  Sadly(?) I couldn't find any of the desired pressings, so I had to go with an MCA pressing from the U.S.

This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  As usual I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life (above), I'm taking it at face value with no baggage.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) (1973)
Version: MCA 088 112 727-2 (2001)


I Ain't The One
The first thing we learn on this record is that at least one band member can count to three, but apparently he couldn't manage four.  Then we get backward drums.  That's a surprise.  Definitely unexpected.  Turns out these backward drums continue playing through the whole song.  They become gimmicky and annoying, and are often the loudest thing in the mix.  This is a ham-fisted and clumsy use of a (usually) always welcome production trick.   The normal drums stay buried in the mix, throwing it all off-kilter, mix-wise.  This guitar work reminds me a lot of The Eagles.  That is not a surprise.  Almost completely expected.  Vocalist is really buried in this mix; is it that he can't sing or is it that what he's saying isn't important?  At 0:55 his voice suddenly and noticeably drops even lower, and stays there for the duration of the song.  He mentions a gun at one point.  I wonder how many of these songs will do so?  So far these guys sound like a typical southern bar band.  The playing is competent but not special.  Song is completely forgettable.

Tuesday's Gone
By chance, I'm writing this one Tuesday!  Wow, that means there must be supernatural cosmic forces at work!  This guitar lead already reminds me of "Free Bird".  So does the vocal cadence.  This band are showing limitations already; it's already clear that they have a fairly narrow palette of ideas to draw from.  There's a really chimey guitar in there with an interesting tone (good), an acoustic guitar that's all pick and no body (bad), and some strings in the left channel (and then the right, they move) that could be Mellotron.  Wait, one of these guys was smart enough to master use of a Mellotron?  There's an extended instrumental section that shows a little ambition, but definitely feels like a bit of detritus from the recently-concluded 1960s.  The oft-repeated refrain is "Tuesday's gone with the wind. My woman's gone with the wind."  Man, that's freakin' trite.  This song is pretty long at 7:32 but seems to run out of steam a bit after the 5:00 mark.  Doesn't really do anything new after that.  Further noodling  reaches a dynamic peak at 6:06 and then breaks down and keeps going; they definitely should have ended it there if not much sooner. 

Gimme Three Steps
This song is ostensibly about a conflict between two men.  One wants to shoot the other for dancing with his wife.  The man with the gun pointed at him seems to imply that the woman never told him she was married, and he wouldn't have approached her if he knew.  This is a very noble perspective and shows some level of integrity on his part; we wonder if the gunman let him go.  Can we assume that "cutting a rug" (dancing) is a euphemism for doing something significantly more naked?  If not, is dancing all that bad?  Maybe it was 50 years ago... but then again, that era was much closer to a time when partner dancing was far more common than it is today.  These days lots of people just jump out on the dance floor solo or with a group and shake it.  Really, this song isn't about a conflict between two men.  It's about a duplicitous woman who lied to our poor narrator.  She needed to have told him she was married, or turned down his advances.  Her dishonesty and selfishness is about to get this dude killed.  The song is throwing light upon some of the more dire consequences of lying.  Do I believe that?  Probably not.  But it's worth thinking about.  "Well the crowd cleared away / And I began to pray / And the water fell on the floor."  Is he crying, or did he piss himself?  The song is another moderately competent little rocker with a sing-along chorus and way too much of the congas in the mix.

Simple Man
Simple song, simply lyric, simple man.  When any lyric starts off with any variant on the theme of "my mama told me" you know we're in for something about being a good person and letting your troubles go.  I want to hear a song that's like "my mama told me to do drugs, fuck, and drive faster, and that was great advice".  Yeah, go write that one, I'll wait.  Halfway through "Simple Man", the mix engineer cranks up the reverb on the snare drum for a dramatic effect, but then leaves it on for while.  Sounded good for the dramatic part, but after that it just sounds awful, draws attention to itself, and murks up the mix.  Later, they crank it up on individual drum hits at the end of each phrase.  It sounds so cheesy, so bad.  It's like this guy just got out of sound mixing skool and wanted to play around with these effects, but had no sense of how to use them with any grace or subtlety.  This drummer is serviceable at best, but between these reverberation shenanigans and the backward stuff on "I Ain't The One" he just can't get a chance to play drums without this freakin' D-list mix engineer monkeying with his tone.  The rest of the song is our vocalist warbling trite platitudes like "Be a simple kind of man / Won't you do this for me son, If you can? "  Life-changing advice there, mom.  Surprised she didn't advise him to buy a gun.

Things Goin' On
This sounds like a southern rock stereotype.  It's like what someone from Massachusetts might think southern rock sounds like.  "Too many lives they've spent across the ocean. / Too much money been spent upon the moon."  Interesting and topical lyric there.  I guess one of these guys is capable of reading a newspaper.  Or at least listening to gossip.  We can guess that the "across the ocean" line was in reference to war, or (being 1971) Viet Nam in particular.  And of course this record was made two years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and during the years when five subsequent moon landings were happening.  I reckon the moon landings to be one of the great achievements of both science and of the human spirit, one of mankind's finest moments.  But it's also true that lots of people were against it at the time (as is clearly the case with this band's lyricist) because of the expense and the perspective that NASA is nothing but an extension of the military-industrial complex (a view which I understand but don't agree with; wars are destructive and vile, while space exploration is vital and life-affirming).  "They're goin' ruin the air we breathe" (true 'dat, but listen, we're all helping them to do so), and "I don't think they really care / I think they just sit up there / And just get high."  Yeah, the southerners and northerners can agree on one thing: shit's fucked up.  It's just the specifics of what is most fucked up, and the why, and and the best methods of fixing it that no one can agree on.

Mississippi Kid
Ha, this acoustic bluegrass number starts off with a very Chuck Berry type of riff played in parallel on a banjo and an acoustic guitar.  This tune sidesteps the southern rock cliches of the previous tune and goes straight for something resembling traditional Appalachian folk music.  It isn't a remotely engaging tune, however.  There's no melody or instrumental hook.  Just a 12-bar blues pattern and a generic lyric.  Indeed he mentions his pistols (four times).  A slide-guitar solo is buried in the mix, and is a pale imitation of anything that the greats of mid-century country or the best players in western swing might have come up with.  It's another amateurish moment that feels like somebody young experimenting with things they haven't mastered yet.  That's totally cool, everyone needs to experiment, explore, and grow as an artist, but I don't want to listen to it.  Master your craft and then record, kid.  Acknowledging that this is their first album - and therefore they have growing to do - I'll also point out that it is near-universally considered to be their best album.  Are we to understand that this band continued to get worse after this?  One shudders.  At the end of the song, there's this weird random processed/delayed snare effect.  It comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.  There isn't any snare drum in the song otherwise.  That engineer is the one "sitting up there getting high", apparently.

Poison Whiskey
After the bluegrass we get a riff-heavy rocker.  This a cheerful song about a man whose father drank whiskey (specifically Johnny Walker red) until it killed him.  "Take a tip from me, people... brothers can't you see / Ain't no future in ole poison whiskey."  This was clearly more advice from his sweet mama.  Moralizing aside, this this song is a tight little rocker, but the guy runs out of lyrics so he just keeps telling us not to drink whiskey.  But, you know people use this as a joyous drinking song and have probably probably spent the past five decades playing it on jukeboxes all over Alabammy and Mississippi while downing shots.  We get a little Hammond organ here, but the tone is a bit thin with some tricky resonance.  That amateur mix engineer needed to have spent his time EQing the organ instead of fucking around with clumsy drum processing.

Free Bird
This is a song that came out when I was a toddler, and that I have subsequently spent my entire life trying to ignore.  Today is the first time I have ever listened to this song on purpose, the first time I have ever made a deliberate choice to play it, and to listen to it carefully.  So right off the bat we get this Hammond again.  A little gritter tone this time.  Better-sounding than on the previous tune.  There's also piano: how did the keyboard player pull this one off live?  Did one of the other guys help out on second keys?  The keyboard player gives up completely, and the guitars take over.  The vocalist sings four stanzas, and they don't melodically or dynamically develop at all.  It's just the same thing four times in a row, so it's a bit monotonous.  The singer's pitch is unsteady, he's having trouble holding the sustained notes.  He's all over the place.  Then he repeats "And this bird you can not change" bunch of times, while he and the band build things a bit, and the mix engineer fucks around with drum reverb again.  The band just waffles after that.  More slide guitar, which we heard in the intro, and it isn't super interesting.  No one in this band have any ideas.  None of them impress in either their performance or their innovation.  Second verse is the same as the first.  Same repetitive monotone melody that refuses to develop in any meaningful way.  But we do get Mellotron strings.  That's definitely Mellotron.  This singer keeps singing "And this bird you can not change. / Lord knows, I can't change." over and over again.  And this song won't fucking change.  There is a bit of a build and a dynamic peak after each of the two verses, but other than that we're into nearly five minutes of repetitive dirge.  Change the key, change the melody, change the tempo, change the freakin' hi-hat pattern... anything.  And this song you cannot change.  Lord knows, this band won't change.  Finally at 4:40 the song kicks into a more sprightly tempo and lifts itself out of the slog it has subjected us to for the past 280 seconds.  Those were 280 long and slow seconds, my friends.  The song is only halfway over, but it has nothing left to say.  No more words.  The band just jam out.  They sound excited and tight in this second half; they want to be playing this song.  It's a good take, but it's fairly empty musically.  It's just their guitarist(s) waffling for an intolerably long time.  At 6:31, the rhythm section play staccato breaks, while two guitarists just play stupidly tedious arpeggios for a full 30 seconds.  It's so deeply lame.  This is bullshit.  This is not great guitar playing.  It's just a bunch of diddling.  Find me development.  Find me inventiveness.  Find me melody.  All we have here is guys who can wiggle their fingers real good.  This is why punk decided to skip guitar solos altogether.  If you're not a great player, don't even pretend.  Make your point and then get out without subjecting us to your masturbation.  All the young punks said: we can't sing either, and we can't play guitar either, but we do have something important to say.  So they took a lesson from Lynyrd Skynyrd and learned to say what they had to say in two minutes of energy, and got out of dodge before the song wore out its welcome.  Brevity is the soul of wit.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let's go with "Poison Whiskey".  It's a quick banger that's relatively fun to listen to.

Bruce Springsteen, coming January 15, 2022

17. Jethro Tull

What do I know about Jethro Tull?  Ian Anderson is famous for being one of history's few highly-regarded rock flutists ("flautist" is not the preferred term).  I don't know if he is also the singer, but I think he is.  No idea who any of the other band members are.  I know their song "Aqualung", and I've also heard "Living In The Past", which Midge Ure of Ultravox / Visage / Rich Kids did a mediocre cover of on one of his solo albums.  I don't think I know any of their other songs or anything else about this band.  Seems likely they were named after the 18th century agriculturist who invented machines to make seeding easier.  This guy made our lives better, but also laid foundations for the industrial revolution, which has now now lead us directly into the climate emergency... but also modern health care technology.  It's complicated.  But the band chose the name in like the late sixties.  Let's consider their choice in the context of their era.  Is this going to be hippie rock about growing plants?

As always, the only research I did before writing today was a quick web search for "best Jethro Tull album".  Didn't even read the reviews, just skimmed the album titles, so that I'd remain in the dark as much as possible before listening.  This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  See my C O N T E X T  post for details.  Clicking on the first seven listicles that popped up, I found that Aqualung and Thick As A Brick always occupied the top two spots, with Brick having a slight edge, occupying the #1 spot four times.  Six different albums occupied the third-place spot; only Songs From The Wood held the #3 slot more than once.  It would seem that listening to Thick As A Brick today would be a no-brainer, but a little bit of key information did manage to work its way into my grey matter while skimming these lists: Thick As A Brick is one long song, divided in half (one half on each side of the original LP).  Yeah, I'm not really up for that.  The title track on Aqualung is one of the two Tull songs that I'm familiar with, so we're going there.

As for the chosen version, there are a bewildering number of reissues of this record.  The Steve Hoffman remaster from 1997 (DCC GZS-1105) is by far the best-rated; this is unsurprising since Hoffman generally does good work, and the late 1990s were a golden era for good mastering (see my Aerosmith post for a little more on this).  

If you can't find the rare Hoffman master, the other two best regarded versions seem to be Chrysalis  610 016-217 (Sanyo variant; 1986) pressed in Japan for the Euro-market, and Chrysalis CDP 32 1044 2 (Swindon pressing; 1994)... which is called the 25th anniversary edition, even though it is the 23rd anniversary edition.  The real 25th Anniversary Edition was also released by Chrysalis, just a year before the Hoffman master: Chrysalis 7243 8 52213 2 3 (1996).  It is widely regarded as trash.  So much for relying on 1990s masters.  This is way too much drama to manage for a record I've never heard and probably won't like, but we have to wonder why this record was completely remastered in 1994, 1996, and 1997, among many other efforts.

...ANNNND, the other go-to version is the 2016 Steven Wilson remix, which Tull fans seem to be losing their minds with joy over. That's shocking.  You'd think  that purists would eschew disruption of the holy relics.   But we all know that Wilson has a reputation for doing a nice job remixing a lot of classic records (such as by XTC and Ultravox within my usual listening realm, and lots more).  His work is of high quality, but more often than not, I'd prefer to hear a great mastering job on the original mix of a record I like or love, rather than someone messing with the original mix.  For today's listening,  I wanted to hear the original mix in its best possible master of a record I have no opinion about at all.  So it's the Hoffman '97.  If I end up liking this record, perhaps I'll listen to the Wilson mix.

Jethro Tull
Aqualung (1971) 
Version: DCC GZS-1105


So there's this creepy homeless guy on the front (and back) cover of the album.  The title track launches directly into describing this man's life.  Sometimes seen as someone deserving of our sympathy, he's also painted as a perv watching the young girls run by.  Many of us view people like the titular Aqualung with a combination of pity and revulsion.  Is that the guy's name?  Wonder why Anderson chose that name?  Aqualung.  Not a common name.  If it's a metaphor for something, I'm not getting it.  Maybe Anderson is considering our own judgmental nature here; the singer calls Aqualung his friend and acknowledges that he man is in pain and dying; perhaps the bit about watching the kids is an example of the aspersions that we cast upon the homeless so we don't feel bad about not helping them.  This opening guitar riff is iconic.  There's some stuff happening in the background with acoustic guitar and keyboards that feels messy; maybe it's so low in the mix because the arrangement wasn't really working.  When a second guitar comes in it overpowers the first; this also feels like a bit of slop in the mixing.  The two electric guitars needed to have been the same volume, blending together as one.  Ok, now I wonder if Steve Wilson fixed that [edit: he did!].  Then the song breaks down to a radically quieter vibe and a heavily filtered "radio voice" with lots of delay effects.  Yes, it seems that the earlier bit is our view of the homeless as sinister, then we get so the sympathetic part.  The tempo picks up again and the song almost becomes joyful as the singer describes Aqualung's physical pain.  Maybe these three sections represent the evolution of our perspective from mistrust to empathy to hope for his survival.  The guitar solo that comes in next is fairly rote.  There is nothing wrong with it, but also nothing about it that earns its length.  When the rhythm section switches groove halfway through (4m 12s), it gives the extended instrumental some legs, but still this solo needed to have been half as long as it is (or less).  Now some "dee dee dee" vocals, and a bit more sentimental well-wishing for our poor old pal.  Then the rockin' part from the beginning comes back; it feels like they cut-and-pasted the first verse in here.  Today that would take ten seconds in a DAW; in 1971 it would have taken about ten minutes cutting tape.  Not a difficult process in either case.  The lyric of Aqualung is complex, with a few possible interpretations, and it certainly covers infrequently trod ground.  Musically the song has many ideas, but none of them are especially interesting... except for that iconic six-note guitar riff.  It is prog-ish in that it utilizes a lot of parts and changes and bits.  It keeps us on our toes by constantly switching direction.  But after listening to Meat Loaf for my previous post it feels like Jethro Tull needed to take a page from Meatloaf songwriter Jim Steinman's playbook when it comes to keeping long and multi-segmented songs engaging (I never, ever thought I'd find myself typing these words).  This one has the constant changes, but not enough ideas to fill those many segments with.  Fewer parts but with more good ideas per part would have been a better way to go.

Cross-Eyed Mary
Ah, so here is Anderson's lauded flute, with strings no less.  Ohh, are those strings from a Mellotron?  Gotta love a Mellotron.  Can't go wrong there.  This sounds like a psychedelic-era Beatles out-take.  Throw some backwards stuff on there, and it could be a b-side to "Strawberry Fields Forever".  So, that intro was interesting musically.  When the song kicks in, it really feels like an extension of "Aqualung".  Oh wait, this lyrical hook sounds familiar.  Was this song a single?  I think I may have heard this.  Is this song about a schoolgirl who hooks up with older men?  That's kinda gross.  Poor old Aqualung gets name-checked: he's watching the action.  Cross-Eyed Mary might be one of the little girls that Aqualung has been checking out.  So we've got kind of a seedy Jethro-verse of interrelated characters here.  We've already met more screwed up people in two songs than in a whole side of a 1970s Tom Waits album.  Actually, this album came out right around the same time as the first Waits album.  I wonder if Tom grew up listening to the first few Jethro Tull albums?  It's possible.  But he certainly doesn't seem to have drawn anything from Tull musically.  The alternating flute and guitar solos are nice.  Panning them opposite works.  At the end of the song they go into a more complex and more interesting version of that idea, expanding on it, but adding riffs from the piano and drum kit too.  Kinda cool.  This section could have gone on just a bit longer.

Cheap Day Return
This is a quick 85-second fragment of a folk song that seems to be a poignant little vignette about fame.  The singer meets a nurse and gives her an autograph, but wonders if she's equally enthusiastic about her patients.  Layered acoustic guitars and something else... maybe that Mellotron again?  The drum set and electric guitars are gone.  It's like a different band.  But thank Hoffman they got the mastering right.  How many albums have I listened to for this series while complaining that the acoustic numbers were too loud compared to the electric jams?  Several.  This one is balanced properly.

Mother Goose
This one has a bit of a Celtic feel.  These flutes.  They might be Anderson's flute layered, but really they sound like our old pal Mr. Mello again.  Could be a blend of both.  And this woody percussion.  Almost like an inexpertly played tabla. This band is like prog-folk but with Mellotron.  The tonality of this record is nice.  It's warm and woody with a lot of space in it; the fuzztone psychedelic guitars are using sparingly (such as the "Aqualung" riff) and provide effective contrast.  And, as if on cue, they pop up halfway through this tune, riffin' away.  Lyrically, is it possible that this song is told from the delusional Aqualung's point of view? Wandering the town, causing mischief but not realizing the implications, watching laborers and not participating in their work, thinking he's a schoolboy (disassociating from his current predicament and remembering his happier younger life), and looking at the schoolgirls (again with the schoolgirls; I'm starting to worry about getting arrested for playing this record); but maybe poor ol' Aqualung sees a better version of his life in them.  The girls are all sobbing "I don't believe they knew I was a schoolboy".  He was once one of their ilk.  But now his appearance makes them cry.  

Wond'ring Aloud
After "Aqualung" I thought I was in for a solid prog record, but the past three tunes are really folksy.  Well-recorded for the most part.  The acoustic guitar, piano, and strings on this song are smooth and warm sounding, and blend well.  Gotta cut that lip smacking at 1m 18s though.  I hate that.  Like "Cheap Day Return" this one is in and out in less than two minutes.  Say your piece and get out of dodge.  This is a sweet little thing about waking up in the morning with your sweet little thing.  You can't hate it, it's too kind-hearted a song, but it also avoids being too syrupy.  That's hard to balance.

Up to Me
We've got the acoustic guitar, hand percussion, and flutes again here, this time playing a kind of riffy acoustic groove.  The electric guitar just adds a few little moments, barely there.  This is like acoustic prog.  We don't hear that a lot.  As we reach the end of what was once side one, this music has some nice individual moments, but I'm not hearing any genius here.  Reasonably intriguing lyrics, enough studio trickery to keep it sonically interesting (and relevant to its times), nothing offensive about the playing or engineering, and I'm not hating it for being mawkish or low-effort (the people here meant it), but... the essential spark that might make it special isn't here.  That said, I'm starting to suspect that this is the kind of album that would get under one's skin after repeated listenings.  It's simplicity might be deceptive.  With the song "Aqualung" they might have been overreaching; when they're writing simpler songs with warm acoustic arrangements they seem to be channeling something more honest and seem like they're not trying so hard.  It is entirely possible that the music in any of the sixteen posts that preceded this one would also grow on me with time (well, except for Marillion), but in most cases I fairly seriously doubt it.  There seems to be an integrity to this music that belies its simplicity.  

My God
Ehhhh.... right.  I was just starting to consider that in the future I might possibly be on board with this band, but now we're getting a warning light.   This song appears to be about how modern people have corrupted the word of the Christian god or Jesus to fit their own needs.  That's all well and good, but I'm really not interested in religious lyrics.  I don't happen to be a Christian, and when we go down this lyrical road it really pushes me away.  Gods of any sort almost certainly do not exist.  One person trying to tell another that their ideas about how to interpret words written by archaic men but attributed to metaphorical supernatural beings is pretty much a futile philosophical path.  It's like trying to justify the notion of having a serious critical debate about your fantasy football team.  The music on this track goes back into some more rockin' territory with a pretty virtuoso flute solo in the middle.  It is impressive playing; this is the bit that probably earned Anderson his reputation.  There's a really obvious edit at 3m 42s though [another type of edit: the Wilson mix smooths it out a little], and then some choirs and overdubbed extra flutes are added.  It's pretty clear that the beginning of the flute solo was recorded at a completely different time and place compared to the second half.  The whole segment (which lasts a full 1m 50s) memorable musically, but the choirs reinforce the religious textures in this track.  The next song is called "Hymn 43", so I really hope we're not in for a suite of Jesus music here.  

Hymn 43
Yeah, we're in for a suite of Jesus music here.  "If Jesus saves, well He'd better save Himself / From the gory glory seekers who use His name in death".  So, more lyrics defending Jesus from those who corrupted earlier versions of their pretend friend's words.  You know, the words that weren't written down for 300 years after this death, and have been translated from one langauge to another a half-dozen times.  Was there any point at whic they weren't corrupted?  Same fairly predictable rock track backs it all up.

Another folksy quickie at just 76 seconds.  These guys give The Ramones a run for their money in the short songs department.  Ramones were always a great go-to for mix tapes when there wasn't enough tape left for a longer song at the end of a side. This band have two speeds; they're either playing essentially the same rock song over and over, or the same folksy thing over and over.  The last thirty seconds of this one consist of some queasy strings that sound like the transition between songs on an E.L.O. record... except in this case, they miss the opportunity to actually be that.  This band haven't done any segues between songs, but the outro to this song was a perfect opportunity to start.

Locomotive Breath
Speaking of Tom Waits, this one starts with a blusey barroom piano that seems lifted straight from early Waits.  Maybe the title of this one is also a description of Wait's hygiene during his prime drinkin' and smokin' years.  This tune has more religious metaphor.  Old Charlie appears: that's the devil.  The train that won't slow down is a description of your sins, Christians.  Ugh, I really spoke too soon when listening to "Up to Me" and saying that this record might grow on me.  Side two of this record feels like the same songs over and over but with church lyrics.  The flute solo in "My God" is something worth hearing, but other than that I may just listen to Wilson's mix of side one and then permanently lay this record to rest.  Ok, wait, this song jams a little toward the end.  There's another nice flute solo with some interesting studio effects behind it; layered guitars and maybe even a synthesizer for a sec.

Wind Up
Yeah, more God stuff.  Fuck.  I didn't know I was going to have to go to church today.  That's what I get for writing about these records without researching them first.  My idea of going into these records completely blind and writing my real-time impressions has resulted in some nice surprises, but this isn't one of them.  This shit is intolerable.  Can't even focus on the instrumentals; they're repetitive and the ones on side two are not even as interesting as the only marginally interesting stuff on side one.  Get me outta here.  Ok, this song is more than six minutes long.  I must stay here.  I must listen.  I'm not going to go pee.  I'm not going to look at my email.  I'm going to keep listening.  Are you reading this?  Fuck you.  Go away so I can cheat and stop typing.  How much of this song is left?  God damn, almost half.  Jesus fuckin' Christ.  This shit is from hell.  Ok, I'm gonna go fix typos in the previous parts of this post while this bullshit song runs out. 
Ha, he exclaims "Euuuuggghhh!" in the middle of the song.  
Bye again.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Well, the title track is too long for a mix tape.  And its got this weird vibe that's just got too many moods to make it fit in with mix jams.  "Cross-Eyed Mary" might actually do the trick, but a deep cut like "Up to Me" could be the winner.

Lynrd Skynrd, coming January 01, 2022

16. Meat Loaf

What do I know about Meat Loaf?  Well, he was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I saw a million times in the 1980s during those golden years when my pals and I were old enough to stay out late but not old enough to go to bars.  That's about it.  I don't even know the guy's real name.  Is Meat Loaf the singer's stage name or is it the band name (kinda like how Debbie Harry is emphatically not "Blondie", and there's no one named "Leonard Skinner" (sic)...)  Well, I dunno.  Hey wait, it says "Songs by Jim Steinman" on the cover.  Maybe Steinman is the guy who appeared in Rocky Horror as "Meat Loaf"?  I'm going with that.  It'd be so easy to look this up, but that's just not how this blog rolls.  

How does this blog roll?  I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Meat Loaf
Bat Out of Hell
Version: Cleveland / Epic / CBS  #WEK-34974 

Meat Loaf

Bat Out Of Hell
Wow, this intro is like a boogie woogie jam played at 45rpm instead of 33rpm.  Then it crashes into something more moderate.  This feels like an overture.  Is this a concept album?  The playing is good.  That drummer is rock solid.  But these guitars: parallel 4th or 5ths again!  This is, what, the 4th or 5th post in a row where I had to suffer through this sound?  This whole record sounds is a bit heavier than I expected.  The cover art (more on that later) suggests a metal album, but the one song from this record that I already know ("Paradise By The Dashboard Light") is more middle-of-the-road.  Oh man, this big chorus, it totally sounds like a showtune.  No wonder this guy got cast in Rocky Horror.  Well, that came out before this record.  But he must have roots in musical theater.  It's got that vibe, but it is much more hard rockin' than the average musical.  Lyrically, it seems like he's trying to get laid here: 
"I gotta break it out now, 
before the final crack of dawn. 
So we gotta make the most of our one night together. 
When it's over you know, we'll both be so alone."  
Then he's gonna be gone, like a bat out of hell.  Oh, this break: it's kinda cool.  Flanged guitars and a chattering rock-n-roll 8th-note piano triplets like Jerry Lee Lewis or something.  A good effective bridge, a little change-up. Song seems like it's over around the 6m mark, but then there's this impossibly dirty dense crunchy guitar (almost like a motorcycle?) and we get a coda... this is where the dancing happens in the stage musical.  Then more verses.  This song has a new mood every 45 seconds, and it goes on for nearly ten minutes.  But it keeps up its energy and sustains interest for the whole time.  It was written by someone who knows what he was doing.  This Steinman character.  He's definitely written a couple-few songs before.  I guess that's why he got props on the album cover.  Like a showtune writer really.  They always get that credit, every bit as much as the actors or the writer of the book ("the book" is the play's story, in musical theater parlance).  Seems like Steinman and all of the players were all pros when they started this project.  Not a full-time band per se, but a careful assemblage of session players.  The way they're playing has that session player feel to it.  Hard to pin down why, but I can tell.

You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)
Oh, this spoken-word intro.  I've heard this.  Again, it's very theatrical.  And the reverb on their voices.  Digital reverb was in its very infancy when this record was released (1977).  We're hearing a chamber reverb.  They actually ran the vocalists' voices through a big empty room to get that reverberation, and miked the result.  I wanna know which studio this is.  It's a nice-sounding chamber.  Oh, this vocal hook, I have actually heard this song too.  So there's two songs that I know on this record.  But most of this song seems otherwise unfamiliar.  It didn't get anywhere near the airplay of "Paradise".  Or, I was able to turn it off faster.  This song has a lot going on.  Choirs, glockenspiels, sleigh bells.  A little Motown-style drum beat in sections.  Those glocks give a little Motown feel too.  This song and the past one both seem to be about this lusty guy.  Lots of pent-up adolescent tension here.  
"Now my body is shaking like a wave on the water; 
And I guess that I'm beginning to grin; 
Oh we're finally alone and we can do what we want to; 
The night is young'".  
This record is one of the best-selling of all time.  That's kind of surprising, given the heavily theatrical feel to it (then again, the South Pacific original cast recording was the single best selling record of the 1940s, so there's that).  The songs are also very long - but that said, it was released at the height of the prog era so people were used to hearing longer songs (but these Meat Loaf tunes definitely aren't prog tunes).  Still, this music was assembled with care.  The playing is good, the arrangements stay interesting, and so far we have two long songs, both of which sustain interest.  This fade though.  The hand claps and the otherwise a capella coda work, but the song still had energy, even after a bit more than five minutes.  They needed to bring the band crashing back in for a big finish then fade it.

Heaven Can Wait
Ah, the ballad.  Of course.  
"I got a taste of paradise, 
that's all I really need to make me stay".  
Yeah, this whole album is about the pursuit of some booty.  I know what's coming up lyrically with "Paradise By The Dashboard Light", and so far we're three-for-three with songs that foreshadow that theme.  There's a solid list of songs from the 1970s that use a very specific sort of faux-Baroque french horn arrangement style.  It was a trend back then.  There's a subtle use of it in this song, but it makes the list, along with "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" by Kate Bush and a whole bunch of others that I can't think of right now.  This song is kinda dull though.  Ballads can be great, but this one isn't holding me.  Still, it was assembled with the same care as the other songs have been.

All Revved Up With No Place To Go
This sax.  I really really hate this rock sax sound.  The guy in Bruce Springsteen's band is the worst.  Did he start the mania for this 1970s/1980s rock sax sound?  Ech.  I don't know where it came from.  The component of R+B that fed into early rock and roll used a sax like this, but those old-timers made it work (Louis Jordan, I'm looking at you, and with great fondness), but after laying low for a while it came back, but just... wrong.  Like the new Star Wars movies or something.  So much potential in the originals, but a new generation who just didn't get it ended up making it annoying.  Yeah, I fucking hate this sax tone so much.  When did it go away again?  Late 1980s?  Geez, I am surprised - quite pleasantly - that it hasn't come back again.  Anyway, the singer is still horny in this one.  
"Every Saturday night, 
I felt the fever grow; 
Do ya know what it's like, 
all revved up with no place to go".  
Got it.

Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
Speaking of sounds I hate: this acoustic guitar.  They used a high-pass filter to get rid of everything below like 900 Hertz.  It sounds thin and chimey.  It's the worst. The rest of the mix is fine.  Actually the mixing on this whole record is just as competent as the playing and arrangement are, but we're into another limp ballad here.  
"I want you, I need you, 
but there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you; 
don't be sad because two out of three ain't bad".  
That sounds like a country lyric.  But still, yeah, we have a whole album here about a guy who just wants to get some.  This song reminds me of that DJ Drama & Plies rap where Akon is singing all slow and tortured and sensitive, but addressing a stripper, auto-crooning: "I wanna fuck you".  First time I heard that one was in 2008 at a konbini (convenience store) in Tokyo at like midnight.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  This passionate ballad about how much he wants to pork a pole cat.  It's so ludicrous, it must have been a parody.  But it's not, and hearing it in the context of a Tokyo konbini's tinny sound system made it all the more surreal.  Akon delivers his plea so sincerely, with great yearning.  Anyway, this Meatloaf song is really the same thing.

Paradise By The Dashboard Light
Aside from way too many screenings of Rocky Horror, something else that happened about a million times in my youth was hearing "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" on FM radio.  It was kind of inescapable back then, but I don't think I've heard it in decades.  Somehow, I've managed to outrun it or something, perhaps with a mental motorcycle even more ridiculous than the one on this album cover.  And look at the guy riding it.  Is his spine broken?  He looks like he's in pain.  OK, I guess he was just in hell, so maybe he's not doing so well.  But he's escaping at least.  He should look happier, being recently de-helled and all.  Maybe he just broke his back.  The pose and the look on his face both support that theory.  Or yoga.  This guy got kicked out of hell for doing too much yoga.  Who painted this?  It looks like Richard Corben, who did a lot of stuff in good ol' Metal Hurlant around this same time period.  Anyway, this song spends a lot of time - 8m 28s - building a case for an essential truth about adolescent male sexuality, which is that a pubescent boy will say or do any fucking thing he has to in order to get laid.  All the young dudes are programmed that way by their very DNA.  They are biologically compelled by the most ancient forces of nature to fuck as much as possible.  From an evolutionary point of view, it is why he exists.  But modern life makes it so hard.  Heh.  So hard.  Quite so.  In the case of this song, the poor lad gets what he wants, and he regrets it when his girlfriend goes on to drive him crazy.  Lyrically there's a big punch line here, which is pretty obvious in retrospect, but hearing this song so regularly for so many years kind of diminishes the impact.  I'm surprised and not surprised that I could (if I wanted to which I don't) sing along with all of this.  The mix on this one sounds even more expensive than the others.  They put some effort into this.  And some cash. I'm listening to the drums during the "love scene" (where the baseball announcer is doing his thing).  This drummer is killing it, laying back on the groove after the snare on the four-beat, with that open hi-hat.  It's so simple, not showy, but it's all skill.  Subtle.  Then he wails on the fills at this section's er... climax.  This piano player is working hard too.  Lots of inventive stuff in the arrangement.

For Crying Out Loud
All right, so this guy finally got some, and regretted it.  Now we get a ballad.  This boy has exhibited a perpetual refusal to commit or open up to any emotions over the course of this record, always just wanting to get laid.  I predict he is going to crack by the end of this song and he's gonna fall for the girl.  That's the happy ending right?  Well he got the "happy ending" in the previous song.  But then he was sad about it.  
"I was cold and you were fire"  
Yup, here we go.  
This ballad is going to also build into a big album closer, I can feeeeel it.  
"For crying out loud, you know I love you"
There it is.  He's crabby about it, but he cracked.  Now he's really screwed.  A pause, some strings, a verse, and then - woah - at 4:36, we have the mother of all mid-ballad bombastic lifts.  The thing just gets huge.  This songwriting trope is predictable well beyond the scope of being a cliché, but this whole record's vibe has been about going big with the production, and they do indeed do.  Indeed.  But the mastering here... who the hell fucked this up?  It so so clearly and obviously distorted.  Someone totally fell asleep at the wheel on this one.  Complete and absolute fail.  Sounds like my loudspeaker is broken... but it's not.  The fucking mastering industry is broken.  Oh wait, the song has mellowed again.  Yeah, I can't even focus on this one anymore.  Ok, must focus.  So the lyrics in the last few minutes of this also-epic song (this one is 8m 43s).  Seem to be almost religious.  There's some stuff here that can easily be construed as him singing to his lord rather than the girl.  Maybe he dumped the dame and found Jesus.  

I don't really like this record, but I respect it.  Everyone involved - from the writers to the performers to the original engineers - were at the top of their game.  It's quality.  But I just don't dig the musical theater vibe.

I rarely do this, but after writing all of the above I had to look some stuff up:
Turns out that Jim Steinman is not Meat Loaf.  Michael Lee Aday is Meat Loaf, and yeah, he was in the original stage cast of Rocky Horror.  Makes sense.  The female voice on a few songs is the noted Ellen Foley.  Lo and behold, this record was produced by the admirable Todd Rundgren, with members of his band Utopia playing on it... as did a few guys from Springsteen's band.  But not the sax clown.  That's Edgar Winter playing that yakety sax on "All Revved Up".  Sorry Edgar.  Go away.  But I was in the ballpark with the Springsteen thing, and: "Rundgren found the album hilarious, thinking it was a parody of Springsteen."  Shit, Springsteen is his own parody.  It was recorded in several places, including Rundgren's Bearsville Studio in upstate New York.  No word on whether "You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth" was mixed there though (to get that reverb sound), but apparently Rundgren did mix that track so it's likely we're hearing Bearsville.  Steinman was a composer, lyricist, record producer, and playwright who also produced Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" which you'll never, ever, ever read about again in this series.  He died in April of this year [2021].  Corben did indeed paint the album cover.  His Den character in Metal Hurlant was always kind of lame anyway.  I was more of a Moebius guy.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Ok, this album is like 47 minutes long (pushing the limits for the carrying capacity of a vinyl record in its day; the rule of thumb was to max out around 22 minutes per side before we start losing sound quality).  Three of the songs are over eight minutes.  This isn't really a mix tape friendly songwriting style.  It's a freakin' miracle that "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" was played on the radio.  It's as long as three regular pop singles.  I dunno.  Maybe "Hot Summer Night "... or we can end the mix with "Paradise"?

Jethro Tull, coming December 15, 2021

15. Uriah Heep

I don’t know anything about this band other than – I suppose – they got their name from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Last post, we heard Aerosmith, who (maybe) took inspiration for their name from Sinclair Lewis. Bands with literary references in their name. It’s a theme. I don’t know who any of the players in Uriah Heep are, and I don’t know any of their songs. A quick web search for “best Uriah Heep album” yielded a few dozen listicles with staggeringly consistent opinions: Demons and Wizards (1972) is their best, with Look At Yourself (1971) always at #2, and The Magician’s Birthday (also 1972) universally in the #3 slot. These records were all made in less than two years, just about 50 years ago. This band still perform and still record, but I guess they really hit a sweet spot in 1971/1972. All righty then. I don’t know if this is southern rock, metal, prog, pop, or hippie-land. Going in totally blind here.

The master: my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not (see my Aerosmith post for more on this). If I’m taking a wild guess, I go 1990s. Although the “big three” Heep albums were remastered and expanded with bonus cuts in 2017, I ignored that and went straight for the older Mercury records release (812 297-2).

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today (other than choosing an album to hear). The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Uriah Heep
Demons and Wizards (1972)
Version: Mercury 812 297-2

The Wizard
Ok, right off the bat: we’re looking at a Roger Dean cover with a kind of butterfly-wizard guy on it. That and the song titles make me think we’re in for some serious prog here. I can deal with prog sometimes. Rush had their moments, but honestly I like them better when they were a little more concise; Permanent Waves through Signals are my faves. King Crimson are another prog band who I often have time for. But if you look into the early days of this blog, you’ll discover how deeply I loathe Marillion. They’re really a problem.
So: Uriah Heep.
Clean acoustic guitars. Well recorded. Nice and open with a good tonal balance. A little wary of this lyric though. I mean the song is called “The Wizard”, but yeah, they’re literally talking about meeting a wizard… and getting drunk with him. The delay effects on the voice are fun but a little heavy handed; even more so at 0:50; they’re messing with the modulation controls there. Then the song gets a little heavier. It would be effective to duck the acoustic guitars a little and let the electrics come forward a bit. The mix can build better by not leaving the acoustics static. Push the Hammond too. And that synthesizer: it’s playing one sustained note for like 35 seconds or more. Gettin’ some milage out of that one, buddy. Musically I don’t hate this song, but I’m not convinced yet. Big harmonies. And that soprano! Woah. Singing way up there, like his balls are in a vice. Wait, now the song is fading? It’s just getting going. No, this sounds incomplete. The song still had places to go. Well, better to be left wanting more than for it to have worn out its welcome. Needed a better climax though.

Traveler in Time
Boom, this one slams in at full throttle. Distorted guitars, wah-wah guitars, and then it settles into a semi-falsetto vocal. What is this, Sparks? A sci-fi lyric: a traveler in time trying to pay for his crime. This band’s sound doesn’t offend me. The arrangements are ok, the mixing is adequate for its era. We went from wizards to time travelers though. These themes always feel a little juvenile to me. Even if the words are a metaphor for something more grounded, it’s hard to really connect with these sorts of lyrics. Nice extended press roll by the drummer leads into a Clavinet jam mixed with Moog effects and a really fried-sounding guitar. That’s nice stuff. Does it predate Roxy Music’s “Re-make, Re-model”? Similar concept there… and both were recorded in London during March, 1972. Hmmm…. something was in the air (aside from weed). Ah, but this one ends in an odd spot too. This band’s weakness is song writing. They’ve got some fun creative musical ideas, but nothing that sticks.

Easy Livin’
This one also launches right in with maximum velocity, and gallops along at a good clip with dense fuzzy guitars, more nice gritty Hammond, and no room to breathe. Trite lyric, but at least they’re singing about the real world instead of wizards and time travel. Wow, then this falsetto thing again, and – why not – tubular bells. Kinda bonkers. These songs have all been pretty quick for a prog act. This one is in and out in a furious 2:38. Was this the album’s single? That’d be my guess. It’s trite but I don’t hate it. Let’s face it though, lots of music I do listen to regularly and by choice is also lyrically trite.

Poet’s Justice
Big choral effects. Powerful. Enough breaks and surprises to keep things interesting. These guys are good enough players to pull off what they’re trying to do, but not good enough to compete with the real kings of prog. They have an enthusiasm and an intensity to them, a nice sonic palette of sounds, and some level of musical ambition. It’s clear why they’ve been liked enough to hang around for all these years, but it’s also clear why they never really achieved the heights of contemporaries like Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. But at 2:28: we’ve got the parallel 4ths again. This is the third post in a row that we’ve been subjected to this [see The Eagles (post 13) and Aerosmith (post 14)]. And so damned loud in the mix. I really hate that sound. But then: more really dirty Hammond, more ball-crushing sopranos, more guitar wankery, more more Hammond, then more more guitar wankery.

Circle Of Hands
This Hammond again. So crunchy. Great tone there. Then we dive into lyrics that flirt with feel-good hippy shit but narrowly avoid mawkishness. Good, I was really hoping these guys wouldn’t get deep into Marillion territory. They’re oozing in that direction here. But they don’t quite cross the line. Big vocals, big riffs. Harmonies that remind me a bit of Pink Floyd. This song is much longer than any of the others so far, but it does tread water in a few places. Some of the manic intensity of their other stuff is missing here. There’s bits where the Hammond just lays on big blocky whole note chords for a long time, and nothing else happens. Cut that shit. We might say that it leaves itself room to breathe, or we could say that the arrangement needs to be tightened up. The song doesn’t quite earn its 6:27 running time though. You wanna talk about mixing or mastering errors? Those guitar squeals at 4:56, 5:09, 5:22, 5:59 etc. can easily be fixed, including with 1972 technology. They’re painful. Notch-EQ, my lads. The rest of this record seems to have been made with some care (really it sounds better than last post’s Aerosmith album, which presumably had a much bigger budget) but they dropped the ball on making this guitar solo work. For the 2017 remastered version, do we fix those squeals 45 years after the fact (super-easily done, today), or leave them in for purity’s sake? I’m not gonna track down the 2017 version to find out.

Rainbow Demon
Big dark into. This Hammond player really squeezes a lot of mood out of his organ. Oh my, that kinda sounded naughty. Onward. We got the wizard in the album’s first track, and now we have the titular demon. As advertised. There’s a crazy tremolo effect on the backing vocals. Are they singing that way, or running their voices through processing? This one, along with “Circle of Hands” create a longer respite from the intensity of the first few tunes. But these lyrics, ahhh, sorry, they went there. “Rainbow demon, pick up your heart and run. Rainbow demon, looks for his soul and his gun.” Nope, sorry, cheese alert. Is there also a little bit of “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent in here? A little influence in the basic riffs and the mood? That tune came out like two months before “Rainbow Demon” was recorded. I’ll bet Uriah Heep were listening to the Argent record around the time they recorded this.

All My Life
This one is another quick and intense burst, with our vocalist moving abruptly from singing about demons to talking about how much he loves his girlfriend. No comment. A straight up love song wasn’t what I’d been expecting from these guys, and hearing these really straightforward simple lyrics over the band’s standard musical intensity is jarring. They’re in and out in 2:47. These guys are probably also in and out in 2:47 with their girlfriends. “I wanna make love and it’s gonna be you”. Then these big choral “I. Will. Love. You. All. My. Life.” backing vocals while the soprano guy does his thing, then comes back in his normal voice, but stuttering. Stuttering. Yeah, fuck off; there’s nothing wrong with a love song, but this obvious bit of filler sucks a lot of ass.

The Spell
Had to happen. This song is 12:42. It is against the laws of prog rock to not include at least one song this long on all records, and of course if there is only one of them, it’s gotta be the side two closer. This track starts off with the tubular bells again, acoustic guitars, reverberated vocals, and a lilting feel as the guy sings about losing his girlfriend. Easy come, easy go. Well, if he sang the previous song to her, he shouldn’t be surprised that she left. I woulda’ left him too after that limp attempt at a serenade. Maybe if his love lasted longer than 2:47 he wouldn’t have a problem either. We’ve also got to examine the metaphor here: the song about the exuberance of the happy part of the relationship is only a fifth as long as the rather tedious and needlessly protracted song about the subsequent break-up. “Where’s the love we talked about, where’s my sunny sky”. Ack. Fine, they did it, they went Marillion on us. Two voices are alternating lyrics, ping-ponging between the left and right channels. Not sure if it’s the same guy. But it kinda works. Could be gimmicky, but they pull the idea off, even if the lyrics are at the level of an eighth-grader. Then they add the flanger.

Of course.

The flanger.

Used judiciously, a flanger is a wonder to behold. My rule of thumb is that any band, in any style of music, is allotted precisely one huge, epic, full-mix flange per album. More than that becomes cloying, like the little kid who says something funny and then keeps repeating it all damned day. Using it less than that – less than once, that is – is a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to use your one allotted huge, epic, full-mix flange. The band use their one crack at it here, to good effect.
I’m not buying this. At 5:10 the song randomly fades out in the middle of their huge, epic, full-mix flange, and a completely different song fades in mid-stream. It sounds totally random, and it doesn’t work at all. I’ve heard proggers stitch some unrelated ideas together while trying to fabricate an epic out of a bunch of half-baked ideas (er, Pink Floyd, I’m looking at you), but this attempt is epic only in its clumsiness. These guys had been pulling off some interesting sonics and some occasionally surprising musical moments, but this transition is just a wreck. Whatever they were going for is not convincing. At 6:57 a third idea comes in. It is executed a bit more convincingly, and sounds like Heep channeling Floyd again. If their extended album closer is to be a multi-segment suite, then so be it, but they really didn’t assemble this one effectively. A fourth segment brings us back to the story of the wizard, perhaps. Is the spell cast by the wizard in the first song actually the spell of love that is now fading? This narrator is seeming ever-more resolute about this break-up. Finally, at 11:20 we get into something happier sounding, this kind of boogie-woogie thing. “I will leave you now but you won’t defeat me” and “love and truth will follow me, an army of reality brought from every corner of the world” and “let us not begin this fight we cannot win”. So, are the demon and the wizard the battling couple?
Ah, who fuckin’ cares.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I’m going to go with “Easy Livin'”, in spite of the low-effort lyric.

Meat Loaf, coming December 01, 2021

14. Aerosmith

These posts have become really long, mostly due to me choosing extensive greatest hits packages from the bands I'm writing about.  I want to make these posts a bit more concise, and I also want to get away from broad career overviews and into listening to single specific key albums.  We're gonna do that starting right now, with Aerosmith.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research into this band at all before listening today.  In fact, I've spent my life trying to ignore them, so whatever I know is what I've picked up via cultural osmosis.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

What do I know about Aerosmith?  Steve Tyler is the singer, Joe Perry is the guitar player, and I have no clue who the other guys are.  Three of their hits from the 1970s are familiar to me ("Walk This Way", "Dream On", and "Sweet Emotion"), then they had a 1980s comeback after Run-DMC invited Aerosmith to do a rap-rock collaboration, covering "Walk This Way".  The band then had some cheesy MTV-era hits, like "Love in an Elevator".  That's all I've got.

A quick web search for "best Aerosmith album" gives us an almost universal first-place choice of Toys in the Attic, with Rocks almost always coming in second.  Rocks seemed more intriguing since it had no real hits on it, but still ranks so highly.  My intuition is that perhaps its popularity is due to it being more of a complete artistic statement, rather than the source for the big hits.  Perhaps it's the real "best" Aerosmith album.  But I went for Toys; two of the three songs familiar to me from their classic period are on it, so I've got that to anchor my listening.

I've complained about mastering issues in some of my older posts.  One thing that hasn't been mentioned in those posts is which master I select to listen to.  So, from here forward, I'm going to note which master I've got.  Speaking as someone who has worked as a mastering engineer, it is abso-fucking-lutely pathetic how many "remastered" records come out sounding way worse than the originals.  I could spend a few hours discussing why (and there are several different reasons all compounding each other), but suffice to say my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not.  If I'm taking a guess, I go 1990s.  This time it's the Columbia Records CK 64401 (1994), part of their MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc series. The gold disc is all marketing by the way. It doesn't do jack for the sound.

Toys in the Attic (1975)
Version: Columbia CK 64401 (1994), MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc. 


Toys in the Attic
Wow, right into it.  No spacey intros, just bang, rockin' right in your face.  Then this vocal comes in.  It's not grabbing me though.  This song has energy but it's treading water musically.  The chorus: "toys toys toys" hard-panned and reverbed.  That's a lame chorus.  Then these verses again.  They sound like Cheap Trick out-takes.  Actually this whole song sounds like something Cheap Trick would have done better.  The way it's mixed is sloppy: everything louder than everything.  The guitars compete with the bass and drums, and then the vocals compete with the guitars.  There are ways to make this happen without everything being so murky.  The mix stops slamming and just gets messy.  But whatever, the song isn't there.  It's a lame song.  Maybe it works live though.  Might get the crowd going.

Uncle Salty
A better mix right off the bat, but man this song is fucking generic.  This is Aerosmith's best album?  I shudder at the very notion of hearing their worst.  The bridge ("ooh, it's a sunny day outside my window") has this reverb on the voices.  Like the choruses in "Toys".  They like to play with that.  Guitar solo is short and tasteful.  The "sunny day outside my window" lyric comes in again.  The panned vocals starting at the 3:00 mark, alternating channels, playing off of each other.  Those are kinda fun.  Yeah, the best part of this song is the end.  Take that any way you want to.

Adam's Apple
This band are just uninspired.  It's like the whole record is filler.  These songs are just low-effort.  Their playing is fine I guess, neither good nor bad.  The production is similarly fine, not impressive, but fine.  But the songs just aren't here.  Wait, listen to that baritone sax in there.  That's a surprise.  I like it.  Even if he's only playing like three notes.  Ah, parallel guitar solos.  I hate to say it, but after listening to The Eagles do this last time (Post 13), I gotta say that even the evil Eagles do that sort of thing better than Aerosmith does.  Hey, what the fuck does "Aerosmith" mean?  Never cared enough to wonder.  Some kind of airplane mechanic?  Or a play on the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith?  That's probably it.  Is this song still on?  Ack! That falsetto scream!  No.  

Walk This Way
Ok, here's the hit.  Reverb on the drums.  And the vocal.  All of the mixing is much tighter, the whole song is mixed better than the other three have been.  They knew this one was going on the radio, so they spent more money on it.  Oh, and that cowbell.  I got a fever, I need more cowbell.  The band sound way more energized here, and the song itself is significantly more catchy than any of the other three.  Maybe the lyrical substance is no better, but there's a guitar hook here, and a sort of proto-rap thing in the voice.  It's clear why Run-DMC were attracted to this.  If you're gonna do a rap-rock hybrid, this one already has a vocal suitable for that.  This song does have an exuberance in the performance that the three other tepid tracks on this record so far have been missing.  Like the band are excited to be playing this song, but were as bored playing the other ones as I was listening to them.  As the song progresses, the mixing becomes more sloppy though.  Guitar levels are all over the place.  Like the producer and mix engineer made the mistake of letting the band into the studio during the mix and people just started pushing themselves up whenever they felt like it.  Most of the songs on this record sound this way.  

Big Ten Inch Record
This is a cover.  The original 1952 version by Bull Moose Jackson is a raunchy jump-blues R+B classic.  It's funny to hear Aerosmith trying to swing though.  The baritone sax is back, and there's a little piano in there too.  It's a lame cover though.  It would have been way cooler if Aerosmith were just playing it in their style instead of trying to make a freakin' swing record.  The point of doing a cover is to make the song your own.  A hard rock band playing an old R+B thing in an ersatz neo-swing style just doesn't fit on this album.  This harmonica solo.  It needed to have been Joe Perry's guitar.  

Sweet Emotion
I've never really taken the time to pay attention to this song.  This intro is interesting, a little bass ostinato with vibro-slap, ambient effects, and some talkbox effects.  Kinda fun.  When the drums kick in it's the closest this band have come to grooving. Oh, and backward drum effects in the bridge.  All that gratuitous studio trickery gets me every time.  It's a bit heavy-handed in this song, almost too loud.  It shouldn't draw attention to itself at the expense of the song.  But backward drums man.  Love it.  Interesting song structure here too. We've got these semi-rappy vocals again for verses, and then the guitar riff with the backward drums in place of a real chorus.  But the refrain of "sweet emotion" that only happens a few places in the song; it's not even really a chorus.  So they really screwed around with structure here.  It works though.  Then this bridge/solo... which ends up being the end of the song.  Yeah, this songwriting is kind of insane. But like "Walk This Way", they clearly shot most of their wad here.  It's an unlikely choice for a single given how wonky the structure is, and also because it has no real chorus, but it's clearly an inspired moment for these guys.  There was creative potential exhibited here that they don't seem to have tapped into often enough.

No More No More
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Now that we've got the two big hits and the unfortunate cover song behind us, we're back into the territory of filler cuts.  This one has more going for it than the first three songs on the album.  A little boogie woogie style piano in there, and a bit more energy.  The song "Toys in the Attic" was trying to rock and rock hard, but it just didn't.  This one is a considerably less heavy, but it's got a stronger sense of feel, a better performance, and more authentic energy to it.  It's the best of the non-hits so far.  Nothing special, just a competent mainstream rock song.  It does go on a bit too long though.  This 4:34 song just waffles for the last minute.  An earlier fade would have helped this one.  Did they have a guy who switched between piano and second guitar?  Maybe Tyler handled some of that?  Wondering how they pulled some of this stuff off live.  

Round and Round
Ok, this one is big n' heavy.  But going nowhere.  He's singing about something over this repetitive plodding riff.  See, this songwriting is crap.  It just goes... um... round and round... without really doing much.  Sounds like a jam they never developed into something stronger.  Their producer needed to have helped them develop this song further.  That's a big part of his fuckin' job.  Then these splattering guitar solo-ettes.  They're so far on top of the rest of this murky gooey mix that they sound like they're in a different recording.  This song sucks ass.  Easily the worst on tis album.  Man, we're only 3:15 in, and there's another two minutes to go.  Ok, I'm gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs for a while.  This is fucking tedious.  Even the production effects aren't saving this one.  When flanged backward modulated stuff still doesn't pull me in, then you know the song is worthless.  Maybe this one is good if you're really high?

You See Me Crying
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Hearing this piano and this string thing after the dark bombast of "Round and Round" just isn't working.  It doesn't flow.  There's some straight-up Queen here.  Is this Steven Tyler singing?  Where's the rasp?  Oh there it is.  Yeah, this song is Aerosmith trying so hard to be Queen.  Well it ain't working.  Do they have a whole orchestra in there?  Sounds like it.  Someone spent some money on this one.  Were they pushing this song as a third single?  Maybe it was.  But I've never heard it.  What the fuck is he doing with his voice at 2:28?  It's like a parody of Tom Waits at the end of "Shore Leave" or Donald Duck or both.  Then the big grand guitar solo and orchestra.  Ok, there is lots of production value here.  This is where the ambition comes back.  They're trying here.  This orchestra is really doing a lot. Someone kicked the producer in the ass after "Round and Round" and told him to get to work.  And he did.  Most of what we're hearing on this tune is the work of the producer or arranger.  None of the guys in the band had anything to do with this orchestration.  This is Aerosmith as puppets.  It's huge though.  They built up some bombast.  The playing is fine.  But it's still just not a great song.  After an instrumental bit, the song is ending and I can't remember the vocal hook at all.  Already.

Selection for IFHTB mix tape:
Hate to say it, but the only true draw for this record are the two big hits.  The orchestration on "You See Me Crying" is nicely handled, and there are pleasing moments on "No More No More" and maybe on the title track, but "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" are undoubtedly the standouts.  I think I prefer "Sweet Emotion", but "Walk This Way" is probably a better vibe for a mix tape, so there ya' go.

Uriah Heep, Coming November 15, 2021

13. The Eagles

Today, we’re going to fly like an Eagle. No, we’re not going back to the lame warblings of Steve Miller (Post 01), but rather, we’re going to delve into one of the best-selling acts of all time, The Eagles. If any band could be said to epitomize the mandate of this series, it might be The Eagles. Just as the eagle is a symbol of The United States, we can look at The Eagles as a symbol of everything that my pre-adolescent self found detestable in the classic rock canon. It could be said that The Eagles – and the people who liked this band – were a primary motivating force in pushing me straight into the chilly synthetic embrace of Magazine, Ultravox, and Kraftwerk. Are friends electric? Mine were.

What do I know about The Eagles? They’re Glen Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and some other guys. Don, Joe, and Glen all made solo records. One of them did “Dirty Laundry” in the 1980s, right? I think so. That Joe Walsh song, “Life’s Been Good” was hilarious when I was like nine years old. No idea who the other players are, no idea if the band had many (or any) line-up changes, no idea when they got together or broke up, but clearly the 1970s in toto were their heyday. Oh, and I guess they hate each other, because their reunion record (or was it just a tour?) was called Hell Freezes Over.

The logical place to start would have been with Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), a record that spent five weeks at #1 on the U.S. charts, and haunted that document of debatable merit for 239 weeks. It was the first album ever to go platinum, it was the best-selling album of the 20th century, and it remains the best-selling album of all time, although Michael Jackson’s Thriller overtook it in 2009 before dropping back to the #2 slot by 2018.

I’ve never heard it.

That said, I’ve probably heard – and ignored – most of the songs from that record at various points in my life. As I mused when discussing Fleetwood Mac, these songs just exist as part of the background static of our lives, and even if we’ve never made an effort to listen to them, we can all probably hum along with “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane”. But The Eagles had a career that continued well past 1975, and it seemed journalistically prudent to explore a bit of that. So I selected Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003). This two-CD set duplicates all ten tracks from Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) and adds 23 more. That presents another problem: I don’t want to listen to 33 songs by The Eagles.
In my life.
I just don’t hate myself that much.
Abridging Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits down to a sort of a customized expanded version of Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), it’s time to fly.

As always, I’m listening some of this music for the first time ever, and am actually paying close attention to the rest of it for the first time ever. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written while the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

The Eagles
Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003) (excerpts)

Eagles LP cover

Already Gone
I’m already thinking back to the first post in this series, Steve Miller. There’s a similar bluesy vibe here with hard-panned guitars. These guitars are recorded much better than Steve’s though. The arrangement and mix are fine, but I can do with less hi-hat. Why do so many bands of this era mix the hi-hat louder than the lead vocal, guitar, or snare drum? Anyway, the song. We’re near the guitar solo already. The lead guitarist sounds very comfortable. Is that Joe Walsh? He sounds like he’s playing, in the real sense of the word. No struggling at all, not fighting his instrument. Just making it do what he wants it to do. Those parallel 4ths (or 5ths, whatever) that come in next always sound goofy to me. It’s like a Spinal Tap level of cliche. Song builds and then fades when it needs to. Nothing challenging here, just a pop package wrapped in a bit of rawk.

Best Of My Love
These acoustic guitars. My word. So in your face. Pull ’em back a bit, and give them some ambience. This song wants to be gentle, but those heavy akus won’t let it. That ambient slide guitar in the background is tasty and atmospheric, so someone in the mix room that day knew something about depth and space in a mix; but this recording needs more of it. The singer needs to be heard. This isn’t post punk (damned right it’s not), we don’t need to bury the vocal here. But again: the song. I dunno. It’s dull. It just kind of does it’s job of being universal enough to have been a big hit. Maybe that’s what we’re in for here: music made with quality, but that staunchly refuses to challenge us… which is exactly why it was so popular. The bass player is the only one who isn’t plodding along on the quarter notes. Come to think of it, a little more bottom would help this song. Really, if I were the arranger, I’d dump the snare and hi-hat in favor of some more woody-sounding percussion. Warm it up.

Eh, the heart-rendering piano and string ballad. Plodding along. He’s singing about some dude who needs to let love in. But his woman wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand, shouldn’t understand: He’s a loner. A rebel. No, really, this sentimentality sounds forced. This band are so contrived. I haven’t heard anything sincere from them yet. Hmmm, I wonder if someone else we know could do a much more real and convincing job of delivering the message to “let love in”. Hint hint. Oh my lord, that huge drum fill comes in exactly where it is supposed to. Fucking hell, it’s like this song came from a template. Ack, and the backing choir. No, just make it stop. This is the kind of thing that wins awards from the songwriter’s hall of fame, not because it takes risks and pushes the art of songwriting forward, but precisely because it doesn’t. It plays it safe all the way, and has sort of polished and re-tooled, safe and comfortable format to it, to the point where the lowest common denominator can absorb the song and message without effort. Keep writing the same song until all the flaws, imperfections, and quirks are gone… but it’s those things that make a song interesting.

Heartache Tonight
Right. This one is showing signs of life. A big opening, but then a little fake-out as the arrangement drops back down to a floor tom beat with an electric clap(?) and a capella vocals. This works. Then this bass player again. Right in the pocket. He’s doing a lot more for the groove in this song than this stiff drummer ever could. The guitarists are laying back and keeping things minimal, leaving room for development in the choruses. The three songs before this one were really crispy sounding, too much so really. That might be bad mastering. Or just playing to this band’s aging audience by overcompensating for the age-related hearing loss that we all face. But this one is more murky. Opposite extreme. There’s a little nonsense at like 200Hz that needs to be notched out. I despise this song less so than the previous two.

Hotel California
Ok, the big one. Was this their biggest hit? Well, maybe it’s their most iconic song anyway. The spacey effects behind the guitar arpeggios work. Wow, there’s a real reggae-influenced groove here. Never noticed that before (because, as I’ve oft stated, I’ve been trying really hard to ignore this song since the day it came out, when I was a freakin’ toddler). Bass player is on point once again though. He’s consistently got a good tone too. Good arrangement in this one. If nothing else this band often do a good job staying out of each other’s way and letting the songs breathe (“Best of My Love”, are you listening?). Oh, starting at 2:20, we hear the guitarists (both of them) subtly foreshadowing the material they’ll play during the song’s extended solo section. Nice. See, that’s what this band can do when they try to do something other than pandering to the lowest common denominator. And it was a still a huge hit. Still no idea what the lyrics are about. Does anyone? Is this hotel a portal to hell or something? Ok, now we get into two solid minutes of guitar wankery. Oh crap, the edit at 4:46? Who the fuck is responsible for THAT? Dude needs to have his razor blades revoked. Yeah, the guitarists are having a good wank. I really don’t like this kind of self-indulgent stuff. Then at 5:30 we get into the stuff foreshadowed earlier. Those parallel 4th (or 5ths… I’m bad at hearing harmonic intervals) again though. They’re just goofy and sometimes give me a headache. The fade doesn’t work either. This song needed a proper ending. The bass tone gets weirdly resonant too. A little EQ is needed.

I Can’t Tell You Why
Ack, the mastering here! No! Turn this whole song down like 3dB or more. And this snare drum. Sounds like a machine, and who thought it would be a good idea to jack up the low end of the snare so much? I can’t focus on anything else. Wait, that Hammond organ tone, wayyyyy in the background. That’s nice n’ grainy. But the snare drum. And the drumming in general. Fuck. And those string pads. That’s a keyboard, not a real string orchestra. And it’s just holding those chords forever. There’s nothing interesting happening there. Pull those back and let that Hammond shine. The Hammond is doing the tasty bit. This song really needs to have been mixed better. I guess it’s a nice little ballad though. Better than “Desperado” for sure. The melodic hook on the pre-chorus is what makes it work (“Every time I try to walk away / Something makes me turn around and stay.”), and then that little instrumental question/answer with the Rhodes piano. Then, toward the end, we get more guitar noodling for a while. This is the part where you make out. But: the song has no climax, and you don’t get one either if anything by The Eagles is your go-to make-out record. Who’d want to fuck an Eagles fan? Not me.

In The City
This sounds familiar. Up until this one, I’ve heard all of the songs before. This one, I wasn’t sure about. But yes, for sure I’ve heard it. Is that Joe Walsh singing this time? This one is especially dull. Just repetitive and nothing much going on. Oh yes, this chorus, I know it. This song is just generic. Was it a big hit? Musta’ been if I’ve heard it. At 1:20 we get this bridge with slide guitar. Seems like that’s what Walsh is known for? If it’s his thing, he’s gonna feature that on the song he sings. Well, this one is recorded and mixed with a baseline level of competence. Mastering doesn’t suck. But the song and the performance are uninspired and uninspiring. I always tell my sound engineering students that it doesn’t matter how well we record, edit, mix, and master something, if the thing we’re recording isn’t any good to start with. Although I can’t help but to be critical of the production value of the things I listen to, I’d still always rather hear a bad recording of a good song than a good recording of a bad song (if I had to chose between the two). A good recording of a good song is optimum of course. This song isn’t bad. It just isn’t good.

Life In The Fast Lane
Here’s a bit of cock rock. Real macho riffing there at the beginning. And a little clavinet in the background. I could stand to hear that a shade louder. Or really, pulling the guitars back a notch would work better. The clav is always good for a little funky sleaze. The interplay between the guitars continues to be a strength for this band. But the solos are mixed a little hot. That’s not surprising though. I’m not engaged in this lyric. The device of two lovers in trouble told from a third-person perspective is always kind of tired. It was tired the first time. Ever. Woof, that huge flange on the entire mix at 3:39. I’m a sucker for a judiciously applied flange. Bring it. In this case, it provides an effective moment of suspense before the instrumental outro of the song. Looks like another noodling fade for this band. This band loves the noodling fades instead of proper song endings or repeating vocal choruses. But once again we’ve got at least three guitars and they’re managing to avoid stepping on each other, so there’s that.

Lyin’ Eyes
Here’s another one I wasn’t sure if I’d know. It kinds sounds vaguely familiar. Ah yes, the chorus, I’ve heard this one a little bit. Nothing new to add here. This one feels like “Best Of My Love” from a production standpoint. Much faster, different vibe, different tempo, but the same in the sense of the over-loud acoustic guitars, and the density of a mix that needs to have some space and breathing room. The mastering thing too. Whoever assembled this compilation has no understanding of dynamics. The ballads need to be a little lower to give some room for the rockers to have impact. The ballads all feel too loud and in-yer-face, which is the opposite of what we want from a ballad. I keep wanting to turn the ballads down, or the rockers up. That’s wrong. This dynamic variation needs to be baked into the way the record is mastered. The ballads shouldn’t overpower the rockers. Well anyway, this song is fucking generic. If it never existed in history, no one would have ever noticed.

New Kid In Town
Oh, is this The Eagles? Man, these guys did have a lot of hits. They were doing something right. Really, I think I covered it already. Don’t get too complicated, don’t get too challenging, and pump out crowd-pleasers. Well, nothing to say about this song that I haven’t said about this band already. What they do is pretty repetitive, pretty consistent, be it within a single song, or across their catalog. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ol’ 55
Before this song started, I was hoping that it would be a cover of the song by the untouchable legend Tom Waits. Indeed it is. A little treat here. Tom’s 1970s material is good, but for me his sweet spot is Swordfishtombones (1983) through Mule Variations (1999). A sixteen-year run is a hell of a sweet spot. But it’s his 1970s material, like eight albums worth, that keeps a roof over his head. This is the material that heavy hitters like Eagles, Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, Queens of the Stone Age, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Tori Amos keep covering, and those lucrative publishing royalties probably provide Tom with more income than his album sales do.

One Of These Nights
Ha, this intro. Modest Mouse totally ripped it off. I never noticed until now that this is where the Mouse got this bass riff from. That’s Modest Mouse’s best song too. They sound a little like Care-era Shriekback on that one. And now my friends, you have read the only sentence in history that mentions Shriekback, Modest Mouse, and The Eagles in one breath. Oh right, we’re supposed to be talking about this Eagles song. I dunno. Sounds like the rest of them. I was reading about surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren last week. I’ve seen the entirety of her small catalog of works several times over the past few decades, but it turns out that October 13th is the 60th anniversary of her death. That’s today (for me). I planned to watch her best film, Meshes of the Afternoon, today. I’ve got seven more Eagles songs to get through and I’m losing objectivity already. It’s all sounding the same. So hold the phone, I’m gonna go watch a Maya Deren movie and eat some food.

Ok, So back to the Eagles. Between the drum beat, the tempo, and the falsetto backing harmonies, I swear this is like The Eagles making a concession to Disco. Not as egregiously as Kiss on Dynasty or E.L.O. on Discovery, but still… a little…?
Yeah, it’s there.
Deal with it.

On the Border
This one is funny. It’s got this big heavy riff, but then the electronic clap button again. Then another cock rock groove. That guitar on the left sounds like another clavinet. Was that the guitar doing the clavinet-type sound on “Life In The Fast Lane”? And those little guitar ganks on the right. So funny. Is this song supposed to be funny? I don’t think it is. But it’s kinda musically hilarious. That one big again clap at 1:44. And the baritone backing vocals at 1:55. It’s like these guys are trying to so hard be funky but they just can’t do it. Now I get it. This is why all their songs are kinda samey. They can’t do anything else. When they try it’s just… wrong. Really guys, don’t do funk. Ha, another break at 2:48, with the fake clap and the porno guitar in the right channel. This is cracking me up. It’s so bad.

Peaceful Easy Feeling
Ah, more acoustic guitars right in our face, and mastered too loud. Once again at least it can be said their their strengths and weaknesses are equally consistent. This acoustic guitar is all pick and no body. Well, this is a pleasant and happy little tune. The vocals are recorded well. Harmonies sound nice. Singer is having a little trouble with the low notes. Listen to “what a woman can do to your soul” at 1:15. He’s struggling there. This song just chugs along. Not much in the way of dynamics or variation. Someone somewhere loves this song a lot. It isn’t me.

Take It Easy
What do you get between “Peaceful EASY Feeling” and “TAKE IT To The Limit”? “Take it Easy”, of course. They can’t even give us much variation on song titles. This song has got a bit of country in it, and a production style similar to “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, but a little better balanced. There’s a guitar solo with some fast banjo arpeggios behind it. Didn’t see that coming from this band, but somehow it works. Banjo keeps going. Band sound a bit lively on this one. This take has some spark. I wonder if some of the other songs were the result of too many takes. The search for some kind of technical perfection in performance can definitely have an impact on the soul of a song. Assuming a song has been well-rehearsed before recording, a third to fifth take or so on recording day tends to have the band warmed up and comfy with the tune, but not yet feeling mechanical, bored, or tired. If you can get a keeper in that zone, you’re doing it right. Things often get stiff or lose energy after more than a half-dozen takes or so. But it’s not always easy to get a take, unless you take it easy. See what I did there?

Take It To The Limit
Yeah, so this is the 16th Eagles tune I’ve heard today, and 14 of them were big enough hits that I knew the hooks and the tunes, even though there has never been a moment in my life – until today – when I listened to The Eagles on purpose. That’s really saying something. There’s no doubt that this band were a big deal, but their music is just kind of boring. These guys show some life when they rock out, but when they do ballads or middle of the road lite-rock or country-inflected tunes they’re just an insanely boring band. Feels like The Eagles were all about this three-way guitar assault, but when the hits started coming, their record label made them do these lame-ass ballads with the syrupy string section behind them. That has always been a bad idea. Even Frank Sinatra was better when backed by a big band or a jazz quartet; when the string orchestras started showing up on his records, his days were numbered. Listen to “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane” and then tell me that’s the same band who did “Take it To The Limit”. Fuck no. Where are those interlocking guitar riffs? Not here. It’s like some label exec and a producer got an anonymous rhythm section to back up the string players and then threw one of The Eagles singers on top. Did the rest of the band even have to show up? I wouldn’t have. I don’t even like this band and I’m still offended at what a bunch of sell-out horsecrap this song is.

Tequila Sunrise
Tequila? Wait, are we back to Steely Dan? Neh, I guess other bands can sing about booze. That bendy acoustic guitar break is weird. Maybe in a good way. Maybe not. Is this song still on? I’mm’a go take a nap.

The Long Run
All righty, I’m awake now. So is the band. See, this is what these guys are good at. This one happens to be at a more moderate tempo, that’s fine, but they sound like they’re The Eagles being a band, rather than functioning as a cog in the MOR (Middle Of the Road… a 1970s / 1980s radio marketing term, kids) record company machine. Their hooks are better and their songs are more memorable when they’re loosened up. The instruments get to play instead of being buried under a string section or a relentless wall of multi-tracked quarter-note acoustic strumming. This isn’t their best song though.

Witchy Woman
Oh good, last song, this is almost over. Wow, reverb. This band have never been big on reverb. The drum sounds on all of these songs have been so tight and try. They still are here. All the ‘verb is on the vocals here. No, I mean that ALL the verb is on the vocals. Tone it down man. Are they trying to be spooky because of the song title? That’s trite. This reverb and this witchy woman are not making you Eagle people goth. Nothing could make you Eagleoids goth. That is for the best. Really, don’t even try. This lyric sounds like something Stevie Nicks would have discarded.
Fly away, Eagles, I’m done with you.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let’s narrow it down.
The songs that do the best job of avoiding the MOR machine are:
“Already Gone”
“Heartache Tonight’
“Hotel California”
“The Long Run”
“Life In The Fast Lane”
From their ballads, the production on “I Can’t Tell You Why” is so bad, but the song there. Really, that may be one of their best songs, from a songwriting perspective, but it’s probably their biggest disaster sonically. We don’t do ballads on mix tapes anyway, “Hotel” is too long, “Long Run” is kinda boring, “Already Gone” is kinda lame, so we’re going with “Life in the Fast Lane” or maybe “Heartache Tonight”.
With reservations.

This series has veered toward pop a bit. I want to steer it back toward sweaty long haired guitar rock. So we’ve got Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Meat Loaf, Billy Squier, Van Halen, Blue Öyster Cult, Uriah Heep, and Led Zep on deck for the coming months, and then some stuff that gets a little lighter again, like Styx, Boston, J. Geils, Moody Blues, and Tom Petty. That’s your playlist for the next six months, kids.

Next: Aerosmith, coming November 01, 2021.

12. Pink Floyd (part three of three)

We wrap up my exploration of Pink Floyd here, in the third of three entries, discussing Wish You Were Here (1975).  My intro to the previous Pink Floyd post (Dark Side of the Moon, post #08) was somewhat verbose, so I'll keep this one short.  Did the first few Pink Floyd albums feature a singer named Syd Barrett?  Did he go crazy after too much LSD or something?  I'm pretty sure that's the story.  Seems like this album is a tribute to him, with two very long songs (more than 25 minutes total) both called "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", plus the album's title track, which all seem to reference Barrett.  But then we have two cuts about the music business itself "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar".  So our lyricist (I want to say Roger Waters writes all the words?) is reflecting on his old bandmate and friend(?) as well as the new massive success brought to this band after Dark Side of the Moon.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research into this band or this record at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  For info about this blog's mission and background, see the CONTEXT post (post #00).

Pink Floyd
Wish You Were Here (1975)

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt."
Like Dark Side of the Moon, this one begins with about eight seconds of near-silence.  Anticipation.  Then these keyboard pads.  The production here is already ramped up a notch from Dark Side, which wasn't at all badly produced itself.  These ambient keyboard layers feel like they're a decade beyond Dark Side, but really it's only been two years.  Pink Floyd really did push synthesizers forward a bit.  Ten months before this album came out, Kraftwerk released Autobahn and made synthesizers the point, then went on to invent techno-pop/synth pop.  But what Floyd are doing here is exploring where synths could go in a rock context.  There's a Krautrock kinship here, a bit of Neu!, and certainly some overlap with the New Age genre (Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, etc.).  A scant three years later, Post Punk and New Wave bands would begin to take this and run with it... with great success.
Now a little bluesy guitar.  As an album opener, this one is taking risks.  Instead of drawing us right in with a big hook, it's taking its sweet time to unfold.  Nearly four minutes in - the entire length of a longish pop hit - nothing has happened, but it's still fairly engaging.  Then we hear solo electric guitar, the toms build, and now we are into the song.  Or the intro after the intro, at least.  A bluesy guitar solo on top of the bluesy guitar licks.  The solo is mixed a little hot.  Overwhelming the band.  I'm not thrilled with what he's playing.  This song went from tense and mysterious to just kind of common.  Six and a half minutes in, it chills again, and we get a synth solo, playing a kind of brass-lead-type sound.  Ack, then another over-loud guitar solo.  Eh.  
This song had me intrigued, wondering where it was going to go, but let me down when it got there.  There's nothing here that would be compelling to hear again.  Ah, it's 8m 45s into the track, and we finally get to a lyric.  Seriously there is no reason why this song wouldn't be improved by editing a good four or five minutes out of the intros/solos.  The song would still be like eight minutes long, but might work better.  It just doesn't have all that many ideas in it.  Oh, now a sax solo.  Sounds terrible.  So much for good production.  This sax is all mid-range, nasal, murky.  Then guitar arpeggios start, and they're fighting with the sax.  They need to be tucked under a little to let the sax do it's thing.  Ok, then a brighter sax solo starts, but it's even quieter, and the arpeggios are even more distracting.  Yeah, someone fell asleep at the console here.  Were they trying to do a contrast thing with the two sax tones?  I get the idea, but it doesn't work.  The dark sax solo resolves into the bright one.  That's the concept.  The reveal of the brighter sax is not worth it if the dark one just sounds like ass.  Creeping up on the thirteen minute mark, things get reverberant and floaty into a fade... and guess what, machine noises.

"Welcome To The Machine"
I could really do without that last track.  It just didn't have enough ideas to sustain itself for thirteen minutes, and the many solos were all pretty uninspired.  They needed to have either really nailed those solos or else just made the song half its length.  Ok, this song finds the band diving back into some of the musique concrete and experimentalism heard on Dark Side..., then some creepy synth effects.  Is this song truly about the music biz, or is it just some kind of existentialist look at life in general?  Dark and weird in either case.  My attention is being held by these synth-scapes with just enough guitar under them to pull things toward something that could be loosely be called a rock song, and just enough cymbal crashes to lock in the drummer's performance royalties.  Is the idea here that the synthesizer is a machine?  Are Pink Floyd foreshadowing Throbbing Gristle or Einsturzende Neubauten here?  It's probably heavy handed and hyperbolic to say that this song might be thought of as a deep roots industrial influence.  But Frank Tovey and the guys in Cabaret Voltaire must have heard it at some point...  Objectively, this is a pretty bizarre song.  But I do recall hearing it on the radio from time to time as a kid.  As I lamented when discussing Dark Side in post #08, it would be great to once again live in a time where stuff this risky was able to get mainstream radio play, and even sell more than 20 million records (which this album did in fact manage to do).  The song wraps up with some more found sound, reminding me a little of the end of side two of Sgt. Pepper.  
More lyrics, ok, for sure, this one is indeed about the music biz.  

"Have A Cigar"
Opening side two, the shortest track on this record (at 5m 08s) was clearly meant to be the single.  Yes, by 1975, Pink Floyd could get a 5m 08s single played.  Never before have I truly appreciated the arrival of AOR (album-oriented rock, kids) to this degree.  After a fairly accessible 1970s funk groove free of endless solos, synth effects, studio processing, or any other Floydish noodling, we get into another classic song exploring the timeless theme of "biting the hand that feeds us" and / or "slapping the hand that reaches into our pockets".  Having worked in the music biz for three decades, I've seen people exploited all over the place.  Just as often, I've seen naive kids sign things they don't understand, and end up complaining when their record label overlords fulfill - to the letter - a contract that works in the label's favor.  Of course they do.  Why wouldn't they?  It's label's job to make money, it's the band's job to make art.  The band enters into an agreement then complains when the agreement doesn't work in their favor.  Well, if you don't understand the agreement to begin with, hire someone to explain it to you (a manager, perhaps) or else you don't get to complain when you get screwed.  Anyway, there's a great pantheon of songs about this.  My favorite is "Flick of the Wrist" by Queen.  That one's a real heavy banger, really one of Queen's finest moments, but it's tragically under-discussed.  But "Have a Cigar".  Yeah, someone didn't make as much money (it's a hit) off of Dark Side's raging success as they expected to.  Have a sour grape.  Pink Floyd's keyboard player gets a ton of mileage out of what must have been some kind of beastly modular rig.  Could also have been an Minimoog, but some of these sounds seem a little bit past what a Minimoog could do.  I noticed that on Dark Side too. These records are much more synth heavy than I noticed in the past.  That is, of course, because until today, I did my best to ignore these records. (The keyboardist... is his name... I'm struggling here... Nick Mason?  Is that it?  I'm also thinking one of them was called Rick Wright.  No, he's the keys man.  I think.  I just know Dave Gilmour on guitar and Roger Waters on bass for sure...).  Right, this song is ending.  It's a nice rock song.  Competently played, competently produced, has a few good ideas.

"Wish You Were Here"
Hey, wait, is The Wall the life story of Syd Barrett?  
Pink Floyd fans out there are laughing their asses off that I just figured this out.  
Fine, go ahead.  

The previous song ended by band-limiting the whole mix to get a sound that people associate with an old radio.  Then we hear some radio voices (more concrete) and then this one starts with the same band-limited effect.  So a little radio transition thing there.  Of course, this song is the album's anthemic ballad.  The deeply heartfelt number that had all of the heshers waving their lighters in the air during that year's concert tour.  And several subsequent tours, no doubt.  The past three songs have all been familiar to me though, so someone was doing something right.  AOR.  This band was custom-made for AOR.  These long songs that were just a little too weird and a little too long for pop radio, but were nonetheless just catchy enough to keep people tuned in.  AOR loved that.  Right.  This song.  It's fine.  There is nothing about it I hate.  There is nothing about it I love.  But the wind effects at the end: I ripped into Steve Miller for this (way back in post #01), and I think Marillion got called out for it too.  Pink Floyd gets no pass on this one either.  The synth weather effects are always lame.  Yes, even when the new wave bands do it (Classix Nouveau, I'm looking at you).

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt.2"
Like the first song with this title, we've got a listenable ambient opening and then a synth solo that seemed to have inspired Vangelis quite a lot.  Or vice-versa.  The guitar, bass, and drums are keeping a tense and mysterious groove going.  It's kind of a nice feel.  If your whole song is vamping and noodling, this is a more pleasing version of that than what we heard on side one's version of Shine On....  Then the intensity picks up, and we get a guitar solo that is mixed better and played better than last time too.  Side one contained a diamond in the rough.  This one is more polished.  Long guitar solos are such a hard sell for me, but this one is definitely more tolerable and even likable compared to the others on this album.  Until 4m 40s, when the song changes and goes into something more pedestrian... but not for too long.  The vocals kick in.  Same choruses as in Part One.  Yeah, just like last time, when this song becomes a song, I'm just not drawn into this song.  If most of the instrumental parts of this song were trimmed off and just the vocal parts were left, it just wouldn't be an interesting song.  Then we go into some guitar arpeggios and Rhodes piano, a new but dull groove, which morphs into something much more interesting at 7m 0s when the clavinet and spacey synth bends come in.  It turns into some kind of other galactic funk thing.  Sounds like the Space: 1999 soundtrack (season two, of course).  This is cool but also kind of funny.  I don't think it's supposed to be.  I'm amused.  In a good way.  But it's fading, really slowly... and something new and less interesting takes over.  
This kind of reminds me of "Echoes" from Pink Floyd's Meddle album (see post #03) in that it just seems to be a bunch of unrelated ideas strung together.  Some of them I like, some I am less thrilled with, but it seems transparent that they just made this medley out of half-baked song ideas and then stuck the verse and chorus of an otherwise unremarkable song into the middle of it... then did it again on the flip-side of the LP.  They had "Welcome to the Machine", "Have a Cigar", and "Wish You Were Here" in the bag, but that's only half an album, so they soaked up a full 25 further minutes, more than half of the record's running time, with the two versions of "Shine On...".  There's nothing offensively bad about it, but it's filler, and way too much of it.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: hmmm, this is a rough one.  "Machine" is probably my favorite, but it's just too arty and weird to be effective on a mix.  "Wish" is a ballad, so I guess it's "Cigar".  But I'm not enthusiastic; Pink Floyd just aren't a mix tape kind of band.

Next: The Eagles, coming October 15, 2021.

11. Blood, Sweat, and Tears

I've always liked the song "Spinning Wheel". It's kind of funky but also really insane, in a good way.  Figured I'd give the rest of (what turns out to be) their debut album a listen.  I don't know the names of any of the people in this band, but I know from word on the street that close to 150 people have been in this band over the past half century.  That roster is insane (record-breaking for a pop act?), but their longevity speaks to something that keeps people interested.  I think the only other song I definitely know to be by this band is "You've Made Me So Very Happy" (if that's even the title).

For the newcomers to this series: as always, what happens below will be stream of consciousness impressions, written in the moment while the record is playing.  I've never heard this album before (except "Spinning Wheel") so I'll be hearing this material fresh.  I'll be listening to the musical content, but since I've been a pro sound engineer and a media arts professor for decades, I can't help but to also examine the quality of the recording and mixing.  
Editing to my words after the record has finished will only be for spelling and clarity.  

 Blood, Sweat, and Tears
 Blood, Sweat, and Tears  (1968)

"Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie (1st and 2nd Movements)"
The title gives this one away... almost.  I know my Satie fairly well.  BS&T decline to specifically indicate this theme as being his first Gymnopedie (of three).  Why do BS&T title this "on a theme"?  The theme in question is probably Satie's most famous.  Also, there's only one "movement" in each of the Gymnopedies.  The three are each stand-alone pieces, not movements of a larger work.  I wonder why Satie has been so popular as a go-to early modern composer for pop acts to interpret?  Is it because his short pieces and deceptively simple melodies lend themselves to a pop format?  Well... BS&T's version: fairly gentle flute and acoustic guitar opening... then, you know it's gonna kick in and get raucous.  That's a given.  But, all right, I'm on board here: atonal horns, flanger effects, and off-kilter drum patterns.  This weirdness is the band's own contribution: the second "movement" that Satie never wrote.  Satie was an important early modernist composer, and BS&T now put a post-modernist twist on his most famous theme, even if they refuse to say its name.  Good album opener.

"Smiling Phases"
Boom, right in with the big pop brass section and Hammond organ.  Big funky groove with feel-good hippie lyrics.  This guy has a good rasp to his voice.  Very dry mix, very present.  Everything is clean and up in your face.  "Everything louder than everything else".  Oops, he's not so happy now, he's singing about getting arrested.  This drum break!  This must have been sampled by a thousand hip hop artists.  Now jazz piano.  This shit is insane.  Ok, I'm on board with this band.  Switch to an odd time signature... then a straight jazz groove.  Five minutes into this album we've heard like five discreet styles of music.  Now another break and we to go to church.  Six styles.  There's a lot going on here, engineered well and played fairly well.  But is it too much?  Are these guys doing these strange arrangements for the sake of chaos, or is there a reason for it?

"Sometimes in Winter"
Straight up ballad.  A different singer.  Much smoother.  The other guy had a lot more personality.  This guy is a generic pop balladeer.  The lyric is generic too.  It's a little break from the insanity of the previous track though.  If they were all like that, then this album would become hard to take.  Contrast is important.  Clearly this band know that; they go for contrast every five bars.  But this sounds like a different band.

"More and More"
Huge brass.  Huge.  More big funk and the other singer is back.  This is a straight up funky rocker.  They keep to one groove without all of the mad random switches.  Lyric isn't as thought-provoking as on "Smiling Phases" but the track is a fun little jam.  Another classic break beat.  Cool guitar tone for the solo.  Singer is trying to be James Brown on his ad-libs, behind the guitar solo.

"And When I Die"
Bluesy harmonica.  Kind of a dopey groove comes in.   The raspy singer is singing about being ok with dying, and we almost start to get into a gospel groove mixed with a hoe-down feel.  And a goofy little electric keyboard solo.  This song should be "fun", but I find it annoying.  Aside from BS&T's unpredictable arrangement (this seems to be their stock in trade, for sure), the melody and chord progression ultimately feel like something by one of the folk revivalist songwriters.  I'll bet this one is a cover.  Joan Baez or something, given the BS&T treatment.

"God Bless The Child"
Yeah, the title of this one is already making me wary.  Another chill groove and a Hammond organ.  Seems like we're in church here.  Is this the other singer, or is it raspy guy just chilling out and not calling upon his... yeah, it is him.  Definitely.  Wait, maybe that was him on "Sometimes in Winter"?  He's got a lot of range, tonally.  A good palette of textures and timbres to draw from.  This song can bite me though.  Billie Holiday did it better, but I'm not crazy about her version either.  It's just not a great song.  I'm up for this band when they're funky and jazzy and doing insane -- oops, here they go, they're going into... a Latin groove?  All right, I didn't see that coming.  Should have.  Again through: is it gratuitous, or is there a rationale for going into these weird places other than just for the sake of being surprising?  These guys were Oingo Boingo, a decade before the Oingo Boinged.  Is it serving the song when BS&T take this gospel-blues and go Latin with it, and then go into classic jazz and then back to Latin then back to classic jazz?

"Spinning Wheel"
Right.  I know this song very well.  Hearing it in the context of the album, it's in line with the rest of the record with that funky groove and all the surprising random detours in the arrangement.  I never questioned the changes while hearing this song on its own before (and in fact they were part of its appeal), but now I'm considering it alongside the rest of the record's frequent explorations into these dizzying stylistic choices.  One of the better lyrics on this album.  Probably the best.  It's clear why this was a single.  Awesome vocal processing (for 1968) when he says "colors that are real-l-l-l-l-l-l-".

"You've Made Me So Very Happy"
Ah, so this is the title of this song, and here it is on this record.  This has song been lurking around in the background of my life for as long as I've been alive.  It's always just sort of been there like the sounds of wind and birds and cars.  But I've never had an interest in focusing on it.  I'm pretty sure this is also a cover though.  Our singer goes back and forth between his smooth voice and his raspy voice seamlessly.  As a studio engineer, I wonder if he sang the song contiguously, or did all the smooth parts then went back and did all the raspy bits one by one.  I would have wanted to adjust the microphone settings to make each style sound its best.  There's a bit of artificial reverb on this one.  It sounds fine.  Really, the in-your-face stuff at the beginning of the record was a bit too dry.  A little ambience helps, but with a band this big and with so much going on, there's also the risk of the recording just becoming super-muddy if there's too much 'verb.  Anyway, another good performance, and just enough of this band's trademark arrangement change-ups to make it unmistakably them, but this time they do restrain themselves just enough to get this one some steady radio play - for five decades. 

"Blues - Part II"
Hammond with lots o' verb.  This band must have been a nightmare to mix live, especially before they became a major act.  When they started playing bigger venues, it was probably easier, but I can't even deal with imagining what it would have been like to make these guys sound good crammed onto a tiny stage with an inadequate 1960s sound system in a small club or theater.  The Hammond, and all those horns making so much sound, and then they pull out the quieter flutes and acoustic guitars which can't possibly hope to compete.  And the big range in both dynamics and timbre exhibited by this singer.  Their sound guy must have been working overtime.  With hazard pay.  Ok, this solo Hammond has been going on for a long time.  Oh, I see, this song is 11m 48s.  A Hammond jazz odyssey, no doubt.  Still, we're at 2m 30s and the organist has just been noodling the whole time.  All right, finally, now a groove, and the band is gonna kick in, I can feel it, yup big horns, and now: bass solo.  Nooooooo.  Ack.  You've read my bass solo joke already (entry #06, Fleetwood Mac, part one).  They obviously put a lot of time and effort into the first eight numbers on this record.  The performances are pretty decent, the arrangements - as discussed at length - took some effort (and strict attentiveness from the players to pull off), and the songs range from competent to pretty good.  But this album closer feels like they put so much time into the first eight songs that they ran out of time and ideas.  Now they have to fill up side two with something.  This is the ultimate filler track, and it's most of side two of the record!  Ugh.  This is crap. I mean, the engineering is adequate, and we can hear that these players are all competent, but it is very very clear to me that these guys are stalling for time.  A lot of time.  Oh, that homage at about 8m 00s.  A little Cream riff ("Sunshine of Your Love").  If the band took a few of the extra ideas crammed into some of the other songs and used them here, that would be good.  But this song is still them waffling for twelve minutes.

"Variations On A Theme By Erik Satie (1st Movement)"
And back into the Satie.  Little bookend for the record.  Then: wind chimes and the sound of someone walking then slamming a door.  Wait, why were there wind chimes indoors?

This record has a lot of good moments.  Before hearing it, I liked "Spinning Wheel" for it's lyrics, its fun good groove, and for all of the surprising random changes in it.  What I found out today is that this band do the random changes thing so much that the novelty wears off and it becomes a little annoying to listen to.  If they pulled back and did that thing a little more sparingly, it might be more effective, and might let the songs exist as good songs with surprising moments, rather than as a string of surprising moments getting in the way of a good song.  But I'd listen to at least half of this album again, particularly the uptempo numbers, which is where BS&T seem to do better.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: "Spinning Wheel" is the obvious choice.  
But listening to "You've Made Me..." closely for the first time, I do appreciate its artistic merits.  "Smiling Phases" has some good bits, but it's too long for a mix tape.  Long songs drag a mix down.  "More and More" is quick and funky.  That one might actually work.

Next: Pink Floyd, part three (of three) coming October 01, 2021 .

10. Steely Dan (part two of two)

Last time, we listened to the first half of a 20-song Steely Dan collection. 
Let's pick it up from there.

As always, I did no research when preparing this listening session, and my comments below were written in real-time, stream-of-consciousness as the songs unfolded, with later editing only performed for spelling and clarity.

Steely Dan
The Very Best Of (tracks 11 - 20)

This one I know of course.  This time he's singing to an actress.  Steely Dan have a steely demeanor.  Few of their lyrics are directly introspective.  We never get into their heads.  They're always addressing someone else, and usually in the voice of what seems to be a character, rather than themselves.  Heavy chorus on the keyboards and even heavier on the guitar in the left channel. That intro guitar is buried under processing. Oh, then when the verse starts it goes clean.  So they're singing "Peg, it will come back to you".  I always thought they were singing "Hey, it will come back to you".  The little revelations this project brings.  Who knew they were singing the title of the song.  Ok, that one's on me.  Next: tasty little guitar break.  And these big, complex harmonies.  This sounds like the guy from Doobie Brothers.  Between this band and Fleetwood Mac in the recent past, I'm hearing a lot of these huge layered vocals.  I've worked on quite a lot of stuff like that in the studio.  They're hard to do and very time consuming.

"The Fez"
Is he singing "You're never gonna do it without your fez on"?  What is this, a Shriner porno film?  This groove totally sounds like a porno funk.  All right, I did not anticipate this.  "I wanna be your holy man".  Ha.  So trite.  Nice instrumental track here, porn-funky yes, but also that exotica organ lick.  Short and repetitive lyric.  This one seems like a total throw-away for them. A b-side?

"Show Biz Kids"
This is totally different.  It's like an R+B thing or even a little mutant Motown.  Another one with the other singer.  Or no, wait is it the usual guy in an embryonic form?  The backing vocals keep chanting "Lost Wages", a nickname for Las Vegas.  The man guy is singing about people having fun at night while the "poor people sleeping... all the stars come out at night".  Well, pretty easy to get the message here.  Fun hand claps.  That's natural room reverb too, not any sort of post-processing.  Then this song gets tedious.  This guitar solo is just noodling.  Nothing else changes.  Ok, another quick verse.  This is a four-minute idea stretched to 5m 18s.  Get the razor blades, we need to edit this one.  But this and "The Fez" show a much looser side of this band.

Oh, right I know this one.  I didn't recognize the title.  This one must be from the same album as "Hey Nineteen".  Josie is the girl from "Hey Nineteen" all grown up.  An experienced party girl, coming back to the old neighborhood... with a reputation.  Looks like she accepted the old perv's offer of tequila and coke after all.  Was that an edit at 3:18?  Maybe.  Is this the same guitar riff as "Fame" by Bowie?

"Haitian Divorce"
Another processed guitar.  They like doing that, but it usually works for them.  It's easy to get weird unusual sounds in the studio, but it's hard to justify them in a musical context.  They may sound cool, but they don't often work with the song.  This band seem to have a good track record with that though.  This has got a hint of reggae in there, appropriate for the title.  Seems like the rise and fall of a Caribbean relationship.  "She's drinking zombies from a coco shell".  That's right, they don't do Cuervo Gold in the Caribbean.  This is their least engaging track so far, but at least I'm not listening to Marillion today.  I just zoned out for a while.  Is this song still playing?

"Pretzel Logic"
Bluesy vibe with this one.  Seems like this band had a fair bit of range before they went for the (Cuervo) gold and became the admirals of yacht rock.  They're flirting with lots of different styles.  The past few songs have had hints of reggae, R+B, and blues but without ever drifting too far from being Steely Dan.  I'll bet that a careful and chronological listening to a bigger selection of tracks would allow our forensic team to zero in on the exact moment of when their smooth hipster formula was born.  The character appears early on in their catalogue, but the specific sonorities of his soundtrack took a while to calcify.

"Black Friday"
Oh, I've heard this one.  This is Steely Dan?  Yeah, I guess it's obvious in retrospect.  Competent little rocker.  No one called the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" until fairly recently.  Maybe the early 2000s.  Or late 1990s at the most recent.  This is about something else.  Well, now we know how their smooth coke-and-Camaro date rapist got his money.  Looks like he cashed in and bailed to Australia for a while.  We could write this guy's life story in Steely Dan songs.  A concept album after the fact.  Oh, this fade.  Too abrupt.  Comes out of nowhere.  I'd bring it in eight or even sixteen bars later.  

"Babylon Sisters"
This is like a reggae-blues.  I'm not so into this.  The second half of this compilation is definitely weaker material.  He's talking about drinking kirschwasser.  That's brandy made from fermented cherry juice in Germany.  Kind of obscure there, Steely Dan.  Guess he drank up all available supplies of tequila.  At least three California references in the lyrics, plus mention of sea, shells, sand.  And a reference to "a Sunday in T.J."  That's what southern Californians call Tijuana.  So what's the problem?  Go get some tequila man.  Your nineteen year old coked-up sorority girl is waiting.

"Deacon Blues"
Seems to be about a guy who wants to give it all up and chase his fantasies.  More third-person writing from Steely Dan.  
What do you feel?  
Oh wait, I didn't recognize this song until the chorus.  I've heard this chorus a zillion times.  This song is called "Deacon Blues"?  I didn't have any idea, but of course this is very familiar.  But the verses are so deeply bland that they didn't register at all.  That's a pretty big songwriting issue.  After the chorus here comes the next verse... yeah, this doesn't sound at all familiar, but the chorus is ubiquitous, it's everywhere.  Hm... looks like the kirschwasser ran out and the T.J. run didn't produce any new Cuervo, so he's on to the Scotch now.  All night long!  Yeah, the hook of this one made it a hit, but otherwise this song is really freakin' bland.  Ha, he says "I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long".  Lots to unpack there.  First time we hear Steely Dan admit to (wait for it) ....feeeeeelings.  And my lawyers have been alerted: you're playing too long.  This is another song that very much overstays its welcome.  How long is it?  Ack, 7m 30s.

"Bad Sneakers"
It might have been good to listen to a more curated selection of Steely Dan songs.  Twenty might have been too much.  I'm over this.  The Doobie guy is singing again.  Now he's drinking a Piña Colada.  No, that's a different song from this era, my friends.  Steely Dan isn't about "getting caught in the rain" after his Piñas, instead, in this song, he's "laughing at the frozen rain".  That sounds like a fucking Marillion lyric, and long-time readers know: I fucking hate Marillion.

Ha!  First line of the song, he's drinking "grapefruit wine".  Some enterprising bartender could host a Steely Dan night and do a whole bar menu based on these songs.  This tune is describing current events.  He's singing about Muzak, FM radio, and "no static at all".  These are all references to how people listened to music right around 1977 to 1979 or so.  FM radio was taking over from AM as the preferred way to broadcast music, and the Muzak company was piping what we now call "elevator music" into restaurants and businesses to avoid paying licenses for regular recordings while being able to reliably set a specific and consistent mood.  It was a bastardization of Eno's concepts of ambient music (which he came up with right before Muzak arrived, and himself borrowed from Erik Satie's "furniture music" ideas).  Oh right, but this Steely Dan tune.  I dunno.  It sounds like all of their other later songs. Guitar solo at the end seems to channel Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd. 

Seems like their later music is cleanly engineered and impeccably performed, but (no surprise) it has less variety, less chaos, and less soul than their earlier material.  There's a gleeful anarchy in their older stuff and a controlled capitalism in their later stuff.  The musicianship is consistently good to very good, and they've clearly taken a lot of care with recording it.  Objectively, this is high-quality pop music.  But, like Fleetwood Mac, it just doesn't resonate with me.  

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: "Peg", I guess.

Next: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, coming September 15, 2021

09. Steely Dan (part one of two)

As a teen listening to Bauhaus, Magazine, Gang of Four, and Joy Division, it seemed that Steely Dan represented everything I was rebelling against.  This band sounded like a musical interpretation of the sort of slick ladies' man that might be parodied in contemporary comedy films.  Like some 1970s swinger on Three's Company or Warren Beatty in Shampoo.  When I think of Steely Dan, I picture self-absorbed and wealthy men in designer sunglasses, blow-dried hair, and shirts unbuttoned to show off their chest hair.  With a stunning party girl on each arm (who never stayed with them very long), they'd drive off in their bitchin' Camaro toward the yacht club.  That was exactly the sort of guy I studiously avoided aspiring to be.  

Decades later, the Millennials described Steely Dan and their contemporaries as "Yacht Rock" which is a stunningly appropriate sobriquet.  Well done, kids.  No one ever uttered the term "Yacht Rock" until 2005 or so.  It was then that the generation who were born as a result of all those slick players getting lucky at the disco came along and codified the term.  Sorry Millennials, you're all Yacht Rock Spawn.  But at least you got the privilege of retroactively naming the genre of music your divorced parents were listening to when they conceived you.

Avoiding Steely Dan for the rest of my life would have been a no-brainer... but as a professional sound engineer, a large cadre of my peers would routinely cite Steely Dan records as the gold standard for quality sound engineering in popular music (classical is a whole other topic).  When this conversation inevitably came up, I'd always sort of nod my head noncommittally, without ever really having any idea what they were talking about.  

Time to find out.  Grabbed a twenty-song collection of their "best".  Looking over the track list, there are four songs that I know for sure pretty well (including "Peg" which I do kinda like), and four more that I suspect will be familiar, but I can't quite... peg... them.

What else do I know about this band?  They're Donald Fagan and Walter Becker with an army of further session players, and they never played live during their heyday.  That's about it.  Not even sure which guy is singing, or which is Walter and which is Donald, or who plays what instruments.  As always, I did no research when preparing this listening session, and my comments below were written in real-time, stream-of-consciousness as the songs unfolded, with later editing only performed for spelling and clarity.
Steely Dan
The Very Best Of

"Do It Again"
Latin groove.  Oh, right, I know this song.  He's gonna sing something like "Go back, Jack, do it again".  Man, this intro is endless. Not digging the doubled and panned lead vocal.  Sounds gimmicky.  Song is cruising along... I'm pretty indifferent.  Oh, this guitar solo has a cool weird tone.  Like a heavily distorted and compressed sitar with a tiny boxy reverb.  That's fun.  Then a synth and an organ playing at the same time?  Or two organ parts.  Yeah, two organs I think.  One is near the center and the other is way in the right channel.  The right one is kinda shrill, there are a few resonances that I'd pull out with EQ.  It's buggin' me.  So much for gold-standard engineering on these records.  Bam.  Shots fired!  Lyric is competent.  Seems like he's singing about learning from mistakes, about the wheel of life, there are verses about violence, women, money.  Get it right, Jack!  Other than that keyboard, the mix here seems a little thin.  That could be the mastering.  It's certainly better than a lot of the other stuff I've listened to for this project.  This seems like early years for this band though.  Let's see where it goes.

"Reeling In The Years"
This one I definitely know. Guitar lead is instantly recognizable from the get-go.  Similar processing to the solo as on the previous tune, but nowhere near as extreme.  Drums sound nice for the era, and played well.  Guitar solos.  Two of 'em.  Different tones, different vibes.  Interesting chord and rhythm changes behind the second one.  I can take or leave the chorus on this song, but the playing on it is pretty good. Oh, another guitar solo!  Oh, then an edit.  Definitely an edit at 3:52.  So, good musicianship here for sure, but I can take or leave the song.  Lyric seems to be about a guy who knows a woman for a lot of years; she hasn't figured out that she needs to be with him, not some other dope.  Life is short and zooming by.  

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
This one I know too, of course.  But this intro?  I've never heard it.  They must have done a single edit for the radio.  Kinda cool, something heavily processed.  I'm going to have to come back and listen to this later to determine what instrument that is.  I always figured this song was about a guy who just met a great girl and got her phone number.  But maybe now, hearing it closely after ignoring it for four decades, it might be about a guy who is depressed and his friend is letting him know he's got someone to call?  Definitely kind of a jazz arrangement here.  The choruses are totally jazz.  But there's a little Brazilian groove here too in places.  That odd sound from the intro pops up in the background here and there.  Surprising bit of studio experimentalism within an arrangement that is otherwise very traditional.  Same reaction though: this song is carefully constructed and performed, but "it's just not my kind.  And I do know my mind, but I won't have a change of heart".	

"Midnite Cruiser"
Mastering is off on this one.  It's too loud compared to the previous song.  Who is this singing?  Not the usual guy(s).  Sound is still pretty thin.  But clean.  Everything is clear, but it needs some more lower midrange.  Playing is super tight.  Those staccato piano chords during the solos are locked in with the bass and drums.  Like the previous tune, this one seems to be someone addressing a friend in need.   This titular cruiser isn't a satisfied lad, or a happy yacht-rocker. 

"Hey Nineteen"
Ok, this is one of their big hits.  Is this lyric a Lolita thing?  Yeah, this old creeper guy is macking on the sorority girls.  This is like a version of "Christine Sixteen" by Kiss but way less unashamedly sleazy.  No, actually it's still pretty sleazy.  

"The Cuervo Gold
The fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing"

Ha.  That's freakin' hilarious.  I never knew that's what they were singing in that part.  Somewhere, there must be an additional verse about the Camaro and the gold bling.  Give the college kids tequila and blow.  Good job.  Man, I sure nailed one thing: this song is like the yacht rock national anthem.  

The engineering takes a huge leap forward.  I have no idea if these songs are chronological or not, but the previous ones were clearly all from early in Dan's career.  Sonically, this reminds me of Avalon by Roxy.  Similar tones.  Avalon was mixed by the untouchable Bob Clearmountain.  I wonder who mixed this.  The drums are a bit loud though.  No surprise there given the era and the groove.  They don't sound real.  Too tonally consistent.  Every hit is the same.  Would this band use a drum machine?  No way.  Oh wait, I know what that is: this record was engineered by Roger Nichols.  Very famous guy in the profession.  This is the Wendel drum sound.  I'll come back to that [below].  The little conga and picked guitar groove in the left channel during the outro reminds me a little of "Low Rider" by War.

"Kid Charlemagne"
Vaguely heavy groove.  Squishy clavinet.  Good idea.  Is this about a drug dealer?  The source for that "fine Columbian"?  No, he's got a drug lab of his own.  Another song talking to a friend: get out of the business, it's too dangerous.  The playing on this record is too good for these people to have played it while loaded.  All the drug references are just posturing. Playing to the audience.    

"My Old School"
Another letter to a friend, and another drug song.  This one is clearly reminiscing about the good old days of getting busted for pot at college.  We did indeed get spoiled with the quality of the production on the past few songs.  This one sounds kinda low-fi by comparison, but it would probably sound fine earlier in the running order.  Like "Charlemagne", the playing here is tight, but the arrangement feels a little bit busy.  In parts of the song, everyone - including the horn section, which this band haven't used much before this - are competing with each other.  Some of the players need to chill out and let the others shine.

This one seems vaguely familiar.  It's got a manic energy.  I'm buying the commitment.  Nice guitar solo, with that deep grungy guitar behind it.  This keyboard solo doing a question-answer with the guitar definitely recalls 1950s rock, ah yes, they totally bring in more of that rockabilly groove in later, but updated.  This one is probably a big jam live.  Oh, that ending, yeah, that's the concert closer.

"Doctor Wu"
Are these songs grouped by theme?  We seem to be over the drug trilogy, but now we've got two in a row about the far east.  No wait: we have drugs!  And it's phrased like a letter to a friend!  This one brings it all together.  The ultimate Steely Dan lyric.  These guys could give Tom Waits a run for his money in their depictions of all the sleazy people they know.  They're wrapping it all up in a veneer of slick opulence though, whereas Waits kept it more on the street level.

OK, that's half of this collection.  I'm going to do my best to go for that whole brevity thing here, so we'll finish up Steely Dan next time.

Next: Steely Dan, part two (of two) coming September 01, 2021

Roger and Wendel and Elliot and Dan:

The recording engineer on "Hey Nineteen" was indeed Roger Nichols, and the mix engineer was Elliot Scheiner.  I remembered that this record was one of the first, if not the first, to use drum triggers.  Nichols custom-built a machine he nicknamed Wendel.  It was later commercially released as Wendel Jr.  One of the recording studios I worked in during the 1990s had one.  

For decades, writers who are not pro sound engineers have discussed the Wendel in articles about 1980s music.  Since they don't understand what it actually does, they always get it wrong.  There's a lot of misinformation out there about this device.  It often gets called a drum machine, but it is absolutely not a drum machine.  It's a trigger device.

Here is how it works: Wendel (and many similar devices that came out later) has two sounds stored in its memory: one example of a snare drum and one example of a kick (or bass) drum.  These are sounds that Nichols recorded from real drums and processed to sound "perfect".  He then had someone burn these two perfect examples of single drum hits to ROM chips.  This is an early use of the technology that we call sampling today.  Four decades later, laptop beat-makers can download libraries with literally thousands of different kick and/or snare drums in them.  Back then, the "sound library" of the Wendel was one of each.  One!

The mix engineer would then run a cable from the snare drum recording into the Wendel's first input jack, and a line from the kick recording  into Wendel's second input.  When the Wendel sensed the kick or snare drums being struck (via the current coming in from the tracks), it would respond by playing its kick or snare samples, which the engineer would mix into the music.

Unlike a drum machine, which allows you to program complete beats, the Wendel has no capacity for programming anything.  It just plays back its two internal sounds in response to pulses of current coming in.  This gives the kick and snare drums an uncanny tonal consistency and a very clean sound.  The original sound that the mics recorded never makes it into the mix and are never heard by the listener.  Since mics pick up all sounds around them, not just the one instrument directly in front of them, we get a much cleaner sound using triggered drums from a Wendel-type device since we no longer hear the results of mics picking up background sounds.

This is both a curse and a benefit. For songs with a straightforward and steady snare beat, triggers can work wonders.  But listen carefully to the snare playing in "Reeling In The Years".  The drummer is doing all sorts of subtle things, playing the snare with varying amounts of intensity, and putting a whole lot of of dynamic musicianship into his drumming.  Now imagine that song if every single snare hit was exactly the same.  It would sound terrible.  Now go listen to "Hey Nineteen" again.  Every single snare hit is exactly the same.  All the subtlety, the feeling, the details, that a drummer might bring to the performance are gone.  The subtlety in timing is intact because the Wendel is triggering exactly when the drummer plays the live drum (which we're not hearing), but the subtleties in intensity and the different tonal colors that a drummer can bring to to each strike of the drum are gone.  

The toms, hi-hat, and cymbals are miked, so those acoustic remnants of the drummer's performance are preserved along with the Wendel-triggered kick and snare.  There are a couple of little fills at the end of the verses.  Wendel would have a hard time with those.  We might be hearing Scheiner pulling the original snare mic up for just a moment, as needed, to catch the dynamics of the fill.  Hard to tell.

08. Pink Floyd (part two of three)

Listening to Fleetwood Mac for the previous two entries made me ponder (for about the brazillionth time) about the intersection of art and commerce. 

Mainstream appeal and massive sales are rarely indicative of artistic greatness.  In fact, large sales are often - but not always - indicative of music crafted to appeal to a broad common denominator rather than focusing on pushing artistic boundaries.  People are far more likely to embrace music they can sing along to in the car than music requiring careful attention and intellectual scrutiny.  I get that.  There's nothing wrong with pop music.  It serves a need in many (if not most) people's lives, my own included.

When discussing pop, and in particular the best-selling music of all time, there are exactly 75 recordings that have the distinction of selling more than 20 million copies.  Of these records, I am sort of vaguely familiar with about half of them and could probably hum a few bars from each record's biggest hit song (just tried it and nailed 41 of them).  Prior to starting this series, the only records I owned from this list of 75 were Sgt. Pepper's... by The Beatles and The Wall by Pink Floyd.  I've owned Queen's Greatest Hits in the past, but got rid of it because I had all of the songs on individual Queen albums, and I had Back in Black by AC/DC for three seconds when barely into my teens - before I dumped my very small collection of mainstream rock records in favor of embracing post-punk and new wave.

Looking over the remaining 71 highly successful albums - particularly the top twenty or so - I'm not seeing much that is drawing me in for this project.  A lot of it isn't applicable to what I'm writing about (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Shania Twain) since this series is about revisiting the 1970s classic rock canon, not about revisiting the biggest pop hits.  

But then we come to Pink Floyd.  They're the rare beast who made a lot of money doing things that were often somewhat challenging.  They found that balance between art and commerce.  They've got a noteworthy three entries in the "20 million club".  Dark Side of the Moon is the 4th best selling album of all time.  The Wall cracks the all-time top 75 in the middle thirties, and Wish You Were Here sneaks in at #70.  

This band are not as hard a sell for me as some of the others in this blog series have been (and will be).  Having liked the psychedelic animation and nightmarish storyline of the film based on their album The Wall, I've had a soft spot for that record throughout the decades.  That record joins E.L.O., Queen, Rush, King Crimson, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and just a few others in the small cadre of 1970s classic rock artists that have found a place alongside my more moderne tastes over the years.  Well, I guess maybe retro-moderne is more accurate now.  Whatever.  

A while back (post #3), I wrote about Meddle by Pink Floyd, and said that I'd circle back to some of their other stuff eventually.  I've heard The Wall too many times to maintain objectivity, so I won't be discussing it in this series.  Other than The Wall however, I'd never heard a Pink Floyd album all the way through until I listened to Meddle for this blog.  We'll get to Wish You Were Here on October 15, 2021.  Today, let's give the big hit Dark Side of the Moon a spin.  

For the newcomers to this series: as always, what happens below will be stream of consciousness impressions, written in the moment while the record is playing.  I'll be listening to the musical content, but since I've been a pro sound engineer and a media arts professor for decades, I can't help but to also examine the quality of the recording and mixing.  Editing to my words after the record has finished will only be for spelling and clarity.  

Pink Floyd
Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

01 Speak To Me / Breathe
Hey, is this thing on?  Silence.  Did John Cage guest on this record?  Ah, there we go: a heartbeat played on a reverberant kick drum and some spooky ambience.  Sound collage.  Musique concrete.  Some sound effects that we'll hear later in "Money".  Is that John Lennon's voice dubbed in?  OK, listen to this tense mood, and then reference back to the crappy ambient intros that Steve Miller was doing in the same era (Post #01, April 15, 2021).  This slays Miller's low-effort garbage in the creativity department.  Right-o.  Now we're into a very safe Pink Floyd groove.  Not doing a lot, but it's unmistakably them.  This is like a template groove for Pink Floyd.  A starting point for any number of their songs.  Wanna know what Pink Floyd sound like?  Listen to this.  OK, his vocals come in: yes, I've heard this one.  I know this tune.  This is fine, it sets up the album.  I don't hate it.

02 On The Run
Oh man, I hope we're not into some Marillion territory here (see posts #03 and #04), with half-baked songs hiding their deficiencies by all running together.  "Breathe" fades right into this song, and I'm not sure that "Breathe" came to a satisfying musical resolution before giving way to this one.  As an album opener, "Breathe" is fine.  As a stand-alone song, it's not their best.  Now on to "On The Run" here, these are interesting synth effects for their time.  Lots of layers of electronics.  This one seems like it might have been influenced by some Krautrock of the era.  Were Pink Floyd listening to Neu! or something?  This is like a darker version of Kraftwerk's Autobahn, maybe the Mad Max V8 Interceptor flipside to Kraftwerk's pastoral Volkswagen beetle road trip.  Very soundtracky.  There's some Tangerine Dream in here too, but this is more intense and creepy than what those guys would do.  So far, this album has contained some musique concrete, a generic Floyd groove, and now the keyboard player freaking out mostly on his own.  I'm impressed that so many people bought this.  We should only be so lucky as to have 20 million people consuming this much weirdness today.

03 Time
"On The Run" crashes that V8 Interceptor right into "Time", but unlike "Breathe", "On the Run" had the decency to finish what it had to say first.  I know this tune too: I once recorded and mixed a Chicago rock band called Fluid Minds, who did a surprisingly effective ska-tinged double-time version of this song (leaving out all of the clock effects at the beginning, and shortening the guitar solo by three-quarters; their guitarist wisely chose not to compete with Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour).  Good lyric in this one, super-existential.  Shows some maturity, and a kind of introspection that Marillion failed miserably at.  Coming up after the instrumental intensity of "On The Run", this album is shaping up to be pretty dark.  Nonetheless, this one has the most traditional songwriting structure so far.  That and the black ladies on backing vocals point to this one clearly being slated as the record's single.  I'll take it over Marillion, Asia, or Steve Miller any day (see previous posts).  Even after a 2m 32s intro (clocks, then surf guitar, square wave synth, and some kind of woody percussion: the combo works for me), the meat of the song is still 4m 32s long... and it's still been on the radio for the past 48 years.  I like the guitar on the left (alternating between the twangy surf thing and something more stadium-rocky), paired with the Rhodes piano and Hammond organ on the right.  I've talked before about bands using complex arrangements but failing to let each instrument carve out its own space in the mix.  This song does get a little messy during the first solo section (3m 32s to 4m 29s), but they make it work.  When things mellow a bit in the next solo section (4m 29s to 5m 01s) the newly uncluttered arrangement provides a release from the density of what came before it.  The mix on this record is detailed and competent, especially for 1973 ...except for that lip-smack at 3m 28s.  Drink some water, man.

04 The Great Gig In The Sky
Are you listening Marillion?  This is how we effectively chain songs together.  Rather than stringing a bunch of half-assed noodling together, write complete songs, finish your musical ideas, and then blend into the next tune.  It's not that hard.  So here we are at "The Great Gig in the Sky".  Hilarious title for those of us who have worked in the biz.  Perhaps I shall find myself working this gig some day.  Not sure there's much happening at this particular show though.  The backing vocalist is having some kind of seizure, but simultaneously inspiring Yanick Etienne's massively improved take on the concept on Roxy Music's "Avalon".  there aren't too many songs in which the hired help is allowed to just freak out and ad-lib for the entire track.  But even if it were instrumental, this one isn't doing a whole lot.  It's like the soundcheck for the great gig in the sky.  The last few seconds... what's up with that tuning wobble?  So random.

05 Money
This must be where side two began on the original vinyl edition.  Of course, I've heard this song a million times.  When I teach music history, I use it as an example of using tape loops before sampling was invented (as part of a conversation about the influence of Stockhausen, Cage, Carlos, Barron, etc. on popular music), and I also play it in my beginning music theory classes as an example of an ostinato, and as an example of 7/4 time (along with Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill", and Devo's "Jocko Homo").  The guitars and keys are in the same positions, sound field wise, as on "Time".  Consistency.  Who played the sax?  A guest performer?  That Rhodes piano played through a wah-wah pedal and a delay during the sax solo is nuts.  But this sax solo in and of itself is kinda dull.  Then a guitar solo.  Yawn.  At 3m 50s, after the guitar solo ends, the rhythm guitar and that weird Rhodes are having a conversation for a while, to about 4m 30s.  It's a little strange; strictly speaking, the song just vamps for a good 40 seconds, maybe killing time until another guitar solo comes in, but it's a very unusual kind of vamp.  But do we need two guitar solos and a sax solo too?  Eh.  This is why I listened to punk.  Guitar solos are pretty boring most of the time.  Honestly, I'd like this song better if they edited one of the solos out.  But - to the band's credit - the way they bring the song's dynamics up to several peaks and then down to valleys means that editing a section out would be pretty difficult.

06 Us And Them
Here's a floaty atmospheric one.  The lip smack at 1m 49s isn't as egregious as the other one.  But those make me crazy.  Given all the time they clearly spent on mixing this record, they could have muted that.  One button.  There's a line to be drawn between helping a song by fixing stuff after the recording has finished, and sucking all the life out of a performance by over-processing things.  A good mix engineer has to find a sweet spot between polishing a song and rubbing it raw.  But I'll vote in favor of getting rid of smacks every time.  This song is pretty straightforward.  There are some delay effects on the voice, but other than that the band seemed to just play this one in a live style rather than processing the crap out of it.  But I kinda like it when this band processes the crap out of things.  It's part of what they do well.  That point aside, this song is 7m 41s long, and I was kind of over it by the halfway mark.  The bombastic choruses are powerful, but not really interesting, and the other bits just kind of cruise along.  The vocals are so sparse, but nothing happens between them to hold interest.  This song needs a better melody somewhere, anywhere, to pull the listener in a bit more.  Maybe a question-answer thing with the vocal and a guitar or keyboard.  If this were a concert, I'd use this song as an opportunity to head to the restroom, where I'd be judging all the slobs pissing on the floor in the corner because they don't want to wait for an open urinal.  Do they still do that at arena concerts?  I remember seeing that nonsense at basically every arena show I went to in my teens.

07 Any Colour You Like
This is a straight-up extension of the previous tune.  Not even a break in the drum groove.  Synth solos, then at 1m 20s, it changes.  Is this a mastering error?  Was the previous song supposed to be longer, and did the engineer put the index number in the wrong spot?  Well anyway, the song goes into a different type of jerky spacey jam thing.  Sounds fine.  Moderately interesting wankery.  Then it crashes into...

08 Brain Damage
Oh, I know this song. Didn't recognize the title.  The way the keyboard player uses that organ to create a tension/release thing starting at 1m 13s is effective.  Ah "see you on the dark side of the moon".  Here's the album's title.  They're really getting a lot of mileage out of the backing singers on this record.  They're on most of the songs.  They sound good, but they really underline the gap between Meddle (the previous Pink Floyd album, discussed in post #03) and this record.  Yeah, there's plenty of weirdness on this record, but just enough commercial stuff cleverly slipped in.  Can you imagine these backing singers anywhere on Meddle?  Nope.

09 Eclipse
Oh yes, I've heard this before too.  Its clearly a coda to the album.  Can anyone imagine it being played by itself, rather than directly following "Brain Damage"?  No one would ever just play this song starting cold from the beginning.  Just as "Any Colour You Like" sounds like an extension of "Us And Them", this song seems like another piece of "Brain Damage".  Then the heartbeat kick from "Speak To Me" returns, wrapping things up where we started.

I don't love this record, and I'm baffled by it's popularity (not because it's bad, but because it's weird - which is not a bad thing at all!), but I'm glad it exists. The previous album, Meddle, was still pretty rough and mostly devoid of anything that might be radio-friendly, but this record was clearly expected to be huge. And it was.  Artistically, it's a pretty huge leap forward from Meddle. Seems clear that having made a bunch of obscure experimental records by this point, Pink Floyd needed to deliver something that would reach a wider audience. Or maybe they got tired of being hungry. But I'm still pretty surprised that something with this much experimentalism on it, and which is also marred by a few half-baked ideas (although most records have some filler), and not much that could really be considered mainstream pop, achieved the legendary status that it has. Actually, this gives me some hope. If people were willing to be challenged like this in 1973, perhaps mainstream popular music can once again turn away from the miserable remedial state it's in today, and embrace music with some artistic ambition.

Next: Steely Dan, part one (of two) coming August 15, 2021.

07. Fleetwood Mac (part two of two)

Fleetwood Mac
Selected tracks, 1975 - 1982
From The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac

Last time we listened to Rumours.  This time we're going to round up some of Fleetwood Mac's various singles and album cuts.  It seems that this band made around a half-dozen albums before Nicks and Buckingham joined in 1975.  That entire canon seems to be routinely ignored on most of their compilation and greatest hits albums, including this one.  Well, I'm not feeling inspired to dig into that older material.  Today, let's stick with the non-Rumours highlights from the band's imperial period (the Fleetwood / McVie / McVie / Nicks / Buckingham lineup's run from 1975 to 1982).  

Among the 36 songs on this best-of collection are nine of the eleven tracks from Rumours.  The remaining 27 songs still seemed like a lot to slog through as a "bonus" to my examination of Rumours(previous post), so I skipped any tracks recorded after the era of their 1982 album Mirage, bringing the adjusted excerpt of this 2CD set to a manageable 15 tunes. Four of them are for sure songs I'm familiar with.  The other eleven?  Who knows.  

As always, comments were written in real-time while listening to the music (most of it for the first time ever), and only edited afterward for spelling and clarity.

I was surprised by how few lead vocals we heard from Stevie Nicks on Rumours.  I thought she and Lindsey Buckingham were basically co-lead singers.  But keyboardist Christine McVie actually has more leads than Stevie on that album.  Well, here - from Mirage - we kind of have Stevie's theme song.  And her vibrato.  She sounds like a goat.  The production on this song is solid.  It's tight and dry, during an era when so much music was drenched in reverb.  Those huge backing vocal pads must have taken ages to get right.  But they work.  These drums are fucking loud though.  They had the same problem with the drum mix on Rumours.  The guitar and keys aren't doing a whole lot.  This is really about the rhythm and the vocals.  Those blocky, stabby piano chords in the right channel are really a Christine McVie trademark.  When she and Buckingham play off of each other, it really underlines how much more inventive an instrumentalist Buckingham is.  The glockenspiel doubling the Rhodes piano is fun though.  Song seems like it should start fading at about 3:00.  Yeah, from there forward it's just repetitive, but with that instrumental arpeggio thrown in there.  It's fine.  Maybe not needed.

"Hold Me"
This song, also from Mirage, was on MTV all the damned time when I was a kid.  Haven't seen the video in decades though.  Were the band out in a desert or something?  Maybe to tie in with the album title?  As a result of that video, I probably know this song best of all of them, even more so than the big hits on Rumours.  Mick Fleetwood's drumming is fine, holding down the beat, but he's not doing anything interesting.  Not even switching it up or adding any little details.  So why is he the loudest thing in the mix?  He and the bass player are tight though.  Locked in solid.  This guitar solo is fine, but those little acoustic guitar strums that come in are also unbalanced.  They dominate even the drums.  There are balance issues all over the place: the keys are buried, but these relatively unimportant extra ornamental bits are each louder than the last, trying to compete with each other.  This song also overstays its welcome with a repetitive coda and guitar noodling over it.  But the song.  Tepid.  Again.  Just playing it really really safe.  It probably sounded good in the background at restaurants.  But hey, compared to Rumours, neither of these two songs from Mirage are about breaking up, so there's that.

Acoustic guitar sounds nice and warm, better than the overly bright ones on "Never Going Back Again" from Rumours.  A nice touch of smokiness on Stevie's voice.  Out of all of Fleetwood Mac's acoustic ballads, this one feels the most honest so far.  A bit more real than Christine's stuff.  No idea what album it's from.

"Love In Store"
Sounds like this one might be from Mirage too.  Those huge vocal layers really give Queen a run for their money.  This is really pop music.  Just pleasant and disposable.  Super-minimal lyric.  Pretty low-effort lyrics for this band.  They've done much better in that department.  It's kinda happy but not ecstatic.  Like these people are in a fairly decent mood, for once.  Word on the street is that they all hated each other when making Rumours.  Maybe they were still fighting when they made this record, but there's a little joy in here.  It is audible in the music.

"Monday Morning"
A tom-tom beat changes the groove up for this one.  The song picks up the energy a bit more than most of Mac's stuff.  The chorus almost borders on anthemic.  This band are normally more restrained than this.  They sound a little more fired up here.  This sounds like it might be from the album before Rumours, maybe when they still all liked each other.  It's only 2m 45s.  In and out.  Make your point, and bail.  Decent pop.  I don't mind.  

"Over My Head"
Seems like I've heard just enough Mac at this point to start to have a point of view on the different songwriters.  This one is clearly another McVie, and it's pretty forgettable.  I'm thinking that I prefer Buckingham's songs, they seem to have more personality.  Nicks's are good here and there, maybe they trend towards being more spacey or atmospheric.  McVie's songs all seem like they came from a template.  This song must be an early recording too, the mix is a muddled mess.  These people clearly got their arrangement game together as they progressed.  The organ and the congas poking through add some colors though.  Is that Nicks on congas, or drummer Mick Fleetwood?  Is there a chorus here?  Not really, just this refrain of "I'm over my head / But it sure feels nice" at the end of the verses.

This song is called "Rhiannon"?  All these years I thought they were singing "Vienna".  Guess I grew up on too much Ultravox.  This one has the best mix of all their songs so far.  It is warm and well balanced.  The arrangement changes up about halfway through, just enough to keep it fresh.  What is this song about?  Is Rhiannon a hooker?  Structurally, this one reminds me of Hold Me, in that it's said all it's gonna say by 3:00 then it waffles and vamps for another minute.  A bunch of their songs do this, actually.  The vocal ad lib is nice though.  Stevie probably writes the most evocative lyrics.  The hippie - magical - gypsy lyrics aren't my cup of tea, but at least she's reaching for some poetic imagery rather than just love songs from a template like McVie's songs.

Stevie twice in a row?  So she is allowed to sing leads!  This song takes its sweet time getting to the point.  After a little vocal intro, nothing remotely important happens from about 30s to about 53s.  Gotta trim that; this song is six and a half minutes long.  This is another song that is ruined by overwhelming drums that don't do much of interest.  There's all these atmospheric ghostly vocal things and fun delay effects that are obscured by the percussion all up in our faces.  No need to be mixing this like a dance number.  The drummer sounds like he's using brushes on the snare.  Right there, that should tell the mix engineer that the drums should be tucked back a bit.  Melodically, there's not much going on here.  Sounds like Stevie is just improvising.  All the layers and effects make it sonically compelling, but it isn't musically compelling.  Lots of tasty processing.  Good ear candy.  But the top-line melody is forgettable and doesn't go anywhere.  Who is Sara?  Rhiannon's sister?  Yeah, this idea doesn't sustain itself this long.  We needed to be out of dodge maybe a full minute earlier.

"Say You Love Me"
This one has more life in it than most of Christine's other songs.  It sounds vaguely familiar.  Ah yes.  Didn't recognize the title, but I know the tune.  Melodically, this is among her best, it's got the most memorable hook of her contributions.  That guitar break is interesting; one guitar starts playing and feels like it's a solo, then another overlapping one comes in and they both do a thing.  Not sure if it works.  They may be fighting with each other.  Or not.  And again - this is a real theme for this band - the song basically wraps up right around 3:00 then goes into an extended coda that's slightly different from the rest of the tune.  That's like their trademark.  This song could straight-up end at about 3:22, but nope, there's a tag for another 40 seconds.  Is there a banjo in the background?  Come to think of it, it really is unusual for this band to have three lead singers.  Before all these songs became a perpetual component of the background noise in our lives, it must have been confusing as hell to hear new Mac tunes on the radio and not be able to recognize the band based on the singer's voice.  Maybe a listener wouldn't know it was Fleetwood Mac until the DJ said so.  Especially since two of the three singers weren't even in the band for their first half-dozen or so albums.

"Sisters Of The Moon"
What's this!  Long spooky intro.  Can't be a Buckingham song; he hates intros!  Yup, it's Stevie.  All her stuff is more atmospheric.  This one is pretty dark.  A bit of a departure for this band.  Listen to that distortion on the guitar.  Real grungy.  And that other guitar, ripping off "Stairway to Heaven".  These lyrics: all spiders and witches.  Fleetwood Mac's Halloween song.  Whose idea was this?  It's not an awesome song but it's good that they're taking a risk and branching out.  Their core fanbase probably hates it.  Rhythm section isn't as tight as they normally are.  Turn that fucking hi-hat down man! It's not only drowning out the rest of the band, it's drowning out the rest of the drum kit.  That sustained guitar note at 3:40 is hilarious though.  Spinal Tap.  "It's still sustaining!  Don't touch it.  Don't even look at it".  The cold ending totally works.

This is right back to typical Mac.  Kind of a bland ballad.  They had the good sense to restrain the drums on this one, giving the proper elements room to breathe.  Wish they did the same with some of the other spacey Nicks numbers.  If the drums on "Sara" were presented in the minimalist way they are presented here, "Sara" would be a more effective recording.  But also like "Sara", this song rambles a bit and doesn't really go anywhere.  It doesn't need to be 5m 28s.  The mastering engineer needs to dip this whole song down a few dB too.  It should not feel as in your face as "Sisters Of Moon" did.  "I have always been a storm" is like a lyric Marillion would write, if their singer matured past the sixth grade and into the tenth.  What's that glitch at 2:09?  Come on, this kind of stuff needs to be removed.  So easy to do these days.

"Think About Me"
Another uptempo one, oh I know this one, this is Fleetwood Mac?  See, I didn't know this song was theirs.  But it's obvious in retrospect. Starts off sounding like a Buckingham song, but Christine is singing.  Then we can hear them all.  That's a teeny bit unusual for these people.  Their voices sound nice.  Like they're all singing it live, together.  The big vocal layers on most of this band's songs is another trademark, and for the most part they're one of this band's strengths.  But they usually sound processed like crazy.  That isn't a bad thing, I don't mind the studio layering at all, but it's a nice break to hear them just singing naturally, together, on this one.  It feels like a performance instead of a construction.  If I had to bet, I'd say this was a McVie/Buckingham co-write.  

This is the one with the marching band, right?  It's all dark, like "Sisters Of Moon".  These creepy semi-whispered vocals and tribal drums are cool.  This is Mac's goth moment.  Bad ass bass guitar entrance.  Really asserting the swagger when he starts playing.  But what was that at 1:26?  That could not have been on purpose.  Total major flub and they left it in.  This thing is slowly building, getting really tense.  This sounds like something from Peter Gabriel III or IV. That is not a bad thing, at all.  Those are both great records.  They're singing "don't say that you love me".  Well a few minutes ago, they had a song called "Say You Love Me".  Make up your fucking minds.  Ah, yes, there's the marching band.   What's up with that insane drum break at 2:10?  A bit like psychedelic-era Beatles, something they might have done on alternate-universe takes on "Strawberry Fields", or "Lucy in the Sky".  There's no real verse/chorus song structure here, it just builds on one idea.  Kind of free-form.  I have to admit it, this song is pretty bad-ass.  But I like it because it sounds like something post-punk mixed with psychedelia.  It doesn't sound like anything else by Fleetwood Mac.  Good for them to do something different, but it just underlines the point that the only time I've been moved by Fleetwood Mac is when they don't sound like Fleetwood Mac.

"What Makes You Think You're One"
This isn't a dark as "Tusk" or "Sisters Of Moon", but it's got some vaguely adventurous rhythms.  Is it from the same album?  Must be.  I'll have to look it up when I'm done writing.  But: for this project, there is no stopping the playback, and no research allowed until afterward!  Only stream of consciousness impressions.  Yeah, this song is another departure.  Less successful, but they're trying new stuff.  After Rumours it seems that they had enough money and clout and drugs to indulge in their cosmic jazz odyssey period.  This one also abandons formal song structure.  It just sort of riffs on an idea as Buckingham emotes the same stanza of lyrics three times, and does a Stevie impersonation at 1:58.  Then, of course, the trademarked extended coda.  Was this a single?  Why is it on their "Best Of"?  Seems like a b-side.

"World Turning"
A bit of a country stomper, but with a bit of manic energy.  A little bit of cracked out bluegrass.  Like the previous song, they're stretching here.  Geez.  About time.  These tracks are alphabetical, because that's how they came up in my media player.  But it seems that the hits were all at the beginning and the weird stuff is at the end.  Like the old phone books back in the day, in which the small businesses would call themselves Aaaaron's exterminating, or Aaaandy's auto parts to make sure they were listed first. But this one must be an earlier track.  Pre-Rumours for sure.  They seemed to have ditched the folksy stuff after that.  
And, it's a wrap.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: I wanna say "Tusk".  But honestly that's kind of defeating the purpose.  If I want to select a song that actually represents this band, I'm gonna have to go with "Go Your Own Way".  I could be convinced otherwise.  Any of their adequate catchy pop singles are good for mixes

Post-listening research.

Ok, as always my comments above are purely what I was thinking in real-time as the album unspooled, edited only for spelling and clarity.  Doing some research after the fact, I did kind of nail one thing:  "[Tusk] is considered more experimental than their previous albums: partly a consequence of Lindsey Buckingham's sparser songwriting arrangements and the influence of post-punk."  And: "Buckingham – infatuated with bands such as Talking Heads – was 'desperate to make Mac relevant to a post-punk world', according to music journalist Bob Stanley". 

I feel vaguely smug and unjustifiably vindicated at having read that.  This is why I dumped classic rock at age 12 or so and went straight to post-punk.  It was relevant to my generation.  Fleetwood Mac was not.  Buckingham straight-up admitted it.  But good for them to try to get current in some way other than just buying a synthesizer like all the other aging dinosaurs (even if they did go straight back to bland mega-commercial pop with their next record, Mirage).  Turns out that indeed, the songs "Tusk", "What Makes You Think You're One", and "Sisters of the Moon" are all on Tusk, as are "Sara" and "Think About Me" (which turns out to be a straight McVie song, without help from Buckingham's fountain).  Well, maybe we'll come back for Fleetwood Mac round three and listen to Tusk some time.

I also keep thinking about Alejandro Jodorowski's film Tusk, which came out about a year after this record.  I'm not saying they're related at all, but the identical titles and chronological proximity are striking.  

Oh, and Neil Finn has replaced Buckingham for Mac's touring lineup as of 2018.  What the actual...?  Back in the late 1970s, Finn joined New Zealand's hippie-rock-turned-new-wave band Split Enz just as their music started getting interesting, then went on to form the mega-popular pop act Crowded House.  Now he's in Fleetwood Mac?  I did not see that coming.  (If you wanna get into the Enz, get True Colors and Time and Tide right away, then go for Waiata (called Corroboree in some territories), followed by either the more weird Frenzy or the more pop Conflicting Emotions).  It is unexpected that Split Enz have now popped up in this listening series twice already.

Next: Pink Floyd, part two (of three) coming August 01, 2021

06. Fleetwood Mac (part one of two: Rumours)

I was a little kid in 1977 when Fleetwood Mac's Rumours came out, but my awareness of popular music was already sufficient to notice that this record was everywhere. The album was a massive hit, and at least half of the songs on it are thought of as timeless classics. There is no denying that Rumours has become an absolute cornerstone of 1970s pop music. If you have lived in the United States long enough to have absorbed any significant amount of late 20th century popular culture, you know half of the songs on Rumours even if you've never made a conscious effort to hear it. The songs are just floating around out there in movies, on television, in advertisements, and on music systems in stores or restaurants or bars. They're heard at parties, at weddings, and other social gatherings. They've crept into the public consciousness to enough of a degree that they're comfortingly familiar, even to people who don't necessarily seek them out. They're part of the tapestry of American life.

All of that said: until today, I have never, ever, made a conscious effort to listen to Fleetwood Mac.  In fact, I have made a conscious effort to avoid them, particularly in my teen years, when my musical taste was in its most crucial state of development.  In the interest of questionable internet journalism, I grabbed a copy of Rumours for part one of my Fleetwood Mac excursion, and then a two-disc best-of called The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac for part two.  As always, I did no research into these records before listening.  I just played them and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  The only editing to my comments after the fact was for spelling and clarity.

Fleetwood Mac
Rumours (1977)

"Second Hand News"
Has Lindsey Buckingham ever heard of an intro?  Wow, a little chugga-chugga then right into the tune.  Bam.  This tune seems more country than I expected.  Super-wide panning on the guitars is kind of distracting.  What is this, 1967?  That awkward panning is a decade out of style.  Those dense breathy backing vocals are tight.  Probably took a while to do those.  Did they just push the drums way up in the mix at about 2:00?  It seems that he's singing about a guy who wants a final lay before he gets dumped.  Kinda pathetic, dude.  It's kind of funny that the choruses have no lyrics other than "Bow-bow-bow-bow-buh-bow bow, bow bow, doo da doodladoo"  He can't sing anything else while he's bonin'.  I hope I don't find myself thinking "bow-bow-bow-buh-bow bow" next time I am screwing someone.  Then, during the outro, we actually get the song title for the first time.  This song is competently composed and performed, but I'm not inspired by it in any way.

Annnnd, into the hits.  This lyric almost seems like it might be what the woman is singing in response to the man in the previous song.  Man... Stevie Nicks's vibrato.  It really is a thing.  But she has a little rasp too that I don't mind, but then also a softness.  Drummer Mick Fleetwood throwing in that floor tom on the two and four halfway through the verse is nice.  Then we get more complex layered vocals, but mixed subtly... until the chorus; then they overwhelm the lead.  But overall the mix is tight.  Comparing this to Marillion and Steve Miller (see previous posts), the mixing is much better here.  This band probably had a much bigger budget of course.  This little guitar break is tasty, he's got a volume pedal going there or something.  But does he flub a note at about 1:58?  This is a fine smooth rock song.  It doesn't really develop dynamically though.  Just does it's thing, repeats, then gets out of dodge.  

"Never Going Back Again"
Wow, more of this bluegrass influence.  I never knew.  The mastering here is off, this whole song needs to be turned down a few decibels compared to the previous song.  It feels too loud.  I was expecting much more expansive production on this record, but they're keeping it clean and straightforward so far, except for the expensive backing vocals.  The doubling of Buckingham's voice on this one doesn't work, it betrays the acoustic bluegrass feel of the song.  The girls on backing vocals sound nice though. The instruments are a bit bright, this song would have benefitted if they either warmed up the guitar or if the bass player did something to round out the bottom end.  Super minimalist lyrics too.  

"Don't Stop"
This is one of those tunes you know from the very first chord.  As soon as that first piano riff starts, it is unmistakable. I like the whispy little synth way in the background, contrasting with the honky-tonk piano.  Rhythm section is tight.  Drums sound beefy and lock in with the bass.  The band seem just a little restrained.  Like they're holding back just a shade.  But at least they build it up a little in the end.  The last couple of songs didn't have as much dynamic development.  That little pause in the third chorus is a good example.  Little surprises like that keep a song interesting.  This one is probably a rousing crowd-pleaser when performed live.  Probably a good show-closer actually.  Feel-good message and all that.  Seems like we're four-for-four on breakup songs so far.  Is this whole album about breakups?

"Go Your Own Way"
Another Buckingham song that leaps right to the point.  There's a good longing in his voice.  He's selling it.  That acoustic guitar in the right channel sounds like it's strung with chicken wire.  The toms sound like cardboard.  What's up?  The drums sounded so much better on the previous track.  Has Stevie Nicks only performed one lead vocal so far?  I thought she sang a lot more.  So her job here is backing vocals and shaker or something?  The electric guitar on this one - like most of the others so far - is fairly minimal, but it works well that way.  He leaves room for the keys and the layered vocals.  The little feedback thing in the second verse just provides some tension without taking over.  This guy is probably an under-rated guitarist; the flashy guys get all the props but there's a lot to be said for minimalism.  Restraint.  These mixes have some space in them.  The bridge kind of treads water though.  Not much happens.  Oh, then they push the guitar up and layer it for the outro solo.  Actually, not much happens for the last two minutes of the song.  The hook repeats, the guitar noodles, and the intensity builds a bit.  Except that chicken wire acoustic guitar.  Fucking hell that thing sounds bad.  Oh yeah, this song gains some energy and momentum toward the end.  And Stevie's(?) maracas even get a spotlight for a few bars starting at 2:59.  Never mind what I said earlier, this is the show-closer.

Piano ballad coming in, I'll bet Stevie sings this one.  Oh, nope.  Is that Christine McVie singing?  I didn't know she did any leads.  But I guess that was her on some of the verses of "Don't Stop".  See?  I don't know jack about this band... but somehow I know their names.  I believe she is also the keyboard player, so that's probably her on piano.  This tune is a throwaway.  I'm sure it means a lot to certain people because piano ballads always do, but there's nothing at all remarkable about this song.  Lyrics, melody, performance: all are adequate but none are special.  But I guess it becomes special if people make it special.  It's generic enough that it must get played at a crapton of weddings.  Well whatever, congratulations, but this album is not one to choose a wedding song from; until now it seems to be entirely about breakups.  Don't jinx the wedding, folks.  Divorce is expensive.  Y'know this song could be a breakup song too, from a certain point of view.

"The Chain"
Another instantly recognizable hit.  And yeah, how did the bluegrass thing never register with me before?  That's what I get for ignoring these songs all these years.  This one has some swagger to it.  The spaciousness and ambience of the verses mixed with the more assertive choruses are nice.  No real hook though: the chorus sounds like a pre-chorus that is going to explode into a big expansive chorus, but it always lets us down.  Kinda like the broken promise of a failed romance, perhaps.  Like someone who broke the chain when they said they wouldn't.  And.. oh wait... bass solo.  Kinda.  Not really a solo, just a sort of breakdown. 

Reminds me of a joke:
A guy visits a primitive far-off land.
As soon as he lands he can hear thundering drums everywhere.  
He asks his guide what's up with the drums.  
His guide says, in broken English: "Big festival, when drums stop, very bad".
They drive into town from the airport.  
The drums get louder.
The guy says "man, those drums are loud!"
His guide says "when drums stop, very bad".
The guy checks into his room, and can't sleep because of the drums, pounding on and on for many hours.  
He calls the front desk: "When are those drums going to stop?
The clerk says "when drums stop, very bad".
Finally the drums stop.  
Now in a panic, the guy runs out to the street.  
He finds a local and asks: "The drums stopped!  Now what?"
The local says "Drums stopped. Now, very bad"
"What, what!" screams the man.
The local looks at him and says:
"Bass solo".

Are we still on "The Chain"?  Ok, unlike that joke, this song kind of springs into life and goes to an unexpected place at the end.  And Stevie's tambourine also gets a bump in the end, like her shaker in the other song. Gotta let her contribution poke through a bit.  This is the most competently made album explored for this project (so far), but I'm just not feeling moved by it.  But I guess I understand why so many other people like it.   

"You Make Loving Fun"
Ok, this is Christine singing again.  Noted.  The squishy clavinet is always cool, and with that panned to one channel and the Rhodes piano in the other, it sounds like Christine is all over this song.  This one also just seems sort of bland to me.  I think maybe I don't like her songs much.  They are a lot less creative or surprising than Buckingham's.  They're predictable and tepid.  But they resonate with people.  But this is like the fifth hit from this album?  Geez!  Oh, and this one isn't a break-up song.  That's a switch.  That high-hat in the left channel is so distracting.  Pull it down!  Hm, was that a teeny tempo bump at 2:20?  Yeah, they're definitely speeding up.  The band are doing a nice job with the groove and arrangement, but the song itself - lyric and melody - doesn't have much life.  But still, that's five big hits on this record.  An impressive feat.

"I Don't Want To Know"
Another bluegrass-influenced number.  Do I hear a banjo in there?  Nice handclaps. Vocals are kind of buried.  They should be bumped up a notch for this sort of song, and maybe emphasize that by pulling the drums back a touch.  This isn't a disco tune or a rocker.  The drums don't need to dominate.  

"Oh Daddy"
More from Christine, now trying to get some understanding from her father (yes?).  No, maybe "daddy" is her significant other.  Good atmosphere here.  This is the best of her songs so far.  Drums wayyy too loud again, they interrupt this atmospheric floater and just draw too much attention to themselves.  Who thought they sounded good so loud?  He's not even playing anything especially interesting.  I'd almost like to hear an alternate mix with no drums at all.  There's a little organ solo at about 1:45 that's completely drowned out.  This one goes on way too long.  Overstays its welcome for sure.

"Gold Dust Woman"
Ok, here's Stevie.  And the cowbell!  "I need more cowbell.  I've got a fever, and the only cure is more cowbell!"  This one also has a nice sense of space, but this time it's the cowbell (and hi-hat) that interrupt it.  Sounds like they left a metronome turned on.  The cowbell starts slowwwwly fading at like 2:10.  See, this song sounds so much better now.  Then, the floor tom comes in.  Yes, this works much better.  Wait, now they're creeping the hi-hat up.  No, leave it where it was!  It's so distracting!  Someone is paying attention to the mix though, listen to how the reverb changes at :54.  That was a careful and detail-oriented choice.  It's not carelessness that caused them to allow this distracting cowbell the whole time, it was just a questionable creative choice. Imagine this one with all of the percussion gone, and it's so much better.  Like an ambient space jam. Little guitar licks coming in all over the place and all sorts of processed vocal bits.  Anyway, is she singing about cocaine in the beginning?  Probably.  But it's another breakup song, ultimately.  Good album closer.  Wouldn't have worked in any other position in the running order.  Needed a better fade though, the very very end is a little dodgy.

A little post-listening research, and commentary:
Rumours is the 8th best selling record of all time, with about 28 million confirmed sales.  It was #1 for 31 weeks (non-consecutively).  Thats pretty amazing.  But I don't really get it.  It's a fine and inoffensive record, with some nice vocal stuff and a handful of memorable singles, but it's just kind of bland.  It is competently crafted, but broke no new ground.  It targeted and delivered what the mainstream wanted to hear at that moment in 1977.  Good for Fleetwood Mac.  Really.  They made some money and the people who bought the record were hopefully made happy by it.  But this sort of music never grabbed me.  It's clear why my youthful self abandoned this music and went for The Clash and Talking Heads instead.  I wanted something pushing things forward rather than treading musical water and pandering to the masses.  Fleetwood Mac are definitely treading water and pandering to the masses.  

1977 was a banner year for music, be it mainstream or otherwise.  Interestingly, there are just nine records in history that claim to have achieved more than 40 million sales.  Three of them were released in 1977: in addition to Rumours, the other two are Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell (#3 best seller of all time) and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack at #6.  During this economically fruitful year for the music biz, there was so much further good music released, and a lot of it was much more to my taste.  To keep things manageable, I'll list a few from just the last three months of the year.  

Starting in October, 1977:
David Bowie launched "Heroes" the same day that Ultravox broke new ground with Ha!-Ha!-Ha!.  XTC dropped their 3D EP.  Two weeks later, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols changed everything.  The Dead Boys, the Ramones, and The Jam all had music out within a month, then Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report really pushed some boundaries (maybe too far, even for me).  By the end of the year we had music by Suicide, plus Brian Eno's untouchable Before and After Science, and then Wire's Pink Flag, which planted the flag for post-punk only two months after the Pistols fired their mighty shot.  And if we wanna stick with the ol' classic rock stand-bys, E.L.O.'s Out of the Blue and Queen's News of the World also came out in October of 1977, as did Introducing Sparks: an admittedly weak effort by an act that I've always got time for.

Who the hell had time for Fleetwood Mac's repetitive old soft-rock cliches when there was so much exciting and cutting edge music happening?  That was my perspective for almost forty years!  But this series is all about going backward to discover hidden gems or just to have a better understanding of a widely loved swath of the musical canon that I chose to ignore for a long time.  So, listening with as open a mind as possible, I found Rumours to be tepid but decently crafted.  I'd rather listen to Fleetwood Mac than Marillion, any day.  Let's not completely write off the Mac yet though.  Next time we'll dig just a little deeper into their discography.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: let's wait until after part two.

Next: Fleetwood Mac, part two (of two) coming July 15, 2021

05. Marillion (part two of two)


Clutching at Straws (1987)

Last time, we heard Marillion's Misplaced Childhood (1985), and we were not impressed.  This time we continue with part two of our efforts to like this band.  This album title - Clutching at Straws - is so ripe for roasting.  Certainly the band must have been thinking about their own shortcomings when they selected it.  Most of the song titles leave themselves wide open for abuse too.  Whether I end up liking these songs or not, I'm gonna roast every song title before the music even starts.  

As always, I did no research into his record before listening.  I just played it and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  The only editing to my comments was for spelling and clarity.

"Hotel Hobbies"
Is this about a guy in a Motel Six with five fingers wrapped around his four-incher at three in the morning?  The noodley bass and ambient guitar intro give that impression.  The vibraphone is fun.  But like the synth marimba in the song "Waterhole" on the previous album, it's too repetitive.  At least the fake marimba in a reasonable place in the mix (unlike the one in "Waterhole").  Ok, the song launches, and the mix on this one is already a bit better than anything on Misplaced Childhood.  That's something.  From the get-go, the band sound better here than they did on Misplaced Childhood.  That said, when the song kicks into gear the arrangements are still kind of murky.  The players are all getting in each other's way.

"Warm Wet Circles"
Speaking of hotel hobbies, this song is probably about coffee stains or something, but honestly my first thought was that it's about a mess in the bed from the Motel Six guy.  Not sure if that says more about me or about Marillion's lyricist.  Or the proclivities of the average Marillion fan.  As was the case on their previous album, the songs are blending together.  In more ways than one.  This song picks up from the last one.  Are we into another suite thing here?  This is 1987.  Aren't we a decade past the expiration date for this sort of thing?  Well like your old expired aspirin, you can still consume the stuff without danger, but it just loses potency.  No, maybe listening to Marillion is dangerous.  The jury is still out.  OK, the song: better drumming for sure.  The lyrics are still trite but trying to be deep.  They're trying to express a certain melancholy, but they're just mawkish.  Oh, the "circle" is a kiss "like a mother's kiss on your first broken heart".  Gag.  Song picks up a bit toward the end.  Vocalist lets loose a little.  He sounds ok here.  Well, he sounds a bit like a constipated Phil Collins.  But that's actually an improvement for him.

"That Time of the Night (The Short Straw)"
Short straw?  How about a short song.  That would improve it.  Shorter the better.  That time of the night when the Marillion record is over.  Hell yeah.  But there's like another half hour of this record yet.  Y'know I've only heard this guitarist chug out power chords a few times (and that was on the previous record).  He's more into melodic stuff, with some slides and delays and stuff.  Its nice (in theory) that he isn't just a riffin' rawk god.  But the number of memorable things I've heard from him so far is pretty small.  He makes nice wallpaper.  Also, I have still yet to hear any Marillion song with a good memorable hook.  Sometimes they bump the dynamics up or down a bit to give contrast to various sections, but there isn't one moment of their music that has stuck with me yet.  It's like MOR with arty aspirations, but no one remembered to bring the art.  It just rambles on from one half-baked song to the next, using the suite format to disguise the fact that none of the songs are fully-formed creations. "How do we end the song?  I don't know... ah, fuck it, let's just segue right into the next!"  The end of this one does have some nice moments though, with flanged guitar and a sort of breathy female vocal.  See, when there's a nice feel to the outro of a song - and that's all that stands out to me - there's a big big problem with the songwriting.

"Going Under"
Oh, how I wish I were listening to the Devo song with the same title right now.  There was a pause after the previous song before this one kicked in.  They broke up the side one suite!  Tense dark intro that seems to be wanting to go somewhere.  Maybe this is gonna be progress?  No, the short song just does the same thing for 2:48.  It never evolves.  It's almost an interesting mood piece they've made here, but it stagnates and then fades.  Another unfinished idea.

"Just for the Record"
I wish this song wasn't for any record.  No, wait, stop the presses, oh wow, these guys are grooving a little.  I didn't think they were allowed to do that.  The old drummer had no clue, and even with the new drummer it took until song #5 on this album to make it seem like these guys were playing together in a room instead of (probably) layering their tracks one person at a time in the studio.  This tune is a mid-tempo thing with a chorus that drops to a quieter dynamic than the verse, which can be a nice switch-up.  There's a little synth lick that goes into a bridge then a nice solo.  The keyboard player needed to have been doing more of this on the last record instead of just playing pads which were turned up to eleven and drowning everyone else out.  This piece feels a bit more like a complete song instead of a bunch of fragments strung together in a futile effort to be arty.  I don't love it but it's the best they've done so far.

"White Russian"
A white Russian is a lousy cocktail.  I don't care if "The Dude" Lebowski drinks them.  I mean, that character is supposed to be a loser and he drinks a loser cocktail.  It's a crappy drink.  And this song?  "Where do we go from here" is repeated a bunch of times in the intro.  Well, please go anywhere I am not, dude.  This song gets a little tense, singing of "Uzis on a street corner".  Singer sounds a little angry.  Not used to hearing that from him.  He normally sounds more... asleep.  "The more I see, the more I hear, the more I find fewer answers".  These lyrics.  Like a 15 year old wrote them.  Or maybe: they're for a 15 year old.  I guess I'll give them the benefit of the doubt there.  But "the more I find fewer answers"; that's just horrible writing.  It reads like some kind of bad double-negative reality inversion.  There are a couple of odd time signatures here.  They've done that a bit in other places, but it seems to be relevant to the song in this one, they're not just doing it to do it.  The last two minutes of this 6m 28s song are just boring.  They're supposed to be wide-screen and technicolor, but I was just waiting for any band member to do anything that didn't sound like the song was the result of some A.I. algorithm programed to spew out classic rock tracks ad nauseam.

That was that status of the band's efforts to fire their first drummer, but he wouldn't get the message.  This one begins with chimey arpeggios.  Oh, listen to this: fast synth arpeggios, and a driving groove.  Yeah, this drummer is way better than the old one.  The chorus is just the singer guy repeating the title a bunch of times.  Barely even singing it.  Almost speaking.  Low effort, melodically.  Oh, and there's our guitarist's power chords, but way in the background.  Well this song's got some spunk anyway.  Another adequate synth solo.  Interesting arrangement change-up on the next chorus, and then into a new bridge/outro.  This song is not great, but it proves that at least they can write a competent song when they want to get away from aimless meandering for a while.

"Torch Song"
Someone should torch this song.  Ambient guitar arpeggios and the sound of someone popping a champagne cork.  Mid tempo ballad.  Breaks down into ambience with people's voices discussing someone who met a young end.  Then the big reverberant power ballad drums.  Another song showing a real lack of inspiration.  And no melody.  Maybe that's this band's problem.  Their melodic sense is pretty stunted.

"Slainte Mhath"
This one links into the previous one.  Another suite to take us out of side two?  No, it's just that they have songs that go nowhere, so they have to link them up to make them seem like something other than fragments.  Picked guitar with delays give it a very contemporary sound.  More bland and uninspired MOR.  Completely unmemorable.

"Sugar Mice"
I'd rather eat mice without sugar than hear more of this band.  No suite here.  There was just the two connected songs on this side of the record.  But this song still sounds and feels just like the last one.  Who listens to this band?  Yeah, this singer has no sense of melody.  Ambient quiet vocals and keys, and then the requisite big drums and soaring guitar solo comes in exactly where you'd expect.  This shit is tedious.

"The Last Straw"
This song is appropriately titled.  I can't deal with this any more.  This is just a bit of mid-tempo filler.  If this song had never existed, no one would miss it.  Come on Marillion, surprise me.  You've got less than three minutes left in this 5m 29s song.  It's the last one on the record.  Do something surprising.  Please.  Go for it.  Now.  I'm waiting.  Yes, whenever you're ready.  Ah, big drums and guitar solo come crashing in.  Again.  That's not surprising.  Nothing could be less surprising.  I mean, I asked nicely.  Just one surprising moment.  That's all I wanted from you.  Back to a mellow verse.  Zzzzz..... Oh, here we go: a black lady all of a sudden shows up on backing vocals.  At the end of the last song on the album.  With like 90 seconds left.  Where the fuck did she come from?  Well, I guess that counts as a surprise, sort of like a D student getting a B- on a quiz but still failing the course.  And that's it.  This record is a wrap.  

I fucking hate this band. 

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: Seriously? Fuck you.
Ok, fine.  "Just for the Record".

But wait, we're gonna torture ourselves with just a little more.

Brave (1994)

This is supposedly the best of their later records.
But I just couldn't.  Really.  I'm not that brave.  Life is too short to listen to three Marillion albums. It made me kind of tense and unhappy to even consider it.


Friends (2007)

This record was recorded live and consists of sixteen cover versions.  I listened to five songs that I thought would be amusing:

"Six Months in a Leaky Boat" (Split Enz)
The original version of this song is a favorite of mine.  It's ostensibly about a bad relationship, but the maritime metaphors work on a surface level too.  It has become a theme song for my global explorations (I've traveled a lot).  Marillion give us a pretty straightforward cover, fairly close to the original.  It's a little loose.  Maybe they didn't rehearse it a lot.  The vocals are all over the place.  Seriously, give this guy a real melody to sing and he can't handle it.  He's struggling on a few lines.  But it shows you what power a great song has.  The song has still got a lot of its spirit, even in Marillion's questionable hands.

"Good Morning, Good Morning" (Beatles)
Gotta hear what these fellas will do with a Beatles song.
Interesting choice.  Is this anyone's fave Beatles song?  The keyboard horns sound cheesy as hell.  Marillion sounds like a garage band here.  Really different from the two albums I suffered though.  Like a bunch of reasonably competent middle aged dads just having a laugh.  But they're putting some energy into this anyway.  Sounds like they're on a pretty small stage, and actually having fun.

"Accidents Will Happen" (Elvis Costello)
Another fairly straightforward cover, played a bit loosely.  These guys are really pointing out deficiencies in their songwriting by covering these songs.  Marillion playing casual off-the-cuff covers live are sounding better than Marillion on polished records.  Why?  The material is better.

"Toxic" (Britney Spears)
Thought it would be amusing to see how they translated this.
Well, most of the songs they're covering are better than their own.  And this one, of course, is not as straight a cover.  The other three were arranged pretty close to how the original records sounded.  This one is played with a more rock arrangement.  This was wise; these lads would have just sounded wrong if they tried to do Britney's original synth-pop arrangement.  The performances are not as spirited as they were on the first three songs, although they build up the energy toward the end.  But the track is at least 90 seconds longer than any of the others, and wears out its welcome eventually.

"Blackberry Way" (The Move)
Pre-Jeff Lynne material from Lynne's pre-E.L.O. band.
This is The Move's answer to The Beatles's "Penny Lane".  Marillion do another competent straightforward cover.  This song was performed late in the concert and the band are tightening up a bit.  I'll be damned if Marillion don't inject a little more energy into this one than The Move did.  Well, this is a high point, they actually sound pretty good here, so it's a good place to permanently leave behind all desire to listen to this band. 

Next: Fleetwood Mac, part one (of two) coming July 01, 2021

04. Marillion (part one of two)

I don't think I have ever heard a song by this band, ever.  I know their name from watching the BBC comedy show The Young Ones from 1982 - 1984.  There were only 12 episodes made, but they're all pretty legendary within my circle of friends.  We used to watch them on MTV in the U.S. at like 11:00pm on Sunday nights in the late 1980s.  Thirty years later, they're still funny - to us - but I wonder if the Zoomers or even the Millennials would get the humor?  

Nigel Planer's character Neil the Hippie and his other hippie friends were always talking about Marillion.  So I suppose that for the past the past 30+ years, I've associated Marillion with being music for stinky stoners.  The kind who don't bathe and eat lots of lentils.  Like Neil the Hippie.  If pressed, I would have said that they were a prog-rock band who formed in the late 1960s and spent the 1970s as a second-rate Pink Floyd.

Turns out they didn't form until 1979, so they'd only been a band for like three or four years when Neil the Hippie got into them. Where to start? They have released a ton of music. The mandate of this project generally forbids me from researching the bands before listening, but I had to narrow their discography down. Seems they changed singers at one point, and also got a better drummer early on. Based on message board fan polls, and a few music journalist listicles, the records that seem to be best representative of what they do are:

Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Clutching at Straws (1987)
Brave (1994)
...and an outlier that I want to hear for personal reasons:
Friends (2007)

All righty then.  
Let's listen to Misplaced Childhood.

Misplaced Childhood (1985)

"Pseudo Silk Kimono"
Man, the only thing I hate more than this record's front cover is the back cover.  It's like something Kate Bush would have come up with before she even had a record deal, and then changed her mind about after she sobered up the morning after her 12th birthday party.  I like the song title though.  Kind of funny really.  Reminds me of the great Sparks: "Kimono my house".  This synth playing is annoying.  Kind of pseudo-classical in a bad way.  I'm not so into what the singer is doing, but then this hard-panned backing vocal comes in for just a sec, with some spoken phrase, all too serious.  Oh man, these guys are really self-important.  This is already hard to take.  This song doesn't come to any real climax, it just segues directly into the next song...

The drum mixing is so bad.  That side-stick is way too processed.  These drums sound terrible.  Ok, wait the tune is picking up.  This is the hook?   Oh dear.   The singer is complaining about someone named Kayleigh.  But it sounds like a pre-adolescent wrote these words.  Well, the album is called Misplaced Childhood after all.  Misplaced lyrics.  And the songs flow together.  So we're into a concept album here I guess.  This is painful.  These lyrics are generic as hell.  And this drummer.  Is this the new guy?  I hope it's the old guy and they fired his ass.  So stiff.  The tones sound like a drum machine, way too processed, but a machine would have played it better.  Ok, guitar solo: well this isn't too bad.  Typical eighties solo, but it's competent.   Fuck.  This drummer.  I hear the bass player trying to groove and getting no support.  If they had a better drummer and better lyrics, this might be ok.  Generic but tolerable. "Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow".  For fuck's snake.  "Kayleigh, I just want to say I'm sorry, but I'm too scared to pick up the phone".  Neil the hippie liked this shit?  No wonder his roommates Mike and Vyvyian always beat the crap out of him.  I would too if my roommate made me hear this garbage all the time.   Ech.

All right, we're officially into a suite here.  This one directly continues from "Kayleigh".  It's basically the same song.  "I was walking in the park, dreaming of a spark...".  No.  Stop.  "Then I heard the children singing, they were running through the rainbows".  Sorry, let me go shoot up my insulin now.  I have cut E.L.O.'s Jeff Lynne a lot of slack for trite lyrics in my day (I mean: "Mr. Blue Sky"... need I say more), but this dude in Marillion seems to be singing to the very lowest common denominator.  Or maybe he is the very lowest common denominator.

"Bitter Suite"
The suite continues, and I am bitter about it.  Ambient spacey stuff now.  Flanged cymbals.  Those are always fun.  See Japan's "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" (1980) for more.  Oooh, a huge tom fill... sounds like six toms on this drum kit.  Yes indeed, this is the eighties.  In the 1990s, grunge killed the fad for huge drum kits.  But not yet!  The guitar here is nice.  Have to say it, but kind of Frippish.  But so far, throughout this suite the synths are just way too loud.  I was saying that about a very different band, Steve Miller Band, a while back, and I said it about the band Asia too.  Even though synthesizers were new and cool in this era (although not so much anymore by the time of this record's release in 1985), someone needed to have spoken up and pointed out that the synths on this Marillion record completely dominate the mix and drown everything else out. Oh for fuck's sake, this guy is doing a spoken word poem with a Scottish accent about spiders and "mist crawls from the canal like some primordial phantom of romance" and being "tied to the phone like an expectant father".  Ah, crikey, then he starts singing about pubs in a bad London accent.  Fuck.  This sounds like a parody.  It really does.  Another drum fill after the 3:00 mark and then an attempt at a soaring jam.  This mix is so murky.  Like it's underwater, and not in a good way.  The midrange is out of control.  But I don't entirely hate the content of this segment.  That doesn't mean I like it.  Ack, this song is only halfway over.  The guy is singing again in his own voice now.  So that's better.  Or at least it's less bad.  His lyrics are still dumb, but at least his accent isn't a fake Briti--- ah fuck he just switched to French.  Non non non!  Last two minutes: they take on a totally different vibe, even mixed differently (it's better to be honest) that uses flutes, piano, guitar, and bass.  This is working.  Then the crappy drummer and blaring synths come in.  It wouldn't be so bad if the synth player weren't playing such generic pad parts.  When he's on piano, it's way better for this band, and also it's mixed properly.  Also, the drummer stops during these bits, so that's good.

"Heart Of Lothian"
Is this a Tolkien thing?  Ah, no it's probably about the Scottish Highlands.  And we're still in this bitter suite. This has been one long song so far.  And not a good one.  Hopefully this is the big soaring finish.  Seems like it's going that way.  Same comments: this song would be much better with the synths pulled way down in the mix, a lot, and with a much better drummer.  This is the best bit of music so far (faint praise), but maybe I'm also liking it because it suggests this suite is going to be over with.  I don't want to hear any more by these guys, but I think side two is still coming up.

"Waterhole (Expresso Bongo)"
Ok, lets see if side two is any better.  Spooky ambient intro for a sec, then quickly into synth marimbas and an intense groove.  This song is like third-rate 1980s King Crimson (but nothing else by Marillion so far has been, at all).  This one is a totally different vibe for these guys.  So far the vocals have been mixed pretty low on all of the songs.  It works for this band.  But once again, the mixing here is just so off.  The marimba is a repetitive pattern that never changes (no Phillip Glass, to be sure), and it's by far the loudest thing in the mix.  It's a relief whenever it pauses, like when the neighbor finally turns off the lawnmower at 6:30 a.m. after cutting ten acres worth of their half-acre lawn while you're nursing a hangover and shingles and leprosy.

"Lords Of The Backstage"
Oops, looks like side two is another suite!  This song is almost compelling.  Much better than side one.  But still kind of sloppy and amateurish.  It sounds like these lads were overreaching.  They had these lofty ideas but couldn't quite pull them off yet.

"Blind Curve"
After just two minutes, the previous song crashes into this one, slowing down quite a bit into a sort of late-Floyd groove. "I just want to be free" he sings.  I know the feeling.  Free of this record.  "Just leave me alone with my thoughts; I'm just a runaway".  Whatever.  Please run away.  Did he just sing "I'm just too tired to fuck", or "too tired to fart"?  Oh, maybe it was "fight".  Big guitar solo.  Yes, this one is very Floyd-ish.  This song is their answer to The Wall.  And yeah, here's the pitch-bend wobbly synth solo.  It's awkward though: a solo begins and then the guy just suddenly stops as if he changed his mind about soloing.  The song just rambles.  If you're gonna do a 9m 30s song in the middle of a side-long suite, then make it a song.  This could be chopped up into three other "songs" and it wouldn't make a difference, especially in the context of having two other song fragments before it - and two more after - as part of this suite.  Ah wait, after about 5:20 it settles into a bassy ambient tribal thing.  Singer is mumbling something about mystical presences.  No, just shut up dude, you're ruining the most interesting piece of music so far.  Then POW! The whole band are back in for a sudden climax!  But no, not really.  It's a limp effort at something that could have been powerful.  They didn't make it. "Does anybody care, I can't take anymore, should we say goodbye", he sings.  Ha.  Yes! Yes! Yes!

"Childhood's End"
Did they get this title from Arthur C. Clarke?  Ha.  Gotta love a good sci-fi prog epic.  But at least Rush wrote their own stories (i.e. 2112).  If Led Zeppelin can sing Tolkien, I guess Marillion can do Clarke.  The playing here is sloppy.  The picked guitar and hi-hat need to lock, and they don't.  It's this drummer.  He can't do it.  Lyrics begin, and... no Clarke.  This whole record has had some theme about childhood.  Haven't caught enough of the lyrics to pick up the whole story.  Fortunately.  The mix is much better on this track.  It's the only one on this record that's even close.  Still not there, but it's closer.  I'm not annoyed by it.  Another soaring guitar solo.  Is it the exact same solo as on the last couple of songs?  Does this guy only know one solo?  "You've resigned yourself to die a broken rebel, but that was looking backward, now you've found the light".  Yeah, grow up punk!  Get a job!  Consume!  Obey!  Rebellion is for children!  Grownups fall into line like good consumers.  Then... another synth solo.  Ok, this one is interesting.  Kind of Wakeman-ish.  And he plays the whole solo this time instead of chickening out after the first few bars.

"White Feather"
...and then straight into the closer for side two.  Each side is structured like one long song with many parts.  Side two is better, but neither are anything I want to hear ever again.  These guys have lofty ambitious, but they aren't talented enough to pull it off.  Both suites ramble along, unfocused.  Neither have significant themes that they return to, or satisfying dynamic arcs.  Even if the mixing were better, the drumming definitely sucks a lot, the singing is mediocre with some pretty clunky lyrics, while the guitar, synth, and bass players seem competent but are rarely interesting.  None of this stuff sticks.  

These guys are by no means a jam band.  They don't sound like they're improvising at all.  The music has all been composed and rehearsed from start to finish.  It's just that it's written in a way that aimlessly meanders into really dull places, never engaging, never sounding inspired.  And yet: we're gonna give them another chance with their also-highly-rated (among fans) album Clutching at Straws (1987).

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape:  Let's wait until we do the second Marillion record and then decide.

Next: Marillion, part two (of two), coming June 15, 2021.

03. Pink Floyd (part one of three)

In the case of Pink Floyd, I was interested in them enough to listen to several albums.  I'm pretty familiar with the album The Wall from having seen the movie a few times (and I did own the album at one point).  Other than that one, I've never heard a Pink Floyd album all the way through.  Three Pink Floyd albums were selected for this project:

Meddle (1971)
Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) 
Wish You Were Here (1975)

Let's start with Meddle. This was Pink Floyd's sixth album, and seems to be the place where they start to approach a push toward their creative peak.

Pink Floyd
Meddle (1971)

"One of These Days"
I like the delays (echoes) on the bass.  There's a 23+ minute song called "Echoes" coming up.  A theme.  Just about halfway through the six-minute track the guitar tone changes to a much more processed sound.  This song is a fun studio experiment but not much of a song.  It's solid when the groove kicks in at 3:46.  Effective.  Nice whammy-bar guitar and some fun organ licks.  Fun little jam.  Good intensity.  Oh, but the wind effects at the end: right back to Steve Miller Band (see post #01)!

"A Pillow of Winds"
Winds, again.  The mastering is a little off.  The levels song-to-song are clumsy.  Right away, I wanted to turn this ballad down a bit; it's too loud compared to "One of These Days".  The acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and bass have some complex interplay going on.  I'm not sure if they're getting in each other's way or not.  The vocals remind me of what's coming up in this band's future, during songs like "Comfortably Numb".  A lyric from "Numb" is even foreshadowed: "the dream is gone".  Seems like this song only has one idea.  Kind of like "One of These Days".  One of these ideas.  They just found one thing they liked and stuck with it for a bit.  In spite of the sentimental tone of the vocals, I'm unmoved by this track.

This ballad feels less like a jam and seems a little more composed, compared to "A Pillow of Winds".  But it's not as challenging to listen to.  I'm buying the lyric a little more.  This chanting at the end adds nothing.  Are the kick and snare drums panned opposite?  That's awful.

"San Tropez"
What?  This sounds like a different band!  Nice to see these lads lightening up a little bit though.  One doesn't usually picture Pink Floyd as people who have fun much.  The tune is competently performed, but feels like a throw-away.

Oh, more stuff by the San Tropez band.  A bluesy thing about someone's dog.  Yeah, this album is pretty inconsistent.  There's a lot to be said for variety and for keeping the fans on their toes - Queen always did that well - but I'm really not feeling like there's a unified creative vision here.  This record feels more like a compilation of b-sides or something.

Ok, here we have one song lasting for all of side two, it's 23m 23s of material that needs to be impressive if this record is going to be recommended.  If this ends up feeling like a bunch of jams edited together, I'm outta here.  Let's see.  First six minutes or so feels like a typical Pink Floyd song, but one that takes its sweet time to unfold.  I'm on board with it so far.  Maybe the guitar soloing could be a little hotter in the mix.  But it's chugging along with a mellow vibe.  

But, oh dear, that tape edit at about 7:00 is clumsy.  They clearly spliced a new bit in right there.  The mix on this new piece is totally different.  The bass and kick drum are thumping a lot more now.  It was probably recorded at a totally different time/place compared to the previous bit.  I'll bet a live version of this sounds much better, after they got used to playing the song that way rather than constructing it in the studio.  It's probably smoother and more consistent sounding that way.  Next: more guitar soloing, and some nice organ work.  But yup, this song is made of several jams edited together.  

At 10:45 or so, ok, the rhythm tracks are fading and the guitar is getting spooky.  After a bit of this guitar ambience, they're gonna edit in a new rhythm track from a completely different jam, I guarantee it.  Lots of interesting sounds.  These studio effects are really innovative for 1971.  This is the part where everyone lights up a joint when the band plays it live.  

But by 14:00... I'm over this guitar wankery, it needs to change.  Are those mellotron strings coming in (14:40)?  No, mellotrons can't sustain this long.  Long tense single chord with sonar effects ("echoes").  This is the fourth segment of the song, and is definitely suggesting something big about to happen.  Guitar and drums come in, yes this is another musical idea completely, another jam.  I called it.  

At 18:17, ahhh, here it comes, the beginning of the build to our big finish... and at 19:15, here we are, idea #5.  Back to something more song-ish.  Is this a continuation of the first segment?  I'll have to go back and listen [spoiler: it is].  Ok, so a return to the main theme, like in a jazz piece.  But: surprise, they mellow it out again instead of going for a big climax.  It works, though.  And then they circle back to more of those ambient effects to give the song some sense of continuity.  

This record feels like it was slapped together in the studio.  I'd be surprised if much of it was composed before going in to record it.  Parts of it work, but other bits definitely feel like filler.  I didn't mind listening to it, there's some cool gratuitous studio manipulation going on (which is always a guilty pleasure for me), but the record didn't move me much.  

After Meddle, they released their seventh album (and second film score) Obscured by Clouds, from the film La Vallée by Barbet Schroeder.  It is an interesting film, I saw it a few years ago.  Might have to watch it again and pay more attention to the music.  That was followed by their legendary Dark Side of the Moon, and then Wish You Were Here, both of which we'll get to some other time.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: none.  
I could listen to "One of These Days" or "Echoes" again without feeling any particular sense of rage, but neither really works in a mix tape context.

Next: Marillion, part one (of two) coming June 01, 2021