Author: IFHTB

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

02. Asia

Asia (1982)

John Wetton – lead vocals, bass
Geoff Downes – keyboards, backing vocals
Steve Howe – guitar, backing vocals
Carl Palmer – drums, percussion

Man, this band is a mess.  They were originally conceived as a supergroup featuring members of four well known prog bands tasked with making music more radio friendly than the tunes heard in their alma maters.  The band had multiple lineup changes before their first recordings even happened.  Asia is still active, with keyboardist Geoff Downes as the only constant member.  The lineup has been in constant flux with several dozen people in this band over the years.  This is corporate rock at its most brazen: as long as there are hits with the Asia logo plastered on the sleeves, it doesn't matter who is playing on the record.  Asia is a brand as much as a band.  

I remember the two big hits from this record from when they were in constant rotation on MTV, starting in 1982.  Other than that, it's all new to me.  As always, when writing for this blog, I played the record and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  Below are my gut reactions.  The only editing to my comments was for spelling and clarity.

Side one.  Five songs, all under five minutes.  

"Heat of the Moment"
This is the first track on the record, and the first single.  From the get-go, I don't like the mix.  John Wetton's vocal is way out front and it sounds like band are far in the distance.  The mix is clean enough, but it sounds like some 1950s pop record - Julie London or something - where it's all about her voice, and the jazz trio backing her are rendered perfunctory.  Asia are mixed like Julie London.  There, I said it.  The people on this Asia record are all purported to be good players.  The musicianship here is fine, but they're not allowed to shine.  Tons of reverb too, but that's the 1980s for ya'.  This song is decent, it's competently crafted, but no one playing seems emotionally invested.

"Only Time Will Tell"
Second track on the record, second single.  This synth lick at the beginning is lifted straight from some then-current new wave.  Greg Hawkes (The Cars) would have played the same thing, no problem, but everything surrounding it would have been different [See the solo in "Victim of Love" from 1981, or for that matter the solo in "When I'm With You" by Sparks from 1980].  By 1982, new wave had infiltrated all areas of mainstream rock.  This tune's intro is solid evidence of that.  Compared to "Heat of the Moment", it has a little more punch to it.  The band are feeling it more.  The vocal is still too far out front, but it's not as egregious.  The quick bridge has some nice surprises.  The backing vocals seem lifted from The Cars too.  Woah, this fade!  Too abrupt.  I could have heard another 16 bars of this song without being bored.  Well, "Heat of the Moment" was their huge hit, but I like this one better.

"Sole Survivor"
Third track on the record, third single.  The hook on this one is lame.  The verses have some nice stuff.  Steve Howe's guitar is really buried though.  The mix engineer is really playing up to the mainstream fad for synthesizers that, in 1982, should have already peaked.  Even as a child of the new wave, I'm feeling like the synths are too present here, to the detriment of good balance between the guitar and synth.  Some of the best post-punk and new wave bands got that right because they were inventing it (Ultravox, Magazine, Cars).  These older mainstream rock bands seem too preoccupied with saying "look, we're cool, we have synthesizers like the kids!", and overemphasizing them.  It's about balance.  Yeah, I said this about Steve Miller too, but Geoff Downes should have known better.  The bridge in this one is the first almost-hint of this band's prog rock pedigree, and the first place the musicians stretch out, just a little.  It's a taste of what they can do, but they have been suppressing it so as not to scare way the prols in FM-land and MTV Island.

"One Step Closer"
Another new wave intro.  Same mix issues as all above.  Seems like this will be ongoing, so I won't mention it anymore.  This one sounds familiar to me.  Maybe someone played me this record when it was current?  This would have been the fourth single, but we're getting diminishing returns.  This one seems to have fewer ideas than the others.  My favorite bit is the end (no, seriously): some staccato scale runs and an ending leaving us hanging, unresolved.  It works in this case.  First song without a fade.

"Time Again"
OK, here we are firmly in more prog territory.  This sounds like what these people probably felt most comfortable with playing to begin with.  While the first four songs were bland but contemporary, this one seems a little out of date musically (for 1982), but it's a more exciting and spirited performance.  This is my favorite so far.  It seems the most genuine.  If these are older guys trying to stay relevant, I'd rather hear them being themselves than trying to sound like the younger generation.  Clearly Geffen Records wanted hits, and this band delivered.  Having done so, now it seems that by this point in the record Asia had the agency to stretch out and do what they want.  This tune was the last track on side one; I'll actually prefer it if side two is like this.  Tellingly, this is a co-write by the whole band; the rest were all written by Wetton with help from either Downes or Howe.  This song came from a full-band  jam, almost certainly.

Welcome to side two.  Four songs, all over five minutes.  

"Wildest Dreams"
This intro sounds like the opening music from a 1982 newscast.  "Today at five: Reagan decorates his generals...".  And then we get into a lyric about generals on tv and the horrors of war.  Hey, given the lyrical subject matter, maybe they wanted to intro to evoke a newscast musically too.  Kinda clever.  No, not really.  E.L.O. did this a year earlier on "Here is the News".  Good to open side two with the war protest song.  That message can't be overstated.  Some more good effort here, a guitar solo that fades seamlessly into a synth lick as though they're one instrument.  Palmer gets to freak out a bit.  Yes, this band are much more interesting when they're not making hits.  So it goes.  

"Without You"
The obligatory power ballad.  Oh Asia, you almost had me on board during the past two tunes, but this one is just trite.  Oh wait, the vibe changes two minutes in.  The contrast is good, it goes somewhere not entirely expected.  Ah, and then into a long proggy jam.  All right, they're trying here.  But then it goes back into a blend of the ballad and the middle bits.  No, this one doesn't quite pass.

"Cutting It Fine"
The vocal mix is better here.  Still drenched in 'verb, but he's with the band instead of on top of them.  I guess they weren't so concerned with mixing this one to be radio-friendly, and that works in the song's favor.  Nice guitar riffs.  See, at 1:36, this is what I'm talking about: we go into a guitar solo that's fighting with some synth effects that needed to be in the background, supporting the guitar, not competing with it.  This one could be a good guitar rocker.  It needs a remix.  Oh - a little vocoder, for like a second.  Blink and you'll miss it.  At 3:20 it seems like the song is over.  It ends nicely as a good quick rocker.  But then there's a solo piano coda, leading into some dated-sounding synth horns, like an orchestral thing.  This is into Moody Blues territory.  This would have sounded better with either real orchestral instruments (seems like this record's budget would have supported that) or just going full Moody and pulling out the ol' Mellotron.  This whole extended two-minute outro is worthless.  It isn't musically interesting, and it sounds cheesy.  The producer needed to have cut it.

"Here Comes The Feeling"
Filler.  This one seems like another stab at a hit that didn't quite make it.  Bury it at the end of side two when everyone is getting bored anyway.  Including the band.  And, definitely, me.

Further thoughts:
This band splintered almost immediately.  By their second album, the lineup had changed already.  In 2008, after 26 years apart, the original lineup (or at least the first one that recorded) did a reunion record called Phoenix.  My interest was minimal to zero, but they brought in Hugh McDowell from E.L.O. to play cello on two tracks, so I gave those two a spin.

"I Will Remember You"
This is a sappy ballad.  And the vocal mix issues... still here.  Hugh is scraping away but isn't given much to do.  As the only constant member of this band, Geoff Downes, has earned the right to keep his keys hot in the mix, even though that was no longer as fashionable by 2008 as it was in 1982.  But his cheesy orchestral effects sound just as bad here as they did in 1982.  If you're gonna hire a cellist, who not get a real flutist, etc. too?   And the drums, they're so buried.  Where's the bass?  This mix sucks, a lot (yes, I could do better, actually), and the song is completely forgettable.

"An Extraordinary Life"
More of the same.  Man, this crap is sentimental.  Mawkish.  Too much compression on the vocals and the drums.  Maybe the whole mix.  But of course; this was 2008.  The first Asia record sounds a little dated, and I had issues with the vocals being too loud and the keys not being balanced with the guitars.  But this one, the whole mix, it's just a mess.  The songs?  Forgettable.  Tired.  No individual person involved seems to have any ideas left.  This is 1980s pop made in the 2000s by 1970s players who ran out of ideas sometime in the 1990s (if not sooner).  McDowell is barely audible.  Maybe listening to some of the singles from this record would give me a different perspective.  But I don't care enough.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: 
"Only Time Will Tell", but respect goes out to "Time Again" and "Wildest Dreams".

Next: Pink Floyd (part one of three), coming May 15, 2021.

01. Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller Band
The Very Best Of (1991)

Steve Miller Band album cover

In keeping with the goals of this project (see CONTEXT for details), I went for one of Miller's best-of discs, choosing the one that contains all of his 1970s and early 1980s hits, skipping his more recent stuff.  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 was for spelling and clarity.

"Space Intro"
These spacey intros were popular in the 1970s.  E.L.O. was the king of them of course.  Why was no one doing this in the guitar era?  They're always synthesizers.  It's like "look!  We have a synth!  We're trendy!  But... what do we do with it?".  These spacey intros are the one thing the Beatles never did.  They had to wait for their successor Jeff Lynne to figure it out.  Then Steve Miller nicked the idea.  So did Gene Simmons on his 1978 solo album (he shamelessly grabbed the entire intro to E.L.O.'s Fire on High wholesale).  And Rush.  And everyone else.

"Fly Like An Eagle"
This song has a pretty good groove.  A lot of space in it.  Are there two different Hammond organs playing?  The synth effects are mixed really loud in the second half of the song, they overwhelm the song.  They need to be half the volume and with some reverb.  We got the message during "Space Intro": yes, we know you've got a synth.  This is 1976.  It shouldn't be a big deal by this point.  Is Steve Miller a guitar player?   He's buried here.  He's barely doing anything.  Dynamically this song keeps threatening to go somewhere, and then it sort of collapses.  There are no verses.  Just a sort of intro thing ("time keeps on slippin'..."), then a chorus, then more spacey stuff.  Then it repeats.  This song probably feels deep if you're stoned.

"The Joker"
Ok, jumping back to 1973 here.  This thing was a #1 hit?   The band sound bored.  There's no urgency here.  I guess there isn't supposed to be.  But they sound like they've played this song too many times and are phoning it in.  I wonder how many takes they did.  This snare sound is pretty solid for 1973.  It sounds triggered, but they hadn't invented drum triggers yet.  Did they remix it later?  What's up with the "wolf whistle" guitar slide when Steve sings that people call him "Maurice"?  Is Maurice supposed to be a sexy name or something?  His vocal has been a little buried in both songs.  At least he plays guitar on this one.  They need to change up the underlying ostinato by the third verse, it's getting old.  Miller seems to hate adding rhythmic variations, key changes, extra layers, anything a little different to keep a song fresh.  They all end the same way they began with no development.  This song doesn't deserve to be almost four and a half minutes long.  It's a three-minute idea.  Needs to have ended well before the 4:00 mark for sure.  He's not adding anything new during that last minute.

Into the eighties.  The tempo of this one jumps up after the relaxed "The Joker".  But the groove still isn't pushing forward.  The last two songs perhaps accomplished what they needed to do by laying back and chilling with a lazy groove, but to seem relevant in the 1980s, this song really needs some urgency.  That's the one thing that the classic rock bands who tried to "go new wave" never got right.  The twitchy manic energy of Talking Heads or Devo is always missing from older bands who tried to update their sound.  The Steve Miller Band sound as bored here as they did on "The Joker", but this song really needs them to be ahead of the beat.  Seems like the players were just feeling stoned when they needed to be excited.  These lyrics suck.  They sound like a pre-adolescent wrote them.  Rock doesn't need to be deep by any means, but for fuck's sake Steve, can we try just a little?  And once again: the synth.  Guitar is buried and not doing much anyway.  Maybe Steve is secretly a shitty guitar player?  Or, if the delivery of his material is any indication, he's just lazy as hell.  This middle section with the bouncy boinging guitars sounds like it was done with several takes on different tracks.  There is a good idea there, contemporary to its era, but not executed well.  And the almost-melodic part at the end of that section is played sloppily.  The fade at the end of the song doesn't work.  This song needs a proper cold ending.

"Rock N' Me"
Another #1 hit.  At least we've got Steve playing some real guitar here.  The band almost sound awake, there's almost some forward momentum here.  But man that guitar tone is crap.  He's all over the place timing-wise.  The songwriting has some development to it at least.  A bit.  It more or less kind of goes somewhere.  Oh, right at 2:03 coming into that verse, it sounds like there's an edit there.  This one actually fades a bit early.  I'm not loving it, but it should start to fade eight bars later.  The idea can sustain itself a little longer.

Another fucking spacey synth intro?  When is this from?  1977!  Dude!  Stop.  You just did this.  Miller has a real issue with coming up with fresh ideas.  Maybe that's why all of these songs are just too simple and repetitive for their own good.  

"Jet Airliner"
His 1976 spacey intro led into a song about flying (like an eagle), and his 1977 spacey intro ("Threshold") also leads into a song about flying (in an airplane).  Same deal as before: his guitar is sloppy, there's nothing inventive here, and the song never takes advantage of any opportunities to develop the musical or lyrical ideas.  His tunes are meant to be radio friendly.  We're not looking for a level of complexity heard in King Crimson or Rush here.  But pick any of these Miller tunes, and they could all do with just a few more musical ideas per song.  And some tighter playing.  This stuff is just low-effort.  No one here sounds like they're trying very hard in either songwriting or performing.  But somehow he kept having hits with it.  Sigh.

"Jungle Love"
Oh no! Another spacey intro!  Oh wait, it's just a few seconds.  Phew.  What's up with the whistling?  With a "jungle" theme, maybe they're going Martin Denny on us.  Birdcalls and frog sounds made by band members were good enough for Denny, so why not Steve Miller?  Ok, good, the band sounds awake here, and the lift into the chorus is the kind of basic "songwriting 101" trick that Miller needed to have figured out three albums ago.  Not sure I'm liking the lead vocals being doubled and hard-panned.  They're also sibilant as hell.  The engineering here sucks hard.  The "J" every time he sings "Jungle" is blowing out his mic, as well as all the "S" and "Z" sounds.  That's so easy to manage when recording, and can also be mitigated when mixing.  Yes, even in the 1970s.  Who was asleep behind the desk?  The double-tracks are not tight with each other either; that's on Steve, not the engineer.  But the producer should have been pushing Steve harder to get those right.  This album followed an LP with a #1 hit and a #2 hit on it.  Therefore, it's likely that they had the budget to get this one sounding right, but they still screwed it up.  See, the cold ending - like the one needed on "Abracadabra" - it works here.

"Take The Money And Run"
The "two young lovers on the run" lyric is tedious.  From Bonnie and Clyde forward, and maybe before that... Romeo and Juliet?... this theme has been done to death.  Whatever.  The handclaps are fun.  The guitar is sloppy and bad sounding here too.  That rhythm guitar in the left channel just sounds like whomever was playing it gave no fucks, and the engineer gave even less.

Oh, this is Steve Miller?  Never knew that.  This song is familiar to me.  So far, it's the best example of his songwriting limitations.  It basically just does one thing repetitively for three minutes, and that one thing is not really interesting, musically or lyrically.  How was this thing a single?  This might have grooved when played live if the right people were on stage.  Has any listener ever been emotionally moved by this song, ever?  And that solo that comes in!  Ow.  It is musically crappy, and mixed so damned loud.  Then - of course - the synths doubling the vocalizations.  The song never peaks. It just waffles along with a zero-effort lyric and then fades into a - wait for it - spacey synth OUTRO!  Shoot me now.  Ok, that's all of the songs I was familiar with.  Let's continue into a few more that I don't know.

"Keeps Me Wondering Why"
This was a non-charting follow-up to "Abracadabra".  The stabbing square-wave synth.  Is he trying to go Devo?  Well, it's not working.  Once again, he doesn't know how to effectively use a synth in his music, and he really needs to learn because he hasn't done anything impressive with a guitar yet.  The verses build nicely into a promising pre-chorus that makes it seem like he took some songwriting lessons, but then the song develops into a totally lame chorus.  There's some vocal layering after the second chorus that shows some production ambition that we haven't heard from this band before, but it doesn't save the song.

"Wild Mountain Honey"
Ah!  Martin Denny!  This thing totally feels like a rock band channeling Martin Denny.  In the intro at least.  The bendy synth leads are effective too.  But then his vocals take over, pushed way on top of the mix - more so than ever before - and are over-compressed.  He is also struggling with pitch.  Maybe that's why his vocals were always so low in the mix on much of his earlier material.  The man has pitch issues.  This is from 1976, the year before "Jungle Love".  The band's lazy and laid back vibe works here, this is the kind of song suited to that unhurried groove.

"Winter Time"
Another whoosy synth intro.  Are you joking, Steve Miller?  Well you are "The Joker".  Make it stop.  Oh, I see, the whooshes this time are supposed to evoke winter winds.  Do I detect some Mamas and Papas here, in lyric and in feel?  For a bit. Why not just commit to that: the backing harmonies would sound much better with a woman singing them.  But again, this song takes one idea, repeats it, and never really develops dynamically.  It also starts and ends with the same amount of energy.  This was the b-side to "Swingtime".  Swing time, winter time, I'm not sure I have time for much more Steve Miller.

"The Stake"
This one has a bluesy vibe.  This suits the band.  I personally dislike this southern blues-rock sound, but it seems to play more to this band's limited strengths.  Really, this one feels like what they should have been doing all along.  The guitar tone sounds decent at least.  The guitar tones have never been this good on any of their other records.  It's from the same album as "Jungle Love", "Jet Airliner", and "Swingtime" so why aren't those songs, the hits, recorded as well as this deep cut?

"The Window"
This one takes us back to the beginning.  The organ player from "Fly Like an Eagle" is here (it's from the same album), and we're also staying with the bluesy vibe.  I'm really not into this personally, but like "The Stake" it's objectively better performed and recorded than his hits.  The songwriting is no more inventive, but I am at least buying the sincerity of the performances more.  But yeah, that synthesizer - again - needs to come down a notch and play nice with the guitar, rather than fighting with it.  

Is the Steve Miller Band one of those acts whose hardcore fans hate the "sellout radio hits" and love them for the deep cuts on the albums?  If I want to be charitable after kind of blasting them a lot in this post, I'm going to just assume that's the case.  I'm going to declare - with limited evidence - that Miller's band are best when playing blues rock, and they spat out some pop hits to pay the bills.  Rather successfully.  Stylistically, I am not personally a fan of "The Stake" or "The Window", but these songs are clearly the band in their element, demonstrating what they should have been doing all along.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: 
"Jungle Love", in spite of the tragic quality of the vocal recording.

Next post: Asia, coming May 01, 2021.

00. C O N T E X T (about this blog)


This is a music blog.  

We will explore classic rock from the mid/late 1960s through the early 1980s - but not in the way you may expect.  

The plot twist is that I can't stand that music! 

The idea here is that I want to listen to some very popular and widely cherished music - but which has never aligned with my personal taste - and examine it with as open a mind as possible.  This is a blog about music I don't like, but want to attempt to at least recognize and understand after decades of avoidance.  


I was born and raised in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. of A., with my formative years spanning the 1970s and 1980s.  As such, I was verily weaned on the succulent teat of the classic rock canon.  The radio was filled with a dizzying number of artists who defined rock music in what may remain its greatest era: prog rock, stadium rock, yacht rock, glam rock, psychedelic rock, southern rock, blues rock, kraut rock, and good ol' rock-influenced pop were all peaking during my youth.

By the late 1970s, a new development shook things up: punk rock. In its wake came post-punk, synth-pop, and new wave (see my definitions below).  When I first heard Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, and The Cars infiltrating midwestern American radio, it was clear that these people were speaking directly to me.  Soon, I found a less pop and somewhat edgier paradigm in British punk and post-punk: Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Magazine, Japan, Wire, Ultravox, Joy Division, and Siouxsie, to name a few.  This music was telling The Eagles, Aerosmith, Meatloaf, the Doobie Brothers, and Boston to piss off; a new generation with new values was ready to take over.  When The Clash sang "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977!", they were addressing me directly, and their message was received, loud and clear.

The guys who wore Pink Floyd t-shirts to school were all a bunch of jerky stoners anyway, and the girls who loved Journey were generally pretty awful people.  In those days, youth identities were based on self-selected social subcultures: jock, stoner, geek, frat-rat, or weird arty outcast.  Having chosen the latter as my tribe, my social life - and as it turns out, my career - ended up being defined by music.  Just about all of the classic rock spectrum was rejected, in favor of punk, post-punk, synth pop, and new wave. 

Was I an insufferable little pissant music snob?  Hell yes.  Fifteen years before the film High Fidelity came out, I was like some weird mutant hybrid of all of that film's annoying record store employees.  If I didn't personally like a band, they had no possible value to anyone else either.  My sonic world was meticulously curated, and anything that reeked of mainstream classic rock was stale, moldy, and square.  My girlfriends all got mix tapes, but these weren't gifts, they were study guides: if they couldn't hang with my tunes, they were were out.  
When sound engineering and record production became a career, I matured and got over myself.  My horizons expanded dramatically, as my clients exposed me to basically every era and style of music you can think of: jazz, classical, hip-hop, country, R+B, cabaret, western swing, folk, ethnic music from every corner of the globe, rockabilly, and blues.  It was a real education.  My clients needed me to both respect and understand their music.  In talking with them and working with them, I got hip to basically everything.

But somehow, even after my perspective on the classic rock canon mellowed from disdain to indifference, I never got around to circling back to all of the Steve Miller, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and AC/DC albums that I summarily rejected before I was old enough to drive. 

So here we are.  Filling in the holes.
In each blog entry, I'll be listening to a classic rock record and commenting on it in real time.  I'll be diving in blind, and listening as objectively as possible: there will be no prior research into the record, its history, or the band.  I'm going to write as I listen, giving my immediate first impressions as both a music fan and as a sound engineer.  Put it on, start listening, and start typing.  Some of my comments will be rude and snarky, others will be carefully considered. Hopefully you'll find some entertainment or insight in them.  If I've both offended you and taught you something, I'll consider it a success, and if I find that I actually like some of these bands after all, that will be a win too.

There are a few bands that are off-limits for this blog.  Perhaps I wasn't 100% honest above, but I was trying to make a point.  When my adolescent self threw all loyalty to classic rock overboard in favor of the moderne, a few stalwarts did survive the purge, and I have listened to these select representatives of their era steadily over the years.  Since I know their material intimately, there's no way I can hear it in the fresh manner which this blog strives for.  

The first-ever records I can recall acquiring were by Kiss and Electric Light Orchestra.  Forty years later, I find Kiss (through Dynasty) to be charmingly goofy, and as an icon of my childhood, they continue to amuse me.  E.L.O. made stunningly well-produced pop music of impeccable quality, which never gets old.  I've also had a lasting fondness for Queen, Rush, and Cheap Trick.  David Bowie and Roxy Music make the cut: they were the architects of the new wave, and so much more.  In the middle 1980s, King Crimson's Discipline made an impression.  Their leader Robert Fripp worked with both Bowie and Eno (demigods in my world), not to mention making a new wave record with Barry Andrews (of Shriekback and XTC), as well as doing some stuff with the mighty David Sylvian.  Fripp is a bridge between two different worlds.  Going back to the 1950s/1960s, I've usually got time for the R+B and rockabilly pioneers, and pop singers such as Roy Orbison.  The Beatles have a place of course (particularly the middle-period: Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper's, and Magical Mystery Tour).  There are a few others.  So, none of these acts are gonna show up in this blog.  I just know their work too well already.


Punk, post-punk, synth-pop, new wave, and the new pop: the worlds of my youth defined.

These styles of music all overlap, as do the labels used to define them.  It's fairly subjective, but here's how I break it down:

Punk: it begins with the Ramones.  They traveled to the U.K. in 1976, where they infected the Sex Pistols, who were being assembled by Malcolm McLaren to sell Vivienne Westwood's clothes.  Whereas the Ramones were generally apolitical, The Pistols had an unexpected secret weapon in John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon, whose snarling demeanor belied a sharp intelligence.  He made punk political, and inspired The Damned, 999, The Clash, the Buzzcocks, and so many others to do what they did.  The U.K. punk scene was basically over and finished within two years, but successive waves and sub-genres persist to this day.

Post-Punk: inspired by the energy of punk but with better musicianship, more introspective lyrics, artier aspirations, and (often) the addition of synthesizers, behold the British music that truly shaped me: Wire, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Magazine, XTC, Psychedelic Furs, Japan, Shriekback, and Ultravox, for starters.  Many of them detrimentally evolved into a more commercial and less interesting directions, but their heydays (roughly 1978 through 1983 in most cases) was golden.

Synth-Pop or Techno-Pop: directly descended from the holy and untouchable Kraftwerk, the first wave synth-pop artists largely hailed from the U.K., and made synthesizers the point instead of just one sonic color: Gary Numan, Human League, Heaven 17, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, and O.M.D., plus Y.M.O. (from Japan) and Yello (from Switzerland).  

New Wave: although the term "new wave" was first used by the British press in reference to the Sex Pistols, that isn't how most people use it.  How do most people use it?  Indiscriminately.  Pretty much anything made from 1975 to 1985 with a synthesizer in it (or, for that matter, without a synthesizer in it), has been called "new wave" at some point.  Let's reclaim the phrase and make it specific.  Perhaps "new wave" best describes the U.S. answer to both post-punk and synth pop, and was (mostly) rooted in the eastern time zone: Talking Heads, B-52's, Devo, Blondie, The Cars, Lene Lovich, and Polyrock.  New wave mixes guitars and synthesizer (as in post punk), but is generally more energetic if not danceable (like synth-pop), and accessible enough to result in great U.S. chart success for some of these bands.

Speaking of which:

The New Pop: This is what happened when all of the above got watered down and went mainstream.  A slick, modern transatlantic pop style emerged in the 1980s, which supplanted nearly all extant 1970s trends: Duran Duran, Madonna, Thompson Twins, Adam Ant (solo), ABC, Berlin, A Flock of Seagulls, and any number of post-punk bands who decided they needed to pay the rent.  This style was also adapted by a lot of classic rock artists who were trying to stay relevant (even Bowie, on Let's Dance), and it can be argued that R+B/funk artists like Prince (as on 1999) and even Michael Jackson (on Thriller) fit into this category.  Consider that if "Billie Jean" was an instrumental, it could easily be confused with a Thompson Twins song from their Quick Step and Side Kick album; these two records were released just ten weeks apart.

Of course these are guidelines; there were many artists that could fall into two (or more) of these categories, and many that don't fit into any of them at all.  These are the styles I liked growing up (and then Industrial hit, and that's a whole other thing.  Cabaret Voltaire: yes, please).  

In this blog, we're gonna ditch all that and go back to the music that these styles sat in popposition to.  We're going to use this blog to discuss the enemy... and try to diplomatically meet them halfway. 
Can it be done?