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? 

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