Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - The Impossible Dream

I’m a Clevelander.  I’ve never actually lived in the city proper, but like most people in Cuyahoga County I live in a town right near Cleveland.  I can be in Public Square in twenty minutes, which is actually quicker than some people who live in the city proper can get there, so considering my lifetime of rooting for our lousy sports teams and going downtown and supporting Cleveland’s neighborhoods by shopping and eating in them, like most people in the county, I consider myself a Clevelander.  People from Parma and Lakewood probably don’t call themselves Clevelanders, but those are cities you can actually mention to people and they’ll understand you live up North and not down in Cow Country, Ohio.  I really like Cleveland, and one of the things I like having grown up here is a kind of shared community thing from the people around here in the 70’s and early 80’s.  We went to concerts downtown at Public Hall and The Agora.  We went to things called Party in the Park at the several venues they held them at, and even if you were trying hard to find out what kind of music there was to listen to that wasn’t played on WMMS or M105 (WWWM), you were gonna hear those stations every day whether you tried to or not.

One of the mainstays of Cleveland Rock radio back then was The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.  Alex was (and still is) extremely well loved here.  I remember high school bands covering his songs, and Paul Fayreweather devoting a whole set of his show to SAHB.  I wouldn’t quite say SAHB was ubiquitous, but I would say that everyone knew who the guy was.  That wasn’t the case in other cities.  I can remember talking music when I went to swimming camp or on vacation and people had no idea who Alex was.  I don’t know why this was, because these guys were a blast.

This is one of Alex’s classics here in Cleveland.  The Impossible Dream was one of those I didn’t buy until the 80’s because everyone had it, so mine is a reissue on Samurai Records.  I wish Samurai did every reissue, because they always sound fantastic.  They just did a good job pressing records, I guess.  But like I said, this sucker was one of the most popular albums this city has ever heard.  The classic rock station here still ends up playing all thirteen minutes of The Hot City Symphony:  Part 1 – Vambo Part 2 – The Man in the Jar.  I bet they still have some drunk request the damned thing on the Saturday Night House Party radio show.  They always used to put some dink on the air and he’d be at a party and slur, “Hey! Put on The Man in a Jar!”  Our host would just change the hour he played it in every single week.

Which would always get me asking, “Why not play Sergeant Fury or Long Haired Music?  Why is it that people that call in to request songs don’t buy any of their own fucking records!  I mean, if they did, then maybe they’d want to hear a different song once in a while, ya know?  But like hell if they’d ever have the good taste to ask for Weights Made of Lead which is just plenty of boogie music with Alex hamming it up and doing all the crazy vocals that everyone my age can imitate without a seconds thought.  Alex had this great Scottish accent and it wasn’t too thick, so it just made all his songs more fun.

I remember talking to a friend who came to visit us once from out of town when I was a teenager and he was looking at pictures of SAHB and asking me who the mime was.  I couldn’t believe he didn’t know Zal Cleminson, who was on my ever growing list of Favorite Shit Hot Guitar Players.  Zal dressed up like a mime onstage, but the guy could really play and added a great, crunchy guitar anytime it was needed, and could play tastefully understated or way over the top at the drop of a hat.  Or just a change in the song, because like I said, he was a Shit Hot Guitar Player.

Maybe SAHB was partly special for me because they were just such a teenage boy’s kind of thing to like.  They had just enough chops to impress the older Rock Nerds that they could be serious (and while they were often funny, they never slipped into Frank Zappa territory).  The keyboards gave them a slight Prog Rock feel, but the drums and Cleminson’s guitar definitely would be at home in any Pub Rock band.  All in all, they were unique and if you ask me, they hold up very well even today.

Like I said, my copy is a reissue on the Samurai label.  It’s in terrific shape.  I think there’s a click here and there, but it’s a record, and that just happens, ya know?  I wish all my records sounded as good as Samurai’s SAHB reissues.  The drums are nice and full, the vocals crystal clear and the guitars sound great.  My guess is that if you found a copy of this and you had a choice between the Vertigo and Samurai releases, the Samurai would be half price.  I’ve heard the Vertigo’s and they sound really good, too.  But I’d save the money, buy the Samurai and get another album with the savings, at least around here – SAHB records fetch premium money here in Cleveland.  Get one.  It'll treat ya right.

Monday, February 25, 2013

High Fidelity, or Just Rambling?

High Fidelity.  What an elusive concept, eh?  I think a lot of males my age (we grew up in the 70’s) tend to want a certain degree of great sound from their stereo that you cannot get from an ipod in a docking station with two 2 ½” speakers eight inches apart and a 3” subwoofer.  Sure, that thing can be surprisingly better sounding than you would have ever imagined in 1977, but an H.H. Scott receiver and a pair of some long lost to time bookshelf speakers an old girlfriend of mine had handed down from her brother would put that ipod dock to shame.  Not that I had anything that nice back then (I was positively green with envy the day we hooked it up!), but kids my age usually tried to get a decent stereo.

That picture above is the first real stereo I ever owned.  My dad had a little Webcor stereo with a small record changer built in to an AM/FM receiver.  The speakers were 4” cones and weren’t much to write home about.  I saved a lot of money (for me, anyway) and bought this GE stereo.  It was an AM/FM receiver with a phono input and an AUX jack, with a built in 8 track player.  It came with two speakers.  The phono input was just a line level, and my first “turntable” was a shitty BSR changer with a plastic woodgrain base and a ceramic cartridge.  The GE system had pretty decent speakers, though.  They had an 8” woofer and a 3 ½” tweeter.  So yeah, the tweeter wasn’t exactly accurate and good at imaging, but it was damned good with electric guitars!  That thing played surprisingly loud, had bass that didn’t offend me, and best of all, it was durable.  I would bet that had my BiL not wrangled it from me, it would still be working.  He put the speakers on the outside of his garage and left the receiver in the garage for his daughters to use by the pool.  Rain, snow, heat and cold killed the speakers and I don’t know what happened to the receiver part.  It’s a little sad now that I think about it.

That stereo and I got through me growing up.  I also had an old pair of JVC closed back headphones with a volume knob on (I think) the left ear cup.  They were okay, but I got better ones.  I can remember lying in bed late at night and listening to WCSB or even WMMS and hearing all the underground music of the times.  I liked my headphones, and I could just blast them really loud and feel totally lost in whatever it was I was listening to.   I remember one day after my JVC phones crapped out but before I got a new pair I laid on the floor with the speakers on either side of my head at full blast so I could better appreciate Roxy Music Live at Hammersmith Odeon 1979.  I can still hear, and I still have that bootleg record.

I really liked the blue lighted tuner dial.  It was a great color of blue and I don’t know why stereo’s don’t always use blue lights.  They just look really cool if you ask me.  I used to have a bunch of beer lights and a really weird 7UP can that had a big light bulb in it that also had a huge filament that went around a magnet, and when I turned it on the filament it would flick back and forth.  I had some really weird lighting in there, and I thought it was cool.  I used to sit in there in my weird light and listen to Yes and The Doors lying on the floor for hours.  Eventually I got to move my stereo to a room in the back of the house, and that was beyond cool!  I had a couch and it was just a great place to hang out.  I wish my parents had been the kind that let me smoke back then, but they weren’t (if you wondered, I quit long, long ago).  So it wasn’t always cool to hang out at my house, but I still had my moments.

Eventually I got my first Dual turntable from some old stereo shop in my downtown.  I bought records from the guy, too.  I think I still have several of them, and by now some of them are actually pretty valuable.  I think my first Dual was a 1009, and it was pretty old and looked it.  But it was kinder to my records, that’s for sure.  After a while I ended up getting two more small speakers (my receiver had a Quadra Fi button,  and it was cool to have two more speakers.   But then I got a real turntable.  I got a used 1219 with some kind of Audio Technica cart on it, and it sounded great!  I used that until I bought my first big boy stereo.  I wonder what happened to it?  There are people online that would like that old thing.  I bet it’s in a landfill, though.

I can remember coming home from swimming practice and listening to Suzi Quatro or some other such thumpy noise.  I learned a lot from that stereo.  I learned what I wanted from ever stereo from then on.  I wanted some high notes and I wanted a richer bass.  But I also wanted to make sure it would play as loudly as I wanted it without distorting, which my GE did with apparent ease.  I also learned that I didn’t care what anyone else thought about my stereo, because I bought it because I like the way it sounds.  And that’s important!  I remember some girl’s older brother telling me he bought a new receiver at Radio Shack and I think I said, “Isn’t all their stuff shitty?”  He showed me his new receiver and it was one of those monster mega watt things with like fifty knobs and dials on it.  I was blown away!  He had the Realistic Mach One’s hooked up to it and that thing was amazing.  It took up his whole bedroom, but it was worth it, and I had no problems appreciating that thing and asking him about stereo equipment all the time back then.  I knew one day I wanted something like that, but I never did get one of those huge receivers.  They’re just too big.

My little GE and a bunch of older girls seem to me to be the main thing that helped shape my musical tastes.  It’s weird being the oldest.  My parents didn’t have records I wanted to listen to.  I wanted to listen to music kids listened to.  I think from guys I got my appreciation of stuff like Grand Funk, but I think the girls I knew tended to encourage me to listen to Yes and anything else that was something I could feel a personal connection to.  The girl that played Patti Smith for me told me to never buy records to keep in my collection for other people.  She said I’d never play them, and I learned that with a couple of Led Zeppelin albums that I gave away.  I sure do miss all those old days where all the music seemed so new and my very own stereo turned me onto those sounds.  Not that I don’t have my very own stereo (I have one that works really well for me), but it’s funny that so many of those people I used to talk to about music all the time seem to have put that part of their life in the same landfill as my old GE stereo.  I wonder if they ever miss it?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Todd Rundgren's Utopia - Another Live

I found a really nice copy of this the other day.  I used to have it when I was a kid.  It came out in 1975, and I think I bought it back then.  I remember this was one of those albums that I played on my old stereo that I bought with my own money (it would still be working if I hadn't let my BiL have it and he set it up outside for his kids - the speakers absorbed water pretty well).  The first turntable I bought for it was a BSR of some sort with a ceramic cartridge that needed to eat records to stay alive.  So my original copy of this is definitely in a landfill somewhere, but I always check out cheapo copies to see if one is clean for little money, and I found one yesterday.

So I got some of that new Budweiser Black Crown and listened to records last night.  The first thing I thought was that this had the worst cover of almost any good record I've ever heard.  It looks like fan art.  There's a funny insert with a photo of the band, and the words to the songs on side one.  The whole thing looks like a project they were starting, but gave up on and just released, and I remember always thinking that about this record.  But I like this album.  I don't love this album, but I definitely like it.  Side one was new songs back in 1975, and they're kind of Prog Rockish, which I definitely dug listening to while lying on my bedroom floor with my old Radio Shack headphones on, cranked up too loud and thinking a real Rock Concert would be the coolest place to ever go.  So last night I sat on the floor and slapped on my headphones and let this one drag me back for awhile.

I remember taking this down to Canton, where my dad was from and I was born.  I had cousins down there, and I thought my cousin Theresa and her friends were just about the coolest people I knew.  I think she's a year older than me, and she had a little stack of records I coveted back then.  She smoked and I think she drank beer, and I smoked and wanted to drink beer.  They used to give me a hard time back then because I used to smoke menthols, like Kool's or Newport's.  Back then mostly black kids smoked those, and Kool's supposedly had fiberglass filters that would make you cough up blood.  I figured that was bullshit, because why would a cigarette company knowingly kill their customers (I'm glad I don't smoke anymore!)?  I remember when I took this down there Theresa took one look at it and said, "Hell, yeah! I love Todd.  Let's go to Peggy's and listen."  I was real excited, because I knew I had this awesome record and they hadn't heard it yet.

Well, they were in love with the Todd that did Something/Anything and A Wizard, A True Star.  This was different.  There's no Hello, It's Me or It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference on this album.  Side one is just three long songs, with lot's of keyboards, acoustic guitar throughout The Wheel and almost enough keyboards to make Rick Wakeman jealous.  Strike one with the girls.  But side two is shorter songs, and has a great cover of Do Ya and Todd's classic underdog fan's prayer, Just One Victory.  So the girls didn't hate it, but it felt like I walked to first, and I remember quickly switching to Uriah Heep and then going outside so we could hang around and smoke and try to look cool.

Now, Just One Victory reminded me of swimming.  I swam for years, but only one year in high school, and during Christmas workouts we were allowed to bring records in to listen to while we swam back and forth for six hours out of the day.  The high school pool had a PA, and there were speakers all over so we could actually hear real music instead of the song that just gets stuck in your head the whole time.  I remember one of the seniors telling me Just One Victory was his favorite song, which is fine.  But it was how he looked at competition and the futility of that song that bugged the shit out of me.  I told him that song was great for the fans, who can't do anything but cheer and hope, but the athletes have options.  If you want to win, you don't let the other guy beat you.  If he does beat you, and you can prove you did better than you've ever done before, then you can be proud of yourself even in defeat, but hoping and praying the other guy blows a turn or swallows a gallon of pool water is fucking stupid.  Our medley relay went to state that year.  We would have medaled but Just One Victory false started.  That really pissed me off.  I never false started and coming in to high school, I had been on some medley relays that had made some serious statements as to just how good our team was (it's the first event in a swim meet, and when you're in another state or city where they don't know you, blowing everyone out of the water the first event is a good way to get every one's attention).  That song kind of leaves me salty these days.

Something's Coming was so familiar to me.  Todd does a great job of bringing this classic from West Side Story into the land of Rock.  My dad listened to his 8 Track of that soundtrack a lot, and Something's Coming was always my favorite song on it.  You really can't hide the show tune in it, though!  But my favorite song on the record is and always will be, Heavy Metal Kids.  It's certainly the hardest rocking song here, but I forgot just how screwed up I used to think the narrator in the song had to be when he woke up this morning, got drunk off my ass!  Wow.  These Rock and Rollers were not like my mom and dad, that's for sure!

The copy I found is a promo, with the old pink and black sticker on the front, but it's actually a Bearsville promo label, too.  I think it was played, but not much, and certainly on a better record player than my old BSR.  I'm glad I bought it.