Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Graham Parker - Squeezing Out Sparks

This is one of those records that was "just for me" when I was a teenager.  I never played this when anyone came around, and I hardly ever talked about Graham Parker with anyone because no one I knew had any idea who he was.  One of my reasons was that everyone already knew I thought Elvis Costello was fantastic, and I heard a lot about how angry he was and that I must be angry, too.  My love of early Joe Jackson wasn't helping me here, either.  So I just kept this record to myself.  I must have done a good job of it too, because my wife swears she never heard it and she's lived with me for a long, long time.  But I think she probably thinks this is an Elvis Costello album anyway.  Squeezing Out Sparks is one of my favorite records, and I'm sure if I actually laid everything out and chose just 100 to keep, this would make that stack.

I've always thought it was pretty weird how much I could relate to Graham's songs, because I think we're pretty politically far apart and he throws his opinions into songs a lot.  In particular the anti abortion You Can't Be Too Strong.   I mean, this is a subject that St. Mary's and I clashed on in CCD one night, and I made a girl cry and the parent that was the "teacher" was really pissed at an example I used, which included him and said female student.  It wasn't like real school, they just told me I had already been confirmed and maybe I should continue my spiritual journey going to church and maybe talking with priests one on one.  So I didn't need to come to CCD anymore.  The cool thing about Graham's song is that I can relate to how he feels, but I still disagree with him.  But what a song he must have here if he can get someone that disagrees with him to not only see his point, but value his art.

So that's kind of why I kept this record to myself.  Because I see this as a real piece of art.  I think it's the best kind of art, because it forces me to think in a way I don't normally think and it demands my attention in ways most records don't.  Which I guess is another reason I don't play this around other people.  Other people want to talk, and I like to really pay attention to this record.  I remember the first time I saw the video for Local Girls, at a midnight movie, right around the time I had just got the record and I was just amazed at how everyone else seemed to not be getting how fucking great this song was.  They kept talking and passing pipes and stashed liquor around and I just thought, "Shut up and pay attention!"  What a great song, about not being noticed and I just couldn't understand why everyone was just doing whatever the hell it was they were doing.  Lord knows they all shut up and stared slack jawed when the theater put on Jimi's If Six Was 9 (yawn).

I think every song on this record is just great.  The playing by The Rumour is top notch.  The guitars sound terrific, nice and raw and a great complement to Parker's snarl.  Especially on a song like Protection or the really lyrically bleak Discovering Japan.  I was seventeen when I got this, and it really seemed like such a heavy record.  I think it's also one of those records that has really held up well over the decades.  Even the lighter Waiting for the UFO's is still worth listening to and if every record's least song was as good as that one, then every record would be really damned good!

It's not all doom and gloom, even though Graham sounds a little pissed most of the time, but rockers like Nobody Hurts You and Saturday Night is Dead were always good for helping me get out of a funk or ready to go out and party with friends (which often met yet another night at a bar wishing I had all the quarters so I wouldn't have to listen to Journey or The Rodeo Song again).  I really love this album.  I haven't been a huge fan of Graham Parker, but this record hits all the right spots for me.

My copy of this is in great shape.  The cover shows its age, but the record itself is nice and flat and shiny black and it sounds great.  Probably because it never got dragged around to parties or lent out.  Man, I remember lending records all the time.  That couldn't have been a good idea!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon

Everyone my age knows this album like the back of their hand.  It was in the Billboard Top 200 for like 25 years, and that's really saying something.  So there's a million stories I could tell about things that happened while this record was playing, but I'll try to keep this somewhat reasonable.  Remember when I mentioned Alex Demkowicz in my personal Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame?  You may remember I mentioned taking this record in to that History of Rock N' Roll class I had back in Jr. High.  He had to audition any records we brought in for our Friday free for all listening, to make sure there was no searing and that the sex and drugs were very cleverly disguised, lest some stupid parent just sign the permission slip and find out later that we actually were listening to a wide variety of Rock N' Roll music, including music with adult themes.

Well, Mr. Demkowicz was really taken with this record and considered it to be very important, and by that time in 1976 or 1977 you could say that you'd be surprised that this guy didn't really know who Pink Floyd was.  Cut him some slack, though.  He wasn't really a rocker, he was a music teacher and I think his true love was Jazz, followed by Classical and then he thought kids should know about these things and so he came up with a History of Rock N' Roll class to try and introduce us to things we ordinarily may never have bothered with.  So he was a good guy and when I did turn him on to this, he actually came back and asked me if he could borrow it again when we got to the point where he was discussing instruments other than guitars in Rock music.  He loved the synthesizers on this album and more importantly, I think he liked the lyrics.  So we actually spent some time talking about this and listening to it in detail.

So by the time I got to high school and broadened my group of friends to include a few people a grade or two ahead of me, I was getting kind of tired of Dark Side of the Moon, but there was no escaping it.  Everyone had it.  People that only had thirteen 8-Tracks from Columbia House had this.  This was easily the most played tape in a car I ever heard, and half the time I'd get out of the car to go into a house and I'd get to listen to it in there, too.  This thing was ubiquitous, I'm tellin' ya!  I remember my friend's parents bought a new Ford Granada, and it had a factory stereo with a Power Boost button.  Power boosters were dumb.  They just didn't work.  The problem was that they amplified the already amplified signal, so tape hiss and distortion got amplified, too.  Well, my friend with the Granada would blast the ever lovin' hell out of the clocks at the beginning of Time, and you wouldn't believe how awful (but very loud) it was!  Man, I used to beg him to press that button and make it stop, but that fell on deaf ears (nyuk, nyuk).

I remember going out and on the way home some tool in the middle of the night would request Us and Them, which is a pretty okay song, but you don't want everyone in the car falling asleep at 3 AM listening to echoey voices and meandering piano and sax solo's.  I bet more people fell asleep with this on their turntable in the 70's than anything else.  I used to hate that.  Wake up to the locked groove at the end going, "click....click....click..."   I always thought, "There's eight hours of needle life I wasted!"  Then the next weekend I'd do it again.

I was just talking with a friend the other day about this and he was telling me how he's got the 5.1 SACD and it just can't be beat for sound quality.  He's probably right, but who cares?  If there's a record that should be played on vinyl, it's this one.  It should have some clicks and pops, because this record had to work for a living.  Money and its great opening of cash registers and bass guitar that open side two just need to come out of a pause in the action, which I think helps records.  Getting up and flipping the record over gives you a minute to absorb what just happened and gives you a minute to get ready for something new.  That's a good thing, if you ask me, and no SACD is going to give you that important break.

So I spent a lot of time talking about everything except the music on this record.  And why would I talk about the music much?  You know it.  We all know it.  I'm not a huge Pink Floyd fan, and I own this because if you like Rock music, you should own this and be familiar with it.  It's an excellent album from an extremely influential band.  It deserves all the accolades it gets because it earned those accolades.  Listening to it just now reminded me of just how defining of the 70's that album is.  It's definitely a product of that decade, but it also just seems like it just always existed.  There's not that many records that are like that.

My record is not the same one I loaned Mr. Demkowicz way back when.  I trashed that sucker and lost the posters and stickers (I think one of my stickers was on a Stop sign here in town for about fifteen years).  I have a copy with a bar code that came with the posters and stickers, but it's definitely and 80's release.  I'm not going to keep my eyes out for a primo early 70's pressing because I only play it once every ten years or so.  I'll just keep the one I have and I'll remember all those old parties and aimless cruising from when I was a kid when I play it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Genesis - Selling England By the Pound

Boy, here's a band that has a fractured fan base, if ever there was one.  This is from the classic Peter Gabriel era, which is bloated Prog Rock with extra helpings of pretentiousness and wankery.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing in music, but they're the kinds of things that are best in small doses.  So far as Prog Rock went back when I was a kid (which was when it was far more widely accepted than it is these days), these guys were always what I considered second tier.  Mostly because their albums are so inconsistent.  In the mid 70's a Yes album was generally solid all the way through.  Yeah, the lyrics were always a deal breaker for a lot of people, but the songs were just tighter than most other Prog Rockers.  I know calling Genesis second tier is kind of blasphemous to a lot of Prog Rock dudes, but that's okay.  They aren't in it for the Rock of it anyway.

The issues I usually have with Genesis is that they come up with a pretty good song, and then when it's over they just keep noodling.  Like the opening track here, Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.  It's Kind of dumb, but it's Prog Rock and that's okay.  The problem isn't that it's dumb, it's that the song ends and then it gets really quiet and they tack on some kind of boring instrumental thing that had nothing to do with the song in the first place.  It's like sometimes they make songs long because it was expected in the genre, but they really only had a four minute idea anyway, so they tacked on four minutes of acoustic guitar strumming and piano noodling along with brushes on drums.  At least Yes usually told Steve Howe to stamp on an effect pedal and let it wail.  This wouldn't be so bad, but then we eventually come to what the fanboys (they're all boys, too - women don't listen to this era of Genesis) consider a true classic, A Firth of Fifth.  Complete with flute solo and dreamy keyboard and guitar interlude.  Again, it seems like pieces of songs just put together.

I don't want to sound like I'm bitching, though; because I'm really not.  That's just the style that was popular and at least they were trying to make interesting music and not just another Rock N' Roll album.  Did they always succeed?  Hell, no.  They always came up with something that was genuinely really good, like I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), where they just got everything right.  Sure, it's pretentious and it's mostly nonsense, but it's based on the painting on the album cover.  So it really seems to work, if you ask me. I know I liked looking at the cover while I listened to that song a lot when I was a kid.  Maybe it's that whole reach exceeding their grasp thing in some cases, but at least they tried.

I was in a store around here a little while ago and it was a work day, and I was spending my lunch hour in there.  It's a primarily Classic Rock kinda joint, and it's usually empty when I'm there.  But for whatever reason a bunch of dudes, mostly older than me, were in there just hanging out by the register and bullshitting.  Some of them were talking about music they had downloaded for free, which seems like a real breach of etiquette in a record store to me, but they got around to Genesis and this album.  I overheard the whole conversation because the recently arrived records are up by the register.  There was a younger guy up there, and I've never seen anyone but the owner working the store, because he was supposed to go out of business last fall, but people like me must show up just often enough to buy some used records (he has way too many cd's in stock) for him to keep going.  But when the conversation got to this album, the young guy got really excited and said it was a "perfect" record.  I feel bad for him because he's never gonna meet a girl if he thinks The Battle of Epping Forest is perfect.  Or even the song Phil Collins sings, More Fool Me, which really kind of points to the direction they'd eventually get to after Peter Gabriel left the band.  Obviously that's a lot easier to see now after that all happened, but it's there and we really can't say we weren't warned.

The other epic piece (I think piece is more apt than song here) would be The Cinema Show.  I never remember hearing this on the radio or at a party.  Come to think of it, a party with this record going would have been a trip!  Probably a bunch of guys going, "Ssshhh!  Listen!"  It's another kind of song where things are kind of patched together, but it was a staple of some old Genesis bootlegs, so I have a feeling the die hards really love it.  I think it holds together better than most of their really long songs, but it could probably use a little tightening up.  In fact, by this point I'm usually thinking Peter Gabriel should have been a little more prominent on the record.  It would really be interesting to see where a record like this would stand if it came out today and no one had ever heard it way back when.  Unfortunately, I think it would go totally unnoticed.  I think that would be a bad thing, because while it's uneven like most Genesis albums, the high points are really worth hearing.

So I think that while this is considered a true classic Genesis album, if you're not a huge Genesis fan you really may disagree with that assessment, and you wouldn't be wrong.  It may seem like it's a record I really don't like all that much, but it has a place in my collection because even though I like guitar based garagey punk stuff most of all, I have a soft spot in my heart for 70's Prog Rock and now and then I can sit back and enjoy it.  I wouldn't have any idea what pressing I have, but there's no bar code on it, so I may have bought this in high school.  It has some crackling here and there, but it's listenable and I don't see me rushing out to upgrade it anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Pretenders

In 1980 I was a senior in high school.  I was not a very successful one, because in 1981 I was also a senior in high school.  This isn't so much because I'm a stupid person (that's certainly open for debate), but because I never wanted to miss anything.  Except school.  I didn't care if I missed that because every day was exactly the same in there.  Plus, I did most of it in the 70's and no one ever really seemed to care if I went or not.  No one called my parents or anything, so I figured I was good.  Until the end of 1980 when I found out I wasn't graduating (I knew, I just didn't think it would happen to me).  So it took two guys to figure out a way to get me a diploma, Ron Schuff and Tom Madzy.  Both of these teachers have passed on (proof that if god exists, he doesn't love us), but they are the two adults that did the most (besides Gene Zacharyasz and my dad) to make sure that when the time came, I'd be able to live in a house and eat food.  So that's a long way of me saying that I was a fuckup, and I know that.  It also gives you a good idea of where my head was at in 1980.  I know I laughed a lot.  I laughed a lot and I rocked my ass off!

The Pretenders first album is one of the albums I blasted almost continuously since the day I got it.  WMMS and M105 played it like it was a new Stones album because Chrissie Hynde was from Akron, which is Cleveland enough for our local media.  I liked them because they were more Punk than New Wave, but the songs just all stuck in your head and the band was just hot as hell!  It was the rare album that could have a single like Brass In Pocket and then Tattooed Love Boys on the next side seemed really eclectic to me back then.  I liked all the songs on here lyrically because Chrissie seemed like she was singing from a perspective that 18 year old me really understood.  What's nice is that old man me gets it, too.

Precious kicks the record off in fine form, and Cleveland radio played the hell out of it, probably because of all the mentions about Cleveland places, streets and people.  I mean, the rest of the world must have wondered what the hell Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed, trapped in a world that they never made, but around here we all saw The Mr. Stress Blues Band at the Euclid Tavern dozens of times in our lives, and we all knew Howard the Duck lived here, even if we didn't read the incredibly weird comic.  I loved knowing all the touchpoints in a song I was listening to on the radio.  Plus, Precious doesn't leave a lot to interpretation.  Chrissie says what she means to say, and James Honeyman-Scott just shreds his guitar all over and for once it sounded to me like a band that obviously owed a lot to Punk had a guy that could play anything on a guitar that any of the big name Classic Rockers could.  He just tore it up on almost every song, and even made the dance floor friendly Mystery Achievement easily one of my favorites on the record because of his great solo's.  The dude could flat out play, and it's a pity he's gone.

Pete Farndon, the bass player is dead, too.  I thought he was a good bass player, but he looked cooler than anyone around.  It's important for a Rock band to have a good Look, and The Pretenders definitely had that.  The white album cover with the guys in black and Chrissie in red.  Talk about a good Look, Chrissie most certainly had that, and I think I stared at the back cover where she's adjusting the cuff on Pete's pant leg by his shoe just always intrigued the hell out of me.  I don't know why.  I can still look at that picture for a long time.

I know Nick Lowe produced Stop Your Sobbing but then split because he didn't think The Pretenders were really going anywhere.  I like Nick a lot, but I don't know what the hell he was thinking on that one.  If anything, Stop Your Sobbing is the flattest sounding song on the record anyway, so I think it's obvious that Chris Thomas understood what the band was doing more than Nick did.  He got a pretty fat sound out of this record, especially since it really has more on each side than it should for optimum sound.  But they sounded all at once brand new and like they were just one of the great bands from back then.  They sounded like they belonged on the radio everywhere, and they looked like it, too.

I've still got my original.  The paper sleeve has some splits and I use another sleeve, but saved that one because I like the inner sleeve picture a lot.  The one with the kid playing with the robot.  My record is nice and flat and still sounds real good after all these years.  Definitely one of my favorite records ever.