Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Billy Squier: Don’t Say No

Before conceptual videos became the norm, the most common procedure for a promotional clip was simple: artists would set up their gear on a simulated stage, film would roll, lights would flash, and the process would repeat for a few songs. Sometimes there was an audience (Pat Benatar, 38 Special), and sometimes not (Pete Townshend, the Stones).

MTV debuted less than a year after the deaths of John Lennon and John Bonham, and while these events aren’t connected, it’s safe to say that the video channel started a new era. Among the handful of clips they had at their disposal were a few mimed performances by a shaggy-haired guy named Billy Squier. Not that anything could replace Led Zeppelin, but his tunes combined the wallop of that band’s rhythm section with a Plant-like yowl and even some modern keyboards. They were catchy, sounded great on the radio, and got played on MTV a whole lot. (MTV would also be directly responsible for Billy’s fall from grace, but that was a couple of years away.) Oh, and he played guitar, too, sometimes riffing, mostly chords, but not bad slide.

Like so many of the great albums from this era, Don’t Say No was front-loaded with great songs, so that people rarely flipped over to side two. (If you had them on cassette, you had to rewind. Nobody had figured out how to navigate 8-tracks by then anyway.) The rumble and blast of “In The Dark”, the questionable smut of “The Stroke”, the simple pop in “My Kinda Lover”, the made-for-FM classic “Too Daze Gone”; you could even forgive “You Know What I Like” for being a little stupid. Yes, all those songs are on side one.

But people did move over to side two, where “Lonely Is The Night” borrowed all the elements from “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” that Zeppelin hadn’t stolen themselves. And from there… well, let’s just say it’s not side one. “Whadda You Want From Me” sports a plodding drum part soon copped by Phil Collins, Steve Smith, and everybody else, but a has a decent bridge. The only acoustic ballad doesn’t arrive until “Nobody Knows”, which the lyric sheet says is “dedicated to the life of John Lennon”, but sounds more like a Jeff Lynne melody. Considering the co-producer (known only as Mack) worked on several ELO albums, this isn’t a stretch. That touch is also evident on the chorus of “I Need You”, a template for future, far lesser power ballads. For some reason, just as this song fades, the title track appears mid-take, almost as an afterthought.

Don’t Say No was his second album, and while we’ve never heard his first, and don’t plan to, it still holds up. Call it a guilty pleasure all you want, but just try to get the songs out of your head. Go on, try. (While the album has been reissued a few times in the digital era, none of these included as an obvious bonus track “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You”, the mostly unintelligible B-side of “My Kinda Lover”, and still a holiday staple round our way.)

Billy Squier Don’t Say No (1981)—

Friday, August 26, 2016

Journey 7: Frontiers

Now that they were huge, Journey was able to keep the lineup intact for two albums in a row, but where could they go after their Escape? Frontiers isn’t the obvious answer, nor is the skydiving photo session, but that’s what they did, balancing their now-patented power ballads with their loudest guitars (and huskiest voices) yet.

The first synthesizer notes will immediately bring to mind the unintentional comedy of the “Separate Ways” video, that wonderful showcase of method acting, tight close-ups, and way-too-earnest air guitaring, keyboarding and drumming, all seemingly taking place behind a Home Depot, as if the woman in question had nowhere else to walk. “Send Her My Love” is one of the secrets here, even though it was a single, and another one of those songs that immediately reduces a sensitive teenage boy to absolute mush. Following that, “Chain Reaction” is loud and annoying, a slap in the face. “After The Fall” is a little better, at least easier to sway to, but not as big a hit as “Faithfully”, which is probably being played at a wedding somewhere right now. (And the impetus for yet another unintentionally hilarious video, including lots of setup shots of bone-tired musicians Out On The Road, and chronicling Steve Perry’s battle versus his mustache. We can thank this video for Jon Bob Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”.) We should also mention that Jonathan Cain, who wrote the song for his then-wife, hasn’t been married to her since the Reagan administration. Not to worry, she went on to invest in implants that kept her in Skinemax movies for the duration of the century.

Side one sports four of the album’s singles, so side two often gets short shrift. Speaking of secrets, “Edge Of The Blade” doesn’t seem to get any love anywhere, besides having a terrific riff and a great overall performance. “Troubled Child” provides some welcome dynamics, if not the same drama of “Mother, Father”, but “Back Talk” is just a pile of noise, based around one of Steve Smith’s less inspired drum parts. The title track is a little more complicated, but overstays its welcome with the poor decision of delayed, repeating vocals. Thankfully, “Rubicon” is a good showcase for everybody, and a strong closer.

While it’s hardly a controversy on the level of the rejigged Blood On The Tracks or Infidels albums, Frontiers is notable today for the songs that were left off. “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely” were originally in the track sequence but pulled (replaced by “Back Talk” and “Troubled Child”). Both would surface down the road as soundtrack contributions, and become worthy inclusions on key Journey compilations as fan favorites. Both are on the CD you can buy today, along with a couple of other songs of the period, but the question remains: where would those tracks have fit on the original LP? Both have such a big sound that having them stuck back to back in the middle of side two, where the replacements resided, makes no sense. We haven’t settled on a sequence we like, simply because we much prefer “Troubled Child” to “Chain Reaction”, which isn’t part of the equation. But if you want to reprogram the modern CD for a better overall album, skip right from “Send Her My Love” to “After The Fall”, which would have “Edge Of The Blade” ending side one. Start side two with “Only The Young”, and follow “Troubled Child” with “Ask The Lonely”. (In other words: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 7, 12, 9, 10. You’re welcome.)

Journey Frontiers (1983)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rush 8: Permanent Waves

Even though it was written and recorded in 1979, Permanent Waves began the decade strongly for Rush. Sci-fi epics were out, and tight power trio interplay took over. Geddy Lee’s voice is less silly but still out of reach for detractors, but his real contribution is his growing prowess on keyboards, used more as enhancements than effects.

That’s not to say that budding suburban guitarists had nothing to copy. “The Spirit Of Radio” and “Freewill”, back to back, gave spotty teens reason to compete and impress each other at parties. The former is a celebration of a time when FM radio meant something, and whoever though these guys would find a way to combine reggae and Paul Simon? “Freewill” provides another anthem for the individual, a big deal in high school, though Geddy’s screeching on the final verse will divide the lovers and the haters. “Jacob’s Ladder” is something of an echo of those old epics, particularly with the flanged vocal section, except that the marching tempo driving the first part leads to only clouds preparing for battle, making the song nothing more than a description of the sky. (Heavy, man.)

There are a lot of tricky tempo changes on this album, and many of them are in “Entre Nous”, which delivers something of a hope for the future should those who have chosen freewill manage to cooperate. “Different Strings” hearkens back to some of the quieter moments on side two of 2112, based around a complicated guitar part and accented by an out-of-character piano accompaniment. It even fades right when you think we’re in for a lengthy solo. Instead, we’re plunged into nine minutes of “Natural Science”. Divided into three titled parts lyrically if not musically, it’s a challenging song to enjoy with all its insistence. In hindsight, it does seem something of an ancestor to an instrumental we’ll discuss soon enough.

Even with metaphorical lyrics, Permanent Waves is a very “direct” album, and if not simple, certainly simpler that where they’d been so far. They had figured out how to challenge themselves and their audience without complicating things too much, and in the process grew that audience. They even got some airplay out of it, since American deejays loved to play songs written about themselves. (The album was duly expanded for its fortieth anniversary, this time with an extra disc’s worth of tunes recorded live at three shows on the tour that supported the album and new cover art. Those who sprung for the Super Deluxe Edition got all that plus all the music on six sides of vinyl, various replicas of our ephemera, and other bells and whistles.)

Rush Permanent Waves (1980)—
2020 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1980, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, August 19, 2016

Grateful Dead 5: Workingman’s Dead

A couple of funny things happened on the way to the next Dead album. First, Jerry Garcia taught himself how to play the pedal steel guitar. Then, the band decided to write songs in a conventional manner. Most accounts credit Crosby, Stills & Nash for influencing the band to concentrate more on singing, which makes one of the few collaborations of the LA scene and the Frisco scene of the time.

Workingman’s Dead was the first recorded fruits of this new approach, established firmly by “Uncle John’s Band”, a campfire strum with an entirely acoustic backing. “High Time” adds a guitar through a Leslie speaker, but is slow, sad, and pretty. That new pedal steel dominates “Dire Wolf”, something of a modern folk song, perhaps best known by the chorus “don’t murder me.” The Dead that rocks finally surfaces on “New Speedway Boogie”, which continues the foreboding theme, this time obliquely referring to the Altamont free concert, which had already gotten so tense by the time the band showed up that they turned around and left without playing. (As seen in Gimme Shelter, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve fills in Garcia and Phil Lesh about the situation. “Bummer,” comments Jerry. “Marty [Balin] got beat up,” says Shrieve. “Doesn’t seem right, man,” replies Phil.)

Things pick up musically with another modern folk lament. “Cumberland Blues” begins like a Dead jam, but turns to bluegrass by the end with a prominent banjo. “Black Peter” counterparts “High Time”, being a slow sad lope, with a few nice touches, like the occasional organ and the layered vocals. “Easy Wind” gives Pigpen something to do vocally, and he manages to keep up even though it sounds like the band is playing in three different tempos simultaneously. “Casey Jones” provides a grand finale, another twist on an old folk tale, and one everybody likes to sing because it rhymes “train” with “cocaine”.

As would be proven in time, Workingman’s Dead was key to a successful year for the band artistically, and part of a wave of good music coming out of California at the time. By moving away from experimenting for the sake of it, and borne out by the sepia-toned, almost Wild West artwork, they could be taken seriously as musicians.

The expanded CD is packed to capacity: a mix of “New Speedway Boogie” with backing vocals; a pile of live recordings of the time, like “Dire Wolf” sung by Bob Weir and an off-pitch “Mason’s Children”, a song recorded for the album but left off; and the obligatory radio ad. The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition ignored these, but added two discs containing a full show recorded in February 1971, about a month before the gigs that begat their next live album. Of further interest to historians, this was preceded by a digital streaming collection dubbed Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share, which presented two and a half hours of session outtakes, giving insight into the development of each of the tracks on the original album.

The Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead (1970)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks
2020 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 17 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Oasis 2: (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

The British always have a way of pumping up musical hype, mostly so they can tear it down again. (Anybody remember the Bros? Didn’t think so.) So when two bands with mod haircuts and retro vibes showed up, the weeklies over there tried to make Blur vs. Oasis as relevant as the Beatles vs. the Stones.

The big difference is that the Beatles and the Stones got along, whereby the boys in Blur learned quickly to ignore the japes from Oasis. Here in the States, it didn’t make much of a ripple, when both bands were making decent records. Somehow (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? established Oasis as the clear winners of whatever battle they had with Blur, on only their second album. In fact, it took their fourth single (if you count the three that came out in the UK before the album did) to make an impression, and that’s why most people can still recognize “Wonderwall” from the first few notes.

Some have questioned how a Beatle purist like ourselves could like this album, which is understandable. For one thing, when it came out, the Gallagher boys had barely started to be as pretentiously loutish as they would shortly become. Also, it was a great set of power pop songs crafted so well it took several listens to realized whence they’d been pinched. Example: while we noticed the cop of “With A Little Help From My Friends” at the end of “She’s Electric”, it was two years before we realized that the bridge rips off the bridge to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and we had to read about that. The origin of the word “Wonderwall” is obvious to any diehard George Harrison fan, but that didn’t stop Liam from publicly disparaging the quiet one, who knew that no reaction only proved how stupid the kid was, particularly since Noel came up with all the songs.

And there are still a lot of songs to enjoy on this, such as “Roll With It”, “Cast No Shadow”, “Hey Now”, “Some Might Say” (there’s that T.Rex riff again), and even all 7½ minutes of “Champagne Supernova”. A favorite is still “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, which starts out like “Imagine” and features Noel instead of Liam on lead vocals. (Soon afterwards Noel took the mike for an MTV appearance while Liam sulked in the balcony, and showed that he was just as capable of carrying the band on his own. Yet it would be years before he made the leap.)

“Morning Glory” is the only real clunker here, since it doubles the feedback and fuzz with helicopter effects and is just noisy. Overall, the recipe works, and the latest anniversary edition offers up 28 further tracks, including the complete “Swamp Song” tapped for those interludes, the vinyl-only “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday”, all the B-sides that made collecting their singles worth the cash, and a mess of live versions and demos. Call it a guilty pleasure, but we still like it.

Oasis (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)—4

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bruce Springsteen 20: Working On A Dream

Bruce never worked fast, and had long earned the luxury of having to rush himself. Working On A Dream was one of the fastest follow-ups in his career, arriving only five retail quarters after Magic. Having learned his lesson from that time he put out two albums on the same day, this time he decided to give the songs that materialized at the end of the sessions a little breathing room.

On the basis of “Outlaw Pete”, an eight-minute saga about a bank-robbing baby that has some catchy hooks outside of the one that’s identical to “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss, one can be forgiven for thinking the kid didn’t get enough oxygen. But “My Lucky Day” redeems it, with the big E Street sound everybody loved on The Rising, and even a textbook Clarence solo. The title track is a little too by numbers, and the sweetness of “Queen Of The Supermarket” is sunk by its improbability, or at least its literalness; Paul Westerberg already wrote the best ode to a checkout girl anyway. Right at the end he finds a terrific countermelody, then shocks us with an F-bomb, and lets the song fade to the accompaniment of a UPC scanner. (We kid you not.) “What Love Can Do” sounds like something he must’ve written already, and it could do without the clattery arrangement. “This Life” builds on the Brian Wilson inspirations of the last album to get us smiling again.

The experiments continue on “Good Eye”, a noisy blues rocker sung through a Green Bullet. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a country song that has nothing to do with John Lennon, and while “Life Itself” is twice as long and has nothing to do with George Harrison, it’s got more depth. The country elements of those last couple of songs combine with the high notes on “Kingdom Of Days” to take it away from “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and “Your Own Worst Enemy”. “Surprise, Surprise” was another chance to evoke John Lennon, or at least Gomer Pyle, but instead stays a pop song with a Mark Ronson bridge. It’s a final chance for toe-tapping, given the dusty atmosphere of “The Last Carnival”. (As had become standard, this album’s hidden or bonus track is “The Wrestler”, written for the movie of the same name. It’s no “Streets Of Philadelphia”.)

Working On A Dream is possibly Bruce’s most lightweight album, in that it’s not weighed down by the hard lives and tough loves of all those just plain folks. Rolling Stone magazine was bound by law to give it five stars, but that should mean nothing by now. It’s merely harmless and enjoyable.

Bruce Springsteen Working On A Dream (2009)—3

Friday, August 5, 2016

Peter Gabriel 3: Melting Face

By now the pattern was set: another album titled Peter Gabriel, on a different label, but with the same lettering and a cover photo that would contribute to the vernacular. (In this case, the kids came to calling it Melting Face or just plain Melt. Some of the more enterprising ones called it Mercury/Geffen, in honor of the two labels who’d released it in America.) Only now it was the ‘80s, and he was ready to move forward as his own man. Having shed the pedestrian rock of his first two albums, the third album embraces his experiments within the song form.

Working with soon-to-be hotshot producer Steve Lillywhite, he even made some of his old collaborators sound new. This is evident from the start of “Intruder”, where Phil Collins discovered the unique “gated” drum sound that would drive every single one of his creations for the next ten years, along with the appearance of the Yamaha electric grand piano that would become synonymous with the Gabriel sound. The song’s dark, claustrophobic lyric matter sets the stage for most of the album, through “No Self Control” and particularly on “I Don’t Remember”. Preceded by a brief, sax-driven instrumental (or prelude) called “Start”, it even works on the dancefloor (even if some of the synth parts remind us of “Run Like Hell”). A stretch of silence calms everything down for “Family Snapshot”, a vivid, harrowing portrait of a political assassin that actually inspires sympathy. “And Through The Wire” manages to lighten the mood somewhat—maybe it’s the cowbell?—with a vague lyric that may or may not be related to the mood of “On The Air”.

With a simple “one, two, one, two, four”, the infectious “Games Without Frontiers” whirrs into motion, thanks to the sustained guitars and drum machine. The silly yet biting lyrics are balanced by the whistling chorus and the sound of Kate Bush intoning the title in French (and not “she’s so funky yeah” as we thought for several years). The theme of isolation returns on the otherwise upbeat “Not One Of Us”. “Lead A Normal Life” is mostly a duet for marimba and piano, split up by wordless vocals and an actual verse that confirms that the song takes place in a mental institution. The grand finale is “Biko”, which can be credited for bringing the issue of apartheid to the minds of otherwise apolitical consumers, as well as Bono. A simple funeral march, the suggestion of bagpipes and African touches make it universal and stirring.

Peter Gabriel more or less found a sound that worked on his third solo album, or at least one that he felt comfortable recreating in some of the more innovative live shows of the next several years. And it was a good thing too, since his old bandmates were starting to become more known on the pop charts, together and by themselves. (It also bears mentioning that he released a special version of the album sung entirely in German. Those who’ve heard it have said that some of the lyrics sound even more menacing in that language.)

Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel (1980)—