Dire Straits – Communiqué (1979)

 Warner Bros. Records ■ HS 3330

Released June 15, 1979

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett
Engineered by Jack Nuber
Mixing Engineered by Gregg Hamm
Mastered by Bobby Hata

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Once Upon a Time in the West
  2. News
  3. Where Do You Think You’re Going?
  4. Communiqué
  1. Lady Writer
  2. Angel of Mercy
  3. Portobello Belle
  4. Single-Handed Sailor
  5. Follow Me Home

If I’m going to talk about Dire Straits, which, in this case, I obviously am, the starting point is simple: Mark Knopfler is, stylistically, my favourite guitarist, bar none. Like many, I spent part of high school spewing obvious names for “best guitarist ever”, but have long since abandoned this for two simple reasons: first, none of us knows all the guitarists, not even all the guitarists in popular music, nor what performances are comfortable for them versus extreme work, and second, I’m not a player myself, so how could I really judge such a thing? What I can do, though, is establish a sound that I personally like–and, of course, that is not a singular sound in all honesty. I’ve (more privately) expressed appreciation for the tone Jeff Beck achieved on his peculiar, semi-electronic records from the early ’00s. Eric Johnson, too, is noted particularly for his tone. Andy Gill of Gang of Four has a wonderfully clangy, abrasive style, so on and so forth. But, given the option,  I choose Knopfler consistently, because I like the way he plays in-and-of itself, rather than as appropriate for a style, for virtuosity, or because it ends up with clear and pretty sounds–it does those, but is unmistakably a guy playing guitar at the same time.

When I asked for a Dire Straits selection from my 3 LPs (I actually have every album on CD), I noted that I don’t listen to Communiqué much and never have, my brain having rather haphazardly categorized it as the most “bland” Dire Straits record. Really, that judgment is purely personal and internal, and reflects only the absence of songs I know and love (think the big singles, of course), as well as the absence of curiosities like Love Over Gold‘s “Telegraph Road” (a 14-minute long track, wildly out of character in the band’s studio oeuvre, normally maxing out at a bit over 8 minutes in rare exceptions, but largely hovering in the 4-6 minute range). Making Movies has my favourite Dire Straits song (“Romeo and Juliet”) while Love Over Gold has the aforementioned expanded travel of “Telegraph Road”. What does Communiqué have to pop up immediately in my memory?

Of course, I dropped the needle and was reminded–oops. I always think, for some reason, that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is on their 1978 eponymous debut, but that actually starts with “Down to the Waterline”–a solid opener, but no “Once Upon a Time in the West”. As someone who also loves movies, and started branching out into both movies and music at the same time, I’ve forever associated Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon a Time in the West to us English speakers) with this song, humming or singing it to myself any time I stumbled into a physical copy of the movie. Lyrically, it makes no sense, but the dry way Mark has always sung, seemingly with just a tinge of the droll, made a strange kind of sense to me, despite the contrasting lushness of Morricone’s score for the film¹ and the expansive, cinematic eye of Leone’s films. I liked to imagine it was at least a jumping-off-point for the song, but it’s highly unlikely. Still, it’s a fantastic track–a piercing lead that’s backed by a pretty set of chords, before turning to a plodding groove of a track, Mark’s lead carrying on less sharply, working a wonderful bend of a lead over the semi-reggae rhythms of John Illsey’s bass and Pick Withers’ drumming. Mark and his brother David work in half-muted chords that also imply reggae origins.

The whole first side of the album is a bit more on the easy, breezy side–“News” is gentle and simple, the melody and playing style, as well as the steel implying the kind that would show up on their next album in the form of, well, “Romeo and Juliet”, actually, though there’s a greater sadness, and no real move to the kind of crescendo that track experiences. Even when Withers’ drums assert themselves more clearly, and Mark’s lead takes off, it stays restrained in overall atmosphere, though that lead presses firmly at those restraints. It makes clear, though, that interesting contrast that often occurs with Mark’s more emotive playing and his semi-gruff, often “huffed” lyrics, which seem to be pushed out through his voice, natural, but sort of forced, in a good way–a rough edged, less sarcastic than masked, guarded contrast to the clean, clear notes he elicits.

“Where Do You Think You’re Going?” broods and simmers menacingly, though I find myself unsure why exactly, lyrically. Some have suggested it’s about domestic abuse (though I’m not at all convinced by these explanations, and numerous lines don’t seem to fit that well), but there’s certainly some kind of hidden threat here–whether it’s from the character Mark sings as, or from where the “girl” he’s singing to plans to go. It takes off into a more energetic pace with a rapid beat from Pick that starts moving the track along. But Mark, ever the leader, manages to soften and slow the song around that beat, his leads matching the tempo but so smooth and curved that it keeps that hidden threat from becoming obvious or overbearing–just slinking along in the shadows instead.

The title track is perhaps the most uptempo track on the whole of the first side, and exhibits the firm fingerpicking that characterize a lot of his work. It swings with the kind of swampy groove of a Dr. John song almost, but then sways at the bridge on top of B. Bear’s piano and turns a bit more familiar as a Dire Straits song then. But the next verse, naturally, reclaims that slinky, swerving groove, so nicely punctuated by the plucked strings. Handclaps shade a solo that sounds at least partly improvisational, the song turning briefly to a kind of “jam” on the back of Withers’ now “pea-soup” drumbeat.

There was only one single on the album, and it was “Lady Writer”, by far the most uptempo track on the album, and a pretty logical choice for a single as a result. Mark’s lead is somewhat reminiscent of their breakout hit, “Sultans of Swing”, but the track itself is a little friendlier overall, in keeping with the relaxed tone of the whole album. While it smokes its way through the verse, it breaks into sunny waves on the chorus, Mark’s lead and vocal sort of fading into the distance as it ends. The backing vocals of David and Illsey are apparent throughout the track, but the high point is doubtless the searing solo that flies out of Mark’s fingers straight through the song’s fadeout–a wild burst of showmanship that shows the peculiar restraint his style tends to exhibit: whatever fancy flares he adds, it never seems overbearing or overly showy.

“Angel of Mercy” sees the return of the low swing that typifies the Dire Straits sound, or at least most of it. David and John’s backing vocals are full and clear again, while Mark’s burn right over the top aggressively. The choral feeling that comes from the three of them singing together through the chorus and the meandering lead Mark lays over the whole thing gives it a nicely contrasting flavour from the rest of the album, one that manages to hit the highs and the lows, while not straying too far from the breezy, low tide of the album’s overall tone. Mark exits the track with another solo, but this one just slides right into place confidently and comfortably, rather than sizzling like he did at the end of “Lady Writer”.

There’s a very light touch to “Portobello Belle”, Mark’s voice and an acoustic alone at open. Illsey, Withers and Bear join, and it’s clear this is one of the songs that will focus on Mark’s songwriting rather than his playing. It’s actually extraordinarily prescient, as it resembles the work Mark would do as a solo artist thirty years later on Kill to Get Crimson in particular (though shades of this style echo through a lot of his solo albums). It’s a simple tune, largely, and it’s the buoyant, sharply bright acoustic that really defines the track, as well as the light touch of keys from Bear behind it. Illsey’s bass is perhaps its most upfront, similarly cheerful, and it makes for an appropriate but unique track for the record.

There’s a lot folded into “Single Handed Sailor”, as Mark returns to electric, his fingers active but subtle in their constant motion. Illsey makes his voice known most clearly here–his instrumental one, that is. A very full bass-line that shifts it under the tightly fingerpicked rhythm track. While it also avoids abandoning the lazy tone of the record, those two instruments really keep it moving a lot more than much of the rest of the album. Taking another chance to wander around instrumentally, the latter portion of the track is another exhibit for Mark’s cool tones and swaggering guitar lead, covering a lot of ground but continuing to avoid fireworks and explosions, in favour of a kind of displayed subtlety.

The breezy tidal feel of the album is made blatant as “Follow Me Home” opens, the sound of small waves crashing on a shore balanced on the light touch of hand drums. Mark’s voice is languorous, matching the swaying rhythm guitar, and his own crying lead. It’s vaguely hypnotic, island-y, like a seductive hymn from beside a beach’s bonfire. Mark’s solo sparks and flits upward at moments, but doesn’t quite take off on its own. Rather than clearly echoing or harmonizing words, David and John on backing vocals widen the sound of Mark’s voice. The track doesn’t build up to a huge moment, or even a hint of one. It just sways back and forth with that slow burn, perhaps best thought of as a culmination of the album’s tone as a whole: it maintains the breezy tone, while turning a moment that implies endings and rest, it instead points toward further activity, acting as both fade-out and hint of what’s to come.

Communiqué was the last album to feature David Knopfler, who has also gone on to solo work, though it is largely unheard, unlistened, and unmentioned. Word is, he doesn’t like to talk about his brother at all, and one can only guess that a split so severe and so early in a band’s life does not bode well for their relationship. Of course, it may say something that Mark was writing all of the songs already, and it was the age-old concern about getting a voice heard. Whatever it may have been, this has remained a clearly voiced vehicle for Mark’s songs, playing, and writing–fair, unfair, or otherwise.

I can’t really complain about that, and found this album was not quite so “slight” as I remembered (or, really–imagined) it to be. I can’t say it moved too far up the ranks in terms of my favourite albums by the band, but I’ve often favoured the earlier works of the bands that rocketed to stardom in the ’80s after solid starts in the ’70s (similarly, as they will not come up later here, I favour Zenyatta Mondatta or Regatta de Blanc over Synchronicity without reservation).

If you do only know the band for their singles, I strongly recommend expanding that experience, as Knopfler’s work is superb in a sense that lends itself less to dropped jaws and applauded virtuosity than just being damn fine sounds. And that phrase is one that might be best to describe what appeals to me in music, I think–nothing technically descriptive or specific, but emphatic and distinct enough to have a kind of identity–though, admittedly, one that requires expansion to be understood.

Which is, of course, what this writing is here to do.

¹While I do have an imported copy of that score on CD, I only have a 2xLP compilation of Morricone themes and the score to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) on vinyl.


Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)

Warner Bros. Records ■ WS 1877

Released June, 1970

Produced by Deep Purple

Engineered by Andy Knight, Martin Birch, Philip McDonald

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Speed King
  2. Bloodsucker
  3. Child in Time
  1. Flight of the Rat
  2. Into the Fire
  3. Living Wreck
  4. Hard Lovin’ Man

Ah, Deep Purple “Mk. II”.

Why, out of all the bands that have gone through such monumental lineup changes (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc) they are the only ones that seem to have become firmly labeled with “version” numbers is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because the lineup change has such a drastic overall effect on songwriters–we can say “Barrett-era Floyd”¹ and “Peter Green” and “Bob Welch” and so on, to notate the controlling voice’s change. I don’t know–anything would be just a guess, and it’s likely just an indicator of the varying mentalities of fans that Deep Purple’s chose that approach.

Still, “Mark II” has its place highest in the echelons of music, particularly for being so thoroughly entrenched in hard rock when it was rapidly morphing into heavy metal (though most of the albums at the time given that have largely sloughed off that title as it has gained higher and higher minimums of power/volume/aggression/speed/etc over the years). Indeed, if the average person can assign anything to the name “Deep Purple”, it is probably “Smoke on the Water”, their monstrous hit from two albums (and years) farther on, Machine Head. Now, of course, “Highway Star” has gained a measure of fame from its inclusion in Rock Band, so there might be that further connection, but it, too, comes from ’72’s Machine Head anyway.

While I grew up with “Smoke on the Water” as I did with many a classic rock song, it regained strength when I came into my love of Frank Zappa, and the story of the burning casino studio in it. About four or five years ago, I happened upon the 25th anniversary edition of Fireball, the album between this one and Machine Head. The packaging, the tracklisting–it seemed intriguing, and I went ahead and got it. I quickly fell for that album and it’s peculiarities (particularly the romping and somewhat odd “Anyone’s Daughter”, which hasn’t really got an analogous partner on the other two albums, nor the non-album singles), then let myself begin to spiral outward from it and into the other albums from this particular line up of Deep Purple.

Both of the other “Mk. II” albums were indeed released in expanded formats, with Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head bookending the set with the fewest and greatest number of bonus tracks (Machine Head has an entire alternate mix on a whole separate disc). In my inescapable desire to partition albums under schemata entirely of my own invention but apparently quite convincing (to me, at least), there’s a progression that I think of in many bands–a spark of novelty in the first album that establishes a sound clearly and gains a lot of appreciation as a result, a second album that seems to take that sound and throw out any and all boundaries, and then a third that refines everything learned in the first two²–and that tends to, as a result, often determine and define my preferences (I usually like the second album most). Deep Purple ends up no exception to this–Fireball remains my favourite, and I tend to prefer In Rock after that, and Machine Head last, despite the obvious appeal. It’s not defiance, it just seems to work out that way.

Either everyone agrees with me on Fireball or no one does, as I see it least of all on vinyl, though I admit I don’t look too intently. I picked up this rather beat up copy of In Rock on a trip to a used store I frequented less than most others two or three years back, simply because I was in the depths of my affections for Deep Purple at the time. It has a kind of charm for a record like this to look like this–it’s not an ultra rare disc, so it’s nice to see one that was loved for a good few decades, not treated as a hermetically sealed idol so much as a well-loved piece of momentary joy for someone.

And that’s really how Deep Purple works–not that they can’t be placed on any pedestals, but it’s music that demands enjoyment from listening, as it is built heavily on grooves, whether we’re talking about Gillan’s vocals, Blackmore’s riffing, Lord’s vamping, Glover’s basslines, or Paicey’s flood of fills and feel-based drumming. I have a number of records that have that cute instruction: “To be played LOUD” (eg The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but Deep Purple in Rock I just kind of instinctively turn up–I do worry a bit about the neighbors, but it feels like the kind of thing that your neighbors would either nod sagely at the playing of, or shrug and admit that it at least makes sense to be playing it loud.

While “Anyone’s Daughter” has no equivalents floating about (from the band in question, I mean), the smaller hit “Highway Star” is hinted at when Deep Purple in Rock opens: “Speed King” is another boastful self-descriptive blast of groove and power. I should mention this is the U.S. issue of the album, wherein the introductory flurry of distortion and wild guitar flailing from Blackmore as well as the first snippet of Lord’s organ introduction is omitted (about a minute and a half). That is a shame, let’s be honest–but the real joy of “Speed King” is the riff that just leaps out of the gate, grounded by Glover’s deep bass, and backed by Paicey’s blasting drums. Gillan immediately makes clear the meaning of the witty description of the song in the gatefold (“Just a few roots, replanted”) as his words reference early Little Richard hits. But it’s all filtered through the riff-based power of a band that would come to define hard rock in many of the best ways. The forward movement of the song is what is most allusive if one knows “Highway Star” already–Ian Paice’s drums are fantastically thoughtful without any sacrifice of power and movement, something that is not as apparent in the later song. Lord and Blackmore³ have a brief interlude where they trade subdued and gentle licks, but it’s returned to the relentless pace of the opening, uninterested in anything more than a pause for anything else.

“Bloodsucker” eases the pace a bit, but pumps the “groove” quotient up to compensate. Glover’s bass rides under a tangled lick from Blackmore, but controls the sound, giving the bottom end the motor of the snaking movement of the song. Paice is happy to largely just keep the beat this time, though he continues to do so with great flair. Lord gets to turn the burners back to a simmering feeling, drawing out the emanations of the groove to a stretched, low-slung rest. But he’s not left to just this, as he gets a higher end solo that is turned in for another of the same from Blackmore–neither is overly long, even as they trade back and forth, each just a few bars to show off and flutter at the song’s melody and feel. Gillan’s voice is defined primarily by the stomping shuffle of Paice’s drums, but when he lets loose on that shrieking “Oh, no no no!” (not to be confused with the song “No No No” from Fireball, of course), he really makes his, ahem, voice heard and gives the song his own little inscription.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising to me that “Child in Time” is the most appealing part of the album amongst the folks I know–either I know people who have no interest in Deep Purple, or I know people who like them whose taste is more readily ascribed to progressive rock bands, at least of the Pink Floyd variety, if not the more nerdy King Crimson set (this should not be taken as insulting–when we get to “K”, we’ll actually have a poll for Crimson, as I own enough). “Child in Time” is something like the amalgamation of hard rock, jam band, and progressive rock: it’s a ten minute epic song, filled with noodling, vamping, and slow, deliberate movement toward intended ends. With the heated coals of the beginning–gentle, sparse ride from Paice, majestic organs that cross the solemnity of church organs with the ominous nature of horror movie kinds–Gillan naturally chooses a lower voice to keep the song in the proper place, Glover and Blackmore largely just following Lord’s lower-pitched left hand. The mood Lord has established for us is borne out in the words Gillan sings: “Sweet child in time you’ll see the line/The line that’s drawn between good and bad/See the blind man shooting at the world/Bullets flying taking toll”. Gillan’s voice increases in power and pitch at the third line, but drops back low again after that, only to climb to an extreme with the next: “If you’ve been bad oh, Lord I bet you have/And you’ve not been it, oh, by flying lead/You’d better close your eyes/Oh! Bow your head…” and then from that extremely passionate warning turns to the shrugging, “If only you’d listened sort of tone,” as he sings “Wait for the ricochet…” His voice is gentle, singing only “Oooh-ooh-ooh…” repeatedly now, as Glover begins to push the band upward with a huge swathe of low end cutting through the track, Gillan’s “oohs” traded for “aahs” (writing really can’t do this justice, you know), which gradually expand and grow with the rest of the track, to shrieking, impassioned, wordless expression–before Paice turns the track martial with emphatic drumming, alongside Lord’s rhythmic pounding of keys. Blackmore slinks in his best solo on the album, soulful and wildly appropriate, as the entire song suddenly takes on a lolloping gait, charging forward instrumentally on the blazing fingers of Blackmore, his lead part like sparks from the flames now risen from those opening coals, the song burning faster, brighter, higher, harder, louder, sharper until it climaxes with a lead from Lord instead, which stops short, and returns to the slow roasting opening instead at just the right moment, but leaves Lord still playing a lead part.
Amazingly, the words I typed above are the only ones Gillan really sings in the song, and he begins to repeat them here, sounding like a revelation–like new lyrics, despite the fact that they are nothing of the kind. The song climbs and climbs as before, until it collapses into a chaos of distortion and sound, a final destruction that emphatically and appropriately punctuates the song and the side.

Side two returns us to the sounds that opened the album, though “Flight of the Rat” is a bit more at ease than the energetic “Speed King” or the groove-laden “Bloodsucker”. Maybe that’s appropriate–the title does imply a different kind of travel (be it air-travel or escape). Everyone’s a bit more relaxed, oddly, as if this is a palate cleanser following the beauty of “Child in Time”–it’s a more “fun” track, as much of the second side is.  It’s another long track (around eight minutes), but it’s more of a steady one than the rollercoaster of its predecessor, and its introspective lyrics are the opposite numbers-wise–they take up more of the left side of the gatefold than any other song, though this largely reflects the brevity of the lines. The interlude for instrumental show from Lord and then Blackmore (which eventually stops for a pretty great wah-wah “breakdown”) only furthers the feeling that this track is sheer enjoyment in a can, so to speak.

“Into the Fire” is probably the album’s heaviest track, in that more indefinable sense: Blackmore and Glover are crushing with their strings, and chug along with immense weight. Paicey pounds out a thumping rhythm with some semi-Moon-esque fills that give it a great flavour, while Gillan ups the feeling of a relative of “Bloodsucker”, as his words are dragged along in the wake of the song’s rhythm, until that pause at the end of each stanza where he let’s loose: “Into the FI-IRE!” he yells, not the shriek of “Child in Time” or “Bloodsucker,” but a more throat-scorching bellow that seems to belch up flames of its own, throwing smoke and ash into its sound. Just foot-stomping beauty, here.

Lyrically, “Living Wreck” is beyond odd; its witty description relates it back to groupies, while the lyrics themselves imply a groupie fallen all to pieces (“You took off your hair/You pulled out your teeth/Oh, I almost died of fright…”). So far as I’m concerned, it’s best to look past them (or take a bit of humour from them, at best). Blackmore’s riffing, particularly following Gillan’s first stanza, part muted, and hanging out firmly in the mids, is engaging and dirty in the best sense that guitars can be. The bassy bridge (a mix of Glover and Lord at the low end of his keys) booms and shakes the track under a meandering, casual lead from Blackmore, an unusual sound for him on the album, especially with its pinched, thin, mid-range tone that gives a crustier feel to the track on the whole.

The album closes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which gives Glover an unusual (but brief) spotlight at open, to slide back and forth on a line that defines the arc of Paicey and Blackmore’s charging feel for the song. A burnt, crispy drone of semi-distorted keys (yep!) emanates from Lord’s fingers, and turns that chugging gallop into something different, banding itself around the other three instruments. It turns into a peculiar, semi-off lead from Lord, that, as per usual, turns instead to a lead from Blackmore, who turns in a typically sparkling performance, one that seems to rustle and shake within a carefully controlled, limited space to keep it tied closely to the song as a whole. The whole thing collapses into absolute chaos, defined by the stereo-panned howls and squalls of distortion from Blackmore.

I have a longstanding affection for the hard rock vein of classic rock, particularly the kind that didn’t explode so completely as to define itself as itself, instead of a component of the whole (I’m looking at you, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham!) and lose track of where it fit within the grand scheme of rock music–indeed, I have a hunger for the kind of sounds that seem to have fallen out of the 1970s approach to hard rock, lacking in pretension, dripping with fist-pumping kinds of energy and the histrionics and groove that made it so appealing in the first place, so much so that I once wrote about my favourite modern instances, and you can hear some strains of it in the last band I wrote about, Davenport Cabinet.

Deep Purple in Rock (and, to be fair, Fireball) really sate that craving quite well–In Rock perhaps managing it more thoroughly, if not as well, thanks to the “pure rock” approach to the album as a whole. It’s always interesting to gather the different thoughts about bands like this–today, a coworker actually mentioned the band purely by chance, he of an age to know them more as former “contemporaries”, and was semi-surprised to find I’d just been listening to the band. Friends into classic rock don’t bring them up much, but tend to respect them, and my father has one of his “strange” opinions when it comes to them–his preference is for the Rod Evans era, and albums like The Book of Taliesyn, though I suppose this isn’t too great a surprise considering he and I have always differed on the “harder” and “heavier” elements of rock music (we’ll have more fun with this contrast with later artists, I think!).

I think In Rock serves as a good place for anyone to go who has an attitude like mine: I don’t like being coloured by (ie, magnetically drawn to) a familiar single like a gravitational pull–the desire to hear the familiar is strong in almost all of us (if not, discounting extreme willfulness, all of us period), and it makes it hard, sometimes, to get a feel for an artist or an album when there is that point of inevitable attraction in a work. In Rock does have “Child in Time”, but this is both an extremely long track and also only the kind of track you’re likely to be familiar with when crossed fingers at the “progressive” nature’s chances of appealing to highbrow sensibilities encouraged someone to pass it on as “proof” of Deep Purple’s quality. Yeah, I’m kind of cynical–I’m wary of a lot of communities surrounding that word, and the occasional recursive interest in “proving” the value of things.

I think Deep Purple stand pretty well on their own, without the need to prove they aren’t “dumb rock”, nor to prove that anything that is (or could be) is not inherently valueless.

As a final note, though, I hate typing the title of the album. Is it In Rock? Is it Deep Purple in Rock? Obviously, the cover is a sort of pun and requires the whole phrase, but does that mean it was a play wherein the title was attached to the artist to make it work, or the original intention? No, this doesn’t really matter, but these things tend to stick with me anyway.

¹”Barrett-era”–doesn’t that just sound nice, as a phrase?

²This idea has been applied (quite subjectively) to numerous artists over the years. Mostly by me, and no one else. I keep it because I like how it fits together in my brain.

³If you don’t know this–yes, seriously, those are the members’ names. I know it sounds like some kind of fantasy heroes. I’ll admit, too, it’s less fun to refer to them as “Jon” and “Ritchie” respectively.

Day Forty-Five: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

Columbia Records ■ JC 35709

Released January 5, 1979

Produced by Nick Lowe
Engineered by Roger Bechirian

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Accidents Will Happen
  2. Senior Service
  3. Oliver’s Army
  4. Big Boys
  5. Green Shirt
  6. Party Girl
  1. Goon Squad
  2. Busy Bodies
  3. Moods for Moderns
  4. Chemistry Class
  5. Two Little Hitlers
  6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

While I’ve managed to cover bands from ItalyCornwallSwedenIrelandAustralia, and, of course various other parts of the UK (“other parts” references back to Cornwall, not Australia), I’m most definitely a U.S. citizen. I have always lived here, and indeed have never left here. As a result, many of my used records reflect the peculiarities of the U.S. market, and the alterations¹ thereof. While Mondo Bongo managed to squeak into my Boomtown Rats poll without warning, I decided, in the future, to notate these issues as they arise, in case anyone is voting on standing preference or favourites. Armed Forces is more distinctly transformed from its original U.K. counterpart, going so far as to be effectively unrecognizable even on sight. The tracklist is altered only slightly, though: “Sunday’s Best” is dropped from the middle of the early half of side two in favour of the closing inclusion of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” E.C.’s cover of Nick Lowe’s song, which was originally released as the B-side to Lowe’s “American Squirm”, and credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound”, though the cover does manage to hint at the artist’s true identity if you look (just a bit) carefully.

As a further result of my age, Costello was introduced to me primarily through Spike, and from there largely because of his hit collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica”. I began to gather his work simply because it was available briefly on eMusic when I was in high school and I quite liked what I’d heard (a brief predilection for recorded chunks of various sets of music television, not all of it MTV, that my dad had tucked away on VHS meant I’d also heard, for example, “Oliver’s Army”). Indicative of why I do this blog in the fashion that I do, downloading a complete discography–especially one with the loads of bonus material that comes from digital releases of these albums, or did at the time–was overwhelming and meant I barely gave any of it a listen over time. Because I often played an artist’s work in chronological order, it did mean that what I did hear was mostly his earlier material. My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model were early physical purchases (on CD, in 2-disc expanded form), and this was the first, and for a long time only, album of his I purchased on vinyl.
While I’ve come to love albums like Trust more (“Clubland” deserves a lot of credit for this, but by no means all of it), it being a very deliberate purchase on vinyl in relatively recent years, the earliest of his² albums remain the strongest in my mind, possibly because of the sensibilities and production of Nick Lowe that they are imbued with. An excess of plays for My Aim Is True and the sense that one is “supposed” to pick This Year’s Model to prove some kind of taste (the closest I come to responding to those positions), Armed Forces may be my favourite of that first trio, though it’s neither easy (nor especially useful) to do so. When my parents and I went to see him about a year ago, though, I took no issue with the career-wide selection of material he played (though I continue to regret that the wheel never fell on “Clubland”).
Costello opens the album with his distinctive voice, singing, “Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”, but softens the creaking, nasal tenor that defines it by lowering it for the verses of “Accidents Will Happen”, Steve Nieve’s keyboards, as is often the case with the Attractions, take the melodic lead, though Bruce Thomas’s bass has its run of the lower end, and doesn’t seem content with rhythmic accent. Elvis’s guitar is nowhere to be heard, Pete Thomas (no relation) accenting the off beat in a rather standard backbeat, but clears away its snares and Nieve takes the rhythm for the chorus, giving a kind of jarring clarity to Costello’s voice, which emphasizes the first syllable of the song’s title sharply before relaxing for the rest. The wall of keyboard sound and Costello’s subdued vocal gives the song the feeling of his own lyric: “Oh I don’t wanna hear it/Cause I know what I’ve done”. The song is edged with the feeling of “Yes, yes, I know already,” but as a speaker, not an impatient listener. The fading repetition and tilted piano riff carry off as echos of a conversation had endlessly.
A wonderfully rubbery bass from Bruce hits all four beats, Pete joining him with some great, solid snare hits on the last three acts as the perfect balance to the delightfully escalating keyboard melody from Nieve as “Senior Service” begins, the brevity and power of Pete’s hits giving the entire song a bit of a stop-start feeling. Pete moves to the off-beats again, and Costello starts the song with the chorus: “Senior service”, answering himself with the rising pitch of his own “backing” vocal: “Junior dissatisfaction”. A lowered voice as on the verses of “Accidents” continues, bobbing to the halting rhythm: “It’s a breath you took too late/It’s a death that’s worse than fate.” The verses come without vocal restraint, but it’s all about that chorus. Even the “oohs” and sustained keyboard chords of a brief reprieve are short-lived, working us back regularly to the constant motion of the song’s brilliant chorus. That the chorus manages to include that evocative pair of lines and that clever inversion only makes it that much more wonderful. All too soon, it ends, at only two minutes, eighteen seconds.
“Oliver’s Army” has been Elvis’s best selling single to this day, and is focused primarily on the piano of Steve Nieve, the initial melody of which is distinct and sudden in its place after “Senior Service”: it’s dramatic and “big”, but falls back to organ-esque keys which hop around behind Bruce’s restless and very mobile bassline,  Pete half-stuck to the hi-hat for the whole song. Elvis sings the verses over this, but are joined by Nieve’s piano flourishes for the chorus, his voice here seeming to be trying to get out all the words before he runs out of breath, but without the exertion that normally marks that sound. It’s a stupendously catchy chorus, especially matched with the piano as it is. The subject matter is (unsurprisingly for Mr. MacManus–Costello’s real name, I should probably clarify) cynical and dark despite the cheery sound of the song, inspired, he has said, by seeing the extremely young soldiers in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons in Belfast. 
Crouched low, a quiet hum keeps “Big Boys” low to the ground as Costello starts the song off, effectively a cappella. “Everything’s so provocative/Very very temporary”, he sings, but as he goes on to the next line, “I shall walk,” the Thomases drop in a cool steady beat, backing vocals that bear the signature sound of E.C. himself repeat his words, as he gains in energy, before he reaches the chorus, where the escalation is unwound with a single drawn out, downward-winding word–“so”: “You tried, so-oh-oh hard/To be like the big boys”. Keyboard textures flash around the sides of the verse, the Thomases pushing insistently at the song. As the verse continues, Pete’s beat stays rocksteady, Costello’s voice starts to speed up but remain regular and steady. He answers each of his own lines with a simple phrase–“She’ll be the one”–but comes back around to the descending emphasis of effort, each repetition raising the pitch of “So”‘s descent before he finally ends with that calm “to be like the big boys”. 
A brief faux-harpsichord starts the knowingly paranoid wonderings of “Green Shirt”, steady 4/4 bass kicks back a monotone repetition of muted guitar strings. Every 12 beats, Pete adds four snare hits to his regular kicks, Nieve’s keys slowly fading in with the telltale synthetic sustain of electronic keys, Costello singing in quiet confidence, a hand palm out in front of his mouth to whisper aside to the listener “discreetly”. “Buy you tease/And you flirt/And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it”, he sings at the chorus, still close to the vest. The next verse has more of his clever lyricism: “‘Cause somewhere in the “Quisling Clinic”/There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes/She’s listening in to the Venus line/She’s picking out names/I hope none of them are mine”. After the chorus comes back around, Pete’s snare becomes a steady fixture, growing with a burping of Nieve’s electric keys, though the song builds on Pete’s drums only to drop anticlimactically to nothing but Nieve’s synthesizer. The sound on a synth often used to represent horns (poorly!) rises over the fading measures of the song’s end, never really leaving the conspiratorial, private “conversation” it begins with.
The low, beleaguered swing of “Party Girl” is like a party wound down, in its death throes but not yet devoid of the humour and good mood that previously defined it–drunkenness is fading, hangovers are still a ways off, but everyone has calmed and quieted, though the signs of a party remain. Guitar plays a short, easy lead, but drops away as Costello launches into the vocal portion of the song, bass and a steady beat that somehow drags despite being tight and on-beat–as it should, in context–is all there is behind him. “I have seen the hungry look in their eyes/They’d settle for anything in disguise of love/Seen the party girls look me over/Seen ’em leavin’ when the party’s over”, he sings over a suddenly strengthened, intense, pounding piano line, but with the end of those lines it subsides. It’s sweet and romantic, but utterly jaded, bolstered most thoroughly by the melody and force of the music behind those lines which only makes one more appearance, but is a wonderful hook for the song, which gradually falls to wild strings of piano and the repeated pleas Costello fades out on.
The ominous chime of guitars and keys in “Goon Squad” calls to mind sounds of the late 60s in a way, though the rumbling burble of Bruce’s bass is more like that of the muscled basslines of 70s cop movies, even those scored by Goblin (yes, more obscure references, which neither prove my esoteric knowledge nor help anyone!), but the ride cymbal swing of Pete’s drumming seems to marry the two–perhaps it’s a 70s production of a 60s cop show? Costello’s voice cries out with a kind of desperation with guitars playing more blended chords, a push from the accelerated ride gives us a different voice, that of considered options, no longer desperate, but ended with an exit from thoughts of possible future to the inevitability of the present: “but I never thought they’d put me in the…Goon Squad!” A low, spoken version of the same last two words comes with the cry from Elvis’s voice as naturally led into by the preceding lines, and gives it a punch (apparently, this was at the suggestion of Mr. Lowe). Left to only the rhythm section, Costello spews out a confessional instead of a cry, the crispness of the drums and the roiling warmth of the bass accentuating the earlier sense of soundtracking. The way it floats off is the way it jumped in: seemingly part of a greater fabric, but displaced to some strange fit into this album.

Almost a sort of ballad at first, “Busy Bodies” goes slightly herky-jerky, Nieve tapping out a neat little organ lick that responds to each of Costello’s lines. Interestingly, this flows nicely into a return to the balladesque format of the song proper, though the automatic drive riff that follows the bridge’s repetition of the word “Nowhere” again pulls the song away from that vibe. That organ lick, though, is a fantastic hook, though Bruce’s slowly descending bassline that follows it is almost like a rudimentary form of the one that flows through “Clubland”, for which I can only cheer.

There’s a certain subset of E.C./Attractions material that has the most nervy, wiry “new wave” feelings–at least in my endlessly pattern-seeking mind–and “Moods for Moderns” is a prime example. While Pete is laying down a nice but simple feel at an even 4/4, Bruce is muscling into a melody, but Nieve is playing organ-y keyboards with the feel of a guitar played only with upstrokes, giving me the desire to move upward with each note, in a sort of light “pogoing” sense. This dance-y feeling is made worse (actually, better) by the repetition of the title in a “backing vocal” style, all four syllables crammed into about two beats. Elvis’s “sensual” voice marks the actual verses, an escalating bassline subtly raising the tension, but it’s responded to with the quirky pop of a questioning keyboard bit from Nieve. As if the song weren’t loaded with enough hook-y moments, the sudden downard slope of Costello’s rapid vocals–“Soon you’ll belong to someone else/And I will be your stranger just pretending”–knocks this one out of the park. This and “Senior Service” often vie for the throne of this album, I feel.

Maybe it’s following “Moods for Moderns” that does it, but “Chemistry Class” has often felt like, not so much a disappointment, but just a “standard” song for Costello–which is still an extreme positive, but not one on par with the rest. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to note, as the lines “They chopped you up in butcher’s school/Threw you out of the academy of garbage/You’ll be a joker all your life/A student at the comedy college/People pleasing people pleasing people like you,” and the strange choice to take the word “accidents” in the lines “Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned/If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn” and repeat it as if edited in is fascinating, as are the hovering e-bow-y vibrations the song exits on.

I’m left to wonder how on earth Nick Lowe could release “Little Hitler” only to have compatriot Costello release “Two Little Hitlers” the following year (indeed, not even a whole year later!) and even produce the record! I won’t complain though–the jerky, pseudo-reggae stylings of the Costello song are enjoyable enough, with the fun of a rather quick bassline from Bruce and a bit of “upstroke” organ from Nieve gets us to the aesthetically appealing collection of phonemes that precedes the chorus: “Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one’s will,” he sings, the cruel descriptions of a two-tyrant relationship dripping with cynicism, but sung with a certain amusement. But the semi-disco drumbeat and bass that follow it are the perfect counterpoint to mild vocal acrobatics to expand simple words: “I will return/I will not burn”, a vocal hook that redeems the track from, “Hey, not bad” to “Yesss!” in one fell swoop.

While “Two Little Hitlers” is a great closer, in the U.S. they simply could not resist the possible sales uptick and dropped “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” there. The song has often struck me as similar to “Accidents Will Happen” with respect to Costello’s recording of it, being one of the bigger songs (“Oliver’s Army” is the third) on the album, not so much in the single sales sense as the sound of large flourishes and drama. It doesn’t dissuade me from the notion to hear the furious snare introduction from Pete,   cavernous piano riffs pounded out from Nieve, and the ringing guitars that blend with those keys to create great sheafs of sound. While the original Brinsley Schwarz version (which Nick performed on and sang) does have the same chord structure, the looming riffs are guitar rather than keys, and Nick’s vocal choices are more subdued, somewhat sad (apparently his intention). With Costello freed to add a minor underscore to the song’s melody and force on guitar, the song is actually amplified even further, and his vocal reading is rhetorical, cynical and has no interest in answers to its questions–doesn’t believe there are any to be had, really. It’s amusing to know that most of us had no idea there was a certain sincerity to the original version, if nothing else, in the mind of the character Nick was singing as. Of course, with Nick, that adds a wry and very subtle element of humour, knowing his own tendency toward dark humour and certain humanistic cynicism. That the song fades out on the same parts still crashing is perfect; this isn’t a resolved matter, even if Costello sees no forthcoming or useful answers–just a possible reality to “this wicked world” and “all hope lost”.

I was thinking, and, in truth, my real introduction to Elvis Costello was this image, looming and large on a wall in a room in the house I grew up in. He looks somber, intense, and vaguely like a person unaware of how his leaning and staring comes off as far, far too interested in the person on the other side. Innocently curious, but intrusively acting upon it. It coloured a perception that might have been better served by images like the awkward, self-aware and droll cover of My Aim Is True, which seems to be almost ironic in its callback to old record covers. The intense expression and sharp, long cheekbones of that first image lacked the humourt most images on album covers carried, and gave him an alien appearance of a kind, rather than the semi-nerdy, gap-toothed, punk-inflected sneer that marked many of his late 70s appearances.

I’m not sure what it made me think, really. But it gave me an entirely different impression of what he was, or what he would sound like–maybe someone so far gone into a persona (or a real personality so pronounced it seems like a persona), a Klaus Nomi or a Thin White Duke, some kind of eccentric, unusual and clearly defined aesthetic. I suppose this is interesting in light of the fact that Costello has mentioned that this album actually bears a few influences from the Berlin-era of Bowie, which immediately followed his Duke persona. Maybe more interesting is that Costello said the band had a short list of commonly agreed upon music, and it involved two Beatles albums alongside other artists (like Bowie via the aforementioned Berlin trilogy)–Abbey Road and the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, particularly, he has noted, “It’s All Too Much”, which happens to be my absolute favourite Beatles track of all. Curious, indeed.

While the sounds of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces are distinct, they feel of a kind, which one might be inclined to lay at the feet of a producer–but one would be mistaken, as Lowe stuck with Mr. MacManus for another two albums. While the R&B influences are the automatic point of reference for Get Happy!!, even Trust feels stylistically different, and the two remain separate in feeling from their predecessors. Perhaps Armed Forces is the apex of that initial slew of albums, being more refined than Aim and less (a bit) snarky than This Year’s Model–a tiny bit more personal maybe.

I can’t leave this without mentioning the track that was omitted: “Sunday’s Best”. It’s a shame–this is a great song, with a carnival atmosphere and a great vocal from Costello, particularly on the title, but also on the circus swing of his verses. Considering “(What’s So Funny)” was actually intentionally left off the album, relegating “Sunday’s Best” to the compilation Taking Liberties seems unfair. Oh well–it was not abandoned as a practice by this time, and certainly wasn’t abandoned for some time after (and may only now approach actual abandonment), so I suppose that is just life.

  • Next Up: Cream – Wheels of Fire

¹While some of these alterations may occur for other reasons, even some of the U.S. bands (such as Codeine) with that tag were altered for their U.S. release. It’s a bit mind-boggling, really.
²I should say “their” as I am loathe to avoid recognition of the work of any musicians involved in a work, but, like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I’m inclined to be lax in specificity because they all drew vague lines (if any at all) between solo credits, “actual” solo albums, and “actual” band albums, often overlapping significantly between them.

Day Thirty-Nine: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

RSO Records ■ RS-1-3030
Released November, 1977
Produced by Glyn Johns

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cocaine
  2. Wonderful Tonight
  3. Lay Down Sally
  4. Nex Time You See Her
  5. We’re All the Way
  1. The Core
  2. May You Never
  3. Mean Old Frisco
  4. Peaches & Diesel

I’m not going to pretend my age doesn’t show in some measure in these writings (and particularly in what records I actually own on vinyl), but in noting that I grew up with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged on cassette in my family’s vehicles, I’m going to date myself a little more explicitly than I might have previously. Clapton has always been one of the most fixed sounds in my musical experience of the world–not so much in the sense of constant appearances, but in the sense that there has never been a moment that his work seemed to be either bizarre or uncomfortably trite. I did grow up with the “blasphemous” notion that the acoustic version of “Layla” was better, hearing it a million times before I ever heard the electric one, which was a jarring experience, let me tell you. I’m often left sputtering that including the instrumental outro as proof of the original’s superiority is just “cheating”. Of course, what I really mean is, “Yeah, you’re right, and I just like the pacing and sort of bluesier feel of the acoustic one. Sue me.”

As an extension, more than the Yardbirds or even Cream, it was Eric Clapton’s solo work that really seemed to be most “timeless” to me–not in the sense that it was most lasting, so much as established, undated and seemingly “always” there, if only to me. I never have mistaken it for an actual external permanence or “eternal” nature, but I can’t think of a time I didn’t know “It’s in the Way That You Use It”, the acoustic singles (alongside “Layla”, of course “Tears in Heaven” and maybe “Before You Accuse Me”), “Wonderful Tonight” or a small stack of others. And, indeed, it was my sappiness (that I have mentioned before) that really spurred the interest in this album, and it naturally relates to that very song.

I mentioned, when I wrote about Ziggy Stardust, that eventually we’d see some records with permanent black “X”s drawn in their top right corners. Shockingly, I find this is the first to appear. Of course, some have lost out in polls, so there’s that. The X is an indicator that the title came from the bargain $1 bin at my (now sadly passed) favourite music store, Musik Hut (formerly) in Fayetteville, NC. I would peruse the heck out of that thing in high school, often walking out with semi-classic albums in great condition, classic albums in iffy condition, and obscure albums in excellent condition. My copy of The Boomtown RatsThe Fine Art of Surfacing actually has its “X” on still-intact shrinkwrap–and yes, unfortunately, I’m quite sure that counts as obscure these days, though not on the level that many I own do. Mid-range obscure, perhaps.

In any case, Slowhand is one of the Clapton solo albums that is saddled with placement on “best album ever” lists, though usually not exceptionally high. Even appearing on them at all does mean, however, that this album crackles and pops a bit (not as much as my copy of Ziggy, or a fair number of other LPs), and, worst of all, has two (unintentional) locked grooves in “Peaches & Diesel”. I always forget both of them, and so, coupled with their placement in the final track, it’s always pretty disappointing when they appear. With that in mind, I am of course going to cheat just a bit on this and use my digital copies–which I’ll admit I always use for in-the-moment dissection as I write all the time, though I always do sit and listen to all my records all the way through for this. I patiently lifted and nudged the needle to escape both a few times, trying to lose as little music as possible, but I’m still going to use the digital copy as my “reference”, a first for this kind of “replacement”.

Slowhand is, of course, named for Eric’s own nickname, and it opens with a pretty significant combination: all three singles from the album come out in a row, some of them absolutely iconic for Clapton, or even rock music in general. “Cocaine” starts things off with a little fire at low flame: J.J. Cale’s easy riding tune is laidback, but it cuts and it burns. Largely hanging out on a simple “boom-bap” bass-snare beat, Jamie Oldaker lays a firm frame out for the famed riff, dense up front, then eased and free at the end. The hissing hi-hat Oldaker is hiding on top of the beat, though, is like a fuse to an explosion that never comes, and never should. There’s a halt for repetition at the chorus: “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…” and it stands on freed guitar chords and short rises from Oldaker, it’s ended quietly with Clapton’s anticlimactic delayed antecedent: “…Cocaine.” It wouldn’t be Clapton, or maybe there wouldn’t be a sort of “Clapton™” (perhaps no OBE title) without the sparks and rising licks of flame that mark the solos at the halfway mark and fading out the ending.

As with Shake It Up, there was probably one primary driving force behind my purchase of Slowhand, and that was “Wonderful Tonight”. Yes, it’s a cliché for school dances now (so I’m told, at least), and yes it’s a bit schmaltzy if you feel the need to be above such things (and maybe even if you don’t), but pulling that much feeling out of a single bend has got to be some kind of accomplishment we can all respect. While Dick Sims’ keyboards, the backing vocals of Marcy Levy and Yvonne Elliman (particularly on the chorus), and the laidback drumming of Oldaker set the stage, with a special nod to Sims as bearer of the core of the song, it’s that lick. The handful of variants Clapton works out at the end are special as well, but it’s just a little bend and two notes and it aches with all the kind of sweet, innocent love that Clapton is clearly at least perceiving here. Sure, Pattie Boyd, the alleged subject, had been married to another man when Clapton first fell for her, and would later succumb to addictions and extramarital temptations (to put it ever-so-mildly) that would ruin their marriage, but that’s not what this is–this isn’t about reality. This is the feeling that precedes it–sometimes runs right through it, and has little to do with the final facts. In the same sense that romantic anything media-expressed is going to be a rough outline at best, or scattered details.

From the dark hints of “Cocaine” into the sad, awed beauty of “Wonderful Tonight”, we get one of the most simply fun and pleasant tracks the album has to offer, the final single, “Lay Down Sally”. Written with bandmates Marcy Levy and George Terry (who mans the other guitars on the album), it’s a countryfied, jaunty, comfortable little tune. Clapton is joined by Levy and Elliman for the great majority of the track on vocals. The track is spare, but only cut free of any extraneous fat. Carl Radle’s bass walks at an easy gait, alternating back and forth with a simple tune that fits with the feeling of crystalline studio-infused backporch performance. The picked and plucked guitar keeps the tune low and contained, even when Eric improvises and expands at a few odd moments, and prevents it from losing its familiarity by becoming too showy.

The mixed tones and emotions of “Next Time You See Her” quickly grew to some of my favourites on the album, as Sims’ organ introduction is dramatic but plays the role of backing to the exquisitely emotive lead guitar that takes centerstage in front of it. Eric sings of the woman in question, describing her in  pleasant and loving terms, but a firmly accented acoustic and drum beat matches his words and embellishes the sound of the song; “Next time you see her/Tell her that I love her…” he sings, and now we know she’s not there with him, and it seems quite sweet, but then he turns the lyric in another direction: “Next time I see you/Boy, you’d better beware.” After a threatening verse (“I’m just trying to warn you/That you’re bound to get hurt…”), he repeats the chorus, and, seeing this is not enough, the song eases off to just hi-hat, restrained but intermittently spiking organ, and a pleasantly bouncy feeling as he quietly sings the final clarification: “If you see here again/I will surely kill you.” The song itself is gloriously ignorant of its lyrical content, and it may be my favourite on the album.

A full relaxation from the tension, aching feel of love that can’t be expressed fully enough, a bit of fun, and serious threats, “We’re All the Way” is a nice break. The song is light and gentle, in the same easy pace as the album as a whole, and Eric’s voice acts with the others as something approaching a duet (or a trio; I’m not always good at separating these things!). Distinctly short for the album, it’s almost like a worthwhile afterthought, not fluff or confection, just passing wisps of substance.

Somewhat unexpectedly long, “The Core” is roiling blues-rock, though the pace continues at its usual relaxed rate. One of those licks that tucks all its varied ends into all right corners and slots to come out sound more like a simple riff, but detailed upon closer inspection, Levy’s voice actually opens the song as a more complete duet with Clapton’s. The chorus’s rising stomp of melodic rhythm, the “brakes” of Sims’ pounded organ keys all lead to a fantastically tasty variation on the core (ahem) lick in near isolation. It turns and curls backward on itself, moving downward like a dancer sure to get each foot on every stair, up one for every two it goes down before it just releases and spreads at the end. It just rings out over nothing but hi-hat and the tone and recording are just damnably good. This sound eventually turns to a restrained solo that leads into the absolute histrionics of a Mel Collins saxophone solo (we last heard from Mel on Mike Batt’s Tarot Suite), which only trades into a far more freed guitar solo, the sense of a “jam” explaining the runtime of the song (nearly nine minutes).

While Clapton has a lovely and enjoyable voice, it’s at its best in “May You Never”, the melody and momentary vibrato he works into the chorus (which opens the song) is just delightful, and perfect for the laidback way he uses his voice. It’s the sound of a warm well-wishing to a leaving acquaintance–close enough for this to be heartfelt, distant enough for the wishes to be more general than specific.

Pulling out the only straight blues cover on the album, “Mean Old Frisco” reworks the Arthur Crudup song into one that vaguely hints at the country accents of the album’s overall sound. You wouldn’t know it from the way Clapton plays though. His voice and slide guitar follow each other so closely, it’s hard to tell which is coming “first”. Sims attacks the piano with the improvisation of pure feeling, but keeps it from competing too directly with the two slide guitars. Clapton also works his voice into his best subdued bluesman, which only helps it to follow the slide. And that is some delicious slide.

Tucked away at the end, “Peaches & Diesel” is the sole instrumental on the album. It almost seems like a sort of medley or amalgamation of the songs that precede it. Radle’s bass is at some of its most active, the upward swing of the tone against the semi-melancholy keys and peaks and valleys of single-picked guitar. The smooth, easy lead that sings over it eventually takes over, and guides the rest of the instruments through the rest of the song, moving briefly into a section that reminds one of “Wonderful Tonight” without explicitly quoting it. Bittersweet melancholy seems too harsh for the song, especially when the guitar guides everything to a few high notes, but it does carry the sense of passing, of times now seen only in memory, happy though they may be, they are inaccessible. Sims’s organ becomes soulful and free, though, and punches through with a brighter feeling overall. Though repeatedly coming back down, the overall thrust does remain upward. Perhaps there’s something to naming an instrumental with the word “Peaches” that renders it artful and lovely (if you know what other piece I’m referring to, you get some bonus points–otherwise, you’ll get it in, er, a few months). It all acts as a lovely coda to the album, not clearly ending, or even fading it all away, just carrying the sounds of the album off with itself, and condensing them to leave them all in your ears and mind after the album itself fades.

So, sure: I bought the album for $1 (if I listed purchasing price for everything, it might either be enlightening or misleading, actually–too much more goes into it than that), but that doesn’t make it bad. I know Eric tends to receive a lot of knocks as a player these days, more and more seeming like the general notion is “white-guy-steals-blues, gets way too much credit and actually isn’t that great”. I’m not a player. I never will be. I’m not going to profess anything on that front, as it would be stated in ignorance, and achieve nothing useful. What I will say–what I can say–is that his playing is effective. If it isn’t technically impressive (and I don’t know that it isn’t, either) it does what it should, and does it very well. This album has always pleased me because it is not about showmanship, not even the kind that permeates the blues as a fixture, the sort exhibited in songs played like “Mean Old Frisco”–there’s that one track and no other. I love Johnny Winter (also months away), but there’s no doubting the reason it turns my father away is inaccurate. It’s fireworks throughout, seemingly no note left unplayed, no lick left to languish. To me, that does have a place, but it shouldn’t be everything–I suppose that could very well be my musical epitaph, actually–and this exhibits something almost counter to it as a result: a guitar album that’s very definitively about the songs and maybe, just maybe, not actually a guitar album at all (other than the cover, of course).

  • Next Up: The Clash – To Be Determined! (See Polls on Right)

Day Thirty-Three (and a Third): Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I.R.S. Records¹ ■ SP 001
Released September, 1979
Produced by Martin Rushent
Engineered by Alan Winstanley (S1 – 1,8; S2-1,8), Doug Bennett (S1 – 2,3,5,6; S2 – 2,3,5,6), and Martin Rushent (S1 – 4,7;S2 – 4,7)
¹International Record Syndicate. Abbreviation not used on this record, but used on most releases from this label.

Side One (A-Sides): Side Two (B-Sides):
  1. Orgasm Addict
  2. What Do I Get?
  3. I Don’t Mind
  4. Love You More
  5. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?
  6. Promises
  7. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
  8. Harmony in My Head
  1. Whatever Happened To…?
  2. Oh Shit!
  3. Autonomy
  4. Noise Annoys
  5. Just Lust
  6. Lipstick
  7. Why Can’t I Touch It?
  8. Something’s Gone Wrong Again

As we go, if you were to check, you’d find there are very few compilations in my record collection, and an even smaller percentage amongst my CDs. I don’t normally go in for compilations, as, sometime around Rubber Soul, the album became the preferred format and was eventually considered as the construction in which people bought, enjoyed, experienced, and were provided music. Of course, not everyone (including some artists) had any interest in the idea, but it’s less harm to have an album that isn’t definitively an assembled, crafted set than it is to have parts excised from one that is and doled out by popularity. As it stands, a single compilation has appeared here. Another was mentioned in polling, and a small number will appear later. Largely, though, I leave them be, for fear of missing interesting interesting deep cuts, or getting things out of context that have very real contexts like Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. Still, Singles Going Steady was my introduction to Buzzcocks, at the hands of–to the surprise of no one–my friend John.

While we were in college (and rooming together), John took up a variety of bands–Can (to the chagrin of another friend, not appearing in my vinyl, though I have a healthy CD collection), Captain Beefheart (wait a few hours…), Gang of Four, and Buzzcocks. Plenty more, of course, but those were ones that tended to stand out. I tended to lump the last two together for some reason, despite being almost polar opposite branches from the same tree. The Buzzcocks would never have written a song like “Anthrax”, nor any like “Natural’s Not in It” (which some may remember from its hilariously inappropriate appearance in an X-Box Kinect commercial, if they don’t know it already). The subject matter and sounds of the bands were very different, but they did their best work (and most of their work) after the earliest considered end of punk–the demise of the Sex Pistols in early ’78. Quite accurately for Gang of Four, they are considered post punk. The Buzzcocks, however, were still pretty distinctly a punk band, albeit an extremely popular (in the U.K, at least!) one.
Both bands were in my ears semi-regularly, but neither made a huge impression for a while. We will leave Gang of Four for later, and come to what brought the Buzzcocks to me–or me to them, I suppose. While I was unwittingly hearing nothing but singles, it was “Promises” that most appealed to my ears, as well as, somewhat oddly, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” As I began to listen to the tracks around the two–this was after I’d learned this tended to be a good idea–I found I was doing things quite correctly in doing so. I ended up being the first of us to own one of their actual albums, once I found out Singles Going Steady was indeed a compilation. I actually ended up selling my copies of both–three wonderful reissues of their three full-lengths were released a few years back, including all of the non-album singles, b-sides, demos, BBC session tracks, and basically more demos. The other CDs were redundant.
Much like with Kate Bush, I picked this album up during one of my visits to Hunky Dory, paying about the price of a cheaper-end new release (at this point, a bit of a deal for this record!). I’d long since learned that, while the record is indeed a compilation, it is one that appeals to the more ordered side of my nature: The A-Side of the record is actually all of their first 8 A-Sides in chronological order. The B-Side is all the accompanying B-Sides, also in chronological order. While I.R.S.’s “lineage” (such as a founder named Miles Copeland III, brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland) meant they did have major label distribution, they weren’t an imprint or vanity label, so a bit less intense “marketing” was involved and gave us this more sane approach. Cleverly, the inner sleeve has a column of sleeve art for the singles, with the first side’s tracks and recording information to the left, and the second side’s version of the same on the right–in essence, marrying A-Side and B-Side back to each other. Release dates, studios, and engineers are included for each track, appealing, as well, to my more pedantic side (previously alluded to when discussing Burning Airlines’ Identikit).
“Orgasm Addict” is actually one of the most famous Buzzcocks singles–or, at least, I have the impression it is. It’s about exactly what it sounds like: “You’re a kid Casanova, you’re a no-Joseph/It’s a labour of love fucking yourself to death”. People question songs like “Turning Japanese” and “She Bop” (at least some do), but not a soul, beyond the intensely pretentious, could mistake the meaning and topic here. Pete Shelley’s voice is on the higher end of things, doesn’t really carry any sneer or swagger, just a “shockingly” straightforward admission of something normally left coded, if mentioned at all. And let’s not forget the mock orgasm he himself let’s out, midway through the song. John Maher’s drumming keeps a beat that means Pete wasn’t the only one emulating the topic. It’s one of the only remnants of Howard Devoto’s time in the band (the studio portion of which ended with Spiral Scratch much earlier in the same year).
Used in a few commercials in interceding years, “What Do I Get?” was proof that the Buzzcocks (particularly Pete, who wrote it) were not interested in conforming to standards, traditions, or expectations of even the semi-nascent punk scene. The subject matter is not far from the dramatic, world-ending kind of teenaged response to rejection and failed attempts at finding love: “I only get sleepless nights/Alone here in my half-empty bed/For you things seem to turn out right/I wish they’d only happen to me instead”. Like a lot of the Shelley-penned singles, it’s an energetic, buzzing sort of sound: he and Steve Diggle man guitars and riff rapidly, while Steve Garvey (replacing alcoholic Garth after the “Orgasm Addict” single) mans a steady bass and John Maher plays somewhat unusually varied drum beats with lots of great little fills and touches that are severely under-appreciated in a band known more for its catchy melodies and lyrics.
Maher gets another nice moment as he introduces “I Don’t Mind”, which is self-deprecating, self-loathing, and self-doubt married to submission to a stronger personality in another of the many love-oriented tracks the Buzzcocks recorded (many of which appear on Love Bites, which does help to characterize the largely Shelley-written attitude toward it). The pleasant melody of the guitars and the backing vocals (courtesy Diggle and Maher) that “ooh” and “woah-oh” in rather un-punk fashion stands out a good bit more on this one, though it’s also fun the way Pete’s voice seems to chase that melody down until his semi-bored call out “I don’t mi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yind”, gives him top billing in the moment.
The guitars of “Love You More”, galloping their way into a sudden harmonic are some of my favourites. While the lyrics of most Buzzocks are brought to mind readily from a song title alone, “Love You More” is not one of Pete’s best vocal constructions–but it’s a great riff, rattling cheerfully up at the higher end of its range. Maher’s practically out of control if you stop and listen to him–or, well, not control, but just as if he got bored and decided to make things way more interesting for himself. Unbelievable variety in there! The final line, though, is a great one, especially as recorded to be a very abrupt end to the song.
So far as I can tell, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” was the biggest single for the Buzzcocks in terms of lasting appeal. It was the song chosen to represent BBC DJ John Peel in eulogy, appeared in his infamous box of at-hand 45rpm 7″ records, and was later re-recorded by a variety of artists, including a rather interesting one (released as a single) from the Fine Young Cannibals. It’s deserving, as the earliest of their singles to feel most fully-realized. While the previous four are catchy and fun and witty, “Ever Fallen in Love” has a sort of gravitas to its sound, a musical progression, a good riff, a catchy chorus, and a perfect example of the attitude Pete puts into his vocal performances. The song blasts in first, driving forward unrelentingly, but eases up and let’s a semi-casual guitar lick cross in front of it, bouncing from note to note, heading ever upward. Pete’s describing a doomed romance, a relationship that shouldn’t’ve been, but sings about it in an unusual way: “You disturb my natural emotions/You make me feel I’m dirt/And that hurts/And if I start a commotion/I’ll only end up losing you/And that’s worse”. The most affecting line of each triplet is the one he adds the most flavouring to, moving upward in a stylized way, then adding the “And that…” qualification as if it’s an aside, with a tone that’s sort of condescending, or somewhat precious. It’s really infectious, and deserves the accolades and attention it does continue to receive.
My original favourite Buzzcocks song (and it remains so now), “Promises” starts with guitars running up four rimes as quickly as possible before counterbalancing by peaking twice and coming back down at about half that speed. Pete begins to sing about the joyous beginnings of a relationship but, “Oh”, he sings, and John Maher answers with an absolutely awesome trip around his drumset at lightspeed. “How could you ever let me down?” he continues after Maher’s run around, “Down!” Diggle adds as echo (sometimes I amuse myself thinking this is the sole reason he gets co-writing credit, but it actually does have tinges of his approach throughout). After the chorus comes around a second time, there’s a short bridge, with riffs that slowly move upward a step at a time every few strums. “Oh what a shaaaame…” Pete’s voice goes up and sort of cracks and fades off, to take us back to the song proper. While I have had experience in percussion and guitar, neither amounted to anything (and I mean that in a realistic sense, not a self-deprecating, false modesty sense), there are handfuls of things that get me every time in music if done properly. A good tom-based fill (anyone who reads this blog consistently will notice that quickly) is one of those things, and the way that it’s sandwiched between the lines of a good chorus, and is opened with such a simple but catchy riff means this song remains worth all I’ve always felt.
The growing variation in songwriting makes itself most apparent in “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, their first single from 1979. Alternating beats are marked with the slow descent of notes from guitar, letting Garvey and Maher really control the song’s opening and verses. Garvey handles the melody for the verses, while Maher keeps the feeling of the song both uptempo and kind of upbeat. Shelley brings his falsetto in for the chorus, a sudden rush of guitar and a flattening and speeding of Garvey’s bassline, drawn upward by Shelley’s voice as it rises up the range of his falsetto, dropping for the final syllable of “nowadays”. There’s a certain optimism to the song, in a strange way, as he goes from calling life an illusion and love a dream, to denying that they are either, from not knowing what it is, to knowing “just what it is”.
The only A-Side that lacks a credit from Shelley is the last one included here (they did record further singles, but they would have no prayer of fitting on a record that is already relatively close to capacity on particularly the second side). “Harmony in My Head” is a Diggle track, and is also the only one (even amongst the B-Sides Steve also wrote) that features him as lead vocalist. The guitars of Diggle and Shelley trade styles back and forth through a few simple riffs and licks, as Diggle sings a throatier, yell of a vocal. The chorus is actually one of the second handful to catch my ear. Diggle’s gruffness disappears, for a low pitched, almost Joe Strummer-esque recitation of the song’s title. After its second appearance, the guitars turn to palm-muting and let only Pete sing the quiet backing harmony (ahem) of the chorus. While rapid paces are not foreign to the band, and Maher certainly doesn’t take any opportunity to slow here, the overall feel of the song is lower and slower, contrasting nicely and establishing the variance in approach Steve takes to songwriting, as compared to Pete.
“Whatever Happened To…?” has one of the most openly featured basslines, somewhat odd as it is the only other track (besides “Orgasm Addict”, its A-Side) recorded with the removed Garth and not the stalwart and longer-playing Steve Garvey. Garth opens the track alone, with short strikes of guitar announcing the entrance of the whole band. Pete lists a variety of things, questioning what happened to each of them, before coming to his real question: “Whatever happened to you and I?” It comes closest to Gang of Four territory lyrically, yet skewed by the romantic angle. Vengeful and dismissive, Pete notes that the object of the song (defiantly refusing to establish gender to buck trends, Pete later making his bisexuality more apparent and open in his solo work) has love most resembling a product–“Your love is a cashed in check” he sings as if this were a loving lyric. It’s a good companion to “What Do I Get?” balancing the self-pity against anger.
“Oh Shit!” furthers the B-Side trend of dismissive anger, a rather dispassionate interjection (which you can probably guess) followed with explanations for the “surprise” defines much of the verse. This is the shortest song in all of the album, and indeed in all of their career (barring the outro bit of fluff “Radio Nine” from A Different Kind of Tension, which is just the sound of a radio tuned through static-y plays of various Buzzcocks songs). One of the most normal solos appears in the middle of it, The exclamation is later pushed into another usage, implying an original intent and a set up: “Face it/You’re shit”. The mock surprise attached to the blunt declaration of the worthlessness of the song’s object works perfectly, as an affected guitar echoes out into the ether.
The other Diggle-penned track, “Autonomy”, was another of my second “wave” of appreciated tracks (until the list became “all of them”). Maher starts off with a galloping beat that a careless ear might actually mistake for the galloping drumming of Clive Burr in “Run to the Hills”, followed by the crunchy sound of riffing guitars that keep the same pace (as does Garvey’s bass), before each line of the verse evens things out for a moment. A quick guitar descent turns to the slow build of the chorus: “I…/I want you-oo-oo/Autonomy”. The guitars and bass slow their pace considerably for this, despite Maher’s continued rapid beat. Despite Diggle writing the song, Shelley sings it largely alone, harmonized with (probably) Diggle for the chorus alone. Despite Pete’s higher voice, this track shares the lower-end orientation of Diggle’s other track, as well as the slower feeling–despite the galloping instruments.
A bit of a swinging beat turns to a gnarly lead that falls downward to muted riffing that turns to a lead that predicts Shelley’s vocal melody, and then accompanies it directly. Each line ends with a variation on, “Have you ever heard your mother say/’Noise annoys’?” and everyone stops immediately at the end of the second word, until Pete instead asks if she has been heard to scream it, nearly doing so himself, guitars let ring this time as the song briefly runs into instrumental territory, and the best guitar solos on the record, traded between the two players for a good few bars each. For a song called “Noise Annoys”, this is a catchy little number, which I doubt many would mistake for “noise”. Though what some consider noise does surprise me on occasion.
Co-written with their manager (using a pseudonym), “Just Lust” is in the vein of the first few A-Sides at first, all catchy riffs and to-the-point rhythms. There’s a brief slowing for four lines–“You shattered all my dreams and/My head’s about to bust/Is it all real-that’s how it seems/But it all comes down to dust”–that gives that moment an illusory quality, the guitars seeming to slide around each other just a bit, and an effect overlaid on Pete’s voice to make it seem as though it is not quite real itself, an effect that becomes more prominent as the song comes to a close, the instruments eventually also dissolving and separating from each other.
The B-side to “Promises” I always remember is just that, but often cannot recall easily (similar to “Love You More” for me in this sense). The way the song starts suddenly, and Pete raises the pitch of his voice at the end of each line in the verse gives it a sense of lost context. Of course, that’s not entirely strange: the song is a relative of “Shot by Both Sides” (and shares the rising riff that is so signatory of that song, though it’s hidden in the background here), the first single Magazine recorded–after Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form that band (that song credited to Shelley and Devoto). The verses are actually the catchier vocal lines, in one of those strange instances that feels as if, perhaps, something was inverted.
Absolutely strange in the context of this collection, “Why Can’t I Touch it?” is twice as long as most of the songs on the album, more than three times as long as some, and a full two minutes longer than the next longest. Garvey finally gets a chance to be the spotlit bass, a catchy groove that Maher just plays in lockstep with, letting it shine and relaxing for just the one track. Two semi-harmonized guitars, one in each stereo channel, announce themselves, playing similar but slightly different riffs that occasionally blend together. Pete begins listing the senses he can use to recognize “it”, but wonders “Why can’t I touch it?” with vowels dragged out over numerous beats, his voice following the gentle downward movements of Garvey’s bassline. At only a third of the way through, echoing, strange guitar sounds manifest themselves, tweeting and whistling in the background. After the second verse (somewhat synesthestic) and chorus, Diggle and Shelley begin trading their riffs from channel to channel, giving the groove-oriented track an extended and more varied atmosphere than it would have if simply repeating all parts. Maher begins to fill more on the drums, Shelley and Diggle continuing to experiment with the space Maher and Garvey have left them, playing with the chords and pieces of their previous riffs. The riffs are kind of bright and cheerful, and weirdly happy, and a single-picked variation on them echoes out to finally close the song–a better choice than a simple fade, I think.
The second longest track is actually the next one: “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” which makes use of a high piano note jabbed over and over and over for all but the chorus, giving a kind of tense insistence to the song itself–like it’s that pinprick of realization that something’s gone wrong, though Pete’s lyrics and delivery of them implies a more “c’est la vie” attitude toward the inevitable failures of life. Slightly phased guitars shift in and out throughout the verse, but turn to a sort of warbling consistency over the chorus, where the piano drops for just a little while, the thudding, sigh and groan of the verses turning upward in tone for just a moment–odd, for the moment where Shelley repeats “Again/And again/And again and again again…” A second chorus turns into a shambling, disjointed, atonal solo of deliberate awkwardness. It’s interesting to think of a deliberately steady, repetitive song doing so to emphasize the monotony of things going wrong. Outside the chorus, the only relief is the pointed bass lick that starts quite high and picks up speed as it heads downward before ending on a note somewhere between its peak and its valley. It’s another complete jump away from the “Orgasm Addict”s and “Love You More”s of the album, hinting further at the curiosities that appear in their albums (like instrumentals as peculiar as “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”).
The Buzzcocks are inexplicably lesser-known as punk bands go, rarely coming in the same breath as the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones, or the Clash, or the Damned (also criminally under-remembered, despite the relative fame and acknowledgment). Perhaps it’s the pop-oriented approach of their (ludicrously catchy) music, or the musicianship and “arty” end of things like their instrumentals–not a surprise Devoto was once in the band, enough to imply some camaraderie with Shelley and Diggle (who was bassist for the group, before Shelley moved up, with guitar, to frontman status, leaving Diggle to take on guitars, too). Now, like many things, this is probably a cultural divide across the ocean, but most of the named early punk bands are British, so there’s really not a great excuse for dropping the Buzzcocks out here.
They have released albums since their initial (1981) breakup, smatterings of them here and there since that time. Some are actually pretty good, though the Shelley/Diggle divide has both balanced into a more even split of writing credits, and into a more “consistent” feeling per each. Perhaps it’s the loss of Maher’s more complicated drumming, or the absence of a brilliantly in-tune rhythm section of Maher and Garvey both–not that their current crop are amateurs, but the feeling inevitably changes. Devoto did actually come back to work with Pete again later, for the “Shelley/Devoto” album Buzzkunst (haw haw).
If you like catchy, pop-oriented music, and especially like it with a side of deadpan and wit, make sure this band has some kind of place in your library. If you aren’t allergic to compilations–or even if you are–this record is a brilliant starting place, as it has all the hooks to put in you.
  • Next Up: Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk

Day Twenty-Seven: David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

RCA Victor ■ LSP-4702

Released June 6, 1972
Produced by Ken Scott and David Bowie

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Five Years
  2. Soul Love
  3. Moonage Daydream
  4. Starman
  5. It Ain’t Easy
  1. Lady Stardust
  2. Star
  3. Hang on to Yourself
  4. Ziggy Stardust
  5. Suffragette City
  6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

While my new records tend to be kept in quite good shape (including the sleeves, though a little seam-splitting from shipped sealed ones is occasionally an issue–but I’m not overly picky most of the time), I have bought some real clunkers, condition-wise, in my used travels. As we go on through my collection, you will eventually start to see black “X”s in the top right corner of sleeves in permanent marker. This may horrify some, but it was really just the “dump stock” for a record store I frequented in high school–mostly a metal/industrial/punk store, so when I was buying some of the stuff I buy, it wasn’t really for their market, and went into that bin. I do recall, actually, my good friend John (see all references to “best friend in high school and college”) picking up a truly dilapidated copy of Who’s Next from those bins (noticeably scratched) becuase it was only $1. This record, I honestly don’t remember where I got. You can see the thing’s been sellotaped (why do none of us have a non-brand-based term for this tape in wide general use? At least this one isn’t pejorative…) around two sides, is suffering some extreme ringwear, and generally just looks well-used. The inner sleeve with lyrics (this particular edition was originally pressed with one–it’s actually the first U.S. press from ’72) is long gone, replaced with a plain white sleeve that has also been taped up, albeit with masking tape.

I do sort of like the used look for an album that I buy almost more because I feel–personally–as though I should have it. Sort of like Abbey Road or Pet Sounds–or most things that show up on almost every “best albums of all time lists”. I’m more likely to listen to it in various expanded, cleaned up forms, as these albums tend to be respected when remastered, and I never was exposed to them as full-length album recordings on vinyl long enough in my youth to get used to the sound. And I’d never replicate my dad’s favourite purchase of all time–speakers that were previously display models, acquired on the cheap and moved around for the last few decades. They do sound pretty fantastic too, for the–uh–record.

As I said, I don’t listen to this album on vinyl much. Actually, truth be told, I don’t listen to this album much. I, like many people I know who have any taste in the “weirder” sides of music, prefer the “Berlin Trilogy” era of Bowie, his “triptych” of albums (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) created with Brian Eno in the late ’70s–and I grew up more with the Let’s Dance-ish Bowie, for the nostalgia end of things. It’s not that I don’t like Ziggy (or Hunky Dory, or The Man Who Sold the World, or Aladdin Sane…), I just tend to gravitate toward Low and Station to Station first.

The acknowledged inspiration for this blog, though, is the attempt by a non-music-person (self-described as such) attempting to run through the entirety of the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, leaving semi-daily commentary on each throughout. I say “inspiration”, in that a lot of the writing leaves something to be desired. The writing on this album, for instance, basically accuses the album of failing to be “interesting” or “experimental”, while another blog in the same vein writes it off as “boring” (though at least, rather reasonably, comparing it to Hunky Dory, which was lost in the shuffle at its time of release, to some extent).  Curiously, one also accuses it of not being mainstream–something its #5 chart placement in the U.K. and #10 single (“Starman”) would seemingly have cause to argue with.

And all of that doesn’t really have anything to do with–well, anything but personal expectation. In most regards, this isn’t an “experimental” album: Bowie had redefined himself a few times since he began recording in 1964, having to drop his given family name as a bow to the rising popularity of the Monkees’ own Davey Jones. “Space Oddity” gave him his first hit in ’69, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World had him in a dress on the cover (at least, in the U.K.–the U.S. beat his homeland to the punch and released it a few months earlier with a weird drawing instead) and is often considered the point at which his albums should be attended to, and of course in 1971, Hunky Dory was released, with songs like “Changes” really marking the start of Bowie as we understand his importance today. So his musical ideas, his willingness to change, his flirtations with androgyny–all established. And, external to Bowie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had long since established (however loosely) the popular acceptance of “concept albums”.

What Ziggy does establish, however, is Bowie’s intermittent affectation of “alternate identities”: while his look changed often in the preceding years, it was the character of Ziggy Stardust himself that Bowie chose to inhabit and create that changed this from aesthetics to something more. But even that’s secondary: what The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does is not oversell itself as experimental (in fairness, if you have no reckoning of the title, it sounds more bizarre–but Ziggy is a rockstar, and the Spiders are his band, so it’s actually a pretty normal and to-the-point title), it just comfortably, confidently sells itself as music.

While my copy crackles with the best of them, it actually lacks any locked grooves or major skips (a few prior albums did have some of these, but I’m not trying to be that specific in reviewing my collection), it is most apparent as the album opens: “Five Years” is a quiet track at open, Mick Woodmansey slowly fades in on drums, with a solid and firm but relatively quiet beat, eventually punctuated by a simultaneous chord from guitar and piano (I’d bet on Bowie and Mick Ronson respectively, though I’m not proficient enough to know for sure with studio recordings being what they are). Trevor Bolder’s bass is similarly punctuative, with Ronson’s piano eventually building a more complete melody, as Bowie sings of the coming death of Earth, five years away now. His first slowly comes to the fore, beginning as distant and exaggerated, some lines echoed back to emphasize the space of the track. Strings (arranged by Ronson) eventually add to the song’s growing power and strength. “Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew you were in this song/And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor/And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there/Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, the way that you talk” he sings, his voice growing in passion as the song finally crescendos, Ronson echoing his vocals with the title of the song, professional to Bowie’s growing hysteria, as the strings begin to swirl and the song becomes more chaotic, Bowie eventually screaming the title as he repeats it–and then it shuts down, and we’re left with only a few measures of Woodmansey’s gentle drumming.

“Soul Love” is almost like a new opener after the prologue of “Five Years” (which has been established, in the “story” of the album as effectively a description of just what it claims–the time limit set on the existence of earth, the rest being the story of an attempt to reconcile the world with that fact via Ziggy himself). It’s largely a gentle song, acoustic and building quietly, some bongos and other midrange percussion, hesitant, shy saxophones, until the buildup to the chorus: suddenly we’re faced with the distorted guitar that had hidden in the background, sparkling out for a few quiet notes here and there. Bowie’s voice and the guitar build to a drum fill and then the chorus–“Inspirations have I none/Just to touch the flaming dove/All I have is my love of love/But love is not loving”. All the song’s energy is exerted seemingly at once, and then spent, it relaxes with a brief saxophone solo from Bowie before it restarts the process–but chooses, instead, to follow with a guitar solo that mirrors that sax solo the second time.

The album is basically loaded with songs that will catch your ear, though some might be weird as actual singles–the progression of “Five Years”, for instance. “Moonage Daydream”, however, is a happy fit as a single–which it was. The distorted, dramatic crunch of the opening is only brief, as it backs away to an acoustic that blends into a piano. “Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”, Bowie suddenly sings, to more of that initial riffing and a pattering tom fill from Woodmansey. Ronson doesn’t quite give in to the acoustic this time though, but keeps his playing a little less apparent than it is for that final choral line. The second time ’round, though, sax another woodwind I couldn’t identify if I tried follow it for an amusing little melodic line that gives way to the far more somber inclusion of another string arrangement. Ronson gets to work in a real guitar solo eventually, introduced by the deliberate echo effect placed on Bowie’s voice. The solo eventually begins to wash out and reverberate back over itself, echoing as if in a cave, giving it a huge sound, though it is overtaken in the outro by strange whistling electronic noises.

The biggest hit for the album, “Starman”, was apparently taken by some as a sequel to “Space Oddity”, which is understandable, as the thrumming low-end of the acoustic strumming of the opening echoes the sound used for that earlier hit. But when Woodmansey bumps the song in, the strength of Bolder’s bassline, alongside the earnest relaxed tone Bowie takes for the verse keeps it in different territory. The pounding piano line that leads to the string-backed chorus and the increased passion of Bowie’s vocal furthers the distance from the somber tonality of “Space Oddity”. When it gives way to an electric lead from Ronson that keeps the strings, it’s even more cheerful–as it should be, the “Starman” of the title is the possible saviour of the world before its end. When Bowie sings that chorus, it’s almost as if he’s got an arm around the listener, and is pointing up at the sky, conveying a sense of awe and camaraderie as he warmly informs us of this hope.

There’s one song on the album not written by Bowie, and it’s “It Ain’t Easy”, which closes Side One. It was written by Ron Davies (not to be confused with Ray Davies of the Kinks). It gives Bowie a chance to pull out the harpsichord (how on earth do I seem to have so many albums with harpsichords? Or was I just not paying any bloody attention and they’re near ubiquitous?) and play along to nothing but the rhythm section–until that huge chorus: the harpsichord drops, an acoustic begins strumming aggressively, a wailing guitar lead, pounding drum beat, and a huge vocal from Bowie. It ends on a pair of leads, one on a slide–all of a kind that isn’t inappropriate for a man who came out of a country family in Tennessee (Davies, that is, of course).

I always look at the tracklist for the latter half of Ziggy and wonder at these songs that occupy Side Two. I can’t seem to imprint those titles in my head. I know they’ll be familiar when I hear them, but can never place them from titles alone. As the piano introduction to “Lady Stardust” began, I knew I’d heard it and felt relaxed. When the drums and Bowie’s vocal starts, with its theatrical bent, holding notes on a light vibrato, his voice opened up, I know I’ve heard it, but then the hint comes: Oh, yes. I know this chorus. I even find it in my head on occasion. In keeping with its actual words (“And he was all right/The band was all together/Yes he was all right/The song went on forever/Yes he was all right/And he was up all night/Really quite paradise/And he sang all night/All night long”) there’s the sense of an eased, discussion of someone at neither a climactic peak nor a downfall, just a moment of established comfort. There are people to watch Ziggy, but there’s not the pressure to maintain a building momentum, just to stay with things in place. And Bowie and the boys sound like this as well, like the moment where a ballad comes out in a show, the kind that eventually was marked by waving lighters.

“Star” also tends to throw me (indeed, as I typed the tracklisting–and yes, I type those, I don’t paste them–I was sure I’d misread/remembered, or someone else had goofed and some tracks were garbled. I sincerely couldn’t remember there was a song named “Star”). Rollicking piano and moving beat define the song–sounds I recognized as soon as I heard them. Bowie and the backing vocals moving to that insistent beat, the pounding piano; they all sound like a call back to a certain period of the prior decade, though the distorted guitar riffing that enters midway through the song keeps it placed firmly in its actual time. Interestingly the guitar lead that marks the brief instrumental passage before the second verse pushes it backward in time just a bit again, though not quite as far–perhaps the late 1960s. And it makes sense again–Ziggy is an established star now, and by the end of the song, a sort of complacency arrives musically, with a more contemporary guitar lead than the previous one.

I was gathering all my usual resources (mostly to avoid making really stupid, avoidable mistakes, if I can) and saw “Hang on to Yourself” described as proto punk and thought this was absurd, but it suddenly clicked. While the handclaps and the subdued vocal of the chorus don’t fit too well with this notion, the semi-surf, rolling riff that opens and permeates the song is actually rather punk-like. Think more Ramones than anything else–the more “bubblegum” end of punk, and it’s actually quite reasonable. The solo is another light one, though a good one. By now Ziggy is being asked by the Spiders to keep a grasp on himself–and stay grounded–for them to keep going, which is hinted by the motion of the song and the final repetitions of “Come on, come on” that slowly fade the song out.

I’m not even going to guess where people place the semi-title track (which is just “Ziggy Stardust”). I was convinced that Hunky Dory had started to outstrip this album with major critics (the kind who reflexively list Sgt. Pepper as the best album ever), but apparently I was deluding myself. I’d think this song is not the most well-regarded of the album (partly because it was not initially released as a single, nor at any point in the album’s life). But that opening guitar lick! I remember being hugely into this song (as well as Hunky Dory‘s “Life on Mars?”) when I first met my aforementioned friend John. He was into punk, and I was getting into Bowie via his singles (though I’d always liked bits and pieces). I was in my horrific moments of “learning” guitar (never really successfully) and this lick always appealed to me, a simple acoustic guitar strumming chords and a heavily riffing electric that turns to a back and forth, higher pitched see-saw then starts backing down to start over–sheer brilliance. Bowie practically eulogizes Ziggy in the song over the more basic rock sound of the song (though in the background Ronson occasionally peels off for wandering noises and guitar harmonics, though quietly). Bowie’s voice suddenly shifts into a creepy tone and moves to the front–both sides of the stereo mix–and Ronson’s electric riffing takes the forefront. It’s not quite heavy in the metal sense, but maybe in the far more metaphorical interpretation from which the sense originated: emotionally weighty. The drum fills that lead into these sections set them up perfectly. And when Ziggy is finally lost to his own messianic self-image, Bowie sings out “When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band” passionately, a bit resigned, a bit angry, a bit sad–and we’re back to that opening riff, which eventually is let ring, and we’re left with Bowie’s final words for the song: “Ziggy played guitar…”

One of the more famed songs on the album, often used for its driving riff and its most famous line, “Suffragette City” is probably the heaviest (now in the “metal” sense) song on the album, from the way the guitars roll in, a synth briefly filling out and strengthening the riffs, it doesn’t really stop for a moment. The head-shaking, “Don’t even think about it,” way that Bowie sings the chorus, the words almost slurring together, with big riffs and synth chords behind it gives it a real strength. After the second, it turns to one of the longer solos from Ronson, followed by another repetition of the chorus, piano pounding loudly in the back. “Suffragette city!” Bowie repeats, a nice downward keyboard line answering him and seeming to round the song to a start when everything starts hammering down at the same moment and leads to that moment of brilliant release: “Awwww, wam, bam, thank you ma’am!”

Ending much as it began, with a quiet acoustic, Ziggy‘s final track is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Bowie’s voice is deliberately restrained, even when the acoustic drops and just a thumping kick from Woodmansey leads him through the title of the song: “You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide.” After the second occurrence, the rest of the band fully joins in after a nice drum fill, though a quiet one. Horns announce the beginning of Bowie’s second verse. Partway through it, Bowie becomes more passionate, his words becoming less aligned to the beat, taking their own emotional course, using a string arrangement to increase their drama. “You’re not alone!” he begins to yell, and the backing vocals begin to answer him, the horns increasing in frequency, the horns more prominent and consistent, a guitar lead from Ronson entering–and then the strings play one short note for a good beat, and the album ends.

I am often reminded when I start this album that it has an unusual production style, as compared to my memory and understanding of it. It’s very understated and intimate. It’s not quite like a band playing in a small club, it’s too clear and distinct for that. But it’s all mid-range–the drums are never, ever overpowering, though Woodmansey has and plays a clear role, and does it well. Bolder never aggressively steals the show either. Heck, Bowie’s guitars and pianos and Ronson’s often don’t either. It means that even the quieter, more relaxed riffing of “Suffragette City” or “Ziggy Stardust” (as compared to other artists who had long since released plenty of louder music) stand out that much more without having to increase anything. Now, the album did originally say (as does my copy) “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” As it happens, my immediate next door neighbor on the side my music room is on is the best friend of a coworker (by complete coincidence). I kept the volume at half for my stereo and left it at that–I don’t need to earn any enemies. Still, the production is largely spare and quiet, without being overly spacious or acutely limited in instrumentation or sound. It’s sparse, yet full; distant, yet intimate. I always appreciate settling in to the album for this reason, though there’s always a jarring moment of confusion, as I expect something…bigger from it. Yet, instead, it creates that “size” from its music, from the performances themselves, rather than the volume or aggression of those performances.

As with Sgt. Pepper, I’m not overly inclined to suggest a downgrade of the album–not by any stretch. It still won’t push itself in as my favourite Bowie album, but I think it’s placement in music history is largely justified. Of course, part of that is the influence of “Starman” and Bowie’s performance of it on Top of the Pops, which inspired at least one artist to appear later in my own collection, nevermind the ones I myself am not familiar with.

On a final, relatively silly note, the crackle was simultaneously pleasingly indicative of a well-loved album and distracting. When the needle lifted on side one, it was oppressively quiet suddenly.

  • Next Up: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent

Day Twenty-Two: Big Star – Radio City

Ardent Records ■ ADS-1501

Released January, 1974
Produced by John Fry and Big Star
Engineered by John Fry

Side One: Side Two:
  1. O My Soul
  2. Life Is White
  3. Way Out West
  4. What’s Going Ahn
  5. You Get What You Deserve
  1. Mod Lang
  2. Back of a Car
  3. Daisy Glaze
  4. She’s a Mover
  5. September Gurls
  6. Morpha Too
  7. I’m in Love with a Girl

I was left in a vague lurch on this one: I got seven people to vote on which Big Star album I should talk about, and 3 picked #1 Record, 3 picked Radio City, and one lone voice (which I very well might be able to guess) picked 3rd. In the end, my friend Brian suggested I consult my friend George¹, and so the dilemma was resolved. Honestly, it indicated to me basically exactly what I’d suspect. I don’t know, naturally, what motivated any votes (not even a single one, this time)–whether it was familiarity or gut reactions to titles or research or what. Still, it tends to be a very thin line between #1 Record and Radio City if you ask anyone who knows, and then a decent minority that prefers the frustrated, misanthropic nihilism of 3rd (aka Sister Lovers, but the version issued and reissued on vinyl bears the title 3rd). I was stuck myself–I have personal attachments to either, songs I love on both, a very mild preference and contrasts in stories of acquisition (one’s interesting, one isn’t). I couldn’t complain about ending up with any of them (though I’d stumble a bit more with 3rd, if I’m honest). If one marked out a ratio of amount of recordings versus listneing time, Big Star would likely be at some absurd height in my listening record. The only known set of statistics comes from my last.fm listening habits. You’ll note Big Star comes in quite soon, and behind artists that released at least twice as many albums.

All of my Big Star records are reissues, and only one was purchased used (and not by me–as a gift for me). I picked up Radio City as probably the most recent, making a trip out to purchase it deliberately when a then-local record store (Bull City Records) listed the reissue as newly in stock. I will often list Radio City as my favourite Big Star record by far, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. #1 Record has some sentimental elements in its favour (it was the gift, for instance, as well as the first Big Star record I heard), as well as a few songs it’s really difficult to argue with. But it’s Radio City I bought my first (and, to date, only) 33 1/3 book on², and it’s often “O My Soul” that I find myself craving or drawn toward.

“O My Soul” is the album’s opener, and I’ve touched on it before, when I previously wrote about Big Star. It’s a scorcher of an opener, with Andy Hummel setting the stage for the bright, clear guitars of Alex Chilton that can’t seem to decide whether to ring or be immediately muted, bouncing back and forth between the two, Jody Stephens pounding away with the sound of drums heralding an arrival, which is answered by Alex turning to consistenting ringing–but finger picked instead of strummed chords. Alex inserts brief flashes of Mellotron throughout the verses, but particularly on the lead-up to the chorus, three down-up, down-up repetitions that are finally let ring as he slides his pick up the guitar strings and breaks into an exquisite guitar lead that ties things into place for the chorus. It’s the longest track on the album by far, but it doesn’t feel like it–it feels like it should just keep going. That lead is unbelievable, the way it just bends and twists and seems to just pull your heart along in each and every direction, beating just a bit faster because it’s exactly where you want to go.

There’s a much more deliberate pace to “Life Is White”, bass, guitar, and drums all hitting on beat as it starts, before allowing themselves a bit more breathing space–space that Alex’s harmonica takes freely from the start. Of course, on guitar in overdubs, Chilton’s willing to let the guitar find various nooks and crannies, too. The counterpoint of his harmonica to his vocal, though, manages to give it the same feeling as forlorn harmonicas, without actually sounding like them–which is some kind of neat trick. The song pumps itself up for just a moment halfway through, and Alex works in a semi-honky tonk piano. The song is a point of view on relationships not seen often: the lines might hint at actual animosity, but the delivery and the way they go on says something else. They aren’t temptation, they aren’t disgust, they are just statement of rational explanation of a decision: “And I don’t want to see you now/’Cause I know what you like/And I can’t go back to that.”

There’s only one song on the album on which Alex doesn’t receive writing or co-writing credit, and it’s the third track, which is the responsibility of Andy Hummel, though Jody Stephens is tasked with singing it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “India Song”, his song on #1 Record, but it’s more fully developed by far. Like many tracks on the album, the introduction sounds something like a riff or lick from a previous song ending before it seems to “actually” start. Alex’s place as just guitarist (other than backing vocals, anyway) allows for a more fully realized guitar approach. He and Andy spend the earlier portions matching each other with riffing that seems to imply two steps forward and one back, but Chilton drifts off halfway through the verse, and the chords begin to ring and cascade string-to-string instead. Hummel’s chorus is sweet: “And why don’t you come on back/From way out west/And love me/We can work out the rest”. When Andy returns to his previous bassline, Alex doesn’t even return to his previous ringing, single string approach to his own part, instead moving all throughout the chords and tones, up and down and all over, but with hammer-ons and pull-offs that carry that twist to the heart that he does so well. One of the more interesting parts is the final repetition of the chorus, which has the same run-out, only Alex doubles the tempo of his playing briefly and it seems to yank the entire song in the same way, only for them all to drop back to normal speed for a final repetition.

One of the more morose songs on the album (hinting in some ways at the material that would be released as 3rd), “What’s Going Ahn” seems adrift and lost lyrically, bolstered by a meticulous but more spacious, open and seemingly free sound to the instrumentation. The electric/acoustic “duet” at the beginning has the sort of smooth-faced innocence of “India Song”, but is followed by a more oppressive mood emphasized by the deep drop of Andy’s bassline, seemingly miles below the airy guitars, and even Jody’s deliberate drumming. Chilton’s electric part is empowered by hesitant in most parts, other than the portions that slide, but they all inevitably slide downward, emphasizing the feeling of loss the song carries–which only makes the introductory moments that much more appropriate: the shift is like that opening innocence is lost. The way it ends, too, is somewhat less melodious and more like the stutter of braking from high speeds.

At first seemingly cheerful, Andy’s brief thrums on bass hint at the chorus that defines “You Get What You Deserve”. There’s a menace, but the kind that threatens less directly and more insinuating inevitable negative futures. The guitars overlaid are nothing of the kind, and Alex sings in the most comfortable upper portion of his range, even when he hits the chorus, where the tempo picks up, and there’s the feeling that the song is turning its head away and wagging a finger, telling you you’d better be careful where you carry that train of thoughts, words or actions–after all, “You get what you deserve/You ought to find out what it’s worth/And you’ve gotta have a lotta nerve”. At its second repetition, there’s a bass-driven passage, that turns too a castanet-rattled bridge that turns into a blistering solo from Alex that defines the tone of the song as a whole–that awareness that someone’s actions might turn out worse for them than they are considering. One more repetition of that chorus leads right back into that solo, which Alex briefly sings along to without words, bringing home just how high it is going, and with it, tension.

Side Two releases us from that tension entirely, with the easier groove of “Mod Lang”, which is heavily riff-oriented, and allows for some more interesting percussion instruments to appear (cow bells, for instance). Those riffs are powerful and pushy, and the whole song is exemplified by Alex’s call, “All night long/I was howlin’/I was a barkin’ dog”, which has too much character to worry about enunciation and gains, rather than suffering, from that.

“Back of a Car” is the other highlight of this album (for me at least–if you ask most people, it’s “September Gurls”). There’s no introduction, no easing in, it just blasts in: “Sitting in the back of a car” Alex sings as the ringing guitar notes seem to spiral up and drift toward the sky. The words manage to establish and identify the feeling immediately, even if it has no personal experience on the part of a listener to confirm its feasibility. It’s a blaring, space-filling sound, but one that seems constrained–ah, by being in the back of a car! Of course! Jody gets to stand out most on this track, too, his drums rarely able to stick to a single beat, filling constantly, and often with very full rolls and trips across the toms. Alex continues to send guitar up to define and bounce off the unexpectedly high but very “real” ceiling of the space they’re filling. It’s simultaneously a huge and an intimate sound: cold, but familiar and somehow warm for that.

Gone almost completely in the opposite direction is “Daisy Glaze”, which seems to be just Alex and guitar for a moment, both Jody and Andy hiding their rhythms within the much louder guitar sound. When they make themselves known, it’s quietly and gently, matching Alex’s voice. It’s very separated from the immediate, a floating sensation as of being out of one’s body, that Jody is eventually allowed to build up to with increasing tempo and more powerful hits, the melody suddenly whipping itself into a frenzy, Alex turning to a great, tight lead, Jody propelling the song faster than it thought it wanted to go prior to this, and sounding that much greater for it, as this is the sweet spot for “Daisy Glaze”. It ends on this same progression, but closing with a chord progression that sounds like group of guitars looking at each other and striking the chord in unison, but with enough pause between to make that apparent.

A brief flash of studio conversation and a count off announce “She’s a Mover”, which sounds like Big Star in general (if you can distill that) at first, but that quickly gives Andy his moment to shine, as his is the driving force there, but suddenly more emphatic and louder through the chorus, giving it a groovier, funkier feeling than it starts with.

“September Gurls” is a defining song, there’s no doubt about it. It’s called a masterpiece by Bruce Eaton (who wrote the 33 1/3 on the album and played onstage with Alex on numerous occasions). It’s the most heavily layered song, perhaps, in sound if not reality. All three of them bring their A-games, with a song that doesn’t push any of them into the front for too long, all three playing so well throughout, though of course Alex does throw in a solo halfway through, but the kind that’s less about showing off and more about exploring the melody and defining the feel and tone of the song, and it’s followed by one of Jody’s best fills in an album that has a number, and a song that has quite a few by itself. It’s true that this is probably the best vocal chorus on the album, Chilton’s approach to “December boys got it bad” stretching that last word and chopping it into multiple descending syllables.

The last two tracks on the album are, on occasion, considered to have been just tossed on in some respects. While there are demo versions of most tracks on the album, these are the only ones on the album that feature Chilton by himself. “Morpha Too” is Alex (singing along with two more of himself via overdubs) next to a piano that mostly just sticks to strong chords, but occasionally doubles its tempo with simple little dances key-to-key that give us the chorus of the song, as well as the chorus of “Alexes”.

One of the most famous Big Star songs (after “In the Street”, for its placement as theme song for That 70s Show) is “Thirteen” (which also made numerous appearances in that same show). It’s a sweet, acoustic love song. And so is the closer of this album: “I’m in Love with a Girl”. While “Morpha Too” has the studio trick of overdubbed vocals (as well as some cleverness with the way the piano was recorded), “I’m in Love with  a Girl” is a polished solo performance of one voice and an acoustic guitar. It’s very much to the point, but it’s carried by Alex’s fragile, occasionally brittle voice. It’s honest and it’s earnest, and it says something familiar and immediate, simple and obvious, yet not eye-rolling or clichéd in the way it’s done.

It’s frustrating to write these sometimes. I feel the limits of my musical knowledge and my vocabulary, and it becomes that much worse when I love an album like I do this one. It’s generally a given that if I bought a record new and sealed (and you can check the tags on any entry to see which I did, as well as looking at the images of my sleeve art–generally, the new ones have little or no wear, and are likely to still be in shrinkwrap, barring the gatefolds, at least) I deliberately sought out that album or felt it was really worth having personally. There are exceptions here and there where it was an album I stumbled into and felt I “should” own, or just couldn’t resist the idea of, but these are few and far between.

I decided I’d try to describe the music alongside the feelings as best I could this time, because I wanted to try to use words to convey something that “Hey, go listen to this band,” won’t necessarily achieve. If you can appreciate music but are not inclined to seek it out, or, if you are like me and like an anchor to attach new listening experiences to, then that’s what I’m trying to speak to. I can only phrase “This album is amazing” in so many ways, and my notoriously “egalitarian” taste in music doesn’t often convey the peaks very well. But, make no mistakes at all: this is a peak.

If I was given the chance to disseminate the experience of a musical recording to anyone and everyone at the snap of two fingers, I would–well, actually, I would choose one other band, but only because I think of Big Star as so obvious that I feel that I shouldn’t have to push it. I feel like playing these records should click for people who like catchy, tuneful pop (indeed, this album is often considered the pinnacle of “power pop”), or people who like obscure gems (the complete failure of distribution by Stax via independents for #1 Record and then Columbia fort this album is a travesty, but did give this band that obscure allure), or people who like quality playing, or good songwriting, or strong personalities, or pessimism, or romanticism–sure, there are some exceptions. It’s not going to be heavy enough for the metal-exclusive, or twangy enough for the country-exclusive, it has too much craft for the organic chaos of some of the most emotive music and so on, but, for most people, there’s something here.

It’s criminal how lost this band is, and inexplicable to me how it does not catch the ear of anyone who hears it. Certainly, it’s all subjective, but there’s so much good here, that all I can do is throw my hands up if someone finds it passable. What else can I do or say? The music should speak for itself, and I’m only trying to get you to that music.

¹aka Mr. Washington, aka Mr. President, aka “Old Wooden Teeth” (however inaccurate that actually is), aka “The One Without Carver at the End”. George Washington.
A quarter.
I flipped a quarter.

²It’s a series of books about classic/influential/important records, so named for the speed (in RPM) that albums are played at.