Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We Didn't Start the Del Fuego

My nephew loves Dan Zanes.

Great songs fill the room. Their presence is a palpable force, charging the air molecules. When the great songs end, their sonic properties linger. Maybe you can't hear them anymore, but you can sense them in the air and it takes a while for that sense to dissipate.

One such song is "I Still Want You" by the Del Fuegos, from their 1985 album Boston, Mass. It's a great song about loss, love, and longing, which perfectly captures a mixture of promise, sadness, and regret in one amazing line:
The car we bought together just started to rust
If you grew up in the Northeast, where they over-salt roads in winter and the salt eventually eats through your car (especially if it's the type of old beater you and your girlfriend would buy), this might be the second saddest thing in the world. (The saddest is Dan Zane's voice and the certainty that, even though he might still want her, she's gone for good.)

When I split up with my girlfriend (with whom I moved from Boston to California), I thought a lot about three things: 1) the Del Fuegos, 2)how I drove the first car I ever owned (a '73 VW Beetle) through a snowstorm until six inches of snow came up under the floor mats through a rusted out hole in the floor, and 3) how no one in Los Angeles understands cars rusting (let along how sad that can make you feel). Relationships, like songs, linger in the air after they're finished.

In the mid-80s, there was a roots music boomlet (led by the Blasters, the Bodeans, Georgia Satellites, Lone Justice, and Los Lobos). The Del Fuegos (Dan Zanes, his brother Warren Zanes, Tom Lloyd, and Woody Giessmann) had a blend of bluesy garage rock that won them tons of fans -- first in Boston and then throughout the Northeast -- and got them got signed to Sire Records at the tail end of that boomlet. The band made three records with soon-to-be-superstar-producer Mitchell Froom (who later worked with Crowded House, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, and many others). They were poised to break big nationally, following the route paved by Bruce Springsteen. And there's an alternate universe out there somewhere where the Del Fuegos became as big as U2 (and together they short-circuited the whole boy-band movement of the 1990s).

But not in this universe.

Here, they were one of several local bands featured in a strange series of Miller Beer commercials (Youtube link) where they claimed that rock 'n' roll is "folk music… pretty much, but, you know, that's cuz it's for folks."

Then they moved to L.A., hired hair stylists, horns, and chick singers. Half the band quit when the third album flopped. They changed labels and producers and made a fourth album that felt generic and tired. By the early 1990s, the band was done. Warren Zanes went back to school, became VP of Education at the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of fame (and eventually released a solo album in 2002). Dan Zanes made a few solo albums, got married, moved to Brooklyn, and eventually became a superstar. Making kids music. My nephew (who's 4) is a huge fan.

Talk about an alternate universe.

Monday, December 29, 2008

California Dreaming

They sold us a dream of California.

Hat-tip to self-proclaimed "Icelandic music slut" Wim Van Hooste, who writes the terrific (and highly recommended) I ♥ Icelandic Music blog and mentioned that Rúnar Júlíusson from the band Hjálmar died earlier this month from a heart attack.

Today, thousands of miles from Iceland, Los Angeles had what locals call a "Chamber of Commerce" day. The air is clear and clean, it's not too cold, and you can see snow on the local mountains (courtesy of the storm that blew through here a few days ago). Add a couple palm trees and a blonde in a bikini and you've got what everyone thinks about when they imagine California.

Where do these images come from? Movies and TV, sure. But mostly from songs. The mythology of sun, sand, and surf is woven into the modern DNA of rock 'n' roll. Hell, Brian Wilson built his entire career on the sandcastle of the California mythos.

The Mamas and the Papas (formed when the Mugwumps and the New Journeymen imploded at the end of New York's folk boom) heard the siren call of California and quickly abandoned New York, high-tailing it out of the snow and cold to sunny California. And for over 40 years (flute solo notwithstanding), people have listened to the harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas and conjured their own dreams about Los Angeles. (Youtube link for email subscribers):

All of which brings me back to Rúnar Júlíusson (known in Iceland as "Mr. Rokk"), who played bass and sang for many years in Hjálmar, Iceland's most popular rock group. Hjálmar started in Keflavik (an hour outside of Reykjavik and home to the international airport and long the sight of a U.S. Air Force base) in the early 1960s when one of the members traveled to England, saw the Beatles five nights in a row, and returned to Iceland with a copy of a brand-new Beatles album.

Keep in mind that Iceland at the time was considered a real backwater. There was no television there and few local rock bands. Hjálmar (thanks to a quick mastery of songs popular in England and America) soon became a sensation, playing Icelandic versions of rock songs and writing original numbers that mixed Merseybeat, garage, and psychedelic rock. The band recorded in Icelandic for the local market and traveled to England to record a few records in English (now highly prized by collectors) using the name "Thor's Hammer." In 2001, Big Beat records released a collection of their English-language output (including their only U.S. single) supplemented with some Icelandic numbers on an album called From Keflavik with Love.

But what amazed me more than anything was the idea that Rúnar Júlíusson and Hjálmar, sitting on a snowy island thousands of miles away from Los Angeles were also dreaming of California (even if a little of the mythology gets lost in translation). The proof is here, in I ♥ Icelandic Music's 92nd song of the week (Youtube link for email subscribers):

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Musical Definition of Irony

Most of the time, I feel like we live in an irony-free zone.

We've dumbed everything down so much that most people wouldn't know irony if it slapped them in the face.

Which brings us to UPS (once known as the United Parcel Service), a company that built its reputation as a more reliable alternative to the U.S. Postal Service.

There's a series of UPS ads where a guy draws on a whiteboard (and therefore must be believable, I guess), including this one (Youtube link for email subscribers):

And when it came time to pick the music for those ads, what did UPS choose?

A band called "the Postal Service."

That should be the entry under "irony" in any decent online dictionary.

And by the way, adding "monkey sex" does not dilute the irony (youtube link for email subscribers):

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thanks for Christmas

I missed my chance to see XTC live.

I was offered tickets to see them on their last tour. But I had no way to get to the venue (and didn't know anyone with a car that I could talk into going). So I didn't go, figuring I could see them the next year when they toured the U.S. again. Of course, they never toured again... and ever since I've regretted missing my chance to see them live.

You see, in 1980, XTC became my favorite band that still existed.

A local radio station in my college town that was leaning towards New Wave (while not quite abandoning Top 40) was playing Making Plans for Nigel (which the DJs frequently played 2 or 3 times in a row since the Program Director wouldn't let them play any other XTC songs). I was hooked instantly.

From then on, I devoured devoured everything the band put out. Their jangly off-kilter rhythms and catchy melodies were instant earworms that burrowed into your brain and never came out. Colin Moulding was a strong writer, but Andy Partridge was clever, biting, cynical, sometimes angry, and wildly prolific -- everything that resonated with kids growing up in college towns in the 80s.

For the next few years, XTC churned out a series of albums that grew in complexity and craft. At the same time they issued a series of astonishing singles that (in a more just world) would have sold tens of millions and catapulted them into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. I'd listen to these songs over and over again and most of them still sound as fresh today. (Don't take my word for it, listen to Life Begins at the Hop, Respectable Street, Generals and Majors, Towers of London, Ball and Chain, Senses Working Overtime, Earn Enough for Us, Dear God, Mayor of Simpleton, or The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.

Late 1983 found me in New York with my friend Ed (whose record collection is still spoken of by his friends with a mixture of reverence and jealousy). We wandered into the Tower Records in the Village (which took up an entire square block of prime real estate, boasted the finest selection of British and European new wave bands in the U.S., and was more Temple than store). I remember it was cold and snowy outside and warm and inviting indoors (but maybe my memory is playing tricks on me). Did I spend days there or did it just feel that way? Did I really explore every part of the store except Opera and Country? Did I literally rappel down the wall in the Classical section? I can't quite remember.

What I do remember was the import section in the back of the store, where they had dozens of copies of Thanks for Christmas, an import 45 that never got a proper U.S. release. The song was credited to the "the Three Wise Men," but the open secret was that it was really XTC. The single and its flip-side (the funk-inflected Countdown to Christmas Party Time) were cheekily listed as being composed by Balthazar/Kaspar/Melchior, but were really written by Andy Partridge, whose cynicism didn't stop him from wanting to create a modern classic Christmas song. (Andy later said in an interview that he wanted to get women who worked for his record company -- Virgin -- to sing on the song and credit them as "the Virgin Marys," but the company quickly put a stop to that idea).

Tower Records is now gone. XTC changed categories; they're no longer my favorite band that still exists, but one of many groups I love that sadly disbanded. But 25 years later, I don't think it's really Christmas until I pull the 45 out of its sleeve and hear the needle drop on the only record released by the Three Wise Men.

Thanks for Christmas:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Laziest Rock 'n' Roll Books

Christmas Product: Books

It's hard to imagine there are lazier excuses for books than Paul Simon's Lyrics 1964-2008 (which contains a very brief introduction and then his song lyrics laid out for $36) or Ringo Starr's Postcards from the Boys (which reprints postcards sent to Ringo over the years by the other Beatles for $25).

At least Paul Simon wrote these lyrics (and even if it's absurd, you still get more than 400 pages). Ringo's book repackages other people's artwork and other people's words (with a sentence comment on each postcard) in a book that's barely over 100 pages.

These books are so lazy that I can't even work myself into a good lather of outrage. (I mean, if Paul Simon and Ringo Starr are too lazy to write a real book, I'm too lazy to mock them mercilessly.)

So, if you've got $61 burning a whole in your pocket, don't buy these books... go buy some music!

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sacraments in the Church of Rock 'n' Roll

Sacraments in the Church of Rock 'n' Roll

It's hard to imagine now, but at one time Phil Spector was more than a wild-haired guy on trial for murder (or a less-wild haired guy allegedly pointing guns at John Lennon or the Ramones).

Back in the early days of Rock 'n' Roll, Phil Spector was hailed as a genius who built a dense "wall of sound" by multitracking dozens of instruments and backing vocalists (and mixing it all down to mono).

In 1963, he released A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, which included the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the amazing Darlene Love.

If there was a Church of Rock 'n' Roll, one of its sacraments would have to be Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." U2, Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, and Death Cab for Cutie (among others) have recorded great versions of this song, but no one comes close to Darlene Love. Her voice (which combines strength, hope, and pure joy in a way that angels would envy) soars above sleigh bells, dozens of stringed instruments, and a choir that sounds like it could number in the hundreds.

Since 1986, David Letterman has had Darlene Love sing this song every year on his last broadcast before Christmas. Although Love is now in her 60s, her voice is still strong and powerful and still can soar above dozens of string and horn players (and the choir). Letterman has said that it just doesn't feel like Christmas until Darlene Love sings this song. Sadly, Darlene Love couldn't appear last year (the show was not in production due to the writers strike).

Maybe it's sacrilegious to talk about a Church of Rock 'n' Roll, but if you don't get the chills hearing this song, you may be beyond hope.

Darlene Love on David Letterman:



And, as a special bonus, here's video from a 1981 New Year's Eve concert where Darlene Love sang this song live for the first time since 1963!

This year, Darlene Love will sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the Late Show with David Letterman on Tuesday, December 23.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On The Shortest Day of the Year

Today is the shortest day of the year.

Ancient societies gathered each year to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Today, as the darkness gathers around us and the weather turns cold, sadness and endings seem to be everywhere, and a plaintive melancholy blankets the earth like a new snow.
Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound
But while you debate half-empty or half-full
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown

Death Cab for Cutie (a band named after a song the Bonzo Dog Band song performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour movie) seems to understand this time of year perfectly as they create languid soundscapes of infinite sadness punctuated by a growing sense of hope:

The ancients created the Winter Solstice celebration to nurture and feed that hope. After today, the days get longer and light slowly returns to replenish the earth. Starting right now, by minutes (or sometimes even seconds) a day starting now we reclaim the world from the forces darkness.

Today, in Reykjavik, there is sunlight for 4 hours and 56 minutes. The economy is in tatters and people are uncertain of their future. Tomorrow brings only 10 more seconds of daylight. But gradually it increases until summer (where the sun technically sets but leaves behind enough light to see 24 hours a day).

Olafur Arnalds is a 21-year-old Icelandic classical musician who covers Death Cab for Cutie with a string quartet. Even without words, the mixture of hope and sadness seeps through (and what is it with the devotion of Icelandic bands to otherworldly sonic soundscapes anyway?), which is strangely appropriate on the shortest day of the year:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top Ten Signs You Might Be a Music Snob

The Top Ten Signs You Might Be a Music Snob

Are you a music snob? Here are the top ten signs:

10. You’ve broken up with someone after examining his/her music collection.

9. When asked to name your favorite band, you subdivide your answer into categories such as “Post-British Invasion,” “Neo-New Wave,” “Pre-Grunge Garage Rock, Semi-Melodic,” etc., and continue listing your favorites long after the other person has stopped listening.

8. You alphabetize your albums by producer, not band name.

7. You know what song was #1 when you were born (and what other song from the Hot 100 blows that #1 song out of the water).

6. You’ve investigated copyrighting your iTunes playlists.

5. You easily pontificate on the artistic value of band reunions (the Animals, the Buzzcocks, the Police, Sex Pistols), but can’t be bothered to voice an opinion about the Who.

4. Tired of the lame cell-phone ringtones you hear all around you, you downloaded software to make your own ringtones of your more obscure favorite songs.

3. You regularly read at least 5 MP3 blogs (but only comment on 2).

2. Not only can you easily differentiate between the “Jangle” and “Power Pop” genres, but you can readily cite examples of people who misuse those terms.

1. As you read this, you mentally composed your own, much better list.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Codependency's Greatest Hits

Codependency's Greatest Hits (or Why I Love the Smithereens)

Years ago, I briefly worked for one of the Major Record Labels. One day, I ran into a hotshot A&R guy and pitched him my idea for a compilation album called Codependency’s Greatest Hits. The album would be filled with songs about making it okay for your loved ones to misbehave. The A&R guy hated the idea and mockingly suggested that a more commercial idea would be Songs to Drive Your Neurotic Ex to Suicide, but he disappeared before I could say anything more than "Joy Division."

Neither of those albums ever came out, but it's always been clear that the first song on Codependency's Greatest Hits would have to be "Behind the Wall of Sleep" by the Smithereens. I mean, listen to this:
She was tall and cool and pretty and she dressed as black as coal
If she asked me to I'd murder, I would gladly lose my soul.
It's a codependent's dream come true.

Some songs just seem timeless from the first time you hear them. Instantly familiar and instantly different from anything that came before. So perfect that they somehow must always have existed – maybe you just never noticed them before.

But let's back up. The song moves like gangbusters from the first beat, a perfect song to play in a car. Going very fast. With the volume all the way up. And the fuzzy guitar making your speakers buzz.

Then the singer starts up:
She had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965
She had legs that never ended
I was halfway paralyzed.
What the hell is this? And more importantly, when the hell is this?

This song easily could have come out in 1966, 1976, 1986, 1996, or 2006 and the crunchy guitars and Pat DiNizio's vocals would sound just as fresh and revelatory.

A perfect love song about the girl everyone wants – a chick bass player who "stood just like Bill Wyman." Because anyone could name-check Mick or Keith, but it takes a music snob to worship Bill Wyman. And to want a female bass player to anchor his life (just like Bill Wyman anchored the Stones).

But there's a price to pay. With Bill Wyman, it was putting up with rock-star excesses from Mick and Keith. With the girl in this song, it’s having to murder someone just to get on her radar. If that seems like a fair trade-off, you're probably codependent.

Back in the real world, female bass players won't take all your pain away… and they won't care if you lose your soul. But in an alternate universe (where Codependency’s Greatest Hits has sold 15 million copies and that hotshot A&R guy is flipping burgers), the female bass player really, really loves you and will let you save her. And when you do, she’ll take away all your pain -- 3 minutes and 24 seconds at a time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The 34th Most Important Band in the World

Maybe some bands were never meant to break out.

Maybe some bands were always supposed to be big fish in small ponds.

In the early 1980s, Blotto appeared nearly everywhere up and down the East Coast, sounding like the Bonzo Dog Band updated with new wave rave-ups. Blotto, whose members had been in a mime troupe together then in the Star Spangled Washboard Band, hailed from Albany and wrote tunes like "My Baby’s the Star of a Driver’s Ed Movie," "She’s Got a Big Boyfriend," and the "The B-Side" ("you can't sing along, the words are awkward..."). Their songs were smart and fun… and they were arguably better than many of the bands that did break through in the early 80s.

In homage to the Ramones, they all took the name "Blotto" as their last name – so the group consisted of Broadway Blotto, Sergeant Blotto, Bow-Tie Blotto, Cheese Blotto, Lee Harvey Blotto (who has since become a lawyer and now sometimes calls himself "F. Lee Harvey Blotto" – proving that jokes can stretch too far), Chevrolet Blotto, and (briefly) Blanche Blotto.

But the Music Gods are inscrutable and fickle. So while Adam Ant became a star, Blotto floundered, a beloved cult-band from Albany with a fanbase up and down the Eastern seaboard.

They toured endlessly and got lots of radio airplay for a couple years. They should have been signed by a major label (and nearly were several times), but it just never worked out (not even with Burt Ward, Robin from TV’s Batman show, as their manager). And by 1984, the band was done (save for the occasional reunion gig).

That might have been that… and they might have stayed a distant memory. Except for one thing.

A couple of SUNY-Albany students looking for a fun senior project spent thirty bucks making a "rock video" with Blotto lip-synching their song "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard." The students got an A, then moved to New York City where many of their friends were working for a brand-new cable network.

So when MTV launched on August 1, 1981, the "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard" was a favorite of the people who worked there. And while everyone knows that "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles was the first video played on MTV, most people don't realize that, a few hours later, MTV was playing "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard" (sandwiched betwen Iron Maiden and Rod Stewart).

Some people will tell you that when MTV started they were so desperate for videos that they played anything they could get their hands on. But I've got a better explanation.

Sure, maybe they never broke through and reached the national (or international) audience they deserved. But on August 1, 1981, Blotto was the 34th most important band in the world.

"I Wanna Be a Lifeguard"

"I Quit"

"Metal Head"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Needle Drop

Vinyl is different.

It’s hot, frenzied, often wobbly and complicated. It passes over you like a wave, washing across your consciousness. You can’t hide from it. You can’t decide which parts you want. But you can become one with it.

Digital is slick. It’s discrete and ordered. You can slice it into units, decode it into ones and zeroes and move them around. Turn them upside down. It’s like watching the world from behind thick glass.

You can watch it. You can sometimes appreciate its beauty. But you never quite become one with it. It’s always a little bit distant and a little bit cold. And, because it’s cold, it’s easy to turn away from it.

When you put a needle down on a record, there’s space. Space to climb into so you can wrap the sound around yourself. And there’s an infinite range of values beyond the simple choice of zero and one.

Yes, records are imperfect. They’re flawed and approachable. And even the noises have personality. The scratches and skips. The clicks and pops. They sear their way into your mind until they merge into the song and become part of the listening experience. A record welcomes you in, gives you a place that’s all your own. And if you let them, the clicks and the pops will embrace you, prop you up, support you.

The silence between tracks on a CD is cold and dead. There’s nothing there. The “silence” between tracks on a record is alive, buzzing with possibilities, humming with hints of the future and distant echoes of the past.

Crouching between the wow and flutter, nestled between the clicks and pops… is a magical place created anew just for you every time the needles drops. There’s noise in the “silence,” a warmth of ambience before the music begins. Sound jumps out at you and redlines when needle hits vinyl. And just for a moment that sound joins your past and your future, transporting you to a more perfect present as you literally become part of the music.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Wasted Youth in Used Record Stores

I spent too much of my youth in used record stores.

See, I grew up in a small town with three colleges (and two more a few miles away). There were great used record stores there – one in the back of a head shop on Main Street (specializing in selling foreign cut-outs), one next to a stationary store (whose owner was busted for selling pot – I know, in a college town? Shocking!), and another one that sold hundreds of cheap bootlegs whose “covers” were cheap mimeographs of bad band photos.

And I was patient – I’d thumb through the stacks, always looking for something specific, but always open to what I might find – especially if the price was low. And the price was almost always low, because there were always lots of college students selling their records to the used record stores. Plus, I wasn’t a collector.

That’s important. Collectors care about more about the label and the idea of the record than they care about what’s on the record.

This is what collectors do:

For me, it was always about the music.

And while I own a few records that actually are valuable, their real value for me is what’s on them.

To be honest, when I was younger, I was more like Jack Black’s character here:

(I like to think I'm more tolerant now. So if you wanted to listen to "I Just Called To Say I Love You," I wouldn't say anything mean about you -- but I would leave the room.)

And while I own a few records that actually are valuable, their real value for me is what’s on them.

So this blog is mostly about music (and often about vinyl). Because it’s the music that matters.