Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Never Been In A Riot

“The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” 
— Lester Bangs

In January of 1978, The Mekons released their first single, a response to The Clash's "White Riot" called "Never Been in a Riot". Formed by University of Leeds art students Jon Langford, Kevin Lycett, Mark White, Andy Corrigan and Tom Greenhalgh, none of whom had any apparent musical ability, The Mekons got a rave review from NME for the single which a critic described as "making the Sex Pistols look like Paper Lace". 

The Mekons are still playing and recording.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Drink the Night Away

On January 20, 1978 Scotsman Gerry Rafferty released City to City, an album that would eventually knock the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from the top of the U.S. charts. Most people bought it for "Baker Street", a US #2/UK#3 hit most famous for its saxophone solo by session player Raphael Ravenscroft. One Saturday I rode my bike off my boarding school campus, illegally crossing the state line into Millerton, New York four miles away to pick up a copy at Oblong Books and Music.

City to City kept me company for many many days, becoming one of the soundtracks of my teenage years. Its wistfulness and melancholy an apt mood setter.

Rafferty made a fortune from the album but he wasn't interested in stardom. He would spend most of his life in hiding, eventually drinking himself to death.

Ken Emerson of Rolling Stone wrote this rave review:

Even in his mother's womb, Gerry Rafferty must have expected the worst. This Scotsman entitled his melancholy 1971 solo album Can I Have My Money Back? (the answer was "No!"). And when Stealers Wheel, the group he subsequently formed with Joe Egan, became an overnight success with the hit single "Stuck in the Middle with You," only to lapse into morning-after obscurity, he probably said, "I told you so." On City to City, his first LP in three years, Rafferty sticks grimly to his guns. Not only does he use the same producer (Hugh Murphy) and several of the same musicians, but a similar un-self-pitying fatalism pervades the record.

However, there is a slight but significant change for the better that makes City to City as eloquently consoling as the spirituals Rafferty echoes in "Whatever's Written in Your Heart." Indeed, there's a prayerful quality to the entire LP, a quality reminiscent of the dim dawn after a dark night of the soul. "The Ark" begins as a Highland death march, complete with doleful bagpipes, but swells into a stirring hymn to love. And, after etching a relationship stalemated by the inability of two lovers to express their feelings, the somber "Whatever's Written in Your Heart" (whose only instruments are a piano and a hushed sythesizer) concludes with a coda of vocal harmonies that sing of sublime forgiveness. Hope, in almost all these songs, lurks on the horizon. And when it springs fully into view -- as on "City to City," with its rollicking train tempo, and on the jaunty "Mattie's Rag" -- the music almost burbles with anticipation.

Gerry Rafferty still writes with the sweet melodiousness of Paul McCartney and sings with John Lennon's weary huskiness, and his synthesis of American country music, British folk and transatlantic rock is as smooth as ever. But his orchestrations have acquired a stately sweep. For all their rhythmic variety -- from the suave Latin lilt of "Right down the Line" to the thump of "Home and Dry" -- these are uniformly majestic songs. The instrumental refrain on one of the best of them, "Baker Street," is breathtaking: between verses describing a dreamer's self-deceptions, Rapheal Ravenscroft's saxophone ballons with aspirations only to have a sythesizer wrench it back to earth with an almost sickening tug. If City to City doesn't rise to the top of the charts, its commercial failure will be equally dismaying. And our loss will be greater even than Rafferty's. After all, when was the last time you bought an album boasting more than fifty minutes of music? And great music at that.

From Robert Christgau's B- review:

A miraculously homogeneous album -- except for the breakthrough sax refrain on "Baker Street," neither voice nor instrument ruffles the flow of hard-won axioms and sensible hooks. Very nice, I mean it -- if yin and yang is your meat, this beats Percy Faith a mile. But Fleetwood Mac it ain't.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Let Me In Through Your Window

On January 20, 1978 Kate Bush released her debut single, "Wuthering Heights". Disco, punk and "Mull of Kintyre" may have reigned at the time, but this teenager's voice and ear for melody arrived like a visitor from another world,  eventually topping the U.K. charts for four weeks to become the best selling song of the year there and in Australia.

She is not from another world. The daughter of a British physician , Kate began playing piano at age 11, writing songs at 13, and making a demo tape with Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour at age 16. EMI signed her and gave her two years to develop her songwriting, dancing ( inspired perhaps by her martial arts teachers) and four octave range voice.

The lyrics are sung from the point of view of Catherine Earnshaw, the female protagonist of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. SPOILER ALERT! She is dead, a spirit, who hopes to enter her lover's home through a window. Thus the chorus : 

Heathcliff, it's me, I'm Cathy 
I've come home, I'm so cold 
Let me in through your window

It could be argued that Bush's high pitched voice takes some time to get used to ( especially that opening line "Out on the wiley, windy moors / We'd roll and fall in green")  and that Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler had already opened the door for bombastic melodrama. 

But Kate Bush's career would be far more interesting. Because she would always be far more weird.

Though it would not make any year end lists from the music mags, "Wuthering Heights" is the top rated single of 1978 from the collaborative online music database site RateYourMusic.com

Friday, January 19, 2018

To Kiss Your Stony Book

On January 20, 1978 XTC released their debut album, White Music. It is full of herky jerky songs, documenting the band trying to outrace anything that might sound melodious and breaking every rule. Andy Partridge twists his lyrics, stretching elastic vowels with wide open mouth and bugged out eyes, while Barry Andrews keeps pace with steam piano and clapped out organs. Bassist Colin Moulding offers a few songs that show absolutely no sign of the craftsman he would become. 

It's almost as if the band is trying to annoy the hell out of its listeners.

That said, there are a few brilliant moments that need to be mentioned. "This Is Pop", the second single from the album, is a declaration. The new noise they're playing on jukeboxes and transistor radios is the future of popular music. It would also provide the title to a Showtime documentary out this year. 

Fans have mixed reactions to the nearly six minute unrecognizable cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", the only song on the album I ever played on my college radio station.  Nobody in the US would hear the first two XTC albums until after Drums and Wires was released in 1979.

That year,  looking back, Robert Christgau would write this B+ rated review of White Music:

Although it took a year and a half for this debut album by the premier English art-pop band to get released in the States, two Andy Partridge songs on side one aim directly at the American market--"Radios in Motion," which mentions Milwaukee, surely isn't about the BBC, and the avowed purpose of "Statute of Liberty" is to get a look up her skirts. The third, "This Is Pop," is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter. Colin Moulding's songs, on the other hand, are aimed at bored Yes fans, which is why he missed--the lad doesn't know that Yes fans like being bored. 

The highlight might just be "Statue of Liberty", the first single from the album. It was banned by the BBC for its line "In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt". The full lyric shows Partridge's skills with lyrics:

 I leaned right over to kiss your stony book
 A little jealous of the ships with whom you flirt 
 A billion lovers with their cameras snap, snap to look 
 And in my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt

Terry Hall of The Specials selected this album for an NME article about the "Greatest Albums You've Never Heard".

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sam Peckinpah Meets The Rolling Stones

On January 18, 1978 Warren Zevon released Excitable Boy, the best selling album of his career. With the help of the US#21 hit "Werewolves of London", Excitable Boy became a Top 10 hit, peaking at US#8. The album finished at #11 in the year's Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll. My favorite song on the album is "Lawyers, Guns and Money", my go-to karaoke tune.

Burt Stein told Crystal Zevon how "Lawyers, Guns and Money" came about one day in Hawaii:

Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge—to the point where Warren got friendly with the waitress. One day he says, “A friend of the waitress has a cabin up in the mountains. She’s off tomorrow and she’ll take us there. We can get a little mountain experience.” 

The three of us get in my rental car. We’re going to spend the night up in the mountains and come back the next day. So, we’re driving through a sugarcane field and Warren’s sitting next to me. The girl is in the backseat. I ask how long before we get up there. She says, “Oh, ninety minutes.”

 She goes on to say, “I’m sure my friend won’t mind if we break in.” 

I say, “Oh, shit. Warren, I can see it now. A telegram to Joe Smith: ‘Dear Joe, please send lawyers and money.’” 

And, Warren says, “Joe, send lawyers, guns, and money.” 

And then I say, “Warren, we’re not going up there.”

 He says, “You’re right. Back to the bar.” So, we went back to the cocktail lounge. On two cocktail napkins, he wrote “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”

From Paul Nelson's review, writing for Rolling Stone :

Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy is the best American rock and roll album since Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run (1975), Neil Young's Zuma (1976) and Jackson Browne's The Pretender (1976). If there's not enough firepower in that statement, let's cock the hammer on another. Thus far, the Seventies have introduced three major American rock and roll artists -- Browne in 1972, Springsteen in 1973 and Zevon -- and I have every confidence the music of all three will be even better in the future.

 Oddly enough, Zevon, the apparent newcomer, preceded both Browne and Springsteen into the studio. His first record, an exercise in self-produced/self-induced psychedelia called Wanted Dead or Alive (Imperial, 1970), went deservedly unnoticed, and it wasn't until 1976, when his career seemed all but dead, that he got another shot (largely through Browne's persistence), this time with Asylum. On Warren Zevon, his aim was truer but he hit too many targets, and there was some confusion whether he was just another sensitive (albeit unusually tough) singer/songwriter or a Magnum-cum-laude rock and  roller who ate gunpowder for breakfast. His first tour answered that question, and the new LP blasts the bull's-eye into smithereens.

 An intuitive artist, Warren Zevon's often both smart and crazy enough to shoot first at the most explosive subjects, then figure out the ramifications of whatever the hell he's bloodied later ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). He's like Sam Peckinpah trying to work out the obsessions in something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Though clearly no dumdum, Zevon, like Peckinpah, sometimes refuses to rely upon academic intelligence and pragmatic perspective to pull him through. And on Excitable Boy, his self-confidence and craftsmanship are so inherently forceful he's able to bypass self-consciousness and secondary concerns altogether. These songs stand up and look you right in the eye. They're so good damned good no one could miss them.

Like Wanted Dead or Alive and Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy shares a passion for larger-than-life historical figures (or those who would emulate them), elemental forces and codes of behavior often associated with courage and honor. But Zevon's would-be heroes ("Should have done, should have done, we all sigh") sometimes unwittingly shoot for the moon when it's reflected in a puddle of water under their tangled feet. Like the characters in Graham Greene's The Comedians, they're so tragicomically confused about glory they don't know up from down, quandary from quarry, but they do know they're either running after or running away from something big -- and, in their zeal and commitment, that's all that matters. There's not much irony here, but a lot of heart. When the picaresque protagonist of "Lawyers, Guns and Money" sings:

 Now I'm hiding in Honduras 
I'm a desperate man 
Send lawyers, guns and money 
The shit has hit the fan,

 he's not surrendering; he's just acknowledging he's fucked up the quest again and now needs power to fight power.

When Warren Zevon need more power on this album, all he has to do is snap his fingers. For, if Excitable Boy is clearly a singular triumph, it is also a collective one. Brassy as Zevon is, he's given comparable backing by the rhythm sections of three superlative rock and roll bands (Linda Ronstadt's, the Section, Fleetwood Mac), exceptionally crisp and complementary production by Jackson Browne and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and the kind of sound quality (by Greg Ladanyi, who engineered Browne's Running on Empty ) that most musicians would kill for. Musically, Zevon's stalwart singing and rigorous, razor-sharp piano playing hold down the fort, while Wachtel, who brandishes an armory of guitars, takes the high ground with such audacity he nearly steals the action at times. On "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" (like the second LP's "Mohammed's Radio," a "tribute to rock and roll"), Wachtel simply picks up the song and carries it away, giving it back only for the vibrant vocals. 

Though it's not exactly confined to quarters here, Zevon's anarchic obsession will never get time off for good behavior either. His heroes are too excitable ("Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best/ ...And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest") and generally find themselves in situations as absurd as those in Norman Mailer's An American Dream, which "Lawyers, Guns and Money" resembles: 

 Well, I went home with the waitress
 The way I always do 
How was I to know 
She was with the Russians, too?

"Caught between the rock and the hard place," Zevon's "innocent bystander" shouts sendups that make sense and statements that don't. "Werewolves of London" is one of those indescribable, half-sung/half-spoken, stupid/profound anthems that captures something of a city and a time. With Wachtel's guitar prowling through the rolling fog like Jack the Ripper, Zevon reduces the whole world to a mythic howl, and you feel exhilarated. "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," cowritten by ex-soldier of fortune David Lindell in Spain, is an ersatz Irish ballad about betrayal, revenge and death in Africa ("They can still see his headless body stalking through the night/In the muzzle flash of Roland Thompson's gun") that somehow winds up with Patty Hearst in Berkeley. The title song sounds both harmless and bouncy until you listen to the lyrics, which could have been scrawled in blood by Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

 It would be a mistake to define Zevon solely by his outré limits, however. He's a son, a husband and a father, and this cycle is seldom slighted in his work (e.g., "A Bullet for Ramona," "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" and "Backs Turned Looking down the Path" on previous records). Here, "Veracruz" functions as a haunting synthesis of history and honor, codes and obsessions. Like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, it's a dream about exiles acting with integrity when their entire way of life is dying, but it's also about families in peril, mourning old dreams while moving inevitably toward new ones.

 "Tenderness on the Block," written with Jackson Browne and reminiscent of Browne's "The Only Child" and "Daddy's Tune," projects and reflects upon a happy and satisfying father/daughter relationship, but "Accidentally like a Martyr" is a hard-as-nails love song about a love that's been irredeemably lost. Rarely has a remembrance been so sad and glorious, so lovely and forlorn. For some reason, the chorus made me think of Lew Archer, the private detective created by Zevon's friend, mystery writer Ross Macdonald. In The Doomsters, Macdonald wrote: 

For once in my life I had nothing and wanted nothing. Then the thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum. My mind picked it up and ran with it and took flight. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she'd aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head. 

Pictured on the inner sleeve of this album is Zevon's .44-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver resting on a dinner plate filled with his wife's cooking. The photograph is titled "Willy on the Plate," and it tells the whole story. Warren Zevon wants it all -- and, on Excitable Boy, that's exactly what he gets.

From Coleman Andrews writing for Phonograph Record:

Excitable Boy is good. Genuine good. Powerful good. Funny and sad and horrifying (and one of the nicest things is that you can't always tell which is which), and interesting (it'll make your little ears perk up, and how many LPs can you say that about these days?), and you can even dance to it if you want to. 

 Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon's second album (well, really his third album, but if he doesn't want to mention Wanted Dead or Alive, I'm sure as hell not going to bring it up), is just about the damnedest piece of vinyl that's come along in years. 

 It has a crazy a combination of moods and qualities as anything since "Shoot the Piano Player" or maybe "Cyrano de Bergerac." It's a real mix-and-match affair. Some of this and some of that. Disoriented separates. A combination dinner -- Heartrender Helper on the plate with a Hari-Kari Pop-Tart. (Or a Smith and  Wesson on the plate with a bunch of glistening vegetables, as depicted photographically on the album's inside sleeve -- and don't think nobody noticed the cilantro on the plate, oh Mexican madness, where the parsley ought to be, Warren, because we did.) 

 What we're talking about here is being all over the emotional/literary/musical map: Parts of this album as as good as anything on The Pretender or Prisoner In Disguise, but parts of it are also as good as anything on The Spotlight Kid or Armchair Boogie

 When it comes to artistic sensibility, this fellow obviously has, as they say, a ready versatility of conviction. Studio time in the switching yard. 

 The first thing to remember about Excitable Boy is not to let the cast list fool you. It's produced by Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel, all right, and the musicians include Kenny Edwards, Leland Sklar, Russell Kunkel, and Wachtel himself, and the back-up singers include Browne, Edwards, Wachtel, John David Souther, Karla Bonoff, the ineffable Jennifer Warnes, and Linda Ronstadt -- but what comes out somehow manages to be something quite different from the usual California jamming, the ordinary California pap. 

 None of that tequila rock here. This stuff is pure mescal. The kind with a worm in the bottle. A worm and a little clown who pops up and scares you when you pull out the cork. 

 The best songs on the album -- the ones that are most impressive on early hearings and that hold up time after time -- are "Werewolves of London" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money." 

 The former (with John McVie and Mick Fleetwood in the band) has a big, generous, open-armed rhythm motif, and lyrics full of surrealistic mock-metaphor. "Better stay away from him" Zevon sings at one point, "He'll rip your lungs out, Jim/I'd like to meet his tailor," That's one of the more straightforward sequences.

 "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is sort of the polar opposite of, say, "Margaritaville" -- the plaint of the scrapping activis, not the passive raconteur -- the snake in the corner, not the lizard in the lounge. Again, the music gladly takes the listener in, thereby heightening the sense of serio-comic desperation the song exhudes. 

"Johnny Strikes Up the Band" is an is a upbeat, vaguely Springsteenian rocker. If the album has a single on it, this is it.

 The title song is funny in the way that those old EC humor comics of the '50s were funny. As Mad used to have it, "Humor in a jugular vein." Still, there's something engagingly, and appropriately, boyish about the song -- particularly apparent in the proto-bubble-gum background vocals by Warnes, Ronstadt and Wachtel, andin the ingenuous ease with which Zevon throws off lines like "He raped her and killed her, then he took her back home." 

 "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" is a heroic ballad with Irish overtones about a Norwegian mercenary who is assassinated by the CIA, but whose headless ghost still roams the world in search of, well, a little action. (The words here are apparently mostly by Zevon's friend, David Lindell, who apparently mostly knows of whereof he speaks.) 

 "Accidentally Like a Martyr" is a simple, appealing, lost-love ballad by Zevon, with an especially ambitious, and naggingly successful, quadruple rhyme based on "mad," "shadow," "random," and "abandoned.

" Nighttime in the Switching Yard" is the album's obligatory disco track. (If this had been recorded last year, it would have been done with a reggae beat.) It's hard to figure what it's doing here at all, with its almost non-existent lyrics andits rather uncomfortable-sounding rhythm track (which resembles that on Joan Baez' "Time Rag") -- though it is apparently a distillation of a longer, more serious, more intriguing story-song. 

 "Veracruz" is an extremely well done historico-romantic south-of-the-border ballad -- reminiscent of, but better than, Tom Jans' "Distant Cannon Fire." It is literary in the best sense, using slightly oblique references as commonplace ("I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns," etc.) and sketching hints of storylines with the lightest possible touch. 

 "Tenderness of the Block," co-written by Zevon and Jackson Browne, is a little bit obvious, and a little bit condescending -- guys in their early 30's shouldn't undertake to lecture guys in their 40's or 50's about how to raise their teenage daughters, because both the guys in their 40's and 50's and the teenage daughters know more about life than guys in their early 30's do -- but it has the usual Browne-knows sensitive appeal, and Zevon sings it with reassuring distance. 

 Zevon changes gears frequently, dramatically, even excitably. He covers all the bases, and with a casualness that seems almost naive -- as if he doesn't realize quite what he's doing, but figures that it's working so far... 

 Warren Zevon may be as friend on cocaine, burritos, and Perrier as the next laddie of the canyons, or he may not be. But what it sounds like he's fried on is looking out the window at the trees too long, and reading too many good books (hardcovers!), and getting too much good old-fashioned Rapid Eye Movement slumber -- the kind where you dream real dreams and know they're dreams. 

 Or maybe he's just a good singer/songwriter with a perverted imagination.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

No Chances, No Plans

On January 20 1978 The Adverts released the single "No Time To Be 21", which heaved its way into the UK Top 40 at #34. Released a month before the appearance of their classic debut album Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts, this would be their last charting single.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What Is Legal Is Just What's Real

On January 20, 1978, Magazine released their hard charging debut single, "Shot By Both Sides".  A UK#41 hit, the song was written with Pete Shelley when Howard DeVoto was still with The Buzzcocks. The song shares a guitar riff with The Buzzcocks' "Lipstick". The song appeared in year end Top 10 lists in NME, Sounds, Mirror and in John Peel's "Festive Fifity". DeVoto told John Robb, author of Punk Rock, that the song was inspired by a political argument DeVoto had with a girlfriend.

Pete showed me ‘Shot By Both Sides’ at Lower Broughton Road - the chords and guitar line that gave it the basic feel. ‘Lipstick’ was Pete’s version of it later on in the Buzzcocks - whether he had all lyrics at the time, I don’t know. I’m sure he had the vocal melody. I was given the guitar and played the chords whilst he played the lead line. I really liked it and he said, ‘You can have that.’ It was definitely mine to take away and do something with - all I kept was the guitar phrase. I wrote the rest of the song round that. I was slightly miffed when the Buzzcocks did ‘Lipstick’. [laughs] Pete’s version is much more melodic. He tucked that guitar riff more behind the song than I did.

I felt a lot about that song when we recorded it. I know when I recorded the vocals it felt like one of the biggest moments of my life. I almost wanted to keep the bit of carpet I was stood on! Lyrically, political commitment was something I struggled with for many years - I always had the tendency to try and argue the other case, and I guess I was trying to sing about what that felt like. Feeling that, you don’t have a lot of certainty about anything. It’s not always an easy place to be.