Saturday, September 30, 2017

In The Naughty, Naked Nude




We end a look back at one of the greatest months in rock history with yet another monumental work of art. On September 30, 1977 Ian Dury released his debut album New Boots And Panties!!, a collection of profane and profound tunes with some seriously funky backing by a band led by keyboard player Chaz Jankel. You could get tired of Dury's bawdy lyrics and Cockney rhyming slang and still find yourself looking forward to the next track because of the fresh sound of the record.



With sales of 300,000 this was the best selling album of Dury's career and the first big selling album for Stiff Records. 


The critics immediately praised the album, including Roy Carr of NME who wrote:

.. it's impossible to bag Ian Dury, except to say that he has taken the essence of the Cockney music hall and utilised rock as a contemporary means of expression. On occasions, Ray Davies has dallied with a similar approach, but Dury has none of the self-conscious pretentions that Davies exposed in his flawed Flash Harry caricature. Ian Dury feels no need to adopt a transatlantic voice to comply with his subject matter, preferring to deliver ribald and bittersweet monologues in the tone of voice he was born with ... Whether or not you buy New Boots and Panties at least make hearing the album a priority. It's your loss if you pass.



Robert Christgau gave the album an A - grade writing :

Dury is a pub rock survivor, as tough and homely as a dandelion, as English as music halls, billingsgate, and Gene Vincent. The tenacious wit and accuracy of his lyrics betray how uncommon he believes his blockheaded protagonists really are, and his music rocks out in the traditional blues-based grooves without kissing the past's ass. Tender, furious, sexy, eccentric, surprising.




New Boots and Panties!! was ranked at number 2 in the NME writers' list of the albums of the year for 1977 and at number 7 by the writers of Sounds. All recent releases contain "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll", though the original pressings did not.




Friday, September 29, 2017

Some are Silk and Some are Leather




On September 30, 1977 Billy Joel released his breakthrough album, The Stranger. A homesick lad in boarding school with a penny to spare, I was one of the three million people who joined the Columbia House Record and Tape club. It was the Springs of 1978 and I made the album containing one of my dad's favorite songs, one of my free selections. So this album and I have a lot of history together.

There's a good deal of variety among the tracks: rockers, ballads, and the closest thing Joel has come to making his own "Bohemian Rhapsody",  "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant."






From Ira Mayer writing for Rolling Stone :

This is the first Billy Joel album in some time that has significantly expanded his repertoire. While Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles had occasional moments, the bulk of Joel's most memorable material was on Cold Spring Harbor -- despite its severe technical flaws -- and Piano Man, which gave him his only major success. This time, while such songs as "Movin' Out" and "Just the Way You Are" are forced and overly simplistic, the imagery and melodies of The Stranger more often than not work. 

 Together with producer Phil Ramone, Joel has achieved a fluid sound occasionally sparked by a light soul touch. It is a markedly different effect than his pound-it-out-to-the-back-rows concert flash, although the title song, "Only The Good Die Young" and "Get It Right the First Time" will adapt to that approach as readily as, say, such a Joel signature piece as "Captain Jack." 

"She's Always A Woman," which sounds misleadingly tender, is the key to the difference between The Stranger and Joel's other LPs. We don't expect subtlety or understatement from him and, indeed, his lyrics can be as smartassed as ever. But Ramone's emphasis on sound definitely lessens the impact of the sarcasm, which in the long run may help boost Joel's career immeasurably. In the meantime, old fans will have to listen more carefully than usual.


From Robert Christgau who gave the album a grade of B-:

Having concealed his egotism in metaphor as a young songpoet, Joel achieved success when he uncloseted the spoiled brat behind those bulging eyes. But here the brat appears only once, in the nominally metaphorical guise of "the stranger." The rest of Billy has more or less grown up. He's now as likeable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business




From Claire Stuchber writing for 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die :

The Stranger was the third album from the 28-year-old Billy Joel, who had just begun making a living from his music, having played in piano bars throughout high school in New York to supplement the income of his single mother. Whilst he had already achieved headline status with 1974's Streetlife Serenade, The Stranger was Joel's first album to hit number one on the charts and remained Columbia Records' biggest selling album until 1985. It also prompted his biggest tour yet, playing 54 shows to the United States and Europe in the fall of 1977. 

 The nine-track-long album produced four singles; "Just The Way You Are" that provided his first two Grammy Awards in 1978, "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" with its teen rebellion message and car sounds included, the gentler "She's Always A Woman," and the infectious "Only The Good Die Young." Whilst the lyrics are poetic and clever, the album has a youthful appeal and Joel's gift for storytelling is particularly poignant on the astonishing "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant."

 Musically diverse, Joel's dynamic songwriting is further dramatized in the title track's quiet piano introduction before rocking out in the middle section incorporating a barrage of electric guitars, concluding with the haunting sound of whistling. An amazing 24 people played various parts on the recording. The album is reasonably warm in tone, but slightly eerie in its execution, further exemplified by the stark black-and-white image of a bare-footed, suit-and-tie wearing Joel, sitting on a bed looking at a mask with boxing gloves hanging in the background.



Finally from Hamish Champ's The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s:

The Stranger delivered on the promise of earlier albums such as Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles to become Billy Joel's breakthrough album. Pairing him for the first time with producer Phil Ramone, the nine-track set offered at times a slicker, more commercial version of what had come before.

 The album's double Grammy-winning ballad "Just The Way You Are" gave Billy Joel his first million-selling, Top 10 single, even though he had to be convinced by Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow that it was even worthy of inclusion on The Stranger. The song has since been covered by more than 200 artists. "Movin' Out" and "She's Always a Woman" from the album also became Top 40 hits in their own right, as did "Only The Good Die Young," despite a ban by Catholic radio stations which deemed it anti-Catholic. "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," a characteristic Joel observation on New York life, was the result of combining three different songs. 

 Penned entirely by its artist, The Stranger went on to become Columbia's all-time second biggest seller behind Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, although was kept from ever reaching Number One by the success of the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. As of 2004, The Stranger was the #12 best-selling album of the 70s.



Thursday, September 28, 2017

That's Really Polaroid!






On September 28, 1977 the final episode of Marc Bolan's series, Marc, aired on Granda TV. David Bowie taped Marc, The T.Rex frontman's TV series. Chris Welch of New Music Express was at the taping September 7th. This article came out on the September 17th issue, the day after Bolan's sudden death.


"Oh that's really Polaroid! You've gotta keep the ending!"

David Bowie rocked with laughter and Marc Bolan wiped away the tears that had threatened to turn his finest hour into a nightmare. The great day when David and Marc were reunited for a TV show will pass into the history books as one of the funniest episodes never filmed. Perhaps one should say never video-taped for the last show in the series Marc put together by Granada TV turned out to be a drama of such pathos and uproar that it made Coronation Street seem dull, if that's at all possible.

There were tears, outbursts of swearing, bitter rows and the breaking of light bulbs when everything seemed to go wrong when David joined his old chum for rehearsals and recording at Granada's Manchester studios last Wednesday. The clash between old wave and new wave was further heightened by the power of trade unions and the congenital inability of rock people to get it together in anything like a normal, orderly fashion. It was ten breaks and split-second timing versus artistic temperament and inexperience.

 I thought it funny but I'm sure producer Muriel Young didn't, nor did the manager of Generation X who turned up three hours late without any equipment, nor Barrie Masters and his famous Rods who never got to appear on the show after waiting around for two days.

In the event, by the miracle of editing and technical wizardry, the show will go out complete with the Rods, and David making a rare British television appearance on all ITV regions on Wednesday, September 28 at 4:20 pm. But it would have been more exciting if they had videoed the dramas taking place in and around the studio. Marc was in his element as a television star and part-time artistic director.

 As one studio boss was forced to ejaculate when Marc was bellowing instructions: "I don't know why I'm the floor manager" Said Marc: "When you've got your name up in lights, you've gotta take responsibilities".

The show was born out of Marc's dream to be a media man, dating back to when he once did some interviews for London television. Here he could invite his favourite guest artists, do a bit of chat and generally camp it up in time-honoured Bolan fashion. As a cross between Judy Garland and Louis B. Mayer he was brilliant.

But one of the lads in the heavy rock combos booked for the show stopped me dead in the gents by demanding: "Is he queer?"

"Nah, course not. Straight as a die, our old Marc" I protested.

A few minutes later Marc sailed past us in the corridor calling out coyly: "What shall I wear? I know, the green dress with black suspenders."

In fact he turned up wearing a leopard-skin creation that even a leopard might have baulked at.

The whole day was worthy of being turned into one of those probing documentaries where people bare their souls and the holes in their socks before cameras so discreet that nobody seems aware of their presence. It was just like the World About Us. The cast of characters included Marc's PR Keith Altham, recently recovered from a nervous collapse that he threatened would be brought on again if Barbara De Witt said another word: Barbara De Witt, David's American PR lady who wanted to know what Keith Altham was doing bringing so many press in her artist's wake; Bob Hart of the Sun, anxious to see Keith Altham, buying him a drink ("You're the only publicist I can't afford to have lunch with"), Jeff Dexter, Sixties hippie deejay, and now partner with Tony Howard in Marc's management, the said Mr Howard resplendent in genuine 1968 teddy boy jacket, and Eric Hall the man from EMI.

The whole party descended by train upon Manchester and spent the day being hustled out of the studio by David's bodyguard, a charmingly polite gentleman who kept appearing in front of us saying: "You'll have to leave – now".

I half-expected to meet him at the front gate when I got home that night, holding up both hands to bar any further progress. The main targets of his life's work (sending people in the opposite direction from whence they came) were Marc Bolan's manager, his press officer, and various friends hoping to see David after his absence from the scene for many years.

"Ain't it strange what some people will do" was the rather apt song being dance to by Heart Throb, the show's troupe of girl dancers who had chosen to wear plastic see-through bowler-hats for their routine.

 On came the Rods – Barrie Masters in jeans and shirt – miming to their backing track on "Do Anything That You Wanna Do."

"It's a bit Mick Mouse, this show," he said as he came off the rostrum, indicating that he and the boys had been hanging around in the studio all day waiting to do their bit.

Generation X arrived red of hair and pink of cheeks, somewhat breathless from a disastrous day spent on the M1. A broken-down van, no equipment available – the bad news experienced by many a group. But it didn't stop them adopting the aggressive attitude expected of a new wave combo. As offers were being made to lend them equipment they discussed jokingly, whether or not to smash up Marc's guitar, "What will it cost us – 400 quid?" Eventually guitars were lent, including Rod Paul Gray's bass (he told me that if the X-men smashed up his bass guitar, he would smash them up).

Miraculously, amplifiers and instruments were procured and Generation X stormed into their big number "Your Generation" and Billy Idol their pretty lead singer looking aggressively angelic. In fact they played so well I found myself clapping their performance, lone applause that must have sounded almost insulting in the silence of the studio as the echoes died rapidly away.

 But Generation X discomfort was not over. They had to play a number at least five more times, constantly being stopped by the technicians, something all musicians detest.

Marc had to keep repeating the same introduction "This is Generation X. They have a new singer Billy Idol who is supposed to be as pretty as me. I ain't so sure. Check it out." Eventually he stumbled over the words by the sixth attempt. "Me brain weren't connected to me leg" he explained with a grin.

Meanwhile more rows were breaking out between Generation X's manager and producer Muriel. As Stewart bellowed abuse across the studio floor, Muriel, a very ladylike professional, simply walked away.

"It's appalling" said Stewart "Now they are only going to show half the song or pull it out. We'll do Top of The Pops instead. Let's go!"

He made a move for the exits, but the band stayed on and later Granada confirmed that X would be in the show. While the September 28 show was still being recorded the day's edition was going out featuring Marc singing "Let's Dance" the old Chris Montez hit which sounded pretty good given the Bolan treatment as well as his new single "Celebrate Summer."

Now it was time for the studio to be cleared while Marc and David rehearsed their big number. Momentarily eluding the bodyguard I managed to hide behind a piece of scenery as Bolan and Bowie joined forces with Herbie Flowers, Dino Dines and Tony Newman. It sounded like a bit of a shambles to the uninitiated. In fact the song was only just put together in time and remained untitled, a bit of casual rock jamming. But it was fun to see them together and they sounded pretty funky with Marc blazing enthusiastically on lead guitar. And to complete the atmosphere of revivalism, Marc launched himself into "Deborah" a new version, which had to be cut when the backing track seemed to go out of sequence.

"I don't mind lip-synching but when it's the WRONG verse… " complained Marc tartly.

Suddenly there came a bellowed announcement "Will anybody not on the show please leave the studio!"

Once more we were herded outside. "Oh why did we come?" said the Rods, also hustled away. But a kindly floor manager keeping remarkably cool, swiftly let the entourage back in again to witness the final historic chapter.

David readied himself for his solo number "Heroes" from the album. With his jeans carefully rolled up to reveal lace-up boots he stood cooly before the microphone, careless of the chatter of the studio. Ignoring some impudent feedback he began singing, slowly and lowly at first with a deep voice that always comes as a surprise from one of such slim build. There were pregnant pauses between bars and then suddenly he bellowed forth "I will be king and you will be queen… we can be heroes just for one day, we can be heroes!" it was a remarkable performance even in a cold TV studio.

Now it was Marc's big moment when he was to join David for the taping of their hastily sketched-out number. While David had his face made up, Marc called anxiously to the floor manager: " Do you want me front or back?" "Just tough your toes, Marc, " called out one of the Rods waiting to do their number on the opposite rostrum. The mighty duo began their number and, said Billy Idol approvingly from the sidelines: "It's got that disco beat all right"

"What an old pooftah" grumbled a roadie uncharitably.

Suddenly there was competition on stage as the number ground to a halt.

"We're getting electric shocks up here" shrieked Marc pointing towards the microphones. Nobody moved. Time was ticking dangerously away.

At 7 pm the union would pull the plugs out and head for home and beauty sleep. Attempts were being made by the production team to stop the band.

"We're rehearsing actually" said Marc somewhat put out. David stood quietly to one side smiling and unperturbed but suddenly he frowned.

"That wasn't the actual take, was it?" he asked as the truth began to dawn

"What do you mean, not really? Either it was or it wasn't:"

"1-2-3-4!" and Tony Newman uncertainly set the drums rolling once more.

At this point Marc fell off the stage with excitement.

"A wooden box for Marc please" said David "Look we've got to do that again, it wasn't finished".

But the studio man was calling "Let's have the Rods please."

 The Rods obediently scrambled onto their rostrum to start recording and David and Marc instantly started jamming.

At 7 pm precisely all the lights went out and the technicians disappeared.

"You've got a black-out mate!" called a voice from the floor. A furious row broke out between the Rods and the producer when it was realised there was no time for the group to do their number.

"This is really unfair" said Barrie Masters. "We've been waiting here all day to go on, and we came up from London yesterday to do the show. That's two days wasted."

The Rods stormed off to their dressing room where a certain amount of swearing went on. Bolan was allegedly locked in his dressing room in tears and Bowie languidly viewed the results of the day's work on the video tape machine. All was smiles when it was realised they had something of a classic in the can, even it if was a shambles.

If there was any acrimony it evaporated later. On the train going back to London, David sat next to Barrie and the rest of the Rods shared beer, wine and chicken legs.

"I want to do a tour of Britain in the New Year" he said "Starting in Glasgow and working my way down. I really want to play again. Today was great fun."

David also said that he had recorded a Christmas show with Bing Crosby of all people, and had also been recording album tracks with Marc. But it was good to see him back again, and perhaps next time we see him he'll be hero not just for a day but a whole tour.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Chain Gang Chain Mail





On September 30, 1977 X Ray Spex released its debut single "Oh Bondage Up Yours" b/w "I Am A Cliche". The band was led by an irrepressible half Somali songwriter and vocalist who called herself Poly Styrene. She opens the song with  "Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard" before belting out  "But I think OH BONDAGE! UP YOURS! 1-2-3-4" and keeps on belting at the top her voice while Lora Logic's in-and-out-of-tune saxophone keeps her company.



Despite the line "Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall / I wanna be a slave to you all!" the "bondage" she sings of has nothing to do with sadomasochism, which was part of the punk fashion at the time.

I came from a religious background, and it's in the scriptures, the whole idea of being liberated is to come free from the bondage of the material world. At that stage I hadn't gone into  the spiritual aspect of bondage. I hadn't gone that far. I certainly had an idea of bondage-- those images from history of the suffragettes chaining themselves to walls, or slaves being chained up, were what I was thinking of.



While the song  and its B side "I Am A Cliche" were--and still are-- cheered by critics, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours" failed to make the U.K. charts.






Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Nasty Little Feet




Irony. Something most people seemed to get in the 1970's when Randy Newman could write a song like "Short People", making fun of racists, sexists and what Newman called "sizists" and hit #2 in the U.S. Today, you visit the YouTube page of the video below and  you get comments like "THIS IS RACIST TOWARDS MIDGESTS, PLEASE, STOP IT NOW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and "It was the most offensive and stupid song of the seventies."

Granted, if you were beaten up in middle school by bullies who felt empowered by this song, you have every right to hate "Short People", the first single from the album Little Criminals which was released on September 23, 1977.

Randy should write a song called "Be Kind to Midgests" just to make up for all the turmoil he brought into the lives of bad spelling short people.


Here is the Playboy review of the album  :

Little Criminals is Randy Newman's first album in... hell, we don't even want to count the years. In his absence, a whole generation of semi-demented, would-be perverts calling themselves punk rockers has tried to cop his act. We aren't calling Newman the first punk rocker -- for one thing, he's intelligent. For another, his piano belongs in a Salvation Army band or a smoky San Francisco bawdyhouse. But we are calling Newman perverted, wry and one of our favorite crazies. The long-awaited album is everything we hoped for. There's a vicious song about short people. There's a song about a city that begins with the letter B (first "Birmingham," now "Baltimore." Next stop, Berkeley?). There are hypnotic love songs with simple phrases running over chords like worry beads. There's a patriotic number called "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America." The album's getting plenty of airplay; it might even make Newman a star.






And from Robert Christgau who gave the "disappointing" album a B+ grade:

Always the master craftsman, Newman doesn't waste a second here, doesn't permit an inept lyrical insight or musical fillip. But over the past three years he doesn't seem to have written one song that ranks with his best. Among all these explorations of America's dirty white underbelly, only the out-and-out jokes -- the gross intolerance of "Short People" and the Eagles music on "Rider in the Rain" -- distinguish themselves. Very disappointing.






Monday, September 25, 2017

You're My Guitar Hero




On September 23, 1977 The Clash released the single "Complete Control", an angry response to their record label CBS releasing "Remote Control" as a single without the band's permission:

They said release 'Remote Control'
But we didn't want it on the label
They said, "Fly to Amsterdam"
The people laughed but the press went mad
 Ooh ooh ooh someone's really smart
Ooh ooh ooh complete control, that's a laugh



Most bands had some line like "complete artistic control" in their record contract, but as The Clash learned, there was no way to enforce such a thing. Maybe, in retrospect,  signing with CBS was not the most "punk" thing they could have done.

They said we'd be artistically free 
When we signed that bit of paper T
hey meant let's make a lotsa mon-ee 
An' worry about it later

One of the 77's greatest musical moments happens into the song when Joe Strummer cheers on Mick Jones's solo with the line "You're my guitar hero!". The first Clash song to feature new drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon, it was originally recorded with reggae great Lee "Scratch " Perry at the console.

The single peaked at #28 in the UK and was included on the US version of the debut album.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

What Ever Happened to Leon Trotsky




On September 23, 1977 The Stranglers released No More Heroes, the band's second and nastiest album. To help promote the record, The Stranglers appeared on Top Pops in Amsterdam to mime the title track.  After a couple of bad takes, the band switched instruments. Drummer Jet Black playing guitar. J J Burnell attacking the drums. Hugh Cornwell doing a wretched job on keyboards and Dave Greenfield pretending to sing. One of 1977's punkiest moments and absolutely entertaining.




Clearly The Stranglers were out to offend again, with songs like "I Feel Like a Wog" and "Bring on the Nubiles" (Lemme lemme fuck ya fuck ya /Lemme lemme fuck ya fuck ya /Lemme lemme lick your lucky smiles).

Jon Savage savaged the album, writing "The Stranglers offer nothing positive...no life force, nothing vital. Not so it's frightening, just dull and irritating"

NME's Tony Parsons adds "Just like gonorrhea, The Stranglers' music is way to catchy for anyone to be certain they will not fall under its lethal spell."



But it was Mick Jagger who had the most read review:

"Don't you think The Stranglers are the worst thing you've ever fuckin' heard?  I do . They're hideous, rubbishy. ..so bloody stupid. Fuckin' nauseatin' they are!"


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Just For One Day




On September 23, 1977 David Bowie released the greatest single of the year, "Heroes" b/w "V-2 Schneider". Though it's often thought of as an ass kicking song about two lovers taking on the world, upon closer inspection it's a sad tune about lovers hanging in there "just for one day".

The backing track Bowie sang on MARC sounded nothing like the final version.


  Though not a big hit upon its release, "Heroes" is the high point of Bowie's Berlin trilogy. The song may have even got its name from the Neu song "Hero". You can hear the Velvet Underground influence as well. Songwriting credit goes to Bowie and Brian Eno. Producer Tony Visconti played a big role and even sings backing vocals. Carlos Alomar plays guitar. George Murray is on bass and Dennis Davis is on drums. But the most famous contribution is from Robert Fripp who layed down three guitar solos the first three times he heard the song. In the clip below Visconti says the solos were pretty but meaningless until he layered all three of them together. These master class stories always fascinate me.


All that was missing were the lyrics. Bowie asked Visconti and others to leave him alone so he could come up with something. Among the inspirations Bowie quoted is the Otto Mueller painting Lovers Between Garden Walls.  


Another bit of inspiration came by accident when Bowie looked out the window and caught the married Visconti in an embrace with backing vocalist Antonia Maas. She would later help Bowie translate Heroes into "Helden", the German version.


Upon its release "Heroes" was not met with widespread praise. The NME's Charlie Gillett famously stated
  "Well he had a pretty good run for our money, for a guy who was no singer. But I think his time has been and gone, and this just sounds weary. Then again, maybe the ponderous heavy riff will be absorbed on the radio, and the monotonous feel may just be hypnotic enough to drag people into buying it. I hope not".






Friday, September 22, 2017

Drink Scotch Whiskey All Night Long




On September 23, 1977 Steely Dan released Aja, the very apex of studio crafted rock perfection; the height of jazz/rock fusion (even if that jazz veers more towards something you'd hear in a lounge rather than at the Village Vanguard.) With the help of nearly 40 musicians, Donald Fagen and the recently passed Walter Becker now come across as older, wiser beatniks without losing their sarcasm, sense of humor or warmth.

Among the album's fans was Ian Dury who said "Well, Aja's got a sound that lifts your heart up.. and it's the most consistent up-full, heart-warming.. even though, it is a classic LA kinda sound. You wouldn't think it was recorded anywhere else in the world. It's got California through its blood, even though they are boys from New York... It's a record that sends my spirits up, and really when I listen to music, really that's what I want."



From Robert Christgau's B+ review:

Carola suggests that by now they realize they'll never get out of El Lay, so they've elected to sing in their chains like the sea. After all, to a certain kind of reclusive aesthete, well-crafted West Coast studio jazz is as beautiful as anything else, right? Only I'm no recluse. I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too fucking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest. Now if only they'd rhymed "I cried when I wrote this song" with "Sue me if I play it wrong," instead of "Sue me if I play too long." Preferring long to wrong could turn into their fatal flaw



Here's Michael Duffy's review in Rolling Stone :

Aja is the third Steely Dan album since songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarded a fixed-band format in late 1974. Since then they have declined to venture beyond the insular comfort of L.A. studios, recording their compositions with a loose network of session musicians. As a result, the conceptual framework of their music has shifted from the pretext of rock and roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms. Their lyrics... remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever.

 Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan's music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the Sixties. Steely Dan's six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade. By returning to swing and early be-bop for inspiration -- before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop-song structure -- Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts.


"Peg" and "Josie" illustrate this perfectly: tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counter rhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos. Like most of the rest of Aja, these songs are filled out with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush background vocals that flirt with schmaltzy L.A. jazz riffs. When topped by Fagen's singing, they sound like production numbers from an absurdist musical comedy.

 The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker's and Fagen's songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they've recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. "Aja" may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.




 Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it "downer surrealism"); it's occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of deja vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out. Well, at least it beats rereading the dildo sequence in Naked Lunch.


The last album, The Royal Scam, was the closest thing to a "concept" album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and "Josie," which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic "Black Cow" is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. "Deacon Blues" (a thematic continuation of "Fire in the Hole" and "Any World") exemplifies this album's mood: resignation to the L.A. musician's lifestyle, in which one must "crawl like a viper through these suburban streets" yet "make it my home sweet home." The title and first lines of "Home at Last" (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer's Odyssey -- I don't get it) put it right up front: "I know this superhighway/This bright familiar sun/I guess that I'm the lucky one."

 More than any of Steely Dan's previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan's music -- and may, with this album, be showing its limitations -- is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.





Thursday, September 21, 2017

Your Eyes in the Morning Sun




On September 24, 1977 The Bee Gees first single from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, "How Deep Is Your Love", debuted on the U.S. pop charts at #83. This would be the single that would finally knock off Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life"  from the top of the U.S.charts. 40 years later, I still never change the dial when this tune gets played on the radio.



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hitchin Up Her Short Skirt




 Boomtown Rats: the band's name says it all. Parasites amid prosperity, rodents on the make in the sewers of power, a great band name from an era of great band names. As much as Clash or Damned or Sex Pistols - or Stranglers, Buzzcocks and Lurkers - the name forever tags the band as part of the class of '77, when the barbarians finally arrived at the gates of an increasingly stratified and stultifying Rock City.
-Charles Shaar Murray, from the liner notes of the remastered CD.

In September of 1977 The Boomtown Rats released their self-titled debut album. Despite Bob Geldof's sneery vocals, the Rats owed more to the Rolling Stones than to anything the punks were up to. Something Geldof addresses in this interview:


Geldof says the purpose of new wave bands like the Boomtown Rats is to re-energize the music scene following what he describes as a blank generation between 1969 and 1975. Forget Pink Floyd, Geldof says it wasn't  until the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Dr Feelgood and Graham Parker came along that rock got interesting again.  Saint Bob figured The Boomtown Rats were somewhere in between the punkers and the pub rockers.


"Mary in the 4th Form" was the U.K. 15 single in the long tradition of tributes to young girls in uniforms like The Yardbirds' "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", The Mindbender' "Schoolgirl", and The Police "Don't Stand So Close to Me" . 


"Joey's On the Street Again" is less punk than an Irish take on Springsteen . True Rat fans adore the deep cut  "I Can Make It If You Can". The album peaked at #18 in the U.K. album charts,

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Breaking All The Rules




In September of 1977 Linda Ronstadt released the only album that could knock Fleetwood Mac's Rumours from the top of the Billboard album charts. With the help of singles "Blue Bayou", "It's So Easy"( its second appearance in the blog this year)  and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (one of two Warren Zevon songs ), Simple Dreams sold three and a half million copies. The only female artist to sell more copies of a single album is Carole King and Tapestry. 


Most critics had good things to say about Simple Dreams, which made the Pazz and Jop critics poll at #27. Robert Christgau gave the album a B+ grade, writing

In which Andrew Gold goes off and Pursues His Solo Career, enabling Ronstadt to hire herself a rock and roll band. She's still too predictable--imagine how terse and eloquent "Blue Bayou" would seem if instead of turning up the volume midway through she just hit one high note at the end--but she's also a pop eclectic for our time, as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Dolly Parton, interpreting Roy Orbison as easily as Buddy Holly. Even her portrayal of a junkie seeking succor from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" isn't totally ridiculous. And I admit it--she looks great in a Dodger jacket.



Rolling Stone's Peter Herbst :

 The thing about Linda Ronstadt is that she keeps getting better, and we keep expecting more and more of her. She's always possessed that big, magnanimous voice, but it wasn't Heart like a Wheel that her interpretive and arranging skills (the latter, and perhaps both, due to the felicitous pairing with producer Peter Asher) fully emerged. 

With Hasten Down the Wind, Ronstadt shed some long-lived inhibitions. Given Karla Bonoff's red-hot, baldly emotional material ("Someone to Lay Down beside Me," "Lose Again," "If He's Ever Near"), she responded with her most personal -- even visceral -- singing. It doesn't quite make sense to call her highly charged performances relaxed, but certainly she was a lot less stiff than before. Ronstadt had, quite simply, become rock's supreme torch singer.

 What Ronstadt's blossoming skills suggest is a kind of latter-day Billie Holiday, a woman whose singing constitutes an almost otherworldly triumph over the worst kind of chronic pain. Throughout Simple Dreams (in which Ronstadt and Asher wisely have scaled down the production), the singer evokes a bittersweet world of disappointments, fantasies and cheerfully brazen assertions. What she lacks is the sense of humor and ironic self-effacement that made Holiday such an extraordinarily subtle and intelligent performer.



That flaw, which was most obvious in Ronstadt's sober reading of Randy Newman's outlandish "Sail Away," is evident here on Warren Zevon's darkly ironic "Carmelita." When Ronstadt, going to meet a dealer, sings, "He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/At the Pioneer Chicken stand" without even a smirk, it sounds as if she doesn't know that a joke, however black, is being made.

 And all the way through Simple Dreams' first side (which, except for the rousing opener, "It's So Easy," is made up of ballads), Ronstadt fails to step back and take a look at herself. She's just a little too blue for comfort. But that's a piddling complaint because it's a fine side. Ronstadt sings J.D. Souther's modestly self-pitying "Simple Man/Simple Dream" with a thorough sympathy for and understanding of Souther's message -- that the lover of simple truths is easily ridiculed. She gets Eric Kaz' complex "Sorrow Lives Here" (Kaz, it seems, is getting ready to challenge Leonard Cohen as the world's most morose songwriter) just right. The lines "Everything seems to spin all around/But I can't see/Whether it happens/With or without me" unite emotional and philosophical confusion dramatically, and Ronstadt sings them as if she wrote them. "I Never Will Marry," the great traditional tune to which Dolly Parton's backwoods harmonies add a gorgeous dignity, should become her signature: it frames her independence and loneliness with enormous restraint and power.

 Simple Dreams' second side is better paced and begins with the song, "Blue Bayou," that caused me to compare Ronstadt to Billie Holiday. The transition she makes from the introduction to the chorus ("I'm going back someday, come what may to Blue Bayou") is simply electrifying. What starts out as an ordinary love song becomes a passionate cry for escape that completely transcends the song. Like Holiday, Ronstadt has developed an ability to invest her material with far more than it brings to her -- the wonderful jump to falsetto with which she ends "Blue Bayou" is a great deal more than merely wistful.



Simple Dreams could have used more rockers like the second side's "Tumbling Dice" and Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Both are strongly male, and Ronstadt's substitution of a female presence (something that occurs throughout the LP and serves as a sort of sub-theme) is a joyous "anything you can do" statement. She moves through Zevon's role reversals convincingly, substituting a nicely assonant verse for a more graphic one that she might not have gotten away with. 

Ronstadt's well-placed grittiness on "Tumbling Dice" (whose brilliant, highly salty lyrics are finally intelligible) matches the song's sense of risk and its keenly expressed bawdiness. "Tumbling Dice" might seem a strange choice of material for Ronstadt, but what she's telling us, I think, is that she can live on the edge with the best of them. And she's damned convincing.



Finally from Playboy:

Reviewing a Linda Ronstadt album is not unlike writing ad copy for the Holiday Inn: The only surprise is that there are no surprises. Simple Dreams follows the formula concocted by producer Peter Asher almost five years ago -- a dash of country, a dash of J.D. Souther, a dash of old-time rock 'n' roll. The band sounds the same, even without Andrew Gold, and still is as good as you get. The production is the same (though this time out, Ronstadt's voice seems to be mixed above the instruments. In the past, there was a more luxuriant blend. But maybe our stereo's on the fritz). The only thing left for a reviewer to comment on is the selection of songs. The duet with Dolly Parton on "I Never Will Marry" will break your heart. (Say it isn't so, Linda!) The inclusion of Roy Orbison and Joe Melson's "Blue Bayou" and the Mexican-flavored Warren Zevon tune "Carmelita" suggests that Ronstadt is trying to follow in Jimmy Buffett's country-and-ocean wake. Her update of The Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice" leaves a lot to be desired: to be exact, Mick Jagger. Ronstadt can't carry the hard edge that song requires -- nor, for that matter, the irony on which "Carmelita" and another Zevon song, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," depend. Still, we'd pay to hear Ronstadt sing "Jingle Bells."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sitting Here All Alone





In September of 1977 The Babys, fronted by John "Missing You" Waite, released their  single "Isn't It Time". Commericial? Yes. And melodramatic too. But the 13 year old version of myself bought the single when he had a couple bucks to spend.

 Can you name another hit song in which the  backing vocalists sing the chorus?  Lisa Freeman-Roberts, Myrna Matthews and Pat Henderson are superb and Waite, in full glam pop attire, hits a home run.

Surprisingly, "Isn't It Time" barely cracked the UK Top 50. It went to #13 in the US and #1 in Australia.




Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Gift of the Wind





On September 16, 1977 Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane released Rough Mix, an album the two collaborated on with the help of Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts. I picked up a cassette copy of this album at a Reno pawn shop for a couple of dollars in 1981 while I wS on a bit of a run on Who albums. It is clearly a high point for both artists, even with its relaxed atmosphere.


The album may sound relaxed but not all of the sessions were. Although both were followers of the Meher Baba, Lane had a mouth on him and he and Townshend got into at least one fight that got physical. Road crew member Russ Schlagbaum recalls running into a studio to fund Lane curled up in a ball and Pete Townshend kicking him with big Doc Martin boots. Rough Mix indeed.



It was during the February 1977 sessions that Ian Stewart and his wife convinced Ronnie to see a doctor. Ronnie would wake up mornings with his hand too numb to hold a pen. He blamed all of his physical ailments on drinking and was shocked by the MS diagnosis even though his mother had it. He would live for 21 years with the disease.


Rough Mix was released to critical praise and low sales.

Robert Christgau was among those who loved the album, giving it an A- grade and writing:

Meher Baba inspired psalmody so plain and sharply observed, maybe he was all reet after all. Three of Townshend's contributions--"Keep Me Turning," "Misunderstood," and an unlikely song of adoration called "My Baby Gives It Away"--are his keenest in years, and while Lane's evocations of the passing scene are more poignant on his Island import, One for the Road, "Annie" is a suitably modest folk classic. Together, the two disciples prove that charity needn't be sentimental, detachment cold, nor peace boring. Selah.



 Rolling Stone's  Dave Marsh was also a fan of the album, which received a 5 star review in one of the Rolling Stone Album Guides.  He wrote:

It's almost impossible to avoid describing Rough Mix as devotional music, but it's equally difficult to reconcile that description with some of the album's components. Townshend's stinging guitar on "My Baby Gives It Away," the chugging. Faces-like title instrumental and the wailing saxophone coda on Lane's Fifties-style "Catmelody" are hardly typical of spiritual music. But then matters meditative have never before been fully integrated into the ugly, angry sounds we call rock and roll. Their juxtaposition here, in fact, might be one meaning of Rough Mix; it certainly ain't smooth. 




 The Who's Townshend and former Face Lane come by their rock and roll inclinations honestly, and obviously, but spiritual inclination is their long suit here. Both men are followers of Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master who died in 1969, and this has given the album a sort of humility — not to say modesty — which is its special virtue. 

 Not surprisingly, almost everything Townshend does here owes a debt to the Who. "My Baby Gives It Away" is one of his improbable sexual misadventures, like "I'm a Boy" or "Pictures of Lily." "Misunderstood" is more understated musically — just voice, guitar, harmonica, cowbell and a drum machine — but belongs with his best boasts, in the tradition of "My Generation." "Just one want to be misunderstood/Want to be feared in my neighborhood." Ten years ago, this probably would have been called a Dylan parody, but the resolution of the lyric is actually a lot closer to the self-doubt of The Who by Numbers

 "Street in the City" is helped by Townshend's marvelous acoustic guitar, but it is dominated by an utterly unlikely horn and string arrangement. It is schmaltzy enough to pass for an outtake from Days of Future Passed, and as the album's longest track, it is simply its most vexing. 




 "Keep Me Turning" is a spiritual parable that is undoubtedly much clearer to its author than to any other listener. The organ, guitar and drum interplay makes the song exciting, but what draws me back time and again is the yearning and vulnerable quality of Townshend's vocal. This is spiritual rock and  roll in the very best sense: it doesn't always make sense except in the heart, which won't ignore it. Its wit and charm strike beyond the confusion of its verses to the heart of the chorus, where the devotional imagery is most complete, and the guitar part at the bridge, which is among the most supple and liquid Townshend has ever done.

 Lane's songs reflect his recent work with Slim Chance; his last album, which has not been released in the U.S., had a hint ("Harvest Home") of what is fully realized here. Lane has moved past straight rock and  roll — although he makes his share of it on "Catmelody" and "Rough Mix" — into a merger of rock with Irish ballads and Scottish and English folk music. There is a kind of wisdom and assurance to these songs, and when he sings, "God bless us all," or, of "all of my family and all of my friends," he does so with sincere conviction. More wonderfully, there is no distance, no sense of trying to recapture something lost in a modern age. In addition, as John Prine once said of Jackson Browne. I don't know where Lane gets his melodies. but I'd sure like to go there. 

 Lane makes his music with guitars, fiddles, banjos, drums, harmonica, electric bass. Although that sounds like a formula for folk rock, there is nothing of the haunted quality or joyousness of the greatest folk rock. Instead, there is a meditative air to the music, captured eloquently in the opening verse of his best song here, "Annie," which might merely be "Harvest Home" with lyrics:

 Old rocks stand tall, Annie 

Seen the world grow small, Annie 

 But when they fall, Annie 

 Where will they be? 




 What Lane does is hardly unprecedented. Dylan's soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Eric Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard, even Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" share a part of its wise and ancient spirit. (Clapton brings a blues guitar to "April Fool" that is its prettiest touch.) Townshend has made his share of songs with a similar feeling — silly as it was, The Who by Numbers' "Blue, Red and Grey" had it — as has Lane himself: listen to the Faces' "Debris." What's important is that the dedication and beauty of the music is as crucial as the homage it pays to its masters and traditions. 




 So the final numbers on Rough Mix, among the few true collaborations on the record, have a special flavor. Don Williams' "'Til the Rivers All Run Dry" is a country love song, but in this context — and considering Baba's love for Jim Reeves' "There's a Heartache Following Me," which Townshend did on his first solo album — it is clearly a tribute to the master.

 "Heart to Hang Onto," written by Townshend but on which Lane sings the verses and Townshend the choruses, wears an even thinner veil. There's a brutal war going on in the song's midsection between Townshend's Tommy-like guitar and John Entwistle's brass arrangement. This is the perfect musical expression of the cosmic quest — this is the real "The Seeker." The lesson here is stated through a series of metaphorical characters, the most tragic of whom is Danny: "Danny, he wants to save for a new guitar/He's gonna learn to play but he won't get far." Implicitly, Danny's not going anywhere because he hasn't made the connection; he has no "heart to hang onto," which is to say he lacks the spirit to make the music move.




 The glory of this album and of the work of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane throughout their careers is that art and the deepest spiritual aspiration are completely intertwined. Often, of course, that makes for a rough mix, and a rougher life. But it's worth the turbulence, for it touches closer to the heart of the rock & roll experience than almost anything I know.