Monday, November 30, 2015

40 Year Itch : Any Way the Wind Blows

   In 1975, I was a skinny private-schooled alien from Connecticut who suddenly fell from the sky and landed in in a dust cloud called Sparks, Nevada. My step-father had moved there with my mom and younger sister because he was convinced he could make a living counting cards in the casinos. Every night, he'd go through a six pack of Budweiser at the kitchen table while my mom dealt him black jack cards.

   He was smarter than the average hustler, but the casinos had seen him coming from a mile away and he got banned from John Ascuaga's Nugget, The Eldorado, Circus Circus,  Harrah's and every gambling establishment in the state. One night he headed off to a casino and didn't come back. Mom had a practiced hand at shuffling and dealing cards by then so she got a job at a Circus Circus. She was barely earning a living, but she agreed to take me and my other sister in. 

  That's how I wound up going to Sparks Middle School, the only kid walking into class wearing business casual instead of K-Mart t-shirts with illustrations of sports cars and surfboards. It sucked. My mom sent us off to school with 35 cents, the cost of a subsidized school lunch. From a an upper-middle class lifestyle, I was now living like a poor boy from a poor family. 

But for some reason a kid with the presidential name of John Adams, befriended me and brought me to his house one day. He wanted to play me a 45 he had just bought with lawn mowing money: Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".

It was the greatest song he'd ever heard. And I had to say I agreed. 

  The first instrument you hear on Freddie Mercury's "Opera Song", written on various scraps of paper, and recorded with 180 overdubs and a vocal section that took 70 hours to record, is the same piano Paul McCartney used to record "Hey Jude". I've heard the many interpretations people have come up with over the years. Most thinking it's Mercury's "coming out" song.

  But that afternoon, I heard a melodramatic plea from a doomed murderer to his mother. And, 40 years later, I'm sticking with that.

  With "Bohemian Rhapsody" playing in my head I walked home and discovered an old Ford pick up parked in front of the house. My step-father had returned. He was now driving a cab and needed a place to crash.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

40 Year Itch : Hissing of Summer Lawns

   The immediate critical evaluation of 1975's Hissing of Summer Lawns was not kind. Rolling Stone declared the album the worst of the year, and suggested that Joni Mitchell had both run out of melodic ideas and gave too much room for the "cliche-ridden" support of Tom Scott's L.A. Express.

   So I was surprised when my step brother suggested he dub a CD copy of the album for me. And even more surprised how, over time, I've come to enjoy the album as much anything in the Joni repertoire barring Blue.

The lyrics are full of an artist's arched eyebrow-ed observations of suburban life:

  He bought her a diamond for her throat 
He put her in a ranch house on a hill 
She could see the valley barbecues 
From her window sill 
See the blue pools in the squinting sun 
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

  Some of the jazz sounds dated, but there are also slices of world music on the album --like the Burundi drums on "The Jungle Line", presaging Echo and the Bunnymen's live Burundi drummer collaboration "Zimbo" by seven years.

  Hissing of Summer Lawns may be one of the best reminders that an album that divides critics is worth our attention. Time has proved Joni was right all along. And if we need further proof, no less an expert than Prince has called Hissing his favorite all time album.

SOUNDS ALBUMS 1975 critics poll
1. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns - Joni Mitchell
 2. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
 3. Natty Dread - Bob Marley And The Wailers
 4. The Who By Numbers - The Who
 5. Still Crazy After All These Years - Paul Simon
 6. Caught Up - Millie Jackson
 7. Back To The Night - Joan Armatrading
 8. Nils Lofgren - Nils Lofgren
 9. Visions Of The Emerald Beyond - Mahavishnu Orchestra
 10. Hot! Menu! - Sadistic Mika Band

Saturday, November 28, 2015

40 Year Itch : Give Me Missing Persons

Steve Prefontaine, 1975
Little Feat : Long Distance Love

  Jimmy Page called Little Feat his favorite American group. At their height, they were Elvis Costello's favorite too. He saw them open for The Doobie Brothers in 1975. Jackson Browne called Lowell George "the Orson Welles of Rock".

  But just as all those years on the road were about to pay off and make Little Feat a household name, Lowell George began downplaying his role in the band. Maybe it was the other projects he had going on ( he produced other artists and helped Emmylou Harris and Rickie Lee Jones get Warners contracts), or his head butting with keyboardist Bill Payne. Maybe it was his health. But The Last Record Album sees Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere taking on more of the songwriting responsibility. They were good for one sure-fire classic, "All That You Dream", but for me the highlight is Lowell's soulfully sung "Long Distance Love" and just about anything he played on slide guitar. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Rainn Wilson : The Greatest Albums of the Early 80's

   I'm reading Rainn Wilson's entertaining and thoughtful memoir because we both share Western Washington roots and I just want to let people know there's a chapter dedicated to his favorite albums of the early 80's. Until a friend passed him some cassettes with The Clash, The Police, Squeeze and Elvis Costello albums on them, he was a dedicated Classic Rock fan. He would soon don rectangular sunglasses, a skinny piano tie, and begin taking acting lessons.

    The chapter featuring his fave albums has fun descriptions I won't repeat here because I seriously fear the wrath of Dwight Schrute. And trademarks and stuff.

The Clash London Calling 
Talking Heads The Name of This Band is Talking Heads 
XTC English Settlement 
Squeeze East Side Story 
Elvis Costello Imperial Bedroom 
R.E.M. Reckoning 
Laurie Anderson Big Science 
Husker Du Zen Arcade 
The Replacements Let It Be 
X Wild Gift 
Violent Femmes 
The Smiths

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

40 Year Itch : Lady Madonna Let It Be

Barclay James Harvest : Titles

A poor man's Moody Blues? Where Pink Floyd meets Bread? While the jury may be out on Barclay James Harvest, most rock fans are at least amused by "Titles" the first time they hear it. It's a song made up in large part of Beatles song titles so you get lines like “Across the universe one after 909/I’ve got a feeling for you blue and I feel fine”. The second time they hear this 1975 single, they may not be as amused. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

40 Year Itch : Chauffeur Driven

10cc : Art for Art's Sake

    This UK #5 hit was the poppy preview to 10cc's weirdest and, I think, most wonderful album How Dare You! By this period, 10cc was a band made up of two fairly distinct songwriting teams: Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, both veterans of the 60's pop machines, wrote the easily accessible stuff ( like "Art for Art's Sake") while Lol Creme and Kevin Godley wrote the truly bizarre art school stuff. How Dare You! would be their last album together and it was the second album ( after Revolver)  I ever bought with my own money. I'll save a lengthier wrap up for the anniversary of the album's release.

   A fan of pop, I've always liked the straight ahead "Art For Art's Sake", even when it takes that Zappa like detour in the middle 8. Many rock historians say the song's title is inspired by the MGM motto "Ars Gratia Artis" but the songwriters say it's a line Gouldman's dad, Hymie,  used to always say to the band: "Art for art's sake, money for God's sake, okay"

Thursday, November 19, 2015

40 Year Itch : Ha Ha Woman

Electric Light Orchestra : Evil Woman

  Further proof that sometimes the best songs are the ones written in half an hour. A Top 10 hit in both the US and the UK, "Evil Woman" entered the US charts at #87 in mid November, 1975.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

40 Year Itch : A Broken Promise or a Broken Heart

Photo I shot this Summer of my hometown

Richard and Linda Thompson : Dimming of the Day

    I don't have this album, but having heard the two tunes posted below, I feel like I must be missing out on one of 1975's most beautiful releases. By 1974 Richard and Linda Thompson had adopted the Sufi faith and moved into a commune. Their sheikh had originally forbid them from recording music. On the other hand, they owed Island Records another album. It was like a toss up between Allah and Richard Branson. A compromise was reached and the couple recorded subtle songs of faith. 

   "Dimming of the Day" has often been interpreted as a love song but I don't think it is. The lyrics could just as well be sung to God:

 This old house is falling down around my ears 
I'm drowning in a river of my tears 
When all my will is gone you hold me sway 
I need you at the dimming of the day 
You pulled me like the moon 
Pulls on the tide 
You know just where I keep my better side 
What days have come to keep us far apart 
A broken promise or a broken heart

  What stands out is Linda's beautiful voice and Richard's eloquent guitar. Stunning! "Night Comes In" is simply epic. Perhaps Pour Down Like Silver is the real gem in the Thompson's discography.

Monday, November 16, 2015

40 Year Itch : Born to Waste

The Kinks : The Hard Way

   Only The Kinks ( and maybe The Who) could make three chords sounds so great! "The Hard Way" comes from the unfairly dismissed Schoolboys In Disgrace concept album, released in November of 1975. Although the chords may return listeners to the days of "You Really Got Me" and "I Need You", the lyrics are lines from a sexually repressed headmaster lecturing schoolboy Flash "You're much too dumb to educate/One day life's going to turn around and slap you in the face/Then you're gonna find out the hard way."
    There's a punk edge to the tune which made its way onto the Kinks set lists from the mid-70's to the mid 80's. I first heard it on the live 1980 album One For The Road. The song was later covered by The Knack. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

40 Year Itch : Say What?

Ohio Players : Love Rollercoaster

As if "Love Rollercoaster" , which debuted in the Hot 100 in November of 1975, wasn't funky enough to eventually propel the single to #1, a persistent suburban and inner urban legend had it that the high pitched screams barely audible in the mix were the sounds of the young cover model ( Playboy playmate Ester Cordet) getting stabbed to death. The story is that she was scalded by the hot honey poured all over her body and that she interrupted the recording session, threatening to sue the band. The scream actually belongs to keyboardist Billy Beck. The Ohio Players decided not to comment on the rumors. All that talk couldn't have hurt. Not only did the single hit #1 in January of 1976. The album peaked at #2. Oh, and Ester Cordet is still alive.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

40 Year Itch : Old True Love

Neil Young : Don't Cry No Tears

   During the hard partying sessions that produced Zuma, Neil Young brought Crazy Horse a reworked tune from his high school days with the Canadian surf-rock band The Squires. A decade earlier, the song was called "I Wonder". The song just got pulled from YouTube so here's a contemporary cut from The Squires. 

    By 1975 Neil had truly lived, loved and lost. Having recently broken up with actress Carrie Snodgress, Young's album opener "Don't Cry No Tears", to these ears, sounds like a message to himself to toughen up :

I wonder who's holding her tight? 
But there's nothing I can say
To make him go away
Old true love ain't too hard to see
Don't cry no tears around me.

   Zuma is one of my favorite Neil Young albums. I don't need a focused album when the spirit in the room rocks out like this! One of 1975's best.

Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot, newcomer Frank "Poncho" Sampedro and Neil Young on Malibu Beach in 1975

Friday, November 13, 2015

40 Year Itch : Redemption for Fakewood Mac

Stretch : Why Did You Do It

   Here's a great song with an absolutely bizarre back story. Stretch is made up of UK musicians who impersonated Fleetwood Mac on a US tour assembled by Mac manager Clifford Davis. Davis said he owned the band's name and with Bob Welch look-a-like "Elmer Gantry" fronting the band, it probably took audiences a few minutes to realize this wasn't the band they'd paid to see. Eventually they booed and jeered and the musicians returned to the UK upset and angry enough to put out this single addressed to Davis:

I've been thinking 'bout what you have done to me 
The damage is much deeper than you'll ever see 
Hit me like a hammer to my head 
I wonder were you pushed or were you led? 

   The funky single peaked at #16 in the UK and, to these ears, inspired the 1976 Climax Blues Band smash "Couldn't Get It Right". 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

40 Year Itch : Safe Like Sharon Tate

John Cale : Leaving It Up To You

   If John Cale sounds completely deranged on "Leaving It Up To You", he had good reason. Helen of Troy is his third Island Records album in thirteen months.  "Leaving It Up To You", with its Sharon Tate reference,  was left off the original pressing but nobody was concerned with a famous painter's feelings. Cale's cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" is just one of the album's highlights.

Monday, November 2, 2015

40 Year Itch : Long As it's Swinging

The O'Jays : I Love Music

Debuting at #70, The O'Jays' buoyant "I Love Music" was the top new single of the first week of November, 1975. Penned by Gamble and Huff, with musicianship  by Philadelphia's TSOP and apparently Bill Cosby on bongos. "I Love Music" would top both the soul singles chart and the disco chart before peaking at #5 on the pop charts in early 1976. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

40 Year Itch : Ashes of Laughter

Nathalie Vogel, 1975
The Band : Opehlia

On November 1, 1975, The Band released their sixth studio album Northern Lights, Southern Cross. By this time I was a 7th Grader at Sparks Middle School outside Reno, Nevada. A local radio station donated all their extra 45s to the Washoe County Library where we could check them out for as long as we wanted. I checked out The Band's "Ophelia" and probably still have it somewhere.     Northern Lights, Southern Cross was seen as a comeback album, especially for Robbie Robertson whose songwriting and guitar playing is excellent throughout. I love his guitar solos on "Ophelia". Pure taste. 

   I'm still surprised Allen Toussaint didn't do the arrangements on "Ophelia". Apparently Garth Hudson did, but he must have earned a lot from working alongside Toussaint on "Life is a Carnival" and the live tour that wound up on Rock of Ages.

"Acadian Driftwood", a song about the Canadians who would flee to Louisiana and become Cajuns, is another gem.
  Levon Helm called Northern Lights, Southern Cross the best album since The Band's debut and many critics agreed. It would rank #9 in the Village Voice critics poll, one spot ahead of The Who By Numbers. It would have been a great album to go out on but The Band had to record the contract fulfilling Islands before splitting up following their famous Last Waltz.