Shake It Up

Posted in The album project on May 14th, 2016 by bill
My first non-Star Wars LP purchases, if memory serves, were both Gibb-related. One was Andy Gibb's Shadow Dancing, which I got only for the title track; I couldn't name another song from it without consulting The Google, which I don't care to do at the moment. The other was the two-LP soundtrack from the movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which starred the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. It is a painful but true fact that the latter served as my introduction to quite a few Beatles songs. I never listened to it much, though; I like to think that at some level, even at that tender young age, I recognized that it was an abomination. The Aerosmith version of "Come Together" was pretty good, I think, and the fact that "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was covered by Steve Martin is an interesting little quirk of history; but on the whole the existence of that movie and the music from it is something that everyone, including those directly involved, has long tried to forget. Somewhere in here the 70s finally petered out and 1980 rolled around. I was 12. When Scary Monsters came out, it got a lot of play on my local rock radio station, which also prominently featured the Cars. At that point I knew who David Bowie was, but I didn't know who he was; I had not yet learned to distinguish his voice (the original) from that of Cars vocalist Ric Ocasek (the acolyte). I may actually have thought that “Ashes to Ashes” was a Cars song, may David forgive me. So in some parallel universe, Scary Monsters was the first album that I bought and really listened to as a whole piece of work. But in this one, it was Shake It Up. It’s a pretty good record. In fact I'm listening to it right now and it holds up. Despite what the cover art might indicate, this is not a party album; aside from the title track, it’s mostly pretty dark. In particular, the B side has three songs that reflect the influence of Low and that I think David would have been proud to have written. “A Dream Away,” “This Could Be Love,” and “Maybe Baby,” are all cold, droning, majestic sound sculptures with odd, impressionistic lyrics. When I was acting in plays in high school, before performances I would go to a dark room and listen to the B side of Shake It Up. I felt like it opened up my mind a little bit, took me to a creative place. I don’t think I was a very good actor, but that’s not the Cars’ fault. Ocasek has a very distinctive voice, but he split vocal duties in the Cars with bassist Benjamin Orr. Orr was sort of the pretty boy of the band, providing a visual foil to the bizarre-looking Ocasek, who I described in another blog post as “a looming insect-man with oddly familiar eyes.” (I think I nailed that one.) Unfortunately Orr passed away a few years ago, so on the reunion album Move Like This Ric has to sing them all. (Move Like This, by the way, kind of shocked me. I didn’t expect much from a Cars album in 2012, but it was really quite excellent.) The Cars also had a flashy but tasteful lead guitarist in Elliott Easton, but their secret weapon was keyboardist Greg Hawkes. His distinctive electronics gave the Cars their signature sound and on “This Could Be Love” he has a synthesizer solo that is the nerd equivalent of shredding. After Shake It Up, I went back and got the Cars’ three previous albums (The Cars, Candy-O, and Panorama). I love them all, and Candy-O is arguably the Cars’ best album; but Shake It Up is the one that means the most to me, and I still enjoy it thoroughly, from the click-track that opens “Since You’re Gone” to the slow-rolling fade of “Maybe Baby.” But more than anything, the Cars were a gateway drug, a first tentative step into a new and strange and exciting world.

Star Wars (and Other Galactic Funk)

Posted in Dancing about architecture, The album project on March 12th, 2016 by bill
In May of 1977 I was about nine and a half years old – dead center in the middle of the perfect demographic for Star Wars, which premiered on the 25th. I wish I could say I vividly remember the first time I saw it. In fact, all of the viewings – and there were many – blur together in my mind. For awhile there my highest priority in life was watching Star Wars over and over again. I had no interest in seeing any other movie, at least until Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out six months later. No obsession that I've had as an adult rivals my complete fixation on Star Wars over the last years of the 1970s. And though at this remove it seems a little over the top, I don’t guess I can really blame myself. Star Wars had everything a boy that age could want: sci-fi whiz-bang, the hero’s journey, an overlay of mysticism to give things a certain flavor, and a cute brown-haired princess. In addition to reading the novelization, the comic book, and everything else I could get my hands on, at one point I went so far as to write my own Star Wars sequels in spiral-bound notebooks now unfortunately (fortunately?) lost. I also had to collect as much of the merchandise as possible, and since this was by far the most-merchandised movie in history up to that point, there was a lot to collect: action figures, spaceships, trading cards, light sabers, sheets and curtains, and on and on and on.... So of course my first LPs were Star Wars-related. There was the two-record original soundtrack and the Story of Star Wars narrative album. But it didn’t stop there. Because disco was still big, an Italian producer named Domenico Monardo, working under the name Meco, created a disco version of the soundtrack, which he released along with some other sci-fi-themed disco on an album called Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk. And of course I had to have that too. In retrospect, it is terrible. I am a little embarrassed to include it here, but it is so perfectly representative of the era that I don't think I have a choice. Brace yourself.

The Album Project: Prologue

Posted in The album project on February 25th, 2016 by bill
So in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I am reviving a long-dormant project: writing about my favorite albums by way of saying a few things about, you know, life, the universe, and everything. But first, a bit of (pre)history. Having been born in 1967, I have no real memories of the 1960s. My earliest musical memory is of CCR’s “Looking Out My Back Door,” recorded in 1970, heard by me somewhere in the next few years. Coincidentally, this song would turn up much later in one of my favorite movies: I also remember B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which apparently I used to sing in a manner that some considered cute. I did not know at the time that this song came from the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it still strikes me as odd. But facts are facts: On the whole, I was not in any way in control of my musical environment for the first half of the decade. My exposure to music came through my parents or the radio. My mom favored pretty things like John Denver and Simon and Garfunkel; my dad liked gospel and a bit of soul, and had a pretty decent collection of rock records spanning 50s 45s (Little Richard, Bill Haley) and 60s LPs (Dylan, The Beatles). As for radio, the era of which we are speaking – the mid-70s – was a fairly bleak one. A lot of good music was being made but the airwaves and charts were dominated by soft rock and first-wave disco. I remember hearing things like “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band (which as a naïve youth I thought was a song about fireworks), and “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy (a stupefyingly sad song about a girl and a horse). (I also remember hearing David Bowie’s “Fame” on my transistor radio alone in bed sometime late(ish) at night. I found it disturbing more than anything – that spooky rising and falling voice, you know. This began a longstanding pattern of being initially frightened by things I would later come to love.) In the mid-70s I took enough interest in music to start acquiring 45s, all of which I still have. There is an alarming amount of disco. My collection includes the obligatory records by the Bee Gees and K.C. and the Sunshine Band, “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, and “Shame, Shame, Shame” by Shirley and Company.* I recently looked this last one up on the YouTube, and it is not bad, actually: I’m not sure what I love about this video more: Shirley herself, an amply proportioned African-American lady wearing some sort of dressy blue tracksuit, or the portly white dude (“Company,” I presume) who appears at first to be strictly ornamental, then opens his mouth and reveals a voice that is fairly shocking in its soulfulness. Try not to think too hard about the fact that these two might have been doing it. Speaking of shame, that is mostly what I feel about all this. In my defense, I was young didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that disco was, for lack of a better word, evil. I know that nowadays disco seems cute and harmless, but things were very different back in the 70s. Initially it seemed like just another fad, but as the years went on it consumed more and more of the musical and cultural landscape, absorbing people and bands, dissolving them in a solution of glitter and cocaine, and spitting out discofied replicas. If you wanted to make records in the late 70s, you had to account for the disco audience — either by kowtowing to it (as many did, very few retaining their dignity in the process, maybe the Stones and the Kinks, and arguably Bowie), or by intentionally spitting in its face. And thus punk rock was born. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When punk was happening in 1976 and 77, I was nine and ten years old. In April of 1977, I was simply a child with no particular cultural inclinations other than a burgeoning fondness for Saturday Night Live, during which I often fell asleep. Then, in May 1977, a movie came along that changed everything.

* In a twist, this may, or may not, have been one of the sources for "Fame"; sources disagree, with some saying that John Lennon loved “Shame, Shame, Shame” and sung it in the studio while working with Bowie, and others saying that this is bunk.