Sunday, January 31, 2010

SONG #75: Shelter From The Storm

Original Version on Blood On The Tracks, 1975

And Dylan makes the blog, finally.

In the same way that playing with younger musicians made me realize some things about the legacy of The Eagles (see the "One Of These Nights" post) it's fascinating to me to see how my musician friends in their 20s approach Bob Dylan.  Most of them have very little time for him, or they offer backhanded insults like, "He's really a poet, not a songwriter.  He's an author, not a musician."  (That's my personal favorite-- what better way to say "He sucks, but I'm not allowed to say that"?  Calling someone a poet is like saying a blind date is a "bundle of fun.")  They're genuinely bewildered by all the fuss.  To them, he's an old, weird guy who can't really sing or play well and who uses such simple song structures that they don't seem like songs to them.  Where's the bridge?  Where's the moment for the band to shine?

I'm a firm believer, however, that every fan of music would love Bob Dylan if he or she gave him one hour of directed listening.  Dylan is not going to capture your imagination playing in the background.  You'll never be at a party and say "Hey, what's that slammin' track?" and have it be Bob Dylan.  If you close out the distractions, get comfortable, and sit and really listen to some of Dylan's better work, it'll put its hooks in you for the same reason that all great art does: at his best, Dylan is a mirror back to us all, a perfect reflection of humanity trying to make sense of itself.  Moreover, because Dylan himself is completely inscrutable for almost all of us, the art itself it what you have, and so the songs aren't about Bob-- they're about the songs.  That small but important piece of distance is why Dylan is not just some old singer-songwriter, and why his work endures in a way that Jackson Browne's or Aimee Mann's isn't: those two are turning out to be much more insular voices of their particular moments.

I'm supported in my theory by my experience covering Blood On The Tracks in its entirety last year with the SFSC All-Stars.  We've done a benefit show with our friend Phil Lesh for the last several years at Slim's in San Francisco, and this year we had the energy and time to tackle the whole album in sequence, with a different lead singer for every track.  I moved over to keys to make room for Phil on bass (who does he think he is, anyway?) and because I was therefore basically just leading the band through the changes and plinking along, I had a chance to watch over a dozen musicians dig into Dylan's work, many for the first time.  Phil, Matt Cunitz and I were really the only Dylan fanatics in the band, but by the end of the week of rehearsals and the shows, everyone had had their Dylan moment.  Our version of "Shelter," modeled on this version, was a highlight for me, because this version of this wonderful song marks that moment for me when I went from Dylan fan to Dylan fanatic, the kind of person who has 500 live show bootlegs, all of his outtakes, and wonders whether I need every note played on the 1966 tour with The Band (Answer: yes). 

Sometimes Dylan's constant messing with the arrangements of his songs is a disaster.  I've seen him a bunch of times, and he's been terrible more than once.  One time, I had no idea what song he was singing until about two minutes into each song for the whole set.  I may be a Dylan nut, but I am not an apologist-- he's made some terrible music and very purposefully: records where you could tell he thought he'd made something great, and it's appallingly not so.  Have you heard the new Christmas album yet?  It's almost William Shatneresque in its levels of shocking awfulness.

And yet... and yet... that kind of constant search for another way sometimes strikes solid gold, and I believe that to be the case here and on the album it comes from, Hard Rain, the most underrated Dylan album and perhaps the most underrated live album ever made.

There's good reason why this record has been overlooked.  It's the soundtrack of a live TV broadcast from Colorado State University in 1976.  It rained miserably all day, so the audience and band is soaked.  Dylan had wowed audiences in 1975 on his Rolling Thunder Tour, and folks were hoping for more of the same in '76, but by then Dylan's marriage had crumbled, the band had started to go sour, and the set became darker and a lot less good-timey.  Imagine turning on the TV in 1976 and planning to see Dylan give you his greatest hits, and he plays a dozen obscure or completely reworked numbers without any stage patter or attempt to connect with the audience at the stadium or at home.  The band seems confused about what's coming next, and Dylan's got a "why bother shaving?" beard and a do-rag and is lost in his own reverie.  The stage is a mess-- there's about 50 people hanging around in the back.  Most of the footage is Dylan close-up, though, so his complete distance from the audience is in even starker relief.  Plus, the sound is coming out of your one speaker 1976 solid state TV.  People thought it stunk, assumed the album was a desperate attempt to recoup the massive losses the tour piled up, and walked away from the whole thing.  Critics ripped it, calling it cliched and old and tired.  Dylan responded by converting to conservative Christianity and making a series of "religious" albums to cement his utter alienation from his original fans.  He has, for most people, never rehabilitated himself.  Hence a new generation's confusion-- why does everyone care about a guy who hasn't made a undeniably great record in over 35 years?

And why on earth am I recommending this to you, and with such vehemence?  

I did not come to this album in the way contemporary listeners did-- I first heard it a dozen years later when there was no Youtube and the footage of the show was impossible to find.  I bought the record because of the cover.  Go back and look at it-- it's one of my favorite shots of Dylan.  He's wearing the heavy makeup that he slapped on for some of Rolling Thunder shows, and that look says so much to me.  That's the face of a lost man-- lost in the 70s, lost in a divorce, lost on the road, lost in a spiritual crisis, lost in terms of what kind of artist he will be now that the 60s are dead and buried, you name it.  It's one of the most honest record covers I've ever seen-- you know that the music contained in here is a little ragged and tired and angry and, well, full of Hard Rain.

"Shelter" opens side two of the original album, and ever since I started talking about it with people about twenty years ago, I've discovered a crew of people who are also as obsessed about this take as I am.  I remember bonding with my friend Jason Tandon (who really IS an honest-to-god, paid-to-be-a-poet Poet, thank you very much) over this song in graduate school.  Hopefully, once you hear this, you'll join the club.

The original version of the song is hushed and muted.  It sounds like a man ruminating on a lost relationship with regret but not anger.  It's a beautiful song.  This version is anything but.  Dylan "plays" slide guitar all over the track, but he's not the most accurate player in the world, so there are dozens of chromatic and dissonant squonks throughout.  It's also an aggressive, uptempo rocker now, powered by the brilliant drumming of Howard Wyeth, who uses the bell of his ride cymbal to create the syncopation through the tune, the bass line of Rob Stoner that never stops moving, and the little lead guitar figure by Mick Ronson (the lead guitarist of David Bowie's Spiders From Mars band) that takes over in between the vocals.  T-Bone Burnett is somewhere in the mix as well.  Maybe the band was falling apart and pissed at one another-- it sure sounds like it-- but that doesn't mean they still aren't great players with something to prove.

And speaking of those vocals-- I know that Dylan is not a traditional singer.  I know that.  But that doesn't mean he can't sing.  The delivery here is fantastic-- he has total control over his voice even though he's basically screaming the lead vocal, and he's now turned the song into a vituperative, furious condemnation of someone that has let him down.  It's a complete reinvention of the song, more dramatic than I would have thought possible.  It's amazing to me that both versions of "Shelter" exist, and that they're both absolutely essential listening for completely different reasons.  That's a trick that can almost never be pulled off by the same artist.

So check it out, but with this caveat-- just listen to it first.  Don't watch the footage until the second time through.  The video really does emphasize all the things that turned people off and will lead you away from the sound of the track, and that's what I fell in love with.  As I'm typing this last paragraph, I have the track on without the visual, and just like the first 500 times I heard it, I'm completely enthralled.  Enjoy.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

SONG #74: Back To Front


Ha!  This one should get some conversation going.

The Kinks are a favorite answer for music geeks when it comes to talking about the most underrated bands.  They certainly were a pretty unlucky bunch.  The Kinks were the first band to introduce the guitar sound that has dominated rock music ever since; the first five seconds of "You Really Got Me" changed the sound of the electric guitar forever (even though it might have been played by Jimmy Page, but that's another story).  The initial half-dozen Kinks singles stand with any group's first six songs for originality, tunefulness, composition and range.  It seemed that The Kinks would sit with The Beatles, the Stones and The Who among the great quartet of British rock bands.

Then the band toured America, and ticked off the wrong promoter with some connections to some scary, powerful people, and the Kinks found themselves banned from touring the US for three years.  In those three years (1967-1969) pretty much everything changed on the rock landscape.  Shows went from lasting 25 minutes to 2+ hours.  Bands started touring with their own PA systems and reveling in the extra volume.  A band's live show became an important barometer for a band's significance.  Moreover, America fell in love with rock music and made heroes of every band barnstorming through the States, and bands responded by writing about American obsessions: girls, cars, girls in cars, cars anthropomorphized into girls, etc.

While all this was happening, The Kinks stayed home and made pastoral acoustic music about the British caste system that are among the most beautiful ever written, but completely out of step with the time.  Rather than writing about the road or his experiences in the US like almost all of his peers, Ray Davies wrote about English society in precise, intimate detail.  I've been listening carefully to The Kinks since 1982, and I still feel like their best records from the late 60s are impenetrable for me because I'm not from a London middle-class suburb.  Ray Davies is not unlike James Joyce, writing about his culture without much concern for whether those outside of it could follow his train of thought or not.

When The Kinks could finally tour again, they were not up to the challenge.  They still had the matching suits, and they couldn't jam a song out to save their lives.  The tapes of the 1969-1970 tours when they were supporting their strongest music are pretty sad-- guitarist Dave Davies is out of ideas for his solos about five seconds into them, and the rhythm section of John Dalton (a replacement for original bassist Pete Quaife) and Mick Avory would never be described as rock solid, or even rock, for that matter.  They were a band built for a Beatles-style live show, and they sounded lost.  It seemed like the Kinks had missed the boat.

They spent the 70s trying to catch up, and failing pretty miserably.  The Kinks' mid-70s records are among the worst ever made by a major band.  Davies fell in love with the rock opera concept, and for three albums in a row tried to tell a story through the songs, and the band went on theatrical tours where the albums were performed and acted out.  I have no problem with rock operas, but these are just dreadful, with laughably stupid plots and staggering amounts of filler.  The cover of 1975's Schoolboys In Disgrace says it all, really:

If the band were trying to be funny, that would be one thing, but this album was an attempt at a major statement about the English educational system.  It's as seriously-intended as "Another Brick In The Wall."  The band seemed destined to limp to a close, remembered for a few important early 60s singles.

And then... a miracle.  Davies seemingly overnight reinvented the band as a hard rock, arena act, and completely successfully.  In 1980, the band released a double live album, One For The Road, that cast all the early hits and newer tunes in a blooze, hard rock template.  They sounded more like Deep Purple or Foghat than the original Kinks, and for the first time, they broke in America.  

So when I started buying albums in earnest, the Kinks were suddenly a viable veteran rock act, making albums that were better and more current than the Beatles (done) the Stones (Undercover, anyone?), or The Who (It's Hard).  I saw the band in 1985 at the Naval Academy, and while the show was a total ripoff at 75 minutes long, the band was undeniably fired up and probably playing better than it ever had.  (The highlight was watching Ray come out for the encore in a Navy Basketball sweatshirt and having the Midshipmen go nuts-- Navy had made the NCAA tournament for the first time and had lost at the buzzer to Len Bias' last Maryland team that afternoon.  Ray was a good sport, but he looked totally lost in the sweatshirt; he must have been an XS back then.)

So here's the question-- do you buy this third round of The Kinks as an authentic version of the band?  Moreover, can you forgive them for the deliberate dumbness of the material?

When you compare the Kinks' records from 1979 to 1985 (Low Budget, One For The Road, Give The People What They Want, State Of Confusion, Word Of Mouth) to the ones from 1966-1969 (Face To Face, Something Else By The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround) they barely sound like the same band.  The early incantation is a folk-art band with the occasional rock song that utilizes acoustic guitars, harpsichords, odd timings and interests in little tiny stories about middle class people and their private demons.  The later records are rawk albums with big, singalong (sometimes shouted) choruses and cookie-cutter arrangements.  Guess which version had hit singles?

Most of the Kinks fanatics I know (who love to use the "K spelling all ironically-- "Kalling all Kinks fans"... "Kool Kinks tunes to Klear Your Head".... it's why their parties are sparsely attended) dismiss this moment in band history as Ray making himself some money by cynically pandering.  "Give The People What They Want," indeed.  Me?  While the critic in me sees their point and likes to hold people to the authenticity fire most of the time, I love this stuff.  It might be because I was twelve when I first heard it, or that they were the only classic British band left that you could still go see live (The Who, of course "retired" in 1982, and the Stones disappeared for most of the 80s) or that, straightforward and consciously calculated as the material is, Ray Davies is a fantastic songwriter.  The guy breathes three minute melodies.  I went to see his solo show in 1996 when he unknowingly invented VH-1 Storytellers, and he played something like 35 songs over 3+ hours, and THEY WERE ALL GREAT.  It was so humbling-- they guy has written two lifetimes worth of snappy numbers.

So here's a song to help you decide whether you want to go exploring into this era, or whether "Come Dancing" and "Do It Again" are enough for you.  "Back To Front" is a deep album track, in the middle of side two.  It's a perfect example of the early 80s Kinks sound, however.  Mick Avory's drums sound like they were recorded in an airplane hanger, and have echo flange on top of them to make them sound extra enormous.  The band soon locks into a classic riff that you could teach anyone to play in an afternoon.  Ray's voice follows, using his "shout-sing" voice from this period.  He sounds more like a football coach urging on the band than a traditional singer.  The chorus, though, is classic Ray.  For almost all of his career, he's written about feeling just left of center and out of place in society ("I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "David Watts," etc).  "Back To Front" is a lobotomized version of these same concerns; in fact, considering the cockney accent he employs in the choruses and the general aggressive nature of the song, Ray sounds like an angry conservative here.  He wasn't, but maybe that's why the band finally clicked in America-- can't you imagine groovy young Reaganites dancing appropriately to this track?  Considering the nostalgia for times gone by in "Come Dancing," you could argue that what happened to Ray is that he finally figured out a way to assuage the conservative American audience that he wasn't a poncey Brit but a swaggering old-school rock singer.

Me?  I think I love it (and still do) because it reminds me of falling in love with rock music, and learning how to play it.  Objectively, I know this song (and dozens like it) is a throwaway, probably written by Ray in ten minutes, but I still end up slapping the steering wheel when it comes on.  If you like your hard rock occasionally stoopid, then, believe it or not, final act Kinks music is right up your alley.  I used to get mixes from a friend called "Songs I'm Ashamed To Admit I Love."  I wouldn't say I'm ashamed, but I'm aware my cred is on the line here.  Those hipsters who have been waiting for me to slip up and slip up hard, the floor is yours.

Finally, I won't spoil the ending of the song for you, but let's just say... wow.  Yes, I will have some extra cheese with that burger.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SONG #73: Kid Charlemagne


Here's another band I was late in appreciating.  One summer during college, I worked in the stockroom of a hardware store.  It was a really easy job (except during the monthly manure delivery, and then for three hours it was one of the worst jobs in America), so there was a lot of sitting around and talking about stuff.  My supervisor Mark was a Frank Zappa and Steely Dan fanatic.  At that point, I thought Steely Dan was the epitome of 70s boring.  I actually thought Dan Fogelberg had been in the band before he went solo.  I knew the first ten seconds of the few songs that came on the radio from time to time before I changed the station, and I basically ignored them otherwise.  Because Mark was a good supervisor and liked a happy warehouse, we spent the summer unloading screwdrivers and cans of paint to the sounds of Zappa's Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe (that and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince-- it was the "Parents Just Don't Understand" summer.)

                                                      I picked up my car phone to perpetrate like I was talkin' (word).

That should have been the summer I figured out how great Steely Dan is, but it took another ten years and a BMG record club fire sale to take care of that.  I do miss the record clubs-- when they went onto the internet, they were less mysterious and exciting, but about once a year they would have a ridiculous sale to try to get rid of inventory.  I got an email one night about an 80% off sale, and I logged in and saw that all box sets were 80% off, and that if you bought one, every box set you bought after that was 80% off the 80% off.  Even with the crazy shipping charges, they were basically selling box sets for five bucks apiece.  So I spent two hours methodically going through their entire catalog, and bought twenty box sets-- about 100CDs worth of music-- for 100 bucks.  I don't remember all of them anymore, but I know that one of them was Citizen Dan, the complete recordings of Steely Dan.

BMG never shipped anything together, so the box sets started arriving in spurts of two and three at a time and that lasted for almost two weeks.  It was hilarious to come home and find another huge stack of music on my porch.  That summer, I got into a ritual of waiting until the late afternoon, and then driving to Stinson Beach from Marin for the last two hours of sunlight.  I usually had the beach to myself, so I'd swim and hang out, then drive home in the twinight, make dinner, and sit on the porch in perfect summer air.  I listened to all that new music on the way to and from the beach, and so that turned out to be the turning point for me with Steely Dan-- driving with the windows down on Route 1 with the Pacific Ocean bathed in moonlight to my right and "Do It Again" blaring from my stereo.

I understand some people's objections to Steely Dan (as I once had them myself).  There's a slickness to all of their recordings that rubs some rock listeners the wrong way.  Many of their instrumental passages come dangerously close to being pure jazz.  Because they had a revolving door policy about players, there's not a consistency of sound from album to album.  Finally, they toured only once, in 1974, hated it, and retreated from the road and became a studio-only outfit, so there's very little footage of the band at work.  Take that all together, and it's easy to brand them as introverted narcissists.

What turned me around was the spectacular craft that's apparent in their recordings.  Not only are these songs extremely well-conceived and played, but the recordings sound amazing.  The detail and textures of some of Steely Dan's songs stand with any of rock's most complicated recordings, and do so without the pomposity of a lot of other studio-based groups.  For all of the musical arrogance at work here, this is a band with a sense of humor and a love of melody and pop songs, so the more artsy aspects of the band are canceled out by naked commercial ambition.  It's also true that, as I became a better musician myself, I had more appreciation for the playing on the tracks.  Whenever I start to think too much of myself as a bassist, all I have to do it put on a Steely Dan album, and I can bring myself back to Earth.

The keys to "Kid Charlemagne" for me are the awesome keyboard riff that starts the song, classic 70s distorted skronk, and the sixty second guitar solo that begins around 2:15.  Many people think it's the finest solo ever recorded, including James DePrato, the best kept guitar secret in the U.S.  James plays for Chuck Prophet and a bunch of SF artists; I'm lucky to play with him in a few different bands.  He is the most endlessly inventive lead guitarist I've ever met, and I can't recommend his playing to you highly enough.  (  This solo is his all time favorite, and I'm not about to argue with him.  It happens over the trickiest chord changes in the song, and features, I believe, three key changes before it resolves back to C.  James says the key is that it's the perfect combination of composition and improvisation.  The guitarist, Larry Carlton, is one of the great session players of all time.  (He also wrote the theme song to Hill Street Blues.)  It's almost certainly his finest moment.

Steely Dan is infamous for burning through session players in order to make their albums.  After 1974, there was no band, only Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and whoever they brought in.  I think that's part of the reason the band feels antiseptic and stale to some folks; this was not an "all for one" situation, and I think you can feel it on the tracks.  You either played the best, cleanest, most technically perfect track of your life, or it was "Thanks for coming in."   It did inspire some amazing playing, but it's also why the band is cold and hard to love on some levels.  That coldness really works for this track, though, as a little distance brings an appropriate edge to the subject matter.  If you want to see what I'm talking about, check out this clip, which is one of my all-time favorite rockumentary clips.  You'll get a sense of how Steely Dan worked and put their songs together (the song "Peg" is the focus here).  It's a MUST see, and you'll be rewarded at the end with Michael McDonald.

Because I'm not very interested in Becker and Fagen as people, my interest in Steely Dan is almost never lyrical.  There are plenty of Steely Dan songs in which I have no idea what they're talking about, because it never seemed like they wanted to connect much with their audience anyway.  Most of the songs are about detachment and isolation at some core level.  I do love the lyrics to "Kid Charlemagne," however.  They're loosely about Owsley Stanley (or "Bear" if you're a Deadhead), one of the inventors of LSD.  Bear's LSD fueled the acid tests and Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and because of its purity and potency, created many of the grizzled, fried hippies that still wander the Haight.  The song points out the emptiness of being the king of a scene like Haight Street, which was about love and flowers for about six hours in 1966 and then quickly degenerated into a dark, twisted subculture based on drugs, sleaze and the worst kind of self-absorbtion.  Walk around Haight street today; those homeless-by-choice teenagers asking you for money aren't living the dream, but learning how to be professional dropouts and hustlers, the next generations of Kid Charlemagnes.  As a Bay Area guy, I'm fascinated with songs that try to capture that 1960s era without rose-tinted glasses, and this song does that well.  If Joan Didion wrote a song about SF in the 60s, it might sound like this one.  The Youtube link for the song below has a more modern, political understanding of the tune, which is a little conservative for my tastes, but he's also included the lyrics, so that's helpful.

Finally, of course, Kanye West used this song for the main sample of "Champion," so you may already know this song even if you don't know it.  Know what I mean?


Thursday, January 21, 2010

SONG #72: Water No Get Enemy


If there's any genre of music that I'm just completely overwhelmed by, it's World Music.  Back in the days when there were record stores (I can't believe that we're basically in a post-record store universe-- if it weren't for Amoeba Music in SF and Berkeley, where would I go to feel cool?  I don't read comic books) I could go into any section of the store and know my way around.  But I'd hit the World Music aisle, and my eyes would glaze over.  All those primary colors!!  437 compilations featuring "The Best Of Senegalese Underground Music"!!  About once a year, I'd commit myself to at least making a dent, and I'd try to read up and figure out a place to start, and I'd have no luck.  I remember going into the World Music section of the Tower Records in Greenwich Village when I was in college, standing there for thirty seconds, and actually thinking, "I'm not ready for this."  I probably turned around and bought a Living Colour record.

It's not entirely my fault.  Pick up a guide to World Music sometime and check it out.  It will easily recommend that you must purchase somewhere around 3,500 albums to scratch the surface.  The guides are written by aficionados for aficionados.  The rock n roll equivalent of a World Music guide entry would feature an entry like this:

Corey Hart

First Offense (1984)-- *****
Boy In The Box (1985)-- *****
Fields Of Fire (1986)-- ****
Young Man Running (1989)-- ****
Attitude And Virtue (1992)-- ****
Jade (1998)-- *****

"Known for his explosive debut song 'Sunglasses At Night' that propelled him to international fame, Hart is a solid introduction to the essential Canadian mid-80s male pop singer subgenre of Rock N Roll.  All of Hart's recordings are must-have, sublime marriages of traditional song structure and modern instrumentation.  His return to form in 1998 suggests that we might just be hearing the beginning of this startling and unforgettable artist's vision.  Beginners can start with the first two albums, but you'll eventually want to have the complete works."

Since I could never figure out where to start, I just didn't for a while.  Then, in 1990, I stumbled across a one dollar cassette by Fela.  I had always been curious about him; he was supposed to play at Giants Stadium in 1986 at the Amnesty International concert on MTV, but he couldn't get out of Nigeria.  They had played a twenty second clip of his music in the promos which had sounded great, but I had never been able to find any of his records.  So I bought the cassette, brought it home, hopeful that this could be the beginning of my DeWesternization.  I thought it was terrible.  It had horrible production, and two thirty minute, pretty bad songs that went on forever.  There were no informational notes at all on the cassette.  I was totally deflated.

Turns out I had bought one of Fela's final albums, when his career was waning and he was beginning, in secret, to succumb to the AIDS that took his life in 1997.  It was another ten years before I got to hear him properly, and this time, I heard the sound that had tantalized me fifteen years before.  Fela started as a Highlife artist, a bubbly and charming form of Nigerian pop music from the 1960s.  After trips to London and Los Angeles, where he discovered funk, he returned to Nigeria and created the darker, more political sound for which he's famous.  His 1972-1977 period is truly inspired, with one terrific jam after another.  And he's about the explode into national consciousness again with the Broadway musical called Fela! and the first complete domestic re-release of his entire, massive catalog.

Fela himself is an incredible story.  His declared himself free from Nigerian rule, and claimed his house as his own country, the Kalakuta Republic.  His bands were huge, as was his polygamist family.  The Nigerian government declared him an enemy of the state, jailed and beat him, burned down his house and killed his mother in the process.  Through it all, Fela made music that celebrated African pride and found strength in traditional African values.  For a man who sought a musical marriage with the West, he championed Africa first and foremost.

There's no doubt that Fela has basically one thing that he does, but the man does it extremely well.  All of Fela's tracks take their time.  "Water No Get Enemy" is actually one of his shorter jams.  They all start with an introduction to the theme, and then some keybaord warmup by Fela.  Once the whole band feels limbered up and playing well, Fela starts singing in Pidgin English (chosen so that more of his Nigerian fans could understand him and to disalign himself from the cultural elite-- Fela himself received a traditional British education and spoke perfect English.)  That section leads into a call and response section with his vocalists, a return to the theme, and more band interplay until he feels done.

It's a mistake, I think, to try to sit down and listen to three hours of Fela-- the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly, as the sameness of the approach will become extremely noticeable.  An hour at a time, though, and I find his stuff exciting and compelling.  Fela is not a great singer or a great keyboard player, but he has brilliant feel for the drama of music.  The tracks burn with energy without ever losing control, and he obviously inspires the best from his players.  The band is loose but limber-- it's like listening to a rubber band stretch and contract.

"Water No Get Enemy" begins with a declaration by the horn section, answered by a slinky keyboard part, followed by the second theme-- a totally engaging horn line that you'll be humming all day.  It's probably my favorite Fela horn part.  If you head isn't bopping by the one minute mark, you need some coffee.  The sound you hear for the next five minutes is truly a moment of cultural intersection.  The groove is not just funk music, as it has the repeated percussive elements of African music.  This is also not purely African pop music-- the keyboard is straight out of a Steely Dan song, and the track would sit comfortably on a Blaxploitation Soundtrack from the early 70s.

On this song, Fela sings in Yoruba, and then translates the line into English.  It's a song that, on the surface, talks about the universal importance of water.  No one survives without it.  The line "Water No Get Enemy" seems to suggest that Fela is also talking about the state's relationship to its people.  There is no Nigeria without Nigerians, so why would the government mistreat people so badly?  The people are as universal and important as water itself.  Here in America, its easy to be a "protest" artist without finding yourself in any real trouble.  How many singer-songwriters were jailed by the Bush administration?  For Fela, a song like this one, enigmatic as it is, meant real, physical danger.  He was a truly a heroic artist who responded to his government's oppression with outspoken, artistic defiance.

There's something about Nigeria (its location, its history as a British colony, its size?) that produced a brand of funk rock that, to my ears, sounds completely authentic.  An amazing collection of music released this year, Nigeria Special, shows that Fela wasn't the only person producing this kind of exciting hybrid.  If you want more Fela after hearing this, The Best Of The Black President collection is the place to start, hands down.  Ordinarily, I avoid Greatest Hits collections, but there's no netter way to cut your Fela teeth (or your World Music teeth, for that matter-- instead of one of those cheesy regional collections with Mount Kilimanjaro on the cover, start with Fela).  I'd also like to close by making a plug for Red Hot + Riot, the Fela tribute album.  I think it's terrific, and the best tribute record I've ever heard.  On it, D'Angelo and friends do a spectacular cover of "Water No Get Enemy."  Well worth hearing.

Finally, if you're hoping this blog will offer dozens more forays into World Music, you're gonna be disappointed.  Fact it, Fela is the most Western, funk 'n' roll world music artist I've ever encountered, which is probably why I like him so much.  I yam what I yam, I guess.

Friday, January 15, 2010

SONG #70 & #71: Breaking Glass, The Great Curve

DAVID BOWIE, STAGE, 1978 (Reissued 2005)
Original version from Low, 1977

Original version from Remain In Light, 1980

Gotta love this shuffle thing-- SO much serendipity going on here!  I'm going to try to tie at least three threads together in this one.  Wish me luck.

For thread #1, let's talk first about the live album format.  Many of you are probably not fans (I play with someone who steadfastly refuses to listen to them).  There are some good reasons not to like some live albums, especially if they fall into one of the following categories.

First Category:  Remember these songs?  Want to hear them again with a bunch of arena echo?  Tom Petty has a great line about these albums; he thinks they should all be called "Greatest Hits Played Faster."  Often, these are albums by bands who really shouldn't be putting out a live album in the first place because there's really nothing to be gained but poorer sound.

Quintessential example:  Bryan Adams, Live! Live! Live!

Second Category:  We just toured!  Have a glorified souvenir!  These are hastily assembled and put out around Christmastime in the hopes that they'll be a good gift for surly teenagers who are hard to buy for.  Often, they're a recording of the last night of a tour, when the band hates one another and is completely out of gas.  These present the band at its worst and emphasize the most rote part of their act.  Nothing like an impatient, tossed-off version of an old hit.  If a band can wait fifteen years into a career to sling one of these out, then you've really got a pile of crud on your hands.  It's like getting a bag of fossilized bones.  The "Hello, Cleveland!" record.

Worst offender: The Who, Who's Last

Third Category:  We've made three studio albums in a row; time for a rest!  On these, the band wants a vacation, so they deliver an album to fulfill a contractual agreement and to regroup and write new tunes.  On these, the band fills 3/4 of the album with sketchy recent material, and then puts the same two or three megahits on the end to try to lure in unsuspecting buyers.  More than anything, these albums just sound tired and packaged.  They don't really sound like a concert, which should be the goal of any live album, or present the songs in any interesting way.

Worst offenders: Any Rush live album; any Rolling Stones live album after 1969

Fourth Category:  I would now like to be taken seriously as a major artist.  Some live albums get made because the artist has had a top 10 hit, has a little clout and always wanted to put out a live album.  These records are rough.  Foghat Live!, anyone?

Dismissing live albums in general is a mistake, though, because done well they offer an equally important aspect of a band's career.  A musician spends a lot more time crafting a live show than a record.  Think about it this way; I've been a working musician for 25 years.  Granted, I've been a student or had a day job for all but two of those years, so I'm not the most busy example, but I work pretty steadily.  I've played on about 20 albums.  In contrast, I've played at least 600 shows.  That means I've spent thousands of hours crafting and creating live concerts, and that's true for most bands with any longevity.  Doesn't that suggest that the live show is pretty important, and that, for a great band, the live show offers something worth hearing alongside of the album?  If you never hear a band live, do you have the whole story?  And if that band is good enough to know that making an album is a different art than creating a live show, then there's a chance that a live album can be revelatory.

So I would argue that live albums are well-worth it if they:

1) Are a better representation of the band than the studio albums.  Some bands never get it together except on stage, and therefore the live album is where the band's best work resides.  That's true for a lot of jam-oriented bands (most obviously, The Grateful Dead and Phish) but I think it's also true for some newer acts.  I prefer the New Pornographers live album on iTunes to their last two studio albums, for example.

2) Feature arrangements that are noticeably different.  If a live album is indeed just a replaying of an album, then there's not much point.  But if the band does different things with the songs, either stretching them out, changing the feel, or rearranging them entirely, then you're having a new listening experience with familiar material.

3) Are a well-sequenced, considered piece of art instead of just the "greatest hits."  A great live show has ebbs and flows, and the artist carefully considers song order.  The same is true of a good live album.  If it can re-create that sense of seeing the band live, then that's a valuable artifact.  The reason live bootlegs enjoy so much popularity is that bootleggers understand that they're capturing history with a live album.  Moreover, songs feel different and have different meanings when they're surrounded by different songs than you're used to.  "Baba O' Riley" is a different track when opening Who's Next than it is as song #6 in a Who concert.

4) Provide a longview of a band's career.  Tom Petty's Live Anthology that he released at Thanksgiving is the best thing on my iPod right now; I can't stop listening to it.  It's a brilliant re-conception of his 35 year career.


4a) Capture a snapshot in time.  While I will never listen to all 762 Pearl Jam live albums, I'm glad that they're out there.  Twenty years from now, people will help us distill all that information, and we'll be glad that they have so much source material to work with.

5) Allow you to reconsider your sense of the band or artist.  These are the most valuable.  A live album gives a band a second chance to win over an audience, and when it can, it's a win-win for everyone.

A live album that can do all of those things?  Well, that belongs in your collection.  These two tracks come from live albums that fit all of these requirements.  Moreover, they're great and rare examples of a record company doing something exactly right.

The Bowie live album Stage came out in the middle of Bowie's "Thin White Duke" period, when he was trying to see if a man who was 68.2% cocaine could continue to function.  The records from that period are considered among his best.  You would think that Stage would be of interest.  Instead, it slunk quickly out of print and has been considered "inessential" (thank you, Allmusic) since its release.  A classic example of revisionist history-- Rolling Stone loved it in its original review in 1978, but has given it two out of five stars in every one of its album guides ever since.

Talking Heads released The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads in 1982 as a stopgap while trying to finish up Speaking In Tongues.  They yanked it off the market when they put out the soundtrack to Stop Making Sense (also excellent) so there wouldn't be a competing live album, and it also stayed out of print for two decades.

In 2004 and 2005, these albums were re-released as part of full-catalog remastering programs.  They were both completely reconsidered, given new track listings and running orders and terrific explanatory liner notes.  Stage is now the complete Bowie set from that period, in sequence.  For the Heads album, disc one features every original the band played during its 1977-1979 tours, and disc two is their complete 1980-1981 set, in order.  Each album now represents these bands, in their most interesting periods, playing the exact concerts that you would have heard if you'd gone to see them.  Moreover, the tapes have been remixed and mastered with a little historical context and perspective, and they sound fantastic.  So let's recap: record companies reclaim old, forgotten albums, make smart, considered decisions about them, and re-release them with generous bonuses and improved everything (sound, packaging, etc)?  How often can you say that?

Since I bought these albums five years ago, they've become not only among my favorite live albums, but they've led me to reconsider my relationship with both these artists.  In particular, Talking Heads (along with The Smiths, but that's another blog) have grown in my estimation in the last six years more than any other band.

And that leads me to thread #2-- bands you grow to love after your initial lack of interest in them.

I never really thought much of David Bowie, and I still think the first phase of his career (Major Tom to Ziggy) is overrated.  However, in 2001, I bought a used vinyl copy of Station To Station, his 1976 album, and fell completely head over heels for it and the rest of that period of Bowie's career.  I listened to it for months-- it lived on my turntable.  I find the music from those albums haunting and weird and totally moving.  When Stage was re-released, I jumped at it, and it was like finding a great lost album.  The sound is spectacular, as is the band backing Bowie.  The first thing you notice is how well they play with one another.  Even though this period features music that is frequently described as cold and detached and mechanical, this band plays with groove and feel and they are watertight.  There are few bands around today who can play this well.

"Breaking Glass" comes from Low.  I first heard that record in the summer of 2000 when I was studying and housesitting in Oxford, England.  The family owned about eight CDs, and Low was one of them, so I first heard the record cleaning up their filthy kitchen.  (Did I mention their ill-behaved backyard chickens who attacked one another?  In a tiny downtown backyard?  That was some summer.)   "Breaking Glass" was immediately my favorite track, but I thought the record's sound was underwhelming.  Low may just have been named best album of the 1970s by Pitchfork, but I prefer all of the versions on Stage.  Sadly, the live version of "Breaking Glass" is not available for listening to on the internet, so I'd recommend listening to the studio version provided below, and then listen to the Stage clip on iTunes.  Can you hear the difference?  The Low version now sounds a little tentative and unformed.  Live, the contrast between the verse and chorus become the central tension of the song, and the wild, angular guitar of the chorus becomes the song's anchor.

I love these lyrics-- they feel like an update to "Norwegian Wood"-- if that song's about a relationship gone bad due to weed, this song has white, powdery film all over it.  It's a great description of obsession and staying with something that you know is doing you harm:

Baby I've been breaking glass in your room again / Listen
Don't look on your carpet; I drew something awful on it / See
You're such a wonderful person, but you got problems
Oooooh, I'll never touch you

Those are the complete lyrics; I think they're really effective because they're so short and shameful, and the song serves only to communicate this obsessive confession.  "You're such a wonderful person, but you've got problems" sums up so many bad relationships, doesn't it?

"The Great Curve" originally comes from the album Remain In Light, which is an album that it took me almost thirty years to appreciate.  I get it now, but I still far prefer the live versions of all of its songs.  Its best known for the hit "Once In A Lifetime," but other tracks (like this one) are a better indicator of what the band was after: an attempt to build songs around a single, repeated groove.  There's a lot of Fela in these songs; in fact, one of the outtakes from Remain In Light is called "Fela Riff-- Unfinished."  It's incredible that this song is the same band who made '77, an album of little three minute rock songs played laconically and without any frills or musical pyrotechnics by a nerdy quartet.  Only three years later, Talking Heads had evolved into a completely different animal, with double digit members on stage.  The band on "The Great Curve" clip linked below is diverse in terms of race, gender, training, background and approach.  It makes for a unique blend that I find totally engaging and that can make music that is global without being "World" music.

Like "Breaking Glass," these lyrics have a paranoid bent to them.  It seems to me to be a song about confusion and searching for meaning, finding some sort of connection only in "she" who is "moving to define" and has "messages for everyone" in "a world of light... she's gonna open our eyes up."  "She" might be "a woman's hips" or she may be inspiration or she might be music itself.  I don't really know, but I think they're evocative and fit the music perfectly.  I also think the song is more effective here, as a full-speed set closer, then where it sits on Remain In Light, in the middle of side one.

I lost interest with Talking Heads around the True Stories record in 1986, and I'd never loved them that much in the first place, so I spent years wondering why so many of my music friends spoke of them in hushed tones.  This live album has led me back to them with a vengeance, and now I'm a slobbering fan of the first four albums.  Props to my boy Quinn, who was always waaaaay ahead of me on this one.

That leads us, finally, to thread #3, which I'll call the Secret Weapon, or The Adrian Belew Factor.  Adrian Belew, the guitarist who first came to prominence in Frank Zappa's band, is on both of these albums.

Belew has had a truly astonishing career; check this out:

1977-1978-- Frank Zappa's band
1978-1979, 1990-- David Bowie's band
1979-1982-- Talking Heads
1981-Present-- King Crimson
1982-Present-- Solo Career (including top 40 hit "Oh Daddy")
1985-1989-- The Bears

and those are just the highlights.  Belew has played in four of the most admired bands in rock history, and can walk into just about any Starbucks without being recognized.  That's a great career.  And I think he's the secret ingredient that allowed me finally to find a way in to Bowie and Talking Heads' music.

It's undeniable that some people just simply and dramatically improve the projects they work on.  Throughout rock history, there are guys like Belew who sit just outside the spotlight but who are the straw that stirs the drink.  I think it's probable that what allowed me back into these artists' catalogs was my love for Belew's guitar.  Once you know he's in both bands, his tone in unmistakable on both of these tracks, and on the live Talking Heads clip, he's having so much fun and performing at such a high level that you can't help but love him.  Go to 5:18 and listen to his solo from there to the end-- it's completely original and thrilling (so original that the cameraman can't find him).  That's the great thing about being a lifelong music listener-- eventually, my path crossed with these terrific songs in the way that allowed me truly to hear them, and now I can pass them along to you.  it's a great lesson to remember: being a critical listener means not only having an opinion, but being willing to revisit it.

So today's nominations for the comment section are:

1) Recommendations for live albums worth owning.
2) Most unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll.

Have a great MLK weekend.  See you on the other side.

David Bowie (studio version):

Talking Heads (live version 1980):
The whole concert is on YouTube-- it's one my favorite things to watch.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SONG #69: I'm The Man


Every once in a while after a show, someone wants to talk to the bass player, which is a lovely change of pace from being asked where our free beer is.  A lot of the time, the conversation leads to other bass players, and I'm asked who I admire and/or am influenced by in my playing.  Clearly, there are some predictable, necessary answers, but when I'm talking to someone who obviously loves music, I start with Graham Maby.  When I get back "Joe Jackson's bass player!  Yes!  I love him!," then I've got a new friend.

Graham Maby is one of my all time favorites, and perhaps the guy I steal from more often than anyone else.  I've loved his playing since the first time I heard Joe Jackson's early albums in 7th grade.  When I first bought a bass in 1983, I learned how to play it by playing along to the first Violent Femmes record and the first Joe Jackson record, Look Sharp!  I can still play all those songs.

Maby's playing is as important to the success of Jackson's early albums as the songs themselves; he has the same impact that Mitch Mitchell does on the early Jimi Hendrix recordings, adding crucial and distinctive color and energy.  Without Maby's playing, these are fine, well-written pop/rock albums, but with it, they generate similar excitement as Elvis Costello's early albums.  Jackson seems to be aware of how important Maby's sound is to Jackson's success; Maby is the only consistent member of every iteration of the Joe Jackson Band.

Maby's lines are way up in the mix on these early albums, so you quickly can gain a sense of what a propulsive, lively player he is.  I love the undoctored tone he employs, and how much he's playing a part.  Unlike so many bass players who either only groove or only randomly solo when they get bored, Maby's playing is always so intellectual without losing vitality.  I'm a huge admirer.  Check out how he dictates the development of the jam in the middle of the song from 1:55 to 2:30.  Wow!  Maby's a master of being melodic, driving and tasteful all at the same time.  If you ever listen to Jackson's Live 1980/86 album, Maby's versatile playing through the whole thing is the highlight.

It's easy to like Maby so much when he's playing such fun music.  Jackson's early albums are a great combination of new wave energy, songcraft, and sarcasm.  Jackson comes off as an angry, sexually frustrated pharmacist who took over the band on karaoke night and never left.  "I'm The Man" is a tribute to selling fads to the public (like punk rock, for example), but it's never sloganeering or self-important ("skateboards... i've almost made them respectable").  It's a funny song that transcends being just funny.  It's the kind of song Brits do so much better than Americans.  An American song about marketing would either decry it as evil or be an example of marketing itself.  The Brits have always had a lighter, more successful touch when it comes to pop culture social commentary.

I first owned this album in a totally weird format-- they released it as five 7" singles in a little box set.  It was totally cool, but also a completely annoying and impractical way to listen to a record.  When I finally bought a normal used vinyl copy years later, I realized how much more I liked the album than I thought I did when I didn't have to get up every three minutes to hear the next song.

I'll talk in more detail about Joe at some point when he pops up again-- this blog's for Graham.  The floor's now open for nominations for the obscure bass player Hall of Fame (Note: Paul McCartney (Wings only) is not obscure enough.)


LIVE LINK:  (if you want to check out Joe in action)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

SONG #68: Questions 67 & 68


OK, so I totally cheated. It's not a "68" coincidence. So what? It's my blog. Deal with it.

This track comes from Chicago's debut album, released in 1969. I love this first Chicago record. It's big and bold and weird and groundbreaking; nothing sounded like it in rock music before it came out. Combining complicated horn charts with a classic rock rhythm section, the first album features both late-60s jamming and some very catchy songs. Some of it doesn't work and hasn't dated well, but about 3/4 of it does, its heart is in the right place, and it suggested an exciting new band with a lot of potential.

That did not turn out to be the case. The second album, Chicago II, has about fifteen minutes of good material, and then... well... you can fit the rest of Chicago's worthy music in your pocket. Since 1973, pretty much all of the band's catalog is disposable. Here is a band with a window of about four years of interesting music, and 36 years (and counting) of schlock. How does such a thing happen? Guitarist Terry Kath died in 1978 (in one of the most sadly senseless self-inflicted deaths of all time, shooting himself in the head with what he thought was an unloaded gun after ALREADY shooting himself in the head FIVE TIMES with another unloaded gun), but the band had already descended into lite-rock hell by then. Perhaps the key is Peter Cetera-- the band's bassist and a terrific musician, he does not become the band's principle songwriter until the mid-70s. Robert Lamm, who basically wrote the first three albums, stepped aside, and Cetera's pandering, simpering ballads became the band's calling card. Cetera, of course, left the band in the 80s for solo fame with EVEN MORE INSIPID material! It's hard to believe that Chicago was actually giving his work a hard edge. Who knew we'd look back at "If You Leave Me Now" and think, "Wow-- that's pretty dark for a Cetera track!" Why is there so little nostalgia for 80s music? Take a look:

As I think on it a little more, is there any other band whose catalog stands up so poorly to its first album as Chicago? We'd need to find a band who, upon looking at its discography, we could say about its albums "Great, Good, Fair, Bad, Bad, Bad, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful, Awful." What other band got to make thirty terrible major label albums? It's truly an amazing feat.

But buried back behind all that dreck is one great album, with a bunch of great songs, including this one, which I've loved ever I first heard it on the radio as a kid. I love the mix of these early Chicago songs-- everything is so BIG! The vocal, the horns, the bass, the drums, Kath's solos-- how do they keep it all together?  It's a remarkable job of balancing at least four different harmonic components.  I've always thought that this song sounds like "happy"-- that "I won tickets to Supertramp**!" happy or "Apollo! Apollo!" (any 30 Rock fans here?) happy. It's the sound of exuberance. When Cetera sings "Can this feeling that we have together?," it makes me want to lift my arms over my head and sway them back and forth, Hair-style.

Like so many late 60s / early 70s songs, it's a full 45 seconds before the vocals start, so we've already had a chance to soak in the sound of the band, especially Kath's guitar playing. There is a cult surrounding Kath these days, believing that he was the equal to Hendrix and that, had he lived, he'd be talked about in the same hushed tones as Clapton and others. I think he was both too off-beat a player and also too much of a follower for that to have happened. I love his playing, and his solos here are terrific. (Check out "South California Purples" sometime for some of his best work.) At the same time, he stayed in a band that betrayed his talents and underused him tragically, so it's hard to see him leading a musical revolution.

My favorite part of the song is the horn break in the middle. First of all, what a killer horn section! Have you ever played live with a horn section? Let's just say that they don't make tuners for horns, and you can tell a lot of the time. The Chicago horns are bright and locked in and musical-- they kill it all the way through the tune, including an awesome doubletime groove break at 2:45 where they play what sounds like the theme to a groovy 70s TV show about two guys who are cops by day and bartenders by night.  The horns give way (barely) to Kath, who blazes until the vocal comes back in.  I love that you can't hear the vocal at first because everyone is playing so loud over it-- it's classic first album overplaying.

As for the lyrics? Who the hell knows. They're pretty hysterically nonsensical. I await some snarky responses below as to what Questions 67 and 68 actually are-- don't let me down, readers!

Chicago is still going, and is still frequently numerically naming their albums (coming soon: Chicago LXXXIV: Music to Gum Food To). What a mess-- the band goes out and performs the Cetera-penned schlocky ballads without him. I think that when musicians die and are found to have lived a purposeless, selfish life, they have to spend time in purgatory playing in a Chicago tribute band that only plays the band's 80s and 90s output. They're called Peroia.

A final note: while I'm tempted to make Song #69 "Goin' Down," that's just too easy a joke, and I'd never stoop to such base levels of humor.

It'll be "Shaft" by Isaac Hayes instead.


** that's two references in the blog to Supertramp, if you're counting, tying them with Zora Neale Hurston.

P.S. Credit to the 20,000 Songs Gal who, upon being subjected to this tune, said, "This sounds just like that Toto song." Gold star! Decide for yourselves: compare verse one of "Questions" to verse one of "Africa" (about 30 seconds in).

Always a good sign when your music is compared to Toto.

Thursday, January 7, 2010



For those of you who have been letting me know the mathematical impossibilities of my ever getting to 20,000, this blog's for you.  It's also a chance to follow up the Doors post with another band that hasn't been copied or imitated successfully by other bands.

I used to drive to Florida with my mom every year for a week in middle school (and for a few years of high school).  Mom felt the need to visit and assuage her guilt of moving away from her own mother, and I got hours of one-on-none basketball on an eight foot hoop and some days at the beach out of the deal.  Except for the thirty two hours in the car and a few command performances with my grandmother's racist old friends, it was a decent setup, and I spent most of the time in Walkmanland (or in my case, some awful Walkman knockoff that was six pounds and the size of a photocopier.)  When we arrived in Florida, the first trip was always to the mall so mom could buy food and I could spend twenty bucks on some new music for the week.  (Mom almost never kicked down bonus cash like that; I think she understood that she was buying my cooperation more than I did.)

By early 1985, I had become obsessed with SST Records.  A southern California label begun by Greg Ginn to release albums by his band, Black Flag, by the mid-80s it was in the process of becoming the most important independent label in the US.  In those days before the internet, it was hard not just to find information about those bands, but it was hard to find the albums themselves.  I would read about a band or hear about an album from an older kid, and it would take sometimes months and two or three different record stores before I could even find it.  It was part of the fun, though; it made you feel like an archealogist.  I get why my students troll the blogosphere looking for completely unknown bands.  Part of the charm is the total underground quality of it.  This music was never on the radio, so the only way you'd hear it was to buy it or borrow it from someone.  I had picked up some Black Flag, and Husker Du's Metal Circus and Zen Arcade, and had a list in my wallet (a blue and black striped, corduroy, velcro number with "hang ten" feet on it, I believe) of other bands to try to hear.

In March of 1985, I went to the tape rack at the Musicland in Melbourne FL, and to my shock, they had all of the SST releases there, including six or seven I'd never seen before.  The label must have just set up a new distribution deal.  It was genuinely shocking to see them all for sale in suburban central Florida along with Thriller and Purple Rain.  I  had been planning on getting two albums, but then I saw that they had the new Minutemen album.  I picked it off the rack, and couldn't believe it.  It was a double album (like the Zen Arcade I'd just bankrupted myself buying), with what looked like 50 songs on it.  They were printed on the front of the cassette flap in about two point font.  It cost an obscene $12.98.  Before I lost my nerve, I took it to the counter and bought it.  That week, in a totally incongruous setting, all I listened to was this album.  I'm probably the only person who hears Double Nickels start up and thinks of eating french fries at the Atlantic Ocean.

Since then, I have probably listened to it once a month for the last 25 years.  It's one of my five favorite albums of all time, without a doubt.  I know Double Nickels shows up on a lot of "Top Whatever Lists," and the band enjoyed a resurgence after the terrific documentary We Jam Econo came out a few years ago, but critical discussion of the band usually focuses on everything but the music.  People love to talk about what the band represented politically or sociologically more than they want to talk about the sound of the band itself.  Because the songs are short and unpolished and the album only sold a handful of copies, Double Nickels frequently serves as the "weird" album on someone's "Top" list that proves the critic's credentials, like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Joanna Newsom's Ys.

Let me be clear; I don't just admire this album or respect it or think it's good for you or culturally relevant; I truly, deeply love it.  It's one of my five favorite records because I'd rather hear it instead of the other 3,000 albums in my collection.  The rest of my Top Ten is dreadfully predictable and uncool.  I'm not trying to impress you by writing about this album; I'm trying to convince you not to miss out.  I can't imagine not listening to this album over and over again.  I think it's inexhaustibly entertaining.

If you don't know about the Minutemen or that much about them as a band, great writers have covered that information in lot of other places.  I would suggest you head here first:   It covers what you need to know.  For more information about the album itself, go here:   If that whets your appetite, Michael Fournier's book about the album is a solid read as well (he and I have very similar experiences with the record, actually.)  Just giving credit where credit is due.

I won't unnecessarily repeat the information from these sites; instead, I'm going to talk about the music and try to make a purely musical case for the record.  I urge you to click the first link below and listen along while I write my way through Side One of the album.

What do I love so much about this record?  Let's start with the sound.  There are precious few overdubs here; the entire thing was recorded and mixed for $1,100, so everything is a first or second take.  It sounds like three guys playing live in a room together, which fits this music perfectly.  You are basically listening to a decently-recorded live album here.  More than anything, though, it sounds like a band's rehearsal studio demo tape.  That intimacy is crucial; if this record sounded better, its flaws would be a major detraction.  Instead, you feel as if you're there with the band at the moment of creation.  Everything sounds so exciting and fresh because it just is.

Moreover, the brevity of the songs gives everything such a breathless quality.  Tracks begin and end before you realize it.  I think it's a mistake to come at the Minutemen one track at a time.  When I listen to this band, I treat each side of a record as one song.  You shouldn't listen to one or two at a time; listen to side one as if it's one track, a suite of connected tunes.  They flow in and out of each other like one great, extended song, and the effect is far more engaging.

Then there's the quality of the playing.  I love punk rock, but there comes a point when an amateur approach is just... well... amateur.  I also appreciate people who can play.  Knowing your scales is not selling out; it's being good.  The Minutemen are, without question, the most musically accomplished punk band in history.  All three of them are great, great players.  If you're a young bassist or drummer, the rhythm section of Mike Watt and George Hurley is one to study closely, and because the album is so spare in instrumentation, you can hear them clearly locking in and inspiring one another.  I find Mike Watt's bass playing truly inspirational.

Because the band can play, their version of punk rock sounds completely different from what you might expect.  The Minutemen are funky and jazzy as well as an aggressive rock band.  What jumped out at me from the first moment I popped in that cassette was the groove the band has.  The Minutemen are a mutant dance band.

The one obvious weakness of the band are D. Boon's vocals.  Boon was such a likable, good guy that it's easy for me to overlook his limitations, and I've come to hear his voice as an essential part of the mix.  For new, 2009 listeners, he's going to sound unskilled.  That might be tough to overcome for some; try to imagine that your buddy is singing in this band, and that you're pre-determined to root for him.  It helps.  I'm also preapred to take some well-deserved flak for slagging Jim Morrison's vocals and suggesting that D. Boon's are somehow "better."  In my defense, a key part of this band's appeal is that, unlike so many other bands, they have a great sense of humor, including about themselves, so Boon's "college try" vocals fit the band's ethos.

So here we go-- my notes on Side One.  Please hit play.

Anxious Mo-Fo:  The album starts with the sound of D. Boon's car starting; as a kid, I imagined that the record was supposed to be the great radio station playing as you drove around.  This first song introduces all the pieces of the Minutemen sound:  the repeated musical themes, the drum and bass drop-outs, Boon's angular, exploratory guitar solos, and his earnest attempt to talk-sing his way into being a lead vocalist.  The opening line "Serious as a heart attack!," would make as good a summary of the album as any other, but the song's title reveals the band's ability to laugh while also being deadly serious.

Theatre Is The Life Of You:  Here's where you might start to get the sense of why I think these songs are better in chunks than on their own.  This song fits like a glove right after the opener-- when I first listened to the album, because it was on tape, I had no idea sometimes when a song had ended and a new one had begun.  I'd suggest the same approach to you.  You can't eat one jellybean and decide of you like jellybeans.  You need to eat a few handfuls.

Viet Nam:  An example of how the band tackled social issues in a way that didn't feel preachy.  The song reminds us of the number of casualties in the war on both sides, and then ends by saying, "Not one domino shall fall."  It's such a subtle form of social critique, more appealing than something like "Let's Impeach The President."

Cohesion:  A total about face-- an acoustic guitar instrumental obviously influenced by the corridas playing on San Pedro, California radio stations when the guys were growing up.  After three very similar punk-funk tunes, it's a welcome stylistic stretch.

It's Expected I'm Gone:  The band slows it down and comes closer to a traditional punk approach, even though Watt is slapping his bass line.  Inspirational line: "No hope / See, that's what gives me guts."

#1 Hit Song:  More humor.  In an alternate world, this truly would be a hit.  The music is catchy, and over it, Boon offers "hit single" lyrics:

On the back of a winged horse / Through the sky pearly grey
Love is leaf-like / You and me, baby
Twinkly, twinkle / Blah Blah Blah
E!  T!  C!

Then he burns down the house with one of his best solos.  What's great is that Boon isn't dismissing pop music as much as he's laughing at his band's inability to make it.  The Minutemen loved classic rock, but couldn't write it, so they embraced their own angularity and weirdness.  I'll bet D. Boon really did want to ride  on the back of a winged horse.  Who wouldn't?

Two Beads At The End:  Perhaps the most musical moment on side one.  All three musical themes in this song would make great songs on their own, and the band plays them brilliantly.  If Foreigner had written riffs this good, they'd be in the Hall of Fame.

Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?:  The band slows it down again for some call-and-response beat poetry from D. and Mike.  I love the lines:  I stand for language / I speak the truth / I shout for history / I am a cesspool

Don't Look Now:  Here's the essential clue about the band's inspirations.  This tune is an old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, given the Minutemen treatment.  It's a live recording of hilariously bad quality.  It sounds like they're playing in a cafeteria to about nine people who are half-listening.  I think the point here is the everyman quality of the band.  These aren't rock stars; they're working musicians playing the gigs they can get.  Tons of rock musicians are working class, but few of them had such tiny aspirations to rise out of the middle class as the Minutemen.  They're not a band trying to be famous at all, and they're singing to and about other working class folks.  Creedence's "Fortunate Son" was a band favorite, and a template for their undertstanding of their place in society.

Sh*t From An Old Notebook:  Another hilarious lyric.  I think the Minutemen curse exactly the right amount in these tunes.  It's not gratuitous or for shock value; they sound like adults talking to one another.  If Bill Hicks fronted a band, they'd sound like this.

Nature Without Man:  Maybe the most impressive guitar playing on Side One.  I always speed up when I'm driving to this song, and I end pounding the snot of my steering wheel.

One Reporter's Opinion:  Side One closes with a touching song that shows how close these guys were.  (Side Two closes with the band's autobiography, "History Lesson- Part II," which, for anyone who has ever played in a band, will choke you up.)  In this song, Boon pokes fun as his best friend and band mate.  Most bands try to create a mythology-- instead, these guys are just dorks (a word they use to describe Michael Jackson's inner voice on Side Two).  The side ends with Boon mock-crooning "He's a stop siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiign-ah."

Yeah!  I could listen to the whole thing again right now.

D. Boon died a year after this album came out in a one car accident when his girlfriend fell asleep at the wheel on a late night interstate drive and went off the road.  Boon, sleeping in the back, was thrown from the van and died instantly.  I had tickets to see the band opening for R.E.M. that spring.  I lament the music we lost from these guys as much as the songs left unwritten by Hendrix or Lennon.

So there's my pitch.  Almost all of the album is available to stream below.  Hopefully, you'll be moved to check out the whole thing.  For those of you who want a more focused introduction, I've bolded the songs I'd start with in the track listing, in case you've got some downloading fever.  Either way, enjoy-- like me, and thousands of others, this band could be your life.


Part 1:
Part 2:
Missing: Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing
Maybe Partying WIll Help:
Missing: The Big Foist
Part 4:
Part 5:
Part 6:
Part 7:

Track listing
Side D.
1. "Anxious Mo-Fo" – 1:19
2. "Theatre Is the Life of You" – 1:30
3. "Viet Nam" – 1:27
4. "Cohesion" – 1:55
5. "It's Expected I'm Gone" – 2:04
6. "#1 Hit Song" – 1:47
7. "Two Beads at the End" – 1:52
8. "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?" – 1:49
9. "Don't Look Now" – 1:46
10. "Shit from an Old Notebook" – 1:35
11. "Nature Without Man" – 1:45
12. "One Reporter's Opinion" – 1:50
Side Mike
1. "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" – 1:33
2. "Maybe Partying Will Help" – 1:56
3. "Toadies" – 1:38
4. "Retreat" – 2:01
5. "The Big Foist" – 1:29
6. "God Bows to Math" – 1:15
7. "Corona" – 2:24
8. "The Glory of Man" – 2:55
9. "Take 5, D." – 1:40
10. "My Heart and the Real World" – 1:05
11. "History Lesson- Part II" – 2:10
Side George
1. "You Need the Glory" – 2:01
2. "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts" – 1:20
3. "Mr. Robot's Holy Orders" – 3:05
4. "West Germany" – 1:48
5. "The Politics of Time" – 1:10
6. "Themselves" – 1:17
7. "Please Don't Be Gentle with Me" – 0:46
8. "Nothing Indeed" – 1:21
9. "No Exchange" – 1:50
10. "There Ain't Shit on T.V. Tonight" – 1:34
11. "This Ain't No Picnic" – 1:56
12. "Spillage" – 1:51
Side Chaff
1. "Untitled Song for Latin America" – 2:03
2. "Jesus and Tequila" – 2:52
3. "June 16th" – 1:48
4. "Storm in My House" – 1:57
5. "Martin's Story" – 0:51
6. "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" – 0:40
7. "Dr. Wu" – 1:44
8. "Little Man with a Gun in His Hand" – 2:53
9. "The World According to Nouns" – 2:05
10. "Love Dance" – 2:00