Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One-sided wonders

But first....
The more time that goes by, the more stuff comes back to me that I mistakenly left out of my record-store playlist/discography, RECORD STORE DAZE.
Hey, we played a LOT of different music during my three years in the record store. Most of what I've forgotten was stuff I never thought about buying and taking home. Albums that were easy for me to ignore, in other words. Here's a few of them:
Graham Parker -- SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS, THE UP ESCALATOR. (HOW could I have missed the great, angry "Mercury Poisoning"?)
Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- WORKS VOLUME 1: Fanfare for the Common Man, C'est La Vie, Piano Concerto No. 1.
The Foghat and AC/DC albums were just easy for me to ignore, except for Foghat's great "Wide Boy." Believe me, after having The Knack's first album inflicted on me a dozen times a day for a couple months, I somehow learned how to block out the stuff I didn't like.
Not sure why I couldn't hear Graham Parker or XTC -- they just didn't jump out at me back then. And the ELP album was one I bought while hanging out at the record store and just forgot about. I'm told that happens as you advance in years....
Hopefully, this will be all of this forgotten stuff that I'll have to list in the interests of Completeness....

Now then -- a good share of the stuff we played in the record store had one GREAT side, and a second side we hardly ever played at all. For some of what follows, I'm not sure I EVER heard Side 2. Check these out....
* The Records: (1st) (1979) -- The standouts by this '60s-throwback English quartet are the silly "Teenarama" (which would get NO radio airplay today -- it didn't back then, either) and the Byrds-y "Starry Eyes," both of which should have been hits.
"Teenarama" is merely about hanging out with an underage girl for a week -- for kicks(!). And it's hilarious. "Starry Eyes" could be a mid-'60s rocker with nice chiming guitars, except for the lyrics about mismanagement and lawsuits -- the Records' Will Birch and John Wicks sure could write 'em.
"Up All Night" is also a lost classic -- more chiming guitars and great group vocals on a little number about insomnia. Anybody who's ever been unable to sleep can relate. "All Messed Up and Ready to Go" and "Girls That Don't Exist" are OK mid-tempo rockers -- they show some promise.
I don't think I ever heard Side 2 of this more than once -- and nothing jumped out at me. The Records went on to record a second album, CRASHES, which included the airy "Hearts in Her Eyes," which was covered by a late-'70s/early-'80s incarnation of the Searchers.

* New England: (1st) (1979) -- Flashy Stadium Rock, managed by Kiss's management company and produced by Kiss's Paul Stanley. The first two tracks are great -- the melodramatic "Don't Ever Wanna Lose Ya" was almost a hit, and "Hello Hello Hello" is a nice splashy opener. Lotsa loud keyboards and guitars, and guitarist/songwriter John Fannon has a good voice. The production is thick.
The requisite ballad, "Shall I Run Away?," keeps all the plusses of the sound and just slows things down a bit. "Alone Tonight" is an OK fast closer. The one clinker on the side is the stupid "P.U.N.K. (Puny Under-Nourished Kid)," which is too dumb to talk about. I forget Side 2.
New England went on to record two more albums. The title song off their third, EXPLORER SUITE, is above-average art-pop. Where are they now?

* Tarney/Spencer Band: RUN FOR YOUR LIFE (1979) -- This solid commercial-pop album runs the gamut from the flashy-guitar opener "No Time to Lose" to the poppy "Won't'cha Tell Me" to the moody "Live Again." Lots of tasty guitar and solid harmony vocals by the duo of studio-pros -- Alan Tarney would go on to produce Tina Turner and Cliff Richard. David Kershenbaum (Joe Jackson, Tracy Chapman) produced this, the T/S Band's second and apparently last album. "No Time to Lose" got some radio airplay, but not enough to break through. Don't think I heard Side 2 more than once.

* Holly and the Italians: THE RIGHT TO BE ITALIAN (1980) -- Imagine the Ramones with a woman lead singer, and you've got Holly and the Italians. Great simple stuff -- the opener "I Wanna Go Home" is a perfect trashy themesong for anyone who's ever been homesick. "Youth Coup" sounds JUST LIKE the Ramones, with repeated shouts of "Hey!" and some nice silly political lyrics. "Rock Against Romance" and "Just Young" are above-average production numbers, strongest on chant power.
But the real killer is the lost classic "Miles Away," which closes the side. This heavy-drama teen-breakup piece is worthy of Phil Spector or the Ronettes. MTV ran the video for awhile, but this crashingly dramatic brokenhearted lovesong sounds best with the sound turned WAY UP. As does the rest of Side 1.
Except for the catty "Tell That Girl to Shut Up," I don't think I ever got through Side 2....
Richard Gottherer (The Go-Go's, Joan Armatrading) produced this one.

* Spider: (1st) (1980) -- More great crashing trash-pop from Mike Chapman's like-minded trebly-production expert Peter Coleman. Spider's album was Chapman and Coleman's first shot on their short-lived Dreamland Records label. The great, crashing, trebly "New Romance (It's a Mystery)" was a minor hit. "Everything is Alright" tried to follow it up, unsuccessfully.
The one that SHOULD have broken through is the great "Shady Lady," which has memorable group-vocal choruses, great lyrics, and more revved-up guitars and keyboards.
"Burning Love" and "Crossfire" are both crashing, angry, in-your-face pop. Not sure I've ever heard Side 2.
This band had a lot of talent -- they did a second album, BETWEEN THE LINES, then vanished. Drummer Anton Fig ended up in David Letterman's LATE SHOW band; songwriter/keyboardist Holly Knight became a "song doctor." Not sure what happened to singer Amanda Blue and her odd, hiccuping vocals....

* Red Rider: DON'T FIGHT IT (1980) -- The production by somebody named Michael James Jackson is pretty thin for a quintet, but guitarist Tom Cochrane's songs grow on you. The title song is pretty great, and gains power with its repeated choruses. "White Hot" was almost a hit. "That's Just the Way it Goes" and "How's My Little Girl Tonight?" are above-average early-'80s mainstream pop; "Way it Goes" is a pretty good side-closer.
Not sure I heard Side 2 more than once. A little more production savvy --  a few more guitars, keybs and backing vocals tossed-in in the right places -- and this could have sold millions.
Red Rider had one almost-hit with "Lunatic Fringe" a few years later -- then Cochrane hit with the solo smash "Life is a Highway" almost a decade later....

* Judie Tzuke: STAY WITH ME 'TIL DAWN (1979) -- This may just be an elaborate singer-songwriter album with a huge production, but it sounds perilously close to art-rock to me. That's probably why I loved it.
The moody, apocalyptic title song (buried at the end of Side 2) got some radio airplay and was almost a hit. The huge production continues at the start of the album -- with grand, sweeping studio jobs on numbers like "Welcome to the Cruise" and "These Are the Laws," and a hushed almost-a-capella performance on "For You." Tzuke had a beautiful voice, and the players really pile it on. When it's good, this album is a knockout.
"New Friends Again" is kind of a weak side-closer -- but the real sleeper is "Sukarita," with swirling keyboards and choruses that build and build. This could have been a hit, too.
Not sure I ever heard the whole second side. Tack "Stay With Me" onto the end of Side 1, and you've got five songs that are pretty tough to beat -- if you can take the huge production style.
Tzuke went on to record a second album, the less-ambitious and even-less-successful SPORTS CAR; co-wrote a couple songs with Elton John (Tzuke's albums were on Elton's Rocket label), then did an intermittent string of albums released in England. But America should have been listening the first time around....

Hey, it's from a couple years later, but so what -- Camel's THE SINGLE FACTOR (1982) is one of the great one-sided albums of all time. In this case, it's Side 2 that should have been minted in gold....
It opens with the gorgeous guitar instrumental "Sasquatch," then moves into an intense and angry keyboard-heavy tale of schizophrenia, "Manic." Camel hardly ever rocked this hard. It's another lost classic.
"Camelogue" and "Today's Goodbye" sound like daily work-notes from Camel leader/guitarist Andy Latimer, who passes on some of the things he's going through as his band slowly falls apart....
The closer is a 6-minute suite, "A Heart's Desire/End Peace" -- I think "Heart's Desire" is just a BIT too sweet, but the gorgeous guitar work that follows (aided by former Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips) is just perfect -- a marvelous way to end an album.
Too bad that listening to the first side is like plunging off of a cliff....
More soon -- and buy my books, would 'ya...?

Monday, December 23, 2013


Two things:
One -- Through Christmas Day you can still download my record-store memoir GUARANTEED GREAT MUSIC! absolutely FREE at Amazon.com's Kindle Store. I think it's worth it, and you'll have a good time.
Two -- I am an IDIOT. I talked about Todd Rundgren and Utopia's rather good 1980 pop-prog album ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA in the text of GGM! -- it made my "Best of 1980" Top 10 list that I posted in the record store -- then I FORGOT to include the album in the RECORD STORE DAZE playlist/discography. Don't know what the hell I was thinkin'. I THOUGHT it was in there.... At my advanced age, I'm probably lucky I can remember ANYTHING anymore....
So, to counterbalance my guilt and stupidity, here's Todd....

Although I thought Todd Rundgren was pretty freakin' great back in the day -- his "Saving Grace" is still one of my favorite songs ever -- I was never able to get much into Todd's prog-rock spin-off band Utopia. And I LIKE Prog.
Ghod knows I tried -- I bought Utopia's first album and ANOTHER LIVE, but it all sounded too mushy, too cluttered, too over-the-top. There was too much going on for Todd's usual crystal-clear production. It was all just too much -- like an album full of Todd's song "Just One Victory," but without the great tune underneath it all. Or maybe there just weren't enough good tunes.
I even tried OOPS, WRONG PLANET, which was supposedly more streamlined. But between the UGLY band photos on the back cover and the silliness inside, I just couldn't get into it. Didn't even try RA -- talk about silliness....
But that all changed with ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA. When I came into work one day, my boss Gary was playing the record, and to me it sounded just like a good, commercial Todd Rundgren album, with maybe a few lyrical-musical proggish-stretches here and there.
I walked in on the opener, "The Road to Utopia," which seemed to me like a good compromise between Todd's pop tunefulness and Utopia's over-the-top cosmic weirdness. I still think so. The difference here is a strong song structure, with some memorable CHORUSES. The vocals are solid, too.
The first-side-closer, "Caravan," is another solid compromise, though not quite as memorable -- not as many good, catchy choruses. More atmospheric.
Then we move into the album's interior. Here Utopia masquerades as a high-tech New Wave band, sort of like a more-human Devo. Bassist Kasim Sulton's lead vocal on "You Make Me Crazy" is thin and New Wave-ish enough, and the song's production is annoying enough, that it could have been a big hit back in '80. Once I adjusted to the archness of it, I thought it was pretty cool and high-tech! A great lost single.
The album's minor hit was "Set Me Free," a pretty standard commercial pop song, which I read later was keyboard-player Roger Powell's plea to Bearsville Records head Albert Grossman to release Powell from his solo recording contract. "Set Me Free" is OK, but it's no award-winner -- it made a middling impression on the charts.
The flip side, "Second Nature," was a standard-issue Toddsong, pleasant and nice, with cool vocals and nice choruses -- it could have been a filler straight off of Todd's great SOMETHING/ANYTHING album. But there wasn't much about it that would have attracted attention on radio.
Flip the record over, and things get a little weird. "Last of the New Wave Riders" was pure cosmic silliness: "The last of the New Wave riders/Will be the first of the New Age ... MASTERS!" ...Uh, OK.
"Love Alone" was a spacey near-a-capella vocal ... thing. I've forgotten most of the rest, to be honest.
But the pick of the album was buried toward the end of Side 2 -- the dramatic, angry, crashing "The Very Last Time," which I hated at first. I thought it was too angry to go with the light pop songs that filled up most of the rest of the album.
Opening with a chiming keyboard-and-guitar phrase and then slamming into a heavy show-offy guitar riff for the choruses, clearly someone here is pissed about a love affair that went bad. And the group vocals on the choruses are great! Some of the lyrics are pretty funny too, in Todd's patented tender-tough-guy vein.
Todd apparently liked "Very Last Time" too -- it ended up on his VERY BEST OF.
So, six pretty-good-to-great songs and one absolute knockout, plus a couple oddities out of 10 -- still scores a solid 65 percent or so on the Spidermeter. Don't know what that is? Look up Spider Robinson's old book-review columns from late-'70s GALAXY science-fiction magazine -- the Spidermeter's a way to grade a multi-part work of art beyond saying "Eh, some were good, some sucked, a knockout or two, what can you do?" Not a utopian outcome maybe, but still the band's best, I think.
Never heard their Beatles-style follow-up DEFACE THE MUSIC more than twice, and heard only "Shinola" off of SWING TO THE RIGHT, which didn't quite seem worth it. Heard at least one more song from later Utopia, "Hammer in My Heart," which was OK in a sort of New-Wave vein. Only heard one song off of Todd's HEALING, the kinda-good "Time Heals." After that I lost track of TR and Utopia until Todd's best-of ANTHOLOGY came out and I caught up on stuff like "Hideaway" and "Bang the Drum All Day."
But back in the day, I thought this version of Utopia could have turned into a pretty good pop band. Don't know why that didn't happen, whether it was because of Todd's eccentricities or what. But ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA is still worth a spin.
More soon, I promise....

Friday, December 6, 2013

Split Enz: WAIATA

But before we get to that, a couple of other things....
First off, sorry for the delays around here. I haven't always been able to hook-up to the Internet lately, plus I had a long Thanksgiving week at work, etc. The usual feeble excuses. I shall henceforth try to do better.
Also: If you have a Kindle, you can now download the first 20 pages of my record-store memoir GUARANTEED GREAT MUSIC! at Amazon.com's Kindle Store for FREE! Hopefully this will entice some of you Out There to give the rest of the book a try.
Those first 20 pages are all details that have never been published anywhere before, describing the record store where I worked, some of the great people I worked with, the atmosphere in the place, some of the fun jobs I got to do as The New Kid, and etc. Hopefully after reading that, you'll want to know MORE. Pretty devious, eh...?
And: By listening to the syndicated music-news-and-reviews radio show SOUND OPINIONS, I was reminded that I forgot to include Patti Smith's WAVE album in my playlist/discography RECORD STORE DAZE. The first side of WAVE is pretty great, especially the should-have-been-hit "Frederick" and "Dancing Barefoot," and the intense side-closer "Revenge."
The more time that goes by and the more things surface that I forgot, the more I feel like I should have let the whole book project "cool off" for a couple more months and THEN given it one last look-over. But then, I'm a perfectionist....

Now then, Split Enz's WAIATA (1981). This is an upbeat, goofy, fun album from the New Zealanders who almost had a hit with 1979's "I Got You" off of TRUE COLOURS. There were two should-have-been hits here, both side-openers: "Hard Act to Follow" and "History Never Repeats." Both these are high-speed, with great, catchy choruses and a trebly, high-impact production. Hear either of these and you'll want to hear the rest of the album. That's how it's supposed to work, right?
"One Step Ahead" was almost a hit -- I remember seeing the silly, abstract, colorful, cockatoo-hair video on MTV. But "One Step Ahead" is also the most "normal"-sounding thing here, the least surprising, and it wore out for me a long time ago.
Beyond that, there's hardly a weak song here. "I Don't Want to Dance" and "Clumsy" are almost companion pieces, about why the singer can't dance for various silly reasons. They're both pretty speedy. "Iris" is a sweet love song with some silly rhymes, and "Wail" is another blast of instrumental high energy.
Over on Side 2, after "History," things get moody with "Walking Through the Ruins," "Ships," and the spooky "Ghost Girl." The album closes with the gorgeous romantic movie-soundtrack-music of the instrumental "Albert of India." I loved it, but then I'm a sucker for a good instrumental. It may strike some of you as Not Rock And Roll.
All this stuff is pretty-much lighter-than-air, hard to take too seriously or even get down about -- even the moody stuff on Side 2. For me, this is a stronger, more memorable album than TRUE COLOURS, and it has never worn-out for me over the years. Three tracks from it are included on the Enz's best-of: "Hard Act to Follow," "History Never Repeats," and "One Step Ahead."
Light, bouncy, energetic, upbeat -- you can't go wrong, really. Worthy of at least four stars, for sure.

Coming soon: Reviews of "one-sided wonders" by Spider, New England, the Tarney/Spencer Band, Holly and the Italians, The Records, and more -- plus reviews of albums by The Headboys, The Rollers, Sally Oldfield, Charlie Dore, Grace Slick, Sky, Group 87, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, and tons more from the 1979-1981 period....