I Can Never Quit

This is the final installment of a three-parter. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Three days after the Billy Joel concert, two days after the record store trip that scored Marshall Crenshaw and War, I turned 20 years old. There’s only one thing about the day that now remains with me.

It was a Monday, so I would have traipsed off to differential equations and computer architecture class at the appropriate moments. I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me that my parents drove in to take me to dinner that evening, as it’s exactly the sort of thing they would do. They were well aware that I’d been very low about the breakup for over a month and no doubt would have wanted to check on my state in person, especially since I hadn’t gone home for the weekend. I don’t remember any of the presents they gave me that year.

It’s the gift from James, likely received before we went to breakfast, that turned out to be the day’s highlight. I guess the Joel ticket I’d given him for Christmas had raised the bar for such occasions, but even so I think I was surprised or flattered (or both) to be handed a twelve-inch square package, obviously an LP. A black, textured cover, with bright green block lettering in the upper left corner. Fear of Music, by Talking Heads.

This was probably not a lucky stab in the dark on his part. Music was of course a frequent topic in our conversations, and it’s reasonable to believe I had expressed interest in learning more about the Heads. After all, “Burning Down the House” had been a Top 10 hit the previous year; this could have led me to relate how much I liked “Take Me to the River” and to recall an extremely favorable writeup of Fear of Music in Stereo Review.

It didn’t take long to throw it on the turntable. I loved it, and maybe just as importantly, James loved it too. While our individual musical explorations wouldn’t always move in the same direction, Talking Heads effectively became our band, the one group we seemed to enjoy equally. Within months I bought More Songs about Buildings and Food and Remain in Light, while James scored ’77. We saw Stop Making Sense multiple times when it was the Friday midnight showing at the Kentucky Theater those last couple of years of college.

So, how do I feel about the eleven songs on Fear of Music today?

11. “Animals”
I don’t get into the groove from the first half of the song. Things pick up when Byrne starts chanting about the titular creatures setting a bad example and living on nuts and berries.

10. “Drugs”
The most atmospheric piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place.

9. “Heaven”
The “we’re going to slow things down for you couples out there” piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place. A bit odd that “Heaven” is the second-best known song on the album but was not released as a single.

8. “Electric Guitar”
James and I came to interject snippets of Byrne’s lyrics into our daily interactions, such as “Warning sign…warning sign” and “Don’t get upset—it’s not a major disaster.” I’m disappointed now that “This is a CRIME…against the STATE” never rose to that level.

Hmm…side two just isn’t measuring up to side one.

7. “I Zimbra”
That moment just as the needle dropped on side one was always exciting, assuming the leadoff track wasn’t already a hit single. This time I got a real winner, with strong hints of what was to come on the band’s next album, Remain in Light.

6. “Air”
My grad school friend Greg doesn’t suffer fools all that well, particularly other drivers. I’ve heard him quip, “Some people never had experience with air,” complete with falsetto on the last word, when someone in his vicinity does something he considers (to put it nicely) lacking in good judgment.

5. “Paper”
I used how often the songs on FoM run through my head as a first-order approximation for these rankings. “Paper” may be the shortest song on the album but it has one of its best guitar riffs, and it definitely rocks the hardest.

4. “Mind”
I knew from “Take Me to the River” that Byrne was an unconventional vocalist, though from how early on and to what degree I couldn’t know fully until hearing those first two albums later in 1984. Still, I think he took it up another notch on FoM, first evident with the various ways he attacks the title word in “Mind.”

My friend Kevin, WTLX’s station manager, hosted a weekly interview show called Transy Talks each Monday evening during our sophomore year. That spring I was asked to run the control board when Kevin interviewed Dr. Humphries, the Academic Dean. I brought Fear of Music down to the studio with me and queued up side one as Kevin was getting the mic set up in the adjacent room (there was a window over the board allowing you to see into it). There’s no telling what Dr. Humphries, who knew me as well as he did any decently performing student, thought when “Mind” played.

(Aside: It’s occurred to me that I considered the Dean to be plenty old when I was a student, so I’ve looked for mention of him online. Turns out he was 59—my current age—the day of that interview.)

3. “Cities”
Fantastic groove they elected to fade in, punctuated by Weymouth’s ascending bass line. Byrne’s feral growling of “find myself a city to live in” at the end sure is something to behold.

2. “Life During Wartime”
It’s just two four-bar riffs interspersed and played over and over, but what a hypnotizing sound. I’ll take this as an excuse to mention again the parody I wrote based on this song about the four-week period at the end of the year we called May Term.

1. “Memories Can’t Wait”
The most sublime moment on the album—if you’re familiar with the song, you know what I’m going to say—comes two-thirds of the way through “Memories Can’t Wait,” that resolution and modulation right before the line, “Everything is very quiet.” Prior to that the sound is constantly driving and swirling (I have no idea how some of it was created), while afterward…well, it’s not very quiet, but it is more conventionally structured, building back up to the satisfying conclusion. This is a strong contender for my favorite Talking Heads song; if I’d had half a brain five-plus years ago, I would have made “These memories can’t wait” this blog’s tag line (but better late than never, I suppose).

FYI: Side two of the very slab of vinyl James gave me (its cover is pictured at the top) is playing on the turntable in my basement as this is being published.

Keeping American Top 40 charts between the ages of 12 and 18 was formative, but I’d point to getting these three albums over a little more than 36 hours in February 1984 as my origin story, when I started becoming that dude who wants to share his musical tastes and the associated stories with the world. There’s the fellow who critics loved but could never break through, the up-and-coming band who’d soon conquer the world, and the group that had already enjoyed their commercial and artistic peak but became so important to two guys on the fourth floor of Clay Hall. I guess the only thing that’s missing from the tale is a female singer-songwriter; alas, Suzanne Vega’s debut album was still a year-and-a-half away.

James was very kind to think of me on my birthday with this present, especially given what a turkey I’d been over the previous month. I couldn’t have been—and still wouldn’t be for another few weeks—enjoyable to live with. When the time came to discuss roomie situations for the next school year, he initially hesitated to commit to continue with me. I gave him time and space to think and decide. In the meantime, another friend checked in on the possibility of rooming with him. My preference was for the status quo—maybe I was wanting to hold on to some degree of continuity in my life. One night some time later, James was ready to talk about it again. He said some very nice things about me, that I was cool to room with, that he’d like to remain roommates. We never considered an alternate arrangement after that. I’m still appreciative of the grace he showed me, deserved or otherwise.

Postscript: My ex-girlfriend and I had another class together in the fall of our junior year, but managed to live essentially parallel lives on our small campus over the last 1.5 years, only rarely interacting. We were in the same place a very few times over the next three decades, a wedding here, a reunion there. At our 30th year reunion in 2016, she and I were part of a group that spent much of the day together; since then, we’ve reestablished a friendship, emailing and/or texting one another periodically. A nontrivial percentage of our correspondence in recent years had to do with James and his declining health. Even though I’d already heard, I really appreciate that she called me that Thursday afternoon last April to make sure I knew he had passed.

I Will Begin Again

This is the middle entry of a three-part series. You can find Part 1 here.

I didn’t go by myself to Cut Corner Records that early evening Saturday in February 1984.

I was hanging out by myself in the dorm room when a freshman swung by. I’ll call him M, which isn’t related to his name. We didn’t know each other that well but had certainly hung out from time to time in the cafeteria the previous fall. A genuinely funny guy, M was a denizen of the Fine Arts building, his academic interests quite different from mine. He took me up on the offer to tag along on my quest for vinyl. Heaven only knows now what we talked about, but the conversation was in part subtext; to an extent each of us was sizing up the other.

Some number of days after this foray, M and my former girlfriend began dating.

From a distance, I’d been getting vibes that something of the sort was possibly developing. I’d never thought of it this way until recently, but it occurs to me now that M sought me out the night after the Billy Joel concert to confirm that she and I weren’t exploring a restart. Assured by whatever I said and/or however I said it, he soon moved forward in gauging her interest. Who knows at this point if that’s what was going on, though? I’m not going to try to find out.

This plot twist probably didn’t help my frame of mind, but, since there wasn’t anything to do except deal with life as it was, I continued climbing out of my hole. By this point my reputation as the Eeyore of Transy was hardening among those in my social network (not unjustifiably, I realize). One way I tried to move beyond that was by getting a t-shirt made at a shop in a local mall. The front was a transfer, a drawing of colorful hot air balloons; the back screamed, “I’M HAPPY!” I think I wore it on three occasions over the rest of the semester, which may have been two times too many.

Regardless, during March I became much more often than not a close approximation of okay to be around. M and my ex continued as a couple through the rest of the school year but not much longer than that, IIRC.

The other LP I’d purchased on 2/11/84 was U2’s War. In the comments below I’ll address how it had landed on my radar, but just like Marshall Crenshaw, it was an A+ selection—it remains, easily, my favorite album from Bono and the boys. There’s no reason to delay any further discussing how I feel about its songs.

10. “The Refugee”
The one that I might not miss if it weren’t here. Maybe just a little too screamy for my tastes?

9. “Drowning Man”
And the tough choices begin in earnest.

It’s clearly a Christian piece, with God or Jesus reaching out to a lost soul in trouble, trying to reassure, I suppose even save. It’s moving, and the haunting electric violin line only amplifies its power.

8. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Putting this iconic song so low speaks (I hope) to the quality of the competition. One of my first exposures to U2 came from MTV, Bono skipping around the stage at Red Rocks, marching forth with a white flag to plant at the front of the stage.

7. “ ’40’ ”
A suitable closing track, inspired by Psalm 40, of course. (As it happens, today is the 40th anniversary of War’s release, a happy accident.) I will say that the version on Under a Blood Red Sky, with its audience participation at the end, is better.

6. “Red Light”
There aren’t many contributions on those early U2 albums from outside the band. Roping in the Coconuts (of Kid Creole and… fame, who happened to be touring in Ireland during War’s recording) for three songs, including “Red Light,” worked out exquisitely. Equally inspired here was the addition of a searing trumpet solo.

5. “Two Hearts Beat as One”
The second single released here in the States, it Bubbled Under for four weeks in July 1983, reaching #101. The frenzied, repeated “I can’t stop the dance/Maybe this is my last chance” at the end is yet another true highlight on the album.

4. “Seconds”
I don’t know why it’s only now that I’m realizing that the Edge is doing lead vocals here—it never did quite sound the same as other songs on the album. Nuclear anxiety was certainly the order of the day when “Seconds” was written.

3. “Like A Song…”
The energy and passion astound.  I attend church regularly, though in many regards I don’t consider myself particularly religious. Nonetheless, “A new heart is what I need/Oh God, make it bleed” feels like the message I should be hearing as I advance beyond middle age.

2. “Surrender”
Maybe this was the beginning of the distinctive, hypnotic Edge sound? The atmosphere he creates here, from the opening, on through the bridge (Bono’s “TO-NIGHT!” at its end? Magnifico.) and into the fadeout perhaps hints at what’s on the horizon for the band.

1. “New Year’s Day”
Here’s another time that the first song you hear from an album winds up being your favorite. While references to “the chosen few” have always—ALWAYS—made me very uncomfortable, I can’t shake my affinity for this tune; the piano part, simple as it is, plays a big role in that. Would only reach #53 on the Hot 100 in May 1983.

While by early 1984 I’d heard “New Year’s Day” and the live version of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” on the radio and seen “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on MTV, I was ultimately moved to purchase War via a review I’d come across in a magazine that belonged to James. He had grown up in a Southern Baptist church; with that came involvement in summer mission trips and ongoing exposure to (and I presume enjoyment of) contemporary Christian music. I have no idea now the name of the magazine, but it was an Evangelical publication of some type. Perhaps I was restless one weekend afternoon during my extended January funk and decided to thumb through it. The music review section naturally attracted my attention. Their pick for Christian Album of the Year for 1983? You guessed it. The reviewer went out of his/her way, maybe multiple times, to reassure the reader that War really was a Christian album. It should be clear by now that I don’t disagree, and even if the CCM scene never appealed to me, the review added enough intrigue to what I already possessed to put War on my “to add” list.

I’ll Be Stronger When She’s Off My Mind

This is the first of a three-part series. I hope to get around to the second and third installments later this month, but we’ll have to see…

In November 1983 I learned that Billy Joel would be playing Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington on his An Innocent Man tour the following February. Even though I was almost 20, I’d yet to attend a rock concert; it was time to change that. The day that tickets went on sale, I walked the few blocks from campus to the Rupp box office and after a short wait in line I secured three seats on the floor, about halfway back and maybe slightly right of center as you look at the stage. My memory is that they cost $15 apiece—those certainly were the days, right?

The other two tickets were Christmas gifts, one for James and the other for my girlfriend. I passed them along before we all parted ways for the break.

My girlfriend broke up with me as soon as we got back on campus in January.

This wasn’t exactly out of the blue. We had both been miserable more often than happy as a couple for a good while (and it’s fair to say that I was responsible for a sizable majority of the misery). Ending the relationship was 100% the correct decision, and to be honest, one didn’t need hindsight to judge that.

But that doesn’t mean that I handled it well. At all. It took a day or two to absorb what was happening, and even then, I perhaps thought it might just be a pause. When it became clear that things really were over, I quickly descended into a deep funk, alternately moping, sulking, and crying. As much as I wish I could say otherwise, I was in a state for multiple weeks, usually sitting alone in the cafeteria at meals, staying in my room most of the rest of the time (it didn’t help that she and I had two classes—differential equations and Western Lit—together that term). I’m still not one to do a good job of trying to hide emotions; my behavior then, however, was well over the line into obvious immaturity. I later learned that my fantasy role-playing gamer friends created a non-playing character based on this excessively hangdog version of me for one of their adventures during this period.

By early February, I think I was behaving—and maybe feeling—more like a normal person. I had been able to concentrate on coursework throughout and not let things slip away there. The day of the concert was fast approaching, though.

I hadn’t asked for the ticket back, and my recollection now is that I insisted she go. I don’t believe I harbored hopes that something might get rekindled—instead, my position was it had been a gift, and it seemed wrong to rescind that.

So when the evening of Friday, February 10, rolled around, the three of us walked downtown together; I suspect conversation was a tad slow and/or awkward. James of course sat in the middle once we got down on the floor. Joel was great, a very good choice for my first concert. Unfortunately, as the night progressed, I became more emotional (“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” was especially hard—I imagine she and I had listened to my copy of The Stranger some during our year-plus of dating). I wasn’t yet ready to spend an evening like this in her company. I should have bowed out instead of going.

I may be wrong about this, but I believe I returned to campus by myself.

The concert, a hiccup on the path to getting past the past, was the beginning of a memorable few days. The next evening, I drove to Cut Corner Records, on the second floor of a dumpy building near the intersection of Limestone and Euclid Avenues, on the periphery of UK’s campus. I bought two albums that night, and it’s not an overstatement to say that my relationship with record-collecting underwent a profound change because of those purchases (along with an LP I received as a gift from James a couple of days later). At that point, I had around two dozen albums—I’d largely stuck with 45s over the years. The size of my collection would explode over the final 2.5 years of college. I’m pretty sure money I was no longer spending on dating wound up going toward obtaining mass quantities of vinyl and cassettes.

This is the first of a series in which I take a close look at those three vital albums entering my life in mid-February 1984; you get the interesting-to-only-a-few-if-that-many personal history as a freebie. Today it’s the scintillating, self-titled debut album from Marshall Crenshaw. Those who’ve been around these parts a while may recall that I learned of Crenshaw from Steve Simels’s rave write-up in the June 1982 issue of Stereo Review. While I don’t know now that I went to Cut Corner that evening with specific LPs in mind to buy, Marshall Crenshaw would have definitely been on my “must seek out someday” list. I’ve continued to give it regular attention across the decades; like the other two I’ll be covering soon, it’s almost certainly in my personal Top 10 albums of all time. Here’s how its twelve tracks rank today:

12. “Girls…”
I would’ve rated this much higher back in the 80s. Maybe one reason it’s slipped is that there’s not a specific ‘girl’ in mind here? It also gets knocked down for being the least rockin’ cut on the album.

11. “Brand New Lover”
I’ve always felt that MC was just a little whiny on this one. This past fall I discovered via my pal The UnCola that Texas rocker Lou Ann Barton recorded it around the same time and included it on her album Old Enough. Barton’s version is true to Crenshaw’s, but the vocals are more muscular.

10. “Soldier of Love”
Speaking of covers… Wikipedia says that Crenshaw chose to record this after hearing the Fab Four version while touring with Beatlemania, unaware that they had discovered it by listening to Arthur Alexander.

9. “Rockin’ Around in NYC”
Crenshaw had landed in the Big Apple from his native Michigan a few years earlier to make his rock-and-roll dreams come true. The influence shows in ways both small and overt, such as in this song title and shouting out “right here in New York” toward the end of #4 below.

8. “Not for Me”
For years I thought of this and “Brand New Lover,” the last two songs on side two, as just not quite as good as the rest of the album; times change. Today I’m hearing echoes of what my ex could have been thinking at the time of our breakup: “If I follow your direction, where would I be?”

7. “I’ll Do Anything”
James and I never saw eye to eye about Crenshaw. I don’t know any specific reason he didn’t cotton to Marshall’s songs, but it almost became a running joke, me trying to convince James that this and later albums were quality stuff. The conversation usually ended with a derisive snort. This has nothing to do whatsoever with “I’ll Do Anything,” a romp that belongs on that mixtape you’d make for your sweetie soon after you start dating. But I’d give a lot to have another musical conversation, even about stuff on which we disagreed, with James right now.

6. “Mary Anne”
One of the many nice touches on this one is how the backup voices alternate between “Don’t cry Mary Anne” and “You’ll be alright.”

5. “The Usual Thing”
It starts with a bang-bang chorus, and I love the way Crenshaw’s voice is double-tracked here.

4. “She Can’t Dance”
I don’t think it’s accidental that the first two tracks from each side comprise my top four—they’d picked the most arresting pieces for those slots. The kickoff for side two is a near-perfect distillation of the power pop/new wave zeitgeist of the moment, about a young woman totally into those very sounds.

3. “There She Goes Again”
I was familiar with only one song when I purchased Marshall Crenshaw, so I couldn’t know exactly what to expect as the needle dropped on side one upon my return to the dorm. The opening bars of “There She Goes Again” led me to quickly understand I’d made the right call.

2. “Cynical Girl”
A favorite from the first time I heard it, another of those songs that just leaps from the speakers and takes me someplace magical. My guess is that it’s producer Richard Gottehrer hammering away on the glockenspiel.

1. “Someday, Someway”
Simels’s review meant I was primed for this one when it reached AT40 in August 1982. The song continued bouncing around my head after I started college; whistling it during chemistry lab one Tuesday afternoon in the opening weeks of the semester may have caught my lab partner/then-future girlfriend’s ear? Yes, this album goes all the way back to the beginning of the story, too.

Get Dressed Up and Messed Up

This has been Go-Go’s Week on SiriusXM’s 1st Wave channel. They’ve been playing songs from the recently inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers every hour, and later this afternoon they’re premiering a new concert of the band playing at one of their old haunts, the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. This fall has also marked the 40th anniversary of the release of their landmark debut album Beauty and the Beat, the first by an all-female band to reach #1 on the LP chart. It’s all made me decide to revisit a piece I started a couple of years ago in which I provide a personal ranking of BatB’s tracks.

I was a senior in HS when the Go-Go’s broke out; they broke up (the first time) before I got out of college. To a decent degree, theirs was a classic case of a band not knowing what to do once success came their way: neither of their other 80s albums, Vacation and Talk Show, came close to matching Beauty (though “Vacation” may be my single favorite song of theirs).

This week I discovered I wanted to shuffle the original order made two years ago, mostly among the songs ranked #4-#7. Here’s where they fall today.

#11. “Can’t Stop the World.” There are a few albums I’ve fallen in love with over the years for which the last two or three tracks just aren’t quite up to the same quality as the rest. Beauty is one of those (a couple others are The Stranger and Marshall Crenshaw); so, guess which three tracks we’re seeing first? The last song on side two is Kathy Valentine’s sole songwriting credit.

#10. “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep).” Like the Fifth Dimension’s “I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” this song is an ode to a Unisom failing to do its duty, except that it’s written in second-person sympathy rather than first-person anguish.

#9. “Skidmarks on My Heart.” The only track on the album that has a Carlisle co-writing credit. Full marks for extending a metaphor seamlessly (and amusingly) throughout the whole piece (as well as for the retro guitar solo).

#8.  “We Got the Beat.” Time to stir the pot a bit. I was not nearly as much of a fan of “We Got the Beat” in real time as I had been of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s a plenty good song, deserving of being a (big) hit.

Its success on the chart, reaching #2 as a second single, had a parallel from almost three years earlier in Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” In the end, the Go-Go’s wound up with greater fame and acclaim, of course, but at the time it felt to me like both of those songs—each group’s biggest hit—scaled their heights partially out of building momentum.

#7. “Lust to Love.” A worthy entry in the “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” genre of song. The album’s first side is just so good.

#6. “This Town.” Echoes of the sixties abound in this sarcasm-drenched take on the joys of living in L.A.  Like “Lust to Love,” there’s musical interest in the repeated shifts in tempo between verse and chorus.

#5. “Automatic.” I didn’t buy this album until three or four years after its release. My first exposure to the non-singles came soon after I went to college in the fall of 1982. I walked over to the women’s dorm one Friday afternoon early in the semester to visit a classmate who grew up close to where I did—I was giving her a ride home for the weekend. Her roommate was playing side two when I got there. This one, along with “Fading Fast,” made an immediate, positive impression. The minimalist lyrics and the metronome-y beat still work some magic.

#4. “How Much More.” In listening again to BatB this week, I’m picking up on how often Gina Schock goes the rapid drum fill route. Perhaps my friend Warren, who’s worked his share of gigs behind a kit and knows much more about the history of rock drumming than I do, can tell me how much she’s trying to evoke the past on this record.

#3. “Fading Fast.” A great kiss-off tune. I like the way we don’t get the reason for the breakup until the end of the second verse. It’s a simple line that Charlotte Caffey is playing on keyboards in the chorus, yet it may be as responsible as anything for making me want to own this record.

#2. “Tonite.” A brilliant portrait of the band’s hard-partying days (okay, nights) before they made it big; I am sorely, sorely tempted to rank it first. Peter Case, then a denizen of the same scene as a member of the Plimsouls, has a co-writing credit.

#1. “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Maybe a little boring/predictable to go with one of the hits at the top, but this is a truly landmark piece, still plenty fresh. I loved it from the start—it made #1 on my own chart in January of 1982. (I hinted in this post from almost two years ago it would rank a lot higher than “We Go the Beat.”)

For the video feature, though, let’s go with “Tonite.” Here’s hoping it’s part of their show at the Whiskey. The clip is from a show they gave at a high school on 12/4/81, just as things were starting to break for them.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/29/83: Fleetwood Mac, “Love in Store”

Whether it was fully intentional or not, one of the things that happened after I began buying LPs much more frequently (usually at Cut Corner Records) in the spring of 1984 was stocking up on previously owned copies of Buckingham/Nicks era Fleetwood Mac albums. I skipped over Live, but the other four wound up in my hot little mitts in fairly short order. While not the classic that Fleetwood Mac and Rumours are, I found Mirage rather charming from the get-go. After listening to it again a couple of times over this past week, here’s a decent approximation of its tracks ordered in terms of personal preference.

12. “Only Over You”
The one song on the album I wouldn’t miss. I can confirm Wikipedia’s claim that Christine McVie offers “special thanks for inspiration to Dennis Wilson” for this song on the lyric sheet.

11. “Straight Back”
Stevie contributed just three songs to Mirage; maybe she was holding back a bit for The Wild Heart? This one might not have been out of place there.

10. “Empire State”
Buckingham had quite a few punchy, sub-3:00 pieces appear on FM albums over the years, including three on Mirage. This ode to NYC opens up side two.

9. “Can’t Go Back”
When I bought Mirage, I knew only the hits. I kinda remember the first time I played the album on my stereo back in the dorm: I recognized upon hearing “Can’t Go Back” rev up right after “Love in Store” that I’d made a sound purchase.

8. “Hold Me”
That “Hold Me” reached #9 on my personal chart is more a tribute to its lengthy run than my high esteem, though I fully admit it’s a quality piece. Still not sure about that “damage/manage” rhyme, however.

7. “Book of Love”
Three of Buckingham’s five contributions, including “Book of Love,” were co-written with co-producer Richard Dashut. This one’s a mid-tempo meditation on end-of-relationship angst (i.e., getting dumped).

6. “Love in Store”
I don’t really think of the two Christine-penned singles as fully hers, since Lindsey (and Stevie, to a lesser extent) has such a strong vocal presence on both. This is sitting at #22 for the third week on this show; it’d turn out to be the Mac’s last appearance on AT40 for more than four years.

5. “Eyes of the World”
Steve Simels singles this song out for praise in the October 1982 issue of Stereo Review, particularly noting Buckingham’s acoustic/electric guitar interplay toward the end. What stands out for me now is the single word “eyes,” repeated over as a sort of chorus, foreshadowing what was to come on Go Insane.

4. “That’s Alright”
A gently-rollicking kiss-off, as maybe only Nicks could pull off.

3. “Oh Diane”
A top 10 hit in England; I’d like to know what it might have done as a fourth single stateside.

2. “Wish You Were Here”
Since I never got around to repurchasing Mirage on CD, I’d put it aside for a long time. When I finally wheeled it out again on YouTube, I was struck by how well I could sing along with “Wish You Were Here.” It must be on one of the now-broken mix tapes I made my senior year that I absolutely must find a way to fix. Simply a stunner.

1. “Gypsy”
I’m pretty irrational in my love for “Gypsy.” Outside of “Silver Springs,” it’s my favorite song from Nicks. I’ve always liked the extended version in the video, and I’m a sucker for all that joyful dancing in the rain, too. But why is only just now that I’m picking up on the phrase “velvet underground” in the opening line?

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/5/81: REO Speedwagon, “In Your Letter”

Even at the beginning of my senior year in HS, I was buying only the occasional LP—maybe I had around a dozen by then. One, likely purchased sometime early in the summer of 1981, was REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity. I liked it pretty well; it definitely got quite a few spins on my dad’s turntable in our basement back then. While in college, I picked up You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish and Wheels Are Turnin’, but it’s fair to say that Hi Infidelity is still the REO album I know best overall.

A quick check at setlist.fm tells me that the Speedwagon played Champaign once while I was at UIUC, in November 1987. I didn’t go, and I don’t really recall any swelling sense of love for the hometown heroes during my time there, either. Nonetheless, I tip my hat to them for working hard and making good.

As I’ve done with other albums from my teen years that I owned, I’m taking a crack at ranking Hi Infidelity’s tracks.

10. “I Wish You Were There”
I get that rock bands need to do the ballad thing (though that’s frequently not my thing), and I guess this one isn’t terrible? It didn’t do much for me back in 1981, either, though.

9. “Don’t Let Him Go”
Third single, got to #24 the first two weeks of August. I seem to remember a school dance early that fall (DJ’ed by students) where this one got played—it cleared the floor. I’m just hoping I wasn’t the one responsible for that…

8. “Shakin’ It Loose”
How many times did I listen to this album after I graduated from HS, though? Very, very few. I’ll confess now that the names of the last three songs on side two didn’t trigger any music in my head prior to playing them earlier today. That said, I like this one fine—nice piano solo from Neal Doughty, for sure—but it’s still pretty close to filler.

7. “Someone Tonight”
Bassist Bruce Hall wrote it and sang lead. The sentiment behind the lyric is, um, uninspiring. Nonetheless, it’s a decent little rocker with good harmonies.

6. “In Your Letter”
This week’s #28 song, heading toward a peak of #20. I’m surprising myself a little by placing it as high as this, given that it didn’t exactly groove me in real time; I’m coming around to admiring it for channeling the pop of years past.

5. “Keep on Loving You”
On the other hand, maybe this one’s the victim of hearing it too much over the decades. It made #1 on my own chart for two weeks at the end of February (see, I can like rock ballads). Full credit for the “missin’/listen/hissin’” rhyme in verse one.

4. “Take It on the Run”
One of three songs—along with “I Love You” and “Sweetheart”—that became instant favorites in April and dominated my charts in May (got to #5 on the Hot 100, three weeks at #2 for me). This one may be the reason I bought the album. I remember it getting played over PAs at track meets that spring.

3. “Tough Guys”
Does Gary Richrath’s screaming guitar sound add to the song or not? I’m torn. This one has more fun writing (great second verse, and I’m a fan of “she’s gonna call your bluff, guys”). I’ll also cop to approval of the Little Rascals intro.

2. “Out of Season”
Another pop-rock gem. I was listening to WEBN, the AOR station in Cincinnati, quite a bit at this point, and I have to believe they were playing all of the top 3 in this list that summer. Classic song structure, but so well-executed.

1. “Follow My Heart”
First heard this by flipping over my “Keep On Loving You” 45, and liked it immediately. The urgency was palpable to a 17-year-old, not that I had any reason to relate to Kevin Cronin’s dilemma. It’s the cut from Hi Infidelity I would pick to take with me if made to choose just one, so that puts it at the top of the list. (It was the third song in the mixtape series that kicked off this blog, too.)

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/5/77: Al Stewart, “Year of the Cat”

It’s time to complete the trilogy I started almost a year ago in which I take a look back at three of the first LPs in my collection, attempting to order their tracks in some semblance of personal preference. First it was Silk Degrees, then A New World Record. Now, it’s Al Stewart’s first experience with big success, Year of the Cat.

Stewart had been kicking around for about ten years by this point, slowly gaining a following, perhaps more in the U.S. than the UK. Year of the Cat was his seventh album, and the second (of three) to be produced by Alan Parsons. Everything came together: an impeccable array of instrumentation ranging from Spanish guitar through violin, harmonica, and piano to saxophone, as well as a dazzling landscape of topics transformed into thoughtful, well-constructed poetry. The public was buying, as it climbed to #5 on the Billboard album chart. Still surprisingly fresh-sounding, coming on almost forty-five years later. Let’s take a look, why don’t we? I’ll include one of my favorite lyrics from each song.

9. “Midas Shadow”
The one song on the album that I might not miss if it weren’t there. It’s hardly bad–I’m generally a sucker for rhymes across verses–but it doesn’t stick with me afterward. Memorable line: “Conquistador in search of gold, for all the jackdaw reasons.”

8. “Sand in Your Shoes”
Perkier-sounding than the subject matter seems to dictate. I assume the title, which comes not from the lyrics, sums up how the rejected suitor feels about his former love. Memorable line: “And you lay there by the Do Not signs, and shamed them with your spark.”

7. “On the Border”
Basically impossible to separate the next four: ask another day, and I’d sort them some other way. The only of Stewart’s charting singles not to make the Top 40–it fell two spots shy in May of 1977–and also the only not to feature scorching sax work. Memorable line: “No one notices the customs slip away.”

6. “One Stage Before”
This one is much more about the music than the words for me, particularly the synthesizer rhythm underpinning it all. Simply mesmerizing, and a nice meditation on becoming one with performers of the past to boot. Memorable line: “Although we may not meet still you know me well.”

5. “Lord Grenville”
I wonder now what I thought about this album the first time I put it on the turntable of my father’s stereo. I can see being captivated by this sweeping opening number about sailors on the run, even while not understanding its references. History Lesson #1: Sir Richard Grenville was a 16th-century explorer/sailor who bravely/foolishly met his match going against the Spanish Armada. Memorable line: “I never thought that we would come to find ourselves upon these rocks again.”

4. “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It”
Stewart does an amazing job throughout, matching sounds and making it all feel so natural. Memorable line: “Well I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage of all that I wanted from life.”

3. “Broadway Hotel”
The B-side to the 45 for “Year of the Cat.” I flipped over many of the early singles I bought when playing DJ on my little turntable, and “Broadway Hotel” was among the best I discovered that way (I dearly love the violin solo and the piano/guitar on the outro). It’s possible that it’s what pushed me to take a chance on the album. Memorable line: “And a door sign keeps the world away behind the shades of your silent day.”

2. “Flying Sorcery”
It took over a decade to really appreciate this one. Year of the Cat was in the first wave of albums I re-purchased on CD, in the spring of 1988; listening one time in our apartment on Elm St. I was suddenly and permanently charmed by the narrator’s affection for his female pilot friend. History Lesson #2: Amy Johnson’s story is amazing, if you don’t know it. Memorable line: “Just call me if you ever need repairs.” Gets me every time.

1. “Year of the Cat”
Hardly a surprise. It was #20 on this show, steaming toward a #8 peak. Its trip up and down the chart was relatively quick, so it wound up only at #98 on AT40‘s year-end rankings for 1977. Memorable line: So many, but we’ll go with “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.”

American Top 40 PastBlast, 10/15/77: Electric Light Orchestra, “Telephone Line”

Several months ago, when going through the songs on Silk Degrees, I noted that Year of the Cat and A New World Record had come into my possession at roughly the same time (the last quarter of 77) and speculated that perhaps I’d take a closer look at those two LPs someday. It appears the Electric Light Orchestra’s time has arrived. 

ELO was definitely in the running for my favorite band between 76 and 80—I guess that really started with “Strange Magic” and solidified as the singles from ANWR were released. The album was part of my haul at Christmas; I’ve never really stopped listening to it, and it’s on the short list for my top ten all-time albums. There isn’t a bad track, so ranking its songs is difficult and is going to result in slighting some great tunes. Nonetheless, let’s give it a try. (As I’ve noted before, this kind of exercise isn’t original with me–full credit goes to Jim Bartlett.)

9. “Above the Clouds.” The shortest song on the album, and I guess I’d say there’s less going on in it than the others. I don’t fly often, but when it’s daylight and I have a window seat, the lines, “The only thing you can see/Is the view above the clouds,” are sure to be running through my head.

8.“Mission (A World Record).” Just your average tale about an extraterrestrial sent to observe us Earthlings who winds up having an existential crisis. It’s one I wish I were able to rate higher.

7. “Do Ya.” One of the famed forty-four songs that were on the mix tape series that kicked off this blog. It gets knocked down a bit here because it’s less orchestral and so sounds a little out of place relative to the other tracks. 

6. “Shangri-La.” I just don’t know enough about the history of rock to play ‘spot the influence’ very well, but we’re all aware that Jeff Lynne mined musical nuggets from the 50s and 60s with abandon, particularly the Beatles. The album’s closer, a meditation on love gone wrong, name-checks “Hey Jude,” and that quiet section before the final swell maybe makes me think just a little of the fadeout/return trick the Fab Four did on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Helter Skelter.”

5. “Tightrope.” We can tell we’re in for a great ride from the get-go of Side 1, Song 1: the long, slow string intro, the change in point of view as verse shifts to chorus, the answered cry for help. Plus, we get the magically-metered, syncopated “The city streets are full of people going nowhere making time.”

4. “So Fine.” I had a big crush on a girl in my church youth group for a big chunk of 79 and 80. My family lived in the next county over from Erlanger, and she and I went to different high schools. In December 79, our boys’ basketball teams faced off in my school’s gym. She was a member of their flag corps; they did a halftime routine to this song that night. Kudos to the coach for her excellent taste!

That’s not why I like “So Fine” so much–that’d be its energy, the buildup throughout the instrumental interlude, and that soaring chorus–but apparently there are some things you don’t forget.

3. “Telephone Line.” I can see the case for “Telephone Line” being the best song on ANWR. It’s certainly another great, dramatic piece. I think I just got a little burned out on it toward the end of its run and never fully recovered.

It’s at #18 on this show, having topped out at #7. “Don’t Bring Me Down” peaked higher, but based on the length of time on the Hot 100, it’s reasonable to say that “Telephone Line” was ELO’s biggest hit. A friend up the street from me owned the translucent green 45—I was thinking that we had a purple copy of the “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” single, but if so, I haven’t seen it in a long time.

2. “Livin’ Thing.” One of the 45s I played over and again during that frigid winter of 77, and still one of my fave AT40 songs from that period. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle,” the B-side, was quite good as well. 

1. “Rockaria!” A near-perfect distillation of what Lynne appears to want to do on this record: create a contemporary-sounding integration of the elements of classical music and early rock ‘n’ roll. Great storytelling, too, wherein our heroine does that very thing. I loved this dearly from the first time I heard it. 

My father collected a lot of classical music on vinyl in the 60s and 70s, and at least some of it was opera, though I didn’t have the impression he was an ardent fan. Following his death, I took a few hundred slabs of vinyl to the Cincinnati Public Library for them to sell (someone had the opportunity to get some nice stuff, I know).  I kept a few of his albums for myself, mostly to serve as a small reminder of what he’d assembled; one was a 3-LP recording of Carmen.

It seems to me that “Rockaria!” (which I pronounced “Rock-a-REE-ah” back in the day) would have been right up Dad’s alley. Alas, I can’t recall him ever commenting on it. But it’s alright.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/16/77: Boz Scaggs, “Lido Shuffle”

The first LP I ever bought was a joint effort with my sister. It was April 76, and Amy and I were all about the Captain and Tennille. “Love Will Keep Us Together” probably had been my fave song of 75, and I was now digging on “Lonely Night (Angel Face).” So one day we gave up a big chunk of our savings at Sid’s Elsmere Drugs for a copy of Song of Joy. I haven’t listened to it in years—Amy wound up with it, I assume—and only a couple of the songs beyond the singles would ring a bell today.

It’d be well over a year before there were any albums added to my collection—the money that wasn’t going for baseball cards was being spent on 45s. The next three to come on board were all simply amazing, though. I received A New World Record for Christmas in 77, but sometime in the late fall I’d splurged and bought two others on my own: Year of the Cat and Silk Degrees (I think The Stranger was next; I really can’t complain about getting maximum bang for my buck back then.)

I may do a turn with those ELO, Al Stewart, and Billy Joel albums someday, but today I’m going to take a shot at ranking the tracks on the one from Boz, a la Jim Bartlett’s Re-Listening Project.

Silk Degrees was Scaggs’s 7th solo album, his fourth on Columbia. Collaborating with David Paich, who plays keyboards and wrote or co-wrote six of the ten songs on offer, looks now to be the key decision that helped push Boz over the top. The vocals are stellar, and there’s incredible session work from everyone, including Paich’s future Toto bandmates David Hungate (bass) and Jeff Porcaro (drums). It boggles my mind that Porcaro was just 21 when this was recorded.

The album cover is iconic now, but the photo on the inside sleeve has always had me wondering: why is there a red carpet leading out to a palm tree?

Let it all begin…

10. “Harbor Lights.” I’m not in the least opposed to Boz doing a ballad (see #5), but I’ve never really felt the love for “Harbor Lights.” That pepped-up jazzy section at the end is a bit of a cipher, too.

9. “What Can I Say.” The opening track and third single released; it made #42 as 76 turned into 77. It’s fine, but there are two, maybe three others I’d have considered as a single ahead of it. It feels like I’m a little out on a limb here, ranking this so low.

8. “Jump Street.” True confession: I’m not a rock critic, though I seem to play one occasionally in this space. I’m not a lifelong Scaggs fan who knows a bunch of his catalog; I’m just a guy who enjoyed many of the singles and album cuts I heard on the radio when I was in my teens and was lucky enough to buy Silk Degrees at a formative time. So I can’t tell you anything about how the blues or R&B or Steve Miller impacted Boz’s work over the years. The blues-rocker “Jump Street” was not one of my favorites back in the day, but it’s growing on me now, especially when I get the chance to shout “Look out, fool!”

7. “Love Me Tomorrow.” Here’s where we get to the songs I really liked from the beginning. Porcaro’s work stands out on this slinky tune about a love affair at its end.

6. “It’s Over.” The first single, and not an unreasonable choice at all for that honor. Was #38 on the first chart I wrote down, 6/5/76. Not surprisingly, 12-year-old me didn’t get Boz’s last name right from listening to Casey that evening.


Sometime later I corrected it, clearly, but it looks like maybe I wrote down ‘Gangs’ originally.

What strikes me about the song now is its relatively unconventional vocal opening: the first four lines are sung only by the backup singers (okay, it’s Boz, with Maxine Green). It’s a very solid piece.

5. “We’re All Alone.” My Joel Whitburn book informs me that this was the B-side to both “What Can I Say” and “Lido Shuffle.” (“Harbor Lights” was the flip to the first two singles.) Because I’d purchased the 45 for “Lido” when it was a hit, I was already quite familiar with “We’re All Alone” by the time Rita Coolidge hit the Top 10 with her (inferior) cover in the fall. I was a total doofus at school dances, but if I hadn’t been, it would have been a tough choice between this and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” for best Boz slow-dance song (not that either ever got played at any dance I attended, anyway).

4. “What Do You Want the Girl to Do.” At first I thought there was a clear order to these ten songs, but as I got closer to publishing, further reflection led to revisions—only the top 3 and last one have stayed in their original spots (I wound up swapping this with “We’re All Alone”).

Silk Degrees was the third album in a row Boz included at least one Allen Toussaint song. Even when I was 13 and 14, this track stood out. The line, “Can’t you see you’re breaking the child in two,” has been known to pop into my head at random moments over the years.

3. “Lowdown.” I’m not sure I can add anything new about “Lowdown.” I do know I haven’t gotten tired of hearing it yet. Deserved to be his biggest hit; it’s probably single-handedly responsible for Silk Degrees getting its Grammy nominations. Still, it’s a touch surprising this is the only time Scaggs made the Top 10.

2. “Georgia.” Story of a man separated, for crimes unspecified, from his love. Is it a kind of “Indiana Wants Me” situation? Is Georgia underage? I don’t know, but despite any potential skeeviness, I would have loved to find out how it would have fared as a single. The chorus is fantastic, but even that’s transcended by the last thirty seconds on the way to fade-out. I still hear it surprisingly often over the PA at grocery and department stores (this happens with #4 as well, though less frequently).

1. “Lido Shuffle.” My homeroom teacher in 7th grade was Mr. Gayle, who also taught English. Seats were assigned alphabetically column-wise in a snake-like fashion (front to back one column, then back to front the next), starting at the door. I wound up in the front seat in the 4th column, right in front of Mr. Gayle’s desk. As the school year proceeded, he and I shared more and more often our opinions on the popular hits of the day. I lobbied for “The Things We Do for Love,” but he hated it (I’m sure things went the other direction on other songs, too). We both agreed on the epic-ness of “Lido Shuffle,” however.

There are any number of tunes vying for the title of “greatest song ever to peak at #11 on the Hot 100,” but I’d nominate “Lido Shuffle” for consideration, at least in the 70s division (it’s #17 on this show). Driving beat and a fun sing-along chorus—thankfully, the building Moog solo at the end has managed to avoid sounding dated. Back in the day I ranked this as my second favorite song of 77 (behind “Year of the Cat”); I’d be hard-pressed to place anything above it still, though “Go Your Own Way” has been gaining ground over the years.

Ranking Songs on Albums: REM, “Automatic for the People”

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the release of REM’s last great album, the somber Automatic for the People.  A week ago, the band celebrated by setting out upon us a three-disk Deluxe Edition–could be on my Christmas list!  In honor, here’s my ranking of its twelve tunes (with more than just a nod to jb, who’s done this sort of thing for great late 70s albums such as Rumours, Some Girls, and Hotel California).

#12.  “Sweetness Follows.”  Truth be told, the bottom four are pretty easy for me.  The worst is hardly bad, but I’ve never taken time to get much into this one.

#11.  “Star Me Kitten.”  Its atmosphere is definitely of a piece with the rest of the album.  It just hasn’t grabbed me like many of the others.

#10.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”  Not a whole, whole lot going on here, but I do hear an ode to the Crescent City.

#9.  “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” A stronger tune than I thought upon first listen back in the day.  I don’t know all that much about Montgomery Clift—his career was derailed by a car accident and he died pretty young—but Michael Stipe clearly found him a sympathetic character.

#8.  “Drive.”  Now the rankings get harder, with some of the prominent tunes popping up.  This, the first track and lead single, is an obvious paean to the early 74 hit “Rock On,” by David Essex.  It’s done in such a way, though, that it sets in place an almost funereal tone for the whole album.

#7.  “Man on the Moon.”  Maybe the most well-known song on Automatic, even if it’s in part because its title was lent as the name of the subsequent Andy Kaufman biopic. Lots of good name-checking going on.

#6.  “Ignoreland.”  Righteous anger and social commentary galore from Stipe and company here.  This is the one to crank.

#5.   “Find the River.”  On the other end of the spectrum is the closing song.  Beautiful, introspective work about searching out one’s path.  It took some time for it to stand out and move its way up the list.

#4.  “Try Not to Breathe.”  Moving piece on death and dying. It’s one I’ve liked from the beginning.

#3.  “Everybody Hurts.”  This is almost certainly the most important song on the album, though not my favorite.  I had moved back to KY after six years in IL several weeks before Automatic came out.  Soon after, my dissertation advisor predicted in an email that this would be REM’s first #1 song.  Didn’t work out that way, but it’s an incredibly affecting work.  The video only enhances its power.  Probably should be #2 on the list, but…

#2.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” …I’ve got to go with the fun, sing-along piece here instead.  I love that they used a take where Stipe’s voice catches, holding back laughter right after singing, “…and a reading from Dr. Suess.”  Still, I honestly hear/feel more than a tinge of sorrow on this one, too.

#1.  “Nightswimming.” Love the piano line, love the oboe, love the strings, love the vulnerability, love the longing for times past.  Grade A+ stuff.  In my REM All-Time Top 5, for sure. Let’s give it a whirl.