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Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Best of Steppenwolf - Reborn To Be Wild

When I was a little tyke in the '70's, Steppenwolf, like Donovan or The Beach Boys or any other surviving '60's artists, were mainly getting radio play for their famous tracks.  Very few new tunes would become radio staples for these bands.  It's easy to understand why a radio station would want to play songs already ingrained in the culture, but why would it shun a successful artists' new work simply because there might be new music to buzz about (and sell in bigger numbers than an artist everyone has known for sometime)?

Though I spent the '80's adoring the sheen and purpose of the newest and last wave of musical revolution, I also backtracked to the artists I grew-up on.  Album by album, I returned to the past to dig-up albums I'd never heard, from artist's worthy of a listen.

One day, around '89 or '90 I was visiting the cheap-o VHS racks at Osco (then the current name of Thifty's locations) and thought, "Why not look-over the audio cassettes?" Knowing the pathetic selection doesn't deter one from checking.  I'd be happy to find titles I already had or decent 'best ofs' for other customers to discover.  One of these collections was from a band that would create my favorite catalog of music ... The Kinks.  It was a red colored collection from Spain with a picture of the band on a stage with no title.  Perusing the song list, there was only one song on it that I didn't have.  In these days, shelling out $7.99 for only one song was an economic no-no.  But, I was just about to change gears in my record-buying life and start doing just that.  The song was "Lincoln County" by Dave Davies.  After many weeks of picking this cassette up, looking at it, and putting it back, I finally dove in.  (CDs having just come out at the tail-end of '87 here in Los Angeles, I eventually bought all the '60's Kinks albums as imports.  A special release, The Album That Never Was would represent the unissued and previously issued songs of brother Dave from this period and it would have this track.)

The only other cassette I looked at with curiosity and surprise was a 'best of' from Steppenwolf lamely entitled The Best of Steppenwolf - Reborn To Be Wild.  As predictable a title as it was, it actually described the contents correctly because none of the famous songs I had known as a child were on it.  In addition to that fact, the cover was gripping.  Again, while being predictably tough with leather and bikes, the fact that they were wearing masks was frightening, but not gory.  This peaked my interest.

I don't know why I bought it.  Maybe I was hoping that one or two songs would be worth the $7.99 in spite of the fact that losing $8 bucks to a possible bummer was taking a chance.  In these days, $3.99 was the acceptable bargain price for new records and $2.99 to $0.99 being the norm at the local used-record stores for new recordings that were cut-outs, having clipped corners, hole punches, or record company stamps to reserve right of ownership.

Discovering the '70's incarnation of Steppenwolf was a refreshing journey down a path I was already on.  One where smart words matched with powerful music created images like any book or movie.  I'd also never known that a collection culled from original studio albums could be strong enough to tell a story of its own.  I thought that was just something I did at home when I'd make my own collections pulled from all the studio albums.  This is the only 'best of' I've heard that has the power to be considered a storytelling masterpiece!  The song order gels, the stories are all on the same serious theme, and the music all fits seamlessly together.

Replacing cassettes with vinyl and compact discs, I eventually came across a vinyl copy of their album Slow Flux.  I was so excited!  From the shine of the metallic cover to the playlist that included songs from the 'best of'.  Welp, major disappoitment.  The songs it had that weren't on the 'best of' seemed unnecessary or downright average.  Fast forward to the CD which contains all 3 albums from this period: Slow Flux, Hour Of The Wolf, and Skullduggery and the same problem remains.  Regardless, a big round of applause for one of the greatest albums of all time, whether accidental or not.

  • Straight Shootin' Woman
  • Hard Rock Road
  • Another's Lifetime
  • Mr. Penny Pincher
  • Smokey Factory Blues
  • Caroline (Are You Ready For The Outlaw World)
  • Get Into The Wind
  • Gang War Blues
  • Children Of Night
  • Skullduggery

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Debut Albums Are Not Always Their Best Albums

Before I start, can I say that I hate the self-titled album concept?  Who came up with this?  Forever we have to say, "You know, man.  The one with the such & such on the cover."  What a treat!  Even worse is when it's not even their first record!!!  Or the ultimate, they do it twice!!!

So, how many times have you heard supposed fans talking about how great that first album was?  Even if they're right it's annoying enough that you wish you could bring the artist in question into the discussion, like Woody Allen does in Annie Hall.  Always, in my experience, it would be fans that were of age when the record came out.  Someone born after a band has been and gone can, possibly, not have that prejudice.  (Not until a band drills home a certain playlist year after year to appease that fan base.)

Luckily, some artists have so many different periods that one has to acknowledge something good about each period.  You would think they could anyway, but I've heard Ziggy era Bowie fans slamming his '80's pop as if it had no value at all.  Of course, these people didn't come back to him when it was time for Tin Machine either.  They were too busy praising the latest watered-down indie guitar sounds of the late '80's.

But let's mention a few debuts that would be eclipsed by better records at a later date, beginning with an artist who, thankfully, gave his first record a name:

Julian Lennon - Valotte This 1984 debut was terribly exciting to imagine when first hearing about it, but was quite a curiousity once in hand.  Hmmmm, he's not a rocker.  Good songs, bad songs, great production, overblown production.  Oh well...I'm in!

This album is Julian's biggest seller for obvious reasons.  "Oh my God, he sounds just like his father!" Well, seemingly so at the time, but not when you get used to his catalog over time.  But, nonetheless, he's got that vocal box in his throat.  It's pretty close!

Also, coming after the death of his famous father, everyone was ready to read into every lyric that he was gonna tell us all his thoughts about it.  He didn't. We read into it anyway, at least emotionally.  Once the world was over it, they were done with Julian too.  Didn't help that his first 3 records were heavy with sappy ballads and the sound of session players being very into their instruments rather than songcraft.  But, a funny thing happened on the way to the third album, Mr. Jordan.  Julian started to experiment.  "Now You're In Heaven" taps into the Robert Palmer style hit with a Bowie vocal.  This would be a sign of a masterpiece still to come, 1991's Help Yourself.  His first record with an actual conceptual cover to match, unlike the first three which had his face.  Also, Bob Ezrin, producing (for better or worse).  This is the album to buy.  Go ahead and get the debut though. It has "Valotte", "Too Late For Goodbyes" and the perfect "Say You're Wrong" and the decent, but dated, "OK For You".  Just know you're gonna get stuck with "Jesse".  The song that still makes me wince.  Chalk it up to storytelling necessity, I guess.

Aerosmith - self-titled  All I can say here is that Get Your Wings is so much better than the first album that everyone probably agrees on this one.  (Think the same could apply to Nirvana's Bleach and Rush's first.)

Led Zeppelin - self-titled  To be realistic, I don't think anyone would say that the second record is better than, just more of the same greatness that was this band.  I personally have reached for the second album more.  Probably because of the short-form songs, but now I don't listen to either.  I prefer to imagine their third as the beginning.  Not nice, I know, but its vibe is just less T&A, so I dig it more as a starting point.

Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who.  Ok, we don't need to bring up any first wave British Invasion groups.  All these bands re-wrote the book on rock history just as soon as they could break out of the mold.  But, their first albums are from that mold (although they contain some revolutionary songs that we all know).

Blondie - self-titled  After the excitement of variety coming from Plastic Letters, one could almost forget to pull this one off the shelf ever again.  It's a must-have, but, Plastic!

Blur - Leisure  One starts to think there's something good going on amid the repetitious drumming, but hold-up !  Modern Life Is Rubbish comes to show that's it's one of the best records of the '60's that happened to be made in the '90's.  (Same could be said for Nick Lowe's Party Of One in '90 sounding like the '50's.)

Duran Duran - self-titled  Sure the first record has some great stuff, but isn't Rio almost perfect ?!

Eve's Plum - Envy  Don't know if this chick is the real deal after starting a dance-pop career as Vitamin C, but the band deserves credit for great music on the album Cherry Alive.  Envy is phony-bologna though.  I do still like the songs "I Want It All" and "Blue" from it, but Cherry Alive is great song after great song.

Fishbone - self-titled  In Your Face puts the extended play debut to shame.  Nothing more to say on this one.  You'll hear the difference.

Fleetwood Mac - self-titled  Rumours came after this Nicks/Buckingham debut and, uhm, like ... the rest is history.

Hole - The last thing I thought I'd ever do is buy a Hole album, but Celebrity Skin is one of the best moments of the '90's.  Great guitar work and great vocals on great songs.  Hats-off to all involved!

Billy Idol - self-titled  Ok, a few bright spots on an otherwise unnecessary album.  A better piece of product is Rebel Yell, but you know this already.

Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights  Pleased by the updated version of a Joy Division style band, but thanks for Antics and Our Love To Admire.  Well-rounded indie-rock records instead of straight-out imitation of the avant garde late '70's.

Jethro Tull - This Was  Hard to listen to this one when Stand-Up is so good!

Tom Petty - self-titled & You're Gonna Get It  No brainer here.  Petty and the boys got better with age.

The Police - Weird to think that this band got better with every record and quit while in top form.

Suede - self-titled  I think the Suede of Coming Up is a lot more exciting than the debut album.  I'm sure hardcores are gonna think they were somehow better when slow and redundant, but great songcraft always gets a bigger audience.  They may have gone overboard with Head Music, but the first record bores and ya don't wanna bore a paying fanbase.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't Go Solo!

        It seems that some very talented performers lost something when going solo...
  • Robin Zander from Cheap Trick...Yikes!
  • Belinda Carlisle from The Go-Go's...Ouch! Stop!
  • Phil Collins from Genesis.  In spite of his famous solo hits, he could have released them on Genesis albums.  It never stopped him before!
  • Bill Wyman from The Rolling Stones.  Though I like some of his solo songs, it's a guilty pleasure.  His solo output certainly doesn't stand out in the rock 'n' roll universe, but he's said as much in his brilliant tune "A New Fashion" from his self-titled '82 release.
  • Debbie Harry from Blondie.  In spite of heavy radio rotation of the single "Backfired" and a visually grabbing album cover, the record Koo Koo tanked.  It died for the right reasons, but that didn't stop her from making more after Blondie's final album, The Hunter.  Looking back, I actually like more songs from Blondie's The Hunter than Autoamerican.  If they had picked a different single, album title, and wig & make-up for the cover of The Hunter, it might've been a bigger seller.
  • Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.  Lover of pre-rock 'n' roll to a deadening degree : (
  • Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.  What good moments are on Pacific Ocean Blue are actually on the first track.  From thereafter it's Peter Criss time for Dennis and it is sad that he sounds so ravaged by the bottle.
  • Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys.  When he lead the group in the early '70's, he made new, original classics which would be the last great music from the group.  He was on such a roll that they even named the group Carl & the Passions for an album!  Forward to the early '80's for the self-titled solo album and it's time to hide my ears.
  • Sting from The Police.  Like Phil Collins, he certainly made plenty of good mellow music without the need for a solo outing.  Although he enhanced the pallet of 'smooth jazz,' one record or two would have sufficed.  A million years later, the mind goes flatlining when I hear him sing anything nowadays.  As one co-worker called him ... Stink.  But, whatever makes the Liza, Barbara, Barry Manilow season ticket holders happy!