October 2020 saw the release of “Never Too Late,” an EP that introduced the world to Mike Browning. Drawing on the best and brightest pop rock sounds of mid-sixties AM radio, the North Carolina based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist revisited these influences with spot on precision while injecting his own notions into his superbly-scripted material. Refreshingly pure and moored with melodic perfection, “Never Too Late” registers as a modern day retro masterpiece.
Mike’s current effort, “Another Bite At The Apple” is a single that proceeds to pursue his passion for the music he so deeply loves. Leaning heavily on jogging surf styled rhythms, the springy sentiment owes further tribute to the genre in the form of Mike’s clear and concise vocals, backed by fluid harmonies. A bubblegummy carnival-like organ solo also courts the cut, as well as rolls of tightly-wired hooks and clicking guitar licks.
Semi-autobiographical, “Another Bite At The Apple” mirrors the experience of Mike meeting and getting together with his wife, Janine, who he has been happily married to for nearly thirty-four years. Picture the Beach Boys mingling with Tommy Roe and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and that pretty much rams the point home on this tasty slice of pop rock sure to steal your heart.
Continuing a look back at the rock magazines I used to read. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here.
My favorite music had a name. I didn’t know that name until I was in college.
“Power pop” is a misunderstood genre, and there will never be a true consensus on its meaning and parameters. It’s my favorite music. It’s not my only favorite music–I adore so many sounds that fall outside my strict definition of power pop, even many that fall outside a broader, nebulous approximation–but it’s my primary boppin’ raison d’être. My awareness of power pop, my understanding of its meaning, began in 1978 with an incredible magazine called Bomp!
I’m not certain where I first heard this “power pop” phrase. It was coined in 1967 by Pete Townshend to describe his music with The Who: “Power pop is what we play–what The Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun,’ which I preferred.” When the late night NBC talk show Tomorrow did a spotlight on punk rock in October of 1977 (with guests Joan Jett of The Runaways and Paul Weller of The Jam), host Tom Snyder prefaced the discussion by noting that, “This is called punk rock, and is also called new wave music, street rock, or power pop.” I betcha that was my introduction to the term. Roughly contemporary to that, a section in The Record Grove in Brockport (then managed by Bill Yerger, soon to open his own great store Main Street Records) was devoted to this strange noise, and the divider for that section said something like “PUNK, New Wave, Garage, Power Pop, Etc.” In January of 1978, I saw my first Flashcubes show; at the time, I thought The Flashcubes were punk, and I thought they were fantastic. I didn’t know they were power pop. I didn’t know what power pop was.
That specific revelation came in March of 1978.
Bomp! magazine was the brainchild of Greg Shaw, whose work I’d already seen in Phonograph Record Magazine (the rock tabloid that hooked me on the notion of punk rock to begin with), and in the sumptuous liner notes package for the way-fab 2-LP collection History Of British Rock Vol. 2. By ’78, Shaw was ably assisted on Bomp! by a writer named Gary Sperrazza! (always with the exclamation). Sperrazza! rarely gets the credit he deserves in the power pop story, but he was just as essential as Shaw in making Bomp! such a compelling and influential read. Nowhere was that impact more evident than in Bomp!‘s March ’78 issue. The eighteenth issue. The power pop issue.
As noted above: REVELATION!! Jesus, this wasn’t a rock mag; it was a manifesto, pop advocacy journalism unlike anything I’d seen before. Shaw and Sperrazza! saw power pop (referred to in Bomp! as the single word “powerpop”) as a distinct genre, not a mere reaction or marketing term. They traced the origin of power pop squarely to The Who, and included other dynamic ’60s acts like The Kinks, Small Faces, and Creation (the latter a group I’d not heard of before that point). It continued into the ’70s, with The Raspberries (whom Gary ‘n’ Greg obviously considered the definitive power pop act), The Flamin’ Groovies, The Dwight Twilley Band, some scattered tracks by The Bay City Rollers, and even into some of the then-current punk stuff like The Ramones. Especially The Ramones! Many years later, when I corresponded with Shaw, he reiterated his belief that you couldn’t conceive of something called “power pop” if it didn’t include “Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones.
Bomp!‘s view of the power pop equation was simple and evocative: the punk of The Sex Pistols plus the bubbly pop of teen idol Shaun Cassidy equals the power pop sound of the early Who. Shaw and Sperrazza!’s power pop timeline specifically excluded The Beatles and Eddie Cochran, whose records they felt lacked the prerequisite explosiveness, and The Rolling Stones, whose records were more plainly grown from R & B roots. The magazine also included coverage of British glam/glitter (seen as a complement to power pop), and a history of some group called Big Star. Hmmm. Never heard of them. But that would change. Man, would that ever change!
Around this time, “power pop” was also beginning to gather momentum as a marketing term, an opportunity for skittish record-label weasels to offer a diluted form of punk energy in an inoffensive package. It was a million miles away from what Bomp! was preaching. It manifested in bands like The Pleasers, a British combo that looked like a pub-tour version of Beatlemania! I liked The Pleasers, and their records deserve better than just being slagged for not being The Who, The Raspberries, or The Ramones. But they didn’t meet the dynamic ideal of Bomp!‘s power pop vision. Shaw and Sperrazza! pushed back at this co-opting of power pop, Sperrazza! sneering in a subsequent issue, “After all, power pop means pop with POWER! Not some whimpering simp in a Beatles haircut.”
Nonetheless, the moneychangers won this battle with the prophets. The moneychangers gave us The Knack, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The prophets moved on to other things.
Bomp! magazine predated the ’70s discussion of power pop. It had begun in 1970 as Who Put The Bomp, itself an outgrowth of an earlier Shaw zine called Mojo Navigator And Rock ‘n Roll News. Who Put The Bomp evolved from fanzine format into a slick rock mag, and its focus shifted slightly from a longing look at rock’s past to a more active inclusion and appreciation of ’70s acts that likewise embraced the glory (and lessons) of the ’60s. The Flamin’ Groovies were the first then-contemporary group to grace the cover of Who Put The Bomp (for its thirteenth issue in ’75). Cherie Currie of The Runaways was on the cover of Who Put The Bomp # 15. The magazine’s name was shortened to Bomp! with issue # 16, showing Brian Wilson on the cover. Sperrazza! joined the crew in time for Bomp! # 17, which arrived with the glowering visage of The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten grimacing from its face, a sign that evolution was becoming revolution.
The magazinedidn’t last much longer than its power pop manifesto in Bomp! # 18. Joey Ramone was on the cover of # 19, but I missed it. I scrambled back to buy it via mail order when I discovered it had featured a short blurb about my Fave Raves The Flashcubes, and I hadda have that! Shaw, in fact, inspired The Flashcubes’ second single, Gary Frenay‘s “Wait Till Next Week.” Shaw had told the lads they would be mentioned in the next issue of Bomp! Time passed, and the issue did not appear, as Shaw kept promising “Wait ’til next week!” An alternate line in the song (as performed live, not on record) addressed that inspiration:
Greg Shaw writes about the music scene Told us that he’d put us in his magazine Three months later, it’s nowhere to be seen He says, “Why don’t you call me next week?”
I was able to grab the next two issues at Main Street Records, content and engaged, still eager for more from what had clearly become my favorite rock rag. But that twentieth issue in 1979 was it; a planned Bomp! # 21 was never published. The beat would not go on.
Well, the beat wouldn’t go on in print, at least not in the pages of Bomp! However, Shaw had started an indie label, Bomp Records, a few years before that, commencing with a Flamin’ Groovies 45 in 1975. The label outlived the magazine, and released a number of incredible singles and LPs by the likes of The Romantics, The Last, Nikki & the Corvettes, Stiv Bators, and The Plimsouls. Somewhat soured by the power pop implosion, Shaw’s interest moved to neo-’60s garage, an interest served by his new label, Voxx Records. By the time of my brief correspondences with Shaw in the ’90s, power pop had long since fallen off his radar. (My email interviews with him were an invaluable resource in crafting my history of power pop, The Kids Are Alright!) Shaw passed away in 2004. The Flashcubes happened to be playing a show that night. I informed them of Shaw’s death, and they played “Wait Till Next Week” as a tribute, its original line about Greg Shaw intact. One more time.
Greg Shaw did get a little bit of recognition for the influential work he did. I don’t believe Gary Sperrazza! ever received his just due. I met Gary when I lived in Buffalo in the mid ’80s (a tale told within a longer reminiscence called The Road To GOLDMINE). That seminal power pop issue of Bomp! had also detailed Gary’s pervasive interest in soul and funk, asking that musical question, “Where are the Sex Pistols of black music?” So it was no surprise when Gary opened a record store specializing in soul, funk, R & B, and hip-hop, Apollo Records on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. Apollo also had a back room well stocked with choice garage, rock, and pop platters, so I visited often. Gary died in that miserable year of 2016. I regret he never got the credit he deserved in the power pop story.
Bomp! magazine was about much more than just power pop. It’s an ongoing testament to the sheer prevailing whomp of that lone power pop issue of Bomp! that the magazine remains so umbilically connected to the discussion of all loud things that jangle, buzz, and chime. More than anyone else before or since, Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! defined the parameters of power pop. Many others (me included) have tried to refine the subject, sharpen its definition (and expand it just enough to include The Beatles, ferchrissakes). But no one did it better than Bomp!
Nowadays, our weekly radio show This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana &Carl has a nominal power pop format, but we mix Motown and punk with our “September Gurls” and “Go All The Way.” As much as I love power pop, and as much as I want its definition to be clear and distinct, I have absolutely no interest in doing a strictly power pop show. What fun would that be? A more general rockin’ pop framework is way more interesting to me, with The Isley Brothers flowing into The Rubinoos, The Velvet Underground, P. P. Arnold, Badfinger, and KISS. Even though we don’t always remain within the criteria of power pop, we call ourselves a power pop show anyway.
Why? Because power pop means pop with power! Bomp! said so. Don’t argue with Bomp!
WHEN WE RETURN: America’s ONLY Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine!
Nobody in their right mind has to be told 2020 has been a major downer. But the year is ending on a great note, because Big Stir Singles: The Yuletide Wave has arrived! Offering twenty-two holiday-related songs, the collection is primed to lift the spirits and restore hope and faith. It’s only fitting Big Stir Singles: The Yuletide Wave begins with a song addressing the situation we are currently experiencing. And that track is Nick Frater’sWash Your Hands Of Christmas, which speaks of the lack of lovely things we normally celebrate during the season. Despite the subject matter, the song sparkles and shines with beauty and bliss.
Alison Faith Levy’sAll I Want For Chanukah Is A Ukele strums and hums to the noggin-nodding burr of a ukele, and The Brother Steve’sI Love The Christmastime weighs in as a peppy piece of power pop perfection. Michael Simmons channels Frank Sinatra with impressive effects on the crooning Christmas Waltz and from Spygenius, there’s Revels Without A Claus that jumps and jerks to a wonky dance hall shuffle.
Wrapped in atmospheric attire, involving jazzy horns and novel melodies, I Remember You At Christmas by Anthanor plugs in as a poignant paean to a former sweetheart, while The Decibels cleverly combine the traditional hymn, Angels We Have Heard On High with segments of the sixties garage rock nugget, Gloria with hard-hitting appeal.
The Stan Laurels crib a cue from the warm vocals and detailed construction of The Beach Boys on the shimmery Noche Buena, and Kai Danzberg & Scott McPherson’s frisky The Day Before Christmas vividly recalls the anticipation felt as a child waiting for the fat man on a sleigh to deliver wish list toys and games.
Swinging and spinning with gripping chords and happy harmonies, Groovy Time Of The Year by The Bobbleheads is indeed groovy. Propelled by a bouncy beat and a sugar-coated bubblegummy chorus, the absolutely irresistible All I Want Is You For Christmas by Kimberely Rew and Lee Cave-Berry sounds like a joint effort between The Archies and Fountains Of Wayne, and Blake Jones & The Trike Shop’sString The Lights And Hold On pitches an ear-pleasing repertoire of choppy drumming, incisive licks and fetching hooks.
Excellent entries from Librarians With Hickeys, Irene Pena, The Forty Nineteens, Anton Barbeau, Dolph Chaney, The JAC, Addison Love, The Stillsouls and Kelly’s Heels with Steve Rinaldi further complete this prized package of sonic greetings.
Stuffed to the pores with catchy songs, Big Stir Singles: The Yuletide Wave can actually be enjoyed anytime of the year. You don’t have to practice a certain religion or believe in Santa Claus to appreciate these tasty treats. Every day is a holiday when it comes to a record flashing the Big Stir imprint, and here’s yet another production asserting their care, knowledge and recognition of quality music.
Record stores used to have cut-out bins, overflowing with deleted albums that the labels had given up as lost causes. The cut-out LP covers had been deliberately damaged: a corner chopped off, a puncture, some sort of premeditated defacing to mark them as clearance items, as soon-to-be discarded product that had been written off, as Grade B, as “other.” The cut-out bin was a record buyer’s last chance to grab a record on the cheap before it slipped into the out-of-print zone. In addition to the cut-outs, there were also budget albums, produced and priced for discount sales.
Cut-outs. Budget albums. I may have purchased a few of these over the years.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Heavy Metal (Warner Special Products, 1974)
Now that’s what I call music.
Mind you, it’s not what I call “heavy metal music;” while some of the acts contained in this oddball double-LP could fall within the peripheries of the genre, and Black Sabbath should qualify for sure, it would take some seriously heavy-grade ’70s-style medication to alter one’s perceptions to a hallucinatory fuzz sufficient to regard Van Morrison, War, The Eagles, or The Grateful Dead as a metal act. Feel free to view this peculiar marketing choice as antecedent to the GRAMMYs’ eventual award to Best Heavy Metal Artist Jethro Tull.
So forget about the label; calling this “heavy metal” is delusional no matter how you look at it. But as a various-artist set of no discernible theme? Even though it includes some tracks from the ’60s, Heavy Metal is 1970s rock in microcosm.
When we think of budget-priced compilation albums in the ’70s, we may think first about cheesy K-Tel, Ronco, and Adam VIII sets hawked on TV, sonically-deprived hatchet jobs cramming too many songs into too little space, sacrificing sound quality and aesthetics alike as an offering on a Me Decade altar praying to the decadent god of MORE!! I feel a little queasy even considering it. But the ’70s also produced a bounty of compilations from major labels, business entities whose motives may or may not have been inherently purer than those of a Ron Popeil, but whose methodology and ability to execute were an immediate world apart.
Count the Warner Brothers empire among those major labels. By the mid ’70s, that empire encompassed Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Reprise, Elektra, and Asylum, the record-label equivalent of the gathering of The Mighty Avengers (or perhaps The Justice League Of America, since Warner also owned DC Comics). Let’s pound the comic-book comparison one nail further: Warner’s muscle and deep vaults gave it powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal record labels. Those super powers produced Lenny Kaye‘s seminal ’60s garage compilation Nuggets, and a long series of loss leaders that introduced deep cuts by obscure artists to legions of cash-strapped music fans. And it gave us Warner Special Products, the low-priced subsidiary imprint that concocted Heavy Metal.
I have no idea of the thought process that created Heavy Metal; if there’s a definitive account of the record’s genesis out there somewhere, I’d love to read it. The great and powerful internet suggests that Heavy Metal was a sequel to a 1973 four-record set called Superstars Of The 70’s, and I kinda wish I’d snagged a copy of that one when I was a young teen. The lineup on Superstars Of The 70’s includes Otis Redding, The Kinks, Todd Rundgren, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, The Beach Boys, and Gordon Lightfoot, a diverse menu that whet the ol’ Me Decade musical appetite. MORE!! Heavy Metal met the next stage of that insatiable demand.
I bought my copy of Heavy Metal at The Record Theatre near Syracuse University in late ’76 or early ’77. I was a senior in high school, sixteen-seventeen years old, and the sheer buzz of Marshall Street and the SU hill was intoxicating with possibilities for me. I loved going up there whenever I could, for lectures at Hendricks Chapel (where I saw Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and my favorite author, Harlan Ellison), the occasional cult film, pizza, books, fruitless flirting with co-eds, one frantic, exuberant run up the outdoor flight of stairs at Crouse College as I bellowed the theme from Rocky, and sifts through the garden of delights at The Record Theatre on Marshall Street. Good times? To this square peg kid, desperately looking for a place to belong? Yeah. Good times.
I’m not sure what specific tune or combination of tunes drew me to Heavy Metal. I’m sure I would have been interested in owning some Alice Cooper, and probably “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers Band, maybe “Ride Captain Ride” by Blues Image, and maybe the Yes or Doors tracks. My cousin Mark had hooked me a little on his Deep Purple cassettes, so it was certainly cool to claim ownership of “Smoke On The Water.” I betcha I was eager to crank some Sabbath, just because.
The album opens with “Kick Out The Jams.” That was the revelation for me. I’d never heard The MC5 before, never heard of The MC5 before. This was the censored version, with brothers and sisters standing in for the unexpurgated original incitement to kick out the jams, muthafuckas. I knew nothing about any of that; I just knew this track rocked, and I discovered its raucous, ragged splendor just before I discovered the concept of punk rock. Within less than a year, I would be an enthusiastic punk fan.
The mixed styles offered on Heavy Metal were A-OK with me. My first T. Rex track. My first Buffalo Springfield track (the now-rare nine-minute version of “Bluebird”). My first Jimi Hendrix, my first J. Geils Band, my first Led Zeppelin, James Gang, Uriah Heep, Faces, War, Grateful Dead. I didn’t love all of it, and I still don’t. But I loved the overall experience of this album, and I look back on it with great fondness.
The period spanning the winter of 1976 into the spring of 1977 was the spark of my personal rock ‘n’ roll crucible. I saw my first rock concert (KISS). I became a fan of The Kinks. I started reading Phonograph Record Magazine, prompting my curiosity about this “punk rock” craziness. I deepened my appreciation of The Monkees. I switched from AM radio to FM radio. I turned that collective jam-kickin’ mother up. The crucible would turn its heat even higher after graduation, as I heard The Sex Pistols that summer and The Ramones, Blondie, Television, and The Runaways at college that fall. But the spark first ignited when I was still in high school. Heavy Metal was one of the records I used to bring in to school, tunes to play during an abundance of time spent in the office of my high school literary magazine. Desolation Boulevard. Raspberries’ Best. Through The Past, Darkly. History Of British Rock, Volume 2. Anything by The Beatles. Heavy Metal. Other friends brought in more records to play, and my soundtrack at 17 began to form. The crucible never sounded better.
Over a span of decades, through countless periodic purges of my record collection, every time I’ve been tempted to shed my copy of Heavy Metal, I’ve retained my sense and put it back on my LP shelf instead. I still have it. Hell, I may have it cremated with me when that time comes. And how heavy metal would that be? Kick out the jams, muthuhs and bruthuhs. Kick out the jams.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes,Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here. A digital download version (minus The Smithereens’ track) is also available from Futureman Records.
Talk about serendipity! A fan of The Spongetones since day one, Mike Browning was absolutely thrilled when he bumped into the band’s leader, Jamie Hoover, on a Sunday afternoon at a Dairy Queen in Oak Island, North Carolina.
Upon conversing, Mike not only discovered he and Jamie were practically neighbors, but that Jamie was teaching recording and production classes at a local community college. Mike wound up enrolling in Jamie’s program, where he was accordingly educated in the fine art of cutting records.
Motivated by the lessons, Mike entered the studio and laid down a six track EP titled Never Too Late. A dazzling debut, the disc demonstrates Mike’s gift for recreating heritage pop rock sounds while adding his own deft composition and construction skills to the show. Spilling forth with the parallel pairing of surf and hot rod music, We’re Hanging Out celebrates the freedom of the weekend and having fun with friends. Piloted by Mike’s liquid clear vocals camped somewhere between The Beach Boys and The Bobby Fuller Four, the spunky song bounces and pounces with beaming melodies at every turn, not to mention a zippy little guitar solo and a bracing break.
Similar aspirations arise on the positively irresistible Hide and Seek, that tells the tale of a flirtatious female who all the guys in town literally chase after. A catchy call and response chorus, aided by stabbing hooks and a pumping roller-rink styled organ worthy of The Gentrys and The Swinging Medallions, further inhabit this danceable ditty.
Co-written with Jamie Hoover, I Didn’t Realize I Was Lost stands as the only song on Never Too Late not written solely by Mike. Sporting a sure and steady arrangement, the sentiment sparkles and shines to a mid-paced beat surrounded by handclaps and lilting harmonies. A genuine rockabilly number, The List rattles off a long list of chores that demand attention, but in the end it is the narrator’s sweetheart topping the list.
Guided by a swaying rhythm and ringing licks, I Can’t See Nothing But You carries a bit of a sea shanty feel, and Watching the Lines on the Road crackles gingerly to a traditional country setting, spotted with the bray of a honking harmonica and clanging cowbell.
There is no doubt the songs on Never Too Late would have been huge hit singles had they existed when AM Radio was where it was at. But good music is timeless, and these tunes indeed possess such a quality. Pure; playful and brimming with wide-eyed wonder, Never Too Late is the kind of record that makes you glad to be alive.
Stationed in Burbank, California, Big Stir Records is not only impressively prolific, but the quality of the label’s output remains consistently high. Along with releasing a never-ending stream of great discs by bands and solo artists, the banner regularly produces Big Stir Singles compilations, which contain both the A and B sides of digital singles recorded by acts from nearly every nook and cranny of the world.
The imprint’s most recent collection – Big Stir Singles: The Seventh Wave – offers an extra treat, as a number of these songs have never been aired until now. You’ll also notice that much of the material relates to the confusing and chaotic times we are presently experiencing.
Stacked with storming riffs, a driving backbeat and a punchy chorus, Far Away from The Incurables cuts a dashing power pop pose, and The Ex-Quaranteens sign in with We’ll All Drink Alone Together, a mid-tempo crooner-type ballad rimmed with country-laden pedal steel guitar gestures. From Broken Arrows, there’s the anthemic folk rock of Worst Of The Rest, which is wrapped in a bundle of ringing and jingling six-string sensations. Anton Barbeau and Kenny’sLand Of Economy spins and soars to a dizzy display of daring melodies and surrealistic lyrics that resemble a curious coupling of 10CC and Robyn Hitchcock.
A double shot of penetrating garage rock is provided by The Forty Nineteens in the form of Crocodile Tears and Late Night Radio, the latter which features legendary Standells guitarist Tony Valentino. The Vapour Trails make good with the atmospheric bluster of A Bit More Fire, where Strange moves to a grittier gait projecting in an early seventies underground rock vibe pockmarked with bluesy harmonica fills.
The Corner Laughers step up to the plate and hit a home run with the jaunty Calculating Boy, and Nick Frater unveils a spine-tingling showing of his amazing vocal prowess on Intro. The fast and frantic If Romance Is Dead Then I Want To Be Dead Too from Carol Pacer & The Honey Shakers teams hillbilly aspirations with reckless punk rock energy to exciting effects, while the band deposits a completely different demeanor on Love Does, a sweet and tender acoustic-based ballad. Contributions from Rick Hromadka include the big and bright harmony popfest of Searchlight that should send fans of The Beach Boys and Todd Rundgren into orbit, and Dreams Of A Hippy Summer, which floats and flutters with flowery psychedelic frequencies. Kai Danzberg and Dear Stella’sLet Him Go lets loose a lashing of trippy space-age soundscapes, and The Empty City Squares check in with History Rhymes, a hook-heavy slab of hypnotic pop-rock grandeur.
Bumper to bumper with catchy tunes, Big Stir Singles: The Seventh Wave is the yardstick which all albums of its kind should be measured. Nothing but top picks here, my friends.
If we weren’t there at the time, we can’t even imagine it.
It was 1966. Pop music was at a creative zenith, while still retaining its identity as pop music. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, arguably the single greatest album of all time. The Kinks released Face To Face. The Rolling Stones released Aftermath. The # 1 spots on the U.S. pop chart were occupied by a series of mostly rock-solid singles; for every forgettable # 1 in ’66, for every “Winchester Cathedral” or “Ballad Of The Green Beret,” there was counterforce and then some, courtesy of The Young Rascals, The Mamas and the Papas, The Four Tops, The Lovin’ Spoonful, ? and the Mysterians, and a new made-for-TV group, The Monkees. Below the top spot, there was a wealth of pop treasures, from Otis Redding, The Hollies, and The Temptations through The Byrds, The Standells, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. It was a great, great year for music.
And a B-side was the greatest side of all.
It had already been two years since The Beatles’ initial conquest of America. The Beatles still ruled the pop world in ’66, with more hit singles and two–two!–of the greatest albums in pop history, Rubber Soul and Revolver. The Beatles were # 1. The Beatles were unstoppable. The Beatles were…
…The Beatles were tired.
Tired of fame? Maybe. Tired of touring? Definitely. Tired of the endless parade of rushing and waiting, and waiting, and waiting? Tired of square questions about their hair and how much longer they expected to last? Tired of people freaking out because John Lennon had pointed out that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ? Yes, yes, and goddammit yes. I was six years old at the time; I don’t remember my Dad banning The Beatles in our house. I don’t remember the controversy and public distortions and contortions. Looking back, decades later, I can only observe the sort of people who were burning Beatles records, and declare that if The Ku Klux Klan hates you, you’re probably on the right side of history.
In this pressure cooker, The Beatles kept right on creating and excelling. They were focused more on albums than singles, but there was still one non-album Beatles single released at the end of May: “Paperback Writer.” It was a glorious burst of pop-art pop-rock, telling a cartoonish story of a punter who just wants to write paperback novels, a song delivered with all the shimmering, swooping pop pizazz one would expect from The Beatles at the top of their game. Another # 1 hit for The Fab Four!
An album of The Beatles’ B-sides would put most acts’ A-sides to shame. “I Saw Her Standing There” was a B-side. “I’m Down” and “Day Tripper” were B-sides. They weren’t the only act putting top-shelf material on their flip sides–there’s some choice stuff backing some of those Beach Boys and Rolling Stones hits, too–but The Beatles were so prolific and (nearly) peerless that they could afford to just throw away songs any other band would have killed to release themselves.
And now: imagine.
It’s 1966. You’ve bought your Capitol Records 45 of “Paperback Writer,” and of course you love it. It’s the freaking Beatles, for cryin’ out loud! And then, your thirst for pop already slaked, you turn the record over, just to see what the lads have plopped on the flip. And you hear “Rain” for the very first time.
Stop. You can’t imagine it. You can’t. I can’t either. If we weren’t there, right there at that precise right time, we can’t conceive of hearing “Rain” in 1966.
But what must it have been like? Did it seem like a new world of pop music opening instantly within the ears and mind, or was it brushed off as just another pop record? How could it be? Nothing had ever sounded like this before. It had no antecedents, no roots other than the common experience of everything from The Crickets to The Who, and sounding like nothing else but The Beatles. Once you had heard it for the first time, it always existed, retroactively. One could no longer conjure a memory of a world that didn’t include this song.
I’ve often said that 1965 was pop music’s best year ever. I think it’s difficult to dispute, given the sheer mass of terrific records that connected with a vast audience in ’65. There was likewise a slew of wonderful records in 1966, but its case is hampered by those few regrettable clunkers that also hit the top of the charts; the # 1 spot in ’65 was never sullied by crap like “The Ballad Of The Green Berets.”
But still: 1966 gave us Pet Sounds. It gave us The Rolling Stones’ best album, one of The Kinks’ best albums, the debut of The Monkees, and so much more. It gave us Rubber Soul. It gave us Revolver. That’s a solid resume for any year. Nonetheless, the crowning achievement of pop music in 1966 was a B-side, an indispensable throwaway that just might tower over any other record, before or since. Shine! The weather’s fine.
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I was thinking the other day about the first albums I owned by a number of acts that would become Fave Raves, one album purchase leading to another, and another, and another. Not counting records that belonged to my siblings (but which I played anyway), I can’t remember my first Beatles album; I suspect it was a second-hand acquisition of Rubber Soul, though it may have been a tie between Introducing The Beatles and Let It Be, both of which I received as gifts one Christmas morning in the ’70s. I inherited my brother’s copies of the first two Monkees LPs, and eventually supplemented them with a flea market purchase of Headquarters and The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.
Every love story begins with that very first kiss. I remember my first Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico, used), my first Ramones (Ramones), Otis Redding (Live In Europe), KISS (Rock And Roll Over), Kinks (Kinks-Sized), Suzi Quatro (Suzi Quatro), Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True), Prince (1999), and best-of sets as introductions to The Troggs, The Turtles, The Raspberries, The Jackson 5, The Ventures, and Little Richard. Here are some others I remember:
THE ANIMALS: Best Of The Animals Well, talk about an ignominious start to my Animals collection. In the mid ’70s, my growing obsession with the music of the ’60s (especially of the British Invasion) retroactively made The Animals one of my favorite groups, albeit a decade after the fact. I borrowed my cousin Maryann’s copy of The Best Of The Animals, but I needed to officially add Eric Burdon and his comrades to my library. For Christmas of 1976, my parents directed me to pick out some LPs I’d want to receive as gifts. I spied this budget-priced Animals set on the racks at a department store in downtown Syracuse; even though I didn’t recognize any of the song titles, the cover photo grabbed me, so I figured it must be a collection of Animal tracks I didn’t know, but which might be on a par with my familiar favorites “It’s My Life” and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” Wrong! The perfunctory blues covers were not my cuppa, and this LP did not remain in my collection for long. (As a happy ending here, let me add that the other albums Mom and Dad gave me that Christmas included a real Animals best-of–a two-record set on Abkco–as well as The Beatles Featuring Tony Sheridan and The History Of British Rock Volume 2. Christmas was saved!)
THE BEACH BOYS: Endless Summer As a teenager, I had no real affinity for the music of The Beach Boys. Even speaking as an avid fan of The Monkees (an act the hipsters hated), I just thought The Beach Boys were square, uncool. Establishment. “Be True To Your School?” Come on…! But within that haze of smug dunderheadedness, I still had to concede that some of The Beach Boys’ hits transcended the four corners of what I perceived as their image. “Good Vibrations.” “Fun, Fun, Fun.” “Help Me, Rhonda.” “I Get Around.” My grudging awareness of the sheer quality of these tracks was sufficient motivation for me to add a record-club purchase of the 2-LP Endless Summer to my fledgling pop-rock stash, even though it didn’t incluse “Good Vibrations.” It didn’t immediately open my mind to the wonder of The Beach Boys, but I played it occasionally, and took it with me to college in the fall of ’77. My second Beach Boys album was Pet Sounds, which I purchased during the Spring ’78 semester because I’d become enthralled with “Sloop John B.” Even with an introduction to that true classic album, my acceptance and revelation would be deferred, and deferred by another freakin’ decade, fercryinoutloud. But it would come eventually. My teenage self would have been appalled to learn that his middle-aged incarnation loves The Beach Boys, but what did the younger me know anyway? He liked Kansas!
DAVID BOWIE: Pinups Man, what an odd place to start with Bowie. I had the “Changes” 45, but my first long-player by the former Mr. Jones was this collection of covers, purchased at a used record sale set up on campus, probably in 1978. My interest in Bowie was (at best) borderline at the time. Looking back, I’m sure I was drawn to Pinups by the presence of a cover of The Easybeats‘ “Friday On My Mind;” I’d been unable to score a copy of The Easybeats’ version, so I settled for Bowie as a substitute. Bowie’s rendition of “See Emily Play” was my second-hand introduction to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and I appreciated that Bowie seemed to share my burgeoning affection for early Kinks and Who. Within another year or so, I would be listening intently to The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and expand from there. Hadda start somewhere.
JOAN JETT: Joan Jett One could argue that this shouldn’t count; I was already a fan of Joan Jett when she was in The Runaways, and I owned most of that group’s albums prior to their split and Jett’s subsequent solo career. But as much as I loved the best of The Runaways, I was really stoked by Jett’s first solo album, and snagged it at my first opportunity. Issued as an eponymous album in 1980 and reissued as Bad Reputation in 1981, this record was an immediate Top Ten album for me, an irresistible biff-bang-POP of bubbleglam. A Bo Gentry–Joey Levine song called “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” remains an undiscovered gem, and even the Gary Glitter covers are great. Opening track “Bad Reputation” sets the appropriate chip-on-the-shoulder/single-finger-in-the-air mise-en-scéne, and my daughter and I have an informal agreement to use that song as our father-daughter dance when she gets married. Because we don’t give a damn about our bad reputation.
TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS: You’re Gonna Get It Although I’d read about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in Phonograph Record Magazine, and adored hearing first-album track “American Girl” on the radio (all in 1977), it wasn’t until the summer of ’78 and the group’s second album that I felt compelled to participate in Pettymania. And I succumbed because Wolfman Jack told me to. Home from college for summer break, working part-time as a morning janitor at Sears, I had sufficient pocket change to buy records and see bands and buy more records. Win-win! Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers appeared on Midnight Special, the Friday night pop music TV showcase hosted by our gravel-voiced Wolfman Jack, and my jaw dropped at the sound of two new songs the group performed: “Listen To Her Heart” (which reminded me of The Searchers) and “I Need To Know” (which sounded like everything I ever wanted a rock ‘n’ roll song to sound like). I didn’t have my drivers license yet, so at the first opportunity, I asked my sister Denise to bring me to Penn Can Mall so I could buy the new Petty album, You’re Gonna Get It. Saying the album’s title out loud confused Denise, since she now thought I was hitting her up for a ride and demanding that she buy me a record. No, no–I’ve got pocket change, Denise! And I traded some of that pocket change for my first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album. There would be more to come. Get it? Got it. Good.
TIP THE BLOGGER: CC’s Tip Jar! You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! Fans of pop music will want to check out Waterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, a new pop compilation benefiting SPARK! Syracuse, the home of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. TIR’N’RR Allstars–Steve Stoeckel, Bruce Gordon, Joel Tinnel, Stacy Carson, Eytan Mirsky, Teresa Cowles, Dan Pavelich, Irene Peña, Keith Klingensmith, and Rich Firestone–offer a fantastic new version of The Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset.” That’s supplemented by eleven more tracks (plus a hidden bonus track), including previously-unreleased gems from The Click Beetles, Eytan Mirsky, Pop Co-Op, Irene Peña, Michael Slawter (covering The Posies), and The Anderson Council (covering XTC), a new remix of “Infinite Soul” by The Grip Weeds, and familiar TIRnRR Fave Raves by Vegas With Randolph, Gretchen’s Wheel, The Armoires, and Pacific Soul Ltd. Oh, and that mystery bonus track? It’s exquisite. You need this. You’re buying it from Futureman.
My first rock ‘n’ roll posters were hand-me-downs, but they were choice hand-me-downs. When my sister went off to college in 1970, I assumed possession of her Beatles posters. These painted portraits of your John, your Paul, your George, and your Ringo remained on my wall while I was in middle school and high school, and left North Syracuse with me when I commenced my own rock ‘n’ roll matriculatin’ in the fall of ’77. The posters served me well on one occasion in ’76 or so, when WOLF-AM‘s Beatles Weekend offered a free Beatles LP to the first caller who could correctly identify the color of George Harrison’s eyes. A glance at the poster, a sprint to the phone in the kitchen, a hastily-dialed call to The Big 15 so I could blurt out BROWN!, and a copy of the Help! album was mine.
I also remember my sister having a Dylan poster–my first conscious exposure to Bashful Bobby Dylan’s name–but I think she must have taken that one with her on her journey to higher education. ‘Sfunny, because I remember much later mentioning Mr. Dylan to one of the guys in my dorm suite in the Spring of ’78; my suitemate glanced up at my Beatles portraits, and asked me which one was Dylan.
Although I plastered my walls with graven images in high school and college, I had relatively few commercial posters. In college, my cherished Beatles posters shared wall space with LP inserts (from the White Album, from The Beach Boys‘ Endless Summer, from a collection of movie sound bites by The Marx Brothers, and from records by The Heartbreakers, The Runaways, etc.), promo materials, maybe some comics art, Flashcubes gig flyers, magazine pages (including a poster ripped from a Bay City Rollers fan mag), a Molson Golden Ale poster, and a few Playboy centerfolds. The promo items–posters and flats–mostly came from Brockport’s Main Street Records, which offered such bonus bounty in its handy-dandy Free With Purchase! bin. Decorating was easy!
And I did pick up a few commercial posters along the way. I believe I got my KISS poster from my college friend Fred, who had outgrown KISS and wanted nothing further to do with the group. I bought a couple of posters upstairs at Syracuse’s Economy Bookstore, one featuring my boys The Sex Pistols and one starring my presumed future spouse Suzi Quatro. There was an awesome Batman poster I wanted, but never quite got around to buying. I did get a Suzanne Somers poster at Gerber Music; that was sorta puzzling, because although she was certainly cute, I didn’t have any particular thing for her, nor for her sitcom Three’s Company. Why a Suzanne poster, instead of, say, a Farrah Fawcett? No idea.
After college, I don’t recall ever putting up many posters in my apartments. I really wanted to get a poster of The Monkees circa the time of resurgent Monkeemania in ’86, but never saw one I thought appropriate. Now, decades later, I have but a few posters on my wall. There’s a Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns poster framed in my office, staring down a great framed Ramones poster I received as a gift. But that’s it, other than the framed two-page spread from my Goldmine interview with Joan Jett (autographed by Ms. Jett herself) and the framed artwork from Rhino Records‘ Poptopia! CDs, which Rhino gave me as a thank-you bonus for writing the liner notes to the ’90s Poptopia! disc, plus a few small items (a picture of Syracuse University basketball great Gerry McNamara, an autographed picture of Red Grammer, my Ramones wall clock, and a wall hanging my sister gave me decades ago, which reads A Creative Mind Is Rarely Tidy). That’s the sum total of wall decorations in my office at home.
I still have those same Beatles posters. They’re a bit tattered now, certainly worn, rolled up in a drawer because there’s no longer any point in even trying to flatten them or do a better job of preserving them. George Harrison’s eyes are still brown. The Pistols, KISS, and Suzanne Somers sheets are long gone; even Suzi Q has moved on. The Beatles remain. John. Paul. George. Ringo. Dylan must have been on holiday that day.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby!Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes,Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.
It may be a tiny bit disingenuous to refer to a B-side by The Ramones as being “the other side of the hit.” The Ramoneswere a pop band, but they were a pop band without any hit records. They never broke into the Top 40, nor did they receive much airplay to speak of. The Ramones somehow pummeled their way into the lower half of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart with three consecutive singles in 1977 and ’78. “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” made it to # 81. “Rockaway Beach” was the relative breakout, peaking at # 66. “Do You Wanna Dance” was The Ramones’ third and final shot at the top of the pops, and its shot stalled at # 86. The Ramones would never again darken the singles chart with their uncouth presence. Somewhere, Casey Kasem breathed a sigh of relief. And up one from last week, swapping spots with Swedish supergroup ABBA, we have those Forest Hills punk rockers The Ramones with “Teenage Lobotomy.”
Nonetheless: They were all hits to me.
My road to The Ramones wasn’t exactly circuitous, but nor was it necessarily as direct as one might expect. I read about The Ramones in magazines, primarily in the tabloid Phonograph Record Magazine. I had never heard them–as noted, they weren’t quite tearin’ up the airwaves on AM or FM in Syracuse in 1977–but I was intrigued by what I read. Frankly, they scared me, but they didn’t scare me enough to kill my growing sense of curiosity about this elusive, unheard…noise. Noise, perhaps, but potentially transcendent noise. I ached to hear its secret sound.
If you’re a younger music fan in this fantastic world of the 21st century, the very idea of any kind of music, or any conceivable sort of pop commodity, being elusive or unheard is as alien and archaic as stone tablets or immobile, wired entertainment. In the fall of ’77, I heard my first Ramones record–“Blitzkrieg Bop”–by requesting RAMONES!!!! at my college campus radio station. I bought the “Sheena” 45 before I’d even heard the damned thing, and my transformation into a fully-invested Ramones fan was complete. It might not have been as convenient as YouTube or Spotify, but I got there.
By the spring of ’78, I’d added the “Rockaway Beach” single and the Ramones LP to my vinyl library, and I saw a live Ramones show over Easter break. In Bomp! magazine, writers Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! had waxed rhapsodic about The Ramones as a power pop band, listing “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” among the all-time great power pop tracks. Shaw was further knocked out by a ballad–a ballad!–called “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” on the Rocket To Russia album, and The Ramones’ then-unreleased cover of The Searchers‘ “Needles And Pins.” I heard “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” played live, pined to hear da brudders warble about needles and pins-za, and reveled in the giddy euphoria of falling in love with a pop band.
None of which really prepared me for “Babysitter.”
As a cash-strapped college lad, I preferred to buy Rocket To Russia on the installment plan, one 45 at a time. Looking back, I’m not 100 % certain whether I purchased the “Do You Wanna Dance” single before or after my introduction to live Ramones. The A-side was just ace, probably my favorite cover track ever, streamlining and energizing the familiar pop classic while remaining essentially faithful to previous templates by Bobby Freeman and The Beach Boys. This is the one, I thought. This is the one that’s gonna get The Ramones on the radio. THIS is the hit! The B-sides of the “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” singles had been Rocket To Russia album tracks (“I Don’t Care” and “Locket Love” respectively). This third single from the album had a non-LP track, “Babysitter.” It was a ballad, The Ramones’ second ballad as far as I was aware. It freakin’ blew me away.
I guess Greg Shaw’s mention of The Ramones covering “Needles And Pins” should have prepped me for “Babysitter.” It did not. When I heard the song for the first time, I wrote My GAWD, The Searchers live on! “Babysitter”certainly shares beaucoup DNA with “Needles And Pins,” its folk-rock riff drawn from the same gene pool that gave us The Byrds and The Beau Brummels, albeit messier, grungier, more exuberant. The scowling countenances of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy notwithstanding, “Babysitter”‘s tale of late-night kissin’ and canoodlin’ with a babysittin’ chickfriend is inherently more upbeat than The Searchers’ lover’s lament. It’s a more leisurely-paced companion to The Ramones’ earlier “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” a joyous and straight-faced celebration of over-the-top, hormonal teen romance. It signifies The Ramones fully embracing a presumed identity as an unabashed, unashamed pop act, America’s rockin’ response to The Bay City Rollers.
If ever a post-1960s record deserved to be a double A-side chart and radio smash, “Do You Wanna Dance”/”Babysitter” would qualify to join the hallowed ranks of “I Get Around”/”Don’t Worry Baby,” “I’m A Believer”/”(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and a short stack o’ Beatles 45s. I could not believe it when that pop dream failed to materialize. Stupid real world.
Throughout the rest of the ’70s and all through the ’80s, I never gave up hope that The Ramones would break big, that they’d start selling records in the gaudily massive quantity I felt was their just due. It was important to me. I wanted the world at large to appreciate The Ramones like I appreciated The Ramones; I wanted them to appear on Solid Gold and Entertainment Tonight, to make a delightful blockbuster sequel to their sole film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, to be household names, to be respected and idolized. I wanted to hear The Ramones on the goddamned radio. They had to die before that would happen. Stupid, stupid real world.
It should have been different. If nothing else, The Ramones should have scored big with an incredible cover of “Do You Wanna Dance,” a distillation of pure bliss that deserved to rule radio and the planet by divine right. Its B-side was an irresistible confection called “Babysitter:” the other side of the hit that never was.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby!
Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes,Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.