This chapter is in some potential drafts of my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), but is more likely to be pushed back to an even-more-theoretical This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 2.
An infinite number of tracks can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
Written by Tom Verlaine
Produced by Andy Johns and Tom Verlaine
From the album Marquee Moon, Elektra Records, 1977 Vertigo.
For the disaffected and dissatisfied in 1977, no track expressed the feeling of rock music in dizzying free fall with greater menace and implied ennui as “Elevation” by Television.
A large part of growing up manifests in staking one’s own claim on fresh vistas. We don’t necessarily crave a complete break from the past, from the frontiers settled by older siblings or preceding generations. But we want some real estate to call our own.
From Television’s debut album Marquee Moon, the track “Elevation” just fascinated me when I was 17. Fall of 1977, freshman in college, trying to finally hear all these punk or new wave or whaddayacallit bands I’d read so much about in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I asked the campus radio station for help, and was rewarded with the sounds of the Ramones,Blondie, the Dictators, the Adverts, the Jam, Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, the Runaways, and oh yeah!, Television. I could never get enough of this jagged, loping, serpentine noise, so mesmerizing, so different, so gratifyingly dizzying in its willful application of elevation going to my head. And staying there. Marquee Moon was among my earliest LP purchases in this broad category of NEW MUSIC circa ’77 and ’78. It would not be the last.
Oh, no. Not even close to the last.
Years later, I read something that compared Television to the Grateful Dead, keying on the group’s essential musicality in contrast with the three-chord image of much of their CBGB‘s contemporaries. That comparison would have horrified me in the ’70s, and I doubt many Deadheads would have agreed with it either. Minus the determined DIY stance of original Television bassist Richard Hell, though, the members of Television–guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, drummer Billy Ficca, and Hell’s four-string replacement Fred Smith–could be jazzier, more inclined to improvise, while still maintaining a Bowery edge. Television might not have jammed like Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, but their sound was in some ways closer to the Dead than it was to the Ramones or Blondie, or even to Talking Heads.
Television split after their second album, 1978’s Adventure, and did an eponymous reunion album in 1992. Marquee Moon was their signature work, an acknowledged classic in rock ‘n’ roll’s storied history of fresh vistas claimed, frontiers settled. A song on that album begged (or warned), “Elevation, don’t go to my head.” The plea is for naught. The head surrenders. The body falls.
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My friend Dave Murray has posed this question a few times. It would be a good subject for a poll of music fans, a chance to explore what seemingly essential artists one would elect personally to just skip entirely. I’d think the discussion should be limited to the plausible; you wouldn’t expect a 58-year-old rockin’ pop fan like me to have much–if any–current Top 40, country, metal, or hip hop in my listening queue, so that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s also not about an iPod specifically, nor any other portable music player. It can be about the music in your head, the stuff you’d listen to when you call the shots and you make the playlist. For the sake of expedience, let’s call that your iPod.
So. What’s not on your iPod?
Dave and I have bounced the question back and forth for a good long time. For me, a lot of my expected pop bogeymen are on my iPod. I’ve got Bob Seger (I like “Get Out Of Denver,” “Heavy Music,” and “Hollywood Nights”). I’ve got The Eagles (“Take It Easy” and “Already Gone”). I’ve got Styx (I love both “Lorelei” and “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye”). I even have the hated REO Speedwagon (“Tough Guys”). I don’t have a lot of Dylan or Springsteen, but they’re there. The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd, too. Amidst my preferred mix of Beatles, Kinks, Ramones, Flashcubes, Monkees, Chuck Berry, power pop, Motown, British Invasion, soul, bubblegum, surf, punk…well, it’s all part of my preferred mix, up to and including Phil Ochs, Percy Faith,and Grandmaster Flash. It’s all pop music, anyway.
What’s not on my iPod? Well….
As I was listening to the radio the other day, the local airwaves reminded me of a popular classic rock act whose music always prompts me to change the station, every time. And that act is Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It’s not that I hate Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd is in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and it’s a group that deserves to be in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I’m not hostile. I’m not exactly indifferent, but it’s music that I just don’t care to listen to. Ever. I understand its appeal. The audience for that appeal does not appeal to me.
There are, of course, many other acts whose records are likewise alien to the rich ‘n’ fertile playground of my iPod. There’s no Frank Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’s no Van Halen, though it’s theoretically possible I would consider adding “Dance The Night Away” or “Runnin’ With The Devil” someday. There’s for damned sure no Dave Matthews Band; that one’s probably a given. And I’d take a truncheon to the damned thing if it tried to play Kid Rock, whom I loathe. But, among worthy acts that just ain’t my cuppa, Lynyrd Skynyrd tops the list of what’s not on my iPod. Turn it up? Turn it off. Your iPod may vary. What’s not on your iPod?
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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.
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.