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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Romantics

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Have you ever bought a record you had never previously heard, performed by an act you had never previously heard of?

I’m not talking about a record by a new act that includes a performer you’d experienced elsewhere (like when I recognized Paul Collins from The Nerves and scarfed up the debut LP by Collins’ then-new group The Beat), or a review you read somewhere prompting you to take a chance on the unfamiliar (like when Rolling Stone compared an act to BlondieThe Buzzcocks, and The Ramones, compelling me to purchase the debut album by The Darling Buds). No. I’m talkin’ tabula rasa, baby. You’ve never heard the music. You’ve never heard of the band. But money changes hands anyway, and this new music is now yours.

That’s how I discovered The Romantics.

My memory may be imprecise. I’ll concede the possibility that I read about The Romantics in Bomp! magazine before I bought my first Romantics record, but I’m pretty sure it was record first, write-up later. I do know that I can’t claim full credit for stumbling upon the record unassisted. The guy behind the counter at the record store pointed it for me.

It was in the spring of 1978. I was a freshman in college at Brockport, NY, and a budding power-pop punk with a musical mania for the 1960s, the British Invasion, The MonkeesThe Sex Pistols, and The Ramones. I’d recently discovered my Syracuse hometown heroes The Flashcubes, and I was constantly on the prowl for MORE! A cool place called The Record Grove was Brockport’s vinyl oasis, managed by a true believer named Bill Yerger. This was about a year or so before Bill opened his own emporium, Main Street Records, the best little record store there ever was. Bill was a huge fan of rockin’ pop music, he knew his stuff, and he knew how to steer kindred spirits toward the record we needed to own, even if we didn’t know it yet.

Although I was perpetually cash-strapped, I visited The Record Grove as often as I could, and bought what I could afford when I could afford it. Bill had a small display box of import and indie 45s for sale at the counter, the box from which I’d purchased my first Ramones and Sex Pistols records during the previous semester. On this particular spring ’78 visit, Bill recalled that I’d recently bought an EP by the British power pop act The Pleasers, a record I’d snapped up on impulse, drawn in by The Pleasers’ overtly Beatley image and the presence of a song called “Lies” (not The Knickerbockers‘ hit, I’m sorry to say). Bill asked me if I’d liked The Pleasers, and I said something like, Yeah, they weren’t bad. Not as good as The Knickerbockers, but I like ’em all right. Maybe Bill already had his next move planned, or maybe it was prompted by my mention of The Knickerbockers. Either way, he said, Well, if you liked that, I bet you’ll like this, too.
And Bill pulled out “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” the debut single from Detroit’s Phenomenal Pop Combo, The Romantics. Awright, then. Just take my money, Bill. Just take it.

My roommate and I were increasingly at odds by this point, so I don’t know if he let me play my newest 7″ vinyl treasure on his stereo, or if I had to wait until a school break to hear the damned thing for the first time back home. Whatever whenever, I immediately dug both sides of this Romantics record, way more than I liked The Pleasers. “Little White Lies” just seemed to combust on the stereo, a pyrotechnic display of pure pop played fast ‘n’ swaggering. “I Can’t Tell You Anything” hijacked a Bo Diddley beat to craft a basic pounder that simultaneously (and incongruously) evoked both The Raspberries and The Rolling Stones. Magnificence times two, and I was duly hooked. When I finally did read about The Romantics in Bomp!, the write-up referenced “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” by my Tottenham Sound lads The Dave Clark Five. But of course.

I listened to a lot of music during the summer of 1978. My parents let me move my little stereo and my growing record collection into the living room; they were away for much of that summer, so I was able to play my rock ‘n’ roll platters with a bit more volume than might have otherwise been likely. I had a part-time job, I saw The Flashcubes as often as I could, and I let the records spin freely: KinksSeedsBobby Fuller FourThe JamGeneration XKISSHerman’s HermitsEddie & the Hot RodsRich KidsRunawaysStandellsBeau Brummels, Monkees, Beatles, Ramones, Pistols, Tom PettyBuddy Holly, Raspberries. The Pleasers, too–I did like them, just not as much as I liked The Romantics. Both sides of my Romantics 45 saw significant turntable time throughout that season.

As summer surrendered its space to my sophomore year at Brockport, I saw that The Romantics were coming to Syracuse for a show with The Flashcubes, and it would be at my favorite nightspot The Firebarn. It would also be my first week back at school, and there was no way I would be able to see that show. The Romantics played Syracuse dates with The Flashcubes on several occasions in this era (and the ‘Cubes also traveled to Detroit to return the favor), but always when I was away at school. I never did have an opportunity to see The Romantics play until decades later.

I remained a fan. I bought their second single, “Tell It To Carrie”/”First In Line,” mail-order from Bomp!, and I scored another Romantics track called “Let’s Swing” on the Bomp Records compilation album Waves Vol. 1 (an LP that also included “Christi Girl” by The Flashcubes). As my third and final year in college beckoned in August of 1979, local rock station 95X started playing “When I Look In Your Eyes,” an advance track from The Romantics’ forthcoming major label debut. That eponymous debut featured another new track, “What I Like About You.” Maybe you’ve heard of it…?

It cracks me up that so many folks think of The Romantics as a one-hit wonder for “What I Like About You.” The Romantics are so much more than one song, and that one song wasn’t even their biggest hit; that would be “Talking In Your Sleep” (# 3 in Billboard), and “One In A Million” also fared better chartwise (# 37) than “What I Like About You.” In fact, “What I Like About You” missed the Top 40 entirely (# 49), but it became a retroactive and enduring Fave Rave a few years after the fact, thanks to the power of a new, content-hungry entity called MTV. They were all hits in my mind anyway.

Sometimes, when a rock ‘n’ roll act you discovered ahead of the pack subsequently achieves mainstream success, you may feel a temptation to dismiss the more popular work, to sniff and insist that you liked ’em not only before they were famous, but before they, y’know, sold out, man! While it is true that, in my opinion, The Romantics’ major-label efforts never quite equaled the sheer punch of “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything,” it is also true that I’ve loved The Romantics’ work across the span of their career. I love “When I Look In Your Eyes” and “What I Like About You,” I dig “One In A Million” and “Talking In Your Sleep” and “Rock You Up,” their incredible cover of the Richard & the Young Lions nugget “Open Up Your Door,” plus “Test Of Time,” “National Breakout,” and a fantastic, unreleased cover of The Spencer Davis Group‘s “Keep On Running.” Hell, I even like their 1981 hard rock album Strictly Personal–“In The Nighttime” just kicks, man!–and virtually nobody likes that record except me and Flashcubes guitarist Paul Armstrong

After years and years of missed opportunities, I finally saw The Romantics at an outdoor sports-bar show in the mid ’90s. Yeah, I would have preferred to see them at The Firebarn, but it was still a thrill. They opened with an authoritative cover of The Pretty Things‘ “Midnight To Six Man,” and I’m sure you can guess what song closed the show. I don’t believe that I will ever tire of hearing “What I Like About You,” nor will I tire of the lesser-known gems to be found throughout The Romantics’ stellar c.v. More than forty years ago, my friend Bill Yerger introduced me to the music of The Romantics, and they were but one of many pop treasures Bill pointed out for me. Bill Yerger passed away in the late ’90s. Bill, if you can read this across the veil that separates our world from yours, lemme tell ya: the inspiration you provided drives me to this day. That’s what I like about you.

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THE BEST OF EVERYTHING: Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four

Sometimes only the best will do. The Best Of Everything looks back on specific greatest-hits and best-of LPs and what they meant to me.

THE BOBBY FULLER FOUR: Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino, 1981)

In 1966, my brother Art had a red Alfa Romeo. I’m told it was kind of a crappy car, really, and I remember its ignominious final days in his possession: a scarlet husk parked, prone, lying in state beyond the shed at the end of our back yard. Collecting dust, collecting rust. A tow truck ultimately came to whisk this luckless red Alfa Romeo to the promised land.

But my prevailing principle memory of this doomed vehicle is a happy one. I believe the memory involves the consumption of Royal Crown Cola, or possibly a root beer and Teen Burger at the nearby A & W Drive-In. The memory absolutely involves the car’s one true immortal virtue: its radio.

That radio? When I was six years old, I may have thought that radio was magic.

I mean, it must have been magic. There were songs I heard on that car’s radio that I never seemed to hear anywhere else. I should ask Art if he listened to Syracuse’s 1260 WNDR in ’66, or if it was WOLF instead, or even the less-fabled WFBL. Whatever it was, it played “I Like It Like That” by The Dave Clark Five, a record that–to me–only existed on the AM dial of Art’s star-crossed Alfa Romeo. Even better, it played–often!–another irresistible exclusive: “I Fought The Law” by The Bobby Fuller Four. To this day, more than five decades later, my visceral memory of that terrific song is inextricably linked to those moments in my brother’s Alfa Romeo, of drums, guitars, and a singer bemoaning his fate of Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun, allpouring forth from the little car’s speakers as my big brother cruised suburban streets with his pesky kid brother on board. It’s indelible, and I embrace and cherish its vivid image.

A decade and change passed. In 1978, I was finishing my freshman year in college, and immersing myself in the rockin’ pop of the ’60s and the then-contemporary sounds of punk, new wave, and power pop. It was all one big ol’ ball of pop music to me, from The Monkees to The Sex PistolsThe Romantics to The Beau BrummelsThe Ramones  to Joey Ramone‘s fave raves The Who and Herman’s Hermits. Oh, and The Kinks to The Kinks, “You Really Got Me” to “Rock And Roll Fantasy.” In this joyous crucible of discovery and rediscovery, “I Fought The Law” was ripe to reclaim. I think I found an oldies 45 reissue, but I found something lacking in its sound–couldn’t match the magic of the Alfa Romeo, lemme tell ya! I bought a various-artists LP called 15 Original Rock N’ Roll Biggies Vol. 2, an oddball set that gave me “I Fought The Law,” familiar old gold from The Platters and Little Anthony & the Imperials (and, incongruously, “Day By Day” from Godspell), and some archival stuff that was brand-new to me, by names like The StandellsThe E-Types, and Chocolate Watchband. I played “I Fought The Law” and the two Standells tracks–“Why Pick On Me” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”–a lot in that music-filled summer of ’78.

I don’t know if it occurred to me that The Bobby Fuller Four might have had more than just one great song. Hell, my “I Fought The Law” 45 had only contained one BF4 track, its flip occupied by The Seeds‘ “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Nor did I know that Bobby Fuller himself was dead, and I certainly didn’t know anything at all about the suspicious circumstances surrounding his demise. The opportunity to learn about all of this would not present itself until after I graduated from college in 1980.

The specific sequence of events is cluttered and imprecise in my recollection. In 1981, my girlfriend and I were living in an apartment in Brockport. She would graduate that spring, and I’d already leveraged my Bachelor of Arts degree into full-time employment at McDonald’s–success! And rent money, as well as cash for beer and food and beer, and to keep buying music at Main Street Records. At Main Street, my dovetailing interests in punk and pop led me to Pebbles, the essential Nuggets-inspired series of possibly-not-fully-authorized compilations of ’60s garage and psych. I started with Pebbles‘ second volume, which introduced me to The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside” and The Moving Sidewalks‘ “99th Floor,” and to The Electric Prunes‘ unforgettable commercial for Vox wah-wah pedals. It’s the NOW sound! It’s what’s happening!

Pebbles, Volume 2 also offered my first exposure to a Bobby Fuller song that was not about robbing people with a WHOMP-WHOMP-WHOMP six-gun: the relatively nondescript “Wine Wine Wine.” Fuller remained a one-hit wonder to me for just a little bit longer.

Within this same time frame, Phil Seymour (formerly of The Dwight Twilley Band, and a collaborator with ace combos like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and 20/20) released his first solo album. My favorite track on Phil Seymour was his version of “Let Her Dance,” an incredible pop confection first recorded by–you guessed it!–The Bobby Fuller Four. Something nagging at the edges of my memory insists that I did hear the original version before hearing Seymour’s cover, but I can’t imagine where I heard it. Either way, I loved the song. I was ready and eager to dive more deeply into Fuller’s c.v.

I probably snapped up Rhino Records‘ Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four the first time I saw it on the shelf at Main Street; if not, it wasn’t long thereafter. I knew, at best, two songs. It was high time to know more.

The album begins with the lone hit, Sonny Curtis‘ “I Fought The Law,” originally recorded by The Crickets, later covered successfully by The Clash. I’ve always considered The Bobby Fuller’s version to be definitive. I still do. By the early ’80s, I would have been more than skeptical of the idea that it could ever be demoted to something like my fourth or even fifth favorite BF4 track. But that revelation was mere grooves away.

Granted, nothing else on Side 1 of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four really threatens to challenge the primacy of “I Fought The Law.” “King Of The Wheels,” the LP’s second track, is its weakest, an amiable but unremarkable car tune. The rest of the side is pretty damned good, with the pure pop likes of “The Magic Touch,” “It’s Love, Come What May, “Only When I Dream,” “Don’t Let Me Know,” and Buddy Holly‘s “Love’s Made A Fool Of You” combining to build the case that maybe these one-hit wonders deserved greater notoriety than the one hit that defined them. In particular, “Don’t Let Me Know” seems like it should have at least been a hit single, perhaps capable of cracking the lower end of the Top 20 while never quite matching the Top 10 status of “I Fought The Law.”

But Side Two…!

Side Two opens with “Let Her Dance,” a bona fide gem later covered by Marshall Crenshaw, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad version of it. The BF4’s original is the equal of “I Fought The Law,” perhaps its superior. “Another Sad And Lonely Night” is even better, a lovelorn lament that all too few recognize as the essential classic it is. “My True Love,” “I’m A Lucky Guy,” and the Eddie Cochran ripof…er, tribute “Saturday Night” keep things moving at a mere-mortal (but terrific!) level. By this point, Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four has already proven the group to be worthy of repeated play beyond just its best-known song.

“Fool Of Love” is the icing on this cake, a cruel-love compatriot to “Another Sad And Lonely Night,” both of them simultaneously shiny and devastating in their resigned, boppin’ acceptance of the heart’s tear-stained pursuit of an elusive happiness. The two tracks politely take turns as my all-time top Bobby Fuller Four track. The haunting “Never To Be Forgotten” brings the program proper to a close, the heart’s quest yet unfulfilled, but its lonely plight comforted by the warmth of the stereo. An unlisted bonus track–the group’s radio spot for The Big Kahuna, a popular DJon L.A.’s KHJ-AM, sung to the tune of “I Fought The Law”–finally ends the LP on a gloriously exuberant note.

I was 21 years old in 1981. I lived inside my pop music. I was also living in the (overrated) real world for the first time, trying to reconcile the frequently conflicting promise of art and the demands of responsibility, adulthood. It can be a difficult line to tread, an ongoing balancing act between the dreams we dream and the clocks we punch. Doing what we have to keeps things going; doing what we want to keeps us going.

Bobby Fuller wasn’t much older than that when he died in the summer of ’66, a pop star three months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, a West Texas kid who hit the big time, a rockin’ pop success story with a Billboard smash on his resumé and the world at his feet. The liner notes to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four offered my first hint of his tragic story. Bobby had talent. Bobby had good looks. Bobby had a string of pretty young things on his arm. And on July 18th, 1966, Bobby’s body was found slumped in his car outside his apartment in Hollywood. He had been beaten. He had been doused with gasoline. The authorities ruled his death a suicide (later amended to “accidental”).

Right.

The record business is big and brutal. And wherever there’s money, there are criminals, and there is often the mob. Ask Tommy James. Or ask Miriam Linna, co-author (with Bobby’s brother Randell Fuller) of the book I Fought The Law: The Life And Strange Death Of Bobby Fuller. Linna and Fuller believe Bobby was murdered by the mob. Sound crazy? Really, crazier than suicide by beating oneself and bathing in gasoline? I’m not one for conspiracy theories. Elvis is dead. Paul is alive. Neil Armstrong did indeed walk on the moon. Oswald may well have acted alone. I find tinfoil hats unbecoming. And I also believe that the mob killed Bobby Fuller, whether over business (likely) or for revenge on Bobby for dallying with a pretty young thing whose dallying allegiance was presumed to already belong exclusively to an underworld boss. The latter scenario was, as I recall, favored in the liner notes of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four. Whatever actually happened to Fuller, it’s a safe bet it wasn’t self-inflicted.

The sordid tale of Fuller’s end, as sad and frustrating as it remains, can’t dilute the prevailing appeal of his music. Listening to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four was my first real evidence that there could be more–much more–to an act that show biz writes off as a one-hit wonder. I no longer own my copy of that LP; it was replaced many years ago by a CD that contained even more great Bobby Fuller tracks, and that CD was replaced by the five discs of Bobby Fuller material that now sit proudly on my shelf at home. Fool of love. Another sad and lonely night. Let her dance all night long.

My road to appreciating the bounty of The Bobby Fuller Four began in earnest with Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four in 1981. But the road truly began on the road, literally, back in ’66: when the magic radio in my brother’s unreliable but intrepid red Alfa Romeo played a song I could never hear anywhere else. The law didn’t win this one, I fear. But the music plays on. Never to be forgotten.

(And, for a fictional take inspired by Bobby Fuller’s murder, check out the blurb for my story idea The Beat And The Sting.)

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He Buys Every Rock ‘n’ Roll Book On The Magazine Stands, Part 1: The Circus And The Stone

The first rock ‘n’ roll magazines I recall seeing were issues of Circus and Rolling Stone. I found them around the house, and I presume they belonged to one of my older siblings, probably my sister Denise. I am reasonably certain that neither of my parents would have been into either magazine. On the other hand, my Dad worked at the post office, so it’s equally plausible that these were dead-letter subscription copies that had been discarded, and that maybe Dad brought ’em home. Either way, these magazines made their way to our living room in North Syracuse.

Circus never meant much to me, and although I occasionally flipped through new issues on the magazine racks when looking for rock ‘n’ roll reading material in later years, it wasn’t something I cared about. Until a couple of days ago, I’d largely forgotten that Circus was my first, from 1973. I remembered that Carly Simon was on the cover, and a bit of Google sleuthing led me to the likely culprit pictured above.

I liked Simon at the time. I was an AM radio fanatic. I enjoyed her singles “Anticipation” and “You’re So Vain,” as well as “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” and I would continue to like a few more of her hits before I lost interest in the mid ’70s. I’m sure I read the Circus article about her, and I would imagine I at least glanced through the other cover-mentioned pieces about Deep PurpleYesBlack SabbathStevie WonderTommy, and Colombo‘s Peter Falk. But I remember virtually none of it. Not even the Uriah Heep calendar! Though it is fitting that my first rock magazine should presage my first live rock show: my first concert was KISS with opening act Uriah Heep on December 16th, 1976. A coincidence, sure, but a cool connection nonetheless.

My second rock magazine had a little more lasting impact: Suzi Quatro on the cover of the Rolling Stone, January 1975. Swoon! I was instantly smitten with Quatro, even though I’d never heard of her before seeing this magazine. I read the article about her, but didn’t get an opportunity to hear her music until much later. When I finally got to hear and see Suzi Q sing “I May Be Too Young” on the British TV show Supersonic in 1976, it verified the veracity of my smitten nature. Did I mention swoon? Thanks, Rolling Stone!

Most rock fans of my age or older had some affection for Rolling Stone at some point, and I was no exception to that. Other than a 1976 issue with The Beatles on its cover, I don’t think I read the magazine much (if at all) before starting college in 1977. But I devoured Charles M. Young‘s cover story about The Sex Pistols. My roommate Arthur had a subscription to Stone, despised punk, and eventually passed his copy of that Pistols issue to me (with the disdainful expression of one handing over a sack of poopy diapers). I bought Rolling Stone sporadically; I enjoyed “Bang The Head Slowly,” Timothy White‘s 1979 piece about The Ramones, but bemoaned the fact that The Ramones never rated an RS cover feature during their blitzkrieg-boppin’ lifetime.

I eventually subscribed to Rolling Stone, but I grew increasingly and frustratingly aware of the annoying polar opposites that characterized the magazine’s approach: one half rooted in a smug, condescending rote-hippie consciousness, the other not rooted at all, but embarrassingly eager to chase and embrace whatever shiny Next Big Thing mirage flits across pop culture’s short attention span. Come on–Rolling Stone‘s putz swine-in-chief Jann Wenner still insists on blocking The Monkees from The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but he’s fine with cover-featuring Kardashians? Sorry, even introducing me to Suzi Quatro doesn’t earn sufficient gravitas to compensate for that. Rolling Stone and I parted company a long time ago.

But let’s get back to the ’70s. In spite of being initiated via Circus and Rolling Stone, I don’t really recall reading many rock mags during my high school years. I was certainly into the music. I mean, I listened to radio nearly all of the time, bought records when I could afford them, tried to catch rock ‘n’ roll on TV when the opportunity presented itself. But the meager spending cash I had for reading material went to comic books, pulp paperbacks, and the occasional Playboy or Penthouse. The latter resource did include a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll coverage amidst its more celebrated, y’know, uncoverage. I remember reading the lyrics to The Kinks‘ “Here Comes Yet Another Day” in a Penthouse article, at a time when I was just beginning to learn about The Kinks. Penthouse also published an extremely dismissive piece about The Bay City Rollers, and an interview with Patti Smith that was the first time I’d even heard of her.

The only other rock-related magazines I remember from my North Syracuse High School days were Welcome Back Beatles, a series of fanciful scenarios detailing fictional Beatles reunions, and a Bay City Rollers one-shot fan magazine. Oh, and Marvel‘s KISS comic book. And there was still one more bona fide rock ‘n’ roll publication that did matter to me, and it mattered a lot. I only saw two issues of this during my senior year, plus one more back issue the following summer. Even so, the impact of those tabloid pages was far greater than any other rock read I’d experienced to that point.

This was something new. This was something different. This was Phonograph Record Magazine.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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Didn’t Hear THAT Coming! (Unexpected Covers In Concert): DAVID JOHANSEN, “Hot Stuff”

Didn’t Hear THAT Coming! (Unexpected Covers In Concert) discusses songs I was surprised to hear covered in a live show by an act I’d gone to see.
Cover songs can add zip and spark to a rock ‘n’ roll group’s live repertoire. In their earliest gigs, most groups start out playing covers, and integrate more of their own original material into their sets as they play more dates, develop more of an identity, and attract more fans with an interest beyond just hearing bar-band interpretations of songs associated with other acts. It’s a basic long-term strategy for groups hoping to get noticed, to get somewhere; there’s a reason The Rolling Stones cut back on Chuck Berry songs and started writing their own material.

Still, a well-placed cover tune can enhance a live set, while the wrong choice can result in irritating a fan who doesn’t want to hear a fave rave act pandering to a lower common denominator. Whether it works or falls flat, the unexpected cover prompts us to say, “Wow–didn’t hear THAT coming!”

In the late ’70s, disco and punk were supposed to be at war with each other. As a self-professed punk rocker in that era, I can attest that, yeah, punks didn’t like disco, and the bumpin’-n-hustlin’ set was appalled by the loud and fast noise my people favored. Hatfields and Capulets, meet McCoys and Montagues. Never mind the fact that the mainstream rock crowd held both punk and disco in nearly equal disdain; this was war!
Except that it wasn’t. I’m skeptical of the notion that many of the Saturday Night Fevered ever took much interest in The Damned or The Dead Boys, but some among the new wave brigade did eventually allow their ears and minds to be a bit more open to non-pogo dance music, to the beat of dat ole debbil disco. Maybe it was just me, but I was a pop fan anyway; my intense dislike of disco music evolved into occasional tolerance, and tolerance evolved into a sporadic realization that some of the records weren’t bad. Plus, Donna Summer was gorgeous. I feel love.

At the age of 19 in 1979, my belated discovery and embrace of early ’70s proto-punks The New York Dolls was still at an early stage. My local Syracuse heroes The Flashcubes introduced me to the Dolls’ classic “Personality Crisis” via their own Cubic live cover in ’78. By the end of my spring ’79 semester at college in Brockport, I think I may have heard former Dolls lead singer David Johansen‘s solo track “Funky But Chic” on the Brockport campus radio station WBSU. I had heard a handful of Dolls tracks, “Personality Crisis,” “Who Are The Mystery Girls?,” and probably “Babylon,” and I was aware of the group’s importance at Ground Zero of my cherished punk movement. Given an opportunity to see ex-Doll David Johansen live, with The Flashcubes opening the show, I had just enough basic familiarity with the headliner (and abundant enthusiasm for the opening act) to declare there was no way in Hell I was missing that show.

The show took place at The Slide Inn in Syracuse. A quick check of Pete Murray’s Flashcubes timeline reveals that the date was 7/26/79. Prior to reconciliation and reunions in later years, it was the last time I saw the original line-up of the ‘Cubes, just a few days before guitarist Paul Armstrong parted company with the group, ejected over musical differences. With no knowledge of the tension within The Flashcubes at the time, I just thoroughly enjoyed their set, a set which included my first exposure to a trio of ‘Cubes originals: Paul’s “You’re Not The Liar,” Gary Frenay‘s “I Wanna Stay All Night,” and Arty Lenin‘s “Nothing Really Matters When You’re Young.”

The David Johansen Group were amazing. Johansen’s fellow former Doll Sylvain Sylvain was no longer in David’s group by the time I saw them, but it was an incredible show nonetheless. It didn’t matter at all that I didn’t know many of the songs; I knew ’em by the end of the show. “Frenchette,” in particular, floored me, and I immediately adored “Cool Metro” and “I’m A Lover,” all three of those gems turning out to be from Johansen’s eponymous debut solo album, an LP I purchased not long after hearing it played live at the Slide.

Johansen and company also did a little bit of Dolls material: “Babylon” and their Bo Diddley cover, “Pills.” The encore was “Personality Crisis.”

If you’re familiar with the Dolls’ original recording of “Personality Crisis,” you know there’s a pause in the song just before its two-minute mark, followed by Johansen whooping And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon!, the band returning as well with wolf-whistles and guitar grunge. In a live performance of the song, it’s a natural spot to throw in a snippet of a different song as a willful non sequitur, illustrating the schizophrenic nature of a personality crisis. In ’79, I think I’d read in Trouser Press that Johansen was doing “Personality Crisis” as an unlikely medley with Bonnie Tyler‘s “It’s A Heartache” (a song which channeled Rod Stewart so effectively that I thought Bonnie was Rod; she was, in fact, bigger than Rod). That night at the Slide, I’m sure I half-expected to hear “It’s A Heartache” in the middle of “Personality Crisis.”

But…no. The song’s pause came, and a familiar guitar riff suddenly filled the Slide, as patrons like me, with senses slowed by beer, struggled to mentally name that tune in…OH MY GOD, IT’S DONNA SUMMER!!

I guess the divine Miss S actually appearing at the Slide to duet with David Jo would have been a bigger surprise than just hearing him sing a Summer song, but maybe not by much. Sittin’ here eatin’ my heart out waitin’, waitin’ for some lover to call. “Hot Stuff.” Donna Summer. One could argue that Summer’s own version of “Hot Stuff” was already more of a rock song than it was a disco song. It certainly rocked in the capable hands of The David Johansen Group. 

The connection was monumental. We were punks and rockers, boppin’ with unironic intent to a song–a great song–by the reigning queen of disco. Johansen’s short cover was faithful and true, so we couldn’t claim he’d somehow redeemed the song. The song was already great; our own closed ears may have made us deaf to its charm. Until that instant.

This wasn’t my first realization that maybe some disco or disco-related music wasn’t necessarily awful. I already liked Donna Summer’s percolatin’ hit “I Feel Love,” and (as I’ve noted elsewhere) I’d already approved of “In The Navy” by The Village People, figuring that the sound of an openly gay group chanting They want you! They want you! They want you as a new recruit! on American Top 40 radio was more punk than The Sex Pistols.

But David Johansen singing Donna Summer, even if it was just an excerpt of one of her songs, performed and contained within a cantankerous classic by The New York Dolls, was an irresistible manifesto for a brokered peace between the battling factions of punk, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll. Cease fire. War is over if you want it.

Yeah, I know it wasn’t really that simple. Schisms remained, and would remain. But I saw. I heard. I wasn’t alone in that. By the ’80s, as punk and new wave had slid into new (later alternative) music and disco’s commercial day had passed for the time being, lines continued to blur. Much of the mainstream rock crowd still hated us, but that was okay. We were fighting the good fight. Looking for a lover who needs another, don’t want another night on my own. Fall in, troops. No sleep ’til victory. A New York Doll says Donna Summer’s here, and the time is right for dancing in the streets. 

WHEN DIDN’T HEAR THAT COMING! RETURNS: Love, The Bangles

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.
The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:
Volume 1: downloadVolume 2: CD or downloadVolume 3: downloadVolume 4: CD or downloadWaterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio:  CD or download
Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 133 essays about 133 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).

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Didn’t Hear THAT Coming! (Unexpected Covers In Concert): THE FLASHCUBES, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter”

THE FLASHCUBES: Arty Lenin, Tommy Allen, Gary Frenay, Paul Armstrong

Didn’t Hear THAT Coming! (Unexpected Covers In Concert) discusses songs I was surprised to hear covered in a live show by an act I’d gone to see.
Cover songs can add zip and spark to a rock ‘n’ roll group’s live repertoire. In their earliest gigs, most groups start out playing covers, and integrate more of their own original material into their sets as they play more dates, develop more of an identity, and attract more fans with an interest beyond just hearing bar-band interpretations of songs associated with other acts. It’s a basic long-term strategy for groups hoping to get noticed, to get somewhere; there’s a reason The Rolling Stones cut back on Chuck Berry songs and started writing their own material.

Still, a well-placed cover tune can enhance a live set, while the wrong choice can result in irritating a fan who doesn’t want to hear a fave rave act pandering to a lower common denominator. Whether it works or falls flat, the unexpected cover prompts us to say, “Wow–didn’t hear THAT coming!”

THE FLASHCUBES: Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter [Herman’s Hermits]
I believe I’ve already mentioned that I kinda like Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes; insisting that my all-time favorite groups are The BeatlesThe Ramones, and The Flashcubes is a pretty direct statement, right? ‘Cubes shows in 1977 and ’78 included a lot of covers; as time went on, the bulk of their set lists became (rightfully) dominated by their own compositions.

The Flashcubes had terrific taste in covers, encompassing ’60s British Invasion, ’70s punk, power pop, new wave, and Eddie Cochran. The ‘Cubes introduced me to the music of The New York DollsBig StarChris Spedding, and Eddie & the Hot Rods. They covered The TroggsThe JamThe HolliesTelevisionThe RaspberriesThe Sex PistolsThe Yardbirds, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” 

And The Flashcubes covered Herman’s Hermits. Just, y’know, usually not the song listed above.

“A Must To Avoid” was the Hermits track that eventually made its way onto Cubic set lists, a song ready-made for live power pop (though the ‘Cubes always skipped its final verse, presumably to keep it lean ‘n’ stripped). But one night in 1978, upstairs at either The Orange or The Firebarn, the ‘Cubes did a seemingly impromptu snippet of “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.” They were introducing a Sex Pistols cover, guitarist Paul Armstrong saying they were going to do a song by a group that had just broken up. “The Beatles…?!,” bassist Gary Frenay joked. “No,” said Armstrong, “and it’s not Herman’s Hermits either.”

For dramatic purposes, the part of Mrs. Brown’s lovely daughter will be played by the lovely actress Pamela Sue Martin

At which point guitarist Arty Lenin started picking the distinctive faux ukulele intro to “Mrs. Brown.” Paul paused, conferred with Arty, who then resumed his picking as Paul joined in briefly to wail along, Missus Brown you’ve gahht a luuuuvleeee dawwwwwwwterrr…! Drummer Tommy Allen may have thrown in a rim shot, completing this Borscht Belt power pop connection. The gag completed, The Flashcubes launched into their planned cover of either “God Save The Queen” or “Pretty Vacant.” 

She’s so lovely, she’s so lovely…she’s a DAUGHTER…!

Was this whole schtick planned out in advance? Maybe. Probably? If so, The Flashcubes pulled off the illusion of spontaneity with grace and aplomb, perhaps not a phrase often applied to the clattering Wall of Noise that defined the sound of Flashcubes ’78. 

My memory insists that I witnessed Arty throw in his “Mrs. Brown” lick during at least one other Flashcubes show, that time without Paul Armstrong channeling a punk Peter Noone. If he ever did it again, it was still an isolated incident. “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” would not be listed in any document of songs The Flashcubes ever covered. But I saw it. I heard it. I just didn’t hear it coming.

WHEN DIDN’T HEAR THAT COMING! RETURNS: David Johansen sings disco!

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You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! 
This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:

Volume 1: download
Volume 2: CD or download
Volume 3: download
Volume 4: CD or download
Waterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio:  CD or download
Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST : The Sex Pistols

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Noise. Glorious, angry, cathartic noise. Loud. Pissed off. Incredible.

It took me decades to really appreciate the music of The Sex Pistols. When I heard my first Pistols record in 1977, I thought it was intriguing, fascinating, but not really music. Now? Now, I regard The Sex Pistols as one of the all-time great rock ‘n’ roll bands.

But I liked the noise immediately.

British punk rock in the ’70s wasn’t built with me in mind; suburban American teens were not really the target audience of these snotty, safety-pinned Nihilists screaming Anarcheeeee in the yoooooooooooooo-kay! Nonetheless, my own individual level of post-adolescent alienation ultimately made me receptive to the promise of no future, no future, no future for you.

Before the music, there were words in the newspaper. For some reason, my memory associates my earliest awareness of The Sex Pistols with the cold confines of the Media Center at my high school in North Syracuse, NY. It was my senior year, 1976 to ’77. I spent some time in the Media Center, theoretically studying, really just reading histories of comic books and attempting to flirt (to no avail) with the girl at the periodicals check-out counter. There were press reports of this strange punk thing going on in England, sensational, garbled accounts of obscenity, rebellion, a jarring rock ‘n’ roll cacophony, a band literally puking on its audience. The last bit wasn’t true; the rest of it turned out to be Gospel.

Whatever. I wasn’t interested.

I was 16 or 17. My pop music tastes ran to British Invasion and ’60s oldies, The Beatles always first and foremost, plus ’70s acts like SweetBadfinger, and The Raspberries. I’d missed a chance to see Alice Cooper (with the lovely Suzi Quatro, my # 1 rock ‘n’ roll crush) in 1975, and would see my first concert–KISS–in December of ’76. I wasn’t opposed to flash, to excitement. But the yellow-journalism tales of The Sex Pistols made punk seem…dumb.

My opinion of punk would revise with the revelation of Phonograph Record Magazine, a tabloid rock rag I discovered in early ’77. PRM‘s tantalizing descriptions of all these punk and peripheral acts I’d never heard–The RamonesThe DamnedThe ClashBlondieThe Vibrators, and of course the Pistols–intrigued me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear…something.

I finally heard The Sex Pistols in the summer of ’77, when Utica’s WOUR-FM played their new import single, “God Save The Queen.” The DJ introduced the track with mentions of the clamor and controversy surrounding the group, and then played the record so listeners could judge for themselves.

“God Save The Queen” was unlike any record I’d ever heard. Even though I didn’t initially think it was music, it was undeniably exciting, enticing. Different. That was good enough for me. I didn’t hear The Sex Pistols again for months thereafter, but “God Save The Queen” did not leave my mind at any time.

Summer ended. College at Brockport began for this 17-year-old freshman. I heard more punk rock, courtesy of the campus radio station. I had my classes, and I betcha I may have studied occasionally. Otherwise? Music. Keggers. Attempts at writing. Flirting. Reciprocal flirting, leading to more than flirting. A few really dumbass actions that I still cringe to recall. Arguments with my roommate. A growing certainty that I would never truly fit in anywhere, a certainty which proved to be accurate.

There were two record stores in town, The Vinyl Jungle and The Record Grove. The Vinyl Jungle was gone in short order, leaving only The Record Grove, whose wonderful manager Bill Yerger had import and independent 45s for sale at the counter. My first punk rock purchases occurred at that counter when I bought the 45s of “God Save The Queen” and The Ramones’ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker.”

My roommate let me play “God Save The Queen” once on his stereo, so props to him for that. It was just as powerful the second time through, and it retained its power for oh, a zillion subsequent spins over the years. B-side “Did You No Wrong” wasn’t quite as distinctive–what could be?–but I dug it, and I like even more all these decades later.

My girlfriend was a little older than me, about 20 or 21, and she didn’t care for any of that noisy trash I loved so much. Her abrupt replacement was just 17, if you know what I mean, and she didn’t like my music any more than her predecessor did, but she bought me The Sex Pistols’ debut LP as a Christmas gift.

I think I’d already heard the “Pretty Vacant” single before I got my copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. I loved “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save The Queen,” and I loved a great album track called “No Feelings.” I liked “Anarchy In The UK” and “Holidays In The Sun.” I appreciated the foul-mouthed shock value of “Bodies,” and I approved of the album as a whole without ever embracing it as fully as I claimed at the time. I glowered at the barely-literate poison-pen review the album received in the campus newspaper, a frothing-at-the-mouth diatribe that sputtered such pithy witticisms as “Simply put, this album sucks!” Oh, you and your clever words….!

That was the basic beginning of my life as a Sex Pistols fan. Back home over Christmas break, my friend Jay came over to watch The Sex Pistols’ planned American television debut on Saturday Night Live, only to discover that our lads were still in England, and their SNL slot would be manned instead by some guy named Elvis Costello. The Pistols eventually made it to America, and the group broke up, acrimoniously and ignominiously, on these shores. When there’s no future, how can there be sin?

The sheer audacity of the Pistols phenomenon stayed with me. So much was made of their image, their DIY sloppiness, their presumed inability to play, that I didn’t realize until long, long after the fact just how solid this much-maligned band really was. Sure, Sid Vicious couldn’t play bass to save his short life, and Johnny Rotten‘s abrasive lead vocals were willfully more caterwaul than melody. But underneath all that? Guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock were tight, together. They could play, and they played a basic, invigorating, exciting rock ‘n’ roll sound that doesn’t get the credit it richly deserves. These are terrific records. I wish they’d made more!

But Never Mind The Bollocks was The Sex Pistols’ only real album. There was the double-LP collection The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, assembled posthumously and at least as much sod as odd, and there was a terrific bootleg called Spunk, which preserved the Pistols’ pre-album demos. For a while, I preferred Spunk to Bollocks, but I’ve since settled firmly on the side of the official recordings.

Nowadays, my go-to Sex Pistols audio document is Kiss This, an import CD that contains all of Never Mind The Bollocks, the non-LP B-sides (“I Wanna Be Me,” “Did You No Wrong,””Satellite,” “No Fun”), and a selection of tracks from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, including the Pistols’ cover of The Monkees‘ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and Sid Vicious’ silly deconstruction of “My Way.” If itonly added Sid’s surprisingly amiable version of Eddie Cochran‘s “Something Else” from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll SwindleKiss This would be THE perfect Pistols set, but it’s close enough.

And, of course, I still have my original LP of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, a Christmas gift from a girl who would remain my girlfriend for about two more weeks after she gave it to me. No future. No feelings for anybody else, except for myself, my beautiful self. We are the flowers in the dustbin. The poison in your human machine. We’re so pretty, oh so pretty. Noise. Glorious. Angry. Cathartic. Music
Mine. My music. The transcendence of its noise endures. We mean it, man.

WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: S is for

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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-OpRay PaulCirce Link & Christian NesmithVegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie FlowersThe SlapbacksP. HuxIrene PeñaMichael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave MerrittThe RubinoosStepford KnivesThe Grip WeedsPopdudesRonnie DarkThe Flashcubes,Chris von SneidernThe Bottle Kids1.4.5.The SmithereensPaul Collins’ BeatThe Hit SquadThe RulersThe Legal MattersMaura & the Bright LightsLisa 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.

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Faces On The Wall

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 HeartbreakersThe 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.

I still regret never buying this one for my dorm room wall.

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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-OpRay PaulCirce Link & Christian NesmithVegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie FlowersThe SlapbacksP. HuxIrene PeñaMichael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave MerrittThe RubinoosStepford KnivesThe Grip WeedsPopdudesRonnie DarkThe Flashcubes,Chris von SneidernThe Bottle Kids1.4.5.The SmithereensPaul Collins’ BeatThe Hit SquadThe RulersThe Legal MattersMaura & the Bright LightsLisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.

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My Illegal Records

My introduction to the concept of bootleg records was an ad in the tabloid pages of The Buyer’s Guide To Comics Fandom around 1976 or so. Before that, I may have known that bootlegs existed, but this was the first time I’d ever encountered concrete evidence of that. The very idea that there might be practical availability of unreleased recordings by The Beatles intrigued me and enticed me beyond all reason.

But it took me a while to actually get a bootleg to call my own. The first one I recall seeing was a Beatles boot I spied on the rack at a record store in a Cleveland mall over Christmas break in late ’77/early ’78.  I have no recollection whatsoever of what the Beatleg was nor what it contained; my funds were limited, so I bought a couple of 45s instead (“Father Christmas” by The Kinks and “(It’s Gonna Be A) Punk Rock Xmas” by The Ravers). My first bootleg acquisition was a different Beatles boot, The Deccagone Sessions, which was a mix of Decca audition tapes, BBC tracks, and things like the audio track from the “Revolution” video and “Some Other Guy” live ‘n’ distorted at The Cavern. I bought it at (I think) Syracuse’s Desert Shore Records in the late spring or summer of ’78.

My next bootleg was either a live Beatles boot called Youngblood or The Sex Pistols‘ Spunk, an ace collection of the Pistols’ demos. There was an Elvis Costello & the Attractions bootleg called 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, and a New York Dolls boot called Dallas ’74. In the early ’80s, I snagged a copy of Tails Of The Monkees, a picture disc that purported to be a collection of live Monkees recordings but really contained in-concert performances by Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart. A subsequent Monkees boot called Monkeeshines served up some TV performances, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee vinylized the group’s little-seen TV special, and an awful bootleg called Live In Los Angeles attempted to preserve the on-stage reunion of Michael Nesmith with his former prime mates Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork in simply wretched, inaudible sound quality.

I never really accumulated all that many bootlegs, but I had a few. I had a handful of titles of (at best) questionable legitimacy by The Sex Pistols and The Flamin’ Groovies, plus a boot of The Beatles’ almost-released Sessions. I had some live boots by The Ramones, and my favorite among those was Blitzkrieg ’76, a Boston live radio performance that included the fab song “Babysitter;” other than a mention of “Babysitter” in an issue of Creem, this was the only evidence I ever encountered that The Ramones used to include “Babysitter” in their live shows. A 1989 visit to Berkeley netted me used copies of The Beatles’ Christmas Album and Paul McCartney‘s Back In The USSR, both of which I presumed were bootlegs, though I suppose it’s possible that one or the other could have been legit (and underpriced).

I also had a few bootleg live cassettes: The Flashcubes (my only long-form Flashcubes document for a very long time), KISSThe BanglesThe ReplacementsThe Rolling StonesJohnny Thunders, The Flamin’ Groovies, perhaps some others that I’ve forgotten. There were some Beatles sessions on cassette, too. On CD, I had The Beatles’ Get Back and another copy of The Beatles’ Christmas Album, and a Pandoras disc of dubious legality.


Nowadays, of course, there’s no challenge in getting most of this formerly-illicit material. What was once the stuff of bootlegs can be found on legitimate releases as bonus tracks, or on vault-raids like The Beatles’ Anthology sets and The Monkees’ Missing Links. And everything’s all on YouTube anyway. But I still remember the allure of bootlegs, the thrill of scoring secret music you couldn’t get just anywhere. You couldn’t beat the bootlegs.

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The Greatest Record Ever Made: “You Really Got Me”

An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns.  Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
This post was originally published privately, for Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) subscribers only, on January 4th, 2017. This is its first public appearance. For as little as $2 a month, supporters of Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) on Patreon receive one exclusive bonus post each month: Fund me, baby!

THE KINKS: “You Really Got Me”
The record had no precedent.

Link Wray was the closest thing it had to a prototype; the growling, cantankerous power chords of Wray’s “Rumble” sounded like a force of nature, a monolithic, lumbering whamwhamWHAM! pouncing through cheap speakers to devour unsuspecting radio listeners in 1958. “Rumble” influenced anything loud and threatening that was ever played at 45 rpm from that second forward. And one imagines it must have influenced The Kinks, as well. Nonetheless, even six years later in 1964, there had still never been another record quite like “You Really Got Me.”

It’s not just a matter of velocity; “You Really Got Me” seems faster than it really is, and attempts to play it too fast or (worse) too heavy–like Van Halen‘s meatball cover in the late ’70s, or even The Kinks’ own live renditions in the ’80s–feel insincere, wrong. No, the song is methodical, deliberate, but still pounding with desire and passionate, right-now insistence. Its implied speed, its breakneck illusion, makes it all the more powerful, menacing, like a cobra poised to strike and rob you of your last breath. It’s a punk song, even a proto-metal song, but it has a groove. It has a soul. It has a heart.

And it seethes with the frustration from which it was born.

The Kinks had released two previous singles: a perfunctory cover of Little Richard‘s “Long Tall Sally” (backed by a great beat raver, “I Took My Baby Home”) and a lovely Britpop number called “You Still Want Me.” The former had sold respectably (but unspectacularly) in the UK, and the latter had been a relative stiff. The song’s composer, Ray Davies, is said to have pounded out “You Really Got Me”‘s bluesey creation at home, on his parents’ piano. Frustrated. His frequently estranged brother, Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, couldn’t get the dirty, gritty six-string sound he wanted on the song–Frustrated!–and wound up slashing his amp with a razor blade just to get the guttural effect he could only hear in his head. Ray Davies thought the first recording too polite, too polished, too smooth. FRUSTRATED!! He begged the record label to let them have another go at getting it right.

And they did. Release! Girl, you really got me goin’. Cigarette?

With “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks had their first big hit, and not just in the UK. That simple, ferocious riff echoed across the Atlantic, and The Kinks were suddenly part of a British Invasion, an insurrection armed with guitars, bass, and drums, a rock ‘n’ roll police action that reclaimed the colonies for Her Majesty. Yes, of course, The Beatles were the shaggy-headed faces of this unexpected Britmania, and those Liverpudlians’ wit and style and sheer pop brilliance were the driving force of that scene and its sound. But no other rock ‘n’ roll group was more British than The Kinks, and no song ever summed up the British Invasion as well as “You Really Got Me.” 

The Rolling Stones tried to surpass it, tried to make a record that could beat the overwhelming, transcendent urgency of “You Really Got Me.” And while the Stones created a lot of terrific singles in the process, they couldn’t match The Kinks. Nor could The Who, nor The Sex Pistols, nor even The Ramones, though Forest Hills’ Finest likely came the closest. The Kinks also tried; their follow-up single “All Day And All Of The Night” was arguably even better, a steamrollin’ refinement of “You Really Got Me”‘s primal attack. But “better” isn’t the same as Greatest. In the visceral realm of pop music, of rock ‘n’ roll, immediacy can be immortal. God save the greatest. And God save The Kinks.

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Boppin'

The Other Side Of The Hit (B-Side Appreciation) “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss”

YOKO ONO: “Kiss Kiss Kiss”
Geffen, 1980; A-Side: JOHN LENNON: “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Some called her a Dragon Lady. To John Lennon, she was probably the one true love of his life.

A lot of rock ‘n’ rollers never understood Yoko Ono, and likely never will. I don’t exempt myself from that; I’m not a fan of her music, either with John or the material she made after his murder. But I don’t think I ever fell into the trap of demonizing her, or wishing she were out of John’s life, or blaming her for The Beatles’ breakup. Honestly, I think Yoko saved John’s life; I have a hard time believing that the rudderless Lennon of the mid ’60s could have survived into the ’70s had he not met Ono. His 18-month “lost weekend” without her in 1973-75 could serve as evidence for or against that idea; he looked back on that time with regret, and he clearly drank and partied too much, but he also seemed happy in the moment with girlfriend May Pang, and he worked prolifically as a recording artist (three albums in that short span o’ months), producer, and musical collaborator. Still, ultimately John needed Yoko. The separation didn’t work out.

My respect for Yoko One as a person need not have any bearing on my appreciation of her work. In general, her music just isn’t for me. There was, however, one instance where I preferred Yoko’s music to a contemporaneous song by John. That was Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” the B-side of John’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” in 1980.

For me, the summer of 1980 marked three years since I’d first heard The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. I graduated from college in May of ’80, moved into an apartment with my girlfriend, and became a professional burger-flipper at the mighty Golden Arches. I still loved The Beatles, but felt punk and new wave pulling me away from most post-’67 Beatles–no power on Earth could ever hope to separate me from Beatles ’62-’66–and I was increasingly disinterested in contemporary releases by former Beatles. I thought George Harrison and Ringo Starr had become boring. I liked some of Paul McCartney‘s recent stuff, particularly “Coming Up” and 1979’s “Getting Closer,” but found him unreliable, and I actively disliked “Arrow Through Me” and “Goodnight Tonight.”

And John? John was MIA. After his lost weekend ran its course in ’75, he realized he needed to be with Yoko. Yoko wasn’t so sure. But when Lennon appeared as Elton John‘s special guest, singing a few songs with The Elton John Band at the conclusion of their 1975 Madison Square Garden show, Yoko met John backstage, and the reconciliation commenced. One wonders if John thought of the lyrics to the song he’d just performed–a song he introduced as “by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul,” a Beatles oldie John had never sung before, and the last song that John Lennon would ever sing in concert:

Well my heart went boom
When I crossed that room
And I held her hand in mine
Oh, we danced through the night
And we held each other tight
And before too long
I fell in love with her
Now I’ll never dance with another
Oh, when I saw her standing there
That’s the legend, anyway. Real life, real love, isn’t quite as simple or uncomplicated, but the end result was the same: John & Yoko. Together, man. They had a son, Sean, and John became a devoted father, retiring from public life for five years. He baked bread. He was Daddy. He was there.

I don’t remember how much of this I knew at the time. On the one hand, I saw a photo of Lennon in Rolling Stone, and he looked…old. On the other hand, in my punk-fueled mind, John had been the rocker in The Beatles, the fast ‘n’ loud balance to Paul’s silly love songs. It was a fiction I believed. As disconcerted as I was by the image of a grandfatherly ex-Beatle, I was convinced that Lennon could still return and show ’em all how it was s’posed to be done.

So I was delighted to hear that John Lennon was working on a new album in 1980. Early hype was encouraging; John & Yoko were working with producer Jack Douglas, and recording with a little help from new friends Cheap Trick, the one band–really, the only band–that every rock ‘n’ roll fan seemed to like at the end of the ’70s. The album was Double Fantasy, and its cover depicted John & Yoko sharing an affectionate little kiss. John had shaved his scraggly grandfather beard, and cut his hair to a properly fab mid ’60s love-me ‘do. The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was released ahead of the LP, and I eagerly traded cash for vinyl at Brockport’s Main Street Records to own a copy of that 45.

And I was so disappointed with it.

My expectations were unfair. I wanted Revolver and Rocket To Russia and power pop and punk and new wave and jangle and buzz and harmonies and Rickenbackers and drums and yeah-yeah-YEAH! That wasn’t gonna happen, even if Cheap Trick had been involved; as it was, most of the Trick’s contributions were omitted from the official version of Double Fantasy. There was certainly no audible evidence of them on this single. Instead, “(Just Like) Starting Over” fell somewhere between pre-Beatles pop and Electric Light Orchestra, and I wasn’t at all impressed. It was…okay. That’s all. Okay.

John had the A-side; Yoko had the B-side. I surprised myself by liking “Kiss Kiss Kiss” immediately. It seemed an edgier track, its herky-jerky riddum reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull‘s Broken English, its vocal styling similar to what I heard on records by Public Image, Ltd. and avowed Yoko Ono acolytes The B-52’s. Plus, like, it sounded like the Lennons were shakin’ the sheets at the end of the song. “Kiss Kiss Kiss” popped for me in a way the A-Side couldn’t. Although I gradually developed some level of fondness for “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Kiss Kiss Kiss” was the side I played, and I played it often.

I held off on getting Double Fantasy. I heard another song or two on the radio, definitely the Beatley “Woman” (which I thought nicked its riff from Argent‘s “Hold Your Head Up,” but which I liked nonetheless), and probably “Watching The Wheels,” Lennon’s statement of defiant domesticity. On December 8th of 1980, a nobody with a gun decided his pitiful craving for attention was more important than John Lennon’s right to live, Yoko’s right to a husband, Sean’s right to a father. The killer’s name will never be mentioned in anything I write.

The events that followed the album’s release made it impossible to assess Double Fantasy on its own merit. I still can’t. There was a rumor (and I betcha it’s true) that Rolling Stone had a negative review of Double Fantasy all set to run, but pulled at the last minute in the wake of Lennon’s murder, with a glowing and reflective review run in its place. I can’t say if that was the right thing to do. Probably. Maybe. I kinda doubt that I would have ever really embraced the album, but who knows? I sure don’t know. I can’t separate the album from that lingering memory of how bad I felt on the evening of December 8th.

We can grieve for people we’ve never met, losses that may not seem personal to onlookers, but losses that hurt, that ache, as if a vital part of our lives has been ripped from us. We shouldn’t commit the sin of comparing our feelings in the wake of John Lennon’s murder to what Yoko felt, what Sean felt, to the anguish of older son Julian, ex-wife Cynthia, Aunt Mimi, or Paul, George, and Ringo, or May Pang. It’s not the same, not even close. Still hurts anyway, though.

On the evening of the murder, John and Yoko had been in the studio, working on a new Yoko single, “Walking On Thin Ice.” Can’t separate that one from its circumstances either, and I’ve never been able to enjoy it. An album called Milk And Honey was eventually assembled from unused Double Fantasy sessions, and I wound up digging its focus tracks “Nobody Told Me” and “Living On Borrowed Time” more than I liked most of Double Fantasy. Different circumstances. Different expectations.

Nowadays, I don’t often listen to “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” Among solo Beatles, I’m generally more likely to spin some McCartney than a Lennon, Harrison, or Starr record. I never listen to Yoko Ono at all. Yet I’m still fond of “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and I still recall with vivid immediacy the rush of realizing I liked the Yoko track better than I liked the John track. Honestly, I think John Lennon would have forgiven me. Yoko saved his life, for a while anyway. She was the one true love of his life. He just wanted us to appreciate her, too.

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