Tag Archives: The Police

The Rock And Roll 500

The windowless white van rumbled eastward on Route 90, soon to take a dogleg right and hook up with its brother highway, The Mass Pike. A six-hour trek that normally would clog at one end or another, but on the two interior days of a four-day holiday, traffic was pretty much non-existent. Most people were already where they wanted to be. I was just going back and forth, as usual.

When I was her age, I moved a few times, and always with the help of friends. Someone always had a truck. Everyone would focus on the beer and pizza at the end of the run, and were it not for my abnormal amount of vinyl albums, we could probably have been in and done in a couple of hours. But I forgot what it’s like to live in a major city where public transportation is the norm, where not only do you not have a car, but no one you know does, either. And besides, isn’t this what Dads do?

The rental van was reasonably priced but came with its limitations. No power locks, so each of the five doors had to be constantly checked. No power windows, either – do they really still make hand cranks? And much to my horror, just a radio. No CD player, not even a cassette, and certainly no input for a digital device to be plugged in. Nope, the front end of the trip would be a hollow metal can bouncing down the road (what, you expected soundproofing?) and me alone with my thoughts, unless I could find something decent on the radio. I had given up trying to do that years ago.

But it’s Memorial Day Weekend, so rock stations across the country are broadcasting their own version of the Rock And Roll 500, a countdown of the five hundred greatest rock songs ever made. And although I constantly have to hit the scanner, as signals fade and ebb between markets or on each side of a mountain pass, sooner or later it’s there. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Cream, U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Cars, The Who, The Police, The Ramones…song after song that I know like the back of my hand, whether I like them or not. It’s a bit 60s and 70s heavy, but rightfully so, because that’s when the apex took place.

I remember selling my Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin albums in a used record store, not so much because I needed the money but because radio had played “Free Bird” and “Stairway To Heaven” so often that I couldn’t bear to hear either band again. This egregious life choice was eventually recanted, of course, even though those two particular songs have long worn out their welcome. But the punk ethic of the time was to burn the past, and somehow I got caught up in the moment. I mean, really – I have never disliked the first four Led Zeppelin albums, they are incredible…but there they went across the counter.

It was a mistake I would not repeat; the day my senses came back to me and I repurchased them was also the day I realized that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. I like what I like, period. I don’t owe you an apology for that just because you disagree.

I thought of that a lot during the six-hour drive as I beat rhythms on the dashboard and heard my voice echo through the empty metal canister (reverb!), singing along as a large part of my childhood was played out for me one track at  a time. I remembered the boxes of 45s that I meticulously catalogued, the first albums I listened to over headphones, juggling prog and pop and glam and blues in college. Even the glee with which Roger and I would pore through the new punk singles arriving at Record Theatre – usually one scooped up by him and one by me, leaving none to be placed in the racks for sale. There was always an insatiable taste for great songs, and there was always the bedrock of what had come before.

I thought of the music I wasn’t hearing on the trip; were there really no J. Geils Band songs, even on the Boston station? And Tom Petty, who quietly went from ignored to elder statesman just by never stopping – would I hear “American Girl“? I already knew that The Dictators, Billy Bremner, Dwight Twilley, John Hiatt, and other lifelong favorites would probably not be heard from, but how was I not hearing a Kinks song?

Heading westward was a different story; the stations seemed less numerous and the song selections started to get downright odd. Even Eli turned to me at one point with her face scrunched up as a Candlebox song came in at number 168. I was incredulous. “The entire Kinks catalogue is better than that song“, I told her, and as “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic” followed at #167 I imagined Sting sighing, relieved that when the great books were tabulated, someone gave the nod to his fine effort to move ahead – just ahead – of the mighty Candlebox.

Eli and I talked about many things on the way back, and the conversation turned to Lady Gaga. I don’t really care for him/her in the same way that I was never a Madonna fan – I’m much more centered on the music than the spectacle. Eli grew up listening to her own music but also getting the aural second-hand smoke of mine. My rule was and is that the driver picks the music, not the passengers. “I don’t think it’s great music per se“, she said, “but when I feel like dancing in a club it’s really fun and gets everyone going. It’s great for what it is, and I like it for that.” No guilt, just pleasure. A chip off the old block.

The sun had long set and we still had a couple of hours to go when “Going To Califormia” came on the radio, and I let it wash over me. I wasn’t going anywhere but home, but I must have channeled a dozen road trip memories in my mind. Had Eli turned to her left she would wonder why I had a shit-eating grin on my face after the long day, but someday she’ll do that herself. If there’s a better song to hear when you’re in a pensive mood on a long car trip, I can’t think of one right now.

And to think I once sold that album for a dollar. What fools these mortals be.

Led Zeppelin: “Going To California

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Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello

Miracle Man.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Declan MacManus, better known to the world as Elvis Costello, among other aliases over the years. Bursting onto the scene with what is arguably the best ever 1-2-3 punch of albums (My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces), Elvis quickly grabbed your attention with short catchy songs, a rapier wit and his secret weapon, The Attractions.

For as good as this sneering, scrawny Buddy Holly caricature was – and he was great – Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums were as formidable a rock band as you could hope for. They weren’t as spacial as The Police would become, nor were they thunderous like the then-still powerful Who, but they were so tight you couldn’t slip an ant’s ass hair through them.

But before Elvis Costello and The Attractions became one, it all started with an iconic debut; tracks laid down with session musicians who weren’t initially credited, total recording time adding up to less than one day.

People listen to records differently these days, especially if they are digital downloads. No tactile sensation of an album cover, liner notes, lyric sheets. Earbuds instead of walls of speakers. Sigh.

I remember the day my friend Phil showed up at my house with My Aim Is True; import version, of course. My roommate Larry and another friend were already hanging in the living room, music on as always. We had heard about the album coming out that day and planned to go grab it in a couple of hours. Phil was no procrastinator; he snagged it and came over where he knew there would be other willing participants to share the magic with. (Yet another earbud problem – isolation instead of the communal experience).

It was astonishing.

Two of the songs didn’t even hit the two-minute mark. The opening rocker “Welcome To The Working Week” somehow jammed a boatload of hooks, wry lyrics and choruses into a minute in a half; “Mystery Dance” sputtered and tumbled much like the clumsy lover the narrative depicted. There was fury and sarcasm, and there was great wit and wordplay, and the band (preAttractions musicians from Clover and The Rumour, among others) snapped everything to attention.

And maybe it was because it stood out with its winsome melody and broken heart, but “Alison” was an instant classic. The chink in the armor was there for all to see; this snarling wise-ass had feelings after all. When not long after I heard him nail this live it sent chills up my spine.

We were gobsmacked; I can’t tell you how many times we played this album over and over and over that day. It was all we would talk about with friends for days after, and whenever someone came over that album would come out and they would get indoctrinated. Not long afterwards some friends in a band worked up three of his songs so that I could duck out from tending bar and play lead singer for ten minutes. (We were the first Syracuse band to play Elvis Costello songs, and yes, I’m proud of that!)

Of course, Costello continued to floor us with one great album after another, and thanks to him and Rockpile and Graham Parker and Joe Jackson there was a new, fresh volley of literate songwriters serving up an alchemic stew of influences and flushing the distaste of disco and flaccid pop out of our ears. 

The trend wouldn’t last of course – none do – but the music proved timeless. On Friday I’ll celebrate Costello’s career with an Elvis-themed TGIF.

And yes, I know that today is also the birthday of Gene Simmons, Ruby Keeler, Tim Burton, Rob Halford, Wayne Shorter, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Regis Philbin and several others…as well as the tenth anniversary of Jack Nitzsche‘s death and the first for Ted Kennedy. But today, I must honor the Elvis who has been a part of my musical life for over three decades.

No offense, Mr. Presley.

Elvis Costello  wiki page

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Today also marks the 35th anniversary of Born To Run, when a talented performer, a crack band, a savvy manager and an all-too-eager mainstream press joined hands to crown the new King of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen has since earned every jewel in that crown and then some, but it’s yet another reminder of how fractured the entertainment industry has become. It’s no longer possible to make the stars align on that kind of scale, and with very few exceptions, those things never happened organically.

But that can’t and won’t tarnish the memory of a time when it seemed like a blue-collar bar room rocker grabbed the brass ring and pulled down the whole damned curtain with it. Rock concerts would never be the same.

Could that really have been thirty-five years ago?

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Syracuse Summers

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place...

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place...

As a follow-up to yesterday’s reminiscent jourmey, I want to use this week’s TGIF entry to clue you in to just ten of the many great artists and bands that came out of that smowy little hellhole known as Syracuse, NY. This list is by no means complete – none of my TGIF entries are – but this is but my small way to pay respect to The Little Town That Could…and Did.

So keep your eyes and ears open. Like my very good friend Dave always says, sometimes the best music is right in your own backyard.

Not the puffy shirt

The Flashcubes – If they had only been in a bigger market, their records would sit in every collection next to The Romantics and The Ramones and Cheap Trick. They were lightning in a bottle and dominated the pop scene but somehow didn’t make the jump. Ironically, a career resurgence over the past decade finds them more popular than ever, and the albums they should have been able to release then are available now. Gary Frenay and Artie Lenin still play as The Neverly Brothers (and in other configurations), Tommy Allen enjoys a great career as producer and drummer and Paul Armstrong still kicks ass (see below)

Screen TestGary Frenay, Artie Lenin and Tommy Allen mining a more melodic pop sound after the demise of The Flashcubes. Equally laden with hooks (Frenay is a vastly underrated songwriter) they have also seen a career resurgence and an anthology is being released in a few weeks. Like with the ‘Cubes material, I am still gobsmacked that songs like “Nothing Really Matters Whan You’re Young” did not become massive hits. Maybe now?

1.4.5. – When Gary, Artie and Tommy formed Screen Test, Paul Armstrong hooked up with Ducky Carlisle and Dave DeVoe to form this trio and spearhead a Pink Invasion (don’t ask). Both Dave (Rochester NY) and Ducky (Boston) are successful producers; Ducky has been popping up on scads of albums (Bleu, Mike Viola, Mandy Moore, etc.) and Paul still rocks out with his…oh, you know what I mean.

Masters of Reality – Although the original band split in two, with guitar whiz Tim Harrington going on to The Bogeymen (with another great Syracuse musician, George Rossi) and Creepjoint , Chris Goss is still kicking ass both as an artist and a producer. It’s a long way from sitting on the curbs sharing beers and war stories at 4am, Chris.

Hamell On Trial Ed Hamell, like most, started out playing in cover bands until he realized that he’d be playing in local bars forever unless he started writing his own music. The Works were one of the hardest working rock bands trolling the East Coast, but it wasn’t until Greg Spencer and Blue Wave Records allowed him to record his solo vision that things really clicked. Fans around the globe are thankful.

Elf – (OK…technically Cortland, but that’s almost a suburb.) So you want to know what Ronnie James Dio was doing before he became a heavy metal legend in his own time? The rest of the band was the embryo of Blackmore’s Rainbow (no one played piano like Mickey Lee Soule) and you might also want to check guitarist Dave Feinstein’s other band, The Rods.

The Kingsnakes – From the ashes of The Sandy Bigtree Band (a Firebarn mainstay) came one of the great blues and boogie bands that featured great musicians over the years like axeman Terry Mulhauser and Pete McMahon (later of Savoy Brown) on vocals and harp. Another Blue Wave artist.

The Penetrators – Self-proclaimed Kings of Basement Rock, they took a lot of shit for being sloppy, loud and abrasive, traits that played well for straight punk bands…so since when do garage bands sound perfect in their embryonic years? I am one of those who didn’t get it at first listen but have come to appreciate some of the great nuggets over time.

Joe Whiting – Still one of the greatest vocalists the Salt City has ever produced. Jukin’ Bone, his first band with Mark Doyle, got to release albums on Epic and the Doyle-Whiting Band shows are legend. Joe can sing anything with soul, fire and passion.

Mark Doyle – If it looks like a rock star and plays like a rock star, it is a rock star. Doyle is one of the most in-demand guitarists around and – like Jeff Beck – looks remarkably the same today as he did in his youth. Carrot juice or a deal with Satan? I’m not telling.

Oh, for a video of The Machine and Hummerwho had the man/beatbox thing down cold a decade before anyone scratched a turntable – or a CD release from The Ohms (“Teenage Alcoholic” remains my favorite single from that era). And the list of great bands who burned brightly but too early for an Internet footnote – Dress Code, Steve Neat and The Chances, Midnight Oil, Boss Tweed, The Natives… – could go on for days. Ditto volumes about those who were just as important off the stage (Dave Frisina, Mike Greenstein, Chuck Chao and Dave Rezak, just to name a few) in making this scene work. More tales for another day.

I guess you had to be there. Glad I was.

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