Despite its impeccable Big Thing antecedents (Beatles, Beach Boys, Who), Power Pop never quite made it to Next Big Thing status on its own. It hung around–over ground in the music of Badfinger, Raspberries, Cheap Trick, Cars, Go-Go’s and underground (Big Star, Flamin’ Groovies and several hundred lesser bands)–without taking over. Even with the bleedover from bigger-than-the-genre bands like Blondie in the 70s and the Bangles in the 80s, and the inescapability of the Knack’s “My Sharona” in the late 70s, there simply weren’t enough hits.
And, as an unabashed fan of the genre (or maybe the word is concept), I have to say there weren’t enough hits because there simply weren’t enough great records.
Outside the bands I mentioned above and a few, mostly Brit, tweeners like Small Faces and the Move, Power Pop in its heyday promised more than it delivered. In the 70s, when there was still a chance it would be more than a sub-genre of the perpetually underachieving New Wave, only two records ever grabbed me.
One was Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat,” which actually made the American top 20 and isn’t eligible for my little category here.
The other was Starz’ “Cherry Baby.”
1977 was the year the rock and roll experiment really started to waver. Besides “Cherry Baby,” Shaun Cassidy’s three great singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”) the radio was as dead to anybody who, from ignorance or otherwise, was holding disco at arm’s length as everybody claimed it had been in 1963, before the Beatles came along and saved us all.
In 1977, the Sex Pistols were apparently supposed to do it all again. They failed. Mostly because their records couldn’t compete with those made by black people.
They still can’t.
“Cherry Baby” did and does. If Starz (who preferred being billed as a metal band anyway) had been able to come up with another dozen of these, who knows….
Alas, there was only one. But it still makes me smile.
And, as I’ve learned long since, that’s not nothing.
This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.
You know. According to me.
And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.
It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…
Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.
Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.
Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…
Dream Ballot:Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.
Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…
Dream Ballot:Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!
Actual Nominee:Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.
Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.
Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO, which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…
Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.
Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…
Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]
Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.
Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.
Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…
Dream Ballot:Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi? She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.
Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….
Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.
Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.
Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.
Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?
Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)
Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…
Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?
Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…
Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.
Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…
Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….
[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]
Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…
Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)
Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…
Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?
Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.
Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…
Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…
Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.
Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.
Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.
Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!
Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):
My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)
My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)
My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)
My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)
My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)
I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.
But have no fear. You can file all that away.
You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.
Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).
Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.
But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.
To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.
And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.
It helps if you sold a lot of records.
Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.
So there’s the criteria.
Only two people ever met every standard for me.
Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:
Al Green or Patty Loveless.
Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?
I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.
For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.
Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.
Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).
As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.
As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.
After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…
bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).
Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).
Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.
Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.
Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.
Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…
Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…
and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…
(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).
Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.
Each walked down.
In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter
In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.
Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.
Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.
Neither has a true inheritor.
Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.
The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).
There are no weak tracks in either catalog.
One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.
It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.
And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…
For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.
And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.
No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.
They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.
But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.
I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?
Who really knows?
We all have our opinions.
You can probably guess mine.
What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.
And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.
You can hear it coming, happening, landing….
In neither instance was the case made with words.
Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.
The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.
But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.
It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.
They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.
They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.
I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:
I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).
It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.
“Sing for us!” it said.
Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.
Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.
I don’t know if it ever really happened.
But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.
They sang for us.
Choose between them?
Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.
No matter what anyone pretends (including some of the artists themselves), being inducted into a major Hall of Fame is a great honor and I’m down with anybody who makes it through the process.
This year it’s Chicago, N.W.A., Steve Miller, Cheap Trick and Deep Purple.
I didn’t have any especially strong feelings for any of the artists nominated this rime around except Spinners and, of course, being by far the most deserving, they did not make it. I’ll keep hoping. The one act I voted for in fan balloting which made the grade was Cheap Trick. I hope (but doubt) that their induction opens a crack for Big Star, Raspberries and the Go-Go’s, the other great power pop bands who were even greater rock and roll bands than Cheap Trick, to receive future consideration. We shall see.
As to the rest, N.W.A. and Deep Purple were genuine pioneers even if I’m not the prime audience for their music (and even if Joe South, deserving himself, did out-rock DP on “Hush”). Steve Miller was a genuine survivor, and Chicago sure did sell a lot of records (not a few of which I like a lot). All in all, I’d say it’s about average as recent classes go but it does continue one especially deep and troubling trend that I’ll keep harping on until it gets better: The Hall should stop pretending that black people disappeared in the 70s. If Chicago and Cheap Trick and Steve Miller can all go in during the same year, the first time any of them were nominated, then there’s no reason Barry White and the Commodores and Ohio Players shouldn’t go in next year as first time nominees.
Not to mention War and Spinners, the era’s greatest band and greatest vocal group respectively, R&B or otherwise. They both should have been in long ago.
So, looking forward, let this be the beginning of a new road folks, not an endless highway where a stream of geriatric white folks are eternally joined by a token rap or alternative act or two (look for Pearl Jam and Tupac next year), all selected by a hardening formula that now prizes television ratings over the Hall’s purported mission, as opposed to striking a necessary balance.
Since my first post on the Hall several years ago, at least a few of the acts I considered egregious oversights (Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt, The “5” Royales) have found their way in. I’m confident I’ve had nothing whatsoever to do with this, except maybe cosmically, but the cosmos must be attended, so I take heart and keep plugging away. My lists of the most deserving not yet inducted are still very much the same and can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.
I try to do something a little different each year, simply because my relationship to each new batch of nominees is bound to change at least a little. This year, it’s a simple breakdown: 1) Acts (well, one anyway) who are in my own pantheon and therefore no-brainers; 2) Acts I have at least some strong feeling for, either because I think they filled some place in Rock History that can’t be entirely ignored or I just like their records a lot; and 3) Acts I don’t pretend to get.
So, in reverse order:
Acts I don’t pretend to get (or can at least easily eliminate from this particular ballot):
Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths: Charter members of the Gloom Squad, representativesof which, given the air of stagnation and hopelessness that began to dominate the culture in the late eighties and has continued to suck at our collective oxygen supply every single day since, we are almost certainly stuck with in perpetuity. If they are your thing, peace be upon you, but let’s do cancel the dinner reservations.
Yes: I really like “Roundabout.” But, as one record arguments go, it’s not exactly “La Bamba,” or “Summertime Blues.”
The J.B.s.: Very worthy. Please induct them immediately in the Musical Excellence or Sidemen category, as should have been done long ago. Can’t see spending a vote on them in the performer category.
Chicago: I’m at least a little torn on this one. I do like a lot of their records (more than I think I do actually, unless some event like this one forces me to focus). But I can’t say I’ve listened to them a lot so I just don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I will say their lack of critical respect and their capacity for annoying the crit-illuminati by selling millions of records hardly count against them in my book. That said, if the ice is beginning to thaw around the idea of acknowledging AM giants as a necessary and vital part of Rock and Roll History, give me Three Dog Night or the Fifth Dimension any day. Not to mention Tommy James.
Chaka Khan: I could see voting for her some time, especially if (as happened in the past) she was being considered along with her great interracial funk band, Rufus. But she might be one of those acts I can always consider voting for in theory who just never happens to crack the top five on any given ballot. Time will tell. BTW: Interracial funk bands have a way of getting overlooked by the Hall: Think War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band. Apparently Sly and the Family Stone are enough for the “Hey I’m not really opposed to the concept” crowd. I’d like to see this change, so Rufus would be more likely to get my vote than Chaka alone.
Acts I’d at least strongly consider:
Janet Jackson: She’s a strong candidate and, as someone who generally chides the Hall for seriously slacking on recognition of women and black people, she should be a natural. She was a major superstar and I even like a lot of her records. I can’t say I ever had that special “moment” with her, though. There’s no one record that makes me pull her records off the shelf at least every once in a while. Since this is very rare for me with any rock and roll act who had even a modest run of sustained success I have to be at least a little bit suspicious. Why Janet? Why aren’t we connecting like we should? Why are Chaka and Chicago in the not-ready-for-consideration category when no record you ever made is on a level with “Tell Me Something Good” or “Just You ‘n’ Me?” Why does life hold so many mysteries? Withholding judgment on this one…
N.W.A.: The other act on this ballot who are considered a likely slam dunk. Overall that’s a good sign. I can’t remember the last time the two favorites going in were African-American. Wish I liked their music as well as their story. I mean, should burnishing my street cred feel so much like eating my broccoli? Or reading my Chomsky? Withholding….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
Chic: Yes, yes they should be in. I love “Le Freak” unconditionally (as well as a number of Rodgers and Edwards’ productions for other artists) so there is no problem with the “connection” missing in the previous two entries. And yes, I’m probably going to vote for them. I still don’t quite get why they’ve been on the ballot ten times and Barry White and KC and the Sunshine Band have zero nominations between them…But I’m probably still going to vote for them. Let’s wait and see.
Deep Purple: I was keener on them until I started listening to Joe South again and realized his version of “Hush” not only wastes theirs on the, you know, emotional level where you except a singer-songwriter to have an advantage, but actually rocks harder. Still, they had a real role in making hard rock “heavy.” And I wouldn’t want to put together the classic rock comp that’s going to play on the Celestial Jukebox at the End of Time without “Highway Star” or “My Woman From Tokyo” somewhere in the mix.
Los Lobos: They made one truly great album. That was enough for Guns N’ Roses, whose great album wasn’t quite as great (though it sold a lot more and caused a lot more head-banging). It’s enough for me to certainly put them under strong consideration. I wish they were a little less professorial, of course. But if rock and roll is truly democratic, surely there must be room for the professors too….Mustn’t there?
Steve Miller: The Hall is often perverse. Should we even be surprised that this very long in coming nomination is for Miller alone and not The Steve Miller Band, which is the title under which he made his records? Sure there were a lot of different people in those bands, but the Hall has made room for similar aggregations before, so who knows what the thinking is. As for the records themselves, I’m obviously putting him ahead of Chicago, even if it’s only a hair. I’m hazy on his early, more critically acclaimed work. It was out of San Francisco so familiarity with it, might make me feel more strongly for or against (in a Grateful Dead, no, Jefferson Airplane maybe, CCR or Sly or Janis, yes, sort of way). Which leaves me wondering if the lead-in riff to “Jet Airliner” is enough to make him worthy all by itself? I lived the Seventies. I very specifically lived 1977. And I have to say it’s a very close call.
Cheap Trick and The Cars: Gee, not a month ago I was gently lamenting that I clearly liked Power Pop a lot better than the Hall did, and here they go and put two of the Big Five on the ballot at once. Granted I don’t listen to either as much as Big Star or Raspberries or the Go-Go’s, but they’re both fine bands and the Cars have the additional lift of being the most popular band in the little-genre-that-couldn’t-quite-save-rock-and-roll-but-sure-had-fun-trying. Hall worthy? Definitely. Possible to vote for one and not the other? Tough call. I think I can manage it. I think I’ll probably have to. Which one?….Which one, knowing that the chances of the three even greater bands being considered in the future ride heavily on how these two do? Which one, knowing that these two have the decided advantage of being mysteriously accepted at “classic rock” formats?…Oh, God.
Spinners: The premiere vocal group of the seventies, the last decade when the competition was fierce and the distinction therefore amounted to an epic accomplishment. Stop the nonsense. Stop dumping on seventies R&B. Stop dumping on vocal groups. Put them in already, so I can start banging the drum for the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites! (insert maniacal laughter here!)
(and a Rodgers and Edwards bonus….)
…First alternate, the Cars…
If you want to participate in fan balloting you can access the Future Rock Legends site here (you have to scroll down a bit). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s actual ballot, which has a very small effect on actual voting (but, I suspect, may have a very real effect on considerations for future nominees) is here.
Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.
Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines. That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.
To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)
So without further adieu:
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)
Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc. and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.
The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)
Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.
Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)
Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)
Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.
Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.
Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.
Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)
Raspberries Starting Over (1974)
Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?
Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)
Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.
Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.
Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.
Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.
Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)
Time and place sometimes make for very strange bedfellows. By chance, I spent a good portion of the last few days listening–with varying degrees of intensity–to these two box sets, both recorded in Memphis at around the same time.
Elvis At Stax has the complete masters (27 in all, plus numerous illuminating outtakes) of the two sessions he cut at the legendary Memphis studio in 1973 (one of the neat bits of anecdotal information found in the liner notes is that Stax’ reigning superstar, Isaac Hayes, moved a recording date to give Elvis his time slot…another is that Elvis made scant use of the label’s legendary house band).
Keep An Eye On The Sky has every completed master that various versions of the godfathering indie band Big Star (and affiliated side projects…plus, yes, more outtakes, demos, etc.) cut between 1973 and a date that is rather hard for me to pin down in my current scatter-brained state, but probably reached into early 1975 or so.
A lot of the music from both sets was able to snap into focus for me this week, in part because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading a new biography of Big Star co-leader Alex Chilton (who also had a run of hits with the blue-eyed soul garage band, the Box Tops, a few years prior).
One of the bio’s best aspects–very much aided and abetted by the excellent notes of these two very disparate sets–is its worm’s-eye view of the mid-seventies’ collapse of the Memphis music industry in general, and Stax in particular, (Stax, in addition to being a soul giant throughout most of the period when that meant something, also distributed Big Star’s boutique label, Ardent–the kind of over-reach that assisted greatly in its demise), and the devastating effects that collapse had on both the local music scene and the lives of so many who depended on it for something more than a paycheck.
The serendipity of it all (I pulled the Big Star set out for background music during my reading times, though it’s hardly like I need an excuse, while the Elvis set was, by complete coincidence, a cheap grab off of Amazon last week) might have me reading too much into all this, but, at least this time around, I didn’t have any trouble hearing the world fall apart on these two records that could hardly be less alike in every other respect.
In 1973, Elvis was doing what he had always done and always would do–searching for the convergence of excluded voices–white and black–which almost nobody has ever really wanted to hear actually converging, no matter how many somebodies insist they do so!
And, in 1973, like most every other year he recorded something other than his lesser movie soundtracks, he found a version of that convergence.
I wouldn’t say the Stax sessions are always his most convincing in this respect. His voice was in pretty rough shape much of the time–rough in the center instead of around the edges and not always in a good way.
But “almost there” Elvis is still more interesting than most other great artists at their very best and the better half of these sides are prime in any case. One can listen to him and feel his own demise lurking (this was around the time when more than a few people started predicting it) but that just makes the ache in his voice and the joy that’s found most especially in some of the outtakes all the more resonant and, finally, poignant. He sounds like a man who knows the way things should have been is behind him and there’s nothing left in front but regrets.
Big Star, on the other hand, still sound–at least on the first two discs of Rhino’s four disc set–like they will beat all odds and bring about at least a tiny part of that better future. Though they had no interest whatsoever in any sort of convergence–their respect for Black America’s music was real but entirely rhetorical, after the manner of bohemians everywhere–they were nonetheless carving out that rarest of achievements: a new thing.
Despite the band’s enormous, almost insidious, influence, their best music still sounds new and never newer than when it’s all in one place like this. Where Elvis’ unease and disappointment are palpable but contained–the sound of a man who has reached his personal limits and knows they are probably the future’s limits too–Big Star (their name not yet rendered ironic by the public’s indifference, let alone redeemed by a future that wasn’t too limited to let them set the direction for most of white rock’s very few remaining interesting developments) sound almost desperate to matter, as if they can’t believe the future won’t embrace them.
All the outtakes and studio chatter–neatly organized on Elvis At Stax, strung about hither and yon on Keep An Eye On The Sky–only reinforce the sense of both artists being taken under, of spirits treading water to keep from drowning.
Of course we know now there were to be no happy endings. No arrivals at some safe shore.
Elvis would die at his home in Graceland in less than forty-eight months, by which time Stax was shuttered and Ardent cast adrift.
Big Star founder Chris Bell would wrap his car around a tree a few miles from the famous recording studios he had haunted even in life a mere sixteen months after that.
Alex Chilton–fragile to begin with and badly shaken by both deaths–would, coincidentally or not, retreat ever more relentlessly into the exhausting realms of dilettantish cult-hood and die in New Orleans in 2010 at the age of fifty-eight.
What they left behind, on the tracks collected here, now represents the sound that dreams make when they die–in this case on the very streets where they had been born twenty years before.
It might be that the voices Elvis heard in his head in the fifties–and was still hearing in 1973–will yet converge. It might even be that the land that the rock and roll revolution brought heaving into view–and which could still be seen plainly off the bow when these records were made–can still be glimpsed, somewhere not quite over the horizon.
If so, I’ll sure be happy if and when we get there.
In the meantime, I know this much about the long years since.
I’m currently reading Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, he of Box Tops/Big Star/Indie Rock Godfather fame (hoping to review the book in the next week or two). I’m a big fan of Chilton’s music….well, his best music anyway. Divested of his great bands, he could certainly be, shall we say, eccentric. But that eccentricity was finally what (even in the context of his great bands) made him–a certain willingness to risk looking/sounding foolish, combined with that lacerating absence of esteem that is so often masked and/or bolstered by a show of arrogance and/or indifference.
Concurrent with my reading, I picked up his “lost” solo album 1970 (which was finally released a few years back). There’s a lot of good stuff on it–certainly much that looks forward to Big Star a year or two hence. But the main attraction when I saw the track listing on Amazon was the choice of covers.
One was “Jumping Jack Flash,” which turned out to be a disappointment. Sounding less professional than he was–spending hours chasing spontaneity–was a Chilton trademark. But, covering the Stones, he just sounds enervated.
Covering the Archies on the other hand…well, he sounds like the Stones. And not just any Stones–certainly not the crap-fest Stones of lo, these past three decades (at least)–but the Stones who were in the air in 1970, making some of the greatest music in the history of man.
In other words, he not only crushes it, but he’s loose and funny and irreverent in a way that I suppose taking on “Jumping Jack Flash” directly didn’t allow for.
I think the normal mantra in a case like this, is to chant on about how surprised one is to find “Sugar, Sugar” had this in it:
But really, it shouldn’t be suprising at all. It almost always had this in it:
And, truth to tell, neither of these amounts to expansion, so much as recognition…Of what it always was:
(NOTE: The Paley Brothers were a sibling harmony duo who released an album and a few singles at the height of the Do It Yourself Punk/New Wave moment in the late seventies. Their complete recordings, including some previously unissued and live tracks are now available. This is the first time I’ve ever formally reviewed a CD. Somebody was kind enough to send me a review copy so, of course, since I was obligated to write about it, it fell into that most difficult of categories–Liked-it-didn’t-love-it-even-though-I-really-wanted-to. Still, thinking about it like a “reviewer” provided an interesting experience. Unlike books or movies, which require a certain level of engagement, music can and should be experienced both deeply and casually. Hence I tried on a mix of close attention and having it on in the background over the course of several weeks. It never really grabbed me…but it did leave me with a few things to say.)
The Paley Brothers were one of those “can’t miss” acts who missed. They were slated Power Pop–a genre that never quite seemed to live up to its potential in any case–but I hear as much Retro (along the lines of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) as anything. As much Fifties as Sixties in other words.
That’s hardly a bad thing. The Paleys were certainly skilled as both writers and singers–enough that I can readily understand the cult that’s developed around these recordings even if I can’t quite join it.
I’m left on the outside by, among other things, my aversion to half-formulas.
Pop, I hear, in every second.
Power? Not so much. And, unfortunately, whatever the marketing label, all first class Pop needs it, a lesson the DIY brand the Paleys specialized in failed to learn in general.
Having said all that, I can’t deny that these recordings are quite good as knockoffs (or that I have a fondness for knockoffs). And the Brothers certainly had pedigree, or, at very least, connections. They recorded most of these sides in either the Beach Boys’ own Brother Studios or Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Power Pop avatars, Big Star).
You can read those kind of details in the very engaging liner notes which are actually the best thing about this package. But in the end, all that information does is re-emphasize how the best Power Pop (or Retro) bands always added a little something (if not a whole lotta something). And it was that extra something–not the imitative elements–that made the Raspberries or Badfinger or Cheap Trick or Big Star or, yes, I insist, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids–special.
The Paleys, on the other hand, do some perfect imitations (especially of the Everly Brothers and late period Beach Boys, though on “Too Good to Be True,” they sneak in a Bobby Fuller Four Vibe that is perfect in every respect except for their keeping their distance in a way Fuller never would have imagined even when he was throwing one of his occasional change-ups), or, sometimes, perfect-imitations-of-imitations like a live cover of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” which itself was a top-notch Buddy Holly homage.
To be fair, the Paleys did do a bit of anticipating as well. But it was of future Retro acts like Shaun Cassidy (who they would end up touring with) and the Stray Cats (1979’s “She’s Eighteen Tonight” could be a template for that band’s entire career). And those acts would be just that little bit better–or maybe just that little bit more focused–that is so often the difference between hitting and missing.
I do hear a lot of passion in the Paleys music, especially the vocals. But in the end, their records were always let down by something. Strange to say, given that Andy Paley went on to become a big-time producer, but there are several sides here I can imagine taking off if only a little more care or imagination had been applied to some particular element of studio-craft: “You’re the Best” and “Runnin’ In the Rain” have great melodies and fine vocals but are built around seriously undercooked arrangements (a common problem with the entire DIY movement, actually, given that arrangements are the life-blood of all great Pop) while “Magic Power” which does have a strong arrangement is dragged down by an uncharacteristically misguided lead vocal.
And–background or foreground–so it goes with this entire record and with my first exposure to the Paley Brothers. They chased after so many bits of other people’s genius that they never quite found their own.
Granted, they wore their influences so proudly on their sleeves that it amounted to a kind of integrity. But it also added up to a sound with no strong central focus. That’s what separates them from bands like the Raspberries or Badfinger, who had hits by getting within shouting distance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And I suspect it’s the missing ingredient, as well, that prevented them from producing a single transcendent track after the manner of Starz’ “Cherry Baby” or Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, which at least scraped the Top 40 by getting within shouting distance of the Raspberries.
So I guess at bottom I can hear how something bigger might have happened for the Paleys with a small twist of fate here or there.
But, even on their magnum opus “Can You Come Out and Play,” I can also hear why it didn’t.
And in this latter, there is a certain poignance and even relevance.
If “Can You Come Out and Play” had as much vocal impact on Shaun Cassidy as I suspect, then that’s reason enough for the Paleys’ recordings–and this package–to exist. I mean, you can take my Sinatra records (well, Frank’s anyway) and do with them what you will, but you’ll have to pry “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” from my cold dead fingers.
The heartfelt liner-note tribute from Seymour Stein, the Sire Records label head who signed the Paleys, believed in them and stood by them as long as possible, shows how much good will and real respect they generated.
There is some real love for them there and in a lot of the quotes from other big-timers as well–not to mention a lot of positive-to-rave reviews in the here and now.
They clearly had some sort of magic.
I only wish I could honestly say it translated to my own ears.
(For my thoughts on the artists I feel most strongly about, you can go here, here and here…Donna Summer has since been voted in)
As always, congratulations to all nominees, even those I don’t love…and best of luck. Nominees are thus:
Nirvana, Kiss, The Replacements, Hall and Oates, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Link Wray, The Meters, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Yes, The Zombies.
My rundown…(as usual, having nothing to do with who I think will get in, just my assessment of how deserving each nominee is)
Nirvana’s a no-brainer. Kurt Cobain’s suicide effectively ended the rock and roll revolution that rolled out of Fats Domino’s left hand in 1950, threatening the end of hate and war. I blame us, not Cobain, for the ultimate failure but in any case you can’t get much more influential than that.
The Replacements haven’t made much impression on me. Major cool factor going for them but if we’re focusing on cult bands, I don’t really understand why they would be voted in ahead of Big Star or the New York Dolls.
I put in a vote for N.W.A. last year (they were bound to be edged out by Public Enemy and they were), but I think this is a slightly longer and stronger ballot so I wouldn’t put them in my top five this time around.
LL Cool J has been on the ballot before and he would be a solid pick. I’m going in another direction this year, a little more true old school, but I could easily imagine picking him in another year where there was slightly less competition.
I like radio-friendly Yes, which is about four songs. Every time I try to go deeper I get lost.
Peter Gabriel brings up one of my pet peeves, which is giving ballot slots to artists who have already been inducted (Gabriel is in as a member of Genesis). If the artist in question is a slam dunk (Michael Jackson say) or at least a truly strong candidate (Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Clyde McPhatter) then I have no problem, but I don’t think Gabriel is in that class. Again, I like his radio hits, some of them a lot. I’d probably vote for him ahead of Yes, but in my own little circumscribed world, that isn’t necessarily saying much.
Ah, Kiss. On the basis of “Domino” alone, I will definitely vote for them some day. But they would make it much easier for me if they promise to play “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman” at the induction ceremony and then get off the stage so Ace Frehley can close the show with “New York Groove.” (And for anyone who thinks I’m kidding, all I can say is you don’t know me very well as yet. They make the decision to stand by what they were best at, I’ll vote for them in a heartbeat.)
Deep Purple have a claim on helping invent/define heavy metal and the “classic” rock format. Thinking hard….
At least Cat Stevens is not a cult act in the manner of recent inductees Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Laura Nyro/Randy Newman. I mean, he had a string of hits, which is a quality I happen to like in a practitioner of a best-seller genre in a popular art form. But why he would be on the ballot yet again while Jackie DeShannon and Carole King (as a performer) wait in the wings is a mystery.
The Zombies have been bubbling under for years and at last they’ve made the ballot. I like them fine, but if there has to be another Invasion band in the Hall (and I’m not saying that there does, though I’m also not saying I object, strictly speaking) then I would rather it be Manfred Mann. Or, given the recent induction of the Small Faces and the Faces as a single unit, why not Manfred Mann/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band? That I’d probably go for.
Chic is a perennial nominee and they will certainly get in one of these days. I’m slightly torn on them because I like them in theory a bit better than I do in practice and I have a sneaking suspicion that their admittedly massive influence wasn’t the net positive most make it out to be. A tad detached for my tastes. Put K.C. and the Sunshine Band in this spot and I would be a bit happier. Put Barry White in this spot and I would go “duh” and put a check mark next to his name. His continued absence is bewildering….Still, on the basis of “Le Freak” and all those really great Rodgers/Edwards producing credits…I’m thinking.
The Meters are a group I’ve heard and read about a lot more than I’ve listened to and that’s on me. I should do better by them. Until I do, I’ll take a pass.
The Hall loves putting blues acts in the “performer” section of the Hall. This is as good a place as any to renew my call for a “Contemporary Influence” category, which could include seminal acts ranging from Patsy Cline to Herbie Hancock to Peter, Paul and Mary who have had a truly sizeable impact on rock and roll and the rock era generally without actually being rock and roll performers much (or any) of the time (even in the context of my own extremely broad definition of the term). It’s probably too late for that, as strictly blues performers now dot the Hall’s performer roster, as well as Miles Davis (who would have been perfect for the category and frankly still would be). Whether the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would be a true fit for that imaginary category is an interesting potentinal debate. Meanwhile, getting back to reality, I simply restate my previous call from last year: Honor Mike Bloomfield in the side-men category and start using this slot for someone else.
Rock n’ Roll:
Link Wray. Good God yes. And about time.
Top 40 Giants (Seventies/Early Eighties Division):
Hall and Oates are apparently the cause celebre of new Nomination Committee member Questlove, who evidently brought a lot of hip-hop credibility and a sense of Black America’s genuine love for the last of the blue-eyed soul giants to the process. There was a time when I would have seen this as a borderline call at best, but I’ve been familiarizing myself with their box set over the past year or so and, speaking as someone who values “hip hop credibility” about as much as I value “punk credibility,”–i.e, as another term that makes me basically want to swallow my own tongue and choke to death–I’m now calling them a no-brainer and kicking myself for needing to be reminded. Just to prove there is such a thing as personal growth, I should confess here and now that I once took out a contract on their lives when their version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was rising up the charts. Basically I felt they needed to be stopped. Boys, you may not be the Righteous Brothers, but I’m nonetheless officially glad my man Guido never found you. It’s all good now–and he probably would have come after me when he discovered I didn’t really have the ten grand after all.
I was far from the only one who suspected that the announcement of Linda Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s diagnosis might prompt the Hall to continue it’s macabre habit of noticing epic female vocalists once they have an incurable disease. As I mentioned before, at least Linda is getting off relatively easy since it’s only her voice that died, while Dusty Springfield and Donna Summer needed an actual date with the Grim Reaper in order to be deemed worthy. Then again, this is just a nomination. We’ll see how it works out in the end. For what it’s worth, Ronstadt, whose voice was the foundation stone upon which the seventies-era California Rock scene was effectively built, has been eligible since 1992. She should have been in at least fifteen years ago. A lot of people have suggested that if she ever made it out of the nominating committee she would sail to election. Now that this theory is finally being put to the test, I hope I haven’t been truly paranoid all these years in suspecting it wouldn’t be that simple. We shall see.
In summation this is a good batch of nominees though, as usual, I could imagine it being still better. I could easily vote for nearly everyone on this ballot in a given year, especially N.W.A., LL Cool J, Kiss and, of course, Nirvana. As with last year, I’m leaving off the most obvious choice (in this case, Nirvana) on the grounds that they won’t need my support. You can go to the Hall’s voting site here to cast a let-my-voice-be-heard-in-however-small-a-way ballot.
I’m casting mine for Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, Chic, Deep Purple and Link Wray.