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Archive for the ‘Rich’s House of Vinyl’ Category

The Daily Record: “Wonderful Crazy Night”–Elton John (2016)

In Rich's House of Vinyl on January 13, 2017 at 4:17 am

 

For the next few weeks, I’m going to post brief “Daily Record” surveys of albums released in 2016. The plan is to post them in chronological order from their 2016 release dates. Last night I wrote about David Bowie’s Blackstar. Tonight, I’ll move on to Elton John’s Wonderful Crazy Night, released in early February 2016.

Right after Christmas, I realized that I’d only heard three albums released in 2016. This is very odd for me, since I’m usually at least a little better at keeping up with pop music. But, while I did hear more Top 40 radio than I would have imagined, I seriously fell down on album-listening.

Wonderful Crazy Night was one of those three albums. Of course, Blackstar was one of the others. The third will turn up in a future entry.

Now, I have been an Elton John fan forever. He was probably my first favorite rock star. I’ll even defend his first “down” period (1977-1982 or so), though I have to admit that I can’t find much EJ music from ’84 all the way through 2000 to recommend. Scattered songs here and there, but the albums suffer from all matter of problems, from questionable production choices to lazy songwriting.

Beginning with 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, Elton began to turn things around, and I’ve been generally pleased with his albums since then. I was looking forward to Wonderful Crazy Night  and I was intrigued with the pre-release buzz that the album was going to be an upbeat album, filled with rockin’ songs reminiscent of his classic ’70s singles. In short, it was going to be a whole lotta “Crocodile Rock,” as opposed to John’s previous album, The Diving Board, which was sort of a whole lotta “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

Of course, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is one of my all-time favorite songs and I actually liked The Diving Board very much. Sure, it didn’t exactly rock, but it had gravitas, which seemed to work well for EJ. Plus, it had a spare, stark production sound and plenty of piano.

So, when Wonderful Crazy Night was released, I dutifully bought it and listened a few times but compared to the stately and grounded The Diving Board, the new album seemed a little bit too lightweight. I’d listen to Wonderful Crazy Night, then it would float away and I’d go listen to Blackstar again.

Elton’s new album was competing with the gravitas of his own last album as well as that of his recently deceased peer–Bowie and John were born mere months from each other in 1947. Wonderful Crazy Night soon got filed away for much of the rest of the year.

A funny thing happened though. In anticipation of this post, I started listening to  Wonderful Crazy Night over the past few weeks and I let it sink in a bit more than I had last February. It’s grown on me, and it clearly fits in nicely with his fine string of 21st century records. I’m still not sold on every song on the album, but the upbeat songs like the title track and “Looking Up” are fun and most of the ballads are pretty OK, even if they don’t have the depth of the songs on The Diving Board.

Tonight, “I’ve Got 2 Wings” is my favorite Wonderful Crazy Night song. It’s a true story, the biography of Utah Smith, a traveling preacher who roamed the United States with an electric guitar and a pair of paper angel wings he wear while playing and singing gospel tunes. I had never heard of Smith before I heard this song, but I’m finding myself touched by his life story tonight, for reasons that I can’t completely explain. Maybe I’ll delve further into the Utah Smith story and report on it sometime soon. For now that, here’s a bonus song from Utah Smith. Just still photos, but check out the wings!

 

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The Daily Record: “Blackstar”–David Bowie (2016)

In 2016 music, Rich's House of Vinyl on January 12, 2017 at 3:23 am

 

There is, of course, a real danger in saying that one is going to perform any sort of creative ritual “daily,” but, hell, I live on the edge. I’ll try to post short Daily Record posts here for awhile, beginning with a set of records released in 2016.

Today’s “Daily Record” is David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Released just over a year ago, two days before Bowie’s death. I have already written about how Bowie’s death hit me and about Blackstar itself, so I will keep this entry brief (and, in fact, I’ll keep all future Daily Records brief).

I bought Blackstar late in the morning after Bowie’s passing. I’ve listened to it many times since then, so many times, in fact, that I released in late December that it was pretty much the only album released in 2016 that I paid any serious attention to it. I am making up for that now, but for the time being, let’s talk briefly about Blackstar.

Knowing that Bowie was seriously ill during the recording of Blackstar and died just days after its release certainly colors the perception anybody will have when they hear the album, but minus those circumstances, I’d still rank Blackstar among Bowie’s best work. It’s probably among my favorite five Bowie albums, and I’ve heard my share. It is of course, a spooky work. It’s sad. It’s horrifying. But it’s all beautiful, transcendent and, dammit, pretty funny at points. I mean, the chorus of the song I’m listening to right now is “Where the fuck did Monday go?” over and over. And it’s weird and funny and oddly life-affirming knowing that Bowie, in the midst of a serious illness, sat or stood in a recording studio near his home in New York City and sang that line over and over again.

Blackstar isn’t merely “oddly” life-affirming though. It’s gloriously, oddly life-affirming.

So, I’ve listened to a bunch of 2016 albums recently. I like all of them in different ways and if this latest “Daily Record” iteration takes off, I’ll write about them all before I move on to older records. But Blackstar is the king of them all. My favorite record of 2016.

 

Where’s That Confounded Bridge?

In 1970s, 1973, British bands, Led Zeppelin, Rich's House of Vinyl, rock on August 12, 2016 at 10:22 pm

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Earlier this week, my 20-sided dice told me to listen to Led Zeppelin’s classic 1973 album, Houses of the Holy. I listened to it several times. I will now report my findings.

I have no specific memories of March 1973. Just hazy impressions.

I was in second grade at a smallish Catholic school in southeastern Pennsylvania. Each morning, I’d eat breakfast while I listened to powerhouse AM Philadelphia radio station WFIL on the radio. After I’d leave my house to walk to school, I would turn around at two or three specific spots to wave to Mom, standing inside the front door. Eventually, of course, there was no looking back, and I’d make the short trek to school.

My second grade teacher had a name that to this day I probably wouldn’t be able to spell. I am sure there was a basic second grade routine, but the details are lost to me now. Friday mornings, all the kids from first through eighth grade would walk in two neat rows over to the church for Mass. Our First Holy Communion would be happening in May, so it’s a safe bet that we were practicing for that.

In short, my life in March 1973 was about as different from that of Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert “Don’t Call Me Bob” Plant’s life that year as you can possibly imagine.

In fact, it might sound improbable, but I think I was unaware of the existence of Led Zeppelin in 1973, despite their lofty status as Rock Gods. I certainly liked music, and my tastes were gradually being formed, but no one was guiding me toward the kind of heaviness that Zeppelin represented. I can safely say that I had no idea that Led Zeppelin had released their fifth album, Houses of the Holy, in the spring of my second grade year.

Despite this, Robert Plant and I did share one common interest in 1973: spinning tales of the endless journeys of thousands of adventurers on some kind of mystical quest.

When school ended each day, I would wait for the old man crossing guard to part the traffic on Concord Road and I’d head down the long catwalk back into our neighborhood. As I walked, I’d often gaze at the ground and imagine that it was the terrain for some kind of epic journey being taken by massive groups of explorers or soldiers, facing danger at every turn. On rainy days, water streaming down the street would become mighty rivers on which imaginary sailors took endless, perilous journeys. Some survived, some did not, but the journey/battle/quest went on forever. At least in my mind. Each afternoon on my way home from school, I’d pick up the story where I’d left off the day before.

Though I certainly hadn’t heard the song, I was essentially acting out “No Quarter,” a dark story song from Houses of the Holy. It’s a mysterious song about a shadowy group of (presumably) men who are facing a raging snow storm and the “winds of Thor,” as they walk “side by side with death,” while “the devil mocks their every step.” The point of the march? To “carry news that must get through” and to “build a dream for me and you.”

I don’t know precisely what Plant was getting at with those lyrics, but hearing them now reminds me of those tales I’d make up during those walks home from school so long ago. Tales that existed completely in my head for more than 40 years, until I mentioned them to my wife Donna last night.

Of course, I guess Robert Plant and I both have Homer to thank for putting these kinds of stories in our heads. And in the head of any kid who ever grew up anywhere over the last few millennia.

I missed out on Houses of the Holy in 1973. When I think of the music from March 1973 that might have resonated with me, I find that it’s the soul songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 from late March of that year that feel the most foundational to my musical tastes. In short, the songs by the Spinners, Stylistics, O’Jays and so many more are the ones that I was probably hearing the most those mornings on WFIL, and they’re the ones that sank deep into me. Bands like Zeppelin and Pink Floyd–whose Dark Side of the Moon was also released in March 1973 and whose popularity has arguably eclipsed that of Houses of the Holy–would have to wait for me to catch up to them.

But I did catch up eventually. I’m sure that I had heard all eight songs from Houses of the Holy on rock stations like WMMR by the time drummer John Bonham’s death brought Zeppelin to an untimely end in 1980. I got over my fear of “heavy” music and began to dive into Zeppelin’s albums, first by borrowing them from my high school classmate Dave, and then by buying them one by one for about $5.00 at my local Listening Booth record store.

And so it was that about 10 years after its release, I heard Houses of the Holy for the first time. I don’t remember the first time I listened to it, beginning to end, but I was likely amazed at how I’d already heard every song from the LP on ‘MMR. Houses of the Holy was just that damn important to the burgeoning “classic rock” culture of the early 1980s.

I don’t know that Houses of the Holy was universally acclaimed at the time of its release, but I think it holds up well. It’s a diverse album, ranging from raging Zep stompers like “Dancing Days,” “Over The Hills and Far Away,” and “The Ocean” to the ethereal “The Rain Song,” still one of the most gorgeous songs Plant has ever sung (and dig those mellotron-generated strings!). Plus, you get a goofy reggae tribute, “D’yer Mak’er” and the James Brown parody, “The Crunge,” both rare displays of a Zeppelin sense of humor. Where is that confounded bridge, anyway?

During my college years, I was falling in love with all kinds of new music, but I wound up burrowing deeper into the classic rock canon as well. More than a few times, Houses of the Holy would be the soundtrack to college dorm backgammon matches. Yes, indeed, I knew how to party.

Houses of the Holy and I sometimes spend years apart, but every now and then I rediscover it and listen to it for days or weeks on end. This is what happened after I met an online friend named Tommy back around 2008 or thereabout. He was a big Zeppelin fan, and he reignited my love for Houses of the Holy. I never met Tommy in real life and he is now sadly gone. But I feel his presence, along with the presence of those still here–Rick and Greg from college, Dave and Joe from high school–with whom I’ve shared the mighty Houses of the Holy through the years. And even the presence of seven-year-old me, telling myself the story of “No Quarter,” as I walked home from school, long before I’d ever heard of “No Quarter,” Houses of the Holy, or even Led Zeppelin itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Soon To This Space…

In record collecting, records, Rich's House of Vinyl on August 10, 2016 at 3:40 am

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I had an idea for a new weekly music column here at Rich’s House of Vinyl. The idea ties into my love of using chance operations to determine what music I listen to, and it goes something like this:

Once a week, I will use my 20-sided dice (see above) to pick one record album or CD. I’ll give that album a listen or two and then I’ll intentionally seek out other albums that somehow relate to the randomly chosen album. Each week, I’ll write a column based on the relationship between the album chosen by chance and the subsequent albums. These relationships could be concrete or abstract, serious or silly. We’ll just have to wait and see.

I am in the process of listening to the first set of records this week. Without giving anything away, I will tell you that the record my dice picked is an enormous record by a major Classic Rock Band. The theme I went with for this round was to listen to other albums released during the same month as the random one (this may prove to be a theme I chose often, but not all the time).  I discovered that, for as huge as my dice-generated album was, there was an even bigger Classic Rock album released that very same month.

The way I envision this weekly column, it will be one part pop music history/one part memoir/one part whatever else happens. I am fairly certain it will be fun to write and hopefully, fun to read. We’ll find out starting this Friday.

 

 

RRR002: Dynamic Sound! 22 Original Hits! 22 Original Songs!

In 1970s, 1970s soul, 1974, compilations, family, K-tel, record collecting, records, Rich's House of Vinyl on April 6, 2016 at 4:28 am

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The thing is, whenever I get excited about reviving this sweet music blog o’ mine, I always go into it with wildly unrealistic expectations. Sure, I can randomly choose a record from my collection, listen to it, digest it and write something coherent about it every single day of my life. That’s exactly what I did with my previous entry, Foreigner’s 4.

But it’s crazytalk to think that I can do this every day. So, what happens is that once I haven’t done it for a day or two, I give up on the enterprise or I start over, vowing that this time, I’ll get it right.

Not this time though. I’m dispensing with both of those options. This time, I’m just going to change the rules. It’s my blog, my rules, right?

New rules: whenever I have a stray 45 minutes or so, more than likely late at night, I’ll roll those 20-sided dice, pick that random record, and write about it while listening to it. Then I’ll post the results and get on with my life.

This is what I am doing right now. Listening to K-tel’s collection, Dynamic Sound 22 Original Hits 22 Original Stars, and using the skills I’ve honed over the 37 years since I took Mrs. Peters’ typing class to bang out some fresh thoughts about the record.

K-tel albums loom large in my childhood memories but the plain fact is that I only owned about 10 K-tel/Ronco/Adam-VIII compilation albums among the dozens of such records that were released during my childhood, which happened at the height of the K-tel era.

Dynamic Sound is not one of the records that I owned back in the day, but it was released the same year — 1974 — as K-tel’s Dynamite, a compilation that I did own as a kid. Dynamite has proven to be hugely influential in my music appreciation development. Nearly every song on Dynamite led me down genre paths that I’ve been following ever since. But had I owned Dynamic Sound rather that Dynamite in ’74, it would have had the same effect on me.

Looking back, it’s obvious that K-tel albums were cheesily-packaged, aggressively-marketed (particularly on television) behemoths to be cherished by no one over the age of 15. In short, K-tel and its like-minded competition were cranking out the NOW That’s What I Call Music collections of the era.

Cramming 20 or more songs on a single flimsy slab of vinyl was probably just another way of maximizing profits, but the genius side effect of this was filling the ears of impressionable young listeners with the likes of James Brown, Tom T. Hall, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Chi-Lites all at the same time.

And, it ought to go without saying, the DeFranco Family. Can’t forget the DeFranco Family!

Seriously, check out the playlist of Dynamic Sound:

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The beauty of a K-tel record like Dynamic Sound is in how what was once ever-so-briefly an utterly contemporary snapshot of the current pop music scene, from rock to pop to country to funk, is now a succinct time capsule of a relatively short era — just a few months in 1974 — in music history.

For someone like me — a music fan/record collector who was growing up at the height of K-telmania — it is this time capsule aspect that is most fascinating. I love how a song that is utterly familiar to me, like the Stylistics “I’m Stone in Love with You” (I LOVE the Stylistics. LOVE them.) is juxtaposed with “Smarty Pants” by long-last ’70s girl group, First Choice. First Choice were popular, sort of the Destiny’s Child of their day (though not quite that popular), but I totally missed them the first time around. Every now and then, though, I get to rediscover one of their tunes via K-tel and they blow me away every time. I’m always happy to see a First Choice song on a K-tel record.

So I hear the utterly familiar and the happily surprising on K-tel albums, but that’s not all! I hear the cool guitar riffs of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Let It Ride,” and I realize that though I have rarely listened to BTO on purpose, their ubiquity seeped into my wonder years. The “Let It Ride” riff is tightly stitched into my musical memory, probably from some family picnic 40 years ago, when Dad’s burlap covered mini-speakers sat in the open window of my sister’s bedroom and transmitted WMMR out to the picnickers on the brick patio in our backyard. I probably ate a whole bunch of raw green pepper slices and a couple of hamburgers that day, because that’s what I did.

That’s some potent memory-inducement and it’s all thanks to a flimsy old record that sold for about $5.00 and was advertised on UHF stations during late afternoon reruns of Bewitched and Speed Racer back in 1974.

(RRR002)

It’s Vinylly Friday! Das Walter Pons Trio!

In 1950s, cocktail music, cover songs, EZ listening music, piano, records, Rich's House of Vinyl on February 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm

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Welcome to the first installment of “It’s Vinylly Friday,” a weekly (?) column in which I delve into a record or set of records that live here at Rich’s House of Vinyl. This week, I invite you to experience the “Zur Cocktailstunde” by the Walter Pons Trio!

I know nearly nothing about the Walter Pons Trio. The Internet gives up a little bit of information–some downloads on Amazon here, a couple of records for sale on eBay there–but not much in the way of biography. If there is a “Behind the Music” documentary on the trio of Walter Pons (piano), Heinz Macher (guitar) and Egon Bayer, I’ve yet to find it. This is not really a problem, as the four 10-inch records in the Zur Cocktailstunde series tell their own story, with just enough history to keep things interesting.

First, the music: we’re talking basic piano trio cocktail covers here, designed to be heard pleasantly in the background as you imbibe. Some of the record sides appear to have been recorded live, providing just the right amount of murmuring lounge ambience, without any overt, intrusive applause.

Donna and I were at Jake’s Flea Market, a gathering place of all manner of odd people and things in Barto, Pennsylvani. I was rifling through some very promising boxes of records that were going cheap when I found the four records shown at the top of this entry.

The covers are what sold us, and why not? Place these beauties together in a nice big square frame and you’ve got yourself a nifty, Poppy work of art. Not that I’ve done that yet, but the possibility lingers.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed that all four records were inscribed to somebody named Mr. Chuck Roberts and signed by the inimitable Walter Pons himself:

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While the record above was signed by “Walter Pons + Colleagues” in 1964, the other records were autographed for “Dr. Roberts” back in 1957. And so the story comes together: sometime in the mid-1950s, a Dr. Roberts began to attend cocktail lounges where the Walter Pons Trio was playing. These lounges could have been in Germany, or maybe in the United States. It is, after all, possible that the Pons Trio would have had a following in the U.S.

Whenever the Trio would release a record in their Zur Cocktailstunde series, Dr. Roberts would be sure to buy it, maybe at a merch table in the cocktail lounge lobby. Over the years, Roberts and Pons got to know each other well, so that by 1964, Pons was comfortable addressing Roberts as “Chuck” when signing the record that Roberts bought on March 24 of that year.

Or maybe, the relationship between Pons and Roberts was strictly professional. Maybe Roberts was Pons’ personal physician. As a courtesy, Pons would give Roberts a copy of the Trio’s latest record whenever he visited Dr. Roberts for his annual check-up?

That’s where the mystery comes in, and that is certainly one of the reasons I enjoy finding autographed records; or records on which the owners have written their names or other notes. “Every picture tells a story,” Rod Stewart noted, and every signed/annotated record does as well. It’s up to those of us who experience these records long past their “sell by” date to fill in the story’s details.

Red Crate Records #001-004

In 1970s, 1970s soul, British pop, Curtis Mayfield, record collecting, Red Crate Records, Rich's House of Vinyl on March 1, 2015 at 10:22 pm

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The concept here is relatively simple, so won’t belabor it. However, here is a brief explanation:

I use a pair of 20-sided dice to choose records from my collection to play. Once I listen to them, I place them together in a red crate and eventually make a few mix CDs/playlists from whatever is in the red crate at that time. Starting now, I’m also going to write something about each record. Once I’ve written about four records, I’ll post an entry here.

Here’s the first entry. Red Crate Records #001-004.

Red Crate Record #001:
Music for Cooking with Gas
Harry Fields, His Piano and Orchestra
circa early 1960s

This album was made by the Caloric Corporation, a fine oven manufacturer. The front cover of this LP states “a la carte—music that’s rare and well done!”. I would imagine Music for Cooking with Gas was either given away when Caloric customers bought an oven or were able to buy the album cheap—say for $1.99—at a Caloric showroom. Or both.

No matter what led to its creation, a copy of Music for Cooking with Gas has been hanging around my record collection for years—maybe decades—and I’ve only just listened to it, at least as far as I can remember. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s a pretty good lite piano jazz album. It’s not going to take your brain through all kinds of crazy twists and turns like a Thelonious Monk record. Nor is it going to lead to some introspective place a la Bill Evans. And it brought won’t stir nostalgic Christmas memories the way Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas music does.

But twisty-turny is for Monk, introspection is for Evans and Christmas is for Guaraldi. Harry Fields was simply a very good musician who graduated from Julliard, built up some symphonic bona fides and learned his jazz chops from Art Tatum. Fields ultimately became a piano teacher to the stars—Mickey Rooney! Mae West! Judy Canova! Many more!—in Los Angeles. He may have made other records, but I don’t think recording was necessarily his first priority.

Caloric made Harry Fields a sponsorship offer too good to refuse. Whatever kind of deal went down that lead to Music for Cooking with Gas, the result is a thoroughly entertaining record that’s got some serious music behind it. And, yes, it probably does make an entrancing soundtrack for cooking in your Caloric oven.

Red Crate Record #002:
Bad Axe
Son Seals
1984
Alligator Records

Son Seals is a name I’d probably heard before, maybe via the Saturday Night blues show on WXPN that my father used to listen to, but I had never consciously heard any of his music. At some point in the last few years, this 1984 album fell into my collection. It might have come from one of the boxes of records that my friend Blanko Dave has passed on to me in recent years, though I can’t be 100% sure of that. But I know I didn’t buy this record.

I’m glad to have Bad Axe though. Listening to it for a second time now—the first time being during a dishwashing marathon the other night—I’m enjoying it immensely and thinking about how much Dad would have liked it. He liked a good blues record, and that’s precisely what Bad Axe is.

Generally speaking, I’m not sure if blues recorded in the 1980s has a very good reputation. There might be an assumption that blues from that oversized decade might be too big generic-sounding or too influenced by the rock that it initially inspired to be any good.

But none of that applies to Bad Axe. It is quite simply a solid blues record made by a solid blues guy for a solid blues label in the very solid blues town of Chicago, Illinois. Sure, the song about going back home where women have some meat on their bones might not be politically correct in some universe, but thank God that’s not my universe.

I read up on Son Seals and learned that he had a pretty tough life, though it sounded like he certainly did have some fun along the way. He also uncorked some heavy blues guitar solos, like the one I just heard in “Just About to Lose Your Clown,” along the way. A tough life, but well-lived, hopefully.

Red Crate Record #003:
No Dice
Badfinger
1970
Apple Records

Red Crate Record #004:
Superfly
Curtis Mayfield
1972
Curtom Records

Badfinger’s No Dice and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to the movie Superfly will always be linked together in my mind. As well, they should be: my grandmother introduced me to them, together, back on a Christmas Eve in the mid-1970s. This is that story.

I did not use the aforementioned dice to pick these albums, which is appropriate considering the Badfinger album title. I consciously decided to make go with No Dice because I just bought a copy of the record today. This is the first time I’ve had a copy of No Dice in probably 30+ years.

Let’s say it was Christmas Eve 1973, though it could have been ’74 or ’75. Hell, it possibly could have been ’76, though it certainly wasn’t later than that. Among her presents to me, Grandma gave me two music cassettes (as she would have pronounced the word, CASSettes). One of them was No Dice, the other, Superfly.

I was already into music at the time and must have recently gotten some kind of cassette player/recorder, so cassettes would have been a logical present for Grandma to give me. What I have never understood was her choice of tapes.

I might have heard the big hit from No Dice, “No Matter What,” on the radio, but even if I did, I didn’t know it was performed by a band called Badfinger. No Dice was not something I would have thought to ask for, as it was something that I didn’t even know existed. But when I opened and Superfly, I do remember being suddenly curious, wondering what these tapes would sound like. From a very young age, I remember being open-minded about music and I was very fortunate to have family members who were happy to feed this open mind with excellent tunes.

I don’t know if Grandma made the choices or if she farmed that duty out to one of my young aunts who might have been hip to what I’d like. Maybe one of those aunts already had these tapes and was tired of them, though I’m pretty certain they did come to me new and shrinkwrapped.

However it was that these No Dice and Superfly tapes came to me, I listened to them enough that they left an impression that grew over time. Seeds were planted in the brain. My musical taste was being formed and power pop, as exemplified by “No Matter What,” one of the greatest pop songs ever, was going to part of the firm foundation of that taste. My appreciation for 1970s soul was certainly amplified by Mayfield’s masterful Superfly. Listening to these tapes put me on a road that would lead to many other albums and songs, some of which I’m still discovering. All thanks to Grandma, who may or may not have known who Curtis Mayfield or Badfinger were. Come to think of it though, if Mayfield or Badfinger appeared on the Mike Douglas Show, Grandma would have known about them.

Over the years, both of the cassettes Grandma gave me disappeared, probably at the point when I decided tapes weren’t so cool anymore. Eventually, I found a used vinyl copy of Superfly and I’ve had that LP for decades; I never followed up on No Dice, though in recent years I’ve been wanting to track down a copy.

Finally, at a newly-opened record store nearby called The Vinyl Closet, I bought No Dice on LP. I took in a whole stack of records that I didn’t need any more to get store credit. I came out with six records, a fraction of the number that I walked in with, but I was a happy guy. I finally had No Dice.

As for the music on these albums: wow! Still 40+ years later, “No Matter What” sparkles as a pop song and much of No Dice is nearly as enjoyable. Superfly is still enormous, a gritty slice of ‘70s soul that cuts deep with some serious social commentary that is probably still as relevant today as it was in 1972.

I’m not sure that Grandma French intended to introduce to me one of the first great post-Beatles pop albums and a landmark of ‘70s soul that Christmas Eve so many years ago. Why she picked these two tapes will always be an enigma to me and she’s not here to answer my questions about it anymore. But I think Grandma would be pleased to know that 40 years later, I listened to No Dice and Superfly one evening, loved them both and thought of her.

Thanks, Grandma.

333 Words on Linda Ronstadt’s “Mad Love”

In 1980, 1980s, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Linda Ronstadt, pop, Rich's House of Vinyl on July 7, 2014 at 12:23 am

New Wave Linda. That’s what Linda Ronstadt’s 1980 album Mad Love is all about. And I love it.

There is a subgenre of record albums released between around 1978 and 1983 that I like to call “pretend new wave.” Pretend new wave records were made by established artists who wanted to try something new and different, so they turned to the energy and style of the various artists that were currently being labeled “new wave.” Of course, the term “new wave” itself was pretty much just a marketing term, probably invented by some record company PR guy trying to figure out how to sell early albums by the likes of Pretenders, Adam and the Ants, A Flock of Seagulls and all of these other bands who, though they didn’t have much in common other than being new, needed to be lumped together in a way that music fans could make the necessary neural connections to say, “Hey, I like all these bands! I’m a new wave fan.”

This marketing plan certainly worked on me. I was a new wave fan. Still am.

Mad Love is an excellent example of a pretend new wave album. Ronstadt had achieved huge success in the 1970s, but she was apparently feeling like things were getting a bit stale and decided to hitch a ride on the new wave with Mad Love, released in early 1980. The album contains not one, not two, but three Elvis Costello songs! How much more new wave could one get in ’80, right?

While the Costello songs gave Mad Love songwriting cred, it’s the three singles that were successfully spun off the album that I love the most: the rollicking “How Do I Make You” hit #10 on the Hot 100 in early ’80, followed by the tortured soul of “Hurt So Bad” (#8) in April and the lower-charting, but still way-cool “I Can’t Let Go” (#31) in July. The rest of the LP is just fine, but the hits are the heart and soul of pretend new wave classic Mad Love.

Debbie Harry’s KooKoo: Still Crazy After All These Years

In 1980s, 1981, Blondie, funk, new wave, Rich's House of Vinyl on July 2, 2014 at 3:34 am

I originally wrote this back in August 2006, around the 25th anniversary of the release of Debbie Harry’s first solo album, KooKoo. Since today, July 1, 2014, is Debbie’s birthday, I thought I’d revisit this KooKoonalysis.

There have been a fair amount of articles and journal entries out there about the 25th anniversary of MTV, which occurred this month. But another momentous pop culture moment happened during August 1981. Observances of this particular anniversary have been quiet (at best), so I thought I better pick up the slack.

I can only be speaking, of course, of the release of Debbie Harry’s first solo album, KooKoo. I do not know the exact date of the album’s original release. It may have actually been released in September, but I’m thinking late August 1981.

What I do know for sure is that I had two different dreams about going to buy the new Debbie Harry album in early August 1981. I have recorded the dreams elsewhere in this journal, but if the public clamors for me to re-run them I will.

When considering the KooKoo; album, it is important to place it within its proper context both as part of Debbie Harry’s career and that of her band, Blondie, and vis-à-vis the pop culture climate in the summer of 1981.

Although band members did not specifically know this at the time, by the summer of ’81 Blondie was already past its greatest commercial successes. Number one singles like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High,” and “Rapture” had already had their chart runs and the current incarnation of the band at that point only had one more album in them, 1982’s half-hearted The Hunter.

KooKoo was not necessarily meant to be Harry’s break from Blondie, but in retrospect that could have been on her mind. Of course, had it really been on her mind, she might have made a more commercially viable solo album.

In considering the general pop culture environment into which KooKoo was sprung, it’s important to note that, while the new wave sound of bands like Blondie, Devo, the Cars and others was still pretty hot, the disco backlash had clearly set in. Madonna, who would reinvent disco by calling it “dance music,” was still just a blip on the horizon.

This information is important when you consider that Debbie Harry chose Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers to produce KooKoo. Edwards and Rodgers were the masterminds behind Chic, the premier disco-oriented band of the era. At the time the match-up of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein with Edwards and Rodgers was considered to be somewhat groundbreaking.

I don’t remember when I first heard about KooKoo, but I’m thinking it was late in July ’81, right before the dreams started. I also remember being in Cape May, New Jersey, on vacation. While there, I rode my bike to the only record store in town, hoping against desperate hope that somehow, someway, this little hole-in-the-wall store had secured an advance copy of KooKoo. Not that it would have done me any good in Cape May; my record player was, of course, back home.

Of course, those hopes were dashed. However, I think by this time, the first single from the album, “Backfired,”  (whose title predicted the reception the album would ultimately receive) had been released and was getting a little bit of airplay. If I was ever in any proximity to a radio on which the song was playing, I’d rush to catch the staccato rhythm guitar that dominated the song and to hear goofy lyrics about how “we ran down to HoJo’s for hamburgers to go.”

Oddly enough, considering how pumped I was for the release of KooKoo, I have no memory of the day I was able to triumphantly walk into a record store and purchase it. However, I think that we’re probably talking end of August/beginning of September here and my purchase point was probably Village Records at Tri State Mall, which had been the site of both of my record-buying dreams.

Much was made at the time of the cover of KooKoo, which was artist H.R. Giger’s rendering of Debbie Harry with huge acupuncture needles stuck through her face. I was certainly wild about the record, though critics at the time were not and no one, aside from me, has come along with any revisionist criticism about how KooKoo is an overlooked masterpiece.

What KooKoo; is, is an uneasy collision of the Chic guys’ sleek disco sensibilities with the new wave/punk rock ethos of Harry and Stein. The review at allmusic.com claims that this stylistic mash-up nearly never works, but I disagree. While it is never an album that I’ve tried hard to replace with a CD version (I think it was years before it was even available on CD), I think I would place at least five of the ten songs on “best of Debbie Harry’s solo stuff” mix CD, were I ever to make one (and, really, that’s not a bad idea).

I still like “Backfired” a lot and “The Jam Was Moving” is a cool tune that also features members of Devo. “Chrome” has a mysterious vibe (and Blondie actually performed it when I saw them the following year) and “Now I Know You Know” is a jazzy ballad that would probably bore a lot of people, but I like it.

“Surrender” and “Under Arrest” would probably make the cut too. I enjoyed “Military Rap” at the time, but now I’m thinking that it’s probably the first in a long line of evidence that Ms. Harry should have stopped rapping after “Rapture.” “Innercity Spillover,” an awkward reggae track and the title track, wouldn’t make my mix. That leaves us with “Jump Jump,” which I guess I don’t care about one way or another.

Back in the day, though, I thought KooKoo was all good, and even managed to a get a glowing review of it in my high school newspaper.

As I mentioned, in the 25 years since it’s original release, KooKoo has gotten precious little respect. Even emotionally unbalanced Debbie Harry fans (in whose ranks I do not belong, even if I did once walk her to her car) on Amazon.com claim that Harry solo albums like the clearly inferior Debravation are somehow better than KooKoo, which at least had the distinction of being oddly experimental and forward-thinking at the time of its release.

However, here’s the thing to remember about KooKoo: the next two production projects that Nile Rodgers had after the album (or at least among the next bunch of records he produced) were David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, albums that were hailed at the time for savvy production that bridged the gaps between rock, dance and pop. This leads me to think that KooKoo was an important template for Rodgers, from which he went on to change the face of pop music, at least for a little while. In other words, to paraphrase WKRP’s Les Nesman, scratch a Virgin and you’ll find a KooKoo.