Category: Stories & Essays

Not Guilty : 7 WTF Songs That Give Me Life

I hate the term “guilty pleasure”. While I can sort of appreciate it’s assistance as a vague genre that corrals songs generally regarded as being “uncool” or “cheesy” together, thereby making them easier to find, I hate it’s connotation of shame. I outright detest the judgement inherent it it. I damn straight resent the smugness and hubris required to listen to a song ironically. When a song is branded or categorized as a “guilty pleasure”, you are in essence being told how to listen to and feel about it. Being reminded that no matter how much you enjoy it, the song in question is inherently silly and/or stupid and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. That it is, by definition, unworthy of your devotion. I know you love him girl, but you can do better...

“Guilty Pleasure” is basically the junior high bully of musical genres.

Of course, we don’t get to decide what we like. The fact remains, we humans are just helpless dustballs at the mercy of our internal wiring. What we like is just plain beyond our control.

And what’s the point of fighting your involuntary attraction to that perceived to be cheeseball song anyway? What do you gain by denying your love ? At the end of the day, nothing. Which is to say you shouldn’t waste your valuable time fighting it. It’s better to just give in. It requires no effort and you will be rewarded with pleasure. That overly earnest, ridiculously overwrought, superficially sentimental junk hunk of pop music candy you’ve always been embarrassed to admit that you like ? Go on and own it girl. Ignore the haters and erase the guilt. Celebrate your pre-ordained musical DNA, turn it up and wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Stop prefacing discussions of the song with an “I know this is lame but…” because if you love it, then technically it’s not really lame. You can’t help what you like. Who gives a rats ass what anyone else thinks? You do you, you magnificently tasteless dustball, always, always.

Sheena welcomes you the guilt-free zone…

When I was record store employee back in the day, I found myself on the receiving end of many “guilty pleasure” themed confessions, people asking for things that they were clearly embarrassed about then attributing their choice to “I have to get this for my sister/ father/ partner”. Unsurprisingly Moms and Dads were the ones most frequently thrown under the bus. Many people would pretend they didn’t know a songs exact title and/or deliberately mispronounce an artist’s name as a way of further disassociating themselves in an a attempt to avoid judgement. I was super-empath, praying mantis sensitive enough to be hip to this game and would sometimes pretend to like a particular song just to help them feel more at ease…to tell the truth, I was always oddly touched by their embarrassment and awkward diversionary tactics. See I understood. I’d felt guilty once too.

There were certain things it took me years to admit I loved out loud to another human. While I was primarily obsessed with “cool stuff” when I was a teen like XTC, The Jam and The Police, I also absolutely loved Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut album which was home to both “Sailing” and the godforsaken “Ride Like The Wind”. I adored it to its flamingo sleeve’d, windswept core and played it nearly every damn day.

It was the existential tag team of futility and time that ultimately freed me from the musical shame cellar. Basically I enjoyed so much musical cheese that keeping up the facade of coolness required far more effort than I could ever consciously devote to it. And handily, as I got older, I started to care less what other people thought, simple as that.

The canvas can do miracles…

What I’m trying to say is that there is nothing wrong with you. Love is love and the purpose of this demented diatribe is to encourage you to embrace your ingrained musical tastes and forever abandon the signifying label known as “guilty pleasure”. And so in the spirit of full disclosure I’m going to share with you 7 songs I love that by the established standards could be considered “guilty pleasures”. Since I feel no guilt or shame about my love for them, I usually just call them My WTF Songs™. Which is to say they are a bemused question I ask myself out loud as they play and I feel both incredulity and delight about the fact that I love them as much as I do. They are not cool in the traditional, logical, acceptable or obvious sense. A few are eye-rollingly over the top and some are scarred with truly cringeworthy lyrical content. They won’t make any All-Time Best anything lists. And I genuinely, unabashedly, unashamedly love them.

I hope the sloppy love letters to these misfit songs that follow encourage you to share and embrace your own musical baggage. In fact, if you feel inspired, please feel free to share your WTF songs in the comments. I would genuinely love to hear about ’em and promise I will still think you’re cool no matter what they are.

Bobbi Martin “For The Love of Him” (1970)

Bobbi Martin’s 1970 Top 20 pop hit “For The Love Of Him” is one of the most disturbingly regressive pop songs sung by a woman in chart history. Behold it’s epic and sinister message ….

When he opens the door says “I’m home”
Be aware of the look in his eyes
They tell you the mood he’s in 
What kind of day it’s been
For the love of him
Make him your reason for living
Give all the love you can give him
All the love you can

I’ve seen the lyrics written out on various sites where they claim the second line of the chorus is “Make IT your reason for living”…but make no mistake, what Bobbi actually sings is make HIM your reason, which is very troubling indeed. And as she co-wrote the song, no one was putting words in her mouth. I have tried to give Bobbi the benefit of the doubt and attempted to reinterpret this as a love song to Jesus to see if it fit but no, “For The Love Of Him” can only ever be the anguished hymn of a truly desperate and scared housewife.

This thing was on the radio constantly when I was little and had no power or ability to change the station in Mom’s car. As a result of this forced exposure at a time when my mind was a malleable piece of clay, “For The Love Of Him” has been lodged in my brain like some beautiful, ridiculous, politically incorrect barnacle for roughly a trillion years. Hey Bobbi, let’s hear that second verse :

There’ll be times when he won’t say a word
And you wonder if it’s something you said
A gentle touch of your hand
Tells him you understand

Okay, there’s a couple of additional verses after this but you don’t need to see them to get the gist of the songs message which is You are here to make him happy girl, that is your sole purpose in life, so just watch yourself. Yet I can’t dismiss “For The Love Of Him”, for despite it’s evil, insidious directive, the tune itself is Burt Bacharach level sublime. And Bobbi’s stunning, impassioned vocal so perfectly captures the lyrical pathos that I’m literally scared for her. And that chorus. “For The Love Of Him” is a genuinely menacing little cheeseball…and I love it.

Ashford & Simpson “Til We Get It Right” (1989)

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote some of the greatest and most beloved R & B songs of all-time. Songs that are the very definition of evergreen including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Every Woman”. And they too enjoyed a lengthy recording career, regularly landing in the R & B charts and enjoying a massive pop hit with “Solid” in 1984 ( “the thrill is still hothothothothothothot”). But while Nick Ashford was a masterful songwriter, he was not the greatest singer. This was regularly accentuated by the fact that Valerie was a very good singer and could wail, throw down, and act as a human steamroller whenever the situation required it. Calling out the disparity in their respective vocal skills is not a controversial opinion or a hot take. It’s never been a secret. Yet I’ve always kind of loved Nick’s “limited” voice. The way he would passionately reach for distant notes and not always get there. His audible effort. The endless keening and eternal breathiness. All of these qualities are on full display within “Til We Get It Right”, a deep cut off the duo’s 1989 album Love or Physical. It’s a painfully earnest shoulder shaking anthem about fixing the world before it’s too late, that grows in size with each passing verse. It’s dramatic and infectious and features a particularly big and sexy synth in the bridge which I have been crushing on hard since the day I first heard this song. “Til We Get It Right” is a beautifully earnest completely wonderful cheeseball of hope.

Nick Ashford passed away in 2011 and much as I love “Til We Get It Right”, I have a special memory of him that I value almost as much as that criminally fabulous song.

Okay, so I went to see Michael McDonald play at tiny Joe’s Pub in NYC back in the 2010’s when he was kicking out all those Motown cover albums. Fittingly, as they had written so many Motown classics, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson turned up as surprise guests late in the show. Cool right ? Anyway, as they made their way to the stage, they had to head down the staircase my friends & I were leaning on. It was kind of dark & one of my friends had a shaved head. As 6’2″ Nick was coming down the stairs, his eyes solely fixed on his destination, the stage, he placed his hand on our friends bald head to brace himself as he descended the staircase. He literally mistook his head for a bannister. It was then our friend then uttered one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard;

“Nick Ashford thought I was the railing “.

You may think our friend was humiliated, but honestly, to this day, I think he was blessed.

The Deuce Project “Stone Cold” (2003)

I first heard The Deuce Project’s “Stone Cold” when I was working at corporate mega music store conglomerate Virgin in NYC. I was instantly overcome by its handsome anthemic shuffle and over-confident vocal which is to say, I f-ing loved it. My infatuation ran so deep that I made a point of telling our Warner Brothers sales rep, the guy whose job it was to sell us new releases that I thought it would be a massive hit and maybe even land in the Billboard Top 10. He reacted with a chuckle and then served me up some hard truth, namely a big fat “no it won’t”. He was, of course, correct. Also there’s a (strong) chance he knew more about the Warner Brothers marketing budget than I did. My blind optimism never stood a chance.

Yet in the bizarro alternate musical universe that existed solely within the confines of my mind, “Stone Cold” was huge. It was number one on that chart for f-ing weeks. The Deuce Project made a total of 1 album and as of this writing do not have a Wikipedia page…but they don’t need one. The video of “Stone Cold” which you can watch above, will tell you more than the written word ever could. But as a public service, I’m going to fill in the blanks to enhance your viewing experience. The Deuce Project were a duo consisting of 2 childhood friends, and were actually signed to Madonna’s vanity label Maverick. Lead singer Josh McMillan described their music as “homegrown acoustic rock on Ecstasy.” Guitarist Noah Pearce added “What we do is cool jams on the guitar with Josh’s voice. We wanted a kind of Britpop feel.” Right, so in a nutshell “Stone Cold” is Josh and Noah, all beanies, floppy hair, hoodies, converse and chokers, emitting an almost comically obvious slacker, skater kid vibe singing what is essentially a Britpop song that sounds like the type of thing that would be playing during a party scene on the O.C. As homegrown cool jams on Ecstasy go, it don’t get much better than this…

Sheena Easton “You Could Have Been With Me” (1981)

If you are a incurable music nerd there’s a good chance you’ve pondered the eternal fantasy band question, which is as follows:

With no boundaries of time or place, what would your “dream band” sound like and who would be in it?

I’ve spent a disgraceful amount of time thinking about this and can confirm my mythical dream band would be ’70s era Chaka Khan or Gladys Knight fronting the Beach Boys circa 1966-1973 ( the epic-symphonic-psychedelic years). I’m pretty sure that’s what it will sound like in heaven if by chance I end up there someday. All of which explains why I have forever adored “You Could Have Been With Me”, the title track off Sheena Easton’s second album. While it wasn’t a platinum selling behemoth, it was an actual hit, getting as high as # 15 in the U.S. pop chart. It is an absurdly dramatic, lyrically eccentric Beach Boy flavored AOR power ballad that I guess could be described as “Surf’s Up” meets Andrew Lloyd Webber. In addition, it’s opening lines might possibly resemble the plot of a tacky romance novel :

You’re the seventh son of the seventh son
Maybe that’s why you’re such a strange and special one

While Sheena can sang and unleashes a fine assortment of big notes along the way, the most captivating element of this thing is its shimmering, widescreen piano line. It sounds like it came straight off of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s seminal 1977 lost soul of an album Pacific Ocean Blue and is the sonic equivalent of walking straight into the ocean and never looking back. Wait. Hmmm, yeah, I’m suddenly realizing that might be a bit too dark and ominous an emotion to be inspired by a Sheena Easton song…let’s just say it’s melodically persuasive and I’d follow where it leads regardless of the danger. While “You Could Have Been With Me” doesn’t necessarily sound like what Chaka and Gladys getting all spaced out with Brian Wilson and the Boys presumably would have, it does offer a wonderfully weird European approximation of it and holy shit, I’ll take it.

ZZ Top “Rough Boy” (1985)

There are ZZ Top traditionalists who regard “Rough Boy” as something of a betrayal. They think it’s too “wussy” or “girly”. I vividly remember a male co-worker of mine characterizing it as ” the worst ZZ Top song ever”. I once read a posted comment from another guy that said “This always struck me as a gay song. It’s the only ZZ Top song I absolutely do not like”. “Rough Boy” is not a punchy, synthesized rattlesnake rock song of the sort that made ZZ Top famous and beloved. It is a languorous ballad sung by a lushly bearded boy ( Billy Gibbons) who is begging a girl to him a chance even though he ain’t much to look at and don’t have no canned speeches to persuade her with. Billy’s guitar serves as his wingman, extravagantly pleading on his behalf when he’s not singing, in an exceptionally seductive and swoon-worthy fashion.

See, what those aforementioned hater guys fail to accept and understand is that “Rough Boy” is a song constructed primarily for the enjoyment of girls. It was never intended for them and therefore their opinions about it are irrelevant. ZZ Top weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing. “Rough Boy” was a deliberate attempt to send all the boys to the restroom at their shows en masse so they could hit on their girlfriends by serenading them with “Rough Boy”. And it worked. I should add I personally love the idea of it being a gay song, sung by one cowboy or leather daddy to another. I also like the idea of a girl singing it to another girl. In fact I want all musicians to cover “Rough Boy”. Women and Men. Metal bands and solo acoustic troubadours. Shoegazers and Dreampoppers. Country twangers and gospel choirs. And on and on forever and ever amen.

P.S. I think “Rough Boy” is the best ZZ Top song ever.

Montgomery Gentry “Twenty Years Ago” (2006)

It would be way too easy to fill this list with painfully literal country songs from the ’90s and ’00s that I have no connection with from a life experience position but just plain love. Montgomery Gentry’s “Twenty Years Ago” has taken up permanent residence in the beat down motel on the outskirts of my mind and even after 15 years, appears to have no intention of leaving. It wanders the hall in its bathrobe, beer in hand, offering its homespun insight at random, unpredictable times namely remindin’ me to not let pride git in tha way a what matters. It’s a straightforward tale about how a straight-laced, crewcut sporting, Vietnam Vet Dad and his rebellious son can’t see eye to eye. They fuss ‘n fight over many idealogical issues from hair length, to choice of friends to the dreaded “future plans”. Things inevitably reach a boiling point and get physical and our rebel son splits only to be called back years later when Dad is on his deathbed. And yes, there is a spoken word section where our hero has an epiphany in case you were wonderin’. It’s a perfectly predictable piece of genius, all impassioned vocalizing, bitchin’ chorus belting and infectious melody making and as long as the earth is spinnin’ I’m happy to have it’s corny ass livin’ rent-free in my head ‘n heart.

Rick Springfield “Souls”” (1983)

I’ve written about Mr.Rick before and consider him to be a criminally underrated genius. But I digress. Anyway, when I worked at the infamous One Hour Photo Lab as a young one (my first job), there was a guy there named Tom whom I became briefly infatuated with because he bore a slight resemblance to Steve Clark from Def Leppard whom I believed to be “hot”. And desperate AOR power pop animal with a killer hook “Souls” was the song I would play on my Walkman™ to soundtrack all my Tom-themed daydreams. In my mind, it was “our” song. Here is a lyrical sample for your enjoyment:

He held her tighter and tighter
As he danced inside her
She knew from the moment that she let him in
They’d been two souls searching for each other

Ah yes, true love. And if that weren’t enough, just like the word “moot” making it’s famously incongruous appearance in “Jessie’s Girl”, Rick cleverly incorporated another vintage SAT word into one of the verses of “Souls” to remind us that he is well read and not the dumb rock star one might assume.

Too many nights on the ledge
He acquired a knife edge
Still the city didn’t acquiesce to his demands

Acquiesce y’all. Inevitably, that Tom kid faded from my mind as almost as quickly as he’d appeared but the experience left a “Souls” shaped scar that has yet to heal. P.S. the video is f-ing nuts. It features a sugar mama art patron, a Keytar, singing statues and the passing of cryptic love notes on champagne trays. But the best parts feature Rick pouting with immense frustration and desire while involuntarily clenching and/or pumping his fists…both gestures dovetailing very neatly into the the song’s aforementioned lyrical sentiments; he’s clearly feeling it with a capital F.

A Final Note : There is a “Guilty Pleasures” themed playlist on Spotify with over 2 million followers. Among the songs included are The B-52’s “Rock Lobster”, Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To U”. Abba’s “Dancing Queen” is in there, as well as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. I personally have never considered these songs to be “guilty pleasures”. They aren’t inherently embarrassing or uncool, maybe silly and fun in a couple of cases but there’s no reason to be sheepish and ashamed about admitting you like them. No, what they are is older, the product of a different century. The aforementioned playlist is less a collection of “guilty pleasures” than it is a documentation of once contemporary trends that now sound “funny” in 2020. And so the water has gotten kind of muddy in terms how some folks define what a “guilty pleasure” is these days. All I know is I love my WTF songs and I want you to love yours without fear of judgement. And next time you gather them in a playlist don’t title it “Guilty Pleasures”, tell the truth…call it My Fucking Favorite Songs 😉

The Girl Can’t Help It: An AOR Story

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From the mid-seventies through the late eighties AOR, aka Album-oriented rock, ruled the radio airwaves in the USA. And I absolutely hated it and all I believed it stood for. Then Journey released a song in 1986 and ruined everything…

This essay won’t necessarily make you like Journey or the sound of AOR or ultimately appreciate either of them if you haven’t before. And I totally get that. But please know I was once like you. I was for all intents and purposes, a hater. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is this AOR?: If ever asked to define the AOR sound, I always say the same thing : It’s basically the musical equivalent of Baby Bear’s bed in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as in not too Hard (Rock), not too Soft (Rock) but juuuuust right…in the middle that is, taking elements of both ( loud guitars from the former, melody from the latter) and not overly accentuating either. And for added context, I’ll usually add that Journey are The Beatles of AOR. They were the purveyors of most accessible and successful AOR songs (including the genre’s defining theme tune, “Don’t Stop Believin”) and they remain the standard by which all other AOR artists are judged.

More Than A Feeling: By the time I hit my teens I had organically, inevitably begun to shed some of the uncool, childish musical accoutrements I’d accumulated in my youth. Once I hit junior high, I stopped buying Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine and instead started getting Creem and Circus, the “cooler” rock themed mags whose covers featured people like Patti Smith and Cheap Trick. I removed the Andy Gibb poster from my wall and used my allowance to buy albums by ELO and Eddie Money. I was growing up and my quest to ROCK had officially begun ( okay ELO and Eddie Money were not all that “hard” but you know, baby steps).

While I loved the 2 aforementioned artists, the first full on rock band I obsessed over was Boston, whose 1976 debut album, home to classic rock stalwart “More Than A Feeling”, remains one of the best selling records of all-time. I particularly loved their hairy singer Brad Delp, slapped his pictures on my bedroom wall and even went so far as to do a painting of him, which I sadly trashed years ago. And so, predictably, the first actual rock concert I ever attended was a Boston show at Nassau Coliseum after which I bought a tour shirt and a glossy program to ogle. Yes, guilty, total fan girl.

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I don’t know, I just did

The reason I am bringing all this up is because Boston are rightfully regarded as one of the seminal AOR bands and the premise of this whole piece is based on my resistance to and hatred of AOR. They literally helped architect the sound. And I loved them, so clearly,  the AOR appreciation gene existed in my inner circuitry, a part of me was drawn to it. The fact is the root of my hatred for AOR had less to do with the actual music than it did with an unpleasant association. Namely that the kids who bullied my shy, weird, art nerd ass in junior high and high school all seemed to love it. Which is to say I noticed which band was on your tee-shirt or badly painted on the back of your denim jacket as you were verbally laying into me. I wasn’t only getting my butt kicked by you but by the band the you liked. As you were tearing my notebook in half, the band looking out from your shirt were your approving henchmen and totally on board with the brutalization.

And so I started to hate the music my tormenters openly liked on principle. Fuck Yes. Fuck Bad Company. Once I hit high school, I was still me but of course the bands had changed. Fuck REO Speedwagon. Fuck Journey. Thankfully there exists a visual aid, courtesy of Freaks and Geeks, that explains this concept far better than I ever could:

When ballots were being passed out in homeroom during senior year to choose the official Prom theme song, I distinctly remember Journey’s “Open Arms” being one of the choices. While I don’t recall if it was ultimately chosen, I do recollect my exact thought when I saw that it was on the 3 song shortlist: What a shit song. I checked it off on the ballot, just to be spiteful.

Senses Working Overtime: And it wasn’t a challenge to hate AOR. Boston aside, I wasn’t fighting a powerful urge. In fact I didn’t feel like I was missing a damn thing.  My “unwelcoming” classmates could totally have their WPLJ with it’s horrible AOR parade of Journey, Billy Squier and f-ing Styx. See, by the time I got to high school I’d discovered my own musical homebase in the form of an NYU generated radio show called Wavebreaker that featured the latest songs from all the coolest New Wave and Post Punk bands of the era like Soft Cell, XTC and The Jam. I fell under it’s spell instantly and loved nearly everything they played. Hearing those artists for the first time was nothing short of revelatory. That AOR shit didn’t even come close. I mean how could this even compare with this ?

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My official teenage God, Bible and Overlord…

She Needs More: MTV hit just as I began college and I spent a disturbing number of hours every day watching in rapt attention, clocking in anywhere from 3-8 hours a viewing session ( at least). In retrospect I may have been a bit too into it.

Journey were still extraordinarily popular at that point and so were a staple of MTV’s daily playlists. It was therefore inevitable that they and I would cross paths during my lengthy viewing shifts. And it was during one of these shifts in 1986 that I first heard “Girl Can’t Help It”, the latest single off Journey’s then brand new album Raised on Radio. The video itself featured the sweaty band performing the song live at Calaveras County Fairgrounds. It wasn’t even the official single aka the studio version you could buy. But it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I totally loved the song.

Dammit to hell.

You Want A Piece Of My Heart? : Up until then, Journey and AOR had been the musical embodiment of high school bullies and suburban conformity. And that association ran deep for me. But pop music doesn’t care about your history. It is forever trying to charm and persuade you, to gain entry into your life by any means necessary. I was conflicted but there was nothing I could do, I wanted to hear “Girl Can’t Help It” again…and again. Mere days later, there I was in Record World, purchasing my first ( and not my last) Journey album. And just like that all my years of concentrated, deliberate hatred went up in smoke.

It is said that the truth shall set you free and the truth soon became clear, which was that not only did I love Journey but that I totally loved AOR itself. Was it because I was finally hearing it out of the dangerous school environs and it’s terrifying associations ?  Was it a case of you can take a girl out of the ’80s suburbs but you can’t take the ’80s suburbs out of the girl ?

I didn’t spend too much time questioning it. I just gave in to the urge. I began to openly explore and indulge this new found passion. I started tuning into the AOR themed radio stations I had previously mocked and avoided. I bought albums by Jefferson Starship, Zebra and Loverboy and allowed them to brazenly rub their leather clad crotches up against my Smiths and Cure LPs. Deep cuts by Heart and Foreigner were finding their way onto my previously elitist, obscurely post-punk band-ed mix tapes.

I admit it was a slow burn. Even as I began to explore my AOR tendencies, I still favored my New Wave/Anglophile side, and as far as radio still primarily worshipped the New Wave mecca that was WLIR…but I was finally comfortable buying albums and singles by AOR bands I liked. I felt free enough to admit that I liked Night Ranger out loud to other humans.

Can’t Fight This Feeling: AOR thinks it’s cool but it isn’t. It tries too hard. But that earnestness, that heart on the sleeve conviction is what makes it so inherently lovable. From opening track to closer, every song on an AOR album brazenly aspires to be a single. And while there are plenty of love and lust themed songs within it’s arsenal, there are also an equal amount of songs about overcoming things, hometowns and basic survival. With their laser focus on the concept of “chorus”, AOR songs provide the ideal soundtrack to any car excursion. This last fact was brought home during my high school Drivers Ed class. Whether we were tooling around town or making illicit trips to the beach, our mustachioed, chain-smoking, shotgun-seated, born and raised on Long Island instructor always had the radio tuned into…yeah, you guessed it. No other soundtrack would have made sense.

Any Way You Want It: You can’t really be an AOR connoisseur. It’s an oxymoron. The songs are all about living in the moment meaning the only logical response or reaction to a good AOR song is a hearty “I f-ing love this song”. Then you start singing along. Simple as that, no deep analytical conversation or thought is necessary.

Okay, so if I were stuck on a desert island, which songs would I blast in my 1981 Camaro Z28 as I took laps around it’s perimeter along with “Girl Can’t Help It”? Oh, for sure it would be these bitchin’ babes:

Jefferson Starship: “Find Your Way Back” (1981)

Once gigantically voiced Mickey Thomas joined Jefferson Starship as their new lead vocalist in 1979, taking over from giants Marty Balin and Grace Slick who’d departed the previous year, the band began to lean hard into the AOR. “Find Your Way Back” is an anthemic, histrionic piece of candy that sounds like it’s always existed. If you were putting together an AOR song in a lab, this is what it would sound like. It features all the necessary ingredients that go into making a perfect AOR song. Infectious, simple acoustic intro. Over the top vocal. An unadorned, shamelessly singalong chorus. Shredding of a supremely neat and shiny nature. It sounds good blasting in both vehicle and arena. I love it. It also evokes powerful memories of…My Mom’s Cowbell™ ( not to be confused with this one).

Growing up, my bedroom and my brothers were inches away from one another and were divided by a single wall. Being teenagers who loved music meant that shit was always turned up loud. While I was listening to all that British stuff mentioned earlier, he spent a lot of time tuned into the AOR radio stations. Neither of us were considerate enough to use headphones which often led to a passive-aggressive battles wherein each of us would incrementally increase our respective volumes in an attempt to drown out the sound of the other. It got to the point that when my Mom would call us downstairs for supper, we couldn’t hear her over the musical din. Having to yell for us endlessly began to take it’s toll (translation: to really piss her off). And so she purchased a cowbell, a real one, like the kind that would hang around a cow’s neck in an old children’s book. Anytime she needed to summon us, she simply stood at the foot of the stairs leading to our rooms and violently rang the cowbell. And I have a distinct memory of hearing “Find Your Way Back” emanating from my brother’s room as Mom was shaking her thang one night to summon us to dinner. Which is why I will forever think of my Mom as an unofficial member of Jefferson Starship and is another reason why I will always love this song.

Heart: “Wait For An Answer” (1987)

While Heart’s 1987 album Bad Animals was home to the legend that is maniacal, unrequited love power ballad and former #1 song “Alone”, this deep cut, the last song on what used to be known as “Side One” is the jam. Like all the best Heart songs it is extravagantly, hair pulling-ly overwrought with Ann Wilson’s gargantuan voice making a vertigo inducing ascent skyward while synthesizers and drums chase after her. “Wait…” is also home to a truly extreme and magnificent key change on the last chorus because Ann Wilson can just do that shit. The song was written and originally recorded by Canadian artist Dalbello and unlike the typical AOR song, features somewhat cryptic and interpretable lyrical content; the protagonist sounds both haunted and desperate and makes oblique references to something bad that happened in the past. All of which only serves to make it cooler. It’s nuts and it’s awesome.

Night Ranger: “When You Close Your Eyes” (1984)

Night Ranger are most famous of course for one of the most beloved and polarizing AOR power ballads in history, “Sister Christian”. “MOTORING”! And it does rule…but “When You Close Your Eyes” will always be the one for me. It was Top 20 hit in 1984 and a welcome addition to the the noble pantheon of hit songs about getting acquainted in the back of a Chevrolet, effortlessly equaling the majesty of it’s predecessors by Bob Seger and, of course, Sammy Johns.  Which is to say “When You Close Your Eyes” is about as straight forward as it gets, a clumsily wistful bit of reminiscing and wondering about an old love wrapped in an optimistic and gloriously melodic tune. In an interview with Songfacts in 2010, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades explained his inspiration for writing it this way;

I thought about my old girlfriend, where we split up, and I wonder if she ever thinks about the past, and all these things you went through when you were growing up, and all these things you did when you were together…and your first love…and the first woman that I made love to. And then everybody moves on in their lives, and you just go in separate ways. And I always wondered, “When you close your eyes, do you think about me?”

That’s about as AOR as a songwriting inspiration could possibly be. Perfect.

Zebra: “Your Mind’s Open” (1986)

Zebra are a 3 piece band whom despite hailing from New Orleans proved to be immensely popular on Long Island and as a result ended up relocating there in the early ’80s. Which meant I heard their name bandied around pretty regularly as a teenager.  This choice of homebase and the fact that they were especially beloved by people from my teenage hell ground zero of course meant I wanted no part of what they were selling. Oh MTV tried to convince me, showing the videos for “Who’s Behind the Door” and “Tell Me What You Want”, 2 slabs of pretty perfect, melodically sophisticated AOR with some regularity, but I refused to let them in.

Of course once I had my born again moment that avoidance ended. I f-ing love Zebra. They are responsible for several of my absolute favorite AOR songs ever. “Your Mind’s Open” is the kind of thing you’d hear whilst entering the gate of a carnival whose theme was AOR. It’s plush and it spins around and offers a vaguely inspirational message, a little bit mind over matter, a little bit personal affirmation. It’s like candy-coated version of Led Zeppelin and I totally adore it’s gloriously falsetto-ed, synthesized fairground heart.
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Hold On To That Feeling: In 2018, Steve Perry of Journey did an interview with Kate Mossman for New Statesman magazine and said something so on-point and buddha-like regarding his former band’s music that all I could do was nod in appreciation. He said he had loved high school and looked upon it as “a magical time, when innocence is running your life” and that he thought of a concert venue as “the backseat of a car “. He described his songwriting inspiration like this; “Everything I write comes back to high school. I know it sounds funny, but everything. It all comes from the emotions I grew into during my adolescence. Those moments are not to be tossed away. If something means something to you, go back and get it and make it part of your life. And anyone who doesn’t understand how important that is, you tell them to FUCK OFF”.

And therein lies the essence of Journey, one I wasn’t conscious of at the time but should’ve been perfectly obvious. Duh. Of course. Journey were literally about high school. And while I was actually in high school at the time when they were singing about it, at the peak of their popularity, I wasn’t having the Journey experience of it. None of the carefree, sometimes tears but mostly fun experiences but rather the polar opposite, the other side, the otherness, the bad shit. Turns out I was destined to resent Journey ( and their ilk). The joy of high school was literally baked into their songs. It made sense that I’d gravitate to all that angry, wanting and weird British New Wave and Post Punk. That’s who I was, they were like me.

As a teen, the pop music you love gives you an identity. It helps you understand who you are, helps to articulate all your awkward ass thoughts. And when I think about how genuinely angry I was at certain bands and sounds I get it. I was hilariously, disproportionately emotional about it but, you know, I was teenager who lived for music so…

I guess the simplest way to explain it is this; there are a lot of assholes in the world that like chocolate but that’s not chocolate’s fault. Which is to say, I’m sorry AOR (and Journey specifically), you just got caught in my teen hate dragnet and I was mad. I know it wasn’t you. Thanks for still welcoming me in with Open Arms.

A More Down Hero: Wings “Back To The Egg (1979)

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An imagined “Dear Paul” letter from Wings’ 1979 album Back To the Egg:

Dear Paul,

What did I do wrong ? Why do you hate me so much ? Why, as of this writing, have you extended the deluxe treatment to albums that are nowhere as good as I am like Pipes of Peace and Wild Life and not me ? Why don’t any of my songs ever get included in your live shows ? Why whenever anyone mentions me, are you so completely dismissive ? You once said I wasn’t so much a concept album as I was a bomb-cept album. Don’t you love me ? Did you ever ? Won’t you help me to understand.

Yours (literally),

Back To the Egg

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Paul in 1979, year of the Egg.

Background: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when but at some point over the past 20 years music writers and critics began casting a considerably more benevolent eye toward Paul McCartney’s post-Beatle output than they’d offered up in the past. And if you were a fan who’d experienced any of Paul’s solo and Wings stuff being released in real time it was impossible not to notice this seismic shift in opinion. I remember going to buy Pipes of Peace on release day and the guy behind the counter sweetly telling me it was “shit” as I handed over my money to buy it ( admittedly not Paul’s finest album but still). For years writers, record clerks, even other musicians all seemed to be equipped with the same default button, the one that was stuck on Paul solo sucks.

But time has been exceptionally kind to the output of post-Beatle Paul and the seemingly ingrained perceptions have changed. Maybe because the context and expectations have been removed and the albums can finally be listened to at face value. And certainly the ongoing Paul McCartney Archive Collection deluxe reissue program with it’s wondrous, remastered, dolled up versions of selected catalogue titles has helped open ears and eyes. Or maybe, cynically, the awareness that Paul’s a senior citizen and we should appreciate him while he’s still here has come into play. Whatever it is, Paul’s post-Beatle albums are gradually getting their deserved due. Albums once considered substandard and sloppy have come to be regarded as masterpieces (1971’s magnificent Ram). 1980’s McCartney II, described cruelly in the Rolling Stone magazine review upon release as “aural doodles designed for the amusement of very young children” is now rightfully acknowledged for it’s prescience and originality. And time has also shone kindly on the glorious, sugared-up pop of Red Rose Speedway (1973) and Venus & Mars (1975) after years of their being written off as subpar radio pandering cheese.

But alas, this deserved reassessment and acknowledgement hasn’t extended to quite all of the children. I’m speaking specifically of 1979’s Back to the Egg. It’s especially grating in light of the belated love that’s been directed at lesser lights ( okay, gonna say it… I think 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt is supremely overrated). Egg remains a true full length stepchild in the McCartney canon. No deluxe Archive treatment ( despite rumors). No anniversary celebrations. No love at live shows. Egg gets zero.

And here’s the thing, amongst many of the hardcore Macca fans and music nerds I’ve spoken to over the years, the general consensus seems to be that Back To The Egg is objectively brilliant. A loud, beautiful, blaring down the highway, mess of an album and the most criminally underrated release of Paul’s post-Beatle career: the catalogue’s true sleeper. Everyone, can I get a SALAMANDER ( that’s a reference expressly inserted for you Macca nerds. To everyone else I apologize ).

And now as a quick reminder of what we’re dealing with from a historical perspective, here are some highlights from the late Timothy White’s original Rolling Stone review of 1979’s Back To The Egg aka the last official release of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatle band Wings:

“This album is nothing more than a slipshod demo by an aimless band. If it had arrived unsolicited in the offices of Columbia, it would have been returned in the next mail with a terse “No thank you.”
I can think of few other prominent rock musicians who’d have signed their names to this kind of drivel. McCartney’s gross indulgence is matched only by his shameless indolence, and Back to the Egg represents the public disintegration of a consistently disappointing talent…Back to the Egg is just about the sorriest grab bag of dreck in recent memory.”

Damn. Timothy White really hated Back To The Egg.

If a Tree Falls: What does it mean when an artist passively denies an album’s existence by simply ignoring it ? Besides the one above, the reviews for Egg upon release were across the board savage, full of exceptionally hyperbolic vitriol and personal attacks. Why was the hostility ratcheted up so high when it came to Egg in particular ? While it may not have been the equal of what was considered to be Macca’s most esteemed post-Beatle album at that time Band On The Run, it wasn’t that bad ( and to my then young teen ears it was amazing with a giant A). What did they want from him ?

That’s a trick question. They wanted nothing. To them he’d had his ration of success and acclaim ( understatement) and had stopped trying. They thought he was complacent. He was 37 years old and to them his attempts to seem sonically modern and tough came over as desperate, especially in light of all the soon to be seminal albums sprouting up around him as of 1979 (by the likes of The Specials, The Clash, XTC and Joy Division in particular). They wanted him to get out of the way.

‘Cos I Got a Whole Lotta Love For You: The most pronounced quality of Back To the Egg was it’s noticeable increase in volume in comparison to all previous Macca releases. Egg was, for all intents and purposes, a hard rock record… but it’s much more fun to think of it as PAUL’S F-ING METAL ALBUM 🤘. Roughly 6 of it’s 12 musical tracks tug aggressively ( yet sweetly) on Satan’s hem, drunkenly bouncing off the walls with loads of fat riffs, sludgy chords and throat shredding vocal performances. With the exception of “Helter Skelter” Egg remains as metal as Paul has ever been. Representing the noise are “Spin It On”, “Old Siam, Sir”, “Rockestra Theme”, “So Glad To See You Here”,”To You” and “Getting Closer”, every single one being some manner of infectious and sloppy drunk on itself. For those songs as well the album’s ballads, the Paul vocal switch is set to full throttle.

“Getting Closer”, the album’s highest charting single still kicks all kinds of ass.

The Soft Stuff: A cryptic and eerie hymn (“We’re Open Tonight”), a gothic and doomy ballad ( “Winter Rose”) and the requisite Macca unabashed tribute to love (“Love Awake”) supremely fill in the spaces between the noise. In addition there’s a quality singalong written and sung by band member Denny Laine (“Again and Again and Again”) as well as some straight up romantic retro kitsch because Paul can’t help himself (“Baby’s Request”). And “The Broadcast”, wherein Paul has the owner of the castle the album was recorded at recite a pair of obscure book excerpts, adds a bit of perfect pretentious weirdness to the proceedings.

And oh yeah, Egg is also home to arguably one of the all time greatest McCartney songs ever ever ever, sublimely melodic lament and deep catalog dark horse “Arrow Through Me” which can never be exulted and appreciated enough. It’s hook is just…I have no words.

The song has developed a bit of a cult following over the years, the finest manifestation of which came in the form of Erykah Badu’s “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” from 2010.

What If It Happened To You ?: Bad reviews dovetailed into disappointing sales (compared to all the previous post-Beatle releases that is, as Paul himself commented not long after, Egg’s sales would’ve been considered quite healthy by a “normal” band’s standards). And, maybe unsurprisingly, Paul seemed to start distancing himself from it. When asked about it later he’d said at the time of recording he’d been feeling bored and restless working within a band set-up, implying that this ennui affected it’s overall quality…but that may be a bit revisionist analysis so as to align with the myriad of mediocre reviews. Maybe all that negativity got to him. Which is a damn shame because there are a whole lotta people who don’t agree and think the critical assessments were just plain wrong, who continue to believe Back to the Egg rocks and rules in equal measure all day and all of the night.

Loud, lyrically cartoonish, overtly romantic, fabulously weird, occasionally somber and all the while innately melodic, Back To The Egg remains a confusedly beautiful piece of noise. Bless it forever.

P.S. A special nod of appreciation to the Wings logo light fixtures on the album cover. I will never stop wanting you.

Listen to Back To The Egg right here:

“I was an 11 year old stalker”: Discovering the Genius of the Bee Gees

 

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The Bee Gees epically wonderful live album from 1977, Here At Last…Bee Gees…Live is finally being reissued on vinyl this month. It is a 2 LP behemoth built on astounding songwriting, otherworldly harmonizing and glorious beards. It is also the key artifact from my former life as an 11 year old stalker. I can explain…

 

The manner in which I first discovered the Bee Gees is honestly somewhat unsettling though I prefer to just call it “weird” because it makes me feel better about it. I was 11 years old at the time. I’d like to say I’d seen them on TV and they’d blown my mind…or that I’d heard “Nights on Broadway” on the radio ( one of their then recent hits ), loved it instantly and begged my Mom to get me to the record store asap but alas, no. The sole reason I bought the Bee Gees 2 LP live album Here at Last was because the object of a supremely misguided childhood crush had it in his collection. That crush categorization is not an exaggeration sadly for the object of my affection was not in fact an adolescent peer but a newly and happily married grown ass man over the age of 30 with a beard.

I’m uncertain of exactly when my infatuation started but once it did, look out y’all, it became the absolute center of my daily existence. He lived across the street from my family and was just one of those people who had a natural rapport with kids. He never spoke down to me and unlike most adults seemed to truly appreciate my sarcastic sense of humor. He indulged my endless rambling about Paul McCartney and baseball and we would make fun of each other relentlessly. Anyway, I just thought he was the coolest person ever and I wanted to be around him every hour of every day.

Once summer arrived that year, he told me he was embarking on a major weekend project wherein he was going to paint his entire 2 story white stucco house a nice beige with dark brown trim. This sounded amazing for it meant he would be outside and “available” to me for as many hours as it took him to paint every Saturday and Sunday over summer vacation.

All day, every weekend I would sit at the foot of whatever side of the house he was working on and stare up at him on his ladder as he chipped and scraped all the old paint off in preparation for the new coat. I’d like to describe it poetically and say the white paint chips fell like summer snow around me as the chirping song of the cicadas filled the air…but mostly it was me sitting there perspiring in the sweltering sun, in my baseball cap and shorts as WCBS Oldies radio blared, trying to think of “cute” things to say that would impress him and make him fall in love with me ( whatever that meant to my immature brain at the time).

As if that weren’t enough to make my intent clear, every weekday morning I made sure to walk my dog at the exact time he left for work, just so I could wave to him as he pulled around the corner in his white Volvo.

Basically I was an 11 year old stalker. There’s no nice way to put it.

But he and his wife, who was also supremely sweet to me, thought I was a good kid…so good that when they went on vacation to France that year they asked if I wanted to feed their cat, an irritable guy named Bunky, and bring in their mail while they were away for the week.

It was as if they had bestowed upon me a precious gift, for this assignment would offer me ample opportunity to, you know, look at stuff in their house, undisturbed, at my leisure. I’d been inside before but not without supervision so the prospect of this was nothing less than thrilling. Now don’t get me wrong, I also wanted to do the best job ever, with them arriving home after their long journey to witness Bunky happier and healthier than when they’d left him and the mail piled as neatly as if it were a museum exhibit on the table, thereby scoring maximum “love points” which I naively assumed I could .

And all in all, I did a good job and behaved…well okay, I did take the opportunity rummage through their old photo albums and swoon over photos of him as if they were pin-ups in a teen magazine. And I may possibly have buried my face in a shirt hanging in the closet to catch a scent or something. But beyond that I totally did my job. And honestly the activity that excited me more than either of those things was of a far less salacious nature, namely getting to rumble through his record collection which was located in a cabinet in the dining room.

There were about 200 or so albums within it including multiple titles by the Bee Gees. Hmmm, he seemed to like the Bee Gees a lot. It was clear what needed to happen. I too had to like the Bee Gees. Which meant I had to buy an actual Bee Gees album. Being young and solely obsessed with the outward appearance of material things ( toys, cars, animals etc.) it made sense that the album I gravitated toward was the one with the fattest spine ( 2 LP’s), the coolest cover and the most songs. It was Here At Last…Bee Gees…Live. That was the one I would get.

I can’t quite recall when I bought it, I think it was a few days after I’d first seen it there. All I know is that once I made the hefty purchase, which took every nickel of my meagre savings, I instantly felt closer to him. Even though he didn’t know it yet, we now officially shared something.

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The inner gatefold of the album is a terrible triple exposure photo I resent to this day.

“It’s great to be in Los Angeleez”

( Barry Gibb greeting the crowd at the end of “Love So Right”)

Now to be clear, I was familiar with the Bee Gees, I knew they were 3 brothers for example, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, I’d just never owned any of their records. And not only was this my first album of theirs, it was also the first “live” album I ever owned. While it employs some of the fabulous tropes of live albums of the day like the  occasionally irritating horn section and crowd exhortations of “Everyone come on!”, it’s mostly all business, the brothers offering up one song after another in assembly line fashion.

Yet it was a curious listening experience for the Bee Gees were going through an extreme sonic identity crisis at the time it was recorded (and were soon to land hard on planet disco). It features baroque and esoteric ’60s pop, lowly ’70s pub rock and proto-soul disco all stuffed into the same show. And as it was spread over 2 records aka 4 sides, my juvenile attention span just wasn’t up to the challenge of listening to the whole thing (despite my wanting it solely because it was BIG). Thus it wasn’t long before I became completely fixated on a singular side of the album which I found myself playing endlessly to the exclusion of all others.

To translate in vinyl speak, it was all about Side 2. The track listing is as follows:

1-New York Mining Disaster 1941 
2-Medley (Run To Me / World) 
3-Medley (Holiday, I Can’t See Nobody, I Started A Joke, Massachusetts) 
4-How Can You Mend A Broken Heart 
5-To Love Somebody

The side consisted solely of singles from earlier in the band’s career all dating back to the late ’60s and early ’70s. There are 2 medleys and each song is performed in proto-unplugged style with the brothers Gibb harmonizing around a single microphone for the majority (with Barry strumming his acoustic guitar).

I’d never heard any of these songs before and was completely enthralled…but not just by the songs themselves by the weird stuff that seemed to be going on around and within them. For starters I wasn’t sure if Robin Gibb was a good singer or not, with his vocal tone more often than not resembling that of a bleating sheep. And what did “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “Massachusetts” even mean ? And why was the audience screaming so much, what was happening that I couldn’t see ? And why does Barry keep doing that breathy thing with his voice ? The whole of Side 2 was a mystery that I needed to solve which meant playing it over and over to the point that when I finally heard the original, full length studio versions of the songs represented I didn’t like them. I wanted the warm security blanket of the live, stripped down, truncated, debatably weird versions filling my ears. I guess you could liken it to Nirvana fans who prefer the Unplugged versions of songs to their initial studio incarnations, marginally sacrilegious but love is love.

While the Bee Gees are obviously the stars of the album, the LA Forum audience also deliver an exceptional performance, offering consistently jarring full body shrieks in response to every drawn out syllable, breathy Barry delivery, dramatic Robin pause and brotherly harmonic convergence throughout the album, especially during the tracks on Side 2. They never stop. They are endlessly losing their sh*t.

The show the album was recorded from was actually filmed but for some reason the brothers didn’t like it and it was never released…and I’m okay with that. I think it would spoil the album’s charms, which has a lot to do with the aforementioned audience. Those moments of mystery where it’s clear something they are seeing as opposed to something they are hearing is making them scream, well, I don’t want that mystery to be solved. Whatever it is that seems to be happening during “I Can’t See Nobody”, I’d rather not know.

Thankfully I’ve come to appreciate the other 3 sides over the years ( or in steaming parlance, the other tracks) and remain staggered by the songwriting gift on display. How could they write so many amazing songs ??? It’s truly insane…okay “Boogie Child” is still  bullsh*t but every show needs a bathroom break.

 

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Fun fact: I stole $ out of my Mom’s wallet to buy this mag with the Bee Gees on the cover. Yes, I got caught.

Back to our “love”story: Upon their return from France they presented me with a cool burgundy coin/ keychain with the Eiffel Tower on it that I used for years and wish to God I still had ( it got lost along the way). And though I don’t recollect the details, my older man crush and I did go on to have genuine Bee Gees related discussions. Mission accomplished and one step closer…or so I thought.

After about a year or so of my passive aggressive courting, fate intervened in the form of my Mother. One morning immediately following my daily dog walk-wave routine she confronted me about my behavior. She’d suddenly become concerned with the relentless fervor of my pursuit. She glared at me saying “this needs to stop” and “you are making everyone really uncomfortable”. This was a surprise. Huh ? Who’s everyone ? I remember feeling embarrassed that people actually knew…especially her. But come to think of it, the other kids did make little comments. I’d been the opposite of discreet. Yup, I was in love and it freakin’ showed every day I stepped out the door. And though my crush never said anything about it, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe he was “uncomfortable” too and didn’t want to embarrass me.

And so I stopped. Literally, from then on. It was abundantly clear from my Mom’s tone that she meant business and I didn’t fight her on it. I do remember crying right after she spoke to me but not much else. And as it happened, maybe because of this cold turkey approach, my feelings for him did start to fade soon after. For one thing Junior High was about to begin and I suddenly had more pressing concerns ( staying alive being the main one).

Still while my crush was fading into the past, my love for the Bee Gees was growing exponentially. I actively began collecting all the LPs becoming especially fixated on 3 particular ones; Main Course, Children of the World and this oddball oldie I’d found in the cut-out bin for $1.99 called Mr. Natural . They remain embedded in my heart in the way those albums are when you first came to know them in childhood. You know every inflection on them inside out, and the way they make you feel sets the standard for everything that comes after. And yes, of course I bought Saturday Night Fever when it was released ( before the film itself was), I’d been primed. It was the first Bee Gees album I’d bought in real time.

Man did I love these…

Beginning in the ’90s, like a lot of people, I started buying cd versions of my vinyl collection. I still loved the Bee Gees and so it was inevitable that I would get around to Here At Last. Though many years had passed since I’d first heard it, the instant I queued it up, I was transported back to my blue shag carpeted bedroom. Even looking at the cover photo of the Gibb brothers awash in garish red light around the mike triggered memories of my not as secret as I’d ignorantly assumed obsession with my neighbor. Truth be told, deep down I was still actually a little embarrassed about the whole “affair”, the misguided contents of my 11 year old heart so brazenly on display for everyone to see and all that…but it also made me laugh at how f-ing weird I was and how I used the Bee Gees as this special love glue, this inroad to commonality and bonding.

One day around 2010 or so I absentmindedly googled my neighbor crush’s name for the first time ( seriously, I’d never done it before for some reason)…and the first thing that popped up was an obituary. It turned out he’d died back in 2007. He and his wife had moved a couple of years after the “summer of love” as did my own family and we’d organically lost contact over time. I think the last time I spoke to him was when I was around 13 or so, I honestly can’t remember.

But know what, I’ll always be grateful to him, not just because he was always so cool, kind and tolerant of my crazy little ass but because he gave me something I still have to this day, this musical gift. Not just the fabulous Gibbs themselves of whom I own every album, but just the joy of talking about music with someone older who loved it, who knew stuff I didn’t, who could teach me things. I had no clue at that stage that nearly my whole adult life would see me involved in the music universe and that my burgeoning love for pop music would introduce me to the most amazing human beings I’ve ever known. He put a brick in that life foundation.

Listening to the album again as I’m writing this makes the memories of that summer  come flooding back. Anyway, I just want to say thanks LS wherever you are, for letting me hang out with you all those days, being my pal and giving me something amazing that I don’t know you were even aware you were giving to me. Gonna treasure it forever.

Listen to the album here:

 

Here At Last is officially re-released on vinyl 6/26 through Capitol/UMe

Lost in the’80s Playlist: A Celebration of Should’ve Been #1’s

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What you see above is my actual pen pal request as published in the UK’s greatest pop music magazine ever Smash Hits back in the ’80s. I was 100% desperate to know someone in England which I felt was home to the best music & what appeared to be the cutest people. I was both excited & disturbed when I first saw the published ad because while WOW I was in Smash Hits (!), they’d also re-punctuated my first sentence, changing the period to a question mark. It was actually a meant to be a statement about how I, teenage Hope, felt about music, not a question. But still, Smash Hits (with Heaven 17 on the cover) !!

The requirements for being my pen pal were obviously pretty stiff , as you couldn’t just be into The Police & Culture Club to write to my stupid arse, you had to be “REALLY” into them. And the “busy” part had zero to do with an active social life & everything to do with school & the commitment of my very first job…at the ‘One Hour Photo’ store one town over.

You can see why this ad might be absolute catnip to the universe.

Now to cover my bases in case that UK ad got no responses, I put an ad in a glossy Japanese music mag called “Music Life” as well because I was also desperate to connect pop music freaks in Japan. It appeared in an issue with my personal love God at the time David Sylvian on the cover which thrilled me far more than it should have.

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Inexplicably these ads worked. Within weeks of their being published I was inundated with hundreds of letters. Envelopes from Japan covered with stickers & cartoons that held intricately folded & elaborately decorated pieces of tissue stationary as well as actual photos of Ian McCulloch & Paul Weller arriving at the airport. Polaroids of people sitting in tiny bedrooms in Liverpool surrounded by Boy George paraphernalia. Old ticket stubs from recent New Order shows. And oh yes, there was some really weird shit too, mostly coming from a particular grown man who lived in Kidderminster but we’ll just leave it at that. Oh ’80s…

Yup, that pen pal pursuit is one of my most cherished memories of being a music nut-nerd in the ’80s ( and yes, I still have a bunch of letters saved somewhere).

And so, to celebrate those glossy, glittery, shiny pop times, I wholeheartedly offer you the genre-spanning, head spinning LOST IN THE ’80s PLAYLIST, a mighty fine, fittingly massive selection of wondrous singles that didn’t quite ascend to the heights they deserved & foxy deep cuts that never got to be singles but should’ve been.

There are 60 tracks (!) & all are gently gathered the YouTube playlist below ! I truly hope you discover ( or rediscover) something in here that both blows your mind & inspires you to investigate these particular artists . Let the music play…  

Quick note: Why YouTube ? Well while putting this together I discovered a lot of these songs were not available on Apple Music or Spotify. Thankfully most could be found within the lord’s # 1 rabbit hole i.e. YouTube. You can hear the playlist featuring all these little wonders below ( & in some cases, enjoy the added bonus of seeing some VERY ’80s videos).

Listen here ! :

One last note while we’re here: I want to acknowledge & pledge my eternal love to these people, places & things below, nearly all of which are gone now but provided endless joy & fascination to a whole lotta teen pop nerds back in the ’80s. Bless them all to the last :

Magazines: Smash Hits, Number One, Record Mirror, Melody Maker, Sounds & NME

Record Shops ( in NY ): Slipped Disc, Rebel Rebel, Record Runner, Vinylmania, Discorama, Record World, It’s Only Rock’n Roll, Musical Maze & good old Tower on W.4th

Radio : WLIR-WDRE

You all ruled, thank you forever…

 

 

Soul in the Middle of the Road : A Playlist

You know everybody’s got their own way of doing anything, like you take this particular song for instance, it’s been done by many but I gotta do it my way…

(Bobby Womack’s spoken intro to his 1971 cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain’)

 

Back in the ’70s, long before that thing called streaming existed, the primary ways to hear the latest pop music were by watching TV variety shows, hanging out at the record store or by tuning into the most powerful pop music purveyor of them all, the AM radio.

And so because there were a limited number of places and airtime hours available to hear the latest pop music, people were generally exposed to a very specific bunch of songs at a time, as determined by whoever was programming all the aforementioned outlets. This meant that both younger and older generations were ultimately acquainted with the same hits. In other words, the pop Top 40 consisted of songs everybody knew regardless of their age, ethnicity or gender (a mad phenomenon we shall never ever know again).

This inevitably resulted in some existential and horrifying musical dilemmas wherein you and your parents could potentially end up liking the same song. Case in point, I loved Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, but so did my freakin’ Mom and that was 100% unacceptable. Speaking of which…

There were a whole lotta sensitive white boy singer-songwriters and easy listening hippie chicks in the charts in the ’70s. The sound they made was collectively referred to as MOR aka middle of the road better known these days as Soft Rock. To further clarify, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Neil Young rocked. James Taylor, Bread and America soft rocked. MOR songs were all crazy in love with everything the universe offered, most especially ladies, summer, horses and Chevy vans.

Of course at the end of the day it really didn’t matter whether a song was technically soul, country, rock or it’s aforementioned soft subdivision because once a song hit the Top 40 in the ’70s world, it fell into one singular category: it was a pop song.

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Lady + Horse + Summer = ’70s MOR Pop Music…

 

And of course artists were listening too so it was inevitable that some of these ubiquitous Soft Rock songs were going to get covered. And so began a small sub-trend wherein traditional Soul artists started covering Top 40 tracks by these MOR artists and molding them into R & B songs. These covers were rarely if ever straight copies of the originals, in fact it was pretty common for arrangements to be tweaked and lyrics to be altered. And of course if you were an artist of the masculine lover man variety it was mandatory to offer a little preamble at the beginning of the song because girl, there’s something you need to understand.

🔥 Welcome to the PuR Soul in the Middle of the Road Playlist featuring the best Soul covers of MOR-Soft Rock hits from the ’70s that were also recorded in the ’70s ( and a couple from the very early ’80s) 🔥

Sometimes weird, occasionally messy, often wonderful and in more than a few cases straight up better than the originals that inspired them. The jasmine’s in bloom…

*And yes, while Nina Simone is a Jazz artist, her version of “Alone Again Naturally” has to be heard to be believed.

 

Listen Here ! :

 

 
*And hey one last thing ! : There are a couple of tracks I wanted to include in the playlist that are not available on Spotify. One is only available on CD as of this writing and the other you can hear below on YouTube !

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Carla Thomas: In 2013 a cd featuring previously unissued music from recording sessions Thomas did back in 1970 with legendary producer Chips Moman was released. There are a bunch of covers on it including an absolutely smokin’ version of James Taylor’s “Country Road”. Unfortunately it’s neither on YouTube or the streaming services as of this writing but it’s worth picking up the actual cd, which is basically a soul version of Dusty Springfield’s classic “Dusty in Memphis” album (if only it had been released at the time, sigh).

Lea Roberts: Listen as Neil Sedaka’s 1975 # 1 soft rock classic is given a super soul injection by Roberts.

Lost in the’90s Playlist : A Celebration of Forgotten Deep Cuts

Over the course of the ’90s, I worked in 2 music stores in New York City. No, they were not of the cool, indie, High Fidelity variety, they were both behemoth, double stuf megastores. Which meant when it came to in-store play we weren’t listening to Captain Beefheart, Alice Coltrane or Daniel Johnston, but were getting exclusively rocked with whatever the latest major label releases were. Sure on the cool end it meant getting to hear good shit like Garbage or Liz Phair in their entirety…but it also meant wading through more challenging and horrifying noise like Rusted Root and Candlebox on a regular basis. Of course you could attach value to the latter experience by connecting it to the notion that you were “broadening your knowledge” and therefore better able to help customers ( at least that’s what I did) but if you were having a bad day, hearing an hour of Ugly Kid Joe could ignite a truly debilitating migraine ( true story).

Anyway, when the official store DJ’s weren’t around, we would throw albums into the 5 CD changer & just let ’em play all the way through. And, gonna get flowery here,  sometimes something magical would happen. Popping in these whole albums meant you’d end up hearing a lot of deep cuts. And doing that meant every now and then you would stumble (literally) on something really f-ing amazing that you’d never heard before.

Anyway, all that got me thinking it might be cool to shine a light on some songs & artists that got a bit lost in the immense MTV-Spin Magazine-Lollapalooza-Lilith Fair-Britpop-New Jack Swing-Grunge tornado of the ’90s and so….Welcome to the genre-spanning, head spinning 💥 LOST IN THE ’90s PLAYLIST 💥 a mighty fine selection of wondrous singles that didn’t quite ascend to the heights they deserved & foxy deep cuts that never got to be singles but should’ve been. There are 60 tracks (!) & all are gently gathered the YouTube playlist below ! I truly hope you discover ( or rediscover) something in here that both blows your mind & inspires you to investigate these particular artists . Let it play ⚡️ 

Quick note: Why YouTube ? Well while putting this together I discovered a lot of these songs were not available on Apple Music or Spotify. Thankfully most could be found within the lord’s # 1 rabbit hole i.e. YouTube. You can hear the playlist featuring all these little wonders below ( & in some cases, enjoy the added bonus of seeing some VERY 90s videos).

Beach Boy-esque : A Playlist…

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I have a geeky question for you, ready ? With no boundaries of time or place, what would your “dream band” sound like ? The one that would encapsulate everything you love in the musical universe in every way ? Vocals, sound, songs, everything. Is it Geddy Lee fronting The National ? Alicia Keys singing with The Band ? Janis Joplin belting it out with Low ? Tierra Whack weirding out in a band with Frank Zappa ? Sorry just doing some absurdist spitballin’ here.

I love hearing people’s answers to this especially if they are outright ketchup on pop tarts weird. I’ve sadly spent many waking hours pondering this question & came to the realization that my mythical band would sound something like Chaka Khan or Gladys Knight fronting the Beach Boys circa 1966-1973 ( the “lovelorn-psychedelic” years). Alas this mystical unicorn will only ever exist in my mind.

And so as a means of somewhat satiating this fantasy, I’m perpetually on the lookout for things that at least sound like The Beach Boys of that era, even in the smallest way. If you are a Beach Boys fan & want to hear some cool 21st century, maybe obscure, sometimes one off songs touched by that particular bit of Wilson genius ( all 3 brothers), please check out the “BEACH BOY-ESQUE PLAYLIST” below featuring some beautiful & slightly off the wall acolytes of that sundown sound. It’s full of tracks that have that influence, that feel, that signature Wilson thing. And forgive me for that playlist title, I just need things to be 100% on the nose so my old ass can find them easily in my antique i-Tunes library 🙂

 

The Beach Boy-esque Playlist:

 

p.s. I wanted to include songs from Lewis Taylor’s “The Lost Album”, which is basically the sound of a one man British-Soul-Beach Boys, and is absolutely gorgeous. It isn’t on Spotify or YouTube as of this writing so I can’t attach it here but it is available on Apple Music. Anyway I highly recommend tracking it down because again, it’s amazing ! FYI: The UK and U.S. versions had different covers, here’s what they look like :

*Nerd note: In the early days of this blog I ran this piece in a slightly edited form, this is a miraculously updated version

That’s Their Pet Sounds : Kenny Loggins “Celebrate Me Home” (1977)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds”our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*”That’s Their Pet Sounds”is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

Now grab yourself a cushion and let’s go chill in the gazebo…

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Kenny Loggins’ BEST ALBUM :

Celebrate Me Home (1977)

Background : By the end of 1976, after 5 years as a performing duo, pop troubadours Loggins & Messina decided to end their musical partnership. It’d been a great run that saw them score no fewer than 5 platinum albums, 2 Gold albums and a top 10 pop hit with the somewhat polarizing “Your Mama Don’t Dance” ( the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” of it’s day). Loggins explained the situation in classic rock-speak, stating that things were starting to feel “too comfortable”, that they needed to break up for “creative reasons”, adding that the decision to split “was mutual”. “We both felt it was time to put ourselves in different environments”. But really it was inevitable. For it had become abundantly clear over the course of the partnership that this Loggins guy had something. Not only did he write ridiculously melodic and memorable pop songs like nobody’s business and resemble the world’s sexiest mountain man, he was also blessed with a special voice…which is to say, damn,could he sang.

And so from the ashes, in 1977, did the Loggins (heretofore to be referred to as KL) solo career begin in earnest.

Celebrate Me Home, the first KL solo album, was produced by Phil Ramone and Bob James whose merged styles could best be described as “slick” with a side dish of “smooth”. Built on a bedrock of ace musicianship, lush strings, assertively strummed acoustic guitars and fat Fender Rhodes chords, there are no detectable blemishes or visible pores anywhere on Celebrate Me Home. Now while “slick” and “smooth” would no doubt get their asses kicked on the rock ‘n roll playground by “shredding” or “thrashing” or even plain old “rocking”, in the case of Celebrate Me Home, stressing the smooth side of things perfectly suited the lush KL songwriting style. If you ever want to simulate the feeling of watching an exquisitely perfect sunset lasting exactly 45 minutes over the Pacific Ocean in 1977, this is your soundtrack. Okay, I know what you’re thinking and yes, I suppose you could also play Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue with it’s equally bearded, beached, beauteous, born in ’77 vibe but you’d be settling in for a significantly rougher and more angsty ride. I recommend you just start your evening with Celebrate Me Home and save Dennis as a chaser soundtrack for when you’re getting wasted later that night because it’ll make way more sense then.

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Don’t let the riding crop scare you, he’s only looking to tame you with his melodic dreamscapes and lustrous voice.

Why it’s his Pet Sounds: Picking Celebrate Me Home as KL’s peak performance, where his melodic gift was firing at maximum capacity was an easy choice…pretty much. It should be noted that the 3 studio albums that followed were of a supremely high standard and all totally ruled in one way or another, from the dark, lusty moodiness of Nightwatch (1978), to the romantic spirituality of Keep the Fire (1979), to the angry AOR of High Adventure (1982). They are each in possession of some undeniably timeless, epically wonderful songs. And we should also acknowledge latter day album and dark horse Leap of Faith (1991) which was full of handsome, loved up new age pop as well. But as far as nailing it across the board in terms of mood, melody, overall vibe ( and there is one) and expertly mimicking the feeling of being on some languid and dreamy sailboat with an attentive and romantic captain, Celebrate Me Home is without peer. This album somehow manages to make rejection, lying and cheating sound warm, sweet and reassuring.

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The inner sleeve photo. No innuendo to see here folks, move along.

The Songs (side one): “Lady Luck”,  the lead track on the album is a beauteous, glossy acoustic led groove with a nice fat bass bottom that relates a semi-cryptic tale involving the devil and selling your soul. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and everything is just a metaphor for cheating and being unfaithful. The song features this soon to be KL trademark of stopping or quieting the band mid-flight to spotlight some ethereal harmonizing or over the top vocal flourishes before waving them back in again. He’s employed this aural quirk in multitudes of songs throughout his career from “This is It” to “I’m Alright” and it always works. Speaking of that, when it comes to singing, Kenny Loggins can also be a scenery chewin’, word stretchin’ son of a gun… which is to say you can expect a fair amount of of vocal taffy pulling within most of his performances here ( and in most subsequent recordings). “Lady Luck” features one of the more endearing examples of that particular idiosyncrasy wherein Kenny reshapes “love triangle” into “love Try-YANGah“. Now that there’s some quality chewin’.

Most of the songs on Celebrate are co-writes, the coolest collaborator being legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb who penned the lyrics to poisonous little rose “If You Be Wise”. While promising on paper, it’s definitely one of the second tier tracks whose main purpose is to act as sweet glue between 2 absolutely killer tracks. It’s pretty laid back affair with an optimistic melody and features a pretty hummable chorus. Lyrically though, it’s another story, for “If You Be…” is really a shoulder shrugging, finger wagging warning about getting too attached to a touring musician because you know, there are temptations on the road babe and he’s only human.

“I Believe in Love”– Right so as mentioned earlier, KL can sang and this song offers the space and opportunity to show off his entire range, from the cooing falsetto to the full throated blast. It’s both joyful and melodic, featuring an odd tinge of calypso as well as enough breathing room in the chorus to allow KL to seamlessly ask the audience in live settings if they believe in love ( here’s what they said) .

The song was written by KL ( the music) and the long-time Barbra Streisand collaborators and married songwriting team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman (the lyrics). The song first appeared in the 1976 film of A Star is Born as sung by Streisand in a bitchin’ blue polyester suit. And okay, gonna say it, KL’s version destroys Barbra’s. Crushes it into microscopic dust.  Anyway the Bergman’s were a couple of old school composers who weren’t remotely rock ‘n roll (their credits also included Streisand’s “The Way We Were” as well as her duet with Neil Diamond “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”). Still they managed to pen a verse within “I Believe…” that is totally rock and doesn’t care about anyone but itself :

But I don’t want to find myself one day

Wakin’ up and lookin’ at Monday

With some what’s her name left from Sunday

I Believe in Love

Right, I’ll call you sometime okay ? We still have aways to go this tour and I’ll be kind of busy but I’ll try, no promises. One of the eternal wonders of the Celebrate Me Home album is how skillfully KL plays the roles of both bearded rock stallion and sensitive ’70s hippie guy without ever favoring either. Such is the magic and mystery of Kenny Loggins.

“Set It Free” remains one of the finest KL tracks ever, an epic ballad of realization that sounds like a mournful rainy day for the first 4 minutes and a cultish worship song for the last 2. Bob James’s opening intro on keys and the delicate KL vocal on the first verse literally feel like an embrace; it’s that warm and enveloping a combination, all swoons and sighs. There’s a great cover version of “Set it Free” by revered Norwegian jazz singer Radka Toneff from 1981 that’s also absolutely worth hearing. In her arrangement, she eschews the entire choral style ending and just sticks to the verses and chorus, offering up a heart-squeezingly desperate and beautiful vocal; it really drives home how exceptional the song is at it’s core. She died from suicide soon after this recording was done, at age 30, making this a undeniably poignant listen.

The romantic tables are turned on the ballad “Why Do People Lie” this time with the woman doing the cheating and KL doing the I don’t wanna believe its. It’s a showcase for the absurdly seductive KL falsetto which he milks here to the 1000th power. Naturally that meant once he took the song into a live setting he could really milk it. Check out this performance of the song from his 1980 album Kenny Loggins Alive to hear an audience member spontaneously combust upon exposure to said falsetto in the second verse. It truly is a weapon.

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Right, someone please get me to the  time machine asap…

The Songs (side two): “Enter My Dream” sounds just like its title and is pure luxuriant mellowness ( yes, it kind of is like a warm bath and if it gave off a scent it would be that of a subtle, intoxicating vanilla candle, a good one, not one from The Dollar Store). It is quite possibly imbued with subliminal messages because it’s hard to listen to it and not immediately want to go lie down in a field of grass and stare vacantly at the sky for hours. It also features one of those patented KL “stop everything and just listen to me singing and nothing else” moments mentioned earlier in its coda…and despite having heard this song 3000 times, I am still not 100% sure what he’s singing at that point. I mean it sounds like ” And I love a lot about dreaming, and I dream a lot about love“. But honestly, as it’s not printed on the album sleeve lyrics, I have no f-ing idea but who cares right because it still sounds utterly magnificent.

“I’ve Got the Melody (Deep in My Heart)” was written by jazz pop diva Patti Austin who provides the guest vocal on the track as well. It sounds a lot like something you would have heard on a typical ’70s  variety show, when the host and guest star do their big duet number. Affectionate, slightly lovey dovey but stopping well short of sexy ( actually it’s miles away, definitely no tongue here ). I call this one a default listen. As in, it was on the LP and I wasn’t going to get up and move the needle to the next track necessarily because it wasn’t terrible just ineffectually pleasant.

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It’s about to get dark in here…

KL is of course best known by the general population for his gargantuan ’80s soundtrack hits “Footloose”,“Danger Zone” and “I’m Alright”, all of which are basically fun and unquestionably frothy.  I always look at the big soundtrack hits as the end product of KL’s day job. It’s a job he was good at and got paid for but it didn’t really reflect the passions of the Real Kenny™. The songs bore no resemblance to what he was building out in the garage on Sunday afternoons, what he was truly passionate about. The Real Kenny™ can only be found on actual Kenny Loggins albums. They are him and he is them. Which is to say the true KL signature song is not “Footloose” or any of it’s arm wrestling, golf bag carrying wingmen, but is in fact this gloriously plush and sentimental singalong right here, the please don’t forget me epic “Celebrate Me Home”.

Now near as I can figure, after years of hearing it, “Celebrate Me Home” is about coming home after having been away for awhile and, like a battery getting charged overnight, getting enough attention from family and friends that you can use it to power you up  during lonely moments when you go back to…wherever it is you came from that keeps you far from home…which in KL’s case is, you guessed it, the bastard road .

Still it’s not quite specific enough that it’s sentiments can’t be applied to other scenarios. Amongst the fascinating, weird and sometimes obvious interpretations I’ve stumbled on across the web, my favorite was seeing the song recommended for funeral services, “home” being another word for, you know, heaven. It’s a stretch but I’m telling you, once I read that I never heard the song the same way again. When you listen to Joy Division or Nico, you expect to brush shoulders with the grim reaper, but to come face to face with the other side in a freakin’ Kenny Loggins song ?  It’s just perverse and you’ve gotta love it.

To counter that idea or perhaps offer another version of what “heaven” might be like, please enjoy this extended live version of “Celebrate Me Home” (below) from a show in Santa Barbara in 1981. Watch in slack-jawed awe, at around the 7 minute mark, as KL, here playing the role of “Sexy Jesus”, descends into the crowd and ignites an extraordinary display of audience horniness the likes of which you rarely see outside of a National Geographic animal documentary.

“Daddy” is kind of an awful word. It sounds slimy coming from anyone over the age of 5 but okay. “Daddy’s Back” is a smoothy groove with a memorable tune and breathy, scenery chewing vocal that gushes with endless optimism. Of course based on his previous behavior throughout the album it’s hard to trust that “Daddy” is being truthful when he says he “can see an end to Daddy’s days as a rolling stone” but the rugged, passionate vocal ad-libbing at the end is enough to blind anyone to the truth at least temporarily.

“You Don’t Know Me” is a remake of an Eddy Arnold/Cindy Walker penned standard from 1956 that by the time KL had recorded it, everyone and their mother had taken a crack at. Elvis, Ray Charles,Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson to name a few hundred. And it was understandable why so many artists would want to, as it’s story of unrequited love was laid out so straightforwardly that most of humankind could relate to it’s lonesome yearning.

Thing is nearly every version sounded like it was made in a cheese factory, the majority of them overrun by ludicrously over the top backing vocals and schmaltzy instrumentation working as a devilish tag team to destroy the songs sad dignity ( and usually succeeding)…which is why the KL version stands amongst the absolute best. For one thing the arrangement is so skeletal and spare it sounds like a demo…okay one made by virtuosic musicians but still. And the vocal itself is extraordinarily understated by KL standards as in he doesn’t lose his shit until the last verse and sounds convincingly defeated throughout.

The inclusion of this cover is another reason why this album is so kick ass: to close with something so morose, slow and rainy after the flying above the clouds for nearly the entire LP takes some balls ( or a maybe a strong riding crop).

In Conclusion:  Celebrate Me Home only got as high as # 27 in the album chart in 1977 but it did ultimately achieve platinum status in 1980. Which seems about the right pace, for this is the one KL album that seems cool with laying back and letting others speed wildly to their ultimate destination. It’ll get there when it gets there. Look at the cover art, see how blissed out Kenny is to be home after months of touring ? He wants you to be blissed out too, chilled, that’s why he made this for you.  Sure, there’s some dishonest unfaithful behavior and disingenuous promise making happening in the songs but babe, that’s just life. The fact is underneath that hoodie beats an enormously empathetic heart with the magical ability of molding pop songs into ravishing sunsets.

If all the hyperbole here isn’t sitting right with you, I’ll offer you a more pragmatic explanation: basically Celebrate Me Home is like a less drugged up, totally shined, fragrantly showered, and contented version of Jackson Browne’s definitive life on the road diary album Running On Empty. It’s reassuring arm around your shoulder, “bound to roam” but always coming home. It’s his Pet Sounds.

Hear it here:

Or here:

When You Hear This Song : Mickey Newbury’s “Sings His Own”

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Andy Moreno talks about how after years of unsuccessful flirting she and 20th century country music cult hero Mickey Newbury finally got together via his 1972 album Sings His Own

It’s all about timing. Sometimes years go by before a seemingly perfect song actually achieves it’s moment in the spotlight, or a truly gifted musician gets their deserved day in the sun… or we as individuals arrive at a point where we can finally appreciate a particular artist’s music. My Palentine Hope says we all receive when we’re ready to hear it. I believe this is true and it speaks to just how multi-dimensional music can be, as well as profound.

It might happen globally on occasion, like how the song “Season of the Witch” has recently resonated with a vast number of the general population (or at least movie music supervisors). I feel like I’ve heard it used in at least the last 4 films I’ve watched. Filmmakers have the ability to really highlight songs when showcased in this way, and in this case I have to admit, it consistently packed a punch and made me reconsider my past opinions of ol’ Donovan. The song didn’t necessarily gain strength over time, we just moved toward it and met it where it lived. I believe this was the case for me.

My mate had been pushing Mickey Newbury’s 1971 album Frisco Mabel Joy on me for years, literally decades, to no avail; I just couldn’t get into him. On first, second or umpteenth listen. His voice was not appealing and I wasn’t hearing lyrics that moved me in any way. Frankly, he just sounded like some old guy I wouldn’t like if I met him.

Mickey made his move into my life early, in secret. I’ve always absolutely loved Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s, Just Dropped In because who doesn’t ? That particular love began the minute I first heard it on the radio, when I was around 6 or 7. I vaguely recall choreographing my own impromptu dance routine to that song in my Mom and Dad’s room involving a mid-song costume change to high heels. Years later, for reasons unknown, I had a tendency to call people late at night and sing it to them while inebriated. This was pre-Big Lebowski but I may have done it post as well. I didn’t find out until years later that Mickey Newbury was the actual songwriter, the same guy I’d been shoving away for so long. I’d also at some point fallen deeply, desperately in love with Linda Ronstadt’s Silk Purse album, specifically the song “Are My Thoughts With You”. I wanted to crawl inside that song and sleep in it at night. Guess who wrote it…yup, Newbury did. After finding out these were his words, it became clear the universe was guiding me to this man.

And so last year as a gift, I purchased a sealed copy of Mickey Newbury’s 1972 album Sings His Own for my husband, not knowing it’s history. We played it early one morning with coffee. I figured I’d let him gush over it until the end of side two at which point I would throw on Sturgill Simpson and be done with it. But he didn’t gush. He was unimpressed. I on the other hand found myself wanting to hear it again after first listen. And then again and again, unable to refrain, as if reaching for more chips. My husband left for work and I kept on playing it, both sides, something I rarely do except when I need a particular song to serve as an emotional crutch for a bit and repeated listening is necessary to ride out a storm. But this repeat play was strictly for pleasure. I found myself at the wide open door of Mickey Newbury’s music and willingly walked right in. I truly fell in love with this album. When “Sweet Memories” plays I often stand up for the refrain like that lady in church, one hand up, head down, sometimes moved to swaying. I’m not embarrassed to say it usually ends with me bawling giant tears.

I read that Mickey was very unhappy with his debut album Harlequin Melodies and considered his sophomore effort Looks Like Rain to be his real first album. And several of the songs off the former were simply repackaged for his third release, the aforementioned Sings His Own. While I agree the debut album doesn’t offer the best representation of him, I find the production surprisingly entertaining with it’s echoey distractions and sound effects. While I kind of get his dissatisfaction, it’s refreshing sometimes to hear these “imperfections” and I think some of the flowery bits actually made him more palatable, at least for me, and help build up some tolerance for the overall “manliness” on display.

I get goosebumps listening to him ride that giant vocal wave in “Time is A Thief”. Yet on “Got Down on Saturday”, which could have been “Just Dropped In’s” little brother, you can hear some “errors”. His golden voice sounds strained, plus the very end of the song hits you sideways and seems out of place….still I love it! It makes me nostalgic for the beloved shortcomings and imperfections of the ’70s.

Okay, on the downside, when he decides to whistle, it hits you right in the back of your throat. I’ve never trusted men who could whistle perfectly like that and there seemed to be a lot of them in the ’70s. And he wasn’t what you would call polished judging by his TV appearances especially this one where he throws Kris Kristofferson under the bus, not once but twice. But he ultimately redeems himself during that same guest spot with his performance of “An American Trilogy” when he slopes down and moans “ hush little baby, don’t you cry”, a stark reminder that an artist’s work can elevate beyond their mortal condition. Just as Whitney Houston took Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” to giant new heights, Elvis’s rendition of “An American Trilogy” went from being a Newbury song to being The King’s signature showstopper at his own live shows.

And when I hear the Townes Van Zandt intonations in their co-write “The Queen” you have to wonder who influenced who ? But ultimately Mickey’s marks it as his own by closing it out with his trademark howl.

His personal story is another good example of the raw ’70s, when it didn’t always flow well for an ultra talented songwriter, when they didn’t get all the lucky breaks. When drinking and lack of a proper publicist could keep you down for years. It’s interesting to see how it happened for some but not others during that same era, regardless of how gifted they were. My guess is he was not willing to play the game at all, even though his music could have neatly fit him into the “outlaw country” scene that was gaining popularity at the time …which I guess speaks to his integrity and may be one of the reasons, beyond his gift, that he’s respected by so many musicians.

He wraps it up for me on “Weeping Annaleah”, when he burns;

But when yesterday becomes a memory
A memory that we uncovered in time
If you still remember that cold December
I reigned in your mind
Sleeping Annaleah, weeping Annaleah
Then you’d be ready for me