Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Revisiting Linda Ronstadt's New Wave Period!

With the release of the career-spanning documentary "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" and news of the singer's battle with Parkinson's Disease, interest in Ronstadt has been at an all-time high.

For a singer whose restless musical spirit, and desire to remain commercially successful. led her to explore at least as many musical styles as that Bowie fellow, we thought it was time to revisit our favorite era...Linda Ronstadt's "new wave" period.

The year was 1979 and "new wave" was just starting to infiltrate the Top 40.

Picture disc for 'Living In The USA",
featuring a cover of Elvis Costello's 'Alison'.
For those living in L.A. at the time, even members of the Laurel Canyon Soft Rock Society, it must have been next to impossible to avoid those Police, Pretenders, and Blondie billboards that peppered Sunset Blvd., much less the B-52's, Devo, and Gary Numan songs pulling down heavy rotation on L.A. radio station KROQ, which, at the time, was playing an ever-growing list of new wave favorites alongside more mainstream fare.

For Linda Ronstadt, whose 1978 smash Living In The USA had been her second consecutive #1 album, to top the charts. the "new wave" bug had bitten her much sooner than it would most of her peers.

Included on the double-platinum-certified album was a cover of Elvis Costello's "Alison", from My Aim is True, that would become a major revenue stream for the young English troubadour.

 In preparing for her next album, Ronstadt asked Costello if he had any tunes lying around. Costello responded by sending her a tape with three tunes on it.

Those songs - "Party Girl", "Girls Talk", and "Talking In The Dark" - quickly became the basis for what would become Ronstadt's first full-scale foray into "new wave" territory, the 1980 album Mad Love.

After cutting those three Costello tracks, Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher chose to continue the theme for the remainder of the album, thereby begging the question "What other new wave songs should we do?"

This is where it gets weird.

Rather than cherry pick from the dozens of new wave semi-hits floating around, or, better yet, do an entire album of Costello covers, Ronstadt and Asher chose to cover not, not two, but three songs by L.A.'s Cretones, whose two albums for Planet Records had cratered.

They also recruited Cretones' songwriter/guitarist Mark Goldenberg to play guitar on most of the album - again, an odd choice.

However manner in which Goldenberg worked his way into the Ronstadt camp, it wound up giving his career a new lease on life, as co-writer of Peter Frampton's Art of Control album in 1982, which cratered almost as hard as a Cretones album, but the story didn't end there.

Three years later, the former Cretone would co-write the smash hit power ballad "Along Comes A Woman" with Peter Cetera and was rewarded with his first Top 20 hit.

Of course, it was 1996's "Novacaine For The Soul" by eels that remains our favorite Goldenberg co-write.

As for Ronstadt, her "new wave" period was ultimately a hedged bet. Not only were no Goldenberg or Costello tracks chosen as singles. it was Billy Steinberg's "How Do I Make You" that has come to define Ronstadt's foray into new wave while subsequent singles - The Hollies' "I Can't Let Go" and Little Anthony & The Imperials' "Hurt So Bad' - saw Ronstadt jumping off the bandwagon mid-album, never to return.

By 1983, Ronstadt had become one of the first rock performers to record an entire album of traditional pop standards with none other than the Nelson Riddle orchestra.

Friday, January 17, 2020

We Are The 4%: Why Vinyl Outselling CD's Is Actually Quite Depressing!

Towards the end of last year, there were a handful of articles proclaiming a full-on vinyl resurgence, touting sales numbers from the first half of 2019 tat confirmed vinyl sales ($224 million) were on-par to surpass CD sales ($248 million).

Keep in mind the very same music industry that is currently singing vinyl's praises is the very same one that killed the format in the first place.  Guiltiest of all was Sony, who not only hoped to profit from the sales of CD players, but, after acquiring CBS Records in 1987, but CD's as well.

This was no secret to those of us who kept track of such things in the pre-internet age and left quite a bad taste in the mouths of those music consumers with the longest memories and a penchant for banging out computer code in their sleep.

Having screwed consumers, it was only a matter of time before the labels turned on the very retailers that had always kept the industry afloat through thick and thin.

Who can forget when Best Buy started selling CD's at below-cost in hopes of luring customers into their stores stocked with expensive home appliances and entertainment systems? By using CD's as a loss leader, the big-box retailer hoped to move expensive appliances and entertainment systems.

Record retailers were the first to cry foul, but the major labels remained oddly silent.

One need not be a detective to see why Sony (you know, the same label that bought CBS Records) was so tight-lipped. As a manufacturer of TV's, stereos and other gadgetry, they stood to profit the most from Best Buy's scheme to use CD's as a loss leader.

Lo and behold, along comes the internet. Suddenly, there is a whole new avenue for music sales and promotion, but it still takes five minutes for a .jpg to load. A few years later, though, even your Aunt Marge has high-speed internet so when Napster comes along, everybody's getting in on the action.

Whatever moral qualms we may have initially had about illegal downloads were quickly smothered by our desire to stick it to the very music industry that had gone out of their way to force us down a dead-end digital path in the first place.

Those who take vinyl's comeback as a sign that the music industry has learned some hard lessons and is once again embracing physical product need only realize that vinyl sales still only account for 4% of all revenue, with 60% coming from paid subscriptions to streaming services.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Matthew Sweet And Peter Frampton: Fucked By The Coolest Label On Earth!

Matthew Sweet and Peter Frampton

Most days, I am of the mind that A&M Records is one of the coolest labels that ever was and that being signed to such a label would have been a mad thrill. This was, after all, the label that gave America The Police, Joe Jackson, Urgh, A Music War!, Squeeze, and Matthew Sweet!

Do you remember where you were the first time you heard "Vixen"? Yeah, me neither.

Thing is, it's the catchiest song on the whole over-produced album, yet seems to be the only song A&M didn't release as a promo single (not to be confused with a commercial single available to we consumers).

Can you IMAGINE if it had been a hit and Matthew Sweet had to whip that one out on the Ribfest circuit for the rest of his days?

Dollars to doughnuts, if such a thing had transpired, there'd have been no Girlfriend because A&M would have demanded more of the same and Matthew would have delivered because, why not?

In one of this writer's favorite daydreams, only when the album cratered did a roots-rock lovin' Sweet take a look at the piles of synths, drum machines, and big-name co-writers that had resulted in exactly zero success, leading him to put a boot clean thru a DX7 before yelling, "Fuck this shit. Somebody get me a distortion pedal before I ring Thomas Dolby's neck."

Boom, Girlfriend was born.

In reality it wasn't quite that simple, but you get the point.

Here's another reason to loathe A&M with a fiery passion: They passed on Girlfriend.

Funny thing is, everybody else passed on it, too. At one point, Sweet was even shopping the album to the Shoes' label Black Vinyl Records. According to my sources, head Shoe Jeff Murphy was still hemming and hawing when, out of nowhere, Zoo Records came along with an open checkbook and the rest is history.

But the warning signs that A&M Records had a consumerist dark side were evident long before the likes of "Roxanne" or "Steppin Out" were even written, much less recorded.

In fact, one need only gaze upon the album cover for Peter Frampton's 1977 album, I'm In You to realize that the biggest pop star on the planet was being guided by a bunch of morons.

Or was it Peter's idea to wear silk pajamas on the cover, with his chest fully exposed for the ladies?

It is my contention that this decision, made by the label, absolutely ruined his career.

The rock crowd that had embraced Frampton Comes Alive to the tune of 70 bajillion albums sold took one look at "pajama boy" and went "Pfft!", never to return, thereby forcing Frampton to start chasing hits like everybody else instead of making music from the heart, which is why Frampton Comes Alive had resonated with so many.

Sometimes, I just listen to Breaking All The Rules or The Art Of Control - two of his 80's era albums that were certified lead - and just weep at the misguided lunacy of it all.

Granted, his involvement in that unfortunate Robert Stigwood "Sgt. Pepper's" reboot did him no favors, but that's nothing to kill a career over.

The bad shit didn't end there, with a car crash in Barbados nearly killing him so, by the time 1979's Where I Should Be came out, Frampton was a man so eager to reconnect with the top of the charts that he was second-guessing his every move while fighting off as many suggestions from his label as he could.

My favorite one is where Frampton was teamed up with the Cretones' Mark Goldenberg for no other reason than Linda Ronstadt had covered a bunch of Cretones tunes for her 1980 faux-new wave album Mad Love.

Keep in mind that the Cretones sold exactly six copies of their two albums for Planet Records during their brief existence and that none of the songs Ronstadt covered had become hits, but such was the nature of the brain trust at A&M Records in 1983 when it was decided to...DROP Peter Frampton..

Friday, December 13, 2019

Music Is Free For Everyone...Except The Musicians!!

When I worked in music retail, I saw a guy attempt to shoplift a Ministry cassette. I was just about to nab the dude when he saw me and took off running out of the store and into the mall concourse. Adrenaline kicked in and, rather than haul-ass after him, I took what was already in my hand and chucked it at him.

That pricing gun flew hard, fast and true like one of Thor's hammers and...POW!

The minute I let go of it, I knew it was a perfect strike. From that moment, it was like watching a super slo-mo replay of a Nolan Ryan fastball beaning a batter except, in this case. the baseball was a pricing gun that stunned a shoplifter from twenty feet away.

I immediately wished all the coaches that had told me I wasn't good enough to pitch in Little League could have seen me then because suddenly my ability to hit batters, even those who were running, was coming in quite handy.

My perfect strike to the back of this shoplifters head sent the designer White Sox cap flying to the ground, where I immediately picked it up.

As he held the Ministry tape in his hand, I now held his beloved ball cap in my hands.

The long and tense stand-off that I had momentarily envisioned completely evaporated when I noticed that he'd scribbled his name and phone number on the inside of the ball cap.

Game over.

Fast forward to the year 2019 and we now live in a society where artists now PAY for the privilege of giving their music away for free under the guise of "exposure" that rarely, if ever, comes from the streaming of their art.

Apparently, after you've spent countless thousands of dollars on equipment, countless hours honing your craft, and countless sleepless nights recording your masterpiece, the only thing left to do is then pay DistroKid $20 a year to upload it all to the streaming services.

All for the honor of giving your art away for free.

I say "free" only because the current royalty rate per stream is less than a penny, which, where I come from, is nothing. I mean, if you offered to pay someone less than a penny for their music, they'd have every right to slug you, as far as I'm concerned, but in today's musical landscape, "FREE" is the new "$9.99".

That's the price at which I, and countless other indie artists, used to sell thousands of CD's until the top tier of the music industry decided that all music - even that music which they do not own - was free.

At that exact moment, they also decided tat your music would be used to sell ad space and that this would be the way that your music would be monetized for the industry's gain.

It's funny...for those of us who would have given our left nut for a big time record deal, quite frankly, the fact that the same major labels that shun us like toxic waste also want to profit from our music while giving us nothing in return is a complete travesty.

Does it not seem just a wee bit wrong to be able to stream an entire album that cost millions of dollars to record and master and press and distribute and still rest comfortably at night knowing that the artist received "less than a penny" in return?

Those of you arguing that artists should be happy with the fraction of a penny that they receive for doing nothing, did it ever occur to you that music, much like the movies that you still PAY to watch, does not make itself?

The rationale for music being free, of course, is that we artists will simply make it up on the back end, which is now touring. That's right, the major label system that used to rely upon touring to promote the sale of music is now saying "We're just here to sell more concert tickets."

Need I remind you that it was never the job of Epic Records or any other label to sell concert tickets?

Funny thing is, with less money coming in from music sales, more and more labels are signing artists to 360 deals, wherein the label does, in fact, receive a cut of the band's live money.

Can you believe that shit?

Labels went to the artist ad basically said "Since we suck at actually selling music, in exchange for access for our antiquated way of doing business, we're gonna need a cut of the money you make from live shows and merch.

That's brazen.

So brazen, in fact, that a mobbed-up music exec like Morris Levy didn't think of it first.

That should tell you something when even the mob refuses to go there, but, unlike the label execs of today, Levy was actually good at selling records.

Like the labels of today, however, he sucked when it came to paying his artists.

Why is that, I wonder?

If the industry had only been able to scale back its boundless greed, driven in part by increasing pressure from shareholders, it is easy to see how this whole mess could have been avoided.

Instead, when the S.S. Major Label Titanic hit the Napster iceberg, not only was everyone on the ship (a.k.a.. artists signed to major labels) left in a state of flux, every single artist on the whole fucking planet suddenly had an entire storage unit full of product they could never hope to sell in a million years.

It would be one thing if this had been dictated by market circumstances, but, in fact, music sales were in a state of growth at the time that Napster came along.

Even though the industry had killed off the single (thanks to Tower Records) and refused to budge on that insipid $19.95 list price for new CD's, we consumers were still willing to pony up the dough in higher and higher numbers.

Meanwhile, those of us that the major labels wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole catered to our audience by charging half that and moving twice as much. They didn't mess with us, we didn't mess with them.

Major labels sure as hell wouldn't have put up with us dictating the way that they do business, that's for sure, yet, when they shat the bed for their artists, they shat the bloody futon for us all.

In the meantime, the price of music gear remains the same. I am still not able to walk into a Guitar Center and walk out with a Les Paul for free. Even plug-ins still cost money. How the fuck does that work?

Some nerdy little programmer gets paid high five figures to churn out code at Spotify, but the bass player gets NOTHING?

Where is the Netflix for music?

I ask only because every week, I hear about some comedian I've never heard of signing a lucrative Netflix deal wherein they get paid for their art and then we as monthly subscribers get to feel like we stole it because we didn't actually pay to watch their completely forgettable comedy special.

I am suddenly reminded of the brief yet remarkable existence of, a website that was a pioneer in music streaming and downloads, as well as the sale of on-demand physical CD's.

Unlike the streaming model of today, the artists actually got paid quite well. Granted, there was always some lounge pianist from Vegas topping the airplay charts month after month, but if yours truly could pull down four grand every other month, to each their own.

Despite a massively successful IPO, as with all good things (for the artist, that is), got greedy and was eventually sued out-of-business by the music industry organization NARAS after introducing the "" service, wherein a consumer could pay for the privilege of uploading and have access to their own physical music collection online in digital format.

It's been downhill for songwriters and musicians ever since.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Simon Cowell Defect: Equating Talent Shows With Talent!

Back when we were in junior high school, every last one of us had the option to compete in a talent show. Since I had no marketable talent at the time, I didn't even think about entering.

That didn't stop a lot of my fellow students, however, and the winner of my junior high talent show wound up being some kid who put on on a wig, stuffed balloons down his (mom's) sweater and lip-synced to Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E".

The pay-off came at the chorus when he began thrust his elbows backwards and his chest forward to every letter..."D..I..V..O..R..C..E!"

Each time he did, his chest balloons would become, dare I say, more perky and pronounced, sending the entire auditorium of bored kids into a fit of laughter. Teachers who hadn't smiled in decades were doubled over in hysterics.

As "Tammy Parton" croned her way through the second verse, the kids began to titter and snicker excitedly, knowing that another chorus had to be coming along any second now... and when it did, they'd be ready.

Oh shit, here it comes.

"D (thrust) - I (thrust) -V (thrust) - O (thrust) - R (thrust) - C (thrust) - E (thrust)!"

The audience response to the second chorus was even louder than the first and unlike anything I've ever heard before or since.

About halfway through this riotous balloon boob spelling bee, I distinctly remember turning around and staring in utter fear at the faces of my fellow students in a state of absolute unguarded hysteria. By the last chorus, people were tearing their seats out of the damn floor.

Like Tiny Tim following Jimi Hendrix, the next performer came out and played a note-perfect rendition of "Tubular Bells" on wine glasses filled with water to thunderous indifference from the once-deafening crowd.

Of the two performers, I would go on-record any day of the year stating that the talent necessary to recreate "Tubular Bells" without the aid of a musical instrument is far superior to that needed to stuff a couple balloons down your (mom's) sweater and a lip-sync a country tune.

Thanks to "American Idol", "X Factor" and their ilk, we are now drowning in a "talent show" culture where the one with the most talent very rarely wins, consistently losing to the one contestant most capable of maintaining a TV audience's full attention. Throw in some flashy production values, a couple heartbreaking backstories and, BOOM, we have officially traded talent for spectacle.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, Im talking about "The Masked Singer".

I mean, how do you go back to just watching unknown attention-starved assholes vie for Simon Cowell's love after spending an hour trying to guess who was singing in that pink poodle outfit?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Oddly Forgettable Existence of Golden Earring!

It's January. You're trying to sleep in the back of a van after a sweaty, riotous gig, but are awakened by the sound of the driver slapping themselves in the face and rolling down their window every five minutes, which immediately drops the cabin temperature by ten degrees.

Then comes the blur of radio stations as the driver searches for something, ANYTHING to help keep them conscious and on the right side of the yellow line.  Just as you're about to ask if they need any help slapping themselves in the face, you hear that monolithic bass line rising above the surface like a loch ness monster.

Is it?...Can it be?

YES, praise Jeebus!

It's "Radar Love".

For the next six minutes and twenty-six seconds, you can feel the van weaving to and fro, but only because the driver is also playing air guitar to a song that has probably saved more lives out on the highways and bi-ways of this great country than an entire team of EMT's.

As you drift between varying degrees of half consciousness, you ponder the question that has long plagued the greatest minds of the universe:

"Why weren't Golden Earring more popular in the States?"

Consider for a moment how much different your own musical career might have been had "Radar Love" been YOUR first U.S. single yet the band has done little to nothing in recent years to capitalize on the song's continuing popularity in the U.S. market.

Can you say "nostalgia bucks?"

If not for the band being Dutch and, therefore, not speaking English, one suspects Golden Earring would have made more of an effort, but if the prospect of screaming fans and suitcases full of cash isn't motivation to learn a language, I dunno what is.

Listening to the rest of their 1973 album Moontan (their ninth studio effort, but first to see release in the States), one is left scratching their head as to why "Candy's Going Bad" wasn't also a massive U.S. radio smash.

The only obvious strike against any of the album's FIVE songs is that the tunes themselves are just too damn long. Even back in the glory days of rock, commercial radio stations were resistant to playing longer songs, yet "Radar Love" almost seems not quite long enough, especially at 4AM when the only other option is to slap yourself silly for the next three hours.

The band could and should have ruled the U.S. with an iron fist, packing arenas with their Bic lighter-worthy anthems and giving the likes of Wings and Peter Frampton a run for their money.

Instead, "Radar Love" became an indelible part of '70s American pop culture while the band itself was reduced to the answer to a trivia question.

How could this have happened?

Oh, right! They were signed to MCA Records.

This makes their dramatic escape from One Hit Wonderdom all the more impressive than the initial fact that, almost ten years after the success of "Radar Love", the band reappears out of nowhere with "Twilight Zone" and, voila, they reclaim their crowns as rightful kings of '70s album-rock radio.

What was different this time around, however, was the fact that the band was now with Polygram in the U.S. and that a substantial amount of airplay came via the new kid in town, MTV.

As a result, "Twilight Zone" hit #10 on the Pop charts, making it a bigger hit than "Radar Love" but, alas, there were no further U.S. hits from the album Cut.

The band played it smart by sticking to the exact same formula for their next two albums N.E.W.S. (1984) and The Hole (1986).

Unfortunately, of the three worst major labels in the U.S. during the '70s and '80s, the band had been signed to two of them, thus ensuring that whatever success they attained was short-lived.

Things worked out just fine for the band otherwise, as they remain ginormous in their homeland of The Netherlands, where the same line-up that first formed in 1970 continues to play to sold out audiences and has just released a new single called "Say When" to commemorate their 50th anniversary.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Had They Lived: Jimi Hendrix Edition!

Photo credit: Ethan Russell

It seems the minute that Jim Hendrix died in 1970, a cottage industry sprang up overnight in order to a) profit, which it has done to the tune of $7 million per year as recently as 2011, and b) by reducing the man's entire existence down to two songs ("Purple Haze" and "The Star-Spangled Banner") and a headband.

Foregoing the raging drug addiction that killed him, where do we see Hendrix going after the psych-rock movement peters out at the tail-end of the Sixties?

It was obvious to anyone that Hendrix was well over the Experience (mostly bassist Noel Redding) and eager to find the right combination of players to help him reach the heights he was hearing in his head.

Little could Hendrix have known that the 1970s was already destined to become the decade of amplified virility, recognized the world over by the fiery pose of the almighty Guitar Hero.

What's most interesting is that Hendrix had just put the finishing touches on a custom-built state-of-the-art recording studio in the heart of Greenwich Village (Electric Lady Studios) that he only ever got to use for few months before his death.

Photo credit: Ethan Russell

While just about every major artist, from the Stones and Bowie to Lennon and Zappa, wound up recording there in the '70s and '80s anyway, how many great jam sessions, collaborations, and culture-defining moments would Hendrix have been a part of within those hallowed walls that are still home to the studio to this day.

Would he have been one of many sixties acts who enjoyed an '80s resurgence, you query?

Trust me, if the Moody Blues could be pried from their crypts for a multi-year mid-80's chart run, Hendrix could have had that entire decade wrapped around his musical finger.

Sadly, instead of having the opportunity to grow with Hendrix as his tastes and artistic vision developed in ways his early material barely hinted at, all we got was that first blinding glimpse of a star coming into existence.