Friday, March 20, 2020

Play At Home: We Pick Off Broadway's 5 Best Songs!

As one might expect, my first exposure to Off Broadway came via the band's regional smash hit "Stay In Time" and, while that song continues to have a one-of-a-kind magical quality to it that practically screams "smash hit", for this rock junkie it was but a gateway to a melodic, riff-laden musical universe that has entranced many in and around the Chicagoland area for the past five decades, but that few folks outside of Illinois even know exists.

Their story is no different than that of many other great regional bands who, despite immeasurable talent, charisma, and major label backing, were never quite able to turn that regional hysteria into a full-blown national breakout.

While I would have willingly learned to share Off Broadway with the rest of the world if left with absolutely no other choice, there's just something kind of cool about those great bands that we get to keep to ourselves, so to speak.

One must admit that being able to see one of your all-time favorite bands in the intimacy of a suburban sports bar with an inflatable palm tree decor might seem hideous, but it's still preferable to seeing them only once or twice a year at the local ViagraDome, where it is a "privilege" to pay $20 for parking and twice that for stale nachos and a beer.

In fact, the best place to see Off Broadway in the whole wide world isn't at a stadium or arena, but at what was once a single-family residence in sleepy Berwyn, Illinois that has long gone by the name of FitzGerald's.

There, in a room that holds just over 400 people, a band like Off Broadway can effortlessly transport an entire crowd back to a time when everything was still possible, making even the most jaded rock fans believe in the higher power of music all over again.
And now the list you've all been waiting for, ladies and gents: The 5 Best Off Broadway songs EVER!

5. U.S. Girls

For those Off Broadway fans who also count themselves as Cheap Trick fans, this song from Quick Turns is remarkable for having been co-written by Pete Comita, who, by 1980, found himself replacing Tom Petersson in Cheap Trick.

A year later, both Cliff Johnson and Comita would join forces in the short-lived, but legendary U.S.S.A.

4. Full Moon Turn My Head Around

Seriously, folks, how was this song not released as a single? Sure, it shares a startling similarity to Cheap Trick's "Hello There", but, beyond that, it sounds tailor-made for Top 40 radio circa '79.

3. Automatic

There are two types of Off Broadway fans; those who only own the album with the hit on it ("ON") and those who own, and know every word to every song on, their sorely overlooked second album, Quick Turns, from which this song was taken.

Not only did Quick Turns see the band opting for a slightly edgier sound than their successful debut, but it also featured new bass player Mike Gorman, formerly off Pezband.

2. Bad Indication

Any song that follows "Stay In Time" on an album has its work cut out for it, yet "Bad Indication" effortlessly picks up where its regional hit-bound brethren left off and continues to make the case for ON being one of the best rock albums to ever come out of Chicago.

Of course, the song's secret weapon is drummer Ken Harck, whose rock-solid tom work kicks off the song with authority and then lays down the foundation upon which the rest of the band can proceed to tear yet another roof off of yet another dump.

1. Stay In Time
Was the #1 song ever in any doubt? Also, how often can you say that a band's biggest hit was also their best song? 

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Best 14 Songs About The End Of The World!

Siouxsie & The Banshees - Cities In Dust

If ever there was a vocal performance that, itself, imbues the horror and uncertainty of a world in peril, it is Siouxsie Sioux's soul-stirring vocal performance for this incendiary track from the band's equally fiery (and appropriately named) 1986 album Tinderbox.

Afrika Bambaataa. & Johnny Lydon - World Of Destruction

When two innovators from their respective genres (hip hop and punk) who, one would presume, are used to doing things their own way join forces and it actually manages to a) not suck, and b) break new ground to the extent that the song is only just now being appreciated by the common-folk for its musical innovation and ability to get even the most stubborn rump shaking after placement in mainstream TV shows like "The Sopranos" and "Mr. Robot".

R.E.M. - It's The End of The World

Even though we just wrote about this song a few days go, you just knew this song would be on this list. This acoustic version reminds us that, of all the bands of their day, R.E.M. probably made the easiest transition to the acoustic format without neutering their sound. Nirvana, on the other hand...

The Police - When The World Is Running Down (You Make The Best of What's Still Around)

While Sting would truly disappear down the rabbit hole of pessimism for much of Ghost In The Machine, his brief foray into socially-conscious themes on Zenyatta Mondatta resulted in the refreshingly upbeat funk number. If the end of the world was truly as fun as The Police make it sound, we'd have done it long ago.

Metallica - For Whom The Bell Tolls

The film "Zombieland" gets bonus points for the best use of a Metallica song, turning this longtime concert favorite from the band's second album, Ride The Lightning, into an anthem for a post-apocalyptic world. It also reminds us what a monolithic beast the band was during those heady Cliff Burton days when the band's popularity was spreading like wildfire thanks to good old-fashioned word-of-mouth (and illegal tape-trading)

Europe - The Final Countdown

While Europe, the band, will always be remembered in the States for this slice of cheesy, but undeniably catchy synth-driven social commentary, the band deserves just as much scorn as Van Halen for showing other metal bands that it was acceptable to lose the guitars and employ synthesizers to indulge in the sort of schmaltzy balladry that really did bring about the end of the world for hair metal.

Blue Oyster Cult - Don't Fear The Reaper

BOC guitarist Buck Dharma may not have written many songs, but he sure as hell made the few that he did write count, such as on the band's 1976 album Agents of Fortune, where Dharma had only two writing credits, but "Don't Fear The Reaper" was one of them (the other being "E.T.I.").

While the song is best remembered these days for insiring the beloved "More Cowbell" skit on Saturday Night Live with Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell, the lyrics paint a macabre picture of a couple whose love transcends the physical world, which might just be crumbling beneath our feet as we listen.

Prince - 1999

There are few songs that make the end of the world sound as much fun as Prince's "1999", which arrived in late '82 and immediately transformed Prince from a perpetual up-and-comer to a legitimate superstar.

Not only was this the first album to include a backing band (The Revolution), it marked the debut of recording engineer Susan Rogers, who would work with Prince for the next four years, enabling prince to concentrate solely on the creative side, sparking the most fruitful period of his entire career.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik - F1-11 Love Missile

To this day, I almost can't believe that Sigue Sigue Sputnik happened. Just the entire premise of the band, to this young rock fan at the time, was more performance art than a musical performance or, for that matter, art, yet the final product wound up being ten times more innovative than I could have ever suspected possible from those involved.

Tony James, of course, came directly from Billy Idol's Generation X and after James had watched Idol's career skyrocket while his remained landlocked. SSS was the ultimate revenge and, while it brought James some UK success, we here in the states continue to sleep on this innovative band, album, and song that perfectly captures the crass stupidity of the '80s Cold War and the constant threat of total annihilation that was ever-present in those days, as now.

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes Around

What begins like a normal folk song quickly turns into a slowly unfolding road map to the end times told by a master storyteller who, from what I've heard, spent a good portion of his life trying to get this song right.

It was also one of the last songs Johnny Cash would ever write before his death, appearing on the 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Nena - 99 Luftballoons
To this day, one of the most joyously upbeat songs about nuclear destruction ever recorded. Initially released in January 1983, the song would take over a year to reach American shores, at which point MTV airplay helped propel the newly-released English-language version up the U.S. charts.

Oddly enough, the German version of the song continued to get airplay, with some Top 40 stations playing both versions intermittently.

Love & Rockets - Ball of Confusion

It isn't often that one feels the need to congratulate a band on besting the Temptations, but, truth be told, UK goth rockers Love & Rockets did just that with their recording of "Ball Of Confusion" and this writer is still trying to put a finger on just what it is that makes their version so remarkably durable after all these years.

In a perfect world, it would have been a bigger hit than the song the band eventually had a hit with a few years later ("So Alive"), but at least they had a hit with a tune they wrote (royalties!!).

Sisters of Mercy - Black Planet
Long before cookie monster metal and "that weird singer in the Crash Test Dummies" there was Andrew Eldritch, whose creepy-deep vocals made every Sisters of Mercy song sound as if it was pouring from the lips of a shivering corpse.

Naturally, a song about the charred remains of planet earth seems right own the band's alley and wound up becoming the centerpiece for the band's debut album, First And Last And Always, which was the only album to feature the classic line-up that included guitarists Wayne Hussey (later of The Mission UK) and Gary Marx.

The Fixx - Red Skies

When the Fixx arrived on the scene in the early '80s, U2 was still very much in their muscular rock phase, but, by 1985, it seemed as if The Edge had stolen all of Jamie West-Oram's schtick, helping U2 transition into a more nuanced version of themselves, if not the Fixx.

By then, oddly enough, The Fixx, themselves, seemed keen on changing their sound, too, opting for a more streamlined pop sound that, quite frankly, must have bored West-Oram to tears.

On this song, though, both guitarist and band are firing on all cylinders, creating a sound so dense with detail that you can almost walk around in the world that it creates.

Monday, March 9, 2020

A Bridge Too Far: How R.E.M.'s 'It's The End Of The World' Killed College Rock!

As a rock & roll kid who still believed in the prospect of a beloved band conducting their entire career without a single misstep, I was not at all enthralled by my first listen to R.E.M.'s socio-political rapid-fire, cocaine-speed pop ditty that saw the once unintelligible Michael Stipe to be quite the budding auctioneer.

Even within the context of the album that it was on - 1987's Document; itself an eyebrow-raising arena-rock monstrosity - "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" was a stark contrast from the southern gothic swamp rock of the R.E.M. that we musically-discerning college kids had adopted as our own.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, by unleashing their own "We Didn't Start The Fire" upon the world, R.E.M. had thrown the indie rock community into a complete state of shock by releasing a song that was such an obvious attempt at a "pop single" after successfully claiming their first Top 10 hit with "The One I Love", a song that nobody in a million years expected to become so popular.

Snobby record store clerks and holier-than-thou DJ's for colleges whose radio stations could actually be heard off-campus were now forced to come to grips with the realization that one of the songs they were playing was also getting tons of airplay on MTV. In other words, they may as well be playing "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

So college radio stopped paying the tune and, in a way, stopped playing the band altogether, setting them free to be the globally ginormous juggernaut that nobody in a million years ever imagined (or hoped) they would become.

Only now do I see that "It's The End of The World" was the sound of a band taking off a mask they'd long ago tired of wearing and begging us not to scream before we were finished screaming. It sounds childish now, but, to musically-inclined college kids of the early 1980's, R.E.M. was our band.

You could go back home for summer and play a tape that nobody else knew about while the locals laid rubber in the streets to the sounds Loverboy and Def Leppard. The very thought that you might return home one day to find "the rubes" cranking R.E.M. never entered your mind until the day that it actually happened.

In all seriousness, the rest of Document both appealed to my own arena-rock sensibilities and led me to believe that our relationship had, quite simply, gone as far as it could go.

To this day, anytime I hear the song, I feel a quick burst of happiness because the song is so comically jarring anytime you hear it on the radio as part of a nonstop rock block of indiscernible semi-human noise.

A few verses later, though, a sort of gloom sets in because it quickly becomes apparent that this song HAS TO BE what gave the Barenaked Ladies the idea for their whole schtick, which I find unforgivable (half-kidding).

Like college radio, I quickly weaned myself off of the band's teat before they went acoustic (total deal breaker) and became completely unrecognizable.

Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Marinos, Jimmy Marinos!

The first time I saw the Romantics was on American Bandstand in 1980. They played "What I Like About You" in matching red leather suits, the drummer was singing lead vocals and, by the time all was said and done, I had already hitchhiked halfway to the record store to grab their first album.

As an aspiring young drummer, myself, I had taken full notice of the band's hard-hitting drummer Jimmy Marinos, but what made his playing so unique was that he was also singing lead vocals.

Granted, he would not be the first or the last to do so, but it definitely gave the band enough of an angle to differentiate themselves from the multitudes of like-minded garage and power pop acts of the day.

After two follow-up albums that drew critical ire and failed to sell, the band had fallen almost completely off the rock & roll radar until "Talking In Your Sleep" blew up on both radio and MTV, making rock stars out of Wally Palmar, Coz Canler, Mike Skill and drummer/singer Jimmy Marinos,

By then, the red patent leather had been traded in for black snakeskin and Jimmy Marinos now sported a hair-do that made even the guys in A Flock of Seagulls a little jealous. His hair was now both long and tall, just like the man himself, making him look more like a member of Bang Tango or Lords of The New Church.

While Palmar sang on the album's two singles, "Talking In Your Sleep" and "One In A Million", it was Marinos' vocals that drove "Rock You Up", "Got Me Where You Want Me", "Love Me To The Max", and "Open Up Your Door" - songs that were, for many, highlights of both the album and the extensive U.S. tour that followed.

Granted, he also sang lead on the abysmal "I'm Hip", which gives "She's Hot" from the band's previous album, Strictly Personal, a run for its money in the Most Lunk-Headed Song Department.

He also inexplicably quit the band at the height of their commercial success to start a proto-metal bar band that never got out of Detroit and, before long, even that band had been put on indefinite hold, at which point Marinos must have witnessed a mob hit and entered into the Witness Protection Program, or so it would appear.

After all, what rock & roll maniac with a zebra-stripe drum set walks away from MTV, millions of screaming fans, and the very band he founded (along with Mike Skill) at the absolute height of their career?

To this day, I have never heard a reason why Marinos left the band beyond the usual "ego run amok" rumors and found his next band - the Motor City Rockers - to not be all that far removed from the one he'd just left.

So, why?

As for the remaining Romantics, their decision to carry on without their original drummer and vocalist wasn't all that shocking, but just who could they get to replace Marinos? After all, he was the voice to many of their most popular songs, including the song that would grow exponentially in popularity in the years since his departure, "What I Like About You".

It is that song's popularity, in fact, that has allowed Marinos to remain out of the limelight. Anyone who has ever found themselves singing along to the tune during one of the many commercials, TV shows, or movies probably has no idea how much money that song (which he co-wrote) pulls in on an annual basis, but it is more than enough to keep the lights on for all who wrote it, I suspect.

This suspicion was confirmed by the band's current drummer, Brad Elvis, who playfully kidded in 2008 to a group of folks backstage at the long-gone Abbey Pub that Marinos hadn't left his couch in 20 years, but, in all seriousness, was doing quite alright thanks to the song's continuing popularity.

Even so, would it kill Marinos to occasionally get the itch to gig again? The world needs his voice, his vintage rock & roll swagger, and, most of all, that zebra-striped drum kit, baby!

It certainly makes this writer glad to have seen Marinos with the Romantics for a brief period in 1996 when he rejoined the band for a series of Ribfest-level live gigs and some studio work before once again disappearing into the night.

While original members Wally Palmar, Mike Skill, and Rich Cole carry on performing around the world, Marinos absence is glaring anytime someone other than him sings one of *his* songs, like "Rock You Up", "21 & Over", and the aforementioned mega-smash "What I Like About You".

There's just something wonderfully "punk" about Marinos' vocals that has always provided a great counterpart to the band's more harmony-laden melodic sensibilities. In that sense, Marinos has always provided the necessary edge that the band needed to first differentiate themselves from the wave of power pop bands with whom they were first associated, before escaping Detroit once and for all.

Wherever you are, Jimmy Marinos, allow this longtime fan to say "Thank you" and "Don't be a stranger".

Monday, March 2, 2020

Open Letter To SXSW Organizers: Pull The Plug!

Truth be told, I honestly thought that the organizers of the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, TX would have announced by now their decision to cancel this year's event in light of the ever-increasing threat of a global pandemic.

Earlier Today, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was the first notable cancellation of what this writer predicts will be many notable no-shows that will render this year's festival unless organizers step up and make that most horrible of decisions.

After all, so much planning goes into each year's SXSW festival. When I think of all the hard work put in by festival organizers and the vendors who print the t-shirts and the banners, construct the stages, provide the lights and the sound, and make the whole week go off without a hitch.

But I also worry about the bands who are now placed in a position of uncertainty. The most pressing question for foreign acts is "Will travel to the festival even by possible?" With airlines announcing new travel restrictions every day in hopes of containing the spread of the virus.

Even domestic acts have reason to be biting their fingernails because exactly what kind of situation will they be walking into? Just because the festival isn't cancelled doesn't mean anybody shows up.

This is a potential pandemic we're talking about, after all.

Trust me, I know more than anyone what it feels like to throw all your eggs in one basket and then have tragedy strike at the last moment, throwing your entire festival into uncertainty.

For me, 2010 would be my first time running merch for an artist at SXSW after agreeing to design and sell t-shirts for Dwight Twilley's performance at Antone's in support of Big Star. Just days before the festival, however, Big Star founder Alex Chilton passed away unexpectedly, throwing the night's festivities into complete disarray.

My first thought: Holy fuck, I am stuck with these t-shirts made specifically for the fucking festival, but what could have been a total clusterfuck turned into a celebration of Chilton's life and career and I feel lucky to have been there to witness such a night. We also sold a fuckload of t-shirts.

While I am hoping for a similar outcome for all involved with this year's festival, the next few days will hopefully provide some indication so that bands, filmmakers, and attendees can avoid arriving in Austin to find the fest has been called off or that they're the only one who showed.

Thing is, SXSW is a total bank-breaker even in the best of years and often the rewards are little more than being able to say that you once played SXSW. Granted, if you play your cards right, you won't pay for a drink or a meal for the entire duration, but there are still flights, lodging, and those unexpected expenses that always seem to pop up to consider.

Blowing all that cash to play at a poorly attended pandemic fest might not be the best way to spend one's "promotional budget".

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Greatest Music Video Ever Made: Local H 'All The Kids Are Right'!

L to R: Joe Daniels, Scott Lucas, Joe Daniels, Scott Lucas, Joe Daniels, Scott Lucas...
It's funny, the year I formed my first band was the same year that MTV finally overpowered radio and began asserting its control over the music industry. In the same sense that the labels had long provided musical content, recorded at great expense, to radio stations free-of-charge in hopes of gaining airplay, labels were now doing the same thing for MTV in the form of music videos.

While also made at great expense, music videos quickly became a way for bands that may not have had a shot in hell of getting played on popular rock radio formats of the time to reach a national audience, even if it was three o'clock in the morning and most of said audience was counting sheep.

What made this content different from that which the labels furnished to radio stations was that music videos were created specifically for MTV and MTV viewers and rarely, if ever, made commercially available. Sure, a music video might also be played in night clubs and on other fledgling video shows and networks, but nobody gave a rat's ass about those plays; it was all about "getting played" on MTV.

By 1998, the whole world had lost its head and MTV had boldly announced that they were now cutting back on the number of music videos it played to make way for more "original content".

In other words, the network that had single-handedly "killed the radio star" was choosing to pay money out of their own pocket to create original shows that had nothing to do with music rather than simply press "play" on the content the labels had been furnishing to them on a silver platter for the past two decades.

Call me crazy, but when a network called "Music Television" stops playing music, something has gone terribly wrong in the executive shitter, but what can you do but watch in horror as the once-constant stream of grunge videos turns to Snooki and Pauly D?

The reason I bring all of this up is because, by the time the greatest music video ever made finally came along, the ONE freakin' network that would and should have pumped it into every living room in the country every hour on the hour for an entire summer was too busy pissing off longtime viewers with content that somehow manages to have fewer socially redeeming values than that W.A.S.P. video where Blackie Lawless's crotch turns into a buzz saw.

And, yes, Local H's video for "All The Kids Are Right" is, indeed, the greatest music video ever made and, had it come along five or so years earlier, I wouldn't be the only one saying so.

First off, what makes the video so amazing is that band members Scott Lucas (guitar/vocals) and Joe Daniels (drums, drums, and more drums) comprise the entire cast for the video, not only playing themselves, but everybody else in the video.

Now, this isn't anything earth-shattering to anyone who has seen "Multiplicity", where Michael Keaton played multiple clones of himself, but when you see the "live performance" where Scott and Joe playing the roles of EVERY SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER in the crowd, consider this camper's mind fully blown.

For that feat alone, this video deserves an Oscar.

Beyond that, the scene where Scott plays a club bouncer who frisks everyone that looks like him while the "Joes" walk in untouched remains one of the most succinctly stated commentaries on societal racism ever made in a rock video.

While modern rock radio stations played "All The Kids Are Right" enough for it to become the band's second most popular tune behind "Bound For The Floor", it remains a stone cold shame that few people even know such an amazing music video even exists.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Overrated as Fuck?: The 'Kraftwerk' Edition!

Make no mistake, on paper and in theory, I absolutely love Kraftwerk.

From 1974's Autobahn album, with its evocative Emil Schult cover art, the band's visuals from album to album have been singularly remarkable in their ability to capture that feeling of moving at the speed of sound while standing perfectly still.

There is no sense of urgency, no heartfelt paean to a lost love, no reliance upon well-worn American cliches.

Even when the band "sings" about the Autobahn, as they did on their surprise Top 40 smash of the same name, there is no feeling of rapidity or danger, only the cool, clean comfort of traveling in a quality automobile, which, to American ears, has been done before...and better ("Route 66", anyone?).

It is, we quickly realize, the world that is moving at breakneck speed while we are simply strapped to it, holding on for dear life in a variety of ways. Kraftwerk manage to capture both the drudgery of the workaday world in the burgeoning age of room-size computers and the gasp-inducing futurism that enabled us to put a man on the freakin' moon.

But, again, it had been the visuals that had pulled me in, and continued to do so. While I harbored a deep interest in these so-called "synthesizers" that replaced traditional drums, bass and guitar, no sound found on a Kraftwerk album ever made me go "Whoa!".

In fact, they seemed to be going quite a bit out of their way to adhere to some strict minimalist manifesto that, in hindsight, is quite admirable, but ultimately displeasing to the ear and, yes, to the human mind as well.

A friend of mine once commented that when I listened to Kraftwerk in the art space that we shared, I had this habit of continually cranking up the volume until it could go no higher. Upon being made aware of this, I realize that I was subconsciously looking for some edge in the music to hang my hat on, like when you hear a nice funk guitar line buried in a busy mix or a multi-layered vocal harmony.

Maybe if I crank it high enough, the nuances that seem to otherwise be missing at lower volumes (punch, energy, momentum) might magically appear.

Still, I find myself pulling out certain albums every so often just to see if I've finally matured enough to not so much appreciate the music, but to do so without so much damn effort.

There just isn't any situation in my life where I want to have to work at something this hard and not get paid.

Truth is, I'd be just as happy with a coffee table-sized book of Kraftwerk album art, leaving the rest to my imagination.

A few years ago, a client (I was in the tour merch biz at the time) dragged me to my first Blue Man Group show and then, a week later, I saw Kraftwerk two nights in a row (don't ask).

After doing so, I came to a striking realization: If you went to a Blue Man Group concert and all the performers did was stand completely still behind podiums while their backing tracks and pre-programmed video and lighting f/x played, you'd be absolutely furious, but at a Kraftwerk show, that shit gets a standing ovation.

My compliments to the video director, but how is any of this cutting edge?

Whether you're seeing U2, Kanye West or a Van Halen cover band, these days video screens make ants of anyone that performs and more effort seems to be paid to keeping the concertgoers' eyes on that screen more than the stage itself.

Keep in mind that Kraftwerk IS NOT AN ARENA ACT.

Their music does not translate to an arena setting. This entire exercise is all an excuse to sell t-shirts at $40 a pop because, at the end of the day, it is the "brand" known as Kraftwerk that we all love and want to be seen loving by, I dunno, other cool like-minded people.

Maybe one day a handsome (or foxy) stranger will compliment you on your Kraftwerk 3-D tour shirt

"Oh dude, you saw Kraftwerk?"

"In 3-D," you'll reply with a huge smile and then it will dawn on you that you paid $250 to watch a band that doesn't move, at all, perform in 3-D.

Who: Kraftwerk's video director
Where: Aragon Ballroom
When: July 21st, 2020
Tickets go on sale February 27th.