Thursday, February 21, 2019

Song Of The (Bad) Day: The Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda"!

With the incredibly sad news of Monkees bassist Peter Tork passing away, a lot of us are feeling a sense of loss that rivals that of a beloved family member. Who am I kidding? For many of us, the Monkees were family.

For many of us, they were the most dependable baby-sitters you could ask for, arriving with a smile and a joke every weekday afternoon at 4PM, or whenever re-runs showed in your area.

At 4PM, we kids plopped down in front of the boon tube and. for half an hour. forgot all about our complete lack of troubles.

Sure, we knew they were fabricated, didn't write their own material (well, not the big hits), and probably couldn't play all that well, but there was a chemistry there that nobody, not even those who cast those four rapscallions - complete unknowns who somehow caught fire when they got in the room together.

Those who considered Tork their favorite have always had a soft spot for "Auntie Grizelda". Most notably, it was Peter's first turn at lead vocals on this boisterous goof of a rock tune. Whether by intent or desperation, Tork's vocal performance is part punk/part lunkhead. An easy track for we kids to sing.

As I play the song now, I feel lucky to have arrived on this earth just in time to completely miss most of the lightning strike moments in rock & roll.  By the time I had gotten old enough to begin noticing the artists behind the music I was hearing, both they and the Beatles had broken up.

Even so, reruns of "The Monkees" TV show were plentiful growing up, giving us the illusion that they were still young and still together.

When we were old enough to start going to concerts, catching 75% of the band in the here and now was an eye-opening experience.


Sadly, we woke today to the news of Peter's passing, which no doubt reminded us of the sudden passing of Davy Jones in 2012.

On the plus side, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz are alive and touring.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fuck, I Miss Record Stores!

There is no death that I have mourned harder and for longer than that of the record store.

Sure, I know that there are still record stores in existence - some very good ones, in fact - but one could argue that there are but only a dozen truly great record stores left in the country.

This is a big fucking change considering that those of us who grew up in the fucking boonies were still within thirty miles of at least that many record stores. It wasn't just my location, but any location. Hell, there were hardware stores with a more lovingly curated music selection than the half-assed attempts being made by establishments that actually have the audacity to call themselves record stores.

Keep in mind that I've been to Wax Trax! Records back when it was located on N. Lincoln Avenue and hold that experience as the example by which all other record stores shall be judged. There were no football field-sized stretches of vinyl, just a makeshift two-storey house stuffed with a choice selection of records and clothing.

It was the first store to carry all those Velvet Underground, Alex Chilton, and Buzzcocks records I'd been reading about for ages. Imagine owning every issue of Trouser Press from 1980-1984, but none of the music.

Well, that changed the day I walked into Wax Trax!

Like in all great record stores, every person on-staff "lived music". This wasn't just a job to them. Hell, if they didn't work there, hey'd be in the store anyway. Their racket was getting paid to shop for records.

I type this having donated entire paychecks to the contents of the bulging "Hold For Darren" box 'neath record store counter. I may be one of the only people to ever quit a record clerk gig in order to save money.

Having been on both sides of the record store counter I can tell you these 5 truths:

1. If the owner of the store ain't there, who cares?

It didn't dawn on me until after the fact that all the best record stores were run by people who were THERE. If the owner wasn't the one actually ringing up your purchase, then he/she was either wandering around yanking on pipes, or on the phone with a label, a distributor, or a customer...

These stores always had a funky character to them no matter how hard they tried to put on a slick and professional demeanor. They were the stores that always seemed to care a little more, like buying multiple copies of some L.A. punk band's record when they came to the store even though they knew they'd only ever sell one copy. 

These were the first stores to be displaced by the Tower Records locations with the football field-sized retail floors and insanely wide selections. Somehow, they keep chugging along, putting on a happy face until one day, BOOM, it's a Bad Breath & Beyond.

2. Wanna know the secret to life? Get to know your regional label reps. 

Those cats and kitties were PAID TO SCHMOOZE AND PARTY! I turned a shitty minimum wage record store clerk gig into free concert tickets, free promos, and easy entry into all kinds of industry meet & greets FOR YEARS after I quit that gig. I dunno if there is such a thing as a regional label rep anymore, but if you see one, tell 'em I said "Hi!"

3. For a time, even the mall record stores were cool.

Man, it just wasn't payday in the '70s without the family piling into the wood panel station wagon with NO seat belts and puttering on down to the mall. Back then, brick & mortar retail was all we had. The mall enabled us to shop for long stretches of time IN JANUARY!

Some malls came darn close to making you feel like you were in some tropical paradise, complete with respectable Musicland location that carried an inordinate amount of new wave and power pop for the area.

If not for them, where would we have bought our first Tubes and Fabulous Poodles records? Better yet, where would we have scored the hundreds of cut-out 77s tapes that we, in turn, sold back to the band, who were then able to sell at shows for what we can only presume was a LARGE mark-up in price?

But we digress.

4. If the store sells video games, just keep on walkin'.

You know the drill: Strip mall location, a cutesy name relating to music (Second Spin, CD Side Of Town, etc.), but, once inside, you see a bunch of gamers and comic book nerds.

Maybe you're on a business trip, full stomach from the sushi buffet, and you're craving a new musical purchase for the flight home. Before you open that door and step inside, just remember that if this store had anything you wanted, you'd have bought it the last time you stepped into such an establishment where Toad The Wet Sprocket and Third Eye Blind CD's go to die.

Try that Goodwill store across the street, maybe.

"Dang, shoulda held onto mine." 
5. Keep everything.

I have a friend whose sole income is derived from selling defunct retail memorabilia online. Part of that income is derived from selling old branded shopping bags like those you'd take home from Tower Records, Kmart, Ayr-Way or Marshall Field's.

So imagine how much they're getting from the promotional displays that regional label reps gave to the stores for free and that the store would either give to customer or chuck in the dumpster? Those very same displays now sell for over $250 a pop!

Monday, February 18, 2019

You Got Lucky: Revisiting Tom Petty's 'Long After Dark'!

From the release of their self-titled debut album album in 1976, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were a formidable presence on the rock scene. While the album was only a modest chart success, peaking at #55 on Billboard's Top 200, it seemed every other band had reason to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror after hearing the likes of "American Girl" and "Breakdown".

While it would have been foolish to admit such a thing publicly,.many artists felt it was only a matter of time before Petty and Co. would pass them by and, with the release of Damn The Torpedoes in late 1979, this became a reality.

The problem with making an album full of now-signature songs like "Refugee", "Even The Losers", "Here Comes My Girl", and "Don't Do Me Like That" is that the minute you show yourself capable of reaching such musical heights, you're immediately asked to do so again.

If that wasn't enough pressure, the success of Torpedoes had not only made Petty and the band an "A-List" commodity, it came with its own set of prices too.

Once Petty heard that MCA was set to charge fans an extra buck for his next record, the head Heartbreaker immediately voiced his concerns with the label. Showing just how much he'd learned from his previous run-in with MCA brass, a scarred but smarter Petty chose to bypass the courts and simply let the issue play out in the court of public opinion.

This time around, Petty had fame on his side and used every bit of it to drum up as much publicity as possible, leading to the now-legendary shot of Petty on the cover of Rolling Stone ripping a dollar bill in half.

MCA buckled and Hard Promises hit record store shelves in late spring of 1981 at the lower price of $7.98, with first single "The Waiting" blasting out of every radio station in the country.

While critics have long sung the album's praises, this fan of the band has always felt that Hard Promises sounded more like a collection of outtakes than an album that matches Torpedoes track for track, which might've been why Petty didn't want fans to have to pay more for the album.

While it was still a massive hit for the band, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" wound up going to Stevie Nicks while the far weaker of the two songs recorded during this collaboration, "Insider", landed on Hard Promises.

On the surface, Hard Promises is the sound of a potent rock & roll band letting off the gas. In that sense, it is an album too laid back for its own good. The urgency that propelled those first three albums is nowhere to be seen or heard. Even the album's cover shot, of Petty milling around a record store, seems like an afterthought.

Remove the album's first two songs from the equation ("The Waiting" and "A Woman In Love") and what you're left with is an album that feels more like a snapshot than a fully-realized painting.

Meanwhile, Long After Dark, the band's first album since the departure of founding member Ron Blair, would continue the band's hit-making ways, but at the expense of critical raves. Now, that might sound like a trivial thing, but for the very same critics who'd been fawning over Petty's previous work to become openly critical of a man did not go unnoticed.

Even as "You Got Lucky" and "Change Of Heart" became Top 40 hits, it seemed as if the band's attempt to update their sound by integrating synthesizers and drum loops was just a little too much for the purists. Mind you, these same people are always the first to criticize a band for sticking too close to a proven formula.

Back in those days, when you heard a great record, more times than not you'd be left pulling your hair over the choice of singles. With Petty, though, the cream of the crop on his last two records had been released as singles so there wasn't anyone track that should have been released as a single.

On Long After Dark, though, they pulled up stakes much sooner than they had to, leaving two potential smashes "Deliver Me" and "We Stand A Chance" to wither on the vine.

Those yearning to stray beyond the band's many well-worn hits should consider revisiting Long After Dark just to hear Benmont Tench's keyboards front and center while Mike Campbell pulls out the distortion pedal.

Little did we know that the band's yearning for new sounds would take them in even more surprising directions on 1985's Southern Accents.

While Long After Dark may not be the band's best album, it is far from deserving of the "clunker" tag many have bestowed upon it. In fact, it may be the band's most consistent effort post-Torpedoes.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Song Of The Day (Valentine's Day Edition): 45 Grave "Partytime"!

You know you're doing something right if the radio station DJ introducing your song admits to almost being fired the previous week for playing the song on their specialty punk and indie rock radio show, but that the number of calls the radio station had received asking to hear the song again had single-handedly saved his ass.

The DJ, whose name I can no longer remember, then went on to explain that, due to the disturbing nature of the song's lyrics, the station manager had strictly forbid him from playing the song before 2AM.

Noting that the time was now 2:05 and that I'd have to be getting ready for school in a few short hours and I had yet to catch a wink of sleep, I cranked up my radio and prepared to be dazzled.

The original version, complete with hilarious "backyard home movies" style video

In between annoying waves of static and interference from another station on the same frequency, I was finally able to hear 45 Grave's "Partytime" for the first time inits entirety and, tho this day, it remains one of the more visceral musical experiences of my life.

I had only managed to catch a snippet of the chorus the previous week before the static had taken over, yet I had still found myself singing the song's Top 40-worthy refrain almost non-stop.

Now that I was finally able to hear the entire song in all its gory glory, I quickly understood just why the station manager had thrown such a fit.

The re-recorded version that appeared in the zombie classic "Return of The Living Dead".

It would be another year or so before I would hear the song again - this time in the movie "Return of The Living Dead", which I had rented from the local Movie Hut on VHS.

Rather than continue renting the movie just to hear the song, I finally nabbed a copy of the movie soundtrack, only to realize that the lyrics on this version had been completely altered, even differing from the version that had been used in the actual movie.

Though the "zombiefied" lyrics remain largely unintelligible to these ears, I still remain convinced that this tune should have been a hit.

Sadly, the bands bassist Rob Graves passed away in 1990, ending the band's first run, but singer Dinah Cancer has revived the band and a second album, Pick Your Poison, was released on Frontier Records in 2012

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Husker P.U.? Revisiting Bob Mould's Divisive Electro Record 'Modulate'!

As rock critics line up in droves to shower steep praise upon the most accessible album of Bob Mould's career, Sunshine Rock, we at The Shit felt it might be more worthwhile to revisit the former Hüsker Dü guitarist's most ambitious and divisive effort, Modulate, an album that saw Mould ditch the guitars, drums, and backing band in favor of synths, samplers, and the almighty vocoder.

While the results left much to be desired, one had to hand it to Mould for going to such lengths to find inspiration after doing about as much as could be expected within the limitations of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums combo.

Like any musician who has spent a large amount of their time on the road playing the same songs each night, the last thing you want to do when you get home is fire up the guitar amp and make the same damn noise to a crowd consisting of the family cat.

One suspects that this is what led Mould to reach for a synthesizer instead of a Strat, at which point this legendary purveyor of punk found unexpected solace in the ability to create atmospheric songscapes without disturbing the neighbors.

For most artists, switching up their musical color palette brings out an entirely new way of crafting songs, but in Mould's case, the songs remain largely the same, but there is no longer a need to scream over a wall of guitars and drums, so Mould's vocals are able to take an a level of nuance otherwise unheard in his guitar-based music.

In fact, at times, Mould's vocals take on an almost Peter Gabriel-like quality that you wish he wasn't so intent on burying them in the mix, processing them with heavy effects, or running them through Autotune (GASP!).

Unlike, say, Trent Reznor's work with Nine Inch Nails wherein every sound is painstakingly tweaked until all traces of spontaneity have been removed, there is a chaotic quality to songs like "Sunset Safety Glasses" and "Semper Fi" that proves Mould's intent here is to recapture that immediacy and venom he originally found in punk rock.

By the midway point of the record, Mould can't resist picking up the guitar and giving perplexed fans a taste of the familiar on "Slay/Sway" and "The Receipt". Predictably, both songs comprise the album's high point.

"Quasar", "Soundonsound", and "Comeonstrong" continue in much the same vein, making you wonder if Mould's fascination with electronica seems to have run out of gas or if he's just trying to keep long-time fans engaged.

"Trade", a song that's been kicking around in Mould's "workbook" since 1987, finally sees the light of day here and masterfully bridges the gap between both worlds and cries out for release as a single. Truth be told, it ranks among the best work of his career so it is a bit of a shame to see it buried near the end of the record.

Album closer "Author's Lament" is a pulsating piano-based commentary on, we presume, the need for commerce-based institutions to pigeonhole artists for easy mass consumption. If this had been a Sugar tune, a line such as "Inside this box I spend most of my days" would have been lost in the onslaught of guitar. Here, however, it hangs in the air long enough for the meaning to be absorbed.

Just as the song seems to be building towards something resembling a climactic payoff, though, it begins fading out. In that sense, it is much like the album itself: Ambitious, soul-searching, and chaotic, but ultimately too timid to fully commit to complete reinvention.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Album Of The Year (Of The Week): Jessica Pratt 'Quiet Signs'!

Most albums that draw seemingly endless critical acclaim these days seem to do so based on what they are so it comes as a pleasant surprise to celebrate an artist who is remarkable for what she's not.

Jessica Pratt's third album, Quiet Signs, is being touted as her first to be recorded in an actual recording studio, but, upon listening, one almost wishes that it wasn't. After all, is a top-flight recording studio with an enviable SSL or Neve console and a bunch of pricey outboard gear really necessary to capture something this minimal and atmospheric?

If it had been recorded in Chicago, for example, you'd almost relish hearing the sound of a passing el train or the honk of a car just to break the hypnotic qualities of both Pratt's child-like voice and her serene guitar-playing.

Augmented only by piano and the sparsest of percussion, Pratt's songs recall Cocteau Twins at their most ethereal, with occasional musical nods to Cowboy Junkies and Nick Drake, yet such comparisons seem to fall short in fully capturing Pratt's ability to draw you in with the faintest of whispers.

Those hoping for a conventional record full of intricate arrangements and painstakingly layered instrumentation will be sorely disappointed, but those who have been hoping and waiting for a female Brian Eno armed only with an acoustic guitar might just have their prayers answered.

Having lived with this album for a week, I can assure you that you will not find yourself humming any of the tunes to yourself, for the melodies seem to scatter the more attention you attempt to pay to them, yet the minute you hit play, your pulse will quicken at the recognition of a favorite track.

That might be the oddest compliment this writer has ever paid to an artist, but, like I said, Pratt is remarkable for what she isn't and her songs are memorable for what they're not.

Delivering eight songs in less than thirty minutes, one thing the album isn't is overly precious or ambitious in its attempts to win you over. Pratt seems to be playing only to entertain herself and, if not for someone taking it upon themselves to present her music to the world, one imagines that that is exactly what she'd be doing and that it would suit her just fine.

Perhaps that's why listening to this album takes on an almost voyeuristic quality, at times.

Though we know she intended it to be heard, there is still something so intimate, so private about these songs that I almost hesitate to imagine what it might be like to see Pratt perform such songs live.

Do we clap afterwards and, if so, how loud?

Best KISS Album Of The 80s? Wendy O. Williams' 'W.O.W." Still Wows!

When most folks think of Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics these days, they tend to think of two things, both of which happened to be covered in whipped cream and electrical tape.

Sadly, lost in the spectacle of the band's highly visual live performances is the fact that the Plasmatics were one of the tightest units in all of rock. Even on their Ed Stasium-produced debut album, New Hope For The Wretched, the themes of world destruction and sexual longing may have been delivered with a crude simplicity, but the band's high-octane punk ferocity was executed with military precision.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the band's musical prowess that was making national headlines. 

Rather than make the same rapid-fire punk album again and again in hopes that the masses would eventually catch up, the Plasmatics chose their third album (and first for major label Capitol Records) as their platform for blurring the line between punk and metal once and for all.

By doing so, they reasoned, perhaps they could reach an audience that bridged both genres. To accomplish this meant working with a metal producer so they recruited Dieter Dierks, who had just produced the Scorpions' U.S. breakthrough Blackout, featuring the hit single "No One Like You".

The resulting album, Coup d'Etat, was a metallic K.O. of fist-pounding bravado featuring such should-be metal anthems as "Put Your Love In Me" and "Rock & Roll", not to mention a fiery version of Motorhead's "No Class". Despite glowing reviews from the metal press, Capitol got cold feet and killed all promotion, hanging both the band and the album out to dry in the midst of a U.S. tour with Kiss.

By this time, Gene Simmons had expressed his interest in producing the next Plasmatics record, but the band's relationship with Capitol was on its last legs. This did little to deter Simmons' interest, as he'd been trying to build a name for himself as a producer since his days working with a then-unsigned Van Halen.

While his intentions then had been to lure a young Eddie Van Halen into the Kiss fold as a replacement for Ace Frehley, one had to wonder what his motives were in producing Williams' record.

Even so, Simmons' dedication to the project far outstretched the available budget, as the album was recorded before any record deal had been secured. This was proven by his decision to not only bring in current Kiss members Paul Stanley and Eric Carr, but also Ace Frehley and Vinnie Vincent as well as co-writing more than half of the album's songs.

One of those songs, the Simmons-Stanley penned "It's My Life", would become the album's sole single.

What's most notable about the album is William's vocals, which bear a striking resemblance to late '80s "I Hate Myself For Loving You"-era Joan Jett while the music is straight-up Lick it Up-era Kiss.

It was obvious that the intent here was to take Wendy O. Williams mainstream and on the power ballad (!) "Opus In Cm7", Williams' voice sizzles with a subtlety and warmth that no Plasmatics album even came close to hinting at, leaving this writer wondering how the song escaped being released as a single.

35 years after its initial release, W.O.W. stands as not only the most mature album of Williams' storied career, but the one project that should have brought her at least some inkling of commercial success. At the very least, it remains arguably the best Kiss album of the '80s, if not also the best faux-Joan Jett record of the same period.