Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Julian Cope,
Psychedelic Revolution

Celebrating Julian Cope, born on this day in 1957.Ed.

Rock and revolution have always made for odd bedfellows. The MC5 talked a good game, but did mostly nothing, which is more than you can say for The Clash, whose revolution consisted mostly of wearing camouflage pants. And what is one to make of Revolution Girl Style Now or that risible exercise in self-congratulatory futility, DC’s Revolution Summer? They all neglected Mao’s dictum that “Revolution grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and achieved nothing, and I bring all this up because Julian Cope, the so-called “Archdrude” and former front man of The Teardrop Explodes, has spent his recent albums musing about revolution.

Cope, whom I would call a Renaissance Man if Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu founded the Renaissance in question, has written numerous songs with revolutionary themes. But in Cope’s case, the question lies in whether he is endorsing revolution or critiquing it. Or whether he’s ambivalent on the issue, in the same way that John Lennon was when he sang both “count me in” and “out” in the slow version of “Revolution.” In some cases Cope seems to endorse violent revolution; in others, he seems to see it as a sort of organized suicide cult, an idea he co-opted from Black Panther ideologue Huey Newton, who entitled his 1973 autobiography Revolutionary Suicide.

In any event, Cope dedicates side one of his 2012 LP Psychedelic Revolution to Cuba’s revolutionary martyr to Che Guevara, and side two to Leila Khaled, the airplane hijacker and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. So he obviously has some sympathy for the notion of violent revolution, but is he really advocating it? Or just playing revolutionary like the folks in the previous paragraph?

On Psychedelic Revolution Cope at some points seems to be saying that the revolution must be one of the mind, and in one song replaces Mao’s gun with a mass dosing of the population with LSD. He says lots more than that—he’s a chatty fellow, and infuriatingly knowledgeable—but in the end his beliefs are inscrutable, or perhaps simply too complex to communicate on a single LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Anthology: Through
the Years

Remembering Tom Petty, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

The death of Tom Petty was a seismic event. People were in tears; my girlfriend called to break the sad news and she was, and there’s no other way to say it, heartbroken. I was heartbroken. Death is not a competition or a game, but offhand I can only think of a few other rock’n’rollers whose deaths might be more traumatic for all of us, and they answer to the names Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger, and Richards.

From his eponymous 1976 debut until now Tom Petty (both with and without his backing band the Heartbreakers) produced enough great songs to fill a small jukebox, and their genius lies in their simplicity. Petty was a no-frills hit maker with an unerring ability to set a timeless sentiment to a great hook, and this lack of overweening ambition—Petty was never restlessly experimental or conceptual in the way Pete Townshend or Neil Young can be—often led people to underrate his unique skill set. He was dedicated to the production of great rock songs, not cosmic statements, and in this respect he was just as old school as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. And he continued to produce great songs for a longer period of time than any of them and almost anybody period, Bruce Springsteen excepted.

Petty was that rarest of rarities, a truly likeable rock star—and I think this is why we all feel so bereft—because he spoke to us from the heart. There was nothing aloof or coldly intellectual or calculating about his music. He was an incurable romantic—sometimes cynical, sure, and sometimes angry, but often tender—and his subject was universal: Love. He knew the heart is a fragile vessel and on most of the songs on 2000’s Anthology: Through the Years—and I’m not just thinking of such well-known tunes as “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’” but also of less-played songs like “The Best of Everything” and the stoical “It’ll All Work Out”—he wore it on his sleeve. Like Roy Orbison, he was a kind of patron saint of the brokenhearted. And no one but Orbison could so effortlessly evoke the pain of love gone wrong.

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Graded on a Curve: Wanda Jackson,
There’s a Party Goin’ On

Celebrating Wanda Jackson, born on this day in 1937.Ed.

When it comes to vocalists—male, female, whale, Sasquatch, you name it—it’s hard to top Wanda “The Queen of Rockabilly” Jackson. For a couple of years at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s Jackson recorded a bunch of truly hair-raising vocal performances that generated every bit as much feral excitement and raw sexual energy as the ones being recorded by Elvis Presley (whom she dated for a brief spell), Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. The very much alive Jackson possesses vocal cords made of barbed wire, and has never met a tempo—most of them played back in the day with lethal intensity by a relatively unsung young guitar slinger named Roy Clark—so raucous she couldn’t rein it in. And she can yodel up a storm, too.

There were other women singing rockabilly during its golden age; Janis Martin, for example, who was unfortunate enough to have the moniker “the Female Elvis” hung around her neck like an albatross. But Martin had a more staid vocal style that came up short in the barbaric yawp department, and for the most part the same goes for Lorrie Collins of novelty act the Collins Kids, who had her moments of inspiration (check out her wonderfully frenzied take on “Mercy”) but who rarely roamed into the realm of the possessed. Jackson was a full-grown woman and her voice was a force of nature in 1961, and still is; just listen to the 73-year-old Jackson kick up a rockin’ ruckus out on such raunch’n’roll numbers as “Shakin’ All Over” and “Rip It Up” on 2011’s Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over if you have any doubts about the matter.

On 1961’s There’s a Party Goin’ On Jackson was at the peak of her rockabilly powers and poised to go country, which was the smart move for an Oklahoma City girl with country music in her veins after the rockabilly craze went belly up. With her band the Party Timers, Jackson—who declared herself the first woman to put “glamour into country music” with her fringe dresses, high heels, and long earrings—jumped, wailed, and growled, and the best tracks on There’s a Party Goin’ On are every bit as crazy, daddy-o as those produced by Elvis, Gene, Little Richard, etc.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Doobie Brothers, Best of the Doobies

Celebrating Patrick Simmons, born on this day in 1948.Ed.

I saw the Doobie Brothers live a long, long, time ago. It was an afternoon show at a suburban amphitheater, and I smoked a shitload of what I thought was pot but turned out to be PCP. And before long all the Doobies were 9-feet-tall and changing colors like chameleons, and played every single song at about 300 mph, in effect inventing hardcore. Or at least that’s how I remember it. That PCP was some good shit. I recommend it to everybody.

Nobody pays much attention to the Doobies nowadays, except to laugh at them. I know I laugh at them; I can’t even hear their name without cracking up. They were, even during their heyday, the least hip and most faceless big-name act in rock, and since then they’ve become the punch line to a joke that goes something like, “Why did the Doobie Brothers cross the road? To get away from the Doobie Brothers.”

Unhip and faceless the Doobs may have been, but back in the day they were big—scary big, in fact—with rock’s protletarian audiences (i.e., the same folks who loved BTO, Grand Funk, etc.). This can be attributed to one of two things. Either The Doobie Brothers were a pretty decent rock’n’roll band, or the musical wasteland of the early to mid-seventies left rock fans so hard up they were reduced to lapping up all manner of crapulous corporate swill, including the Dööbiemeisters.

I may be the only one, but I think it’s high time for a reassessment of the Doobie Brothers. And since their career was so neatly bifurcated into pre- and post-Michael McDonald periods, I decided it would be only fair to review 1976’s Best of the Doobies, which while skewed toward the band’s earlier work includes two McDonald-era songs, although it omits (because they were, duh, released later) such McDonald hits as “What a Fool Believes” and “Minute by Minute.”

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Graded on a Curve: Chuck Berry,
The Definitive Collection

Remembering Chuck Berry, born on this day in 1926.Ed.

The passing of Chuck Berry—whose contributions to rock’n’roll surpass those of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, hell Jerry Lee Lewis even—is a sad event for anybody who has ever fallen in love with the sound of a Gibson ES-350T. Berry did more than just produce many of the most iconic songs of rock’n’roll, he was instrumental in the invention of rock’n’roll itself, which makes him more important than Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers put together. And you can toss Johannes Gutenberg onto the pile if you want.

Berry had it all. Mad songwriting skills that focused on teen culture, a great voice, a unique approach to playing the guitar, and a mastery of stagecraft that is best exemplified by his famous duck walk. How influential was Berry? Well, John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” And none other than Bob Dylan pronounced Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.”

All of that said, you would think it’d be easy to find a great compilation of Berry’s best songs. Not so. Some of the massive compilations—such as 1988’s The Chess Box, 2000’s The Anthology, 2007’s Johnny B. Goode/His Complete ‘50s Chess Recordings, and the compilations of his post-peak Chess Records years are freighted with either numerous alternative takes and filler or both—which is fine if you’re the type of person who loves outtakes and filler, which I’m not—while others inexplicably omit songs I simply can’t live without.

Take the 1982 Chess Records compilation The Great Twenty-Eight, for example. It includes most of the songs Berry is best remembered for, and omits to include the embarrassingly infantile “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I simply find it impossible to forgive the omission of “You Never Can Tell,” which is perhaps my favorite Berry song.

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Graded on a Curve: Metallica, Metallica

People often ask me “Mike, what’s your grudge with Metallica? And why did you throw them out of your house then sic your Chihuahua on them after paying their cabby to skedaddle to Peoria, leaving them to run two miles down a creepy country road to the nearest house, whose owner just happens to have the tri-state area’s largest collection of chainsaws and hockey masks?”

“I don’t know,” I reply. “It could be the football tough meatloaf they brought as a housewarming gift. Or the way they always refer to themselves in the third person. ‘Metallica loves your sofa throw cushions.’ ‘Metallica really likes what you’ve done with the breakfast nook.’ And let’s not forget ‘Metallica is wondering if those blueberry muffins are homemade.'” Which really pisses me off. If Metallica wants a blueberry muffin, Metallica should just come out and ask.

But I have more important reasons, which I’ll get to after saying I felt really guilty for nearly have them sawed into convenient-to-eat pieces. It certainly had nothing to do with the fact that Metallica were instrumental in the development of thrash metal. It’s as if they’d said, “Metal’s great and all, but it would be even greater if we turned it into a funny car.” In short they combined metal’s massive tonnage with punk velocity, and ended up with a Tyrannosaurus Rex capable of running the fifty-yard dash in six seconds flat.

Given this stupendous accomplishment–and stupendous achievement it is–I decided to invite the foursome back to my place to apologize and explain the reasons for my inexcusable behavior. Surprising, the band accepted my invitation. (They’re very nice guys.) Which is how Metallica ended up sitting on my couch eating blueberry muffins while I sat across from them with my Caligula of a Chihuahua sitting sphinxlike on my lap, silently baring his fangs.

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Graded on a Curve: Angel,
Helluva Band

Celebrating Frank Dimino on his 70th birthday.Ed.

My favorite story about Angel, Washington, DC’s glammed-out, all-white spandex retort to Kiss, which seemed poised for superstardom in the mid-seventies (giant billboards on the Sunset Strip, selection by the readers of Circus magazine as the Best New Group of 1976, and tours of the great American arena circuit with the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, and Rush) is pure Spinal Tap.

The band, with some major financial backing from Casablanca Records mogul Neil Bogart, had developed one of the most elaborate stage shows in rock, a fantasia of smoke, magic, and mirrors that led one wag to suggest that the band might be better off staying home and sending its props on the road. One gimmick involved the band appearing magically on stage one by one in puffs of smoke, to be introduced by the face on the giant Angel logo—which none other than Ian MacKaye pointed out to me is ambigrammatic, meaning it reads the same when turned upside down as when viewed normally—that served as the band’s backdrop.

One night, as Punky Meadows, Angel’s guitarist and the most androgynous pretty boy in a band full of androgynous pretty boys, told me: “Of course, all we were doing was coming up through trapdoors from beneath the stage. Well, one night, the big talking head introduces [drummer] Mickie Jones, and Mickie isn’t there. We’re looking at each like, ‘Where the fuck’s Mickie?’ Turns out his trapdoor got stuck. And all those stoned kids in the audience are going [Meadows sucks on an imaginary joint], ‘That’s really weird, man…'”

Angel was ahead of its time as a hair metal band, but while publicity photos featuring Meadows sporting hair the females of the era would have died for and a pout that put Scarlett Johansson’s to shame helped increase Angel’s popularity amongst certain sectors—predominantly teenage girls—it didn’t win them any points with critics.

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Graded on a Curve:
X-Ray Spex,
Germfree Adolescents

Anyone who thinks the first wave of English punk was an all-lads affair has never listened to X-Ray Spex. Band vocalist and songwriter Poly Styrene spit as much bile as anyone, but she came at it from a woman’s point of view; the famed first words out of her mouth on the band’s 1977 debut single were “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/But I think… oh bondage up yours!” And from there on X-Ray Spex one-upped most of the bands in punk’s boys’ club. And they did it with the assistance of a very unpunk instrument, the saxophone.

X-Ray Spex were self-described “deliberate underachievers,” which helps explain why they only released four excellent singles and one album, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents. (Almost two decades later they released a second album, 1995’s Conscious Consumer, but I’ll be damned if I’ll count it.)

The only problem with Germfree Adolescents is it doesn’t include the singles, which include “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” This is a serious omission, but Caroline Records corrected things in 1991, when they re-released Germfree Adolescents with singles included. Who says record labels are all spawn of the devil?

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that X-Ray Spex didn’t receive the same acclaim as their as their contemporaries because they were fronted by a woman unafraid to express her opinions and keep up with the boys, Punk—and later hardcore—were primarily the preserves of the males of the species, although X’s Exene Cervenka certainly held her own.

Styrene, same deal; one listen to that thick accent and the band’s pure punk thrust belies any such prejudices. And anyone who doubts the band’s ferocity need only listen to 1977’s Live at the Roxy (which wasn’t released until 1991) and the band’s 2008 reunion LP Live @ the Roundhouse London—one of the small handful of reunion LPs I’ve ever loved.

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Graded on a Curve: Nazareth,
Hair of the Dog

Celebrating Dan McCafferty on his 75th birthday.Ed.

The Scottish clods o’ peat in this hard-working, hard-rocking man’s man band never won any originality awards, and weren’t exactly well-versed in the songwriting arts either, and given their high scunge factor, I doubt they’d even be allowed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as paying customers, much less as inductees.

They’re not going to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame anytime soon, either. Hell, they only hit two homers over the course of their long career, and their lifetime batting average is in the .233 range. Forget about Cooperstown; these guys would be lucky to earn a spot on the bench of the 1962 New York Mets.

But I’ll say this for ‘em–way back in 1975 every badass or wannabe badass in my home town was blaring Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog out of their car 8-track speakers, whether that car be a GTO or a rusted-out Ford Pinto. The title track–with its “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch”–was a blast of pure unbridled belligerence and without a doubt the orneriest cut of the summer, hell the whole year probably. Alice Cooper may have put out “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but that was play acting; Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty came on like the Real McCoy.

As for the album title, me and my buddies prided ourselves on knowing what it meant even though we’d never cracked a beer (much less suffered a hangover) in our lives–it made us feel adult, worldly even, just as that “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch” made us feel tough, when in effect we were probably the wimpiest band of geeks to ever gingerly trod the halls of Littlestown High School, on the lookout for the real sons of bitches.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mike + The Mechanics, Living Years

I know who I won’t be going to for an ear alignment. Mike + the Mechanics, who in 1985 opened a commercially successful pop music chop shop at the intersection of Vapid Avenue and Mediocrity Street. Their specialty? Shiny but generic songs guaranteed to fall out of vogue as listeners find shinier generic songs to spend their money on. Naturally, Mike’s songs come without a warranty. The best you can do is park them in your garage until nostalgia brings them into vogue again. Let us hope this never happens.

Mike + the Mechanics—whose 1988 sophomore LP Living Years is the subject of our horrified scrutiny—are one of those bands that get labeled a supergroup when in fact there isn’t a single superstar in their lineup. The group’s only “star”—and that’s debatable– is long-time Genesis bass player Mike Rutherford. When asked to name members of Genesis your average music fan will likely say Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins; when asked to name the band’s bass player they’ll likely “I don’t know, but if he played on Abacab he has no scruples.”

Mike + the Mechanics’ other so-called stars are vocalists Paul “The Man with the Golden Voice” Carrack and Paul Young. Both are highly respected by fellow musicians who know about such things, but neither ever fronted a band of note. Keyboard player Adrian Lee is a master’s level trivia question. Drummer Peter Van Hooke’s mother has ever heard of him.

You may not know the band’s members, but if you’ve ever visited a supermarket, you know their soaring ballad “Living Years.” It’s one of those swelling anthems along the lines of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and like the Foreigner song, it comes complete with an uplifting school choir. If you’re not uplifted, you’re Pol Pot. Needless to say, “Living Years” topped the Billboard charts. No one wants to be Pol Pot.

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Graded on a Curve:
Kool and the Gang,
Wild and Peaceful

Celebrating Robert “Kool” Bell, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

Funky stuff—and even more funky stuff—that’s what Kool and the Gang have on offer on 1973’s party manifesto Wild and Peaceful. Just how funky is this LP? Well, my copy has its very own musk, and I had an enormously difficult time with this review because I just couldn’t stop toprocking long enough to write it. From the whistle that sounds at the beginning of opening track “Funky Stuff” you know things are going to get wild, and they do. They do.

I’m familiar with Kool and the Gang thanks to Top 40 radio, which played both “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” with wonderful regularity when I was but a young sprout. And how I loved them! A naysayer might interject that neither tune rises to the pure badassness of P-Funk, but said naysayer would be missing the point. Both of them were like nothing else on the radio at the time—their chanted vocals, fierce horn charts, rubbery grooves, and sheer funky strangeness (love roadie turned lead singer Don Boyce’s maniacal lip blubber on “Jungle Boogie”!) were sui generis, baby. They could almost have been novelty tunes, and perhaps in fact they were, but if so the novelty never wore off and never will.

Robert “Kool” Bell and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” was without a doubt the funkiest song to ever hit this adolescent honky cat’s ears; toss in some cool guitar scratch, a relentless groove, and some truly deranged vocals and what you have is a song for the ages. “Hollywood Swinging” is a subtler beast; in it’s unique way it presages Kool and the Gang’s subsequent shift towards disco, but it possesses a sophistication—so many layered voices and sounds, such a cool guitar, and check out those horns!—that most disco tunes lacked.

As for “Funky Stuff” and “More Funky Stuff” they’re more primal and closer to the bone—this is the kind of music you’d want to hear in a sweaty club in the nasty part of town, high on gin and juice and the sheer joy of Saturday night. No real lyrics, per se, just lots of nonsense syllables and interjections. And lots of truly funky guitar by band co-founder Clay Smith, who on “More Funky Stuff” hangs on to the same notes for almost the first two minutes just because he feels like it, goddamn it.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run

What are we to make of 1976’s Long May You Run by long-time frenemies Stephen Stills and Neil Young? The duo clashed egos in Buffalo Springfield. After the demise of that band, Stills—perhaps in the throes of amnesia—talked Young into joining CS&N, where they went at it tooth and nail again. Then, and this was a pure case of folie a deux, the two men decided to get together yet again to record this collaborative album. THEN, and this is where things get really weird, Young abruptly quit the tour prior to the album’s release by means of a telegram reading “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.” Long May You Run isn’t an album; it’s rock’s equivalent of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, with the exception that neither dictator could have told you the difference between a Stratocaster and Stalingrad.

And that’s not even the whole story, which is complicated by an act of rank duplicity. David Crosby and Graham Nash participated in the sessions in the belief that the finished product would be a CSN&Y reunion LP. But when Crosby and Nash split town (Miami in this case) Stills and Young excised their former bandmates’ contributions from the LP, which might well have led to folk rock gang violence had Nash not been softie and Crosby so drug-addled he’d released an album entitled If Only I Could Remember My Name. One gets the idea that the only reason Crosby kept Nash around was to tell him who he was.

The first thing to be said about Long May You Run is it’s not a collaborative effort at all. There are no dual credits along the lines of Lennon/McCartney or Richards/Jagger and none of the songs on the LP sound as if they were the combined efforts of both men. Young’s five contributions sound like prototypical Young songs and are credited as such; Stills’ contributions sound like prototypical Stills songs and are also credited as such. Which is hardly surprising given they wrote very different sorts of songs and weren’t collaborative types to begin with.

Given these facts it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the two men sequestered themselves in separate studios, recorded their songs with little or no input from the other, then slapped the results on Long May You Run. The two of them may have gotten together on occasion, but it was probably outside the studio’s rear door to hiss at one another while fighting over a joint.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Mellencamp,

Celebrating John Mellencamp on his 70th birthday.Ed.

I’ve always liked John Mellencamp. Sure, I’ve been known to call him the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, but I mean it as a compliment. I’m all for the poor man. Anyway, what I’ve always liked the most about the fellow who started out calling himself John Cougar is that he’s a curmudgeon. Mellencamp casts a gimlet eye at such things as Hope and the American Dream and smirks because he knows they fall short. He understands that our forefathers talked about the Pursuit of Happiness, but were wise enough to remain mum about the possibility of ever catching the slippery fucker. Mellencamp is no dreamer. He sees what he sees and he’s not happy about it.

Take “Jack and Diane.” You can call it hokum, a clichéd look at growing up horny in the heartland of America and all that, but its core message (“Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone”) is as dark as anything dished out by the likes of Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. Mr. Mellencamp is most certainly not out to sell fairy tales.

On 1982’s Uh-Huh, Mellencamp cynically lets us know that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods that has landed us in cookie-cutter pink houses in the spiritually dead suburbs, that you can fight the law but will never win, that in the end you’ll trade in your dreams for a warmer place to sleep, and there ain’t no golden gates gonna swing open, not in this life. The last refers to “Golden Gates,” a truly beautiful and anthemic ode that almost contains a strain of hope, when Mellencamp sings, “Only promises I know to be true/Are promises made from the heart.”

But aside from “Golden Gates” and “Jackie O,” a love song and collaborative effort with John Prine that is sweet and slow and is driven by some wonderfully simple Holiday Inn lounge keyboards (or vibes, I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference), the LP is knock-down, stripped to the basics, gut-bucket rock ’n’r oll. And to make things even better, the songs never fail to boast catchy melodies.

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Graded on a Curve:
REO Speedwagon,
You can Tune a piano,
but you can’t Tuna fish.

Celebrating Kevin Cronin on his 70th birthday.Ed.

I love this album, you most likely loathe this album, and you know what? I don’t give a shit! Feel free to mock this 1978 classic for its stupid title and awful cover, and even to hold your nose at the music contained within said cover, but be aware that proud know-nothings such as yours truly simply laugh at such criticism before drowning it out with the totally brilliant opening track, “Roll with the Changes.”

I’ll be the first to admit You can Tune a piano… isn’t the perfect album. The perfect REO album would include such earlier gems as “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” “Keep Pushin’,” “Anti Establishment Man,” and–it goes without saying–”Prison Women,” which includes such immortal poesy as “Like tears to a mouse, a biting to a clam” and “Life from limping eyes, yeah.” And how could I have forgotten “Light Up,” which is actually a Styx song but who’s counting?

You can Tune a piano… was the Champlain, Illinois band’s seventh LP in as many years, and it was the one that answered the question, “If this bunch of journeymen hacks really insists upon sucking, why can’t they at least sell a few records while they’re at it?” The critics hated ‘em; hell, even the rare plaudits they did receive were back-handed ones at best. “Pioneers of AOR schlock-rock schlock-pop,” Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau called them, and I think he meant it as a compliment.

But populist types like this guy knew better. Sure, their albums were uneven–a fate shared by You can Tune a piano… –but they all showed glimmers of originality; say what you will about the hard-charging “Roll with the Changes,” it’s anything but your hard rock same old same old. On it Gary Richrath lets loose on guitar, Neil Doughty struts his stuff on Hammond organ, and vocalist Kevin Cronin almost doesn’t sound like a pussy, and it evokes images of the band as entertainers on a 19th Mississippi riverboat, say the one in Herman Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence Man. Although I suspect that’s just me.

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Graded on a Curve:
Hunting High and Low

What’s that fetid stench? A-ha! It’s this album! It smells like sixty pounds of rotting porbeagle! Fumigate the damn thing! Then fumigate the stereo! Hell, fumigate the whole house! And while you’re doing it, ask yourself this—what have we ever done to Norway to deserve this?

Hailing from beautiful Oslo, the capital of the Lake of the Midnight Sun, this frigid synthpop trio did the seemingly impossible—made fellow Scandinavians ABBA look like an R&B act. But A-Ha’s lack of human warmth wasn’t their biggest problem As their 1985 debut LP Hunting High and Low demonstrates, the band’s music was generic and could have been produced by any number of synthpop bands whose songs sound the same to me. Put them in a police line-up with their synthpop contemporaries and you’d be out of luck. Flock of Seagulls, different story—that stupid haircut would give them away.

But to kids coming of age in the mid-’80s—especially those of the female demographic—Scandinavia’s favorite sons were more than synthesizer knob twiddlers and drum and bass programmers—they had personality. Sex symbols in fact, due to their good looks and vocalist Morten Harket’s ability to sound like someone whose big romantic heart has just been shattered into a million pieces. They were also real clothes horses and had that mid-’80s pretty boy look down flat. They owned that damn look.

Look, I lied when I said they have less soul than ABBA. Actually, the opposite is true. You can detect a smidgeon of soul in Harket’s yearning vocals, though I suspect he has to be injected with a drop or two of Marvin Gaye’s blood before he opens his mouth. What Harket produces, the more I think about it, is a plastic reproduction of David Bowie’s plastic soul, which puts you at two moves from the real thing. Whether that’s fascinating or cause for mass panic is yours to decide.

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