Sweet dreams are made of this

With each passing year, I grow fonder and fonder of the songs and albums I grew up with.  This is no surprise, and a common phenomenon for nearly everyone, regardless of 5f65bd9195fc80cb58d86ea1b21d7470age.  The music we listened to when we were young — roughly from age 13 to 30 — made the deepest impressions and forged the most lasting memories.

Problem is, though, if you turn to radio stations which purport to play music of your era, they play the same 50 songs OVER AND OVER AND OVER.  You like Led Zeppelin?  All you’ll hear are the same five tracks, despite the fact there are many dozens of superb tunes in their repertoire.  The same holds true for any band you name.  So many lost classics out there, waiting to be exhumed!

That’s where Hack’s Back Pages comes in.  This is the 11th installment of my periodic visits to the hidden treasures to be found on the LPs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Readers tell me they love these forays into our collective past, so I hope you enjoy this week’s batch.  As usual, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can listen as you read.

Rock on, music lovers!

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 “Dance on a Volcano,” Genesis, 1976

genesis_trickfIn 1975, when Genesis vocalist/frontman Peter Gabriel announced he was leaving at the end of its “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” tour, many observers figured it would be the end of the group.  Gabriel’s distinctive voice and stage presence were arguably the most important audio and visual elements of the band’s success.  Granted, keyboardist Tony Banks, guitarist Steve Hackett, bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins were all superb musicians who contributed mightily to the songwriting and arrangements… but who would sing?  As the story goes, they apparently auditioned nearly 200 vocalists (!) before they found the answer right in their own back yard.  Phil Collins, it turned out, had the uncanny ability to sound a lot like Gabriel, especially in the studio, where they came up with an astounding transitional LP, “A Trick of the Tail,” featuring eight songs of fantasy/progressive rock much like the stuff they’d been churning out with Gabriel.  The excellent opening track, “Dance on a Volcano,” is perhaps the best example of this Genesis 2.0 model, which had a shelf life of about five years before a much more commercially oriented Genesis 3.0 version took over around 1980.

“Out in the Country,” Three Dog Night, 1970

R-4004954-1354101218-7866.jpegPerhaps my favorite song from the Three Dog Night catalog is this pretty piece from their “It Ain’t Easy” LP in the fall of 1970.  This group was famous for recording tunes written by other notable composers, from Harry Nilsson (“One”) and Randy Newman (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) to Laura Nyro (“Eli’s Comin'”) and Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World”).  “Out in the Country,” which reached #15 on the singles chart, was no exception — it was written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, known for white-bread commercial fare like The Carpenters’ hits “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays,” as well as another 3DN song, “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song.”  The track was the group’s only hit that featured unison vocals instead of featuring one lead vocalist.  Its lyrics, which cry for concern for the environment, are every bit as relevant today as we face new threats to the planet’s future:  “Before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot on the nighttime…”

“Rehumanize Yourself,” Police, 1981

Ghost_In_The_Machine_coverSlickly produced and full of diverse, engaging songs, The Police’s “Ghost in the Machine” continued the British band’s commercial success and musical evolution as one of the top artists of the early Eighties.  The group maintained the foothold in punk and reggae they’d been featuring since their 1977 debut, but this album was more New Wave, introducing synthesizers and even horns to the mix.  Hits included the catchy “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Spirits in the Material World,” but just as intriguing were deep tracks like “Secret Journey,” “Darkness, “One World” and my favorite, the uptempo “Rehumanize Yourself.”  They would go on to rule the airwaves and the charts two years later with their final LP, “Synchronicity,” before songwriter/singer Sting headed out for a long solo career.

“Echoes of Love,” Doobie Brothers, 1977

R-808765-1324219197.jpegIn 1976, medical conditions caused singer-guitarist-songwriter Tom Johnston to withdraw from the band he had formed six years earlier.  To replace him, the Doobies recruited Steely Dan background vocalist Michael McDonald, who turned out to be a pretty decent songwriter as well, although his stuff was markedly different from Johnston’s rock ‘n roll boogie.  The Doobies began a new phase in their career with “Takin’ It to the Streets,” a solid album with one Johnston song amidst a half dozen McDonald-led numbers.  Throughout all of this, there was always another vital piece of the band’s sound:  singer-songwriter-guitarist Patrick Simmons, who had been responsible for tunes like “Black Water,” “South City Midnight Lady,” “Toulouse Street” and others.  On the 1977 LP “Livin’ on the Fault Line,” Simmons shines brightly on his outstanding song “Echoes of Love,” with McDonald on harmonies and the venerable California band sounding as tight as ever.

“Car on a Hill,” Joni Mitchell, 1974

220px-CourtandsparkWhat a marvelous track from a perfect album!  Together with the live “Miles of Aisles” LP that followed it, “Court and Spark” was Mitchell’s high-water mark commercially — both albums went Top Five — but she soon tired of “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song” and began writing and recording with top-flight jazz artists through the rest of the ’70s.  Joni is one of only a handful of songwriters whose lyrics and music are of equally fine caliber.  In particular, “Car on a Hill” has a fabulous melody and arrangement, and the words do a beautiful job of describing the angst of waiting by the window for the unfaithful lover’s car that never comes:  “He said he’d be over three hours ago… Now where in the city can that boy be?, waitin’ for a car, climbin’, climbin’, climbin’ the hill…”

“Go Back Home,” Stephen Stills (with Eric Clapton), 1970

converted PNM fileAfter the implosion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the summer of 1970, each went off to make solo LPs, although they made guest appearances on each others’ albums.  Stills had headed to London to record with a broad array of musicians, including the legendary Jimi Hendrix, who added guitar on “Old Times Good Times” only a month before his death.  More impressive, however, was the contribution from Eric Clapton, who offered up a scorching performance on the second half of Stills’ mid-tempo shuffle “Go Back Home,” arguably one of Clapton’s best guest solos.  (It was recorded at the same session that produced “Let It Rain” and “After Midnight” for Clapton’s solo debut LP that same year.)  You need to crank up this one!

“All the Things She Said,” Simple Minds, 1985

811ilns8qeL._SY355_One of England’s greatest bands of the 80s and ’90s got its start in the late ’70s but didn’t have much success on the UK charts until their fourth album in 1981, when they began a string of seven Top Five albums (including three #1 LPs) through 1995.  Here in the US, their impact was far more brief.  They contributed the huge #1 hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to the John Hughes teen comedy classic “The Breakfast Club” in early 1985, and followed that with a Top Ten charting for their “Once Upon a Time” LP, spawning two big hits, “Alive and Kicking” (#3) and “Sanctify Yourself” (#14).  It was the third single, “All the Things She Said” (which managed only #28), that always struck my fancy.  Lead singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, the band’s chief songwriting team, really hit their stride with this album, but I never understood why the next several Simple Minds releases (1989’s “Street Fighting Years,” 1991’s “Real Life” and 1995’s Good News From the Next World”) stiffed in the US, because they’re full of excellent material in the same vein as “Once Upon a Time.”

“Gypsy,” Moody Blues, 1969

to-our-childrens-childrens-children-52e2cfad3b928It should have happened about 20 years ago, but the great Moody Blues were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.  So much great music from these pioneers of British progressive rock, especially the seven albums they released in the 1967-1972 period.  Their fourth LP, 1969’s “To Our Children’s Children’s Children,” had no hit singles, but charted high on the album charts (#2 in the UK, #14 in the US).  Released shortly after the moon landing, the album explored the cosmic themes of space travel and children, and the legacy of the human race.  The standout track for me was “Gypsy,” yet another amazing song by the consistent singer/guitarist Justin Hayward, who wrote the vast majority of their better known tunes.

“Caroline,” Jefferson Starship, 1974

51BV9ZCDDTL._SY355_Singer/songwriter Marty Balin formed the Jefferson Airplane in 1965 in San Francisco when he met up with guitarist/singer Paul Kantner, and with the addition of Grace Slick, they became household names in the late ’60s as voices of the counterculture.  But the group crashed and burned in 1972, with Balin bailing out when Kantner kept advocating his wild-eyed sci-fi/fantasy themes.  By 1974, Kantner and Slick had teamed with new instrumentalists and re-introduced themselves as Jefferson Starship.  “Dragonfly,” their first LP with that lineup, was a delicious surprise, highlighted by great stuff like “Ride the Tiger,” “That’s For Sure” and “All Fly Away.”  The sleeper track, though, was “Caroline,” written and sung by none other than Balin, who was coaxed to participate.  It’s a gorgeous power ballad, actually better than the huge hit “Miracles” he wrote for the “Red Octopus” #1 LP the following year.

“Why Must I,” ‘Til Tuesday, 1988

93864-everythings-different-nowSinger-songwriter Aimee Mann was the primary talent behind the ’80s alt-rock group ‘Til Tuesday, who emerged out of Boston in 1985 with the LP and Top Ten single “Voices Carry.”  They lasted for two more albums before Mann headed out on her own in 1992.  I always thought ‘Til Tuesday’s second and third LPs — “Welcome Home” (1986) and “Everything’s Different Now” (1988) — were very underrated.  “Coming Up Close” and “What About Love” made modest dents in the singles charts, but there were eight or ten other strong songs worthy of attention.  My favorite was “Why Must I” from the 1988 LP, which features a catchy melody, inventive arrangement and great performance by Mann and her band.

“With You There to Help Me,” Jethro Tull, 1970

cover_947152292009Tull’s 1969 second album “Stand Up” went to #1 in England, and their monumental fourth LP, 1971’s “Aqualung,” was Jethro Tull’s greatest international success, but sometimes overlooked is their third effort, 1970’s “Benefit.”  It’s among their hardest rocking collections ever, with the minor hit “Teacher” appearing on the US version of the album.  Ian Anderson on flute and vocals and Martin Barre on guitar were, as always, the key elements of Tull’s sound, with John Evan adding keyboard parts on some tracks for the first time.  FM stations in the US gave airplay to a few tracks, most notably “To Cry You a Song” and the prog rock beauty “With You There to Help Me,” which includes a great lyric in the chorus about the warm feeling you get when you return home:  “I’m going back to the ones that I know, with whom I can be what I want to be…”  

“The Back Seat of My Car,” Paul McCartney, 1971

paul_mccartney_ram_john_lennon_imagine_pig_photoIn the wake of The Beatles’ breakup in 1970, each member’s solo career was put under the microscope for intense scrutiny, as many observers felt their solo work could never measure up to the work of the band as a whole.  McCartney in particular took a lot of heat for writing and recording a lot of slight, inconsequential stuff, but he was always able to come up with two or three really excellent tracks on every album.  From the 1971 LP “Ram” (credited to Paul & Linda McCartney), which spawned the cutesy #1 hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” by far the strongest moment was the album closer, “The Back Seat of My Car,” beautifully arranged and performed, full of lush orchestration and voices, solid electric guitar by Paul, and a memorable repeated chorus, “Ohhh, we believe that we can’t be wrong…”

 

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Classic rock bands I’ve never liked

Funny thing about popular music:  There’s no accounting for taste.  One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Or, as Paul Simon once put it, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

In every decade, there have been bands that pack arenas on a regular basis, sell millions maxresdefault-15of albums, or have singles that do well on the charts, but the whole time, you’re scratching your head and saying, “What the hell does anyone see in them??”

Everyone has them:  Hugely successful groups that you just don’t like.

Now, if you’re a rock music fan like me, you can’t be naming people like Bobby Goldsboro or The Osmonds.  That’s not the point here.  Of course you don’t like acts like these, but you were never in their demographic target audience anyway.  No, in this case, I’m talking about majorly successful rock bands who, for sometimes undefinable reasons, just rub me the wrong way.

People may like or not like musical artists because of the circumstances in which they first heard them.  Perhaps you were 13 and found them exciting, if not musically notable.  Or maybe you were on a first date (or you were breaking up) and heard them on your car radio.  Or it could be that your boyfriend/girlfriend loved the group and you learned to love them too.  So there’s always that emotional attachment we have to certain songs, albums or bands that causes a link that might evade other listeners.

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we have always focused on the music and artists from the 1955-1990 period, so the bands I intend to single out are from that era — mostly from the ’70s and ’80s, in fact.

It will become abundantly clear to you that I cannot abide rock bands that have poor singers.  I hold Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey and even Ozzy Osbourne (in Black Sabbath days) as exemplars of hard rock singers who have a command of melody and control without constantly consorting to shrieking and howling in non-musical pain.

I also have a problem with bands who can’t seem to write songs that show at least a modicum of musical sophistication.  Yes, I know, rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be basic, primal, rebellious, energetic, revolutionary.  But must it be devoid of actual melody and harmony?

Go ahead, call me a snob, or a dinosaur.  I can take it.

I know I’m going to piss off a whole lot of people, who will no doubt vigorously disagree with some of my conclusions here.  Too bad.  It’s my blog.  If you want to come up your own list of ten bands you never liked, you might start your own blog.  But hey, I’d still be happy to hear your objections, or your candidates for bands that you think should be on a list like this.

Here we go:

Aerosmith

2890They have had their moments:  The 1974 anthem “Dream On” is a great classic, and their 1975 LP “Toys in the Attic” is pretty consistent.  But I’ve never cared for Steven Tyler’s screechy voice, and I would venture to say that nearly every album they made was more filler than anything worthwhile.  I made the mistake of trying to read Tyler’s appallingly self-indulgent 2012 autobiography, “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?” which made me hate him as a person as much as I hate him as a singer.  The group fell apart in the ’80s and I thought that was the well-deserved end of them, but then they were somehow reborn in the late ’80s with more singles and albums and tours.  I had no use for any of it.  Joe Perry is a fine electric guitarist, but that’s about the extent of anything nice I can say about these bad boys from Boston.

John Mellencamp

John Cougar Mellencamp.jpgBefore you Mellencamp fans come looking for me with a meat ax, let me just say that I don’t hate him or his music.  But I sure don’t love it either.  It’s just okay, and he’s way overrated.  Maybe it’s because he came along in Bruce Springsteen’s shadow, but I always thought of Mellencamp as a cheap imitation, a poor man’s attempt at Springsteen’s perceptive and effective working class anthems and public persona.  (I suppose you could say the same about Bob Seger, a fine rock singer of basic Midwest rock songs.  He was very good, but he wasn’t The Boss.)  Mellencamp has toured incessantly and continued to release new albums every couple of years, and some of them are even interesting.  But I can only shrug my shoulders and say, “Eh…”

Van Halen

19-van-halen.w529.h352Even if you account for Eddie Van Halen’s remarkable lead guitar solos and riffs throughout the group’s early catalog, one fact remains:  For the most part, Van Halen is mind-numbingly average.  They sometimes did a nice job on vocal harmonies, and David Lee Roth was actually a strong singer, but most of the group’s material is just so boring, plodding, nondescript.  And yet, these guys are held up as some sort of saviors of hard rock music during the disco/New Wave era.  Sorry, I’m not buying it.  Things got way worse when they recruited Sammy Hagar (also a decidedly average talent at best) to take over for Roth in 1985.  Just like that, a band that was capable of the occasional B- classic rock track (“Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away”) suddenly slipped to C- and worse.  Thanks for nothing, Sammy…

Styx

dDp7qncorY3XzaRdD8XwEL-320-80Oh, spare me.  I’d rather plunge knitting needles into my ears than put up with five seconds of Dennis DeYoung’s cringe-inducing vocals.   “Lady”?  “Babe”?  “Come Sail Away”?  “Mr. Roboto”???  Just awful stuff, all of it, thanks to that voice.  I was so turned off that I never bothered to explore Styx’s catalog until very recently, and I wasn’t even aware that DeYoung and guitarist Tommy Shaw feuded continually, each left the band for solo careers, and attempted reuniting with little success.  Things got so bad between DeYoung and the rest of the band that his name has been omitted from Styx’s official website, as if he had never been a member.  Ouch.  Maybe there’s hope yet for me to learn to appreciate the Styx stuff without DeYoung on it.  We’ll see.  But I maintain my dislike of the Styx songs that were played ad nauseum in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Bon Jovi

BonJoviSimplistic, unimaginative, unremarkable, annoying.  That’s Bon Jovi in a nutshell to me.  I recognize that Jon himself is quite the hunk who brings tons of women to his concerts.  And there are a few moments buried on his albums that stand out from the numbing sameness of his oeuvre.  But I’m sorry, he’s just not for me.  I’ve been listening to a lot of Bon Jovi’s stuff the past week, racking my brain to pinpoint what it is about them that leaves me cold.  I suppose it’s because they sound to me like a hundred other groups.  Not much originality to speak of.  When I hear even their big hits like “Livin’ On a Prayer,” I have to think, “Who is this again?”  It could be any other nameless American group of the 1980s, and I’m just not impressed.

AC/DC

acdc-blog-cropIf you want to send me running screaming from your room, just cue up AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” one of the saddest excuses for a hard rock anthem ever recorded.  These guys were Australia’s biggest rock success story, and for the life of me, I have never understood why.  “Fingernails on a blackboard” is the most accurate way to describe the voice of original AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott.  Simply unlistenable.  I find it both telling and pathetic that when Scott died of self-inflicted alcohol poisoning in 1980, the band held auditions and came up with a replacement (Brian Johnson) who somehow matched that excruciating larynx-shredding style (it certainly can’t remotely be called singing).  Nevertheless, the group has sold untold millions of copies of albums, and they rank among the most popular rock acts of all time.  Not in my house, man.

Beastie Boys

mHyz6OOltyEOriginally a hardcore punk band out of New York City in 1980, this trio made the switch to hip-hop in 1985, and became the first white group to dabble in (and find success with) what had exclusively been a black phenomenon.  I admit to not much caring for hip-hop in general, but I found these guys irritating for trying to pose as something they weren’t.  Suburban white kids chose to eat them up, and they proceeded to release eight Top 20 albums (including four Number Ones) over the next 30 years.  Incredible.  And to add musical insult to eardrum injury, The Beastie Boys were actually inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago.  Like I said, there is NO accounting for taste.

Guns ‘n Roses

GettyImages-535921600_webDebuting in 1985, they claimed to be “a mixture of hard rock, punk, blues and metal.”  It’s a horrendous mess, mostly.  As with almost every band I’ve mentioned here, they had a couple of memorable tracks.  By far, their best moment was the 8-minute anthem “November Rain,” which has two parts, showcasing their melodic side followed by a lengthy guitar solo by Slash.  I just couldn’t get into the band overall, though, partly because vocalist Axl Rose was such a pretentious ass who was simply begging to be punched in the face.  But again, who can explain the preferences of millions of rock music fans who found anything appealing about GNR’s music?  I just don’t hear it.

KISS

AR-140719399Bwahahahahaha!  There is absolutely nothing musical to be heard from this band of costumed showmen.  And let’s be clear, even Gene Simmons has said KISS was born of the notion that it didn’t much matter what they played.  It was all about the pyrotechnics, the light show, the sheer volume and, of course, the face paint and faux-threatening poses they struck onstage.  To attend a KISS concert was to be assaulted and overwhelmed by what you saw more than what you heard.  Therefore, to listen to a KISS album was an exercise in total futility, for there was nothing there deserving of your time.  But sure enough, the group’s fans lobbied for years until these clowns were also inducted in the Rock Hall.  As showmen?  Well, okay, I guess.  As musicians?  Not on your life, nor mine.

Ted Nugent

ted-nugent-1All right, here’s credit where it’s due:  When he was only 19, Nugent was the lead guitarist and songwriter for a ’60s band out of Michigan called The Amboy Dukes, who were responsible for a wonderful psychedelic nugget from 1968 called “Journey to the Center of Your Mind,” which reached #16 on the charts.  Okay, that’s the only good thing I have to say about this raging lunatic.  He inexplicably became a ted-nugent-with-gunspopular solo artist in the mid-’70s, riding the wave of dreck like “Cat Scratch Fever,” where his voice sounds like, well, a feverish catfight.  So I’ve never liked any of his harsh, tone-deaf albums, but an even better reason to hate him is for his arch-conservative political views that include (believe it or not) condoning violence against gun control advocates.  The guy is an unhinged racist and thoroughly unlikable in every way.

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I started putting together a playlist of songs by these bands, but then I said to myself, “Why on earth would anyone ever listen to it?  I certainly wouldn’t.”  So if you happen to enjoy any of the ten bands mentioned above, by all means, head on over to Spotify, or to your album/CD collection, and put ’em on.  Just don’t invite me over until you’re finished.