One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

*

Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

WIS: Unexpected inspiration

The other day while reading Martin Aston’s book about the 4AD label, I came across a single sentence:

By 1985, American college radio had gathered momentum alongside the spurt in independent record labels, with the likes of [Clan of Xymox’s] “A Day” striking radio programmers as adventurous and commercial, and a modern, gleaming alternative to the guitar-centric homegrown scene spearheaded by bands such as REM, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü.

To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking of my Walk in Silence project lately, partly because I’d put it aside some time ago.  I didn’t trunk it, I just put it aside so I could focus on the Trilogy Edit and newer fiction.  I’d also gone through my projected timeline last summer on a personal level, if only to purge it from my writing brain for a while.

That personal version really wasn’t the original idea that I’d had.  I was thinking more along the lines of a chronological book about college rock.  The releases bracketing the story would be The Smiths’ third single, “What Difference Does It Make” (January 1984) and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (October 1989).

I could never quite figure out a way to solidify my idea that that was the golden era of college rock, before it became much more mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana and everyone else.  Until that one sentence.  It made sense to me, though…1984-85 was about the time that a lot of independent distributors and labels in the US, such as Relativity and Caroline, started licensing British bands that had only been available on expensive imports.  [Only Sire had any sizeable share in that field as a major label, having signed the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and others.]

So it occurs to me that perhaps it’s time for me to resurrect the Walk in Silence project as it was originally intended, focusing on the sounds of college rock in the mid to late 80s.  Maybe without so much of the personal added to it this time out.

Of course, I already have a few writing projects on tap as it is, so I’ll have to figure out how the hell to fit this in.  Heh.

Favorite Albums: Lonely Is an Eyesore

R-260839-1340652556-7447

CAD703, 4AD Records

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Martin Aston’s giant tome Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, and already I’m revisiting a lot of my collection from that label, many of which I haven’t listened to in ages, including this one.

Lonely Is an Eyesore is another album that’s turning thirty this year, originally released 15 June 1987.  It’s a stellar mix that should be in the collection of anyone who listens to classic alternative rock.  I’d heard of this import via 120 Minutes, and knew the only places I’d be able to find it would either be Al Bum’s in Amherst or Main Street Music in Northampton.  I also knew I’d have to buy the cassette, considering I knew it would be part of my late-night headphone listening.

The album was produced and conceived by label head Ivo Watts-Russell as a multi-format release, provided with its own music video, which I believe was either directed or produced (or both) by Vaughan Oliver from the label’s art collective, 23 Envelope.  [As an aside, these videos partly influenced my decision to attend Emerson to study film.  A lot of my shooting assignments look very similar in style and composition to the images you see in these videos.  Granted, I did not become a filmmaker, but I did use these visual and aural ideas in my future writing.]

 

Side One starts off with the quirky, sample-heavy “Hot Doggie” by Colourbox, an oddball electronic group more known as being two fifths of MARRS (the band behind the 1987 surprise hit “Pump Up the Volume”). It’s a wonderful opening track, maybe a bit silly, but that was part of Colourbox’s charm: they were like listening to a Big Audio Dynamite clone that played a lot of soul music with just a hint of moody ambience.

Following up is This Mortal Coil, a loose label-wide collective put together by Watts-Russell to record unique covers of his favorite 70s folk songs as well as haunting originals. By this time they’d released two stellar albums, 1984’s It’ll End in Tears and 1986’s Filigree & Shadow, both which I highly suggest. “Acid, Bitter and Sad” is a bit scattered as a track, but its multi-part construction is actually quite similar to the feel of their albums as a whole; the different sections take you on a specific journey, leading you to the next section and sometimes cutting short and leaving you floating in midair.

The Wolfgang Press was one of 4AD’s earlier post-punk band signings (various members were in previous 4AD bands Mass and Rema-Rema) with a deconstructive, sometimes brutalist sound similar to The Birthday Party. “Cut the Tree” is one of their quieter songs but retains their trademark intensity.

Next up is Throwing Muses, then a recent signing (their self-titled debut had been released a year earlier) and one of their first non-UK bands. The Muses, like their labelmates Pixies, were from New England and frequently played the Boston club scene. “Fish” is a very good example of what an early Muses track sounds like: tight and tense, unsure of which direction it’s going in, yet somehow still catchy and amazing. Kristin Hersh’s lyrics are sometimes confrontational and frequently obscure (the album title comes from this song), but the emotions behind them were never hidden.

Side One ends with the first of two amazing tracks from Australian/UK/European band Dead Can Dance. “Frontier” (a demo of a track from their debut album) amazes on multiple levels, from Lisa Gerrard’s soaring vocals to Brendan Perry’s haunting counterpoint drone-hum to the hypnotic oil barrel percussion.

Side Two starts with the always lovely Cocteau Twins with “Crushed”, a gorgeous and uplifting track that features all the CT staples: Robin Guthrie’s chiming effects-laden guitar work, Simon Raymonde’s melodic bass, and Elizabeth Fraser’s unconventional singing style. If you love this track, you will most definitely love the rest of their work.

Following up is semi-instrumentalist band Dif Juz* with one of my favorite songs of the late 80s, “No Motion”. I’ve always used this song as a benchmark that I would love to hit in my own music playing and writing, though I highly doubt I’ll ever reach it.  It’s one of the first examples of the experimental post-rock we hear nowadays from bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  Their discography is criminally small but well worth checking out.

* – As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew how to correctly pronounce this band’s name. In my head it’s always been /diff jooz/, and there’s a fan theory that the j is silent it should sound like the word ‘diffuse’, but apparently according to Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, it is indeed /diff juzz/.

Clan of Xymox is one of the original darkwave bands that revel in their goth-like sound, maintaining that dark sound even when their style evolves from dark gloom to bright beauty. “Muscoviet Mosquito” (a much improved re-recording of an early EP track) is unrelenting in its speed and drive, even as singer Ronny Moorings meanders over the top.  They would follow this a few years later with an amazing album called Twist of Shadows that did well even in the US.

Finishing up the album is the second Dead Can Dance track, “The Protagonist, and an extremely good example of their more orchestral-esque works (like 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg).  Often DCD’s music isn’t so much about the melody as it is about the mood and the construction of the track; each attack and sustain is deliberate.

 

I believe I bought this cassette in late 1987, maybe early 1988, having heard a few of the tracks on 120 Minutes or on one of the college radio stations (I remember WAMH used to use part of “Frontier” for the background music of one of their PSAs about drug addiction).  I’d heard of most of these bands but sadly had not owned anything from any of them.  However, within a year I’d own most of the Cocteau Twins’ and Clan of Xymox’s discographies, a few of the Dead Can Dance albums (Within the Realm is still my favorite of theirs), and The Wolfgang Press’s 1992 album Queer would be one of my top favorite albums of that year.  A few years back Colourbox released a box set of their entire recorded output, which I of course picked up.  And every now and again I’ll pull this album back out and give it another listen.  I’d be a long-time fan of 4AD mostly because of this album, even as it evolved and changed their signature sounds over the last few decades.

Again — I highly suggest adding Lonely Is an Eyesore to your collection.

Why I’m an avid listener

maxell blown away

Image courtesy of that classic 1983 Maxell commercial.

I’ve been thinking about this lately.  I’ve been drawn toward music since I was a little kid.  I’d hang out down in the basement where my dad would work on his local history files, and he’d always have the radio on.  The car radio would be on when we went on vacations or road trips.  I’d listen to the albums and singles my elder sisters would buy from the local department store.  And of course come 1978, I started collecting Beatles albums and singles.  It only expanded exponentially from there.  I was part of the generation brought up on MTV and remember watching that channel for hours on end.

Nowadays I’ll have an album from my mp3 collection playing while I write, or streaming a station during my Day Job hours.  I have playlists for my novels.  I still make mixtapes.  I’ve been known to listen to the same album multiple times, usually at the gym or working on a specific stretch of a novel project.  There’s hardly a time when I don’t have something playing in the background.  [Ironically, however, I don’t have anything playing at the moment while I write this.]

Is it really about obsession?  Is it an addiction, for that matter?  Maybe a bit of both.  But I’d like to think there are deeper reasons than that.

For instance, I love the effect that music has on me creatively.  I taught myself how to write a scene by imitating the framework of a song.  [As mentioned before, I call this the Miami Vice method of writing.]  The moods of certain tracks will provide me with ideas and settings for what I might be writing about.

I also love the effect it has on me emotionally.  I got through a lot of my high school years listening to college rock on my headphones.  It’s gotten me through a lot of emotional ups and downs over the years.  And recently I started getting choked up hearing one of my all-time favorite classical pieces, the famous second movement of Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, Op 11 (aka the Adagio), performed live at the SF Symphony Hall.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how it affects me in a physical way as well.  I have a very strange sense of hearing; I have a really good sense of spatial hearing (the ability to figure out the relative direction and location origin of a sound), but at the same time I sometimes have a tough time filtering out unnecessary noise (I can’t always clearly hear what someone says, for instance, at a very loud restaurant).  And I’m pretty sure I have an extremely light case of tinnitus from all the tunage I’d listened to with headphones over the years.

I started thinking that perhaps one of the reasons I still listen to a lot of music is that it’s my own personal way of filtering.  Some people use white noise generators, some people use noise-cancelling headphones, and so on.  I have music to let my subconscious focus on something so the rest of me can focus on whatever needs focusing at that moment.  This would also explain the sometimes amusing habit some people have of turning off the car radio when trying to get to their destination in a place they’re unfamiliar with.  I know I’ve done that in the past.  It’s also the reason I have to turn things down if A. talks with me, because otherwise all the sounds will blend together and I’ll miss out on something.

Still, I have to say the most important reason, at least for me, is that I just enjoy the hell out of it.

 

 

 

Looking for a Song

song writing

Recently I’ve been thinking about my creative output.  I mean, yeah, I write novels and all that, but that’s over at my other blog.  I’m talking about my music and my artwork.

I’ve been focusing on my writing for ages — mainly due to the Great Trilogy Completion and Edit Project Wot Took FAR Too Long — that my love of drawing and playing music fell by the wayside.  Ages ago I used to draw maps in my spare time, and I used to write songs for the few bands I’d started.  I even added both of them to my whiteboard schedule some years back.  But somewhere down the line I chose to focus solely on my writing, ultimately to get better at it and make something of it.

But now that the Trilogy is done and released, and now that I’m working on much smaller projects that aren’t eating up all my time, I find myself itching to return to those two loves.  I’ve been wanting to do so for a while (yes, I know I’ve blogged about it before), and now I have the time and the inclination.

So how do I go about it?

Well, I’m thinking that I should do the same thing that I’ve been doing for my writing: open up a playground for it somewhere.

For my writing, I use the 750 Words site to write outtakes and come up with new ideas.  I call it my word playground for that purpose; it’s there for me to hit a simple word count goal and try out a few things.  So I started thinking: maybe it’s time I do that for the music and the artwork again.  Select a few days a week, and dedicate some time — say, a half hour or so — to do nothing but draw or practice on one of my guitars.  And as an extra incentive, I can use the mp3 recorder app on my phone to record some of the song demos.  [For those playing along: it’s the Hi-Q mp3 recorder app available at the Google store.  The free version records up to 10 minutes, and the sound quality is pretty good considering.]  The aim is to either finish a completed song or piece of art, or make headway on a possible future project.

It’s not much to ask, and it’ll get me back into the habit of working on such things with more frequency, which is the whole point.

Legacy

I’ve been thinking lately about the legacy of some of my favorite bands.  I’ve recently started following Art of Noise on Instagram, who are currently at the planning and prepping stages of an upcoming tour.  The other week I downloaded the new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

This year we’ve seen new releases by The Godfathers, Daniel Ash, The Feelies, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Wire, Clan of Xymox, Robyn Hitchcock, Slowdive, Blondie, Erasure, The Charlatans UK, Alison Moyet, Ride, Cheap Trick, Public Enemy, KMFDM, Sparks, The Waterboys and Living Colour.  And there’s still three-plus months to go in the year, with more new releases by classic bands coming up.

It occurred to me that many of these bands are from the first generation of 70s and 80s rock and its multitudes of subgenres, or their slightly younger siblings.  We still have some musicians from the original rock wave of the 50s and 60s — Ringo Starr has a new album coming soon, and Paul McCartney is still on tour, for instance, and recently-passed Chuck Berry had a new album out as well.  One has to remember that rock music as we know it really is a young genre compared to other popular and fringe music out there.  We’re still seeing it grow and evolve.  We’re also still seeing some of the old vanguard putting out albums.

My fascination here isn’t just that many of these bands were my favorites when I was in high school thirty years ago, and that I’m just reliving my youth in my own pathetic way.  I’m also fascinated that these bands are still going strong, still providing their signature sounds, still touring, still releasing.  Some of them may have taken an extended hiatus for various reasons (Ride’s last album was in 1996, for example, and they split almost at the same time it came out), but upon their return, fans both old and new rejoiced.

I’m fascinated by the legacies of these bands, because I’m living during their tenure.  I’m watching and listening to their history as it happens.  It’s that ‘I was there’ moment — it’s my own Woodstock remembrance, in a way — and I love that I’m a part of it in my own way, as a listener and as an owner of their recordings.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.