I’ve been looking forward to this rerelease for a good couple of months now. It’s one of my favorite albums of 1987, and it’s a solid record from start to finish. It’s a soundtrack of my later teen years, in between the bouts of listening to college radio and the waning months of listening to pop radio.
Prince’s Sign o’ the Times intrigues me because it’s the end result of three different music projects. It’s the aborted next album with the Revolution, Dream Factory. It’s a solo project of androgynous sped-up vocals, Camille. and it’s a collection of both plus more, built into a three-disc behemoth called Crystal Ball. It features the best of all three, and decades later, the deluxe reissue (which drops tomorrow) features nearly everything else that was left off.
The three projects are quite different in their own ways… Dream Factory kind of picks up where Parade and Around the World in a Day left off, improving on his stellar mid-80s songwriting and the band’s tight and often improvisational sound. Camille on the other hand veers towards his uninhibited Sexy Prince character (which would surface less over the years but when it did, such as on The Black Album, it didn’t hold back). Crystal Ball ended up being sort of his White Album, a sprawling mass of past and present ideas and egos.
Some of what got left off of the final version of Sign o’ the Times eventually popped up on b-sides, soundtracks or future albums; the eventual official version of Crystal Ball, released in early 1998, would feature some of the outtakes as well. Prince being Prince, however, his recording regimen was so prolific that there was still so much left in his legendary vault. I’ve heard some of the rarities via bootlegs — a fantastic Revolution-backed version of “Strange Relationship” is a must-hear, for instance – and it’ll be great to hear them with a clear remastering.
I’ll do a recap of the reissue once I’ve given it a good listen! Stay tuned!
Oh, change of the season I’ve found a reason to stay
Hey there! After far too long, I’m returning to a twice-weekly blogging schedule. It’s been a long hiatus — a much needed one — but I’m glad to be back. I missed riffing on all the new music I’ve been listening to, and talking about the older sounds I’m still fond of. And I’ve been such a hardcore listener of a certain PNW non-profit radio station (KEXP) over the last year that I now have a bit of a backlog on new and recently-discovered stuff to obsess over!
Amusingly enough, I didn’t even realize until I started writing this post that today is the first day of autumn! And we all know that autumn is my favorite time of year. Fourth quarter releases, foliage change, and all that fun stuff. I start thinking about what’s gone on over the past year, what I’ve achieved so far and what I still need to do. And of course there are the year-end lists!
So — as before, I’ll be here on Tuesdays and Thursdays again from here on in, talking about tunes as always. Thanks for sticking around!
It’s been two months since I last posted here, and a ton of things have happened in the world since I went silent. Not all of it good. Not at all.
Me? I’m doing okay. I’m in the process of job searching. We’re strapping on our locally made masks and going out for walks in the afternoons. We’re streaming all the TV shows and rewatching Time Team. We’re processing what’s going on locally and nationally. We’re doing what we can, how we can.
I haven’t written a damn thing other than one or two poems and some personal journal entries. And I’m okay with that. I needed the break.
I’ve got some projects I need to start and I need to step away from the internets for a bit so I can focus on them, so I won’t be updating the blogs on a normal schedule. I’ll be popping back up if and when I can!
It didn’t take me long to lose the excitement of having left the Day Job. I figured I’d give myself the remainder of that week to get used to the freedom, goof off, do whatever I felt like doing, and start the next week fresh.
Which means exercises. The local YMCA has posted exercise videos that I may work with here in Spare Oom. I’ve made a list of stretches and exercises I should hit daily (I’d started doing most of these in the last few months of my remote-work status, so it’ll be good to do those again).
I already miss not going to the Y after work, so once this pandemic is over and done, I’d love to return. A suggests I really should try working on the elliptical, but to this day I have not been able to coordinate my body to use it correctly. Either I start cycling backwards, or my hips and knees respond with what the hell do you think you’re doing?? I’ll try doing it again, but we shall see.
So why is this here on the music blog? Because A and I went for a short walk around the neighborhood the other day and pick up some take-out at the Mexican restaurant we always walk by on the way to the gym. We also passed a few people on a side street in their garage, listening to some kind of Jock Jams mix while working out. It all reminded me of the gym, especially my choosiness in mp3 tunage while working out. Right now I’m not using any of the players so I should probably clear them out again, but I’m looking forward to having my own workout soundtrack that may not exactly make sense to anyone, but certainly works for me.
In the meantime, I should probably get off my butt, listen to some upbeat sounds, and get in shape again, yeah?
Now that I temporarily find myself with all the time in the world until further notice, I’m bound and determined to make the most of it. As much as I’d love to futz around with my mp3 collection and watch cat videos all day long, I know I’ve been given this time to do what needs doing.
In other words: remember all those times I’ve said “I’d love to do (x) if I only had time?” Well, NOW is that time. Let’s get crackin’.
One thing that’s been on my mind as of late is the fact that I have been woefully stuck at “amateur who knows some neat chords and solos but still plays the same damn songs over and over” level of guitar playing. I’ve been stuck at that level for years. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that if I want to stay at that level, but I want to be better. I want to get to the point where, if I felt like dropping some tunes on Bandcamp for sale, I could do so and be proud of the results. Sort of like how I’ve worked on my novels over the years.
I’ve heard all the stories about guitarists like George Harrison who would practice on their guitar until their fingers literally bled. Bryan Adams sings about it in the first verse of “Summer of ’69”. I’ve read so many music bios and memoirs about building up those fingertip calluses and strengthening those fingers and working on dexterity.
I think, now that I have the time, I really should start doing exactly that. I no longer want to just noodle around for ten minutes playing the same chords. I want to explore this avenue. I want to see and hear where it goes. I want to find my own true style and not just imitate my influences. I have the equipment for it, so there’s nothing to stop me right now.
Long story short: I have given my two weeks at the current Day Job. Let’s just say that it wasn’t entirely on peaceful terms. I’ve talked about it a bit on my social media channels, and there’s a chance I may write something about it for a Medium article in the next week or so to go into more detail.
NOTE: I’ve been listening to their album Big Bang nonstop lately, partly because I love it so but partly because it’s inspiring some ideas on a new story idea that’s gestating over in my daily words. Thought I’d share a post from six(!!) years ago about one of my favorite 80s bands, with updates and edits. Enjoy!
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, aka Fuzzbox here in the States, was a cute and punky quartet out of Birmingham UK, and one of my first music crushes when I started listening to alternative rock. They’d been brought to my attention right about the same time as Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the glossy music mag Star Hits, and upon seeing their crazy-colored and spritzed hair and punky Oxfam chic, I was completely hooked–which in all honesty wasn’t really hard, considering it didn’t take much to rebel in a small town like mine. They made me realize punk wasn’t just about rebelling against society, like American punk had suggested — it was also about doing your own thing, however bizarre it might be, and not giving a shit about what other people thought about it.
Fuzzbox was initially together only for a short time, releasing just two albums and a handful of singles before going their separate ways, but they were just so damn fun to listen to that it didn’t matter.
Fuzzbox started sometime in 1985 with four friends who’d decided to start a band. And like any punk band worth their salt at the time, mastering your instrument wasn’t exactly high on the list of priorities. Consisting of Vickie Perks (aka Vix) on vocals, Tina O’Neill on drums and sax, and sisters Maggie (aka Magz–vocals, keys and guitars) and Jo Dunne (bass, guitars and keys), they immediately jumped in on the occasional open mike night at the local bars and learned their chops onstage. It’s said Maggie was the creator of the band name, announcing that they did in fact have a fuzz distortion guitar pedal they were about to use.
Their debut single was the gritty and poppy “XX Sex”, with shockingly direct feminist lyrics about exploitation and sexism in the media. They followed up with a ridiculous and silly summer single with labelmates The Nightingales and alternative comedian Ted Chippington with “Rockin’ with Rita”, and by summer’s end they were given a spot on the highly influential NME C86 compilation with “Console Me”. They prefaced their debut album that October with a jittery and bass-heavy single about unrequited love, “Love Is the Slug”, my musical introduction to them via MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Bostin’ Steve Austin (released as a self-titled album here in the US, but with the same cover) was released in December of 1986, featuring a dozen gems about the girls’ life in Birmingham–not just containing the teen heartbreak of “Love Is the Slug” and “Jackie”, it also contains the confrontational “XX Sex” and “What’s the Point” (their follow-up single released in January of 1987) and “Preconceptions”, as well as a weirdly hypnotic cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. The quality of the music here is surprisingly tight, even when it hints at sounding on the verge of disintegrating into a distorted mess. Vix’s lyrics alternate between playful, angry, and emotional, and despite the simplicity of the melodies there’s a lot going on musically. The stop-start of “You Got Me”, the building tension in “Love Is the Slug” and even the 60s-girl-group pastiche of “Hollow Girl” works perfectly.
Bostin’ Steve Austin got a ridiculous amount of play on my tape players between early 1987 and mid-1989–this was the side of punk that I gravitated to, the revelation that I didn’t have to try fitting in with the in-crowd anymore. I didn’t really need to do much, of course–wear some of my college rock tee-shirts, my grandfather’s green trenchcoat, and let my hair grow out of its quintessentially 80s spiky ‘do (but not to the point of longhaired metaldom), and start writing music reviews for albums hardly anyone else in my school listened to.
Fuzzbox disappeared for a short while, and would reappear in early 1989 with a completely new and unexpected look and sound. I admit I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it at first, having twitched and thought “oh god, they’ve become Jem and the Holograms.” But there was something about it…something about the slick late 80s production, the chart-ready poppiness, that called to me. I began to realize that this was the forbidden candy for me as a fan of college rock, the ultimate test: do I dare admit that, after labeling myself an alternative music nerd and a nonconformist, I actually enjoyed this admittedly catchy music?
Gone was the thrift shop fashion as well, replaced by glitz and glamour. The fuzziness of their sound was also gone, replaced by shiny synthesizers and sequencers. They now had an outsider as a cowriter of songs in the form of session musician/producer Liam Sternberg. And yet…
…and yet, there was something about this new album, Big Bang, that I just could not give it up. I was older and now in college, and yet the music hinted at the readymade poppiness of 80s Top 40, the kind that was throwaway and yet catchy and likable at the same time. The Brummie humor was still there, hiding in the lyrics of lead single “International Rescue”, a loving ode to the Gerry Anderson tv classic Thunderbirds (and, in the video, a humorous nod to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella as well, featuring Adrian Edmonson from The Young Ones as an evil scientist).
Big Bang kicked off with the irresistibly poppy “Pink Sunshine” (and also released as the second single) and my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hell my punk goddesses had gone off to…but I soon understood what they were doing. This wasn’t about rebelling, not anymore. It was about being an adult now, having gotten over the teenage growing pains. These were the Brummie girls stuck in their jobs, dealing with the drudgery of the real world and letting it all loose at the end of the working week.
There’s a lot of flirting and sexiness going on with this album, and that’s part of what makes it so irresistible. There’s the rocking sci-fi of “Fast Forward Futurama”, the heartbreak of “Self!” (featuring the guitar work of none other than Queen’s Brian May!), and the gorgeous dancefloor bliss of “Versatile for Discos and Parties” (quite possibly my favorite track off the album). There’s even a brilliant cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”, retaining the song’s mystique but giving it additional emotional beauty. The album ends on a very somber yet lovely note with a track called “Beauty”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded.
I realized that Big Bang‘s shameless pop wasn’t shameless at all — it was a loving tribute to the dance pop of the decade, one that was about to come to a close. The sound of 80s pop would age, and often not for the best, but when it was done right, it was still fun to listen to. A few years later, once I discovered anime movies and series from the 80s and 90s such as Urusei Yatsura and Silent Möbius and later to the Gall Force series and Sailor Moon, I began to realize that, thanks to Big Bang, I now had begun a long-lasting love affair with JPop. I began seeing the album as an unintended but spot-on paean to the J-Pop so prevalent in the credits and montages in anime, and that made me love the album even more. It’s pure pop, but it’s still irresistibly fun.
In 1990 they would release a final single, “Your Loss My Gain”, written for a never-realized third album, and while it seemed they were progressing in a more mature pop direction, they soon split up. They all went their separate ways. Only Vix remained in the music industry, recording under various band names including Vix n’ the Kix. Three compilations would surface a bit over a decade later: two albums of demos and outtakes called Fuzz and Nonsense and Rules & Regulations to Pink Sunshine: The Fuzzbox Story, and a greatest hits collection amusingly titled Look at the Hits on That (a very Fuzzbox-worthy pun title). And in 2010, Vix, Maggie and Jo reunited with the help of Vix’s backing band for a one-off single, a cover of M’s classic track “Pop Muzik”. Sadly, Jo would pass away from a cancer-related illness in 2012, but a year later, Vix decided it was time to rerelease the band’s 80s discography. Bostin’ Steve Austin would finally have its debut on compact disc, and Big Bang would contain all the remaining 80s tracks, including the “Your Loss My Gain” single.
But there’s more!Since I first posted this, Vix and Maggie have returned to music under the Fuzzbox name and have dropped a few new singles over the last few years! In 2016 they released a new single called “Let’s Go Supernova”, and in 2018 they crowdfunded another single, fittingly called “WGAF…AWGUI!!”. In 2019 they released a video-only single called “Say Hello” for a local Birmingham project. And they will soon be releasing a box set called We’ve Got a Box Set and We’re Gonna Use It!!. It certainly is great to see them still going strong, still irreverent and still full of poppy goodness.
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! is a band that influenced not just my listening habits but my way of life when I was growing up in the late 80s; it was a refreshing view of punk-as-freedom rather than punk-as-anger, and helped me realize that the music I listen to, then and now. My tastes still lean towards the alternative, but I’m not above the shamelessly pop, especially if it’s done well. In relistening to Bostin Steve Austin I now hear a lot of the intelligence and fearlessness in the lyrics, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And as an added bonus, they’re there if all I want is some great and fun music to listen to.
Oh hey! It’s time for another month’s worth of new releases! The first quarter’s music so far has been surprisingly fruitful with a lot of great albums, and I’m quite happy about that! Here are a few new records I’ve been playing on my mp3 player as of late…
Destroyer, Have We Met, released 31 January. This is a rather quirky band that’s been around for quite some time, but their music has always been consistently melodic and intriguing.
Joseph, Trio Sessions: Vol 1, released 31 January. This is a fine alt-folk trio that channels the sounds of 70s Laurel Canyon and their three-way harmony is just lovely. I highly suggest checking out the rest of their work as well.
Poliça, When We Stay Alive, released 31 January. This Minneapolis band has always been a bit on the strange side with their music, but this new one is far more soulful and moving than their previous work. It’s an unexpected but wholly welcome direction and I love it.
Revolution, I Love You, Black Feathers, released 7 February.I don’t even remember where I’d discovered this band (NoiseTrade, perhaps?) but I fell in love with their strange but amazing mix of shoegaze, goth, synthpop and maybe even a bit of punk. The new record goes in all sorts of unexpected and wonderful directions.
Green Day, Father of All…, released 7 February. The new album kind of reminds me oftheir late 90s/early 00s era records, especially Nimrod and Warning, as the songs slide between all-out punk assaults and radio-friendly groovy rock. Not that that’s a bad thing, because they still manage to pull it all off.
Stone Temple Pilots, Perdida, released 7 February. They’ve lost two singers and that’s enough to break any band, but the DeLeo brothers soldiered on to write and record a stunningly gorgeous and heartbreaking album.
Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor 1 EP, released 7 February. The Paramore lead singer finally releases her first solo outing and it’s well worth the wait. It’s darker and quieter than her band work, but it’s just as powerful.
Best Coast, Always Tomorrow, released 21 February. I’ve always liked this band, and I love how they’ve completely embraced their own brand of that California sound — sunny, punchy, and just that little bit off-kilter. This one’s a fun and infectious record and I really should be playing it a lot more!
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene, released 21 February. I did not expect to enjoy the new Grimes as much as I do! She’s quite firmly in the ‘off in their own universe’ column when it comes to musicians and personalities, but the new record is just brimming with really neat sounds and ideas that pulled me completely in from the beginning. One of my favorites so far!