Early 80s MTV, post-punk and new wave

Gloria Vanderbit’s passing yesterday got me thinking about the classic Robert Hazard one-hit-wonder “Escalator of Life” that came out in 1982. It was one of those odd new-wavey hits that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense lyrically (or in this case, took a metaphor and stretched it to its breaking point), but it was certainly one hell of a cool song at the time.

I often talk about the late 80s here at Walk in Silence, but I don’t think I give nearly enough love to the early 80s, which were just as influential to me as a kid. I listened to just as much radio and watched as much MTV then as I did later on, and my tastes were just as varied. I could be listening to the hard rock of WAAF in the morning as I got ready for school, but I could be listening to the classic rock of WAQY on the weekend, and watching the then-freeform stylings of early era MTV. I liked A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran and Pat Benatar just as much as I liked Led Zep, Eagles, and that little quirky southern band WAQY liked called REM.

As commercial as some of these stations and channels were, they weren’t averse to playing the occasional obscurity like The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” or Yello’s “The Evening’s Young”. They’d sneak in gems like The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” or Bow Wow Wow’s “Baby Oh No”. They were quirky but had crossover potential.

I remember a lot of these obscurities — the ones you remember from the era that don’t show up on those Just Can’t Get Enough compilations or those 80s Retro internet stations — because my mixtape-making actually started around this time, in late 1982. I’d made quasi-mixtapes before then, of course..mainly dubbing songs off the radio and from MTV (holding our cassette recorder close to the tv speaker, of course), but they didn’t contain that many songs. It wasn’t until November 1982 that I’d gathered a handful of used blank tapes and went wild. This first collection lasted six tapes and contained everything from A Flock of Seagulls to Led Zeppelin to Donnie Iris to Chilliwack to Thomas Dolby. It’s quite a manic and haphazard mix, created over the length of maybe two or three months.

I also started cataloging my mixtapes around then, first on index cards I would stick to the tapes with rubber bands, then a few years later with a steno notebook. Most all of those early tapes are long gone, having either gotten broken or tangled, taped over by something more important, or just faded back into white noise. But I kept these catalogs — mainly because I was a packrat — and much, much later (in 2007 or so) I started recreating them digitally using copied mp3s.

It’s kind of wild to see these mixtape track lists so many decades later; on the one hand, I’m not at all surprised that I was that obsessed over pop and rock music by the time I was twelve. There was just so much more out there coming out, and I just wanted to hear all of it! Sure, I had my questionable selections, but we all did around then. We’d gone from AM radio to the commercial FM radio to early MTV within the span of maybe four or five years. Some of us were just going to ride that particular avalanche and have fun while it happened.

Indie Rocks

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, courtesy KEXP.org

For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to KEXP online while working from home. It’s an affiliate of the University of Washington and non-profit, and they play some damn fine indie rock that’s made my ears perk up repeatedly. A good portion of my downloads during this time have been informed or influenced by the station.

Okay, that may sound like a shameless plug, but let’s be honest, I’ll happily plug any station that broadcasts purely out of a love for music rather than for the ratings. If your station is dedicated to a creative playlist, bands both local and international, and is not afraid to shake it up now and again, you’ve got my ears and my loyalty.

Sometimes it’s hard to find these stations, especially when they seem to be a vanishing breed. Even though the Giant Conglomerates seem to be losing money hand over fist due to a severe bout of All The Stations Are Playing The Same Damn Songs, it’s often hard to find these stations on your car stereo or elsewhere. You often have to go online and further afield like I did. I might live in San Francisco, but when a good number of the local commercial stations are all owned by Cumulus or some other big name, I have to dig a bit.

And sometimes the college stations don’t exactly work for me, either. Some like Berkeley’s KALX or Stanford’s KZSU are good but far too leftfield for my tastes. Others like Santa Clara’s KSCU run mostly on minimal programming and maximum library autoplay. Some have become shells of their former selves, broadcasting an NPR feed with very few live shows.

This is why I’m still a big fan of streaming radio stations online. Not streaming full-stop; I do have a Spotify account but I rarely use it, and for the most part I only stream albums on New Release Fridays. I crave the live deejay atmosphere. [And most definitely not the “morning crew” kind, which I find far too irritating. Howard Stern may have made it popular, but that format is way beyond its sell-by date now.]

I’ll usually find these stations in one of two ways: either by word of mouth/band announcement (KEXP is known for hosting quite a few live-in-studio performances) or by local listening. I’ve favorited stations that I happened upon while on vacation. I love to find new stations and check them out via their website.

I find KEXP to be a perfect blend of all the good parts of the above. Maybe a little leftfield, but never weird for weirdness’ sake. Silly deejay banter, but never meathead locker room humor. Each host has their own style and tastes. I might hear a song on heavy rotation, but I won’t hear it eight times a day. They’ll often surprise me with deep cuts from new albums. They’ve introduced me to a hell of a lot of indie bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

And I’m always curious to find even more stations. Who knows what I’ll be listening to six months from now?

Getting into (the) Spirit and other classic rock bands

First off, my apologies for that terrible pun.

Lately I’ve been reading Kent Hartman’s Goodnight, L. A.: Untold Tales from Inside Classic Rock’s Legendary Recording Studios, and it’s quite an interesting read.  The 70s was definitely an interesting and extremely varied decade for music, that’s for sure.  But what struck me was that this is yet another music biog where I’m quite familiar with the titles of the albums mentioned from this era and the surrounding years: The Family That Plays Together, TapestryEverybody Knows This is NowhereRumoursTea for the Tillerman, and so on.

But how many of them have I actually sat down and listened to?  Sure, I know Rumours and Hotel California and Fly Like an Eagle from my preteen years listening to the radio and getting records from the library.  But I know only two Spirit songs: “I Got a Line On You” and “Nature’s Way”, and I only know the latter because This Mortal Coil covered it in 1991.  I know tons of Carole King songs (and I just recently read her autobiography, Natural Woman) but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any of her albums, including her most famous one.

I’m thinking I should change that.  I mean, sure, do I really have enough time in the day to listen to streaming radio stations, new releases, and older favorites on top of listening to classic albums for the first time?  Well, maybe.  I have Amazon Prime so I can give a lot of these a listen essentially for free.  And this is back when full albums lasted maybe thirty minutes, forty tops.  I can fit in a few a day, I think.  I’m always up for expanding my musical knowledge.

It’ll be a long-term project, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun to finally give these a listen and figure out what all the buzz was about.

Favorite recent find: Bob Moses

Every now and again I’ll hear a new song that will just floor me.  Recently I’ve been grooving to this new single by the band Bob Moses called “Heaven Only Knows”.

It’s got that mid-tempo, low-range electronic groove that I love for many reasons: it’s great chill-out music, it’s got a gorgeous melody, it sounds awesome in headphones, and it’s perfect for my writing sessions.

Sometimes when I like a song that much, I’ll zip online and check out the rest of their discography. As it happens, their entire output is currently available on eMusic, so I was able to download it quite cheaply and add it to my collection.

Come to find out, I already knew one of their songs already! I recognized their 2015 single “Tearing Me Up” from hearing it on the various indie rock stations, but always forgot who it was until now.

I gave their EPs and album a good listen today and I can definitely say these guys are going to get some serious play in the next few weeks. It’s really great mood music for the writing projects I’m currently working on, and it’s also great to listen to during my Day Job hours. And they’ve got a new album coming out in two weeks! Woot!

[Battle Lines will come out on Sept 14th.]

Inside Abbey Road

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A selfie of me internally squeeing with joy as I stand in Studio Two, where a majority of the Beatles’ songs were recorded.

You all know of course that I am a huge Beatles fan and music history nerd.  I’m not a fan that wishes I’d been in the deafening audiences of their live shows, no…I’m a fan that geeks out about how their sound was created.  So when our London vacation just happened to coincide with a special open house/historical presentation at Abbey Road Studios, I simply could NOT pass it up. [The presentation was by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of Recording the Beatles, a book about how each song was recorded in the facility.]

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The famous Abbey Road crosswalk from the other direction.  Photographer Iain Macmillan would have been standing on a stepladder right about where that car is on the right side to take the picture.

We arrived there about twenty minutes before doors-open to an already longish line, where there were a few hundred of us waiting to get in.  Once past security (which was understandably tight), we were led into the front doors and into the main entryway.  As I walked through I was immediately reminded of this particular set of Beatles interviews done on 20 December 1966 (they were heading in to work on “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and the interviews were staged specifically to combat recent ‘are they breaking up’ rumors).

Before we were let in to Studio Two, however, they let us take a doorway peek into the amazingly HUGE and cavernous Studio One, usually used for orchestras but occasionally used for Beatle work (“All You Need Is Love” and “I Am the Walrus”, and the various songs from The Beatles laid down while other members were in Two or Three working on something else).

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Trivia: A possible 70s renovation would have split this room into two smaller upstairs studios and the ground floor into a parking garage.  Thankfully it was nixed.

We were then led into Studio Two across the hall, another cavernous room but not quite as large.  Upon entering, you can’t help but think just how unique this studio is, considering that most modern studios are infinitely smaller.  These were created in the 30s mainly for pop and orchestral pieces (trivia: they were extensions of the smaller main mansion, built over the back gardens of two different plots).

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The main stairway up to the control room.  There are stories that John and Paul used to slide down the railing after popping up there to listen to a playback with George Martin.  Also of note: that small room to the right with the red wall was once the original control room and is now a practice room.

They let us walk around a bit, checking out the various instruments and equipment they had set up.  Most of these instruments were used by the Beatles and are still used by others to this day, by the way!  Including many pianos:

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A Steinway Vertegrand, recognizable by its bright tone.  Played on “Penny Lane”.  More on this one in a moment…

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The Challen piano, known for its warmer tones.  Played on “The Fool on the Hill”.

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The Steinway grand (which gives a lovely full sound).  Played on numerous tracks.

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And of course the Hammond BT3 organ, also used on numerous tracks.

We also got to go upstairs to the main control room.  It’s a much smaller room of course, and the mixing desks have definitely changed over the years from the pots and shifters to a sea of knobs, buttons and everything else.

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A view from the top of the stairs.  Of note, the opposite far corner is where the Beatles used to hang out most to record, Ringo usually in the corner facing out, Paul and George to the left and John to the right — just like their live setup.

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The main mixing desk.  I can’t even begin to figure out how this thing would work.  They’ve indeed come a long, LONG way from four tracks in the sixties.  No picture taken, but across the room from this desk is a super-tiny room: in the 60s this was the sound effects cupboard, which was temporarily cleaned out on 13 August 1968 so the Beatles could record “Yer Blues.”

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Completely innocuous and unimportant, but I was tickled to have found their Secret Tea Stash hiding under one of the speakers in the control room.  It gave the otherwise highly technical room a bit of warmth and humanity.

The presentation itself lasted about ninety minutes and was a fantastic historical overview of the studio itself; Kehew and Ryan had not only done research on the Beatles recordings but on its origins.  They touched on all sorts of things such as its inaugural first recording of Elgar recording his Pomp and Circumstance marches (and its true first recording, a test run of a song by Paul Robeson!), its numerous renovations to improve the sound of each studio, and more.  Eventually they’d hit upon the Beatles’ tenure there, talking their relentless work ethic, continuous experimentation with sounds, and more.

At one point one of them got up from the stage and wandered over to the pianos and explained what they were, their differences in sound, and what they were used on.  This was really neat, as he proceeded to play certain songs on them, like the jabbing chords of “Penny Lane” and the soft taps of “The Fool on the Hill.”

Then he said, “We’d like to do something fun now.  I’d like to ask four piano players to–”

I shot my hand up.  I knew EXACTLY what he was up to.  I’d never forgive myself if I passed this by.

Let’s take a look at that Steinway Vertegrand again:

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See those green dots?  Yep.  They’re E chords.  One person stood next to me and hit the low octave, and I hit the two chords and held down the sustain pedal.

Three, two, one, THOOOOOMMMMMmmmmmmm.

The famous final chord of “A Day in the Life”.

The first attempt was a bit off, but OH MAN did it sound magical.  Sent shivers down my spine.  And since the face was open and the strings were right in my face, I got the full blast of sound.  I was so lost in it I forgot to lift the sustain and everyone started laughing.

The second attempt sounded even better, as we let it ring for a good twenty seconds.

I can die a happy man now.

Back down on Earth, the presentation continued, talking about the post-Beatles recordings, from Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon to the movie scores such as the Harry Potter films.  Interestingly, the other bit that gave me shivers was a brief explanation and playback on the use of sound effects, specifically on the opening to Pink Floyd’s “Time”.  They must have used remastered source tapes for that bit, as the simulated heartbeat and the delicate sound of the Shiedmayer celeste (below) almost brought me to tears, it sounded so gorgeous.

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They wrapped up the presentation with a brief overview of what they’re working on nowadays — numerous rock bands still record there (including Paul McCartney, who recorded his upcoming release there), and they’re one of the main go-to facility for movie scores.

I’ve always said the studio’s sound is definitely unique, in that there’s a specific warmth, fullness and resonance to it that you can always pick out.  I would totally record there if I was a professional musician, that’s for sure.  Not just because my favorite band recorded there, but because it truly is a fantastic place for sound.

One added and quite unexpected bonus:  Now that I’ve seen Studio Two with my own eyes, I realized I could now visualize where the Beatles recorded in this room, down to the space between them, and how it would sound in that room.  On the flight home I found myself listening to The Beatles and started visualizing the four of them recording the main takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which, serendipitously, they’d started exactly fifty years to the day I listened to it!) in that big place.  Suffice it to say, I heard it in a whole new way.  And now I’m planning on relistening to the rest of their recordings for the same reason.

All in all, one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Oh, and we got VIP badges out of it!

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Vacation Tunage

We’re heading out to London in a week and a half, and my mind is on two things:

1) I need to prep my In My Blue World and Bridgetown Trilogy freebie cards for when we head to Worldcon immediately upon return, and

2) What should I put on my mp3 players?

Yes, while most other sane people in this world prepare for a vacation with more mundane concerns such as what to pack, what they’d like to see and do once at their destination, and so on, my addled brain almost always goes to ‘I need to bring stuff to listen to.’  [Mind you, I do think of what to pack, just that I usually take care of that in the space of an hour a day or so before we go — I always remember the things I must bring like my passport and any show tickets, and anything I end up forgetting probably wasn’t needed to begin with.]

For these long flights, I usually fill up both mp3 players.  The Zen player is for recent releases and compilations, so that’s easy to update.  The SanDisk one, on the other hand, can be tricky.  That one is my writing mp3 player.  I’ve also gotten into a habit of putting (almost) complete discographies on that one, as I can get through three or four albums in the process.  I already have The Beatles on there (both the mono and stereo box sets from 2009, plus a few compilations), and ELO as well (primarily due to work on In My Blue World), but I still have lots of space left.

So…what band’s discography should I put on there?  Should I go old school and put on Cocteau Twins or The Smiths?  Should I do something new and put on Pinkshinyultrablast or GoGoPenguin?  I’ll have to think about this some.

Any suggestions, of course, are quite welcome!

All That Jazz

The first jazz song I remember hearing, even before Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, was Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”. My mom owned the Time Out album and I remember being fascinated yet a little weirded out by the cover, as well as Joe Morello’s sparse yet intense drum solo on the big hit.

I never quite followed up on my brief 1985-6 fascination with jazz, other than listening to it on my Walkman late at night, but lately I’ve been making a slow return back to it. It’s mostly been the new piano-based bands such as the amazing GoGo Penguin…

…or one of my favorites from the last couple decades, Brad Mehldau…

…but I’m yet to fully embrace it as I once did. I’m thinking this is something I should look further into. I mean, I’m relatively familiar with most of the classic musicians like Miles and Monk and Oscar and Basie and so on. I’m thinking maybe I should do a bit of homework and find a couple of good radio and internet stations and get myself back in the groove.

Who are your favorite jazz musicians, old and/or new? I’d love to try them out!