Boston Rocks

citgo sign

Speaking of 90s music, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff lately that came out while I was in Boston, college and post-college.  The city has a fascinating musical history, especially where rock and radio is concerned.  [I highly suggest looking for Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN and Brett Milano’s The Sound of Our Town for a great overview.]  There’s always been a scene of some kind in the city over the years, and it’s always been great.  A lot of it is due to its eclectic mix of blue-collar families and college students.

I was glad to be able to listen to, if not go see, a lot of the local bands while going to Emerson College in the early 90s. Here’s a few of my favorites from that era…hope you enjoy!

It Was Fifty Years Ago…

You may have heard the BIG NEWS from hither and yon that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is getting a super deluxe edition from Apple in celebration of the album turning 50.  It’s BIG NEWS because this is the first Beatles album to get this kind of remaster/expanded reissue.  The deluxe edition will contain a new remix from Giles Martin, two discs of outtakes, and a dvd and blu-ray of even more goodies — including a 5.1 mix (!!) and the Making of Sgt Pepper documentary from 1987.  The new stereo remix, per Martin, is not the original remaster we heard on the 2009 box set, but a true remix, in which he shifted the sounds to make it sound more like the original mono mix.*

Yer darn tootin’ I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it!

Anyway…I’m looking forward to hearing this new mix.  I gave the album a good listen the other day (the mono mix, actually) and it really did break a hell of a lot of rules and boundaries.  Hundreds of other bands who heard the album for the first time were completely blown away by it, even more influenced by it.  When people call songs ‘Beatlesque’, they usually mean it sounds like something from this album.

Me?  I’m looking forward to hearing “A Day in the Life”…it’s what I think of as their finest moment, not just in songwriting but in production.  It transcends being just a pop song and turns into an orchestral piece.  Hearing a new stereo mix of this song should be a treat.

To quote from my ‘Blogging the Beatles’ series from a few years back, plus a few added notes:

Though this track was recorded relatively early in the sessions (19-20 January, with additional work done a week or so later), by the time they finished recording, they knew that this absolutely had to be the last track on the album, no question. It’s long been considered one of their best compositions, and given the amount of time dedicated to it (a total 34 hours, twenty-two more than the entirety of Please Please Me!), it’s by far one of their most complex productions.

There are three distinct parts – the first and third, written mostly by John and taken from recent newspaper articles (the death of friend Tara Browne in a car accident, the report that the roads in Blackburn were filled with potholes, and so on), and the middle section provided mostly by Paul (a simple nostalgic trip of riding the double-decker bus through Liverpool when he was younger), each with its own personality.

The first part is performed with deliberate slowness, starting quietly but growing increasingly louder until we reach the end. [EDIT: Ringo’s drumming here is to the fore, punctuating each line of the verse, mixed high and given a thunderous echo.  The deliberate slowness of this first part adds to its haunting mood, which makes the first orchestral swell sound like a maelstrom.]

The link to part two is via a crazy idea from Paul and Martin, in which an orchestra plays an unscripted rise from the instrument’s lowest E up to its highest in the space of 24 bars. [EDIT: if you listen closely, you can just about hear Mal Evans under the din, counting out said bars, leading up to the alarm clock going off.] That link serves not just to wind up the listener but the speed, as Paul’s section comes in double-time, a bouncy and simple melody meant to evoke a commuter running late.

The second gives way to a third part via an absolutely breathtaking eight bars – it’s not complex, but listen to how Martin takes a simple four-note score and makes it dynamic by gradually increasing the volume of the brass, pulling them from the back to the foreground, while simultaneously pushing John’s angelic ‘aah’s being pushed back into the increasingly echoey mix.  [EDIT: In the mono mix, John merely fades into the mix, but in the stereo mix he pans from right to left as well. This entire section is by far one of my favorite moments of any Beatle song ever.  A few simple mixing and scoring tricks, but they’re done so beautifully.]

In part three we’ve returned to an abbreviated repeat of John’s first section, played double-time as well…only to be brought back to that nightmarish ascension again. This time, once everyone hits that high E, we’re left floating up in the air for a brief second…only to come crashing down – hard – on a final low E chord. That final breathtaking moment is played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans on three pianos and George Martin on a harmonium, and is drawn out to nearly forty seconds via the recording level being brought up as high as possible as the piano’s natural reverberation slowly fades.

The Super Deluxe Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released on 26 May, one week shy of fifty years of its original release.


* Some background here…the Beatles were present for the original mono mix of the album back in ’67, but were not present for the stereo mix, which was done afterwards.  Audiophiles often say the mono mix is much better, as it’s closer to what the band wanted.  It also has a fuller, tighter sound, whereas the stereo mix feels a bit spacious.  Oh–and “She’s Leaving Home” is at the right speed on the mono mix, and in my opinion makes it a stronger song, where the stereo mix was slower and more maudlin, maybe too much so.

Favorite Bands: The Damned

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of The Damned.  They’ve been a favorite band of mine since I heard “Alone Again Or” on college radio in the late 80s.  I’d heard of them, even remember their appearance on my favorite episode of The Young Ones doing the song “Nasty” (written specifically for the episode of the same name).  My friend Chris loved the ridiculous punkiness of the b-side “Jet Boy Jet Girl” and got me hooked on it.  But like some bands, I never got around to picking up their catalog until much later.

They’re kind of an unsung band, really.  Like the Kinks, they’re shuffled off to the side because they’re hard to pin down.  Not quite punk, not quite post-punk, not quite goth.  And very British.  They’ve got well-known singles from their entire career that still pop up on college radio from time to time.  [And one of their claims to fame is that their debut single, “New Rose”, is officially the first UK punk single, predating the Sex Pistols’ debut by a good few months.]

They’re also a surprisingly melodic band.  Listen to “Love Song” (from their third album Machine Gun Etiquette, from 1979) and you’ll hear some really interesting pop phrasings there, not to mention some really cheeky lyrics that aren’t that far from the Beastie Boys at their goofiest.

But on the other end of the spectrum — and from that same album — we have the fan favorite “Smash It Up”, with its lovely instrumental intro and its punkier second half, which features some interesting time signature shifts.  It’s a classic song of rebellion, but instead of the volatility and anger of the Sex Pistols, it’s more on par with the DIY ethos of The Clash.

Their follow-up album, The Black Album, from 1980, is probably my favorite of theirs.  It may have gotten mixed reviews from the critics and fans, considering they were shifting more towards that post-punk sound musically.  It contains a lot of fascinating tracks that really show their musical chops.  It’s also a double album, featuring three sides of studio recordings, and a fourth side of live tracks.  And yes, they did in fact have the Beatles ’68 eponymous album in mind when they named it.

It also contains my favorite track of theirs, a sprawling seventeen-minute track previously available as a 12″ b-side for their “White Rabbit” single (back then they were known for doing odd covers as only they could do them).  It’s an ambitious track that works in a slow-build prologue, the metaphor of life as a performance, some fabulous piano work, a midpoint breakdown that features a recorded loop of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, creepy sound effects, and a reprise tying it all together.  And interestingly enough, it’s got the same musical construction as The Beatles’ “What’s the New Mary Jane”.  That’s a damn complex song for a band usually thought of as a goofy disposable punk group.

By their 1985 album Phantasmagoria, they’d become more of a goth-lite band, sounding more like a cross between Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Mission only with a much lighter outlook lyrically and musically.  Consider the campy “Grimly Fiendish” (named after a UK comic book character from the 70s) with its excellent use of harpsichord:

…or the poppy “Is It a Dream” that almost veers into Echo & the Bunnymen territory:

…or even into Pink Floyd territory:

By 1986’s Anything, they’d sort of been written off as has-beens (especially considering chief songwriter Captain Sensible left just after 1983’s Strawberries album for a solo career) (yes, the “Wot” guy).  They released a stellar career retrospective in late 1987 called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (highly suggested) before splitting up.

But just like every other band from the 80s, the Damned never really went away.  The 90s were filled with a ridiculous amount of official and semi-official live albums, greatest hits and rarities collections.  They resurfaced in 1996 with a sort-of-official album Not of This Earth (also known as I’m Alright Jack and the Beanstalk) and a few singles such as “Shut It” and “Prokofiev”, and resurfacing again in 2001 with Grave Disorder.

They’ve toured off and on since then, and keeping themselves visible with excellent reissues of their discography during the 00s, and releasing another new album in 2008 called So, Who’s Paranoid? which has brought their sound full circle, back to the punk-goth-postpunk hybrid.

Their discography is quite long and convoluted, and it’s mostly due to having been on numerous different labels over the years — sometimes for a few albums, sometimes for just one single — but they’re definitely worth checking out.  There may be a few weak points and some filler tracks, but they’re still a lot of fun to listen to.

The Joshua Tree Turns 30

I remember when U2’s breakthrough album The Joshua Tree came out, because it wasn’t just the usual music nerds like me that were eagerly awaiting for it; most of the guys I knew on my high school football team couldn’t wait to get their hands on it!  That was certainly a change.  Usually the jocks’ tastes in music and my tastes never crossed paths at all.

It could be that the teaser single, “With or Without You”, was such a huge hit that resonated with pretty much everyone.  I think there was also the fact that their previous  releases — the atmospheric The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, the excellent but far too short live album Under a Blood Red Sky from late 1983 and the amazing War from earlier that same year — were big favorites on MTV and rock radio.  And that classic performance at Live Aid in the summer of 1985 had given them a big ol’ boost as well.

I remember not being overly excited about the release at first.  Sure, I loved U2, but I wasn’t a hardcore dedicated fan yet.  In fact, I was more focused on the new Siouxsie & the Banshees cover album (Through the Looking Glass) that was released around the same time.  But I went ahead and bought it anyway, ordering the cassette from the BMG Music Club, and deemed it worthy of repeated listens.

It wasn’t until that summer, around the release of the third single “Where the Streets Have No Name” that the album really clicked with me.  I’d started hearing more deep cuts from the album being played on WAAF, WAQY and other New England radio stations as well.  The drifting beauty of “One Tree Hill”,  the barely restrained anger of “Bullet the Blue Sky”, the pastoral melancholy of “Red Hill Mining Town” (the last of which reminded me of the dead-end feeling I was having about my home town at the time).

The album kicked off such a storm of excitement that their tour ended up being THE EVENT TO SEE.  Sadly, I would never get to see them live until nearly ten years later for the PopMart Tour, but my sisters did get to see them down in Worcester for this tour, much to my extreme jealousy.  Numerous parts of the tour stops were filmed for what would end up being the documentary Rattle and Hum, released in 1988 complete with soundtrack and new songs recorded on the road.  And a little over ten years later, they’d resurrect and re-record one of the b-sides for “Streets” and release it as a single for one of their greatest hits mixes:

I’d revisit the album numerous times over the years: a constant soundtrack during my post-college writing years and even more during the Belfry years; talking with my then-girlfriend about how the album was sequenced into a specific flow of sound and mood; a constant replay when the band released their (almost) entire discography on iTunes; while working on my Walk in Silence project.  I’ve never grown tired of it.


Thirty years on, this album is still considered a classic.  U2 themselves are celebrating its anniversary with a tour of North America and Europe, playing the album in its entirety.  I doubt I’ll be going when they stop by Santa Clara in late May, but I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic show.  [For a brief moment I thought hey, maybe they’ll come to Outside Lands!…and then I realized they’ll be wrapping up their European leg about the same time so I doubt they’ll be in the mood for trekking all the way back to California by that time.  Wishful thinking, though!]

Fandom: Approaching an inspiration


The ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ single, released 24 Aug 1984. British pop perfection.

One of the most common things I hear from many British bands in interviews is how surprised they often are when they’re told of their success in America.  I mean, as a writer, I get it; once your art is out there, you only see the response of those who actually connect with you, but you have no idea of the bigger picture.  Quite often, the musicians will respond with a bit of embarrassed surprise that they had no idea how inspiring or influential they are or were.  They’ve only seen it from their point of view as a working, touring musician.  They see the audience and maybe the sales numbers, but that’s about it.

I’m going to be seeing a conversation with Johnny Marr (guitarist extraordinaire of the Smiths and solo, natch) at the Jewish Community Center here in town tonight, and of course I’m trying to think of a good question to ask if there’s a Q & A at the end of the talk.  My first thought, of course, was ‘How does it feel to have written one of the most recognized, beloved, and imitated riffs of the 80s?’ but that seems a bit silly.  On the other side of the spectrum I could go full-on Matt Pinfield and ask about The Smiths being an insanely influential band on US college radio in the 80s.  Or I could just ask him how he tunes his guitars because I can’t figure out how the hell he plays half his licks.

I paid a little extra for my ticket so I get his new autobiography, Set the Boy Free, as well.  And perhaps I may get it signed if he’s going to be doing so.

Last time I did this was a few years back when I saw Peter Hook (bassist of Joy Division and New Order) at the same place.  I ended up not asking any dorky questions, but I did get to tell him his playing style was deeply influential in my own over the years.  [He followed that up with a big smile and asked if I was currently in a band!  Come to find out he’s just as big a music geek as I am and loves meeting other musicians of all levels.]

Looking forward to tonight!

Classic Rock: Zebra

I was a huge fan of Zebra when I was in junior high.  I remember hearing “Who’s Behind the Door?” on WAAF — and seeing the video on MTV — and being totally blown away by the music.  I loved the sound of synthesizers back then, especially if they used the strings setting.  [I’d later get into Giuffria a year or so later for the same reason.]  I even got to see them live, when they opened up for Loverboy at the Worcester Centrum — my very first big arena concert.

I bought the cassette of the self-titled debut album right about the same time, and I nearly wore it out within a year.

Decades later, and I’m listening to it on mp3, and it suddenly dawns on me — this album sounds almost exactly like a Porcupine Tree album.

Think about it:  both lead singers are guitar virtuosos who write beautiful and complex melodies.  Sure, one sings in falsetto half the time, but never mind.  Plus the keyboards play a strong and vital part in the music, giving it a darker ambience.  There are a few shorter pop songs here and there, but there are also some lengthy prog-jam pieces in there as well.  It’s no wonder that I became such a huge PT fan in the late 90s.

I still pull out this album every now and again and give it a listen.  I’ll listen to album two, No Tellin’ Lies, every now and again as well, but this first album will always be a particular favorite of mine.