All My Vinyl Part 1
So I recently started posting on a minds.com group called Vinyl Collector — it’s one of those things where you take a picture of some record from your collection and write up a little description. It’s a bit like the Facebook group called Present Listening, but less chaotic, daunting, and hellish (because Facebook is a kind of hell as we all know.) One thing you can rely on with minds.com is, your posts don’t get hidden, disappeared, or put out of order. It seems such a simple thing, but in fact it is extremely rare in this increasingly stupid digital dystopia.
Anyway, I’ve enjoyed sharing this stuff more than I expected to. A lot of the write-ups verge on personal essay territory rather than simple descriptions, so I’m aggregating them here so they don’t disappear down the social media memory hole. Unless this whole account disappears, in which case… well in which case any comment I might have on the matter will be moot. But the general idea is, records are great. Listen to records, especially these.
X-Ray Spex — Germfree Adolescents — INS 3023 — 1978
Punk rock was a tantalizing, distant world to me in 1977, mostly mysterious, almost another planet, only dimly understood through snippets heard on underground radio, imported records bought solely on the basis of their covers, and a bit of NME and Trouser Press when I could get my hands on them. But above all, it was a private territory, a kind of refuge from “the world”. It was my own thing. No one I knew knew about it but me. I took what bits of it I could, semi-digested and half-grasped, and wore them like a shield. And it helped. I was just a bit too young, and bit too on-another-continent, to participate, whatever that might have meant, but at least I could play the records and imagine what a “punk life” might be. (Which I got wrong as well, as I was to discover.)
This album meant the world to me at age 13. I literally wore it out, playing it over and over. As with a lot of this stuff, it is hard to discern, looking back, specifically what it was that spoke to me so loudly and clearly. I know too much about it now, about what it really was and is. I suspect the final song “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” is about an acid trip, which I knew nothing about and could not have then suspected. But the music, by which I mean the sound as well as the associations it evoked, accurate and otherwise, did quite literally color my world, and that is precisely how I took it. In spite of ignorance it was something like a total aesthetic absorbed direct through noise alone, and for better or worse, this stuff made me who I am.
Here’s “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo”:
Here’s a great performance from the Old Grey Whistle Test.
It’s impossible to say whether the impact would have been lessened or deepened had I had access to footage like that at the time. Looking back I cannot recapture what it looked like in my head, though the music certainly still evokes the feeling.
All that aside, the record is still just as vibrant, just as vital and exciting, now as it was forty years ago. Maybe the best punk rock album. Definitely one of the best rock albums. Up there on the list of best “things”. Regardless, it’s a personal touchstone that hasn’t eroded, and won’t.
Judee Sill — Judee Sill — SD 5050 — 1971
Hers is a tragic story in almost every way. From learning to play the piano in her father’s Oakland bar, to a violent homelife following her father’s death and mother’s remarriage, to juvenile delinquency and a string of teenaged armed robberies, followed by reform school, a stint in prison for check-forging (where she reputedly learned Gospel music), to the full suite of addiction to every known drug, and then to prostitution and petty crime and to an eventual suicide: this woman “lived” the counterculture, embodying 100% of its various pathologies. Yet somehow, in the process, she managed to create this utterly unique work of literally incredible depth and beauty. Creepy and gorgeous, and rather mysterious as well, it’s one of only a handful of recordings that has brought me to actual tears (and nearly did so this morning when I threw it on.)
Here’s a playlist on youtube comprising the album.
And here’s “Crayon Angels”:
The Graham Nash-produced “Jesus Was a Cross-maker”** is the stand out track, perhaps, and the best known, but beyond that, for me, the album is a journey into another world, heart-breakingly beautiful, and unlike anything heard before or since. The songs themselves are brilliant, tightly conceived and composed, yet defying description, managing, somehow, to “land” despite their rather abstruse content — they seem to “point to something,” and then they actually do. Which is something of a miracle in itself. So much could have gone wrong (and it did in her life, obviously) but as to the songs, their aim is true. The vocal arrangements with their delicate instrumental backdrops are stunning.
Neither the follow-up album (Heart Food) nor the various posthumous releases come close to this, and it’s difficult to imagine how anything could. Can you tell I’m a fan? So glad it exists.
**cf. the Hollies’ version.
Andwellas Dream — Love and Poetry —S 63673 — 1968
This Belfast band was originally named The Method but re-Christened themselves Andwellas Dream when they moved to London in 1968. There they recorded this, one of the greatest psych/acid-folk rock albums of all time, a masterpiece and a true classic.
They really mastered the art of the quiet, ethereal soundscape with gentle melody which gradually builds till the themes are re-iterated in a wall of tangled guitar. Just start at the beginning with “The Days Grew Longer for Love” and let it drag you in, then let it blow your mind.
Thin Lizzy — Whisk(e)y in the Jar — Decca — DL 25 556–1972
If I had to choose, this is probably my favorite piece of vinyl. The song, a hard rock reworking of the Dubliners’ version of a more or less traditional Irish ballad, is magic. The recording is perfect. The band would go on to scale ever greater heights but this is where it all began and the single is something I cherish. (It is said the single was released without the band’s consent and against their wishes, and that its surprise success herded Thin Lizzy away from the abstruse “literary” Celtadelica they began with towards the more straight-ahead sound they were to become known for. And if so, good on Decca. I love those records as well but I’m glad it happened that way.)
This is a German pressing, btw, which misspells the title. The song does not appear on the album noted on the sleeve.
The Clique — The Clique — White Whale — 1969
Another dip into bubblegum/psych “sunshine pop”, this is the sole LP release from the Clique, a Houston band turned into an art project by producer/engineer/songwriter Gary Zekley. (The pictured insert, explaining away a pressing/printing snafu in terms of “artistic reasons” is… well, it’s vintage Zekley anyway.)
It’s a beautiful-sounding record, a competent pop production and a lot of fun to listen to as an album, but the true gem, a work of genius really, that justifies its existence is buried all the way in the inner grooves of side B: “Superman.” It is perhaps the ultimate expression of teen romantic angst, bass-driven, pregnant with anguish, desperate… it creates its own world. “You don’t really love that guy you make it with now do ya?” One of the top pop songs of all time, by my reckoning.
REM did a cover of it (which is doubtless how most people who are aware of this song know it) but that emotionally flat, semi-ironic rendition, to my ears, does the song no favors. This one’s the real deal.
Fleetwood Mac — “Oh Well” — Reprise — RA2700 — 1969
It took quite some time to come to terms with liking Fleetwood Mac. And it involved quite a bit of denial and a slow peel of layer upon layer of prejudice.
The Fleetwood Mac that was popular when I first became aware of them (and boy were they ever) was the Rumours Fleetwood Mac, loved by Normal People everywhere, and their parents. I was not normal. I was edgy. Off-beat. (At least, I was in my head.) At war with normalcy, wanting to flee from normalcy as far and as quickly as I could. Fleetwood Mac was, to me, the ultimate in anodyne, insipid, pantywaist normality, not just in the music per se, but in the associated lifestyle that it was (as it seemed to me) the soundtrack and emblem of. Boomer parents in their hot tubs, soft-focus beach scenes, crystals, passing around a joint and discussing charter schools after the kids were safely in bed, sensitive men with ponytails, women in filmy scarves talking about enneagrams and vegetarianism and “earth shoes”; i.e., the California lifestyle that surrounded me.
I was vaguely aware that the band had a past — all bands do — but I was never curious enough to explore it, and it wasn’t till pretty late in my music appreciating life indeed that I actually did and had my proverbial mind blown. I like to think that, had I heard the first three FM albums even back then I’d have seen their worth. But maybe not. I was pretty contrarian then, as I am now. (And in fact, collecting all the Fleetwood Mac records now, openly and candidly and sincerely, manifests a trace of the same contrariness, if I’m honest.) Anyway, I didn’t.
There were long-standing cracks in the edifice, though. For example, when I learned that “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”, an established staple of punk rock and very highly regarded by me, was in fact a Fleetwood Mac cover, coming to the punk world via the Rezillos by way of the Count Bishops. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, but it was true. And today’s song, “Oh Well,” was vaguely familiar to me from the cover by Detroit’s Rockets, a staple of late-70s rock radio by a band with a solid rock and roll Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels pedigree.
As with SGGTHKIT, I hadn’t realized “Oh Well” was a cover at all. But I knew the riff, and played it pretty much whenever I picked up a guitar. At some point, after many many years of doing this, someone in the room said, offhand “hey Fleetwood Mac.” And in an uncharacteristic lack of obtuseness on my part, the full horror my position became suddenly apparent. There was no other conclusion. As with “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight,” I had been enjoying, and playing, a Fleetwood Mac song without realizing it. This was before the internet made such investigations easy. To confirm that the riff originated from a Fleetwood Mac song meant scouring record stores hoping to find the item in question, buying it on faith, taking it home, and hoping for the best. Fortunately I lived in an area with lots of record stores.
And it turned out, the riff, and the song whose backbone it formed, was indeed Fleetwood Mac. And the recording, “Oh Well,” was a killer.
I mean, even after all these years it’s still thrilling. Those sounds are so cutting, so immediate, the arrangement simple yet, when it gets going, swirling right to the edge of going out of control, then reining in abruptly. I cannot think of a more perfect rock recording. That silence with the cowbell in the middle. That lonely Peter Green vocal, as affecting as any fake blues has ever been. Those faux blues lyrics even spoke to me, as lyrics. (I loved the Rolling Stones, but their fake blues lyrics never did that.) Even the weird, ethereal mood soundscape of part two grabbed me, and the fact that it abruptly stops and you have to turn the record over to resume, at which point it starts over, appealed to my sense of absurdity.
So, I got it. I started acquiring the albums. And I even revised my opinion on Rumours, which is, it’s great. But pretty much nothing can match this single.
— The Rockets — “Oh Well”
— out of all the covers of “Oh Well,” only Joe Jackson’s really moves me:
— Fleetwood Mac — “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”
— The Count Bishops — “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”
— The Rezillos — “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”
— a repost of the original minds.com post may be found here.
The Dickies — Paranoid / Hideous / You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla) A&M 1978, white vinyl SP-12008
The Dickies — Banana Splits (Tra La La Song) / Hedious / Got It at the Store, A&M, 1979 yellow vinyl AMS 7431
Speaking of sardonic punk rock covers [because we’d been discussing the MTX “Spider Man” cover — ed.]it was the Dickies who did it first (arguably) and best (certainly.) There may be an earlier example of the punk rock TV theme cover than their 1979 “Banana Splits (Tra La La Song)” single but I’m unable to think of one right now. (Historians?)
The closest I can come up with is the novelty songs from the Dr Demento milieu that melded TV themes with “serious” rock songs a la the Barnes and Barnes/Damaskas “Day in the Life of Green Acres” and, of course, Little Roger and the Goosebumps’ “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”, both from 1978. This stuff certainly captured my imagination as a young teen. One of the first “songs” I ever “wrote” consisted, not coincidentally in this context, of singing the lyrics to “Spider Man” to the tune of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” It works! And I was very impressed with myself. I thought it would make me at least as famous as Little Roger and the Goosebumps — whose famousness I drastically over-estimated — but it was not to be. (I still play it sometimes, just to annoy people, which is why I do most of the things I do, if I’m honest.)
A hazard of this type of enterprise is that the humor and cleverness only extends as far as awareness of the original and the source of the invading lyrics… time tends to render this stuff, despite all cleverness, irrelevant, and ultimately incomprehensible. (cf. Syd Barrett & Marty Krofft’s “Bugaloos Lost Demo”, all three elements of which are known, I would guess, to a vanishingly tiny cohort.)
But of course the Dickies excelled at ironic covers and were famous for them, and they stuck to the classics, mostly. Six of their nine singles in their initial active phase were covers of well-known, classic songs, TV-themes and otherwise. “Eve of Destruction,” “Silent Night,” “Banana Splits,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Gigantor,” and their first, shown here in 10" form, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.”
Superficially this involved little more than speeding things up — you could call the Dickies a sped-up West Coast Ramones (and their example is reportedly responsible for the Bad Brains’ decision to start playing too fast.) But in fact these exercises in smashing up old songs and re-casting them in punk rock form were extremely artful and inventive. The vocal arrangements are always a knockout, and those guitar lines instantly take permanent root in your consciousness the first time you hear them. But more than that: a cover, at its best, the kind that makes you see the original, familiar song in an entirely new light, can be a genuine revelation. And despite the archness and sarcasm, each of these Dickies covers, to varying degrees, delivers one.
Arguably the best of them is the cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” which manages to find the scintillating pop masterpiece buried within the lugubrious, not to say tedious, AOR radio staple. The mere fact of its existence is funny, but beyond the humor, you gradually become aware that you stand in the presence of greatness. Some sort of magic has been performed.
“Paranoid” is the one that started it all, and it’s why, for some of us, the original always sounds so damn… slow.
There’s a lot more to be said about this tradition of covers, which continues past the original spate of singles discussed here. (e.g. “Hair,” from the 1989 album Second Coming — these guys can tackle anything.) And I could write an entire essay on the surpassing greatness of the 1980 album The Dawn of the Dickies (their finest hour) and maybe I will one day.
But this is about the “Paranoid” 10" and I’ve got one more thing to say about it, as it connects with the topic of sardonic TV appropriation in punk rock. The song “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)” is derived from a Leave It to Beaver episode in which the Beaver joins a record club (S6 E9, relevant scene around eleven minutes in.) That is one of the titles thrown out in the script, a list of silly-sounding songs. Not a lot of people know that! I only discovered it myself by accident, when a re-run happened to be playing in the background and I happened to hear the title of one of my favorite songs blurted out by Jerry Mathers, twenty years too early.
That’s the sort of spirit that inspired a generation of sardonic pop culture appropriators like me. Another of the songs mentioned in the episode was entitled “Sweet Irish Geisha.” I still have a half-written song of my own of that title, but I could never quite make it work. We Dickies imitators can only go so far.
The Flamin’ Groovies — Teenage Head, Kama Sutra Records, K SBS 2031, 1971
The Flamin’ Groovies covered a lot of ground in their most active fertile decade (‘68-’78). They were pioneers who sowed seeds that sprouted into many of the most important rock sub-genres of the 70s and 80s, and they still cast a long shadow to this day. From (in their various phases) classic boogie woogie roots rock to UK Pub Rock, to “power pop”, to “new wave”, to the meta-genre of the Merseyside/Mod/60s punk/Nuggets revivalists, they seem to have done everything flawlessly before everyone else caught on, and did it uniquely with nary a misstep.
There are superlative things to be said about each of these phases and their associated recordings. It’s all classic stuff, especially the Dave Edmunds produced songs “Shake Some Action”, “You Tore Me Down”, and “Slow Death”, recorded in 1972 after the band decamped to London from San Francisco. “Shake Some Action”, in particular, was ridiculously ahead of its time. (That song was not to be released till the 1976 Sire album of that title, which is the form in which I first heard it, riding the knob on the left hand of the dial late one night I will never forget: it has played in my head incessantly since then.. It is truly a monumental feat of pop music writing and production.) Their “Merseyside” experiments, which dare the listener to tell the actual Beatles covers from their own British invasion songs they wrote themselves is itself a whole nother category of wonderworking.
But this little write up is about Teenage Head, their third full-length album. It is often compared favorably to the contemporaneously-released Sticky Fingers. And there is a sense in which it is indeed an unsung American Sticky Fingers. Part of the glory of the Rolling Stones of that era was the melding of various strands of American music pastiche into a surprisingly coherent sort of redefinition of rock and roll for the then-new era. Teenage Head does this as well, and is much more direct, down-to-earth, no-nonsense and “organic,” sans platform shoes, Uncle Sam top hats, private jets, hipster slumming, and glitter capes. Some would say the music is less “hokey,” too, though that hokeyness, if such it is, is a crucial part of the Rolling Stones whole as far as I’m concerned. (And it is great.)
I’m not sure Teenage Head is better, necessarily. But it sure does kick out the jams. It explodes out of the speakers and makes me a believer anew every time. The title track in particular (incidentally where the great Hamilton, Ontario band Teenage Head got its name) is perhaps the standout track and a true anthem of adolescent angst and agitation in the classic rock and roll tradition. We begin with arrested development and teen confusion, then on to sex and drugs: and then we get to this right at the end:
“When ya’ see me, better turn your tail and run, ’cause I’m angry, and I’ll mess you up for fun. I’m a child of atom bombs and rotten air and Vietnams; I am you, you are me.”
I mean, just… boy, there’s your “modern” take on Carl Perkins plus Muddy Waters plus Robert Johnson plus Slim Harpo plus civil unrest plus jaded proto-punk blank generation-ness, ca. 1971, and it still cuts. I’m not sure Jagger/Richards could have “gone there” quite so convincingly (and they did try.)
Here’s the whole album on youtube.
Emitt Rhodes — Emitt Rhodes — ABC/Dunhill — DS 50089 — 1970
Another of my favorite records here. Emitt Rhodes is one of those guys where you hear the music and think, why the hell didn’t he make it big? The fact that he’s not a household name calls into question the rationality of the universe, or at least, that of the record business and popular culture (the questioning of the rationality of which is, of course, not at all counter-intuitive.)
In fact, it’s something of a tale as old as time, of a young genius chewed up and spit out by the music biz before he stood a chance of satisfying the commercial obligations and expectations placed upon him. As singer-songwriter of the brilliant yet short-lived psych-pop outfit the Merry-Go-Round, he had already penned an enduring classic “Time Will Show the Wiser,” later made famous by Fairport Convention. (Which, speaking of, warrants a separate post of its own.) This, his subsequent solo release, was a critical smash and a modest commercial success, but his contract with ABC/Dunhill called for an album every six months for three years, which was much more than the young pop auteur was prepared to deliver. The label sued him for a quarter of a million dollars (far, far greater than the $5,000 advance he spent on recording equipment.) They withheld royalties, and (in one of those self-defeating shoot-yourself-in-the-foot strategies labels so often seem to adopt) refused to promote the two follow-up albums. That’ll show him, they said, I suppose. Needless to say, his career as a pop star didn’t survive.
What did survive, however, is this quite amazing 1970 album, recorded in solitude by the artist over the course of a year in his parents’ garage. It is pretty much the perfect pop album, the best Paul McCartney record you never heard. Indeed, I’ve heard him dismissed as a McCartney imitator, which is not an inaccurate description by any means; but it really fails to get across the unique and subtle brilliance of the songwriting, performance, arrangements, and production. (Not gonna lie though: his voice is uncannily like Paul’s, and when I first heard “Promises I’ve Made” I assumed it was some weirdly neglected McCartney b-side.) The compositional subtlety is hidden by the praeternaturally confident and assured execution. Just try to sit down and learn to play these songs on the guitar. When I did it, I learned chords and voicings I’d never theretofore imagined, a concealed, almost baroque foundation underlying the seeming simplicity.
“Somebody Made for Me” is, for me, the best of a smashing bunch, and it was on pretty much every romantic mix I ever made for girls back in the days when I used to do that. (And on that score, never say never again: old habits die hard.) A lazy Sunday morning is the perfect time for the most perfect, most neglected, and almost most forgotten pop album I know.
Here’s a youtube playlist of the album.
Jerry Reed — The Unbelievable Guitar & Voice of Jerry Reed — RCA Victor — LSP-3756 — 1968
The greatest country picker the world has ever seen (and possibly will ever see) and personal guitar hero to multitudes, including me. I just can’t get enough of Jerry Reed. He’s probably best known to the world for his (great) novelty songs and his later film roles. He regarded himself as primarily a songwriter rather than a player, and he wrote some great ones. He was a great singer too, and a charismatic and engaging personality who really shone on television. But his enduring contribution was the Unbelievable Guitar, that is, his wholesale re-invention of fingerstyle playing, a totally unique style and sound, instantly recognizable and nearly impossible to emulate.
Jerry Reed’s recording career was vast and rather diffuse and it’s hard to specify the essential “go here first” record. In fact, much of the documentation of his phenomenal playing isn’t on record at all, but in his many performances on TV. Never mimed or “finger-synced”, each performance was unique. If you’ve never done it before, just spend an afternoon on youtube watching: it’ll blow your mind.
This is his first album release, produced by frequent collaborator Chet Atkins. It has that inimitable magic guitar all over it, but it is nonetheless featured with great subtlety: the songs are far in front, the guitar merely the staging for them. This restraint in the arrangement and production is in its way an impressive feat of its own — who’d want to restrain a virtuoso? (I could listen to a whole album of those licks unaccompanied, myself.) The “lead” lines are so fluid and sound so natural, but just try to play them. Almost nothing is harder. Underneath much of it is this rhythm & blues derived beat, totally driven by the fingerpicking foundation that is only occasionally detectable in the mix. The closest analogue for the beat is the Ray Charles “What’d I Say?” rhythm that inspired so many of the beat groups of the 60s but conjured in this case solely with a thumb pick and fingers on nylon strings. Once you realize what’s going on, it’s simply amazing.
And after an album of teasing, it all comes to a head and is laid bare in the glorious final track, “The Claw,” an instrumental, probably the greatest “guitar song” ever conceived and recorded. There’s a back-up band playing but the guitar in front is all you notice. And it’s the coolest sound ever. Just listen to that intro: I can’t really describe it, but I know you’ll know what I mean. The first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe a human could do that with nothing but fingers. I still can’t quite believe it.
I have been trying to learn to play it for years. And what that means is, I have run through this song many times a day, every single day, for the last five years almost without fail, thousands and thousands of times. I would love to be able to perform it for actual people one day (not just the cat) and sometimes it feels almost close. I can technically play all the parts. But somehow it is missing the element that makes it sound like real music, the thing that makes it move and rock and so forth. Maybe in another five years I’ll get it, but maybe not.
There was only one Jerry Reed. I’m not too sentimental about departed heroes as a rule. I figure, they had a full life, and you gotta go some time, etc. etc. So there aren’t too many dead players I genuinely miss, but I do miss Jerry. God bless him.
Here’s a playlist comprising the whole album.