Friday, August 4, 2017

Stephen King Rant


Stephen King is not my favorite author; that honor goes to Lois McMaster Bujold or Orson Scott Card, with Dan Simmons not far behind. I'm essentially a fan of science fiction. I've read the Vorkosigan series and the Ender Wiggin series more often than I can recall. That said, I felt compelled to write about Stephen King today.

I used to read a lot more often than I do now, but my life has changed drastically over the past few months and reading has assumed greater importance once again. After going to hospital for what I thought was a fairly routine test, I was told that I had a serious heart condition. Two days later I was sitting in bed after undergoing a quadruple bypass. One of the consequences of that rapid series of events is that I was forced to miss work for three months. However, it also allowed me additional time to read. Friends bought me a copy of Mr. Mercedes to entertain me while I was recuperating and I read it in less than two days. I had almost forgotten how enjoyable it could be to read a truly engaging story so I quickly picked up the other two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy and read them within a week of opening the first book.

I'm also waiting to move to a new apartment, but it isn't quite ready. All of my existing books and other possessions have been placed in storage while I continue to wait, so I am staying with the same friends who bought me Mr. Mercedes. Since reading that, I have bought another 12 Stephen King books. The spare bedroom in my friends' house is starting to resemble a library.

I wouldn't claim to be Stephen King's biggest fan; I own perhaps 40 of his books and have read about half of them so far. I'm not really a fan of horror at all, but I am open to any book or movie genre if the story is well-written. If you are somehow new to King, I also want to point out that only a small percentage of his books are horror; most have supernatural elements, but the stories have so much more depth than most books in those genres. They are not vehicles intended to simply scare the reader. That's partly why I am bothering to write this post because I wanted, no, needed to tell you how much I have been enjoying and appreciating King's writing in the past few weeks.


Although King has received plenty of recognition, there are still a lot of people who can't take his work seriously because it is fiction. Others want to label him as a horror writer or too weird. That's a pity because there is so much more to his writing than what genres he happens to operate within. I think he's successful because the roots of his stories are situations which exist in the real world. His characters and the situations they find themselves in are usually easy for us to recognize because we have experienced similar thoughts and problems in our own lives. I don't mean that I have ever been possessed, or that I have supernatural abilities, but haven't you ever found yourself agreeing with one of King's characters when they decide upon a course of action? The logic and reasoning works. I often become that character when I read whatever book it happens to be.

Like David Lynch's films, King's work is composed of normal everyday elements with a small twist or addition that changes everything. King understands what makes us tick and could probably write a wonderful book on human behavior.

My own experiences reading Stephen King's extensive bibliography have always been extremely positive. I love how normal the world of Needful Things is when the story begins and how things slowly escalate until there is utter chaos; every step makes sense. In The Dark Half, Thad Beaumont has such a believable ordinary life until his imagination creates physical manifestations. You can imagine yourself facing those problems and making similar choices to those of King's characters.

Two of my favorite movies are based on Stephen King stories; The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile make us think and feel. Sometimes I watch Shawshank and feel like I am Andy Dufresne. I would try to survive by creating meaning in my enforced surroundings and music would definitely be one of the tools that would keep me sane. Another common theme in King's writing is coping with adversity. How would society adjust if all the rules no longer applied? The Stand is the supreme example because of the sheer depth of the story. It's more than a simple good versus evil yarn.

After racing through the Bill Hodges trilogy, I decided to buy more Stephen King books so that I could read them before returning to work. I finally decided it was time to read The Dark Tower and I picked up the first two books. Three days later I went to buy the remainder of the series after loving the first two installments. I was easily able to locate five of the six, but The Waste Lands was out of stock everywhere within 30 miles, so I started Doctor Sleep and ordered The Waste Lands from Amazon. Now I have The Waste Lands, but Doctor Sleep is too good to put down. First world problems?


To complete my recent obsessive behavior, I bought a ticket for an evening with Stephen and Owen King, discussing their upcoming book, Sleeping Beauties. Something told me I should seize such opportunities because they don't come along very often.

I'm sure most of you already understand the brilliance of Stephen King's writing or you wouldn't still be reading. In today's world, I think it's increasingly rare to set aside the time to read a lengthy novel. There are so many things competing for our time and focusing on one thing for more than ten minutes can be a challenge. I think I wrote this because I haven't felt so enthusiastic about reading for several years. I feel like I just discovered it for the first time. I may invent fire tomorrow.

Thank you Mr. King. See you in Toronto in a couple of months.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

One of the best deliveries I ever received


This post is for those of you who have a passion for music. If that's not your thing, you might have trouble understanding the level of excitement I felt when friends recently sent me a package of old records that I used to own.

First, here's the background story:

I left the UK in 2005 and decided to live my life in Canada. One of my decisions was to travel light, so I started giving away some of my things to friends and neighbors. At that time, I had a significant CD collection and listened to all of my music on a Marantz CD player, through a pair of Mission speakers. To my ears, music had never sounded so clear. I didn't feel the need to transplant my remaining vinyl records to another country. I hadn't even had the means to play them for several years. I ended up donating them to one of my closest friends. We spent years attending concerts together and countless evenings listening to music on the Marantz system, so he was the obvious choice.

More than 10 years passed without me giving a second thought to my old vinyl collection. Then one day, another close friend finally convinced me to give vinyl another try. I bought a turntable. That simple sentence actually required a lot more effort than you might imagine.

There are many areas where I will happily buy a budget option, but that's not the case when it comes to music. My usual thought process is to buy one of the entry level options from a proven manufacturer. I narrowed down my search and eventually found myself choosing between an Audio Technica LP120 and a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (DC). The Pro-Ject was my final choice. Then I needed some records.

The biggest reason for attempting to improve the way I listened to music involved Modest Mouse. I had been a casual fan of the band for years, but during 2014, I found myself playing the band's music almost non-stop. The albums that I had dismissed as being too raw finally fell into place. I loved it all. How could I listen to that spectacular music in a way that would do it justice? I found myself ordering every Modest Mouse album on vinyl (I already owned the CDs). Unfortunately, the shipment was delayed until Strangers To Ourselves was released, so my initial new record collection was limited to Ugly Casanova's Sharpen Your Teeth. I gave the album one listen and I was completely sold on the vinyl experience. I found myself sitting in the dark listening to every note as if it was being played by a musician sitting across from me.

I spent about $1,000 on records and equipment before I heard that one record. If I hadn't liked the result, it would have been an expensive experiment. If you factor in concerts, the various format changes, equipment, and remastered and bonus versions of existing albums, I have easily spent $50,000 on music over the course of my life. It's safe to say that I'm a fan and that music is important to me.

That was a longer background story than I anticipated, sorry.

Ever since I rediscovered vinyl two years ago, I've had a dilemma. Just what exactly should I buy? If I just buy everything I already own on CD, am I wasting money? How many albums do I listen to on a regular basis? Can I justify buying things I might not play even once during the year? So I decided that vinyl would be the ultimate format for those albums that do receive regular play, and I would restrain myself beyond that. To further complicate things, I knew that eventually my friends would dig through their attic and return the records I gave them 12 years ago. I never anticipated asking for them back, but I didn't understand the level of passion I would feel for the old format. When I found out they weren't being played, I explained what it would mean to me if they could possibly be returned. Once that became a certainty, I had to reign in my purchases even more. What had I owned anyway? What would be in those boxes when I finally opened them?

As a result of all these unknowns, my record collection numbered just under a hundred until a certain package arrived a few days ago. I paid the shipping, which ended up being $280. To my surprise, the package took just one day to travel from England to Canada. I collected the records and sat down to document the experience. The first thing I noticed is that the entire package fit into two record cases, one black and one brown. I recognized those cases from my past. I had bought them around 30 years ago.

What would I find inside?

I started with the heavier brown box. It appeared crammed with a mixture of 12" singles and LPs.

Would I find anything embarrassing from my extreme youth? Probably not.


The first thing out of the box didn't even have a cover. Ah yes, The Beatles 1967-1970 compilation I had bought from a friend for 50 pence while I was in school. I decided to make an Excel spreadsheet as well as add everything into my Discogs collection. I didn't actually own any Beatles vinyl until that moment. While not a band I listen to very often, it was exciting to own an original pressing of something that had sentimental value to me.

Next out of the box was an album by the Fall. My favorite band from about 1980 to 1995 was heavily represented. I became more and more amazed at what was in the box. That first album, A Part Of America Therein, 1981, was one of 17 Fall albums in the box. The first 11 studio albums were all there, along with a live album, a few compilations, and the legendary Slates EP. There were also a number of 12" singles and 45s. Try to imagine yourself in a similar situation. One of the most important bands in your life is suddenly a huge part of your record collection again. The vast majority of the albums are original pressings and most are out of print (although a few are starting to see releases again).


One thing I noticed immediately was that everything was in incredible shape. No musty smell, damage, or warping of any kind. They actually look clean enough to play in many cases, but I'll definitely clean them first.

Next out of the box was Blondie. In fact, the first six studio albums were there, as well as a 12" and some of Debbie Harry's solo stuff. I almost bought Parallel Lines at the flea market every time I saw it. I'm glad I restrained myself.


All of these thoughts about music make me think about where our musical influences originate. My parents and grandparents never showed any interest when I was growing up, so my early favorites came from listening to the radio. Then, when I was about 12, my neighbor introduced me to the music of David Bowie. That has stuck with me for more than 40 years and I still own most of Bowie's output. Perhaps my biggest influences came from school and then the John Peel show. You can easily see Peel's influence here as 39 of the 111 records are by The Fall. I was delighted to find more bands originally discovered by listening to Peel's show. This first box included albums and EPs by Half Man Half Biscuit and Yeah Yeah Noh. Bands discovered at school included The Damned and John Cooper Clarke, so I was delighted to find Damned Damned Damned and two Clarke albums hiding in the box.


And so to the second box. It felt a lot lighter than the first because about half the records were 7" singles. That said, it was still an exciting package. The most welcome and unexpected record was definitely the original pressing of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. I remember buying it in the final years of school. The recent 180g remaster sounds fantastic, but it's incredible to own the original again. The black textured sleeve with its iconic logo was in superb shape.


Other welcome finds in the second box included singles from The Wedding Present, Sugarcubes, Pavement, Magazine, and Throwing Muses. My Muses vinyl collection is severely lacking and most of the albums are out of print, but it is good to have a few more singles and EPs to play on vinyl. There were a few other surprises, such as a Bill Nelson single on red vinyl and the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP, which has always been a favorite of mine.

Music is like a time machine. It allows us to travel back and experience all kinds of things, good and bad. The memories attached to these particular records are mostly very good and it's great to have doubled the size of my fledgling collection. I can't thank my friends enough for the effort involved in making this happen.

For those of you who like statistics as much as me, here is a full list of what was in the boxes:

Artist Title Format
Beatles 1967-1970 2LP
Beck Devils Haircut 7"
Belly Pretty Deep 7"
Belly Seal My Fate 7"
Blondie Sunday Girl 12"
Blondie AutoAmerican LP
Blondie Blondie LP
Blondie Eat To The Beat LP
Blondie Parallel Lines LP
Blondie Plastic Letters LP
Blondie The Hunter LP
Bowie, David Pinups LP
Bragg, Billy Between The Wars 7"
Breeders Head To Toe 10" EP
Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch 7" EP
Clarke, John Cooper Me And My Big Mouth LP
Clarke, John Cooper Zip Style Method LP
Damned Damned Damned Damned LP
Drugstore Fader 7"
Dury, Ian Do It Yourself LP
Fall Slates 10" MiniAlbum
Fall Hey! Luciani 12"
Fall Mr Pharmacist 12"
Fall The Peel Sessions 12"
Fall Why Are People Grudgeful? 12"
Fall Telephone Thing 12" EP
Fall Couldn't Get Ahead 12" Single
Fall Free Range 12" Single
Fall Living Too Late 12" Single
Fall There's A Ghost In My House 12" Single
Fall Victoria 12" Single
Fall Call For Escape Route 12" Single + 7" Single
Fall Kicker Conspiracy 2 x 7"
Fall Bingo-Master's Break-Out! 7"
Fall C.R.E.E.P. 7"
Fall Cruiser's Creek 7"
Fall How I Wrote 'Elastic Man' 7"
Fall Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul 7"
Fall Oh! Brother 7"
Fall Rehearsal Early '77 (Vol.1) 7"
Fall The Man Whose Head Expanded 7"
Fall Totally Wired 7"
Fall 77 - Early Years - 79 LP
Fall A Part Of America Therein, 1981 LP
Fall Bend Sinister LP
Fall Dragnet LP
Fall Grotesque (After The Gramme) LP
Fall Hex Enduction Hour LP
Fall Hip Priest And Kamerads LP
Fall I Am Kurious Oranj LP
Fall Live At The Witch Trials LP
Fall Palace Of Swords Reversed LP
Fall Perverted By Language LP
Fall Room To Live LP
Fall The Wonderful And Frightening World Of... LP
Fall This Nation's Saving Grace LP
Fall Totale's Turns (It's Now Or Never) LP
Fall Fall In A Hole LP + 12" EP
Fall The Frenz Experiment LP + 7"
Foxx, John No-One Driving 2 x 7"
Foxx, John Metamatic LP
Girls Against Boys Super-fire 10"
Half Man Half Biscuit The Trumpton Riots 12" EP
Half Man Half Biscuit Dickie Davies Eyes 12" Single
Half Man Half Biscuit Back Again In The D.H.S.S. LP
Half Man Half Biscuit Back In The D.H.S.S. LP
Harry, Debbie Free To Fall (Picture Disc) 12" Maxi
Harry, Debbie KooKoo LP
Harry, Debbie Rockbird LP
Harry, Debbie/Blondie Once More Into The Bleach 2LP
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures LP
K.U.K.L. The Eye LP
Lennon, John Imagine 7"
Magazine Give Me Everything 7"
Magazine Touch And Go 7"
Nelson, Bill Furniture Music 7"
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark Red Frame/White Light 7"
Pavement Carrot Rope 7"
Pavement Stereo 7"
Pavement Give It A Day 7" EP
Peter Cook & Dudley Moore Derek And Clive (Live) LP
Pixies Debaser (Demo) 7"
Pixies Limited Edition Interview Picture Disc LP
Psychedelic Furs Dumb Waiters 7"
Queen Bohemian Rhapsody 7"
Queen Now I'm Here 7"
Riley, Marc with the Creepers Fancy Meeting God! LP
Sonic Youth Master=Dik / Beat On The Brat 12" EP
Specials Ghost Town 7"
Sugarcubes Deus 10"
Sugarcubes Planet 12"
Sugarcubes Walkabout 7"
Throwing Muses Chains Changed 12"
Throwing Muses Dizzy 12"
Throwing Muses Dizzy (Promo) 12"
Throwing Muses Counting Backwards 12" Maxi
Throwing Muses The Fat Skier 12" MiniAlbum
Throwing Muses Ruthie's Knocking 7"
Throwing Muses Shark 7"
Throwing Muses Shark 7"
Various Vinyl Conflict 2 7"
Various They Shall Not Pass LP
Wedding Present Brassneck 12"
Wedding Present The Peel Sessions 12"
Wedding Present Montreal 7"
Wedding Present Montreal 7"
Wedding Present Sucker 7"
Wings Listen To What The Man Said 7"
Yeah Yeah Noh The Peel Sessions 12" Maxi
Yeah Yeah Noh When I Am A Big Girl 12" MiniAlbum
Yeah Yeah Noh Cutting The Heavenly Lawn Of Greatness LP

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ultimate Playlists 12: Built To Spill


Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

Unlike most of the bands in this series, I have not been listening to Built To Spill for 10 years or more. The music is still quite new to me and all of the current albums were already released before I became a fan. I have only seen the band in concert once and I am yet to associate any of their songs with events in my life. If I make another Built To Spill playlist in a year or two, it might be drastically different to the one I am going to offer you today.

If you think of all your own favorite bands, you'll probably find that the album you heard first from each one is either top, or close to the top of your favorites for that band. In this instance, every Built To Spill album was first played by me over the span of a couple of days, so what I think about each does not suffer from the bias of having heard it years before the release of the later albums.

What this list is influenced by is what I find most appealing about music. That will always be the case with anything that I listen to. I am sure many of you will violently disagree with some of my choices, but all I can say is that they are honest. 

Built To Spill have produced a lot of songs with much more melody that I would typically listen to. The jewels of my music collection tend to be messier and more complex than most of the songs on this playlist. Doug Martsch founded the band in 1992 and has been the only permanent fixture. His voice is more accomplished than my favorite vocalists. Like I said, I gravitate toward messy sounds.

One thing that stands out is the sheer variety of styles present across eight studio albums. That probably has something to do with the continual changes in personnel. However, despite all of the changes, Untethered Moon (2015) seems to be one of the band's best for years, at least for my tastes. My absolute favorites from the band's discography are Perfect From Now On (1997) and Keep It Like a Secret (1999). The playlist is heavily influenced by those two in particular.

To get to the final 20 songs, I quickly ran through the band's songs and worked from a shortlist of 34. About half of the final 20 picked themselves, but the remainder of the list was not easy to pin down. The contenders each had something to offer that I think is worth hearing.

Here's the final 20. As outlined above, these are not in order of preference, but are in a sequence that I might choose for an actual live concert. Here is the YouTube Playlist if you want to enjoy the full experience.

The Plan
All Our Songs
Kicked It in the Sun
Strange
Sidewalk
Goin' Against Your Mind
Out of Site
Else
Living Zoo
Time Trap
Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)
Car
Stab
You Were Right
Trimmed and Burning
I Would Hurt a Fly

Horizon to Cliff
Broken Chairs
Randy Described Eternity
Carry the Zero



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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ultimate Playlists 11: Talking Heads


Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:


  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

Talking Heads are one of the bands associated with playing New York's CBGBs, along with Television, Blondie, The Ramones and a long list of other notable musicians. David Byrne's (lead vocals, guitar) reedy vocals somehow blended with the overall sound created by Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums).

Music is always evolving, but the seventies will always be special to me because it marked the point where my own tastes started to evolve in their own way. Talking Heads are one of the bands that really caught my attention when punk and alternative music emerged as a genuine musical force. Unlike many of the bands lumped into that category, Talking Heads could really play.

So, what defines Talking Heads' sound? That's an incredibly difficult question to answer because their sound was always changing. Early albums consisted largely of short, punchy songs, with spiky guitar. But Talking Heads were not a punk band. With the release of Fear of Music in 1979, it was clear that this was no ordinary band. The rhythm section was becoming increasingly dense and more complicated with every release, and some of the songs on Fear of Music, such as Cities, had a funky guitar sound that became even more prominent on later releases. The sound is raw, polished, funky, layered, sinister, poppy, progressive, meandering, simple and catchy. I don't want to label it, but whatever it is, the blend works for me.

Remain in Light is often regarded as the band's best album; Rolling Stone ranked it the fourth-best album of the eighties, while Pitchfork ranked it as high as second. Personally, I prefer Fear of Music, which fused together African music with the existing sound. But Talking Heads were so much more than a studio band. I would argue that their live shows added an extra dimension to the overall sound. The lineup often included extra musicians to create that layered rhythm section, as well as additional singers for the backing vocals. It was like an indie version of a Pink Floyd concert, but with a much more complicated sound.

For the purposes of this playlist, I will include plenty of examples of the band playing live. One of the best concert movies ever made - Stop Making Sense - is a great way to introduce someone to the band. It has the advantage of drawing from most of the band's catalogue. Although Fear of Music is my favorite studio album from the band, I would choose The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads as the best listening experience due to the expanded lineup and the incredible quality of the recording. I'm very happy with my limited edition from Newbury Comics:


It's time to reveal the 20 songs I have chosen for the playlist. As with all of the entries in this series, choosing the final 20 was far from easy. A lot of excellent songs did not make the final cut. I imagine Once In a Lifetime as the first song of the encore. Here is a YouTube playlist if you want to enjoy the full experience:

Artists Only
Don't Worry About the Government
Life During Wartime
And She Was
Pulled Up
Take Me to the River
Warning Sign
Stay Up Late
Crosseyed and Painless
Paper
The Book I Read
Making Flippy Floppy
The Big Country
No Compassion
Mind
Road to Nowhere


Once in a Lifetime
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
Cities
Psycho Killer



 
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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 10: Pink Floyd


Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

This is a tough playlist to write if I stick to the rules and choose 20 songs. In reality, the 20 I will choose are too long for a conventional playlist. Also, more than any other band in this series, certain songs belong next to one another and it sounds wrong if you mess with that natural flow.

Pink Floyd were my favorite band for a brief period at the end of the 1970s. I owned all of their releases on vinyl, up to and including The Final Cut. However, it was around that time that my tastes shifted from classic rock to alternative, indie and punk. I distinctly remember playing Animals every day for a month when I bought it on cassette. It was almost a ritual.

Unlike most Pink Floyd fans, I do not have much affection for The Wall. I find it dark, disjointed and extremely hard to listen to. I'm always puzzled that it has proved to be so popular among fans. Another difference between me and the majority of people is that I rank Animals clearly above anything else the band ever produced. The majority of Pink Floyd's albums are pleasant and easy to listen to, but Animals has a harder edge. That edge was completely gone when Roger Waters left the band after The Final Cut, although I do like a couple of the releases after his departure.

For me, there are three distinct phases in Pink Floyd's history; With Syd Barrett in the band in the 1960s, the sound was psychedelic at times and also had an innocence and naïveté. Barrett was a free spirit, way ahead of his time. Then came what I think of as the classic lineup, with Barrett gone and Waters and Gilmour at the heart of the band's sound. Finally, the third phase after Waters departed.

I only saw Pink Floyd in concert twice and that was on the 1994 Division Bell tour. I've also seen Roger Waters three or four times. Although Pink Floyd had long since been overtaken as my favorite band by 1994, the experience of seeing them in concert was incredible. The lasers and film played throughout the show made it the kind of spectacle that I had never witnessed at a concert. That said, the band played the music so close to the recorded version that something was missing. It was almost too clean and made me feel that there was a lack of real passion in the music. The presence of 15 or 20 musicians on stage also felt wrong.

Pink Floyd will always evoke memories for me. I remember my grandfather accepting that the band actually had some talent, and that was a rarity for him. I sat next to a Floyd fan in Art class in my last two years of school. I remember the concerts and even a couple of Australian Pink Floyd shows that I went to both alone and then with my family. I remember holding those vinyl albums and admiring Storm Thorgerson's artwork.

Anyway, let's get to the 20 songs that I have chosen. As always, there is a YouTube playlist featuring all of the songs:

Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)
High Hopes
Money
Learning to Fly
Wish You Were Here
Dogs
Breathe
Hey You
Sorrow
Poles Apart

Us and Them
Pigs (Three Different Ones)
Echoes
The Great Gig in the Sky
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts VI-IX)
Time
Sheep
Comfortably Numb
Brain Damage
Eclipse


 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 9: The Fall

     Image from TheGuardian.com

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more 

Being obsessed with your favorite band is a little bit like being in love; you can see most of the flaws, but you start to see those idiosyncracies as reasons why you love that particular person. You might find yourself smiling when you notice them. I'm not saying that I was ever in love with Mark E. Smith, but The Fall hold a special place in my heart.


For one thing, the first concert I ever attended featured The Fall. The difference between hearing recorded music and feeling it vibrate through you at a live show is huge, so I'll never forget that musical awakening. I've been to hundreds of concerts over the years, but I've seen The Fall around 30 times; more than any other band. Between 1980 and 1992, I would have argued that they were the most important band on the planet. No band has ever been my absolute favorite for a longer period of time. The friends I saw most of those shows with were, and still are, very important to me. And, of course, The Fall were John Peel's favorite band and Peel was someone that I cared deeply about.

According to Wikipedia, The Fall have released 30 studio albums, 32 live albums, 5 albums that are a mix of live and studio songs, 40 compilations, 13 EPs and 46 singles. I'm not going to count, but that sounds close. The introduction of the CD format dramatically increased the running time of albums I had previously owned on vinyl. Some of the songs from this playlist were not available on the original albums.

My introduction to the band came courtesy of the John Peel show. The love affair began slowly and it took me a while to fully absorb Smith's shouts, shrieks and pterodactyl cackles as something I wanted to listen to. There's no question that Smith's unique vocals are what define the band's sound even now, but the songs that I care about the most only reached those heights because of the incredible rhythm section. 

Smith changes musicians like women change shoes, but for the duration of my obsession, a core group was present, like a favorite pair of sneakers that are too comfortable to part with. Stephen Hanley's bass was a huge part of the sound; Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon and Martin Bramah also helped define that classic guitar sound, while Karl Burns, Paul Hanley and (later) Simon Wolstencroft often provided the band with two drummers during concerts. The combination of those band members gave Smith an incredible platform from which to bellow or mumble his drunken vocals.

I consider Cerebral Caustic (1995) the last great Fall album. After Levitate (1997), Smith eventually fired the band and rebuilt it with new personnel, except for Julia Nagle (keyboards). My love affair was over. Many will argue that The Fall are still producing great music, but something died for me when that incredible engine room was removed from the equation. That will help explain my upcoming choices.

Before I reveal my final 20 songs for the playlist, I want to emphasize how difficult it was to cut so many great songs. For almost 20 years, The Fall produced important music filled with energy and venom. The ever-changing lineup always managed to sound tight. The only real wildcard was Smith's vocals. If you think his lyrics are hard to make out, try listening to him speak!

My favorite Fall album is definitely Grotesque. Almost every song from it just missed my final list, but I think of it as the best example of The Fall's definitive sound. It includes short rants, meandering rants, great riffs, a couple of compelling stories and a lot of humor. Smith's dark sense of humor is present in the lyrics on every album. If you have never heard the band before, you might wonder why Smith ends every line with -ah. I don't have a clue, but you have to admit that his vocals are distinctive. This is a band that probably won't appeal to new listeners on just one playing. The songs are often repetitive and gradually burrow their way into your brain. If you give the music a chance, you might start to go through some of the things I first felt more than 30 years ago.

So here it is. The result of the almost impossible task to reduce The Fall's output to their 20 best songs. As usual, my YouTube playlist is available:

Lay of the Land
The Man Whose Head Expanded
Kicker Conspiracy
Eat Y'Self Fitter
Lie Dream of a Casino Soul
Guest Informant
I'm Into C.B.
Prole Art Threat
Totally Wired
Athlete Cured
How I Wrote Elastic Man
No Xmas for John Quays
The Classical
Dead Beat Descendant
Hey Student
Cruiser's Creek
New Face in Hell
Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room
Free Range
Bremen Nacht (Alternative)


 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 8: David Bowie


Image from TheSource.com

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more 

Has there ever been a musician that has changed identity more often or more successfully than David Bowie? Instead of my usual concert photo, I've borrowed the above album collage from TheSource.com to illustrate those many phases. Even if you are not a fan, you have to admit that it's pretty cool. Bowie remained original up to and including his final album release.

I was wary of featuring David Bowie in this Ultimate Playlist series because of the flood of material that appeared following his death in January. However, he has impacted my life in a lot of ways and I didn't want to omit him.

When I was a kid, with my musical tastes dominated by glam, novelty records, and all manner of embarrassing things, Bowie's music captured my attention like nothing ever had. Hey, I was 12 or 13, so give me a break! I remember playing Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane at my neighbor's house after buying them from a store my grandfather ran. I credit Bowie with being the first 'proper' artist I ever became obsessed with.

My grandmother was curious about my obsession and made an attempt to understand it. I have fond memories of her reading the lyrics to Hunky Dory. I have a sneaking suspicion that she imagined that Kooks could have been written about her and my grandfather.

I distinctly remember anticipating the release of Low. It was the first time I was ahead of the curve and not just reacting to existing music. When it finally arrived, I wondered why Bowie had included so many instrumental synthesizer tracks on the second side - a trend that continued with the release of Heroes - but I adjusted and regard those albums as two of his best releases.

I had a lot of trouble choosing just 20 songs for this list. Part of me wanted to showcase tracks that might have been overlooked by the casual fan. For example, I was desperate to include Cygnet Committee, but I couldn't leave out any of my final 20. Soul Love was another hard one to cut, perhaps because of my grandmother. So I have decided to list the 17 songs that just failed to make the cut. Here they are, in alphabetical order: 

Beauty and the Beast
Breaking Glass
Candidate
Cygnet Committee
Drive-In Saturday
Fantastic Voyage
Golden Years
Hallo Spaceboy
I'm Deranged
Joe the Lion
Red Sails
Running Gun Blues
Sorrow
Soul Love
Starman
Watch That Man
Ziggy Stardust

I am sure that there will be many readers who will look at the above list and at my final 20 and think that I have omitted some of the best songs Bowie ever produced. That's how strong his catalogue is. But I hope that you will at least respect my choices, even if you are outraged at some of the omissions.

As for favorite albums, I would mention The Man Who Sold the World, Heroes, Hunky Dory, Low and Outside. That's not to say that most of the others don't contain songs that you simply need to hear. I'm sure a lot of fans would put Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane close to the top of their list, while others would choose Let's Dance or Young Americans. My closest friend would probably ask me where the hell Earthling was and why I haven't included anything from that. One of the biggest surprises I had regarding Bowie was listening to Outside. It was such an unexpected return to the sound I adored, but also updated in a weird and wonderful kind of way. I must have seen 10 concerts on that tour.

Anyway, before I completely lose your interest, here is my Ultimate Playlist for Mr. David Bowie, along with a link to my YouTube playlist:

Sons of the Silent Age
Diamond Dogs
All the Madmen
Sound and Vision
Space Oddity
Panic in Detroit
Five Years
The Man Who Sold the World
Rebel Rebel
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed
Queen Bitch
Blackout
The Heart's Filthy Lesson
Ashes to Ashes
The Jean Genie
Changes
The Width of a Circle
Heroes
Life on Mars