Driven by my participation in the “2020 Album Draft” organized by fellow blogger hanspostcard, as the draft progresses, here are the records I could not live without. You can follow the draft at slicethelife.com.
#1 – “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
This record’s release in the late summer of 1975 changed my life as much as it did Springsteen’s. While he started his ascent toward superstardom, I obsessively began to follow his every move.
My BTR love affair started with the tease of hearing the title track on New York City’s WNEW-FM whose radio waves crossed the Hudson into my New Jersey bedroom. The song’s message of faith and hope and the musical bombast of its wall of sound made me want to get into my car and drive to the Jersey Shore with my mystery girl to find life’s promise and leave all the worries of my world behind.
I was a hopeful optimist like the Boss. These lines from that song just clobbered my emotions back then and for the next 40 years made me cry every time I heard Bruce sing them live.
Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then, tramps like us
Baby we were born to run
Those tears reflected the joy of seeing my lifelong dreams fulfilled. I found the girl I loved and together we took that walk and somehow got there. But there was so much more to the record album that changed my life.
A few weeks before I could buy BTR, I saw Bruce and his E Street Band live for the first time at the Bottom Line in New York City. From the moment I first set my eyes on that bearded kid in a leather jacket, I felt a kinship. Although he was older than me, it felt like we were both from the same place. And while Springsteen changed over the years, it will always be that kid from the streets that I chose to identify with. He reached me through passionate thoughtful lyrics and magnificent music played by the best band I would ever hear in my life.
Has there ever been a record more beautifully cinematic than BTR? “Thunder Road,” “Meeting Across the River,” and “Jungleland” all could have easily been embellished into screenplays. The music was also magical. From the simple Bo Diddley beat of “She’s the One” to complex arrangements such as the mind-blowing sax solo by Clarence Clemons on “Jungleland.”
If there’s a weak track on the record I haven’t found one. It even sports one of the greatest and most recognizable album covers of all time. It’s also one of the best records of all time to listen to into the car. In my closet somewhere is the worn-out 8-track tape that I used to play back then.
Despite its eventual success, the frustration of the record almost led to the end of Springsteen’s career. He tried so hard to make the perfect song and record that achieving that goal became next to impossible. Ready to give up, he even went so far as to throw an early acetate pf BTR into a hotel swimming pool. But while making this record, Bruce began his relationship with Jon Landau, who not only helped produce the record, but became friend and manager, as well as the beacon to help guide him through all the madness that fame was about to bring. One day you are sleeping in a surfboard shop and the next you are on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
For me, once I heard BTR, I knew that I would never love a record more than this, and to this day, I haven’t. I think Bruce Springsteen himself ultimately realized its greatness and just how much it meant to tramps like me.
#2 – “Grievous Angel” – Gram Parsons
The first time I ever heard the name Gram Parsons was when I read in Circus magazine that he had died. While this created some obvious limitations from my becoming a fan, it certainly didn’t stop me. This was 1973, and I was in process of discovering Country Rock, so Parsons’ musical pedigree had me intrigued. I already owned The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but I had yet to discover Gram’s influence on that record. Likewise, his next band, The Flying Burrito Brothers was totally foreign to me.
At this time in my life, outside of FM radio, my music listening came in the form of 8-Track tapes. The worn-out family Hi-Fi station with a turntable went the way of the Salvation Army so vinyl records didn’t work for me. While 8-Tracks offered the convenience of play in both my cheap home system and my more-mighty sounding car set-up, they sucked in both their performance and availability. For those who have been there, I’m sure you remember how they had the nerve to introduce an unforgivable pause in a song they split between two of the four playing tracks. It also sometimes took inserting a matchbook to align a tape to the head in the deck to stop the sound of one track bleeding into another. And of course, not all titles made it to this inferior forgotten format.
What this all meant to me and my Gram Parsons discovery was that I was able to somehow find his debut solo record, GP on 8-Track, but not its posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel. Hearing GP forever changed my music life. I was totally smitten with Parsons’ take on Country Rock. While respecting the tradition of Country, he added a musical spark to it that made it fresh and relevant. He also just looked so cool and as I discovered more photos of him, I even tried to dress like he did. And there was another secret ingredient to discover on that first record—the gorgeous backing vocals of the yet undiscovered Miss Emmylou Harris.
Until I used my first paycheck after graduating college in 1976 to buy a new stereo system with a turntable, I must have poured over the album cover of Grievous Angel in record stores a hundred times. But radio never played it and there was no Spotify back then. Looking back at it now, it seems so silly that I had to wait so long to finally hear this record that today I simply could not live without.
The LP kicks off with one of the coolest Country Rock songs ever, “The Return of the Grievous Angel.” Originally a poem sent to Gram by a fan named Tom Brown, this song sets a spirited tone for the rest of the record. It also serves to display the fact that Parsons is working with one of the best bands of all time. Led by the incredible James Burton, these were the same guys that backed up Elvis, the “King” referred to in the lead-off song. This record is worthwhile even if to just hear Burton’s guitar. You can hear the band rock their best on a blistering cover of the Louvin Brother’s “Cash on the Barrelhead” and on Gram’s “Ooh Las Vegas.”
Back then living in New Jersey, I would have never thought that one day I would encounter some of people involved with this record. But living in Nashville, things like stopping at a red light next to Emmylou Harris do sometimes happen. On Grievous Angel she’s again singing with Gram and this time even gets a prominent “with Emmylou Harris” on the top of the back cover. “Hearts on Fire,” written by another current Nashvillian, Walter Egan, is a duet made in heaven from Gram and Emmylou. Getting to hear Walter and Emmy sing this live together one day was a pinch-me moment that you can watch here.
Miss Harris’ backing vocals shine throughout the record, but the real show-stopper with Gram is on the classic Boudleaux Bryant song, “Love Hurts.” The next time you hear that awful version by the band Nazareth, listen to Gram and Emmy’s version to clear your musical palate.
But the real beauty of this record is found in three heartfelt Parsons’ originals. While GP wasn’t the most prolific when it came to songwriting, his efforts rarely fell short of classic. My go-to song has always been the sadly beautiful “Brass Buttons.” For me, the song works on several different planes. Is it a lost love or one who has tragically passed on? Or here is one from left field, how about the loss of a mom? Any way you look at it, Gram’s frail and sincere County voice takes control of a song that should be enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame along with the Nudie suit he wore with the Burritos. (Yes, the suit is here in Nashville, and I pay homage to it whenever I get the chance.)
The other two GP classic ballads are “In My Hour of Darkness,” a co-write with his singing partner in which he lets his faith shine through. In fact, it’s one I’d love to hear my church choir sing. And then there is the mock-live version of “Hickory Wind.” While this may very well be Gram’s greatest song in the eyes of many, I’d choose the Sweetheart of the Rodeo version over the one on this record.
For me, putting Grievous Angel on my turntable has become a ritual of respect for the one artist I would choose my time machine to take me back to see live. It’s a record that’s complete with both great Country Rock songs and beautiful ballads to cover all the bases of my emotions. I just wonder what would have happened if I ever had found it on 8-Track a few years earlier.
#3 – “Armed Forces” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
In the winter of 1977, my life was never the same again after hearing My Aim is True, the first album by the man born Declan MacManus. One of the greatest debut albums on just about everyone’s list, it was another bold statement first proclaimed by Graham Parker with Joe Jackson next in line. There was a place for the singer-songwriter in the dawning age of Punk and New Wave.
My passion for Elvis Costello’s music was set in motion and I soon found myself to be one of those whose favorite artists were Costello and Bruce Springsteen. I discovered that there were many of us and we relished not only their artistic brilliance but the fact that both were great live performers who toured frequently and were uber-prolific when it came to composing songs. In this regard, each also loved to test out unreleased songs from their next LP in their live set.
While Aim was Costello meets Pub Rock and The Band, his 1978 sophomore release, and first with his crack band The Attractions, This Year’s Model, was a mashup with the musical brashness of The Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones. For a future box set reissue of his first three LPs that would be named Two and a Half Years, this remarkable trilogy was complete with Armed Forces with EC & the A’s moving to a poppier sound, influenced by bands they secretly loved like Abba.
Costello also made it fun back then to be a record collector. As pictured above, the UK and US releases had different covers. Not only did the American version replace the big elephant for an arty title sleeve, they dropped the song “Sunday’s Best” thinking it sounded too British, and instead tacked on EC’s UK single covering his producer Nick Lowe’s “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” This was also a time when across the pond they issued great picture sleeve 45s with unreleased B-sides that we would score as imports for the then hefty price of three bucks.
Armed Forces begins with the immortal line “I just don’t know where to begin” that for years after was playfully the first words Costello sang in concert. “Accidents Will Happen” is a brilliant ear-catching opener with a rich Power Pop sound. I love getting silly and singing along with its repeated refrain of “I know.”
The march through this record continues with nary a dud amongst its explosive tracks. Costello’s lyrics were still pun-heavy back then and Nick Lowe’s production bashed out a simple, but full lush Pop sound. They called him “The Basher” since he worked quickly, but Lowe was without a doubt the Phil Spector of the new musical era that was upon us.
A working title for the LP was Emotional Fascism, and this political/military theme was in full force in “Oliver’s Army,” the biggest UK hit of his then short career. Although loved over here in the Colonies, it too was a bit British and wasn’t radio-friendly with its bold use of the “N” word. Steve Nieve’s keyboard frills are a respectful nod to Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” a song the band reportedly played regularly on the tour bus.
Although it wasn’t a mega-hit stateside like it should have, Columbia Records made a good call to include “PL&U” on the LP in the USA. While Lowe’s sentiment in the original version with his Pub Rock band Brinsley Schwarz may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s message nonetheless closes out the record on an optimistic note.
In his version, Costello took the Brinsley’s slow-tempo romp through Lowe’s lyrics and turned it into a powerhouse Rock anthem. It is perhaps the most remarkable reworking ever of a pop song, so much so that Lowe would even adopt this new arrangement in his own live version. While Costello reigns as one of my generation’s best songwriters, it’s rather ironic that my favorite song of his is “PL&U” and not one that he himself wrote.
Alongside its three singles, Armed Forces also hosts several other classic Costello tracks. For some really clever lyrics go to “Chemistry Class.” Your tender but brutal love ballad is “Party Girl.” And if you are looking for some magnificent musical maneuvering, listen to Pete Thomas’s syncopated drumming on “Green Shirt” or the jazzy flourishes of “Mood for Moderns.” Attractions Nieve, Thomas and bass player Bruce Thomas all are worthy of their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were collectively creative in the Pop sounds they together crafted with Elvis on this record.
Costello rarely made a bad LP and picking my #1 from his catalog has never been easy. However, if I think back to the time when Armed Forces came into being, it was the record that convinced me that my elevation of him to the top of my musical hierarchy was indeed justified. Added to the fact that I’m forever one of the “Pure Pop for Now People,” this one easily makes its way to the top for me and finds its way to the desert island.
#4 – “Blood on the Tracks” – Bob Dylan
For my generation, discovering the music of Bob Dylan didn’t come as easy as it did for another legend like The Beatles. Bob didn’t have an Ed Sullivan Show moment (after walking off due to proposed censorship), nor did he pack the Top Ten with a flurry of hit singles that overtook AM radio. Although he did however become the 60s poster boy for the “protest singer,” iconic enough that I even recall him being lampooned in the pages of Mad magazine, for me, his music was not omnipresent like the Fab Four’s.
FM radio was still developing and without the internet, to hear Bob’s records back then, you pretty much had to buy them. The first of his to hear on the radio for many of us was “Mr. Tambourine Man” when The Byrds took it to the Pop charts. Bob would later sneak in himself with “Like a Rolling Stone,” that song about “getting stoned” and “Lay Lady Lay.” Some of us even discovered that he had written “Mighty Quinn” which Manfred Mann scored big with. But like many others of my age bracket, I got to know Dylan’s music by backtracking. For me, it occurred around the time of the New Morning LP after my ears crossed over to the free-form love affair I found on the FM dial.
Planet Waves would be my first Dylan LP to experience in “real time” and it came with the added joy of seeing him live on tour with The Band. It was at that point that my back-catalog discovery really went into full force. But, after he ended this quick shift over to Dave Geffen’s Asylum Records, he returned to the red Columbia Records label and forever got my full devotion with his 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.
There’s been many different musical Dylan styles over the years and this record immediately stuck a favorable note with me with its soft and steady, multi-instrument acoustic feel. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the most pleasant-sounding of his records to listen to. But, don’t let that fool you as the subject matter gets a little rough.
Blood on the Tracks is often heralded as one of the all-time best break-up records. Given that Bob and his wife Sara were splitting at the time, can we really believe him when he says that none of it is autobiographical? I believe him saying that he was instead inspired by Chekhov poems as much as I believe what he told one interviewer about the “Blue” in “Tangled Up in Blue” referring to him listening to the Joni Mitchell LP. Dylan likes to pull our leg and is often quite good at getting away with it for some reason.
The album kicks off with the theme of broken love in “Tangled Up in Blue” which is perhaps the best narrative story-song to ever come from anyone’s pen. This non-linear tale of someone’s journey through life contains some of the cleverest couplets to ever grace a song. While some of it may be about his Bobness, much is obviously not. Maybe to prove this point, he has even gone so far as to change some of the “I’s” in the lyrics to “He’s” when he sings it live.
The titles of songs like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her Say Hello” certainly nail them as break-up songs. Even the story line of the cinematic “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” contains a sub-plot of love lost. And there’s no denying the bitter vile and contempt in “Idiot Wind,” a tour de force that leaves no hold barred in letting his former lover know how he feels. It’s venom personified.
Musically (including Bob’s vocals) and lyrically, this record is near perfect through its ten tracks. I was shocked to read that it initially received mixed reviews upon its release. Time though has sure led many to believe that his is Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and I include myself in that club.
His follow-up LP, Desire, was also a masterpiece. On it, Dylan did not pull any punches setting things straight with his ex-wife for five blistering minutes in “Sara.” He also gave us another wonderful “coulda-been-a screenplay” saga with “Black Diamond Bay.” These two LPs back-to-back were downright amazing and together provided a solid foundation for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour which followed. I tried to get into the Madison Square Garden show but failed to find a ticket on the street that night. One of my life’s regrets, but hearing its songs live was not a requirement for my canonization of Blood on the Tracks as the crown gem of Bob Dylan’s catalog.
#5 – “Abandoned Luncheonette” – Hall & Oates
Admit it. All of us music nerds love to get snobby and boast using the line “I saw them when….” It usually means that we got to see an act in a small club before they moved up to the Enormodome. For me, most of my bragging is about acts I saw at Manhattan’s Bottom Line. This small 400-seater near NYU in Greenwich Village is probably the greatest music club the world has ever known.
Braggingly, it was there that I saw my first shows by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, The Police and many others. But, then there’s Hall & Oates with whom I can take my bravado one step further. I saw them there in 1975 as an opening act for Leo Sayer!
At the time, I had already fallen for Hall & Oates 1973 sophomore LP, Abandoned Luncheonette, which I had heard quite often on New York City’s WNEW-FM. I also liked Sayer’s latest record so this show was a must for me even back then when I was a poor college student. And though I totally loved Hall & Oates on record, I can’t say that I got off to a perfect start with seeing them live.
Two reasons. The first was personal in that the girl I went to the show with seemed more interested in Daryl Hall than me. Second, while I loved 99% of their show, I really wanted to take Daryl Hall aside and tell him to cut back a bit on the drawn-out vocal gymnastics. I really thought that he overdid it with too much extended freeform vocalizing. I’m am happy to say however that when I saw them again later that year, his singing was much more controlled.
Seeing that this is supposed to be about a record, let’s get right to the fact that there is probably no other album that I own that brings more joy to me than Abandoned Luncheonette. And this is an album whose best-known song is “She’s Gone,” which as its title suggests, does not have a happy subject matter. But to these ears and throat, this soul-based classic is hands down, the greatest song ever to sing along to. In fact, it’s my go-to on the car stereo when I’m trying not to fall asleep during a late-night drive.
“She’s Gone” is such a damn good song that it’s a sin it wasn’t a smash hit for Hall & Oates from day one. After it went nowhere for the duo upon its release in ’73, a couple of cover versions (Tavares and Lou Rawls) fared better, with the Tavares version reaching the top of the Soul charts. A rerelease of the Hall and Oates version in 1976 found greater success getting to #7, and if anything, sold a bunch more copies of the LP taking it to #33.
The joyous feel of this record kicks off with the bouncy “When the Morning Comes” driven by the staccato beat of Hall’s mandolin and Bernard Purdie’s drumming. This is Hall’s song, and back then, before Hall started charging $50 for his autographed CD to Oates’ $10, they shared songs better on their LPs. Oates follows with his two best songs, “Had I Known Better You Then” and “Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song).” The former is as about as tender as a love song can get while the latter is a neat pop ditty where we first meet Sara (named after Daryl’s then girlfriend and future collaborator) who the duo will ask to “smile” on a later record.
These songs then lead the way for the pair to collaborate and beautifully harmonize on “She’s Gone.” Legendary Atlantic Records producer, Arif Mardin, showed his genius by producing one of the most gorgeous musical arrangements of all time. It’s a work of art with all its tiny sonic brushstrokes coming together to paint a true musical masterpiece.
The only problem with this record is that after such an amazing start, it could only be downhill from there. But if you can resist repeating side one and force yourself to turn over to side two, you won’t be disappointed. It’s indeed a much jazzier fare but features some great singing and some of New York City’s top session players at their best. The title track is a fine example of the duo’s ability to work in more of a jazz styling. The second side of the LP is quite a cozy way to wind down this incredible record.
After a long time in between, I have since seen Hall and Oates play live a few times over the past few years and “She’s Gone” and “Las Vegas Turnaround” were both in the set still sounding brilliant. Both Hall and Oates look great despite their years and both are among the thankful few whose voices have not weakened in ability one bit.
At a record store appearance a few years back, I got Oates to sign what I told him was my “desert-island disk,” and he even honored my request and sang a solo “Las Vegas Turnaround.” Maybe someday I can get Daryl to sign my record alongside him. I will even forgive him about that old girlfriend.
#6 -“Argybargy” – Squeeze
It was early 1980 and I had just left the musical paradise of New York City for a life in South Texas with the girl of my dreams. I had seen Squeeze live once at The Bottom Line however at this point, I had yet to truly discover the magnificence of this band and Cool for Cats, their fantastic sophomore LP. Their first John Cale-produced LP was a bit of a throw-away with only a few good songs and one great one in “Take Me, I’m Yours.”
I had yet to really plug into the San Antonio music scene, but quickly and surprisingly learned that it was one of the Heavy Metal capitals of the world. It seemed like even the mediocre metal bands were playing to large crowds at the Arena. Fortunately, I eventually found that musical paradise wad just 90 miles away in the hip town of Austin.
One Saturday, my young bride and I took a trip to Austin and I made my first trip to the late great Inner Sanctum Records that I had been advised about. Imagine my surprise when by chance we happened to walk right into the middle of a record-signing by Squeeze. The ink was still wet on my Texas passport and I had yet to check concert listings and was totally unaware there were playing in town that evening. How exciting this was to pick up a copy of their new LP, Argybargy and get it signed by them all.
Thankfully my Dad had just mailed my stereo and turntable to Texas. But I was adjusting to a new hectic job and found little time to play records. And forget about hearing the new Squeeze LP on the radio. But it seemed every time I came home from work, my wife, still a college student, was spinning Argybargy!
To this day, my sweetheart lays claim that I would have never gotten to love Squeeze without her! While I appreciate her speeding up the process, there’s no doubt that my musical circle would have eventually led me to this brilliant pop record! So, where do we start?
Let’s start with the fact that the duo of Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are without a doubt a songwriting team in the class of Lennon and McCartney. They are genius at writing short clever pop songs, low on nonsense and packed with interesting subject matter. Difford’s words are set to music by Tilbrook and how they get created without them ever working together in the same room is to this day a musical miracle.
The musicianship of the band on this record is also first rate. The rhythm section of John Bentley and Gilson Lavis is rock solid and back then, that eventual star of British television, Jools Holland was banging away on the piano. Jools can boogie-woogie with the best of them as well as play it straight. He usually got one song per record and on this one we hear him on the lively “Wrong Side of the Moon” in his signature New Orleans style.
The musical MVP of Squeeze though is Glenn Tilbrook. He is a blistering guitar player and in my book is the best in rock music when rated on the combined talents of singing and playing. His voice is so strong it could stop a truck, or should I say lorry?
Ah yes, that’s another thing that is so endearing about Squeeze. They chose not to Americanize their music and as a result, have taught us all some great British words and expressions through Difford’s lyrics. Argybargy’ s “Separate Beds” had us “peeling the spuds” and having “breakfast at half seven.” They also took us to places like Camber Sands and Borstal. “Separate Beds” and “There at the Top” are also a fine example of their story songs which are like mini novelettes. Listening to Squeeze was an adventure indeed.
While the record failed to include a mega-hit for the band on either side of the pond, the LPs first two tracks remain through today as sing-along staples of their live show, “Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)” and “Another Nail in My Heart.” Both are near perfect pop songs. And how clever was it of Tilbrook to create one of the all-time greatest guitar solos in the simple form of replaying a single note for 15 seconds in “Pulling Mussels?”
Looking for more cleverness in a pop song, how about the repeated “if I’s” in “If I Didn’t Love You” following the line “The record jumps on a scratch?” That’s one thing so endearing about Squeeze—there’s so much to discover in their songs and Argybargy is chock full of discoveries. And with such fun peppy songs to boot!
Many Squeeze fans consider their next LP, East Side Story, to be the band’s crowning achievement. For that Elvis Costello-produced LP, Jools Holland was replaced on keyboards by Paul Carrack whose lead vocal on “Tempted” catapulted them to greater fame here in the Colonies. While I do love that album dearly, I will follow my wife’s lead and stick with Argybargy as the Squeeze record I take to the island.
#7 – “Katy Lied” – Steely Dan
During my mid-70s college days living in New Jersey, my ritual every Wednesday morning was to pick up a copy of the Village Voice on my way to school. This New York City alternative weekly that cost me 75 cents (I think) back then was more valuable than any of my textbooks. Although it was rare that I read an actual article in the Voice, the concert ads in its music pages provided exactly what I was looking for. Back then, this was often the first places where new show listings and ticket on-sale dates were posted. Discoveries there would make a Wednesday as exciting as a Christmas morning.
There was however one other thing tucked within the music pages of the Voice that always caught my attention. That was the short and sweet, and often comically cynical, record reviews by noted critic Robert Christgau. (Later published in the Christgau Record Guide.) This fascinating feature was nothing more than a rating system accompanied only by a clever sentence or two from its author. It’s biggest influence on me, however, was not a review of any particular record. What got my attention was my curiosity as to why Mr. Christgau compared records to Steely Dan more often than seemed to bear any logic whatsoever.
At this time, to me, Steely Dan was just a band that had a couple of catchy AM radio hits (“Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number) who certainly hadn’t caught my fancy as a band that I needed to check out. However, all that changed in 1976, when about a year after its release, I took a chance at a local record shop on a cheap cut-out copy of their fourth LP, Katy Lied.
I had just started my first real job and was working hours where I got home early enough to take a pre-dinner nap before going out at night with my friends. My first listen to this record was during one of my planned sleep sessions in my bedroom at my parents’ house where I still lived. But I didn’t fall asleep during that first listen. And for several weeks thereafter, my fascination with this record had me listening to it every day after work. I soon began to realize that Christgau might be on to something.
After some touring in their early days, Steely Dan was now no longer a band but instead the working muse for the duo of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. But one thing was for sure, on record they were somehow able to work with the best players in the business and the musicianship on their records was always top notch. Notable on Katy Lied were the first Dan appearance of the razor-sharp guitar of Larry Carlton on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” Jeff Porcaro laying down the beat on drums, and the inimitable backing vocals of Michael McDonald, also making his Dan debut on this record. There was no mistaking Michael’s unique voice on the choruses of “Rose Darling.”
Playing aside, what really grabbed me on this record and turned me into a major Steely Dan fan were Fagan’s subdued yet inviting vocals and the bewildering and almost absurd lyrics. While Fagan and Becker were college mates at New York’s Bard College, they certainly didn’t look like the “big men on campus.” Let’s face it. They looked like two nerds who smoked pot all the time and only left their rooms to go get a pizza. But listening to their cryptically cool lyrics made you feel like you were being let into their hip world of cooldum. Even after I got to know every line of every song on Katy Lied, I had no idea what they were singing about. But I didn’t care. The imagination (Or was it inspiration?) behind the peculiar people, places and predicaments in these songs was remarkable.
Song after song, Katy Lied is a musical fantasy that develops in your mind with only the close-up photo of a katydid on the cover to guide you. In that respect, it isn’t much different from the other Steely Dan records. And that makes me ponder why for me this record, which failed to produce a hit single, stands out above the rest of their efforts. Was this influenced by the fact that this was my entry point to the Dan’s LPs?
This train of thought leads me to my fascination with the song, “Doctor Wu,” from which the album takes its title from one of its lines. It is a mysterious musical masterpiece that captured my imagination and ran like a screenplay through my mind. Who was Katy, who was this doctor, and what in the world were they up to? It was mystifyingly vague enough to create a different fantasy every time I heard it. Fagan’s fab vocals and the strong playing (including a great sax solo by Phil Woods) on the song were bonuses.
While “Katy” (as I like to call it) led the way, one thing that makes this LP great for me is that there seems to be something special on every cut. It could be music like the rolling guitar into on “Black Friday” that stirs your senses until it explodes into the chorus. Or it could be the lyrical nonsense that challenges your brain to make sense of things such as a song about “Bad Sneakers” or trying to figure out characters like Rose and Snake Mary in “Rose Darling.”
Lest we forget that It wouldn’t be a Steely Dan record if things didn’t get a little creepy, that brings us to the weird Mr. LaPage who we meet to the tune of the island-syncopated sound of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” that kicks off side 2. I’ll quit here since there’s so much more that I can go on about these mysterious songs. I will leave those for you to discover.
Katy Lied is a record I just wouldn’t want to live without. It’s also rare for me in that it is one of those LPs that I always play by starting with side one, track one, and when it’s done, get up and turn it over to side two and play it to the end. It just begs to be played in its entirety.
OK, I too have lied. I have been tempted listened to “Doctor Wu” on its own, and in fact, that’s what I’m gonna go do right now!
All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang
I knew was true
#8 – “Jesus of Cool” (UK) / “Pure Pop for Now People” (US) – Nick Lowe
After already picking an LP in my top ten that featured different covers on each side of the Atlantic Ocean (with another to follow with my next pick) here’s one that takes this practice even further. While the cover variation was only slight, worldwide, there would be an assortment of differently costumed Nick Lowes among the six shots featured on the cover. But more significantly, they changed the LPs title as well as the song content.
Thinking that American audiences would be timid about the name “Jesus,” Columbia Records christened the record with a new name. Well, while I doubt that we would have seen copies of Nick Lowe’s debut solo LP being burned in the streets, we can be thankful that these titles resulted in two catch phrases that would label Lowe throughout his long and continued career. (Note that in 2008, the folks at Yep Roc were brave enough to use the original British title on a reissue of the LP here in the States.).
At the time of its original release in March 1978, the name Nick Lowe was not very well known in the US. Previously, Nick was a member of the British band Brinsley Schwarz who disbanded in 1975. The Brinsleys were best known in America, albeit barely, for a miserable attempt to promote the band with a show at New York’s Fillmore East. Flying in a bunch of UK journalists to promote the band, it turned into an unmitigated comical disaster. So much so, that a mate of mine is working on a screenplay.
After the Brinsleys called it quits, Lowe started working with a Welshman named Dave Edmunds and eventually began hanging out with the folks at Stiff Records in London. In late 1976, his “So It Goes” (included on this album) was the unconventional label’s first single and carried the clever catalogue number of BUY1. He soon became Stiff’s house producer and is credited by most with producing the first ever Punk LP in 1977 with Damned Damned Damned by The Damned. Labelled as SEEZ1, this was also Stiff’s first LP.
While the “So It Goes” single was on Stiff, by the time of this LPs release, label honcho Jake Riviera had taken his two prize properties, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, to his new label, Radar Records, which released Jesus.
By late 1977, Lowe’s name became more prominent with Americans as producer of the debut record by Elvis Costello, My Aim is True. His work with Costello of course continued and included a 1978 North American tour to promote Pure Pop with he and his band Rockpile opening for Costello and Mink DeVille.
The UK and US releases of this LP were vastly different in their running orders, and my ears grew to learn the Pure Pop version. This is still an album I can run through from start to finish in my mind from memory recalling every word and note. It’s an old friend that I never tire of revisiting.
As for the track variations, for the record (pun intentional), Columbia amended “Shake and Pop” on the Radar record for a livelier version of the same song with a new title, tempo and chorus with “They Called it Rock.” The fresh live Rockpile version of “Heart of the City” on the British LP was reverted to the old Stiff studio version here in the Colonies. Finally, Nick’s satiric but sincere ode to a band he unashamedly appreciated, “Rollers Show,” an earlier single and big hit in Japan where they too love the Bay City Rollers, was added to the US version.
With tongue firmly in cheek, on this record Mr. Lowe crafted a lyrically clever and musically lush Pop masterpiece. With safety-pin Punks turning into skinny-tie New Wavers, this is a record that was undoubtedly influential in that transition. Nick also didn’t have to look far for a producer since this was during the period in which he earned the nickname “The Basher” and was one of the most highly sought after to sit behind the desk, turn the knobs and “bash” them out on the quick.
Pure Pop kicks off with the power guitar riffs of “So It Goes,” a song that Nick would include in his live set for the next 40 years. It’s a Power Pop classic with nifty lines about rockers and politicians set to a familiar riff that he cleanly “nicked” from Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.”
If Disco was your thing, up next was “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” one that you could dance to. In fact, I often did that back in the day at rock clubs in New York City such as Hurrah. I suspect however that Nick was being sonically satiric on this one although he did start rocking at the disco before Blondie, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks took their turns.
Lowe’s lyrics were fun and silly in ditties like “Marie Provost,” about a Hollywood actress who died alone and “became the doggie’s dinner” on “July 29th,” a day I never failed to acknowledge in remembrance of this song. Then there’s “Little Hitler” in which the song’s subject is likened to the notorious dictator. With its line “As the world turns, at the edge of night,” Lowe shows that he spent way too much time watching afternoon soap operas in American hotel rooms! What inspiration on both counts!
Want another great line? How about this one from “They Call it Rock” in which Nick’s gripes about the record biz: “Arista said they loved it, but the kids can’t dance to it.” This is all such great silly stuff, but then there’s “Tonight,” an almost perfect tender love song with a lavish arrangement that crowned Nick Lowe as the New Wave’s Phil Spector.
Jesus / Pure Pop is a fresh sounding Pop record made with some of Nick’s old friends from the Pub Rock days, then Graham Parker’s Rumour, and his future band mates in Rockpile. The live “Heart of the City” on Jesus is Rockpile in full force. On this true classic rock song, give a listen to the ending drum solo by Terry Williams where he starts off slow and accelerates to a lightning fast pace. Amazing stuff. It goes without saying that Rockpile is perhaps the best live band that my eyes and ears have ever seen.
There is one cover tune on the record, that being Jim Ford’s “36” High.” It fits so fine on this record that you’d think it was Lowe’s. By the way, if you don’t know Ford, thank both Nick and me for leading you to his magnificent Harlan County LP.
I am so thankful for my timely introduction to this record that allowed me to be a lifelong Nick Lowe fan. Although his style has now changed, and he uses Sinatra-style singing more than clever lyrics with a rock band, he’s still at it and vital today. My final word to you is to be sure to read Will Birch’s great recent bio Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. Like it did for me, it’ll only make you love him more!
#9 – “Shades in Bed” (UK) / “The Records” (US) – The Records
If asked what my favorite musical sub-genre is, without a pause I would say Power Pop. To the unfamiliar, I like to describe it as fast-moving songs, most often about love, and most importantly, with a unique and recognizable guitar riff. Who do I consider to be the best in the Power Pop business? Without blinking an eye, the top three are Big Star, The Raspberries, and the subject of today’s desert island LP pick, British band, The Records.
My love affair with The Records began in late 1978 when I saw them on the Be Stiff Tour 78 at The Bottom Line in New York City. Along for the ride as the backup band for a very young Rachel Sweet, they were also given the chance to open the show with a mini set of their own. To this day, I have never been more won over by a totally unfamiliar band in a live setting than this moment. More so, I was totally blown away when I heard them play their debut single “Starry Eyes.” As soon as humanly possible, I made my way to Bleecker Bob’s in the Village and bought the import 45. This song has long since held the top spot on my list as the greatest Power Pop song of all time.
In 1979, this debut LP was released as was sometimes done back then with different titles and cover photos in the UK and the US. Trying to mesh the album title with the cover photo resulted in a rather clumsy cover for Shades in Bed. On the other hand, a mysteriously cool record store photo was used for the cover of the eponymously titled US version. The opening tracks for side one and two were also swapped and the US LP used the slightly shorter single version of “Starry Eyes.” Limited editions of both included the bonus treat of a nifty four-song EP of cover songs on a 12-incher in the UK and a 7-incher in the US.
As I would have expected, I was quite taken with this record. It was Power Pop Heaven! And unlike “Starry Eyes” which told the time old tale of a bad person in the record business, in true Power Pop fashion, most of the songs were about love. Young love in fact in songs like “Teenarama,” “Girl” and “Affection Rejected.” And despite my current age, they don’t feel at all creepy to listen to today rather they are just joyful reminders of days long gone by. One thing I loved about The Records is how they kept things very tight and never got quirky or silly like some of the New Wave bands who would follow.
I probably I could write a book about how great a song I think “Starry Eyes” is. First off, it comes with one of the best guitar intros of all-time courtesy of Huw Gower. (A Record for their first LP and tour only, he would later be replaced on their next LP, Crashes, by a young Jude Cole who would also share lead vocal duties with John Wicks.) Gower plays an exhaustingly powerful string of licks that any true Power Pop fan can replay note-for-note in their head. The song was written by its singer Wicks and harmonizing drummer Will Birch about some nasty band manager and as the antithesis to your typical Power Pop love song, it hits hard with this biting refrain: “Get me out of your starry eyes and be on your way.”
Another stellar track is “All Messed Up and Ready” which was rightfully moved to the leadoff side one track one position on the US version of the LP. This musical tour-de-force really shows off the band’s chops and even has a scent of Prog Rock to it. At the risk of sounding cliché, I will go ahead and say that there isn’t a lame song on this album, and it is still on my regular rotation some 40 years later.
At the time, I furthered my love for The Record’s record by seeing them live as often as I could. This included three of a four-show stand at NYC’s The Bottom Line and a midnight show at Hurrah after seeing Rockpile earlier that same evening. They were fantastic live and thankfully there are a few tasty FM broadcasts from that maiden US tour to savor.
My fandom went a step further when I casually crept backstage at the Bottom Line to get all four members to sign my US single for “Starry Eyes.” I treasure this even more today since bass player Phil Brown and lead singer Wicks sadly are no longer with us. But my connection to The Records recently got even better.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of meeting Will Birch for breakfast in London. After spending a morning together, I asked him how it felt to have written the #1 Power Pop song of all-time. Modestly, I never got a direct answer. However, I really didn’t need one since the opportunity to ask that question was all I needed. It was as good of a moment as the time when I overhead two of my younger music friends talking about me when one said to the other: “Did you know that he got to see The Records?”
#10 – “10cc” – 10cc
Well, my bags are packed and I’m ready for desert island isolation. I have dug out my old Sony Discman, a 10-CD travel case and a box of AA batteries. But wait! There’s still one more record to select before I go.
Please forgive me as I begin this final LP selection with a bit of self-plagiarism from something I wrote about how in 1973, I discovered the great British band known as 10cc.
Like many who lived in the New York area, I first became familiar with this band from Manchester UK courtesy of radio station WNEW-FM disk jockey Scott Muni’s “Things from England.” This one-hour segment of his show was a weekly ritual every Friday afternoon. As 10cc rocketed up the UK charts, we knew we would get a chance to hear “Rubber Bullets” and the other singles since many like me couldn’t afford to buy their pricy, then import-only, eponymous debut LP at a record retailer like Sam Goody’s.
I finally secured the debut 10cc LP upon its July 1973 US release and it has been one of my favorite records ever since. It has always been one of those impressionable records that I could recreate in my head note for note from start to finish in my sleep and sing every word.
Although this was the band’s first record, two of its members, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart were a part of UK Pop history having written and/or sang some previous hits. But when the more traditional song-crafting skills of this pair merged with the more technically enhanced musical talents of Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, one of the most uniquely creative bands in Pop music history was formed.
The ten songs on 10cc cover a lot of musical ground. There’s the 50s Doo-wop sound of “Johnny, Don’t Do It” and “Donna.” Cuts like “The Dean and I” and “Rubber Bullets” harmonizingly pay homage to The Beach Boys. The guys also showed us how good they could play their guitars on killer songs such as “Speed Kills” and “Headline Hustler.” However, if there is said to be a common thread to 10cc’s songs, it would be in their combining clever and quirky Pop lyrics with sparkling studio wizardry. They had a way of making old musical styles sound modern.
I’ve always been a sucker for great Pop songs and the songs on this record took that genre to a new level. Each song had both touches of cynical humor and splashes of sounds that were just so fresh to my young ears. Also having four guys that could sing so fine was a big plus adding variety to the LPs mix and enhancing its appeal. In a loving way and in another nod to their cheekiness, I’m sure that this LP holds the Guinness record for the number of falsettos sang on a single record. But, if it’s an honest sincere vocal that you are looking for, drummer Kevin Godly steps out in grand style for the tear-jerking ballad, “Fresh Air for My Mama.”
After letting those first two Doo-woppy singles somewhat slip by, the power and intensity of “Rubber Bullets” just floored me along with comical sing-along lyrics like this:
We all got balls and brains
But some’s got balls and chains
While I will forever hold “Bullets” as the classic song that made me a 10cc fan, my fave on this record has always been and will always be the fourth single (three hit the UK Top 10) “The Dean and I.” From the bizarre opening vocal onslaught of “Hum drum days and a hum drum ways,” this one grabs you hard and never let’s go. It’s a totally infectious Pop gem to which you can’t resist singing along. And like 10cc’s other songs, its lyrics are cute and clever, albeit the fact that this one is a rather uncynical love song.
The four original members of 10cc would remain together for three more fantastic must-own LPs and along the way they had a mega worldwide hit with “I’m Not in Love,” one of Pop music’s masterpieces. The band would later split into two with Godley and Creme focusing more on the technological end of things musical while Gouldman and Stewart stuck with clever Pop songs. While both pairs achieved success, 10cc was at its best when these four worked together to meld their talents together with each side keeping the other in check.
Sadly, 10cc rounds out my dissertations on my Top 10 records of all-time. Heck, I’m already itching to start on another ten!
Keepin the draft alive, here are a few category-specific picks.
Soundtrack LP – “Purple Rain” – Prince and the Revolution
When I was informed that there was room to take my favorite original movie soundtrack (“OST”) LP with me to the desert island, I realized that there were four possible directions I could go in picking an OST. Dissecting my possible choices, I surmised that OSTs can be categorized as being comprised of (1) original instrumental music, (2) popular songs by various artists, (3) live musical performances, or (4) original theme-driven songs. My pondering led me to the last type, recognizing it as perhaps the most challenging of the four.
With that decision made, it was quite easy to select Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Released in 1984 to accompany the highly successful film of the same name, Purple Rain furthered the process of making Prince a household name that began with his previous LP, 1999. I guess the 25 million fans who made Purple Rain one of the best-selling albums of all time can’t be wrong. Its music also garnered two Grammys and an Academy Award for Prince. On a personal note, it was the first pre-recorded movie I ever purchased, buying it on Betamax!
While not taking anything away from the record, I guess it is a little bit easier to compose original songs when the movie is about a musician and is fairly autobiographical. But these songs fit the movie about as well as Prince fits atop his motorcycle. Some of the songs were presented in the movie as staged live performances by Prince and the Revolution. (Purple Rain marked the debut of The Revolution.) Three of the songs were in fact recorded live at the iconic Minneapolis club, First Avenue, that is featured in the film. However, some were set cinematically. Either way, these were among the finest songs that Prince has ever created.
Having seen the film on repeated occasions, the sound and scene grabber for me is without a doubt is Prince’s duet with his female protégé, Apollonia, on “Take Me with U.” In the movie, this can’t-sit-still Pop song follows the couple as they ride on Prince’s bike and you can practically feel the wind on your face and smell the fresh fall air. Even without the visual, the song is a grabber.
Another cinematic high point is “When Doves Cry” which serves as great mid-movie pause and reflection moment where Prince’s character, “The Kid,” reviews all that is going on in his world. The song too stands alone as a brilliant work lyrically posing the questions that its singer faces which the bonus of some dazzling guitar work by Prince.
As for the movie’s performance songs, the drama and emotion in the title track is chilling and its guitar solo is one of music history’s best. Again, remarkable with and without seeing it, although when just listening you don’t get to see Prince’s totally cool white Cloud guitar.
Even with its on-screen drama removed, can anyone sit still for “Let’s Go Crazy”? Opening both the LP and the film, it’s an amazing foreshadowing of what’s ahead of us, and in the movie, it serves as introduction to the key characters in the film.
If there is something I felt was missing from this record, it was its failure to feature cuts by the two other bands who appear in the film. I would have loved to have seen it include Morris Day & the Time’s “Jungle Love” and Prince’s former guitarist Dez Dickerson’s “Modernaire.” In addition to padding their bank accounts, these songs would have made the record better follow the movies storyline as would have including Revolution members Wendy & Lisa’s instrumental noodling in their on-screen fictional creation of the music to “Purple Rain.”
This slight misgiving aside, Purple Rain stands out as my favorite, and perhaps the greatest OST of all time. Even without the movie, it would still be one of the greatest LPs of all time, but hearing it blast on the big screen to a well written and acted film, really takes it to another level. It’s just amazing that such great music and a great film came together like this.