Saturday, March 10, 2018


I am working six days a week right now, 50 hours a week, so I'm unlikely to be posting much new here for awhile. The store where I work is being sold, and my boss is having scheduling issues, so. It is what it is. I'm trying to focus on the extra money, but I'm tired. I'm not real clear on what day it is, most of the time.
I don't know for sure if I'll have a job after April 1st -- I assume I will, but nothing is clear. Right now I'm thinking a little break from it after 14 years would be a good thing.
While you're waiting for more, I've been spending most of my on-line time lately hanging out at a Facebook page, GREATEST ROCK ALBUMS OF ALL TIME. You might try joining them. There are tons of members there who are even crazier and more fanatical about off-the-wall music than I am -- but luckily there are lots of jokers, too. I love the silly questions, the silly polls, the comparisons, the funny comments. Sometimes I laugh like a loon. Great cheap entertainment.
I still have a huge pile of Strange Music waiting to be reviewed off the top of my head, and I promise to get to that eventually....

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

All new Strange Music marathon!

OK, here's the scam: I have this HUGE pile of previously-unheard Strange Music piled up here for a book project that may never get finished, and what I'm gonna try to do now is listen to a bunch of it and review it off the top of my head as it plays, and see how much I can take. Three hours is usually my drop-dead point, but I'm pretty bored musically right now, so let's see.
But first, something to warm up the turntable....
* Steppenwolf: Move Over, from MONSTER (1970) -- Hilarious lyrics about how that impatient younger generation is pushin' ol' John Kay to the brink. Nice screechy guitar. OK organ, too. Production seems a little muddy and bass-heavy.
* Touch: We Feel Fine, from their first album (1969) -- Loud organ and guitar fanfares, high-pitched vocalist. All I know about these guys is that keyboardist Don Gallucci later became a record producer. Psychedelic, a little crude, one nice lyric about "watching L.A. fall into the sea." A lot going on here in late-'60s heavy! fashion. OK group vocals on the "We feel fine" chorus-line. At least there was no drum solo. Nice spacey album cover, by the way.
* Touch: Friendly Birds -- This is as quiet as "We Feel Fine" was loud. Acoustic guitar and hushed vocals. Briefly sounds like it's gonna turn into a Broadway show-tune, like something from HAIR. Then nice guitar-and-piano mid-section. Meanders. Some talent, but a good snappy tune would help.
* Touch: Miss Teach -- No. Sounds like Pink Floyd's THE WALL cut down to 3-1/2 minutes.
* Touch: Seventy-Five -- This is the album's 11-minute magnum opus. Sounds like the Stories' Ian Lloyd on vocals. About dreams and dreaming -- nice spacey organ, if you're into "freaking out." Ah, so THIS is where the drum solo is. That repeating police-siren organ riff is really annoying. Made it through, tho. Eleven minutes I'll never get back. And a waste of $8. What else have we got?
* Trapeze: Black Cloud, from MEDUSA (1970?) -- This sounds like bad Deep Purple. I heard an earlier Trapeze album that was gentle and folky and psych-ish, and this is way cruder. Occasional flashes of a lighter touch, but not enuf. They're a power trio. And the singer's annoying. How did this end up on the Moody Blues' Threshold label? Produced by John Lodge of the Moodies. Glenn Hughes ended up in Deep Purple, didn't he? Lotsa cowbell, if you care.
* Trapeze: Medusa -- This is lighter, and moodier. And of course it's the last track. And the singing's still annoying. And then they heavy it up.... No.
* Funkadelic: Standing on the Verge of Getting it On, from the album of the same name (1974) -- Opens with squiggly comedy vocals, then into a funky dance groove with group vocals. Makes me want to move. Middle-break call-and-response vocals sound like James Brown. This is pretty nice -- I was actually expecting something heavier.
* Funkadelic: Jimmy's Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him, from STANDING ON THE VERGE.... -- Sly, low-key vocals. The message seems to be -- you name it, it's OK! Over too fast.
* Funkadelic: Good Thoughts Bad Thoughts, from STANDING.... -- Opens with 6+ minutes of nice, spacey solo guitar, by either Eddie Hazel or Gary Shider. Then a low-key vocal offering Cosmic Advice, among which is: "Free your mind and your ass will follow. Good thoughts bring forth good fruit. Bullshit thoughts rot your needs. Think right and you can fly." Nice, laid back, very pleasant. Who knew?
* The Roches: The Hallelujah Chorus, from KEEP ON DOING (1982) -- Yes, THAT one. The Roches did some great stuff on their first album (1979): "Hammond Song" is heartbreakingly gorgeous, "Quitting Time" is almost as good, "We" is funny, and "The Married Men" is worth hearing. This is an impressive a capella exercise. And that's all. It's not funny, it's just odd.
* Roches: Losing True, from KEEP ON -- THIS is more like it. Gorgeous trio vocals, eventually followed by Bob Fripp's ghostly guitar. Maggie Roche was some songwriter. Fripp produced, of course. More songs like this and they woulda been world famous.
* Roches: The Largest Elizabeth in the World, from KEEP ON -- Cute, funny, silly.
* Roches: Sex is for Children, from KEEP -- Overlapping vocals with Fripp's guitar. Kinda noisy, at first. Then becomes a guitar duo. I can't really hear the words, and they're not included on the lyric sheet.
* Roches: Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose -- Their vocal blend was really magic. This is like the album's big production number -- it almost sounds like there's strings on here. Hey! Three-quarters of the '80s King Crimson is on this album! Says Bill Bruford's here, wonder where? OK, the vocals are fine and the playing's good, but I didn't really notice the words. For a Big Closer, I wonder if that's good. Two out of three?
* Mimi and Richard Farina: Pack Up Your Sorrows, from CELEBRATIONS FOR A GRAY DAY (1965) -- Wow, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Only Bob would never be this sweet. Charming.
* Nektar: Marvelous Moses, from RECYCLED (1975) -- Opens with lotsa keyboards, then wordy verses and choruses. Mildly funky. Then a keyboard fanfare. Which builds rather nicely. And gets cut off so we can go back to the verses. The Girlfriend points out there's nothing in the first half of the song to warrant the instrumental build-up. The vocals and the tune seem to be out of time just a bit. Not their best.
* Peter Gabriel: Here Comes the Flood, from his first album (1977) -- Wow, pretty dramatic. And I thought I didn't like him....
* Peter Gabriel: Moribund the Burgermeister, from the CAR album -- Hmmm. Could be Genesis. The mid-section is evil, mechanical music. GF says it sounds like Peter's making fun of something. Playful. Funny.
* Syd Barrett: Dark Globe, from AN INTRODUCTION TO.... (2017) -- "Won't you miss me at all?" RIP.
* Steve Hackett: Please Don't Touch, from the album of the same name (1978) -- Whiny, slidy guitar followed by light Mellotron-style keyboards and more twiddly guitar. Cover says to play this at maximum loudness; I was expecting something heavier. Inoffensive background music.
* Steve Hackett: The Voice of NECAM/Icarus Ascending, from PLEASE DON'T TOUCH -- Singer sounds vaguely like Peter Gabriel. This could be a Genesis song. Then more inoffensive background guitar....
* Justin Hayward: Tightrope, from SONGWRITER (1977) -- OK, I'm cheating here. I heard this once or twice about 40 years ago. Now it sounds thin, ESPECIALLY the horrible tinny whiny keyboards. Hayward's voice is OK, but his singing style is subtly different from how he sang with the Moodies. Not bad, but a bit self-referential. Does anybody really care about a rocker's hard times? Did anyone care back then? And the audience effects are silly. Bit of Hayward's tasteful guitar toward the end. But not enough.
TOMORROW: Three more hours of off-the-cuff reviews. If I feel up to it....

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Great funny songs

We could all use a laugh, right? Now more than ever.
When I posted that "music or die" list a few days ago, I threw in a couple comedy songs at first, just to see if anyone was awake ... but then I deleted them after a couple days, because we take this music stuff Seriously here at The Back-Up Plan.
But to heck with that. My son once told me that if a song can make me laugh, I'm halfway to being won-over. And he's right. So here's some great funny songs (and albums) you may have overlooked. Or maybe not....
* AC/DC -- Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
* Aerosmith -- Big Ten Inch Record.
* America -- Muskrat Love.
* Kevin Ayers -- Connie on a Rubber Band, Butterfly Dance, Gemini Child, Soon Soon Soon, Singing a Song in the Morning, ODD DITTIES.
* Bare Naked Ladies -- Alcohol, It's All Been Done, Get in Line, Never is Enough, Who Needs Sleep?, Some Fantastic, STUNT, If I Had $1,000,000.
* Beach Boys -- I'm Bored With My Old Man, Vegetables, Gettin' Hungry, I'd Love Just Once to See You, BEACH BOYS PARTY!, SMILEY SMILE(?).
* Beatles -- I'm Down, Yellow Submarine, When I'm 64, Hey Bulldog, Honey Pie, Why Don't We Do it in the Road?, Octopus's Garden, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Her Majesty, Mr. Moonlight.
* Byrds -- Mr. Spaceman.
* Cab Calloway -- Minnie the Moocher.
* Camel -- Down on the Farm.
* Can -- Mother Upduff.
* Caravan -- Magic Man, Golf Girl, Waterloo Lily, The Dog The Dog He's at it Again, Cthulhu, A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oik.
* Carpenters -- Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (long version).
* Neil Diamond -- Crunchy Granola Suite, Soggy Pretzels, Broad Old Woman (6 A.M. Insanity).
* Dickies -- Nights in White Satin, Stuck in a Pagoda With Trisha Toyota.
* Electric Light Orchestra -- Yours Truly 2095.
* Fairport Convention -- Mr. Lacey.
* Fleetwood Mac -- Oh Well, Not That Funny.
* J. Geils Band -- Love Stinks, No Anchovies Please (not really a song).
* Go-Go's -- Skidmarks on My Heart, Girl of 100 Lists.
* Gong -- Anything with Daevid Allen on it....
* Gryphon -- Don't Say Go, Flash in the Pantry.
* Slim Harpo -- Tina-Nina-Nu.
* Heart -- Hit Single, Strange Phenomena, Break.
* Herman's Hermits -- I'm Henry VIII I Am.
* Incredible String Band -- Minotaur's Song, Mercy I Cry City, THE HANGMAN'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER.
* Jethro Tull -- Back to the Family, The Mouse Police Never Sleeps....
* Nick Kershaw -- Gone to Pieces.
* King Crimson -- Cat Food, The King Crimson Barber Shop, Happy With What You Have to be Happy With, Prozack Blues.
* Kinks -- Apeman, Village Green Preservation Society, Lola.
* Led Zeppelin -- Whole Lotta Love, Hot Dog.
* Little Feat -- Dixie Chicken, Candyman Blues.
* Lyle Lovett -- My Baby Don't Tolerate, She's No Lady.
* Madness -- Embarrassment, Shut Up.
* Paul McCartney and Wings -- Magneto and Titanium Man.
* Pat Metheny Group -- Forward March.
* Monkees -- Gonna Buy Me a Dog, Your Auntie Grizelda, Randy Scouse Git, Tapioca Tundra, No Time.
* Moody Blues -- Om, Painted Smile, I Am.
* Motorhead -- Killed by Death.
* The Move -- Tonite.
* National Health -- Binoculars.
* Ted Nugent -- Wango Tango, Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.
* Parliament -- P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).
* Pink Floyd -- Flaming, Careful With That Axe Eugene (?), Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict, In the Flesh?, The Trial.
* Pogues -- Fairytale of New York.
* Police -- Does Everyone Stare?, On Any Other Day, REGATTA DE BLANC.
* Queen -- Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...), Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, I'm in Love With My Car, Good Company, Seaside Rendezvous, Don't Try Suicide.
* Bonnie Raitt -- Give it Up or Let Me Go, No Getting Over You.
* Rolling Stones -- Emotional Rescue.
* Todd Rundgren -- Song of the Viking, Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song, An Elpee's Worth of Toons.
* Simon and Garfunkel -- At the Zoo, Punky's Dilemma, A Simple Desultory Philippic.
* Sky -- Tuba Smarties.
* Split Enz -- Poor Boy.
* Al Stewart -- Mondo Sinistro, Red Toupee.
* Strawbs -- Part of the Union, Backside.
* Pete Townshend -- Misunderstood.
* Rick Wakeman -- The Breathalyzer.
* Johnny "Guitar" Watson -- Gangster of Love.
* The Who -- My Wife.
* Yachts -- Tantamount to Bribery.
* Yes -- Every Little Thing, No Opportunity Necessary No Experience Needed.
...To be continued....

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Two dozen better albums

As a follow-up to my last post, here's a list of two-dozen great (mostly Strange Music) albums everyone should hear, that aren't mentioned anywhere in 1,001 ALBUMS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE. This list is entirely off the top of my head -- I'll take the blame for any inaccurate info. How many of these have you heard?
* Gryphon -- RED QUEEN TO GRYPHON THREE (1974).
* Gryphon -- TREASON (1977).
* Providence -- EVER SENSE THE DAWN (1972).
* Happy the Man -- CRAFTY HANDS (1978).
* Amazing Blondel -- FANTASIA LINDUM (1972).
* Group 87 -- (1st) (1980).
* Sally Oldfield -- WATER BEARER (1978).
* Caravan -- BLIND DOG AT ST. DUNSTAN'S (1976).
* Sky -- SKY2 (1980).
* Genesis -- A TRICK OF THE TAIL (1976).
* Camel -- THE SNOW GOOSE (1975).
* Camel -- NUDE (1980).
* Wigwam -- NUCLEAR NIGHTCLUB (1974).
* Moody Blues -- THE PRESENT (1983).
* The Jam -- SETTING SONS (1979).
* Renaissance -- LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976).
* Shoes -- PRESENT TENSE (1980).
* Split Enz -- WAIATA (1981).
* Yes -- YESSONGS (live) (1973).
* Queen -- INNUENDO (1991).
* Gentle Giant -- FREE HAND (1975).
* Go-Go's -- TALK SHOW (1984).
* Illusion -- OUT OF THE MIST (1977).
* Bangles -- ALL OVER THE PLACE (1983).
OK, there's 25. Get back to me after you've heard all these and we'll talk....

Monday, February 19, 2018

The usual suspects

Now, this is disappointing. OK, I admit it -- I'm officially Old. There is a LOT of crap listed in this book.
After having such a great time with 1,001 SONGS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE, I thought I'd take a chance on 1,001 ALBUMS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE (2005, general editor Robert Dimery). And mainly I'm reminded about how out-of-touch I've become.
I expected that this 950-page list of supposedly great albums (from Elvis's first in 1956 to the White Stripes' GET BEHIND ME SATAN in 2005) would have a lot of predictable choices in it. The shock was how very predictable many of them are ... in the period I'm familiar with.
I wish the contributors (90 of them, mostly British, one name I was familiar with) had gone a little farther out, gotten a little weirder. True -- Can, Neu!, Faust, Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine, and albums by other weirdies are written-up here. Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and other progressive-rock heavies are included. Even Emerson, Lake and Palmer have a couple of albums included in the lineup.
But generally, the choices are what you'd expect -- the same acknowledged classics you've heard lauded in other books of this type. And even the off-the-wall choices are generally the "coolest," most acceptable cult titles.
And I refuse to accept the idea that Britney Spears has an album I need to hear before I die. I'll die happily without that, I'm sure.
There IS some good stuff in here. And the articles are almost always informative and well-written -- though I think the book's practice of highlighting "key" tracks in lists of album-contents misses some great stuff.
The cult choices are obvious, too -- Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, early Roxy Music, early Brian Eno, The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Tim Buckley, etc.
There are a few surprises, but not enough. They could have been a lot more daring.
I have some reservations about their individual album choices, too.The Beach Boys' SURF'S UP is not a great album as a totality, and they note this. (Great second side, though. Add two songs from the first side and you've almost got a great album.) I don't think RUMOURS is the best thing Fleetwood Mac ever did. But the compilers include Mac's TUSK, too, so it all balances out.
There are some factual errors, too. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour gets his name spelled wrong at least once. MEET THE BEATLES wasn't their first album release in the States -- INTRODUCING THE BEATLES was released a year earlier. And four students were killed at Kent State University in 1970, not two -- this is VERY simple fact-checking gone wrong: "Four dead in Ohio!" There are other proofreading errors.
And while I was happy to see Brian Wilson's reconstruction of SMILE listed here, I've come to see that CD as just a place-holder to keep the CD-player warm until the SMILE SESSIONS set was released a few years later (though the compilers had no way of knowing that release was coming, back in 2005).
I also think the book is skewed toward more recent releases. The '60s are covered adequately; the '70s are covered in much greater depth. But suddenly 1980 arrives and the book isn't even half-finished.
There is very little here that I can relate to after about the mid-1980s. Which may mean this book wasn't meant for me.
Also, unlike 1,001 SONGS, there is no index listing 9,000 more albums you really should try to check out in your spare time. Such a list would have helped -- and probably would have made me drop most of my complaints.
Here's the thing: Sitting here at the keyboard, off the top of my head, I'm sure I could come up with a list of two dozen great albums everyone should hear -- that aren't mentioned in this book. I'm sure you could, too. And your list would be just as good, or better. That's what musical taste is all about, right?
Well, this book shows that musical-taste-wise, I'm an old fuddy-duddy. So once again, I'll be changing the name of this blog to "Living in the Past."

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The worst Number One hits ever

Ever get a REALLY bad song stuck in your head for no known reason? This has been happening more and more often to me lately. First noticed it awhile back when I was in the shower and suddenly Melanie's "Brand New Key" popped into my head, ghod knows why. I don't mind if songs suddenly occur to me -- but I'd like them to be songs I LIKE. Who's programming my brain?
Then other songs I liked even LESS started hitting me at odd moments, so I figured I'd do some research on this odd medical phenomenon. I dug out Joel Whitburn's reliable TOP POP HITS compendium of BILLBOARD chart data, and thought I'd scribble down what seemed to me the worst Number One hits ever. Here's what I came up with, in chronological order....
* "Monday Monday," The Mamas and the Papas (1966). Even songwriter John Phillips didn't know what it was about....
* "Sunshine Superman," Donovan (1966).
* "All You Need is Love," Beatles (1967).
* "Ode to Billy Joe," Bobbie Gentry (1967).
* "One Bad Apple," Osmonds (1971).
* "Brand New Key," Melanie (1971).
* "My Ding-a-Ling," Chuck Berry (1972). Never underestimate the power of a really bad and stupid dirty joke. Repeated endlessly.
* "My Love," Paul McCartney and Wings (1973).
* "Bennie and the Jets," Elton John (1974). Made worse by radio overplay. See below.
* "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974). Who?
* "The Night Chicago Died," Paper Lace (1974). Who?
* "You're Having My Baby," Paul Anka (1974). '74 really wasn't that great a music year....
* "Fallin' in Love," Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds (1975). Absolutely flat mainstream pop. Coulda been an insurance commercial.
* "Let's Do it Again," Staples Singers (1975). Yeah, they were pretty great. But not here.
* "Disco Lady," Johnnie Taylor (1976). See Chuck Berry. Too bad, because Taylor's "Who's Makin' Love?" is a classic.
* "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," Elton John and Kiki Dee (1976). In the Bottom 10 among the worst things Elton ever did. I never thought "Philadelphia Freedom" was so great, either.
* "You Light Up My Life," Debbie Boone (1977).
* "My Sharona," The Knack (1979).
* "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Rupert Holmes (1979). Who? Ever hear Rupert's "Nearsighted"? Best thing Barry Manilow never did.
* 1981. Almost all of 1981's Number One hits were total crap. "Physical." "Bette Davis Eyes." The only exceptions were Blondie's "Rapture" (worth it just as comedy), one barely tolerable REO smash, and two OK songs by Hall and Oates. Otherwise, right down there with 1974 for bad music years.
* "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston (1992). Still being used to clear birds off of airport runways. Check out writer Dolly Parton's gorgeous original version instead.

Sports of sorts

What I've been reading lately....
* James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales: THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN: INSIDE THE WORLD OF ESPN (2011) -- A 750-page "oral history" of sports network ESPN, from its founding up to a few years ago. I skimmed over their tales of corporate struggles, but you'd never guess there could be such wild stories and such controversy involved with a cable TV channel that just broadcasts sports and sports talk. It's all here -- from Keith Olbermann's departure to Mike Patrick's "retirement" to Hannah Storm's wardrobe choices, and it's all great, hilarious stuff. As an oral history, the book tries to track down and interview everyone who ever worked for or appeared on-camera for ESPN, and though I've sometimes disliked this format for a book, this one puts you right inside the studio. You feel like you know these people. Which led me to re-read....
* Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller: LIVE FROM NEW YORK: AN UNCENSORED HISTORY OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (2002/2003) -- I remember reading this a few years back and feeling mildly disappointed that the book wasn't big enough, that somehow it didn't do justice to the great comedy show that's been rolling since the mid-'70s and keeps coming back from the dead. But maybe that was just my uneasiness with the "oral history" format. This 2003 version (600 pages) includes some new interviews -- but of course, they're not set aside in a new spot; you have to re-read and find them. I had a great time, this time around. Although Eddie Murphy isn't interviewed anywhere in here, LOTS of other SNL veterans are, and there's some great backstage gossip. And controversy, too. A great way to blow off a few hours, if you were ever a fan.
* Rick Reilly: THE LIFE OF REILLY (2003) -- This is a best-of from when Reilly was writing the back-page column for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. My only serious disappointment was they didn't include Reilly's coverage of the 1986 U.S. Open -- a golf piece so hysterically funny I still laugh 'til I cry whenever I re-read it. Who knew you could make golf so funny? (This piece was brought to my attention by my old Air Force boss and writing coach Gary Pomeroy, who was always looking for funny stuff and taught me that the one place you could break the rules in a military newspaper was on the sports page. As a result, I went looking for my own funny golf stories -- and then just funny stories, period.) They also left out Reilly's column "Nobody Loves a Blit," a classic about REALLY stupid team nicknames.
But the stuff that IS here is pretty great -- especially the pieces about how taking part in sports or just being a sports fan helps hold people together. Some of this stuff will tear you up. Which leads me to....
* The annual BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING, series editor Glenn Stout (2005, 2007-2010). Amazing what you can find at Goodwill. After reading Reilly and remembering the way I got sucked into the YEAR'S BEST MUSIC WRITING series awhile back, I tried these. And man, was it worth it. Each volume assembles the best sports writing the editors can find each year, from national magazines down to local newspapers and Internet blogs. There's a lot of writing here about repetitive brain injuries to football players (before the NFL finally agreed there might be some brain damage involved with concussions), and about broken-down old players who gave their bodies for a few minutes of excitement for fans on the football field. There are lots of stories about drug- and steroid-abuse by players who then spiraled further downhill -- and about athletes who were able to come back from that. There are many stories about how sports holds people together -- one of the best is about a woman college basketball star who suffered a quadruple amputation ... and how her recovery helped hold her teammates together. There are amazing and moving stories of achievement and sacrifice here, superb and deeply human writing. The funny pieces are a real hoot. Overall, the stories are better and more human -- I hate to admit this -- than almost any in the BEST MUSIC WRITING series.
* Robert Young Pelton: THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS PLACES (Fifth Edition, 2003) -- I read an earlier edition of this a few years back and thought it was kind of thin and stupid. Not this one. In more than 1,000 pages, Pelton and the MDP staff look at dozens of global hotspots and tell you everything from getting there and getting out safely, how to exchange money, whether to drink the water, and how to place bribes in the right places. And they do it all with a grim but hilarious sense of humor. It also helps that one of the most dangerous places they go into detail about is the good old USA. I'm sure there's a newer edition out there....

Friday, February 16, 2018

Strange Music "before you die" list, Part One

In line with my last post, here's an attempt to do a "must hear before you die" list of songs by some of my favorite Strange Music artists -- with a few surprises thrown in.
The idea here is to try to sum-up an artist's career by listing a handful (or less) of signature songs that show the artist at their best or most characteristic, without which modern reality wouldn't be what it is. Whatever that is. A sort of definition, if you like.
I still think this whole "must hear before you die" premise is silly, but it does start some interesting thought processes. Onward, then.
* Amazing Blondel -- Fantasia Lindum suite, Seascape, Landscape.
* Argent -- Hold Your Head Up, Dance in the Smoke.
* Barclay James Harvest -- Hymn, Spirit on the Water, Poor Man's Moody Blues, Ring of Changes.
* Beach Boys (after 1965) -- Surf's Up, 'Til I Die, God Only Knows.
* Brewer and Shipley -- Witchi-Tai-To.
* Kate Bush -- The Man With the Child in His Eyes, This Woman's Work, Empty Bullring, Under the Ivy.
* Camel -- Sasquatch, Manic, Echoes, Breathless, Rhayader, Rhayader Goes to Town, Never Let Go.
* Can -- Father Cannot Yell, Uphill, Mother Upduff.
* Caravan -- The Dog The Dog He's at it Again, All the Way (With John Wayne's Single-Handed Liberation of Paris), For Richard (live), Dissociation, Memory Lain/Hugh/Headloss.
* Clannad -- The Wild Cry, Journey's End, In Fortune's Hand.
* Sandy Denny -- Listen Listen, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.
* Dixie Dregs -- Hereafter, Night Meets Light.
* Nick Drake -- Northern Sky, Pink Moon.
* Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- Fanfare for the Common Man, From the Beginning, Lucky Man, Karn Evil 9 (First Impression, Part One).
* Enya -- Storms in Africa.
* Fairport Convention -- Come All Ye, I'll Keep it With Mine.
* Genesis (middle period) -- Ripples, Madman Moon, Afterglow, Vancouver, Your Own Special Way, Like it or Not, You Might Recall.
* Gentle Giant -- Funny Ways (live), Think of Me With Kindness, His Last Voyage, On Reflection.
* Gong -- Wingful of Eyes.
* Group 87 -- One Night Away From Day, Moving Sidewalks.
* Gryphon -- Lament, Spring Song.
* Happy the Man -- Service With a Smile, Wind-Up Doll Day Wind.
* Hawkwind -- You Better Believe It.
* Illusion -- Everywhere You Go, Candles are Burning.
* Jethro Tull -- The Whistler, Living in the Past, Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.
* Journey (strange stuff) -- Daydream, People and Places.
* Kansas -- Carry On Wayward Son, Miracles Out of Nowhere, Journey from Mariabronn, Song for America.
* King Crimson -- Epitaph, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Frame by Frame, The Great Deceiver, Red.
* Lyle Mays -- Ascent.
* Pat Metheny (Group) -- The Search, Praise, New Chatauqua.
* Moody Blues -- Nights in White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon, Question, The Story in Your Eyes, You and Me.
* The Move -- Do Ya, Message from the Country.
* Nektar -- It's All Over, Do You Believe in Magic?, King of Twilight.
* The Nice -- America.
* Mike Oldfield -- Incantations Part One, Ommadawn Part One, Tubular Bells Part One.
* Alan Parsons Project -- Some Other Time, The Gold Bug, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.
* Pink Floyd -- High Hopes, Us and Them, Astronome Domine (live), The Great Gig in the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Money.
* Procol Harum -- Whiter Shade of Pale, Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog.
* Providence -- If We Were Wise, Fantasy Fugue, Neptune's Door.
* Renaissance -- Northern Lights, Ashes are Burning (live, first three minutes), Rajah Khan.
* Scarlet Rivera -- Day of the Unicorn.
* Roxy Music -- The Thrill of it All, Over You, Love is the Drug.
* Todd Rundgren -- Real Man, Saving Grace, The Very Last Time (with Utopia).
* Sky -- Vivaldi, Watching the Aeroplanes.
* Steeleye Span -- Alison Gross, All Around My Hat.
* Al Stewart -- Year of the Cat, Modern Times, Running Man, Nostradamus.
* Stories -- Please Please, Love is in Motion, Words.
* Strawbs -- Where is This Dream of Your Youth? (live), Down by the Sea, Hero and Heroine, The Man Who Called Himself Jesus (live).
* Synergy -- S-Scape, Icarus, Warriors.
* Tangerine Dream -- Monolight (live), Igneous.
* Richard Thompson -- Cavalry Cross (live).
* Steve Tibbetts -- Ur.
* U.K. -- Time to Kill, In the Dead of Night suite.
* Vangelis -- Alpha, Spiral, To the Unknown Man.
* Yes -- Your Move, Roundabout, South Side of the Sky.
To be continued ... maybe....

Thursday, February 8, 2018

10,000 songs

I'm not a sucker for this book. 1,001 SONGS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE (AND 10,001 YOU MUST DOWNLOAD) (2010/2013) struck me at first as a gimmick and a joke. All of those "before you die" books seem kind of silly -- your life is your own, live it your way, set your own goals.
But I was looking for something new about music to browse, and this book is HUGE. So I picked it up for a closer look.
One of the first things I saw was a write-up on Nick Drake's gorgeous "Northern Sky." Then they listed the Korgis' "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime," which I have fond memories of. Then I noticed Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," which I'd just played on the stereo that morning....
So I flipped a few more pages. Love's "Alone Again Or." The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up." Fairport Convention's "She Moves Through the Fair" (which I'd never heard before). By then I was pretty much sold. At least these folks seemed to have a pretty good ear for the overlooked and off-the-wall.
I still think that. But a more detailed browse through these 960 pages shows that the compilers (50 of them, British, all people I've never heard of, including general editor Robert Dimery) are also suckers for one-shot pop trash. My life would be complete if I never hear songs like Toni Basil's "Mickey" ever again. And it gets a write-up in this book.
Even more than the page-long articles on each song considered "essential" by the compilers -- and these are always informative, even if you don't like the song -- the index including 9,000 more songs to download is a field-day of obvious and not-so-obvious choices, leading a fan to ask the obvious "But how could they NOT include...?" questions.
For example. How many Britney Spears songs do you really NEED to hear? I'd say none. The index lists six, including one that's "essential."
How many AC/DC songs do you really need to hear? I'd say maybe one. The index lists 15, including two the compilers feel are essential.
OK, Tom Petty. I'd say one, the index lists 10. And the one I'd choose ain't here. Neither are some other rather obvious choices.
But the format's interesting. If you had to sum up an artist's achievements by picking just one or two songs, which would you choose? There's an argument starter. And an idea for a post I may write soon....
You name 'em, they're in here, from Abba to Zappa, with the index alphabetized the way your computer or smartphone or iPod or whatever would do it -- with Zappa filed under "F" for Frank. The book runs the gamut from Enrico Caruso in 1916 to David Bowie in 2013. Nice to see Cab Calloway's hilarious "Minnie the Moocher" from 1931 in here.
And the sections that focus on the '60s and '70s are jammed full of classics -- I mean, the songs I know. There's plenty in here that I've never heard. There's a ton to learn.
But I also have to note that there's a real downturn in well-known, often-heard "classics" after the mid-1980s. Which may just indicate that this book wasn't meant for me.
But for all the information in it, and all the new directions it points me as a fan, I'll be holding onto it.
For that, I'll forgive that they included as essential "Ode to Billy Joe." "Unchained Melody." "Walk on By." "Superstar." "Rock On." "Desperado." "Sweet Home Alabama." "Dancing Queen." "Hotel California." "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"....

Monday, February 5, 2018

He wakes

Hey, horror writer Jack Ketchum passed away a couple weeks ago. He was 71 years old. I would never have gotten the news without the good folks at Ansible. Surprised there wasn't mention of his death elsewhere.
Of course, Ketchum wasn't a household name. He got close. Stephen King once called him the scariest writer in America, and about a decade ago all of Ketchum's books were reprinted in paperback by Leisure Books after the original out-of-print versions started fetching big prices on the Internet.
But Ketchum never got rich. I think he did OK, though. He had enough spare cash to take a trip to Greece to revise his novel SHE WAKES. And he grabbed headlines a couple times in his career.
The first time was for his first novel, OFF SEASON (1980). This thin, shocking book was allegedly so brutal that (Ketchum revealed in a reprint edition 30 years later) he and Ballantine Books had to go through the manuscript line by line to make it "acceptable" to print. Ketchum said these discussions came down to "I'll trade you this beheading for that disembowelment...."
The book was launched with much hype -- with a black cover, with a trail of blood dripping down the side. Folks looking for the next Stephen King were advised to look here.
But OFF SEASON only sold 30,000 copies. Ketchum's two follow-up novels sold even less, and his career still hadn't gotten started.
I found a copy of OFF SEASON at a yard sale about 15 years ago, for 25 cents -- and grabbed it without really knowing what it was.
And I was surprised. This guy Ketchum was on to something. His book was brutal and direct. It punched me in the face from almost the first page, and never let up until the end. The reprint "uncensored" edition a decade later added more detail -- but it was twice as long, and the blistering pace of the original edition was part of what impressed me.
Ketchum was one of three writers who spoiled me as a reader. He wasted absolutely no time, and kept the pace tight and the events comin' at ya relentlessly. Ketchum, Thomas Harris (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON) and Kathe Koja (SKIN, THE CIPHER) became my new writer-heroes.
Later, I found more old novels by Ketchum, in their original paperback, for not-too-much. JOYRIDE continued the blistering pace of OFF SEASON -- a guy snaps and runs amok, for the sheer rush of it. It's a breathless 200 pages.
HIDE AND SEEK is a sort of sequel to OFF SEASON, though that isn't clear until the end ... when the Bad People from OFF SEASON reappear and turn a twisted, ominous love story into a real nightmare. And Ketchum pulls off another shocking story in about 130 pages. It's probably my favorite of his novels.
Then came THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, in which a girl is kidnapped, locked-up and tortured by a twisted family in the basement of a supposedly "normal" suburban home. This book is a shocker, impossible not to keep reading ... and yet, it somehow doesn't up the ante of his other books. There are parts Ketchum backs away from and says explicitly that he's NOT going to tell you. He doesn't have to. There are also parts early in the book (before things go bad) that have an almost Ray Bradbury-like gentleness. Stephen King went out of his way to call this the scariest book he'd ever read.
I've read a handful of Ketchum's other books since then. All worth the cash, none disappointing. One of the best is SHE WAKES, in which an ancient Greek goddess is reincarnated and goes on the warpath after being snubbed after an affair. I was in Greece for a few weeks once, and this book gets the atmosphere of that place down perfect -- the tavernas under the trees, the ancient air around the place, the sense of something brooding and biding its time somewhere nearby. And the story's gritty and believable. Great stuff.
Ketchum won a couple of World Fantasy Awards for his short stories in the '90s. But that belated recognition of his talent doesn't seem like enough. The later reprints of his books include forewards and afterwards that tell you what was going on behind the scenes as the books were written -- and they are well worth it as a peek into the writing process, and into how the publishing business often goes wrong.
You know how a person's writing sometimes seems to conjure up the kind of person they must be, their outlook, their age, etc? Fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin -- who also passed away a few days back at age 88 -- was seemingly born 40 years old, always stable, measured, always looking at the long view.
Jack Ketchum wasn't like that. He was always pushy, abrasive, risky -- a 20-year-old punk, constantly getting in your face and trying to get your attention. And that's one of the things that made him great.