Friday, July 31, 2020

BOPPIN's Monthly Day Off: THE 13th FLOOR ELEVATORS



Once a month, Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) takes a break from its ill-advised schedule of daily posting, and sends out a little something just for my paid patrons. This month's private post for patrons is another chapter from my book-in-progress The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). Specifically, it's the chapter celebrating "You're Gonna Miss Me" by The 13th Floor Elevators.

An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. You can read about my GREM! book project here, and you can read the book's opening sequence (including chapters about The Ramones, Badfinger, Chuck Berry, Dusty Springfield, and The Sex Pistols) here. You can also become a paid supporter of this blog for just $2 a month, and receive the monthly private post for your own enjoyment. This month's private 13th Floor Elevator piece posts on August 1st, so sign up already.

Daily public posting will resume tomorrow. August awaits.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (VOLUME 1): a large excerpt from my book, starring THE RAMONES, BADFINGER, CHUCK BERRY, DUSTY SPRINGFIELD, and THE SEX PISTOLS (with ELVIS PRESLEY just about to take the stage)


An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns.

My long-planned book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) has been stuck in development for roughly a century or so. That, um, may be a tiny bit of an exaggeration, but the COVID-19 quarantine scene hasn't exactly eased my battered labor o' love's path to becoming a book. Its lack of progress is frustrating, but I haven't lost faith in it yet. If I can make this all happen, it will have been worth the wait.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on the individual chapters. I have more than 115,000 words already written, with (I think) 42 of the book's 155 song entries still to be completed. I could, in fact, stop writing and make a book just out of what I have. But I'm taking advantage of the stasis to tweak to my heart's content. I have posted many chapters on my blog, and distributed a few more entries privately; more than half of the book remains unseen by the public. 

One of my goals with this project is to take these individual celebrations of great songs and make them flow together; if it doesn't work as an extended and connected narrative, it doesn't work as a book. Today, for the first time, I'm offering a look at the book's first few chapters, in sequence. Each of these passages has already been posted separately; now, let's see how they read together as the beginning of a book you'd want to read. 

Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy this sneak peek at The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1):  

FOREWORD

When I was a college student in Brockport, NY in the late '70s, the coolest TV show around was Saturday Night Live. Nothing else even came close. The popularity of that show's recurring Coneheads skits prompted the local Liftbridge Bookstore to hold a Coneheads Night one Saturday evening, with prizes and frivolity galore. The festivities included a prize to be awarded to whomever could answer the featured trivia question: How many Coneheads can dance on the head of a pin?

And the answer, of course: An infinite number, as long as they take turns.

I haven't thought much about the Coneheads over the past four decades, but I've certainly thought a lot about rock 'n' roll and pop music during that time. I've thought about the answer to that '70s-era Coneheads quiz, and I've hijacked it for my own use. No offense to the Coneheads, but the idea of an infinite number of fabulous things each taking individual turns to dance seems inherently better suited for 45s and LP tracks than for extraterrestrial visitors who claimed to be from France.

I developed a theory, which became a strongly-held conviction, carved in stone over the course of countless beverages and virtual jukebox sessions. The Greatest Record Ever Made! By definition, there could only be one Greatest Record Ever Made, because ya can't qualify an absolute. But man, those of us who really, really love pop music love so many different records, each with sincere and passionate fervor. It's not just the drinks that make us shout out That's my SONG!! when a beloved tune plays. It's belief, pure and joyous. If we say the same thing about a different song a few spins later, we weren't lying the first time, and we're not being fickle as we adjust our allegiance. We're living inside the music we love. Sure, there could only be one greatest record ever made. But what if that meant there could only be one at a time?

Yeah. Yeah!

It was so obvious yet so profound I shoulda trademarked it or something. An infinite number of songs can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. And they've gotta take turns--they're records! That's what records do! The open-ended nature of pop obsession encourages believers to proclaim the glory of one great song as it plays, for it is indeed not just the greatest song, but the only song in all of the world, for as long as its short running time. Maybe we'll play it again, right now. Or maybe another one of the infinite great records is due its own fleeting yet immortal turn as The Greatest.

(Or, to explain the idea even more simply: if you hear a song, and then immediately want to hear that same song again, it is, in its fleeting moment, The Greatest Record Ever Made. My daughter calls it ADOS: attention deficit...oooo, shiny! This book is a celebration of that finite euphoria of infinite pop obsession.)

This used to be just a phrase my co-host Dana Bonn and I used on our weekly radio show This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. Initially, I think it was applied to Big Star's "September Gurls," then to Eddie & the Hot Rods' "Do Anything You Wanna Do." It was, in our way, the precursor of Little Steven's "Coolest Song In The World" on Little Steven's Underground Garage. We'd banter about it, joke about it, but we always took it seriously. We always meant it.

When I started my blog Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do), my friend Dave Murray encouraged me to write about this GREM! concept, of an infinite number yadda yadda as long as they take turns. Desperate for content to fill a daily blog, I took Dave's advice and began an ongoing GREM series with a celebration of Badfinger's "Baby Blue." I established an early ground rule that I had to remain sincere with each GREM, that each tune had to be something I felt was worthy of the honor. No challenge there! With my short attention span, there's never any shortage of fantastic rockin' pop nuggets that can occupy the entirety of my consciousness for 3:10 or whatever, and there's never any shortage of equally fantastic plastic awaiting its duly-appointed turn. Sublime! And infinite.

The Greatest Record Ever Made! has been a rewarding series to write, as each entry allows me an opportunity to delve into a seemingly (and fittingly) infinite path to explore the songs that move my soul. Whether it's Chuck Berry dreaming of the promised land while serving a jail sentence, or The Knickerbockers effectively becoming Beatles '65 on a song called "Lies," these are wonderful chances for me to dissect and discover what I love about great records, without ever once relinquishing my appreciation of the sheer, mysterious magic that made 'em all great records to begin with. "Great" records? Scratch that--greatestTHE greatest, each one, in its own turn.

So here's a collection of essays about The Greatest Record Ever Made! There is no attempt at objectivity. Why in God's name would anyone ever wanna be objective about pop music? That's no fun. It's more fun to enjoy the tunes, to obsess, to revel, to puff up with proud conviction, and proclaim, THIS is the greatest! Right here. Right now. Turn it up. It's our turn now.

DISCLAIMERS AND DECLARATIONS [A User's Guide To The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1)]

WARNING: As you read through the following pages, it is possible that you will agree with something I've written, and it is possible that you will disagree with something that I've written.

However, let me assure you that you will not see anything here that was intended as deliberately provocative. Man, I hate the very idea of writing something just to seem edgy or rabble-rousing. That ain't me. These are all opinions, but I mean everything I say, even when I'm waxing rhapsodic over some regularly-reviled act like KISS. The whole book is designed as my side of the friendly arguments we might have over a few beers, coffees, and/or Coca-Colas, each of us proclaiming a steadfast faith that this record--this song!--is The Greatest Record Ever Made. You may counter with something I don't like, something by Van Halen or REO Speedwagon, and I'll fix you in my coldest, most withering glance; you'll shrug that off, just like I ignore your misguided belief that I can't possibly be serious when I say I love The Bay City Rollers. We'll bicker, we'll laugh, we'll toast, and we'll play the music we love. That's how it oughtta be. 

For context, especially considering the fact that many of these entries will relate specifically to my life and my experiences, please allow me to introduce myself. I was born in 1960, and I grew up in the suburbs of Syracuse during the heyday of Beatlemania. I had older siblings, so I was exposed from an early age to every great song an AM radio or a jukebox or a box of 45s had to offer. As a teenager in the '70s, I determined that I wanted to know more about the music I loved, going back to the '50s and '60s, moving forward into '70s punk and beyond. I eventually started freelancing for a great music publication called Goldmine from 1986 to 2006, and since the end of 1998 my friend Dana Bonn and I have been co-hosting the weekly radio show This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. In 2016, I started a daily blog called Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do), a mostly music- and comics-related outlet where a few of these GREM! pieces first saw the light of day. I've got the music in me. I can neither sing nor play, but I have enthusiasm, and both the will and the ability to tell you about the music I love.

Musician and radio host Larry Hoyt recently asked this open question: What makes a great song great? I answered:

It boils down to one thing for me: the hook. That's kinda like saying you like your favorite food because it tastes good, but nonetheless, it's the hook. Whether a guitar riff, an irresistible chorus, a lyric (like "I loved you...well, never mind" in Big Star's "September Gurls") that conveys heartbreak, or some records--"The Tears Of A Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "I Only Want To Be With You" by Dusty Springfield, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" by The Ramones, a number of Beatles faves--where the entirety of the track is immediate and absolute, the hook is what makes it. Whatever the hook happens to be. It's difficult to reduce to clinical terms. But it's what keeps me playing my pop music loud 'n' proud.

We don't fall in love because it makes sense to fall. We fall because we fall, and then we hope for the best. It works that way for our pop music, too.

This specific disclaimer is worth highlighting in bold and all-caps: THIS IS NOT INTENDED AS AN EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF THE BEST RECORDS EVER MADE! Jesus, no! The chapters in this book cover a number of popular and personal favorites, but it's nowhere near comprehensive, and it's not meant to be. It's a discussion and a celebration of pop's infinite promise--nothing more, nothing less. 

Hell, this isn't even a list of my all-time Top O' The Pops. I mean, not even close. There's no study here of, say, "A Million Miles Away" by The Plimsouls, "It's My Life" by The Animals, or "Five O'Clock World" by The Vogues, three of my perennial Fave Raves. I didn't get to The Jam, Edwin Starr, The English Beat, and made only a passing reference to "May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone" by The Toys. "Starry Eyes" by The Records gets mentioned twice, but doesn't get its own entry because I had to stop somewhere. There's no Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. There are no chapters devoted to The Velvelettes, Wilmer & the Dukes, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Avengers, The Young Rascals, Television, Tavares, The Stems, Anny Celsi, Josie & the Pussycats, The Lollipop Shoppe, Arthur Alexander, The Police, Juice Newton, and...well, it's a long and worthy list. But I did write about a lot of fantastic tracks. These are the  records I was moved to put under the 
GREM! spotlight for essay and exultation this time around. Always remember the mantra: an infinite number, as long as they take turns.

Most who read this book will encounter some unfamiliar songs alongside your Led Zeppelin and Wilson Pickett. Nothing was chosen for deliberate obscurity, or in some misguided effort to maintain my hipster cred. Trust me: I ain't got no hipster cred. But being a happy pop fan is a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the Rickenbacker way. There will always be more songs to discover, old and new. If you're intrigued by something described in The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), I encourage you to hunt down more of its story. The information's out there, the song itself is out there. Find it. Listen to it. Cherish it. And finally, BUY IT! Streaming it doesn't count. Music is your best entertainment value. Open up the ol' wallet. It's worth it.

The chapters are sequenced without regard for chronology, and with little regard for genre. Great records don't care what year it is, and classic Top 40 radio taught me that different styles of pop music sound better mixed together. I wish more current radio formats understood that.

When I was writing for Goldmine, editor Jeff Tamarkin told his freelancers that anyone with half a brain understands this is all opinion anyway; just make sure you can back it up, and make sure you can tell the story in an interesting manner. That's always been my goal, even as my writing style has evolved into something more personal. I hope Jeff would approve, and I hope you dig much of what you're about to read. Yes, even though you might disagree with some of it.

So set up a round, and turn up the sound. A few of those infinite turns are nearly at hand.

A Fistful Of 45s

My earliest memories stretch back to 1963, when I was three years old. I have no conscious memory of a time before I loved music. It's likely there never was any time when I didn't love music. As a little, little kid, I used to pick up 45s and spin them on my fingers, pretending I was a record player, warbling the single aloud as it "played" in my hand. The fact that I could match the 45 with the correct song convinced many that I could read at the age of three or four, but I'd really just memorized which label went with which catchy tune. I also loved my parents' Broadway show LPs; I was known to blurt out lyrics at inopportune moments in public, like the time I was in a department store and loudly and proudly sang out the line "Here's to the son of a B, tra la!" from Carnival. Yeah, I was a joy to be around. 

Both of my parents worked. I often stayed with my Godparents the Klusyks, my Aunt Connie and Uncle Nick. I remember their house in Westvale, in Syracuse's Western suburbs. I remember my first girlfriend, four- or five-year-old Mary Rose Tamborelli, who lived across the street from the Klusyks. I remember Mary Rose's older brother playfully popping a toy percussion cap with his baseball bat in the Klusyks' garage. I remember the neighborhood teens and/or pre-teens having a party one evening in the Klusyks' basement, with li'l toddler me right down there with them, helping the big kids listen to their Four Seasons records; the music got too loud, and the adults killed the light as a warning to the noisy youngsters to quiet down already. I was afraid of the dark, and this move freaked me out, prompting me to wail, upset and inconsolable. I remember the sight of my parents' car pulling into the Klusyks' driveway to take me home at the end of one of my Westvale stays. Good times.

But my most prominent memory of life at stately Klusyk Manor remains music with my Aunt Anna. Aunt Anna was Uncle Nick's sister, and she lived with Uncle Nick and Aunt Connie. Every weekday that I was there, I would greet Aunt Anna when she got home from work with one simple, urgent request: "Records, Aunt Anna!" Aunt Anna had 45s. I wanted to hear those 45s, again and again. I specifically remember Chubby Checker's "The Twist" as a Fave Rave, and ditto for "Downtown" by Petula Clark. I'm sure she had some Beatles records, too. My favorite songs were "Who Stole The Keeshka?" by Frankie Yankovic and "Blame It On The Bossa Nova" by Eydie Gorme. I can't even tell you for sure whether or not those were among Aunt Anna's 7" slabs o' bliss, but the memories of all of this--all of this--dovetail together so pleasantly in my mind, a happy image of music and love, a heaven on Earth abruptly terminated when Aunt Connie died in 1965. I was devastated, and this early lesson in mortality haunted me throughout the rest of my childhood. Even today, though, hearing "Blame It On The Bossa Nova" brings a smile, and transports me back to a cherished time I recall with affection and surprising clarity.

Even four- and five-year-olds knew The Beatles in 1964-65. The Beatles were synonymous with pop music, with radio. "All My Loving" was an early favorite, sung by that guy I thought was named Paul MilkCartony. In 1964, I went with my brother, sister, and cousins to see The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night at The North Drive-In in Cicero, NY. All the girls in all the cars were screaming at the images on screen. Aside from a few brief moments of doubt in the late '70s and early '80s, there has never really been a time when I didn't regard The Beatles as the greatest group in the history of rock 'n' roll.

That reference point would be of frequent use to me as I grew older.

So. Let's turn on the radio, and listen in.

OVERTURE
THE RAMONES: Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?
Written by Ramones [Dee Dee Ramone, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone]
Produced by Phil Spector
Single from the album End Of The Century, Sire Records, 1980

Do you remember?

Radio was a dream. Sometimes it was a dream come true. The list of songs and the list of artists introduced by radio to my eager ears are like twin honor rolls stretching from here to Liverpool, here to Motown, here to there to everywhere. If it sometimes seemed as if the radio was my only friend, I was never radio's only friend. Radio had a lot of friends.

Friends like, for example, The Ramones.

The Ramones knew radio's dream: turn on your transistor, and magic happens. Elvis. Chuck Berry. Little Richard. Del Shannon. Lesley Gore. James Brown. Jan and Dean. The Ventures. The Shangri-Las. The Dixie Cups. Rock 'n' roll radio. Let's go.

To the quartet of Forest Hills, NY square pegs who became The Ramones, radio in the '70s fell short of the dream. Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy wanted to be John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and they wanted to make loud, fast pop music that could restore that mythic glory of rock 'n' roll radio. They made records that lived up to the potential of their dreams.

Radio did not play them. 

The Ramones released three brilliant, catchy, mutant albums from 1976-1977, each accompanied by brilliant, catchy, mutant singles. They found an audience, but that audience wasn't as large as dreams demanded. Drummer Tommy left, replaced by Brooklyn-bred Marky Ramone. Another great album, 1978's Road To Ruin, did little to improve The Ramones' commercial status, nor did their appearance in the fabulous 1979 B-movie (and proud of it!) Rock 'n' Roll High School

By this point, legendary record producer Phil Spector viewed himself as The Ramones' anointed savior, and he wanted the chance to prove it. "Do you want to make a good record," he asked them, "or do you wanna make a great one?" His resumé of 45 rpm success was impressive, his early '60s Wall of Sound production responsible for the Ronettes and Crystals hits that were integral parts of the AM pop world during the formative years of the young Ramones-to-be. Phil Spector and The Ramones. A perfect match?

No. It was not a perfect match.

Sure, the Spector-produced End Of The Century would be The Ramones' highest-charting album (albeit still with no radio hits), but his painstaking, glossy technique diluted The Ramones' power rather than enhancing it. Joey and Phil got along well--it's been said that Spector really wanted to produce a Joey Ramone solo LP--while Johnny despised Spector, and Spector pulled a gun on Dee Dee during the making of the album. End Of The Century has its moments, but it is nowhere near the equal of the four Ramones albums that preceded it. Spector delivered the opposite of what he'd promised: with Spector at the helm, The Ramones had made a good album rather than a great one.

And with all that said, we must still acknowledge the singular greatness of the album's opening track: "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?"

Where much of End Of The Century finds the Ramones sound clashing with Spector's Wall of Sound like Jets battling Sharks, "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" combines the seemingly disparate forces for maximum punch. A cacophony of warring radio signals cedes turf to a louder-than-God martial drum beat (nicked from The Routers' "Let's Go"), a boss jock (played by Sean Donahue) proclaiming, This is rock 'n' roll radio, c'mon let's rock 'n' roll with THE RAMONES!, Joey calls out a chant, and he and his de facto brudders suddenly, majestically make radio's dream real again.

Do you remember lyin' in bed
With the covers pulled up over your head
Radio playin' so no one can see?
We need change, and we need it fast
Before rock's just part of the past
'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me

I heard this song first on the radio. Not on American radio, I fear, but on a Toronto station, playing the track in rotation prior to the album's release. In the absence of new music from The Beatles, The Ramones had already become my favorite group. And here they were with a new song embracing and embodying the radio dream, the radio ideal. It was new, but it was just as I remembered it. 

The dream of radio.

Do you remember?

Do you?

BADFINGER: Baby Blue
written by Pete Ham
produced by Todd Rundgren
Single from the album Straight Up, Apple Records, 1972

These guys sound like The Beatles!

When I was a teenager, AM radio was both a tether to the real world and a pipeline to an imagined (if not quite imaginary) world of sheer splendor. In Syracuse, in the early- to mid-'70s, WOLF and WNDR supplied the hooks and the hype, the very foundation of my formative rock 'n' roll dreams. Every new song was a potential revelation. Every new record was a new possibility.

My daughter tells me how much this has changed; Meghan loves music as much as I do, but radio has become irrelevant. It's still on in the car sometimes, when the iPod's not available, but it's background noise, a gray haze of commercials and forgettable music, punctuated occasionally (if at all) by something decent to listen to, briefly. Neither she nor her friends ever listens to radio at home. Why would they? There's nothing for them. There's nothing for me. I can rarely tolerate listening to any commercial radio station for long, and it's not the commercials that drive me away. It's the music.

These guys sound like The Beatles!

I don't remember which local DJ used that line, but I know I heard him use it at least twice. The second time, a couple of years later, he used it to describe The Raspberries. To me, as a popsmacked young teen whose all-time favorite film was A Hard Day's Night, there could be no higher praise. The radio knew what I wanted. And the first time the radio promised me a new band that sounded like The Beatles, the radio gave me a revelation. The radio gave me Badfinger.

I'm not sure which Badfinger hit inspired such fab praise. I know it wasn't Badfinger's first hit "Come And Get It," a little ditty written by Beatle Paul; it could have been "No Matter What," or "Day After Day," both of which ruled my AM radio world with absolute, unquestioned authority. But it could also have been my favorite of favorites, The Greatest Record Ever Made: "Baby Blue."

As we've noted, the concept of The Greatest Record Ever Made! maintains that an infinite number of songs can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. But it's not--it is never--faint praise. For a record to take its turn as The Greatest Record Ever Made, you have to believe it really is the best thing you've ever heard, or could ever hear, for the full three minutes and thirty seconds (or whatever) that it plays. In that moment, there is no other song. Again: screw objectivity--this is pop music! And what's objectivity ever done for you, anyway?

"Baby Blue" qualifies. For 3:36, "Baby Blue" takes everything that's ever been great about rockin' pop music and amplifies it and compresses it all into a harmony-laden, irresistible force.  There has never been a better single. There are others that can compete, in their own turn, but nothing--nothing--has ever topped it. It sounds like The Beatles. No, it's better than The Beatles. Even as a twelve-year-old kid in 1972, certain to my innermost core that The Beatles were the sine qua non of pop music, I think I still knew in my heart: "Baby Blue" was even greater. Each time I hear it, I still believe that's true.

Badfinger's real life story, a story of success cut short by frustration, suicide, and the cold-hearted knavery of the music business, is one of the most tragic tales in rock 'n' roll's often tear-stained annals. But the music transcends its origin, rises above the show-biz treachery and human frailty that claimed the group itself. "Baby Blue" is the embodiment of why I fell in love with the radio in the first place, and an enduring testimony to why I still love radio's potential, in spite of all efforts to make me give up on that love. Radio gave me Badfinger. I can never repay that debt.

Because these guys? They sounded like The Beatles. And I guess that's all I have to say.

CHUCK BERRY: Promised Land
Written by Chuck Berry
Produced by Leonard and Philip Chess
Single, Chess Records, 1964

Freedom.

What does the word mean? Can its essence be defined, at least in terms of its meaning within popular culture? Does being free entail more than the slipping of shackles, both literal and metaphorical, more beyond the mere absence of slavery or indentured servitude? In this country, we equate freedom with our embrace of The American Dream, the unfettered right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To many of us, this concept of freedom translates precisely into possibilities.

Now: what did freedom mean to a black man in 1950s America?

I won't presume to know the answer. But isn't it likely to have meant the same thing anyway? Possibilities. Dreams. The pursuit of happiness, participation in The American Dream, the right to live and love and worship and dance. The additional obstacles on the long and twisting path to freedom, the spurious but entrenched roadblocks placed by Jim Crow and Good Old Boys (both rural and urban, in north and south), all the traps and troubles and dangerous (sometimes lethal) detours don't alter the desired destination. Freedom. Deliverance. The Promised Land. 

In John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath--perhaps the great American novel--the Joad family leaves its home in Oklahoma during the ruinous Dust Bowl devastation of the Great Depression, seeking a better life in California. Some of my mother's family, living in Southwest Missouri during that economic calamity, took a similar dusty blue road west, and encountered much of the same bitter resistance that the fictional Joads suffered. The folks from Oklahoma were described derisively as Okies; the Williamses and Stouts of Missouri were called Pukes, and God damn any self-righteous mutha who ever dared to refer to my family that way. The beleaguered persisted, hell-bent on reaching the promised land.

Chuck Berry knew well the travails of the downtrodden. Dark skin, humble origin, destined to transcend all and everything to become the single most important performer in the history of rock 'n' roll. His mind was quick, his fingers precise, wedding intricate, unforgettable wordplay to a guitar he played like a-ringin' a bell. He struggled. He pushed. He got noticed. He got pushed back. He kept pushing back in turn, smiling and duck-walking, while quietly seething behind his flamboyant mask. A nice man? Tough to say, but beside the point. An important man? If you've ever loved rock 'n' roll, you should be ashamed to even ask that question.

Berry built the foundation of his legacy in the '50s, when segregation was commonplace throughout much of this Land of the Free, when failure to mind one's place wasn't just a breach of protocol; it was a de facto criminal act. 

Into this tinderbox, Chuck Berry brought an electric match: black music that made white kids dance. He wrote in code--most famously, the irresistibly potent brown-skinned handsome man who became (wink) a brown-eyed handsome man--but he crafted and chronicled the American teen-age dream with greater eloquence than anyone else, black or white. 

It was inevitable that he would be slapped down.

Some say that he mighta had it coming. Maybe. Others say the rap was racially-motivated, pure and simple. Berry was busted for a violation of the Mann Act, transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purpose. It's plausible to suggest that Berry may have been guilty, but it's also plausible that he wasn't. Guilty or not, Berry spent a year and a half behind bars. While still a guest of the state, Berry wrote "Promised Land." 

Fitting.

With its music adapted from the traditional "Wabash Cannonball," Berry's lyrics told the tale of a poor boy from Norfolk, Virginia following his dream west, chasing a vision of prosperity and bliss in the same mythic paradise sought by Tom Joad, sought by some members of my own family: California. The Promised Land.

The road to the promised land is laden with setbacks, peril, like the Greyhound that had motor trouble that turned into a struggle half-way across Alabam', 'til that hound broke down and left 'em all stranded in downtown Birmingham. But there is also deliverance: a through train ticket from Birmingham to New Orleans, hitchhikin' to loved ones in Houston, who--sure as you're born!--won't let the poor boy down: new silk suit, luggage in his hand, he wakes up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land.

It's the wee wee hours at the end of 1964. The Beatles and The Animals and The Rolling Stones are already in the process of reminding everyone that "Chuck Berry" and "rock 'n' roll" are the same damned thing, and they won't let the poor boy down, either. He's seen the promised land. We've all seen the promised land. We feel its warmth, taste its sweet sense of liberty, of possibility. Freedom. Tell the folks back home this is the promised land calling, and the poor boy is on the line.

Most of Chuck Berry's best-remembered tracks were released in the '50s: "Maybelline," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," each a Top 10 hit in that golden span from 1955 to 1958, with the # 2 hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" the highest-charting of the bunch.  His late '50s output was just as good, but not as popular. He returned to the # 10 spot with "No Particular Place To Go" in 1964, and scrapped his way up to # 14 the same year with "You Never Can Tell." He would not have another big hit song until the silly single-entendre novelty "My Ding-A-Ling" gave Chuck Berry his first and only # 1 hit, in the far future (and less discerning) world of 1972. Chuck Berry's only # 1 hit. My freakin' Ding-A-Ling. You wanna talk about committin' a crime...?

So "Promised Land" was not a big hit. It peaked at # 41. But it's my favorite Chuck Berry song, my # 1 among an incredible collection of Chuck Berry classics. Swing low chariot, come down easy, taxi to the terminal zone. The road still leads to an everlasting somewhere. For the Okies. For the Pukes. For Tom Joad and for my kin, for the brown-eyed handsome men and the ladies who love them, the American dreamers, the poor boys, and the poor girls, too. Chuck Berry wrote a song for you. Chuck Berry wrote a song for all of us.

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: I Only Want To Be With You
Written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde
Produced by Johnny Franz
Single, Philips Records [U.K.] single, 1963

There is a persistent temptation (and corresponding peril) in attempting to apply contemporary context to past events. It's revisionist history, a sparkly thing that's difficult to resist, even as we just chat about the pop songs that enrich our lives. Please forgive me for the premeditated sin I'm about to commit. Because as I look back, I can't help but wonder what singing a song called "I Only Want To Be With You" may have meant to a closeted bisexual woman named Dusty Springfield.

It's plausible to counter that she didn't even think about the connection between the lyrics of her first big hit record and the love she had to hide away. We look back on the '60s as a time of cultural revolution, an expansion of civil rights, social conscience, a slow dawning of recognition of the disenfranchised at society's margins. Gay rights weren't really seen as part of that at the time. Maybe it started to change, incrementally, with the Stonewall riots in 1969, which served as the flashpoint for the gay rights movement as the '70s beckoned. But in 1963? The closet. The closet was where one stayed if one was gay in '63.

British singer Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien) was a member of a folk trio called The Springfields. Presaging The Ramones, the members of The Springfields (which included Dusty's brother Tom) took the group's name as a surname; combining this with a nickname she'd gained as a soccer-loving tomboy in her youth, Mary O'Brien became Dusty Springfield. Dusty left The Springfields in 1963, and began her solo career with a single: "I Only Want To Be With You."

I don't know what it is that makes me love you so
I only know I never want to let you go
'Cause you started something
Can't you see?
That ever since we met you've had a hold on me
It happens to be true
I only want to be with you

A decade later, writer Greg Shaw would note that Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want To Be With You" explodes with as much pure pop noise as any Dave Clark Five record. The horns propel, the strings soar, the girl-group spirit celebrates, the music leans forward the way a rockin' pop song oughtta. Miss Dusty Springfield presides over all of it, dancing by herself at the microphone, singing sweetly of her love, her happiness, her contented fulfillment in the arms of her chosen one. Her only wish, only ambition, is to be with the object of her desire. It can--we hope--really be as simple as that.

Falling in love is an experience. In our pop music, we prefer it to be a giddy, blissful experience, free of the heartache and doubt that may often threaten us in our real-world affairs. Pop songs do recognize that love's path may lead through temptation, betrayal, misery, to tests of faith and failures in spite of good initial intent, a path that might reach redemption or fall prey to the hazards that cause us to crash, broken and beaten, before we get to that magic place we so wanted to claim as home. Pop songs can reflect the complications and compromises we may face day to day, every day.

But both pop music and love itself can offer the promise of something sweeter to believe in. Joni Mitchell described the love's illusions she recalled as The dizzy dancing way you feel. Neil Diamond (via Micky Dolenz) saw a face that made him a believer. The Temptations had sunshine on a cloudy day, and so many others have used music to express sacred hopes for new love. Wouldn't it be nice to be together? I've just seen a face, I can't forget the time or place. No matter what you are, I will always be with you. Hey hey, you you, I wanna be your boyfriend.

Nothing has ever embodied that hope and celebration with greater authority than Dusty Springfield and "I Only Want To Be With You." The song is love, new love, everlasting love. It radiates with the sheer delight of falling in love. Even listening to it again now, you still believe Dusty as she sings about the only thing she really wants.

Some may regard "I Only Want To Be With You" as a relatively minor part of Dusty Springfield's career. It was her first single and her first hit (# 4 in the U.K., # 12 in the States), but "Wishin' And Hopin'" and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" were bigger hits in America. "Son Of A Preacher Man" didn't match the chart performance of any of those, but it's likely considered the definitive Dusty single, from the definitive Dusty LP Dusty In Memphis. The Bay City Rollers' 1976 cover of "I Only Want To Be With You" precisely matched the U.K. and U.S. chart peaks of Dusty's original version, and some will speak on behalf of another subsequent cover by The Tourists (with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, who remained together after that as Eurythmics). I'm fond of the Rollers and Tourists records, too; however, neither of 'em is The Greatest Record Ever Made.

No. Today that honor belongs to a former tomboy named Mary, who remade herself with glamour and taste into a pop icon called Dusty. We don't know who, if anyone, she had in mind as she sang "I Only Want To Be With You." Dusty's life was not as happy as the infectious exuberance of her song. She did not remain closeted, though she bristled at being labeled gay, claiming that she liked sex with men and women equally. But she drank too much. Her emotions plagued her. She hurt herself. She was (unofficially) married briefly, to a woman, in a relationship marred by physical conflict and injuries. Cancer took her in 1999, a mere two weeks before she was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

We honor Dusty Springfield by remembering the wonder of her music: the pain of her heartbreak songs, the soul of her performances, the visceral thrill of her artistry. Most of all, I remember the transcendent joy of "I Only Want To Be With You," a triumphant dedication of love and devotion to the only one with whom she wished to be. 

Whomever that happened to be.

"I Only Want To Be With You" written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde, Unichappell Music, Inc.

THE SEX PISTOLS: God Save The Queen
Written by Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Paul Cook, and Steve Jones
Produced by Chris Thomas and Bill Price 
Single, A & M Records [UK] (withdrawn)/Virgin Records [UK], 1977

Noise. Glorious, angry, cathartic noise. Loud. Pissed off. Incredible.

It took me decades to really appreciate the music of The Sex Pistols. When I heard my first Pistols record in 1977, I thought it was intriguing, fascinating, but not really music. Now? Now, I regard The Sex Pistols as one of the all-time great rock 'n' roll bands.

But I liked the noise immediately.

British punk rock in the '70s wasn't built with me in mind; suburban American teens were not really the target audience of these snotty, safety-pinned Nihilists screaming Anarcheeeee in the yoooooooooooooo-kay! Nonetheless, my own individual level of post-adolescent alienation ultimately made me receptive to the promise of no future, no future, no future for you.

Before the music, there were words in the newspaper. For some reason, my memory associates my earliest awareness of The Sex Pistols with the cold confines of the Media Center at my high school in North Syracuse, NY. It was my senior year, 1976 to '77. I spent some time in the Media Center, theoretically studying, really just reading histories of comic books and attempting to flirt (to no avail) with the girl at the periodicals check-out counter. There were press reports of this strange punk thing going on in England, sensational, garbled accounts of obscenity, rebellion, a jarring rock 'n' roll cacophony, a band literally puking on its audience. The last bit wasn't true; the rest of it turned out to be Gospel.

Whatever. I wasn't interested.

I was 16 or 17. My pop music tastes ran to British Invasion and '60s oldies, The Beatles always first and foremost, plus '70s acts like Sweet, Badfinger, and The Raspberries. I would see my first concert--KISS--in December of '76. I wasn't opposed to flash, to excitement. But the yellow-journalism tales of The Sex Pistols made punk seem...dumb.

My opinion of punk would revise with the revelation of Phonograph Record Magazine, a tabloid rock rag I discovered in early '77. PRM's tantalizing descriptions of all these punk and peripheral acts I'd never heard--The Ramones, The Damned, The Clash, Blondie, The Vibrators, and of course the Pistols--intrigued me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear...something.

I finally heard The Sex Pistols in the summer of '77, when WOUR-FM in nearby Utica played the group's new import single, "God Save The Queen." The DJ introduced the track with mentions of the clamor and controversy surrounding the Pistols, and then played the record so listeners could judge for themselves.

"God Save The Queen" was unlike any record I'd ever heard. Even though I didn't initially think it was music, it was undeniably exciting, enticing. Different. That was good enough for me. I didn't hear The Sex Pistols again for months thereafter, but "God Save The Queen" did not leave my mind at any time.

Summer ended. College at Brockport began for this 17-year-old freshman. I heard more punk rock, courtesy of the campus radio station. I had my classes, and I betcha I may have studied occasionally. Otherwise? Music. Keggers. Attempts at writing. Flirting. Reciprocal flirting, leading to more than flirting. A few really dumbass actions that I still cringe to recall. Arguments with my roommate. A growing certainty that I would never truly fit in anywhere, a certainty which proved to be accurate.

There were two record stores in town, The Vinyl Jungle and The Record Grove. The Vinyl Jungle was gone in short order, leaving only The Record Grove, whose wonderful manager Bill Yerger had import and independent 45s for sale at the counter. My first punk rock purchases occurred at that counter when I bought the 45s of "God Save The Queen" and The Ramones' "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

My roommate let me play "God Save The Queen" (and not The Ramones) once on his stereo, so props to him for that. It was just as powerful the second time through, and it retained its power for oh, a zillion subsequent spins over the years. B-side "Did You No Wrong" wasn't quite as distinctive--what could be?--but I dug it, and I like it even more all these decades later.

My girlfriend was a little older than me, about 19 or 20, and she didn't care for any of that noisy trash I loved so much. Her abrupt replacement was just 17, if you know what I mean, and she didn't like my music any more than her predecessor did. But she bought me The Sex Pistols' debut LP as a Christmas gift.

I think I'd already heard the "Pretty Vacant" single before I got my copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. I loved "Pretty Vacant" and "God Save The Queen," and I loved a great album track called "No Feelings." I liked "Anarchy In The UK" and "Holidays In The Sun." I appreciated the foul-mouthed shock value of "Bodies," and I approved of the album as a whole without ever embracing it as fully as I claimed at the time. I glowered at the barely-literate poison-pen review the album received in the campus newspaper, a frothing-at-the-mouth diatribe that sputtered such pithy witticisms as "Simply put, this album sucks!" Oh, you and your clever words....!

That was the basic beginning of my life as a Sex Pistols fan. Back home over Christmas break, my friend Jay came over to watch The Sex Pistols' planned American television debut on Saturday Night Live, only to discover that our lads were still in England, and their SNL slot would be manned instead by some guy named Elvis Costello. The Pistols eventually made it to America, and the group broke up, acrimoniously and ignominiously, on these shores. When there's no future, how can there be sin?

The sheer audacity of the Pistols phenomenon stayed with me. So much was made of their image, their DIY sloppiness, their presumed inability to play, that I didn't realize until long, long after the fact just how solid this much-maligned band really was. Sure, Sid Vicious couldn't play bass to save his short life, and Johnny Rotten's abrasive lead vocals were willfully more caterwaul than melody. But underneath all that? Guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock were tight, together. They could play, and they played a basic, invigorating, exciting rock 'n' roll sound that doesn't get the credit it richly deserves. These are terrific records. "God Save The Queen" is fantastic, stunning, essential, and unforgettable. It borders on the ironic that a record proclaiming NO FUTURE! would become immortal.

Decades later, I still have my original LP of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, a Christmas gift from a girl who would remain my girlfriend for about two more weeks after she gave it to me. No future. No feelings for anybody else, except for myself, my beautiful self. We are the flowers in the dustbin. The poison in your human machine. We're so pretty, oh so pretty. Noise. Glorious. Angry. Cathartic. Music

Mine. 
My music. The transcendence of its noise endures. We mean it, man.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Heartbreak Hotel
Written by Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, and Elvis Presley
Produced by Stephen H. Sholes
Single, RCA Records, 1955

The entire world was about to change in an instant. No one knew what was about to happen. If they say they did, they're lyin'....


STOP! That's all you're getting for now. Someday, I hope you'll be able to continue reading the narrative, when The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) becomes a book. Does it sound interesting? I'd love to hear from you. 

TIP THE BLOGGER: CC's Tip Jar!

You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! 

Hey! If you buy from Amazon, consider making your purchases through links at Pop-A-Looza. A portion of your purchase there will go to support Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do). Thinking Amazon? Think Pop-A-Looza.

This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

The many fine This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin' pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:

Volume 1: download
Volume 2: CD or download
Volume 3: download
Volume 4: CD or download
Waterloo Sunset--Benefit For This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio:  CD or download

Carl's writin' a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 155 essays about 155 tracks, each one of 'em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

POP-A-LOOZA: The Monkees, "I Never Thought It Peculiar"



Each week, the pop culture website Pop-A-Looza shares some posts from my vast 'n' captivating Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) archives. The latest shared post is my pulpit-pounding on behalf of a song many others might describe as a guilty pleasure: "I Never Thought It Peculiar" by The Monkees.

There is really no such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. Unless you happen to love neo-Nazi ditties or glorifications of hatred or violence, I'd say it's okay for you to dig whatever you wanna dig. Yes, even the hits of The Eagles. Why? BECAUSE THEY'RE POP SONGS! Guilt-Free Pleasures (A Defense Against The Dark Arts) celebrates pop songs. The guilty need not apply.

The above paragraph is the boilerplate intro for my Guilt-Free Pleasures series, which was where the piece about "I Never Thought It Peculiar" first appeared. The inaugural Guilt-Free Pleasures was a 2019 celebration of "Freedom" by Wham! Pieces about KISS and Milli Vanilli followed (though the latter turned out to be as much about Michael Jackson as it was about Milli Vanilli). I'll be getting around to a Guilt-Free Pleasures spotlight on The Partridge Family...soon. Definitely soon. Two of the published pieces will reappear in revamped form in my eventual book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1).

Meanwhile, both Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) and This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl continue the good fight: dig what you wanna dig. We've even played The Eagles. And we've played an unhip, gawky-but-nifty little Monkees song called "I Never Thought It Peculiar." It's the subject of the latest Boppin' Pop-A-Looza.



TIP THE BLOGGER: CC's Tip Jar!

You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! 

Hey! If you buy from Amazon, consider making your purchases through links at Pop-A-Looza. A portion of your purchase there will go to support Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do). Thinking Amazon? Think Pop-A-Looza.

This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

The many fine This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin' pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:

Volume 1: download
Volume 2: CD or download
Volume 3: download
Volume 4: CD or download
Waterloo Sunset--Benefit For This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio:  CD or download

Carl's writin' a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 155 essays about 155 tracks, each one of 'em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).