Monday, June 29, 2009

Well, everyone seems to be weighing in on Michael Jackson so here are my few thoughts.  I think that Off The Wall was his best album by far.  A really talented artist still trying to be heard and great producer / arranger working on a record without any of the intense superstar / fame overhang.  When I interviewed Alex Chilton for the book we talked about how much we both liked the song Rock With Me (which Alex has been performing for years).  Alex thought it was written by someone from Earth Wind and Fire but I tipped him off that it was Rod Temperton from Heatwave (Rod also wrote the song "Thriller" – hope he kept most of the publishing!).  Alex was a little bemused that when he plays the song some people think he's making some kind of musical joke (the cool indie legend poking fun).  The real reason: "It's a great song."  

When Michael ordained himself the King of Pop it reminded me immediately of another charismatic business-savvy frontman: Mick Jagger.  When the Rolling Stones toured the US in late 1969 Mick insisted that Sam Cutler introduce them as "the worlds greatest rock and roll band" (as heard on the Get Your Ya-Yas Out LP).  You know, no one was really thinking about that stuff back then.  The "greatest" this or that.  The Stones were working their way back from a few down years and there were any of number of bands that could have said that about themselves.  The Who.  The Kinks.  Probably even Ten Years After or even Canned Heat.  The first band to claim it would have everyone nodding their (stoned) heads in agreement.  But the Stones (Mick) claimed it and it sure gave them the slack to get through an awful lot of crappy albums and concerts to this day.  So was Michael the King of Pop?  If he said so....I don't even know what that would mean.  I'll always dig the Jackson Five's "I Am Love"and Michael's Off The Wall...but certainly no more than Smokey, Marvin, and Stevie (none of whom never saw fit to deem themselves The King of Soul).

I've been getting a lot of emails about the book and somehow last week this review at Blurt online didn't hit my radar until Friday.  I can't tell you how gratifying it is as an author to read a review like this one from someone who is as passionate about Radio City as I am.  Equally gratifying was a reader review at from Memphis musician Jeff Golightly.  Click on the link to the right to read his comments and be sure to check out his power pop combo The Everyday Parade.  Great sounds and really cool graphics (memo to self: check to see if they have t-shirts).

Once again, thank you to everyone for your kind words and support.  And in response to a question, yes, positive reviews at really do help so feel free to let your inner-Lester(Bangs) loose and write a review.  

Friday, June 26, 2009

Last night was the annual Buffalo Spree (the glossy life-style monthly for the Buffalo area Best Of party at Shea's Buffalo Theater.  The wife and I planned on sampling some of the award-winning food from local restaurants and then strolling down the street to catch a free concert by Los Lobos.  Upon arriving at the bash I learned that Radio City had been cited as the Best Recent WNY-related Book by Associate Editor Chris Schoebert.  Chris is a really fine writer (and obviously a Big Star fan) who covers a wide range of topics so this nod is especially appreciated.  It more than made up for the Lobos being rained out.  We arrived home just as the Michael Jackson news was breaking.  More on that in the next post but in the meantime here's the review:

Best recent WNY-related book
Bruce Eaton visits Radio City

Has there ever been a cooler album opener than “O My Soul,” the “drink till we drop” first track of Big Star’s immortal Radio City? And has there ever been a sweeter tortured love song than “September Gurls”?

I’m the wrong guy to answer these questions—Bruce Eaton is a better choice. A frequent Spree contributor, Buffalo native, and programmer for the Albright-Knox’s stellar Art of Jazz series, Eaton is the author of the latest book in Continuum’s stunning 33 1/3 collection, in which noted writers tackle some of the greatest albums in music history—everything from Kick Out the Jams to If You’re Feeling Sinister. 

Eaton’s selection of Big Star’s Radio City is a classic one for many reasons. Alex Chilton’s Big Star is the legendary lost power-pop band behind three shoulda-been-chart-toppers: #1 Record, Radio City, andThird/Sister Lovers. The reclusive, often difficult-to-pin-down Chilton is deserving of a study himself, but approaching him through Radio is wise, as it is the quintessential Big Star album. Eaton discovered it the way many did—not through ad campaigns or radio play, as there really were none—by simply spotting it in a record store, and recalling something read in the pages of Creem. “I had a good feeling Radio Citymight be worth the six quarters,” he writes. Thus began a journey into Chilton’s universe, one which later brought Eaton into contact with AC himself; Eaton “reached [his] summit” on June 26, 1979, as Chilton joined the author’s band onstage at McVan’s nightclub in Buffalo, the first of several encounters. 

In addition to the personal details, the book breaks down the Big Star sound and myth in stunning fashion. Fascinating details are unearthed, including the band’s own opinions (Chilton on “September Gurls”: “It’s not a song that grabs me to this day”), info as to why the album was not heavily promoted (“Columbia executives deemed the cover to be pornographic by virtue of a day-glo poster of the Kama Sutra partially visible in the background of William Eggleston’s cover photo”), to in-the-studio tidbits (Chilton on “O My Soul”’s guitar work: “I think that was probably copping the lick from Dave Edmunds”).

The book does not go into great detail regarding Chilton’s recent output, but it doesn’t have to. This is Radio City’s story, and as such, it truly demonstrates why Big Star is so important, and why commercial success never quite came to pass. But what’s most special about the book is the way Eaton captures the precise moment that a record changed his life, and what that means. It happens to many of us—it certainly happened to me—but to be able to put that feeling into words? It takes real talent, and Bruce Eaton has that in abundance. “To me, the definition of a great record is simple,” he writes. “When you finish playing it, you want to play it again.” For Big Star fans, the same is true of Eaton’s Radio City.
—Christopher Schobert

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Welcome to summer.  One of my all-time favorite albums is All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.  It always gets moved into my playpile in June and stays right near the top for a few months.  Last year while I was working on the book I started to pay close attention to the instrumental Carl's Big Chance.  It's sort of a throwaway guitar instrumental on side two but I listened to it more closely knowing that Carl Wilson would be teaching Alex Chilton how to play the guitar not when the Box Tops toured with the Beach Boys not that long after the record was made.  Some people have speculated as to how much influence Carl had on Alex and two overriding concepts came to mind.  The first is that Carl was a lead guitarist who didn't see himself as a soloist working within band but rather a band member who played an instrument whose solo capabilities could be used to build a great band track.  They came up with parts that fit the particular song and didn't focus on the particular part of the song where they could grab the solo spotlight.  Neither Carl nor Alex seemed to feel a need to be the archetypal lead guitarist – an extended show-off guitar solo from either of them would seem as out of character as a Levon Helm drum solo.  The second influence that Carl might have had on Alex is in the area of tone.  Clean, articulate, without effects.  Alex would eventually use all sorts of guitars and amps but the guitar sound of Radio City is largely the sound of a Fender Strat through a Fender Twin (or Hi-Watt) with no pedals.  Alex undoubtedly heard other guitarists who employed the same simple approach but has expressed his greatest admiration for Carl Wilson.  

Last night I was reading Inside the Music of Brian Wilson by Philip Lambert (also published by Continuum) and learned this little tidbit: the original working title of Carl's Big Chance was Memphis Beach!  Although likely inspired by the chunka-chunka guitar rhythm from the Chuck Berry tune (a recent hit for Johnny Rivers at the time), it's also an eery sign of the future friendship between a kid from California and a kid from Memphis.  

I came across an outtake of the Beach Boys doing an impromptu version of The Letter sometime in the late 60s.  Knowing of Alex's affection for the Beach Boys, I asked him over the phone if he'd ever heard it.  His reply, "I think so."  


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nice blurb about the box set and the book at powerpopaholic.  Thanks!  If you see a review that hasn't been noted in the blog, please send me a heads-up.  

With #1 and Radio City being reissued in remastered from yesterday by Fantasy I've read a number of comments about the "brightness" of the records, especially #1 Record.  There's a reason the albums (especially #1) sounded the way they did.  They were recorded, mixed and mastered with an eye (and ear) towards being heard in mono on car (or portable radio) speakers.  Most of my listening to Big Star for the first five years after I first heard them was in my Ford Maverick.  A cheesy cassette system cranked up to LOUD.  Sure sounded good.  Especially when compared to the recordings today where there's no dynamic range.  One thing that's been lost in the recent loudness wars is my ability to listen to new music for more than a few minutes.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In case it hasn't hit your radar, a remastered two-fer of #1 Record and Radio City is being released by Fantasy today.  There's quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere about the merits of the various Big Star remasters / reissues but I haven't picked up any solid word yet on the new one.  Back in 1970 I had a realization (when the kid in the dorm room next to mine played the same three records over and over through his humongous stereo for the entire school year) – some people own stereos so they can listen to their records and some people own records so they can listen to their stereos.  I was definitely fell into the former category – using a modest but adequate system to listen to the hundreds (if not thousands for a few years ) of new records that I acquired.  That being said, I love the sound of a good vinyl LP and abhor the sound of a bad CD (whether poorly remastered or one that's a product of the loudness wars i.e no dynamic range).  My older brother works for Avalon Acoustics – makers of really high-end speakers – and my brother-in-law installs home systems that run into six-figures so I can appreciate the merits of a really great recording through an exceptional system (next time I go out to Boulder I want to run an original Radio City LP through the Avalon demonstration system) but in the end I'm listening to the musicians and what they were doing rather than the recording itself (and given that at least half of my listening involves "recordings of independent origin" – bootlegs –  a decent sounding official release usually is more than adequate).  But in the back of my mind I hold on to a fantasy that one day when my son is out of college and our retirement needs are covered (yeeh, right) that I'll have a dedicated listening room where I can pull out one of those original Blue Note pressings from the racks, sit back in comfortable chair with a good book, and get the feeling that Hank Mobley is right there in the room with me.  

Larry has a great comment about the lyrics for RC in response to my post yesterday.  He's inspired me to read the lyrics again and see what other little gems might be contained therein besides "I loved you, well, never mind."  To maybe put a (slightly) finer point on my thoughts, I guess I'd rather have the lyrics remain just what my ears hear and my brain processes (however inaccurately) and my emotions respond to than have to read that the bridge to You Get What You Deserve has something to do with Chilton's reaction to the Vietnam War (pick your own example of critical overreaching and assumption).  Thanks Larry...that is indeed a great line and it is Chiltonian to the max.   

Monday, June 15, 2009

A few of the latest reviews of the book.  First up are some comments by longtime critic Roy Trakin – who actually attended the Rock Writers Convention.  Roy was also a celebrity judge in the recent movie documentary Air Guitar Nation...highly recommended!  A great laugh.  Maybe next there will be an international "air drums" competition with the drum break from September Girls part of the compulsories.  

Next is a review from Memphis Flyer,a local arts weekly which sparked this observation. Rock writers often focus on lyrics because they work with words.  They have what they perceive as a common – perhaps even – ground with the lyricist – a keyboard with letters, not musical notes.  Once the instruments come out of the cases, the writer is usually just another guy who wishes he could play guitar.  The actual focus of those involved in the creation of Radio City was on the sound, the recording, and the song structures so that's what I decided to write about.  When I ran my overall thoughts about the lyrics to Radio City by Alex Chilton and he said that he agreed wholeheartedly with my take, I didn't feel a need to explore the lyrical themes much beyond their casual impressionist nature.  To start looking at them line by line would have reminded me as to why I switched my college major from English to Political Science in 1971 – the head of the department couldn't read anything without ascribing five layers of meaning and symbolism that if the author really intended, he would never have finished the book.  Rock lyrics are more often than one might think just a bunch of words put together around an idea.  And often what you hear on first listen is all there is to get...Which doesn't make September Gurls or Back In The Saddle (just heard Aerosmith on the radio - what does the song really mean? I dunno - some guy is back in the saddle and riding a killer riff – the title and whatever words I can pick up match the vibe precisely and that's all that matters ) any less worthy than something by Patti Smith channeling Rimbaud.  

And about the typos that have been mentioned above and elsewhere...I can't tell you how bugged I am about them (and, yes, as the author, I bear some responsibility).  But they're there (kind of like John Bonham's squeeky hi-hat on Moby Dick).  They don't get in the way of material.  And if everyone buys enough copies, we'll fix them in the second edition...:) 

Had a few detours but now back to work on the Powell's piece.  In the meantime, questions and comments welcomed.  

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hi Everyone - I'm at work on a piece about the book for the Powell's website (big league independent book store in Portland).  Will let you know when it goes up.  In the meantime, all questions are more than welcomed.  Thanks!

Monday, June 1, 2009

A few things to start the month...

If you're a Big Star fan, you've likely heard the news of the box set coming September 15th.  Thanks to the people at Blurt for getting the details out first.  Here's the link to Rhino

The Rhino site is streaming Lovely Day (which eventually became Strike It, Noel).  One song that some of the Big Star band members mentioned as being one of their favorites when they were together that you don't see name-checked as much as some of the other covers they did was Lou Reed's Perfect Day from the Transformer album.  Listen carefully and you might be able to hear a distant connection between the two songs.  Or perhaps not...

I've heard the raw live recordings for the box set from early 1973 and they'll be worth the price of admission alone.  A few observations....Andy Hummel stands out as a bass player who can not only lay down the foundation but also add melodic lines that add to the song a la McCartney and James Jamerson.  Alex Chilton's folk and bluegrass roots from his time in NYC are quite apparent in his guitar playing.  Given his simple guitar / amp / no effects set-up, he has no problem replicating his studio sound live.  And as you might expect, Jody Stephens doesn't let the band slack for a second (he also has that Ringo "slow drag" hi-hat style down cold). 

As always, thanks for the nice words about the book.  If you can find your way to leaving a good review on, it will be much appreciated.

Heard from Peter LaBonne...there should be a website going up shortly that has voluminous amounts of unreleased material (actually, pretty much everything he's ever done is unreleased) available for you listening pleasure.  Will keep you posted.