December 8, 2020

My First 10 Albums

There's the influence of others, and then there are the choices you make yourself. 

As a young kid, I'd duck into my older brother's bedroom and play various titles from his vinyl collection. It wasn't unlike little William Miller being handed a stack of records by his older sister Anita in "Almost Famous" — especially when I recall playing The Who's Tommy and, like, William, hearing the instrumental "Sparks." I was both DJ and a rapt audience of one as I repeatedly spun Jimi Hendrix's Smash Hits, the Beatles' "Red" and "Blue" compilations, Aqualung, every KISS album up to Dynasty, Physical Graffiti, Quadrophenia, Aerosmith's debut... you get the picture. 

I listened intently, while obsessively flipping through and reading the tall stack of Rolling Stone issues Jeff also had in his room. In total, it was a cascade of sound, imagery and words completely exotic and reflective of a sophistication and lifestyles light years away. As I gazed out the window and saw cows grazing in a pasture across the street, that distance could not have felt more pronounced.

However, that relatable "older sibling" influence on musical taste, as weighty and enduring as it is, isn't the focus of what I've been asked to share in this space. What follows is a recollection of the decisions I made when it came time to buy my own music. My world expanded, I conspired with friends at school regarding these matters, and, importantly, my media diet began to include MTV, so its influence looms large, as it does with any Gen Xer.

As requested by Wisconsin Public Radio Technical Producer Joe Hardtke (@PublicRadioPunk on Twitter), here are my first 10 albums, effectively the first LP purchases I made (or persuaded family members to buy me) in my youth. 

At Joe's direction, this list is unfiltered, dispensing any notions of being cool (not that there was any real risk of that). Fun fact: It was the Reagan era, so all but one of these were bought on cassette.

John Lennon - Imagine
It's kind of remarkable I'm writing this on the 40th anniversary of Lennon's assassination. That event had a huge impact on me as a child, and I think that's why I convinced a relative to buy this LP for me, the only vinyl album in this group. My aunt and uncle would often take me off my mom's hands for a few days, and there was a record store in the college town of Alfred, NY where I pulled Imagine out of the rack and asked my uncle Bill if he would buy this for me. Ever generous, he did. A complex album for a kid my age, and I'm not sure I properly appreciated it in the ways I would later. But it was a start. "Imagine there's no heaven...no religion too" are lyrics that ran so counter to what was being fed to me in other areas of my life, that it possibly seeded my later, deep suspicion of authority and organized belief systems. But the humanism, mature themes ("Jealous Guy") and raised-fist demands ("Gimme Some Truth")... well, all of that unquestionably pushed the tectonic plates of my impressionable mind around.

Krokus - The Blitz
Congratulations, this is the first time you'll ever see Krokus mentioned directly after John Lennon. It won't happen again; this is the Hale-Bopp comet of these things. And sorry for the whiplash. Brian, a rather strident friend of mine at school, initially bought me Sammy Hagar's VOA tape (the one with "I Can't Drive 55") at the local K-Mart as I had a birthday party, and you know, friends had to bring you gifts. For some reason, I felt a Krokus album was the better choice, returned to K-Mart, and exchanged Hagar for The Blitz. The power ballad "Our Love" was a keening favorite, and in one cool twist, it was actually the first time I was exposed to the glam band Sweet, albeit via these leather-wrapped Swiss screamers, with their cover of "Ballroom Blitz." (Many got that privilege much later with Tia Carrere's band in "Wayne's World," so I feel I was ahead of the curve here, at least.)

Ratt - Out of the Cellar
We sometimes ask our grandparents to buy us things we can't attain otherwise. Asking grandma to pay for this 1984 debut by hard-rocking L.A. crew Ratt (with a crawling, prone Tawny Kitaen on the cover) was a wildy inappropriate ask. Still, to my late grandmother Lillian, that was so kind of you, thanks for catering to my whims at Buffalo's Eastern Hills Mall all those years ago. "Round and Round," "Lack of Communication," "I'm Insane"... bangers, all. Ratt gets zero respect, but they were among the better of the "hair metal" bands (even Jane's Addiction's Dave Navarro is a huge fan). Allow me to share a true story: I remember my school librarian, vetting music to be included in the borrowing collection, and she was contemplating Out of the Cellar. She was wise and evenhanded enough to discuss the lyrical content of the album with me, and even rationalize the socioeconomic realities of why a song like "She Wants Money" had to be written. Hilariously, the record made it into the school collection (as did Iron Maiden's Powerslave later on, surely due to the latter's depiction of Egyptian history).


ZZ Top - Eliminator
The influence of MTV led me to check a box on the Columbia House order form for Eliminator, in effect a mere audio component to some really wild videos with fast cars, comically hirsute men, and braless women (as my Mormon friend Jimmy made sure to point out to me, watching MTV at his house). We are all the protagonist of a ZZ Top video at some point in our lives, from the beset-yet-sharp-dressed valet with the asshole boss, to the put-upon shoe shop girl who's just looking for love... all we need is some confidence, pumped into our self-esteem tank by Billy Gibbons like so much gasoline. But lest you think it's all sex, a red Ford coupe, and a trio of morally-bankrupt women who have legs and can really make it happen for you, ZZ Top tackled the acute challenges of modern life and the compromised way we nourish ourselves, in the form of "TV Dinners." The bonkers MTV video for that song had a claymation creature that crawled out of the foil-covered meal, robotic choreography on the part of Gibbons and Dusty Hill, and computer age visuals that fit the song nicely. It just made me enjoy that track on Eliminator even more. And really, the lyric "I throw'em in and wave'em and I'm a brand new man, oh yeah" speaks quite accurately to the ZZ Top thesis statement: One missing component in your life, when added, can change it dramatically for the better. If there's a lesson in their videos, it's certainly that. They were the sage, bearded life coaches every American kid needed.

Judas Priest - Defenders of the Faith
Priest's album covers alone were enough to get adolescent denizens of heavy metal parking lots (namely me, eventually) to hand over every last cent of their allowances in order to buy a copy. This is one of the band's stronger efforts, unfortunate as it was that it followed their commercial peak, Screaming for Vengeance. Still, it was worthy. With the bulldozer/tiger monster on the cover, and powerful classics like "The Sentinel," and "Love Bites," Defenders was the definition of awesome to me, and a significant brick in the gleaming, heavy metal wall I constructed around myself at the outset of my teenage years. Of course, the songs "Eat Me Alive" and "Jawbreaker" were lost on me at the time, and things have become clearer since, now that I have full context and understanding of Rob Halford's sexuality. (If nothing else, it certainly speaks as to how much Priest were getting away with, in terms of artistic expression.) At my age, I was just happy to get away with sneaking into a downstairs room on a Saturday night, quietly, to view MTV's Weekend Concert featuring Judas Priest. I was forbidden from watching it, so of course it only made me double down on my Priest fandom, which was fueled greatly by this record.

Pat Benatar -
Live from Earth
As with other selections on this list going forward, this tape arrived to me via a mail-order Columbia House club deal where you got several tapes for a penny, and had to buy just one within a year to complete the deal. However, you had to mail back reply cards so you wouldn't automatically be sent their monthly selections. It was about as much clerical work as I was charged with as a 13 year old, and I was more than OK with the arrangement. I must have ordered this one because it included "Love is a Battlefield," a video I saw on MTV and a bonus track added on to this otherwise live document. I think I also remembered Benatar kicking ass/taking names in the "You Better Run" clip that was in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV. Otherwise, this 1983 release is a terrific listen, and "Hell is for Children," offered here in a live rendition, certainly scandalized PMRC-adjacent religious leaders and parents, so it had that going for it. 

Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going
Upon contemplating the trajectory of Phil Collins' career, from the concussive drums on "In the Air Tonight" to the "adult-contempo" escapade of "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven," I will quote the playacting Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, about to take down the shotgun robber at a strip club..."Phil, man, you CHANGED!" I echo the dismay in Axel Foley's voice, but in a very real way. Upon review, Collins' career has been a wide-ranging one, from Genesis to "Sussudio" to songs for an animated Disney movie about Tarzan. Look, the man's a legend and his accomplishments are staggering (including session drumming for Robert Plant and others), but dark, edgy Phil remains my favorite Phil. My discovery of that shade of Collins started with Hello, I Must Be Going, another Columbia House selection. Come to find out, the lead track "I Don't Care Anymore" was one of the few tracks on this album that possessed the darkness I craved. The preceding album, Face Value, with "In the Air Tonight," and the brassy "I Missed Again," inevitably got added to my collection. Both records, for all their occasional drama, also featured horns and a love of Motown. So maybe that Phil change I was upset about wasn't a change, but just a guy chasing his muse all along. Collins later drifted to the middle of the road, but even back in the cassette era, Hello, I Must Be Going was acceptable to play within earshot of my parents.

Various Artists - Beat Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Back in the early to mid-80s, breakdancing was a thing. Like a one-person flash mob long before flash mobs came about, there was a guy at my high school that would start breaking, while several students would encircle him, either in a state of fascination, befuddlement or both. And so the Breakin' movies were very much on my radar, as was Beat Street, a 1984 dance film produced by Harry Belafonte, as was this soundtrack, bought for me by my stepdad's sister Regina, who lived in New York City. I'm loathe to admit this, but I'm not sure I ever got too far past the first track, "Beat Street," by Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious 5 , but it was a hot jam that was worn out, and rewound many times on a tape deck as my friends and I put down cardboard and attempted to emulate this national dance craze. (I just thank God smartphones, with their instant video-capturing capabilities, weren't around back then.) Certainly, the lyrics of "Beat Street" were aimed at a demographic outside of my own: "And huh-huh Beat Street is a lesson, too / Because ah, you can't let the streets beat you." This was a dispatch from a troubled locale I had never even seen nor visited. But the song's beats were undeniable, and my friends and I still moonwalked, noodled our arms and did backspins to them, anyway. Pop culture works in strange ways.

Scorpions - Love at First Sting
MTV was an amazing resource for sheltered kids in America who might otherwise have never seen many eye-opening things. A prime example is the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" video, where this hard-rocking squad from Hanover, Germany is surrounded by faltering prison bars while groups of painted, feral women try to get at them, arms outstretched. That video was how I first heard that song, and it was among the factors that drove me to procure Love at First Sting, the most successful LP the Scorpions had in America. Clearly, at age 13, I had nothing in common with these guys, but much like how we marvel at James Bond and superheroes, they held a certain "do you really live like this?" intrigue. For these love'em-and-leave'em Deutschland gentleman, sexuality was front and center, and many of their album covers had straight-up dirty/suggestive images. Love at First Sting is no exception: Sex is directly in the buyer's face, starting with the Helmut Newton-shot cover of a man tattooing a woman's thigh. The "write what you know, guys" lechery carries over with lyrics like "My cat is purring, it scratches my skin" (which, let's all agree, was not about being a veterinary tech). Questionable role models at best for a kid not even out of middle school, but these guys sometimes used three guitars and rocked hard, so I dug them. At least the debauchery was offset (kinda?) by more tender feelings, as heard on "Still Loving You," a power ballad and mega-hit that allegedly triggered a baby boom in France in 1985. (If you're inspiring the French to get even more amorous, chapeaux off to you, good sirs!)

Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry
At the nexus of wanting to rock and piss your parents off lies the mighty glam-metal act Twisted Sister, a fact not at all lost on me as I watched their antics on MTV. In heavy rotation on the channel were the videos for "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," where authority is figuratively and literally thrown out of a window. It spurred me to buy Stay Hungry, with its grotesque album cover of the band's majordomo Dee Snider in black leather with pink fringe, about to gnaw on some poor creature's leg bone (perhaps it belonged to one of the PMRC members?). A vulgar display to be certain, but that's what made it so cool. The music on this record, curated precisely for young Americans, has proven it has its own legs, as "I Wanna Rock" still thunders through sports stadiums, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" has, well, been used for less dignified purposes recently (anti-lockdown protests, for one). Back in 1984, I gravitated to tracks like "The Price" and "Burn in Hell," and I still think they're prime cuts, teeming with a melodrama and campiness that I appreciate in new ways these days. Twisted Sister isn't in regular rotation for me at this point, but when I do revisit the defiant, motivational Stay Hungry, it takes me back and helps me understand, in small ways at least, of who I was then, and how I arrived at being the person I am now. 

November 1, 2020

Long Train Runnin': The Endless Wait for the 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductions

As Talking Heads once sang, "I'm still waiting."

It feels apropos to compare the delayed Rock Hall induction special (airing on HBO this Saturday, 11/7) to other, long-anticipated rock and roll events. This prerecorded ceremony is the Hall's Chinese Democracy, Boston's 8-years in the making post-Don't Look Back album Third Stage, its Police reunion. The rescheduled, 35th annual dispensation of "Rock's Highest Honor" is finally here, but it rolls into the station to be greeted by a changed, troubled country that understandably has heftier things on its mind than an awards show and an Irving Azoff speech.

Indeed, a veritable eternity has passed since the last "normal" induction ceremony. Let's do the time warp back to March 29, 2019, when the 34th annual gala happened at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. If you can name all the 2019 inductees off the top of your head, you're either a close follower of the Hall, or you have Wikipedia in front of you (for the record, the class was Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, the CureRoxy Music, and the Zombies). March of 2020 feels like it was 5 years ago, so March 2019 might as well be the Stone Age. For further perspective, mull this over: Ric Ocasek died in September of 2019, and there has not a ceremony since where they could have paid tribute to him. And in the intervening time between ceremonies, the music world has also lost such nominated or inducted luminaries as Dr. John, Dave Bartholemew, Robert Hunter, Ginger Baker, Neil Peart, Bill Withers, John Prine, Florian Schneider, Little Richard, Peter Green, and Eddie Van Halen. Folks at the Hall have expressed previously that they don't want the ceremony to turn into a wake, so it will be interesting to see how much time is afforded the dearly departed this Saturday. (A multi-guitarist tribute to EVH has already been announced.)

Death is on everyone's mind these days, though. It's inescapable and perspective-giving, and it marginalizes this Rock Hall business no matter what. In the midst of an unprecedented, psyche-pummeling pandemic, and four days after the most consequential election of our lifetimes comes... the class of the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The artists are finally inducted, and we can get on worrying/bitching about the 2021 slate [David Rose sigh of exasperation HERE].

Indeed, at this rather haunted juncture of human history, the timing of the ceremony (the 11/7 date originally tied to a postponed live event) kind of evokes Hollywood's cynical dumping of bad movies in January, where no one will really notice them. On the other hand, it might still be a somewhat brilliant play by the Hall, as it's possible a fresh sense of optimism and the anticipation of a new era may be afoot in America at the time HBO broadcasts this thing. In essence, the "big party" Greg Harris mentioned in a SiriusXM interview way back in March, when we all thought this event still stood a chance of happening live at Public Auditorium in Cleveland. Oh, youthful optimism!

In any case, this ready-made, reportedly performance-free HBO special honoring Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex is a bit bizarre. Spontaneity has been jettisoned in favor of wrapping up unfinished business, and the invested can argue whether or not it was the right way to go, but to be fair, the Hall was left with few options. Still, this HBO-only decision doesn't sit well with everyone – no less than Stevie Nicks said recently that the Hall should have waited a year to honor this 2020 class live, in person ("It's not like going to the ball," she told Consequence of Sound). But take a breath, and imagine that scenario  let's assume everything is even remotely back to normal by Fall of 2021 there would be two nights of inductions, maybe on consecutive nights or perhaps a week apart like Coachella weekends. Fine, but it would extend the limbo of this 2020 class for... Another. Effing. Year. (Good god, Michael McDonald, an unparalleled silver fox, might be looking like Gandalf the White by then.)

So maybe this HBO special was the right thing. Maybe it was the only thing. After all, this Rock Hall train, stuck on the tracks for too long, is compelled to keep on moving. To quote the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'," "Well the pistons keep on turning/and the wheels go round and round." A sincere congratulations and deep respect to the incredible artists being enshrined this Saturday. It's a richly deserved honor for the inductees across the board. Still, it's clear we're all ready to move on... in so many ways.

October 10, 2020

Quiet Storm: Why Sade Belongs in the Rock Hall

On Episode 44 of Hall Watchers, Eric and Mary made a case for Sade to be in the Rock Hall. Here is an edited and updated version of the argument.


Take shelter from the Quiet Storm
, because the next artist to be championed for Rock Hall induction is Sade, eligible since 2009, but never nominated.

Sade is the band; Helen Folasade Adu is the lead singer. Sade is a perfect candidate for the Hall – if one considers recent Rock Hall history, such icons as Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston have earned induction, and Chaka Khan has received several nominations, so Sade should also have a seat at the Rock hall table. Rock and roll can be a loud, uncivilized and brash listening experience, to be sure (and thank god), but hey, Cleveland, try a little tenderness.

Over the course of her career, Sade Adu has become this timeless icon, setting the template for pop stars and rappers alike. It's a good bit of fun to view her as the female James Bond – an aspirational figure that will always be so much cooler than we’ll ever be. (Agent Adu, you are hereby licensed to "chill").

How exactly did this happen how did this diamond form? One wonders how Sade Adu came to be. This Nigerian-British sophisticate's identity was formed from her past lives as a model, fashion designer, backup singer, and stylist to acts like dapper New Romantic crew Spandau Ballet. She paid her dues doing gigs on the London club scene at venues like Heaven alongside creative partner Stuart Matthewman. It all materialized, with international gigs and the Sade debut Diamond Life dropping in 1984. The rest is history.

Adu's philosophical approach, life experiences and long-gestating "thing," if you will being "Sade" has been a graceful, slow-burn process. These things don't happen overnight, and the best things never do. It's precisely why she and her namesake group stand alone – Sade is effectively its own musical genre. Indeed, there’s a singular strength to Sade and her musical expression. She demonstrates that you can be heartbroken but still maintain your game face through it all. She’s been hurt, but she’s a survivor.

Another reason Sade is exactly the type of artist the Hall should recognize: She’s always played by her own rules (a totally rock and roll attitude), creating and releasing her compelling music on her terms. In fact, she’s turned away from fame, letting it all come to her. She shuns the promotional process, doing very few interviews, demonstrating a wise self-preservation. It's basically non-existent in the social media era, but there's something to be said for mystery in popular music. Adu has maintained that mystery in a digital age where we know way too much about every public figure. There’s an absolute dignity and grace there that sets her part.

Sade’s suave and sophisticated music is a beautiful thing worthy of praise and contemplation. Bonafide musical excellence can be heard across the Sade discography, from 1984's Diamond Life to 2010's Soldier of Love. Both ice and fire are found in this musical realm — a silky, assured blend of R&B, soul and jazz that has aged like fine wine, and well-exemplified on “Smooth Operator,” “Is It a Crime,” and “No Ordinary Love." A relaxed, romantic sentiment is woven into this music's braids, of course, but there's so much more. Listen again to the percolating escapade of “Paradise” and the striking “Soldier of Love,” which marked an evolution in her sound that nodded at industrial sonic textures, and featured these lyrics: "I'm at the borderline of my faith/I'm at the hinterland of my devotion/In the front line of this battle of mine/But I'm still alive." A torch song, if there ever was one, and verses that encapsulate the entire Sade mission statement. 

Sade wields an outsized influence on modern R&B, and she’s influenced everyone from Janet Jackson to D'Angelo to BeyoncĂ©. In fact, Drake loves Sade so much, he literally got a tattoo of her face. (It's now abundantly clear who should induct her...)

There is also remarkable influence into the 21st century. Sade’s breathy, whispery vocal style prefigured, and was ASMR before ASMR was a common term. Thus, a direct connection must be made from Sade to ASMR icon Billie Eilish – if you listen to such Eilish tracks as “When the Party’s Over” and “Everything I Wanted” you can hear that influence, clear as day.

In closing, Sade has been a shining example to so many after her. She is a North Star to a legion of other artists. That she influenced Gen-Z hero Billie Eilish (whether or not Billie realizes it) is no-brainer criteria for Rock Hall consideration. It’s time for the Nomination Committee to put Sade on the ballot. The qualifications of influence and musical excellence are very much in evidence here, combined with a host of intangible qualities that transcend verbal articulation.

Put Sade in the Rock Hall.

October 9, 2020

Electric Warrior: Remembering Eddie Van Halen

There's a great moment during the song "Could This Be Magic," a calm acoustic island on the otherwise electrified, turbulent listen that is the 1980 Van Halen album Women and Children First:

David Lee Roth: "Edward? 

Eddie Van Halen wordlessly launches into a carefree, plucked solo.

Roth: "Thank you."

This little flash of friendship and cooperation is priceless. For a moment, Roth needs Eddie, and they're getting along, having fun, mixing it up. Personality-wise, Roth, a walking exclamation point, is somehow working with Eddie's parentheses. Given the legendarily fraught dynamic between these two rock stars, the whole thing also feels akin to fighting parents getting along on Christmas Day... you know, for the sake of the kids. There's tension underneath the surface, but despite competing temperaments, harmony wins out. 

Later, on the 1988 record OU812, singer Sammy Hagar tellingly belts these words out on "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)," which was the detonative opening salvo of the band's sets on the "Monsters of Rock" tour:

Ninety days on the road is what I need/When my axe cuts me deep, I let it bleed/On the stage, off my strings, down my face/And all over me

Excessive, perhaps. But to Hagar, being in Van Halen was high-stakes stuff. It meant something. There was an imperative to going onstage and leaving it all on the table; how could he not feel that way, with one of history's most important and innovative guitarists on his left? At "Monsters of Rock," when Eddie ran out on stage, took his firing position, and started tapping out the fiery introductory notes of "A.F.U.," it put both Hagar and entire stadiums on notice. 

And so Eddie Van Halen was the great motivator, collaborator, and awe-inspirer. A composer, a virtuoso, a six-string maestro, naturally wired with God-given talent. In the end, a man who steadfastly fought and lost his long battle with cancer. 

What a gift this electric warrior was. An inspirational figure to a global legion of guitar players that bent the knee at his pyrotechnic altar, and surely an intimidating cat to be in a band with. Roth, Hagar and Gary Cherone were each seated at some point in the high-performance car that was Van Halen, but it's clear who was driving. (Roth reached down between his legs, and eased the passenger seat back.) Diamond Dave's brilliance was a shining star indeed, and his own achievements in this discography are staggering, but... when you're standing next to the sun, you go crazy from the heat. 

The genius of Eddie Van Halen needs no further embellishment or explanation; it's settled science (listen to "Eruption" or "Light up the Sky" if you somehow still need proof). Still, the musical/lyrical dualism of Van Halen's music is a fascinating thing. The Hagar era had some positive themes ("Right Now"), and touched on romance ("Love Walks In"), lust ("Poundcake") and life enjoyment ("Cabo Wabo"). By way of comparison, the Roth era feels like one endless bacchanalia, with few exceptions. As for Eddie's involvement, here's a Mozart-level musician spinning sonic gold out of guitar and keyboards... but in the service of songs of beer-soaked, adolescent debauchery, with lyrics like these:

Well, I'm a bum in the sun and I'm having fun/And I know you know I got no special plan - "Beautiful Girls"

I've been sitting here 'bout half the night/Oh, mama, fill my cup up/Said I came to waste some time/I think I'm gonna jump up - "Bottoms Up"

Everybody wants some/I want some too  - "Everybody Wants Some"

Drop dead legs, pretty smile/Hurts my head, gets me wild  - "Drop Dead Legs"

It's all quite a combination. Eddie's guitar fireworks conveyed a thrilling amount of feeling and attitude alongside words of fluctuating quality and sophistication, some of that due to Roth's tendency to put pen to paper at the very last minute (per ex-manager Noel Monk's 2017 book "Runnin' With the Devil"). Still, when it worked, and it worked more often than it did not, it was a ridiculous, exhilarating thrill. The hyperactive speed and overspilling confidence of "I'm the One" remains jaw-dropping, a joyride where these Pasadena boys mischievously work in a gleeful "Bop-ba-da, shooby-doo-wah" vocal interlude before the instruments rapidly fall back in and clobber your psyche once again. This was sharpshooting of the highest order; you can almost visualize cowboy Ed blowing smoke away from his gun barrels. Every up-and-coming hard rock band that heard this in February 1978 must have went home and cried. 

Van Halen was top-shelf party music, no doubt, but sensitivity and commentary did seep in at times, as evidenced on "Jamie's Cryin'"(Now Jamie's been in love before/And she knows what love is for/It should mean, a little, a little more/Than one-night stands); "Push Comes to Shove" (And then one night in sunny victory/She decides and you agree, she's leaving/Will you ever be the same?); and "Mean Street" (See, a gun is real easy/ In this desperate part of town/Turns you from hunted into hunter/You go an' hunt somebody down). Meanwhile, teenage rebellion was rarely more in-your-face than on these verses of "Romeo Delight": Wanna see my ID?/Try to clip my wings/Don't have to show you proof of anything/I know the law, friend. Given Van Halen's history of playing Southern California backyard parties and diving headlong into all manner of underage revelry, these guys often wrote what they knew, but in other cases they demonstrated a (gasp!) maturity beyond their years. 

Van Halen was one of the most popular and beloved rock acts of all time — and for better or worse, it was a group effort. If life teaches us anything, nobody reaches lofty heights alone. Eddie seemed superhuman, but alas, he was all too human, like the rest of us. For all his incandescent abilities, he needed Roth, Hagar and Cherone to fulfill his vision. He needed his drummer brother Alex, and his bassist Michael Anthony. He needed his wife Janie Liszewski, his ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, and his son Wolfgang, who eventually went on to play bass in his dad's band. He needed all these people. And rock fans, we needed Eddie too, and felt reassured, despite the VH camp's radio silence of the past five years, that he was still out there somewhere, plotting another tour. In his greatness and vulnerability, we saw the potential in ourselves, and also our own humanity. He wasn't just a guitar player; he was a living rock god on the level of Jimi Hendrix that revolutionized the possibilities of his instrument.

No one here gets out alive, but losing Eddie Van Halen at the relatively young age of 65 on the heels of losing Neil Peart at age 67, Tom Petty at age 66, Prince at age 57, and David Bowie at age 69 is just a lot for a rock fan to bear. Guitarists much older than Eddie are mourning his loss, from Pete Townshend to Jimmy Page. It all seems backwards and wrong. 

Eddie Van Halen's legacy was effectively cemented with Van Halen's debut, and that's a hell of a thing, to be so talented upon arrival. The pressure must have been on, and he made good on impossible expectations, giving the world so much more as time went on. He toured the world, made albums, put up with Roth (good lord), installed two more singers, and battled illness. His ever-present smile, worn while summoning the most incredible sounds out a guitar, is a detail worth remembering forever.

Edward? Thank you. 

September 21, 2020

Why Jethro Tull Belongs in the Rock Hall

On Hall Watchers' Episode 46, released September 21, Eric made a case for Jethro Tull's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He received a key assist from his friend Steve, a deeply knowledgeable Tull superfan who sent in a wildly persuasive argument of his own.

What follows is a transcript of Eric and Steve's arguments; let's call it "Two for Tull." It seems these mystical purveyors of flute and guitar-driven prog rock need an inductee plaque on Level Three of The Rock Hall museum... in other words, these minstrels deserve a place in the gallery.

ERIC'S ARGUMENT

Jethro Tull has been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1993.

Why this band from the seaside resort town Blackpool, England? First of all, they feel like a major omission from the Hall; whenever you tell someone Jethro Tull is not in the Hall, they are shocked. Being eligible for 27 years and not getting in will have that effect. They’ve waited so long, founding bassist Glenn Cornick passed away in 2014, as is often the case with delayed Rock Hall recognition.

Jethro Tull, led by mesmerizing singer and flute maestro Ian Anderson, is a one-of-a-kind band – and precisely the sort of distinctive act that the Rock Hall should ideally value and want to honor.  Many "classic rock" acts have been granted entry into the hall in recent years, but I’d argue few of them are quite as unique as Jethro Tull. There’s ambition, experimentation, mysticism and, courtesy of guitarist Martin Barre, some serious hard rock thunder here. 

This band essentially exists in their own universe, a universe where the flute and the guitar are equally important. Sometimes they transport the listener to the middle of a mystical forest where elves run free, and sometimes they put the listener on a runaway train. And sure, Fairport Convention and the band Traffic had flute playing in their music, but I’d argue no one rocked the flute harder and with more impact than Jethro Tull. It’s a central feature of their music 
– one of those special qualities that should be figured in when a band’s Rock Hall qualifications are being considered.

It’s no secret that Jethro Tull were never critical favorites or really deemed “cool.” In fact, the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs hated Tull, but he still had to give them “some” credit after seeing them live, going on to admit how hard they worked in his 1973 write-up for Creem magazine:

“Make no mistake: in terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull are without peer. They stand out by never failing to deliver a fullscale show, complete with everything they know any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull are slick and disciplined; they work hard and they deliver.”

Bangs also had this other fantastic quote about them: 

“Jethro Tull are so far off the wall they ain't even in the room.”

Rock critic jeers aside, Jethro Tull is globally popular, and is one of those rock acts that is pretty much a household name. Of course, everyone knows “Aqualung” – even Ron Burgundy in the movie “Anchorman” quoted it. Having said that, I’m going to put the name recognition, however important, on the back burner, and talk about Jethro Tull’s musical excellence.

If you survey their ambitious and expansive body of work, it’s full of towering achievements – rock, folk, blues and prog all breathe freely under the Jethro Tull umbrella. They can summon both thunder and calm in equal measure. There are major landmark albums like Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and Songs from the Wood, but with Tull, it behooves the listener to dig deeper; lesser celebrated efforts like Stand Up and Minstrel in the Gallery are just excellent. 

Of course, we have to talk, too, about Crest of a Knave, the 1987 release that, hilariously, stole a Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy out from under Metallica, who was nominated in the same category for their Album ...And Justice for All. (Some extra trivia - Jane’s Addiction’s landmark album Nothing’s Shocking was also up for the award in this category). Jethro Tull didn’t even attend the Grammys, as they were sure they would lose! But...they won. And it bears noting that this controversy of Jethro Tull winning over Metallica in 1989 led to the Grammys creating separate Hard Rock and Heavy Metal categories going forward. 

It’s easy to take Jethro Tull for granted. Heavy rotation on rock radio airwaves has had the unfortunate effect of sometimes reducing their impact. In fact, I flipped on the radio recently, and heard one of their songs, and instead of being like, “oh, god, Jethro Tull again,” I was just freshly knocked back yet again by the still-amazing “Locomotive Breath.” This music has not gone away, and in my eyes, the gigantic songbook of Jethro Tull is not the least bit diminished for having been played a lot. 

So yes, Jethro Tull is a bit overplayed on FM radio, but another way of looking at it is, their music is just permanently etched on the walls of rock history — songs like "Bungle in the Jungle", "Living in the Past," “Teacher,” “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day)," and of course “Locomotive Breath” and “Aqualung” have truly endured.  And they’ve fared well commercially, too, as they have 5 platinum albums and 11 gold albums.
 
So that covers "Musical Excellence," now it's time to talk about "Influence." As one of the giants of prog rock, Jethro Tull has influenced artists across the spectrum, and some acts that have taken cues from Tull’s fantastical ambitions and complex music include Marillion, Iron Maiden, Dio, Kansas, Porcupine Tree, and even the Swedish prog metal band Opeth.

Past critical snobbery and the absence of a champion in the NomCom room might explain Jethro Tull’s omssion from the Hall, but this band’s unorthodox yet outstanding body of work is a wildly convincing case for induction. They have absolutely cemented their place in the pantheon of popular music. 

Jethro Tull belongs in the Rock Hall. 

STEVE'S ARGUMENT

A kid from Memphis discovered that by stealing liberally from gospel churches and old blues men, he could convey to the largest number of girls possible just how horny he was. Surely it came as a surprise to subsequent rock and rollers when they realized the medium's versatility. A guy from Hibbing infused it with profundity; some dudes from Hawthorne soaked it in sunshine; longhaired Londoners drove it with the top down, leering at ladies on streetcorners, while four wiseacres from Liverpool, after learning about drugs from the profundity guy, got under the hood and souped up its engine with psychedelia.
 
Jethro Tull, meanwhile, once did a tour where the entire stage was a pirate ship. It bankrupted them. That alone is so quintessentially rock and roll, it should earn them a place of honor in the Hall.
 
These guys from Blackpool did everything those other guys did, and if they didn't do it better  and no, they didn't do it better  still they did it all, and they did it determinedly, and extremely well, and without ever losing their sense of humor about the whole thing. They started out as a pretty impressive blues band, the oddball instrumentation notwithstanding – check out "Nothing Is Easy" or "Someday The Sun Won't Shine For You"  and then, too smart for their own good, they went gleefully leapfrogging over records about their flautist frontman's harrowing schooldays, "Wind-Up" and "My God" the examples par excellence. Not to worry — there was plenty of Elvis-worthy horniness in there too: "Cross-Eyed Mary" has to be the catchiest song imaginable about a homeless man ogling schoolgirls in a public park. 

"They were hilarious, but they were not kidding around; they never took it seriously even as they were deadly serious."

Over time they morphed into something like prog, producing what is surely the only forty-three-minute-and-forty-six second song to both mention sperm prominently in its lyric and also become a classic-rock radio staple. "Thick As A Brick" opened new doors: Jethro Tull stumbled, concept album by concept album, into music that couldn't be more British: at its best it sounded like Monty Python playing proto-heavy metal. At its worst it was caterwauling and dreary, but who among their peers never produced a dreary, midperiod LP? It's almost de rigeur, for Hall inductees especially. 

Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson may have had a penchant for codpieces, but he also wrote one of the greatest songs of all time  and no, I don't mean "Aqualung"; I mean "Skating Away On the Thin Ice of a New Day," a song so good John Lennon himself might have written it if he'd ever thought to. Their guitarist, Martin Barre, has the panache of Jimmy Page and the chops of John Mayall check out "Minstrel In The Gallery," and tell me he's not up there with the best. They wrote pastorals; they wrote songs about agriculture; they did their Viking album long after it was fashionable; they won a Grammy for best hard rock/metal album for maybe their least metallic record ever, beating Nothing's Shocking and ...And Justice For All  another Spinal Tappy bit of rock and roll nonsense, by the way, that should earn them a fast track to a Hall nomination. 

Uncomfortably far into middle age they recorded songs unashamedly comparing the playing of a flute to fellatio, and they had an album called J-Tull Dot Com embarrassingly early in the Internet era. They were hilarious, but they were not kidding around; they never took it seriously even as they were deadly serious. To a kid learning about this music by piling up vinyl at a used record store in suburban Philadelphia in the late eighties, Jethro Tull was the happiest discovery of his life. They were the best band he'd ever heard  at least until he came across Talking Heads.
 
What is the Rock Hall if not a celebration of the many different things you can do with rock and roll? Who else did, with rock and roll, what Jethro Tull did? How utterly mind-blowing are future generations, exploring rock and roll, going to find records like Stand Up and War Child and Broadsword and the Beast? It's long past time we recognized these guys for their titanic achievements, and give our blessing to Jethro Tull's undeniable place in the canon of great rock and roll.

A very special thanks to Steve Hanna (Twitter: @ecsongbysong) for his contributions. 

March 25, 2020

Rock Hall News: Museum CEO Greg Harris Guests on "Debatable"

The show must go on. It was announced this week that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will now be held on Saturday, November 7 at Public Auditorium in Cleveland (fingers crossed). Prior to that, as with the vast majority of "non-essential" public places, the Hall's museum temporarily closed its doors starting March 14 due to concerns over the current COVID-19 pandemic. (The current reopening date per the Rock Hall site is March 27, but that seems likely to change.) 

In times of crisis and uncertainty, it can be helpful to hear from the people in charge. On that note, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum CEO Greg Harris was a call-in guest on SiriusXM's "Debatable" show today, chatting about all the recent Rock Hall upheaval with hosts Mark Goodman and Alan Light. Here are some of the highlights of what Harris had to say, transcribed for those who missed it:

On the induction ceremony postponement: "It was the right thing to do as Coachella was postponed, as [SXSW] was being cancelled, as the NBA was looking to pause their season... it's one of those decisions that as soon as it was made, you knew it was the right decision."


On the Rock Hall museum's closure: "It was a Friday, and we were thinking, do we keep the museum open for the weekend, because there are already tickets out, people may have traveled, and all those things. And our Governor came out with this message. We knew we were closing, the question was, were we going to close on Friday or were we going to close on Monday, and after getting a lot of information, quite frankly from the CDC and others, we made the move to close at the end of [Friday]."

On the museum's mission going forward in our current era: "Our museum's mission is to engage, teach and inspire through the power of rock and roll... does that hold up in a changed world? And the mission actually holds up because it isn't dependent on physical space. Looking at how do we make the items in our vast collection available, how we do a lot of live concerts at the museum...[we] use the induction as an example - there's going to be 5000, 6000 people in the room for the ceremony, but there's going to be millions, and tens of millions that watch it online and through HBO's broadcast and through Sirius' broadcast. That's still very relevant and very important, and that's an opportunity to continue to expand and reach and connect."

On the challenges of rescheduling the induction ceremony: "Balancing the time when HBO could handle the broadcast, when [SiriusXM] could handle the broadcast, when the artists could travel, when our city had the spaces available. We take up a ton of hotel rooms, and getting all that together was a real Tetris puzzle... locally, we needed to get the hotel rooms, we needed to get the venues. There was a group called Union Home Mortgage that was holding an event for 1,200 friends and clients on the exact day we needed. They generously took on the task of moving that to another weekend, having to rebook all their hotel rooms... it got as granular as that."

On the scope of putting on the induction ceremonies: "It's an event that's on par with hosting the Final Four, or on par with major conventions. It's a citywide thing, it'll be the biggest event in Cleveland of that quarter. And quite frankly, if this [COVID-19] crisis continues, this could be the big party when we're all in the clear and ready to come back out again and celebrate rock and roll and how important it is to us."