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 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.