Tuesday, May 31, 2022

My latest for The Normal School

My latest for The Normal School is out today. In “A Groovy Way to Grab a Musical Bag that Turns On the Sounds of Today" I take a look at those Super Hits albums that I was obsessed with as a kid—and still am! Released on Pickwick Records in the early- and mid-1970s, they featured "King's Road," a group of anonymous studio session musicians that cut sometimes faithful, sometime pathetic, always earnest covers of contemporary hit songs. "Played and sung like the original hits!"

Here's the opening:

Rediscover Records, Elgin, Illinois. The voice to which I’m only half-listening sounds familiar, but something’s off, also. I look up blankly from the records I’m riffling through and realize that I’m hearing Elton John, one of his well-known hits from the early seventies, but I haven’t heard this version before. Is it a demo? An early take? A scratch vocal? Elton sounds pretty awful, as if he’s poorly imitating someone imitating him. That, or he has a cold. I ask the cashier what’s playing. She points to the album sleeve propped on the counter. 

Turns out that I’m half correct. It is Elton. And it isn’t. Elton John Rock Hits was released in 1975 near the tail end of the pianist-singer’s half-decade meteoric journey across the Top 40, but John was nowhere to be found in the studio when the album was concocted. The songs here, those that momentarily confounded me in the record store—“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” et al.—were performed by King’s Road, an anonymous group of session musicians and singers whose catalogue by the mid-70s was bulging. Between 1970 and 1975 they issued twenty-three albums, nearly all on the Pickwick label (their career would be finished by ‘76). King’s Road wasn’t a band so much as a hologram—a holoband, a hollow band—a one-dimensional image of a group whose sole purpose was to imitate, gamely if at times ineptly, the well-known hits of the day. King’s Road was a bad joke, a cut-rate impressionist. King’s Road was the best at being the worst.
You can read the rest—as well as my other Normal School music essays—here.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Real kids, real problems

The Gospel according to John Felice:
Yeah it is derivative. Rock ’n’ roll, just by what it is, it’s derivative, and I can’t imagine it ever being anything but. That’s what you look for. Every band, every era, like the Beatles, they covered all the old girl groups, and both the Stones and the Beatles covered Chuck Berry songs. All those bands covered the guys that came before them and they just put their own little twist to it and left it for everyone down the road to decipher. You would have to be looking for trouble to call that bad, saying 'Oh, well they’re not doing anything new.' Shit man, it’s rock ’n’ roll and you’re not supposed to think about it. You’re supposed to dance and move to it.
Testify. When I caught Felice and the then-iteration of the Real Kids seven years ago this month in Chicago I sure as hell danced and moved, and was also struck by how Felice is able to wring freshness and urgency out of his songs, songs which, yes, follow a well-worn template. Felice pitches his voice—one of my favorites in rock and roll and one which, in its way, is as recognizable as Joey Ramone's and Bruce Springsteen's—somewhere between cocky and desperate, a unique and irresistible sweet spot that makes his songs feel as urgent as this morning's news. The Kids have been around in various lineups through various periods of activity/inactivity since 1974, releasing a handful of studio albums (including The Real Kids in 1977, Hit You Hard in 1983, and Shake...Outta Control in 2014) and bunch of live and demo compilations via many cool labels. I recently scored a sealed copy of their 1982 gem Outta Place, and I've been playing it to death, struck in particular by a trio of tunes—"No Place Fast," "Small Town," and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Problems"—that captures this great band at their best. 

Felice's voice isn't "strong" in the conventional sense—he sounds like he's had a sore throat for forty years—but he pushes against its limitations in a show of strength, which is one in the same in my rock and roll book. What could sound weak or petulant instead sounds nervy and reckless. Wounded, he sings with a smirk. He can sound like a kid puffing himself up to be a tough guy in front of the bedroom mirror, yet onstage he delivers. And what he's singing about—the confines of a shitty, nosy, low-ceilinged town, a breakneck love affair, petty and giant problems everywhere you look—is eternal. You make a lot of noise but they don't hear a sound, he rasps in "Small Town," but hell if that's gonna stop him. The lines he chases in "No Place Fast" nearly elude him in every verse; it feels like he's catching up to the very song he wrote. And digging deep in the tattered bag for an Everly Brothers nugget? All Felice proves is that what was relevant in 1958 was relevant in 1982. And, yeah, I'm reminded of its relevance in this century, too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Riding around, riding high

Via Google
Today for no apparent I remembered crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan-bound, sometime in the early '00s when Suicide came on, scoring that brief, iconic journey like no other song could. For the four minutes it played, I felt elevated—less from the bridge's span over the East River than from the song's echo-y, eerie mood, its odd propulsion, and its lyrics of doom and violence. Martin Rev and Alan Vega were singing about the late-70s, a couple of decades and a cultural continent behind me, but the vibe was,—is—timeless, as Manhattan loomed before before and Brooklyn behind me, the river beneath me and its relentless currents a reminder that songs are like rivers: you never hear the great ones the same way twice, and whatever waves lapped to the shores in a different era lap today's shores too.
Whole country's doing a fix
It's doomsday doomsday
Riding around, riding high
Riding around with my babe
Speeding on down the skyway


Suicide, 1979. Photo: Adrian Boot