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I have about 2000 albums—that's vinyl for all you digital people. 1000 or so are classical, collected during my early teens, better known as the 70s. The collection is particularly strong on Beethoven, boasting perhaps 9 versions of his only opera, Fidelio. Lieder - classical German songs composed to poetry - is well covered, and so is chamber music of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Most of these records were pretty well worn when rock music started breaking through that pantheon of platinum oldies into my lineup of records kept in a stack next to the turntable. Hendrix, Stones, Beatles, Dylan began to creep to the top of the stack and stay there for years at a time. The Stones in particular kept coming back with more.
It stayed the Stones and Beethoven for a long, long time, until Bowie, and then it was straight Bowie until one day, on mushrooms, someone took me to see Talking Heads, about a year before their first single. They blew Bowie away and became top of my stack. This continues all the way through U2 and more recently Mumford and Sons as well as Florence and The Machine.
Since my present perception and music attitude develops from that classical grounding, I go around with a sort of historical consciousness of the importance of all these developments. When you're in the middle of action, or when there's a lot of it, there's a tendency for it to stop seeming important in the welter of other things; in the present, importance is ceded to eating and shitting and weed and getting there on time. In time's longer perspectives, things get more abstract and interesting.
But songs as friends, as harbingers of mood, as mood-modifiers, as keys to the attainment of mood - and mood is the key to attainment of certain registers of consciousness. Songs serve as sounding boards, promote their specific variety of dialogue, and loyally continue to stimulate it after they have become familiar.
One era in particular - the New Wave genre from the late 1970s - made a huge impression on me and continues to do so. Here are some of my favorites:
Electric Guitar by Talking Heads
David Byrne, perhaps the founder of New Wave music, wasn't wrong about being a writer, and everything he did just goes to prove how much better art is when done by a poet. The better the words, the better everything else has a chance to be. This is a highly critical fact, which rock once threatened to obscure. Talking Heads reversed that trend with songs that speak as well as they sing. Such is "Electric Guitar" off the Fear of Music album. What this song says can only be spoken in song; it gives order to a chaos Kafka could comprehend with a conceptual physique Bartok could bop to. It is heavy with menace. Tina's bass-line bubbles like magma; it feels as if she's bottling the bubbles, trying to hold them down, rather than popping bubble gum. Chris's drums are phenomenal and the guitar playing is sublime.
Shattered by The Rolling Stones
The song, "Shattered", from the Some Girls album, crept up on me like weed brownies. At first it came across as disco smudge to a head that used to look for the Pistols in the Stones (without knowing it). But these are the Stones in New York of the late 70s, Stones seen in Elaine's, Stones hanging out with rag mavens on Seventh Avenue. To hear Jagger going "schmata schmata schmata” just blows me away; the Stones of the 60s were a million miles from Yiddish. But what finally wins out is the casualness of the music, how loosely constructed it appears at first, then how unutterably differently arrived at than anything I've heard it turns out to be. This music could not have been composed on paper. I can just see them, consummate technicians after all these years, cynical, a little burnt-out but feeding on plenty of offered energy, sitting down to jam after hanging out with fashion friends, and coming up with this song.
Memories Can't Wait by Living Colour
Genius compounds genius. Harrison's synthesizer, plugged by Eno gangs up on David Byrne's words and God knows whose melody, probably one of the oldest in the book; I'd never recognize it under all this divine contrivance, as tight and Beethovenly premeditated as "Shattered" comes off loose and spontaneous. Sing along with this song and on that scale you may find it better than the first two. Wail along with the WAIT near the end after prepping up with the textural milieu -it'll clear a few pipes and get a direct line to your heart. If you were a writer who spent a lot of time with words and memories of perceptions which need to be expressed in each others' contexts, you might once again place "Memories Can't Wait" by Living Colour off their Vivid album, up to the top of the stack.
Before They Make Me Run by The Rolling Stones
I've chosen this over "Rocks Off", "Happy", and "Gimme Shelter" mostly as a tribute to the Stones' epochal lead guitar, which just about defines rock & roll. This is the quintessential Keith, in voice, attitude, and electric needlework. The attitude is sort of like “The Harder They Come': I've got to walk before they make me run. They. I guess it's a "They" song, a genre calculated to make you identify against something. The voice is sour and whining, and the words, by a narc-harassed hedonist who's provided enough relief from our grief to be allowed his choice of chemical anodyne, strike home deeply to those of us particularly cognizant of society's great hypocrisy about drugs. This is American Stones, movie Stones, whose social commentary has been among the most pervasive and correct. You'll not find a Beatles song on this list because, to a writer, anyway, the Stones' correct anticipation of the future shows what lies the Beatles fed us about the present past: The Fab Four are my revisionist Gang of Four, and they may as well have had sympathy for the Devil.
EMI by Sex Pistols
As "Electric Guitar" is to world business and music, EMI is to music business and the world. UNLIMTED SUPPLY: EMI. In the U.S., they might have cried BIG BUGS: BIG BUCKS. The Sex Pistols were ground up in the mega machinery they despised in abusing, but they struck up a relation with commerce that grated like flint on steel. For me, it was like jamming a spark plug up my ass. There was something red-hard and white-hot hidden under the Stones' black & blue, something I craved to hear like a wounded pervert, needed to feel so I could pogo and get my bones going in another direction from my flesh. At some point it became important just to dance to the music when it was there, and going through the acceptance or rejection procedures of asking a girl became too much of an impediment, too much of a middleman on a sweet two-party deal - just me and the music. I became prey to possession by the demon of this band. Thanks for getting me off, Sex Pistols; if music could accomplish what poppers do, you wouldn't need to pay the popper piper. People have hate complexes about this band, they think it was evil but the evil sounds were just the tonic of the time. When will people learn not to blame the messengers?
Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf
Due to its association with the extreme cultism of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Meat Loaf's effective lyrics are embraced by the decadent equivalent of bobby-soxers (call them bobby-booters) with a perverse passion usually invested by adults in either poetry, religion, or sex. Attitude-wise, Meat Loaf and Rocky Horror transformed more innocence into weirdness than pre-TV nonteens can imagine in their wildest bodysnatcher dreams. Rock acts, especially rock acts in cult movies, have an archetypal impact across the board of wherever media reach that is monstrous to consider. Despite it all, the passion and ferocity of the music remains intact.
Idiot Wind by Bob Dylan
A while back, this song would have been in the top three, maybe on top. It was as good a song as I could imagine at the time. Well, I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now. Dylan's inversion of that perspective is one you have to grow out of. I wish I were younger than that now, believe me, but I can't be, any more than all I need is love. Maybe it was an idiot wind the bard was blowing, who knows? One loses faith in one's paradigms when they slip off the deep end, or into senility. But this song was performed monumentally on television after an embarrassing lead-in in tandem with Joan Baez. Then he got rid of her, trucked out the electric guitar and gave us this song with his eyes. I cried for days, remembering that I wished I was a poet and could do what Dylan did.
Sloppy by Devo
"She said 'sloppy, I think I missed the hole, eyio eyio'." When they sing that they detune the oscillator by changing the period on the synthesizer. The machine is used as punctuation with an expertise usually found on Eno produced albums. Also notable are drums, and of course the genetic, programmatic ambiance. I picked this song as the centerpiece of a 3 song strand at the end of the album that really makes it in an original way which caused me, briefly, heretically, to rank Devo with Talking Heads. The second album, not produced by Eno, detracts from the seriousness of the first by the banality of the subject matter in its context. The perspective afforded by daring to compare bands is valuable. One sees that the more gimmicky image of Devo, though more immediately cult-arousing, is a dead end, while the more generalized orientation of Talking Heads is a revelation.
Tommy Gun by The Clash
When I got into The Clash, nothing else mattered. Now they don't matter to me, but they can't be left out by a true pogo man. When I put on the record, this was the song I chose; try and strum to this one's violent bursts of staccato and you will work up a manly sweat, tighten all your back muscles, and bend over in exquisite contortions. There is no tighter song than this, and tightness is one of the cardinal virtues of rock. It ain't rock if it ain't tight; if it ain't tight, it's sand. "Tommy Gun" defines tightness.
More Than a Feeling by Boston
A departure - Power Pop: Rubber Bubble Gum. This is one of those groups you found on Epic labels that have 1 to 4 dynamite songs, 1 or 2 monster albums, and then nothing. Boston emerged for a time as the quintessential guitar group, whose sound a whole bunch of other groups like the Cars would gladly cash in on. If you're a strummer, there's nothing as good to strum to as this song, and I'm a strummer. The words are schmooey: 'I see my Mary Ann/Walking away.' At that moment Boston echoes “Walk Away Renee' (which should be on a list somewhere); I know there's a lot of lovesick fools out there who can really relate to watching Mary Ann walk away. Fortunately, I've been through infatuations where all the silly songs seemed addressed to me, so I don't snub swell songs like this one because I’m embarrassed as an intellectual to be feeling broad emotions.
I Just Want To Have Something To Do by Ramones
The Ramones either want it or they don't, and this song is about wanting it. I wasn't really into the Ramones until I saw their movie Rock & Roll High School, after which there were moments when they seemed to be the last word on attitude, and maybe, on that score, they are. Their music has always been pleasing, like the Beach Boys with an dose of the Sex Pistols. Some of their songs are just as essential as this one; they seem to all sound alike but they don’t really. They are instead quintessential like Mozart. This is the similitude which brings inner vitality, and not poverty of invention. When you consider how all Mozart sounds alike as a virtue instead of a liability, you have your first key to the inner sanctum.
X Offender by Blondie
“You read me my rights/then said/ "Let's go' and nothing more.” A love song by a prostitute to a vice cop - what a concept. Debbie Harry's wonderful soubrette, that sweet-and-sour waif wail. It's so spare, almost 50s in its musical trappings, but decidedly 80s in its mentality. This song had a little trouble with censors, and thus had that something extra in terms of creating an attitude. Creating an attitude seems to be a matter of having the right radar to tell everybody when something previously uncool (like heroin snorting among 17-year-old rich Britons) is now cool. Its not.
Hero Worship by the B-52s
The music in several of their other songs is equally good, and the concepts are more imaginative, but the sight of sweet little old Cindy Wilson belting out this baleful scrutiny of star clone relationships just stays in the mind. It's about how you have to knock over what you build up, even as you must detumesce after tumescence: The whole idea of a hard-on is to get rid of it in the right places.
I Can't Stand Losing You by The Police
“I guess you'd call it suicide/but I'm too full to swallow my pride" - one of the best lines ever written. Too full to swallow, that's about gravity. The conceit works in bodily analogy, which scores big points with this writer, whose one political aim is to use rock to refresh the language. This album caught me on the way down from a Clash peak, and held my turntable against all challengers for about two weeks, after which I put it away until recently. It's not correct to leave the Police out of the picture because their reggae/new wave fusion puts each movement in the other's light, and clarifies the historical selective process. This group is useful for showing the difference between Talking Heads and lesser bands - you can see the way a band like the Police fuses styles, while the real thing fuses entire disciplines and has an effect on the advance of consciousness.
Surrender by Cheap Trick
Besides having a stronger and wider variety of that epic power pop sound, this group has a slightly insidious undercurrent which gives it redeeming value. I was amazed to find this song's album in the home of a septuagenarian poetry publisher in Omaha; then I was surprised to find he had a teenage son, and a 30something wife. Weird. Then I was alone in the house and played this song, and the words "Mommy's all right/Daddy's all right/They just seem a little weird /Surrender/Surrender/But don't give yourself away-ay/ay/AYYYY" seemed so constitutive and contextual. So I left with this strong impression of a midwest where weird mommies and daddies are somehow all right. Thank you Cheap Trick.
Changes by David Bowie
Some people write in song quanta, and some in album quanta. Bowie is of in the latter category, but if you have to pick a song whose effect on lives surpasses the merely stylistic level, then Bowie achieves it. Like all Bowie songs, once you pass beyond its dramatic compulsion you are left with hollow rhetoric in the lyrics. He never meant a thing he said, he never meant but to seduce you, he was a sophist, an actor, and a host of other names he's called himself. As a figure this made him appear protean, made him major as an influence, but what he inspired in the realm of music caused him to never be forgotten.
Anarchy In The U.K. by the Sex Pistols
I have to write about the Pistols again; what should I say? Well, I took off on another tangent and didn't flesh out the idea that the Pistols were the red & white beneath the Stones', black and blue, the blood and bones beneath the bruises. That conceit in itself justifies the placement of this song on this part of the list. I've had so many organized thoughts to "Anarchy" over the years that it's just bound to give rise to some decent language when I vibe my scanners in its regard. Blood, incidentally, is animated by the dialectic of metabolism, by which destructive forces break down previous life forms and constructive forces convert them to energy. The Sex Pistols could not have been more purely catabolic (as they call the destructive half of the process, the part which must come first) if they'd had instructions from God. They had to burn out, they had to bleed, they had to die. They achieved it all and then some.