The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 8: Sell Outs and Rave Ups

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

This is the final entry in the Spotify Chronicles…and it’s a long one — it even has an “epilogue” — but I think it’s interesting enough to justify it’s length. 

If you were listening to BBC Radio in, say, 1964, you’d never know there was a musical revolution underway. The staid, stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation offered listeners what they high-handedly judged was “good for them” (rather than what they may have “wanted.”) A slate of news, educational programs, children’s shows, classical music, and “light entertainment.” Pop music was considered the latter, and had to share the category with comedy programs, quiz shows, and variety shows. So, pop music got about six hours a week, and pop music records got still fewer (Musicians’ Union rules strictly limited “needle time” on broadcast radio). Many performers were invited to play “live in studio” (resulting in a glut of CD-era “Live At The BBC” collections put out by every major British band from back in the day). Everything was presented by very proper announcers reading from carefully prepared scripts — commercial-free. It was government-owned and funded by listeners paying a small annual licensing fee.

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Some entrepreneurial types decided to meet market demand by pumping out a steady diet of pop, rock, and soul records from ships moored in international waters, just over three miles off the British coast. These “pirate radio” stations lifted the entire format of American Top 40 radio — hip, freewheeling DJs, loud jingles, brash promos, and actual commercials (!) The signals weren’t always perfect (although on a good night they could reach over 12 million British listeners), and the rocking waves sometimes caused the records to skip, but pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline exposed the Brits to all the latest American acts, and gave an important boost to up-and-coming British groups like the Yardbirds and the Who.

The British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, effectively shutting down the pirates. Luckily, the BBC had seen the light and re-organized their radio division, launching Radio 1 as an all-popular music format…and hiring many of the old pirate DJs. It wasn’t quite the same, though. The frisson and excitement associated with the pirates’ rebellious flaunting of authority was missing. 

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Which brings me to the Who. In 1967, after a few years of being a reliable singles act in Britain, the Who was finally gaining an American audience, after noteworthy performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September. At a transitional time when albums were starting to eclipse singles as the preferred form of rock expression, the band went back into the studio that autumn to complete their third LP (begun in piecemeal fashion through that spring and summer), knowing it would have to outclass their first two if they were to continue their climb to the top. These recording sessions coincided with the snuffing out of the pirate radio stations. The Who decided to make an album in their honor to thank them for all they had done (the Who were favorites of the pirate DJs, and got played a lot).

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Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

The result was my all-time favorite album by the Who — The Who Sell Out, released in the waning days of 1967, and a pop-art masterpiece. The album’s concept was that it would replicate a pirate radio station broadcast — right down to the jingles, promos, and commercials. (The initial intention was to actually sell advertising space between songs.) 

The material that chief songwriter Pete Townshend came up with for this set is melancholy and yearning, eschewing the band’s usual heavy sound. Drummer Keith Moon’s typical wild-man flailing is kept on a short leash. The love songs “I Can’t Reach You” and “Our Love Was” have moments of ethereal beauty, and showcase the Who’s underrated harmony-singing skills. The delicate “Sunrise” is just Towshend and a 12-string acoustic. In fact, Townshend’s thin, fragile voice gets more leading roles on Sell Out than any other Who album. Even when usual lead vocalist Roger Daltrey appears with his more powerful “rock” voice, he’s alternating or singing in unison with Townshend, as on the organ-driven “Relax” and the irresistibly melodic duet “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” about a girl with a certain skill that raises more than just eyebrows. Two songs, “Tattoo” and “Odorono,” are perfectly conceived little short stories, with dramatic arcs and sympathetic characters. “Tattoo” is a coming-of-age tale about two teen brothers getting their first ink, and “Odorono” is, well…read on.

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The iconic Sell Out album cover. No one bothered to warm up the refrigerated beans — Roger Daltrey came down with pneumonia

Bassist John Entwistle contributes another macabre fantasy character vignette, “Silas Stingy” (similar to his earlier “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”). The album closes with “Rael,” a sketchy condensement of a much longer “rock opera” about a dystopian conflict between the Communist Chinese and Israel in the distant future of 1999. The long-form rock narrative/musical story format was something Towshend had been tinkering with since the nine-minute “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” on their previous album. (As for the under-six minute “Rael,” Townshend lamented “No one will ever know what it means, it’s been squeezed up too tightly to make sense.”) Some musical themes from “Rael” would be recycled for their next album, Tommy (1969), where the rock opera concept achieved its full fruition.

There are two exceptions to the overall gentleness displayed on Sell Out. The opening track “Armenia City in the Sky,” was written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen (later of cult favorite Thunderclap Newman) and performed by the Who as a trippy, dissonant, thumping wall of sound and echoes. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I Can See For Miles,” in which all the trademark moves of the Who — full-cry volume, Daltery’s menacing snarl, Entwistle’s bass guitar rumblings, Towshend’s windmill guitar-thrashing, and Moon’s cataclysmic, cannon-fire drumming — are on conspicuous display in a proto-metal howl of betrayal and recrimination. (Townshend’s bragging in an interview that “I Can See For Miles” was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song ever recorded goaded Paul McCartney into writing “Helter Skelter.” Check and mate.)

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Interspersed between these songs are all the trappings of a pirate radio broadcast. The promos and jingles are the real deal, from actual Radio London broadcasts. When the idea of selling commercial space on the album quickly fell through, the Who concocted and performed original ads. They vary in length and style. Some are fragments lasting a few seconds (including spots for Rotosound guitar strings, the Charles Atlas workout program, and the Who’s favorite after-hours hangout, the Speakeasy Club). Some, such as “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac” (promoting a pimple cream) are catchy, minute-long novelty songs. And one was a full-length, heartbreaking tale of ambition and rejection, set to one of Towenshend’s most beautiful, lilting melodies…all to advertise the underarm deodorant, Odorono.

The Who Sell Out is often regarded as one of the first “concept” albums. But for whatever reason, the Who opted to only use the “pirate radio broadcast” concept through the first half of the album. Side two, with the exception of Entwistle’s “Medac” song/commercial, has no ads or jingles. This was rectified with an excellent 1995 CD reissue where the idea was finally carried through to the end of the album by adding some more Radio London jingles, repeating some slight variations of side one ads, using some outtake ads the Who recorded but didn’t use for the album, and digging up some radio ads they recorded earlier that year intended for actual broadcast. When I speak of Sell Out as my favorite Who album, it’s really this CD reissue I’m thinking of, where the concept runs to the finish.

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The Yardbirds fascinated me as soon as I heard of them. Here was a band that provided a launching pad for three of the greatest British guitarists ever — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They weren’t in the band all at the same time, of course. The universe couldn’t handle that degree of awesomeness without tearing itself asunder. (Beck and Page did overlap for a few brief months.) Clapton left early, and Page came late, leaving Beck in the lead guitarist slot through most of what could be considered the Yardbirds’ “classic” period.

R-4237397-1447215065-2562.jpegThe Yardbirds discography was a mess for a long time, their relatively small output licensed over and over again for a parade of cheap reissues. My first Yardbirds CD was one of these “budget label” compilations. Part of Pair Records’ “Best of British Rock” series, the cover had a photo of the Beck-era band, with Clapton very clumsily pasted into the image so it looked like he and Beck were in the band together. Nowadays, the band’s digital-era discography has been squared away considerably. All of their pre-“Roger the Engineer” (see below) output can fit easily on two discs.

If there’s a downside to listening to the Yardbirds, it’s that every pre-“Roger” Yardbirds recording currently available is of dubious audio quality. It’s partly due to lack of access to the original masters, as a variety of companies have claims over various recordings, and it’s said that EMI is still refusing to turn over certain master tapes to compilers due to an unpaid studio bill from 1965 (that may be nothing more than an “urban rock legend” at this point). And it’s partly (maybe mostly) due to the recordings being made in a hurry and on the cheap in the first place.

For my own part, I kind of like the rough sound. It was part of the band’s mystique. They really did sometimes kick up the most glorious, ungodly racket of any British Invasion band. Old performance clips of the Yardbirds are still some of my favorite viewing on YouTube — their power and presence are undeniable. The rhythm section consisted of drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith — rock-solid and never too flashy. The flash was reserved for the front line. Vastly underrated lead vocalist Keith Relf was a brooding presence with shimmering blond hair, his eyes sometimes hidden behind Dylan-style shades, often pointing accusingly at the audience or camera. When not singing, he would whip up excitement with a tambourine or a set of bongos, or demonstrate his prowess on blues harp, blasting gutsy runs in between lines of the verses. Jeff Beck on lead guitar planted his feet like a boxer and stared down the crowd, occasionally stomping on his fuzz pedal or waving his Fender Telecaster in front of his amp to generate a wash of feedback. On the opposite side of the stage, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja’s strumming hand would be a blur as the band pushed whatever song they were playing into one of their trademark “rave-ups” — increasing the tempo and intensity level to a seemingly inhuman extreme.

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The “classic” line-up, March ’65 – June ’66

Like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds came together around 1963 as a hardcore, principled blues band, bringing amped-up versions of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf songs to the British masses like proselytizing missionaries. When the Stones rocketed to fame in 1964, they left their residency at London’s Crawdaddy Club open, and the Yardbirds happily filled it.

And also like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds eventually found the temptation of commercial pop-rock fame & riches — and the urge to experiment with their sound — too alluring to resist. “You can’t play 12-bar blues forever,” Mick Jagger told them. The stiff-necked, anti-commercial blues purist Clapton (still sporting a crew-cut, cardigan sweater, and permanent judgmental scowl) tried to dig in his heels and keep the band’s “integrity” intact, but could not halt the turning tide.

After a pair of blues singles (“I Wish You Would,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”) and a live album of all-blues/R&B songs (Five Live Yardbirds) failed to set the charts on fire in ‘64, the Yardbirds’ management dangled the pop gem “For Your Love” in front of them early the next year. Written by 19-year-old songwriting prodigy Graham Gouldman (later of 10cc), “For Your Love” sounded nothing like the blues, and in fact had little room for guitars. Dominated by harpsichord (played by session man Brian Auger) and percussion, it was undeniably unique, punchy and would probably be a hit. Clapton gritted his teeth through a short rhythm guitar part he was assigned in the song’s middle section, then quit the band in disgust the day the single was released. (Gouldman would go on to pen “Heart Full of Soul” and “Evil-Hearted You” for the band.)

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The early days, 1964. Clapton on the right.

Clapton quickly joined like-minded blues scholars John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. He had recorded a grand total of eight songs in the studio with the Yardbirds (plus a handful of ’63 demos that keep popping up on compilations). “For Your Love” went to #1 on the British NME chart, and #6 on Billboard in the U.S., and the ascendant Yardbirds were in the market for a new guitarist. Their first choice, Jimmy Page, did not want to leave the cushy life of a highly-paid session musician, and recommended his friend, the temperamental, experimental, thoroughly one-of-a-kind Jeff Beck. Beck’s tenure with the band (March ‘65 through November ‘66) was their creative peak. Harnessing Beck’s skill to de facto musical director Samwell-Smith’s guidance, the Yardbirds were early adopters of the creative use of feedback, drones, and world music flourishes. They had tried to put a sitar on “Heart Full of Soul” in the summer of ‘65 (months ahead of the Beatles’ use of it on Rubber Soul), but couldn’t get it to record properly. Beck figured out a way to imitate the Indian stringed instrument via technical trickery on his Telecaster.

In their home country of Great Britain, the Yardbirds’ pre-1967 output consisted of eight singles, one EP, and one — one — full length album, Yardbirds (which immediately and universally became known as “Roger the Engineer” after its cover illustration), from the summer of ‘66

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In the U.S., their record company pushed out a couple of more albums. For Your Love (June 1965) cobbled together the band’s three Clapton-era singles (both A and B-sides, half-an-album done already!), the contents of the upcoming British EP (featuring Beck), and a couple of early studio leftovers (including “Putty In Your Hands,” an obscure Shirelles song which could have been a solid single.) 

The first side of Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds (November 1965) is as gripping a statement of pure rock prowess as you’re likely to find from any band in ‘65. It opens with the powerful anti-racism statement “You’re A Better Man Than I,” destined to be the British B-side of the equally powerful single “Shapes of Things” early the following year. This is followed by an earlier British single, the mini-masterpiece “Evil-Hearted You,” a minor-key, drama-laden lament with eerie Ennio Morricone-style overtones and lashings of Beck’s guitar. It may be the gloomiest, most depressing hit single of the era. 

On their U.S. tour in the late summer of ‘65, the Yardbirds jumped at the opportunity to record at two studios that were hallowed ground for blues and R&B fans. Chess Studios in Chicago was the home base for Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and many others. This where the Yardbirds laid down a nuclear-class version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” the best example of a classic Yardbirds “rave-up” ever captured on tape. Up next is the lone band original on the album, “Still I’m Sad,” the British B-side to “Evil-Hearted You.” It’s another tale of woe — practically a funeral dirge — with mournful lyrics (by bassist Samwell-Smith), and the dominant sound is a droning chorus of downright spooky Gregorian chanting, underscored by gentle percussion (is that a triangle I hear? or finger cymbals?), acoustic strumming, and subtle washes of phased electric guitar. This is followed by their massive summer hit single (in both Britain and U.S.) “Heart Full of Soul,” featuring Beck’s hypnotic, sitar-like riff and pop-heaven chorus. 

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This epic (there’s no other word for it) side of vinyl goes out with the biggest of bangs: “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” my favorite Yardbirds track. Originally an old jump blues by Tiny Bradshaw, it became a rockabilly number in the hands of Johnny Burnette a few years later, and the Yardbirds mold it into an early version of modern hard rock. Their version barrels along in true locomotive fashion, stokes momentum with a couple of sublime guitar solos, and flirts with a rave-up style blowout here and there, but never going totally, uh…off the rails. Relf double-tracked his slurred and unintelligible vocals, and at times seems to be singing two different songs on each track (which, to me, only adds to the number’s charm). “Train Kept A-Rollin’” was recorded at the legendary Sun Studios (early Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.) in Memphis. Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips observed the session and noted that Relf, who liked a drink or three, certainly had a snootful when the band recorded the track. (It is said the vocals were re-recorded later, but that’s no guarantee they were recorded sober.)

After the greatest side one in rock history, the second side is an anti-climactic four songs lifted from the year-old, British-only live album Five Live Yardbirds (including a weaker version of “I’m A Man”). The tracks were new to American ears, but in the big picture this recycling of old material prevented Rave-Up from being considered a true classic. And due to it being a U.S.-only release, British listeners were denied the joys of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and the studio version of “I’m A Man” for many years.

R-4376141-1395659658-5626.jpegThe Yardbirds’ first coherent, unified, full-length album project, “Roger the Engineer,” came out in July of 1966 to respectful but not raving reviews, and moderate sales. The songs were pleasant but unmemorable, a snapshot of early psychedelia before the style reached its full flower (power) the following year. (The U.S. version, true to form, removed two songs and re-titled it Over Under Sideways Down after the spin-off single.) Not long before its release, Paul Samwell-Smith, tired of the touring grind (and Relf’s unpredictable behavior) bailed out, traded his bass guitar for a mixing board, and became a very successful music producer.

At this point, Jimmy Page agreed to join up on bass, but after a few shows it was quickly realized that one of the hottest guitarists in Britain would be wasted in the bassist’s role (no offense to bassists, but…). Chris Dreja switched to bass with a team-player shrug, and the Yardbirds suddenly were in twin-lead guitar attack formation. How cool does that sound? Unfortunately, this version of the Yardbirds never spent much time in the studio. Only one single, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (October 1966), provides recorded evidence of this combination of guitar greats. (The Beck-Page line-up also appeared in a brief scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Swinging London” movie Blow Upthey’re seen onstage playing a lyrically-altered version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” re-titled “Stroll On,” and smashing their instruments in a Who-like finale.)

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Lost Opportunity: The short-lived, twin-lead guitar Yardbirds with both Beck (left) and Page (second from right), June – November, ’66

Admittedly jealous of his lead guitar turf, and in ill health due to stress and fatigue, Beck, always a difficult personality, became unreliable and started not turning up for shows. He was let go by the band in November 1966. (His speech at the Yardbirds’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993 in its entirety: “I did other music after the Yardbirds. Someone told me I should be proud tonight. But I’m not because they kicked me out. They did. Fuck them.”)

My Yardbirds playlist ends with the departure of Jeff Beck. 

Once Jimmy Page took over as the sole lead guitarist, the band was fundamentally altered. They squeezed out one more album, the hastily-produced and poorly-regarded Little Games in the summer of 1967, and a couple more second-rate psychedelic singles. (“Ten Little Indians” being the low point, or maybe “Ha Ha Said the Clown” was the low point. I don’t know, because I never want to listen to either one again.)

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The final days, Spring ’68 — The four-piece Yardbirds as Jimmy Page’s sidemen

The quietly domineering Page then began using the group as a testing ground for his sonic and compositional experiments, including a little ditty he called “Dazed and Confused,” which he worked on for months. The bored, worn-out Relf and McCarty were finished with the band by summer of 1968. To complete some already-booked dates in Scandinavia that autumn, Page put together a “New Yardbirds” initially consisting of himself, Dreja, and word-of-mouth recommendations Robert Plant (vocals) and John Bonham (drums), both former members of Birmingham local favorites Band of Joy. Dreja bowed out after a few weeks of planning, and was replaced on bass by one of Page’s colleagues from the world of London session work, John Paul Jones. 

The first song they played at their first rehearsal was “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” The New Yardbirds played the Scandinavian dates, then dropped the name for good.

Led Zeppelin was born.

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Bonham, Plant, Page, Jones — “The New Yardbirds,” Autumn 1968. 

So that’s it for the artist playlists. I have more, and I’m working on more, but that’s pretty much how things stand as of now.

Epilogue: The Holy Bee’s Decades Playlists

No Deep Cuts or obscurities here. My Decades playlists are all about the hits, and they consist of several hundred songs. Rather than go on too much longer, I’ll just pick one song to represent each decade.

1950s

In putting together my Decades playlists, I try to base it off of what was actually popular at the time, rather than material we deemed cool retroactively. That’s why there’s no Velvet Underground on my 1960s playlist. That stuff just didn’t sell. It became popular later. And that’s why there’s so little rock & roll (relatively speaking) on my ‘50s playlist. The 1950s exists in pop culture history as the era when rock was born. But it was very much a niche genre at the time, and most of the American public was deeply suspicious of this mixed-race soundtrack to juvenile delinquency. 

Little Richard was like a bomb dropped on uptight ‘50s society. He had a hurricane vocal shriek, was a passionate jump-blues pianist, and was so flamboyant and eccentric a showman (he had once been a drag performer under the name “Princess LaVonne”), it’s a wonder he was even allowed to burn up the radio airwaves in that day and age. 

The sales of most early Black rock & roll were noted only on the segregated R&B charts, but Little Richard’s 1956 “Long Tall Sally” proved such an irresistible force of nature that it clawed its way to #6 on the pop charts, which was no small feat.

1960s

“Okay, let’s give it to ‘em, right now!!”

As a result of the British Invasion, hundreds of suburban teens in America bought guitars and drums (and a lot of Farfisa organs, evidently) and set up in the garage to create a calamitous ruckus. Some of them got good enough to put out a single. Some of those singles got on the radio. The Standells’ “Dirty Water.” The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night.”  The 13 Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” You get the idea. If you know those songs, you probably know them because of Nuggets.

In 1972, music writer (and future Patti Smith guitarist) Lenny Kaye compiled a little over two dozen of these primitive “garage rock” songs into the double-LP compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. Nuggets became one of the founding documents of early punk rock, and a must-have for any serious record collection. In 1998, the compilation was expanded to a four-CD box set, with several dozen more songs, including one that falls a little outside the time frame — 1963’s “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen of Portland, Oregon.

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It’s easy to see why it was included. Its primitive sound, amateurish playing, and eager spirit set the template for garage rock, even if unintentionally. All those bands were trying to sound like the Beatles or the Animals — they inevitably ended up sounding like the Kingsmen. 

The glorious sloppiness of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” was partly due to the fact that the band thought they were just going through a warm-up before recording the song “for real.” But producer Ken Chase (a local disc jockey) hit the RECORD button on their loose rehearsal, and that was that.

Lenny Kaye always claimed he could hear the moment punk rock was born: Kingsmen vocalist Jack Ely, shouting up at a ceiling-mounted boom microphone through a mouthful of teenage braces, came into the third verse several bars too early (at 1:57), and drummer Lynn Easton scrambled through a panicked, improvised fill to cover the mistake. No money for retakes (the session cost $50), and the raw, primitive DIY ethos of punk came into being on record for the first time.

As for the song itself, the original 1955 version by Richard Berry was a simple ballad about sailor talking (in a thick Jamaican accent) to a bartender named Louie, telling him how much he was looking forward to sailing home and seeing his girl. In the hands of the Kingsmen, it was the same story sped up, but you’d never know it. Ely, too far from the microphone to begin with, slurs his vocals so much (it was supposed to be a rehearsal, dammit!) that the lyrics are incomprehensible. That’s when the rumors started. Every ’60s school kid just knew that “Louie, Louie” was chock-full of horrible obscenities. The FBI even got involved, launching a 31-month “indecency” investigation, with agents listening to the song over and over on headphones, only to conclude the song was “unintelligible” and the matter was dropped.

Not only did the FBI not bother to consult the original songwriter, they did not look at the easily available sheet music. (Berry has said that, to the best of his hearing, the Kingsmen sung the lyrics as written — if you know the real words, you can pretty easily follow Ely’s slurred patois.) What’s hilarious is that for all that time spent huddled over the record with headphones, the intrepid agents missed the actual obscenity on the recording — Easton yelling “fuck!” when a drumstick slipped through his fingers at 0:54. Again, it was supposed to be a rehearsal.

1970s

OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. Like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World, it’s a popular ‘70s song repopularized by a ‘90s movie. 

If I mention “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, you’re all thinking the same thing… 

Reservoir Dogs, right? 

You’re goddamn right Reservoir Dogs… 

51NgDz+JW1L._AC_This is the first song that I came to entirely through the vehicle of film. I suppose I had heard it on the oldies radio station here and there, but it never really registered until Michael Madsen did a shuffling little dance to it while clutching a straight razor and performing an ear-ectomy on an unfortunate captive cop. I don’t think it ever played on a movie screen in Yuba City, and it had been kicking around on video for a while before I discovered it. One evening in the spring of ‘94, I had rented some other Miramax production on VHS, and ahead of the main feature was the trailer for Reservoir Dogs.

As soon as the trailer finished, I immediately stopped the tape, jumped back in my car, and went back to the video store to get it. Whatever other movie I had intended to watch that night was forgotten. I watched, enraptured, as the coolest thing that ever passed in front of my young eyes unspooled over 99 blood-spattered, darkly mayhemic minutes. (I kept waiting to see the heist. That’s how by-the-rules my movie mind still was. But, as we all know, Tarantino never shows us the heist, only the before and after.) As soon as the final gunshots rang out and the screen faded to black to the strains of Nilsson’s “Coconut,” I rewound it and actually called my friends and said they had to come over and watch it, like, right now. 

This was my cinematic Ground Zero. It changed my relationship with movies. Nineteen at the time, I had always been an avid movie-goer, hitting the multiplex pretty much every weekend for whatever the big release was, but Reservoir Dogs made me a “cinephile” (for better or worse). I began really thinking about movies, reading about movies, and embracing the whole indie film ethos that was starting to bloom around this time thanks to Tarantino, Linklater, Rodriguez, etc. I went back and watched Godard, Kurosawa, Ford, and Wilder. Working at a video store with a pretty deep catalog at the time helped immensely. 

That kind of intensity is tough to keep up, and in my middle age I’ve gotten lazy about movies again. But it was fun, and very informative, while it lasted.

1980s

The middle school I attended (1987-89) was way out in the middle of nowhere and very tiny…we had a graduating class of eight. We did not have the staff or facilities to host the periodic evening dances that are often part of the middle/high school adolescent experience. In the place of school-sponsored dances, a kindly “class mom” would invite all the middle-schoolers over to her house, which had a big rec room, for Friday night dances a couple of times a year. There was ping-pong, refreshments, and stiff-armed, no-bodily-contact slow dancing. All of us being painfully self-conscious at that age, no one packed the gear to bust a move to a fast song. A two-cassette collection of soft rock ballads played on a loop on the rec room tape deck. I forget the name of the collection, but it was probably a K-tel release, and was heavily advertised on TV in the last half of the ’80s. Titles like “Baby, What A Big Surprise” by Chicago and “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer would scroll up the TV screen over a background of fluffy clouds and silhouetted couples on the beach. On the collection was at least three Air Supply songs.

“All Out Of Love” was playing when I had my first (of many) romantic rejection in 7th grade. The girl in question was undoubtedly out of my league. I was old enough to be very aware of my unfashionably curly hair and nerdy proclivities (how many 7th graders are way into the Marx Brothers? Too few…), but too young to take concrete steps to do anything about them, or go the other way and own them proudly. Remember, this was an era before nerds were running the world and ruling culture. We just got teased, and tripped, and pushed down. I had a squeaky voice and a distinct lack of athletic prowess. Nevertheless, I “asked her out” in the parlance of the times, and she politely (I give her credit for letting me down gently) but firmly told me she liked someone else. “He doesn’t go to our school,” she explained. I didn’t see through that excuse until much later, but at the time I maturely and stoically accepted her decision by crawling under the ping-pong table, eyes stinging, for the remainder of the festivities.

My voice broke a few months later, but the athletic prowess has forever eluded me, and “All Out Of Love” still kind of puts a lump in my throat.

1990s

Like everyone else in the ‘90s, I took advantage of the mail-order “record club” known as Columbia House. “8 CDs For A Penny!” was the hook, and I took that hook time and time again. (Yes, you would literally tape a penny to the mail-in card.) The catch, of course, was you then had to buy x number of CDs at “regular club prices,” which meant paying way too much, especially when shipping costs were factored in. The other catch is that they would automatically send you that month’s “club selection,” unless you remembered to check the tiny, tiny box that opted you out in the previous month’s mail catalog and send it in on time. (Life before the internet sucked.) 

You could also double up by taking a similar offer from Columbia House’s rival, BMG. Some of us used every possible variation of our names, and multiple addresses of willing accomplices, to have several memberships in both clubs going simultaneously — all for that sweet initial offer of 8 CDs For A Penny.

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There were supposedly many ways to scam your way out of the club once you got your opening windfall, but I mostly played it straight and stuck to one — okay, two — memberships at a time. I filled my “regular club” quota in a hurry by ordering a lot of double albums. Once I had fulfilled the terms of the agreement, I canceled my membership. Then it would be a wait of no more than three or four weeks before another 8 CDs For A Penny offer hit my mailbox, and I would start the process again. Wash, rinse, repeat for about a decade.

“Tonight Tonight” is from the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which I acquired from Columbia House. Most albums of the CD era are so long that when they’re issued on vinyl, they’re pretty much always a “double” LP. And if it the album is long enough to be on two CDs, after a certain point time, they would be packaged in a slim-line dual-CD jewel case no bigger than any other single-CD jewel case. 

Mellon Collie was, to me, the last double album that really felt like a double album. In content (loosely conceptual, recurring musical motifs, a few instrumentals, little idea fragments)…and in packaging. Mellon Collie came in one of those old-fashioned double-width jewel cases that went out of fashion not long after. It had a big, fat booklet full of lyrics and artwork. It’s certainly far from the best double album ever released (that would be Exile On Main St.), but I doubt we’ll see its like again.

Here endeth the Spotify Chronicles…

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Filed under Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1990s, Music -- 2000s

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