I grew up in the late 60's and early 70's. Although some truly historic music was being made during these years, I wasn't really exposed to any of it. My parents didn't listen to a lot of music. The only specific stuff I remember them having was Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass. Today I would consider that to be some pretty good stuff, but at the time I just perceived it as what grown-ups listened to.
I was a bit young to have actually seen the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan, but I do remember the hype that always surrounded them. One time my babysitter showed up with a 45 of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." It was her favorite song. I believe at the time it was a new release. All I know is I made her play it so many times that when she left that night she never wanted to hear it again. Beyond that and some miscellaneous 45s my older brother collected for a time (including "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" by Edison Lighthouse), music to me was what I heard on the Partridge Family TV show.
The first time I got interested in a specific group was when I was a pre-teen. My friends liked to listen to "I Get Around" by the Beach Boys because it made them feel like tough guys. I eventually bought a copy of "Endless Summer" and listened to it a lot. I thought that "In My Room" was kind of gay (if you'll excuse the expression), but other than that I liked the music a lot. I would occasionally pick up other Beach Boys albums at the local Woolworth's store. Eventually I had quite the collection going. Some would probably now be fairly rare and collectible. Unfortunately I left all those old records at my next door neighbor's house and never got them back. I went through a long period where I was embarrassed to admit that I'd once been a Beach Boys fan, but I'm over that now.
When I was in Jr. High I got my hands on a transistor radio and started listening to the AM stations. Unfortunately this was also around the time the Disco era hit. I hated Disco from the start. I didn't much care for the mindless, repetitive music, but more than that I was sickened by the blind conformism that went along with the whole scene. I had been in the habit of listening to American Top 40, but for months and months it was dominated by the Beegees, so I eventually gave up. I refused to go see "Saturday Night Fever." In fact I've never seen it to this day. I did try watching it on TV not too long ago, just for nostalgia's sake, but when the whole dance contest story line hatched I could foresee the entire rest of the plot and just turned it off.
As I transitioned into High School, my friends and I started listening to an FM radio station out of Syracuse NY which had a "hard rock" format. They played some of the harder British Invasion stuff like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, but they mostly focused on groups like AC/DC, Rush, and Van Halen. It suited me okay at the time. Hell, it was better than Disco.
Everything changed for me, however, during the holidays of my senior year of High School. It was 1979, and my younger brother Jeff suggested that he and I chip in together to buy Pink Floyd's new album as a Christmas present for my older brother Matt. I recognized the name "Pink Floyd," but didn't really know anything about their music. Jeff knew that they had just released a double-album called "The Wall," and since Matt liked Pink Floyd it was an obvious choice for a present. Matt was pretty psyched to have received it from us. When he opened it I saw some interesting graphics on the inside that were quite a contrast to the understated cover. I didn't think much of it after that.
As Christmas day wore on, however, I felt the need to escape the vapid, polite conversation shared between extended family members during the holidays. With nothing better to do I grabbed this new "The Wall" album, donned a pair of head phones, and lay down behind the Christmas tree. The music grabbed me right away. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I wound up listening to it all the way through in one sitting. By the time it was done, my entire definition of Rock & Roll music had changed irrevocably. I was an immediate Pink Floyd fan, and they remain my all-time favorite band to this day.
When I went away to college my musical tastes continued to expand. I heard a lot more of the Classic Rock bands. Of course back then it wasn't "classic" rock. It was just rock. Some of it I liked and some of it I didn't. There was a collection of British bands that all had a similar sound, which happened to be one I didn't particularly care for. These included Yes, King Crimson, ELP, and Genesis (the Peter Gabriel era). But I also discovered a lot of stuff that I did like, such as Traffic and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I pledged my fraternity in the Fall of 1982. Pledging was about 50% boot camp and 50% idle time. My pledge brothers and I spent a lot of our idle time in the house's TV room. MTV was still quite novel then, and we wound up watching it a lot. It was my first exposure to 80's rock. My first impression was that it was all over the place. It was as if the contemporary music of the time couldn't decide what direction to go in, so it went in every direction at once. The music itself was less homogenous than Disco, but in my opinion no less vacuous.
Once I completed my pledge program and began to interact with the brothers in a more casually social capacity, my exposure to music stepped up considerably. There were quite a few guys in the house, and their musical tastes were very diverse. The guys I wound up hanging with most, though, was a group of rather warped individuals who wanted me to teach them how to play Dungeons and Dragons. We would spend hours gaming almost every day, and they would play their rather warped music. I found myself curiously intrigued. This is a glimpse into some of the music that was catching my attention at the time:
As the decade wore on I was barraged with the total gamut of cultural dilapidation that was 80's music. The groups that first come to mind are the 1-hit wonder bands that were so "out there" that they just defied categorization, exemplified by the likes of Men Without Hats, Dexys Midnight Runners, Haircut 100, Toni Basil, Men At Work, Thomas Dolby, and Wang Chung. But there was so much more to 80's music than these flash-in-the-pan bands.
The 80's saw the stylization and popularization of Punk Rock. That marked perhaps the most ignominious disposition of any musical movement in the entire history of music. The 80's "New Wave" sensibilities borrowed some of the visual absurdities from Punk, such as the colorful, spiky hair styles, but then mixed in superficial and incongruous elements like girl's makeup and sparkly disco fashions. Set that imagery to degenerate pop music and what you wind up with is a spooky mélange of deviancy. In essence, "New Wave" embodied everything that Punk Rock despised and protested against. Prime examples of these groups included A Flock of Seagulls, The Go-gos, The Bangals, Blondie, The B-52s, Billy Idol, Devo, and Bananarama.
Still, some 80's bands were able to cling to the Rock & Roll sensibilities of the 60's and 70's. These included Tom Petty, Tina Turner, Pat Benetar, Joan Jett, The J. Giels Band, and the more pop-oriented Bon Jovi and John "Cougar" Mellencamp. And of course we can't forget the pinnacle of ignobility, Eddie Money. Even in the image-conscious era of MTV, this ugly mug was somehow able to make it big. What's more unbelievable is that he's still out there touring, and he's still sporting that same Dutch-boy haircut. Maybe someone should tell him that when you're playing venues like the Jackson County Fair in Wellston, Ohio, it might be time to call it quits.
The 80's was also somewhat of a heyday for Heavy Metal groups. In their crusade to one-up 70's icons like David Lee Roth, the hair got bigger, the pants got tighter, and the vocals got shriller. The bumper crop included Guns & Roses, Motley Crüe, Twisted Sister, White Snake, Poison, and Def Leppard.
Sadly, the 80's also bore witness to the very public and tragic decay of some of the 70's greatest icons. Billy Joel's music became less and less significant until he faded into obscurity. Styx, once a respectable hard-rock group, turned its attention to facile and ill-considered concept albums like "Paradise Theater" and ultimately "Mr. Roboto," the latter of which now serves as a ready-made punch line for sit-coms and VW commercials. Finally there was Genesis. When Peter Gabriel left the group, everyone knew that it would mark their demise. We all expected Genesis to die a quiet and peaceful death. How could we know that it would streak through the sky in a fiery blaze like a meteor smashing into the Earth. Phil Collins was in the right place at the right time. He capitalized on the post-Disco need for catchy but empty-headed "jingle" rock. While that was all well and good (by 80's standards), the sight of the remaining Genesis members clinging to him like Titanic survivors to a drowning penguin was more than anyone should be able to bear. The sight of them on MTV dancing in matching outfits to Phil Collins' music perhaps marked the exact moment in which 70's Rock actually died.
Speaking of Phil Collins, the 80's truly excelled at sappy, vanilla pop music that was good for broad listening demographics and narrow longevity. With the demise of disco, there were armies of pop zombies who longed for music they didn't need to think about in order to appreciate. Hall & Oats quickly emerged as the leaders in this field. Their music was the Toyota Camry of artistic expression: everyone liked it but it was about as remarkable as pigeon shit in the park. Their collaborators in the purveyance of populace mediocrity included Huey Lewis, George Michael, Olivia Newton-John, Toto, Air Supply, and Kenny Loggins.
(Please note that Michael Jackson and Madonna have been intentionally omitted from this diatribe, as I am already dangerously close to suffering a massive aneurysm)
80's music was not entirely without merit, however. While some bands coerced the disco trend into new pop music lows, other groups embraced the dance-oriented nature of the genre and actually subjected it to some artistic integrity. While it wasn't really my cup of tea, the musical styles have persisted and evolved into today's club music embraced by contemporary rave culture. These groups included Simple English, The Eurythmics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Tears for Fears, INXS, The Cure, XTC, and Depeche Mode.
Also there were a couple of groups that were just plain good and have stood the test of time all these years. They would include The Talking Heads (a la David Byrne) and U2. They're still making music to this day and it remains popular.
After a couple years of dealing with all this music and culture, MTV became like multi-media wallpaper to me. It was always there but I never paid much attention to it. I chose to burry my head in older, more established music. A lot of the guys in my house listened to The Grateful Dead. I was quick to embrace the Deadhead culture, but a little slower to warm up to the music. But once I turned the corner I was in all the way. The more I listened to their songs the more I liked them. I didn't like 100% of their music the way I did with Pink Floyd, but there was so much there to like. The Dead had a remarkably extensive repertoire. To this day there are still some of their songs I've never heard. They are my second favorite group of all time.
Once I got out of college my musical tastes stagnated a bit. I continued to learn more about bands I enjoyed, like The Beatles, and continued to bolster my opposition to performers I didn't like, such as John Mellonhead. The problem was that I wasn't listening to anything new. I tried to get into Phish, and even caught a couple concerts, but it didn't stick. They were indeed highly accomplished musicians, song writers, and performers, but their style didn't entirely appeal to me. In the end I wound up wound up back with the good old music I had always been familiar with. I was caught in the quagmire of classic rock.
There were two exceptions to that. The local Ithaca radio station I listened to in the morning actually mixed in some new music with their classic rock. One day I heard a song that caught my attention. It was a satirical piece about CD boxed sets, and the suspect motivations of the artists who released them. It made me laugh. The group was called The Barenaked Ladies. I went out and got their disk. As I listened to it all the way through I realized they also did that "If I Had A Million Dollars" song all my friends were raving about. I saw them in concert a couple times, which was always a real hoot. One time at Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center they actually had a roadie grilling hot dogs on stage and tossing them to lucky audience members. I continued buying their new CDs as they came out, and generally thought they continued to improve with each release. I was constantly amazed at how they could juxtapose light humor with deep, sometimes profound meaning.
When "Stunt" was released I thought it was all brilliant, except for the first track "One Week." Ironically that was the one song that became their break-out hit single. I had been following this little-known group for eight years, and all of a sudden they had become incredibly popular. For a while I got swept up in the fever and thought I liked "Three Weeks," but it paled so in comparison to so many of their other songs that I quickly went back to not liking it. Alas, it seems that nothing can ruin a musical group faster than success. I bought their follow-up CD and was disappointed for the first time. The music was okay, but the work didn't grab me the way it used to. The humor seemed trite, and the profound quality of the words was gone. I've now fallen out of love with The Barenaked Ladies and generally don't want it known that I like their previous stuff.
At about the same time I discovered the Ladies, I discovered another group. One morning while listening to the radio I heard a spooky song called "Here Today Gone Tomorrow." I heard it a couple more times, and became more and more intrigued. I finally caught the name of the group. It was "DADA" (Michael Gurley, guitar; Joie Calio, bass; Phil Leavitt, drums). As an art history buff, I was intrigued by this name. I went out and found the CD. It was called "Puzzle." They clearly knew about Dada art, because the cover images were all contemporary examples of that artistic style, and relatively good ones at that. I debated over whether to buy it or not. I'd had some bad experiences buying a CD for just one song, but based largely on the historical art references on the cover I decided to go for it. I'm glad I did. I played the disk all the way through and loved all of it. I recognized one song that had been popular some time back that went "I'm Going To Disney Land" (although on the CD jacket they spelled it "Dizz Knee," probably to avoid trademark issues). The music was really, really good. It was just on the border of hard rock. The guitar and the beat had heavy metal components, but the vocals were crisp and employed very keen harmonies. The lyrics weren't terribly profound, but they were starkly poetic and meshed perfectly with the music. I was very excited about this group.
When their second CD "American Highway Flower" was released I ran out and got it. Alas, I found them to be the victims of sophomore jinx. The earlier magic just wasn't there. The music wasn't bad, but it was nothing like that of the first disk. When their third disk "Subliminosa" came out I went to the CD shop to check it out, but I didn't intend to buy it based on my disappointment with "American Highway Flower" I was also not terribly impressed with the title or the cover art. But curiosity wound up getting the better of me. I bought it and took it home. I was soon glad that I'd taken the risk, because they had really improved! The music was quite good indeed. Generally speaking it was better even than their debut disk. The rock was harder, yet the vocal harmonies were keener. When their fourth CD "California Gold" came out I rushed to get it. It took a bit of time for it to grow on me, but some of the songs were every bit as good as the best ones on "Subliminosa." Perhaps better. They continually amazed me with the way they could employ driving, pounding beats and mercuric guitar riffs, but not cross the line into head-banging heavy metal music. It was just wonderful.
After "California Gold" the band went on a bit of a hiaitus. Eventually, Michael Gurley and Phil Leavitt released a CD under the name Butterfly Jones. If I hadn't been on a DADA email list, I never would have known about it. And I had a dickens of a time finding a copy. But when I finally got it I really liked it. It had a different sound from DADA, but the quality of the music and the lyrics was right up there with DADA's best stuff. Some time later Joie Calio came out with a solo disk of his own. I wish I could say I liked it, but I didn't. One or two songs were borderline. The rest were not good. They didn't suck, but they were musically bland and lyrically awkward.
Not long after that, DADA finally reunited and came out with a new studio release. It was called "How To Be Found." I would put it on about the same level as "American Highway Flower." It wasn't bad, really, but it wasn't good. It was like all the components were there, but they weren't gelling like on the earlier disks. It was like they were facing sophomore jinx for the second time in their career, based probably on having been apart for a long time. If they were to follow this up with another studio release, I whould have every expectation that, like the follow up to "American Highway Flower," would have some magic again.
Despite these two detours into contemporary music, I wasn't having a lot of success with contemporary music. By now the 80's had given way to the 90's, and I thought I'd have a listen at the music that was currently being made. Ithaca College had a radio station that played only "modern rock." I'd tune in from time to time. But all I'd hear was grunge music, which was too harsh to appeal to me, 90's heavy metal, which was even worse, or rap, which I simply couldn't listen to. With no realistic alternatives I found myself still stuck in the rut of classic rock.
The more that time went on the more bored I became with it. I was just hearing the same stuff over and over and over again. The local classic rock station prided itself on every day being a no-repeat day, but every day they played exactly the same songs as they played the day before. I was even getting bored with my own CDs. I still loved Pink Floyd. but I knew every note of every song by heart.
By the time the 90's were drawing to a close I just couldn't take it any more. I gave the local college rock station another try. What I found intrigued me. The grunge sensibilities seemed to have gone away as abruptly as they had appeared. What was left was good basic rock and roll foundations without all the caustic guitar thrashing and laryngitic vocals. Rap-style lyrical structures could occasionally be detected, but it was in the form of singing that was integrated into the music, rather than Ebonic recitations peppered atop repeating electro-beats. Granted I was hearing a rather narrow cross-section of music that omitted the hard-core hip hop, candy-apple pop trash, and manic giga-BPM dance crap, but I found the preponderance of the music I *was* hearing to be quite listenable.
Innovation was no longer vested in breaking molds or out-wierding previous generations. New music was distinguishing itself by simply being good. That's all. Just good, basic music. It was as if all these years I'd been weathering a twenty-year typhoon secured within a Niagara Falls barrel, finally to open the hatch and see bright sunny skies and calm waters. I could look forward to discovering new bands, and even anticipate new releases from contemporary favorites. In many ways it was a musical renaissance for me.
There are a few particular stand-out bands. One is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I admit it, I didn't get into them until I heard "Scar Tissue." I decided to go out and buy the CD "Californication." I actually like the title track a lot better than the track I bought it for, but I like them both a lot. I find their music to be totally hit and miss. A lot of it is the over-the-top stuff that I didn't like about 90's music. That's not to say it isn't good music. It's just beyond my capacity to appreciate. Still, a lot of their music is right up my alley, and I find myself liking it a whole Hell of a lot. I've started exploring their back catalog, and am finding similar results. A lot of it I can do without, but the rest of it I totally love.
Another group is Marcy Playground. I bought their debut disk based on hearing the song "Sex and Candy" on the radio. It was a good investment. I liked pretty much the whole disk. From what I can tell the overwhelming creative force behind it is John Wozniak. He struck me as a contemporary Syd Barrett, or, more accurately, what Syd Barrett may have matured into if he hadn't freaked out. The music is involved with drugs, madness, and mysticism as if through the soul of a slightly lost individual. I purchased their follow-up CD, fully expecting it to suffer from sophomore jinx, but found it to be even better than their first. Their follow-up CD, MP3 (as in Marcy Playground release 3), was really quite good. Wozniak seems much more relaxed in his song writing as well as his performing. It's as if he doesn't feel he needs to try so hard. He just lets if flow out, and the result couldn't be better. I eagerly await many more releases.
Finally, another band that really caught me by the balls is OPM. The single that got me into them was "Heaven is a Half-pipe." It's one of those songs that is totally catchy when you first hear it, but you get real tired of it real fast. That's a moot point, though, because I just totally loved all the tracks on the album. The music really defies categorization, because each track is so much different from all the others. It contains elements of rap-rock, ska-punk, funk metal and alternative pop/rock. All I know is I really like listening to it. It totally makes me smile. With a name like "Menace to Sobriety" you know the CD is going to be unabashedly drug oriented (I'm assuming their name OPM was chosen because it's homonymous with "opium"). Lyrics include, "Heaven would be just sitting back with Jesus packing my bong." "Captain Morgan was a pirate dude who used to jack mother fuckers and act real rude; as a real live person he wasn't much fun, but he sure made a good-ass bottle of rum." "I've been jailed, and my phone's been bugged, but I'm still winning the war on drugs." I am very much anticipating their follow-up album.
I'm still in a major discovery phase. I'm hearing so much new music that I like, it can be difficult to match the songs with titles with groups. The bands that are particularly catching my attention are:
More on this unfolding story as it develops...