Back in Black has meant different things to me over the course of forty(mumble-mumble) years.
In my childhood, the album represented scandal. My dad hated the color black, which meant this album got his withering disapproval. The mock calligraphy of the band’s logo surely meant something altogether unseemly, and didn’t AC/DC stand for “After Christ/Devil Comes?” That was just too much for my devoutly Catholic parents.
But my brother took it all in. Asia, Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, Toto, AC/DC — it seemed pretty rebellious to me. I stuck with ABBA and Manhattan Transfer.
In my teen-aged years, the album represented stagnation. I had become an insufferable post-punk, and I sneered at classic rock. The future was R.E.M., the Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven. If you listened to AC/DC, you were stuck in the past and had no clue.
In my early adulthood, the album was persona-non-grata. There was all this Japanese indie rock to explore. And all the music festival buzz bands. And a few local bands who put on great shows. AC/DC? I’m not their target market. They’ve got enough fans to earn them coin. They don’t need my cash.
Today, Back in Black, for me, is that-one-album-you-get-from-a-band-of-which-you’re-not-a-fan. You know the one: Oh, Inverted World, Storm Front, Born in the USA, White Blood Cells. It’s the album that transcends any misgivings you may have about a band.
AC/DC hew close to the blues-based tradition forged by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, a tradition rejected by the punk-rooted bands of my formative years. But Back in Black struck that fine balance between rock ‘n’ roll grit and pop radio polish that allowed the album to belong to more than just than fans.
Even if you didn’t like blues-based rock, it was hard to get the riff that started side two out of your head.
Back in Black didn’t convince me to become an AC/DC devotee, but it also helped me not to dismiss them out of hand. I may never become their target market, but at the very least, I’m a fan of something they made.
My introduction to Robert Palmer was through Duran Duran.
I had heard “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and “Bad Case of Lovin’ You”, but I never knew who sang those songs till Palmer became the front man for the Power Station. At the age of 13, I started to discover it was guys like Palmer, Sting and Roger Taylor (Duran Duran, not Queen) who were stirring something in me. It wasn’t Madonna or the barely-clad Mary Jane Girls.
The Power Station music videos put him in near profile, and he cut a striking one. I found him handsome. Not hot in the teenaged girl parlance, but attractive all the same.
Of course, that meant I wanted to see him without a shirt.
Some of his previous albums came close. There was Double Fun:
OK. Bare shoulders. Where are the nipples? Perhaps on Secrets?
Thwarted! Cropped right before. What about Pride?
Illustration does not substitute for a photo. Also, the armor is in the way.
Perhaps the most frustrating cover is Riptide. There’s enough bare shoulder in the picture to hint that he may be missing a shirt. The sheet music song book for the album included the edge of said bare shoulder.
Even today, the tease of this cover confounds me. Why, Mr. Palmer, must you hint but not reveal?
Well, it’s because Robert Palmer was a dapper gentleman. He parlayed the success of the Power Station into Riptide, donning on suits in his music videos and garnering accolades as the best dressed man in rock music. If your image hinges on dressing well, there’s little point in undressing in public.
What makes me so eager to see a full-body shot of the Riptide cover stems from where Palmer was at that point in his life. In 1986, he would have been 37, too old to be considered a pop idol but young enough for his prime. The crow’s feet around his eyes lend just enough dignity to make his smile seductive. How is this cover not hot?
Every time I encounter Riptide when I flip through the vinyl bins, I keep thinking, “Dude. You are such a tease.”
I had completely forgotten I owned this album till I spotted a 12-inch single of “The Dream Team Is in the House” while flipping through the new vinyl arrivals at Everyday Music.
L.A. Dream Team’s Kings of the West Coast signified a time in my life where I tried to get into what was cool instead of what I liked. That’s not to say I didn’t like the album at the time, but I wouldn’t have sought it out if I weren’t guided.
It was 1986, and I was graduating from 8th grade. My classmates made sure I knew how low I stood in the social order, and I was getting sick of being out of sync. So I asked my older sister, who was a lot more skilled in navigating the social minefield of school, what to do. She told me what I should be wearing, how I should be wearing it, what I should listen to and what I should avoid.
So I did what she advised, and during my freshman year in high school, I put in enough effort to appear less clueless than I was. Along with the L.A. Dream Team, my burgeoning music collection made room for Janet Jackson’s Control, Club Nouveau’s Life, Love and Pain and the first two albums by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. It worked for a time, but eventually, I got tired of radio hits and my individuality eventually won out.
In junior year, I stopped listening to radio altogether, seeking out classical music and Broadway musicals instead. By senior year, I was deep into college radio. I was forging my own sense of cool, which pretty much meant disregarding the social order of school entirely. You can’t be an outcast if you’re not even trying to be accepted.
My cassette copy of Kings of the West Coast eventually got sold for cash. The sophomore slump hit L.A. Dream Team, and by the end of the decade, they would be eclipsed by Public Enemy and N.W.A.
But the party swagger of Kings of the West Coast felt optimistic and innocent compared to what came after. No calls to fuck the police, no mentions of bitches and hos, no aggrandizing of wealth. Just a lot of great beats and a joke quote thrown in for comic relief. “Pop goes the Dream Team!”
I spotted a vinyl copy of the album at Everyday Music, and my reaction surprised me — it was fondness. My intentions for owning this album were purely calculated, but I ended up enjoying it anyway.
Automatic for the People marked the decline of my interest in R.E.M.
I’d been peripherally aware of the band since at least 1985, but it wasn’t until the local classic rock station put “Stand” on rotation that I was formally introduced.
I had recently become acquainted with 10,000 Maniacs at around the same time, and the music press made quite a deal of the relationship between Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe.
Green wasn’t the best introduction to the band, but Side A of the album set me on a course to play catch-up with R.E.M.’s indie work. By the time Out of Time arrived three years later, I was already well acquainted with Murmur, Document and Lifes Rich Pageant.
Out of Time was the soundtrack to my morning bus commute to the University of Hawaii, monopolizing my Walkman for months on end. At the time, I considered the album perfection. Everything seemed to be in balance — bright tracks (“Shiny Happy People”) offsetting darker tracks (“Country Feedback”), Mike Mills’ voice contrasting with Michael Stipe’s, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s adding a feminine touch the band was sorely lacking.
I was hopeful R.E.M. would always record albums this great.
Automatic for the People followed immediately afterward, and Rolling Stone magazine gave it a five-star review. The press leading up to the album’s release was breathless, and I bought into the hype.
I headed to the record store on release day and snagged my copy. I gave it every chance to burrow deep into my consciousness the way its predecessor did. It didn’t.
Months later, Bill Frisell and Duran Duran each released albums that fulfilled the jones I had hoped Automatic for the People would fill. I eventually concluded I was duped. It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t five-star material.
Automatic for the People would not survive a purge for cash, and it went on my list overrated albums alongside Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinéad O’Connor.
The first pressing of the CD was housed in a jewel case with a translucent yellow tray. Back in November 2014, I ran across a used copy of Automatic for the People in excellent condition with the yellow tray. And it was selling for $1.
So I picked it up and gave it another spin. Would age and wisdom alter my opinion of the album?
It’s not as awful as I thought it was, and taking a 20-year break from the ubiquity of “Everybody Hurts” certainly helps soften my previously sharp opinion.
It still hasn’t been dislodged from the overrated list, but it was a good first lesson in skepticism. Being a fan of a band doesn’t mean blind worship for everything they do.
The last time my brother and I engaged in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race, we each were trying to stake claim on two albums: Basia’s Time and Tide and Enya’s Watermark. At the time, a radio format specializing in light jazz and new age put singles from both albums in regular rotation.
So he and I made a bargain — I would relinquish a claim on Basia if he relinquished his claim on Enya. Months later, we both came to the conclusion that I got the better end of the bargain.
I think that trade-off started the thaw in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. As our tastes started to splinter — he getting into Hawaiian music, I going further into avant-garde classical music — staking territory became pointless.
It became rarer when our tastes intersected than when they didn’t.
I kept a foothold in (what would become) alternative rock, which inhabited an orbit far outside my brother’s more mainstream tastes. So it surprised me when he took up Sinéad O’Connor and U2. And he didn’t mind when I took up Sting and Madonna.
We live in separate parts of the country now, but we both share a love for Japanese popular music. We’ve gone so far as to introduce bands to each other.
So now I’m at a point in life where the stigma of “eww, my sibling likes that!” has lost its potency, and I can explore what was once arbitrarily off limits.
Time and Tide wouldn’t have happened without Sade to prove the commercial viability of jazz-pop. Anita Baker, Swing Out Sister and Johnny Hates Jazz rushed through the gates opened by Miss Adu and her eponymous band.
It’s a rather well-crafted album, steeped in the analog MIDI automation of the time. I can, however, understand my brother’s disappointment in the album. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, compared to Enya and her hundred-times-overdubbed chorus, which was incredibly new for 1988.
But Time and Tide is an enjoyable, durable album. I do have to confess I first thought Basia was Agnetha Faltskog from ABBA, refurbishing her sound.
Barely two weeks into 2015, and the release schedule for the rest of the first quarter looks incredibly busy. Some of them are Musicwhore.org favorites, and others ought to be.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love, Jan. 20
NPR First Listen has featured No Cities to Love in this week before the album’s release, and damn if it doesn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney never went away.
The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World, Jan. 20
It’s probably too much to ask for this album to be the best R.E.M. has recorded since splitting up.
Exposé, Exposure (Deluxe Edition), Jan. 20
For an ’80s radio pop album, Exposure is pretty enduring. A deluxe edition, though, means endless remixes of the album’s four hit singles.
Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones, Feb. 17
Cindy Wilson’s absence was sorely felt on the B-52’s Good Stuff, the follow-up to the massive hit Cosmic Thing. So it’ll be interesting to hear how Kate Pierson sounds without the rest of the band around her.
Gang of Four, What Happens Next, Feb. 24
That’s the question with only Andy Gill as the only remaining original member of the band.
Shiina Ringo, “Shijou no Jinsei”, Feb. 25
Post-Tokyo Jihen Shiina Ringo has been sparse with new music, but with a new single arriving barely three months after an album, does this mean the drought has ended?
Madonna, Rebel Heart, March 10
I’m so past hoping this album is anywhere within league of Like a Prayer, Ray of Light or, heck, even Bedtime Stories. MDNA was just plain forgettable.
Inventions, Maze of Woods, March 17
Now, that’s a quick turn-around.
Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi, March 31
Chris Walla is no longer with the band and consequently no longer at the producer’s desk. Codes and Keys is the closest Death Cab has reached to the sublimity of The Photo Album or Transatlanticism since signing to a major label. So this album is pretty much make-or-break.
Björk, Vulnicura, March 2015
The most interesting aspect of this announcement, for me, is the silence from Nonesuch Records regarding its release.
Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand, Jan. 27
On my list of Albums I Want Reissued on Vinyl, Bee Thousand resides in the upper echelon. Previous entries on said list included The Woods by Sleater-Kinney, The Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie, the self-titled Metallica album and Floating Into the Night by Julee Cruise. All these titles appeared in 2014.
Sigur Rós, Ágætus Byrjun, Feb. 17
I’m also holding out hope for a Takk … reissue.
LOVE PSYCHEDELICO, ABBOT KINNEY, Feb. 18
All of LOVE PSYCHEDELICO’s albums are getting a vinyl reissue to coincide with a pair of retrospectives coming out the same day. ABBOT KINNEY, however, is the duo’s best.
I probably wouldn’t have remembered this album had I not spotted in a $1 bin at Sonic Boom Records. Given the shoddy condition of the record, even $1 was a bit steep. But I bought it anyway because, like any 8-year-old in 1980, I was enamored of Pac-Man, and “Pac-Man Fever” rode that zeitgeist to the upper reaches of the music charts.
I pleaded with my parents to let me get this album, but they considered video games no better than gambling machines. And they weren’t about to encourage anything that wasn’t practical or useful.
Pac-Man, however, planted a seed that pretty much resulted in the living I make today — computer programmer.
It wasn’t just about the thrill of gobbling up the pellets, powering up to eat the monsters and reaching even higher levels of skill. It was the artwork on the cabinet. It was the mechanics behind the game.
One of my siblings subscribed to a science magazine that featured Space Invaders on the cover, and it gave an overview on how video games work. There’s this grid, you see, and there’s some logic the computer calculates so when one object encounters another in that grid, the player earns a point and an invader gets vaporized. Or your ship goes kaboom!
I wanted to learn how to make that grid and those objects and those explosions.
But my parents could tell that if they bought me a computer to pursue that ambition to create my own video games, I would spend all my waking hours in front of that contraption. So they refused.
The video game boom eventually busted, and one day I wandered into the electronics section of the department store and was mesmerized by a miniature movie with music in the background. It was the same kind of movie I saw a few years back that fueled my craze for ABBA, only this time it was a band called Duran Duran. And the song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
Pac-Man Fever, like Uncle Vic’s “Space Invaders” before it, receded into memory. I don’t know if my parents were relieved that I wouldn’t take up gambling — remember, that’s what video games were in their mind — but instead, they bought a piano when I developed an interest in perhaps taking lessons.
They hoped I would learn songs from the Great American Songbook, the music of their youth. I wanted to be Nick Rhodes or Martin Fry.
So by thwarting my early interest in computers, my parents redirected that zeal to music, which would make them even more nervous a decade later when I declared music to be my major in college.
The Internet eventually steered me back into the world of programming, but it was Pac-Man that primed the pump. I somehow taught myself BASIC even without a computer, and I got solid B’s in the rudimentary programming classes in high school and college. The interest was there if the opportunities weren’t.
My parents’ prediction did come true. Once the Internet had its hooks in me, I’ve been parked in front of a computer ever since.
As for Pac-Man Fever, the album, I was quite surprised. Novelty albums usually aim for the quick laugh, but Buckner and Garcia have enough love for their subject matter to craft a set of tuneful songs. Synthesizers were still very much analog at that point, and new wave hadn’t yet made the jump from across the ocean. So instead you get some futuristic rock that serves as a pivot from Styx and Toto to Kraftwerk and the Human League.
Armistead Maupin, through his fictional character Michael Tolliver, proposed the idea that each generation has a male performer straight guys would go queer for. “It was Mick Jagger for a long time,” Michael explains in Significant Others, “and now it’s Bruce Springsteen.”
The cover for Born in the U.S.A. does nothing to dissuade this idea. Springsteen’s jeans certainly do his posterior justice, and the red cap could be mistaken for a handkerchief, which conveys some sort of code that modern day hook-up apps make obsolete. And the form-fitting white t-shirt? It’s the uniform of countless gay guys.
At the time Born in the U.S.A. was released, I wasn’t yet sexually aware enough to attach the word “homoerotic” to the cover’s unconscious vibe. Besides, “homoerotic” and “Bruce Springsteen” aren’t words strung together in sentences in, well, ever.
And yet, I was drawn to the cover despite the fact I really couldn’t stand all the radio hits Born in the U.S.A. spawned. Springsteen was the polar opposite of the new wave music that caught my fancy at the time. The effete sophistication of ABC, Duran Duran and Eurythmics rubbed against Springsteen’s middle American bombast.
Also, the title track of the album had that disturbing line about being “sent to Vietnam to go and kill yellow man.”
But Springsteen himself? His contract had a rider that a gym went with him on tour. Countless pictures showed off his guns, and the “Dancing in the Dark” video made it a point to display his crotch.
It’s pretty amazing that an Internet search yields no beefcake photos of him from the 1980s. Recent pictures of Springsteen pretty much demonstrate the man takes care of himself.
I couldn’t admit it at the time, but Springsteen joined Huey Lewis, Sting, Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor on the list of male figures stirring my pre-teen sexual awareness. But I couldn’t bring myself to overlook his music to acknowledge his placement on that list.
About three hours before writing this entry, Born in the U.S.A. became part of my vinyl collection. It’s taken 30 years.
In 1995, Emmylou Harris entered my life, and with it, country music and its punk-inspired off-shoot, alt-country. If Springsteen had more twang and less literary chops, he’d be chumming it up with Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton.
In short, I’ve grown accustomed to songs Springsteen himself has inspired that listening to the original is no effort. “Glory Days” is playing on the record player as I type this sentence, and I distinctly remember thinking it exemplified what I dislike about Springsteen. Today, I realize I’ve written songs in the same style.
Of course what clinched the purchase for me was actually listening to the album on the streaming services. None of the annoyance from 30 years ago surfaced. In fact, I understood the album. Born in the U.S.A. was an album for grown-ups in the 1980s, not for teenagers. I hated it because it wasn’t meant for me.
And now, I can totally own that yes, I think Bruce Springsteen is hot. I can call out the cover of Born in the U.S.A. as being totally homoerotic. Most importantly, I can admit it’s a really good album.
Something I didn’t anticipate when I moved from Austin to Seattle in 2012 was a classical music scene with an audience receptive to modern works.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra includes a number of commissions throughout its season, and a chamber series focusing on modern works turns the lobby of Benaroya Hall into an informal setting. I got to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains as part of a chamber music festival, and Town Hall has brought in the likes of Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
So the year-end Favorite Edition for 2014 reflects my rekindled interest in new music. It’s easier to indulge when even the record shops make it a point to separate modern music from the common era.
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the vinyl stacks at the Bellevue location of Silver Platters. This album by Stephen Albert caught my eye immediately.
I knew right away it was Nonesuch release. The typeface, the stark black and white photography, the clean design — the only other label with such a clear cover aesthetic is ECM. In fact, label president Robert Hurwitz worked at ECM before taking over Nonesuch.
I checked the back cover, and sure enough, there was a Nonesuch logo. Flower of the Mountain was released in 1987, the same year as Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. But who was Stephen Albert? I hadn’t heard of him, and I know nothing of this album.
So I bought it without sampling it beforehand. Just one of those rash purchases.
Another remarkable aspect of this album is the title piece. “Flower of the Mountain” refers to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses by James Joyce. The Joyce estate can get pretty draconian protecting the author’s copyrights.
Albert, it seems, managed to secure permission to use this text, while the Joyce estate told Kate Bush no. So Bush ended up writing “The Sensual World”. Bush would later secure permission when she re-recorded the song and re-titled it … “Flower of the Mountain”.
Albert’s Flower of the Mountain is a fairly genteel piece, decidedly tonal but not exceptional. It’s the accompanying piece, Into Eclipse, that steals the spotlight.
Into Eclipse has more sharp edges with a much more striking orchestration. It’s also the piece that is more readily available of the two. Into Eclipse can be found on Julliard Orchestra recording (New World 80381) and on an Eastman Music Nova album (Albany 192). By contrast, Flower of the Mountain is available only on this out-of-print Nonesuch release.
So why hadn’t I encountered Albert till now?
It turns out Albert died in a car crash in 1992. His career was on the rise up till then. Two years before Nonesuch released Flower of the Mountain, Albert earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Riverrun Symphony.