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45 Albums for 45 Years: A Birthday Retrospective (1980s)

[The Art of Noise - In Visible Silence]

In 1987, I turned 15 years old, an age when music discovery exerted its strongest pull. The same Spotify analysis that charted music tastes over time claims most teen-agers highly identify with popular titles. Had the same study been done when I was a teen, I probably would have been an outlier point.

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels

The first Kronos Quartet album I purchased was Winter Was Hard, and it was something of a Reader’s Digest for modern classical music. Then Black Angels followed, and it exploded my perception of what music could be.

John Zorn, Naked City

I was a pissed-off teen for a lot of reasons, most of them mundane. But it gave me drive to find music that would alienate everyone around me, and the howls of Yamantaka Eye and John Zorn fit the bill nicely.

In Tua Nua, The Long Acre

This album introduced me to the idea that popularity is not the same thing as merit. I couldn’t find a filler track anywhere on this album, and the confrontational “The Innocent and the Honest Ones” mirrored my own dissatisfaction with being raised in a monotheistic culture. It should have been a hit, but mostly, you’ll find it in the 99 cent bins.

U2, The Joshua Tree

U2 had to score a number one album in order for radio stations in Hawaii to pay attention. I knew about the band beforehand but hadn’t taken the plunge till I saw the video for “With or Without You.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a lot of flack for his signature hit tunes, but for a young burgeoning composer, his scores are incredibly instructional. I’ve yet to encounter another pop writer who can make a hook out of an atonal melody.

The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence

Before I learned about Kronos Quartet, John Zorn or Andrew Lloyd Webber, I encountered the Art of Noise. I would later learn (Who’s Afraid Of …?) The Art of Noise! had some bonafide songcraft, but its follow-up, In Visible Silence, essentially jettisoned all that.

Arcadia, So Red the Rose

Of the two Duran Duran splinter projects from 1985, Arcadia hews closest to the parent band and engenders the most sentiment from long-time fans.

Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George arrived at time in my life when I was just starting to learn about modern classical music. I looked to Lloyd Webber to bridge my interests in classical and pop musics, and I turned to Sondheim to go further into modernism.

Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

I loved Eurythmics singles, but their albums tended to have quite a bit of filler. Sweet Dreams is the deserved obvious choice, but Savage and In the Garden deserve some props.

Duran Duran, Rio

This tops my Desert Island Disc list, so of course, it’s going to be here.

Wendy Carlos, TRON Original Soundtrack

I listened to this soundtrack to death because I loved the computer graphics of the movie. It wasn’t till much later that I discovered how rich Carlos’ harmonic language was. This soundtrack pretty much planted the seed that would be nourished by the Art of Nosie, Kronos Quartet, John Zorn and classical music after 1900.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber, a reconsideration

[Andrew Lloyd Webber - Variations]

Back in junior year of high school, I got bit by the musical theater bug hard.

My music collection was practically an altar to the two titans of Broadway in the late ’80s — Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Both composers were the gateway drugs to a world of modern classical music. Without either one, I wouldn’t have developed a cozy relationship with dissonance.

Lloyd Webber has fallen pretty hard since then. His last hit show was Sunset Boulevard in 1993, and his work has made nary a ripple in pop culture consciousness since. Hell, I didn’t even know he made a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

A few weeks back during my usual crate digging, I ran across a vinyl copy of Variations, his pop/classical album of variations on Nicolo Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Lloyd Webber wrote the piece after losing a bet to his brother. It was later turned into the “Dance” half of the show Song and Dance.

At the height of my Lloyd Webber craze, I wanted to hear this album badly. The original album was released in 1978, and in 1988, it wasn’t available in any of the record shops I frequented in Honolulu.

I did find a cassette of an orchestral version performed by Julian Lloyd Webber with Lorin Maazel conducting the London Philharmonic. I had to use a lot of my imagination to hear a rock arrangement in an 80-piece orchestra.

By the time the work was reissued on CD in the US, my priorities had shifted. I started my own music studies in college, and I treated Lloyd Webber as a phase I needed to get through to find Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass and John Zorn.

When I finished college, Lloyd Webber was completely out of my system, but my sister didn’t know that when she gifted me a compilation of his greatest hits. Till then, my entire experience with Lloyd Webber was through cast recordings. I listened to his shows in their entirety instead of cherry-picking the showstoppers.

That compilation revealed a weakness in Lloyd Webber’s canon. Well, any song excerpted from a show suffers from this problem but moreso with Lloyd Webber. Stripped from the dramatic context of the story, his songs can get pretty schlocky.

And it doesn’t help when interpreters milk the drama. Michael Crawford really drained that cash cow as much as he could.

So I forged ahead and pretty much forgot about Lloyd Webber. I made sure to get Jesus Christ SuperstarEvita and The Phantom of the Opera on CD, but I wrote off the rest of his canon.

Of course, that meant I couldn’t pass up Variations when I saw it in the record bin more than two decades later.

Lloyd Webber may have been a phase, but he was an important one. At the time I encountered him, I was impressionable enough to be swayed by his use of dissonance. He won’t be mistaken for Elliott Carter in a million years, but Lloyd Webber knew how to balance the showstoppers with the grit.

The overture to Cats isn’t anything you can hum, but to a 16-year-old dipping a toe into the larger world of avant-garde music, it’s not a bad introduction to how all twelve notes in a chromatic scale can be spun into a melody.

Variations was a lesson in how to construct a large-scale work from everything and anything. Some moments were pastiche, others pure sentimental manipulation. But Lloyd Webber threw in some ugly distortion at points, and none of it felt purposeless.

Yes, it was a concept album, but it was more than that.

In its own way, Variations opened up the possibility that music didn’t have to be exclusively high-brow or low-brow. It could synthesize both. It could be ancient and modern, melodic and discordant. It was what a teenager needed to hear to ease him into some thornier discussions about art and life later in adulthood.

 

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