Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cruising Used CD And Record Stores


The 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments project has forced me to re-evaluate all of the things that influenced my taste in music. One of these influences is the used CD store. Until now I never realized how much music I discovered in these hallowed shrines. The greatly reduced prices of most of the inventory in these stores are a major enticement to gamble on discs and artists I haven’t heard before.

In the 70s the first used record store I fell in love with was Plastic Fantastic in Bryn Mawr, PA. Used LPs could be purchased for only $2.98. At the time I believe new LPs were selling for around ten dollars. The store stocked everything from the mainstream to the obscure. That store is long gone but I'll always remember it because it was my introduction to the used market.

Moving on to today we find that, as usual, instead of trying to be innovative and adapt to the new ways of doing business, the big record companies are still trying to make the world operate their way. The companies naturally despise these stores and, just as they have done with their war on digital downloading, they are trying to make it illegal to sell used CDs. The mega-labels do not seem to understand that the sale of used CDs can stimulate their own bottom line.

For instance, in the last couple of years I discovered several bands because of second-hand CD stores. While everyone knows who the Dixie Chicks are, including me, I never paid any attention to them. Then one day, while perusing the best used CD store I ever shopped in, the enormous and excellent Princeton Record Exchange, I saw the Chicks mostly acoustic CD, Home. This special edition with a bonus DVD was only ten dollars. I decided it was time to learn what this band was all about so I took the plunge. Home turned out to be a great disc so it wasn't long before I purchased their other three albums featuring Natalie Maines. All are units the record companies wouldn't have sold if it wasn't for my shopping excursion that day in Princeton, NJ.

The same can be said of two other artists I discovered at another used store, Disc World, in Conshohocken, PA. This is a much smaller store but a lot of quality stuff is still easily available. Most of their CDs are priced at $7.99. They have several CD players that allow shoppers to preview discs before purchasing them which is how I decided to buy CDs by two veteran Celtic-rock bands, The Young Dubliners, and a band that has since become one of my favorites, The Saw Doctors. My discovery eventually led me to the entire Saw Doctors catalogue. The rest were all purchased brand new from various retail outlets. I also recently bought a new copy of the latest CD by the Young Dubliners.

My latest gem was found at a used store in Manhattan for $7.99. Two Shoes, by The Cat Empire has become one of my favorite new CDs of 2007. I now eagerly anticipate their next album that I will most likely buy either online or from a local store.

The amount of rarities, out of print discs, and overstocked items that take up an entire large wall at Princeton is stunning. Most CDs stacked on this wall are only $2.99. It was here I discovered a re-issue of an early 50s jazz album, Live At Oberlin by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Michelle Shocked's very rare Kind Hearted Woman, and the initial release by CPR, the first of three albums David Crosby recorded with his son in the late 90s. I also found two Shelby Lynne CDs, two by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and one by Diana Krall.

The Exchange also deals with a few collector's items. They stock a few of the long out of print CDs WXPN has released as part of their Live at the World Café series. The only one I do not own is volume one. I was very happy when I found it, but unfortunately it was outrageously priced at $99.99 so I had to take a pass.

I know that, just like many other traditional things associated with the consumption of recorded music, the used CD store may soon become a thing of the past. After all, how can anybody buy or sell used mp3 downloads? In the meantime shopping at these stores will continue to be great fun and the purchases I have made at many of them have certainly provided me with many memorable musical moments.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Music's Greatest Generation, 1964 -1980


Almost one year ago I posted an essay on Bloggerhythms that appears to have attracted more interest than most of the other articles I've written. The subject fits right in with the theme of WXPN's 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments so I thought I would re-post it as this week's guest blogger entry. WXPN has listeners of all ages so it will be interesting to read what all of you music lovers from the classic rock era have to say as well as those of you with more modern tastes and influences. I am hoping readers will understand that the article is not meant to imply that the music of the classic rock era is superior to other eras. Instead the article is more about why the art of music itself was more important to that generation and why it was a larger part of our overall culture than at any other time.

You can see the original post here along with some comments from readers. The full article is below.

(Originally posted September 8, 2006)

Reflecting back on the history of popular music I have come to the conclusion that not only was much of the best pop music of the world produced during the period from 1964 to about 1980 but that is also the era in which pop music was most revered. I contend that never before in history has music meant so much to a single generation. It is a phenomenon that may never happen again. Even allowing for the fact that this is the era I grew up in, and came of age in, (and therefore I may look upon it with both prejudice and some fondness) I still believe my thoughts are accurate. This premise is strictly based on my observations. I have no hard data.

During that decade and a half poets and literary types embraced popular music. Folk music became mainstream. Could Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul & Mary get played on rock radio today? Radio embraced them all in the 60s. Jazz made the pop charts. Could Miles Davis be played on rock music stations today? He was then. Progressive rock was heavily influenced by classical music. There were many social commentary and political songs. The British invasion was the first and only time music from another country would dominate the American airwaves and sales charts. I could go on and on. This eclecticism contributed to music’s popularity during this era. Motown, Stax-Volt, Southern California country-rock and folk-rock, British prog-rock, good ol’ boy southern rock, and more, were all played on popular music radio together and they could all be enjoyed by the same listener.

It all began when The Beatles stormed the world beginning with their Ed Sullivan appearance in February of 1964 and this love of music continued until most of the artists who came of age in the 60s began to peter out. The end of the 70s and the dawn of the 80s saw the break up of Led Zeppelin, The Band, and The Who. Jon Anderson left Yes. Elvis left the building for good. John Lennon was assasinated. Lowell George died. There are lots of other examples, too many to mention. Punk and disco were taking over.

Why will a love of music that went beyond the norm be unlikely to happen again in future generations? There are a multitude of reasons. Here are a few.

1 - Computers And Video Games. Do you remember going to a friends dorm room or house and sitting around listening to and discussing music? Today the kids born of my generation will go over to their friend's house and play video games instead. They may listen to music but they have other interests.

During the era I'm speaking about music often was the reason friends got together. The music was the event. Listening was often so intense that friends would gather around the stereo just as families gathered around the TV. While today's kids may be listening they are probably more focused on other activities such as computer games. During the era I am talking about there were no PCs, VCRs, or DVDs. No one had heard the name Atari.

I had friends who would invite me over just to hear a new album they purchased. That is how I was introduced to Terry Kath's extended solo on Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4." Before that day the single version of the song was all I knew. I'll never forget it. Today that kid extending me the invitation would probably be asking me to come preview his new X-Box video game.

2 – Radio. Radio is too fragmented today. There was a time a top 40 station could play The Rolling Stones, followed by Frank Sinatra, followed by The Supremes, Neil Diamond, The Allman Brothers Band, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash, The Four Seasons, and James Brown all in a row. We were exposed to a lot of different genres of music. That won’t happen today. Demographics now dictate that ratings aren't enough. Radio stations aim for a target audience. Therefore a station that plays Norah Jones most likely isn’t playing Radiohead too. If a station plays Michael Bolton they won't be playing Eminem.

3 – The Beatles. There is no icon like the Beatles today. Love them or hate them no single artist has ever taken over our culture like the four young men from Liverpool, England did. They not only influenced our music but all youth culture in general. The main reason men and boys of the mid-60s to about 1980 wore their hair longer is because of the Beatles. They also caused a lot of kids to take up music as a hobby.

4 – The Political Atmosphere. The Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, and Watergate combined to force a lot of people with something to say to find an acceptable outlet for expressing how they felt. A lot of this spilled over into the music of the day. It isn't a coincidence that this musical era started to decline after America settled down beginning with the age of Ronald Reagan.

5 - MTV. It's birth twenty-five years ago may have had more influence on the decline of this era than many realize. The popularity of music videos frequently made it impossible for the viewer/listener to separate the video images from the music. MTV helped spawn the Ashley and Jessica Simpson types who are everywhere today. Image and appearance seem to be more important than the music. Way too many musical acts of today are pre-packaged with both visuals and image in mind.

I am not stuck in my era. I'm not a music fan who dislikes everything that was recorded after I graduated from college. There is still an abundance of outstanding new music everywhere, there always will be, but to have a culture in which music permeates so much of our American society as it did in 1964, and have it last almost a generation, is not likely to happen again anytime soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

"His Master's Voice" And The First 33 1/3 RPM Record I Ever Owned


Today, Sunday, August 12, 2007 is the 130th anniversary of the phonograph. To celebrate this worthy occasion on Vinyl Record Day a group of bloggers have agreed to share some of their vinyl memories. This endeavor was organized by one of the very best music blogs on the web, The Hits Just Keep On Comin', where you will find a complete list of all the participating bloggers. This homage to vinyl just happens to coincide with WXPN's 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments listeners poll so this article will be my contribution to both projects.

First, I want to salute something that really isn't a moment at all even though it is truly memorable: "His Master's Voice," the trademark of RCA Victor Records for almost a century. It was simply the best record company logo ever designed and it appeared on all of RCA's record labels.

Nipper was a real dog who lived in Liverpool, England in the 1880's. He used to do exactly what his master's painting depicted here because the dog was fascinated with the human voice emanating from the large cone-shaped speaker. The painting eventually caught the eye of an RCA executive and the rest is history.

By the end of the 80s RCA Records went into decline. They were eventually absorbed by Sony BMG and Nipper was retired. RCA's consumer electronics division continued to use "His Master's Voice" as a trademark but today most people who grew up in the digital age are probably unfamiliar with this relic of the vinyl era.

I'm sure I didn't know who Nipper was when my Mother gave me A Child's Introduction to the Orchestra, (Golden Records GLP-1) as a gift, probably in 1958, the year it was released. It was my first 33 1/3 RPM record and for a few years it was the only album I owned. I played it regularly along with all of my children's 45s and I loved it.

Each instrument was introduced by a male or female singer whose voice was a suitable representation of the instrument. The lyrics for each song directly pertained to how it was played and it's place in the orchestra. Each piece usually ended with a solo by the featured instrument. The album opened with "Antoinette the Clarinet" followed by "Newt the Flute." Some of the other titles included "Max the Sax," "Lucy Lynn the Violin," "Nola the Viola," and "Mike Malone the Slide Trombone."

This very educational record lived up to its title. For instance, we learned that the clarinet has more notes than any other instrument in the orchestra. Side 2 ended with a very short symphony. A narrator taught the listener how each of the four movements were related to each other.

The music was composed by Alec Wilder. The orchestra was conducted by Mitch Miller.

Learning all about a symphony orchestra didn't stop me from listening to the electric guitar crunch of bands like Led Zeppelin when I got older but the album went a long way in sparking my interest in lots of different genres of music. It was also the reason I played the clarinet for a few years after I became old enough to take lessons.

At such a young age I was too young to properly care for an album so as time went by the disc clearly showed its age. My last memory of it isn't pretty and the record has been gone for many, many years. I don't know what happened to it. However, after a diligent search on the Internet I found the cover to the album on a website called Children's Vinyl Records Series that features old children's records, and the complete album is there for download on mp3.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mark Knopfler's First Soundtrack Album: Local Hero (1983)


I was a Dire Straits fan from the very beginning. Their first single "Sultans of Swing," from their debut album released in 1978, knocked me off of my feet. The band's third and fourth albums, Making Movies (1980) and Love Over Gold (1982), were among the best rock records I heard in the 80s. Both were big hits in the U. K. and America. I have to admit I was a little smug when the rest of the world suddenly discovered the band a few years later with "Money for Nothing" from their 1985 album Brothers In Arms. I said to myself, "This album is good but you haven't any idea what you missed."

The band's leader, Mark Knopfler, consistently mixed classy guitar playing and singer-songwriter intelligence within the framework of a rock 'n roll band. The combination placed Dire Straits way above many long forgotten 80s synth rock bands, hair bands, and punk rockers. To this day Knopfler remains my favorite guitarist.

As much as I liked Dire Straits I was totally blown away with Knopfler's first venture away from the band. He was commissioned to compose, arrange, produce, and perform the score for the quirky John Forstyh movie, Local Hero. The accompanying soundtrack album is both my favorite movie soundtrack and my favorite instrumental album of all time.

The movie is an eccentric comedy about an American oil company who wants to buy an entire Scottish fishing village so they can build a refinery. Most of the movie was shot in a rural Northern Scotland coastal village and the music fits the film's personality perfectly.

The soundtrack has a little bit of jazz, a little country, a little folk music, and some tracks, especially those with the crashing of ocean waves, have a new age feel to them. Superb guest musicians such as Tony Levin on bass, Mike Brecker on sax, Mike Mainieri on vibes, as well as most of the members of Dire Straits, make great contributions. Drummers include Terry Williams of Rockpile fame and the stellar Steve Jordan. Gerry Rafferty, famous for "Baker Street" and Stuck In The Middle With You," contributed the vocals on the only non-instrumental track, "The Way It Always Starts."

The highlight of this marvelous soundtrack is the gorgeous melody that is the central theme of the album. The tune appears on four separate tracks with a different arrangement on each. The first one, "Wild Theme" is almost a solo acoustic piece starring Knopfler's gentle guitar. The second rendition, "The Ceilidh & The Northern Lights," is played by The Acetones, a Scottish folk band. Then Straits member Alan Clark simulates the beautiful Celtic tin whistle on his keyboard with Knopfler strumming behind him on "Whistle Theme." Finally, there is the most famous version, "Going Home (Theme of the Local Hero)," the one Dire Straits often used to close their concerts. This rock band arrangement, led by Brecker's saxophone, is played over the closing credits of the film. In any context it is the most memorable melody Knopfler ever wrote.

For those of you who haven't heard the main theme before here are two samples for your listening enjoyment. The first one is a live 2005 performance from a Knopfler concert and the second is a Dire Straits performance of "Going Home" live in Sydney in 1986.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Meeting and Interviewing Black 47's Larry Kirwan


Most people do not get to meet the musicians they love the most. However, on the night of March 1, 2001 I got lucky. I met, shook hands, and interviewed Larry Kirwan, the leader and co-founder of the Irish-American band Black 47. This all came about in a rather odd way. After discovering the New York City band at a listening booth at a local Borders store I fell completely in love with their 2000 release Trouble in the Land. Prior to that January day I only knew the band by their name. I knew nothing else about them.

Later that year I was writing CD reviews for a local news website that my brother-in-law, Steve, launched with some friends. At year's end he asked me to submit reviews for my top five CDs of the year. Trouble in the Land was number one.

Steve decided to try and get some publicity for his website so he emailed my review to Kirwan. While the review was highly complimentary of the disc, the band, and Kirwan's songs, there was one "small" criticism. In a very ungraceful way I wrote that Kirwan's lead vocals could be problematic. He shot an email back to Steve with the following response: "Thanks, although I'm less enthused regarding his review about my voice. Tell the ********* to meet me on 42nd Street and choose his weapons." Trying to not act too offended he immediately sent a second email saying he was only kidding.

When I received the email chain from Steve I still had enough gall to send Kirwan an email asking him for an interview when the band came to Finnegan's Wake in Philadelphia on March 1, 2001. To my surprise, he agreed but he also wrote, "Nice to hear from you, even if you are the ******* who says I can't sing." Kirwan was very gracious all during the interview and he even offered to buy me a drink. You can read the full interview here.

The months went by. Steve's online news site never survived its infancy and he removed it from the web. I still had the interview and about a dozen orphaned CD reviews so I started a small website to give them all a home. That website eventually was replaced by this blog.

In 2003 Kirwan, who is also a playwright, adapted one of his works, Liverpool Fantasy, into a novel. It's an interesting tale about what may have happened to The Beatles if they hadn't become famous. Once again I wrote to Kirwan and asked if he would be willing to do an email interview about the book. Again he agreed. I sent him ten questions and within forty-eight hours the author replied with great answers to all of them. Here is my article and review of the book.

Granted Larry Kirwan is not a superstar, and he is barely known outside the Irish music scene, but Black 47 is a big enough act that he still could have pulled the prima donna routine and not fulfilled my requests. So kudos to you Mr. Kirwan and I thank you for your great music. To you and my late brother-in-law, Steve, I thank you both for this fun hobby known as Bloggerhythms. It would never have seen the light of day without the entire series of events chronicled here.