Queen – A Night At The Odeon

Christmas eve, 1975. A sold out show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. One of the first times Queen played Bohemian Rhapsody live. A performance broadcast live on the BBC but never released (except as a bootleg recording) until 2015.

Queen was a band that not only did some incredible stuff in the studio, they knew how to put on one helluva show at their concerts. A Night At The Odeon is Queen captured live and in top form only a few weeks after the release of their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. In that short time, the album had already sold over one million copies, becoming Queen’s first platinum album, and Bohemian Rhapsody had just become the band’s first number one single in the U.K. 

From Brian May’s dual echo guitar extravagance in Brighton Rock to Roger Taylor’s blister pounding drum solo in Keep Yourself Alive. From John Deacon’s distinctly solid bass lines throughout to Freddie Mercury’s unbelievable four octave vocal range, this is Queen holding nothing back to give the audience, in the theatre and across the radio airwaves, a Christmas eve they would never forget.

Yesterday would have been Freddie Mercury’s 71st birthday. Sadly, he lost a long battle with AIDS at the way too young age of 45. 

Happy Birthday Freddie.  

Peter Gabriel – Security

Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album after leaving Genesis was titled Security in the United States and Canada, but the rest of the world knew it simply is Peter Gabriel’s fourth album. Just like his three previous solo albums the album featured only his name on the cover. Even the spine did not designate any title for the record. Gabriel didn’t want the album to have a name, just like its predecessors. But at the insistence of Geffen Records, who Gabriel had just signed with, he was forced to choose one for its release in the US and Canada. In those countries only, a sticker was placed on the shrink-wrap outside the cover noting the album’s name.

The album was recorded in Gabriel’s home studio where he had amassed a huge collection of then cutting edge synthesizers, drum machines, and full digital recording equipment. For the starting point of all the songs, he recorded rhythms and beats from his travels throughout the world and rather than sampling them, reproduced them on the drum machines and electronic instruments so they could be more easily manipulated. He and the other musicians on the album then improved over those beats and rhythms, structuring the songs. It was a radical approach for its time, but one that’s not very distant from the way many electronic and Hip Hop artists compose their music today.

When listening closely, it’s interesting to hear a simplicity in most of the lead instruments, yet a complexity in the rhythms underlying them as well as in the way the individual pieces are put together to form the whole of the songs.

Shock The Monkey, a song about jealousy, became Peter Gabriel’s first top 40 hit in the United States. 

Styx – Pieces Of Eight

It’s funny how the music we listen to can become the soundtrack for our lives. Many songs or albums can bring back memories that you recall every time you listen to them. For me, “Pieces Of Eight” by Styx always brings back a memory of a time I literally thought I was going to die. I’m going to cheat a little bit today and reprint something I wrote a long time ago on my other blog, The World According To Mr. Flying Pig. I hope you enjoy it.

Having just released their enormously successful “Pieces of Eight” album right on the heels of the equally popular “The Grand Illusion,” Styx was at the height of their popularity when they were scheduled to play at the Michigan State Fair in 1978. There was no way my friends and I were going to miss the show. The concert was general admission, so we decided to get to the fairgrounds early in the morning to make sure we would be near the front of the line when the gates opened and be able to get spots right up front by the stage. 

As the day went on, the crowd size increased, and so did the heat. Since there were four of us, two from the group would occasionally break out from the crowd to get some fresh air, see the sights, and get something cold to drink. It was almost time for the gates to open when the last two wanderers returned to the crowd. When they arrived, I was totally parched, due in equal parts to the heat and all the bodies packed together in close proximity to each other. Not to worry, they had both came back with refreshments! A nice, tall paper cup filled with Coke, or iced tea, or lemonade, or whatever – just let me have some. I grabbed the cup from Rick, and before he could say anything, pulled a nice big drink through the straw. I had swallowed the first gulp and was working on the second when I realized that Rick had replaced the icy cold whatever in his cup with warm sloe gin.

As a warm rush hit me and my vision began to quickly fade into a white fog, I felt my knees buckling and I knew I was going to pass out. With the noise of the crowd around me fading into the distance I heard the gates to the concert area being opened. Thoughts of being trampled to death by the crowd began to swirl around in what was left of my consciousness. Just as my legs turned entirely into rubber, I felt someone grab me under both arms, stopping me from totally collapsing. Barely hanging on to consciousness, I could feel myself moving through the crowd, but had no idea where I was going or what was going on. A few seconds later, when the breeze from the open air hit me, the fog began to lift from my vision almost as quickly as it had set in and the strength returned to my legs. My good friend Doug had grabbed me as I was collapsing and pushed me through the gate, into the open air. He probably saved my life that day. 

Amazingly, after a few moments, I felt as if nothing had happened at all. We all stood in the open air for a short while, everyone asking if I was all right. I told them I felt fine now, but I would really like something cold to drink. Because of this, we ended up not getting right up by the front of the stage like we had planned, opting instead, for seats near the front of the grandstands – farther back than originally planned, but still good seats by any token. Styx put on a great show that night, playing nearly all their songs from “Pieces of Eight” and “The Grand Illusion” as well as a lot of their earlier songs.

I’ve been to many concerts since then – too many to count, really – and I still rank this concert as one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Because of the course of events preceding the show, it definitely was my most memorable. I don’t know if I ever thanked my friend for saving me from being trampled that day. So Doug, If you ever happen to read this, THANK YOU! and I’m sorry you didn’t get to be right up front by the stage.

W4 Homegrown

There once was a time when local rock radio stations were just that – local. Not part of a homogenous sounding subsidiary of a communication conglomorate. It was a time when local radio stations strongly promoted local bands – adding their music into the daily playlists along with the national acts, having special weekend radio programs that played local acts exclusively, and even coming out with compilation albums promoting those bands. In the 1970s, WWWW – or as it was more affectionately known to anyone who lived near Detroit, W4 – was one such rock radio station.

W4 Homegrown was a compilation album of bands from in and around Detroit that had appeared on the W4 Homegrown radio program which aired every Monday night on the station. This album is a reminder of the wide variety of rock music that existed in the Motor City in the 1970s. 

For a couple of the bands, the song they have on here is the only recording they would ever release. Others would release at least one album and become only local favorites before breaking up. Some, like Toby Redd, The Buzztones, Northwind, and Lady Grace, seemed to get just the slightest glimpse of the national spotlight but never really broke out of regional notoriety. The Rockets would go on to record six solid major label albums, including one live album and had three songs that broke Billboard’s top 200. They also had a national television appearance on the late night cocert program, “The Midnight Special.” But perhaps the best remembered band on this album is The Romantics. They went on to record 4 songs that broke into the Billboard charts, including “What I Like About You,” one of the most popular rock anthems of all time.

One morning, in 1980, to the shock of the station’s listeners, and even the disk jockeys that worked there, W4 changed its format from rock to country music, abruptly ending an era for a legendary Detroit radio station. One of the stations disk jockeys who was blindsided by the change was a very young upstart named Howard Stern. 

Queen – News Of The World

Picking the songs on an album that are going to resonate with record buyers and give you a hit single can be a tricky thing, especially when you’re a band with songs as diverse as Queen. Sometimes the song you choose is right on the mark. Sometimes you pick one that goes nowhere and miss the one that could have been. Still other times, you get really lucky and pick a winner, but the throw-away you put on the B side becomes just as big of a hit.

“We Will Rock You” has become a song that almost everyone knows, yet Queen almost didn’t put it on their sixth album, “News Of The World”. In the end they decided to put it as the album’s opening song because it was short and seemed like a good prelude to kick the album off with; but surely not a hit single. They also decided to use it as the B-side to “We Are The Champions,” the obvious hit single to release from the album.

When radio stations received copies of “We Are The Champions,” they of course, started playing it. As anticipated, it resonated with listeners and became a hit for the band. But soon, radio stations also started playing the flip side to the single, “We Will Rock You,” because it was getting just as many requests from listeners. Since the songs were back-to-back on the album, when radio stations received copies it, they started playing both songs together, almost as if they were one song. So Queen decided to release “We Will Rock You” as a single as well, with “We Are the Champions” as the other A-side. Both songs are still played together regularly on classic rock radio stations and remains two of Queen’s most popular songs.

One song I always thought Queen should have released as a single off “News of the World” was “It’s Late.” It is one of my all time favorite Queen songs and perfectly highlights both the Freddie Mercury’s incredible vocal abilities and the guitar extravagance of Brian May.

The Knack – Get The Knack

It may not surprise you that the members of the Knack we’re big Beatles fans. What may surprise you though, is just how big of fans they were. There are several nods to the fab four on The Knack’s debut album, “Get The Knack.”

The Knack released “Get The Knack” in the summer of 1979 after being offered deals by numerous record labels. They chose to sign with Capitol Records in part, because Capitol was the Beatles’ label in the United States. As part of the record deal, The Knack made it a requirement for Capitol to use an old rainbow ringed label on the album that the record company hadn’t used since 1968. The band wanted this on their records because it was the label that adorned the original Capitol releases of The Beatles’ early records. The album cover was designed to be a gentle nod to The Beatles’ first album cover and the picture on the back is a replica of a scene taken directly from The Beatles’ film “A Hard Day’s Night,” with the The Knack taking the place of the fab four.

Getting The Knack for A Hard Day’s Night

The album was recorded in just two weeks on a miniscule budget. It was an immediate success, going gold (500,000 copies sold) and topping the Billboard record charts in less than two weeks. It achieved platinum status (1,000,000 copies sold) in less than two months.

“My Sharona,” the first single off the album, also hit number one and is The Knack’s biggest hit. It remains to this day, Capitol Records’ fastest selling debut single for any band since The Beatles released “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” How appropriate.

Ultravox – Vienna

New Wave Music started in the late 70s. It took the DIY attitude of punk and made it more accessible. Instead of using over driven guitars and rants, New Wave bands broke the rules with wild guitar effects, synthesizers, and unconventional vocal stylings in ways that cut against the grain of traditional rock and pop music just like punk rock did. But it added to it, a musical diversity and commercial accessibility punk rock, by its very nature, lacked. 

Ultravox was a perfect example of what New Wave music embodied. With its heavy use of synthesizers and layers of effects on the guitars, accompanied by Bill Currie’s violin and viola and Midge Ure’s versatile voice, Ultravox intentionally tried to defy classification. 

On their fourth album, Vienna, Ultravox built lush audio soundscapes that soared around inside your head and then crashed, or sometimes floated you away to a place of beauty and serenity, but not for too long, before taking off again. 

Sometimes the songs take you down a dark alley with a mysterious stranger you admire and fear at the same time. Other times, they try to entice you into indulgence and excess. Vienna is that rare album that can paint pictures with sound. Just close your eyes and listen. You’ll be amazed at what your ears can see.

Stevie Wonder –  Songs In The Key Of Life

Comedian Eddie Murphy said it best back in the 1980s (and he wasn’t joking): Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. 

Breaking onto the pop and R&B music scene at the age of eleven, and continuing with a span of incredible music for decades to follow, Stevie Wonder was an incredible songwriter, performer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. An undeniable talent that few in music can ever come close to. 

If I had to name just one album to prove that point, it would without a doubt be Songs In The Key Of Life. Throughout the four sides of this double album are songs that are just as deep in their musical quality as they are in their lyrical content. This is one of those rare albums that really cannot be classified in just one genre. On it Stevie mixes pop, R&B, jazz, and soul along with sprinklings of other styles like reggae and Samba like no other artist could. Lyrically, it speaks in equal parts of the wonderous joy and beauty in the world, of faith and spirituality, and of the political and social misgivings of society. 

If I had to pick just one favorite song from this album, I’d have to pick two: Sir Duke, the wonderful tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington and Isn’t She Lovely, a joyously beautiful song written about Stevie’s newborn daughter. 

Songs In The Key of Life has sold over 10 million copies and remains Stevie Wonder’s most successful album ever.

Rush 2112

Rush is a band that always exemplified virtuosity and detail. They were also band that believed in change and doing things their way.

Rush’s first two albums were straightforward hard rock records that were fairly successful for the Canadian power trio, earning them a modest but dedicated following. However, their third album, Caress Of Steel, with its extended songs that went into progressive rock territory, was a flop for the band after it came out. But the band still had one more album to release in fulfillment of the record deal it signed with Mercury records. So disillusioned, they went back into the studio figuring their fourth record would probably be their last. It ended up becoming one of their most successful.

The record label wanted them to go back to their previous hard rock style with shorter songs, but the band members figured if they were going to do only one more album it was going to be done the way they want to do it. Against the recommendation of the record execs, they decided to make the first side of the album a mini rock opera based on a lyrical storyline their drummer Neil Peart had written. 

The premise is a futuristic science fiction story that took place in a dystopian society in the year 2112. The world is run by the priests who use powerful computers to determine how best to run a structured and efficient society where people are not necessarily happy, but for the most part, satisfied with their lives. The priests and their computers make all the decision for the people including what is considered art and what music people listen to. 

Venturing outside the city limits, a wanderer discovers an ancient guitar hidden in a cave behind a waterfall. Discovering the music he can make on it, unlike anything he had heard before, he takes his wonderful discovery to the priests so they can share it with the people. Instead, they get angry, smashing the guitar and telling him “it doesn’t fit the plan.” He leaves the city for good to live in isolation inside the cave. One night he has a dream of the elder race, who left the planet to “learn and grow,” before the priests took over. He has a premonition of them returning to reclaim their home. But as time passes, he begins to doubt his vision. Despondent and disillusioned, he eventually commits suicide. A bittersweet ending, as he never lives to see that his vision was real. The elder race return and give back to the people the freedom to make their own choices. 

There is an interesting detail that Rush put at the very end of the song 2112. After the elder race reclaim the world, they announce: three times “Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation” and then three times “We have assumed control.” The first part, seven words said three times, is collectively, 21 words, the second phrase is four words said three times, totalling 12 words. 2112

Restless Variations

Long before Record Store Day, there was a time when indie record labels released compilation albums promoting the cool-ass bands signed to them because…well, just because. A lot of the collections were crap, with only one or two good songs on them, if that. But what the hell, they were cheap, so you gave ’em a shot whenever you had a few extra bucks. One compilation that really hit the mark was Restless Variations.

Restless records was a post-punk extension of Enigma records which had made its name by being the starting label for a number of bands that later signed to major labels. I don’t think any of the bands on Restless ever signed a major label deal. Then again, I’d be willing to bet none of them gave a f*ck if they did. It was that moxy that makes this a kick-ass collection of songs by bands that almost nobody has heard of – Electric Peace, Get Smart!, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, Fear, and The Lazy Cowgirls were a few of the bands on this album that never went anywhere beyond maybe a cult following. And I’d be remiss if I left out The Dead Milkmen. Hell, Bitchin’ Camaro is the staple track of this album.

Restless Variations was the epic sound of struggling bands trying to make it, doing it their way. Yeah, for the most part, they all failed miserably. But they had fun trying…and they left at least one great song in their wake. And isn’t that what it’s all about?