Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

Japan – Exorcising Ghosts

Japan was a band from London, England that disintegrated at the height of their popularity and on the cusp of greater fame.

Starting out as a glam rock group in the late 1970s, with a sound influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music, they eventually became part of the New Romantic movement in Britain, which in the ’80s included the bands Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet, and Ultravox, among others. Gaining a solid following in Europe and Japan as well as on their native turf, where they earned nine gold records, their popularity was just starting to take hold in Canada and the US, when personal conflicts drove the band apart.

“Exorcising Ghosts” was released two years after Japan broke up. It’s an excellent compilation that combines Japan’s British hits along with b-sides and some deeper cuts from their earlier albums. The 1984 album showcases how Japan’s music stood out from many of their contemporaries because of the rolling baritone voice of David Sylvan melding perfectly with the fretless bass of Mick Karn, the experimental keyboard extravagance of Richard Barbieri and precise yet intricate drumming by Steve Jansen. Those who bought the double album on vinyl were treated to five songs omitted from the single CD release.

I would later rediscover Richard Barbieri when he added his talents to Porcupine Tree in the ’90s right up until Steven Wilson went solo in 2008. Barbieri remains one of my all time favorite keyboardists today; just as “Exorcising Ghosts” remains one of my all time favorite albums.

The Stooges (The Detroit Edition)

The Stooges were a band ahead of their time. They were punk rock before there was punk rock. Their music had so much grit and attitude that most rock critics at the time just didn’t get it. But in 1969, Detroit got it. In 1969, Detroit was all about grit and attitude. And survival.

Detroit was trying to come back from the riots two years earlier that had devastated it and left it deeply scarred. The comeback wasn’t going as well as many hoped it would. The scars in the city ran deep. Rather than fluff it up or play it down, the Stooges wore those scars like a badge of honor. Just like Detroit had been forced to strip itself into a primal survival mode after the riots, the Stooges stripped rock and roll down to its basic primal core. Their debut album was music struggling to survive, barely accessible; played with a grit and attitude that was hard for almost anyone outside of Detroit to really get at the time.

Eventually, other cities around the world would start to bear similar wounds to those that scarred Detroit back in 1967. Many new bands started to focus on the same guttural survival instinct in their music that The Stooges had nearly a decade earlier. By that time, the critics had started to get it. They embraced the new sound and dubbed it “punk rock”. Nearly every punk rock band that has ever existed has cited The Stooges as a big influence.

The Detroit Edition of “The Stooges” has two versions of the album. The first is the original record, as it was released in 1969. The second has alternate versions of all the songs. Only eight thousand copies of The Detroit Edition of “The Stooges” were produced as part of a 2018 Record Store Day promotion.

Record Store Day is an annual event that started in the US in 2007 to promote local independent record stores. Typically held in April, it provides local record stores with exclusive limited edition releases. It has become so successful that it’s now held in several countries around the world.

Kate Bush – The Kick Inside

Kate Bush’s debut album came out in 1978, and I am dumbfounded that I never heard of her until three years later.

Flashback to Fort Campbell, 1981. There was a group of us soldiers that would take turns jamming in the barracks to songs we dug, in part, trying to wow each other with music the others hadn’t heard before. When one of the guys cued up “The Kick Inside”, I was beyond WOWed! I was mesmerised by the totally unique qualities and vocal range of Kate Bush’s voice. On top of that, her songs were intoxicating and amazing.

Now, no matter how much you listen to music, there will always be great out of the mainstream music that will slip past you. So that I missed noticing Kate Bush until 1981 didn’t surprise me. What did, was that she was discovered and highly supported at this early point of her career by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour who was, and still is today, my all-time favorite guitarists in my all-time favorite band. Not only that but “The Kick inside” was produced and arranged by Andrew Powell, from the Alan Parsons Project, another of my favorite bands. I’m usually good at following side projects and other doings of artists I really like, but I really felt I had dropped the ball here.

Three years. How had I not heard of Kate Bush? How had I never heard her amazing voice? How had I been totally oblivious to her incredible music?

But then I realized, the important thing was, now I had.

Box Of Frogs

What would the Yardbirds have been without either Clapton, Beck, or Page on lead guitar? Well, in 1984, they were known as “Box of Frogs”.

In the 1960’s, the Yardbirds were at their core, Jim McCarty on drums, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Paul Samwell-Smith on bass – and they had a knack for picking awesome lead guitarists. Unforfortunately those lead guitarists had a knack for pursuing solo careers. First Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck. By the time Jimmy Page joined for their third go-round, the founding members decided to call it quits. In the wake, Jimi Page went on to form Led Zeppelin, which he nearly called “The New Yardbirds” (but that’s another story).

Perhaps realizing that great music is not created by lead guitarists alone, McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith regrouped in the ’80s along with guitarist and vocallist John Fiddler, rebranding themselves on their self titled album as “Box of Frogs”.

Perhaps realizing that this was magic in the re-making, they were joined on some songs by Beck and Page. Sure, Clapton didn’t participate in the reunion, but Rory Gallagher jumped in on a couple; even better, in my humble opinion.

U2 – Under A Blood Red Sky

From the first time I listened to “Under a Blood Red Sky” I always felt I should thank U2 for the Special Low Price of the full-length live album they marketed as a “Mini LP”.

You don’t get paid a lot when you’re in the U.S. military, so you have to choose wisely how to spend your money. To me, back then as now, buying music was always a wise choice. But some choices are wiser than others. I had discovered U2 a year or so earlier, on their third album, “War”. It blew me away. When I saw this specially priced mini LP in the PX that fine day, something inside me knew it was a wise choice to buy it. It turned out wiser than I thought.

“Under a Blood Red Sky” is labeled as a “mini LP”. That’s a lie. Sure, it’s on the short side of some albums, but I have some full length LPs that are shorter than this record. The only reason I can think of for the album being labeled the way it was, was that U2 hoped the “special low price” would help its sales. Maybe it did initially, but the only reason “Under a Blood Red Sky” went on to sell over 2 million copies was because it captured a young and hungry Irish rock band out to prove themselves, wanting to make a difference in the world through their music. In short, it kicked ass.

“Under a Blood Red Sky” opened the doors of rock and roll stardom unto U2. From thence forward, it was up to them to decide what to do with it.

They chose wisely.

The Kings – Are Here

“Nothing matters but the weekend
From a Tuesday point of view”

The Kings are a Canadian one-hit-wonder band from near Toronto. Well, kind of one-hit-wonder. Thry really had two hit songs. “This Beat Goes On” and “Switchin’ To Glide” flowed together so flawlessly that even though there is a well-defined break between the two songs, it is impossible to imagine them not being joined at the hip. Radio station never played one without the other.

“This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” went platinum in Canada and was a mainstay on U.S. radio stations. The Kings toured in support of the album; the success of the album earning them opening slots for acts like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Beach Boys, and Bob Seger. Unfortunately, The Kings’ second album failed to spark any interest to radio stations or record buyers and the band all but faded into oblivion, although they did continue to tour heavily into the ’90s. They still play occasional live shows in the U.S. and Canada and “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” can still be heard on classic rock radio stations today.

The Pretty Reckless – Who You Selling For

Although I like the music I grew up with, I sometimes get tired of what’s familiar to my ears.

The Pretty Reckless are a band that impressed me from the first time I heard them. I discovered them because the daughter of my best friend is really into them. Even though I had only heard one song from their third album, “Who You Selling For”, which I thought was one of their best songs, I was familiar with both of their previous albums. Quite frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t picked one of them up at some point by now. But rather than buying one of their earlier records, I decided to take a chance on “Who You Selling For”.

Even more so than the two previous albums by The Pretty Reckless, “Who You Selling For” is a modern take on old school blues-based hard rock riffs. One unexpected surprise I found when reading the cover and liner notes is that the closing track on side two, “Back to the River”, features Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers, Govt. Mule) who is one of my favorite blues/rock guitarists.

Part of what makes The Pretty Reckless such a good band is frontwoman Taylor Momsen. Depending on the song, her always powerful voice ranges everywhere between sultry and seductive to snarling, growling aggression. Not only a talented singer, she has also had successful careers as a model and actress (one of her first roles was playing Cindy Lou Who in the 2000 movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”). Momsen also cowrote all the songs on the album along with the band’s guitarist, Ben Phillips.

Simple Minds – Once Upon A Time

It took the Scottish band Simple Minds seven albums to finally achieve the success they deserved in the United States. The rest of the world just shook their heads and asked “what took you so long?”

Sure, there was the 1985 John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club” that first made a name for Simple Minds in the US with the single “Don’t You Forget About Me”. But that song just whet the US appetite. “Once Upon A Time” fed the craving for more. Sure, the album didn’t have “Don’t You Forget About Me” on it like I think most people expected when they bought it; that didn’t matter – it had “Alive and Kicking” which was even better. Plus, the other seven songs make up what is one of the most solid albums of the 1980s. The rest of the world had long known Simple Minds. Finally, the U.S. did too.

I have two copies of “Once Upon A Time” on vinyl. I bought the second copy because there were two different versions of this album cover. The cool thing about the two covers is they can be matched up to each other on every side. You literally could wallpaper an entire room with both copies of the album cover. While I do like Simple Minds a lot, I have to say that I’m not quite that big of a fan.

There are other noticeable differences between the two copies of the album in my collection. One copy is a Canadian record which means it is on the Virgin record label, like everywhere else in the world – except the United States. It was released on A&M Records here. While the Virgin label the rest of the world got on the record is very generic, the A&M verion in the U.S. was custom designed to match the gold splash behind the band’s name on the cover. That wasn’t the only difference. The US version is on colored vinyl (at least the first issue of it anyway) although it’s not immediately noticeable. I had my copy for years before I realized that if you hold it to a bright light, the light will actually shine through revealing the album’s true golden-brown translucent color.

Vinyl can be full of surprises.

T. Rex – Electric Warrior

In 1971, Marc Bolan decided to abandon the folk rock beginnings of his band, T. Rex, and try something different. “Electric Warrior” ended up becoming one of the most influential albums of that decade, ushering in the era of glam rock.

Glam rock was about unabashed shamelessness. Whimsical lyrics, pop hooks with a rock edge, and flamboyance were its key ingredients. On “Electric Warrior”, Bolan mixed those ingredients together with seemingly reckless abandon and came up with a recipe that would influence the likes of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Sweet, Roxy Music and countless others. It was the foundation of what became called “new wave”, and later “alternative” music. Although “Electric Warrior” only had one big hit, “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”, it’s influence on modern music is indisputable and still resonates through popular music today.