Carpenters – A Song For You

Karen Carpenter had one of the most beautiful voices ever in popular music and together with her brother Richard, the Carpenters recorded some of the most beautiful songs ever in pop music.

Even though six singles were released from the Carpenters’ fourth album, “A Song for You”, Richard Carpenter said he arranged the album to be a concept album, intended to be listened to as one continuous piece of music. With a variation of the title song opening and closing the album and a flawless ebb and flow of love themed songs in between, it certainly fits the bill.

But more than anything, “A Song for You” is a beautiful collection of songs.

Karen Carpenter not only had a beautiful voice; she was also a very accomplished drummer and plays on many of the tracks on “A Song for You”. In fact, she was so good on the skins that in 1975 she was voted best rock drummer in the Playboy Magazine reader’s poll, even beating out John Bonham from Led Zeppelin (I hear Bonzo was not impressed).

Sadly, for much of her life Karen Carpenter struggled with anorexia. She died in 1983, less than a month from her 33rd birthday, from complications caused by the disorder.

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.

Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure

The second Roxy Music album.

I remember the first time I heard Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure”. Even more so, I remember hearing Brian Ferry’s ode to an inflatable doll, “In Every Home a Heartache”. I was not even a teenager at the time, so I’m not even sure if I entirely knew what the song was about, but its eerie feel and wicked psychedelic Phil Manzanera guitar solo at the end was all I needed to know the topic was rather offbeat – and I loved it, along with the rest of the record.

Actually, “For Your Pleasure” was the first time I had heard Roxy Music at all. I remember the radio station playing the album in its entirety because it had just been released and it was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time. It blew my mind every bit as much as what Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” had just a few weeks earlier, but in a totally different way. “For Your Pleasure” was more of an in-your-face experimental adventure, due mainly to Brian Eno’s creative genius on keyboards and his use of tape loops added to Chris Thomas’s edgy production. (as I would read the credits in the liner notes to numerous albums in the years following, I found Chris Thomas to be one of my all-time favorite producers).

Along with Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure” dramatically shifted my musical listening habits from the pop songs being played on the local AM stations to the album oriented rock (AOR) on the FM dial; music that defined the most influential years of my life.

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.

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.

Billy Joel – 52nd Street

Although Billy Joel’s fifth album, “The Stranger” was his commercial breakthrough, it was “52nd Street”, his 1978 follow-up to it, that made him a star. The album topped the Billboard charts shortly after its release, had three top 40 singles, and brought home two Grammys, including Record of the Year in 1979.

In addition to being recorded at a studio on New York’s 52nd street, the album’s title also alludes to New York City’s jazz district, which the street runs through the heart of. The album has notable jazz leanings in many of its songs and is considered by most critics to be one of Billy Joel’s finest records.

The McCoys – Hang On Sloopy

Rick Derringer is one of the most respected blues rock guitarists from the 1970s. In addition to his solo work, including the hit “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo”, he also lent his six string talents to the bands of brothers Edgar and Johnny Winter and on tour and in the studio with numerous acts. But his first gig was along with his brother Randy (on drums) in The McCoys.

When Derringer became successful in the ’70s, most people probably never made the connection back to The McCoys. Most of their songs, like the title track from their debut album “Hang On Sloopy” were 1960s pop. But their deeper tracks show quick glimpses of what Rick Derringer would unleash years later. I especially love the cover of T-Bone Walker’s blues classic “Call it Stormy Monday” which closes this album out.

But it’s not only the pop style that would have most people miss the connection between blues rock guitarist Rick Derringer and The McCoys. The biggest reason is that when he and brother Randy played in The McCoys, they used their real surname, Zehringer. Going into the ’70s, Rick changed his performing name to something with more of a rock and roll feel to it.

Tomato, tomahto.
Derringer, Zehringer.
Still great, no matter how you say it.

Dick Clark – 20 Years Of Rock N’ Roll

1953 to 1972. If it’s 20 years into the history of rock and roll and you want to chronicle the music year by year on a double album, you better have a recognized rock and roll authority on the cover. Maybe someone like Dick Clark.

From the fifties into the eighties, Dick Clark, a former rock and roll DJ from WFIL in Philadelphia was the host of American Bandstand. In its 37 years on the air, Bandstand helped launch or excel the careers of more rock and roll bands than probably any other single show – over 8 thousand different acts.

I picked this album up at an estate sale not too long ago. Besides being excited about finding this great compilation of early rock and roll, I was really excited find it still had the 24 page yearbook and bonus record still with it. A lot of times, the extras like these get separated from the album. The yearbook was very insightful, talking about significant events of each year and how popular music both affected and was affected by them.

The bonus record is a picture disk that has Dick Clark’s brief recollections of the numerous bands that made their first appearance on one of his shows. It’s a great insight to just how influential Dick Clark and American Bandstand were during the first 20 Years of Rock n’ Roll.

Pat Benatar – In The Heat Of The Night

Pat Benatar struck gold on her debut album in November 1979. Actually, she struck platinum.

In the heat of the night was an immediate success for Benatar, selling over a million copies worldwide and giving her two hit singles in the U.S. and two others around the globe.

Although the two U.S. singles were original songs, more than half the tracks on “In The Heat of the Night” are cover songs. The covers were all lesser known tracks by the original artists and are perfect matches for Benatar’s incredibly versatile voice. The songs are all short power pop rockers that Guitarist (and Benatar’s future husband) Neil Giraldo, plays with so much zeal, it’s no wonder “In The Heat of the Night” was one of the best-selling albums of 1980.

I honestly don’t know why this album doesn’t end up on my turntable more often. Its one of my all-time favorites.

Electric Light Orchestra – A New World Record

I remember when ELO released “A New World Record”. I listened to it until I was sick of it.

The album was a breakthrough for the Electric Light Orchestra. Sure, their previous album “Face the Music” had their first worldwide hit with “Evil Woman”, but “A New World Record” hit across the globe with “Telephone Line”, “Rockaria”, “Livin’ Thing”, and “Do Ya”. Plus, it also included a slew of other great prog rock leaning pop songs like “Tightrope”, “Mission (A World Record)”, “So Fine”, “Above the Clouds”, and “Shangri-la”. Any of these songs could have easily been hit singles for ELO at the time. I guess four was enough for the record company.

ELO’s sixth album definitely marked a shift towards a more pop oriented sound. That combination of progressive rock and pop hooks is really what makes this album so great. It was a perfect blend. Although I did grow sick of it at one point, that’s only because it was on my turntable nearly everyday – and it wasn’t even my record, I borrowed it from a friend. Hearing it again years later, I remembered how good it was and added it to my collection. It never left.