The Alan Parsons Project – Pyramid

The Alan Parsons Project was actually a duo. Obviously one of the members was Alan Parsons, who was known for his engineering work on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. The other significant member was Eric Wolfson, a Scottish born musician and songwriter. Although Wolfson was more widely known in the music industry, Alan Parsons had a name more recognizable to record buyers because of his work with the Beatles and Pink Floyd, so the latter’s name was chosen as the moniker for the band.

Like its two predecessors, Pyramid was a concept album that was heavy in its use of orchestration in choral arrangements. The Alan Parsons Project’s first album was based on the literary works Edgar Allan Poe. Their second, “I Robot”, focused on the rise of technology and its potential to overtake man. Like its name implies, “Pyramid” focused on the mysteries and fascination that America and much of Europe had with pyramids at the time of its release.

I remember buying this album as an alternate choice to what I actually wanted. I had gone to the record store that day to buy “I Robot”, but it was sold out. “Pyramid” had just come out so I figured I’d pick it up instead. 

I also remember at first being somewhat disappointed with the album. Although it still sounded like the same band, it had a distinctly different feel to it than its predecessor. I don’t know why that surprised me, the same could be said of the first and second Alan Parsons Project albums. As time passed however, the music on it grew on me and I now find I like Pyramid” as much as, possibly more than the album I actually wanted to buy that day.

Jean-Luc Ponty & Stephane Grappelli – Violin Summit

I don’t know much about Stephane Grappelli, but I do know who Jean-Luc Ponty is, and if he looked up to Stephane Grappelli for his violin playing…well, that’s good enough for me.

Jean-Luc Ponty is a highly regarded classically trained violinist who found his calling to be not in classical music but in jazz. This I knew. What I didn’t know until reading the liner notes on this album was that Stephane Grappelli influenced Jean-Luc Ponty to throw himself into jazz music.

I knew early on in his career, Jean-Luc Ponty played and toured with Frank Zappa. What I didn’t know was that right after he finished touring with Zappa, he recorded this album with Stephane Grappelli, who was a jazz legend in Jean-Luc Ponty’s native France.

I knew I liked to go to garage sales to look for old vinyl records people were getting rid of for pennies on the dollar. What I didn’t know a couple of weeks ago when I stopped at that garage sale, was that I would end up finding an album that I had no idea existed, by an artist I revered, playing with an artist who he highly regarded. An album that will from that day forward remain one of the hidden treasures in my record collection. 

An album that almost nobody knows.

Jeff Beck and The Jan Hammer Group – Live

Jazz fusion. A culmination of jazz blues and Rock. Music that is best performed live. Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer had to have known this when they collaborated two record this album in 1977. The interplay between the keyboards and guitar is exquisite. Then again, all the musicianship on this record is.

The album opens with Freeway Jam and closes with blue wind. Two of my favorite Jeff Beck songs, both of which are perfect for live improvisation. Old songs feature solos that are extended out from the studio versions.

As the album title implies this is an album that focuses on two artists, both masters of their craft. The performances are mostly instrumental, with only a couple of songs on side one having vocals. I kind of wish they would have made the album entirely instrumental. In my opinion, the singing somewhat detracts from the quality of the rest of the album. Listening to the audience response to the songs, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Still, this is a great live album.

Pretenders

I first discovered The Pretenders around 1983. 

Well, not really. 

I had heard the song “Brass in Pocket” years before. It was all over MTV in 1980. I liked the song, but it didn’t impress me enough to run out and get the eponymous debut album by The Pretenders, but it was memorable enough for me to store it in my gray matter for later reference.

Jump forward three years. I’m in the Army, on temporary duty at Fort McCoy Wisconsin. Most of my fellow soldiers there are into Motley CruĂ«, Poison, Judas Priest, AC/DC and other hard rock and metal bands. All those bands had their moments, AC/DC more than the rest, but my personal taste was looking for something different; something more original. On a whim I picked up the debut album by The Pretenders. I didn’t know if I’d like it but I knew I wouldn’t hate it from what I heard from the one song I remembered. I just knew I wanted something that wasn’t the same old same old. I have to say, that was one of the best spur-of-the-moment choices I ever made musically. 

The Pretenders’ debut album was a lot more punk rock infused than what I had expected – quite a departure from “Brass in Pocket”, but you could still tell it was the same band. There was an attitude; and that attitude was Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. They reminded me of a hip, punk rock version of Karen Carpenter. James Honeyman Scott’s guitar was…absolutely unique is the only description that comes to mind. Simplistically punk, but totally improvisational. Martin Chambers drums varied between Power-punk and reggae rhythms. All of this was glued together by Pete Farndons’ guiding bass-lines that, like in any great rhythm section, adapted perfectly to the drum beats without the slightest hint of reservation or abandonment. 

This was Punk and pop rolled into one, before anyone had ever thought of combining the two extremes. The Pretenders made the combination work, and the formula was followed by many, many bands to follow.

Unfortunately, after The Pretenders second album, Pete Faradon would be kicked out of the band because of problems with his increased drug abuse. James Honeyman Scott would die two days later from a drug overdose. In the aftermath, the Pretenders released an impressive third album, “Learning To Crawl”. But they would never again achieve the chemistry that existed on their first two albums. Absolute punk-pop masterpieces.

Billy Joel – The Stranger

Some artists never really achieve the commercial success they deserve. Some artists gain it immediately. And for some, like Billy Joel, it takes a few years and numerous albums. In his case it took five. 

The Stranger, released in 1977 was the album that brought worldwide critical acclaim to Billy Joel and propelled him from modestly popular to super stardom. This is another one of those albums that is almost like a greatest hits package in itself. Although Joel did have some great records after this, in my opinion none of them ever equaled the creativity and quality of the songs that he put out on The Stranger.

Although Piano Man, from Joel’s second album of the same name, is considered the quintessential  Billy Joel song, my favorite song by Joel is on this album, songs from an Italian restaurant. The signature changes and moods of the song constantly shifting to set the scene of reminiscing and telling stories with old friends over a meal and a bottle or two of wine. By the end I can’t help feeling as if these people were personal friends of mine; and I always felt sorry for Brenda and Eddie. But that’s life.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – ‘Live’ Bullet

If you grew up anywhere near Detroit in the ’70s, “Live Bullet” by Bob Seger was required listening. At least it seemed that way. Sure, it didn’t sell as much nationally as Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive”, but I’d bet my last dollar that in Detroit it trampled it. This album truly was Bob Seger at his best and proved why up to this point he was known as Detroit’s best kept secret.

Of course, as with any exceptional live album, it not just the performer who makes the night of the concert a magical thing captured on record. The audience is just as significant. And the nights “Live Bullet” was recorded at the legendary Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit, The crowd was feeding every bit as much energy back to the stage as Bob and the Silver Bullet Band were giving to them. “Live Bullet” captured that symbiosis better than any live album has, before or since.

Near the beginning of the double album, Bob says to the audience that Detroit audiences are the greatest rock and roll audiences in the world. In the 70s, that was definitely true. It’s also true that Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Bands “Live Bullet” is quite possibly the greatest live album in the world.

Although I was not at either of the shows that this album was recorded at, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Bob perform a couple of decades later at the very last concert in Detroit’s legendary Cobo Hall. Maybe it was only because we were actually in the audience, or maybe it was because I was at the show with the woman who has been the love of my life for more than 25 years, but that evening felt like it was every bit as magical as the nights this album was recorded. The connection between the audience and Bob was unbelievable proving that Bob Seger is one of the greatest performers in rock music ever, and that Detroit audiences are still the greatest rock and roll audiences in the world.

The Cult – Love

The year was 1985. It was a good year. Not just for me but for music as well. This was the year The Cult broke into notoriety with the release of their second album, “Love”.

I first discovered The Cult on a sampler cassette that came contained in a sealed can. It was called “Survival Sampler: SR-1A Sound Rations”. It looked oddly similar to the many C-rations I had eaten while in the US Army. I had to buy it just because of the packaging. I wore that cassette out. It contained music by The Smiths, The Church, Scritti Politti, The Cure, and of course, The Cult, among others. Because of the song “She Sells Sanctuary”, The Cult was one of the first bands on that cassette that I had to go out and buy an albums by to check out further.

When I first heard “Nirvana”, the opening track on “Love”, with Ian Astbury’s unique vocals and Billy Duffy’s equally stand out guitar tone l knew I knew this was an album that was going to be memorable, if not incredible.  In essence, “Love” is a recording that is hard rock, goth rock, alternative rock, and even the core of classic rock all rolled into one.

“Love” would end up being the album that brought worldwide recognition to The Cult. They would follow it up with their album “Electric” which would go on to be even more successful for them. Both records are on my short list of must have records essential to any vinyl lovers collection.

The Replacements – For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986

I was a fan of The Replacements the first time I heard them. In the ’80s amongst the new wave, alternative, and hair bands, the Matts, as they affectionately became known to their fans, epitomized the attitude of rock and roll.  They weren’t Punk. They weren’t hard rock. They weren’t alternative or indie. They were a refreshing and desperate gasp of breath for a flailing music industry.

“For Sale:…” was recorded over 30 years ago, but just released today. It was intended to be released following the Matts’ major label debut “Tim”, and not too long after they were banned from any NBC television show because they totally trashed the dressing rooms during their appearance on Saturday Night Live and couldn’t refrain themselves from using expletives during their on-air performance. But somewhere along the way the tapes were lost; only recently discovered.

The Replacements were a band that didn’t care about pomp, polish, or any type of flamboyance. They never took the spotlight. They only went on stage on stage to rock their asses off. And if they were too drunk, and f***** it up here and there, so be it. Not giving a s*** was part of the beauty of it.

“For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986” is  live, loose, raucous rock and roll, played without any abandon. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, you will find no better. I am so glad this album was discovered in the Warner Brothers vault, and that they decided to finally release it.

It was well worth the wait.

The Replacements always took a strong stance in doing things their way. In order to sign a major label deal, they had to agree to record at least one music video for a song from it. They had always vehemently opposed recording music videos. So for “Bastards Of Young”, the first single off of “Tim”, the video showed nothing more than someone queuing up the record, sitting down and listening to the song. The only focus was on the speaker playing the music. They were never asked to do another video.

J. Geils Band – Full House

One of the best concerts I have ever been to was by the J. Geils Band. Back in the day before sound curfews. Back in the day when a band could play as long as they wanted. Well, almost.

The J. Geils Band was one of those bands that was destined to play live. They made some good records, but where they really shined was on stage. So it’s no surprise that their first really successful album, Full House, was recorded live. This album caught them in all their glory and proved they were one of the most energetic and dynamic bands to see on stage in the ’70s.

Healing from Boston, the Geils always considered Detroit to be a home away from home – and Detroit audiences loved them. So it came as no surprise to me the first time I saw them live, that they were called back on stage for more than one encore. The thing was, even after the encores, the crowd wasn’t leaving the venue. So Geils just kept coming back on stage. I might have lost count, but I know they did at least seven encores that night. The band and the audience finally took the hint that the employees at Pine Knob, a concert venue in Clarkston Michigan, wanted to go home for the evening, when they came on stage and the power was suddenly cut to their instruments after they finished a song. I don’t know if it is true, but I heard rumor that after leaving the concert venue that night they showed up at a local bar in Pontiac Michigan and played untill it closed. I don’t know if that part really happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I’ve met a lot of people who thought the lead singer was the namesake of the J. Geils Band. In reality they were fronted buy an ex-disc jockey from Boston named Peter Wolf. Before recording their very first album, they originally called themselves the J. Geils Blues Band after their lead guitarist, and they only performed instrumentally. They dropped the “Blues” from their name after adding Peter Wolf, their very dynamic lead singer. They signed a record deal shortly thereafter and the rest, as they say, is history.

Alice Cooper – Killer

Killer is arguably Alice Cooper’s best album,  but then again he, or maybe I should say they, have released so many great records, that’s a difficult claim to make. 

So is which is it? Is Alice Cooper the name of a band or a person? The answer is: both. When the band Alice Cooper started out they did a mix of theatrics along with hard rock and created an image for themselves that brought them great success. Part of that image was to create an eclectic persona for the front man of the band. They named that character Alice Cooper, which was also the name they gave the band. But there really was no person named Alice Cooper.

The lead singers real name was Vincent Furnier, and it was mainly his idea to incorporate the theatrics into their live performances. As the band became more popular, the other band members wanted to move away from the stage extravagance and just focus on the music on stage. This eventually drove a creative wedge between the lead singer and contributing songwriter, and the rest of the band.

Vincent decided he would carry on combining stage theatrics with the music using the name Alice Cooper. The rest of the band members weren’t too keen on that idea and threatened to sue him for the use of the name. But Vincent Furnier had an easy solution – he legally changed his name to Alice Cooper – the rest of the band members  could not stop him from using his legal name. So, for the first seven albums Alice Cooper was the name of the band. For everything that came after, starting with “Welcome To My Nightmare”, Alice Cooper was a person.

I have quite a few records  in my collection  and  I’m  pretty particular with keeping them organized so I can find  what I want to listen to. Alice Cooper is one of the rare cases where there are two places in my musical library where their / his albums reside. The only other case I can think of, off the top of my head, is John Cougar when he changed his name to John Cougar Mellencamp and then John Mellencamp. But that’s another story for another day.