Kansas – Point Of Know Return

I was totally blown away the first time I heard Point Of Know Return. I had actually gone to the record store to buy the previous Kansas album, “Leftoverture.” That album was sold out, so I bought their newer, fifth album instead. Although I had already heard a couple of songs off this album that had been played on the radio, I was not ready for what I experienced when listening to it. 

This was complex, and intelligent music. It had the rawness of Midwestern U.S. rock and it had progressive rock elements from the U.K. bands I was into, like Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes. Plus, the lyrics were cool as s***. There was a song about Albert Einstein, who has always been an intellectual, political, and philosophical hero of mine – “Portrait (He Knew).” There was another about Howard Hughes – “Closet Chronicles.” And the collective remainder were spiritual or thought-provoking in their lyrics and acoustically beautiful or complex and powerful in their musical composition. It was an album that inspired, challenged and provoked introspection all at the same time. It remains one of my all time favorite albums.

I loved this album so much that I eventually upgraded it to a “Half Speed Mastered” edition. These were audiophile pressings that more accurately captured the dynamic qualities of the original recording, versus the mass-produced typical commercial release which sacrificed quality for quantity. It was definitely worth the extra price.

The Beatles – Revolver

Americans got ripped off with Beatles’ seventh album. And it wasn’t the first time either – but it wold be the last.

With Revolver, the fab four continued to expand their sound and experiment with different, often unorthodox recording techniques in the studio for the time. (They were expanding and experimenting with other things outside the studio too. But let’s not go there right now.) Backwards recording, post recording speed and pitch variations (varispeeding) and artificial double tracking, which adds a slight delay to a voice or instrument and plays it back with the original, so one voice sounds like two, or four sound like eight, were all used here. 

Although these techniques are now commonplace in modern recording studios, they were truly groundbreaking at the time. The Beatles would continue expanding on what could be done in the studio on their next album,  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

I know, all that is really cool (at least if you’re a music nerd like I am) but what you really want to know is right now is just how did American’s get ripped off  by this album? 

Well here it is…

Although The Beatles had started their own record label, Apple Records, their records were still released through major record companies. To the whole world outside of the United States, The Beatle’s albums were released through Parlaphone records. In the U.S., The Beatles were released through Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t like releasing albums with too many songs on them – and apparently 14 was too many. For Revolver, they only wanted theirs to go up to 11. So U.S. record buyers didn’t get “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing ” on their albums.

This wasn’t the first time Capitol had made changes to a Beatles’ album. Most early albums by them had song omissions and/or reordering on the U.S. editions. Fortunately, Revolver would be the last time it would happen. Starting with “Sgt. Pepper’s” Capitol stopped messing with what should be better off left alone.

Yes – 90125

Progressive rock was in its prime in the 1970s. And there was possibly no band more at the forefront of prog than Yes. But then punk rock and disco worked their influences into popular music. Going into the ’80s, Prog bands were suddenly labeled as self-indulgent and pretentious dinosaurs.

I agree with the pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in a good way. I mean, hell, if you’ve got that level of talent and creativity, by all means, flaunt it. Show off. Impress me. Blow me away with your virtuosity and showmanship. But dinosaurs? Oh, hell no! 

Dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn’t adapt. With 90125, Yes proved they were more than capable of adapting to the changing music scenes. Their songs became more short and concise. There was a greater emphasis on the underlying rhythms than on extended solos and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. 

But that’s not to say there wasn’t any of the virtuosity Yes was known for – there was plenty. It was just more focused. The interplay between the instruments had the complexity that Yes was known for, yet the production of the album gave the songs the underlying character of pop simplicity. The vocal arrangements throughout the album were equally impressive, at times becoming the focal point in the songs, or as in “Leave It,” the entire song.

Then there’s the case of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the first, and only number one single for Yes. It became so popular they even released a 12 inch dance remix of it. Now, if you had told me in the ’70s that a song by Yes would be played in dance clubs in the ’80s, well, I’d be handing my life savings over to you right now. I would have lost that bet big time. But there it was. 

But the big thing was, they still sounded like Yes. They still sounded like the prog band their fan base dug. They were still pretentious and self-indulgent – they just did it in a way that nobody  noticed. On 90125, Yes had learned to adapt and survive…and thrive. Something the dinosaurs couldn’t do.

Neil Diamond – Moods

Moods was an album that defined Neil Diamond. It contained a wide variety of material that made it universally enjoyable to listeners both old and young. It’s one of those albums that’s perfect to listen to on a warm summer afternoon or a brisk autumn morning. A great album for setting the tone to start off your day with a hot cup of coffee or to mellow out after a rough one sipping on a bourbon or a glass of wine.

Diamond once said he had a love-hate relationship with songwriting. He said he found it “extremely satisfying when it worked,” but hated that it “forces you to dig inside yourself.” 

But it’s that digging that makes his music so good.

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.