The Velvet Underground & Nico

It was ignored by most rock critics when it was released in 1967. Its songs were near to never played on the radio. Its initial sales were next to dismal.

Yet…

By the 1990s it was regarded as one of the most influential rock records ever made. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #13 in its list of the greatest rock and roll records of all time. In 2006, it was one of only a handful of rock albums ever added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, recognized for being either culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Spoiler alert: It’s all three.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined to fail.

Yet…

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined for legendary success.

Suzi Quatro – Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words

Suzi Quatro’s music never got the recognition it deserved. That’s not to say she didn’t find success. I just think that through no fault of her own, she should have found a lot more.

Suzi found her biggest musical success in the UK and Europe which is kind of sad considering she grew up in Detroit.

Suzi started her rock and roll career in 1964. A career that seemed to go virtually nowhere until she moved to England in 1971. The success of her career from that point forward went on to inspire the careers of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), and Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart). “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” was Suzi Quatro’s second most successful album in the US.

Before “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” came out, most people in the US only knew Suzie Quatro as Leather Tuscadero, the character she played in 7 episodes of the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. I hate to admit that I’m one of them. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t check out her back catalog afterward; more about that later.

Propaganda – A Secret Wish

If you want to really grab my attention and make me listen to your debut album, open it up with my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream” put to elegantly dark music.

I remember exactly why I bought Propaganda’s debut, “A Secret Wish” in the late summer of 1985. I had never heard of Propaganda. I knew none of the members in the band. I had never heard any of their songs. No one I knew had heard of them. I was going through a difficult breakup and needed some comfort music. I bought a sh!t load of records that day, all by artists I had never or only barely heard of, just so I could hopefully jump into something new that was close and personal to me…anything but a new relationship. Music was the only thing I could think of to turn to.

I don’t remember any of the other records I bought that day. Only this one, because it immediately touched me personally with Poe’s poetry of a false awakening. With its innovative use synth pop combined with progressive rock, the rest of the record continued to pull my attention away from memories and thoughts I needed to abandon at the time.

“A Secret Wish” will forever be a special album to me because of the timing of when I first discovered it and because it is some of the most kick-ass and innovative music I have ever heard. But mostly, it’s special to me because it opened with lines from my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem put perfectly to music.

“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream”.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

The story of Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut album is one to file under “If at first you don’t succeed”.

When record producer David Kershenbaum first heard the songs Joe Jackson was working on for what Jackson hoped would eventually be his first album, he liked what he heard so much, he immediately had Jackson signed to A&M records. To gain traction for “Look Sharp”, the first single from it, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”, was released ahead of the album. It went nowhere, in the US or Britain. A second single, “Sunday Papers”, was released. Same thing. The third single, “One More Time” followed suit. Things weren’t looking too sharp for Joe Jackson. But finally, the album “Look Sharp” was released…and it went nowhere.

It made no sense. It was a great album with great songs bouncing between new wave and punk. What went wrong?

I’m not sure who made the final decision, but they did what was really the only thing that made sense at that point. They re-released the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”. It was a hit! “Sunday Papers” and “One More Time” soon took off as well. Radio stations even started playing songs from the album that weren’t released as singles. A short while later Joe Jackson had his first gold record in the US and Britain, just like they had planned all along.

And the moral of the story is never underestimate the power of “try, try again”.

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

My first introduction…real introduction…to David Bowie was on the Midnight Special, a late-night television show that in 1973, broadcast a David Bowie concert featuring songs from his upcoming album “Diamond Dogs”.

It’s funny, because I would’ve sworn the music that aired that night was from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour. But I like to check my facts. So before queuing this album up, I found out that show actually aired in 1973, before the “Diamond Dogs” album was released. To my surprise, the broadcast actually contained more music from Bowie’s earlier recordings – only a couple of songs are from the “Diamond Dogs” album. Still, it was the songs performed from this album that really made an impression on me.

When I finally bought a copy of “Diamond Dogs” (I think it was my older sister who actually bought it first, but I was more than content stealing her copy to listen to for a few years), I was enthralled. It was a dark concept album with songs of a post-apocalyptic dystopian world from George Orwell’s worst nightmares. Actually, I’m not sure I got all that back then – I was only 11 or 12 years old (I’m not even sure if I had even read 1984 yet back then). But I know I dug the sh!t out out of the music and the other-worldly lyrics.

What blew me away with “Diamond Dogs” wasn’t just the lyrics and music; it was the remembrances of that Midnight Special concert I had seen a year or so before. It was Bowie’s music, following in the footsteps of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, taking rock music to a whole new conceptual level, and the visuals that accompanied it.

“Diamond Dogs” was so much more than music as strictly entertainment. The album was a sociopolitical statement galvinized in the fear of things to come. But more than anything, “Diamond Dogs” was rock and roll presented in its best form: music as art.

Japan – Oil On Canvas

I remember the first time I heard the band Japan. They were like so many classic rock artists I admired yet they were like nothing I had ever heard before. The Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Ferry and The Talking Heads, were all in there at some measure, as were a few other bands that are best described as trend setters, not followers. But it was the combination of those influences that made Japan so unique. Japan was musical artistry in every sense of the word.

Still, I always wondered, was their sound all studio wizardry or could they actually pull their songs off live. I never had a chance to see Japan in concert but that question was still answered when I ran across a copy of “Oil on Canvas”, the only live album Japan released during their short recording career, from 1978 to 1981.

Fortunately, “Oil on Canvas” was a double LP, because a single record would not have been enough. As a matter of fact, Japan’s live performances here are so good. two records still leave me wanting more. The band absolutely nails the feeling of their studio recordings yet at the same time breathes new life into the songs, mixing them up and changing just enough to let you know they have no intention of performing a studio carbon copy.

The history of rock has always been filled with somebody’s favorite artist that didn’t make it for one reason or another. Its future will forever hold the same. Though the sounds and styles of these bands may differ drastically, one factor is always a constant: they are always true artists. I think Japan knew this when they released their only live record. That’s why they chose a name for it that alluded to true artistry; a name alluding to one of the most classical forms of artistic expression.

Oil on Canvas.

Missing Persons – Rhyme & Reason

It’s not unheard of for drummers to be involved in writing a song or two on a record but it is out of the norm for them to co-write nearly every song on it. On “Rhyme & Reason”, the second album from Missing Persons, drummer Terry Bozzio co-wrote all but song. Then again, Terry Bozzio is a very musically oriented percussionist. Not content in merely keeping the rhythm of a song, his playing often supplements the melody.

I remember seeing Terry Bozzio perform live in 2016. It was a one man show; just him and his drum kit – the largest touring drum kit in existence. Using a combination of electronic and acoustic drums and cymbals, plus triggered samplers and sequencers to repeat certain parts he would play, he performed entire songs, all his own compositions, with nothing more than his drum kit. It was an amazing show.

All the musicians in Missing Persons were amazingly talented. For this album, they focused more on complexity and intricacy in their songs, departing somewhat from their more commercially accessible debut “Spring Session M”. “Rhyme & Reason” is an album that offers something new to hear even after repeated listenings. Missing Persons would only release one more album after this before breaking up in 1986.

The Black Keys – El Camino

Some records grab you right from the opening riff. “El Camino” by Ohio duo The Black Keys is one of those albums. The rest of the album follows suit, with a driving collection of rough and ready blues rock. Although The Black Keys formed in 2001 and “El Camino”, the band’s seventh album came out ten years later, don’t let that fool you. This is old school garage rock with a modern twist.

If you know anything about classic cars, I know what you’re thinking about the album cover: that is NOT an El Camino. In remembrance of their early days, for this album, The Black Keys wanted to use a picture of a van similar to the one they used to tour in their early days. So why call the album “El Camino”? Well, in Spanish “El camino” means “the Road”. The album title is actually also another nod to their early days since it was on the road touring that The Black Keys earned the musical reputation leading to the success they have today. Also, knowing the “El Camino” is a classic muscle car, the van on the cover was done in jest. The Black Keys knew it would drive the car enthusiasts nuts.

The J. Geils Band – Love Stinks

Rock and roll was going through some significant changes going into the 1980s. Many bands that had cut their teeth in the ’70s either couldn’t adapt to the newer sound and fell by the wayside or overcompensated and were labeled as sell-outs by their long time fans. For The J. Geils Band the transition was easy. Their style of r&b party rock didn’t need to change much at all to propel them to the top of their popularity and the top of the record charts without alienating any of their fans.

The conversation within the band may very well have gone something like this:

Peter Wolf: “Seth, we need you to start playing more synthesizers instead of just piano and organ.”

Seth Justman: “Okay.”

I don’t know if that’s the way it all went down, but it could’ve been. That’s really all Geils did for “Love Stinks” to become their second most successful album shortly after it was released. Their next album, “Freeze Frame”, would do even better.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s debut album, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” was a highly anticipated album in the United States but not nearly as much as it was in the UK, where it had over a million copies in pre-sale orders, making it the number one selling album there immediately upon its release.

In addition to the original songs, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”
includes a few uniquely arranged covers, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, Edwin Star’s “War”, and Dionne Warwick’s “San Jose”.

The double album, which included four singles that had already topped the British charts and one that took the number three spot prior to its release, is about as brilliant a combination of synth pop, dance, and rock that you will hear anywhere. Many of the songs, including “Relax” and the title track, were considered controversial when they came out. The BBC banned “Relax” from being played on British radio and television for reasons of what it felt were sexually obscene lyrics. MTV banned the video for the song “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” for similar reasons.
The funny thing is, the bans actually helped the sales of the singles and subsequently, the album.