Supertramp – Crisis? What Crisis?

This is another one of those albums I bought mainly because of the album cover. Sure, I had heard other songs by Supertramp; I already owned “Breakfast in America” and “Crime of the Century”. Although they were a couple of my favorite albums, I really wasn’t looking for another Supertramp album. My record collection wasn’t that big, and when it comes to music, I like to have some variety. But then I saw the cover of “Crisis? What Crisis?”.

Rows of houses bordering on a gray and decrepit landscape of industrial factories spewing pollution into the air. Yet here is this guy absolutely determined to make the best of his situation. Among the crushed concrete and other debris that makes up his back yard, there he sits in his beach chair wearing swim trunks and sunglasses, under a bright yellow umbrella. Nearby is a table with a glass of his favorite mixed drink and a portable radio playing his favorite station. Ahhhh, this is the life.

The artwork spoke to me not only of always making the best of a bad situation, but also of never giving up; always striving for that place in the sun. Personally, I rank it as one of the best album covers of all time.

Oh, and the music is pretty darn good too.

Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports

A Pink Floyd album this is not. Neither is it truly a Nick Mason solo album. It’s more of a collaboration between Jazz artist Carla Bley and Nick Mason. Both were looking for something different to do in their respective careers. Since the success of “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Wish You Were Here”, and “Animals”, Mason wanted to do something outside of what was becoming the increasingly Roger Waters influenced Pink Floyd music. When Carla Bley contacted Mason about some new, less free-form jazz material she had written, it was just what he was looking for. So he lent his input and they co-produced this album.

Although Nick Mason’s name adorns the album, the drummer for Pink Floyd admits this is not really his first “proper” solo album, he labels it more of a musical experiment. Still, it is an exciting album, filled with a sound that is less non-conformist than Bley’s other material and a definite step outside the comfort zone of Pink Floyd’s success for Mason.

Carla Bley wrote all the songs for this album and co-produced it with Nick Mason, so some consider this to be more her album than his. I disagree. It is a collaboration between two artists wanting to do something outside what both felt had become considered the norm for them. My guess is that Bley didn’t want to alienate her free-form jazz fans, so Mason’s name was chosen for the marquee on the record. Plus, Mason’s association with Pink Floyd ensured a bit more commercial success for the record.

Alice Cooper – School’s Out

Alice Cooper wanted to do something special with the cover of their fifth album, “School’s Out”, so to fit the theme of its title, it folded out into and opened like an old school desk…with a pair of schoolgirl’s panties wrapped around the album.

That’s what’s cool, outside of the sound itself, about vinyl. I mean, just try to do that with a CD. The tiny size just wouldn’t work.

But “School’s Out” isn’t an album that’s just about the packaging. It is considered by many, including your’s truly, to be the original Alice Cooper band’s best album.

The fold-out cover was only used on the original pressings of “School’s Out” and the panties were pulled after the very first issue of the album. It’s rumored that some of the executives at Warner Brothers records felt it was in poor taste.

The full package, with the panties included, is so rare that I had to steal this copy from the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.

Just kidding. But it is hard to find. And the Hard Rock, Las Vegas does have a copy on display there.

U.K. – Night After Night

Eddie Jobson is an amazing musician. Case in point: his role in the British progressive rock band U.K. Not only could he play keyboards to a level that would make even Mozart smile, he was even more so a virtuoso on violin.

After their debut album, the prog rock supergroup lost its original drummer, Bill Bruford and lead guitarist extraordinaire Alan Holdsworth over creative differences. For their second album, “Danger Money”, U.K. replaced Bruford with the equally talented Terry Bozzio. The band decided to replace Holdsworth with…well, nobody. They instead placed more emphasis on Eddie Jobson’s keyboards and electric violin for the solos. Jobson was more than up to the challenge with their newer songs.

But what about playing the older songs live, on tour?

“Night After Night” answered that question in true evocation of Holdsworth’s talent. It’s on Alan Holdsworth’s solos where Eddie Jobson proves how amazing he is. He not only switches from keys to violin flawlessly but also adopts Holdsworth’s complex jazz infused solos perfectly to the violin without so much as flinching. If this was the album where you first heard U.K. you would swear the solos were written for electric violin.

Come to think of it, this is the album where I first heard U.K.

Well then, there you go.

Fripp & Eno – No Pussyfooting

Two eclecticly creative talents. One creatively eclectic album.

I knew I was in for something different when I picked up this 1973 album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, but sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind.

Filled with often atmospheric soundscapes, “No Pussyfooting” is an album intended to subdue and entrance. Two extended songs performed solely on guitar and synthesizer. No drums or bass, no vocals, no outside musicians. This is an album that is intended to take your mind on a journey, painting pictures with sound. It could easily be the soundtrack to an avant-garde movie that was never made or a backdrop for deep meditation.

“No Pussyfooting” is a true original classic that sits far outside the mainstream. Then again, what else would you expect from the minds of the main creative forces in King Crimson and early Roxy Music?

Styx – Crystal Ball

The first Styx album with Tommy Shaw in the lineup.

Although superstar success appeared to be on the horizon for Styx, it was the addition of Tommy Shaw’s voice, Mississippi influenced blues and slide guitar style and songcraft that propelled them to become one of the most popular bands in the 1970’s.

That success wouldn’t happen yet with “Crystal Ball”, although the album and its title track (penned by Shaw) would become Styx’s most successful album and single to that point in time. Styx’s follow-up “The Grand Illusion” would become the band’s true breakthrough album. Even so, “Crystal Ball” is every bit its successor’s equal; at least in my opinion.

Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell

There’s one reason an album becomes one of the greatest selling albums of all time.

Greatness.

The greatness of Todd Rundgren’s production.

The greatness of Jim Steinman’s songwriting.

The greatness of Meat Loaf’s performance.

It all comes together on “Bat out of Hell” with near perfect greatness, in a style that teams the angst and energy of Bruce Springsteen with the dramatics of a rock and roll broadway musical. The album has sold over 43 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling recordings of all time, and has spent over 500 weeks on the official UK record charts.

Pretty great no matter how you look at or listen ro it.

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.