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”.

Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! – Live! (Quadrophonic)

An amazing live performance by two legends. Recorded at what was probably the most incredible location to ever see a rock festival: inside the crater of the Diamondhead volcano in Honolulu Hawaii.

The Sunshine Festivals used to happen every year on New Year’s eve and day, and on the Fourth of July. The first festival was organized in 1970 and had about 12 thousand people in attendance. By 1979, it was attracting over 75 thousand people and had to be shut down due to concerns over the environmental concerns being caused by the huge crowds.

This blistering performance by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles was recorded on New Year’s day in 1972.

Listening to this performance in quadrophonic (a 1970’s analog version of surround sound that preceded home theater systems) really adds to the listening experience of this record. Well, I guess technically, I’m not listening to it in quad, but I find Dolby Pro Logic surround sound (an analog surround sound from the 1990’s that predates Dolby Digital surround sound) brings out the same effect as quad. If it’s not the same, it’s darn close. (I’m thinking they didn’t try to totally reinvent the wheel for analog home theater surround sound). The ambience of the venue is capture perfectly here, with the rear speakers making me feel like I’m sitting right in the middle of the crowd.

I really need to look into picking up some more quad albums.

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.

The Pineapple Thief – Dissolution (clear vinyl)

The Pineapple Thief is a band I had heard and read a lot about before finally buying an album by them. I bought their 11th record mainly because Gavin Harrison, one of my favorite drummers, had been brought into their fold. I never realized why I liked Gavin Harrison’s drumming so much until I listened to The Pineapple Thief’s 12th album, “Dissolution”. I can not stop listening to this record. A good part of that reason I discovered, is Harrison’s influence.

It is rare for a drummer to be as intricately involved in the songs he plays on as Gavin Harrison is. There was such a shift from the “The Wilderness” to “Dissolution”, that I had to read through the liner notes to see what had changed. It was immediately obvious. Gavin Harrison co-wrote all but two songs with The Pineapple Thief’s founder, Bruce Soord. The shift was as noticeable as when Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson brought Harrison into their fold in 2002. Coincidence? I think not.

Although I am not yet familiar with The Pineapple Thief’s earlier work, I am willing to bet that adding Gavin Harrison to the line-up, is one of the best decisions Bruce Swoord has ever made.

Styx – Paradise Theatre

Despite concept albums becoming less en vogue going into the ’80s, “Paradise Theatre” did pretty well for Styx. Actually, it became their only #1 album, spawned four singles, and sold over 3 million copies. Yeah, it did very well.

Released at the beginning of 1981, the album revolves around the declining moral, social, and political state of affairs in America coming out of the ’70s going into a new decade. They used the deteriorated state of Chicago’s once majestic Paradise Theatre as a metaphor for the concept that the songs revolve around.

Not only was the music on “Paradise Theatre” some of the best Styx has ever done, the album itself was a work of art. Somehow, without affecting the sound quality, side 2 of the record was etched with a prismatic image of sculptures from the theater’s marquee along with the band’s name. Every time I listen to “Paradise Theatre” I have to admire it. It truly is a work of art – as is the music that accompanies it.

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.

Yes – Yessongs

Sometimes two records just aren’t enough for your first live album – especially when your most popular songs were the epics Yes was famous for in 1973. Add into that the extended solos and improv jams, plus a excerpts from Rick Wakeman’s first solo album and you start to wonder why they didn’t go for four.

I’ve been wanting to listen to this album for a while, but I had to find the right time. More accurately. I had to find enough time. I love listening to “Yessongs” its entirety. It reminds me of what an incredible live band Yes was.

When you listen to the first five Yes albums, it’s easy to write off their musicianship as multiple take, over dubbed and edited together studio wizardry. Then, when you hear “Yessongs” it becomes an eye-opening – or rather, ear-opening experience; they really are that good. So good in fact, by the time I get to the end of “Yessongs”, I wish they had gone for four. It always leaves me wanting more. Then again, this was only 1973; Yes had plenty more to offer up after this.

Electric Light Orchestra II

In 1973, Electric Light Orchestra had a very different sound from Jeff Lynn’s highly polished production of their late ’70s and ’80s albums. Perhaps the most significant difference was that they hadn’t yet started to use an actual backing orchestra (probably because they couldn’t afford to hire one). Instead, the band used overdubs of the band members playing cellos and violins to create a bigger sound. On some songs, even the overdubbing was skipped, creating a more rock band / string quartet styled sound.

ELO’s early songwriting also took a different approach than their later albums. Even though Roy Wood left ELO before this album was released, his influence is still significantly felt here. Electric Light Orchestra II has a more experimental, progressive rock sound and the production is noticeably less slick than the direction Jeff Lynn took the group in their later years.

I love ELO’s later stuff but once I discovered their early works, I remember wishing they had done more albums like this. A standout track on this record is ELO’s take of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. With the integration of violins and cellos, the version on this album will always be the definitive one to me. Sorry Chuck.