Monday, February 22, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #54

The SlitsThe Slits via

The Slits came together in London in 1976. Singer Ari Up and drummer Palmolive added Viv Albertine (guitar) and Tessa Pollitt (bass) to form the first all-female band on the British Punk scene. That none of these women could play their instruments was hardly a bother to them. That Ari Up's vocals randomly wobbled off-key and off-rhythm caused them no concern. They slashed and bashed and screeched and made music and got noticed - noticed enough to snag the opening band slot on The Clash's White Riot tour in 1977.

By the time they got around to actually recording their first album, Cut, in 1979, they had come a long way. Palmolive had left the band, and the remaining Slits had become involved with producer Dennis Bovell, who pulled their sound out of the slash-n-bang and into spacey reggae-dub, a sound which underscored the other-worldliness of Ari's trippy amateur-hour vocals. Cut is an unusual record, but an excellent one. From their exuberant (if unsteady) cover of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" to celebrations of "Shoplifting" and "Love Und Romance," there are no clinkers here. The centerpiece, though, is the loping, spiraling "Typical Girls." Here their lyrics still spit the anti-society Punk Rock mantra ("Just another marketing ploy/A typical girl gets a typical boy"), but the laid back reggae beat and half-finished feel of the song make the message far more palatable, and therefore more insidious, than had they snarled it like their safety-pinned contemporaries.

Two years later they released The Return of the Giant Slits, which saw the band exploring African and Asian music while continuing to make use of dub-reggae sensibilities. An OK record for what it is, but nothing near the grandeur of Cut. With that, The Slits went their separate ways until reuniting in 2005. Once again they took their time about recording; their third lp, Trapped Animal, appeared four years later, in 2009.

This week's NW4NW entry is the amazingly wonderful "Typical Girls" from Cut. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Stunningly Poor Follow Up: FAIL Continues!

I'm sure you all read my rant the other day about the incredibly, offensively bad customer service I received from the other day - so bad that I ended up canceling the service after 5 years with them on the basis of the way I was treated. If you haven't, please take a moment to read it now.

Today I received the email confirmation of my cancellation, which contained the first inklings that maybe they did value me as a customer after all:

Granted, not the most heartfelt attempt to win me back, but it made me think for a moment: Had I acted rashly? Did I really want to lose my loyalty rate? What if, down the road, I did go back to

And then I read on, and began laughing out loud at the next part of the email:

First of all, "Undo your cancel"? Tell you what - you guys "do your grammar" and maybe then I'll "undo my cancel."

Better still - notice the deadline they've given me by which to "undo my cancel"? February 7, 2010. The email arrived today, February 17, 2010. I actually canceled on February 15, 2010. "It's easy!" they say. Sure, if I had a time machine handy.

At least I can laugh at it now, but I shudder to think that this a company doing business online internationally. This is the best they can come up with?

Meanwhile, I now have some very nice gift cards for iTunes that I think I'll be putting to use. Thanks for playing, eMusic. We have some lovely parting gifts for you...

Monday, February 15, 2010 = FAIL

Let me share with you folks a tale of frustration, poor customer service, and how to go about losing a long-time customer in no time at all:

Being the music fan that I am, I have had subscriptions with both iTunes and for quite some time. In the case of, since 2004. I was always pleased with the catalog of music eMusic presented, and from the start their high-quality .mp3 downloads were, to me, preferable to iTunes' .m4p files. Whenever both services competed on a particular song or album, eMusic would get my business.

eMusic uses a slightly different model than iTunes' pay-per-download approach. eMusic charges a monthly subscription rate that allows you to download "x" number of songs per month, with higher-priced subscriptions allowing a greater number of downloads. eMusic also made things easy by allowing PayPal to be used to auto-pay each month.

For nearly five years, all was honky-dory, until this month's subscription payment. Knowing that my monthly downloads generally renew by the end of the first week of the month, I went up to the site last week to pick this month's downloads. Upon signing in, I was greeted with a message in bold red type telling me "Your PayPal account could not be authorized for payment! Please provide a valid credit card number or update your PayPal account information."

Well that's not good! I knew there would be no reason for my PayPal account not to be working, so, fearing that someone had somehow gotten into my account, I was on the phone with PayPal in no time. After a brief conversation with a helpful, friendly agent at PayPal, it was determined that (1.) no breech of my account security had occurred, and (2.) there was no obvious reason why payment should not have been authorized the same as it had been every month for the past five years. The problem must be on eMusic's side.

So I went to eMusic, and after twenty minutes of searching for a contact number, called their customer service. I explained to the agent there what the situation was, and she suggested I go through the "Update Your Account Info" process. No dice - three times we tried and it still came back saying the account could not be authorized for payment. This agent apologized, and then said she would escalate the situation to her superiors, and I would be getting an email response from them in about 24 hours with a solution.

Today, three business days (five calendar days) later, having not heard a peep from eMusic, I called back. Here's where the skies begin to darken...

I wound up being connected to an agent who seemed somewhat less than thrilled to be doing her job. Her thick accent made it difficult to understand all of what she was saying, but it quickly became apparent that there was no record of my previous call, or at least none that she was going to acknowledge. "You will need to provide a credit card number or some alternate form of payment," she kept repeating. I tried explaining to her that I had verified with PayPal that nothing was wrong with the account, but she paid no attention.

"I think you need to call PayPal and find out why they won't authorize," she said in a monotone voice. As I tried yet again to explain that I had already done that, I realized why she wasn't hearing me - she was talking over me! "I see you already tried to update your PayPal information several times. Why did you keep doing that?" she demanded, as if asking a child why he had drawn on a wall with permanent markers. "Because your agent suggested I do!" I sputtered, growing more frustrated by the moment. "Well, now your PayPal account is locked out by our security. You'll have to give us a credit card number."

I tried to ask how this was now my fault and why, after five years of everything working fine, I suddenly had to provide a credit card number, but she continued to talk over me. "Everything is case sensitive. Maybe you entered your PayPal password wrong." she sneered. Three times?!? Doubtful, especially since the PayPal site opened right up each time. "Well, I don't know what to tell you. You can wait 120 days if you like and then try again, or you can give us a credit card..."

I blew my stack at that point. "No ma'am," I said, a bit loudly and forcefully, "YOU need to determine what's wrong on your end. I have been with eMusic for years and have never had a problem. PayPal has confirmed that there is no problem. A promised resolution from your department did not arrive, and now you're telling me that because I followed the directions of one of your agents, that I must give you a credit card number? No, you need to find out what the problem is."

She then verified the last three payments that had been made, verified that February's payment had not been authorized, and again said, "Unfortunately, your PayPal account is now locked from our system for 120 days because you tried to update it three times..."

"Ma'am," I began through gritted teeth, "you can repeat that as many times as you like, but I am not going to provide a credit card number. I use PayPal because I don't want to give out my credit card numb..." I stopped because I realized she was again talking over me.

"...your PayPal account is locked out for 120 days." I heard her again reciting. "We do that because we value our customer's security."

"Do you value your actual customers?" I asked, "Because you're about to lose a long-standing one."

"Hold on one moment, let me see what I can do," she said. Onto eterna-hold I went, with the worst, loudest hold music imaginable. When she finally returned several minutes later, it was the same refrain once more, with feeling: "You tried to update your account too many times, so it is locked down for 120 days." she sneered.

"Then please cancel my account." I calmly requested. She didn't bat an eyelash: "OK, please hold for your cancellation reference number," which she then rattled off to me. And that was that.

I am flabbergasted at the complete lack of courtesy I was shown. I understand that sometimes there are situations that customer service call center folks cannot do anything about, which was likely the case here: the computer said PayPal was locked out, and I'm sure she had no authority to override the computer. But should that give her carte blanche to talk over me, to take an accusatory, condescending tone with me, or to blatantly refuse to listen to what I was telling her? And not even so much as a "We're sorry to see you go," when I asked to cancel? After five years? In fact, it seemed she couldn't get me through the cancellation and off the phone fast enough.

It is stunning how poor customer service can be at times, and how quickly a lousy experience can sour a person towards a business. You business owners out there should take note: whether you're an online business or a "real world" business, you need to know how your customer service people are treating your customers, because if they aren't doing it well, those customers will not remain customers.

Furthermore, upon reflection, a pleasant experience would have ended up very differently. I wasn't upset or ready to cancel when I first called. Even if nothing could have been done differently as far as a locked account, being treated with simple courtesy would have made a world of difference. Being spoken with instead of talked down to would have resulted in the retention of this customer. It's not difficult to do and it costs a business nothing to provide pleasant customer service, but poor customer service can cost plenty.

Congratulations, iTunes! You'll be seeing much more business from me!

The Knack's Doug Fieger Passes Away (August 21, 1952 - February 14, 2010)

Sad news to report: Doug Fieger, lead singer of The Knack, passed away yesterday at age 57 after a lengthy battle with brain and lung cancers.

The Knack were best known for their debut single, "My Sharona," which spent six weeks at #1 in 1979 and was the biggest-selling single of that year according to Billboard Magazine. There really was a Sharona - Fieger wrote the song about an ex-girlfriend, Sharona Alpern, who is now a real estate agent in California. It's choppy start-stop rhythms and anthemic sound made "My Sharona" a classic that continues to turn up on film soundtracks and in various commercials. In addition to kick-starting The Knack's career, the song indirectly also began the career of "Weird Al" Yankovic who parodied it as "My Bologna."

The Knack's label, Capitol Records, hoped to position the band as the New Wave version of The Beatles, even resurrecting the old orange-swirl label design they used back in The Beatles heyday specifically for Knack releases. The follow-up single, "Good Girls Don't," just missed the Top Ten, peaking at #11 later that same year. The following year "Baby Talks Dirty," a "Sharona" soundalike, hit the lower reaches of the Top 40, and would be The Knack's last charting single.

Fieger, however, continued to be a hot commodity in the New Wave/Power Pop world, writing or co-writing songs for many other artists, doing production work, and adding guest vocals or session work on other artists' records.

Fieger had been battling cancer for several years. He was at his home in Woodland Hills, CA when he passed. The Knack's Official Website currently bears the message, "Our hearts are broken, we will miss you Doug."

In his honor, here are all three of The Knack's Top 40 hits:

The Knack - My Sharona

Rab | MySpace Video

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #53

YelloYello via

This week's NW4NW entry is chosen in honor of Valentine's Day, and what better choice than Yello's "I Love You"?

From their 1983 album You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess, "I Love You" was a huge underground and club hit in its day, and remains a classic New Wave favorite.

Yello formed in Switzerland in the late '70s. The trio of Boris Blank, Carlos Perón and Deiter Meier began making music using very few actual instruments. Instead, they relied on tape manipulations and electronic sampling, although not sampling in the sense that became the music industry standard. Rather than sample existing recordings, Blank built a library of original samples: sounds of instruments, sounds collected from various environments, car horns, sheets of metal being rattled, what have you. Perón would take these samples and run them through various iterations of tape processing, with the final result often being unidentifiable as the original sound. Meier would then add vocals over the top of this bed of bleeps and blips to complete the recording.

One thing that set Yello apart from other studio-noodlers and electronic experimenters of the time was their sense of humor. There was absolutely no arty pretension to what they were doing; they were just having fun making music and wanted people to have fun dancing to it. That their music was quite unlike anything else at the time was more an aside than the point of the exercise.

Perón left the band shortly after "I Love You," but Blank and Meier continued on as a duo. They achieved worldwide success when their single "Oh Yeah" was featured in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off; it has since gone on to be used in about a gazillion other movies and commercials. The two continue to make their odd music, most recently releasing Touch Yello last year.

"I Love You"
is one of the high points of their extensive recorded output, and I'm happy to offer the clip as this week's entry. Happy Valentine's Day!

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just 6 Days Away...What are Your Traditions?

A baseball.Image via Wikipedia

We here on the East Coast are slowly digging out from the Blizzard of '10. Nearly three feet of snow over two storms within days of each other, not to mention winds of up to 40 mph whipping all that white stuff into drifts twice as deep. I happen to love the stuff (yeah, even with all the shoveling!), but I know many, many folks who have seen enough snow now to satiate them for the next two winters.

Despite the snowy tundra that surrounds us, conversations among a certain group of my friends has turned to the coming spring, and how none of us can wait for the 2010 Baseball Season to start! Our wait is not that much longer: pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training this coming Wednesday, February 17, for most teams (a few teams don't report until Thursday or Friday - you can check your favorite team's schedule here.)

It's still a bit early for me to lock in my predictions for the season, but, just as many ballplayers have their superstitions and rituals they must follow in order to feel that everything will be as it should, so I have my annual rituals to ring in the new baseball season:

1. The Annual Reading of Ball Four:
Jim Bouton's first hand account of a season spent trying to survive in the major leagues with the woefully doomed Seattle Pilots (and other teams) as an eccentric knuckleballer (hmm...are there any other kinds?) is simply my favorite piece of baseball writing ever presented for public consumption. Highly controversial in its day for shattering the myth of ballplayers as paragons of virtue that had long been the public image presented by all those ghost-written autobiographies that crowded library shelves in the '50s and '60s, it is hysterically funny, highly quotable, and much tamer in today's world than it seemed at the time of it's publication 40 years ago.

2. The Annual Viewing of Game 6 of the 1980 World Series: Lifelong Phillies fans like myself will forever be able to tell you where they were and how they felt at 11:29pm on October 21, 1980 when Willie Wilson swung through a 1-and-2 fastball, Tug McGraw leapt from the Veterans Stadium mound, and the Phils were MLB's World Champions for the first time in the franchise's long history. I watch that game at the beginning of every Spring Training, hoping to see the Phils go all the way again. Since then, they've been to the Series four more times, but only won it once more. This year...this year!

3. The Annual Listening to Tug McGraw Reading Casey at the Bat:
I was pleased several years back to find a vinyl copy of the Tugger reading Casey at the Bat with The Philly Pops providing orchestral accompaniment. I usually give it a spin on the turntable the night before Opening Day.

This year, I'll be adding a fourth tradition: While the Phillies are, always have been, and always will be my team, I am also fascinated by the story of The Seattle Pilots (see tradition #1, above). The shortest-lived team in modern MLB history played exactly one season, 1969, before being moved to Milwaukee and transforming into the Brewers - and, unfortunately, providing Bud Selig with his ticket into Major League Baseball. In celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Pilots' lone season, a new documentary began production last year. Finally finished, the filmmaker, Steve Cox, is now accepting pre-orders for the DVD, scheduled to ship March 5. The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History looks to be an outstanding collection of memories and rare media clips from an unusual blip in baseball's storied past. Check out this clip:

I'll be reviewing the documentary here once I've received it, but I highly recommend you get in line for one as well, before they're gone - the team only lasted one season; who knows how long the documentary will be here!

In six days, these traditions will begin here in Ruttville in celebration of the coming baseball season. How about you? What are your annual traditions that ring in the baseball season for you each year?

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Monday, February 8, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #52

Fellow vinyl enthusiasts well know that joyful rush that comes only when you finally track down a particular record you've been looking for since forever, and manage to find it at a fraction of the cost you should have paid for it. It doesn't happen often, but we who spend hours digging through crates of $1 and $2 vinyl in thrift shops, junk shops, and record conventions, or who stay up all night doing web searches with slight misspellings hoping to find that orphaned eBay listing where the seller mistakenly put his "Misftis" singles up for auction at a 99-cent starting bid, do occasionally uncover a gem or two among the endless boxes of crap.

I got that rush last week. After years and years of searching and passing up on copies with three-digit price tags, I finally snagged a copy of Cristina's impossibly rare 12-inch single "Is That All There Is?" Thanks to an eBay gift card hanging around from Christmas, my out of pocket cost was under $10 for a piece of New Wave vinyl that often fetches fifteen times as much!

In the late-'70s New York underground scene, the violent, atonal No-Wave blurtings of groups like Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and The Contortions were evolving into the much more melodic "mutant disco" scene. The skronky horns and flat, off-key vocals of No-Wave, melded with Punk Rock nihilism and driven by a mid-tempo 4/4 beat, were wrapped in the trappings of the Studio 54 scene to create a sound and image that was at once too polished and danceable for the scruffy CBGB's crowd and too artistic and intelligent for the Disco crowd. Of course, the artists making this music wished to be part of neither crowd, often ignoring the punks and viciously skewering the club set.

Onto this stage stepped Cristina (born Cristina Monet), a 23-year-old Harvard dropout with a moneyed pedigree, a razor-sharp wit, and a perfectly affected persona for the scene: she was alienated, condescending, and icy. She was gorgeous and unattainable, and oh-so-bored with everything. Her biography on the Ze Records website notes Richard Strange's spot-on assessment of her: "In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna."

She entered the music business by marrying Michael Zilkha, who would shortly thereafter found Ze Records. Her first musical foray (also Ze's first release as a label) was an incredibly biting, sarcastic single, "Disco Clone," which featured additional vocals by an uncredited and then relatively unknown Kevin Kline. Her next single would seal her status as a New Wave legend: a take on Peggy Lee's 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" that viciously ripped the entire New York club scene to shreds and so appalled the song's writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, as to have them bring about a lawsuit to have the record withdrawn within weeks of its release and all unsold copies destroyed.

Cristina had rewritten the lyrics of the song to update it a bit, describing the "bored-looking bankers dancing with beautiful models" and "boys with dyed hair and spandex t-shirts dancing with each other" that populated NYC nightlife, and declaring her love for "James" who "beat [her] black and blue," but she would still "kill for that guy." On her final turn through the chorus, she changed the line "let's bring out the booze and have a ball" to "let's bring out the 'ludes and have a ball." It was all too scandalous for 1980, and the record was yanked despite being one of the most requested singles on legendary Los Angeles radio station KROQ. Despite the controversy and the record being pulled, the song was included on the first Rodney On The ROQ compilation album (noted only as "Surprise!" on the record label), which was the only place it could be found for many years.

A couple more singles followed, along with two outstanding albums. Her 1980 debut lp, Cristina, was written and produced by August Darnell and Coati Mundi (both founding members of Kid Creole & the Coconuts); four years later she enlisted Don Was of Was (Not Was) to produce the incredible Sleep It Off (and co-wrote that albums stunning single, "Ticket To The Tropics," with Doug Fieger of The Knack)...and then she quit.

Both albums were reissued on CD in 2004, with Cristina being retitled Doll In The Box and including the early singles - including the much sought after "Is That All There Is?" However, both CDs have since gone out of print and now fetch a pretty penny themselves, although the music can be downloaded at much more reasonable prices from

But, since I finally found an original vinyl copy of the "Is That All There Is?" single at a bargain price, I have chosen it to be this week's NW4NW entry. No video clip was ever made, of course, but a fan kindly posted a clip with the cover art and lyrics on YouTube for us to enjoy. Cristina did make a promo clip for 1984's "Ticket To The Tropics," which I have seen exactly once in my life and cannot be found online anywhere to my knowledge...oh how I would LOVE to see that one again. As a bonus, however, I'm including an audio-only clip of that wonderful song as well. See how long it takes you to figure out what she's really singing about...

Monday, February 1, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #51

The SaintsThe Saints via

"Rock music in the '70s was changed by three bands: The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and The Saints." -Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats

When and where did Punk Rock get its start? Depending on who you ask, the answer may vary from the UK around 1976-77 with bands like The Sex Pistols and The Damned, to New York City circa 1975 with bands like The Ramones, The Heartbreakers and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, to Detroit in 1969 with The Stooges and The MC5. Strong cases can be made for all three, but I'd like to offer a fourth possibility: Australia in 1974, when Chris Bailey, Ed Kuepper and Ivor Hay came together to form The Saints.

Coming out of the same Australian scene that was contemporaneously spawning Radio Birdman and would eventually give rise to The Fun Things, The Saints were all energy and chainsaw guitars when the trio first hit the Australian circuit. While not quite as minimalistic as The Ramones (who were also just getting started a world away in NYC), The Saints' sound was every bit as primitive and loud.

By 1976, Kym Bradshaw was added on bass, and The Saints' first single, "(I'm) Stranded,", was causing major waves both in their homeland and abroad (The UK-based Sounds magazine famously hailed "(I'm) Stranded" as "the single of this and every week!"). An album with the same title followed shortly thereafter, and remains one of the finest slabs of Punk Rock vinyl you'll find anywhere - check out my post from last February, 15 Albums That Changed My Life, to take a listen.

With the coming of their second album, Eternally Yours, in 1978, The Saints expanded their sound beyond the slash-n-burn guitar attack of that first album. Most notably, a horn section (!) created a fuller, more commercially agreeable sound. Still, the snarl was evident in Bailey's voice and the band's fury was not diminished.

A third album, Prehistoric Sounds, followed a year later, and moved the band even further from their initial sound. Dabblings of jazz and R&B left fans scratching their heads a bit, and internal dissension between Bailey & Kuepper regarding musical direction was evident. It would be the final album by the original lineup.

Kuepper left to form The Laughing Clowns, who continued to follow the jazz/punk direction. Bailey kept The Saints alive with a revolving door of musicians, and evolved the band to a more commercial sound. 1987's All Fools Day saw The Saints reach their high-point here in the US with considerable airplay on both college radio and MTV for the singles "(You Can't Tamper With) The Temple of the Lord" and "Big Hits (On the Underground)." The Saints have continued to release albums as recently as 2006.

This week's NW4NW pays tribute to the early Australian Punk Rock version of the band, the classic original lineup of Bailey, Kuepper, Hay and Bradshaw, with a clip for the scathing single from Eternally Yours, the wonderful "Know Your Product":

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