Monday, July 26, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #76

Following last week's entry on one man/many band artist Jim Thirlwell, I thought it appropriate to choose another one-man musical whirlwind for this week's entry, although this one inhabits quite a different area of the musical universe than Mr. Thirlwell does.

William Orbit first appeared on the map in 1984 as one third of the trippily etheral synth trio Torch Song.  Their debut album, Wish Thing, kicks off with the simply amazing single "Don't Look Now," and from there flits and soars and sparkles with washes of melody and assorted bleeps and blorps.  It's not all as strong the opening track, but it is, on the whole, irresistable.  Laurie Mayer's honey-soaked vocals pull you right in, making the album's effect almost hypnotic: you'll hardly even realize that by midway through side two you're listening to a horribly wrong-headed stab at covering a cheesy 1970s radio staple ("Ode To Billy Joe").  That misstep aside, the album is well done and recommended.

A second album followed three years later, but by the time of Exhibit A's release, Orbit was becoming known as a capable producer, remixer and DJ.  Hence, the artist credit was changed to "Torch Song featuring William Orbit," and the music focused more on Orbit's synthesizer acrobatics and less on Mayer's vocals. Both Torch Song LPs are difficult to come by; neither has been reissued on CD to my knowledge.  Still, they're worth seeking out, especially Wish Thing.

The following year, Orbit dropped the Torch Song name and Laurie Mayer's vocals, and recorded an unnecessary cover of The Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way," found on the first record released under his own name, Orbit.  Getting that out of his system, he launched a dizzying catalogue of solo material under his own name and assorted pseudonyms (hello Mr. Thirlwell!) such as Bassomatic, Strange Cargo, and Electric Chamber.  A dozen or so albums appeared over the next ten years, mostly following the spirit of the original Torch Song material, but done in a more club-friendly dance style.  When not recording his own material, he was remixing others, working with names as well-known as Madonna, U2, and Prince.

In 1996, Orbit returned to the Torch Song name, bringing Mayer back into the fold, and recorded a new LP, Toward The Unknown Region.  Hailed by fans as his best work yet, its sound was more in line with his solo work than with either of the previous two Torch Song projects.

For this week's entry, we go all the way back to the beginning.  My brother stumbled upon the clip for "Don't Look Now" some months ago and brought it to my attention (thank you, Marc!), suggesting it might make for a good NW4NW entry. Indeed it does!

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Friday, July 23, 2010

There's Gonna Be A Reunion

"There's gonna be a reunion
Down by the telephone tree
And all your lips will be movin'
You're talking shit about me..."

- Telephone Tree by The Young Fresh Fellows

The countdown is on: one week from this Saturday will be my 25th High School Reunion.  Class of 1985 - can you believe that was a quarter of a century ago?  How did we get so old?

No Worries

Those of you who follow this blog assiduously will recall that in this post about my social anxieties I wrestled with attending this reunion, among other things.  I made the decision about a week ago to go.  Our reunion is being held at the Lancaster Convention Center, about a 30-minute walk from my front door, so I determined that if I show up and really have a lousy time, I can easily ditch and head for home. Or a bar. More likely a bar.

But I don't think I'm going to have a lousy time.  In fact, I'm looking forward to it! I'm excited to see faces I haven't seen in years and catch up in person with those who have been only unseen entities on the other end of a Facebook connection for the past year or two.  Sure, there are those who I really would rather not encounter - I think everyone has their short list like that, and I don't doubt that I'm on a few of those lists - but I'm not going to spend my time focusing on those folks, and I'm certainly not going to give them the power to stop me from showing up.  I'll smile and say hello if I must, and then spend my time with the people who matter.

Most surprising to me is the anxiety process which I described in that previous post has not begun.  Again, I made this decision a week ago.  Usually, a week is plenty of incubation time for a full-fledged panic to set in, and for me to begin scrambling to set up my "outs," my excuses for not going.  Since I have the safety-hatch built in this time, knowing I can easily leave at any time, I have managed to keep that panic at bay.

Oh, little bits of it have tried to grab a foothold: at least two nightmares so far where I'm at the reunion and things go horribly awry; where the bullies I suffered back then have not changed and I am defenseless and unable to retaliate.   But the full-on anxiety has not appeared.  More importantly, I don't find myself waiting for it.  Sure, I wonder if it will show up between now and then.  Another week is, as I said, plenty of incubation time.


To me, it's far more interesting to learn about what my classmates are doing with their lives now then to sit around awash in nostalgia.  But I suppose reliving the old days is a necessary part of the reunion process, and I do have fond memories of my high school years. What a different time it was back then.

Those were pre-Columbine days, and during my senior year it was unsafe to walk the halls of the school unarmed.  Our weapons of choice were called Tracer Guns.  These plastic pistols fired little plastic discs that sailed like mini frisbees and stung like the dickens when they hit you - especially from close range.  When the locker banks would clear out in the mornings as everyone headed to first period, the ground would be littered with yellow plastic circles.  The cafeteria was a likely place for an ambush, as were the restrooms.  And, I have cloudy memories of shootouts in the school's planetarium.  We had a blast, and it was all innocent fun.  To think what would happen to a kid bringing a plastic Tracer Gun into a school nowadays!

Do schools still do fire drills? As often as we did back then?  It seemed like we had fire drills on a weekly basis, where we all dutifully file out to the busport behind the school building or the grounds in front and loiter purposelessly until we were allowed back in.  I know those drills happened often enough that we no longer took them very seriously and were somewhat less than prompt in our practice evacuations.  Once, after taking a particularly long time to empty the building and just as long to meander back to class, our principal got on the intercom to scold us, and in the process made the oft-quoted remark, "This is a fire drill, not a lemonade party!"  Now, I've never been to a lemonade party, nor do I know anyone who has, but our principal was mad, and often had difficulty finding the right words when he was so agitated. This was classically demonstrated when someone pranked the school by pulling a fire alarm, sending us all through the process once again.  Across the loudspeaker came our principal's barely concealed fury in the form of the unanswerable question,  "Doesn't anyone remember the story of the three little pigs who cried wolf?"

Green Eggs and HamMy own bizarre sense of humor found outlet, if not always receptive audience,  in my high school days.  One year I entered the school's Talent Show.  My talent? I read Green Eggs and Ham aloud.  (Years before Rev. Jesse Jackson did it on SNL, mind you!) I found it hilarious to consider that you had to actually audition for the Talent Show, and me reading a children's book made the cut amongst the typical piano recitals, dance routines, etc.  Another time I managed to get a page worth of nonsense and gibberish published in our annual student literary magazine.  My most Andy-Kauffman-esque moment, however, was the night I DJ'd one of our school dances, playing an evening's worth of music hardly anyone knew or recognized on a cheap, rinky-dink stereo that could hardly be heard across an empty gym, much less one filled with my fellow students.  Very few people got that one - more than a few were kind of ticked, actually.  I still smile to remember the looks on some people's faces...

Older, Fatter, Better

Now, 25 years later, I'm going back.  Back to reminisce with old friends.  Back to see those who I did not know well then, but who have become good friends on Facebook and Twitter.  I can't say I don't have any preconceptions going in; I think we all do.  But I know I'm not the only one who has gotten older and fatter and balder in the ensuing quarter century (sorry, my friends, but your Facebook pics give you away!), and I'm not going with the hope or intention of impressing anybody.  I've got my faults and my idiosyncracies, but I'm living a pretty good life, thank you, and I'm in a happier place than I have been in years.  I have no doubt there will be stories from the reunion to share here, and rest assured I will!
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Monday, July 19, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #75

James G. Thirlwell might just be a genius.

Where most bands are comprised of many individuals, Thirlwell is an individual comprised of many bands: since 1981 Thirlwell has been unleashing his seething pseudo-industrial musical genre-fusion catharses on an unsuspecting world in a multitude of guises.  Most well-known for his various Foetus-based pseudonyms (Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, You've Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus Art Terrorism, Foetus Interruptus, etc.), he is also Clint Ruin and Frank Want.  He is Wiseblood; he is The Venture Brothers; he is DJ OTESFU, among myriad other names.

The sheer volume of his output is startling. Trouser Press lists no less than 21 albums and EPs in their admittedly abbreviated discography, and that only covers the music he has released himself.  Add to that his compositions for others and his assorted guest appearances, collaborations and studio manipulations, and you are faced with a sprawling musical family tree that puts most others to shame.  His music is multi-layered and genre-defying.  Bits of various styles and genres burble up through the muck: the punk aesthetic is fused to a swing beat, a surf guitar spices up a military march, strains of familiar melodies are hopelessly twisted and morphed into frightening spectres.  Every idea Trent Reznor ever had for Nine Inch Nails, Thirlwell had first and executed more deftly - and Reznor only scratched the surface of deep, murky pool.

If you don't know Thirlwell's music, the best place to jump in are his two masterworks under the Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel moniker, Hole and Nail.  Both will leave you breathless and stunned but wanting more.

This week's NW4NW entry is Thirlwell performing Nail's "Descent Into the Inferno," probably my favorite Thirlwell creation, on a UK TV show called The Tube.  How perfectly ironic to see him standing their lip-syncing like your typical pop artist, and how funny to see the disbelief and confusion on some of the faces in the audience...

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Day I Met Johnny Thunders

In the summer of 1989 I was both the Music Director and the Interim General Manager of WDCE (90.1 FM), the campus radio station at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA.  I had been appointed to the Music Director position at the beginning of the previous school year, and had been hosting a weekly three-hour Saturday night radio show for the better part of three and a half years by that point.

Among my duties as MD was the responsibility to arrange on-air interviews with bands who might be passing through Richmond, and matching those artists up with the DJs whose shows would be best suited and who had the ability to conduct a somewhat intelligent interview. (I remember my sophomore year roommate's spot-on impersonation of "every college DJ everywhere:" in a perfectly deadpan monotone voice, "OK, that was a song by The Cure, and now here's another song by The Cure...")

One day around mid-summer, I was in the station's office perusing the newest shipment of material to determine what would make the station's playlist, when the office phone rang.  A woman on the other end of the line introduced herself as Johnny Thunders' manager, and said he was going to be playing in Richmond that weekend, and were we interested in doing an interview with him?

Johnny Thunders!  Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls! Johnny Thunders of The Heartbreakers! Johnny Freakin' Thunders!  The epitome of New York glam-punk-rock-n-roll guitar greatness! THE Johnny Thunders? Nah...couldn't be...had to be a joke, right?

No, she insisted, this was a last-minute deal, here's his room number at the hotel where he'll be staying, give him a call on Friday and set it up.  I asked her what name he'd be staying under, and she said, "Just ask for Johnny Thunders."  Of course my next call was to the club where she said he'd be playing.  They verified that, yes, Johnny Thunders would be there, with next to no promotion because it was a last-minute booking.

That Friday, I called the hotel and asked for Johnny Thunders. The nasally New Yawk accent that answered was unmistakeably him.  He'd love to do an interview, he said, but he needed a ride to the station from the hotel, and by the way could we get him to the club also?  I called a friend of mine and told her, "We're chauffeuring Johnny Thunders around tonight!"

He hadn't come to town with a big entourage.  It was just Johnny and his saxophone player, Jamie Heath.  From the moment we shook hands, Johnny Thunders was among the friendliest people I've ever met in the music world.  "Hey, can we play a couple songs from my demo tape?" he asked as we drove across town to the radio station, shoving an unmarked cassette toward me.  Turns out he was between labels at the time, and was shopping some new solo stuff around.

The interview went well.  The regular Friday night DJ and Johnny Thunders and me, talking music and having Johnny cue up his own demo tape live and having a great time.  I wish I had a recording of that interview, but I don't.  The only thing I do have is a recording of the station promo he did for us:

From there we headed downtown to a little hole-in-the-wall on Grace Street where Johnny played - just guitar and saxophone - a mix of his newer stuff and a few classics.  Maybe fifty people showed up that night. We hung out with Johnny all night. I'd like to think he was clean at the time.  I can say that I saw no drugs that night, and Johnny was lucid; in fact, he was great to talk with and very funny.  But with Johnny's addictions were well known - the stuff of legend, as they say.  All I can tell you is, if there were any drugs there that night, he kept them hidden from us.

When the time came to drop Johnny off at the hotel, he made a big production out of thanking us for our hospitality and insisted that "if you ever come to New York, you look me up!"  He took his demo with him, it being the only copy he had, but he promised he would send a copy to the station the first chance he had.

No copy of the demo ever arrived, and I never heard from Johnny Thunders again.  Within a year and a half, he would be gone, found dead in a hotel room in New Orleans of what some people claim was a methadone overdose, although a lot of mystery still surrounds the event and many feel foul play was involved.

Yesterday would have been Johnny Thunders' 58th birthday.  To this day, when people ask me for my greatest "brush with rock and roll greatness" story, this is the one I tell them.  Hard to top Johnny Thunders buying you a beer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #74

A quick entry this week, and perhaps the most mainstream band I've included in the whole NW4NW series, but since they're playing right here in my good ol' hometown tomorrow night, and since they are one of those bands that everybody thinks of when you talk about New Wave, it's only fitting that this week's entry be The B-52's.

Not going into biography or discography here.  If you don't who The B-52's are, you really need to get out of the house more often.  The second band (behind Pylon) to come out of the Athens, GA music scene that would eventually give us an incredible string of fantastic bands (including, notably, R.E.M.), The B-52's combination of '50s/'60s kitsch, twangy surf guitars, and the juxtaposition of Fred Schneider's bombastically nasal yelps with Cindy Wilson's and Kate Pierson's southern-fried harmonies became the template for what the mainstream thought New Wave was supposed to sound like.

By the time The B-52's finally broke onto the American charts with "Love Shack," the band was already well past their prime.  That album (Cosmic Thing), as well as the follow-ups Bouncing Off the Satellites and Good Stuff, were clearly geared for commercial airplay, and to long-time fans sounded so watered down compared to their groundbreaking early material.  No collection of Punk/New Wave vinyl is truly complete without their first two albums.  The 1979 debut, The B-52's (sometimes called "the yellow album"), is still jaw-dropping 31 years later: fun, funny, insanely catchy and without a bad song, it is one of the ultimate party records ever recorded.  Classics like "52 Girls," "Planet Claire," "Dance This Mess Around," and of course "Rock Lobster" all sound as fresh and enthusiastic as they did back then.  Wild Planet, released the following year, picks right up where the debut left off, with "Private Idaho," "Give Me Back My Man," Strobe Light" and more.  Both are essential.  I also include 1983's Whammy! with those first two albums - although the material here is a step below the classics, when it hits the mark ("Legal Tender," "Song For A Future Generation," "Whammy Kiss") it scores big.

Last year, The B-52's released a brand new album, Funplex, which has its moments and shows that the band is still capable of getting the party going.  The tour they've been on brings them to Lancaster's American Music Theatre tomorrow night, but I don't think I'll be going.  $49 is a steep price to see them three decades on and well past their classic days.  I might have shelled out that amount back in the Whammy! days, but not now.

No, instead, I'll be content remembering the glory days of The B-52s.  This week's NW4NW entry, for example: here are The B-52's back in 1979 performing the classic "Private Idaho." Enjoy!

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #73

Gimmick bands are, as a rule, generally short-lived ensembles.  The early '80s saw a number of them come and go (anyone else remember Dog Police?), and once their short shelf life expired, that was that.  This week's entry in the NW4NW series is a rare exception to that rule, although for a long time it did not look like they would end up any differently.

Gail Peterson, Roxy Anderson, Joanne Holland and Doreen Holmes came together as The Catholic Girls at the beginning of the decade.  Dressed in matching Catholic schoolgirl uniforms and sporting cross earrings and punky snarls, their first single, "Private School" (released under the band name The Double Cross Schoolgirls), garnered enough attention in their native New Jersey and neighboring New York for the band to start being booked regularly at the many Punk and New Wave clubs springing up at the time.

The bands' musicianship improved steadily and Peterson's trilly vocals quickly became integral to their sound, and their first album, The Catholic Girls, appeared in 1982.  Sporting a new recording of "Private School," as well as the singles "Boys Can Cry" and "C'est Impossible," the album was well-received, but critics pounced on the bands' name/image combination and wrote them off as a gimicky novelty act.  A second album was recorded but not released, and The Catholic Girls disappeared.

Fast forward to the late '90s: as various labels trolled the early '80s to find long-forgotten albums to reissue to a new audience, Renaissance Records scored the rights to The Catholic Girls and the other unreleased material and made it all available on one CD.  Sales were strong enough to rekindle interest in the band, and in 2002 - twenty years after their debut - The Catholic Girls released their second album, Make Me Believe, and resumed touring in the NJ/NY/PA area.  2006 saw the release of Meet The Catholic Girls, making their second go-around more productive than their first!  The girls continue to play and record.

For this week's NW4NW entry, here's a clip of The Catholic Girls, in full regalia, performing "C'est Impossible" on TV in 1983. Enjoy!