Monday, May 30, 2011

The Go-Go's Go Wild In Hershey PA

[Note: The regular Monday feature, New Wave For The New Week, will return next week.]

It only took me 30 years, but last night I crossed off another from the "Bands I Need To See Live" section of my personal bucket list.  The Go-Go's played at The Hershey Theater in Hershey, PA last night - a show that was a wonderful combination of music, party and nostalgia for the good-ol-days.

My friend Janel and I could not have timed our arrival at the venue much better.  We saw the lines outside, and given the heat and humidity of the day, neither of us were thrilled with the idea of waiting outside. No worries, as it turned out.  No sooner did we take our place in line than the ushers opened doors and let everyone in.  As someone who has attended innumerable shows at innumerable clubs in innumerable towns over the past 25 years, I can tell you, that never happens!  If anything, the doors are going to open late.  It was a sign that a good evening lie ahead.

And yes, I did say "ushers," not "bouncers."  The Hershey Theater is just that - a beautiful old theater with stage, orchestra pit, and tiered seating.  Seating! Again, after years of standing on hard concrete beer-soaked floors crammed sardine-like beyond fire code limits in warehouse-style spaces to see many of my favorite bands, the concept of sitting in plush, upholstered theater seats was a foreign one.  No matter, because The Go-Go's were greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation when they took the stage and launched into "Vacation;" for the rest of the show, hardly anyone sat down.

I know from live recordings I have heard over the years that, much as I love them, hearing The Go-Go's live is a bit of a gamble.  When they're on, they're awesome, but when they're having an off night they have been known to induce a cringe or two among my circle of friends.  Last night may have only been the second night of the current Ladies Gone Wild Tour, but they were most definitely on! They were energetic and entertaining, and looked like they were having as much fun as the crowd.  Nothing is worse than catching a band on a night when they look and sound like they'd rather be anywhere else but there; The Go-Go's were definitely not one of those bands last night.

Their set relied heavily on their 1981 debut album Beauty And The Beat (naturally, as this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of that LP, now available in a special anniversary reissue), but they pulled some from every album, even giving the single from 1994's Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's compilation, "The Whole World Lost Its Head," a run-through, as well as Belinda Carlisle's solo hit "Mad About You" and Jane Wiedlin's wonderful collaboration with Sparks, "Cool Places."  Most surprising was a decidedly excellent cover of The Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper."  For their second encore and final song, they went deep into their back catalog to play "Fun With Ropes," which only ever saw release in a roughly recorded version included on Return.  Have to say, getting to see The Go-Go's perform "Our Lips Are Sealed" ranks up there with the best performances of favorite songs I have ever seen. A nice touch:  having never played Hershey before, they dedicated Beauty's "This Town" to Hershey, PA, changing the line "it is so glamorous" to "it is so chocolatey..."

The theater was packed with eager Go-Gos fans and bouncing beach balls, which also kept the energy level high.  We agreed heading in that neither of us could predict what kind of crowd might be showing up. It was fascinating to do a bit of people watching: there were families with kids who couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 bopping along happily with the music; there were folks in our age group, some in full rock-and-roll costume, others as preppy as you could imagine; there was a large older contingent, too.  Everyone knew the songs and sang and clapped along and had a great time, though.

All in all, one of the more fun shows I've been to in awhile, and I sure won't complain about not having to sit through a series of opening bands.  I had hoped to get a chance to get to thank the band for their music and maybe get a record or two signed - who knows when or if they'll be back on the East Coast again! - but that didn't happen.  So, Belinda, Jane, Kathy, Charlotte and Gina - if you're reading this, thank you for the past 30+ years, and thank you for a great time last night in Hershey!

Monday, May 23, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #124

Since the earliest days of rock and roll music being pressed into vinyl, there has existed the bands that, well, don't actually exist.  One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon happened during the late-60s/early-70s bubblegum era, when a session musician by the name of Tony Burrows was actually the lead vocalist on four contemporary top-ten records: The Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)," White Plains' "My Baby Loves Lovin'," The Pipkins' "Gimme Dat Ding" and The Brotherhood of Man's "United We Stand."  One guy, four simultaneous hit records, four bands that didn't really exist! (He'd add a fifth a few years later with "Beach Baby" by The First Class.)

The New Wave equivalent to Tony Burrows may not have been quite so prolific or successful, but the influence Daniel Miller had on hundreds upon hundreds of musicians to follow his lead and go make a record is hard to understate.  After all, his initial studio project needed a record label, so Miller created Mute Records, which would go on to introduce the world to bands like Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Fad Gadget among many others.

Miller was a bored film editor who, in 1978, discovered the two muses that would propel him into the music world: a synthesizer and the novel Crash by J.G. Ballard.  Miller was taken by Ballard's description of characters whose sexual fetish centers around purposefully caused automobile accidents and the injuries caused by them, and sought to translate that theme into music.  The cold, electronic sounds of the synthesizers of the day were a perfect aural analogy for the cold technology that propelled Ballard's story, and in short order Miller had written and recorded "Warm Leatherette."  A stark, minimalist piece that involves two chords and virtually no melody, "Warm Leatherette" is nonetheless insidiously, almost hypnotically catchy.  Miller succeeds in his effort to use sound to mimic driving through city streets and tunnels at high speed.  The music may be primitive and almost laughably simple, but it does suggest motion.  You can almost hear the buildings whizzing past in a blur as the car continues forward intent on its target.  Miller's utterly emotionless vocal creates an otherworldly aura that renders his final request of his target to "make love before you die" as nothing more than the completion of a task as opposed to a final romantic gesture.  It's a stunning record even by today's standards; in 1978 it was startling. Miller credited his work to a fictional band called The Normal, and "Warm Leatherette" (b/w "T.V.O.D.") became the first single released on the Mute label. 

For his next trick, Miller went to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.  If The Normal was cold and feelingless synth art, them The Silicon Teens would be downright giddy throwaway pop product! With a wink and a nod to another non-existent band, The Flying Lizards, Miller's Silicon Teens project took well-known hits of the previous generation and reinterpreted them in a new medium and not without a full dose of snarky irony.  Where The Flying Lizards deconstructed and minimalized the familiar, The Silicon Teens left their source material relatively unwarped.  Imagined as a futuristic cover band, these fictional Teens breezed through plinky, bleepy covers of  "Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)," "Memphis, Tennessee," and "You Really Got Me," among several others, on their lone album, 1980's Music For Parties.  Once again, this was all Daniel Miller, but this time he had to do more than invent a band name: he had to invent a band!  After all, in 1980 the music video era was starting to pick up steam, and Miller needed some Silicon Teens to make a clip of their own.  So he went out and hired a group of actors to portray The Silicon Teens in a video for "Memphis."  His newly cast band also made the tours of UK pop music shows and radio station interviews.

After this, Miller began to focus more on studio work for the bands he was beginning to sign to the Mute label, although over the years he would occasionally collaborate with other artists on different projects.  Nothing quite captured people's attention like The Normal and The Silicon Teens, however.  So, for this week's NW4NW entry, let's hear from each! First up, The Normal's "Warm Leatherette," and then The Silicon Teens' "Memphis, Tennessee."  Enjoy!

Silicon Teens - Memphis Tennessee by Rikardo1980

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: Wake Up

Jason Deeds, a member of the local writers group I participate in, has been in the habit of providing us with weekly writing prompts which he dubbed Flash Fiction Friday.  I have not, however, been in the habit of making use of those prompts, as I have never been particularly pleased with my ability (or lack thereof) to write fiction.  In my continuing efforts to push my writing out of my comfort zone, I decided to start joining in.  I decided I will also share my ham-fisted attempts at fiction writing here, hoping to receive feedback from you good readers.  Is it any good? Is it crap? Should I spare you further attempts in this genre, or should I keep going?

This week's prompt was: "The morning you woke up and everyone was gone, no family, no friends, no one that you can find. The Rapture happened and you were left behind. What do you do?"  Here is my take:

Wake Up

You know that briefest of moments when you first wake up but you haven't yet opened your eyes?  I clung to that moment, happily existing midway between sleep and consciousness.  I buried my head into my pillow and squeezed my eyelids even more tightly, let myself feel the weight of my body against the mattress.  It was so perfectly comfortable, not unlike what sleeping on a cloud must feel like.  Through the open window by the side of my bed, a cool summer-like breeze carried the sounds of children happily laughing and playing, and the excited chatter of neighbors.  A lot of chatter and a lot of neighbors, I thought, but I wasn't annoyed by the noise.  In fact, it was almost melodic.

I lay there for a moment more, feeling absolutely joyful.  How wonderful to start the day in such a great mood! Then, another of my senses awakened: the familiar, homey aroma of bacon, eggs, hotcakes and fresh-squeezed oranges wafted through my room from the downstairs kitchen.  I sat up, stretched and yawned, threw on my robe and went downstairs to investigate.

My grandmother stood at the kitchen stove whistling happily, and when I appeared in the doorway she turned, smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and greeted me with outstretched arms. "You're here, Little One!" she exclaimed, calling me by the familiar nickname she had always used for me.  I rushed to her and embraced her with overflowing happiness.  "Nana!" I cried, "what are you doing here?"

Then, in a moment, the realization: Nana had passed away five years ago.  I tried to speak, but she seemed to anticipate my question. "Don't worry, it will all make sense soon enough.  Now run along outside with everyone else. Breakfast will be ready soon."  And with that, she shooed me out the door just as she had when I was a child.

The fresh air nearly took my breath away.  The neighborhood never looked so vibrant; the sky never so blue and the grass never so green.  And people! People everywhere, laughing, chattering, was utterly joyous.  I spotted my family congregated over by the neighbor's fence, and I went to join them when I was stopped by a hand on my shoulder.

I turned to see who it was but the light was so bright, as if a thousand halogen lamps were being shined directly at me.  My eyes squinted shut in self-defense, and then a voice I did not recognize spoke.

"We really must apologize.  It's not often that these kind of mix-ups happen, but today has been a particularly busy day.  It's been easiest to bring entire families, and in most cases that accomplishes it.  But in your case..."  The voice hesitated for a moment.  "Again, we really apologize. There's no easy way to put this other than to simply say it: You're not supposed to be here."

Again I tried to speak, but the voice continued: "Fortunately, this can be corrected relatively easily. If you'll just step this way..."

I felt a sudden exhaustion, a sudden need to go back to sleep as the bright light enveloped me, and again I found myself in that odd purgatory between sleep and consciousness.  I quickly shook off the bonds of sleep and sat bolt upright in bed.  I rubbed my eyes and looked around at my room, shrouded in the grey of yet another rainy May morning.  I looked out the window and saw not a soul; heard not a sound other than an ominously long, low rumble of thunder in the distance.  The sky looked awfully dark, as if there was about to be one Hell of a storm...
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Monday, May 16, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #123

Here's another NW4NW entry from the "Hidden Gems Just Waiting To Be Rediscovered" file: Brisbane, Australia's The Riptides.

Between 1978 and 1983, The Riptides released four outstanding singles, one excellent mini album, and one fantastic full-length LP that essentially collected everything on one slab o' vinyl.  Despite a rabid fanbase and at least two comeback albums, they sadly remain under-appreciated today.  Here's me doing my part to, hopefully, help right that wrong!

At the time calling themselves The Numbers, Mark Callaghan and his band's first release was a three-song 7" called Sunset Strip.  A raw and ragged affair, the punchy, punky tunes were catchy despite their stripped-down, bare-bones sound.  Only 500 copies were pressed, making this a truly difficult-to-find collector's item.  There existed another Aussie band calling themselves The Numbers at that time, however, so - after a minor shakeup in personnel - Callaghan renamed his band The Riptides, and reissued Sunset Strip in a remixed/remastered edition of 2000 copies.  The lead track, "77 Sunset Strip," caught on like gangbusters, and defined The Riptides' surf-twang/power-pop sound.  Quickly thereafter, the follow-up single, "Tomorrow's Tears," proved just as popular locally and reinforced that musical direction.

Their first venture into 12" vinyl was 1981's 6-song mini album Swept Away.  The lead single was a stomper called "Only Time" that fell only slightly short of the mark set by "77 Sunset Strip" and "Tomorrow's Tears."  The Riptides were still playing solid material, but the frustration caused by lacking a big breakout record was becoming evident.

1982's "Hearts and Flowers" single, sadly, was a misguided attempt at that commercial success, and lacked the punch and personality of their previous efforts.  About the same time, the full-length The Riptides album hit the shelves, neatly combining the existing material with newer stuff. The Riptides' moment in the Brisbane sun was over, however, and in 1983 they called it a day.

Four years later, a live album, The Riptides Resurface, appeared to some acclaim; four more years passed before a reunited Riptides issued the comeback attempt Wave Rock.  But it all been done before, and again The Riptides faded into history.

Presently, none of The Riptides' material is in print, but everything from "Tomorrow's Tears" on shows up with fair regularity on eBay.  There is a present-day Canadian band called The Riptides, so be aware if you go looking and make sure you've got the right band.  And if you ever find a reasonably-priced copy of The Numbers version of the Sunset Strip EP, let me know!

For today's entry, we celebrate The Riptides with their first three singles: "77 Sunset Strip," "Tomorrow's Tears," and "Only Time." Enjoy!

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #122

Imitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery.  If that be the case, then the Talking Heads should have been overwhelmed by the flattery heaped upon them by Washington, DC's Urban Verbs.

That lead singer Roddy Frantz was the younger brother of Heads drummer Chris Frantz helps to explain Urban Verbs' nearly direct imitation of the older sibling's band, although to listen to his vocals, you would not be shocked if his last name were Byrne.  His delivery, inflection, and tone were nearly identical to David Byrne's, and the Verbs' skittish, claustrophobic music and paranoid lyrics were a more than fair approximation of just about everything on the first few Heads albums.  The duplication was so impressive as to have been a major hindrance: they were quickly dismissed as clones, when in fact they were a damn good band.

Behind Frantz, the Urban Verbs were rounded out by guitarist Robert Goldstein, bass player Linda France (say, wasn't there another band with a female bassist?), drummer Danny Frankel and Robin Rose on synths.  Beginning in 1977, Urban Verbs were regulars on the DC club circuit.  Goldstein was the main booker for The Atlantis Club, giving the Verbs a regular place to play; in 1980 The Atlantis would change names to become The 930 Club - the main venue for Punk and New Wave acts to play in the DC area.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

It was at The 930 where Urban Verbs were spotted by Brian Eno, who so enjoyed the band that he offered to help record a few demos for them.  That connection brought them to the attention of Warner Bros. Records, who signed them up and issued both Urban Verbs albums, Urban Verbs and Early Damage, within a twelve month span between 1980 and 1981.

Despite generating a lot of interest and underground airplay with the single "Subways" from the first record, neither album sold well, thanks in large part to the "Talking Heads clones" tag.  Taken on their own, however, both are solid, well-played records that bear - and endure - repeated listenings.  Fans of that more well-known band are advised to proceed without caution - you'll love them.

This week's NW4NW entry is an audio-only clip of "Subways" - try to listen past the obvious and discover the gem hidden here.  Enjoy!

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Wave for the New Week #121

Many moons ago, I picked up a goofy record while picking through the quarter bin at a random thrift shop somewhere.  It was a 7-inch that contained six different variations of the old Rice Krispies jingle ("It's fun to put snap, crackle, pop into your morning!"), each done in a different genre: rock, country, pop, etc.  The one that my friends and I laughed at most, however, was the one labelled "New Wave," which was nothing more than a generically slick MOR-style take liberally sprinkled with staccato stuttering: "Sna-sna-sna-snap! Cra-cra-cra-crackle! Pa-pa-pa-pop!" THAT was what they thought New Wave was? Why they must have only ever listened one New Wave song, "Computer Games" by the band Mi-Sex.

Mi-Sex formed in New Zealand in the late 70s, and amalgamation of cabaret singer Steve Gilpin and assorted refugees from a hippie-ish prog-rock outfit called Father Thyme.  Adding the rhythm section from local hard rockers Think, they called themselves Fragments of Time (a nod to the band that Fathered them) and stuck to trying their best to sound like every other long-hair-and-mustache hippie band of the era.  Quickly realizing that was getting them nowhere but lost in a crowd of like-minded groups, they cut their hair, shaved the 'staches, put on leather pants and black tank tops, nicked a name from an Ultravox song ("My Sex"), and jumped on the New Wave bandwagon.

Their first album, Grafitti Crimes, was released as the 70s came to a close. Despite their best efforts to be cutting-edge, the aura of decade-old hippiedom was hard to shed.  The album veers from bland pop to mildly interesting pub-rock, but also contains Mi-Sex's one fantastic contribution to the New Wave genre, the aforementioned "Computer Games."  Somewhat affected and certainly self-aware, the track sounds a bit forced today, although it remains undeniably catchy.  With its precisely placed vocal hiccups, typical computer bleeps and whirrs, nagging synth line and that staccato-stutter chorus, this is paint-by-numbers stuff.  But, in this case, it works - so well that the single went to number one in New Zealand and Australia, and got the album released in the States, with new cover art and and renamed Computer Games.

The follow-up album, Space Race, appeared a year later.  The same sort of sounds pervaded this record, again with one stand-out single, "People," which did chart in their homeland but certainly was nowhere near as successful or enjoyable as "Computer Games."  Two more albums would follow - Shanghaied in 1981 and Where Do They Go? in 1984.  To call those two records underwhelming would be kind.  With that, Mi-Sex was no more.

Their vinyl is all out of print these days, although you can pick up a two-fer-one CD pairing Computer Games and Space Race. There is also a best-of, The Essential Mi-Sex, for those who find them appropriately appealing.

Our entry this week, naturally, is Mi-Sex's nifty "Computer Games."  Turn up the volume and party like it's 1979...

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