The Narrative

Toward the end of 2019, 17-year-old pop performer Billie Eilish was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. This year she has already won a ton of awards, is nominated for six Grammy’s, and her debut album reached #1 in over 20 countries. Eilish is clearly one of the most popular music artists on the planet. But she’s also 17. So when Kimmel asked her if she could name one member of Van Halen and she responded, “Who? No, who is that?”, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. It’s not like she plays guitar-based rock, and Van Halen hasn’t put out a relevant album during her lifetime. Consider – Eilish was born in 2001. Van Halen’s 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth was their first studio album in 14 years, their previous effort Van Halen III having been released in 1998, and even as a rock fan I couldn’t have told you the name of it. It was one of those funny “haha, she’s so young moments” that are the bread-and-butter of late night TV, and that should have been the end of it.

But it wasn’t because within roughly 12 seconds of her response people started posting on Twitter about how they couldn’t believe Eilish had never heard of Van Halen. Because that’s what people do now.  Which is ironic as I suspect that many of those piling on had never heard of Billie Eilish prior to her comment. In fact I’d be willing to bet if 64-year-old Eddie Van Halen had been on Kimmel and said he’d never heard of Eilish, most of those same Twitter posters wouldn’t have batted an eye and probably would have given Eddie a “fuckin’ a!”. Fortunately Eilish’s defenders chimed in just as quickly, the coup de grace being delivered by Wolfgang Van Halen himself who basically told everyone to check out her music and chill the hell out.

Billie Eilish’s narrative doesn’t include Van Halen (or it least it didn’t until she appeared on Kimmel’s show). And honestly, what percentage of 17-year-old American young women could name a member of Van Halen? If they’re into rock they probably could, especially since the band is named after some of the members, though that’s no guarantee since the once mighty Van Halen is now relegated to the category of “classic rock”. More likely they’d have heard of the band because one or both of their parents, who would probably be in their 40s, were (and maybe still are) fans. Eddie, Alex, Michael, David Lee and/or Sammy are part of their parents’ narrative (I’m not sure that Gary Cherrone is part of anyone’s Van Halen narrative except as a footnote or cautionary tale). If you’d have asked 17-year-old me about songs that my parents liked that dated from a decade or more before I was born, I’d probably only have recognized those I heard them play in the car or that appeared in movies. Not a lot of teenagers in 1988 were rocking around the clock or looking for a thrill on a hill named after berries.

That’s a lot of writing to bring me to what got me thinking about Eilish in the first place – the concept of narrative. I listened to two podcasts on the same day last week (my daily round-trip commute is about 2.5 hours – I have lots of time for podcasts). The first was an interview with punk icon Ian MacKaye recorded by Rolf Potts in 2018, the second a talk with writer Chuck Klosterman on The Ringer podcast The Watch from 2017. Both dealt, in their own ways, with the concept of “narrative” and how it comes to be.

MacKaye maintains an archive of recordings and music ephemera. As a former member of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and the founder of the Dischord Records, he was at ground zero of the Washington DC punk scene and has been a fan, touring musician, and producer for decades. He’s also still a fan and student of music. Potts asked Ian how he uses the archive and if it’s important because it shapes the narrative about Dischord and the DC scene. That led to a brief but deep discussion about narrative. MacKaye recognized that his narrative is shaped by his personal experiences and that the “stuff” is in large part unnecessary to him because he was there, he still has his memories. He also acknowledged that he has no control over how others perceive those same events. He isn’t so much interested in using the archive to shape the narrative as he is in making it available to people who have questions, a means for them to possibly confirm or reject the more widely accepted narrative. “The Narrative”, if you will.

“The Narrative” is what becomes the de facto truth. “History is written by the victors” is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, though perhaps Napoleon’s 1815 statement is more apt: “What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.” Now let’s be clear – there are certainly undisputed facts in history – this thing happened on this date and all of that. But decades of research have shown us how faulty memory can be, that what we distinctly remember happening one way may in fact have occurred much differently. There’s also the matter of perspective – we all view the things around us through the lens of all of our combined personal experiences up to that moment. As time progresses, often a capital-N-Narrative emerges, what is eventually an agreed-up set of facts and influences that are ascribed a distinct meaning and become the dominant paradigm through which a time or event is viewed moving forward.

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This, in a way, is the kind of Narrative that Klosterman discusses in his book But What If We’re Wrong? (2016) (and yes, that the front cover is intentionally printed upside down). Basically Chuck asks, what if that which seems certain today will be viewed in a very different way in the future? A good example that he touches on in the book is the various “Greatest 100 Books of the 20th Century” lists that were published around the year 2000. I love lists like these, and I’m sure I’ve pored over more than one to count how many of the books I’d read. These lists are, of course, subjective, and their creation and composition are influenced by the time and place (and people) that generated them. So what if, say in 2120, a bunch of experts get together and put together their list of the “Greatest 100 Books of the 20th Century”? How would that list differ from the one compiled in 2000? Would 80% of the books be the same… or maybe only 20%? But the really exciting question, to me at least, is what books would be on the 2120 list that were basically unknown when the 2000 list was put together? It’s not unreasonable to think that someone not even remotely on the writing greatness radar in 2000 will be canonized a hundred years from now. It’s not so much that the first list was wrong. Instead it’s that the literature and the historical era of the 20th Century will be viewed differently in a future that has the benefit of being able to contextualize it more completely. And that means The Narrative will have changed.

As someone with a degree in history I know the importance of using primary sources over secondary ones. Both are, of course, tainted by the experiences and biases of the individuals who created the material. Both are products, consciously or unconsciously, of The Narrative of that moment in time. But sources from the time of the events, particularly those produced by people directly involved in them, are at least reflective of the prevailing narrative when the events were occurring as opposed to being viewed through another time’s lenses. That’s not to say secondary sources don’t have value – after all, those are what historians produce in their books and articles, and they have the benefit of a wider perspective. But they also instill their own biases into the mix. And for most people, on most subjects, it’s these distilled, condensed recountings that define The Narrative through which we understand things and events. I wasn’t alive during World War II. I don’t speak all the languages of all the belligerents involved, and I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to travel to every archive and arrive at my own in depth understanding of the war. But I can go onto Amazon and buy a book about it. And if I’m just casually interested in the subject, chances are that one book will become my Narrative of it. An entire world at war for six years (or nine, or 12, or even 31 if you consider WWII a continuation of WWI as some historians do… again, different narratives…), delivered to my mailbox and filtered down to a few hundred pages.

The Narrative, by its very nature, must be superficial.

That doesn’t mean that The Narrative isn’t useful, because at the end of the day I can’t become an expert on the Cold War, French New Wave cinema, the Apollo moon missions, and the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, at least not if I want to hold down a job and not be the person people least want to talk to at parties. And good historians will make an effort to tell you when sources conflict about facts. But at the end of the day you could spend a lifetime studying one war, or just one battle within the greater war. There’s so much information that without The Narrative we’d probably all give up and just watch reality television all day (which, of course, has its own set of Narratives…).

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in context to music (see – it only took me 1,500 words to finally get back to the subject matter of the blog!). I’ve read lots of books and articles and blogs and liner notes about various albums, musicians, genres and time periods. Each of these has its own narrative, and sometimes a larger Narrative emerges. For example, there’s a general Narrative of the beginning of punk rock. It touches for a moment on 1960s garage rock as a roots influence, makes a stopover in New York City to mention the Ramones, then crosses the Atlantic to London and the Sex Pistols and the Clash.  Oversimplified? Clearly. If The Narrative is consumed as both the start and end point, then you’ll come away with a very basic understanding, though one shaped in part by contemporary perspectives and biases. And given that most rock criticism has been historically written by straight white men between 25-50 years of age, The Narrative is also shaped by their experiences and preferences. But that’s not to say The Narrative doesn’t provide value. Often within it are other threads that can be pulled, new rabbit holes to go down. A passing mention of the Stooges may take you to the Detroit scene, whereas Devo will bring you to Cleveland. Seeking more info about CBGBs, where the Ramones played, will broaden your perspective about what actually constitutes punk (I’m looking at you, Patti Smith) and will show how New Wave evolved out of it. Pull on that New Wave thread a bit and you might find yourself exploring the brief rebellion against it that was No Wave. And so on, and so on, and so on.

As mentioned previously, I love lists. And one of the lists I’ve spent time poring over in recent years is Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Originally published in 2003, a slightly tweaked version came out in book form in 2005. Then, in 2012 an updated version came out. After all, there was an entire decade of new releases to factor in. I give Rolling Stone credit that they didn’t simply do a new poll and arrive at a completely new list – it looks like they tried to stay true to their original 2003 Narrative and used it as the starting point. But there were still some weird twists.

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The first was that in some cases one album by an artist was simply substituted in the same slot by another of their albums. For example, Elvis’ The Sun Sessions held down the #11 slot on the original list, but in 2012 it was gone and replaced in the same spot with Sunrise. This happens a number of times. Usually it involves some kind of compilation, but a few examples are head scratchers. Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) was originally #267 in 2003, but disappeared completely from the list in 2012 and was replaced by 1971s Paul Simon at #268. Why? Kind of odd. It’s almost like you’re saying “Paul Simon’s early solo work deserves to be represented in the Top 300, but the specific album isn’t all that important.”

Next were the albums dropped from the list in 2012. Based on some research done by others, somewhere around 37 albums were added/dropped from the original list. A few were handled as swaps, as noted above, but most of the rest (but not all… more on that in a minute) were released in the period between 2003 and 2012. So you’d expect that the bottom 30 or so albums would be dropped, the new albums would be slotted in, and everything else would be shuffled about to even things out. But… not quite. Roughly half the albums removed from the 2003 list were in the bottom 100. But what about Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel? It was #164 in 2003, but gone in 2012. Poof. A Top 200 album, just gone? But OK, it’s Linda Ronstadt, so maybe the editors felt like she didn’t fit on a rock/pop focused list. Fine. Then how did two Nick Drake albums drop out of the Top 300 (Bryter Layter at #245 and Five Leaves Left at #283)? And Roxy Music’s Avalon goes from #307 to, well, somewhere below #500? Both No Doubt records on the original list were purged. Other non-greatest-hits deletions that originally were above #450 include albums by Massive Attack, PJ Harvey, Eminem, Def Leppard, Alannis Morrisette, and Rage Against the Machine. How does No Doubt earn two spots in 2003 and lose them both in 2012? Apparently The Narrative about No Doubt changed. But why?

You’d expect the new additions in 2012 (excluding the swaps…) would be primarily albums that came out in or after 2003, with maybe a few from the 2000-2002 period that hadn’t quite risen to prominence in their early years. And generally speaking that’s true. Kanye makes it all the way to #118 with Late Registration and Acrade Fire’s Funeral cracks the Top 200 at #151. But what about Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out at #272? That album came out in 1997. Maybe The Narrative about Riot Grrrl changed enough in the intervening years to warrant its inclusion. But explain Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate at #295. That record came out in 1971. It was already 32 years old when the original list was published, and apparently didn’t warrant inclusion then. Beach Boys’ Smile came out in 1983 and debuted on the 2012 list at #381, and Stone Roses’ debut record from 1988 squeezed in at #498. Clearly The Narrative changed.

What does it all mean? Nothing, really. It’s a subjective list put together by a magazine as a way to spark conversation and sell units. But it does create a Narrative of sorts, and that Narrative is a product of the people involved in putting together their lists. Their biases and perspectives are all over it. The Top 10 albums on the 2012 list are canonical by definition, and the “newest” release on the list is the Clash’s London Calling from 1979 – so all the Top 10 albums are at least 33 years old, and only the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the Top 10. Our first post-1970s album is Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) at #17, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) closes out the Top 20. Ignoring compilations comprised exclusively of older material, as near as I can tell only five albums from 1980 forward made the Top 50, and one of those is a comp of sorts, Bob Marley’s Legend.

Clearly this list, at least at the uppermost echelons, skews hard towards 1960s and 70s rock. The Beatles hold down five slots in the Top 50, six if you count John Lennon’s solo material. Dylan makes three appearances, the Rolling Stones two. So either 20%, or 22%, depending on where you think Plastic Ono Band fits in, of the Top 50 are held down by three artists/groups, with all that material is from the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that changes for 51-100, right? Not really. I’m not going to look them all up, but as near as I can tell there are around eight albums from post-1979 in that section, so 85-88% of the Top 100 albums are 30+ years old.

I get that older albums have had more time to establish themselves, both in terms of their quality and the artists they influenced. Once an artists (and this includes writers, painters, sculptors, or whatever) is canonized, they are pretty much there for life, making it harder for other, later folks to elbow their way in. One of the few areas where this is not true is sports, because we have objective measures we can consider to evaluate their places in history. But not when it comes to the subjectiveness of art. Album sales are hardly a reliable indicator of quality, especially in the last few decades with sales falling off. So we’re left with the opinions of “experts” and their biases (both conscious and unconscious), perspectives, and experiences.  And these experts create The Narrative.

So what’s the point of all this? Good question. I’m not entirely sure myself. But one thing is clear to me – The Narrative exists. If it’s arrived at honestly, and isn’t an intentionally False Narrative constructed to be deceptive, it provides value. But you have to always be aware that what you’re seeing is a Narrative, one pieced together by a person, one certain to have omissions (intentional or unintentional). And you don’t have to accept as The One True Narrative. It’s a tool, a summary, a starting point. Nothing more. Explore for yourself. Cast your net wide and see what you find.

The Best of 2019

recordgraffitiAnd here we are, another year rapidly approaching the finish line, a half dozen days left before we close the book on the second decade of the 2000s, the 2020s anxiously awaiting their turn.  Will it be another Roaring 20s like the one that happened a decade ago?  I don’t know.  All I do know is that the older I get, the faster time seems to pass, slipping almost unnoticed until a season change makes you realize another three months slipped away, until another New Year’s moves another bead to the wrong side of the ledger.

All in all 2019 was a pretty great year in music, at least from my perspective.  We got some travel in and saw shows in four different countries.  We discovered some new favorite artists.  We made some new friends through music, and strengthened our bonds with old ones.  And I bought a lot of music.  A LOT of music.  Records, tapes, CDs, downloads… in the era of free and streaming, I’m still a bit of a luddite in preferring the physical, the tangible.

So, without further ado, here it is – the 8th annual Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best Of” post!

Top 5 New Releases in 2019

  1. I Don’t Know How To Be Happy – Deli Girls (US)
  2. Return – Foreign Monkeys (Iceland)
  3. Shlon – Omar Souleyman (Syria)
  4. OHMelectronic – OHMelectronic (Canada)
  5. Blizzard People Compilation (Iceland)

By my count I posted about 51 different 2019 releases this year, excluding re-releases.  There were also handful of things from this year I heard but didn’t write about for various reasons, including laziness.  While I posted about a few more new releases in 2018, I feel like overall my consumption of new music was about the same as last year.

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My favorite release for 2019 is Deli Girls’ I Don’t Know How To Be Happy.  This is perhaps an unusual selection for Life in the Vinyl Lane not because of the genre, which is in fact difficult to define, but instead because it never came out, to the best of my knowledge, on any kind of physical medium.  Nope.  This one was digital only.  And I’ve played the hell out of it.  A blend of techno, experimental electronica, power electronics, and punk, I Don’t Know How To Be Happy is one of the rawest things I’ve heard in a long time, like a hot spot on your arm that you can’t stop scratching even though you know you should.  The music grates on your sanity to create an emotional edginess before the vocals come in and pummel you into paste.  I couldn’t get enough of “Officer” and “I’d Rather Die” on my iPod, though that might say as much about my daily commute as it does about anything else.

Next up was the triumphant return of Iceland’s Foreign Monkeys after a decade-long hiatus, the appropriately named Return.  We loved their debut , and the follow-up put more emphasis on the garage rock side of their sound, stripping things down to the core elements.  For years we regretted that we’d never caught them at our first few Airwaves festivals, but this year we got the chance and jumped at it – and the album captured their live set well.  Omar Souleyman tried to sneak one past me late in the year, but I caught wind of Shlon in time to pre-order the vinyl (which comes out in January) and get the digital download.  I’m considering this part of 2019 since the download is available now.  Shlon definitely sounds like a Souleyman album, but it also shows more range than some of his previous works with some slower and more sonically emotional moments.  You can never go wrong with Omar Souleyman.

The Top 5 rounds out with some great EBM/industrial from Canada’s OHMelectronic and a comp out of Iceland called Blizzard People.  I debated on whether or not to include Blizzard People, since putting a comp on a list like this seems a bit lazy.  But here’s the thing, or more precisely things.  These six tracks are all relatively new.  And I’m certain I played this album more than any other in 2019.  Every song is a burner, and Logitech’s “Leather Forecast” is the best jam I heard all year.  Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want, so there.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Deli Girls
  2. OHMelectronic
  3. Blóðmör
  4. Hula
  5. Hvörf

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I already mentioned the first two artists in my Top 5 New Releases list, so let’s start with Blóðmör.  I’ve been in contact with the band’s guitarist/vocalist Haukur for a number of years – we connected online due to our mutual love of the bands HAM and DIMMA.  What I didn’t know until this year, though, is that Haukur had his own metal band, and they had a huge 2019, releasing both a demo and the six-song Líkþorn.  Plus, you know, they won Iceland’s annual battle of the bands.  Pretty killer year.  We got to meet Haukur after the Blóðmör show at Gaukurinn during Airwaves, and he couldn’t have been nicer.  I’ll be keeping my eyes on these guys in the future.

Hula is a sort of industrial dub band I discovered in the used section of Seattle’s Jive Time Records and over the course of the year I picked up a half dozen of their records, each one of them all-killer-no-filler.  There are still some titles I don’t have and I’ll definitely pick them up as I come across them.  Last but not least is Hvörf, a new collaboration between two tremendous Icelandic musicians, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason and Þórir Georg.  Their debut, Music Library 01, is an impressive collection of eight tracks in two distinct styles, a more classical-based mood-setter and one that’s a bit more spacey with dialogue sampling.  It was an unexpected surprise at the end of the year, and a welcome one.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

  1. Þagað Í Hel – Þeyr
  2. Soðin – Blóðmör
  3. Nælur Compilation
  4. Artoffact Records Sale
  5. Three Boxes of Free Stuff

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It’s a bit odd that of the top three purchases on this list, only one was vinyl.  But oh, what a huge one!  While I still try to resist describing myself as a “collector”, I do have a handful of items on my “want” list that are probably there as much due to their rarity as they are for the music.  And at the number one position for probably the last five years has been Þeyr’s 1980 debut Þagað Í Hel.  As part of the first wave of Icelandic punk most of their stuff is hard to find, having been pressed in small quantities and rarely exported.  But Þagað Í Hel takes it to a different level, as I’ve been told that much of the print run was returned due to pressing flaws (and my copy has one of these on the B side) and the masters were destroyed so the songs themselves exist only on this vinyl release.  I had an alert set on Discogs for it, and the second a copy showed up for sale from Sweden I bought it, no questions asked.  That process seemed a bit anti-climactic, but I’m still glad to have the record.

Blóðmör’s super-limited live demo tape Soðin and the Nælur compilation CD both came to me via a good friend of mine in Iceland who always hooks me up with amazing stuff, and these two have been getting a lot of play since our return from Reykjavik.  The Artoffact label online sale resulted in a huge box of vinyl and CDs arriving on our doorstep, turning me onto a bunch of new-to-me bands like OHMelectronic, Individual Totem, and Images in Vogue, as well as giving me my first exposure to Die Krupps.  The last spot on the list is held down by three massive and heavy boxes of 1960s and 70s rock I got for free from someone at work.  A lot of it was stuff I’m not interested in, and quite a few of the jackets were water damaged and moldy, but I still pulled some gems out out there, and even though I had to throw out the jackets of the firs six Sabbath albums, the records inside were pristine, so I can’t complain.

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. A-Ha – Royal Albert Hall, London
  2. Fufanu – Urban Spree, Berlin
  3. Hatari – Reykjavik Art Museum, Reykjavik
  4. Hermigerville – Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  5. Foreign Monkeys – Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar, Reykjavik

We weren’t able to attend Iceland Airwaves in 2018, an absence that broke our nine year run of consecutive visits.  And in reflecting on it I realized what I missed the most was not, believe it or not, the music, though that was still a gaping hole in my November.  No, what I missed the most was seeing all the people who have become our friends over the course of a decade’s worth of Airwaves.  We have an entire crew’s wroth of friends who live in Reykjavik – Ingvar, Mumbi, Gestur, Jóhannes, Einar, Bob, Reynir, Leana, the hilarious shit-talking guy who runs the restaurant Shalimar… plus all our friends who travel in from points all over the globe – Tristen and Andy (US), Matt and Tanya (Canada), the KEXP crew (especially Kevin and Jim), Paul (Scotland)… it takes a village.  And this year we extended our Airwaves family even further, spending time with Rob and Olie and Oscar and Sarah… that’s what makes Airwaves so special.

Anyway, now that I’ve waxed poetic about that, the best show was, hands down, A-Ha at Royal Albert Hall (below).  When I told people we were going to that show I was surprised by how many people my age did not remember A-Ha at all, and those who did generally only knew them for “Take On Me”.  I forget how much of a nerd I am sometimes, as well as how big of an A-Ha fan Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane is.  So we made a special effort to see this show, and it was worth it.  The first set saw the band playing the entire Hunting High and Low album in order, and after a break they then went into a second set of their other material.  The venue was amazing, the sound perfect, and the video work tremendous.

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Fufanu playing in Berlin while we were there was an unexpected surprise, one we made sure to take advantage of.  Seeing them in a small venue like this was great and they were on top of their game.  The other three shows on the list were all from Airwaves, and two of them were off-venue.  Hermigerville’s set at Lucky Records was, unquestionably, the most fun I had at Airwaves this year; his joy in playing the music is infectious and the crowd was happy to come along for the ride.  The Foreign Monkeys set was in a hotel and there were only a few dozen of us there, but the guys tore it up and even some friends who tend to be a bit more ambivalent about rock clearly enjoyed their energy.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America

  1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
  2. Reckless Records, Chicago
  3. Daybreak Records, Seattle
  4. Ranch Records, Bend (OR)
  5. Silver Platters, Seattle

The Rest of the World

  1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  2. Space Hall, Berlin
  3. Sister Ray, London
  4. Rough Trade West, London
  5. Hard Wax, Berlin

The top spots on both lists are pretty much on lockdown, at least on any year we make it to Reykjavik.  Easy Street is our local Seattle area go-to, and Lucky is a home-away-from-home in Iceland.

I didn’t do much traveling in the US this year, but a January business trip to Chicago found me in a hotel just a few blocks from Reckless, and I went there every night.  We also made it down to Bend, Oregon for a wedding and got to spend some time (and money) at Ranch Records where I found a few intriguing punk titles.  Daybreak in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood continues to impress with its variety and good prices, and the massive selection at the Seattle branch of Silver Platters is always worth a visit.

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The international list was a bit tougher to narrow down because we went to some outstanding shops in the UK, Germany, Denmark, and Iceland.  Berlin’s Space Hall (listening stations – right) is an essential stop, especially if you’re into electronic music.  Hard Wax, while not nearly as large as Space Hall, was well-curated and every single thing I flipped past seemed interesting.  In London I had my best used buying experiences at Rough Trade West and Sister Ray – I’m pretty sure I could have easily blown my entire vinyl budget for the trip in either of those stores.  There were some other great stops as well – London’s Phonica Records and Potsdam’s Silverspeed Records would have probably made the list any other year, but in 2019 the competition was steep.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 by Henry Rollins
  2. Facing the Other Way:  The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston
  3. England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan
  4. The 33 1/3 B-Sides by Will Stockton and D. Gilson (eds.)
  5. Revenge of the She Punks by Vivien Goldman

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I think I only read six music-related books in 2019, so this list wasn’t too hard to put together.  Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 just came out in November and it’s basically a journal-format love letter to music and record collecting covering a three year period.  It looks like Henry and the team have the next two volumes already in the works, so I’m sure I’ll devour those when they come out as well.  Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD was another high point as it opened my eyes to the 4AD label and turned me on to a number of bands I hadn’t heard of before, which is a big plus.  Same with England’s Hidden Reverse, which expanded my knowledge of some of the more fringe quasi-industrail performers who later became at least a bit more well-known like Coil, Current 93, and Nurse with Wound.

 

It’s hard to believe 2019 is in the books, but here we are again my friends.  We’re already starting to talk about travel plans for 2020 and it looks like the new year may take us to some new places on the planet, which means more new music to discover.  I can’t wait.

Sherlock Holmes Box Sets (1970s)

Every generation has their version of “Back when I was your age we didn’t have [fill in the blank]”.  With the pace of technological advancement over the past 20 years we’ve now reached the point where the shifts aren’t generational, but sub-generational, as both the pace of innovation and speed of adoption continue to accelerate.  It won’t be long until high school sophomores will wax poetic to incoming freshmen about how much easier the new class has it, because a year ago X, which is suddenly ubiquitous, didn’t exist.

I often think about this in the context of entertainment.  I was born in the early 1970s.  At that point, pretty much every household had a television, if not more than one, and the primary TV was most likely color.  Radio was certainly everywhere as well, but generally when it came to “shows” people meant what was on TV.  In most markets you were limited to a handful of channels – the three major networks, PBS, and maybe a swap meet calibre local access channel was about all we had.  If you wanted to see the new episode of Happy Days or Three’s Company you had to make a point of being in front of your set at the scheduled date and time.  Yes, VCRs existed in the 1970s, but who could afford one?  I recently saw an add in a 1977 magazine listing VCRs at $1,000, and blank tapes at $100, both of which sound outrageous today.  But when you factor in inflation… wow!  That 1977 VCR would be the equivalent of about $4,200 in today’s money, with the blank tape costing another $420 (I believe my father was earning $12,000 per year in 1977).  And since you couldn’t even buy movies on VHS at that point, could you really justify spending that kind of money?  And even if you did, for what? So you could catch Sanford and Son a day after it aired?

By the early 1980s my family had cable and a VCR, and enough indie video rental stores were around that you could at least see movies like Deathstalker and Easy Rider.  An ever growing number of cable channels and syndication meant you could catch up on at least some old shows, but it probably wasn’t for another 25 years that things like TiVo made recording shows easier.  And now even that seems quaint in the era of streaming.  More and more people I know are dropping cable completely and doing everything via streaming services, and people are as likely to watch shows on tablets or phones as they are televisions.

So I’m of the last generation that remembers a time before cable and VCRs, while the generation after mine will recall their life before streaming.  But if we go one generation older than me, folks who grew up in the 1950s, most people didn’t have television, and even if you did the few channels that existed didn’t even broadcast all day.  In fact, if you were telling someone about a “show” you were looking forward to that night, it was probably a radio show.  And likely not one that played music but some kind of radio theater.  While I know what it means to have to tune in at a specific day and time to catch your show, the idea of sitting in front of the radio to listen to it seems as foreign to me as having your schedule dictated by TV does to a teenager today.

sherlockholmes

I got three boxes of free records from someone at work the other day, and included were three box sets of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all of which I believe were released on vinyl in the 1970s.  One, The Hound Of The Baskervilles & The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, consists of the sound from two Sherlock Holmes movies, which you can more or less follow but definitely includes passages where the action is purely visual and you’re left scratching your head.  The other two, though, Sherlock Holmes Tales From Baker Street and More Sherlock Holmes Adventures, are comprised of radio show episodes from the 1940s and 50s, each about 25 minutes in length.  It’s a trip listening to these and thinking about the role they played – this was the cutting edge of delivering entertainment directly into the home.  And they’re kind of fun to play in the evening while you’re chilling out with a cocktail.

You can actually find these from time to time and fairly reasonably priced.  So long as the vinyl is in good shape, one of these boxes will give you a good three hours or so of entertainment and a way to travel back in time… even if you can play them any time you want.

Barry Manilow – “Live” (1977)

barrymanilowliveIf you say “Barry Manilow’s music sucks”, people don’t expect you to expound upon that with a reason.  They’ll probably just nod in general agreement.  Manilow is there alongside Kenny G and Nickelback in being performers that it is perfectly acceptable to hate simply on general principle, as if their existence in the world is all the proof needed to support one’s disdain.  But you know what else these artists have in common?  All of them have sold an insane amount of albums – Nickelback over 50 million, and Kenny and Barry 75 million… each.  Yes,  Nickelback, Kenny G, and Barry Manilow have sold more albums than there are people in the UK, France, and Germany… combined.  If album sales were people they would be the seventh most populated country in the world, nestled between Brazil and Nigeria.

Challenge someone on their feelings about Nickel-Barry-G with the above and chances are the response will be something along the lines of, “just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good” and/or “most people have crap taste in music”.  But is this true?  I mean really true.  If the goal of art is to reach people, these guys are doing it about as well as anyone ever has.  You can absolutely dislike their music; that’s personal taste.  If you want to say Nickelback songs are formulaic, fine.  But a lot of people love them.  Chuck Klosterman tackled this in a Grantland article in 2012 way more articulately and entertainingly than I ever could, but the one thing that always stuck with me was his description of the band’s sold out show at Madison Square Garden.  “More surprising is the degree to which the security staff at MSG clearly loves this music; you don’t often see ushers singing along with the band that’s onstage, but that’s what was happening here. They knew every word to every chorus.”

Now I too at times in my life have been a hater of things, including Barry Manilow and Nickelback.  But as I’ve gotten older I find it just makes less and less sense to be this way.  I mean, who cares? (♠)  Maybe you’re a very casual music fan who buys one or two albums a year, and whenever Kenny G puts out a new CD, you buy it.  And you enjoy it.  That’s fantastic.  Find some music you like and listen to it.  And if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it.  Generally speaking you can avoid it.  And if you happen to hear “Rockstar” or “Copacabana”, it’s four minutes of your life.  You’ll probably survive.

As for Live, we snagged a clean copy of this double album from the dollar bin down at Ranch Records on our recent trip to Bend, Oregon.  Unfortunately it came out a year before “Copacabana”, so it does not include the story of Tony, Lola, and an unfortunate shooting.  But we do get “Looks Like We Made It”, “I Write the Songs”, and a medley of jingles that Manilow was involved in (KFC, McDonalds, State Farm Insurance…).  Frankly it sounds like it was a fun show.  And for a buck I’m glad to have a copy and become a citizen of Nickel-Barry-G-land.

(♠) That being said, the funniest thing I ever heard someone say at a show was back in 2009 and involved Nickelback.  A woman was with her group of 5-6 friends (all guys) and talking shit about everything and everyone for hours, just being annoyingly pretentious.  I can’t remember the band that hit the stage at the time, but her dismissive response within 20 seconds of them starting their set was “these guys are the Nickelback of techno”.  “Nickelback of Techno” is still a phrase Holly and I use to describe all kinds of things to this day.  Anything generic can be dubbed the Nickelback of Techno.

George Abdo and His Flames of Araby Orchestra – “The Art of Belly Dancing” (1973)

bellydancingListening to The Art of Belly Dancing, I feel like I should be in some pungent Turkish bar, the kind of place that somehow manages to stay dark even when the sun is at it’s highest, the mingled smells of sweat, strong coffee, and filterless cigarette smoke hanging at about chest height in the completely still air.  Oh man, I think I just gave myself a flashback to 1987 when I was 15 and just at the start of a six-week trip to France.  When it became clear that the chaperones couldn’t care in the slightest if we smoked, a few of us headed to the bar car on the train and nervously asked the young guy working there if he had any smokes for sale.  Mais oui.  Awesome!  Marlboro Reds, please.  Non.  Oh, OK.  Camels then.  Non.  Umm… Gitanes.  Gitanes?  He reached behind him and turned  back around with a blue pack of cigs in what seemed to us an oddly fancy package that was wider and flatter than what we were used to.  I feel like the dancer on the front was embossed in gold.  Can that be right?  Oui, Gitanes.  So Gitanes it was.  And when we opened them it was immediately, “What the…. where are the filters???”  This, friends, is how I was introduced to filterless cigarettes, a habit that lasted only as long as we still that pack of Gitanes and couldn’t find a better cigarette anywhere else (so a few weeks).

ANYWAY… back to that bar.  Damn it’s hot!  How can it be so damn hot wen I’m sitting in the shade?  It shouldn’t be possible.  It’s the kind of place that Bogey, or James Bond, or Dr. Indiana Jones should walk into, causing every to look up from their newspapers (without moving their heads) to case the new guy.  Or maybe Matthew McConaughey’s character in Sahara, who seems like he’d be the most fun to have a drink with.  But what’s that sound faintly off in the distance?  It sounds like… it is… it’s “Raks Musri”, the clicking of the castanets providing a beat above the percussion.  The pace speeds and slows, alternating between ecstasy and simmering desire.  Songs with vocals like “Meenie Yaba” remind me if the Persian-infused beats of Syrian artist Omar Souleman; these are the prototypes, the early models that created the base framework that would come to define passionate popular music.  “Ranks Pharonic” is another classic, feeling more like something that would welcome in spring than leave you feeling lonely while sitting in that Turkish bar in the middle of the day smoking your Gitanes.

But hang on friends.  This isn’t a record intended to titillate or set a romantic mood.  Au contraire, mon frère.  This is educational.  You can see it right there on the front jacket:  “Dance Instructions Enclosed”.  And in fact they are, glossy inner sheet that provides photos and descriptions of eight belly dancing poses (and also a post-paid postcard you can send to Monitor Records to learn more about what they have for sale; remember kids, no internet in 1973…).  So you can’t try to hide this behind the counter at the store – it’s instructional, dammit!

Certainly this falls into the category I often see at record stores and shows known as Exotica.  Take Persian music and combine with the seeming campiness of the idea of a belly dancing tutorial (though I suspect that no camp nor snark was originally intended) and you can takel a record you might not have been able to get a quarter for maybe ten years ago and charge $5 or $`10 for it, probably because someone will buy it as a joke.  But to be clear, this album is completely earnest.  It’s most definitely not a joke.  The performers are legit and so is the sound quality.  So don’t be afraid to pick up a copy and give it a serious listen.