Blast from the Past
Well, I sure didn't see this coming.
In 2006, Island Records reissued three Pulp albums in the UK: His 'n' Hers (1994), Different Class (1995) and This Is Hardcore (1998), with bonus tracks, liner notes, extra pics, the works. Dutifully, I bought import copies. Now, three years later, the same three double-disc editions have been released in North America, despite Pulp never having really risen above "critically admired cult act" status on these shores.
It is interesting ' maybe even significant ' that Pulp, who went on indefinite hiatus in 2002, are the first of the mid-'90s Britpop acts to get a reissue campaign, rather than Oasis, Blur, Elastica or Suede. This band had a unique take on their zeitgeist, one that remains relevant. And their towering, dapper stick figure of a frontman, the inimitable Jarvis Cocker, was auteur-like in his pursuits. Even the band's most tossed-off compositions often contained a laser-like focus, as Cocker found endless permeations and new angles for his devastatingly witty, deeply neurotic worldview.
Before signing with Island in '94, Pulp had spent over a decade exiled in an especially hopeless indie nowheresville, primarily in their hometown of Sheffield. Band members came and went, as did a dizzying array of musical styles ' faux-Factory Records, twee-pop, gloomy goth, Euro-folk. By the early '90s, however, they had settled into a (mostly) stable lineup and an effective identity, melding guitar-pop and disco.
His 'n' Hers, their major-label debut, is, first and foremost, a very British album. Imagine a collaboration between Roxy Music and Mike Leigh, as the glossy art-pop music soundtracks some impossibly grim lower-middle-class scenarios. By the first track, "Joyriders," someone's probably been murdered already. Of the album's three singles, "Babies" and "Do You Remember the First Time?" display Cocker's oft-cited talent for droll sex commentary. But "Lipgloss," a glorious paean to a woman undone by heartbreak, highlights his sympathetic eye. The bonus disc shows just what a songwriting roll the band was on. B-sides like "Street Lites," "Your Sister's Clothes" and "Seconds" are anthemic and sly, and they contain miles and miles of style.
Amazingly enough, the band was just getting started. Different Class is, of course, Pulp's magnum opus. It contains "Common People," their signature song and biggest hit, a scathing satire on the glamorization of poverty. ("The stupid things that you do/ Because you think that poor is cool.") It also contains their other signature song, "Disco 2000," a tale of unrequited adolescent longing, melded to the fabulously cheesy guitar riff from Laura Branigan's "Gloria." But there's much more to the album than these two singles. Different Class is a classic coming-of-age tale, detailing Cocker's escape from Sheffield to London. Only this tale culminates with songs like "Underwear" and "Monday Morning," where the freedoms of young adulthood reveal their potential for disappointment and disillusionment. Because the band was so focused on making Different Class as perfect and catchy as possible, they didn't hold any classic songs back, so the bonus disc is mostly inessential. However, fans of other tall singers who look good in suits may want to check out Nick Cave's scuzzy cover of "Disco 2000."
In the UK, Pulp would never again be as popular as they were during the era of Different Class, and the follow-up, This Is Hardcore was a precise description of what fame did to the band's collective psyche. "This is the sound of someone losing the plot," Cocker sang, "Making out that they're okay when they're not." The album catalogues an exhausting foray into overindulgence, while the expertly crafted arrangements and state-of-the-art production shows just how alluring but dehumanizing the experience can be. Cocker's cynicism finds an artistically brilliant outlet in the title track, which basically compares rock stardom to pornography. (And the video's pretty genius too, a mash-up of film noir, Douglas Sirk and Bubsy Berkely.) The bonus disc is much better than Different Class'; there's a fully realized outtake, "It's a Dirty World," along with b-sides like "Cocaine Socialism" and "The Professional" that skillfully fill out Hardcore's worldview.
Trying hard against unbelievable odds
|Big Star Keep an Eye on the Sky (Ardent/Rhino)|
Is it 'boxed sets' or 'box sets'? Either way, it's hard to believe the music industry still squeezes out these things. With everything in financial free-fall, you mean to tell me there are still completists and neophytes alike still willing to drop the dollars to pick up physical copies, eager to get their four discs, plus elaborate artwork and design and sundry other accoutrements? In theory, the whole idea of box(ed) sets exists for cultishly adored bands such as Big Star. For many rock nerds, their saga passed into myth long ago. In Memphis, TN, in the early '70s, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel ' aspiring rockers obsessed with The Beatles, Kinks and Who ' hooked up with Alex Chilton, former lead singer of The Box Tops. (Chilton sang that band's big hit 'The Letter' when he was 16 years old.) The quartet made #1 Record (1972), a sparkling, chiming record that all but pioneered the power-pop genre. Commercially, it bombed. Bell quit the band. The remaining trio made the spectacular follow-up Radio City (1974), a darker, more disjointed record. Commercially, it bombed. Hummel quit the band. Chilton, Stephens and an assortment of Memphis players then made Third (aka Sister Lovers), which was even darker and even more disjointed. Record labels wanted nothing to do with it. By the time Third was finally released in 1978 ' four years after it was recorded, and the same year that Chris Bell died in a car accident ' the band had long ceased existing. And commercially, the album bombed of course. However, due to the subsequent bolstering of the band's legacy in the '80s by R.E.M., The Replacements, The Bangles and others, the band's legacy grew, if only in the small-beer world that was indie rock back then. In the '90s, their discography came out on CD, and Chilton and Stephens reassembled the band, this time flanked by two members of The Posies. (The so-far-only studio album by this version of the band, 2005's In Space, is basically terrible.) This pretty much brings us to this week and the release of Keep an Eye on the Sky. First, the good news: The sound quality is amazing, a testament to the brilliance of engineer/band mentor John Fry. The box is beautifully designed, shaped like a seven-inch record sleeve, but containing a lavish, informed booklet and a sleeve containing the four CDs. And of course, any collection of music that has songs like 'Thirteen,' 'September Gurls' and 'Nightime' has got something going for it.
Now for the ambivalent news: The first three discs are dominated by the three canonical studio albums from '72-'78 in their entirety. Many tracks labeled on the box as 'Alternate Mix' are pretty much indistinguishable from the original released versions. Chances are, if you love Big Star, you already own much of the music here. As for the bona fide rarities, they are also a mixed bag. I am partial to Chilton's solo demos for Radio City and Third, showcasing both his plaintive musicality and barbed sensibility. There are also some interesting alternate renditions, like a more chooglin' 'In the Street,' a trippier 'O My Soul' and Big Star versions of songs that Bell took with him when he quit, but sung here by Chilton. But I can't say these are revelatory, in the way certain songs on the Velvet Underground or Byrds boxes may have been. Disc four contains a live show from 1973 by the Radio City lineup. Like most live Big Star releases, it's ragged, spirited and not terribly essential. If you're already a happy owner of Big Star's best work, you may find this box an unnecessary extravagance. But if you've always wanted these albums and want to get them in one fell swoop, Keep an Eye on the Sky fits the bill nicely. There is a depth and a sense of disquiet in the music of Big Star that none of their guitar-pop acolytes ever really captured. I've fallen under its spell many times over the years. For newcomers, this box makes it even easier.
Go Back To Those Gold Soundz I think it's overstating it to say nobody saw this coming. Pavement was a great rock band, and a strange one, but still a rock band and therefore susceptible to the accepted rock band evolutionary steps. The exiled first drummer, the singer gone solo, the deluxe re-issues, and now, yes, here we are, with a live reunion gig booked (for a year from now), and more on their way, most likely. Don't get me wrong: I am extremely excited. Militantly so. I saw them at the Troc a few times back in the day and they brought it in a sloppy, happy way. Unforgettable. This will rule. (Now ask me if Neutral Milk Hotel will ever get back together.)
Susan Ottaviano (who later went on to New Wave stardom in Book of Love) on the making of her Philly band Head Cheese's single 'Jungle Jam' from 1982:
We recorded "Jungle Jam" at Third Story music, an 8 track studio in Philadelphia, in 1981. It was produced by David Javelosa, who we met at the East Side Club. He was performing with his group Los Microwaves at the time. The 'Jungle Jam' video was filmed in and around Philly and is truly a love story to the city. There are scenes on Broad Street, the gargoyles in City Hall, a basement on League street and a pig's head from the Italian Market. The Jungle Jam video has just recently been posted on YouTube. One of the original directors of that video even works for Pixar now. He said that he had more fun on our movie than he does today. You should check it out. It's pretty funny.
Read A.D. Amorosi's interview with Book of Love here.
Somebody just uploaded a lot of these professional looking North Star live at Dobbs videos to YouTube. North Star was a band. More info on them here.
Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa
I saw Michael Jackson perform at JFK Stadium, back in September of 1984, as part of the Jacksons Victory Tour. At the time I hadn't heard of the Jackson Five. I certainly hadn't heard of the mysterious sixth brother, Jackie Jackson. All I knew was 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It' kinda stuff. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" might've been my favorite. And that it was supposed to be the concert of the century. Now I can't seem to remember much. Here's what I got:
- My whole immediately family went, including my Aunt Maryanne. I'm not sure how we could afford the tickets, even for nosebleed seats, but my sister could be very persuasive when it came to these things. I remember the way a family vacation in Boston turned into a night when my dad and brother and I went to see Problem Child while my sister and mom went to see the New Kids. Problem Child is a bad movie.
- My brother also won a pair of tickets from Shop 'n' Bag in some huge promotional raffle kind of thing. But then we lost one, we think, because it fell through a hole in the glove compartment of our big green Chevy.
- The opening act was a guy who juggled grapefruit-sized disco balls.
- The Jacksons were dressed as monsters at some point? Is that right? Why would that be? I remember being scared.
- I think there was a spotlight specifically assigned to the glitter glove.
- There was a lot of girlish shrieking, and not just from the stage. I remember seeing one lady get taken away on a stretcher and thinking she was probably dead.
- Oh yeah, we got one of those official tour programs, that probably cost like 50 bucks. It was just a lot of huge glossy pictures of Michael, Marlon, Randy, Tito and Jermaine in, like, motorcycle gear and standing next to Lamborghinis and stuff. That's what was cool back then.
Koko died yesterday at the age of 80. This video is her performing "I Cried Like A Baby." The picture quality is eh, but the sound is sweet.
Interesting 1980 mini-documentary on sculptor Robert Sanabria's creation of "Origins I", which stands (stood?) in front of the Wister Apartments in Germantown. Features a young Larry Kane and that classic PBS feeling, like those short films they used to show on Mr. Rogers, complete with curious musical choices.
|Photos by Patrick Rapa|
I'm not getting old, I'm getting ancient.
I'm not getting old, I'm getting dead.
Not sure if I got the wording right on the jokes Rodriguez was cracking, but it was something like that. With good humor, a generous spirit and a genuine enthusiasm for being there, Rodriguez played his '60s folk-rock songs like he didn't know we knew they were hits in an alternate reality. One where his 1970 Cold Fact LP (recently unearthed and re-released by Light In The Attic) was always the big post-Dylan-Donvan hit it should've been and the Detroit guitarist was known by all who should know him. Backed by a bunch of young whipper snappers (including trombone and tuba), Rodriguez gently rocked us with "Sugar Man" and " I Wonder." He capped it off with a couple solo tunes. At times he seemed a little unsure of himself, still puzzling over songs he wrote 40 years ago, getting lost in the moment or just plain getting lost. He cracked shy jokes about being old and rusty and delivered between-song bits of grandpa wisdom. He downed a glass of wine like it was Gatorade. I'd never heard Rodriguez before 2009, but you could feel it: This show, this tour, was a long time coming, and this music was finally getting its due.
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