About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Bowie, Still David Bowie

When we last left David Bowie it was 1993 and his music had moved in a somewhat darker direction. This leaves him with 23 years and 6 more albums before the culmination of his career, Blackstar.

OutsideNext up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.

Earthling1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.

HoursAlways striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.

Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.

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A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.

This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.

Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.

Bowie, David Bowie

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Confession time: I’ve never been a rabid Bowie fan. Oh sure, his music is incredible and I’ll happily listen to it over and over, but only songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. I’m fairly unaware of albums recorded after Let’s Dance. Bowie got me to the church on time and then I abandoned his music.

When he died I fervently resisted the urge to jump on the bandwagon and sing Bowie’s praises, viewing his last album as the most incredible ending to a perfect musical life. I assumed plenty of others would take up that mantel. But when I finally did hear Blackstar recently, I was stunned by how spectacular the music is. And only then did I realize that I had no idea what Bowie had been up to for the past 30+ years.

Thus began a quest to quickly get a feel for Bowie’s “recent” albums, to look for trends in his compositions, and to see how the final album fits into the big picture. So buckle in, Major Tom, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

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Frequently bands put out a remarkable first album and never again reach the same level of accomplishment. The reason for this is simple: An entire lifetime of composing goes into a first album. A second album has roughly a year in which to be put together.

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So here’s something beyond amazing: From 1969 to 1980 David Bowie put out more than one album per year, many of them absolutely brilliant. Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). The timeless songs found on these albums include Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? (1971), Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City (1972), The Jean Genie (1973), Rebel Rebel and Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans and Fame (1975), Golden Years (1976), Heroes (1977), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes and Fashion (1980).

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Not bad for a career. But that only covers ¼ of the time Bowie filled in the “musician” bubble on standardized forms.

Eric Carr, in reviewing Bowie’s 2003 album Reality sums up the last ¾ of Bowie’s career quite nicely:

“Bowie’s work is traditionally seen in a terrifically damaging binary– common law states that if his work isn’t brilliant, it’s terrible…”

This is a fair assessment of how Bowie’s post-1983 albums were received. Realize that he was not content to repeat previous successes but always strived for something different, a particular concept or composing strategy. Some forays into new territory were more successful than others. Often the results did not meet fans’ expectations. Judgments were harsh. And 1983/84 were pivotal years in this process.

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Before the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie was immensely popular yet associated with fringe or avant-garde culture. Making a complete left turn, his 1983 album was straight-ahead danceable pop music. The 1984 follow-up Tonight, featuring similar music, made Bowie more commercially successful than ever and brought in a legion of new fans. However, the commercial success came with negative reviews; to his long-time followers, Bowie was not acting like Bowie.

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Three years passed before the release of another album, Never Let Me Down. Three hit-singles, commercially successful, but critically panned. Later in life Bowie felt that he had not been involved enough in the process of making this album. He commented that the time after Let’s Dance was a bad one for him artistically.

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Bowie’s next two albums were with the band Tin Machine, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he released another solo album, Black Tie White Noise. This album moved in a new direction of darker music, more intensely personal songs. The result? Critical and commercial success. The music is still funky and dance-oriented, but not poppy, somewhat similar to synth-pop band Heaven 17. Lyrics focused on Bowie’s wedding to Iman and his step-brother’s suicide. Highly personal and dark.

With still more than 20 years of music before the release of Blackstar, stay tuned for more on David Bowie’s later career next posting, same Bowie time, same Bowie channel.

The Rebirth Of Country Music

As I grew up in suburban western Washington, I developed a … strong hatred for country music. Perhaps because it was my parents’ music of choice, perhaps because it was uncool amongst my peers or perhaps because the country music created at that time was easy to hate.

Somewhere along the line, what we call country really became rock or pop music sung with a western accent. Oh sure, bands threw in a few traditional country instruments for appearance sake, but rest assured: a cowboy hat does not country music make.

But as Bob Dylan once said, “The country music is a-changin’ for the better so get used to it.” I’m paraphrasing. Many contemporary artists are returning to the roots of country. Others are taking country in new directions while still leaving it as an identifiable genre. So let us take a walk through this…  new country (pause for thoughtful laughter).

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One direction taken by contemporary country musicians is a return to the great music of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Picture stunning voices over music steeped in tradition. Songs with stories, heartbreak and the occasional miner. Neko Case, Gillian Welch and Eilen Jewell fall into this new/old-timey genre.

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As always, the lines between genres can become as blurry as a narrow freeway lane in a hailstorm. Bluegrass, folk and country often intermingle to the point where exact labels are meaningless. Amongst contemporary artists who play old-timey country with folk and/or bluegrass influences we find Old Crow Medicine Show, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn and Carolina Chocolate Drops. These bands often present a sparse or quiet sound (although there are still frequent times where one should not go a-knockin’) and focus on banjo, fiddle and other bluegrassy instruments.

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As we move further afield from tradition, we can find music that combines traditional country elements with blues, jazz, distorted guitars, punk rock, and hip hop drumbeats. Examples of what might be called alternative country can be found in the music of Lydia Loveless, Angaleena Presley and The Wood Brothers.

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Next stop is the world of psychobilly and cattle core in the music of Hank Williams III, also known as Hank3. Yep, he is the grandson of Hank Williams and his music, which contains elements of metal, hardcore and rockabilly, is deeply rooted in country. It’s truly difficult to describe the music of Hank3 as it varies so much from album to album, from song to song. He is equally at home with a traditional country ballad, traditional bluegrass, a speedmetal/thrash bluegrass hybrid or punk, sometimes all within a single song. To further confuse matters, his former record label continues to release albums of old recordings without his approval. So albums can vary considerably in quality. However, Hank3 is well worth checking out. Brothers of the 4×4 is an excellent starting place.

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Finally, we move to the bizarre and unthinkable, a combination of country and rap called hick hop. I feel the need to make a disclaimer: rap is my least favorite genre, so I am not the best advocate for anything involving said abomination. However, what I can tell you “rappers” is that the music of both Big Smo and Moonshine Bandits clearly weaves together elements of country music with rap, creating something that never afore existed. Like if Mothra and Rodan had offspring. You get the picture.

The list of country hybrids and new evolutionary branches goes on and on. This is one of the most exciting aspects of music, this continual growth in new directions which brings about strange and wonderful listening experiences. So take a chance on some new/old styles of country music, even if you’re not a fan. As the Dali Lama once said, “Hey, it’s worth a shot.”

I’m paraphrasing.

The New Beatles?

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I’ve been thinking about the Beatles lately, specifically about recent bands that show an obvious Beatle influence.

(Gestures intimately). Please, come with me. (Walks a short distance). Let me explain where I’m going with this. The Beatles, from day 1 to day last, changed dramatically in style. So I had to ask myself, what do I consider to be a Beatle influence?

Very few bands seek out the early Beatles Mersey beat. What I’m defining as the Beatle sound comes from what one might call their psychedelic period, beginning roughly with Rubber Soul and ending with The White Album (I know, I know, it’s really called The Beatles). This sound has influenced bands a-plenty.

(Holds up hand). Yes, there is still a need to define “influence”. We have Beatles tribute bands, groups that sound one heck of a lot like the Beatles and others that are influenced in more nuanced ways. And nuance is where it’s at for me.

One last bit of business is to define elements that create the Beatles’ sound. This could be a large list, but I’m going to focus on just a few: 1) their prevalent vocal harmonies, 2) the types of chord progressions used, 3) psychedelic tidbits and 4) lyrics that often tell a story.

Let the comparisons begin!

(Approaches desktop computer) While I immediately had a few bands in mind such as Jellyfish and XTC, I needed some help with this topic, so I turned to the internets in search of absolute truth. There I found many bands that are often compared to the Beatles, bands such as Panic at the Disco, Radiohead and My Morning Jacket. But these are bands who I don’t think have a palpable Beatle influence. (Speaks to audience in exaggerated Cockney accent) Oh, I suppose one could focus on any element, such as cymbal hits, and say, “Oi, that’s just how Ringo did it! They’re the new Beatles!” (Returns to regular voice) But from my perspective these groups have no Beatle connection.

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Other common Beatle-comparees include Blur, Arctic Monkeys and Belle & Sebastian. Again, I don’t hear the influence, but perhaps you, the listener, will. And this is not even to say that I don’t like these bands, just that they seem to be on a different path than the lads from Liverpool.

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Delightfully, I found myself introduced to bands I’d not heard before like Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips and Of Montreal. These fine groups do indeed have a Beatle influence, taking some of the key elements one finds in Beatles’ music and repurposing them into entirely original soundscapes.

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(Stretches arms above head) But after this long preamble, the band I really want to talk about today is Squeeze. Over the past forty-plus years, including a break or two, genius songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford have kept Squeeze alive. Perhaps rivaling Lennon and McCartney in lyrical depth, catchy hooks and riveting complexity, these two gentlemen are frequently spoken of in the same breath with the Beatles, even though they’re not well-known in the U.S.

After gaining popularity in the U.K. early on in their career and churning out hits for some time, slowly the band’s popularity began to fade. Their last album was released in 1998. (Raises eyebrow and pauses dramatically) Well, last album less one. In 2007 Squeeze began touring once again and in 2015 they released Cradle to the Grave, picking up right where they left off.

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The album is filled with pop gems. Even on the first listen you’ll feel like you’ve put on your favorite sweater (pantomimes donning garment), the one that makes you happy just to wear. Tempos are a bit on the medium side of fast and the music exhibits a delicate country influence. Songs feature trademark Tilbrook and Difford harmonies while taking small turns into unfamiliar neighborhoods before quickly returning to major boulevards. Here I find an old friend not seen for a long while, one who immediately re-establishes a comfortable rapport. Squeeze again demonstrates why they are, perhaps, the carrier of the Beatles’ torch.

(Turns to walk away) Check this one out. You can’t go wrong.

Just Regular Joes

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By the time you are reading this fascinating post, the following statement will not be true: Tonight I am going to see (and hear) The Tripwires, Girl Trouble and the Young Fresh Fellows. While I’ve never even heard of The Tripwires (Seattle power pop super group) and have not seen Girl Trouble live (they’re a garage rock band from Tacoma formed in 1983), I opened for and consequently saw the Young Fresh Fellows in 1986. For those of you who are good at math (rainmen), that’s 30 years ago. This was also the last time I saw them live. I don’t get out a lot.

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Over the years I’ve kept track of the Fellows and have continued to purchase both their albums and those of their side projects, which are actually big name groups. Scott McCaughey often tours with R.E.M. He plays in the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock. He leads another semi-local group called The Minus 5. Guitarist Kurt Bloch led the well-known Seattle punk band The Fastbacks as well as performing with many other local bands. Bassist Jim Sangster formerly played in grange rock (yes, grange not garage) group The Picketts and currently plays in the genius power pop group The Tripwires. Drummer Tad Hutchison, simply the best drummer period, plays with Chris Ballew of The Presidents of The United States of America in a group called simply Chris and Tad.

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The Young Fresh Fellows’ music is sort of a cross between The Kinks and The Sonics, with a touch of early Pink Floyd thrown in. Garage anthems, beautiful pop melodies and dueling psychedelic guitar solos are offset by oddities such as Tad singing a warped version of Neil Sedaka’s Calendar Girl (January, it was very cold / February, it was still real cold). Their live show is a bundle of energy, top-notch musicianship and humor. Band members are roughly in their fifties, but when Tad puts on a hat that covers his salt and pepper hair he suddenly becomes a 10-year-old boy playing incredible fills. Kurt jumps up and down maniacally and leans into Scott while ripping out psychedelic solos from the depths of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind. Scott is the leader and focal point, providing intricate lyrics delivered with a simple everyman’s voice. And Jim, not to be outdone by Kurt, is a kinetic kewpie doll pounding out the bass, the bass, the bass.

It’s difficult to choose a single song as a favorite, but one that resonates with me is Searchin’ U.S.A. from their Topsy Turvy album.

I’ve been to Pauline’s Café in Bellingham
Jack said he’d be with me in a minute
I asked him for a glass of water
He said, “What for, you want to put some LSD in it?
There’s already speed and marijuana in the hash browns
Pauline always gets a kick out of that crack
And that kind of service brings the customers back

Pauline’s Café, which opened in the 60s, was a legendary diner in Bellingham, barely wide enough to walk through from front to back, simply a counter with barstools. By the 80s the owners were in the autumn of their lives but were full of vinegar and enjoyed messing with the college students. One of Pauline’s strict rules was no dessert until you cleaned your plate. Searchin’ U.S.A. offers up several slices of life that I have experienced (verse 2 begins: Well, I’ve been to the Alderwood Mall…) encased in poppy Americana-esque music.

There are those of us who see the “Seattle sound” as something that existed long before grunge was conceived. The Young Fresh Fellows are the heirs to this wild, dirty, thumping throne of sound born with The Wailers and The Sonics. Check them out and file the experience under Mind Blown!

From The Blues To Infinity

One of the most fascinating aspects of popular music is the interrelationship of different genres and the evolution/mixture of older genres into newer ones. This is a dense sentence which could earn me a professorship somewhere, but the gist of it is simply: music evolves. Rock and roll didn’t just happen one day. Early rock came out of blues, country, R&B (not the same thing as what we call R&B these days), Western swing, boogie woogie and honky tonk to name just a few genres. Certain songs have been around for a looooooong time and have evolved through a variety of styles.

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Submitted for your approval today is Baby Please Don’t Go, a tune that most likely originated as a slave song in the distant mists of time. Its first popular recording came in 1935 from Big Joe Williams, performed in an old-timey blues style. I’m going to venture a guess that many people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Cream when they hear the term “blues”, and while these are in fact blues performers, 1935 blues sound quite unlike their modern cousin. Instruments were often primitive, cigar box guitars and washtub basses for example. Recording technology was not so advanced. And many of the surviving recordings from the time period are not in great shape, so there’s a lot of hissing and popping that I associate with the genre.

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Williams’ song became quite popular (today being perhaps the most-recorded song in history) and was recorded by a variety of blues legends including Lightnin’ Hopkins (1947), John Lee Hooker (1949), Big Bill Broonzy (1952) and most famously by Muddy Waters in 1953. Waters’ version, known as Turn Your Light Down Low, is a nod to the future, a more urban (and electric) blues, and a jumping off point for rock bands in the 60s.

Amongst all these blues, The Orioles recorded a doo wop version of Baby Please Don’t Go in 1952 that was a hit. Their interpretation combines early R&B accompaniment with doo wop vocals, creating a much different feel than the earlier blues versions. Ray Charles also performed an amazing R&B take on the song featuring female backup singers, and, well, Ray.

As the blues became electric, rock and roll began to emerge as a distinct genre. Billy Lee Riley, a member of Sun Records rockabilly stable, recorded a version in 1957 that maintained some of the blues elements, but that featured a distinctly upbeat feel. But the real rock explosion came in 1964 when Van Morrison’s band Them recorded a hit which remains the version people are probably most familiar with today.

Other rock bands followed with the own versions: Paul Revere and The Raiders (1966), The Ballroom (1967), Ted Nugent’s psychedelic group The Amboy Dukes (1968), AC/DC (1975) as a single that reached #10 in Australia, and the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters in 1981. Each group brought their own interpretation to this now-classic song. And the recordings continue with Cowboy Junkies, Aerosmith and Tom Petty in more recent years. The song provides a veritable geological strata of popular American musical styles. Pretty cool.

So check out these artists, if not to listen to Baby Please Don’t Go, then to hear a wide variety of styles and perhaps to detect common elements that lead from one style to another. It’s a great big beautiful world of music out there (to badly misquote Louis Armstrong and Devo), so take a chance on something new. Or something blues. You choose.

Later, gotta snooze.

What’s New Wave in the Library

I’m a categorizer. Okay, in reality I’m a lazy categorizer. I don’t really care about absolute rigid labels, but when organizing music on my computer (and oh yes I do realize how nerdy that sounds) I like to put bands into categories that make sense to me. When it comes to the term new wave, I tend to think of most any new music I was introduced to from 1979 to the early 80s.

Lately I’ve been trying to get more precise in my labelling, partly because if 1,000 bands all have the same label I can’t find any of them on the computer. So I’ve been moving a lot of bands from new wave into post-punk or punk. But it’s interesting to see that new wave has never been a clearly-defined genre. According to Wikipedia, “the 1985 discography Who’s New Wave in Music listed artists in over 130 separate categories.” One hundred and thirty! So all in all, new wave is a pretty meaningless term.

Yet we continue to use it. So today let us look at what’s new wave in the library.

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One safe bet is Now That’s What I Call New Wave 80s, a compilation featuring bands such as B-52s, Adam Ant, The Go-Gos and many more. It has new wave in the title even! Some of the songs here are the best-known ones by the included bands, but others are not. Quite a mixed bag, which makes it more interesting in my book.

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New York’s CBGB’s was a hotbed of exciting new music in the mid- and late 70s, regularly featuring bands such as Blondie, Ramones and Talking Heads. Many Blondie songs could easily be called pop or disco (although their early less well-known stuff is much more hard-edged), Ramones are often categorized as punk and Talking Heads are labelled post-punk, but when the three groups were starting out they were all called new wave.

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What most people came to think of as new wave was music that I hated at the time, far too mainstream, poppy, and hairstyley. Now that I no longer need to prove how cool I am this music has grown on me. Bands falling under this heading include Tears for Fears, The Fixx and Cyndi Lauper.

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Some new wave bands, such as The Cars, The Police and Duran Duran were quite popular, beloved by people from a cross-section of musical tastes.

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One of the largest sub-genres of new wave is synth pop, music that relies heavily or entirely on synthesizers. Groups in this category include Human League, Yaz and Thomas Dolby.

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Perhaps the ultimate new wave archetype is the literate, nerdy singer-songwriter type. This group includes Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parker. Their songs tend to be thought-provoking and lyrically complex with music ranging from driving pop-rock to ballads and everything in-between.

So there you have it. New wave, meaningless. Music that we call new wave, magnificent. Lots of good music at Everett Public Library. Blog post, finished.