Blondie, Hold the Dagwood

Please allow me to air my shame and make a confession: I saw the movie Little Darlings in a theatre! Yes, hard-earned money exited my sweaty pocket so that I could watch that 1980 blockbuster you’ve never heard of starring Tatum O’Neal, Kristy McNichol and Matt Dillon. Fortunately, the only memory I retain of this experience is that Blondie’s One Way or Another appeared in the soundtrack. Which surprised me at the time. Blondie was originally considered punk and punk rock did not often grace soundtracks in 1980. However, I now realize that they were not actually punk! Oh sure, the band exhibited new wave fashion flare, but the music itself was much more in a pop vein. Or a disco vein. Or a reggae vein. Depends on what song you’re talking about.

My present-day self became curious as to how often Blondie songs have been used in movie and TV soundtracks. Dredging through my overstuffed memory I concluded that the band didn’t have a huge legacy of popular tunes, so I presumed their songs did not often grace the silver or flat screens. But guess what sports fans? They appear frequently! Like not just here and there, but everywhere. And, Blondie has sold over 40 million albums! That’s nearly 6 million in dog albums! So I’ve had to reassess my idea of the group’s popularity. And now I know: Blondie is hot socks!

In 1978, Parallel Lines introduced me and most Americans to the music that was already well-known in the UK. Tune after tune of driving new wave, catchy pop and danceable disco filled its grooves. Hanging on the Telephone, One Way or Another, Heart of Glass, I’m Gonna Love You Too, Just Go Away and other gems pushed this listener to repeatedly spin said disc.

The list of movies that have used songs from Parallel Lines is quite amazing: Little Darlings, Mean Girls, Coyote Ugly, Cruella and Ready Player One are just the tip of the iceberg. Subsequent albums provided songs for Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo, Muriel’s Wedding, Bridesmaids, The Heartbreak Kid, Donnie Brasco, The Last American Virgin and Bend it Like Beckham. Pretty impressive. And the movies and TV soundtracks that I’ve not mentioned are much more plentiful than those that I have listed. In fact, IMDB credits the band with 265 soundtrack appearances!

Music for soundtracks is chosen largely for its appeal to a potential audience, so Blondie’s numerous appearances in soundtracks is a nod to their remarkable popularity. In my mind they’re still just the quasi-punk band that appealed to me and a small group of friends 40 years ago. But in reality, Blondie is beloved by the world. Not bad for a bunch of punks from New York city.

Seattle has Both Kinds Of Music

“You can take a lad out of Seattle but you can’t take a fish out of the country.”
Ron Averill

As I read posts in the various PNW music groups I belong to, I get the creeping feeling that Seattle = grunge in the minds of many. End of story. But the truth is that Seattle music is a hot mix of many styles. One can find a thriving surf rock community, unlimited punk bands, and enough dream pop to fill your nightmares. But today we look towards the past and see just what the heck is up in the country music scene.

One of the earlier NW practitioners of both kinds of music, country & western, Bonnie Guitar is somewhat forgotten these days. Her biggest hit, Dark Moon, was released in 1957, which is a while back. But here in 2021 Dark Moon will soon be hitting the airwaves in the soundtrack of Loki! The song is a haunting pop/country crossover and is sure to please a new generation of listeners. If you like old-fashioned country music, give Bonnie a listen.

Christy McWilson is a country performer who is ubiquitous in the Puget Sound area. Over the years she’s been in a variety of local bands including the Dynette Set and The Picketts. Additionally, she has sung with national recording acts, including Dave Alvin and Mudhoney. McWilson’s voice is that of a classic country crooner, strong and expressive, ready to raise a barn or stop a stampede at the flick of a whip. We are fortunate to have this talent in the PNW, so check her out via Hoopla.

And once you’ve fallen in love with Christy McWilson’s music, you can move on to The Picketts. This wonderful band, which included two members of The Young Fresh Fellows, strayed from the standard country music formula by interspersing elements of Americana, rockabilly and pop music into the mix. The result is accessible, charming songs that are sure to inspire repeated listenings.

Looking for contemporary country? Look no further than Seattle’s own Western Centuries. A touch of nasal twang, a dash of pop/rock sensibilities and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat combine to give the PNW country music that can hang with the best of current popular C&W. Get out your snakeskin boots and prepare to boogie. Or at least line dance.

But if it’s the old timey country that floats your wagon wheels, Seattle has that covered too with Ranch Romance. This band of ladies and a fella had no end of chops, harmonies, pickin’ and grinnin’. Why, they could even yodel (except in Georgia where it’s illegal). With bows and fingers a-flying, Ranch Romance provided virtuosic music for a passel of dudes and dudettes.

As we end our rapid tour, obscurity is the watchword. The Western Front, led by Fred Cole of Dead Moon, left us with only six recorded songs. Their brand of alt-country is gritty, desolate, filled with gravelly vocals and lonesome trails. If you appreciate the croonings of Wilco or Lydia Loveless then you should definitely check these fellows out.

Mama mia, that’s a lot of country music! And you thought the Northwest started and ended with Nirvana. Well, get out your musical amplification unit and think again, Buster. And while you’re up, please turn off that lamp in the hallway.

XTC: It’s Not Just for Raves!

It was a freezing winter day, something like 5 a.m., and I was spinning the hits as I know them on KWCW, the pride of Whitman College. But this was to be a day like no other! As it became abundantly clear that the stylus on one of the turntables was broken, a fine sheen of panic seized my brain. You see, CDs had not been invented yet and you needed two, two, two turntables in one to run a radio show. Sadly, I was down to my last turntable. In an attempt to salvage the situation and save humankind for another day I threw on an entire side of Black Sea by XTC until the damaged stylus was replaced. And thus began a love affair that will continue until the gates of time come crashing down on baby New Year.

It’s hard to recall exactly which XTC album I encountered first. Perhaps it was Drums and Wires, a quirky pop gem that came out in 1979 and featured unforgettable songs like Making Plans for Nigel and When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty. Or it might just as easily have been Black Sea on that fateful winter morning. But by the release of English Settlement and the tight rotation of the single Senses Working Overtime on KZAM in the summer of 1982, I was eating XTC for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The band. Not the illicit drug.

The group is a bit steeped in mystery. Andy Partridge, their brilliant songwriter/guitarist/ singer has been plagued by a variety of health issues that led to the band’s cessation of touring. In fact, I was set to see them in 1982 when they cancelled due to jaundice. But the scope of their songs is far beyond the live performance capabilities of three or four lads, so I’ve always thought of them as a band that makes fabulous records but doesn’t perform live. And that’s okay.

Their songs are psychedelic, Beatlesque, poppy, sometimes huge, quirky, and incredibly perfect. From the punkish spasms of White Music and Go 2 to the pop perfection of Drums and Wires, the hugely orchestral rock of Black Sea, English Settlement, Mummer, The Big Express and Skylarking, these fellas have created some of the best music I’ve encountered. And now, through the magic of Hoopla, you too can experience XTC.

Starting with Drums and Wires, and I’m not at all certain this was done intentionally, most XTC albums contain one long, huge-in-scope song that generally grows from nothing, climaxes in a frothy release of decibels, and returns to nothing. These became my favorites. Complicated Game features Partridge rabidly shouting the song title. Travels in Nihilon creates an unending drone of tom toms and synthetic-sounding buzzsaw notes under chanted vocals. Jason and the Argonauts, Deliver us from the Elements, Train Running Low on Soul Coal, Dear God… all are songs of epic proportion.

So the moral of this story is: Listen to XTC! You can find most of their albums on Hoopla and, wait for it, it’s free and legal to hear them! And it’s filled with your daily requirement of niacin! In the immortal words of 17th century mathematician Robert Hooke as he reviewed Drums and Wires, “Hey, that’s acute angle.”

A Cure For The Boogie Woogie Blues

Sure, swing is fun, but why listen to the slow-paced stodginess of String of Pearls when you can lindy to that hot mess of jump blues known as Jump, Jive, an’ Wail? Granted, a little of the Ludwig Van is fine and dandy, but when all is said and done the hep cats just want to know Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?

Now, many of you are thinking in your own unique vernacular, “What the heck is jump blues?” This redheaded stepchild of a genre is not so abundantly discussed as boogie woogie or R&B or swing, yet it’s related to all three styles and served as an important bridge leading to rock and roll. In most basic terms, jump blues is fast, jazz-oriented little-big-band chaos with intense vocals, call and response, humorous lyrics, honking saxophones and a pronounced swagger to its walk. The style first became popular in the 1940s and more recently has found a small but happy audience in today’s youth and elders.

Thanks to Hoopla, many jump blues artists are available for your listening pleasure, including Louis Jordan, one of the originators and standouts of this genre. Rooted in jazz, Jordan had a penchant for comedy which came out both in his music and the music videos he created in pre-MTV days. As one of the most successful and influential African-American artists of his time, Jordan scored hits with Caldonia, Choo Choo Ch’boogie and Five Guys Named Moe, as well as many more.

Another jump blues Louis, one who was the voice of King Louie in The Jungle Book, was Louis Prima.  He also began in jazz and moved toward jump blues at about the same time as Louis Jordan. When swing enjoyed a short-lived surge of popularity with the younger crowd in the 1990s, Prima’s Jump, Jive, an’ Wail was practically the theme song of the movement. With wild antics on trumpet and an equally fierce voice, Prima was a jump blues standout.

In the modern world which we currently inhabit, Squirrel Nut Zippers are perhaps the most successful and well-known practitioners of jump blues. This frenetic small big band pumps out crazy jitterbugging classics such as Hell, Fat Cats Keep Getting Fatter and Ghost of Stephen Foster that keep the kids’ toes tapping manically.

Amongst contemporary jump blues standouts are such diverse artists as Four Charms, Atomic Fireballs and Mike Sanchez. Each captures the excitement that jump blues incited at its inception while still sounding as fresh as a frosty morning in Denmark. With all the heat of hot jazz packed into gilded shrink wrap (metaphorically speaking), these folk help keep jump blues alive and kicking in the 21st century.

Music is always hard to describe with words, so check out these recording artists to find out the shocking truth about jump blues! And take a gander at Hoopla while you’re at it. The diversity of artists available for streaming is downright spectacular. As always, be sure to tuck in your safety flaps.

T. Rex (Not The Dinosaur)

Tribute albums are often, simply put, horrible. While I get excited to hear new and exciting versions of songs I already love, the bands covering these tunes frequently play them exactly the same as the originals, except worse. So, I approached Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex with some trepidation.

Now, you may not know who Marc Bolan and T. Rex were, but that would be your bad, as the kids say. Granted, the reign of T. Rex really occurred 50 years ago, but as the pioneers of glam rock these lads were HUGE in the UK, at one point as popular as the Beatles. The U.S. did not embrace them quite as warmly, but Bang a Gong (Get it On) still enjoyed heavy rotation AM radio airplay in 1971.

The group started out as Tyrannosaurs Rex in 1967, playing psychedelic folk music sporting titles such as Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love). But in 1970 their sound began to change to something new. Songs were simple, repetitive and catchy. Vocals still had a bit of a sweet folk ambiance. And the mood in general was happy, happy, happy. I think of T. Rex as providing the perfect soundtrack for the flower children. After 1973 the band’s popularity began to fade, and in 1977 singer and songwriter Marc Bolan died in an automobile accident. And though people may not have known it at the time, the group’s influence was just beginning to be felt on the shoulders and elbows of the music world. Flash forward to 2021, Angelheaded Hipster showcases an impressive catalog of hits with 2 discs of T. Rex songs, generally interpreted with great respect and more than a modicum of originality.

While comparing the original songs to the covers, I realized that T. Rex frequently employed orchestral strings in their music, often using them more than guitar. One example of this is found in Cosmic Dancer, which is covered here by Nick Cave. Anyone familiar with Mr. Cave is aware that he can interpret a tune, and interpret he does with piano and voice dominating this poignant rendering. The original assaults all that is holy with monstrously rocking drums, but Cave’s version remains sedate. Well worth checking out.

Metal Guru is covered by Nena on this compilation. Where T. Rex had a happy tune with heavy and huge instrumentation, Nena takes the same feel but makes it into a sixties Motown event. A most excellent example of an artist taking someone else’s song and making it their own.

Speaking of making something one’s own, Todd Rundgren takes the simple and straightforward Planet Queen and creates a swingful lounge feel that I found amusing and superb. A kinetic surge of psychedelic big band assaults the ears and caresses this listener’s pleasure centers.

Finally, the band’s biggest American hit, Bang a Gong (Get It On) is tackled by David Johansen, a former glamster with the New York Dolls. This cover plays almost like a comedy routine with crowd sounds from a fictitious night club accompanying the lounge lizard delivery of Johansen. While the original is essentially a rock and roll anthem, this new version is strictly the cat’s pajamas.

Conclusion? Angelheaded Hipster is a well-done tribute album to a group that we could all benefit from hearing. Check it out, check out other T. Rex releases. But most of all, have a glamorous experience.

The White Album

Round about 1978 I began a complicated relationship with the Beatles’ White Album. As the owner of a car with a cassette deck (!) I was able to take the Beatles with me wherever I might go… practically here, there and everywhere! Two of their albums became my constant companions, Abbey Road and the White Album. These lp’s colored my late teens perhaps like no others.

In my dotage I tend to alternate between hot and cold feelings for those Beatles, but a recent listen reminded me of the brilliance that is the White Album. I don’t think anyone could sit down and write thirty impressive songs in varied styles any better than this. Most rock albums stick to a narrow range of musical language. But the White Album is all over the map: rock and roll, folk, experimental tape music, dance hall. And the really infuriating part is the songs are mostly brilliant. As a listener, it feels like the composers did whatever they felt like and did it outstandingly well.

The Beatles did a whole lot of tape manipulation in their music, back in those wild pre-digital days. I remember hearing once that bits of Strawberry Fields were created by cutting up some tape, randomly reattaching the bits, and playing it backwards. Revolution 9 takes this practice to new heights. There is nothing warm and cozy about this song, no melody, no easily-discernible form. If you wanna reach a new level of creepy, try listening to this one late at night at the end of a deserted road in your car. Number nine.

Perhaps you’d like to hear a little hard rock or proto punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges were exploring this style as early as the late 60s and on the White Album we find the Beatles up to their hip boots on Helter Skelter. It’s a brilliant foray into driving distorted guitar, wall o’ drums and a highly saturated sound spectrum.

Or if you’re looking for 6 degrees of separation from all that’s creepy and loud, you could always lindy to the dance hall crooning of Honey Pie. If Chico Marx had sung with Paul Whiteman on a spring day in Central Park, well, who knows what that would have been like. But there is a distinct vaudevillian feel to several of the album’s tunes. It’s as if the Beatles wrote a few for the kids and a few for mum and dad.

We could dissect each song, but the takeaway is variety and high quality. It would be inaccurate to call the White Album a rock album, although it includes plenty of rock. Nor is it solely folk or experimental or early jazz. But, it has a bit of each of these genres. Quite an accomplishment. And because it’s a double album, when you check it out from Everett Public Library you get 2 for the price of 1!

Pacific Northwest Albums 2020

2020 has been a harsh mistress in many ways and musicians have not been exempt from her brutal capriciousness. It ain’t a good time to make a new album.

But that has not stopped musicians in the Pacific Northwest from releasing new materials. Thus far this year I have catalogued 188 new albums released in the region, and this is only in genres that I’m interested in. The actual number is probably significantly higher.

So with lockdown and quarantine and such, how exactly are albums being made? Perhaps most amazingly are long-distance recordings where band members who live thousands of miles apart record their bits individually and then put the whole thing together. One such local album is House Bound Jazz by Andrew Oliver. This most excellent old-timey hot jazz album, filled with intricate interaction between band members, was recorded through the magic of the interwebs, a feat which continues to impress me.

Others recorded material earlier but released it in 2020, such as fabulous local country artists Wildcat Rose’s latest, On Fire!. Leaning slightly to the rockabilly side of country, but still firmly entrenched in traditional country tropes, Wildcat Rose delivers.

Other groups have released live recordings that were perhaps not originally intended to be released or recorded albums in their own homes with amazing technologies that were unavailable not all that long ago. Neither rain nor sleet nor germs!

A few of these new releases are available at Everett Public Library including:

If I Am Only My Thoughts by Loving
Carrido by Pure Bathing Culture
Call The Captain by Western Centuries

Sadly, most of these new releases are not currently available through Everett Public Library. However, you can find albums by many of these same artists in the EPL collection, including:

The Minus 5                            Naked Giants                 Young Fresh Fellows

        Dana Countryman                         Fleet Foxes                      The Green Zoo         

               Karl Blau                                        Mo Troper

And lastly I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite local albums of 2020 that will hopefully be available through the library soon:

A Look Back by The Burying Ground                    1961 by The Evanstones

       Ridiculosis by Robb Benson                   Rock & Roll Party 66 by Scott the Hoople

So even in tough times we can find beautiful art. Check into recent local music releases to invigorate the spirit and soothe the soul.

This Thing Called Life

One of the very few good things about these challenging times is the explosion of virtual events that are now available. What you loose in the ability to be ‘in person’ you gain in the sheer number and variety of programs to attend virtually. But how to choose? Let the library be your guide.

Here at Everett Public, we have teamed up with CrowdCast to host many excellent programs. We are especially excited about the program we are hosting on Thursday, Oct. 15th at 6 PM:

This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey On + Off the Record

Prince remains one of the most mysterious rock icons of all time. In This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off the Record, journalist Neal Karlen explores his unique, decades-long relationship with Prince. Karlen will be joined in conversation with Gregr, the morning host on Seattle’s 107.7 The End alternative music radio station. The audience will be given an unusually intimate peek into superstar Prince’s life, going back to his earliest days. 

Sign up to attend today and enjoy the program on Thursday. If you miss the deadline, never fear. You can view this event, and all our past events as well, from the Everett Public Library CrowdCast page.

If after the program, you feel inspired to learn more about the Purple One, why not browse through our many other books about his life and times? And of course, we have plenty of his music and films as well.

The Ballad Of Hank Williams

It’s darn near impossible for music from the past to affect me in the same way it affected those for whom it was written. ~ Ron Averill

The French Revolution was kind of a big deal in 1789. Beethoven wrote an opera about it in 1805 (Fidelio), but I cannot relate to the topic or the musical style with the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder as did 1805 concertgoers. Geography, economics, education, exposure to varied musical styles… all these things influence how we respond to music. And although it’s a bit closer to home, I can’t really put myself into the shoes of a dirt-poor sharecropper from the southern U.S. ca. 1950. So my take on Hank Williams comes from a different place than that of a large portion of his original audience.

Even so, I’ve loved the music of Hank Williams for decades and have performed many of his songs in a variety of bands. But it wasn’t until I recently watched Ken Burns’ Country Music that I really understood where Hank was coming from, what he was singing about.

Williams grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression, often moving for his father’s work, eventually losing his father to eight years of hospitalization. Additionally, young Hank was born with a spinal deformity that left him constantly in pain and later contributed to drug and alcohol abuse. Although this could just be me romanticizing, it seems like his existence was filled with sorrow.

Some of Williams’ titles obviously focus on sad topics: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Cold Cold Heart. But other upbeat tunes also lean towards misery: Move It On Over (infidelity), Why Don’t You Love Me (lost love), Honky Tonk Blues (struggling with life in the city). And while some songs depict having a good time (Honky Tonkin’) or falling head-over-heels in love (Howlin’ at the Moon), much of Williams’ work deals in despair.

But what beautiful despair it is! Weary Blues from Waitin’ is about a man who is hoping his woman will come back to him. We don’t know why she left, but now it’s winter and as he cries the man’s heart is surrounded by the chilled fingers of nothingness. The music is haunting, lonely and austere, the singer’s sweet voice filled with anguish and heartache. Seldom can one hear something as touching as this simple song.

Ramblin’ Man is the heartbreaking study of a man who can’t stay in the same place for very long. “I love you baby, but you gotta understand when the Lord made me he made a ramblin’ man.” You can feel his inner turmoil, wanting to settle down with a wife but unable to ignore the siren-call of a passing train’s whistle.

Fortunately for you all, Everett Public library is right resplendent in its Hank Williams collection. The Very Best of Hank Williams and Pictures From Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Recordings and Photos are available on CD, and a passel of other albums are available to stream through Hoopla.

So, no excuses! Check out Hank Sr. and have a good cry, cry, cry.

Happy Songs for your Zeitgeist

There are certain songs that can change my mood for the better. On the bleakest of days I can turn to one of these gems and be assured that relief is on the way.

So what is it about these songs, what magic be released from their very first sounds? Let’s find out, shall we?

Song: A Message to You Rudy (1979) Album: Encore (2019)
Artist: Specials

Why I like the song: it has a happy vibe, the lyrics are quirky, I enjoy the band’s appearance, happy memories 

Song: We’re All Happy (1993)
Album: Possum Dixon
Artist: Possum Dixon

Why I like the song: the bizarre introduction, the energetic tempo, its happy vibe, fab guitar playing

Song: Travels in Nihilon (1980)
Album: Black Sea
Artist: XTC

Why I like the song: the huge sound, its power and complexity, the drone and repetition, drums drums drums

Song: Sonic Reducer (1977)
Album: Young, Loud and Snotty
Artist: Dead Boys

Why I like the song: it has a raw edginess, tremendous power and high energy, gritty guitar, happy memories

Song: I Feel Beautiful (1999)
Album: Jewels for Sophia
Artist: Robyn Hitchcock

Why I like the song: the words resonate personally, it had tremendous beauty, the unusual instrumentation including marimba and dulcimer

Song: O Death (1916?)
Album: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)
Artist: Camper Van Beethoven

Why I like the song: lyrics are interesting, nice growth from tiny to enormous, inclusion of brass and strings

Song: Watching the Detectives (1977) Album: Live at Hollywood High (2010) Artist: Elvis Costello

Why I like the song: lyrics tell a good story, instrumental parts are complex, music has an engaging feel

Song: Hell (1996)
Album: Hot
Artist: Squirrel Nut Zippers

Why I like the song: great songwriting, happy memories, lyrics are funny, energy and anarchy rule the song

Song: Go Wild in the Country (1981)
Album: Live in Japan (1997)
Artist: Bow Wow Wow

Why I like the song: powerful vocals, titanic drums, I enjoy the band’s appearance, happy memories

Song: Screaming Skull (1983)
Album: Hexbreaker
Artist: Fleshtones

Why I like the song: spooky mood, fuzz guitar and wicked pipe organ, guitar solo, it’s party time!

Rest assured that all of these songs, as well as countless others, can be streamed through Hoopla. Just go to epls.org for more details.

So feel isolated no longer. Check out Hoopla and find your happy songs.