This Friday, let’s pay tribute to an underrated figure in rock ‘n’ roll history, Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone. This native Hungarian was originally going to manage the Ramones, but when they needed a drummer, he stepped behind the skins and pounded out that super fast beat. Moreover, he is an unknown legend in sports arenas everywhere, as he was the primary writer of “Blitzkrieg Bop”. On top of that, he actually played some of the guitar solos on the band’s records, because Johnny Ramone just liked to play rhythm guitar. He also played on the Too Tough To Die LP, and has produced some swell albums, including The Replacements’ Tim and Redd Kross’ Neurotica. Please salute Tommy by grabbing your iPod/MP3 player, hitting shuffle, and sharing the first 10 tunes that come up!
The Psychedelic Furs — Dumb Waiters (Talk Talk Talk): The first two Furs albums are a fascinating tandem. The first album is dark, bleak and angry with the Furs’ accessible take on post-punk sounds. But Talk Talk Talk manages to be brighter, overall, showing a wider array of influences. This track might be the closest to what transpired on the first album. This is a prickly rant, with Duncan Kilburn’s off-kilter saxophone keying the proceedings as the band lurches and drones very effectively.
Split Enz — History Never Repeats (Corroboree): A sparkly jangly Neil Finn number. After the success of “I Got You” on the band’s True Colours album, it’s obvious that Neil’s confidence rocketed sky high and suddenly he was dashing off one hooky number after the other. This one relies on a somewhat sing-songy melody with a very creative arrangement with lots of cool keyboard embellishments by Eddie Rayner. This song had a terrific video, with Neil singing to his brother Tim, who was on a small TV screen, with Tim dressed in the garish costumes of the old mid-‘70s Split Enz.
Pixies — Oh My Golly! (Surfer Rosa): Because the Pixies are certified rock deities, I think I have some of their stuff on my iPod out of obligation rather than because I like every track. Don’t get me wrong, Surfer Rosa, Doolitte and Trompe Le Monde are big faves of mine. But they had more than their fair shore of throwaways. This speedy rush of a track is a nice burst of energy, but there’s not a whole lot to it. But it breezes by in less than two minutes, and nobody gets hurt, so I suppose it’s okay.
Number One Cup — Ease Back Down (Wrecked By Lions): Number One Cup played a nifty arty alt-rock that fit somewhere between the aforementioned Pixies and Pavement. There were hooks in the songs, but none were obvious. Indeed, a lot of their best material avoided obvious directions while remaining memorable. Wrecked By Lions was the best of their three albums, with copious amounts of guitars framing serviceable melodies and those not-so-obvious hooks. This would sound great on CHIRP Radio and I need to play this soon.
Jason & The Scorchers — Last Time Around (Lost & Found): For a few years, Jason & The Scorchers were one of the best bands on the planet. They loved hard rock and they loved country music and they jammed it together and made it work. Some called it “cowpunk,” but whatever it was labeled, it was quintessentially American music played by one of the hottest band’s around, with the surprisingly rangy drawl of Jason Ringenberg and all-world guitarist Warner Hodges. This is the opening track on the album and it smokes. And it’s not even the rockingest track on the album.
The Sugarplastic – Arizona (Radio Jejune): This L.A. band always garnered XTC comparisons, since singer Ben Eshbach’s voice has a bit of a resemblance to Andy Partridge’s voice and the band played a herky-jerky brand of rock. There is a little XTC in the band’s sound. but Eshbach has noted The Monochrome Set as a big influence, which is pretty obvious. If you take more XTC-ish melodies and lay them on circular chord patterns reminiscent of The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, Josef K and others from that era, that gives you a clue as to where this criminally overlooked band is coming from.
Didjits — The Man (Little Miss Carriage!): This is from a five-song EP which featured Rey Washam of Scratch Acid on drums. This is a mid-tempo song, thus much slower than most Didjits tunes, which features some typically stinging Rick Sims guitar work. This isn’t a great song, but when a band is really great, and Didjits was really great, even lesser efforts fly, because the overall sound is worth hearing.
The Fall — The Steak Place (The Frenz Experiment): The Frenz Experiment is a good but not great album from the first Brix Smith era. Mark E. Smith’s first wife propelled the band into more accessible directions, as not every song was a grinding dirge or off-kilter rockabilly track. Her love of jangly guitars melded at times with Mark’s love of Can like drone, as illustrated by this moody composition which features a finger snapping rhythm section.
Ramones — Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy (Leave Home): Finally! I get a shuffle track for a birthday artist! This is probably my favorite of the early Ramones albums, as they tempered their power with a bit more of their pop influence. Their music is so basic and immediate, it’s hard to fathom how difficult it was for them commercially, as it wasn’t really until “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” that they got substantial airplay nationwide. And now you see grade school kids wearing Ramones shirts. Better late than never.
Brett Smiley — VaVaVa Voom (Velvet Tinmine): I have three or four collections of obscure British glam rock singles. Basically, every band on these collections picks someone to ape — T. Rex, Slade or Sparks — and then gives it their best. Mr. Smiley certainly does his best to emulate Marc Bolan’s fey vocal stylings and the music is pepped up ’50s rock and roll. Not as good as the inspiration, but it’s bloody fun.
In a matter of days, I went from hipster-platinum to waeguk-nobody. In the beginning of May 2009, I packed up my crates of LPs, stepped down as Music Director of the burgeoning Chicago Independent Radio Project, quit my job at Reckless Records, handed over the helms of Plustapes/Addenda Records to my co-founder, canceled all my DJ gigs around Chicago’s west side (Whistler, Burlington, Danny’s, etc.), handed my cat over to my little brother, and left the city. Days later, I stepped off an airplane at Incheon Airport and took a late night bus to Daejeon, a city located in the heart of South Korea. I slept that night on a single-sized mattress, the only piece of furniture in my allotted studio apartment. Moments before I fell into a deep sleep after my 24-hour journey, I heartily questioned my decision.
I had no idea what to expect coming to South Korea; I had little time to prepare. On a whim, I inquired about a teaching job and not three weeks later reluctantly accepted one. It happened fast and with little premeditation. All I knew was that Chicago was feeling stuffy and redundant after four years. I needed adventure and a setting where I could effloresce into adulthood without too many outside influences. “Individuality” was the word of the moment, and nothing was more foreign to me than South Korea.
Innately, Korea is very different. But superficially, it’s rather westernized. Besides the Hangul script and the copious amount of dragonflies in late spring, Daejeon didn’t seem that far out. The kids dress rather stylishly, the technology is modern (if not slightly ahead of the U.S.) and commerce bustles. Daejeon is certainly a city, but it’s no Chicago. It’s about the size of Portland, OR actually. With the rather uneventful cultural touchstones and nightlife though, it’s much more akin to the Charlotte, NC’s of the world. It’s a city built around a particular business ethos (technological innovation in this case), not around the arts. The opportunities and communities that I gravitated toward in Chicago were obsolete.
Everything, and I mean everything, in Korea is animated. Nearly every store on every corner is blasting music out its doors. Or, at the least, there are dedicated and luminous neon lights for décor. My senses were saturated, and that I was thankful for. But where my sight, taste, smell and touch were satisfied, my hearing was left dumbfounded. Throughout the country, Korean pop is ubiquitous. And not just in placement, it’s loved in the hearts of the people as well. I have yet to meet a person who does not like the sugar-loaded, bubblegum techno, pop-rap, pseudo-soul of K-pop. Even after years of careful music listening, I have a tough time differentiating the groups, even after 7 months. But I have nary a student who can’t list every song on the current pop charts from memory (along with a quick rendition of each song’s chorus).
The song-of-the-moment – and moment in K-pop terms is about 6-8 weeks of chart dominance – when I arrived was Big Bang and 2NE1’s “Bubblegum.” Big Bang, a substantial veteran of the scene for being around for three years already, is a hit-making machine. Every female student of mine has a pencil cased covered in stickers of the five members’ smudge-free images. The production company behind them, YG Entertainment, is dominant and sly. They had just finished fastening the female equivalent of the Big Bang mold, 2NE1, and paired them together for a promotion song for a cell phone by LG Cyon. It is a popular strategy by promotion companies at the moment: crossover jingles. The song was a smash, two Big Bang members would go on to release lucrative solo albums in the fall, and 2NE1 would win numerous awards and accolades during the many year end award shows.
I, on the other hand, needed refuge. The culture I enjoyed, the music industry I loathed. That would change (somewhat). But for the moment, I needed escape. I turned to Miles Davis, an artist that I respect but don’t really get up in arms about. In fact, besides Sketches of Spain, Get Up With It is my only real focus in the vast discography of the archetypal jazz trumpeter. Its inch-thick haze of electric-organ-derived ambience was the perfect opposite of the crystalline K-pop. Composed of a series of session ranging from 1970-74, it also helped that the album was 2 hours-plus of music. Whenever the three-minute onslaught of hook-hook-hook would wear me down, I’d hole myself up in my apartment and lose myself in the endless funky grooves of Reggie Lucas’s static electric guitar and Michael Henderson’s loping bass lines. The tectonic shifts of atonality and seemingly structure-less jam sessions became just the rabbit hole I needed on those special occasions. It’s no wonder this record was so influential on Eno. Even without drugs, it easily trips you out.
Chicago has such a rich musical history and one of the greatest talents to come out of our fair city was Sam Cooke. He bridged gospel roots with an urban sensibility — it’s like he found the midpoint between Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, capable of being as smooth as silk or gritty and down home. On top of that, he was a ridiculously talented songwriter, penning hit after hit and influencing so many of the great soul singers who followed him. What a wonderful world this would be if you would get your iPod/MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 tunes that come up! (NOTE: the 11th tune on my shuffle this morning was Cooke’s “Sugar Dumpling”).
Gaza Strippers — D Is For Dead (Laced Candy): The Strippers were Rick Sims’ band after Didjits. At one level, they weren’t much different than Didjits — more fast punky songs with Sims’ fingers flying on the fretboard making sounds like a mess of pissed off hornets leaving the nest and lots of lyrics about being a badass. But the Strippers had a bit more of metal orientation that both tied them a bit to the ’70s and even moreso to ’90s contemporaries like Hellacopters. As a result, I preferred Didjits, but still dug the Strippers, and this is one the better songs off of the band’s debut.
The Streets — Has It Come To This (Original Pirate Material): Gosh, remember how exciting that first Streets record was? A lot of songs about not doing much more than being lazy and getting high over grime and hip-hop beats. Mike Skinner yobbed his way through his insightful lyrics and someone would sing the hook. I wish Skinner would go back to doing that.
The Replacements — Androgynous (Let It Be): I like but don’t love The Replacements. The major label part of their career was more craftsman-like than inspired, in my (decidedly minority) opinion. Their inspiration peaked on Let It Be. Legendary Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau explained that on Let It Be, the ‘mats simply played the music they liked, whether is was loping rockabilly-ish pop (“I Will Dare”), Kiss (the cover of “Black Diamond”), or this tender exploration of folks who like to wear clothing of the opposite sex. Not the deepest treatment of the subject, but it’s not exploitative and is rather affecting.
Velvet Crush — Gentle Breeze (A Single Odessey): The duo of Ric Menck and Paul Chastain made plenty of classic power pop in the ’90s. This singles collection is a great place to start if you want to find out more. This might be my favorite Velvet Crush tune, a pure jangle fest that is steeped in The Byrds and Big Star (they even reference Big Star’s “Way Out West” in the chorus).
Channels — New Logo (Waiting for The Next End Of The World): Both of J. Robbins’ post-Jawbox projects haven’t really deviated from the style he perfected on Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Jagged guitars, an ultra-tight rhythm section with surprisingly strong melodies. Channels is perhaps a hair less powerful than Jawbox or Burning Airlines and a touch more melodic. And Robbins is still articulately angry, as this song varies from clangorous roar to delicate middle eights.
The House Of Love — Sulphur (1986-88: The Creation Years): A British indie guitar rock band that wasn’t really a shoegazer band but meshed well with that style, House Of Love put out two terrific albums before getting lost trying to figure out its next move. This is from that early period, when they could really do no wrong. Lead singer Guy Chadwick had this interesting low key vocal style that exerted an all-knowing and comforting presence. Meanwhile, there were always lots of great guitar work on top of the sturdy compositions, like this one.
Polara — Allay (Polara): This Minneapolis band was lead by Ed Ackerson, who had previously fronted The 27 Various. Both bands played power poppish indie rock. On Polara’s 1995 debut, Ackerson created a really cool wall of sound, augmenting the guitars with an array of keyboards and percussion sounds, giving Polara a special texture that rocked out enough to hold its own in the alt-rock ’90s. Ackerson also had a voice that sounded a fair amount like Scott Miller of Game Theory and The Loud Family. The debut is great, as is this song, but on subsequent albums, the band got slicker, and less interesting.
Tommy Keene — Love Is The Only Thing That Matters (The Real Underground): Keene is a revered cult figure both in and out of power pop circles. For nearly 30 years, he’s been reliably churning out melancholy pop songs, supported by his wistful, reedy voice and his excellent guitar playing. Keene, who has collaborated with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices in The Keene Brothers (Tommy’s tunes with Robert’s words) and has been Paul Westerberg’s touring guitarist, is skilled in Big Star style jangle, but also can produce riffs that are catchy and tinged with bittersweet emotion. This is more of a jangly tune.
Northern State — Trinity (Dying In Stereo): Three gals doing old school rap that calls to mind the Beastie Boys? Sure, they’re not as good as the Beasties, but there were some really good songs on their debut. Neither the music nor the lyrics reach the heights of their inspiration, but the bar was set pretty high. More importantly, they have loads of personality, making this a fun listen.
Shoes — Your Imagination (Present Tense/Tongue Twister): This is a pretty power poppy shuffle, and Shoes are also legends if you are into the style. The Zion, Illinois band graduated to Elektra Records after one classic DIY record, and managed to retain their low fi charm with bigger budgets. Shoes boiled down pop songwriting to its basics, drawing from everyone from Buddy Holly to The Beatles to The Raspberries and their best songs have two or three hooks and usually get right to the point. Kind of like a wussier Buzzcocks. This song fits that formula to a T.