March 19 – No Pretending, They Were Big 40 Years Ago

An optimist looks for the silver lining to a raincloud, a pessimist sees a clear sky and worries about drought. It’s hard to know which category Chrissie Hynde falls into, but it was a good day during a bad time for her back in 1983. What would turn out to be her band, The Pretenders biggest North American hit, “Back on the Chain Gang” peaked at #5 on Billboard.

The song which had been recorded the previous fall came about four years after the band formed in London, where Ohio-native Chrissie Hynde had lived for several years. Their debut, self-titled album had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and gave them a British #1 song, “Brass in Pocket.” Their follow-up, Pretenders II had done alright, being a top 10 in the UK, U.S. and Canada, but had failed to match the success of their first. Still, things seemed pretty good for them then. Hynde recalls, “everything was going well…it seemed too easy. I was with someone (Ray Davies of the Kinks) I was in love with” and they were doing well on sales charts. Clouds quickly filled that sky though.

Drug use in the band was spiraling out of control, and in summer 1982, she fired their bassist Pete Farndon because of it. Two days later, their guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, died of an OD. Farndon himself would die from drugs months afterwards. “I was traumatized at the loss of my two best friends,” Hynde says.

However, she and drummer Martin Chambers decided to carry on, but having to find new members and facing pressure from Sire Records to record material, they went back to the studio in fall ’82, with producer Chris Thomas, to record this single and the B-side, (the band’s best song in this site’s opinion) “My City Was Gone.” They brought in bassist Tony Butler (who’d soon join Big Country) and guitarists Billy Bremner of Rockpile and Robbie McIntosh to play the song she’d written as a memorial for Honeyman-Scott. The line about the “photo of you” was written about Davies, she says but the song took a more sombre, downbeat turn as her bandmates died and she changed its focus more to Honeyman-Scott. The new members also played on “My City Was Gone.” That b-side also became a popular radio hit and was inspired, as the lyrics suggest, by Hynde’s disappointment to changes she saw in her hometown of Akron upon returning to it after years in England.

Back on the Chain Gang” was helped along by its use in the movie King of Comedy, and rose to #5 in Canada as well as the States. In the UK it got to #17. Both songs were included later on Learning to Crawl, the third Pretenders album.

The Pretenders are still active, although they’ve only put out two studio albums (their tenth and eleventh) in the past ten years.


March 16 – Smithereens Powered Through The Pop

Sometimes success comes naturally to great musicians and their best records. But a universal truism in art including music – sometimes great talent gets greatly overlooked. Many of us feel that The Smithereens fall into that category. The New Jersey band put out their second album, Green Thoughts on this day in 1988.

Three of the quartet – drummer Dennis Diken, bassist Mike Mesaros and lead guitarist Jim Babjak – went to school together and had some sort of ruminary band in the ’70s, but it didn’t really come together until singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Pat DiNizio entered the picture in 1980. They quickly became a reasonably popular and hard-working band on the circuit, drawing largely from older musical inspirations like The Kinks, the British Merseybeat sound, and especially the Beatles and Buddy Holly (whom DiNizio said was his biggest single inspiration.) Finally they got a chance in the mid-’80s, when Enigma Records signed them. Enigma was a California indie label, but a fairly large one who had distribution through Capitol.

Their 1986 debut, Especially For You garnered good reviews but little notice at first, but eventually the video for “Blood + Roses” began being played on MTV, then the song was used on Miami Vice and it helped the album move up the charts both in the States and Britain. Constant touring helped build their name a bit more, and while doing so they – or DiNizio more accurately – wrote the second album.

Green Thoughts was recorded in L.A. with Don Dixon producing. Dixon was a relative newcomer too, but had good cred for co-producing R.E.M.’s first two records. Befitting a band on an indie label who drew heavily from ’60s sounds, the album was done, from beginning to end, in just 16 days. They went in knowing most of the songs and as DiNizio put it, they generally used “the first or second take. If it’s not happening then, it usually doesn’t happen.” They even found time to record a few cover versions, like the old Frank Sinatra song “Something Stupid”, which they put aside for later use as b-sides. What’s more, they got Del Shannon, of “Runaway” fame come in to do a few backing vocals.

The result was a rather unpolished set of 11 songs with ringing guitars, pop sensibilities and often downbeat lyrics. While many of the songs were about love lost and despair, the singer said “I was always interested in the dark side of relationships (the album was) not necessarily reflective of an unhappy state of mind in my personal relationships.” Of course, a little personal unhappiness didn’t hurt the writing. He admitted “House That We Used To Live In” largely came out of his family losing their house when his parents split up years earlier, and “Something New” was written right after he’d broken up with a girlfriend.

Rolling Stone at the time praised the record… sort of. They gave it 4-stars suggesting DiNizio with his “sad-sack demeanor, nerdy goatee and my-dog-just-died singing style (is) the archetype of the awkward, insecure loser” but the rest of the band “are in a much feistier mood” resulting in a “less than jubilant follow-up that prevails in spite of itself.”

College radio loved the record, as did L.A.’s KROQ super-station, where the lead single “Only a Memory” was ranked as the #32 song of the year. That song also got them attention on regular rock radio; in fact it was their only Mainstream Rock chart #1 single. The follow-up, “House That We Used To Live In” made it to #14 on the same chart; unfortunately for them Billboard didn’t start its Alternative Rock chart until the following year, or else they might have had a few more high entries onto big charts, and perhaps move the album beyond the peak of #60 it hit in the States.

Most later reviews praised the record as one of the better power-pop efforts of the decade. Allmusic for example gave it 4.5-stars saying it was full of “superbly constructed pop gems” that were “instantly familiar yet (having) enough flair to sound new and exciting.” Or to the ears of Record Collector, a “veritable jukebox of radio-friendly styles.” If only radio had been friendlier to it!

February 7 – Forgotten Gems : Cowboy Junkies

Seeing as how it’s February and Valentine’s Day is just a week away, let’s recall a happy song that might be highly relevant to many this month as the Forgotten Gem. The surprisingly upbeat and optimistic “Anniversary Song” by Cowboy Junkies was on the charts this week in 1994.

We say “surprisingly” because the Toronto-based band were known for being low-fi, low-key and rather sombre (to say the least) sounding, mainly because of their major label debut, The Trinity Sessions. As the L.A. Times put it, up until this point, the Cowboy Junkies made “hushed” music that would have “warmed a librarian’s heart.” For their fourth RCA album, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins said “we definitely wanted to bring the volume up a bit,” adding “we’ve been moving away from The Trinity Sessions feel for awhile.” But, his sister Margo, the singer, might not have been initially keen on the idea. “She’s very mellow and mild,” he said of her, “and she’d prefer to sing ballads.”

Preferences aside, she, and another brother, drummer Peter (as well as bassist Alan Anton and touring member Ken Myhr who also contributed heavily to the record) went for it, and embraced not only the slightly more rock-ish sound and the theme. Margo described that as “there is love and there is all that conspires to steal love away.”

While there are some dark songs on the album that dealt with the latter, “Anniversary Song” is a pure, happy love song perhaps best summed up by the verse in it “have you ever seen a sight as beautiful as a face in a crowd of people that lights up just for you.”

The public seemed to be willing to embrace the more upbeat Junkies described by allmusic as “refreshed and revitalized.” The album itself went to #25 at home in Canada, and became their fourth straight gold (or platinum) record, but the single hit #10, at the time their best-showing on Canadian singles charts. It also made the Billboard alternative rock chart south of the border , rising to #28.

If you’re wondering what the various Timmins’ sound like these days, people Down Under and in the northeastern corner of the U.S. can find out soon. They have a new album out this spring and are on tour, and have shows this week in Adelaide and Perth, Australia and in April they begin doing a number of shows in the U.S. Midwest and Middle Atlantic states.

January 28 – Now Came 38 Years Ago For Angsty Generation

We’re not getting any younger, and it would seem neither is our music!” Generation X’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’” turns 38 today. The lengthy and moody “How Soon Is Now?” was put out as a single by The Smiths this day in 1985. And like many other cultural milestones, its importance took awhile to really be clear.

Even the band – or else their record label, Rough Trade (on this side of the ocean, Sire/Warner Bros. had them but they were on the small indie label in their native land) – didn’t seem aware of how good the song was. It was first released a in fall ’84… as a b-side to the single “William It Was Really Nothing”, which seems quite forgettable now. It was then included in Hatful of Hollow, the unusual second album from the Manchester quartet. Unusual because after only one regular album, they came out with Hatful… which was really a compilation album of standalone singles they’d released, b-sides and live recordings from appearances on the BBC’s John Peel show. It was only when fans began going crazy for it and radio began spinning it that the record company decided they had a potential hit and put it out as a single. Even then they struggled to get it right. While the full-length 6:45” version was released on a 12” single (and later a CD single), the song was shorn of much of the remarkable guitarwork for the 7” single, which was only about half as long.

Perhaps the greatness of the song was overlooked at first by those close to the band because it was atypical of the Smiths. Generally known for short, snappy pop songs driven by straight-ahead jangly guitars; their first British hit “This Charming Man” rather set a basic template for them. This song however, was lengthy, atmostpheric,slower and echo-ey. the music was composed by their outstanding guitarist Johnny Marr, who had a simple – well, rather difficult really – goal in mind: “I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as ‘Layla’”, he said. Among his inspirations for it, surprisingly, were Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s “It’s All Right.”

With his bandmates, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, they came up with the music, at that time called “Swamp.” Noteworthy was that for whatever reason, Marr ditched his normal Rickenbacker guitar for it in favor of a Les Paul model. Anyway, when that was done, producer John Porter earned his keep and then some. He decided it would sound better with a bit of reverb and effects. So he and Marr went through a process “that took an eternity,” to make it sound like the song we know. They ran the recording of the guitarwork and ran it through three amps simultaneously, with tremolo or vibrato set to different levels on each and recorded the resultant other-worldly echoing sounds. Not so easy to do, but well worth it!

Enter singer Morrissey a few days later who essentially improvised the nakedly honest, depressed lyrics. The first line, “I am the son, and the heir”, were inspired by a George Eliot novel he was reading that refers to a lad “born the son of a Middlemarsh manufacturer and heir to nothing in particular.” He did the song in just two takes, and Marr was in awe. “when he sang ‘of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’, I knew he’d hit the bullseye.”

Indeed he did. Marr recently correctly assessed that it was “our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favorite, I think.” What it wasn’t necessarily, was a smash hit. Although it did their fifth #1 hit on the British Indie chart in just two years (by the end of the decade and their career, they’d score 14 of those), overall it only got to #24 in the UK. Years later it would return to the charts and make it to #16 there. It also was a top 5 in Ireland, but in most other places, nada.

On our side of the ocean, the single didn’t sell much at all and since Sire didn’t bother releasing Hatful of Hollow at the time in North America, fans who wanted it on an album had to wait until it was tacked onto the next Smiths album, Meat is Murder. But even though it wasn’t getting played next to Michael Jackson or Huey Lewis on American hit radio, it had its rabidly loyal fans and quickly became a staple on college radio and the few pioneering alternative rock ones around. CMJ in fact logged it as the fifth most-played song of the ’80s on U.S. college radio stations while in L.A., KROQ ranked it as the 22nd top song of 1984. Toronto’s CFNY was even more enthusiastic. In 1999, they ranked it as the second-best song – ever. (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the one that topped it, in case you were wondering.)

The song was adopted as the anthem of a generation of disaffected, lonely youth and was described by British journalist Louise Segrue as “a triumph thanks to Marr’s genius layering of sliding and oscillating vibrato guitar…and Morrissey’s defiantly anti-pop lyrics.” Or more simply, as allmusic call it, a “masterpiece.”

If the song sounds familiar to you…but not quite, you may have watched a lot of TV last decade. Psychedelic Furs-spinoff Love Spit Love recorded a cover version of it in the ’90s for the movie The Craft which was later used as a theme song for the TV series Charmed.

January 21 – Chart Finale 2 : Going Out With A Bang

Eleven years to the day after one of the big alt rock bands of the ’80s launched what would be their final top 40 American hit onto the charts (The Police with “Wrapped Around Your Finger” which we looked at on today’s other post), another one of the biggies of the ’80s alt rock scene did the same. R.E.M. hit the U.S. top 40 for the final time this day in 1995 with “Bang and Blame.”

Which is surprising given that they were red-hot at the time and we often look back at the ’90s as being the decade when “alternative” rock became the dominant, mainstream version of it. And while it might have been true of album-buyers and the thriving number of alt-rock based radio stations, it probably wasn’t so true of mainstream radio nor the diminishing number of consumers who were still buying physical singles, be they vinyl or CD types.

Bang and Blame” followed “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” as the second single off the band’s Monster album, which took many by surprise given that it was loud, brash and grunge-inspired, following on the heels of two, well “monster”-selling largely acoustic records, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Part of that was the desire to do a large tour for the record, something they hadn’t done since the ’80s, and wanting some new songs fitting a big sports stadium type show befitting a band Rolling Stone at the time described as “one of the most successful on the planet.” A mantel which might have been weighing heavily on Michael Stipe who still didn’t adore the spotlight, at least when off-stage. The same magazine, in its review of the album chided “Bang and Blame” for beginning to “sound not unlike the proverbial rock star, whining about all those fans who just won’t let (Michael Stipe) alone.” Cashbox looked at it more positively, declaring “the propulsive rhythm of this track should also prove enticing even to non-fans.” Interestingly, it’s the only R.E.M. song where Michael Stipe’s sister, Lynda, is credited, as a backing vocalist.

It seemed they were right, the rhythm, imaginative, split-screen, fast-changing video and sing-along chorus made it their last overall big American hit, getting to #19. It became their fifth to top the Billboard Alternative Rock chart. Elsewhere, the reaction was better as their fanbase seemed to shift outside their nation’s borders. It got to #15 in the UK but in Canada was a #1 song. More to that point, while it was their last top 40 at home, they’d score ten more in Canada over the following decade and a remarkable 17 more in Britain before calling it quits in 2011.

January 19 – A Warehouse Of ’90s Sounds Arrived Three Years Early

The shape and sound of much of the ’90s was made on this day in 1987, although few knew it then! Husker Du released their great, powerful yet tuneful Warehouse:Songs and Stories double album.

The Warner record was the last for the Minnesota trio that influenced a whole range of musicians, most notably Nirvana who all echoed the sentiments of Krist Novoselic who said “Nirvana was nothing new, Husker Du did it before us.” Dave Grohl was also a noted fan and has appeared several times with Husker’s singer/guitarist Bob Mould since. Not only did Husker Du break the ground for what would become “grunge”, they also were highly influential among underground rock bands of the ’80s by being the first American “punk” act to sign with a major label (Warner Bros. in 1986) and put out records that sounded much the same as their indie work had. This showed the likes of R.E.M., Sonic Youth and later Nirvana that getting backing of a big label wasn’t necessarily “selling out.” As for Warehouse, it was a bit of a departure for the trio, but not a drastic one. The band had made a name for themselves with short, powerhouse rockers dished up grittily, such as “Makes No Sense At All”, which had been a hit on British indie charts two years earlier. On Warehouse , years of maturing and a bigger budget helped make the sound a bit more palatable without compromising their energy or anger. Unlike their previous five records, this one they wrote and rehearsed in an old Twin Cities warehouse (hence the title) rather than on stage and they took full advantage of a decent studio to overdub some guitars and a keyboard bit here and there. The songs though were pure-Husker Du, and if anything more angry than ever, owing to a personality clash between Mould and drummer Grant Hart (according to many a couple who were splitting up romantically during the recording) who also wrote some of their tracks including the second single off it, “She’s A Woman.

Spin gave it 7 out of 10 and Rolling Stone considered the record a “viable candidate for album of the year”  but the public weren’t as enthusiastic. Although it hit #31 in New Zealand and squeaked into the Canadian album charts, it missed in Britain (where they’d had good success before) and more importantly, in the U.S. despite the catchy single “Could You Be The One?” getting decent play on MTV. Allmusic later graded it a full 5-stars and perceived what made it special: though it had fuller production… to their credit, they never sound like they are selling out” and Bob Mould “nearly arrives at power pop” with his songs, something that “pointed the way to the kind of ‘alternative’ rock that dominated the mainstream in the early-’90s.” Or to paraphrase, being an innovator pays off in respect, but not dollars!

January 18 – Crispian Threw Different Musical Genres In The Shaker

Take a little post-punk rock, a little Deep Purple, a little of George Harrison’s mysticism, stir in a dash of Blur and throw in some Silver Screen trappings and you could have… a mess. Or, if you’re lucky, you might have Crispian Mills, the prime shaker of Kula Shaker. Mills is 50 today and we say Happy Birthday to the guy who’s a fairly big deal in his Britain…but almost anonymous anywhere else.

Crispian was born and raised in London, the son of actress Hayley Mills. As such, he traveled a lot as a kid and grew up with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Richard Attenborough visiting the house. No surprise his first real goal as a kid was to be a film-maker. But as he he his tween years, he’d gotten more interested in music. He recalls the first record he bought was “Stand and Deliver” by Adam and the Ants, and that shaped his tastes for awhile. Until he came across an old Deep Purple record. “I’d grown up listening to Boy George and Duran Duran on the radio,” he said, and then he heard Deep Purple and the Kinks. “’You Really Got Me.’ Chung! This is your destiny!”. He soon got a guitar and began to learn it.

All the while, he was becoming increasingly interested in Eastern/Indian spiritualism, eventually becoming a vegetarian and following the Hare Krishna movement. All of which influenced the band he started in the ’90s, Kula Shaker. Indeed, even their name is a play on words, being derived from a 9th Century Indian emperor many had revered as a god, King Kulashekara. The band mixed together contemporary Britpop, a dash of classic rock guitar and a splash of psychedelia with at times introspective or spiritual lyrics… occasionally even in Sanskrit, as on the hit “Tattva.” Mills assembled a quartet for the band, but was the dominant force, playing guitar, harmonica, tambourine and even ukulele at times as well as being the lead singer and writer. As to the lyrics, he says “you can sing about things like premature teenage sex or you can sing about everlasting universal truths,” which was his choice, although it didn’t stop them from doing a cover of Deep Purple’s “Hush”, which ended up being a top 10 hit in the UK.

A top 10 there was not unusual for Mills or Kula Shaker early on. Between 1996-98, they scored five straight, including “Hush” and “Hey Dude” which both charted to #2 there. No surprise then their first album, the one-letter titled K, was a #1 hit, going double-platinum and being the biggest-selling debut there since Oasis’. Elsewhere though, they remained a bit of a mystery. In the States, they hit the Billboard top 200…barely. K peaked at #200 for one week. That despite various enthusiastic reviews from publications like USA Today, which declared it “takes cues from the early Britpop and Eastern devotional music to create its thoroughly captivating mystical pop.” the band itself describe their sound as “super-charged, spirit-jangling, mind-expanding protest rock.”

Since then Kula Shaker have put out five somewhat less successful albums, the most recent being last year’s 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and Free Hugs, which charted only in Japan oddly enough. Mills himself has indeed ventured into some film-making. He currently lives in Bath with his wife, model Jo Branfoot and their three kids.

January 9 – Seems They Found The Cure For The Gloominess

The “gloom meisters” of rock didn’t sound so gloomy this day in 1988. The Cure hit the U.S. top 40 for the first time this day 35 years ago with the decidedly cheery-sounding “Just Like Heaven.” ! While they were well-known and loved in their UK (it was their 11th top 40 there, although it didn’t make the top 20 unlike four-straight of their hits from ’83 to ’85,including “The Walk” and  “Love Cats”) they had been something of an obscure, acquired taste to that point over here. They had a loyal following on campuses around the country, and L.A.’s powerful KROQ station played them regularly (that only accelerated with this one, which was the #1 song of ’87 on that station) they’d never been heard on mainstream radio nor been given much attention

on MTV. This song from the double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me changed all that. Formed by big-haired Robert Smith in 1976, they’d had a reputation of being insufferably gloomy, but that had changed when Smith got together with childhood sweetheart Mary Poole. He later married her and wrote their biggest hit, “Lovesong” for her. He explains “Just Like Heaven” as being about “seduction…about hyperventilating. Kissing then fainting to the floor.” His wife appears with him in the video, because “she was the girl, so it had to be her!”. Smith says he knew “as soon as I’d written it that it was a good pop song.” Indeed, so too did the record company it seems. It was the only song on the album they brought Bob Clearmountain in to work on and remix. Clearmountain had a diverse track record but consistently helped records do well, being the producer of Bryan Adams breakthrough Reckless as well as Simple Minds’ big 1985 hit Once Upon a Time as well as mixing the Rolling Stones Tattoo You and Roxy Music’s hit single “More Than This.” It helped Kiss Me… become their first platinum record in the States and get to their highest spot to that point – #6 – on the British album charts. It also opened the gates for them to later success – their next album, Disintegration went double platinum and somehow even ended up being a plotline in the cartoon South Park.  Perhaps the ultimate compliment to it as a love song, it even inspired a Hollywood romcom! As Entertainment Weekly put it, “guys who wear black eyeliner can be happy!

December 19 – One Last Thump Of The Tub

A last hurrah for anarchy? What allmusic calls the “unlikeliest success story in modern rock“ spent it’s final day at #1 on Billboard Modern Rock chart this day in 1997 “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba was indeed an improbable, yet smash hit. The song had topped that list for seven weeks and also hit #1 on Canadian and Australian singles charts.

Unlikely indeed, as the Leeds, England punk band (initially influenced by the likes of PIL and Adam Ant but leaning towards more eclectic and techno sounds in the ’90s) had been around since the early-’80s with no international attention, although a few of their albums had some success on UK Indie charts. Unlikely too since their first album was entitled Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records and basically was a direct criticism of Live Aid. They viewed that as a “cosmetic publicity stunt” to self-promote Bob Geldof . More unlikely since “Tubthumping” came out on EMI, a company the anarchist band had specifically criticized previously. They got the idea for the song while drinking (or “pissing the night away” to borrow from the lyrics) in a Leeds pub. Boff Whaley of the band says it’s about “the resilience of ordinary people” while a “tubthumper” is a politician. After Alice Nutter of the band commented that they like it when police were killed, one can imagine a lot of “tubthumping” going on to get them out of the public eye. And when she urged fans to steal the CD from big stores rather than buy it, EMI were likely happy to be rid of the band four years later! They eventually broke up in 2012.

The song which replaced it at #1 on the Modern Rock chart sounded like it might’ve been the very platform of a “tubthumper” the band despised – “Everything to Everyone” by Everclear!

December 18 – Gabriel Built Up A Head Of ‘Steam’ 30 Years Ago

Peter Gabriel hit the top of the Billboard modern rock charts with “Steam” this day in 1992. It was his second one to go to #1 on that chart; he’d likely have had several more if the publication had begun the chart a few years earlier as it didn’t exist when hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Solsbury Hill” were released. It also charted to #32 overall in the States.

The upbeat single, which Gabriel describes as being about an affair between a sophisticated lady who knows everything except herself and a dude who knows nothing but her (think Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” the sequel?) was a top 10 hit in his native Britain and a #1 hit in Canada and was drawn from Us, his sixth solo album after leaving Genesis. This was the first album on his own Real World Records label (through much of the planet, although Geffen released it in the U.S.) a company he created to promote world music, something he’d long been fascinated with. Nobel Peace Prize laureates recently awarded him a Peace Award for his ongoing work with Amnesty International and his outspokenness about human rights causes.

Unfortunately, Gabriel’s musical career seemed to be losing “Steam” at that point. Since that time, he’s put out only three new albums in over 25 years and had one meagre top 40 single in either the UK or Canada, while being shut out in the U.S.