March 18 – No Tension Between This Asia & America

The 1970s were Prog Rock’s glory days but that genre had fallen on hard times in the early-goings of the ’80s. The new wave had washed bands like Duran Duran, Soft Cell and the Human League to the top of the charts, Genesis had gone quite pop-py without Peter Gabriel and several of the form’s most beloved acts had called it quits. So it was that the time was right for Asia. Their self-titled debut came out on this day in 1982.

Asia was a super-group formed the year before with drummer Carl Palmer, keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, guitarist Steve Howe and bassist John Wetton. On top of that another keyboardist, Rick Wakeman was enlisted, but dropped out before they ever got to the London studios to begin work. Palmer was of course one-third of Emerson, Lake & Palmer who’d gone on hiatus in 1979. Wetton had been in King Crimson until they broke up in ’74 (as it happened they re-formed around the same time he joined Asia, the band he decided to choose) and had done some work with Roxy Music along the way. Howe and Downes had both been in Yes, which had broken up in ’81 (but would soon reunite.)

One might imagine with a lineup like that, the result would be pompous, over-the-top 15 minute, elaborate suites as part of a high concept album complete with long drum solos and a few avante garde spoken word bits, especially since the album cover (a giant sea snake jumping out of the water reaching for a globe) was painted by Roger Dean who’d done several Yes album covers. But you’d actually be off the mark. Either the members tastes had changed over the past decade or their desire to have a hit album that connected with the masses had increased. Either way, Geffen Records got them to work with producer Mike Stone for the debut. Stone had worked in the studio with Queen throughout the ’70s and more recently had produced hits for Journey and April Wine. He clearly helped them put together a record that would fit right in on FM rock stations with those bands as well as the likes of Van Halen and Foreigner.

And that it did. Wetton and Downes wrote most of the 11 song album which, as Best Classic Bands noted was able to “appeal to longtime prog rock acolytes but also conform to the tastes of the emerging MTV generation.” Indeed, while the sound was big and bombastic, and exquisitely played, as you’d guess, it consisted of comparatively short, pop-based songs complete with catchy choruses. While “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” were released as singles, a trio of other songs – “Sole Survivor”, “Time Again” and “Wildest Dreams” – joined them on the radio getting decent airplay.

Little wonder then that the album hit #1 in the U.S. and Canada. The States loved it especially, with it reaching #1 for nine weeks and ending up as the year’s biggest-seller. “Heat of the Moment” topped rock charts and was a #4 single. Back home though, enthusiasm was dampened, with it stalling at #11 and only selling to gold levels compared to the 4X platinum in the U.S.

Critics saw that in varied light. While Robert Christgau cringed about the “pompous schlock in the grand manner,” Billboard figured it “sounds fresh and perfect fare for “ FM rock. Years later, allmusic gave it 4.5-stars, best in their catalog (believe it or not they’ve put out 13 studio albums in total, with several different lineups). They considered it “the success story of 1982”, a success “despite going against the grain of the new wave stylings of the day”.

So even though their next album sold only about a quarter as many copies, it seems that when it comes to musical continents of the ’80s, “Asia” beat both “Europe” and “America” rather handily.


March 14 – Mr. Bitter Goes It Alone

Surprisingly motivated for someone who seemed so depressed and weary, Morrissey only waited six months after the final output from his band The Smiths to deliver his solo debut. Viva Hate arrived on this day in 1988.

Morrissey was of course the mopey yet witty singer and lyricist of that British sensation of the mid-’80s, but his dour disposition and cynical outlook on life had been tempered by the jangly, upbeat guitar work and compositions of Johnny Marr. People wondered how “the Moz” would fare without Johnny (not to mention bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.) Turns out the answer would be “quite alright.”

Part of that lay in bringing in Stephen Street to work with him for the solo work. Street had been a longtime friend of the band, producing their finale, Strangeways Here We Come, and being a studio engineer on most of their other recordings. Morrissey brought him back to produce, and also work with him in an Elton & Bernie type partnership, although in this pairing the singer wrote the lyrics while the other, Street, composed all the music. Or at least claimed to… session guitarist Vini Reilly claimed to have co-written most of the album’s 12 or 13 tracks, but never proved it. Street also added some guitar work and took Rourke’s old role on the bass.

The result was an album that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Smiths catalog had it been labeled that way instead. It was full of interesting, often quite catchy and bright melodies and Morrissey’s trademark blend of depression, anger and humor running through the lyrics. Take “Hairdresser on Fire,” (a track only added to the North American edition after having been out as a single in Europe) with lines like “London, home of the brashy outrageous, free, you are repressed but remarkably dressed.” Titles like “Late Night Maudlin Street” and “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me” left little doubt that the departure of Marr hadn’t left Morrissey much cheerier. Then there was that track.

Few entertainers back then liked British PM Margaret Thatcher much; many wrote songs obliquely slamming her and her policies. But few if any were as crystal clear as this album’s “Margaret on the Guillotine”, calling it a “beautiful dream” and urging listeners to “make it real, make the dream real!” That apparently got the singer a personal interview with Federal secret service agents.

One thing he – or the label HMV (which not only was a British label but owned a large chain of record stores) – did well was pick singles. By almost universal agreement, Viva Hate‘s two standouts were the two picked for single release – “Everyday is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead” – “gorgeous” and “infectious” respectively in the opinion of allmusic. That site would grade it 4.5-stars, considering it very comparable to The Smiths except for the addition of some synthesizers; Q gave it 5 retroactively. At the time, most reviews were glowing as well. For instance, Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars saying “surprisingly the wailing soul’s solo debut is a tight disciplined affair” which “has picked up right where the Smiths left off.”

That it did. “Suedehead” hit #5 at home and #2 in Ireland. “Everyday is Like Sunday” got to #9 and #3 in those two lands and while neither charted as singles in the States, both got good airplay on alt rock and college stations – the latter one was KROQ’s #5 song of the year for instance. Overall, the album did what only one Smiths album had done to that point, hitting #1 in the UK. It was a top 10 in New Zealand (where it was re-titled Education in Reverse, as it was in Australia too); #32 in Canada and #48 in the U.S. where it went gold – the only non-compilation album of his to ever do that.

Morrissey’s career has slowly worked downwards since, in no small part to his self-created controversies about topics ranging from veganism to politics. He’s been in the news lately, with a new album, variously described as being titled Bonfire of Teenagers or Without Music the World Dies but is looking for investors to help him put it out after breaking with Maverick Records and parent company Capitol whom he says is trying to “sabotage” his career. The new record is said to have songs including “The Monsters of Pig Alley” and “Happy New Tears” and made news when Miley Cyrus, who’d added backing vocals to one track, asked to be removed from it entirely. But then, really, would we expect anything else from a man who’s made a 40-year career over being angry and mopey?

March 10 – Turntable Talk 12 : This Workbook Got Straight-A’s

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we finish it up with a pick from me here at A Sound Day:

As always, I want to thank my music-loving friends who contributed their pieces to this feature. As usual, we saw a range of excellent reviews of entries to the stage, so to speak.  One sentiment many expressed to me was that there were a LOT of good potential picks. I’m a wee bit surprised no one got to Boston, Meat Loaf or the Cars (though Max did mention them) but there’s no arguing with any of the other picks.

I too had a number that quickly popped into my mind, but in the end I’ll go with one so good I bought it after hearing three tracks for the very first time in a record store. Summer, 1989, on my way home from a job which I endured for a thankfully brief time, managing a store in Toronto. The job itself was OK; the three hour commute via bus, train and subway each way was assuredly not! Anyhow, finding myself in downtown Toronto on the way home every day, I often stopped by the strip of huge record stores on Yonge Street. One particular day, I was there and the staff flipped on a new album by one of the underground scene’s big names . As I browsed, I found myself paying less and less attention to the LPs and CDs I was perusing and more focusing on the one they were playing. By the time they got to the fourth song, a single I’d already heard and loved, I was going to the “M” section and then going to the cash with Bob Mould‘s solo debut, Workbook. I thought it was going to rocket him from underground hero to mainstream superstar, but well, this was a time of Milli Vanilli and some New Kids on the Block were dominating radios and record store front displays, so in retrospect it’s no surprise that it didn’t. Yet in every way I still find it one of the most impressive records of the late-’80s, let alone a debut one.

Mould was the guitarist/singer for Husker Du, the Minnesota band that have been lauded by all the members of Nirvana among many others as one of the first grunge practicioners. Alternately described as “thrash rock”, Husker songs were fast, loud, usually melodic and did I mention fast? They’d recently signed to Warner Bros. had a smidgeon of a taste of real success and then, of course, imploded. Bassist Greg Norton wasn’t a problem, but Mould and drummer Grant Hart had seen their relationship sever … and that was a personal, romantic relationship as well as being bandmates who divvied up the songwriting equally. Part of the problem was Hart apparently was increasingly enthusiastic for a lifestyle of excess whereas Mould was growing weary and wanted change.

So he found that by disbanding the group, getting sober and retreating to a rural farmhouse in Minnesota to think, and write what would be Workbook.

Those expecting new Du were probably disavowed of that idea seconds into the album. “Sunspots” opens it, a nice little instrumental showcasing Mould’s guitar-playing. But this time around, gone was the Flying V that had been almost his trademark, and in its place his new preferred instrument, a Yamaha 12-string acoustic. The little tune sounds like something one might have heard at a Gordon Lightfoot show.

But that mood doesn’t last long, as he then goes into the angsty “Wishing Well”, which starts out pretty and acoustic then veers toward a more familiar Husker Du-ish wall of sound as he picks up a new Stratocaster and ponders life. It contains one of my favorite truisms ever sung in a rock song – “there’s a price to pay for a wish to come true/ trade a small piece of your life.” However, that was about as close as he’d get to his old electric sound. Most of the rest of the record leans towards acoustic instruments and moody compositions. Acoustic however, didn’t necessarily equate to “quiet”; he builds up quite an intensity layering and layering some more to end up with a full, powerful effect on songs like “Poison Years” and “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton”, two more standouts on it. He even brings in a cello on several tracks, a nice touch albeit one that probably showed his mental state at the time. You didn’t hear much cello on KC & the Sunshine Band, for instance!

The 11 tracks in fact, as allmusic noted, cover “an astonishing array of styles.” There are fast ones, slower ones, very downbeat ones (most notably “Poison Years”, the tortured piece he admits was about Grant Hart which blares out “treason is the reason for these poison years” and envisions the subject swinging by the neck from a vine) to upbeat, semi-optimistic ones to a reflective one that could pass for something written by John Mellencamp in that era, “Compositions for the Young and Old”. Among the optimistic ones was the single, “See A Little Light”, the high-energy acoustic blaster that got to #4 on Billboard‘s alternative rock charts and ran frequently on MTV and Canada’s Much Music. Great reviews (Britain’s NME gave it 9 out of 10, Rolling Stone, 4-stars, comparing it to “the recorded equivalent of the first hint of fall slapping you in the face after a particularly torrid summer”) were common for it, but great sales eluded Mould and greatly disappointed Virgin Records, his new label at the time.

I must admit, I don’t listen to it as much as I did back then. It seemed a bit of a downbeat record lyrically. Not a record you’d pull out as the party was getting started. While it fit me at the time (it coincided with me being with a really cute girlfriend whose primary shortcoming was some trouble with the concept of faithfulness) I find myself not wanting depressing music as much these days. That said, when I put it on to re-listen to it to prepare this piece, I was quite astonished really at how very good it is and how wide-ranging and often intelligent the words were. It’s one that’s not only stood the test of time but may have grown taller through the years.

Workbook. Angsty. Melodic. Ferociously intense yet softly acoustic. This is the record Nirvana always hoped to make.

March 9 – Turntable Talk 12 : People Experienced A Whole New Type Of Guitarist

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we have Max, from Power Pop Blog. There he regularly looks at great records, largely from the ’60s and ’70s and largely those fitting the “power pop” genre. But he also writes of pop culture like Star Trek, so his pick is anyone’s guess. But, it is…:

I went through some debut albums before I came to this. I already wrote up Big Star’s debut for another blogger but the other that came to mind was The Cars. For me, that was their best album although they had some great albums later. I then thought of Jimi’s debut…and that was that. There is more than one version of Jimi Hendrix‘s debut album, Are You Experienced, released. I will go by the one I first owned when I was around 11…the U.S. version.

I think about 1967 and what people must have thought when they heard this strange new artist. It must have sounded like an alien coming down from another planet. Being at the ripe old age of 4 months old…I don’t quite remember it. His guitar playing was first felt by other guitarists. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, and the other huge guitarists back at that time. They were shocked when they saw him perform on stage. He was “found” by Animals bassist turned manager Chas Chandler in New York. He took Jimi to England and formed a band around him…it didn’t take long after that.

Jimi’s debut album was released on May 12, 1967. The tracklist is incredible. A lineup of songs that still get played over 50 years later on the radio. To make it even stronger…Hendrix wrote all of the songs but one…”Hey Joe”, his breakout hit in the UK.

Purple Haze
Manic Depression
Hey Joe
Love or Confusion
May This Be Love
I Don’t Live Today
The Wind Cries Mary
Third Stone from the Sun
Foxy Lady
Are You Experienced?

The album had many now-rock classics. They were not rock songs easily accessible to the audience as other performers. He mixed experimental techniques along with well-written and performed songs. Before Zeppelin came along, Hendrix gave rock its sonic boom. The album peaked at #5 on The Billboard Album Charts, #15 in Canada, and #2 on the UK Charts in 1967. 

I’ve never heard a guitar player take the guitar to a far-off place like Hendrix. It wasn’t just his playing which was some of the best…it was his vision and the sounds he got out of the guitar that was so amazing. Every guitar player that came after him would get unfairly compared. He wasn’t just a guitar player though…he was a singer/songwriter who created three classic rock albums that still are revered. He was the complete package…not a traditional voice, but he got his point across and wrote his songs to fit him…and it worked.

He also evidently had a huge backlog of recordings and live concerts that keep being released. The man must have recorded in his sleep.

The “new” Jimi Hendrix tag has been unfairly placed on many guitar players. From Stevie Ray Vaughn to Eddie Van Halen, many more faded out. Hendrix would mess with this guitar…changing pickups and recording techniques. He had a sound all his own…when you hear a Hendrix record you know it’s him by just his guitar playing. Now when I listen to him, I hear the guitar players that followed, from the finger tap from Eddie to the straight-in-your-face riffs of Stevie Ray Vaughn…Jimi had done it all before.

Like Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen…they would let themselves go on stage. They would take it as far as they could and if they messed up, they messed up but the fans got to see an electrifying performance. When Joplin and Hendrix left us they left a huge hole in rock performers and when both were peaking in making albums. Both Hendrix and Joplin left and their last studio albums peaked at #1. Jimi’s came two years before his death and Janis just a few days after she passed.

March 8 – Turntable Talk 12 : From Kentucky To Nashville To You

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we have Keith, from Nostalgic Italian. Though he largely details day to day life as a family man, his background in radio for years makes him interested and well qualified to talk about fine albums. And his pick…:

It is time for another round of Turntable Talk, hosted by Dave at A Sound Day. This is the 12th round that I have participated in and it has quickly become one of my favorite “features” to participate in. There has not been a topic that Dave has presented that has not been interesting for me to explore. This round is no exception. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out his site and read the contributions of other music lovers, too!

For this round, Dave says, “This time around I’m calling it “First Time’s The Charm.” Let’s look at an artist whose debut really impressed you. It can be one that just knocked you out first time you heard it when it was brand new, or one you went back & discovered later. As long as it showed a band or singer that hit the ground running.

In talking with one of the other participants this week, I mentioned that with each topic, one choice always seems to hit me immediately. Then I begin to think about other possibilities, and without fail I always seem to come back to the first choice. This time around, I decided not to consider anything else and go with the first thing that came to mind.

It is 1989. In our living room is the shelving unit that contains my dad’s stereo system. One shelf holds the receiver/amplifier while the cassette deck and Sony Mini-disc players sit on top of each other on the shelf above that. Two speakers sit on top of the unit. A turntable sits on a shelf that slides out on the top left of the unit. Under that, on a shelf all by itself is a Sony CD player.

My dad calls me out to the living room and says, “Keith, you’ve gotta hear this!” My dad has certainly played a major role in sharing great music with me. The above phrase was spoken by him to me more times than I can count. Oh, the music he introduced me to! I would have to say that 9 times out of 10, it has always been something that I have really liked. The CD he popped in the player was the debut album from The Kentucky Headhunters.

The group started back in the late 60’s and called themselves “Itchy Brother.” In 1980, the group was almost signed to a record deal at Swan Song Records, which was a small label founded by the band Led Zeppelin. However, Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died that year and the label folded. Itchy Brother disbanded in 1982. In 1985, there was an attempt to reunite the group. This attempt led to a few new members joining while some original members decided not to be a part of the group. Now missing some of the original members, a new name was chosen for the band – The Headhunters. It didn’t take long to find out that there was another band using that name, so “Kentucky” was added to the name.

The group decided to take out a loan to record a demo. That demo included some original songs and some cover songs. They had hoped to press copies of the demo to sell as merchandise at their live shows. It didn’t take long for that demo to get noticed by folks in Nashville. The group was not really interested in signing a record deal, but their manager suggested that they talk with producer Harold Shedd at Mercury Records. They were signed to their deal in 1989 and the demo was released as their debut album Pickin’ on Nashville.

I hadn’t intended on listening to the whole album that day, but when my dad hit play, I really liked what I heard. While they certainly had a Southern rock sound, it wasn’t really completely Southern rock, if that even makes sense. It is kind of a mixture of country, Southern rock, a bit of blues, classic rock, a little rockabilly, and maybe even a little bit of metal. It was like nothing I had heard in some time. It was a very unique mix of various styles and types of music.

The first cut on the album was a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine”. Bill’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it. The Headhunters had me from the opening guitar lick. Then I was really digging the harmonies of the group. The guitar solo had a rock/B.B. King feel to it, which I just loved. The debut single reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, the first of four Top 40 singles for the band.

The second single from the album is probably their best known song, but not quite their biggest hit. It almost didn’t make the album, though. “Dumas Walker” is a song that is about a Kentucky hangout. The lyrics tell of hanging out there eating a “slawburger, fries, and a bottle of Ski.” Folks in Kentucky knew that a slawburger was a burger with cole slaw on it, and a bottle of Ski is a soda that is a lot like Mountain Dew. The record company wasn’t too keen on it, though.

Producer Harold Shedd felt that the song was too local. He felt like no one outside of Kentucky would connect with the song. He asked band member Richard Young if they would be willing to leave the song off the record. After much discussion, Young says that he convinced Shedd to keep it on the record. He said that Shedd was missing the point – that every place had their own “‘Dumas Walker’s’ and they can relate to that!” He was right. The song was a top 20 hit for the band in 1990.

Another thing that helped get the band recognition was CMT (Country Music Television), which was the country version of MTV. The early headhunter videos are a blast to watch. How could anyone possible turn off a video set in a bar with people playing marbles, the lead singer juggling bowling pins, and the drummer banging on his drum kit with no shirt and a coon skin cap on!? Incidentally, the video was nominated for the CMA video of the year in 1990.

Richard Young says that the group had a “magnetism that people just couldn’t resist” and compared it to watching the old Monkees TV show. He said, “People want to be entertained. If you can’t hold their eyes, they will wander.” Watch a few of their videos and you will certainly be entertained.

The third single from the album was another cover song. This time it was a cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” Gibson’s version is very typical 1960’s country. The Headhunters version kicks it up a notch with a driving beat and video that really fits the “Monkees” description above. This song peaked at number 8 and would be the band’s only Top 10 hit. The fourth and final single from the album was “Rock and Roll Angel,” which is mostly forgettable

The band enjoyed great success in 1989/1990 because of their debut album. In 1990, they won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Vocal Duo or Group Award , The Country Music Associations Vocal Group of the Year, and the CMA Album of the Year. They also won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group that year.

Sadly, their follow up album Electric Barnyard was a major disappointment. It was certified gold, but the singles released to radio didn’t get much airplay. Citing creative differences, Ricky Lee Phelps and Doug Phelps left the group in 1992 to form their own band, Brother Phelps.

The band has continued to tour with a variety of different members and their last album was released in 2021. They never really enjoyed much success after that debut album. That being said, I believe their fresh sound really paved the way for (and had a big influence on) some of the more recent country singers who have a more “rock” sound.

One thing I think is important to mention is that the Kentucky Headhunters hit the scene at a very unique time in country music. In 1989, this new group stood out during a time that also saw country music’s amazing “Class of ’89” hit the scene. They were in the thick of things at the same time that Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and a dude by the name of Garth Brooks were getting their debuts as well. The fact that they made waves amongst those guys is a testament to that first album.

It is hard to say what factored into the decline in popularity. Was it hard to get airplay with all of those other big names taking off? Was the music that followed just not good enough? Did the loss of the Phelps Brothers put the nail in the coffin for the band? Maybe it is a little bit of each of those things. The Kentucky Headhunters recorded nine studio albums, but you really only need to get their debut, Pickin’ on Nashville. It is as good as it gets.

March 7 – Turntable Talk 12 : Listen To This LP, Then ‘Do It Again’

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we have Paul, from Once Upon A Time in the ’70s, where our Scottish contributor looks back at the decade of over-sized Afros and even more over-sized indulgences. One might guess he’s pick something that arrived from 1970 to ’79, but let’s find out. Says Paul:

This month’s Turntable Talk – ‘First Time’s The Charm’, is another engaging topic dreamed up by the hardest working man in blog-business – Dave Ruch.

Thanks to Dave for inviting us to revisit a time when we used to hear songs for the first time and say “wow, who the hell is this?” (but in a positive way!)

In 1980 the late Ian MacDonald one of the UK’s most respected music journalists included the following in his review of Steely Dan‘s Gaucho album,

“Crassness is contagious. Fortunately, so is intelligence – which is why listening to Steely Dan is good for you

Smart guy MacDonald, he obviously listened to a lot of Steely Dan.

The band who named themselves after a steam-powered dildo from a William Burroughs novel got off to a flyer when they unleashed their 1972 debut album on the world – Can’t Buy a Thrill.

The album would feature several songs that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had previously composed as staff-writers at the famed Brill Building. An incubator for modern pop music, where you could find yourself sharing an elevator with Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Neil Diamond or Leiber & Stoller in the ’60s & ’70s

Unsurprisingly, Fagen & Becker’s offbeat songs were deemed a touch too abstruse and complex for the mainstream artists they were hired to write for, although they did manage to get one song recorded by Barbra Streisand.

Recognising that they would need to record their own songs (as no one else was likely to), the duo, prompted by producer Gary Kartz, relocated from Brooklyn to California to join him at ABC records. Initially as staff-writers but with the aim of forming a band.
This they did in 1972, and immediately penned songs about how much they missed the Big Apple and how much they felt like fish out of water in LA.

By all accounts, Fagen & Becker were never short of material with a sack full of songs at the ready. For their debut album they plucked ten compositions from this bag of goodies, and never looked back.

Upon its release the album was championed by the FM radio stations of the day, and spawned two top 10 singles –

Do it Again” a Latin flavoured rocker about a desperado who’s unable to change his ways –
You go back Jack, do it again

The song features a sublime electric sitar solo by guitarist Denny Dias and introduces Fagen’s distinctive nasally tone to the world.


Reelin’ in the Years”, the follow-up hit, a barnstormer about a man whose partner is leaving him for someone else. Heartbroken, he lashes out whilst putting himself on a pedestal-
“you wouldn’t know a diamond. If you held it in your hand”.

Apart from the classic chorus the song is notable for a blistering solo by session player and friend of the band Elliott Randall, so good in fact that in an interview with Rolling Stone, Jimmy Page name-checked it as his favourite guitar solo.

By any measure, Can’t Buy a Thrill is a remarkable debut but like most Steely Dan albums it’s difficult to pigeonhole with elements of Jazz, Blues, Country and R&B, although this is probably their most Rock-based release.

The phrase ‘all killer no filler’ is often overused but there’s hardly a bad note never mind a bad track on this album.

Apart from the two singles there are several other songs of note that deserve mention.

Dirty Work” is a song that The Pointer Sisters would go on to cover. The original version has also featured on The Sopranos, The Simpsons, the movie American Hustle and most recently the DC blockbuster The Suicide Squad – not bad for an obscure album track.

Brooklyn (owes the charmer under me)” is another deep-cut that’s a favourite with hardcore Dan fans.
It’s about a neighbour of Fagen & Becker’s who lives in the apartment below and sits on his stoop shooting the breeze. One of life’s characters but he’s never set foot outside of Brooklyn.
The song is about some of the good things life could have afforded this ‘charmer’ if only he’d taken the bold step to sample a world outside his beloved borough.

The track also features some fine pedal-steel-guitar work from Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter who would go on to join the Doobie Brothers when Fagen & Becker decided to stop touring in 1974.

Another favourite is “Only A Fool Would Say That”, a song that’s got a bit of traction lately due to the fact that people have woken up to the premise that the ‘fool’ in question is likely to be John Lennon during his Imagine period.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man”

Fagen and Becker are renowned for their sardonic lyrics and cryptic storytelling and “Only A Fool Would Say That” was an early example.

The song lampoons an out of touch aristo, living the good life whilst preaching to common folk (the one’s keeping him in his millionaire lifestyle) to abandon the few worldly possessions they have in order to pursue a life of immaterialism.

You do his nine to five
Drag yourself home half alive
And there on the screen
A man with a dream

I heard it was you
Talking ‘bout a world where all is free
It just couldn’t be
And only a fool would say that”

Steely Dan released a further six stand-out albums between 1973 and 1980 as the music evolved towards their jazz roots and the lyrics became even darker and more cryptic.

As a band they would transform from the five-piece outfit that recorded 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill to just Fagen & Becker (and 40 top session musicians!) by the time they recorded their 1977 Grammy winning masterpiece, Aja.

Sadly, we lost Walter Becker in 2017 but Donald Fagen has kept a version of Steely Dan on the road where they still play to sell-out crowds, including a few classics from my favourite debut album – Can’t Buy a Thrill .

Paul Fitzpatrick (aka Kid Charlemagne) –

March 7 – TFF Were ‘Hurting’…But Not At Store Checkouts

“Suffering is supposed to be the raw stuff of art,” author Jay McInerney once said. No doubt Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith would agree, the pair, collectively Tears for Fears. They apparently had unhappy childhoods and ended up in therapy. They seem wound up in self-doubt and analysis…which helped make some of the greatest music of the ’80s. Coincidentally keeping with this week’s Turntable Talk topic of great debuts, on this day in 1983, Tears for Fears put out their first. The Hurting, was a concept album about childhood stress, psychological distress and resultant therapy. Not quite the typical songs about Chevy’s and girls in tight sweaters that so dominated much of pop then!

Growing up, Orzabel had loved country music while Smith leaned towards heavy metal, two genres not much reflected in their eventual band. Both did like the likes of Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads however, which perhaps explains the sound a bit better. Their debut was something of a soundtrack to angst, pre-grunge, with the musically accomplished but downbeat hits “Mad World,” which had been a hit for them in the UK a few months earlier, the slightly more optimistic “Change” and “Pale Shelter,” which curiously had been released a year earlier and hit the top 20 in Canada) . With its deeper song themes, interesting percussion and catchy melodies, it won instant recognition with the BBC raving about it and Smash Hits giving it an 8 out of 10 rating. There were a few dissenters however; the NME there complained “this record, and others like it are terrible! Useless art that makes self-pity and futility a commercial proposition” while Melody Maker liked the music but did point out “it sounds ironically happy to wallow”. On this side of the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, typically not huge fans of “new wave”, gave it 3-stars but noting that they “stand out among the current crop of identikit synth-pop groups by virtue of their resourceful, stylish songwriting.” Later on, Q would grade it 4-stars and the Record Collector gave it positive reviews, saying “troubled upbringings married with immediate, infectious, hummable tunes.” The three singles, “Mad World”, “Pale Shelter” and “Change” were all top 5 hits at ome where in only three weeks it was certified gold. eventually it went to #1 in Britain. there it actually knocked Michael Jackson off the top spot, before itself being dethroned by Pink Floyd. In their homeland it sold to platinum levels as it did in Canada, where it got to #7. American success would have to wait mind you, it scratched up to #73 in the U.S. and was avoided by most hit radio although popular on college stations. As unusual and surprising as the album was, it was only a hint of the success they’d find a couple of years later with Songs from the Big Chair . A final bit of trivia about The Hurting. If you looked at the picture above and thought “I have/had that album but it looks different”, you’re probably over here in North America. Much as Island had done with U2’s Boy, Tears for Fears record company must’ve figured that an album cover with a distressed looking child on it wouldn’t go over well here, and substituted a different cover for American release, a brown one with a photo of Curt and Roland looking at a few ducks and geese in a pond.

March 6 – Turntable Talk 12 : Leppard Trucked The Early Hits On In

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we have Deke, from the Great White North…and his site, Deke’s Vinyl Reviews and More. A noted fan of hard rock and metal, we’re guessing his favorite debut wasn’t the Osmonds…:

Thanks to Dave for once again going down into that musical rabbit hole with this the topic being debut albums.

I could easily consider the next two Def Leppard albums after the 1980 debut On Through The Night, those being ’81’s High N Dry and ’83’s Pyromania better albums  per se. I totally get it. But this album, OTTN is a great debut!

I have written about in the past how back in June 1981, along with my buddy Muk we headed into a local record shop here in Thunder Bay together with just enough cash between us to buy one album each.

We both wanted two different albums. So we decided each of us would buy the opposite album so that way we could spin ’em and then tape the other record that one of us didn’t have so we would each have a copy…

I picked the recently released Iron Maiden’s Killers while Muc went with On Through The Night

We were blown away by both ..

Fast forward to  2022 and as I put on the debut album of Leppard from 1980 It dawned on me that of all the bands that I discovered Leppard was the first band I had listened to that only had the debut out at the time when Muk purchased it.

Meaning we got into this band with only one album in its catalog!

Man, we are old! HAHA

That day I bought Maiden. They were on their second release with Killers.

Below are some of the bands that I discovered back in ’81 for the first time!

Van Halen, I discovered in Jan of 1981 with Women and Children First, which was Halen’s third release.

Rush as well, with Moving Pictures, had multiple albums out.

Triumph. I had purchased Allied Forces as well in 1981, and they had a handful of albums out so…

Def Leppard is a band that I have followed since the summer of 1981 right from the debut on. Through the excellent material (’80’s output); through some questionable content (’90’s and beyond) as well as one primarily ignored piece of brilliance (1996′ s Slang) I have been on that Lep Ride for almost 40 years!

So when I spun OTTN recently I realized just how excellent this debut is even though at times Lep themselves have distanced themselves from this release. Case in point is when I caught Def Lep live back in 1992 the debut was totally ignored!

Blah and Gah.

Now of course when Leppard shacked up with one of those Vegas residency deals a few years back, they dusted off a lot of the material from the first two albums which I thought was a really cool thing to do…
But back to the debut. From classic opener “Rock Brigade” to album closerOverture” OTTN features a very young band basically going for it. Man, I love these albums when groups have no dough, and in Lep’s case, it wasn’t until ’83’s Pyromania blew up everywhere that these guy’s made any serious money!

OTTN is a wicked album. Tom Allom who produced it kept it a little rough around the edges of course, which is a sound I really like as it would give you an idea how these young cats would sound live…

The late great Steve Clark along with Pete Willis became an excellent guitar duo. Neither guy is a shredder. Clark kept the ship steady with his playing as did Willis with each guy having their own songs to solo or at times do the dual lead thingy that became so prominent with a ton of acts throughout the ’80s.

Rick Savage, especially on the earlier albums, can be heard playing bass, and before you let out a chuckle, check out album closer, the Rush-influenced “Overture” to hear Rick slappa da bass. Later Mutt Lange basically drowned him out by 1988’s Hysteria.

Rick Allen was no slouch on the kit, and I think when OTTN was recorded, he was 17 or 18 years old! He sounds like a seasoned vet who keeps the beat stable and check outRocks Off” on Side 2 as he plows the path at the halfway point of the tune before Clark lifts off on the solo!

Joe Elliott had that young throat and could sing right off the bat as he took charge from “Rock Brigade” on. Joe knows his limits, and for that, you have to give him credit. He didn’t go on some high falsetto mumbo jumbo. Keep it simple…

On Through The Night made inroads in the U.S back in 1980 when Leppard hit America and opened for Pat Travers and Nugent among others. (Leppard didn’t play Canada until 1983!) So the U.S was the biggie for them.

That came at a cost to Leppard. At home, England kinda busted their balls for writing a song called “Hello America”! Which back in ’80 I got, as it sounds like a total cop-out, but it isn’t! I think Elliot spun the lyrics as a dude dreaming about going to California, but didn’t want to be messing with those headbangers back in 1980!

I can honestly say I can listen to this album from front to back while not skipping tracks. Sure I suppose you could dig around whatever your preference of choice would be for a debut as some other Hard Rock debuts are better. I would tend to agree with you. For myself and I can probably speak for Muk as well. It was pretty cool to discover a band from across the pond with only one album under its belt which not too many had yet heard!

March 5 – Turntable Talk 12 : Melissa Was Hot From The Start

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we start with Randy, from Mostly Music Covers, where he looks at cover songs in all their variety and glory. Being from Ontario, will his choice be a Canadian act?:

When I received the invitation from Dave to participate on this topic, several artists came to mind. With some I may have heard the name but not the music before but this one was a true eureka moment. “Bring Me Some Water” was the debut single from Melissa Etheridge, released in 1988. It was written by Etheridge, and it appeared on her eponymous album Melissa Etheridge.

Like many people I can sometimes put myself in the time and place where I first heard a song and subsequently made some kind of lasting connection with the artist. One of the most vivid of those memories is “Bring Me Some Water”. It was a sunny day in May, I was listening to Q107 while driving into downtown Toronto. As I am inching along on the York Street off ramp this song exploded from my radio.

The song is a cry out, “Can’t you see my baby’s got another lover”, “Can’t you see I’m burning alive”. It’s a slow build with a great guitar intro followed by the surly opening lines. I was just so struck with her amazing vocals and could feel her distress and pain. Three things occurred to me after I listened, one; I really, really like that song, two; that woman is going places and three; I’m buying that record tomorrow. I did buy the album and the next three she produced. She received her first of many Grammy nominations for that song. My wife and I were lucky enough to see her in Boston when she performed as part of a Berklee College music night at Tanglewood (with the Boston Pops) in 2014, she performed solo acoustic and was as dynamic and awesome as I had hoped. The song is now thirty-five years old, but honesty writing about the song just now I got chills down my spine and I’m pitching a fever. “Somebody bring me some water”!

March 4 – Turntable Talk 12 : No Swing & Miss For Dire Straits

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we start with Christian, from Christian’s Music Musings. There he looks at not only great new releases but some fantastic old records too. And as the regulars know he has the unique vantage point of growing up in Europe but living in the States for some years now. He points to this one:

Thanks, Dave, for fearlessly continuing your fun series Turntable Talk and, of course, for inviting me back to share some additional thoughts.

When I saw the topic for this round, I immediately had an idea which debut album that really impressed me I would cover. Then, as oftentimes happens once I start reflecting on stuff, I had second thoughts, so I decided to get inspired by Mr. Google.

One of the first hits I got was Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time, published on July 1, 2022. While the list includes fine debuts, such as The Beatles’ Please Please Me (1963), The Doors’ The Doors (1967), Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? (1967), Lynyrd Skynyrd’s (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (1973) and Pretenders’ Pretenders (1979), it excludes gems like Jackson Browne’s Jackson Browne (1972), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976) and Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! (1979).

Of course, no list can be perfect. When I realized Rolling Stone also didn’t feature the album that had come to my mind first I thought, ‘screw it, I go with my initial pick’ – The eponymous debut album by Dire Straits, released in June 1978!

When I first heard Sultans of Swing as a teenager in the late ‘70s, I was immediately hooked on the British group and Mark Knopfler’s cool sound he got out of his Fender Stratocaster. Since German radio would always fade out the song, which drove me nuts, I needed to own that tune myself. So I bought the vinyl album that includes “Sultans of Swing”, not realizing I could have gotten the single instead. I’m glad I did what I did since I would have missed out on great music otherwise, at least at the time!

Sultans of Swing”, the album’s best-known tune, is the first song on the B-side. The single was first released in the UK in May 1978. In the U.S., it came out in January 1979. It climbed all the way up to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 8 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart. But there’s definitely more to the album than just “Sultans of Swing”.

Let’s start with side A and the great opener Down to the Waterline. Like “Sultans of Swing” and all other tracks on the album, it was penned by Mark Knopfler. Mark’s brother David Knopfler, the band’s first rhythm guitarist, has said the song was based on Mark’s teenage memories walking along a river at night under the lights with his girlfriend.

Another tune on side A I’ve always liked is Water of Love, which also became the album’s second single. Knopfler created a cool sound on that song, playing a so-called resonator guitar. Some critics noted the song’s style is reminiscent of J.J. Cale’s blues approach. I think that’s fair. I also don’t have a problem at all that Knopfler was inspired by another great guitarist. In fact, I would argue great musicians getting inspiration from other great musicians happens all the time!

Moving on to side B, I’m skipping the above-mentioned “Sultans of Swing” and go right to Into the Gallery. Sure, you could say Knopfler’s electric guitar sound is more of the same. I just happen to love it, so I don’t mind getting more of it!

Let’s do one more: Wild West End. Songfacts explains the title refers to an area in London (West End) where Knopfler enjoyed walking around, “always with an eye on the ladies”. Apparently, this particular tune recalls “a particularly attractive young woman in Shaftesbury Avenue.” Interestingly, the official video only shows the band performing the song on a stage and doesn’t include any footage of the West End.

To me and I guess to most other Dire Straits fans, most of the band’s appeal came from Mark Knopfler and his melodic and sparing way to play the guitar. An important aspect of his technique is the use of his fingers on the strumming hand instead of a pick, which creates a very transparent and distinct sound. Knopfler was a pretty good writer as well, which would become more obvious on the group’s later works, especially Making Movies, their third studio album released in October 1980.

While it is fair to say that Mark Knopfler was Dire Straitsdominant force, a band is never just one guy. So this post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the other musicians on the album: Mark’s aforementioned brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar, vocals), John Illsley (bass, vocals) and Pick Withers (drums).

Undoubtedly, Dire Straits are best remembered for their 1985 studio album Brothers in Arms and the mega hit single “Money For Nothing”. While I won’t deny it’s a good album, I will always prefer their 1978 debut, along with Making Movies. Thanks to fellow blogger Graham from Aphoristic Album Reviews, I’ve also gained new appreciation for Love Over Gold, the September 1982 predecessor to Brothers in Arms.