Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Various Artists - Holiday Freak In



(Trying to get off my behind, and actually post holiday-related stuff before Christmas, for once...)

I posted the companion to this compilation, the two-disc Holiday Freak Out, during the Christmas season more than seven years ago. Both were put together by Otis Fodder, who long ago used to operate an excellent website filled with weird, wonderful, obscure music. This disc continues the run of "wacked-out Xmas gold!" contained in that first set.

Here's the lineup of the great, nutty stuff here:
01. Roger Roger - Jolly Bells
02. Gordon Thomas - Merry Christmas
03. The Sounds Extraordinare - Take A Ride On Santa's Rocket
04. Northern Telecom - I Want An OC192 For Christmas/The 12 Days Of Christmas
05. Chinese Kids Choir - Hark The Herald Angels Sing
06. Oscar The Grouch - I Hate Christmas
07. Danger Woman - Sleigh Ride
08. Karen Gathercole - Come and Join the Celebration
09. Alain Marcoux - Noël j'ai mal au coeur
10. Red Coffee (Quacky The Singing Duck) - Ducky Christmas
11. Major Bill Smith and Nancy Nolte - Happy Birthday Jesus
12. Inpatient Music Therapy Program, Univ of Michigan Medical Center, Children's Psychiatric Hospital - Jingle Bell Rock
13. Les Poppys - September Noir December Blanc
14. The Greenbergs - Sleepy
15. Bathing Beauty - Christmas Tears
16. Ethel Smith - Jingle Bells
17. Otis Skillings - Love Can Work A Miracle
18. Raymond Scott Quintette - Christmas Night In Harlem
19. Eddie Davis - A Recorded Christmas Message for Reverend W. Simmons
20. Les Intimes - C'est Noel
21. Inpatient Music Therapy Program, University of Michigan Medical Center, Children's Psychiatric Hospital - Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
22. 2 Live Jews - Sabbath Night
23. Mae West - Santa Come Up and See Me Some Time
More than a decade ago, Christmas Yuleblog ran an interview with Otis regarding his holiday collections; here it is if you'd like to check it out, and get some brief reviews of every song on both this and the previous disc set.

As mentioned in the companion post, the Otis Fodder site has been dead for many, many years, and as far as I can tell, these excellent comps are no longer easily available online. So I'm very happy that I managed to nab both Freak Out and Freak In when I did, many moons ago, so I can bestow them onto you all, and in my own small way keep the legend and glory of Otis's site and work alive.

Here's Holiday Freak In, compiled by Otis Fodder in December 2006. Enjoy this off-kilter addition to your holiday music... and as always, let me know what you think.

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Weezer - Weezer (Blue Album) (Deluxe Edition) (RS500 - #297)


When I was younger, a callow young military officer, I occasionally got involved in some hair-raising escapades, dangerous standoffs and amazing capers that to this day, when I think about them, make me shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through my mind at the time. For instance:
  • I've talked my way out of a potentially dangerous and fatal encounter with a gang of armed, tough-looking Rastas who surrounded me one night in a dark neighborhood in the hills above Charlotte Amelie, St. Thomas, V.I....
  • I somehow found myself alone and unarmed deep within a favela in Rio De Janeiro, with only a very few words of Portuguese at my command and many miles between me and safety... and
  • I've come to from a booze bender in the wee hours in downtown Panama City (not long after the Noriega regime was toppled and the place was designated a war zone) having no idea where I was or how to get back...
In each of these circumstances (and a couple of others that come to mind), I've emerged unscathed and lived to tell the tale. The background behind some of these encounters aren't things I'd necessarily brag about now (or even then, for that matter). But what remains with me is the knowledge that I stepped out to the edge/threw caution to the wind more than once in my life, and felt that adrenaline jolt of making it through a crazy, unusual situation.

I have definitely had some colorful and memorable adventures, in locations all over the world. For various reasons (heh), others need not be revisited here... but there are some scams and shenanigans I pulled back in the day that still hold a warm, special place in my heart. This is one of my all-time favorites - probably because it DIDN'T involve the risk of my life or limb.

A couple of weeks after I moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the austral winter (the northern hemisphere’s summer) of 1993, the government announced that construction would soon commence on the first-ever casino in the country, right there in the city. The entertainment facility would be located on a then-vacant triangle of land between Victoria and Durham Streets, directly across from the Crowne Plaza, the city’s top hotel. The building effort was scheduled to start that month, and it was estimated that it would take about eighteen months to complete.

Needless to say, I was completely jazzed to hear this news. As I’ve pointed out time and again on this blog, I’m an inveterate gambler, who has managed to do pretty well at it over the years. In my previous duty station in the Washington DC area, I made many a foray up to Atlantic City and back in the two years I lived there, and got fairly proficient at the games that I loved to play (first blackjack, later craps and finally no-limit poker). I’d never be (and never had any desire to be) a professional at it, but after a while I knew that I could hold my own, and more times than not come away from such trips with a tidy profit. Plus, I enjoy the mathematical and psychological challenge of it all, keeping track of odds and trying to ‘read’ opponents. As such, I was sort of bumming during my first few days in New Zealand because, as fun and entertaining as the nightlife appeared to be in Christchurch, having no readily-available access to a craps or blackjack table was going to be a heavy blow. So this announcement was news from heaven, as far as I was concerned. I told everyone I knew, both my old friends back in the States and my new friends in Christchurch, that I was going to BE at that casino on Opening Night, no matter what.

All that austral summer, and throughout 1994, I watched that place go up (I passed it quite often, as it was a couple of blocks away from one of my favorite weekend haunts, The Club - in fact, one of my buddies, a bartender at The Club, had applied for a job at the new venue). It wasn't particularly a flash-looking, Vegas-style building... but it WAS going to be a casino, so I didn't care - I would've played sitting on a stool under a canvas tent, just so long as the games I liked to play were available.

Soon I began to hear about the government's plans to celebrate the opening later that year. It was going to be a swanky black-tie affair, with dignitaries and celebs from all walks of life flying in from all over Australasia. As such, the guest list was going to be very exclusive, with the vast majority hand-picked by the feds and the casino operators. However, apparently as a sop to the general population, the word was that some members of the public could also choose to be part of the opening gala - for only $1,000 per ticket.

Of course, I didn't have a cool grand to blow on something like that. So all that year, I tried to leverage my few New Zealand connections to help me wrangle one of those "dignitary" invitations. For example, I knew someone who knew someone who knew the mayor of Christchurch, and I thought they might put in a good word on my behalf; I made friends with some high-ranking NZ Air Force officers out at the old Wigram Air Base who I thought might be helpful; and I had some commercial connections through my work who I thought might be 'big' enough to make something happen. But no luck. As the year passed, and Opening Day crept closer and closer, I still found myself as one of the "outside looking in" crowd. I wracked my brains for a solution, but got no closer to finding one.

While all of this was going on, I went back to the States for leave that May/June (I returned to New Zealand the day after the infamous O.J. Simpson "Bronco chase"). Shortly after I arrived back to Christchurch, one of my good friends and fellow officers at the base, Rod, the Communications Officer, transferred back to the States. His replacement was another young lieutenant (let's call him "Phil"), a loud, brash New Englander who, at first, I was sure I wouldn't get along with. But we quickly became very good friends, hanging out together in town, hitting the clubs and chasing the local chicks when we weren't at work at NASU.

One night, a couple of months after he arrived, I went over to Phil's house in the center of Christchurch, to hang out for a bit at his invitation. We just chilled on the couch for a couple of hours, having a couple of Canterbury Draughts and watching a VHS tape he'd brought over from the States with him, a movie called True Romance written by some relative unknown newcomer named Quentin Tarantino. I'd never heard of the guy before, or knew any of his other work - but I enjoyed the film immensely. Phil told me that Tarantino had another film coming out later that year, a crime yarn called Pulp Fiction, that I should keep an eye out for. I figured it might be pretty good, but nowhere near as good as True Romance... (how wrong I turned out to be...)

After the film was over, he fired up some tunes, playing an album by a group which up to that point, I was unfamiliar with. The CD cover featured four rather nondescript guys, facing the
camera in front of a bright blue backdrop - the picture reminded me a lot of the cover of The Feelies' first album, Crazy Rhythms. The band's name was featured in bold, lower-case letters in the upper right-hand corner - Weezer.

Weezer was formed in Los Angeles on Valentine's Day 1992 by a bunch of mostly East Coast transplants who gradually made their way to California during the late 80s/early 90s. Bassist Matt Sharp was born in Thailand to American diplomat parents, but spent most of this early teenage years in the suburbs of Washington, DC. He moved to San Diego in the late 80s and joined a number of short-lived goth and thrash bands. During this time, he struck of a friendship with Buffalo, NY native Patrick Wilson, who had recently moved to LA and was drumming for a local band called Bush (no, not THAT Bush - this is another one you've never heard of). When that band fell apart in early 1991, Wilson and Sharp recruited a couple of friends of theirs, including Oakland, CA guitarist Jason Cropper, and formed a new band called Sixty Wrong Sausages. At the same time, Wilson was participating in Fuzz, another short-lived local band whose members included yet another out-of-stater, Connecticut-born Tower Records employee and erstwhile roadie Rivers Cuomo. Cuomo eventually joined the lineup of Sixty Wrong Sausages, which evolved into Weezer.

After some early practices, Weezer got its first gig later in 1992, in front of about sixty people at a crappy Los Angeles club called Rodgies; they opened for another local band also making its live debut that night - Dogstar, featuring actor Keanu Reeves on bass. While that show didn't exactly make Weezer a household name in the area, the band kept practicing, progressing and gigging, and inside of a year had slowly begun to make a name for itself in the Los Angeles Basin. On the strength of that local buzz, the group was courted and signed by Geffen Records in June of 1993.

Almost immediately, the label flew Weezer to New York City, to cut their debut album at Electric Lady Studios. The band wanted to self-produce, but Geffen wasn't about that at all, and pressured the group to select an outside producer - they settled on former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek. From all reports, the session went very smoothly, with all of the basic tracks laid down in a single day, and all in one take. The band's working relationship with Ocasek was cordial and productive, with the producer making only minor recommendations to improve the band's sound. The only disconcerting note during the entire recording process was the departure of founding guitarist Cropper (for years, the reason behind his leaving the band was a well-kept secret; it was only recently that Cuomo revealed that Cropper's personal issues - specifically, a pregnant girlfriend - began to affect the band's work, and led to his being asked to leave the group), immediately replaced by Brian Bell. Even with that, Weezer successfully completed the recording and mixing of their debut before the summer of 1993 was out.

Geffen released the album in the spring of 1994. The label initially put no money or promotional efforts behind the band's first release, wanting to see if word of mouth could propel sales. After a slow start, this strategy paid off - Weezer went gold before the end of the year, and reached platinum status (1 million copies sold) by New Years Day 1995, eventually peaking at #16 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Three singles from the album ("Undone - The Sweater Song", "Buddy Holly" and "Say It Ain't So") made both the U.S. Modern Rock Top 10 and the overall British Top 40 charts as well. I was fortunate enough to have heard it at Phil's house long before its more mainstream success; with that first listen, I instantly became a Weezer fan.

I went back to the States again that October, for a Navy Supply Corps conference in San Diego I had absolutely NO interest in attending, but one which my commanding officer insisted that I go to. Not that I was adverse to heading over to sunny California for a while... but like I said, I had just returned from a long vacation back in the country just a couple of months earlier. Plus, the conference was a complete boondoggle - no major policy decisions or changes were expected to come out of it; it was just a chance for a bunch of officers to hang out in Southern California for a week. I told the CO as much, along with the fact that the command's budget really couldn't absorb what I considered "unnecessary trips" like this (I know it sounds like I was pissing on my own potential parade... but I did try to keep a close eye on the government's purse strings). But I was overruled; he insisted that I had to go, to "keep in contact with my peers".

I was like, "OK, fine - yes sir", and started making arrangements that would benefit MY schedule. The major change I made to my itinerary was to arrive in San Diego three days prior to the conference, rather than on the day of - I had plans of my own I wanted to take advantage of...

My transpacific flight landed in San Diego on a Thursday afternoon, just before 2 pm. By 2:30, I'd collected my luggage, acquired my rental car, and was hauling ass through the desert on I-15, on my way to Vegas (I punished that car during that drive - it was over 100 degrees outside, I was traveling 85-90+ miles an hour, and I had the A/C cranked down to below 60 degrees; I'm still stunned that car wasn't a heap of smoldering slag by the end of my term with it). I made that five-hour-plus trip in a little less than four, threw my bags down in the cheapest place I could find
(the old La Concha Motel on the shitty end of the Strip - it was semi-clean, it had A/C and the door locked securely, which is all I cared about), then ran out to find the nearest craps tables I could find.

I powered through two and a half days of nonstop fun in Sin City, gambling until I couldn't see the dice or cards, then stumbling back to my room at the La Concha for a couple hours' sleep before charging out again. Yup - I was a total degenerate. But I made a fucking FORTUNE - that town was all but handing me money that trip! And occasionally I took a break from my debauchery for other pursuits - I had a couple of really good meals at some decent restaurants in the city. And on my last afternoon there, I went off down W. Sahara Boulevard to the now-long gone Tower Records store and spent some of my newly-acquired largesse on tunes. I bought a ton of CDs, including the Weezer album I'd heard back home. These new tunes accompanied me back to San Diego that weekend and, at the end of that week (which was, as I suspected, a useless conference - although I did have some fun and saw some old friends in town and up in LA while I was there) back to New Zealand. By the time I returned, they were putting the finishing touches on the gambling joint . . . and of course, I still didn't have a ticket to attend the opening gala.

The Christchurch Casino was finally completed in the late austral spring of 1994 and opened with great fanfare on Thursday, November 3rd. I got home from work early that day and watched the inaugural events on TV, which basically consisted of filming various New Zealand politicians and celebrities arriving at the front entrance of the place and gliding over the red carpet into the interior. It didn't seem like security was all that heavy; the broadcasts didn't show scads of police surrounding the joint - that wasn't the way New Zealand did things back then (or so I thought).

I watched the television coverage for a while . . . then thought for a few seconds and finally said aloud to myself, “Fuck it; let’s give it a shot.”

I went into my closet and pulled out my service dress white uniform, probably the most impressive uniform the U.S. Navy has to offer – gleaming white, with gold buttons and high “choker” collar. With the blue-and-gold rank shoulder boards and a couple of rows of multicolored ribbons over the left breast, the thing is pretty damn impressive. I just hoped it would be impressive enough.

As I carefully pulled my uni on and checked my white dress shoes for scuffs, I thought over my strategy for getting into the casino opening event. My plan was to drive downtown, park nearby, walk over to the building entrance, and boldly declare that I was the “official U.S. Navy representative” to the ceremonies, while defiantly looking the doormen/gatekeepers in the eye and all but DARING them to challenge my credentials. If, however, they did work up the gumption to ask to actually see my invitation, the next phase of my plan was to begin slapping my pockets awkwardly, and claiming I must have inadvertently forgotten it. In the worst possible scenario, I figured that I would ignominiously be sent packing down the street with my tail between my legs in front of all the locals and TV cameras (as you can tell, my mind was very narrowly focused in regards to consequences - the potential of instigating a minor international incident for something like "fraud" or "misrepresentation of a foreign military entity" never really entered my head). Otherwise, I was pretty confident that, with my “clever plan”, I could successfully crash the event.

Before I left the house, I had the presence of mind to grab some tunes to bring along with me, to steady my nerves as I made my way towards an uncertain outcome, one that could possibly lead to some minor personal embarrassment and humiliation, and at the most could... well, again, I didn’t really consider any worst-case scenarios. I jumped in my car, pulled out of the driveway, and left my Casebrook neighborhood for the ride downtown. En route, I stuck Weezer into the in-dash CD player, and tooled down the street while "My Name Is Jonas" blared through the car speakers.

Oh, I forgot to mention the car I was driving... When you transfer overseas, the Navy allows you to ship your privately-owned vehicle (POV) over to your new duty station at government expense, along with the rest of your household goods. This was my POV:


My pride and joy, a gold 1982 Porsche 928... at the time, one of six in the entire country, and the only left-hand drive model on the South Island. I bought this car a couple of years earlier from a dealer in Virginia and absolutely loved it, so much so that I wasn’t about to leave it behind when I moved halfway around the world. It arrived in Christchurch nearly two months after I did, but it was well worth the wait; I suddenly owned one of the (if not THE) hottest, fastest cars in the region. Not to brag, but to say that my 928 was of great assistance in my social life in New Zealand is putting it very, very mildly... and I’ll just leave it at that.

I made my way across town, down Papanui Road and across Bealey onto Victoria Street towards the venue; Victoria has a minor left-hand bend to it a couple of blocks down, so I couldn't quite see what was happening further down that road at the casino site (although I did notice that there seemed to be more people out on the streets than usual). As got closer, I saw what the deal was - and a funny and unpleasant feeling began to build in the pit of my stomach...

A cordon of police had the intersection blocked off at Salisbury Street, directing any unauthorized cars and non-guests to the event off in another direction. If I was going to bail out of this caper, now would be the time to do so - I could just follow the instructions of the cops, quietly make that left, and be on my way back home. But for some reason, I decided to 'take the plunge' and deal with whatever came my way; instead of turning, I boldly pulled right up to the barrier, turning the music down and rolling down the automatic window for the authorities there to get a full view of me in my regalia. Needless to say, I was a little tense, but I looked at the cops there manning the gate with the attitude and air of a man who's SUPPOSED to be let through... and it worked. Before I could say a word; they moved the barrier aside and waved me along.

Whew! So far so good! For that brief moment, I was feeling very positive and confident; if that was the best they had for security (and the worst I had to expect to get through), I was good to go. Then I looked ahead, and felt my nuts crawl up into my belly...

Holy smokes.

It appeared that my interpretation of the TV coverage was woefully incorrect. Instead of the light security I was anticipating, there was a massive and significant presence around the casino. The powers-that-be had pulled out all the stops for this event; the joint was practically ringed with local, federal (I forgot about the government bigwigs who were scheduled to attend) and corporate security personnel, and the streets were cordoned off with security barriers on the far side of Victoria Street and all the other roads around the casino building, with cops roaming around behind those barriers to keep the sizeable crowd of "unauthorized" spectators at bay. Between all of this, the streets were kept almost completely empty, except for the limos of the arriving guests/dignitaries...

And my dumb ass, tooling down the middle of the street in uniform, in my Porsche. I was as naked and obvious as a bug on a plate, and I KNEW that my ride and I were the cynosure of every person in the immediate vicinity. The moment of truth was about to arrive for me - and I've got to admit that in those moments, I wasn't feeling very confident. But it was much, much too late for me to bail.

I slowly pulled up to the entrance to the underground garage and stopped, and my car was instantly surrounded by at least a dozen stern-looking cops and casino security personnel. Inwardly, I was thinking "Oh shit - the jig is up!" I could almost feel the eyes of every spectator and the lens of every camera boring into the back of my head as I sat there - and it was then, finally, that the realization came to me that if I got busted now, I was going to be embarrassed on a nationwide level, and possibly be in for some savage shit when I went back to work at the base the next day. But outwardly, I tried to remain as cool and nonchalant as I could. I turned "Say It Ain't So" down on the car CD player, and reached over to press the button to open the passenger side window. The guy who I assumed to be the Head Cop jammed his head in; I could tell he was a bit confused at first, as he expected me to be sitting in a right-hand drive NZ car instead of my left-hand drive American model - I had a fleeting hope I could use that confusion to my advantage. He leaned in as far as he could, while the rest of his team gathered in tightly behind him and all around the Porsche. Instead of panicking, I calmly smiled, looked the guy dead in the eye, and said, "Any more parking down below for this event?"

The Head Cop looked hard at me - white uniform, gold braid, multicolored ribbons and medals on my chest - then he looked back and forth slowly at the interior of the Porsche I was in - then back at me. He paused for just a moment... that's the moment I assumed I was screwed. But the guy then broke into a huge welcoming smile as he said "Yes Sir! Happy to have you with us!"

Another "Whew!" moment! Instantly, two liveried casino employees sprung out from seemingly nowhere. The gauntlet of cops parted like the Red Sea and made room for me as these carhops, with one trotting on either side of my front hood like Secret Service agents, guided me inside the garage and right into one of the best reserved spaces, right by the basement entrance. From there, these two guys practically carried me to the casino elevator; I daresay I welcomed the assistance at that point, because I was a bit shaky from that make-or-break encounter at the entrance. I couldn't believe my luck so far!

But I knew that I wasn't out of the woods yet. From my observations over the past months as the place was being built, I knew that the gaming area was up on the second floor of the building, above the street-level casino entrance. During the street tete-a-tete with security, I had the presence of mind to glance over and observe that there was a reception/welcome committee set up on the ground floor, to greet the guests (and presumably to check their invitations/credentials) before allowing them to go upstairs where the action was. I had no stomach for another scene like the first two I'd been through. So as I entered the elevator, I quickly punched the button for the second (casino) floor, figuring I could bypass all of the rigamarole in the lobby, quickly exit onto the main floor and instantly blend in with the crowd (well, as much as a guy wearing a snow-white uniform could blend in). As the lift began its slow upward journey, I relaxed a bit. I figured I was home free.

So imagine my surprise when the fucking thing suddenly stopped on the lobby floor and the doors began to open! They had rigged the elevators that night not to go up all the way. By the time I thought about hitting the "close doors" button, it was too late - I was face-to-face with a bevy of dignitaries and facility major-domos, who I KNEW were going to request to see my invite. I imagine that I sagged visibly, like an animal taking a bullet - I KNEW the jig was well and truly about to be up. I stepped into the space and all but threw my hands up; I felt like a complete criminal.

The main guy there barely looked at me. Instead, he pointed towards the escalator. "Just go right upstairs, sir. Welcome, and have a great evening!" I was so shocked as his response and my reprieve that I stood there stunned for a moment. Then I hightailed it in the direction he indicated. Success!

The rest of the night turned out great - mostly. One of the first things I did when I got up to the casino floor was head straight to the bar - after all of the twists, turns and tension experienced in getting into the place, I needed a drink. And as fate would have it, the first person I saw when I reached the bar was my friend, the former bartender from The Club; apparently his application to the gambling joint was successful He was shocked to see me - "Jesus, man - how did YOU get in here!" I told him my story and we had a good laugh about it
together as he handed me my first extra-large glass of Canterbury Draught, which was on the house like all of the other food and drink at the event that night.

I then sauntered over the gaming area - sadly, no craps or poker, but plenty of blackjack, my old reliable moneymaker. I found a seat, set my drink down to get my money out... and proceeded to elbow that full glass of brewski over, swamping the table! I was VERY glad I hadn't gotten a drop of that spill onto my whites; however, I did have to sit there and endure the dirty looks of the casino staff and other players as they mopped up my mess. That was the only sour note for the rest of the night; I stayed at the event for hours, hobnobbing with New Zealand's "beautiful people" (of course, none of whom knew who I was - no matter; I was "there", so I HAD to be "somebody"), chatting up women, partaking liberally of the free spread and gratis booze offered... and ended up winning more than $600 at the $10 blackjack table. I felt like James frickin' Bond!

There was one thing I didn't end up doing during my event infiltration that I had every intention of accomplishing - getting my face on TV. I had an unstated goal of making an appearance in front of the television cameras, both for a laugh and as incontrovertible evidence to my boys that I HAD followed through on my plan. But in the end, I figured I'd pushed my luck that night juuuuuuuuuust about far enough. The last thing I wanted to happen was to be called on the carpet by the CO the next day, demanding specific answers on why I was at such an event in uniform, blah blah blah. So as tempting as immortalizing my infiltration on film would have been, in the end I just let it go. Besides, my buddy from The Club had seen me there, so I had some independent corroboration to fall back on!

All in all, it was a fun night, and a great story to tell my friends in town and at the base the next day and for the remainder of my time there. And all it took to succeed was the balls and chutzpah to follow through - well, that, and a little luck.

Here for your listening pleasure is the album that helped steady my nerves on the night I pulled that secret-agentesque scam, 23 years ago today: Weezer (The Blue Album), the debut long-player by the band of the same name, released by DGC Records (a subsidiary of Geffen Records) on May 10th, 1994. What I'm providing here is the 10th anniversary deluxe edition of this classic album, released in 2004, containing a second disc ("Dusty Gems and Raw Nuggets') of Weezer live takes, demos and rarities. Enjoy... and as always, let me know what you think.

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Stereolab - Eaten Horizons Or The Electrocution Of Rock

(Yup - back-to-back Stereolab posts! I must be slipping!)

I've previously posted a couple of Stereolab-related write-ups to this blog in the (recent) past - love this band! If you enjoy them as much as I do, then you'll definitely be into this post: an impossibly hard-to-find collection of heretofore unreleased band demos and outtakes from throughout their long career.

This disc was released in Germany in 2007 by En/Of, a sublabel of Bottrop-Boy Records. Bottrop-Boy (apparently named after a minor transit station on a German passenger train line) appears to specialize in releases by obscure avant-garde music artists dabbling in experimental electronic sounds and free-form modern jazz. However, its sublabel, En/Of, ratchets up this obscurity/exclusivity factor to the nth degree. All of En/Of's releases (mostly by bands that even I've never heard of) are on heavyweight vinyl only and produced in minuscule amounts, to a maximum of no more than 100 copies each. Each of their releases is packaged with a separate signed and numbered limited-edition artwork (painting, etching, photograph, etc.) specially created for the album by a renowned artist.

Needless to say, the combination of limited availability and art-snob appeal leads to this sublabel's discs going for big bucks, way more than the average music fan is willing to shell out - even if they'd actually heard of the fucking band... This makes En/Of essentially an exclusive boutique label, the musical equivalent of Versace or Jimmy Choo (sorry - those are the only chi-chi designers I can think of at the moment; hey, I'm a guy - I don't spend a lot of time contemplating high fashion!). To me, all of this artsy-fartsy foofarol seems a little unnecessary, recherche and precious, and does little but cater to bloodless music aesthetes with money to apparently burn . . . but heck, that's just my opinion.

As I mentioned above, this disc contains never-before released sound ideas and rough proto-demo versions of Stereolab tunes, some of which eventually appeared on various 'Groop' albums, including Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, Mars Audiac Quintet, Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots & Loops. Other songs provided here have, to the best of my knowledge, never before seen the light of day in any version on any official or unofficial band release.

Here's the lineup:
1. Crest
2. John Cage Bubblegum
3. Mountain Instrumental
4. Reich Song
5. Cybele’s Reverie Pt. 1
6. Cybele’s Reverie Pt. 2
7. French Disko
8. Happy Pop Song
9. Jenny Ondioline
10. Lucia Pamela (ICC)
11. Drone Instrumental (with Nurse With Wound)
12. Plastic Pulse One
13. Plastic Pulse Two
14. Plastic Pulse Three
15. Plastic Pulse Four
16. Sad Chicago Organ
17. Brigitte Pt. 1
18. Brigitte Pt. 2
19. Infinity Girl Pt. 1
20. Infinity Girl Pt. 2
21. Cobra Tune
22. Heavy Munich
23. ZigZag Song
24. Monday Song
Here you are - Stereolab's uber-rare Eaten Horizons Or The Electrocution Of Rock, released by En/Of Records on September 30th, 2007 in a run of 100 vinyl copies (each of which included a high-quality Mathias Poledna print, signed by the artist (yeah, I don't know who the hell he is either . . . whatever; I'm just into this for the music)). Took me forever to find a copy of this . . . thus I bestow it unto you all as well.

Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Stereolab - Solar Throw-Away 7"


Stereolab's 2006 double-A side tour single, sold at only a handful of venues in Europe and North America during the band's extremely brief series of concerts in the early part of that year.

By the time of this release, it already seemed as though the band was making plans to wind down from its long career. The death of Mary Hansen in late 2002 and its aftermath (which
included the recording of the group's Hansen tribute album Margerine Eclipse, released in 2004) seemed to sap a lot of drive and energy out of Stereolab, and understandably so. That's not to say that the group's creative juices had run dry - there was still plenty of good music to come from them, including the Fab Four Suture collection later in 2006 and Chemical Chords in mid-2008. But it should be noted that around the same period as
the 2006 tour came two "best of" compilation releases, the three-disc Oscillions From The Anti-Sun retrospective in late 2005 and Serene Velocity (featuring highlights from their years with the Elektra label) in late 2006. Putting a series of comps out in such a short period of time isn't exactly a move made by a band planning on hanging around for very long . . .

But even with the time left allotted to them, Stereolab didn't rest on its laurels. Up until the very end (marked by 2010's Not Music, released more than a year after the band announced it was going on permanent hiatus), the group continued refining and experimenting with its signature sound. This record provided here is no exception.

So, for your enjoyment, here's a hard-to-find Stereolab rarity, the Solar Throw-Away 7", released on their label Duophonic on March 1st, 2006. Have a listen, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Beatles - Strong Before Our Birth (Purple Chick) (2-disc set)


Sixty years ago today, on a warm but cloudy Saturday afternoon at a church fair in a suburban town in the North of England, two teenage boys met for the first time . . . and the history of music was forever changed.

Yes, today is the diamond anniversary of the fabled first (well, perhaps not*) meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the St. Peter's Church garden fete in Woolton, Liverpool. I will refrain from retelling the oft-told tale of how the two famous musicians and songwriters came together that day - there will be plenty of stories in that vein today. So I'm going to keep this posting short.
However, I will call attention to one of these articles, which deserves recognition and merit - a write-up in today's Daily Beast about the momentous day, written by my good friend and Beatles fanatic Colin Fleming, that's worth your time and attention.
To commemorate this momentous day, I proudly present to you the Beatles' Strong Before Our Birth Purple Chick two-disc set, compiling the best and most important existing recordings from the band's early years (1957 to 1962) (The non-Purple Chick bootleg Complete Home Recordings 1958-1962 contains a couple of different tracks: mostly long, meandering 15-20 minute guitar noodlings of limited import and interest). This set contains mostly recordings of practices and jam sessions held at McCartney's bedroom at his family home, 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, along with some early Cavern Club recordings and 1958's "In Spite Of All The Danger", the pre-Beatles first professionally recorded original song.

These discs also include fragments of selections played by The Quarrymen on the very night of John and Paul's meeting - as fate would have it, one of Lennon's schoolmates, Bob Molyneux, was on hand with his new Grundig reel-to-reel machine, making recordings of all the bands playing that night's Grand Dance. Molyneux ended up with several reels of taped music, which he stored away and all but forgot about until decades later. By that time, many of his tapes had gone missing or were destroyed, victims of house moves and time. But luckily, the one surviving reel he salvaged was the one containing the first recordings of John Lennon performing in public. It's not the highest fidelity recording, but it's unmistakably John's voice.


Here's the track listing for both discs:


Anyway, here you are - check it out, and let me know what you think. Happy Beatles Day!

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* In Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn's recently published bio of the band's early years, The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One – Tune In, he mentions that on numerous occasions in recent years, McCartney has spoken of seeing Lennon in and around Liverpool several times prior to 1957 - riding on buses with him and the two crossing paths while Paul was on his paper route. McCartney even mentions speaking with him once or twice during those years, in front of local shops. But as there are no independent eyewitness accounts of these encounters, nor any definitive dates or times when they occurred, we'll stick with July 6th, 1957 as Day One.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Paul McCartney & Wings - Venus And Mars Outtakes Are Alright Tonight, Vol. 1 & 2



Happy 75th Birthday, Sir Paul! Many, many more!

I was too young to absorb the Beatles in real time, so the first Beatles-related release I was conscious of as a kid was McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey", a single from his first solo album Ram, released in August 1971.


I can't tell you why I enjoyed this tune so much as a child - maybe it was the sound effects (thunderclaps, ringing phones, seagulls), that made it seem more like a Yellow Submarine outtake (I'd just seen that movie for the first time that year, as part of a summer film series for kids sponsored by the local elementary schools - I saw Willy Wonka and The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time that summer as well).   After that limited exposure to McCartney's work, I wasn't really aware of anything regarding his music for another three years.

I remember when Band On The Run came out - my older cousin had a copy of the LP, and he played it for me during a visit my family paid to his in 1974. I was fascinated with the "jailbreak" cover! Outside of Paul McCartney and his wife, I didn't know or recognize any of the other people featured on the front of that album. But it didn't matter - I thought that everything about Band On The Run - artwork and music - was great. My favorite songs at the time, outside of the title track, were "Mrs. Vandebilt" and "Helen Wheels" - they remain some of my favorite Paul tracks to this day. By the time I got to experience the album, it seemed that a vast majority of Americans and the world seemed to think as positively about this disc as I did. I had no idea until much later how much work and effort went into making this album the runaway hit it became.

Due to the mixed critical and commercial reception of the group's first two albums, 1971's Wild Life and 1973's Red Rose Speedway, buyers were initially reluctant to shell out their hard-earned cash for Band On The Run, only to get burned again by yet another weak Wings release.  So, despite some positive reviews from influential music writers and publications, early sales performance of this release in December 1973 was good, but not great.  The album rose slowly on the US Billboard charts to a peak of #7 in early February 1974, before beginning to slowly slide back down the list.

To counter this perceived public lack on interest, Apple (well, specifically, Capitol Records, Apple's US distributor) embarked on a very planned and methodical marketing campaign - quite possibly the first one ever considered necessary for a Beatles-related release. Essentially the brainchild of Capitol's marketing head, Al Coury, Coury goosed LP sales by strategically releasing album singles at key points during the year, initially over McCartney's objections.  The first single Marketing released was "Jet" b/w "Let Me Roll It" in late January 1974.


The song quickly shot into the Top Ten in both Britain and America, where it remained until late spring, and rekindled public interest in the album - Band On The Run began moving up the charts again, and reached #1 US for a week in mid-April. When album sales began declining again that month, Coury arranged for the release of the next album single, the title track "Band On The Run" b/w "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five". This single was even huger than the previous release; "Band On The Run" topped the American charts by June, and dragged the album along with it - the LP hit #1 again for three weeks that same month. Band On The Run topped the US album charts yet again in July. All told, the release was at or near the top of the charts for almost the entirety of 1974, staying in the Billboard Top Ten from January to late November. Its reception made McCartney the most commercially successful of the solo Beatles from that point on (believe it or not, but George Harrison was eating Paul's lunch on that measure in the early '70s).

After this year of great success, both McCartney and Capitol Records were eager to keep the money train rolling. Wings' lineup was augmented with new members during mid-1974 (Geoff Britton on drums and Jimmy McCulloch on lead guitar joined Paul & Linda McCartney and guitarist Denny Laine), and after some early session work in Nashville and London in the fall of 1974, the band headed to Sea Saint Studios in New Orleans in January 1975 to complete recordings for the next album. The Louisiana sessions were progressing fairly well, except in one area - some animosity had arisen between Britton and McColloch during the Nashville stay, and by the time they reached New Orleans, they fucking HATED each other. Fed up with the tense atmosphere, Britton suddenly quit the band in the middle of their Sea Saint session - he'd been a member of Wings for less than six months. McCartney scrambled to find a replacement, quickly auditioning a suitable alternate, American drummer Joe English. Despite that brief hiccup, the main album tracks were all laid down less than a month after arrival in New Orleans. Some rerecording and overdub work was completed in California a couple of months later.

The album Venus and Mars was released in late May (two weeks after the release of the lead single, "Listen To What The Man Said") to a public still hungry for Wings product, and in the afterglow of the positive vibes for the last album. Both the single and the album topped the US charts, with the latter selling over 4 million copies worldwide. However, the overall critical reaction to Venus and Mars was much more subdued and muted than for Band On The Run; the LP was generally viewed by music writers as a step back by the band. Still, it sold - which was all Capitol cared about.

The commercial success of this album served as the impetus for McCartney and Wings to embark on a year-long worldwide concert tour, Wings Over The World, where the band played over sixty arena-rock shows in eleven countries on three continents. In all, more than a million people attended those sold-out concerts, further establishing McCartney's reputation as a commercial juggernaut.
The tour even resulted in a companion album, the triple-disc Wings Over America live release, another Number One record for the band in early 1977.

Generally, I tend to agree with the critics regarding Venus and Mars. Outside of "Listen To What The Man Said", I've never found the music on this disc to be as immediate or compelling as that of the previous album. It's not as though McCartney was resting on his laurels here, after the huge success of Band On The Run - there was some thought and hard work put into these selections. I don't know whether it was due to the band turmoil during the recording, or label pressure to start milking Paul and his band as a financially-viable hit machine . . . but for me, there's something missing in the overall album.

However, some folks regard Venus and Mars as equal to, if not superior, to Band On The Run. I'll let you all be the judge of that, by giving you a glimpse into the creative effort behind the making of this album. Here are an assortment of demos and rehearsal tracks from the Venus and Mars sessions in 1975. According to bootlegzone.com, The 910 (a key publication on unreleased Beatles recordings) states that the source of this music is an unnamed person (presumably in the production crew) who surreptitiously recorded and retained a low bias cassette dub of some early takes and some later, more polished remixes.

Here is an excerpt from the liner notes on the 2005 release of this bootleg, containing a bit more info:
"The music was culled from sessions that took place between January and April of 1975, first at Sea Saint Studios, New Orleans and later at Wall Heider Studios in Los Angeles. The majority of the sessions feature the fifth Wings line-up of Paul/lead vocals, guitar, bass; Linda/piano, synth, backing vocals; Denny Laine/guitar, bass, backing vocals; Jimmy McCulloch/guitar, backing vocals (lead on Medicine Jar); and Joe English/drums (it is unknown whether this music features any of Geoff Britton on drums)."
In terms of track listings, here's the lineup for both discs:

Disc 1
1. Venus And Mars (instrumental)
2. Rock Show
3. Love In Song
4. Letting Go
5. Medicine Jar
6. Venus And Mars (reprise)
7. Listen To What The Man Said, Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People, Crossroads Theme
8. Venus And Mars
9. Rock Show
Disc 2
1. Love In Song
2. You Gave Me The Answer
3. Magneto And Titanium Man
4. Letting Go
5. Medicine Jar
6. Venus And Mars (reprise)
7. Spirits Of Ancient Egypt
8. Call Me Back Again
9. Listen To What The Man Said
10. Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People
11. Crossroads Theme
12. Lunch Box/Odd Sox
For your consideration, here are Vols. 1 and 2 of Venus And Mars Outtakes Are Alright Tonight, a rare and hard-to-find selection of rough cuts, rehearsal tracks and unreleased material from Wings' sessions for the album of the same name, first pressed by bootleg label Starlight Records in 1990 and subsequently released on CD by equally shady German record label No Pig International in 2005. Have a listen, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Various Artists - If I Were A Carpenter


My son had his thirteenth birthday this past weekend, the last of my children to hit their teens. We tried to make it a memorable one; we booked a few hours at a local paintball facility, and he invited about a dozen of his friends to engage in birthday-related combat at the outdoor arena there, interspersed between intervals of pizza-eating, cake-cutting and present-opening. For almost all of the boys who attended, it was their first paintball experience, and after a little initial nervousness, everyone really got into it. All in all, it was an outstanding afternoon, one that I hope my boy and his friends will always remember.

Thirteen seems to be a big birthday milestone culturally, bar and bas mitzvahs notwithstanding. It's a transitional birthday, the day supposedly when the world starts opening up for you, and you're no longer considered a "boy" per se. and also the time (at least for me) when you begin to notice things in your life changing. What may have looked steady and seemingly eternal when you're six or eight - home, friends, family - suddenly all of that seems to be in flux with the advent of your teenage years.

With my son's big day come and gone, I can't help but reflect back on my own thirteenth, so many years ago. I remember it well - at the time, it was the best birthday I ever had, and one of the best days of my life. But in hindsight, it definitely and clearly marked a point when things shifted in my own life, and a major presumption of my boyhood fell away.

But first, let's go back a few years earlier . . .

As I've mentioned before, my dad was a career Navy officer, and as such we moved a lot when I was a kid, as his duty stations changed every couple of years. The first place we lived that I was consciously aware of was in Norfolk, Virginia, my fourth home by the time I turned three (Both of my parents were born and raised in Norfolk, and most of my immediate relatives - aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. - still lived in the city).

My family lived on Marlfield Drive in Crown Point Townhouses, a (then) brand-spanking new housing location along Virginia Beach Boulevard, midway between downtown Norfolk and Virginia Beach and close to Janaf, the most popular shopping center in the area. Every one of the hundreds of two-story semi-detached residences in this sprawling development featured heating and air conditioning, a fenced-in backyard area and storage shed, and other amenities considered "modern" and "cutting edge" for the mid/late 1960s. The front yards and sidewalks were immaculate, with young saplings in the front yards of each building at exactly the same intervals on every street. The place was definitely a cut above what was generally available in the Hampton Roads area at that time. As such, although Crown Point wasn't government or military housing per se, young military families flocked to the place, probably because the price was right and the quality was well above what could be expected for housing on one of the several Army, Navy and Air Force bases in the area. So the neighborhood was full of kids the same age as my siblings and I.

It must have been the summer of 1969 when Ricky, a new boy exactly my age, and his family moved in a couple of doors down from me. Ricky's dad was in the Navy as well, and had just been transferred to the Norfolk area from Minnesota. In addition to his mother and father, Ricky also had a older sister, Diane. As little kids do, we had no hesitation or trepidation regarding meeting and getting acquainted, and by the end of that summer we were inseparable friends.

Crown Point was bounded by Broad Creek to the west, wide open play fields to the south, and woods to the east. As such, there were multitudes of places there for children to play and explore, and Ricky and I were familiar with all of them. We would splash ourselves in the stinking mud on the shores of the creek, or go running pell-mell through the woods, swinging sticks at each other and playing "swords". At five and six years old, we thought nothing of walking several streets over to visit our other friends, or spending the entire afternoon far from our homes and our parents' sight, doing activities like climbing trees and balancing along high walls, locales and actions that would give today's parents (myself included) no end of anxiety. Looking back on it now, it seems amazing to me now how much freedom we had as little kids, and how much mischief and trouble we were able to get into.

Once Ricky somehow came upon a pocketknife, and he and I decided that it would be a good idea to "prune" the young sapling in front of his house with it. Well, "pruning" quickly turned into carving our names into the trunk, then stripping the bark off the tree, then eventually gouging at it. We had just about finished our "work", and were headed over to do the same job on the tree in front of my house, when Ricky's mother happened to glance out the front window to see what we were up to. Two six-year-old boys had managed to chop down all but about a two-foot stump of the tree! Both Ricky and I were sent to our respective rooms for the afternoon, and when his dad came home, he uprooted the pitiful remainder of the tree, never to be replaced. So if you ever find yourself on the middle block of Marlfield Drive, and wonder why one of the townhouses on the north side of the street doesn't have a tree in front of it, now you know!

Diane was already a teenager, several years older than Ricky, and her room was strictly off limits to her little brother and his pesky little friends - which of course made the lure of it irresistible to us. We sneaked into her bedroom several times when she wasn't around - not really looking for anything, but moreso just reveling in the "forbidden" nature and adventure of it all (if sneaking into a teen girl's room could be called that . . .). In only one instance did our surreptitious excursions into Diane-land bear fruit; Ricky and I discovered - and were genuinely shocked to find - MENTHOL CIGARETTES (horrors!) hidden away in the back of one of her bureau drawers! The main thing I recall about her room what her music collection, generally late-'60s/early-'70s AM radio fare, stacked in vinyl on the top of her bureau - Simon & Garfunkel, Bobby Sherman, Three Dog Night, The Hollies . . . and especially The Carpenters. Diane owned every Carpenters album then released, and had a big poster of the duo up on her wall.

Originally from Connecticut, Richard Carpenter and his younger sister Karen spent their teenage years growing up in Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Richard showed interest and promise at the piano at an early age, and in the mid-60s enrolled at Cal State - Long Beach to study music. Karen was more of a tomboy in her youth, but while in high school got into drumming, and by her early teens was considered good enough on the kit to play professionally. Richard formed his first band (without his sister), a jazz combo called the Richard Carpenter Trio, and had some local success, winning a "Battle of the Bands" competition at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966 that led to the group being signed by RCA. But the demos the trio recorded that year were deemed unsatisfactory and the label quickly dropped the group without producing them.

Later in 1966, Karen tagged along with Richard to a demo session he was participating in at a ramshackle L.A. studio. On a whim, the session producer asked the sixteen-year old to sing a few bars - to everyone's shock and surprise, Karen was fantastic; "This girl can sing!" The producer, Joe Osborn (a bass-playing member of the legendary and prolific group of top Los Angeles session musicians famously known as The Wrecking Crew) immediately signed Karen as a solo act onto his personal label, and in 1967 produced her first release, a single featuring two of Richard's compositions. Sadly, the record flopped, and the label went bust soon afterward.

With their recording life seemingly stalled, the siblings hooked up with four of Richard's old college buddies to form Spectrum, a sort of 'meh', generic jazz-pop combo with mild psychedelic trappings, that played in and around the Los Angeles area wherever they could find - everywhere from supper clubs to the Whisky a Go Go; just another one of hundreds of area bands trying to 'make it' in showbiz. Here's a sample of what Spectrum had to offer the world in 1968:


In the meantime, Joe Osborn was cool enough to let the Carpenters continue to use his garage studio to record demos to submit to record companies. In early 1969, they had the good fortune to have one of their demos heard by the founder of A&M Records, the legendary Herb Alpert, who liked Karen's voice enough to sign the duo in April 1969 (as "Carpenters", as opposed to "The Carpenters" - at the time they thought the former sounded 'cooler'). They immediately entered the studio to begin work on their debut album.

A&M gave the group near-total independence in the crafting of their first long-player, hoping to recapture some of the magic that Alpert heard on their demo. The disc, to be titled Offering, contained ten Richard Carpenter originals and three cover tunes - by the Youngbloods, Neil Young and The Beatles ("Ticket To Ride"). Richard's songs, written mostly during their Spectrum period, for the most part consisted of E-Z listening jazz-pop and Flowery-Powery fluff. In addition, Richard sings lead vocals on almost half of the record, with Karen singing lead on the other half - an arrangement they planned on continuing.

Offering was released on October 9th, 1969, and met with near-total critical and commercial failure. Their heavily-Spectrum influenced sound just didn't resonate with the general public. The album scraped along the bottom to the Billboard 200 for a few brief weeks, and only one song, the "Ticket To Ride" cover, charted, peaking at #54 on the Hot 100. By any measure, the group's first LP was a flop.

The Carpenters fully expected A&M to drop them, as RCA had done three years earlier, and by all rights in the cutthroat commercial landscape of the time, the label would have been justified in doing so. But Alpert, the label head, was fully invested emotionally and financially with the group, and as such he was determined to help them succeed.

To that end, he took a more active role in the crafting of their second album - recommending (more like "insisting") on the inclusion of cover songs by more successful, established composers. During the recording sessions (which began in late 1969 and ran off and on through May 1970), Alpert pointed Richard towards several songs written by '60s pop giant Bert Bacharach . . . including an old Bacharach/Davis chestnut called "(They Long To Be) Close To You", a song that had been kicking around for most of the decade and recorded several times by various artists without appreciable success.

While the recording sessions were progressing that winter, Richard happened to be at home one evening, watching the tube, and came across a TV commercial for Crocker National Bank featuring footage of a young couple getting married and just starting out (of course, with the unstated implication being that Crocker Bank would be financing their progress):


The ad included an appealing theme song, sung by an unidentified vocalist, who Richard quickly guessed was a friend and fellow musician at A&M, Paul Williams. A couple of days later, Richard ran into Williams in the company parking lot, where he confirmed his guess as to the authorship and vocals, and also learned from his friend that he had written a full song, not just a commercial-sized snippet. Permission was granted to include the full-length version of the tune, called "We've Only Just Begun", on the upcoming Carpenters album.

Richard reworked all of the tunes by these outside composers. A&M released "Close To You" in June 1970, as a teaser single and table-setter for the upcoming album release . . . and it exceeded the label's and band's highest hopes. In a month, "Close To You" had vaulted to #1 in the nation, and it stayed there for the next four weeks, the Carpenters' first bonafide hit single and gold record.

While the single was riding high on the charts, the Carpenters' sophomore album release, also titled Close To You, came out on August 19th, 1970 to great acclaim, selling over two million copies in the U.S. alone. A month later, "We've Only Just Begun" was also released as a single, and like "Close To You" also shot to the top of the charts. On both hit songs, Karen served as lead vocalist, and also did so for nearly all of the album's song - an arrangement that would remain in place for the remainder of the band's career.

By the time Ricky and I entered elementary school together that year, the Carpenters were big time. At the 1971 Grammy Awards, the band was nominated in eight different categories, with "Close To You" winning for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance and the group itself being named Best New Artist. They released their third album, the eponymously titled Carpenters, in the spring of 1971. It was to be their most successful album ever (and their first to feature the celebrated band logo), making it to #2 on the U.S. album charts, selling over four million copies, and producing the #1 Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary hit singles (and soon-to-be pop standards) "Rainy Days and Mondays"(also #2 on the Hot 100), "Superstar" (#2), and "For All We Know" (#3). The Carpenters even had a short-lived replacement show on NBC during the summer of 1971, Make Your Own Kind Of Music, which I only watched a couple of times, as it came on opposite reruns of ABC's The Mod Squad (yes, as a little kid, my parents let me watch The Mod Squad . . . I used to watch all sorts of non-kiddie fare back then!).

Suffice to say, the Carpenters were all over the airwaves in 1971-72, in heavy rotation of all of the AM stations. In hindsight, it's sort of weird that in an era of turmoil - Vietnam, domestic terror groups, political assassinations and the like (with the Watergate scandal waiting just offstage) - this soft-rock duo and their music could be so universally successful and accepted . . . Actually, maybe it's not so weird; for some, in many ways. the Carpenters' poppy, soothing sound was a comforting throwback to music and vocals of a bygone, less frenetic age. So they drew in both old and young fans - including my friend's sister Diane. Although the poster was in her room, somehow I began associating The Carpenters and their music with Ricky.

In the summer of 1972, when I was eight, we moved away from Norfolk, ending up in Wisconsin for two years while my dad attended graduate school in Madison. I was thrilled with discovering all there was to know about a new place and meeting new kids, but still, I missed my best friend back in Norfolk. Ricky and I wrote one another constantly during my first year in the Upper Midwest; I told him about my new school and the new friends I had made; he told me about what was happening back at our old elementary school and about the old neighborhood kids we used to play with.

As big as The Carpenters were before I left Virginia, it was during my time in Wisconsin when the group became really huge. The band released two albums during that period, A Song For You in June 1972 and Now And Then in May 1973. Both albums went multi-platinum in the States, reached the Billboard Top Five, and between them spawned
seven songs that reached either #1 or #2 on the Adult Contemporary charts, five of which ("Hurting Each Other", "Goodbye To Love", "Sing", "Yesterday Once More" and "Top Of The World") also making the national Top 10. I remember for the Spring Pageant at my school in 1973, the third graders sang The Carpenters' "Sing", which had topped the charts just that March. By the middle of 1973, the Carpenters were the best-selling, most popular music group in the United States, and their songs were AM radio staples.

In the summer of 1973, during my dad's school break, we went back to Norfolk for a week to visit relatives, driving across Indiana and Ohio, stopping occasionally at Stuckey's along the way for drinks and their famous peanut brittle (remember those places?), and listening to Carpenters songs on the radio practically the entire way there. During that summer vacation back in Virginia, I got to spend a glorious day with Ricky back at Crown Point. Just like old times, he and I played in the woods and in his front yard with some of my other old friends from the year before, like Craig & Paul and Marlena and her little sister Gee. It was loads of fun, and it felt like I'd never left. It was one of the more magical days I'd had in my life up to then - to paraphrase a Carpenters song that was a big hit during that summer, it really was 'yesterday once more' . . . and despite the time and the distance, I knew that Ricky remained my best friend, and always would be . . . at least that's what I thought.

Shortly after my family returned to Wisconsin from our Virginia vacation, Ricky's dad received transfer orders to a new duty station, and later that summer they moved to Massachusetts. Ricky wrote me to tell me of the news, and during the latter part of 1973 we exchanged several letters, telling one another of our new lives, friends and adventures in our current towns.

Then, late in the winter of 1974, I sent off a letter to Ricky . . . and a week or so later, it was returned, marked "Addressee Unknown" - which, needless to say, was weird. I quickly sent off another letter to my friend, apologizing for taking so long between replies and explaining the curious case of the previously returned letter. But that one too came back a few days later, also marked as undeliverable. Worried now, I got permission from my parents to call Information, to see if his father had a phone number registered with them. But no luck - there was no such listing under his name in that area. Ricky and his family had seemingly disappeared, and without a forwarding address or any contact info. I was heartbroken, but also determined to find him - after all, we were best friends.

Thus began my multi-year quest to discover the whereabouts of my buddy. For the next three-plus years, the mission of my young life was to discover where Ricky was - no mean feat in a time without search engines or social media or online people finders, like we have nowadays. I had to make do with the tools and methods of the time, as primitive as they were. Public libraries used to have rooms full of local phone books from across the nation - mainly for the large urban centers, but some smaller communities as well. At every library I visited in my travels, I scoured those White Pages, searching in vain for Ricky's dad's name. I mailed letters to addresses that I thought were close to his old "addressee unknown" one, a couple of numbers above or below his street address, hoping for a response containing any news regarding their erstwhile neighbor - I never received any replies. I also tried contacting every military base I could find in Massachusetts, then New England as a whole, trying to find out if Ricky's dad might have worked there - again, no responses. I even found an advertisement in the back of Boy's Life magazine, claiming to be a "People Finder" service that could find the location of anyone - I quickly sent the address some of the money I had saved from my paper route, hoping for good news. After three months, I received a letter from the company with several random addresses across the nation for people whose name were similar - but not identical - to my friend's father. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.

But still I persevered, continuing my search, past our move from Wisconsin to Maryland in 1974, through 1975 and 1976, and into 1977 - hoping against hope that I might find Ricky again someday. Now, this might not seem like much time now, at our current respective ages (I'm assuming that most of you reading this are well along in years . . . ) - but when you're eight/nine years old, three years is an eternity. Yet I stuck with it, and never lost faith in my quest.

. . . I would sometimes imagine what the day would be like when I finally found him, what our reconciliation would look like. We would meet up somewhere, either his house or mine, or maybe at a restaurant, and at first sight on one another we would shout, laugh and approach each other to shake hands, while someone like my dad or brother would say something like "The best friends are reunited once again!" Then we would run off to play somewhere, and everything would be just like it was years before - of that I was certain.

While I was doing all of this during the middle of the decade, the Carpenters' hit machine was began to wobble a bit. Changing music styles may have had something to do with it. However, a more likely cause were the constant demands on the duo and their relentless touring schedule; it began to take an obvious toll on the siblings. Karen began to obsess about her appearance; her weight fluctuated wildly, and eventually she developed anorexia nervosa. Richard was under constant stress to come up with that next chart-topping hit; he started taking Quaaludes to calm himself, but quickly became heavily addicted, frequently dosing himself into a semiconscious state.

The Carpenters did not put out an album in 1974, the first time since their 1969 debut that they didn't have an annual LP release, and the first clear indication to the public as to where their heads were at. Their next record, Horizon, was released in the spring of 1975. The album cover is particularly telling; you can literally see the exhaustion in Richard and Karen's faces. It was the group's first album in five years not to make the Top Ten. There were two big hits off of Horizon; the first was the Richard Carpenter-penned "Only Yesterday" - the final Carpenters song, and final original tune, to reach the Billboard Top Ten. The second hit was a cover of The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman". From that point onward, the group's increasing reliance on cover songs would be a sign of things to come.

Their next album, A Kind Of Hush, came out in June 1976. Of the ten songs on this disc, only three were Richard Carpenter originals; the rest were covers of songs by Herman's Hermits, Neil Sedaka and Barry Manilow. By the time of this recording, Richard was a full-blown addict to downers, and that undoubtedly affected his output and production duties, which led to the album's underwhelming performance. Despite having two singles (the title track and "I Need To Be In Love") reach #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts, A Kind Of Hush was the first Carpenters album since their debut not to achieve platinum status, and it charted well below its predecessors. The album was released on the cusp of a full-blown disco craze in the U.S., and entering 1977 the Carpenters signature sound was becoming increasingly dated and not to the general record-buying public's taste. The group entered the studio again that year determined to reverse this trend by including more modern, experimental sounds in their music. Their efforts were hampered somewhat by their long-term reliance on their signature formula, and by Richard's continuing drug dependency. But as the year progressed they soldiered on, trying to make it - something - work.

By mid-1977, my family was making a change as well - we were moving again. My dad's tour at the Naval Academy was winding up, and a new position awaited him at a Naval Air Station on Massachusetts' South Shore. My folks went up to the new location a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to leave Annapolis to do some house-hunting, while my grandmother came up from Virginia to watch over us kids while they were gone. Of course, I asked my dad to keep his eyes open, to see if he ran across any signs of Ricky's family, as that area was their last known location. I wasn't really expecting anything - it was more or less just a hope.

So I was jolted when I received a phone call from my dad a few days later - he'd found them!

On his preliminary check-in at his new duty station, my dad discovered that Ricky's father was still deployed at the base, so he looked him up and spoke with him one evening. They were still living in the same house they moved into three years earlier; it seemed that the post office had misdirected my letters to them in 1974 due to some faulty/erroneous information they had on file. I had assumed that he had changed addresses, and therefore never tried to write to his old one again after those two letters came back to me. And by the time this postal faux pas was discovered and Ricky tried to respond to me with this news, we'd moved away from Wisconsin, so his letters to me were also returned as undeliverable. Government bureaucracy was therefore the cause of all those years of childhood angst! In any case, plans were made for Ricky and I to meet up in a couple of weeks, when we moved to the state - my birthday was shortly after our scheduled arrival time there, so it seemed like the perfect time to reunite.

We motored up from Maryland to Massachusetts in mid-July 1977, in the midst of a blistering heat wave, finally making it up to temporary family quarters at the air station that evening, as my parents weren't scheduled to close on the house they had chosen for a few more days (just as we settled into our rooms that night, we learned that New York City, the place we'd spent a miserable, sweaty afternoon crawling through on our way up north, had just been hit by a citywide power outage - we just missed being plunged into the middle of the Great New York Blackout of 1977 by mere hours). A day or two later was my birthday party; my parents had made reservations at the Ponderosa Steak House in nearby Hanover. On the way there, we picked Ricky up from his home nearby, the first time I'd laid eyes on him in nearly four years.

The guy who climbed into the Dodge van that day looked a lot different than the kid I'd known back in Norfolk - like me, he was no longer a little boy, but just a gawky tween, on the cusp of being a teenager. But to me, at that moment, he was still good ol' Ricky, and he grinned broadly as he settled into the middle seat of the van, next to me. I stuck out my hand, and he shook it warmly as my family looked on, and over the driver's seat my dad said, "The best friends are finally reunited - at last!", just as I'd always dreamed someone would say at that moment. Three years of diligent, focused effort had paid off, and that instant, that handshake, was by far the best moment in my life up to then.

We all got steaks and burgers at the Ponderosa, everyone gave me presents (Ricky brought one along too), and the wait staff brought out a little birthday dessert with candle on it for me at the end of the meal. Ricky and I sat next to each other at the restaurant and told the stories of our lives over the past four years - new schools, new friends, new activities and adventures. We talked about the old times back at Crown Point and our old friends there, many of which had long since fallen by the wayside. Despite the passing of time, it still felt as though the old connection was still there, and I was glad for it. After the dinner party was over, we drove Ricky back home, and we made promises to see each other again soon, and keep in touch once the school year started.

We called one another a couple of times during the summer break, and made plans to meet up again. But those plans always seemed to fall through for one reason or another. I wasn't too worried about it, though - we made promises to hang out at some point in the coming months. But those promises quickly fell by the wayside as the summer ended and classes began. I guess we both got busy, with me settling in to my new surroundings and all, and Ricky doing his thing. My family ended up living only a couple of towns over from Ricky's, but far enough away to make it inconvenient to visit. As the weeks and months progressed, we contacted each other less and less. As Halloween approached, Ricky faded more and more into the background of my life.

During that fall, the Carpenters finally finished their "modern, more mature" album, titled Passage. The group made their last major run at the '70s charts later that year, with their cover of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" (Klaatu was a Canadian prog-rock group of middling success, nowadays remembered mostly due to the rumor at the time that they were actually The Beatles secretly recording under a pseudonym).


Although the song was a major hit in the UK, it stalled at #32 here in America, and the album was the first by the band that failed to reach Gold status (500,000 copies sold). The group's glory years were pretty much at an end.

About a year or so later, I went with my parents to Hanover Mall, to check out the wares in Musicsmith and Booksmith while they visited some of the other stores there. While browsing through the racks, I was surprised to hear someone call my name; I looked up, and there was Ricky. If he hadn't have said anything, I probably wouldn't have recognized him - it had been that long. Anyway, I said "hi" back, and we chatted briefly, but to this day I can't recall anything specific that we talked about; it was all pretty inconsequential. We were both polite to one another, if a bit reserved. We didn't make any plans to hang out or meet up again later; in the end, we shook hands and sort of said "see ya", and both wandered off in our separate directions. Before I walked away, I recall turning and watching him leave, and feeling like, "Well, that's that . . ." - the old, intense friendship and devotion of our youth was fully gone, leaving just two geeky teenagers, now strangers to one another, trying to make it through the rest of their lives.

That was the last time I saw Ricky as a youth, and the last I knew of him for many, many years.

After the release of a compilation album and a disc of Christmas standards in 1978, the Carpenters went on a two-year hiatus while Richard and Karen left the music scene to battle their respective illnesses/addictions. Seemed sort of fitting that a strong link to my childhood would begin to fade away at that particular time . . .

The duo regrouped in 1981 for another album, Made In America, which was tepidly received; the album sold less than 200,000 units, and the three singles released from the album made little headway on the charts. After a short tour to less-than-capacity houses in support of the disc, Karen returned home to seek further treatment for her anorexia, which in the end was unsuccessful. During a visit with her parents, on February 4th, 1983, she was found unresponsive in her bedroom; her anorexia had led to extremely low weight and associated complicating health factors that led to heart failure. She was a month shy of 33 years old when she died.

Even during their early Seventies heyday, The Carpenters were scorned and widely dismissed as inconsequential by a vast majority of the record-buying public, and generally, their music was critically derided as formulaic AM-radio pap. This critical dismissal of their being too syrupy, bland and "white bread" continued even after Karen's death, and that assessment was assumed by the industry to be the final word on the duo until the late '80s.

On January 1st, 1989, CBS aired The Karen Carpenter Story, a biopic of her life and untimely death. To the network's surprise, not only was the program the top-rated program of the week (41% of U.S. households tuned in), it also became the highest-rated two-hour TV movie of that year, and was the third highest rated such program on any network during the ENTIRE 1980s. The show sparked a resurgent interest in the group's music, with sales of Carpenters albums skyrocketing by over 400 percent in the two weeks following the broadcast. And it marked the advent of a serious critical reassessment of their art and the Carpenters' place in music history. From The Life of Karen Carpenter: Little Girl Blue, the author Randy L. Schmidt wrote:
"There had been more than twenty years of jibes and sneers - two decades of dismissing even Karen's best recordings as bland, homogenized, and saccharine sweet - but with the airing of this low-budget dramatization, prejudice against the Carpenters' recordings began to fade, revealing an extraordinary change in perception... At times, it seemed almost cool to like The Carpenters. "Maybe it's just an overdue appreciation of a singer who, despite some terrible material, always had a pure pop voice," wrote Stephen Whitty in an article for the San Jose Mercury News. "Or maybe it's simply a twinge of '70s nostalgia. For baby boomers in their twenties, 'Close To You' was part of their AM radio childhoods..."
Schmidt nailed it with that last line. What the critics never seemed to take the time to understand was that the Carpenters were ingrained in the early years of many baby boomers, and their music was part of the soundtrack of our youth. Even now, a Carpenters tune is a reminder for many of us of a more almost-carefree time for kids, when playing with your friends outside all day was standard and being allowed to ride your bike on the neighborhood streets was a big deal . . . when Halloween and Christmas were HALLOWEEN!!! and CHRISTMAS!!! . . . when you could walk to school through the woods and wander far from home without being afraid or causing your parents undue anxiety . . . when families, friends and people actually interacted and engaged with one another face-to-face, rather than through a smartphone screen or not acknowledging anyone at all while constantly searching the web. Even in that age of political scandal, gas shortages, economic worries and war - both hot (Vietnam) and Cold - most of those issues didn't really affect the lives of children all that much. Our memories from that time (at least mine) tend to focus on the fun times and good stuff, which the Carpenters were part of.

It seems that more than a few folks in my generation, now involved in the music business, felt the same way. If I Were A Carpenter came out in the mid-90s, part of a spate of tribute
albums to artists from the '60s and '70s (Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute To Roky Erickson; Encomium: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin; Hard To Believe: A Kiss Covers Compilation, etc.) released during that period. At first glance, you'd be forgiven if you looked upon this release as an alt-rock piss-take on the Carpenters; a bunch of hipsters doing ironic, tongue-in-cheek versions of these songs in a insincere, "This band is so uncool, they're cool now - and therefore WE'RE cool for doing this!" vein . . . until you actually listened to the music on this disc. Almost every band on this compilation approaches their reimagining of these classics seriously, respectfully and with heartfelt conviction. If there is any sense of eye-winking condescension present here, it's extremely well hidden.

Here's the song lineup:
1. Goodbye To Love - American Music Club
2. Top Of The World - Shonen Knife
3. Superstar - Sonic Youth
4. (They Long To Be) Close To You - The Cranberries
5. For All We Know - Bettie Serveert
6. It's Going To Take Some Time - Dishwalla
7. Solitaire - Sheryl Crow
8. Hurting Each Other - Johnette Napolitano with Marc Moreland
9. Yesterday Once More - Redd Kross
10. Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft - Babes In Toyland
11. Rainy Days And Mondays - Cracker
12. Let Me Be The One - Matthew Sweet
13. Bless The Beasts And Children - 4 Non Blondes
14. We've Only Just Begun - Grant Lee Buffalo
Richard Carpenter himself approved of this tribute and the artists involved in its making, even making a guest appearance on Matthew Sweet's cover of "Let Me Be The One". And he was sure that his sister would have been pleased and thrilled with it as well. "She'd like it for the same reasons I like it," he told HITS magazine. "The people involved thought enough of our music or her talent to take time out of their schedules to contribute, and that there continues to be, after all these years, so much interest in our music."

I picked my copy up at the old CD and Tape Exchange in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC sometime between 2006 and 2008.  I used to visit that store a lot, looking for bargain gems, and came across this during one of my visits - couldn't purchase it fast enough.

* * * * * * *

In early 2009, I received a Facebook message from out of the blue, from some guy stating that he lived near a kid with my name in Norfolk, VA in the early 70s, and who was wondering if that person and I were one and the same. It was Ricky - now known as Ric; the first I'd heard of him since that day in Hanover in the late '70s. I was glad to hear from him after so long, and in the following weeks we exchanged a series of messages telling one another about how our lives had progressed since our high school days.

Shortly after we reconnected, he invited me to a party he was throwing at his home near Boston. I drove up I-95 on a warm summer night, searching for a decent radio station and feeling more than a little anxiety and trepidation over my first meeting in over three decades with a guy who was now a veritable stranger, but who once was the best friend I had on this planet. Would it be weird? Would it turn out to be cool? What in the world would we talk about? I finally settled on the local oldies station, and listened distractedly to 'classic' rock and pop tunes from the '60s, '70s and '80s while I concentrated on the road and tried not to think about the destination and evening to come.

It turned out to be a wonderful evening, full of laughs and memories. Ric treated me like the guest of honor, introducing me to all of his friends and regaling them with our story. His dad also attended, the first time I'd seen him since I was nine, and he was still as nice and gregarious as I remembered. Everyone was cool there, and I ended up having a great time. I took my leave just after midnight; Ric walked me out to my car, which was parked around the corner. We chatted about nothing of note for a couple of minutes, then we shook hands warmly. As we shook, I couldn't help but recall another handshake between us, many years before, which ended up symbolizing something a lot different from what I thought it would - an ending, rather than a new beginning. Then I got into my car, put it in gear, and quietly headed for home.

I drove away from Ric's house pleased with the events of the evening, but also more than a little sad and regretful. I thought about what might have been if we had kept in touch throughout our youth, if there had been no break in communication. In an ideal world, Ricky and I would have, should have, been close friends throughout our lifetimes. I like to think that we would have gone on being long-distance buddies, sharing stories, thoughts and adventures into our teens, and as we got older meeting up for drinks or having occasional visits together with our respective families every once in a while - stuff like that. It's funny how seemingly the smallest quirks and vagaries - a missed appointment, a word said or not said at the right time, a misdirected letter - can have such huge consequences in our lives. The guy was once my very best friend, and if not for a random error, a slip in the vast machine that is our postal system, he might have very well remained so. But who can really say? All I know is that it would have been nice to have had that opportunity.

About halfway home, I flipped on the radio, which was still set on the oldies station. Now, what I'm going to say next sounds like bullshit, the contrived ending to a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie, and you all have every reason to doubt this . . . but I swear to you all this is 100% true:

The song that was playing on the station at that exact moment was the Carpenters' "Close To You".

Kismet . . . the world is a very weird, odd and funny place sometimes.

In honor of Ricky/Ric (who, I might add, I remain friends with to this day) and our many years of acquaintance, I'm pleased to present to you all the If I Was A Carpenter compilation, featuring interpretations of the duo's classic songs by several alternative bands of the era, released by A&M Records on September 13th, 1994. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:

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