Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)

The reasons are three-fold.

Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.

Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.

Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.

Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993.  A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.

Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.

Which brings me to the Rock Hall…

If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.

Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”

So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?

My Favourite Soul Obsession… or … Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’

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Let me start by saying that all the kudos going to Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff for last year’s outstanding albums is well deserved. However, it isn’t like old-school soul music was just rediscovered in 2015 and brought forward again. Some people out there have been carrying that torch for quite a while, and have been criminally overlooked by all but the deftest of music connoisseurs.

One of the most obvious examples of this comes from Raphael Saadiq and his outstanding 2011 release Stone Rollin’. Formerly of Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq has put out a series of great solo records since the early 2000’s that highlight influences from various ‘soul’ capitals from Memphis to Detroit. What makes him a little more unique is that he pulls these sounds together with his own style. However, rather than the familiar hooks of the MG’s or the layered gospel harmonies of Motown, he wears the smooth styling’s of early 70’s Stevie Wonder crossed with the understated guitar work of Funk Brothers Robert White. Saadiq is definitely churning out classic inspired R&B and using familiar themes in the process, but you can’t help feeling you want to hear more as the record concludes.

It looks to be still in its first pressing, so the bonus CD still comes with the vinyl when you find a copy. However it is likely that you’ll need to order a copy online or from your local retailer to get a physical copy, or of course, there is always the download route. Give it a listen and I’m sure it will become your favourite new music obsession.

Give Me Crap If You Must… or… Temple Of The Dog – Eponymous

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Right now… as I’m writing this, I’m feeling an epic moment of personal nostalgia. Looking over at a recently purchased purple piece of vinyl spinning on my turntable I can’t help but reflect back nearly twenty-five years. Usually when someone says that an album changed their life it is pure hyperbole. It is something said by someone to say they connected in a deep way to a certain record. In my case it literally shaped my entire university experience and the lifelong friends I made.

Let me explain. In the summer of 1991 I found myself really getting into an album that almost no one had heard of – Temple Of The Dog. Remember, this was before Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger; before Pearl Jam had released Ten and even predates Nirvana’s Nevermind. Hell, Soundgarden’s most commercial song to this point was probably “Big Dumb Sex” which had Chris Cornell screaming fuck enough to get the old “explicit lyrics” sticker on the front of Louder Than Love.

As school resumed in September I had started taking a film course and was regaling a new acquaintance on the perfection that was Temple Of The Dog. After a few moments, he interjected with… “Why don’t you review it for me?” I must admit, I was more than a little dumbfounded and probably had that “um, yeah, um, ok” look in my eyes until he explained that he was the entertainment editor at the campus paper. The next day I showed up with a hand written review and from that point on, I became an arts critic during a very interesting time in the musical universe.

Little more than a month after that conversation Pearl Jam was playing an industry gig at the Rivoli in Toronto. Trust me when I say this… the Rivoli is small, very frickin’ small. Ten had been released, but no one was caught up in it yet, and I retold the story again to my friend trying to sell him on the idea of an interview. Mike, who has a bit of a poker face, didn’t seem to think it would be a problem. It would be the first time I would stick a microphone in front of a band, so I was a little nervous and started checking my schedule the next day. My memory at this point gets a bit fuzzy on certain details, but what I remember with absolute clarity is this – I had an exam the morning after the interview. So I returned to Mike and let him know I wouldn’t be able to do it. Casually… between two friends, I cancelled an audience with Pearl Jam before they were “PEARL JAM.”

It wouldn’t be until the next summer I’d do my first interview with The Skydiggers, and from there I did have chats with a lot of great bands. Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Cracker and the Lemonheads all come to mind. However… um…, what can I say? I did well on the exam.

Now many years later I found myself searching for a vinyl copy and apparently it is a very hot commodity. Discogs has selling the original 1991 LP for $1000 USD with the average of past sales coming up at over $200 and a recent sale over $500. The same record made in Europe goes for a much more reasonable $80.

That same year a limited edition picture disc was released but I couldn’t find any for sale to fix a price point.

In 1992, with the success of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the album was given a huge push behind the release of the single “Hunger Strike.” Several European editions were released on red vinyl and all seem to go between $50 and $100.

Eight years later, a vinyl reissue hit the market on clear vinyl that has a history of selling under $50.

Jump to 2013 and Music on Vinyl did a complete remaster of the record on 2 pieces of black 180 gram vinyl with an etched side 4. Simultaneously, they also released a limited edition hand numbered purple LP set. A&M also reissued the record on a single red platter.

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Finally, last year, Music on Vinyl reissued 1200 copies of the purple set on 180 gram vinyl to be sold through Newbury Comics. The two, while described as purple, are differing shades, making it slightly cooler than the last batch. However… it seems to have already sold out. You can find copies through Discogs or e-bay for under $50 USD, or just grab the regular black vinyl which is still widely available at the usual retailers.

The Ultimate Rock ‘n’ Roll Smoothie… or Dressy Bessy – King Sized

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When I was a child sitting cross legged on the floor watching Saturday morning cartoons mere inches from the TV screen, I was obsessed with fun songs. The show didn’t seem to matter as much as the cool theme in front of it. The sounds of Speed Racer, the Banana Splits, Josie & the Pussy Cats, Scoobie Doo… even Hong Kong Phooey were running through my head as I raced up and down the street on my banana seat bicycle. Certain songs would just grab me by the cranium and shake themselves into my consciousness. Obviously, it wasn’t about some deep emotional connection; there was just a gut instinct that made me want to jump, shake, run, ride, and sing even if I had no talent at such things. They just put a smile on my face.

Fast forward a few decades and some bands continue to pull that out of me. Dressy Bessy is one of those groups. They just allow me to spend a bit of time in a ‘happy place’, and their new album King Sized is another notch in a good time measure stick.

First you have Tammy Ealom, whose vocals could be compared to the more fun version of the Breeders Kim Deal. Then you get John Hill whose rhythm guitar jangle from Apples In Stereo takes the lead with Dressy Bessy. What you get is joyous mix of power-pop, indie and 70’s – 80’s pub rock, all tossed into a blender and arriving in your speakers as the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll smoothie.

Lead single “Lady Liberty” suggests that life is just too damn short to live with negativity as Ealom sings “there’s no room for angry people / trying hard to get along / there’s nothing if not taking role, folding cards / if only Lady Liberty could say it all / I’ll bet she would.” Sure, there is a message, but it’s subtle and comes out in rainbow coloured bursts. Even empowerment tune “Get Along, Diamond Ring” with Ealom’s protagonist exclaiming “don’t give, give me, give me no diamond ring – ‘cause I don’t want it” isn’t angry as much as a simple statement given with rolled eyes and raised brow; a boundary not to be crossed.

Fact is, while Dressy Bessy is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, they’ve been on my bucket list for most of those. Between their music and videos I get the impression it would be an awesome experience.

Unfortunately, a decent fan base south of the border hasn’t translated into any visits north. Hopefully King Sized will afford them the opportunity to play NXNE festival in June, or even better, a solo spot at one of T.O.’s (Toronto) smaller venues…, because… well… it’s one show I would want to be near the stage for.

 

King Sized will be released Feb 5th

Warning: This album might make kids want to form a band… or Hinds – Leave Me Alone

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It doesn’t hurt to have hi profile friends (Black Keys, Libertines, the Strokes, Black Lips) and to be opening for some very popular bands. Then to get major label distribution (Sony) so that your music gets promoted and is easily available once the word is out is even better. However, the only thing that will really result in lasting appeal are a great bunch of songs. You either write them, have them written for you, or have things crafted so densely under production that singing the dictionary sounds like a hit ready for the mini-pops to cover. The later is usually what you see when youth get major label money and the results are generally fan bases popular amongst the pre-teen kids waiting for the next single by Selena Gomez or Cody Simpson.

It isn’t often that you see the exact opposite play out, but ‘holy crap’ it has and the effort has produced an outstanding record. Riding out of a sunrise with a sound that crosses the lo-fi glory of Sebadoh with the energy of the 5.6.7.8’s and the dreamscape of Best Coast, Hinds have created an LP that can relate as much to early rock ‘n’ roll as it does to modern alternative/indie sounds. All that and they’re still on an indie (with major distribution).

What is most appealing with Leave Me Alone are the moments that have the dual vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote playing off one another in a playful case of a mutual admiration society. The album opens with “Garden” which has them teaming up with vocals that are not the usual ‘call and answer’ or traded lines found in duets as much as a ‘sing-a-long’ jam with friends just having a great time. Live you often see bands have these moments but capturing it in a studio environment is rare. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they pull it off on a full albums worth of material.

Hinds do have a few tunes that capture the whole ‘dark and brooding’ thing, but their overall enthusiasm seems to jangle right past despair with a good nod and a wink. Thing is, it’s really hard to be in a negative mood listening to Hines… like a good friend they show up when you’re down and say nothing more than “get off your ass and let me buy you a drink” and everything feels better.

Great rock ‘n’ roll records don’t have to be complicated affairs. They don’t need to have producers with a track record, a billion dollar studio, or a video directed by a Hollywood ‘A list-er’. Leave Me Alone is a reminder that great music can come from kids with nothing more than the standard guitar, bass and drum mixed with a few crappy amps and a willingness to let the songs speak for themselves. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a few kids will hear this record and start bands of their own, and that would be about the highest compliment any band can get.

Beck… without the Beck? Or Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Soundtrack

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Writing songs for fake bands can turn out some pretty good tunes. The Monkees and Spinal Tap built careers around that shtick, and let’s not forget the memorable Citizen Dick in Singles and… well, it’s a very long list. One of my favourite is Sex Bob-Omb from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While I admit to being a fan of the movie, it’s the soundtrack that I became pretty obsessive over for a few months back in the day. First it contained that awesome Plumtree song “Scott Pilgrim” that had originally inspired the books. Then you had some top notch Canadian content with Metric and Broken Social Scene stealing their… um, scenes; by appearing as rival band Crash & the Boys. However, it was the Beck songs written for Sex Bob-Omb that had my son and I singing along on the summer road trips.

By writing garage inspired tunes for a fictional act, Beck took a step back towards a more lo-fi sound and created an EP worth of memorable tunes. The energy and enthusiasm expressed in the soundtrack material was similar to what had drawn me to Beck on Mellow Gold. It was playfulness with words mixed with catchy hooks and surrounded by pawn shop guitar sound. (Seriously folks, check out Beck’s live appearances with that wonderful cheap piece of shit 60’s Silvertone. The sound is raunchy, broken and incredibly brilliant. Honestly, I own one myself and love it.)

With the deluxe edition, you get both the Sex Bob-Omb recordings and Beck versions. While the two are quite similar to one another, Beck has a nonchalance in the delivery that allows lines like “Jesus in the rear view / and the highway patrol is up ahead / in my garbage truck…truck” to move past silly and into ‘fun rock-out’ territory. Unfortunately, ‘deluxe’ was digital download only, so the extra three Beck recordings are not on vinyl or CD.

The original vinyl pressing from 2010 was on red translucent wax. Due to demand, there was a 2013 reissue that is identical to the initial release. You can still find copies out and about at record retailers, so don’t go nuts in the reseller market and pay ridiculous prices.

Being a Beck fan, I picked up the LP and just bought the three extra tracks from itunes. It isn’t my usual thing, but when your kids are singing along to your ipod mix on the trip to see the grandparents… well, it feels like money well spent.

Aimee Mann: She isn’t the Ramones… but she is pretty damn cool! (A first concert story)

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Back in university there was only one major thing I was envious about regarding my roommate/friend – his first concert. The first band he ever saw live was the Ramones; only the ‘coolest’ band to have ever graced the planet earth. Oh, you can mention ‘better’ or ‘more popular’ bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Smiths, the Cure, etc and so forth… but unless you can tell me you saw James Brown live at the Apollo, or the B 52’s in an Athens dive as your first show, he had you beat.

Of course, his first concert outshone mine easily. I’m embarrassed to say, but that first for me was in the freezing cold at Nathan Phillips Square featuring Platinum Blonde. Sure, there are many bands that could rank worse as a first show, and it wasn’t a bad night either, but “It Doesn’t Really Matter” isn’t exactly “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” A few years later, with one four year old at my feet, and another child on the way, I vowed to make sure that my kids would get a cool first concert; something ‘worthy’ of telling college roommates about in a childish game of ‘mine is better than yours.’

So it was that in 2008, a couple things had lined themselves up. Local record store Sonic Boom (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World filmed a couple scenes in there) had acoustic concerts every so often in the basement of their Bloor Street location. I attended a Nada Surf show with the ‘former roomy’ and when it finished I saw the bands singer/songwriter Matthew Caws hanging out with some kids. Not ‘kids’ as in a middle-aged definition of people of the teenaged variety… but honest to goodness children. Not being the most perceptive of individuals, it only dawned on me right then, that… well, um, a record store is a safe and… dare I add, perhaps even ‘cool’ place to see a concert.

!!!LIGHTBULB!!!!

Five months after watching Nada Surf, and barely 8 weeks after my second child was born a quick e-mail announced that Aimee Mann was going to be playing a set at Sonic Boom. Since the early 90’s I had become a pretty big fan of Mann’s music. She had put together a consistent string of outstanding records that caught a great balance between power-pop (Big Star), new-wave (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe), and the alt-rock scene of the times. Bachelor #2 was a staple in my house as the new millennium began and 2005’s concept album The Forgotten Arm seemed to be just more proof that she should be a household name. In other words, Mann had become an essential part of my life’s soundtrack. Alas, critical praise doesn’t always result in record sales. Of course, and from a purely selfish perspective, it also meant that seeing a ‘bucket list’ artist in a strange different style venue was about to happen.

So it was that during the early evening May 9th, 08 my wife and I took the boys out to see Aimee Mann. Needless to say, the youngest was in a car seat hanging out with my wife just in case he expressed any discomfort with the noise level. However, my 4 year old and I were sitting cross-legged in front of the small riser where he began to ask me a thousand questions about the small soundboard and the instruments on stage. He had a poster clutched in his hands and was smiling from ear to ear. Since his birth he had seen me playing guitar and singing songs and was now completely enthralled by the prospect of seeing a real music artist. Mann didn’t disappoint. Playing a few selections from @#%&*! Smilers, which was due for release a couple weeks later, she had everyone in a great mood. By the end of the set my son was convinced that Mann was the world’s greatest songwriter, and that she was smiling at him between songs. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was looking at where she was placing the capo on her guitar… and that the neck of the instrument was pointed in his direction.)

After the set, we waited around for about 30 minutes to see if we could get the poster signed. I’m not usually one for signatures, but I figured a momentous occasion like a first concert would be a great opportunity for my kids to have a keepsake. So we looked at the vinyl and cassettes which shared the basement with the stage, and kept an eye on the door for her exit. Unfortunately, whoever was interviewing her after the show was getting a really good chat, because she just never came out of the backroom in time for my son to get it signed. The baby needed to get home, and so we jumped into the rusty old minivan with a poster, our memories and a great first concert story.

Eighteen months later, my first born would get his second concert poster signed by a confused looking J. Mascis and a very gracious Lou Barlow after a Dinosaur Jr. acoustic set at Sonic Boom. (I mean come on, how many times do alt-rock legends get five year-olds walking up for an autograph.) Since then we’ve been to a bunch of small sets or shows. Both my boys (now just about to turn 12 and 8) enjoy going to shows at Sugar Beach where they can play in the sand before a band breaks into song.

Over the years, I’ve seen Mann perform a couple times, each time more impressive than the last and yet she still remains on my bucket list for a couple reasons. One, I’d eventually like to get to one of her annual Christmas shows. But, even more importantly, I’d like to have the kids go to a full concert that they’ll actually remember without daddy reminding them of when playing music on the stereo. When she last came to Toronto with The Both we were away on holidays and missed the chance. All joking about bragging rights aside, taking my kids to a concert isn’t about bravado, it is about bonding. Doing those things that allow memories to grow and be sustained.

So my old roommate has the Ramones… and that is pretty cool. But, on some future day when they’re at college and a friend asks “what was your first show?” both my children will be able to give a sly grin and reply – “Aimee Mann… and I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.” The older one can even add “and, it’s on youtube. You can see my dad and I on the floor waiting for the music to start.”

Thanks for the memory Aimee