Question: Why wasn’t this tune all over the radio? “American Son” is an INSTANT classic rock anthem. I knew it the first time I heard it. It’s all there—all the ingredients—the edgy bust your ass lyrics, funk styled bass and groove, brutal brass knuckles blues riffs, piston punching pre chorus, and nasty chainsaw wielding chorus. It’s just plain badass. There’s SO much great music out there it’s criminal that tracks like the Bihlman Bros. “American Son” don’t scale the white picket fence of musical mediocrity that often passes for top 40. By contrast, this track is a bellicose ballet on barbed wire.
“American Son” is uptempo take no prisoners power blues at it’s finest. Jabo Bihlman’s vocals are ballsy, lionesque, delightfully masculine. There’s depth and a musical quality to the wails and howls making it a raucous rodeo of melodic belligerence—and you ride that bull right out of the gate kicking and snorting. You’d better bring balloons to your cowboy hat at the ICU.
The intro riff is a slutty black fishnet wearing hook that you just can help starring at. And I mean that in the best possible way. The build up is the sound of a python ready to strike, slinky and uncoiling:
It’s a great open road tune that could ride shotgun with Steppenwolf’s“Born To Be Wild.” I weightlift and exercise to this song as well. It’s in my workout mix along with tunes from Slayer, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Megadeth, Henry Rollins (Rollins Band), Shadows Fall, etc. So for a band to be in there that’s NOT actually considered Metal, says something about the energy and intensity fermenting within this tune. It’s an unapologetic tornado of testosterone. I wouldn’t brush my teeth to it if I were you.
“American Son” is a track off their 2006 release also titled American Son. The Bihlman bros. are a Northern Michigan based power blues rock outfit consisting of Jabo (Jeff) Bilhman on guitar and vocals and Scot (Little) Bihlman on drums and backing vocals. Not little as in Gimli (Lord of the Rings), little as in younger brother. Both are alums of the famed Musicians Institute (MI) in Hollywood. Scot Bihlman is also an actor on the side. Here he is in the Burger King “Simpsonize Me” commercial a few years back. Scot is seated on a bench then morphs in Otto, the heroic headphone wearing headbanging school bus driver of Springfield:
The Bihlman Bros. have toured Europe and they also play in a band with Kings X frontman Doug Pinnick called Grinder Blues (remember the King’s X tune “It’s Love” off of their 1990 album Faith Hope Love?). They also won an Emmy for the soundtrack on the 2009 film Love N’ Dancing which starred everyone’s favorite Titanic villain Billy Zane along with Amy Smart and Tom Malloy. Seven tracks from Their 2009 album What U Want were featured in the film.
The breakdown from 2:46–3:28 on “American Son” is where Jabo and Scot get all quiet and you think you’re safe from the impending stampede of sonic bombardment. It’s a loaded freight train in the distance building up steam only to drown you in it’s deafening Doppler wave.
But you just know they’re going to build and kick you in the nuts again with the riff and still you’re defenselessly asking them please do so. It’s like a Fraternity you want to join to willingly get tarred and feathered like that initiation scene in the college comedy classic Revenge of The Nerds. You will endure the humiliation and beg until the Bihlman Bros. bring it again with the riff. It’s musical S&M of the highest degree. You will lick the Bihlman Bros. black leather boots…
Music Video for “American Son” (Union Street Station in Traverse City, MI):
Okay maybe I’m getting a little carried away here. “American Son” is such a rocking mix of kinky belligerence like a fine Joe Walsh riff, a guy who always plays straight from the hip. It feels a bit like The Eagles “Life in the Fast Lane” riff but sounds like you’d rather to drive a battle tank to it—over a sportscar. Are you with me so far? “American Son” could have been written in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s—it doesn’t matter. It’s a timeless and dateless anthem existing in that eternal jukebox in the sky. A sky with way more than 50 stars for everybody to enjoy the underlying current of this song’s collective primal freedom.
“New York City” is a gorgeous textural track off album Replay from The Outfield released through CD Baby in 2011. The album featured all 3 original members reunited after recording three albums together back in the 1980’s—back when MTV actually played music videos all day and had VJs (Video Jockeys) like Adam Curry and Martha Quinn (remember them?). Replay was also the final studio album from The Outfield as guitarist/songwriter John Spinks died of liver cancer in 2014. And not because of any “Jagger Level Lifestyle.” Spinks always made a point to separate The Outfield from the decadence and excess that plagued numerous bands stating in interviews they weren’t into smoking and drugs. Definitely a minority in a business that caters to extended adolescence with hall passes for juvenile behavior, and absolution of responsibility necessitating the periodic ass wiping for adults to keep the money train going. A business filled with SWAT teams (Special Wipeup Ass Team) of legal “Clean Up” specialists kinda like the Harvey Keitel character “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction. As a band The Outfield were more emotionally and psychologically mature and this can be “heard” and perceived in their music. “New York City” is no exception even though the lyrics in the last verse are about one of the most tragic moments in pop music history.
The Outfield were a band out of Manchester England, the prototype lineup of John Spinks, Tony Lewis, and Alan Jackman played together in an earlier band in the 70’s. Punk rock was on the rise in popularity in England at the time and the band called it a day. Guitarist John Spinks continued recording demos by himself and put a deliberately dumb sounding band name on them called “Baseball Boys.” He got the idea from a then recent film called The Warrior (like the Scandal song) which had a gang in it called The Baseball Furies. People he took the demos to liked what they heard and wanted to see the band live. Small problem—there wasn’t a band or other “boys” besides John. Spinks then regrouped (a true ‘Get the band back together’ Blues Brothers moment) with bassist/vocalist Tony Lewis and drummer Alan Jackman. After signing with Columbia Records, their manager suggested they pick a different (and less lame sounding) band name so they went with The Outfield.
If you’re a fan, you know The Outfield has a trademark signature sound that’s saturated with positivity. It’s a quality they have in common with bands like Toto, Boston, .38 Special, Journey, Mr. Mister (of whom Spinks was a fan), and Night Ranger. This holds still regardless of the subject matter of the song or lyrics which goes to show that intention does indeed come through in music. The Outfield toured with bands like Journey, Starship & Night Ranger so there’s also some truth to pairing bands by their vibe and the intention they put out. On the other hand, their positive vibe was why they wouldn’t have succeeded with a Punk audience in their early days and why they took a decade off in the 90’s when Grunge came crawling out of the woods near Seattle wearing OSHA approved lumberjack work shirts. While some of their British contemporaries The Fixx and Duran Duran were big in England and America, the irony of The Outfield was they were never really successful in their native England. But they were huge in the United States and have a decent fanbase in other countries like South America. Sometimes you really can’t control where your fans are or even if they speak the language your songs are recorded in, but fans are fans and music is the Universal language.
“New York City” evokes the sense of wonder and an aura of awe being inside a manmade canyon creates. I shuffle through memories looking out on balconies in several boroughs at the forest of skysrapers. I grew up a few hours from New York City and almost moved there—to Queens actually. I have friends from there: one who opened for Duran Duran and one who was an earlier drummer for The Beastie Boys when they were more of a Punk band. They played in bands that took the stage at places of the Ghost of Music Past like CBGB’s.
Certain songs are more “visual” in nature and it’s interesting to see what file cabinets of your life they’ll open. A lot of impressions come to mind when I listen to “New York City”, a song which I often listen to coincidentally on replay. A mixed montage of memories surfaces: Visiting my cousin when he lived in Brooklyn Heights watching the conga line of aircraft landing and taking off from his apartment that seemed hanging from some unseen ceiling in the sky. I remember being in Times Square and how it seems “smaller looking” in person. The slideshow in my head forwards itself further through cellular celluloid: Going to trade shows at the Javits Center, meeting a friend and hanging out in Park Slope, taking the commuter rail to attend Brazil Day in Manhattan; Visiting Little India in Jackson Heights and thinking of Adam Curry for some reason; Being in Grand Central Station as a kid for the first time; Navigating the NYC subway system which isn’t as clean or easy to navigate as the Paris (Metro), Berlin or London underground; Video taping a show at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, the same venue people like Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Simon & Garfunkel performed early on in their careers; Walking on Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously demonstrated her new anti–gravity dress (actually it was over a subway vent); Making the Punk pilgrimage to Queens, the home turf of The Ramones (there’s also a Ramones Museum in Berlin I found accidentally while doing photography around the city). I even toured MTV studios—but all I found were the chalk outlines of Adam Curry and Martha Quinn. Yes, video killed the radio star, and reality TV killed the Video Jockey. I do hope Adam Curry found a fortuitous post–MTV career as Daryl Hall’s stunt double.
Big yellow taxi’s
Driving over the fifty–nine bridge
Into a jungle
Where reality don’t exist
The lyric here refers to the Queensboro Bridge. Simon & Garfunkel also wrote about this NYC landmark in “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” which is better known by it’s chorus “Feelin’ Groovy” since they never mention the bridge directly in the song. Fellow New Yorker Billy Joel also filmed the video for his 1985 single “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” on the 59th Street Bridge. Superhero the Piano Man saves the day by preventing a teen from jumping off the 59 bridge or maybe he just wasn’t paying attention while playing Pokémon GO:
“New York City” starts off with a technique similar to the Genesis song “Follow You, Follow Me” then opens up into a kind of fusion Reggae groove. The intro also reminds me of a slower tempo cousin of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally.”Spinks was a skilled and underrated songwriter—writes great hooks, big catchy choruses and doesn’t overplay as a guitar player. Leaving space in a song allows it to breathe and engages the listener to a deeper introspective intimacy. The layered melody has elements of ambient music and the “echo” in the guitar line gives it a trailing off into the distance Doppler effect feel. This part of the guitar riff reminds me of an old school 1960’s British police siren responding to a shaken martini at the Bond residence or being called for backup for some Beatles stuck in a TARDIS after a hard day’s night.
“New York City” is an impressionistic pop song that turns multi–dimensional when inside your ears. There’s a brief solo and Spinks has the sensibilities of U2’s The Edge as he floats notes over the songs canvas with minimalist precision. The Outfield released the singles “California Sun” and “A Long, Long Time Ago” off of Replay but “New York City” is more than worthy to bounce off the ionosphere as well (that’s Shakespearean techie talk for being played on radio stations):
Spinks uses guitar textures to paint a spectacular laid back landscape piece. It nicely contrasts the *actual* pace of New York (land of the infamous New York Minute) as it’s more of a dreamy, almost aerial view of the city as the chorus lyric is “New York City, New York City, New York City, looks pretty at night.” The quiet beauty of a city seen from above, seen from a distance. I pair this lyric with images of taking off and landing at JFK, points of view from skyscrapers, walking at street level soaking up the skyline, the “solitude” of being on a rooftop with friends at night.
The final verse in “New York City” alludes to John Lennon—specifically his murder in the city he loved and hoped to become a citizen of:
No double fantasy
Someone just waved you goodbye
On a street corner
Your stairway that led to the sky
Spinks was very influenced by The Beatles and some production work on Replay was done at Abbey Road Studios. Double Fantasy was John Lennon’s last completed studio album. I remember hearing songs from this album as a kid as my brother really liked “Just Like Starting Over” so I heard it before I knew who John Lennon or The Beatles were. I always dug how John kinda morphs into Elvis in the beginning of each verse. Years later, I played the track “Woman” in a classic rock band, another single from the Double Fantasy album. Other notable singles from Double Fantasy were “Watching The Wheels” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”, a song Lennon wrote about his son Sean which also happens to be one of Paul McCartney’s favorite songs written by his former bandmate.
As John and Yoko were returning from the Record Plant Studio on December 8th, 1980, Lennon was shot in the archway of his residence The Dakota by a deranged fan who got an autograph from him earlier that day. Assassin Mark David Chapman actually flew to New York earlier that year in October to kill Lennon but for some reason decided against it.
The title of the song also merges with the last verse with one of the most famous pictures of John Lennon: Bob Gruen’s iconic photo from 1974 with John Lennon wearing a wife beater that said “NEW YORK CITY.”Gruen bought the shirt for 5 bucks from a street vendor and they tore off the sleeves. The photo was taken on the roof of Lennon’s 52nd Street penthouse. The irony being a simple cheap “homemade” shirt became way cooler than more expensive clothing with brand names and logos strewn and flaunted across them. It also showed how a famous person in a cheap T-shirt can itself become a T-shirt. The “New York City” photo was taken after Lennon returned from his “Lost Weekend” which refers to his separation from wife Yoko Ono. The “Lost Weekend” was in actuality a year and a half of partying with singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson (famous for the Grammy winning single “Everybody’s Talkin'” featured on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy) in southern California. Lennon came back to New York City to patch things up with Yoko and return to the city he came to love and embrace as his new home. It was this “New York City” photograph that Yoko chose to be the centerpiece at the vigil in Central Park following his death.
Although Replay was the final studio album from the original trio, The Outfield did write new material after 2011 which may be released in the future. Like any group, they probably have a backlog of “outtakes” and unreleased songs as well. John Spinks may have left the planet but the energy that was John Spinks still oscillates here in songs like “New York City” and thankfully we can still enjoy John and John both on Replay.
Consider me a card carrying member of the at large group that wishes Billy Idol released “Hole In The Wall” as a single. We meet in church basements (after White Weddings of course) periodically to discuss plans to preach this lost gospel to humanity because “Hole In The Wall” is a glamorously gritty rock gem from Billy and guitarist Steve Stevens.
“Hole In The Wall” is a track off Billy’s first stateside solo album called Billy Idol, released in 1982. Two singles were released from Billy Idol: “Hot In The City” got a good amount of airplay but “White Wedding (Part 1)” took the cake, pun intended.
“Dancing with Myself” was already released as Billy’s first single from an earlier EP in the US called Don’t Stop which also had his cover of “Mony Mony” by Tommy James & the Shondells. “Dancing With Myself” first appeared on the 3rd and last Generation X album Kiss Me Deadly (long before Lita Ford) back in England before the band broke up and Billy moved to the US. It then also reappeared on a later version of the Billy Idoldebut album.
Since Billy was a new artist stateside, there were actually 2 different versions of the 1982 Billy Idolalbum cover. The one I have has the cover pictured below with Billy wearing the black leather vest. The other has him wearing a print shirt looking like he’s modeling for JC Penney or a few years early for The Karate Kid auditions as it has elements of the Japanese flag in the design.
I got into Billy Idol because my cousin, a ballet dancer & painter, was really into him. Not surprising since Billy’s music is high energy danceable pop punk rock and not the chaotic mosh pit dance kinda punk where the high end and midrange went as AWOL from the mix like punks went from society—it’s all low end coming out of the speakers making a thick audio mud where you can see why one would need to dance in Doc Martens.
While my mosh pit days are behind me (still have all my front teeth and don’t need to claim I was a boxer or a pimp), I still love punk—and Billy Idol, like The Clash is intelligent well–written Punk; The Clash being more Thinking Man’s Punk while Billy was cornering the market on Feeling Man’s Punk. It’s also Dancing Man’s Punk for anyone who can perform rudimentary choreography to a 4 count without looking like they’re being electrocuted by a hairdryer in a bathtub or having a group session of Whac–A–Mole.
Being a kid, I was only aware of Billy Idol songs on the radio and his music videos which my siblings and I thought was funny to imitate his triumphant raised fist and media persona like a professional wrestler. It took years later when my older cousin’s enthusiasm caught up with me and I too found myself wanting more more more.
Like Billy, I also grew up in a place where dwindling geriatric industry and a bread crumb modicum of a better future left the youth to develop the juvenile delinquency of your choice. So of course I got in a Hard Rock/Metal band with a friend and other members from surrounding cities and towns.
It’s funny that our practice space was on Baker Street years before I actually walked on that street in London, home of Sherlock Holmes and which Gerry Rafferty (formerly of Stealers Wheel known for the tune “Stuck In The Middle With You”) wrote his song about.
My first band never went anywhere as our singer seemed on his way to having a drinking problem before we even had a record deal and before we were even out of high school mind you. Fortunately I avoided the carnage of drugs and substance abuse. So yes, not all punk fans have addictions, use drugs recreationally, or even look like punk rock fans. I do still have a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors though.
Topically “Hole In The Wall” is a song about drug use and addiction but then again plenty of drug songs became hits. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” isn’t talking about pills Major Tom required for his mission and the “Feed your head” lyric definitely wasn’t a PSA encouraging people to visit their public library.
“Hole In The Wall” refers to the time in his life when Billy and girlfriend Perri Lister lived in New York City and would buy drugs from a place in their neighborhood through a hole in the wall.
Aside from the street prescription inspiration and shady source material, art transmuted “Hole In The Wall” into an over the counter audio dose of Awesome:
The early Billy Idol albums were Billy with NYC guitarist Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey (who’s an underrated drummer). Forsey worked with producer Giorgio Moroder in Germany prior to his “American Idol” days.
Moroder & Forsey wrote songs for artists like Donna Summer and also wrote Flashdance with Irene Cara. From his apprenticeship with Moroder, Keith was the ideal producer for danceable punk. Forsey later went on to write “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for the John Hughes coming of age cult film The Breakfast Club in 1985.
BUT it was originally written intended for Billy Idol to sing. Billy turned it down and the Scottish band Simple Minds recorded it with frontman Jim Kerr injecting some sublimely elevated affectation on vocals.
It’s a defining song and film of the 80’s. I always loved that song especially the outro where the drums have a brutally crisp precision to the groove. Also, one of my friends’ jazz bands got permission to do an instrumental version of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” on their CD.
Steve Stevens is a guitarist with all the chops and bells and whistles of a Hair Metal Maestro but he always wrote appropriate to the song and let the song determine his parts. This is a skill onto itself not often appreciated or applauded as it should be.
Steve Stevens playing style with Billy Idol is not bloated with virtuosity—It’s got a howling heaping of edge though like Billy’s screams and yelling, perfectly suited for the Pop Punk style the pair pioneered on the airwaves and MTV.
But, if you don’t believe Steve can “go there” to Virtuosoville, just listen to some of his solo instrumental recordings. Steve is one of those über versatile collaborators with genres up the wazoo under his belt. Some added feathers in his Aqua Net were he played with Michael Jackson and wrote the Top Gun anthem.
In fact, visually Steve Stevens was kinda the Slash before Slash—all you saw was this ubiquitous umbrella of spiked black hair, where it’s like who needs makeup if no one can tell if you’re standing forwards or backwards anyway?
Let’s zero in on Billy’s yelling. Yes even before he wrote a song about yelling on the follow up album Rebel Yell, there was that signature primal punk roar. What strikes me about Billy Idol’s vocals is he’s very present in the microphone like Henry Rollins (Black Flag, Rollins Band) and David Byrne (Talking Heads, solo), some of his fellow generation Punk/Pop colleagues.
It seems the act of recording doesn’t diminish the fervor and visceralness of their singing. For instance, the outro on the Henry Rollins track “Tearing” always blows my hair back and spins my chakras like a pinwheel.
I also like how Billy always sounds nicely loose in his vocal tracks and from reading his autobiography Dancing With Myself, he mentioned how Keith Forsey would always tell him to “not forget to have fun in there” when he would go into the Iso booth to lay down vocals.
I’m sure Billy’s drug use during that time contributed to the looseness somewhat as well when it wasn’t impairing him from standing vertically. His autobiography is a precautionary tale though, as many musicians and celebrities that did the same dance with drug abuse didn’t live to write a book.
More so, how much more art and creativity could they all have accomplished and contributed if they didn’t have the fallout and obligations that accompany substance abuse? Does anyone think of that as a reason to get clean or not get involved with substance abuse in the first place? I suppose if you’re ignoring self–preservation in the first place, the higher self–actualization focus of health as part of greater creativity and artistic expression goes out the window as well.
Thankfully Billy survived and met his ideal musical partner when he moved across the pond.
Steve Stevens brought the metal flavoring to the Billy Idol punk sound developed with his first songwriting partner bassist Tony James in Generation X back in England. Billy wasn’t afraid to bring in dance and new wave to punk and Steve brought the Metal tap shoes.
The prechorus in “Hole In The Wall” (“We we’re such an ugly pair…”) has broken (arpeggiated) chords played with guitar textures that make one think Steve Stevens had a pint with Andy Summers at some point.
Both The Police and U2 were using string muting on riffs and chords as part of the style of early UK Punk influenced pop. U2 particularly on their track “New Year’s Day”, and The Police most famously with “King Of Pain” both in 1983.
I always loved how Steve Stevens got a “Wall of Sound” out of a simple power chord like in the prechorus first heard at the 1:02 mark. Those are just 4ths and 5ths but it builds a scorching sonic trampoline to the chorus.
The syncopation on the verse riff shows Steve’s penchant for accenting on the 1 for a more danceable groove than the traditional Rock ‘n’ Roll accent on the 2 & 4. The verse riff for “Hole In The Wall” is accented on the 1 and sightly before the 3, leaving space and atmosphere for Billy to weave his sordid tale of the cycle of withdrawal.
The interlude narration part (“It’s a move to take you through…”) has a muted riff which reminds me of the Neil Schon riff in the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” that ends with a bend before Steve Perry comes back in with “…A singer in a smokey room…”
Both songs start off muting the riff then lift the mute and fret the notes increasing the volume for a segue back into the verse. The opening/chorus riff is just delightfully abrasive and another example of how Steve Stevens writes meat hooks that keep your ears hanging on.
With Billy, Steve and Keith we had an ideal Musical Meth Lab, cranking out not crank but Addictively Fun Fusion Punk. It was a new experiment musically to see if America would dig it after the unsuccessful first wave of punk tour by The Sex Pistols.
History shows they fared better as the Statue of Liberty herself has a punk rock hairdo and was already raising her hand in salute to the pop punk invasion spearheaded by a Brit and a guitarist from Brooklyn with hair as black as the leather vests Billy wore.
And now you know about the Hole In The Wall…and the suspected punk who punched a hole in it.
When I was a kid my mother always played the radio in the kitchen when she was baking things. One of my favorite desserts was her recipe for “Peanut Butter Swirl Bars”—think Reeses Peanut Butter Cups with an increased decadence factor: LOTS of chocolate and peanut butter mixed in a wheat flour base then topped off with what else but chocolate chips. The batch was baked in a Pyrex glassware oblong baking dish then cut into brownie squares hot from the oven. With these squares, I didn’t stop at just one. I definitely was that dude who DID eat just one Lay’s potato chip (my kid civil disobedience to their advertising slogan “No One Can Eat Just One”) as my sister can verify. With the sugar/carb content of this favorite homemade treat, nowadays it would be a recipe for ADD—but for me it became a recipe for APP—the Alan Parsons Project.
The Alan Parsons Project was a “studio band” like Steely Dan with writers/composers Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson at the helm. They met in the cafeteria of Abbey Road Studios as both worked there; Woolfson as a session pianist, Parsons as an Engineer/Assistant Engineer. Although Alan Parsons worked with notable acts like Ambrosia, The Hollies, and Al Stewart, he firmly secured his place in recording history as Assistant Engineer (AE) on The Beatles albums Abbey Road and Let It Be. And if that isn’t good enough for Archangel Tapereel, Alan ParsonsWAS the Engineer on the classic Pink Floyd concept album Dark Side Of The Moon, which became one of the best selling albums worldwide and consistently ranks as one of the greatest albums of all time regardless of any self–congratulatory vainglorious revisionist history on the part of Kanye West. Another thing worth noting is how the iconic over art on Dark Side Of The Moon had to factor into the Alan Parsons Project album title Pyramid that the subject of this Closet Singles is about.
When I think back to being a kid, it was kind of strange how I loved listening to music but didn’t start buying it until later. Reruns of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry cartoons gave me my love for classical music (It’s not like my father was known to whip out the Stradivarius after dinner). I wasn’t even aware what genre of music Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry were grooving along to was called. I also used to draw all the Peanuts characters—Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Woodstock and others. I loved the Charlie Brown TV specials and had no idea what I was hearing was called “jazz” piano (outside of Schroeder’sBeethoven worship). Call it what you want, it was all just music to me. *Insert Tesla song here*
It was in this orange kitchen (unknowingly an optimal color to encourage appetite) where my ears were being fed without being relegated to “sloppy seconds” or “leftovers from the eyes” from watching TV in the living room. To this day, I’m still a radio junkie—I’ve since graduated to internet & international radio but still play local stations all the time at home and wherever I visit and travel. Maybe someday we’ll be able to get some extra–terrestrial stations and hear the “Proud Marys” of other civilizations which would be sent through space more powerfully than their more melodically dense & complex classical music thanks to the profit motive of commercial radio. Their entire solar system is probably tired of hearing their periodic NPR fundraisers as well.
Like one of my friends says, “We’re Ear People” meaning musicians tend to have hearing as their dominant sense (or one of their main dominant senses) and learning style. With me, it’s to the point I can hear higher pitches than most people’s range of hearing. My ear brother has the Rain Man savant skill of being able to approximate the dimensions of a room from hearing a clap in it over a phone. Too bad there’s no game shows or carnival openings for that.
In a sense we’re all “ear people.” That is, at least in utero. The French ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) Doctor and researcher Alfred Tomatis was known for the theory “The ear grows the brain” and that incorrect hearing is a primary factor in many conditions related to speech, learning and emotional health. His theories of hearing and listening are known as the Tomatis Method or Audio–Psycho–Phonology (yet another APP). Some notable musicians who’ve received treatment and benefitted from the Tomatis Method include Sting and Opera legend Maria Callas.
Hearing is the first sense that comes online in utero—the auditory input actually grows the brain. Sound is energy, sound is food. Music builds neural connections and enhances intelligence with exposure to increasingly more complex sound patterns. The brain on music is like “let’s arc weld some new neurons and have a conference call with the right and left hemisphere.” Listening to music is like that Pink Floyd laser light show going on inside our heads and leads to more whole brain oriented functioning. Musicians develop interstates as a Corpus Callusom (the band of nerves connecting the hemispheres of the brain) not the “Country Roads” biology gave us anymore. Guess what I’m doing now? Listening to music while I write—it’s perhaps the best compliment and springboard to any creative endeavor. The interesting thing is how other people seem to lose this auditory dominance once their sense of touch and sight become the “new toys” biology leaves for us under the Christmas tree of life.
Back to that orange kitchen. My mother was far from a punk rocker—her name is nowhere even close to Sheena. Then again Sheena Easton wasn’t a punk singer so maybe that Ramones song should be taken with a grain of salty tasting Doc Martens. The station she liked was a local independent AM/FM station that played soft rock and adult contemporary radio favorites until the next ice age. Mom didn’t ride a Harley (my music teacher on the other hand yes) nor was she rocking out to AC/DC like my siblings and I—and making up our own lyrics because we couldn’t understand anything beyond “Dirty Deeds…“
From that kitchen radio, my ear developed a fondness for the Alan Parsons Project, Toto, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan among numerous other bands and songs. I wasn’t aware at the time that this was some very well crafted popular music. I didn’t even find out what most of these songs were called until years later. Some of the songs I remember hearing during these kitchen table top ten sessions were “Hey Nineteen”, “Eye In The Sky”, “Africa”, “Minute By Minute”, “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number”, “Games People Play”, “What A Fool Believes”, “Rosanna”, “Don’t Answer Me”, and of course “Peg.” I wasn’t aware Steely Dan was considered jazz pop or the Alan Parsons Project was called Prog or Progressive music. Nor was I aware many of the same musicians played on these songs via the incestuous family of A list session musicians.
I just soaked up all these songs sitting at the kitchen table while drawing, making things out of modeling clay, building models, sorting baseball cards, or playing with my chameleon. My brother did like the Culture Club hit “Karma Chameleon” but neither of ours was named Boy George. We also thought the lyrics were “Come–a come–a chameleon…“ Flash forward to adolescence. It was here I started getting deeper into all these bands that I’d only heard a few songs from on the radio and doing “musical archeology” to catalog all these songs and bands I’d heard as a youth. Being a piano student, it’s cool how you can appreciate music on deeper levels with more musical knowledge—like how the main opening melody line in “Eye In The Sky” is in the locrian mode—rarely used in pop music (The song itself is in B minor). Alan & Eric snuck that in like 11th hour Congressional legislation.
Later on with bands I played “My Old School”, “Kid Charelemagne” & “Reelin’ In The Years” and in private would tear into “Peg”, “What A Fool Believes”, “Do It Again” and “Minute By Minute” as often as possible. As a teenager I started working as backstage/technical crew for an area dance company. Here I was exposed to even more kinds of unique pieces of music and compositions. When I heard something I liked, I’d ask what the song was and who wrote it. One show the dance theatre did choreography to the Alan Parsons Project instrumental “In The Lap Of The Gods” off the 1978 Pyramid album. I bought that album and it became my new favorite for quite some time. Even today it’s like visiting an old friend whenever I give it some ear time.
Pyramid is a concept album based on the Pyramids on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. It was nominated for a Grammy in the category “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical” in 1978, the same category Alan Parsons was nominated for years earlier with Dark Side Of The Moon. Deja Vu all over again—both albums having Pyramids in common.
Alan Parsons Project used several vocalists depending on the particular facet the song required. Their vocal stable read like a who’s who of United Kingdom pop singers. Among the Alan Parsons Project speed dial vocalists were Colin Blunstone of The Zombies (famous for the 1964 hit “She’s Not There”) and Scottish solo artist Chris Rainbow. Blunstone did lead on “Old And Wise” (Eye In The Sky) and “Dancing On A Highwire” (Amonia Avenue); Rainbow did lead vocals for “Snake Eyes” and “Gemini” (The Turn Of A Friendly Card) and “Since the Last Goodbye” (Amonia Avenue). Also of note, Gary Brooker from Procol Harum (known for the 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”) sang lead on “Limelight” off the 1985 album Stereotomy.
However, the two most well known Alan Parsons Project lead vocalists are the following:
Eric Woolfson—the “Jon Anderson” and “Sade” of Alan Parsons Project. Eric has the breathier more spiritually cosmic inclination and nuance as a vocalist. He sung on several of the APP’s most popular singles: “Time”, “Don’t Answer Me”, “Prime Time” and “Eye In The Sky”, the band’s most successful single ever. Another feather in the cap for Eric was “Closer To Heaven” (Gaudi) was used in an episode of Miami Vice.
Lenny Zakatek—the “Jon Bon Jovi” of Alan Parsons Project. Lenny sang the more uptempo rocking tunes like “One More River” on Pyramid and a few years later on another of their flagship tunes “Games People Play” off their 1980 album The Turn Of A Friendly Card. Lenny started out as a R&B funk blues singer with the British band Gonzalez who are best known for their 1977 disco hit “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.”
Alan Parsons & Eric Woolfson worked with a diverse group of singers and touched on so many different styles & genres they could’ve brought Gollum in for a session and made something precious. The lead vocalist on “Can’t Take It With You” was Dean Ford. Dean’s street pop creds originate with a band called Marmalade, which he co–wrote and sang lead on their 1969 hit “Reflections Of My Life.”Dean Ford is like a blended combo of Eric & Lenny for singing this more uptempo ethereal oriented prog rock tune:
Why “Can’t Take It With You” was never released as a single is beyond me. It could possibly have put the Alan Parsons Project on the mainstream map sooner than “Games People Play” and “Time” did. Another connection to Dark side Of The Moon here being both Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons Project had singles called “Time.” The Jukebox Hero in my head tells me the track “One More River” could have been released as a single as well. “Can’t Take It With You” has elements of new wave but in a much more orchestrated manner, the signature of APP style prog. And there’s just a great positive vibe throughout this tune like you’re on a karmic train ride through time.
The opening high pitch keyboard solo in “Can’t Take It With You” reminds me of Gerry Rafferty’s“Baker Street” off his album City To City which also came out in 1978 like APP’sPyramid. “Baker Street” is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B and also where one of Gerry’s mates lived. Rafferty’s“Baker Street” is perhaps best known by it’s signature haunting sax riff in A minor which structure wise, becomes a chorus—a chorus theme placement without accompanying lyrics. This hook even made The Simpsons in the episode called “Lisa’s Sax.”
The song’s subject matter pertains to non–attachment so even Buddha could rock out to a tune like “Can’t Take It With You.” I always liked the nicely metaphoric verse lyrics right before it transitions in tempo and the chorus musically and visually “opens the sky up” in the song:
But the boatman won’t be waiting
And he’s leaving here with you.
And the boatman’s getting restless As he stands upon the shore…
The “after” chorus (or secondary chorus) part creates a deep introspective mood with a motion. Although a bit hard to discern at first, the high range “chanting” vocals after Dean’s “Can’t Take It With You” chorus are “One more mile, one more road, one last bridge, one less load.” These are the same lyrics contained in another song on Pyramid, “One More River” sung by Lenny Zakatek. Such repetition of a theme is a hallmark of a concept album. Contrary to pop music teachings, you actually DO need an education to perceive this so pay no attention to that mantra on other Pink Floyd concept album The Wall.
“Can’t Take It With You” is an amazing song—great guitar riff, great groove, cool oozing bass line, nice counterpoint, hauntingly evocative vocal melody and arrangement, great chorus breakdown, well placed tempo changes that elevate and intensify tension and resolution, tasty thematic opening & outro solos, plus it’s 15 minutes less than most prog tunes. Why wasn’t this track a match made in Radio Heaven? I do my nightime meditation to “Can’t Take It With You” often. It’s in my iPod meditation mix of songs that are conducive to slower brain waves like alpha, theta and delta. And played on replay, it often gets me into a deep state of relaxation like a bubble bath for the brain. Actually, Pyramid is an ideal album for this in it’s entirety. The overall vibe of it is so relaxing I’ll often fall alseep listening to it with headphones. The other instrumentals “Hyper–Gamma Spaces” and the opening track “Voyager” are far from Pyramid filler as well—they’re solid tracks which create interesting vivid aural imagery.
So all those years ago as a kid I discovered how peanut butter and chocolate went great together. I also accidentally discovered how modeling glue and the Alan Parsons Project went well together too. Maybe that’s why I have boxes of model kits I never actually finished. Blame it on Testor’s model cement. As an adult, the Games People Play I plead guilty to would be taking a jolly good stroll on “Baker Street” in London, crossing the Holy sidewalk of Abbey Road and visiting Santa Barbara half hoping to bump into Alan Parsons as he lives there. Okay, so Santa Barbara, AKA the American Riviera, was also home to health pioneer Paul Bragg who was a big influence on my diet, health and lifestyle in terms of fasting and eating clean (pesticide, chemical & GMO free) Organic food. These days I don’t go near junk food, processed food, nor succumb to any of those dietary sins committed in my youth and college years (flashbacks of cheap instant Ramen noodles in styrofoam containers with a week’s worth of sodium in every cup). I’ve redeemed myself from Pop Tart purgatory, became a renunciant of the Reeses, and layed the Lay’s to rest. Good practice with the art of detachment because You “Can’t Take It With You.” The thing that hasn’t changed is I’m still a music lover and still love the Alan Parsons Project…and may never get out of rehab for mixing peanut butter and chocolate. Oh and one last connection to Dark Side Of The Moon: Same Bat Time Same Bat Channel, or adjusted for the recording arts, Same Track Time Same Track Channel—Both albums were recorded by the same engineer and in the same recording studio—Musical Archeological proof that Pyramid builders originated from Abbey Road.
Major Earworm sure brings his dance battalion with this one. Devo’s dance track “Later Is Now” off their 2010 album Something For Everybody is a tantalizing time warp back to Whip It Ville. It’s so retro you might not realize this wasn’t a track you forgot about from the 80’s. Something For Everybody was also the last album with the original 2 sets of founding spud brothers (kinda like Blood Brothers only Devoized): Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, and Bob Casale. Guitarist/keyboardist/backing vocalist Bob Casale passed away in 2014. Devo sure revisited their spud roots here and paid homage to their earlier selves with this noble offering to the God of Energy Domes. And I’m sure Bob traded in his Red Dome for a White one Gandalf style, not Gangnam Style.
Inevitably however, certain things happen periodically in the music industry beyond anyone’s control:
A) Right band at the wrong time
B) Right track at the wrong time
These are two of the common Whammy Bars success gets sh*tfaced at and stands you up for a date. This tune is a classic case of the latter. Later Is Now was never released as a single but this track could’ve been a dancefloor anthem back in the day. So instead of the John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine, how about Hot Track Time Machine? The plot being going back in time and spinning some discs that never saw the light of day. Kinda like Quantum Leap—only correcting the playlists of the past.
And while we’re on dancefloor dalliances in alternate realities, Later Is Now sounds like it could’ve been a hit in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty–Four (also published as 1984) assuming they allowed dance clubs like The BBC: Big Brother Club. Notice the title of Devo’s tune is very Newspeak & Doublethink like “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”—“Later Is Now.” However I think local watering holes there are outnumbered by Memory Holes. Winston Smith’s “club days” would be spent at the Ministry of Dance in pair of concrete shoes and any shredding going on there would be with documents not guitars.
“Later Is Now” would definitely be on my old school Emerson imitation woodgrain vinyl turntable that looks like you just won the bid for on The Price Is Right. I can hear this tune on the radio alongside Whip It—were it written and released during the 80’s new wave/synthpop heyday, it very likely would have been a huge dance club hit perhaps even with crossover appeal. Maybe I’m alone here but I’d like to have seen Don Cornelius and the Soul Train dancers sporting Energy Domes just once.
I say this from the perspective of having been to dance clubs and also from years doing performance videography in such environments as well as weddings. It strikes me that this track has the whimsical jubilant exuberance and upbeat energy that can sufficiently pack a dancefloor. I mean Kool & The Gang’s classic “Celebration”, Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” work every time for clubs and weddings and all these songs are at slower tempos than “Later Is Now.”
Let’s revisit the “B” situation mentioned earlier for a moment. If you’re been in a band or are an astute observer of musical trends, you’ll see how styles come and go then come back in style again. The same thing happens in the fashion world as well. One band I was in seemed a victim of the “Right band at the wrong time” phenomenon. We were aiming to be “Toto with a female vocalist” albeit a few decades after the fact. Had we been around in the early 80’s at the highpoint of audience and recording company interest in musically intricate well–arranged adult contemporary power pop, we’ll I might have a few Joe Walsh“Life’s Been Good” pieces of real estate, matching speeding tickets and be more frequently answering the question “Are all these your guitars?”
Possibly our band could have been sandwiched between Toto IV and Lionel Ritchie’sCan’t Slow Down which were monster successes during that musical era—at the very least, much more easily than when we were performing and recording as a group with those same leanings. Even so, there were moments with that band when we started getting recognition and were thinking, “Holy crap, this could REALLY go somewhere.” And for reasons stated above, the fickleness of the industry and unpredictable tradewinds of audience tastes and interests shifts to something else leaving once well known acts behind (like Devo post “Whip It”) and bands that could have had their day in the sun a raincheck instead of a soundcheck and more importantly royalty checks. As a side note, without turning this article into a supermarket Tabloid (or would that be Guitar Tab–loid?), I will say this particular original band I was in did have a ballad that was voted #1 for several weeks on an internet site beating a nationally known act (that would be Los Lobos—yes, the “La Bamba” Los Lobos which covered Ritchie Valens’ 1958 hit back in 1987 to international fame). We also surprisingly had fans in Russia, which was a location where the market lag of exported western 80’s power pop was still a fresh ripe style in season for ravenous Russian ears.
But that’s all water under the guitar bridge. The fact is whatever decade it was recorded in, “Later Is Now” pumps out some good ol’ fashioned genuine high energy fun—picture it with laser lights, multiple stages, smoke machines and subwoofers around a few hundred slightly inebriated people in the sardine can of any given nightclub—it’s so chock full of carefree revelry you’ll forget you’re probably in a fire hazard and among a few OSHA violations. Dancing Under the Influence (DUI) however is not considered one of them.
The opening electronica synth sequencer bed in Later Is Now evokes hints of Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like The Wolf” and Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Then the “Enter The Dragon” flanging wall of sound guitar chords cue you in that this tune means business. It builds with a guitar and keyboard interplay for the melody line painted across the palette of both instruments. The robotically slithering chorus synth riff is perfect for Twister night as well as a definite moment to practice your isolations with that white sequins Michael Jackson glove and the man in the mirror. The pulsating rhythm provides ample motivation find a suitable piece of cardboard and get that breakdancing group back together with the Divine inspiration and bravado of The Blues Brothers. Topped with fun lyrics sung in a stylized stately more formal tone than “Whip It” and some of their more cartoonesque catalogue, it shows Devo can do serious while laying down a serious groove.
Later Is Now has that same 80’s dance party vibe as “The Politics Of Dancing”, the 1983 smash hit by The British new wave band Re–Flex off their album of the same name. Friends of mine in the Boston area routinely get down at our dance parties to tracks like “The Politics Of Dancing”, as well as several obligatory MJ tracks like “Billie Jean”, “PYT”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “Thriller”, and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” This track also spikes the fun meter as Dr. Nostalgia discovered a new retro dance virus.
I can see this Devo tune packing dancefloors even today. With a track like Later Is Now, Kevin Bacon should have called Devo for backup in Footloose. I realize that’s quite a bold statement and no offense to Kenny Loggins—but if a group of guys in yellow jumpsuits wearing Red Domed hats and sunglasses showed up riding mopeds in your socially repressed religious community, you’d know the Gods of 80’s Dance Music have spoken. But if you still need a bit of help getting into character, put on your “Frankie Says Relax” tee, Choose Life sweatshirt, dial 867-5309 on your cell and try to set Rick Springfield up with Jenny instead of Jesse’s Girl. Tell Blondiecall me, bye bye love, talk to ya later, then get down to “Later Is Now.”
This is the inaugural installment of a segment where we’ll highlight songs that “Coulda been a contender.” Don’t feel sad there Marlon Brando, you WERE a contender having been mentioned in David Bowie’s“China Girl.” These are songs we refer to as “Closet Singles” and aim to sing their praises and give them a coming out party almost as good as Diana Ross could.
What usually happens with a musical duo is one becomes the lead vocalist in the eyes of the public, or as in this case, Private Eyes—Simon & Garfunkel, Loggins & Messina, Hall & Oates.
This holds true even if the other part of said duo CAN and does sing. Even so if the duo records albums with each trading lead vocals on various tracks like Hall & Oates regularly did on their albums.
Why does this happen? Well, with hit singles, record company marketing and desire for ROI (Return On Investment) heavily influence this.
Once a song becomes a major hit, that’s the lead singer—that’s the map, the formula: repeat the previous success in the future for their bottom line as well as for listeners wanting to hear the next song by whatever act with that same lead vocalist.
Strangely, Hall & Oates first well known single, “She’s Gone” off their 1973 album Abandoned Luncheonette was with John Oates on lead vocals and Daryl Hall secondary.
Technically, it’s actually a dual lead vocal line in the verses—Daryl doubles John with a falsetto but since it’s high and thin aurally, John’s deeper voice takes precedence in the auditory foreground then they trade for a “call and response” chorus.
A few years later however, after “Sara Smile” and “Rich Girl”, their first number one single, it was pretty much all singles with Daryl Hall on lead vocals and John Oates as backing vocalist.
Record companies use the same formulas of established success within bands as well as in the industry as a whole—think boy bands and rest assured, there’ll be new ones for every generation. They might even outlive cockroaches & Keith Richards.
They also follow this template with previously successful artists—they re–market, repackage, resell “them”, that style to new generations. An example of this is Lady Gaga.
When I first listened to her Born This Way album, a woman I worked with asked me what I thought of it. My first reaction was “They’re Madonna songs sung by someone else.” I could totally see why Lady gaga was being backed by and was a priority artist on a record company’s roster.
You can see and hear how they follow previously successful formulas and sign artists that fit this sound/style and/or groom their talent pool more in that direction because they do not want to take chances. Taking chances is a business risk and they want a sure predictable return on their investment.
So it is with the first hit single—for Daryl Hall & John Oates it was “Sara Smile” with Daryl Hall at the helm. It seems “She’s Gone” just wasn’t a big enough single to perk their ROI radar. If it had, they’d have been looking for the next single with John Oates on lead vocals, and that’s where this installment of Closet Singles comes to the much belated rescue.
That song is “You’ll Never Learn” which is also off the same album as their first #1 single “Rich Girl”—their 1976 release Bigger Than Both Of Us. If you love Hall & Oates like I do, you’ll love this song. It’s another great example of John Oates the vocalist, how there was another “She’s Gone” in the batting cage, waiting to get another chance at bat to become a hit.
“You’ll Never Learn” showcases John Oates’ range and intensity alongside solid lyrics and orchestration. His vocals on this capture that sublime sense of awe—his nuance and tasteful use of falsetto makes this melody soulfully soar:
“You’ll Never Learn” is a flat out great Hall & Oates song that never met the airwaves—it’s a great song for ANYONE that few people know about.
Now picture a Parallel Pop Song Universe. Imagine if John Oates was a solo artist and released “You’ll Never Learn.” If you have hairspray induced amnesia or if I used The Force and made you forget Hall & Oates, what would your impression of this song in that context be?
I can say if this was a song I heard on the radio or saw on MTV, Solid Gold, The Midnight Special, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, etc., back then, I definitely would have bought the hypothetical John Oates album She’s Gone And You’ll Never Learn it was off of.
Which brings us to another point—The dynamics of a duo are different: Batman is more likely to have a successful solo career than Robin.
Think about bands that have/have had one or more lead vocalist:
Chicago The Eagles Kiss Fleetwood Mac Journey Toto
These are just some well known ones that come to mind. Notice how it’s more permissible and acceptable to vary vocalists with the industry and audience AS A BAND than if you are known and billed as a duo?
In the case of Fleetwood Mac, it’s not only 2 different female vocalists, but also a dude in the mix: Lindsey Buckingham. They had songs chart with each different vocalist including songs with split vocals like the anthem “Don’t Stop” off their Grammy Award winning Rumours album.
Following this strategy and seeming recording industry/audience loophole, say for instance the songwriting duo Hall & Oates called themselves by a band name instead. I mean Steely Dan was mainly 2 guys and could have went by the duo name Becker & Fagen.
Lets work some revisionist history magic and say Hall & Oates called themselves by what they coined their own style of songwriting & music: Rock N Soul. Since they were from the Philadelphia area, let’s add that to the mix as well. So they are now known as “Philly Rock & Soul” after Marty makes it back in Doc’s DeLorean or PRS for short.
This is assuming Paul Reed Smith guitars (PRS) doesn’t have a problem with that. What then? Well now the duo bias and audience ADD is removed and PRS can have hit singles with more than one vocalist doing leads. Furthermore they can each have successful solo careers afterwards like Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Peter Cetera, Ace Frehley, etc.
…And they can all live happily ever after with Rich Girls.
So if Batman & Robin should happen to read this, they should call their band the “Caped Crusaders” instead of “Batman & Robin” ensuring both may have successful solo careers sans capes, masks & spandex later on in the Gotham City music scene.
Perhaps they could even do a cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker.”