JAIMIE VERNON – MUSIC BUCKET CHALLENGE
There’s a new Facebook challenge going around that asks people to choose the 12 albums that have “stayed with you” over the years. I’m not sure what they mean by that exactly. “Stayed with you” like your dog does when you’ve got a half-eaten bean burrito sitting unattended on your plate while you remote control your way through 177 channels on your TV set looking for a Season 9 marathon of the ‘Simpsons’? Or “Stayed with you” like a bad one-night stand that turned into a three-year commitment, a shared bank account and pink throw pillows on the bed you’ve had since Middle School?
I haven’t played along because I haven’t had the time, really. Everyone wants to show a list of those albums that influenced them or spoke to them or they experienced their first purple microdot mind meld through. With the exception of certain cult music communities that revel in non-commercial, non-populist (and usually unpopular) and often weird-ass shit, these lists all tend to be the same. With few deviations nearly every list is a variation on the top 200 rock or pop albums of all time – regardless of the fact that the list is being compiled by Boomers or Millennials.
It’s as if someone drew a line in the sand and said – “Okay, after Jackson Pollack, we’re calling a moratorium on any new artwork. The world may only look at painters from the 15th Century through the early part of the 20th Century…and the jury’s still out about Andrew Wyeth.”
Pop culture is popular culture. It becomes that way from the audience’s attachment to it. Tribes are built on experiencing art simultaneously – art, movies, music – because we are tethered to it in real time and long after time has passed. It also grounds most people as an anchor, an anvil, a dead weight. Hurtle ahead 30 or 40 years and it’s the only thing we may have in common with someone else. It’s why the recent spate of celebrity deaths hit us so hard.
The “stayed with you” lists that are different are usually reflections of people whose musical tastes, influences and life experiences broke orbit. I find them to be enlightened, well read, extroverts, and people who are leaders and, like myself, over-achievers. And still others put these lists together to be hip (in the eyes of whom I have no idea).
I’m not sure you can capture someone’s entire music palette by skimming twelve releases unless they’ve never listened to a lot of music or were born in Nepal and just learned that Elvis is dead. It’s why I’ve avoided polls of this nature. It would take more than this column to explain why I like what I like or why an album, song, melody line impacted me (though a lot of it has to do with life experiences and where/when you were when you heard it). I’m sure I’d need to write a book. A book no one would bother reading. I once posted my top 125 most influential artists and was vilified for the exact reasons I mentioned above. “Too populist. Too common. Too boring.” According to you? According to your taste?
Fuck off. Yes, I’ve been known to be critical of what other people like. But why does my opinion matter? Yours certainly doesn’t to me. It’s not disrespectful to ignore an unwanted criticism.
Sadly, other people are bothered by what the crowd thinks and the music that they love becomes relegated to ‘guilty pleasure’. Guilty for liking what you like? I think it shows character to head down a musical path untaken. There’s a reason 1 million people bought Morris Alpert’s song “Feelings” when it came out. Not because it was good, but because other people didn’t say it was shit. Friends don’t let friends listen to crap. Oh, wait. Yes we do. And that’s okay too.
It’s increasingly difficult to build a tribe around the music that everyone likes – where we could sit in a room and turn each other onto something we’ve just discovered while beverages and narcotics are shared. Our singular, social media isolation has had one upside which has allowed us to finally hone our own musical taste – rather than inherit it from our friends and relatives. So then why doesn’t our lists of 12 albums that “stayed with you” reflect that? Anxiety of rejection and fear of not fitting in? Most likely. Tribalism is a hard thing to shake. But we’re getting there.
We need to break out of our comfort zone of needing musical approval. I’d love to see everyone make a list of 12 albums that colour outside of the box. Your box. Society’s box. I am declaring a Music Bucket Challenge where people pick albums that didn’t grace the Billboard Top40 and don’t regularly pop up on every critic’s annual music poll of the greatest records of all time (Hello, Velvet Underground? Yeah, I’m talking about you).
Here’s my unpopular, unhip, under achieving 12 albums of influence. Maybe the new tribal music discussion can springboard from here.
1) “Life In the Foodchain” – TONIO K.
Steven Krikorian is someone most people have never heard of who was in an underachieving surf-pop group called The Raik’s Progress in the mid-60s. Later he managed to hook up with two former members of Buddy Holly’s Crickets – J.I. Alison and Sonny Curtis – to record two albums. But, still no one knew him. After going solo in 1978 he adopted the handle Tonio K. (in reference to the writings of Kafka and Thomas Mann) and was signed by music impresario Irving Azoff to Full Moon Records. The debut album ‘Life in the Foodchain’ featured campy but socially relevant musings – often through songs not entirely suitable for radio such as the title track, “The Ballad of the Night the Clocks All Quit (and the Government Failed)”, “The Funky Western Civilization” and one of the greatest punk songs ever written called “H-A-T-R-E-D”. All of this was even more impressive given the list of backing musicians: Earl Slick, Garth Hudson (The Band), Dick Dale, and Albert Lee (Love). Though completely unconfirmed it might also be the first major label record to feature the rhythm track from an AK-47 firing live ammunition.
2) “Vol.1: A Collection of Classic Mutants” – HYBRID KIDS
Morgan Fisher was the slightly left-of-centre keyboard player with British act Mott the Hoople. While still with the band he began experimenting on a four-track machine in his Nottinghill home producing deconstructed versions of cover tunes that caught his fancy in the same anti-melodic fashion as Devo, Captain Beefheart and other genre benders like The Residents of the late 1970s. Initially released as one-off singles between Hoople albums under the pseudonym of The Hybrid Kids, the releases were compiled along with other tracks he’d put together at home (for a whopping cost of £25) in 1979 on Cherry Red Records as ‘Vol.1: A Collection of Classic Mutants’. They promoted it to media at the time as a compilation of various bands from Peabody, Texas as an homage to similar compilations such as Stiff Records’s Akron album, ‘Max’s Kansas City 1976’, and Eno’s curated ‘No New York’. This record is a collision of abstract deconstructed Top 40 from different eras such as “Catch A Falling Star” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. Haunting, unsettling and often hilarious.
3) “Cold War Night Life” – RATIONAL YOUTH
While Montreal’s Ivan and Stefan Doroschuk were perfecting the ultimate Men Without Hats synth-pop dirty bomb known as ‘The Safety Dance’, synth purist (and former MWH member) Tracy Howe teamed with another Montrealer, Bill Vorn, to create a two-man monophonic synthphony called Rational Youth. Several indie singles on YUL Records was followed by their debut album in 1982 – “Cold War Night Life” – which featured the dance club hit “Saturdays In Silesia” and the Euro hit “Dancing On the Berlin Wall”. The group had more in common with Kraftwerk than its Montreal progenitor making Rational Youth an underground cult act even to this day (they reformed in 1999 and are still recording for the European market).
4) “Freeze Frame” – GODLEY & CRÈME
There’s four reasons to know who Godley & Crème are: as an integral creative force behind 10CC (right up until “Things We Do For Love” which they wanted nothing to do with), as video producers for the likes of Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and The Police, for the hit single “Cry” with the morphing faces video, and for their guitar sound manipulation device known as the Gizmotron. The creation of the device was integral to the album ‘Consequences’ – their first foray outside of, and ultimately causing their departure from, 10CC. This lofty three LP concept record ultimately sold the equivalent to tinplated hubcaps. They shifted focus for their follow-up ‘L’ which didn’t quite set the world on fire. It was time for something far more accessible – at least in the minds of two boundary breaking experimentalists – with ‘Freeze Frame’. It’s Zappa on methadone. Cumbersome, meticulous and expertly written and performed. The marimba driven “Englishman In New York” and “I Pity Inanimate Objects” is as clever as anything from their 10CC salad days but the arrangements put hefty demands on the listener. Not for the faint of hearing.
5) “In Love With The System” – THE FORGOTTEN REBELS
While the Ramones were tearing up New York and The Sex Pistols were spitting on the Queen, Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario were building a punk base 3000 miles removed from the floodlights of the media. Toronto’s The Viletones were slashing their way through Queen Street clubs while The Diodes broke away from it. Meanwhile, down the road and out of earshot was Hamilton’s Teenage Head – a punk act with a 1950s rock fetish – and shit disturbers The Forgotten Rebels. Star Records was a retail store that also happened to sign music acts in the late 1970s. The Rebels were first in line with this, their debut LP, following a cultish EP before it. ‘In Love With The System’ was the culmination of both singer Mickey DeSadist’s biting political satire and guitarist/bassist Christ Houston’s wholly melodic pop punk. Aside from the rants-du-jour about refugees (“Bomb The Boats And Feed The Fish”), Middle Eastern politics (“I Left My Heart In Iran”) and government stupidity (“In Love With The System”) the group zero’d in on all the dinosaur rockers before them (“The Punks Are Alright”, “No Beatles Reunion” and “Elvis Is Dead”).
6) “The Biggest Prize In Sport” – 999
The British punk scene was as vibrant and polarized as any music genre before or after it. The British and American press were at a loss to differentiate the sounds of the new music coming at them a mile a minute once The Clash and The Pistols had set the quasi-rules. Every small corner of England exploded with pub bands and genre cross-breeds. It’s why The Stranglers, The Undertones and 999 were lumped together as punk acts when the reality was none of them actually were. 999 were to punk what Green Day is to punk. Nothing at all. Both are pop bands. 999 did it first. And they did it quite well. Chiming guitars and a solid rock backbeat. No slam dancing or speed callisthenics to be found. It was all in the melodies and groove for these five guys from London.
7) “Change” – THE ALARM
Always considered by critics as the Junior G-Men version of U2, The Alarm were a pretty consistent pop act that never quite broke through in North America – though “68 Guns” got them MTV airplay. The album ‘Eye of the Hurricane’ was their breakthrough and sounds like the dated 1980s album it is, but in 1987/1988 it never left my Walkman (remember those?). The follow-up album, ‘Change’, provided two of the band’s greatest tracks – the bottom heavy groove monster “Sold Me Down the River” and the reverential Dylan nod on the similarly bluesy “Devolution Working Man Blues”.
8) “Mending Wall” – CHALK CIRCLE
Considered another in a long line of U2-ish alt rock acts, Chalk Circle came from east of Toronto and had a great College Rock vibe. The introductory EP, ‘The Great Lake’, sold gangbusters on the strength of two MuchMusic favourite videos “April Fool” and “Me Myself and I” which led to the full length ‘Mending Wall’ which allowed the band to fully realize their potential. The record had strong messages in the title track, the first single “This Mourning” and the politically motivated “N.I.M.B.Y”.
9) “Big Dark Dream” – VITAL SINES
Full disclosure. Toronto’s Vital Sines – specifically Rick Winkle and Terry Michaelson – discovered my band Swindled in 1981. We became good friends doing shows together through 1982. My record label would eventually record three records at their Rhythms In Dark Studio. The group was hypnotic live and on record they had a unique post-Gothic sound focused primarly on tribal rhythms and minimalist instrumentation. Their 12” EP “Collage” became a College Radio favourite. They then released the 6 song EP “Big Dark Dreams” – a distillation of 10 demo tracks they’d done in the mid-1980s. The EP is nowhere to be found on YouTube. But the demos are. In all their rawness.
10) “We’ll Live And Die In These Towns” – THE ENEMY
Take The Jam, The Buzzcocks and Sham 69 and put that sound into the hands of three Millennial teens from Coventry, England. It’s three minute punk pop without a Green Day influence in sight. The lyrics are surprisingly mature for kids growing up in the British equivalent to the ghetto projects. They’re angry and they mean it and you’ll be hooked on the hooks.
11) “Casual Viewin’” – 54.40
You either love 54.40 or you hate them. Their early material is take it or leave it (though Hootie & The Blowfish decided to take “I Go Blind” and make it into a massive hit). Their current period finds them in adult mode and more attuned to the fans that might like, say, Blue Rodeo. ‘Since When’ was a big departure for the band as they began deconstructing their four chord slash and burn style and adding more musical colour to their palette with female backing singers and keyboards. The experiment was refined on “Casual Viewin’” which saw them experimenting with styles outside of the jangly guitar rock that had defined them in the early years. Older, more mature, and a lot less full of themselves.
12) “Bright Idea” – ORSON
Forget Maroon 5. Funky white rock doesn’t get much better than this, now defunct, five-piece. They were from LA and went to England to become chart and media darlings. The hooks are a mile wide, the influences are actually old school pop (see if you can find the song that knicks a horn arrangement from Paul McCartney & Wings or the Rolling Stones homage) and the production is above average.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon