Confessions of a Record Collector: I – Where it began

In High Fidelity, the protagonist question is what came first – the music or the misery?

That’s not exactly my question.

My question was where did the interest in music come from?

Did people give me records because I was interested in music?

Or did I become interested in music because people passed off records to me?

I think my interest in music predated having records.

It was something that was always there.

Not just on the alarm clock radio that woke my parents every morning.

It was on their stereo.

It was the jingles on TV.

It was just everywhere.

I couldn’t begin to say what the first song is that I can remember, but it may be this:

I think if I had to try and determine my reaction to it, I was both fascinated and traumatized by it.

Fascinated by it because it was catchy enough that my ears perked up when I heard it and I tried to sing the chorus.

Traumatized because I knew Freda was locked in some grave uncertainty, in the darkness of a lonely room, hoping for a resolution to something I could not comprehend.

Even to this day, I have no idea what transpired in that song.

Lamont Dozier, one of the writers, says it is about two newlyweds working out their differences.

But ‘love me like you tried before’ hints at sexual dysfunction.

None of that would have registered with me then.

It was just something that sounded good, and yet urgent.

I felt for Freda.

I wanted her to be okay.

So I was invested in her well-being, and in the song.

But I also noted that, at a certain point, I didn’t hear that song much anymore.

And that is probably part of what started my interest in records.

Because at some point, it was probably explained to me that songs are only on the radio so long as they are a hit.

When they drop down the charts, they all but disappear.

Well, at the time they seemed to.

And so I learned a valuable lesson.

If you wanted to be able to hear a song on demand, you had to somehow own a copy of it.

And I think that realization planted the seed for collecting records.

I just needed a way to do that as a child.

Fortunately, there were people who would help me get started.

Keep or Cull – Jonah Jones’ Along Came Jonah

Born in 1909, Jonah was nearly sixty when he landed at Motown for a couple of LPs in the late 60s, starting with this one.

IMG_20200318_130341You might think, based on that title, that he does Along Comes Mary, a top ten hit for The Association.

He does not.

Instead, the jazz trumpeter does a mix of then-contemporary pop hits, jazz standards, and a couple of Motown songs.

And the results are… well, pleasant enough.

For example, here’s his take on My Girl.

 

Nice, but not revelatory.

The same is true for the rest of the songs.

IMG_20200318_130405On For Once in My Life, Jonah (who sings it) and the backing musicians slow the tempo down a bit, leaning more into the reflective nature of the lyric, and thus giving it more of a lounge sound.

On Love is Blue, Jonah does his best impersonation of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.

On I Say a Little Prayer, the band starts with a little allusion to Walk on By before he comes in for a measured take on the Bacharach classic.

And on The End of Our Road, he and the backing musicians, likely the Funk Brothers, very nearly veer into the kind of funk that Jr. Walker traded in, although the results here are cleaner and brighter.

In many ways, it is the epitome of a sixties album in that it gives you a survey of the current scene in a way that is clearly meant to appeal to nearly anyone.

But despite the sweetness of Jones’ tone, which does hearken back to the swing era, and the 60s arrangements, not much really stands out.

And what does is more for novelty sake, such as the string laden stroll through the Beatles Michelle, which closes out the set.

You get the sense that someone wanted Jones to be hip, but not too hip, and faithful to his legacy, but not really draw on it to his benefit.

So it never really comes on.

And that makes it a cull for me.

 

Keep or Cull – Silver Convention

Today, kids, we are putting on our dancing shoes and heading for the Silver Convention, which sounds more like a gathering of cutlery collectors than a band name.

For a brief moment, the group, which essentially started as a studio project conceived in West Germany by the writing/production team of Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze, ruled the airwaves and the discos with a couple of really, really big hits.

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Their first hit, Save Me, was popular enough in the UK that Levay and Kunze had to put a group together, with Penny McLean, Ramona Wulf, and Linda G. Thompson serving as the Silver Connection despite the fact that different singers, including Roberta Kelly, who went on to score a few disco hits herself with Zodiacs.

But it was Fly, Robin, Fly, a song so lyrically concise at just six words that it made The Ramones seem prolix by comparison, that went to number one on the Billboard charts in late 1975.

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I won’t deny that Fly, Robin, Fly is wonderfully sublime in its very simple way, and it is kind of perverse that a song that is little more than a five-minute vamp with exhortations for a robin to fly up to the sky managed to soar up the charts.

But a little of that goofy charm goes a very long way.

Especially over the course of a long-playing record.

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Take Tiger Baby, which runs 4 minutes and change but has twice as many words as Fly, Robin, Fly but probably half the inspiration, and a tiger growl that sounds like someone snoring.

But listening to these songs, you kind of understand why there are stereotypes about German engineering because the disco grooves have a crispness, a preciseness, that makes them get over despite their rigid adherence to formula.

Once in a while, Kunze and Levay trade the disco for the bedroom, slipping into something comfy like Please Don’t Change the Chords of This Song, which you may have noticed packs more words into its title than Fly, Robin, Fly does in its five-minute run time.

But for the most part, they are content to knock out string-laden dance songs so inscrutable, it seems churlish to ask questions like what the ‘it’ is in a song like I Like it.

If you like disco and songs that don’t demand much of you beyond dancin’ and lovin’, this has certain bubblegum charms.

But outside of those contexts, the Silver loses some of its luster.

So this and the album that featured their other monster hit, Get Up and Boogie (that’s right!) are culls for me.

Keep or Cull – John O’Banion

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Thrift stores are kind of great fodder for a blog about albums.

In part because LPs tend to be priced so affordably that if you see something you don’t know, you have incentive to try it since it isn’t a huge drain on your wallet.

I had no idea who John O’Banion was before seeing this in a goodwill bin.

Based on the cover, I’d have guessed vaguely country or singer-songwriter, but nope.

Most of the songs on this 1981 Elektra album were written by Joey Carbone and/or Richie Zito.

Although Zito has worked with folks like Neil Sedaka and Elton John, he scored his biggest success producing sleek radio pop rock for folks like Heart, Eddie Money, Bad English, and Cheap Trick.

Carbone’s credentials range from session work for Rod Stewart and Cher, to music director for Star Search, to crafting the theme to It’s Gary Shandling’s Show.

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The album is very much an early 80s pop rock album.

In fact, the very first song Love You Like I Never Loved Before sounds very much in the vein of Huey Lewis and the News’ If This is It.

Many other songs vaguely remind me of Foreigner, but not quite with that band’s signature hooks, although O’Banion does sound slightly like Lou Gramm.

One or twice, the album veers more toward pop, like the vaguely post disco champagne fizz of If You Love Me or the romantic balladry of Love is In Your Eyes.

There is even a cover of Walk Away Renee that reminds me of the contemporaneous TV theme work of Mike Post, which is to say that the bittersweetly baroque 60s song becomes a bit bombastic.

Love You Like I Never Loved Before – one of seven songs with the word love in the title – was a top 40 hit, but that was about it for his chart action in the US.

He acted a bit, recorded a bit more, and died just a few days shy of his 60th birthday in 2007.

That story is kind of sad.

But this album doesn’t really resonate with me.

It is well crafted, but nothing really stands out or transcends the formulations of radio friendly pop rock.

And so it’s a cull for me.

 

 

 

Keep or Cull: The Carpenters – The Singles 1974-1978

IMG_20200220_150544Karen Carpenter had one of the most beautiful voices in pop music.

It was rich and resonant.

Somewhat melancholy.

And yet there was a sweetness, a lightness, to it that prevented rainy days and Mondays from getting you too down.

Because in anyone else’s hands, a song like the one I am referencing could have turned very bleak.

Carpenter was half of The Carpenters, a duo that really eptiomized 70s pop radio.

Politely produced to the point where it was almost scrubbed of any character, their songs really got over not just because they were drawing on talents like Paul Williams but also because Carpenter’s contralto gave them weight, or import.

She made them come alive.

And yet, she thought of herself as a drummer who sang.

But that voice brought her out from behind her kit into the spotlight, something she was not initially comfortable with.

That voice helped make The Carpenters a constant presence on the charts, starting with their cover of Ticket to Ride, a modest hit in 1969, through to their last minor hit, a cover of Beachwood 4-5789.

In fact, they had enough hits that, just four years after their first one, The Carpenters were anthologized by A&M with The Singles: 1969-1973.

Just five years later, another compilation appeared, this time gathering up everything from 1974-1978.

IMG_20200220_150613According to Discogs, it was released in the UK, Canada, and a couple of other countries, but not the U.S., where sales of their records had tapered off considerably.

Looking at the track listing, you can kind of see why.

There is one indisputable classic here that could and should have been on that first set of hits.

I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

Written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, that song was initially released in 1972 on A Song for You, but it was not released as a single until 1974.

So it really does belong on the first set.

The other songs on here are not at that level, but there are a couple that are relatively nice, such as Sweet, Sweet Smile, which Juice Newton co-wrote, intending to cut it herself.

And there is the absolutely odd choice of Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, a song written and recorded by Klaatu, a band that, for a brief moment, was thought to be The Beatles incognito.

But with one notable exception, nothing quite sticks with you the way that the songs on the first set of singles.

Even Karen seems a bit lost in the increasingly slick productions to the point where the longing and bittersweetness that added ache to songs like Superstar or Sing has been smoothed over, and you can hear why some critics dismissed them as saccharine, and why A&M declined to put this out in the U.S.

The selections just lack the tension, the sentiment, the depth that Karen applied to make The Carpenters stand out from other glossy radio fare.

If you want to hear her at her finest, that first singles collection is a must.

With every sha-la-la-la, every whoa-whoa-whoa, she makes it feel like yesterday once more.

So this one is a cull for me.