Category: Hot Topics

Certain Songs #175: The Cars – “Just What I Needed”

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Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

Has there ever been anything more precise than “Just What I Needed”?? From the guitar & drum crashes on the opening, to how the instruments build during the first verse, and then the introduction of Greg Hawkes’ synthesiser hook where you would expect the chorus to be.

It’s that synth hook, of course, that grabs you. Once it enters your head, it never goes away, and it shows up during the back half of the rest of the verses just to remind you who the boss of the song is.

It’s all so precise – with every single note exactly where its supposed to be – that you almost fail to notice how weird it all is. I mean why would they put that synth hook in between verses? Why did the archetypal new wave vocalist have what sounded like Queen singing backing vocals on the big hard rock chorus? Why did the drummer do a secret double-time during the last verse? “Wasting all my time time?”

It was a mystery. How could something that was made so precisely from such familiar materials feel so strange?  “Just What I Needed” was like a UFO made from Mercedes-Benz parts. 

In early 1978, I’d been reading about “Punk Rock” and its immediate record-company-sanctioned twin the “New Wave,” in Rolling Stone and Creem, but precious little of it had made the Fresno airwaves. Maybe a stray Talking Heads song, possibly even a Ramones tune. But nothing had penetrated my thick, white, suburban classic rock skull.

Until “Just What I Needed.”  It was cool and mysterious and new and not too threatening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I heard a New Wave song on the radio and thought: maybe I should find out what the rest of the album sounds like.

Next time on Certain Songs: 15-year-old Boy Decides to Buy The Cars, and You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!!

Fan-made video for “Just What I Needed”

All of the songs I’ve written about

Certain Songs #173: Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”

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Album: The Stand-In.

Year: 2013.

One of my favorite pop music trends of the past few years is the plethora of dynamite post-Taylor Swift (or post Miranda Lambert) female singer-songwriters coming out of – or at least associated with – country music. Or alt-country. Or Americana, whatever. If you think that modern country music is all bro-country that gets the headlines, then you’re not paying attention.

Folks who have been paying attention probably know about Kacey Musgraves and (maybe) Lydia Loveless, but there are tons and tons more – people like Nikki Lane and Pistols Annies’ Angeleena Presley & Ashley Monroe come to mind – and I’m positive that I’m missing half of them myself.

And right now, Caitlin Rose’s “Only A Clown”  might be my favorite recent song to come from any of them. A simple story of going to a party by yourself, it’s also highlighted by an arrangement that pits a pedal steel guitar in one speaker with a jangly guitar that wouldn’t be lost on Reckoning in the other.

 But that’s not so uncommon, of course, but when she sings:

Put your record on
Let the band play a song
All about love and believing
Good for you
Cause if that’s true
Then it’s only a clown that’s leaving

It’s her big sad voice – that reminds me a lot of Kathleen Edwards, speaking of alt-country – over a big sad melody over a big sad lyric that puts it over. 

Video for “Only a Clown”

Certain Songs #171: Camper Van Beethoven – “Life is Grand”

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Album: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

Year: 1988.

It’s entirely possible that there were more unlikely major-label signings in the late-1980s than Camper Van Beethoven, but none come to mind. And not that I cared: my philosophy is that an artist can make great music just as easily for a major label as they can for an indie, and I’ve heard as many tales of artists getting fiscally screwed by indies as I have of artists getting screwed by majors.

And yeah, there’s always the “meddling record company” aspect, but it seems to me that any artist who lets a record company fuck that much with their music probably wasn’t fully committed to it in the first place, and it’s entirely possible that I might not have liked them on an indie anyways.

And in 2015, with the major record labels essentially hollowed-out husks of what they once were, I’m guessing that it’s a distinction without a difference to a lot of young people – maybe even for the hipsters who buy the vinyl where you can still see the actual physical manifestations of the labels.

Anyways, this is a roundabout way of saying that there was definitely an effect of recording with a major-label producer: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart definitely sounds better than the earlier CVB records.  But luckily – with its twisty songs about acid-eating cowboys, Patti Hearst and Death – it remained uniquely weird. It still sounded like no one else in the universe.

And I loved the bouncy “Life is Grand,” which confronted our generational cynicism head-on with a perfect combination of bouncy music and optimistic lyrics:

And life is grand
And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor
With those of you who have appointed yourselves
To expect us to say something darker

And love is real
And though I realize this is not a deep observation
To those of you who find it necessary
To conceal love or obscure it, as is the fashion

Coming out during the onset of what I still consider the worst summer of my life, I didn’t particularly believe “Life is Grand”  – especially that verse about love – but I was sure glad that it existed. Even in the existentially dark mood I was in, I could appreciate what Camper Van Beethoven was trying to say, and actually hoped that I would eventually agree with it. Which, of course, I do.

Official Video for “Life is Grand”

A List of All of The Songs I’ve Written About

Certain Songs #170: Camper Van Beethoven – “Abundance”

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Album: II & III.

Year: 1986.

I remember three things about my on-air interview with Camper Van Beethoven at KFSR in 1985:

1) I accidentally taped over the Paul Westerberg interview I had done only a couple of months prior. This is still the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life that didn’t cause any physical or psychological damage to anyone else.  Oh. I then lost the tape of the Camper Van Beethoven interview. Look, I got out of the 80s alive, that’s all that matters.

2) Then, for some reason, I compared the sound of Telephone Free Landslide Victory to that of The Basement Tapes. I think that I was reacting to the lo-fi-ness of it all – not to mention the “we’ll try anything” spirit – but in retrospect, this is a pretty stupid observation, because the only electric violin that Bob Dylan had on any of his records until Desire was in the lyrics of “Desolation Row.”

3) At some point in the proceedings, one of them – let’s just assume it was David Lowery, because why not? – grabbed my sheet of the questions I’d prepared in advance and said, “Let us ask you the questions!”  Which led to this following exchange: 

DAVID LOWERY: “Why do you write so many instrumentals?”
ME: “Because we don’t know how to write lyrics.”

Luckily, being good sports, they all thought that was a hilarious answer.

And, of course, the first couple of Camper Van Beethoven albums were chock full of instrumentals, my favorite being the song that led off their second album, II & III, “Abundance.”

A near-psychedelic melange of sawing violins and big drums (augmented by some kick-ass tambourine), “Abundance” has always been my favorite of the Camper Van Beethoven instrumentals, because it sounds like they weren’t trying to do any kind of particular style, but rather combining everything into a totally unique whole.

I’m also pretty sure that they gave KFSR (or one of our DJs) a tape of “Abundance” a few months in advance of II & III, because I’m almost positive there was a cart (a special 8-track-like tape for radio stations that always circled back to the beginning of the tape after the content was over) of it that we played before the album came out. Not that there was a huge gap between records.

Video for “Abundance”

A List of All of The Songs I’ve Written About

Certain Songs #169: Camper Van Beethoven – “Take The Skinheads Bowling”

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Album: Telephone Free Landslide Victory

Year: 1985.

While every musical artist is at least somewhat a result of the time and place from which they appear, some artists could be doing that they do pretty much anytime in the past few decades –  Drive-By Truckers or Oasis or Courtney Barnett – and it wouldn’t be radically different at the root. Other artists, however, are totally and completely specific to their time and space. They literally could only only arisen from whence and where they arose.

Like Camper Van Beethoven, who could have only come from the college scene of the 1980s.  If punk rock changed our lives – and it did in two ways: 1) reminding us that anyone could play music and 2) do it yourself, you idiot! – then the American indie scene that spontaneously arose from sea to shining sea was the actual manifestation of that change.

Get some beer, get some instruments, get some weed, get a space, steal some electricity, start playing and see what happens.  Because we all could be nuked any day now anyway. And, of course, eventually everybody figures out their style. They’re hardcore, or ska, or experimental, or country, or R&B, or folk, or even rock.  Well, almost everybody. Not Camper Van Beethoven.

With the exception of R&B, Camper Van Beethoven, played just about everything under the sun. Sometimes all at that same time!  And it was all natural, not calculated. It was just what they did, dude! If someone tried this now, it might be great, but it wouldn’t feel half as natural as their folk-rock Black Flag cover did.

As a proud 1980s California Bohemian (retired), it’s my duty to argue that the “everything but the kitchen sink, oh what the fuck include that too!” approach of fellow Californians Camper Van Beethoven is epitome of the 1980s American indie spirit, and not just because they seemed to love Fresno (or at least the girls in Fresno) enough to play for us several times (including a house party of which I have zero memories beyond them playing it).

Oh yeah, “Take The Skinheads Bowling,” a song with a catchy enough tune that it probably didn’t matter what David Lowery actually sang, but of course the fact that it seemed like he was making fun of skinheads or maybe just having fun with skinheads that made it even more catchy.  And it featured one of my favorite bits of call-and-response ever:

Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes 
(Got big lanes, got big lanes)
Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same
(Look the same, look the same)
There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything
(Anything, anything)
I had a dream last night, but I forget what it was
(What it was, what it was)

Staying just on the right side of novelty song with the absurdist lyrics (novelty songs have a lyrical point) and straightforward music featuring Jonathan Segel’s violin hook (yes, I said “violin hook”), “Take The Skinheads Bowling” became an unlikely underground hit, and a fun cover to do when I was playing drums in Blackbird Stories.

“Take The Skinheads Bowling” performed live at Amoeba 2013

Video for “Take The Skinheads Bowling”