I’m not a particularly big fan of Steve Albini. While he’s produced several records that I’ve loved, and came across as thoughtful – and walking it like he’s always talked it – in Sonic Highways, purists of any stripe have always been anathema to me. The world is compromise (and carnage.)
That said, there is one thing on which I would for sure agree with Mr. Albini: the awesomeness of Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore,” which Big Black covered relatively straight (and relatively awesomely) in the mid-1980s.
1)Someone you love. When someone you love opens for someone else you love is the best case scenario, of course. . Last year, when The Hold Steady opened for The Replacements in MInneapolis, it was my favorite pairing since The Clash opening for The Who.
Other notable parings I’ve seen: Van Halen opening for Black Sabbath; the dBs opening for R.E.M.; Robyn Hitchcock opening for R.E.M.; Sonic Youth opening for Neil Young; Sonic Youth opening for R.E.M; Sonic Youth opening for Wilco. Oh, I almost forgot, Sonic Youth opening for Pavement.
2) An Artist you like but don’t know all that well. A couple of years ago, I saw Deerhunter open for The Breeders and it crystallized just how much I liked the Deerhunter albums I’d heard and how I needed to find all of their material. That also happened to me when I saw Spiritualized open for Radiohead.
However, this can go in the other direction. I liked the AC/DC songs I’d heard on the radio, but when I saw them open for Aerosmith back in 1978, I couldn’t stand them, and it soured me on them for years.
3)An Artist you hate. You skip them.
4) An artist you’ve never heard: Ah yes, the dreaded “who the fuck is that?” opening act. Nowadays, no one is truly anonymous – information via YouTube or Spotify is nearly always available – but it wasn’t always thus. So while the most common response is – of course – skipping the opening act, sometimes circumstances require you to listen to an artist you’ve never heard before.
Of course I’m in favor of this, and have enjoyed just about every possible outcome when confronted with an artist I’ve never heard before: from utter and complete hatred– like when I saw Third Eye Blind open for Oasis a short while before “Semi-Charmed Life” was released – to just last year when I saw Cheap Girls open for The Hold Steady and went and bought their album the very next day.
Yes, of course I could have done the research, but I didn’t, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I really enjoyed their set, and in fact, the moment that I knew I was going to buy their album was the moment they did “Knock Me Over.”
You don’t always get to remember the exact moment you fall in love with a song, but in the case of “Knock Me Over” it was about halfway through the song, and I’m pretty sure that I even told Kirk at that moment how much I liked it.
A song about how weak and in pain singer Ian Graham felt after a knee surgery, it has the simplest and catchiest of choruses:
And I let the world just knock me over I let the world just knock me over I let the world just knock me over I let the world just knock me over
Which, of course, derives its power from being both literal and metaphorical. And therefore universal. Like the problem of dealing with the opening act.
A blistering blast of guitars, guitars, angst and guitars, The Chant’s “ … For You” was a helluva way to start off their debut album Three Sheets to The Wind. It also pretty much overshadowed the rest of their debut album, and pretty much became the only thing I ever played from it.
That’s on me, but to be fair, there were very few musical moments in the 80s I loved more than when lead singer Walter Czachowski incants:
No rhyme no reason no sleep no tears no easy way out of here And I knowww it’s not your fault So I wrote it all down for youuuuuuuuu Ohhhhhh hooooooo ohhhhhhhhhhh
And as at least two guitars take very long, very indie solos, It would have been fine if the song just ended after the guitarists had run out of steam, but Czachowski has more he needs to say, so after breaking the song down into a Peter Buck jangle, he continues:
And IIIII knoww that I’m not the one you’ve been looking for And I know oh yes I know that I’m never gonna be the one You come running to I know
I knoww And I’m finished now, so I wrote it all down for youuuuuu Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh hooooooooo ohhhhhhhhhhh Cos I splattered my brains all over the wall for youuuuuuuuu For youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
And as the guitars come back into their sloppy solos. This time one, two, three, four lord knows how many all I know is that it goes on and on for the last two minutes of the song and it could go on for two hours or days or centuries and it wouldn’t be long enough.
In 1985, a year where I nursed two or three (or a million, it’s hard to keep track) unrequited crushes, this kind of self-pity anchored to scorching guitars was perfectly up my alley. This wasn’t a song that I loved because of the lyrics – I mean they could have been singing about space people or jesus or food and I would have loved it a ton – but the words, and the intensity of the singing put it over the top.
Extra added trivia: I don’t think he played on this track, but internet research on The Chant indicates that one of their later guitarists was a guy named Gregory Dean Smalley, who was the inspiration for a song that I’ll definitely be writing about in the future, The Drive-by Truckers’ “The Living Bubba.” And speaking of Drive-by Truckers, it’s too bad that Smalley didn’t play on “… For You,” because that would a helluva reason for them to cover it.
With its giant big guitar recontextualization of the “Peter Gunn Theme” riff and lead singer Mark Burgess singing from on top of the incredibly high ledge from which he was worried about falling, “Don’t Fall” was a helluva way to kickoff The Chameleons debut album Script of the bridge.
Or it would have been, except for the fact that – here in the Colonies – “Don’t Fall” was the lead off track to the second side. For whatever reason, their U.S. record company – MCA, quite possibly the worst major label ever – completely reconfigured Script of the bridge to lead with the “Up The Down Escalator” single and while that’s a fine song, it’s in no way as dramatic, catchy or distinctive as “Don’t Fall.”
That said, I’m not sure if The Chameleons would have fulfilled their short-lived “Next Big Thing” status even if Script of the bridge had been completely intact here. None of the other songs had moments even remotely as thrilling as when in the the first verse, the music quiets for a couple of measures and it’s just Burgess on the ledge singing for his life:
I hear my name above everything else Mark! Mark! Above everything else Don’t faaaallllllllll!
And the way he sings it, it feels the most important thing in the history of things. By the time the song is over, you get the impression that just being able to sing this huge huge song was good enough to save him from the fucking mess he’d gotten himself into.
And by the way, while I never completely got into The Chameleons, they were big and intense enough that I’m guessing that some of you still love them fully and unreservedly.
I guess that The Cat Heads were too volatile to stay together, so they split apart and got even more obscure. Melanie Clarin & Mark Zanandrea formed the still unheard by me It Thing, and Sam Babbit & Alan Korn released an album under the moniker The (ex) Cat Heads, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t even find for a couple of years.
While not as great as its predecessors, Our Frisco has a lot of good-to-great-songs – especially Korn’s “Something in the Way” and Babbit’s “Nothing” – and one that should have at least been a college radio hit, Alan Korn’s way clever “Anti-Song.” With Melanie Clarin singing harmonies over a bouncy beat and classic I-IV-V chord changes, “Anti-Song” spends 3:40 telling you exactly what kind of song it isn’t:
This song doesn’t want to be a music video This song doesn’t want to sell you some deodorant This song isn’t scientifically formulated This song doesn’t have a lot of hit potential
The incredibly catchy chorus goes:
This song doesn’t have a chorus you can sing along It doesn’t rhyme or say the word “love”
As the song goes on, they list even more things that the song isn’t:
This song doesn’t fit the proper demographics This song doesn’t make you wanna dress up all in black This song doesn’t help you forget about your problems This song doesn’t even sound a lot like R.E.M. This ain’t another A.O.R., D.O.R. alternative new wave hit This song ain’t getting any airplay on the radio Cos this song said the word “shit” Shit
You get the picture. It would would be just one more piece of Gen-X cynicism, but of course at the end, when they song that “this song ain’t no good,” you know that they know that you know that they don’t believe it.
Our Frisco holds a weird distinction in my life: it was the last time I ever bought a vinyl album as a medium to listen to music. When I made the transition to CDs, I dove in hard, almost instantly attracted to not having to get up and turn the record over every 20 minutes, and with the advent of the multi-disc CD changer, not for hours!!!
So, naturally, Our Frisco probably got short shrift – only the catchiest songs got my attention as they were funneled to various mix tapes I was making for my car and afternoon runs. It wasn’t until I was able to buy the CD reissue – yes, this is the only Cat Heads-related album that has ever had a reissue – that I realized just how much I enjoyed the whole album.