Saturday, January 30, 2010

David Mead -- "Sweet Sunshine"/"Telephone" (1999)

After reading a rave review online on some power pop site, I bought David Mead's RCA Records debut The Luxury of Time without having heard a note of it in advance. Remember those compulsive times?

I'm not quite sure I'd classify Mead as "power pop," although I'm sure there are those who could stretch him under that umbrella.

Mead is a classic pop/rock singer-songwriter craftsman with an amazing voice, how's that?

So you know there's no way this guy is going to last on a major label the way that music is marketed and produced, too. Unless he was going to sell at least a couple of hundred thousand albums, RCA would set him free.

Too bad, because this record is like a lost gem of great music, the kind of individual statement that very few songwriters can make on a major label. Lyrically, Mead is akin to Paul Simon, concocting personal pictures about the inability to move on in life ("Landlocked"), the collapse of 60's idealism ("Robert Bradley's Postcard"), and taking yourself too seriously ("World of A King"). Musically, the influences are definitely Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and The Smiths.

What's remarkable about the first album is the production by Peter Collins, an Englishman who did the same duties for Canadian power trio Rush, Queenryche, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Musical Youth ("Pass The Dutchie!"), Nik Kershaw and Tracey Ullman ("They Don't Know"). You wouldn't exactly think Collins and Mead would be a match, but they click in an unexpected way. Instead of making Mead's sonic palette all singer/songwriter-y with sparse arrangements, Collins lays it on thick with electric and acoustic guitars, reverbs, and delays in a full rock production.

You can just tell that the production is English and not American. I think an American producer would have used Bridge Over Troubled Water or an early Simon album as a reference. Collins went the route of 80's English rock, as the drums are big, the guitars are layered, delayed and EQ'd perfectly, and it all crunches when it has to with a distinct analog warmth.

My two favorite songs on The Luxury of Time are "Sweet Sunshine" and "Telephone." Besides being absurdly hook-happy, they are marvels of a musical artist hitting on all cylinders. Mead's vocals naturally swoop, even within verses and choruses. "Sweet Sunshine" is like walking down the street on the sunniest day of the year and you can feel this guy's head soaring. The opening of "Telephone" is right out of the manic offbeat drum pattern of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and then straightens out to 4/4 for the choruses.

Mead's second RCA album, Mine and Yours, was produced by Fountain of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, and with its lack of blockbuster sales, was the ticket out the door. What followed were much more intimate albums on indie labels, each one a remarkable showcase for his talents, and two of them produced by everybody's favorite Nashville-based power pop producer, Brad Jones (see Josh Rouse's "Winter In The Hamptons").

Below are some video treats. First, since RCA didn't spring for the videos themselves, I made one for both "Sweet Sunshine" and "Telephone" so you can hear these great songs with Collins' deep production. Then Mead performing each of these songs solo on acoustic guitar from a gig in Philadelphia, and finally, from Chicago in fall 2009, he does Paul Simon's "Only Living Boy in New York" (a cover which he did on the soundtrack to the TV show "Everwood," released in 2002).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Graham Parker and The Rumour -- "Mercury Poisoning" (1979)

Part of the three great angry English men who burst out of the music scene in the late 70's (the other two were Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson), Graham Parker earned his chops on the famous pub rock circuit, which gave us Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Brinsley Schwarz and much of the late Stiff label roster.

While Costello drew from early 60's rock and Jackson rocketed across short, sharp songs, the always-in-aviator-shades Parker was heavily influenced by Motown and other soul music genres which he wore on his sleeve. He infused his rock periodically with Funk Brothers licks and reggae beats ("Don't Ask Me Questions"). With his mates, Parker played as a true band and their recordings were full of energy, a totally live vibe, and often with his own four-piece horn section.

In the first years of his recording career on the Mercury label, Parker cut cover versions of soul classics like a stomping "Hold Back The Night" (by the Trammps), that had the twin guitar attack Thin Lizzy made famous, and The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," which stays true to the original, as much as nobody sounds like Michael and his brothers!

However, unlike those R&B songs he clearly loved, Parker was full of rage and agony. His lyrics showed a man who didn't believe in compromises in love and friendship, yet often felt betrayed. He didn't suffer fools, and wasn't afraid of sharpening that poison pen in his lyrics. He always had a penchant for two things: somehow bringing in the weather in his lyrics (often raining, with thunderstorms) and making his chorus the entire title of his song ("Passion Is No Ordinary Word," "Discovering Japan," "Stick To Me"). Parker's tunes were anthemic and bluntly confessional sometimes ("Fool's Gold" and "Pouring It All Out"). My friend John's college floor hockey team was named after Parker's "Heat Treatment" and blasted it before each game.

Savvy artists covered his songs, notably his buddy Dave Edmunds ("Back To Schooldays" and "Crawling From The Wreckage") and what I consider to be the definitive version of his song "Thunder and Rain," performed on a long out-of-print album on CBS by singer/actress Ellen Foley (definitely the subject of a future post -- she belted the female date role in Meat Loaf's famous "Paradise By The Dashboard Light").

Parker wanted to break the US market in the worst way, and deservedly so considering his talent. Watching his buddy and former producer Nick Lowe climb on to US radio with "So It Goes" and "Cruel To Be Kind" didn't sit well with him. Finally, after he released a three-sided live album The Parkerilla to fulfill his contract (yes, in the vinyl days, you could do this!), Parker moved to Arista Records.

His first post-Arista signing recording was a bootleg single aimed right at the record company who he felt failed to promote him properly. Usually wrath is incurred towards ex-girlfriends and other creeps, but Parker packed all the venom he could to blast Mercury Records, which truly marked the end of his "pub rock and soul era." A collector's item (which I have somewhere in a box in my basement), the one-sided "Mercury Poisoning" single had a skull and crossbones on the label. And yes, this is probably the catchiest singalong record label blow-off you'll ever hear.

No more pretending now,
the albatross is dying in its nest.
The company is crippling me,
the worst trying to ruin the best, the best.

Their promotion's so lame
They could never ever take it to the real ball game.
Maybe they think I'm a pet,
Well I've got all the diseases
I'm breaking out in sweat, you bet, because

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

The boys and me are getting real well known around town
But every time we try to spread the action
Someone always brings it down, down.
I ate the orange and I don't feel well
For them it's inconvenience for me it's hell.
The geriatric staff think we're freaks.
They couldn't sell kebabs to the Greeks, the geeks,
Inaction speaks, and

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

Is this a Russian conspiracy,
no it's just idiocy.
Is this a Chinese burn
I gotta dinosaur for a representative
It's got a small brain and it refuses to learn!

Their promotion's so lame
They could never ever take it to the real ball game.
Listen I ain't a pet,
I ain't a token hipster for your monopoly set
You bet because...

I got, Mercury poisoning
It's fatal and it don't get better!
I got, Mercury poisoning
The best kept secret in the
we--est, hey the we--est.

Now a triple live video treat from Graham Parker -- one original and two covers from the Mercury era: First, "Mercury Poisoning" from Japan in 1979... then "Hold Back The Night" from the BBC's "Top Of The Pops in 1977... and finally, "I Want You Back" (featuring some inaccurate voiceover in the beginning talking about Parker's first two albums "in 1969!").

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blood, Sweat & Tears -- "Spinning Wheel" (1969)

It's amazing to think that in rock history, there were only two jazz/rock bands that ever became huge: Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. While both were pioneers that began in the late 60's, they could not have been more different: Chicago was a rock band with jazz elements, powered by a guitarist who worshiped Jimi Hendrix (the late Terri Kath), and had more hits than I have fingers and toes that went on for a few decades.

On the other hand, Blood, Sweat & Tears was a jazz band with rock chops, a big band New York vibe that swung hard, and like "The Natural," they soared to mystical heights once early on and never got it back again.

While initially an experiment conceived by rock Zelig Al Kooper for their debut album, Kooper departed, and in stepped lead singer David Clayton-Thomas, the stars aligned and they produced the magical album Blood, Sweat & Tears. Ironically, this album, and most of Chicago's classic output were produced by the same man, James William Guercio.

Like a bunch of West 52nd Street jazz escapees who wanted to put some rock juice into the mix, Blood, Sweat & Tears were the truest combination of the two genres: merging bluesy rock with bebop swing and chords you just never heard on Top 40 radio before. As a matter of fact, this was a band where you really had to listen to all the parts, because they were just such accomplished musicians that there was no member who really played "normal" rock style -- they were all skilled moving cogs in the wheel.

And that wheel was "Spinning Wheel," the second single from the album that just blew the roof off and you couldn't hide from it. I urge you to listen to the bass, because it's all over the place, not like any rock song at the time. Like all the best BS&T songs, the arrangement was amazing, horns blasting up and down like the song's immortal opening "what goes up" line, key builds between verses, and clever spaces to let Bobby Columby's airy drum riffs cut between the lines.

Happy enough with the single, the album version went a full minute longer with a crazy jazz jam break, featuring an extroverted Maynard Ferguson-type trumpet solo, swinging piano chords mixed clearly in another speaker, and a sax blast right off a Sonny Rollins album.

That never-heard-it-before rumble earned them a spot on the bill at Yasgur's Farm. Think about it -- this large group of intellectual-looking studious jazz/rock nerds actually played Woodstock, surrounded by the pinnacles of raw hippie culture and acid rock like Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ten Years After, Sly & The Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

I had my own personal musical connection to the song back in junior high school. Pushing aside the classical pieces of my old world piano teacher, I became a regular buyer of rock sheet music at Sam Goody, Colony and other stores. "Spinning Wheel" was one of them, because it started so promptly on that groovy E7th-A7th-D7th-G piano bass note riff. Man, I practiced that song over and over, because I was heading to the elementary school talent show to play what I knew. The real bitch of the song was that wacky jazz chord, one I had to really put my fingers in some weird formation, when the "let the spinning wheel turn" line came up. You know that part -- it's like a cross between a major and minor chord.

When I had my chance on the baby grand piano at the Robert H. Goddard JHS stage, I got nervous and fumbled. I don't even remember if I finished the whole song. All I know is the girl piano prodigy got up shortly afterward and played the whole damn thing perfectly with no sheet music in front of her.

Below, you have Blood, Sweat & Tears doing the single version of "Spinning Wheel" on live TV back in '69 (and the only solo is Steve Katz's little guitar number), followed by the full album version below it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taxiride -- "Everywhere You Go" (1999)

Another shot in the dark after reading about them on power pop web-based publications like I liked what I heard streaming over Not Lame's web site, so I bought it on Amazon.

Now I know you're saying -- who are these guys? This was a major label album, on Warner Brothers, that received zero promotion or push, and disappeared faster than a sinking stone.

Debuting smack in the middle of boy band fever, Taxiride looks like they were packaged the same way because, hey, four guys singing, just like The Backstreet Boys! However, the only things they had in common were the same gene set.

Taxiride was signed out of Melbourne, Australia, and it was probably Warners' hope that four good looking guys could ride that N' Sync fad. Just a listen to the very first song from the debut album Imaginate, and you knew this was not some manufactured pseudo hip-hop or heavy ballad silliness. Warners recruited master mixer and producer Jack Joseph Puig to put the polish on these boys. "Can You Feel" was all acoustic guitars and four part harmonies, like a modernized Crosby, Still & Nash, with no drums, bass or keyboards, and rather enveloping to the ears.

The killer song was "Everywhere You Go," which is really the perfect pop rock song, blending acoustic and electric guitars, all those great vocals, production ear candy courtesy of Puig, and the full band playing. And unlike boy bands, who had the Swedish pop machines creating all their material, Taxiride wrote all of their own material.

In learning how to mix over the years, the mantra you hear over and over again is "make it exciting," and this song is definitely a Puig masterclass. If you've heard similar Goo Goo Dolls tune "Slide," which Puig also did the honors, the instruments and vocals have their own space, each one EQ'd precisely in the sound field, everything just builds up from a simple guitar strum, smooths out in the break, subtle use of delays during the second chorus, and little counter reactions to the beat that take over your mind and you don't even realize it.

I played "Everywhere You Go" for my daughter in my car a few years ago, and she made me repeat it a few times immediately, then requested I burn it for her on a CD. That's how addicting a great all around pop rock song can be.

Taxiride's success may have been contained strictly in Australia, and Imaginate relegated immediately to the cut-out bins, they've left us this hidden musical gem.

Strangely enough, the song's official video has a "rougher mix," which seems to have pushed the acoustic guitars back or out altogether, and put the "telephone EQ" effect for the intro. So you should definitely listen to the original version here and then check out the video version below.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Leon Russell -- "Tightrope" (1972)

Leon Russell was sort of the white man's Billy Preston -- he played on a ton of famous artists' albums and then struck out on his own.

Part of a group of Oklahoma musicians who migrated to LA's burgeoning recorded music scene (including Bread's David Gates), Russell was writing and playing on all kinds of hit songs throughout the 60's. He actually co-wrote one of my favorite 60's pop tunes, Gary Lewis & The Playboys' "She's Just My Style" and the Carpenters' made a signature tune out of their cover of his "Superstar."

Russell was jamming in everybody's band, bringing a flourishing rock style of piano that combined New Orleans ragtime and gospel blues feel. He had to of the most famous live gigs in the late 60's -- part of the all-star band on George Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" and having a few moments of his own with a "Jumping Jack Flash/Young Blood" medley... and Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, where they slammed out their famous reworking of The Box Tops' "The Letter."

As was the case with many artists before the 90's, Russell cranked out solo albums that didn't sell much until fate smiled on his solo album Carney. It was probably one of those magic moments where the music just clicked with FM radio at the time, perhaps they were just getting used to his highly slurred voice, because I remember New York rock radio playing "Magic Mirror," "Roller Derby" and more than anything else, "Tightrope."

"Tightrope" was just a plain strange song, clearly the inspiration for the sideshow-like title of the album. Dealing out the metaphor of musician as circus performer, the song jaunted along like a see saw, with brief pauses for a kick drum pounding out three beats. The piano sounded detuned, like it had been played on and moved around for years. Russell's voice sounds like's it's slithering all over the place, on the verge of goofy, especially when he sings "like a rubber necked gi-raffe."

The most ingenious part of "Tightrope" was the break, where Russell plays traditional circus chords, while the snare builds up as if following a tightrope walker, and then he ends it with a schmaltzy C9th up the keyboard (Russell loved his 6th and 9th chords).

I'm up on the tightrope
one side's hate and one is hope
but the top hat on my head is all you see.

I'm up on the tight wire
one side's ice and one is fire
it's a circus game with you and me.

And the wire seems to be
the only place for me
a comedy of errors
and I'm falling.

Like a rubber-neck giraffe
you look into my past
well maybe you're just to blind to - see.

I'm up in the spotlight
ohh does it feel right
ohh the altitude
seems to get to me.

I'm up on the tight wire
flanked by life and the funeral pyre
putting on a show
for you to see.

I don't think the radio every really played any Russell album after Carney, but he's still raking in the royalties from one song in particular off that collection -- jazz guitarist George Benson turned "This Masquerade" into a cocktail jazz classic that sold a billion copies in 1976 and beyond.

Here's Leon Russell's original version of "Tightrope," followed by a solo live version from 2002, in his old hippie long white flowing beard and hat look. Notice how his mouth is so close to the microphone, that he looks like he's going to eat it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

America -- "Three Roses" (1971)

At first, it's not quite apparent why three Army brats with acoustic guitars would become a certified smash with their breezy, nonsensical hit "A Horse With No Name." You could not go three minutes without hearing that song on the radio with its "laa laa la-la-la-la" chorus and Neil Young-like singing.

Looking back, I'm convinced that these guys were kind of a musical bridge between the tumultuous 60's and the post-war early 70's. These good looking hippies were deeply rooted in acoustic folk music, and not threatening or singing about war or pain, but represented a safe nomadic freedom.

America didn't become a "pop group" in the formal sense until Warner Brothers paired them with Beatles producer George Martin three albums later. They were far more interesting when you could actually hear them playing their guitars. For all the grief the band took over the years from critics calling them wimps, there were far wussier acts (i.e. Air Supply, who I always thought epitomized the musical artist that truly needed to be shot and made to disappear immediately).

Because of those acoustic leanings, America were the poster boys for 70's soft rock. In 9th grade, one of my friends used to make fun of their sometimes obtuse lyrics. Later on in my college junior year, there was a guy named Sal down the hall who absolutely worshiped them, and a sure fire way to get him ticked was getting him drunk and making fun of America (hard to believe).

The debut album was a mixed affair. Besides the sand and congas "Horse With No Name" and the disaffected and sappy "I Need You," there were two cult FM radio hits -- the foreboding "Sandman" (with its hard A minor strums that everybody seems to recognize even now) and the brisk "Three Roses."

If you say "well, what did America really bring that was unique to rock music" and even though they may not be hip enough to ever be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "Three Roses" showed what would happen if you miked acoustic guitars very close, made the EQ quite airy on the high end and played full, open ringing chords -- their trademark for years to come.

When Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger was interviewed a couple of years ago about producing America's very recent Here and Now album (with former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha!), he actually cited loving those very same musical techniques. So if a pop whiz like Schlesinger could endorse America, then their hipness badge was finally earned. It's now totally acceptable to like America, even as a guilty pleasure.

"Three Roses" was just flat out ear-catching because of the aforementioned guitar style and an unusual set of chords concocted by America's Dewey Bunnell. You had a piercing A major 7th up the neck, an F#m 7th with an E bass, a very open E minor 9th then back to that F#m 7th, all accompanied by a lively conga player, then joined only by a warm and active electric bass. No drums. The strings were brushed across very fast so they almost sounded like a harpsichord to me. A light and pretty melody, slightly corny lyrics ("Three roses were bought/With you in mind") and uplifting harmonies.

For me, this was a perfect song to play along to because it was all big acoustic guitar chords. I was not used to playing the instrument with such big open chords at such fast speed. I used my pick to make the treble notes ring, especially on the Emin9th-A7th chorus, then figured out the solo that ends the last minute or so of the song, right until it transitions to an Fmaj7th-G pattern at the end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Blue Magic -- "Sideshow"/"Stop To Start" (1974)

Any discussion of Blue Magic's Side Show has to begin with this observation: between classic Motown and 70's Philly soul, composers had the most incredible run of slogans, warnings, metaphors, plays on words and sayings incorporated into songs. That was a formula that couldn't miss. Bonus points for a mention of "mama."

"Shop Around." "Ball of Confusion." "You Can't Hurry Love." "Stop! In The Name of Love." "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." "The Tears Of A Clown." "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game." "I Second That Emotion.""Can I Get A Witness." "Standing In The Shadows of Love." "ABC." "The Love You Save." "Love Train." "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show." "Want Ads." "Pay The Piper." "Crumbs Off The Table"

OK. Now I've got that out of my system...

The great Philly soul sound of the 70's was not just made by Gamble & Huff or Thom Bell, but other related production teams who just perfected was already in the bag. For Blue Magic, it was the WMOT team, starring producer Norm Harris, who packaged former members of the Delfonics and other local doo-wop groups (as was often the case), backed them with the legendary Philadelphia house band MFSB and out came the hits.

Could you tell the difference between Blue Magic and the Stylistics? Not really. But the quality was high in all cases.

Now it wasn't just the impeccable orchestral and brass arrangements, the major seventh chords, the corny lyrics, the glowing harmonies, the matching ruffled suits, or even the enviable falsetto of Ted Mills for groups like Blue Magic.

It was the moves.

Everybody was in classic precision with each other, much like the Motown groups like The Temptations and Gladys Knight & The Pips before them. There was always the lead singer -- kind of like the straight man who did his own thing -- and then there was the rest of the group, who twirled, swayed, and spun around in mechanical lock-step choreography.

Blue Magic's two incredible hits from 1974 -- "Sideshow" and "Stop To Start" were state of the art Philly soul musical productions with the robotic moves to match, true snapshots of an amazing era in soul performances. You have got to love the opening touches of "Sideshow" with the carnival barker calling: "Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see the side show in town for 50 cents." And the chorus for "Stop to Start," that is inane when you think about it but it just works for this time period: "I only stop/So we can start all over again."

Special note: other real Blue Magic song titles (do you sense a gimmick?) -- "Three Ring Circus." "Born On Halloween." And the real album titles: The Magic of The Blue. How about Thirteen Blue Magic Lane?

Watch both of these 1974 videos from the TV show Soul Train because they are just unbelievable. A bit campy? Somewhat jaw dropping? Even I feel that way looking at them now and I lived through this back then! It's packaged soul music like we shall never see again.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Plimsouls -- "A Million Miles Away" (1983)

One of the defining bands of the New Wave era, although the closest they ever had to a hit was "A Million Miles Away," one of the poster children for CD collections of the time.

While some New Wave bands added plenty of synths and others did short poppy rock songs wearing skinny ties, the Plimsouls were your way better than average garage rock band, playing mostly minor key dirty rockers with an occasional nod to R&B and soul.

Led by Peter Case (who eventually became a solo troubadour when the band broke up), the Plimsouls stood by the garage rock aesthetic, three guys furiously bashing their guitars amped up into overdrive, a wild and crazy drummer, and a pack of excellent songs either putting down women or madly chasing them.

The Plimsouls' first EP arrived in the mail with an explanation of what plimsouls were -- a type of shoe, although if you Googled the word now, all you'd come up with are band references. LA was pumping out lots of bands with names beginning with the word "The," all crafting catchy three-minute rock songs that were the norm of the period. It got to the point where they were all a blur, record labels spitting them out, and truly there were some gems that would either rally the critics or die under the radar.

That EP, more soul-infused than later material, contained some wonderful songs, like "Zero Hour," "Now,"and "Lost Time," which actually feature R&B-inflected horn sections.

There was an original version of "A Million Miles Away" on Shaky City Records that I remember hearing on Long Island's WLIR-FM radio. Once the band performed the song in the early Nicolas Cage cult movie Valley Girl, they re-recorded it on a bigger budget, and it became part of the outstanding and much darker Everywhere At Once album on Geffen Records. By the time the song broke all over the more adventurous FM rock stations, the Plimsouls had broken up.

A roaring landslide of guitars and a much bleaker view than before made "A Million Miles Away" a perfect fit for Everywhere At Once. Case's songwriting had definitely taken a turn towards the skeptical and pessimistic:

Friday night I'd just got back
I had my eyes shut
Was dreaming about the past
I thought about you while the radio played
I should have got moving
For some reason I stayed.

I started drifting to a different place
I realized I was falling off the face of your world
And there was nothing left to bring me back.

I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
A million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today.

I took a ride, I went downtown
Streets were empty
There was no one around
All the faces that we used to know
Gone from the places that we used to go.

I'm at the wrong end of the looking glass
Trying to hold on to the hands of the past and you
And there's nothing left to bring me back.

I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
A million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today.

Primo garage rock with a spike of nasty -- "The Oldest Story In The World," "My Life Ain't Easy," "Play the Breaks," "Inch by Inch" and a cover of The Rare Breed's "Beg, Borrow and Steal." Timeless and real rock music -- and the album is still in print!

Here are the official video for "A Million Miles Away," a live concert video of the earlier "Zero Hour" and a homemade one of "Now" from the same original EP.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Doobie Brothers -- "Neal's Fandango" (1975)

Buying The Doobie Brothers' Stampede album in my final months of high school represented a sort of coming of age for me musically. It was the first time I had bought a full length 33 1/3 vinyl album without having heard one hit.

I already owned The Captain and Me, and God knows every kid who ever picked up a guitar in my neighborhood, including me, could play the riff to "China Grove." I felt like had to be ahead of the curve, before embarking into the unknown far away from home at college. This was going to be my my record collection that I was going to be packing up and taking with me, so it may as well contain the latest and greatest.

I guess I identified with this western-themed Stampede cover, heading to my own personal new frontiers. I had already heard the opening "Sweet Maxine" on FM radio, with its Billy Payne barrel house piano opening and roaring guitars. But it was the second cut, the fast-driving "Neal's Fandango" with its double drum propulsion, and steam engine chords that have stuck with me through the years.

Guitarist/singer Pat Simmons stuffed a ton of words into this three-minute song about being inspired by "beat" author Neal Cassady, and the thinly disguised druggie road trips that formed Jack Kerouc's On The Road novel. Rock stars like writing their road songs and this was Simmons' 100 mph wind-in-your-hair country-inflected literary take, complete with giddyap pedal steel and electric guitar solos.

I had to listen to the lyrics many, many times to get every word down, as Simmons really packed'em in in the second verse.

Well, a travelin' man's affliction makes it hard to settle down,
But I'm stuck here in the flatlands while my heart is homeward bound.

Goin' back, I'm too tired to roam, Loma Prieta my mountain home
On the hills above Santa Cruz, to the place where I spent my youth.

Well it was Neal Cassady that started me to travelin'
All the stories that were told, I believed them every one.
And it's a windin' road I'm on you understand,
And no time to worry 'bout tomorrow when you're followin' the sun.

Papa don't you worry now and mama don't you cry
Sweet woman don't forsake me, I'll be comin' by and by

Goin' back, I'm too tired to roam, Loma Prieta my mountain home
On the hills above Santa Cruz, to the place where I spent my youth.

Stampede has special meaning for me too, as this was the last album the Doobie Brothers would record in their original rocking incarnation before hiring Michael McDonald and adding lots of R&B & soul to their style, taking them to even greater commercial heights and a very different direction.

Below are two videos of the band performing the song live from different eras. The first is from February 1975, before the album was even released, when they were a full blown long-haired and mustachioed rhythm section attack with the unmistakable Jeff "Skunk" Baxter right there in the front with Simmons and fellow lead singer/songwriter Tom Johnston (they also play "Road Angel," from the earlier What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits album). Then there's the very gray and longer-haired Patrick Simmons with the 2004 incarnation of the band at Wolf Trap, now all polished, still cooking, but the audience is all polo-shirted baby boomers!

Dire Straits -- "Tunnel of Love" (1980)

Many people forget that Mark Knopfler used to really rock and roll. Nearly all his solo albums have been so low key, that they can often blend right into each other. But when he led Dire Straits in the late 70's though the mid-80's, he knew how to turn on the jets. I miss that Mark Knopfler.

After two successful albums that sounded pretty much the same, rhythm guitarist David Knopfler left the band. Dire Straits decided to employ a New York City-based production and engineering staff who worked behind hit albums behind Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Patti Smith.

First there was co-producer Jimmy Iovine, who produced some of the best rock albums of that era before tossing it away to form Interscope Records and rap success. Engineer Shelly Yakus had worked on everybody from Van Marrison and Blue Oyster Cult to Alice Cooper and Lo Reed. And if there wasn't enough of a Springsteen connection, all the keyboards were played by Roy Bittan.

They wanted something that was going to sound different and succeeded in every way. Poetic, big in your face drums, closely mic'd guitars -- this was the early 80's rock vibe being sent out by the studios of New York.

I was doing a publishing internship with the 13-30 Corporation in Knoxville, TN, the first and only time I lived in the south, when this album arrived in the mail. I had made friends with the guys in my building, all U of T students, who thought it was pretty cool that a New York City guy was getting freebie albums in the mail.

Making Movies arrived in a flat cardboard box. I took it to my friend's apartment, put it on the phonograph, and commenced our nightly foosball match. I'm not kidding when I tell you that we played it twice that night, it was that good. This was not the light and airy Dire Straits of "Sultans of Swing" or "Lady Writer," but one with overdrive muscle, huge sound, and cinematic scope (hence the album title).

If "Lady Writer" is my favorite Dire Straits song, the album opening 8-minute epic "Tunnel of Love" is millimeters away as a close second. When CD players first appeared in the US in 1983, I was a early adopter, even though the discs all had to be imported at that time (there were no US plants -- nobody was sure if the format would take off). One of my very first CD's was Dire Straits' Making Movies on Vertigo Records, and the accompanying booklet was"printed in West Germany." For several years after that, when I wanted to demonstrate how awesome a CD could sound on a decent set of speakers, that was the first disc I went to, cranking up "Tunnel of Love," letting the brief Rogers & Hammerstein "Carousel Waltz" blend into that first minor power chord with drums forming the wall with it.

I'll concede that composing songs as coherent stories is difficult. It is like writing at least several short stories, and somehow making the lyrics fit the music in telling those tales. To this day, Knopfler has that God-given skill (next to his absolutely certified Fender Strat style) of spinning musical yarns.

"Tunnel of Love" is a moving nostalgic trip about a wild night out at the carnival, one which Knopfler says in the video below was near Newcastle, the now gone amusement park called "The Spanish City." This rollicking speedboat of a song captures the frenzy, lights, games and chasing a mysterious girl with great emotion that goes up and down like that roller coaster. But in one part, he alludes that the character is reliving that colorful scene with that same girl. You're never sure. The song actually slows down considerably in the middle and Knopfler sings that verse twice, pausing for effect, sounding weary, perhaps nostalgic.

Getting crazy on the waltzers but its life that choose,
Sing about the sixblade sing about the switchback and a torture tattoo.
And I been riding on a ghost train where the cars they scream and slam,
And I don't know Ill be tonight but Id always tell you where I am.

In a screaming ring of faces I seen her standing in the light,
She had a ticket for the race just like me she was a victim of the night.
I put my hand upon the lever said let it rock and let it roll,
I had the one arm bandit fever there was an arrow through my heart and my soul.

And the big wheel keep on turning neon burning up above,
And I'm just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel of love.

It's just the danger when you're riding at your own risk,
She said you are the perfect stranger she said baby lets keep it like this.
Its just a cakewalk twisting baby step right up and say,
Hey mister give me two give me two cos two can play.

And the big wheel on turning neon burning up above
And I'm just high on the world
Come on and take the low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel or love.

Well it's been money for muscle another whirligig,
Money for muscle another girl I dig,
Another hustle just to make it big,
And Rockaway Rockaway.

And girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.
Oh girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.

She took off a silver locket she said remember me by this,
She put her hand in my pocket I got a keepsake and a kiss.
And in the roar of dust and diesel I stood and watched her walk away,
I could have caught up with her easy enough but something must have made me stay.

And the big wheel keep on turning neon up above
And I'm high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl.
On the tunnel of love.

And now I'm searching through these carousels and the carnival arcades,
Searching everywhere from steeplechase to Palisades.
In any shooting gallery where promises are made,
To Rockaway Rockaway from Cullercoats and Whitley Bay out to Rockaway.

And girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.
Girl it looks so pretty to me just like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids.

Now that you've caught your breath with this first sweeping song, it's time to get to the rest of what is undoubtedly Dire Straits' best album. The absolutely haunting "Romeo and Juliet," more skirt chasing in "Espresso Love," and the mournful "Hand In Hand" all follow. On their double album of covers and b-sides from a couple of years ago, The Killers had their cover of "Romeo and Juliet" (which didn't even come remotely close to the original, but I'll give them points for excellent taste).

From the Brothers in Arms tour in 1985, here is Dire Straits performing "Tunnel of Love" at Wembley Arena in two parts. Knopfler in his usual bandanna, a complete master of the guitar, tossing off little bits of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "Stop In The Name of Love" in the opening intro. That's longtime bassist John Ilsley in the blue shirt to Knopfler's right. Former Rockpile drummer Terry Williams was behind the kit. With the introduction of piano in Making Movies, Knopfler recruited Guy Williams to the band. Watching the video reminds me of a British Springsteen -- clearly Knopfler was influenced by the man.

Richard X. Heyman -- "Falling Away" (1991)

Richard X. Heyman's Hey Man was one of those CD's that I hung on to through moves, marriage, and kids because years ago, Warner Brothers sent it to me and I loved the first song, "Falling Away." If you're a pack rat like me, you end up storing away discs because there was something about it you really liked, but then they ended up getting buried along with all the other stuff you were hoarding.

In my rediscovery of modern power pop in the late 90's, I found Richard X. Heyman's one major label album brought up as a constant favorite. Just in time too, as Heyman released his Cornerstone album in 1998, his first since 1991's Hey Man.

A multi-instrumentalist whose primary chops are on the drums, Heyman was the rare power popper to emerge from the East Village of Manhattan. While that downtown scene was far better known for punk and more artsier aspirations (although you could argue The Ramones had some definite power pop in them), Heyman was a sponge of Byrds, British Invasion, Beatles, and 60's chamber pop and garage rock.

A combination of being on Warner Brothers' alt rock/new wave Sire label and the impression of this tall, lanky long-haired dude on the cover led me to believe I was in for something crushing and punky, perhaps arty in the vein of Tom Verlaine or Richard Lloyd. Yet, as the single always leads off the album, I could not have been more wrong. "Falling Away" is a sparkling 3-minute power pop blueprint, with a little bit of 60's go-go thrown in (as the promo video obviously captured), all hooks and harmonies, a main lick that sounds like a tribute to the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and the overdubbed harmonies of the man himself in all his nasal glory. It's a song that you can't help feeling great when you hear it because Heyman is a rock romanticist

Living that sort of rock and roll fairytale, Heyman married bassist Nancy Leigh, who toured and played on many notable band albums in punk and new wave's heyday (including my friend Binky Phillips' indie album in the early 80's).

Heyman audaciously self-published his memoirs, Boom Harangue, as a paperback in 2001, and on a whim I purchased it. Messy but evocative of the times, Heyman wrote about growing up a child of the 60's in a Plainfield, NJ Jewish family, taking up the drums at a young age, following local TV shows and bands, early teen band signings and various touring gigs and finally getting Hey Man out on a major label, only to see it wither from no support. Let's face it, not a great time to put out a power pop album when Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were monopolizing all the radio play and album sales.

Since Hey Man, Heyman puts out more fine power pop albums on his own Turn-Up Records label, sometimes on CD and now download only. He used to play living room concerts for people who contacted him on his web site, but it seems like that's history. His wife Nancy manages all his business and performs with him. Heyman reunited with his early New Jersey band The Doughboys and just released their second album of rough and tumble sneering garage rock, cater made for Little Steven's Underground Garage channel on Sirius/XM satellite radio.

The official video for "Falling Away" is a Rickenbacker lover's wet dream, with Heyman changing gorgeous models between edits. And yes, that's wife Nancy on the bass.