Update: In the preceding episode of “Bark Park Musicale,” Bill and his two leashed companions, Dusty & Cedar, had put away Bill’s Walkman when a chance encounter on the Hedge Apple Trail nearly ended in disaster. With the arrival of fall, however, our hero decided to once more pull out his tape player for the chance to reconsider old rock long-players in a pastoral weekend setting. The following five represent the cream of the Fall Dog Park Tapes:
Jam, In the City (Polydor): First released in 1977, the Jam’s debut was subject to a lot of critical discussion in the day. At issue: was the Brit trio (group composition: guitarist Paul Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton & drummer Rick Buckler) truly “punk” or not? Some punk partisans loudly shouted, “No!” The band didn’t affect any of the era’s punk uniforms (wearing mod-ish suits instead) and some of their lyrics sounded downright conservative (“Time from Truth” ridicules a bourgeois revolutionary) even through all the “fucks.” But the speed and unvarnished vocals could’ve only come out during the punk boom, even if the group’s music wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Who release (Motowny nonstop dance song here, ubiquitous guitar swooshes – including a freakout in album finale “Bricks and Mortars” that recalls the plane crash in “Glow Girl” – not to mention a remake of the “Batman” theme). If teenaged lead Weller had a prettier, less hectoring voice, the group might’ve been seen as the first great power pop band and also had a real radio career in America.
Nowadays the question of punk purity seems laughably irrelevant. As a collection of guitar-based hard rock with strong roots in the sixties, In The City is a bona fide success. The band would go on to put out several more great slabs of Britrock (This Is the Modern World, All Mod Cons and Sound Affects being the most successful) before Weller would lose me as a listener by moving into smooth pseudo-jazz with new group The Style Council. Decades later, though, the power and swoop of In The City remain unchallengeable.
Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane (Capitol): Some bands sound like fall. Which is why this writer took his cassette tapes of Aussie alt rockers the Go-Betweens’ Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane on separate days over one October weekend. Both tapes were perfectly suited to walks on the kind of chilly, overhung days I was facing. Over its span as a group, the Go-Betweens have had several lineups: their peak is the one repped by these two elpees, with Amanda Brown adding suitably gloomy/beautiful violin and more to guitarist/songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s takes on bruised romance. As a singer, Forster is the type of moaner who’ll occasionally get you wondering if the Walkman hasn’t stretched your tape: not as extreme as legendary suicide Ian Curtis, perhaps, but still plenty dour. McLennan comes across a trace lighter, but only until you start listening to his lyrics.
Lovers Lane is the most pop-tinged album from the group to date (that’s including its recent fine reunion disc done in collaboration w./ members of Sleater-Kinney), so you’ve gotta figure it’s my favorite. In songs like “Love Goes On!,” “Streets of Your Town,” “Was There Anything I Could Do?” the band pulls the tension between arty lyricism and accessible memorable songcraft tauter than you’d think feasible – and makes it work. Melancholy, always aware of the surrounding darkness, yet cautiously optimistic, the Go-Betweens do baroque rock for an audience that knows how the rock fantasy can betray you but wants to tentatively give into it, anyway. Like I noted: a great fall soundtrack.
Sam & Dave, Soul Men (Atlantic): For the two full weekends, my dog park tape of choice was Sam & Dave’s 1967 classic. I’m a longstanding fan of this great soul duo, and this album was the platter that first hooked me. It’s not just the statement-of-purpose “Soul Man” opener (Isaac Hayes and David Porter at their strutting best) but the range of soulful cuts that follow: from the yearning “May I Baby” (with its odd Oriental bells in the opening) to their churchly remake of “Let It Be Me” to “Don’t Knock It” (with a nasally vocal that somehow manages to mesh garage punk and mainstream soul), singers Sam Moore and Dave Prater grab each song and don’t let go for nuthin’. Backed by the Stax Studio musicians – a group that included Hayes & Porter, plus piercingly economical guitarist Steve Cropper (“Play it, Steve!”) and Donald “Duck” Dunn – the duo exemplified passionate sixties soul singing at its apex.
Back when Belushi and Ackroyd were perpetrating the Blues Brothers, “Soul Man” was one of their big numbers. The two comedians never came close to capturing the hard-working ethic of this song, even if they did appropriate some of the Memphis musicians who’d played on the original single. Listen to both versions and you’ll hear an object lesson on the yawning gap between Real and Tribute. . .
Jerry Lee Lewis, Rare Tracks (Rhino): “Sometimes,” Bob Christgau once noted in a Consumer Report review of a Rolling Stones non-hits collection, “specialists have more fun.” Dabblers, he asserted, make due with Greatest Hits sets; fannish obsessives go for the B-sides compilations. With artists as steeped in their influences as the sixties Stones, listening to the band play homage while they’re still at their youthful peak can be even more enjoyable than grooving on the umpteenth replay of “Satisfaction.”
That distinction came to me while doin’ the Dog Park Walk with a copy of Lewis rarities in the Walkman. Released in 1989 to capitalize on the release of Jim McBride’s bio-flick Great Balls of Fire, the set collects gems from the Killer’s five-year contract w./ Sun Records, where he reportedly recorded over 250 songs (some multiple re-takes, of course) in the bonds of a contract he probably wished he hadn’t signed.
I have no idea of the full flop/success rate from this period of indentured servitude. But most of tracks included in Rhino’s set are gems: a whole lotta country blues (listening to his take on “Big Legged Woman,” I can’t help but visualize one of R. Crumb’s femmes); instrumentals showing off Lewis’ piano prowess (“In the Mood”); remakes of “Real Wild Child” and “Sixty Minute Man” that are so Lewis-sized that you can’t help but believe that if he’d come out w./ ’em first that they’d have been indelibly stamped as his; plus genuine oddities like a rockin’ cover of Hoagie Carmichael’s curiously dated “Hong Kong Blues” (“Here’s the story of a very unfortunate colored boy who was down in old Hong Kong,” the song opens) which was first heard in To Have and Have Not. Only real questionable addition to the set: a failed attempt to update “Whole Lot of Shakin'” by renaming it “Whole Lot of Twistin'” and adding a few more explicit groans in the mix. Song might’ve been more enjoyable if it didn’t sound so desperate.
Still, for those of us who’ve played the big hits to death, listening to this set of less-familiar but still potent period tracks is the closest you can get to approximating the sense of hearing “Great Balls of Fire,” say, for the first time. With a singer as expressive & expansive & energetically salacious as Lewis, venturing off the Road Most Traveled can yield plenty of pleasure. Sometimes, specialists really do have more fun.
Blondie, Parallel Lines (Chrysalis): With colder weather approaching, the Illinois season grows less hospitable to foam-covered Walkman headphones. And so this season’s round of Dog Park Tapes ends with one of the classics of the 80’s New Wave Era. When the NYC popsters’ third disc was first released, it sparked a whole lotta controversy among fans who’d been following the group since its inception. First two releases were steeped in 60’s girl group retro moves and B-movie storytelling: this ‘un took the band from the cultish hands of the Bomp! crowd and turned it into a real American pop group. The drive-in lyrics were largely replaced by apartment life relationship songs and disaffected plaints; the garage sound created by starting producer Richard Gottehrer supplanted by wall-of-gloss glamster Mike Chapman; Jimmy Destri’s fannish farfisa was exchanged for orchestral synths.
And then there was “Heart of Glass”: a heretical discoid hit that drove pop-rock purists into apoplexy. Like with the Jam debate above, it all seems rather silly today. Years removed from the battlelines of “Rock Vs. Disco,” Parallel Lines is the most solid elpee ever released by this gang of CBGB alums. Every cut is hook-filled and gutsy: listening to Deb Harry snarl her way through “One Way of Another” or coo about watching her lover shower, you can’t help but be seduced. Compare the stormin’ version of “Hanging on The Telephone” with the original timid version cut by the Nerves, and you’ve got a lear demo of what the power in power pop is supposed to sound like. In short, Parallel Lines is a quintessential studio pop work: catchy, smart & fulla heart. Blondie the Group would go on to release three more albums in the midst of their New Wave success – each one progressively spottier – than come back w./ a decent reunion in the late 90’s. But this is the group at its peak.
All in all, a strong finish for the season’s Dog Walk Tapes.