Q: Are We Not Punk? A: We Are New Wave!

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Devo
BSK 3239
1978
Warner Bros. Records Inc.

By 1980, I was acquiring a lot of vinyl. Every weekend I’d drive to my local record store to dig through crates looking for the latest LPs. The Clash’s London Calling was my first taste of ‘punk,’ although now I don’t consider it punk at all – its just straight up rock. But in those bygone days it did open my doors of musical perception.

The definitions of subgenres within rock music have always been confusing especially to consumers. In the late ’70s, the term ‘punk’ incited a visceral reaction in your average top-40 listener with images of Johnny Rotten spitting on his audience so new bands like the Cars needed a safer tag and “New Wave” seemed to work.

According to a passage in Wikepedia, here’s one theory on the genesis of the term “New Wave”:

In November 1976 Caroline Coon used Malcolm McLaren’s term “new wave” to designate music by bands not exactly punk, but related to the same musical scene. The term was also used in that sense by music journalist Charles Shaar Murray in his comments about the Boomtown Rats. For a period of time in 1976 and 1977, the terms new wave and punk were somewhat interchangeable. By the end of 1977, “new wave” had replaced “punk” as the definition for new underground music in the UK.

In 1978 Devo’s first LP, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! was considered a ‘novelty,’ but I think it fit squarely into the New Wave subgenre.

Recently finding this record was a coup for me because their quirky song, Jocko Homo (which barely got any radio airplay back in ’78), has been an earworm of mine forever. I just haven’t been able to secure the record even though its probably not too hard to find.

I remember Devo doing Jocko Homo on SNL back in ’79 and thinking they were certifiable and weird. But I also remember my parents actually being outraged at the performance, which is crazy because Devo didn’t do anything salacious – they were just wacked.

Now, some 40 years later, the album, which was produced by Brian Eno, sounds more akin to Talking Heads. In fact, Talking Heads released More Songs About Buildings and Food the same year and it was also produced by Eno. Hence the similarities.

Hearing the record on vinyl is a sonic kick – its rich and filled with strange noises like the ‘calculator’ sound found in the first cut Uncontrollable Urge.

The LP is also subversive. Listen to their cover of the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. It roboticizes the Jagger swagger, which makes the already suggestive song sound dirtier. And its funny to hear Devo kill it better than the Stones.

Side two is raucous and loud and actually contains some lengthy (by Devo standards) guitar solos, not to mention  dissonant guitar blips juxtaposed next to some beautifully rendered guitar passages as well as some Chuck Berry riffing going on. The whole LP is a stew of weirdness and style in the making.

The jacket’s artwork provided no clue as to what the band was actually like. Illustrated by Joe Heiner, the image is based on a picture of golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Its a compelling graphic and seems to satirize…something. Golf? Corporate image-making? Candy-coated fun? The suburban sporting life? Hard to say, but the jacket artwork is worthy of framing.

So – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is one of those records that if you see it and don’t have it, grab it.

© 2017 Chris Barry

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I’m Not Gonna Steal Your Fuckin’ Records

Let’s Get It On
Marvin Gaye
T 329V1
1973
Tamla

An empty jacket on the shelves means the store is keeping the corresponding LP behind the counter so you have to ask for it when you go up to pay.

I’ve seen this done with so-called premium or ‘rare’ records – the albums store owners think are going to get switched out with inferior records or – worse – stolen.

The stores have a million reasons why they do it: “people will slip an extra record into the sleeve,” “people will swap a beat up record with a record in good condition,” “people will slip the LP into their coat and walk out,” etc.

This retail practice is all about what people might do. Its indicative of a lack of trust that store owners have for their customers (or potential customers).

I get it – people steal shit. They shoplift. But if I decide not to come back to a store because I can’t examine the vinyl I’m about to purchase because the record’s being held hostage behind the counter, the store is probably going to lose a purchase – mine – and not just one but many. Many more purchases lost than any $5 (or $50) record jammed in someone’s pants.

But does a store care about its customers? If its one of those corporate stores like Half Price Books, probably not. They get so many people coming and going, they could care less who graces their threshold. The thing is though, if I feel disrespected, I’m not going back and I’m going to talk about the experience online in groups like Vinyl Addiction on Facebook. And write about it on this blog…and tweet about it.

Lets face it – empty jackets on the store shelves are a sign of disrespect. And condescending. And that you don’t matter. This is a larger customer service issue that goes deeper than trying to curtail shoplifting. It’s a corporate fear masked by a superiority complex that actually implies the customer doesn’t mean anything – that all customers are potential thieves.

Its anti-customer service.

As a paying consumer, I deserve the opportunity to look at what I’m about to buy. Not be christened as a potential thief.

© 2017 Chris Barry

Dump Your MP3 Music Files Now

Tres Hombres
ZZ Top
XPS 631
1973
London

Digital files are the worst way to collect music. They’re an abomination. They’re anti-music.

These files don’t exist. They’re air. A bunch of 0s and 1s. They’re Justin Bieber.

If you listen to the great ZZ Top song “Master of Sparks” off Tres Hombres on vinyl, your first reaction may be what the fuck is going on there? Sounds like it was recorded in mud…but that’s the point. That’s how the little ‘ol band from Texas intended it. Muddy, nasty, sleazy. In fact, the whole album, produced by Bill Ham, sounds this way. And that’s why it’s so great. Its recording is an interpretation of the sound that ZZ Top was trying to capture at that time. It ain’t clean – it’s a garbled, glorious bloozy boozy mess.

Hear it as a digital file and it sounds tinny, unnatural and loud. The idea with digital – and this hearkens back to the CD days – was to ‘clean’ up vinyl. To eliminate any pops, ticks, scratches, pits – anything that may make extraneous noise on a record’s surface. Not a bad idea – especially if you have records that are so dinged up you can’t listen to them. But the idea with digital was also to either equalize everything out of the music or over-equalize it, boosting all levels and dumping dynamic range. Dynamic range in music is the difference between the quietest and loudest volume of an instrument, part or piece of music. Often, when things are reproduced digitally, this range becomes limited through compression, which allows for louder volume, but can make the recording sound lifeless.

This isn’t always the case with CDs – I have some that sound incredible but most sound wrong. Like those Beatles CDs that were released in the late ’80s. They’re way off compared to hearing them on vinyl. In fact, when I first purchased those discs back then, they almost destroyed my love for the Beatles they sounded so bad. Nothing emerged from those reproductions except disappointment.

Take MP3 files. They’re completely stripped of dynamic range. They’re dull coming out of little ear buds that further destroy sound quality. Sure, they’re easy to download and they’re portable but to what point? Take your music everywhere? Ultimately they underwhelm the music listening experience.

Here’s Neil Young’s take on digital music downloads: “It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. It’s bad for music.”

There’s another aspect to collecting albums as opposed to air-based files. Records are a physical representation, with actual tracks cut into grooves that vibrate (like sound waves) when a needle glides inside of them.

Albums are an actual product. Not only do you have the vinyl disc itself, but you have the jacket, the sleeve, lyric sheets – all those great real things that you can curate, see and hold.

© 2017 Chris Barry

Your Album Collection is Probably Worthless

alternativeIf They Treat You Like Shit – Act Like Manure
Alternative
Corpus Christi – Christ It’s 13
1984

Stop worrying about what you think your album collection is worth because its probably worth shit.

That is if you define worth only by dollars and cents.

Of course your collection has lots of sentimental value and who can put a price tag on that?

That said, if you’re convinced the motherlode is sitting there on your Ikea shelves, there are lots of different and confusing ways to look at albums for clues of possible monetary value. Serial numbers, run-off track imprints, labels, jacket markings, editions, mint, near-mint, good, average, poor. Hint: don’t believe anything regarding a record’s dollar worth on Ebay and whatever you do, don’t pay more than $2 for Boston’s first album no matter what anyone says.

Some people think Beatles albums are worth a lot of cash by default. Yes, first editions probably are. Maybe. But, for the most part, you can easily find Beatles records. I know mine aren’t worth a lot of dough because they’re all reissues from the late ’70s/early ’80s. They’re also on the Parlophone label, except for my Abbey Road (Capitol) and my Let It Be (Apple – but not Granny Smith). They’re also all stereo not mono. Makes a difference in the Beatles collector world. But they’re all clean, and the jackets are almost perfect. Mint? No…because I play them and I play them because I love them. They just don’t meet collector criteria.

I also have a couple of Cure records – Faith and Pornography – both first edition releases on the Fiction label. Look them up on Discogs and Faith has a high price of around $32 and Pornography hovers around $55. I bought Faith for $30 and Pornography for $25, so I guess I made money. But I’m not selling them.

According to Discogs, my David Bowie Scary Monsters LP is priced around $77 and I’ve heard that’s because it hasn’t been reissued on vinyl yet. My Cramps Songs the Lord Taught Us is around $75. Kinda crazy.

But the record I own that appears to be worth the most money is this hardcore punk obscurity by a band called Alternative. The album’s name is If They Treat You Like Shit – Act Like Manure. The label is Corpus Christi – Christ It’s 13. Country of origin is the U.K. and it was released in 1984, which is when I bought it. The reason I bought it – I liked the title. Ironically, its hard for me to listen to this record. I don’t like this particular music genre and, lyrically, its really depressing. But the band appears to have a very strong animal rights agenda, which I agree with. The lyrics are graphic in their descriptions of animal torture – obviously to drive their point home. Not easy to hear when you’re shoving a hamburger in your face. They also rail against nuclear proliferation and seem to be anti-pornography. Their musical attack is so aggressive its tough to interpret their songs unless you read the lyric sheet that sleeves the vinyl. According to Discogs’ stats on this album, 164 Discogs members have this record. And 246 want it. Talk about your supply and demand. The last time it was sold was November 8, 2016. Its highest price listed is a whopping $116. Therefore its my most valuable record.

Would I sell my Alternative? Well, I never listen to it. So I’m not attached to it. And that kind of goes against why I collect. I collect records to listen to them not just put them on my shelf hoping they become worth a pile of cash.

Vinyl’s for listening.

So make me an offer…

© 2017 Chris Barry

Synths, Cowbells and ’70s Rock

head_eastFlat as a Pancake
Head East
SP 4537
1974
A&M Records

“No synthesizers used. No computers used.” – Tom Scholz, Boston

I’m not dogging Boston – I love their second LP Don’t Look Back almost as much as their first. But Scholz’s no synth rule was an anomaly considering all the electronic tricks he pulled when producing and engineering his band’s albums.

Don’t get me wrong, Boston’s records sound crazy good on vinyl – but something’s missing. The human factor maybe?

Now take Head East’s Flat as a Pancake. This, too, is a sonic stunner on vinyl. Rich, loud, bass heavy…synths, cowbells and all. Its a party. A beer keg swillin’, bong hittin’ mid-’70s backyard summer blow-out that was on heavy platter rotation back then despite less than zero radio play.

Never Been Any Reason off Flat as a Pancake was a big ass song during the summer of ’79 – five years after the LP was released – but not on radio. It was big with the kids I drank beer and smoked weed with. It was on turntables at every party. Played on portable tape decks in the factories where we worked. Played in cars on mindless road trips. All the time. For us, the tune was bigger – and better – than The Logical Song, a huge radio hit from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America LP.

And, yet…the instrument everyone remembers on Never Been Any Reason is that swirly synth.

Screw the no synths rule. Never Been Any Reason was (and still is) a great backdrop to any party. But back in ’79 it sounded different, slightly rebellious and had lyrics that teens could lock onto even though they’re kind of meaningless. Except its a sort of relatable fuck you to some anonymous person who may have broken the singer’s (your) heart. It’s in both the first and third person but the lyrics are really easy to remember so its all but impossible not to sing along with it. And almost every instrument (even the synth) was ripe for boozy ‘air’ playing. Ultimately, Never Been Any Reason sounds improvised and alive. Spontaneous. In fact, all the songs on Flat as a Pancake sound this way through the whole record. Its the perfect analog trip and was made for vinyl listening.

Now compare Never Been Any Reason to Boston’s Party off of Don’t Look Back. The Boston song is exacting, very precise – almost anti-party with all the spontaneity stripped right out of it. Its a simulacrum of what Scholz and company think a party should be without ever having been to one. Complete with requisite “oh yeahs” and “come ons” the song is meta – a song about a party to be played at parties. But fake.

While Don’t Look Back is recorded really well, compared to Flat as a Pancake it sounds, well, flat.

But Scholz does keep his promise: “No synthesizers used. No computers used.”

© 2017 Chris Barry

In Praise of the Double

dbt_smDirty South
Drive-By Truckers
NW 5007
2004
New West Records

I have a CD on the Blue Note label called What It Was. Its a jazz guitar lover’s nirvana, performed by Steve Masakowski. Its one of the best sounding recordings I own – CD or vinyl. But I can only imagine how rich it must sound as an LP.

Imagine, because as far as I know, it hasn’t been released on vinyl and the reason may be due to its length.

What it Was clocks in at 58:47, which would require it to be a double album.

I recently picked up 2004’s Dirty South by southern rock hellions Drive-By Truckers and I was excited that it was a double LP. Yes, you can compress all 70:34 of this drawling epic onto one compact disc but you can’t squeeze all of it onto one vinyl record. You wouldn’t want to. All 14 songs need to be spread out over two records. Doing so allows the grooves to breath, allows the analog sound waves to vibrate naturally letting the stylus flow smooth and easy over the sonic landscape. The sound quality of Dirty South resonates deep, warm and heavy. Its pretty close to one of the best sounding vinyl sets I have.

When I started acquiring records back in the ’70s, the double album was an event. For only a buck or so more expensive than a single LP, you were getting – basically – two for one. One of the first doubles I purchased was Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton. Knocked out loaded with great songs, this live set truly brought you into Frampton’s concert world.

But the double that changed everything for me came in 1980.

Bruce Springsteen’s The River was an excursion into some of the best rock of that era. Solid rockers, heartbreaking ballads – all under the ‘live performance’ production of Springsteen, Jon Landau, and Steven Van Zandt. Not a throwaway song among the 20 tunes on the set. The packaging wasn’t a gatefold, the records came in a single jacket, two sleeves and a fold-out lyric sheet. The sleeves, the lyric sheet, were bursting with photos of Springsteen and the E Street Band at work and at rest. I played it (either a side or in full) almost every day from its release date of October 17, 1980, well into 1981.

Back then you’d hear complaints that double records were almost too much musically and a pain in the ass because you had to get up three times (flip record one; change to record two; flip record two) to listen to the whole set.

But the thing is – and this why vinyl is special – its because you do have to get up and flip the record to hear the whole thing. And, by the nature of the LP, you’re basically forced to listen to all the songs on a side (instead of skipping through them), allowing total immersion into the artists ‘vision.’ And flipping a record allows a respite, a short less-than-minute-long intermission that allows you to collect your thoughts pondering what you’re listening to before slipping into the second (or third or fourth) side of an artist’s song cycle.

One of the marketing points of CDs (and one of the reasons the format almost killed vinyl) was the so-called convenience factor. You could listen straight through without having to get your ass up off the couch to flip the LP over. What a concept.

But, what happened was this…sitting prone for upwards of 70 minutes is physically draining. Uncomfortable. Flipping an album lets you move – stretch a bit between sides. And, neurologically, the digital format doesn’t engage the brain in the same way analog does. Digital is based on linear ‘motion’ – 0s and 1s – seamlessly connected, no real vibration of soundwaves. Its a simulacrum of sound. Digital causes disengagement and induces boredom and, ultimately, sleep.

While I love What it Was – its because I’ve digested it in small pieces instead of trying to get through it all in one sitting. I can’t do it. Even though it sounds great, by the third or fourth song, I’m asleep.

Its a sonic phenomenon that I’ve actually argued about in barber shops.

According to Oregonian writer David Greenwald, “digital music engineering is often marred by a volume arms race, which leads to fatiguing, hyper-compressed songs that squish out the dynamics and textures that give [vinyl] recordings their depth and vitality. Vinyl’s volume is dependent on the length of its sides and depth of its grooves, which means an album mastered specifically for the format may have more room to breathe than its strained digital counterpart.”

Ultimately, when you can get four sides of music that’s more in sync with how the human ear hears, a double LP set is – simply – more bang for the buck. I love ’em.

Doubles of note:

Eat a Peach – The Allman Brothers
Prince – 1999
The Wall – Pink Floyd
Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin
The Beatles – The Beatles (White album)
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Steely Dan – Greatest Hits
The Who – Tommy / Quadrophenia
Tusk – Fleetwood Mac

© 2017 Chris Barry

Online or Live?

flipping_thru_recordsThe Boston record was shipped in a Domino’s pizza box. And inside the box there were pizza sauce streaks and grease stains. But the album looked okay, its jacket still had the original outer wrap with that 1976 promotional sticker slapped on it. But the vinyl inside was coated in dust, fingerprints and was severely scuffed.

The experience of buying this record online was joyless. It meant nothing. Empty.

It wasn’t hard to figure out that the missing piece in this transaction was the physical experience of going to a record store to make an album purchase.

This actual ‘going’ is a process that takes time and energy. To some, this process may seem aimless. But its not. Its a highly focused activity. When you’re in a record store there is nothing else, there are no distractions pinging you from the outside world. Just you and the records. Good stores play actual albums while you’re digging through the crates. This background music heightens the experience and provides inspiration.

When record stores existed as the only places to buy your music, albums were typically sorted by artist so you’d see a bin labeled “Beatles,” and in that bin was Beatles or you’d see a bin labeled “Clash,” and in that bin were Clash records.

But now, in most used stores, albums are simply shelved alphabetically so you experience a wild assortment under each letter of the alphabet.

And that’s the exciting part of the dig. Starting at the bin marked “A” and flipping through albums in the “A” bin, then flipping through the “B” bin, then “C”, etc., all the way to “Z.”

Flipping through each letter, you don’t know what’s going to come next and, often, you’ll run across something unexpected that may not have been on your mind at all. There’s no greater buzz than having a record you’d long forgotten about jump out at you as you flip through the alphabet. When this happens, you actually have a visceral reaction – heartbeat increases, you may smile or whisper some words of wonder under your breath. And you covet it, hold on to it while you continue mining the bins because that’s what you’re doing – you’re mining for gold…without a search engine.

So the online argument is this (and it is legitimate): “Well if I want the first edition Talking Heads Fear of Music, I can just go on Ebay, do a quick database search and find it.”

Well, yeah, you can. But what fun is that?

Sure, online sellers will post photos of the vinyl but online photos are deceptive. And, yeah, sellers will tell you its “mint” or “near mint,” but who are they to make this judgement? And why would you believe them? You can’t pull the record out of its sleeve and inspect it. Your own physical connection with the record – its jacket, sleeve and vinyl – is the best determinant of what you define as quality. Someone telling me on Ebay (or Discogs) that a record is ‘mint’ doesn’t replace the real interaction.

If you’re so remote and buying online is your only option, I get it. But if your town has a local store or even a Half Price Books or 2nd & Charles, you have to get out there.

Because that’s where the gold is.

© 2017 Chris Barry