Saturday, April 30, 2005

Not The NY Times Book Review

I never really stopped buying books...I'd just stopped reading them. Video killed the radio star and the internet killed my old reading instinct in much the same way.

Until around the end of 1998 (the time I finally went online and never looked back), I used to kill whole evenings lying on my bed with some music on the stereo, a drink within easy reach, and a paperback or hardcover propped up on my chest. Hell, I'd even read some books more than once, which seems pretty incredible in light of how much time that would consume these days, heh heh.

Happily, it appears that some recent determination on my part to reacquire my old habit has paid off, and I've finally started hacking away at the large pile of books I've accrued over the last 5 years. A couple of things have changes since my old voracious reading days of yore, however. Firstly, my frequency is way down: I don't knock these things back at anywhere near the pace I used to. Secondly (and perhaps more amusingly), my reading venue has changed: 80% of the reading I've been doing has been while sitting on the porcelain throne, the other 20% in my reclining PC chair with some music going in the background on "slow" nights.

Anyway, following are some thoughts on the books I've read since kick-starting the habit a few months ago. You might notice a definite trend in most of these titles, perhaps. I guess I figured I might as well read all of the similar-themed titles at a shot...

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio (Richard Neer)

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock RadioI picked this up a few years ago while shopping around at Borders, but in the end I didn't find an awful lot to reccommend in it (which explains its current residence on the shelf at the local Half Priced Books store). Ultimately, FM came off as far too New York-centric for me to get really engrossed. That said, I did recognize a few of the names dropped in the story, and I'm certainly familiar with all of the changes in formatting ideas and programming practices that became pandemic in American radio over the last two decades. Sadly, though, I just wasn't terribly entertained by Neer's writing style, and he is quite frankly too nice of a guy to throw punches or dish the dirt in a satisfying fashion.

Radio Daze: Stories From The Front In Cleveland's FM Air Wars (Mike Olszweski)

Now this is more what I had in mind: a history of FM radio with names I could attach voices and memories to, not to mention tales of radio subterfuge and promotional dirty tricks that I actually remembered as well as laughed at. Even better yet, the events in Radio Daze center around WMMS (100.7 FM), the station that not only defined the sound of my teenage years, but was also a cultural and marketing force that so dominated the Cleveland radio market from 1975-1985 that it staggers the imagination now to think of a time when one station could mean so much to so many.

Radio Daze: Stories From The Front In Cleveland's FM Air WarsEven though I am only intimately familiar with WMMS from 1983 onward, I was surprised to find the opening chapters of Radio Daze just as fascinating as the familiar era that dominates the last two-thirds of the book. Olszweski does a fine job setting up the introduction of FM rock to Cleveland while introducing the air crew and the original programming incarnation of WMMS. Back then, the most popular WMMS DJ was local legend Billy Bass who was instrumental in the station's rise to free-form prominence, attaining notoriety well outside of the state of Ohio. The Bass era was then followed by the station's meteoric ascent into the stratosphere towards the end of the 1970s following the arrival of the "classic" WMMS lineup, which included such crucial central figures as Kid Leo, John Gorman (several of his hilarious motivational "War Bulletins" to the staff are printed in their entirety), Denny Sanders, Jeff Kinzbach and Ed "Flash" Ferenc.

Eventually, the powerful nostalgia this book evoked in me became tainted with melancholy as Olszweski begins to allude to the storm clouds starting to gather on the horizon by the onset of 1984. To resort to cliche, all good things must come to an end -- and as Radio Daze moves into 1986, it almost becomes an almost funereal reading experience as the old Buzzard slowly but surely begins to come apart at the seams.

Starting with Gorman and Sanders' surprise defection to start up WNCX (which was, for a very short time, the most interesting station on the Cleveland airwaves until the corporate higher-ups pulled the plug and transformed it overnight into all-recurrent classic rock Hell), Radio Daze goes into almost painful detail outlining point-by-point the fall from grace and eventual disintegration of the old WMMS. While the old Buzzard magic was certainly beginning to dissipate by the time WNCX signed on, things went completely to hell a couple of years later in the wake of the Rolling Stone radio poll fiasco and the departure of Kid Leo for Columbia Records (followed by rest of the classic-era air staff over the following years). By the time a syndicated Howard Stern show had nailed the coffin shut on the once-invincible WMMS Morning Zoo once and for all, the old Buzzard that I had grown up with was long gone.

While simply covering WMMS alone would have been more than enough for me to enjoy Radio Daze, Olszweski always pulls back at opportune times to provide a bigger picture of the Cleveland radio market, telling stories about of the rise of John Lanigan and WMJI, the doomed alternative rock upstart WENZ, and the constant wars fought on multi-format turf as different stations lined up to take their shot at WMMS' throne.

Well paced, entertaining, and occasionally eye-opening in it's behind-the-scenes tales, Radio Daze is a fantastic read and very highly recommended to anyone who loved Cleveland radio, particularly The Buzzard, in the "good old days."

(The latter folks might also find this link of interest as well)

Above Hallowed Ground - A Photographic Record Of September 11, 2001 (The Photographers Of The New York City Police Department)

Above Hallowed Ground - A Photographic Record Of September 11, 2001OK, so there wasn't a lot of actual reading to do in this one, but I don't think added text could do a lot to make this book any more remarkable than it is.

God, what an amazing, horrifying collection of photos (taken from police helicopters as well as right smack in the midst of The Pile itself) to gaze at for an hour. The aerial shots in particular are just spellbinding in driving home the sheer scale of the destruction and chaos of that day. There is also a weird, blue-hued beauty to these pictures that is difficult to convey in text - they seem to take your breath away while demanding you to respect the awesome task at hand for the people who showed up to look for survivors, douse the flames, and ultimately clean up the titanic mess left behind.

Inside Out - A Personal History Of Pink Floyd (Nick Mason)

Inside Out - A Personal History Of Pink FloydIf there is one thing guaranteed to get me reading again it's the release of a new Pink Floyd book, and since this particular tome was written by the band's drummer (after a decade of holdups and delays), it was even more of an automatic grab for me than the late Nicholas Schaffner's definitive biography from 1991.

However, while Schaffner had the luxury of being an outsider who didn't have to worry about how someone might react to his take on events, Mason appears to have been forced away from writing a "definitive biography" of the band and into telling "his version" of the story (largely to avoid ruffling feathers or even sparking a lawsuit from his apparently extremely touchy bandmates, past and present). Thus, there isn't an awful lot in here that will really surprise longtime fans (though the occasional enlightening bit of information does show up from time to time). While this might seem a hindrance, Inside Out is made immensely entertaining by Mason's delightfully irreverent writing style: he often had me snickering aloud with his memories of early band gigs outside of London in 1967 and rueful summations of some of the more comedic stumbling points in the band's career in the decades after.

With Mason acting all these years as the band's unofficial historian and archivist, it was surprising that a handful of incorrect bits and misattributed dates (particularly towards the latter years) sneaked through the editorial process all the way to the finished product. Of course, it is the nature of Floyd trainspotters (like me) to read these parts, blink, make an audible sound of confusion or "no, that's not right," and briefly wonder if Mason wrote this particular chapter in a rush or simply didn't bother to do his own fact-checking. But any disappointed drooling-geek episodes are put aside after turning the next page and seeing more of the amazing, incredible, awesome photos that are, on their own, worth the entire price of the book (that being said, I think that at least one, and maybe more of the older pictures have been digitally retouched a la the cover of Simon & Garfunkel's Old Friends box set to remove incriminating cigarettes from a certain band member's hand).

Radio Waves: Life And Revolution On The FM Dial (Jim Ladd)

Radio WavesA kind of West Coast cousin to Neer's FM, written in a much more enjoyably sarcastic style and far more entertaining and incisive to read.

It must also be mentioned that, being the words of Jim Ladd, Radio Waves can also get rather preachy at times and Ladd seems prone to bashing an Important Point into a bloody smear on the pavement (yes yes, Jim, all radio and music since the death of John Lennon is a soulless sham to the Way Things Were and before Sgt Pepper's everything was a big ol' vacuous sock hop...I get it already!). While Radio Waves contains enough humor and insight into the workings of a major FM radio station to make it worthy of a look, be advised that there will be times (especially during the character conversations) where it feels like you're being condescended to by someone who just can't let go of the year 1969.

As was the case with FM, Radio Waves is basically a dramatized autobiography with the corporatization of FM radio serving as the chief antagonist to Ladd's idealistic vision of beating the "tribal drum" of social and political awareness from his glass booth at "Radio KAOS." Unlike Neer's book, however, Ladd is much more comfortable with dealing out tales of excess and betrayal behind the scenes. While nearly all of the major characters in Radio Waves are therefore creatively re-named to protect the guilty and the innocent, I would imagine that anyone who is familiar with the Los Angeles FM scene in the 1970s and 1980s would be able to suss out pretty quickly who is supposed to be who.

NP The Clash London Calling

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Vicious Pink

Even in a genre largely populated by ephemeral one-hit wonders, the U.K. duo Vicious Pink were a mere blip on the synthpop radar, playing exactly one live show (at The Ritz in 1984) and launching a couple of spaztastic electrodance classics up the dance club charts before vanishing as quickly as they had appeared.

Made up of keyboardist Brian Moss and statuesque singer Josephine Warden, Vicious Pink remains almost entirely unknown outside of the dance underground because their music was far more explicitly aimed at clubs than concerned with success on the pop charts. To that end, their work tended to have a quirky and more extended feel than mainstream radio would tolerate ("8:15 To Nowhere" would sound perfectly at home on the soundtrack to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for example). Despite the odds stacked against them, though, Vicious Pink were able to briefly attain a cult-level of success without ever breaking through to bigger things.

Although they had started releasing music professionally as early as 1982, Vicious Pink failed to attract much attention until the release of "Cccan't You See" and its instrumental b-side "8:15 To Nowhere" in 1984. Over the next two years, both sides of this single accrued some substantial airplay in clubs on both sides of the Atlantic as multiple versions were serviced to clubs over the timespan, keeping it "fresh" for far longer than would have been likely under normal circumstances. Also popular, but on a significantly lesser level, was the rather startlingly electroclash attack that was "Fetish." About as likely to garner mainstream airplay as Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" or Berlin's "Sex," "Fetish" was a wonderfully trashy dry-humping synth epic that eventually found a rather appropriate promotional platform years later as HBO used it during their popular series Real Sex II.

Only one album was ever released by Vicious Pink ... actually, it was released by their record company in 1986, after the duo had already ceased recording. Vicious Pink, therefore, was merely a collection of their previously released singles more than it was a cohesive "album" in the usual sense of the word.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: "Sex Dwarf"

Soft Cell
A decade before Lords Of Acid started making a killing off of marrying driving techno to breathless soft porn with Lust, the English electropop duo Soft Cell released Non Stop Erotic Cabaret, which did a far better (and more inherently listenable) job of blurring the lines between seedy decadence and mainstream dance music.

While a gloriously doomy remake of an obscure 1964 Gloria Jones single called "Tainted Love" remains for many people the beginning and end of Soft Cell's career, the synth duo of ex-art students Marc Almond and Dave Ball created a host of other songs just as good, if not better, than that monster 1981/1982 smash. Among these unsung classics was their debut single “Memorabilia” (later covered by nine inch nails), “Where The Heart Is,” “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” a cover of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” (which was famously mixed onto the 12” single of “Tainted Love”) and “Sex Dwarf.”

Perhaps the most infamous track in the duo’s limited canon (Soft Cell broke up only two years later),"Sex Dwarf" is not only one of the most hilariously over-the-top (and lyrically sharp) paeans to sadomasochism in the pop canon, but perhaps one of the sleaziest records (electronic or otherwise) ever released. While the lyrics are definitely bent towards a more, shall we say, deviant persuasion, the production of the song itself is a tour de force for the period, combining then-state-of-the-art Synclavier synthesizer and Roland 808 drum machine technology with, er, voice acting and sound effects to create an undeniably catchy, unstoppable monster of a track with no possibility of ever getting airplay on any station worth its FCC license (one can only imagine what the fabled and rarely-seen video to this song must have been like).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Sex Dwarf” failed to make any ripples in the U.S. outside of the dance club scene -- "Tainted Love” remains the only Soft Cell single to ever chart in this country. The story is only slightly different on their home turf: while they managed more than a half-dozen entries onto the U.K. singles lists (and certainly provided some inspiration, at least sonically, to bands like Erasure), “Sex Dwarf” is similarly not listed among their greatest chart hits. Go figure.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Me the other nightIt's been a long time since I was sick to the point that I felt as helpless as I did last night. What started out as a nasty allergy attack Tuesday morning gradually morphed into a four-alarm viral/cold/flu whatever it is that had my nose running like a damn faucet and my brains scrambled to the point of unusability. This was the kind of sick where everything had a weirdly chemical "sick" smell to it, there was a distant ringing in my ears, and my entire being felt like a stack of crumpled-up, soaking wet paper towels.

To paraphrase The Verve, the drugs didn't work: popping pills to combat the worst of the symptoms provided no relief whatsoever from the onslaught. I tried my usual sick defense of bundling myself up head to foot in blankets and layers of clothes in an attempt to "cook" the fever out of me, but even that seemed like a hopeless task as I'd awaken a couple of hours later dripping in sweat and actually feeling worse than before.

Ah, but it's always darkest just before the dawn, as the old proverb says, and that was the case here as well. I gradually awoke just before 8 A.M. this morning feeling not too bad at all, and I laid there in bed for a few minutes, afraid to stand up and suddenly feel like re-heated shit again. A little bit of dizziness and distant "murgh" feeling remains as I write this, but this is certainly better overall than I have felt for a couple of days now.

Against my better judgment, I'm gonna attempt a return to work this afternoon (I can't really afford two off days in a row right now and too much needs to be done today anyway) and see how that goes. I think that a shower followed by a big breakfast is in the cards since I haven't had much beyond chicken salad, orange juice, water and a fistful of pills over the last 48 hours.

Thank God for ibuprofen.

Addendum: OK, very bad idea.

All was going well until I got my breakfast at Bob Evans, at which I point I think I very nearly fainted (having never done so before, I'm not really sure what the hell happened). The waitress had put my plates down in front of me, and I had just taken a bite or so when I was overcome with dizziness to the point that I literally couldn't sit up anymore: I just moved my plates aside and rested my head on my arms like a first grader during "naptime." While this happened it felt like all of the blood in my body pooled up in my gut: my arms and legs were buzzing all over as if I‘d been sleeping on them. A bit scarier was that all of the sounds of the restaurant faded slowly away to a near-silence before starting to come back at last.

When I was able to sit back up, I was soaked with sweat from head to toe as well as a bit embarrassed for what had happened (I think I freaked out the waitress a little bit, but I left her a good tip for bringing me more water after she asked if I was OK).

From there it was on to work to at least get some work caught up, but it was apparent pretty quickly that I was not improving. Luckily, I was able to reach Brian and arrange for him to cover tonight as well as tomorrow so I can try and beat this thing once and for all. Chunky chicken noodle soup, stat.

In other news, blogger has apparently really taken a shit as it took me about 24 hours to post this update from when I wrote it. Way to drop the ball, there, guys.

Also, Moe is trying to get some neutered sex on with Ghidorah. Oh dear.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Jon And Vangelis

Jon And VangelisIt was one of those brief artistic larks that worked: in 1975, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson made a guest appearance on Heaven And Hell, the current album by Greek composer/ex-Aphrodite's Child member Vangelis (born Evangelos Papathanassiou), planting the seeds of what became a successful partnership a few years down the line.

There was some gossip that Anderson's burgeoning friendship with Vangelis resulted in the singer asking the keyboardist to join the ever-shifting Yes lineup, but pesky "creative differences" with the rest of the band prevented this from ever happening. Whatever the case, the early 1980 sessions for the follow-up to Tormato didn't go well at all -- the result was Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman abandoning ship, leaving the rest of the members to sink or swim on their own. Interestingly enough, the resultant Yes album, Drama, found Anderson and Wakeman replaced by The Buggles, as singer-producer Trevor Horn and future Asia keyboardist Geoffrey Downes joined the lineup in their stead.

Now free to do whatever he wished, Anderson contributed vocals to another Vangelis album (See You Later), before embarking on a full-album project with the prolific composer called Short Stories and credited to Jon & Vangelis. A largely improvisational work, Short Stories was greeted with a cautious reception stateside, but enough interest was generated overseas (the album and it's single "I Hear You Now" both went into the Top 10 in their respective U.K. charts) for the pair to give their collaboration another shot, the fruits of which arrived a year later.

The Friends Of Mr. Cairo Centered around the twelve minute title track (a kind of aural gangster movie replete with tough-guy dialogue and sound effects), The Friends Of Mr. Cairo was a work that benefited from a more deliberate and song-based approach than its predecessor. Featuring the lush, eerie swirl of "The Mayflower," the uplifting classic "I'll Find My Way Home" (whose melody was later lifted by B-Tribe on their 1994 single "You Won't See Me Cry"), and the more solemn, yet still expansive ballad "State Of Independence" (covered to great international success later on by Donna Summer and Moodswings), Mr. Cairo didn't just sound like a quantum leap forward from Short Stories, but it also sold far better: staying on the Billboard album charts for nearly eight months.

Following the success of Mr. Cairo, Jon & Vangelis released their next project -- the symphonic textured Private Collection -- in the summer of 1983 to good critical response but disappointingly cool sales (probably thanks to the lack of a radio-ready single like "I'll Find My Way Home"). Following this, Anderson found himself joining in with a newly revitalized Yes lineup which would soon seize the top of the charts with the Trevor Horn-produced 90125 and its attendant hit singles.

On a final note, 1991 saw the release of what is to this day the last Jon & Vangelis album, Page Of Life. Perhaps due to the length of time elapsed since Private Collection, or the more "contemporary" (read: less inviting) sound of the music, Page Of Life failed to make much of an impact anywhere.