Monday, January 30, 2006

Wish Book Scans

Aside from the turkey dinners, afternoon marathons of Godzilla movies, and digging for new toys in the upstairs bedroom drawers, another of the highlights of every Thanksgiving weekend we spent at my Grandma Cooke's in Pennsylvania was digging out that year's Sears Wish Book from the tiny magazine cabinet next to her recliner and then spending literally hours drooling over the new toys. Since my parents would often head out shopping on Black Friday, I'd spend most of Thanksgiving evening creating truly sick-dog huge Christmas lists from all of the provided ideas in these catalogs. Yeah, my chances of getting even half of this stuff on my lists was nonexistent, but hey, I had to try.

Anyway, somewhere out there in 'Netland, some very driven individual (bless his heart) has taken the time and effort to scan and post all 670 pages of Sears' Wish Book For The 1979 Holiday Season on, and gazing upon those ancient pages was a powerful, wonderful time warp straight back to my wantonly avaricious child self. Remarkable nostalgia.

For those of you who don't have the time or don't feel like scanning about for an hour, I included links to some of my favorite parts:

* Some fave reading materials of mine from that time period on this page, including Dynamite! and Bananas magazines, and the Charlie Brown Book(s) Of Question And Answers.

* My dad had this electric ball bearing clock halfway down this page. This was cute and cool for about a day or so. After that, it became intolerable since it made so much damn noise. We slept in the room right behind where this thing was set up. At 1:00 A.M. nearly every morning, I was awakened by this thing doing a power dump as the maximum amount of usable marbles (12:59) were all summarily jettisoned from their shelves and rolled into the guts of the damn thing.

* Wee Wonderful Waterfuls!!! Slime!!! Silly Putty!!!

* Oh wow ... they had Bee Gees-themed kiddie turntables and amplifiers?

* Oooo, Spirograph. And Lite-Brite. And that spinning thingie that you dripped paint onto to make wicked cool designs (and made one unholy fun mess if you timed it right). They don't make 'em like this anymore.

* I don't think we had the Winnie The Pooh model, but that bath tub toy in the upper left corner on this page looks awfully damn familiar ...

* Ye gods ... I think half of my old childhood toy box is on this page and that page alone.

* When I was much younger, my brother and I were all about Hot Wheels. We both wanted that beauty service garage, but never got one.

* Ack. The less said about this page, the better.

* Mmm, I lusted after this Iwo Jima playset for years.

* Star Wars toys! Now we're talking! I'd forgotten that this awful, ultralame early Mos Eisley cantina playset even existed (the die-cast metal Star Destroyer was pretty cool, however), but there was much joy in our household when my brother and I scored the Millennium Falcon, the X-wing fighter and the Darth Vader TIE fighter instead.

* Ooo, Nite-Glow.

* Haa, I'd completely forgotten that Sears had their own Atari 2600 clone.

* This was long before I ever owned a computer, but the pages here and here that advertise the Atari 400 Personal Computer System (complete with data tape drive and awful membrane keyboard) are a hoot.

* I never got the 2-XL as seen here, but my sister got the Speak & Spell, and I believe my brother had the Little Professor calculator.

* Oooo, how desperately I wanted a Big Trak or a (ROM The Space Knight, for that matter)? Let me count the ways...

* Merlin!!!! I never had a Quiz Wiz, but oh did I badger my parents for one...

* I had these electronic sports games ... well, (1) (3) and (5) at least!

Ahh, memories. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I love the internet.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot

One of the biggest surprise gifts I recieved this past Christmas was a 2 DVD-R set containing the complete run of Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot: a 1967 Japanese T.V. series that was imported (and substantially re-tooled) for U.S. syndication two years later.

Similar to the previously-discussed Ultraman T.V. series (which was shown back to back with this show on WXON Channel 20 in Detroit during my youth), Johnny Sokko was all about hilariously fake-looking giant monsters attacking Tokyo on a daily basis and getting their rubbery asses kicked in short order by a 100-foot tall Egyptian-looking robot equipped with eye lasers, a flamethrower for a mouth, and rocket-launching fingers. Said robot can also fly at Mach 17 and is controlled by the series' namesake: a pudgy 12-year old kid with a radio-control wristwatch.

Adding an element of secret-agent cool to the proceedings is the "secret war" that represents the story arc of the entire series. You see, these unending monster attacks weren't just random beasts sludging ashore from the depths of the Pacific out of sheer boredom, but instead these were deliberate attacks by the evil Emperor Guillotine from the planet Gargoyle, whose planned takeover of the Earth by way of "Giant Robot" was short-circuited by Johnny Sokko being the first voice heard by the automaton following its accidental activation by an (apparently very low-yield) nuclear explosion at a Gargoyle-run construction facility.

Since Johnny is now the sole controller of the robot, he is quickly persuaded by his new best buddy (and suave secret agent) Jerry Mano to join U.N.I.C.O.R.N., a kind of worldwide police force charged with the security of the Earth against all foes, most notably Guillotine's hired muscle, The Gargoyle Gang (the footsoldiers of whom all resemble Japanese Nazis in Ray-Bans, particularly their initial boss, Spider).

I suppose being a kid and seeing these 26 episodes scattered over a month or so of afternoon T.V. viewing failed to telegraph just how incredibly stupid most of the plots for this series really were, but watching all 26 in a 3-4 day period really drove the point home. Your average Johnny Sokko episode (you can view synopses of all the shows here) pretty much goes like this:

1. A monster attacks something somewhere.

2. Johnny and Jerry are sent to investigate, alone.

3. In a matter of minutes, Johnny and Jerry are captured and summarily threatened a lot by the Gargoyles and their current leader (any one of a mixed bag of cool / extremely annoying characters). Of course, the two are never killed outright (which would be the most immediate way to take Giant Robot out of the equation once for all), but constantly placed in a room with a time bomb ticking away in the corner. The enemies, of course, all chuckle evilly and walk off to another room in order to await the big ka-boom.

4. Johnny and Jerry escape, of course, and the day's monster is unleashed upon Tokyo.

5. Johnny calls in Giant Robot and the final battle is waged (and generally won in very short order).

One key factor to this show being as, well, laughable as it is most of the time has to be due to the near identical nature of the plots from episode to episode, as described above. While I realize a certain amount of fallibility in both organizations is necessary for there to be any kind of tension in the battle between good and evil, the incredible, absolute incompetence of both organizations is just staggering to behold. Funnier still, in light of their apparent complete inabilty to keep a secret or guard any given location with any number of soliders, both sides also display a convenient omniscence in being able to infiltrate the deepest reaches of their enemies' organization at the drop of a hat. If, say, U.N.I.C.O.R.N. hatches a top secret plan to move a new, indestructible metal from Point A to Point B, you can guarantee at least one agent will reveal himself as a Gargoyle member and steal said formula. Bet the house on it. You'll never lose.

Dr. Botanus: the spritual father of Destro, I'm sureDespite these often hare-brained plots, a few of the later episodes in the series managed to reach some startling (and occasionally very creepy) creative heights for a kid-aimed T.V. show, which is rather disappointing since you must wade through so much dreck to get there. The same was true of the characters employed by Guillotine to command his foot soldiers. Spider was dealt with early in the series (in a rather bloodless, yet graphic fashion), leaving the command of the Gargoyle forces to a host of replacements. Yet, for every interesting leader such as the silver-skulled Doctor Botanus, the truly ghoulish Space Mummy or the Gargoyle-controlled robot Torozon (perhaps the only truly worthy opponent faced by Giant Robot during the whole damn series), you have such incredibly inane creations such as Fangor (imagine a cross between William Hung and The Phantom Of The Opera), the unbelievably irritating green gigglemuppet Dr. Engali, or the monster Double-Head (the most hilariously fake monster of them all: Giant Robot very nearly knocks the headpiece off of the costume a few times during their climactic battle).

All that said, it was a hoot to watch this series again through older eyes. I don't know if I could ever watch all of these again in sequence (some were that bad), but there are definitely a handful of standouts that should stand up well to repeat viewings. Here's hoping my friend Dave (who gave me this collection) can come up with the whole run of Ultraman on DVD for this Christmas ...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Christmas In March!

March 7, 2006 ... which is also the same day as Morph The Cat: the first new Donald Fagen solo album since 1993.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Out Of The Past

Embers and ashes, in a literal sense

Writing this particular entry was kind of like sucking out old, stale venom from a reopened wound, but this is something I needed to get out in order to clear my head of old ghosts and goblins from another life. In other words, I can't imagine that reading any of this will be anywhere near as therapeutic or enriching for y'all as it was for me to post it ... think of this as I Am A Bug Goes LiveJournal and you'll get an idea as to what to expect. Otherwise, I'd skip ahead ...

By the time I'd met Sarah in an old online hangout we both frequented in the spring of 1999, I hadn't dated anyone at all in nearly three years. The last actual relationship of any kind I'd been in before that last one-off date in the fall of 1996 was the third in a series of ill-advised 1-2 week flings I'd had the year before (1995 was apparently a great time to be working in a mall record store as far as pulling chicks was concerned). Before then, I had been in a couple of lengthier relationships, but there has always been only one Ex in my life.

This past Monday, I had the day off and decided to do some running around in Mentor (mostly dumping off some old cruft at Half Price Books). Since I was going to be in the area, I decided to use up my Christmas gift cards at Borders and Kohl's, and it was at the latter location that I unexpectedly found myself nearly face-to-face with The Ex for the first time in more than seven years.

There really isn't a lot to say about the moment beyond the above paragraph; no words were exchanged, no eye contact was made, and there were no dramatic gestures or even a grand swelling of strings in the background. I had been standing in line with an armful of clothes, fumbling around for my gift card in the inside breast pocket of my coat. I looked up briefly to see out which register was open, looked back down, and then did a shocked double-take, murmuring to myself "you've got to be fucking kidding me."

I wasn't fucking kidding me ... it was The Ex, working at one of the open registers.

The last I'd heard (and this was a few years ago now), The Ex had been working at a bank in downtown Cleveland. Based on that, I'd figured the chances of us ever running into each other again as nearly negligible (and that was correct ... I'd just forgotten about that pesky "nearly" part). As I told Sarah later on, I'm pretty sure The Ex knew I was there the whole time as I had wandered throughout the store over the previous twenty minutes, absently looking around at what all was on sale aside from clothes. While I was standing halfway between two registers, dumbfounded, The Ex's attention was thankfully centered on the customer she was dealing with. I was just starting to wonder exactly how I was going to say "hello" when the cashier at the other open register called me over. Greatly relieved, I purchased my new clothes, my mind kind of fogged up with the wonder of it all.

While it took me a few minutes to get past the complete surprise of seeing The Ex that night, it has not been nearly as easy to put her out of my thoughts a few days later. The reason for this is that I had a long chat with my old friend Ike earlier this evening: the first time we'd talked at length in years, actually. It was while we were reminiscing over acquaintances/members of the old "gang" when I let slip that I'd run into someone I hadn't seen in a long time while when I was at Kohl's. Ike immediately started to laugh in recognition: he knew exactly where I was headed. Small world.

As it turns out, Ike and The Ex (who have known each other since at least high school) still hang out on occasion with some other members of the old gang, and we wound up in a short conversation about her in the midst of our catching up. I started off asking questions about her in a rather catty fashion, but forced myself into more civil territory in deference to Ike's situation: being friends with two people who have fallen out is never a comfortable place to be.

While discussing hanging out and playing Texas Hold 'Em (can someone please explain to me when the hell poker became out new national pastime?) with The Ex and friends, Ike crossed over into mentioning her current boyfriend in unremittingly hostile terms. Listening to Ike describe a near-fight that broke out over a recent poker game, I felt my face harden a bit, my good humor replaced by a sudden, unexpected flash of old, rotten anger. Surprised at myself for this reaction, it took me a few hours of thinking things over to figure out what that was all about, and out of that reflection came this post.

Full disclosure: I knew The Ex was interested in me long before I ever got the nerve to move things beyond the neighborhood of "just friends." I hadn't really said much of anything to her beyond pleasantries until she appeared at a small party I had thrown at my parents house in the spring of 1991. I had seen her around at Newberry's for months beforehand (she apparently had been hired while I was living in Columbus or working in Willoughby for most of that year) and she also was in my English class at Lakeland the fall quarter I returned to school in an ill-fated effort to get myself off the shop floor and into the office at the factory job I had been working for three months. For the first six months I knew her, The Ex was a kind of mysterious and shy presence: I wasn't attracted to her, but I sensed she was interested in me ... a feeling that was confirmed a few months later when I learned of her feelings from a mutual friend of ours. Amusingly enough, I was completely disinterested at the time, as I was very interested in that mutual friend instead, but alas that interest was not reciprocated (and she was quite frankly way out of my league anyway). Funny how what goes around comes around, eh?

Being that I was in vain, unspoken pursuit of that mutual friend, I found myself hanging out with The Ex's quite a bit over the summer. The lot of us would usually head into the warehouse district in The Flats to what was then called Metropolis on Sunday nights to dance, drink, smoke, and attempt to conduct conversations for hours on end, all the while being pounded mercilessly by relentless Belgian techno. At some point, somewhere during that summer, I had started to regard The Ex differently than I had before and it wasn't until we were on the way home from Metropolis at 3 A.M. on a Sunday that September that I got up the nerve to take her hand in mine while we both lounged tipsily in the backseat of Ike's car. A couple of nights later, nervous as hell, I started to clumsily make my moves. I was a complete novice at this kind of thing and flying by the seat of my pants, but my fears that I had waited too long and missed my opportunity were unfounded: in a few days, I found myself in my first full blown relationship.

When we started "going out," The Ex was living in an apartment complex a couple blocks from my house: she had gone through a huge row with her parents and for the time being was rooming with Lisa, a cousin of her best friend. One might think was a dream come true scenario for me, but in fact this arrangement was the complete opposite of that: Lisa had no concept of time, a rather over-ripe intellect, and a mouth that had no shut-off valve. Visiting The Ex at the apartment usually entailed waiting until nearly 4 A.M. to get some quality time alone with her as this was when Lisa finally started to wind down and head to bed after bombarding us with World War II trivia or whatever else came to her mind for five solid, soul-smashing hours.

I was initially overjoyed a few weeks later when The Ex announced she was moving back in with her parents as that finally meant I wouldn't have to endure Lisa The Human Encyclopedia for hours on end every night ... though in a cruel twist of irony, that also meant my time with The Ex would be severely curtailed, as her parents had her under lock and key as if she were a ninth grade delinquent rather than a college student. Once she moved back, The Ex had to be dropped off at home by 11 P.M. every night. No exceptions. No more going out dancing, no more breathless groping at 4 A.M., and any time we would have alone together was either at my house or on the rare occasions her parents were out of town. So much for lucky breaks ...

To get around the maddening new time restraints, we would quietly talk on the phone for hours at night, and it was that enforced distance between us that pushed us even closer together. Falling in love with The Ex was all too easy for me: she was energetic, passionate, extremely talented, and affectionate: almost everything I could have asked for in a significant other. However, she also had a stormy, almost bipolar personality and attendant mood swings that could come along at the drop of a hat. Ours was a stormy, almost soap-opera worthy relationship at times: it seemed like we spent half of the time we weren't imitating rabbits either fighting with each other or going through some kind of dramatic crisis that needed working out. For me, completely new to this kind of thing, this was a healthy relationship: it became perfectly normal for us to get completely fed up and exasperated with each other on one day and then spend the next two in bed. Looking back on this now, I'm a little ashamed of myself for putting up with so much grief so gladly in the interests of getting laid: guys really can be malleable, sex-centered apes when given the chance. We can also get lazy ... dangerously so: and if we're too content with the way things are to pay attention to little signs of things going wrong, very bad things can happen.

From September of 1991 until May of 1993, The Ex was The One I was destined to be with forever, the Love Of My Life, the cream in my coffee ... insert cliche here. In a few short weeks after that, she also became The One That Got Away.

It was right around Memorial Day 1993 when The Ex dropped the bomb and our relationship immediately went into an calamitous, five-month long tailspin (the epic length of this breakup was entirely thanks to my stubborn refusal to just let go already). While I never seriously considered, say, throwing myself off the top of Terminal Tower, I spent a most of the second half of 1993 believing that I had lost everything worth living for.

Worse, I had lost my everything to someone else who had simply waltzed into the picture when I wasn't looking and stolen her right out from under my nose. By the time I'd found out what was happening (it was kind of like a live "Dear John" letter in conversation form), it was already too late to do anything about the situation, though I didn't believe that while it was unfolding.

HARD-LEARNED LESSON TIME: Listen up, alright? Let's be really clear about something here: if there is already someone else in the picture, it doesn't matter if anything has happened physically or not when you find out, because your time is already over. Real life is not High Fidelity: there is no successful pleading, bargaining or changing your loved one's mind after someone else has already seized their imagination. If you ever find yourself in this situation, then do yourself a favor by suckin' it up and walking away with what is left of your dignity intact. If you don't, you're only going to wish you had months later, generally after you've made a complete and utter fool of yourself attempting to undo the irreversible.

If you think I sound bitter now, heh heh, you should have seen me thirteen years ago. I think it's fair to say that I was not a very fun person to be around during this time of my life. Reflecting on that year mainly brings up pangs of regret and embarrassment: my wheels had come off and I wasn't myself anymore. The intended "post-breakup-but-can-we-still-be-friends" relationship The Ex tried to institute with me didn't work at all thanks to the borderline-psychotic way I was handling the situation: not only was I floundering in despair, but I was also seething with rage at the way things had turned out. Conversations on the phone degenerated into ugly recriminations or humiliating pleas for one more chance please and I swear it will work again I love you so much how can you do this to me et cetera. In the end, it took a tense, but civil chat with The Ex's father on the phone one afternoon for me to finally get the message to just back off and move on.

The following summer, in a futile exercise, I blundered into a "bounce-back" relationship with someone far too young for me that was pretty much doomed to failure from Day One and should never have lasted six days, let alone six months. That plastic sham of a relationship flew to pieces in nearly identical fashion to my first, and after that disaster came the previously-mentioned wave of brief, purely-physical one-week-stands. These little flings were a nice boost for a sorely-woudned ego at the time, sure, but they were also completely meaningless: by then, everything was on my terms and I had no patience or desire anymore to take things beyond a few rolls in the hay.

After ducking each other for two years (we still worked in the same shopping mall, mind) a couple of tentative letters were sent back and forth between The Ex and I, and we eventually found ourselves on civil speaking terms again by the beginning of 1996 (we even saw a movie together at some point and headed out for an after-work drink at TGIFs). I wish I could say that I didn't try to ask her out again that year, but I felt I had nothing to lose by trying. You can guess the answer I got for yourself.

Time heals all wounds, perhaps, but in this case too much damage had been done for things between us to ever return to anything beyond pleasantries and small talk. While I'd made a couple of halfhearted overtures, we never moved beyond the point of cautious, casual friendliness again, and I lost contact with her completely after Record Den moved out of the mall at the end of 1997. I'd had little or no reason to ever head back in there since, and I believe it was just before Christmas of 1998 when we talked to each other for the last time.

More than anything else, talking with my close friends about The Ex over the years since the breakup finally began to fundamentally alter the way I viewed our relationship, displaying loud and clear just how fraught with problems and flaws it had always been. We all tend to remember the best times and the best attributes about people we've lost contact with unless someone else who was around reminds us of how things really were, and refocusing on everything that was wrong with our relationship is what finally started the healing process for me all those years ago.

It was hearing about her current boyfriend from Ike that finally gave form to a thought I'd been kicking around for some time: The Ex was not really The One That Got Away at all ... I had that line of thinking completely backwards. That surge of anger and/or resentment that I'd felt during that chat wasn't about losing The Ex to yet another meatheaded asshole, it was about losing me for the better part of six years and letting myself seriously think that I'd made the mistake of a lifetime at age 24 when all I'd done was refuse to fucking grow up a bit and carry on.

Ultimately, Ike had to take off and I had to return to my work. We exchanged good-byes and handshakes, with me passing along a message of "hello" to The Ex as an afterthought, but having written all of this down for posterity, a part of me now hopes that message doesn't get through after all. That "hello" was intended as a kind of "hi, I thought that was you, heh" though it could just as easily be taken as a "hey, gimme a call sometime" or "stop by and say hi wilya?" These interpretations can only set up another pointless dead-end, and I have no desire (or reason) to re-establish contact with The Ex, much less re-enter that part of my life any further than I already have while bopping all of this dreck into the ether.

That said, I don't have much to worry about as I'm fairly confident The Ex doesn't want to revisit any of this shit, either. I'm not exactly a difficult person to find (I've only been working at for the same store since the end of 1987, for crying out loud) and having not heard nor seen her since the last freakin' century says it all right there. Also, there is something that The Ex probably knew well before our break-up that took me ages to face up to: we aren't similar people, and I'm not sure that we ever were. While the physical part was great, the endless emotional sturm und drang that she fed on for the sake of her art and the constant fiery battles we waged with each other over friends, futures, careers, whether or not we were going to move to New York City and who knows what else ultimately made the whole thing untenable.

I certainly wish things hadn't gone as spectacularly badly as they did, but I have no regrets hanging over my head anymore. My life would be dramatically different than it is now had things somehow worked themselves out ... and "different" in a way that I most likely wouldn't have been happy with, one way or the other. Looking back now, I wasn't really happy from 1991-1993, either. I'd let myself believe that those years were the absolute pinnacle of happiness and contentment, and I couldn't have been farther from the truth. Despite all of the recent shenanigans with finances gone amok over the last year, I am happy now -- personally and professionally. In fact, life is better than it has ever been, and I'm in love with someone who isn't going to dump me for Marky Fucking Anarchy or slip into a funk if I go see a U2 concert without her or (heaven forbid) decide to go to my parents/friend's house for a visit while she wants to stay at home.

The feelings of irreplaceable loss are long gone: The Ex was a "learning experience," as we guys say when we can think of no other good reason why so much effort was expended on so fruitless an endeavor.

A pair of phat rims, chillin'

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Going into this winter, I figured it would be statistically improbable to follow up the Snowiest Winter In NorthEast Ohio History™ with a season just as bad or even worse, but I had no idea the weather was going to swing completely the other way as it has so far.

It seemed initially that we were in for one very long winter as it was already colder than hell and blowing snow all over the place on Thanksgiving Day, and we found ourselves pretty well blitzed by heavy snow storms over the early weeks of December as well. And then, something utterly unexpected happened as we hit the calendar start of winter: the season just stopped, and seemingly on a dime at that.

Now, I am not exactly complaining about all of this, mind you. Outside of a two-week period around Christmas and New Year's Day (as I've said elsewhere, green Christmases are a real spiritual drag), we could stay completely snow-free all winter long and I'd be totally O.K. with that. I like watching snow falling and seeing a fresh blanket of white in the morning as much as the next guy: it's driving though said conditions (especially with other people on the roads) that makes me dread this time of year.

So, perhaps as a karmic treat for enduring the unending hell of 2005, I have been given a Dream Winter (or at least a Dream January ... we won't be in the clear for "no snow" until May) this year. For the last three weeks (save for a two-day false alarm last weekend), there has been no snow, no blasts of steel arctic suffering, and a temperature reading that is seemingly incapable of dropping below thirty degrees. Hell, Sarah (snowbunny incarnate) tells me we're due to hit fifty degrees on Thursday. Muahahahaha.

Tennis, anyone?

NP Robert Plant & The Strange Sensation The Mighty Rearranger

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Record Den Top 100 Sellers Of 2005

American Idiot
1. GREEN DAY American Idiot

2. SYSTEM OF A DOWN Mezmerize

With Teeth

Hot Fuss

X & Y

6. 50 CENT Massacre

Get Behind Me, Satan
7. THE WHITE STRIPES Get Behind Me, Satan

A Bigger Bang

Lost And Found
9. MUDVAYNE Lost And Found

Make Believe
10. WEEZER Make Believe

In Your Honor
11. FOO FIGHTERS In Your Honor

Out Of Exile
12. AUDIOSLAVE Out Of Exile

The Documentary
13. THE GAME The Documentary

Demon Days
14. GORILLAZ Demon Days

The Calm

Ten Thousand Fists
16. DISTURBED Ten Thousand Fists

Late Registration
17. KANYE WEST Late Registration

Chaos And Creation In The Backyard
18. PAUL McCARTNEY Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

Stand Up

Man's Myth
20. TWIZTID Man's Myth

21. THE MARS VOLTA Frances The Mute
22. SYSTEM OF A DOWN Hypnotize
23. MADONNA Confessions On A Dance Floor
24. OASIS Don't Believe The Truth
25. MIKE JONES Who Is Mike Jones?
26. JUDAS PRIEST Angel Of Retribution
27. NEIL YOUNG Prairie Wind
28. THE STOOGES The Stooges
29. BECK Guero
30. THE STOOGES Funhouse
31. EMINEM Encore
33. FRANZ FERDINAND You Could Have It So Much Better
34. MICHAEL STANLEY American Road
36. GWEN STEFANI Love, Angel, Music, Baby
38. INSANE CLOWN POSSE Forgotten Freshness Vol. 4
39. NICKELBACK All The Right Reasons
40. KORN See You On The Other Side
41. 311 Don't Tread On Me
42. NEIL YOUNG Greatest Hits
45. MARIAH CAREY The Emancipation Of Mimi
46. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE Lullabies To Paralyze
47. EMINEM Curtain Call: The Hits
48. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN Born To Run: 30th Anniversary Edition
49. TWIZTID Mutant
50. DREAM THEATER Octavarium
51. JACK JOHNSON In Between Dreams
52. BRIGHT EYES I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
53. MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge
54. LED ZEPELIN Early Days & Latter Days
55. PINK FLOYD The Dark Side Of The Moon
56. YOUNG JEEZY Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101
58. AEROSMITH Rockin' The Joint
60. CREAM Royal Albert Hall
61. PAUL WALL The People's Champ
62. STAIND Chapter V
63. GARBAGE Bleed Like Me
64. BRIGHT EYES Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
65. STEVIE WONDER The Definitive Collection
66. BON JOVI Have A Nice Day
68. GENESIS ...And Then There Were Three
69. CHAMILLIONAIRE The Sound Of Revenge
70. OUR LADY PEACE Healthy In Paranoid Times
71. OFFSPRING Greatest Hits
72. THE DARKNESS One Way Ticket To Hell .. And Back
73. KENNY CHESNEY The Road And The Radio
74. THREE 6 MAFIA Most Known Unknown
75. CROSBY, STILLS & NASH Greatest Hits
77. 3 DOORS DOWN Seventeen Days
79. GENESIS The Platinum Collection
80. MOTLEY CRUE Red, White & Crue
81. THE CHOIR Choir Practice
83. METALLICA Metallica
84. BLACK EYED PEAS Monkey Business
85. BEN FOLDS Songs For Silverman
86. KELLY CLARKSON Breakaway
87. MARILYN MANSON Lest We Forget: The Best Of Marilyn Manson
88. VELVET REVOLVER Contraband
89. PINK FLOYD Animals
91. GREEN DAY Bullet In A Bible
92. ALICE COOPER Dirty Diamonds
93. KOTTONMOUTH KINGS Kottonmouth Kings
94. FALL OUT BOY From Under The Cork Tree
96. THE BRAVERY The Bravery
97. MOBY Hotel
98. TORI AMOS The Beekeeper
99. RASCAL FLATTS Feels Like Today
100. ARCADE FIRE Funeral

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Things Are (or: "Where'd Ya Hide The Singles?")

Anyone paying even cursory attention to the news over the last couple of years is probably well familiar with the totally fucked state the modern music industry has found itself in over the last four years. Yeah, downloading and piracy are pretty major bugaboos these days, but the damage is being done on nearly all levels: not just with the weak sales of recent albums. The many iterations of the industry's current woes have been covered exhaustively: music itself sucks, radio stations care more about enedlessly spinning the overexposed hits of 1964-1999 than actually trying anything new (which has turned car commercials and The O.C. into the current way to break new acts), kids care more about video games than music, concert attendance is dive-bombing while ticket prices are skyrocketing, the major labels are collapsing in on themselves while eating each other up, record stores themselves are an anachronism, et cetera.

What I find rather darkly amusing about the above is that you hardly ever see discussed what in my mind are the three root causes for most of this malaise

1. The advent of the Nielsen Soundscan era, which was the beginning of the industry's current idiotic obsession with first-week numbers ... all other priorities rescinded.

2. The major label-funded creation of the three headed monster that is Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target. After a decade of setting the table, with thousands of independent record stores and dozens of national record store chains long since closed, these three mass-merchants (all of whom would just as soon sell singing fish plaques as Mariah Carey CDs) have become, by some distance, the three biggest retail accounts in music. Even better, none of these chains cater to anything outside of the current Top 40. Worst of all, and the biggest reason for the annihilation of the music retail base, the dominance of the mass merchants was almost entirely due to an incredibly short-sighted effort by the major labels to generate bigger SoundScan numbers by using the loss-leader pricing ability of these chains to crank up first-week numbers as big as possible. Funnily enough, the dependence of the major labels on the mass merchants has become such that they can ill afford to let these accounts stop carrying their product and, in effect, pay these stores for shelf space.

3. The forced killing of the singles market. This catastrophic strategic miscalculation, more than any other factor, is directly responsible for the explosion of P2P downloading at the tail end of the decade, which eventually sent the entire industry into a tailspin.

It's not often that I get to pat myself on the back for clairvoyance, but I recently came across a feature article I'd written in the fall of 1997 (during my tenure as senior writer at Scene) that, nearly a decade later, literally screams a frustrated "I told you so!!" to the very industry I've been working in for half of my life. Some of the names in this article may have changed, but the general thrust of the piece holds up pretty well ...

"Where'd Ya Hide The Singles?"
How New Sales Strategies Are Rendering Hit Singles Obsolete

Following a silent, subtle decline over the past seven years, the commercially released single -- once a dependable market-testing workhorse and the ideal way to break a new artist into public awareness -- appears to be an endangered species. This ominous trend has been most noticeable in the alternative rock genre, but there have also been hundreds of popular songs in the categories of rap, country, adult contemporary and dance music deliberately kept off store shelves as well. Anyone searching for the current hits by the Rolling Stones, Matchbox 20, Oasis, Smash Mouth, or the Wallflowers on cassette or CD single? Save yourself some grief -- they don't exist.

Throughout the rock era, singles were considered to be the "gateway" format for the industry to establish regular music buying patterns for the under-18 demographic, who can rarely afford buy full length releases due to limited average income. Once teenagers had acquired a habit of buying singles, the old thinking went, it was logical that they would "graduate" to buying full-length albums after they had acquired a steady source of income. With that process now short-circuited by the shrinking amount of radio hits available at a cheap price, kids (as well as adults) have become far more wary of splurging fifteen bucks on an unknown album when all they wanted was "that one song" in the first place.

While the single racks at record stores may appear to be full of smash hits, a little detective work reveals that this isn't necessarily so. Incredibly, less than 40% of the current Top 75 tracks being played on the radio have any kind of single available in stores. "Don't Speak," "Men In Black," "How Bizarre" and "Lovefool" (three of the biggest mass appeal radio smashes of the last year) have never even been released. The above percentage plummets to less than 15% when you examine the current Modern Rock Top 40 -- thus, if you're intending to pick up recent hits by Sublime, Foo Fighters, Sugar Ray or the Dave Matthews Band, you'll want to keep a twenty-spot handy for each.

Not surprisingly, record companies have vigorously defended this policy of abstinence, though their reasoning involves the kind of fallacious arguments and fudged-with facts one would expect from a political candidate on the campaign trail. The myriad reasons behind the lack of support for singles vary from bottom-line financial concerns to the preservation of "street-credibility" to the rise of new and upgraded technologies (i.e. video games and computer software) that are supposedly draining away the music buyers market here in the U.S.

The Legacy Of Vanilla Ice & MC Hammer

Perhaps the most oft-cited excuse for the dearth of hit radio songs appearing as singles is that a commercially available cassette or CD single cannibalizes its parent album's sales potential. In fairness to the labels, this argument is admittedly not without merit. The two ground-breaking (and most spectacular) examples of this strategy date back to the two biggest selling albums of 1990 -- MC Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em and Vanilla Ice's To The Extreme (obviously, 1990 was a year we would all love to forget). Shifting a combined 17 million copies, the chief sales catalysts from these records were either never made available ("U Can't Touch This") or deleted just as popular demand began to spike ("Ice Ice Baby"). This grand experiment paid out huge dividends to the companies who went with the risky strategy -- and with the advent of SoundScan just around the corner in 1991, it was only a matter of time before both of these practices would become commonplace.

Seven years later, the major labels know how to make the once-reviled SoundScan (the independent firm that tabulates the sales figures used in the Billboard charts) system work in their favor. The refurbished-model Billboard album chart moves at a far more rapid pace these days, and perfect timing is of the essence if a label wants to grab that lofty debut at the Number One slot. Of course, it's doubly helpful to withhold the release of a hot advance single and instead force consumers to cough up for the full-length album as quickly as possible. Barbra Streisand's Higher Ground debuted at the top of the Billboard chart last week, moving over 200,000 units in the process. Granted, Streisand's fan base is considerable, yet how many copies were sold thanks to the non-availability of "Tell Him," her duet with Celine Dion (whose own new album featuring the same hit, Let's Talk About Love, debuts on this week's chart)?

This strategy can also work wonders when a single is flash-released for a week or so and then deleted as soon as the album hits the shelves a la "Ice Ice Baby." Hold your noses and check out the sales of Aqua's debut album Aquarium-- the single "Barbie Girl" was available for one week prior to the album's release and then deleted immediately. As a result, Aquarium moved nearly 750,000 units in its first two months of release. The two-week availability of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" (the "Rock And Roll Part 2" of the 1990's) has already surpassed Aqua's sales feat in its first two months on the shelves, and will likely be one of this Christmas season's surprise mega-sellers.

Never releasing a single in the first place can also work a potent magic on sales. Matchbox 20's Yourself Or Someone Like You has sold over 1.5 million copies on the strength of "Push," and Fleetwood Mac's blockbuster The Dance was driven in part by the massive radio and video blitz on "Silver Springs," which was serviced to the public only as a vinyl 45 record -- thus making it eligible to chart despite the fact that virtually no one outside of DJ's or hard-core collectors even buys vinyl anymore. With success stories like these, it does become easy to see the industry's point.

Despite these winning examples, there remains a substantial fault in this corporate boardroom logic -- how does one explain such monster albums as Hysteria, Rumours, Thriller, Metallica, Cracked Rear View, Pieces Of You, and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness? All of these albums have had multiple singles released and yet still sold far into the multi-millions. The Hootie, Jewel and Smashing Pumpkins albums in particular are notable in that they were released well into this anti-single decade and all have flagrantly defied the notion that singles aren't a viable option in the late 1990's. More recently, LeAnn Rimes' You Light Up My Life blitzed through over one million copies in a month with not one, but two singles currently available and selling. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

In an interesting development, a small company called Under The Cover Records has indulged in pure capitalism and released its own cassette singles of "Fly" and "Walkin' On The Sun" by a couple of "studio acts" respectively dubbed Sweet Rain and Smack. These note-for-note renditions of the radio hits by Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth could be the beginning of something unheard of in the U.S. industry for decades -- the mass-marketing of big hits by faceless musicians for the purposes of commercial exploitation. Even better -- Sweet Rain and Smack would fit almost exactly where Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth would be located in singles displays. Cute. One can infer that "Barbie Girl" by Arrgh! is only weeks away at this point.

Our Prices Are In-sane!!

The other major factor working against singles comes from an entirely different (and ancient) industry strategy gone haywire. While it is possible to debate the wisdom and merits of the "lost album sales" theory, this other problem is a little more difficult to decry, even though it was brought on by the record companies themselves and its widespread use defied (and still defies) financial logic.

Incredibly, hit singles can now actually hurt a company's bottom line. This is thanks in part to the ludicrously high cost of record promotion (a lengthy, separate story in itself) and more directly due to the rampant deep-discounting and the free giveaways of thousands of singles to larger retail chains. It is this practice alone that has done far more damage to the format than any other in that it destroys not only whatever profits the single may have incurred at full price, but also lowers the perceived value of singles in the eyes of paying consumers. As with earlier, it's all a matter of chart manipulation -- this time aimed at the increasingly snail-paced singles chart.

As with albums, explosive first week sales are highly desired for superstar singles. -- partially to maintain a label's chart dominance in the marketplace and often to placate a the same label's expensive superstar acts, some of who have been wondering why they haven't been able to crack the Top 10 anymore in this brave new even-keeled SoundScan world.

In the old days, Billboard's sales charts were tabulated by phone and based on extremely fallible ranked reports from record stores, one-stops (the middlemen who supply the stores in most cases) and rack jobbers (the guys who supply some chains and big department stores). It was frighteningly easy in those days to deliberately enhance a record's standing with good old fashioned bribes and perks, or even threats. When the first SoundScan-determined Billboard chart hit the streets in late May of 1991, most of the old tricks of the trade vanished forever (despite a few devilishly clever attempts to subvert the data in the years since).
Now that fiddling around with sales data is virtually impossible, one must connive other methods with which to enhance an artist / label's standing in the marketplace. The deep-discounting frenzy that gripped the industry over the last three years was pretty much born of this thinking. The logic, again, is simple -- release the new single by, say, Mariah Carey at a price of 99 or even 49 cents, and a debut at (or near) the top of the charts is virtually guaranteed.

While some labels will offer singles to stores at greatly discounted prices to enhance profits, a few others will literally give away thousands of singles (complete with variable pricing stickers) to larger chains as a "goodwill" gesture. Since these singles are sent gratis, the store is guaranteed 100% pure profit on the title whenever it sells. Once, this strategy was used exclusively to break new artists into the mainstream by stimulating impulse sales. This is no longer the case, as many new superstar singles have been slashed to garage sale prices as well. With so many singles priced low, consumers rightly wonder why so many singles by big artists are cheaper than a buck while so many other singles remain at a list price of $3.49 or higher and in a nutshell you have devaluing of the format.

This practice hasn't always worked, however. A bomb is still a bomb, no matter how cheap the price. "To Make You Feel My Love," the premiere single from Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Volume 3 album (and his first single of any kind since early 1994) was recently issued at a pittance to virtually zero retail reaction. That's no sweat off of retailers' backs, though -- the unsold thousands of singles could then be returned for full credit to the record companies. Thus, the cost of a "free" hit single is actually quite high indeed -- the company takes a loss for the sake of chart appearances, and the problem is compounded.

While this sales practice is supposedly falling into decline (PolyGram has reportedly backed away from this practice, and the other majors are expected to fall in line -- at least as superstars are concerned), there are still an awful lot of shockingly good deals standing out on the shelves in a seeming mockery of the full-priced titles around them.

Anarchy In The U.K.

While singles are languishing in the U.S. market, they are flourishing overseas. However, this has created problems as well, especially in England, where an opposite problem exists with the format. The Brits run their railroad quite a bit differently from ours -- while the American heartland is bare of hits, the English moors are running wild with them.

As in America, the British have been resorting to the massive discounting of singles in the interest of enhanced chart stature (the U.K. charts are solely sales driven, which serves to raise the stakes even higher). The availability problem in England is the exact opposite of the American dilemma -- just about everything is made available as a single, and to stimulate sales even further, these singles are usually packaged as two-part EP's brimming over with b-sides and other unreleased treats.

The immediate result of this cornucopia of new product every single week in such a small market is that the U.K. Top 75 singles chart is now so jammed full of new songs that next to nothing sells for more than a few weeks at a time (or less) before being replaced by the next hit. On a recent list, only four tracks out of the Top 75 had made it into a third month of popularity -- it's like the Billboard Top 40 moving at Warp 9. But at least the selection is there, however ungodly bountiful by our industry's standards. The kind of choices the average British singles consumer is faced with have not been seen on these shores in years. With the industry in the U.K. up in arms and looking enviously at the heroically-long runs now common to the American charts, a change may be on the way, and probably not for the better as far as consumers are concerned.

To Be Continued...?

No matter what the reasoning, the partial elimination of the single is a potentially catastrophic solution to problems that admittedly shouldn't exist in the first place. Despite the continuing pressure on the format and the industry to carry on into the next century and introduce new generations to music and music buying, the single cannot succeed when such well-intentioned sabotage continues to run roughshod over its future potential. Consumers and retailers alike are demanding more singles choices, especially with the average price for a new superstar CD now at $17.98.

Inevitably, the single must continue to exist -- without it, the music business may very well continue its current low-growth rate and may even plunge into a new recession that not even a new Michael Jackson album could save ... unless it had a hit single, of course.