Not for the first time, it was the USA Network’s Night Flight that shined the light on “something new” for me. I owe that show a lot. One late Saturday night they played the video for “Dumb Waiters.” It was about one a.m. or so, and I should have been sleeping after a night of break dancing in the center oval at the local roller rink with four-pound wheeled boots laced to my feet, but that wasn’t the case. Fourteen year-olds have something called LIFE running through their veins that moves like a particle through the Hadron Collider, while adults must make do with the lower-cased “life”–a cholesterol and plaque-riddled sludge that moves through the body like peanut butter through a straw. It’s unavoidable, really.
In any case, the music and visuals grabbed me like a school truant officer collaring some delinquent down at the pool hall. A saxophone groaned over a plodding beat while twin guitars churned like a couple of Evinrudes in brackish water. And yes, even my green ears could hear that the singer owed a lot to Bowie, but what the heck is wrong with that? It’s better than watching a band with a singer who owes a lot to Christopher Cross, don’t you think?
The very next day, I tagged along with dad on a trip to a hardware store situated in a four block long strip mall that also happened to contain a retail outlet called Oasis Records. They had what I was looking for, an LP called Talk Talk Talk. Its their best record. The first, self-titled one is pretty good, but not the never-to-be-surpassed peak certain deranged Psych Furs “purists” would have you believe. They were still finding their footing on that one, like Cocteau Twins on Garlands. Forever Now is just shy of Talk Talk Talk’s greatness–Todd Rundgren was an inspired and salutary choice as producer. Mirror Moves is listenable, but a big step down–the AOR disease Simple Minds would also succumb to is creeping in fast. Midnight to Midnight I can’t really tolerate, although I do love the synth horns on “Heartbreak Beat.” They were a spent force by then, even stooping to re-record “Pretty in Pink” for a John Hughes movie soundtrack, and it’s a travesty. (The re-recorded song, not the flick) Whatever happened after that I don’t know about.
If you go watch the original “Dumb Waiters” video on YouTube, you’ll see that it only has about 24,000 views. This seems criminally low to me, a neglect I really don’t understand. I saw a Richard Butler-led hodge-podge version of the Furs perform Talk Talk Talk in its entirety in 2011 to a packed house at Slim’s in San Francisco and it was exhilarating. It’s a record that still ranks in my top 50 even today.
When you’re young, hey, money’s tight, and the “act” of buying a 6 song EP was physically a hard thing to do. The darn EPs were only a couple bucks cheaper than buying an LP, some of which, if they happened to be named What Makes A Man Start Fires? could contain as many as 18 songs. So to pay “almost as much” for far less songs seemed a right bit of foolishness. But Big Black was a band name that conjured up everything its inventors wanted, Racer X was a cult hero recognized immediately by those with an undying love of 70’s mid-afternoon Japanese cartoons, and the cover art (which has seemingly been supplanted by something 1/100th as good on all the reissues) caught and held the eye like a bikini-clad Christy Canyon showing up at a 7th grade swim meet. And maybe, somewhere in the gentle hum of your day to day life you’d heard some “good things” about this band.
So you buy it and and haul it home and drop the needle and Roland starts making noises like a small colony of Sasquatch doing a square dance, some singer for a band with a goofy name called Naked Raygun starts thrumming his bass like each string on it weighs about 40 lbs, and then some skinny fanzine writer starts mumbling about the Speed Racer family and some of the domestic travails they suffered through. Fine, and then what? Well, and then two guitars start slicing and dicing their way from speaker to earhole and they never, ever stop. This was the signature, no matter how many trailer park-level tales of woe Steve Albini saw fit to confabulate. It was always about those goddamn guitars. Big Black was the only group ever able to construct the actual Whirling Hall of Knives The Butthole Surfers once mentioned and they did it with their guitars.
The whole shebang was a slam dunk, a golazo, a hole-in-one on a 233 yard par 3 that carries over sewage water. It was everything you ever wanted and by the time they pulled the plug on themselves, just like Budd Dwyer did, by breaking up immediately upon the 1987 release of Songs About Cuddling, they were at a peak few bands would/will ever reach. A perfect band.
Haha, and Alien Jourgensen, who lived in the very same town, for God’s sake, still has the prevaricating temerity to say he “never heard of dose guys.” Roland himself should plant a nice big kick drum boot in that dude’s nutsack.
As I flip through the nice booklet that comes with the two disc CD compilation rather unimaginatively titled Everything!, I see that Tones On Tail played Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, Ohio on October 15, 1984. I wasn’t there. This still rankles me to this day, in fact it’s a veritable pine cone in my shoe with every step I take, even so many years later. Why wasn’t I there? Well, not because I didn’t have “gas money” to get up to the Mistake By The Lake from my own Mistake By The Mahoning River 60 miles south, not because I was grounded for bad grades, not because I “blew it off” to watch the debut episode of Murder She Wrote (you remember the one–Lou Ferrigno plays a mentally-deficient, green-skinned monster who throws a small girl picking daisies into a babbling brook.)
It was because I didn’t know the group existed at that point.
Sometimes you discover things a few years late. I think I first heard “Rain” on WUOG pretty much the first week of school and almost fell off the childish Brady Bunch-style bunk beds UGA provided their matriculating young adults smack onto the floor. Because it was such a hauntingly beautiful song. The next day I went over to Ruthless Records and bought a copy of Pop on vinyl. With a handwritten check. But whatever. What’s important is that Tones On Tail were darn near perfect. Every single track they laid down was great, even that “Heartbreak Hotel” cover that sounds like it was recorded underwater. And for the entirety of their career, they were barely a real group. It was all just a bunch of dicking around. A silly, frivolous lark in between the two “important” bands Bauhaus and Love & Rockets. That’s too bad, because I like Tones On Tail better then both of those quite worthy groups.
In an era lousy with Sunset Boulevard metal “dudes who looked like ladies” Daniel Ash boasted a fetching pair of impeccably-painted lips even the straightest high school jock wanted to kiss. I’ve actually been told this by several former NFL football players! Kevin Haskins was the Topper Headon of the Goth set–the guy could play any style Danny Boy threw at him, and that was quite a lot because they laid down 25 tracks in pretty much 25 different styles. Finally, bassist Glenn Campling did just fine for a guy whose hair was the color of straw. (That is, I think it was the color of straw–these guys never once allowed themselves to be photographed with color film–it may have been Warhol-white.)
Did I say I liked this band a few sentences ago? I meant to say LOVE.
There are YouTube video clips you (or anyone, really) can watch wherein jettisoned Journey vocalist Steve Perry uses some goofy hand towel to lead an entire baseball park of unbearably smug start-up yuppie bros, socially hopeless programming nerds and reeking, sidewalk-shitting homeless zombies in a rousing rendition of his former band’s FM radio staple “Lights.” By the “end”–meaning when it’s time for the pitcher to start the next half inning by throwing a pitch, meaning that the person running the PA is required to stop the music, he’s basically going berserk, desperate for the song, his song, not to end. It’s easy to see how much he misses it. The adulation, the cheers, the attention.
Meanwhile, his former buddies–still legally permitted to go out on tour using the instantly recognizable brand name “Journey,” are off somewhere at a casino theater or State Fair or outdoor package tour alongside bands like REO Speedwagon and April Wine and Bang Tango ROCKING OUT for hours at a time–driving people into a frenzy using electrified musical instruments and microphones and light shows and hell, maybe even scoring a quick BJ from some fiftysomething groupie after the show while being paid actual real money to do so. All this while Steve’s got maybe 90 seconds tops on the Jumbotron, waving around that hideous black and orange scrap of cloth in one hand while psychotically brandishing his Giants baseball cap in the other like it’s his very own ticket through St. Peter’s gate, his face a mask of neediness, his damaged soul already bracing itself for that terrible moment when the music cuts off like a light switch and that aforementioned pitch brings everyone back to the business at hand of World Series baseball–forgetting en masse almost immediately the pathetic sideshow he’d so briefly been the focal point of. It must be hell on earth for him. But such self-torture may, indeed, be poetic justice, because just think of the hell on earth both he and his now estranged mates subjected ALL OF US to for so many years back in the 80s.
Oh, how the Rust Belt children dreamed! They dreamed so hard they looked around at one another and swore that all of them had transformed into bright colorful birds. Parrots, if you will. The open-air aviary where they gathered was called Blossom Music Center and the magical beach bum who made it all possible was named Jimmy Buffet, who sang about exotica like margaritas and one-night stands and volcanoes and sharks. Land-locked Midwesterners couldn’t get enough of it. You’ve heard of destination weddings, well, this was destination music. With just a bottle of Two Fingers tequila, a few hand-rolled joints of Panama Red and a cassette tape entitled Songs You Know By Heart, any pasty Ohioan could leave behind the sunless days, 47% unemployment rate and soul-crushing hopelessness of the ol’ homestead for a blessed short while.
I was hardly a fan, but the guy was so huge where I came from that I had always assumed he was a star of a magnitude similar to Bruce Springsteen or Elton John. Or at least Phil Collins. Imagine my surprise when I went off to college and started meeting Buffett fans from other parts of the country who regarded him not as some de facto musical giant, but a cultish, eccentric singer/songwriter along the lines of Van Dyke Parks or Tim Buckley! The Billboard charts bear this out–he’s had only ONE Top Ten hit (need I mention it by name?) in almost half a century of recording and only reached the very outer fringes of the Top 40 with a handful of other songs. A small handful.
No matter, though, his fans are legion and they love him and he gives them what they want. He’s started a burgeoning food and drink empire, has his own dedicated channel on SiriusXM satellite radio, and even owns his very own satellite (named, appropriately, Fruitcake) which allows him to listen to his beloved Miami Heat and New Orleans Saints games no matter what remote body of water he’s floating around on. Heck, he even writes high-brow literary fiction under the pen name “Donna Tartt.” Not too bad for the grandson of a sailor!
When I was growing up in the Midwest, I never seemed to like any of the bands that actually came from there. My favorites at the time hailed from places much further afield: California hotshots Van Halen, English country squires Pink Floyd, London wastrels The Clash, NYC LES pin-ups Blondie, Dublin deities U2, and on and on. What on earth did I need Joe Grushecky, Donnie Iris or Michael Stanley for? It all seemed hopelessly derivative of Bruce Springsteen to me and I didn’t really like The Boss, either. In any case, those previously mentioned fellows and their respective bands were all small potatoes compared to the biggest “Little Bruce” of them all. His name was John “Cougar” Mellencamp, and he pretty much took the gospel Bruce was preaching in New Jersey some 700 miles inland to Bumfuck, Indiana to start a whole new platinum-selling religion.
I wasn’t buying it and my aversion to John and his hymns to a life lived in the middle of nowhere lasted for years, until about 1985, in fact. It was around that time that, while thumbing through some “rock yearbook” at B. Dalton Bookseller one day, I came across a picture of the guy wedged into one of those wire mesh trash cans that used to be on every city street corner. He was grinning like a bandit, obviously having some fun with his image at his own expense—the critics had, from day one, disliked him even more than I did, so there he was, basically saying both he and his musical output were garbage. Hahaha. But what caught my eye about this picture wasn’t John’s cheeky self-deprecation, but the fact that he was shod in Tretorn sneakers! Classic canvas Nylites, white with the blue stripe! What kind of rock and roller, let alone a self-proclaimed “biker,” wore preppy shit like that?
I’ve followed his work ever since…
If Sammy Hagar was the Voice of America (and why on earth would he title a long-playing album released under his own name just that if he wasn’t?) then Easterhouse was the Voice of Great Britain. Hagar’s America was apple-cheeked, tow-headed, red-blooded youth, Chevrolet Corvettes, Louisville Sluggers, luscious “American thighs” and ice-cold Budweiser. Easterhouse’s Britain was weedy, spotty, bedraggled communist-sympathizing proles, cars named after jungle cats that looked nice but never ran correctly, cricket bats, pointy-nosed “birds” and warm beer that claimed right on the can to be “bitter.” None of that stuff traveled well, so if you ever wondered why this band never sold as many records in the States as other imports like Bryan Adams (Canada) and Men at Work (Australia), now you know why. The Exalted Lady Princess Diana Spencer of the House of Thorpe was fine, Easterhouse, not so much.