Category Archives: The Re-Listening Project

All I Can Do

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(Pictured: the young Cars.)

Several years ago—2004 sticks in my mind, but I don’t remember precisely—I bought a CD player with a recording well. My old player had died, and this new one would let me make CDs of some of my favorite vinyl albums. But it didn’t work right often enough, and it wasn’t long before I gave up on it entirely. But I still have a few of the CDs I managed to make, and one of them ended up in my CD bag on a recent trip: the Cars’ 1979 album Candy-O.

If you asked me to name my favorite albums of all time, I suspect I’d name many albums before I got to Candy-O, if I ever got to it at all. But listening to it the other day, all I could think was damn, this is a great record. And I wondered how come I don’t listen to it more often, because it’s every bit the equal of my all-time faves. Listen to it yourself while I rank the tracks on the album:

9.  “You Can’t Hold on Too Long.” Every time I do one of these Re-Listening Project posts, I find myself apologizing to the songs at the bottom of the list, which usually end up here not because I actively dislike them, but because I like other songs more.

8.  “Got a Lot on My Head.” See previous entry.

7.  “Since I Held You.” Ranks ahead of “You Can’t Hold on Too Long” and “Got a Lot on My Head” because it’s a little more commercial than they are. This could easily have been a single.

6.  “Lust for Kicks.” The little synthesizer hook on this isn’t so much a hook as it is ear candy. Yummy irresistible ear candy.

5.  “Nightspots.” First track, side two, jittery like everybody in the band had six cups of coffee first.

4.  “Double Life”/”Shoo-Be-Doo”/”Candy-O.” These three tracks run together for 8 1/2 minutes at the end of side one, and we often played ’em all together on my college radio station. “Double Life” is the edgiest and most futuristic track on the record; “Shoo-Be-Doo” is 96 seconds further out on the edge; “Candy-O” is the hardest-rockin’ thing the Cars ever put on vinyl.

3.  “Let’s Go.” This was one of my favorite songs of the summer in 1979, a season in which so many future staples of the classic-rock format were released that it seemed almost like a coordinated reaction to the disco era. What we didn’t really notice then was that you could dance to “Let’s Go” too.

2.  “It’s All I Can Do.” This was the second single from the album, and if I were making a list of the all-time greatest #41 singles (hey, there’s an idea), “It’s All I Can Do” would be near the top. Few records have a more pleasing introduction, and if you can keep from singing along with “It’s all I can do / To keep waiting for you,” you’re not me.

1.  “Dangerous Type.” From the bottomless low end of it to the glockenspiel flourishes as it gets ready to fade, the Cars use the whole sonic palette to make “Dangerous Type” into something ominous, intense, relentless, and the single best thing they ever did. It goes on for 4 1/2 minutes, the last couple of minutes of which are positively spellbinding—and when it’s over, you’re not ready for it to be.

If Candy-O doesn’t get the same critical praise as the Cars’ debut album from a year before, it’s largely due to the difference between hearing something that’s utterly fresh and hearing the latest iteration of something we’ve heard before. Compare the reaction to Boston vs. Don’t Look Back, for example, and consider also that like those two albums, everything the Cars had spent years creating since their formation was on The Cars, while Candy-O had to be made in a matter of months and in the wake of the first.

I was both surprised and not surprised by how much I liked Candy-O after hearing it again for the first time in a while. Also surprising: how good my vinyl copy sounded, considering it was 25 years old when I copied it to the CD.

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It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It

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(Pictured: the Stones rehearse in 1978.)

Some of the most interesting listening on my car travels comes when I fill up the CD bag in a hurry. On a recent trip, I carried the Rolling Stones compilation Rewind: 1971-1984. It’s a best-of that came out in 1984 as one last cash grab by Warner Brothers and EMI at the end of their distribution deals with Rolling Stones Records. Two years later, it became the first official American Rolling Stones release on CD, and I’m pretty sure it was among the first CDs I ever bought. What follows is a ranking of the tracks on the album.

13.  “Undercover of the Night.” Even as I recognize that the Stones are playing the hell out of this, I can’t claim to like it.

12. “Miss You.” You’d have to go back to 1964 or 1965 to find Stones music that sounds as dated as “Miss You.”

11.  “Hang Fire.” This is fine. It’s down here because I like other things more, that’s all.

10.  “Beast of Burden.” I have nothing against this song either. This list is a numbers game.

9.  “Emotional Rescue.” When I was writing for WNEW.com a few years ago (in a post that’s no longer available online, and I have no offline copy of it), I called this one of the world’s worst songs. The only thing I remember saying about it is that Mick sings it like he’s being squeezed through a door. I wish I could remember the rest, because when it came up in the car the other day, I didn’t mind it all that much.

8. “Angie.” This song is a mess, really. The lyrics make no damn sense at all, and the way Mick turns “Angie” into three syllables–“ah-EEN-jeh”—has grated on me since 1973. But on a gray morning recently, when I wasn’t all that thrilled with the prospects of the day, it sounded different. I had never felt the pain in it quite so vividly—pain not so much in Mick’s voice, although it’s there, but in the acoustic guitar, piano, and the aching chorus of strings that underpins it—and it knocked me sideways.

7.  “Start Me Up.” If you wanted to prove to somebody that nothing else sounds like prime Rolling Stones, this might be the song to play first. And you might need only the introduction to get the point across.

6.  “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” All of these songs sound great on the radio, but if we were ranking them that way, “It’s Only Rock and Roll” would be higher than #6.

5. “Waiting on a Friend.” The best and most sincere love song the Stones ever did, and it isn’t about a woman.

4.  “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” Maybe the most menacing thing they ever recorded apart from “Gimme Shelter.” The introduction is what it sounds like when something is chasing you in a nightmare, and the nightmare doesn’t stop until the record is over.

3.  “Fool to Cry.” Rewind is sequenced effectively, rockin’ for seven tracks, then backing down with “Emotional Rescue” and “Beast of Burden” before getting to this. I could listen to that ghostly electric piano for half-an-hour, except the sadness of it would drive me away long before that.

2.  “Brown Sugar.” For a long time, I have ranked “Brown Sugar” as the greatest of all Rolling Stones singles. It’s everything that makes them great in three minutes and 51 seconds—a sound nobody else could get and a lyric of unparalleled sleaze, especially for a #1 song. But listening to it in the context of Rewind, I came to a different conclusion.

1. “Tumbling Dice.” Where “Brown Sugar” is the Stones rockin’ hard at full throttle, “Tumbling Dice” is the Stones, well, stoned—we’re invited to a party that’s been underway for a while, with wine and weed and girls and gambling, four things Mama told you to stay away from. It’s a groove I could live in for days. And ever since the summer of 1972, when this first hit the radio, I have wondered: what the hell did Keef do to his guitar to get the sound of that opening riff?

Rewind is a mighty enjoyable 55 minutes, although I would have included “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the only Top 20 Stones single from the 1971-84 period missing from the disc. (Trivia footnote: the Stones would make the Top 20 of the singles chart only twice more after 1984: with “Harlem Shuffle” in 1986 and “Mixed Emotions” in 1989.) The album has become a collector’s item, out of print and long ago replaced by other Stones compilations.

A Brother or a Mother

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(Above, L to R: Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb meet the press in 1979.)

(A draft of this post has been sitting in my files for something like four years, so here it is, for the 40th anniversary of “Stayin’ Alive” hitting #1.) 

The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is a record I have adored from the first time I heard it—and in fact, I can remember precisely where I was the first time I heard it, the street I was on and the approximate block I was in when it came blasting out of my car radio. Take your experience out of it, where you’ve been since 1978 and what you know, and try to hear it with none of that baggage attached: “Stayin’ Alive” is one damn great record.

The Bee Gees’ band doesn’t usually get much love for the work they did, but they clearly deserve it. A few years ago, the isolated vocal track for “Stayin’ Alive” surfaced online, and it’s pretty difficult listening. But when melded with the band, alchemy happens. Dismissed as disco in its time and since, it’s not, really—every rock band in the world would like to write an opening riff that arresting, or hooks so enormous.

I remember “Stayin’ Alive” as something that zoomed up the charts, but when I dug into its chart profile, I didn’t find quite what I expected to see. (We’re going full geek here, so buckle up.)  It debuted at #65 on December 10, 1977, and went to #52 the next week. It reached the Top 40 at #39 for the week of December 24. There was no chart for the week of December 31, and for January 7, 1978, it made a modest move to #28. From there, it steadily moved up: 17-10-3 and finally #1 on February 4, 1978—40 years ago this week. It would stay at #1 for four weeks before falling to #2 for a week, then to #6. But for the week of March 18, it moved back to #2, coinciding with “Night Fever”‘s move to #1, and it would stay there for five of “Night Fever”‘s eight weeks at #1. So “Stayin’ Alive” was either the #1 or #2 song in the land for 10 out of 11 weeks in the winter and spring of 1978. Another indication of its popularity was its slow move out of the Hot 100: #2 to #13 for two weeks, then 26-28-40 to #71 for two weeks to #98 (for the week of June 10) and out.

By chart guru Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on weeks at #1, in the Top 10, Top 40, and Hot 100, “Stayin’ Alive” was the #4 song of 1978 (behind “Night Fever,” Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing,” and “Le Freak” by Chic). Other records charted longer but weren’t #1 as long: Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Andy’s “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder. According to Whitburn, “Stayin’ Alive” ranks as the #20 song of the 1970s. If you expect it to be higher, so did I. Its four weeks at #1 put it well down the list, although only one of the records clocking in ahead of it had longer runs on the Hot 100 and and in the Top 40: Andy’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.”

Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Andy Gibb, who sang on four of the top five Hot 100 hits during a single week in March, were so ubiquitous that spring that I wonder if their proliferation of records may have tamped down the performance of any one of them. Strange to say given that the brothers spent 14 weeks at #1 in February and March alone (and 17 out of 20 weeks if you count “How Deep Is Your Love” as 1977 turned to 1978), but what if the record buyers’ Bee Gees mania had been concentrated on a single 45, instead of several? They’d likely have outdone Debby Boone for the longest-running #1 single of the 70s, and it could have been done with either “Night Fever” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

But if the Bee Gees didn’t win the battle, they won the war. Both songs, but especially “Stayin’ Alive,” have persisted from 1978 into a fifth decade as shorthand for all of 70s pop.

You Won’t Believe What the Boys Are Blowin’

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When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.

10.  “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …

9.  “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.

8.  “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.

7.  “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.

6.  “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.

5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”

4.  “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.

3.  “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)

2.  “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”

1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)

Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.

It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.

1.  Aja
2.  Katy Lied
3.  The Royal Scam
4.  Can’t Buy a Thrill
5.  Gaucho
6.  Pretzel Logic
7.  Countdown to Ecstasy
8.  Two Against Nature
9.  Everything Must Go
10.   Alive in America

If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like

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(Pictured: the Eagles on stage circa 1977 with a backdrop from the Hotel California album art.)

Between the last week of March 1977 and the beginning of July, the #1 album in America was either Hotel California or Rumours, a collision of giants that seems ever more remarkable as the years go by. Last spring I ranked the tracks on Rumours. This spring, Hotel California gets its turn. If you haven’t heard it all in a while, go here.

9. “Wasted Time (reprise).” Eighty-two seconds of strings reprising the main theme of “Wasted Time.” This actually works better on the CD, where it immediately follows “Wasted Time.” On vinyl, you had to walk over to the stereo and flip the record, and you were greeted with this. Dropping the needle on Side 2 and getting immediately to “Victim of Love” would have been much more satisfying.

8. “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” The most noteworthy thing about “Pretty Maids All in a Row” is how it showcases the Eagles harmonizing together without words. That sound is everywhere on Eagles records, and once you start noticing it, you realize how lovely a trademark it was.

7. “Wasted Time.” The Eagles were famous for having a high opinion of themselves, and on “Wasted Time,” you can tell they’re trying to make a Big Philosophical Statement. They nearly pull it off: the melody and the production are like nothing else they ever did, although the lyrics, which sure sound like they ought to be important, don’t make a whole lot of sense on the page. Some of the individual lines are striking, however, none more than “I could have done so many things baby / If I could only stop my mind.” Feelin’ you, man.

6. “Life in the Fast Lane.” I liked this a lot more in 1977 than I do now.

5.  “Try and Love Again.” This should have been a single. That ringing lead guitar would have sounded great on the radio.

4. “The Last Resort.” A better Big Philosophical Statement, about the taking of the West and the closing of the frontier. It suggests that every generation of Americans has had the urge to start over, but that urge comes from the fact that we never change, and that we learn nothing from all of the other new starts we made, so we’re fated to keep making the same mistakes. It’s just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.

3.  “Victim of Love.” If you have a vinyl copy of Hotel California, you can find these words etched in the Side 2 run-out groove: “V.O.L. is five-piece live.” For a band whose studio obsessiveness would soon approach Steely Dan levels, “Victim of Love” is already a throwback, with no overdubs and solidly kicking ass. “Victim of Love” was the B-side of “New Kid in Town” and was listed with it on the Hot 100, and it certainly got some Top 40 airplay during the latter’s winter run to #1. In the summer, WHYI in Fort Lauderdale would list “Victim of Love” on the station survey by itself, at about the time “Life in the Fast Lane” was riding high. Somebody at the station had a pretty strong jones for the twin guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, apparently.

2. “New Kid in Town.” I wrote about this song on the 40th anniversary of its lone week at #1.

1. “Hotel California.” When “Hotel California” first hit Top 40 radio in February 1977, nobody had ever heard anything quite like it. We’ve all heard it so much in 40 years that it’s hard to hear it well anymore. Nevertheless, if you can make yourself notice, it’s got some cool little moments. Here’s just one: at the 5:30 mark, after the Felder and Walsh guitar solos build to a peak, Randy Meisner comes in, underpinning the guitars with an urgent, stabbing bass line, like a heartbeat out of control at the horror of being trapped in a place one could never leave. But then Meisner backs off. As Felder and Walsh repeat the same theme, Meisner’s bass becomes mere punctuation again, and “Hotel California” fades with the feeling that even the worst horror is something you can get used to.

And that, too, is just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1977.

She’s Got a Touch of Tuesday Weld

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(Pictured: Donald Fagen, whose enormous eyeglasses date this photo to the late 80s.)

When Donald Fagen released The Nightfly in the fall of 1982, it seemed to fit on the continuum with Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho, with the same producer and a lot of the same musicians. But the album actually revealed itself to be something far different. It’s warmer—the songs welcome you into their world rather than holding you at a distance from it. It’s more personal: in the liner notes, Fagen wrote, “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” And The Nightfly has an easy, casual swing missing from Aja and Gaucho.

Listen to the whole thing here while I rank the songs.

8.  “Green Flower Street.” This is a perfectly fine song in this spot because something has to rank at the bottom.

7.  “Ruby Baby.” As one of the Dukes of September, Fagen has performed lots of covers, many quite surprising. This and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Pretzel Logic are the only covers he or Steely Dan ever put on an official release. (Late edit: if you want to count the bonus tracks on the reissue of Morph the Cat, there are others. I can go either way.)

6.  “The Nightfly.” Fagen has written that as a boy, he was transfixed by New York radio personality Jean Shepherd, and “The Nightfly” indicates how much time young Don spent listening to late-night radio and/or imagining himself on it.

5.  “I.G.Y.” This is Fagen’s lone Top 40 hit, which hit #26 on November 27, 1982, and stayed there for three weeks. It lasted 14 weeks on the Hot 100 in all. When I started thinking about ranking these tracks, I was sure “I.G.Y.” would be close to the top, but as I listened to the album I kept hearing songs that are better.

4.  “Maxine.” In which a young couple struggles to remain together long enough to reach the bright future they imagine for themselves. Apparently, happily ever after isn’t as easy as it looks.

3.  “The Goodbye Look.” This breezy Caribbean idyll hides a darker tale: an American tourist on holiday decides to hire a boat and get off the island rather than attending “a small reception just for me” at which there will clearly be trouble. There’s no credit for a marimba player; that sound comes from a synthesizer in the hands of veteran player Greg Phillinganes.

2.  “New Frontier.” The setting: a party in a home-built fallout shelter circa 1961. One of the young partygoers tries to impress a girl with his hip bona-fides (name-dropping Tuesday Weld, the limbo, and Dave Brubeck), but he can’t hide that his sophisticated pretense is intended solely to get over on her: “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing / And stay together all night long . . . Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” “New Frontier” is Fagen’s deepest groove ever, thanks to pianist Michael Omartian, bassist Marcus Miller, lead guitarist Larry Carlton, , and drummer Ed Greene.

1.  “Walk Between Raindrops.” A song uncharacteristic of the Donald Fagen we thought we knew in ’82. Its bright-n-bubbly organ puts a listener in mind of Walter Wanderley, or Jimmy McGriff with his lightest touch. The song is pure Tin Pan Alley, quite a switch coming from the writer of so many songs about shady characters with dark motives. And when the band members chime in together with “ohhhh, Miami!,” Fagen puts his pop-music heart right out on his sleeve.

Not ranked on this list are three songs that appeared on the super-deluxe 2007 reissue of The Nightfly: Fagen’s two movie soundtrack contributions, “True Companion” and “Century’s End” (recorded for Heavy Metal and Bright Lights Big City respectively) and a live version of “Green Flower Street” from Live at the Beacon, the 1991 album by Fagen’s all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue. “True Companion” (1981) doesn’t do much for five minutes, although fans of the Steely Dan vibe might find those five very pleasant minutes nevertheless. “Century’s End” (1988) has more going on, although it’s a better sonic fit with Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad. 

Fagen has released two other solo albums besides The Nightfly and Kamakiriad: Morph the Cat (2006) and Sunken Condos (2012). All are worth your time . . . but The Nightfly is the best of the bunch.

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