Rocks In The Attic #348: Aerosmith – ‘Gems’ (1988)

RITA#348If any album reminds me of delivering newspapers on cold, foggy Sunday mornings, it’s this one. I know it’s clichéd to think of your formative years fondly (nostalgia ain’t what it used to be), but I really do look back on those times with a smile on my face.

I used to look forward to Sunday mornings – yes it was hard work, and the back-breaking weight of Sunday newspapers has left an indelible mark on me, in the form of my bad posture – but it gave me the opportunity to listen to Aerosmith on my walkman for a good four or five hours.

This album soundtracked a lot of moments – like the time I walked back past a house I had just delivered to, only to see the lady of the house – a hot blonde in her late 20s / early 30s – open the front door in her birthday suit to collect the newspaper off the floor of the porch.

Or the times when I’d be walking along Alpine Drive, immersed in my headphones only to be bearhugged by a massive Old English Sheepdog that lived on that street. If ever a dog looked like a medium-sized man wearing a fancy dress costume, it was that one. It made it all the more ominous that you couldn’t see his eyes because of his big, floppy fringe. After the shock of my heart stopping, it was nice to see his big, dopey smile and hug him back.

One time I delivered to a house on Holme Crescent – a cul de sac on a newer housing estate. I drove my bike up the garden path and pulled up, side-on to the front door. Still sat on my bike, I forced their immense Sunday newspaper – probably one of the broadsheets, with about three dozen sections and magazines – into their tiny letter-box. I struggled with the first couple of sections, and heard a ringing noise, far off in distance. I tried again, breaking the newspaper further and further down until it felt like I was posting a page at a time. Again, I could hear ringing and it seemed to coincide with each time I pushed something through the letter-box. Just as I neared the end of my ordeal, I realised where the ringing was coming from – the side-end of my bike’s handlebars was pressing against the doorbell of the house I was delivering to. I took off quickly, looking back to see somebody peer angrily under the net curtains of their bedroom window.

Gems is a great Aerosmith record. It might be a compilation, but it’s probably their best one – and there’s been many. It was the second compilation to be released, after 1980’s woeful Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits – and clearly released by their former label CBS to cash-in on their late-‘80s resurgence on Geffen after 1987’s Permanent Vacation.  The album title – and cover – also seems to borrow more than a little inspiration from 1976’s Rocks – but hey, who cares? Whatever sells records, right?

It might be missing their big three singles: Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion and Dream On – all of which feature strongly on Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits, but their absence is turned to the album’s advantage. Rather than focusing on the band’s biggest singles, like most compilations would do, Gems collects together twelve album tracks – deep cuts from the heavier end of their back-catalogue.

Each of the band’s Columbia studio albums are represented, with Get Your Wings (2 tracks), Toys In The Attic (2) and Rocks (3) all featuring more than one song. The real gem on the album though, and the reason the album is an essential addition to the band’s canon, is the studio version of Chip Away The Stone – the b-side to their 1978 cover of the Beatles’ Come Together.

Hit: Train Kept A-Rollin’

Hidden Gem: Chip Away The Stone

Rocks In The Attic #347: The Beach Boys – ‘Endless Summer’ (1981)

RITA#347I’ve just finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles biography, All These Years, Volume One – Tune In. As much as I enjoyed it – all 1000 pages of it – a breathtaking example of pure, meticulous research from start to finish, I’m glad that I finished it. I now have to wait until 2020 to read the second volume, and hopefully I’ll still be alive in 2028 when the third and final volume comes out.

I’d always known that Friday 5th October 1962 was a busy time in popular culture. Not only was the first Beatles 7”, Love Me Do, released in the UK, but the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was released in cinemas on the very same day.

One of the hundreds of lesser-known facts in Lewisohn’s book (he didn’t even mention the James Bond connection – perhaps he’s not a fan) is that Friday 5th October 1962 also marked the British release of the Beach Boys’ debut LP, Surfin’ Safari. I’m sure financial austerity was at its highest in 1962, and most people wouldn’t have been able to afford – or have the cultural nous – to consume all three releases, but imagine the handful of people who did? I can picture them waking up the following Saturday morning, wondering “Is it me or did life just get much better yesterday?”

This album – a compilation of the Beach Boys’ seminal ‘60s singles – is unbeatable. Do It Again and Good Vibrations are missing, but apart from that, it’s faultless. The very fact that they couldn’t fit everything on one disc is testament to their insane workload throughout the decade.

I was talking to somebody the other day about the horrible, boring way they taught music in English schools in the late ‘80s. Essentially you were plonked in front of an electric keyboard, and you had to follow the teacher, who was struggling to make sheet music interesting (all the kids just wanted to play with the sound effects anyway – either the button that turned each key into an orchestral blast, or the demo button that, with a little bit of pretending, made you look and sound like a gifted piano wunderkind).

They should do away with that approach, lock the door of the classroom and just play this album – loud! – to kids. If this doesn’t turn them onto music, they’re a lost cause.

Hit: Surfin’ USA

Hidden Gem: California Girls

Rocks In The Attic #346: Talking Heads – ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1987)

RITA#346The first time I was exposed to this album was seeing a clip of Jonathan Demme’s concert film in an Amsterdam bar. The place had a video jukebox, and somebody selected this. I’d never seen David Byrne jigging around in his oversize suit before. I might have been a little drunk / stoned at the time, so it probably made much more sense than it should have done.  I also remember the video we watched after this – Stevie Ray Vaughan playing a live version of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).

The weird thing about this Talking Heads album is that it’s a live album but it sounds like a studio album. You get a bit of obligatory cheering at the end of each song, but each song tends to start without any ambient noise whatsoever. There’s silence and then the band just starts playing. I’m presuming it’s simply presented how it was recorded, without any subsequent tinkering to make it sound more ‘live’ than it actually is. And it sounds all the better for it.

I’ve been to a lot of gigs and have hardly ever heard an almost endless wall of cheering between songs. Maybe I’m going to see the wrong bands! Yet live albums usually present that particular phenomenon as the norm. It’s almost as if every live album is trying to recreate George Martin’s problematic jet engine screaming between songs on The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl.

I once listened to a CD of Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg on shuffle and you could hardly tell it was playing in a different running order. The reason? The wall of crowd noise between each song was essentially the same noise – same pitch, same volume, virtually identical.

Since then, I’ve always eyed live albums with suspicion. They’re usually pretty pointless anyway, aren’t they? Is there a live album out there that actually adds something integral to a band’s oeuvre?

Hit: Once In A Lifetime

Hidden Gem: Burning Down The House

Rocks In The Attic #345: Bob Marley & The Wailers – ‘Legend’ (1984)

RITA#345This record reminds me of Ireland – both the North and the South.

I first bought this album while visiting my friends Linsay and Ruth in Omagh, Northern Ireland. It was the perfect album to buy while on holiday – it’s such an evergreen, everybody loves it – young and old. The album became the soundtrack to that holiday (George Harrison’s Ít’s Johnny’s Birthday was the soundtrack to my earlier trip to Omagh, but I’ve already written about that).

I then – against better judgement – started a long-distance relationship with a girl in Wexford, down in the South. As you can expect, before the advent of social media, we spent a great deal of our relationship on the phone. I mentioned Bob Marley’s Is This Love to her during one crackly conversation, and in turn she asked her musician friend about the song one night. He responded by jumping into an impromptu version of the song, quite embarrassing for her given that fact that she was hard at work at the time (serving customers in a burger joint in the middle of Wexford). I wish I would have been there to witness this. I might dislike musicals when people break out into song, but I love it when people break out into song in real life – the star of their own musical. Moral of the story: never ask a drunken Irishman about Bob Marley, if you’re not prepared to witness a performance of said song, right there and then.

I’ve read Billy Connolly’s autobiography, and he recalled a time when he was round at Eric Clapton’s house one time. He noticed that Eric had a load of postcards stuck on the fridge with magnets – like most people do. Looking closer, he noticed that one of them was from Bob Marley. The message simply read ‘No – I shot the sheriff!’ – what a great thing to have stuck to your fridge.

Some people don’t like Bob Marley. I don’t understand these people. To me, saying you don’t like Bob Marley is like saying you don’t like oxygen.

Hit: Could You Be Loved

Hidden Gem: Is This Love

Rocks In The Attic #344: The Rolling Stones – ‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

RITA#344Rape…murder…it’s just a shot away. Nice lyrics there. This is a pretty bleak album, and those backing lyrics really set the scene. This was the first album to feature ex-Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor on guitar, and the last album to feature Brian Jones, who only plays on two songs.  By the time the album was released, Jones had been fired from the band he put together.

Of the ‘Big Four’ Stones albums, this is the one I got around to last. I inherited Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. from my Dad, both on vinyl, but he only had Let It Bleed on CD, so I left it. I then went back to the beginning and listened to the rest chronologically, meaning that I got to Beggar’s Banquet first, and this – it’s follow up – last.

It’s probably the one I listen to the most though. The sense of doom and gloom that seems to be hidden in the grooves – along with the music – is a big attraction – like the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, or the second half of Nabakov’s Lolita. It’s a downer, but it’s beautiful.

You can say what you want about the Stones – that they’re a devastatingly average rock ‘n roll band who have ridden on a wave of mediocrity for the last 50 years –  and you’d be more or less right; but you can’t take those four albums away from them. I’d say they’re all perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make them what they are.

Hit: Gimme Shelter

Hidden Gem: Live With Me

Rocks In The Attic #343: The Police – ‘Regatta de Blanc’ (1979)

RITA#343Good old white reggae, as the album title tries to tell us. I love the Police, but as much as I love the first album, it’s this album where they’re untouchable – one step closer to being the biggest band in the world. There’s an air of effortlessness about it all. For most bands, a song like Regatta de Blanc would be a demo recording, just a scrap of an idea – mostly instrumental with some indication of where the lyrics might go. In the Police’s hands, it’s turned into a fully realised song; one that would go on to win them a Grammy, no less.

There’s a great edition of Rock Goes To College, showing the band touring their first album in the UK. Their set is notable for including the first live performance of Message In A Bottle, before anybody in the audience had heard it – a standout, if not just for the fact that it’s my favourite Police song. Bloody hard to play on the guitar, impossible to sing in Sting’s vocal range, I love its final image of a solitary castaway – alone, but with a hundred billion other castaways.

Unfortunately there are hints of things to come on Regatta de Blanc too. Bring On The Night sounds like Sting making his first tentative steps towards his coffee-shop world music future. There’s traces of it on The Bed’s Too Big Without You too – middle-class poetry, all red wine and dinner parties. If I strain my ears, I can almost hear the yuppy conversations over some third-world cuisine.

On a lighter note, I’ve just done a frantic, white reggae dance to closing song No Time This Time for my one-year old. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

Hit: Message In A Bottle

Hidden Gem: Regatta de Blanc

Rocks In The Attic #342: Kiss – ‘Crazy Nights’ (1987)

RITA#342The song Crazy, Crazy Nights reminds me of two things – Mark & Lard’s afternoon show on BBC1 Radio (“Stop…. carry on!”), and the embarrassing fact that I used to like this kind of rock music, without any trace of irony.

As far as Kiss goes, this record falls into mid-period, make-up-free Kiss. Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are long gone at this point, replaced by Bruce Kulick on guitar and Eric Carr on drums. I remember reading once how Kulick was shot in L.A., outside the Rainbow, by a couple of stray bullets. As serious as it sounds, it’s almost in the Spinal Tap school of music anecdotes.

This album is terrible. It sounds nothing like the Kiss of the 1970s; instead it sounds like every other rock record released around this time. It’s music for the West Coast American summer, for strip clubs and Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer movies; dumb music for dumb Americans.

Hit: Crazy, Crazy Nights

Hidden Gem: No, No, No