Tag Archives: Thriller

Rocks In The Attic #748: The Eagles – ‘Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975’ (1976)

RITA#748I’ve never been too much of a fan of pre-Joe Walsh Eagles. It’s all a bit too country, too many jangling guitars. I prefer the edgier twin-guitar RAWK of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, rather than this singer-songwriter stuff.

I’ll still love Hotel California to the day I die, but there’s a reason this greatest hits set has sold so many copies. For a very long time, it was the best-selling album of the twentieth century in the USA, until it was finally surpassed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller following his death in 2009.

Seeing the Eagles live recently – or what is left of the band, having lost Glenn Frey a couple of years ago – I was reminded just how good this earlier material is. When you’re listening to six guys blast out a wall of harmonies, it sounds unbelievable.

Frey’s death at the age of 67 left a gaping hole in the band. Don Henley’s voice is too smooth, too AOR in comparison, and Walsh’s voice is too weird, too out there. Would they get somebody else in to stand in for Frey?

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The answer is yes…and no. Established singer-songwriter Vince Gill was brought into the band to fill the gap left by Frey’s absence. His guitar playing and singing – particularly a standout performance on Take It To The Limit – more than earned his place alongside Felder and Walsh.

The band’s secret weapon though was a clone of Glenn Frey, in the form of his 25-year old son, Deacon Frey. Young and handsome (next to the old men he shared a stage with), his vocals and acoustic guitar on the songs his father used to tackle – Take It Easy, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Already Gone – was uncanny. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And good on him – apparently his first show with the band was at Dodger Stadium, so very much launched into life in the fast lane.

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The big question though was how the guitar solos on Hotel California were going to be handled. Lead-guitarist Steuart Smith was clearly the replacement for Don Felder, but I was curious whether he would play the song on a double-necked guitar as per his predecessor. Worry not, a blast of Mexican trumpet led into the opening 12-string acoustic section of the song, with a solitary spotlight on Smith playing a double-neck. My favourite guitar solo/s didn’t disappoint.

RITA#748cI expected the Eagles greatest hits – and got it! – but what I didn’t expect was the various solo songs by Joe Walsh and Don Henley. This was just as good – Walsh’s In The City, Walk Away, Life’s Been Good, Funk #49 and Rocky Mountain Way, and weirdly as a closer to the night (much to the chagrin of the man sat next to me), Don Henley’s The Boys Of Summer.

I wasn’t sure about seeing the band with so few original members, and not only were the wife and I both sick with head-colds, but we were also sat about 50 seats in from the aisles, which made getting out for refreshments virtually impossible. Despite all of this, it was still fantastic.

Hit: Take It Easy

Hidden Gem: Already Gone

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #577: The Village People – ‘Cruisin’’ (1978)

RITA#577On Saturday mornings in Manchester, we would hit the local record stores; usually Kingbee in Chorlton, followed by Sifters a little further afield in Fallowfield. Of the two, I always preferred the selection in Kingbee. Even though the shop looked like it was never blessed with direct daylight, the rock and pop section was pretty good, although pretty pricey at times.

It was always a bit harder to navigate around the shop in Kingbee though. It isn’t the largest record shop in the world, and with only four or five racks of rock and pop – usually a record store’s most popular section – you’d always be fighting to get back into the L to R section after another buyer ruined your alphabetised digging.

RITA#577aIf pickings were not rich enough in Kingbee, we’d jump in the car and go to Sifters, the record store made famous by Noel Gallagher’s lyrics in Shakermaker. Sifter’s was such a different experience to Kingbee. It was always a bit quieter and not populated with the usual serious record buying types you would see in Kingbee.

I filled a lot of gaps in my record collection in Sifters. It seemed to be the record store where popular rock records ended up. My copies of Hysteria and Brothers In Arms probably came from Sifters, and I think I picked up the whole of ZZ Top’s pre-Eliminator output there once I figured out how good their early material is. My copies of Thriller and Bad were from there, and while I already owned Frampton Comes Alive by the time I first set foot in Sifters, I reckon I would have been able to pick up a copy there every week if I needed to.

RITA#577bOne of the records I always saw in Sifters was a copy of the Village People’s third studio album, Cruisin’, from 1978. I have a soft spot for Y.M.C.A. – it’s such a banging tune that I don’t really care about anything else the song – or the band – symbolises. The album just refers to the band’s collective love of driving around, right? And the visual gag concerning the band’s attire in Wayne’s World 2 puts such a big smile on my face that I just have trouble taking them too seriously.

It was always on my agenda to pick up that copy of Cruisin’ in Sifters. I never got around to it for one reason or another. I must have picked it up a few times, but had to put it back once I’d figured my other records had easily surpassed my budget. I always regretted this after I left Manchester, but I was lucky to pick up a beat-up (or should that be ‘rough trade’?) second-hand copy here in New Zealand last year.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Village People were a one-hit wonder, but nearly every song on this record sounds like a reworking of Y.M.C.A. There’s a really tasty horn break in I’m A Cruiser which I’m having major trouble placing. Either it’s lifted from something else, or it’s been samped since (it’s at 02:50 here, if you can help me out).

Hit: Y.M.C.A.

Hidden Gem: Medley: The Women / I’m A Cruiser

Rocks In The Attic #465: REO Speedwagon – ‘You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish’ (1978)

RITA#465Thanks Moo. Thanks so much. You really shouldn’t have.

I always appreciate it when people give me records as gifts. There’s nothing more I’d like in the world. There’s nothing worse than receiving a gift that you’re just going to put at the back of a shelf to attract dust until you find it years later and end up throwing away.

At least with records, you always have them there to listen to if the feeling takes you. And when I feel the need to listen to some spectacularly titled AOR, it’s this album I always reach for.

That title though? Is there anything worse? I’m not sure there is. All of the dusty American rock bands of the mid ‘70s must have been shitting themselves when punk came along, and for some bands – Aerosmith’s Night In The Ruts is a good example – the new genre gave them a good kick up the backside. REO Speedwagon did something different though. They still continued to churn out the made moderate-speed moderate rock, but they just gave it a “funny” title that might appeal to the record-buying youth. I don’t think it worked.

Around this time – just before Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry met up and cursed themselves by naming their band so that their records would sit next to REO Speedwagon for the rest of eternity – there were so many bands of this ilk. REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Journey, Toto; I can’t really tell when one ends and another one starts. They’re all just very much the same in my mind. Toto get a pass because of Africa, and for their contribution to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but all of the others can go and write some heart-wrenching pop together on a big desert island.

I remember being really amused when I was flicking through the racks at Beatin’ Rhythm in Manchester, and they’d put a load of (Journey vocalist) Steve Perry solo 7” singles in the Aerosmith section. Man, I bet they felt really stupid when they realised…

Hit: Roll With The Changes

Hidden Gem: The Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot

Rocks In The Attic #449: Toto – ‘Toto IV’ (1982)

RITA#449Africa has a permanent place in my favourite songs of all time. I’ve always liked it, but its inclusion on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City secured its spot in my list of guilty pleasures. Another reason why it’s such a great song is this incredible rendition of it by Perpetuum Jazzile – a vocal group from Slovenia. How clever is that?

What other song rhymes the word ‘company’ with the word ‘serengeti’? It’s just ridiculous. They should have rhymed ‘spaghetti’ with ‘serengeti’ – although quite how they could have explained why they were eating pasta on an African safari is anybody’s guess.

I was lucky (?) enough to see a couple of songs from this record – Rosanna and Africa – performed by Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band in 2012. At the time, Steve Lukather was one of the guitarists in the extremely soft-rock tinged band (alongside Todd Rundgren, Richard Page from Mr. Mister and Gregg Rolie from Santana and Kansas). By Lukather’s own admission on the night, Toto amounted to “party music” – “Hey Auckland – who wants to hear some party music?!?!?” – and he was right. Of all the covers played by the band that night, the Toto songs – Rosanna and Africa, naturally – really got the crowd on their feet.

I imagine this record was massive when it was released in 1982. People would have bought it for the hit singles that bookend the album, but the rest of the songs are great. I Won’t Hold You Back was sampled by Roger Sanchez on his 2001 number one Another Chance, and Make Believe also has a GTA connection, being picked up for the Vice City Stories soundtrack.

However, it was another album released around this time that overshadowed Toto IV. Once the album was in the can, the band delayed touring so that they could play on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, creating a beast of a record and making Lukather one of the hottest players in the world.

Hit: Africa

Hidden Gem: It’s A Feeling

Rocks In The Attic #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to…AC/DC

  – 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –

“I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made eleven albums that sounds exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made twelve albums that sound exactly the same.” So says, AC/DC lead guitarist and fifty-nine year old Scottish Australian schoolboy, Angus Young. While other bands have been cursed by following the same formula over and over again (Francis Rossi, please stand up), AC/DC have turned it to their advantage.
ACDC0Over fourteen studio albums, the band have stuck to a blueprint of blues-based heavy rock. 99% of their songs follow the same format – counterpoint guitar riffs from brothers Angus and Malcolm, steady 4/4 drum beats, driving bass lines, soaring vocals and finally, a solo from Angus. There’s no room for piano, no room for strings and the only backing vocals you get are from the rest of the band, who are about as tuneful as an after-hours pub karaoke session.

Lead vocal duties divide the band into two eras – the band’s formative years were helmed by fellow Scottish Australian Bon Scott, but his untimely death in 1980 saw the band enter a more commercial phase under the screams of flat-cap loving Geordie Brian Johnson.

But regardless of what you may have heard, there are differences between their albums. Each of their 1970s albums follow a progressive arc, until they settled on their massive world conquering sound as they entered the 1980s. Albums since that point have struggled to find that same high level of quality, acting mainly as a springboard for the band to go out on the road for yet another world tour.

Start off with: Highway To Hell (1979, Atlantic Records)

ACDC1The album that saw the AC/DC break America was also their swansong with Bon Scott, who would die just months later. Up to this point all the studio albums were produced by former ‘60s Australian beat group stars Harry Vanda and George (older brother of Angus and Malcolm) Young.  For Highway To Hell, the band would enlist the production duties of Robert John “Mutt” Lange – notable amongst other things for producing Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and marrying Shania Twain.

Lange’s production revitalised the band. Overnight they changed from a noisy rock band from the backwaters of Australia into a household-name stadium rock band. Aside from the title track – typically played by the band in their live shows to open their encore – not much else from the album has survived into the band’s live set to this day; but this is probably the most consistent of all their albums.

Follow that with: Back In Black (1980, Atlantic Records)

ACDC2After Bon Scott’s death, the band could have called it a day. Most bands would have, if they’d lost their lead singer. But AC/DC were always more about guitars than vocals. After auditioning half of London for the job (including Gary Holton who would go on to play Wayne in TV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), the band settled on Brian Johnson. The resulting album is a tribute – a relatively sincere one, considering the medium – to their fallen bandmate. Opener Hells Bells sets the scene with a tolling bell, before the band slowly introduce their new banshee vocalist.

Back In Black, also produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is probably AC/DC’s most commercial-sounding record. Singles such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long saw the album become the best-selling rock album of the 1980s. It’s currently tied with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as the second best-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

Just like VHS beat Betamax as the consumer’s choice of video in the 1980s (a fact commonly attributed to the pornography industry selecting the fledgling VHS technology as the way forward), Back In Black outstripped all other contenders in record sales by being purchased by every strip club in America. You Shook Me All Night Long has soundtracked a lot of lapdances – it’s not heavy rock, it’s stripper rock! Def Leppard would achieve the same feat later in the decade with Pour Some Sugar On Me, from their best-selling Hysteria album – a song that sounds like it’s describing a sexual act, but was probably written about their one-armed drummer Rick Allen making a cup of tea.

Oh, and Shoot To Thrill? The best middle-eight instrumental section in rock music, hands down.

Then get: Powerage (1978, Atlantic Records)

ACDC3Powerage is AC/DC’s greatest achievement – the last thing they did before they crossed over into the mainstream. At this point, it’s all still them; there’s no ‘hit-making’ hot-shot producer in the background to claim any credit. The album is no-frills rock ‘n roll from start to finish, although it does come with a celebrity endorsement – Rolling Stone Keith Richards earmarked it as his favourite AC/DC record.

Aside from Sin City, not much else from the record has survived into the band’s live set to this day. Still, opener Rock ‘N Roll Damnation is almost the quintessential AC/DC song, and Riff Raff has one of the band’s longest intros, building up for over a minute and finally released when Angus Young bends an open D-chord that sounds as sick as anything.

But it’s the slow-burn of songs like Down Payment Blues that really wins people over, on Powerage, the most introspective of their records.

Criminally overlooked: The Razor’s Edge (1990, Atco Records)

ACDC4In March 1990, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry mentioned to Guitar World magazine that ‘people put us down for [using outside songwriters], but I wonder how an AC/DC record would sound if they’d pull somebody like Jim Vallance into the songwriting process. Would they get another one-song record with Heatseeker, or would you get a whole album that was that cool?”

At the time, AC/DC were actually in the process of doing something along these lines. While that September’s The Razor’s Edge was written in its entirety by Angus and Malcolm Young, it was produced by Bruce Fairbairn – the man who had produced Aerosmith’s successful comeback albums, Permanent Vacation (1987) and Pump (1989).

It’s almost a cliché to disregard any of the post-Back In Black albums as cannon-fodder (pun very much intended); but The Razor’s Edge saw the end of a run of ‘80s albums where the band had very much lost their way. From this point on, with albums produced by the likes of Rick Rubin and Brendan O’Brien, they spent a bit more time and effort on their studio output.

The album’s opener, Thunderstruck, is another contender for the quintessential AC/DC song and concrete proof that they were still as relevant to ‘90s rock music as they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The long-shot: For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (1981, Atlantic Records)

ACDC5The third and final album produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange fails to match the quality of its two predecessors, but it does have its moments. It’s so close to Back In Black and Highway To Hell in its chronology that you can almost hear some of the magic of those records in its grooves. Of course, on the other side of the coin, the album’s other next-door neighbour is 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, where their mid-‘80s rot really set in.

The album-opening title trackremains a firm live fixture – they’ve closed their sets with the track for the last thirty three years – and the track serves as the true peak of their creative accomplishments. It was all steadily downhill from this point on.

Avoid like the plague: ’74 Jailbreak (1984, Atlantic Records)

ACDC6An EP – usually priced as a full-length album – containing just twenty four minutes of material, ’74 Jailbreak is a cynical cash-in release on the behalf of Atlantic Records. It’s essentially a small collection of leftover songs that didn’t make the international releases at the start of the band’s career (several of these early albums were combinations of songs from more than one Australian release, with some omissions made in the interests of running time).

This really is what you buy only when you have all of the other AC/DC albums, even the questionable mid-‘80s ones.

Best compilation: Iron Man 2 (O.S.T.) (2010)

ACDC7AC/DC must be one of the only major bands in the world without an official ‘greatest hits’ compilation. Sure, there are box-sets – Bonfire (1997) and BackTracks (2009) – but these aren’t compilations in the true sense of the word. The band has avoided issuing a simple collection of their singles – something I really respect them for.

Of the two soundtracks they have released – 1986’s Who Made Who (the soundtrack to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive) and 2010’s Iron Man 2 – it is the later release that stands as the nearest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ release, split roughly 50/50 between the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson eras.

It’s just a shame the film is so boring!

Best live album: AC/DC Live (1992, Atco Records)

ACDC81978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It captured the live sound of the Bon Scott era, but its raw energy was plagued by a muddy Vanda / Young production. 1992’s AC/DC Live doesn’t suffer from that problem. Taken from 1991’s The Razor’s Edge tour, the album offered an authentic live recording of the band. Bruce Fairbairn had got close to capturing that sound on record (on The Razor’s Edge) and was invited back to produce the live record.

Live At Donington, the album’s companion piece video, is also worth checking out. Recording during their third headlining appearance at the British rock festival, it’s essentially the same set as can be found on the AC/DC Live record (and on every subsequent tour for that matter). One nice little bonus extra on the DVD / Blu Ray version is a commentary track comprised of an interview with the Young brothers as they talk though the concepts and directions behind each of their albums. You know, those albums that are supposedly all the same…
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