Category Archives: 1985

The Essentials: The Long Ryders’ State of Our Union

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Great albums transcend their times. Such is the case with this gem from 1985, which sounds as fresh my ears now as it did then.

In fact, if push came to shove and I really had to whittle down my voluminous Top 10 (lotsa ties!) to, say, a mere 25 titles (not as many ties!), this – the third release from Messrs. Griffin, McCarthy, Sowders & Stevens – would likely be among them. Since I bought State of Our Union at the newly minted (and now defunct) City Lights Records in State College, Pa., that fall, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a few months without listening to it or – thanks to the 2-CD Anthology (1998) and Final Wild Songs box set (2016) – songs from it.

In many ways, the 11-song set – along with the Ryders’ 1983 E.P. 10-5-60 and 1984 LP Native Sons – served as a primer for what’s now called “Americana” music. It integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck. As with those earlier efforts, the Long Ryders build upon the traditions begun by such forebears as Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Brothers while incorporating a punk and post-punk ethos. They embraced the past while remaining relevant to the present, in other words, such as on the Tom Stevens-penned “Years Long Ago,” about how the nostalgic pull of the past often hides ugly truths:

“If we return to the places we lived in before
We turn from all that we’ve gained
If we lived out a life that we struggled to change
Just to turn back the calendar page
Then we’d see that our memory betrayed us
We’d see what had frightened us so
We’d hear all the voices that fall silent now
Pieces of years long ago.”

Another highlight: the anthemic “Looking for Lewis & Clark.

Another: “WDIA,” which offers a history lesson on the importance of America’s first black-run radio station to generations of black and white youth.

And another: “State of My Union.” Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said that the song “aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant’s reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young.” That’s a criticism, I think, but I find it funny. It’s a great song. Here’s a live version (and, yes, I’ve shared it before):

Here’s the album, via YouTube, in full (plus a few bonus tracks drawn from the Looking for Lewis & Clark EP that were added for the CD release):

The track listing:

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The Essentials: Emmylou Harris – The Ballad of Sally Rose

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In February 1985. Emmylou Harris released her 11th album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. I bought it on vinyl on the 17th of that month, a Sunday, and liked it so much that, a few weeks later, I picked it up on cassette so that I could listen to it while driving my new old car, a ’79 Chevette. I also scored tickets to see her at the Academy of Music in Philly around the same time. In my Of Concerts Past piece about that show, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily her best work. It is, however, one of her most ambitious efforts. A true flawed masterpiece.

A concept album inspired by her relationship with Gram Parsons, the songs – written by Emmy and her husband at the time, Paul Kennerly – chart the story of a young woman who falls for a charismatic singer only to be wooed away from him by the promise of stardom. And just when she realizes her mistake and sets out to rejoin him…he dies in a car crash. Bad news, huh?

The scan, by the way, is of the flyer handed out at that 1985 concert, and it explains the story in a bit more depth.

As with many concept albums, the set’s weakness comes from having to tell a cohesive story over a succession of songs that also need to be able to stand alone. While the music remains strong throughout, lyrically a few tracks fall short. The flip side is this: Many are just plain great. The title cut, which kicks off the album, for instance, would have been at home on any of Emmy’s non-concept albums:

As I note in that Of Concerts Past piece, “Rhythm Guitar” and “Woman Walk the Line” are memorable, too. Likewise, the rest of Side One – up until “Bad News,” which doesn’t quite work. Side Two has its moments, as well, and the closing “Sweet Chariot” is sheer genius.

Here’s a YouTube playlist of the album in full:

Side One:

  1. The Ballad of Sally Rose
  2. Rhythm Guitar
  3. I Think I Love Him
  4. Heart to Heart
  5. Woman Walk the Line
  6. Bad News
  7. Timberline

Side Two:

  1. Long Tall Sally Rose
  2. White Line
  3. Diamond in My Crown
  4. The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  5. KSOS
  6. Sweet Chariot

The Essentials: Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Most music fans of a certain vintage know Pete Townshend’s story: bullied geek grows up to become one of rock’s greatest (and conflicted) visionaries. He gifted the world with such songs and albums as “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and “Who Are You?” (“are you, are you, are you, are you…”), and, in 2012, published the most literate of all the rock memoirs to date, Who I Am.

Music fans of a younger vintage, however, likely know his work from the CSI franchise and TV commercials, where some of the Who’s greatest songs sell cars and whatnot, and possibly from their straight-ahead 2010 Super Bowl halftime performance.

Some critics (and fans, too) believe that the Who died in 1978 with wild man-drummer Keith Moon, but that’s a topic for another day. (I think that’s a silly argument, however.) Instead, I’m stepping through the time portal to November 1985 and Townshend’s under-appreciated White City: A Novel album. Yes, a solo album – his fourth or fifth, depending upon whether one includes his 1977 album with Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix.

At the time of its release, aside from an appearance at Live Aid with his former (and future) Who mates, Townshend had been out of the public eye (in the U.S., at least) since what was billed as the “final” Who tour in 1982. He’d taken a day job at the Faber and Faber publishing house in London, oversaw the release of music-related tomes and, in May 1985, published his own short story collection, Horse’s Neck. (You can read what Record’s Jon Bowermaster thought of it to the left; the review ran in the November 1985 issue.)

Of White City, Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum called it “his best work since Empty Glass.” But, despite the acclaim, radio play and MTV videos aplenty, sales lagged – just as they had for its predecessor, 1982’s spotty All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Each made it to only No. 26 on Billboard’s album chart. (Empty Glass, by comparison, cracked the Top 5.) There are quite a few reasons for that, but the primary reason: the generational tide was turning – out with the old, in with the new, etc.

Anyway, the nine-song White City: A Novel is not, despite its subtitle, a novel set to music, but a series of stories set in the same milieu – West London circa the 1960s. The result is an incisive series of interlocking songs, beginning with the opening track, “Give Blood.”

Another highlight and known song is “Face the Face.” Here’s a live performance from 1986:

And here’s a related memory from sometime in spring of ’86:

After a weekend home with the folks, I tumbled into my 1979 Chevette and set out for the Penn State mothership on a glorious, Day-Glo Sunday morning. It was a journey that could take anywhere from three hours (my personal best) to, due to traffic, upwards of five, and one I often made with passengers. This time, however, it was just me.

That was the era of albums and cassettes, of course, and tape decks that automatically flipped the cassette when a side came to an end. As the Chevette chugged up a mountain – which one, I forget – the tape flipped from Side One to Side Two; it wasn’t the first time I heard it, obviously, but it’s the first time I understood it. “Crashing by Design” first filled the cabin and, for the next 16 or 17 minutes I was, as is the narrator in that song, “a child lost in time.”

The side flows as if an orchestral piece accented by electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, layered rhythms and incisive, insightful lyrics that appear confessional though, often, are simply well-honed portraits. In “I Am Secure,” for instance, he peers through the eyes of a housewife who’s “grow(ing) old by inches” with her man. And “White City Fighting,” which began life as a Dave Gilmour tune that Townshend put lyrics to, is a collaborative work of genius, the narrator looking back with relish and regret at the “black violent place” of his youth over a melody that’s one step short of rapturous. (And, yes, that’s Gilmour on guitar.)

The piece’s final movement, “Come to Mama,” cuts to the core that the prior songs, including those on Side One, danced about: the downside of unfettered pride, which is often nothing more than an unconscious defense mechanism.

The songs:

  1. Give Blood
  2. Brilliant Blues
  3. Face the Face
  4. Hiding Out
  5. Secondhand Love
  6. Crashing by Design
  7. I Am Secure
  8. White City Fighting
  9. Come to Mama

And, finally, here is the album in full: