Category Archives: 1985

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 in their life.)

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:

The Essentials: Lone Justice – self-titled

Here’s a new, occasional series: Albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.

First up: Lone Justice’s self-titled debut, which was released on April 15, 1985.

img_2094

Flashback to that April: I read a review in Rolling Stone touting the album as a good, not great, affair that was highlighted by the vocal power of the girl singer, who supposedly possessed a style reminiscent of Janis Joplin.

I bought it (on cassette) days later, on April 17th; and the album proved great, not just good, to my ears. As I wrote in Top 5: April 1985, it “was a shotgun blast of sonic newness that infused country-rock with punk, rock, gospel and soul. The music roared, soared and seeped from the speakers, and the mercurial Maria McKee’s vocals forged palpable emotions from the simplest of phrases.” I loved it, in other words; and made damn sure to play tracks from it on my college radio show—”You Are the Light” more often than not, as I deejayed a folk music show…

…but, on occasion, “Don’t Toss Us Away” – which, it should be mentioned, was written by her brother Bryan MacLean. But what the hell? Some (early) Sunday mornings I slipped in “Ways to Be Wicked,” too.

And is there a better song, by anyone, than “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)”?! When I listen to it, I think not. After it’s over? Sanity settles in. But to borrow from a review for the Lone Justice This World Is Not My Home compilation that I penned for Da Boot way back when, “her sweat flows from the speakers as if from her brow, and her heart … hell, her heart beats like a rhythm section all its own.”

  1. “East of Eden” (Marvin Etzioni) – 2:37
  2. “After the Flood” (Maria McKee) – 3:40
  3. “Ways to Be Wicked” (Mike Campbell, Tom Petty) – 3:28
  4. “Don’t Toss Us Away” (Bryan MacLean) – 4:19
  5. “Working Late” (Etzioni) – 2:45
  6. “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” (Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, McKee, Benmont Tench, Steven Van Zandt) – 4:12
  7. “Pass It On” (Etzioni, McKee) – 3:40
  8. “Wait ‘Til We Get Home” (Etzioni, Hedgecock, McKee) – 3:18
  9. “Soap, Soup and Salvation” (Etzioni, McKee) – 4:04
  10. “You Are the Light” (Etzioni) – 3:59

Today’s Top 5: 1985

The year 1985 is likely best remembered for the simultaneous Live Aid concerts that occurred in London and Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th. There were many performances that day and night – some good, some not, and many somewhere in-between – but the one that probably had the biggest impact, at least in the U.S., was U2’s. Their 18-minute set epitomized, and still epitomizes, everything good about this crazy little thing called rock ’n’ roll:

In every other respect, the year – like 1986 – was a transitional time. I wrote about it in my Top 5 for April 1985, so hopefully won’t repeat too much of myself here. In short: America was still rebounding from back-to-back recessions that occurred earlier in the decade. Unemployment stood at 7.3 percent at year’s start and fell to 6.7 by year’s end. Inflation was, thankfully, almost a non-entity, averaging 3.6 percent; and since the average wage increased by 4.26 percent from 1984, that meant most employed folks came out .66 percent ahead.

me_chevette_85As I’ve mentioned before, in ’85 I worked part-time as a department-store sales associate and, during the summer, worked full-time hours. I had no complaints. I had a car – a 1979 Chevette, dubbed the “Hankmobile” by my folks because I plastered an “I’m a Fan of Hank Jr.” bumper sticker on the back. (Yes, I was – and remain, to an extent – a fan of Hank’s, though that’s grist for another post somewhere down the road.) The Hankmobile got the job done – perhaps not in style, but so what? I bought a tape player, installed it and was good to go. (That’s me, sometime that summer, beside the car.)

Among the year’s top films: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Color Purple, Witness, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club rank among my most-watched films of all time – just as my wife can watch Remember the Titans ad infinitum, I can watch those over and over and over again.

The year’s top songs included “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!; “Like a Virgin and “Crazy for You” by Madonna; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner; “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan; “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits; “We Are the World” by USA for Africa; and, yep, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds.

The year’s top news stories included President Reagan’s controversial visit to a Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery; and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Closer to home: the Philadelphia Flyers’ phenomenal goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car accident; and Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city – literally – that caused 65 homes to go up in flames.

For me, the year is noteworthy for other reasons, too: After two years of commuter-college life at Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), I headed to the mothership, University Park, in State College, Pa., in late August. It was, indeed, a “Happy Valley.” I had a good roommate that first year, made good friends (one of whom became my roommate my second year), and – like most everyone else I knew – partied way too much. I joined the Folk Show staff on WPSU, contributed to a quarterly student magazine, and discovered the joy of selling plasma twice a week.

That same fall, an independent record store opened in town: City Lights Records, where I often whiled away time and money. Here’s a student film from 2008 that tells its story:

img_2094Anyway, enough of the introduction; it’s time for today’s Top 5: 1985. As in, my Top 5 albums from that storied year… (all of which, small surprise, I’ve previously featured in these pages.)

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice. Two words – and one name – as to why this tops my list: Maria McKee. The Little Diva, as she was nicknamed at some point in her career, is absolutely riveting throughout. Truth be told, to my ears, when she sings – whether with Lone Justice or on any of her stellar solo albums (and they’re all stellar), there’s no one better. Ever. That’s how I feel in the moment, at least. True, the delirium passes when the music ends, but man! I never want it to end.

2) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union. I wrote in my Top 5: Summer 1985 list that the Ryders “basically laid down the blueprint of the alt.country/Americana movement a decade before it became popular”; and this LP, to my ears, is their tour de force. As with Lone Justice’s debut, it’s an album – originally vinyl, then CD and now that CD digitalized as FLAC files – that I’ve returned to time and again through the decades. It never gets old. “State of My Union,” a Chuck Berry-infused, tongue-in-cheek tour of the South, is one of my favorite tracks, but they’re all great.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow. A damn good album. “Minutes to Memories,” which I featured in my Top 5 for October 1985, is one highlight; “Small Town” is another. On this album, and the one (Lonesome Jubilee) that followed, Mellencamp tackled subjects and themes – the rural reality of the Reagan Age and small-town life, primarily – too often avoided by his rock ’n’ roll peers, no doubt because they hadn’t lived it. He had, and it shows.

4) Emmylou Harris – Ballad of Sally Rose. I’m sure I rank this higher than most would, but it’s the album that made this boy a fan. As I wrote in my remembrance of her 1985 concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I bought it on vinyl on February 17th; picked up a double-album cassette of Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel on March 2nd; and saw her play Sally Rose from start to finish on March 29th. Perhaps it was that condensed introduction – some might say, instant obsession – with her music, but…wow. This set still packs an emotional punch. (For those not aware, it’s a fictionalized account of her relationship with Gram Parsons.)

5) Rosanne Cash – Rhythm & Romance. And, finally… Rosie! As I explained in that Summer 1985 piece, I discovered Rosie and this album via VH1.

And a few runners-up…

The Three O’Clock – Arrive Without Traveling

10,000 Maniacs – The Wishing Chair

Jane Wiedlin – Jane Wieldin

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel