Category Archives: The Essentials

The (un)Essentials – Jan & Dean’s Folk ’n Roll

(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.)

Like many a child of the ‘70s, my introduction to the surf-rock stylings of Jan & Dean came by way of oldies radio. In my case, it was Michael St. John’s Saturday-night show on WPEN-AM in Philadelphia, which I tuned in after Elvis Presley’s death. I picked up a few double A-sided singles of theirs from the Hatboro Music Shop and, like many of my classmates, was blown away by Deadman’s Curve, the made-for-TV biopic about them that aired on CBS on Feb. 3, 1978.

I was 12 years old. Soon enough my attention would be diverted elsewhere – but I never forgot about their music, which I found funny, sly and just plain good. A year or three later, in fact, I wound up picking up their two-LP Anthology. Not only did it collect their best work, aka their hits, but it also included their versions of two Beach Boys songs (“Surfin’ Safari” and “Little Deuce Coupe”) and two Beatles songs (“Michelle” and “You’ve Got to Hide My Love Away”).

Fast forward a few more years, to the end of 1984: I’m browsing the used and rare vinyl in Memory Lane Records in Horsham and come across Early L.A., a compilation that featured pre-fame recordings by Dino Valenti, David Crosby, the Byrds and Canned Heat… and Jan & Dean’s 1965 LP Folk ’n Roll, which found the duo trading in their surfboards for fringed jackets.

The mid-‘60s were a difficult time for established acts, remember. Times and tastes were changing at a rapid clip, and veterans were doing whatever they could to hold onto the spotlight. Folk ’n Roll is a perfect example of that. It’s not a great album, though it has a few good-great moments; and, title aside, it’s less folk-rock and more pop-folk, with a dose of attempted satire tossed into the mix.

That said, the opener – “I Found a Girl” – could’ve been released at any point in the preceding years …

I should mention that it was co-written by the legendary P.F. Sloan and partner Steve Barri, who worked with Jan Berry often in those days. (That’s Sloan’s falsetto on “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” in fact.) “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which closes the first side, is also theirs; and has more of a folk-rock feel…

“Where Were You” was a hit for the Grass Roots the following year, of course; that group was created after Sloan-Barri’s demo began receiving airplay sometime in 1965. The Jan & Dean version falls between the demo and the official Grass Roots release, I believe. I should add that its similarity to Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” is even more pronounced here because “Eve” falls two songs earlier on this album side.

Part of what I find to be the kitschy charm of Folk ‘n Roll comes from the earnest unease that the duo have with the material. They don’t sound comfortable with the slowed folk-rock beat or ringing Rickenbacker, for example, though their harmonies remain a joy to hear…

…and, yet, the album is eminently listenable – even the one misfire, “A Beginning from an End,” about a man seeing his late wife in his daughter. That sounds sweet, and it is – up until the spoken interlude, when he recalls the wife’s death during childbirth. “I felt so all alone as they wheeled you through the doors and told me to wait….” (In some respects, that interlude conjures “Deadman’s Curve.”) The song sounds great until you listen to the lyrics, basically. And once you do? It becomes awkward. And crass. Let’s leave it there.

Well, let’s not. Here it is:

Likewise, their attempt at satire with “The Universal Coward” falls flat – the song is similar, in a sense, to “Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” the parody of Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” that featured a young Bob Seger. (In their defense: Neither possessed crystal balls that foretold what was to come.) More funny: the back cover picture of a new “potest” movement:

And, too, the title tune – which borrows its melody from “Surf City” – is a funny delight. Unlike “Coward,” it pokes affectionate fun at the folk-rock scene.

So, in short: Not a great album (thus it’s “(un)essential designation”), but an interesting listen, all the same.

To hear the album in full (and with commercials):

The Essentials: Juliana Hatfield’s Made in China

(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.)

It’s raw and ragged, and best played loud: That, in a nutshell, describes Made in China, Juliana Hatfield’s 2005 followup to the previous year’s in exile deo.

As the picture to the left shows, the album cover is of Juliana’s naval; but the music inside is far from naval-gazing. Instead, the 37 minutes reflect the ugly truths about life and the music biz that Juliana had learned up until this point. Pitchfork, I should mention, hated it. AllMusic, on the other hand, gave it four-and-a-half stars. That, too, says something about the album. Different ears hear the music in different ways. And it’s not just critics. I love it, but Diane… let’s just say it’s not the first Juliana album she’d put on.

As I wrote in Bed, Unmade, I rank it with Juliana’s best – in fact, it was my Album of the Year for 2005. I hear it as her primal-scream moment, a reaction to the music scene writ large circa the mid-2000s. The early ‘90s, for those old enough to remember them, saw a wave of women alternative rockers (both riot grrrl and more mainstream) splash upon the shore of public consciousness. I’m talking Bikini Kill, the Breeders, Belly, Juliana, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and dozens more. The music, for the most part, was front and center. A decade later, however, that era seemed to have been little more than a fad. As Juliana noted on her website at the time of Made in China’s release:

The most talented girl singers have turned themselves into strippers. A notch above porn stars. ‘Cause sex sells. The next step would be for them to actually have sex in their videos. Mariah Carey has implants. Christina Aguilera has implants. Gwen Stefani has implants. Even her. She finally gave in. And Beyoncé is on her hands and knees evoking doggy-style sex in one of her videos. And she has so much (singing) talent! Why, Beyoncé, why? Why, world, why? Why do you demand this of her?

The album, as a result, is littered with lyrics that call out the manufactured vs. the real, and the trajectory of her own career. Witness “What Do I Care?”

At times, too, I hear echoes of ‘90s-era Neil Young and Crazy Horse, most notably on “Rats in the Attic,” which possesses thud-thick chords that reverberate for hours on end despite the song being all of three minutes and 14 seconds on CD. It also delves into a subject that Neil would likely approve of: the corrosive poisons that exist in and around us.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of its tracks on YouTube. But here’s one: “Oh.”

And here’s another: “On Video.”

And here’s “A Doe and Two Fawns.”

And, finally, another live version of one of its songs, “Stay Awake,” from late 2004:

The songs:

  1. “New Waif”
  2. “What Do I Care?”
  3. “Stay Awake”
  4. “On Video”
  5. “Hole in the Sky”
  6. “Oh”
  7. “My Pet Lion”
  8. “Going Blonde”
  9. “Rats in the Attic”
  10. “Digital Penetration”
  11. “A Doe and Two Fawns”
  12. “Send Money”

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: