“thirteen” – big star (1972)

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Since the fall of 2015, I’ve been taking classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Previously, I had been involved with Old Town as a volunteer starting earlier that year and had attended various concerts over the last few years.  It has been a wonderful place that has fostered my musical development on various levels.  As a volunteer in their impressive music archive, I’m constantly finding new things to listen to.  As a concert patron, the intimacy of the main hall makes this the best place to see a concert in Chicago.  And taking lessons has given me a deeper understanding on producing music by putting my interest to practical use.

The classes are conducted once a week over a two-month session.  I had taken the last section off because of some travel plans.  However, I have been looking into the class offerings for the next session and thinking about where I want to go to next.

While I am not a particularly great guitar player, I’m not that bad.  I have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else.  I great at varying strumming patterns, but Barre chords on an acoustic give me trouble.  Plus, I’m a busy guy.  I work full-time, volunteer for two different non-profits, and lead an active social life.  I cannot expect to be as amazing as the people who practice for hours every day.  For me, I don’t have any grand ambitions.  It is just a private hobby.

As I think about next steps and the challenges that await, I know I want to do something different.  Until now, I had taken group guitar classes where everyone practices and plays together.  These classes were part of their core guitar program, so the focus was advancing our knowledge of chords and strum patterns.  While I need improvement in some areas, I have exhausted my lessons there.  So, what is next?  Learning a specific style such as blue or finger picking?  Perhaps play in a band as part of a class ensemble?  There’s just so many options.  Until I make that decision, I’m reflecting on my progress since starting my classes nearly two years ago.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into picking my instructor. Old Town’s staff consists of really talented people who specialize in different areas.  For someone who just wanted to start with the basics anywhere, I just focused on what was convenient for my schedule.  Jane Hanna was my instructor for the better part of a year while I was taking the entire progression of core guitar classes (almost) every Thursday for a year.  She also taught the glam rock ensemble as well as some other classes.  Her specialty was more rock and punk-oriented which suited my tastes quite well.

Throughout the various classes I took with her, there were certain artists we would revisit in almost every class.  David Bowie was her all-time favorite so, naturally, he always made an appearance.  However, there were other artists that would pop up more frequently than others.

One of those artists was Big Star.  Like many people, my exposure to Big Star was limited.  I think I vaguely knew that their song “In the Street” was covered as the opening theme for That ‘70s Show and I recall a documentary about the band was released a few years ago, but I never saw it.  And I find that my unfamiliarity is not uncommon.  They only released three studio albums before disbanding within three years of forming and none of those releases sold very well.

However, despite poor sales, the band’s musical output was highly influential.  A lot of musicians were inspired by Big Star and their power pop aesthetic, melodic harmonies, and relatable existential themes.  And over the years, the became darlings of the critics with some of their work appearing on lists commemorating the best albums and songs of all time.  Their cult following consisting of people who just wanted to listen and play good music has earned them the recognition of being a “musician’s band.”

The lead singer, Alex Chilton, started his career as the lead singer of the Box Tops who released the hit “The Letter.”  Chilton wrote and performed much of Big Star’s songs.  Despite the poor commercial success of his most influential band, he remains a beloved musical figure.  I was recently reminded of Big Star, and especially Chilton, when I attended a storytelling series last weekend.  One of the speakers, Freda Love Smith, was sharing a story about the only time she met Chilton and how she embarrassed herself in front of her idol.  She had bummed a cigarette and had trouble starting the lighter because of low fluid.  She saw Chilton having trouble with his lighter and asked if he was out of fluid.  It was the only thing she said to him and she groaned that she never had opportunity to share her undying admiration.  It was a touching story.

This month marks the 45th anniversary of their first studio album.  #1 Record, released June 1972, remains to be the most popular and beloved of their discography.  While 1974’s Radio City would later contain “September Gurls,” another beloved Big Star classic, #1 Record contains one of their best song ever recorded.

“Thirteen,” the fourth song on the album, was never released as a single though it has become their most legendary song.  Covered by many great artists such as Garbage, Wilco, and Elliott Smith, “Thirteen” proves to be their most influential for it’s gorgeous guitar, melancholy vocals, and how relatable the lyrics are.  It is a story of adolescent frustration and love.  There’s rebellion, music, and a lust to live life to the fullest with no apologies.  That yearning comes through so powerfully yet so intimately.  It is a touching and soulful track.

Over the last few years, Big Star’s following has increased.  I’ve become a fan and learning how to break down their songs and appreciate the elements that make up the music certainly helped me appreciate them as a musician’s band.  While taking classes with Jane, we had covered both “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.”  Both are amazing, but “Thirteen” stands out just ahead as their quintessential track.

“good beat” – deee-lite (1990)

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Previously in this blog, I have talked about the album discussion group I help organize (for the unfamiliar, imagine a boog club but about music albums).  Though we meet every other Sunday, it seems to be something I can never get enough of.  I’m always looking forward to the next meetup.

I just really enjoy talking about music with friends.  That is the most exciting aspect of the group, but there is more I get from the experience.  It gives me an opportunity to try new things and be more open-minded about approaching music.  And that was kept in mind when the group was formed.  By only picking albums from the book 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and alternating decades with our albums selected at random based on attendee feedback, it guarantees that everyone has some say in what album is chosen.  This keeps things really fresh because everyone in the group has different levels of interest and experience with music.

That is why I was so surprised with our recent pick World Clique by Deee-Lite.  When that album was selected, I groaned a bit.  It was only because I was super skeptical.  I had only known two songs by them.  Of course, I knew “Groove Is in the Heart” which is catchy but a song I just never really enjoyed.  And the, within the last few years, I heard “Rubber Lover” from their second studio album after it was featured as a desert island pick on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions.  I had limited knowledge of this band and a bias based on that limited knowledge.

However, as key with this group, I had to give it a listen and keep an open mind.  I found the album on iTunes Music and pressed play.  Immediately, any preconceived notions about what I anticipated my listening experience to be faded away.

I was hooked with the opening “Deee-Lite Theme” for its sampling, cool beat, and funky saxophone.  The song originally wasn’t featured on the original LP release of the album, but was added as one of two bonus tracks for the CD.  Regardless, it perfectly set up the mood in such a perfect way.

As I listened through the album, I was surprised about the thematic content.  I didn’t realize how inclusive the album was.  The band itself is really inclusive from a gender and racial perspective, but the themes of the album present a message of love and acceptance that I just wasn’t anticipating.

One of my friends who joined the discussion talked about the impact this album had on her during her teenage years.  She picked up the album when it came out and, as a young girl, really identified with the feel-good energy of the group and the lead singer’s colorful clothes.

The group then discussed the origins of house music in Chicago.  I’m not from Chicago.  And prior to moving to Chicago, I was completely unaware of the city’s contributions to that music.  Someone in the group claimed that, along with jazz and the blues, house music was a true American musical invention.  And it came from the city we loved and shared.

House music just wasn’t on my radar.  I wasn’t old enough to understand it when it hit the mainstream by the end of the 1980s.  It was something that was already established by the time I would become aware of it.  Considering that, I also had no other emotional connection to it.  It was just a genre that I lumped together with electronic forms of music and miscategorized them all as “techno.”  I have since knowledgeable of house music’s key qualities and its impact on Chicago’s musical development and our culture at large.

When house music was invented, it was an underground movement.  Much like with Warhol’s Factory crowd or the early days of Grace Jones era disco, it was a subculture that celebrated life and love.  It was a venue where transgender, gay, lesbian, and mainstream social outcasts at that time could come together and be themselves, to not feel invisible, and to dance in a movement that celebrated love and the individual.  Inherent in that is a profound political inclination.  While house music typically doesn’t contain allusions to greater political themes such as war, the notion that people can live and love how they wish is a grand statement about acceptance and inclusion.

“Good Beat” was the LP’s original opener before the later addition of “Deee-Lite Theme.”  While I feel “Deee-Lite Theme” is a stronger opener with it’s funky instrumental and thematic declaration of “from the global village in an era of communication,” “Good Beat” is a solid track that propels the music and the message.

“Good Beat” is fun, but the lyrical content contains a surprising amount of a depth for a danceable house music tune.  The vocals challenge that depending on how you see a thing, your perception around you can change.  Your own outlook determines the openness of the world around you and what role you play in that world.  Whether it is dividing or closely binding, how you perceive things ultimately impacts your contributions.  And for those tired of the hatred, vitriol, and violence, they just wanna dance to a good beat.  And that is a powerful declaration.  To just let everything go and move to the rhythm with your fellow global citizens is something we should all strive for.

“a day in the life” – the beatles (1967)

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I have a lot of fun writing this weekly blog, but it can be a real challenge sometimes.  Part of what makes it challenging are the rules and guidelines I set for myself when I think of what to write next.  For one, I don’t repeat an artist if I have already written about them.  This really makes it harder to write about the artists I love most because when I publish that post, that’s it.  I wrote a post that felt timely or relevant based on recent cultural or personal events only to realize a few months later that I would’ve rather written about a different song because that one will become relevant at that time.  This is why there are artists I absolutely love that I’ve been hesitant to include such as the Police or the Clash.

The other challenge is to not feel forced when writing about a song that week.  I enjoy the discipline of keeping this up as a hobby on a weekly basis.  However, there are times when I don’t really have a song in mind to write about.  There are plenty of times when an artist or song sticks with me for the week and it results in a well-written and thought out post.  It is because that song made an impact on me that week because it related to some milestone or an event.  But, sometimes, I just have nothing going on and I churn out something just to do it.  I don’t like to do that, but I want to be consistent.

The Beatles are an example of a band that I adore that I hesitated for a long time to discuss.  I am a fan.  I enjoy their music and it had a significant influence on me during my adolescent years.  While I didn’t listen much during college or my subsequent adulthood years because I’ve been exploring and discovering other types of music, they had always been a part of me.

That is why planning this post for me was difficult.  I didn’t want to just write about any Beatles song because it would be a missed opportunity to write something meaningful.  So much of their catalogue is important to me and requires inspiration.  Then again, what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?  So much has been written that praises the Beatles as the greatest band ever.  So, what can I say that would be any different than pure adulation.

It is during those struggles that I rely on cultural milestones.  And even then, I still hesitate because I just don’t want to be one of many yelling into the noise.  However, sometimes it is necessary to call out those milestones and contribute a perspective.  Even if it may be an unpopular one.  These were the things I had considered over the last few weeks when countless media outlets were buzzing about the 50th anniversary release of the Beatles’ 1967 studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I had to ask myself: do I jump on this bandwagon and what should I say?

So, let’s cut to the chase.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is just simply not a good album.

Ok.

I got that off my chest.

Are we all ok?

Alright, let’s move on.

In 1966, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece record Pet Sounds and the music world was turned upside down.  Everyone everywhere had to make their own Pet Sounds.  You couldn’t just do rock and roll anymore.  You had to have more personal and poetic songwriting, compose lush orchestrations, and include abstract noises to add depth, complexity, and mystery to a record.  You couldn’t just make music anymore.  You had to make art.

A year later, the Beatles released their own version of Pet Sounds.  The biggest credit that gets attributed to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it legitimized the album as a complete work of heart.  The music industry, prior to 1967, was a singles market.  You had to put out a hit if you were going to get anywhere.  And that had been the standard since the beginning.  Prior to the mid-1960s, rock and pop albums were just collections of previously released singles.  When the Beatles confirmed they would quit touring and just focus on studio music, this album was the result of that.

I have a lot of issues with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Until the remixed 50th anniversary release, I always felt this was a poorly mixed record.  Some of the songwriting is unimaginative.  There is needless nostalgia throughout though this record was released during one of the most culturally exciting and volatile times of the 20th century.  And the concept of the fake band isn’t enough for me to be convinced that this album wasn’t merely a record made by a band that was becoming increasingly out of touch.

However, the biggest flaw with the record is with the songs on the record.  Song for song, this is a terrible record.  And the Beatles were capable of releasing records full of great songs.  I maintain that Rubber Soul and Revolver continue to be the best Beatles records.  However, the faux band concept somehow earns Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the credit of being a better work of art because it is more complete and should be experienced as a whole.  Even then, to make that happen, you must have good songs.

I help organize an album discussion group and a few months ago, we discussed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It was our most well attended discussion to date and it was spirited.  A lot was said about this record.  Most of it praise, but there was some acknowledgement that the album is flawed.

One thing we did during that discussion that we hadn’t really done before was poll everyone regarding the songs they liked and disliked the most.  You only needed to pick one.  As we went around the table, the songs that people liked were fairly similar.  Most of the table said a “A Day in the Life” or “With A Little Help from My Friends” with one person chiming in with “Getting Better.”  And, frankly, those are not bad choices.  But what it does tell you is that there are really only two songs that are enjoyable on the record to both casual listeners are critics.

This became more apparent when discussing the songs we hated the most.  Almost every song was mentioned as we went around the table.  There was not a clear choice when it came to the weakest point on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  “Lovely Rita,” Good Morning,” and the other tracks closing side one and opening side two were all mentioned as being just filler or just simply not good songs.  And that begs the question: how can this album be celebrated to the point of being considered the greatest album of all time in many circles but still be filled with bad songs?

In the latest episode of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, the hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis revisited the album.  Both were very critical of the album and even suggested that people who say they love this album hadn’t listened to it in a long time.  I know I hadn’t.  Prior to that album discussion group, I hadn’t listened to the album in its entirety since my freshman year of college.  There was one quote that was the most striking from the conservation.  Kot stated “I don’t really have a reason to listen to this record other than this one song.”  And the song he was referring to was “A Day in the Life.”

“A Day in the Life” is the only really good song on the record.  Coming in at a distant second is “With a Little Help from My Friends,” but the Joe Cocker cover is much better.  However, the closing track is a near perfect song that does exemplify the genius of the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would’ve been a much better album if the other songs had tapped into what made “A Day in the Life” one of the Beatles’ masterpieces.  Incredibly complex and dynamic, the orchestral glissandos, the avant-garde production, and the poignant lyrics make a real statement that pop music can be considered high art.

1967 was a fantastic year for music.  A lot of great albums were released that year.  While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been dominating all of the music journalism sites and blogs, it doesn’t negate the quality of records that receive less than fair celebration.  The Beatles sell.  People love nostalgia.  It is as simple as that.  And if you are going to spend some time with the Beatles, explore their albums and not be sold by the hype of the most overrated album of all time.