On the Record
I never shut up about music. The great rock records, the classical symphonies and sacred masterworks of history all stand as towering monuments, every bit as immortal and important as the dazzling works of literature, architecture, art, theatre and film. These are the better angels of our nature. They tell the human story—our resplendent kindness and unfathomable cruelty, all the glory and suffering, the torment, the heartache, the agony, the ecstasy, life and death. My fascination with the studio album has deep roots. I’ve always been captivated by it—the idea of a cohesive collection of music with a distinct aesthetic. I’m enamored with the art of production and songwriting. That stuff kept me from falling apart all these years.
I was embarrassed to admit it for a long time, but my love for the studio album started with Guns n’ Roses’ debut, Appetite for Destruction. I’ve spoken to many people my age claiming the same. It was a strange phenomena—almost an entire generation of kids, far too young to be listening to that stuff—all super fans of a sleazy Los Angeles hard rock band. Music writers never talk about it this way, but I believe they paved the way for bands like Nirvana and the ’90s explosion of alternative rock, as their audience, primed for heavier and darker music, began to mature in the next couple years.
It was fashionable at the time for parents to expose their kids to edgy music and cartoonish horror films like the Nightmare of Elm Street and Friday the 13th series. This was seen as an effort to expose the children to the darker elements of life, so they wouldn’t be so naive. It may not have been the most responsible experiment, but it happened. I pulled a cassette copy of Appetite out of my stocking on Christmas morning in 1988. Five skulls on a cross all made up to resemble the five band members, staring back at me from the cassette cover. They were superheroes to my tiny mind. I’d heard the hits on the radio. The videos were all over MTV. I couldn’t wait to hear this thing in full. I clawed open the cellophane and stomped upstairs to get an earful as everyone below squawked amongst themselves.
I hastily inserted the gray cassette into my cheap no-name boombox and waited for the familiar opening sounds of Welcome to the Jungle. I folded out the insert and took in the sweet chemical smell of the inside jacket. My eyeballs landed on a bizarre piece of surrealist horror; a picture by LA artist Robert Williams. There was a dead woman, half naked on the sidewalk. She had apparently been raped and killed by a robot in a trench coat. Overhead, a monster with all kinds of limbs and claws and knives for teeth was flying over a fence to destroy the homicidal automaton. This was supposed to be the original album cover. What is this stuff? Who the hell are these guys? What the fuck is this painting about? How does this connect with the music? What story are they trying to tell me here? What does this mean? I was eight years old. I needed answers. I was instantly in love with every song on the tape and I wore it out in a year, trying to figure it out.
My quest for answers about this violent cartoon on the inside jacket of my new favorite thing only got me into The Wall by Pink Floyd, both the album and the movie. I watched that film on an old VHS tape repeatedly for the next year and a half. It frightened and fascinated me. I would rewind scenes and watch them over and over. What story were they trying to tell with all this? Again, here were these surreal violent cartoons. Why were these hammers marching everywhere? Why are these kids with creepy masks falling mindlessly into a giant hamburger grinder? Why is this giant butt cartoon yelling at me? The images were frightening and the music was irresistible to me. It was more than my young boy’s mind could comprehend at the time, but I kept those songs close. I was especially captivated by the album’s use of leitmotif—when musical themes would be reprised in songs that came later in the sequencing of the album.
By the time puberty hit, I had managed to purchase every Floyd record in their catalog thanks to snow shoveling, lawn moving, leaf raking and some tolerant neighbors willing to pay me for what was most likely shoddy work. I reconnoitered those albums like a drill instructor reviewing the troops. I took note of the polish and sheen of their classic period albums, as well as the roughness of their early post-Syd Barrett albums. I got to know and associate a distinct feel for every one of them. They all seemed to tell a story, some blatantly and others more subtle.
Then came the great rock albums of the 1990s after the bands from Seattle broke through to the mainstream and turned young kids like me on to a whole world of bands and genres that I had no clue even existed just months before. Soundgarden were my new gods. They took everything I loved about that old classic rock format—the guy screaming and the guitar guy shredding—and gave it brains and brawn. The songs were dark and abstract. I went and bought Superunkown the day it was released and I never stopped listening to it. The songwriting and performances on that album took me to another world. I would play the songs back over and over so I could hear the vocal overdubs and the little guitar flourishes here and there. It gave me an appreciation for production that never left. I would ruminate on just how much care went into producing that record.
Then came Nine Inch Nails. I couldn’t get over how cool the programming was on The Downward Spiral. I overlooked Trent Reznor’s lyrics and focused in on all the great synthesizer work. I had never heard anything like it. I got into Tori Amos when she released Under the Pink. That record brought me into some kind of impressionistic dreamscape. The classical influence was unmistakable to me, it seemed as if that record had been made simultaneously in 1794 and 1994. Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails released their records on the same day. Tori released hers three months prior. I was coming of age at a point in time when I believed great mainstream rock was here to stay. But I was wrong and that all soon came crashing down.
As I dove deeper into adolescence, I found myself getting into trouble. I was a bad kid, teetering on the edge of delinquency. Parents were instructing their kids not to hang around me. No girls wanted anything to do with me. I could feel myself losing control. I felt a creative streak come over me one day while listening to Beck’s Stereopathetic Soul Manure—an oddball collection of tracks, released around the same time as his breakout, Mellow Gold. The material on the album was humorous, lo-fi and extremely idiosyncratic. It was so disjointed that it was cohesive. I had never heard anything like it. The album sounded like it had been recorded on an old boombox. “I can do this,” I told myself. “I’m going to do this.”
I traded in some of my old video game consoles to friends for their old beat up guitars and amps. I bought a book and attempted to teach myself how to play. I had a shack in my backyard with all kinds of junk in there. I relocated the junk and claimed the shack as my practice space. My best friend at the time played drums and we started a band. We were learning, taking risks and experimenting. We wrote and recorded albums on a boombox. The whole thing centered on writing and recording albums. We had the nerve to perform in front of all the kids in our junior high school. You couldn’t say that we had talent, but we were working at something. That mattered a lot to me back then. I got a glimpse into how far into the abyss I could fall. The creative process of writing an album was like a giant catcher’s mitt, saving me from a free fall into the vacuum.
I went away to California after high school and soon found myself in the military. I hated my job, but I was stuck there. Upon coming home from work each day, I would customarily throw my copy of Husker Du’s mighty Zen Arcade on the record player and drink beer, lying supine on the floor of my apartment in my uniform. Bob Mould’s voice—that yell and that guitar, struck me viscerally. Hardcore, pop punk and psychedelia all intertwined to create this exceedingly intense music. Zen Arcade is something of a concept album. The story is loose and stupid; something about a kid leaving home, becoming jaded, ending in a deus ex machina where he wakes up and it’s all a dream. That doesn’t matter. Those songs got me through tough days.
I had been through my concept album phase by this point. I had been through the big ‘70s prog rock albums, the Beatles records, the big American jazz records. In a way, all good studio albums are concept albums. They’re concept albums in their cohesiveness, their all-around sound, the production, the songwriting, the performance itself—that all comes together to create a unique work of art with a story and aesthetic all its own. When someone mentions an album like, Exile on Main Street, London Calling, Daydream Nation, or Surfer Rosa, a distinct sound and aesthetic comes to mind. None of these are traditional concept albums, yet they tell a story just the same.
I got out of the military and toured in support of a record. Some time after the tour, I came to grips with the fact that I had outgrown the musician thing. I saw myself growing older, playing bass in a series of bands. I would age, gigging in these clubs, dealing with these people. The passion left. The fire was out. Nothing I could do. I got depressed for a year, then I turned to Mozart. In a dusty old Sacramento thrift store, I picked up a vinyl record with his Symphony 38 “Prague,” on one side and Symphony 36 on the other. I’ve been a classical guy since day one. I’ve always been a Mozart fan. Still, the Prague Symphony was a game changer for me at that time. That slab of vinyl was spinning on my record player every night as I drifted off to sleep. It became a part of my life. The glory and the optimism, the genius and the grandeur of the piece helped to pull me out of my slump. I clung to it.
I would raid the record stores for their cheap classical vinyl. I tuned in to the classical radio station so I could discover new composers. I read up on guys like Telemann, Haydn and Bach. I became a discerning snob when it came to recordings—the conductors, the ensembles and the nuances in their work. Here was something that I had always been looking for—meaning within the music. I have written about Bach’s work and some of Mozart’s as well. There are many volumes printed on the meaning and symbolism in Bach’s work alone. I come across so many books about Wagnerian opera, it’s daunting to even attempt. I took the plunge into this stuff head-on. I’m still deep within it all. In turn, I gained a new appreciation for the dissection of the masterwork. I came to love the care and attention to detail, the connecting of dots and the brilliance that goes into the creation of such things.
Eventually, my love for the classics brought me back to the great rock albums, especially those of the late 1960s and ‘70s, when the art form was at its peak. These are the great modern symphonies. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and SMiLE, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall are performed by Brian Wilson and Roger Waters respectively in their entirety as if they are classical compositions. I have a feeling these albums will be performed in their entirety by ensembles after long their chief composers are dead. These are cherished compositions that have endured for generations now.
Modern-era classical music as we know it has long become avant-garde and unlistenable to the general public and not-so-general public alike. Much of it having fallen into the same trap that modern art and much of literature fell into—striving to evolve into something more clever and fresh while losing its way, forgetting about beauty, aesthetics, and enjoyability. The late composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was making this case as far back as the 1960s. All that modernism became a chore to listen to, read, or look at. The public lost interest. The stuff lives on grants and a dwindling subscription base. It’s all but dead.
The great studio rock album deserves its accolades. High art does not appreciate being associated with such things, and I’m sympathetic to that notion. Popular art is often a sewer, yet brilliance is brilliance and these things have so much to reveal to us if we only listen. Stigmas need to be disposed of when it is appropriate to do so. The studio album was a gateway drug of sorts for me. That’s how I got into this mess. It opened the doors to an utter fascination with the arts—finding the meaning within metaphor, the truth within the printed word and the musical composition.
A great record can arrest you emotionally and draw you right in. When I was first discovering monoliths like Queen’s A Night at the Opera, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Wire’s Pink Flag, Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia, Aerosmith’s Rocks—they intoxicated me. I understood that I had found something to hold on to for the rest of my life. Music is deeply personal. These albums and their songs creep into every facet of our being. I feel a strong need to write about them, to talk about them, to share them. Man, you’ve got to hear this! After all this time, I still find myself needing to get to the bottom of it all, to figure them out and recover the significance hidden within—the golden ball at the bottom of the well. There is much to be said about meeting a recording on its level and letting it take over. These are our modern musical masterworks, and theylive forever—in our hearts, in our memories, long after their creators have vanished from this realm and the party’s over. All this we treasure today and leave for the future.
thanks for your passionate writing here and elsewhere on the blog, makes for interesting and entertaining reading. I found your blog yesterday when browsing for informed opinions on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which I have been curious about since finding a copy of William Christie’s recent CD on Harmonia Mundi in the record shop on the ground floor of my office building (bought it in the afternoon when leaving for home yesterday – the dangers of having even a small record shop too close). Since I am a rough decade older than you my personal musical monuments differ slightly from yours, but not entirely, and anyway I recognize myself in your intense description of your musical journey. There is so much to discover and to rediscover. For me it didn’t start with G’n’R debut (which I also bought) but with the album Hello! (released 1973, bought it in 1977) by UK boogie hard rockers Status Quo, but that’s just a difference in decades. For a long time I had one ear on 70’s hard rock and one ear on classic harmonic pop (ELO and onwards), until I found hip hop in the debut albums by Beastie Boys (1986) and Eric B & Rakim (1987). Then, Pixies “Doolittle” (1989, still among my top 3 rock albums) and Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” (1991).
I have remained a fan of Golden Age hip hop (circa 1986-1994) ever since. It doesn’t dominate my listening on the whole though, but I am a binge listener. Periods of deep listening to hip hop, pop, rock, jazz, golden age soul and opera (my first love in classical music) intermingle on a constant basis. And now finally, since two years, and firmly middle aged, I have opened my door wide open to instrumental classical music. It is all wonderful. Researching, listening, identifying my preferences is so gratifying. But when you refer to Beach Boys et al and calling them the great modern symphonies I just HAVE TO (Man, you’ve got to hear this!) tell you to listen to the UK pop band XTC’s album “Skylarking” (1986). This band is the only one to reach the levels of Beatles and Beach Boys in terms of classic pop song writing, but in the case of XTC with a strong idiosyncratic bent. Skip their first two albums until later and then just dig in. Unusually for a pop/rock band they only got better and better and quit at their absolute peak in 2000. “Skylarking” is a summer concept album produced by Todd Rundgren, an almost symphonic pastoral gem, with some crazy catchy pop hooks, and my favorite pop/rock album ever since first discovering it 30 years ago.
All the best/Mattias
Hello again Ryan, I should mention that if you do check out “Skylarking” it is slightly better to turn to the edition that was remastered for corrected polarity from a few years ago. Even though I happily listened to the original version for most of these 30 years I can clearly hear the improvement and also finally got an explanation for something that I have been wondering about for a long time: https://burningshed.com/XTC-Skylarking_corrected_polarity_edition-CD
Thank you very much for such a well-written and thought out comment. I’ve done some listening to XTC before, but I’ll definitely give Skylarking an in-depth listen. I really appreciate your enthusiasm and recommendation.