Tuesday, April 26, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1976

Is it too late to wish you all a happy bicentennial?

If the sound of 1975 found that right balance between art and impulse, then '76 titled slightly toward the excess. Fittingly, the year of America's 200th birthday was also the first big year for disco, but more on that later. The organic singer-songwriter stylings from earlier in the decade was being phased out for music that was safe, slickly produced and oddly corporate. The Eagles, the biggest rock band of the decade up to that point, was swaying from earthy country-rock to the arena-ready guitar licks of new recruit Joe Walsh. In turn, The Doobie Brothers (the '70s second-most successful pop/rock act) overhauled its lineup to accommodate the blue-eyed soul of veteran sideman Michael McDonald. The most important major act to change personnel was the Rolling Stones, who welcomed Ron Wood of The Faces after the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor.

For all those tonal shifts, no one was ready for the advent of punk rock, a sound, an attitude, and a lifestyle whose seeds were first planted that year. Ditching the sonic excesses and growing studio majesty of their more mainstream peers, punk brought rock n' roll back to its basics and made it louder, meaner, and anti-establishment. This was a huge contrast to disco, which first climbed the pop charts in '75, demonstrated they still had legs in '76, and set the tone for top 40 radio for the rest of the decade. Heavy grooves, infectuous beats, and a core of simple songcraft eventually forced the entire music industry to wade their toes in the disco waters.

As for the year itself: I had always assumed 1976 was the weakest year of the decade in terms of music. Instead, I found a treasure trove of great albums and snappy singles --yes, I expanded the lists to 20 again-- including a few that I didn't realize were released this particular year. Now that I've been doing annual music blogs every month for the last 2 1/2 years, I'm kind of tilting towards '73 or '74 as the weakest of the decade, though I have yet to find a year that was outright bad.


1. Ramones, The Ramones. Gabba gabba hey! Even though 1977 will be remembered as the year punk broke out, the debut album by the first true punk band is a '76 vintage. As such, this album sets the blueprint for the whole punk aesthetic: three or four chords; a simple, catchy melody; irresistibly asinine lyrics; and blistering speed. The roots of the Ramones' sound can be found in '50s rock n' roll; though the band is faithful to the structure and intent of their heroes and influences, they simply play that music louder and faster. Long story short, this album is a true essential.
2. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder. The hard-to-fathom winning streak that Wonder carried through the early and mid-1970s hit a cresendo with this ambitious double-LP magnum opus. The arrangements are wide-ranging (even for the versatile Stevie), from the pretty, subdued "Have a Talk With God" to the political "All Day Sucker." If you want hits, they show up in spades: "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "Pastime Paradise," "As," and "Isn't She Lovely" were all radio staples. Nothing that Wonder has released since Key of Life has come close to matching the magic of this album or the rest of his '70s output, but it's not like he had anything left to prove.
3. Boston, Boston. Did Tom Scholz save FM radio? Not by himself, no, but the Toledo-by-way-of-Massachusetts studio whiz definitely played his part. Recorded in his basement on a state-of-the-art 12-track recording device, Scholz, partner in crime Brad Delp, and three other local musicians more or less invented arena rock. If the magic of the best-selling debut album of its time could be culled down to two tracks, they would be the soaring "More Than a Feeling" and the epic "Foreplay/Long Time." With disco and punk demonstrating opposite ends of the pop music spectrum in 1976-77, Boston was the middle-of-the-road band of choice, unlikely saviors and unexpected superstars.
4. Hotel California, The Eagles
5. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers

6. 2112, Rush
7. Desire, Bob Dylan
8. Rocks, Aerosmith
9. A Day at the Races, Queen
10. A New World Record, Electric Light Orchestra. Many acts in the '70s wore their Beatles influence on their sleaves (Big Star, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren) and went off into their own little tangents, but nobody took their admiration of the Fab Four to new dimensions quite like Jeff Lynne and ELO. Imagine Sgt. Peppers' reconstructed by lovelorn alien robots and that describes A New World Record in a nutshell. In fairness, however "Telephone Line" is like the greatest Lennon-McCartney ballad never written, and the clever "Rockaria!" bridges the missing link between Chuck Berry and Richard Wagner nobody knew existed.

11. Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton
12. Destroyer, KISS
13. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC
14. Black Market, Weather Report
15. Warren Zevon, Warren Zevon. Zevon's major label debut --his 1969 bow on the Imperial label is a muddled, deadly serious mess-- was a watershed moment for the veteran songwriter and session musician. Where his comtemporaries on the mid-70s L.A. scene (the so-called "Mellow Mafia") were writing brainy pop songs, Zevon took the motif one step further and added violence, bile, and cynicism. When he didn't wear his black heart on his sleeve, Zevon also wrote beautiful, understand ballads like "Mohammed's Radio" and "Desperados Under the Eaves."

16. The Royal Scam, Steely Dan
17. Black and Blue, The Rolling Stones
18. Night Moves, Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
19. Takin' It To The Streets, The Doobie Brothers
20. Arrival, ABBA. One further debut of importance in '76 came from a Swedish pop act with three albums already under their belt. A curio of sorts when their singles "S.O.S." and "Waterloo" found radio play in the US in late 1975, ABBA proved their mettle on their fittingly-titled breakthrough Arrival. "Dancing Queen" is far and away the best-known track, an international #1 hit and the earwig that almost single-handedly built their American fan club, but the other nine tracks are equally delicious ear-candy.


"Saturday Night," Bay City Rollers
"Rubberband Man," The Spinners
"You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," Lou Rawls
"All By Myself," Eric Carmen
"She's Gone," Hall & Oates
"Fooled Around and Fell In Love," Elvin Bishop
"Dream Weaver," Gary Wright
"Right Back Where We Started From," Maxine Nightingale
"Turn The Beat Around," Vicki Sue Robinson
"Year of the Cat," Al Stewart

"Achilles' Last Stand," Led Zeppelin
"It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)," AC/DC
"Jailbreak," Thin Lizzy
"Crazy on You," Heart
"Space Intro/Fly Like an Eagle," Steve Miller Band
"The Pretender," Jackson Browne
"Strangered in the Night," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
"Don't Fear the Reaper," Blue Oyster Cult
"Younger Point of View," Dogs
"Cherry Bomb," The Runaways


"Crackerbox Palace," George Harrison. Notice the singular, not the plural. The concept of a short promotional film to promote an artist's new song was pretty staid until the late '70s. The vast majority of the videos made then were short clips of the artist perfoming; the song spoke for itself, and there was no other art involved. Half the time, they were culled from "American Bandstand," Britain's "Top of the Pops," or their German cousin "Musik Laden," then inchangably recycled. This clip, primitive by today's standards but aggressively oddball for its time, is more historical curio than masterpiece for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it marked a rare collaboration between a Beatle and a member of Monty Python; Eric Idle directed the clip during a breather from Rutland Weekend Television, and his former collaborator Neil Innes has an extended cameo.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wilson vs. Blaylock: History's Greatest Mookie?

"Winner" of the 2011 Red Smith Award for Contributions to Sports Journalism

It was a cool February morning in Bamberg, South Carolina. The year is 1956, and a healthy baby boy named William Hayward Wilson is born at a nearby hospital. By the time the boy became a teenager he was one of the top-rated prep baseball players in the Palmetto State, and a few years later he was a standout center fielder at the University of South Carolina. Impressing scouts with his speed and switch-hitting, though not necessarily for his size (5'10", 170 lbs.) or power, he was drafted in the second round of the 1977 draft by the New York Mets.

Fast forward eleven years to another hospital, the Baylor Medical Center in Garland, Texas. It was at this hospital that Daron Oshay Blaylock was brought into the world. A natural push-and-pass point guard and a strong defensive stopper, the young Blaylock was the captain of the Garland High School basketball team. After earning NCJAA All-American honors at Midland College in 1987 he transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he and Stacey King carried the Sooners to the 1988 NCAA Championship game. This impressed the New Jersey Nets' scouts to the extent that they chose him as the 12th overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft.

So what do these two highly disparate professional athletes have in common? As a young child, William had great difficultly saying "milk," often emphasizing a "moo" sound when he asked for a glass of two percent. When Daron was about ten years old, his grandmother went to see Star Wars and commented that her taller-than-average grandson "looked like the mookie," misremembering the actual name of Chewbacca's species. Oddly enough, both nicknames stuck.

Granted, if there was a Mookie Copernicus or a Mookie Descartes or even a Mookie Hitler, there'd be no point in arguing this. Alas, this curious nickname is shared by exactly two public figures, both respected ex-athletes in the highest professional level of their respective sports. A title such as Mookie does not befit an astronomer, a mathematician, or a Nazi. So the question lingers: who is history's greatest Mookie?

I begin this highly intestinal debate by contrasting the Mookies. Where Wilson played in the major leagues predominately in the 1980s, Blaylock was an NBA fixture in the '90s and early 2000s. Their professional careers overlapped by a little over two years, thus ensuring dozens upon dozens of sports fans to be confused if anyone were to ask "hey, did you see Mookie play last night?" On top of that, Blaylock was the more dominant athlete; chosen to play in the 1994 NBA All-Star Game, he was a defensive workhorse and who ranks 12th on the all-time steals list. Wilson proved to be an average talent but a fan favorite, a fearless stolen base threat to compensate for only hitting 67 home runs and 438 RBI in his twelve years in the majors. Plus, Blaylock is three inches taller and ten pounds heavier than his fellow Mookie, so guess who'd clearly win in a fistfight.

If you were to debate the purpose and necessity of a nickname like Mookie, than Wilson would have the edge. There already was a Willie Wilson playing for the Kansas City Royals in the same time period, two southerners with the same baptismal name at the same position, so the alternate moniker wiped out any and all potential confusion. On the other hand, there are no other players in NBA history by the surname of Blaylock, so at least that Mookie had a distinct edge.

Another point to consider is the collective cultural impact of the Mookies. It is well-known trivia that in the early '90s, a five-piece grunge-rock band based in Seattle, Washington had considered naming themselves Mookie Blaylock, even though he never suited up for the Supersonics. When the band couldn't get clearance from the NBA, they settled upon their second choice, Pearl Jam. (In turn, PJ's debut album Ten is reference to Blaylock's jersey number with the Nets.)

Wilson's contribution to pop culture, however is an actual achievement that had far-reaching ramifications. His ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series --the easy out that infamously slipped through Bill Buckner's legs-- led the Mets to a shocking rally and the second title in team history. On the flip side, the gaffe ultimately cost the Red Sox their first championship in seven decades and extended their drought by almost a generation. Both Wilson and Buckner became pariahs in the city of Boston.

Upon analyzing and breaking down the qualities of both Mookies, I cannot convince myself to choose just one. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Blaylock have too many intangibles to make this a sure-shot decision. In the end, maybe this historical debate has not seen its conclusion written yet. A third Mookie of consequence, Mookie Jones is a standout forward for the Syracuse Orange who might be a high pick in the 2012 or 2013 NBA Draft. Unlike the other two, Mookie is his birth name. It must've been fate that his parents are both Mets fans.

Next week: the year in music, 1976.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Random Notes, April 2011

As you probably guessed, this week's missive is a tad late. In fact, in nearly six years this is the latest I've ever posted a Weekly Update. Long story short, I was spending long hours training for a sales/marketing position that ultimately didn't work out. Regardless, I remain optimistic and will continue my job search with my head held high. With that said, let me drop off some random notes:

+ In some ways, President Obama dodged a bullet last weekend. In other ways, he shot himself in the foot. I'm relieved that we won't be facing a government shutdown, but the compromise that party leaders agreed upon late Friday night won't satisfy too many Americans. Some cuts, like education and elderly care were sadly inevitable, but others clearly demonstrated the seemingly impenitrible stranglehold of lobbyists and special interest groups. If the majority of our elected officials had actual jobs --or possessed any real-world skill besides governing-- they would've been fired now. The partisan cease fire in the wake of Gabby Giffords' shooting was fleeting; the ideological dagger eyes are just as pointed as they were before the election. The bipartisan period of mourning, one of mutual yet begrudging respect, was just that-- a period.

+ On that note, whatever became of the Tea Party radicals that took a battering ram to the status quo last year? Chances are, the mavericks that were elected to the House in November are too preoccupied trying to stay in office; it's fairly common for rookie representatives to spend nearly their entire two-year term fighting off challengers for a congressional seat they won mere months ago. However, the two or three that were present and vocal during the debates griped that there weren't enough cuts on government spending (naturally). As literal and pure as they may be, the Tea Partiers will eventually come to the same conclusion that Newt Gingrich arrived at in 1996: a government that spends no money whatever can neither govern nor function.

+ Another spring, another fantasy baseball rollout. So far, my results are no different than the past three years: my TV.com team is middling while my other team thrives. I drafted Mike Aviles on both teams; after a sizzing opening day he's been batting .060, so I dropped him for Hideki Kuroda and Alberto Callapso. Now I need to figure out what to do with an injured Ryan Zimmerman...

+ Finally, I'd like to address a bizarre incident that occured on Facebook last week. For those of you that are friends with me outside of this site, I'm somewhat notorious for writing witty, facetious status updates. Sometimes my original material clicks, sometimes it doesn't, it's all trial and error. On Tuesday the 5th, I jokingly announced that I had won the prestigious Red Smith Sports Journalism Award for an article I wrote titled "Wilson vs. Blaylock: History's Greatest Mookie?" Instead of getting the usual "John Smith likes this" or "LOL" comment, I received several notes congratulating me on the honor. Apparently, my wit was too dry for its own good; my friends and acquaintances didn't realize that a) the Red Smith is like the Pulitizer for sportswriting and almost as lucrative, and b) I'm just your average free-lance writer/blogger, not a scribe for Sports Illustrated or anything of the such. Eventually I had to clarify my failed joke, and no one felt betrayed, but for my own personal amusement I actually will write a blog spot next week comparing and contrasting the two Mookies. This article will be either my creative pinnacle or a stunning failure, and anyone that's interested will have a front row seat.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: Another Topical Rant

Can we officially call Operation Odyssey Dawn a war? I'm not sure. Did the US have to intervene? Yes. President Obama's address to the nation two weeks ago was both articulate and somewhat befuddling, but supporting and arming the Libyan rebels was the right thing to do. The man I recently dubbed "bizarro Reagan" has an opportunity to pounce on what ol' Dutch could never do: topple Moammar Ghadafi. With American armed forces slowly passing the baton to NATO, I hope this joint effort brings down a tyrant that should've been removed from power decades ago. My only concern mirrors the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia: will the end of totalitarian rule bring democracy to a torn nation, or create a radicalized, Al Qaida-type power vacuum?

This is where one might ask when I turned into a war liberal. I assure you that I have tried to be as objective as possible about post-WTC American combat operations. I believe invading Afghanistan was more than justified and sending troops to Libya equally so. As happy as the Iraq people were to be liberated from the Hussein regime eight years ago, Operation Enduring Freedom was organized in haste, without strategy, and largely under false pretense. The only mutual thread between Libya and Iraq is the theme of unfinished business.

Of course, I say this just as President Obama's reelection bid has officially launched. It's an understatement to point out what a difference four years make: the optimistic outsider that announced his candidacy on the Illinois state capital steps in February 2007 is now the embattled center of the American political spectrum. I won't ignore or downplay Obama's vulnerability at this moment in time, though his chances at a second term ultimately falls upon who runs against him. As Ronald Reagan proved in 1984 and Bill Clinton reinforced in 1996, a challenger that trips upon himself proves quite beneficial to the incumbent.

Of the small army of Republican hopefuls, no potential candidate has garnered as much attention --both deliberately and unintentional-- than former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Lest we forget that this is man who orchestrated the infamous 1995-96 government shutdowns and handed divorce papers to his cuckholded wife in the middle of a chemo session. For Gingrich's lack of leadership skills and questionable moral aptitude, it's scary to think he's still a serious contender. The Tea Party boosters that rocked the 2010 midterms have more say in the GOP's direction than ever, and they seem willing to overlook Gingrich's spotty track record and bet all their chips on the retired, erratic Georgia congressman. In spite of a complete lack of similar interests, I will gladly take Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty over Newt. If the Republican Party's power circle still has a sliver of sanity, they will nominate someone --and I mean anyone-- over Gingrich.