Thursday, July 8, 2010

Camaro Rock: I Listen So You Don't Have To

(editor's note: This is the beginning of a book I'm thinking about writing. Originally threw it up over on the Record Room, my favorite music board, in bits and chunks, and thought I'd throw it up over here for comment as it progresses)



CLICK

Grey day, 1983. You and Randy and Todd, standing in your garage in your prom finery. Randy was rebellious and wore a pink bowtie, remember how Todd called him a fag and he punched Todd in the arm so hard he bruised? Remember how Randy got kicked in the shin later that night by his date 'cause he called her a skank? Good times.

CLICK

You and Sherri, 1982. Hell yeah. Sherri was hot, wasn't she? I heard she's a dental hygenist now, but doesn't matter. Back then she was smokin' -- the curly hair, the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, the leather jacket with the Halen patch on the back. You're both smoking Marbs. Now you can't quit, and those things'll kill ya, but man, you looked cool.

CLICK

Smoking lounge, high school, 1983. You and Randy and Sherri, leaning up against the wall, looking like cool MFers, puffing on red box, feathered hair all 'round, Randy in a 'stache, leather jackets resplendent. Later that night you and Sherri would go all the way and you'd come super fast and she'd dump you the next day for Todd, and you wouldn't speak to that cocksucker for three years.

CLICK

Ahhh, there she is. Red 1977 Camaro. You polished that sucker until it glowed. You spent every Saturday underneath that thing with the little transistor radio blasting until Mrs. Nelson next door yelled out the front door and you flipped her the bird. That's the back seat where you and Sherri did it. That's the front seat where you and Todd and Randy smoked weed for the first time. Man, you wish you still had that car, don't you? Instead of the god-damn minivan your wife made you get for the kids? THEN Jeffrey at work would stop giving you shit for coming in half an hour late. You might even be able to slip the tongue to Julie in marketing. Shit. The Camaro.

This is you. Or someone you knew. The guy down the street. The chick with the locker two down from yours who used to front you cigs. The dude who used to buy you liquor. Whatever. You knew someone like this.

And if you lived during this time, you listened to the music he listened to.

Maybe you didn't like it. Maybe you were too busy listening to Elvis Costello or the Germs to give a shit, but you couldn't avoid it anyway. You heard "Point Of Know Return" when you were pumping gas down at the Esso. You heard "Don't Stop Believing" at prom when everybody you hated was out in the middle pumping their fists and you were sitting sullen in the corner wishing you were anywhere else and contemplating ways to get revenge by sending them porcelin dolls in the mail COD.

Or maybe you did. Maybe you spent your Friday nights down in your buddy Darren's basement drinking Jack and Coke and listening to Journey or Halen or Styx and talking about that awesome slutty chick who lived in the apartment building across the street who put out and staring at the poster of Farrah on his wall and thinking god dammit what I wouldn't do for a chick like that.

Either way, it was there. It was part of your life.

And right now, you are having a visceral reaction to it. You are either warmly nostalgic or halfway to the bathroom.

This thread, then, is for you, either way.

I've got a mission, see. I'm taking one for the team. I'm going to listen to all the touchstones of this genre of music -- call it "Camaro Rock" or "Arena Rock" or "Corporate Rock." Whatever you wanna call it, you know what I mean. And I'm going to write about it. This means I'm about to become intimately familiar with the ouvres of Journey. Boston. Foreigner. Styx. Kansas. Little River Band. And about twenty others you forgot about. Rest assured, I'm not going to forget about them. In fact, I'm going to listen to every album they ever put out, or at least a reasonable sampling. And I'm going to figure out why they're popular, why the guys with the mullets and the leather jackets liked 'em, and whether you should ever bother to let 'em grace your stereo.

You're welcome.

Think of it this way: If I do it, you don't have to. It's a mission from God. Or the other guy.

Whichever.

Kansas: Where's a tornado when you need one?

In the late-60s and early-70s, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good British teens figured out something magical: they could parlay their love of classical music, jazz, and impressive instrumental chops into a style of music that not only wouldn't get them shunned by their peers, it actually stood a chance of getting them laid. This was Progressive Rock, shortened (though the name was the only thing that was ever shortened in that style of music) to "Prog."

Of course, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good American teens wanted in. They, too, spent far too much time practicing their respective instruments in their childhood and they, too, wanted to turn that annoying practice time into actual genital contact. And so American Prog was born.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view and tolerance for such things) American Prog was devoid of some of the things that made British Prog so interesting -- namely whimsy, a uniquely British sense of mysticism (songs populated with Hobbits and faeries and the like), a medieval-obsessed reliance on archaic instruments like flutes and harpsichords and lutes and a genuine sense of forward-thinking experimentation. American prog bands didn't don foam-rubber costumes and prance around, in other words.

Instead, they added uniquely American qualities to the music -- influences from country and left-bank psych rock; a certain by-the-numbers, rural pop sensibility; bigger and bushier beards and a whole lot of "we take this seriously and so should you" attitude.

The prime practitioner of American prog was a band from Topeka named, pragmatically, Kansas. Formed out of several earlier proto-prog combos including Saratoga and White Clover, Kansas rose out of the pack for several reasons -- a decent songwriter in guitarist Kerry Livgren; an arena-ready belter in singer Steve Walsh; the ability to play very, very fast; a zippy violin player named Robby Steinhardt; and a series of very bushy beards indeed.

Their first two albums, the self-titled first and "Masque," have little to distinguish them apart from an obvious love of alternate time signatures and fast up-and-down scale-playing. Sound and fury, signifying nothing but a desire to signify something. It is only on "Song For America" that Livgren's songwriting begins to emerge as a contender. The ten-minute title track, while nowhere near as epic as one of Yes' sidelongs, features passages of notable power, and the melodies show signs of leaning towards memorability. Meanwhile, the band continues their lightning-fast up-and-down scales and the violinist saws away gamely. It's not a pretty sound by any means -- Dave Matthews would later hone it into a fine and hideous art -- but when married with Livgren's evermore potent melodies, it became a force to be reckoned with.

"Leftoverture" is the moment Livgren's songs become so epic and powerful that radio and American FM listeners couldn't ignore them anymore. "Carry On My Wayward Son" is certainly memorable, stuffed to bursting with great hooks and hard rockin' guitar and soaring harmonies. It sounded important. The lyrics portend some kind of yearning or searching, and American teens fell in line in droves. I'm searching too, they said. I want that peace when I'm done with my shift at the Wiener Barn! Unfortunately, the song also features the elements that make Kansas listening as agonizing as it is fascinating -- twinkly, superfast piano, semi-obvious boogie-rock guitar riffs and overearnest vocal wailing.

The rest of the album falls nicely in line behind "Carry On"'s mold. The band was slowly but surely abandoning their prog roots in favor of FM-ready rock songwriting and tunes like "What's On Your Mind" are far closer to Foghat and other bar-band classics than they are to Yes, despite the presence of hammond organ and round-the-bend time signature changes. Fortunately for prog fans, there's still epic, portentious stuff like the eight-minute "Magnum Opus" to accompany their dope-smoking-and-ripple-drinking reveries.

"Point Of Know Return," the follow-up, is actually the superior record, and if you want to own one Kansas record, this is the one. It contains two radio-ready smash hits, the keyboard-and-violin-driven title track (just try to get that keyboard lick out of your head. Go on, try. I dare you) and the morose but pretty funeral anthem "Dust In The Wind." The rest of the album is far less memorable but far less boogie-rock driven than "Leftoverture." Songs like "The Spider" and "Lightning's Hand" wind and weave with considerable prog chops. And "Portrait (He Knew)" actually sounds a little forward-thinking -- it's at least five years ahead of its time, sounding more like a mid-80s FM anthem than something from a late-70s prog record.

Unfortunately, that's where Kansas began to self-destruct. "Monolith," while beefing up the guitar sound and pulling back on the violin hackwork, contains not a single memorable song apart from the awful Queen pastiche "Stay Out Of Trouble," which is memorable only for being an embarassing attempt at marrying guitar beef with urban storytelling theatricality -- unfortunately, the band doesn't have the elan to pull it off. "Audio Visions," the last album by the original lineup, tries to add an even bigger layer of guitar crunch, sounding almost like a metal band in places. It has a few semi-memorable songs, including the Billy Joel-ish "Anything For You" and the hooky "Relentless." It has an equal number of embarassing missteps, like the baffling "Loner" which fails to rock, fails to groove and fails to not sound utterly laughable.

Guitarist Livgren, meanwhile, had long been balancing his born again Christianity with his life as a mid-america Prog rocker. He managed to convert bandmate Dave Hope, and it was this point that Steve Walsh, finally tired of the thin Christian metaphors stretched out across the last couple of records and, most likely, the crimp it put on his lifestyle, jumped ship. The band replaced him with Christian rocker John Elefante, and interestingly, it is at this point that the group actually becomes listenable for a couple of records -- though prog afficianados will find little to like in the group's beefy corp-rock sound.

"Vinyl Confessions" is Elefante's bow with the group, and right away, you can tell this ain't the Kansas you dug in the 70s. For one thing, Livgren's formerly oblique religious metaphors are pushed straight into the open. For another, the violin is virtually invisible. For yet another, the twirling keyboard arabesques take a back seat to a muscle-bound Journey-like corp rock guitar sound. The album is jam packed with radio-ready hooks. Tunes like "Right Away" and "Borderline" sound far more like Journey or even (at times) the Knack than they do 70s Kansas. Not to say Livgren's abandoned the Prog sound entirely -- "Windows" features his scale-heavy pop tune and sounds not unlike a "Know Return" outtake married to an overtly Christian lyric, and "Chasing Shadows" is an attempt to write a "Dust"-esque ballad. But mostly, you can see the Kansas of the 70s shattering apart amongst its grooves.

"Drastic Measures" is almost not a Kansas record at all -- the songwriting is dominated by Elefante, who sounds like he thinks he's either in Foreigner or the Tubes in equal measures, and Livgren's whirly-twirliness is pushed to the far background. The Christian lyrics are in full force, and the guitar sound is at the palm-mutiest it would ever get. It sounds like any mid-American corp-rock band -- and any hint of "Carry On" has been relegated to the dusty past. That said: it's really not a terrible record. "Everybody's My Friend" is a legitimately great pop song, with a magnificent hook and a deeply cynical lyric. "Fight Fire With Fire" is a great corp-rock anthem, and Livgren's equally sardonic "Mainstream" is funny and quite good. There's an odd New Wave sheen over the whole thing that's not common in records of this ilk, and it works both as a good CCM album and a great corp-rock one -- alas, fans of classic Kansas would find very little to like here.

Kansas broke up at this point, and when the band reconvened for "Power" and its follow up "The Spirit Of Things," they were literally an entirely different band. Led now by departed singer Steve Walsh, the group sounded exactly like every other corporate rock band of the mid 80s -- all their uniqueness had departed, and their reliance on power ballads ("All I Wanted" was a mid-decade hit) and generic chunka-chunka rock made them sound like a third-string Journey, four years after Journey themselves had become irrelevant. Kansas soon found themselves equally irrelevant, and the label dropped them soon after. There have been partial and complete reunions since, but nothing that managed to capture even a fragment of the meaty prog-rock sound that had propelled them to the top in the 70s.

If you want to dive into these waters -- and if you like British prog and don't have a total aversion to mid-america corporate rock-and-riff, you might want to at least get a toe wet -- you should head straight for "Point Of Know Return." That one album will give you a decent-sized taste of both the good and the ill of Kansas -- the epic, memorable songwriting and their occasionally tasteless overplaying, both in healthy-sized dollops. If your tolerance for superfast playing, violin virtuosity and strident singing is small then lay low and pray for a tornado.

Styx: The Great White Hope

(dediction: For Styx fan extraordinaire, Ray Puzey)

While Kansas were plying their trade in Topeka, a group of kids in Chicago were marrying what they learned from British prog and American boogie rock to a uniquely workin'-class aesthetic as native to the Second City as Kansas' heartland prog was to its region. Formed from the ashes of a group called the Tradewinds (headlining TONIGHT! down at the Best Western Pump-Room Lounge, get there early for the shrimp platter!), Styx had two weapons in its arsenal that put it ahead of the pack. First, multiple songwriters in Dennis De Young and James Young, both of whom knew their way around a hook. Second, De Young's dramatic, Broadway-ready singing voice, which, no matter what kind of song he was singing, sounded like he was auditioning for the touring company of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (which, unironically and expectedly, he'd later join). This, married with their image -- a bunch of guys from shop class, a guy from the Drama League and two of the Village People -- and their love of the concept album, that uniquely sixties-and-seventies conceit that made ordinary albums seem far more important/portentious/intelligent than they actually were, pushed Styx to the head of the prog-rock class fairly quickly.

Of course, it took two years for radio to notice -- after years of flogging their tunes in shitty clubs and high school dances, a song off their second album (the still-mostly-nascent "Styx II") called "Lady" began to get first regional then national airplay. "Lady" has everything that would eventually come to define the group: De Young's plaintive wail and over-enunciated delivery, loads and loads of stacked harmonies, a "gentle strummed part" contrasted with a "wicked rockin' part," a sense of drama and excitement, virtuoso playing, and an extreme sense of its own self-importance as a tune. It was the birth of "pomp-rock," an offshoot of prog that favored pompous heaviness and dramatic chest-beating over involved instrumental passages.

Styx were already 4 albums into their career by the time they signed to A&M and released "Equinox" (and honestly, apart from "Lady," there ain't much on those first four apart from some interesting garage boogie, some sub-par writing from De Young and the hint that better things were a-comin'). "Equinox" is the beginning of Styx as we know them -- it's got one dramatic, killer hit single ("Lorelei"), a couple almost-prog FM staples ("Suite Madame Blue" and "Light Up") and some filler that veers between dramatic, choir-practice wailing and gentle balladry ("Born For Adventure" for the former, "Lonely Child" for the latter). It's not a bad album -- but the band was missing one element that would propel them into the stratosphere.

When their guitarist, who had an unpronounceable last name (Curulewski -- try saying that ten times fast!), bailed after "Equinox," a hasty search to find a replacement turned up blonde wunderkind Tommy Shaw, who possessed genuine hard-rock chops and cred as well as an even more sharply-honed pop sensibility than De Young. His debut on "Crystal Ball" was the bouncy, Queen-like "Mademoiselle," an excellent little tune featuring some terrific harmonizing by DeYoung and a killer hook. Shaw's hard-rockin' sensibilities perfectly balanced De Young's dramatic wailing and Young's boogie-rockin' to create the perfect 3-headed Cerebrus of Camaro rock.

But it wasn't until "The Grand Illusion" that all the elements came together perfectly. If Styx can be said to have an "album for the ages," it is undoubtedly this one. Though not their best, it contains their most memorable hits, their most enduring FM chestnuts, and their most direct and focused playing. It's got just the right amount of De Young theatricality, Shaw guitar crunch and Young simplicity -- the perfect balance, which would tip too far one way or the other on all future releases. The first four tracks were all hits of one type or another. The title track is a brilliantly dramatic and powerful call-to-arms. "Fooling Yourself" is one of Shaw's best melodies and lyrics, and doesn't descend into rock cliche as some of his later tunes would. "Superstars" has a massive and powerful hook, beautifully sung by De Young. And "Come Sail Away" is the group's "Stairway To Heaven," a study in pompous light-and-dark with a brilliantly silly lyric (it's a boat metaphor -- wait, no, it's a spaceship!!). The album starts to fall apart with Young's "Miss America," and the second half has a tendency to flag ("Castle Walls" is dull, and "Grand Finale" is cheating, just a combo of all the songs up 'till that point), but the first half is memorable, classic, and, frankly, extremely good. It approaches the excellence of mid-period Queen without, alas, that group's winking and sly wit, but with a good deal of jovial, workin' class humor besides.

I actually prefer "Pieces Of Eight," the group's follow-up to "Illusion" -- I think it's a stronger, more consistent album, with higher highs and much less dull lows. It rocks harder and with more cred and conviction, whilst still maintaining the grandiosity that "Illusion" trafficks in so successfully. Everybody's writing sharply and cleverly, and while faulting Styx for overindulgence seems foolish (hell, the group's ABOUT overindulgence) this album contains far less of it than the others. The highlights are plenty -- Young's powerful, anthemic "Great White Hope," De Young's inspirational "I'm Okay" and his amazing Hobbit-rock mini-opera "Lords of the Ring," and Shaw's triumvirate of amazing rockers -- "Blue Collar Man," "Renegade" and the gorgeous, moving "Sing For The Day." The album only flags slightly at the very tail end, with the slightly limp balladry of "Pieces of Eight" and the pointless "Aku-Aku."

Unfortunately, it was all a slow, measurable slide downhill from there. "Cornerstone" shows the influence of limp soft-rock creeping into the group's sound, in the form of De Young's insistance on using ballad-ready electric piano wherever possible. That's not to say the album doesn't have some great moments -- "Borrowed Time" still rocks with conviction, and the bouncy "Why Me" has a kind of Supertrampy catchiness. But the album hinges entirely on "Babe," the massive runaway soft-rock hit -- and your love of the album will hinge on whether you like it or find it cloying and obnoxious. I lean towards the former, despite its obvious limpness and hit-grabbiness.

"Paradise Theater," of course, was a massive, runaway hit with a billion hit singles -- it comes off a bit desperate in retrospect, but of course the high points hit extremely high. It is literally impossible to argue with the awesomeness that is "The Best Of Times" -- that's De Young's best chorus ever, and his gorgeous, powerful balladry is in full effect. And Shaw's magnificently rockin' "Too Much Time On My Hands" is almost as perfect -- you know you do the "clap-clap" when it plays on the juke every single time. Don't pretend you don't. "AD 1928 / Rockin" The Paradise," too, is no more or less silly than any of their other "concept call-to-arms" tunes. Alas, there's much generic stuff here too -- "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned" is faint 'tramp ripoff, "Lonely People" is drab, and there's never been a more earnest, accurate but ultimately dry cocaine anthem as "Snowblind." Still, though, "Best of Times." You can't argue.

Alas, "Paradise Theater" was the group's last hurrah. "Mr. Roboto," the first single off the group's into-the-80s try, portended a changed group, and was a strange, intriguing blend of New Wave synth-plying and hard-rock pomposity. It sounded like nothing before and since and should/could have been the harbinger of a newly revitalized Styx. Alas, the entire rest of the album is nothing like this song. "Cold War" is one of Shaw's least realized and least catchy tunes, "Heavy Metal Poisoning" was silly and not the least bit metal. "Haven't We Been Here Before" was limp balladry, and only "Don't Let It End" was the least bit good.

After that, the group disbanded. A brief early-90s resurfacing gave us the "Edge Of The Century" album on which Shaw was absent -- and for some odd reason De Young's generic "Show Me The Way" became a first-Gulf-War anthem. A 00s resurfacing, this time with Shaw and Young in charge and minus De Young, gave us the bland "Cyclorama" album which had none of the elan of the earlier group, and in fact sounded like nothing so much as Nickelback.

(Mention should briefly be made of De Young's 2009 solo album "One Hundred Years From Now," which, if nothing else, sounds like Old Styx in most places, and contains a few great songs including the bouncy "This Time Next Year" which approaches the power of his mid-70s stuff. It's not all great -- it too frequently veers close to extreme cheese -- but it has definite moments.)

My recommendation: I'm a bit more forgiving of Styx than I should be, perhaps, but I think everybody should, if nothing else, own "Grand Illusion," "Pieces of Eight" and, if you're still not repulsed or freaked out by the pomposity and drama-kinging, "Paradise Theater." The first two are solid albums that border on magnificence, and the latter has "The Best Of Times," which you need and then need to hear in context.

2 comments:

Superbadfriend said...

AWESOME! Wait.

What happened to GEEK?

LAP said...

"Best of Times" is epic. I'm a lot more embarrassed when I know all the words to bad 80's Air Supply than I ever could be of Styx. Also any songs ripe to be covered by Jeffster (have you watched any of S1 of Chuck yet?) is okay by me.