Rich Wilhelm

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HooplaThon Day Three: “A Curious Study in Failure”

In 1985, music, Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on September 14, 2016 at 2:15 am
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HooplaThon Day 3 HooplaMeter: Check it out, I am officially knee deep in the hoopla.

Sitting in a staff meeting at work this morning, my friend Chris Davis noted that a certain situation was “a curious study in failure.” My hand dropped to the table with more force than I meant it to and I stared at Chris in wonder. Without meaning to, Chris had perfectly described Starship’s  Knee Deep in the Hoopla album, in which I’ve been immersing myself.

Before I get to that phrase, “curious study in failure,” I’d like to suggest that, if you’re tired of me yammering on about Starship, you should check out Chris’ Vault of Thoughts blog. Chris has indeed filled his blog with many intriguing thoughts and ideas, none of which have anything to do with Starship.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was certainly not a commercial failure. Propelled by “We Built This City” and “Sara,” the album was a big hit and went a long way toward establishing the new Starship brand. Critically though, it was a different story.

At least, I think it was. Retroactively, everyone has been dissing “We Built This City,” and, by extension the album that spawned it, for decades. But I haven’t delved deep enough into the original reviews to determine if critics and the listening public hated it then as much as critics and the listening public seem to hate it now.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I do not remember having a visceral reaction, pro or con, to the first time I heard “We Built This City.” I don’t even explicitly remember the first time I heard the song. It just seems to have shown up one day and I sort of accepted it for what it was and moved with my life.

There is more to say, other Knee Deep threads to eventually tie together as my HooplaThon continues for now. But for now, I’ll just leave you this photo of the original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” This will prove conclusively that I was a member of Starship, at least until Grace Slick kicked me out:

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The original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” I was indeed a member of the band, and played a theremin solo on this song. But then, Grace Slick got mad at me when I asked her to remind me what dormouse said. She threw me out of the band and wiped my theremin solo.

Don’t forget: the HooplaThon is sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

HooplaThon Day 2: Starship and the “Art of Listening Ironically”

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory, pop music on September 13, 2016 at 2:56 am
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HooplaThon HooplaMeter Day 2: Ankle Deep in Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Program Note: In yesterday’s initial HooplaThon entry, I noted that I’d be listening to Knee Deep in the Hoopla and writing about it for 31 days in a row. Clearly, I was delusional. After a good night’s sleep, I have realized the insanity. I’m now not going to promise any number of entries so you can clear those early October evenings you were reserving to read HooplaThon entries. We’ll just play this all by ear.

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Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released on September 10, 1985. It was the first album by just plain Starship after longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship member Paul Kanter jumped ship and took the Jefferson with him.

Starship took the opportunity of a name change to reevaluate and update their sound for the mid-1980s. With a modern-minded producer named Peter Wolf–very clearly not the J.Geils Band singer–at the producer’s desk, Starship ceded most of the heavy songwriting work to outsiders and relied on Wolf to overlay the resulting songs with a slick synthesized veneer that was clearly meant to appeal to ’80s kids with a yen for technopop. Like me.

Of course, by the time September 1985 rolled around, a lot of us new wavers had passed through our initial synthpop rush and moved onto other things. Things that were a little more organic (R.E.M.) or rocked in a more traditional, if shambolic way (Replacements) or were less concerned with the state of their hair than the guys in A Flock of Seagulls. Though, of course, everyone was concerned with the state of their hair in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong though. Even in ’85, I continued to like artists who creatively incorporated electronics into their music. But artists like Eurythmics and Thomas Dolby had a knack for using synthesizers in intriguing ways, as something more than aural window dressing. Knee Deep in the Hoopla, on the other hand, is all about the electronic window dressing. Even when Marconi is playing the mamba, it’s an electronic mamba.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the initial release of Knee Deep in the Hoopla had absolutely no effect on me at all. I do not remember having any reaction at all to the huge breakout hit, “We Built This City” or the equally popular follow-up, “Sara.” What’s weird about this, is that Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released at the perfect time for me, as I was just about to fully submit to the fine art of listening to music ironically. Or, more appropriately, “listening ironically,” because when you’re going ironic, you do everything in quotation marks. Or more, appropriately “do everything.” But you get the point. Actually, you “get the point,” right?

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released just days after I moved into the second floor of Johnson Hall for my third year of college at Temple University. As record store workers worldwide were stocking copies of Starship’s new album, I was getting to know Rick and Greg, two of my new floor mates, and good friends of mine to this day.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla could have been a huge talking point for the three of us, as we bonded early over music. Once we located each others’ senses of humor, we particularly bonded over the idea of listening to music ironically. That is, picking out a band or album that we might not actually be all that into and TOTALLY EFFIN’ ROCKIN’ OUT to said band or album.

In other words, “totally effin’ rockin’ out” in quotation marks.

We never explicitly said to each other, “Hey, let’s listen to music ironically.” It just happened.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla would have been a perfect “ironic listen” for us. And yet it wasn’t to be, because another band, a band whose name I am not going to reveal in this entry, loomed large, very large, in our ironic listening.

More on ironic rocking as I sink ever deeper into the Hoopla tomorrow night.

This HooplaThon is being sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

 

 

A Short Treatise on How to Listen to a Large Record Collection

In 1979, music, record collecting, records, Uncategorized on May 19, 2016 at 1:50 am

 

 

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Everybody likes a good treatise, right? Treatises are so much nicer than manifestos, which can come across as quite bossy, you know?

Unless, the manifesto is Roxy Music’s 1979 album, Manifesto. Many people may, in fact, enjoy listening to Manifesto more than they’d enjoy reading any given treatise.

Sadly, Roxy Music never recorded an album called Treatise.  If they had, then at least we could compare Manifesto to Treatise to decide which was the better Roxy Music album.

Anyway.

This is a treatise about how to approach listening to a large record collection. It’s not some kind of big deal statement, like a manifesto might be. It’s really just a set of suggestions. As it happens, I am listening to Roxy Music’s Manifesto while writing this treatise, but that is largely a coincidence.

I have been collecting record now for more than 40 years. I do not remember a time in my life when I didn’t have at least a few 45s and an album or two to play on a toy record player. Clearly, I enjoy experiencing recorded sound as it has been preserved on vinyl and  (to a lesser aesthetic extent) compact disc. But sometimes my brain can go into vapor lock simply trying to decide what to listen to at any given time. At these times, having a systematic approach to listening to records can be helpful.

Here are some strategies for listening to a large record collection.

  • Listen to what you want. This is the ultimate no-brainer, right? Just listen to what you want. Provided you can figure out what that is.
  • Listen to what you listened to in high school. Have you ever met someone who listens exclusively to what they listened to in high school? Or maybe college? You could go that route.
  • Listen to the same favorite records you always listen to. If I had to, I could probably list 40 or 50 records that I return to often and just listen to them for the rest of my life.
  • Focus on a certain year. Pick a certain year–say 1979and focus on listening only to records from that year, at least until you think you’ve gotten that year figured out.
  • Focus on a certain artist. Listen to everything you’ve got by one particular artist. Then move on to another artist.
  • Focus on a certain genre. This is all well and good, but pinning certain artists/albums down to one specific genre can be slippery business.
  • Roll your 20-sided dice. Use a chance operation to determine what you listen to at any given time.

These are all just suggestions. If this were more of a manifesto, I’d boldly tell you how I plan on approaching this conundrum. But given that it’s a treatise, I’m just going to put this out there and let readers decide for themselves what to do. Meanwhile, I may occasionally check in to report on what my recent listening habits have been.

 

 

Going Down to Alphabet Street: A Few Princely Thoughts

In 1980s, concerts, music, Music/Memory, Prince on April 24, 2016 at 12:42 pm

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My 18-year-old son, Jimmy, is an ’80’s skeptic. He simply doesn’t believe that the 1980s could have possibly been as great as many of us who lived through it say it was. In short, Jim doesn’t feel that the ’80s were “all that.”

I encourage this kind of thinking, probably because I remember what it was like, in the ’80s, to hear boomers endlessly crow about how the ’60s were so much better than the ’80s. Plus, it’s nice to have warm fuzzy memories of one’s youth, but nostalgia-mongering can close you down to whatever could be going on in your life right now.

So, when Jim disses the decade of Phil Collins, Alf and Hands Across America, I give him a pass to do so. But I will be adamant about one thing:

From a musical/cultural/wow-he’s-just-mindblowing standpoint, Prince was the greatest thing to come out of the ’80s. Or pretty much any decade you care to mention.

It’s hard for me to remember when I was first aware of Prince, though I’m thinking it was during the chart run of his breakthrough album, 1999 — though during the years 1980-1988, practically every album Prince made qualified as some kind of breakthrough. I do remember walking down Market Street in Center City Philadelphia, as a senior in high school. It was one of my first solo trips into the city and I heard Prince’s “Delirious”– has a song every so thoroughly lived up to the promise of its title? — spilling out of one of the downtown record stores I’d come to frequent in college. Hearing it at that moment wasn’t necessarily a huge moment in my life, but it’s also a moment that I never forgot, because it felt like walking by that store at that moment, hearing that song, was the absolute coolest thing I could be doing that day. And it was.

Of course, Purple Rain exploded all over the place in 1984. As far as I can remember, I’ve only ever seen the complete movie once, but it was a memorable experience  — at a drive-in just over the border in Delaware, with three or four friends. Purple Rain was shown that night along with Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact. A double feature for the ages.

I was very fortunate to be sitting in the mega-nosebleed seats at Philadelphia’s Spectrum on a Friday night when Prince and the Revolution, with opening act Sheila E, brought the Purple Rain tour to town. I am pretty certain that I was about as far away from the man and his band as I could possibly be but the concert was electrifying, as I noted in the November 29, 1984 edition of the Temple University News:

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Here’s what I wrote about the Purple Rain album in the review:

The Purple Rain album, which defies simple classifications like “rock” and “soul,” will probably become one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years.

20? Try 40. 60. Oh, hell college-age Rich, just call Purple Rain one of the most influential albums ever. It’ll sound like a huge overstatement, but you’ll be proven right.

What is truly amazing is that I saw Prince again in 1988, touring behind his infamous, and unreleased, Black Album, as well as the officially released Lovesexy album. The Purple Rain hype had long passed, but the ’88 concert was even better than the ’84 show, with Prince in full command of his immense musical powers that night. From a purely musical standpoint, it was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen.

I’ve tried to keep up with Prince’s musical journey but since the mid-’90s, the man has made it easy, releasing floods of new music and daring you to follow along with him. The albums weren’t always great but the genius would show up when you’d least expect it, if you were patient. A well-informed box set covering the best of Prince’s post-1995 work would be a really good thing. But then, with hundreds of hours of music locked away in the vaults of Prince’s Paisley Park, we all need to accept the fact that there’s always going to be Prince music that we will never hear.

A final note. I saw a meme floating around Facebook the other day. It read “151,600 people die each day and no one bats an eye. Prince dies and everyone freakin’ loses their minds.”

I think this is a flawed meme. First of all,  I’m fairly certain that the friends and family of many of those 151,600 people were certainly affected by the passing of their loved one. Second, I’m not sure everyone was freakin’ losing their minds, though maybe some fans were going a little crazy, trying to get through this thing called Prince’s death. Finally, the text of the meme was accompanied by a photo of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s tragic passing was certainly greeted with much public mourning as well, so I’m not sure if that photo choice was meant to be ironic or not.

As it happens, of the 151,600 people who died on April 21, 2016, the one whose name I knew was Prince. If marking Prince’s passing and acknowledging how his work touched me means I’m freakin’ losing my mind, so be it.

 

I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink in Memory of the Great Merle Haggard

In country music, fatherhood, music, Music/Memory, Uncategorized on April 7, 2016 at 3:37 am

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It’s late on a Wednesday night, but there is just enough time for a quick shot in memory of the great Merle Haggard, who died today on his 79th birthday. Even though I need to get to bed soon, for now, I think I’ll just stay here for a few minutes and drink to Merle.

It’s not exactly a coincidence, but the song that immediately comes to mind when I think of Hag is called “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” from a 1980 album called Back to the Barrooms. Hag’s ’79 album was called 190 Proof. I sense a theme.

I love “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” because it is a quintessential country music about drinking. Merle opens with “I could be holding you tonight/I could quit doing wrong and start doing right,” but soon concludes “I think I’ll just stay here and drink.”

Classic. “Hard country” is what this type of kickass song was called in 1980 and the band behind Merle rocks it out. Total classic.

But it’s not simply that “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a great song, one of dozens of stone cold classics written and recorded by Merle. Hell, during his Capitol years, Merle recorded songs that are better than this.

But “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a Dad Song. If I were to make a list every few years of 10 songs that immediately remind me of my father, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” would make the list every damn time. Always near the top of the list.

Dad liked Haggard, of course, but he loved “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” I’m thinking we probably heard it often on WDSD out of Dover/Smyrna, Delaware — “50,000 WATTS OF POWER!” — but eventually Mom or I bought Dad Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits, which covered his late ’70s/early ’80s tenure at MCA Records.

Dad’s been gone for nearly 13 years and now the Hag is gone too. But the music — and the memories of Dad loving the music — will be with me for the rest of my life. And every time I hear “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” I’ll drink a shot for Dad, and for Haggard.

Funny thing is, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ll bet a lot of folks had — or if they’re lucky, have — dads who loved/love Merle Haggard. My boys sure as hell do.

 

 

 

Two of a Kind? R.E.M. Meets Talking Heads!

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory on June 10, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Can’t get there from here? That’s because you’re on a road to nowhere!

Thirty years ago today–June 10, 1985–I walked into a record store. I am not absolutely certain, but I think it was the Sounds of Market near 13th and Chestnut, in Center City Philadelphia. Don’t look for it now; it’s long gone.

I walked out of that store with two albums, both just released that day: Little Creatures by Talking Heads and Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. I caught the train and bus home and soon after that, I taped the albums back to back on a cassette tape. I proceeded to spend the summer of 1985 riding buses and trains from deep in Delaware County to the heart of North Philadelphia, listening to that tape on a constant loop.

Little Creatures and Fables of the Reconstruction–or if you prefer, Reconstruction of the Fables (which I don’t)–did not change my life in any major way. But, as the primary soundtrack to the summer of my 20th birthday, both records certainly secured a place in my heart, brain and soul. Three decades later, R.E.M.’s third full-length studio album and Talking Heads’ sixth continue to inspire and beguile me.

Here is what I wrote in my journal on 6/17/85, after I’d had a week to listen to both albums:

The brand new albums by Talking Heads and R.E.M. are both fantastic records. The Heads album seems like a culmination of everything the band has ever done. It has the minimalist new wave approach of the early albums, but many of the songs have retained the funk elements of Speaking in Tongues.

The name of the LP is Little Creatures, an excellent title since at least two of the songs are about children. One of them, “Creatures of Love,” is a country song, which is a real departure for the band.

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s follow-up to Reckoning, is a stunning moody album. It’s similar to the Murmur album in that the sound of the music and the mood it generates is more important than song titles or the lyrics. Fables sounds like it contains a lot of desperation and loneliness.

R.E.M and Talking Heads were already among my musical favorites the day of their dual release, but these two records solidified my love of both bands. I remember how much I loved sinking into the dark and murky atmosphere on Fables–five years later, I’d have the same experience watching the first episode of Twin Peaks. Some fans and critics might have considered it a “grower”–an album you gradually appreciate over many listens–but I completely surrendered to the sound and feel of the album almost immediately. Seeing R.E.M. live later that summer, performing a concert as moody and dark as the album itself, was all I needed: after that, R.E.M. ascended to #1 on my favorite band list and has yet to relinquish that spot, even though the band has retired.

As for Little Creatures, it proved to be more a grower for me than Fables, but perhaps only because the deceptively simple pop songs with rootsy influences threw me for a loop after the funk-influenced sound of their previous two Talking Heads albums. But I grew to love Little Creatures. No other artist captured the way I was starting to look at life as David Byrne did on this record. The simple but odd storytelling, matched with Byrne’s detached irony, seemed like a great way to describe the world as I was seeing it. I still think so, though I gave up irony as a lifestyle choice many years ago.

It’s no wonder that I named my college newspaper column, “Road to Nowhere,” after the final track on Little Creatures. At least one friend asked me why I’d name my column after a song that was so obviously about death. I replied at the time that to me the song, and thus my column, was all about the journey without a destination, etc. Thirty years down the line, I’m thinking that, yeah, “Road to Nowhere” is pretty clearly about death. Of course, since I am now a cemetery tour guide, I guess I’m OK with however the song is interpreted.

I am not into nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, though this column may indicate otherwise. However, I think we all have cultural moments–albums, movies, books, etc.–that stay fresh for us. We return to these when we need to, maybe sometimes as a form of spiritual renewal. I have spent much of today listening to Fables and Little Creatures, but I have also been very much in the moment of my life right now and both albums were a snug fit for that right now. In fact, I even had a new audio/visual juxtaposition: driving down 15th Street from Girard Avenue in Philadelphia this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite buildings, the magnificent Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, as I was hearing “Can’t Get There From Here” from Fables. This was a new combination and I very much enjoyed it. It got some neurons fired up in my brain and that’s a good thing.

So, thanks Chris, Tina, Jerry and David for Little Creatures. And thanks BerryBuckMillsStipe for Fables of the Reconstruction. You created the music for my summer of 1985. And every season since.

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