“The Beatles and The Stones,
Made it good to be alone.”
— House of Love, 1990.
The deep impression made on me as a youngster growing up with the Rolling Stones was in a trance of solitary, intimate listening to the LP records. This was alone, night, headphone listening, and not as casual background music. Today, as a radio host, that power is real and present every time I choose a Rolling Stones record to play. Their songs always stand apart, and they open an invisible door that invites a sensitive listener in. But you have to be a deep listener, a solitary occupant of a conceptual stadium where the World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Band is in command performance, just for you.
In America, Rolling Stones records first arrived on the same London labels that brought classical repertoire across the ocean. The dignity of that distinctive red or blue (mono/stereo) label and logo were in a deliciously ironic contrast to the music in the grooves of a Stones disc. Drop the needle on one London record and Brahms comes out. Needle drop another identical one and it’s “She Said Yeah.”
There are a good two dozen hit songs that have been on the stadium set-list (and commercial radio playlist) forever, while an alternate reality takes shelter within the Stones’ venerable album catalog. There are spiral black bands that host lyrical and musical poetry to place the Jagger/Richards songwriting juggernaut in full peer stance with Lennon/McCartney and Robert Zimmerman.
These are the songs for your downtime, not for shouting at lung capacity with thousands of other revelers in an arena show. They’re for long drives, winter nights, beach afternoons. They’re for gains, losses, changes, milestones. They’re what co-author Keith Richards calls, simply, “life.” They make it good to be alone.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” John Lennon read those words from a cue card on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1972 when he introduced his idol. But his ad-lib of “right” immediately after really put it across. Chuck Berry was the inspiration of the inspirations—the (largely English) heroes of the first “classic rock” generation. They were all Chuck’s children: the Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, and then later, The Grateful Dead, Electric Light Orchestra, even pop stars like Linda Ronstadt, all put Berrys in the bank.
The reinvention of Berry’s rock and roll music was arguably more impactful than the original songs. But those songs, and the artist who dreamed them up, were pieced together from another erstwhile bag of musical tricks. He was born in the very musical town of St Louis, Missouri in 1926; a son of the Swing Era, and schooled on both the big band pop dance records of his own youth and the so-called “race records” of early R&B, jump, blues and seminal rock and roll. The Big Berry Bang was stirring all of those influences into something not only new, but personal.
His re-casting of Texas Swing maven Bob Wills’ “Ida Red” as his own “Maybelline” in 1955 got the ball rolling. Berry was a storyteller; the songs always had his point of view. His personal inspiration, Louis Jordan, was a similar tale-spinning artist, but Berry’s innovation was to skew the little pop parables to the common experience of young people in a burgeoning middle class world. This was his market. Up in the morning and out to school, driving around in an automobile —the rhythm of those words and the mid-century setting of the experiences depicted was at the base of the Berry pot. What bubbled up and drew audiences in was the sweet aroma of the seasoning: the clever wordplay and droll inflection of his singing, the tinkle of Johnnie Johnson’s piano, and the stab of Berry’s stock guitar riffs.
He had an avuncular tone and he seemed to be on your side; he was one of the “cool teachers.” There was an equal measure of folk wisdom, worldly wisdom, and wise-guy wisdom: authority without authoritarianism. The songs were a manual for teenagers on life, love, music, and navigating the newness of the adult world. Irony reigned supreme, there were frequent twist endings to his little morality tales.
Despite the repetition and recycling of his few musical tricks, Berry’s songs trained you to expect the unexpected, no matter how familiar the package. The poetry of Chuck Berry is in the turn-of-phrase: Johnny played that guitar like a ringing bell (“Johnny B. Goode”) or little Marie welled up those “hurry home drops” that trickled down her cheek (“Memphis Tennessee”). Rock and roll was the shot of rhythm and blues that killed the rollin’ arthritis and the rockin’ pneumonia, so you could wiggle like a glow-worm and dance like a spinning top (“Roll Over Beethoven”).
Common words, combined in the most imaginative and unexpected way, like advertising slogans that sold a better way of life through music and socially-normalized misbehavior, were the gunpowder of Berry’s subversion. Channeled through the strong and unyielding structure of that backbeat and those riffs, American youth were armed and ready for action. This simple and limitlessly variable formula was stretched out over songs that often rewrote each other; sequels that continued even to 2017’s posthumous Chuck, the new album that reworks a couple of classics as “Lady B. Goode” and “Jamaica Moon.”
Berry’s prerogative has always been theft, even from himself. His enduring legacy is that everyone stole from him in turn. The issue of appropriation is moot; it’s the quality and originality of the theft that counts. All who took from Berry followed his example of building something better. The enduring charm of the man is that he did it with a wink and singularity that literally changed the world — and it’s why Chuck Berry is an FUV Essentials artist.
Do you feel like a long coastline drive with Endless Summer on an endless loop? Does your late summer cabin fever demand it? The Beach Boys are as good as seasonal music gets, this side of Christmas. And like holiday music, the Beach Boys‘ first great body of work seems pressed under glass, a fond thing of the past.
Folded and stored in drawers and cabinets, ready for refreshing when the occasion demands it, the early Beach Boys hits are like those ornaments that would never work as everyday decor. But step beyond their first Cali-coiff, pin-striped, surf-boarded era, to the murkier waters of second-act Beach Boys work. Then fast forward to today’s leading-edge rock music. The shimmering haunted harmonies of Fleet Foxes. The subtly nautical roll of Grizzly Bear’s songs. They’re unimagineable if the Beach Boys had not come first.
That some of the most commercially conceived pop music could evolve into the subtlety and abstraction of Pet Sounds, or Sunflower/Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys, or Brian Wilson‘s mid-life valedictory “Love And Mercy” is one of the great true stories of music. As is the long twisting trajectory of the Beach Boys’ life and career: their meteoric rise, fall from grace, reclaimed mojo, and dauntless survivorship. It’s as American as a story gets.
The Beach Boys’ early repertoire harped on formula to the point of cliché. But apart from the absolutely top flight performance — vocally from the brothers, that cousin, and the guy with the hat; musically by session legends such as the peerless Wrecking Crew — early Beach Boys was the first important example of assembly line music and image contained within a single group. A masterpiece of marketing, the breakout band was putty in the hands of their domineering stage dad, Murry Wilson, and their label Capitol Records. It was a master scheme: the Beach Boys were anchored to a mid-century Caucasian teen-dream of American good life which was blond, Californian and suburban middle class. If there were any rebellion or subversion in the Beach Boys vibe, it was “let’s have a good time spending our parents’ money.”
But then, the Beach Boys transcended themselves. The skill set they brought to the studio was formidable. While most rock and rollers of this early Sixites era grew out of folk, country, group harmony and R&B, the Beach Boys proffered the ultra-polish Hit Parade pop ensembles like the Four Lads, the Hi Los, and the Four Freshmen. It was decidedly not rock.
The group’s vocal discipline, the perfect pitch of Brian Wilson’s good ear, and a growing arsenal of inventive melodies and formula-busting songs would elevate the Beach Boys way beyond the squeaky clean image they sold on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Their deepening of substance between 1964 and 1966 was a staggering achievement, bested only by the Beatles — their only and true rivals in this period (the Rolling Stones were still a couple of years away from becoming a force to be reckoned with). The sublime Pet Soundshails from this time, as does one of the most ambitious pop singles in all of music, “Good Vibrations.”
And then this happened: the Beach Boys, one of the biggest entertainment acts in the world, crashed and burned. The slow trickle of offbeat singles and half-baked album concepts (the beleaguered Smile) that the band squeezed out with increasing difficulty in the wake of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hinted at the inner turmoil of Brian Wilson’s breakdown. The larger issue was the inability of the band to surf the wild waves of musical sea change that defined the late Sixties. “Surf’s Up,” declared an arty but ill-conceived song of this period, but the band wasn’t up to it. That’s where it gets interesting.
Under the auspices of their own Brother Records, and with the rest of “‘progressive” rock wildly out of control (if Brian supposedly went gray as a ghost upon hearing Sgt Pepper for the first time, what could he have made of Yes, Pink Floyd or Emerson Lake and Palmer?) the Beach Boys just did their own thing. They played with concepts, wrote idiosyncratic songs with the help of Van Dyke Parks, and quietly became an underappreciated and understated art band. As one standout track from this time suggests, the credo was “Sail On Sailor.” It’s this period that seems to reach out to our own time, influencing contemporary artists who may have learned to play on the chords and harmonies of “Fun Fun Fun,”“Surfin’ USA,” or “Help Me Rhonda,” but learned how to write studying the increasingly personal and ambitious songs of Pet Sounds through Sunflower/Surf’s Up, Holland and beyond.
The Beach Boys of yore occasionally resurfaced with force, as with their air-tight cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music” in 1976. They pulled a similar hat-trick in the late ’80s with a turbo-charged revamp of John Phillips’ trade-windy ballad “Kokomo.” But by then, the band had lived several lifetimes, and suffered deaths in the family. Hellion drummer Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. Cancer claimed angel-voiced Carl Wilson in 1998. Brian was out, in, out again. Mike Love wrangled with one and all, and became the defacto lead voice of the band. The internal squabbles through the years made Fleetwood Mac look like a campfire Kumbaya sing-along.
Taken in as a nearly 60-year-old entity, you could see the Beach Boys solely as an oldies juggernaut, mired in backbiting, appalling politics, and opportunism. But why spoil the sheer fun of indulging in some of the sweetest music this side of heaven, even if it was forged under sour circumstances? Just cherry pick through the many ages and phases of this indefatigable band. Sing along with the sunshine hits on a summer jaunt. Get in touch with the winter of your soul through the timeless “God Only Knows,”“I’m Waiting For The Day,” or “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Let the cinematic scope of Holland‘s “California Saga” sweep you away. For every “California Girls” karaoke sing-along there’s a lost gem like “Tears In The Morning” awaiting your discovery.
To a teen stuck between rock’s first glorious age and its second revolutionary one, Talking Heads were the anchor. Talking Heads may have been the polar intellectual opposite of the Ramones (from qu’est-ce que c’est to “Gabba Gabba Hey”), but they were playing on the same new team: a New York farm franchise that set up training camp in the dive club where hippie Bleecker Street ended and the dire Bowery began.
A golden age of alternative music was about to be born, very much cast in the image of Talking Heads, but through a process that followed a parallel course with the band’s career. The peril of growing up in New York in the Seventies was having the city’s ailing condition constantly held up to the impossible standard of our parents’ fond recollection of the Forties and Fifties. Through their rosy rear view it seemed that the world was one big hot fudge sundae, with dapper fellows in sport coats and cardigans sweeping bobby-soxed gals off their feet in the dance halls and arcades of Coney Island, Roseland, and other long abandoned venues.
Denigrated ’70s New York smeared grime over this former glitter. The once idyllic subway rides to the outer boroughs were now suffocated by graffiti and the movie date devolved from “Guys And Dolls” to “The Taking Of Pelham 123.”
At one time, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland sang, “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island too.” But the benign world of Rodgers and Hart’s song was now rotten. In its place was a forsaken dystopia with a hot soundtrack—the rumbles of punk against the steady heartbeat of disco. It was a dynamic tension that stretched as tight as a rubber band in the sweltering summer of 1977, when New York nearly melted.
Out of radios came the insinuation of a bass riff, and the odd, dispassionate voice of a man about to snap: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts, I’m tense and nervous, I can’t relax … don’t touch me I’m a real live wire.” And then, in a surrealistic twist, this brilliant stroke of Dada humor—“psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est”—and a whole verse in French! New York finally had a song that embraced its paranoia, even flaunted it, but with droll wit.
David Byrne’s character in song seemed to flesh out the specter of Son Of Sam, before we learned that he was just a weirdo named David Berkowitz. FM radio and hip Greenwich Village record shops were the pathway to Talking Heads music and a live culture that I was a smidge too young to take in as a participant. “See ya mom, I’m just heading down to The Bowery to squeeze into a dive nightclub” were not words ever spoken in my household.
A few years later, in college and in the protection of cohorts, I made my first pilgrimage to CBGB, but in ’77, I was still sequestered in the leafy north Bronx, the rock netherworld left to my imagination. Radio fueled that too, as the growing roster of Talking Heads songs found their way across the airwaves. A twist of the antenna brought in scratchy WLIR from Long Island, where whispering hosts spoke conspiratorially about the strange, three-headed bands breeding in the New York underground. The Gotham FM powerhouses gingerly embraced Talking Heads and the burgeoning New Wave: a WNEW-FM host could be counted on to make clever connections with established music, maybe even follow the Heads’ industrial cover of “Take Me To The River” with Al Green’s horn-sweetened original.
In unintentionally hilarious contrast, the plebeian (but more powerful) WPLJ placed Talking Heads’ breakout songs on a rotisserie of incongruous musical contrast with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, and James Taylor—a juxtaposition that only made them sound more subversive. For a few glorious months at the very end of the Seventies, New York got a station fully dedicated to “new wave” as a genre: WPIX. Along with CBGBs congeners Blondie, the Ramones and Television (and with flashes of early rock ‘n’ roll for spice), the brief WPIX format framed Talking Heads within the context of a movement, not as invaders crashing the middle of the road.
One of my most vivid radio listening memories was hearing the spectacularly abrasive Lynn Samuels premiering Fear Of Music on her WBAI show. The public station was conducting a pledge drive and she was baiting the audience with a track-by-track play of the record, broken by fundraising pleas in her inimitable “Noo Yawk” speaking voice. “Oi haaave the noo Tawking Heads album right heah, and Oi’m not playing the next sawng until those phones ring,” crowed Lynn. Ring, they did, and so did the songs that followed.
From “I Zimbra” through “Mind,” “Cities, “Life During Wartime,” quintessentially New York music got a distinctive New York frame. At the close of the “Me Decade,” this battered city of burning South Bronx, raging Brooklyn, Archie Bunker Queens, and faded glory Manhattan came into crystal focus with Fear of Music, arguably the last great album of the Seventies, or the first great album of the Eighties. The album was recorded in a loft in Long Island City a full 30 years before gentrification and that speaks volumes for Talking Heads as “early adopters” of what would become the new cool.
I would very shortly become a participant in the broadcasting world that ignited my passion for music, thanks to WFUV. I recall the excitement of tearing open the Sire Records mailing carton that carried Remain In Light to the station in 1980. That the god-like Brian Eno could collaborate with these scions of the New York avant-garde was a miracle, and the music delivered. In particular, “Once In A Lifetime” sits in a rare class of transcendent pop records that will survive as art songs to communicate the twentieth century to future cultures. Without nailing any specifics, the song’s collage of imagery and references capture an on-the-cusp relief that the Seventies finally ended and the brave new world was positioned to dawn—unless, it all turned out to be “same as it ever was.”
Speaking In Tongues turned an important corner in 1983, with the ascent of “Burning Down The House” to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. The advent of MTV, and the Heads’ music video for the song brought the big-shouldered David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s jaunty groove, and Jerry Harrison’s kindling acoustic guitar lick to the small screen. The big screen too, with the release of Jonathan Demme’s documentary “Stop Making Sense,” and new plateau of stardom followed. David himself would become a filmmaker with “True Stories,” and the band’s accompanying album relaxed into organic textures on some songs. It was tensed enough to string up one more indelible hit with “Wild Wild Life,” and pointed toward separate directions soon for the four singular members.
By 1990, as Talking Heads original incarnation started to wind down, the alternative movement they helped to create had nestled into the establishment. Radiohead would name themselves after a Talking Heads song, but their debt to the band that fused musical world-citizenship with street smarts and fierce intelligence runs deeper than the name. CBGB’s former space is now a gallery and boutique; post-punk fashion gets an installment at MOMA, and the era of Talking Heads sets the premise for the current state of the art, as rock now inches through its seventh decade.
In the class of college-radio rock from the late Seventies and early Eighties, Talking Heads graduated summa cum laude, to permanently reside in the realm of modern art.