teenage rebellion

Transistor Heaven III: School’s Out Completely

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Alice Cooper’s intransigent anthem was of course well-timed with its release date coming in the late spring of 1972. Zipping up twelve spaces this week some 43 long-ass years ago, it signaled the “blessed” end to eight years of parochial school. After a white-sky summer where I suddenly turned agnostic, September would lead me gratefully into the rebel-held territory of public-school hallways. On the last day at St. John’s I imagined myself poised to push the bar on the exit door, calling out over my shoulder to any nun within earshot: “If that don’t suit ya, that’s a drag!”

I was still collecting the WMEX weekly surveys at the record dept. of my local Lechmere (the Massachusetts pre-equivalent of Best Buy), another music-mad kid like so many others at the time. My collection of these brightly-colored snapshots of pop history that survived as one of the few remaining physical items from boyhood (and unlost through a dozen moves as an adult) would drop off as summer waned. I’m not sure if they stopped printing them or if I was putting aside childish things. At the very least, there was an inkling of the young adulthood to come. Several of the songs on this Top 30 I always relate to the events of the 4th of July on Juniper Point where friends of my parents were throwing a BBQ. That part of Salem Neck was mostly residents by then but still held vestiges of its summer colony identity. We, meaning us younger kids, quickly caught on to the news that this was a “hippie house” a couple of blocks away.

There was this narrow walkway between two tall houses and an open door leading out to it. A little child in our group half wanders into it. A fortyish guy in a bathing suit is coming up the other way. “Don’t let her go in there, she’ll never come out the same way.” Cool. We’ve already heard the reports of emanating marijuana smoke. The walkway leads to a large rocky outcropping from which you could take a dip in the “refreshing” waters of this Atlantic inlet. Straights and freaks and kids all congregate there in the late afternoon sun and someone brings out a radio. It was playing my beloved WMEX, still cool enough (as a “progressive” AM station) for the twentysomethings and plenty hip for the young teens. “Layla” plays, as does David Bowie’s “Starman” and we bob our heads, the kids and the bearded guys sitting next to girlfriends with silky middle-parted hair, as straight and long as yardsticks. When the ballad “I Need You” plays, one dude says to his buddy, “Oh yeah, man. I saw America play in upstate New York last year so when the album came out I got it right away.” The independent rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle beckons, I felt like I already had one foot in the door.

“It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” Cornelius Bros. and Sister Rose. Swooshing into the #1 spot on a cushion of silky strings, the second (and last) big pop hit for the soulful family-act from south Florida. Like their first (“Treat Her Like a Lady”) this had the close harmonies and the good-advice lyrics but also a sweet mid-tempo grooves that always associates positively with the early 70s. “Nice to Be With You” Gallery. By contrast, songs like this by Detroit soft-rockers Gallery would one day be representative of the type earning the second-hand scorn of later generations, associating the age with the Brady Bunch and sidewalk-sweeping bell bottoms. But with its era-typical unpretentious optimism (and delightful pedal steel solo) we knew what we liked. May it ever be thus. “Sylvia’s Mother” Dr. Hook. Before their successful gambit to get on the “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, the Hooksters had a pretty decent hit with this melodramatic payphone ballad about some unlucky guy who just wants to say farewell to his former girlfriend who’s marrying some “fella down Galveston way” but he can’t get past her ball-busting mom. A little overwrought maybe, but us old-timers from the pre-cellular age know the particular agony of that “forty cents more for the next three minutes” refrain. “Conquistador” Procol Harum. The only other Top 40 hit for the “Whiter Shade of Pale” band. When PH did this re-engineered version live with an orchestra, only vocalist-pianist Gary Brooker and drummer BJ Wilson remained from the 1967 studio original. “Hold Your Head Up” Argent. Another proggy song to round out the top five, ex-Zombie Rod Argent found he could really stretch out on the keyboards in this day and age, though MEX were likely playing the single edit.

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“Candy Man” Sammi Davis, Jr. The Revenge of the Rat Pack? Those crazy rock ‘n’ roll sounds had been dominating the charts for almost a decade now, but Rat Packer Sammi was representing the old guard with this “Willy Wonka” teeth-grinder. At first reluctant to do the song, Davis had a change of heart when it revived his career (#1 Billboard) and after that sang the sickly-sweet lyrics with grateful gusto. “School’s Out” Alice Cooper. Now quickly back to the rock ‘n’ roll. “Brandy” Looking Glass. Eternal one-hit-wonder (over 10 million hits on YouTube), it seems the world will never tire of this finely-crafted tune with its slightly archaic lyric of a dishy barmaid pining away for some sailor dude whose real “love and lady is the sea.” His loss. “Where is the Love” Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. The Marvin & Tami of the 70s? This velvety duet also has had major staying power in compilations, soundtracks and a re-tooled version by the Black-Eyed Peas. “How Do You Do” Mouth & MacNeal. OK, sometimes the Seventies did stink. Exhibit A, this insidious earworm foisted on the world by the zany Dutch duo whose legend lasted a lunchtime, just like the Rutles. “Oh Girl” the Chi-Lites. More smooth soul, this time for the Chicago vocal group that had been together in some form since the late Fifties. Their long-deserved first national #1 followed the even more brokenhearted “Have You Seen Her” which hit #3 late in 1971.

“In a Broken Dream” Python Lee Jackson. A real anomaly of a hit, this Aussie rock band had re-located to the UK in the late 60s and used a still relatively-unknown singer named Rod Stewart for three lead vocals. But these did not see wide release until three years later when this powerful number was sent out to compete head-to-head with Rod’s own “You Wear it Well.” Not sure why classic rock radio stations don’t trot this out more often. “Layla” Derek and the Dominos. Well, this one has no problem staying in classic rock rotations. “Day by Day” Godspell cast. Thanks to the good folks at St. John’s, I had my first live theater experience in spring of ’72, and the original cast LP dominated our Music Appreciation class. As to the continued cultural revelance of “Day by Day,” please refer to the first “Meet the Parents” movie. “Song Sung Blue” Neil Diamond. “Song sung blue/everybody knows one”? For proof of that, Meet The Parents again.

“I Need You” America. Oh yeah, maann. “Take it Easy” the Eagles. I better plan that rock ‘n’ roll field trip to Winslow, Arizona. After all, I’m not getting any younger. “We’re on Our Way” Chris Hodge. Mr. Hodge was a bit of a protégé of Ringo Starr (they shared a common interest in UFO theories) and released two decent pseudo-glam singles on Apple before returning to obscurity (in a flying saucer?). “Lean on Me” Bill Withers. Wait, there are two songs at #18? This evergreen soul hymn to abiding friendship will remain a strong reminder of an age when such sentiments were still valid for lyric ideas. It also didn’t hurt that royalties earned here allowed early-retiree Bill to enjoy a future relaxing at home and watching “Judge Judy” as he let us know at his recent Hall of Fame induction. “Small Beginning” Flash. Another great proggy hit, this time by a Yes spin-off band with their original guitarist Peter banks as leader.

“I Can Feel You. The Addrisi Brothers. When is someone going to make an Addrisi Brothers biopic? OK, they weren’t that famous, probably best remembered for writing the smash “Never My Love” for the Association, which would become one of the most valuable song copyrights ever with over 300 cover versions. But they were born in Winthrop, Mass. where the jets fly right over the house on their way to/from the adjacent Logan Airport (making for a great opening scene) and their family were trapeze artists for f**k’s sake. But brothers Don and Dick were musical naturals and were helped into the business by Lenny Bruce. I know, right? With groovy songs sporting titles like “I Can Feel You” and “We’ve Got to Get it on Again” I see a “Boogie Nights” vibe when we get to the Seventies. Unfortunately, their career as a vocal duo was cut short when Dick died at age 45 in 1984. Fade to black.

“Alone Again, Naturally” Gilbert O’Sullivan. The impish Irishman, whose sub-Peter Noone warblings delighted and dismayed radio listeners the world over, debuted this week at #21 with this suicide-contemplation anthem that would go on to be #1 both on WMEX and nationwide. I was never sure what the countdown meant when it said PICK in the “weeks on list” column. In this case, it might have meant that Gilbert couldn’t decide whether to PICK jumping off a building or drinking poison. “If I Were a Carpenter” Bob Seger. By 1972 you might think that this standard was a bit played out. Yet this soulful version by the future “Night Moves” man is one of the better versions I’ve heard. “War Song” Neil Young & Graham Nash. This anti-Nixon screed, credited to “Young & Mash” by the mistake-prone employee who typed up these surveys, was said to have been timed to give a boost to George McGovern’s campaign just ahead of the Democratic convention. A lost cause but a cool lost single from Neil’s discography. “Daddy Don’t Walk So Fast” Wayne Newton. Yeah, Dad. Don’t walk so fast or you may rush by a washed-up lounge singer without recognizing him. “Tramp” Sugar Bus. I don’t recall this one and the combination of those three words has proven to be Google-proof. Can anything in this day and age really remain a mystery? If anyone knows this song, please comment below.

“Starman” David Bowie. Not the first thing I had heard from D.B. as there had been “Changes” and “Space Oddity” but when my cross-the-way buddy got the Ziggy Stardust album it was a whole new ballgame, led by this single which was not just an earworm, but a mindworm as well. “I’m Comin’ Home” the Stories. If all one knows by them is “Brother Louie” than a little deep-diving is in order. Great tune. “Sealed With a Kiss” Bobby Vinton. Dang, this is a sweet-sounding classic but it sounds like it was made ten years before, and may even be a re-release. At any rate, the Old Guard wasn’t giving up easy and that’s OK. “Cat’s Eye in the Window” Tommy James. Well, this one is not a classic, but still has that trademark T.J. sound. It might be the era when he was sneaking in Christian themes but damned if I can tell. “Troglodyte” Jimmy Castor Bunch. It’s the last song on the survey and the last typo. This knuckle-dragging funk workout by Jimmy “Castpr” should be high up in an imagined book called “1001 Novelty Songs You Must Hear before You Die.” Especially so considering that this has apparently been much sampled in dance clubs and hip-hop parties thru the years. Evidence enough of the future and past push-pull of these great surveys at such a fertile time in pop history.

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And naturally there was a lot more to come that summer by looking at the “1st on 1510” section, with new entries on the way by The Who, Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder—as well as the immortal “Motorcycle Mama” by Sailcat. The Top 15 Albums? Well, about half of them I would put down as Rock all-timers, starting with “Exile on Main Street” in the #1 spot. By I’m also glad to see the “Godspell” cast album hanging tough at #12. I wouldn’t want to burn my bridges that quickly.

By the spring of ‘73, I’d have my own stash and an almost girlfriend and the times of the first countdown in this 3-part series (summer of ’71) were starting to seem far off. City life and punk rock was only five years away, and a whole other zeitgeist to replace these halcyon days—then many years after that, my own family and the inexorable creep back to the suburbs. But through it all, I always owned a transistor radio and they went with me as far afield as Europe on two occasions. There were five Replacement songs in a row as I got ready to go out and see them at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane” played in my room after hitting the pubs in Dublin. Nowadays I own two—when I heard that Radio Shack was in trouble I got a spare just in case. Happy listening in all the days ahead.

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Reel and Rock Film of the Year: We Are the Best!

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There’s nothing especially profound about this droll and sweetly rebellious indie crowd-pleaser from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. But in its acute attention to the details of its adolescent outsiders reaching for their identity, “We are the Best” is a rock & roll coming-of-age fable of the first order. Two 13 year-old girls set out to prove that “punk is not dead” to the Olivia Newton-John wannabes in their Stockholm middle school, circa 1982. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) find their days alternating between boredom and the casual indignities passed down to teenage non-conformists. On a whim, they start a group, if only to take away practice time from Iron Fist, the doofus metal band of condescending older boys at the local youth center. Despite their unfamiliarity with the drum set and bass guitar left in the corner of the practice space, they start to bash out a song called “Hate the Sport” that rails against two of mankind’s greatest evils: the threat of nuclear annihilation and gym class. Sample lyric: “People die and scream/But all you care about is your soccer team”.

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“The world is a morgue/But you’re too busy watching Bjorn Borg!!” Swedish punk comes of age.

Convinced of their impending greatness but aware of certain musical limitations, they shrewdly recruit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) an ignored girl from a Christian family who is a talented classical guitarist. In exchange for music tips, Bobo and Klara assure her that she’ll never have two better friends. The three lead characters are pitch-perfect in their roles if not always in their music. Between their first meet-up and the culminating trip with Iron Fist and two youth-center staffers to a “Santa Rock” event in a redneck provincial town (in time-honored punk fashion, the girls’ performance starts a riot within a minute), their acting captures early teenhood’s dizzying mix of insecurity and tenacity.

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“We’re not a makeup band.” Bobo, Hedvig and Klara hold a practice-room confab.

Moodysson blends in all the elements without overselling a single one: the rigid delineation of musical tastes, the nervous phone calls to boys, the junk food binges, the early feeling-out of political principles. As the trailer suggests it is a film for 13 year-olds: past, present and future. That’s casting the net pretty wide but it is amazing how that age, which seems like such a trial at the time, always retains a romantic glow in retrospect. I saw it with my son Ryan (then 13 himself) during its brief U.S. theatrical run last summer. He gave it 4 out of 5 stars, despite noting that it’s no “Lord of the Rings.” Hopefully, this modest gem will find a much wider audience streaming and on DVD and take a deserved spot in the cannon of great fictional rock movies.

According to a self-imposed deadline, my next book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is due to be released in summer 2015.