Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Darkest Door

Sorry to have been AWOL – been working on another MP3 project. For this one, I’m opening the darkest door. Most of these massive projects I pull together, the over-riding concept is to gather the best possible music I can find for a given genre. In some cases, particularly the 70s, nostalgia is surely a main ingredient. It’s a great pleasure for me, at this point in my life, to be able to gather hundreds of songs that I’ve known and loved most of my life, and have total access to them at any time. If you had told me back in the days of eight-tracks that one day I’d have this ability, I’d have considered that a very nice dream. Stunning, unbelievable stuff to my 70s mind.

But I decided it’s time to open the darkest door. This recent project has made me feel like one of the Roman centurions who nailed Christ to the cross: a nasty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and I’m the one. I’m going to my Waterloo, where Napoleon did surrender, oh yeah: Mellow 70s Gold. A massive collection of all those cheesy one-hit wonders and soft-rock classics that one is generally loathe to admit liking publicly, but secretly, like alone listening to a car radio, will listen along intently and think, “Jesus Christ, this really isn’t that bad a song.”

When I told a friend who was a teenager in the 60s of my intentions, he scoffed, told me to get out of this Yacht Rock state of mind, the 70s were a desert of creativity compared to the 60s. Of course, he’s right: being a teenage pop music fan in the 60s had to be one of the more pleasurable endeavors of the past 50 years. Music was firing in all directions, the great pop/rock bands of the 60s were making incredible music daily, and I can recognize, as a child of the 70s, that the 60s were a great time for music, case closed.

But that doesn’t concern what I’m doing with Mellow 70s Gold. Conversely, as my friend mildly chastised me for the project, he noted he was listening to a lot of Connie Francis lately. Connie “Stupid Cupid” Francis. Along with the culture altering classics of the 60s, there was plenty of stuff like this. And I don’t fault my friend for liking, or even developing an obsession for it. I hope to do the same with Mellow 70s Gold.

My main problem with music as I age, and since the advent of MP3s, is that if I don’t have the music on MP3, chances are I never or very rarely hear it again. This struck me about a year ago with all my 70s favorites, which I’d put aside for a very long time as I explored and developed stronger tastes in blues and country, along with simply keeping track of new alt country and indie music. There was a time, circa the mid-80s, when I was glad to bury anything from the 70s. I’m not sure what turned the tide. I think it was some time in the early 90s, I was killing time in a record store, when I came across my first Rhino “Have a Nice Day” collection in a Various Artists bin. And this particular one had “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, one of the best pop songs of the early 70s. Hadn’t heard it years. Bought that CD, and realized I knew every song and wanted to hear this stuff again. I nailed down much of the “Have a Nice Day” series in the next few years. Backtracked more, fleshed out all the stuff I used to have on vinyl, many a hipster record store clerk snickering at me. (I'm OK with guys like this snickering at me, as they have so little to snicker about in life.)

I have to underline how crucial it was for me as an adult to come across that series: never before had there been such a comprehensive representation of a type of music – blatantly commercial 70s pop – that approached the decade honestly. These were the real Top 10 hits, the unspoken truth of the 70s. Not Bruce Springsteen. Or The Stones. Or Led Zeppelin. Those were album artists for the most part in the 70s, as were most respectable rock acts, with very few hit singles. This also marked the beginning of a trend that is now horribly over-bearing: mediocre music geared towards kids dominating the charts, while better music made by serious recording artists died on the vine. You look at charts from the 60s, much of the time, the best music being made was in the Top 10. That wasn’t true much of the time in the 70s, and it’s really not true now.

Still, that 70s Top 10 dreck is irreversibly tied into my child and teen years, and for that reason alone, I can stomach the stuff and make no apologies. I had been approaching the Mellow 70s Gold project with a kitchen sink attitude. Feelings by Morris Albert? England Dan and John Ford Coley? Fuck it – throw them in the mix!

But now that I’ve started pulling it together, I find myself holding back. The ultimate goal of any of these huge collections I put together is to have music I want to listen to – not so much to accurately document a musical period in time. The truth is, I don’t ever need to hear “Feelings” or “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” again. They’re not horrible songs to me – they’re just bland pop songs that made it big in their time. I’m surely going to include dozens of songs like that, but for me, there will always be some sort of connection to the song, usually deeply personal, or something about the song will hit me the right way. I just threw in “65 Love Affair” by Paul Davis – certainly of a piece with the songs I mentioned – but something about the song hits me the right way.

I find myself veering away from ballads and towards more upbeat material. You can’t do a 70s pop collection without having huge ballads: “Without You” by Harry Nilsson, “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen, “Superstar” by The Carpenters. It was a great time for pop ballads, and I respect that. I just don’t want this thing to become plodding and ballad heavy. Lord knows, pop-music wise, the 70s were a very upbeat time. One of my favorite bands from then, Cheap Trick, was like a huge, rocking smile. The band emanated fun and happiness in their music.

And I like that – still do now, and thought the 90s were an insipidly dogshit time in rock music, that may have killed rock forever on a pop-cultural level, with its mewling “daddy doesn’t love me” lyrics and goat-boy brayings of all those fucking terrible, faux depressed grunge and rap rock bands. God, I hated that goateed, backward-baseball-hatted shit and what those whining slobs did to rock: they turned it into an ersatz therapy session for spoiled 15-year-olds. As opposed to the way I understood it as a kid: 15-year-olds saying fuck it, we’re going to be adults one day, that doesn’t look like fun, let’s rock, let’s have as much fun now as we can, instead of being mopey dickwads. About the only thing that allowed me to keep faith in teenagers in the 90s was the MTV series Jackass, which showed me there were still some real kids out there with the right attitude. Other than that, the 90s looked like a desperately bad decade to me for kids, where your options were pretend you’re ghetto and/or be depressed all the time. Later for that morbid shit (and I have to wonder how these kids are going to age ... what kind of values they'll internalize and carry forward from all this fake bullshit ...). The 00s haven’t looked recognizably different to me either.

But I digress. Mellow 70s Gold will be it for me and the 70s musically, as I’ve already fleshed out a massive pop/rock collection that covers a vast bulk of the rock acts I was raised on. 70s Soul, which gets that great last gasp of soul (Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield) and a fairly good cross section of disco that’s held up pretty well for me. And the Alt 70s collection which dealt with “alternative” 70s acts (like Captain Beefheart, Zappa, Iggy Pop, etc.) and also covered punk and new wave. I think most disco holds up better than most punk (despite punk having a handful of much better individual artists). I hated disco at the time – it makes much more sense to me now than punk does, most of which sounds like wildly over-rated garbage to me.

I’m not quite sure what a guy in his 40s is supposed to get from listening to “Please Mr. Please” by Olivia Newton-John. Or “Anticipation” by Carly Simon. Or “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” by the Captain & Tennille. Or “Crazy Horses” by The Osmonds. But I guess I’m going to find out. At worst, I’ll have created my own private soft-rock, office-friendly radio station. If there’s something more to be gained by listening to “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols, I’m not quite grasping it anymore. Listening to music you already know by heart (but haven't listened to in ages) isn’t the same as discovery, but I gather it serves a purpose.

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