More about this thing I’m making…

September 3, 2017 at 6:13 pm (Music What Happened Mixes)


Yesterday I wrote about the fun project I’m doing, which is creating mixes to match each year’s songs in the book Music: What Happened, by Scott Miller. Today I thought I’d intro this by explaining why I decided to share this. It’s really something I made for my own listening pleasure but I began to realize that if it was bringing me so much enjoyment, maybe someone else might dig it, too.

First though, I should recap what’s going on here. Scott Miller — who was a seminal figure in the indie and underground pop music scene through the 1980s on into the 2000s — published a book in 2011 called Music: What Happened. In the book, Miller goes year by year from 1957 through 2010 and lists and discusses the greatness of 20 or so different songs.

He also sets some parameters for this exercise, by mentioning that the total length of the songs he discusses in a given year has to fit on a single CD (so, about 80 minutes of music). He also notes that the order he lists the songs for each year corresponds to a running order in a mix; to put it another way, these songs are fully sequenced, and with not a small amount of thought put into it. The order of songs isn’t necessarily counting down, either, but always ends with the handful of his picks for the very best songs of that particular year, culminating with the best of the best at the end of the mix for that year.

So why would anyone make a mix of someone else’s choices? I mean, I like to think I know a little bit about music and music history, you know? Well, here’s the deal. I have my own set of music biases and prejudices. I know what I like, and if I were to list my own favorite tracks from a given year, I suspect that things would get very dull, and very pretentious, and very walled off in a big ol’ hurry.

And that’s the neat trick that Scott Miller pulls off with Music: What Happened. Too often when critics discuss popular music, they do so in ways that are exclusionary in nature. We all know the stereotype of the surly record store clerk, sneering at people who purchase late-period Stevie Wonder. Miller is the polar opposite of Barry the Record Store Clerk, though.

One of the things that makes his lists so damned great is the utter lack of pretense in Miller’s selections. What, you thought he was going to give a miss to “Hey Jude” just because it’s overplayed? Guess again. You thought he was gonna skip out on The Eagles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin because they’re not underground enough? Yeah, not so much. In fact, I’d wager to say that Scott Miller loved Zeppelin and Floyd more than anyone who might possibly be reading this post.

And that’s the big takeaway here. Are there some really obscure songs? Sure. Are there some very hipster-ish choices? Hard not to have them. But there’s a whole lot of mainstream crowd-pleasing going on here, and it totally works too. And, that’s not to say that the really super-popular mega-hits don’t actually shine very brightly here. They do. It also means that a lot of ground gets covered. There’s rock music, of course. But there’s also jazz, r & b, folk, blues, soul, heavy metal, hip-hop, and even show tunes all well-represented. And that’s the second reason I’m making a mix of someone else’s picks. I like to think I know my music, but I’ve seriously got nothing on the knowledge and critical depth of Scott Miller.

In fact, I’m sort of torn as to what hearing these mixes is doing more for me. Sure, I’m discovering some great music I didn’t know or never bothered to sample — Joni Mitchell: who knew? (he said sarcastically) — But I’m also re-hearing songs I’ve heard thousands of times with new ears, and appreciating them far more than I ever expected to, thanks to the context of these mixes and their running order.

For instance, I would imagine everyone reading this has likely heard “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac about as many times as a human needs to hear that song, ever. But in this mix Miller tucks it in right between “Reuters” by Wire and “Bored Teenagers” by The Adverts. And if you’re thinking “Those are three songs that are oil and water to one another and should never go together,” here they fit perfectly side by side, with Miller slyly making the point “Not so fast there, snobby music elitist.”

That happens again and again throughout. Until two weeks ago, if you’d have asked me what enormously popular song I hate that everyone else loves, I’d have said “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. I’ve never gotten that song, and I’ve always snobbishly dismissed it as post-hippie easy listening tripe. Miller tucks this song in between “Fat Old Sun” by Pink Floyd and “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath (again, a combination of songs that shouldn’t work, but in actuality is an absolute dream segue) and now in this context I can’t help but notice the production of “Fire and Rain”, the way Taylor builds each verse by adding to it (holy crap, is that a cello that just came in, way deep in the mix?) and how sonically and structurally perfect it really is.

That’s the real joy that I’ve found in these mixes. They’re not exclusionary by any means. It’s the work of a smart, but self-deprecating writer and artist who may have had one of the best ears for melody of anyone in music. Scott Miller also had extensive formal training in music and structure and his choices reflect his knowledge of how certain patterns, chords, rhythms, and production touches can create magic that exceeds the sum of those parts. Best of all, the overall feeling I get listening to these is akin to someone throwing open the doors and knocking over the barriers of a very exclusive museum and taking you by the hand and saying “Forget the cool kids; let me show you why this is all so awesome.”

OK. Enough of me yapping. I’m going to start uploading the mixes as mp3’s, along with track lists and just some brief notes. I’m going to do these in two ways. I’ve got a mix for each particular year. Those mp3’s run about 65-75 minutes in length, on average. And they’re fine…

…but I’m also going to upload longer mp3’s that cover three year spans of time. Another thing I fell in love with in listening to these back-to-back on a long afternoon of work was really understanding how popular music has changed over time, by evolution and revolution both. One of my favorites to explain this is how Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” (recorded in early 1967) sits at the end of the 1967 mix. Four songs later, and we’re into the next year and “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin (recorded in November, ’68) comes in. It’s striking. The former song feels like such a relic, rooted in a place in time that feels stuck in a place as a defining moment for an era. But then just a few songs later, here comes Jimmy Page and Robert Plant blasting everything into oblivion with a forward-looking preview of what the 1970s are going to be, and it’s a bracing, electric moment. So seriously, if you can make the time, or don’t mind pausing here and there, I really recommend the three-year mixes for really delivering the magic.

Later tonight (hopefully), we’ll kick off with 1957-59. This is a period with big gaps in my own personal music knowledge and I love this particular set of songs very much. I hope you will too!


(What’s this Music What Happened stuff? It’s based around a great book that serves as a guided tour through 50 years of popular music.  I’m posting the year-by-year music mixes of the songs in that book here.)

What Happened 1957-1959

What Happened 1960-1962

What Happened 1963-1965

What Happened 1966-1968

What Happened 1969-1971

What Happened 1972-1974

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I’m making a thing.

September 3, 2017 at 2:50 am (Uncategorized)

reel studio

My job is excellent, and some of the most fun, interesting, and exciting work I’ve ever done. But it also involves a lot of time moving data around painstakingly and creating spreadsheets and reports, all of which require focus, and can be a little mind-numbing after a while.

What I’ve found though is that a good music playlist can keep me focused. It can’t be just any slapped together group of songs though; if the music and the order of the tunes don’t engage some section of my brain on a certain level of interest, it doesn’t work. Thus, I’m always on the lookout for an interesting playlist.

About a month ago, I also just for kicks flipped open my copy of Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? Push to shove, it’s my favorite book of music criticism out there. It’s pointed, sharply drawn, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll come back to the book in another post, but the premise of the book is that it’s a review of the best songs of every year from 1957 through about 2010.

To tie those two things together–playlist seeking and interest in that book–I discovered that someone had taken the time on Spotify to make a playlist of every song in the book. How amazing is that? (I’ll tell you how amazing further down this page). That playlist has gotten me through a ton of busy days of work over the past few weeks, and I’m literally only halfway through it. To cover every song that Miller writes about, it’s going to be a thousand-songs-plus playlist, probably close to 38 hours of music.

But that playlist being on Spotify creates some problems. First, it’s incomplete. In an average year, there are at least two songs that aren’t on Spotify for licensing reasons or other problems. To deal with that issue, whomever made it uses some live tracks (meh) or worse, in at least one case a really terrible cover version. There are also wrong versions of songs here and there.

The net result is that as I listen, I can’t help but be aware of these issues. It isn’t the fault of the amazing human who put that playlist together. That person or persons did some seriously amazing work, and this is all issues with Spotify and that medium. But this person’s hard work inspired me. What if this playlist of songs existed, but filled in the gaps and strove to clear in the proper versions of songs as described in the book? That would be kinda cool, right?

One of my favorite things to read about from people who create things is that in many cases, these creators make something because they wanted it, and it didn’t already exist. That explains some of my favorite documentaries, books, games, and works of art. I can’t make much of anything really. I’m too impatient to be particularly creative. But the one thing I can do fairly well is to make mixes. And I can definitely do that if someone else is providing me with the songs. So, to put it simply, I decided to make my own mixes of every single song in Music: What Happened. I wanted to do that because I wanted to hear it, and it didn’t exist in the form I wanted it.

I’ll explain the process and hop off for a bit, but there are a couple of reasons to explain why this book lends itself so perfectly to mixtape-making. The premise of the book is loosely based on mix CDs, mixes I assume that Miller may have actually made himself. In fact, that mix pretense forms the backbone of the book’s structure. In each given year, Miller restricts himself to only considering enough songs to fill a standard CD, about 80 minutes. That means that every year is about 20 songs or so, depending on track lengths.

The other thing Miller does is that he mentions that he’s clearly listing songs in a particular order because of how they flow together on a mix CD. The first song in a given year that he writes about is meant to be arresting and an attention-getter for the year. The mix then ebbs and flows through the songs that Miller loves the most from that particular year, building to the best tracks and culminating with the song that he feels is the very best of that particular trip ’round the sun.

I’ve been sort of surprised to discover how well his mixes work in practice, but I guess I shouldn’t be. He’d clearly put a lot of thought into the songs chosen, and the order they’d appear. Which is kind of stunning since — as mentioned — over the course of 50+ years/mixes, we’re talking about a thousand tracks. But damn, if there isn’t some inspired stuff here (I mean, “Reuters” by Wire shouldn’t flow so effortlessly into “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac, but damned if it doesn’t.)

As far as process goes, in making my mixes of these songs, I’ve tried as much as humanly possible to match the tracks to the ones described exactly by Miller. That means when we’re in the showtunes-heavy 1950s section, I’m using either Broadway or film cast recordings, depending on the author’s directives. Occasionally, he specifically lists that a song is the radio version, or the 45 rpm single version, and those are the ones used here.

There’s one other issue with particular song versions, though. Miller freely admits to cheating a bit on this in his book. To jam some extra tracks into some years but stay under that 80-minute limit, he freely admits to having used ProTools (a software studio package) to make edits to some songs to make them fit.

Now….Scott Miller was a professional musician and music producer who made at least four records using ProTools. I’m a dork who wouldn’t know where to begin with professional studio editing software. And, honestly even with some of Miller’s descriptive text, it’s impossible to know exactly where/how he made those edits (I mean, the guy cut the 17-minutes of “Dogs” by Pink Floyd down to 5:30 somehow). But, since digital streaming media no longer puts me under the tyranny of 80 minute CDs, I’ve decided to ignore those homebrew edits. Thus, you get the full force of John Cale’s “Gun” and the aforementioned Floyd cut. You’re welcome.

OK. That’s the “What this is,” and “Process” bits of this. Next post: why this mix of songs rules, and why something I made just for me is now something I’m sharing with y’all. And also, links to the mixes themselves, or at least as far as I’ve gotten (I’m up to 1979 as of Friday.)


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Winterlude in a Snowed-in Mood (Christmas music mix, 2016)

December 20, 2016 at 11:14 am (Music Mixes, Uncategorized)


If it’s holiday week, it  must (finally) be time for a Christmas and winter-themed music mix, right? Sorry for being a bit late again, but I can explain! As crappy a year as 2016 has been in a meta sort of way, personally it’s been pretty dadgum solid. Work has been fun and extremely busy of late, which helps scooch things back a bit when getting into that Christmas spirit. (Things were also notably hampered when I knocked an empty coffee cup off my desk and onto a storage drive that had about 2 terabytes of music I’m still trying to recover all of. That was a good time.)

I couldn’t help but note that this year’s mix had a sort of bleak feel to it the first couple of runs I made at it maybe understandably. Still, who has time for that? It’s the holidays. It’s a time for family, friends, and celebration, even if it feels a little bit like we’re all collectively Slim Pickens riding that missile into the ground in Dr. Strangelove. No matter. We’ll whoop and holler a bit all the way down if that’s the hand that’s been dealt.

This year’s mix is almost all new stuff, not as in “New this year,” but rather “New stuff for this mix.” I really wanted to get a Sharon Jones song in for obvious reasons early on. I’ve known since about March that Trapper Schoepp’s tale of being stranded in a blizzard in western Nebraska was going to be on this mix. Love those songs to death.

Two wonderful recent finds were discovering a secret, hidden Leisure Society version of the late Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas”. I’ve credited it to The Leisure Society, although Nick Heming says it’s just him and bandmate Helen Whitaker, but it sure sounds like the whole band.

The other cool song I’m really loving is the one from Sloan. They recorded a couple of holiday themed songs this year, and while both are good, “December 25” is just transcendent. Jay Ferguson has always been Sloan’s secret weapon, a guy who maybe only gets a couple of songs per record, but they’re always ace. With “December 25” he’s outdone himself here.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, the best part of the Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix was seeing Grant Lee Phillips reprise his role as town troubadour, and we’ve got the song he plays in the “Winter” episode, the gorgeous “Winterglow” here. I’ve also brought in a few old favorites. Seemed like this mix really wanted some Vince Guaraldi, for instance, so it got that. It also wanted Vashti Bunyan and Broadcast too. Finally, Jason Ringenberg’s aching “Merry Christmas My Darling” seemed far too appropriate not to bring back…and we needed the twang.

As ever, this mix is one long mp3, with volume normalized and sequenced and whatnot. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I’ve enjoyed making it, and…I’ll let “Father Christmas” sum up the rest:

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear”

Winterlude in a Snowed-in Mood
(Popnarcotic Christmas Music Mix, 2016)

1. Christmas Letter
2. “Just Another Christmas Song” Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
3. “Ogallala” Trapper Schoepp
4. “Snow Globe” Charlie’s Hand Movements
5. “Willing and Able” Helene Smith
6. “I Believe In Father Christmas” The Leisure Society
7. “Child’s Christmas in Wales” John Cale
8. “Christmas Eve” Night Flowers
9. “Work Christmas Party” Faye & The Scrooges
10.”December 25″ Sloan
11.”Funky Funky Christmas” Electric Jungle
12.”Hey Santa!” Brian Setzer Orchestra
13.”Mistletoe and Holly” Frank Sinatra
14.”Coldest Night of the Year” Vashti Bunyan
15.”Soul Santa” Funk Machine
16.”Christmas and Everyday” Best Coast
17.”Skating” Vince Guaraldi Trio
18.”Winterglow” Grant Lee Phillips
19.”Merry Christmas My Darling” Jason Ringenberg
20.”Sleigh Ride” Squirrel Nut Zippers
21.”Winter Now” Broadcast
22.”You Bring The Snow” The Crookes
23.”Driving Under Stars” Marika Hackman
24.”Fairytale of New York” The Pogues

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No Sad Songs (2015 Holiday Music Mix!)

December 16, 2015 at 3:30 pm (Music Mixes)

Despite the fact that it feels like mid-May here on the east coast, I can’t help but be in the grip of Christmas spirit. I mean, if new Star Wars movies can’t make you feel like a little kid heading into the holidays, being able to shoot some hoop on an outdoor court two weeks before December 25 sure will do the trick.

This year’s mix finds me in fine fettle, as they say, and I hope it does for you and yours as well. When I was putting it together over the last few weeks, I spent a good deal of time listening to some older mixes and was struck by being able to tell that I’d made them during some rather gloomy times, personal and not-so-personal. And with that in mind, the title of one of the first songs I knew I’d put into this compilation–“No Sad Songs” by The Lilac Time–kept popping into my head, and it ended up being the title and thesis for this year’s collection.

Not that there aren’t a few sad tunes that snuck through. You get a chance to put a song by Joe Pernice and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub into your mix, you just do it, regardless, and that’s how that New Mendicants tune made the cut. It does mean a late switch on what is hopefully an annual tradition from Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. Those two legends record together as The Both, and I was all set to go with their morose 2014 holiday song when they hit out with a 2015 tune that is anything but sad in “You’re a Gift.”

Another thing I enjoy doing this each year is discovering songs I never knew about. I’d always wanted to find a spot for Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Snow”, a song that Randy Newman wrote. For whatever reason, I’ve never found the right spot for it. Then I found out that Nilsson wasn’t the first to cover it; a few years before he did it, Claudine Longet had a hit with it and her version is just amazing. You younguns should probably just enjoy the magical sound that song here and not actually look up more info on Ms. Longet because…eeesh. (Though her escapades did result in one of the funniest early SNL found footage sketches ever.)

There’s also a real familiar tune that gets an amazing remake thanks to Mark Kozelek, sometimes known as either “that guy in Red House Painters” or “that guy in Sun Kil Moon” or “that guy in Almost Famous”. Mark can be a bit prickly, but he put out a wonderful Christmas record last year that totally works. (On another song on his record there’s a  great exchange in mid tune that has him being told that of all the Mark Kozeleks at Christmas, he’s the most Mark Kozelek-iest, and if you don’t think I didn’t seriously consider that as a title for this year’s mix, you don’t know me well enough.)

Other highlights for me include a couple of nice jazzy takes from an old master (Sir Duke) and a newer one (if you’d have told 1990 me that John Zorn would have something to do with a really great and winsome remake of a beloved Christmas tune, I’d have been utterly bewildered by that.) I got to use a song by The Bats, which is awesome. Oh, and if our title cut artist sounds familiar to you, The Lilac Time is the band fronted by Stephen Duffy, who was once the original lead singer of Duran Duran. Yes, that Duran Duran. Finally, I can’t imagine that Christmas was a big holiday growing up for Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh, but damned if he doesn’t just nail it with “Every Year So Different.”

At any rate, as per usual, this is all one big file and stuff, a big ol’ sloppy musical holiday present from me to all of y’all. Click the big title below to download it from Dropbox. If you have a Dropbox account and are already signed in, you can also just stream it if that’s your thing.

No Sad Songs


Track list:

1.  Lisa Mychols, “Lost Winter’s Dream”
2.  The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo) “You’re A Gift”
3.  JD McPherson “Twinkle (Little Christmas Star)”
4.  Cornershop ft. Trwbador “Every Year So Different”
5.  Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings “Funky Little Drummer Boy”
6.  The Dum Dum Girls “On Christmas”
7.  Deidre and the Dark “Ghost of Christmas Past
8.  Billie Holliday “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm (Yesking Remix)”
9.  Duke Ellington “Sugar Rum Cherry”
10. New Mendicants “A Very Sorry Christmas”
11. The Love Me Nots “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”
12. Glasvegas “Please Come Back Home”
13. Claudine Longet “Snow”
14. Mark Kozelek “The Christmas Song”
15. Neil Halstead “The Man In The Santa Suit”
16. John Zorn “Christmas Time Is Here”
17. The Boy Least Likely To “A Happy Christmas Baby”
18. The Bats “December Ice”
19. The Orange Peels “Grey Holiday”
20. The Leisure Society “2000 Miles”
21. The Lilac Time “No Sad Songs”
22. Ah Shane, ya never let me down lad.


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Trick or Treat!

October 29, 2015 at 9:34 am (Uncategorized)


Quick: think of three or four authors of really good short horror fiction. I’m going to guess that most folks would come up with Stephen King, with some H. P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Edgar Allan Poe, and perhaps even some Shirley Jackson thrown in. Those folks are all fine, and quite good. But none of them write in a way that scares me more or more consistently than a British author who remains mostly unknown to the world. His name was Robert F. Aickman.

In the few bits of biographic information about him that can be found online, it appears that Mr. Aickman was probably kind of a dick. Admiring peers describe him as “prickly” and “crusty”. He could be fussy, condescending, and blunt to the point of social ineptitude. Though he was born in 1914, he seems to have possessed an almost Victorian bearing about himself, though he insisted on living in the heart of Swinging London in the 1960s, where his primness must have seemed completely out of phase.

Born in 1914, like most lads in their twenties Aickman likely “did his bit” during World War II. The first time he was published was in the early 1950s. He had a few stories appear here and there in magazines that weren’t much elevated above pulps. He finished a novel and novella in the 1960s, published a few volumes of short stories in the ’60s and ’70s, and died in 1981 of cancer, with perhaps 50 short stories to his name. His story collections sold decently in his native England, but went out of print rather quickly. He never had any impact in the States.


He wasn’t completely unknown in his time, though. A number of young horror writers knew him and were in awe of him. Fellows like Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman specifically. Perhaps the best tribute to Aickman’s genius at crafting horror fiction was paid him by Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory among other works.

Dahl had been commissioned by an American television network to come up with an omnibus television series in the early 1960s. The network wanted him to be the creative force behind a series that was envisioned to be something like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Each week would be a new, half-hour or hour-long filmed teleplay, based on a horror short story. Dahl agreed to sign on for this, under the stipulation that he, and only he, be allowed to pick the 30-odd short stories that would be featured in the various shows. As Dahl tells it, he spent nearly a year reading nearly 740 scary short stories from the national library in London. In doing so, he came to an alarming conclusion: none, or at least precious few, of the stories were particularly scary at all. He concluded on the spot that there simply were too few scary stories. He bowed out of the project.

A few stories did have an impact on him, and Dahl collected those for his own anthology, the utterly wonderful Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. Dahl chose 14 stories for this collection, including works by esteemed and well-known authors like Edith Wharton and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. He also chose a story by Robert Aickman, a clever and shivery tale called “Ringing the Changes.”

It’s easy to see why Aickman never caught a break from his publishers in the ’60s and ’70s when you read him now. His style is mannered and stately, though rarely florid and obtuse. He sounds like a gentleman out of time, as if Charles Dickens had suddenly plopped into the era of Nixon and Vietnam protests. With some shortsightedness, publishers likely figured that audiences would prefer something more…lurid. Explicit. Modern.

The success of J. R. R. Tolkein and H. P. Lovecraft show how little publishers understood their audiences. If Aickman can be a bit stuffy at times, he’s nowhere near as stilted as either of those aforementioned writers. And Aickman uses his stylistic gestures to excellent effect. His wonderfully British prose is an effective stage patter to distract while the writing magician works to pull a rabbit from his hat for us.

Most of all, though, Aickman is just a damn good writer of scary stories. He always preferred the term “strange stories” to describe his work, and I suppose that fits the best. His stories are interesting, ingeniously plotted, and all have a clever, if often chilling twist in the plot. You get the feeling as you read his work that the reason he wasn’t prolific is due to him constantly polishing his stories to a high gloss finish before deciding they were done.

In the past few years, Aickman’s undergone a bit of a renaissance. Many of his short story collections have come back in print, as more and more modern horror authors cite him as every bit the foundational genius that Lovecraft, M. R. James, or Poe were for the genre. First edition paperbacks of his collections from the 1970s will fetch upwards of $70 in used marketplaces these days. I personally first heard of him when, during a discussion of great horror fiction, a fellow posting online under the handle DrCrypt suggested that there was Aickman on one tier, and everyone else sitting well below. DrCrypt did more than that, though. He’d gotten his hands on an HTML version of one of Aickman’s best short story collections, a chilling anthology called Cold Hand In Mine. Someone had lovingly transcribed all of the book back in the early days of UseNet and posted it online. It’s long gone, of course.

Except I saved a copy and converted it to PDF. And because it is Halloween, and because I love giving out treats for the season, I’m sharing that with you all right now. Here it is in all its chilling glory, Robert Aickman’s Cold Hand In Mine. Give the story “The Same Dog” a read, if you’re looking for a good entry piece. If you like what you’ve read, consider buying the book and other Aickman collections from Amazon or the online retailer of your choice. Happy Halloween!

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Something I Wrote About The Left Banke…

March 20, 2015 at 10:57 am (Uncategorized)

Yesterday, Tom Finn–one of the founding members of the band The Left Banke–announced that Michael Brown from the band had passed away. While the songwriting chores in the band were more shared than has been traditionally mentioned, I think it’s no stretch to say that Michael Brown was the main creative songwriting force in the group. He was also very unwell, mentally and physically, for what seems like a large portion of his life.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a bunch of words about the Left Banke for Bill Harris at Dubious Quality. I’m reprinting here as something of an in memoriam. That’s what follows here.



I think it’s only natural that many music lovers harbor something of a soft spot for one-hit wonders. There’s something alluring about the idea that anyone with one good idea for a song might be one turn of public whim from chart immortality. What I’ve all too frequently discovered whenever I try to dig deeper on a one-hit wonder is that the one hit is usually an extraordinary accident of happenstance, and the rest of that artist’s recording output tends towards dreck. You don’t want to go exploring the back catalogue of the Starland Vocal Band, for instance.

The Left Banke are the exception to that rule. They almost certainly qualify as one hit wonders thanks to the song “Walk Away Renee”, but unlike most artists who fit that description, the Left Banke actually left behind a rather interesting and worthwhile catalogue of songs, as well as a fairly interesting story behind their creation and multiple dissolutions.

Listening to the lush, fully orchestrated strings of “Walk Away Renee”, you’d likely never guess that the group’s origins lie in New York City with a couple of guys who sang in street busking doo wop groups. Tom Finn and George Cameron were both thinking about growing out their greased-back hair and giving up on their street corner doo wop hobby when they met at a teen talent show, where both fellows discovered a shared fascination with the then-brand new British Invasion. After that first meeting, they remained friends, but Cameron decided to spend his time cultivating a stylish image as a teen scenester in Greenwich Village. Finn on the other hand managed to get himself into a band of sorts.

It seems that Tom Finn had a buddy who’d secured something of an open-ended recording contract from a medium-sized downtown studio called World United. The studio was run by a respected professional session violinist and producer named Harry Lookofsky. Although Lookofsky had made a name for himself playing on some very high profile classical records, he was also a pragmatic guy and was on the lookout for talented kids who could play the new style of ‘60s rock and roll making waves on the radio. Finn found himself  playing on two songs for an ad hoc group that was dubbed The Magic Plants. Their name was the best thing about them–the songs themselves are pretty forgettable.

Finn had caught the bug though, and wanted to put his own band together. He remembered Cameron, and decided having a guy who not only could sing and harmonize well (not to mention had something of a loyal coterie of hipster friends) in his new group was probably a good idea. Just as Cameron and Finn were firming up ideas for their band, they chanced to meet another kid their age named Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro.

Caro’s parents were from Spain, but he had been born in New York. Cameron and Finn quickly discovered that their new friend possessed a gorgeous and evocative tenor voice. Considering his handsome good looks would make him a natural at helping to attract girls, they quickly enlisted him in the band. Caro–perhaps feeling a bit self-conscious about the prejudices of the time–allowed that he’d be known as Steve Martin from that point onwards. He became the lead singer of the band that was coming together.

Cameron, Finn, and Martin hit it off well and immediately formed a songwriting partnership and started working up a few original numbers. Finn remembered the Magic Plants sessions at World United Studios. The three of them (with a drummer in tow) played a couple of songs for Harry Lookofsky, but the studio manager was unimpressed. He tried to give them some encouragement, at least. It’s easy to see how they failed to register on that first audition. Cameron was just learning guitar, Finn had just switched to playing bass, and their songs were very much works in progress.

While the boys were auditioning, they noticed that Harry Lookofsky’s geeky teenaged son was spending an inordinate amount of time hanging out. Although Michael Lookofsky was painfully shy and awkward, he let it be known to the three that he played piano and keyboards. The guys weren’t impressed. They were the coolest cats in Greenwich Village…and this gawky nerd was not the kind of person to easily add to their social circle. Lookofsky tried again, this time letting it be known that he had the keys to his father’s studio.

Well now. That was something after all. Cameron, Finn, and Martin discovered that Mike Lookofsky had been classically trained and possessed perfect pitch. If they hummed a melody line, he knew what notes were being hummed and could play it back on piano. He began tinkering a bit with a few of the songs that Cameron and Martin had written, most notably adding a bridge to a tune called “Something On My Mind”.

At some point early on, Harry Lookofsky discovered his son and the rest of the band–now calling themselves The Left Banke after a fellow Village denizen suggested the name–banging away at practicing songs in the studio after hours. He became furious with them until the group played “Something On My Mind” for him, assuaging Lookofsky somewhat. He called Finn a few days later with a proposal: he’d offer the Left Banke a contract, provided the band made his son Michael a fulltime member.

Given that choice, the original three members of the group decided to put worries about their hipster credibility aside and took Lookofsky up on his offer. For his part, young Michael Lookofsky decided that if one member of the band could change his name, so could he, and from that point onward he was Michael Brown. The nascent Left Banke spent the next few months rehearsing during studio off-hours while also managing to record their first two songs, “Something On My Mind” and “I Haven’t Got The Nerve”.

During this time, tensions were already building that would afflict the Left Banke throughout their brief career. Simply put, lead singer Steve Martin and keyboardist Michael Brown absolutely hated one another. Brown’s gift for melody was terrific, but he lacked any knowledge or experience in translating that to a rock idiom. Thus, while the band was trying to write, Cameron and Finn would (more or less) patiently work with Brown to transform his melodies into rock and roll songs. Martin, on the other hand would simply become abusive to the 16-year old on the keys. Martin and Brown would then yell at one another and things would fall apart. At various times, both guys had to be literally coaxed into not walking away from the band. It was clear that if history didn’t intervene, the Left Banke was going to be gone before they’d put out a song. As it turns out, history did indeed intervene.

One day while the band was rehearsing, Tom Finn showed up with his new girlfriend in tow. She was a stunning blonde named Renee Fladen. You can imagine the rest of the band trying to play things cool here, but 16-year-old Michael Brown was poleaxed. According to everyone present, he simply couldn’t stop staring at Miss Fladen, and at one point his hands were shaking so badly in her presence that he couldn’t play piano at all. A firm believer of writing what he knew, Brown began work on a song about her.


(The estimable Miss Fladen, the subject of at least three Left Banke songs)

The original melody for “Walk Away Renee” would sound fairly familiar to us today, but it had an almost metronomic quality to it–there was almost no flow whatsoever to the song. Martin, Cameron, and Finn worked the song over with Brown to make dramatic improvements to the way the melody flowed.  Additionally–and in a move that would become familiar to them–the guys in the band turned to their connections in The Village for lyric help. A fellow named Tony Sansone came in and notably punched up the lyrics enough to receive a songwriting credit.

Harry Lookofsky heard the band working out the song and realized he was hearing a hit. Enlisting the help of string-playing friends and session musicians willing to work for cheap, Michael Brown (on harpsichord) is the only band member to play an instrument on the track. Just as Martin, Cameron and Finn were preparing to lay down the famously gorgeous vocals for the song, it was discovered that for not the last time the band was on the verge of splintering. Having decided he’d had his fill of Steve Martin after a notable dust up, Michael Brown had persuaded the Left Banke’s drummer, Warren David-Schierhorst to fly out to California with him to start a new band. One problem: Brown was 16 years old still. Harry Lookofsky had the authorities put his son on a plane back to New York immediately upon landing in Los Angeles…and then calmly directed the vocal session for “Walk Away Renee”.

Sadly, Brown’s instability would become a familiar pattern with the Left Banke and haunt the gifted musician the rest of his life. Brown’s mental state veered wildly between an almost patronizing superiority complex over the other members of the band…frequently chased by an almost debilitating sense of inadequacy and inferiority. No doubt his constant fights with Steve Martin did little to improve his mental state.

At any rate, with “Walk Away Renee”, Lookofsky knew he had a hit on his hands and quickly pressed the single (with one of Cameron/Martin’s first songs, “I Haven’t Got The Nerve” as the B-side) and shopped the record to every label in New York. Shockingly, the big labels turned him down. Finally, a smaller company called Smash Records agreed to put the song out. It didn’t take long until “Walk Away Renee” was zooming up the pop charts.

The band’s record label was eager for the Left Banke to strike while the iron was hot and pressed them to record another single and work up an entire album. For his part, Harry Lookofsky–now managing the group–wanted to get them on the road. Somehow the Left Banke managed to accomplish both of these things in an incredibly compressed period of time. Despite playing gigs (which even the band admits today were terrible owing to bad equipment and not being able to even hear themselves sing) across the northeast, somehow they were able to complete an album’s worth of material. This was due in no small measure to Michael Brown’s composition gifts, although he was certainly assisted by the rest of the band, too.

One key element to getting an album finished was enlisting a lyricist with no small amount of skill in the form of a fellow named Tom Feher. As good as Brown (and Martin and Cameron and Finn) were with melody, none were particularly adept with lyrics. Feher, a poet from the Village, could turn a rhymed phrase quite well. With Feher’s assistance, Michael Brown recalled his muse, Renee Fladen, and issued two more singles with her in mind, “Pretty Ballerina” and the stunningly confessional “She May Call You Up Tonight”.  (By this point, Miss Fladen was utterly freaked out by the weird fixating, longing looks from Michael Brown and moved out of state.) The former song peaked at #15 on the charts. The latter somehow didn’t make a dent. On both of those songs, as with the rest of the album being worked up, the musical tracks were almost entirely played by session musicians. Studio time was rare and expensive and Lookofsky still held a (probably deserved) low opinion of the musical abilities of anyone in the band save for his own son.

The Left Banke’s debut album–featuring the top 10 smash “Walk Away Renee” as well as “Ballerina” and 11 other winning tracks is actually pretty fantastic. In addition to all the songs mentioned so far, “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” and “Evening Gown” are fantastic. Depending on your feelings about the 1970’s recorded output of prog rock bands, you can likely lay some of the credit or blame at the feet of the song “Barterers And Their Wives” as an early prime example of cape-rock. Most notably–and here’s some foreshadowing–on the winning “Let Go Of You Girl”, the members of the band play their own instruments…and it sounds just fine. Nothing falls apart.

NEXT: Everything falls apart, super secret guest stars, and an unsung hero.

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There Are Three Truly Great Christmas Albums. You’ve Only Heard Two Of Them.

December 24, 2014 at 7:05 pm (Uncategorized) ()

With apologies to George Winston and John Fahey and Booker T. & The MGs, there are really three truly great pop, rock, or soul albums ever released in the modern era. One is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack album for the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special. Another is the “A Christmas Gift For You” album from Phil Spector’s stable of stars. You’ve heard both of those records and all the songs off of them dozens of times.

There’s a third record that belongs in that pantheon. Sadly, this record was refused by the label it was recorded for and was available only for a few years on cassette in Japan. That same record got a limited re-release in 2002 on a label that went under shortly after the only CD pressing sold out. Copies of that CD in the shrinkwrap go for $300 on Ebay. (There’s a happy ending Christmas Miracle about its availability coming up, I promise.)

It’s rather stunning, actually, that this record is so criminally unknown. In a just world, it should be blasting from every restaurant speaker and mall PA system from Black Friday onwards through Christmas day. The name of the record is Lost Winter’s Dream. It was originally recorded in 1990 or so by Los Angeles music scenester Lisa Mychols when she was a kid. And, of course, there’s a back story so improbable and wonderful about this record that it deserves to be told again and again. But first, give these two songs a listen if you’re in a festive mood.


Yeah. The first thing you’ll notice is the amazing production on this. You’d never in a million years guess that it was the debut recording by a bunch of folks making their first record together. There’s all that Spectorian awesomeness sprinkled on it like sugar on a spritz cookie. More than that, though, there’s a wide-eyed, heartbreakingly pure sincerity to it all. There are reasons for all that.

In an interview about ten years ago, Mychols talked a bit about the recording of Lost Winter’s Dream. Apparently a couple of things precipitated this album. For one thing, Mychols had grown up in love with the classic sounds the 1960s and the kind of production flourishes one heard from folks like Phil Spector or on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. She taught herself to play bass by plunking along on it while watching videos on the recently-launched MTV. One fall, still a teen, she’d struck up a conversation with scene-making SoCal hipster record label Bomp. By now, Mychols had also taught herself how to play guitar and to write songs. Bomp was interested in putting out a single on a 7″ if she’d record something. She was interested…

…and, by her account, was also undergoing the first heartbreak of her life, the end of her first longterm romantic relationship. She’d come up with a few songs, actually, and determined that–given the fall into winter season–she’d write songs in the vein of that classic Phil Spector Christmas album. Eventually, all the songs she was working on ended up being more or less of that theme. Maybe the “single” would be more than just one song.

The soon-to-be-record had one other thing going for it. Mychols had struck up a fast friendship with two like-minded souls, a couple of guys named Darian Sahanaja and Nick Waluska. They loved the same records and sounds she did. They could fill in gaps on instruments she couldn’t. They also had some studio experience themselves. The single that Mychols had promised to Bomp took on a life of its own, at some point becoming a full album.  Mychols–the principal songwriter–poured out her broken heart into every song, filling them not just with heartbreak and longing, but also with hope, nostalgia, joy and desire. Her songs were the kind of things you can’t fake. Real emotions, real young adult first relationship angst.

I’ve kvetched before about bad Christmas songs. It’s so damn easy to just toss off a couple of seasonal words in near non-sequiturs, add some sleigh bells, and call it Christmas music. Too many artists who ought to know better make music aimed at opening holiday wallets without ever seeming to care one whit about what they’re doing, and the end result sounds fake and crass and commercial. There is nothing–not one tiny word–that Lisa Mychols writes or sings on Lost Winter’s Dream that doesn’t feel as if she isn’t singing from the depths of her soul. Lost Winter’s Dream doesn’t sound like a record that someone wanted to make. It sounds like a record Lisa Mychols HAD to make–like some volcanic eruption of emotions and nostalgia and wistfulness that had to come bursting out of her…all tied up in a bow.

Amazingly, Darian Sahanaja and Nick Waluska matched the gorgeous and pure and beautiful songs that Mychols wrote with production chops that belied their limited experience and means. They, too, poured it all out. That they were working under a tight deadline with the holiday season pretty much already arriving only added to how remarkable the end results were. Nothing about what the three ended up with sounds rushed or half-baked.

There was a punchline though. After somehow managing to get everything finished, the weekend that Bomp had set as a deadline for the finished results was a weekend that Mychols found herself grounded. There was no way for her to deliver the master recordings or artwork. Bomp told her maybe next year. Deadlines are deadlines. Talk about teen angst. The next year, Bomp had changed its focus to be strictly aimed at garage rock of the loud and noisy variety. They were no longer interested in Lost Winter’s Dream. Since no one else knew or much cared who Lisa Mychols, Darian Sahanaja, or Nick Waluska were in 1991, Lost Winter’s Dream found no suitors. Finally, a Japanese label picked it up and put it out on cassette in Asia.

Mychols went on to front a string of well-respected Los Angeles guitar pop bands of which The Masticators were probably the most well-known. She still makes great music on her own as the Lisa Mychols 3, or as a member of bands like Nushu.  Sahanaja and Waluska formed a group called the Wondermints. They ended up as Brian Wilson’s (yes, that Brian Wilson) backing band starting in 1999 and have been there ever since as his touring band and studio musicians. It was some amazing happy accident, then, that all three of these incredibly talented folks ended up recording an album together at the start of their respective careers.

Based on the relative prominence of the various members in the intervening years, Lost Winter’s Dream got a proper US release on boutique label Rev-Ola in 2002. Unfortunately, Rev-Ola’s parent group, Cherry Red Records, discontinued the label and put Lost Winter’s Dream out of print after a single pressing.

Now, though, time for that happy ending for music lovers. The pop music goldminers at Futureman records acquired digital distribution rights to Lost Winter’s Dream in 2012. For a measly $7, you can finally own the best Christmas record you’ve never heard. Even better, you can listen to the entire album for free before you buy it. Seriously, that’s an awesome deal. The version that the Futureman folks have up is the “expanded edition”, too. Apparently the original Japanese release appended the seasonal tunes with four cover versions: “To Sir With Love”, “Sign Of The Times”, “The End Of The World”, and “Sixteen Reasons”. They also added some demo versions and a few other oddities from the same period.

Go here. Listen to it. Buy it. Thank me later, and Merry Christmas!


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