Thursday, June 07, 2007

Enjoying My Tunes

When I was young and first getting into music, I only had a few singles or 45s. Actually, most of the collection probably belonged to my two older brothers. I still have a few of those 45s, but nothing to play them on. 'Bend Me, Shape Me' by the American Breed and a bunch of Beach Boys singles (Be True to Your School) are the only ones that have survived. Like a lot of kids, my musical tastes were influenced by what I heard on the radio and from friends. My brothers also had a huge influence on the stuff I liked and my friends older siblings also exposed us to a variety of different music. When I was in Junior High, I started purchasing albums. I liked mostly American rock and roll at that time. I think one of my first albums was Santana's first. The one with the big lion's head on the cover. It was the 60s, so I also liked a lot of the psychedelic and folk/rock that was popular like The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. Of course, I really liked some English rock as well, like the Who, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Then in high school, thanks to my friend Marc Aserlind, my tastes began to expand and I was introduced to Frank Zappa's music. Frank was a genius and I still love his music. However, it's not something that I play as background music while having dinner with my wife and kids ;). My older brother Scott, who by then had started college, introduced me to English prog rock from bands like Yes and Flash. During Scott's freshman year, he bought a really nice stereo system from his college dorm mate's older brother, who I think got it in Hong Kong on his way back home from Vietnam. The system included a big reel-to-reel 1/4" Teac tape deck, so Scott also taped a lot of albums from his friends at his dorm. I really liked the sound of that system, which he set up in our shared bedroom when he came home for the summer. Scott's system was my first introduction to good stereo equipment.

In college, like most people during that time, I was introduced to a lot of new music. By the way, it was cool to have a big stereo, at least for guys (I never met a girl who was obsessed with stereo equipment, but plenty of guys). The bigger the speakers the better. Especially when you could hang them out your window during Saturday afternoon parties before and after college football games. I don't think it's like that today, is it? Do college guys still buy hifi? Or, do they invest in fast gaming rigs and a notebook for their school work? Obviously, a lot of college kids have portable mp3 players like the iPod. So they're using their PCs for storing their music collections and transferring tracks to their iPods for playback through their earbuds. Ah, if they could only hear good speakers, they'd know what they were missing. I just don't think they buy a lot of hifi equipment like they did in my day, but I could be wrong. Anyhow, when I was in college, I shared a house with nine other guys. They were the Preston brothers, Bruce and Keith, Beazer, Jimmy Mac, Murph, Rocky, Brad, Nigel and Captain Dan. They weren't exactly your typical or I should say normal, well-behaved college boys (even though a few of them were real All-Americans). They were from a variety of places - the Prestons were from St. Louis via Racine, Beazer and Captain Dan were from the Minneapolis area, Murph was from San Diego via Cleveland, Jimmy Mac was from Brandon, Manitoba, Rocky - Vancouver, Nigel was from Australia (actually Papua, New Guinea, but he went to school in Brisbane) and Brad and I were home town boys from Madison (and there was Rawdon Peterson, also from Australia, who occasionally lived in our basement). Each of us brought with us our own unique musical tastes. Come to think of it, our musical tastes were all fairly similar or complementary.

The Prestons were huge progressive rock fans. Through their influence, I got into Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield, Hatfield and the North, PFM, the Strawbs, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, McDonald & Giles, It's a Beautiful Day, Caravan and Van Der Graaf Generator (to name a few). A lot of the guys in the house were into this type of music and we went on several road trips to Chicago or Milwaukee to see their concerts. I'll never forget the Genesis concert I went to in St. Louis with Bruce and Keith. Peter Gabriel was amazing to watch. I can still remembering him singing, "Me, I'm just a lawnmower - you can tell me by the way I walk" when they played "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)." It wasn't just the uniqueness of his voice, but the way he performed, it was very theatrical. He was a lawnmower, not an actual machine, but just a guy who mows lawns.

Nigel had to go back to Australia to study dentistry or his grandfather threatened to cut him out of any future financial support. I think they were worried that he'd turn into a Yank if he stayed here too long. While he was here, Nigel signed up for one of those mail order record deals from some company like Columbia. They'd start out by giving you 6 or 12 albums for a buck. I don't remember exactly how it worked, but I think every month you'd get a few more to sample. If you liked them, you kept them. If not, you could send them back. You were billed for the ones you kept and I think you were obligated to purchase a certain number of albums over a set period of time. It was kind of deceptive and I think the practice was probably outlawed. Anyhow, Nigel just kept all the albums and never paid for anything (except maybe the initial $1 to sign up). After he moved back to Australia, we started getting a lot of mail from Columbia asking for payment. They were pretty aggressive, to the point of harassment, even though we told them Nigel no longer lived in our house, or the country. They always included an addressed envelope you could use to pay the bill. It wasn't the same as prepaid postage. Columbia would only get billed by the post office for packages or envelopes they received. So we returned one of their bills after taping the return envelope to a big heavy cinder block (the type college students used to build bookshelves), which we wrapped up with heavy duty packaging paper. We never heard from Columbia again.

I think it was Rocky or Murph who introduced me to Todd Rundgren's music. At first I didn't really know what to think of this androgynous guy who sang "Hello It's Me". I wasn't a big "pop" music fan, but there was something different about Todd's flavor of pop music. I think a lot of it had to do with Todd's humor. He seemed to be having fun and it came across in a lot of his music. Maybe he was the antithesis of macho rock, even though he could really rock. I think later in his career when he took himself too seriously, his music became boring. Todd also provided a link between prog rock, psychedelic rock and pop rock. I really liked how he was able to weave in and out of those genres with a lot of his music, especially his "A Wizard, A True Star" album. Maybe Todd is an acquired taste, because you either love him or not, kinda like Frank Zappa, but once I was hooked, I couldn't get enough of his music. However, I'm not a big fan of his more recent music (maybe I should give it a listen again) and I've been looking ever since for newer music that combines the psychedelic, synthesized pop with his bizarre, irreverent humor.

After finishing college, like most people, I got a job and my circle of friends became smaller and smaller. I didn't go to as many clubs or concerts and didn't just hang out with my friends as much to listen to music. Besides, a lot of my friends - the ones who shared my passion for music, got jobs and/or married and moved away. So I was no longer exposed to the latest and greatest music, at least not like I was during college. Of course I continued to enjoy my music collection, but it wasn't really growing at the same rate.

I was a little slow to go digital. I had a pretty nice analog system, so I was in no hurry to convert everything over to CDs. Obviously, I've made the transition because I use a computer to store and manage my collection, but there are still quite a few LPs that I haven't been able to find on CD. During the 80s I discovered only a few new artists like the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, XTC, the Police and the Clash.

Musically, the late 80s to mid to late 90s seems pretty blurry to me. I didn't really get into hard core punk or the Seattle grunge rock and alt-rock scene. By then I was married and we started having kids. I didn't buy much new music or spend a lot of time really listening to music. The combination of my job and having small children, etc. was all consuming. There were still a few bands that caught my attention, like the Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies (finally another band that doesn't take things too seriously) Stereolab, Tortoise, the Flaming Lips and Radiohead.

In the late 90s I went to work for Sonic Foundry, a company that developed software for musicians and audio engineers. Most of my fellow employees were pretty passionate about music, many were musicians. That helped to reinvigorate my passion for music. The Internet was also a huge part of my reawakened interest in music. I know the RIAA seems to blame the Internet for all of their problems, but personally, I know I wouldn't be buying as much music if I didn't have such an easy way to learn about new artists. The other component that has really made music fun is my computer. It's wonderful being able to store music on a media server and pipe it around the house or feed a nice speaker system in my listening room. The ability to make custom playlists auto-magically is also something I really enjoy and could go on and on about, but will save for a future post. Obviously, I rediscovered my passion. This is one of the things that has inspired me to start a company to build audio components so others can get high quality sound when they use their PC as a source component.

I've heard a lot of people from my generation complain about the lack of any really good new music. They usually complain that none of the new artists compare to the bands from the 60s or 70s. I think they're wrong. There's a lot of good new music. I'm discovering something new every week using Internet radio like Slacker or going to websites like NPR's "All Songs Considered". I discovered artists like Paddy Casey, the Shins, Postal Service, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists through those websites. It's also broadened my musical horizons and I listen to a lot more jazz and classical music. I highly recommend checking out bands like the Bad Plus. I've learned about others while reading the overviews of artists in the allmusic guide and following links to similar artists. And recommendations from artists I already enjoy are pretty helpful. Check out one of these artist's MySpace page and see if they include comments about other artists that have inspired them or that they enjoy. You'll probably discover some older music you may have skipped over and some new stuff that would otherwise never get your attention.


  1. I forgot to mention some of the other artists that I really enjoy. Thanks to my friend Andy, I learned to really appreciate NRBQ (the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) and Richard Thompson. This was during that period in the late 70s when the rest of the US seemed to be getting into disco. NRBQ was the perfect antidote for disco and Richard Thompson is just really good. Both of these artists put on a great live performance. An NRBQ performance at a bar/club type venue is about as much fun as is legally possible. After re-reading the "Enjoying My Tunes" post I realized they were missing, so I had to add this comment to make sure they were included.

  2. Oops, I guess I already mentioned Richard Thompson in the original post. Oh well, he deserves a second mention...

  3. wow...what a great flashback gregg! a couple of influences i'd like to add to the adams street daze: matching mole, miles davis, 10CC, grateful dead, beaver & krause, tangerine dream, captain beefheart, horslips, and national health. periodically i'd freak everyone out by withdrawing into merle haggard (i scored front row seats at the coliseum the same year we saw floyd release and perform "dark side of the moon") or going on a joni mitchell or bob dylan jag. for this i was banished to the basement suite (a stone's throw from the opium den where rawdon crashed from time to time) or the headphones. but when you brought in those half ton pyramid shaped speakers and blasted "quadrophenia" to the heavens (and through our bones) the whole house developed a bad case of speaker envy. then there was the time we all became excited with avant garde symphonies and psychomania swept the for the 80s, i thought the music was mostly too commercial and uninspired ("burning down the house" indeed) but i purchased every brian eno and xtc product i could find (still do). as for classic zappa, have you heard "civilization phaze III"? rate it right up there with "uncle meat." you know i could go on and on and on, but i'd be remiss if i didn't mention what a huge influence bruce preston was on opening my ears to all this. forever indebted to him for that. thanks again for the stroll down mammary lane....rox.

    p.s. by the way, that cinder block we put in the mailbox by mickey's dairy bar was inscribed with a quote from "thick as a brick." if i'm not mistaken, that day i came home with a lifesize poster of richard tucker.

  4. p.p.s. as for new music try beta band, bill frisell, wilco, bela fleck and the flecktones, gnarls barkley, rh factor, ali farka toure (sorry girls, he's dead), adrian belew, jai uttal, sigor ros, afro celt sound system and julie doiron (saw her 2 nights ago). more influences from the 70s: james gang, vangelis, herbie hancock, brand x, chick corea, vandergraff generator, henry cow, can and gryphon. stop me!

  5. encore: how could we forget wishbone ash? thought we wore the grooves down on "live dates." remember the old dude across the street? how he loved it when bruce put his speakers on the roof to annoint the hood with something way too loud and progressive for someone in his seventies. it spooked the english setter next door, but goldie, being a veteran of magic brownies took it all in stride.