I have always held the opinion that we’re all a product of where we grew up. My dad was born in Los Angeles, California. However, shortly after his brother was born, his parents moved him back to Kansas. While I was born in Chicago, (like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band song) my parents chose to move back to… well, Kansas. I’ve never said my family had good taste in geography. Not that there’s anything wrong with Kansas, per se. I always wonder what I would have been like if my grandparents had stayed in Los Angeles? Obviously, I wouldn’t be the same person as my dad would have never met my mom, but holy shit! Growing up as an LA native? I probably would have been in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. With my addictive personality, I can only hope I wouldn’t have gone down like Hillel Slovak, RIP. I might have at least gone to high school with them. “Hello, Anthony, hello, Flea…Go Lions!” What if my parents had stayed in Chicago? My whole adolescence would have been jumping on trains to the city to see Springsteen or Lou Reed. Or maybe I’d have hung around blues bars and now I’d be a world renown harmonica player, if there is such a thing anymore. Michael Bloomfield and I would have totally hung out, I can tell.
But as it happens, I grew up in the suburbs in the small midwestern hamlet of Kansas City. It’s big enough that you can stir up some trouble, but not so big as to be actually cool. It lacks a certain menace that most big cities toss off casually. As much as I deny it, I am a product of a midwest, small city upbringing. If I’d grown up in LA, Chicago or Boston, I’d be a totally different person with totally different influences. If I wanted a Coke, and I grew up in Boston, I’d ask for a tonic, which is something I never understood.
Growing up in Kansas City, my exposure to rock and roll was pretty meat and potatoes. We had our local rock station, KY/102. We got a steady diet of mainstream rock and roll. When I finally had my rock and roll awakening, I listened to KY every day. It was all Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who, and of course, Bob Seger. It was the midwest after all, you grew up thinking Seger was President. Springsteen was considered exotic and only occasionally played on the radio. I remember Boston, Styx and REO Speedwagon being in high rotation. You never heard anything from the outer fringes. Local radio never dug that deep.
With that as a musical backdrop, you can imagine the terror brought on from seeing the Sex Pistols on ’60 Minutes.’ Naturally they had live shots of the band at a concert hall, with the music highly distorted – it sounded like someone had tossed a gerbil in the blender – with the fans in the audience slam dancing and pogo’ing. Bug eyed Johnny Rotten looked like an escaped lunatic. They presented punk as the Barbarians at the Gates. It was the end of civilization. I was in my early teens and even I was scared. Usually, that sort of subversive rebelliousness was as intoxicating to me as catnip. I’m surprised dad didn’t turn the channel, such was his fear I’d suddenly shave my hair into a Mohawk and pierce something on my face. Dad was easily unsettled in those days and I was, well, eccentric. Alas, as a midwesterner, I never heard the Sex Pistols or the Clash on the radio, so I stayed the same, feathered hair-Nike Cortez-faded jeans and flannel shirt guy I always was. I was Pearl Jam grunge, before there was such a thing, at least from a fashion standpoint.
Things got a little better when I got to college. I had the pleasure of meeting people who helped expand my musical footprint. But even then it wasn’t that far from the middle of the road. I started listening to the guys that always got criticized about their vocals, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I really dug into the 60s. I became a Beatles fan, something I had resisted up to then. Credence (like the Dude), Cream, CSNY all made it into my record collection. I heard New Wave and Elvis Costello. I discovered the majesty of Van Morrison. I slowly moved away from my head banger roots. But, while my journey of musical spelunking had begun, I wasn’t digging very deep.
It was around that time that I started reading Rolling Stone magazine. That was a real help in the beginning of my musical journey of discovery. I would read about new albums or they’d have a feature article about an artist I hadn’t heard about. I’d usually go down the record store to check those artists out. Suddenly I’m listening to David and David. Rolling Stone was always very fond of lists and rankings. Late in my college career, they published an issue with a ranking of the top 500 albums of all time. Holy shit, I thought, this is the Rosetta Stone, the guide to rock n roll enlightenment. I still have that magazine somewhere in a box that I tried to find recently. They updated the list in 2003 online. But that list from Rolling Stone, from way back in the 80s always had these exotic sounding bands that I’d never heard of, ever. As the years passed I’d see other, similar lists and those same strange bands would be on there. I once famously told a friend, “If I see one more fucking list of greatest albums with Television’s Marquee Moon on it, I’m going to vomit.” I just couldn’t get out of my comfort zone. Punk and alternative were just a bridge too far.
Eventually, and I can’t explain why, I overcame my fear. Hearing the Clash’s London Calling was a real eye-opener. This wasn’t the angry noise I’d expected, this was just fantastic music. Of course after “Rock the Casbah” the Clash were popular in middle America. Suddenly I was buying albums by the Velvet Underground and the Ramones, stuff that I would have never entertained before. I was expanding my musical palette and it was a great thing. Although I still had my blind spots… I was in a bar with my pal Doug who was schmoozing his now wife and she was with a friend of hers, a chubby little guy who thought it wise to kick off his shoes and socks and dance around the filthy, dive bar barefoot. He slowed down long enough for us to get into a discussion of rock bands, and who was the greatest. When he said Roxy Music, I exploded in an expletive laden diatribe about what rock really was… not my finest moment. We all have room to grow folks.
So for the adventurous and the curious, I thought I’d put a list together of bands or albums that are always on these “best ever” lists that you might be a little afraid of. These bands or these albums might be stuff you’ve heard of or heard about but never listened to. Many of these albums sold terribly but then became hugely influential anyway. But as was said of the first Velvet Underground album, “not many people bought that record, but everyone who did, started a band.” I finally bit the bullet and started listening to these and I like a lot of it. I still stayed relatively conservative on this list – I’m not suggesting anybody jump into the MC5 or Pavement, although you should – and this list is not meant to be definitive, it’s just a starting place. Most of these acts/albums are critically lauded and cited by the very musicians you might be listening to as huge influences. Hearing it led me to understand that yes, there is rock and roll a little more exotic than say, “Night Moves.” Enjoy.
- Big Star, #1 Record – I don’t know why I feared this record. Somehow I was under the impression it was a disco band and I’ve always been in the “death before disco” crowd. It’s simply one of the greatest pop/rock albums ever. It’s been claimed as an influence by bands from Cheap Trick to R.E.M. I was going to simply recommend all of their music as Third/Sister Lovers is a tragic masterpiece, but Radio City has always left me cold. The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record”
- David Bowie, The Berlin Triology (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger) – This entry probably surprises most folks as we at B&V love our Bowie. When I heard that the second side of both Low and “Heroes” were instrumental, synth driven, ambient music I hung back on buying them. Apparently androgyny and bisexuality were ok with me but Brian Eno synth, no way, man. Terrible mistake. Low is still my favorite. The ambient track “Warszawa” is simply mesmerizing. Lodger was supposedly the most accessible since it has traditional song structures, but the other two are where the genius lies. All three are essential listening for Bowie fans.
- Leonard Cohen – There are too many great albums in his discography to name just one or a few. I’d probably start with Songs Of Love And Hate or his debut album. Personally, I loved his last three albums LP Review: Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker” His Farewell Note, RIP. Sadly Cohen gets lumped into that Dylan, Neil Young bad vocals category. How to describe Leonard? Poet, mystic, ladies man… His songs could go from touching on the divine to more earthly delight. His razor sharp wit always makes me laugh. He’s simply put, a genius.
- The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gilded Palace of Sin And Burrito Deluxe – Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman fled the Byrds to form the Burrito Brothers and helped solidify and create what we call “country rock.” The Eagles wish they’d been this cool. On Burrito Deluxe you’ll find their cover of the Stones’ “Wild Horses” that was released a full year prior to Mick and Keith’s version.
- Modern Lovers, Modern Lovers – Any band with future Cars drummer David Robinson and future keyboardist for the Talking Heads Jerry Harrison can’t go wrong can it? This is a lo-fi rock and roll at its best. Guitarist/lead vocalists/songwriter Jonathon Richman was obsessed with girls, sex and love.
- Randy Newman – I’ve always felt bad that so many people are put off by Randy Newman’s novelty single, “Short People.” It was a song that was meant to champion anti-bigotry by complaining about something completely absurd. Naturally it became a huge hit. While I love his early albums like Sail Away, I’d also recommend some of his latter works like Harps And Angels, or Dark Matter. LP Review: Randy Newman’s ‘Dark Matter’
- Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson and Nilsson Sings Newman – Speaking of Randy Newman, brilliant singer Harry Nilsson did a whole album of his songs, so enamored was he of Newman’s songwriting. Nilsson was a singer who never got his due… maybe because it seems he never gave a fuck. But what a voice. He was drinking buddies with John Lennon for extra cool factor. Schmilsson is his masterwork.
- Iggy Pop, The Idiot, and Lust For Life – Don’t fear Iggy, he rocks like your teenage id on a sugar rush. These two albums were produced by David Bowie. Start here and then pick carefully through his uneven catalog, there are plenty of gems.
- The Ramones, The Ramones – The sensational punk rock milestone that is their debut. “Gabba gabba hey.” They play fast and hard. From “Blitzkrieg Bop” to “Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue” this album is perfect.
- The Runaways – Cherie Currie only stuck around for the first album, but hearing her sing “Cherry Bomb” is a revelation. Joan Jett sang and played rhythm guitar, Lita Ford, yes the 80s heavy metal star, was the lead guitarist. Talented and under respected, all three of their studio albums are great, but the first two are my favs. And, to add to their legend, they were huge in Japan.
- Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols – I have no idea why these guys scared me. This is kick ass, stripped down, in your face rock n roll. I guess the old adage is true, be careful what you make fun of, you’ll become it.
- Patti Smith, Horses – Patti Smith is a poet, force of nature with an unbridled spirit and the dirty heart of a punk rocker. Her take on Van Morrison’s “Gloria” which she turns on its head like a tornado tearing through a trailer park is must listening. The poetic, nine-minute epic “Birdland” is a song I’ll never get over. She’s a rock Goddess and this album should be taught in high school music classes.
- The Stooges/Iggy & The Stooges – The Stooges, Fun House, and Raw Power – Not to double dip here, but Iggy and his fellow Stooges, the Asheton Brothers (and various bass players) are visceral, primal rock n’ roll. Get your hands on any of their albums and turn it up to 11. I will say, of the three, side two of Fun House does meander a bit, like a jazz musician on too much speed. But the Stooges three original albums are essential listening.
- Television, Marquee Moon – They rehearsed this album for years before finally committing it to type. I don’t know why I was so down on even trying this album. The lyrics are ethereal and the music hypnotic. I don’t vomit when I hear this album, I rock.
- The Velvet Underground – Their first album, recorded with singer Nico, who left thereafter is the album you hear about, but I would recommend everything they did, including their live album. Lou Reed on vocals/guitar, Moe Tucker on drums, John Cale on bass and Sterling Morrison on guitar – the original line up – were criminally overlooked in their short career. The only scary album is the second one, White Light/White Heat and yet I still love listening to that album. Considering the rest of the world was dressed in dayglo and tossing flowers around, the dark subjects the Velvets covered – drug addiction, S&M, sex – are all the more striking.
- Tom Waits – I love his first three albums, but there is so much to love from this drunken, singing Bukowski. As he aged his voice got more gravelly, but you can’t beat his lyrics. “I want beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” I think that sums it up. His debut album, Closing Time is the place to start and work your way forward through his brilliant catalog.
- X, Los Angeles and Wild Gift – We don’t always associated Los Angeles as a hub for punk rock but X was one of the seminal LA punk bands on the scene. These two albums are a great start to that early West Coast punk scene.
- Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out! – I always thought Zappa was about satire and making noise. Complicated, classical music influenced stuff. Not on this album. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” kicks off a double album worth of crazy good rock and roll. Warning, if you start here, you’ll end up collecting more Frank Zappa.
There was so much more I could have listed. But for now, I’ll stop with those 18 acts/LPs. There is so much great music that’s been recorded over the years that just never made it to the radio, at least not in Kansas. If you find something you like here, my job is done. If you’re already a fan, and perhaps like a different album by one of these artists, surface it in the comments.
Thanks for reading and Happy St Patrick’s Day this weekend!