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Cassette (Re)collection: 8

Posted by NumberSix , 05 October 2009 · 348 views

"I'm Casey Kasem, and we're counting down the 40 biggest hits in the 50 states."

That's a bad paraphrasing of part of the opening to every weekly broadcast of the syndicated America's Top 40, which gave listeners the state of the pop-music biz according to Billboard Magazine's sales charts. The more unsophisticated could switch to a different station for Rick Dees' Weekly Top 40, which abided by similar yet different listings from Cash Box Magazine. Rick was young and snippy, but Casey was everything else -- had that warm, gravelly quality to his voice like an endearing chain-smoking uncle who knows more about your hobbies than you do because he's not really that old as far as he's concerned.

Every show took four hours to play all forty songs, never skipping any of them (unlike today's few remaining basic-cable countdown shows), even value-adding those famous long-distance dedications that meant nothing to me, but meant everything to the lucky winner and his/her targeted dedicatee. Local lite-pop station 97.1 WENS aired it every Sunday from 10 to 2 (IIRC), while Dees' show ran Sundays on Top-40 station 99.5 WZPL from 8 to noon. I never sat through a full four-hour marathon, but there was a stretch during 1984 when the final 30 to 60 minutes became appointment listening for me because I had to know who hit #1. I had that listing fetish to feed, and it helped me determine what singles I'd buy next week at Camelot Music. I made a project out of buying as many Top 3 singles as possible from late-'83 to early '85, even if they were songs I didn't like. (Exhibit A: the original "Careless Whisper" -- and is it okay if I grimace as I qualify that with "original"? Seether is off my Christmas list for all eternity.) Whenever there was a slow week when that week's Top 3 was just last week's Top 3 with the chairs rearranged, that's when I'd experiment with picking up songs I'd never heard: songs that never made local radio like the Fixx's "The Sign of Fire" or Musical Youth's ignored follow-up single "She's Trouble"; novelty songs like the Three Stooges tribute "The Curly Shuffle", or a satire of the Ma Bell monopoly controversy called "Breaking Up is Hard on You".

Sometime in 1985 I quit 45s forever. Compulsory purchases finally drained the fun out of it, and Mom's old turntable needle was skipping more than ever. I was too young to learn appliance repair, and I'd already decided that cassettes trumped vinyl. Also, I wanted to start blowing my allowance on books instead -- specifically, I discovered the world of Choose Your Own Adventure and its imitators. Farewell to the old hobby, hello to the new.

Time to reach for the stars:

Alice Cooper: -- Thanks to Chuck Eddy's Stairway to Hell: the 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, I once bought a copy of Alice's Greatest Hits years before I was prepared to accept '70s hard rock as a valid musical form. I didn't recognize any of the songs except "School's Out", which he'd performed on a great episode of The Muppet Show. That same episode had also introduced me to "Welcome to My Nightmare" but for some reason that wasn't Greatest enough to make the cut. I gave it away to Goodwill not long after, but much too soon.

In 1994 Cooper released The Last Temptation, a concept album about a young lad preyed upon by an evil sideshow barker. Normally this would mean nothing to me...but there was a comic book tie-in! Published by Marvel! Written by The NEIL GAIMAN! Drawn by Michael Zulli, one of his Sandman artists! And -- AND! -- the album cover was painted by Dave McKean! THAT Dave McKean! All signs pointed to BUY.

I bought the album first. A few songs have too much of a candy-coated pop sheen for my taste (the somewhat pedestrian "Sideshow") that sound tailor-made for a Muppet performance. Choruses from other songs remain stuck in my head to this day, like the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation of the circular "Lost in America" or the too-creepy-to-be-sultry "You're My Temptation". Best of all in my book, though, the "concept" holds out through the full track listing (I loves me a decent concept album, but I don't have that many of 'em -- usually they're in genres that don't thrill me), climaxing with the jubilant "It's Me" in which Cooper steps father away than ever from his B-movie persona for a moment and almost into inspirational territory. The final track, "Cleansed by Fire", ditches the "almost" part and may be the first time he ever rocked out as a full-on evangelical Christian. One could argue he's merely in character as the young lad Steven rebuking the sideshow man, but Googling "Alice Cooper Christian" yields some surprising results. Whether confession or ACT-ing!, The Last Temptation is all kinds of surprise.

Elvis Costello: Not quite punk, not quite New Wave, eminently listenable anyway. His original backing band the Attractions sounded like the kind of guys you'd hire for any given wedding, but their feigned normalcy belied Costello's barbed lyrics, super-nerdy anti-fashions, and scary crooked teeth. I upgraded most of my Costello collection to CD reissues over the past several years, but a few goodies remain on cassette, such as Girls+£÷Girls=$&Girls, one of the 75 different best-of collections he's released. This version is spread across two cassettes that contain more tracks than either the LP or CD versions, all of which have very different track listings -- only 28 songs (um, give or take five) are in all three formats. If mass confusion isn't enough, none of them contains his two best songs ever, "Radio, Radio" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" nor do they contain the first Costello song I ever heard (courtesy of NBC's Friday Night Videos) -- "Everyday I Write the Book", which first appeared as an original track on a previous best-of. Everyone still with me? No?

Despite those shameful omissions, Girls was a fine primer for Costello's prime years and old standbys like "Alison" and "Accidents Will Happen" and "Pump It Up" (used in occasional movie trailers today) and "Oliver's Army", which I'd first encountered years before in a Marvel Team-Up Annual in which writer Frank Miller (creator of 300 and Sin City!) put Spider-Man in a situation that forced him to sing its chorus against his will. I didn't know it at the time -- I thought Spidey was warbling nonsense -- but that comic was actually my intro to Costello. I just wasn't ready for him yet.

Costello later turned old and restless and began skipping around other genres with unsatisfactory results. I was elated when the Attractions at least retained enough sense to go support another budding young British sarcastic crooner/strummer. As the rechristened Good Liars, they were the initial backing band for a young '90s Costello wannabe named John Wesley Harding, another old favorite of mine about whom I'll effuse in a later installment. In 1994 Elvis reunited with his estranged mates to record Brutal Youth, a vibrant return-to-form that sounds as if they recorded it with 30-year-old equipment, yet no less urgent in tirades like "Kinder Murder" and the roof-raising "20% Amnesia". Attraction bassist Bruce Thomas stuck around only long enough to play on five songs before bailing out, but old pal/producer Nick Lowe pinch-hit on the rest with no drop in quality. It was still one of the best reunion albums in my collection.

Except for his rare forays back into straightforward rock, Costello's new stuff (bluegrass? jazz? swing-band?) is out of the scope of my usual tastes, but seeing him help play acoustic guitar on the touching "The Scarlet Tide" (which he cowrote) alongside Alison Krauss was one of my favorite moments of the 2003 Academy Awards broadcast. I keep forgetting to look up reviews of his recent releases to see what he's been up to lately -- hopefully nothing that makes him sound like too much of an establishment fogey.

[Next entry: Obscure folk-rockers and lactophilic zombies.]

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