the Horn Farm Paste Mob

retro listening 21-30

21. Wire – Chairs Missing

For a long time, I said this was my favorite record. It’s the first pre-breakup Wire I heard– they were a late 70s art-punk band, broke up in 1980, and reformed five years later to make the records I heard first.

It’s also… severe. Unlike Pink Flag or 154, though, it seems to be all about the tension between harshness and warmth, or trance and melody. A lot of people talk about “Outdoor Miner” as a “gem”, a perfect tiny composition. Which I guess maybe it is if your primary listening strategy is to uneasily wonder whether anyone will ever surpass the Beatles– it’s a nice piece of songwriting. It’s just not *great* unless you’ve wound your way there through 24 minutes of Wire’s un-pop imperiousness.

Although yeah, Sean, I want it played at my funeral too.

22. Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie

I’ve just noticed how unusual it was, when I bought this tape, that I was listening to an American band. And MAN are they American. Jack Ruby. Dreams of winning the lottery. Wide open spaces.

I thought it was cool that they had a violinist. Very classy. Except… listening now, on several songs the violin works mostly because it’s so much like pedal steel, or whatever that note-bendy steel guitar sound is. Which is a sound I love but would have mistrusted at the time– too much like country music.

The best songs here (and I don’t recall if this is what I thought at the time) seem to be the ones that lope along, like “Borderline” and “June”. Not too fast or slow, but persistent. The whole thing has a strange sense of defiance.

Primary association with this record: my first step away from being a picky eater. Sometime that fall, I ordered key lime pie off a menu despite having no idea what it was, because I was curious. My mom, knowing how hard it was to get me to try foods I didn’t already know I liked (even desserts) was very surprised.

23. Oingo Boingo – Boingo Alive

Another two-cassette best-of. It wasn’t just that they were cheap; I liked the idea of a retrospective, of getting to absorb the whole framework of a band’s career at once. At some point, the completist impulse would start to cut *against* buying anthologies, because if I ended up liking the band, I’d want all their albums and then that first thing I bought would have been a WASTE.

(This is somewhere between a best-of and a live album; they re-recorded everything anew for it on a “sound stage”, which I actually don’t know what that is but I assume it’s… a facility for making records like this.)

I have to give Danny Elfman credit: although he likes singing about how stupid other people are, he (unlike a lot of other songwriters fascinated with their own superiority) actually has a positive vision of how things could be better. I mean, it mostly boils down to “eat, drink and be merry”, but that’s okay, his critiques are simplistic too. I’d (slightly) rather deal with someone who thinks everybody that disagrees with them is stupid than with someone who concludes a priori that everyone else is stupid and looks for ways to disagree with us. If you see what I mean.

Lyrics aside, this is mostly still a blast to listen to. The band are tight and, as I guess was always true, the lovesongs benefit from being sung by someone who is audibly more comfortable singing about the undead but does really want to let you know how he feels.

24. Love And Rockets – Love And Rockets

One late autumn day, a car pulled up in front of my house. A friend of mine leaned out the rear passenger window and mysteriously handed me this CD– actually, the same friend who’d randomly ragged on He Said. It never occurred to me until just now that he might have been trying to apologize.

I liked the album okay at the time, and so, excitedly, asked my parents’ permission to go see Love And Rockets when they came to town. They were playing the Madison Civic Center, which is about as harmless a framing as a rock band could have. I didn’t enjoy L&R’s set much at all, but bought a shirt anyway (that’s what you DO, right?) and it’s actually become my favorite t-shirt– repeated laundering made it softer and softer without destroying it.

Back to now. This album is… stupid. Not stupid like hyphy, just like, misconceived and dim. It’s a rock album made by people who think the heart of rock music is wearing leather and frowning a lot. It does get better as it goes on (starts with: snide fantasy about murdering journalists, ends with: some decent glam tunes) but eh.

Big single “So Alive” sounds worse in context than it would if it came on in my dentist’s office, which, incidentally, wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

25. Wire – Pink Flag

The face that launched a thousand three-chord ships! Kind of.

13 of the 21 songs are under 90 seconds, which raises doubts about my idea that they hadn’t grown into their artiness yet in 1977. On the other hand, MAYBE this is super-formalized, but MAYBE it just seems like it fits inside the constraints of punk with perfect precision because this is what I think punk is.

I keep listening to see if Gilbert’s lead guitar is as hesitant as on Chairs Missing, and instead I just don’t hear it at all. Maybe at first he played rhythm guitar and Colin Newman just sang?

I don’t remember who pointed this fact out to me, but Pink Flag has two conspicuous erasures of sex in song titles. The “that” in “106 Beats That” is masking a song about sex, and “12XU” supposedly gets its name from the punk version of a pre-song countoff: “one, two, one-two-fuck-you!” Yeah, I know that shouting “fuck you” isn’t referring to sex, but the song itself is trying to capture sex en passant, with the repeated “Saw you in a mag, kissing a man”– everything else is left frozen. We infer it’s a porn magazine, and infer further that it’s gay porn, but all that’s really there is the fetishization of evidence, which is a fetishization of whatever’s been left out.

ANYWAY, I’m just noticing that “Field Day For The Sundays” also refers to erasing sexuality (“touched up near the waist / looking as limp as Sunday morning”) and “Three Girl Rhumba” is poised via its title to describe some kind of sexual indulgence, but rigidly replaces its instructions (how to dance? how to pick up chicks?) with austere nonsense (“think of a number / divide it by two / don’t get sucked under / a number’s a number”).

Also, as of like a month ago, a song from this album is the first song I learned to play on a guitar. Teen me would be proud.

26. Wire – 154

They changed fast. This sounds like post-breakup Wire quite a bit, only with the energy (and missteps) of being in new territory. Also, Lewis is singing sometimes, and quite noticeably.

It’s grand, but has never jelled for me as an album. Having it end after “40 Versions” is the right thing– actually, with both this and Pink Flag, I might have to agree with the (finicky) decision to leave bonus tracks off the remasters. “12XU” should really be the final track, and while “40 Versions” isn’t especially ending-y, the experimental bonus songs meant 154 ended with a whimper for me when I was in high school. (Chairs Missing has a nondescript ending anyhow, so “Former Airline” and “A Question Of Degree” more than redeem themselves.)

27. Husker Du – Zen Arcade

Another Rolling Stone-inspired purchase; I think it was on their list of “100 Essential Albums” or something. I figured it must be somehow about video games (maybe the RS writer thought so too?) which was enough for me. It’s not, though. Is it? The story is detectable but hard to make out.

Even when Bob Mould isn’t shouting, he just sings like he had long since shouted himself hoarse on the other songs: “Chartered Trips”. If it’s a narrative album maybe that vocal continuity makes sense, but the plotline, such as it is, seems to cover a period of days or weeks, so the hoarseness isn’t diegetic or anything. It’s just a fact of life when you’re handling life’s problems in the crucible of hardcore (which is still very much where Husker Du are at, here)… aggression is everywhere; even if you aren’t angry right now, sounding like you were recently furious is a matter of identity, not mood.

They packaged it up well. I mean, this was my first hardcore record and a few of the louder cuts did turn me off (I think this listen today was the first time I appreciated “I’ll Never Forget You”) but for some reason it’s all easy to take song by song. Hard to imagine now how a double-LP concept album struck people at the time– did Twin Cities punk kids already know they had this in them, or were they expecting the second half of Metal Circus? Or is the tension between ‘real’ songs and hardcore just something I’m projecting back onto that era?

28. The Sugarcubes – Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

I always liked Einar Orn, Bjork’s peculiar co-vocalist in the Sugarcubes. He turns out to be more grating than I remember, but it’s pleasantly grating. Bjork is just exhausting.

Einar sez: “My friends the alchemists / Told me everything was natural / And will always be that way”

This is much nicer when I don’t pay too much attention to it.

I wanted to link to at least one song by way of demonstration, but both singers come off less intense in the video for “Eat The Menu” than in pure audio form: Bjork sounds less outrageous with her obvious physical agitation matching her vocal style, and Einar looks like just some dude in a rock band.

29. Madness – Absolutely

One album later, they’ve gone straight from a joke band to that oh-so-professional combo they’ve spent the three decades since as. Still some character bits and funny voices, but the persona of lead singer Suggs– dapper, sharp movements, raised eyebrow, half-smile– is now permanently the way things are.

They’re also really a singles band, but the filler here is nice (and includes some memorable songs that I don’t think were in fact released as singles, like “You Said”).

30. Howard Jones – One To One

My first slow dance ever (at a last-night-of-camp dance I mentioned earlier) was to “No One Is To Blame”, so I had a sentimental attachment to Howard Jones. I was also, however, suspicious of sentiment and couldn’t 100% distinguish Howard Jones from Rick Astley in my head. So I didn’t get this until I found it in a bargain bin that fall.

“There’s more to me than this double bed” means the opposite to me now from what it did then! I thought a “double bed” was a big two-person bed, so “The Balance Of Love” had to be about ending a live-in relationship, but no, it’s “we barely have a relationship anyway; I’m not inviting you over anymore”.

I don’t think I learned Jones was a Taoist until later, but from songs like “Good Luck, Bad Luck” I picked up that he had a philosophy motivating his music. Which kind of broke part of my sentimental attachment to “No One Is To Blame”– well, that and listening to it a few more times. It’s clear that when he says “we” it’s not the you-and-me “we” of a regular lovesong, and then there’s that confusing “ever” when the title is sung: no one EVER is to blame. So the song still suited the memories of mine that it evoked, but it was hard to maintain the illusion that it was eerily appropriate to my situation, the way teenagers want slow dance songs to have been; it wasn’t about me because it wasn’t about anyone.

I’m not positive I get it even now. The rest of the song is obviously approaching desire from a Taoist perspective: you always want things, we all want things, we want each other, but wanting things is pain and getting what you want doesn’t cure the pain. But most of Jones’ Taoist lyrics are pretty direct evocations of particular stories from Zhuangzi or sayings from Laozi, and “no one is to blame” isn’t, as far as I know. My best guess is that he means “don’t hold it against people that they break your heart; all desire is heartbreak”. Except that it’s very hard to say the second part without sounding judgmental so he doesn’t? Anyway, I’m not sure.

Maybe I should actually read the Dao De Jing at some point. A proper appreciation for late-80s synthpop demands it!


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