Happy November, everyone. To many, that means we’ve just passed another Halloween celebration. Also to many, that means that Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching. To infinitely fewer, that means a new Song-a-Day challenge from Sonic Geography.
I should elaborate; I retired from building these things months ago. A pair of my friends from DC who began a supportive Facebook group during the pandemic shutdown in 2020 gladly took over delegating the responsibility once I told them I was stepping down from the monthly task. But, never content to let sleeping dogs lie, I decided to reverse my “retirement” for a month. This is hardly a Jordan/Hašek/Eminem/Jay-Z move on my part; I merely had another set of Not-By song cues ready to go last year that I never got around to building into a full month.
With no further ado, I give you: THE NOT-BY-THE CURE song-a-day challenge for November!
There’s no real November connection I can ascertain for The Cure. Robert Smith was born in April, and Faith came out in April 1981, so it’s not like there’s a major anniversary here. Why can’t we just use November to celebrate the existence of one of the greatest and most unique British rock bands of the past fifty years, anyway?
So, please do download the image to your phone, play along, use the hashtag #NotbytheCure, and just try to see in the dark. Just try to make it work.
If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]
It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.
I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.
That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.
It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.
I’ll return to the topic at hand.
Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.
I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.
For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:
Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
Inspired by similar lists I saw some musically-preoccupied friends doing on social media, I decided to challenge myself to list my 10-20 favorite albums of every year for the past four decades. My lists inspired others to reply with their own lists, which turned the project into even more fun than the pandemic could have mustered. To help buttress my summer writing goals, I’ve decided to revisit my favorite albums of the past four decades, providing some rationale and geographical context for each one.
1980 U2 – ‘Boy’ (Island Records)
In seventh grade, my Reading/Literature teacher assigned us to read William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies. We dedicated the first 15 minutes of each class to write short entries in each others’ composition notebooks about our responses to each chapter of the main characters’ regression. Though the novel’s central theme passed me by at the time (likely the result of my own lack of interest in literary analysis more than my teacher’s lack of trying), but now I catch myself thinking about it all the time, especially every time U2’s debut album (and still their best) Boy reaches it’s closing track, “Shadows and Tall Trees.”Lord of the Flies had a clear impact on them, too, especially given the novel’s takedown of British polite society. Demystifying the book, Golding wrote that the book’s theme was “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” Still, there was something timeless about proper British schoolboys reverting to bloody savagery when left to their own devices.
Bono always claimed that U2 attempted to write the quintessential album about youth and adolescence on their debut LP, and the prodigious amount of press that U2 got, even while they were still teenagers (and 5 years before their performance of “Bad” at Live Aid, which I’ll put a pin in here) backs up those claims and aims. There’s no doubt that, by 1980, U2 were prepared to be the biggest band in the world. When they played at the Bayou in Washington, DC on December 7, 1980, Xyra wrote as much in her review in that month’s issue of the Capitol Crisis zine:
“The only cubby-hole one can fit U-2 into is the one marked ‘magical.’…. As with all of U-2’s songs, there is an urgency about it, as if the whole world depended upon singing and playing the song just the right way….As I left the concert I felt a sense of attachment to U-2 unlike any I’d felt before. It was a mixture of pride at being one of the few people in on their secret, and sorrow at realizing that they can’t stay unknown forever. For that would be a tragedy. U-2 are destined to be one of the classic bands of all time, and believe me they will.”
Whether or not U2 ever agreed they were a punk band, they certainly emerged from the post-punk era with a hell of a set of songs and a supernatural set of tricks; Xyra would have been honest had that not been the case. Of course, we all know how history proved her closing statement correct, but unfortunately, U2 have spent half of their career as a band making mediocre music. Which is why I still contend that Boy captured that early fire they had, between their choices in artwork, Steve Lillywhite’s production, and the way it keeps on revealing its secrets to the world with every listen. It also helps map out just what went wrong with the band, and how tied it was to geography.
On paper, the line “Someday I’ll die, the choice will not be mine” (which Bono sings in “Out of Control”) could be mediocre teenage poetry, but coming out of Bono’s mouth with the band’s on-point backing it does sound wise beyond its years. Bono also posed another question of mortality in “A Day Without Me,” a ballsy choice for Boy‘s lead single. One of Bono’s cross-Sea contemporaries who would choose death in May 1980, Ian Curtis, lent the song a whole new din as the year progressed.
Like all great albums, Boy reveals new secrets with every listen – perhaps the most profound of which was an epiphany I had when playing the tape for my partner after she and I had been basking in Joy Division’s music for a few days. Thought I’d been listening to both bands for at least twenty years, it never occurred to me just how Joy Division’s influence is slathered all over early U2. I haven’t read enough interviews to verify it or not, but the blueprint of Unknown Pleasures (released one year prior to Boy) still echoes in a lot of the latter, as much as U2 were not content to slow down their tempo. The key exception here is “An Cat Dubh,” a rare appearance of Gaelic in U2’s catalog that stands on the shoulders of the finest early goth that they were mustering over in the UK (e.g. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” “Day of the Lords”).
As has been documented and dramatized, Ian Curtis took his own life right before his band was to embark on their first tour of North America. New Order’s eventual world-conquering notwithstanding, for U2, their Boy-ish dreams were impossible to contain within Ireland’s borders. By 1985, U2 were the biggest band in the world and led off their following (great, yet overrated) album with a song called “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a declaration that their sights were set on the whole world, not just their small North-Atlantic island country. Unfortunately, the more Bono has tried to save the world, the less enticing his music has become. From a geographical standpoint, that’s no disaster, since he’s done more to help those in need around the globe than almost any living celebrity.
But I digress. This isn’t about what U2 would eventually accomplish as artists and celebrities, it’s about their first album and why it’s my favorite record of 1980. Relatively few people heard Boy first among U2’s discography (mine was Rattle & Hum, which is a whole separate conversation), yet nothing sounds immature or half-cooked about the album when juxtaposed with their later works. It’s alternately amazing and upsetting that U2 didn’t seem to improve as musicians or songwriters over the course of becoming the world’s biggest band. I mean, it wasn’t their final great album by any means, as some of their musical ideas did go a bit more left-field (some more successful than others) into the nineties. For me, Boy still constitutes the closest thing U2 had to a definitive Irish moment, when “the streets that had no name” were only images they had read about in books and in nature programs on RTE. Despite these ostensible limitations, U2 arrived on the scene as the world’s greatest rock band, and their debut album remains proof.
For anyone interested, these are my #2 – #10 favorite records of 1980:
Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth
Dire Straits – Making Movies
Prince – Dirty Mind
The English Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It
Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
I know it’s two in the morning, and I know I have a lot of writing still to get done in the next few days, but I thought I’d share this video of Soft Cell performing “Chips on my Shoulder” on the Oxford Road Show in 1982 because who doesn’t love some synth pop in the middle of the night?
I understand that this requires some explanation. I’m currently transcribing an (amazing) interview I conducted with one of California’s top New Wave record collectors (and perhaps the biggest Marc Almond fan in the state country). It inspired me to take a break and watch a few videos of the twisted and inspirational (and coked out of their fabulous minds) Mr. Almond and Mr. Ball. This video may be the coolest thing I’ve found so far.
Ball, over Almond’s shoulder.
Jean Baudrillard wrote in The System of Objects that we tend to fetishize cultural objects because the moment (time and place) of creation cannot be reproduced. My interviewee (who would be as much an expert as anyone) said that nobody has ever really duplicated the sound and aesthetic that Soft Cell emitted on the “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” LP. Drugs did have a lot to do with the aura in question (Almond admitted as much, explicitly, in his autobiography Tainted Life), but that is neither here nor there. Now that I think about it, there really isn’t anything out there exactly like this, even three decades on, which is not only a testament to the music’s staying power, but to the permanence of a time and place in the creation of a recording. Also, for some reason, this completely happened, too. If anyone wants to start a flame war in the comments over which half of the 80’s was more interesting, be my guest.
Okay, thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed. I’m going to start posting some newer bands soon, I swear. I also swear I’m going to get these chapters done by the end of this weekend. Let’s see which promise I manage to keep.