This appeared on the old blog almost exactly five years ago. A musing about mixtapes by a social media acquaintance reminded me of it. This has been somewhat reworked for its encore appearance. Part II to come.
As with all other content on this blog, YouTube links are only guaranteed to work at the time of posting.
We celebrate this blog’s four-year anniversary by plunging headlong into our navel — or, more accurately, retracing our steps into our 16-year-old navel.
(Yeah, I know. A trip everyone wants to take. But hey, it’s no less relevant than anything else I’ve written. And the soundtrack’s interesting.)
From time to time, at a certain age, I would spend summer nights by sneaking out in the early morning and going walking in a massive subdivision not too far from my house.
At 1:30 in the morning, on dark summer nights with barely a breeze, I’d be skulking past the split-levels with my Walkman, generally thinking about girls I didn’t have the cojones to ask out, and girls who’d never noticed me, and girls who seemed to exist in other universes.
There were other things to think about besides unattained girls (eventually, I managed to attain one, so I’m sure she got on the agenda too), but that was probably a good part of what was on the mental menu.
I had the perfect soundtrack for my wanderings in a certain hand-assembled mixtape.
I called it “Ballads, Atmospheres, Laments and Love Songs,” which not only summed up the contents perfectly, but made for a charming acronym as well.
Mood music for the angsty teenage soul.
(There was also a companion tape of the heaviest, fuzziest arena-rock I could find, called “Assorted Rockers, Grinders and Guitar Heaviness,” or A.R.G.G.H. We won’t be covering that today, or any other day.)
I still have my tape of nocturnal ballads (editorial update: not any more I don’t.) And, motivated by an email conversation with an old high school friend, I dug it out and listened to it.
And now, through the eyes of a 42-year-old, I’m going to review it, one 45-minute side at a time.
B.A.L.L.S. to you all, then.
“The Song Is Over,” The Who: I still love the mesmeric musical atmosphere of this, even if Pete Townshend’s lyrical references to mountains, sky and wide-open spaces reveal his rarely acknowledged debt to the Von Trapp family.
Another Who song that effectively uses Townshend and Roger Daltrey on different vocal parts to best advantage.
“MIA,” Aerosmith: Some say the title is a reference to Steven Tyler’s daughter Mia, while others say it’s a reference to recently departed guitarist Joe Perry. This is what passes for ambiguity in the music of Aerosmith.
OK, it’s more complex than “Big Ten Inch Record,” anyway.
Features a nice harmonized guitar solo from Perry, or Brad Whitford, or Jimmy Crespo, or Golda Meir, or whoever was in the studio at the time and able to stand upright and play the neck in the middle.
Other than that, not that much to stick in the mind.
“You See Me Crying,” Aerosmith: That’s right, a double dose of Steven Tyler power ballads. I must really have been melancholic. (Although, for the record, I never actually cried over anybody. Not wired that way.)
It says something about my 16-year-old taste that “Seasons of Wither,” Tyler’s most effective ballad of the ’70s, and “Dream On,” his most commercially successful, are both nowhere to be found here.
From Aero’s commercial breakthrough, Toys In The Attic, this would be a better song if Tyler had resisted the urge to sing the third verse in his castrated-alley-cat upper register.
“Sail On Sailor,” Beach Boys: From 1973’s In Concert album, Blondie Chaplin explores Brian Wilson’s nautical neuroses in front of a full hockey rink.
Despite its weaknesses (where’s Dennis Wilson, besides the cover?), In Concert is a fine album because it kicks a lot of the studio versions in the ass and gives them new energy.
(If you only know the studio version of “Marcella,” for instance, you don’t fully appreciate the song.)
That’s true for “Sail On Sailor,” which gains a kind of saunter in its live incarnation, without compromising the fear and loneliness in the lyrics.
I would have liked to see that edition of the band.
“I Think You Know,” Todd Rundgren: I still hear this one in my head, 25+ years later … one of the toons that cemented my fondness for Rundgren, no matter how much he insists on testing it.
What better lyric for a midnight ramble than “I can’t explain / What’s in my brain / It tells me where to go“?
Incidentally, the girl who eventually agreed to go out with me (though I still went night-walking every so often, just on principle) was/is the daughter of two Rundgren fans whose names appear on the big fold-out poster included in the Todd album.
(A little background for non-fans: Rundgren’s A Wizard/A True Star? album included a card that fans could send in to have their names included in some unspecified future project.
The follow-up album, Todd, included a big poster of the album cover photo, rendered in lines of text made up of the names of fans who had submitted the card. I no longer remember where on the poster my ex’s parents’ names are, but I was much impressed at the time.)
“Just One Victory,” Todd Rundgren and Utopia: Taken from the Another Live album, 1975.
A classic anthem of honky-soul uplift, and still a pleasure to listen to.
Not really a ballad, atmosphere or lament; I’m not sure how it ended up on this mix except that I liked it.
Maybe I thought I’d go jump off the nearby water tower if I didn’t have something to lift my spirits.
“Dear Prudence,” The Beatles: In terms of ballads, atmospheres or laments, “Julia” might have been a better choice from the White Album.
Still, this Lennon tune holds up OK, big heavy ending and all.
I love how the fingerpicked guitar trails off at the end. Still my favorite part of the song.
“Sparkling In The Sand,” Tower of Power: From their wonderfully named debut album, East Bay Grease.
A pretty ballad and the very essence of smoove longing; but way, way, way too long at nine minutes.
In my grown-up review, this was the first song I fast-forwarded through, and I think I did that fairly frequently as a kid too.
(There was no Ron Burgundy back then to make bossa-nova flute solos seem like laughable indulgence.)
The version linked above runs 4:30 or so and is cut down from the album version; you can thank me later.
“Bell Bottom Blues,” Derek and the Dominos: My relationship to Eric Clapton’s music has largely curdled in recent years. I’ve grown tired of guitar-hero posturing and mass-produced electric blues. Oh, and Enoch Powell.
But this … this is exquisite, heartfelt and fiery, and also refreshing proof that my musical taste at age 16 was not all shite.
Neat touch: Note how Clapton sings along with the first four notes of his solo (“doo doo doo doo,”) then lets his fingers do the walking the rest of the way.
“All Blues,” Miles Davis: This was always a jam favorite in the high school bandroom. Some days we played it fast; some days we played it glacially slow; but we never played it as well as Miles and company did in 1959.
And — click! — that’s the end of Side One.
See y’all on the flip side.