(Pictured: Freddie Mercury and Brian May, on stage the same week I bought A Night at the Opera.)
I have written previously about my 1976 daybook, which I crammed with trivia, sports scores, and little notes about the ongoing life of 16-year-old me. The entry for March 12, 1976, shows that I bought the album A Night at the Opera by Queen on that day. I did most of my record-buying at shopping-mall stores in Madison, but since March 12 was a Friday, I suspect I picked it up somewhere in my hometown.
I was, like many others who bought the album that spring, inspired to lay my money down by “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In mid-March 1976, it was nearly six weeks away from reaching its peak of #9 on the Hot 100, but it had already hit #1 in cities across the country. In Chicago, WLS didn’t chart it until the end of February, but for the week of March 27, it went from #20 to #5, and to #1 the week after that, the first of five weeks at #1.
I listened to A Night at the Opera constantly for a year or two before putting it on a shelf and pretty much leaving it there. But I listened to it again not long ago, and I may listen to it more often in the future, because while it’s as familiar as the weather, it’s also mighty good. Listen to it here (and watch, because there’s some vintage video) while I rank the tracks.
12. “God Save the Queen.” It was inevitable that they would record this at some point, but it’s a throwaway.
11. “Sweet Lady.” I am trying to listen with two sets of ears: the ones I have now, and the ones that absorbed this album multiple times a week in 1976. I think I like “Sweet Lady” more now than I did then, but I like other songs better, so it ranks down here.
10. “Death on Two Legs.” I always wonder what my parents thought when they heard me blasting some guy singing “insane, should be put inside, you’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.”
9. “I’m in Love With My Car.” I got my driver’s license while “Bohemian Rhapsody” was high on the charts, and I liked this song more then than I do now.
8. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” I was tempted to rank this and “Seaside Rendezvous” together, campy vaudeville-style tunes that they are, but I didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain below.
7. “Love of My Life.” This is pretty campy too—those harp flourishes take it over the top—although I suspect that Freddie Mercury is completely sincere in his delivery of it.
6. “The Prophet’s Song.” When I was playing the album in 1976, I would frequently skip this, the first cut on side 2. I like it much better now; the stacked choruses, voices multiplying voices, are every bit as impressive as the similar choral effect on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
5. “Good Company.” Inspired by traditional jazz of the 1920s, this song is responsible for teaching me the verb to dandle: “Take good care of what you’ve got, my father said to me / As he puffed his pipe and Baby B he dandled on his knee.” If you always heard it as “dangled,” I get it. I’d probably have thought the same thing if the lyrics weren’t printed on the album jacket.
4. “Seaside Rendezvous.” I was re-listening to this album in the car, and “Seaside Rendezvous” was the last song I heard before I got out. I sang it to myself, over and over, for the next couple of hours. Like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” it hasn’t got much to do with rock ‘n’ roll, but there may not be anything more purely pleasurable in the whole Queen catalog.
3. “You’re My Best Friend.” I think I have said in the past that this is the best thing on A Night at the Opera. I’m inclined to think that only when I’m not listening to the rest of A Night at the Opera at the same time.
1. (tie) “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “’39.” I am unable to resolve the conflict between 1976 me and 2020 me. I liked “’39” back in the day, but I adore it now, for its gorgeous wall of sound and the sad story of time travelers whose trip has unexpected consequences. As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as much as I thirsted to hear it over and over back then, I really don’t need to hear it again now. But when I do, I’m impressed as much by its sheer audacity as I am by the production itself.
(Pictured: Don Henley on MTV Unplugged, 1989.)
I am not a person who hates the Eagles as a unit. As for two of the most famous Eagles themselves, that’s different. Glenn Frey’s solo stuff had all the personality of muzak. Don Henley’s, meanwhile, can be unsubtle and unpleasant. To make consistently listenable music (and yes, opinions vary on how listenable the Eagles are), they needed each other.
During several hours on the interstate recently, I listened to Henley’s first three solo albums all in a row, and here’s what I think I think:
I Can’t Stand Still came out in the winter of 1982. “Dirty Laundry” was the big single, going all the way to #3 on the Hot 100; its harsh critique of TV news gained it a lot of publicity outside of rock ‘n’ roll radio, as serious talk shows discussed its implications. In 1982, what Henley described—the showbiz-ification of suffering and scandal—was primarily a big-city, local TV phenomenon. The rise of talking-head national cable news and the corporatization of local TV news in the last four decades, however, makes “Dirty Laundry” sound prophetic. But it’s a prophecy delivered by a guy yelling two inches from your face. And Henley wasn’t done with “Dirty Laundry”: “Johnny Can’t Read” and “Them and Us” take on the educational system and the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war with the same hectoring shrillness of “Dirty Laundry.”
Message: Don Henley is here to tell you what’s what.
(In defense of I Can’t Stand Still, it’s the most solid of his 80s records, with two lovely ballads, “Long Way Home” and “Talking to the Moon,” the country/gospel standard “Uncloudy Day,” and “Nobody’s Business,” a briskly rockin’ co-write with J. D. Souther and Bob Seger.)
Henley preached a lot less on Building the Perfect Beast. I liked it when it came out in 1984; I like it a lot less today. The only tracks apart from “The Boys of Summer” that don’t make me wish for the leavening impact of the other Eagles are “You’re Not Drinking Enough,” which is a respectable country song, and “Not Enough Love in the World.” “The Boys of Summer” itself is crispy from 35 years of airplay. (And for cryin’ out loud, radio, get yourself an edit and stop playing the album version, which starts with several seconds of high-hat cymbal and a single electric guitar and destroys whatever forward momentum your station has going.) On “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Henley gets caught up in Central American revolution, then comes home to the “Sunset Grill,” where he and his girl sit in the bar feeling smugly superior to everybody else who comes in.
Message: Don Henley is the most interesting man in the world.
It took five years before Henley returned with The End of the Innocence. I bought it right after it came out, hooked by the stately title track, but I never warmed to the rest of the album, even though I listened to it a lot for the next several years. On my most recent listen, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The three singles—“The End of the Innocence,” “Heart of the Matter,” and “The Last Worthless Evening”—are the best stuff on it by a long shot, and vastly different from the rest of the record, which is clogged with butt-ugly arrangements and misanthropic lyrics.
Message: please do not look Mr. Henley directly in the eye.
I bought Henley’s Inside Job in 2000 but have listened to it maybe twice, so I can’t comment on it. The 2015 album Cass County, on which Henley collaborates with an array of country stars including Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Tricia Yearwood, and Dolly Parton, is his best solo record by quite a bit, with the strongest set of songs he ever put on one record. But what makes Cass County better than Henley’s other solo albums is that it, and he, is not so self-important. Although there are a couple of instances where he slips back into old patterns, Cass County is mostly just a guy performing solid songs honestly. When the Eagles did that, they were at their best. It took their drummer a long time to remember the formula.
(Pictured: Christine, Stevie, and Lindsey on the Tusk tour in 1980.)
The fall of 1979 was a remarkable season for rock albums: The Long Run by the Eagles, Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk were all released between August and November. Not quite so titanic but still significant releases in the same season included Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Cheap Trick’s Dream Police, Head Games by Foreigner, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, and Regatta de Blanc by the Police. (And, hat tip to our man Kurt Blumenau, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts too.)
That fall, I was doing a show on the college radio station called Virgin Vinyl, where I’d play selections from the new stuff that had come in during the past week. When Tusk came in, I played the whole thing, possibly 40 years ago tonight, but most likely 40 years ago this week. Listen to it while I attempt to rank the tracks here in 2019.
20. “That’s Enough for Me.” By the time you have reached side 3, you have already heard several of Lindsey Buckingham’s punk-inspired, semi-experimental goofs, and “That’s Enough for Me” feels highly unnecessary.
19. “Never Make Me Cry”
18. “Honey Hi”
I will ride with Christine McVie to the end of the line. I adore her voice and how she does not play the piano as much as she caresses it. But these songs are casualties of a double-length album. They’re lovely, but they get lost.
17. “I Know I’m Not Wrong”
16. “Save Me a Place”
15. “The Ledge”
Tusk finds Lindsey, Stevie, and Christine going all White Album from time to time. Each of them seems to recycle ideas at least once or twice, but Lindsey does it most often.
14. “Sisters of the Moon.” This was the fourth single in the States and it bombed spectacularly, getting only to #86 on the Hot 100 in a three-week run in June 1980. KDWB in the Twin Cities took it to #17, but in the fall of ’79, when the station charted several cuts from several of its top albums.
13. “Never Forget.” See #19 and #18.
12. “Beautiful Child”
Stevie is in full ethereal goddess mode here, and that’s a compliment.
10. “Over and Over.” On the night I tracked this on the radio, “Over and Over,” track 1 on side 1, seemed like a less-than-scintillating way to start a record, certainly not like “Second Hand News” on Rumours or “Monday Morning” on Fleetwood Mac.
9. “Not That Funny”
8. “What Makes You Think You’re the One”
More Lindsey flavor. In college, we dug “Not That Funny” simply because of the way he sings “It’s not that funny, is it?” Meanwhile, “What Makes You Think You’re the One” could have been a hit single.
7. “Walk a Thin Line”
6. “That’s All for Everyone”
The more Lindsay involves the rest of the band on his songs, especially on vocals, the better the songs are.
5. “Brown Eyes.” For years, “Brown Eyes” went right past me without making much of an impression, but it deserved better. The former Mr. and Mrs. McVie play beautifully together, so much so that when the rest of the band comes in, I find myself thinking, “No, leave them alone, they’re doing fine on their own.”
4. “Tusk.” Now that we’ve all heard “Tusk” a million times, we can no longer capture the utter WTF moment we experienced the first time the marching band kicked in. The record is not really as foreign as it sounded in 1979. Mick Fleetwood’s insistent drum beat is engraved on human DNA, and the first half has the same ominous feel as “The Chain.”
3. “Think About Me.” The most obvious single on the album.
2. “Angel.” “Angel” would have made a better fourth single than “Sisters of the Moon.”
1. “Sara.” Stevie is a little more anchored and a little less the ethereal goddess on “Sara,” partially because the song is based firmly on her real life, often presumed to involve a child she didn’t have with Don Henley. Stevie herself has said it’s A) about her breakup with Mick Fleetwood; B) about Fleetwood’s ex, who was named Sara; and C) about “what all of us in Fleetwood Mac were going through at the time.” There’s evidence in “Sara,” for all of it and then some: desire, regret, hope, loss, it’s all in there.
As a double album, Tusk will always suffer next to its two predecessors, and also the album that followed it, Mirage. Taken on its own, however, it’s better than I have given it credit for over these last 40 years.
(Pictured: Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues onstage in 1981.)
It’s not a rock-critic wisecrack: the Moody Blues’ Michael Pinder once claimed Mantovani as an influence. It seems to me that if the Moodys hadn’t adopted the style of highly orchestrated rock that became their trademark, somebody else would have.
In 1972, I was hooked by the AM-radio version of “Nights in White Satin.” When I finally heard the whole thing, including the poem “Late Lament,” I was in the middle of my teenage bad-poetry-writing years, and it blew my mind. (Today, I cringe almost as hard at “Late Lament” as I do at my own poetry.) Several of the Moodys’ most iconic performances had come between 1968 and 1973, but apart from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone” in 1978, they were not in current radio rotations for most of the 70s.
Then came 1981, and Long Distance Voyager. Nearly every superstar act had a record out that year, but Long Distance Voyager ended up one of the year’s biggest hits, doing three weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 as July turned to August, powered by the hit singles “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice,” which went to #12 and #15 respectively. “Gemini Dream” has a “Ride My Seesaw” vibe, but also a forward-looking 80s production style; three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama. “The Voice” is all lush and wooshy, and too much of both for oldies radio today. “Meanwhile” is probably the best thing on the album. “Nervous” needs a more distinctive title; its “Bring it on home / Let’s bring it on home / Your love” refrain is lovely in that distinctive Moody Blues-ian way.
So as I listened I thought, “Hey, this is better than I remembered.” But then came the final act, a suite by singer/flutist Ray Thomas: “Painted Smile,” built on a clown metaphor your fourth-grade niece could have come up with; a positively dreadful 30-second poem/link called “Reflective Smile”; and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” three minutes of embarrassing bombast climaxing with:
He struts, he strolls
His life is rock and roll
He’s the veteran cosmic rocker
He’s afraid that he will die
Teenage bad-poetry-writing me would have dug it, I’m afraid.
I had such a strongly negative reaction to the last part of the album that it ended up coloring my reaction to the rest of it, but on further reflection, Long Distance Voyager is actually OK. It would start another long stretch of radio hits for the Moodys, with eight more entries on the Hot 100 and a strong presence on MTV before the end of the 80s, after which they started their long afterlife playing alongside local symphony orchestras.
Reading List: In addition to listening to a lot of music this past month, I also read Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America by Jesse Jarnow. The Weavers were born out of an era in which people like Pete Seeger (a founding Weaver) believed that folk music could transform America from the capitalist rat race into a just society all by itself, but the Weavers’ idealism crashed head-on into the anti-communist panic of the 1950s. Seeger, a tireless genius who never compromised his beliefs even when threatened with jail, is a highly underrated historical figure, but his fellow original Weavers, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, were equally brave and interesting.
Also worth your time is Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir. I don’t read a lot of rockstar memoirs; I’m more interested in a biographer’s dispassionate examination of a perfomer’s life and work than I am in 300 pages of “and then I wrote _____.” But Born to Run paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful, tenacious individual even more interesting than the one you think you know from the records you’ve listened to for over 40 years.
Blues singer Robert Johnson is one of the most mythologized figures in music. Authors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow have spent over 100 years between them tracking down Johnson’s story, and they’ve published it in the brand-new Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Johnson wasn’t the plantation savant he’s sometimes believed to have been; he was a trained and serious artist who worked hard at his craft. Although he didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads, and the jealous husband who murdered him didn’t mean to kill him, the Johnson that emerges in Up Jumped the Devil is plenty interesting even when grounded in reality.
(Pictured: Billy Joel and his accordion, 1977.)
Billy Joel’s album The Stranger is not one I’m going to consciously pull down from the shelf and put on these days. But I used to. For several years after it came out in 1977, I played it as much as any record in my collection. I bought the super-deluxe CD/DVD reissue in 2008, listened to it a couple of times, and then put it away again. But it’s on the memory stick I keep in the car, and when it came up the other day, I listened to it more closely than I had in years. Take it down off the shelf and listen yourself while I rank the tracks.
9. “Only the Good Die Young.” Not long ago I wrote that I need never hear this again. In the summer of 1978, however, having just had my heart broken by a girl who got religion, its strong anti-good-girl vibe was right in my wheelhouse.
8. “She’s Always a Woman.” Billy’s attitude toward women on The Stranger is sometimes toxic. (See #9.) To the extent that “She’s Always a Woman” makes any sense, he’s calling his girl a bitch goddess. The tune is pretty, though.
7. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” This is one of Billy’s best lyrics. For years, I chased after a version I remembered hearing on the radio in 1978, without the sound effect of a noisy car pulling out at the end. A while back, I found it. It’s way better. The best version, however, might be this one.
6. “The Stranger.” Every time I do one of these rankings, some song I like gets pushed down the list because are other songs I like better. “The Stranger” is one of the more compelling songs Billy Joel ever did. The whistling theme that opens it, and that reappears at the end of the album, may be a little bit too on-the-nose, but I like it. Back in 1978 and 1979, as a solitary and self-dramatizing figure walking across campus on dark and chilly nights, I may have whistled it to myself a few times.
OK, every time.
5. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Of all the Billy Joel songs in the world, this the Billy Joel-iest, stuffed with Long Guyland-isms. The first scene is so evocative that you can almost see the checkered tablecloths and smell the pasta sauce. When it was a separate song, the original title of the second scene was “Things Are OK in Oyster Bay.” The third scene is populated by characters easy to conjure up in detail. It doesn’t all work, though. The honkin’ New Orleans saxophone is cheesy and overblown in the second scene, and in the third one, about “Brender and Eddie,” Billy gets a lyric badly backward: “Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy / And Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.” In 1977 Long Guyland, surely Eddie would have been the provider people had doubts about and Brenda the high-maintenance spouse who deserved better. But (see #8 and #9) Billy’s gotta Billy.
4. “Get It Right the First Time.” Four singles were released from The Stranger, and this could have been the fifth.
3. “Vienna.” For a song that features an accordion solo, “Vienna” is pretty non-cheesy. And when Billy sings, “Slow down you crazy child / And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while,” it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
2. “Everybody Has a Dream.” This might be the purest thing the man ever did. He’s not snide, he’s not contemptuous, and he doesn’t do any of the other things that make Billy Joel haters hate Billy Joel. He sings it like he’s channeling Ray Charles.
1. “Just the Way You Are.” This is plush like shag carpet—you can sink into it. Joel’s Fender Rhodes piano is beautiful; the sax, by all-world alto player Phil Woods, sounds as effortless as breathing. And while Billy comes off a bit of a jerk—don’t change your hair, don’t try to talk, and don’t be surprised if I fail to acknowledge you—you can tell what’s in his heart even as he blunders around with the wrong words. And the glorious arrangement more than makes up for it.
The Stranger moved something like 10 million copies. Rolling Stone ranked it at #70 on its list of the 500 best albums of all time. Its place in history is secure, as it its place on my digital shelf. It’s not coming down like it used to, but I don’t mind hearing it now and then.
(Pictured: Joe Walsh onstage in a Long Run T-shirt, 1979.)
I can still remember the day, 40 years ago, late in September or early in October, when the Eagles’ album The Long Run came in the mail to the campus radio station. I was on the air that afternoon. We took it out of the package and put it straight on a turntable to play . . . not the lead single, “Heartache Tonight,” but what we had been told album-rock radio was pushing: “The Disco Strangler.” I front- and back-announced it with what I felt to be the appropriate degree of hype, considering it was the followup release to one of the most popular albums of the 70s by a massively successful band. We tracked the whole thing later that night, and I remember listening on my radio in the dorm.
The Long Run became fairly significant in the lives of The Mrs. and me. We saw the Eagles on their tour to promote it; we played it constantly, on the air and off; it’s her all-time favorite album. I burned out on most of it in the relatively distant past, but here’s a ranking of the tracks on The Long Run after coming back to it for the first time in a while.
(Do I need to link to any of these tracks? You know them all, right?)
10. “Teenage Jail.” A big riff, but that’s about it.
9. “The Disco Strangler.” Don Henley and Don Felder viewed this as a topical, anti-disco song, which marked it as an artifact of 1979. And for that reason, little else in the Eagles catalog sounds so dated.
8. “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks.” One of the things Eagle-haters hate about the Eagles is that they took themselves so damned seriously. The very fact that “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” exists marks it as a placeholder. Given their self-image, it’s doubtful they would have kept a such a goof on the album if they had anything else to put in its place.
(There exists a series called Soul Pole, studio outtakes and other weirdness compiled by producer Bill Szymczyk for distribution amongst the band members and crew. What I’ve heard of it is more silly or stupid than funny, and it confirms for me that apart from Joe Walsh, the Eagles lack the humor gene.)
7. “King of Hollywood.” Man, there’s a lot of filler on this album. And a certain irony in Henley singing a song about a Hollywood high-roller taking advantage of eager young women.
6. “In the City.” Not only is there a lot of filler on The Long Run, two of the songs came from outside the band. Walsh had recorded “In the City” for the movie The Warriors in 1978, and his original is better.
5. “The Long Run.” “Who is gonna make it? We’ll find out in the long run.” The Eagles’ success and legacy were secure by 1979, but Henley wouldn’t miss the chance to boast about it one more time.
4. “Heartache Tonight.” There was never a doubt that this would go to #1. It showed up on surveys at ARSA the same week it was released in September 1979. It debuted on the Hot 100 on October 6 at #52 and went to #15 the next week. It recorded its first local #1s that same week, and went 9-7-2 and finally to #1 on the Hot 100 on November 10, 1979. But it lasted only as single week at the top.
3. “Those Shoes.” Time and again, not just in the studio but onstage too, the Eagles didn’t seem to play the songs as much as they played the parts and then bolted the parts into place. “Those Shoes” doesn’t feel spontaneous, either, but the big thump and talkbox make it a unique item in their catalog.
2. “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Timothy B. Schmit brought the germ of this song with him when he joined the band, and it was the first thing on The Long Run that got finished, in March 1978. It has one of my favorite guitar solos in the Eagles’ catalog, played by Glenn Frey. Joe Walsh is the keyboard player.
1. “The Sad Cafe.” I have said this a couple of times before: even if the Eagles hated each other by 1979, they must have loved each other once, because if they hadn’t, they could not have made “The Sad Cafe.” It’s five minutes and 35 seconds of perfection, the best thing in their catalog, and a perfect farewell. As it was in the beginning, they’re a band again at the end.
(Coming Thursday: another ranking of another ubiquitous 70s album.)