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Jonathan and I rode into Lower Manhattan around 6:15, my timing a little too accurate as usual. We parked on Spring Street and made our way half a block to City Winery and began camping out at our six-person table in the center of the venue. My estimation of the view from our seats was spot-on; we were positioned cleanly in front of center stage, but not so close that we would have to crane our necks. We chatted with another fan at our table over food, whom I’d complimented on her Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust t-shirt. Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “Nutted by Reality” came on over the PA. She told us about a show in which Robyn and Elvis Costello appeared on stage to sing with Lowe. I remarked that it’d be cool if Pete Buck walked up on stage on this night.

Robyn barreled onto the stage and began playing “My Wife and My Dead Wife” with no introduction, then immediately broke into “Balloon Man.” Get them out of the way—smart. He looked ever so slightly disgusted with himself as he adjusted one of his cuffs, then explained that Balloon Man and the President are not dissimilar. Admittedly, if there’s one place where he might feel obligated to play “Balloon Man,” it’s Manhattan.

His vaunted between-song banter did not fail to entertain throughout the night. He introduced “Trilobite” which a long bit on how millions of years in the future a race of advanced cheetahs may discover the ruins of our civilization and mistakenly come to the conclusion that hi-fi equipment was the dominant species of our time. He played “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” during the second set and talked about his morbid fascination with the movie Magnum Force, which Jonathan had to later explain to me in the car.

As always, Robyn paid homage to his influences. He broke out Syd Barrett’s relatively obscure “Wined and Dined” near the beginning of the first set. He remarked after that many singers of the ’60s developed techniques that allowed them to pierce through bad PA systems and that this was no longer necessary because even our phone recordings sound better than state-of-the-art equipment from back then. He then asked the “disembodied voice of the evening” to give him a particular sort of delay on his guitar, steeled himself, and proceeded to blast his own anachronistic screech through the Winery’s state-of-the-art PA. “Best thing in the world: the Beatles, and the most important singer in the Beatles: John Lennon,” he lectured politely, before playing a note-perfect “Dear Prudence.”

Hitchcock’s guitar-playing, which I’ve always found to be an underrated aspect of him, was in full force (magnum force, even). While not a transcendent guitarist, I prefer him to his contemporaries because he has more character. When he fumbled the intro to “Glass Hotel,” stepping back from the microphone to utter a furious “Damn it!” I only thought this added to the charm. The piano, which loomed large during the first set, was first utilized by special guest Mike Mills (hey, I was close) for “I Wanna Destroy You” to open the second set. Robyn quipped, “And now for the only thing scarier than Mike Mills on the piano, which is me on the piano,” and played “Harry’s Song,” “Somewhere Apart,” and “Executioner.” Emma Swift then came on to support him for “Briggs,” “I Used to Say I Love You,” and “Glass Hotel.” He then wrapped up the set with a few fan favorites and stepped off stage for a brief moment before playing “Sound and Vision” for the encore. Weird! But cool.

As the crowd funneled out the door, Robyn made his way to the merch table to sign memorabilia and take selfies. Jonathan said we should go up to him. I declined, the usual things running through my head. What can I say to this guy that he hasn’t heard thousands of times already? What if he’s aloof? Eventually he convinced me, insisting he’d buy me something from the table; I acquiesced. As it turns out, Robyn is very pleasant. We shook his hand and Jonathan introduced us. “My wedding DJ refused to play ‘Kingdom of Love,'” I said with a smile. “On what grounds?” he asked with feigned indignance. He asked politely how long I’d been married and offered kind words, and we left.

And that was our evening with Robyn Hitchcock.



This playlist, a mash-up of Dave Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary and Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, attempts to best represent what a Rockpile album culled from those sessions would have looked like. The songs were all recorded in the same time frame, but because of Edmunds’ and Lowe’s recording contracts, had to be released on separate albums.

  1. “Sweet Little Lisa” (Repeat When Necessary)
  2. “Cracking Up” (Labour of Lust)
  3. “Crawling from the Wreckage” (Repeat When Necessary)
  4. “Born Fighter” (Labour of Lust)
  5. “Switchboard Susan” (Labour of Lust)
  6. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (Repeat When Necessary)
  7. “Queen of Hearts” (Repeat When Necessary)
  8. “Cruel to Be Kind” (Labour of Lust)
  9. “Girls Talk” (Repeat When Necessary)
  10. “Home in My Hand” (Repeat When Necessary)
  11. “Love So Fine” (Labour of Lust)

Only one true problem exists with this project, which is that Labour of Lust is worth hearing in its entirety already, so cutting up that album feels like a poor exercise. With that in mind, I tried to create a different kind of experience, with a few principles in mind:

  • Edmunds’ songs—90% covers—were chosen somewhat on the basis of more relevant songwriting personnel, such as Graham Parker (“Crawling from the Wreckage”), Elvis Costello (“Girls Talk”), and Rockpile member Billy Bremner (“The Creature from the Black Lagoon”). Coincidentally, these are the best songs from his album anyway, for the most part. This approach seems to mesh better with Lowe’s output.
  • Conversely, I put Lowe’s more rock-oriented songs on there, including cover “Switchboard Susan” and band-penned “Love So Fine” because they flow better with Edmunds’ rock ‘n’ roll.
  • I put “Sweet Little Lisa” in the beginning as a nod to it often being used to open Rockpile’s shows, and buried “Cruel to Be Kind” because I thought maybe Lowe might appreciate that.
  • The “A-side” (songs 1–6) is focused mainly on frenetic songs, while the “B-side” (7–11) is more glossy, melodic, and soppy to begin with, although it does devolve into the crass “Home in My Hand” and debased “Love So Fine.”

Yeah, sure, it’s fun, but is it art?

GWAR’s first album, although not as mythologized as their later releases, fits in fairly well in their discography. After all, hardcore punk and thrash metal hold hands from time to time, so the transition makes sense—more sense than the Bee Gees going disco, if you think about it. But Bee Gees this is not; Hell-O is a nasty affair, ranging from sodomy to bestiality to—hold your hat—anti-patriotism. On this album, these things are presented more as general statements than as part of the GWAR story, but I’m sure you can consider the things in here to be retroactive continuity. My personal favorites are “Slutman City,” which should be self-explanatory, the raging “U Ain’t Shit,” “Je M’appelle J. Cousteau,” a lurid new chapter to the famed explorer’s life, and the eponymous “GWAR Theme.”

Maybe I don’t know if I should change
A feeling that we share
It’s a shame
Number me with rage
Number me in haste
This eagerness to change

It’s My Life isn’t an upper-echelon album. As far as Talk Talk goes, it’s not far beyond The Party’s Over. Like that album, it’s front-loaded, but even those songs have problems. Take “Renée” for example, the most off-putting song they ever did. Musically, it’s an OK little lament, but Hollis just sounds so ridiculous during the chorus. And with “Dum Dum Girl,” another song I hate to hate, I appreciate the irony, but that doesn’t make me enjoy its dopey melody. That song and two others were co-written by Tim Friese-Greene, the band’s new producer and unofficial fourth member. You’ll never see him listed as such, but that’s what he was, playing keyboards, sharing writing credits, and even sitting in on tour at times. I’m sorry, but what do you call that?

He replaces original keyboardist Simon Brenner, although Ian Curnow plays keyboards on at least one song on It’s My Life. But it’s Friese-Greene I have to give credit for the interesting bits on “Dum Dum Girl” and “It’s My Life,” a hit in its own time on both sides of the Atlantic but mostly famous today because of No Doubt (at least in the U.S.). Who knows, though; Hollis wrote the best song, “Such a Shame,” on his own, as well as the excellent “Tomorrow Started.” The former begins with a lengthy, precipitous intro on the album version before veering into a The Dice Man-inspired story. What really makes the song for me, though, is a stroke of genius that lasts all of five seconds during the chorus—that keyboard line just after “This eagerness to change.” That little bit of melody just says it all; it elicits such strange and wonderful emotions both in cadence and texture that foreshadows the genius to come on later Talk Talk albums.

The rest of the songs range from forgettable (“It’s You,” The Party’s Over holdover “Call in the Night Boys”) to pleasant (“The Last Time”). Is “Does Caroline Know?” some kind of answer to the Beach Boys? Somehow I doubt it, but there’s lots of diehard fans of theirs throughout the music industry, so I’m not ruling it out. In any case, that’s about as much thought the B-side provokes from me. But when the album shines, it really shines.

Here we are at Sparks’ 20-somethingth album, depending on whether or not you count the radio opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman or the Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, or for that matter the redux album Plagarism. When you get to that kind of number, it’s really no longer anything notable to point out. The only interesting thing to note is that even as Ron and Russell enter a point in their lives when many musicians would be doing music by rote, with Sparks you can still see and hear new patterns emerging. I begin this review of Hippopotamus by mentioning the first thing that grabbed my attention, which is a song titled “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?”

I found that to be an damnably cumbersome title, even before I’d heard the song it belongs to. And speaking to the pattern of it, Sparks have been doing this since, I want to say, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins—1994. And while you can say, yes, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974) did exist, that was more of an idiomatic thing. At some point, Sparks started to just make songs that were just random phrases: “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car,” “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold,” “As I Sit Down to Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral.” And I’ll be damned if Ron and Russell aren’t having a laugh about it, considering there’s also “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song.” But they just ruin the patter of the songs, because a title is one thing but Russell tends to sing them as well, sometimes cramming as many syllables into a basic measure as is humanly possible.

And you know what? Sometimes that makes for good, quirky fun, but “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?” is the last straw. What kind of a line is that? At least “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” had a sort of structure to it, but for “Lincoln” they just machine-gun it. And the worst part? It’s not even a “Talent Is an Asset” or “Here in Heaven”-esque story about Mary Todd Lincoln giving a darkly funny interview after her husband’s assassination. The line has nothing to do with the rest of the song, unless there’s some kind of allusion I’m missing, which I don’t think I am. This is symptomatic of much that is the Sparks of the last 25 years, which is to think up a killer concept and proceed to milk it into utterly enervated submission over 4–7 minutes.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate these songs musically, necessarily. With the Maels back to a format more in line with their classic period, I would say Hippopotamus is possibly the peak of their powers. They haven’t lost their enthusiasm for music, and 45 years of practice will make you a pro at just about anything. Russell took care of his voice—maybe he can’t do exactly the same falsetto he could in ’74, but he sounds not old, and Ron’s twisted persona still looms large, not having lost its edge. I say this because not all the lyrics are duds (“Live fast and die young/Too late for that”) and because he still looks sharp on stage. Sometimes Sparks don’t live up to their name, but Hippopotamus has the spark, and with a seemingly self-conscious effort to keep songs under four minutes, I can get on board. Maybe not with a hippo lurking in the pool—those things are nasty.

Back to Sparks hub

How do you follow one of the most auspicious debuts in all of popular music? Dial it down, spruce it up, make it shine, and put the band’s two pretty boys on the cover. Had Cheap Trick been released in the era of compact disc, In Color (and even parts of subsequent albums) probably wouldn’t have even existed. It’s not an unusual story: Cheap Trick had so many songs already in their repertoire that it took years just to release them all on record—Cheap Trick was released in 1977 and principal songwriter Rick Nielsen had been playing music since at least 1961.

The only substantial difference between Cheap Trick and In Color is in the production; the former was handled by Jack Douglas, whose résumé included kindred spirits like Blue Öyster Cult, New York Dolls, and Aerosmith (not always as producer but sometimes engineer or both). It’s the better record any day of the week, and that’s not to say In Color‘s Tom Werman is necessarily a poor producer, just that his own credits—mostly campy hair metal acts like Poison and Twisted Sister—didn’t make him a keen choice for a raw rock group like Cheap Trick.

Cheap Trick’s seminal concert opener “Hello There” opens In Color, which almost doesn’t make sense on a studio record, and Nielsen’s guitar doesn’t really roar like it should, nor does it on the should-be-menacing “Big Eyes.” The more sensitive “Downed” actually benefits from the setting, and “I Want You to Want Me” is at least interesting and cute arranged like a pop-country song, but “You’re All Talk” feels neutered. “Oh Caroline” is more faithful to the Cheap Trick sound, but “Clock Strikes Ten” is too slow compared to its live counterpart. “Southern Girls” is their triumph here, a “California Girls”/”Back in the U.S.S.R.” tribute that arguably does those songs one better.

Back to Cheap Trick hub

I’ve always thought Monster was sort of middling, and relative to their other albums of the period, it might be. Over time I’ve realized that it’s a more interesting and twisted album than I gave it credit for. Everyone thinks of it as R.E.M.’s “rock album,” and it is, but that’s a reductive statement. To me, the album seems to subvert emerging pop conventions, like with the distorted vocals and halting guitar on “King of Comedy,” or mocking hard rock of “Circus Envy.” Maybe that’s giving it a little too much credit. They probably were just doing whatever they felt was right at the time, which when you’re coming off four platinum albums you’re at complete liberty to do.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” continues the “Man on the Moon” trend of pop-culture subjects, this time focusing on a dark if oddly humorous true story of Dan Rather being accosted by a schizophrenic murderer. “I Took Your Name” and “Circus Envy” are the riffers that go along with it, and all three are satisfying in that way, if not necessarily by virtue of their messages. The druggy “Crush with Eyeliner” features Thurston Moore, and the Leonard Cohen tribute “King of Comedy” features a singer from Disney movies. “Bang and Blame” I find trite.

The dirge “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and plea “Strange Currencies” provide an odd dichotomy as the former is a resigned tale of perfunctory romance and the latter seems to basically be a heartfelt love song. “You” lies somewhere in the middle, sounding more obsessive. “Star 69” is a case of split personality from a criminal deal gone wrong. “Tongue” is a song I can never quite decide if I love or am reviled by it; on one hand its melodies are actually really, but on the other Stipe’s vocals give me the creeps. “Let Me In” is an epitaph for Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain, fittingly buried under several layers of distortion.

Back to R.E.M. hub