Vapor Trails Remix: One Little History



For most artists, the art they put out is the art that stays out. They do not get to do it over. The Beatles never went back and re-recorded “A Day in the Life” nor was “Gimme Shelter” ever redone. Picasso, DaVinci, and Michelangelo never went back and redid any painting, fresco, or statue. However, several notable musical artists have reinterpreted their works over the years including Bob Dylan, Sting, and Eric Clapton. All three changed arrangements, tempos, and melodies to classic songs. One of my favorite bands, Rush, has done something similar in the past few weeks.

On September 27, 2013, the Hall of Fame Canadian rock band Rush released a remixed version of their 2002 album, Vapor Trails. Rumored to be in the works since 2009, the remix was something the fans, and the band, had been clamoring for several years. The results are spectacular! The sound clarity is amazing! Since I downloaded it this past week, I have been enjoying sounds I never knew existed, harmonies that were hidden, and a bass sound that now pulsates softly in a sea of sonic heaven.

The remixed version in 2013

The remixed version in 2013

The First Attempt: The Original Album

The original Vapor Trails was a comeback album released in 2002. Six years between Rush albums was an eternity for Rush fans and the band. Its story begins in 1996. Shortly after Rush the album Test for Echo tour ended, Drummer Neil Peart’s daughter was killed in a car accident and ten months later his wife tragically passed away from cancer. The devastating loss sent Neil and the band into a tailspin. Even Geddy Lee thought the band might never record again. Neil went on journey of exploration and discovery by traveling across the Americas on a motorcycle. Peart would put his devastation behind and marry again in 2000. In early 2001, he and the band began assembling.

It was a touchy process and filled with emotion. Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson were glad to be playing again with Peart. More importantly, they were glad to have their friend back. The next 15 months would be a laborious process, one which has haunted the band until the remix. In an interview, Alex Lifeson reflected on the process

We invested so much of our hearts into that record. It was hard work for the 15 months we worked on it, and there were times when we didn’t think we’d get through it. There were moments when we hated it. We threw out a bunch of songs and we re-wrote one song, Earthshine, three times.

Here are two interviews from 2002 with Lee and Lifeson.

Even before the release, a dichotomy arose. The songs were great, but the sound was horrible. To me, it sounded like mud at time. They was little dynamic. It sounded distorted. But as fan of Rush, you could tell there was something there that this could have been a great album. You just could not hear it in 2002.

The band concurred, In the same interview, Lifeson detailed the problem:

The original mastering was the problem. It was poorly done. At the time we should have remastered. It bothered us forever – particularly Geddy, who had the task of remastering of the original album and feels responsible for it. It irked him for many years. The original version is hard on your ears, because the mastering was pushed so hard, there’s distortion and so much compression – I found it very difficult to listen to it.

However, it was too late and too mind numbing for the band to  get it right. Everything had already been booked for the next two years including a tour in Brazil. It would have to wait to be fixed. The album was going to be released.

The original Vapor Trails cover in 2002

The original Vapor Trails cover in 2002

The Remix Experiment
In 2009, I started getting into long distance bike riding. I would often add the leadoff track, “One Little Victory,” as well as other songs from Vapor Trails to my iPod because I truly believed them to be great songs despite the mix and master. I was doing some surfing on iTunes and found 2 remixed versions of songs from the album on a compilation album entitled, Retrospective 3. The sounds were unbelievable. The music ebbed and flowed. The distortion was gone. The listener could now hear the individual textures of each instrument. They did not blend together. They stood alone.

Many fans were ecstatic! The band loved the remixes done by Richard Chycki, too! In interviews, Geddy began talking about remixing the whole album at some point. He stated:

“It’s a terrible feeling that, due to lack of objectivity, you let an imperfect piece of work get out there […] but the songs are very strong and people really responded to the record and people were welcoming us back. The sonic defects of it got lost in the excitement of the band’s return to functionality. It’s always been a bee in my bonnet.”

Vapor Trails 2
To over see the whole remix in 2011, the band hired Tool producer David Bottrill. Lee and Lifeson would put in their two cents about the remix while the band was on the Clockwork Angels Tour. Lee explained how Bottrill worked and the process:

“He understood what it should sound like so I’m very pleased with the end result. I think he’s finally brought some completion and some justice to some of those songs we’d put so much of our heart and soul into.”

On the band’s website, Lee added upon the release of the remix:

Vapor Trails was an album made under difficult and emotional circumstances – sort of like Rush learning how to be Rush again – and as a result, mistakes were made that we have longed to correct. David Bottrill’s remixes have finally brought some justice and clarity to this deserving body of our work. Every song has been given a new life, from the fire of ‘One Little Victory,’ ‘Secret Touch,’ and ‘Ceiling Unlimited’ to the melodic musicality of ‘Sweet Miracle’ and ‘How It Is’… these songs have been redeemed. Thank you David!”

Overall, I think the remixes do justice to most of the songs. I can now hear little parts I never heard before. The are little guitar parts, an array of acoustic guitars, mini-solos, vocal harmonies, but most of all I hear separation between the instruments. It is quite staggering to sit and listen to songs you thought you knew.  At times, I find myself feeling like I am listening to a new album. On the initial track, I counted four distinct (electric and acoustic) guitar sounds playing at one time along with the flange on Neil’s snare, too, which I had never heard before. It is a great sonic treasure for me!

Further Reading


Miles Davis and Making Bitches Brew

I came to develop a love of jazz in college in 1983 or 1984. I am pretty sure it started with the Pat Metheny Group release Offramp. In Macomb, Illinois, where I went to college, there was this little record store called the Co-Op. You could smell the incense from the outside. When you walked in, you could cut a hole in the smell and hear the latest cool sounds in music. And there was a lot of music to discover for a 20-21 year old young guitarist/future history teacher.

At the time, I knew very little about jazz aside from New Orleans Jazz. Once I bought the album, I began a slow study of the great American art form. Eventually, I found my way to recordings by Miles Davis. It was through the biopic “Bird” by Clint Eastwood that I discovered the roots of the history of Miles. I knew who Miles Davis was in the late 1970s and 1980s, but I was not, nor I am now, a fan of that era of his work. However, for over 20 years Miles Davis made the most innovative form of music and reshaped jazz and rock. Through albums such as “Birth of the Cool,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Sketches of Spain,” and “Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis was “the man” before anyone else. MilesDavis2

America in the late 1960s was changing. The war in Vietnam polarized the country and the Civil Rights movement had seen successes and failures aplenty. But music had also undergone a massive transformation in the 1960s. And by music, I mean rock and roll. And by transformation, I mean sonic transformation. The electric guitar in 1969 was nothing like the electric guitar of 1960. In between the instrument was beefed up with massive amps, distortion pedals, feedback, flange, reverb, echo, and any other sound you could possibly want. Jimi Hendrix was shattering allusions of what the instrument could do. Folk artist Bob Dylan even went electric. Jazz in the mid 1960s was slow to resist. You might see an electric bass here or there, but for the most part, the old acoustic instrumentation was still the foundation of the ensemble.  Miles Davis changed all that.

In 1969, for the recording of In a Silent Way, Miles assembled a collection of the best young players of the era to record the record on one date in January. Keyboardists Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock all played together with bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and guitarist John McLaughlin (essentially a who’s who of what would become 70s and 80s jazz). The record was two songs – each covering one side of the album. The title track, written by Joe Zawinul, was the impetus for the recording. By using electrical instruments, Miles had shifted the paradigm of modern jazz. The album is seen as only the beginning of the transformation. In a Silent Way was not a full on rock record, it still was Jazz at its core, just electrified. The culmination would come on the next record, Bitches Brew.

The story for Bitches Brew begins in the summer of 1969. That summer Miles toured behind In a Silent Way and his road band was quite different that his studio band. First, Jack DeJohnette manned the drumkit. Jack was a much more propulsive and elements of rock could be heard in his playing. In addition, percussionist Don Alias was brought on board. With him, Alias brought in Afro-centric rhythms unfamiliar to jazz. Combined with the electrification, another bassist, a second drummer, and bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, a total of 12 musicians showed up to record the sessions over three days in August of 1969.

Producer Teo Macero oversaw the recording and assembling of what would be a double album containing 94 minutes of the most revolutionary jazz music ever created. For Miles, being a band leader was like being a story teller. Each musician or character had a story to tell. The problem going into tumblr_m087bajKvE1r2uguoo1_500the sessions was that he was unsure of what story he wanted to tell. The band had only rehearsed the first half of the title track, but they had played several songs on the tour that summer including “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary.” Contrary to popular opinion, the songs were somewhat fleshed out before recording. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul had written ten songs for the record. Miles had picked the ones he liked along with other selections by himself and Wayne Shorter.

Recording the songs was somewhat unique. Second drummer Lenny White describes the sessions:

During the session we’d start a groove, and we’d play and then Miles would point to John McLaughlin and John would play for a while, and then Miles would stop the band. Then we’d start up again and he’d point to the keyboards, and someone would do another solo. All tracks were done in segments like that, with only the piano players possibly having a few written sketches in front of them […] Bitches Brew was like a big pot and Miles was the sorcerer. He was hanging over it, saying, ‘I’m going to add a dash of Jack DeJohnette, and a little bit of John McLaughlin, and then I’m going to add a pinch of Lenny White. And here’s a teaspoonful of Bennie Maupin playing the bass clarinet.’ He made that work. He got the people together who he thought would make an interesting combination […] It was a big, controlled experiment, and Miles had a vision that came true.

Over the three days, the process continued. When the recording was complete, the musicians went back to Miles’s house and listened to the unedited versions of the tracks. When the record came out in January 1970, the tracks sounded nothing like the musicians remembered. Producer Teo Macero armed with tape, glue, and an editor, restructured most tracks completely. Macero explains the process:

I had carte blanche to work with the material. I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’ etc, and then add in all the effects—the electronics, the delays and overlays. [I would] be working it out in the studio and take it back and re-edit it—front to back, back to front and the middle somewhere else and make it into a piece. I was a madman in 12756763the engineering room. Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, ‘How do you like it?’ And he used to say, ‘That’s fine,’ or ‘That’s OK,’ or ‘I thought you’d do that.’ He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make them sound right.

In the review by Rolling Stone, the magazine states:

Miles’ music bubbles and boils like some gigantic cauldron. As the musical ideas rise to the surface, the listener also finds his thoughts rising from the depths with a new clarity and precision. Miles is an invaluable companion for those long journeys you take into your imagination.

But don’t let my cerebral bent influence your listening. Whatever your temperament, Bitches’ Brew will reward in direct proportion to the depth of your own involvement.

The record redefines what jazz can be, of what music can be. It combines different and disparate elements of music. The fusion movement was born and many rock bands would try to recapture the sense of adventure and discovery found on the record. The record comes alive with the incredible rhythm section of 2 drummers and 2 bassists, combined with the percussion of Don Alias. All the while the electronic keyboardists percolate and provide pallets and templates for Davis, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin, and themselves to tell their stories.
At the core of the sound is what appears to be a simple structure of a groove made up of two to three chords with a solo on top. What makes the music so complex is the rhythmic structure. Still, some 40 years later, jazz has not had another turning point in the form to come close to this record. Bitches Brew was a rock record in its attitude and electrified sounds, jazz in its musical structures and solos, but it was more than the sum of its parts. It was new music for a new era. The musicians who played with Miles would go on to lead their own bands. Shorter and Zawinul would form Weather Report. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock would form their own bands while John McLaughlin would form his own project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Each musician defined the fusion era and influenced many jazz and rock musicians by playing on Bitches Brew as much as they did in their own bands.
As a listener, I still find the grooves scintillating, spellbinding, and mesmerizing. Many times over the past few summers I have put Bitches Brew on the iPod for a bike ride and disappeared into the northern Illinois countryside. Bitches Brew is still a record ahead of its time. Even after 40 years, the music sounds so fresh and timeless. This is a particular favorite of mine.
Here is an interesting video of how the album and band came to be.
For further reading:
Quincy Troupe’s bio of Miles is essential
Quotes of Lenny White and Teo Macero come from:
Rolling Stone Review:

Cheap Trick: Budokan and the Summer of 1979 Revisted

In about two weeks, a new exhibit opens up at the Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois. Surprisingly, the exhibit is about Rick Nielsen’s love affair with guitars and picks. Having lived in Northern Illinois most of my life, it comes as no surprise that Nielsen will be giving back to the community in some way. He and his band mates have done so often throughout their almost 40 year career. The exhibit, which runs from August 11 until April 2013, is lined with guitars and other memories of Nielsen through the years. For Nielsen, his love affair with the six string began long before Cheap Trick was formed. However, when one tends to think of Cheap Trick, the summer of 1979 comes to mind. They were everywhere that summer. Looking back for the band, it was when they exploded all because of one live album that was never meant to be.

Rick Nielsen began playing in bands at the age of 15.  It was not until 1970, however, that Nielsen began his recording career. Joining up with bassist Tom Petersson, the band Fuze released its one and only record. Returning to the Midwest, Nielsen and Petersson continued to play gigs as Fuse. Joining them was drummer Bun E. Carlos (Brad Carlson). The band eventually moved to Philadelphia and renamed themselves “The Sick men of Europe.” In 1973, the band returned to Rockford. Adding vocalist Randy Hogan, the band began calling themselves Cheap Trick. The moniker stems from an off-handed remark by Petersson that the band Slade used every “cheap trick” in the band. Hogan did not stay as the vocalist very long. The band recruited Robin Zander to take over for Hogan. The lineup was set.

In 1975, the band began touring around the midwest and recorded a demo. The band would be signed to Epic Records and the first record was produced by Jack Douglas. Recorded in 1976, the record was released in 1977. The record did receive good reviews but failed to catch on in the US. Their second record, In Color, was recorded and released that same year. The band did not like the production, but something was stirring for the band. While they had failed to catch on at home. The band was quite successful in Japan. This success enabled the band to record and release their third album, Heaven Tonight in 1978. The first single, Surrender, charted albeit at #62.

In order to cash in on what were three gold records in Japan, the band took themselves across the Pacific to tour Japan in the spring of 1978. The resulting concerts, and recordings of them, would propel the band forward in their career. Nielsen said of the band’s Japanese success happened because of their association with Queen. Nielsen said,

Queen had heard our first album pre-release and asked us if we would open two shows. Japanese journalists came to see Queen, and while they loved them, of course, they thought that the opening band – us – really had something. So they started writing about us.

The recordings of two concerts at the Nippon Budokan were intended to for a future Japanese only release. Nielsen was startled when the band returned to headline in 1978 when 5000 fans greeted Cheap Trick at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

“I thought the president of Japan was on the plane or something. We were just flying coach. There were kids everywhere trying to get to us, we were told not to look out the windows of our rooms, otherwise kids outside would faint and go crazy. We couldn’t believe it. All this for us?”

The band’s forte was live performing. In an era where bands paid their dues by touring and being great live performers, Cheap Trick did not disappoint at Budokan. The record begins with the appropriately titled, “Hello, There.”

Followed by Come On, Come On, the band’s signature power guitar and catchy melodies embodied their “power pop” style.

But Cheap Trick is more than that. It is a rock and roll band that never eschewed the melody. Next came the song, “Lookout.” Nielsen said of the song, “Lookout is fun, it’s fast, it starts and stops, it’s loud. Basically, it’s a Who pop song. We never emulated The Who, but if we ever stole anything from them, at least we changed the key.” The song “Big Eyes” came next.

Side one closes with the song, “Need Your Love.” Nielsen labels this as one of his favorite tracks because of Zander’s vocals. He said,

I think of this one, and the image is of watching a drunk guy who trashes around at a show, bangs his head against a wall, jumps into a moshpit, but then he gets out and goes to his girlfriend and asks, ‘Are you OK, honey?’ If you wanna get laid, you have to be nice occasionally.
That’s why Robin’s voice is so great: he can go from being the nasty villain to the sweet, lovable guy, and switch them back and forth. A song that’s gooey all the way through is disgusting; on the other hand, if you’re just ‘Kill your mother, kill your father, kill your dog!’ the whole time, that’s too extreme the other way. This song has the balance.

What happened on side one is not too different from most bands of the era. Influenced by The Beatles, the band walks a fine line between its own creativity and paying homage to the bands before it. As side one closes, the power pop begins to fade to display a full on rock band gracing the stage.
Side two kicks off with a cover version of the Fats Domino Song, “Ain’t That a Shame.” NIelsen said,

“We were asked to do a cover song for the show, which was fine – we’d always done some covers. One day, we were listening to John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and one of the songs on there is Ain’t That A Shame. ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for John Lennon…We did our own version of it, throwing in all the breaks and build-ups. It’s a simple three-chord song, so we made it way harder than it had to be. We kind of made it a cross between the ending of The Beatles’ The End and something from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.”

The band continued to head full on as a rock band with the song, “I Want You to Want Me.” Originally a single off the second album, the song had failed to chart in the US when the band played it at Budokan. The summer of 1979, it would propel the album to triple platinum.

For me, the track I loved in the summer of 1979 was Surrender. At track #8, it is filled with every “cheap trick” in songwriting. Power chords, a catchy melody, a sing-along chorus, an allusion to Kiss and VD in the same song, but not together. For a teenage boy, it was a slice of heaven! It still is having been covered by Green Day and the Foo Fighters.

The album closes with two songs, “Goodnight Now” and the live staple “Clock Strikes Ten.”

While the concerts were recorded for TV, the album did not come out until later that fall in Japan. 30,000 import copies soon made their made to the US. DJs began to play the record on Album Oriented Radio (AOR). The public began to crave what Cheap Trick had to offer. Epic relented and released the album in 1979. 3 million units later, it is still the best selling record in the Cheap Trick catalog.

While the album did launch Cheap Trick as a major act in the US, the band never quite reached those heights again. For me, I loved the next few albums: Dream Police, All Shook Up, and One on One. I had think they were the only band I had all on 8 track. But by the mid 80s, I was off on another musical tangent. But the band never stopped playing. I have seen them three times and they always deliver the goods. They are still making records and still touring. They were named by Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain as having an influence on their careers and music. It is strange looking back how a live album recorded thousands of miles away by a band ten miles from where I live resulted in their prolonged careers.

A few years ago, I had a student did a history fair project on Cheap Trick. Bun E. was gracious enough to do a phone interview, with thanks to his mother (who I knew through my friend Dave Oberg). He came across as a very down to earth guy. I ran into Rick Nielsen two years ago at the Stone Eagle Tavern in Rockford. I walked away ironically humming, “Stop This Game.” I find them to be great guys. Strangely, I once asked my students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One student, Kara, replied in 1998, “Mrs. Robin Zander.” I don’t think her goal has ever changed and it’s all because of one album that wasn’t meant to be.

Cheap Trick has been quoted that they did not like the production on their early albums, mainly In Color. But when you look at the totality of the songs on Cheap Trick, Heaven Tonight, and In Color, what is seen and heard is quite the display of song craftsmanship. The band is never going to win any contests for its lyrics, but the melodies, the riffs, all play into their strength as a live band. What Budokan captured was that strength. I would have liked to have seen the songs “He’s a Whore” and “Southern Girls” on the record, but that is just my own personal preference. The album with its crowd screams reminiscent of the Beatles, has held up well. Despite the fact that the record was recorded in Japan, it displays why the band is still together today (minus Bun E)…they know how to rock a stage.

Nielsen, Zander, Carlos, and Petersson (left to right)

For track by track discussion of each song, please see the following interview:

The Concept Album: A Brief History

Two weeks ago on June 12, 2012, the nerd within me awoke with the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. While musically current, the collection of songs lyrically tells the maturation of a boy, who through a series of adventures (some tragic), questions his faith and the universe run by a rigid watchmaker, all the while, evolving from a boy into a man. Listening to it, I tend to think of the whole concept of the album as an allegory telling the life story of drummer Neil Peart. After a few brief spins, I was transported back in time to 30+ years ago when the concept album was once standard practice for the band.

The concept album is not new, but in today’s disposable music industry, it is quite a risk for band to release a concept album. In a music world driven by the single on iTunes, I find it refreshing for Rush to take a chance like this. One could easily argue that this is their first full length concept album. While 2112 and Hemispheres are both considered concept albums, only one side of the records is conceptual.

For history, the original concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. While somewhat conceptual by today’s standards, it was unique for it’s time. All the songs were about one topic although the record does not have a main character or storyline that was in every song. Released in 1940, the record was highly influential on future folk songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan as well as Bruce Springsteen. The album contained the now classic, “Do Re Mi.”

But it was not folk or popular music that turned the concept album into an art form, it was Jazz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jazz artists began experimenting with sounds and styles. These concepts became the theme of the record. Whether it was rhythms, chord progressions, or scales, jazz was at the forefront of the movement. Two of the biggest innovators were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and the Wee Small Hours were ahead of their time. Davis, on the other hand, tended to reinvent himself several times throughout the fifties and sixties with Birth of the New Cool, A Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Skteches of Spain. John Coltrane would also join in with Giant Steps.

The 1950s also saw the rise of Rock and Roll. Rock did not initially lend itself to the concept album. However, some tried liked the Ventures. But the album that started the hey day of concept albums actually was not a concept album. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The sounds on the record would heavily influence the Beatles. Ironically, Pet Sounds had been heavily influences by the Beatles Rubber Soul. What Pet Sounds did was to sonically challenge the Beatles to come up with unique sounds for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Depending on which you Beatle you ask, you could have gotten four different responses what Sgt. Pepper was all about. But one thing most people can agree on was that rock and roll could be art. Ideally, the record was a headphone record as it was one of the first records to use an 8 track versus a four track recording. The experimentation with sound became the defining mark of the album culminating in the epic song, “A Day in the Life.”

Soon after, most bands tried to make their own concept album. A plethora of bands joined in. A whole new movement emerged in the late 1960s. Most of the classic rock and roll bands began at art schools throughout England. The style of rock was changing. Pete Townshend of The Who went a step further and created the Rock Opera, Tommy. Art rock was fully born. Bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and others sprang up and made some great music.

Throughout the early 197s, each of the aforementioned bands recorded long form songs and made concept album after concept album. They knew no other way. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came to epitomize a new high in concept album history. Unfortunately, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes signaled a death knell for the art rock movement. A double album, Tales contained four songs – one for each album side. In response, punk music rebelled against the nature of the art rock movement. But the art rock movement did not stop.

The concept album reached its high water mark with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was meant to symbolize walls put up between people, The Wall came to symbolize walls put up by authority and dualistically fit with the Cold War Berlin Wall.

Throughout the 1980s, the concept album began to wane as the influence of MTV began. From time to time, the occasional concept album emerged but few captured the public’s interest. Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Dream Theater, Jay Z, and other bands have tried their hands at the concept album.

For me, most of my spare time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent listening to concept albums. My favorites will most likely differ from yours.

For example, I love two concept albums by Genesis. One is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the other is Duke. For me, Duke is hugely important as we just moved from the only home I had known after my freshman year of high school to western Illinois, three hours away. In the coming years, these two records were two of my best friends. I adore these records because of where I was in my life and what they did for me.

I always liked the concept album. Whether the album had a lyric that told the story throughout the record, or whether it was a stylistic sonic choice, I associate those type of records as the best. I can still picture myself sitting around Stuart Jackson’s dining room table, smoking cigars, listening to Rush, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it was all just the late 70s, early 80s teen lifestyle, but it was enjoyable. It was art, creative, and fun.

Now, for me, Clockwork Angels is easy to listen to. The music is great, the songs are great, but the story is even greater. It takes me back to many memories of my young adulthood…As the song’s opus, “The Garden,” concludes

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
(c) 2012 Anthem Records
Lyric by Neil Peart

Sucking in the Seventies: Disco Demolition Night

I have to admit that as a young man of 14, 15, 16, I did not like disco music. Being a male growing up in the farm country of northern Illinois in the late 70s, I think it was required. Me, I was into Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Who, and the Beatles. I was more intrigued by punk than by disco. However, when I heard that Steve Dahl and Garry Meier of 97.9 WLUP were going to hold Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, I had no desire to go. All one needed was 98 cents and some disco records. I had the 98 cents. I did not have the disco records. Nor did I have any transportation to get there.

Disco had been a cultural phenomenon that showed no signs of slowing down. It had infiltrated every part of American society. Somewhere in my parent’s house is a family portrait and with my brother, my father, and I all wearing wide collars. It was hideous to me. To Hollywood and the music industry, it was the sound of money. Saturday Night Fever had taken the New York Disco club  scene and brought it nationwide. The soundtrack made stars out of the Bee-Gees. Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and Alicia Bridges became icons. But for Chicago, it was still a rock town. REO, Styx, Cheap Trick were all staples of the rock tradition in Illinois including the Chicago and college music scenes, and they all had just begun to attract a nationwide audience.

For the Chicago White Sox, owner Bill Veeck had been a master showman all his career. First as the son of the owners of the Cubs, he planted the ivy that still adorns the outfield wall at Wrigley. However, as the owner of the White Sox, Veeck went to greater lengths to get people in to the ballpark. From a midget to a circus to dorky uniform changes, Veeck tried everything to get people to the ballpark. His son, Mike, was no different. It was Mike, along with Dahl and Meier who began organizing the event.

Dahl and Meier were disc jockeys at the rock album oriented station, WLUP, 97.9. Previously, Dahl had been a disc jockey at WDAI.

Steve Dahl

On Christmas Eve 1978, WDAI changed its format from rock to disco and Dahl was out of a job.

Dahl, only 24, went without a job for several months before landing the gig at WLUP. There, Dahl met Meier and their on-air relationship began. Originally, Dahl began going around to local bars and demolishing disco records. When it came time to up the ante, Dahl, Mike Veeck, and Radio station promotions man, Jeff Schwartz organized the event’s price at 89 cents based on the 97.9 call numbers of the station.

Dahl said of disco,

“The disco culture represents the surreal, insidious, weird oppression because you have to look good, you know, tuck your shirt in, perfect this, perfect that.” “It is all real intimidating. Besides the heavy sociological significance,” he continued, “it is just fun to be a pain in the ass to a bunch of creeps.”

For the White Sox, they only averaged around 6,000 fans for a normal game. For Disco Demolition Night, the stands were packed. The Demolition was sandwiched between games of a twinight doubleheader. It was supposed to work like this. Dahl was to go out into center field and blow up a box of disco records and everyone would cheer. It did not work quite like that.

The fans were quite amped up for the first game. They threw cherry bombs, cigarette lighters, empty liquor bottles, and whatever else they could find. Records flew from the stands like frisbees. The bullpen of the Tigers had to be emptied. The smell of marijuana flowed throughout the stadium. In between games, Dahl, dressed up in army helmet, was driven out to centerfield in a Jeep with WLUP model, Lorelei. Dahl pumped up the crowd and a frenzy was about to be unleashed. Lorelei felt that she was, “in the middle of a beehive. All I could hear was buzzing all around me.” After a few chants by Dahl, the Insane Coco Lips, and the rabid crowd of “Disco sucks,” Dahl blew up the records. Within minutes, the crowd did, too.

Pitcher Ken Kravec came out to warm up on the mound after the records were blown up. That lasted only a few seconds as he ran to the dugout to escape the masses, estimated at 5,000-7,000, that stormed the field as Dahl took a victory lap. Dahl tried to calm people down as did owner Bill Veeck and broadcaster Harry Carey. Sparky Anderson, the Tiger’s Manager said, “Beer and baseball go together, they have for years. But I think those kids were doing things other than beer.” One of those kids was actor Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) who lost his belt in the melee.

The aftermath was a debacle. The field was missing chunks of grass. The second game could not be played. When stadium security could not clear the field, riot police were brought in and cleared the field quickly. Six fans were taken to the hospital. The second game, initially, was delayed, then postponed, then forfeited. Only 39 people were arrested.

As far as promotions go, inviting 50,000 rock fans to a baseball game was not the best idea the Veeck family ever had. He would sell the team a few years later to a consortium headed by Jerry Reinsdorf. For Veeck it was the beginning of the end of his owning the White Sox. For Dahl, it was the beginning of a controversial career that saw him become one of the most popular and hated radio personalities in Chicago. He and Meier would eventually part ways. Meier now works for WGN radio, the voice of the Cubs.

Today, most promotions are safe events. Bobbleheads, hats, jerseys, towels, and sunglasses being given away are common throughout the country at major and minor league parks. Because of Disco Demolition Night, the Veecks had to rethink how they were going to operate. Baseball games are meant for baseball fans. As a fan of baseball and rock, I can say pretty safely, they do not go together, like disco and demolitions. Disco, on the other hand, was never the same. It went back to the clubs and out of the mainstream culture of America.

Yes: A Winter Band

I have always listened to certain music during certain times of the year. In the wet and dampness of fall, I like to listen to early U2.
In the spring, I gravitate towards more Rush, Pearl Jam, and Crowded House. In the summer, the anthems come out with the Beatles, Stones, Springsteen, and the Allman Brothers. But for the winter, I have to listen to Yes. It usually starts in December when the temperature first drops below 40° F and ends sometime in early March. For four months every year, like clockwork, I eat, drive, exercise, and listen to the band in the heart of winter.

The odd thing about my affinity for Yes is I cannot recall quite when I became a fan. It seems like I have always had “The Yes Album.” “Fragile” has never been far away either. Long before most of my generation became familiar with them because of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” I was listening. I thought that maybe my older brother had listened to them, but I never remember seeing them in his collection of folk albums.

Yes, as a band, has had a tumultuous history. 16 members have come and gone in their 40+ year history. The only constant has been bassist Chris Squire. Along with drummer Alan White, the rhythm section has remained the same since 1972 and the 1973 album “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” There have been three main guitarists, Peter Banks, Steve Howe, and Trevor Rabin. Several Keyboardists have played in the band including Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, his son Oliver Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, and Geoff Downes to name a few. A part of the progressive rock scene in the early 70s, the band embodies the best and worst of the movement. For me, it would be hard to detail the entire history of dysfunction and virtuosity that is Yes. The band has had its hits and fair share of misses as a band. Their music is filled with compassion while at the same time an equal share of hubris. When it works, it is magical. When it doesn’t, it is unbearable. Sometimes, years later, I will give an album a second chance and it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

My Favorite Albums 
1. The Yes Album
2. Fragile
3. 90125
4. Going for the One
5. Magnification
6. Drama

Sometimes, it is hard to put into words why you like some albums more than others. For me, it is even harder when it comes to Yes. “The Yes Album” has a classic mixture of great songs, great musicianship. There is not one throwaway song on the record, they are all classic. From ‘Starship Trooper’ to ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ to ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ and ‘Perpetual Change,’ every second of the record breathes, expands, and emanates great sounds. I feel the same about “Going for the One”. From the majesty of ‘Parallels’ to the quiet sounds of ‘Wonderous Stories’ and the majestic ‘Awaken’, every song to me is a classic.

The same can be said of “Fragile,” “90125,” “Magnification,” and “Drama.” “Drama,” for some Yes fans would not make the list because it did not have the vocals of Jon Anderson but instead had Trevor Horn and former Buggles and future Asia keyboardist Geoff Downes. However, those songs, for me, thunder out of the stereo and speakers still. There is not a bad song, in my opinion on that record. Squire, White, and Howe remained at the core of the band and their prowess was never more evident. However, that lineup only lasted one record in 1980. It appeared Yes was dead.

White and Squire tried to make a go of a band with Jimmy Page (XYZ – ex Yes and Zeppelin) and then Squire and White got in contact with original keyboardist Tony Kaye and a young South African guitarist, Trevor Rabin. The band took the moniker Cinema. When they played Jon Anderson some of the tracks, he was enthused and wound up singing on some and Yes was reborn in 1983. The resulting album, 90125 changed the fortunes of the band. The music sounded fresh, modern, but it still sounded like Yes. Even with Rabin’s guitar and the sleek production of Trevor Horn, the music and songs were great and I consider the album a classic.

By the mid 1980s, I was out of college and my interest in Yes waned a bit as I focused on other interests in my life. I would buy the albums and listen to some, not listen to others. The 80s saw the high gloss production make its way into Yes. I initially did not care for a Yes album for many years until the late 1990s. My re acquaintance to Yes happened coincidentally with Napster and other file sharing programs. And for the past 15 years, I have listened to Yes every winter. Along the way, I have found some cool stuff. Magnification to me is a classic Yes album. After reuniting and breaking up constantly in the 1990s, Anderson, Howe, Squire, and White recorded an album with an orchestra just like they did thirty years earlier for “Time and a Word.” The result to me was a classic mixture of the personalities of each band member being subservient to the music. And the orchestra doesn’t hurt either.

The Unbearable
1. Tales from Topographic Oceans – I would have liked to been a fly on the wall for the discussion of the concept of this album. “OK. We are going to make an album of 4 songs. Each song will be 20 minutes. And our new drummer, the rock guy, will play drums.” No wonder Rick Wakeman left after this.
2. Tormato – I tried to listen to this over Christmas break. I got through 3 songs before I had to turn it off. However, my step-son downloaded some of the reissue. The tracks left off are far better than most of what was put on. Again, no wonder Wakeman left again and this time Anderson went with him.
3. Union – 8 members??? Really? What a cluster!

In the past few weeks, I have found myself listening to some of the baffling lineup albums from the 1990s – “Talk,” and “The Keys to Ascension 1 and 2.” And much to surprise, I found myself really enjoying the “Keys to Ascension 2” studio tracks. One particular track that has my attention the past few days is ‘Mind Drive.’

Recently, Yes released a new studio album, their first in ten years, called “Fly From Here.” Produced by Trevor Horn, Canadian singer Benoit David handles the vocals and Geoff Downes has returned to play the keyboards. I haven’t really made up my mind on the record yet. I downloaded it but I need to listen to it a few more times.

I really don’t know what it is about Yes that I have remained a fan for 35+ years. Maybe it was the artwork that grabbed me initially, maybe it was the songs. Maybe it was the virtuosity, the dynamics of sound, I do not know. I just know winter would not be the same without them.

A little documentary on the band – Part 1 has no sound, so on to Part 2

Dungeons and Dragons: Rites of Passage

As a young boy, we played many board games in the Johnson household. I enjoyed moving the pieces around the board and winning money in Monopoly or pushing someone back in Sorry. I yearned for something more challenging in a game. Backgammon and Chess became obsessions for a short period. But it’s not like anyone is gonna come over for a game of chess. It reeked of super nerd. But as Jr. High approached, my love of board games took on a different look when I discovered Risk.  I could get friends over for that. When I got to high school things changed drastically. First we moved from Northern Illinois to Southern Illinois. It was quite the culture shock. Then again, so was a new board game I discovered in the lonely space of my room that first year. That game was Dungeons and Dragons. Over the next ten years, the game was just an excuse to get out of the house, meet new people, and be exposed to so many things I never new existed.

In eighth grade I had read The Hobbit. I thought it was magical. The next logical step was to get into Dungeons and Dragons (D&D as we called it). Unfortunately, I did not know any other nerds in the new town. So, slowly, I read the monster manual, player’s handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Handbook. Walking the halls of the high school, I kept my secret to myself for a long time – months in fact. It was on a bus to a track meet when I overheard two other people talking about D&D. The next weekend, I was involved in my first campaign. Of course, cigars, beer, and Rush were involved, lots of Rush. It became the soundtrack to D&D. Albums like Caress of Steel, Fly by Night, 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, and the recently released Permanent Waves. 

D&D started out in the late 1960s by David Arneson and a then unemployed Gary Gygax. However it wasn’t until 1974 that the game first made its appearance in a box. The story of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) the company Gygax used to start and publish the game is the story of a company that got too big for what Gygax had envisioned. The first 1000 games of D&D sold in less than a month. The $1000 used to produce the rules and 1000 games had been earned back and then some. By 1977, Gygax produced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the rush for the game was on (no pun intended).

For me, it was a rite of passage. Not the main one, but one of many. There is still something magical about imagining yourself with a torch in one hand, a sword in another, trying to find the monster’s lair and some sort of treasure. There was also learning how to work with other people. As a player, you could not accomplish the mission by yourself. You had to work together to get it done. It was the dungeon master against you. I was not a good dungeon master. I did not want to give up the treasure.  I enjoyed the player role much better. There was a bond there if you defeated the campaign. I can still almost smell the torch burning and the touch of the bricks as they sweat in the dampness of the dark.

Not everyone was sold on the game. Parents feared their children were in to Devil Worship. A student died in a real live action version of the game. Another family blamed their son’s suicide on D&D.

Here is an article about the panic:

My own parents did not let me play it in the house in high school. My friends and I usually wound up in someone’s basement with the stereo cranked and the dice rolling. Looking back, I don’t know if I loved the game or the social aspect of it. Maybe it was both. It was a rite of passage for me. When I turned 16, I didn’t play D&D or AD&D as much as I had to get a job, but once or twice a month, I loved playing it. In nearby Decatur, there was a place you could order dice and campaigns to play. It usually took only 3-4 days to complete a transaction.

When college came in the fall of 1982, I packed up my manuals, dice, campaigns, my Rush albums and off to college I went. I was hopeful to find someone to play the game. I did not think it would be right across the hall in the dorm. It was. Every Saturday night my Freshman year was spent playing the game with my character, a Palladin, named Rothmoor (after David Lee Roth). It was also in those sessions that I was introduced to Genesis, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and King Crimson.

As that year came and went, I found some friends but I also found out more about music than I had ever known before. When I left college in 1986, I was pretty much done with the game. I still kept the manuals and dice nearby. Every once in a while I pop open a campaign and give it a read. The 1980s were not kind to the game. TSR and the main writer, Gary Gygax, were constantly at odds. The original three men (one had died) who had started the company were not in charge anymore. Gygax left the company in 1986 and started a new company and wrote other board games, but none as popular as D&D or AD&D. Me, I don’t think I have played the game in almost 25 years. I have however, rolled the dice and I still listen to the music. Every time I hear late 70s Progressive Rock, I still think of D&D.

Here is a peak into the past…It was quite thorough on the history of the game and how to play. There are 7 parts to the video.