Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jukebox: (You Can Still) Rock in America

Night Ranger--(You Can Still) Rock in America 
Purchase: Midnight Madness 

NightRanger—I’m not going to claim I know much about them, save for a little trivia (their guitarist, Brad Gillis, was one of OzzyOsborne’s ever-changing stable of guitar heroes; singer Jack Blades went on to form Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent, which made for a large part of the soundtrack that haunted all the frat parties I went to freshman year down in Carolina—Damn Yankees were huge in NC in the early ‘90s and I don’t have much else to say about that). Most importantly, they wrote Sister Christian, one of the 80s greatest rock epics. It was their most popular song, and Sister Christian went on to reclaim its greatness as the haunting musical stage dressing to one of the greatest scenes in modern cinema (Boogie Nights), and no one who’s seen the film can forget the epic drums that so perfectly suited the spring-coiled violence about to unfold.

I can't overstate this: Sister Christian—it was their greatest song. It has worked it’s earnest way to becoming one of your favorite rock songs. And it was such a strange anthem, sad and yearning, set to a rumbling take off engine thrum, and like the greatest of rock songs, can fuel not only nostalgia, but oddly slide it’s way in as an identifying soundtrack to a lot of ‘moments’, be it a first kiss, a drunken sing along, or a violent shootout/robbery gone terribly awry.You choose, but, you know I'm telling the truth...

NightRanger? Am I really talking about Night Ranger? The name doesn’t even make sense, but on second thought, my original thesis—that Night Ranger is one of those bands that it's better to not know much about—I guess I’m proving that wrong already, and we’re barely out of the introductory paragraph.

As I write this, I’ve got a Night Ranger playlist going on the youtubes…and though I started this piece with one line repeating in my head, I realize, as always, I should let the music speak for itself. If you're so inclined to recall the 80s, and the buzzsaw guitar and strident keyboard marches that made rock music so infectious, Night Ranger isn’t so bad. And trying to assign a scientific or aesthetic principal to what makes music good, what makes a particular band or song worth the cost of nostalgia, well…maybe that doesn’t need a thesis or an explanation. As always, let the music speak for itself and prove its own point.

 When I saw the theme for this month’s theme of jukebox there was one line that came to mind immediately—the opening line of Night Ranger’s “You Can Still Rock in America” from their 1983 breakout album, Midnight Madness: “Little sister by the record machine...” 

“You Can Still Rock in America” satisfies all the check boxes a band would need to achieve an ‘anthem’, especially for the 80s: diddley-do keyboards, cowbell and gong driven drum march,  fuzzed out, metal guitar riffs and acrobatic soloing. And, don’t forget the audience-participation-ready drum and vocal breakdown. This was formula driven rock, arena ready before the tour even hit the road, but it was brilliant right out of the gate. It might have fit into a formula then, but as I sit and listen to it now, there is an earnestness, a driving kind of beauty to the music that, if I can look at it from my 43 year old perspective, reminds me of all that was good—No, divine—in what made me fall in love with rock music, which is a relationship I’ve had in my life that has truly made all the difference.

I remember when I was 7th and 8th grade, discovering good music for the first time, these guys rocked, despite what I was learning in my own, older-brother’s-record-collection-Master-Class (which, of course was the Beatles and the Stones). I had access to good music early, and my parents were very cool about buying me ‘boom boxes’ and ceding over to me their turntable. My bedroom and my pawn store bought-and-borrowed record collection was my original sanctuary, my real classroom. When I think back to my childhood, I am lucky to have an endless amount of great memories, but my best ones are of learning to love music to the LPs playing on my scratchy, one-speaker turntable. And for a long while, there was good music playing. Sadly, Night Ranger, which in my final assessment right now I will say was a great band, gave way to Hair Metal, and the overdone silliness of the LA rock scene—for a while I thought Cinderella, Bon Jovi and Dokken were the pinnacle of rock greatness…What can I say: I followed trends. The late 80s were a bad time for popular music, and my allegiance to great bands, to great music, wouldn’t be that tight until later in life. I was over eager, and perhaps I let slip a few times...bad decisions...what excuse can I plead-I abandoned the turntable for cassettes, and started listening to what everyone else was listening to. I’m not proud of a lot of what I can pull out of my old collection… 

But, hang on a minute: the more I dig into what I was listening to at the time,  the more I think maybe I can give myself a small break: I snatched up the Van Halen catalog in 1984 and it got regular rotation in my concert hall bedroom, as did AC/DC’s Back in Black, so…I have no real excuse for delving into bad music...I just like music. And that's where Night Ranger comes in: a bridge between the silly and the not-so I ask myself now, because back then there was no question: I could definitely rock, but now can you still...?

Maybe,  “You Can Still Rock in America”? 

Give it a shot. It’s cheesy, of course, in the way 80’s ‘metal’ can be, but it’s a jukebox song, and while it might be a lesser entry into the endless and everlasting fuck the rules, break down the walls, go nuts escapism anthem blast creed that tattoos the glorious history of this beautiful thing we call rock ‘n roll, it still works damn well. It’s exuberant the way rock music should be: it drives; it puts a foot to the floor, it has girls and fast cars, it's vaguely rebellious about something vaguely troubling, maybe being young, maybe too many rules. Who cares. Since when has rock ‘n roll needed something specific to rebel against, so long as you’ve got wailing guitars and a good solid beat pushing you into doing your very worst?

It’s rock n roll. It might be a little silly, and sometimes I think we need to feel guilty for loving something that might come across as dated, or too much of an era, or just to silly and earnest in what is—in this case, Night Ranger was a great rock band, full of radio friendly hooks, sugar-sweet anthems and fist in the air, foot to the floor rock. Sometimes you need a little Night Ranger, lest you start taking this whole rock thing a little too seriously. Rock music is supposed to be mindless and it should make you go a little nuts, but it should also remind you of who you used to be, before you got too old to still rock (in America…).

Jukebox: I Fought the Law

Bobby Fuller Four: I Fought the Law
Purchase mp3

(Slightly tangential to our theme - a related last minute entry)
If I don’t misremember, most of my association with the jukebox is vicarious: I read lots of Archie comics and watched shows like Happy Days. There weren’t any jukeboxes where I grew up, but that’s probably because the Jukebox was rather American. That’s not to say I had no direct experience with them, but mine was limited to that period of my life when I had my own money and was of an age where my tastes would have run in that direction. I recall a “Wall-o-matic” I ran across in a booth at a diner oncet, and a couple of full-size Wurltizer kind of things in a bowling alley or maybe a bar I might have been in.


When I was in the the USofA for one year in 1965-6 and had just started to listen to the kind of music that would have likely been stocked in a jukebox, I was just a little too young to be putting my own quarters into jukes. A few years later, when I next returned to the land of ”Good and Plenty”, my musical interests had veered toward music like “Long Distance Runaround” by Yes - clocking in at around 13 minutes and not the kind of material that was generally used to stock most jukes.

my 45 collection
However, back to ’65, when I had just started listen to juke-potential music a-la top 20. I was in the habit of using my allowance to purchase the occasional 45 and had begun to amass a collection of the things – storing them safely in a case made specially for that purchase (that's mine above). One of my first purchases was a copy of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law”. I don’t recall ever having watched this clip – looks like it might have been made for TV – but I couldn’t help but grin at how politically inappropriate it must seem today. In further doing my research, I see now (and wasn’t previously aware) that Bobby Fuller was dead less than a year after his version made the charts (and the jukeboxes of America).

Written by Sonny Curtis (who took on Buddy Holly’s lead role with the Crickets after Holly’s death a few years before this version came out), the song has since been covered and covered, and is ranked well up the list in Rolling Stones Top 500 of all time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Time for a quickie again, much as promoted by erstwhile and occasional Darius of this parish, 'cos there isn't always time for learned theses and sometimes just the song will do.

I have to admit to one big soft spot for Sweet Baby James, tho' I prefer the soft-rock addled troubadour of the 70s to his later more earnest presentation. Who can but fail to be bowled over by the plaintiveness of his vocal in this no-little self-reverential song? And if you aren't, what about :

The lovely Linda Ronstadt etches the country up a notch or two, and, if I am not mistaken, ol' JT plays the guitar on this version too. What, you want more quirky?

That's Judith Owen, occasional Richard Thompson sides(wo)man and wife, no less, of Harry Shearer. And if you want outright odd, how about this, about which I know nothing:

I guess the problem with this song, and, arguably, it's author and most well-known interpreter, is that they were, for a while, just too damn ubiquitous. But I don't care. They can do no wrong with me. (Well, except for that godawful Mexico song.........)

Nostalgia fest: Buy it! (This page covers all the above and more.)

Jukebox: Growin’ Up

Bruce Springsteen: Growin’ Up

In this post-Brian Williams world, I have been reading a great deal about the unreliable nature of memory. It always strikes me when I speak with old friends that I can have a strong memory of something and they don’t, or when our memories are different, even when I know they were there. For example, when I was a senior in college, I got the opportunity to visit the Gettysburg battlefield with a group of professors and grad students, led by the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson. My friend Judith was the only other undergraduate invited.  I recall that I got the invitation because I had a big car and was friendly with one of the grad students (who later wrote a book about Springsteen). I’m not sure what Judith’s in was, but she later became a history professor and worked with McPherson, so maybe there was something there. She’ll probably read this and let me know, and based on the video linked below, she has a different memory of how I got invited.

Anyway, there are things about that trip that have stuck in my mind to this day, more than 30 years later, especially walking across the field toward Cemetery Ridge as we recreated Pickett’s Charge. A few years ago, Judith contacted me to say that she was going to be participating on a panel honoring Professor McPherson, and told me that she was going to tell an anecdote referencing something that I said during that walk. And to be honest, I do not remember saying it—but it was so memorable to her that she told the story at the conference. It’s here, starting at 24:25. And I’m happy that what I apparently said got laughs from the assembled historians.

There were no jukeboxes at Gettysburg, but trust me, I’ll get there.

It was probably my 12th birthday, but I’m not sure, and I remember that someone gave me a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. which had come out earlier that year. I can’t specifically recall if I was familiar with his music or who gave it to me, and I do remember some surprise, because I know that I had never mentioned to anyone that I wanted that album. And I remember putting it on the turntable and being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words and the cleverness of the lyrics, as much as the power of the music.

No, I didn’t become a crazed Bruce fan, and it wasn’t a religious experience for me. But I have always liked his music. I’ve only seen him once, at Princeton a few years before I went to Gettysburg, and my most powerful memories of the show (other than that it was great) are that he messed up “Born to Run," and that the crowd jumped up and down so much, it damaged the gym floor. And I do think that his body of work has been consistently excellent, for much longer than most artists stay relevant.

As I said, (and have written about elsewhere) I loved the wordplay on the debut album. While the song “Growin’ Up” isn’t as thesaurus reliant as “Blinded By The Light,” it has its moments. Clearly based on Springsteen’s memories of, yeah, growin’ up, he wrote:

The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing 
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn't sail but she sure could sing. 

So, what’s a “jukebox graduate”? Someone who only knows what she learned from music? Someone who wasn’t “book smart”? I’m not really sure, but it is a great phrase, and has been co-opted as the inspiration for at least two blogs (one by a former Smithie), a band and a middle school club in North Carolina.

Really, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t remember my memorable remark to Judith, or who gave me Springsteen’s debut. But both my trip to Gettysburg and that album have continued to resonate with me through the years.