Saturday, March 31, 2012

Big Audio Dynamite II - Ally Pally Paradiso

Wow . . . I didn't know this one was so rare. I've had this disc for forever; I picked it up in early 1992 at either Phantasmagoria Records or Vinyl Ink Records, two legendary Washington, DC-area music stores that sadly are no longer with us. From what I've read, this album was a promo, attached to a limited edition version of Big Audio Dynamite II's 1991 album The Globe, or available through mail order from NME magazine. The place I bought it from had it out separately for sale from the main album. I recall acquiring it in the run-up to the band's scheduled 1992 concert in DC as part of their international Globe tour.

The group was slated to play the Citadel Center, which back in the day was a great place for Washington-area concerts. It was located on Kalorama Road in the heart of the Adams Morgan neighborhood of the city, and from what I understood was a former roller skating rink. As such, the place was a cavernous barn; a huge room with a stage at one end and no seats - just standing-room only. But it was simply an outstanding venue for seeing bands . . . although you took your life in your hands if you stood too close to the stage - not due to flailing mosh pit idiots or aggressive bouncers, but because of the constant crush of people behind you surging forward. I saw The Pixies there (with Pere Ubu opening) in November 1991 with my sister, and being huge Pixies fans, we wanted to be right up front for the show. Well, I spent the entirety of The Pixies' set with her in front of me, while I held my arms locked rigidly on either side of her against the stage barrier, trying to keep both of us from being squashed. It was a great show, mind you, but my arms were so sore afterwards that I couldn't lift them to drive; my sister had to take the wheel to get us home.

Despite the drawbacks of this concert hall, I saw a lot of bands there. When I heard that BAD II was going to be at the Citadel Center over the summer, I was completely jazzed. I'd been a fan of Big Audio Dynamite from the get-go; I regard the original band lineup (featuring The Clash's Mick Jones on guitar and vocals, the vocals and found sound additions of Don Letts, Dan Donovan on keyboards, Leo Williams on bass, and drummer Greg Roberts) as the best, 'classic' lineup. When Mick Jones & Co.'s first album (This Is Big Audio Dynamite) was released in 1985, I acquired it practically the moment it came out. In subsequent years, I purchased and enjoyed the follow-up albums by the original band as they appeared - No. 10 Upping St. in '86, Tighten Up Vol. '88 (in . . . well, guess what year), Megatop Phoenix in '89 - but I could tell by the end of the decade that there was a definite lack of spark and originality remaining within Big Audio Dynamite. If there was, it certainly wasn't making it onto the albums. So there was disappointment in some quarters, but I don't think anyone (including me) was really surprised when the original BAD lineup dissolved in 1990.

When I heard that Mick Jones was putting together a brand new lineup and planning to record/tour under the name "Big Audio Dynamite", I must admit that I was more than a bit concerned. To me, it sounded as though Jones was making the same mistake that Joe Strummer made back in the mid-eighties, when in the wake of Jones' acrimonious departure from The Clash, Strummer gathered up a group of nobodies and recorded the embarrassing, widely-panned and vilified Cut The Crap under the 'Clash' moniker. I figured Jones would have learned his lesson after witnessing that debacle - but apparently not.

When The Globe was released in the summer of 1991, I forced myself not to pay attention to it - I just didn't want to be disappointed. But songs from the album began appearing in heavy rotation on some of my favorite radio stations, including DC's WHFS, and to my happy surprise I discovered that the replacement band (now dubbed "Big Audio Dynamite II") had risen to the challenge, and had actually put out a pretty good record. The new guys brought an infusion of energy and new ideas, which was basically what the group needed. I greatly enjoyed songs like "Rush" and "Green Grass", and looked forward to their upcoming show.

But alas, to my intense dissatisfaction, the show was cancelled at the last minute, for reasons that were unclear to me at the time. From what I heard later, the homeowners who lived near the Citadel Center were up in arms about having a concert venue all but on top of their houses, and were ticked off about dealing with the noise, rowdy crowds and incidental property damage that occurred during show nights. So eventually, the city shut the place down. In recent years, the location has been converted into a Harris-Teeter supermarket. Too bad - for a while there, the Citadel Center was THE place to see a show in DC.

The songs on this live album were recorded at two European shows Big Audio Dynamite II played in 1990, at the Alexandria Palace in London and at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Holland (hence the name, Ally Pally Paradiso). On this album, some of the live song names were changed from the names of the original songs on the BAD albums; when necessary, I've noted the 'real' names below:

1. "Ritual Idea" [aka "E=MC2", off of This Is Big Audio Dynamite]
2. "Babe" [aka "Baby, Don't Apologize", off of Megatop Phoenix]
3. "Free"
4. "Messiahs of the Milk Bar" [aka "Hollywood Boulevard", from No. 10 Upping Street]
5. "City Lights"
6. "Situation No Win" [aka "Rush", from The Globe]
7. "All St.'s Rd" [aka "The Battle Of All Saints Road", from Tighten Up Vol. '88]
8. "I'm On the Right Track" [aka "Contact", from Megatop Phoenix]
9. "1999" [Prince cover]

I think that this album catches much of the energy, excitement and sound of a live BAD concert in the early '90s. Listening to it now, you can also hear a huge dollop of the then-current rave/Madchester sound contained in what BAD II was doing back then. But in my mind, it doesn't really date the album all that much. As a standalone disc, I think that it holds up pretty well, and as part of the overall Big Audio Dynamite I/II oeuvre, it's not essential . . . but neither is it a frivolous or unnecessary album to own.

Anyway, you decide. For your listening pleasure, here's the only live album ever put out by any iteration of Big Audio Dynamite, Ally Pally Paradiso, released in 1991 on Columbia Records (then a subsidiary of CBS). Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

White Town - "Your Woman" Single

I was going through a storage box just the other day, looking through some old letters and photographs . . . and realized, wow, it's been fifteen years since I was last in England. I used to go there quite a bit, for work and on vacation, but until that moment it hadn't occurred to me that I'd been away from there that long. Time certainly has a way of getting away from you . . .

The last time I was in Britain was in the late winter of 1997, while I was in graduate school. All University of Virginia MBA students were required to do a big group project near the end of the second and last year. This project was usually one of assisting one of UVA's foreign and domestic corporate partners with a business problem or issue they were currently facing; it's basically free consulting work for them, and hands-on training for us. The group I ended up in was assigned to a large British insurance company, with the task of determining the feasibility and cost effectiveness of the insurer owning and operating its own nationwide chain of auto repair facilities. As part of our research for this project, we were to spend a week in England, meeting with our corporate contacts and making site visits, at the end of which we would deliver a preliminary report of our findings.

So one morning in early March of that year, I drove up from Charlottesville to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia, and with my fellow classmates took a Virgin Atlantic flight across the ocean into London Heathrow. There, an insurance company car was waiting to take us on a 90-minute drive northwest to lodgings in a small village called Tiddington, close to the corporate headquarters located in Stratford-upon-Avon, the legendary birthplace of the great William Shakespeare. By the time we arrived there, it was already getting dark, although due to the time change we were all functioning as though it were still in the early afternoon of the time zone we just left. Still, we had a lot of work to do the next day (although the company acknowledged our incipient jet lag by scheduling our first meetings for late the next morning), so we had an 'early' dinner at a local Indian restaurant and hit the hay long before 10 p.m. local time.

I woke up before the rooster early the next day, our first morning in England, and decided to take a walk and do a little exploring around the area before our first scheduled meeting with the insurance company people later that a.m. I pulled on my shoes and my beloved long black wool overcoat (mentioned here) and stepped out into the frosty, somewhat misty morning, heading west down the main road. I wasn't really going anywhere - I was just having a wander. I heard a faint gurgling off to my right, where the morning mist seemed to be the thickest, so I turned down the first side street I came to and headed towards it. In a few minutes, I found myself standing on the weedy banks of the Avon, a river steeped in history and legend. The river itself wasn't that impressive; in the States, a run like that would barely qualify as a brook, much less a stream. But, still, I was powerfully affected standing by it. With the heavy fog serving to obscure the sights and muffle the few early morning sounds of modern society, it was easy to imagine that Shakespeare had long ago once stood in the very spot I stood in, gaining inspiration from the same natural, bucolic sights I was then taking in. Even with all of the things we did in England later during that trip, that brief moment I spent alone beside the Avon was one of my personal highlights.

The rest of the day was spent down the street at work, getting our assignments and gearing up for the week to come. My fellow grad students and I split up into three or four two-man teams, each assigned with conducting on-site interviews at body shops and repair facilities all over the country. Beginning the next day, we were going to be driving into every corner of England, ostensibly to see if there were regional differences in the nature and cost of repair work being done. I made it back to my room late that afternoon to rest up and decompress a bit; I fired up the telly and was pleasantly surprised to find an episode of "Shortland Street" on one of the channels ("Shortland Street" is a long-running primetime New Zealand soap opera; back when I lived in Christchurch, it was almost required viewing for everyone there. Even the people who badmouthed the genre, the implausible plots and clichéd acting were, more often then not, devoted viewers). Later that evening, feeling a little "dry", I went across the street to an authentic-looking public house I'd noticed earlier that morning, The Crown Inn. I was not disappointed; the Crown had the look, feel and ambiance of what an American imagines an old English pub to be like - old and creaky, dark and smoky, with tankard-scarred oak tables, genial, ruddy-faced barkeeps and clientele, and a roaring blaze in the fireplace. I sat there near the fire with a pint of Guinness in front of me, writing a letter to a girl I liked back in the States, and happily felt like, yes, I really was in England.

My partner and I began our journeys early the next morning. He was in charge of driving for the first leg down to Slough, just west of London. That gave me time to take in the early morning countryside on either side of the highway. But after a while, that got old, so I switched on the radio. While spinning around the dial, I chanced upon the middle of a catchy little number I'd never heard before. The song was built upon a steady electric piano-and-drum groove, and punctuated by a nifty three-note repeated riff, played by what sounded to me like electronic horns. At first, I couldn't get a clear handle on the gender of the singer; the voice in the song lamenting relationship problems could have been either a man's or a woman's. Then came the chorus, which I heard as "I could never be a woman . . .", which indicated to me that the singer was a dude. My initial impression was that the tune was about a guy admitting to and commenting on his poor behavior to his girlfriend, while at the same time sympathizing with her over putting up with his bullshit. "I could never be a woman" - to me, that was a brilliant line and premise! I didn't catch the name of the singer or song then, but I knew that eventually I would.

I heard that song several more times that day as we made our way from place to place west and south of London - while it was unknown in the States, it apparently was a big hit over in England. The more times I listened to it (in some cases now in its entirety), the more mistaken my initial take on the song seemed to be. Various lines just didn't add up to what I assumed the overall premise was. Was the guy in the song projecting his feelings onto his girlfriend? Was he gay? Was it really a woman singing, and not a guy at all? I finally caught a broadcast where the DJ gave out the song details - it was called "Your Woman" by a band called White Town. That's when it all made sense to me - it wasn't "I could never be a woman"; it was "I could never be your woman". The male singer was impersonating a woman in the song - fair enough. I didn't learn more about the group until I returned to the States.

The "band" White Town was (and is) essentially one man, India-born Englishman Jyoti Mishra. When he was 23, he saw The Pixies play during their April/May 1989 English tour (immediately in the wake of their recently released album Doolittle). Inspired by what he saw, Mishra put together the first version of his band a couple of months later. With Mishra fronting a group consisting of a bassist, drummer and guitarist, they were the typical small town combo (based in Derby), trying to make a name for themselves by playing support gigs for other more famous and established bands passing through the area. The band's first release, the self-financed 7" White Town EP, came out in 1990 and was greeted with a deafening silence. By the end of that year, all of Mishra's supporting musicians had abandoned him, and White Town became a solo enterprise. For the next few years, the singer began making records (mostly EPs, and one album) out of his home studio, utilizing the occasional assistance of local Derby musicians, and releasing them on small independent labels. All of these releases failed to chart, in England or elsewhere.

White Town and its records were essentially Mishra's single-minded, unsuccessful conceit until the >Abort, Retry, Fail?_ EP was released in late 1996 on independent Parasol Records. This disc featured "Your Woman", a reworking of an old Bing Crosby song from the 1930s called "My Woman" - the most popular version of which was sung by Al Bowlly with the Lew Stone and Monseigneur Band and featured in the movie Pennies From Heaven (Mishra appropriated the trumpet riff from the original version (contact me with the following email link if you want this file: Send Email) and featured it prominently in his song). Mishra's "female" voice in the song was a bold, gender-skewing move, but one based on art rather than on sexual orientation. Either way, it made quite a stir. For once, a White Town release gained significant airplay and buzz, so much so that Chrysalis Records (a subsidiary of industry giant EMI) quickly swooped in and put together a joint distribution deal with Parasol and a recording contract with Mishra before the end of the year. With EMI's marketing muscle behind it, "Your Woman" made it to #1 on the UK charts by January 1997.

Chrysalis/EMI was eager to capitalize on the success of the single, and pushed Mishra unmercifully to put out a supporting album as quickly as possible. This heavy-handed pressure led to an ongoing, bitter dispute between the label and artist during the recording and subsequent release of White Town's Women In Technology in late February 1997. The album made it to the lower reaches of the British Top 100 chart, due almost entirely to the inclusion of the hit single in the song lineup. But the bad blood between Mishra and EMI remained and even intensified, so much so that by the end of 1997, barely a year after signing on, White Town was booted from the label.

"Your Woman" was sort of like the unofficial theme song for my time in the UK. We travelled all over the country for our site visits, mostly in the South of England. However, there was still plenty of time for fun and sightseeing - among other places, we went to Blenheim Palace, my hero Winston Churchill's ancestral home; Oxford University, a campus and area so steeped in history and gravitas that it made our own University of Virginia seem like some sort of 2-year vocational school; and the Ashdown Forest, home of Winnie the Pooh. We met up with the rest of our team members in London for a night; none of them besides me had ever been there before, so I sort of served as the tour guide there. And back in our home base, the insurance company made sure that we got a full appreciation of the city of Stratford-upon-Avon. We toured all of the Shakespeare-related attractions, including his home (which was interesting, but it was sort of off-putting to look out of his window to see a Laura Ashley shop directly across the street), and one night we
attended a performance of Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (an unknown by the name of Damian Lewis had a small part in the production). On our final evening there, our hosts ferried us up to a very old village in the Cotswolds, where we spent the night toasting one another's health in a 200-year-old pub that had an ancient, rutted skittles lane in the back room (I knew it was going to be a good night when, on a whim, I asked the barkeep for a Mackeson XXX Stout, an old favorite and deeply mystical selection nearly impossible to find in the States, and up to that point difficult to come across in England - the man served it up instantly, at the perfect temperature). Through it all, that song played everywhere, and I made a note to myself to acquire a copy when I returned to the States.

By the time I returned to Virginia, "Your Woman" was making a small run on the American charts, eventually reaching #23 on the Hot 100. That was the group's high-water mark. With the demise of the contract with EMI, White Town/Mishra rapidly returned to obscurity. He continues to release albums and singles on independent labels and his own Bzangy imprint, all of which have been met with tepid reviews and low sales. Until the increasingly unlikely event of lightning striking twice for him, White Town was and is considered a one-hit wonder. But hell - I guess that's better than NO hits, eh?

Here's the 2-song White Town Your Woman single, released by the American arm of Chrysalis in 1996. For me, this song will always be associated with England, and especially with a cold, foggy morning when I stood on the banks of the Avon and briefly imagined myself communing with the spirit of the immortal Bard.

. . . or not. Either way, enjoy - and as always, let me know what you think.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Residents - The Commercial Album

Although I didn't like living in California all that much in the first couple of months after I moved there from Massachusetts in 1980 (as I mentioned here) , I quickly came to love and appreciate it. California, and the Monterey Peninsula in particular, were so much different from the things I'd known and experienced while living on the East Coast for most of my life. I'm not just talking about the weather there - it was the entire attitude and vibe of the place that I came to enjoy.

Generally, in Monterey I felt less constrained, both socially and literally. My family moved to California from a very wealthy and quite snobby small town on Massachusetts' South Shore, where the cliques and castes were rigidly defined and heavily defended, especially in school. In addition, the town was far enough away from the influence of larger cities like Boston, and isolated just enough (due to proximity and economic status) from the neighboring towns, that the community mindset was quite insular and constrained. When you lived there, you weren't aware of it as much. But upon my relocation to the West Coast, I began to realize how much of a cage I was in back in New England.

At my new high school, a lot of that 'clique' and 'status' crap, while still present, was toned down considerably over what I had previously experienced. Generally, everyone was cool with everyone else. Years later, when I began to spend time in San Francisco, one thing that struck me about that city was that, on the whole, people didn't give a shit who you were and what you were up to, just so long as what you were into wasn't illegal or being a nuisance or bother to them. I then realized that that attitude wasn't restricted to San Fran - Monterey had that same kind of vibe going.

For me, the new openness I felt there was reflected in the design and curriculum of the school. All of my life on the East Coast, I attended brick-and-mortar monolithic schools, everything contained within the same structure - juvenile jails without bars, places where students were all but locked in (except for recess) from 8 am to 3 pm. Monterey High was my first experience with an open structure - several buildings spread around the campus and grouped around a courtyard, allowing you to at least get some air and see the sky en route between classes. And students weren't required to be on school grounds all day; if you had a free period or other long breaks between classes, you were allowed to head out into the nearby downtown area to do whatever the heck you wanted. This was absolutely mind-blowing to me, being able to go to Round Table Pizza on Alvarado Street with Jeff and Rick and Jim and my other buddies for lunch! It was a novel concept to be treated like a responsible human being there, instead of a knuckleheaded kid.

That different attitude seemed to be everywhere - a guy I knew in school turned down a college scholarship so he could go surfing in Australia for a year; the Dream Theater on Prescott Avenue constantly pulled in crowds for late-night weekend showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Pac-Man came out in the States early that fall, and was so popular that even my straightlaced mother was known to sneak over to the airport game room to play it; Carmel and Cannery Row were as yet mostly untouched by commercialism or tourists, and were still full of history and interesting activities; and the town's leading florist operated out of the "Planet Claire Flower Shop".

For me, California was just so COOL, and so much in the forefront of everything that was happening, much more than anyplace else I'd ever been.

One weekend that fall, my folks and siblings had gone out for the evening, leaving me by my lonesome in an otherwise vacant home. Bored, I turned the TV on and started flipping around the dial. I landed on a program that immediately caught my interest called "Videowest", airing on a public television station out of San Francisco. "Videowest" was a music video program, predating the premiere of MTV by almost a year.

Although the origins of short filmed musical performances date back to before the 1930s [believe it or not, the term "music video" was coined by none other than DJ and singer J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, who died in the 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens], in the U.S. in the late '70s/early '80s, they were still considered novelties and rarities, and people got very excited here whenever the odd one would pup up on TV every once in a while. The British Commonwealth countries were way ahead of the U.S. in pioneering, developing and disseminating the music video format - Australia's video program "Countdown" began airing in 1974, New Zealand's "Radio With Pictures" started in 1976, and Britain's "Top Of The Pops" began showing music videos in 1977. But in these parts, the only chance you had of seeing the odd one would be a one-off airing on a music or variety show. I remember seeing a video for XTC's "Making Plans For Nigel" in late 1979 (can't remember what show it was on) and being completely stunned. And I recall when "Saturday Night Live" had the U.S. premiere of Paul McCartney & Wings' then-groundbreaking "Coming Up" video (with McCartney simultaneously playing various roles, predating Outkast's "Hey Ya!" clip's use of this concept by almost 25 years) in May 1980 - I thought it was amazingly innovative and cool. But in my experience and to my knowledge, at that time there was no weekly show anywhere in the States that aired music videos exclusively . . . until I stumbled onto "Videowest".

Every week, "Videowest" would usually concentrate on a particular theme or genre, and intersperse music videos among interviews, commentary and humorous pieces related to that theme. A couple of program samples, with the themes of "Television" and "Beauty", can be found here and here (the music videos have been removed due to licensing issues). It was all very arty and avant garde, as properly befitted a show out of San Francisco. And while all of that was interesting, my main reason for tuning in was to see the videos, almost all of which were on the cutting edge of music of that time.

The first Devo videos I ever saw (including "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize" and "Girl U Want") were aired on "Videowest", along with my first exposure to a 'new' band out of New Zealand called Split Enz and their first semi-big U.S. hit, "I Got You". The first time I ever saw or heard of Laurie Anderson was through the show, the start of my lifelong fascination with her work. "Videowest" sometimes served as a showcase for obscure San Francisco bands as well. One night, I was treated to a video for the song "(Sooner Or Later) Some Of My Lies Are True" by a bar band with a local following, Huey Lewis & The News - my first glimpse of a band that became international superstars a few years later.

In the minds of many viewers and critics at the time (myself included), Devo was considered to be the most innovative and groundbreaking of the early music video pioneers. Their clips were so off-the-wall and visually mesmerizing, no other band could even come close to what they were doing . . . or so I thought. One evening in early 1981, "Videowest" devoted an entire show to the videos of a band they claimed out-Devo-ed Devo, an obscure, secretive San Francisco collective called The Residents. What I was treated to that night were some of the most off-kilter and disturbing videos that any band had dared to make at that time (or any time thereafter, in my opinion). Almost all of the clips were for songs off of the most recent Residents release, The Commercial Album - a disc containing forty songs, all exactly sixty seconds long.

The origin and background of The Residents is murky and steeped in mystery - to the point that the identities of the group members are officially unknown. As Wikipedia states:

"Throughout the group's existence, the individual members have ostensibly attempted to operate under anonymity, preferring instead to have attention focused on their art output. Much outside speculation and rumor has focused on this aspect of the group. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats and tuxedos - a long-lasting costume now recognized as their signature iconography."

According to information released by the band (which may or may not be entirely factual), The Residents are all natives of Shreveport, Louisiana, and met when they were all in high school there in the 1960s. After graduation, they all headed to California as a group, at first settling in San Mateo in 1966 when the van they were traveling in broke down there, and later moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s. While in San Mateo, they began working on various art projects involving photography, sculpture and experimental recordings on crude reel-to-reel tape recorders. Over the next several years, the band made dozens, possibly hundreds, of recordings of their decidedly weird music and sounds. In 1971, they forwarded one of these reel-to-reel tapes to Warner Brothers, hoping to receive the same type of consideration and support that Warners had provided to their musical heroes, label artist Captain Beefheart. But Warner Brothers rejected the recording out of hand. Since the group had not included a name on their mailing address, the rejection letter included with the returned tapes was addressed to "The Residents" . . . and thus a band name was born.

Soon after their major label rejection, the band moved to San Francisco and started their own label, Ralph Records, to release their music. Their first studio album on the label, Meet The Residents, was put out in 1974. Throughout the '70s, the band was prolific, releasing five more albums, several singles and EPs, and for several years working on an ambitious (but ultimately unfinished) film project called Vileness Fats, which if completed would have been the first long-form music video. The Commercial Album, their seventh studio album, was released in 1980.

On "Videowest", the concept behind The Commercial Album was explained as such: the standard three-minute pop song played on the radio generally consists of a verse, chorus and break, repeated three times. It was the idea of The Residents to distill this standard structure down to its essence - a song comprised of a single verse, chorus and break lasting just one minute. That way, if a listener wanted a "pop song", all her or she had to do was play each tune on the album three times in a row.

It was both a wickedly subversive idea, and a hilarious way to take the piss out of popular radio fare, which the band considered to be too rigidly formulaic, by converting this commercial music into ACTUAL 'commercial' (as in 60-second radio/television commercial) music. To that end, and also to promote their album, The Residents purchased 40 one-minute advertising slots on San Francisco's most popular Top-40 station at the time (KFRC). Over three days, the station was obligated to play each track of their album during those station breaks - a brilliant way to promote their album, while simultaneously blurring the line between art and commerce.

The band members wrote and played on every song on the album, and got some help from their friends during the recording, using Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman and Fred Frith for some session work, along with anonymous guest vocalists Lene Lovich and XTC's Andy Partridge on a couple of songs. And in keeping with their arty multimedia background, The Residents completed music videos to accompany many of the songs, several of which were featured that night on "Videowest". Here are but a couple of examples of the clips that charmed, frightened, and jolted me that evening (the link below includes videos for "Moisture", "The Act Of Being Polite" "Perfect Love" and "The Simple Song", all of which were featured on the show):

The thirty-minute presentation I watched that evening was my only exposure to The Residents for a very long time. But the memory of their music and those mind-bending videos lingered with me for years, past the end of high school and well into college . . .

My four years at Navy was the time when I really began to expand my music collection, searching far and wide for the latest sounds of that era (mostly punk, post-punk and New Wave - hey, it WAS the mid-80s!). I quickly exhausted my search for non-mainstream music in the shops that were the most easily accessible to me, namely the Midshipman's Store and the record retailer at Annapolis Mall (neither locale known for being smoldering hotbeds for unconventional albums). So I began to expand my horizons and look further afield. An acquaintance of mine, a fellow "weird music" fanatic, tipped me off regarding an obscure used record store located in a small industrial park area of Annapolis, down West Street between the McDonalds and the old Parole Shopping Center. So one warm weekend afternoon during my Second Class (junior) year, I put on my summer white uniform, laced up my shoes, and began the four-mile walk towards this reputed place (I had no car, it was too remote to be served by bus, and I was too cheap to hire a cab).

I found the small shop tucked away down a side street, amidst machine shops and auto repair facilities. The hippie-fied owner looked as alien and unfamiliar to me as I'm sure I looked to him - a midshipman clad in gleaming white strolling into his dank, out-of-the-way store. As nonchalantly as I could, I made my way over to his stacks, which were mostly vinyl. A glance at his wares confirmed what I suspected from my first glimpse of the proprietor - most of what he had to offer were '60s Woodstock rock/'concept' albums and '70s prog rock freakouts. I had the sinking feeling that I had come all that way for nothing. But out of both politeness and boredom, I lingered a bit and looked carefully through the LPs.

It was there and then that a copy of The Commercial Album leapt out at me - The album name boldly emblazoned in red over the green-tinted faces of John Travolta and Barbra Streisand, with images of The Residents superimposed over them, giving the cover stars an eerie bug-eyed look. I'd never actually seen a Residents disc for sale anywhere up to that point (although, truth be told, I hadn't exactly been looking for one up to then). But one look at that album brought back to me every aspect of that long-ago night in Monterey, watching "Videowest" and getting blown away. I quickly took my selection to the register and paid the shopkeeper, who wore a look on his face of mingled incredulity and admiration, no doubt surprised that a supposed straight-arrow Naval Academy attendee was with-it enough to know and appreciate who The Residents were.

I still have that vinyl version, and a few years ago I acquired a copy on CD, containing ten bonus songs. That is the version I'm providing you here. So, for your listening pleasure, I give you The Commercial Album, released in 1980 on Ralph Records. This is a disk to be enjoyed and appreciated not all at once, but in snippets. Not everything on this album works, but there are definitely things here that will have you coming back to them, time and time again. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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