Andy Partridge, the chief songwriter and coleader of the band XTC, has a chip on his shoulder about being from Swindon, a city of 233,000 in Wiltshire, about 70 miles west of London, England. In 2016, he explained why to an interviewer from Louder: “To the English, anything that comes from Swindon must have comedic value. And I think it’s held us back terribly.” He went on to say that if the band had been American, or even came from the northern city of Manchester, birthplace of many great English groups, it would have been held in higher esteem. “We were f**king brilliant,” he asserted: “One of the greats.”
Spirit is not exactly a forgotten band. Two of its songs, “I Got a Line on You” and “Nature’s Way,” have been constants on classic-rock radio playlists. Beyond those tunes, however, the typical rock fan probably hasn’t heard much from a group whose first four LPs rank among the best of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Perhaps Spirit’s eclecticism ended up limiting its appeal. At times its music could be pegged as progressive or hard rock, but it also included elements of jazz, folk, and even classical music. For all its ambition, Spirit wrote memorable songs that should have led to a much larger following.
The history of rock music is filled with musicians who were one-hit wonders, or whose career was somewhat brief but had a lasting impact. The Velvet Underground’s recording life was a mere four years, but inspired countless other bands. Of course, two of the original members, Lou Reed and John Cale, went on to have long careers in music. Music journalist Lester Bangs’s essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” makes a convincing argument that Count Five’s lone hit, “Psychotic Reaction,” was more influential than the entire recorded output of some bands.
Let’s talk about vinyl.
I’ll begin by saying that you can call them records or LPs (which stands for “long player” or “long-playing”), but never “vinyls.” Vinyl is what’s used to make LPs, and vinyl as a general description for records that are pressed out of that material is fine. I’ve been buying records for more than 50 years, but I’ve never called them “vinyls.” I collect vinyl, but I have 4000 LPs. Or maybe 5000. . . .
The first time Bruce Dickinson, then a vice-president at MCA Records, saw The Tragically Hip play live was at the Toronto Music Awards in 1988. “I guess it was during the first song,” Dickinson told the National Post in 2016. “Gord [Downie, the band’s lead singer] drops the mic on the floor inadvertently. It comes unattached from the cord, and the top of the mic comes off. I remember distinctly, Bobby Baker [guitar] and Gord Sinclair [bass] just looked at each other like, ‘Oh, crap. What are we going to do?’ Downie, as you know, is a great improviser. He just picks up the mic, puts it back together and tells a whole story in the middle of the song that involves the mic. I thought that was really cool.”
When Stevie Wonder joined the Motortown Revue, the package tour of Motown artists who played theaters on the Chitlin’ Circuit, he had been with Motown’s Tamla Records label for about a year. Wonder had signed to the label in 1961, when he was 11, and had released two LPs—as “Little Stevie Wonder”—the following year. The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray, a collection of songs made famous by Ray Charles, hadn’t made a dent on the charts. Motown had also released three singles by Wonder, but only “I Call It Pretty Music but the Old People Call It the Blues” charted, and it only reached 101.
In September 1966, when James Marshall Hendrix arrived in London to record his debut album, fronting his own band, he was just two months shy of his 24th birthday. He had been playing professionally since 1962, when he and bassist Billy Cox had left the US Army, where they met, and moved to Nashville. While he was in Tennessee, Hendrix played on the Chitlin’ Circuit, sometimes referred to as the urban theater circuit. These were venues in the South, the Eastern Seaboard, and the Midwest that featured African-American performers. Hendrix backed a number of soul singers during his time on the circuit, including Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke.
In 1970, Marvin Gaye fell into a deep depression following the death of Tammi Terrell, the singer with whom he had recorded a number of duets that were among Tamla Records’ biggest sellers. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” had hit 19 on the pop charts, while “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” were all in the top 10 in 1967 and 1968.
I first heard Laura Nyro’s songs the way many of us who weren’t quite in our teens did in 1968. The 5th Dimension scored a hit in June of that year with “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a song Nyro had written for her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, which Columbia Records had released in March. The 5th Dimension weren’t really hip, and the single stuck out on AM radio as something your parents would like. A year later, they dented the charts again with “Wedding Bell Blues,” a song from Nyro’s 1967 debut album, More Than a New Discovery.
Nominee Todd Rundgren was passed over for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. I concede that T. Rex was overdue for recognition, and that Nine Inch Nails and the Notorious B.I.G. have made contributions significant enough to warrant induction. But I can’t imagine Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor without Rundgren’s influence -- and don’t get me started on the Doobie Brothers.