Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass

I feared for Aimee Mann. She was the lead singer, bass player and chief selling point of ‘Til Tuesday, a band which was, in the mid-1980s, the Next Big Thing. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Another casualty of the star machine?

‘Til Tuesday was a Boston synth-pop outfit with a hint of punk, which burst onto the scene in 1985 with “Voices Carry”. With the help of a striking video featuring Mann, she of the platinum hair and wide eyes, it was a huge hit.

TT VC 1985

Industry executives looked at her and saw dollar signs. There was a rash of publicity. I remember reading a profile in Rolling Stone. There was a picture of Mann, looking moody. The caption: “C’mon, Aimee, how can someone who looks so good feel so alienated?” This remains possibly the stupidest thing ever written, even in Rolling Stone.

Early success was not replicated. Label heavyweights demanded hits. The hits failed to come, and the band fell apart under pressure. ‘Til Tuesday; gone Wednesday.

I looked up Aimee Mann, expecting a sad story of bitterness, break-up and drug abuse. I am happy to be completely wrong. She built a solo career, worked on film music and a variety of other projects, and still performs. She has won Grammy awards, done heaps of stuff. This is her in 2008: looking healthy and happy, a woman in control of her own destiny.

Aimee_Mann_October_2008 Against all expectation, Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass. Her most recent album is called Mental Illness, and it is, frankly, wonderful. I have bought the download — I encourage you to do the same.

Here she is, back in the ‘Til Tuesday days, with “Don’t Watch Me Bleed”, a B-side breakup song with angsty vocals and moody bass to suit the title.

  • Artist: ‘Til Tuesday
  • A Side: Looking Over My Shoulder
  • B Side: Don’t Watch Me Bleed
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Epic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ES 1057
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

Distributed in health-food stores

Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.

My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.

wh smaplerThere was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.

But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.

One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.

Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.

It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.

This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.

It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.

  • Artist: William Ackerman
  • Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
  • Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Windham Hill Records
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ‎WHA 1
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Dancing on the wall

It was a year of miracles, 1989. The Iron Curtain which had divided Europe for 40 years, which seemed as permanent and indestructible as the pyramids, was swept aside. Communist regimes, ruthless police states all, collapsed like portable picnic tables hit by a car. And the most amazing thing? Scarcely a shot was fired. People were just fed up, and they gathered in town squares and demanded that the revolting, corrupt apparatchiks of the Communist government surrender power. And they did! People were dancing on top of the Berlin Wall! It was smoother in some places than others – there was real bloodshed in Romania. But it seemed a new dawn, a chance for the world to become a better place.

Oh, and there was Bros. A pair of pretty boys. In the classic English style, they had a hint of breaking both ways. They put out records, and were hugely successful.

I confess: it is a little hard for me to understand why. Having been around in the 1980s, I can take polished hi-gloss dance-orientated synth-pop, or I can leave it. To my ear, Bros is a kind of vanilla-flavoured Michael Jackson. But Planet Vinyl is a broad church. It is always a good thing that people make music, and Bros do what they do well. This is “Astrologically,” the B side of one of their many top ten singles. Profound it ain’t; danceable it is.

No idea if the people dancing on the Berlin Wall had Bros on the boombox, but it is perfectly possible. In a strange way, that is the point. People should be able to dance to whatever music they like – that is freedom.

  • Artist: Bros
  • A Side: Too Much
  • B Side: Astrologically
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: CBS
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 654647 7
  • Year: 1989

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Vaguely about the end of a relationship

The lecturer held up an LP cover. It was Supertramp’s 1975 album, Crisis? What crisis?. The sleeve pictures a man reclining with a drink under a beach umbrella, but instead of a beach he is set against a bleak factoryscape, a nightmare of grey industry spewing pollution. What, the lecturer wondered, does this mean, exactly? Does it, in truth, mean anything? He was not dismissive, not scornful, just raised the question: is this, maybe, a problem?

Supertramp_-_Crisis

Image via Wikimedia

This all happened longer ago than I care to tell, in my first year at university. The lecturer’s name was Jack Clancy. He was a pioneer in the study of communication in Australia. He was also a lovely man: I came to know him slightly, and remain friends with his son, Rob. Sadly, Jack Clancy departed this life a couple of years ago.

But Jack’s question has stayed with me. Does it matter if communication may, or may not, mean anything? I was an earnest literalist back then. Too earnest all round, actually. But I have mellowed and relaxed with time. I have no problem now with stuff which might not mean very much. Art which is ambiguous demands that the audience bring its own meaning. That requires searching your heart, which is never a bad thing.

This reminiscing came because the Planet Vinyl shuttle has landed on a Supertramp single, “It’s Raining Again”. This was released in 1982, and I remember it from the radio – indeed, anyone who was a teen at the time will know it, as it was a top ten hit almost everywhere.

Frequent visitors to the Vinyl Planet will know that usually we favour the rarity, the B-side, the obscure. In this case, though, we are going with the hit. Reason being? The B side, “Bonnie”, is a love song addressed to a girl of that name. Planet Vinyl is a broad church, but it is fair to say that “Bonnie” is a lyrical clunker:

Yes I got my fortune read
And here´s what the gypsy said
That we´ll live and love and share eternity

That, and rhyming “please be nice” with “paradise”, and “golden skies”?  Nup.

However the A-side stands up well as pop song. No, it isn’t really clear what is means. Vaguely about the end of a relationship, but you can kinda read it how you want to, and the music is great: lovely sax and electric piano.

Sending this out to the late Jack Clancy. Scholar, thinker, teacher, footballer and fine man. Thanks for your teaching.

  • Artist: Supertramp
  • A Side: It’s Raining Again
  • B Side: Bonnie
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: A&M
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: K 8910
  • Year: 1982

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

Eclectic is the essence

There is a lot of hostility to migrants and movement just now. Sometimes it is cloaked beneath talk of security. Increasingly it is rank bigotry. In the struggle against aggressive nativism, I offer … Sandii and the Sunsetz. Yes, really.

Sandra O’Neale was the child of a Japanese mother and an American father, a Navy man. She grew up in Japan and later Hawaii. There she became passionate about the dance and music of Polynesia. Returning to Japan in the 1970s, she became a DJ and performer, part of the emerging techno scene, collaborating with the likes of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. In a range of bands and under different names she recorded and performed an eclectic mix of styles and traditions.

Sandii

Image via Discogs

It was as Sandii and the Sunsetz that she had her one hit in Australia, “Sticky Music”, in 1983. It probably counts as the first example of J-pop making an impact in the west. Indeed, apart from Yoko Ono, Sandii must be the first Asian woman to enjoy mainstream success here.

It often happens on Planet Vinyl: artists I know only for one or two songs turn out to have unsuspected depth and range. “Sticky Music” is a clever pastiche, full of sly irony. This completely missed me (and, I suspect, almost everyone else) in 1983. It is not representative of Sandii’s work, though – indeed nothing is. Eclectic is the essence. A daughter of different cultures, she borrows from everywhere and anywhere.

Have a listen to this B-side, “The Mirrors Of Eyes”. It is a subtle, low-key mix of percussion, vocals and (guessing here) Japanese stringed instruments. It is mysterious, engaging.

Sandii is still with us, performing and teaching dance. She is witness to the good which comes when people are allowed to travel, to love who they wish to love, to move between cultures, and express themselves freely.

  • Artist: Sandii and the Sunsetz
  • A Side: Sticky Music
  • B Side: The Mirrors Of Eyes
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Sire
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 7-259701
  • Year: 1983

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Quarter flash and three-parts foolish

It was 1981, and I was in my first year at high school. I remember vividly the daunting, huge school, a strange zoo of architectural styles. Old red-brick from before the First World War, the 1960s science block with leaky taps, a 1970s concrete brick library, and lots of lime-green portable classrooms.

All the buildings were islands in a sea of tarmac. Whoever decided that school grounds should be wall-to-wall asphalt deserves a special circle in Hell, stuck in one of their own schoolyards with a hot north wind blowing, wearing a scratchy polyester school shirt.

Another of my memories of 1981 is “Harden My Heart”, a big hit in Australia for a band called Quarterflash. This was their only success in this part of the world, and I had assumed that they had been a one hit wonder. Happily, I was wrong.

DSC01891Hailing from Portland, Oregon, the core of the band was a married couple, Rindy and Marv Ross. The band’s name came from a piece of old Australian slang, describing newly-arrived migrants from Britain as “one quarter flash and three parts foolish”. The band was previously known as Seafood Mama, so certainly an improvement.

“Harden My Heart” was their biggest hit, but they did continue releasing material and doing middling-well in the US.

Quarterflash disbanded in 1985, but they reformed in 1990, and with impressive persistence Rindy and Marv are still together, still performing and releasing new material.

This is the B side to “Harden My Heart”. Like the A side, it is a love song of no great lyrical originality, but the vocal and musicianship lifts it. Note the brief bass break half-way in. Rindy Ross both sang and played lead sax – the break allowed her to slip on her saxophone strap, and play the solo which follows.

  • Artist: Quarterflash
  • A Side: Harden My Heart
  • B Side: Don’t Be Lonely
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Geffen
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: GEF 49824
  • Year: 1981

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Life intervenes

Catching the shuttle to Planet Vinyl can be hard. There is work, there is family, there are bills and tax returns. There is illness and stress. Life intervenes. But though I have been too busy to write about music, I have been listening, with open ears, and discovered some strange and wonderful things. Here is one.

Christopher Wood is a guitarist, from my home state of Victoria, Australia. In 1988 he put out an LP. It is solo guitar, a set of original instrumental compositions, independently recorded and released. Out there in the distant reaches of obscurity, it is in my honest opinion a masterpiece. Lovely, delicate compositions drawing from a wide range of influences, played with absolute assurance.

woodI had never heard of Wood, and could find out nothing about him from the usual sources, but kept hunting. I was delighted to find that he is still around, still playing, and has a website: www.christopherwood.com.au. There is an email address, and I sent him a message. After a little while, a reply came:

Hello Richard
Thank you for your kind words.
They are much appreciated.
After years of composing and playing in a reclusive environment I am currently preparing to do more recording and performing.
Regards
Chris

This is wonderful news. I still don’t know much about Christopher Wood. He is a private person, obviously, and I respect that. You get the feeling that, in the past thirty-odd years, life intervened. But he is a wonderful talent. I have put my money where my mouth is and bought his most recent release. If you like what you hear, be sure to check out his website and consider doing the same.

  • Artist: Christopher Wood
  • Album title:Guitarist
  • Track: B1 “Song of Hope”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Red Hill Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: RHM. CWG. 001
  • Year: 1988

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs