Mixtape Mixdown: 25 Favorites
Originally posted to our old site Feb-May 2008
Despite my passion for mix tapes and CD mixes, it was actually 2002 before I set out to assemble my favorite songs of all time in one collection. The result was a double CD that I dubbed, quite simply, “20 Favorites.” On these two discs, I laid out my favorite songs of all time in descending order, with songs 20 through 11 on disc one and 10 through 1 on disc two. I even made some snazzy artwork for the cover and labels using scans from Stefan Landsberger‘s outstanding book “Chinese Propaganda Posters.”
This time around, I’ve expanded my list to my 25 favorites. Many of my top favorites will never change, but the order has shifted a little in the top 5 over the past few years. Expanding the list size gives me a chance to give extra props to selections that I could have easily overlooked had my selection been more limited. The list is really a selection of my favorite “rock” songs, because it would be kind of difficult to work favorites like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed” by Phil Ochs, or Billy Bragg’s rendition of “The Internationale” into a predominantly metal, punk and pop collection
I have burned my entire collection of favorite songs to CD as a 2 disc set called XXV Favorites. The front cover artwork for the jewel case is a detail of Frida Kahlo’s 1933 painting “My Dress Hangs There.” The disc labels feature larger detail images from the same painting and the back cover work is an old sepia-tone photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Ask me nicely and I might share a set with you.
So, for what it’s worth, here are numbers 25 through 21 of my “25 Favorites.”
I discovered Sandanista! Late in my high school years and I have always thought of it as The Clash’s most outstanding effort. The album was an early political education for me, for sure. It might seem kind of strange that the only song by The Clash to make it into my top 25 list features a front man other than Joe Strummer, but Tymon Dogg is just great on this track. “Lose this Skin” never fails to lighten my mood, because even though the lyrics are a little dark, they seem to speak a bit on self-empowerment and struggling on when things are tough. Joe Strummer, who is one of my all-time heroes, will make it into the countdown later.
Tom Morello is one of my favorite artists and activists. He would certainly be in good company with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. The first time I saw the video to this song, it brought tears to my eyes. The second time the video came on, I brought the kids over to the television and we danced and sang along. “The Road I Must Travel” is now a mainstay on our long road trips. You haven’t heard this song until you hear belted out from the lungs of a three year-old little girl.
This is the only Ozzy song in my “25 Favorites” list, but it is not the only Randy Rhoads song in the list. I think some folks might quibble over whether or “Crazy Train” is really the best example of Randy’s work, but the solo is pretty remarkable – actually better than the studio version, I think – and the vocals seem to have a lot more emotion than the studio version. I like the fact that the solo is not overly complex or flowery but it has just enough twists and turns to make it truly special. And what a riff! Absolutely one of the best metal riffs of all time! My kids go absolutely nuts when I crank this song. Horns up!
22: “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite (from the 1991 album The Globe) lyrics | video
I have loved Big Audio Dynamite since I first heard the song “E=MC²” back in 1985. That was long before I knew anything about Mick Jones or The Clash. The Globe is probably Big Audio Dynamite’s biggest-selling album, but it’s actually not my favorite albums by them. That distinction goes to the wonderfully eclectic Tighten Up, Vol. 88. Starting in 1990, I bought most of Big Audio Dynamite’s albums in one format or another, but it was amazingly 2003 or so by the time I picked up The Globe. I had caught bits and pieces of the song “Rush” from time to time over the years, but I still remember the day I bought The Globe very well, because I went straight out of the record store and put the CD on in my car right away. I turned it way up and I remember thinking, “Wow. I have never really heard this song until now. ” I remember thinking that the song had so much going on and that it fit together so well. In the weeks following the arrival of Baby Z., K. And I would listen to the songs “Rush” and “The Globe” every day when I drove her to and from school. Great, great times.
It was pretty exciting when the Kiss reunion was announced back in 1996, but in my mind, the Venom reunion in 1996 or 1997 was just as big of a deal. I first discovered Venom in 1989 – more on that in a later entry on this list – and metal was never the same for me after that. Cast in Stone was a tremendous effort as Venom’s “comeback” album and even though the reunion was short-lived, the original trio put forth some solid new material. But probably the best part of Cast in Stone was the bonus disc in which the band re-record some classics. “Venom” is the final song on the bonus disc and I had never heard the song until I got the Cast in Stone album. From what I understand, Venom closed their shows with this song in the early days and at the end of the song, they would completely trash their entire stage set. It kind of sounds like they do the same at the end of the studio version. “Venom” is unlike a lot of Venom’s classics in that it is a slow, grinding tune instead of a Black Metal shred-fest. It has that HUGE Venom sound complete with growling vocals by Cronos and a wailing, shrieking Mantas guitar solo. This song really gets me going! Hail Venom!
For years, I only knew of the Elvis Costello cover of this song. I first heard it in 1997 when I bought the Rykodisc reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. When I came across Richard and Linda Thompson’s album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight some years later, I was pretty surprised to find the original song because I never even knew that the Costello version was a cover. Linda Thompson’s performance was very nice, as was the rest of the album, but I was always drawn back to the Elvis Costello version. Some years later, I would sing this song to baby Z. when she was just a newborn. It’s kind of a strange song to sing as a lullaby, but on afternoons and evenings in the Spring of 2004, I used to take Z. out in our back yard and rock her to sleep sitting on our swing. As I held baby Z. in my arms, I would look at our neighbor’s tall trees and watch them sway back and forth against the spring sky and I would think of this verse from the song: Once I was bending the tops of the trees/Kind thoughts in my head, kind voices to hear. So in a very odd way, I will always associate this sad, sad song with one of the greatest times in my life.
I have been a closet Billy Joel fan ever since my sister bought his Greatest Hits double LP back in 1986 or so. I remember going to a record show with my pal “Nate the Great” when I was in college and kind of admiring the fact that “Nate” was so open about how much he liked Billy Joel. I think he even bought some kind of big promotional poster featuring Joel that day. Because I have always been drawn to “edgier” stuff like metal and punk, I kept my fondness for Billy Joel a well-kept secret for many years. I started buying Billy Joel albums en masse in the late 1990s after his catalog was remastered and Thomai bought me a handful of his stuff for my birthday one year. Concert was one of the ones she got for me and I was especially taken with the way the concert kicked off: First with the thunderous “Odoya,” then the fierce “Prelude,” followed by the painfully honest song “Angry Young Man.” I found a lot to identify with in the lyrics of “Angry Young Man.” Years later, I remember listening to this on a long drive and K. affectionately referring to the song as “Daddy’s song.” Nice. Concert is an amazing album. Billy Joel’s performance of “Back in the USSR” gets an honorable mention as one of my all-time favorites that didn’t make the top 25. Baby Z. loves Joel’s cover of the song so much that when I tried to play the original Beatles version one day, she told me to turn it off and play the “real Back in the USSR”!
This is, by the way, probably the only “favorite songs” list where you will ever find Billy Joel rubbing elbows with the likes of the Sex Pistols and Venom.
As I mentioned in my recent article on the untimely passing of Kevin DuBrow, I have been a Quiet Riot fan since 1983. I really enjoy all of their stuff whether it’s new or old, with the exception of the material from the period of DuBrow’s absence. I was really excited when DuBrow was finally able to release The Randy Rhoads Years compilation in 1993. The Japanese Quiet Riot albums had always been out of reach for me, commanding up to $200 for a single LP at record shows (although I did ultimately shell out a fair amount to get both Quiet Riot and Quiet Riot II on CD around 2003). So back in ’93, I hadn’t heard any of the Rhoads era material yet and when The Randy Rhoads Years was released, the stuff was every bit as good as I had expected it to be. “Afterglow” was a favorite of ours back when Thomai and I were dating and we even played the song at our wedding reception. It’s worth mentioning here that my favorite Quiet Riot song is actually a cover of a song that was originally writen and performed by DuBrow’s favorite band, Humble Pie.
17: “Sanctuary” (Live) by Iron Maiden (from the bonus disc of the 1995 reissue of the 1984 album Live After Death)
I saw Live After Death on home video at a friend’s house back in 1988 or so and I was totally hooked. I knew a couple of folks who had the video and I borrowed it a few times here and there before I finally bought my own copy. “Sanctuary” was the final number on the home video and I have always thought of it as just a humongous, incredible metal performance in every possible way, from Bruce Dickinson’s incredible vocal range to the blazing guitar solos of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray (note the very effective use of fingertapping and tremolo in Adrian’s solo). When I bought the cassette version of the performance, I was disappointed that “Sanctuary” wasn’t on the tape, because it was actually the final number from the home video and it was by far my favorite performance from the show. It wasn’t until the 1995 re-release of Live After Death on CD that I finally got my hands on a high-quality audio recording of “Sanctuary” live, as it was included on the bonus disc of the reissue. The cut on the Live After Death bonus disc was originally a B-side to a single and it is a slightly edited version of the performance on the home video. One afternoon in 1997 or 1998, I actually destroyed a large pair of tower speakers while cranking this song. We lived in a new development that wasn’t really well-inhabited at the time, so I could get away with opening all the windows and blaring music for several hours each afternoon. On the particular day in question, I was apparently overcome with my appreciation for the tune and I turned up my stereo volume higher than I ever had before. I think I was well into the song before the end came – a loud pop, a sizzle and then everything went pretty much quiet from there. I can still remember smelling a hint of electricity and a bit of smoke in the air as I disconnected the speakers from the receiver. It was every bit as cool as it sounds. Man, those speakers were expensive. Horns up!
It wasn’t until the Anthology television series of 1995 that I finally started to appreciate the Beatles. Let It Be is said to more or less chronicle the break-up of the band, but it’s really my favorite album by The Beatles. I prefer the versions of songs on Let It Be to some of the alternate takes that were used for singles. “Get Back” is really great on Let It Be because it is more or less a “stripped down” performance. The vocals and guitar stand out well,and this is probably because there isn’t a lot of reverb, echo or studio polish in the tracks. Billy Preston’s organ solo especially shines on the album version. It’s kind of surprising that I have a “Paul song” instead of a “John song,” but what can I say? It’s a great song!
15: “Witching Hour” by Venom (from the 1981 album Welcome to Hell)
Wow. Where should I start with Venom? I am sure I have plugged them more than once on our site, but I pretty much figure that there are a lot of folks out there who will just never, ever “get” the spectacle that is Venom. The secret of appreciating Venom is to look at the whole act like it’s a really good horror film. I think that their guitarist Mantas pretty much says this in The Second Coming home video. The Venom guys have said time and again that it’s all an act and not to take it too seriously. And if you do take it too far one way or the other – whether you’re a high priest of Black Metal or a Bible-Belt religious zealot – then the guys from Venom basically say that you’re the stupid one. Now that’s candor. I have a lot more to say on Venom, but I’ll save that for another day.
Anyway, “Witching Hour” is the first Venom song I ever heard. Back in 1989 or so, I was really into Exodus after having seen them play on the Headbanger’s Ball Live Tour. For a while there, I was listening to their Fabulous Disaster album non-stop…even at school between classes – until my ridiculous homeroom teacher made a big deal about me bringing my Walkman to school (Yeah, thanks a lot, loser…It’s a good thing I’m not the bitter type). One day, a guy from my English class (or maybe it was called American Lit that year) told me he had just gotten a hold of the Combat Tour Live: Ultimate Revenge home video and that it had about 4 Exodus performances on it (from a Paul Baloff-era show at the old Studio 54). Also included on the video were performances by Slayer and by Venom. I knew Venom by their name only and I wasn’t really too psyched about seeing or hearing them, but when the guy loaned me the video, he encouraged me to check them out. Going on 20 years later, I still have my dubbed copy of Ultimate Revenge. In fact, I just watched it again last week.
So, the first time I watched Ultimate Revenge, I had no idea what I was in for with Venom. After a few Exodus cuts and a Slayer performance, they were up next. The first of 2 Venom cuts was a lip-synced video for “Witching Hour.” I think it was a single version of the song, because it’s just a little bit different from the Welcome to Hell LP version (although the LP version is just as good). I hesitate to be so clichéd to say that I was “blown away,” but it might just be the most apt description in retrospect. Their intensity and stage presence was just so HUGE and leading the way was the ugly, growling Cronos. Something about the way the video was shot made Cronos look larger than life, menacing and incredibly evil. There he was, singing about all kinds of nasty things and in between verses, he was dancing around like some kind of demon and it was just sooo awesome. My favorite shot from the video is of Cronos pounding his bass yelling “Witching hour!” for the last time before Mantas starts tearing up the amplifiers behind them. Venom is still a mainstay in my CD collection after all these years, but I don’t listen to them when the kids are around. When I’m all alone, I do like rattling the windows with the best of their old stuff and the new stuff too. Thomai bought me the MMV box set for Christmas a couple of years ago…The right Christmas gift for so many reasons. Hail Venom!
The video for “Witching Hour” is available on YouTube, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily offended.
I wasn’t a Hendrix fan before I met Thomai. In fact I probably only knew a few of his songs when I first met Thomai in 1993. One of our first really lengthy conversations was on a day in which I found her trying to write the lyrics to the Hendrix song “Fire” in one of her school notebooks. She told me she really liked the song and that she wanted to learn the lyrics so she could sing along when she heard it on the radio. It would become a running joke between us that despite her best efforts, she could never really get the lyrics down. I had heard Skid Row’s cover of “Little Wing” on their 1992 EP of covers B-Side Ourselves and I really liked it. I think Thomai must have had a CD anthology of Hendrix songs (or maybe I bought one after I found out that she liked him) and while we were dating, “Little Wing” became “our song.” It was the song for our first dance at our wedding.
…and yes, dear…I wrote three times as much about Venom as I did about “our song.”
British Steel is a heavy metal masterpiece. There’s so much good stuff on that album, from “Grinder” to “Rapid Fire” to “Metal Gods.” It was an early rite of passage for me to teach each of the kids to sing along with the song “Breaking the Law.” Judas Priest is a great band, whether you’re talking Halford-era stuff or the Ripper Owens albums. I’m still grateful to have had the chance to see Priest with Anthrax back in 2002 on their Demolition tour, even though the evening included a rather intense few minutes of confrontation by some large and drunken fellow concertgoers. I think Priest closed the show with “Living After Midnight” that night. It’s just a great song, plain and simple. It’s great for road trips, especially if you’re on the way to a metal concert.
When The Box Set was released in 2001, it was quite a big event for me. Kiss has been my favorite band since I accidentally discovered them in 1983 or 1984. Long before we had a VCR, my mom would occasionally “record” television shows using an audio cassette recorder. She would put the tape recorder up next to the speaker of the television to capture the audio from shows like “Mork and Mindy” and I would listen to the shows again and again. One time, she had recorded a strange special about the history of music. The show featured an actor playing the part of Thomas Edison and he was introduced to a string of musical acts from the 1950’s up to the present day (which I guess would have been 1978 or so, judging from the “current” acts that were profiled…One of them was Sha-Na-Na). My mom only taped a handful of the acts off the show and very little of the dialogue. It was a really odd collection of acts on the tape, including the Mills Brothers performing “Hold That Tiger Rag” and Don McLean performing “American Pie.” At the very end of the tape was a medley of Kiss performances (much later I found out that the medley was drawn from an Alive II promotional package. You can find it on a lot of bootleg collections of Kiss material). So, as it happened one day in ’83 or ’84, I was listening to the cassette in my bedroom and when I got to the Kiss medley (Detroit Rock City/Rockin’ in the USA/Love Gun/Shout it Out Loud), I was totally and completely hooked. By a strange coincidence, around that time I had also come upon an advertisement for the Kiss solo albums in an old issue of Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars, so I spent a lot of time listening to that medley and drawing their faces over and over again. Just a few years earlier, I had been scared to death of Kiss!
“It’s My Life” is something of an out-take from the Psycho Circus sessions. It’s a great song for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the lead vocals are shared by Gene and, of course, Ace Frehley. As an Ace fan, this is a big deal to me. Ace does a great job on the second verse and his solo is full of vintage stuff – material that Bruce Kulick one referred to as “Aceisms.” I used to crank this song a lot on the weekends and I played it so often that K. learned the chorus at a very young age. One day, Thomai said to me: “The day K. says those words to you for real, you’ll be crying.” She’s probably right.
I think I bought Lysol in 1994 or 1995, more or less based solely on the two-sentence description I had read in a C/Z Records flyer. I had heard The Melvins before and I was something of a fan, but I was truly unprepared for what I would experience when I listened to Lysol. One of the most striking things about the CD packaging is the cover image, which is based on Dalin’s remarkable sculpture “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” The CD was just over 30 minutes and it was only one track (I was convinced there was something wrong with the disc the first time I noticed this). There was no track listing on the packaging and despite the fact that I had purchased a new copy of the CD – shrink-wrapped and all – the album title “Lysol” had been blacked out with magic marker (I’d get the scoop on this sometime later). It was really a weird package, for sure. Anyway, I remember that day well, because I put it in the CD player and turned it on for a quick listen…and then 30 minutes later, I really couldn’t believe what I had heard. The whole thing was just incredible. When you get down to it, I suppose I could have just claimed the whole album as a “favorite song” if I wanted to, seeing as how it’s just one big continuous track. But there are six distinct cuts and these days the names of the cuts are well known to fans.
“Ballad of Dwight Fry” is actually an Alice Cooper cover and I am glad to have squeezed an Alice song in on this list, even if it’s not his original version (Check out Alice performing the song live at Montreux in 2004). “Ballad” is the fifth “song” on Lysol and it’s something of the climax of this quasi-concept album. The Melvins truly make this song their own, with slow, sludgy vocals and a slow, pounding tempo. It’s my favorite Alice song, too, but I have to give a nod to “Go to Hell” and “Teenage Lament ’74” as well. If “Ballad is the climax, then “With Teeth” is surely the denouement of this tour de force. With tremendous thundering riffs and percussion and lyrics that are virtually incomprehensible, the song is a undoubtedly a Melvins classic. If you’ve never, ever heard Lysol, you’re really, really missing out on an amazing experience.
Despite all the awards and accolades while they were at their peak, I still think of Everclear is still one of the great underrated rock bands of the last couple of decades. After Sparkle and Fade, a lot of media-types were basically writing off Art Alexakis and Co. As something of a one-hit wonder. I even remember one time when I was listening to an Everclear song on the radio and at the end of the song, the DJ said something like, “That was Everclear from their album Sparkle and Fade, which is exactly what that band did.” Well, not quite. So Much for the Afterglow was a brilliant follow-up to Sparkle and Fade, ultimately going double-platinum after a string of successful singles. Alexakis (that’s a Greek name, mind you) has a Springsteen-like knack for writing about common everyday struggles and deeply personal issues in a way that is uniquely eloquent and touching . “Why I Don’t Believe in God” was never released as a single, but it is far and away my favorite Everclear song of all time. For a long time, I never understood when people would say that art or music “spoke” to them, but this particularly dark and sad song speaks to me in a way that is difficult to explain.
I think I still remember where I was the first time I heard – and I mean really heard – the Sex Pistols for the first time. I think I was a junior in high school and a friend was driving me back to my folks’ house. I asked what was playing on the car’s tape deck and somebody else in the car told me we were listening to the Sex Pistols. I was kind of like, “Oh…Really?” I had heard of the Pistols, but I had never really listened to them before and I liked what I was hearing. Although I usually have a pretty good memory for these kinds of times in my life, it’s really kind of a blur from there. 1970’s punk was a something of a revelation for me, as I had been listening to a steady diet of 80’s metal and “classic” rock for about a decade. I really don’t know how long it took me to buy my first Pistols album, but I know I went kind of crazy there for a while. I was watching Sid and Nancy at least once or twice a week and buying just about every Sex Pistols tape at the mall’s Camelot store…and there were a lot of compilations floating around back then. And the Pistols opened all kinds of other musical doors for me, paving the way for my later interests in bands like The Clash. I think one of the things that I still love about “Anarchy in the U.K.” is that the first lines of the song are probably still the most blatantly and purposefully offensive song lyrics in the history of music. “Holidays in the Sun” would be a runner-up for my favorite Pistols song ever.
I was pretty much in the thick of my obsession with the Sex Pistols by 1990 or so, and I was working a part-time job at the local library. One of my coworkers was a girl whose brother was pretty big in Dayton’s indie/alternative music scene and she seemed to know quite a bit about the vintage punk bands that had influenced our generation’s budding college-rock scene. She loaned me some well-played cassettes of the Clash’s eponymous first album as well as the masterpiece London Calling and it wasn’t too long before I was really taken with them. I have loved The Clash ever since then, but I have always preferred Joe Strummer’s vocals and song-writing to that of Mick Jones . This might be in some small part due to the fact that Joe had also performed the theme song to Sid and Nancy, which was probably my favorite film back then. But Joe’s style has always been much different from Mick’s and this is most apparent when you compare their respective post-Clash work.
Joe Strummer’s musical evolution is something of a fascinating path. In his early days, he started out playing the ukelele for a band called the 101’ers. The Wikipedia article on the 101’ers has them pegged as a “pub rock” band, but I remember seeing them referred to as a ska or reggae-like act some years ago. A few years after joining the 101’ers, Joe would rise to prominence as a punk icon as the front-man and guitarist for The Clash. In and of itself, The Clash would go through an incredible musical evolution during their decade together. During his time with The Clash, Joe Strummer would experiment with the Latin American sound, rockabilly, reggae and dubbing. These sounds would ultimately shape his post-Clash work with the Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros. This incredible blend of musical genres, along with Joe’s distinctive “gravelly” singing voice and his documented contempt for enunciation made him one of the most incredibly unique performers in rock history.
Joe Strummer’s Earthquake Weather was released a few years after he left The Clash for good. I think I bought my first copy of this album on cassette in 1990 or 1991. I actually remember the day quite well, but in retrospect, I must say it wasn’t really a day worth remembering when I think about it. I had heard just about all of the major releases by The Clash and I happened to have a little extra cash in my pocket the day I discovered the album at the record store. I bought it without having heard a single track on the album, so I wasn’t really sure what I was getting. “Gangsterville” is the opening track of the album and while I love every song on the album, this particular track has been my favorite since the day I bought the album. One of the most favorite things about the song is the way it begins, with the Joe yelling, “Let’s rock again!” before the first verse kicks in. The song features some classic Strummer lyrics, including some historical references and even a few lines that required footnotes when the lyrics were printed on the album’s sleeve. “Gangsterville” has some great guitar work by Zander Schloss, including a terrific, multi-part solo . There’s also a hint of calypso music in there if you listen closely. Leave it to Joe to build a masterpiece out of such an uncanny blend of different elements.
“I’d like to say that people . . . people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. Show me any country . . . and there’ll be people in it just trying to take their humanity back into the center of the ring . . . And follow that for a time. Y’know, think on that. Without people you’re nothing.” — Joe Strummer
1993 was a big turning point for me, as I was finally able to really come into my own. I was starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel with my undergraduate studies and an impending career path. I had also made some new friends and some important new relationships were on the horizon. I bought In Utero very soon after its release and I will always associate the album with memories of an important transitional period in my life.
I had initially resisted Nirvana when Nevermind exploded into popularity because I was pretty fixated on the notion that grunge was killing heavy metal (although, I think that pop-sounding sappy metal had as much to do with the temporary demise of heavy metal as grunge did, really). But sometime in the summer of 1992 or so, I heard “Territorial Pissings” and “Drain You” and I was pretty impressed, so I borrowed a cassette tape of Nevermind from a friend to give Nirvana a closer listen. The quality of the recording was pretty bad, so I ended up buying the album on CD shortly thereafter and I really enjoyed it. A lot of the singles had been played to death on MTV and I found myself enjoying the less popular songs on what was basically the second side of the LP/cassette release. I picked up Incesticide right after it came out and blew a lot of cash on Nirvana singles and bootlegs in the months that followed, so by the time In Utero was released, I was pretty excited about the chance to hear some new material. In Utero certainly didn’t let me down. “Heart-Shaped Box” was the first single from In Utero and I remember being completely captivated by the video the first time I saw it. To me, the song is just so perfect with its enigmatic lyrics and a sound that is raw and bleeding with emotion and energy.
I first heard about the Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue collaboration in 2000 or 2001 while I was having lunch with a couple of friends. I didn’t know much about Bragg or Wilco, so I didn’t really pay much attention. Some time later, I picked up Billy Bragg’s EP The Internationale and I was so impressed with his collection of working-class anthems, that I sought out more of his stuff, eventually discovering the Mermaid Avenue albums for myself. When I finally understood the whole concept of the project (which was to put a selection of Woody Guthrie’s previously unpublished lyrics to music), I was pretty interested in hearing the results for myself. A friend loaned me Vol. I first and it was that album which would eventually yield one of my favorite songs of all time…but more on that song later. I borrowed Vol. II a few weeks later and enjoyed it as well, but I was more partial to the shorter, “catchier” songs on the album, like “My Flying Saucer,” “Against th’ Law,” and “Secrets of the Sea.”
It was quite a while after I had purchased my own copies of the Mermaid Avenue albums on CD that I discovered “Remember the Mountain Bed” on Vol II. I had a lengthy commute to work at the time, and I would try to listen to albums all the way through instead of skipping around and just listening to my favorite songs. That way, I’d stretch my material out instead of running out of stuff once I had heard all of my favorites. So one morning while listening to Vol. II, I came to to “Remember the Mountain Bed” and I finally gave it a good listen. I will never forget the moment I heard the lyrics “You smiled when I said the leaves were just the color of your eyes” because I immediately thought of Thomai. As I listened to the song, it reminded me of the life Thomai and I were building; who we were, where we had been and where we were going. As soon as I got to work that morning, I pulled the lyrics up on the Internet and sent them to Thomai in an e-mail. To this day, I still feel like there is so much about this song that really captures the essence of our relationship and how great we are together.
It might have been in the spring of 1984 that I got my first Kiss albums on vinyl, courtesy of one of my older brother’s friends. For several months, I had been playing and re-playing the same handful of songs that some classmates had taped for me off selected sides of the Alive! and Alive II double-albums. Those tapes were pretty much all I listened to for quite a while back then. When my brother’s friend heard that I had become a Kiss fan, he offered his old LP’s to me, telling me that he had planned on throwing them out anyway. I still remember the day he brought them over. If I recall correctly, he wrapped them up in brown paper and included a handwritten note to me about “carrying on the tradition” or something like that. When I unwrapped the package, I found Double Platinum, Destroyer and the eponymous first album Kiss. It was a good haul, for sure. I had heard a few of the songs from the scraps of the Alive albums I had on tape, but I was really looking forward to hearing the rest of the material right off the LPs. Up to that point, I had spent a lot of time in record stores at the mall, staring at Kiss album covers and wondering what the songs on those albums sounded like, but now thanks to my brother’s friend, I would get to experience the albums for myself. Incidentally, I recently learned that my brother’s former pal is now some kind of evangelical minister. Wow.
Kiss is just a fantastic album and in a lot of ways, I think I liked it so much when I was younger because it was just so different from what I had heard from the band up to that point. The album has an unusually heavy and dark glam sound with some pretty prominent elements of late 1960’s and early 1970’s pop. In my opinion, there isn’t a single bad song on the whole album. Even “Love Theme from Kiss” rocks. But as much as I liked the album as a whole years ago, a couple of the songs would become all-time favorites as time went on. “Let Me Know” was one of those songs. I’m not really sure what Paul was shooting for when he wrote this particular tune. I know that both Gene and Paul have referred to themselves as “frustrated Beatles fans” on a number of occasions and I think this kind of shines through in the “catchy” feel of “Let Me Know.” One of the great things about the track is that Paul and Gene share lead vocals on this one, so it isn’t easily pegged as a “Gene Song” or a “Paul song.” The song has some great, classic “Ace” solos and ends with what I think of as one of the best codas in rock.
I used to listen to this song over and over again when I was 10 or 11 years old and I would imagine that I was in a Kiss cover band (I actually thought that I had created the concept of a Kiss cover band back then). One of the songs I imagined my “band” playing was “Let Me Know” and I had the whole video for the song figured out in my mind. To this day, I still picture those scenes I dreamed up every time I hear the song.
I am guessing that I got Houses of the Holy on vinyl around the summer of 1989 or so. I was working at a fast food restaurant and there was a record store down the street that I would visit on breaks and after work. I think Houses of the Holy was probably one of the last Zeppelin albums that I bought and I put it off for as long as I could because I figured my parents would be upset about the album cover. I really don’t think it ever became an issue, though.
I had mixed feelings about some of the songs on Houses of the Holy. I was already well-acquainted with many of the songs on the album, mostly because I had listened to the soundtrack for The Song Remains the Same and watched the film version of the performance so many times. To me, the studio tracks from Houses of the Holy just didn’t rock as hard as the respective live versions from The Song Remains the Same. Of course, D’yer Ma’ker had received a lot of local airplay as part of the “Get the Led Out” blocks that were featured on Dayton’s WTUE back in the late ’80s/early ’90s and that song was a favorite of mine for quite a while. But “The Ocean” was kind of like a “new” song to me when I finally picked up Houses of the Holy. John Bonham’s weird “rap” at the beginning of the track caught my interest early on and I think that intro kind of fueled my appreciation for the song, because I always turned the stereo volume up really loud to hear the rap and then when the main riff kicked in, it was all just too good to turn down. The hard, driving riff of “The Ocean” is, in my opinion, one of the best and most underrated guitar riffs of all time. It’s really something of a surprise that I haven’t heard a lot of accomplished rock and metal guitarists cite this song as one of the “greats.” The rhythm section meshes unbelievably well with the riff throughout the song and Robert Plant’s vocals are simply amazing, including his vocalizing throughout the song’s huge and multifaceted second guitar solo. The second guitar solo is, by the way, one of my absolute favorite solos of all time. It is without a doubt some of Jimmy Page’s best work. (For a long time, I had always thought of this piece as incredibly complicated until I recently came upon a nifty YouTube tutorial that shows how to play the main solo. It really impressed me to see someone play this solo so effortlessly.) I remember reading something about the production of “The Ocean” – possibly in Hammer of the Gods – which portrayed the production of the song as needlessly excessive and over-the-top. To me, there’s nothing terribly flashy or pretentious about the song. In my opinion, “The Ocean” is just a perfect song in every respect.
As I mentioned earlier, I absolutely love the Mermaid Avenue albums. I have felt a strong connection to the albums since I first heard them back in 2001 or so. I heard the first volume shortly after a trip to San Francisco and I remember how “California Stars” really struck a chord with me because Thomai and I had enjoyed such a wonderful time there. I played the album quite a bit and I was really impressed with the entire album as a complete work for a while. But as my political awareness and world view began to change, I felt particularly drawn to Woody Guthrie’s sentiments in “The Unwelcome Guest.”
The song took on a new meaning for me in 2004. My friend Bert passed away in August of that year and his wife put together a very nice and simple memorial gathering. The gathering occurred at a funeral home instead of a church and the “ceremony” was largely secular in nature, with little to no discussion of religion and the like. Instead, people just took turns telling funny and happy stories about Bert. In between segments, Bert’s wife would play some of his favorite songs. I remember leaving the service and thinking a lot about things – as one might tend to do after a funeral service – and I started thinking about what song I would want to be played at my funeral. (Oddly enough, this is exactly the kind of topic that Bert and my other friends and I would discuss over lunch back in the good old days.) It wasn’t long before I came up with “The Unwelcome Guest” as my “funeral song.” It is an emotionally powerful song and I hope that when I’m gone, the people I know and love might hear this song and think fondly of me. I think of Joe Strummer’s rendition of “Silver and Gold” in a very similar way.
Led Zeppelin, kind of like Houses of the Holy, was one of the last Zeppelin albums that I added to my collection. I think I got Led Zeppelin as a used LP by 1989 or so. I really wanted a complete collection of Zeppelin albums on vinyl, as I preferred LPs to cassettes back then. I can’t really remember why it took me so long to buy the LP other than the fact that maybe I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of the songs on the album because the local classic rock station didn’t play many cuts from that particular album very much up to that point. Now, I had already heard the live version of “Dazed and Confused” on the soundtrack for The Song Remains the Same and I was pretty well enamored with Jimmy Page’s use of the violin bow in the solo. The half-hour live version of the song was monolithic and fabulous in its own right, but I found the original studio version to be stunningly hard-hitting. It quickly became one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I used to “count down” my favorite songs of the week every Friday night during my early high school years. I would write the titles of 10 or 20 of my favorites in descending order and play them all back to back. It sounds weird, but it passed the time when I was a lonely 15 year-old.
Robert Plant’s soulful vocals are angry and bluesy at the same time as they lapse into Page’s winding and dreamy solo. The violin bow is also present, but with a slightly different sound (probably because the original version was performed with a Telecaster – I think – and what sounds like some heavy fuzz whereas the performance on The Song Remains the Same features a Les Paul and what sounds like comparatively minimal distortion). In any case, the solo captures a very distinct and innovative “early Page” guitar sound that includes hints of the “vintage” sound of edgy, pre-metal rock. There are some wild twists and turns to the solo, including a positively blinding stretch of licks before the band snaps into the riff to bring the song full circle. It’s really a phenomenal accomplishment in sound.
Well, this is it. Back when I made my original “20 Favorites” compilation in 2002, “Black Diamond” was my number one favorite. The truth is that this has been my absolute favorite song for many, many years. I have previously mentioned that my first Kiss tapes were collections of songs from selected sides of Alive! and Alive II. A friend of mine had an older brother who had these albums as LPs, and after some prodding and begging from me, I eventually ended up with side three of Alive II (minus “I Want You,” for some reason) A short time later, I was able to cajole some selections from Alive! off the same guy. The Alive! tape included all of side one of the LP and just half of side three. Side three cut out about halfway through “100,000 Years,” right in the middle of Paul working the crowd after Peter’s long drum solo. For years and years, I wanted to hear the rest of the Alive! album but I could never really find anyone else who had a copy to share. I really liked the studio versions of “Black Diamond” from the Kiss and Double Platinum LPs, but I was curious about how this great song would sound live, especially as part of the monumental Alive! album. It would be years before I got to hear it, but it was well worth the wait.
My folks weren’t so hot on Kiss, so when I was a kid, I did not have the opportunity to buy albums directly from record stores. By the time I reached high school, I was pretty crazy about Kiss and I was able to hook up with folks who would loan me their albums so I could tape record them. One time, a guy loaned me The Originals (a triple LP re-release of the first three Kiss albums), Love Gun and Alive II and I taped most of them over the course of a day or so. It was like scoring an instant record collection. Also around this time, I came upon folks who were actually willing to sell me their Kiss LPs and that was absolutely a big deal. This was before I ever landed a part-time job, but I did have a small amount of cash that I had been squirreling away for years and years and the Kiss albums seemed like the best way to spend it. But it was kind of like buying stuff on the black market because prices were high and sellers weren’t interested in negotiating. I ended up with some good stuff. One girl even gave me her copy of Dynasty, complete with the original poster intact and that was pretty darn cool. Then again there were jerks like the guy who wanted $25 or $30 for a beaten up copy of Kiss (which I already had anyway) and a 45 of “Lick it Up.” He thought for sure that I would pay and he was pretty pissed when I turned him down. I think that in the course of a few months, I had paid around $40 for my entire collection of Kiss LPs, which was almost the entire wad of cash that I had been hoarding since I was in grade school. The money went fast, but I still think it was well spent. I still have all those old LPs.
I remember finally landing a complete copy of Alive! on LP for some ungodly amount of money from a junior in my Health class (the class was for sophomores only – Go figure.) I remember the day I brought my copy of Alive! home and played it for the first time. It was pretty exciting for me to finally have the complete album for myself. And really…Alive! is still my favorite album of all time to this very day. That night, I remember listening to the album alone in my room and getting to the point in “100,000 Years” where my tape had cut off for so many years and when the song kept going, it was like reaching some kind of invisible boundary and finally breaking through. “Black Diamond” followed “100,000 Years” and it was every bit as great as I had expected.
There are so many things that really do “it” for me with this song. Paul’s soft introduction is kind of like an intriguing prologue for a sad tale. The tale itself is told by Peter Criss once the song really gets going and it is this particular performance that always drives it home to me that Peter is more than just a drummer. He is, in fact, a very talented songwriter and a phenomenal vocalist and his passionate singing really shines through on this track. Gene’s backing vocals work well, too.
Years ago, a friend wanted me to make a compilation of songs featuring some of my favorite guitar solos and I included the live version of “Black Diamond” because of the multifaceted solos that showcase Ace Frehley’s signature licks. Paul’s rhythm work is pretty good as well, including some bridge-like licks.
One thing I had wondered after years of listening to the studio versions of the song is how Kiss would end the live version of “Black Diamond”, because the original version features a gradual slowing of the track (with a single power-chord coda) and the Double Platinum remix just loops back into Paul’s intro with a fade-out of the track. In the live version, the power-chord ending is included, but it is punctuated nicely with the stage pyrotechnic explosions, ultimately creating a bombastic ending to an epic performance. The live version of “Black Diamond” off the Kiss album Alive! is truly – once and for all – my favorite song of all time.