Is the New “Presidential Alert” a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

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Yesterday ushered in a new day for governmental contact with its citizens. At precisely 2:18PM (Eastern Time) on Wednesday, the federal government issued the first ever Emergency Alert over cellphones. It was a simple statement, much like what you have when they perform this same test monthly on radio and television (“This is a test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System. This is only a test.”). And not everyone received it; according to many that I have spoken to (admittedly a small group), there were couples that one received the message while the other didn’t (even if they were in the same room), there were those that received the message even though they had shut their phones off (don’t ask this layman how that happened) and those that got the message right on time.

Naturally, everyone lost their shit over the text message. A lawsuit (one of many) was filed in New York looking to stop the deployment of the “Wireless Emergency Alert System,” arguing that it violated the First and Fourth Amendments of the U. S. Constitution. Attorneys argued that the system was a “violation of Americans’ First and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from Government-compelled listening, as well as warrantless, non-consensual trespass into and seizure of their cellular devices.”

It is reasonable that these people believe the veracity of their arguments. While people can get on “Do Not Call” lists, opt out of Amber or Silver Alerts (the Silver Alert is for older people who are in jeopardy) and other bothersome contacts, this particular Alert cannot be opted out of because of federal regulations. But the problems that some people have is perhaps not as much about the Alert but about how it was billed.

At the top of yesterday’s Emergency Alert test was, in bold print, Presidential Alert. Now, just who would currently be the president (and I put it in lowercase because he doesn’t fucking deserve upper)? That’s right, it is Orange Foolius, a petulant man-child whose propensity for hate-Tweeting is well-known. When presented with the ability to reach 330 MILLION cellphones in this country, the Narcissist in Chief has a megaphone that he can use to spew his garbage to the entirety of the country.

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Except it isn’t supposed to be used in that manner. President Barack Obama actually instigated the Wireless Emergency Alert System back in 2016 when he signed a law authorizing its creation. In that law, the usage of the system was just like that of television and radio – that it was only authorized in the case of a national emergency. The actual language in the law state that a president (and, since President Obama isn’t in the office anymore, we’re speaking about the jackass there now and future office holders) “shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.” Arguments against the Alerts state that this is “unconstitutionally vague,” and that is reasonable.

If they had simply called it a “Wireless Emergency Alert System” and left it at that, I don’t think people would be as upset as they are. Most people don’t even watch television or have radio anymore – the old ways that the Emergency Alert System was to inform people in case of an emergency. But it seems that everyone has a cellphone, which is awake 24/7 and never sleeps. Thus, shouldn’t there be a way for the federal government to reach people in a time of emergency (let’s leave out the questions of when cell service wouldn’t reach people, such as a hurricane or other weather-related phenomenon)?

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While President Obama started this law, it was accelerated after an incident earlier this year. In January in Hawaii, there was an inaccurate Emergency Alert sent out about an impending nuclear attack coming in. The ballistic missile warning was sent over the tradition Emergency Alert System and the Commercial Mobile Alert System (covering all televisions, radio and cellphones) that stated firmly that “this is not a drill.” People were panicking across the islands for almost 45 minutes (this occurred at roughly 8AM local time) before authorities could get out word that the alert was false. This particular wireless system, in theory, could have gotten the message out quicker (don’t ask me how) and corrected the inaccurate report.

Where the feds fucked this up is in calling it a “Presidential Alert.” With the divisiveness of this asswipe in the WH currently, there’s more than half the country that is going to despise it, not to mention those that believe in the libertarian philosophy of less government intrusion into private lives. Let’s not even get into the legal and/or ethical situations of tapping the 911 lines to be able to hunt you down so you get precise alerts (that’s why Amber Alerts work wherever you go and always for that area). I do think this should be examined, but it could have been avoided with a little research into branding the product.

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Furthermore, there is some credence to the fact that citizens of the States of America have given up an extreme amount of freedom. Since 9/11, the freedoms of the Average Joe have been eroded bit by bit. The Patriot Act opened up that Pandora’s Box under the pretense of the “war on terrorism” (an unwinnable engagement because there isn’t a set opponent or location to actually fight the war) and, for the most part, U. S. citizens have acquiesced to the invasion of their privacy. That invasion continues to grow, mostly without anyone even noticing that the once large arena of personal liberty has shrunk to a small room.

The bottom line is that the situation could have been avoided by a little smarter work and a little better branding of the product by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (the government organization in charge of the usage of the Emergency Alert System). With Mushroom Dick in the office currently (and his approval rating floundering around 35%), such actions as this aren’t going to be viewed in a good light. But instead of arguing about whether Orange Foolius is going to be using the “Presidential Alert” to send out his latest Twitter missives aimed at those he believes have “wronged him,” we ought to look at the overall picture of security for the country and then determine if this step is really necessary to ensure that all citizens of the States of America can be informed in the case of a TRUE national emergency.

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New Prince Album Reveals the Creative Process; Slash Just Rocks the Joint on His Return

In the world of music, there is nothing that is more interesting than the creative process. Hell, with ANY artistic endeavor, the most interesting thing is the process of bringing disparate parts together into a cohesive and entertaining form. The late Prince Rogers Nelson were arguably one of those people that had a tremendous artistic process, something that he often kept in secret for simply privacy’s sake. With his new CD, Piano and a Microphone 1983, we see the artist just before his big explosion on the musical scene, working out the kinks on some compositions that would go on to be huge for his career and some that have never seen the light of day. On the other side of the dial, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash is continuing on without Axl Rose (again) and his new collaboration, his third time teaming with Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, just flat out rocks.

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In 2016, the music world lost one of its greatest voices and one of its greatest creative musicians when Prince passed away from an opiate overdose. But back in 1983, Prince wasn’t the icon he had become by 2016; Prince was still a man looking to make his mark in the music world. Coming off a highly successful double album in 1999, the man known as the Purple One was considering his next step. One night, with only a microphone and a piano as accompaniment, Prince put some of those ideas onto a simple cassette tape.

The result of the recording session was the latest release from “The Vault,” the treasure trove of Prince material that was locked up for decades in his Paisley Park home. Entitled Piano and a Microphone 1983, the nine-song CD clocks in at less than 40 minutes (37, if you’d like the exact number). But what Piano and a Microphone 1983 shows is the artist in the midst of the creative process as well as some of the genius behind that process.

Leading off the album is “17 Days,” one of your typical Prince-type songs that one would expect but, stripped down to just the piano, is riveting. The fact that it is a “Prince-type song” isn’t surprising as Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, who were part of The Revolution, helped in the writing of the song (along with Revolution keyboardist Matthew “Doctor” Fink). From there, Prince goes into a little noodling of what would become “Purple Rain,” but the version found on this album is melancholier then you might expect. Other songs that Prince would become known for – “International Lover” from 1999 and “Strange Relationship,” which would show up on 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, also make their experimental debuts here.

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It is when Prince delves into new material that the CD takes on a life of its own. Prince performs a cover of the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” with a blues styling for the song bringing out so much emotion you can actually feel what Prince is trying to say. The song was used in director Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKKKlansman because Lee felt it was perfect for the film. After unveiling the emotions for “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince then goes back into his “funky era” with a song called “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” complete with James Brown-esque yelps and howls. He wraps up the compilation with a beautiful song called “Why the Butterflies,” an amazing coda to a short practice session.

Even though it is fascinating to listen to the creative process that Prince is going through with the creation of this music, I’m still a little bit disappointed. It is obvious that Prince never meant for these tapes to be released; at certain points in the recording, he clears his throat, speaks directly to the technician in the studio recording this session (surprisingly, Prince tells him to turn the tape over, as if he knew how long he had been playing) or clears his throat with a cough. For Prince’s family to release these songs from “The Vault” as the first posthumous music from Prince, I feel it takes a little bit away from not only the man himself and his tremendous process in creating such wonderful music but also cheapens what should have been a grandiose occasion.

Even with this criticism, Piano and a Microphone 1983 is a priceless piece of music from what was one of America’s greatest artist. Prince may not be with us anymore, but “The Vault” should provide us with decades of music to come. Just imagine what jewels await us from Prince? Piano and a Microphone 1983 is simply the first chip off the diamond that Prince and his music was.

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Somebody who may be as prolific as Prince in the musical output department is Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. While Axl Rose was sitting around for the decade or so after Guns N’ Roses’ last release in 1993, Slash would go on to do his own music with a dizzying array of talent backing him up. Counting the five albums he did with the Gunners, Slash has also put up two albums with Velvet Revolver, two with Slash’s Snakepit, and one straight solo album, not to mention guesting on several songs by such artists as the late Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Bad Company’s Paul Rogers and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, Alice Cooper and Rhianna. Slash’s latest album is Living the Dream (technically his 13th studio release) and it features some of that talent in vocalist Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge and an array of talented musicians called The Conspirators, who are joining Slash for their third album together.

Although his time in Guns N’ Roses has made him a hard rock and metal icon, Slash goes into his own style when he picks up with Kennedy and The Conspirators, a simply hard driving, blues-based rock and roll approach that you really don’t hear much of anymore. From the start with the song “The Call of the Wild,” Slash and Kennedy groove together instantly, with Kennedy’s soaring vocals only outdone by Slash’s crunching guitars. This continues on through such songs as “My Antidote”  and “Mind Your Manners,” but there are two songs in particular that deserve mention from this record.

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First song of note from Living the Dream is “Lost Inside the Girl,” a very good up-tempo rocker that is a love song about a lady that has entranced Kennedy. The song that is really the piece de resistance on the album is its first release, “Driving Rain.” It is a typical trope for rock musicians – a song about being out on the road and having to come through a whole lot of pain and torture to get to the one that you love  – but it displays both Kennedy and Slash at the top of their game. Both of these tunes are well worth the price of admission for Living the Dream.

Whether you’re looking for the remembrance of a great artist that has passed far too soon or you’re looking for something from a rocker who is still cranking it out at 53 years old, you can’t go wrong with these two releases.  Piano and a Microphone 1983 from Prince and Living the Dream from Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, while offering greatly diverse material, will give you plenty of enjoyment if you’re willing to take the ride.

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)

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If it has something to do with music in the States of America – be it country, rock, gospel…pretty much anything short of opera – the legendary Johnny Cash has to be, if not in its Hall of Fame, then pretty damn close to it. One of only two people that is in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame (the other is Elvis Presley, although an argument could be made that there are three with Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips), Johnny Cash is without a doubt one of the icons of music in this country. But can you believe that there was a time when Cash was on the verge of being shunned by the music industry?

After making his name in country music and, alongside his wife June Carter and the Carter Family, to a lesser extent in gospel music, Cash was at a crossroads in 1968. Battling the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, his record label, Columbia Records, was very wary of what would come next out of the “Man in Black.” Cash had a controversial idea for what approach he wanted to take for his next record:  a live recording at a state prison in California, from the man who in 1955 penned and sang the song “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The idea for this live album had been in Cash’s mind even before he wrote that famous song. Cash, while in the Air Force Security Service in 1953, saw a film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It was that film that inspired Cash to write about his views of what prison would be like. The results of that inspiration was “Folsom Prison Blues,” which became a staple of the Cash library along with “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire.”

While Cash thought that a live album at a prison would be an outstanding move, Columbia Records wasn’t as wild about the idea. It wasn’t until Cash was teamed with producer Bob Johnston from Columbia that someone from the label embraced the idea. It is rumored that Cash and Johnston contacted two prisons, Folsom State Prison and San Quentin State Prison, with Folsom winning out because they replied first.

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The result, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, became one of the benchmarks of Cash’s career despite little investment from the label and even less promotion. Cash and Carter, along with the Tennessee Three (Cash’s backup band of Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant and W. S. Holland), Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther but an occasional member of the “Tennessee Three”), the Statler Brothers, Cash’s father Ray and Reverend Floyd Gressett (who counseled inmates at Folsom), journeyed to Folsom Prison for a day of rehearsals and a day of performing. After the rehearsals and back at the hotel for dinner, then California Governor Ronald Reagan heard that the entourage was in the building and came by to encourage the group and wish them well for the performance the next day.

On January 11, 1968, the group hit the stage at Folsom State Prison. There were two shows scheduled for the day, one at 9AM and one at 12:40PM, just in case there were any issues that arose from the first show. After performances by Perkins and the Statler Brothers, Cash took the stage and blew away the prisoners in attendance with a scintillating performance. Of course, he would lead off with “Folsom Prison Blues,” but he also mixed in other tales of woe and sorrow such as “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go (about being on death row),” “The Wall,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and the Tennessee Three stretched their legs with a classic version of “Orange Blossom Special.”

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When it was released in May 1968, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was hailed for Cash’s realism with the songs. Al Aronowitz of Life stated that Cash’s songs sounded like “someone who was…one of the people that the songs were about.” The emotional grip of the songs was emphasized and the audience – the inmates of Folsom Prison, whom the warden had been worried about possibly being unruly during the shows – were grateful for the performances and responded enthusiastically to seeing such acclaimed musicians considering where they were.

For Cash himself, the album marked a “rebirth” of sorts and, arguably, MADE him the legend that he would become. “(The album) was where things really got started for me again,” Cash would note in an interview with Rolling Stone. It would lead to a second “prison album,” Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969), where a man by the name of Merle Haggard would hear him and vow to change his life so he could perform like Cash. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison would also be the kickoff point for the remainder of Cash’s career, which ended sadly with his death in 2003.

The laurels that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison has received are almost too numerous to mention. Along with being chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry, the album has also been named one of the top 100 albums of all time by such outlets as Rolling Stone, Time, and Blender and was named the #3 country music album of all time by Country Music Television.

What makes Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison so special? First, it was a “live recording” in an era that wasn’t exactly embracing the format. Second, Cash’s career at that point was sputtering – some would say on life support – and his record label’s lack of support for the record could have spelled the end of his career. Finally, it was a stroke of genius to do such a record for such an audience, displaying to music fans that the people in this situation WERE actually people, people that deserved respect. It was a “liberal” idea for the time, breaking the tradition of country musicians being considered “conservative” (and something shown of late by another country music legend, Willie Nelson in his support of Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the current Texas Senatorial race).

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The music world – ANY music world – was greatly enriched by Johnny Cash. But without Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, it is conceivable that the “Man in Black” could have disappeared from the annals of music history.

100 Essential Albums of All Time – The BusBoys, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980)

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The history of rock and roll – hell, the history of recorded music, be it country, pop, or otherwise – is replete with those groups, bands and singers who didn’t quite make it into the cultural mainstream. For every group like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith (or virtually any other member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), there are literally thousands of other bands who didn’t quite reach their level of popularity. Sure, some may have had that proverbial “cup of coffee” with the music industry – here’s a salute to you, One Hit Wonders! – but there are many more who never even achieved that level of success.

Arguably one of those who falls into one of the categories above – and which category is almost as difficult as categorizing their musical stylings – is the California group The BusBoys. Founded in Los Angeles in the late 1970s as disco was beginning its demise, The BusBoys featured singer/keyboardist Brian O’Neal and his brother, Kevin (bass), as the driving force behind the group. Joined by singer Gus Louderman, who handled most of the lead vocals for the band, Mike Jones (additional keyboards), Victor Johnson (guitars) and Steve Felix (drums), The BusBoys made inroads into the music world – and, in particular, the rock music world – although something wasn’t quite what some would expect…maybe you can identify it.

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That’s right. The entirety of the band was black save for Felix, who was Hispanic, and the band played driving rock music with both a rhythm and blues feel as well as tidbits of new wave tossed in. Lyrically the band took on some rather touchy subjects – even more then than they might be now – such as working for less than what one deserves, nuclear annihilation, minorities moving into the suburbs, the Ku Klux Klan, where blacks “should be,” and a host of other charged issues. Just as you would think there were too serious, then The BusBoys would break out the party time tunes and just rock your ass off!

The BusBoys released their debut album, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll, to resounding critical acclaim. Feted for their efforts at combining diverse musical genres as surf rock, new wave, doo wop and rock and pop stylings, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll didn’t have a weak point on the entirety of the album. The first song off the record, “Dr. Doctor,” was a stomping rock and roll song sung with gusto by the bluesy Louderman while the O’Neal brothers and the rest of the ‘Boys jammed behind him. “Minimum Wage” brought a Clash-esque vibe into the mix while discussing what someone had to do to make a living.

The BusBoys weren’t done yet. The group hit its stride on the record with “There Goes the Neighborhood” (not the version done by Ice-T and Body Count, let me assure you), a tune about how “the white folks movin’ in/there gonna bring their next of kin” – or a juxtaposition of what many suburban communities say when minorities come into their previously sacrosanct areas. “Johnny Soul’d Out” could be The BusBoys’ autobiography and an ode to Chuck Berry’s Go Johnny Go – about a singer/musician who is “into rock and roll and giving up the rhythm and blues.” The first side is rounded out by the Ramones-blitz of “KKK,” a recital of how a black man is good enough to do such things as go to war, but not allowed to fully be a part of the “American” culture.

The second side featured some strong material also. “D-Day” focused on the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while “We Stand United” and “Respect” reflected on the desires of many just to be accepted for what they are. There’s even a bit of a R&B/new wave influenced “grinder” called “Anggie” (the first sexual experience) and a song about being an athlete and ready for their starring moment (“Tell the Coach”) to add to the excellence of the album.

What made Minimum Wage Rock & Roll such an essential album was the racial comportment of the band – blacks just didn’t DO rock music in this era (Bad Brains were about the only other black rock band of this era as it was a few more years before Living Colour would reach prominence) – and the myriad of musical stylings that were featured on the album. Trying to include such a mixture of musical stylings would have been a failure in the hands of a lesser group; The BusBoys made it sound like it was all in a typical Friday night of partying with the band.

The BusBoys, alas, were like the proverbial Roman candle, rocketing into the stratosphere in a blur of flashing colors only to flame out or crash rather quickly. The band was featured in the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte classic 48 Hrs. as the bar band playing in Murphy’s “black” bar, and they contributed the title track, “The Boys are Back in Town,” to the soundtrack of the movie. Just as it seemed that they were ready to take off, however, The BusBoys crashed to earth.

The second album, American Worker (1982), for some reason did not feature “Boys” on it (although it featured another song that The BusBoys performed in 48 Hrs. called “New Shoes”). It did feature, however, a version of “Heart and Soul” that would be more successful for Huey Lewis and the News a year later. Although it reached the charts in the U. S., it wasn’t nearly as successful as Minimum Wage Rock & Roll and would signal the end of the run for The BusBoys, although they have continued recording (two more albums, Money Don’t Make No Man and (Boys Are) Back in Town, which finally corrected the error of The BusBoys not being able to put “The Boys are Back in Town” on one of their albums earlier) and are still active today.

Part of the reason that we all love music is its abilities to be able to surprise you. When you’re not even able to drive and discover that there are rock bands that aren’t lily white (I knew about Hendrix but hadn’t discovered Phil Lynott at that point) that are just as good if not better than what you’re being told is “rock & roll,” it has a way of sticking with you. The BusBoys to this day are a band that remains one of my favorites and their opus was Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. If you’ve never heard it or the band, you’d be well advised to check them out.

Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All Time:

Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure

Metallica – …And Justice For All

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)

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Being able to link different eras through a quasi-genealogy track – father begat son, who begat grandson, who began grandson, and onward – is something that many artistic endeavors look to tie together. For country music, there is the desire to tie together the gospel, bluegrass and “Appalachian” sounds to its current product (and for some, that is a LONG stretch). For blues, it is that link to virtually every branch of rock music. So, what was it that brought rock to the “new wave” that came out in the late 1970s/early 1980s? While the punk rock that emanated from New York City in the late 1970s certainly helped, you need look no further than the very underappreciated band Rockpile and their only official album release, the cheekily titled Seconds of Pleasure, for a better piece of evidence.

The members of Rockpile separately are probably more recognizable to the general music fan than the band itself. Guitarist and singer Dave Edmunds is arguably the person who created the band, with a solo album called Rockpile in 1970 and a backing band that featured the same name. In teaming up with another English virtuoso, guitarist and singer Nick Lowe, he found a kindred spirit who followed along the same musical path that he did. That path – a devotion to 50s style rockabilly with touches of blues but an overtly poppy personality – was something that both did well in the prior work before the only official Rockpile album.

The reason I keep calling it “the only official album” is that the entirety of the band – Edmunds, Lowe, drummer Terry Williams and guitarist Billy Bremner – played on several albums together through the middle point and to the end of the 1970s. Two of Edmunds’ solo efforts, Tracks on Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary and the album recognized as Lowe’s tour de force in Labour of Lust, were essentially Rockpile jamming on the albums with Williams and Bremner’s quality playing. If you go back and listen to the works, you can pick up on this fact rather easily.

Through the 70s, Lowe and Edmunds teased the audience with their solo work and, by using Rockpile as their “house band,” whetted the appetite of fans for an official Rockpile album. The combinations and musical stylings that the band put together have been given credit for breaking ground in “new wave” music, with Elvis Costello (Lowe wrote the song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”), Graham Parker (Edmunds penned “Crawling from the Wreckage”) and many other artists…these were songs that were more than likely created from this quartet through the 1970s.

Even though there was a great desire to get something going officially on a Rockpile effort, the band was hamstrung by the fact that their leadership, Lowe and Edmunds, were both signed to different labels. Edmunds was a part of the Swan Song stable (the label formed by Led Zeppelin), while Lowe recorded for the now-defunct Radar Records. It wasn’t until 1980 that Edmunds put out an album called Twangin… to complete his Swan Song contract that Rockpile could actually come out from the shadows.

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The original LP was priceless in its simplicity and its ability to deliver the best of Rockpile. The list of songs from the album, including “Teacher Teacher,” “A Knife and a Fork,” “When I Write the Book,” “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine” and “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It)” (written by Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook), demonstrated the incredible musicianship of the band. It also demonstrated the skillful lyricists that Lowe and Edmunds had become, with their priceless ability to turn a phrase.

Unfortunately, just as they were about to receive the accolades for the work that they had done, it all came crashing down on Rockpile. Perhaps because there were two “alpha dogs” at the helm of the ship – both Lowe and Edmunds, replete with producing, writing and playing credits that rivaled each other, had a bit of a time taking directions from each other – Rockpile was reaching the end of their productivity just as they were getting recognition for their work. Lowe, who had married Carlene Carter (Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter) in 1979, was not only touring with Rockpile but the band was serving as her backing band for her tour also. Tensions continued to rise between the duo until, in 1981, they would break up Rockpile, with Lowe saying in the liner notes for the 2004 expanded release of Seconds of Pleasure (which features Rockpile’s version of “Crawling from the Wreckage”), “We got together for fun and when the fun had all been had we packed it in.”

How bad was the breakup of Rockpile? Although Williams and Bremner would hold onto ties with Lowe (each played on his recordings in the 1980s), it wasn’t until 1990 that Edmunds would return to work with his former bandmate on Lowe’s album Party of One. It was perhaps even more important the other hatchet that was buried between the two men; Edmunds served as the producer of that album which received critical acclaim (in 1988, Edmunds had produced one song on Lowe’s album Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, but the 1990 reunion was of greater importance).

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It is arguable that Lowe and Edmunds – either through their solo work or through their days when Rockpile was the rage – are deserving of induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Their litany of songwriting and producing and the bridge that they formed from the sounds of the 1950s to what would become the “new wave” era of the 1980s can’t be overlooked. If there was going to be a band that you would induct for their only recorded effort (officially), Rockpile would be it and Seconds of Pleasure would be that very record…it can be played in any era and it would be at home, be it today or sixty years ago.

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Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All Time:

Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Metallica, …And Justice for All

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Metallica, …And Justice for All (1988)

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The 1980s were arguably the greatest time in the history of hard rock/heavy metal. A genre that spans back to the late 1960s, hard rock/heavy metal’s onslaught in the 80s was mainly highlighted by the sub-genre known as “hair metal,” or bands that brought the flashy look of glam rock (think David Bowie and T. Rex) to the “leather and chains” look of metal (Judas Priest). While bands such as Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and others seemingly claimed the crown of hard rock/heavy metal, there was another more diverse and deeper group of bands that were under-recognized for their work.

Behind the “hair metal” bands were a quartet of hardcore bands that delivered raw, aggressive and powerful hard rock/metal for their devoted fans. Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth formed three quarters of that foursome, with Metallica rounding out the group. The San Francisco-based band was in a bit of flux come 1987, however, with several issues facing the band and their future.

In 1987, the band was coming off the untimely death of their bassist, Cliff Burton, who was killed in a bus crash while the band toured Europe in 1986. Burton’s replacement, Jason Newstead, was unproven – he had only played on The $5.98 EP:  Garage Days Re-Revisited recordings and wasn’t considered a “member” of the band – and singer/guitarist James Hetfield was recovering from an arm injury from a skateboarding accident. Toss into the mix that the group was looking for a new record company and it seemed that Metallica’s next move was going to be one of the most important of their careers.

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At the start of 1988, Metallica headed to the studios to record the new album and were once again beset with problems. Early mixes of the records weren’t up to their satisfaction, resulting in two different producers being used for the album. Hetfield, the lyricist for much of Metallica’s work, was also writing the words while the album was being recorded. Finally, Newstead wasn’t happy with the lack of “presence” of his bass riffs on the record; depending on who is to be believed, that error fell on the shoulders of the sound mixer or drummer Lars Ulrich, who was also involved in the mixing process.

When the album was released in August 1988, …And Justice for All was recognized as a masterful change in the band, one for the good in many ways. First, the band eschewed the blitzkrieg pace of “speed metal” that had become the hallmark of their earlier work (such as Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets). Instead, they opted to crafting longer and more complex works. Metallica also worked in many tempo and mood changes, making their compositions more nuanced.

Then there were the lyrics, the words that Hetfield put to these new compositions. The stories told on …And Justice for All weren’t “happy go lucky” ones, delving into such subjects as political malfeasance, legal injustice and other wrongs through such human activities as war and censorship. By far the simmering track “One” became THE song of the album and it has etched its place into rock, metal and Metallica history.

The song itself is a masterpiece, starting off with the sounds of war before quietly moving into the chords of lead guitarist’s Kirk Hammett’s notes of dread to introduce the song. The song slowly builds in intensity, with Hetfield’s snarl commanding attention from the start, while Ulrich and Newstead provide the solid foundation for the song. By the time the double-bass kickers of Ulrich drive the end of the song, Hetfield and Hammett are releasing the hounds of their guitars and Newstead drives the bass line home, the listener is left in awe of the entirety of the song.

The subject of “One” – the return of a soldier, crippled and disposed of by the military and, seemingly, the nation – was one that hammered into many minds (and served as a callback to Vietnam and a precursor to Iraq). At over seven minutes, it was one of Metallica’s longer songs and, at the same time, most poignant and powerful. It, along with the video, was what drove …And Justice for All and Metallica into the stratosphere.

The video for “One” was arguably just as big as the song. Splicing together snippets of the film Johnny Got His Gun (about a soldier who is basically a prisoner of his body after being injured in battle) along with a video-staple band “performance” shot, the video was one of the most popular videos in the history of MTV (you know, back when they actually DID play videos). But with all this critical success the band, the album and the song were dismissed by those who SHOULD have known what they were talking about.

In 1989, Metallica was nominated for a Grammy in the inaugural year of a new category, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental. Along with Jane’s Addiction, AC/DC and Iggy Pop, the members of Metallica (who had performed “One” just prior to rockers Lita Ford and Alice Cooper awarding the first Grammy in the category) stood in disbelief as Jethro Tull was awarded the statue for their album Crest of a Knave. It is widely considered one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Grammy Awards (even bigger than the Milli Vanilli fiasco) and demonstrated just how “out of touch” Grammy voters were when it came to a genre that many had no clue about (in 1990, Metallica was nominated for “One” in the newly created category of Best Metal Performance).

Through it all, Metallica and …And Justice for All has weathered the standards of time. In time for the 30th anniversary of the album (and if that doesn’t make you feel old, nothing will), the band is remastering the album, with some mentioning that they will be fixing the Newstead bass lines so that they are more prominent (and including some gems to make the reissue worth getting). If you missed the record the first time around, you’d be well advised to grab the reissue and relive the era when hard rock/heavy metal was a vibrant part of the music industry.

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)

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Arguably one of the most creative and influential bands in the history of rock music was Yes. Formed in 1968 as the “Age of Aquarius” was being born, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to garner some success. In 1971, keyboardist Rick Wakeman replaced the original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, who had issues with guitarist Steve Howe and who didn’t want to play anything that organs and pianos. Wakeman’s joining the band seemed to be the catalyst to even greater success for Yes. Wakeman’s work on Fragile and Close to the Edge brought the band critical and commercial success, with classics like “Roundabout” and “And You and I” etched into the history of classic rock. After the 1974 album Tales from Topographic Oceans – and at the apex of the success of Yes (pre-1980s) – Wakeman felt the desire to move into new artistic directions and left the band, however.

A classically trained pianist, Wakeman often would play piano, organ and synthesizer all in the same song with the complex compositions that Yes brought to the music world. But Wakeman wanted to do even more. His thoughts had moved towards the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth and a musical adaptation that was utterly immense on the scale he wanted in 1974 and still would be considered a major production today.

The project actually took two years to write, with Wakeman collaborating with conductor David Measham and arrangers Will Malone and Danny Beckerman to tell the science fiction story with music that the legendary Verne penned in 1864. When it came to who would play the rock opera with him, Wakeman did not go for well-known musicians through his connections in the music world (what his label wanted him to do). He instead tapped people he played with at a local bar to perform, with the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir providing support on the project. Through it all, Wakeman stayed dedicated to his dream, even selling several cars he owned and mortgaging his home to fund the passion play. In the end, the writing alone cost Wakeman, by his estimates, £40,000.

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Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a live recording, with two concerts schedule on January 18, 1974 at the Royal Festival Hall in London at 6PM and 9PM. Initially Wakeman wanted both concerts to be recorded, but the musicians for the London Symphony demanded that they be paid for both performances of Wakeman’s opus if they were recorded. A chastised Wakeman thus used the first performance as a kind of “dress rehearsal,” then taped the second performance for what would eventually become Journey.

Once the concerts were completed, Wakeman and sound engineer Paul Tregurtha, who had to overcome several problems that came up with the master tapes. A mike cable coming unconnected and a tape change – which lost some of the narration by actor David Hemmings (original choice was Richard Harris) – had to be fixed, with Wakeman and Tregurtha bringing up the levels of other mikes to overcome the lack of a mic and Hemmings rerecording his narration in the studio. Once the masters were complete, however, the true struggle began.

Wakeman’s label, A&M Records, absolutely hated what they were presented with. As luck would have it, it was the U. S. branch of the label and its co-founder Jerry Moss, that actually brought the album to the masses. Moss thoroughly embraced the album and chided his underlings for lacking the vision to put the record out. The British arm of A&M changed their minds and released the album on May 3, 1974.

The success of Journey was immediate. One week after its release, the album reached the top of the British album charts and was the first album from A&M Records to achieve that feat. It went to #3 in the U. S. for two weeks and spent 27 weeks in the Top 200. Wakeman was nominated for a Grammy Award the next year for Best Pop Instrumental Performance (which went to Marvin Hamlisch for “The Entertainer”). Flying high with his success, Wakeman left Yes and went on to a highly successful solo career that allowed him to dance back and forth over the years between his solo pursuits and runs with other bands (rejoining Yes off and on from 1978 through today and a memorable stint as a part of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe in 1988).

What was it that made Journey such an essential album?

Wakeman was a perfectionist when it came to his music and Journey captured every bit of his passion. Not only was his work on the keyboards (which surrounded him on the stage in the Royal Festival Hall and included synthesizers, organs, pianos, clavinet and three Mellotrons (among other keyboard instruments) outstanding, he made sure that everything was mastered with state of the art equipment. The way to especially hear the quality of this recording is through the vinyl release of the album and the usage of special stereo equipment.

One of the things that are known in the music industry – but not by the general listener or fan – is that music is “condensed” when it is recorded. That basically means that the highs are brought down and the lows brought up because, through the radio equipment of the day, nobody could tell the difference (and it is further condensed on the air). It is with the usage of a particular piece of stereo equipment that the true sounds of music – brought back to their original highs and lows – can be heard.

It was a critical piece of stereo equipment – called a stereo expander – which allowed for the true sound of the music to come through when played back. In the 1970s, this was an expensive piece of equipment, but it was a critical one to enjoy Journey in all its glory. The vocals were crisp, the symphonic pieces were solidly backing the performance (you could literally almost pick out each instrument in the orchestra) and Wakeman’s virtuoso work on the myriad of keyboards all came out when played back through the expander. It all adds up to a priceless musical experience, one that can be somewhat achieved through the CDs that have been issued, but the original vinyl was the best way to hear it.

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Arguably Journey to the Centre of the Earth was the apex of Wakeman’s career. It was also arguable that it was the apex of his creativity, although he did go on after that to produce another dozen solo albums along with his work with Yes and ABWH. With its technical superiority, Wakeman’s mastery of his craft and his dedication to the product, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is without doubt an essential album for anyone’s collection.

We’re going to continue on with this, but they won’t be numbered. With such a collection (100 albums), it would be impossible to rank one above another. This is the first in that series and hopefully we’ll be able to complete this over the next year…or so!