Autobiographical Order No. 283: Blue Oyster Cult – Agents of Fortune

I play guitar. And as a guitar player, I have an uncurable affliction (or should I say, “a fever”): Though it doesn’t happen every time I pick up my instrument, it’ll happen eventually—I will absolutely have to play the riff from Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Yes, I know. What a dork. But c’mon, That song absolutely rules. And honestly it’s pretty undeniable; friends of mine who go well out of their way to avoid the classic ’70s rock canon still love “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” As they should: It’s both a perfect pop song and a great slice of proto-metal with just a brief hint of prog.

The first time I remember hearing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was on the TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand in the early ’90s (anyone else remember that? With Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald? It was actually sort of creepy in the beginning and then got stupid pretty fast, but that’s also fairly reflective of how Stephen King stories devolve into WTF eventually. Also I was a kid at the time so maybe it wasn’t even that creepy). The important thing was that was when I first heard this song and I knew I liked it.

Twenty-five or so years later, I’ve taken a deeper dive into the Blue Oyster Cult catalog and—SNL sketches aside—have come to regard them as a super badass band, and one that I’d actually love to see before they hang it up for good. They’re still touring, though, so it’s not totally out of bounds. But they’ve definitely released some great albums. I wouldn’t necessarily say Agents of Fortune is one of them though. It’s a good album. A fun album! But it’s mostly solid rock songs, nothing on the level of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” And that’s OK! If I bought the album for this alone, it’d still be worth it. And I did, so there you go. (For about $5 if I recall correctly.) But I never skip tracks. Maybe they’re not mind-blowing, but they’re still pretty fun. And the album art’s pretty cool; notice the magician is fanning out the cards while pointing to the band’s ankh-logo thing. Sleight of hand!

Still, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was an eye-opening track, and I think I can partially credit it with getting me more interested in classic heavy metal. I played it once at my short-lived metal DJ night and nobody questioned it. Hell yeah.

Rating: 8.3

Sound Quality: Good/Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 282: The Birthday Party – Prayers on Fire

There have been a number of songs in my life, probably hundreds, that provoke a kind of “Holy shit!” moment. Where the first time I hear them, my perception of what music is and could be and should be is totally turned upside down. One of those songs was “Nick the Stripper” by The Birthday Party. I was a senior in high school and had developed a habit of impulse buying a lot of CDs based on things I had read or certain whims. And at the time I was taking a deep, deep dive into the whole post-punk canon, snatching up every Wire, Joy Division and Cure record I could find at Lou’s Records. A copy of The Birthday Party’s Hits ended up in my hands, and all I knew of them was that it was Nick Cave’s band before the bad seeds (and in all honesty, the only music of his I knew that well when I was 18 was “Red Right Hand,” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow,” since they showed it on 120 Minutes). But I thought, “This’ll be cool.” I had no idea. No clue. The whole thing kind of ripped out my brain, but “Nick the Stripper” was the first song that really blew my mind. It wasn’t really sexy, despite the name, but it had a groove, and it was kind of terrifying. A burlesque for the undead.

It’s the kind of song that made me think, “I want to do THAT.” But it took me a long time before I was ever in a position to be doing anything like that. In my twenties, I was in a band that I tried to convince to do a cover of “Happy Birthday,” though it never came together, probably because of a lack of motivation. (We did covers of Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries,” Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and X’s “Los Angeles,” though, so that was probably plenty in terms of doing covers.) And moreover, their rhythms and intensity are just so intense and weird. Even if you wanted to try to do what The Birthday Party did, it wouldn’t be the same. I’ve even spent time trying to get a guitar tone similar to Rowland Howard’s, though even that’s something that needs to be balanced out by Tracey Pew’s meat-punching basslines.

I figured at some point, I’d need this on vinyl, even though I’d have to do some digging on the Internet to find it. It’s been reissued a few times, so it’s not that rare, but I managed to track down an original U.S. pressing for a good price. And though listening to records for me can be a therapeutic thing, or a relaxing thing, this album just tears right through the speakers and goes for the jugular. And that’s why I love it.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 281: Psychedelic Furs – Mirror Moves

I actually just wrote about Psychedelic Furs, so I won’t go overboard here, but this band did actually heavily grab my interest in high school, to the point that I ended up buying their first four albums (on CD) in the span of just a couple months. If that. Part of it was knowing their singles and wanting to flesh out the canon, of sorts. But Mirror Moves, despite featuring two major singles, “Heaven” and “The Ghost In You” (which was covered, poorly, by Counting Crows), actually caught my interest because of a different song.

I’m sure many San Diegans my age will remember Steve West hosting resurrection Sunday on 91X, which was often when some of the best music would end up being played, since it wasn’t dictated by whatever was popular at the time (which was increasingly becoming nu-metal circa 1999/2000). And I’m pretty sure I picked up a few favorites through listening to the show, and a few tracks I ended up really loathing (like “88 Lines About 44 Women,” as recently podcasted). But one track I heard became an instant favorite the first time I heard it: “Alice’s House” by The Psychedelic Furs.

It’s sort of everything I love about a song. It’s kind of weird, kind of eerie, super catchy, a little dark, etc. In a lot of ways, it’s not that different from most other Psychedelic Furs songs, but it stands out to me simply because it’s got some of their best hooks, a cool arrangement and whatnot. Though the sleeper hit on Mirror Moves, on which “Alice’s House” appears, is “Heartbeat.” Why? Because it’s got a ripping sax intro. You know what I’m talking about. All about that sax.

Anyway, I bought this used somewhere because it’s one of those automatic buys. You see it, you buy it, your collection is all the richer for it.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 280: Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right

There’s something kind of cool about discovering a band early(ish) in their career and watching them grow over the years. I can’t say that I got into Protomartyr on the ground floor—not that many people heard their first album No Passion All Technique—but Under Color of Official Right, the band’s second album and first for Hardly Art, blew me away on first listen. The Detroit band’s raw, furious post-punk is a lot of fun to listen to, but it still has a lot of darkness and intensity. It’s basically a mixture of a lot of my favorite things about music.

When the band played in San Diego at The Hideout in 2014 during the tour behind this album, there weren’t a whole lot of people there. That’s maybe an understatement. It was pretty sparse. But they kicked ass, ripping through a set of punk tracks that seemed to move even faster than they did on the album. And I ended up picking up this LP from the merch booth, complete with a chapbook (which seems to be included with all their vinyl releases, as it turns out).

Over time, Protomartyr’s shows have grown quite a bit. They played a sold-out show at Soda Bar a year later, which I had to miss because I was doing some goth DJing the same night. Although the upside was that some of those people ended up making their way to the Whistle Stop afterwards. (Thanks Protomartyr!) Although I believe that was the same night that I had been up for 24 hours straight, having just flown into San Diego from New York that morning. That was rough, but somehow I made it—having a guest DJ helps. Though in retrospect I had every reason to change the date.

I caught them again at Soda Bar a year later on the day after Donald Trump was elected and, boy, that was a bad day all around, but I’ll get back to that later. Their show was great though. And then earlier this year they packed the same club they originally came to in San Diego—now called SPACE—after being given a run for their money by opening band Shame. And though they’re not at the stage where they’re filling up giant theaters, I don’t think they ever will be. They’re not that kind of band. Still, it’s cool to see them continually expand their audience, and to see a band that makes great music be appreciated over time.

But this is where I discovered the band, with this dark, noisy record that happens to be a lot of fun to listen to. Basically once I heard “Scum, Rise!” I was sold.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 279: Killing Joke – Night Time

I’ve been a fan of Killing Joke for a long time. I’ve also had a lot of frustrating missed opportunities with Killing Joke in that time. I think a lot of their fans have, actually; they have a tendency to cancel tours a lot. Vocalist Jaz Coleman even disappeared to Iceland in the ’80s at one point when he thought the end of the world was happening. That’s how the story goes anyway, I’m not sure if that’s what really happened, or if he just decided to fuck off for a while. That could be true too.

But I’ve never seen Killing  Joke live. I’ve done a pretty good job of catching up on seeing all of the post-punk bands that have left an impact on me (Gang of Four, Wire, Mission of Burma, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Bauhaus, etc.), but KJ has eluded me for a few reasons. Back in 2012 when my wife and I were in Glasgow on vacation, they were playing at the O2 theater. We considered going, after all, it’s Killing Joke. Because it was a little pricey, though, we passed on it, assuming we’d have another chance. Then they announced a show in San Diego a couple years ago…which got canceled. This apparently is a thing that’s plagued them throughout their career, but at least I got a great Soft Moon show out of it.

I also once interviewed Jaz Coleman back in college, which was actually a super great conversation. We talked about a lot of stuff, a lot of which I don’t remember exactly, though I do remember discussing Dave Grohl, since he drummed on the album they had just put out. (That’s a thing he does.) The reason I don’t remember a lot of it? The interview didn’t record. I was beyond frustrated/bummed/annoyed. Choose your own adjective. Sigh.

But for all the things that haven’t worked out with Killing Joke, their music has absolutely been something that’s brought me a lot of enjoyment. Night Time was the first album of theirs I picked up on vinyl (through Discogs—I rarely see their LPs in stores, probably because there haven’t been recent reissues), and it’s the one that has a lot of the hits: “Eighties,” “Love Like Blood,” “Kings and Queens.” When I was doing goth DJing, it was a staple in my set. And in my own music, I think I’ve been influenced in large part by their songwriting and Geordie’s “Stereo” guitar playing. Which I don’t think I realized until someone pointed it out to me, but that’s an comparison (intentional or not) that I’ll gladly take.

Perhaps I’ll get a chance to see the band again (hope so!) to make up for the times that didn’t quite work out. I should also note that I was set to interview Jaz Coleman again a couple years ago, and that got canceled too. Perhaps they’re not the most reliable group in the world, but they’ve released some damn good music.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 278: Swans – To Be Kind

The last time I wrote about Swans, I mostly stuck to how intense and exhausting their music can be, but I obviously respond to it for a reason, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought this record. In any case, their music is an all or nothing sort of thing. I don’t imagine there are many middle-of-the-road Swans fans, and that’s maybe by design. Though I doubt any band wants people to kind of sort of like them but not with any really strong feelings. No artist wants that.

I ended up seeing Swans during their To Be Kind tour, and they made their way to Southern California about a year after this album came out. I had the promo in iTunes for about a month before I impulse-bought the album at M Theory, and had spent so much time with it that I decided it was time once and for all to go experience that intensity live at The Constellation Room in Santa Ana. My wife incidentally was out of town that weekend so I was essentially on my own, and I made plans to meet up with my friend Peter who was living in Los Angeles at the time. And by chance we happened to find out that our mutual friend Craig was also going, so we pregamed with some fried chicken (which is really the only way to pregame) before spending two hours with the band’s sprawling, massive sound.

It was a pretty stellar show, and Angel Olsen opened, which was unfortunate only in that her super quiet set had to compete with whoever was opening for Tech N9ne next door at the Observatory. But Swans held their own in that fairly cramped room, stretching out their songs into even longer and more winding pieces. “A Little God in My Hands” and “Oxygen” hit particularly hard. I didn’t really like their next album The Glowing Man quite as much; the threads unraveled a bit more and fewer tracks seemed to justify their length, though it was a good record. Just not a great one.

This was a fun, weird break to that week, however, a bit of noise in between work days. I spent the night at a Courtyard and had to race back home to do an interview with Lightning Bolt the next day, but it all worked out. Sometimes you need to just drive 90 minutes to meet up with friends, eat some fried chicken and be annihilated by sound.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quailty: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 277: Fugazi – Fugazi EP

It might be because of my age—a little too young to have caught wind of the phenomenon at first—but I got into Fugazi a little later than everyone else. Not, like, everyone in the world, but most people who discover Fugazi. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t end up picking up a copy of Repeater until I was in college, and even then it was more of a “these guys are pretty good!” thing than an outright “This is changing my life” sort of experience. That didn’t really happen until I heard Red Medicine, which is one of the band’s most celebrated records, as well as one of their weirdest. I like weird. But that, too, took another year or so.

But everyone knows “Waiting Room,” even before they know Fugazi, and I was no exception. It’s something of a hit, as much as can be said of a band that didn’t release hits. It’s an anthem, a real monster of a song that in fairly simple ways encapsulates why this band became such an important and revered institution so quickly. It’s the kind of song that kind of lights your brain on fire when you first hear it, and you can’t get it out of your head.

About a decade ago, some friends and I formed a cover band for a music trivia night thing that we participated in, and that involved one of my friends playing tuba basslines. Which is inherently silly—imagine hearing “Seven Nation Army” for instance. But let me tell you, there’s nothing funnier than hearing the bassline of “Waiting Room” played on tuba. The idea was too funny for us not to keep it, so it became part of our name-that-tune set, even if it was pretty obvious. (The harder ones were Gary Numan, Gregory Abbott, The Misfits—we played “Astro Zombies” as a ballad and nobody could figure it out—and Annie.)

Which isn’t to say that the rest of the songs on the band’s debut EP aren’t kickass. But I bought it for “Waiting Room.” Worth every penny.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great