I Don't Hear a Single 02
Track-surfing the old-fashioned way
I've always been suspicious of singles, not to mention A&R men; I don't like to be told what to listen to, and I've always found the release of singles in itself to be a redundant way to peddle one's audio wares. With that in mind, I present I Don't Hear a Single: a round-up of non-single tunes that were either (a) too long to be a single, (b) too good to be a single, (c) too obscure/unreleased to be considered for single status, or (d) too jarring in one way or another to be singled out for mass consumption. Let's F-ing do this.
In light of the overWHELMING response to the first edition of this column — i.e. no one wrote me a ‘congratulatory' e-mail calling me a “bitter asshole” — I've decided to put together another entry full of individual tracks that, for one reason or another, are damned notable!
Now remember smarty pants, these tracks weren't chosen because they were popular or, in some cases, deemed worthy of release. In fact 90-odd percent of these weren't designated as proper singles. I carefully culled these songs from my library of music because they define a specific time, moment or realization in my life... or because they got me laid.
Even better, in the day and age of the MP3 you, the healthy, attractive and generally boner-ready reader, can find these tracks and download/purchase them individually without being bothered with the rest of the filler. I don't know about you, but I'm fucking EXCITED about this! Can you feel this energy, this nervousness? Yeah? Good, good, then you're officially ready for:
“Attack on Babylon” by MC Ren, from Shock of the Hour, 1994
Rumdidditty dum-dum-rum, ditty dum-dum-rum, diddity dum-dum-dum, the shock of the hour, armageddon, judgment day has come. This line from the title track is amusingly overserious, as is most of Shock of the Hour, a great, overlooked, gravely sullen album from ex-NWA rapper MC Ren. Other tight-but-too-‘hawd' tracks like “Fuck What Ya Heard” and “Same Old Shit” are enthralling but also too posture-heavy and typical of the style of the period. Scratch that assumption when it comes to “Attack on Babylon.” I mean yes, in retrospect it's also a funny song, and it also could be considered redolent of the gangster-rap (only old people and those too young to remember call it ‘gangsta' rap) genre. However, when I heard this lyric at age 15 I kinda freaked: Where the fuck ya gonna run, when the fuckin' ground starts shakin' / Niggaz don't be waitin', niggaz be constantly makin' / Niggaz with no hesitation, a fuck up in this nation / To murder the caucasian, the Asian invasion. Now we've all heard vague references to ‘devils' and casual haranguing of the White Man, but this was the first rap I'd heard that explicitly stated an intent to kill a caucasian. Scratch that- murder a caucasian. That's some serious shit! And what the hell is the Asian Invasion? I probably still don't ‘get' the ‘true' ‘meaning' of this ‘song' (and my apostrophe usage is gratuitous), and as whitey I might never digg; still, it doesn't detract from my fascination with its call-to-arms lyrics. Add to it a simple, pitch-bending bass loop, some blurry samples, amazing pre-Wu cadence and a thumping mid-song breakdown and you have a goddamned CLASSIC, burried at track eight. Shit, some rich caucasian probably placed it there. Murder that bitch, Ren!
“To Know Him, Is to Love Him” by The Teddy Bears, 1958
If you wanted to be a DICK about it, you could claim I'm violating my semi-staunch no-Top-40-hit rule by selecting a bonafide single for this column. BUT, before “To Know Him Is to Love Him” became the number-one song in America in 1958 it was actually a b-side to The Teddy Bears' intended breakthrough, “Don't You Worry My Little Pet.” Besides, this track carries SO much more significance than the average chart-topping cuts of the time (“Wake Up Little Susie,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”). For one, it was the first song Phil Spector wrote that hit it big. That alone would be enough for a high profile, but on top of that Spector wrote the track after visiting the graveyard of his father, whom by most reports committed suicide in 1949. ON TOP OF THAT, the title of the song came from an inscription on the late Spector's tombstone. JESUS CHRIST! All this would be moot if the track weren't so effortlessly moving, but Spector somehow created a tune so chilling you can imagine a weeping widow singing it while she mopes around an emptied-out funeral home, thinking about all the love her departed husband will miss now that he's crossed over to the spirit world. Annette Kleinbard, who achieved mild success as a songwriter but never crooned another hit ballad, turns in an absolutely breathtaking performance; her voice — and the entire recording — is just distant and low-key enough to wring that extra iota of emotional significance. To think, this wasn't even included on The Teddy Bears' first full-length album, The Teddy Bears Sing... this is probably the sort of thing that drove Spector to pull a gun on Dee Dee Ramone in the '70s and shoot a B-movie actress in the face in 2003. All told, as one of the best songs of fucking ALL TIME, “To Know Him, Is to Love Him” doesn't quite get its due. Hopefully a new generation of trove-diggers will change that, no?
“Sphagnum Esplanade” by The Shins, from the Know Your Onion! EP, 2001
“Sphagnum Esplanade” has no business being a Shins song, and that's probably why it's so oddly compelling. Consisting of little more than a distorted bass drone, echo-laden drips and James Mercer's delicate high-register musings, this b-side packs more punch than most of his latter-day material despite being soggy and generally listless. It's doesn't really go anywhere; it chugs along with little fanfare and fades out before it's made an impression. So you listen again. And again. And again [again?]. And before you know it, you like it even more than that delightful Oh, Inverted World interlude with the samples of playing children. Most importantly, “Sphagnum” is raw-rubbed like a thorough rug-burn. Turn it up even halfway and its obnoxious bass will push your levels into the red. Turn it down too far and you can't hear the vocals. And that's just how it should be! For a band constantly, boorishly referred to as ‘whimsical,' this track aligns them with the term even more. But we're talking about good whimsy, innocent and never flimsy. If the new Shins album ends up with even a pinch of the flair flaunted here I'll be a happy man (note: I've never been happy so to pin this on The Shins isn't quite fair).
“They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV, from They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!, 1966
Parents always pull tricks on their kids. My ma always complained about the ‘sleezy' music I listened to, saying the groups of her era were classier. Then I researched one of her favorite, The Mamas and Papas, and realized I was being fed a load of doo-doo chutney. They drank, they drugged, they fucked everyone's most attractive sibling, one of them even ate her own face [non-existent source needed]... and they made me realize just how full of shit my mom really was. My buddy Isaac Alcon's mom also dropped a pretty strong hint; he found “They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” on a record of hers and dubbed it to CD. After putting it on a mix he sent me we conferred and decided that our parents — contradictory to their accounts — DEFINITELY dropped a lot of acid, smoked a lot of grass, and licked their share of peanut butter. This song, the only one on this list that was initially designated as a proper single, is fucking bananas. It's fucking plantains. It's fucking rutabagas! A strange, skin-slapping, tamborine-ing, hand-clapping rhythm looped over and over again is the only noticeable bit of backing music. Other than that, the only sound you hear is the voice of Jerry Samuels, a young recording engineer and songwriter moonlighting as a certifiable kook. Thing is, the whole concoction is brilliant, eerie yet loveable, queer yet streamlined for mass consumption. The Disco Duck '70s notwithstanding, this ditty is proof-pure that people were downright wacky-tobacky in the '60s.
“Hooligan Hotline (You Walk Away)” by Eric Alexandrakis, from IV Catatonia, 1999
First things first: Eric Alexandrakis wrote IV Catatonia at home on a four-track recorder. While undergoing chemo. For Hodgkin's. Without telling anyone (not that anyone was paying attention, but whatevs). When I first heard it I kinda freaked out and name-dropped the guy to high-heaven. I reviewed it for the school paper and even got in touch with him (I still get ‘artist update' e-mails from him sometimes; hey dude!). Anyhoo, in retrospect I might have gotten carried away. The album is dense and interesting, but I was championing myself — “Look at what I discovered... and no one else knows about it!” — as much as the music. That said, one of the IV's songs still lingers in my psyche: “Hooligan Hotline (You Walk Away).” Beginning with a loooong intro of boom-and-retract clouds of audio nothingness, it seems at first to be yet another Alexandrakis collage with lots of potential but little in the way of substance. WRONG! Out of nowhere the poppiest, most outrageously cheeky guitar lead/vocal since “Love Comes in Spurts” comes crashing down your ear canal and floods your brainstem. No drums (until a drum machine ticks/tocks into gear three-fourths in), no bass, just that surreal voice and a ratty guitar... and that's all you'll need. The Russian Futurists and Emporer X seem to be mining similar territory, so I ask all of you: Where's the love for Eric Alexandrakerarakaraerikerakeris? Oh right, the name... not too catchy, is it? Maybe someday he'll come up with a proper project moniker — my biggest pet-peeve is self-titled bands named after someone few have heard about circa Jeff Hansen — but until then, track down “Hooligan” and get psu-psu-psycho!!
“The Spray Paint Song” by Timur Bimp Jones, from In the City of the Heart, 1983
Peep this scenario, yo: A non-indie — aka shitty — campus radio station is getting rid of its vinyl stockade. The WHOLE damn thing must go. A few compatriots skim the surface, but once the Gumshoe takes a case, he's not stopping until at least three pedophiles are behind bars. Metaphors aside, I roll up my sleeves and plunge head-first into a trove of records both famous, infamous and the opposite of famous. I sweat profusely as I start a pile. The lovely ‘slap' each record makes when it hits the pile becomes a strange sort of dinner bell. Long after my friends leave, I'm still looking through piles of dusty LPs. Why? Because I'm obsessed, hear me? I can't stop. My heart beats like a souped-up kickdrum as more and more discoveries force me to give them a home. By the time I'm done, I've procured 300 records or so. And when I leave after four or five hours of scouring — get this — a station manager THANKS me!!! Can you believe it!? Here I am ready to shine ass and the guy gives me madd props for liberating a stack of classic wax. After locking the records in a room, I arrange to pick them up. Once I finally and arduously get them home, I take stock. I find many familiar favorites — a tarnished, out-of-print On the Beach LP, a synth-tastic Stranglers live album, a Soul to Soul compilation — but the most intriguing finds are the in-betweeners that I grabbed on a whim. One of those in-betweeners was a short EP from Timur Bimp Jones, a very obscure artist. A not-too-shabby collection of tunes overall, there's one track on In the City of the Heart that literally causes me to again break into a frenzied sweat when I hear it: “The Spray Paint Song”. It starts out with an adorable little quasi-ska riff circa The Police's “Roxanne” or early Scritti Politti coupled with equally precious whistling circa, I dunno, “Patience.” Then a weirdo starts crooning like a struck-match David Byrne or even wackier Scott Walker while the backing shifts to a more post-punk-by-way-of-The Pretenders motif. The track oozes personality and energy, so grounded and simultaneously original it could only have emerged from the early '80s (1983 to be exact). I've never heard a tune like this before, and for that matter I've never heard of this fucker or his band. My belief in the sacridity of ‘indie' is renewed like a 25th-year wedding vow; I re-don my monk's robe and swear off major-label pap once again, laughing to myself every time I hear the station I plundered play one of its used-tampon Relient K singles. And so it goes... (PS —This very same piece of vinyl is selling for $74.95 on certain websites right now. See, being indie isn't ALL about being broke.)
“Sailboat Kite” by Masters of the Hemisphere, from Protest a Dark Anniversary, 2002
This album was one of my first review assignments for a now-defunct weekly. Although the album as a whole didn't sway me one way or the other, “Sailboat Kite” rippled my flag enough to usher in a new way of thinking, namely: simple can be best. This song is a practice in rudimentary chords and vocals, yet it stands out from the other tracks on the LP, most of which probably took a lot more effort to write and record. It sounds, to me, like a pure artistic moment. Masters of the Hemisphere hit the number on this one: Sean Rawls or Bren Mead — I'm not sure which of them wrote and sang this tune — probably picked up the guitar one day, strummed a nursery-rhyme verse for awhile and BLING, inspiration hit. Why muck it up with complexity when all the right notes are in the same place? I despise the antiquated idea of ‘summer' and ‘winter' albums and songs, but I also despise the idea of a world where “Sailboat Kite” remains anonymous and unused during those hot months between May and September. Rarely does a song sound so much like everything else that it stands on its own.
“Those Were the Days” by Cream, from Wheels of Fire, 1968
I had this professor once that was very... one track-minded. He talked in this hilarious semi-Canadian, semi-Washington (state) drawl and reportedly tried to get one of my classmates to sleep with him at a school retreat. I'm not gonna blah-blah about dipping one's pen in the university ink, but I will say that the guy turned me onto some great, obvious music I simply hadn't had the time or money to explore. I remember trying to talk to him about Keith Moon and Buddy Rich and getting the same reply EVERY GODDAMN TIME: “[mutter-mutter-gulp-gulp] Ginger Baker [mutter-mutter-mutter]”... the guy ate, drank and excreted Ginger from his pores. I'd never met a casual music fan with such a singular focus cast on a drummer, especially a drummer you don't hear about a whole helluva lot these days. When I heard Wheels of Fire, I realized that maybe his obsession was called for. Baker was straight-up lightning at this point in his career, and “Those Were the Days,” not “White Room” or “Politician,” was the song that truly lured me into the Cream fold. Galloping forward atop an insistent beat with several gaping pauses, “Those Were the Days” also features beautifully off-kilter vocals that skip and hop and dance around the rhythm. What's more, the track was co-written by Baker and thus by design flexes his Thor-muscles for all to hear. Weary as I am of old-timers that never shut the fuck up about the Sixties, perhaps those were the... ahh, blow it out your ass you damn hippies.
“????” by Petra, from ?????, 198?
Surprisingly, one of the most important songs I ever heard was written by Petra. A grade-school friend, Chris Keim, invited me over to ‘play.' I found out that though he was a great friend and dapper with the ladies, he listened to a lot of shitty music. For starters his favorite musician was Stevie Wonder, but that ended up being his biggest strength taste-wise (and how sad is that, even in fourth grade?). Turns out, his preference for crap went wayyy deeper. I don't remember the name of the album, I don't remember the name of the song, all I remember from the first — and last — Petra tune I ever heard was a plea: “Read the bible, yeeeeah.” Right away I reckoned it was by far the most objectionable thing I'd ever heard. I wanted to burn their houses down and watch each of them die a slow death. Considering that my interest in attending church was waning at the time, perhaps in an alternate universe hearing Petra would have convinced me to re-up with God and re-connect with the ol' JC. Not me. I decided right there and then that the Motley Crue cassette I'd purchased and subsequently given to my dad (I told him Girls, Girls, Girls was too “bad”) might be worth checking out after all. Already blessed with gum on the bottom of my shoe, I searched the house, found the tape hidden on top of a tall shelf and gave it another chance. As luck would have it, Girls, Girls, Girls stuck the second time and I never looked back. For someone previously smitten with little more than Beastie Boys and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, it was a huge epiphony. Thank you, Petra.
“New York City Cops,” by The Strokes, from UK version of Is This It, 2001
Deleted from the U.S. version of Is This It along with “racy” cover art of a — ghasp — thigh (OOH!!), “New York City Cops” is one of the quintet's best songs and an acceptable kiss-off to the law enforcement officials of The Strokes' home city. As silly as it is to hear a group of mega-pampered rich kids sass in the direction of the police, the track's infectious riff and chorus render any concerns meaningless. Maybe prep-school bitch-asses aren't so bad after all...