Tag Archives: yes

8 Track Tapes Make Me Laugh

8 track tapes make me laugh. Anything involving 8 track tape references makes me laugh.

Whoever invented the format thought it would be OK to fade songs in and out so they fit the impossibly short lengths of the tape loop.

The player moves the heads between track pairs, ensuring that you’ll never approach any kind of playback fidelity, but gives you a re-assuring thunk as a flam between the fade-in and fade-out in the middle of Renaissance’s Ashes are Burning or Yes’ Close to the Edge.

The format isn’t convenient for anything. If you were ever in a Cadillac (or dare I say, a customized van with a bubble window) with 8-tracks swimming all over the backseat, you know that they didn’t fit anywhere.

By the late 1970s you could find 8 track tapes in the cut out bins at your local record store, and invariably the artists were either those too obscure to sell cassettes or those with songs too long to sell to the mainstream. Or both. My proclivity for listening to Renaissance and Yes frequently intersected 8 track bin searches when I had to kill an hour at Sam Goody’s.

My parents owned an 8-track tape player system that was relegated to the basement as soon as a proper turntable and amp were purchased. It was the size of a small microwave. The amp might have been tube powered. One of the five 8-track tapes we owned was the Mantovani Orchestra, and it’s a wonder I’m not scarred for life as a result.

So anything with an 8-track tape reference cracks me up. My all-time favorite was a Ready.gov parody that interpreted the boom box image as “If your 8-track of Pieces of Eight does not play correctly, you may have experience an electromagnetic pulse”. That pretty much set the bar until I discovererd John Scalzi’s missive this morning about his new term of President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Quoting from his list of ex-officio benefits:

Use of the company car, a 1973 AMC Gremlin, complete with Levi’s jean interior and state of the art 8-track sound system (note: 8-track cassette of ELP’s Tarkus album permanently stuck in player; have been advised by SFWA’s mechanic that removing it will cause car to explode)

What a great start to the second half of the year.

Feeling Old On A Friday Night

Bily Crystal wrote in 700 Sundays that he felt old when Mickey Mantle died, his first childhood hero’s death forcing him to deal with mortality. I felt the same way when Willie Stargell died in 2001, on the very day that the more-than-lifesize statue of him was to be unveiled at the new Pittsburgh baseball park. Earlier this week Yes cancelled their “Close to the Edge and Back” tour due to the hospitalization of lead singer Jon Anderson. Yes was the first band for which I developed true fanaticism, with multiple playings of “Close to the Edge” and “Yessongs” fueling the completion of innumerable nights of algebra, trig and differential equation problem sets. Anderson is suffering acute respiration problems, and suddenly I feel very old as one of my favorite rock singers is suffering from problems treated with, not caused by, serious chemicals.

A Yes show was also among the first to which I took my son Benjamin, at the ripe age of four (he made it through the first set). During the last Yes tour, we journeyed to Philadelphia to see them, and when Jon Anderson took a jaunt through the crowd Ben managed to touch his hand as he jogged by our seats. Wishes for a complete recovery to Jon Anderson so maybe we can catch (at least) one more tour with even more heartfelt high-fives from your fans of nearly four decades.

Really Classic Rock

Disclaimer: I’m writing while listening to Yngwie Malmsteen’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra in E Minor, which is the perfect complement to my Godsmack t-shirt and fuzzy duck slippers.

Context: While standing around with other middle school parents a few weeks ago, one (who happens to be a music teacher) posed a question to use that she had asked her class earlier in the week.

Question: What music of today will still be listened to in 300 years? Good question, because there aren’t many others that let you put Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker in the same answer. Her class was quick to suggest various popular artists, only to have other students point out that last year’s chart leaders were already forgotten. My related thought was that in 300 years, emo rock and Emo Phillips have about the same probability of popularity.

Answer: I didn’t give this answer at the time because I was afraid of killing the conversation completely. Listeners in 2307 will enjoy whatever best survives the current copyright climate. It’s the music that benefits from having communities that refresh themselves with new, young listeners, brought in by something they heard their parents enjoying or discussing; it’s music that can be performed, mashed up, remixed, shared and laid down under some killer Lego anime. The Brothers Grimm are still popular, not as much in prose as in song and dance, thanks to Disney’s appropriation of classic stories for their animated films. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just an argument for the good that can come from having a relaxed view of copyright (or access to material for which the copyright has expired).

A Better Answer: Most jazz, particularly Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk. To this day jazz bands of teenagers struggle with transcriptions of their work, until they realize that those solos weren’t written; they were experienced, and the musicians were having fun with the medium. I’m probably on the border of “today’s music” with references to the golden be-bop kings, so I’ll expand the list to include Yes, anything on Guitar Hero, the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the Who. In reverse order, the Who embodied “Rock is dead, long live rock” and a few centuries are unlikely to change that. Being first into the memorabilia shrine at the Hard Rock Cafe also helps. The Dead and Phish already thrive on a bootleg and sharing culture that is likely to cross generations (although I’m not sure how many young Dead heads I’ve met). Guitar Hero will expose the classic rockers to the Millenials and they’ll boogie together. And finally, Yes will still be played in 300 years because those of us who are true Yes-heads have a religious attachment to their music, one that we try to pass on to our kids, one that’s captured in at least a dozen books and biographies. There’s a fine parallel between religion and music, whether it was Yes bass man Chris Squire learning his notes on a church organ, or Mozart’s Requiem. And finally, as a bonus answer, in 250 years when Princeton University is celebrating its 500th anniversary the Princeton University Band will play the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” and nobody will understand the lyrics then, either.

Bottom Of The Band

I have always wanted to play the bass guitar. Gene Simmons from Kiss, Geddy Lee from Rush, John Camp of Renaissance, and of course Chris Squire of Yes (the latter two with their Rickenbacker axes; the former with his axe posing as bass) were my musical heroes. Twenty-seven years ago, I first attempted to learn to play, buying a very low-end Fender jazz bass look-alike with horrible action, uneven frets, and a warped neck (or at least those were my excuses for my lack of ability coupled with fret buzz). It was the week after midterms, the somewhat misplaced “fall break” during my freshman year at Princeton — this exact upcoming week on the calendar. It wasn’t the first time I’d come back to campus with more junk in tow than when I’d left.

My excuse for an amplifier was a “portable” cassette deck with the bass run into the line in, and an 1/8″ plug to RCA plug cable going from line out into my stereo amplifier. Unintentional distortion, a little pre-amp control and a touch of Mr. Microphone all at the same time. A year later, partial differential equations and DeMorgan’s theorem conspired to consume my practice hours, and I sold the bass to another unsuspecting (and unsuccessful) friend from the radio station. During my entire 4-string career, I learned the bass line to “I’m Free” by the Who and some of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll.”

Last year, when I was making up my list of projects in progress for the incoming CTOs of software, I put “learn to play bass” in near the end, just to see if they’d read that far. Brewin asked me a few weeks ago if I ever learned to play, and I couldn’t think of a good reason why I hadn’t. I can find the time to practice; I have a place to practice and access to reasonable sound reinforcement. So after a few weeks of trolling around on eBay I managed to win one Steinberger-style, Hohner headless bass guitar, suitable for travel, practice in tight quarters, and aging heavy metal wannabes with fat fingers.

It arrived today, and I’m itching to get on the redeye so I can get down and get funky in NJ. Next stop: YYZ.

Long Tale of Non-Commercial College Radio

Commercial college radio provided me with my first experiences in sales. As an advertising sales “rep” for WPRB-FM, Princeton’s student-run radio station, I had to pitch ideas, produce ads, write copy, frequently voice the ads myself, manage our cash stream and do demand generation. It was a great way to finance my growing record collection. There are only a handful of commercial college stations; most are either financed by the affiliated institution or through listeners, much like the Public Broadcasting System (“supported by viewers like you”).

But WPRB-FM has a long and technologically illustrative Tiger tale. As the first FM college station, it received a broadcast frequency of 103.5 FM, later swapped for cash and the equally useful 103.3 FM. Most student-run stations are banished to the lower end of the frequency spectrum, where they’re less likely to be found by “dial twiddling”, something that worked in favor of listeners in the Trenton-Princeton-New Brunswick Route 1 corridor who let go of the tuning knob when something on the radio make them tune in a bit more closely. A broadcast format that included classical and jazz provided an advertising platform for local businesses: jewelers, travel companies, the University Store, and some higher end eateries. The station was, and is, self-supporting without any assistance from Princeton University aside from the use of space in a dormitory basement, and (at the time) a spot for the broadcast antenna on top of the same building.

Afternoons and evenings featured WPRB’s “progressive” format, today probably known as alternative, eclectic, or just fun. It included everything from truly obscure local bands (like Regressive Aid and their conjoined one-show band with The Groceries, the aptly named Lunchmeat 2000) to bands that nobody had heard of (at the time) like REM. Our listeners were as varied as our on-air programming; I’m sure that most of my classmates who frequently voiced “WPRB plays crap” as we spun U2’s Boy now own copies of Bono vox and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. We had shows that featured reggae, art rock (think Yes, Genesis and King Crimson), metal and alternative, and during one weekend when we were moving a wall, all 20-minute plus tracks so that we could swing hammers and not just bass lines. Our varied programming after lunchtime let us pick up “punk clubs” (King Tut City Gardens) and various other counter-cultural havens as advertisers who had no other routes to listeners.

College radio, powered by a desire to disrupt convention, and expose listeners to something new, is the epitome of a long tail. Only through college radio could my friend P hear Alaskan punk band (don’t ask) “The Anemic Boyfriends” on WFMU-FM and declare them high art. The essence of Chris Anderson’s long tail economics is to drive more overall volume by first expanding the “tail” of a distribution curve, and then moving demand from the head of the curve (smash hits) to the tail (future micro-smashes). The problem in the 80s was distribution — as desperate as P was to find the 45 RPM single of The Anemic Boyfriends, it took nearly a year and a trip to the ferro-ciously good used record store in Ithaca, New York, to find the vinyl.

No matter how long the tail, at the end of the distribution curve, there’s another distribution curve of even more refined, more obscure listeners. It’s what led Dave, one of my managers who knows I have a penchant for being a Yes-man, to point me at Porcupine Tree as the Yes of this generation. He’s right, and I spent $45 on content I would have never found through any other channel. And at the transitive closure of those distribution and demand curves, you’ll find Indie Rock Pete from Diesel Sweeties, afraid to like anything with a positive listener count.

In the mid-80s, WPRB went through a financial change brought about by the confluence of an expanding New York radio market making our 103.3 FM frequency more of an impediment to our neighbors on the dial who wanted to go bigger. Through several years of negotiations, FCC filings and long meetings, WPRB was able to expand its broadcast area and received a cash infusion at the same time. Numerous exhaustive and exhausting discussions ensured about the financial models that would govern how and where the money would be spent in future years. We debated the risks of investment strategies, regulatory issues and continuity of student leadership, and yet it was forces exogenous to the broadcast industry that reshaped WPRB 20 years later.

When you mix podcasting, blogging, and social networks as ways for students to share their musical likes and dislikes, the on-air pulpit is less appealing. Running a commercial station with a unique value proposition is much harder when that same value-through-unique programming can be obtained with a combination of Google and iTunes. WPRB has switched from a commercial format to a listener supported financial model, still maintaining the quasi-independence of Princeton’s direct sponsorship and the fiercely independent creativity in its programming. College radio is far from dead. It does, however, rely on direct support of listeners who delight in hearing something new, finding a reference to it on a web site, and monetizing that interest almost immediately, without intervening ads for unrelated products.

Syn of Commission

I’m the kind of person for whom upselling was invented. While trolling iTunes for some John Wetton-led U.K., I was tempted to look at The Syn. Being a Yes omnivore from my teenage days, I knew that bassist Chris Squire was a member of a group called “The Syn” in his pre-Yes days (being in sales, we have a lot of pre-yes days). Original keyboardist Peter Banks is gone, leaving only Squire and singer Steve Nardelli. But the result isn’t bad. It’s not quite the long, “audio painting” style of classic Yes, nor is it the pop meanderings of Asia or late lifecycle Yes. It’s also lot more accessible than “Flag”, the Squire-Bill Bruford collaboration. A good return on $10, commission of a nice Syn to my iTunes library and iPod.

Here’s the recording industry’s Syn of omission: I probably wouldn’t have spent $18 on this CD. I certainly wouldn’t have found it filed under “S” for “The Syn”, or perhaps “Squire,” avoiding Billy Squire without severe 80s withdrawal symptoms. But the suggestion offered by a perfect long tail of music — iTunes driving demand from one small distribution curve (of British progressive rock fans) to an even smaller one (those who knew Chris Squire when…) — incented me to spend money unintentionally.

Asia in New York

That’s not Simon Phipps addressing an open source conference — rather it’s John Wetton, bass player and front man for Asia, the “original” supergroup of the mid-80s formed from the remainders of Yes, King Crimson, UK, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Buggles (unless you count them as part of Yes). Wetton is using a bullhorn to simulate the simulated radio voice introduction of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was tucked into the show on behalf of keyboardist Geoff Downes.

My son and I caught the show at the Fillmore Plaza in New York’s Union Square, and by standing in line for about half an hour before the doors opened we claimed a spot directly in front of Steve Howe. The Buggles song always gives me a solid laugh, because there was palpable fear that MTV was going to destroy broadcast radio. A quarter century later, MTV has had a definite effect on how music is perceived, enjoyed and distributed, but it hasn’t replaced radio. It’s really just another channel for developing audiences, and in that regard, the parallel to open source communities and projects isn’t so far off base (you knew I was going somewhere taking Simon’s name in vain at the outset….)

More important to me is how a quarter century has passed and we still use music as the strong force in our nuclear families. My father introduced me to jazz as I was entering high school; Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker were on the turntable as we adjusted our FM radio antenna to pick up the jazz show that preceded Spider on WBLS. Jazz was the supplement to a steady diet of hard rock (KISS, Led Zeppelin, and some guy named Frampton). As my son is about the same age (Internet-time adjusted) as I was when discovering jazz, I’m making sure he gets the 70s progressive rock vitamins to go along with Linkin Park, the Fratellis, Godsmack and Wolfmother staples. He enjoys listening to, and is amazed by, Steve Howe as much as his father. Video didn’t kill that radio star because Howe and company weren’t on the radio very much, modulo the regular Roundabout spin on most rock stations. Communities — particularly very small ones involving family members and close friends — shape our tastes as much as mass media.

Lucky 13

It’s been 13 months since I started blogging. I’ve discovered old friends (who have discovered me online). I’ve found interesting Google page-ranking algorithm effects that cause my blog to show up in the most amusing searches. I’ve received emails from Willie Stargell’s niece, from Rick Wakeman (of Yes keyboard fame), and from a friend of Patrik Elias’ who forwarded my blog post about the Devils star buying sneakers. I’m writing, I’m reading, I’m thinking about writing as I’m reading, and I’m taking many more pictures of everyday things that seem blog-ready.

Yes and the Round

Yes-heads will immediately note that the late 70s tour was “Yes in the Round” and I’ve botched the title. But I spent the early part of this evening thinking about the various circles of Yes-dom and how they intersect. I’ve previously written about the intermediation of various circles of interests, ranging from eBay to charity events to sports fanaticism. But after consuming way too much science fiction recently, I decided it was time to once again dive into the stack of books I’ve acquired about Yes. Listening to “House of Yes” in the car to and from Boston this week certainly influenced my selection. (Double disclaimer: it’s not the best Yes concert CD, but it’s the cleanest version of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with Steve Howe, not Trevor Rabin, on guitar. And I like it).

Tonight’s linkages discovered: Alan White played on John Lennon’s Instant Karma and Imagine, also appearing on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Rick Wakeman shows up on David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Finding your favorite musicians in other places is prelude to discovering more music that you like. Jay Littlepage, VP of the software group that delivers the Sun Connection, finally convinced me to buy Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus by telling me that the Tower of Power horns appear on it. Obviously, they don’t appear on the three tracks my freshman year roommates played endlessly, or I would have bought a vinyl copy in 1981.

If you’re really into playing the equivalent of LinkedIn for rock stars, check out Peter Frame’s book of Rock Family Trees that shows the formation, merging, splintering and evolution of many of the 70s and 80s art-rock bands. Leafing through it you realize that this is how rich, highly cross-referenced and annotated information was conveyed before there were browsers, hyperlinks and wikis.

Keys To Ascension

Unable to sleep last night I popped in the DVD of Yes’ “Keys To Ascension,” a somewhat sloppily produced concert archive of their 1996 shows that brought keyboardist Rick Wakeman back to the group. My affinity for the 1996 CD sets of “Keys” and “Keys 2” (the other half of the concerts) are strong — I have been a Yes fan since I discovered rock music. One of my strongest memories of summers at the Jersey shore was putting on WYSP 94.1 FM in Philadelphia and hearing “Close To the Edge”, side one, tracked through late at night. I was hooked. The layers of the music, the amazing guitar work of Steve Howe, even the obscure yet ever-hopeful lyrics continuously gave me something new to listen to, to listen for, or to enjoy anew.

After college, marriage, and children, my CD player saw more of “The Best of Sesame Street” rather than Howe & company. But in 1996, I bought “Keys”, and I was hooked again. Yes ascended, indeed, and I’ve re-purchased most of their catalog on CD. Each listen jostles some mellowed brain parts, and provides something to explore repeatedly. This week’s favorites include the closing section of “Wurm” from Yessongs and Steve Howe’s guitar solos on “Turn of the Century” from “Keys 2”.

But in my late-night state of half-listening, half-snoozing, I heard Wakeman’s solo on “Wurm” (from the DVD of “Keys”) differently — and for some reason, it sounded exactly like the piano solo in Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” (which is played by Rick Wakeman), with Moog replacing Steinway. Something else to ponder over break.