Saturday, May 20, 2006

Star Hits: A tribute

the desert of my soul without LargoI've been a shell of a person since Jon Brion's hiatus, and I hate everything I post that isn't music related--thus, the silence. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson: Better to be thought a fool than to blog and remove all doubt.

As a diversion, I'd like to present a big influence from my teenage years. (Those of you who'd like to be spared the hassle, you might not want to check back until the end of the month, which is when my next string of gigs is coming up. Must. Stay. Strong.)
I've already wasted too much time on Rolling Stone. Spin? Spun! For me, music journalism begins and ends with one title: Star Hits. I still purchase Magnet and the like, but none hold a candle to my erstwhile North *ahem* Star.

Everyone who knows me knows one thing: Like nearly every child of the '80s, I was crazy about Duran Duran in my adolescence (and--gulp--beyond). Yes, I now understand all the criticisms lodged against them, but at the time, they opened up a new world to me. I probably shouldn't admit this, but if it weren't for Duran Duran, I may never have discovered Roxy Music, Yohji Yamamoto, or Wilfred Owen. And despite the miles of press the band garnered, no magazine covered them like Star Hits did. (For the international readers, in the United States, it was known as Star Hits, but Smash Hits started it all in the United Kingdom.)

Star Hits magazine, debut issue, February 1984I came for Duran Duran, but I stayed for everything else. I owe/blame my 20-odd years of Anglophilia to the magazine, and I worshipped the rag for mundanities such as its use of heavy, quality paper and full-color spreads--all the better to tape them to my locker at school. I drooled over the ads listing "limited edition" import releases. I longed to be Jackie, the seemingly omniscient doyenne of the Get Smart column. Last but not least, I hung on every word of "advice" dished out by the sardonic Bold Type.

In our retro-crazy times, it's hard to recall correctly what was and wasn't popular back in the day. Anyone can claim to have "discovered" REM and the Smiths in 1984, but if you look at those early issues of Star Hits, you can see for yourself. Granted, the magazine wasn't going to take home any Pulitzers, but it inhabited a middle ground between the pure drivel of a teenybop magazine and the sanctimonious snobbery of, say, the British music weeklies.

But enough of my proselytizing--let's take a look at the table of contents of the debut issue (pictured above). Sure, Duran Duran, Madonna, David Bowie, and Culture Club are predictable enough, and even Big Country, the Alarm, and Spandau Ballet would break through to a small degree in the states. I love that the Rolling Stones, breakdancing, and Grace Jones all share column inches, but this may be my favorite single item in the entire listing:

Star Hits magazine, debut issue, February 1984

If you've ever attended a wedding, you don't need to read another word about Kool and the Gang and its '80s-era lineup. Instead, please note the top-billed band: X, who've never been particularly renowned in this country. And finally, there's Trio, who were known by very few people in this country until Volkswagen used their song in an ad--in 1997, or 13 years after this review ran. Ah, how I loved this magazine.

Alas, as the decade wore on, Star Hits became more of a glorified Duran Duran fanzine (not that I complained), and it finally folded in the late '80s, around the same time the band's fan base moved on. I was such a media nerd, however, that I pored over bylines of other magazines for a glimpse of life from my favorite writers. I didn't have to look far--a lot of the writers continued to work for British publications, while Chris Heath became a Rolling Stone mainstay, and David Keeps landed at Details (where he received and responded to my gushing fan letter). Later, I found out that Suzan Colon took a post at YM, and I was kinda tickled a couple of years ago when I read that Ian Birch took over the helm of TV Guide. Oh, and there's that Star Hits cofounder and former writer who went on to a different related career: Neil Tennant, half of the Pet Shop Boys.

Thank you, Star Hits, for the initial spark and the continuing inspiration.

Note: This post was made possible by my BFF, who kept her magazines in pristine condition and entrusted me with their care, long after mine had squandered our precious natural resources in a landfill.

See also:
» Star Hits: A close reading

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

the whole damn crowd seemed so far away

Back in 1995, when I was deep in the throes of NME-addled, Britpop-lovin', Noel-and-Liam-fueled Anglophilia, the Jayhawks' "Blue" somehow pierced my consciousness enough that I went out and bought Tomorrow the Green Gas--about as far from the sounds coming from Old Blighty those days as you can imagine. I still don't know how to explain the anomaly, but now, more than 10 years later and to my continuing surprise, I finally saw the original songwriting team for myself.

Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Great American Music Hall, May 8, 2006: I have a thing for seeing singer/songwriter types away from their usual band, especially in an acoustic setting. There's nothing like hearing a song at its most basic to remind you of where it starts and how far it can go. Granted, it doesn't always deliver the same punch, but it's a chance I'm willing to take.

I won't pretend to be any sort of authority on the Jayhawks. Other than the earlier exposure mentioned above, they're one of the bands that I stumbled upon in my post-Wilco conversion. Fortunately, I got to see them at the Fillmore, though I stupidly passed up the chance to attend a Golden Smog show a few years ago. Still, unlike with many of the so-called No Depression bands, I latched on to their harmonies and rootsiness.

For the show tonight, the Great American Music Hall set out tables and chairs to create a mellow, uncluttered feel, and onstage were two stools for the night's troubadors. There were no openers, so Gary and Mark joined us posthaste. They went fairly light on banter, but their very demeanor fostered a relaxed, cozy feeling. I can't tell you much about the setlist, except that they played a fine mix of songs. They went heavy on the old stuff, as you might expect, but they also hit a few later Jayhawks titles, and Mark sounded right at home on the Rainy Day Music tracks. The funniest part of the night was probably when a woman yelled out "Blue"--as if they wouldn't have played it otherwise!

Gary and Mark's songs, even electrified, aren't known for their pyrotechnics, and accordingly, I didn't expect revelations. But the two of them sound so good together that I'm kind of ashamed of my last statement. When it comes down to it, I'm a pop (in the Biblical sense) girl at heart. I love angular guitars, mixed-up syncopation, and novel takes as much as anyone, but when you have a great combination of voices, words, and instrumentation--no matter how basic--the rest of the world tends to fall away.

Monday, May 08, 2006

public service non-announcement

I've had a lot more visitors trailing through the last week, thanks to a certain MySpace presence--thank you for stopping by, even if I have nothing worth reporting. Like many of you, I'm hoping, wishing, and paying alms to my deity-like figure of choice for the return of His Man Friday. In the meantime, I offer up the rest of my virgin Largo show (well, what I have of it) for downloading. I haven't been able to stop listening to "Be My Baby" recently, but the rest of the show is a ton of fun too.
» Jon Brion, Largo, December 17, 1999 (61MB ZIP file)

I have a few other Jon Brion live MP3s hiding around the site. If you want them, a simple search should uncover the URLs.

Also for my new readers, I present my collected Jon Brion show reports, all in one handy list:
» and when you touch down
» how can I deny what's inside
» i am in paradise
» falling, yes i am falling
» three-god night
» there was no way of knowing
» the way it went, the way it's gone
» that ain't working, that's the way you do it
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon
» let your heart be light
» the man some girls think of as handsome
» you don't know the meaning of the blues
» i'll be back again
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 2)
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» please share my umbrella
» unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour
» can't really spell it out
» that was hazy cosmic jive
» owner of this corner and not much more
» i can teach you, but i have to charge
» i'll be out on the town
» i won't be denied

Updated July 22, 2006:
» "My name is Jon, I'm from Connecticut"
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance
» just keep counting the stars

See also:
» top 5 Largo memories
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» top 10 concerts of 2005

Monday, May 01, 2006

the power is on

It's a good thing that my friends keep me honest and off the couch, away from the TV. Paolo stopped by on his way to Indio, California, and convinced me to check out a Coachella-borne double bill.

Go Team/Dungen, Great American Music Hall, April 28, 2006: Thanks to my miscalculation, we missed about half of Dungen's set, and by the time we reached the club, it was already packed. As neither of us were heavily invested in the show, we made do with our decent spots.

Dungen: I think I like psych pop, but truth be told, I'm not sure I could tell you what it was. I know there are guitars and often an organ, but further details escape me. Still, I've revelled in weirder musical exercises, so I can't really talk.

Two words: flute solo--that's probably what I'll remember best about Dungen's set. I mean, they weren't Rush, but the vintage feel of their music was undeniable. I recall one fairly straightforward song, but we also got a couple of jammy, swirling compositions. Ordinarily, I might have problems with the fact that they sang entirely in Swedish, but it barely entered my mind during the show. Paul said he digs the guitar player, and the guy certainly has the chops. We couldn't really see him from our vantage point, but we could definitely hear him bending notes like a mother. Oh, and their bass player looked exactly as you'd expect from a Swedish psych band.

Go Team: Once upon a time, I took it upon myself to see nearly every U.K. band that came through San Francisco on (preferably) their first run through the city. Unfortunately, one too many Gang of Four/Wire/Joy Division knockoffs have fueled my jadedness, and a lot of otherwise worthy bands have slipped through the cracks. Go Team is one such group. I've heard great things about them, and on the album, they remind me a lot of Pizzicato Five, but that wasn't enough to get me out the door.

Signs didn't initially bode well for Go Team. Dungen had played a meandering set, I was on the verge of a gourmet-pizza-induced food coma, a set of obnoxious girls were butting into our space, and the band was a half hour late in setting up. But about 30 seconds into their set, I was bobbing up and down to the beat and grinning like an idiot.

Go Team is known for its dance qualities, but I was struck by the use of harmonica. It was the last thing I expected to hear, but it cut through the rhythm attack and layers of sound on at least a couple of their songs--I guess it made the songs more human. And though I know it's easy to place the mantle of the band on the singer, Ninja was incredibly magnetic everytime she was onstage, whether through her MCing, her dancing, or her general interaction with the audience. Other than that, I also love the nonstop instrument swapping and the seemingly international, equal-opportunity aspect of the band. There's something for everyone!

Even more entertaining was watching the crowd go nuts for them. San Francisco has a reputation for diversity, but I don't always see it at shows. This one, however, was a wonderful encapsulation of how music can bring people together. Toward the front, you got a lot of younger, enthusiastic fans, but only a few rows back, I saw people of different age groups and demographics. The common denominator: they were all enjoying the gig and weren't afraid to show it.