Sorry for the recent ring of obscure posts- I’ll try to write about something released in the past 6 months (that isn’t the new Dodos album) after this post. That’s my goal, at least.
I grew up within spitting distance of New York City, but my choice of record stores, until I was about 14, never reflected this. Before I realized that there were better places to buy CDs than chain stores in strip malls, my favorite playground was the Tower Records out on route 17. Tower Records was cheaper, dirtier, and older than the other record stores in northern New Jersey, and didn’t care if you sat there for hours reading the Eddie Vedder interview in the new Spin. It was where I got my first punk CD (the Bad Religion comp All Ages, when I was in 4th grade), and probably the location of many other important music milestones as well. For many years of my life, Tower Records was my favorite store; an conglomeration of a candy shop, a playground, and a museum. I don’t remember much about my early childhood, but, I remember precisely where the letter P bands were in the Tower Records on Route 17 in Paramus.
As most of you know, Tower Records, the whole chain, closed last winter. By the time it closed, Tower tugged at me in only the faintest discernable ways; when I’d be out buying dress shirts and I’d see the marquee across the highway- big red block lettering too big for the store they sat atop, which at this point seemed more appropriate for carpets, readymade preframed wall paintings, or discount wooden tables; geometric, bland things you buy once and then forget about. Last thanksgiving, my parents reminded me that Tower Records was going under, and, in a shocking reversal from their usual position, urged me to go buy music while I could, while everything was on sale.
So I went, and a friend and I both left with armfuls of CDs. I got early Fall albums and shitty Guillemots EPs (I still don’t get what people see in them) and Arcade Fire singles and to top it off, something so ridiculous, overblown, exciting and fun, that it neatly summarizes the best that Tower has resembled in my life. Because it was low-quality-dirt cheap and I wanted to test it’s hypothesis, I bought an album whose bold claim was its title: “The Greatest Hits of the 1960’s.” I had not heard of any of the bands that, supposedly, had such unbelievably great hits: The Olympics, The Marathons, The Belairs, or The Fugitives.
The first thing I realized about this album was exactly how obscure and tossed off it was, typo-ridden information came up when I tried to ID the tracks in Itunes, and the entire album sounds like someone had put a record player on in one half of a parking garage, and stood at the other half with a handheld tape recorder, and then taken the results and pressed them onto a CD. Songs skip, crackle, and warble, forcing listeners to hear the neglect we give to all but the most visible of rock and roll. The CD is a half rotted time capsule of America from the 1960s.
The best stuff on the album lacks words, because the tracks here that have lyrics range from absolutely cringeworthy (the racist “big chief little puss” by The Olympics) to joyful but ludicrous (“Peanut Butter” By The Marathons, a song that sings the praises of your middle school sandwich topper).
If you’re looking at the album as a historical document, however, you must take into account the history of the Olympics, who, in addition to their one racist song, also contribute music that might make people with atrophied legs, bedridden and unsmiling, get up and move, even if it is just a faint crawl. Their songs could be as good as the swampy, torrential “Baby (Hully Gully)” (which, according to wikipedia, birthed the “hully gully dance craze”) or the more contained, but no less exciting “Stay Where You Are.”
The Olympics were an all-black band who formed in 1957, and recorded a string of charting singles over the course of the 1960s, often urging listeners to do a new dance (c’mon everybody, do the slop/the dooley/the bounce). One of the groups singers, Charles Fizer, was shot and killed in the Watts Riots in LA in 1965. Another quit after his sister was accidentally shot to death a year later. After this point, the group splintered, sporadically reforming to record but never reaching their prior success. It is not a stretch to say that it was the time in which they lived that destroyed The Olympics, a group whose sole purpose was making joyful music for people to dance.
But as I was saying, my favorite tracks on the album are the instrumental numbers. The ominous surf rock of The Bel-Airs’ “Mr. Moto” is music to play on a jukebox as you get beat up on a rainy spring day outside a bar you don’t go to very often, with the volume getting louder and quieter as people open and close the door, trying to figure out what’s going on, maybe placing bets or recovering flying teeth. “Freeway” by the Fugitives makes me want to go figure out what a Go-Go actually was, and then immediately go to one. It’s the kind of song that would work great if you had a car with bucket seats and white leather, and you were driving to give a winning presentation to your bespectacled boss in the washed out, 1960s film version of your real life.
“Shimmy Like Kate” is a song by the Olympics
“Mr. Moto” is a song by The Bel Airs
“Freeway” is a song by The Fugitives
All these songs are available on the superbly (/not-superbly) titled Legacy International compilation The Greatest Hits of the 1960’s
Here are three music sites I’ve discovered recently that you might enjoy as much as I do
http://www.musicalfamilytree.net/ (once I actually download stuff from this, you can expect a big post later)