May 112021

And verily, I say unto you, I’m getting there. For, last night, I realised I wanted to listen to Xanadu. 

By Rush.

All eleven minutes of it. Mainly for that ridiculous riff, but also the bells. Even the twiddly widdly widdling. Geddy Lee’s voice. Plus the quiet bit, where the small people come out and dance around Stonehenge. Oh, hang on, that’s another song, but I often get them muddled.

Yet, to these ears, when viewed, or listened to, together like one of those spot-the-difference puzzles in kids’ comics, there’s barely a note or twiddly flourish to distinguish Xanadu from Closer to the Heart.

While the latter makes me want to murder the first person I see and chop them into pieces where they fell, the former leads me to imagine the world as a friendlier, sunnier place. 

And yet, there’s no bloody difference. 

If it sounds like Yes, tastes like Wishbone Ash and smells like Supper’s Ready, then i don’t understand why it’s living in my head. 

The first time I heard Xanadu, or Rush, was on the Old Grey Whistle Test, “Whispering” Bob Harris’s late night TV show and a wildlife preserve for the last of the grand old dinosaurs. He was called that because he spoke very quietly. We’re very literal over here.

How my mate Rob and I hooted at the hair, the twin-neck guitar, and what looked like someone tidying up a drum factory warehouse after an earthquake. All the while, the bassist trilled from beneath his impeccable cascading hair, playing keyboards with his feet. Not to mention the bloody lyrics. 


And the bells, like the ones which used to wake our mate Phil who lived opposite a church every flipping Sunday morning. 

OMG, we thought, though less anachronistically and using not-SFW language, won’t the pretty guys in our class, who not only had a band but knew how to play their instruments, love this? 

And didn’t they just?

To our horror, a week or two later, Rob, our own Rob, started buying Rush albums. The rest of the band convened an emergency meeting to decide whether intervention was required to steer him back towards the one true path. We reluctantly opted for pragmatism, at least until we suspected he could afford another eleven drum kits to play simultaneously, or when my guitar playing improved enough to be able to twiddle approximately like that. Fortunately, neither came to pass. He wouldn’t have taken any notice anyway, none of us were any good at being told.

On the other hand, there are some records which, looking back, opened doors to musical genres I couldn’t hitherto understand. Who, for instance, doesn’t find their spirits lifted, feet moving and hips swaying upon hearing Bob and the Wailers? 

Well, me, for one. Couldn’t see the point of reggae, at least until John Peel played tracks from “Misty in Roots Live at the Counter Eurovision 79”. 

From there, it was like someone opening the curtains in the morning to a world of sunshine. Like normal people experience, in fact. Apart from bloody UB40. Just the other day, I learned, since their schism, there are now two UB40s, both using the same name. As if the world isn’t grim enough these days. But I digress.

Despite listening to and enjoying a track or two by Rush every couple of years, they are the entrance to prog beyond which I cannot journey. There they stand, like the doormen on clubs in my youth telling me I wasn’t going in looking like that. 

Which brings be to the questions I am eager to pose to the Hall.

Which genre do took you far too long to find a route into? 

And, to paraphrase Macca, who opened the door and let you in?

Is there a genre where you like one artist, even one song, but otherwise find Ian McKellen, dressed as a wizard standing before the Balrog, bellowing: “You shall not pass”?

I’m not talking about genres we can’t get into at all, but opened doors and scintillating glimpses of what lies behind.


  15 Responses to “Doorway to Heaven”

  1. When I was growing up, there were very few records in my house. My parents enjoy music, but it would be incorrect to say I grew up in a musical household at all. Everyone was way more into books, TV, movies, and plays. I was the first one to seriously collect music. Among the records my parents did buy on their own were Sgt Pepper, whatever that Blood Sweat and Tears record is that has Spinning Wheel on it, and the Broadway soundtrack to Hair.

    I really liked that Hair album. It has funky songs, trippy songs, moon-rock, protest songs, dirty and inappropriate words, and clever lyrics. That’s as far as I ever went with Broadway music. There’s a world where I ought to be more receptive to that genre. The songwriting can frequently be so clever and smart with great melodies. I love the concept of having to write a song according to spec. “Hey, we need a song here that carries the plot from A to B”, and someone writes a smart song that does just that. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to hit, you’re given the blueprint of what the song needs to do.

    It’s not rock and roll, but a songwriting fan ought to be able to dig it. BUT, so much of it is all too overly dramatic (no surprise) and square. We had the soundtrack to Grease too, and that middle of the road pabulum was very off-putting. I was probably intimidated at my young age about how “fabulous” it all was too.

    So that’s a strange doorway I might have entered, but I never made it past my Hair.

  2. Wow, that Rush song alone gave me much to chew on! How did I not know that song and video existed until this post? And how to I feel about not knowing until now? I need to think that through.

    The “You shall not pass” question reminds me of the night my friends and bandmates chickenfrank and Sethro decided to check out the after-hours dance party scene upstairs at Revival, a Philadelphia club from the ’80s that was located in a large, marble building that used to be a church for sailors, or something like that. We played Revival’s downstairs live room a lot and saw a lot of shows there. There was tile and marble everywhere. You could delicately strum a Dmaj7 chord and it would ring out thunderously. The club had an overall goth vibe to it, but in the downstairs live room, cool bands would come through. The booking guy was one of the nicest people in the business. Revival wasn’t every underground rock musician’s favorite club, but it had a soft spot for me.

    Upstairs at Revival was another world, one I had no interest in ever passing, until 1 fateful night when chickenfrank, sethro, and I were feeling bold (and probably had too much to drink). Upstairs at Revival didn’t really get going until the live shows were in the homestretch. Around 1:00 am, you’d see Philadelphia’s goth crowd slink past the bar and the stage and head right for the steps that led upstairs to the BOOM BOOM BOOM of an electronic kick drum that only mildly varied in tempo and could sometimes be heard thumping over the punk band onstage on the first floor. We couldn’t stand “Kick Drum Music,” as we referred to it. We imagined people doing lines of coke off the rim of urinals. No one ever seemed to laugh. The goth scene was a turnoff on musical, social, and sexual levels. Sorry if I’m offending anyone, but I never got turned on by a vampire.

    Anyhow, this particular night, we were feeling our oats. “Let’s go upstairs and check out the Kick Drum Music!” one of us said. We marched up the steep flight of steps. The electronic kick drum got louder with each step. The guy working the door up there gave us a funny look. We took 3 steps into that room and suddenly felt like hayseeds. Just a flight of stairs down, we were pretty cool members of Philly’s underground rock scene, having headlined shows at Revival and opened for touring bands. The doorman often let us in for free – that’s how much status we had. The booking agent, Bob, once backed us up when we opened for The Lime Spiders and their road crew wanted us to cram into a tiny space in front of their equipment. Bob told them in no uncertain terms that they had to move their drums and let us use the riser for our set. We were at home on the first floor of Revival. On the second floor, however, in that goth scene, we were reduced to the nerdy 15-year-old boys who first decided they needed to start a band to overcome their cool deficiencies. We gawked at the scene around us for maybe 45 seconds, then turned and headed back downstairs, into the night for adventures more suited to our sensibilities.

  3. It took me a while to get settled in to country. I think my earlier years of listening to the Dead might have greased the skids, but it wasn’t until my later 20’s that I got into Bob Wills, Hank Williams and George Jones. (My late 20s was quite some time ago, but at the time it felt like I was very late to the party.) The Dead’s versions still get grandfathered in, although they now sound totally amateurish to me, but I think by focusing on the songs first, instead of the nasally vocals and twangy/tinny instrumentation of the Hank Williams originals helped ease me into a genre of which I had been conditioned to be suspicious.

    I started listening to jazz around the same time. I had always been into Billy Holiday, even in high school, but never really liked proper jazz until around the same time I got into country. Some guy I worked with in San Francisco who was a bit older and seemed much more sophisticated than I, turned me onto the gateway drug that is Kind of Blue. In fact, I have a distinct memory of him extolling its virtues just after work when that big earthquake hit in ’89. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

    I like some prog songs like Squonk, and Carpet Crawlers by Genesis, and A Hunting Girl by Jethro Tull, but I run out of enthusiasm quickly in that genre. In general, I like simple music. Prog feels like an angry complicated math problem and I do not have a math brain.

    Similarly, with metal I like a few stray songs like Paranoid but then I’m out. The whole thing seems like the musical equivalent of some overcompensating guy with a huge pickup truck that has a Punisher sticker on it and another one that says “Come and take it” and has a picture of an AR15. I get it, I get it, you’re more macho than me

    Arguably in a genre by himself, I really did not like Tom Waits when my friend and one of my brothers played Pasties and a G String for me. It seemed like all shtick and no substance. I couldn’t stand him. But the Beat Farmers’ version of Rosie caught my ear years later and several years after that, I owned all of his albums except for 3, one of which was the album with Pasties, etc on it. A decade of two later, I found myself organizing Cabinet of Curiosities: a Tom Waits tribute, with about 30 different singers and musicians, including strings, horns, and a bellydancer on stage.

  4. Happiness Stan

    Excellent stuff, thank you gentlemen! I’ve never listened to Hair, always meant to get around to it, perhaps 2021 is the year. Our punk band used to play upstairs from a heavy metal disco quite regularly, that was a pretty alarming combination in those days. Goth isn’t quite a closed book for me, our lead singer had the look long before Goth happened, and some of our stuff got a bit Bauhaus towards the end. I was going to say I saw the Sisters of Mercy at a festival in the eighties or early nineties, but heard would be more accurate, since, in a field large enough to hold about 40000 people, they used so much dry ice that from about a third of the way back I c could

  5. Happiness Stan

    Whoops, didn’t mean to hit submit…

    way back I could barely see the people in front of me through the dense fog. Don’t remember anything about the music, other than it being rather gloomy and portentous.

    If Tom Waits is a musical genre, then I have another example. I could happily listen to Downtown Train every day for the next few years, yet have never been able to penetrate any further into his output. I love the idea of him, just don’t get it.

  6. BigSteve

    I trust the people who say Duke Ellington is an American Treasure, but whenever I tried to listen to his music I could never find anything that I connected with. I’m not sure what I read that pointed me to it, but the the library had the 3-CD compilation called The Blanton-Webster Band covering 1940-42, and it’s awesome. After getting into that album I went back to not being able to find other stuff I liked. Those long-form concerto-like pieces seem great in theory, but they leave me cold. As it turns out, the Blanton-Webster Band collection is all the Ellington I need.

  7. HS, while I have positive memories of the Hair soundtrack and how groovy and transgressive it was, I wonder if my impressions would hold up under adult scrutiny. I’m reminded of some of the “groundbreaking” 1970s American situation comedy shows that seemed so revolutionary in finally portraying the African-American experience in a truthful representative manner only to see during the credits that they were written by old Jewish white men.

  8. Happiness, as much as I love Tom Waits’ weirder stuff, Downtown Train, arguably his most “mainstream song” is still my favorite, so I applaud your choice of Desert Island Tom Waits Song.

    I apparently needed to hear other people sing the songs first to appreciate them. Then I got his first album which is fairly conventional. I followed that up with Bone Machine of all albums, which is the sonic equivalent of going from smoking some nice mellow weed directly to snorting truck stop speed. It’s an acquired taste for sure but once you acquire it, obsession can set it pretty quickly. I think I feel the same way about Captain Beefheart that you do about TW. I really like Abba Zabba and to a lesser extent Electricity. But I cannot make my way into the rest of the catalog, despite the good counsel I’ve received from fellow Townsfolk.

  9. BigSteve,

    I have that Blanton Webster band collection and, although I like it, I never felt the need to go much deeper. However, there is one other Ellington number I love, probably maligned by those in the know. It’s called “Malletoba Spank” and it’s on a 1959 album called “Jazz Party.” It has has an exotica tinge, but without any of typical ironic distance. It’s also very short and succinct.

  10. Happiness Stan

    CDM, how splendid, since I do get Beefheart, I completely relate to what you say. Ah Feel Like Ahcid and Gimme Dat Harp Boy from Strictly Personal were my way in. Having heard his stuff on the John Peel show for years left me none the wiser. That album is very much the missing link between Safe as Milk and Planet Don. It’s probably too late for me and Tom Waits now, there are just some places our individual minds don’t seem programmed to go, but who knows?

    Thought of another one, Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, whose work I also like the idea of but which remains otherwise impenetrable. I know it’s twee, but it does it for me nevertheless, and, like Downtown Train, gives me hope that one day, possibly, my brain might find a way through.

  11. Happiness Stan

    I’m not sure I’m familiar with anything by Duke Ellington, just know he’s there somewhere behind the great wall between me and jazz.

    On the topic of old comedies, we just started watching the Beverly Hillbillies on Prime, for something sixty years old it stands up amazingly well, even Mrs H, who takes loud and grave exception to misogyny in old TV and movies, has been unable to find much to grumble about.

  12. Wow, I had no idea Beverly Hillbillies made it to the UK. I love that show! I consider Granny one of the funniest characters in TV history.

  13. C’mon! You can’t invoke the Beverly Hillbillies without sharing that long ago RTH contributor Sethro is so named as a reference to his real blood relative Jethro from the BHs. The share the same last name and Hollywood good looks.

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    Last night, I finally cued up “Stop Making Sense” on the idiot box. I own no Talking Heads albums — I just sort of gave them a pass in college, when everybody I knew dug them. I didn’t hate them, I just didn’t like them well enough to get my own copies of the albums that were fairly ubiquitous in dorm rooms I frequented. Anyhow — yeah, last night I fired up “Stop Making Sense,” and greatly enjoyed it, up until the ass-kicking live take on “Take Me to the River.” The band was on fire, and I enjoyed the added bonus of Tina Weymouth’s cute li’l dance moves in her cute li’l khaki jumpsuit. I never realized what a cute li’l thing she was/is.

    But then I got real tired of David Byrne, and remembered why I decided not to take the Talking Heads plunge. So I opened the door, then shut it about 30 minutes later, just last night. No Talking Heads fandom for me.

  15. cherguevara

    I’ve written a bunch here about wrestling with Prog, but this morning I realized there is something else and that’s Bob Dylan. I have a handful of his records and I play them at times. “Blowin’ in the wind” is a song that seems like it should always have been there, how could he have conjured that? But it rarely compels me, it becomes mood music in the background and I wonder about the fixation and adulation so many have for Dylan. I’m sure it doesn’t help that I don’t really focus on lyrics when I listen to music. I’m open to listening and convincing, but so far his music just passes me by.

    I’m checking out that Ellington album, though, groovy stuff.

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