Thursday, April 15, 2010

Record Store Day Part IV - Vertigo

Ok - so I know that I am skipping a big chunk of my life, but so be it. I am going to move ahead from the record stores of my teenage years into my current favorite hangout - Vertigo in Grand Rapids. After all, this is all about Record Store Day, which is this coming Saturday (April 17), and anyone who is able to do so should go to Vertigo (on 129 Division Ave. in Grand Rapids) or to their local record store to show support. Herm has invited bands to play, so it will be a great day for music lovers to stop by - and there is exclusive new music released in the independent music stores that day: Sonic Youth release their Hits Are For Squares on LP, Soundgarden are reprinting their vinyl Hunted Down single, new music from Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age and much, much more...

This store has had me trawling both the used CD bins and the regular price bins for hours, just savoring the opportunity to actually physically look through collections of CDs that are out of the mainstream. They have the mainstream music as well, of course, but I believe it can be hard to compete with the easy access at the bigger chains, both when it comes to supercenters and big box electronics retail (I refuse to name names - I only namedrop Vertigo these days). Moreover, if I start really feeling the urge, I can browse through the many vinyl bins they also have - which indeed is a treat for me! I have not done it yet, but the similarities with both Playtime and Rockin' are many - so this is truly an oasis for me.

Even more than that, the prices are reasonable. Actually, they are more than reasonable, they are excellent! Both the hybrid monsters that call themselves record stores and are found in malls and the bookstores that also sell music tend to overprice every single CD - with prices closing in on $20 - but Vertigo sells full price CDs for around $15 for the most part - and often for even less (usually not much more than all the big boxes or the supermarkets who also push prices down). So what has happened is that I, even if I could save about a dollar on some of the CDs if I bought them elsewhere, return to Vertigo. I'd say that I stop by about once a week - at least - although I don't buy everytime I am there. And therein lies the answer - the reason that I still would buy a CD there if it got even a little more expensive. I actually interact with people making it a holistic music shopping experience again. And Herm, John, and the rest of the employees truly make it a great experience.

Isis - 20 Minutes/40 Years from Wavering Radiant

Now, let me try to explain what I am talking about. Last summer, Knut Hervik, a high school friend from Norway, suggested that I check out Isis and Kylesa. After purchasing Isis' spectacular album Wavering Radiant, I decided that I needed to listen to more of their albums. They had most in stock - but not all of them. However, after a brief chat with Herm, they were ordered, and not too much later they were in stock. Then, of course, John picked up on what I was listening to, and he suggested that I check out some of the other bands either on HydraHead Records or featuring members of Isis (Aaron Turner of Isis is also head of HydraHead Records). That lead me to both Jodis and Khanate, which both play painfully slow doom metal with vocals that truly convey agony and pain - and maybe a little angst. While this was intriguing and interesting, I was also led in the direction of the more ambient soundscapes of Isis taken to new highs - with bands and projects like Windmills By The Ocean and Red Sparowes (their latest, The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer is spectacular). This in turn led me to the more post rock/post metal bands of Pelican and Russian Circles - and then Herm suggested Explosions in the Sky. Then I started finding out what Brian Cook, the bass player for Russian Circles, had been up to before, which led me to more hardcore bands like These Arms Are Snakes and a band I have written about earlier: Botch.

So what is the point about all this? I mean, what I have done is namedrop a bunch of out-of-the-mainstream bands. The point is that my musical taste is developing again - big time. Through the relationship I have with Herm, John, and the rest of the staff at Vertigo, I have been able to discover music I otherwise would not have had any idea existed. I might eventually have heard of them, but this way I am somewhat engaging in dialog about music again - with people who care as much about music as I do. I really love having found a real record store again, one run by people who actually care about music and who strive to offer the kinds of music radio and TV seems to forget. Because of this, I don't buy music elsewhere anymore - at least not often. If Herm doesn't have it, he will get it. It might take a while - but it always ends up in his store. And - as the name of the store suggests - Herm is a Hitchcock fan. How can you go wrong with that?

Red Sparowes - Giving Birth to Imagined Saviors (from The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer)

Red Sparowes - Alone and Unaware, The Landscape Was Transformed In Front Of Our Eyes - live at The Knitting Factory, 2006

Red Sparowes - sampler from The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer

Friday, April 02, 2010

Record Store Day part III - Rockin'

I am still getting ready for Record Store Day on April 17 - and the next record store that was very important for me was...

I think I first met Åge, who was the person who started Rockin' at Playtime. If I remember things correctly, he was one of the people running the main floor who actually let me in after they closed on a Friday afternoon so that I could pick up Manowar's newly released Fighting the World in time for our weekly radio show, which I believe might have been called Metal Rendez-Vous at that point (it was originally called Flazz, which is the Norwegian word for dandruff but with more evil spelling than the two S's that should be at the end, then it changed to Metal Rendez-Vous after the Krokus album before it sailed into the sunset as Madhouse after the Anthrax song). the interesting thing about Manowar is that I also decided that it would be nice to have a phone interview with one of their members, so I called up the international phone directory in Norway and wondered if they had a phone number for Joey deMaio. I knew what city he lived in, I believe it was somewhere in New England, and I was ecstatic when the lady on the other end of the line actually gave me his phone number.

I should add at this point that I started working in a local radio station when I was 13, so I would not have been much older than 13 or 14 when I tried this. Anyway, I was very mindful of the time difference, so one day at what I thought was the perfect time, I picked up my parents' old gray rotary phone and dialled what seemed like an endless string of numbers. The phone rang on the other line, with a different sound than I was used to. I was excited beyond words - and then... Someone picked up the phone. The voice on the other end said "Hello?" but it was not the voice I was expecting - rather it was the voice of a woman, and if I were to guess her age, I would guess at least the 50s. I stuttered out that I was calling from Norway - and this was at the time that I was speaking with the much more proper British accent than the American accent I currently mimic as much as I can - and wondered if I could talk to Joey deMaio to see if I could interview him for my local radio station. The lady was very nice in explaining to me that he was at work but that he would be home shortly. However, she was wondering why someone would want to interview her husband? My alarm bells went off and I almost panicked - but I managed to let her know that I wanted to talk about his music. At that point, she was catching on to what was going on, and she said that her husband was not the one in the band. Mortified I apologized for the inconvenience and hung up, trembling both because of my very naive assumption that there only would be one Joey deMaio and because I would have to explain the increased phone bill to my parents without triumphantly talking about the interview I was going to land...

Anyway, Rockin' was established as a record store towards the end of the 1980s when Åge opened a store in Prinsens Gate in Trondheim. It wasn't very big, but it had everything you could ask for in classic rock, hard rock, and the various genres of heavy metal (and please remember that the definition of the different genres has evolved a lot since then). Since my show, which I think by then had been renamed Madhouse, needed new music and the record companies didn't regard my station as important enough to get us very many promos, I needed a way to get new music to play on the radio. We were commercial-free, but we entered into a gentleman's agreement with Åge and Rockin' that we would let our listeners know where we got our records if he would let us borrow an album or two every week. It was absolutely fantastic. I got to listen to so many new artists that way that I wouldn't have found otherwise - and two of the bands I really remember discovering this way were Extreme - whose first album is a brilliant rocker in the Van Halen tradition - and Faith No More, whose The Real Thing album changed the way I looked at music forever. While I'll get back to Faith No More, Extreme warrants a brief interlude with Mutha (Don't wanna go to school today)

Rockin' ended up moving into the back room of a record store chain - Hysj Hysj - on Nordre Gate, and they were still keeping metal alive in Trondheim in the 90s, but my main relationship with the store was when they were in Prinsens Gate. Åge was one of the great guys - I believe he had a deep love for Deep Purple, but he also kept up with the newer music. I always felt welcome in his store as well, and I used to stop by just to look around quite frequently long after my radio show ended in 1990. Rockin' was always a more dingy store, with the smell of old cigarette smoke permeating the room unless it was covered by Åge lighting up a new one.

As I said, Faith No More's The Real Thing really changed the way I looked at music. It is a genre-hopping masterpiece that made me start looking for music that challenged me, music that defied conventions. I have followed Patton's career ever since 1990, and I got to see Mr. Bungle on their Disco Volante tour back in 1996, I believe. FNM toured Europe last year, and I have seen clips from their spectacular performances - I hope I get the chance to see them myself. If not - here is Epic, from The Real Thing. I know it is the single and that everybody knows it, but I simply fail to tire of this song! The first version is live from Brixton Academy, 1990, while they still were able to deal with Big Jim Martin on guitar:

The second version is from their reunion tour last year from the Lowlands festival. Mike Bordin on drums looks exactly the same still - although maybe a little grayer dreads...

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Record Store Day Part II - Mail Music

Record Store Day preview continued

Mail Music
Reidar Karlsen was a man who saw the need for a catalog based record store that wasn't limited to Trondheim. He had a solid background for starting a mail-order record store, because if memory serves me right, he used to be a mailman for the Norwegian Postal Service. He was also the neighbor of one of my closest friends, Jon Inge, so as soon as he opened Mail Music, my wallet was in severe trouble. The main office was a room in his apartment, and while his predominant market was mail order, he also used this as his showroom and store. My big downfall was that his apartment was only blocks away from Rosenborg Ungdomsskole, which is where I went to middle school. I spent many a recess in his store, talking about music and sometimes convincing him to take in new music I knew was on the way in.

In 8th grade, my friend Arve and I were very involved in writing and publishing a newspaper for our class. There were about 30 in the class, and we charged a modest sum for the paper, which was published biweekly. The money was spent on letraset and other supplies we needed, as everything was typed on one electric and one manual typewriter, headlines were tediously assembled from letraset, and any pictures were held in place with a little bit of glue, since the people supplying the pictures usually would want them back after they had been printed. Arve's dad had a xerox copier, I don't know how he got it or why he had it, but that was our printing station, and that enabled us to have a lot of fun. In addition to regular supplies, we also bought prizes for weekly music quizzes, supplied by yours truly - and this is where Mail Music comes into play.

For at least a quiz or two, the prize was a good old-fashioned single (the 45 RPM kind) of the winner's choice from Mail Music. This got expensive, so at one point we decided to buy singles from the sales bin to use as prizes. I believed we bought 3 copies of Danish singing sensation Nanna's single Buster, which also was from a TV series. I have to admit it is a crappy song - and an even crappier prize, but what made this a seriously bad decision on our behalf was that the first winner with the new prize was the one person in class who was picked on the most - Trond. I have to admit that I would like this order of events to be correct, but I am not positive that is the case. The truth is that if we indeed decided to do this to pick on Trond, I must have told myself the official story so many times that I actually believe it. So where that leaves me today is slightly confused and somewhat embarrassed - if for no other reason than the fact that no-one deserves to be punished for winning a quiz, which receiving the Nanna single really was.

However, Mail Music was much more than this. It was a place to hang out - and it was a place to find the Maxi single of Alice Cooper's He's Back. It was where I bought Master of Puppets as soon as it was released - and thus got hooked on Metallica. It was also a place I literally ran to on one occasion. I lived a good two miles away from my middle school and Mail Music - and it was up a hill and then down a much longer hill to get there. I was anxiously awaiting Iron Maiden's double live album Live After Death, and it had not arrived during the school day. When I came home, I called him up again, and yes, Live After Death was there - but it was almost time to close. So I ran. Granted, this was when I was far more fit than I currently am - and there was also a lot less of me to cart around - but it was still a workout. I got there in time, bought the album, and when I came home, I called my good friend Jan Are, to see if he wanted to come over for the first listen. I remember both of us being mesmerized as Churchill's Speech started the album and segued into Aces High - after all, Iron Maiden was the reason we were friends.

Jan Are wore an Iron Maiden shirt with the Powerslave design - and his nickname was Power because of this. If I recall things right, our friendship started with him asking me if I liked Heavy Metal. I said I did - and he said he did. He then asked if I had any good albums - and all I could remember was my dad's Deep Purple album Made in Europe. He asked me if he could borrow that album if he let me borrow Iron Maiden's Powerslave - we both agreed, and we were friends. Things were so much simpler in 6th grade. So here - in memory of Mail Music and as a tribute to the one and only Jan Are "Power" Hansen - is Iron Maiden with Powerslave from Live After Death.

And just so there is no doubt as to how evil we were in selecting the Nanna single - here is Buster

Record Store Day Part I - Playtime

April 17 is Record Store Day, so I thought to myself, what better excuse to talk a little about the record stores that have played such a huge part of my formative years...

The first record store I ever visited was Playtime. It was in an old wooden building downtown Trondheim that now houses the pub Three Lions. It pains me to see this former temple of vinyl turned into a house of worship for the anglofiles, but there really hasn't been a decent store there since they closed their doors in the late 80s or thereabout. When you entered the store, they had bins upon bins of vinyl - and they had the mandatory tape racks as well. This was where they kept all the new stuff - the things they still could charge full price for. When I started shopping there, I think the price was around NOK 70 per record or tape, but before too long, the price was around NOK 100, which is the price I remember paying most of the time - as long as the music was new.

While the main floor was nice and had all the important new releases - especially from the hair bands of the 80s, the basement was the holy grail. Nice Price albums were the main feature of the basement - they were older releases not selling that well anymore and discounted to NOK 49.50. Some were of more foreign origin. I still remember Mexican pressings of Kiss' Love Gun and Rock and Roll Over - and the Black Sabbath box set Hand of Doom, which I also believe could have been of Mexican origin, featuring the first four Black Sabbath albums on flimsy vinyl and without any of the original artwork.

Playtime was also where I purchased most of the presents I ever gave to people. My good friend Arve received many an old ZZ Top tape purchased in this basement - often even cheaper than the NOK 49.50. I think I got him most of the pre-Eliminator releases - and then I made good use of them myself. Copying records and albums to tapes was a very common occurrence, and I think my parents' basement still holds a huge box of tapes I made throughout my adolescence.

I also discovered new music there. I kinda liked what Phil Lynnott had done with Gary Moore (Out in the Fields was a huge hit for the two of them), so I thought I should pick up a Thin Lizzy album. I ended up with Live Life from 1983, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although it was not being recognized as one of their best. I also picked up a cassette once that set my tastes off towards the more progressive music. I had friends who really liked Deep Purple, and it was in the Playtime basement I realized that Ritchie Blackmore had formed another band after leaving Deep Purple: Rainbow. I ended up buying a tape that had a cool cover - the image of a hand coming from a stormy sea and grasping a rainbow. It was called Rainbow Rising. I did not know that the singer was the Holy Diver himself, Mr. Ronnie James Dio, so I was very surprised when I read the cover to find out who played in the band. While I liked the entire tape, the goosebumps appeared when I heard the final track: Stargazer. It still gives me the chills. And for that - and as a tribute to Playtime, which truly was the treasure chest of my youth - here is the original version as recorded by Rainbow in 1976 - and as a nice bonus, a version by Dream Theater from 2009 - eerily close to the original.

Dream Theater - from Black Clouds and Silver Linings: