Dollar Bin Darlings: Joe Jackson - Look Sharp!

Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. This time around, we take an in-depth look at Joe Jackson's debut LP 'Look Sharp!'

It seems hard to believe now that Look Sharp! was the debut for Joe Jackson. After all, Jackson's signature hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him" - which was the singer/songwriter's very first solo release - seems not only like the smash hit it was and is, but also sounds like the work of a performer at the very top of his craft. It has the sonic confidence of a veteran artist at the top of his game. 

Jackson had performed in bands Edward The Bear and then Arms and Legs throughout the mid-70's, but both bands dissolved fairly quickly. Undaunted, he began to tour the English cabaret circuit in the hopes of raising enough cash to record a demo. That work and the subsequent demo tape, caught the ear of a producer at the A&M label and Jackson went off to form a band.

The recording of Look Sharp! took place during the Fall of 1978 and the Spring of 1978 and the result was a mash up of New Wave and punk that invoked comparisons Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. "Is She Really Going With Him" was released as a single in the fall of 1978 to little fanfare. Singles for "Sunday Papers" and "One More Time" were issued in February and May of '79 and the response was still minimal.

Thankfully, Look Sharp! - on the power of those three singles and terrific album tracks like the title song, "Baby Stick Around", "Pretty Girls" and more - managed to persevere and make the Top 20 in the US despite only getting to spot #40 on the UK album charts. "Is She Really Going Out With Him" was reissued as a single and became a worldwide hit on its' second effort.

Buoyed by the reissue of that single, the power of the debut material on Look Sharp!, Jackson and his band headed back to the studio to record a new batch of songs that would become I'm The Man, which hit streets in October of 1979. That duo of LPs not only make for an impressive start to Jackson's career, but one hell of a year for any artist.

Because Look Sharp! sold in droves and appealed to both new wave and punk fans, it remains plentifully available. Copies in very playable condition seem to be available at almost any shop you care to visit and it often finds a home in the dollar bin. It's worth far more than a buck or two and I'm The Man is a often a steal in the same price range. Maybe this Dollar Bin Darling could even lead you to a double dip.

Dollar Bin Darlings: Warren Zevon - Excitable Boy

Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. In our third installment, we take an in-depth look at Warren Zevon's 'Excitable Boy'.

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If you possess a set of ears and access to a radio, you've heard Warren Zevon sing before. Most likely, the song you heard was "Werewolves Of London", his biggest hit and most famous number. The song is a three and a half minute escapade of horror movie monsters, oddball characters and Chinese take-out. Some critics have said it's a ripoff of "Sweet Home Alabama". Others have written about the deep hidden meaning of the song. Zevon and his band have always maintained the song was written as a goof while working on a record with Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers. Whatever the case, the song is the headline of Zevon's legacy and regardless of how many times it's played it still manages to brim with energy and verve. It is an encapsulation of the entire Excitable Boy LP.

By 1977, when it came time to record Excitable Boy, Zevon had amassed quite a coterie of musicians to work with; Jackson Browne was a friend and agreed to act as producer, just as he had done on 1976's Warren Zevon LP. Linda Ronstadt had already had a hit with "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" and was more than  happy to provide backing vocals. Longtime collaborator and pal Waddy Wachtel assisted with production and played one thing or another on every track on the record. Jennifer Warnes, Mick Fleetwood, J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff and John McVie also lent their talents to the project. It was a veritable who's who of the Southern California rock scene in the mid-70's.

Supporting cast aside, what truly shines on Excitable Boy are the songs. Zevon is a lyricist with a cunning and uncanny wit that is peppered with devilish humor and Freudian wordplay. His main characters are very often told in third person and these portraits are almost always filled with harsh, and sometimes off-putting imagery like the excitable boy rubbing pot roast all over his chest and Roland the headless Thompson gunner stalking headless through the night. The heroes - and anti-heroes - of Zevon's songs are portrayed as quasi sympathetic comic book characters with outlandish behaviors and mannerisms that seem fascinating just in being themselves, and are made further more so by Zevon's use of an awkward sort of plain speaking. It is as if these beings could only come to life in the mind of a man such as Warren Zevon.

While much of the lyrical content of the record is playful and even light, there are headier themes at play. "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" spins a yarn of a fictional CIA mercenary in colonial Africa, while "Lawyers, Guns and Money" splays out the tale of Cold War paranoia and entitlement smashed together in a third world hellhole. For all of the humor and tongue-in-cheek snark in the lyrics, Zevon's words never seem heartless or carefree. Even in his funniest moments, it always seems as if he is on the verge of telling us a grand secret of the human condition, if only he could stop laughing long enough to share it.

Musically, Excitable Boy flows very much like a 70's piano based rock record. Zevon's keyboard parts and lead vocals form the primary drive and melodic content of the songs, but the backing band is tightly wrapped around these central elements to build a foundation that compels the compositions to greater heights. It's easy to see why the album has become the focal point of Zevon's legacy. Excitable Boy captures Zevon at his playful and rakish best, while fusing him with an all-star backing band that seems more than eager to take these nine songs outside of the singer/songwriter realm and turning them in to a piece of idiosyncratic and remarkable rock and roll. Much of Zevon's catalog is very strong, but he never, ever made a record better than Excitable Boy.


Dollar Bin Darlings: Elton John - Honky Chateau

Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. In our second installment, we focus on what might be Elton John's finest record.

Sir Elton John has become a punchline at this point in his career. He's far more famous for his outlandish stage costumes, bizarre choice in eyeglass frames and that song about Marilyn Monroe than the string of great records he released between 1970 and 1975. In that short timeframe, he unleashed seven records, four of which are great and two of which are very good, which is the sort of roll that few artists can even dream of, let alone actually lay claim to. While it's an incredibly furtive six year period, the finest hour of this impressive burst of creativity and recorded output is the eclectic and exuberant 1972 album Honky Chateau.

In November of 1971, John and his songwriting partner had a huge critical and commercial success on their hands with the Madman Across The Water album. That album went platinum almost immediately on the strength of singles like "Tiny Dancer", "Levon" and album cuts like "Razor Face", but instead of resting on their respective laurels, John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin jumped right back to work.

After the more straightforward "rock" approach on Madman, Taupin and John sought to incorporate a variety of disparate influences and styles to create a more heterogeneous record. The album opener "Honky Cat" combines a swinging New Orleans style funk with Taupin's playful lyric and the nimble piano lines of Sir Elton, all of which is backed by a rollicking, propulsive  arrangement rife with catchy as hell horn lines. If Allen Toussaint had been raised in Anglican England, he might have written "Honky Cat". From there, side one swings through ballads - "Mellow" - to white boy funk - "Susie (Dramas) - and eventually on to the now famous and still wonderful "Rocket Man".

Guitars and gospel tendencies carry "Salvation" as it opens side two. "Slave" brings mellow country in to the mix to great effect and then in the middle of the side, along comes "Amy", the album's only misstep, which is a bouncy and vigorous effort that cant's to corral it's moving parts. It manages to stay interesting despite it's inherent messiness. The wait is worth it though, as the record finishes out with pair of jewels in "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and "Hercules". The former is a gentle and sweet ballad that is vintage Elton John and Bernie Taupin; filled with tenderness, exquisite melodies, soulful lyrics and restrained arrangements. The latter is a rambunctious bookend to the "Honky Cat" opener and is perfectly suited for the record's finale.

Honky Chateau was the first Elton John LP to make it to the #1 spot on the US charts and began a string of six records to make it to the top spot. Because of this huge popularity, nearly all of Sir Elton's output from this era is readily available for a cut rate pricing at almost any shop around. And while there are a number of worthwhile titles for a dollar bin foray, Honky Chateau is about as good as it gets. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to do much better with any artist you can spot in a bargain bin.


Dollar Bin Darlings: Buck Owens & The Buckaroos - Tiger By The Tail

Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. In our first installment, we feature a dandy from Buck Owens.

If you're of a certain age, you probably think immediately of TV's Hee Haw when you hear the name Buck Owens. Beginning in 1969, Owens was one of Hee Haw's co-hosts for more than fifteen years, but long before that he and his backing band, The Buckaroos were a powerhouse of country music and one of the primary architects of the Bakersfield Sound, perhaps most famously by writing and performing "Act Naturally" before the Beatles covered it and turned it into a rock and roll hit.

In a six year period, spanning from 1964 to 1969, Owens & The Buckaroos released a torrent of something like 18 albums and amassed a catalog that only legends can even dream of. One of the true highlights of that golden era is the 1965 release Tiger By The TailBuoyed by a cracker jack rhythm section and the lead guitar lines and tight harmony vocals courtesy of Don Rich, the 12 tracks breeze by in less than a half an hour and pack tale after tale of heartbreak, woe and sorrow, but not without a bit of a ruckus.

The title track was written by Buck Owens and Don Rich in the back seat of a car after they had spotted an Esso gas station sign that featured a tiger and the phrase, "Put A Tiger In Your Tank". Owens jotted down the phrase "Tiger by the tail", he and Rich then began trading chords and lyrical suggestions and within minutes they had crafted a pop country gem.

Much of the Buck Owens discography can be found in bargain bins high and low because of the sheer volume of albums he sold during his heyday, and while almost any of those is worth a buck or two, if you're just getting started with Buck Owens & The Buckaroos, there seems no better place to start than with 1965's Tiger By The Tail.