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'.


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.

More Audio, Less 'Phile'

The Ramones made their infamous debut record in just one week. Legend has it that it cost around $6,000 to produce the entire album. The band’s ethos was built around songs containing no more than three chords that were churned out with power and speed. In short, this was not a Pink Floyd record where sounds were laboured over, nor was it a situation where constant retakes and edits were rampant to obtain a perfect sounding record. It was a bash and burn exercise far more concerned with energy than sonic purity. So, why is it that we need a 180 gram, audiophile reissue of this famous record?

Vinyl is akin to a luxury item in the music industry and therefore, the goal is to provide a level of detail and refinement to any product pressed on to wax - even if it is antithetical to the recording itself.

Well, of course the short answer is, that we don’t need it. However, the boutique nature of the vinyl reissue market has seized upon the marketability of heavyweight vinyl - even when it fails to serve a true sonic purpose. Vinyl is akin to a luxury item in the music industry and therefore, the goal is to provide a level of detail and refinement to any product pressed on to wax - even if it is antithetical to the recording itself.

Rhino’s reissue from 2011 retails for about $18 USD. Comparatively speaking, that’s not a terribly overpriced record in today’s market. But let’s examine that a bit further. We’re focusing on a single disc with 14 songs on it that clock in at just 29 minutes. Again, these are 14 songs designed to be simple, bombastic and straight to the point. It’s fair to say that nuance is not the primary point of this record. Surely, a 125g or even 150g pressing of this LP would have sufficed. And even if this only brought the cost down to $13 or $14 USD, it would be a more affordable record and a pressing that still presented the original recordings with integrity and quality. You could easily make a record like this for sale for $12.99 and it would be profitable and accessible. And, more young people - even those strapped for cash - buying vinyl is what the vinyl industry wants right?

This is a rather striking example, but loads of releases are coming out on heavyweight vinyl, not because the quality is demanded, but because these sorts of pressings are easier to sell at higher prices. At this moment, vinyl is on a much ballyhooed upswing. Sales have jumped every year for the last decade and even a casual observer in your life might note that vinyl is once again en vogue. In the grand scheme of things though, it’s still a minor part of the way people ingest music. And the folks plunking down $20 for a reissue are the exception, not the rule.

The mainstream resurgence of vinyl may not be the goal, but making worthwhile records available to a wider audience ought to be. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on audiophile pressings and expanded editions, let’s get back to paying attention to what’s been pressed, not how. A standard LP pressing on a quality stereo is going to sound light years better than nearly any digital file. It will sound at least as good as a compact disc and provide more warmth and tone than any other format. The reissue craze has created an environment where an overpriced reissue with a quasi-deluxe pressing seems a better deal than on OG pressing that might be two or three times as expensive. But, how many potential customers are being left behind because they feel vinyl is too pricey?

Let’s remember some of the conditions that gave rise to the Napster era of file-sharing and illegal downloading: Labels embraced new formats in the hopes that customers would buy duplicate copies of records they already owned. Prices of CDs climbed exponentially through the late 1990s to routinely reach into the high teens. These are just a couple of examples of the hubris and greed that helped to lead to a generation of young people to feel so abandoned by a cultural industry that they came to see it’s product as having no value at all if they could steal it for free. Now, with the return of vinyl, especially amongst the under 30 set, the industry is once again positioning itself to abandon their audience once again.

Audiophiles will always look for very high quality pressings of records they love, even records like The Ramones debut which do not in actuality, benefit from such a pressing. Those sorts of customers will always exist. They existed when vinyl was king and they existed when vinyl was an abandoned outpost on the music industry landscape. It’s perfectly reasonable to cater to that audience, but it’s fool-hearted to think that it’s the only audience worth paying attention to.


Put The Needle On The Record

At parties and work functions, I am often asked, "Why collect vinyl records?" So, I decided to write down exactly why I feel the way I do about music and the vinyl medium. Not only so I would have an answer to this common query, but also so I would understand my own obsession a tad bit better. This essay seemed a great way to kick off our features section with a bit of a mission statement vibe.

There is a magical, scratchy popping sound in my life.  It's got a warm, sort of fuzzy yet etched gritty tone to it that fills me with anticipation and happiness.  My thumb made it happen.  That cushy ball of flesh on the outside of the opposable digit on my right hand lifted a metal arm on to a spinning disc of grooved vinyl and made this sound - and that sound is excitement.  Songs are coming; the sounds of a real live record, started with actual hands and played through actual speakers.  This action and its consequences make me unspeakably pleased.

I love my records.  I don't mean my compact discs or the shit cluttering up my iTunes disk space.  I mean my vinyl records.  If, like me, you are over the age of 30 you have at least some vague recollection of a smoky Saturday night party in your parent's rec room that involved a Boston LP or a greatest hits collection of some band you could give a damn about now like The Doobie Brothers or The Eagles.  But you remember that party.  You remember everything seemed dark and mysterious yet simultaneously bright and vibrant.  There were buckets of laughter going on almost all of the time even though no one was telling anything that seemed like jokes.  The room smelled like a summer night filled with stale beer and house plants. 

Like most people, specifically most Americans in these pre-pubescent years of the 21st century, I own a great deal of junk.  My house is stuffed to the gills with stuff I don't need and things I will likely never use to their full potential.  I have shirts in my closet I will never wear and used books on my shelves I will likely never finish reading.  There are leftover magazines I store for no particular reason and board games I have played but once - and that episode of use was probably obligatory as that Jenga box came from a thoughtful relative on Christmas Eve and my wife might point out that "it would be a shame not use it at least once".  Most of this crap is just that: crap.  My records somehow have achieved a station above my other belongings.

There are something like 1600 records in the cabinets in the upstairs hallway of my humble house.  There is a series of nice shelving that I specifically purchased (and assembled) for the purpose of holding my myriad LPs.  For the hardcore record collector, this number seems shamefully small.  Any self-respecting collector in their early 40's (as I admittedly am) should be much farther along than just 1600 odd LPs.  This may be true, but I am not a collector.  My records are not all stored in high end polyvinyl sleeves and are not purchased for their "future value".  None of my LPs are viewed as an investment and at no point have I ever once considered buying a duplicate copy of a record just to get an earlier pressing or a limited edition version.  These are not artifacts or display pieces.  They were purchased to be listened to, shared with others and mostly to be enjoyed.

“Music listening is not, or at the least should not, be an endeavor whose principle source of enjoyment comes from its convenience. ”

To the uninitiated, the idea of housing and listening to this many physical records probably seems idiotic.  The cynical vinyl neophyte would most likely assume that I still obtain addresses and phone numbers by flipping through a physical copy of the yellow pages in lieu of getting online.  Anyone who would wholeheartedly embrace such an antiquated technology must also drive around in a car that still uses leaded gasoline, right?  A device like an iPod takes up almost no room and holds as much storage as the entirety of my myriad cabinets and stacks of vinyl.  For those who grew up after the age of vinyl or are simply sycophants for the fancies of technological advancement and seek primarily to expedite and consolidate all cultural experiences my vinyl stores must seem a colossal waste of time and money.

Music listening is not, or at the least should not, be an endeavor whose principle source of enjoyment comes from its convenience.  If things were only about convenience we would have pizza delivered for dinner every night.  I don't want my connection to all of the music ever created to be conducted through a tiny little device that is primarily designed to be used as part of a one person experience.  Sure, an iPod, - and we have two of these devices in our house for the record - can be attached to a stereo or the sound system of an automobile and dispensed for those within earshot to hear it.  Yet, the idea of the iPod and other devices like it is to regain control of our music; control over what songs we want to omit from our records; control over what order we want our songs to be played; control over what genres play nice with each other; and control over the idea a tiny digital image or series of zeroes and ones compressed into a degradable format with a little jpeg attached for a visceral experience.  There are times when this model of convenience and portability comes in handy.  Road trips, jogging and walking are certainly times when it's not only inconvenient to listen to old fashioned records, but it is indeed fabulous to take loads of music in my pocket.  That is why an iPod should be in existence; so that my records can still come with me to a place where records don't make sense.  The iPod is a Plan B for when the vinyl of Plan A is impractical.  It should not be a way to make Plan A unnecessary or obsolete.  This control has its place, but the impermanence of the equation takes too much enjoyment away for me in a place like my living room.

Perhaps the most nefarious use of the iPod is that it's changing the idea of music listening forever, whether it means to or not.  I will not, absolutely will not, go on some audiophile diatribe about why vinyl sounds better.  In very much the same way that I would never waste my time and yours to cover the merits of large format HD televisions or rave about the impracticality, nay stupidity, of the 3D television craze.  This will not become a discussion of fidelity, bass frequencies or listening quality.  Frankly, I don't care about any of that.  The quality of the sounds coming from your stereo is none of my concern.  What frosts my cookies here is that music has become a virtual thing.  It has come to be perceived like air.  It is out there floating around and if you want it, you go get it - sort of.  You open up iTunes or Grooveshark or a bit torrent site and get your fix.  As a consumer, even if we pay for the music we listen to there is almost no sacrifice.  There is no wait.  There is no sense of accomplishment.  It is all too available and it's all too easy to get at.  Because of this, we tend to view music through very much the same lens that we tend to view the stuff piled up at a weekend garage sale crammed in a weathered Banker's Box with a big sign marked FREE STUFF.  If it was any good, we wouldn't be able to get it so easily. 

I can remember being in my teens and early twenties trudging down to the local record store at midnight on a Monday to snag a copy of the brand new Morrissey LP or the next R.E.M. record.  It was as much about the experience of buying the record as it was about the music itself.  On the car ride home there was the frantic removal of cellophane to reveal liner notes, lyric sheets and photo spreads.  All these things were then pored over meticulously both on the way home and during the first few nascent listens of the new purchase.  There was a physical joy and a sense of success in the purchase of a new record.  Now, it's a simple megaupload click at 2:41 in the morning something like three weeks before the record actually comes out.  No anticipation and no communal experience - just a meager and minimized reward with no interaction or genuine effort.  To a grizzled old record buyer, this seems a sad and lonely substitute for the mild satisfaction of having to wait a few days fewer.

“[Record collecting] is exactly like bird watching or antique hunting or going for wine tastings, except that when you do those things you are almost assured of never scoring a clean copy of the White Album for five dollars at a small town library sale while on vacation with your kids.”

There is also a magical creative captivity of listening to a record on vinyl.  There are a handful of carefully sequenced songs crammed into fifteen or twenty minutes on a grooved side of wax.  The technology is designed to keep you from manipulating it.  There are no options for custom playlists or shuffled songs.  You put the needle down and you listen to those records until the side is over.  At our house, we have a vinyl only on the stereo policy and with it, a game that we inherited from some friends.  That game is known as "Flip It Or Skip It".  When the side of a record is over, the person who gets to choose the next record is welcome to flip the record from Side A to Side B or to take the record off the table and choose a new LP to listen to on one side.  My youngest daughter seems to especially appreciate this game and it's a blast to watch her ruminate over whether to flip or skip.  But, even when she doesn't like the record being played, she never tries to take it off early or skip the songs she dislikes.  She waits the side out and makes her selection.  The game teaches her patience and the understanding of how a record works in the concept of extended creativity.  Music to her is not something only seen in three minute chunks.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Furthermore, the actual physical act of taking a record in your hands and being careful to flip it or put it back in its sleeve ever so carefully imparts a respect of music in a concrete way.  She sees music as an actual thing, not as blips on laptop or a list of files on a device.  Music is a thing you can scratch and see and touch and feel and smell and flip.

“Record hunting can remind you that there will always be more great records out there than you can keep up with and that finding a fifty cent collection of Conway Twitty hits is far more memorable and interesting - at least to me - than downloading a pirated version of the latest Rascall Flats album.”

I openly acknowledge that I have spent a lot of money on my records.  Everyone that you have ever known has spent stupid amounts of money on something you thought was bereft of value.  Everyone - even you.  Mountains of cash have been squandered on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, massage parlors, gambling, tickets to Michael Bay/Ben Affleck movies, alphabet soup books by Sue Grafton (A is for Awful by the way), gasoline tinged yet vaguely citrus-like energy drinks, $7 coffees and a whole lot more.  Are you aware of the estimated value of the NASCAR racing league?  I mean I have no idea what it's actually worth, but I guarantee you that it's more than the $3.57 value it has in my head.  Right now, if you think for just a few minutes you can think of at least one thing you waste money on regularly.  Ever bought some rare Beanie Babies, gone "antiquing" or scored an authentic Happy Days lunch box?  How about that Star Wars figure I see on your computer desk?  If that's original and you didn't get it when you were 9, you paid the street value of half of my records for it.  It's all relative and we live in the same nerdy, ramshackle glass house of cultural guilt.  Let's move on and stop judging each other.  Beanie Babies?  Really?  Jesus Christ!  But I digress.

Yes, I have spent - even wasted at times - lots of money on records.  However, vinyl is still the most cost effective way to build a sizable collection of music you want to own.  From used bins at local stores to record shows, estates sales and flea markets, record deals are out there for the intrepid music buyer.  For the record buyer with a bit of adventure, a hunt for used records can lead to interesting conversations, finds of an Indiana Jones style proportion and even a few new friends.  Yes, it is exactly like bird watching or antique hunting or going for wine tastings, except that when you do those things you are almost assured of never scoring a clean copy of the White Album for five dollars at a small town library sale while on vacation with your kids.  Record hunting can remind you that there will always be more great records out there than you can keep up with and that finding a fifty cent collection of Conway Twitty hits is far more memorable and interesting - at least to me - than downloading a pirated version of the latest Rascall Flats album.

If you were there, at that party in that rec room way back when, you know what real records are and you know that they aren't something you file with thumbnails in some bullshit program that recommends more virtual files to you based on algorithms.  If you were in that room, you know the way the record sticks to the inner sleeve with a palpable static electricity the first time you slide it from it's shiny paper womb.  You know the gentle balancing act of the edge of a vinyl record resting on the cushy butt of your palm while your carefully extended fingertips cradle the label in the record's center as you ferry it to the turntable.  You know that holding a 12" x 12" record jacket comes with a musty overtone that is the aroma of youth and freedom and feels like promise in your own two hands.  And you know, more than anything, that in some way, when the moment is just so, vinyl can take you back to that room and you can smell that smell of summer and hear that laughter and flip (or skip) a record or two.