I now officially coin the term “meta-schadenfreude.” This is the weird feeling of satisfaction you feel when you see someone else feeling better about how badly you are doing.
About a year ago, someone tagged me on [social media] on one of those posts where you list 10 albums that influenced your life. Here is the second album on my list.
Doug and the Slugs was the first band that I discovered and followed all on my own, in late elementary/early junior high. This was their first full-length LP.
I realise that there may be the odd person reading this who hasn’t heard of Doug and the Slugs, and that person might be wondering what the band sounded like. I won’t spend too long talking about what musical genre Doug and the Slugs fit into, and the broader significance of that. The bottom line is that either you like ska-inflected noir-surf doo-wop clever bastard pop, or you don’t. THIS POINT CAN’T BE DEBATED ANY FURTHER.
At the risk of sounding like one of those classic Doug and the Slugs hipsters, I really do prefer their early stuff. I liked everything on “Cognac and Balogna” the first time I heard it, and it has stood up each time I have rediscovered it over the following decades. Much as I liked this band and some of their later stuff, nothing they did after “Cognac and Balogna” worked quite as well for me.
I don’t remember exactly how I got into Doug and the Slugs, but I’m pretty sure I heard their first hit “Too Bad” on the radio, liked the band name, and bought the 45 single.
The B side on that 45 is a song called “The Move,” which was never released on any of the Slugs’ albums. I liked that song much more than “Too Bad” and played it a lot. I think I got “Cognac and Balogna” for my birthday, probably because everyone in my family was getting tired of me incessantly playing “The Move.” That plan worked—I played this album incessantly instead.
Over time, I’ve realised that the songwriting and song selection on this album influenced how I think about music and musical projects. There’s a lot of variety in both musical style and lyrical tone. ( Even for as broad a genre as ska-inflected noir-surf doo-wop clever bastard pop). This goes a lot deeper than “Let’s go for a [genre trope] thing on this tune.” The lyrics are far, far better than they need to be for a band that sounds this fun. I know this is a shocking idea now, but some of the lyric writing on this album is actually not autobiographical (!), some of it is written from different perspectives and as different characters.
Despite these pop-music crimes, the hooks just keep on a-coming. “Too Bad” was the biggest hit from this album, and while it’s fun as heck, it’s not the most fun song on the album. And it’s far from the most interesting.
The playing and arrangements are just impeccable. Everything is there to push the song itself out front, and it’s easy to miss how cool some of the playing is.
The drums (John “Wally” Watson) on this album have always stood out for me. This was the first time I noticed a drummer reacting to and accenting what was going on in a song—like say, a “lead” guitarist would have at the time—and still holding things down. This idea that you can do the “job” part of playing your instrument and add something else to the arrangement has stayed in my head, for better or worse, ever since.
The Slugs’ two guitar players (Rick Baker and John Burton), played different styles that complemented each other perfectly for this band. The excellent, excellent Simon Kendall played piano and organ—and he is one of those keyboardists who makes you wonder why keyboardists play anything BUT piano and organ (OK, fine—all keyboardists make me wonder that).
My bay splaying aspirations began shortly after I got this album. From then on, I looked at everything a bay splayer did in terms of “would I want to play that?” and ”how do I play that?” The Slugs’ bassist (Steve Bosley) is the last player who made me want to play bass and whose playing I have never dissected, just so I could enjoy it the same way I used to.
All the players stay consistent in their roles, play smart parts that develop over the course of the song, and make it all work together. Nobody phones in a part, nobody is a tone or space hog. There’s no unneeded “Look at me!” and a lot of “Listen to this song.”
As a result, this album sounds like it just happened the only way it could have, and that is really hard to do. It’s hard to write clever songs without sounding like you are trying to be clever. It’s hard for a drummer to play this much and not sound like he’s over-playing. It’s hard to write a cool single-note guitar part, or just the right tinkly piano, or only hit the one up-stroke the song actually needs every two bars and play that part cleanly and evenly all the way through and put it right where it does the most good in the mix, even though most people might not even notice it’s there.
And man, it’s a LOT harder to play the guitar parts on “Chinatown Calculation” than it sounds.
That kinda sums this whole album up. It’s perfectly happy to be more than it appears.
It’s even more remarkable that this was a self-produced first album.
But what was most influential for me about this album (and “The Move”) is that they sound like the Vancouver I wanted to be from. I moved from Vancouver in the middle of elementary school, and ended up in Edmonton a year or so later. That was a bumpy ride socially, that didn’t get much smoother for a while, and I didn’t really have the same sense of a home town that I thought most people had.
I got this album 4-5 years later, which felt like a lifetime, at an age when feelings like loneliness and alienation start to last more than an hour at a time. This album helped build a Vancouver in my head that I could go hang around in while I listened to it.
That Vancouver is a place where you step out onto a restaurant patio on the North Shore just as the sun comes out after a rainy afternoon, sip wine and talk with your friends while you look at downtown in the sunset, knowing that you’ll be heading over there tonight and something exciting will happen, and you’ll end up walking home back over the bridge alone in the rain with a black eye, laughing.
That’s my home town. It never existed anywhere but in my head and these songs, but I can go back there whenever I want.
About a year ago, someone tagged me on [social media] on one of those posts where you list 10 albums that influenced your life. Here is the first album on my list. The speed and over-thinking of my response are absolutely on-brand for me.
I play music because I love good songs. I love pop songs the most. I don’t play them very much, but as a listener, a good three-minute pop song will always make life better.
“More of the Monkees” was the first album I ever bought. I was about six or seven when I bought it used, at a church rummage sale, for twenty-five cents. I think I got to play a few songs from it on my parent’s hi-fi that night. Over the next few years, it got played a lot.
This was right around the time when pop and rock music were becoming the majority of mainstream music, and their aesthetic the majority of mainstream culture. Pop and rock had been around for a long time, of course, but it used to take a decade or two for the mainstream to turn over. The realization that the pop culture had become mainstream culture hadn’t quite hit everyone when I was kid, so pop music was still kind of regarded as a guilty pleasure, and pop culture as a fun, kinda cheap indulgence.
I knew who the Monkees were from watching their TV show on Saturday mornings when I was very little. It was all bright colors and people acting funny and sometimes they’d drive this really cool car. I loved it, though I didn’t really follow what was going on.
For some reason I thought the guy in the toque was the most interesting, but Micky seemed the silliest so he was my favorite.
I knew the Monkees were in a band together, and that was the thing they did that made them famous, but I didn’t think they were referred to as “The Monkees” because of the band. To me, they were just a group of friends who hung out together all the time, and “The Monkees” was just the name that was used to refer to that group of people—like people in a gang are always “Jets” or “Sharks,” or a family is always “The Schmeedersons” no matter what they are doing.
I thought they were “The Monkees” all the time, and when they played music, they were “The Monkees” playing music. When they were on TV, they were “The Monkees” on TV. When they went bowling, they were “The Monkees” bowling. The name wasn’t limited to just one aspect of their lives. The band wasn’t THE reason they were “The Monkees.”
In fact, as a kid my least favorite part of watching The Monkees’ show was when they stopped doing funny stuff and played music. Three minutes of them doing the same thing just made the show grind to a halt for me.
On the other hand, when I wasn’t watching the show and heard The Monkees’ music somewhere, it made me happy, because it was familiar, and it reminded me of all the other stuff I liked about watching The Monkees. If I didn’t have to watch it, I would actually listen to it.
Clearly, the whole marketing concept behind The Monkees had worked perfectly on me. I didn’t understand the trick until much later, but it’s now essential to success if you want to do pretty much anything, especially music: Make a brand; create an audience for your brand by doing something; diversify your brand into anything else as quick as you can.
If you create your brand based on music, then the music is the thing you use to get into peoples’ heads. It’s the bait you use to sell anything else you can.
It’s impossible to go through normal life in North America and not hear at least a few of the songs on “More of the Monkees,” but I hadn’t really listened to The Monkees on purpose in decades until about four years ago. I saw the CD for sale at a hardware store, went all nostalgic upon seeing the cover, bought it, and ended up listening to it over and over for a few weeks. The trick works!
I have a pretty sticky head, but I was still surprised at how thoroughly I knew these songs. I would look forward to specific moments, specific musical phrases—and phrasing—that make these specific recordings of these specific songs mean so much to me.
There’s a chicken-egg debate to be had about why this happens, but no matter how it managed to get into my enormous and very thick head, I am really glad that I ended up loving pop songs, and that my early exposure to this album set such it as a standard for them.
Music nerds love to use marquee value as a measure of quality, as if the mere presence of a famous musician somehow makes a performance magical. But just because someone you recognize showed up doesn’t mean they did good work. It’s a dangerously poor metric, and using it leads to time and money wasted listening to Alcatrazz and Mick Jagger solo albums, G3 tours, live Dylan bootlegs or being forced to dry your teeth through yet another damn rendition of “Imagine.”
“More of the Monkees” has some solid marquee value, especially from a players’ perspective. It’s got Carole Kaye, Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell, and a whole whack of other, lesser-known but equally bad-ass hook masters who could make forever music out of anything in about an hour. And they were working on songs by Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond (both of whom probably wrote better songs for others than they did for themselves and THAT IS SOME SERIOUS PRAISE), Boyce and Hart, Carol Bayer Sager, Gary Goffin and Carole King, Michael Nesmith, and more and more.
But none of these people were involved in this album for their marquee value. This album (and countless others) were where these folks earned their marquee value. They were hired because they were really good at what they did, and they were there to do it well. And they sure did. They made an album of super-fun pop genius writing, played and produced brilliantly.
This is great pop music. You put it on, you smile, and you end up bouncing around like a goof and pretending you are holding a microphone. If you’ve heard it before, you remember some good time associated with that. There are a lot of different songs on this album, but it still feels too short. Chances are, you’ll want to play it again.
At the time this album came out, and for years after, The Monkees received a lot of criticism for not playing all the instruments on their albums, and/or not writing the songs and/or using studio “tricks” like compression and reverb and multi-tracked vocals to sound like better singers. This is all pretty funny in hindsight—all of that stuff is so standard now that you’re considered pretty daring if you DON’T do it.
In fact, compared to how albums and careers in music have been constructed over the past four decades, this album now seems relatively DIY. The Monkees actually DID do all the lead and much of the backing vocals (through a mic onto tape, no pitch correction), they (mostly Michael and Peter) actually did perform some of the instrumentation—they even produced some of it. Most of the songs were recorded in two days or less.
Basically, what the Monkees got shat on for on a pop album in 1966 would be considered an heroic contribution by the title artist on a major album in ANY GENRE now.
One criticism of the band DOES still obtain though: None of the Monkees were good enough dancers to be in a band with three singers today.
I spent the first part of my life choosing heroes.
It’s easy to find heroes. When you’re a little kid, they are everywhere: Anyone who helps you not be scared; anyone who is the best you know at stuff you can do; anyone who can do anything you can’t; but wish you could. People who do stuff that seems dangerous. People who do stuff that you would like to do, but it’s too difficult. People who do stuff you think is cool but aren’t allowed to do. People who play guitar. People who play in bands. People who smile a lot. People who aren’t afraid.
You might pick heroes based on one of these qualities. Some of your heroes might have more than one. As your list of heroic qualities grows, you’ll assume that the heroes you already have already possess all of them.
I spent the second part of my life losing heroes.
As you get older, you start winnowing down your heroes. You play them off against each other, and you play them off against other people’s heroes. Every time one of your heroes wins or loses one of these playoffs, you set the bar for being a hero a little bit higher.
So it’s not just people who play guitar, but people who play guitar really well. Then it’s only people who play guitar like no-one else. Then only people who play guitar like no-one else so well that other people measure themselves by how precisely they can copy it.
Not just people who play guitar in bands, but people who play in bands that are fun to watch. Then people who play in bands that are fun to watch even if you kinda hate half the band.
Then you make your heroes prove that they have all those qualities you used to assume they had. Heroes can’t just be people who can do cool stuff—they have to be GOOD people who can do stuff. And they have to actively do good things. And they can never have done bad things. Not REALLY bad things. Not only do they have no flaws—they have also overcome the flaws they inherited.
Eventually, you raise the hero standard high enough that none of your heroes can meet it. No-one could. Certainly, no-one else’s silly, insufficient heroes could.
But you still need your heroes. They define and defend your idea of what is right, and how things could be. Should be. So you choose a couple that you like so much that you are willing to drag them up to the standard. Get them in on technicalities. Make them the exception that proves the rule. Maybe overlook a flaw or two, or just write those off against the larger upside of your hero’s excellence. Maybe take on your hero’s flaws as your own, convince yourself that you share a common battle with your failings.
This might make it feel like you have more of a connection with this complete stranger you’ve chosen as a champion. For a while.
I’ll spend the rest of my life without heroes, surrounded by them.
Heroes don’t last. You change. They change. You learn more about life. You learn more about yourself. You learn more about your heroes. You can’t help it. At some point, you will have to confront their failure—their refusal—to meet the standard you set for them. You will realize that they actually were afraid the whole time. That they aren’t brilliant at everything. In fact, they are worse at some things than …even YOU. That if you met, you might not be friends.
And that thing they could do that no-one else could? Your hero couldn’t NOT do that.
They weren’t better than everyone else AND excellent at something. They were just as messed up as everyone else and excellent at something. Why did you believe they were a hero at all?
If you are lucky, your relationship with your hero will not survive this. If you are lucky, your hero will disappear, and all that will remain is a person —a stranger you find that you still admire, in whom you take an interest because they do things that you like, who owes you nothing but what they really were and what excellence they were able to share.
A person like that can never let you down the way a hero can.
Godspeed—no, make that Van Halen speed—to you, Eddie.