New York Gong – “About Time” (1980)

And now for something completely different…

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on on About Time, but I like it. The opener “Preface” is a weird quasi-electronic space transmission, and that’s followed by the oddly rocking and sneering “Much Too Old” with it’s call outs to CBGB’s and suggestions of take up smoking and telling his new home New York you suck before flowing seamlessly into “Black September”. The whole thing has a very Avantgarde feel to it, a sort of free jazz for rock. The vocals sort of wander around, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, sometimes shouted. Sometimes sounding like Dylan, at others like Lou Reed.

New York Gong disbanded right around the time that About Time came out, with singer and former Gong member Daevid Allen going one way and much of the rest of the band forming the group Material, which was quite prolific in the late 1980s and put out an album as recently as 2017.

Jaugernaut – “Take ‘Em There” (1984)

This is another Pacific Northwest private press album I ran across over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records. I’m not sure how they keep getting these things in, but I’m glad they do because they offer an interesting look into what artists produce when they don’t have to answer to a label and can do what they want.

Jaugernaut originated in Olympia, Washington back in 1978 and originally went by the name Joint Effort. They were re-chistened Jaugernaut and released two albums under that name, the second of which was 1984s Take ‘Em There. Their style is prog, with bassist Jim Johnston noting in an online interview that their influences included Yes and Rush, and that’s very evident from the sound and feel of Take ‘Em There, with plenty of keyboards and opportunities for solos. Perhaps the one non-prog element of the album is the song lengths, all of which are in the 3:30 to 4:30 radio-friendly sweet spot – no extendo-jams here.

I’m not generally a big prog guy, but Take ‘Em There is an entertaining album, light and upbeat. Arguably the “hardest” song is “Enough Is Enough,” but truthfully it’s more like the kind of song you’d expect to hear during a training montage in The Karate Kid or something. The album was re-released as a CD in 2004 with four additional bonus tracks, and some intrepid soul used that to upload a bunch of these songs to YouTube. “On Top of the World” is one of the best, and you can check it out below.

Styx – “Kilroy Was Here” (1983)

The first time I can remember understanding the concept that there were “music charts” that ranked the most popular songs, and that these charts would strongly influence the playlists of some radio stations, was in 1983 as Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” was on its way to an eventual plateau at the #3 spot on the Billboard list. It was definitely one of the first few singles I ever bought, if not in fact the actual first.

It wasn’t until number of years later that I become familiar with the term “rock opera.” And it wasn’t until last week that I realized the Styx album that features “Mr. Roboto,” Kilroy Was Here, is actually a rock opera.

Now, mind you, I’ve never owned a copy of Kilroy Was Here, and in fact don’t think I’ve ever owned a single Styx album on any format after I bought the “Mr. Roboto” single. (♠) And I’m not a fan of rock operas. So my failure to make the connection is, I hope, excusable. That being said, the band also produced a 10 minute short film that provides the plot of the opera – a dystopian near-future police state that puts you in prison if you dare to rock. And there are Japanese robots (domo… domo…). And I think at the 7:47 none other than Robert Romanus, perhaps best known for his role as the ticket scalper Mike Damone in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, makes a brief speaking appearance. You can watch it in all its glory below.

I was surprised to see a copy of Kilroy Was Here in my buddy Andy’s record collection the other day, so when I saw a cheap, good condition copy a week or so later it felt like fate. And for three dollars I’m not one to argue with fate.

So how are the other eight songs on the album not called “Mr. Roboto”? Well… no song ever made the repeated use of the phrase “sex and drugs” sound less sexy or more sober than on “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” though probably the second best song on the album is the intriguing “Just Get Through the Night,” which musically incorporates a range of sounds and styles. And I don’t know if this means anything, but there’s a repeating part of “Cold War” that sounds an awful lot like the hook of Mike + The Mechanics’ 1985 hit single “Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground),” like as in a surprising amount. The rest of it is pretty prog, which isn’t really my jam.

Kilroy Was Here was worth the pick up if for no other reason than it has the longer 5:28 version of “Mr. Roboto” with the full synth opening that was dropped from the single.

(♠) Though I did own two albums by a post-Styx Tommy Shaw band called Damn Yankees, aka “Ted Nugent, that guy from Styx, that dude from Night Ranger, and some drummer…”

Geysir – “Hljómsveitin” (1974)

hljomgeysirBefore there was The Sugarcubes, Björk, and Sigur Rós, Iceland made its first true splash (albeit a small one) in the worldwide music scene with a handful of prog rock bands who put out albums that became highly sought after by aficionados. Many of these records from the 1960a and 1970s carry some pretty hefty price tags, driven as much by their rarity as their quality. A few have even gotten the re-release treatment in recent years, perhaps most notably Icecross and Trúbrot’s 1971 masterpiece …Lifun, an album that routinely makes it into just about any Top 10 list put together by actual Icelanders. Another of these lost nuggets to be repressed is Geysir’s 1974 album Hljómsveitin, and I picked myself up a copy on eBay the other day. I’m generally not a prog rock guy, but the price was right, and it’s Icelandic.

To be fair, the “Icelandicness” of Hljómsveitin is moderately questionable. As near as I can tell all but one of the band members were Canadian, with only Gisli Gissurarson hailing from Iceland. The album was released by an Icelandic label with Icelandic jacket text, though all the songs are sung in English. So it certainly has ties to Iceland, including the names of both the band and the album. But there’s definitely a strong North American folk rock (more folk than prog, really) component to it.

Hljómsveitin is enjoyable enough for what it is, which is some pretty dated folk rock. It’s pleasant music that you can sort of chill out to, with some decent, sweet sounding vocals. No one particular song sticks out to my ears as being better than the rest, but there aren’t any obvious clunkers either. Chances are this will primarily appeal to the 1970s folk rock fan, or the crazy Icelandic completist (I lean towards the latter camp…), but the quality is decent, so if that’s what you’re into, then check it out.

Spilverk Þjóðanna – “Sturla” (1977)

eBay comes through once again with a reasonably priced 1970s Icelandic nugget, this time Spilverk Þjóðanna’s Sturla from 1977. The cover is certainly worse for wear, but most of the ugliness is on the reverse, and generally that’s not the kind of thing that worries me a ton unless it’s super bad. Plus it includes the insert, which is cool. But the vinyl inside is in nice shape, and that’s the important part.

Now, I write quite a bit about Icelandic music. Hell, I write about it a lot. But to be clear, I’m far from being an expert on it. For one thing, I’m not from Iceland. And I don’t speak (or read) Icelandic. But I do have well over 200 Icelandic albums (if you include CDs and cassettes) going all the way back to Nútímabörn in 1969, so I certainly have listened to my fair share of it. Then again, I’ve never sat down and listened to a Sigur Rós album from start to finish… so keep that all in mind. All that being said, an observation:

Musically, the 1970s in Iceland seem to have been all about folk and prog rock, at least as far as the home-grown bands were concerned.

Overgeneralization? Absolutely! But man… I pretty much know what I’m going to get when I drop the needle on one of these.

However… Sturla is actually pretty damn good. And hey, that’s not just me sayin’ that. The 2009 book 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar put it at #10 on the list of the all-time best Icelandic albums, and a survey Dr. Gunni did in 2001 and re-published as part of his 2013 book Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland put it at #11. So that’s not just me talking. Real, live Icelanders say so too!

Dr. Gunni indicates that some of the songs on Sturla “came from a teen play Grænjaxlar (“Rookies“) that the band wrote music for, but others were composed especially for the album.” (p. 73) What I find compelling about the record is the different styles that appear throughout. I mean, the opening track “Sirkus Geira Smart” sounds a bit like Credence Clearwater Revival, “Arinbjarnsson” features accordion with an Italian vibe (you swear it will break into “That’s Amore” at any moment), “Eftir Predikun” is a choral arrangement, and “Hæ Hó” is straight-up folk rock. And that’s just half the songs on Side A. I was particularly struck by “Bob Hope” on the flip side, a track that started out with crowd noises and then had marching military boots underlying the music… I suspect this is a bit of a political number based on what I could glean from Google Translate, but I can’t be entirely sure.

The changing styles on Sturla kept it fresh for me, though for the most part this type of music is hard for me to enjoy when separated from its message, so my lack of Icelandic once again is a detriment. Maybe one of these days Rosetta Stone will offer a course in the language. Until then, though, I’ll just have to keep listening and wondering…