ONLY NOISE: More Specials

Tonight I’m going to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am going listen to a record, in full, and with all of the lights off, while doing nothing else, so help me god. This is how I used to listen to music. Before I had a smart phone, or a laptop, or a job. Before I had deadlines, a.k.a. homework I actually cared about. Before I had to cook my own meals. Back in those “before” days, the best place for listening to records was my friend Daniel’s bedroom, where we’d flip off all of the lights and dive under the blankets covering his bed to listen to Pixies’ Doolittle or the new Modest Mouse record. We would listen to these albums in full, and never speak a word.

The next best spot was my bedroom. I didn’t have my own full-sized turntable back then, but I did have a funny little portable vinyl player that my dad leant me. It was a highly precarious object, as the LP itself was largely exposed. A strip of plastic held it in place down the center, but the remaining surface area of the record (I’d say a good 80%) jutted out the sides. This made for an interesting time when you listened to records through headphones, which I always did late at night to avoid waking my parents. I would clamp in the record, plug in my headphones, and gingerly lay next to the contraption, trying not to flinch or make any sudden movements on my way down. There was a constant fear of ripping my earbuds out mid-song, or worse, knocking the mini turntable over completely. I remember lying on my back, closing my eyes, and letting the jagged guitars and hissing hi-hats of AFI’s Very Proud Of Ya take me outside of my wood-paneled bedroom walls. I knew that this was the ultimate way to listen to music: alone or with a quiet companion, eyes shut and fully immersed.

It is difficult to make time for this kind of listening now. Listening requires not only attention but intention. But despite how challenging it can be to sit still and take in a record in full, I’m determined to do it more often. This week, and hopefully many more weeks to follow, I’ll pick an LP from my collection; I’ll drop the needle, sit down, shut up, and listen. Tonight, after a dreary first week of February, I’m looking for a pick-me-up, and I can’t think of a better record to do the job that the Specials’ 1980 sophomore LP More Specials.

After discovering a promotional copy of the British band’s self titled debut in my mom’s record collection, I knew the Specials were going to be an important band in my life, even if I was discovering them 25 years too late. Regardless of how much I loved that first album, it was all I knew of the 2 Tone group, and I was always a bit surprised I didn’t see more of their work in record stores. It took me two years to find More Specials, and I didn’t even know I was looking for it.

It must have been 2005 when my mom and I drove to Laguna Beach from my grandmother’s house in Huntington. At that point in time I would have assumed that Laguna would not be to my liking – surely it would resemble the television show sharing its namesake. The Orange County city surprised me, however; as I walked through the doors of Underdog Records, I knew I’d found a place just for me.

I located a vinyl copy of More Specials within minutes, and shelled out the high price of $13.99 for it (the Day-Glo orange price tag is still plastered on the upper right hand corner of the sleeve). Little did I know, the man who sold the vinyl to me was Mike Lohrman, lead singer of the Stitches, a band I would later see live and meet in Seattle, when my best friend would open for them. Underdog was his shop, but not for much longer – sadly, it closed just a year after I visited.

Record shopping in Southern California always presented a frustrating dilemma – the region had some of the best secondhand punk record stores I’d ever seen (most of them, like Underdog and Costa Mesa’s NoiseNoiseNoise, are now sadly out of business). I would make out with absolute treasures: Circle Jerks’ Wild in the Streets, Minor Threat LPs, and all the Social Distortion bootlegs a girl could ask for. Sadly, I had no place to listen to them, until I went home to Washington after visiting Grandma. The anticipation made my private listening sessions all the more exciting, however. Playing More Specials tonight brings about a sense of wonder similar to what I must have felt 13 years ago.

More Specials was never the critical darling that was 1979’s Specials, but it’s still an exceptional record. Songs like “Rat Race” and “Hey Little Rich Girl” are built for the skank floor, but rife with British snark. “Pearl’s Café” is one of the most terrifying depictions of old age, irrelevance, and loneliness, and contains one of my favorite ways to say fuck it: “It’s all a load of bollocks/And bollocks to it all.” Again, despite the song’s depressing nature, the Specials provided an exuberant, sing-along pop number. Then again, with the Go-Gos as your backing vocalists, how could you not achieve catchy perfection? The pinnacle of this sad story/sweet song dichotomy is reached during “I Can’t Stand It.” Had it been left entirely to singer Terry Hall, this song would have been glum enough – but paired with the quavering vocals of the Bodysnatchers’ Rhoda Dakar, it is nothing short of heart wrenching. It is a breakup song for the ages, and it rarely fails to make me cry a little.

It continually amazes me how many memories fit inside the sleeve of an album, even ones that haven’t been played in years. While there is constant pressure to remain current, to look to the future of music, I find it cathartic to look back occasionally – to flip through my records like a dust-coated photo album. It is a collection of memories I hope to revisit more often.

ONLY NOISE: Talkin’ About a Resolution

I’m not two weeks into 2018 and I still haven’t gone to the gym, started paying my student loans, or repaired the ripped and button-less pile of clothing in my bedroom. Fortunately, I’m not alone. How long do most people last when attempting their new routines – the ones drafted under that misleading label New Year’s Resolutions? Is your credit already improving? Do you see abs forming on your once shapeless midriff? If the answer is “yes” to either of those questions, please do not tell me.

The expectation to do better the moment the clock strikes 12:00 can be absurd and daunting, especially for someone like me who really falls for it and formulates not one resolution, but a litany of them. Sometimes they are as vague as, “Get your life together!!!” Other times they are simple yet wildly inefficient, like the year I was going to “wear heels more.”

Resolutions that necessitate reversing our lifestyles and personalities (like that one about heels) seem to be the goals that don’t stick, so this year I’m sticking to what I know instead. I figure that if the bulk of my New Year’s resolutions revolve around music, I might actually tick them off my list. So here they are, my six reasonable, totally doable, music-related goals for 2018.

1) Go to more shows (and keep a record of each one).

I say this every year: That I will a) go to more shows, and b) designate a notebook simply for the purpose of recording each one I attend. Going to more shows is the easy part; if I really put my mind to it, I bet I could average between one and three a month. The hard part is remembering to write them down. I don’t need a florid play-by-play of each song and coat check line, just the band names, date, and venue.

I’m aware of that endless archive called the Internet, but I have an affinity for lists on good old-fashioned paper. I have plenty of notebooks allocated to specific subjects, and it doesn’t sound difficult to do the same for concert-going, but I always manage to forget. By the time the year is out, I can’t possibly remember all of the shows I’ve been to, let alone dates and venues, without having to spend a few hours sifting through the web. It’d be nice to just flip to a page marked: “Shows, 2018” and relive the memories via bullet points.

2) Read that enormous book about John Peel that’s been on my bookshelf for ages.

About two years ago, when I was still working as a panty designer and listening to the gospel of BBC6 Music everyday, DJ Jon Hillcock was singing the praises of David Cavanagh’s book, Good Night and Good Riddance. The 605 page tome about John Peel has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since, as I purchased it immediately after Hillcock’s endorsement. The problem with the book is not its subject matter – I am a huge admirer of Peel, the late Radio 1 DJ. The problem lies in those 605 pages, and the fact that they make the book so large that it fails my commuter reading test, the criteria being: can I comfortably hold the book with one hand while the other grabs the subway pole? The answer for this paperback is: No. Alas, I will have to grin and bear the hand cramps sooner or later… because I really do want to read it.

3) Listen to more radio.

Some of my favorite music has been funneled into my ears by the loving DJs at stations like KEXP, BBC6 Music, and Brooklyn’s Lot Radio. Lately however, my radio ration has decreased in size. Where once I listened daily, now I do so monthly. This is silly. What’s sillier is that I’ve never even visited the Lot Radio, despite their throwing constant shindigs right off of my train line. However, considering the station’s limited indoor space, perhaps I will wait until spring 2018 to pop by…

4) Re-learn the small amount of piano I learned over a year ago.

Between the summers of 2015 and 2016 I took piano lessons once a week in Greenpoint’s San Damiano Mission (across the street from the Lot Radio). I was a determined student initially, but after a few months I let my practice regimen slip. A year later the lessons ended due to my dwindling cash flow, and though I would love to start them up again, they’re not quite within my budget yet. Even if I could afford them, I’d still want to refresh my “abilities” before facing my teacher again. I suspect this will be the most difficult item to achieve on this list, as it takes the most discipline, patience, and humiliation.

5) Go record shopping more.

Like piano lessons, this goal is contingent upon financial stability. However unlike piano lessons: I can write it off! There used to be a wonderful record shop called Sideman Records (sister shop to Captured Tracks in Greenpoint) just a 15-minute walk from my house. Sadly, it closed, and I’ve found my record store purchases diminishing ever since. One goal for 2018 is to go to record shops I’ve never been to, like Human Head in Bushwick and House of Oldies in the West Village. These spots may not be walking distance from my apartment, but that’s no excuse to not support them.

6) For the love of God: Order crates for my records.

This resolution addresses one of my most shameful secrets as a music journalist: that my record collection follows no rhyme or reason or system of organization. My albums are stacked against a wide shelf in my bedroom, seemingly arranged in a way that displays “What I’ve been listening to the most lately” in the front and buries “What I often completely forget I own” in the back. This anti-system nurtures a habit in which I listen to the same thing (Smog) over and over and over again, and leave other records (James Chance and the Contortions, Phil Collins) completely untouched. My hope is that crates would help me categorize my vinyl and give it a dignified home that would ward off warping. I currently have my LPs propped up with the dumb bells I’m supposed to be using to “get in shape,” which are protecting my vinyl just as much as they are sculpting my deltoids.

ONLY NOISE: For the Love of the Struggle

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Friends of mine tend to think that my insistence upon doing things the “hard” or “old-fashioned” way is merely my last cry of pubescent rage sputtering out like a tapped keg. A “contrarian” they call me. A “grandpa.” And I don’t mind. I don’t expect to get away with printing maps of where I’m going for the evening or writing down people’s numbers in my notepad without some ball-busting. I get it. Your grandmother knows how to use an iPhone better than I do and so does your three-year old nephew. Fortunately, this is the one place I don’t have to painstakingly explain my love of vinyl, which to many people outside of our music-website bubble is absurd and archaic. But what about how we acquire vinyl? For some reason I can’t deal with going into a shop to visit the shiny “New Arrival” or “New Release” sections without feeling like I’m phoning it in. I want a struggle. I want to dig. Sifting through piles of Lionel Ritchie and warped Rick Astley singles is a long and grimy endeavor, but the jewel found amongst refuse is always more brilliant.

Of all the junk shops I patronize, I’ve yet to find one as enthralling as Greenpoint’s The Thing. Rarely is an establishment so true to its title; this place is a grotesque organism of its own. An entire eco system of other people’s stuff. With nary a millimeter of free space, the Thing is an institution of sensory overload. Miniature cityscapes are formed by cassette tape skyscrapers, framed by mountain ranges of books, DVDs, and polyester dresses. Getting to the back room is hazardous and requires deft leg weaving through precarious stacks of you-name-it. A magazine asteroid could launch toward your head at any moment. I’d personally recommend a hard-hat.

At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine there could be more shit in the Thing. In the far reaches of the first floor rest thousands of records, leaning like post-storm trees and abiding by no system of organization. There are always a few people scavenging through these heaps, typically men in their mid-thirties, all shading their find with a furrowed brow, like an archaeologist dusting off a shard of pottery. They inspect the spine, note the release date, slip out the onyx disk in the hopes of a scuff-free surface. I suspect to most people this ritual looks as ridiculous as polishing a VHS tape, but to me it’s like local slang.

Much to the hoarder’s delight, this first floor is only the foyer. Teeter down the cement staircase, watch out for the low ceiling, and tiptoe into the basement if you’re up for some extreme rummaging. Down here there are only records. LPs, EPs, singles, ‘45s, maxi-singles, extended re-mixes, etcetera. If the records upstairs were mountainous, the basement is home to Everest. In the past I’ve seen guys down here spelunking for records, fully equipped with respirators and latex gloves. Today I have the cave to myself, and I’m determined to find something great if not rare.

But here exists the dilemma with a junk shop record dive: it’s 99 percent grueling pursuit and one percent success. Couldn’t we just go to a proper record shop? Of course. Will we? Absolutely not. It’s just too easy to waltz into a store and pay $26.75 for a 1980 release of More Specials. From their shelf to yours, with little more than a debit transaction to narrate the experience, it’s just no fun.

Now I’m not delusional; I realize that despite its obscurity, affordability, and hearty population of asbestos, the Thing is a still a store. We may be participating in Capitalism on the slightest level, but we are still consuming. Sure we can slap tags like “up-cycling” and “collecting” on it, but at the end of the day: we are buying shit.

It is not my goal to reprimand those who buy new vinyl instead of used. Nor is it my aim to pat us collectors on the back. That isn’t the point. The point is relaying the experience produced by finding a great record amidst a surplus of awful ones. The thrill of consciously searching for something that is not a necessity, but a pleasure defined by quality and nostalgia, is intoxicating. I like to think of it as cultural vulture-ism: we pick clean the bones of a dead medium.

However it isn’t a venture void of frustration; realizing the appeal of an album’s cover far exceeds its sound is annoying, accepting that an artist’s third album is garbage compared with their first two is disheartening, and not being able to reach that stack of untouched records jammed in a far corner is downright infuriating. I always try balancing on a milk crate, reaching an index finger towards the filmy piles that surely no one has flipped through, only to slip and risk a landslide of vinyl.

Three hours is the average length of time I can spend in these situations. By then my fingernails are piped with grime, my back hurts, and I’m primed for a bout of hypoglycemic rage. I’ll usually have a handful of records that are nothing more than desperate attempts at filling the 12’’ hole in my heart-usually hip-hop maxi singles that will only be heard at a party. All of this, for ten minutes of background music? The head hangs low.

I trudge upstairs and glance at the French DJ guy who has a Whopper-sized stack of records he will be sampling by dinnertime. It’s not fair. If I was a DJ I would be plum-fucking-tickled with the hundreds of unknown disco singles lining the floors of the Thing. All I want is one, just one great record. And yet, as I take a step to exit, I feel the tug.

The tug is the scream of something sought after yet looked over: “Turn around! Look at me! I’m right here!” The tug generally occurs the moment you decide to abandon everything. So I listen, I look, and there peeking out from under a Madonna EP is Squeeze’s Singles: 45’s and Under.

Now, this isn’t a rare record. It’s not even an original LP. It is, as the title affirms, a collection of singles; but it’s been on my list for quite some time.

There are two types of audiences familiar with Squeeze: the one that is privy to their entire body of work, and the other that inquires: “Isn’t that the band who did ‘ Tempted (by the fruit of another ?’” I was, for a very long time, part of the latter group. Seven years ago, when my then-boyfriend suggested I listen to Squeeze, I recoiled in disgust:

“I fucking hate that song. It’s on the lowest rung of the Dad-rock ladder, right there next to annals of Huey Lewis and his News.” He retorted with that typical, yet generally accurate remark: “You just haven’t heard their early stuff.”

Well, I now say the same to you. Though the band’s first three albums Squeeze (1978), Cool For Cats (1979), and Argybargy (1980) should all be heard on their own, Singles is the perfect appetizer to peak interest in a larger meal.

Formed in Deptford on London’s South Bank in 1974, Squeeze was the brainchild of vocalist Glenn Tilbrook, guitarist Chris Difford, and the now-revered pianist Jools Holland. As contemporaries of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, the band occupied the space in English New Wave that exalted catchy, pure pop music salted with tongue-in-cheek lyrics. There is something doubly effective about Tilbrook’s honey-sweet voice recounting stories of accidental pregnancy and the ‘ol “Slap and Tickle.” These early years produced wry tracks that are tight yet raw, and a far cry from the overproduced “Tempted.”

The largest account for Squeeze’s shift in sound was the departure of Jools Holland in 1980. I liken his absence to a post-Mick Jones Clash, in which the songs lose a tremendous amount of integrity and quality. The lack of Holland spawned a breeding ground for songs like “Tempted” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” the only two tracks I’d skip on Singles.

The high-points of the album are truly in every other song, but if I had to narrow it down to three, I would recommend “Goodbye Girl,” “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)” and the painfully infectious “ Up The Junction.”

Despite a slightly nibbled sleeve, the record itself is in wonderful condition. There are no scratches to speak of, and it spins without any signs of warping. These are the nerdy details, but they are important ones nonetheless. These are the details that make three hours of dusty lungs and a debit of $1.99 all the more worth it. As my mom always said: “no pain, no gain.”