On Searching for that Perfect T.S.O.L. Version…
[Updated. Twice! See end of post]
To all my peeps, this is a long one. I think it’s one of my better posts, but if you have a short attention span, best save for a Sunday morning, curled up on the couch with your iPad and a cup of coffee.
I came of age during the great stereo era. Every red-blooded young american boy saved his paper route money to buy the component stereo system – amplifier, receiver, equalizer, giant hard-wood speakers, (head phones because your parents/neighbors couldn’t stand the giant speakers), and…of course…the tape deck.
This was the pre-mp3 era. The pre-peer2peer era. The pre-Napster era. The pre-music-industry-freaking-out-RIAA-lawsuits era. Back in that age, the music industry didn’t worry about revenue loss from the occasional copying of albums among friends. I distinctly remember in the mid-1980s the rock station in El Paso would play full albums at midnight. The DJ would break between album sides and say, “I can hear tape decks being switched off all over the city.”
But the great beauty of the tape deck was never in the piracy; it was in capturing the elusive, phantom moments of music greatness. Radio stations often had special features of live concerts, where you could capture a favorite artist in the moment. I still have a dusty cassette of a live studio performance by Santana that just kills. On the B side is a full George Thorogood album recorded off the radio. I also still have a dusty tape of a Cyndi Lauper concert broadcast live from the Houston Arena. All awesome, and all courtesy of the ubiquitous tape deck plugged into the stereo receiver and delivered via the FM radio stations that dominated before Sirius and the World Wide Web. Of course, don’t forget the mix tape. No young man could romance his special lady without the help of the carefully crafted, select mix of songs put to tape and delivered to her sweaty, teen-spirit hands.
I don’t want to fall into the old-guy trap of “In my day…” because in my day the music industry ALSO freaked out over bootlegs, and searched you before entering live concerts. I haven’t been to a concert in years (and I imagine they still search you), but to judge by the awesome concert footage I see on YouTube, the camera phone has opened a can of whup ass on anti-bootleg efforts. Someday, today’s teenager will write a blog post about how awesome the smart phone era was.
However, the Age of the Tape Deck was a great time, and I have many –many- cassettes that occasionally get exposed to daylight and played in the pickup truck which happens to have the obsolete device. One of my favorites, and currently being worn to a faint and thin strip of magnetized plastic, is a recording I made of a favorite show from Albuquerque’s 94Rock, circa late 1980s. Back in those days, L.A. and NYC had radio stations devoted to the rock fringes of punk and new wave, while the middle of the continent worked their days to album rock staples, and Steely Dan was considered pushing the envelope. 94Rock had a young intern by the name of Phil Mahoney (who has since risen to the position of station director, and yes, it seems, 94Rock is still going strong after all these years). Mahoney had his own show, called Fast Forward, that featured all the New Wave and Punk rock that we mid-continent denizens didn’t normally get to hear. Thank God for the interns of the world. I can’t remember when his show aired, but it was probably on some cul-du-sac of an advertizer-safe time slot like 10pm Tuesdays. One night he devoted his show to punk and new wave bands doing cover versions of other songs.
In went a blank tape, and click went the REC switch.
That dearly loved cassette contains such gems as The Minutemen and Aztec Camera doing awesome covers of Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love and Jump, respectively. It has the Slits performing Heard It Through the Grapevine. There’s also an amazing cover by the Stranglers performing the Dionne Warwick-famous Walk On By (written by Burt Bacharach). It powers into extended, jazzy keyboard and guitar solos very reminiscent of the extended version of the Door’s Light My Fire. And if you’ve never heard Devo cover (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, then babybabybabybabybabybabybabybabybaby you haven’t lived. Finally, my favorite piece on the tape is a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower by hard-rockers T.S.O.L. (aka the True Sounds of Liberty).
In 2009 Spin Magazine rated the 50 greatest cover tunes of all time, and Jimi Hendrix’s soul piercing, voodoo volcano version of All Along the Watchtower came in at Number 2. Should’ve been number 1. Just sayin’. (BTW, that is a fun article, and it has song samples for all 50, so you could spend a fun afternoon delving into that).
I have no evidence for this, but I posit Watchtower is possibly one of the most covered songs of all times. Well…probably Louie Louie by the Kingsmen is the most covered Rock-n-Roll tune of all time, and if you step outside of Rock, then I bet Amazing Grace or Star Spangled Banner whup ass in the most-covered category. Anyway, you could throw a guitar pick in the air and it would fall on a cover of Watchtower. I’ve seen bluegrass versions, jazz versions, heavy metal versions; the Dave Matthews Band does a killer live version in concerts.
So there I was, on this late night, in the late 80s, Phil Mahoney was spinning his collection of New Wave cover tunes, when he played this awesome cover of All Along the Watchtower. It begins with an acoustic guitar strumming out the main theme, then an electric guitar explodes on the scene with a spine tingling pick slide down all the frets, and the rest of the band kicks in with a hard rocking thump. In my best Jack Black impression, “It…is…AWESOMMME.” I love pick slides, and could listen to Social Distortion all day (they being the kings of pick slide guitar mojo). Mahoney distinctly announces it’s from the “Scream LP” but a perusal of T.S.O.L.’s discography at AllMusic.com shows no Scream LP.
Enter the age of the mp3 and iTunes. Because my cassette is slowly wearing out, I am trying to download digital versions of all these cover tunes. Stranglers, check; Devo, check. But iTunes has no copy of Aztec Camera doing Jump, nor several of the other tunes. I do find a T.S.O.L. cover of All Along the Watchtower, from their Hell and Back Together compilation, but it is a lame,
all-acoustic acoustic-ish spare version that is really quite ho-hum. I do web searches. I find another, all electric version on Amazon’s mp3 site, but it just doesn’t have the zing that my tape version has, nor the all-important pick slide. How many versions did T.S.O.L. record of Watchtower? And where is this elusive acoustic+electric version? Did Mahoney err when he said it was the Scream LP? Is it some rare vinyl that has disappeared into the sands of time?
I hope this post might become a message in a bottle, floating across the interwebs, waiting to be found by an ex-groupie, or maybe even a band member. Perhaps Phil Mahoney will google himself and stop by with the answer. Someday, my version will come.
[Update. 10-30-2011. 8:30pm] Nothing like thinking about this to get the research juices flowing. So a new round of web searches leads to this: Scream – The Compilation. Apparently, Scream was an L.A. club and this 1987 album was put out to promote it and several bands. I don’t find it in iTunes library, but several used version of vinyl are available from Amazon resellers. Perhaps it is time to go to Costco and buy one of them vinyl to mp3 thingies. The info comes from discogs.com which is devoted to discographies. That’ll have to join Allmusic.com as one of the go to resources.
[Update. 10-31-2011. Morning] Houston we have lift off! First, the muddledrambler finds the awesome extended version of Aztec Camera’s Jump on YouTube. Then, following his lead, I say, “hmmm…wonder if anybody’s posted the Scream LP on YouTube?” Well…they have! But the first person, while they had posted several tracks, hadn’t posted the all important Watchtower. A subsequent search turned up another poster who had. SCORE!
I’ve linked both Aztec Camera and the T.S.O.L. below, but do me a huge favor and FIRST listen to a sample from the Hell and Back Together album on iTunes or your favorite mp3 site just so you can get a sense of how important versions are. In the height of irony, I tried to find a YouTube video of the lame versions, and came up empty.