My decision last fall to pick up a turntable had nothing to do with audio fidelity or “warmer” sounds or affected hipness. I got back into records because Maura scored a near complete set of Time-Life’s Swing Era compilations at an estate sale and because I thought it would be a nice way to get back to basics in terms of how I listen to music.
The digital revolution of the past two decades has been invaluable for broadening my tastes and discovering otherwise inaccessible treasures, but it turned my listening experiences into something scattershot and disposable — a cherry-picked parade of one-off favorites and random oddities strung together with little in the way rhyme or reason. What used to be a meal turned into a bowl of party mix upon which I’d gorge or nibble at as the urge for instant gratification moved me.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a far cry from the days when I’d place a record on the turntable, let the needle drop, and soak in the entire thing as I burned the midnight oil on a term paper or struggled to get the latest addition to my Warhammer 40k army primed and painted in time for the following week’s tabletop throwdown. Those were the moments that built up the knowledge base behind this site’s music blog days, and fueled its fires until I burned myself out.
My life has no shortage of distractions on the entertainment front, which is why the notion of spinning full sides without interruption held a certain nostalgic allure — to hear the full Unknown Pleasures or After the Snow or Ocean Rain without an easy means of skipping over “weaker” or less favored cuts.
When it came to pulling selections from our shared stash of old records, I avoided compilations (apart from out-of-print, non-CD version oddities like the Enigma Variations) for that reason. The point was to rediscover the album as a format, not rehash my digital listening habits in an analog format.
It was a lofty idea, but it only lasted a couple of weeks.
The pursuit of my vision involved hunting down choice albums by artists I’d mostly experienced in single-track or “greatest hits” form. In the old days, that would’ve entailed dropping a couple bucks per LP at one of the numerous used vinyl shops Boston was blessed with in the early Nineties. As most of those stores have long since been shuttered, I had to make do with the realm of online retailers and internet auctions.
I had the good fortune to stumble across an eBay storefront for a dude who was selling off a massive collection of records from the mid-Seventies through mid-Eighties, also known as “Andrew’s Nostalgic Sweet Spot.” The deal was twenty bucks for five selections from a lengthy and unwieldy list. My first four picks were easy — Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, The English Beat’s What is Beat, The Cars’ Shake It Up, and Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats.
I had a heck of a time picking a fifth to complete the order, however. My eyes scanned over the list of offerings again and again, with nothing really grabbing my attention until I saw a listing for a 1979 K-Tel called The Rock Album. One quick check of Discogs later, and it became the final item in my order.
Here’s the track list:
A1 Electric Light Orchestra – Don’t Bring Me Down
A2 Foreigner – Dirty White Boy
A3 Eddie Money – Two Tickets To Paradise
A4 Robin Trower - Too Rolling Stoned
A5 Blue Öyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
A6 Cheap Trick – Dream Police
A7 Robert Palmer – Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)
B1 Styx - Renegade
B2 Boston – More Than A Feeling
B3 Jethro Tull – Something’s On The Move
B4 Journey – Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’
B5 The Babys – Isn’t It Time
B6 Kansas – Carry On Wayward Son
B7 Toto - Hold The Line
K-Tel’s compilations fall into one of two categories — multigenre grab bags of current pop hits or jobbers built around a specific theme. The Rock Album falls into the latter, with an assemblage of AOR staples of what would eventually become known as “classic rock” pulled from the previous half-decade. That said, a whopping eight out of the fourteen tracks were released in 1978 or 1979, so the LP didn’t quite abandon current Top 40 topicality.
The big draws for me were “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Too Rolling Stoned,” and “More Than a Feeling” — favorite cuts that either replaced the need to score them separately (or deferred it in Boston’s case as it has been absurdly difficult to locate a reasonably priced used album that sold SEVENTEEN MILLION GODDAMN COPIES GLOBALLY.) “Don’t Bring Me Down” would’ve fallen into that category if I hadn’t already splurged on a bunch of ELO LPs.
The other cuts are either incidentally enjoyable (Toto, Kansas, Cheap Trick) or work as mood-setting filler (Foreigner, Jethro Tull, Styx). If I had assembled the compilation, I’d have swapped out the The Baby’s track for Heart’s “Barracuda,” went with “Come Sail Away” in place of “Renegade” for the obligatory Styx jam, and dumped “Dirty White Boy” for “Hot Blooded.” That has more to do with nostalgic hindsight than the mercenary factors that went into the The Rock Album‘s creation — to offer twenty bucks worth of 45 RPM single content in a handy $5.98 package. With that in mind, it’s a wonder “Don’t Look Back” didn’t bump “More Than a Feeling.”
The Rock Album is a perfect snapshot of a time when RAWK existed as an article of faith and its overproduced cheese could be digested with utmost sincerity. Listening to it uninterrupted — clunkers and all — is like stepping through a portal to a specific moment of my North Woburn childhood when teenage heshers blasted the stuff out the windows of their dinged up muscle cars and custom van conversions, when these tunes were the intermission playlist of the local drive-in, and could be heard echoing from the entrance of the strip mall record store.
In short, it provided an experience as evocative as any single-artist album could provide, its patchwork assortment of tracks coming together into a greater whole. I didn’t anticipate that happenening but it whetted my appetite for more.