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Beginnings: My First Ten Records - by John Potwora

Confucius says: If someone tells you their first-ever record purchase was Einstürzende Neubauten, unfriend them immediately- he or she is a bald-faced liar.

For those of you who share my love for - no - obsession with music, it probably isn't necessary for me to describe the infatuation that first takes hold of one's consciousness, and then diabolically sets about invading your living space.  Besides, mere words fail to describe the mania that drives a kid to blow his weekly allowance on singles and albums, never mind the thousands of hours of half-assed research one must conduct in order to discern treasure from tripe - particularly back in the days before Google could save intrepid explorers from a misguided purchase. Yes, millenials - me and my comrades-in-arms sometimes found it necessary to roll the proverbial dice merely on the promise of a garish twelve-inch square, hoping its cryptic contents might justify repeated visits to Mom and Dad's faux walnut cabinet, more precisely named a JC Penney Penncrest stereo phonograph.

Which might help explain my early foray into delinquency: "Why," I reasoned, "risk another barely listenable recording, evidently captured somewhere in Hamburg by a handheld reel-to-reel recorder stashed deep inside a down pillow, when they might be procured, completely free of cost, from the 'oldies' bin?" (A lesson misconstrued via a recent purchase by my older sister, Laurie.) Yes, I must confess that my quivering armpit once secured a small stack of discs while Mom was blissfully scanning racks of geometrically-adorned blouses in some distant corner of Sears. Which, judging from my American Graffiti induced selections, was entirely appropriate behavior from a latter-day Potsie.

Please don't assume I condone this sort of thing - in fact, I feel pangs of guilt as I recollect my eventual mastery of this technique years later as a misguided, hormone-frenzied teenager who pillaged the hundreds of floor-level boxes of 45's at a certain collectors' record shop on Chicago's South Side. Believe me when I say that life itself soon meted out a surplus of punishment for these transgressions, some of which can only be characterized as the product of a perverse and ingeniously twisted empyrean mind. Or perhaps my Catholic upbringing has implanted a skewed sense of imperfect justice. Either way, I digress.

Anyway, when not spiriting ill-gotten gains from local ledgers, I would seek sound (and unsound) advice from my more seasoned and battle-tested friends. For instance, I had recalled being transfixed by a certain clip from a TV commercial for a now-forgotten K-Tel compilation of "British Invasion" tunes. At that time, my pleas for a seemingly impulsive want had fallen on weary, dismissive ears. But now, armed with strategically withheld lunch money, I was more than ready to take the plunge. Between munches of anemic cafeteria pizza, my friend Tom tried to identify the source of my three-chord hum, assuring me that "Smoke On the Water" was the ticket. Even then I had an inkling that Deep Purple were anything but Ed Sullivan fodder. Nonetheless, I duly paid the extra bus fair for a side trip to Record Town at the Evergreen Park Shopping Mall. Blackmore and company soon became a staple on my ridiculously outsized Panasonic boom box (eight...count 'em, eight D-cells), although the riddle remained unsolved.

Undaunted, a second query yielded the title, "Cocaine." Again, this didn't quite add up, as I had difficulty imagining four moptops gleefully lip-synching their way through an ode to blow, but anything was still possible to this impressionable, wide-eyed pop culture junkie. And so, book bag slung over one shoulder, I embarked on another pilgrimage to Mecca. This time, however, there was little serendipity, and I reluctantly returned to my lunchroom oracle. His final deduction was "Sunshine of Your Love", which at least netted a stunner of an album - one that inspired a further addition to my burgeoning stash of wax, Cream's "Wheels of Fire" twofer. (Thankfully, this hit-or-miss methodology eventually led to the Kinks' katalog, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

Returning to the main subject at hand, 1976 was the start of my proper musical awakening. I can state this with complete confidence because I recently set about compiling a list of my first dozen or so records, and each pressing dates from this banner year. Keep in mind that this second grader was pretty well insulated from edgier contemporary sounds, and, although punk rock was raising eyebrows outside of my suburban Cheektowaga, New York enclave, it would be several years before my second awakening. I would more than make up for any lost time.

The best way to reconnect with this auditory jigsaw puzzle is to actually sit down and LISTEN to the original recordings, rapid-fire. The experience was overwhelming, unlocking feelings and impressions I had tucked away long ago, ensconced somewhere between Gold Key comic books and my first crush (both orange and Jacqueline: Christ, I had it bad for Jacqueline).

 So let's do this.

 1) The Bay City Rollers "Saturday Night" (45 rpm)

Bubble gum rock of the first order. Choco 'Lite candy bars and RC Cola. An opening that grabs you by your khaki, elastic-band cargo shorts and won't let go. Then that fuzztone lick kicks in, and you're launched like a Smash-Up Derby. The whole thing is a sing-along dum-dum that's over too soon, guaranteeing endless replays, or at least until the Donald Duck tonearm turns the grooves white.

I have vague memories of Laurie jumping up and down screaming like a Salem waif as these tartaned teens (was that a Dick Clark special?) flashed across our brand-new Zenith color TV, the one that could have passed for a simulated wood-grained shipping container. They were supposed to be the next Beatles, but vanished quicker than pink & blue cotton candy at Fantasy Island Amusement Park (Grand Island, New York). Listen here!

 2) Barry Manilow "Weekend in New England" (45 rpm)

Oh, stop. Sure, I'll admit I was reluctant to 'fess up to this one, but then YouTube graciously served up this guilty pleasure, no questions asked. And now I remember why I earnestly and unapologetically asked for a copy of this slick ballad, and why Mom and I would sit on the living room sofa together and sing the closing strains of..."Again...Again...". When was the last time you actually listened to it? Go ahead, I won't tell.

Barry doesn't make you wait even one minute for the giant hook, rolling and crashing a'la Paul & Artie's magnum opus, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And then...it's over. Between him and the Rollers, things must have been pretty flush over at Arista Records. And I'll boldly state right here that McCartney was probably wishing he were still able to write songs like this.

 3) The Beatles "Got to Get You Into My Life" (45 rpm)

 Speaking of Macca...

My first Fab Four platter, complete with green monochromatic picture sleeve. This was hyped at the time to be the "new" Beatles single, never mind that it had been tucked away on Revolver some ten years earlier. It got tons of airplay, and was directly responsible for renewed mid-70s Beatlemania.

I don't usually go for horns in my rock and roll (save Chicago), but brass propels this thing like the morning sun on the first day of Summer vacation. "Yeahs" have morphed into "Oohs," and George's stripped-down guitar lick is as urgent as Paul's full-throated "Got to get you into my life!" Oh hell yes. And a certain seven year-old has got to sneak the Sunday paper bra ads into his room for further study.

 4) Rhythm Heritage "Theme from S.W.A.T." (45 rpm)

My second most-favorite TV show theme song next to Rockford Files. Outside of the inevitable weekly drug raid, its theme was the only real reason for watching this Aaron Spelling potboiler. Everyone else must have reached the same conclusion because once an extended version was made available on disc, ABC dropped the series.

This pseudo disco rocker was the closest I'd ever gotten to funk. More happily, I've also somehow avoided any scrapes with federal law enforcement.

Fun fact: If you listen closely, you can hear an SRT van's tires screeching at the end of the bass breakdown. Or perhaps it’s Evel Knievel at Wembley. Listen here!

 5) Bill Haley and the Comets “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (45 rpm)

It’s impossible to underestimate the impact television, and its inexorable link with music, had on my generation. Forty-somethings can still hum the theme songs of Welcome Back, Kotter (another early addition to my cache of seven inchers that escaped this list in an attempt to avoid redundancy), The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Barney Miller, All in the Family, and The Greatest American Hero. Before Happy Days became a bastardized hybrid of authentic Fifties nostalgia and oddly Seventies feathered hair, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” fittingly served as the sitcom’s opener.

Even today it’s easy to see how the Comets whipped a crowd of Krauts into a violent frenzy at the Berlin Sportpalast. This exhilarating, crystal clear blast of rock ‘n’ roll still leaves me in awe, with Danny Cedrone’s supernatural  guitar solo, accompanied by Billy Gussak’s perfectly-timed snare drum and cymbal wallops. White lightning in a bottle. Performances like this aren’t so much planned as they are divinely inspired. And how, exactly, does one sit down and compose a song like this? Simple, but far from stupid; dynamic, yet uncontrived. Somewhere in Gonesville the planets were perfectly aligned when these heretofore unglorified shitkickers reinvented an entire genre, thus kicking AM radio’s posterior for all of posterity.

Side note: Contrary to what Bowser and Sha Na Na might have led unsuspecting teens to believe, their duck-tailed forbears most assuredly did NOT wear gold lamé jumpsuits. At least not out in public.

 6) The Surfaris “Wipe Out” (45 rpm)

Gene Krupa did it a generation or two earlier with his work on Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Here, however, is the disc that created vanloads of drummers, for better or worse, beginning in 1963. My parents had a copy of the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” long player, but even that precursor to surf-rock paled in comparison to the raw power of this platter, featuring the stick work of one Ron Wilson (no relation to Brian, Dennis and Carl). Again, how are these things written? It is difficult to imagine the rock lexicon bereft of this immortal drum roll: it needed to be created, and so it was. And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good, daddy-o.

Make no mistake, this is pure garage rock. And, as mind-blowing as the drum breaks are, they’re only a springboard (no pun intended) for a nearly unhinged guitar solo. It still knocks me out.

 7) The Coasters “Yakety Yak” (45 rpm)

It’s one thing to sing Barry Manilow duets with your young son, and quite another to risk allowing subversive thoughts to creep into his formative consciousness, which is why Mom wasn’t all too thrilled with the lyrical content of this Coasters classic. But the shuffle rhythm was irresistible, and besides, the real fun wasn’t so much in singing the seditious “yakety yak” as it was in trying to properly mimic the baritone repartee, “Don’t talk back.”

Mom’s fears weren’t totally unfounded, as “Yakety Yak” would coincidentally find its way on to her wise-ass kid’s turntable from time to time, usually following a well-deserved scolding.

Trivia: King Curtis provided the iconic alto sax solo on “Yakety Yak”.

 8) The Playmates “Beep Beep” (45 rpm)

Largely forgotten today, this nugget enjoyed a modest revival via “golden oldies” radio stations, and regular spins on the Doctor Demento Show. Given my growing obsession with Dad’s old Spike Jones records, it is no wonder why this novelty number held special appeal. Accentuated with rhythmic toots on a bicycle horn, the musical narrative describes an apparent road race between a Nash Rambler and Cadillac.

The gag, of course, is that the contest is one-sided: the Cadillac driver is only trying to catch up to the Nash Rambler to ask how to get his car out of second gear. Ha.

But the truly sad part of this whole thing is that I didn’t understand the punch line. Pop tried to explain it to me, but neither Big Wheels nor Schwinn Stingrays were outfitted with transmissions. It only dawned on me years later in the middle of a driving lesson, as my poor instructor wondered why the hell I was laughing to myself like a maroon. Listen here!

 9) The Beatles "Rock and Roll Music" (2xLP)

Unlike Colorforms and Shrinky Dinks, my parents must have recognized that the "Got to Get You Into My Life" single was holding my attention nearly as much as the Sunday circulars. And so Santa got word that this compilation needed to appear beneath our tree on that storied Christmas morning of '76.

The first pressing of this two-LP set was housed in a silver foil gatefold sleeve. The artist, Ignacio Gomez, must have thought Elvis was the fifth Beatle because he inexplicably inserted images of Marilyn Monroe, a '57 Chevy, and Wurlitzer jukebox. Even the band's moniker was splashed across the front panel in neon lights, leaving one to wonder if Gomez was moonlighting from a gig as Happy Days' set designer. Perhaps the powers that be at Capitol Records were still high on the fumes from John Milner's Deuce Coupe. Whatever. None of this takes anything away from this album's impressive chronology of hits and misses culled from the Fab's miraculous catalogue. A true revelation.

 10) The Beatles "Meet the Beatles" (LP)

It wasn't too long before the "Rock and Roll" sampler helped me realize that I was an "early Beatles" kind of guy. (And, like any red-blooded American, I also preferred loads of reverb.) So "Meet the Beatles" was the logical place to continue my newfound fandom.

Like a mad scientist working in a lab, I obsessively listened to the album, deconstructing its magical formula with the Penncrest's balance control, intently honing in on one channel and then the other. (What the heck was Paul doing to those birds when he "sore them winging"? And why was he on the verge of hysterics during the last verse of "Hold Me Tight"?)

I've since owned many thousands of records, and comparatively few of them warrant this kind of immersion. I guess it was just a stroke of luck that I discovered it so early. It was also a mixed blessing: the bar was set very high, and it seems my relentless pursuit of recorded sound has been an attempt to recapture the euphoria I experienced upon first hearing the Beatles. Take an unequaled mix of youthful energy, chiming chords, seamless harmonies, and dazzling melodies, and add to that my own unspoiled idealism and a spare ten bucks, and you've got the makings for one helluva strange and wonderful adventure.

 John Potwora has a house full of records and plays drums in the semi-legendary power pop band Paranoid Lovesick. He also assailed radio listeners as the bombastic John E. Midnight over WRUW-FM, where he spun obscure Sixties garage rock (and dubious yarns) for several long years.