Beers I Have Known: Toppling Goliath Mornin’ Delight

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

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The weekend just past was profoundly memorable for me, even the part that found me engaging in a pastime known clouding one’s recollection. I was one of thousands in attendance at the 30th annual Great Taste of the Midwest, a beer fest of colossal proportions. Were I more adept at describing the cascade of sensations that wash across the tongue when particularly vibrant and delectable potables are sampled, I could probably write a mini-manifesto cataloging all the transformative tastes I encountered. Instead, I’ll merely acknowledge the best beer I drank at the festival: Mornin’ Delight from Iowa’s Toppling Goliath Brewing Company. It is a coffee stout, which is a favorite style of mine. While I have a few that I love dearly, I’ve never tasted one quite as wondrous as this. It was the first beer I drank, and it took hours — hours, I say! — before I didn’t reflexively compare every other darker beer I sampled to it, usually with disappointment and wistful memory shading my face. I clearly wasn’t alone in my rapture.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Beers I Have Known” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 160 – 158

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160. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power”

When “People Have the Power” arrived, nearly a decade had passed without any new music from Patti Smith. She’d been effectively living in semi-retirement while starting a family with the man she married in 1980, Fred “Sonic” Smith, a punk icon in his own right thanks to his tenure in the foundational band the MC5. According to Patti, it was Fred who started her on the road to the song when he marched into the kitchen and said, “People have the power. Write it.” Armed with only that title, Patti embarked on a sort of political and spiritual research process, listening to Jesse Jackson speeches, studying the bible, and poring through news coverage of geopolitical turmoil, particularly in Afghanistan, then still mired in a conflict with the Soviets that had been going on for about as long as the singer’s layoff. Released as the lead single from Patti’s 1988 album, Dream of Life, the track became an enduring fixture among lefty activists, serving as the theme song for the Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change tour, in 2004, and being quoted in its entirety to close out a Howard Zinn book. It’s precisely what Patti hoped for in creating the song. She explained, “That’s a gift type of song. I meant it to give some kind of positive energy and hope to people in a very difficult time. The song addresses itself to the various dreams that mankind has and reminds us that perhaps we can achieve those dreams if we work together. It’s not intended to incite so much as to remind people.”

 

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159. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “The Only Flame in Town”

Elvis Costello has never been one to be delicate in expressing his opinions, including about his own work. To offer a characteristic example, he is bruising in his assessment of the 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World. Years later, he wrote, “to be honest I knew it wasn’t a good record by the time.” Costello was feuding mightily with his backing band, the Attractions, and he’d announced prior to recording the album that it would be his last (a threat that, of course, went unfulfilled to a spectacular degree). Costello noted, “I made [producer] Clive Langer’s life impossible, and I take full responsibility for the failure of the production, ’cause I was asking them one time to do one thing and the next to do another, and changing my mind every 15 minutes and driving everybody in the band mad. And really just getting it as wrong as you can in terms of the execution of what are basically a bunch of really good songs.” Album opener “The Only Flame in Town” is prime example of the distance Costello carried the songs from intent to finished product. Originally conceived as a spare, aching ballad, the song became buoyant and pushy, practically collapsing under the weight of an only-in-the-eighties saxophone part that Costello later derisively tagged “The Italian Traffic Jam.” Despite all the misgivings Costello (and, its worth noting, many of his fans) had about the track, it also became a rare U.S. hit, becoming only his second single to make it into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #56.

 

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158. Wire, “Kidney Bingos”

When Wire released their 1988 album, A Bell Is a Cup…Until It Is Struck, they faced criticism from the sort of music fans who are ever vigilant against commercially craven retreats from supposed punk credibility. Though the polished, danceable music found on the album does feel like its a fairly distant cousin of the punchy punk the band crafted at the start of their shared career, bassist Graham Lewis was having none of the complaints. He argued, “Every record that’s been made, the same criticism of being less abrasive has been leveled at it. The abrasion is actually in the content – both lyrics and sound.” There’s certainly no question the album’s lead single, “Kidney Bingos,” is sneakily challenging, taking a giddily effective hook and layering it with strange, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. In a twist tinged with irony, guitarist Bruce Gilbert noted that his original conception of the song was closer to the sonic aggression favored by the more demanding and uncompromising fans. He explained, “I always heard the song in my head as brutal heavy metal track — somehow it just became a pop song! I heard the chords and the edges, but it got softened by the sounds people were using, so it became rather jolly, which worked in the end because the subject matter was not likable, but it had a jaunty, poppy feel to it, and that contradiction can be very attractive.” It’s easy to be abrasive through feats of sheer volume. It’s trickier to create that sense through intellectual frissons within songs. That more complicated approach has always been the province of Wire.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Flashback Friday – 1991

In the interest of prolonging the weeklong indulgence of nostalgia for college radio days, I’ll use the weekly dip into the archives to focus on an artist that I suspect a few folks well-versed in the arcana of me were expecting to crop up during my series of song posts. It’s likely correct to say that no other artist has meant as much to me through the years as Robyn Hitchcock. This is a piece I wrote as part of the “Flashback Fridays” posts I offered up at my former online home

1991: Perspex Island by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians is released

I didn’t know Robyn Hitchcock’s music very well before I got to college. Like a lot of casual listeners, I suppose, I primarily knew his 1988 song because MTV, perhaps intrigued by the slight novelty tinge to it, gave Hitchcock and his song an uncharacteristic amount of attention. Still, his was one of the names I knew well when I arrived, and I gravitated towards his records, spurred on by a Program Director who was something of a Sherpa as I climbed the daunting mountain of his discography. During the second semester of my freshman year, Hitchcock released the spectacular album Queen Elvis and I was fully hooked. Admittedly, there was a woman involved, a happy fan of Hitchcock’s music who my planet revolved around for a few months with the ingenious British oddball providing the soaring, swirling soundtrack.

Lucky for my playlists (though perhaps unlucky for my meager, struggling bank account at the time), Hitchcock has always been fairly prolific, and new music arrived at the station in dependable fashion, including the gorgeously spare 1990 album Eye. That was followed in 1991 by the album that perhaps looms largest for me from those college years, the one that was wholly enveloping and felt, like all the albums that speak to us most deeply, like a road map of my soul at the time of its release. It’s not simply the inclusion of such perfectly lovelorn songs as “She Doesn’t Exist” and “If You Go Away,” though those certainly got plenty of late night spins when I was in the low-lit isolation of the radio studio. Comparatively jubilant songs like “Oceanside” and the lead single “So You Think You’re in Love” were also part of my unwritten autobiography somehow. Hitchcock’s lyrical mix of strange abstractions and piercing truths suited my own contradictions as a cynical romantic (or maybe a romantic cynic).

I don’t know how well-regarded this album is among those who offer up occasional consideration of the arc of Hitchcock’s career. It’s produced by Paul Fox, who was a fairly busy knob-twirler on the college radio circuit in those days, having overseen XTC’s Oranges and Lemons and on his way to significant work with The Sugarcubes, 10,000 Maniacs, and, adding greatly to his prestige in my circle of fellow music fans, Too Much Joy. Fox had a fairly heavy hand, giving the albums a pronounced polish that didn’t always sit well in a music culture that was beginning to embrace the defiantly lo-fi aural aesthetic. Following the well-regarded, stripped-down Eye, Perspex Island sounded to some like it was too big, slick, needy. It was a little like Bruce Springsteen following up Nebraska with Born in the U.S.A.. The shift was so dramatic that it the newer music could almost be seen as a refutation of the old. That’s a simplistic view, of course, but I think it’s part of the reason that Perspex isn’t held in higher regard. (A flaw in the Perspex/U.S.A. comparison is the not-so-small detail that Hithcock’s album didn’t sell 30 million copies worldwide. In fact, I doubt Hitchcock’s entire voluminous discography has sold that many records.) As ideal as it is when Robyn Hitchcock disregards the extra layers and presents his songs with just a voice and a guitar, I also think his music benefits from a swelling lushness, a sense of an sonic universe expanding to accommodate the wild ramblings of his imagination. That’s what Fox provides.

In some ways, this represents the closing of the door on one portion of Robyn Hitchcock’s career. He’d record only one more record with the Egyptians billed as his backing band and the subsequent years would be about defining himself more and more as an eccentric journeyman, a forgotten elder of rock ‘n’ roll who kept restlessly creating to a dwindling but ever more devoted cult audience. His career is the stuff of admiring Sundance Channel documentaries and reverential excavations shoveled into box sets. When Perspex Island came out, I believed there was a chance that “So You Think You’re in Love” might cross over to become a modest hit. Such notions never cross my mind now when I purchase a new Robyn Hitchcock release, no matter good it is. I don’t think college radio even gives him much attention any more. At least I had my time when I could play songs off this record and help Robyn’s Hitchcock’s inspired strangeness fill the air.

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A Week of Fridays: Sugar, “A Good Idea”

This coming weekend, I will take to the airwaves of WWSP-90FM, my college radio alma mater, as part of their annual reunion weekends. It will be my first time presiding over a radio program in nine years and my first time on 90FM in over fifteen years. I commemoration, I’m devoting this week to slightly displaced “One for Friday” posts, touching on each of my five years as a student broadcaster. To borrow a line from Robyn Hitchcock, “I didn’t write these songs; they wrote me.”

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I owned this t-shirt once. You can tell this one is not mine because it hasn’t been worn to tatters.

I took my time getting through college. I didn’t want to leave. Sure, a certain fear of the so-called “real world” was partial inspiration for the dragged feet, but I also had an inner sense that I had more to learn, both from classes and from my leadership role at the college radio station. It was only toward the end of the standard four years that I understood my job was to consider the ways in which all my experiences fed into each other, the ways what I gleaned from my academic pursuits could inform my student broadcaster experience and vice versa. Armed with that motivating philosophy, I’ve no doubt I got more out of my last three semesters or so than I did from all the rest of my schooling combined.

My long goodbye also provided a few useful symbols of closure, led by the release of Copper Blue, the debut album from the band Sugar. I suspect most who give their hearts fully to college radio look back at their time on the left end of the dial with a certain wistfulness over their near misses, by which I mean those bands and artists that stopped creating new music right before that FCC operator license was signed. (That used be a requirement for being a DJ, kids. I was licensed to play Bongos, Bass & Bob songs on the radio, dammit!) For me, the band whose absence from the scene pained me most was Hüsker Dü. Yes, I got to enjoy fine solo work from individual band members, including breakup songs that rivaled anything on Blood on the Tracks. Still, I wish I’d gotten a chance to stand in front of that trio as they careened through a blistering set.

If I couldn’t get a new album and tour out of Hüsker Dü, at least I got Sugar. Following his time in Hüsker, Bob Mould made a pair of solo albums that were fantastic (the first, Workbook, is a flat-out masterpiece). But he claimed he longed for the give-and-take of a band, and three was clearly a comfortable number for him. Copper Blue arrived the fall of my second senior year and provided the propulsive soundtrack I needed. I’m pretty sure I sacrificed a chunk of my hearing at one of their live shows. I’ve always felt it was a reasonable trade-off for a fierce desire fulfilled.

Listen or download –> Sugar, “A Good Idea”

(Disclaimer: Usually, I do my best to make sure the songs I share are unavailable for physical purchase. For this week, I’m scrapping that rule. Instead, I actively urge anyone who enjoys the shared track to treat it as a tantalizing sample and to go out and buy the full-length album on which it resides, preferably from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I’m thrilled to be going to my favorite this Sunday. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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A Week of Fridays: The Smithereens, “Top of the Pops”

This coming weekend, I will take to the airwaves of WWSP-90FM, my college radio alma mater, as part of their annual reunion weekends. It will be my first time presiding over a radio program in nine years and my first time on 90FM in over fifteen years. I commemoration, I’m devoting this week to slightly displaced “One for Friday” posts, touching on each of my five years as a student broadcaster. To borrow a line from Robyn Hitchcock, “I didn’t write these songs; they wrote me.”

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(Image credit: The Smithereens official website)

Other bands meant more to me personally and yet others were more dominant on the WWSP-90FM airwaves, and yet no artist better defines the sound of my college radio station during my time there than the Smithereens. They were amazingly consistent. Grab any of the four albums or one flat-out great EP that sat in the music library by the time I graduated and there is smart, crisp, tight music to be found there. It wasn’t risky or daring or out to reshape the sonic landscape. Instead, the band was fully invested in the no less daunting task of absolutely mastering the classic rock ‘n’ roll songwriting and production that came before. Maybe more than any other band I regularly added to my playlists at the station, the Smithereens were committed to making music that felt thrillingly timeless.

In that commitment to rock solid music-making, the Smithereens were perfect for radio. While they were so spot on in selecting their singles that the Smithereens are one of the very few bands that may be best incorporated into a music collection with a “best of” package, they provided rewards across every record side. Without deviating dramatically in their core sound, they had a song for every spot in the set, every mood the DJ was trying to convey, from a riveting jolt to start off a show to a somber, lovelorn ballad to close out a late shift before powering the transmitter down for its nightly four-hour nap. The music was also more accessible — more friendly — than a lot of what got pitched to college radio stations, which probably put it a little out of step with the prevailing sentiment among our broadcasting brethren across the country. For us, perched in the middle of a relatively sedate Midwestern community and more committed to serving our audience than challenging them to the point of potential ostracization, it fit in just right.

That hint of safety to the music also meant that the Smithereens were one of the few bands figuring prominently on our charts that could also take up residence in local jukeboxes. At least the album Blow Up, released during my senior year, was deemed acceptable enough for such an honor. Since this was back in the days before digital interconnectivity meant that practically any song could be dialed up in any bar, it was a big deal to be able to flip past the Steve Miller and REO Speedwagon CD covers to find that one disc that had a twin back at the radio station. I logged a lot of hours at Butter’s Brickhaus, sometimes wearing a softball jersey adorned with the establishments logo, and I’d almost swear that practically every visit was accompanied by I or one of my cohorts feeding a buck into the jukebox to get at least one song from the Smithereens into the mix, usually “Top of the Pops.” We might not have controlled the full playlist in that place, but we understood the value of incorporating a request here and there.

Listen or download –> The Smithereens, “Top of the Pops”

(Disclaimer: Usually, I do my best to make sure the songs I share are unavailable for physical purchase. For this week, I’m scrapping that rule. Instead, I actively urge anyone who enjoys the shared track to treat it as a tantalizing sample and to go out and buy the full-length album on which it resides, preferably from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I’m thrilled to be going to my favorite this Sunday. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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A Week of Fridays: Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”

This coming weekend, I will take to the airwaves of WWSP-90FM, my college radio alma mater, as part of their annual reunion weekends. It will be my first time presiding over a radio program in nine years and my first time on 90FM in over fifteen years. I commemoration, I’m devoting this week to slightly displaced “One for Friday” posts, touching on each of my five years as a student broadcaster. To borrow a line from Robyn Hitchcock, “I didn’t write these songs; they wrote me.”

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I’ve written about Too Much Joy’s Cereal Killers before, detailing my chilled-to-the-bone quest through the record stores of Stevens Point, Wisconsin on the day of its release, desperate to get my hands on a copy only to find it had quickly sold out everywhere. The local proprietors were ill-prepared to meet the demand drummed up by the outsized affection showered on the band by the college radio station that served as my most stable home. I don’t know how many of the purchasers who got ahead of me were listeners and how many were fellow staffers fully indoctrinated into the caustically cunning commentary of the punk-inflected quartet from Scarsdale, New York. Either way, I’d like to think that those of us at the station who first grabbed ahold of Too Much Joy as the tippled troubadours of our collegiate experience helped the band move an awful lot of product in our humble, Midwestern town.

After the Cereal Killers piece at Spectrum Culture went up, it was noticed by Too Much Joy lead singer Tim Quirk, who tapped out a simple tweet that I treasure like a family heirloom.

Even with that authoritative vote of confidence, I feel like my words will always be inadequate in expressing what that band meant to me. It was the ideally-synched soundtrack to the most important stretch of my life, when I forged the relationships that are most enduring and basically locked into the person I am. In the same way punk music validated youthful anger and goth rock provided a safe mirror for gloomy outsider kids, Too Much Joy gave me a permission slip to be myself, to trust my instinct to meet the world with a raucous cry of wry dissatisfaction.

Nearly any one of the songs off of Cereal Killers could be offered up here as a digital echo of countless radio spins from twenty-five years ago. I opt for “King of Beers” because it may very have been the one we sang along to most loudly, most often, our slurring harmonies themselves a testament to the complicated truths of the song. I wasn’t the only one who found insight there.

Listen or download –> Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”

(Disclaimer: Usually, I do my best to make sure the songs I share are unavailable for physical purchase. For this week, I’m scrapping that rule. Instead, I actively urge anyone who enjoys the shared track to treat it as a tantalizing sample and to go out and buy the full-length album on which it resides, preferably from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I’m thrilled to be going to my favorite this Sunday. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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A Week of Fridays: The Primitives, “Sick of It”

This coming weekend, I will take to the airwaves of WWSP-90FM, my college radio alma mater, as part of their annual reunion weekends. It will be my first time presiding over a radio program in nine years and my first time on 90FM in over fifteen years. I commemoration, I’m devoting this week to slightly displaced “One for Friday” posts, touching on each of my five years as a student broadcaster. To borrow a line from Robyn Hitchcock, “I didn’t write these songs; they wrote me.”

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My copy of this poster is long gone, I’m afraid. The one pictured here is available for purchase on eBay.

Tracy Tracy hung over the beat up old mattress in my college bedroom. Well, she was there in one of my college bedrooms anyway. I was never one to aggressively fortify my own music collection with extra copies of records or CDs that came into the station, believing all that material to be prime for on-air giveaways. Posters, though, were a different matter. Those were fair game, and I had off-campus housing to decorate. So when the release of the second album by the Primitives, Pure, was accompanied by the arrival of a gigantic poster — measuring roughly three feet by four feet –I was quick to claim it.

There’s no denying that a certain helpless crush I nurtured provided some motivation for putting a larger than life version of the Primitives’ lead singer up on my wall, but I swear it was an entirely disconnected joy in the band’s music that provoked my to tack it to the paneling in my room of residence in the house I shared with enough fellow station toilers to stock a basketball team. The Primitives’ debut album, Lovely, was a glistening presence in the new music rotation when I started at the radio station, and it set the standard for what great pop music should sound like on the left end of the dial. If anything, I liked Pure, released in the fall of my sophomore year of college, even better. Like its predecessor, the album sported a single — in this case, “Sick of It” — that was just about perfect.

Pure also holds a nifty distinction in the annals of WWSP-90FM, one that practically carbon dates it to its time. When I showed up at the station, almost everything we played was still off of records. There was one CD player and a fairly dismal cluster of CDs in the corner, a collection that never seemed to grow in number as sticky-fingered DJs figured out how easy they were to smuggle out of the station. By one year later, the situation was shifting. We still tried to get vinyl copies of everything from the labels that serviced the station, but they were increasingly disinterested in acquiescing. For a while we were doubling up where we could, putting in both CD and vinyl record copies of new releases and letting the on-air staff decide which format they used, with a surprising number maintaining loyalty to the act of setting a needle in place. That cut into the airplay of the albums that we possessed only in the CD format. Pure was one of those releases, and it became the first album without a vinyl copy on premises to top the station’s weekly chart. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was enamored.

Listen or download –> The Primitives, “Sick of It”

(Disclaimer: Usually, I do my best to make sure the songs I share are unavailable for physical purchase. For this week, I’m scrapping that rule. Instead, I actively urge anyone who enjoys the shared track to treat it as a tantalizing sample and to go out and buy the full-length album on which it resides, preferably from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I’m thrilled to be going to my favorite this Sunday. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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