The Music Meme: Day 26

Day 26: A song by your favorite band


"Your favorite _________" is a dangerous label for me, as it implies a degree of certainty about something, and I'm nothing if not open to reconsidering an opinion. I'm entirely capable of providing a list of things I like, or things I would consider among my favorites, but it's rare that I'll take the extra time and effort to whittle the entire list down to a single capital-F Favorite. I certainly couldn't do it with books or songs or movies or authors or craft beers, particularly because the choice is often completely dependent on context; the things I get from reading Terry Pratchett are not the same things I get from reading Ursula K. Le Guin or David Quammen or Tom Stoppard, so naming one my Favorite would be an exercise in foolishness.

Oddly, however, I have long been willing to extend the capital F to bands. Perhaps it's the fact that they're collaborative efforts, so I don't feel like I'm singling one particular person out for an ego boost and shafting some other deserving individual. (I certainly don't have a Favorite solo musical artist, though my listening habits, purchasing history, and concert attendance point would all pretty clearly at Robyn Hitchcock.) Perhaps it's the fact that I established a Favorite Band early in life and have thereafter been willing to replace the incumbent; by contrast I've never chosen a favorite book or a favorite song or a favorite writer, so doing it at this point would seem grotesque.

But these are the facts: back in third grade, I decided that the Jackson 5 were my Favorite Band. I now know that much of their appeal came from the work of others, particularly the Funk Brothers and the incredible host of Motown songwriters, but "I Want You Back" is "I Want You Back" and I simply will not hear a word against it. If that was the only thing the J5 had ever done--ignoring "ABC" and "I'll Be There" and "Maybe Tomorrow" and "The Love You Save" and every other great song--the universe would still be a richer place for "I Want You Back," and my choice of a first Favorite Band would be completely justified.

It didn't last, of course. As one ages, one's exposure to more and more music allows one's attention to captured by many different sounds and styles, and by the time I entered junior high in 1976, I had left the J5 behind and was listening to all kinds of other stuff: the mellow harmonies of America and Seals & Crofts, the now-historic late-career experiments of the Beatles, the mind-expanding brilliance of Stevie Wonder, you name it. In a year or two I'd be digging into everything from Kansas to the Eagles to Earth Wind & Fire, but I still hadn't committed to a new Favorite Band.

That changed in 1977, when I got hit from two directions by Steely Dan. I had long loved the Elliott Randall-driven guitar fest "Reelin' in the Years," but I'd never bought the band's debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, until roughly the same time I bought their newest release, Aja, largely on the strength of its first single, "Peg." The all-but-impenetrable snark of the lyrics, whose references to drugs and sex and California culture left me mystified, did nothing to turn me away from the tasteful sneer of Donald Fagen's voice, the sonic precision of their rhythms, and the seemingly endless parade of fantastic session men: Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter, Jay Graydon, and the background voice of a generation, Michael McDonald. Long before I bought a third Dan album, I had made the change: Steely Dan was now my new Favorite Band.

That lasted a little over a year.

Though I'd heard plenty of their songs as individual pieces, particularly those from Tommy (whose overture, as played by the Assembled Multitude, had been a hit single in 1970), I didn't know much about the Who. That changed during the summer of 1979, right after my sophomore year of high school, when I happened to read a Rolling Stone review of the new movie about the band, The Kids Are Alright. Curious, I decided to attend a showing, and I walked out of the theater changed. The final performance of the film--indeed, the final performance of the Who, at least as the band was originally formed--is a live and all-out assault on "Won't Get Fooled Again" (see Day 23) that triumphs over every expectation. If I'd never bought the soundtrack, never gone on to purchase copies of Who's Next and Quadrophenia and Who Are You and ever other album the band had released to that point, that one performance alone might have driven me to declare the Who my new Favorite Band.

Again, it was not a designation that would be held for long, because I started college in the fall of 1981, and in January of 1982, I was well into my career as a DJ at WXYC. I worked the 9 a.m. to noon shift on Sunday, right after Triangle Slim's trad-music show, "The Orange County Special," but before "Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon," which ran from noon to four. One Sunday I dipped my hand into the playbox of new music and pulled out a 12" single by a band whose name seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't have told you why: XTC. The song was called "Senses Working Overtime," and after I did my duty to the station by dropping the needle down, my life would never be the same.

With their wit, their astonishing gift for melody, and their seemingly endless creativity with arrangements, XTC became my favorite band soon after that, and despite years of frustration for their fans, a gradual disintegration to a duo, and then a final breakup in the wake of their 2000 release Wasp Star, they have never released their hold on that position. I remain entranced by the jangling swirl of English Settlement, the pounding post-punk snarl of Black Sea, the loving neo-psychedelia of their best-known album, Skylarking (not to mention their hippie-dippie alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear). Though I've loved many bands I've discovered since elevating XTC, including They Might Be Giants, R.E.M., the Mountain Goats, and the Roches, they're still the ones I automatically think of when the word "favorite" comes up. They earned their capital F long ago, and I have to wonder at this point if there exists a band capable of taking it from them. Watch this space.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 1, 2017 4:12 PM.

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