Unskinny Bop

#922: Running Through Alberta (1990)

RECORD STORE TALES #922: Running Through Alberta (1990)

A long time ago, in a constitutional monarchy not far away, prices were lower.  The despised goods and services tax (GST) kicked in January 1, 1991.  This federal tax added a 7% levy to your average purchase.  In the before-fore times, in the Canadian province known as Alberta, there was no such thing as a “sales tax”.  What you saw on the sticker was what you paid.  It was an exhilarating time and place to be.  The GST wrecked that, but our last trek out west before the hated tax kicked in was nothing short of glorious.

School was out for summer, and I quit my part-time job packing groceries to hang out at the cottage and take a special trip to Calgary.  It was time for a visit with cousin Geoff, formerly known as “Captain Destructo”.  The most important things to do on any trip were two-fold:

  1. Pack appropriate music for the journey.
  2. Buy music on aforementioned journey.

I had just received two albums that were brand new to me from the Columbia House music clubSchool’s Out, by Alice Cooper, and Come An’ Get It by Whitesnake.  As my newest acquisitions, they had to come along.  I also brought Steve Vai’s Passion & Warfare which I was recently obsessed with.  Finally, I carried enough cash from my job that I had just quit, to buy as much music as I could find.  Stuff that none of the stores in Kitchener had in stock.

The clear memory of driving through the mountains with School’s Out blasting in my ears brings a smile to my face.  While some moments were undeniably weird (“Gutter Cat vs. The Jets”), I couldn’t believe how catchy the album was.  I still can’t.  Alice Cooper records were not necessarily designed to deliver catchy songs.  They were twisted, and School’s Out was like a Twizzler.  Regardless, “Gutter Cat” was entertaining while being unforgettable.  I couldn’t wait to share it with my best friend Bob.  He loved cats!  Another track that took me by surprise was “Alma Mater”, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.  The fact that I’d be graduating in a year was scary.  But the roaring “Public Animal #9” just made me sing along.  I also dug “Blue Turk” although I had no idea how to categorize it.  To me it sounded like something from an old musical from days gone by.  Here I was discovering this ancient music for the first time while the Rocky Mountains zipped past me in the back seat of a minivan.  I like to appreciate moments like that.  I just stared out the window while Dennis Dunaway buzzed my ears with bass.

Next up was Whitesnake.  I still love Come An’ Get It; it’s probably my overall favourite Whitesnake.  A few songs don’t click, such as “Girl”, but lemme tell you folks — “Child of Babylon” is another one of those songs that you just have to  experience while driving through the Rockies.  Bob and I were slowly discovering old Whitesnake.  He was the first to have Saints & Sinners, but I was the first to have Come An’ Get It.  It was something of a “blind buy” for me, since I didn’t know any of the songs.  By the end of the trip, I’d already love “Wine, Women An’ Song”, “Come An’ Get It”, and “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights”.

Two favourites in the making, it was already turning into a memorable vacation.  I enjoyed shopping at corny gift shops.  I bought some goofy round sunglasses with flip-open lenses.  Alberta is dinosaur country, and so I bought a casting of a Tyrannosaurus tooth.  At another gift shop I bought a totem knick-knack.  I remember Geoffrey and I climbing the modest mountains around the hoodoos at Drumheller, and finding a cave near the top where we paused and caught some shade.

When we hit the Calgary Zoo, Geoff showed us how to put coins on the train tracks to be crushed into minature copper and nickle pancakes.  They had a little train that took tours of the park.  It ran on a regular schedule so we always knew about when we should put the coins on the track.  I had heard that copper guitar picks were the best, but they were hard to find, so I crushed a couple pennies.  I turned them into guitar picks once we got home.  We didn’t crush anything more valuable than a dime, but sometimes you’d lose the coin if it went flying off the track.  (Incidentally, you can’t derail a train with a penny, that is a myth.)  We could tell the conductor knew what we were doing and was getting annoyed, so we cut it out.

When we finally hit a music store in a Calgary mall, I was elated.  I was always on the lookout for singles, and here I found a few notable ones.  Aerosmith’s The Other Side EP was an easy “yes”.  It had a number of remixes that, while not great, were exclusives.  It also had something called the “Wayne’s World Theme” live.  What was this “Wayne’s World”?  I knew not, but it wasn’t on the album, so I was happy enough.

Poison were hot on the charts with their brand-new album Flesh & Blood.  Bob was already raving about the album, and one song he pointed out was “Valley of Lost Souls”.  I found the cassette single for “Unskinny Bop” which included this song and an instrumental pretentiously called “Swamp Juice (Soul-O)”.  I never particularly cared for “Unskinny Bop”, but it was the current Poison hit, and “Valley of Lost Souls” was as good as advertised.  I also located Jon Bon Jovi’s solo single “Blaze of Glory”.  I didn’t know it yet but this single had some slightly edited versions of the album cuts — another exclusive.

The purchase I might have been happiest with was a re-buy.  Although it seems ridiculous that at age 18 I was already re-buying albums, it had begun.  My cassette of Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny was shite.  For all intents and purposes, it only had one channel.  I owned Rocka Rolla on vinyl, but didn’t really have a good way of playing it and making it sound decent back then.  I knew there was a cassette on Attic records with both albums on one tape, and I found it in Calgary.  I was glad to finally have a copy of Sad Wings that I could properly listen to.  I even gained new appreciation for Rocka Rolla on those mountain drives.  “Caviar and Meths” sounds amazing drifting through the mountains.

Not only did we find some cool stuff we couldn’t easily locate in Ontario, but we paid no tax.  Since Alberta had no provincial sales tax, everything we were buying, we were buying cheaper!

I wanted a cowboy hat.  We went shopping for them, but I was having a hard time deciding and then Geoffrey told me about an Alberta saying.  Something about “everybody in Alberta has an asshole and a cowboy hat.”  Either that or “every asshole in Alberta has a cowboy hat.”  Same difference.  Either way, I was dissuaded.

Geoffrey could be exhausting and I really wanted nothing more than to lie down and listen to some new tunes, so I was granted a couple hours of privacy.  We traded tapes back and forth for listening.  My sister Kathryn had the new single for “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love” by Cheap Trick so I listened to that while she borrowed my Poison.

Here’s a funny detail.   For the car trip with Whitesnake and Alice Cooper, I can remember being on the left side of the vehicle.  For Rocka Rolla, I seem to remember sitting on the right.  The view was always great.  Nothing like Ontario.  The air was different, and even the weather was unusual to us.  People left their doors unlocked, we were told by Uncle Phil.

Auntie Lynda spoiled us and took us on all these day trips; it was fantastic.  It was the last great summer holiday.  I know I kept a journal of the trip, which seems to be unfortunately lost.  Great trip though it was, I looked forward to coming home and seeing my friends.  Showing off my new purchases and sharing my new music.  The flight home was uneventful and we arrived late at night and exhausted.  I didn’t sleep much that night — I had recordings of WWF wrestling matches to catch up on.  The last great summer holiday was over, but never forgotten.

REVIEW: Poison – Flesh & Blood (remastered)

FLESH AND BLOOD_0001POISON – Flesh & Blood (1990, 2006 Capitol remaster)

Ah, Poison!  The band everybody loved to hate!  In spite of that, Poison made a couple pretty good albums.  Flesh & Blood is the best of the original C.C. DeVille era, and probably their most successful.  It spawned a huge headlining tour that also produced a double live album.  Flesh & Blood was also their “get serious” album, although in that regard it was only a partial success.  The idea was to write and record more mature music and lyrics, something that C.C. was opposed to.  He saw nothing wrong with the glam-slam-king-of-noize direction that they started on, and maintained that Look What the Cat Dragged In was their high point.  He saw the introduction of blues influences as diluting the Poison sound he liked.

That’s all bullshingles.  Flesh & Blood is the best thing C.C. has done, and is second only to Poison’s Native Tongue album with Richie Kotzen.  C.C. was still far from a great guitar player, but on most tracks it’s his most accessible and least annoying playing.  (On others…well, we’ll get there.)  Take the opening track “Valley of Lost Souls” for example (preceded by a jokey answering machine tape called “Strange Days of Uncle Jack”). “Valley” rocks heavy with integrity and an edge that Poison hadn’t displayed before, and C.C. throws in a lot of tasty, toffee-like strings.  His soloing will never be considered virtuoso, and his tone has always been thin and annoying, but never has C.C. generated such guitar thrills as he does on this album.  (Most of it.)

FLESH AND BLOOD_0002

I’m sure that producer Bruce Fairbairn steered this ship with a firm hand.  His stamp is all over Flesh & Blood:  from weird segues to rich backing vocals, this is a Fairbairn production through and through.  Fairbairn was known to be a taskmaster, and I’m sure he worked C.C. (and the whole band) to the bone.  The title track, “(Flesh & Blood) Sacrifice” has his patented, perfectly arranged vocal stamp.  The vocals are layered and almost Leppard-lush.  When we’re talking about a singer like Bret Michaels, you know it’s not going to be Pavarotti.  The credits don’t list additional singers, but there are some names in the tail end of the thank-yous:  Paul Laine, for example.  Laine was a Vancouver local, where Poison recorded the album.  Why is he being thanked?  I think it’s safe to assume that Laine and others helped out in the backing vocals department.  Anyway, “Sacrifice” is the second excellent song in a row.  Say what you like about Poison as performers, they wrote some fucking good songs too.

“Swampjuice (Soul-O)” is some surprisingly good C.C. acoustic blues.  Actually not bad at all — but just instrumental filler.  As is the next song, a massive huge hit single: “Unskinny Bop”.  The song is awful, the lyrics worse, and C.C.’s solo is like razor blades.  I mean that in a bad way.  Total shit.  Garbage.  “Let It Play” verges on filler, but it’s good enough.  It’s simple but memorably melodic.  Better is the timeless sounding single “Life Goes On”.  I liked this bombastic electric ballad then, and I still do now.  Michaels is a limited singer, but this is a damn good ballad.  I give Fairbairn credit for the backing vocal hooks.  The first side of the album closes on the forgettable but adequate hard rocker “Come Hell or High Water”.

Kicking off side two with the single “Ride the Wind” is a no-brainer.  This song sounds like its title.  It sounds like a car song, a rock and roll ode to the thrills of the road.   I’d rank this easily among Poison’s best hits — top five.  “Don’t Give Up an Inch” is filler, but “Something to Believe In” was another huge single.  Hearing it again today, I find it hard to dislike.  I wanted to, but I can’t.  I think Bret wrote some pretty good lyrics here.  The part about his best friend who died “in some Palm Springs hotel room” is about his bodyguard, a guy he was really close to.  It’s pretty heartfelt, and the piano ballad still stands up as well as any by Aerosmith from the same era.

Some boring C.C. pedal steel guitar leads into “Ball and Chain”.  It’s a pretty good rock boogie, but the second-to-last song “Life Loves a Tragedy” is the best track on the album.  Even better than “Ride the Wind” but similar in vibe, this song shoulda woulda coulda been a hit.  The soft intro fools you into thinking it’s a ballad.  It’s not.  It’s a ballsy rocker with another Bret Michaels lyric that you’d call more mature.  “My vices have turned to habits, and my habits have turned to stone,” sings Bret.  “I gotta stop living at a pace that kills, ‘fore I wake up dead.”  Not poetry really, but a hell of a lot better than “Unskinny bop bop, blow me away.”  The chorus kills, as does the whole song.  Another top five Poison track in my book.

The album ends on a pile of shit called “Poor Boy Blues”.  This may well be the worst Poison song of all time.   Of all time!  C.C.’s playing is so pointless, so brutal, so annoying, that I don’t know why somebody didn’t pull the guitar out of his hands.  Wah-wah alone does not a solo make!   This song stinks so bad.  Dammit, Poison, you’re not a blues band fer fuck’s sakes!  This song should have been axed, there is no reason for it to still exist.


POISONThe 2006 remastered edition has two bonus tracks.  The first is a disappointing acoustic version of “Something to Believe In” from the “Life Goes On” single B-side.  It has new lyrics (erasing one of the things I liked about the song) and absolutely pointless guitar playing by C.C.  His solos and melodies go nowhere.  It’s just a guy playing all kinds of notes on an acoustic guitar that don’t have any direction:  There’s no tension, no release, no hooks.  This version sucks.  Lastly there’s “God Save the Queen”, an instrumental demo version.  This too sucks.  More directionless soloing from C.C. over the Pistols riff.  That’s all it is.

Interestingly the remastered edition has two changes that I’ve noticed.  The cover is the “censored” version without the extra blood on the arm.  This is a US import, and I think in Canada we had the other cover originally.  Second, the reprise of “Strange Days of Uncle Jack” that closes the album is missing.  Normally this would fade in from the end of “Poor Boy Blues”.  Now, “Poor Boy Blues” ends with a few seconds of silence where that reprise used to be.  I don’t know why they did that.  I’m assuming somebody mistakenly used a version of the song from a compilation album.

I know I’ve been hard on Poison in this review, but this is actually a great album.  Take away “Unskinny Bop” and “Poor Boy Blues” and I would call it pretty damn solid.  As for the remaster?  Disappointing.

4/5 stars (for the album)