Sunday, April 26, 2015
Track of the Week: Head East "Never Been Any Reason"
When I say the words "independent label rock" you would normally think of edgy, punk-inflected music deliberately flouting the mainstream. You certainly don't think of a 70s arena rock band like Head East, but they were what indie was in the days before Pavement and Superchunk. I honestly didn't know much about them until my good friend and fellow vinyl head (and loyal reader) Brian showed me their Flat As A Pancake record cover some years back. He noted that it was recorded at a studio in South Pekin, near his hometown of Pekin, Illinois. (Said town is also name checked in a Wilco tune.) Before getting a re-release with a major label in 1975, they put it out independently on their own label the year before, hence their claim to be an indie band, despite the fact that their music is a prime example of what I call "8 track Camaro music." (It's named for the car and tape format, with other representatives being 70s Aerosmith, Foghat, James Gang, etc.)
The album's title was a self-deprecating comment about the prairie landscape of central Illinois, which is indeed quite flat. (I lived there for six years, so I speak from experience. I also grew up in central Nebraska, so I know from flat.) The band didn't meet up in the Peoria area, but rather at the University of Illinois, where they were students. Champaign-Urbana also birthed another 70s hard rock act, REO Speedwagon, which would go on to have a more storied career and eventually hit the real big time in the early 1980s on the wings of perhaps the greatest power ballad of them all. I don't think that's a mistake, the central Illinois region just feels like the perfect place to generate a certain kind of 70s hard rock sound.
The landscape referenced as "flat as a pancake" is full of hard, sharp corners, soaring skies, and straightaway highways that seem to go from horizon to horizon. Given that, it makes sense that "Never Been Any Reason" has a sharp hard-hitting rhythm, soaring harmonies, and straight-ahead, meat and potatoes guitar riffs. However, none of that can explain the totally rad double Moog synthesizer solo, its far out sounds so much more organic and fascinating than the automated bleeping and blooping of the synths sounds to follow the next decade in the spandex era.
This song did not go high on the charts, reaching only 61, but I heard a lot in my teen years and early twenties when I tuned in to the local classic rock station on way too frequent a basis. (The local hits station didn't play hip-hop or grunge until my college years, it was still stuck in the 80s.) I actually wonder if it gets that much airplay on classic rock stations outside of the Midwest. Songs like this are a vestige of an earlier time when popular music was much more regional in nature, where the rare regional act could generate enough buzz to get picked up by a major or get airplay outside of its region. (For example, Seattle's mighty Sonics were huge in the Pacific Northwest, but practically unknown elsewhere.) From what I've read, radio playlists became incredibly limited and DJs without the power or authority to spin what they wanted as FM radio entered the 1980s. Since the massive wave of consolidation in the 90s, most radio stations are just part of some conglomerate, playing the same stuff in every town, often by satellite.
Like just about everything else in America since the mid-1970s, popular music is in a corporate cage with fewer people on the top with more and more money, and more people further down without much of a chance to get higher on the ladder. Regional musical scenes exist, but are far less distinct than they used to be. The heavy Moog synthesizer on "Never Been Any Reason" isn't the only thing making it a relic.