Shoulda been a hit: “Is It Any Wonder” by The Cowsills (1990)

“‘Global’ is a fine album in the best tradition of power-pop. It does not fall under the epithet and label of ‘bubblegum,’ and does not deserve that rather insulting label and pigeonhole. All songs on the album were written by Bob Cowsill and his wife Mary. The band was originally going to do just an oldies circuit tour in 1990 until they heard what Bob and Mary were writing. They got excited and went right into the studio. On ‘Global’ you’ll hear jangling guitars, pretty edgy rock on several tracks, and very in keeping with the late 80s/early 90s. As you would expect on a Cowsills record, the tight-knit family harmonies are there, intact, and ringing. Guitarist Bob, keyboardist Paul, and drummer John’s vocals are stellar. The surprise to many who haven’t listened in the last thirty years will be Susan Cowsill’s voice. Her vocals today are a cross between Nicolette Larson, Stevie Nicks, and a touch of Emmylou Harris. While she didn’t contribute writing to this record, she has written brilliantly on her solo records. When she was little with the group she was banished to a tambourine, but today she plays guitar both with the Cowsills and in her solo records. She really contributes to the great sound.” –  Solameanie, The Seventh Sola

Image from Wikipedia

Yeah, yeah, those Cowsills. Their mom was part of the band, and they became the template for “The Partridge Family.” Sang the theme song for “Love American Style,” and used to do TV commercials for milk.

Image from

The Cowsills were the first concert I ever went to. I was twelve in the fall of 1968; I recall it was the same day that The Beatles’ single “Hey Jude/Revolution” was released. My dad and mom took me, my cousin, my grandma, and my great-aunt to the old Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota to see Eddy Arnold in concert. Yes, that Eddy Arnold. The warm-up act? The reason my cousin and I were along? The Cowsills. Yeah, yeah, those Cowsills.

Image from

I remember Eddy starting his set by grinning and saying to the audience, “Loud, aren’t they?” Dozens of people around me turned up their hearing aids once again.

(I was so naïve. I offered to go and buy my Dad a beer from the concession stand. Wisely, he declined.)

Anyway, that was about a year before The Cowsills hit it big with the theme song from the musical “Hair.” I didn’t realize how uncool they were till I told the other junior-high kids about it the next day.

Image from

Jump ahead twenty-two years, and four of the now much cooler and well respected in music circles Cowsills – Bob, Paul, John, and Susan – reunited to record one of the best power-pop albums I’ve ever heard: “Global.” It’s well worth checking out. “Is It Any Wonder” is the showcase song on the album full of showcase songs. Why wasn’t it a hit, or anything else from that album? Because they’re The Cowsills. Yeah, yeah, those Cowsills.

As Solameanie points out in the blog referenced above, The Cowsills are talented musicians who don’t deserve the bashing they took in hipster circles. I still play “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things” and “We Can Fly” on the radio, along with “Is It Any Wonder.”

Soon as she looked my way
All I wanted to do was play
That old love game
Even though I lacked ability to change

Man, I was lonely
And she was all I was looking for
And I thought it was forever
Then she said she was leaving
Yes, she had to go now

She don’t want to love me anymore
She don’t want to be the heart that mine beats for
Is it any wonder?

Well, I had my way
And there was nothing that she could say
Could have change my mind
I guess I was too set in my ways

And though I’m not the first one
To admit when things go wrong
That I never saw it coming
In the end she was everything I ever wanted now

She don’t want to love me anymore
She don’t want to be the heart that mine beats for
Is it any wonder?

I don’t know if I should laugh or cry
What’s the use in it now?
What am I supposed to do without her?
It’s a little too much to ask anybody

If I had a second chance
You know I’d do it all so differently
Oh, but it’s too late to think about
All the could have beens and should have beens
That wasn’t supposed to happen

She don’t want to love me anymore
She don’t want to be the heart that mine beats for
Is it any wonder?

Song of the night: “Return The Boy” by The Spongetones

I’ve gone on about The Spongetones and their amazing first album “Beat And Torn” at length here already. This is my favorite song from their second album, 1991’s “Oh Yeah!” Written and sung by Jamie Hoover.

The scene’s relaxed, the stories flow
About a time of which I wish I knew you then
Appears so restful when you sing to me
Where does the little boy run off to hide?

He seems so happy and so strong
He seems so uncomplicated
Then he turns into a man that is so sad and jaded
How does this happen to him?
Return the boy

Return the boy
Yeah, the boy in the mirror
He’s inside looking out
He knows the man in the reflection
Can’t look into your eyes like a kid can

Just when I know I can’t go on
A warm hand pinches on my shoulder again
The smiles return, all is forgotten
The little child is knocking on my door again

Why have you been away so long?
The lines of care wash away
Then the lines return into a twisted tangle
Why does this happen to you?
Return the boy

He seems so happy and so strong
He seems so uncomplicated

Return the boy
Yeah, the boy in the mirror
He’s inside looking out
He knows the man in the reflection
Can’t look into your eyes like a kid can

Desert Island Singles: “Too Late” by Shoes (1979)

Image from

Image from

“At a time when major labels were trying to figure out what punk and new wave could provide, Shoes just found a perfect balance.” – Ned Raggett, Allmusic

If 1966 was the best year ever for rock’n’roll, as I’ve often said, then 1979 was quite possibly the second-best. For one brief shining moment the (ironically) tone-deaf music and radio industries weren’t stuck-on-stupid, and instead of their customary weaksauce they embraced and promoted power pop. And temporarily the airwaves were awash in jangling guitars, chimey power chords, and three-minute pop songs. Yes, kids, good and inventive music was actually popular. It was fated not to last, for reasons I’ve theorized before, but what a great run it was.

Image from

Image from

Shoes was formed in 1974 in Zion, Illinois by high school friends Gary Klebe and brothers John and Jeff Murphy. They decided to form a band after graduation, though at the time none of the guys knew how to play an instrument. Not really uncommon, so each picked one to learn. Within a year the three got back together to rehearse, and in 1977 recorded their first DIY album and single on a four-track recorder in Jeff’s living room. It must have worked out okay, because Shoes has been recording great power pop for thirty-seven years since.

The group signed to Elektra Records in April 1979 and released their first major label album “Present Tense” that September. Recorded in England, the album peaked at number 50 on the Billboard 200; “Too Late” reached number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100. Four videos, including “Too Late,” were in hot rotation on MTV in its beginning days a couple of years later.

It’s “Shoes,” by the way, not “The Shoes” as some Elektra releases billed them. According to John: “I guess Shoes just sounded right, like ‘look at those cool shoes’ or ‘where are my shoes?’ It was like Sparks or Wings or Faces or even Big Star. The first time we heard the ‘the’ was from a writer. We winced and corrected him: ‘No, no… it’s just Shoes.’ The Shoes just rubbed us wrong.”

“Too Late” is classic late-70s power pop. “A lesson in power pop dynamics,” according to reviewer Perry M. Koons. “Even when the guitars kick in and start crunching on the chorus, the vocals stay soft and sweet.”

Economic forces and a return to stuck-on-stupid would soon steer the music and radio industries back toward their usual weaksauce. But just like in 1966, great music was both happening and popular in 1979 and Shoes were part of it. A Desert Island Single to be sure.


Desert Island Singles: “This Beat Goes On/ Switchin’ To Glide” by The Kings (1980)

As far as “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” is concerned, where it stands out for me is the transition between one section of the song and the next, creating a rock song that is instantly accessible with miles of pop appeal, along with being ambitious on the arrangement front that is bolstered by solid musicianship. In short, the Kings were pub rock. And when new wave came along, and was embraced by top forty radio at the end of the 1970s, the Kings were ripe for radio play, first in Canada and eventually in the States, too.- Rob Jones, “The Delete Bin”

Image from

Image from

It was the summer of 1980. I was about to start a grad program, and my roommate/ best bud was about to get married. In other words, it was a endless summer of celebrations. The radio, thankfully, was shrugging off disco and “urban cowboy” music and actually started playing some kickass rock’n’roll. And this song was all over the radio. Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “Ups And Downs” by Paul Revere and The Raiders (1967)

Image from

Image from

It would appear that, superficially, they were too cute and silly to have lasting impact on future musicians. The uniforms and predictable humor; they never really became cool. Still, from 1965 through 1969, The Raiders made some of the most influential power pop tunes of that time.The original lineup was raw with energy, but proficient as a band. Compared to other American bands of the era, only The Beach Boys held their status with future power pop enthusiasts. Basically a show band, in the studio it was mainly the lead vocalist and guitarist that performed their duties. – Kendel Paget

Click here for more.

Past masters: Alex Chilton and Chris Bell

“The Ballad of El Goodo.” Written by Chilton and Bell, recorded by their band Big Star in 1972. The middle eight, the bridge, whatever you want to call it.. “Hold on.. Hold on”.. is one of the most haunting refrains in pop music.

Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “Blue Period” by The Smithereens (1989)

Image from

Image from

I had been thinking about the song “Blue Period,” a gorgeous and heartbreaking duet by lead Smithereen Pat DiNizio and Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, featured on this record. Back in 1989 when the MTV crowd was playing air guitar to the opening bombast of the hit single, “A Girl Like You,” I was savoring the beautiful string arrangement, the very Left Banke-sounding harpsichord, and the sweet harmonies of DiNizio and Carlisle that made “Blue Period” a stand-out tune on “11.” Plus, there is a key moment in the last verse when the duo sings, “I think of you, much more than I’d ever be willing to say,” where it seems like both singers are fighting back the tears as they harmonize. It’s a little masterpiece of emotion that, like most of this record, was overshadowed by the big chords and video of the hit single. – Sal Nunziato

The Smithereens released their third LP, “11,” in 1989 after two commercially successful and critically acclaimed releases, “Especially For You” and “Green Thoughts.” The comparisons flew with comments about how the band had sold out, softened their sound. I think that’s nonsense; “11” is every bit as good an album as the previous two. Click here for more.

Song of the day: “I Should Have Known Better” by The Beatles (1964)

This song never fails to make me stupidly happy.

He’s wearing his lucky rings.

Desert Island Discs: “Above The Blue” by Vegas With Randolph (2011)

Image from

Serendipity? Synchronicity? The gods of rock’n’roll smiling upon me? I’m not sure what caused this fortuitous sequence of events. All I know is I’m listening to one of the best CDs I’ve heard in a year: “Above The Blue” by Washington DC band Vegas With Randolph.

I may not know why it happened, but I do know how. I first heard Vegas With Randolph while rockin’ out to “Drink A Toast To Innocence.” Their take on “Cool Change” by Little River Band was one of the highlights on a CD packed full of highlights. This led to an Facebook chat with Eric Kern, and his generous offer of a promotional CD for radio airplay. Naturally I jumped at it, and I’m glad I did.

This, folks, is one hell of a fun CD. It includes a love song to Marisa Tomei that Fountains Of Wayne would give their eyeteeth for, a celebration of fine single-malt Scotch at Christmastime, lovers becoming trees and growing old and strong together, a suite of songs that will remind you of side two of “Abbey Road,” and the coolest little-kid-singalong this side of They Might Be Giants.

VWR’s awesome, inventive instrumentation, tight ensemble playing, and clever lyrics have gained comparisons to Fountains Of Wayne, Squeeze, Sloan, and Fastball (all favorites of mine). I’ll add Teenage Fanclub, Marshall Crenshaw, and Big Star to that list.

Reviewer Mike Lidskin from Twirl Radio put it this way:

These songs are written by regular guys, but they’re not regular songs. Incredibly articulate, poetic wordplay informs each line. Not one thought or sentiment is wasted. But these tunes weren’t meant to be dissected in your college literature class. They were designed to blast out of rolled down car windows, as you cruise around your town. Play them on your boombox at the beach. Make sure they’re the soundtrack to your backyard barbeque and swim party. Ladies and gentlemen, this is pure, fuel-injected American rock’n’roll, straight from our nation’s capital. Muscular, but sensitive. The songs celebrate, but never swagger. It’s thinking man’s party music.

And not just the lyrics are clever: there’s inventiveness to the music as well. Songs start and build and end in ways that keep you on your toes. Opening track “The Better Part” breaks in the middle to a guitar solo that would do Beatle George proud, driven by masterful drumming that echoes Keith Moon. The title track starts out with a baroque flourish reminiscent of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” then kicks into high gear with a vengeance. “She Does It For Me” builds in a way that makes you think it’ll resolve to another verse or chorus, then ends abruptly with an echoing guitar chord. VWR tweak the conventions of “pop craft” and make it sound fresh, yet familiar.

Sometimes you hear a song you need to hear at just the right time. The track that, ironically, jarred me out of my morning commute was “Some Time To Live,” an anthem to not letting life pass you by.

We spend our time on many things
We don’t care about
God help us with all these little things
And what gets left out

It might be making music
It might be climbing mountains
It might be dancing barefoot
In the palace water fountains
So go fishing in Alaska
Look for Incas in Peru
It doesn’t matter what it is
You’ve gotta find a way to do it

‘Cause you and I will blink
And we will all be dead or eighty
And nobody ever says
“I wish I’d only worked my whole life away”

“A Lesser Fool” features a letter-perfect vocal turn by fellow Facebook friend Maxi Dunn.

A lesser fool than I is loving you
And I hope you’re very happy too
With a lesser fool

A lesser fool is living my dream
And he isn’t as dumb as he seems
You’re the first thing he sees in the morning
And the last voice he hears at night

A lesser fool stays by your side
And he doesn’t over-analyze
A lesser fool would know a good thing
From the log that’s in his eye

A lesser fool than I was overdue
So I wish the very best for you
And a lesser fool

The later part of the disc features a “song suite” entitled “Double Play,” songs distinct from one another but that meld together like the extended sequences at the end of “Abbey Road.” Again from Mike Lidskin: “If you want to have the full Vegas With Randolph experience, but only have 11 minutes of spare time, this represents it well.” Indeed.

And the little-kid-singalong song? That’s “The Sippy Cup Song.” I defy you to not sing along.

You can turn it upside down
You can roll it on the floor
You can lose it in the couch
And you can throw it out the door
You’ve really got to love it
For its clever plastic top
And mom and dad are happy
‘Cause it never spills a drop

It’s a sippy sippy cup
You’re drinking up
Drink it all day long
It’s a sippy sippy cup
You’re drinking up
Drink until it’s gone

If you want to hear a CD with music that’s fun and inventive, that’ll remind you what you dig about rock’n’roll, and that’ll rekindle your life-threatening crush on Marisa Tomei (assuming it even needed rekindling), you would do well to pick up “Above The Blue.” A Desert Island Disc, for sure.

Desert Island Discs: “Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock” (2013)

Image from

If you’ve read this blog very long, you’ve seen that I work in radio. I help my sister Colleen run the small-market radio station she owns.  It’s the thing that gives me the most joy in life. She and her late husband John first went on the air right about this time of year back in 1995, eighteen years ago. John was not only my brother-in-law and my boss, but also my oldest friend – – since grade seven, when Lyndon Johnson was President. Yeah, we go back a ways.

John was a man of convictions. One of his most consistent was that his radio station should never, ever play cover versions of songs. Only originals. John and I butted heads about this many times over the years: he said he had heard too many awful, misguided, washed-out covers through the years, and wanted none of it. He appreciated good production values in music, so couldn’t stand it when an artist covered one of his favorite songs and mangled it beyond enjoyability. (He nearly suffered apoplexy over Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles’ R and B cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”)

He had a moment of cognitive dissonance when I observed that the chart singles by his all-time favorite band, Herman’s Hermits, were virtually all covers. But he stood firm, and through skulduggery and time I snuck some well-crafted covers onto the playlist.

So why bring this up? Because, despite his no-covers pronouncements, John would have loved this album: “Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock.” Bill Sammons in his excellent blog “Kool Kovers” writes something my friend would have endorsed heartily: “The best cover versions are, as my wife says, different enough so it’s fresh but the same enough to where you can sing along if you want.”

Executive producer Andrew Curry drew inspiration from a Facebook thread that nominated the greatest lite rock songs of all time: the soundtrack of his youth, as he put it. The idea of a tribute album began to germinate, under the umbrella name “Monsters Of Lite Rock,” and Andrew successfully pitched the project on the fund-raising website Kickstarter.

Mad props also to the lovely and talented Elizabeth Racz (“Miss Klaatu”), who served ably as Associate Producer. Nobody could have done better.

A while back I wrote about the project, and was gratified to see Andrew achieve his funding goal in just a few weeks. There was a definite buzz around this project, especially in the power pop community. Thanks to Andrew, by the way, for the go-ahead to stream a few of the songs on this blog. Trust me, I’m confident that you’ll want the whole album. Go to Bandcamp.

In different hands this album might have become an exercise in campy excess and parody. Andrew avoids that, as everyone’s genuine affection for these songs comes through from the very first track. To quote reviewer Jaimie Vernon: “This is not a joke, folks. The recreations are done with love and devotion. The result is top notch! Highly recommended.”

Image from

Long-time Facebook pal and KBEK-FM favorite Eytan Mirsky conjures up a cinematic rendition of one of the quintessential lite rock hits, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes. Eytan brings the right element of wry humor to this chronicle of… well, thwarted two-timing. (A shout-out to fellow FB pal, producer Jon Gordon.)




Image from

One of the many stellar tracks on this album comes from Vegas With Randolph, with their take on Little River Band’s “Cool Change.” Once again, from Bill Sammons’ “Kool Kovers”:

THIS, my friends, is how to do a cover! It completely respects the song, keeping all signature parts intact. Yet it sounds like the band who’s playing the song: putting their identity on it, but not in an overwhelming way.


Image from

Back in the day, lite rock bore the (occasionally deserved) mantle of being too saccharine. And let’s face it, some of the originals were a bit milquetoast and begged to get the wimpiness knocked out of them. The Davenports do just that – they bring drive and energy to Randy Vanwarmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most” that the original needed in the worst way.



Image from

One of my most pleasant discoveries is Lisa Mychols’ turn on “Don’t Give Up On Us.” Lisa adds crunch and punch and multiple layers to the song, and you believe it in a way that David Soul never quite pulled off.








Like greatest-hits albums, tribute albums are a hit-or-miss affair. Many are bland, a few are innovative, and a very small handful approach excellence. “Drink A Toast To Innocence” is in that category. It’ll catapult you back to a happy time.

Bandcamp is the place to go for this album. Also check out the Monsters Of Lite Rock website.

And by the way: all these tracks are now in hot rotation on our station. I’m sure John concurs. Somewhere out there, he’s probably rockin’ out to “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” A cover, by the way.