A little recording update for you: we have two or three new songs that are in the works, two of which are really very close to being ready to be released. I will continue, as ever, to ask for your patience, but I hope that you end up loving them as much as we do. ***** #4 – Nevermind (Nirvana, 1991) Once upon a time – the 1980s, to be specific – recorded music was highly polished, overproduced, and showed all of the marks of a tremendous amount of studio magic. And then something happened in the early 90s. Whether it was a resurgence of punk sensibility or just a simple awareness of the fact that music is supposed to sound like it’s being made by humans, energy came back and we blew out a lot of speaker cones.
Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins hit the airwaves at about the same time — one pure and punk, the other almost psychedelic. Kurt Cobain’s music was this weird mix between punk and the Beatles – very hard, very dark, but melodic and morbidly wry. It was shifting tones that played on the dynamic formula that Zeppelin had come up with a quarter century before, and it was straight-ahead riffs and rhythms that Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic pounded into the listeners heads.
Through the 80’s, I’d been suffering through listening to crap, thinking that rock was dead. The new music put out by both Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins spoke to me in 1992 and woke me up – songs like Smashing Pumpkins’ “I Am One” and then Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the earlier “Love Buzz”. Both Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ first two albums were produced by the incredible Butch Vig – no coincidence give the incredible sound on these records! (Also, Nevermind and Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes were both recorded at the legendary Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA. More on that later.) Nevermind cost only $65,000 to record over a 3 week period of time; the freshness and urgency show. Whenever I get depressed, thinking about the overproduced, computer generated crap on the radio today, I remind myself it was in a very similar phase when I first heard Nevermind. And I have hope.
So, don’t really have much in the way of news or history for you right now. What I do have is a little treat: an old recording from 1990 of Tunnel 18 (Chris, Chris, and Don) doing a 4-track recording of “Bus Ride”. The recording was live for bass, drums, and guitar; vocals were added as an overdub. There are a few other lovely old recordings I’ve been able to dig up, but I’m not yet sure if they’ll see the light of day anytime soon. ***** #5 – Damn the Torpedoes (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1979) There are a few bands and albums in this list that I got introduced to by others, but a few that I discovered on my own. And by discovered, I do not really mean through any particularly rigorous practice – just me listening to the radio and hearing music that really talked to me. Musically it felt right, and the words told me something I needed to hear. Damn the Torpedoes is right in the heart of that category, and songs like “Even the Losers” and “Refugee” could become personal anthems to any teenager, especially one that was pretty shy and awkward. Seeing Mr Petty on MTV, slinging a Telecaster or a Rickenbacker, also gave me a completely different, relatable (attainable?) image of what a singer/songwriter/rock star could be. I’ve listened to the entire Tom Petty catalogue since then and can honestly say that I have never hit skip or fast forward. Each song rewards the listener, both musically and through real human understanding.
There’s an upcoming Tunnel 18 song that I wrote just after Petty’s death. Hopefully it’ll be ready to share with you all soon. (Next album in a few days. Really trying to accelerate this if I can!)
So I know you’ve been saying to yourself for at least a week now, “Ok, Chris, you’ve explained the whole band family tree and all that, so we get it. But what the hell is with the name? Seems random. What gives?” Up until about 1989, we’d played under a few different names: Mirada (after Neils’ bass), Prototype, etc… None of us were very happy with the names, but we couldn’t come up with anything else that had not already been taken. One summer day, we were practicing at Don’s house and took a break. There was a movie on the TV – some weird sci-fi thing (we figured out after the fact it was George Lucas’ THX 1138). At one point the main characters are running from a futuristic police force and one of the radio calls announces, “They’ve gone into Tunnel 18!” Don immediately yelled out, “THAT’S IT!” The rest of us took a little convincing, but by the end of the discussion the new name was a fait accompli, and there was never another conversation about changing it. ***** #6 – The Beatles [the White Album] (The Beatles, 1968)
It’s probably worth noting in this list that to call an album the “most influential” does not necessarily mean it is the best album by that band, or even the best example of their work. In fact, it may not even be my favorite of the band’s work. Still, these are the albums that inspired me to play or to write, and therefore I commend them to you as a really great set of music to put into a playlist and let wash over you on a long drive or plane flight (as I am doing right now – Boston to Los Angeles on a Wednesday afternoon). The Beatles (known more commonly as The White Album) showcased a band in crisis and on its way to separate careers. The two previous albums, Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had pushed musical boundaries and had established a real Beatles version of psychedelia. And now, in 1968, the band was left saying “Well, what next?” In addition to this, the rifts that would eventually break the band apart were starting to show. The members were musically going in different directions, and very often did not even spend time in the studio together. Since the band had not played live since 1966, this meant that they hardly spent time together at all. The White Album was the first Beatles album that I went out to buy with my own money, largely because of the album’s reputation as highly experimental, but with songs that (I thought) I recognized. Imagine my surprise when I could not find the version of “Revolution” that I knew*, but was instead treated to two songs with similar titles that were… well, quite different. The album is overwhelming for its length (30 songs) and its diversity of styles, of content, and – frankly – quality. Quite a lot of the album is John and Paul arsing about in the studio (see “Wild Honey Pie,” “Revolution 9,” etc). At the same time, this is the album that included George Harrison’s exquisite “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Savoy Truffle” (which has the best sax tone, ever!), John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” and “Revolution 1” (a slower version of the famous song), and of course McCartney’s “Blackbird.” If nothing else, the album is a masterclass in songwriting and at the same time a cautionary tale about self-indulgence. Go back and take a listen. *It was standard UK practice at the time to view singles and albums as entirely different things. In other words, singles generally stood on their own and were not included in albums. As a result, songs like “Revolution”and “Paperback Writer” were initially released only as singles and not as part of any other compilation.
I’ve mentioned the name change from Steeling Time to Tunnel 18, but I haven’t really fully explained where the “new” name came from, or why I’m making the change. Today’s as good a time as any other to fill you in on the prehistory of Tunnel 18:
The band known as Tunnel 18 has been around in various forms for (oh dear god) 30 years. It started as a series of jam sessions of high schoolers in Harrington Park, NJ – a suburb of New York City, located a 40-minute bus ride northwest of Times Square. Those jam sessions involved many lineups in many garages and basements, but the first combination that would really identify as Tunnel 18 was a four-piece of Don H on drums, Neils W on bass, Chris C on guitar and Chris S (me) on rhythm guitar. This was in about 1987 or so.
This lineup lasted for only a little while, until Neils moved on to other bands (notably The Package) and started playing bars in and around Bergen and Rockland Counties. I took over bass guitar duties, and the band settled into the form it would hold until about 1991. Chris C moved to North Carolina at about that time, leaving me and Don to play as a duo until about 1993. Don and I came back together again in 1995-96 as part of a project called Jule.
Tunnel 18 in its Chris-Chris-Don configuration produced three album-length collections of songs over a period of four years and played mainly at parties in Bergen County. Tape copies of the albums and of recordings of the parties are still floating around here and there, and turn up every once in a while. Songs like “One Step Closer,” “Burning Off the Night,” “Take Me Home” (not to be confused with the 2015 Steeling Time song), “Bus Ride,” and “The Pine Song” are all on these recordings, as well as a host of cover tunes. “Edge of the World” and “Left Behind” were written in the 1994-1995 period and made their way into the Jule sessions, but were not recorded at that time, only finally surfacing in the 2014-15 Steeling Time project.
Chris C, Don H, and Neils W were my musical brothers. You’re going to see their names a lot more in the list of influential albums, and they are the musicians who really pushed me to want to play, to learn to write songs, and to get better at the craft everyday.
#7 – In Color [and Black & White] (Cheap Trick, 1977)
1976-1979 were critical years in forming my musical tastes, and it should come as no surprise that many of the “most influential” albums on this list come from this period. Cheap Trick in particular had a peak period at this time, releasing In Color, Heaven Tonight, and Cheap Trick at Budokan in close succession. Chris C had all three albums, and we’d play them pretty constantly (in a rotation that also included Kiss, early Van Halen, Neil Young, and even the occasional Charlie Daniels Band record).
I didn’t know what to make of Cheap Trick at first. My first exposure to the band was the Cheap Trick at Budokan record, with the gorgeous Robin Zander and Tom Petersson on the front cover and the schlubby Bun E. Carlos and slightly scary dweeb Rick Nielsen on the back. But the songs – and there were so many of them – would get stuck in your head, and you’d find yourself singing (alright, shouting) along with them all day – everything from the opening blast of “Hello There” (a song that proves the value of a good show opener) to the summer good-time melodies of “Southern Girls” and the 12-string bass (yup, 12) pounding away on “Big Eyes.”
Cheap Trick at Budokan was great in itself (still love hearingRobin Zander trying to talk to a screaming Japanese crowd, sounding very much like he’s not 100% sure that the audience understands a word he’s saying), but the studio versions of the songs were master classes in how to write pop hard rock songs – not the shallow overproduced big hair metal tunes that would follow a few years later, but real, tight, layered, living songs with depth. They didn’t use a lot of effects or over-processing, but paid incredible attention to song phrasing, tone, and vocal placement.
The band (more or less) has been touring the US again recently, partly due to their own persistence and partly due to the homage paid to them by artists like Foo Fighters and to Rick Nielsen’s involvement in the Sonic Highways album/project. I strongly suggest going out and buying (fuck, downloading) In Color and then seeing when this great band will be coming back near you.