VERSUS: Episode 9: Division VIII: Rock Album Deathmatch: Light Rock, Live Rock, Rage Rock and Prince

Previously, on VERSUS . . .

The eight albums of Division VII—featuring works from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, The Doors, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and The Grateful Dead—faced off in the gladiator pit, with Pink Floyd getting the emperor’s thumbs-up.

In this episode, another eight albums enter the fray. This time, the competitors are Paul Simon, Billy Joel, KISS, Bob Seger, Prince, Van Halen, Rage Against the Machine, and Foo Fighters. This is Division VIII, the last division of four in THAT Conference, all of the rock albums on the right side of the championship tree. We have seven previous divisional champions and only 8 albums left to experience their first face-offs.



ROUND ONE (4 bouts)

Graceland (Paul Simon)

VERSUS

The Stranger (Billy Joel)

I may have mentioned that my parents owned the soundtrack LP for the 1967 movie The Graduate. My parents owned a lot of LPs that I listened to at a young age, on a stereo console that was a big honkin’ piece of furniture the same approximate size as a 1974 Ford Thunderbird land yacht. Among the Conway Twittys, Charley Prides, Eddy Arnolds, Elvis Presleys and Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was this lone soundtrack album, featuring the song stylings of Simon and Garfunkel. I was in awe of Simon’s songwriting abilities even before I knew which one was Simon and which one was Garfunkel.

When I was in high school, the lyrics to “Sound of Silence” were printed in one of my English books as an example of song lyrics as poetry. This was another redefining moment in my life. Until that point, I had never considered the musicality of words themselves; after that moment, I could never stop thinking about it. Many of the lyrics to my favorite music were often unintelligible, but I could appreciate the way the words themselves flowed, as well as their percussive qualities. Language contains a music of its own, and Paul Simon introduced me to that.

Graceland was—at the very least—inspired by South African street music known as mbaqanga. Musician Heidi Berg gave Simon a bootleg tape of this music when Simon was attached to produce a record by the young singer-songwriter, because she wanted her record to sound like it. Simon was similarly inspired by the music, it seems. I don’t think he ever produced Berg’s album either, although he did credit her as a “friend who gave him a tape.”

The Simon album won the Grammy in 1987 for Album of the Year. It’s a fun album to listen to, but I have to admit that my favorite tracks on it are “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al,” which I’m willing to bet are its two most popular songs. The title track, in particular, moves me in ways I can’t really explain. The line “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” itself shines like a crazy diamond with its own poetic fire. And a reference to a girl in New York City who refers to herself as “the human trampoline” is both cryptic and evocative, leaving space for the listener to somehow become a co-creator of the song’s story, like the best of Bob Dylan’s work. The music ain’t bad either, whoever gets credit for it.

Billy Joel’s The Stranger slowly became one of my favorite albums, as I listened to it again and again for years. Prior to The Stranger, I became a Billy Joel fan through his 1981 live album Songs in the Attic, specifically through two tracks: “She’s Got a Way,” which remains one of my favorite Joel songs; and, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” I knew some of the songs off of Glass Houses, of course, but I was devoted, for a time, to a different kind of music, leaning mainly towards British metal. My interest in Billy Joel music wasn’t something I could easily discuss in my particular circle of friends.

But, I purchased The Stranger and 52nd Street, two of Joel’s albums from the late ’70s, and soon realized it was no fluke. I was, in fact, a Billy Joel fan. While I would later own at least one greatest hits compilation, which I think was Greatest Hits – Volume I & Volume II, and I would download some individual tracks from other albums, it was The Stranger I would find myself returning to, time and again. To call it my favorite Joel album would be to do it a disservice, since I own so few. Rather, The Stranger is one of my favorite albums, period.

For me, it’s like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in that it’s one unified work of art, meant to be listened to from beginning to end instead of skipping to favorite tracks. Several of the tracks were inspired by Joel’s wife at the time, Elizabeth Weber, with whom he was in love. It was Weber who could be “frequently kind and suddenly cruel,” but Billy loved her just the way she was.

Five of the nine tracks were released as singles, none of which were what’s probably my favorite track, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, which is three distinct compositions strung together as one, inspired by side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The song itself begins as a piano ballad, segues into a piece inspired by Dixieland Jazz, then into straight-ahead rock-and-roll with “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie,” before looping around into a complete circle and closing out with a piano ballad again, with the addition of a soaring string section and some crazy saxophone work. There’s a piano solo in Restaurant that I’ve learned to play—badly. The track itself clocks in at over seven minutes, which is probably why it wasn’t chosen as a single.

What else can I say about this album? I have never been able to whistle, to this very day (I think my tongue is shaped wrong). This album made me want to learn how to whistle.

While I like and respect both of these albums, there is a clear winner in my mind.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . The Stranger (Billy Joel)



Nine Tonight (Bob Seger)

VERSUS

KISS Alive! (KISS)

Initially, I was going to leave “live” albums out of this competition. But, I realized that Bob Seger wasn’t represented anywhere in these posts, which would be a shame. I could have gone with Stranger in Town or Against the Wind, which are both solid albums. It’s just that Nine Tonight is the Seger album I’ve listened to most often.

Another Seger live album, Live Bullet, which contains the definitive version of “Turn the Page,” was another contender for this contest, but Nine Tonight edges it out.

I know that KISS is already represented in this contest with the studio album Destroyer (the album lost its bout to Blue Öyster Cult’s Spectres), but their 1975 album Alive! was probably the first “live” album I ever owned. At that point, it was the only KISS album I had owned, as I wouldn’t buy KISS, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill until after I owned this. I would remain a soldier in the KISS Army, in good standing, until 1980’s Unmasked, after which I decided it was time to put away childish things. Decades later, I would come to the decision that KISS’s early stuff—the tracks on this album, in fact—held up pretty well and I wasn’t wrong for liking it.

For years, rumors circulated about this album being punched up in the studio by dubbing and re-recording. Gene Simmons, for one, always denied this. If you didn’t already know this, Gene is a big, fat liar. This album does feature some live performances, certainly, but probably not enough to qualify as a true “live” album. Producer Eddie Kramer even doctored the audience sounds in the studio. I don’t worry too much about that, because I still like this album. Parts of Sgt. Pepper has live audience sounds, and I know that isn’t a live album.

The point is moot, anyway, because KISS loses again. Nine Tonight is the better album. It’s probably more truly a live album as well. Don’t tell me if it’s not; do not shatter my illusions.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Nine Tonight (Bob Seger)



Purple Rain (Prince)

VERSUS

1984 (Van Halen)

These albums are in this head-to-head battle because I remember both being popular at the same time.

Purple Rain was released in the summer of 1984. Up to that point, I knew of Prince, but wasn’t very familiar with his music. As I’ve told you before, I was pretty steeped in heavy metal at the time. Prince was an enigma, and he remained an enigma after this album—and its movie—came out. But, I became more familiar with his music.

Prince had my attention from the “Dearly beloved. . .” eulogy that kicks off “Let’s Go Crazy” through the anthemic “Purple Rain,” which was originally written as a country song by Prince (I can’t make this stuff up). The album itself is a melange of pop, rock, gospel and R&B, and it still holds up well today, nearly four decades later. Plus, girls were crazy about Prince, and that’s always a good thing.

Van Halen’s 1984 is where the original incarnation of the band lost me as a listener for a while. I’m not proud of the fact. The moment I heard the synthesizers on “Jump,” I knew that an era had passed while I was sleeping. Rock-and-roll had been dealt a mighty blow.

It was also the final album that all of the original lineup of the band would appear on. David Lee Roth would leave the band the following year and was replaced, for a time, by Sammy Hagar. Again, I wasn’t a diehard Van Hagar fan either, but Sammy had already been experimenting with synth on his solo albums, so it wasn’t as jarring an experience. Roth would return to the band a couple of decades later, but it wasn’t the Diamond Dave that we once knew, and Michael Anthony left the group with Hagar, I think, to later be replaced by Eddie and Valerie’s son Wolfie.

I later relaxed my anti-synth stance. I am a keyboardist, so you would think it would have happened sooner than later. I still think “Jump” is an overrated, over-produced track. But, “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” are two rocking songs that I still love to crank up.

1984 was getting airplay at the same time as Purple Rain, which means these albums were going head-to-head in 1984 long before I began this contest. It’s still not much of a contest, however.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Purple Rain (Prince)



Rage Against the Machine (Rage Against the Machine)

VERSUS

There is Nothing Left to Lose (Foo Fighters)

This bout seems out-of-place, for some reason. I wanted both groups to be in the contest, because I’ve enjoyed music created by each. However, these were the only albums by either that I’ve ever owned. One of my contest “rules” was that I needed to have owned the albums. While I later purchased individual tracks by both bands, these were the only two full albums in my collection.

Rage’s 1992 debut album opened with the one-two salvo of “Bombtrack” and “Killing in the Name.” This was politically-charged rap metal, which was a completely new genre for me the first time I heard it. When it was released, it was some of the heaviest metal with lyrics I could understand available at the time. It was revolutionary in more ways than one. While I knew next to nothing about the band members the first time I heard them, I soon became a huge Tom Morello fan. When Rage lost its lead singer and the band fused with Chris Cornell to become Audioslave, I was along for the ride.

Of course, I knew Dave Grohl as the drummer for Nirvana. There is Nothing Left to Lose was the third release from his band, Foo Fighters. It would go on to win a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2001. I recall listening to this one during the winter of 1999 (speaking of Prince). I had separated from my first wife and was being forced by Target to relocate to Memphis, Tennessee, to run a third-shift logistics operation. The following two years would end up being the best and worst of my life (so far). I purchased a lot of music during this time, which implies that listening to music is very much a coping strategy for me, even when I’m not conscious of the fact. I drank a lot of Carlo Rossi sangria during that time as well. Another coping mechanism.

I liked the album, which is often categorized as alternative rock or post-grunge, but it is easy-listening music compared to Rage Against the Machine. During the same time I was listening to Foo Fighters a lot, I also listened to a lot of the Cranberries, Fiona Apple, Jewel, Macy Gray, and Nickel Creek. I was working through some stuff. If I were holding this contest during that time, Foo Fighters might have come out on top.

I’m all better now, though. Rage kicks ass.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Rage Against the Machine (Rage Against the Machine)



ROUND TWO (2 bouts)

Purple Rain (Prince)

VERSUS

Nine Tonight (Bob Seger)

Sorry, Bob. I love you, man, but the decision goes to the Purple One today.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Purple Rain (Prince)



Rage Against the Machine (Rage Against the Machine)

VERSUS

The Stranger (Billy Joel)

This one was tougher than it looks for me. The RATM album is invigorating and makes me pump my fist in the air. On the other hand, I love The Stranger as a cohesive work of art.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . The Stranger (Billy Joel)




And now, the main event . . .

Division VIII Championship Match

Purple Rain (Prince)

dearly beloved . . .

I’ll meet you anytime you want . . .

The Stranger (Billy Joel)

While I doubt that the outcome of this particular battle will be controversial (in the sense of public outcry and calls for Firewater to become another victim of the Cancel Culture), I know that at least a few of my friends will not agree with my decision here.

As an album—as a celebrated artistic product—one of these is more cohesive than the other, in my opinion. When I ask myself that all-important question, “Which album would I like to listen to again, today?” the answer doesn’t change.

Hey, I’m as shocked as you are.

THE DIVISON VIII CHAMPION IS . . .

The Stranger (Billy Joel)

After today’s bouts, we have eight albums who have won their divisional titles:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles)

The Cars (The Cars)

Moving Pictures (Rush)

Paranoid (Black Sabbath)

Back in Black (AC/DC)

Ten (Pearl Jam)

Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)

The Stranger (Billy Joel)

We’ve managed to reduce the field from 64 albums to only 8. Sure, it’s all rock-and-roll, but still an eclectic group of albums.

Our next episode will focus on the wildcard candidates, the eight albums that came in second place during this tournament. There’s no shame in taking the Silver, but I need to satisfy my own nagging doubts about who most deserves to be in the playoffs.

Who’s Next (The Who)

Boston (Boston)

Hotel California (The Eagles)

Rocks (Aerosmith)

Screaming for Vengeance (Judas Priest)

Nevermind (Nirvana)

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (David Bowie)

Purple Rain (Prince)

Are any of these subjectively better than the eight that won their divisions? Join me next time, and we’ll decide.

Who am I kidding? I’ll decide. This isn’t a democracy, but there is a method to my musical madness. I just want to point out—to illustrate, really—that any contest of this kind is highly subjective. We tell ourselves otherwise, but that is the truth.

Rock On, Everybody.

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