Nine Songs: Yo La Tengo
Their knowledge of pop history cuts through their records like letters through a stick of rock and their love of crate-digging for new inspiration has become something of a long-running joke, thanks in no small part to The Onion’s immortal headline “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster”.
“One of the things I like about records,” Kaplan tells me midway through our conversation, “and one of the things I like about talking about records, is the free associations that come up accidentally.” From its Sly Stone-referencing title on down, their new album There’s A Riot Going On fits this outlook perfectly. Building on the gauzier moments of their back-catalogue to become the band’s vaguest hour of music to date, it flits from underwater Beach Boys pop to shopping mall muzak, yet there’s not a moment during its hour-long running time that doesn’t make sense.
Before ramping up promotional duties for the record, Kaplan, along with his wife, Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley, went to Portland for a week-long break to visit friends and (of course) pick up some records. Kaplan’s enthusiasm for his purchases is infectious throughout our conversation and his knowledge and memory for music is astounding. When I mention seeing the band play in Leeds during their 2011 Reinventing The Wheel tour, where the first set was dictated by a spinning wheel, he anticipates my question with a sage, ‘Ah yes, Judge Judy.’
Explaining his choices Kaplan says “I’ve taken it upon myself to tweak the concept a bit. These are nine songs / records I bought this week in Portland. It's either more than nine songs or less, depending on how you count the ones that are grouped together.” Here’s Kaplan’s guide to the purchases he made along the way.
“I know The Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5 and if I had any doubt about purchasing this, it seemed like while in Portland it would be almost impolite not to buy a record by Scott McCaughey. When The Young Fresh Fellows did a tour opening for The Soft Boys when they reunited, I remember them doing a song that I thought was really great and Scott saying it was from a collaborative 45. So I’ve got a hunch it was ‘The New Young Fresh Fellows Theme.’
“As for Lopez Beatles I was going through used 45s, I saw the name and it rang a bell without knowing why. I looked at the back and saw that one of the band members was this guy Robert Lloyd. Prior to the first Yo La Tengo single, we put out a couple of records on our band imprint Egon, one of which was an album by Will Rigby, the drummer of The dB’s.
“I have to say that the Egon marketing department really dropped the ball on that record. Most of the people who gravitated towards it were people who were into The dB’s and it was so different that it just sowed confusion. But Robert Lloyd was writing for the LA Weekly at the time; we didn’t know him but he wrote a review of the record that, if we didn’t know any better, I’d swear we’d dictated. We know him a little now.
“As it turns out, it was one of those stores which has a listening booth, so I listened to the 45 and it turns out that ‘Bitchen Party’ is about the Lopez Beatles’ bitchin’ party. So how about that? I’m buying two 45’s where the groups are singing about themselves.”
“My pal Byron Coley, who I used to work with at New York Rocker magazine, wrote a review which I edited of The Twinkeyz’ Alpha Jerk record - a wonderful album - and they have a song called ‘Twinkeyz Theme’. He started his review that I had a theory that writers do their best work writing about themselves and he recited me praising Lester Bangs writing about his musical career, Richard Meltzer writing about VOM and John Mendelsohn writing about Christopher Milk. And he questioned whether this theory would extend to bands singing about themselves, though he concluded that the Twinkeyz theme wasn’t the best song on the album, but he allowed it to stand."
“I’m not sure if you knew this in advance or if your research has revealed it, but Little Jerry Williams is Swamp Dogg; I would generally buy anything I find by him. He’s just such a fascinating, one-of-a-kind performer/artist. I suspect that the first time I heard the name was when Lester Bangs - of course, Lester Bangs better known for writing - covered ‘Total Destruction to Your Mind.’ Between the name of the song and the artist, I thought ‘Huh, Swamp Dogg? I’ll file that one away.’
“So anyway, I was thinking as we were talking, that Lester Bangs/Swamp Dogg tie-in was funny. I pulled the Swamp Dogg record out when I just saw the title and only then noticed it was Swamp Dogg - ‘Sold!’ Most of these records I haven’t heard yet, so I don’t actually know what they sound like.”
“I don’t remember this band sparking my interest in rock and roll, because that had already happened - that was The Beatles and the bands I would see on Ed Sullivan. But I do remember a babysitter bringing Paul Revere’s ‘Greatest Hits’ and I can still picture the album, unless I’ve changed it in my brain. I know me and my brother went out and bought the album, so I’m not sure we would have been imaginative enough to get another record.
“It may have just been her enthusiasm. A lot of times, I’ll talk to people who have better record collections than me and had better record collections earlier and a lot of them have older siblings. But I’m the oldest, so if an older person gave me any kind of guidance, only a fool would decline.
“Obviously, I like having records. In this era of just getting rid of everything and listening on the internet, even though I understand the convenience of that, the actual talismanic aspect of ‘The Record’ remains a very big hold on me. So to have this 45, even though I have the album, was something I wanted to do. And then when I discovered I didn’t recognise the B-side, that was just a bonus.
“Oh, and speaking of amazing record collections, it made a big difference to me because of my pals Billy and Miriam from Norton Records. Billy died a little over a year ago and not a day goes by without thinking of them. Almost in the same way that I felt like I was talking to Scott McCaughey without talking to him by buying his record, this definitely gave me the opportunity to think about Billy and Miriam some more.
“Didn’t see it going that way with Paul Revere and the Raiders, did you?”
“Was I drawn to this because of the title? I’m only human!
“That’s in the great tradition of, I guess Sonny Bono borrowed that technique from Phil Spector of putting a throwaway instrumental on the B-side to make sure DJs didn’t play the wrong side. But even more than Phil Spector, the person who I think is the master of that is Ross Bagdasarian, the mind behind The Chipmunks.
“Chipmunks B-sides are spectacular. In fact, getting back to Lester Bangs, I remember him citing some throwaway line about buying Chipmunks records for the B-sides and thinking ‘Hey, that’s me!’ They’re very similar to this. I remember at some point my Mum knew somebody at work with a big box of her son’s 45s that he didn’t want anymore and they just went to me. I was sifting through this box and one of them was ‘Alvin’s Harmonica’, and the B-side was credited to ‘The Music of David Seville’, his nom de chipmunk, and the B-side was called ‘Mediocre’.
“He’s playing ‘Alvin’s Harmonica’ on the piano without the Chipmunks singing and every time he’d get to the end of the chorus or the verse he’d go “Ah, I dunno!” And then he’d start it up again and go “Ennnh!” and then the record ends with him going “We can’t release that, it’s mediocre!” At that point, I was no longer at peak enthusiasm for the Chipmunks, but the B-side was amazing.
“But the one that is really great, the gold standard, is called ‘Almost Good’. You can sort of see the theme developing. It’s a really cool rhythm number, again mostly instrumental and every once in a while, he goes “That’s almost good!”
“I’ve heard the slowed-down versions of later ones like ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ on WFMU and it was perfect because it had that whole “What is this?!” moment, including not even knowing what version it was. Of course, that’s why the music and singing are different speeds, because it was the Chipmunks.
“So the Spector ones, partly because Spector records tend to be more expensive, this one was a little more beaten-up and, as I said, there was really no way I wasn’t going to buy a record with that name. I’m trying to remember, I think Dr Kaplan might be his dentist or his therapist - I’m sure he did a great job.”
“I wanted to make sure we got to these three I grouped together. I really love oddball cover songs and hearing how songs have been mutated is just a real pleasure.
"So when I saw the Ronnie Aldrich and His Two Pianos, most of those songs are these muzak-y versions of pop songs which really lend themselves to that, like ‘Honey’ and ‘This Guy’s in Love With You, but ‘Do It Again’ jumped out. What a weird song to turn into an easy listening instrumental - and that record was a dollar. I think it’s very possible I already own this record, but I couldn’t find it. So with any luck it’s my only copy, but if I do have doubles, it’s an occupational hazard.
“So tying those records together, the Chuck Berry record, he was one of those people I listened to when I was very young but I kind of got out of the habit of listening to Chuck Berry. You just sort of take him for granted. And when he died everyone on WFMU was playing his music, especially this DJ, one of my favourites, who goes by the name Dave The Spazz, who did a three-hour show of just Chuck Berry.
“And it was remarkable just to be reminded how great those records are and how great they sound. Parenthetically, a similar thing happened with Fats Domino, but this Chuck Berry 45, I guess it’s from 1964 and it’s a little bit sad. I don’t know if it’s the first record he made after they make it big, but his Beatle bitterness is clear on ‘Go, Bobby Soxer’. It just makes it so poignant - the record sounds great, but it’s got those ridiculous Ringo drum fills. It’s 1964 and he’s feeling like he’s getting left behind! He’s going to be making music for more than forty years. I picked it up not knowing what the song was, but when I listened to it, it seemed pretty great.
“And then this Andre Kostelanetz record - who do you want to hear play the twist more than Andre Kostelanetz? I have to say, I was a little bit on the fence about ‘The Washington Twist’, as much as I like it, it was a little sing-songy and I didn’t know how much value I was going get out of it. But the disconnect between the title of the song on the other side, ‘The Secret Service’ and that song was irresistible. These are very heightened political times, so I thought maybe I should get a political record in there!”
“Oh man, I love this song. This is another one where I own it on CD, or maybe even just on a compilation CD-R that James [McNew, Yo La Tengo bassist] made. But this record seemed like something that I really wanted to own myself.
“And it’s another cover song! I knew this version before I knew The Miracles’ version and I’ve got to say, I have nothing against Smokey, but Joe Bataan really owns this song. This seemed like a good moment in my life to own a record called ‘Riot’”
“Taking it back full circle from one Portland institution to another, I’d never been to Mississippi Records before and it’s great! I became aware of the store recently, I think because of the Michael Hurley stuff they’ve been doing. We weren’t out there to play, Georgia and I were there mostly to visit friends and different people were saying ‘We could go up to Mississippi!’
“Even after I sent you the list of songs, I went back to Mississippi Records one more time and walked out with a bonus record. I saw on the counter that they had a copy of Bo Diddley’s ‘Mumblin’ Guitar’ 45 and I thought ‘What home doesn’t need that?’”
“We had heard this record at our friend’s house and it’s so gorgeous. I didn’t even realise the Éthiopiques connection. It was just so hypnotic, I could see myself listening to it all the time. I probably will!”