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EARTHQUAKE! February 16, 2010

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Earthquake was a San Francisco Bay area quintet through most of the 1970s.  While never selling a whole lot of records, they made some brilliant metallic power pop.  They could copy, like their 45 of The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind;” they could improve crap like “It’s A Tall Order (For A Short Guy);” and they could jam like Santana at the Fillmore.  They were a very, very good second-tier band.

I base my affection for Earthquake from two albums from 1976 and 1977.  I have never heard either of the first two records they put out on A&M (although I kind of like the red pen-squiggle cover art on one of them).  In 1975 they signed with Beserkley Records and made another four long players.  I know the middle two: 8.5 and Leveled, from 1976 and ’77.

These two Earthquake albums hit me at exactly the right moment.  Earthquake gave me consistent rock with strong melodies.  More ‘boy next door’ than Sammy Hagar, but that’s the territory we’re talking about.  Lead singer John Doukas had a swagger and authority in his voice, and had a remarkable range from high to low notes.  But he sounded strained at the top of his register, even though his pitch never faltered.  He’s good, but he can be wearing.

8.5 came out in July 1976, when disco still reigned.  The band was competing with Diana Ross, The Starland Ever-Lovin’ Vocal Band, The Bee Gees “You Should Be Dancing”, Wild Cherry, Walter Murphy, and the insane “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees.  Not the most inviting climate for a rock pop band.

“Finders Keepers” – A cover of a song first done by the soul group Chairmen Of The Board.  The original was a funk song with an annoying synthesiser theme.  Earthquake transforms the song.  Suddenly there is a melody.  A five piece band with two lead guitarists, and I was surprised to learn the original was a soul song.

“Little Cindy” – riff rock and Doukas sounding good.  “How many lovers / How many others / Are hidden inside your head?”  Fun lead guitar break.  Then it mutates into a Who raveup, with drummer Steve Nelson doing a credible homage to Keith Moon while one of the guitarists does a note-perfect Tommy-era Pete Townshend.

“And He Likes To Hurt You” – both the lead guitarists also play piano, so no telling exactly who is doing what on the track.  It’s a power ballad that isn’t powerful.  Good melody, a little “ooo” harmony, and an unfortunately whiney story.  He tells his ex that the reason her new guy treats her so bad isn’t to hurt her; no, this self-centered pig thinks the new guy treats her bad so it will hurt HIM.  If I didn’t understand English and therefore didn’t get pissed off at the lyrics, I’d think this was a very strong performance.

“Savin’ My Love” – Extended rock in a San Francisco style, and well done.  I find Doukas’ voice a little scratchy on the choruses, but the guitar work is superb.  There is a passage of twin lead guitars sounding just like Carlos Santana.

“Girl Named Jesse James” – “Pretty girl with an outlaw’s name.”  Uptempo but light, some acoustic guitar.  It almost sounds like a folk song.

“Motivate Me” – WOW.  Power Pop with a lyric line to make your head spin 360 degrees.  Lead singer declaims, band responds in harmony, lead singer takes over.  Big, fat, chunky chords that sound so exciting.  “I say Baby (Hey Baby) / Hey Baby (Whooo) / Mo-mo-mo-ti-vate me! / WOOOOOO!”  Then the tempo drops, and Doukas mixes singing and chanting with “As a child / No one could reach me, so they’d say / Some of my elements were missing / He’s not like other kids / Just sits and stares all day / The doctors say ‘he keeps resisting’”  A fast bunch of chord changes and the tempo is hot again.  “So keep your head,/ Obey all the rules! / I’m sick and tired of what they tell me to do / Don’t mess with me / It ain’t your place / I just might go off in your face.”  Short solo and back to the song.

“Hit The Floor” – Pure Power Pop.  Huge guitar chords, trippy drums, evocative lyrics “Whiskey on my breath / Trouble on my mind.”  The chorus is indelible: “Hit the floor one more time / Close that door, this boy’s on fire”  Superb lead guitar right behind the vocals on the last couple of choruses.  Just when you think the song is ending it comes back as an instrumental, a wall of fun rock with a comfortable screaming lead guitar.

“Same Old Story” – Sounds like a Hollies outtake.  Drummer Steve Nelson shows creativity throughout this.  The melody isn’t as wide or memorable as “Hit The Floor” so it suffers from following that song.  Still, there is a fair amount of very nice harmony.

“Don’t Want To Go Back” – Who turned up the bass?  Straight ahead rock with twin lead guitars.  The song is about how great the band feels performing in your town, how the band doesn’t want to leave to go back home.  The last verse is hilarious, with a lyric about the local groupies: “My pulse is weak / She wouldn’t let me sleep / The girl’s got expectations.”  They sound as if they are having a good time, and it’s infectious.  Creative double guitar instrumental break.  A happier message than “Closing Time” by Semisonic, that’s for sure.  A fine rocker!

There were two singles that I particularly liked and burned to the CD.  Their debut release on Beserkley Records was a wonderful cover of The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind.”  It rocks, it pops, it’s got that happy chorus.  The band vocals are original, but still very very pop.  Energetic execution of a fun song.

I suppose there is no excuse for “It’s A Tall Order (For A Short Guy),” except that I rather like Jonathan King, pretentious twit that he is.  King’s original was just a throwaway as the flip side of a minor British hit, but he gave it a lot of attention.  The result sounds like “A-B-C” era Jackson Five.  The arrangement can send people into diabetic comas it’s so sweet, and King’s vocal is making fun of every word he sings.  Very, very cynical record.

Earthquake turns the song inside out like it did with “Finders Keepers”.  Their remake actually rocks, losing the original bubblegum beat and turning it into a contemporary rock song.  Doukas gets positively histrionic when he stammers over a repeated “I’m a-gonna try,” and shows the band takes the lyrics more seriously than the writer did.  But it’s a fun song with fun dumb sing-a-long lyrics.  Sometimes I crank up the volume for this one (except that I already cranked it up for “Friday On My Mind” and for “Don’t Want To Go Back” and “Hit The Floor,” which explains why I’m nearly deaf…)

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