musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Crack the Sky

In one of the early chapters in Anne Tyler’s delightful novel Noah’s Compass, the main character, a man in his 60s named Liam, is in the hospital, recuperating from a concussion, when his ex-wife drops by to visit. Sitting in bed, Liam thinks back to the days when they were a young couple. Although his wife had a “stodgy school-librarian job,” Liam recalls that she had a fondness for rock music and “used to dance like a woman possessed, pumping the air with her soft white fists and sending her bobby pins flying in every direction.”

“Do you still like Crack the Sky?” Liam asked her.

“What?” she said. “Oh, mercy, I haven’t listened to Crack the Sky in ages! I’m sixty-two years old. Put your clothes on, will you?

Now hold that thought. Why do people make inane comments like that; as if getting older, or “growing up,” somehow disqualifies a person from listening to music, especially the music of their youth? Why should getting older stop you from listening to music of any kind? Many people still watch football and baseball games when they are “senior citizens”, and that’s not considered odd, so what’s the big deal about continuing to be a fan of rock music as you age? Is it immature to like the Rolling Stones or Cheap Trick just because you are over forty? That’s an absurd notion!

That diatribe aside, I got a kick out of seeing Crack the Sky mentioned in Anne Tyler’s novel. It makes me wonder if Anne Tyler herself was/is a Crack the Sky fan. I’m almost certain she at least listened to the band back in the 1970s. Thanks to massive airplay on local radio stations, Crack the Sky was immensely popular in the Baltimore area, which is where Tyler lives and where most of her novels are set, so it wouldn’t be a complete shock if that was the case.

I was lucky to have been exposed to the music of Crack the Sky back when their excellent debut album, Crack the Sky, was released in 1975, thanks to airplay it received on WORJ, the great progressive FM radio station in my hometown of Orlando. Crack the Sky followed that first album with one that was arguably even better, the weird and wonderful Animal Notes. Man, I loved those first two albums, and the ones that followed weren’t too shabby either. The quirky songs were full of intricate guitar parts, Beatles-like harmonies, and delightfully witty lyrics. Crack the Sky’s synthesis of lush keyboards and sizzling electric guitars appealed to progressive rock fans, but they weren’t so far out in left field that their appeal escaped the ears of more mainstream listeners.

Crack the Sky had all the ingredients to be a monster band, but for the usual reasons (lack of airplay and most notably, a label that couldn’t get their albums distributed properly) that success never came calling. Shortly after Animal Notes was released in 1977, lead singer John Palumbo left the band to start a solo career. He was replaced by Gary Lee Chappell, who seamlessly handled lead vocals on the next album, Safety in Numbers, another very strong batch of songs. Citing difficulties with their label, the group broke up — for the first time — in 1979. In the meantime Palumbo’s solo album tanked and he ended up rejoining the “reformed” band the following year to record the edgy White Music.

Last year, I bought a copy of Crack the Sky’s Alive and Kickin’ Ass album. Despite the lame title, this is an outstanding concert recording from tour dates in 1978 that finally saw release in 2006. This was during the period when Palumbo had left the band to pursue a solo career, but Chappell more than holds his own on vocals and the rest of the band indeed kicks ass, playing with the energy and imagination that were always hallmarks of their live shows. I saw them in concert the same year when they played at a small club called Friar Tuck’s in Casselberry, an Orlando suburb. It was like seeing a show in your living room; up close and intimate, not a bad seat in the house. And the band didn’t disappoint, delivering a scorching set of songs, not unlike what I heard on Alive and Kickin’ Ass, complete with an encore of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.”

Since their 70s prime, Crack the Sky has continued to break up and reform, and thankfully record more albums and play more concerts. In 2009 they released a new collection of songs, Machine. Judging from the positive reviews I’ve read, it’s yet another album I will need to purchase in the near future.

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