Pop/rock history is studded with seemingly endless debut albums that are undisputed classics. Some artists deliver a powerhouse on their first try—the Doors and Led Zeppelin come to mind immediately. A partial list of landmark debuts would undoubtedly include the likes of Velvet Underground, the Pretenders, Tracy Chapman, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Joy Division, R.E.M., Whitney Houston, Pink Floyd, Frank Ocean, Patti Smith, and too many others to adequately contemplate. Of course, that’s not always the case. Sometimes even the most talented stumble out of the gate, occasionally in embarrassing fashion. Obviously, there’s no turning back once a creative work, whatever the medium, is unleashed into the universal ether, no matter how mortifying the artist may later find it. In this internet age where no sin is forgotten, the effect is only amplified. As the Beatles would say, “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time.” It’s true for girls, too.
If by a fluke of fate one of these “embarrassing” early songs catches fire and becomes a hit, it’s not unusual for artists whose abilities and range have bloomed exponentially in subsequent years to dismiss these primitive doodles with exasperation. Think Radiohead’s “Creep”, any mention of which in the past has typically been met by the band with the equivalent of eye rolls and long-suffering sighs. They seem to have come to grips with the song’s enduring power and popularity, though, and have lately been adding it to their sets more frequently. David Bowie studiously ignored his odd and often vaudevillian pre-”Space Oddity” material for many years. Later in his career, with time apparently bringing the detachment and distance required to better appreciate his early work, his attitude changed. Bowie even re-recorded several of his youthful tracks for a projected album, Toy, in 2001. The album was ultimately shelved, but all of the songs have been released either as b-sides or have leaked online (although one would imagine he harbored his well-established loathing for his 1967 novelty hit “The Laughing Gnome” until the bitter end).
With the sudden appearance on 1 September 2017 of a remastered digital reissue of her first album, 1988’s Y Kant Tori Read, Tori Amos seems to have reached that same level of acceptance, finally diving back into those deeply hair-sprayed and glitteresque ignominies that sprung out of the neon cocaine glampit of decadence otherwise known as the Los Angeles of the late ‘80s. When asked about it, Amos has typically, with some mixture of wry amusement and horrified embarrassment, disparaged the album. She frequently cites an infamous review in Billboard praising her talent but referring to the album as “bimbo music” because of the image she projects on the ludicrous cover art: Amos is holding a samurai sword while garbed in a bustier that could easily have been swiped from the set of an ultra-cheap b-movie take on Conan The Barbarian. She’s never really disagreed with that Billboard assessment. Despite her lofty success since, and the many years of lobbying and badgering by fans, Amos has resisted reissuing the album, and Y Kant Tori Read has remained stubbornly out of print. While original CD and vinyl copies (quickly dispatched to cut-out bins after the album’s speedy crash-and-burn) sell for exorbitant amounts, most fans who want it have been able to snag one of the widely-available CD bootlegs, or have simply downloaded an MP3 version from a file-sharing site.
Amos had recently hinted in a 21 August interview with Huffington Post that a reissue of Y Kant Tori Read might be on the horizon. Amos mentioned that she’s finally “come to peace” with the album, she noted unprompted that its 30th anniversary is upcoming, and indicated somewhat cagily that she has been “considering” finally releasing it. The furtive approach that she took, issuing it via Rhino Records on digital platforms with no warning or prior announcement, seems intended as a “thank you” to fans while perhaps calculating that, lost in the flurry of publicity surrounding her new studio album, the stunning Native Invader, the sudden availability of Y Kant Tori Read would draw little mainstream attention. There is no word yet on whether a physical edition of Y Kant Tori Read might be on the horizon, but the download is nonetheless big news to her large and famously (and sometimes defiantly) supportive fan-base.
Often overlooked in fans’ thirst for an official reissue is how Tori Amos herself relates not only to the album but to the period in question. After all, she’s the one who lived it. To her, it must be a tangible reminder of losing herself in a world that put a premium on artifice over artistry, of allowing herself to go down paths that were wrong based on the advice of others, of painful personal turmoil and failure. In interviews following the success of Little Earthquakes, she didn’t hold back on how big a blow the album was to her confidence and self-worth as an artist.
Perhaps her experiences during that period have rendered it impossible for her to view the album as many fans do, with a fond if somewhat bemused nostalgia. Indeed, the stunning a cappella “Me and a Gun”, one of the cornerstone pieces on her 1992 breakthrough Little Earthquakes, recounts a harrowing experience with sexual violence that took place in Los Angeles during the mid-’80s, and it’s not hard to imagine that other aspects of her life during this era are hard to face. She’s spoken in interviews about how she was unable to write about the rape during the Y Kant Tori Read period, that it was too raw and painful. Despite the glib reactions she’s given over the years when asked about the album, it’s clear that the period it represents was not a happy time for Amos.
Maybe there’s a certain catharsis for Amos in releasing the album now, right as she unleashes her latest creative triumph, almost as if to say, “this is where I was, now this is where I am. I persevered, I prevailed.” Maybe Amos views it as finally letting go of something that she can now face, with the passage of years and the hazy detachment of the rearview mirror, with some measure of pride at what it represents, and how she had to fight and claw to truly succeed on her own terms. Perhaps Amos finally realized that the album plays an important role in her story, and that one can’t just take a white-out pen to the past, or airbrush it from existence. Of course it’s easy to speculate and overthink, but for an artist as fan-friendly as Tori Amos, the fact that she blocked the album’s reissue for nearly three decades speaks volumes.
Little Earthquakes is usually considered Tori Amos’ debut album, and in a way it is—her debut solo album. There’s a bit of a grey area here. Even though it was essentially a vehicle for Tori Amos and her original compositions, Y Kant Tori Read is officially a group effort. Amos formed the band after moving to Los Angeles from the Baltimore area in 1984 with an outstanding cast of collaborators: future Cult and Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum, guitarist Steve Caton (who worked with Amos extensively on her first two solo albums), and bassist Brad Cobb, who played on one of the ‘80s most (in)famous hair metal albums, Stryper’s To Hell With the Devil. The ill-advised name derived from Amos’ refusal to read sheet music while studying at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory as a preternaturally talented youth (she was ultimately ejected from the academy at age 11 for her obstinance, although her burgeoning obsession with rock music also contributed to her ouster). The band recorded a demo of five Amos originals (none of which ended up on the album) and were eventually signed to Atlantic Records. They broke up before Y Kant Tori Read was recorded (partly because of pressure by Atlantic urging the inclusion of more polished studio musicians), but Sorum and Caton stayed on for some of the sessions.
Amos stuck with the band’s name despite its dissolution and hit the studio with Los Angeles-area session musicians to back up her vocal and keyboard parts. Keyboardist Kim Bullard became an integral part of the proceedings, as did guitarist Steve Farris of Mister Mister, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, and multiple other talented pros. Robin Zander of Cheap Trick even dropped by the proceedings to contribute some backing vocals. At the production helm was Grammy-winner Joe Chiccarelli, an industry heavy-hitter who’s worked with a wide range of artists over three decades and has been involved in a number of classic albums. Perhaps the closest parallel to his work with Y Kant Tori Read would be his production on Pat Benatar’s synth-heavy Seven the Hard Way from 1985, which has a similar sonic vibe.
After an eight-month recording schedule in which numerous songs were attempted only to be discarded, Y Kant Tori Read was finally released 6 January 1988. Despite a hefty initial promotional push by Atlantic, it was a substantial flop both with critics and with the record-buying public, who largely ignored it. Y Kant Tori Read is often mischaracterized as “hair metal”, which is perhaps understandable given the album’s stylistic trappings. The big hair and fashion, for instance, certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a Vixen or Britny Fox video. The music is amped-up, overwrought, ‘80s-style MOR pop/rock with heavy doses of synths, similar in vein to the British group T’Pau’s hit 1987 album Bridge of Spies, which was highlighted by the hits “China In Your Hand” and “Heart and Soul”. Although the album is ladened with every ‘80s arena-rock cliche imaginable, there is also ample evidence of Tori Amos’ burgeoning talent as a singer, songwriter, and musician.
Listening to Y Kant Tori Read now, it’s easy to understand why it has taken three decades for Amos to grudgingly allow its reissue. Even without speculating on painful memories associated with the project, parts of the album are just plain awful, which she has readily admitted on numerous occasions. Clearly, Amos has been embarrassed by it, but being able to laugh at yourself is an important quality for all of us, and the fact that she’s finally able to let go of it can only be a good thing. The album should not be shrouded in shame, but on full glorious display in all its tawdry garishness. Y Kant Tori Read is part of her story, for better or worse, and its availability provides a fuller picture of Tori Amos’ gestation as an artist.
The supercharged first single “The Big Picture” is notable for the widely ridiculed video (the only one filmed for the album) that could easily be seen as a parody of the ‘80s cheesiest excesses. It’s not a particularly engaging track, nor a strong lead single. It belongs on the soundtrack to one of the endless throwaway romantic comedies that were produced by the dozens in the late ‘80s and promptly forgotten.
While there is an undeniable amusement factor, there is also something deeply poignant about “The Big Picture” single and video. Watching it now and seeing Tori Amos involved in something that so clearly does not suit her brings a certain sadness and the fleeting thought that perhaps Amos was right to keep this as obscure as possible for so long. Had the single been a big hit, it’s hard to see the path it would have launched ending well. Fortunately, “The Big Picture” had virtually no chance of success. The production sounded dated from the moment of its debut, and it was released just as Top 40 radio was veering into a more dance-pop/R&B direction. Alternative music was also emerging as a dominant commercial force (a wave Amos herself would later ride to massive success). MTV played it a handful of times, but it quickly disappeared, failing to even slightly dent the Hot 100.
Much better is the second single, easily the album’s strongest track: “Cool on Your Island”. The lyrics are clunky and simplistic compared with Amos’ future work, but there is a heart and poignancy to it that feels real. She has never forgotten the song, performing it live numerous times throughout her career (far more often than any other of the album’s songs), perhaps most memorably in passionate takes during her 2001 solo tour in support of Strange Little Girls and her 2007 tour (which was archived in a series of Legs and Boots releases) in support of American Doll Posse. In a live setting and stripped of all its studio baggage, Amos uncovers the true beauty of the song. Still, the original recording does possess a certain charm. Amos delivers her strongest vocal on the album and its finest melody over a bouncy Caribbean-flavored electro-pop groove. “Cool on Your Island” is a first-rate ‘80s pop song, and had the album been presented a little differently perhaps it would have had a chance to be a hit (although we should thank the faeries that it wasn’t). In hindsight, the album’s complete and catastrophic failure was an absolutely necessity.
“Fire on the Side” is the closest Tori Amos has ever come to writing a Diane Warren-style power-ballad. For what is essentially a genre exercise, she pulls it off convincingly. “Floating City” is one of the album’s stronger compositions, and when Amos stunned audiences by performing it live during her most recent major tour, it fit nicely alongside the rest of her catalog. The studio version suffers from the same problems as the rest of the album, but “Floating City” is an early gem that offers a glimpse at the dreamy and abstract imagery that Amos would employ on future recordings as she honed her skills as a songwriter.
“On the Boundary” is built around an electronic strut with surges of keyboard that have a decidedly Princely sound (think “The Beautiful Ones” sped up, or “Eternity”) during the verses, with an anthemic chorus that once again shows Amos’ already impressive vocal prowess. Unfortunately, like the rest of the album, the instrumentation and production is so hopelessly dated that it’s jarring.
Scattered throughout Y Kant Tori Read are tracks that are, no sugarcoating it, atrocious. “Fayth” (with the “y”, no less) is particularly cringeworthy, especially the melodramatic half-spoken verses which at times sound like a misguided attempt at rapping. It’s the musical equivalent of bad acting. That said, “Fayth” also contains perhaps the album’s most exhilarating sequence—the soaring bridge beginning at the 2:07 mark, on which Amos’ vocal performance is as fierce and impassioned as anything she’s done. “Pirates” is also on the low end of the quality spectrum—it might work as self-parody, but alas, it’s all too sincere. This time Amos’ vocal is mannered and overbaked—she tries to salvage the song by giving her all, but it’s just beyond salvaging. There are some nice guitar licks, though.
The most notable thing about “Heart Attack at 23” is the piano intro, which sounds like it could have been recorded during the Under the Pink era. Unfortunately, it then devolves into a jittery manic emptiness, lacking any genuine heart or inspiration. “You Go to My Head” is a trifle, a throwaway midtempo number that leaves little impact.
Amos goes all out on the grandiose finale, a suite in three parts called “Etienne” that is the album’s second best track, and the only song other than “Cool on Your Island” that she has performed somewhat regularly over the years. On the one hand, “Etienne” is so languidly romantic and stylized that it’s hard to take it seriously. On the other, there is no need to take it seriously to enjoy its unabashed sentimentality and aerial melody. It’s like a historical novel couched in a gauze of whimsical mysticism, with swooning damsels and earnest young lords who ride around the countryside righting wrongs and falling in love with innocent maidens. Amos manages to fit “witch,” “gypsy” and “crystals” into the lyrics, and Stevie Nicks doesn’t even get so much as a nod and a wink in the credits. “Etienne” is a an epic movie ballad in search of a film (likely one that will end up on Hallmark Channel). It’s a fantasy, and if a pleasure has to be guilty, then so be it. In keeping with the song’s Scottish theme, the final segment wraps up with bagpipes, which is just ridiculous enough to be the perfect ending for a record that begins way over-the-top and has its head in the clouds throughout.
Although it has been reviled as horrible beyond measure, Y Kant Tori Read isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. It’s very much of its era, but for a pop/rock album circa 1987 one can definitely do much worse. Commercially the album was doomed from the start, a fact for which we should all be grateful—imagine if it had been successful and Amos continued down this path? Little Earthquakes, and therefore the long string of superb albums that have been released on a regular basis over the past 25 years, would never have happened. That road would have led to a completely different journey, and it’s hard to reconcile the two. The universe needed Y Kant Tori Read to fail and it did—but it’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for, knowing who you are and what you want, and knowing whether you’re comfortable and confident in the path you are taking.
During her sublime solo performances of “Cool on Your Island”, Tori Amos always infuses these lines with piercing emotion: “Come on baby / I’m much stronger than you know / Sometimes I’m not afraid to let it show”. That’s the ultimate reveal here. Amos, at 54, and still going strong with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy career spanning three decades trailing behind her, is afraid of very little. Certainly not Y Kant Tori Read. The album may be something of a lodestone for humor and derision, yet there are harrowing tales woven through its overblown and dated ‘80s production flourishes. There’s a story here about how women have often been treated in the music industry, and about knowing who you can trust; about figuring out who you are as an artist and a person, and finding the strength to stand up for it; about rising from the ashes of failure; about a passion for music, and a relentless persistence; about survival.
It doesn’t take long for a mirage to shatter, and once all the tiny shards of glass are brushed aside one can only hope to emerge from the wreckage stronger, more self-aware, confident and determined. You either survive it, or you don’t. Most don’t. Once you are tainted with failure, it’s hard to recover, especially in the brutally fickle world of popular music. But sometimes the strength is there—the talent combined with opportunity—and it all comes together. The Tori Amos that brought us Little Earthquakes would not have existed if not for Y Kant Tori Read. Only three years after the release of “The Big Picture” and “Cool on Your Island” came her next single, and it was starkly different in every way imaginable: “Me and a Gun” / “Silent All These Years”.
The samurai sword that Tori Amos holds aloft on the cover for Y Kant Tori Read and brandishes in the video for “The Big Picture” becomes quite a different symbol once she found her voice. “Take to the Sky”, one of the earliest songs written for what became Little Earthquakes (it ended up as a b-side, but has remained a fan favorite and a concert staple) contains the following lines: “But my priest says, ‘You ain’t saving no souls’ / My father says, ‘You ain’t making any money’ / My doctor says, ‘You just took it to the limit’ / And here I stand with this sword in my hand / You can say it one more time / what you don’t like / let me hear it one more time! / Then have a seat while I take to the sky / Take to the sky.”
She did, to remarkable heights, and has yet to descend.
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