Category Archives: HIDDEN GEMS

Hidden Gems: Paul McCartney’s “McCartney II,” Part 1

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Part one in our two-part look at Paul McCartney’s 1980 solo album, McCartney II. Come back next Thursday for part two.

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The old stereotype of the Beatles goes something like this: John was the “smart one,” Paul was the “cute one,” George was the “quiet one,” and Ringo was the “funny one.” Though all of these are true, you could easily swap the adjectives around, pin them on any of the four and they would still make as much sense. The Beatles were the Beatles; they were too amazing to tie down that easily. Many view John Lennon as the most experimental of the four, bringing the pathos and avant-garde tendencies that helped pen “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9,” but all four were pretty out there. George Harrison broke new ground by adding Indian instruments and structures to the group, as well as fiddling with new technologies on his 1969 solo album, Electronic Sound. Ringo Starr added his permanent love of country ‘n’ western music, reflected on “Don’t Pass Me By,” their cover of “Act Naturally” and exclusively on his 1970 solo album, Beaucoups Of Blues.

Over the years, Paul McCartney has been seen as the sensitive balladeer and the most light-hearted of the bunch. (This was hilariously parodied in Jack Black’s over-the-top portrayal in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, where he complains to Lennon, “I’m sick of you being so dark, when I’m so impish and whimsical!”) And while this Paul appears on “I’ll Follow The Sun” and “Honey Pie,” this is the same man who also wrote the unhinged, proto-metal “Helter Skelter,” and the game changing concept behind Sgt. Pepper. (He was also behind musique concrète freak-out “Carnival Of Light,” a legendary, still-unreleased Beatles tune from ’67.) Even now, as a grandpa with a new album of jazz standards, he still occasionally shows off his experimental side, like the crazed Oobu Joobu radio shows or his electronic work as the Firemen.

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Hidden Gems: Dead Kennedys’ “Frankenchrist”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Arguably the most interesting band of hardcore’s early days, the Dead Kennedys had perfected their sound and scope on 1980 debut full-length, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Over the next few years, they would fill their more abrasive songs with even more experimental sounds, political satire and Jello Biafra’s cartoonish vocals to create the right amount of solemnity and fun. After the release of 1982’s Plastic Surgery Disasters, DK continued to tour the world, racking up more fans than ever, though they put their studio recording on hold to focus on their label, Alternative Tentacles. When the band finally did release its next album, the LP would simultaneously become its most (in)famous and the most challenging work of its career.

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For a band that didn’t jam too often, a few of Frankenchrist’s best songs started that way, including opener “Soup Is Good Food.” Over the band’s slanted grooves, guitarist East Bay Ray twists and turns in one of his weirdest moments. Lyrically, the song deals with the working man, which the company bosses view as faceless, expendable drones—“We’re sorry, but you’re no longer needed, or wanted, or even cared about here.” Eventually, the workers are replaced with machines, then “ground into sludge and flushed away.” Later on the album, the Ray-penned “At My Job” follows up on this theme, but musically the sound is much different. Gone is the twisted Latin beat, replaced with a cold, synthy industrial wasteland, reminiscent of its subject matter.

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Hidden Gems: Frank Zappa’s “Chunga’s Revenge”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

“I’d like to clean you boys up a bit and mold you. I believe I could make you as big as the Turtles.” —‘A Noted L.A. Disc Jockey’ to the Mothers Of Invention, as quoted in Freak Out!’s liner notes

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In late 1969, Frank Zappa disbanded the nine-piece Mothers Of Invention, citing financial strains, lack of effort from band members, audience reaction and creative boredom. In the three years prior, the group had pushed the boundaries of rock music further than almost anyone. What began as a blues/R&B combo had blended difficult jazz rhythms, warped juvenile humor, a love/hate relationship with pop music and unlikely instruments; the Mothers Of Invention were equally inspired by Howlin’ Wolf as they were Stravinsky, helping them reach new levels of the avant-garde. Zappa trained his band like an orchestra and even played with some, proving that rock ‘n’ roll was every bit as legitimate an art form as classical music, though in their unpretentious, addictively entertaining way.At the height of the “flower power” era, the band was outspokenly anti-drug, criticizing the hippie movement for the fad it was, but was symmetrically harsh toward the conservative stiffs who ran the country. They were too weird to fit in anywhere; exactly where they wanted to be.

After splitting up the group, the notoriously hard-working Zappa founded his own record label, produced a wide variety of artists, continued work of the never released Uncle Meat film, as well as issuing three more albums: Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. In early 1970, he was approached by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to perform some of his classical works. As he had tons of unplayed orchestral music written, Zappa was excited, although he soon found out it was not the experience he had hoped. As it turned out, the orchestra was only interested in performing with a rock group to boost young enthusiasm (and ticket sales), plus Zappa had to put up the money to print the scores. Since he was without a band, a new one-off lineup was formed and went out on a short tour to quickly prepare for the L.A. show. To make things worse, the Musicians’ Union would not allow Zappa to record the show (even though it would be for personal reference and not for commercial purposes).

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Hidden Gems: John Cale’s “Animal Justice” And “Sabotage/Live”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

On April 24, 1977, during his twisted rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” in Croydon, England, John Cale brandished a meat cleaver in one hand and a chicken in the other (which, unbeknownst to those attending, was already dead). As the punk kids in attendance moshed and slammed at the foot of the stage, Cale placed the chicken on the floor, knelt down and swiftly hacked off its head. As he whipped the severed remnants into the audience, everyone, including the other band members, stared in bemusement. The vegetarian rhythm section of Mike Visceglia and Joe Stefko, who backstage had interrogated Cale on his plans for the bird, promptly walked off. With only half a band and an audiencedumbfounded, the show was over. Cale later wrote, “It was the most effective show-stopper I ever came up with.”

Even before co-founding the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, Cale had been confrontational with his audience, though usually without beheadings. A classically trained pianist and violist, the Wales-born Cale had always flirted with new sounds and musical ideas. His avant-garde tendencies only grew stronger after moving to New York City in the early ‘60s, as he began utilizing composer La Monte Young’s minimalist drone techniques, holding sustained notes for inordinate amounts of time. He brought these influences to the Velvet Underground, whose wild ambience and deafening noise made them one of the most innovative bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. After leaving the group over creative disputes (he wanted to push their experimental sound even further), Cale launched a solo career that bounced between orchestral works, folky pop and abrasive punk, while producing other combative artists such as the Stooges and Patti Smith.

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Hidden Gems: De La Soul’s “Buhloone Mindstate”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

There’s a mantra that appears throughout De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate: “It might blow up, but it won’t go pop.” Like many of the trio’s best lyrics, there are a number of ways to interpret this. At its simplest, the line echoes the album’s title; digging deeper, the threesome could be promising that no matter their amount of success, they won’t “go pop” or change their sound for anyone, especially the mainstream. On a more personal level, one could read this as a statement of defiance, telling the world that De La will never break up, in spite of whatever comes its way. There’s no one answer, in fact; there’s probably truth in each of these readings and maybe even more—but as the album warns, there’s always a “stickabush” threatening to deflate you.

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By the time of the album’s release in 1993, Posdnuos, Maseo and Trugoy had already had a wild and successful career. Barely out of high school, the Long Island, N.Y., trio hooked up with producer Prince Paul to help record its first album, 3 Feet High And Rising. Released in ’89, the group’s colorful beats, along with the smart and often humorous wordplay, struck a chord with listeners searching for an alternative to the up-and-coming gangsta-rap phenomenon. Exploding to success with hit single “Me, Myself & I,” De La Soul was hailed as an innovator by the music press, and the hopeful positivity of the trio’s so-called “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (short for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all”) was seemingly in full effect. However, after feeling dissed by a large portion of the hip-hop community, as well as the music press and media, which constantly referred to the group as “hippies,” much to its dismay, De La Soul made one of the boldest moves in rap history by proclaiming its death.

Released two years later, De La Soul Is Dead defied everyone’s expectations by giving nobody what they thought they wanted. With a cover depicting a subtextual broken pot of daisies, it was clear that this was a different side of the group; fans of 3 Feet High were surprised by the follow-up’s sometimes stark nature, and the group’s critics were jarred to hear the alleged “hip-hop hippies” confront them on wax. Though there are still upbeat moments that highlight the group’s unshakable integrity and playfulness (“Ring Ring Ring,” “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”), they were lodged next to much darker fare like “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa,” a disturbing tale of a teenage girl who murders her father, a department store Santa Claus, who had sexually molested her. Regardless of its heady content, the album sold well, though not reaching 3 Feet High And Rising levels. De La Soul Is Dead is not only widely considered the group’s high point, but it’s now regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

De La refused to be pigeonholed; by “dying,” the band proved that it was more than an image. They illuminated everyone, even some of their fans, forcing on them the realization that it didn’t matter what they were, but who they were. So who were they? Or rather, who were they now? On their third album, they would rise again, but what would this “rebirth” be like? Though still young, Tru, Pos and Mase weren’t teenagers anymore—they were growing as people, as well as artists. As co-producer Paul described in a 2008 interview with The Smoking Section, “They were maturing … The vibe had changed. Things had happened since 3 Feet High And Rising. People had kids and responsibilities got heavy. The pressure of trying to follow the success of the first album and all of the criticisms made it kind of deep. Buhloone Mindsate caused us to mature somewhat. For them, I think the difference was that I was still in yuck yuck land. I wanted to do the goofy, crazy stuff. They were into being a little tamer. I didn’t know that it would be my last album with them, but I knew things were definitely changing.”

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Hidden Gems: The Rolling Stones’ “Undercover”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

In one of the most starkly honest moments of Life, his remarkable autobiography, Keith Richards describes his awakening of sorts, beginning in the late ‘70s. After being busted in Toronto for heroin possession, the Stones guitarist luckily avoided jail time and cleaned himself up (for the most part). With his cookies relatively un-fazed, Richards soon realized the amount of control that Mick Jagger now had over the band. During the previous few years, the frontman was forced to keep the house in order, so to speak, while his Glimmer Twin was semi-indisposed (though still managing to write incredible rock songs). As he attempted to take back some of the reins after his recovery, Jagger was reluctant to oblige and, in Keef’s words, “started to become unbearable.” All was not well in Stonesland, with the future seemingly in jeopardy—“When you think about it, we’d been together 25 years or so before the shit really hit the fan. So the view was, this was bound to happen. This happens to all bands eventually, and now’s the test. Does it hold together?”

Of course, since we’ve seen this movie, we all know that they did hold together, currently holding the title of greatest sexagenarian rock band in the world. It’s staggering to think about, but there has been an entity called the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years; most of us haven’t lived a day where there wasn’t such a thing—they’ve always just been there. So if any of us are around to see the day when the comfort of the Stones is no more, it will be a worrisome change. (Though don’t count on it; as the old joke goes, the only thing to survive an atomic bomb will be Keith Richards and the cockroaches.) But like everything else, the Rolling Stones will eventually come to an end, and in the ‘80s, just like nuclear warfare, it almost happened.

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Hidden Gems: TV On The Radio’s “OK Calculator”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Louis C.K. is the funniest man alive, though if you’re even a casual fan of comedy, this won’t be news to you. Not even taking into account his other work (including his increasingly brilliant TV series), in terms of pure stand-up comedy, there’s really no one else who’s work continually rises to his levels of resonating genius. This is especially exciting for my generation. As a 23-year-old, all the “great ones” were either before my time (Pryor, Carlin, Bruce, etc.), or whose heyday I just missed (Rock, Hedberg, Hicks). These are the guys who have been immortalized, the ones that my generation grew up hearing about in reverent tones, until we eventually experience their work and see why. I believe Louis C.K. will go down as one of the “great ones,” and it’s happening before our eyes. To be fair, we are not contemporaries (he’s 44), and I’m not suggesting he is the only truly great comedian of the past 10 years—but like any time period, there aren’t many future legends to go around. And although it’s an unorthodox comparison, in the world of music, the same can be said for TV On The Radio.

There are many elements that separate good artists from the great, but the evolution of their work is perhaps the most important. It’s one thing to create art that reverberates with an audience, and though not many can repeat this success, even less can do it while continuing to grow and innovate. In an interview with AV Club, C.K. used this principle to explain why he writes and performs a completely new hour of comedy each year, something almost unheard of in the world of stand-up: “If people pay to see you because they like your special, and they pay money to see the exact same show, they’ll actually be very happy. They won’t complain. They’ll go, ‘Ah, that was exactly as great as I thought it would be, because I’ve seen it.’ But they won’t see you again. If you come through town, they’ll go, ‘I know what he does. I don’t need to see that three times.'” That quote has always stuck with me, particularly because I’ve witnessed it in action. I have had the pleasure of seeing TV On The Radio in concert five times, and like its albums, each was completely different from the last. This wasn’t purely based on song choice or jam-y improvisation—the entire tone of each performance had changed. These ranged from a sweaty, punk gig in a shitty club, to an outdoor dance party with a full horn section, to putting on a crowd-pleasing rock show that could give any band a run for their money. I’ve never seen any group as many times, because, to paraphrase Louis, I never needed to. Like C.K., they always bring something new to their work, no matter how risky, and they’ve more or less always pulled it off.

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Of course, the keywords are “more or less.” Like most, if not all artists, there’s usually a period early on where they are still trying to find out who they are or what they’re about—comedians and musicians alike. It’s interesting to look back at the early work of great artists, since it’s often very different from their later accomplishments; sometimes, very different. Watching C.K.’s late-’80s stand-up performances, it’s jarring how different it is from his modern sets, but it’s fascinating since you know what’s in store for him. And for fans of TV On The Radio, its first album, OK Calculator, might seem almost unrecognizable, but it does flash some of the moments of extreme glory that would soon become a common occurrence in the band’s music.

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Hidden Gems: Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

“Bob was really hitting the bottle that weekend. That was a terrible fuckin’ weekend. There was a lot of stuff that makes Hard Rain an extraordinary snapshot—like a punk record or something. It’s got such energy and such anger.” —Rob Stoner

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Is there really anything left to say about Bob Dylan? His life, his music, his words have been prodded and dissected in every way imaginable; proving, at least to whomever is doing the investigating, any theory or interpretation that enters the mind. Artists create and the audience enjoys it, all the while trying to figure out what it “really means”—it’s a tradition as old as man and, especially in Dylan’s case, one that will continue for generations to come. But to convince yourself that you know the man because you studied his songs or read a dozen books on him is, ultimately, a foolish state of mind.

I started thinking about this as I prepared for this piece. I don’t pretend to know Bob Dylan any more than you do, or any more than the authors of the numerous books and articles I’ve researched do. These are works by people who, for the most part, don’t know Dylan personally. Even though there might be interviews with people who do know him, people who were around him during whatever period they are being asked about, that’s only their view of the events. And without delving into a philosophical discussion, it’s entirely possible that Dylan doesn’t know himself any more than you or I know ourselves—and if that’s true, then we really don’t know shit about Bob Dylan.

I only emphasize this, as it made me wonder about my role as part of the audience. Usually in these columns, I spend the first half giving the historical or biographical perspective surrounding the album, then use the second half to focus on the actual music. Without fail, I will eventually come to a point in the midst of writing where I worry to myself, “Is there too much historical background here? Will anyone really care about this part?” Though there perhaps probably is too much backstory in these articles, I’ve always been fascinated in the stories behind the work. For me, knowing where an artist was at during an album’s creation, or the personal or professional struggles they were going through at the time, will often give the work more meaning.

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Hidden Gems: Parliament’s “Osmium”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Before they were taking flight onboard the Mothership, Parliament began its trip in a New Jersey barbershop. In the mid-’50s, George Clinton was a hair stylist at Newark’s Uptown Tonsorial Parlor. Located in a predominantly black neighborhood, the shop was the hangout for the young and old. The North Carolina-bred Clinton became well-known for his hair-styling abilities (no surprise there), but also for his musical talents. Along with a few friends and co-workers, Clinton would regularly belt out doo-wop tunes for the delight of the costumers. At first, it was just a fun hobby, but the boys soon found themselves harmonizing in the back room, long after the shop had closed. Clinton soon left the Uptown to start work at Silk Palace, another barbershop in the nearby town of Plainfield, where he recruited a few local singers for his burgeoning group. It was here where the boys focused their musical ambition, and taking the name of their favorite brand of cigarettes, the Parliaments were born.

Beginning in ’58, the group recorded a few singles under various record labels but all struggled to find success. 1965’s “Heart Trouble” single for Golden World Records met the same fate, though it was the first to feature the Parliaments’ classic lineup of Clinton, Grady Thomas, Ray Davis, Calvin Simon and Fuzzy Haskins; this formation would remain for years to come. After producing a bunch of local groups for different labels including Revilot Records, with whom the Parliaments were soon signed, Clinton got a job as a songwriter/producer for Jobete Music, the publishing company of Motown Records. On his weekends off from the barbershop, which he now owned, he would make the trek from Jersey to Detroit to produce recording sessions. On one such trip in ’67, Clinton recorded a song he had co-written, “(I Wanna) Testify,” though as the rest of The Parliaments were unable to attend, the track was filled out by various session musicians and vocal group the Andantes. Released as the Parliaments for Revilot that summer, “(I Wanna) Testify” became the group’s first hit song.

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Hidden Gems: The Flaming Lips’ “The Flaming Lips”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Before they brought their exploding psychedelic orchestras to the masses—everywhere from 90210 to SpongeBob SquarePants—the Flaming Lips were just four weirdoes in the heart of middle America, trying to bridge the gap between punk rock and the trippy ‘60s pop they grew up with. Their self-titled debut EP owes as much to Black Flag as Jefferson Airplane, and it kick-started the journey of our generation’s greatest band.

The story of the group, and all those involved, is as all-American as you can get—hoping to give their children a better future, Tom and Dolly Coyne moved away from the coal mines of Pittsburgh to Norman, Okla., in 1961. They were a large working-class family with five kids, with Wayne only weeks old when they trekked across country to their new home. Wayne, along with little brother Mark (who came a year later), spent his formative years playing football with the older Coyne boys, soaking up the sounds of their Zeppelin and Who records like little brothers are supposed to.

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As he grew older, Wayne became more interested in music and painting, using the money he made from working at Long John Silver’s and selling pot to buy a guitar. Mark Coyne became the star quarterback of the high-school football team, but he wasn’t your stereotypical jock. Wayne has described him as “a very intense person … He has boiled and drank his own blood. Has rescued countless animals … He consumed over a hundred doses of LSD one summer when he was 13 years old.” With Wayne on guitar, Mark on vocals and their friend Dave Kostka on drums, the boys started their own band, but still they knew that something was missing.

Michael Ivins grew up only a few blocks away from the Coynes, attending the same school as Mark, but they had never met before. Michael was an extremely shy kid who became fascinated with the punk and new wave of XTC and the Buzzcocks. After decking himself out in punk gear, even sporting a bleach-blonde afro-mohawk, Ivins bought a bass from a local pawnshop with the hopes of starting a band, though nothing ever came of it. By chance, Michael’s little brother threw a party in late ‘82, which Mark Coyne and his friends had crashed. After spotting Michael’s strange getup, Mark struck up a conversation, and invited him to jam with the nascent band.

A few days later, Ivins arrived at their practice space—an old grocery store, which now housed Tom Coyne’s office supply business. The boys took up shop in a former meat locker in back, where they crudely jammed on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and garage-band standard, Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme.” For the next few weeks, they would practice relentlessly, while Wayne started writing and demoing the group’s first songs.

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