Wednesday, June 24, 2009
“I used to could listen for hours to records just for the guitar playing, but then I was dumb, because without an actual song or framework, its just somebody going doodly-doodly-doodly without rhyme or reason, and it bores me intensely (though I still own one Yngwie Malmsteen record, you’ll NEVER catch me actually listening to it).” – from my review of the Yardbirds’ “Roger the Engineer” record.
Whoops. Color me a fool.
So you know how I feel about flashy guitar players – no more needs to be said, though I’m sure I’ll end up saying it anyway.
Yngwie Malmsteen was THE hot new guitarist on the block in 1984-85. His calling card was speed: no one, and I mean NO ONE played faster than Yngwie. At a time when this kind of talent really seemed to matter, he not only sounded the part, but he looked it too: 21 years old, long hair, classic 80’s metal dude. Music magazines had this Swede plastered all over the place before his first solo record even came out (he first drew notice in the boring “Alcatrazz”). In interviews, he would position himself as the rightful heir of the musical throne of Bach, Paginnini, & Hendrix (though it’s obvious that he patterned himself after more recent players like Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth of the Scorpions.) At school, we’d look at pictures and wonder if his name was pronounced “yuh-NIG-wee” or “ING-wee” or “ING-vay” (the latter is correct). Finally the record came out. Yup, he sure was fast. Real fast. Faster than Van Halen, even. Problem was he couldn’t write. At all. No melodies, no lyrics, no nothing. But he played fast, alright. John became the Yngwie collector of the family: I think he bought the first 4 Yngwie records before losing interest. I never developed that interest myself, though I did have his picture on my wall for many years. He looked cooler than he sounded.
And how does it stack up today, you are asking yourself? Not well, matey. For one, it has the ABYSMAL sound of 80’s metal, especially the drums of ex-Jethro Tull member Barriemore Barlow (who happens to share my birthday – Virgos rule!) For another, as I mentioned, there’s not one memorable riff or melody on the whole record. You may as well listen to it with the sound off, because you’ll retain nothing. Lastly, his guitar playing…it IS superfast. Too fast. He plays 10 notes when 4 would suffice. There are endless descending and ascending runs – so many that you eventually tune them out, noticing only when he SLOWS DOWN (which isn’t too often). Seeing as he always claimed he was more than just another metal guitarist, (he is Yngwie “J.” Malmsteen, after all), he turns a Bach work into heavy metal drivel (this album came out around the same time Spinal Tap exposed so much of the rock & metal world for the sham it was, so it was passe upon release), has a harpsichord player on another song, and shows that he can play acoustic guitar and bass just as fast – yet for no real reason. A keyboard player appears on many of the cuts, sometimes dueling with Yngwie (sorry, Yngwie J.) on solos – hey buddy, I don’t care how fast YOU play, I didn’t buy this to hear fast keyboards, DUDE.) Plus there are two actual songs featuring vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, who must’ve been an old friend, because he has no business singing metal: on the first (“Now Your Ships Are Burned”), he sounds like a smoother James Hetfield of Metallica; on the second (“As Above, So Below”), he is the faceless metal singer that you imagine when you think of “generic”.
I despise Gene Simmons as a human being, but he made a really good point in the “Kiss Extreme Close-Up” video (he was burying Mark St. John, their third guitar player who became disabled & had to leave the band after recording one album with them): he stated that he would rather hear a simple hard chord whose sound almost breaks your ribs than to hear a million notes that just sounds like an angry bee – so annoying that you want to shoot that thing (and if Gene Simmons gets in the way of the bullet, all the better).
VERDICT: listening to this record is like driving through the Midwest (say, Kansas) at full speed. When you look out the windows, everything is rushing by so fast that you can’t focus on anything (not that there’s anything of interest to focus on). You just want to get through it as quickly as possible and move on to something else.
VIDEO: here’s Yngwie J doing his thing in Japan. They seem to like him, though people probably didn’t care too much for him on a flight to Toyko in 2002. Apparently, another passenger spilled water on him after he wouldn’t shut up, and, drunken and beligerant, he went off: (not safe for work). I like this clip much more than any of his music.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Led Zeppelin changed my life.
They redefined in my mind what a rock group should be. They had the best of everything: best vocalist, best instrumentalists, best songs, best records, best album covers, best mystique - the list goes on (as does the beat, but that's a moot point). I started listening to them around 7th grade: by the time I was in high school, they were second only to AC/DC of my favorites (and that's only because AC/DC was more fun). Though it was more due to a general laziness than anything else, I still somewhat blame Led Zeppelin for taking away my focus (or even interest) in maintaining good grades at school. What would you, as a suburban kid, rather do: study algebra or rock to "The Immigrant Song" over and over again?
This was all when I was a teenager, though. I really don't listen to them much anymore, partly because of over-exposure (totally the fault of classic rock radio, by the way. I could go the rest of my life without ever needing to hear the following Zep songs again: Whole Lotta Love, Thank You, Living Loving Maid, Rock and Roll, Stairway to Heaven, Dancing Days, D'yer Mak'er (HATE that song), Trampled Underfoot, Fool in the Rain, & All My Love), partly because the initial buzz of discovery has been tempered by all the copycat bands that still pop up, and partly because my interest in the heavy blues rock genre is dead as a doornail. Though I still think very highly of John Bonham's drumming, Jimmy Page was talented but overrated and sloppy as hell on guitar, and Robert Plant got so much better when he wasn't shrieking (his recent work with Alison Krauss was REALLY good).
It was interesting to listen to this record in whole again after not having played it for years. Considering it was one of the regulars on my turntable, I remain very familiar with the songs, and wasn't surprised by anything. I got out of it what I expected: some of the songs are still really good (mostly the pop ones) and some are dreadful (mostly the blues ones).
· "Good Times Bad Times" - a great rocking way to kick off the record. Good vocals, bass, and drumming - and superb guitar playing. There are two awesome dramatic moments in the song: the first is the hesitation right before the first solo - it's a perfect moment because the solo comes roaring into a full speed gallop after the pause; the second is after the final chorus: as the bass plays through the bar unaccompanied, you hear the guitar pick chip at the strings, like Pagey can't wait to come back in, and when he does, it's this super speedy run. YEAH!!!!!
· "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" - one of Zep's trademarks was the light/heavy - acoustic/electric contrast. Sometimes it worked very well ("Ramble On"), other times not so good. Like this song, for instance. Musically, it just isn't very interesting, but it's the lyrics and vocals that totally sink it. I'm not sure what Plant is doing during this song. He starts out by declaring to "Babe" that, well, he was going to leave her: he even specifies that this event will happen in summer (Babe: "but it's October!"). In the second verse, he says that no, he doesn't REALLY want to leave – (pause) – just kidding, of course. Seriously, he's outa there (to "ramble", apparently.) He never specifies WHY it's so important that he leaves "Babe", but it's clearly starting to get him, because he starts SCREAMING apropos of nothing. When the verse finally comes back in, it seems like he's changed his mind YET AGAIN. So now they're staying together with the action plan for the future including daily trips to the park for walks (this kind of exercise must be a big part of Plant's regimen because he YELLS this at "Babe" as well.) Okay, they're fine now emotionally and physically (he even has changed his nickname for her to "WO-man"), he admits to being very happy to be with her, then hollers that he's "got to go away". At this point, "Babe" must be shrieking at HIM to make up his damn mind already, or, at the very least, shut the hell up. I guess he gets this message because he ends the song with a low moan, still indecisive. Believe me, “Babe”, I feel for you – I’m frustrated just having to sit through it. (Rip-off alert: the song is credited on the record to "Traditional, arranged by Jimmy Page", though the song was actually written in the 50's. Starting in the 90's, the composer finally received credit and back royalties.)
· "You Shook Me" - this song is a very good definition of the word "plodding". I'm sure in 1969, this kind of generic heavy blues impressed a lot of people, but man, it is dull, cliched, and goes on forever. Pure cock rock, with a decent electric piano solo, an awful harmonica solo, and more Plant screaming unnessarily. Instead of fading out, it leads right into
· "Dazed and Confused" - a super great descending bass/guitar riff leading into the first real classic of Zep's career. Plant is having girl trouble again and lashing out at women in general (“the soul of a woman was created below” - it was at this point that I became uncomfortable by how down on women (or maybe it was just "Babe") this record has been. Scanning side two, it doesn't get any better) but his overwrought vocals fit the song well. The quiet middle section featuring Page bowing his guitar strings is nice, but more for the actual usage of the bow rather than actual notes played. I like the speeding up the tempo before the guitar solo, and there's some cool ensemble playing before throwing on the brakes into the last verse. There's a good buildup at the end, then fade side one. (Rip-off alert: the song was written by a folksinger named Jake Holmes in the late 60's. The Yardbirds (featuring Jimmy Page) played the song often in their last year, though they never recorded it for release. For the first Zeppelin album, Page re-wrote the lyrics, and took full credit. To this day, he has not given Holmes even a co-writer credit. THEIF!)
· “Your Time is Gonna Come” – beginning with a keyboard solo from John Paul Jones that pays tribute to (or rips off, depending on what side of the fence you’re on) the organ solos that Garth Hudson of the Band would play leading into their classic “Chest Fever”, the song settles into a mellow acoustic groove that sits there impotently, while Plant threatens “WO-man” with retribution for running around on him (can you blame her, though? First he’s staying, and then he’s going. First he’s happy with her, then he’s not. I’m guessing WO-man did not take his threats very seriously, cause he’s not going anywhere.) Page plays a pleasant steel guitar, but the song seems unfinished, and fades out.
· “Black Mountain Side” – starting in his Yardbird days, Page showed an affinity for middle-eastern or world music, as it came to be called. Thanks to George Harrison, Indian music still seemed the rage in 1969, even though generally Indian music played by white British rock stars tended to be simply pop music tarted up to sound foreign. On this short acoustic piece, Page is joined by an Indian tabla player. It’s okay: his acoustic compositions would be better in the future – this one is a little redundant, but it’s over soon enough.
· “Communication Breakdown” – the BEST song on the record: short, heavy, dramatic, excellent. Pagey firebombs the solo and Plant pitches a fit on vocals. The Dead Kennedy’s said it best in their song “Short Songs”: “I like short songs” repeated very fast 13 times. So do I.
· “I Can’t Quit You Baby” – another drab blues cover; like “You Shook Me”, written by Willie Dixon (perhaps Page had a dose of honesty and moral responsibility that week when he actually credited the correct songwriter. Or maybe he just had a lot of respect for the legendary Chicago bluesman. Of course, that respect must’ve drifted off by the next LP, as Willie himself was completely ripped off, as Page/Plant claimed they wrote “Whole Lotta Love”. Willie eventually got his credit years later.) This cover is better than it’s counterpart on side 1, but you can still pass over it without missing much. Luckily it leads into the skipping bass/drums beginning of
· “How Many More Times” – the second best song on the record, and one where the length actually benefits it. Yes, at its core, it’s just another blues song, but through its volume, dynamics, and killer heavy riff, it becomes something very different – heavy metal. Though I would not want to listen to it for days, I think I actually could. The whole band is on fire, and it swings AND it STOMPS. A phenomenal closer (despite being a RIP-OFF: blues icon Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) wrote a song called “How Many More Years” that Zep somehow figured they could call their own with a few lyric changes. Guess what? Howlin’ Wolf is now properly credited on Zeppelin re-releases. Totally shameless.)
They do look very cool on the back album cover, for a bunch of cheaters.
VERDICT: it meant a whole lot more to me when I was younger, but I still like it. Mostly.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
You know, I go on and on and on about rock and roll, and how serious it should or shouldn't be. I admit that I have, at times, taken music WAY too seriously: perhaps because of the overwhelming influence music (particularly rock and roll) has had in my life, or perhaps because I don't often have a whole lot of other things going on. Whatever the case, there have been many times where I have been grossly unfair to music that doesn't strive to be more than simple pop fun. Bubblegum music. Music with no ulterior motive than to make the kids happy (and make disgusting amounts of money by knocking out assembly line material that has a couple great hooks and a spirited (if anonymous) performance.) Who cares if it ain't nothin' but a good time? (Poison was one of THE great bubblegum bands of all time, by the way.) There are times I don't want to think or sink into the intricacies of "art". I really really really just wanna zig-a-zig-AHHHH!
The heyday of bubblegum music was arguably in the late 60's, amid the backdrop of psychedelia, protest, and pot. The 60's changed not just pop music, but the BUSINESS of pop music: musicians and songwriters were taking their own reigns rather than letting the producers have all the fun. The Beatles, another of the great bubblegum acts, led the way. I put down Paul McCartney a lot (justifiably so), but MAN could he write a perfect pop song. The fact that they also had artistic integrity and talent made their career, even in the early stages, still more impressive. The youth market was booming, and the producers & record companies were pulling in huge amounts of dough. As the Beatles and others like them grew, their music became much more sophisticated (is it really possible that there was only 2 years between "She Loves You" & "Tomorrow Never Knows"? THAT is growth), but there were younger kids who were just now coming of age to buy the records, magazines, & paraphernalia of their siblings who didn't GET the new directions. No problem: record execs like Neil Bogart & Don Kirshner simply made up or took over bands to cater specifically to the kids. A lot of these songs are so sugary your teeth rot, but it's a good pain - like an ice cream headache; it HURTS, but you don't stop eating it, do you?
A few years ago, I began collecting some of these old bubblegum records as part of my "simplify" philosophy (inspired by "Walden" - yes, Thoreau motivated me to listen to the Archies.) I was already well familiar with the Monkees (my first concert), and some of the better-known gummy classics ("Sugar, Sugar", "Yummy Yummy Yummy", "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'"), but didn't know anything about the bands that performed them. For good reason, it turns out. Generally, they didn't exist - or if they did, they would do shows and appearances to promote records that they mostly didn't write or play on. The house producers and songwriters were kings, and few were hotter than Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz of Buddah records. Cranking out faceless hit after faceless hit, they specialized in simple, almost childish, singalongs filled with hooks (and, often, double entendres: I still feel a little queasy hearing "I got love in my tummy", but it's GREAT).
In 1968, Buddah decided to have a big bubblegum show at Carnegie Hall featuring their "superstar groups" like the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Ohio Players, and the Music Explosion, along with other less known (ie non-existent) bands like the 1989 Musical Marching Zoo & J.C.W. Rat Finks, under the title "the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus". This record is purported to be the "original cast recording" of the event - like it's the soundtrack to a play or something. Unfortunately, it's a sham: a pure studio creation labeled to mislead its underage audience. I absolutely do not understand the purpose of this record other than to make a fast buck. Even more confusing is that much of the record isn't even K-K material: there are unbelievably bland versions of "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling", "We Can Work it Out", "A Place in the Sun", "Yesterday", and "Hey Joe" - none of which comes anywhere close to being even a fraction as enjoyable as the originals. There are a couple of insultingly fake "live" introductions, purportedly by members of the aforementioned bands, but more likely to be the recording engineer or the guy who happened to deliver lunch to the recording studio that day. Side Two features "live" versions of previous K-K hits "Little Bit of Soul", "Simon Says", and "Latin Shake"; over pre-recorded audience screaming, some guy exhorts the crowd to sing along, so they do: the "audience" clap and sing over the ORIGINAL songs - like if you were in your car and singing along to the radio. It's pathetic. (That said, I'd never heard "Latin Shake" before (originally by Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box - uh huh), and I'd like to hear it without these phony overdubs.) K-K add a couple slower, Kinks-style story songs which aren't very good, and the only other original "Down in Tennessee" is more of an excuse to name drop the bands again rather than to get your heart a-pumpin’ and your feet a-jumpin’.
VERDICT: ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
VIDEO: this is FANTASTIC in so many ways: the phenomenally nerdy group, the stoned guitar player who clearly hated the camera being in his face, the silhouettes of I’m guessing one of the band member’s parents in the “audience”. I LOVE it.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Whew…it took a couple of days to get the stink of patchouli from the steaming pile of hippie crap called the Incredible String Band off of my turntable long enough to change records, where it was replaced by the sweet sweet smell of a 21 year old Michael Jackson funkin’ it up somethin’ fierce. Yet it’s not as good as I’d hoped.
(During this note, I will not be reviewing his status as an unconvicted child molester. He is innocent until proven guilty, and, luckily for him, he had enough money to throw around to keep this a moot issue. The world has always had its fair share of creeps, sickos, and perverts – the entertainment arena has never cornered the market on them. Can artistic milestones sometimes trump moral depravity? Yup. History has shown us that time does separate the art from the fart. Can Michael hope for a future where his music is more resonant than his freakishness? Nope. Because even “Thriller”, as great a record as it is, isn’t really all that. “The Girl is Mine” is NOT art.)
As you may have guessed, my opinion of Michael Jackson as an entertainer isn’t super high. There are a few things that he deserves huge amounts of credit (or blame) for: certainly defining music video; for creating, controlling, and manipulating a public persona that was unparalleled; and, through a combination of talent, drive, and ambition, being the catalyst that broke open the music world of the 80’s, leading to popular music and culture becoming more racially diverse than ever before. Michael did some great music prior to “adulthood” (because who doesn’t like the Jackson 5? Let me re-state the question: who doesn’t like the Jackson 5 songs sung by Michael?) and did some fine work after “Michael Jackson the myth” started crumbling (post-“Dangerous” – though I will always question the dubious distinction of having MacCauley Culkin strike a gangsta pose in the “Black and White” video), but his career as a mega-star will always be defined by 2 records – “Thriller” and “Bad” – which spanned an 8 year period. Not a whole lot of productivity in 8 years really (and I don’t include the Jacksons reunion albums or things like “We Are the World”, which together took him about 10 minutes of inspiration.)
“Off the Wall” is his first full exhale of creative control, and it’s very good. Michael’s performances are definitely terrific – his voice is extremely nimble and expressive, and it sounds like he’s having a blast with this material. As well it should, because this is a dance record first and foremost. The songs are primarily either about dancing (“Get on the Floor”, “Burn This Disco Out”), use dance metaphors (“Rock with You”, “Off the Wall”) or are get-it-on tunes with a dance floor beat (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”, “Working Day and Night”). Side One is a nonstop funk fest, and is fully enjoyable; Michael gets extra credit for writing 3 of the 4 songs, including the stone classic “Don’t Stop…”. This is not only the best song on the record, but one of the true classics of R&B, and is, in my opinion, only matched in his career by “Wanna Be Starting Something”. In fact, I think the weakest part of this record is the material on side two written by the proven pop songwriters: neither Carole Bayer Sager, Stevie Wonder, or Paul McCartney (ESPECIALLY Paul McCartney’s) contributions hold a candle to either Michael or Rod Temperton’s compositions. The only exception to this is the heartbreaker “She’s Out of My Life” written by some guy named Tom Bahler. (Sorry, Paulie, that song (and the hankie-wringing performance Michael delivers) blows away ANYTHING you did in the 80’s or 90’s. “Biker Like an Icon”, indeed.)
That said, I kinda expected to like this record a lot more. Seeing as I prefer the 70’s Michael to the 80’s and beyond freak, I thought this would be a minor masterpiece that I could groove to while wondering what the hell went wrong. (“Thriller” is a fantastic record, but as music, it wasn’t good enough on its own to create the phenomenon that eventually unraveled his personal and professional life. Of course, neither was “Meet the Beatles”.) It’s just that the material is not quite there yet. The thing about “Thriller” was that it had such amazing crossover success: “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Human Nature” and the appalling “The Girl is Mine” are all VERY different songs in different styles, yet all of them nail the sound they were going for perfectly. Though it also nails ITS sound, “Off the Wall” really only has one.
But it’s not fair to compare these two albums in that way, as they are so different. So fine, I won’t anymore. (And, um..regarding the picture of the album above...that's a camera flash. The actual front cover does not feature his glowing crotch.)
VERDICT: side one is excellent, side two is spotty with only one real gem. A very good dance record. And now I’m going to change records and listen to “Wanna Be Starting Something” again.
VIDEO: aw HELL YEAH!!!!
Sunday, June 14, 2009
If the first sound you hear when you drop the needle is a sitar twanging and bonging, you’re in for a rough ride.
When that sitar is kicking off a two record set of hippie nonsense subtitled “A surreal parable in song and dance”, you’re SERIOUSLY in trouble.
The lowdown: the Incredible String Band was primarily 2 Scottish folkies who frolicked in whimsy and truly symbolized 60’s love children taken to extremes. Like if Donovan was serious. (He was?? Oh…) Mike Heron (the lower voice, the more straightforward songs) and Robin Williamson (high voice, experimental instruments, compositions more free form) were earnestly (BOY are they earnest) trying to bring the British folk sound into the Summer of Love: while they could occasionally stumble over a good tune (Heron’s “You Get Brighter” & “China White”, Williamson’s “First Girl I Loved” & “Way Back in the 1960’s”), they were more apt to be precious – so precious you wanted to beat them senseless.
I was NOT looking forward to this record. I tried listening to it once when I first got it, and didn’t even get through side one (when I learned that the live presentation of “U” included mimes, I REALLY wanted nothing to do with it.) Yet here it is – “U” is the only other “I” in my collection, but unlike the other “I” (Michael Iceberg), I’m not actually angry having to hear it, but I AM annoyed and bored out of my gourd. AND I HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE SECOND RECORD YET.
Upon hearing the 8 ½ minute introductory song “El Wool Suite”, I was reminded why my initial impressions weren’t unfounded. But at least there’s no vocals on this one. The rest of side one is absolutely awful. Almost all Williamson songs (except for the cowboy parody “Bad Sadie Lee” done by someone named Janet Shankman), Robin is the kind of singer who doubles or triples the length of a two minute song by stretching one syllable words like “time” into about 15 syllables by trilling and scatting up and down his limited register. Have I mentioned that his songs are precious? Oh yes, they are. “The Juggler’s Song” (TERRIBLY sung, by the way) tries to use a juggler as an analogy for power, substance, and time, and fails miserably. Side one closer “Queen of Love” goes on FOREVER, with Tom Constanten’s (early experimental associate of the Grateful Dead) string arrangement being the only positive.
Side Two isn’t as rough, as it’s more Heron’s material (not that it’s GOOD, mind you, but it’s a far cry better than side one’s crap). Instrumentals kick off and close the side (with “Partial Belated Overture” sounding like something Mike Oldfield would later do, and the full band sound of “Bridge Theme” providing a nice contrast to all the acoustic noodling, respectively). In between, though - junk. I like Heron’s piano playing in “Light in Time of Darkness” but then he starts braying his vocals, and I try to tune it out as best I can. Throughout the record, the boys are accompanied by their girlfriends, Rose & Licorice. Rose plays a decent bass and sings poorly, and Licorice plays drums and, uh, spoons, and sings REALLY poorly. I fell asleep during the absurd “Hiren Pawnitof”, but woke up (heh – “I Woke Up” was the album they released prior to this one. It’s also the title of Jandek’s strangest release, but that’s for another review) when the electricity of “Bridge Theme” hit. Then I fell back asleep again.
I don’t want to finish listening to this. The first record sucked hard, and the second doesn’t look like its going to be better (side 3 is almost ALL Williamson songs) and the LP ends with a 15 minute thing called “Rainbow”. God help me in the future.
Okay, just finished. Was it as bad as I’d worried? Almost. The first song on side 3, “Bridge Song”, features some of the worst group vocals I’ve heard from any band. On lead vocals, Licorice sings in an ugly high registerr, matched only by Mike’s off-pitch howl. Following this time waster is an acoustic guitar solo from Robin that goes nowhere, and leads into the acapella “Invocation” that presents Robin at his absolute worst. But then a curious thing happens: the rest of the side is (comparatively) non-offensive. Sure, “Robot Blues” is just Robin banging away at the piano doing a “future blues” parody, but it’s much more tolerable than its immediate predecessor. The side 3 closer, “The Puppet Song”, is NOT BAD. The lyrics are as dippy as all those before, but a little more clever, and the music is quite nice. And this is from Robin – maybe I’ve misjudged him.
No I haven’t, because side four is abysmal. Beginning with Robin’s now patented shrill AAAAhhhhahAHHHHehhhhhAYYYYYY, moving through an inconsequential solo from Licorice (at least it’s not falsetto this time), and ending with the feel-good-send-the-hippies-back-to-the-park-happy “Rainbow”, I’m spent. I don’t want any more music today. Was this music? Was this supposed to be good? Am I just not getting it?
VERDICT: Netflix sent me all 3 discs of the “Macho Man” Randy Savage retrospective; I should’ve been watching that instead.
VIDEO: this is a lot more coherent than anything on “U”. U probably won’t like it. I don’t.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
I fully admit to being a fan of junk rock. You know the kind: sloppy guitars, squawked vocals, dirty drums, little or no production, and vaguely irrelevant songs with totally irrelevant lyrics. Music that is generally more fun to make than to listen to: where the energy level is way more important than quality control. When needing a quick burst of adrenaline and devil may care attitude, this kind of music is my drug of choice.
Speaking of drugs, I also fully admit to being a fan of junky rock. This can possess some of the same attributes as described earlier, or can go in a more inert direction. Lyrics tend to be more important to the overall effect, though then are often more obtuse, and generally aren’t that much better. Musicianship is more lazy than sloppy (which generally corresponds to the musicians passing out while playing). Production is such as to make the music seem as disconnected as possible from reality. I prefer this type of sound when I want to zone out completely and need a soundtrack to an evening spent staring at the ceiling or my toes (depending on my mood).
Neil Hagerty has always had a foot firmly planted in both camps. When he was “guitarist” in the infamous noise rock band Pussy Galore with future hipster doofus Jon Spencer, it was all about the visceral, in your face sound of someone screaming in your ear while beating you about the head with a tire iron, while in his side – later full time – project, Royal Trux, he and partner Jennifer Herrema perfected the poise of a junkie couple locked in a studio, laying down tracks (of various kinds), then messing with, distorting, layering, and embellishing them to create a very disorienting mélange where melody & rhythm seemed to happen only by accident. Their second record “Twin Infinitives” is one of the most self indulgent pieces of indie crap I’ve ever tortured myself with: surprisingly, seeing as I’m one of the most self-indulgent musical masochists I know, I don’t have it anymore, & have no desire to hear it again. It’s THAT bad. Royal Trux definitely got better with each successive record, though; by their fifth record “Thank You” (their major label debut – I can’t imagine any credible record company that isn’t simply trying to horn in on the DIY crowd sinking money into this stuff. They rewarded the label’s interest in them with the disgusting picture of a clogged toilet on the cover of their next record “Sweet Sixteen”. They were dropped soon after), they sound like a classic southern rock band wacked out on downers: sure it’s still sloppy and greasy, but there are songs that actually resemble catchy MUSIC, and both Neil & Jennifer have very charismatic presences (especially Jennifer’s raspy vocals (obviously influenced greatly by emphysema patients – Neil’s vocals were more yowling ala Keith Richards)). Much better than the Black Crowes, anyway.
So when Neil released his first solo album in 2001, I wasn’t sure which side to expect – or even to see if there would be some crazy new direction he’d nod toward. “Jazz Odyssey”, perhaps. Well, it doesn’t differ than much from Royal Trux, except he reverts back to the screwing around in the studio sound of the earlier records than the band sound of the latter. And while he’s more accomplished now than he was then (it’s a CLEAN sounding record), these songs (and they ARE songs – not sketches or improv this time) are so forgettable that even though I finished listening to it about 20 minutes ago, I don’t recall any differentiating feature from one song to the next, outside of the opening track “Know That” which rips off its hook from the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat”. It does sound like a true solo record in that all the playing seems Hagerty-ized (even the ever present drum machine sounds phased). Neil sings in his lower register for much of the record, which definitely makes it more palatable for the ears – his high whine is pretty painful - and there’s plenty of overdubbed guitars & keyboards, none of which sounds “right”. While I was listening to the record, I certainly didn’t mind it, but I didn’t pay much attention to it either. There’s nothing to stick.
VERDICT: wait….did I actually listen to this record? I can’t remember.
VIDEO: i saw Royal Trux 3 times when they were together, and this is a pretty accurate Neil performance. I dare you to sit through the whole thing.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I’ve always been a little torn about what I’m looking for in a rock musician. Is it more important to be creative, to stand out amidst the rock and roll wasteland – even if that means presenting something not particularly “good”? Or how about passion, commitment & emotion? Though rock music by nature is instilled with momentum and a certain level of energy, should you want your music more relatable: either in the “they’re saying what I feel” way or a “they mean what they say” manner? What about the rock star trappings – aren’t they important, too? Attitude & charisma is vital – both for standing out and as a rallying point. Despite my disdain for celebrity, I can’t help wanting my rock stars to look and BE the part, not just act it; for as long as they can back up this attitude with a passable amount of talent, I’m cool with that. Rock constantly feeds on the “sex, drugs, & rock & roll” burnout mentality, and there is an endless supply of cannon fodder to be built up and mowed down.
I’m also torn on the role nerds should play in rock. Rock nerds first got the nerve to stand proudly on their own in the wake of Dylan, as earnest intelligent folkies moved into the electric arena. They helped personalize rock beyond the boy-meets (loses)-girl basics into something broader, even though they sometimes got too “deep” for their own good, PAUL SIMON. (“I am a rock”, indeed – I wish I was a rock to bounce off that sad little bald skull of his.). John Lennon was the poster child for these nerds: despite his bluster and his defensive exterior, he possessed the nerd gene in full blossom. Plenty of the psychedelic or art rock groups of the late 60’s/early 70’s contained at least one dyed in the wool dork. But in my opinion, the two godfathers of nerd rock were, on the surface, complete opposites: Iggy Pop of the Stooges & Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. One was a notorious wildman – truly the perfect example of the charismatic rock and roll frontman; the other was a textbook geek who was either almost painfully oblivious or unguardedly proud of the dork he was. They both got their point across through disarmingly forward lyrics that captured the essence of their characters, for better or worse, and both ROCKED. Together, they spawned generations of offspring who learned you could be honest about who you were in the rock arena while living up the rock and roll promise (is it a surprise that in their early days, the Sex Pistols covered songs by both Iggy & Jonathan?)
That said, having the strength & commitment to express yourself freely as a rock songwriter doesn’t mean you could, or should, be a “singer-songwriter”. Singers like Dylan, Richman, & Lou Reed showed you didn’t have to be a technically proficient (or even listenable) to be a successful rock singer. What you needed was an individual voice and phrasing to bring your lyrics to life. It was HOW they sang that made these three stand out – not everyone could do it. It’s one of the catch 22’s of the DIY aesthetic: it’s your voice, use it – but don’t be surprised if people don’t want to listen to it.
Guitarist Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 (later in Luna) maybe should not have been the singer. He has a high warbly voice that veers off pitch constantly, especially when reaching for notes far out of his range. The lower notes are tolerable, but those high ones – hey buddy, it’s unpleasant. In some of the songs on this first (& on subsequent) Galaxie 500 record, he tries to make it more presentable by doubling his voice an octave apart. It happens far too often, and doesn’t help. The unfortunate vocals are the worst thing about this album.
Luckily, there are so many positives to counter this negative. This is undoubtedly a shoegazer album akin to bands like Spacemen 3 & The Pefect Disaster: 3 chords (maybe), slow to mid-tempo songs, fully defined instrumental sound, nice distorted guitar. It’s the sound of a sunrise: the gentle unobtrusive tapping of the Damon Krukowski’s drums, the quiet strumming of the guitar which occasionally bursts into slow feedback leads resemble the sun peeking up over the horizon with sharp streams of sunlight piercing the clouds (deep..huh..maybe I AM a rock). On top of that is the unreal potent bass playing of Naomi Yang, who clearly used Peter Hook of Joy Division / New Order as a starting point in that the bass is relatively simple & played high up on the fretboard, & expanding that to play countermelodies during the verses; almost like a lead instrument without actually soloing or overplaying like a Geddy Lee or Chris Squire. The instrumental sound presented by Galaxie 500 is a very comforting, snug, & warm: the obtrusive vocals don’t diminish its quality.
The songs are very good – they’ve got the sleepy feel of the third Velvet Underground album. Lou Reed is obviously a big influence on Dean’s guitar playing and sound, though his lyrics are more Jonathan Richmanian. To wit,
“I don't wanna stay at your party
I don't wanna talk with your friends
I don't wanna vote for your president
I just wanna be your tugboat captain”
OK, sure. When you try to go “cute”, there’s a danger of getting too “precious”. Dean crosses that line a few times, but hey, it’s their first record, and by the next album, they’d improved quite a bit from this already impressive start. The albums starts strong with the gorgeous “Flowers”, but hits its stride on side two, with tremendous songs in “Oblivious”, “Temperature’s Rising”, “Instrumental” (finally – an instrumental that lives up to its name!), and the college hit “Tugboat”. There’s also an interesting cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste”, which is more of a curio than anything else (as the original was sung a-capella, it’s weird to hear, you know, instruments). Regardless, this is a truly fine record from a seemingly underwhelming band.
VERDICT: with a different vocalist, this could’ve been fantastic. As it is, it’s simply great.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
My obsession with Led Zeppelin during my teenage years awakened me to a whole host of seemingly unrelated elements: Aleister Crowley, fishing for sharks out of hotel room windows, Roy Harper, giving lip service reverence to blues pioneers while blatantly ripping them off wholesale, etc. The one I’m most grateful for was the introduction to the joys of Fairport Convention, which came about due to singer Sandy Denny duetting with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore” off “Led Zeppelin IV”. I knew this song backwards & forwards for years before even learning the mysterious female singer’s name. By that point, I’d also heard about this great-underrated guitarist Richard Thompson who had come from the same band. At one of the many record conventions I attended during the late 80’s, I found a double LP compilation of theirs, and was enchanted immediately.
Fairport Convention played electric folk music with a decidedly British/Celtic feel to it. A cop out description would be to call them the English Byrds, in that they modernized folk music using Dylan as a springboard (their classic second album “Unhalfbricking” contains 3 Dylan covers, including one in French), plus they modernized old-school folk while simultaneously playing tribute to its origins. The initial focal point of the band was its vocal harmonies, though by their 3rd & 4th records, that expanded to include the unique guitar playing of Thompson and violin of Dave Swarbrick.
Their forth album, “Liege & Lief”, was the last with Denny in her original stint with the group (she rejoined a few years later for a couple of good albums), and captures the band at its peak. Apart from three originals, the songs are old madrigals and auld story songs whose spirits remain despite the electric trappings. Sandy sings absolutely beautifully on every song, whether it be a soft folk number (“Farewell Farewell”) or a strident epic (“Tam Lin”). She could sing with a gentle touch like Judy Collins or with powerhouse command like Grace Slick. Swarbrick also dominates the record, particularly on the showcase medley of Irish jigs on side two (sometimes in jaw-dropping duets with Thompson on guitar). I love the introductory song “Come All Ye”, which seems like Fairport’s nod to “Sgt. Pepper’s LHC Band”, in that it essentially says “hi there! We’re the band! We’re gonna knock your socks off!” and proceeds to do so. Though I don’t care much for the album closer, Thompson’s “Crazy Man Michael”, and murder ballad “Matty Groves” goes on a little bit too long, this is otherwise a wonderfully evocative record from a band proud to show the folk music was so much more than Woody Guthrie.
Verdict: you can’t go wrong with any of the first 5 Fairport records; this one is neck & neck with “Unhalfbricking” as their finest (also, most of the solo albums by Sandy Denny & Richard Thompson (especially the ones done with wife Linda) are worth looking into if you like this)
Video: as there doesn’t seem to be any decent live footage of the original band with Sandy singing, here's the recording of “Farewell Farewell” with a slideshow, while the film Maidstone 1970 features an excellent gig done soon after Sandy’s departure. Great stuff (though I’m not sure why the guy who posted this video didn’t cut out the helicopter departure).
[Vyvyan throws the Molotov cocktail into Rick's bedroom, which explodes]
Rick: Oh, well, how ruddy considerate, Vyvyan. Thank you very much!
Vyvyan: Why aren't you dead?
Rick: I'm not prepared to discuss it with you, Vyvyan. You will be hearing from my solicitors in the morning. I'm going to write to my MP.
Neil: You haven't got an MP, Rick. You're an anarchist.
Rick: Oh. Well, then I shall write to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen!
- The Young Ones, episode “Sick”, 1984.
I must admit that, despite owning 4 of the records and a greatest hits compilation, my musical knowledge of Liverpool’s Echo & the Bunnymen is limited to “Lips Like Sugar” & “The Killing Moon”. They were a band that I always planned to get around to, but never seemed to find the time. Well, they’re next on the list, so there’s no getting around it now.
One of the challenges that emerged on the music scene following the advent of punk was the re-definition of “guitar hero”. Part of the nature of rock and roll, all the way back to Scotty Moore backing up Elvis, was that the electric guitar would be one of, if not THE, hallmark of the genre. Yeah, the vocalist would always get at minimum 50% of the attention, but there needed to be that other guy (I’m not being mysoginistic, there weren’t that many guitar goddesses in the 50’s & 60’s) who would step forward during the break and strut his stuff. After Eric Clapton stepped out from the Yardbirds, almost every band was expected to have a virtuoso guitar player that was just as, if not more, important than the vocalist. Unfortunately within that format, while such amazing players as Hendrix, Peter Green, and Mike Bloomfield had the opportunity to develop and advance on their already excellent technique, you had guitar players who really did not have the expertise, feel, or talent to have such a spotlight shone on them “stretching out” for far longer than needed. This led to wank-fests where the 10-20 minute guitar solo became the norm at rock concerts, sometimes on record (holy moses, Canned Heat’s “Living the Blues”, a 2 record studio set, has a 40 MINUTE VERSION of something called “Refried Boogie”; and that’s AFTER a 19 minute thing called “Parthenogenesis” – NOT GOOD.)
Punk was intended both as a return to the initial simplicity of rock and roll and a condemnation of the bloated monster it had become (I’m looking at YOU, YES! You, too, Jethro Tull – PUT THE FLUTE DOWN!!!) But how different was punk from, say, early rockabilly? Outside of the obvious production developments and more mature subject matter, musically it was, as described by the Dictators, faster and louder, but the format remained the same. Without a doubt, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Mick Jones of the Clash were, at heart, stereotypical guitar heroes, albeit without as much wankery. But beneath the substratus of punk lurked a new brand of guitar players who weren’t much interested in keeping up with the Joneses. These players used their instruments for more atmosphere than attention, often getting away from the distorted roar that had become a cliché even within punk’s initial years. Players like John McGeoch of Magazine & the Banshees, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division, & the Edge of U2 utilized a more dry, choppy sound to accent SONGS rather than draw attention to the SOLOS.
Will Sergeant of Echo & the Bunnymen is also one of these new guitar heros. On this first record by the band, he plays just as vital a role as vocalist Ian McCulloch (which says a lot, as Ian was one of the more powerful SINGERS in post-punk Britain.) Throughout the album, Will provides colorful commentary with his ringing phrases, letting Ian and bassist Les Pattinson carry the melodies. It’s nice to have guitar playing catch your ear on a rock album in this rather unconventional manner: he’s not soloing to the skies, building up to some kind of guitar orgasm. Sometimes it’s what he’s NOT playing that grabs you; other times the timing of his interjections give Ian’s already emotive singing even more UUMPH. He’s good – he’s DAMN good. Johnny Marr of the Smiths must’ve LOVED this guy.
I’ve already mentioned how good the vocals are; for a debut, they’re already very mature. The rhythm section (Les & drummer Pete DeFreitas) sound very Joy Division influenced and are solid. The songs are well written, with side two perversely being MUCH better than side one (except for the so-so closer “Happy Death Men”, which is the only song that Will cuts loose in. That said, it’s only for about a minute.) Some of the songs betray a mid-60’s swinging London influence filtered through a late 70’s attitude (“Going Up”, “Villiers Terrace”), and “Do It Clean”, “Rescue”, and “Read it in Books” are extremely catchy rockin’ classics. The sound is raw but professional.
VERDICT: this is a very good album, and I look forward to hearing the other records once I get through all the other E’s.
VIDEO: from the classic new wave film “URGH: a Music War” – this song is not on the album, but was released as a single shortly after “Crocodiles” release.)
Who’s ready for some awkward & painful internal analysis?
No, it’s not me this time; I’m talking about Doc Corbin Dart’s first solo album “Patricia”, you silly head!
Doc Dart was the lead singer of the most politically radical, controversial punk band to ever come out of Lansing, Michigan…hell, ALL of Michigan (whoops, forgot the Meatmen were also out of Lansing – what on earth was in the water of THAT town?): a band whose name even outdid the Dead Kennedys for sheer tastelessness. Out of respect to the more gentle eyes out there in the internet world, I’ll call them the Crucifriends. Though their first record was musically your standard hardcore fastandloudisms, two things clearly stood out. One was the unbearingly angry hostile lyrics, even for punk standards. I wouldn’t even so much call them lyrics so much – more like bile; they covered some of usual punk targets (government, media, religion, police) but added an extra dose of deranged spleen (especially toward cops: when Alternative Tentacles re-released their first 2 albums on a CD, the back cover featured a purported photo of a policeman killed in the line of duty. Though the photo turned out to be from a police training exercise, the police union still sued the record label & initially got a couple million.) The second was the voice of Doc Dart; there’s not been a vocalist in rock, or any music whatsoever, who could match the pure obnoxiousness of Doc’s off-kilter tunelessness. Whereas Darby Crash of the Germs sounded like a very confused 2 year old whose lack of control of his own motor skills (plus heroic doses of alcohol and drugs) prevented him from expressing himself in anything more than a slurred bawl, Doc sounded like a very SPOILED 2 year old who knew that if an intense bombardment of nagging wouldn’t get him what he wants, the rage he unleashes when he starts screaming surely will. Holy Moses, it’s an unpleasant sound. Steve Minshew had this record, and I tried listening to it, believe me, I TRIED, but even with my built in tolerance for horrible noise, this was too much.
Their second album “Wisconsin” is a bit more traditionally listenable, with some actual melodies to accompany such soul stirrers as “Pig in a Blanket” and “When the Top Comes Off”. But Doc’s solo album that followed was a completely different beast. “Patricia” is very REM-like in its 12 string guitars, bouncy melodies, and occasional big drums. (The vocals are still hard to take, but manageable.) Lyrically, it’s far more introspective, and Doc bares more of his soul than probably anyone wants to hear. Rumor has it that the titular Patricia was his psychiatrist, and when the doctor/patient relationship ended, Doc freaked out – the result being this album. It certainly sounds that way: he may very well have recorded his vocals lying on a couch. He’s been broken by a multitude of causes, but returns often to feelings of abandonment: by friends, lovers, family, even someone who died before him. He knows that this issue is majorly screwing with his head, but doesn’t know how to conquer it, and the person he was leaning on to help get through it has cut him off (in the title song, he hints that Patricia stopped the sessions because the love he expressed for her was over the line). Only once does Doc fall into a Crucifriendish rant, as “Little Town, Little People” tears apart weekend protesters (if Doc is hardcore about one thing, it’s his protest): “It might be too much work to fight a war that you can win / so wear your t-shirt to a rally and get yourself on the news again / The cops were beating up a black man on your street the other night / While you were smoking pot and saving the world (or thinking that you might)”. Side two really sinks into his psyche, especially on “Casket with Flowers” and “Patricia”. Again, musically, its good jangly guitars and attractive sounding keyboards, which reflecting off the naked lyrics is a bizarre contrast. Anyway, after Doc and Patricia part, comes the benediction of “Here for You Now”, which on casual listening, sounds like the reassurance of a friendly voice, but really reveals a Travis Bickle-like character who is taking on a high moral stance for what he’s done (or is about to do). The song appears to be aimed at anti-abortion activists: whereas some of the true extremists claim the moral high ground that taking the life of the abortion doctor will save many more innocent lives (hey! This review is as timely as today’s headlines! How prescient!), Doc goes the other direction: killing the activists like some kind of avenging St. Michael (“So proud to manage other species now / Your own is out of control and still you can’t see how / A balance will be struck and shake your faith that day / Mine will be restored when you are blown away”). The chilling last phrase of the song and album is repeated several times: “I’m here for you now”.
Doc is still in the Lansing area causing trouble: a militant animal activist, he changed his name to “26”, and received death threats for his (some would say) unpatriotic activities following 9-11 (click here for a very interesting read on this unique individual.)
VERDICT: not a laugh riot, but appealing musically, lyrically, and psychotically, & will certainly make you rethink any desires to become a psychiatrist if this is what you’ll have to deal with.
VIDEO: this is early hardcore footage: it’s…well, a tad on the intense side (Doc seems upset), naturally not safe for work, and arguably not safe for human consumption (that’s Steve Shelley (future drummer of Sonic Youth) on the drums). YOWZA!
I lived in Oklahoma City during the first 5 months of 1993. Denny rented the top floor of a duplex for next to nothing, and as I had nothing going on in Houston, and was burned out at my job, I finally moved out on my own (kind of). It was a spacious apartment; very cool (well, cold, actually – it was winter and there were huge tears in the air conditioner insulation in my room that I attempted to fill with socks that had too many holes to wear), but unfortunately it was located in one of the armpits of America. I kid OKC, but not really; I found it a fairly dismal city, seemingly gray all the time. Chico Marx may have described it as "a-no good". However, I may be confusing the locale with my then current state of mind. Whatever the case, I didn’t stay long.
You’d never believe it, but there wasn’t much to do in the middle of Oklahoma. I wasn’t much of a go-getter, or even a leave-the-house kind of joe. I recall Susan’s horror when I innocently asked her advice, as a student nurse, about at what point a person should start being concerned about bedsores. For bed is where I spent a great amount of time, usually with the blankets over my head to stave off the cold while listening to “Sister Ray” by the Velvets at excruciating volume, compounded by putting my stereo speakers IN BED with me. I rocked. Denny & Susan, bless their hearts, did their best to perk up my spirits (or at least get me to change out of the rank torn t-shirt I’d wear around the clock), but without much success. Oh it wasn’t so tragic: the high heavens didn’t fall, but how much of that time, I didn’t really want to be there at all.
In the midst of gray, there were still some memorable moments. Denny and I were brothers in the ways of penny pinching, and I delighted on how well we were living on next to nothing (though it might have been a little more physically comfortable if we could’ve turned on the air conditioning at times for just a little bit, but that might’ve cost us an extra ten bucks. Each.) Denny was a great roommate, and I enjoyed getting to know Susan better. On TV, I watched the unfolding drama in Waco culminate in the massacre of US citizens by the American government live and in colour, and experienced the 2 greatest “bad” films in history for the first time: “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “’Manos’, the Hands of Fate”.
Then there was the “Happy Symphony”. At one point in April or May, our apartment somehow became the depository of a host of stereo equipment due to relatives & friends moving, running out of space, upgrading their systems, or some other reason. As expatriates of The Plastic Experience, we hadn’t done much recording, but seized the opportunity to create our own monstrous psychodelic sound collage. I used the album “Variations IV” by John Cage as a template: this happening consisted of Cage hooking up mikes and equipment in several different rooms of a gallery, and manipulating the sounds at chance, resulting in an auditory melange capturing everything from street sounds, bar glasses tinkling, shards of conversation, and other banalities, in order to….I don’t know what his point was. All I knew was that we had a lot of stereos and we were going to use them.
We bought a six-pack of the cheapest cassettes we could find (from Walgreens, I think). We then hooked up all the equipment and played concurrently the aforementioned Cage album, side two of the Plastic Ono Band “Live Peace in Toronto”, and a loop of “Revolution #9" while recording this mass of noise on another tape player. We then duplicated THAT tape 3 times and played them all back at roughtly the same time, stopping and starting, louder & softer, speeding up & slowing down those tapes at will, so that it almost had the effect of verses & choruses (you’d hear some of the same clips at different times during the recording). On top of THAT, Denny & I mixed in snippets of various records & tapes we had lying around: everything from Jim Morrison, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs & Hunter Thompson to sounds of the Jonestown massacre, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, "A Clockwork Orange", Bill Cosby, & “MacArthur Park”. Plus Tom Waits, the Residents, the Stooges, Thomas Dolby, Jack Webb, the Monkees, and plenty of the Plastic Experience. We did only one recording, fearing that the morass of sound would cause the 98-year-old woman who lived below us to call the cops, but once was enough. It was rough but about the most successful recording we ever did. We titled it “The Happy Symphony” based on an offhand comment from a Partridge Family episode we happened to watch that night (Keith was trying to be taken seriously as a composer, and talked of writing classical music. Laurie said that symphonies were really depressing. Keith: “well, this’ll be a happy symphony.” Brilliant.) (David Cassidy is a real jerk , though.)
And I LOVED it. I listened to it all the time; at home, in the car, on my Walkman at work at 1 in the morning when I was supposed to be taking phone reservations at Hertz. (Interlude: when Denny & Susan were married in Richardson, Denny, Kendall, Darek (who was on leave from the navy) and I stayed in a local hotel (where I think we spent the night before the wedding at an elementary school playground?? Is this correct???). Darek hooked up with some skateboarding friends and was out all night, finally crashing in, bloody & exhausted, in the morning. As he lay comatose under the covers, Denny & I felt that the only medicine he really needed was a big ol’ dose of “The Happy Symphony”. He didn’t seem to respond too well to its charms; as it played, I detected total hate in his eyes (when they weren’t rolling in circles). Soon enough it replaced “Sister Ray” as my bedmate, where I would succumb nightly (& daily) to its soothing wash of noise. Bliss. (Epilogue: I ended up having a seizure while out for Mother’s Day lunch at Red Lobster in Fort Worth with Susan and her family. Though the tests never revealed the cause, nor has there ever been a repeat of a similar incident, part of me looks past my poor eating, sleeping, and frame of mind & gently accuses “The Happy Symphony”. (I never listened to it in bed again, that’s for sure). As I lay on the hospital bed, agonizingly sore from every muscle in my body tensing up and wondering how I was going to pay for the bill for an unhurried ambulance that wouldn’t even turn its siren on (everyone got to the hospital before me), I thought “yeah, it’s time to go home.”
What I’m trying to say here is that I’ve got “The Happy Symphony” and have no need for “Variations IV” anymore. Our recording is just as good as anything I’ve heard from Mr. Cage (except for “Interdetermancy”, which is awesome), and is a lot more fun to listen to most of his recorded output (case in point: did Cage ever have Yoko Ono, Dylan Thomas, Wayne Newton, and Robin the Frog (Kermit the Frog’s nephew) overlaid on a recording AT THE SAME TIME, culminating in repeated yelps of “SCIENCE!”? Nope. It’s art because I say it is.
VERDICT: “Music is all around us, if we only had ears.” – John Cage.
“This music sucks.” – Mark Bychowski
VIDEO: say what you want about experimental music, John Cage had a GREAT sense of humor and a phenomenal imagination. Though many of his ideas READ better than they SOUND, they’re still extremely clever, & his theories of “music by chance” affected me greatly (I appreciate music more defective than perfected.)
This may prove to be a difficult review to write; not because I can’t think of an ocean of superlatives to describe this album, but because everything that needs to be said about it was said in Greil Marcus’ outstanding essay from his book “Mystery Train” (which I can also gush over, as it’s one of the best books on rock music ever written). I’m so familiar with this essay that I’m worried I may subconsciously plagiarize it, so I’ll try to keep this review short and sweet.
“The Band” is one of my favorite albums ever. There is not one bad thing I can say about it. The songs are all fantastic, the musicianship is never less than impressive, the sound is warm and appropriate, the singing hits all the emotion it sets out to hit, hell, even the cover photograph captures the album perfectly. These guys had been together in Canada for years, and the camaraderie and sympathy in the songs bears this out. In an era of wild psychedelic nonsense, the Band reverted to playing only what they needed to, making every song sound complete without being bloated.
Each song has something about it that makes me keep coming back, no matter how many times I hear it. To wit:
“Across the Great Divide”: the lyrics are very funny, describing a man desperately trying to double talk his way out of being shot by his girlfriend for crimes unspecified. By the end, it sounds like he succeeded, as he’s telling her about how good their life together will be going forward, but, just in case, “tell me hon, what you done with the gun?”
“Rag Mama Rag”: this wonderful chooglin’ song peaks for me when Rick Danko’s violin chimes in after Levon Helm implores him to “rosin up the bow”. Also, great tuba playing! It’s got a great beat and easy to dance to.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – despite its obvious appeal to me due to its subject matter (the end of the Civil War), this is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. The narrator of the song, Virgil Cane, (amazingly sung by Levon) is a proud Southerner who’s lost everything and sounds on the verge of giving up, even though it goes against every fiber in his body, the very way he was raised. To give everything you have to fight for an existence that is gone forever & the bewilderment & resignation of how to survive going forward – that’s what this song captures. The playing highlights this well: when Virgil proudly tells of his brave older brother, the beat picks up for a couple of bars, but quickly slows back down when he sings of his brother’s death. Wow. This song illustrates the continuing saga of the Civil War: the aftermath that changed our country permanently. (How was it that a primarily Canadian group (Levon was from Arkansas) could make one of the most evocative AMERICAN albums of all time?)
“When You Awake” – this song features one of the hallmarks of the Band (at least on their 1st 2 albums): the group vocals. There are times when all three singers (Helm, Danko, & Richard Manuel) all harmonize in a manner rough & spontaneous. Each has a unique voice, and their blend gives the songs a rustic 1920’s farm recordings feel – very timeless.
“Up on Cripple Creek” – besides the previous album’s “The Weight”, this is their best-known song. Funky & funny (outstanding clavinet playing by multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson), you can’t beat the feel good chorus: “Up on Cripple Creek she sends me / if I spring a leak, she mends me / I don’t have to speak, she defends me / a drunkard’s dream, if I ever did see one.” Plus I like Levon’s “hee hee” after talking about how he loves it when Bessie “puts a donut in my tea”. And this is the ONLY rock song I’ve ever heard where yodeling is not just appropriate, but welcome.
“Whispering Pines” – Richard Manuel’s vocals were often the most heartbreaking on the Band’s records, & this gentle tune is very affecting, especially when his vocals answer Levon’s on the last verse.
“Jemima Surrender” – song one on side two is the first time on this record that the Band really “rocks out”. It even has a guitar solo (one of only 2 on the album (I can’t tell if the one in “Unfaithful Servant” is a guitar or a mandolin, so for now I’ll exclude it), and Robbie Robertson (chief songwriter as well – can’t sing worth a damn, though) plays it very clinically, almost Steve Cropper-esque. In an album bursting with emotion, this song delights me in its carnality (“If I were a barker in a girly show (I’ll tell you what I’d do) / I’d lock the door, tear my shirt, and let my river flow!”)
“Rockin’ Chair” – this may be Virgil Cane 40 years after the war’s ended. Battered & tired, he works on the water – perhaps a fishing boat. He knows that his life is coming to an end, and that the rest of his time alive “ain’t worth a dime”. All he wants to do is be back home: a mundane routine life has never sounded so attractive, yet still out of reach. Another tearjerker from Richard.
“Look Out Cleveland” – a raucous rockin’ tune about the end of the world. Well, maybe not quite that, but definitely apocalyptic: there are storms coming that will wipe us all away. This song took on a lot more meaning to me after Katrina, Rita, and especially Ike, as it namechecks Houston in the chorus (and Cleveland (TX) is about an hour away).
“Jawbone” – this is the only song on the record that has strange time signatures, which gives if a real fluid sound. Great bass playing by Rick, and kudos to the others as well (you know you’re good when you can switch back and forth between a very tight jazz like beat and the sound of a drunken hootenanny at will.)
“The Unfaithful Servant” – I don’t know much of the lyrics to this one, but the plaintive sad vocals of Rick combined with Garth’s horns provide sometimes unbearable gravity. (I haven’t mentioned the drumming on this record yet – I would put Levon against ANYONE when it comes to drumming with real EMPATHY for the song. Sometimes its just an offbeat, or soft brush stroke, but MAN Levon should’ve gotten songwriting credit for some of these due to his amazing playing.)
“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” – the apocalypse is back again (though not literally) in this song about a simple farmer caught between a rock (the marketplace) and a hard place (the unions). The industrial revolution has happened, and suddenly the man isn’t working for himself anymore. The strain of the verses is countered by what seem initially to be pastoral images (“corn in the fields / listen to the rice as the wind blows ‘cross the water”), then the thud (“king harvest has surely come”). This feels like a Biblical image, but I take it as the foreshadowing of something deeply final. One last guitar solo, and fade out….
Well, I guess I didn’t have a problem coming up with things to say about “The Band”. Listening to it is a wonderful experience: you’ll be happy, sad, wary, weary, turned on, despondent, fearful, and so much more (plus “Rag Mama Rag” will make you shake your thang.)
VERDICT: uh huh, it’s good. It’s DAMN good. For, uh, rizzle.
VIDEO: this performance gives me chills (from “The Last Waltz”, filmed at one of their final concerts with the original group. Even though Robbie takes on a very overbearing role, almost making the rest of the Band seem like sidemen, the music is classic. A MUST SEE.
Welcome to round 2 (or “Phase 2”, as the Vanilla Fudge might call it) of my “record of the day” reviews. I’m really going to work at being a little more concise with this next batch, but remember: I’m not judging them on their quality necessarily, but more on how they affect, impact, or bug me personally. So if one of your favorites ends up ripped to shreds, it’s not personal, it’s just that that particular album sucked. Okay? OK!
The Adverts were one of the first punk groups to record in England in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols. There first singles - the proud sarcasm of “One Chord Wonders” & morbidly danceable “Gary Gillmore’s Eyes” - remain true classics, & I’m to understand that their first album “Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts” is still well thought of, though I’ve yet to hear it in whole (“Bored Teenagers” was on a compilation and is very good). Singer/songwriter TV Smith sang in a high strangled voice (much more Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners than Johnny Rotten), & bassist Gaye Advert was debatably the first punk pinup girl (Joan Jett totally copied her look: yes, I know the Runaways were around first, but Joan’s image was initially more lace than leather. By the time “Bad Reputation” was released, she was virtually a carbon copy of Gaye, except without the strung out overtones.) Instrumentally, the band was eh, awright.
“Cast of Thousands” is often described as the stereotypical “difficult” second album, owing to a supposed drop off in quality, which may have been the case, as the Adverts broke up soon after its release. As I’ve not heard their first record, comparing the two is not for me to judge. I will say though that this record is not very good. The most annoying quality is the production: the vocals, bass, and keyboards are jacked up, and the guitar and drums are turned WAY down (it’s hard to hear ANY electric guitar on the record. This must have been intended as a reaction away from the punk sound (it WAS 1979, after all), as the piano, massed backing vocals, and acoustic guitars attest to, yet it simply is not an attractive sound and undermines much of the material.) There are a few songs that are strong enough to survive (“Cast of Thousands”, “The Adverts”, “Television’s Over”, & “I Looked at the Sun”), but the rest go by without leaving any trace of their existence behind (three of them (“Male Assault”, “I Surrender”, “I Will Walk You Home” are flat out crap, no matter how you produce them). The better lyrics tend to be more in the personal vein rather than social or political; the latter are awfully generic and much too cliché for British punk.
On the plus side, TV’s vocals are expressive despite the weird sound, with him truly working up a lather on the title track and “I Looked at the Sun”. Also, um…they all apply eyeliner well. Yeah, that’s about it.
VERDICT: this audience of one gives “Cast of Thousands” a thumbs down.
VIDEO: this was taken from an indie German film; the latter 2 songs are from this album, and come off a LOT better live than on record. And of course “Gary Gillmore’s Eyes” is still awesome.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Honestly, I didn’t feel much when Frank Zappa died. Certainly nothing like when any of my other 60’s rock idols passed away. It’s a bit difficult to get sentimental about Zappa. I can’t think of a more standoffish, obnoxious, arrogant, haughty “rock star” than Frank. His curmudgeonly qualities that I initially found very likeable turned negative fairly quickly, and there were aspects of his music that I held in as much contempt as he seemed to hold for his own audience. When he died in 1993, I was pretty much over him, despite being a rabid fan only a couple years earlier. Actually, the most poignant tribute to him (or at least the first time after his death that I reflected on the great music he brought into my life) was on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Village of the Giants” (which was a fabulous film in its own right: Tommy Kirk & Ron Howard with Beau Bridges as the VILLAIN? Awesome.) The running skit in between commercial breaks was that dopey evil scientist sidekick “TV’s Frank” was being fired, so Mike & the robots sang a tribute to him called “The Greatest Frank of All”. They replayed the song at the end, and as the credits faded, a picture of Zappa faded in: “Frank Zappa: 1940-1993”. I didn’t expect it, and it touched me.
Plus I’ll give this to Zappa: he always followed his own muse, however nonsensical or vulgar that muse ended up being, and for almost his entire musical career, ended up being able to make a very successful living doing exactly what he wanted to do. Very few musicians can make that claim, especially during a career of over 20 years. That said, he released a LOT of music, and a LOT of it sucked. I mean, I’m sure it was great to him (for after all, HE was his audience: if he thought these intricate yet bloodless fusion pieces were good, or if he thought rock operas involving robot penetration were funny, he released them. if others didn’t appreciate them, it’s because they weren’t smart enough or were too humorless to “get it”. whatever.) At one point I had more than 30 Zappa records, yet only listened to a few, frankly (heh) because the others did nothing for me. Sure I thought “Bobby Brown Goes Down” was funny when I was in high school – I also thought farting in a room full of people was hilarious. (hmmm, come to think of it, that description could easily describe some of Zappa’s 70’s output). His 3 record “opera” “Thing-Fish” still holds the distinction in my mind of being the most offensive, most senseless record ever released (worse than anything by GG Allin, even). Grimy, yucky, & unfunny. (It isn’t the most UNLISTENABLE record though: that award goes to Crispin Glover’s “The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution Equals Let It Be.”)
Zappa also tended to marginalize much of his early work; understandable, as his heart seemed to lie in the more complicated classically jazzy pieces that he released frequently throughout the 70’s & 80’s. He seemed to regard the original releases of the Mothers of Invention as trial runs, or, at best, incomplete experiments left uncompleted to his satisfaction by inadequate musicians, subpar recording methods, or lack of funds. This train of thought is unfortunate, as there are very few “rock” acts that had the astonishing quality consistency Zappa had between 1966-1970. With this first loose assemblage, he released 9 recordings (2 of them double records, 2 of them as a “solo”); every one of them excellent, and 3 of them flat out masterpieces. He never matched this success rate in his career again; in fact, within a couple years of the breakup of the original Mothers, he was releasing awful crap like “Fillmore East” and “Just Another Band from LA”, plus filming the monumentally stupid film “200 Motels”. Totally disheartening to go from the musical greatness of “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” to the overblown unfunny “Penis Dimension” (trust me, despite the song titles, there’s a BIG difference).
But for now, I’ll focus on Zappa & the Mothers’ first release “Freak Out”. Originally released as a 2LP set, I’m going to review each record separately. The first LP is very song oriented and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. The songs range from what can be termed anti-love songs (“I Ain’t Got No Heart”, “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder”, “Anyway the Wind Blows”) and 60’s proto punk (“Hungry Freaks, Daddy”, “Who Are the Brain Police”, “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”). There’s a fantastically sarcastic commercial for the unbelievably unattractive band’s appeal to the ladies (“Motherly Love”), and even a ridiculously catchy pop tune (“Wowie Zowie” – LOVE the xylophone riff). The lyrics are snide and hysterical, especially on the “love” songs (“no matter who I take home / I keep on calling your name”). The music and performances are the simplest most straightforward of his career, and that is not a bad thing. Though Zappa’s control runs through all of his releases (only one vision here, folks), this band has more individual personality than any other group of musicians he played with, especially Ray Collins on co-lead vocals. Combining Ray’s strong straightforward pop style with Zappa’s satirical bass voice was very inspired and makes for some seriously enjoyable listening. Zappa’s other clear love was doo-wop; even when singing the most preposterous lyrics ("you fooled around with lots of other guys / that's why I had to get my khakis pressed"), his affection for the style comes through during his entire career. I completely LOVE this first record, and listen to it, sing along to it, and laugh with it fairly regularly.
The second record is a bit more difficult, as it consists of 3 longer pieces, 2 of them very avant garde – precursors to one of the routes he would take in later life. He came into this album very well rounded musically and was determined to be known as a serious composer. The first piece, “Trouble Every Day”, is a blues-rock song which could be a snider slower version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; it focuses on the clashes between the establishment & the “freaks”, and spares neither – Zappa was always an equal opportunity offender. It can be taken as a protest or anti-protest song, depending on how you look at it. Great stuff. Next is “Help I’m a Rock” (any song whose title mocks Paul Simon gets a thumbs up in my book), and it’s a bit more problematic. It's divided into several sections consisting of moaning, groaning & yelling (sometimes in Spanish) over a sinister riff, an acapella section featuring the Mothers chanting “it can’t happen here” that devolves into nonsense, a drunken jazzy jam, & ending with the first appearance of Zappa heroine Suzy Creamcheese. Very progressive for something recorded in 1966, but not something you want to listen to much. The record concludes with the 12 minute freak out “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”; lots of sped up & backwards vocals & studio manipulations. Definitely hallmarks of the Zappa sound, and at least slightly more concise than later releases, but these ears prefer melody, thankyouverymuch.
VERDICT: it’s absolutely amazing how fully formed Zappa was on his first album; this album would be the high point of almost anyone else’s career, but Zappa got even better. For a few years, anyway.
VIDEO: no footage here, just the song “Hungry Freaks Daddy” – I couldn’t find any footage on youtube of the original Mothers that was any good.
The Yardbirds would be the most overrated band of all time if the Yardbirds were actually remembered for their music.
They’re not, of course. Despite having achieved a very respectable amount of success and a few hits in England, they’re best known for having been the stepping stone for their extremely successful guitar players: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, & Jimmy Page. Each of these guitarists (especially Beck) had some impressive moments in the band, but achieved greatness after leaving (Led Zeppelin originally toured as “The New Yardbirds”).
I used to could listen for hours to records just for the guitar playing, but then I was dumb, because without an actual song or framework, its just somebody going doodly-doodly-doodly without rhyme or reason, and it bores me intensely (though I still own one Yngwie Malmsteen record, you’ll NEVER catch me actually listening to it). Despite their guitar starpower, the Yardbirds WERE song oriented: problem was the songs were more often lackluster to awful, where you only stuck around to hear the 30 seconds or so of guitar. And never has a band soloist completely outshone his accompanists as Clapton, Beck, & Page did, because there’s little to say about the rest of the Yardbirds. The rhythm guitar, bass, and drums are all at best nondescript, and the vocals of Keith Relf are plain awful.
So onto the album…
I really don’t understand this record: it’s clearly a reissue, but is it also a compilation? Clapton is long gone, and Beck is the main soloist, but Page is on at least a couple songs (he joined up on bass until then rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja was good enough to take over the bass, but as soon as they settled into a devastating double shot of guitar goodness, Beck’s massive ego caused him to hit the road after only about six months of this lineup.)
Anyway, side one starts with “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”, which even with the aforementioned bad vocals (what’s with all the Gregorian chanting that the Yardbirds did? It’s in lots of their songs and makes them sound ridiculous), the song is foreboding enough to hold interest with a couple great riffs until Beck or Page starts playing what sounds like an air raid alert, and then they both take off on dueling solos that are much too short. Great song, and a great start. Then we hit the wall immediately with the generic blues of “Lost Woman”. I know the Yardbirds got their start as a tight rhythm & blues band, but there’s no excuse for blues this dull. Hey, we rebound right away with their semi-hit “Over Under Sideways Down” with Beck’s super snakey riff (which was ripped off (or paid tribute to) by Husker Du on “Friend You’ve Got to Fall” (which is a MUCH better song, by the by & by). Next, Beck, perhaps himself disgusted with the lame vocals, takes over the mike for “The Nazz is Blue”. Bad move. He can’t sing either. (I never really got Jeff Beck. Yeah, he’s a very good guitar player, but he cant write, he can’t sing, he can’t hold a band together long enough to record more than one record (if that) without driving them away. Does anyone seriously listen to his records at all? I still have his first solo record, but it’s because Rod Stewart added more personality to the record than all the sidehacks that Beck would later record with did (having Rod in the band taught Beck never to hire someone who could even come CLOSE to outshining him: the record says JEFF BECK, don’t forget it.) So far we’re running about 50% success. However, the rest of side one is the pits: “I Can’t Make Your Way” is offensive in its inoffensive pop manner, “Rack My Mind” is toothless punk, and “Farewell” is poor psychodelic lite.
Side 2 begins well, starting with the complete shambling nonsense of “Hot House of Omagarashid” (which I think has someone waving a saw back and forth the whole time: there’s a “wubba wubba” going through the entire track. I LIKE it.) “Jeff’s Boogie” is appropriately named, and is a very good guitar showcase. Though even Hendrix sounds extremely mannered nowadays, it has some very good solo moments from Beck. “He’s Always There” is perhaps the only good song on the record in which the song is actually better than the guitar work. I’m surprised some band hasn’t covered this one yet. With three good songs in the row, the Yardbirds give us three bad ones in a row (though “What do You Want” has a nasty guitar solo, and “Ever Since the World Began” starts out sounding like primitive Black Sabbath before suddenly switching into chirpy pop. Blech!), but finish strong with “Psycho Daisies”, a decent song, though nowhere as good as its title, and a solo that’s criminally cut off before it even gets started.
VERDICT: nothing to really see here, move along.
VIDEO: (Beck had already left the band at this point, so it’s Page playing guitar, yet they show everyone in the band but Page! (judging on how sloppy he’s playing here, perhaps its for the best).
Whew! LA punk, fresh & kicky!
X was at the forefront of the late 70’s punk explosion out of Los Angeles, and for good reason. For one, they differentiated themselves by being a genuinely gifted band: hell, most of the bands from the scene were visceral hardcore excitement, but that was about it – one or two classic albums (or even singles) of great bile, but then implosion. X boasted a dynamic versatile drummer in DJ Bonebrake and rockabilly throwback guitar wizard Billy Zoom. John Doe wasn’t a slouch on bass either. They also had big aspirations: X seemed somewhat aloof from the hardcore scene, obviously looking beyond the LA gutters toward mainstream success. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since a “scene” by definition is a limited defined area. They wanted to, and could, play their way out.
Another defining factor was their lyrics. Sure, the good ol’ punk motifs were there (desperation, kinky sex, mental, physical, & chemical abuse), but lyricists John Doe & Exene Cervenka approached the topics from a far more literary point of view – more so than anyone in LA except Darby Crash of the Germs. Though, as a melody over lyric kind of guy, this would normally be a negative in my book, they were decent enough lyric writers to avoid the pretensions of “poetry” yet still present a deeper more evocative view of a crumbling SoCal culture. Definitely more Bukowski than Dylan.
And then there’s Exene’s vocals. It’s clear at this early point in their career, Exene’s vocals, and I’m being very generous here, suck. A cross between a bleat, blurt, whine, screech, yowl. Luckily, vocals are shared between Exene and John. John’s vocals are stronger but might be fairly generic on their own. But together….they’re very interesting. Exene’s off-key screeching with John’s Presley-isms combined in minor-key harmonies SHOULD be annoying, but they’re at worst unique, and at best highly listenable.
Lastly, they had a great LOOK. Apart from DJ’s everypunk appearance, the rest of the band looked freakin’ COOL. I used to think that Exene was a white trash Siouxie Sioux, which was admittedly an uncool mean thought (and I must not think bad thoughts). Exene had less of a fashion model appearance and more of an organic goth look: far more real life than magazine glossy (that said, Siouxie was and is still hotter than hell). John was like a punky modern James Dean, and Billy, with his so-blond-its-white hair, sparkly guitar, and 12 year old appearance (even though he had to have been pushing 30), was a smiling angelic presence in the LA hellhole.
All of their attributes are in place on their debut, “Los Angeles”. The only drawback is that the songs aren’t quite there yet. Everything on the album is good (save their just okay version of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”) but only about half is great. But when it’s great, it’s AWESOME (“Johnny Hit & Run Pauline”, “Los Angeles”, “Nausea”, “The Phone’s Off the Hook (but You’re Not)”). The biggest gripe I have with the record is the presence of Ray Manzarek, keyboard player from the Doors. He sensed a lineage between X and his old band, and became their patron & producer. The actual production isn’t bad, but the keyboards he throws in seem more an opportunity to show how hip he is rather than to enhance the music. X was, and continues to be, way better than the overblown buffoonish Doors, yet were marketed as their second coming by fawning critics. Too bad. The other negative in hindsight is that, since they were fully operating with their vision intact on their debut, there wasn’t much room for them to grow – so little that by their 4th record they were already sounding tired & routine.
But we’ll worry about that one later. For now, enjoy this fantastic record.
VERDICT: great look, great sound, great sound – I think these kids have a future!
VIDEO: from the classic “Decline of Western Civilization” film – MANDATORY viewing for anyone interested in punk, rock, or life.
I was introduced to reggae the same way a great many of my suburban peers were: Eric Clapton doing a boring version of “I Shot the Sheriff” (it’s absolutely STAGGERING to contemplate this man’s career: quite honestly, he based a now 40+ year career on these creative peaks: the Bluesbreakers LP, “Crossroads”, & the Layla LP. That’s IT – the Yardbirds were just good, not great; Cream was overblown live and very hit or miss on record, Blind Faith was a mistake, and his solo career starting with “461 Ocean Blvd” (from which “I Shot the Sheriff” was featured) could be boiled down to about 1 year of quality work and 30 years of terminal boredom. Yes, I know this review isn’t about Clapton, yet I feel that I could passionately debate the pros and (mostly) cons of his career, but not be able to summon enough energy to discuss the career of Bob Marley.
However I see some correlations between the two, mainly in that though both were undeniably genuine in their devotion to their muses (blues and reggae, respectively), they were also undeniably DULL. Is it because I haven’t given Bob a chance? Nope, I have. In one of those phases where, though I didn’t have much interest in the music per se, I felt a certain amount of duty in buying many of Bob’s records, and letting them gather dust in my collection, hoping that perhaps one day, I would mature enough to understand the obvious genius bestowed from the musical press, which I simply couldn’t see. I didn’t listen to them because they said nothing to me: musically, lyrically, spiritually, globally – nothin’. It finally came to the point where “Exodus”, “Rastaman Vibration”, “Kaya”, etc. were finally sent to Half Price Books, leaving me with “Live”, “ Burnin’”, and the bane of “REAL” reggae everywhere, “Legend: the Best of Bob Marley”.
Yes, putting an entire genre of music in the hands of one notable purveyor of its craft is harshly unfair. It would be like basing all of emo on Coldplay, when we know that emo is SO MUCH MORE THAN YOU COULD POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND (said with trembling lip). But Bob was, is, and will always be the undisputed godfather of reggae’s popular form – much as Elvis was with rock, or Hank was with country. He just turned me off before I had an interest in finding out more (though I do still have a Peter Tosh 8 track.)
The one thing that I do find interesting about reggae is the inherent tension in the music. The relative simplicity of the backing pushing against the political/social/religious nature of the lyrics can be very intriguing. As long as Bob Marley’s not doing it, of course – at least not after 1974 or 75, when he went pop and retained reggae’s sound but lost the tension.
So now, “Burnin’”. This record was the last with the original Wailers, where Bob, though the leader, still shared the spotlight with Bunny Livingston & Peter Tosh. Their contributions, though slight, provide a good balance, especially Bunny’s Eddie Kendricksesque falsetto leads on “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass it On”. Tosh’s vocal on “One Foundation” isn’t much, but he does get a lead on this record’s finest moment, “Get Up Stand Up”. (Classic Rock 1070 AM used to play the HELL out of this back when I was in high school: it always seemed to be playing when we’d leave the school parking lot in Jeff Miranda’s car.) It is political without being strident, the performances are across the board strong, and it’s catchy. After Bunny’s praise-Jah showcase, we get to the big hit “I Shot the Sheriff”. This song too is catchy, but very stupid. As a crime song, “Stagger Lee” is much better, and as a pop song…well, Eric Clapton’s version is just as good, and that’s sad. “Burnin’ & Lootin’” is the other great song on the album, and provides the best example of the tension I earlier described. Bob’s vocal on this is terrific.
However, with the last song on Side One, the bottom a go drop out. “Put it On” is almost laughably stereotypical reggae (“I’m not boasting / feel like toasting”, indeed), and for the rest of the record, we’re in the depths of religious protest, and MAN it’s dull. By the time you get to the seemingly endless “Rastaman Chant”, it’s like you’ve been asleep without the actual rest. Snoresville, Daddy-O….
I was too bored reviewing this record to even come up with good ganja jokes.
VERDICT: I simply was not meant to be a Rastaman.