Saturday, June 6, 2009

V - Vanilla Fudge - "The Beat Goes On"

For Bill - thanks for letting me know that someone out there reads this nonsense....

As much as I enjoy leafing through record guides or checking out reviews in various magazines, music reviewers are fairly useless; usually either shills in the business for pushing product (hello, Rolling Stone!) or lame knock offs of Lester Bangs. Sometimes reviews lead me to a treasure, mostly not. Many’s the time I bought a record based on the fawning (or damning) of a critic, only to find that it simply didn’t live up to the hype.

Today’s record did.

I once read that the Vanilla Fudge’s second LP was the most ludicrous album in rock history. High praise, indeed, yet extremely difficult for one to measure up to such a billing. Luckily, the Fudge was up to the task.

The Vanilla Fudge were a Sixties’ foursome from Long Island who, in order to disguise their total lack of songwriting talent, devised a unique sound that encompassed taking hit songs from today (circa 1966-1967), slowing them down considerably, stretching them out to 3 or 4 times their length, and bludgeoning them with a psychedelic pounding. Featuring pleading keyboards, plodding drums, overactive bass, and fuzzy guitar, the Fudge had a hit by massacring the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, which helped make their first album a success. As a followup, the gang wanted to “stretch out”, to get a little arty, and create a contemporary masterwork that could earn them a place as artistes. What they ended up doing was sinking their career in one motion, and the enjoyment I get out of hearing it is almost unparalleled.

This record is divided into four phases (announced by a “phased”, echoed voice intoning “Phase One”, “Phase Two”, etc.) Throughout the first half of the record, the band keeps returning to a 4 note motif: BAH BAAAH BAH BAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH. This motif will be indicated by the asterisk (*).

Prelude: the Fudge is credited with two tunes on the record, both of which are frankly just them screwing around. There’s no melodies outside of (*) on the first of these (“Sketch”), but, after a clip of Thomas Edison intoning “Mary had a Little Lamb” (how ya doin’ Tom? Bet you’ll be regretting inventing the record player once you hear THIS crap), we go into

PHASE ONE: the history of 18-20th century music boiled down to about 7 minutes.
We start with a brief version of Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On”; this is the other motif that constantly shows up. Of all the songs in the history of music, they are basing their magnum opus on a SONNY BONO tune. Uh huh. Nonetheless, this motif will be indicated by “:-0”; as in, “what the hell…?”
A Mooged up harpsichord twittles out a 45 second reduction of Mozart’s “divertimento No. 13 in …”.there’s no point in typing out the rest of the title, because it’s over that quickly. This segment I guess encapsulates all 18th century music. Well, okay then.
Terrible falsetto voices approximating some kind of harmony sing the old spiritual “Old Black Joe”. Again, its about 40 seconds long, yet sounds like a freakin’ eternity. This segment I guess encapsulates all 19th century music. Hmm…that’s something.
Hey we’re in the 20th century now-WOO WOO! And to celebrate, here’s the world’s most ball-less versions of “Don’t Fence Me In”, “12th Street Rag”, (*) & “In the Mood” ever recorded. You thought the Fudge was bad playing CURRENT music…wait to you hear them gracelessly attempt to play the music of yesteryear.
and now the world’s most ball-less version of “Hound Dog”. Elvis could’ve eaten these kids up for a midnight snack. He really could’ve.
To finish up phase one, here’s a Beatles medley: appropriately enough, I guess, seeing as the Beatles revolutionized music the same way, um, “12th street rag” did. There’s no excuse for this pedestrian playing & toothless singing (the harmonies are particularly galling). For the record, they play “I Want to Hold your Hand”, “I Feel Fine”, “Day Tripper”, & “She Loves You”, or at least a few seconds of each, culminating with the unison braying of “you say hello, and I say GOODBYE….BOIIIIIIING” (yes, someone says “boing”.) what an entrancing trainwreck.

PHASE TWO: begins naturally with (*), then a plodding drumbeat, which leads into an actual version of “:-O”. Boy, does this song suck, no matter who does it. All the Fudge solo simultaneously to cover the fact that nothing is happening, which leads into the most boring pointless version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” recorded. The Fudge were passing classical gas long before Emerson Lake & Palmer used the great composers as their doormats. (Though I do love this record, this phase could disappear, and I would not complain because it’s just so dull. Also, I’m not familiar enough with classical music, much less Beethoven, to be as horrified & offended as I should be by this slaughter, although I do know that it just ain’t right.) Before closing out side one, they as much as poop on Beethoven by adding a 30 second lounge version of “:-O”; midway through, the song is sped up until it is a blur. It’s as if the producer says to us “yeah, I don’t want to listen to this either”.
OH CRIKEY – side two begins with the blur that disappeared at the end of side one slowing down into the continued lounging of “:-O”. Every album has some form of filler, but this is ridiculous.

PHASE THREE: “Voices in Time” – this is actually the most interesting section of the record, combining old news clips and interviews, beginning with Neville Chamberlain claiming that now that he signed a deal with Hitler, everyone would be happy and peaceful, singing songs, and skipping in the park, lah dee dee. Followed by lots of “Sieg Heil"ing” (ahem….”d’oh!”) What follows are clips of the bombing of Pearl Harbor & subsequent US declaration of war, Winston Churchill, FDR’s funeral march, the bombing of Hiroshima (“a military base”), Thomas Edison again (what the hell is he doing HERE?), JFK’s inauguration (“Mistah Speekah!”), then a long slow drumbeat (for the Kennedy assassination??), then back to the Chamberlain/Hitler medley, a big BOOM, and end. All throughout this the Fudge are “:-O”ing in the background – annoying yet unobtrusive. Constructively, this segment is assembled very crudely, and is way too heavy handed, but the historical clips are always interesting to hear (especially the radio broadcast of FDR’s funeral). It’s worth noting that the best part of this Vanilla Fudge record is when the Vanilla Fudge is almost invisible. But that ain’t gonna last…

PHASE FOUR: this is actually the most jaw droppingly bad section of the record, where the Fudge are exposed as the true jokes that they are. Had the album ended with Phase Three, the record more than likely would’ve been smirked at and ignored, but their pretensions and limitations become totally exposed hear, and it’s marvelous. After yet ANOTHER lounge version of “:-O”, we slink into “Merchant”, a plodding dead melody interrupted by free form playing and spoken word parts. These vocal interruptions might be entitled “meet the band”, because everyone gets a say. We start with very New Yawk guitarist Vinnie Martell, who monotones the following:

“The beat goes on…the mind goes on…the whirlwinds blow…as always and forever it will be. As life goes on in desperation & hate, so too it goes on in contentment and happiness. The beat of life goes on everchanging. This album is peopled (?) throughout the world: their idears, beliefs, their emotions. We hold only the tools through which to express time through music. And the beat….goes on.”

As does this recitation. After what sounds like someone sitting on a keyboard while a cat wanders through windchimes & someone else knocks over a sitar, we meet petulantly nerdy bassist Tim Bogert, who takes part in a faux interview that he must’ve thought made him sound like the Fudge’s deep thinker, but makes him sound like an arrogant buffoon:

Q: what do you think God thinks of “Eleanor Rigby”? (the Fudge’s most recent single)
A: I think He may like it. (God: “Bullshit!”)
Q: what do you see in the future for Vanilla Fudge?
A: Another album. I just hope the trip gets lighter.
Q: what about sex?
A: (long pregnant pause) Sex is a very beautiful thing. (Women everywhere: “Pass.”)
Q: Black power?
A: Black power is a very, very wasted use of very good imagination & drive. (upon hearing this album, Huey Newton, very, very hurt by Bogert’s words, disbanded the Black Panthers and went into accounting.)
Q: President Johnson?
A: Johnson? You can’t actually have a significant opinion unless you know both sides, & you’ll never know both sides because you’ll never hear it. You won’t be informed. (unless you watch Fox news).
Q: people in the music business?
A: (long pause while Tim shakes his head and sighs) Disheartening…and a lot of other words which I can’t use. They’re people. There’s very…there’s a lot of very beautiful people in the business. (way to make sure there’s another album in your future, Tim!)
Q: what about trips?
A: For 15 cents, you can take one on the subway. Now I think it’s up to 20. (Thank you, ladies & germs, I’ll be here all week, enjoy the buffet!)
Q: how about poetry? What does it say?
A: (thoughtful pause while Tim extrapolates) It says everything that can be.
Q: what about the Beatles’ interest in the Indian meditation?
A: (suppressed chuckle) best of luck…
Q: Ice cream?
A: I LIKE ice cream!

Ladies and Gentlemen: the most pompous ass in rock and roll, pre-Bono. It’s hard to force down the bile that rises in your throat in the presence of this DONUT.
So here’s more jangling/cat walking/broken sitaring, then the beat picks up, as we await the vocal arrival of legendary drummer Carmine Appice. (Carmine actually did have quite a long career after the Fudge broke up, initially with Beck, Bogert & Appice (Jeff Beck SERIOUSLY slumming), then with Rod Stewart, with whom he co-wrote “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (so what does THAT poetry say, Tim?), before being the “superstar” in such useless 80’s fake metal bands as Blue Murder and King Kobra (who happened to open for Ted Nugent at what was to be my first concert before I realized that even with free tickets, the price was too much to pay.). So what’s Carmine have to say? Well, we’re still waiting – “Merchant” keeps playing and playing, until finally we hear a Brooklyn mumble (verbatim transcript):

“keep it goin’, Bill, it’s - I don’t know it’s going. Keep it going, so I don’t know it’s going. So I’m not a tawker, you know, I just play drums. So listen to my drums if you want to hear me tawk, har her.”

I guess this fully sums up Carmine. He’s a moron.
Woah, trippy – we go back to sitar land, and, with his keyboards leading in, Fudge leader Mark Stein reads from the bible. It’s the tale of the death of Moses. Why? Is it because Mark wants to be the mystical member of the Fudge? Mystical gurus generally aren’t congested Jews from Brooklyn (are they?) (For the record, he reads from Deuteronomy 34: 5-8, 10-12. Read along and maybe you can figure out what the hell he’s getting at.)

And with some final psychedelic nonsense leading to a last great smashing crescendo of “:-O”, so endeth the Fudge’s career as serious musicians.

Epilogue: There is just no way to impress upon you how STUPID this album is. When the Dictators sang “I wish that Sgt. Pepper NEVER taught the band to play”, they are referring to the atmosphere left in that album’s wake that resulted in trash like this. These poor kids simply didn’t get that they weren’t clever enough to pull off a quality TRACK, much less a quality CONCEPT ALBUM. (Let’s give equal blame to producer Shadow Morton, who may have seen himself as a George Martin-type force: the fifth Fudge, if you will. His mini-stories worked on singles (“Leader of the Pack”) but with no good material, no good musicians, and no good ideas, it could only end in tears.) I absolutely ADORE this album. It is the “Plan 9” of records. Much like Ed Wood’s celebrated film, it starts off bad, and becomes so ill advised and bewildering that it becomes fascinating: just when you think it bottoms out, it drops a level you didn’t know existed.
THAT, my friends, is ART.

Verdict: I’m sorry that Thomas Edison got dragged into this mess.

1 comment:

  1. Your review is typical of the other negative reviews I've read of this album, but more interesting because of its transcription of the speeches and interviews on the "Merchant"/"The Game is Over" medley. By the way,"Merchant" is the Eastern-flavored jam with sitar, marimba, tamboura, and tabla. The piece that plays beneath the spoken word bits is the theme song from a movie called "The Game is Over." At least you like the album in a "so-bad-it's-good" way. I like it because it's in a class by itself. I've never heard another album quite like it before or since. The collage "Voices in Time" actually predates the Beatles' "Revolution 9" by several months. When you imply that the Fudge had no talent as musicians or songwriters, it leads me to believe you haven't heard their third and best album, Renaissance, consisting of 5 remarkable originals and 2 covers. Vince Martell's "Thoughts" is a beautifully written song that I can hear sung by Sinatra. Mark Stein's "That's What Mkes a Man" is loaded with intricate melodic and harmonic progressions. Carmine Appice's "Faceless People" also has unusual progressions, and as for musicianship, listen to Martell's lightning speed guitar licks at the end, as well as his solos throughout the album.