Monday, January 31, 2011

Louder Than God

Blue Cheer's first album.


In a recent post I mentioned how interesting it is how some ideas seem to percolate through the culture and erupt in several different places at roughly the same time.  Steam engines, Impressionist art, the automobile, even the hot dog, all seem to have several claimants to being the first to invent them, and the reality is that there probably were several people thinking along the same lines at the same time but in different locales.  Its almost as if ideas achieve some sort of cultural critical mass and then precipitate out in several different places at once.

In rock music this has happened several times, and none more notably than in the birth of the genre which we now know as heavy metal.  During the late 60's, many bands, mostly English but also a few American, were exploring what is occasionally called "heavy blues":  this was just an even-more-amplified version of electric Chicago blues.   But as amplifier volumes crept closer and closer to 11, a funny thing happened:  the music changed.  An emergent principle occurred, where beyond a certain point you no longer had just music that was X louder than before, it became something different.  (A similar thing happened years later when Metallica basically invented modern speed metal.  As they turned their amps louder and louder, eventually the sound wave was "squared off", which gave the world the chugging Metallica riff that was subsequently copied by others).  Bands like Cream and the Yardbirds started out emulating blues idols like Muddy Waters and B.B. King and Bo Diddley and others but as the music became louder and heavier it started sounding less and less like blues and more like something else, something new.  Other bands like the Who were also getting louder and heavier; listen to the studio version of "Magic Bus" and then listen to the version of Live at Leeds and you can see how much different the same song can sound in just two short years.

In America, bands like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly were also exploring this heavier, and often times slower, approach to blues-based rock.  However, persistently 60's elements, like the extensive organ solos that colored the work of both groups, kept this music closer to psychedelia than heavy metal.

But another band would emerge in San Francisco that would strip their music of these lingering 60's elements and drive the music further towards what would eventually become heavy metal, and this was Blue Cheer.  Their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, has been widely credited with being the first true heavy metal album.  The music is still rooted in electric blues, but Blue Cheer, who were touted as the "loudest band in the world", were creating music that by its sheer size and volume was, as mentioned above, becoming something else entirely.  Their cover of Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues" is a rumbling freight train that goes off in wild feedback laden solos and it is clearly capturing the sturm and drang of what metal would eventually become.  "Doctor Please", "Out of Focus" and "Parchment Farm" from this amazing album also contain traditional blues elements interspersed with this massive sonic noise.  Their second album, Outsideinside, toned down the volume and added a sheen of studio polish but the basic sound is the same:  the tracks "Just a Little Bit", "Come and Get It", and "Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger" carry on the panzer tank rumble of the first album.

Guitarist Leigh Stevens went on to form Silver Metre with Mick Waller from the Jeff Beck Group and Pete Sears, drummer for Hot Tuna and eventually Jefferson Starship, after splitting from Blue Cheer in 1969.  However, Silver Metre in some ways represented a step back for all parties, to a psychedelic-tinged blues rock that sounded more like an outgrowth of the Yardbirds. It definitely rocks and occasionally struts but it doesn't come close to capturing the sound-of-an-avalance feel of classic Cheer. The instrumental "Gangbang" has a little of the acid noodling of Cheer but otherwise the rest sounds pretty generic.

Another band that often gets named in discussions of metal pioneers is Sir Lord Baltimore, and let me tell you, that shit is HEAVY.  Holy moly.  The title song of their first album Kingdom Come has a guitar riff that is so colossal, so bludgeoning, it will crush your brains into pulp.  This song stands defiantly at the crossroads between nascent heavy metal and the emerging Detroit protopunk scene; it has as much in common with the raw energy of the Detroit sound as evinced by the Stooges' first album, the MC5, and Frijid Pink as it does the emerging hyper-amplified blues rock of Blue Cheer.  It also is clearly in a similar groove to the even less blues-based work on Black Sabbath's first album, which predates it by just a few weeks.  The vocals are a trifle theatrical but the music is just so blisteringly heavy it just blows me away.  Several other songs match this blistering vibe, including "Master Heartache" "Lady of Fire", and "Hellhound".  The rumbling beginning of “Master Heartache” sounds like the opening to “Six Pack” by Black Flag but then settles into a driving groove reminiscent of “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin.  “Pumped Up” is faster and more frantic, sounding like a sloppier version of “Communication Breakdown” by Zep.  Anyone who wants to hear music that is incredibly heavy and loud is encouraged to buy these songs from this album.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lost Pebble from the Stone Age

Cromagnon's 1969 album Orgasm


A couple of posts ago I discussed some of my favorite songs from the various Nuggets and Pebbles collections (as well as some things not found on either) but I forgot one of the strangest forgotten bands of all:  Cromagnon.  I ran across them recently while searching through some of the Pebbles bands and found that they have achieved an a posteriori level of fame and recognition for their unusual sound.  Formed by multi-instrumentalists Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot in the 1960's, Cromagnon played a truly bizarre blend of psychedelia, folk, and what appears to be a legitimate attempt to re-create the primitive sounds of prehistoric stone age music using sticks, rocks, etc (and including grunts, squeals, hoots, and other primitive vocalizations in place of actual lyrics).  Largely ignored by critics and music fans alike when it came out in 1969, their first album Orgasm has achieved cult status for its very bizarreness since.  Many listeners now see the primitive, percussion-heavy music as a sonic antecedent to the industrial music movement, particularly as practiced by bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Ministry, and Einsturzende Neubauten; others hear the stripped-down gloom of Norwegian death metal.  I was a big Test Dept. fan in the early 80's and sonically at least this is extremely similar even if conceptually they were coming from a completely different place (Test Dept. was attempting to create true "industrial" music by beating and sawing on oil drums and machinery).   Orgasm is available on iTunes; "Caledonia" is the standout track that evokes the ghost of industrial yet-to-be.

   The late 60's were definitely a strange and inventive time.  Sonny Bono was wearing fur vests and boots, so clearly a caveman vibe was in the air.  And other bands were looking for new directions:  Tyrannosaurus Rex and Led Zeppelin were also looking to the past and attempting to recreate an almost medieval/fantastical type of folk (in the late 80's Richie Blackmore took them one further and formed a true medieval/renaissance folk band with wife Candace Night known as Blackmore's Night; I have some of their stuff and its compelling in a cheesy D&D way).

Other bands were exploring the darker side of music and spirituality.  The American band Coven, formed the mid-60's by frontwoman Jinx Dawson, put out an album in 1969 that centered on themes of Satan worship, witchcraft, evil, etc.  They famously recorded a song entitled "Black Sabbath" a full year before the lads from Birmingham.  Listening to Coven today is almost laughable, however;  their "Black Sabbath" is nothing more than overwrought operatic female vocals over an almost groovy go-go boot kind of early psychedelic vibe; it almost sounds like Grace Slick singing a particularly evil version of "White Rabbit" over the theme from "The Man from Uncle", or the Stone Poneys trading in their differently beating drum for Halloween records.  The lyrics, which were undoubtedly controversial in 1969, sound silly in the post-Slayer, post-Cannibal Corpse world.  History in this case rightfully cast this version onto the slag heap and deified (or satanified?) the version by the band Black Sabbath, which remains one of the absolute scariest songs ever recorded in my opinion.  Ozzy sounds SCARED SHITLESS in the second half of this song, and this song launched a thousand (typically inferior) imitators and started entire new sub-genres such as stoner metal, death metal, black metal, etc.--even grindcore owes a thematic debt to Sabbath. 
 
Still, its interesting how similar concepts, whether conceptually, lyrically, or sonically, often coalesce in very different places at almost the same time. 

The Men Who Fell To Earth: 70's Glam Rock Obscurities









Jobraith

One of the most depressing developments in modern music has been the degradation of the term “glam”.  Say that you like “glam” music, and many (most?)  people (particularly if they are under 30) will assume that you are referring to the incredibly derivative pop metal from the 80’s a la Motley Crue (late era of course; early Crue was a fantastic band), Poison, Ratt, and the “W” bands (Winger, Warrant, Whitesnake, etc.).  These bands adopted the superficial fashion aspects of true glam, diluted it down, and used it to soften their “cock rock” look and lite heavy metal sound so that it would more readily appeal to its teen and preteen female audience.  It should come as no surprise that I consider this entire period of music to be easily the least interesting (lyrically or sonically) in the entire history of rock, and my iPod contains almost no music by any of these bands (even for nostalgia purposes, which is rare for me; even when I find something cheesy or lame I will still often appreciate it for the memories it evokes).

As if the horribly monotonous anthems and ballads these bands and their legions and legions of followers foisted on the world for several years weren’t bad enough, one of the great tragedies of that late 80’s musical movement is how many bands that were actually GOOD were lost in the shuffle to find the next Ratt, Poison, Warrant, etc.  It almost seems like the music industry made a conscious effort to clone only the most banal fashion and musical aspects of their predecessors, ignoring bands that actually had musical merit. 
 
Three cases in point:  the Hangmen, Junkyard, and the Sea Hags.   The Hangmen, formed by Bryan Small in the mid-80’s, were equally influenced by the Stooges and the Stones, with a dash of the country of X and the swamp blues of Gun Club tossed in.  Their single “Rotten Sunday” (originally released on a compilation put out by the now-legendary Scream club in LA) is hard rock with a grungy, bluesy feel to it.  Their first album did not quite capture the sloppy intensity of their live sets, and the band faded into obscurity, though fortunately for fans of Stonesy hard rock they achieved a revival of sorts in the late 90’s that continues to this day.  “In the City” off their Loteria album, “I Want To Be Loved” off In the City, and “Drunk, Broke, and Stoned” off Metallic IOU  are  great showcases for their meters-pegged, country/blues tinged rock assault.

Junkyard also played a relatively simple blues-based AC/DC influenced hard rock but their sound held elements of southern rock (Molly Hatchet and Skynyrd in particular) as well.  Guitarist Brian Baker had been a founding member of Minor Threat and had played in Dag Nasty and the Necros (and would later play in Bad Religion), and he brought a streetwise punk edge to their sound as well.  They had a modest hit with their song “Hollywood” off their first album and released a second album in 1991 but were dropped by their record company the following year.  Like the Hangmen, they too achieved success later in life, reforming near the turn of the millennium and releasing some outstanding albums.  “One Foot In the Grave” and “All Those Bad Things” off their album Joker are two songs that capture their AC/DC-with-a-boogie-backbeat sound.  My favorite song by them is “Waste of Time”, off their Tried and True EP, which has a magnificently driving guitar riff.  Anyone who likes classic 70’s hard rock like Aerosmith, AC/DC, or Kiss but prefers it with a punky edge should download this ASAP.

The final group in my triumvirate of forgotten 80’s hard rock bands is the Sea Hags. They originally hailed from Seattle, and this is intrinsic to their sound, which combined blues-based 70’s hard rock with the first dark and sludgy inklings of what would eventually morph into grunge.  Their first album was critically acclaimed but not commercially successful but is still a well regarded musical document.  “Doghouse”and “Too Much T-Bone”  perfectly capture their sludgy, AC/DC-by-way-of-Mudhoney vibe while “Half The Way Valley” is a faster, more driving song.

But getting back to the main point of this post: TRUE glam, as hopefully some still know, was as much a fashion as a musical movement that arose in the late 60’s and early 70’s in England and later took root in several American cities (notably New York and Los Angeles).  Glam rock fashion embraced glamorous (hence the name), romantic, theatrical, mystical and futuristic elements, with sequins, glitter, feathers, jumpsuits, and so forth.  Musically, glam was even more variegated, and embraced everything from singer/songwriter ballads, diva-esque torch songs, show tunes , Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, rockabilly and rock revival, bubblegum pop, hippie folk, prog, space rock, and acid rock.  Marc Bolan and T. Rex created an electrified hippie folk/pop vibe and released a slew of hit singles, all of which are just as infectious and catchy today, such as “Hot Love”, “Ride A White Swan”, “Bang a Gong”, and my personal favorite “Raw Ramp”.  David Bowie embraced the futuristic, space rock elements, merging them with his folk singer past and a show tune mentality to produce some of the most bombastic and theatrical rock of all time.  I recently went back and “backfilled” my embarrassingly meager Bowie MP3 collection with selections off his first album and off Pinups, Ziggie Startdust, and Diamond Dogs.  I actually think I like the Pinups stuff the best.  Often dismissed as a “filler” album of covers between his more compelling original compositions, I actually love the pumped-up aggressiveness of these songs.  The covers of the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would” and Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” are two of Bowie's most rocking songs; Mick Ronson’s guitar crunches, noodles and soars better than anything he and Bowie did themselves.  Excellent stuff.

There were, of course many other purveyors of glam, ranging from the stadium stomp of Gary Glitter and the working class singalongs of Slade to the soaring prog rock of Roxy Music, the orchestral hard rock pomp of Queen, and the bubblegum crunch pop of the Sweet (“Little Willy”, “Fox On the Run”) and the Bay City Rollers (“Saturday Night”).  And of course there were many unheralded bands flying under the radar.  I say “unheralded” but that’s not totally accurate—they were unheralded in AMERICA, but often these groups had big hits on the English charts.  Bands like Mud and Wizzard were hugely popular in England but never made much headway in the States; their sound hewed closely to the bubblegum boy-band pop of Sweet and the Rollers, a crunchier, luded-out version of the Monkees if you will.  “Tiger Feet” and “Crazy” by Mud are good examples.

Others took a similar musical direction to Ziggy-era Bowie.  These days Michael Des Barres is better known as an actor (and to a lesser extent as the ex-husband of legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres, formerly of the Zappa-supported girl group the GTO’s, and who once famously danced with my friend and called him an asshole at a restaurant opening, but that’s another story for another time), but he achieved his first fame as the front man for the early 70’s Ziggy-esque English glam band Silverhead.  Their sound fell equidistant between the crunchy, futuristic space rock stylings of Ronson and Bowie and the heavy blues of Zep, with a dash of the Faces and Iggy thrown in for good measure.  “Bright Light”, “Heavy Hammer”, “Only You” and “16 and Savaged” off the latter album are all great examples of this bluesy take on the Stardust vibe, but both of their albums are available on iTunes or Amazon.com and are worth checking out.  "Bright Light" has a glam rock bump and grind appeal that also touches on the heaviness of Zep and the rasp of early Rod Stewart; "Heavy Hammer" has the lurching funk feel of "Misty Mountain Hop" or "The Ocean".  Des Barres broke up Silverhead in ’74 and formed the even more Zep influenced band Detective (who recorded for Zep boutique label Swan Song), while bassist Nigel Harrison eventually joined Blondie


Also heavily influenced by Bowie was Bruce Wayne Campbell, better known as Jobraith.  Jobraith started as a singer in musicals such as Hair and as a folk singer but changed his name to Jobraith and was famously signed for half a million dollars to Elektra Records in 1973 in the wake of Bowie’s Ziggy success.  A massive P.R. campaign followed, which only contributed to the eventual backlash and collapse, and Jobraith is almost unknown now.  And this is unfortunate, because Jobraith, while admittedly deeply indebted to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust sound and look, produced some outstanding songs that ranged from hard rocking numbers like “Rock of Ages”(a stomping rocker that showcases his ability to rock out in “Sufragette City” manner) and “I’maman” to torchy piano heavy ballads like “Ecyuban”, “Ooh La La”, and “Gone Tomorrow” (which evokes “Lady Stardust”).  Being the first openly gay popular musician certainly didn’t help Jobraith, which is a total shame; he is currently one of my very favorite hidden artistic gems of 70’s music.  Anyone who loves Ziggy Stardust era Bowie or early Queen will surely enjoy his work too.  Jobraith retired from rock and spent his remaining days living in a pyramid atop the Chelsea Hotel and singing cabaret music in NYC before dying of AIDS tragically young in 1983.Sadly, none of Jobraith's music is available for download on either iTunes or Amazon.com (though Amazon does have his audio CDs for sale), but a few songs and performances have been uploaded to YouTube, including all of the above.

Steve Harley and his band Cockney Rebel occupied that strange netherworld between prog, pop, and glam.  Their music incorporated a wide variety of folk instruments and eclectic mixes of styles.  Their single "Judy Teen" has a strange, plucking rhythm and the vocals sound like Ray Davies’ in the Kinks.  "Make Me Smile" has a rollicking, good-time 70's feel to it and Bowie-esque vocals that give it a glam sheen.  iTunes has two Cockney Rebel albums and an excellent compilation containing these and other songs.

David Werner is another lost 70’s gem of a songwriter who’s music drew heavily on glam.  Werner released 3 well-regarded albums between 1975 and 1979, each of which contained songs that crackle with tight songwriting, intelligent lyrics, and soaring, glammy guitars.  “One More Wild Guitar” is another Bowie/Ziggy-esque gem with strumming acoustic guitars interspersed with whining electric guitars and an occasionally shrill vocal reminiscent of “Ziggy Stardust”.  “Whizz Kid” off the album of the same name starts with shimmering guitars before launching into a boogie woogie guitar solo that then melds into a repeating riff, pounding pianos, and David’s terrific vocals.  This song struts like “Rebel Rebel”. My favorite song by Werner is "What's Right", which is so Bowie-esque that you'd SWEAR it was Bowie himself; this song has a low, sultry growl and strut to it and is a high point.  Alas, iTunes has nothing by Werner for sale but Amazon.com has "What's Right" available for MP3 download, and this and the other songs are uploaded on YouTube as well.

And finally, while he’s better known for the crunchy guitar pop of his late 70’s top 40 hit “Hot Child In the City”, Anglo-Canadian Nick Gilder’s music, both as a solo artist and prior to that as a member of Vancouver’s Sweeney Todd, often crossed back and forth between guitar-based pop and glam.  His debut solo album, You Know Who You Are, contains several terrific glam/pop/rock gems that often celebrate the marginal and sleazy:  “Rated X”, “Roxy Roller, “Tantalize” and “Runaways In the Night” (which was featured in the recent Runaways biopic starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart) are catchy, crunchy, enjoyable pop rock confections bursting with memorable hooks and Gilder’s distinctively feminine vocals (I admit to my embarrassment that in the 70’s I actually thought “Hot Child In the City” was sung by a WOMAN and was STUNNED when I learned it was actually a man!).  "Tantalize" has a mesmerising, echoing guitar and keyboard riff that then rips into a magnificent strutting rhythm that evokes the very best of Bowie and Bolan's early 70's pop crunch; it's my current fave by him.  A close second is "Rated X", which also has the cocky chug of T. Rex hits like "20th Century Boy".  His second album, City Nights, contained his hit “Hot Child In the City” along with what may be his best song, ”Got To Get Out”, which has a kicky, catchy riff, with a memorable, sing-along chorus.  This is glam at its punchy, addictive best; discovering Gilder's work beyond "Hot Child" has been one of the high points of my own musical journey.  Neither album is available in its entirety on iTunes or Amazon but all of these singles and a handful more are available via the "best of" album The Best of Nick Gilder on both sites. 


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nuggets, Pebbles, and other Broken Down Rock

Sky Saxon of the Seeds.




The music on my iPod can be generally split into two categories. The first and most obvious is “music I like”, which is what comprises most of the music on most people’s iPods—stuff we like, find catchy, enjoy listening to, or have good memories of.  

The other category of music on my iPod is “music I have collected”.  As must be clear by now, I’ve got a thing about discovering new, interesting, and bizarre music.  I usually start by typing in the name of a band I know and seeing what other things I can find; alternatively, I’ll often just search about what information I can find on a particular musical genre and see where it takes me.  Once I find new stuff I try to listen to it (on iTunes or MySpace or YouTube or the band web page or wherever I can find it) then I usually try to acquire it (by legal means if at all possible).  

If you asked me why I’m driven to do this, I’m not sure what I’d tell you.  I think I’m just one of those people who is a collector, and who enjoys finding and collecting new things.  For some reason it gives me great satisfaction when I return from one of my musical hunter and gatherer missions with a bunch of new songs.  There’s a feeling of satisfaction in being a musical archivist, and documenting ignored or bypassed musical scenes, of storing up historically important music for future generations.  But obviously another goal is to find music that will move into the first category, i.e., will eventually become music I actually like for its musical aspects rather than/more than for its historical importance or even just its incredible obscurity. 

I’m obviously not the only person who feels like this, and there are a number of terrific blogs and web sites out there doing similar things, often focusing on a specific genre (like New Wave of British Heavy Metal or 70’s powerpop or just music of the 80’s).  One thing I hope to do is start sharing these web sites and blogs here so people who are specifically interested in those genres will have an even more focused resource to utilize should they be so inclined. 

But the desire to catalog and archive music is not new.  It is because of the efforts of musicologists like John Lomax that much of the folk music of America is now known.  In the early 70’s a similar effort was undertaken to preserve the names and sounds and legacies of a number of so-called “garage bands” of the 60’s.  Many of these bands arose after the success of, and often in imitation of, the first wave of British Invasion bands (Beatles, Stones, etc.).  Sonically most of these bands often combined English invasion/Merseybeat melodies with R&B and psychedelia.  There were probably thousands of such bands, most of which never moved beyond playing local sock hops and the occasional bar gig, but a lucky few recorded a single or two and achieved some measure of regional and occasionally national renown.  Lenny Kaye, later famous as the guitarist for the Patti Smith Group (and in many ways an unsung hero of the early NY punk scene), helped compile an album called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, which represents the first such effort to recognize these DIY punk pioneers (indeed, Lenny Kaye’s liner notes contain the first documented use of the term “punk rock” to describe the efforts of these bands).  This magnificent collection introduced many more people to the brilliance of bands like the Standells (though now anyone who attends a Red Sox game knows their hit “Dirty Water”), the Count Five, the Seeds and the Electric Prunes.  LA’s respected underground record label Rhino Records eventually took over this series and released many more compilations.

Anyone interested in these compilations or the bands and songs they contain can find a wealth of information on them online.  Many of the songs are outstanding examples of 60’s garage rock, while others are, in the words of a friend of mine, “deservedly obscure”.   Some stick out for another reason more in line with my archivist mentality, and that is that they represent some of the first recorded output of artists who eventually went on to become famous.  In a previous post on Lemmy of Motorhead I already mentioned his first major band, the Rockin’ Vickers, who played amped-up rock and R&B covers but unfortunately never recorded any original material.  Still, their rumbling cover of the Who’s “Its Alright” gives an indication of where Lemmy would take the bass sound for Motorhead (though he actually played guitar and not bass for the Vickers), and their jangly cover of “Dandy” by the Kinks is an enjoyable if primitive document of the English equivalent to the American garage rock movement.

John’s Children were another band who achieved repute for an ex-member:  Marc Bolan, who would go on to worldwide fame as the leader of the glam outfit T. Rex.  Their single “Desdemona” is a grandiose blast of rumbling, bottom heavy blues rock that also has clear sonic antecedents to punk a well, and builds to a dramatic spoken word climax that got the single banned by the BBC.  “But She’s Mine”, recorded after Bolan left John’s Children to form Tyrannosaurus Rex with Steve Peregrin Took in 1967 is a mod/R&B rave-up reminiscent of the Who’s “Can’t Explain” but with heavy wah pedal and lots of high hat.

Following Bolan’s departure, vocalist Andy Ellison and drummer Chris Townson formed the glam supergroup Jet with Sparks bassist Martin Gordon and Nice/Roxy Music guitarist Davy O’List.  “My River” (written by O’List) starts with a lilting piano line then builds into a big cheerful glam song that sounds like Ziggy era Bowie or early Sparks.  "Cover Girl", written when Gordon was a member of Sparks, is more of a straight-ahead rocker but also has a goofy Mael brothers refrain that makes it sound like classic Sparks.

Following the breakup of Jet in 1976, Ellison and Gordon formed the Radio Stars, who’s music bridged the glam and punk eras in England.  Their first single, “Nervous Wreck”, is a call-and-answer glam-pop-R&B song, but by the time of their second album punk had landed and their newer songs, “Radio Stars”, “No Russians in Russia”, and “Dirty Pictures” have a harder, rougher edge and sound like the early English punk they are. 

Across the pond in New York City, while John’s Children was blasting out songs like “Desdemona”, several groups were creating a totally different sonic landscape, one that pulled from the thriving Greenwich Village folk, blues and avante-garde classical scenes.   Most people are familiar with the seminal protopunk of the Velvet Underground, who achieved the greatest fame/notoriety, but other bands were also exploring this richly bizarre musical landscape.  One of the most unusual was the Godz, who released four albums of extremely bizarre, disjointed and atonal music that veered alarmingly between out-of-tune folk/blues and droning proto-industrial music.  “Permanent Green Light” is an example of the latter, a droning, repetitive song that evokes “Sister Ray” by the Velvets.  Very very bizarre stuff.  Amazingly, all four Godz albums are available in iTunes; listen to any one of them and it makes the Velvets sound like the Beatles!

The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders mined a similar sonic vein.  Emerging from the folk, blues, and poetry scenes in the Village in the early 60’s, the Fugs made sloppy roots music with outrageous lyrics which promoted sexuality and drug use and opposed the Vietnam war.  “Slum Goddess”, off the “New Rose” compilation, is an excellent example of their strange, folky vibe.  The Holy Modal Rounders had a similar sound and appeal; “Bird Song” even appeared on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack and is probably their best known song.  Both bands were exploring similar territory to their west coast counterparts, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart (R.I.P.).

Speaking of the left coast, other weird musical shit was going down in the City of Angels.  In addition to Zappa and Beefheart, other off-kilter musical geniuses were making strange music way out west.  Merrill Fankhauser moved to the Central Coast in his teens and quickly started playing with a number of surf instrumental bands.  His first band, Merrill and the Xiles, had a minor hit “Tomorrow’s Girl”, which has a winsome early psychedelic vibe complete with twangy guitar and go-go organ.  His next band, the incredibly named Fapardokly, recorded music that sounds like it comes from unmade Gidget and Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies; it is catchy and breezy in an innocent mid-60’s kind of way.  Fankhauser then formed Mu, which released a critically acclaimed self-titled album of introspective, hippie-ish music in 1971 and a couple albums thereafter, neither of which is currently digitally available, though “Nobody Wants To Shine” is available on YouTube.  The exhaustively comprehensive compilation series “Pebbles”, which even more extensively cataloged the 60’s garage rock scene, contained some of Fankhauser’s work.

Meanwhile, also in LA during the mid-60’s, Sky Saxon was forming his band the Seeds; their single “Pushin’ Too Hard” became a top 40 hit and was featured on the first “Nuggets” compilation.  Saxon, like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, and Skip Spence of the Jefferson Airplane/Quicksilver Messenger Service/Moby Grape, became another drug casualty in the 70’s and even joined a health food cult for some time, but he also continued to make music, collaborating with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins late in life before his sudden death in 2009.  Spence himself was an incredibly well-respected West Coast multi-instrumentalist (he played drums on the first Airplane album and guitar for QMS and the Grape), made a legendary album, "Oar", before being involuntarily incarcerated for drug and alcohol abuse; a cover/tribute album features Beck doing an incredible, amped-up version of "Halo of Gold".

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Detroit Rock City

Frijid Pink in their heyday.

Even people who aren’t into obscure music have usually heard of the Iggy Pop and his seminal band The Stooges.  By now the Stooges are widely recognized as the punk pioneers they were, and Iggy continues to record and tour, both as a solo artist and with a reformed version of the Stooges, and has enjoyed some well-deserved success over the past few decades.
 
            I was a relative latecomer to the Stooges.  I first got interested in real punk music (rather than new wave) in the early 80’s, particularly the music of the Pistols and the LA punk bands like Fear, Black Flag, TSOL, the Germs, etc.  But it was only in 1985-1986, my first year in college, that I started exploring the antecedents to these bands.  In particular, in 1986 Henry Rollins wrote a short article for the then-recently started music magazine Spin about his favorite albums of all time, one of which was Fun House by the Stooges.  His evocative description of the intensity and energy of that album compelled me to seek it out and I bought it on cassette.  I can still remember how BLOWN AWAY I was that this music had been recorded in THE SIXTIES and still sounded so raw, so contemporary.  I was also struck by the parallels between some of the tracks on it and some of my favorite tracks on my then-favorite Black Flag album, Slip It In.  “Loose” off Fun House, a wild ode to promiscuity (“Stick it deep inside, ‘cuz I’M LOOSE!”), was a clear inspiration for “Slip It In”, and the jealous paranoia of “TV Eye” (which starts with one of the greatest rock and roll screams/yells ever) has clear parallels in Flag’s “Black Coffee”.  

            The next year I bought Raw Power and was again blown away, as much by its incredible power as by how much different it was from Fun House.  Whereas Fun House is all surging power and thunderingly heavy riffs, Raw Power is all about James Williamson’s insanely wild noodling.  From the very first notes of “Search and Destroy” I was utterly captivated, and it remains one of my favorite albums of all time.

            Strangely, I only really got into the Stooges’ first album even later still.  And while “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” is still my favorite off that album (the huge, ponderous, feedback-laden beginning still gives me chills), some of my favorites are some of the “Side B” songs (for those of us old enough to remember when records/cassettes came with two sides):  “Ann”, “Little Doll”, “No Fun”, etc.  (I clearly wasn’t alone, since “No Fun” was covered by the Sex Pistols, “Ann" was covered by Redd Kross, and “Little Doll” was covered by the fantastic 90's LA band the Miracle Workers).  

            I recently went on an MP3-buying bender on iTunes in which I purchased a bunch of post-Raw Power songs.  For those who aren’t aware, the Stooges recorded a large number of demos before and after they were dropped by RCA after Raw Power failed to sell, and many of these have been widely available as both muddy demos or even muddier live versions for many years.  Several of them have since been cleaned up and digitally enhanced and are of almost passable quality.  I recently downloaded a huge bunch of these, including “Joanna”, “Head On”, “Wet My Bed”, “Cry For Me”, “Rubber Legs”, “Gimme Some Skin”, “Born in a Trailer”, Heavy Liquid”, “I Got a Right”, “Cock in my Pocket”,  “I Got Nothin”, and others.  Interesting stuff; what’s fascinating is how many of those songs had a rollicking, roadhouse blues type of stomp to them that sounded very similar to what the Doors had been doing 5 years earlier—the beginning of “Head On” sounds to me like a re-interpretation of “LA Woman” by the Doors, and other songs feature prominently the rollicking piano work of Scott Thurston that sounds similar to the boogie woogie of “Roadhouse Blues”.  This stuff sounds way more commercial to me than anything on “Raw Power” and makes me wonder if the Stooges might have made it if RCA had promoted them harder.

            Fewer people have heard of the MC5, the other seminal Detroit band (who actually started before the Stooges), though they are still recognized by the alternative music cognoscenti as another seminal influence on punk.  Much more political than the Stooges, the MC5 are a revolutionary relic from the most fiery period of the 60’s (hell, they played a free show outside the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that escalated into a full-scale riot).  As the house band of manager John Sinclair’s ultra-radical White Panther Party (who’s platform consisted of a call for “rock 'n roll, dope, sex in the streets and the abolishing of capitalism”, the MC5 filled their early shows (and their best album, Kick Out the Jams) with radical rhetoric to go along with their sloppy, intense, and bludgeoningly heavy music.  The chanted beginning to “Ramblin’ Rose” by Brother John Crawford is nothing more than a call to revolution that still sounds intense and moving today, and it remains one of my favorite live tracks of all time.  The 5 would later split with John Sinclair after he was busted for drug possession and they attempted to downplay both the ultra-left polemics and the feedback, though it availed them naught.  “Shakin’ Street”, recorded during this latter period, is a catchy little acoustic guitar ditty though, and remains one of my favorite MC5 songs.

After the Stooges and the Five broke up, various members re-combined into some interesting groups later in the 70's.  First formed from the ashes of the MC5, Sonic's Rendezvous Band came together in 1975 with Fred "Sonic" Smith of the Five on vocals, Scott Morgan of the Rationals on guitar, Gary Rasmussen of the Up on bass, and Scott Asheton from the Stooges on drums.  Their various singles and live songs have been collected into an album available on iTunes; the best tunes are "City Slang" (which sounds, unsurprisingly, like a cross between the MC5 and Raw Power era Stooges) and "Electrophonic Tonic" which has a strange, almost industrial beginning but then launches into a protopunk blast of driving guitar.

  At about the same time, Ron Asheton of the Stooges formed the band New Order (not to be confused with the English synth band of the same name that grew out of post-Ian Curtis Joy Division).  New Order consisted of Ron Asheton on guitar, Dave Thompson on vocals, Dennis Thompson of the MC5 on drums, a former Stooges roadie, bass player Jimmy Recca, and Stooges pianist Scott Thurston.  New Order recorded a couple of extremely hard-to-find albums in the late  70's and early 80's ; as of this writing only "Rock and Roll Soldiers" is kicking around digitally (on YouTube), and its a solid slab of protopunk sludge (t would eventually be covered by the incredibly rocking Swedish group the Hellacopters) .  Interestingly, at the same time he was in New Order, Ron Asheton and Mike Davis (former bassist for the MC5) also played with the art rock protopunk group Destroy All Monsters with the beautiful and mysterious Niagara; previous members included Larry and Ben Miller, who were in the Sproton Layer briefly and their brother Roger Miller who would go on to form Mission of Burma.  "Bored" is a low key and arty take on post-Stooges, female-sung punk and is worth a listen.  Asheton and Thompson would eventually break up New Order and form New Race with Radio Birdman members Deniz Tek and Rob Younger; they released a couple of also-rare albums, of which several cuts are available on YouTube, including "Gotta Keep Movin'" and "Lookin' At You"; this stuff is even wilder than New Order, as might be expected by the inclusion of the Birdman maniacs, occasionally even sounding like the Misfits.

And finally, Wayne Kramer of the MC5 formed a one-off band called Dodge Main with Scott Morgan of the Rationals (and Sonic's band) and Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman (and Asheton's New Race, it gets very confusing) in the 90's; their cover of Jimmy Cliff's reggae classic "The Harder They Come" is a loud, fun blast of Wayne's massive guitar riffs and Tek's noodling.

            But the Detroit music scene did not begin or end with the Stooges and the MC5 and their various incarnations (or Bob Seger or Alice Cooper or Ted Nugent, all of whom came out of this scene as well).  Over the years I’ve become acquainted with several other excellent bands that often get overlooked from this scene.  For example, the Up were closely affiliated with the MC5 and Stooges; they played many bills with both bands and were also intricately tied up in the White Panther Party (their manager was David Sinclair, John Sinclair’s younger brother).  Unfortunately the Up got lost in the shuffle when Electra signed the MC5 and Stooges and never released a true album.  However, in 1995, the label Total Energy released a retrospective entitled “Killer Up” which collects their various singles and demos, the best known of which is “Just Like an Aborigine”, which is a bass-heavy slice of sludge that sounds like a lo-fi outtake from the Stooges’ first album and is worth a listen.  The Up broke up in 1973; bassist Gary Rasmussen as mentioned above went on to play with Sonic’s Rendezvous Band later in the 70’s with members of the Stooges, MC5, and the Rationals.  

The Frost were another excellent Detroit-area band who played a sludgy form of proto-punk that drew heavily on the heaviness of the Who but was also tinged with psychedelic elements.  “Rock and Roll Music” is a particular standout and has a catchy refrain over a bottom-heavy Live at Leeds-like vibe.  Unfortunately at present few of their songs are readily commercially available so you really need to do some digging.  The Frost released three albums in 1969-1970 then broke up, but some of its members would go on to bigger and better things:  Dick Wagner played guitar with just about every major artist of the 70’s (including Bowie, Lou Reed, Aerosmith, Kiss, etc.) and Mark Farner would join Grand Funk Railroad.

One of my favorite recent finds is Frijid Pink (whom I learned of while reading Joe Carducci’s excellent book “Rock and the Pop Narcotic”).  This band is even less well known nowdays than the Up or the Frost even though they actually had a certified top 10 hit and gold record with their cover of “House of the Rising Sun”; they were supposedly so big that Led Zeppelin opened for THEM at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit in the early 70's!!  But their fame was fleeting and few remember them now.  Much of their stuff is very blues and boogie oriented.  But anyone who loves the Stooges’ first album will love “Crying Shame” and “Tell Me Why” both from their eponymous first album, which are really big on shouted bluesy lyrics, frantically pounding drums, and heavy, doom-laden riffs that sound straight out of “Now I Want to Be Your Dog” and “Little Doll”. “End of the Line” is slightly bluesier but still sounds like one of Blue Cheer’s fuzzed-out blues romps.  Other songs from this and subsequent album are more introspective and even feature some cool organ work.  Their second album, “Hibernated”, moved away from the feedback and fuzz (though they occasionally reared their heads in muted form on some songs) and sounds like much more mainstream early 70’s blues-based hard rock a la Mountain, Free, and the Guess Who.  Not bad but it doesn’t blow the top of your head off like their early work.

The Third Power are another semi-legendary Detroit band.  Their sound hewed closer to the heavy blues of other 60's bands like the Yardbirds, Cream, Hendrix, and so forth, but it also had a raw Stooge-y edge to it.  "Gettin' Together", and "Persecution" off their one and only album Believe, released in 1970, are incredible songs.  "Gettin' Together" sounds like Jack Bruce singing for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, while "Persecution" cuts loose with a harsher Detroit vibe closer to the MC5's "Come Together" or "American Ruse" but still has that Cream heavy blues sound.

Though they eventually moved to Los Angeles (just prior to that city’s incipient punk explosion in the mid/late 70’s), The Dogs started in the late 60’s in Lansing and went on to open for many of rock’s biggest acts of the 70’s, including Kiss, AC/DC, and the Ramones.  Alas, there is not a lot of information about them, but they have several songs on their MySpace page and a little band history as well.  They have one album on iTunes, Fed Up, which collects some of their singles as well as some live performances from the later 70’s.  “Sleaze City” has that classic Detroit sound, a driving blast of supersonic guitar with elements of “Come Together” by the MC5 and “Death Trip” by the Stooges.  “Younger Point of View”, “Black Tea”, and “Fed Up” sound more like “TV Eye” era Stooges with that classic Fun House rumble and snarl.    "Black Tea" is my current favorite, a driving, intense song that bludgeons your ears with that fantastic Detroit sound.  "John Rock and Roll Sinclair", and obvious tribute to the former MC5 manager and White Panther Party founder, rocks in a less heavy manner and sounds similar to "American Ruse" by the Five.  Great great stuff.

Perhaps the most fascinating (and obscure) Detroit band is Death, an incredible power trio and one of the few African-American (proto) punk bands.  The band, which consisted of siblings David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, started playing with various funk and soul bands in the late 60’s but rapidly gravitated to the heavier music of their white brethren.  The album “For the Whole World To See” collects their various demos and singles into an incredible document.  “Keep On Knockin’” is an INCREDIBLE song that captures the freewheeling and soaring aspects of some of the stuff Iggy eventually released on his Kill City album in the late mid-70’s, with lyrics that sound eerily similar to those of Rob Tyner of the MC5.  “Rock and Roll Victim” is an insane song, with hand claps a la the Stooges, a funky rhythm, and frenzied lyrics that almost sound like Fishbone.  “You’re a Prisoner” and “Freakin’ Out” are two other songs with strange, syncopated rhythms and shouted lyrics that in this instance remind one of Bad Brains.  Anyone who wants to hear an amazing record should pick this one up ASAP.

Many many many bands have tried, with widely varying levels of success, to emulate the simple-yet-powerful music of  the Stooges and the other Detroit bands.  Most, unsurprisingly, fail to truly capture their bludgeoning vibe.   Perhaps the band that came closest was the Dead Boys, though they will be the focus of a future post.  More recently, the Living Things have recorded some songs that really recapture the manic energy of the Detroit sound, particularly that of the Stooges.  Their 2005 album Ahead of the Lions has several standout tracks that evoke Iggy and Co.; hell, even the album cover recaptures the swirling psychedelic vibe of Fun House.  "I Owe" is a fantastic, driving rock anthem, and lead singer Lillian Berlin's deep tenor is eerily similar to Iggy's vocals on Fun House; he even perfectly captures Iggy's "Come Ah-on!" from "Now I Want To Be Your Dog".  "Bombs Below" also has that Fun House vibe, and "Bom Bom" "End Gospel" and "God Made Hate" also have a Detroit roar to them, but to me "I Owe" may be the best song the Stooges never recorded.

Friday, January 21, 2011

King of Speed



Lemmy in Hawkwind




This is the third post in my entry on what I consider to be the “holy trinity” of influential musicians from the 60’s:  Twink, Steve Peregrin Took, and today’s subject, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister.  Like the first two entries, Lemmy’s history covers the length and breadth of 60’s music, 70’s, music, and beyond.  Unlike the first two, however, Lemmy did indeed go on to find much-deserved commercial success, when he formed his own band, Motorhead, in 1975. 

Lemmy was there at the beginning of everything:  he reputedly saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1961 and was inspired to learn the guitar by playing along to their songs.  He played with a number of 60’s bands before joining the Rockin’ Vickers in 1965.  The Rockin’ Vickers were a standard mid-60’s English band that mixed R&B, mod, and Merseybeat stylings but unfortunately never developed any original material of their own (all of their singles are covers of songs by other bands).  They did, however, achieve a level of fame for supposedly being the first English band to tour Yugoslavia. 

Lemmy eventually left the Vickers in ’67 and moved to London, where he shared an apartment with Noel Redding, soon to achieve fame as bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Lemmy became a roadie for Hendrix for a while and continued to play with other musicians, joining Sam Gopal and Opal Butterfly for gigs.  In 1971 he and drummer Simon King (whom he’d played with in Opal Butterfly) were asked to join the seminal space rock outfit Hawkwind.  Their addition to that group produced some of its most memorable recorded work,  including the albums Doremi Fasol Latido, the live album Space Ritual, and Warrior at the Edge of Time.  Lemmy in particular wrote the songs “The Watcher” and “Motorhead” (which he would use as the title of his subsequent band) and sang the lead vocal for “Silver Machine”, the band’s biggest hit. 

In 1975 Lemmy was arrested in Canada and sacked from the band.  He then formed his own band, initially named Bastard, with former Pink Fairy Larry Wallis and future Warsaw Pakt drummer Lucas Fox.   Lemmy soon changed their name to Motorhead and recorded a demo with this lineup that was rejected by his record company, though it was later released as “On Parole” after Motorhead’s subsequent success.  This album is worth a listen as it is an interesting transitional document between the acid/space/psychedelic/hard/pub rock Ladbroke Grove roots of the principles and the hyper-sonic metal roar  for which Motorhead would become justifiably famous.  The songs range widely across the sonic landscape of the 70’s:  “On Parole” is a rollicking blues/hard rock number that sounds like early Aerosmith;  “Vibrator” sounds like pub rock and early punk; “Iron Horse/Born to Lose” is a slow bluesy number that almost sounds like Savoy Brown or even Wishbone Ash.  Two Hawkwind songs, “Motorhead” and “The Watcher” are covered as is a Pink Fairies number “City Kids”.  In 1997 EMI re-released a digitally remastered version of this Motorhead Mark I effort, adding to it some legendary demos recorded with Dave Edmunds of Rockpile fame, which may explain the heavy pub rock leanings of these first efforts.  This album is available on iTunes.

 Lemmy eventually replaced Wallis and Fox with guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, re-recorded many of the songs from this early effort, and this album was released in 1977. The rest, as they say, is history.  Motorhead went on to become one of the most successful heavy metal bands of all time while simultaneously appealing to the burgeoning punk movement (Lemmy even played bass with the Damned for a few gigs). 

Shagrat

Steve Took, R.I.P.






The late 60’s were a period of great musical inventiveness.  In particular, there was a lot of musical cross-pollination, with musicians forming new groups, side groups, and other experiments with like-minded others.  Bands constantly swapped members and lineups changed frequently.  This led to large amounts of experimentation and innovation,  and blues, rock, psychedelia, and hard rock all mixed and blended to form new genres.  Groups like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds expanded the boundaries of blues rock and many members of both bands went on to form other, even more successful bands.  Eric Clapton eventually left the Yardbirds and formed several “supergroups”, first Cream, then TrafficBlind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes, and so forth.  

A similar level of collaboration characterized the Ladbroke Grove scene I discussed in my previous post.  This scene grew out of two main groups, the Deviants and the Pretty Things, both of whom had their roots in other, earlier blues and R&B influenced English bands, as well as other groups such as the Rockin’ Vickers and Famous Cure.  Out of the ashes of these groups arose two groups that would eventually be hugely influential in 70’s music, the Pink Fairies (whom I discuss in the previous post) and Hawkwind (more on them in a future post).  These two bands often played gigs together, swapped members, and on occasion even jammed together as a larger collective known as “Pinkwind”.

But the collaboration didn’t end there, as members of this scene also formed other side projects with one another and/or collaborated on one another’s solo albums.  One of the most bizarre of these collaborations was known as Shagrat, named after the orc of the same name from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (Tolkien was becoming huge at this point).  Shagrat consisted of Steve Peregrin Took (who himself was named after a hobbit from LOTR) on vocals, Larry Wallis on guitar, and initially Tim Taylor and Phil Lenoir on bass and drums and later Dave Bidwell on drums and Took on bass.  Mick Farren, ex-singer of the Deviants, was also involved in the inception of the band but never played with them.  Larry Wallis was mentioned in a previous post; he played with a couple of obscure late 60’s blues/hard rock bands (Entire Sioux Nation and Lancaster’s Bombers, which grew out of Blodwyn Pig; sadly, no recorded material seems to exist of either band)  and eventually went on to play in the Pink Fairies after Paul Rudolph’s departure, in UFO as a touring guitarist, and in Lemmy’s first incarnation of Motorhead.  Dave Bidwell left Chicken Shack, an English blues rock group (where Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac got her start).

Steve Took, like Twink in my previous post, is another of those unsung heroes of the late 60’s English music scene.  Took got his start as the percussionist in the acoustic hippie folk band Tyrannosaurus Rex, started by Marc Bolan upon his departure from John’s Children in ’66.  Bolan and Took eventually disagreed over the direction of the band and their respective contributions of each to it and Took left (Bolan of course morphed the band into T. Rex and went on to huge success in England as a glam rocker and icon to the emerging English punk scene) .  Took then collaborated with Twink on Twink’s solo album and formed Shagrat shortly after.

Alas, Shagrat proved ephemeral:  they played only a couple of gigs and recorded a handful of demos, which is all that survive as any sort of musical documentation.  The demos are not readily available commercially but snippets of four acoustic songs and three electric songs exist on the Steve Peregrin Took website.  These are mostly very muddy and poorly recorded but give some indication of the sound of Shagrat. Recently someone has also posted cleaned-up versions on YouTube as well. Like Tyrannosaurus Rex, they show that the group was striving to keep one leg firmly planted in the acoustic hippie scene while also making a harder, more electric sound.  “Beautiful Deceiver” and “Amanda” are pleasant enough acoustic tracks that remind me of Oasis or Blur. “Strange Sister” is another acoustic song but one with a more primal stomp than “Beautiful Deceiver” or “Amanda”.  Though tinny and scratchy,  “Peppermint Flickstick” is one of the best electric tracks, and shows early flashes of the guitar prowess of Larry Wallis, who as mentioned would go on to bigger and better things in the 70’s.  This song purportedly tells the tale of a man who spends his life savings on candy bars because he develops a crush on a Cadbury's Flake girl.  Sonically it shows flashes of “Raw Power” era Iggy and the Stooges (impressive considering it precedes that recording by about 3 years) and “Ziggy Stardust” era Bowie. “Boo I Said Freeze!”, another electric track, sounds like early Pink Fairies (though a trifle less over-the-top) and tells the tale of Took’s arrest while wandering the freeway on acid in Los Angeles in ’69.  Anyone interested in hearing any of these songs should check out the Took web site:  http://www.stevetook.mercurymoon.co.uk/welcome.html or the YouTube postings by butlincat2.

Shagrat never came together beyond these demos and a tiny handful of shows.  Wallis joined UFO and Bidwell returned to Chicken Shack as they re-formed into Savoy Brown.  Took continued to perform acoustically as a solo act, often opening for the Fairies or Hawkwind, and continued to collaborate with various members of the Ladbroke Grove scene before dying tragically young in 1980 due to asphyxiation from choking on a cocktail cherry.  A sad end to another legendary 60’s persona.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Saint Twink and the Pink Fairies



The Pink Fairies ripping it up live in '71 or '72.



If there is a patron saint for this blog, it would have to be John Charles Alder, aka Twink (and yes, I’m aware that twink in gay slang means a young pretty boy, not sure if Twink himself knew this or if this meaning was even around in the 60’s when he adopted this name).  Twink has spent the better part of the past 40 years making unrepentantly non-commercial music  and was the drummer for a number of seminal 60’s bands, including Tomorrow (widely considered, along with Pink Floyd, to be among the first psychedelic bands) and the Pretty Things.  Tomorrow’s big hit was “My White Bicycle”, one of the first songs (along with “Are You Experienced?” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, released the same exact month, May 1967) to use backward guitar looping.  “My White Bicycle” is reportedly about a community bike program initiated by the Dutch Provos, a pre-hippie anarchist movement in Amsterdam, which makes the song even cooler in my opinion.   Tomorrow’s one album of studio work is an amazing pastiche of early 60’s clich├ęs (though they weren’t at the time obviously)—sitar and folky sing-alongs side-by-side with raging  feedback-drenched anthems, and is worth a listen for sure.

After leaving Tomorrow in late ’67, Twink joined the Pretty Things, who in their early days were considered “the uglier cousins of the Rolling Stones” (which is saying something).  Their most famous song was the pro-drug song “LSD”, which came out in 1965, far before most folks had heard of this mind-altering drug. 
While still with the Pretty Things in 1969, Twink recorded a solo album with the assistance of a huge group of other influential psychedelic musicians, including Steve Peregrin Took of Tyrannosaurus Rex (which would eventually morph from an acoustic hippie folk band into the premier English electric glam band of the 70’s, T. Rex) and members of another seminal 60’s psychedelic group, the Deviants.  The Deviants, who formed in 1967 as the Social Deviants and later shortened their name,  consisted of Mick Farren on vocals, Paul Rudolph on guitar, Duncan Sanderson on bass, and Russell Hunter on drums, had recently broken up following a disastrous tour of North America.  Upon returning to the U.K., Farren hooked up with Twink and Took and agreed to produce the former’s solo album, entitled “Think Pink”.  “Think Pink” is an astonishing musical document, filled with bizarre songs which range (much like Tomorrow’s one studio album) between contemplative folk and acid-damaged noise.  An outstanding example of the latter is the song from which the title of this blog is taken, “Ten Thousand Words in a Cardboard Box”, which highlights Twink’s brutal drum bashing as well as Paul Rudolph’s acidulous, noodling guitar and is a standout track.

After completing his solo album Pink subsequently formed a new band from the ashes of the Deviants, essentially replacing Mick Farren with himself, even maintaining Russell Hunter as a second drummer.  This band, the Pink Fairies, represents one of the true lost gems among 60’s bands.  Their sound was, unsurprisingly, an outgrowth of everything its members had been moving toward in both their group and solo work, only BIGGER and LOUDER and even more INSANE.  The Fairies embraced wholeheartedly the radical musical and social conventions of the late 60’s and early 70’s; they frequently played free and/or impromptu gigs as well as festivals such as the Glastonbury Fayre, and their shows were frequently drug-fueled orgies of musical sloppiness and excess.  The band members lived in an anarcho-hippie commune in Ladbroke Grove, along with the legendary space rock outfit Hawkwind, who also formed around this time and with whom the Fairies shared much in common both musically and conceptually (the two played many gigs together and swapped members frequently as well).  The Pink Fairies also became the primary U.K. proponent of the White Panther Party, the extreme left-wing political organization founded by MC5 manager John Sinclair, and not surprisingly they also share much in common with this seminal band as well.   Because of their embrace of both musical and political anarchy, the Fairies are often considered to be a firm antecedent to the U.K. punk movement which would arise six years later.
Their biggest “hit” was the anarchist anthem “Do It” (which would be covered two decades later by the Henry Rollins Group).  “Do It” is a wonderful, shambolic  anthem to spontaneity and freedom—the song essentially consists of Twink’s shouted exhortations to “Don’t think about it, DO IT!” juxtaposed with  Paul Rudolph’s shrieking guitar noodling.  “Do It” is a true lost classic of the 70’s underground music and a legitimate predecessor to the 70’s punk movement.

But my FAVORITE Pink Fairies song is actually not an original song, it’s a cover:  “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, which the Fairies never recorded in the studio but which they often played live.  The version I have is from the “Golden Years:  1969-1971” album released in 1998 which compiles some demos and unreleased live tracks of dubious recording quality.  This, unfortunately, is one of the problems with obscure music:  there’s often very little of it recorded and what is recorded is often of poor quality, particularly on live tracks.  This version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is no exception:  it is muddy and dim and sounds as if it were recorded from inside someone’s bong satchel.  But even in this less-than-perfect state, this song is an amazing testimonial to the incredible power of the Fairies live.  It starts with Paul Rudolph’s guitar blasting out the refrain in what must have been a deafening, soul-crunching volume live.  The drums kick in next, thunderingly heavy, followed by the panzer-like roar of Duncan Sanderson’s churning bass.  As this ponderously heavy rhythm section holds down the bottom, Rudolph’s guitar sings and soars in a pre-vocal solo that to me absolutely defines the term “psychedelic”.  To me no guitar work even comes remotely close to capturing the mind-altering, mood enhancing, soaring chaotic beauty and freedom of the 60’s than Rudolph’s work here.  I’m not a big druggie but hearing this song on max volume on my iPod makes me want to gobble a blotter of acid just to see how it affects my interpretation of the music.  I can only imagine how powerful and even frightening this song must have been live, at some free festival in the English countryside, wacked out on hallucinogens, the bass and drums rumbling in your chest, strobe lights and clouds of wind-driven dust turning the very air into a lava lamp as Paul Rudolph touches the Face of God with his mind bending solo.  The other thing I always think of when I hear this song is how far things had come so quickly in the psychedelic movement.  The Beatles first recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows” just a short 4 years prior, and at that time it was considered way out there (written, as it was, by John Lennon while whacked out on LSD and reading Timothy Leary’s interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead), but their version sounds like the Mamas and the Papas compared to the Fairies’ blisteringly tripped-out version.  Alas, this version is not as of January 2011 available on iTunes but I keep hoping; however, iTunes does have a version from a rock festival in Finland in 1971 that, while not quite at the level of the version above, nevertheless still manages to provide a glimpse into the sturm and drang of the Fairies live.  Check it out.


The Pink Fairies recorded three studio albums, one with the "classic" lineup above, after which Twink left, and one with Larry Wallis on guitar after Paul Rudolph left to join Hawkwind (Wallis would play with UFO and eventually form Motorhead with Lemmy following Lemmy's departure from Hawkwind in 1975 for "doing the wrong kind of drugs").  Twink has continued to release music in one form or the other for the better part of the past 40 years.  Anyone interested in the history of the Deviants/Pink Fairies is encouraged to read Rich Deakin's excellent book "Keep It Together!  Cosmic Boogie with the Deviants and the Pink Fairies", which documents the entire late 60's/early 70's Ladbroke Grove scene, and discusses other bands associated with this scene such as the Edgar Broughton Band and the Groundhogs who played a twisted electric blues similar to some of the stuff Zappa and Beefheart were also producing at almost the same time).

 

 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the beginning . . .

Its always hard to figure out how to start something like this.  Should I say something about me?  About this blog and what I hope it will be?  About why I'm doing it?  Something pithy and clever?  All of the above?  Hard to decide, but I'm going to give it a shot, and here it is:  It should not be surprising to anyone to hear that we live in a golden age of music, thanks to the digital revolution.  Thanks to the near-instantaneous accessibility of nearly all forms of music thanks to the internet, there's almost nothing you can't download or at least read about. 

And this is clearly a good, nay, a wonderful thing.  I'm not that old (43), but I spent enough of my life pre-internet to remember what it was like, and it was terrible, ESPECIALLY if you wanted to learn more about music off the beaten path of popularity.  Back in those days you really only have two choices if you wanted to find something strange and underground:  (1) find out about it, and hopefully listen to it, through a cool, usually older, friend, friend of a friend, or friend's older brother; (2) wander into an alternative record store (if your community was lucky enough to have one), find some album from some weird band you'd heard something about or which had an interesting cover, and roll the dice that it was actually worth the 11 bucks or so it usually cost on import.  The media certainly wasn't much help; there was a pretty big gap (which fit almost exactly across the span of my own teenage years) between the heyday of Creem and Crawdaddy and the rise of Spin magazine (which for all its faults has always tried to cover alternative music).  Sure, there were 'zines, but these were usually only sporadically available.  It wasn't a lot of fun.

But now, thanks to the internet, anyone anywhere of any age can find out TONS of stuff about even the most obscure song, band, musical movement, etc.  Between the large outlets (Wikipedia, All Music Guide, iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.) and the individual band pages, tribute pages, and yes other blogs, there is a plethora of information available to one and all.

So then, why start this blog?  Isn't there already enough information out there, possibly even too much information (or at least too many choices of where to get it)?  Possibly.  And yet . . . And yet, I still have hope that this might become a legitimate additional outlet for the discussion of interesting and obscure music.  Why?  Well, partly because I'm an optimist who hopes/thinks that other folks with similar interests might end up here and add their thoughts to whatever I write.  And partly because even with all these other options, there will always be the need for COMMUNITY, for places for like-minded individuals to "gather" (if only electronically) and share their thoughts, beliefs, agreements, disagreements, and passions. 

So that's as close to a manifesto as I am going to come.  I should also set a few ground rules, if only for myself.  First, I intend to share  my thoughts on the music I love, which very often happens to be stuff you don't find on the Billboard top 100 too often.  This music comes from all genres and eras and artists and is not limited to any specific type of music.  Second, it is not the intent of this blog to proselytize, though I admit it will often be hard to restrain my passion for many of these songs and artists.  Thirdly and related, I REALLY do not want this to become a forum for a "this music rules so THAT music must SUCK" mindset.  If I've learned anything at all about music (or life) in my 43 years its that nothing is "either/or" in this world, where in order for one thing to be good another thing has to be BAD.  Fourthly, I want to make it clear up front that I do NOT work for a record company, radio station, or other media outlet, I am not under contract by any of the bands I will talk about here, and I have absolutely nothing to gain financially from any of my ramblings printed herein.  I am not trying to get you to buy these albums for any monetary gain on my part, I'm just trying to share the music I love with people who might also like it too. 

In addition, here are some things you might expect from me.  First, I get most of my information from the big, traditional sources (Wikipedia, AMG, iTunes, Amazon, etc.) but will try to add what I can beyond what can be found in these usual sources.  That also means that not everything is going to be 100% accurate.  If I'm wrong, PLEASE TELL  ME.  Its the only way I'll learn.  Second, like all blogs, this one will be semi-autobiographical.  It is impossible (and pointless) to try to do something like this without divulging information about who you are, where you come from, what you're like, etc.  I'm going to try not to make this into some "all about me" page but I think some background information is always important for setting the context.

So I think that's everything for now.  Bear with me, my hope is that this WILL get better, more interesting, more exciting, and more relevant.  Baby steps first.