Thursday, April 14, 2011

Musical Memories II: Concerts


In a previous post I discussed some of my concert experiences.  I mentioned that I was a late bloomer with respect to concerts; I recently found a box containing some old movie, concert and other event concert tickets, and my first concert was August 13th, 1984 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in Irvine, CA, to see Billy Idol.  I can remember that it was hot; I think I was wearing a tank top and jeans, as well as a studded leather bracelet in imitation of Mr. Idol that had been given to me by a girl.  At that time I was 17 and I worked during the summers at a candy and ice cream store right across the street from the Seal Beach pier in Seal Beach, California.  This was a cool place to work; I got the job the summer before when an old babysitter of mine told me about it.  The owners were these two older people who took no shit; I had to pass a “giving change” test just to get interviewed!  As an aside, I can still figure change in my head to this day; funny how those old skills die hard.  It was a fun place to work, busy as heck in summer (we were open until 11 PM and were usually there a half an hour or more cleaning up afterward) but sort of a central gathering place for tourists, beach crowds, locals, surfers, punkers, kids, etc.  In the winter the tourists and beach crowds left and it was usually just the locals and us. 

The people who worked there were high school kids mostly, though there were some college age folks and even older people.  One of the older guys was Robert, the day manager, who was working there and attending acting classes through USC’s extension program.  I remember he was in a couple commercials and music videos (the one I remember specifically was the video for the song “Turn To You” by the Go-Go’s, the one where they dressed up as guys).  The high school kids were a smattering from the local high schools from Seal Beach, Los Alamitos, and Long Beach (where I was from, just one town over).  It was cool because you got to meet a lot of different people from different schools.  When I started it was mostly girls who worked there though it waxed and waned, and I quickly became friends with several older girls (they were seniors and I was a lowly sophomore and junior). 

Part of the reason I wasn’t into concerts then was because we instead were into the dance club scene, and would drive up to Los Angeles (the Big City) to go to the dance club 321, located at 321 3rd Street in Santa Monica.  Long Beach and the local cities were really provincial back then (and still are to a big extent) and this was considered to be a very wild thing to do, to go to a dance club in the big city.  Never mind that it was an underage (16 and under) club so no alcohol was served, it was still a very big deal. 

321 was a 3 level club; you entered on the main level, which was usually deserted and served mostly as a meeting area for the other two parts of the club but occasionally they would put on a live concert there.  I remember one time seeing a band called The Mod Squad there; never found out what happened to them, they had a cool name, particularly at that time, when the Paisley Underground scene was so popular.  The upstairs was 21 and over and served alcohol (we never even TRIED to go up there), the downstairs was the underage club, in the basement.  It was really just a big black painted room with mirrors on the walls, a DJ booth, a “bar” that served overpriced, watered down sodas, and a couple of carpeted risers (where the REALLY cool folks would dance, so they could be above everyone and be seen all around the club). 

I barely remember dancing with any girls ever; I was really shy and super intimidated by the sophisticated LA girls.  Little did I know that most of the REALLY sophisticated girls were sneaking into over-18 and over-21 clubs in the city.  But luckily it was okay to dance by yourself or with friends (sounds pretty lame now).  But it was still fun to see and be seen. 

The songs I remember being cool there were pretty much across the map musically:  “People Are People” by Depeche Mode, “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Centipede” by Reba Jackson, “Smalltown Boy” and “Why” by the Bronski Beat, and the most popular song of all was “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash.   There was even this dance that went with it:  when the lyrics got to the part where they said “Higher baby; get HIGHER baby; get HIGHER BABY, AND DON’T EVER COME DOWN, FREEBASE!” you would raise one hand palm upward then the other and so forth. 

So instead of attending live concerts we mostly went to 321 and danced.  That year (1983-1984) we probably went a couple dozen times, maybe less.  I took to affecting a very generically Anglophilic, post-punk/new wave look—very short hair spiked up with gel in the front and top, baggy black or olive linen pants (no parachute pants though), white t-shirt with a dark shirt or sweatshirt over it, black leather shoes with white socks.  It was a pretty generic post-punk look. 

My friends and I also started smoking clove cigarettes then because pretty much everyone did at the dance clubs (they were popular with a wide swath of teenage culture, from surfers to punks to new wave kids to mods); I was never more than a very sporadic recreational smoker (thankfully) and mostly did it to look cool on weekends (I can never remember smoking cloves any other time or place, maybe an occasional house party but that was it, and once I felt like I was smoking too much, I simply quit cold turkey and never smoked again) and to get a little buzz on.  Clove cigarettes were flavored with clove oil and had a very distinctive flavor and smell; the smell of one now INSTANTLY transports me back to those high school weekend nights like almost nothing else.  My friends and I all smoked Djarum brand cloves.  It was right around this time that some research came out about clove cigarettes being even worse for you than regular cigarettes, and there were rumors of surfers who were coughing up blood from smoking them too much, which was a main reason why I quit. 

The only other reason my club going days were noteworthy were that it was also the one and only time I tried pot and it actually did anything for me.  I’d tried pot two or three times before, usually with my brainy friends (weird how some of the biggest potheads at my high school were super smart college-bound kids; in fact, the one time I went to SCORE pot in some seedy downtown area of Long Beach was with a guy who had literally gotten a perfect 800 on his math SAT—and in the 700’s on his verbal SAT—and who eventually went to Berkeley and became a medical doctor) but it had never done anything for me.  One night going up to 321 with two platonic girl friends from work we smoked pot in the car before going in; one girl was dating the biggest drug dealer at my high school and had scored some primo pot from him.  I can remember feeling just very disconnected and mellow but also way out of it; in fact, after getting out of the car I lit up a clove, took a few puffs, then put it out on my palm and never felt a thing.  At that moment I realized I didn’t like how out of it pot made me feel so that was the last time I smoked it.

Anyway, several of these girls and I decided to attend the Billy Idol concert in summer of 1984.  I was REALLY into Billy Idol at this stage, and around this time got really seriously into his first band, Generation X, too.  I guess Billy Idol was rebellious enough, but still safe enough, for an honor’s classes kid like me.  Looking back it seems like cheesy cartoon rebellion but what can you say?    About the only good thing was that Billy Idol served as a “gateway artist”:  I got into Billy Idol, then into Generation X, and then into the Pistols and the Clash, and then eventually into X and Black Flag.

One thing I remember is that one of the girls was house sitting for a friend in Belmont Shore (a beachfront community within Long Beach) and we all went there to meet up to go to the concert.  One of the girls, Debbie, offered to cook us dinner but didn’t know how to cook and managed to dirty every pot in the entire house and all we got out of it was some melted gruyere cheese on bread!  So I can remember being totally starving going to the concert.  That was also one of the first times in my life I ever saw MTV, which had just hit the Southern California market a few months before.  I can remember seeing a video by Box of Frogs and thinking even then that all you needed was a weird name to make it big in music in the 80’s. 

What I DON’T remember is if we drank before we went; I don’t think so, because Debbie was a straight arrow as I recall and the other girls felt nervous that she’d be weird about it or even “narc” on us.  What I DO remember is how long it took to get into and out of the parking lot; in fact I think we missed most if not all of the opening act, which I believe was Book Of Love

The concert itself was fun; Billy was arguably approaching the height of his popularity that summer, with a staggering four hit singles (“Rebel Yell”, “Eyes Without a Face”, and “Flesh For Fantasy”, “Catch My Fall”) off his second full-length album, Rebel Yell.  And of course he performed songs off his first album that were hugely popular as well, including “White Wedding”, “Dancing With Myself”, “Nobody’s Business But My Own”, and his cover of “Mony Mony”.  I can still remember how cool we thought it was when Billy substituted “Orange County” for the shout of “New York!” toward the end of the song; years later when Spinal Tap parodied that in their appearance on “The Simpsons” it totally brought back memories of how na├»ve we were then to think that was cool.  My favorite Billy Idol songs were off his first EP Don’t Talk, “Untouchables” and “Baby Talk”; I’m pretty sure he did “Untouchables” at this concert.  All in all it was a really good concert.

I’m not sure, but I think my next concert was General Public, also at Irvine Meadows.  I know I saw them (though I can’t find the ticket stub) and that it was quite chilly for Southern California, which makes me think it was sometime in fall 1984; I know it had to be before summer 1985 because I graduated from high school that summer but it might have been in winter or early spring 1985 too.  The single “Tenderness” was a big hit at my high school and according to Wikipedia it was released in May 1984, so fall 1984 or spring 1985 would be about right. 

I attended this concert with my aunt Kris, my mom’s younger sister, who was only two years older than me and more like a big sister.  She had moved out from upstate New York to live with us in California.  She had this tiny little Datsun or Toyota and I can remember listening to Prince’s “Take Me With You” on the radio or tape deck (that would also fit the fall/spring timeline since Purple Rain was released in June 1984).  The opening act was the Three O’Clock, who a couple of years earlier I had been really into but had cooled on.  Still, they gave a good concert (although again I think we arrived late and missed part of it).  General Public, Dave Wakeling and Rankin’ Roger’s band after the English Beat, had a couple of popular songs off that album but I don’t remember them doing any other songs (English Beat songs, for example), which would have sucked. 




The next concert I have documentation for is Depeche Mode on their Some Great Reward tour, March 31st 1985 again at Irvine Meadows.  This concert was a MAJOR event at my high school.  I can still remember my friend John and I standing in line at Music Plus near the Traffic Circle in Long Beach to get tickets.  We pulled up and there was this HUGE line containing a wide range of high school social strata—college-bound kids, surfers, new wavers, and outright punk rockers.  It was like a who’s who of the different music and social scenes.  At this time Depeche Mode was EXTREMELY popular in Southern California; the compilation album People Are People had been released in July 1984 and I can remember buying it at the independent record store Jeremiah McCain’s in Belmont Shore very soon after that, probably in August or September 1984, and this introduced many of us American fans to a broad survey of their earlier singles.  Some Great Reward had been released in late August 1984, I probably bought it a month or two after that (at Music Plus I think), so the local market was completely saturated.  I was utterly obsessed with Depeche Mode at this point, stemming partly from their popularity in the dance clubs I’d attended for the past year.  I was also entering into a pretty major flirtation with industrial music, and this was when Depeche Mode was at their most industrial.  Just as my interest in the music of Billy Idol eventually led me to seek out REAL punk by bands like Black Flag and Husker Du, my interest in Depeche Mode spurred me to explore the music of bands like Test Dept.   “People Are People” was my favorite song due to its clanging, hammering industrial dissonance, but I really got into the whole Some Great Reward album.  My favorite song off it was “It Doesn’t Matter”, which I would sing to my girlfriend at times, and I liked “Master and Servant”. 

That concert was one of the most amazing of my life.  We didn’t know it, but Depeche Mode had been on the road for over half a year by that time, but you’d never have known it  by the high energy show they put on.  Lead singer Dave Gahan was a whirling dervish on stage, racing from one end of the large, wide Irvine Meadows stage to the other.  But the highlight was when Martin Gore took the mic and sang the ballad “Somebody”, which blew us away:  it was tender and heartfelt . . . oh, and he sang it bare-chested wearing an ankle length leather skirt and a strand of pearls!!!!!!!  Wow.  For some reason we didn’t think this was gay (even though it so clearly WAS), we thought it was super cool.  I can remember that we left for spring break on Catalina Island the next day and all we wanted to do was listen to that song over and over again!  It was a strange time, what can I say. 


My next concert was Madonna at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, CA, April 26th, 1985.  I’d been a major Madonna fan since the minute her first album came out.  I can remember seeing the cover of her first album, with that iconic picture of her head, with her dyed blonde hair, all her bracelets on her arms, and a black t-shirt, and was transfixed.   On the one hand I thought that the album was blasphemous (even though I’m not religious at all) because I thought it was a BAND named “Madonna”, kind of like “Judas Priest” or something.  The not too long after this I saw the video for “Burning Up” and almost lost it; her raw, seething sexuality in that video totally set my teenage libido on fire.  I can remember telling my best friend John about her, and insisting we watch her on “American Bandstand”.  His opinion?  “She looks like a slut.”  Yeah, so???   I continued to consider her the epitome of desirability, mostly because of her punk/post-punk look, with dyed blonde hair, crucifixes, heavy makeup, bracelets, black clothing, etc., which reminded me of the club girls I could never dance with. 

Her first album was very popular at our high school, and her second album Like a Virgin had just come out the year before and was hugely popular too.  I can remember I had a small postcard-sized image of her in the wedding dress from the cover taped up in my locker; my ideal woman!  She hadn’t toured for her first album, or at least hadn’t come to Southern California that I’m aware, and so we decided to go and see her on her first tour, the Like a Virgin tour.  What’s funny is a bunch of really macho mook-y guys we knew at school also decided to attend, all with their girlfriends.  My friend Roberto and I went “stag” and we had the WORST seats, almost at the top toward where the sloping roof of the Universal Amphitheatre came down, making it difficult to see.



But here’s what I remember the most about that concert:  how much we hated the opening act, who were these obnoxious east coast rap guys (rap not even being on anyone’s radar in Southern California at this time except for dance club hits like “White Lines”) who came out and talked about how much the west coast sucked and how much the east coast ruled.  We weren’t alone in booing them; most of the female teenyboppers at this concert were even less interested in rap than WE were.  Who was this lousy bunch of obnoxious assholes?  The Beastie Boys of course, almost two full years before License To Ill came out!!!  What’s particularly funny is that probably my all-time favorite song of theirs is “She’s On It” off the Krush Groove soundtrack and they almost assuredly played it since that single had just come out, only I was booing too hard (my teenage boy testosterone and local pride having been affronted by the Beasties’ rampant east coast boosterism) to even listen. 




I remember the concert being fun, but there were so many screaming teenyboppers and it was more of a dance stage show.  Madonna was also rapidly leaving her punky roots and embracing a bigger, Marilyn Monroe-inspired identity and image which was much less appealing to me.  It was a fine concert but nothing to write home about.

My final concert before college was another cringe-inducing one:  Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the Palace in Hollywood, sometime around May or June 1985.  “Relax” had broken huge in the dance clubs and I’d gotten some super-extendo remix in import cassette that I would listen to endlessly.  Of course my meathead friends would give me endless grief for liking a “bunch of fags” but my friend John and I really dug the music.  I also was a really big fan of their covers of “Ferry Across the Mersey” and “Born To Run” (as blasphemous as this will sound to Boss fans, I still love that cover to this day).

One humorous anecdote about this concert has to do with my friend John’s mother.  She was a stay-at-home mom, unlike my own mom who was a single working mom, and she was always up in our business (but not necessarily in a bad way) because we always hung out at John’s house after school.  She found out we were going to this concert and looked at the ad for it, which said, “Dress Code Enforced”.  Now, to this day I have no idea what that meant, but John’s mom took it to mean that we’d need a coat and tie to get in, since that’s typically what “dress code” had meant to people of her generation.  She kept telling us we were going to get turned away at the door for not having a suit and tie on.  We laughed at her and dismissed this claim, but because we were insecure high school puds there was nevertheless a TINY grain of doubt in each of our hearts.  So anyway we drove up there of course there was no dress code.  But here’s the punch line:  while we were standing in line (with every gay and/or new wave freak in the greater Southern California area), I happened to spy some weird new wave guy who was wearing not one but TWO ties!!!  I assume this was some weird new wave fashion statement, but I quickly pointed him out and said to John, “Well, if we DO need a tie to get in, maybe we can borrow one of his.” 

The other funny thing I remember about this concert was that we took the most circuitous route to get there.  I’d only ever driven up to Santa Monica, and so instead of actually reading a map and figuring out the shortest way to go, I decided I would drive up to Santa Monica then go from there.  We could have taken the 405 to the 10 to the 101 and practically been there in 15 minutes; instead we took the 405 to Santa Monica Blvd. then drove the length and breadth of the Westside and Hollywood until we reached Vine (the Palace was on Vine just above Hollywood Blvd.)!! 

The concert itself was outstanding; sweaty, loud, fun.  It wasn’t overtly gay (surprising since it was held in Hollywood not far from West Hollywood), but I think Frankie were as popular or more so with the straight crowd than they were with the gay crowd.  I remember the bass was so deep and heavy I could feel it in my chest.  All in all a great concert.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Paisley Underground


Baroque Hoedown album by the Three O'Clock

As I discussed in a previous post, it wasn’t long after punk exploded on the scene that most people were asking “what’s next?”  Punk at its core was a return to the loud, fast, short songs of the pre-psychedelic era, often played sloppily (even deliberately so) but with passion and exuberance.  But most performers were not going to be content to simply blast out short sloppy anthems for long.  And its not even possible for even the least talented musician to remain permanently incompetent; simply through the act of performing, they gain experience and expertise with their instrument and become better.  That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to become a technical wizard on their instrument, but it usually means that they can’t, and don’t want to, remain at the same amateur level they started. 

The Sex Pistols supposedly set out to destroy rock music, but that was a ludicrous goal to begin with.  First of all, it seems unlikely that rock could be destroyed by ANYTHING, given that it has withstood virulent attacks by parents, educators, conservatives, and racists since its very inception.  Second of all, it seems to me to be a pretty awful way to destroy rock by using rock itself:  the Pistols signed to a major label and wrote, recorded, and released recognizable songs that could be packaged into singles and albums, which is EXACTLY what the rock establishment is there for!! 

Once it was obvious to everyone (including Johnny Rotten/Lydon himself) that rock was going to survive the Pistols and punk, the inevitable question was, “where do we take this?”  For most musicians who came up through the punk ranks (and even some who did not, including established acts like Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, etc.), this could be reformulated as, “How can we incorporate the best aspects of punk music into traditional rock?” 

Some took a futurist approach, trying to take the energy of punk but moving away from traditional rock musical structures, primarily by getting rid of guitars and other analog instruments and creating electronic music with synths and synth drums.   Often these artists also moved away from the short, fast approach of punk toward music that was almost closer to avant garde classical or jazz. 

But many took the opposite approach:  instead of looking to the future, they looked to the past for musical forms they could combine with the energy and passion of punk.  Nowhere was that more evident than Los Angeles.  LA had one of the earliest (after New York of course) punk scenes in America, and was one of the first to take punk into harder, faster, louder directions—hardcore was pretty much invented by first-wave LA punk bands like the Germs as well as suburban Orange County groups like the Middle Class (on songs like “Out Of Vogue” off their first EP, which at that time was a quantum leap in terms of its speedy tempo) and eventually groups like T.S.O.L., Circle One, Vicious Circle, the Blades, and so forth. 

But many LA rock musicians looked to create something more mature, something more rooted in rock traditions.  One of the first bands to do so was X.  John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake were older, wiser, and more experienced musically than most of their first-wave LA punk peers; Zoom had played in rockabilly bands going back to the 60’s, and John and Exene both had experience as poets and musicians that had been colored by the 60’s.  X’s sound has always had elements of country, folk, rockabilly, and other traditional rock idioms.  Moreover, their first album was produced by LA rock icon Ray Manzarek of the Doors; Manzarek also played keyboards on songs like “Nausea”. 

Other LA bands similarly sought to incorporate previous rock and non-rock sounds into a post-punk approach.  The Gun Club, founded by Jeffrey Lee Pierce in 1980, also sought to bring blues, swamp blues, country, folk, and rockabilly into a punk framework.   I love the swampy blues/country feel of songs like “She’s Like Heroin To Me” off their spectacular Fire Of Love album. 

A couple of bands moved more definitively in a country or country rock direction.  X was again a pioneer here, with John and Exene joining Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Jonny Bartel of the rockabilly group the Red Devils to form the Knitters, a band more explicitly devoted to country and folk music.  Their cover of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” as well as their own “Cryin’ But My Tears Are Far Away” off their album Poor Little Critter In the Road are two of my favorite country songs of all time.  Similarly, brothers Chip and Tony Kinman of the Dils, quickly disillusioned with the punk scene, formed the band Rank and File along with Alejandro Escovedo of the Zeroes in 1981; their best known song was “Rank and File”, which was very country influenced. 

Another band with a country twinge to their sound were the spectacular Long Ryders. Instead of taking a traditional country approach, the Long Ryders incorporated the country rock sounds of 60’s bands like the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield.  Their debut album, Native Sons, even featured former Byrd Gene Clark singing on the song “Ivory Tower”, and was produced by Henry Lewy, who produced the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums.  Their opus is the magnificent “I Had a Dream”, a driving, jangly fusion of the sound and influence of the Byrds with a punkish passion.  This song, in my opinion, is a high water mark for the LA post-punk scene as a whole; it still sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did 30 years ago.  I can remember seeing this video on MV3, which was one of the first I could remember that featured a story independent of the band; I still consider this to be one of the higher quality music videos of the early 80’s.  Happily, eight different Long Ryder albums are available on iTunes, including Native Sons.


The Long Ryders were far from alone in exploring the music of the 60’s from a punk point of view.  LA had a vibrant, thriving post-punk musical scene that looked directly to the garage rock and psychedelia of the 60’s; this movement became known as the Paisley Underground due to an off the cuff remark by scene leader Michael Quercio of the seminal group the Three O’Clock.  Originally known as the Salvation Army when they first formed in 1981, they changed their name after legalistic run-ins with the charity of the same name; however, most of the early demos recorded by the band during this early phase are available on iTunes under the band name Befour Three O’Clock.  Not surprisingly, these songs have a rougher, more punkish edge to them, but even at this early date Quercio’s fascination with psychedelic themes, and his expertise in crafting songs with them, is evident.  “Happen Happened” is one example, with its buzzsaw bass and guitar evoking the Ramones but Quercio’s fey voice and semi-nonsensical lyrics about Doris Day melting away show the two main inspirations for this band.  “Mind Gardens” is even faster and sloppier and doesn’t yet capture Quercio’s magnificent ability to craft canny pop hooks.  “Going Home” has elements of country twang, British Invasion, and American 60’s garage rock, while “The Seventeen Forever” features a swirling, Farfisa organ sound. 

It was with the release of their first album, Baroque Hoedown, in 1983 that the Three O’Clock truly hit their stride.  This album was massively popular with my friends in junior high and high school friends, who were mods looking for a local band of their own like the Jam or Purple Hearts around which they could rally.  “With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend” is one of the standout tracks on this album, starting with a driving beat then launching into waves of jangly Byrds-esque guitar seasoned with organ flourishes and Quercio’s high pitched vocals and sweet choral harmonies.  This, to me, is another top-shelf track from the LA Paisley Underground scene.  The song “When I Go Wild” is slower and has a more pronounced backbeat and a lurching rhythm; the chorus is big and catchy and this song features a terrific organ solo replacing the usual guitar solo.   “What Marjorie Tells Me” starts with a quavery string/keyboard builds to a galloping guitar-and-vocal interplay in the chorus.  “Sorry” is a wild rave-up with a dominant organ element; it reminds me of the Who’s early work.  “As Real As Real” is slow and introspective; it almost sounds like Quercio’s attempt to recreate the sound and feel of “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles.    It’s the trippiest and most psychedelic of their songs.   “Around the World” is another sweet pop song in the 60’s vein.

On their second album, Sixteen Tambourines (both this album and Baroque Hoedown are available as one combined album in iTunes), the heavy 60’s organ is downplayed and the production has become smoother and more complex, with strings, piano, horns (such as on their cover of the Bee Gees song “In My Own Time”) and other studio touches.  This entire album is one long sweet, well-crafted pop song.  My favorite song off this album though is “Jet Fighter”; I love its propulsive beat, swirling synths, and the raw sound of the guitar; this is one of the Three O’Clock’s most rocking song and the associated music video, featuring mods swarming on their scooters, was a major influence on the Southern California mod scene.  I saw the Three O’Clock in concert at around this time (they opened for General Public at Irvine Meadows) and they were a great live band (even in a large, crappy venue like this).

The Three O’Clock released three more albums after this but each was less well received (none of these are available on iTunes), with the exception of the song “Her Head’s Revolving” off their third album Arrive Without Traveling; this song was their biggest hit thanks to the music video being played on MTV.   After the breakup of the Three O’Clock, Michael Quercio formed Permanent Green Light (named after a song by the obscure 60’s proto-punk/garage band the Godz), which continued to make punky psychedelica like the Three O’Clock; none of their albums is currently available on iTunes but over a dozen songs are posted on YouTube.  I particularly like “We Could Just Die”, which has the driving feel of Baroque Hoedown era Three O’Clock, and “Bright Light”.  In the later 90’s Quercio formed Jupiter Affect (with former Celebrity Skin guitarist Jason Shapiro).    My favorite songs by them are the shimmery “Angela Davis hair” off their first EP and “Attack of the Hair People” off the concept album The Restoration of Culture After Genghis Khan (which is curiously available on iTunes). 

The Three O’Clock were undisputed leaders of the LA paisley underground scene, but the band that achieved the greatest success was the Bangles.  The group formed in 1981 and went through several name changes before settling on the Bangles.  By the mid/late 80’s they were one of the biggest acts in pop music, with hits like “Walk Like an Egyptian”, “Eternal Flame”, and “Manic Monday” (written for vocalist Susanna Hoffs by Prince).  But in their earliest incarnation they were  a very mod 60’s garage punk band.  Their first EP, “The Real World” which is almost vanishingly rare, captures this band at this pre-superstardom point, when their sound was heavily influenced by the LA paisley underground scene.  The title track is my favorite Bangles song of all time; I can still remember seeing the music video, and the group itself performing the song on MV3, for the first time and being blown away by the energy and the hip and authentic 60’s feel of this song (which happily is uploaded on YouTube).  This is catchy garage mod pop rock—not as sweet and slickly produced as their later work but possessing an exuberant 60’s energy.  The clanging, chiming Rickenbacker guitar and Hoffs’ sweet voice give this song a real flair.  The other songs on this EP are equally charming; “Mary Street” has a jaunty rhythm and reminds me of “Penny Lane” by the Beatles.   “I’m In Line”(with Debbi Peterson taking over vocals from Hoffs on this cut) reminds me of some of the stuff Suzi Quatro’s first group the Pleasure Seekers released in the 60’s, a lurching, groovy finger poppin’ type of song and a bass line that sounds like “Taxman” by the Beatles.   “Want You” is fast and peppy, with vocal harmonies by all the women and a plaintive chorus by Vicki Peterson.  The notoriously tall Vicki also handles vocals on the equally rocking “How Is the Air Up There?”, which again has a very authentic Revolver-era Beatles feel to it.  These songs are all on YouTube and to me represent the acme of the Bangles’ output.

But I also like a few songs from the subsequent album, All Over the Place, (which is available on iTunes) most notably “Here Takes a Fall”, which continues in the same chiming, rocking 60’s vibe as their initial EP.   On the sweeter and even more harmonic side is “Going Down to Liverpool”, written by Kimberly Rew of the Soft Boys (and more famously the lead singer of Katrina and the Waves of “Walking on Sunshine” fame).   I also love two Bangles covers:  Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter”, off the “Less Than Zero” soundtrack, and Big Star’s “September Gurls”, which is on the “Super Hits” compilation on iTunes.  I like their cover of “Gurls” almost more than I like the original.

Several other Paisley Underground bands didn’t hit it quite as big as the Bangles but nevertheless managed to produce songs and albums that were critically acclaimed.  Foremost among these are the Dream Syndicate, who combined the jangly feel of the Byrds and the pop feel of the Byrds and the Beatles with the harder edge of the Velvet Underground to produce some truly timeless music during this era.  Their most celebrated album, 1983’s Days of Wine and Roses, contains several outstanding tracks, including the jangly but rough edged “Tell Me When Its Over” and the faster-paced “Then She Remembers”.  “That’s What You Always Say” starts with an ominous, plodding bass line before lurching into a meandering guitar line that reminds me of early Cure.    The Syndicate’s subsequent albums (which are available on iTunes along with Days) never really captured the raw feel of this band, unfortunately.  There was a brief period in the mid-80’s when it seemed possible that the Dream Syndicate was going to be a leader of the music scene like R.E.M. but somehow they never managed to build on the promise of their debut. 

On the sweeter end of things was Rain Parade, who made music that melded the jangle pop of the Byrds with the harmonies of the Beach Boys.  “What’s She Done To Your Mind” off their first album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip (available on iTunes) sounds like “Bells of Rhymney” crossed with something off Pet Sounds.  “You Are My Friend” has a hazier feel that evokes the Velvet Underground.  Guitarist Dave Roback continued to build on this hazy, introspective type of music in his subsequent projects, Opal and Mazzy Star.  Opal, formed by Roback with former Rain Parade bassist Kendra Smith in 1984, produced somnolent pop that is almost eerily predictive of the indie shoegazer movement of the 90’s.  I saw Opal free at UCLA around 1987 or so and they were ethereal live. 

Roback’s next group, Mazzy Star, took this even further; they received some airplay for their song “Fade Into You”, which is characterized by new vocalist Hope Sandoval’s sweet, soft vocals.  I also love the shimmering clarity and simplicity of “Into Dust” and the raunchy lurch of “Wasted” off So Tonight That I Might See, and finally their cover of “Heroin” off their Live album.

Also making hazy, introspective pop at this time was Downy Mildew.  One of my favorite songs of all time is “Six Months Is A Long Time” off 1992’s An Oncoming Train; Jenny Homer belts this song out in her clear ringing tones.  Excellent stuff. 

Finally, no survey of Paisley Underground bands would be complete without Green On Red.  The organ-heavy “Gravity Talks” sounds like ? and the Mysterians; on “That’s What Dreams Were Made For” the vocals sound a lot like Tom Verlaine’s on Television but the backing music evokes a slightly pumped up “Pale Blue Eyes by the Velvets. 

The Paisley Underground movement was huge in Southern California; bands like the Three O’Clock and Bangles were favorites of most of my friends, and I have many fond memories of listening to Baroque Hoedown or the Real World while driving around in my friends’ cars.  I even bought “Gravity Talks” back in the day though I didn’t really get into it as much as I wish I had.  I didn’t get into the Dream Syndicate or Mazzy Star until the late 90’s, but still these are some of my favorite songs. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Running Free


As I mentioned in a previous post, growing up in Southern California in the early 80’s there was a very sharp dividing line between punk/new wave music, which was considered cool, and heavy metal music, which was considered so uncool it didn’t even register on the social scale.  New wave music was the music of the rich kids, the college bound kids, the beach/surfer crowd, while heavy metal was the purview of the poorer kids, the inland kids.  In fact, being an ‘inlander’ was one of the worst insults you could throw at someone.  Other towns in America have townies and gownies, or there is a big divide between the town/city kids and the country/rural kids; in Southern California it was how near or far you were from the ocean that delineated cool from uncool.  In Long Beach, where I was raised, Wilson High school was the closest one to the beach and we therefore looked down at every other high school in the city as a bunch of “inlanders”.   

The social divide between beach/new wave kids and inlanders/heavy metal was even made literal and geographical:  Seal Beach, a local beach community (which the heavy metal kids called “Squeal Beach” for reasons I could never determine) was divided between the “rocker” side, where the metal kids would congregate on weekends in their Def Leppard and Ratt t-shirts (having taken the “Landshark” bus from inland to get there), and the “new wave” side, where the local kids and other beach town kids would hang out. 

I therefore grew up with only the most rudimentary knowledge of heavy metal.  Obviously I’d heard of metal pioneers like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, etc. in the 70’s, but I hadn’t grown up listening to them like most kids had.   My only real exposure to anything that was going on in the metal world came sporadically through occasional videos shown on the seminal Southern California music video program MV3.

It’s interesting though, with hindsight to see that at the very same time that one revolution was underway, another was just beginning.  Even while the very first peak of the punk wave was cresting in England and post-punk and new wave were gaining ground, another revolution was bubbling up from underground.  This was of course the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM (occasionally known as NWOBM, the “heavy” being understood).  Heavy metal, of course grew out of the heavy, psychedelic blues explorations in the late 60’s by such bands as Cream, the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck Group, Humble Pie, and Led Zeppelin.  As the 70’s wore on, the music became louder, less obviously blues-influenced, the guitars more prominent, and heavy metal started to become a more recognizable genre.  The first wave of what might be considered true heavy metal bands was epitomized by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple,  Judas Priest, and the Scorpions, while other bands, including Grand Funk Railroad, Budgie, Nazareth, Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, and Uriah Heep also helped define the harder, heavier sound of the emerging genre.

By the late 70’s, however, metal was in decline, forced underground by the three-pronged attack of punk, disco, and the California/country/feel good music of bands like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt.  Moreover, most of the top metal acts were huge stadium stars who were not making music that seemed particularly vital to the average fan on the street.  So, much like punk was a revival of an earlier musical form (the pre-Beatles rock and roll single), heavy metal began as a groundswell of young artists wishing to recapture the energy and passion of the earliest forms of the music.   Many of these artists therefore infused their music, which sonically, lyrically, and structurally was heavy metal through and through, with the roughness and naked emotion of punk. 

Perhaps no band better epitomized this than Iron Maiden.  Formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, Maiden went through several lineup changes and even disbanded on a couple of occasions but in 1978 vocalist Paul Di’Anno joined the band and they began to develop a rabid following.  Most of their fans were lower middle class males who found the politics and bombast of punk to be uninspiring—mostly there were kids who simply wants to ROCK, and bands like Iron Maiden and others quickly filled this void. 

Listening to Iron Maiden’s first two albums, Iron Maiden and Killers, is interesting now with the tincture of time.   On the one hand, it’s obvious that Maiden is taking what Judas Priest and the Scorpions were doing, and pushing it even farther into what would be heavy metal and eventually speed metal—the guitar riffs are faster, tighter, more technical, the solos longer and more elaborate, more head banging.  Even at this early point, the dual guitars, the guitar harmonies, and the technicality of the riffing makes this music hearken to an almost classical rock sound.  But on the other hand, there’s a roughness, a crudeness to their sound that evokes the rawness of punk, and Paul Di’Anno’s vocals are not the high pitched caterwaul of so many Robert Plant imitators to come after but often have a roughness more in line with punk.  For these reasons I’ve come to enjoy songs like “The Prowler”, “Sanctuary”, “Running Free”, “Wrathchild”, “Killers”, and “Murders in the Rue Morgue”.

However, after Killers, Di’Anno was asked to leave as his substance abuse began to adversely affect his ability to perform, and Bruce Dickinson stepped in.  Dickinson’s operatic range (his falsetto took Robert Plant’s and Rob Halford’s to the next level) and theatrical personality kicked Maiden to another level entirely; they left much of the rough, punkish feel of their early days behind but in the process became arguably the greatest metal band that ever existed.  Their third album, Number of the Beast, literally defined the genre for all time (for better or worse).  The title track is an anthemic, galloping blast of energy as moving and emotional and exciting as “New Rose” by the Damned.  This is by no means thinking man’s music—already we see a fixation with, almost an obsession with, themes of mysticism and evil worship lifted directly from Zep and Sabbath—but the music is so compelling—fast, tight, crisp, and furious—that it overcomes the severe limitations of the lyrical content.  The other huge hit off this record is of course “Run to the Hills”, another speed of light metal assault that is also catchy and irresistible as hell, with lyrics with a little more heft that decry the devastation of the Indian nations by white settlers in pioneer America.  This music was never my music, and will never speak to me as deeply as punk, powerpop, and new wave will, but I can’t deny that these are outstanding , passionate songs excellently written, performed, and recorded. 

Maiden of course went on to be one of the most successful recording and touring metal artists of all time, releasing endless popular albums (though personally I feel like they started to lose steam after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son).  Another hugely popular band to emerge from the NWOBHM scene was Def Leppard, who were just as influential in establishing the more melodic or pop side of heavy metal, which was dominant throughout the 80’s.  Strangely, their albums are not available on iTunes or Rhapsody but are available through Walmart.com, can be found on Last.com, and VH1’s web page shows their videos.  Of course like everyone I like “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages”, but my favorite songs come off their first couple of albums, before their sound became more overtly pop and still has a pretty hard edge.  “Rocks Off”, from their first album On Through the Night, has a repetitive riff that sounds very similar to work by Iron Maiden at around the same time, and the vocals are low key.  “Let It Go” off their second album High N’ Dry has a fantastically catchy opening riff by guitarist Phil Collen and singer Joe Elliot’s voice has an almost angry timber, starting from a low murmur and building to a shriek, furious crescendo.  The title track also has a catchy riff that hints at the pop direction they would take on future tracks like “Photograph”, but the chorus sounds like classic AC/DC-driven hard rock.  “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak is their first big ballad, and again their future success can be glimpsed early on.

Iron Maiden and Def Leppard became international superstars.  Most other NWOBHM bands did not achieve nearly the same level of success, but a couple actually did develop substantial followings within the metal realm.  One of these was Saxon, who played a stripped down biker-influenced hard rock that was closer to the music of AC/DC and Thin Lizzy.  My favorite songs of theirs are “Wheels of Steel”, “Motorcycle Man”, “Machine Gun”, “Watching the Sky”, “Crusader”, and of course my all-time favorite, “Denim and Leather”, which is a paean to their fans and early supporters and which sports one of the biggest, heaviest, most head banging riffs ever.  This is actually one of my favorite metal songs of all time, because I love any song that celebrates rock, and a particular genre, itself; to me this song is a metal counterpart to “Promises Promises” by Generation X, which similarly sought to winnow the poseurs from the committed.

Several NWOBHM bands achieved notoriety much later for the direct influence they had on the band that would become the most successful proponent of heavy metal in America, Metallica.  Drummer Lars Ulrich has always been very vocal about Metallica’s massive musical debt to the NWOBHM scene, and Metallica has released a large number of covers of songs by these bands.  Its interesting in this respect to listen to these songs and hear the echo of future Metallica songs.  One obvious inspiration was “Heavy Metal Mania” by the Scottish NWOBHM band Holocaust, which starts with a guitar-driven intro almost identical to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” off Metallica’s second album, Ride the Lightning.  Vocalist James Hetfield also clearly based much of his angry, evil delivery (particularly on early work such as Kill ‘Em All) on that of Holocaust vocalist Gary Lettice’s on this and other songs such as “Smokin’ Valves” and “Mavrock”.  A casual fan might even be forgiven for mistaking these three songs for long lost Metallica demos or something, they sound so much like material off Kill ‘Em All.

Another huge influence on Metallica was Leicester band Blitzkrieg.  Metallica covered their song “Blitzkrieg” on the Creeping Death EP.  Their song “Buried Alive” sounds like it was a clear inspiration for Metallica’s “Creeping Death”, having a similar structure and tempo.  “Night Howl” is another song that falls midway between Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning era Metallica.

A third NWOBHM band that hugely influenced Metallica was Diamond Head.  Metallica has covered no fewer than four Diamond Head songs: “The Prince”, “Am I Evil?”, “Its Electric”, and “Helpless”.  Diamond Head always reminded me of Thin Lizzy in their crunchy, catchy, twin guitar attack, which pulls as much from hard rock as it does from heavy metal, and in Nick Tart’s almost quavery vocals.  “Its Electric” is my favorite song by them, with its driving rhythm and soaring chorus.  “Play It Loud” is a close second, however; again, Tart’s wavering, breaking vocals provide this fast, driving, punchy song with a tension that makes it compelling listening.  “Lightning to the Nations” has accents of the light speed riffing of Metallica’s “Whiplash” but builds to a soaring chorus rather than Hetfield’s barked ‘WHIPLASH!”  Many of these Diamond Head songs are available on iTunes, but nothing by Holocaust and only two recent albums by Blitzkrieg are available there.  A band who had a similar sound and feel were Angel Witch; Lars Ulrich has often mentioned them by name but to my knowledge Metallica has never covered them; their eponymous song “Angel Witch”, however, has an early Metallica feel.

Another NWOBHM band which evokes the supersonic riff onslaught of early Metallica is Chateaux.  “White Steel” off their 1984 album Firepower starts with such a blistering blast of ultrafast riffing that it will blow your socks clean off.  This song to me evokes the song “See You In Hell” by Grim Reaper (who, perhaps not coincidentally, were labelmates to Chateaux during this time; vocalist Steve Grimmett eventually left Chateaux and joined Reaper and went on to bigger success).  “Rock and Roll Thunder” has the blazing tempo of “Whiplash”.  Anyone who likes early Metallica should check these guys out; both songs are posted on YouTube.  Similar to this is “Red Light” by Black Axe; Metallica never covered this but it’s a sure thing that they listened to this as it sounds similar to their own light-themed song, “Hit the Lights”.

Another heavy rock outfit from the NWOBHM movement were Savage (not to be confused with another NWOBHM band, Sweet Savage).  “Cry Wolf” off 1983’s Loose N’ Lethal is rough, sloppy, heavy slabs of metal organized around singer Kevin Osborn’s operatic vocals, but their best known song is “Let It Loose” off the same album, which has the same raw, street level metal feel. 

I can’t find much information about the Handsome Beasts except that they were perhaps one of the most ironically named bands of the NWOBHM movement; singer Gary Galway was notoriously overweight (even appearing with a pig on the band’s 1981 Beastiality album).  Their sound is midway between Motorhead and Thin Lizzy, with Galway’s high pitched vocals.  “Sweeties” has a catchy riff and a singalong chorus, while “Breaker” has a heavier, gloomier feel more like Sabbath.  Both are posted on YouTube along with a couple other songs.

Working closer to the realm of AC/DC is Dedringer; “Direct Line” has a simple but soaring guitar sound and vocalist John Hoyle (who was later replaced by Neil Garfitt) sounds like late era Bon Scott.  “Hot Lady” has a more prog rock-ish Deep Purple sound.  Both are available on YouTube for your listening pleasure.   Another hard rock/boogie outfit was the wonderfully named biker outfit Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts.  Their “Hot Lover” has the simplicity of early Motorhead or AC/DC.

Several NWOBHM bands produced more melodic approach more in line with the work of Def Leppard.  “Don’t Ever Want to Lose Ya” by Bronz is an upbeat blast of pop metal with slick vocal melodies and soaring guitar harmonies.  One band that should have been way bigger were Gaskin (named after singer and lead guitarist Paul Gaskin); “Sweet Dream Maker” is wonderful pop metal with the catchy riffs and propulsive beat of early Metallica but the sweet soaring vocal harmonies of Def Leppard; its hands down one of the best NWOBHM songs ever written.  “I’m No Fool” is a little harder (it sounds a bit like Holocaust but with smoother vocals) but still contains a catchy chorus; “High Crime Zone” has a prog rock edge but also evokes Paul Di’Anno era Iron Maiden, “Sanctuary” for example.   One of the earliest NWOBHM bands to release an album was Mythra; their 1979 single “Death and Destiny” is another excellent song that has the heavy rocking metal element but also has a catchy chorus and melodic hooks throughout that make it a complete package.  “Overlord” is faster and less melodic but still worth checking out.  Most of these songs are also available on YouTube.

Samson was famous for being the band that Bruce Dickinson smartly left to join Iron Maiden; “Hard Times” has a pulsing bass and Dickinson’s characteristic operatic vocals, and anyone interested in Dickinson’s pre-Maiden work should check it out.  Big on guitar harmonies is “Cheated” by Praying Mantis, who pursued a sound midway between the melodic hard rock of Def Lep and the metal guitar histrionics of Maiden.   Chrome Molly also created some catchy Lep-inspired music, including “Too Far Gone”, though this song is louder and messier than anything Lep ever recorded.  Another act that never made it big but had big catchy melodic songs were Tygers of Pan Tang; “The Story So Far” is excellent in this regard, as is “Take It”.  However, their earlier work, such as on their debut album Wild Cat (which featured a different vocalist and guitarist), is much more raw; songs like “Killers” and “Slave To Freedom” are technically sound but have that same punk era crudity as Iron Maiden’s first two albums. 

Several NWOBHM bands mined deeply from the evil/Satanic imagery of Black Sabbath, including the similarly named Witchfinder General and Witchfynde.  Both made sludgy metal that could also be surprisingly catchy; “Free Country” by Witchfinder General and “Give ‘Em Hell” by Witchfynde both have memorable riffs similar to “Paranoid” by Sabbath.   And of course the band who took this fascination with the occult and devil worship the farthest (at least at that time), Venom, created an entire genre which would be known as black metal.

At the same time this metal revolution was fomenting in England during the late 70’s and early 80’s a similar movement was gathering steam in America.  At least initially most American metal would focus more on the melodic side of metal, which they combined with the feminized glam look of the New York Dolls, which would eventually result in the hair or pop metal movement of bands like Poison and Warrant in the late 80’s.  Early on, bands like Motley Crue, Quiet Riot and Ratt would make some excellent music before their imitators drowned the entire movement in mediocrity. 

I honestly believe that the hair metal explosion of the late 80’s was one of the nadirs in the history of rock music.  Every musical movement eventually gets glutted with johnny-come-latelies and mediocrity, but I truly believe that the hair metal movement had more bad bands than good, and I can’t say that about punk, new wave, grunge, or any other movement of the past 60 years.  I probably have fewer songs by hair metal bands than I do of any other genre. 

But the metal explosion in the 80’s definitely had positive side effects on rock as well.  In Los Angeles, a number of bands began to incorporate elements of classic 70’s heavy metal artists such as Black Sabbath as well as other 70’s influences into their punk inspired music, most notably Black Flag and other bands affiliated with the SST record label.  In Seattle, several bands started playing slower, heavier, sludgier music that in the fullness of time would morph into what would be known as grunge.  And the aforementioned Metallica as well as other American bands would take up the banner created by NWOBHM and create speed metal and/or thrash, a melding of the speed and technical riffing of metal with the fury and intensity of punk.  Hardcore punk itself would start incorporating more of the elements of metal and would converge toward thrash to form crossover.    Ultimately the line between metal and punk would become so blurred that it would almost cease to exist, and as a result new and different sub-strains of rock would be formed.