Friday, April 30, 2010

The following is a review/article which music writer Robert Palmer (who died in 1997) had published by the New York Times on February 23rd, 1986. It's been reprinted elsewhere before (most notably in Hank's Get In The Van), probably because it stands as the single greatest piece of writing on the band. If you think there's been a better article written on the group, then send it my way. One of the most interesting aspects of the article remains the fact that Palmer writes purely about the musical development of Black Flag, possibly the only time - outside of Michael Goldberg's excellent article on the post-hardcore musical landscape in a 1985 edition of Rolling Stone - that was achieved in the mainstream music press... ever! Not only that, but the piece concentrates on and appraises my two favourite post-Damaged albums by the band: The Process Of Weeding Out 12" EP and In My Head. The former I've written about several times before - an instrumental free-form EP I wish had been stretched out to a double LP - and the latter, their last studio album, which was originally planned as Greg Ginn's first solo disc (according to Joe Carducci), an album that for me remains a near-masterpiece of powerhouse rock, off-kilter rhythms and frenetic, jazz-inspired guitar riffery.
If you have no interest in Black Flag then the following article will likely mean zip to you, but then again, if you have no interest in the band, you're probably reading the wrong blog, too. For everyone else, this is required reading, and in hindsight makes me wonder why Palmer has never been ordained the level of status granted to the likes of Bangs, Meltzer, et al.

Read on...


Black Flag, formed as a punk rock band in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, has been growing by leaps and bounds lately, with every new record release - growing musically, and that's perhaps the hardest thing for a rock band to do.

While some beginning punk rockers develop minimal competence on an instrument principally so they can participate in the life style and make a lot of noise, others have genuine musical talent, and a decent musician will improve, even without trying. And it is at this point that the basic punk rock bands and the diehard punk audience reach a crisis point. Some bands are going to want to keep banging out those two or three chords in lock-step rhythms forever; other bands are going to evolve. The trick is persuading their listeners to come along for the ride.

Throughout a stormy career, Black Flag has done the latter, while contending with problems that would have wrecked other bands. For one thing, there was frequent turnover in personnel. In addition, volatile audiences at the band's early shows earned it a reputation for violence.

But through it all, Greg Ginn, Black Flag's guitarist and only remaining original member, persevered in his vision of what Black Flag could be. He helped form the independent record label SST to insure that the band would retain complete artistic control. He found new, like-minded musicians when others left.

Early Black Flag albums like ''Damaged'' were classic punk rock, chronicles of spiritual decay behind southern California's prim suburban facade, ironic comments on the punk life style that compassionately traced its causes, often to parental and societal neglect, without ever glamorizing it or pretending it could be anything but a dead-end street.

Things began to change when Black Flag brought in Henry Rollins, a powerfully physical stage performer, as its new lead singer. For all his apparent ferocity, Mr. Rollins proved to be a thoughtful and resourceful lyricist, adept at describing inner turmoil and the hidden wounds that can result from power games and interpersonal relationships. He has now published several books of stories and poetry, and his lyrics have given the band's songs a sharper focus and added emotional punch. They are angry and direct; angry at least partly because Mr. Rollins sees so many of his contemporaries - the lock-step pre-meds and the lock-step punks -reacting to the transition from schooldays to adulthood by shutting off their feelings and no longer thinking for themselves. For Mr. Rollins, not feeling is the ultimate obscenity. ''I smash fists/into my face/I feel it/ this is good,'' he sang on a recent Black Flag release.

There was always a certain musical tension between Greg Ginn's rhythm playing - his ability to fashion guitar riffs into the backbones for songs makes him a kind of latter-day Keith Richards - and the wilder, tumbling chaos of his solo breaks. What he needed was a sturdy but adaptable rhythm section, and after many failed attempts he has found it in the bassist Kira, a willowy young woman whose playing is a model of firmness and strength, and the fine drummer Bill Stevenson. But the group chemistry didn't sort itself out overnight.

Black Flag fans began to wonder what was happening to the band when at least three successive albums -''My War'' (SST 023 LP and cassette), ''Family Man'' (SST 026 LP and cassette) and ''Slip It In'' (SST 029 LP and cassette) - betrayed considerable confusion as to direction, capturing what was essentially a new band in the process of sorting itself out. Last year's ''Loose Nut'' (SST 035 LP and cassette) was an improvement. There were still plenty of problems, but the music had begun to cohere in a different sort of way. Still, nothing on that album prepared the listener for Black Flag's two new releases - ''In My Head'' (SST 045 LP and cassette), the band's most consistently inventive and invigorating album in years, and ''The Process of Weeding Out'' (SST 037 EP and cassette), a four-song, all-instrumental recording by Black Flag minus Mr. Rollins.

On ''In My Head,'' Black Flag's music is intriguingly, sometimes dazzlingly fresh and sophisticated, but the band hasn't had to sacrifice an iota of the raw intensity and directness that are punk's spiritual center. Instead of saving his more fanciful, prolix and anarchic musical inspirations for brief guitar breaks, Mr. Ginn and his team players have used these ideas to build up the structures of the songs. The title tune, for example, is part waltz, part old-time blues shuffle, but one doesn't hear the components, one hears a song, and a sound. Other tunes use multiple and mixed meters, tempos that speed up and slow down both abruptly and gradually, stacked chords that obliterate any sense of key center. And hearing the polyphony of shifting shapes that is the principal guitar motif in the brilliant ''White Hot'' is like listening to the once-revolutionary guitar break from the Yardbirds' mid-60's hit ''Shapes of Things'' while one's turntable goes up in flames.

Yet for all its sophistication, this is jagged, abrasive rock and roll, music hard and direct enough to appeal to any punk or hard-rock fan. How was this alchemy accomplished? The secret is in the way Mr. Ginn's guitar parts, Kira's bass, and Mr. Stevenson's drums cohere in the middle and lower range of the frequency spectrum, fusing into an immense, dark, primal sound that months of practicing, recording and touring, not to mention exceptional musicianship, have leavened with responsiveness and flexibility.

''In My Head'' is the sound of heavy metal rock as it could be but almost never is, metal without the posturing, the pointless displays of fretboard prowess, the bashing rhythm sections and banal lyrics that have become endemic to the idiom. ''The Process of Weeding Out,'' Black Flag's instrumental EP, is what jazz-rock could have become if the best of the musicians who first crossbred jazz improvising with rock's sonic fire power had followed their most creative impulses. In a sense, this Black Flag disk takes up where ground-breaking jazz-rock albums like John McLaughlin's ''Devotion'' and Tony Williams's ''Emergency'' left off in the early 70's.

Most of the jazz rock albums made since those two disks have concentrated on efficient ensemble virtuosity, with solos as exercises in ego gratification. Many jazz musicians seem to have forgotten that improvisation, the heart of jazz, is more than just noodling and display. In the best jazz, it tells a story, but now it is the punk rockers, rather than the jazz rockers, who most successfully create atmosphere and convey feelings and ideas in their improvisations.

This is exactly the sort of thing Mr. Ginn is after on ''The Process of Weeding Out,'' and with the help of Kira and Mr. Stevenson he achieves it, especially on the 10-minute title track. He begins with a thematic launching pad, a set of vaguely Eastern melodic figures that he examines, develops, twists and mutates, proceeding in a manner reminiscent of the processes at work in Ornette Coleman's music. As the piece picks up steam, the three musicians weave the original thematic threads into its onrushing momentum. The end result is an exciting, genre-stretching performance with an overall direction, coherence and unity.

Generic labels are never very precise, and their uses are limited; when music like this comes along, they should be dispensed with altogether. It would be ludicrous to suggest that this is progressive post-punk jazz rock, or something of the sort. The jazz great Charlie Parker insisted that there are only two kinds of music anyway, good and bad. Black Flag's ''In My Head'' and ''The Process of Weeding Out'' are good music.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Matt Groening reviews Saccharine Trust in 1981 for Reader's Guide:

What distinguishes this local eight song compendium of anger and alienation from all the others is it's slightly more ambitious lyrical outlook, full of convoluted abstractions and addled sub psychedelic imagery. The nasal whine of Joaquin Milhouse Brewer is perfect for this kind of thing - "My walls are green/ My wall are red/ I only cry wolf/ When all my sheep are dead" - and the three back-up thrashers caterwaul their way through the numbers with enough vim and vigor to keep the nonreaders happy. Melodic invention is minimal, and the songs are unrelentingly solemn, but on a few of the tunes, notably "We Don't Need Freedom" and "A Human Certainty," the lack of irony and humor is offset by sneering, snarling confusion. The lyric sheet insert comes with a menacing illustration of a crucified rattlesnake by Raymond Pettibon guaranteed to make parents and youth counselors gulp and scowl.
No pussyfooting, indeed. This is one of the great '70s bong-hit soundtracks of all time, right up there w/ the second half of Can's Tago Mago and Don Cherry's Orient. Originally released in 1973, the same year as Eno's monumentally good Here Come The Warm Jets LP, No Pussyfooting sees Eno and King Crimson's Robert Fripp experimenting in tape loops and tasteful guitar noodling. You could accuse this of being rather formless indulgence on behalf of both participants, since that's likely a large part of what this is, but that doesn't make it anything less than great. Two tracks, one a side: "Heavenly Music Corporation" on A, and "Swastika Girls" on B, roughly 20 minutes a piece. That's 40 minutes of slo-mo guitar/synth/tape churn to bury your head in. The better of the two is the first: "Heavenly Music Corporation" evolves from a quiet, repetitive loop to a swarm of divebombing guitars, whilst "Swastika Girls" occasionally comes across as a little directionless and not fully formed, although the loop track creates a sublime murky quality, not unlike some of Philip Jeck's finer moments. The two tried this schtick again on 1975's Evening Star LP, a record I find to be a little less successful in results than its predecessor, though one still worth adding to the pile. Fact is, every record Eno played on as a headliner, co-headliner or under the Roxy Music banner between the years 1971-1983 is worth your time and trouble, but that's old news. No Pussyfooting remains one of his most inspired outings, right up there w/ Here Come The Warm Jets, Another Green World, Discreet Music and Apollo, and the futuristic/glam/sci-fi-style front-cover shot of the two is the icing on the cake. A cliche but a truism: No Pussyfooting is a timeless recording, one which wouldn't sound out of place being recorded tomorrow.
This will be the first and last time I will ever link to an article in Vice magazine, but since this one is so good, it must be done. The great Sam McPheeters has written an excellent and quite disturbing piece on the life and times of the Crucifucks' infamous frontman, Doc Dart, and it's one of the most illuminating pieces of music journalism I've stumbled across in eons: essential reading. I wrote about their brilliant/criminally-ignored 1987 meisterwerk, Wisconsin, right here. Buy the record, read the article.
SWANS - Children Of God 2LP (Caroline/1987)
Some would call it the beginning of the end, others a mid-career slump and some even a career highlight. My opinion's possibly caught somewhere between the three. Children Of God (COG) certainly marked the true beginning of the end of Swans as what some perceived as a one-dimensional excercise in relentless musical punishment, though that really began on the previous year's Holy Money LP, where vocalist Jarboe made her debut. As for mid-career slump, their nadir was undoubtedly the album after COG: 1989's The Burning World, an ill-fated attempt at major label commercialism from the band which produced an absolute turkey (also produced by one of the great turkeys: Bill Laswell) which satisfied no one - no new fans were found and old fans ran for the hills at the sound of the band indulging in MOR alt-rock, replete w/ a shocker of a Joy Division cover (though I did like their version of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home"). However, the band recovered, and for my moolah, the two strongest Swans albums of them all remain two wildly disparate discs: 1984's Cop, their singularly most heavy and musically unrelenting outing, a record I won't be spinning at anyone's bar mitzvah in the near future, but one that hits the spot if so required; and 1991's White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, another excellently-produced set which marriages the heaviness of their earlier work w/ what sounds like Jim Steinman behind the mixing desk: the sound is HUGE and the songs the best Gira and co. ever wrote.
The band known as Swans remain a pretty big deal in my "musical development", so to speak. COG got a lot of airplay on public radio down here at the time. The title track used to get flogged on 3RRR a fair bit: along w/ Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black et al, they were one of the major u/ground US groups starting to make inroads into a wider consciousness (mainly via the UK press, something many older hipsters Down Under still slavishly followed). I quite dug what I heard, but the band sounded too gloomy and goth-laden for a flannel & tie-dyed-wearing hardcore devotee such as myself, and I figured the band was best suited for adult ears.
My money didn't exchange hands for a Swans record until I was 19 - Cop - and it flipped me but good. I procured all the Swans I could get, including the World Of Skin LPs (essentially Gira/Jarboe solo albums), and hailed them in print and in person as one of the finest there ever be. Of course I was late to the party, but I made up for my lateness by drinkin' 'em down twice as hard. Children Of God has never been my fave album of theirs, but it most certainly isn't the worst, either. It came out at a time when independent bands rarely made double LPs, and thus any double LP was usually hailed as the band's masterwork, regardless of whether it was a unifying, epic and consistent piece of work. COG is neither of the three, though the strong points - and there are many - make up for the moments when it drags.
Tracks like "Blind Love" and "Like A Drug" go nowhere fast and stick around way too long, stuttering, jerking, starting and finishing endlessly, and some of the Jarboe pieces probably wouldn't frighten the average Celine Dion fan, though there's also the likes of the bluesy "Our Loves Lies", one of their first songs to feature what one could call a "hook" in the guitar dept., and the awesome "Blood And Honey", a downtuned dirge like something off the Stooges' first album. "Beautiful Child" sounds like a heavy metal Carmina Burana and semi-works in what it wishes to achieve, but is slightly let down by the album's thin production, possibly a by-product of the band's desire to wind down the brutality and wind up the mersh factor.
COG is flawed, but still a worthy and essential pinpoint on the map of US underground sounds of the '80s. And as for Gira, for my two cents he remains one of the few figures from his era who's still producing worthwhile music and not making an ass of himself.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

PLAINSONG - In Search Of Amelia Aerhart 2CD (Water/2005)
All this talk of country-rock, MOR and sensitive singer-songwriters has probably scared off all but the most foolhardy from reading this blog for the foreseeable future, but since, amongst all this talk, I have even't mentioned this unknown masterpiece, I figure I'll quickly put the final nail in the coffin. I've written several times about UK singer/folkster Ian Matthews before: he played on Fairport Convention's first two albums, then left to form Ian Matthews' Southern Comfort, recorded two albums with them then split again.
He then put out two brilliant solo albums, If You Saw Thro' My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive, before then forming the band known as Plainsong. They released this very album, In Search Of Amelia Aerhart, for Elektra in 1972, quickly followed by another album session which remained unreleased until the Water label did a deluxe 2CD reissue of their debut a few years back. That reissue - a goddamn deluxe one w/ a montain of bonus material - is the one I speak of. Of course, Matthews also put out a few more solo gems when Plainsong called it quits, at which point he'd moved to the US, but you'll have to search through the back pages of this blog, if you so care, to get the details on them (they're equally as excellent, and like most of what I've just mentioned, also reissued via the Water imprint).
In 2001 he even released a collaborative album w/ acclaimed NY musician Elliott Murphy - a guy whose allegedly great albums from the 1970s I'm still yet to hear (though one day I surely will) - so it's nice to know he's still kicking around, even though, from what I've heard, most of what he produced from the mid '70s onwards was strictly MOR mush. All of this waffle - and what waffle it is! - is merely background material...
Calling Plainsong's debut "country-rock" may be stretching it, but not that much. You could probably label it as folk-rock more than anything else, but one with an added twang to the sound when the occasion warrants it. I said in a recent post that the Holy Grails of early country-rock were those efforts from the Byrds, Michael Nesmith, Everly Brothers and the Flying Burrito Bros., and I'm gonna lay it on the line for all dozen people on earth who care: I'll add In Search Of Amelia Aerhart to the great canon. One of the best aspects of Plainsong's album is that it does not, by and large, sound like a rootsy rock album released in the year 1972. Keep in mind that the genre, then its throes of being ruined forever by the mega-success of The Eagles, was on a fairly rapid downhill slide, so the chances of such a great record as this being written, recorded and released at the time was marginal. The bulk of the material could've been lifted from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; sure, the vocals are much cleaner (Matthews' uber-sweet pipes are some of the most pleasant in the biz), but the group approach to the material steers this far away from session-muso hell: Plainsong sound like a real roots-rock outfit. I'd rate the opener, "For The Second Time", as one of the great non-lame ballads of its era, and had this come out in 1968 and not gotten so lost in the shuffle, it might've made a bigger impact than it did. As it stands, it remains drool fodder for collector/obsessive dorks: you know, not the kind of music "regular" folk buy. The album received great reviews, of course, but tanked in the marketplace. In other words, it's the kinda record you could likely do with.
I have now gotten all that out of my system. I hope you are only beginning. For the "fans", coming over the following weeks will be my summations on various "punk" and/or "free-jazz" albums of yore.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lexicon Devil ad drawn by Andrew Lang for the new issue of Stained Sheets fanzine.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I like his style. He being JOE CARDUCCI. His blog - The New Vulgate - is one of the best on the 'net: mandatory reading. Here's what he's got to say about Malcom McLaren, the Sex Pistols, NY punk, Nirvana... and all that. I don't necessarily buy the theory that the entire punk-as-front-page-news phenomenon in the UK may've inadvertedly been born from young men's desires to keep their horde of women to themselves, but he nails it in discussing Please Kill Me, as I thought I was the only one who seemed to be a little depressed by the fact that Danny Fields comes out of that book as perhaps the only participant willing to acknowledge a genuine love for the music.


Here’s Jon Savage’s summation of Malcolm McLaren in The Guardian, which touches gently on his limitations without measuring what those did to the one important thing he had anything to do with. Savage’s book, England’s Dreaming, goes deeper into it all but even that is a bit charitable to McLaren.

Contempt is something few can carry, primarily because it argues ultimately for either murder or suicide. Godard named it with his film which involved international film production itself, but in popular culture it was probably a New York thing even then, introduced and branded as we now say by Andy Warhol. That story as it pertains to music is told very well in the book, Please Kill Me, by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain; it begins in 1965 (before Hippie let us note) with the Velvet Underground as presented by Warhol. Of the figures riffing by in this oral history’s prologue, only Danny Fields has anything one could call a love for music and he explains being unable to convince Lou Reed and John Cale that they should get away from Warhol’s “corny” presentation and trust in their music.

Savage’s book covers McLaren’s experiences in early-seventies NYC with the New York Dolls. It's hilarious. Taking what he’d learned back to London he was allowed a do-over he may not have happened upon had he stayed in NYC and tried to get involved with the earliest punk bands there. The media and money were tightening up in the American music industry after 1972, but in the hot-house London-based economy of British newspapers and record labels the punk paradigm shift could happen on the front pages, on the BBC, and at the top of the charts.

England’s Dreaming was one of the few books I read before updating my own book, R&TPN, and what struck me most reading the impressive blow-by-blow was that all the hubbub in the media was caused by the simple, natural loutish behavior of Steve Jones and Paul Cook topped off with the reaction shots of Johnny Rotten grinning. All Malcolm had to do was blithely defend it, which according to Savage he decided to do only the day after the infamous Bill Grundy “Today” program appearance; Malcolm had originally been unnerved himself by the swearing. But that show was actually the perfect demonstration of what it was all about! Grundy, a middle-aged straight, was flirting with the punkettes with the band on live television and the Sex Pistols were disgusted at him! And one motor of cultural revolt is surely that young men attempt to keep the females of their cohort for themselves against the poaching of their elders who always have more to offer. So culture and fashion, where young males can with a little ingenuity and gall pull a cool-switch and make older males look suddenly hopelessly out of it is a perennial tendency. Again Britain was ripe coming off the hippie boom due to the careful and conscious tribalizing of youth factions and the Sex Pistols were suddenly hunted by the same Teddy Boy fifties-styled rockers that Malcolm had given up on just five years earlier.

It was McLaren’s perverse American tour-dates and his use of Sid Vicious thereafter in NYC that really turned off many; it was passive cruelty worthy of Warhol but McLaren didn’t get shot. And its major accomplishment was to plant a useless Sid-clone in every American punk rock scene thereafter -- those scenes necessarily made up of far less decadent go-getters for all the decadence of the American music and media industries. And this doesn’t even address the problems this Brit re-branding of punk rock with Situationist pretense and vomit made for the ongoing attempt to crack that American music blockade by The Ramones, Television, The Weirdos, Black Flag, etc.

In any case it wasn’t until after Nirvana’s galvanization of the industry for punk in 1991 that the deal was easy enough for the now older, wiser ex-Sex Pistols to reunite and tour. When John remarked that now they’d finally get to be a band, that was not an indictment of the London newspapers or ITV but of their manager who had thought them terrible. The Sex Pistols weren’t the only thing Malcolm had contempt for.


There's this little gem, too:

It was hard for midwesterners, easterners, and Europeans to really feel in sync with what was going on in L.A. In recent ILX board polls on the best SST releases by year, Husker Du seems to be the safer handle on the label. The L.A. bands (BF, Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Stains, Descendents, Saint Vitus, Overkill…) plus the Meat Puppets were certainly respected but they could never be fully, comfortably, embraced.


I'm gonna ponder this for a while...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A few old comics from my brother and I, circa 1993. Available once again for the world to ignore.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My buddy Michael over at Pig State Recon commented on the post below, remarking that "the blogosphere appreciates this newly MOR Lexicon Devil". Huh... I was under the impression those Rolling Stones and David Bowie albums were pretty damn cutting edge, at least back in their day, but I get the joke. Some folks, I get the feeling, think I've lost the plot if I give this blog airspace to anything less than the GG Allin/Merzbow/Peter Brotzmann school of "art", but if you trawl through the archives, you'll see me heaping praise on such sensitive types as Ian Matthews, Judee Sill, Van Morrison and even David Crosby.
I guess a sure sign that one is getting old is when they start waxing enthusiastically about Michael Nesmith's essential early forays into country-rock. A year or two back, I wrote a piece on this excellent compilation of early west coast country-rock on Ace Records. It was given to me by a good friend - a guy known down here as possibly Australia's biggest and most vocal country-rock nutcase (that's one step beyond an enthusiast and/or collector, and I need not mention his name if you know whom I speak of). He knew of my long-standing love for the Byrds and Flying Burrito Bros., and, he being one who possesses a contagious sense of excitement over these things, was thrilled by my new-found fandom for the Everly Brothers (especially their rootsy recordings from the late '60s). He knew I needed an education, and was happy to pass it my way. But anyway, the comp' in question, Country & West Coast: The Birth of Country-Rock, is one I still regard as perhaps the finest collection of sounds I've heard in the last 5 years.
One track, in particular, stood out: Michael Nesmith's "Nine Times Blue", lifted from his sophomore album of 1970, Magnetic South. Yep, that's Nesmith, the ex-Monkees guy (the "smart Monkee", as they say), video-clip pioneer and producer of Repo Man (this blog always has to have a tie-in with Classic Early West Coast Punk in some capacity). If you'd told me 20 years back I'd be listening to country-rock solo albums by ex-Monkees members in my late 30s, I'd probably pose the question: at what point in my life did I hit the "lame" switch? That question doesn't need an answer: an 18-year-old knows no better.
Nesmith already had a fumbling career as a country/folkie in Texas prior to auditioning for the Monkees in '65, so it was no stretch for him, a natural-born musician, to actually make a go as a credible singer in his own right when the band went splitsville. Sony/BMG has done a pretty excellent budget-priced twofer of his finest albums, Magnetic South and Loose Salute, both from 1970. Nesmith had a crack band behind him, including the famed O.J. "Red" Rhodes on lapsteel. Sonically it's not far from the Gram Parsons ballpark of sound, which means it inhabits a very similar universe to that of the Flying Burrito Brothers' first album and the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (the two finest country-rock discs there ever be): a combination of electric country/hillbilly sounds bled from old George Jones and Louvin Brothers discs w/ the vaguely psychedelic touches of west coast rock 'n' roll seeping through. Prior to The Eagles bastardising the genre for a thousand years to come (or at least 20 years) with their airbrushed FM dross, this was a fairly winning formula obviously open for corruption. Nesmith even had a few small-time hits from the period, such as "Joanne", but he never made a huge dent in the wider headspace. Fact is, the guy is just too damn strange, his poetic, stream-of-conscience lyrics probably too far off the beaten path for a generation just about to get mellow.
Nesmith himself dropped a fair bit of his country leanings by the mid '70s, most of his later discs border on "quirky" adult rock/pop: not the music of thrills 'n' spills, but it's OK for what it is. Punkers who only crave music of the gritty, urbane variety, full of bleak lyrical matters and ear-scraping guitar licks are best advised to look elsewhere for a kick. Those who've been down that path a thousand times before (because we love it, of course), but also want to get their heads around a great "scene" before it went bust should dig on the sounds of Nesmith's early output.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

As much as it might happen to thrill the pants off folks (and me!) for this blog to inform them of the sheer genius emanating from the grooves on the latest 8" picture disc documenting the eastern European neo-folk noise underground I just scored on ebay, it doesn't mean I can't listen to, enjoy and indeed inform you of great bands, artists and records who've sold records well into the millions. Some people - a lot of people: start w/ Louis Armstrong, make your way through to Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, the Kinks and Black Sabbath, take a sharp left at the Eagles and don't stop until you reach Nirvana, OK? - who once moved a whole lotta units actually made good music, too, ya know. These two albums I'm talking about are examples, and lately I've been playin' them a lot.
In one regard, David Bowie is a lot like the Beatles: he divides camps into those who love him and those who loathe him; those who hailed him as a saviour of rock in the early '70s and those who think he just about killed it. When I'm talking of "camps", or at least one of said camps, I speak of self-professed "rock 'n' roll purists" (AKA tedious dullards). There is a school of thought that the man was, is and forever shall be a Rock 'n' Roll Imposter, a charlatan, a sham artist, a flake, a fraud and all of the above. I don't need to defend the guy (for one, it's not like I'm a diehard Bowiephile anyway), but the token response I usually give to such accusations is: A) His best music (from 1969-'79) rocks and it rolls; B) If he's a rip-off artist, he certainly chose the right people (VU, Stooges, NY Dolls, Roxy, Neu!, Barrett, Bolan, Scott Walker et al) to steal from; and C) "Rock" or not, the question is whether to music is any good. The answer is a Yes.
Whilst his early material borrowed heavily from the Barrett/Bolan (ca. Tyrannosaurus Rex) school of pixie-damaged acid-folk, and his late '70s albums saw him going for the cold, stark Germanic sound of Cluster/Neu!/Kraftwerk, on 1973's Aladdin Sane, by which time he was a bonafide superstar in the UK and a major cult in the US, he was knee-deep in Stooges/NY Dolls-drenched decadence, and the music here "rocks" almost as much as its obvious influences. The opener, "Watch That Man", sounds like it could've been lifted from the 'Dolls' second album: it's all fuzzed-out HM guitar chords and '50s piano rolls rolled into one; the title track just oozes drugged-out '70s suburban sleaze, like you can hear it blasting in another time from the bedrooms of a pubescent Joan Jett or Darby Crash; and the best track here, "Panic In Detroit", has a Bo Diddley shuffle coated in choppy guitar lines, the result being not even half a mile from the primitive stutter of the Stooges' first album.
I bought this album back in the mid '90s, the same time as I bought all my other '70s Bowie records. It was a time when folks were still ditching vinyl for CDs en masse (the complete opposite of today's predicament!) and great albums by "classic rock" artists (The Who, 'Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Kinks, you name it) were going for next to nothing. I wanted some back catalogue, I'd exhausted (or at least thought I had) a good deal of the mandatory punk and u/ground essentials one considers de rigeur, and in some cases I wanted to finally and belatedly wrap my ears around whatever the fuss was all about.
Bowie's best album ain't Aladdin Sane - it's 1977's Low, a near-masterpiece which ably bridges the gap between Cluster's electro excursions and the ambitious sonic adventures of Wire's Chairs Missing - though it's high-energy trashbag rock 'n' roll, one of the best for its day, and why on earth anyone who's a fan of Bowie's highly-regarded influences wouldn't get a kick out of it remains a mystery to me. I'm only here to tell you good news: Aladdin Sane is a great record.
I wish had some kind words for the musical works of the Rolling Stones post-Brian Jones, but I'd be struggling. It's not like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street are anything you'd call in this lifetime "bad" records, it's just that, at least for me, they don't rate that highly above a zillion other bar bands of the 1970s. I've got 'em, and I even play them once every 18 months or so, but they don't give me the massive kick of their late '60s records: Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. I wrote about Their Satanic... here, and it remains my fave 'Stones album, but since its sound and approach (bubblegum psychedelia) is so far removed from 99% of the band's ouvre, and since most 'Stones devotees loathe it and barely even recognise it as a Rolling Stones album, I can rate Beggars Banquet as an equal best as well. After all, both records sound like they were made by different bands.
There's little to add in a critique of an album praised by those you love and loathe. Everyone - the critics, the band - got it right, and the group mastered a sound that was almost equalled in the following year's Let It Bleed but never duplicated or even remotely approached in any of the post-'69 efforts. Completely ditching any hints of the previous year's headlong dive into faux-psychedelia, Beggars is an almost entirely acoustic-based white-boy blues album: a musical style which, in lesser hands, would make the kind of record I wouldn't usually poke with a very long stick.
What makes Beggars Banquet work isn't just the strength of the songwriting and the stripped-back arrangements - there's 10 songs and not a dud in the lot - but the downright nasty tone of the material. Mick & co. come across like a bunch of boozing, nihilstic, misogynist arseholes, and whilst I don't necessarily buy into their self-created myth as rock 'n' rolls ultimate bad boys, when a record sounds as menacing as this, for once I'm convinced it's not a pose. And Beggars Banquet has space. The songs are stripped right back to almost nothing, the boorish barre chord nonsense of their '70s work never hinted at here. There's really only two songs here which approach the sound of rock 'n' roll as most people know it, and they're also the most well known: "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" (two "classic rock" tracks wholly deserving of their rarified status among MOJO subscribers).
I didn't grow up on the 'Stones. I guess there was a time when suburban flakes did grow up listening to bands like the Rolling Stones. Perhaps that time was then and it remains so today, but when I was growing up, I didn't know anyone who listened to the band that was under 35. I took the leap when I was 25, by which point I'd finally come to realise that the concept of "classic rock", and even some of the bands therein, wasn't a fascistic cultural conspiracy dreamt up by ad men and pop culture proprietors. Listening to hardcore can do that to people if it catches their ear at a crucial developmental stage of their life. I got over it. Like Charlie Parker said: there's only two types of music: good music and bad music... and this is good music.

Sheez! Been a bit crazy of late, haven't been able to nurture this blog the way I oughta. In the meantime, check out this PIVIXKI clip, live at the Empress last year. Hey, I was there! And I wrote about it, too! PIVIXKI = local avant wunderkind Anthony Pateras and grind drummer to the stars, Max Kohane (Agents of Abhorrence, Cut Sick!, Brain Children and about a zillion others). They've just recorded their full-length debut w/ Casey Rice and it'll be out mid year on Lexicon Devil. It's fuggin' unreal. More than just the Iannis Xenakis + Discordance Axis equation they're known for, there's prepared piano, wurlitzer organ and a whole lot more, making it comparable to a hyperspeed take on Goblin or Magma or somethin'. Like I always try to keep in mind: the well has never truly run dry.