Sunday, May 29, 2011

15 minutes into this documentary, I was just about ready to switch it off. I'm glad I persisted: it got a whole lot better. Watching Wayne Kramer drive through the miserable and polluted industrial back streets of Detroit in his hot rod, whilst bragging that his band of yore was the sound of the Motor City, much like the clings and clangs of the automobile factories which surround them (funnily enough, I once heard Iggy say the same thing for his band), had me thinking I was in for one hell of a self-mythologising snorefest from a bunch of middle-aged guys dead-set on cementing their legend in the pantheon of rock & roll as we know it. Or at least as they know it. By the end of the documentary, I liked Kramer a whole lot. He seemed like a decent guy, he was aware of the fact that the MC5 had screwed up royally for several reasons, and more than that, I was convinced that the band, no matter what they told me throughout, really were one of the great bands of their day (and I was being told that throughout!).
Of course, the Stooges would beat 'em in a New York minute, but maybe that's beside the point. The band made 3 LPs proper, and they're all worthy of being on your shelf. My favourite, was, is and shall forever remain their last: 1971's High Time, their meisterwerk, piece de resistence and other foreign words I'm likely misrepresenting or misspelling. For me, High Time is an American hard-rock/heavy metal/proto-punk classic, everything early '70s post-hippie rock & roll shoulda been, a desperate statement of desperate times, a statement of disillusion when there was a lot to be disillusioned about, and, more to the point, a particularly fine collection of songs. Unlike their previous two albums: 1969's Kick Out The Jams and 1970's Back In The USA, it has sympathetic production which gives the band the sound they deserved. The much-maligned Back In The USA, produced by Springsteen spruiker Jon Landau, possesses some of the tinniest, most gutless and most candy-assed production ever laid upon a rock & roll band - hell, the '5 were de-rocked - but it's no credit to them that they let it happen. The songs are way more accessible, too, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The short/sharp teen-anthem approach works: it just would've worked a whole lot better if they'd been allowed to keep their testicles in the studio. I would've liked to've heard the MC5 get their Pharoah Sanders/Archie Shepp kicks down on tape proper, too - there's a killer clip of the band doing such a thing in the documentary I might even get around to discussing in this entry - but you have to go to bootlegs for those goods (there's plenty, and since I only own a couple and haven't listened to them since the 20th century, I wouldn't be your best guide).
Kick Out The Jams has the energy and songs, but to me its sound lets it down considerably. It's got the oomph, but the recording itself is too trebly, with little definition in the songs. Comparing it to other high-energy live albums I happen to love, such as Space Ritual, Dark Magus or Band Of Gypsys (which isn't really that high-energy, but it's ace), well... it doesn't compare. And all of this was a very longwinded way of getting around to briefly discussing David C. Thomas' MC5: A True Testimonial from 2002...
It played for a night or two down here at the time during the film festival, though I never caught it, figuring it would either wind up on TV or DVD within a month of its screening (as nearly everything else I'd ever seen at festivals in the past had), but lo and behold, the shit hit the legal fan and lawsuits let loose, causing the film to be withdrawn from any future release. It still remains unreleased, apparently due to a suit between Wayne Kramer and the film's producers (Kramer claims he wasn't paid for his input into the actual making of the movie), though I managed to procure a copy from a friend last week. It's a long slog, or maybe it just feels that way, but the journey is well worth it. Of course Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith passed away years before it was made, and their absence is felt, though Kramer, bassist Michael Davis (who spent some time in the can in the '70s on drug charges - as did Kramer - and still looks like he could deck the biggest guy in the yard) and fruitloop drummer Dennis Thompson are featured heavily throughout, as well as ex-manager and self-styled (or self-professed) counter-cultural icon John Sinclair.
The braggadocio which makes up the first quarter-hour peters out fairly quick and then the storyline of the band - the who/why/where - takes place and it gets some momentum. Unlike most rock documentaries of recent years, the talking is done mostly by the members themselves. Some ex-wives contribute, even the great Danny Fields gets in there for a second (and his mega-camp musings are hilarious and spot-on), though it's mostly the three surviving members who tell the story. Whilst it's a relief to not see Hank Rollins or Thurston Moore's head on the screen waxing lyrical on the career of a well-regarded underground rock band (and I woulda jumped out the window if Bono's face lit up the screen) for a change, contributions from Iggy (the Stooges are briefly mentioned, though I get a feeling clearance rights were an issue) and Mick Farren would've certainly been welcome. But still, there's a lot of killer footage here which I'd never seen before (check out the clip below), and sure, some of it has now wound up on Youtube (though not all of it), it looks a whole lot better in high-defintion on a TV screen than it does on a computer. I was also not fully aware of the band's truly sad demise, as only Smith and Kramer carried on the name to perform a few dates in Scandinavia w/ a ring-in rhythm section in the early '70s, sort a of a contract-filling venture which saw them eating shit in front of a largely disinterested crowd. Kramer beats himself up over this, and whilst it's probably not a whole lot to be proud of, the footage shown of these gigs (and there's some high-quality TV coverage of one of the shows) has me thinking they didn't sound half-bad at all. Didn't sound a whole lot like the MC5 of yore, perhaps, though the heavy-duty sludge jams weren't totally dissimilar to Blue Cheer ca. their first two LPs, so don't go thinking they turned into Foghat overnight.
I enjoyed MC5: A True Testimonial a whole lot more than I expected to. I'm pretty burnt out on the idea of rock & roll documentaries at this point of my life. There's been some big disappointments the last decade in this regard (American Hardcore being the biggest; We Jam Econo gets a pass possibly only because of the subject matter), and frankly, unless someone's going to spotlight a hidden aspect of a band I've liked and researched since I was a teenager which I previously wouldn't know of, and really dig through the dirt in the process, there's probably not much need for me to witness a patched-together narrative held at the seams by rank amateurs. Youtube clips will do. This one's better than that. It tells the story and tells it well. It's not flawless, and Dennis Thompson's willingness to spout garbled nonsense unchallenged by the makers was both sad and tedious to watch at times, but I'd still absolutely recommend it. I think the '5 did really mean it, maaan.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I'm not usually one for linking this page to the steaming pile of hipster nonsense known as the Vice web site, but it occasionally brings home the goods. Actually, I've never even browsed the site (I was made aware of this article elsewhere and simply followed the link), so I can't speak for its contents whatsoever, but who in the hell cares? The article in question - THIS ONE - you most definitely should read. It's once again written by Sam McPheeters, the same person who wrote the Crucifucks/Doc Dart article I linked to last year (search for it, if you must: you won't regret it). McPheeters was the singer in noted '90s HC outfit, Born Against, a band I promise to listen to before I die (if only to make good on a promise to friends), as well as a Maximum Rock 'n' Roll columnist from back in the days when I actually used to read it (those days ended about 17 years back). I always liked his columns for MRR, and his writing has, if anything, improved greatly with time. He picks truly unique subjects, and the '60s magazine known as Horseshit is certainly no exception. From McPheeters' description, it comes across like a Boyd Rice/Jim Goad publication from the hippie era, only it existed in an even greater cultural vaccum than both Rice and Goad like to imagine they inhabit (they don't: they're counter-cultural/existentialist/misanthropic cliches just like you, me and everyone else we know. Sorry). The two brothers behind the mag, Thomas and Robert Dunker, were equal parts Larry Flynt and Ed Sanders, and whilst McPheeters doesn't truly get to answer the burning question of what exactly made these two men create such a nasty piece of work (they weren't hippies, radicals or beatniks, from what I can gather), the mystery remains part of its beauty. Of course, I've never read a word of Horseshit, but judging from Sam's description, I'm nevertheless glad it came to be. Time for a Feral House anthology, methinks.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A couple of months ago I was enjoying a rare adventure out into the world of nightlife to catch some live entertainment when my friend Dan approached me for a chat. He plays in Straightjacket Nation, Total Control, The UV Race and possibly three-dozen other bands, as well as producing Distort fanzine (check the link on the sidebar there), working part-time music retail, studying philosophy and, so far as I know, is probably currently in the process of finding a cure for cancer. A nice fellow, he's passionate and intense, a decade younger than me and somewhat reminds me of myself before the weight of the world crushed my spirit. At one point our mutual friend Amanda joined the conversation, and she proceeded to thank Dan for lending her some comedy DVDs. Dan then turned to me w/ this whopper: Hey Dave, you're a family man, have you heard of Louis C.K.? Ouch! Boy, that hurt. Looks like my wildest days are way behind me. I know that no offence was meant, but really, is that all I'm considered these days? I told him I hadn't. For the next 5 minutes I was bombarded w/ praise regarding the man, a "comedian" I was told who had a few standup DVDs I should watch. Not only that, but I was also told that, given my "situation", I would find him most amusing, as he, too, is the father of two young children and most of his comedic routines revolved around his chaotic family life. I know that most people reading this blog probably get as excited about me discussing fatherhood as they do when I mention "jazz", but your children, especially in the first few years of their life, a period when you can't even go to the toilet or get a glass of water without having your every move shadowed by your offspring, dominate your life to such an extent that you have few minutes in the day, no matter where you are and what you're doing, when they're not on your mind... Are you still reading this? So I borrowed the DVDs. Both Amanda and Dan, neither of whom have children, told me before viewing the DVDs in question, that having young kids is not a prerequisite for enjoying his comedy, so I'm going to post some of it here. I'm not usually into the field of entertainment known as standup comedy; other than some old clips by the likes of Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Steve Wright, it tends to leave me cold, but Louis C.K. (who, despite my ignorance, is apparently hugely successful and has his own cable show in the US) nails it here. By halfway through his Shameless performance, I was lying in a fetal position on the couch, hysterically laughing w/ tears running down my cheeks. I was mostly laughing because what he was saying was incredibly funny, but also because I was happy to know that I wasn't the only one who was brought to the point of near-insanity on a daily basis by the pressures of family life. I like to think of it as therapeutic comedy. There's plenty more clips by the guy on Youtube: if you like this, use it as a springboard to explore more of his routines. Dan: I gotta give you your DVDs back; everyone else, don't fret, I'll get back to discussing punk rock music some time in the near future.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stack 'em pack 'em and rack 'em. Folks in the biz call 'em "capsule reviews". Giving any of these records justice in a few lines doesn't seem a possibility to me, but I'll give it a shot. Either I won't do 'em justice or I'll just waffle, or likely a combination thereof. They're sitting in a stack in front of me. I feel I must confront them.

That CD picture above, it's by NYC quartet, PITOM. Four nice Jewish lads, they've found a home at Tzadik (not a surprising development) and just released their second full-lengther, Blasphemy And Other Serious Crimes. They're nominally "heavy", they're instrumental, they feature a member on viola/violin, who injects a few Yiddish melodies into the mix, and the obi strip compares 'em to the Melvins and Mahuvishnu Orchestra. They've got a point, though I'd also add that this wouldn't seem out of place in the SST roster ca. the late '80s. Right now, about half of you have stopped reading this review, a quarter are persisting through politeness, and maybe the last quarter are vaguely intrigued. That is, because Pitom are a band to be vaguely intrigued by. They haven't got "it" down pat yet. Instrumental bands need to possess a near-superhuman lyricism and expressiveness on their given instruments or the musical result is a mere plod which sounds like it requires a singer. Pitom are better than that - I've now listened to this album a half-dozen times and enjoyed it - but they're not up to the level of, say, Dirty 3, Pell Mell or Yawning Man. That may take time, or it may never happen.

Brazilian guitar legend, Baden Powell (not to be confused w/ the famous Scout leader, Robert Baden-Powell from the UK. It is mighty odd that they practically share the same name) originally recorded this album in 1966, but was unhappy w/ its fidelity, hence he re-recorded it in 1990 for this edition on the French label, Iris. A re-recording ca. 1990 sounds like a scary prospect, but fear not: no keytars or Simmons drum pads were used in the process. I've heard bits and pieces of the original recordings over the years, and contrary to all popular trends and precedents, this re-recording sounds a lot better and technology-wise, pays no heed to the passing of time. It's a mixture of dreamy, almost psychedelic acoustic guitar explorations combined with occasional choral vocals and percussion, making much of it sound like a missing link between the bossa nova and tropicalia scenes. Which, in some sense, it well might've been. I have no idea as to whether this edition remains in print, but if you trip over it, pick it up and give it a home.

Archie Shepp's catalogue is all over the shop and spilling out onto the street. Maddeningly inconsistent, you're better off sticking to his absolute best moments and ignoring the rest outright, or you'll suffer him putting you through 45 minutes of not always particularly successful attempts at classic ballads, soul-jazz or Broadway tunes. I don't think he's been truly "on" for a couple of decades now, but when he was, he could move mountains. Yasmina, A Black Woman is one of the many albums he recorded in France in the late '60s for the BYG-Actuel label. My faves of this period remain his Blase and Live At The Pan-African Festival efforts - two very different albums: the first being a femme-fronted torch-song set; the latter being Shepp backed by a large troupe of African percussionists - though Yasmina isn't far behind. The two tracks on the B side consist of versions of Graham Moncur's "Sonny's Back" and the standard "Body And Soul", where Shepp trades his blows w/ veteran Blue Note hard-bopper Hank Mobley, though it's the side-long title track on side A, where Shepp once again teams up w/ most of the members of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, as well as Dave Burrell and Sunny Murray, that's the money shot. It's a percussive blowout where everyone seems to be on time, and unlike a lot of the BYG recordings, the fidelity is pretty good. Throwing this one on the pile won't break your back.

I knew nothing of this release prior to hearing it, and even less of its performer, but it's been one of my favourite releases of the last 6 months. Katell Keineg is Irish-born and raised, though she has spent quite a lot of her adult, musical life in New York. She released a 7" on Bob Mould's Singles Only Label (SOL) back in 1993, and even put out two CDs on the Elektra label that decade. In the early years of the 21st century, she put an album out on Jason Willett (Half Japanese)'s Megaphone label. Then there's this album, released last year on the UK imprint, Honest Jon's. She's a singer-songwriter, like so many others. She sings of love lost, love gained, the past, the future and everything in between. A lot of folks do it and few do it well. Keineg does it so well that I'm left speechless as to why her name is just about completely unknown. She covers Big Star's "Thirteen" here - one of the finest songs there ever was - and does it justice, but it's her originals I really like. There's guitar, bass and drums, sometimes not all used within the one song. It's sparse. There's her sweet but never too sweet vocals throughout which have a presence and communicate the lyrics perfectly. I'm a sucker for this schtick when it's pulled off - witness my fawning over Elisa Randazzo and Frida Hyvonen on this blog the past 18 months - and Keineg is equally as good. If not better. 12 songs, 11 of them original, every single one of them is excellent.

Now here's some man's music. Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson took on his middle name after a hair-straightening product fizzled his follicles for all time and he was left w/ a shiny dome until he croaked in 1988. But in his time, and like many other blues shouters, his time was ca. 1946 'til the early '50s, when such music began to be eclipsed by rock & roll proper, he cut a good deal of honkin' sides dealing in the important subject matter of the day: what a badass he was, how much booze he could drink, how many women he had and could have, and how all the women of the world had screwed him over. That sums it up. He played alto sax and barked into his mic about these things in songs such as "Cherry Red Blues", "Too Many Women Blues", "Baldheaded Blues", "Juice Head baby" and "When A Woman Lovers Her Juice". He released a stack of great material on the King label at the time, then around 1952 or so headed in a more straight-up jazz direction, incorporating a young fellow by the name of John Coltrane in the band. He later recorded w/ Cannonball Adderley, then found a revival of interest in his R & B material in the late '60s/early '70s after playing w/ Johnny Otis. EU copyright laws dictate that every budget label within their borders has reissued this stuff the past decade. You could do worse than this 4CD JSP box, which inexplicably has 3 CDs of Vinson and one CD of fellow Texan R & B dude, Jim Wynn, filling it out. Whatever. Vinson's musical style is heavily steeped in swing jazz and it's heavy on the brass - sometimes he sounds to me like a more hard-hitting and boozed-up version of Cab Calloway - though his phrasing is undoubtedly grounded in the blues. His vocal delivery is hammed up w/ what can only be described as quasi-yodelling to accent the effect of either his despair, drunkeness or boasting, and for me, it works. The post-war music boom spat out these boozy singers onto every street corner of just about every major city, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson was undoubtedly one of the best.

When the grindcore boom was big news at the dawn of the '90s, spearheaded by Earache Records, Napalm Death, Carcass etc., I was well aware of it. It was big news, and down here they sold a whole lotta records. I wasn't overly interested in the music or the bands making the music and never pursued buying any of it - my mind was elsewhere at the time - but I observed from a distance and enjoyed the fact that a bunch of smelly Limeys (and some Floridians) were making a fuckawful racket and somehow managing to ship 100s of 1,000s of units of the stuff in the meantime. For some friends of mine, that early Earache scene was their teenage musical godsend, their grounding for all that came after, in the same way as SST was for me (and there's a great article here which details it for one such person). Back in the '90s, I worked for Earache's distributor down here and saw some of their bands as they came through town - after all, if the tickets were free (they always were) and the band was from overseas, then chances are I'd see them just for the sheer hell of it - and I distinctly recall being impressed by Cathedral whilst on another occasion (this woulda been around 1997 or '98) being bored out of my skull by Napalm Death. ND started off their life in the British crust scene, heavily influenced by a strange mixture of outfits: Siege, Discharge, Celtic Frost, Swans, Throbbing Gristle and others. Their first two albums are hailed as genius by many, and thereafter, following some serious line-up changes which barely resemble the original band at all, they went into quite a long slump of releasing disc upon disc of fairly generic death metal (this is when I saw them, and boy, were they dull), only to apparently be resurrected once more in recent times as a blazing, hardcore-influenced grind band. Friends of mine saw them play here just last year and they said the show knocked the walls off the building. I have nothing to say in that regard. What I can say is that their first two albums, Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration, I have only purchased in the last 18 months, and I can't explain why it is that now, as I'm pushing 40, they sound so good. They are truly blasts of barely-contained noise which clean my head out just when it needs it, and as I get older, I need those quick rushes. They don't last for long, and thankfully few of the songs here do, either, but they do the trick.

I bought this 1967 Arhoolie recording well over a decade ago, probably at some point in the late '90s. It was a time of discovery, after all, and after having my lights turned on by everyone from Blind Willie Johnson to Junior Kimbrough, I figured Lightnin' Hopkins should be on the list, too. Contextually, he was much loved by some of the SST posse, w/ one of his songs even covered on the Tom Troccoli's Dog LP and Dez Cadena being a vocal fan of his works. All that was for naught. I played this a couple of times upon purchase and it didn't connect one bit. It didn't have the crackle of the '30s recordings I was into at the time, and Hopkins' solo performances were simply too sparse for me to get my head around. The songs rambled and so did Hopkins. I later learnt that this was simply his style: producers and studio workers were constantly frustrated by his inability or unwillingness to play the same song twice. He'd ramble, improvise, go off on tangents and piss off everyone involved. About 9 months ago, I heard a Lightnin' Hopkins solo track on the radio. It's not often this happens, so you remember it when it does. I was mesmerised by the song and had to hear the back announcement to find out who played it. So much so that I sat in my driveway w/ the car radio on for 5 minutes in pursuit of the answer. When I found out, I went inside and pulled out my much-neglected copy of Texas Blues Man and gave it a spin. The loose drawl, the aimless, almost psychedelic guitar shards flying off in all directions, the sparsity of it all made sense and I was hearing it w/ a new pair of ears. In the past 9 months there's been more purchases of his wares, and I haven't been ripped off yet. There's a zillion records by the man known as Lightnin' Hopkins in print at this moment in history. This is but one of them, and you could do a whole lot worse than start here.

If you're going to buy one French funk compilation this year, make it this one. Musically speaking, the French are very good at a few things: they gave the world Django Reinhardt, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Debussy and Ravel, after all, and in the realms of rock & roll there's Magma and Metal Urbain. There's also a whole league of avant-garde and musique concret I'm not even going to bother listing, but - and that's a big "but" - the term "funk" doesn't spring to mind when considering France's contribution to the world of sound. In fact, the mere idea of sitting through an hour+ of the shit probably makes you break out in hives. But the good news is that this compilation on the UK label, Nascente, delivers when no sane person thought it could. Many of the tracks here are "library music" songs used for commercial reasons by TV and film studios, hence you could say this is an excercise in faux-funk (that's about as far as my French stretches, so I had to use it), though there's also a track by world-music superstar, Manu Dibango (the killer "Africadelia"), so it's not just wall-to-wall irony. Regardless, 90% of the tracks sound like they've been lifted from cheesy French cop shows, some even having sirens and gunfire throughout. My fave cut is track 10, Sauveur Mallia's "All The Bass", which sounds like it has three bass players competing w/ each other to create the funkiest lick possible. That sounds scary, but it ain't. More than just cheese, more than mere "fun", there's some seriously good music here. Nascente's done a whole series of these regional/national funk comps the past few years, and this one, along w/ Bollywood Funk Experience and South African Funk Experience, you need. Compiled by the pros for schleps like you and me.
I heard this record a couple of times back in the mid '90s, and now here I am, 15 years later, hearing it all over again. It's Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, originally released in 1994 on Warp Records. The idea of myself listening to electronic music which wasn't overtly connected w/ the world of rock & roll was a foreign thing at the time. I was introduced to this by a work colleague who was a big-time dance-music freak, a man who thought that, despite my prejudice against "dance culture" and its music, I might be able to get into the more experimental fringes of the scene. In our workaday environment, he played it several times and I became an enthusiast for the record, if not Aphex Twin/Richard James' other works at the time, which I admittedly didn't know much about except for key tracks in the latter half of the '90s, such as "Windowlicker". In the latter half of that decade, my mind was opened to and embraced various strains of what could be dubbed "electronica": Autechre, Farmer's Manual, the Mego school of artists, some of the minimal, dub-influenced acts and more. Any sense of rock purism was thrown out the window, as well it should. But back to this album. What sets it apart, and what makes it quite remarkable, given its success at the time (it charted in the UK at # 11), is that it is as its title says: selected ambient works. There are a couple of tracks which feature vague "beats" in their midst, but you couldn't dance to them. They're dark, brooding and mostly resemble Eno ca. Another Green World. This 2CD set is a long haul: it's two 79-minute CDs of totally non-song-based music, simply drones and soundscapes heavily lifted in sound and approach from Eno's classic ambient period in the late '70s. For many people, regardless of whether they're a disco bunny or rock pig, there's just not enough happening here to justify listening to it. There's plenty to listen to here, and I don't need to justify it. This is a classic. There, I said it.


All done, and all of this was written whilst home sick from work feeling like a bag of shit w/ a godawful virus, rugged up on the couch. Not a bad effort, says I. I'll use that as an excuse for any faults in judgment you may perceive in the scribes above.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's taken over 7 years for this blog to give any creedence to the rock group by the name of the Sex Pistols, and for that I apologise. Now, before I get started let me pull you aside for a second, look you in the eye and ask you this question: if you claim to be an enthusiast of raw rock & roll, garage rock, punk rock, underground rock and any combination thereof - and that puts you firmly in the demographic of readership I'm assuming this blog enjoys - then how could you not be a fan of the band as they existed in the years 1975 - 1978?? That was a question, nay, a state of mind, which I possessed for many years, one born from obvious ignorance. That is, ignorance of the fact that there are indeed many such fans who don't like the band one bit.
The first I ever encountered - true story, so bear w/ me here - was in the year 2000 when I was working at a certain record store in the city. My fellow co-worker, whose company I enjoyed and whose taste in music I mostly shared (though he was far more enthusiastic about gormless indie-rock than I), once put on Public Image's Second Edition and the conversation soon turned to Mr. Lydon's former band. I mounted the podium and proceeded to lecture all present on the genius of the Sex Pistols, how four young layabouts changed the face of music and popular culture w/ their incendiary lyrics and captivating, confrontational live shows, how the band was the living embodiment of this thing called rock & roll music and everything it could hope to be, and how their one living full-length recording, Never Mind The Bollocks, was undoubtedly one of the finest there ever was, a collection of tunes which still has the power to give a man goosebumps and a skip in his step. He just looked at me, face screwed up, and said, Are you shitting me? The Sex Pistols sucked. I was stunned. I took it as a given that any and every fan of post-1975 underground rock music was a fan of the band. I asked myself the question once again: how could you not be?
The Stooges are and were a band who enjoy such a reputation (I'm still yet to meet anyone whose opinions on music I hold in any esteem to tell me they don't at least "like" the band as it was from the years 1967 - 1974), but the last 10 years has informed me that for many people, the jury is still out on the Sex Pistols' worth.
The reasons are manyfold, but usually the negative responses I encounter are based on the band's apparent status as "posers" and a belief that the music they created never amounted to much more than pedestrian three-chord rock & roll w/ a leaden tempo and an annoying singer. In turn, they can't believe that I would be a willing cheerleader for such oafish clowns. Possibly the worst argument I've ever heard, and one which continues to haunt the band among people of low intelligence throughout the world, is that The Clash were the better band. A) That is fucking laughably wrong - The Clash were a band of bandwagon-jumping fashion plates much loved by various loathesome music critics (and occasionally non-loathesome ones: Lester Bangs foolishly fell under their spell early on and wound up eating his words fairly quick), New Wavers, indie-rockers and Billy Bragg fans, and the only reason why I won't entitle them as the most useless attempt at a rock & roll band in history is because that title's taken by The Pixies and because I can at least rate a couple of their songs ("Tommy Gun", "Safe European Home" and "Rock The Casbah") as tracks I happen to "like"; and B) The Sex Pistols would've existed as they were regardless of whether The Clash formed or not, not vice versa.
So anyway, last night I found myself at a friend's place pathetically discussing this topic as if the world should care, and we were both in agreement that the Sex Pistols were all that. And that's for one very good reason: the music. The band as it truly was only ever made one real album, and it rates higher than the complete discographies of nearly every band you could roll off your tongue. Like I said: it lived up to its promise of being everything rock & roll purports to be - a certain indefinable, visceral energy put to tape, an invention of four seemingly disparate personalities - all packaged into one single LP, and soon therafter the band imploded. Sure, you don't need to tell me how worthless some of the members' post-'Pistols work is, it's been well documented. You couldn't expect Steve Jones, Paul Cook nor Glen Matlock to come up w/ anyone dazzling in their post-'Pistols careers - it doesn't appear to be in their make-up; Lydon's brief fling w/ greatness in the post-'Pistols universe I'd attribute both to his musical savvy (need I say that he was much more musically erudite than his 'Pistols 'padres?) and the fact that he was hanging around w/ some particularly talented musicians during the early PiL years: Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins. And I guess that's a very longwinded way of saying that the band was truly a group effort (hence the songwriting credits, w/ each member given equal share), and a group effort, when successful, is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also a different beast altogether. Less than a year after being booted from the band, Glen Matlock was playing limp power-pop w/ Midge Ure (!) and the Rich Kids. Friends of mine say they have their moments. I've heard those moments. They're not moments.
But anyway, all of this is only making this post talk in circles for eternity about a point you either get or you don't: the God-like genius of the Sex Pistols. From the opening moment of ...Bollocks, the sound of boots goosestepping at the beginning of "Holidays In The Sun", right on through to its conclusion w/ "EMI", there's nary a dud note hit. There is no dud note hit. I could possibly live without "Submission" - it always struck me as a bit of a tuneless dirge - though nothing else here is disposable. Steve Jones' guitar sound is overdubbed to within an inch of its life - some complain it's been overcooked - though his phrasing and expressiveness is impeccible. The album's producer, Chris Thomas, a man who'd worked with all manner of studio eggheads, from Pink Floyd to the Beatles to Roxy Music, says he still considers Jones' guitar work on ...Bollocks to be the most purely expressive playing he's ever worked w/ on record. Perhaps that counts for nothing, but again, it's all about the music. Even St. Joe Carducci once uttered the line (I'll paraphrase): the Sex Pistols are still worth discussing for one simple reason, perhaps the only reason: they made some great rock & roll. Anyone prone to giving Malcom McLaren a whole load of credit for the band's existence, let alone their music, A) doesn't know their music history; and B) is ignorant of the fact that McLaren never possessed a musical bone in his body.
I've spoken about the music; there is also the spectacle. What a beautiful spectacle they were. You won't hear of such a band again. Nothing much in the realm of popular or unpopular music offends the general public to such an extent anymore, and popular culture has become so splintered, especially pop music, that there is no overbearing arc of culture breathing down on youth as there once was for anyone to take notice like they once did. I'd love to see a contemporary rock band offend an entire nation w/ their antics in the 21st century, but something tells me that not enough people would be paying attention for that to happen.
So, John Lydon gets fat, old and stupid and continues to make terrible music; Glen Matlock has resigned his role in life as an ex-'Pistol who'll show up at record conventions for a meet 'n' greet for a fee; Steve Jones is a successful radio DJ in LA; and Paul Cook, last I heard, had a band going w/ one of the guys from Def Leppard. Sid's still dead, too. None of that can take away the fact that the album in question, 1977's Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, re-wired my brain like no other as a 13-year-old. You're going to have to get used to that fact. I may mention it again in the future.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The man known as Johnny Otis - born John Alexander Veliotes in 1921 - is an American legend, one of the most important and influential figures in American music in the 20th century, and yet the average dumbfuck has never heard of the guy. His musical legacy is larger than Elvis's, but you probably won't find him on a postage stamp any time soon. His life story is big enough to fill a large-sized Wikipedia entry, and hence you can take the lazy man's option and simply check it out here. I'm waiting for the Hollywood biopic - surely someone will take the plunge one day - and when they do, you can bet your SST cutouts that the man himself will likely be played by someone like Tom Cruise tinged in a strange olive glow. Otis was born to Greek-American parents, though he fell in love w/ LA's jazz scene as a youngster, one which mutated into its famed R & B scene by the mid '40s, and so smitten was he that he attempted to pass himself off as black and renamed himself Johnny Otis. I've read my history books, and I don't think that passing yourself off as black really granted you too many special privileges at the time, so I guess that speaks volumes of his dedication to the music. I don't know for sure whether anyone was actually convinced of his blackness, but his musical credentials in the field have few rivals on this planet. As a songwriter, musician, bandleader, talent scout, radio & TV host, label owner (there's a series of CDs on the Ace label which compile the best releases from his Dig label in the '50s which I could - and will - recommend to any and all reading this nonsense), he's a renaissance man par excellence. In the 1960s he was actively involved with Democratic politics and even much later, in the '90s, worked as a pastor at his own church whilst concurrently running his own restaurant/grocery store/nightclub. And just what the hell have you done w/ your life? The man is still alive and probably not greatly active, but as I said w/ the similarly ancient Yusef Lateef just a handful of entries ago: he's earned a rest. He sired the son, Shuggie, a man well known to collector dorks and samplers the world over for the three cult LPs he released in the 1970s: Here Comes Shuggie Otis, Freedom Flight and Inspiration Information. One of the interesting aspects of Johnny Otis's long and varied career is that, unlike many of his contemporaries in the '40s/'50s R & B scene, he enjoyed a second life in the late '60s and early '70s as a producer/writer/player of bad-assed, expletive-laden funk. The best example, perhaps the only example in regards to potty-talk, is the one pictured above: Snatch and the Poontangs. It was recorded in 1969 and released the following year on the Kent label (a subsidiary of the great Modern/RPM empire), and featured Johnny on piano and drums and his son Shuggie on guitar. There should be more father/son records like this. Collector-nerds may know of the White Boy 7" from the late '70s, but my knowledge extends to no others. Most of the songs are apparently based on black American folklore, though lyrically they're coated w/ foul-mouthed ghetto talk, the kinda stuff Ice T, Ice Cube and all the other members of the Ice family would make a mint w/ some 20 years later. Check out "Signifying Monkey" below, if you will. Whilst the idea of a couple of grown men (actually, Shuggie wasn't at the time) spouting off a bunch of sailor-talk on disc doesn't thrill me a great deal for its own sake, the language, which is both a reflection of and tribute to the street-talk you'd find in any black (or even white) street corner at the time, in context w/ the music, is what makes this such a remarkable disc. The combination of Johnny & Shuggie, along w/ vocalist Delmar "Mighty Mouth" Evans, is the musical goods, a sleazy, bluesy funk which has more than a passing similarity to Funkadelic's first LP from the same year, and whilst Shuggie doesn't reach for the sky in the way Eddie Hazel did, the hot licks are a-plenty. Johnny showed the world that, despite the passing of the years (he was nearly 50 at the time), he was indeed no square, and the disc was a minor hit w/ countercultural freaks who probably picked up the LP from record-store racks (remember them?) due to the faux Robert Crumb cover art. The LP is available on CD via Ace, which has compiled it together w/ the more clean-cut, though musically awesome Johnny Otis album, Cold Shot, and the two together make for fun times. I can't play Snatch and the Poontangs whilst the kids are around, but late at night I slip it on, crouch next to the speakers and, pathetic as it may seem, I feel like I'm 15 again.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I told you I was on semi-hiatus. I'll try to get a proper post done this weekend. In the meantime, you could do much worse than watching Dave Markey's Reality 86'd, which has just been posted onto Vimeo here. The film has been caught up in a legal wrangle for years - Greg Ginn apparently being a killjoy in not wanting to see it released (don't ask me why) - and since I'm not sure if this version will be pulled soon, or whether Markey and Ginn have finally come to an agreement, I'd say get in quick and check it out now. The movie? It's Markey's documentary of Black Flag's last ever tour in 1986. He says it's a slice of history, and he's correct.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Excuse the tardiness. This blog is on an on/off again hiatus for the while whilst I attempt to recharge my batteries. However, there is one release which has been occupying my head of late to the extent that I should write about it. I've been playing a whole heap of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Charles Brown and Johnny Otis, but I suspect no one wants to read my writing on such guff. It's the punk stuff you want, right? Tough shit, coz today I'm going to write about a bunch of hippie longhairs from the 1970s known as Jan Dukes de Grey. For some folks their name registers a blip as being included in Stephen Stapleton's massive "influences" list in the inner sleeve of Nurse With Wound's debut LP. For most people, that last sentence makes little sense, just as the name Jan Dukes de Grey sparks zero recognition. Have I lost you yet? That's why I'll attempt to inform right now. There's this double CD I have, it's on the Cherry Tree label, and it puts together the band's first two albums, Sorcerers and Mice and Rats In The Loft, from 1970 and '71, as well as as both sides of an utterly bizarre single band leader Derek Noy released in 1974, which includes a twisted, screaming and howling take on the old Leiber/Stoller hit, "Love Potion No. 9".
For lovers of old English acid-folk of yesteryear (primarily the late '60s/early '70s) - and you can count me as one - their recorded efforts of this era rank as a near Holy Grail, right up there with the oft-lauded Comus and their brilliant First Utterance LP (I'm happy to laude all over that one, too, given the chance). I'm less inclined to get thrilled over the re-discovery of supposed "lost gems" from this era of music than I used to be, though I think the band known as Jan Dukes de Grey may just be worth the spittles of excitement which build up in the corners of mouths amongst the collector cognoscenti. After all, they're pretty darn good.
The band was essentially Derek Noy on guitar/vocals (and other exotic instruments) and Michael Bairstow on flute, clarinet, organ, piano, percussion, handclaps and what-have-you. For the second LP, they included drummer Dennis Conlon in the mix. As you can tell by the CD cover above, they were snappy dressers, too. They looked like extras from Witchfinder General or The Wicker Man, and their music was as they appeared. The first album, Sorcerers, has 18 tracks in 49 minutes. They're mostly short, sweet, mystical and you could probably mistake them as being Incredible String Band out-takes ca. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter/5,000 Layers..., but I could think of worse moments in musical history a band could be lumped with. ISB were the pinnacle of fruity UK acid-folk, so I could think of no higher complement (well, I could, but I won't). The only crucial difference is that ISB were a band of day-glo music, whereas JDDG are as dark and miserable as a long English winter. And their music, as was hip to say, was pretty "far out" and much more expansive and eclectic than ISB's.
The second album, Mice And Rats In The Loft, is a very different matter. There's only 3 tracks taking up its 40 minutes, and the band got a whole lot stranger for their sophomore effort. The title track, in particular, is a gloriously fried number, a mass of guitar feedback and twisted screams. It'd scare the shit out of your average folk-music fan, and for that we should be grateful. The other two cuts, "Sun Symphonica" and "Call Of The Wild", are equally deranged, and the three songs together as a whole make up a truly primo slab of early '70s UK underground rock. The band played around the usual university/pub circuit of the day, with bands such as Van Der Graaf Generator, Edgar Broughton Band and Hawkwind, as well as high-profile slots with the likes of The Who and Black Sabbath, but all this was for naught. They remained a subterranean affair, hip w/ the heads but not likely to break out into a wider audience. That's nothing to weep about. This isn't music meant for a wider audience. It's probably not even music meant for most people who read this blog. But if you're into the Comus/experimental angle in regards to British psychedelic folk of the era - and who isn't? - then these two platters are definitely worthy of the high regard and mythical status they enjoy amongst overweight collector dorks the world over.
The 2CD has a mighty fancy and informative booklet, but if you're one of those vinyl purists/bores, I believe they have been reissued in that format, too (through another label). Did I mention the fact that a teenage Mark Knopfler - the man responsible for leading one of the most shitawful rock bands known to mankind later that decade and beyond - was one of their great champions, writing enthusiastically about them in the local press at the time? His piece is reproduced within. He should've pursued a career in journalism instead.