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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Just One Song - Public Image Limited

Public Image Limited
Flowers of Romance
Flowers of Romance (1981)


The Sex Pistols turned out some decent music over the course of their short, turbulent existence. But in retrospect (and perhaps even back then) they seem more like a gimmick than anything. Public Image Limited were less gimmicky and therefore seem more likely to stand the test of time. Or maybe they'll be totally forgotten in twenty years. Who knows?

I came to PiL a little late in the game, after the release of that film canister one. Then I lost touch with them after the pink and white one with John Lydon's mug on the front (This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get). But hey, what do you know? After taking about 20 years off they did what any self-respecting arena rock band would do. They reformed and released new albums and toured and presumably trotted out their golden oldies and they seem to be still alive and kicking to this very day. Which makes me want to break out my tattered "I Hate PiL" shirt and go spit on people.

But I kid. One must give credit for Lydon for burying his rotten past and not turning his next project into Son of Pistols. Credit is also due for surrounding himself with a gang of musicians who were up to the task of turning post-punk on its ear - Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Martin Atkins (drums), though Wobble had exited stage left by the time of Flowers of Romance and Atkins only played on part of the album.

Much is made of how uncommercial and uncompromising an album Flowers of Romance is. Probably because it's true. Also because it might not have made anyone blink if it was released on an indie label, but it was loosed on the world by a major. Even by the offbeat standards PiL had already set, Flowers of Romance is quite offbeat indeed. It was my first intensive exposure to their music and I was open to anything weird at the time but it took me a while to come around to it.

Listening to the album for the first time in about thirty years a few things jumped out at me. First, this really is an uncommercial album and one that's quite ahead of its time, perhaps even in our time. Drums and vocals dominate, with a few squiggles and miscellaneous drones tossed in for coloring. Lydon's whining and wailing vocals don't do much to win friends and influence record buyers but they are well suited to the music. Much of which is surprisingly catchy, for being so minimal and so far out of left field. It also struck me that I liked it very much and it didn't seem dated. Which I couldn't say for Ministry, which I revisited at the same time and which seemed mired in the Nineties.

But I digress. The high point of all of this floral romance stuff was the single and title track. Which actually made it onto the charts over there in the UK, which is kind of surprising but maybe not so much. Because, at the heart of it all, amongst the ponderous drums and Lydon's caterwauling, is a catchy song. I don't know how you could dance to it but it sure stays stuck in your head for a while.

(Trivia bit) Post-punk legend has it that the drums here provided inspiration for Phil Collin's legendary drum sound - but we'll try not to hold that against Lydon and the gang.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Just One Song - Dead Boys

Dead Boys
Ain't Nothin' to Do
Young, Loud and Snotty (1978)


If you grew up in certain part of the United States in a certain era and you were a music fan, you were probably acquainted with the now defunct department store chain known as Korvettes. The stores were renowned for their record departments, so much that they were profiled in a 1964 issue of Billboard magazine, which marveled at their $20 million in record sales annually.

It was mighty convenient for a young music fan who didn't drive to be able to tag along while Mom shopped for sheets and socks and whatnot. I made a number of discoveries here. Rush's first live album and the Ramones Leave Home are two that come to mind. I had no idea who the Ramones were, but four glowering chaps in tattered denim and leather could only be a good thing - and so it was.

Ditto for those five glowering fellows who graced the cover of "the damned and demonic" Dead Boys first album - Young, Loud and Snotty. Which was a damned fine piece of work and which was followed in short order by We Have Come For Your Children (1978), an only marginally less fine piece of work. That was it for the Dead Boys and that's as it should be. Unless you count the handful of dubious live albums that have been released over these many decades, or the original mixes of the two studio albums, or Still Snotty: Young, Loud and Snotty at 40 (2017), which found two original band members convening with a bunch of youngsters to re-record the entire first album. Sigh.

So back to Young, Loud and Snotty. It's a great album - one of the greatest punk albums, if I do say so myself. If I ever run across those rough mixes I'll take a listen. As for the "new" version, I fail to see what the point is and don't have much interest in hearing it, except for what you might call morbid curiosity. Maybe the rough mixes improved on the finished, sort of polished version and maybe there's even a way that the "new" version improved on the original but I'm at a loss to figure out how that could be.

There aren't really any duds in this bunch but there are a few tracks that stand out. Sonic Reducer kicks things off in a fine way and has probably become the band's best known song and High Tension Wire and Down in Flames wrap things up and leave the listener wanting more.

But my pick for the best ever Dead Boys tune is Ain't Nothin' to Do, which closed out side one of the original vinyl release. It comes and goes in just over two minutes - few of these songs exceed the three-minute mark - and it takes everything the Dead Boys did elsewhere to higher heights, bludgeoning the listener with an intense wall of sound and featuring vocals by the late Stiv Bators that are at peak snarlishness. Sonic Reducer is often pointed to as a punk anthem - whatever the hell that is - but this one probably better fits whatever weirdo criteria we're using to judge these punk anthems nowadays.



Sunday, March 11, 2018

Alice Cooper on Seventies Mystery, The Snoop Sisters

Just One Song - Cramps

Cramps
I'm Cramped
Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980)


I'd wager that the Cramps are the only band to ever do a concert in a mental hospital. It was early in their career and fortunately they weren't held over for observation and so they went on to be the Cramps and humanity is better for it. And their drummer's name was Nick Knox - the best drummer name of all time. Although Harry Drumdini certainly deserves a mention.

They're just two of the cast of characters who made up the Cramps over the three-plus decades they were in business until the death of frontman and exalted potentate, Lux Interior. In that time they put out about a dozen albums and EPs and all of the ones I've heard were quite keen. But you could distill this Cramps thing down to their first three releases - Gravest Hits (1979), Songs the Lord Taught Us (1981) and Psychedelic Jungle (1982). Or you could keep it simple stupid and go with the second one - their first full length album.

Songs the Lord Taught Us features the classic Cramps lineup of Lux, Poison Ivy Rorshach, Bryan Gregory and Knox and it is a thoroughly swell affair. Yea and forsooth, it is sweller than swell. If there's a dud in this bunch then please send me a telegram and set me straight.

Numbers like TV Set, Garbageman, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf achieve only mere greatness, while Rock on the Moon, Mystery Plane, and Mad Daddy kick things up a few more manic notches. There's Tear it Up, a cover of a Johnny Burnette song that takes the notion of manic to new heights. Refer to the live version of the song from the concert film Urgh! A Music War, where Lux all but has a fit and bursts into flames on stage. But only if you can't get enough of this sort of thing.

The standout track in all of this blessed mess, for me, is and always will be, I'm Cramped. Don't even start with me about minimalism and all that because when it comes to the rockin' and a rollin' it doesn't get any more fabulously minimal than this. There's a massive chord or two, a lilting, bouncy drumbeat and lyrics that consist of just the title of the song. And it is a majestic thing that might induce visions, speaking in tongues or extreme rump shaking. You've been warned.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

Just One Song - Echo and the Bunnymen

Echo and the Bunnymen
All My Colors
Music And Rhythm (1982)


I don't know if the music of Echo and the Bunnymen was featured in any of those Eighties movies starring Molly Ringwald and I'm not interested enough to do the research. But it makes sense. Echo were that sort of band, although I'd venture that there was a little more substance (whatever that is) to them than so many of those new wave sensations of the early Eighties.

But it could be that I'm biased because Bunnyman, Will Sergeant, the guitarist, made the lovely Themes for Grind (1982), an album of ambient noise drone type stuff, just as the Bunnies were climbing the steep slope to peak popularity. But more about this one at a later date.

Echo have turned out about a dozen albums by now and McCulloch and Sergeant are keeping the ship full of bunnies sailing through the ocean rain to this day. But the heyday for these guys were the four albums they turned out between 1980 and 1984 - the latter year being when they hit it biggest with Ocean Rain. Point of interest - most of their success was realized on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in these United States.

It was also on those shores that the first WOMAD (World Of Music Arts And Dance) festival was held, in 1982. Among the founders of WOMAD were Peter Gabriel, whose increasing interest in world music also led him to found Real World Records at the end of that decade.

Echo were among the Western pop acts in attendance at the first festival, along with the likes of Simple Minds and The Beat. They collaborated with the Royal Drummers of Burundi ("we're Echo and the Burundimen") and the results were impressive. The song first appeared on Heaven Up Here (1981), the band's second album. Its among their more interesting bits and one that lends itself well to a collaboration with a troupe of powerhouse African drummers. Of course, the impact of the whole affair must surely have been more impressive in person than on record but the same could be said about so many songs.






Just One Song - John Cage

John Cage
Williams Mix
The 25 Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (1994)


You've gotta have a gimmick. I guess.

With any mention of John Cage it seems obligatory - perhaps there's a statute that covers this - to mention his most famous composition, a term that is perhaps used loosely in this case. It is, of course, 4'33", a three-movement work in which the performer(s) are instructed not to play their instruments for the four-minute and 33-second duration of the work.

So try this. Go ye forth into the wilderness of the internet and pull up some articles about John Cage. See if you can find one that doesn't mention 4'33". It's not likely that you will. I guess it proves that it was a good gimmick, although Cage might not have intended it as such.

The problem with 4'33" is that it tends to overshadow everything else that Cage did in the field of music, which included heaps of compositions turned out over the course of about 60 years. That's impressive, no matter how you look at it, as is the fact that many of these works were way ahead of their time and some might still be, all these years later. Which can be a bit daunting for newcomers to Cage's music. I'm not that well versed in Cage, but if you're also a fan of electronic and concrete music from the early days, you might want to start with his Imaginary Landscape and Williams Mix.

Cage composed ("conceived" might be more appropriate, in some of these cases) five Imaginary Landscapes between 1939 and 1952. They employ a smattering of traditional instruments but also included the likes of buzzers, oscillators and variable speed turntables. The fourth of the series, from 1951, in keeping with Cage's fondness for the concept of chance, finds the performers using 12 radios as their instruments.

At about the same time, Cage was working on a pioneering piece of tape music, making an early contribution to a field that was in its infancy. Williams Mix was a Herculean labor that found Louis and Bebe Barron - electronic pioneers in their own right, who are probably best known for their score to Forbidden Planet - doing a lot of the grunt work on the piece. And grunt work it was, creating 600 snippets of sound and weaving them into an eight-track piece that clocks in at just over four minutes. Which would be a considerable feat even today. Back then it took about a year - that breaks down to about a month for each 20 seconds of music.

Was it worth it? Well...if the truth be told it's not one to tap your toes to or hum along with but that was surely not the point. It's a densely packed piece that whips through its huge array of sounds without pausing to linger on any one thing. It's a good bet that hearing it mixed down to one or two channels is a less satisfying experience than hearing it in the original eight. But for modern day listeners, this is our only option.



Sunday, March 4, 2018

Just One Song - Motorhead

Motorhead
Ace of Spades
Ace of Spades (1980)


When writing these features I've tried to steer away from choosing the most obvious songs. What would be the point? But in the case of Motorhead, the most obvious choice is really the only choice.

They were rare birds - those Motorhead guys. Commencing operations in 1975, still the early days for both punk and heavy metal, they somehow managed to bridge the gulf between these two worlds, a gulf that was considerably larger then than it is now.

The band hung on for forty more years (apparently speed doesn't kill, after all) until Lemmy Kilmister, captain of the ship and the only constant member, finally drew the dead man's hand. They cranked (pun intended) out a boatload of albums in that time, many of them very fine efforts. But it's the early ones, starring the classic lineup of Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke and Phil Taylor that are the keepers. Though they mixed elements of punk and metal, especially early on, Motorhead seemed mostly to fall into the latter camp. Though Lemmy insisted that they were neither of the above and were just a humble rock and roll band.

I'm sure I'm not alone in picking Ace of Spades, their fourth album, as the best of the bunch. I'd also put it up there with the best metal albums ever. It's hard to point to any duds out of this array of 12 tracks, where the highlights include rippers like Love Me Like a Reptile, Shoot You in the Back, Fast and Loose and (We Are) The Road Crew. Then there's Ace of Spades, one of the great metal songs of all time (sorry, Lemmy's ghost - it's metal).

There are plenty of songs that can grab your attention with a killer opening and Ace of Spades does that in...well...spades. Lemmy's furious bass barrage kicks off the proceedings, then here come the guitar and drums and we're off to the races. Unlike some of those songs that latch onto you at the start, Ace of Spades doesn't let up, hammering home its point in less than three minutes and then getting the hell out of Dodge. Overkill was a close runner-up but it really doesn't get any better than this.

Naturally, a solo piano cover version was called for. And they said it couldn't be done.



Just One Song - Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters
She's Alright
Electric Mud (1968)


There's great irony in the fact that, in 1968, as the fortunes of the Rolling Stones were on a dramatic rise, those of the man from whom they'd borrowed their name were languishing.

By all rights, Muddy Waters' record sales should have benefitted from the surge of interest on the part of British kids and later Americans in music by American blues musicians. But by the mid-sixties, Muddy's record company, Chess Records, had determined that his sales were low enough that drastic steps needed to be taken. The Chess brothers had introduced many great artists and much great music to the world but their solution to Muddy's troubles indicated that they were hardly infallible.

The solution in this case was to try to boost Muddy's hip quotient - as if he needed it - and team him up with a few sidemen and Rotary Connection, a garage rock psychedelic band of the type that seemed to be multiplying like rabbits at the time and whose six album releases in the late Sixties and early Seventies have since lapsed into obscurity (and whose ranks included singer Minnie Riperton, trivia fans). The album was released on a hipper Chess Records spinoff label, and was followed a year later by a similar effort from Howlin' Wolf and many of the same musicians.

The result of all this foolishness was an album called Electric Mud, which tried for a new spin on some old Muddy favorites and tossed in a Rolling Stones cover (Let's Spend the Night Together) and a trippy and rather silly take on current events called Herbert Harper's Free Press News. It sold well but opinions varied as to the results. Blues lovers tended to look down their nose at it and even Muddy apparently was not enamored with it, though he seem to express varying opinions about the record over the years.

I've listened to my fair share of blues over the years but I'm far from being a purist. Like so many white American rock and roll kids who grew up in the Seventies, my intro to the form was via the likes of Cream, Foghat, George Thorogood and other rockers interpreting the works of the old bluesmen. Purist or not, I gave Electric Mud one listen and that was enough. Maybe I should give it a few more spins, just to be fair. But first impressions count for a lot and besides, there's so much music I haven't heard and so much more I want to hear again and no time to waste on clunkers.

But there is one song that stood out from this uninspired pack, a number with the bland and uninspired title, She's Alright. It clocks in at little over two minutes on Muddy's earlier versions, which are quite fine but this version might as well be a different song altogether. Here it's psychedelically stretched out to nearly seven minutes.

But speaking of Cream (and I believe we were), that's probably the closest reference point for this version of the song. Take a simple but effective and almost hypnotic riff that you might describe as Cream Lite. Marry this to a hypnotically funky groove, with drummer Morris Jennings trying to bash the drums into oblivion on the two and four. Mix in some impressive vocals by Muddy, who puts aside whatever feelings he might have had about the project and provides some inspired singing. It all adds up to a song that sounds…well…not much like Muddy - vocals aside - but it'll still kick your ass.



Just One Song - Ramones

Ramones
Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio?
End of the Century (1980)


Time has finally caught up with the Ramones - in more ways than one. They need no introduction today, which is a marked contrast to those early days when punk, the movement they help jump start, was still on the fringes. Not that their relative fame means much now, since the original members of the band have hung up their leather jackets and shuffled off this mortal coil.

For those who maybe do need an introduction to the Ramones, here's a Reader's Digestish type version. Four guys from the boroughs adopt a uniform of ripped jeans and leather jackets, borrow what was said to be to Paul McCartney's favorite pseudonym and proceed to play buzzsaw punk, with a significant debt to the pop and bubblegum tunes of yesteryear.

The most obvious Ramones song to focus on, assuming you can only pick one, is Blitzkrieg Bop, the very first song on their very first album. I'd vote for it as one of the top ten rock and roll songs of all time and perhaps even in the top five. But nowadays, thanks to TV commercials and whatnot, it also needs no introduction, nor does the much ballyhooed album that it was drawn from. We'll move on.

The next of the essential first five Ramones studio albums (the live one was quality goods but mostly redundant) is Leave Home. It's their second effort and the first Ramones album I was exposed to and it's arguably the heaviest of this early batch (Commando, anyone?). I bought it not long after it was released, in a Korvette's department store in my hometown. Korvette's swell record department made it the destination of choice for music fans who grew up in the mid-Atlantic states in a certain era, but I digress.

The Ramones were never really a pedal to the metal, balls to the wall punk band and it shows on Rocket to Russia, their third studio album and my favorite of the bunch. Most of the original songs are heavy on the bubblegum and punk-edged power pop (and none of them clocking in at more than three minutes, mind you), as are the two well-chosen covers, The Trashmen's lunatic, Surfin' Bird, and Bobby Freeman's, Do Ya Wanna Dance. The follow-up, Road to Ruin, covered much of the same territory but perhaps not as effectively, though it did contain I Wanna Be Sedated, arguably the band's best known song. Which took the band up to the dawn of the Eighties and their fifth studio album, End of the Century.

The first Ramones album was done on a shoestring, financed by collecting deposits on bottles and selling off plasma and whatnot. End of the Century found the band working with something that could reasonably be called a budget, not to mention a "name" producer. Unfortunately, the name of said producer was future convicted murderer Phil Spector, known then for his considerable contributions to pop history, his legendary Wall of Sound recording technique and an "offbeat" personality.

While this melding of legendary pop impresario with bubblepunk up and comers should have been a marriage made in heaven, it seems that it was nothing of the sort. If you ever saw the Ramones live or listened to their live album, then it was apparent that they were not a band that liked to dilly dally with their art - and it was the same modus operandi in the studio. Which brought them into conflict with Spector, whose methods of producing were meticulous, to say the least. But a finished and fully formed album was the end result of all this. I might be out of step with popular opinion, but I rank it right up there with the best of the Ramones albums.

End of the Century arrived about twenty years before the actual end of the twentieth century, but it was near the end of the line for the Ramones, who turned out a bunch more middling albums over the years before finally throwing in the towel. Some would suggest that that the end of the line for the Ramones came before End of the Century and there are probably those who felt that Rocket to Russia was their last good album. Even some of the Ramones weren't exactly over the moon about End of the Century. But comparing it to their earlier albums was almost like an apples to oranges comparison.

A look at the track listing reveals a number of songs that were at least in the capable to good range as well as few standouts. The latter include old-school Ramones styled numbers like Chinese Rock and The Return of Jackie and Judy, a sequel to Judy is a Punk, from the first album, and bubblepunk songs like Let's Go and Rock 'n' Roll High School.

The notion of the Ramones doing a ballad seems a little ridiculous, even now. But let's recall that the band explored this territory right from the start, with I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and continued to do so with every album that followed. End of the Century's ballad - Danny Says - chronicled the trials and tribulations ("we can't go surfing 'cause its 20 below") of a touring band's rigorous schedule and gets my vote for best of the Ramones ballads. But the Ramones/Spector collaboration (collision?) reached a peak on the album's opener. Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio is credited to the group - minus Marky - but Spector's Wall of Sound production gimmick is in fine form here, so much so that he almost deserves a co-writing credit.

As befits a Phil Spector production the sound is dense and the instrumentation is greatly expanded beyond the Ramones standard of guitar, bass and drums. Saxophone drives the song, a notion that would have made me retch in the days leading up to 1980 but it works very well. The bottom line is that this is a relentlessly, ear-wormingly catchy song of the first order. Trying to agree on which of the Ramones' songs is the catchiest is probably an exercise in futility and might even cause a fistfight or two. Their numbers are legion but no matter how you look at it, Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio? is near the top of the list.