Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prince

For most of my youth Scope was South Africa's premier, if not only, man's magazine with a mixture of features and pin-ups and I guess it kind of aspired to be a local Playboy. The sad part was that it was published in a country that had and enforced strict censorship on political and sexual issues and the naughty bits of the pin-ups were inevitably covered either by invasive black bands or, later, cuter little stars. None of the girls were fully nude, but visible nipples on sexy White chicks were anathema to the guardians of our morality.

The other thing about Scope was that it did its best to cover the local music scene, such as it was back in the Seventies and early Eighties, and there was usually a page or two of record reviews. I bought Scope surreptitiously, hiding it like contraband from my mother, even if it was not quite tame, and cut out the pin-ups and pasted them into dedicated scrapbooks, which I also carefully hid. I guess this was a sad activity, but I was a lonely, alienated, horny teenager with scrambled and raging hormones. I also cut out the record reviews, as I also made scrapbooks of articles and reviews I cut from NME, Melody Maker and other British rock publications, and whatever was published in South Africa at the time, mostly from Scope and some from Kerneels Breytenbach's column in the then Saturday Byvoegsel to the Burger, the local Afrikaans daily.

Scope went from perhaps a single page with some reviews to a double spread with plenty of reviews, mostly quite brief, and with a small picture of the album cover. I guess the magazine did not have a dedicated rock writer or reviewer and the records were given to various staff members. One such was Martin Hendy who also wrote reviews under the name Herman Tindy; why I never fathomed, unless it was that the editor did not want to let on that one guy was writing most of the stuff.

Anyhow, Martin Hendy seemed to be a man of a certain age who perhaps liked rock (or maybe he just listened to jazz or classical music at home and wrote about rock only because it was a job) but who had a fixed, old-fashioned approach to what he liked and did not care for anything new.

This view of mine was corroborated by the review (by either of the noms de plume) of Prince's third album, Dirty Mind (1980). It was perhaps the briefest review I'd ever read in Scope and it basically and simply made the point that Prince was making disco shit and that the album was useless. That was about it. It was disco and therefore crap. Obviously Hendy or Tindy either did not listen closely, did not have the funk in him or was simply turned off by the cover (a semi-naked Prince in black g-string and coat), quite in your face salacious lyrics of some of the tunes and could not appreciate the tunes, the fact that there was quite a bit of funky rock on the album and that even the one long funk jam was danceable if the lyrics were disposable. I guess the P-funk or futuristic variations thereof were not to the Scope's taste and the reviewer was not clued up enough to distinguish between disco and funk. Hendy/Tindy also complained about the exceedingly brief duration of the album or perhaps he was relieved that it was so short.

The guy who reviewed Dirty Mind for NME had quite a different view. He raved. The music was funk with hefty doses of New Wave influenced guitar rock, and the lyrics were "dirty" but probably also not meant to be particularly serious. This was a fun album and the mark of genius was on it.

I always wondered what Hendy/Tindy made of Prince's later ubiquity.

During 1980 I bought the album at a record sale at Sygma records and was totally thrilled by it. On the one level the horny twenty one year old in me appreciated the sexy naughtiness of Head and Sister, but the music fan in me really dug the grooves. By then I was already in the P-funk thing and Prince made absolute sense to me in that context. This was no disco crap, this was big fun. I was also immensely impressed by the fact that Prince not only wrote the songs but also played just about every instrument on the record. He was young and he was enormously talented.

I must admit that I had seen one of the two earlier albums around in record bars in Stellenbosch and had not been impressed. The name and front cover photograph of a chipmunk faced Prince with silly little moustache (he still had it for Dirty Mind) also made me think that this artist was the disco dork Martin Hendy thought he was. Even after I bought Dirty Mind I made no effort to buy that earlier album; it just did not look right.

Even though I was very fond of Dirty Mind it did occur to me that this guy would be a major talent. The music was fun but the lyrical content was so thin it seemed to me he would be just a flash in the pan relying on sexual controversy and risqué songs with diminishing returns before he would fade away.

I read the reviews of the follow up albums, Controversy and 1999 and particularly from the NME views realised that rock critics were taking the man seriously and that perhaps there would be more of a career for him than merely being a kind of perverse low level funkateer.

With Little Red Corvette Prince finally had a hit single that even got airplay in South Africa and when I ran across the 1999 double album (1982) somewhere in early 1984 at a discount price I could not refuse, I snapped it up. This was no Dirty Mind, which has the distinction of being succinct. With 1999 Prince had the then very fashionable and soon to be dominant Minneapolis funk-rock sound down pat and I found that it was a musical style that had limited appeal to me. I preferred the more old school P-Funk approach. This new fangled jerky funk thing with the trebly guitars and lots of synths quickly bored me.

1999 is not a bad album, but it is not a favourite. I listened to it because I had it and wanted to be hip to Prince but my heart was not in it

Between 1984 and 1987 I bought Controversy and Life In A Day, the two albums that respectively preceded and followed 1999 and were quite different to each other. The earlier album had that proto funk rock Minneapolis approach and the latter had a more psychedelic pop inclination that was much more to my taste. Prince had moved away from a certain orthodoxy and was now going to do what he wanted to do, all the way.

The NME thought Life In A Day was a work of genius and I am inclined to agree, the accent is on tunes and joy and the jerky rhythms are gone. The jams are songs and the songs are jam packed with goodness.

In the year of 1984 Bruce Springsteen and Prince, and perhaps Madonna, reigned supreme in their special spheres. Prince starred in the movie Purple Rain and released an album of music from the movie, had a monster hit with When Doves Cry and suddenly became ubiquitous. I went to see the movie, was impressed with the music and never bought the album until the late Nineties. I do not quite know why I did not buy Purple Rain then unless it was because it was so ubiquitous that I decided it would not be hip or cool to buy something everyone else was buying. I did not buy Born In The USA either.

Sign O' The Times (1987) was the monster hit album of 1988 and the title track was a big single. This time around I did make the effort and spent the money on buying the album when it was released and this is the first Prince album I ever bought that was not on sale at a record store. I loved the title track and the whole package seemed to be something worth having. The musical content was more sophisticated than that of 1999 and the funk jams were a lot more loos, tuneful and appealing than the earlier album offered. Prince had discovered that a pop sensibility is no bad thing to employ even in the heaviest of funk scenarios. Not all the songs were that great, to be honest, but by and large I like this album.

The next big Prince song on the local radio was Alphabet Street off the single album follow up LoveSexy (1988), once again with a quite controversial semi nude picture of Prince, and this tune made me buy the album when it came out. Alphabet Street is a perfect pop funk song and is right up there with Kiss and When Doves Cry as the three best songs Prince ever wrote. The rest of the album is more of the same, with lively funky tracks and limpidly beautiful pop songs. As a single album I rate this my second favourite after Life In A Day, with
Dirty Mind a close third.

As it happens LoveSexy is where my Prince record collection peaked and came to an end. Prince went on to lead the New Power Generation, abandoned his "slave" name and adopted a symbol as his name, which led to a great deal of ridicule from the rock press, and continues releasing singles and albums and to my mind became less and less essential, just another guy cutting his own groove with no truly compelling argument for me to keep on buying his product even if heavily discounted. This is no critique of the value or quality of Prince's music; I simply lost my taste for it.

I did however buy a DVD Prince Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas, of a performance for his fan club in 2002. The man wears a sharp suit and leads a band of equally besuited musicians, with Sheila E on percussion, Maceo Parker on saxophone, a female bassist and Nikka Costa as guest vocalist. The music sounds a tad like Las Vegas showbiz lounge funk to me, though Prince resists running through a simple greatest hits set. I guess it is funky and entertaining enough though one has the feeling that he is now no longer any kind of market leader and will therefore concentrate on this kind of lucrative gig for big bucks where the line between cheese and parody is very thin. The music is entertaining and Prince hams it up and the crowd had a good time. I guess that is all one can ask

The thing is that the jams at the end of the Purple Rain DVD (amongst the bonus materials) are much more vital, alive and truly funkifying. It must be that he was so much younger then and on the cusp of a big breakthrough. Now there is little left to prove. Prince is one of the greats, a natural successor to James Brown and will be in the Hall of Fame for sure for his innovative music and attitude of the Eighties.

Someone dubbed Prince the Imp of the Perverse, partly because he is a very small guy. In musical stature he is a giant, perhaps he is the most iconic symbol of a Black superstar who helped define a distinctive style of Black music that fused funk with contemporary rock elements and added dashes of electronica, and had little to do with the blues background of most earlier styles of Black music, and who convinced a mass audience that this was the new serious dance music of the age, before hip hop conquered all. Prince's greatest hits are astonishingly good and even groundbreaking and for this alone he must be given kudos for achieving what few Black solo artists before him could achieve – do something that is radically different yet also popular with a mass audience.

Michael Jackson, who was about Prince's age, is now well nigh entrenched as the King of Pop but who's to say that the Prince of Pop is not in fact the real monarch of all he surveys?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Z Z Top

Chris Prior dubbed himself the Rock Professor and I never knew whether it was meant to indicate a vast and intricate knowledge of all things rockular, or whether it simply meant that his tastes were slightly old-fashioned and fuddy duddy, but he sure knew something about a lot of good rock, the kind of rock nowadays called classis rock. He introduced me to a lot of acts and Z Z Top and Van Morrison are the two most important ones from the perspective of my record collection.

Back in the day, in my late high school and early Varsity years in the late Seventies, SABC radio was divided into various services of which the English and Afrikaanse services were the major, broad based channels, then there were the various regional services in either or both of the two official languages, a number of ethnic language stations, and Radio 5 which was meant to be the national rock radio station.

I listened to some English service programmes, a little bit of Radio Good Hope, very little of Radio 5 – in fact, by about 1978 I stopped listening to it altogether because it had a disco format I grew to hate – and from 1978 on a great deal of Radio Xhosa. My favourite programme on the English service was the late afternoon magazine programme Audiomix, aimed at teens I guess, and with an entertaining mixture of news, topical subjects, education and entertainment and sports. The style was jocular and semi-hip and it was not a bad hour to spend in front of the radio, but the highlight for a period was a brief 10 or 15 minute slot occupied by Chris Prior, then still relatively young, in which he sought to give us a rough guide to some or other band or individual musician he thought we should know more about.

The funny thing is that he did this in the days of punk and New Wave, yet I do not recollect him ever introducing any of the newer British or American bands but focussing essentially on the Sixties and early to mid Seventies. In fact, apart from ZZ Top and Van Morrison, I have no idea of who else his programme would have covered. I vaguely remember the James Gang, but it could be a false memory.

Anyhow, in his brief slot Prior gave a potted biography of his subject and played selected tunes to illustrate the topic.

I had heard of Z Z Top but only in passing and knew nothing of what they sounded like until Prior played Brown Sugar (not the Rolling Stones tune) with its ominous, slow stop time beat, growling vocals and space age freaky blues guitar. I had not heard anything like this before and I was immediately hooked. Who knows what else he played? Probably La Grange, maybe Tush, possibly I just Got Paid and Arrested for Driving While Blind. What the tunes were, is not important. The important part is that I was hooked.

Not long after I was in Sygma Records and saw a copy of Tejas there. This was the fourth Z Z Top album and was released in 1977, at about the time the Top went on their Bringing Texas to the People tour, with live rattlesnakes and wild steers on stage. I'd read about this extravaganza in Hit Parader magazine and knew that Z Z Top was breaking all kinds of attendance records in all parts of the United States with a potent brand of blues based boogie.

I reckon I must have bought the album pretty much within a year or so of its release, which makes it a novelty in my record collection in the sense that I hardly bought new albums and preferred discount bins at record shops, but Chris Prior had inspired and motivated me.

There was a smidgen of disappointment when I realised that neither Brown Sugar or La Grange were on this record, and there was in fact nothing as down home blues as Brown Sugar on it.

The music was a tad strange. Arrested for Driving While Blind was a great stomping rocker, as was Ten Dollar Man, but opening rack It's Only Love, and Pan Am Highway and She's A Heartbreaker sounded more like country to me and Asleep in the Desert was a weird instrumental that did not jibe with the boisterous, rocking image of the boys from Texas. Then there was Enjoy And Get It On with its John Lee Hooker style boogie, and the hard charging Avalon Hideaway, apparently based on a true story, and the silly tale of El Diablo that seemed like too much of a contrivance without merit. No matter, this was a great album and I loved it to death. It might be due to love at first sight, but this is still my all time favourite Z Z Top album.

About this time the Top had gone on a lengthy hiatus from show business and released nothing new for about 4 years until 1979's Deguello, which I bought at a record sale about a year after its release. In the meantime the Top sound had changed considerably and they no longer sounded like the slightly odd blues and country band of yore. Instead there was a harder, more tooled sound and songs that sounded mostly like jokes, as if the struggle years were over and the band could afford to let go of blues credibility and just kick back and mess around. The music was powerful but the lyrics were funny and funny.

The album opened with the stomping soul of I Thank You and the second side started with heavy version of Dust My Broom, and then there were the peculiar blues of Cheap Sunglasses, I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide, and A Fool For Your Stockings and She Loves My Automobile. Of course there are plenty other delights but in a way it was so forward looking and non-traditional boogie blues that I did not appreciate Deguello as deeply as I did Tejas.

In due course I acquired Fandango! and Tres Hombres, probably in that order too though the latter was the third album and Fandango! fourth. Fandango! has a studio side and a live side. I guess the intention was to show us how the band worked a room or maybe they just did not have enough songs to fill two sides of a record. I had mixed feelings about the live songs – Thunderbird was great, Jailhouse Rock redundant and the Backdoor medley somewhat rinky dink, with a bit of comedy in there and a version of Boogie Chillen they called Long Distance Boogie just to have the copyright. Frankly, these tracks did make the Top sound like just another bar band and not in a good way.

The studio tracks on Fandango! are the nuggets on the album. They rock, there is plenty slide guitar, the tales are funky and tall, and the album ends with the truly magnificent Tush, one of the most excitable odes to nookie I have ever heard. The second side of the album is a well nigh perfect example of how rockin' blues boogie should be played. For a touring band, they sure sounded a lot better in studio surroundings than on a stage.

Where Fandango! was the rocking version of Z Z Top, and Tejas quite a bit country, it seemed to me that Tres Hombres showcased the gospel influences of the band. Not that hard rocking blues were absent. Waiting for the Bus / Jesus Just Left Chicago, the opening one-two combination proved that the boys sure knew how to play a powerful shuffle but the gospel thing started creeping in there. Chris Prior was particularly fond of these two songs. Then there is La Grange, one of the great blues riffs of all time and a song that became a staple in the repertoire of a number of neo-blues bands in the great blues revival in Cape Town in the late Eighties and early Nineties; it mixed up Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker and rocked like a demon.

Hot, Blue and Righteous and Have You Heard? were the two main gospelized tunes, and Master of Sparks, allegedly based on a true story, was a weird little ditty with a cosmic and theological subtext. Of course blues and gospel were intertwined in the American South and it is just right that 3 good ole boys should mix up that kind of medicine as well.

For a long while I rested with my 4 Z Z Top records, until I started buying CDS and then eventually bought Fandango! and Tres Hombres again, and had the good fortune to find the Z Z Top Sixpack of six albums, at a flea market stall. The sixpack consisted consisted of the first 5 Top albums, skipped Deguello for some unfathomable reason and the sixth album was EL Loco, the second of the so-called Hispanic series. El Loco sounded a lot more like Deguello than it sounded like the earlier albums with a decidedly heavier strain of music and very little pure blues. I knew Tube Snake Boogie from the radio, but the rest of the tunes were unfamiliar and though none are bad, it is not an album that I could bond with. Call me a Luddite but I preferred the more straight ahead bluesier version of the band.

Z Z Top's First Album and Rio Grande Mud were the real deal, and for the first time since Chris Prior introduction on Audiomix, probably almost twenty years before, I heard Brown Sugar in all its glory. The other tracks were good too. I realised that the Top was not as purist a blues band as I had thought, and was nothing like the early Fleetwood Mac or even John Mayall, and was closer to the blues based boogie bands like Foghat, but Billy Gibbons still played a mean blues guitar that was the mitigating subtle factor midst the good time boogie.

The Eighties were very good for Z Z Top, with the addition of electronics, up to date production, really long beards, MTV videos on heavy rotation and the added bonus of at least one Back To The Future soundtrack hit tie-in, they were commercially even more successful than in the Seventies -- their cartoonish image did them no harm at all. I suspect the beards are copyrighted. The songs were all over local radio and were not bad, but I never warmed to this new sound and the concept that the Top were no longer real beer drinkers and hell raisers and were simply putting on a big act for the kids who were now their audience. I see no need to own anything released after 1977 except that I should confess that I recently bought the Live From Texas CD but only because I found it on sale at a Musica shop in the Langeberg Mall outside Mossel Bay.

This live set features some of the good stuff from the Seventies, several tracks off Deguello and the big Eighties hits. The boys sound like they're having fun on stage and they rock hard but somehow this is not very satisfying. The first side of Fandango! has more energy and sounds a lot better too, even if more primitive or maybe because it sounds more skeletal. The modern day version of Z Z Top features the same three guys who started the band forty years ago and Frank Beard, the drummer, still has no beard, yet the music has changed perceptibly over time. Once the Top was a blues band with a lot of boogie in its stew and now they are close to being a hard rock band playing some blues styled tunes and cracking some risqué jokes in-between while they glorify all things Texan. If this formula undoubtedly spells good fun on the night, it pales somewhat when one puts the platter on the stereo. Play it loud and some of the effect returns but it cannot quite convince me that Z Z Top are any better today than they were 35 years ago.

Once they billed themselves as a little old band from Texas. Nowadays it is more like just an old band from Texas whose members still have some moves and have to rely on craft and experience to excite where it used to be youth and energy.

Perhaps Enjoy And Get It On should be the motto, perhaps Arrested for Driving While Blind and Tush is still the best energy rush experience of the joys of looking to pull. That is what Z Z Top is about: feeling good and getting high and rocking out and having a damn fine time doing it!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Rodriguez Coming From Reality

What a luck! I ambled into Cash Crusaders in Adderley Street, Cape Town on a very wet day in September 2009 and flipped through the small stack of second hand CDs on offer and came across the Rodriguez album Coming From Reality, known as After The Fact in South Africa, it being the follow up to the locally most popular Cold Fact, for just R19,95 and I had to have it. The sales woman took a long time to find the CD in the drawer where they are kept and eventually handed me a disc and said this is all she could find. The filing number on the back of the jewel case matched the CD but it was in fact Cold Fact and not the later album. Somewhat puzzled I opened the jewel case and found that the packaging actually contained a double CD set, and that the disc for Coming From Reality/After The Fact was still inside the jewel case, at the back. So, for the price of one seriously discounted album I got two, though I do already own the earlier single CD release of Cold Fact.

It is always good to find a real bargain.

Cold Fact is a legendary album from my youth in Stellenbosch and lots of people owned the record. It seemed to be one of the ubiquitous Seventies albums, up there with Dark Side of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Aladdin Sane, Rumours, Hotel California, and the like. The songs I Wonder and Sugar Man were very popular in the repressed times I grew up in because of the sex and drug references, and the album was always available in South Africa, even if as a budget release. When I bought The Encyclopaedia of Rock I looked up the name and found only Johnny Rodriguez, who was not the same guy. It seemed astonishing that South Africa would have made a hero of sorts out of this clearly very obscure American recording artist.

If I remember correctly, I did see After The Fact in record shops in Stellenbosch but never bought it; for that matter I never bought Cold Fact until somewhere in the late Eighties when I acquired a cassette album tape of it, and then later the CD. Cold Fact is a great little album with no bad song on it. Rodriguez had a bit of folk and bit of psychedelia going on, along with lots of Dylanesque rock poetry. It sounded as if Rodriguez was a guy who should have gone far in his career and I chalked his obscurity down to the same old song of lack of ambition or luck or both.

Much to my surprise Rodriguez kind of rose from the dead, popped up in South Africa again on his first concert tour for a very long time, looking very much worse for wear, with tales of manual labour and distance from the music industry, and now resuscitation after some South African fans made a serious effort to find him. In South Africa one can now also buy no fewer than 2 "best of" albums, and a live album, all of which recycle a very limited repertoire. Nonetheless, Rodriguez is back in our lives. Except that Coming From Reality / After The Fact is not all that easy to come by

This CD double pack I bought at Cash Crusaders was released in 2002 and must have been a bit of a cash in on the renewed interest in the man. The booklet has a potted history of the man's career and history of his recordings, which is very useful to the lay person though it still does not explain the obscurity.

Coming From Reality was released in 1972 and apparently renamed for the South African market in 1976 to emphasise the link with Cold Fact and for a while I lived under the fond impression that there might also be a third album called Hard Fact.

Coming From Reality was recorded in England in 1970, with some distinguished British session musicians, notably Chris Spedding on guitar. This is the guy I knew from his late Seventies hit Motorbikin' and association with the first wave of punk bands and hardly a name one would link with Rodriguez, but then, Spedding was a session guitarist and must have played whatever sessions he was booked for, regardless of the artist. It seems that the record company must have had some kind of belief in their artist if they were willing to put up the money for recording in a foreign country. In the early Seventies The Eagles did the same, though in their case, the expense paid off. They became superstars.

Coming from Reality is a departure from the approach of Cold Fact in that the music is mostly acoustic and string laden and the lyrics more romantic. The angry Rodriguez is in abeyance for most of the album and only about 3 songs even have anything approaching the hard guitar sound of the first album. There is no overt drug song. Maybe the record company's advice to their artist was to appeal to the commercial interests of radio and the record buying public, and to aim for tunes that would find a home in the easy listening format. I must say, if I had heard Coming From Reality before I heard Cold Fact, I would never have bothered with Rodriguez. His legend rests on that assured debut. The follow up sounds like too much of a cop out.

Having said that, on the evidence of the lyrics and tunes of these two albums, it is anyone's guess why Rodriguez could not achieve anything like mainstream commercial success amidst the crowd of singer-songwriters who populated the musical stage in the Seventies. He has some lyrical quirks and cleverness that suggests a thinker and a philosopher rather than a rocker, as the music generally bears out, but in a sense, if one listens to the two albums back to back, it is as if he cannot decide whether he wants to be a funkier Bob Dylan or a more roots James Taylor. Rodriguez does not quite get it right and at best he has produced one kind-of-classic-because-it-is-so-obscure album and one not-quite-awful-yet-half-arsed album. This output is not the most imposing of legacies. I wonder if he has some new songs in him, or in the vaults, that may now be released while he is in vogue, sort of, again.

Coming From Reality has nothing much to appeal to me in and of its own right and if it had been the first sighting of Rodriguez, he would never have become a legend anywhere in the world. No wonder he sank into the dark ages of the soul after its release. He should have remained a one hit wonder and then the myth would have been perfect.