Wednesday, November 09, 2011


As far as I know Chicago, the band, is the only prominent rock band from the city of Chicago, which is otherwise known as a cradle of electric downhome blues, on its Southside and its West Side. On the other hand, Detroit, although it had its own blues musicians, was not a blues town but is well-known as a rock city and gave birth to a number of important bands such as The Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad and the MC5. There is even Bob Seger. Not all of them originated in the inner city of Detroit, in fact they came from the satellite cities and communities around Detroit, such as Flint and Ann Arbor, but for all practical purposes these bands can be called motor city bands.

The cliché has it that the industrialised Detroit ambience gave rise to a particular brand of high energy, uncomplicated rock and roll for the people. Grand Funk Railroad represents the truly dumb end of this spectrum, especially on their first couple of albums as power trio with somewhat pretensions revolutionary and anti-establishment rhetoric, mixed in with the paeans to good times, fast women and a tearaway lifestyle. The Stooges also sound pretty dumb and basic and had a sex god type as front man. The MC5 were the revolutionaries who belonged to something called the White Panther Party, played truly furious rock and roll and were not only influenced by revolutionary politics but also free jazz and, apparently John Lee Hooker and classic Fifties rock'n'roll.

The NME liked the MC5 and wrote about them as doomed outlaw rockers who tried their hardest to be bad ass and perfect pop and were ahead of their time, or not quite of their time. The MC5, along with the Stooges, were seen as forerunners of the punk wave that swept through the British rock establishment from 1976 onward.

By that time the MC5 were long gone as functioning unit. Wayne Kramer was leading his own band, Fred 'Sonic' Smith hooked up with Patti Smith, and who knows what the rest were doing. The Detroit unit released 3 albums and exited.

The second album, Back In The USA (1970), is deemed to be masterpiece of concise rock that not only spoke to teenage concerns but also made serious political points with a rock and roll beat and truly invigorating guitar fire-power. Jon Landau, one of the early rock critics and by all accounts a very conservative one at that in terms of what he regarded as perfect rock, and later Bruce Springsteen's manager, produced this album and made a short, sharp Fifties style pop record of it. Previously, on Kick Out The Jams, the debut, the MC5 had played to their strengths of brute rock power and advocating the revolution that was expected to sweep the nation. It was kind of in yer face and too basic and confrontational to make either the record company or the public happy.

Apparently the perfect pop album did not make it either. The MC5 could not or would not write perfect pop hit singles and were probably too notorious for their pop moment to make the commercial breakthrough.

In the late Seventies the MC5 was an influence but the records were not all that available and I was pleasantly surprised when I found Living In The USA at Ragtime Records, and at a bargain price as well. I snapped it up. It had a great black and white cover photograph of a sweaty, post gig band. It must be one of the classic rock album covers of all time. I did not listen to any of the record before I bought it, partly because I thought it a bit infra dig to listen to a bargain price record and partly because I was buying it purely on the recommendation of the NME. It was simply a record one had to own, an essential part of the well-bred record collection.

My anticipation was rewarded with great joy and happiness. From the opening cut "Tutti Frutti" to the last cut "Back In The USA", this was indeed an album of high energy, powerful rock, and rock that had something to say and said it well.

"Tutti Frutti" sets the mark for the obscure language of rock'n'roll that sounded like gibberish to adults and yet required no translation to have meaning to the teenage audience. "Back In The USA" was an ironic song, whether sung by Chuck Berry, its composer, or by Rob Tyner. Either way it was sung by an outcast from the perfect American society it describes and that obviously does not exist anywhere outside of some tourist brochure. The America eulogised in this song is most likely the America the White Panther Party was geared to destroy.

In the middle there are songs of teenage lust and of rock band member lust (something of a theme) and there is a tender ballad "Let Me Try", somewhat at odds with the general tenor of the songs, and a couple of punchy, funny political diatribes, such as "The American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawn Mower." Not only are the songs snappy, they are also short and to the point.

A fascinating thing about the general information on the band, given on the record sleeves, is the very specific reference (Kick Out The Jams) to Fred 'Sonic' Smith playing a Mosrite guitar and Wayne Kramer playing a Fender guitar. Who knows whether it is Telecaster or Stratocaster? The only other Mosrite guitar player I know of is Johnny Ramone; perhaps Fred Smith influenced him. Which other bands ever took the trouble of telling you exactly what brand of guitar you hear on their records, unless it was an endorsed product?

On Back in The USA we are specifically informed which solos Kramer plays and which Smith plays. The only other album I know of where this information is available, is on Bachman-Turner Overdrive\s Not Fragile, a band that also featured two lead guitarists.

The other thing is the seriously large puffball hairdo Rob Tyner sports. Even more than the long hair of the other guys in the band, this kind of outrageous hairstyle must have shrieked rebel and flouter of social convention. Plus it is pretty awesome. I always wonder how such a magnificent hairdo stays in such pristine condition but I guess it was specially puffed up for the photo shoot.

Back In The USA is a brilliant album that deserves to ranked up there with the usual top ten suspects on best rock album lists.

It was some time later that I finally bought Kick Out The Jams (1968) and it was a relative disappointment after the brilliantly concise pop rock of the second album.

The notorious aspect of the debut album is the war cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers" just before the band launch into the title track of the album. Sadly, my record had the sanitised version where the words "brother and sisters" have been crudely patched in to replace "motherfuckers", as the latter was apparently highly offensive to middle class America and in particular a chain of Detroit department stores that not only refused to stock this record but eventually refused to stock any record by Elektra Records, the record company with which the MC5 had a short-lived business relationship. Apparently Jac Holzman could kind of deal with the radical politics but the offensively vulgar language. At least not commercially. This was in days before gangster rap.

Anyhow, the music was a lot rougher and more brutal than on Back In The USA and a lot less pop friendly. This was the MC5 amping it up, riffing it up and rocking the house with sheer noise and balls. The energy is undeniable yet also seems somewhat pointless on occasion, such as on "Rocket Ship" or "Rocket Reducer. No 62 (Ramalama Fa fa Fa)" The sex rock chant of "Come Together" is not the more funky Beatles song. If the MC5 song is indeed intended as a sonic re-enactment of sex, I would pity the poor woman on the receiving end.

This kind of breakout may have meant a lot to the audience at the Grande Ballroom, especially if they were wasted and spaced but on record the noise palls somewhat. For all I know Kick Out The Jams is a much more accurate reflection of what the MC5 were about than is the case with he following album. It does seem a tad trying though. The shorter, sharper songs, like "Rambling Rose" or the title track are the stuff of legend; the lengthier noise workouts, not. MC5 were not a jam band and their long extrapolations sound a tad too formless for effect. The effort and the sweat are palpable yet the result is a tedium and not a longing for release. At the end of this Grande Ballroom set the audience would have gone home with ringing ears and not necessarily expanded minds, whether cosmically or politically.

For many years I owned only those first two MC5 albums and it took until October 2011 before I finally acquired the third, and last, studio album High Time (1971). I had known of its existence but had never seen it anywhere, whether as LP or CD, until I order the trio of albums from The CDs were manufactured in Germany, though.

Apparently one can categorise the three releases as the Sinclair album, the Landau album and the MC5 album. It took the band five or more years to get to the point of being themselves, musically speaking. Perhaps, but I believe that the first two albums were simply the instalments of an ongoing process of refinement of the primal rock force the MC5 were from the beginning.

High Time has a terrible cover, a very literal interpretation of the album title, with photographs of the five band members as part of the clock face of a smashed alarm clock. Perhaps it was intended to be symbolic of the destructive power of revolution. Perhaps the destroyed clock was the result of a drug orgy gone wrong. Perhaps it was meant to evoke the almost cartoonish timer mechanism of a homemade bomb. What it true, is that it is terrible. It reminds of the similarly terrible cover photograph of Grand Funk Railroad's debut album, On Time, where the three Grand Funkers hold similar time pieces and look kind of sheepish, as well they should.

The one thing High Time has in common with Kick Out The Jams is that both album feature only 8 tracks, most of them on the long side.

The opening track, "Sister Anne", is as relentless a three chord rock attack as one could possibly want (could be the template for Status Quo if it wasn't for the far rougher vocals of Rob Tyner) and ends with a Salvation Army brass band outro. Trippy is not the word. It is also the most catchy track, by a long chalk, of the first four tracks, on what would have been side one of the LP. The concise, bright rock and roll of the previous album has been consigned to a dustbin of history and has been replaced by a sleeker version of the brute rock intensity of the debut album.

"Gotta Keep Movin" has a riff and lyrics, commenting on the state of the nation, that would have fitted right in, with brighter production, on Living In The USA, as complementary to "The American Ruse." "Future/Now" tries to do the same but the riff is too stodgy and there is no tune. "Poison" has an almost pretty vocal and "Over and Over", another deeply political song, has very impassioned singing that at times borders on the hysterical.

High Time comes across as a heavy rock and roll album. It is not heavy as in heavy metal even if tempos are often slower than the frenetic pace of earlier records, but it is hard and bottom heavy and almost deliberate, in strict contrast to the bright, crisp sound of Back In The USA. The heaviness is also a moral and political heaviness because the MC5 have not forgotten or abandoned their radical roots although John Sinclair is a mentor of the past. Instead of advocating revolution the MC5 are more concerned with highlighting the evils of the establishment society rather than smashing the walls for they are, after all, a rock and roll band and a rock and roll band cannot make a career of violent confrontation.

Although High Time is as visceral as the previous albums, it is not as immediately accessible and exciting, apart from "Sister Anne", as Back In The USA yet it is a more engaging and album than Kick Out The Jams.

The MC5 came in kicking and went out on a high. That is no mean feat.

Rob Tyner and Fred Smith are dead. Wayne Kramer spent time in jail for drug dealing and has resurrected a rock career since his release, as elder statesman of a distinctive style of high energy Detroit rock and roll. Blues Oyster Cult regularly performed "Kick Out The Jams" live and recorded one such performance for Some Enchanted Evening. The NME rock writers who championed the punk and New Wave waves from 1976 to about 1979 name checked the MC5 as definite influences, both conceptually and musically, on the destroyers of AOR. The MC5 cannot be rated by the numbers of records they sold in their lifetime. They will be rated by the longevity of those records and the impact they will continue to have on brash young rockers everywhere.












Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Status Quo

NME once described Status Quo as a bit of a national treasure and this was in the days when the Quo was still a serious gigging band who toured the UK constantly and was probably also quite big in Europe yet meant diddly squat in the USA. Quo had perfected the heads down, no-nonsense mindless boogie, with sing-a-long times. and had built a loyal following of mostly young men that made touring a financially viable prospect and they even had hit singles and hit albums. They were big without ever becoming truly massive.

Status Quo came to my attention with their 1974 single "Down, Down", which was a tremendous bit of that no-nonsense, mindless boogie. It sounded good on the radio and it sounded even better being blasted from a fuck off PA at a University of Stellenbosch student carnival rock festival at the university's Planckenbrug River picnic site, probably in early 1975.

I was underage and not allowed to enter the grounds where the festival was being held. For most of the afternoon I was in position next to the fence that surrounded the picnic terrain. It was a rock DJ and he played the best rock hits of the past few years. "Down Down" was among them and the one I remember best because it sounded so much heavier and dumber than on the radio.

I had no clue what the band was about or who they were. The Blue For You album, with the lads dressed almost totally in blue denim, was available at Sygma Records and it was one of the records I made a mental note to buy one day when I had the money. When I did have money, though, I did not buy Status Quo. In the meantime, Status Quo was an excellent advertisement for Wrangler jeans, or whatever brand it was that they wore.

The next Quo single of note was "Rocking All Over The World", their 1977 version of a John Fogerty song and if it was pleasant enough, it did not have the brute rocking power of "Down Down."

"Rocking all Over the World" and its eponymous parent album were released in year as Status Quo Live!, a good collection of hits recorded at the Glasgow Apollo. For some reason it did not feature "Down Down".

I acquired Live! about two years after its release when it was on sale at one of the bi-annual CNA record sales. Coincidentally the other records I bought at that particular sale were Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. This must be an indication of the eclectic nature of my record collection.

My relationship with Live! was not exactly wine and roses. Some of the time I really liked it, especially the fast paced boogie songs, yet the interminable "Forty Five Hundred Times" with the audience sing-a-long soon started to drag. Unlike say, Cream's Cream Live or Live Full House (J Geils band) I just could not fully internalise and unreservedly love Status Quo though, on paper, the Quo sound is just my kind of thing. Pile driving shuffle rhythms, lots of melodic lead guitar and hummable, memorable tunes. For all that, Status Quo live on stage did not gel with me.

Live! has this lack of complete identification in common with Deep Purple's Made in Japan. "Smoke on the Water" is in my all-time top ten of great rock songs and the piano breakdown from "My Woman From Tokyo" is so awesome I once taped it over and over into a ten minute repetitive loop. For all that the live Deep Purple also did not gel. I bought the album from my friend Native Grief, had it for a month of two and sold it back to him to raise cash to buy Cream's Cream Live, a truly seminal album in my record collection.

By the time I bought Status Quo Live! I had enough of an income not to have to sell records to buy other records and I kept the album until 2009 when I gave away my entire record collection. I had not listened to the album in probably 15 years or more. From about 1981 when I bought a Yamaha tape deck it had been my habit to tape all my records and then to listen only to the tapes and save the records. I never taped the Status Quo album.

Somewhere in the early years of the 21st century I bought a CD with some tracks of the early Status Quo, with songs like Pictures of "Matchstick Men" and "Down The Dustpipe", one of the earliest boogie Status Quo songs I knew. Some years later I bought Disc 2 of the 3-CD The Essential Status Quo set. It was the only one of the three available at a Cash Crusaders store. Somehow I never got that much into either of them though the older, more poppy songs on the one CD were on the whole tastier than the more rocking tunes on the other album.

Now I have bought a twofer one set of the albums Quo (1974)and On The Level (1975), mostly because On the Level has "Down Down" (in fact two versions; the single edit is a bonus track, along with a handful of live recordings) and also because each of them has a couple of songs I know from the Live! set.

Either Francis Rossi or Rick Parfitt complained about the tinny sound of their early albums. It was only once they stopped touring and got to the Eighties that they learnt how to make records that had a full, solid sound, the sound they had always had in their heads but could not reproduce in the studio. Perhaps they were just happy to have the typical Eighties production values at their fingertips, given that that sound was then the cutting edge of recording technology. Today the stereotypical Eighties production just sounds terrible to me whereas the stuff from the Seventies seems to have held its own over the years despite the relative primitivism.

On the Level does have a solid bottom end sound. The guitars do sometimes sound a tad too brilliant and fussy, until the shuffle kicks in, for the boogie the Quo boys make and the vocals often come across as weirdly nerdy. The pop aspirations of the Quo, who wanted audiences to be able to sing along, almost undercut the power of the guitar crunch.

Status Quo came from psychedelic pop and knew how to write recognisable tunes. Then they put down that bottom heavy boogie sound and rocked the house. If that is not a winning formula I would not know what is. They ought to have had many number one hit singles.

The sight of Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster dressed in tight denim flares, denim waist coats, legs wide and head banging in unison while digging deep into a Quo riff must have been impressive sight at the Glasgow Apollo, or anywhere else the band took the stage circa 1975 or 1976. The term bone crushing comes to mind. In their day, with the power cranked up, Status Quo would have been louder than Led Zeppelin. This is why the records sound so weirdly like the simple bubble-gum rock of The Sweet, Mud or Suzi Quatro. Status Quo has harmonies, arpeggios, tunes and pop smarts on record. Live they had no mercy for the audience and their collective eardrums.

In this twofer collection Quo is the straightforward album as released in 1974 and On The Level has 5 bonus tracks from the era, mostly live (except for the single edit of "Down Down") that could be outtakes from Live!, if it weren't for the duplication that would suggest previously unreleased versions of well-loved anthems. Both albums have the requisite number of ingenuous variations on the basic shuffle I will always associate with Status Quo as its unique contribution to rock and also the requisite number of slower songs. On the whole On the Level is more satisfying and has the better songs. Quo has been called the heavier album of the two but I do not quite see why this would be so. Each album has the same crunch and same heaviness; Quo simply comes across as having less inspired song writing. And a drum solo that serves as a segue between "Lonely Man" and "Slow Train."

The four live bonus tracks to On The Level take me back to Quo Live! though the more interesting connection is that the opening tracks of both On The Level and Quo, respectively "Little lady / Most Of The Time" and "Backwater / Just Take Me" were paired together on that official live album. This would probably be an indicator that these two albums are prime Status Quo, hence the budget price pairing.

The well-known songs are much better than the rest of the songs on these albums and that is the likely reason why they have become Quo standards. The albums do not by themselves serve as inducement to investigate the rest of the band's oeuvre. I would perhaps not mind owning Quo Live! again and my interest in the band would be limited to the preceding studio albums but that would be a passing interest motivated by curiosity. I would like to own Blue For You but only really because I knew the album cover so well back in the day and not because I believe the music would be completely fabulous.

Status Quo is an acquired taste now, though once acquired, it is not a bad taste at all. The singles sounded fabulous on the radio and a greatest hits package would be the best way to experience the band's music. Alternatively one should have been at the Glasgow Apollo, or any of the other venues where the Quo rocked the house time and again. The albums are not intended for the quiet listening experience or the intense studying of the meaning of the lyrics. They are intended for playing loud, very loud, and for heads down no nonsense air guitar boogie.












Bob Marley

Robert Nesta Marley is probably to this day still the greatest reggae superstar there is, has been and always will be. No doubt he was the first internationally recognised reggae artist and the principal reason why Rasta and reggae are synonymous in many people's minds. Bob not only wrote early hits for Johnny Nash, but also "I Shot the Sheriff", Eric Clapton's monster comeback hit from his 461 Ocean Boulevard album, all of which gave him an entrée into the world of rock superstardom, but also wrote "No Woman, No Cry", which probably is as much of an anthem as "I Shot the Sheriff." in the late years of his career, from Kaya onwards, Marley also wrote a series of pop hits that leavened the heavily politicised Rastafarianism he had become known for and proved that reggae could be as much a vehicle for popular standards as for political expression.

Reggae, like Seventies funk, is an example of a genre of music I truly enjoy because I experience it viscerally and should have explored more thoroughly yet never have. Mostly because there is so much other music out there I love, that blues and rock is the predominant flavour of my CD (and my record before that) collection.

I guess my first exposure to reggae, or even ska, would have been Milly's "My Boy Lollipop", Johnny Nash's version of "Stir It Up" and Eric Clapton's monster hit version of "I Shot The Sheriff." I also heard the live version of "No Woman No Cry" every so often on local radio, as well as whatever reggae influenced pop was given airtime. Other than that, reggae was mystery music.

In about 1979 I attended the first of two (Cape Town) Woodstock music festivals in the Good Hope Centre. The Steve Walsh Buddies Band was one of the acts and amongst the other cover versions they played, they slotted in a couple of Bob Marley tunes, such as "Crazy Baldhead" and gave us a taste of White reggae at just about the time The Police were about to make it a lucrative genre.

Bob Marley was the big guy in reggae and the only international star; a household name. He had dreadlocks, was a Rastafarian (whatever that was) and smoked copious amounts of ganja. it was called from time to time. All of that made Marley the antithesis of what was considered a good, wholesome role model for South African youth. Apparently Rastas were also incredibly chauvinistic and sexist.

One of the interesting little facts about the punk movement that took Britain by storm in 1976 and 1977 was the NME reported that the leading lights of the movement seemed to listen to little else but heavy reggae.

The NME gave their favoured JA (it took me some time to realise that this as an abbreviation for Jamaican Archipelago) acts quite a bit of coverage and I knew a good deal about the top reggae acts long before I heard much of the music. One of the interviews with Marley that always stuck with me was headed A Lickle Love an' T'ing, by Cynthia Rose, if I am not mistaken, and if I remember correctly this was one of the first times a journalist raised the vexing question of the sexism that was prevalent amongst male Rastafaris who thought of women as little better than second class citizens whose job was to serve the menfolk and to be sexually available to their men and otherwise be chaste, while the men could avail themselves of whatever young stars truck women were hanging around the Rasta camp.

I found Burnin', the second album on Island Records of the internationally focused Mailers at the OK Record Bar as a budget release and bought it from curiosity and because it was cheap. My expectations were dashed. The main reason why I liked reggae was the deep, bottom heavy bass sound and drum rhythms that we wanna get up and dance. Burnin' sounded tinny and weedy, unlike the "rock" production I was expecting after reading how Catch A Fire had been gussied up for international rock palates. It seemed to me that Burnin' just had no power and that it was no better than a series of limpid, lazy songs of Rastafarian praise. I cannot say that it hardly ever left my turntable. In fact, I did not even take the trouble of recording it on a cassette tape.

I bought the Bob Marley & The Wailers Live album only some time afterwards and this, too, was unfathomably great, not only because of the rock solid grooves but the magisterial tone of the incantatory lyrics. This album made me understand why Marley was the superstar and not the other excellent reggae musicians show albums I owned.

During one of my moves from home to home in the early Eighties this album was stolen (along with most of my rap collection) by the movers. As was my practice with all my records I had taped the album and therefore still had the music and listened to it often. For some unknown reason I never replaced the record with its CD equivalent.

In 2005 I bought a DVD of a live performance of Bob Marley in 1977, at the Rainbow theatre in London, with a cover that was an almost direct copy of the live album. The songs from the Rainbow shoe overlapped with the songs from the Lyceum show released on the record, but there were some older songs and some newer songs from the then current Exodus album. The DVD is exciting, as it showcases Bob Marley and his touring band at the height of their powers with a powerful set of definitive songs in the Marley canon, and it was intriguing, so many years after Marley's death, to see him perform. He had played in Harare in 1980 as part of the celebrations of Zimbabwe's newly established lawful independence and democracy and some of my Varsity acquaintances had gone to see him but I did not have the gumption or even the inclination.

By the time of his untimely death Bob Marley had become a huge legend, one of the international and iconic superstars of the Seventies and one of the few who was not White and wasn't born in either the UK or the USA.

The live version of "No Woman, No Cry" from the Live album had been played on South African radio and it became one of my favourite tunes of all time, and more loved than even the mega hit "I Shot The Sheriff" but I was totally blown away when I heard the original studio recording of it, many years later, as released on Natty Dread. One of the revelations was that the slightly jerky, funkier rhythms of the original sounded miles different to the streamlined live version. It seemed to me that there had been a serious change in how reggae sounded from the early to the late Seventies. The latter sound was bigger and more monolithic and the earlier sound was lighter and more ska inflected. In most respects I found the early reggae sound preferable but I guess it is all good.

Somewhere in the first half of the first decade of the new millennium I bought the CD of Rastaman Vibration at Cash Crusaders and for the first time I got why Bob Marley became so huge. The songs were mostly unfamiliar to me, except for "Johnny Was" that I had heard in a version by some British band, perhaps The Ruts, from the early Eighties, and "Crazy Baldhead", the very same tune Steve Walsh had performed at the Woodstock festival in Cape Town in 1979. I had read about the Haile Selassie speech that formed the backbone of "War." On the whole I experience Rastaman Vibration a joyous, uplifting album, musically in transition between the early reggae style of the band that record Catch A Fire and Natty Dread, and the rockers style of Live.

I must also point out that the version of "No Woman, No Cry" on Natty Dread is a million miles away from the live version that became the international hit, and though the studio cut sounds kinda emotionally lightweight in comparison to the somewhat ponderous gravitas of the live version, I prefer the studio cut to the live performance.

My best Marley memory comes from taping one of his later studio albums that I'd borrowed from a friend. I'd put the record on the turntable, let the needle drop, pressed "record" on the tape deck and sat down at my dining room table where I was busy with some task or another, only half concentrating on the music. What I did notice of was a really good repetitive, rhythmic, dub-like instrumental groove that opened the record. It sounded like an extended, rather catchy, jamming intro to something that might promise to be a satisfying tune. After maybe 15 minutes it struck me that the instrumental intro had in fact become a long instrumental number and I was curious because I would not have thought that Bob Marley would record a song without vocals. I stood up and went over to the record player and found that the needle had stuck in one of the first grooves of the vinyl. The first track on the album was not a long instrumental after all. I had in effect been listening to a loop of the opening chords.

I immediately stopped recording but I listened back to the tape I still liked that loop and kept about 5 minutes of it. Then I cleaned the record surface and recorded it again, this time without any loops. The first five minutes of the tape was still the best part, though.

My most recent Marley & The Wailers acquisition is a CD called Classic Wailers and it is another version of a seemingly endless recycling of recordings the Wailers made in Jamaica before Chris Blackwell took them under his wing and made international stars of the group, and Marley in particular. After Marley's death the budget CD market was flooded with compilations of these early tracks and up to recently I resisted buying any of them because I suspected the music would not be all that wonderful. This album, though, cost less than R50 and was therefore not much of a risk if it turned out badly.

As it happens, the album turned out quite pleasantly even if the songs and performances generally feel more poppy end lightweight than the later more Rastafari infused albums. The songs are very tuneful, the rhythms grooving, bottom heavy and infectious and the material is a good cross section of almost straight R & B styled pop and the more philosophical and militant type of song the Wailers recorded when they became international stars. There are "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" I knew from Burnin and here they sound very much of a piece with the glossier versions on the Island Records release. There is Peter Tosh's very self-assertive "Stepping Razor," a number he re-recorded a couple of times in beefier versions but it is still one of his best tunes. There is "Stir It Up," there is "Lively Up Yourself" and there is a conceptually strange, though captivating, and version of "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies. The Wailers could do serious and militant and they could do sweet pop. They could absolutely do compelling listening, long before Chris Blackwell got his hands on them.

After spending some time with these songs I would almost say I prefer the pop reggae incarnation of the Wailers to the more militant incarnation. Catchy is as catchy does and these tunes are spectacularly catchy. Perhaps the Rasta influence and identity was the motivator for a less overtly commercial sound and a more "rock" approach that could co-incidentally lead to international stardom, given the strong, striking image righteous dreadlocked Jah warriors could parlay into recognition and success far beyond the borders of their island home.





Friday, November 04, 2011

Dan Bern

My favourite saying, or personal philosophy, is the Picasso statement "Je ne cherchez pas; je trouve" translated as "I don't seek, I find." This way of looking at things, in my case, applies particularly to the way I once built up a record collection and how I now go about building a CD collection. I have gone, and still go, to various CD shops simply to browse and then come out with unexpected finds, some of which turn out to be unexpectedly brilliant finds. Dan Bern's debut album is one such find.

Vibes Records in the Old Mutual Arcade, Cape Town CBD, was, with Outlaw Records in Riebeeck Street, one of my favourite music shops in Cape Town from the mid-Nineties through to its demise in the early years of the 21ste century. As the name implies Vibes originally concentrated on LP records, vinyl, as kind of specialist collectors' and second hand shop for old fashioned vinyl, which somehow clung on and even regained cachet in die era of the CD.

I, for one, completely abandoned records when I started buying CDs, because I saw no sense in duplicating my expenditure and because the quality of sound on CDs seemed so far superior to records that it was a no brainer to adopt digital technology and abandon analogue. The other really pertinent factor was that the surfaces of compact discs did not deteriorate as rapidly as record surfaces did. Anyhow, I did not frequent Vibes all that much when it mostly sold records, as I had no interest in their vinyl.

After a while Vibes started stocking CDs as well, probably when it realised that diversity of stock would ensure more sales. At first the CDs were displayed in a row of display cases along the outside window of the shop, with the central floor area given over to the mass of records. By and by the stock of LPs shrunk and CDs took over more and more space. When the store relocated to larger premises in the main part of the Golden Acre Concourse, Vibes sold CDs almost exclusively. The time of records, especially second hand records, was well and truly over.

I did buy a couple of records at Vibes, though, mostly J Geils albums, such as The Morning After,
Love Stinks and a live album. This was when I still had a working Yamaha tape deck and could record the records to audio tape, which I listened to rather than the vinyl.

Anyhow, browsing through the CDs at Vibes became a regular lunch time routine for me and I was in there at least twice a week, just to see what they had in stock. Over the years I bought many good items there, such as the 2-CD Neil Young live album, Weld, and the Fleetwood Mac double album Blues Jam in Chicago, to name just a few. I also started my South African music collection at Vibes, with the likes of Squeal, Sugardrive and Springbok Nude Girls, and many obscure others. I quickly became adept at sniffing out local product even most of the bands were completely unknown to me before I laid hands on their CD. Lastly, I bought a whole bunch of equally obscure, mostly American, rock music on the basis of price, primarily, and just curiosity. I was not averse to risking R10 on the album of some American punk band I'd never heard of and had not become internationally famous. I googled most of them and discovered that in many instances I had bought the first and only album the band had ever released. The best part was that most of the albums were quite good. Some of the hard rock was pedestrian and not very compelling but the punky type stuff was often excellent and made me wonder why worldwide fame and fortune had not followed.

One of these discoveries, based on price, was Dan Bern. The cover photograph shows Bern (for I guess it must be him) strolling along a dusty alleyway in what I guessed to be Los Angeles (don't know why) carrying a low slung acoustic guitar, and dressed in long shorts and T-shirt as if he were a skate board punk playing folk music. When I studied the CD inlay I could see that he was backed on some tracks by musicians but none of the information gave any clue as to what the music would sound like. If I remember correctly the CD was priced at R8,99 which was dirt cheap. I think Vibes had a whole selection of obscurities they were trying to get rid of by pricing them way down and I was steadily working my way through these. After a few weeks of seeing the Dan Bern album at Vibes I finally bought it along with some others.

I have a lifelong habit of buying music by obscure artists simply because the records or CDs were cheap enough for a gamble. Ninety nine percent of the time I've been pleasantly surprised. Apart from some records by early Eighties American new wave artists, I cannot recall any disastrous purchase. A number of the albums actually became hot favourites. Dan Bern's debut is one of them.

When I studied the CD insert I saw that Bern was backed by musicians, though the front cover photograph suggested that he was a punk folkie, and this was a motivation for buying the CD as I was not particularly interested in purely acoustic music, even from a punk folkie. The pleasant surprise was, even though Bern's musical backing was mostly his own acoustic guitar, that the accompaniment was a mixed bag of furious strumming and small combo, at times reminiscent of the breakthrough sound of "Like A Rolling Stone" with its emphatic, yet also almost subliminal Hammond organ part.

As soon as Dan Bern opened his mouth on opening track, "Jerusalem", I realised that I was dealing with something unexpectedly weird and delightfully eccentric. Mr Bern's persona was very much modern neurotic Jewish guy, unlike the poetics of, say, early Bob Dylan, and that he had a way with words that was kind of out of the box, semi-hysterical, funny, sardonic and very, very erudite and articulate. The two antecedents that come to mind are, again, Bob Dylan in his days of Desire, where he told cinematic stories that were far removed from the Dylan the Rock Poet days of "Like A Rolling Stone", and the similarly erudite, articulate and wordy songs of Paul Simon. Dan Bern just came across as much more neurotic than either of these examples.

I guess that Dan Bern is a storyteller and does not rely overly on biographical detail. When he starts ranting about how many olives he ate in "Jerusalem", apropos of nothing much, I realised that I was listening to either one of the best minds of his generation or to a crazy weirdo with a recording budget. Seeing as how Bern has released more than one album, though I've never seen the others, I guess he must have found an audience.

Apart from the seemingly autobiographical tales like "Jerusalem" and "Rome" (he must be well-travelled) Bern also muses on the fates of Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller and James Dean, and waxes lyrical about the best minds of his generation playing pinball in the modern cultural wasteland, and other such concerns of the intellectualised artist of today.

There is even a song that is very much a pastiche, or adoring homage, to that "Like A Rolling Stone" sound I've referred to above. That Al Kooper organ part is so distinctive and makes such a dramatic impact on the song that it has been copied in various songs over the years by artists who want to emphasise to a greater or lesser degree their debt to the master rock poet of all time (to date hereof anyway) by a musical reference to one of the great songs of all time. Some of the music of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions are in this vein and Michelle Shocked's "Anchorage" plays to the same strengths, and was the compelling reason why I actually bought Short Sharp Shocked.

"Estelle", Bern's take on the "Like A Rolling Stone" template, works better than most because he may actually be trying to do an entire homage to the |new Dylan" cliché by doing an impersonation of the kind of impersonation comedians used to do when they spoofed Dylan and the school of protest folic singers that followed in his wake. Bern seems at the same time deadly serious and slyly humorous.

This is in many ways an amazing and truly delightful set and I would almost never want to hear any other Dan Bern record, in case the shock of the new and the delight in the weird wonderfulness of his worldview cannot be sustained. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was great; Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, less so. The first Matrix movie was innovative and marvellous and the next two provided seriously diminishing returns. I would not want to spoil my perfect record of the Dan Bern experience with a less than brilliant follow up.

This debut album also shows that one can pay less than R9 at a budget shop and find a treasure simply by taking a chance.

Iggy Pop

The Stooges were a legendary kind of band for me in 1977 when I embraced the NME and its tales of punk London. Iggy Pop was the Godfather of Punk or something stupid like that. There was a photo of a semi-naked Iggy (I think he wore a dickie bow and something to cover his cock) next to an equally naked 15-year old looking girl. There was a photo of Iggy on the floor of s stage, tangled in wires and with cuts all over his body. There was the photo of Iggy walking on the hands of a crowd.


The Iggy albums of the day were The Idiot and Lust For Life (both 1977) and they were very contemporary and Berlinesque and did not seem too dangerous at all. The NME wrote up Iggy as some kind of demi-god or wild beast or universal bad boy and spun tales of his out of control behaviour and notorious lifestyle. There were plenty references to The Stooges, the band he led before he went all proto new wave and weird electro disco. Allegedly Iggy taught the musicians in The Stooges his songs note for note. All the songs on their first two albums, The Stooges and Funhouse, were his visions and his destiny. The best songs on the debut album, basically everything not written by John Cale, are so basic that it is hard to fathom what the big vision was. Or how much Iggy had to do to teach his band his songs.


Anyhow, I read about Iggy and his awesome past for a couple of years before I actually owned any of his records. I do not remember whether any of the songs from The Idiot or Lust For Life were ever play listed on any of the South African radio stations I listened to then. There was no incentive for me to buy these records. I was much more interested in the legend and the assertion that The Stooges, along with the MC5, were giant influences on the punk bands.


Ragtime Records was a major independent music store in Cape Town that opened a branch in the then Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch. This branch lasted maybe a year and at the end it held a massive clearance sale. I bought not only the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums and a couple of Dylan albums but also the first two Stooges records. In one fell stroke I owned the original Iggy Pop firestorm of punk delights.


The Stooges sounded very much like punk, or how I imagined punk to sound like, basing my impressions purely on what I was reading in NME, as none of the punk bands were played on South African radio and their records were not available at Sygma Records. The Stooges played simple, basic music that sounded like the kind of three chord rock the NME was celebrating. Except for the weird psychedelic guitar freak-outs on the tunes. The basic rhythm sounded like punk. The guitar solos sounded like a totally different band altogether.


The second side of The Stooges (1969) from "No Fun" to "Little Doll" and the first side from "1969" to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (and that would be from first cut to second cut) are well-nigh perfect as punk statement of intent. That this album was recorded and released in 1979, the year of peace and love Woodstock generation seems impossible. This rough, tough and ridiculously exhilarating stuff must surely have come from the heydays of punk, somewhere in 1976 or early 1977.


Only the 10 minute long tedious drone of "We Will Fall" seems of its time. it is a 'what the fuck' song, after "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and I've always thought it was imposed on The Stooges by John Cale, who produced The Stooges, as penance for the gall of all the other tunes. I think I listened to "We Will Fall" about once, on my first spin of the album and then ignored it for ever after. I don't care how avant garde it might have been or still is. I don't care if it represents a higher form of artistic expression. It sucks. It sucks and it fucking sucks.


"1969", "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "No Fun" were my top tunes. I could easily sing along to them. I could sing them in the shower. I could shout out their words and not care whether I could hold a tune. It seemed that Iggy was the king of the non-singers. His words were not as profound and certainly not as knowingly poetic as the best Bob Dylan songs and yet they were probably truer.


Funhouse (1970) was the eye opener though. The first side from "Down In The Street" to "Dirt" (only 4 songs) and "Fun House" on the second side are just so achingly visceral; somehow more of a punch in the gut than even the debut album's finest moments. The words are better, the emotions rawer and the guitar dirtier. The most startling thing is the punk saxophone that excoriates the mental flesh. The two albums could have made a deliciously addictive single record – take away John Cale and "1970" and "LA Blues" sand you have perfection on vinyl.


I love primitive in music and The Stooges had that in spades. The MC5 were prog rock by comparison.


Nude & Rude is a collection of what the compilers must deem to be the best or best known Iggy Pop tunes. It starts with "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and ends with "Wild America" from American Caesar (1993.)


The narrative is the rock journey of a primitive, who was not as self-destructive as the myth would have it, reaching towards the standard rock dream of making a living from the only thing he was good at, gaining sophistication and experience and longevity along the way and where he might have been the Godfather of Punk when he was much younger, he is now the Michael Corleone of punk. Although incredibly wrinkly and loose of skin, Iggy still has an incredible body and it seems, like Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Iggy insists on performing with bare torso. I would imagine he no longer cuts himself with shards of broken glass on stage.


The Idiot and Lust For Life, the back to back comeback albums recorded with David Bowie guiding Iggy in Berlin, are probably the best Iggy albums to own other than the first three or four Stooges albums and this late Seventies era rock modernism no doubt inspired by metronomic Krautrock, gave us "Nightclubbing" and "The Passenger", respectively interpreted by Grace Jones and Siouxsie & The Banshees. "The Passenger" was a big hit in South Africa and remained a club favourite into the late Eighties.


I have no idea how many other artists have covered Iggy Pop songs or how many of those interpretations have been commercially successful in any way but my guess is that that there can't be that many. Iggy has an idiosyncratic vision and off-kilter way with a song and this approach is not for everyone.


One rather alarming impression, given how I have also thought of Iggy Pop as some kind of extreme rock performer, is that the majority of the late period tunes in this compilation seem kind of thin and without much rock muscle. The Ig can croon and he can roar and I prefer the roaring Iggy, or at the very least the petulantly yelping Iggy of The Stooges or Funhouse,

with Ron Asheton's freaked out guitar blasts. Iggy got older and perhaps wiser and needed a more commercial sound to sustain his career longevity, but his producers did him no favours by smothering the guitars.


On the evidence of this package I'll stick to the first two Stooges albums. I no longer have the LPs and I should order the CDs from Dumb fun gets no better than this.


The African Music Store in Long Street is one of my favourite CD shops. The other is the Cash Crusaders chain of modern pawnshops that look more like small department stores than the old-fashioned, dingy pawnshops in the Long Street of yesteryear. The African Music Store, as its names suggests, specialises in African music from across the continent. All of my Flea Anikulapo Kuti albums and all but one of my Tinariwen albums were bought there.

There is also a small section of South African rock music CDs where I have also found some interesting stuff. One such album is the (so far I guess) debut and only album of Absinthè, a trio that looks more like the dreaded "project" than a genuine working band. The two main guys are respectively Paul E Flynn from Sugardrive and Cito from Wonderboom.

The high concept seems to have been: "Let's learn a bunch of songs from the Eighties and Nineties, songs that have influenced us or mean something to us, and then play them live and record the performance." as I have never heard of Absinthè before I came across the album I have no idea why or whether the project was successful beyond drawing an audience and releasing a CD.

At first hearing the acoustic interpretations work well. The accompaniment is understated and accomplished and the two front men can sing. Unfortunately Paul E Flynn has such a distinctive voice that his vocal turns make the group sound like unplugged Sugardrive. The tunes were recorded in front of a live audience; the photograph on the CD insert makes it look as if the guy performed in someone's living room but that might have been simply the rehearsal space.

The audience is very appreciative and it must have been a blast, of sorts, to hear these slightly odd interpretations of songs that were not necessarily acoustic to start with, such as the tunes from The Pixies, House of Love, The Mission, Joy Division or PIL.

Chris Isaak's "Blue Hotel" is a weak spot. This treatment really shows up a rather weak tune that was obviously trussed up and elevated by the band performance in the original version. One misses the twanging, crying guitar. This version just drags.

On the other hand, "Long Black Veil" and "Hallelujah" (coincidentally I know the Jeff Buckley of this Leonard Cohen song far better than the Cohen interpretation) work quite well, though no-one has quite rendered "Hallelujah" like Buckley and no-one will ever do it that kind of justice again.

So: what have we here? An accomplished set by accomplished musicians playing some favourite old tunes. It does sound like a lot of fun though it also seems to serve no purpose whatsoever to release this live set, other than as souvenir for those attending the gig.

I like this album. It is just not gut feel attractive and I would imagine it will have to grow on me for any lasting appeal. That is not necessarily a bad thing as sugar rush appreciation often only lasts as long as the first sugar rush does. Slow burners tend to be keepers.

I believe that absinthè is not a drink to be taken lightly as it can be quite addictive and quite dangerously addictive at that. Time will tell whether Absinthè is poison or pleasure.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Revelators

Neo garage punk from Cape Town, based firmly on a template that is one part Pacific Northwest freakout and one part New York attitude. Johnny Tex, named after a local chocolate bar, no doubt, writes, sings, guitars and produces on their debut album We'll Make It Like New, from 2010. The sound is basic heavy trio with a frustrated, hormonal yelp over the top and there is plenty of sharp, concise guitar solos of a kind almost no-onw does anymore. It's like the decades beyond 1976 never happened. This is no bad thing in this time of anodyne soundalike bands who make me feel old, not because they are too loud, but because I just don't get why any of them are in any way popular. They all sound the same to me and that sound is nothing less than crap.

The Revelators may never have learnt how to play more than three chords in a row. Their influences may be bands that roamed the earth long before they were born. The lyrics may be as dumb at the concept they espouse. The Revelators may never progress beyond releasing one album of tasty, short, nasty and visceral rock and roll. Who cares. This is all good. They do make it new. Not much updating, just contemporising.

I would dearly love to see them share a bill with Shadowclub. Both trios, both highly energised. Both kick out the jams and both are instantly addictive. Neither can ever be too loud.

Although The Revelators are not overtly bluesmen, they do make a valiant attempt at making "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" their own. Never mind Pacific Northwest punk influences, Robert Johnson is seriously retro and was never quite a godfather of punk. This version is not blues. The original is almost unrecognisable in the way it gets the shit kicked out of it.

Okay, maybe the blues connection is via Jack White. On "You Missed It" Johnny Tex does an unnervingly accurate White imitation, or is it piss take?

Whatever. I love this record!