Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Dictators

I have to confess that I first bought the New Musical Express because it had a cover feature on Fleetwood Mac at the time of the Fleetwood Mac album that was the commercial breakthrough for the Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks incarnation of the band. The second issue of NME that I bought related the notorious television appearance of the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show, where he made a drunken pass at Siouxsie Sioux and invited s swearing response from the Pistols. At the time it caused immense outrage in the British media, and hence amongst the repressed middle classes, that at the same time brought UK punk, which had been going for a year or two already, into the limelight and made the members of the Pistols recognisable faces about London. From this time forward punk was a big thing and effectively the only thing in British rock for a while.

The NME covered not only the UK punk acts but also the more prominent US punk rockers, from a scene, principally in New York, that predated the UK punk explosion and influenced it. The NME adored the Ramones, made Debbie Harry of Blondie the punk sex goddess, and elevated Television and the Talking Heads to the level of the intellectual leaders of the New York rockers.

Even before I was an NME regular I was an avid follower of the US rock monthly Hit Parader. The first issue I bought in 1975 featured the then fresh and burgeoning New York punk scene with the aforementioned Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell's Heartbreakers, Wayne County, The Miami's, and others, who gigged and released records yet never became as famous as the big names.

The NME also had sympathies for a generation of "lost" bands who predated and influenced the punk scene, such as The Stooges and Big Star; the conceptual descendants of the Nuggets style punk originators from the Northwest of the USA, such as The Dictators; and the newer metal groups like Cheap Trick who were faster and sharper than the dinosaurs of heavy metal.

The NME writers had an obsession with perfect pop. This was not the disco pop flooding the airwaves and that ruled the discotheques. It was defined as perfect rock and roll. According to the NME the Ramones were the very epitome of perfect pop. There was another band that was seen in pretty much the same light and that band was The Dictators who were in fact forerunners of the New York punk scene and the Ramones and in a way initially closer in spirit to Cheap Trick than to the punks.

The Dictators were led by rock critic Andy Shernoff and its first lead guitarist was Ross "The Boss" Funicello (or Friedman) who founded extreme metal band Manowar when he left The Dictators. More weirdly, the wrestler Handsome Dick Manitoba sang lead on some songs on the first two albums and eventually became the band's only lead singer.

Go Girl Crazy! (1975) was The Dictators' debut album and is a fine example of a band with songs awash with hard rock chops, pop smarts and humour. There even a smokin' version of "California Sun," recorded by The Ramones on their second album.

From opening track "Next Big Thing" to closing track "(I Live For) Cars and Girls" this album is a blast. Short, sharp and entertaining. Although the songs are not limited to sub-3 minute blasts, there are only 9 tracks on the album, even fewer than the standard of 60's albums. Handsome Dick does various intros and takes co-lead vocals on "I Got You Babe" and is the only singer on his boastful anthem "Two Tub Man." The band rocked real hard and sounded like they were having fun too. I guess The Dictators and early Cheap Trick were both kind of hard rockers who avoided the cliché of heavy metal bombast and sludge in favour of tunes and the rock and roll spirit, and saw no reason why lyrics should be po'faced or just dumb.

The Dictators were about teenage fun and excess and made no bones about it. Yet it was a knowing kind of excess. Most of the tunes on the album were originals, but they did "California Sun" and brought a whole new sensibility to "I Got Me Babe," the Sonny and Cher hit.

There was a bit of a gap between Go Girl Crazy! and the follow up Manifest Destiny (1977). This in turn was followed by Blood Brothers (1978.) The advent of punk and New Wave obviously gave the band a second shot at a career based on their status as prophets in the wilderness who were ahead of their time. These albums were still not very successful, and were not highly rated, and then the band disappeared off my radar because the NME stopped taking an interest in the band. The second and third albums never showed up in any of the record stores I haunted.

In due course I also bought the CD version of Go Girl Crazy! It was definitely worth duplicating. Yet I still never came across the other albums even on CD. It was only when I trawled through iTunes that I found the two records and at bargain prices too.

iTunes is one amazing record store for someone who still has a keen, if oddly nostalgic, interest in the records I could never listen to in my youth, although I devoured the reviews, because they were simply not available to me. It is also good for helping me replace in digital format certain vital records I once used to own.

Anyhow, I now own the first three Dictators albums as digital albums.

Of course I rate Go Girl Crazy! highly not only because it is a damn fine album but also because it is a record I got into when I was in my late teens when such things really matter. In the first years of collecting records I had so few records that I got to know each one individually really well. I could not buy as many records as I would have liked because I did not have the funds and anyway there was a limited choice. Now I have enough money to buy pretty much what I want when I want and it is impossible to develop the same kind of attachment to any record. There is just not enough time or opportunity to listen the albums as often as I used to do.

Having said that, I still believe that Go Girl Crazy! is that rare beast of an album with no weak track on it. Each and every one has a great hook, strong playing and lyrics that are smart and funny.

The two year break between die debut album and Manifest Destiny does not seem to have done the band much good. This second album was released after New York punk broke out and after the UK punk explosion, in fact it was released during the rise of New Wave that followed punk in the UK. In a way Manifest Destiny seems to be aimed at that New Wave audience. In America these bands were typified by thin young men in skinny jeans, unconstructed jackets and skinny ties. Presumably the Dictators were too old school and punk (in the New York sense) to go for that look. They did adapt the music somewhat to tone the rock and to emphasise the pop and somehow the lyrics are no longer funny and knowing.

The album ends with a rather flat live version of the Iggy Pop classis "Search & Destroy" sung by Handsome Dick. It is as good an example as any of the lack of real power in this version of the band. The increased proficiency does not raise the level of commitment and excitement.

The snotty teenage arrogance is gone, replaced by older and wiser twenty-something attitude. Not altogether in a good way. The tunes are still there. The pop smarts are intact. It is the insouciance that is sorely missed.

If one can say that the Dictators were one of the influences on British punk and New Wave, then Blood Brother is probably heavily indebted to that punk breakthrough with strong echoes of the Ramones leavened through the fast, heavy rock style of the album. Handsome Dick is the undisputed lead singer and no longer the comic relief, so to speak, that he was on Go Girl Crazy. Unfortunately Andy Shernoff's snotty punk tones are more interesting and more appealing. On Blood Brothers the band rocks hard, with plenty guitar solos yet even the high energy of the songs cannot quite drag the album into the reaches of excellence of the debut, from only 3 years before. If one remembers The Dictators at all, it will be for Go Girl Crazy. Both Manifest Destiny and Blood Brothers are workmanlike records that cannot be faulted for lack of work ethic and at the same time cannot be exalted for results.

The story of the MC5 is the same, except that in their case the second album of the three studio albums they released, Back in the USA, is the brilliant record. Debut album Kick Out The Jams was a strong introduction yet lacked the certain something to make it into a must-have experience, and High Time, the third album, has plenty power and presence yet lack the unique attractions of Back In The USA.

The MC5 and The Dictators (and one should include The Stooges) were prime, non-heavy band, influences on UK punk and New Wave and Power Pop mostly for one record each. We should be thankful that we have those brilliant records. It is sad for an act to be a one hit wonder or to be primarily remembered and revered for only one record, but even so, one act of visceral brilliance is better than none.

Blood Brothers closes on "Slow Death" by The Flamin' Groovies who were at the very least spiritual forebears of the original concept of The Dictators and it may have sounded like a stroke of genius to perform this homage. It certainly rocks hard enough. However I do not think that the song is done justice for the subtleties of the Groovies' version of it and what should have been a high point and rousing departure falls slightly flat for that. That is the story of The Dictators.



The Blasters

In 1983 I had never even seen or heard of the phrases "roots rock" or "Americana" that became a big genre all on its own some 20 years later. I liked blues and basic rock and roll, with a "louder, faster" rule in the ordinary course. I disliked prog rock, jazz rock, jazz funk, folk music and most Eighties electronic pop.

Principally from the beginning of 1977 to the end of 1981 and again from 1983 to about 1987, the NME was a big influence on my musical tastes and knowledge of past and present rock and pop acts and albums. Although I heard, or could buy, only a fraction of the music reviewed and mentioned in the NME I took careful note of the recommendations from the likes of Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Phil McNeil and others, for future reference should I come across the albums. Max Bell was the resident expert on American music, specifically the underground scenes forming part of or following on the New York punk bands. Quite a bit of what he championed would now probably be characterised as Americana though he did not seem to care for backwoods country inflected bands and preferred the various off-shoots of '60's and late '70's punk.

Anyhow, the NME liked The Blasters and punted them as a good example of the kind of American rock and roll that did not suck in the era of mullet haired, narrow tie wearing American New Wave. The Blasters combined the best of a cross fertilisation of American genres, from rockabilly to blues to country to testifying soul, and produced an amalgam of high energy, melodic party music that was highly satisfying. The Non Fiction (1981) album was the one that received all the praise.

Anyhow, The Blasters were another example of a band of which I knew quite a bit and had marked down as something I would be interested in, without ever coming across the records, certainly not in Stellenbosch.

Probably in 1984, after my return from two years of National Service, I saw The Blasters (1983) at a discounted price somewhere; could have been in Stellenbosch, could have been in Cape Town. I bought it though I did not know much about it. I knew the song "Marie Marie" had been a hit for Dave Edmunds, and that "Border Radio" and "American Music" were supposed to be anthemic confirmations of the celebration of American music that The Blasters were all about. No matter, the record was cheap, it was a recognisable name and I bought the thing, took it home, recorded it on a C90 cassette tape and was duly impressed when I listened to the songs. Somehow the recording process had glitched and only a part of "Marie Marie" was recorded but that was a small defect. The rest of the record blew me away.

As part of a semi-serious project to re-acquire albums (essentially the favourites) that I once owned as records and gave away, I bought The Blasters from iTunes and was impressed all over again. This album contains a cracking selection of good American rock and roll. The musicians play tough, Phil Alvin sings like a champ and the tunes are memorable and hummable and the words simple and good. It's the kind of record that brings a smile to my face and belongs up there with Live: Full House (J Geils Band), Malpractice (Dr Feelgood), In Color (Cheap Trick), Go Girl Crazy (The Dictators) and What's The Word (The Fabulous Thunderbirds) as examples of old favourite records that are wonderful, viscerally exciting and satisfying each time I listen to them.

"Marie Marie" opens the album in an impressive, high energy fashion that just makes you wanna sing along and also get up and dance. Maybe it's just good old basic rock and roll but done with such abundance of joy and accomplishment. For the rest of the album the band rollicks through rock and soul and pop, with each song being pretty much a hit on its own. It is not often that one finds a band firing on so many cylinders all at once from track to track. It is a truism that many bands bring you a couple of great tunes and a bunch of filler per album and The Blasters, like the albums I mentioned above, proves the point by the exception of its quality.

This album is a reminder of why rockabilly can be one of the most exciting styles of music ever, when done right. You got the beat, the jumpy guitars and the yelping, hiccupping vocals singing lyrics that deal with the everyday concerns of (American) teenagers, such as car and girls and having drunken fun. There are tunes and hooks and the music makes you wanna get up and dance wildly. There is a sophisticated primitivism to it and an excitement that almost defies rationality. The Blasters understand this motivation and they dig deep down into that roots bedrock. They celebrate being American, in the ways only American can do so well and with so much enthusiasm and authority, and they make us want to be American too; at least, that's how it worked for me. My favourite rock and roll time and place would have to be San Francisco between 1966 and 1967 but somewhere in a Tennessee or Texas roadhouse, with Carl Perkins on stage, in the late Fifties would be a close second. It must have been a similar blast to catch The Blasters live in the early to mid-Eighties.

The Blasters is that rarity of an album where every tune, from "Marie Marie" to final track '"Stop the Clock," is top notch, with smart lyrics, memorable tune, tough and dynamic playing and just a general groove of infectious joy. You want to listen to it on endless repeat and drive fast with the top down along some endless American highway.


John Mellencamp gives us “Trouble No More.”

John Mellencamp is one of my Eighties music heroes and one of the acts from that decade that means "Eighties" to me, rather than the electro pop schlock that one founds on so many Eighties collections.

I'd read of John Cougar in the NME, when he was under the wing of Tony De Fries, who once also managed David Bowie, and who was the guy who said that Mellencamp would not work as the name of a rock singer and that Johnny Cougar would be the ticket to stardom. It seemed to me that Cougar nearest peers were the likes Steve Forbert and Willie Nile, both of whom were hyped as "new Dylans" and both of whom seemed destined for obscurity after the first burst of pseudo fame. At least Forbert had a semi-successful Eighties career. I have no idea of what happened to Willie Nile.

Anyhow, John Cougar had a massive breakthrough with American Fool (1982) and the hits singles "Jack & Diane" and "Hurts So Good." Over the length of three or four albums he could do no wrong commercially and also received lots of praise for being an American heartland rocker with a bit of a social conscience. In some ways he was the Bruce Springsteen of Indiana. I was very fond of Cougar, or John Cougar Mellencamp or John Mellencamp's music and bought some of the albums in the Eighties, as records and cassettes, and bought even more of them in the Nineties as CDs. After a while the deterioration in the tunes and lyrics got to me and I stopped listening to his music all that much. For my money Uh-huh (1983) and Scarecrow (1985) are the best of the bunch.

The other day I was browsing in Musica and found a double CD called John Mellencamp: Words & Music, a collection of his best tunes for only R59,99 and I bought it. I was kind of surprised to note how many of the songs were familiar before I even played the album. Then I googled the guy to find out what he's been up to since the early Nineties when I stopped buying his albums or tracking his career. It seemed that he had never been out of the studio for long and kept touring. Probably still a major attraction in the heartland. One album name stood out, "Trouble No More" (2003), and because this sounded suspiciously like a blues trope, I investigated the album and found that it was indeed a collection of blues, with some other old-timey tunes. The album was available on iTunes, also for the quite low price of R59,99 and I bought it as well. For 15 years nothing, and then two Mellencamp albums a few days apart.

Tom Petty and John Mellencamp came up at about the same time in the late Seventies though Petty soon aligned himself with the New Wave and found kudos from the trendsetting British music press of the time. After the critical acclaim came commercial success and duets with Stevie Nicks and he became the cool rock traditionalist with a new wave head. In contrast Mellencamp seemed to be a new kind of Bob Seger, the rocker with a hear full of empathy for the working man yet without the pretentiousness of Bruce Springsteen and his claims of redemption through rock and roll.

The best part of Mellencamp's music on albums like American Fool, Uh-huh and Scarecrow was the crisp punch of the drums and the crunch of the guitars that gave a simple, yet kicking, backdrop for the words and tunes. It was not quite country, not quite blues, not quite heavy and not quite pop. It was entirely tasty and satisfactory. From The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) onward Mellencamp abandoned the rocker sound for a time, for something closer to country and country blues with bluegrass instrumentation. Unfortunately he also seemed to really aiming at being a kind of poor man's Springsteen and although I bought the albums there was a sense of diminishing returns. Big Daddy (1989) and Human Wheels (1993) were patchy and mixed some good songs with some real filler and on the latter album any gift for e big tune Mellencamp'd had once deserted him. Groove and arrangements were utilised to make good the patent lack of interesting and arresting songs and it was from this point on that I abandoned the man and his music.

The Words & Music collection reminded me just how excellent the music is and how consistent the quality is. The Eighties have been big in the nostalgia filed for far too long now, especially the crap Eighties pop that is featured in so many compilations and so often regurgitated on radio and on television. Yet somehow John Mellencamp's hits do not receive airtime at all. Greil Marcus would probably agree that there is a secret history of Eighties music and culture in general. I do not know whether he even rates Mellencamp at all, but for me John Mellencamp is part of that secret history that no-one now seems to remember or want to remember. The decade was not all about schlocky synth pop, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Prince or Madonna. Mellencamp had a simple formula and it was effective in its way. It punched above its weight and it hit home runs, for me at least, most of the time.

"Trouble No More" is still a strange kind of album for an old rocker but then, if Aerosmith could do a "blues" album, I guess nothing should stop Mellencamp from doing one if it is a genre of music he loves. His voice is more suited to blues anyhow, more so than Steven Tyler's. In Mellencamp's case one could also see it as a mature artist's way of reconnecting with roots or simply trying on a different part to the great American songbook than the type of thing Rod Stewart has made a mini-industry of. Back in rural Indiana country must have been a huge influence and the blues is meant to be the basic building block of rock and roll. It seems that he had no great difficulty adapting his heartland roots rock and roll sound to fit the music on this blues and old American folk collection. David Johansen and the Hairy Smiths is another example of an old rocker, and a New York glam punk rocker at that, heading towards blues territory in his mature years and doing a damn fine job of unearthing some less known classics with a more acoustic driven band than that of Mellencamp.

"Stones in My Passway" with its pounding, rollicking rhythm and its fierce, slicing slide guitar sets the tone for the album. It is traditional sounding without being a slavish imitation and it is modern enough to have that sonic kick the old recordings often lacked. The same applies to "Death Letter," a tune performed by so many with so much reverence that they make it sound like a museum piece. Mellencamp imbues it with the rage and defiance the lyrics suggest the song should have.

"Johnny Hart", "Baltimore Oriole", "Teardrops Will Fall" and "Diamond Joe" fall in the category of songster narrative ballads, as much country or Cajun as they are blues and the musical style dovetails utterly with the roots style Mellencamp adopted in the mid-Eighties to emphasise his distance from the rock star style of his youth. These songs are jewels from the great American songbook of the alternative America we know so little about because it is so carefully hidden. Then you get "The End of the World" which is a proper pop song from the Sixties given new life and purpose as a hillbilly country dance swinger.

With "Down in the Bottom" Mellencamp returns to the blues, a great Howlin' Wolf tune (also known as "Running Shoes" as slightly tweaked by Juke Boy Bonner) in a version that has the signature riff and also a more country blues string band take that gives the song a saucy face lift.

"Lafayette" is more Cajun country swing and "Joliet Bound" is a songster prison song Johnny Cash could have done proud performed as a backwoods hoedown.

"John the Revelator" is the second Son House tune of the set. Where House does it as a doomy, preachy a capella, Mellencamp kicks off the tune as if it were a Creedence swamp rocker, then brings in the gospel choir while the band keeps up the swamp boogie. It is eerie, powerful and exalted all at the same time. Pretty much a perfect illustration of the theme of the song. This is a good example of how one can take a standard, like "Death Letter" cut in so many ways over the years, and having the nous to invigorate it to take it to another level.

The final cut is a sweet, tuneful political ditty called "To Washington" that shows us that John Mellencamp is still an activist with the interests of the heartland foremost in his mind.

John Mellencamp's career has run the course from would-be teen pop star to platinum rocker to introspective, thoughtful roots musician, activist and now a kind of musicologist who preserves and energises music not many people still knew about or care for. I salute him for this and, best of all, I thoroughly enjoy this music. Jif this is where he is heading in the future I will definitely follow him on the journey.






Lou Reed in Memoriam 2 March 1942 to 27 October 2013

(this piece was written in November 2013)

Lou (Lewis Allan) Reed died on 27 October 2013 at the age of 71 after complications arising from a liver transplant in May 2013.

Lisa Robinson, editor of Hit Parader magazine in the mid to late Seventies, had the editorial jots for Lou Reed and seemed to feature or refer to him in just about every issue of the magazine. To her he must have seemed to be the quintessential Manhattan rocker poet and demi-urge of the demi-monde, the leader of the downtown pack and the eminence grise of everything that was dark, sleazy and exciting about the New York scene.

Lou Reed was the leader and main songwriter of the original version of the Velvet Underground and followed a solo career that was at first touched with all kinds of controversy, both musical and personal, and in due course became an elder statesman of rock. As far as I know the double album Lulu, recorded with Metallica, was his last album release and a fitting epitaph, if it were so.

Rock and Roll Animal (1974), a live album recorded with a hot, guitar heavy band, was the first Lou Reed album I bought, mostly because it was cheap and featured a bunch of well-known songs from the Velvet Underground and from the first years of the solo career. The NME (or some such publication) kind of endorsed it as not-too-bad in an odd, heavy rock kind of way. The album does sound a lot different to "Walk on the Wild Side" from Transformer (1972), which was the Albatross-like mega hit that made Lou Reed the closest thing possible to a household name for a couple of years. He had hits again but nothing to approach the jazzy tune and witty commentary of the New York underbelly of "Walk on the Wild Side." at least not until "Perfect Day," also from Transformer, became another mega hit about 30 years later as part of some charity project by a bunch of musicians who recorded a "We Are The World"-style version of it with multiple vocalists taking turns.

Rock and Roll Animal sounds like a typical mid-Seventies hard rock record with twin lead guitarists (Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner) and it has a supercharged, almost AOR rock sound Reed was not to replicate until the band he employed to record New York (1989.) The level of professionalism from the instrumentalists on this album is far removed from the ragged-sounding yet exciting grooves from the 1969 Velvets live recordings.

Two of the tracks on Rock and Roll Animal are from Berlin (1973), the very dark and different album that followed Transformer, and which possibly destroyed the popular career before it had properly taken off. Berlin has received mixed reviews over the years, has been adapted as a stage musical and is today possibly one of the great classics of Reed's oeuvre.

The other tunes on Rock 'n Roll Animal are Velvet Underground songs. At that time, and later most Reed audiences would have been far more interested in the Velvet's material than in Reed's own contemporary work. Like every rocker everywhere Lou Reed suffered from the ennui that comes with playing the same set of hits more or less every night because that is why the audience is there.

Reed released at least two more live albums before the end of the Seventies: Lou Reed Live (1975) (taken from the same set of shows as Rock 'n Roll Anima) and Live: Take No Prisoners (1978), the latter being a double album on which Reeds spoke so much, as the NME (who were no respecters of the legend) told it, that he could just as well have been doing a stand-up comedy routine interspersed with some musical interludes.

In about 1987 I bought the audio cassette album version of Mistrial (1986), also because it was cheap. There had been no incentive of curiosity over the years to make any effort to acquire more Reed product. I did buy a couple of Velvet Underground albums: a compilation of hits and the first, separate part of a live double album, and these were enough for me. I was guided by reviews of the Reed albums of the late Seventies and Eighties and none of them were very positive and certainly did not encourage me to spend money on his records. Mistrial did have some radio hits and this was the other reason why I bought it, despite the typical Eighties rock production that makes a lot of music from that era sounded to incredibly dated today. It was a pleasant collection of non-essential tunes. The Velvet Underground stuff was far superior

The oddest Lou Reed artefact I owned was the single of "Sally Can't Dance" off the eponymous album from 1974, backed by the truly tedious "Ennui," that I bought at a sale at Sygma Records simply because it was by Lou Reed. "Sally Can't Dance" is a cute, funky little ditty and "Ennui" pretty much sounds like the emotional state it describes and was almost unlistenable to me, especially in contrast to the happy bounce of the A-side.

At the time Mistrial was released Lou Reed was sufficiently acceptable to the powers that were at the SABC at that time that his music was playlisted, if not on heavy rotation, then at least to the extent that I took note of some of his current songs. It was more probably than not only Chris Prior who would have played any Reed music, on his late night show, but nonetheless. "The Original Wrapper" from Mistrial was a bit of a hit and this was mostly likely the motivation for buying the album. It is a typically brightly produced mid-Eighties album, with plenty of guitar and the sardonic style that made Reed famous and though I was not deeply enthralled by the album I was pleasantly surprised. The songs were at least entertaining, such as "Mistrial" and "Video Violence" and also a tad trite. Unfortunately the songs were so lightweight and seemed so inconsequential that the album did not get much of my attention. In keeping with my feeling about so much of the output of Seventies rockers who continued to release records in the Eighties, Reed came across as a song craftsman (which he no doubt was) who possibly enjoyed penning his ditties and pretended to have something serious to say yet was merely going through the motions required by a recording career. He sounded like a poet and heavyweight artist but it was all artifice e and put on. Not essential.

Essentially I left it there and did not pay much attention to his career in the Nineties and beyond other than reading the record reviews. The most flattering in a while were accorded New York (1989), which was on the one hand seen as a typically literate Reed memoir of his home town (as if he had not written about the city and its seedy underbelly all his life) and on the other hand gave us the return of Reed fronting a fiery guitar band. Although these reviews intrigues me at the time I could never bring myself to buy the album, mostly because it seemed to be expensive compared to whatever else was out there and because I was merely curious and not a committed fan, yet also not curious enough. When I did eventually acquire the album, it was because I found it in a Cash Crusaders shop. Even so, I have not listened to it all that much, probably because the moment for it had passed a long time ago.

For me the major Reed career event was Lulu, the double album collaboration between Metallica, who supplied the heavy riffs, and Reed, who supplied the words and vocals. It was the best work Metallica had given us in years and this time Reed, returning to the themes of death, desolation and ruination in Berlin, gave us a proper literary work. He had always used the sing-speech effect and here it is amplified to the extent where he is not really singing but narrating in a dramatic fashion. It is a long double album with some extraordinarily long tracks on it and it was, for me, a tour de force from both parties to the collaboration. Apparently not every critic thought so and many Metallica fans were not impressed. Given how rock history is written and enshrined, the latter view may be the predominant one, much in the same way that St Anger is still not well regarded, but that would be a true injustice.

The first impression of the iTunes version of Rock and Roll Animal is that the sound is clear and gloriously bright and there is none of the usual crackle and pop one had to put up with on records back in the day. These days there is a marked return, by the hipsters I guess, to the vaunted sonic wonder only a record could or can give. The records that are being pressed now should be of better quality than some of the shit I had to contend with when I did buy records and before there were CDs. Now I do not care much for vinyl anymore. I like digital precision and clarity.

The second impression, much as it was when I first heard the record, is that the band does make Lou Reed sound like something of corporate rocker. His vocal inflections and conversational style is pretty much what it was with the Velvet Underground but the crack session musicians behind him sure produce an adult contemporary rock ambience compared to the sometimes odd, tinny, edgy sound of the Velvets. "Sweet Jane" has a riff that lends itself to just about any rock setting but "Heroin" is not the bleak, doomy, terminal thing it was on the Velvet's début album. The musicians surge, drop back, build momentum, and release the tension in well-rehearsed fashion and the twin lead guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner go into anthemic, show boating mode when deemed necessary and appropriate to drive the interpretation to a climax. It is about a far away from the relative simple style of the Velvet Underground as you can get. Corporate rock per excellence and no wonder that Lou Reed would soon release Metal Machine Music in apparent career suicide or perhaps a high art concept.

This big rock sound is applied to all of the material and somehow adds a dramatic effect, probably intended, lacking in the often stark, bald statements of the studio versions of these songs. Each approach has its virtues and benefits. The Velvet Underground was not about shock as such, though the lyrics and noise could be shocking especially as contrasted to the general Zeitgeist within which the albums were released, and the deadpan, slightly amateurish renditions suited the Warhol inspired background of the band. In 1974 Lou Reed seemed to aim for an audience beyond the cult following with an exaggerated style of music that neatly fitted into your standard rock show of the decade to provide a backdrop and foil for the vivid, ostentatious rock star posing of the front man who had embraced make-up and weird hairstyles, possibly as part of his coming out gay manifesto or as identifying with the sexually and mentally confused freaks of the New York underbelly. The photograph of Reed on the album cover pretty much says it all in that respect.

From the opening "Intro" to the long, exuberant version of "Rock and Roll" that closes the album, one is treated to a smooth, professional heavy rock presentation of some of the great songs of a great maverick when compared to the studio versions of the songs, the performance may seem to be a studied, crafted, choreographed show rather than as a genuine, edgy gig. As my first exposure to some of these songs and because I quite liked the playing of the band, I enjoyed the album and on listening to it again with the benefit of clear, bright digital sound, I can confirm that I still like this record. Will I actually buy more Reed product now? I don't know. I've always wanted to hear what Berlin was all about, ever since I began reading about it and there are perhaps one or two other albums I'd be interested in at least hearing. I've got Transformer on CD and I have the Velvet's début album on CD, and I own Lulu. Perhaps these records would be enough Lou Reed for me. He may have been a contemporary of Neil Young, most of whose albums I have bought over the years, yet Reed never appealed to me in quite the same way.

After writing the above I walked into my local Musica CD store the other day and saw Lou Reed Live on the shelf and immediately took it. It is a matter of curious conjecture why this particular album was in this store. There was no other Reed album available. To my surprise and delight this CD cost me only R50 making it cheaper than an iTunes purchase.

Lou Reed Live's has fewer tracks than Rock 'n Roll Animal and its two big tracks are versions of "Walk On The Wild Side" and "Waiting For The Man" and particularly the latter version sounds a lot more like showbiz rock and roll than the pared down, yet tougher, version by The Velvet Underground. This second set of songs taken from the same shows used for Rock 'n Roll Animal seems somehow to be the B-team, which may be why they weren't released as part of the first album, which could easily have been a double live album, though this division of tracks could also simply have been a measure to make more money off the same event and it and it was some years before Frampton Comes Alive showed record companies how lucrative a double live album could be.

Where Lou Reed's early career was full of controversy and shock the later years saw him accepted and respected as an elder statesman of rock and American popular culture, not only the founder of one of the most influential bands in rock history but also an artist of deep and lasting merit. In the Seventies he was a brat; in the Nineties and beyond he was a mature, considered creative talent. After his death there was the usual outpouring of grief and eulogies from friends and colleagues, none of whom are going to speak ill of the dead. This is the time to re-read the contemporary takes on the man from rock writers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Robert Christgau and the other young guns of the time. Quite a lot of the critical perspective was absolutely less than flattering and some of it was vituperative. By all accounts Lou Reed was not a very nice guy during the Seventies, and perhaps into the Eighties as well.

The iTunes Store offers a number of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground albums in a special tribute to Lou Reed and, of course in time honoured tradition, to make some money off the back of the demise of a rock icon. One of the albums on offer is Sally Can't Dance, as is Mistrial, and I am tempted to buy it simply because I once owned the single version of the title track (now available as a bonus track on the digital album) and because it was another example of the kind of record that I never even saw in Stellenbosch at the time of its release or alter. I'd like to re-acquaint myself with Mistrial because I once owned the cassette version of the album and simply to establish whether my original opinion was still valid. I would listen to them all if they were free.

Perhaps Lou Reed was the true genius the eulogies of his friends claimed. He did write some great songs and deserves to be remembered for founding the Velvet Underground but I believe his music is mostly an acquired taste, especially from the Eighties onwards, though, as I've said, in this he is in the same boat as most of his contemporaries. Lou Reed's position and importance in rock history is assured and will remain legendary. I just cannot see myself collecting his albums the way I've done with, for example Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Lou Reed is a curiosity more than a vital presence, a guy who did some weird and wonderful things, not a guy who consistently made music that is consistently visceral enough for me.





Johnny Clegg

(this piece was written in October 2013)

Johnny Clegg's gurning 60 year old face is on the front cover of the September 2013 issue of South African Rolling Stone. It is not a flattering portrait. He looks like the kind of beer drinking, braaing older guy who is going to corner you in the bar and bore you for hours with his Border war stories and repetitive jokes.

In the Searching for Sugarman documentary someone claims that in the Seventies just about every South African student household with some pretence to hipness had a copy of Cold Fact. I don't know about that but from my experience in the Eighties just about every radical chic Cape Town student house in Obs had at least one Juluka record, if not more. My guess was that the records were bought and displayed for hipness value and struggle credentials rather than for absolute listening pleasure. Usually there was no sign amongst the record collection that the person listened to any other African music, unless you counted Jennifer Ferguson. There may have been jazz; otherwise it was all singer-songwriter.

I have never much liked Johnny Clegg's music. I'd gotten into mbaqanga in a big way in the late Seventies and owned a bunch of records by local Black groups and although I did not think of myself as a purist, I certainly did think of myself as someone who liked listening to the local acts at the source ab dib the vernacular, and not in some diluted version such as, for example, purveyed by Hotline in the mid-Eighties when it became very fashionable to do that rock-mbaqanga crossover.

The funny thing about apartheid South Africa and the role the SABC played in it, was that it was not so impenetrably monolithic and tightly controlled as people now like to claim. There were interstices, gaps and loopholes that were furiously exploited for as long as one could and before they were closed down. Labi Siffre's "Something So Strong" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part II" (to name two examples) received extensive airplay on SABC controlled radio before someone actually listened to the lyrics and removed the songs from the playlists. I heard plenty of Juluka on the radio, perhaps not all of their music and probably not the more defiant or socially aware songs, but "African Sky Blue" and "Scatterlings of Africa" were played often enough. From about 1986 onward, when Clegg had already formed Savuka and was receiving massive international attention as the White Zulu, Radio 5 almost fawned over him.

Where I did not much care for the "African Sky Blue" era of Clegg songs, I positively detested the International Tracks era where the hits were remixed as dance tracks to make them more palatable for the international market who, seemingly, preferred Clegg's music in clubs. I must also say here that I generally disliked the fad for remixing all kinds of songs by adding clattering and cluttering percussion to what was already a perfectly good piece of music, just to make it playable in a disco setting.

After his success in Europe Johnny Clegg suddenly became a hot property in South Africa too. Around 1989 and 1990 Johnny Clegg and Mango Groove were the largest concert draws in South Africa for the hipper young White audiences if not for any one else. Two years running both acts filled the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town, which was a big deal for local acts in the days of the cultural boycott. Things were changing but had not yet irrevocably changed. Needless to say I attended neither band's shows.


Mango Groove's Marabi Afro pop style did not sound too bad on the radio but is was still too much of a diluted music for me who would have preferred a proper mbaqanga style. Clegg / Savuka simply sounded like a plodding White rock version of the Zulu style Juluka had developed and therefore no more than a commercialised artefact. And I just did not think that either act were hip or cool in 1990.

After a time Clegg went fully solo and dropped the pretence of having a band and continued touring in South Africa. By the mid to late Nineties he seemed to prefer performing in more compact and intimate venues like Cape Town's Baxter Theatre rather than in the larger venues. Presumably he still toured Europe and France, where he had the biggest success back in the day. My impression was that his career had bottomed out into that of the middle aged, established musician whose creative vitality had been exhausted and who was now running on past success and reputation rather than on constant and consistent innovation. This was no longer the time for being radical; thi8s was the time for collection lifetime achievement awards and honorary doctorates.

Johnny Clegg could fill any size of venue whenever he chose to tour and had no need to release new music on a regular basis. In fact, it seemed that his son Jesse was the guy who was carrying on the Clegg musical tradition albeit as a modern rocker rather than as Son of the White Zulu. Many of my mates went to see Clegg's theatre shows and reported back favourably. Not only did he perform his greatest hits with traditional Zula dancing and all, but he also carefully explained the origins of the music he had been emulating and placed it into musicological perspective, almost like an anthropological lecture illustrated with musical examples. No doubt it was more entertaining than it sounded to me yet none of these reports ever persuaded me to make the effort to catch the Clegg show.

I suppose one should make the time to sit down to listen to the man's back catalogue. For about 10 years now I have made a serious effort to collect South African rock and some associated music. Quite a bit of it is mbaqanga of the old school. It is by no means an exhaustive research project because I do not have the money or the time and in any event the availability of local product is vast and sometimes overwhelming. I have my pet hates as well, such as for the slick, crappy Afrikaans pop that has imbedded itself in die Afrikaner consciousness. I have not listened to the radio regularly for a long time and therefore miss out on what is hip and happening on, for example 5FM, or any of the other hip local stations, not to mention the online radio stations that are popping up everywhere. Even Chris Prior is online.

Anyway, during the last period when I was still a radio listener (Radio 2000 between 2000 and about 2003), Johnny Clegg's song "Impi" seemed to be popular. If memory serves it is one of the Eighties Juluka songs.

"Impi" tells the story of the defeat the Zulu army inflicted on the English at Isandlhwana where the Zulus ambushed their enemies and won a famous victory that did not quite win them the war, but it was nonetheless a great day for being a Zulu warrior. Somehow this tune resonated with me and for the first time I actually had a very positive reaction to a Clegg tune and not the usual ambivalent attitude. Even this, though, never convinced met to seek out the rest of the music for a re-evaluation of my earliest opinion.

There is a bit of a parallel between Clegg's career and that of Koos Kombuis who is only a couple of years younger. Where Clegg was the English rebel finding an escape and avocation in Zulu music, Kombuis (born André le Roux du Toit) was an Afrikaner rebel who dabbled in literary high culture before becoming a musician, and after becoming famous and established returning to dabble in letters. Both of their early careers were on the fringes and of semi-outlaw and Bohemian stamp though Clegg quite quickly embarked on a recording career, which to a degree must have place him in the arms of the establishment, and was a major success in this field long before Kombuis achieved notoriety and fame. In a way Clegg might have had it easier since his position as champion of Zulu music and multi-racialism was embraced by die leftist English speaking circles who, if not in power, had powerful influence, while Kombuis and his peers were out on their own for a long while with absolutely no Afrikaner Establishment behind them. In fact, a great deal of Kombuis's success came from English speakers who endorsed his anti-establishment attitude.

By the mid-Nineties, when Clegg had long been a national treasure and was already a mature artist, even Kombuis was more or less in a mainstream career and by 2013 has become an elder statesman of Afrikaner culture, albeit the more enlightened modern version of it, to the extent that he is on record as disliking the music and antic of Die Antwoord, one of the major musical exports from this country. Koos Kombuis might be big amongst expats in the UK and in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium, but he is still a big fish in a small pond whereas, presumably, Johnny Clegg still has a significant international footprint. The point, though, is that both men have risen from outsider careers to being mainstream and integral members of the current cultural establishment.

Typically, Clegg is unhappy that the children of the struggle generation do not have the same ideals and motivation as their parents who fought hard and long for the freedom the youth now enjoy with a great love for materialism and shallow entertainment. The wheel always turns. Yesterday's radical almost always becomes today's curmudgeonly reactionary.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jimi Hendrix plays Stockholm 1969

While doing a Google search on one subject (that I cannot even recall now) I was somehow directed to the ostensibly related subject or "rare colour" video of a concert the Jimi Hendrix Experience played in Stockholm in 1969. There is no indication of the date of the show but, given that the band consists of the Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, the original Experience, my guess is that it must have been in the earlier part of the year, certainly pre Woodstock.

The quality of the video is poor but does not seem to be a fan recording as there are various camera angles that suggest it might have been made for a television broadcast, even if it does look and sound rather amateurish. The colour is bleached out and psychedelic. This might simply be an indicator of the poor image to start with or subsequent deterioration over the period of 45 years. The sound quality is also dire and at times one or more of the instruments are almost inaudible and the bass and guitar are often distorted and baffled in non-creative ways.

The trio plays on a bare stage in front of the stacks of Marshalls that were the state of the art back then and something that struck me for the first time, after watching and listening to Hendrix tuning up a couple of times, and apologising to the audience for the time wasted, that the band must have been travelling light. Unless Hendrix would not allow anyone else to tune his guitar, there cannot have been a guitar tech to do it for him, as one would have expected in the case of a rock superstar and which is certainly currently the way things are done. The whole set up looks primitive even for 1969 but I guess things were simpler and done on a smaller scale then. And that might explain the dire sound too. The audio must have been recorded from a source other than the soundboard, if there were one, and perhaps with ambient microphones or the camera microphone. Perhaps the audience had a better experience of the sound, for, if the video sound is what they also heard, being at this concert must have been challenging if you came to listen and not simply to trip and groove.

The three guys on stage are dressed in best hippie peacock finery, with Noel Redding sporting a large black floppy hat. Especially Redding looks a bit like mutton dressed as lamb. Hendrix wears a spectacular outfit, probably sewn by one of his many groupies. His hair is a tad untidy en stringy, not the neat, more natural Afro seen at Woodstock.

Although the gig is in Stockholm a guy with a very plummy pukka English accent announces the band and refers to "electric church music,' which sounds more like the later versions of the ensemble who played with Hendrix on Electric Ladyland and at Woodstock, than the bare bones Jimi Hendrix Experience trio on stage here. Hendrix opens the proceedings by apologising for the set to come and explains that the band had not had much time to rehearse and this is why they would be playing old tunes and basically jamming. Unfortunately the band does seem to be a tad lost at times and though Redding is game and has the history of playing these songs, there is little sense of tightness and cohesion. Hendrix does mess about a bit and seems to play perfunctorily at best, and burdened by the bad sound, until he gets to "Red House" and digs a bit deeper for the blues. An instrumental version of "Sunshine of Your Love" closes the show. It's not very entertaining except as a novelty tribute to Cream.

Perhaps the fans would have gladly paid good money just to hear Jimi tune up but for me this concert seems to have been no more than a money gig by a band that was no longer truly a band and was still playing together purely because they happened to know the material.

In the history of Hendrix's music career it is the conventional wisdom that he had become bored with and felt constrained by the basic trio format of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and wanted to expand his musical horizons and stretch his capabilities not only in making freak rock but in song writing and recording and that the Experience hardly ever played together anymore unless there were financial reasons to do so and the band was generally criminally under-rehearsed. This video clip is probably best evidence of this tendency and the resultant jamming nature of gigs where the band stick to tried and tested material, which hardly tells us where Hendrix was at in his musical mind at that time. One can almost see and hear that this is the type of gig where you hit, git and split, cruising through some hits and standards without breaking too much of a sweat. The guitar playing also showcases the defects in the Hendrix mannerism, which is why I would ultimately prefer Eric Clapton over Hendrix as Sixties guitar god. Here Hendrix does Hendrix-by-numbers, the schtick, minus the setting on fire or playing with his teeth that made him a concert draw in the first place. The man can sure play with great facility and knows how to extract unearthly noises from his instrument but in the end it quickly becomes tedious, unless perhaps one was on good, strong drugs.

Jimi Hendrix's virtuosity on the guitar and his ability to produce sounds and effects from it that no-one else could, is often cited as the mark of his genius but for me this ability, much like Stevie Ray Vaughan's facility with playing lengthy solos, is the element that detracts from the quality of the music. When Jimi was disciplined and played to structure, as was the case for his studio tracks, he is brilliant and incisive. The long, formless jams dissipate that focus and energy and though one can admire the facility and apparent ease with which he can improvise and produce weird noises, these live performances do become tedious after a while.

This Stockholm gig would have been a rare experience for the fans attending it and a fond memory given that Hendrix was dead within 2 years and would never be heard on stage again. Other than that, and the historic curiosity value of the video clip, there is no particular reason to treasure this performance. Hendrix does what he does, perfunctorily, takes his money and goes home. Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell do what they do, get paid and basically drop out of Hendrix's musical life for a while, though Mitchell eventually returned, as Buddy Miles was not the best of drummers for Hendrix, even when Jimi was trying to be more funky than psychedelic.

I've heard various Hendrix live performances, and once owned The Hendrix Concerts album. These tracks were handpicked to showcase the best of Hendrix on stage and cumulatively present a somewhat different picture than the warts and all complete Stockholm gig. This probably makes the Stockholm clip a more valuable historical commodity but it tends to diminish, especially so many years later and in the comfort of my own home where I am neither drunk or stoned, the perceived genius aspect of the musician who ends up playing mediocre jamming variations on his hits rather than delivering exemplary examples of his vaunted inventive brilliance.

Crimson House Blues

Crimson House Blues is yet another band on the new blues scene in South Africa, with Dan Patlansky and Albert Frost, who are kind of the senior statesmen, and Natasha Meister, Black Cat Bones, Mean Black Mamba and others. To be pedantic about it, it is more of a revivalist blues rock scene than a purist approach to blues, with Jet Black Camaro finding space alongside the others yet being more of a good time rock and roll band than a blues group. We do have the Blues Broers, still toiling after all these years, and Boulevard Blues (also really just blues rockers) but nobody really wants to play blues as such. Everyone wants to boogie with intent and purvey a spirit and excitement that is always inherent in music derived from blues, rather than the faddish coolness and sameyness of most modern rock. You cannot beat a backbeat for getting the toes tapping and the hips shaking and for making one forget about intellectual appreciation of what's happening on stage.

Anyhow, Crimson House Blues have been going for a while and, looking at the band photographs on their website and in the album packaging, they aspire to being a mix between neo-hippie and old style beat, with the first's long hair and the latter's sense of cool dressing. Where there is a current trend for band members (apart from the serious hipsters) not to look doo different form their audiences, and in fact quite ordinary, the guys in Crimson House Blues definitely do not want to be mistaken for being anything else than bohemians. If they do have day jobs, it is probably not in law or commerce.

Debut album Smoke, Dust and Whiskey (2012) opens with "Going Down Slow," the only blues standard on the album, and sets the scene for the listener to anticipate being entertained by some tasty, subtle blues. Riaan Smit's emotional, hoarse voice fits the mood and tone of the song, the rhythm section pushes the song relentlessly forward and the lead guitar is fiery and fluid. Altogether a fine modern day interpretation of a venerable classic that's been done to death.

Next up is "Silver Dollar," an acoustic based song with electric lead and the first of the mythical barroom tales on the record, recording a tough life on the edge of society, pretty much the cinematic impression of what a blues landscape should look like. The song has a good tune, is not specifically a blues and is the first of a couple of tunes on the album that betrays the major influence of Tom Waits, both in the lyrical themes and in the timbre and inflections of Riaan Smit's voice, that became really prominent on the second album. At times the resemblance is uncanny.

There is also not much more straightforward blues on offer. The mix leans towards a hillbilly string band with banjo and bottleneck guitar, strengthened by tough lead guitar and blue harp. The band seems to lean towards updating old-timey back country musical styles. "Halfway Whore House" brings us back to blues rock and yet another seedy tale of the underbelly of life. And then there is "Pickaxe Blues," which is an unapologetic Tom Waits pastiche if I've ever heard one, based on the Swordfishtrombones or Raindogs template. The album plays out on the mostly acoustic piece "Over & Out," an elegiac end to a set of songs that is organically tough, filled with brio and the confidence of a bunch of guys on top of their game and on a mission to spread their particular gospel.

Red Shack Rock (2013) is the second album and is more eclectic within the blues framework. The opening cut, "Call of the Wild," is heavy blues circa 1968, second track, "Magic Potion," features banjo and bottleneck guitar, "Aphrodite," the third track, sounds like Asylum Records-era Tom Waits and the fourth cut is not only called "Jelly Roll" but it, and following track, "Take Away My Blues," are the closest the album gets to electric blues. The music is always tough and gritty and with roots going to places way older than the guys in the band. Talk about old souls in young minds.

Obviously the influences are wide and diverse and equally obviously Tom Waits is one of them, not only in the vocal sound. In some of the songs, like "Aphrodite" and "Valley Below," the entire composition sounds like pastiches of the Waits style. Hey, there is even an echo of Seasick Steve in "Alternative State of Mind" with a mumbled intro and tough slide guitar., the third big rock track on the album. In "Pindrop Circle" the band channels a Berlin cabaret circa 1926 with a fantasmagorical shaggy dog story and possibly the biggest tune on the album.

"Don't Ask Why" and "The Jam" are the third last and penultimate tracks and the band really kicks out the roots rock blues jams here with a boisterous joyful noise with ribald guitar, banjo and harp and stomping rhythm section, before playing us home with the last atmospheric blues of the night on "Ashes On The Highway." When the last note fades out you want to play the album again, just ot make sure your mind has not been playing tricks on you and that this collection of energetic, eclectic and engaging tunes is really as good as it seemed at the time.

Full marks to Crimson House Blues for not trying to replicate an anachronistic blues sound and succeeding with providing us with a diverse set, from heavy blues rock to blues to hillbilly to jazz, replete with hooks and tunes. The debut album made a powerful statement of intent and the second record brings it all back home with a confident swagger that says "it ain't bragging if you're doing it."

I understand that Crimson House Blues are currently (July 2014) touring and recording in the USA and I would be very keen on getting my sweaty paws on the third record, if it actually comes from the country where the roots of their music are. If they were this good in South Africa, very far removed from the real life influences of the blues, imagine how truly excellent they must have to be once they've absorbed the influences at the source.



Siouxsie & The Banhees

The career and success of Siouxsie & The Banshees is perhaps the best illustration of the original Brit punk credo of 1976 and 1977: everyone cold learn three chords, form a band, play live and release records. The origins of the band was in a jam by non-musicians at a Sex Pistols gig. The first incarnation of the band was one of the hottest unsigned acts on the punk scene and got a record deal considerably later than most of their contemporaries, lost two of the founding members of the band after the release of the debut album and at a most critical juncture of the nascent career, regrouped and came back better and stronger as ever as leading lights of the post punk and incipient Goth movements and over the course of a very long career produced some amazing music with hit singles to boot. Siouxsie & The Banshees outlasted and outperformed just about every of the early punk bands.

Siouxsie Sioux (or Sue) was a bit of an early punk sex symbol, or so I thought, as part of the so-called Bromley Contingent of Sex Pistols camp followers. She had very short hair, weird facial make up, liked wearing very short, tight skirts and thigh length boots, was not afraid to show off her perfectly formed breasts and was fond of sporting a Swastika, no doubt simply to shock the middle classes and with no neo-Nazi leanings at all.

I was very chuffed (at age 18) with my own intelligence when I realised, without anyone ever explaining it to me, that the girl's name was probably Suzie and that she had seized on the penchant for punk rockers to assume strange and wonderful, and sometimes offensive, names for themselves rather than stick to their boring, ordinary given names.

As an avid reader of the New Musical Express (NME) during the glory days of British punk and the New Wave, I drooled over the images of sexy girls punks, especially as I was a hormonal teenager deprived of much outlet in oppressive South Africa and wrote them off as scenesters and acolytes who'd soon fade from view when the reality of making a living struck home.

I knew most of the punk lore, as disseminated by the NME, such as the night when Siouxsie, Steve Severin and Sid Vicious clambered onstage at the 100 Club to do a version of "The Lord's Prayer" as opening act for the Sex Pistols. At the time none of them could play an instrument but this event must have been the genesis of serious musical ambition, if it had not existed before, in Siouxsie and Severin.

Pretty soon the writers at the NME were lauding the newly formed Siouxsie & The Banshees, with Siouxsie singing and Severin playing bass, John McKay on guitar and Kenny Morris on drums. As a matter of record and pigeon holing The Banshees were categorized as being part of the New Wave, the descriptive term devised for the slew of new groups that followed on punk, and encompassed the somewhat more technically proficient music of bands like The Jam, Elvis Costello, The Cure, Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees, who were clearly much more ambitious and creative in their musical endeavours than the raw punk bands had been.

Whether by deliberate restraint on the part of the band or because record companies were initially not very interested in signing a band with a lead singer who was still prone to Nazi regalia, but the Banshees were famously the best unsigned group (at a time when a record company contract was still the yardstick of success and the lifeline for any group's survival as a career choice) in the UK for a seemingly endless period before they did succumb. The Scream was released in 1978, considerably later than most debut albums by their immediate peers. The Banshees were now launched and even had a hit single in "Hong Kong Garden" about the prosaic subject of a Chinese take-away restaurant.

The initial punk thrash of the Roxy Club days, well before the band was signed, gave way to a sound that was definitely New Wave, the name given to the bands and sounds of the post punk bands who formed under the inspiration of the punks a year or two after the Sex Pistols came to national notoriety. Some say the name "New Wave" (after the French film movie of the late Fifties and early Sixties) was used to create a deliberate historical and conceptual separation between the bands that followed the DIY punk ethos and had more musical ambition and ability and who certainly did not want to be tainted by the "punk" pejorative and all it stood for in the UK tabloids and on television.

One of the main differences between the sound of the Ramones and some of the rock and roll bands before them, was that the bass was a lead instrument in the musical mix where the guitar was simply a rhythm instrument, and Dee Dee Ramone played almost melody bass. This sound was adopted by many of the New Wave bands, and beyond, who did not want to be stuck in the Ramalama wall of noise guitar punk first sounded like and this lead to a plethora of bands where the lead guitar played a choppy, trebly rhythm while the bass was prominent as a melodic, lead instrument, pretty much in imitation of a reggae style. Siouxsie & The Banshees was one of those bands. Where The Clash, for example, stuck to the loud punk rock template for their first two albums, The Banshees were already way beyond that on their debut and certainly sounded streets ahead of their run of the mil contemporaries and their roots on the earliest punk bills. The sound was jagged, edgy and featured big drums and fluid bass playing and the band had a big drum sound, very much like Joy Division, and even now sound almost futuristic and a lot more interesting than the Sex Pistols who, as far as I could see, wanted to sound like Slade.

Siouxsie & The Banshees remained mired in controversy for a while. The first thing was that the NME seized on the Nazi imagery and Swastikas and on tunes like "Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)" and others to suggest that the band were espousing right wing causes and attitudes, which was a decided no-no at the time when Rock Against Racism was a rising force and the National Front was making inroads amongst the disaffected. Flirting with taboo images, even if it were ironic, or were intended to make people think, was frowned on. The left wing does not do irony.

The second controversial thing that happened to the band is that McKay and Morris left the band abruptly after the first few gigs of a tour with The Cure in support. At the time the motive was not completely clear but what was clear was that this move must have been calculated to destroy the band. The Banshees were not that easily killed off, however, and the tour carried on with Robert Smith, the leader and guitarist of The Cure, playing guitar for The Banshees as well as for The Cure and Budgie sitting in on drums. As a result het became the band's permanent drummer. This was a good thing for the music, which improved and followed a new course entirely from the early New Wave strivings of the debut album.

The second album, Join Hands, was released in 1980, the last with McKay and Morris, and this in turn was followed by Kaleidoscope (1980) with John McGeoch on guitar, Budge on drums and featuring synthesisers to flesh out the soundscapes.

This is where I got on board the bus. Punk and New Wave albums were incredibly hard to come by in Stellenbosch. By 1980 I owned Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, My Aim Is True and London Calling. Sometime late in 1980, though, Kaleidoscope pitched up in a bargain bin in one of the record shops I used to haunt and I bought it without a second thought, simply because I was curious and, if I am not mistaken, I had heard the songs "Happy House" and "Christine" from it and had decided I liked them.

Kaleidoscope sounded considerably different to those other records referred to above. Costellos's album had a very traditional rock sound, the Sex Pistols reminded me of Slade and the Clash were in their eclectic phase of changing the style of songs from track to track and giving us British, Jamaican and American roots and not so much punk rock anymore. In contrast the music on Kaleidoscope sounded otherwordly and, well, kaleidoscopic. One could believe that Siouxsie & The Banshees represented some kind of future of rock rather than, say, the Clash who were determinedly returning to and mining the older traditions and perhaps breathing new life into them but still not seeking a completely new way of expressing themselves. The Banshees sounded positively futuristic.

The great difference, and what probably truly makes The Banshees post-punk and forerunners of not only the younger experimental bands of the early Eighties but also of the whole Goth / Industrial / Rock dance crossover scene, is that the traditional instrumental line-up of guitar, bass and drums does not limit the musicians in the creation of the musical landscape. For the most part the guitar creates atmospheres and filigrees of detail, in much like the same fashion as is the case for the synthesiser contributions, while the nimble drums and agile bass set down the rhythmic basis for the performance. This music is a long way from punk. Whereas Kevin Rowland of Dexy's and a class of NME scribes lambasted, did their best to kill off, the guitar in music and the early synth poppers almost succeeded. Siouxsie & The Banshees (and, I must add, many of their peers) realised that the electric guitar had many uses and infinite permutations of melodic noise.

Kaleidoscope is one of my favourite albums of all time and The Banshees are one of my top Eighties bands. I never cared for Duran Duran or Wham, or the Stock Aitken & Waterman stable of stars, or any of the terrible pop; music so many fondly remember from that decade. The Banshees made some of the best music of that era, and into the Nineties, and that fact is proved by die collection of top tunes on Twice Upon A Time, a double album of hits that followed on the Once Upon A Time single record collection of the early hits. In South African "The Passenger" (an Iggy Pop original) was a major radio and club hit and just about every one of the dance pop confections is memorable, like "Kiss Them For Me" and "Peekaboo," as shining examples of how one can make weirdly interesting music with pop hooks.

This piece was inspired by my recent acquisition, from iTunes, of Kaleidoscope. Up to then the CD of Twice Upon A Time was the only Banshees artefact I still owned, having given away my LP copy of the earlier album. Anyhow, I was so happy to hear songs like "Happy House", "Red Light" and "Christine" again that I also bought The Scream, in an expanded version with the addition of "Hong Kong Garden" and Staircase Mystery" that, in the tradition of the times, were singles released at the time the album was out but not included on it.

From The Scream to Kaleidoscope, over just two years, is a very long journey indeed. The debut album has its share of great moments and also the teeth on edge version of "Helter Skelter" that seems to be yet another impromptu jam, and Kaleidoscope has one delightful proto-Gothic pop songs after the other. This is where the band learnt to write songs of lasting impact and value and where it finally left behind any vestiges of an origin in feral punk, setting the scene for the great triumphs of the Eighties which saw Siouxsie & The Banshees rising to the top of the Goth pop pyramid.




Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Punk Rock Movie

The Punk Rock Movie was assembled from Super 8
camera footage shot by Don Letts, the disc jockey at The Roxy club during the early days of the UK punk rock
movement, principally during the 100 days in 1977 in which punk acts were featured at The Roxy club in London. (from Wikipedia)


It was a really exciting thing to find this artefact documenting truly epochal musical events on YouTube. I was 18 in the year the footage was filmed, living with my parents in Stellenbosch, in my first year at university and far removed conceptually and physically from the events depicted in the movie, vicariously experiencing every move in the punk revolution through the pages of the New Musical Express (NME.)

Don Letts had amazing access to the punk rockers in London because he was a scene maker in his own right. The colour footage has a grainy, blurry, drained, almost psychedelic, look. The sound is bad, typically distorted and messy. The first impression is how young the punks (bands and audience) were and, in a manner of speaking, how naïve it all seems from the remove of 38 years beyond the heydays of London punk. Billy Idol look incredibly young and innocent. Siouxsie equally so, and her acts of swigging vodka rom the bottle and necking pills smack of acting up for the camera. Perhaps the real scenes of debauchery and ugly antics were not filmed. The musicians seem almost sleepwalking through life albeit to the soundtrack of extremely loud distorted guitars. The faces are thin, unlined, not very surly or threatening. It is virtually opposite to how I perceived the punk attitude and conduct as celebrated in the pages of the NME, my sole, authoritative source of information on the punk scene between 1977 and 1979, by which time New Wave and beyond was in full swing. The Punk Rock Movie documents the second year of the punk scene following on the breakthrough of the Sex Pistols in 1976 and we see several of the well-known names in their nascent years making an unholy, energetic punk noise. The scenes at gigs are reminiscent of similar venues and types in Cape Town in the late Eighties and probably reinforces the idea that the scenes would be the same for any underground act regardless of the country. The sound is distorted and scratchy. The camera microphone would not improve the sound, which comes to us from a punter's vantage point. It must really have been just three chords played as loudly and as energetically as possible. Two American acts are on show: Wayne County & The Electric Chairs (he had the operation and then became known as Jayne County), a drag artist; and The Heartbreakers, fronted by Johnny Thunders, ex-New York Doll. The Heartbreakers' "Born to Lose" has a catchy pop chorus even through the murky sound. Where the British punks simply frantically strum the three bar chords the know, the Americans play recognizable rock and roll, have a slightly better sound and altogether appear to be the more professional musicians they were, more so than the average punk musician who allegedly picked up an instrument after seeing the Sex Pistols. Thunders and County had been gigging since at least the early Seventies.

Some of the best musical ideas emerge from rehearsals of the Slits and Alternative TV. Siouxsie & The Banshees has as much of a distorted thrash sound on stage as anyone else and it is a far cry from their recorded, post punk sound. The Clash are roaring; also clearly more rehearsed and versed than some of the others.

There are many scenes of tedium on the tour bus. Just a bunch of kids bored out of their skull on a long journey, seeking ways to amuse themselves just to get through the day. No Rolling Stones touring party excess here. The interview snippets are unintelligible because of the poor sound.

I was in my late teens when punk rock broke, living in Stellenbosch where there was a dearth of any kind of entertainment much less live music or anything resembling punk. I could not even get the records in the local record store and when I asked the manager for the Sex Pistols' debut album he looked at me blankly as if he had never heard of the then most exciting phenomenon on the UK music scene. The NME taught me all I knew about punk. I bought it very week, on a Wednesday, and absolutely devoured the contents. Sad fact was that it was generally a month to six weeks behind the times because it was sent to SA by mail boat instead of being flown in overnight, as is currently the case. It was like the light of a dead star that we see only long after the star has died. I read about vents that had long since happened and of bands that may not even have existed any longer by the time I read about them. It was still exciting though and informative, and because the NME carried such detailed coverage of the movement I might as well have been there. The great deficiency was that I never saw the bands play live and never heard the records. I had extensive theoretical knowledge of punk and its antecedents and almost no practical experience of it. Punk was not playlisted on SA radio. The record store in Stellenbosch did nit stock the singles or the albums and they were expensive to buy as imports in Cape Town. I wasn't a punk, at least I did not look like one or try to act like one. Best I could do was to wear a grey school shirt, skinny black tie and baggy, faded brown pants and read the NME. I did buy Never Mind The Bollocks, Ramones Leaver Home, Road to Ruin, End of the Century and My Aim Is True as soon as I could after release, and London Calling when it was released. That was the sole extent of my punk or New Wave record collection, except for a compilation of punk and post punk singles on the Fast label. During the Nineties I began buying some of those punk albums that I'd missed back in the day but it was merely scratching the surface of the significant amount of punk singles and albums released between 1977 and 1979. The Punk Rock Movie is a jolt to the memory, a reminder of all the major and minor punk bands the NME had covered and whose names were engraved on my mind at the time and who are now almost forgotten except by those who were there.

The last batch of songs in the movie are performed by the Sex Pistols at a Screen on the Green gig featuring Sid Vicious as new bassist in place of Glen Matlock. It is not an outrageous performance. As is the case with all the other bands, the Pistils take their performance seriously and concentrate on getting it right. Steve Jones does throw guitar hero shapes but Rotten does not behave outrageously or do or say anything that could be called confrontational. Sid looks like the guy who has recently joined and is scared shitless that he will make a mistake. The music is well played and over familiar and emphasises that the Pistols did have some good tunes. The footage is an intriguing look at the band that was briefly the most loathed group of individuals in the UK, for little or no reason at all, except fir swearing a bit on TV and for looking and dressing differently to the mainstream. For all that, the core values of the musicians were firmly linked to mastering their instruments, playing them competently and writing good, meaningful songs. Although the credo of the day was that anyone could do it and that it was not meant to last, I would imagine that the musicians, and everyone else involved in the business aspect of it, quickly became more ambitious once they realised that money was to be made and got addicted to the rush of fame or notoriety. The punk fans, whether hardcore or week punks, were the ones who were really outrageous, really got out there to challenge conformity and the establishment. They were the ones who were still gobbing long after the bands had expressed their extreme distaste for an act that had been a kind of joke in the beginning but was then saw as mandatory behavior at punk gigs, like violence. Ultimately the musicians wanted to play and to be taken seriously and to be respected for what they were doing.

Typically the success of punk was its downfall and in the pages of the NME many of the first generation punks, who were part of a truly underground scene where the musicians and the audience were mates, were starting to moan about how the influx of suburban weekend punks was ruining the scene and the music. That is how it goes with any new thing that becomes a media phenomenon. The original ideals are misunderstood and diluted and often completed trampled on by the newcomers who are in it for the fad. This is also why punk gave way to New Wave and New Wave gave way to the succession of musical movements that followed in the Eighties.

The Punk Rock Movie is not of the best video or audio quality but it is an amazing and vital document of some aspects of probably the first significant sea change in rock music since the mid-Sixties change over from clean shaven bands with neat hair and in neat uniform to bands with beards, wild and colourful clothes and psychedelic music. The first punks were probably as naïve as they look in the movie but they were determined to do what they wanted to do and quite a few of them became famous and significantly important musicians, such as Siouxsie & The Banshees whose career has stretched well beyond those noisy, ill-focused beginnings at The Roxy club in 1977.

Watching The Punk Rock Movie was almost an emotional experience. I'm thinking I should look for the DVD to add to my collection.


The Blues Projects

The Blues Project (1864) was initially a compilation album issued by Elektra Records, of Greenwich Village based folk blues artists, one of whom was Danny Kalb who formed an electric band he called the Blues Project in 1985. Al Kooper, who famously played organ on "Like A Rolling Stone", joined the band for a time and Tommy Flanders was a member for the first, live, album only.


The debut album Live at the Cafe Au Go Go (1966), was basically your standard blues set of the along with the psychedelic infusions that were becoming the rage in San Francisco and were soon to be de rigeur for all kinds of band with progressive intentions. "Catch the Wind" and "Violets of Dawn" represented the poppier psychedelic side of the band.


In November 1966 the band released Projections, in its way a template for what counted as progressive in the mid-Sixties. The songs were a mixture of blues and gospel tunes, re-imagined in a psychedelic mind-set, and more proper psychedelic pop songs with plenty of flute, which was the alternative rock instrument of choice on so many records of the era. A flute part seems to have been code for progressive. A blues band would abandon blurs harp and replace it with a flute and play raga melodies and be counted among the adventurous, forward thinking musicians pushing the envelope to develop rock into an art form.


Projections also had a bit of Chuck Berry and an 11-minute long version of "Two Trains Running," a Muddy Waters live tour de force, just to bring home that this was still a band that was serious about the blues.


Between 1977 and 1979 I found a copy of Projections in a discount bin in some Cape Town record shop. I do not recall whether I even knew who the Blues Project were but I was collecting cheap blues records and this record interested me because it was cheap and the track listing featured a number of blues and gospel songs I recognised by title alone. The major USP, though, was that very long version of "Two Trains Running," of which I'd read but not yet heard.


The band members had worn their best 1966 New York hip, proto-hippie outfits, all flower shirts and floppy hair, as if they had been styled to look excruciatingly contemporary. The guys look almost self-consciously cool and stylish and it just looks forced and weird today. The Blues Project guys looked like the kind of dudes who normally wore T-shirts and jeans but were told by their publicist and record company to go out and buy some new shirts for the photo shoot.


The record cover was of thicker cardboard than was customary for locally pressed records of the day and this suggested to me that I had bought a copy of the original, probably American, pressing from 1966 and therefore some 12 or 13 years old by the time I laid my hands on it. This possibility was reinforced by a terrible flaw in the vinyl that made an annoying buzzy sound when one played the record which seemed to be in good condition, unscratched and flat.


I had bought, and would still buy, many discounted and low budget records and I was very fortunate in that almost none of them were ever in a bad condition when I got them. It was trite that local pressings deteriorated in quality after a number of plays, which is why I eventually taped all my records and then listened only to the audio tapes and no longer played the actual records. That was expected but not that a record would be bad from the off. Projections was one of the few exceptions to the general rule; off-hand I cannot recollect any other records that showed flaws as soon as I played them for the first time.


I had experience with deteriorating South African vinyl surfaces and was used to applying anti-static spray and wiping the surface with a cloth to eradicate the snap, crackle and pop of locally manufactured records but in the case of Projections none of those methods helped. The irritating hiss was ingrained in the vinyl and remained for as long as I owned the record. Listening pleasure was therefore very much diluted, especially as the hiss became worse during "Two Trains Running" to the point where the track was unplayable in its entirety unless you wanted to go crazy.


This annoying flaw in audio quality was a great pity indeed, as the blues songs on the album were arranged in interesting ways and played with an enthusiasm I had not often heard. At the time I was not fully au fait with the American White blues boom of the mid-Sixties and this record was a revelation to me who was more used to the original bluesmen and to the Brit-Blues guys. Blues Project sounded very much like early Jefferson Airplane, and other bands of that era, in the sound of the rhythm section and with a particular style and tone of lead guitar that I associate with the psychedelic rock and blues of the period. The American guitarists had a more trebly, piercing, pinched, staccato style than their British counterparts who loved loud sustain and feedback in their solos. The British blues guitarists seemed to prize fluency in soloing; the Americans seemed that prefer short piercing runs of notes.


There was no point in taping Projections. I put the record away and never listened to it anymore.


More than 20 years later I found the CD Reunion in Central Park (1973), yet another live album by the older and wiser members of the band who perform their best known material with what sounds like some enthusiasm and love for the history. It was not quite the Sixties sound though and some of it did almost sound like a band running through it back catalogue because there is money in it rahter than as a living, breathing and continuing organism. Pleasant afternoon in the park and no more.


Jump forward about 13 years and I discover, duh, the usefulness of iTunes in recovering the music of records I once used to own or to buy the digital versions of records I once wanted to own. Projections was one of the first and followed shortly by the Anthology album, with tracks from the three major Blues Project albums. It was once exhilarating to be able to listen to music off albums I would never have owned otherwise and also disappointing because it just seemed to me that too much Blues Project music, given that the template did not vary that much, with the same mixture of blues standards and psychedelic pop, was a bit of a drag. The earliest blues tracks are not more roots than anything of Projections and, if anything, sound more rinky dink. On the cuts taken from Live At The Café Au Go Go. Tommy Flanders does not have much of a blues voice and sounds like a pop singer indulging in the flavour of the moment.


All of the blues tunes from Live At The Café Au Go Go are light years away from the contemporary British blues band of the time, such as John Mayall, The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, and others, who took the blues seriously and whose guitarists were vastly superior in technique and feel to the White Americans, except perhaps for Mike Bloomfield or Johnny Winter, both of whom were steeped in respectively the Chicago and Texas traditions. Danny Kalb, from the Blues Project, could be just one more psychedelic guitar player. He can play the blues runs in piercing solos yet does not sound convincing as bluesman, in the same way that Tommy Flanders does not sound anything like a guy from Mississippi.


The Blues Project must have been serious and earnest and dedicated to the genre, even if the pop smarts and nous of someone like AL Kooper who was not a blues guy at all, would have been a major influence in the writing and recording of the poppier songs designed to give the band hit singles with a sound that was not typical of their stage shows. On the other hand, even Cream had lightweight pop jangles to entice the masses, as did the Yardbirds.


Projections numbers among the first 100 records I ever owned, perhaps even the first 50, and is one those albums that rakes me back to a time and place, not necessarily a happy place, in my life which has nothing to do with the contemporaneity of the albums because so many were bought well after the initial release date, in some cases decades later. I am glad I have the album back in my life.