Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Candy- Whatever Happened to Fun...(Mercury, 1985)

Whatever Happened to Fun… is hands down one of the 25 greatest pop albums ever issued – right up there with the best of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star, Badfinger, and whoever else is considered definitively “pop”. Yet it never makes anyone’s power pop best-of list – probably because even if you are one of the 12 people who’ve actually heard the record, you might not be sure that “power pop” is quite the right category for this late, great band. Well, it is, actually, but still somehow Candy seems out of place in power pop discussions – their image pure Sunset Strip hair metal and their Raspberries fixation at least five years out of date in the heart of the Reagan Era. If you were a self-respecting headbanger in 1985 and somehow found a copy of Whatever Happened to Fun… in your possession, you would surely have laughed it off as wussy AM radio fluff unsuitable for even your little sister. If you were a power pop fan in 1985, you probably had one look at the LP cover, took Candy for a second-rate W.A.S.P., and moved up the record rack in hopes that Paul Collins had just come out with a new solo album. Is it any wonder that Whatever Happened to Fun… tanked so severely that today there exists almost zero evidence that the album was ever released? I generally try to shy away from writing about records that are nearly impossible to obtain, but I have to make an exception for Candy. Whatever Happened to Fun… really is that good. And I can say with complete confidence that should you go to the farthest extremes (i.e. selling an internal organ, hitchhiking across the continent, breaking open your kid’s piggy bank, or prostituting yourself to a toe fetishist) to acquire it, you will not be disappointed.

Historians sometimes remember Candy as a “hair band”. But with Wally Bryson credited as musical director and Raspberries’ hit-maker Jimmy “Teeth” Ienner producing, Whatever Happened to Fun… was hardly going to be confused for the new Motley Crue record. Candy, for all their revivalist power pop and glam leanings, somehow fashioned a sound that was not-at-all stuck in the ‘70s. In fact, Whatever Happened to Fun… sounds so very 1985 that I feel like I’m 14 again every time I hear it. There’s something about this record that encapsulates how it felt to be young in the early-to-mid-‘80s. It’s got the innocent, bittersweet tenor of an ‘80s teen movie – oozing an adolescent melodrama that’s endearing and even a little inspiring. It’s hard to hear “Weekend Boy” or “Kids in the City” and not imagine the sort of youth who was supposed to buy the record – a wide-eyed teen, misunderstood at school, misunderstood at home, his hair big, his dreams even bigger, in love with some girl he could never have, riding in a car with his friends on a Friday night, the top down, the stereo cranked up loud, and life’s possibilities seemingly endless. “First Time” may not have played over the closing credits of some long-lost John Cusack teen comedy, but it sure as hell could have. It also could have been the prom theme at any American high school in the spring of ’86 had Candy’s promotion been better. Singer Kyle Vincent, who would go on in later years to become Barry Manilow’s favorite recording artist, briefly serve as lead singer of the Bay City Rollers, and be labeled by Goldmine as the “crown prince of soft pop”, wasn’t exactly Bret Michaels. His plaintive touch on vocals gives Whatever Happened to Fun… its heart and soul, while Gilby Clarke (later of Guns N’ Roses fame) imbues the band’s bubblegum hooks with just enough guitar punch to merit Candy its borderline association with L.A. metal. The melodies, penned by future Electric Angel Jonathan Daniel, are nothing short of magnificent.

It’s kind of a cliché to say that an album sounds like a greatest hits compilation, but sometimes the cliché is true. Whatever Happened to Fun… was Candy’s first and only album. And if the band had to be short-lived, at least it managed to pack a career’s worth of should-have-been hits into its sole issue. Silly filler (“Turn It Up Loud”) and over-reaching stabs at epics (“Last Radio Show”) aside, it’s pretty much wall to wall smashes here. Melodies and harmonies prevail, and the massive hooks never stop. And if the world, in 1985, didn’t quite know what to make of the band’s Sweet meets Bay City Rollers meets Rick Springfield on the Sunset Strip aesthetic, clearly some people were listening. You just can’t deny Candy’s influence on the bubblegum glam sub-scene of late ‘90s punk rock, when bands like American Heartbreak and the Beat Angels (produced by Gilby Clarke!) ruled the school. Today, the very question “Whatever happened to fun?” seems far more appropriate than it did in 1985. Given the prevailing themes of angst, self-loathing, family dysfunction, and rage that have dominated “serious” rock since that dreaded year 1991, the “problems” chronicled in yesteryear’s adolescent anthems may now seem laughable. Yet even in this age when the taste envelope is constantly pushed and teenage sex is as casual and emotionally insignificant as buying a pack of gum, falling in love and coming of age are still themes that resonate with a massive audience. It’s why Taylor Swift has sold a gazillion records, and it’s why Candy’s music has held up so well. And even if the trials and tribulations of the likes of John Bender, Lane Meyer, and Stefen Djordjevic seem a little hokey today, we still watch their movies and love every minute. If the musical tastes of John Hughes had been a little more mass appealing and a lot less rich kid faux alternative, Candy surely could have had a song in one of his movies. Fuck Simple Minds! “American Kix” would have been a great closing song for The Breakfast Club.

-Josh Rutledge

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Godfathers - More Songs About Love And Hate (Epic, 1989)

Nobody would ever mistake my knowledge of movies with Rex Reed's. I might pretend to know a thing or three about obscure musical artists, but many films that are cherished by numerous friends have never been part of my Blockbuster Nights. For some odd reason, there is a multitude of "G"-string movies missing from the "Seen It!" checklist. It is beyond senseless that "Ghostbusters" has gone unwatched. I like Bill Murray. "What About Bob?" is one of my all-time favorites. Seeing "Bob" take "baby steps" to track down "DR. LEO MARVIN?!?!?" is always the right prescription for laughter. I like Sigourney Weaver. She made shaved-headed chicks sexy with the "Alien" role, and her type-A character in "Working Girl" was the stuff of many dreams. If I had been Tess (Melanie Griffith), I would've served SW more than just coffee! I like Ray Parker Jr. His way with the ladies in the video for "A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)" turned Billy Dee Williams and Colt 45 into Steve Urkel and Nestle's Quik. "Gone With The Wind"? Frankly, Ted Turner, I don't give a damn! Recently, I was asked by one Mr. Eric Thornton to name my favorite scene in "Grease." "The one where John Travolta does his thing," I replied. What's with all the love for "The Goonies" lately? Last week, there was a free screening of the film in the parking lot of Chesapeake Square Mall. Also, the Target inside said shopping center had a themed T-shirt next to a preferred Yoo-hoo rag. I'm sure the young lads' search for treasure is a fine tale, but I can't get past the Cyndi Lauper connection. The only positive thing I have to say about the woman is that she made shopping for clothes at thrift stores acceptable. Somewhere in the world, there exists a man in the twilight of his life who has never heard The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Well, push my wheelchair alongside Wilbur's, for I have yet to give "The Godfather" a private viewing. Ridiculous, huh? Once again, I've enjoyed the work of several of the movie's stars. Al Pacino is a man whose photograph might be included next to the definition of "actor" in the latest Webster's. Turtlenecks and all, Diane Keaton has brought a free-spirited attitude to many fine performances over the years. Robert Duvall was excellent in "Tender Mercies" and "Crazy Heart." I haven't necessarily refused the offer to watch what's considered the best picture in history, but at least I got into the band named for the epic some twenty years ago. You can't take that cannoli away from me.

Brothers Peter (vocals) and Chris (bass) Coyne had their directorial debut as keynote members of the Sid Presley Experience. With an overdose of pub-meets-punk panache from the '70s glory days, "Jealousy" was recorded for a Peel Session in 1984. Cross the cool of vintage Eddie And The Hot Rods, the bite of The Damned's classic lineup and the bark of Roxy-era Slaughter And The Dogs. The result? One of the decade's finest unknown tracks. Two years later, the Coynes formed The Godfathers amidst the fog of their London home. Released on Link Records, Hit By Hit struck with unobstructed views of greed ("I Want Everything" begs like Ian McCulloch wanting change for a Bugs Bunny lithograph), poverty ("This Damn Nation" scrapes by with an absolutely sick guitar effect from Kris Dollimore) and depression ("Lonely Man" has a bouncy beat belying its frowning face). 1988 saw a move to Epic and the greatest success for The Godfathers in America. Peaking at #38 on Billboard, Birth, School, Work, Death benefited from extensive airplay on college radio and the presence of videos on specialty shows a la MTV's "120 Minutes." The band's lyrical edge remained as sharp as a Ginsu. Check out this slice from the title track ("I cut myself, but I don't bleed/'Cause I don't get what I need"). Here's a boast from "'Cause I Said So" ("Every day's a thrill when you're living with me/Don't read Baudelaire's poetry/And I don't need no P.H.D./'Cause I'm ten times smarter than you'll ever be"). After those lines, 'Fathers, I'm kissing your rings!

It's been said that the third "Godfather" movie pales in comparison with the two masterpieces. Fortunately for the Coyne boys, More Songs About Love And Hate is their strongest slab in a well-muscled catalog. "Walking Talking Johnny Cash Blues" speed-freaks its way back to the days of Dr. Feelgood and the Count Bishops blowing thru pub-rock pitchers on the set of "Old Grey Whistle Test." Dressed to the nines in black like his hero, our man has 50,000 questions for a lady named Marie. With her behavioral pattern in "She Gives Me Love," however, perhaps it's best not to interrogate ("She never takes my money/But she always steals my time/ She's the kind of girl that if you gave her the world/She'd say it wasn't worth a dime"). Echoes of The Beatles' sunny voices on "Halfway Paralysed" do little to alter Marie's cheerless disposition ("You serve to bring me down/And follow me around/It's such a crying shame/To see you play your game"). "I'm Lost And Then I'm Found" dumps the ashes from Rolling Stones ashtrays onto contemplative curb sides ("Everybody's giving me the third degree/Don't know when I'm up or down/Cigarettes and women be the death of me/Better that than this old town"). Several years on, "Johnny" and Marie come up with a coping mechanism that's the main image from the
Kink-y "Life Has Passed Us By" portrait ("Gin's a mother's ruin/Dulls the pain away/Helps the conversation/ We're best friends today").

To borrow one of the 50,000 questions: Did The Godfathers ever tour with The Brandos? OK, I'll steal another: Has anyone ever given Al Pacino a copy of More Songs About Love And Hate? If so, it's probably filed next to his prized Germs vinyl.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Fuses- I Wanna Burn (American Punk Records, 1998)

The two greatest punk rock records of the past 15 years: Exploding Hearts’ Guitar Romantic and The Fuses’ I Wanna Burn. Whatever is at #3 is not even close. But the race for #1 is a dead heat.

Everyone knows and loves the Exploding Hearts, but rare is the individual with knowledge of The Fuses’ greatness. Formed out of the ashes of the highly underrated pop-punk quartet Webster, The Fuses came tearing out of Baltimore in 1997 – the last year their hometown Orioles would win the AL East. And just like closer Randy Myers, The Fuses brought the heat. Brendan Bartow (guitar), Kevin Trowel (guitar), and Lee Ashlin (drums) recruited ex-Thumb Mark Minnig (later replaced by Pete Ross), and The Fuses were born. Webster, unlike typical pop-punk bands of its day, had a harder-edged, Descendents-influenced sound. So it wasn’t at all a stretch for three quarters of the band to evolve into something more straight-up punk rock. Yet “straight-up” punk rock seems a woefully inadequate summation of The Fuses! If you threw The Clash’s self-titled LP, Wire’s Pink Flag, and The Adolescents’ blue album into a blender, tossed in a teaspoon of ‘90s melodic punk, and served it with a heaping side portion of pre-millennial anxiety, you’d get The Fuses. Debut EP “New Bomb” arrived in late ’97 and was so immediately mind-blowing that I can still tell you where I was when I first heard it (standing in front of the counter at the Angry, Young, and Poor record shop in Lancaster, PA, my mouth hanging wide open). I waited with ridiculous, childlike anticipation for a full-length –which arrived a few months later. I was not disappointed.

When you think late ‘90s punk revival, you think of groups slavishly imitating both the sound and the image of their 1977 heroes. I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I made my name celebrating that. It’s just that while The Fuses were doing something similar to those other bands, they were also doing something very, very different. For while The Fuses did combine the warp-speed melodies of early ‘80s California hardcore, the outside-the-box strangeness of first generation art-punk, and the wildfire urgency of The Clash, Dils, et al, they did so without coming off as copyists or even revivalists. With the exception of the blatant “Blank Generation” homage of “I Think They’ve Got My Number”, the songs on I Wanna Burn are remarkably non-derivative. Influences are hinted at but never made obvious, and all in all The Fuses fashioned a highly original take on classic punk rock – a true updating of the ’77 sound for the ’97 world. It was an odd time for our planet – technology was rapidly advancing, people thought the world was about to end, fat-free cheese had just gone mainstream, and Jerry Springer was the biggest thing on television. Everyday life was bizarre if not ominous, and along came The Fuses to tap into the tenor of the times. Here was a band that carried the icy, sci-fi ish overtones of Gang of Four or Mission of Burma yet delivered them with a staccato adrenaline rush that would have made the Ramones or even Lemmy proud. This was the future, this was the past, this was the present – punk music as visceral and aggressive as it was moody and angular.

But really, who cares about originality? A band can have all the originality in the world, but if the music’s not good, the creativity is pointless. Would you really rather listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music than jam to The Riverdales? So if we’re going to hail I Wanna Burn, it’s gotta be because it’s a great record, and not because of its novelty and social context 12 years ago. So let it be said: I Wanna Burn is an incredible record, chock full of catchy, perfectly-constructed punk songs played at a delirious pace with fire, force, and feeling. It hits with the power and determination of Bo Jackson barreling over Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football while offering up hooks bigger than Geico’s advertising budget. Ashlin’s drumming is relentless and tight, setting a lightning pace for the Trowel/Bartow guitars, which crash into each other like raygun fire in a space war. Trowel and Bartow emote dread, discomfort, and frantic desperation on lead vocals, bringing it like their lives depended on it. Debut single “New Bomb” is wisely included, joined by equally inspired tunes like “Jesus on the Beach”, “Dead Air Beat”, and the scintillating title track. A vinyl reissue in 1999 tacked on an absolutely ferocious cover of Joy Division's “Warsaw”, punked-up to the max.

The good year 1997 was sadly a last hurrah for Baltimore’s Orioles. The team missed the World Series by two games, but a roster filled with aging stars (Jimmy Key, Cal Ripken) and notorious juicers (Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro) was not built to last. The O’s haven’t been to the post-season since. Baltimore’s Fuses, however, were just getting started in ’97. The group would indulge its love for classic post-punk and art-punk, evolving rapidly and challenging its fans to keep up. A second LP, Are Lies, came out in 2000, followed by a third album Eastern Cities, released five years ago by Shit Sandwich Records. Did Our Lies prove to be a worthy follow-up to the greatness of I Wanna Burn? Did The Fuses sustain their early excellence for the long term? Is there more than one title in this band’s catalog that you absolutely have to own? Stay tuned to this blog, and you may get the answer!

-Josh Rutledge