Sunday, October 30, 2011
Luckily, I have seen these Mighty Men from Manchester twice on stages away from the Tidewater area.
The first fix was at a now-defunct dive called Twister's in Richmond, VA. Touring with the Lunachicks and Down By Law as part of a package deal for Go-Kart Records in 1999, the Buzzcocks were actively promoting their fairly recent (and Miami Dolphins-hued) Modern album. Dismissing the 'Chicks as "punk rock for girls in gas station shirts" and DBL as "sounds for skater shits," my fair-weather friend jOhn A. and I turned our heads and spent the duration of the support acts' set time chatting with a cool couple from Carolina (North division). Most exchanges were of the "I wish the Buzzcocks would hurry up and play already!" variety. After the genie's grant, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle -- two of UK punk's songwriting masterminds -- were joined on Twister's platform by Tony Barber (bass) and Phillip Barker (drums). Hearing '70s gems like "Ever Fallen In Love?" and "Autonomy" (their most metallic track?) in the flesh more than made up for the eternal wait outside and obvious questions from panhandlers. Cuts from Modern such as "Soul On A Rock" and "Speed Of Life" added just as much wind to the Twister's cyclone. Post-gig, jOhn, the Carolina duo and I complimented the 'Cocks on the execution of old and new favorites. In return, we were given access to the band's spacious tour bus. I mostly conversed with the driver and someone from the Buzzcocks' camp, but jOhn got a 30-minute audience with Shelley. My friend fired away with the burning questions, and Pete seemed genuinely taken with jOhn's humorous satire via his Skin Alley zine. The dude was beaming all throughout the two-hour ride back to Virginia Beach!
In 2003, the 'Cocks made a stop at the legendary Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC (the only show I've caught outside Virginia's borders, save for a boss blues band in B-More whose name escapes me). New tunes like "Jerk," "Friends" and "Sick City Sometimes" made the self-titled effort another winner, but the totality of the CC experience lacked the magic that'd been pulled from Twister's hat four years prior. Still, I held Shelley's Sprite bottle while he was signing something, drank three quick PBRs, ate tasty pizza from the kick-ass parlor next door and heard Donnie Iris' "Ah! Leah!" for the first time in nearly 20 years. Not bad for an "off" night, huh?
Here's the final bit from my review of the Buzzcocks' s/t disc that appeared on the long-gone Empty Wagon site: "It's amazing that Shelley and Diggle were once at a dilapidated shopping center on Newtown and Baker Road in Virginia Beach." That club in the blighted part of town was called Outer Limits and had played host to other top tourers like drivin n' cryin' and The Posies. Like a lugnut, I declined jOhn's invitation to witness Shelley and Diggle perform numbers from their well-received 1993 comeback wax (Trade Test Transmissions) at OL. Maybe I was too busy hanging out with the Touch Tone crew at Summer's Past or some other watering hole in hopes of being the rebound for a lonely lady, but missing the Buzzcocks in VB was akin to air-balling a free throw from three feet.
In contrast, owning Trade Test Transmissions is like jamming all of Vince Carter's dunks in that famed All-Star contest in a single attempt. Gripping a well-worn subject on the hardwood, "Palm Of Your Hand" manages to keep its dribble inbounds with cheeky cleverness ("Executive attention, yes, the kind that relieves/You've got the instruments of pleasure at the end of your sleeves"). Like a baller braggin' 'bout his PPG prowess, "Do It" scores twos and threes "like the river fills the sea," but the star calls a 20-second timeout with emotional pondering ("My only consolation/Is that someday you'll care/Perverse sophistication/You won't get far if you're going nowhere"). "Isolation" is blessed with a killer hook (shot) and Reggie Miller's touch when left alone at the perimeter ("There's an empty space where nothing grows/There is no life for the rose/Only a shadow in my heart"). Were it not for the lockout that's threatening to deep-six the entire 2011-12 NBA season, LeBron and Kobe could use the title cut's opening tip ("Turn the television on/You've been reading too long") in a promo piece and leave the teachings of sincerity and sarcasm to bonafide instructors. Perhaps only Bill Walton amongst hoopsters past and present would be able to pass the classic-rock reference of "Innocent" while trapped in the paint ("Even though you're not my mom/I've got to get my washing done"). "Last To Know" rewards with something greater than the Larry O'Brien trophy in June ("I came into your room while you were sleeping/And tip-toed to the bottom of your bed/I held my breath so I could hear you breathing/Love's such a sweet thing").
The first time Bob Mould saw the Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley shouted the chord changes of various songs to him. Talk about an assist that's greater than any of Magic Johnson's spectacular dishes!
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
South Amboy, New Jersey’s Ergs, in their eight-year career, put out two albums, several EPs, and over ten thousand singles. And while I’ll maintain that The Ergs did not hit their absolute peak until they recorded their final LP Upstairs/Downstairs, there’s one album I always reach for when I’m craving “classic Ergs”: 2003’s Dorkrockcorkrod. As a style of music, “pop-punk” is not exactly most people’s favorite. But if every pop-punk band sounded like The Ergs, it would be a different story. While the typical pop-punk band of their day was like a second-rate Screeching Weasel or a third-rate Ramones, The Ergs were more akin to The Descendents with jazz inflections, hardcore tendencies, comedic undercurrents, an air of geek chic, and a whiff of Jersey. Neither wimpy nor formulaic nor lyrically clichéd, the music of The Ergs proved that pop-punk could rock. And Dorkrockcorkrod is in my mind one of the landmark recordings in the history of the genre.
Individually, the members of The Ergs are among my favorite musicians of recent memory. Joe Keller (now killing it with the Night Birds) is still one of my two favorite bass players in punk rock. Mike Yannich, in my mind, is one of the most gifted pop songwriters of his generation. He’s also one hell of a drummer. And Jeff Schroeck is a truly brilliant guitarist. Yet somehow, with all that incredible talent, The Ergs managed to be even more than the sum of their parts! They were a true group- a dynamic and cohesive power trio who combined their complementary superpowers to create a singular force of awesomeness. Dorkrockcorkrod achieves a sound that all pop-punk groups should aspire to: powerful and aggressive, with guitars and drums pushed so high in the mix that you could close your eyes and swear the band was right there in the room with you. Credit must go to producer Chris “Gobo” Pierce for knowing how a punk rock record was supposed to sound. Equal credit must go to the band for its formidable chops and undeniable chemistry. With nods not just to The Descendents but also The Minutemen, Replacements, Black Flag, Husker Du, Green Day, Elvis Costello, and The Zombies, this is an album far removed from the banality of cookie cutter pop-punk. Rife with obscure pop culture references, smart-guy witticisms, rollercoaster tempo shifts, and Ginsu-sharp hooks, it’s an album that delights even after a hundred spins. I should know!
While The Ergs were far from creatively undemocratic (Schroeck and Keller both contributed songs to Dorkrockcorkrod), Yannich was no doubt the band’s “star”. When you think of The Ergs, you probably think of Mikey Erg and his “brokenhearted love songs”. On Dorkrockcorkrod he keeps ‘em coming, even as he pokes fun at himself for doing so. “Pray for Rain”, perhaps the greatest Ergs song ever, opens with these lines:
I'm so in love with you/
So I thought I'd try something new/
And write a silly song about just what your smile can do/
But it's just not working out/
And now I'm having my doubts/
It seems that broken hearted love songs are what I'm all about
Funny stuff for sure, but in typical Mikey Erg fashion it absolutely tears your heart out. In the same manner, songs like “Saturday Night Crap-O-Rama”, “Everything Falls Apart (And More)”, and “Most Violent Rap Group” channel one young man’s excruciating heartache into music that’s emotionally charged yet incredibly fun listen to. “Pray for Rain”, for all the anguish it unleashes, is an utterly triumphant number, and one of the all-time great tracks to air-drum to while you’re operating a motor vehicle. You just can’t help pumping your fist and shouting along to that chorus: “And I!/Could write you the perfect song!” You don’t want to wish relationship woes on anyone, but if there’s a silver lining to Mikey Erg’s bad luck in love circa the early 2000s, it would be brilliant songs like this one. And the album is full of them! In the liner notes, my old friend Lew Houston perfectly sums up the thematic scope of Dorkrockcorkrod: “This is an album about girls, and showers, and new beginnings, and globes, and vampires. That leaves 12 songs about girls. A concept of sorts. Not a very complex one, but one nonetheless.”
The songs on Dorkrockcorkrod that are not about girls are no less essential to the flow and feel of this pop-punk classic. Joe Keller’s “Extra Medium” is like a “Turn on the News” for the Internet generation (“Please don’t turn on the TV/Or open the paper/’Cause the chances of tragedy/Are now part of the weather”). Jeff Schroeck takes the mic for his contributions “Fish Bulb” and “I Feel Better Tonight”, switching things up with his blunt vocal delivery and provocatively vague lyrics. And leave it to the Ergs to go ultra-obscure in cover song selection, having a go at “Vampire Party” by the Paul Roessler/Mike Watt collaboration Crimony. As a whole, it’s hard to find fault with Dorkrockcorkrod – every detour into hardcore thrash or experimental jazz doubling back to snappy power pop (“Rod Argent”) or hard-charging melodic punk (“180 Degree Emotional Ollie”). The general vibe is fast and fun, but it’s the variety that carries the day. It’s as if your favorite early ‘80s “post-hardcore” group stepped out of the pages of Our Band Could Be Your Life, hopped a time machine to 2002, and decided to show the pop-punk scene what it had been missing. The Ergs would go on to make much more great music, and individually they’ve carried on in terrific bands like Black Wine and the aforementioned Night Birds. But Dorkrockcorkrod was something special, and will likely forever remain my favorite thing that any of these three men have ever played on. Has it really been eight years? Damn!
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Thirty-nine cents! It's tough finding a goddamn Snickers bar for less than that amount of lint-covered coins, but spotting arguably Dahl's best album on tape in Camelot Music's cheapo bins inside Virginia Beach's Lynnhaven Mall circa 1995 surely satisfied (albeit temporarily) my ears' hunger for fresh sounds. Judging by the thick nest of frizz on the cover (Mark Bolan with a perm from Hell's hairdresser?), the sleeveless Stooges tee, a dedication to Stiv Bators and song titles like "Junkies Deserve To Die" and "Mick & Keith Killed Brian," I was readily eager for Ultra Under to acquaint itself with the deck of my Magnavox boombox. After the fourth or fifth complete rotation of Dahl's promising platter, I made the following mental declaration: "Man, this dude's like Iggy Pop and Johnny Thunders rolled into one human being!" Indeed, Dahl's shoveling The Stooges' "Dirt" was so spot-on, my New Jersey-based friend (who'd acquire Ultra Under on CD within a week after wearing out the dubbed copy) thought it was Mr. Iguana himself. Said bud also gave high marks to the take of The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," for it served as a template for Dahl's oft-girly vocalisms. Remember The Sweet's version of "Reflections"? Same shit, different era. It was the opening whine ("Touchy, Touchy Baby") that initially impressed us the most, however. Personally, I dig lots of '80s hair bands (as recipients of my grit comps would confirm), but this wild child sipped its glam formula with punk rather than metal. Because Dahl spat out lines in the same way a toddler extracts Cheerios ("So many questions got you on the spot/You don't bother to answer/Just give it up/Plain as day, but she can't see/Just shrug your shoulders/Ah, c'est la vie"), we sang along to Ultra Under in my amigo's rental car during his return to Tidewater.
Mr. New Jersey is no longer a friend of mine (100% his fault, but whatever...), but Jeff Dahl can still be counted upon whenever a rock 'n' roll jolt is necessary to power bleak days and nights. Recounting the true story of a horrible night amidst the '70s punk scene in Los Angeles, "Elks Lodge Riot" puts you in the middle of the chaos ("Flying vultures overhead/Tracking my every move/Sirens running thru the streets/Sets such a dangerous mood"). An absolutely stinging guitar riff from Chemical People's Jaime Pina (shades of Cheetah Chrome) heightens the tension. Dunno what kind of household Dahl grew up in, but "God Don't Care" is an answer-back redolent of many an artist a la Jim Carroll and Patti Smith ("Take it any way you want/It ain't blasphemy/If you sell your soul, baby, you ain't free/Put all you've got in the collection plate/Yeah, you can buy salvation if it ain't too late"). "Somebody" and "Pretty Blonde Hair" (another Pina lead!) are apt tributes to Stiv, as both throw flames with the white-hot intensity of the cookers on We Have Come For Your Children (the BETTER of the two Dead Boys albums!). Sparse piano and voice could be the stuff of your mom's favorite Jeff Dahl composition ("Just Amazin'"), though the tale of succumbing to addiction keeps it out of the recital realm. Elton's preferred instrument is also utilized on "Chemical Eyeballs," which blinks with a mid-tempo groove reminiscent of primo Bowie and Mott The Hoople.
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts. All 39 pennies' worth.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Dreams and glass pipes extinguished, The Ugly Beats REALLY are a prime cut of contemporary garage rock 'n' roll from the same butcher's rack as earlier Get Hip beef slabs like The Cynics, Sons Of Hercules, Stump Wizards, Steel Miners on down. A suit holding a snifter might accuse the menu that's the liner notes of being self-serving, but those who lament the closing of The Grate Steak in Nawfuck wish they could still cook their own meat. With dry rubs from the early Beatles, Byrds and a host of seasonings found on the Nuggets box set, TUB are a well-done hunk of heifer that's grilled to my satisfaction. "Through You" and "Bee Line" sear like the Lyres' Mono Mann at his most manic, courtesy of the uptempo, organ-driven beats and howling vocals. "Don't Go" tenderizes a la the Fab Four's "Love Me Do" with the same plea for affection, but the sweet intones of a female accompanist hasten the USDA stamp of approval. "All Comes Back" simmers in the jangle that Peter Buck borrowed from Roger McGuinn, while the voice liberally blends in the unique style of another REM member. "You'll Forget" is a regional take on an old Neil Diamond B-side recipe, and the heavier approach raises the temperature just a tad. "Funny Girl" brings Babs to mind in a titular sense, but her Noo Yawk ass ain't anywhere near the kitchen. Someone should check to see if Linda Ronstadt is back there. She's one hot pepper, and if there's one thing that Texas loves...
Oh, all taxi cabs in Austin are Cadillac Eldorado convertibles with "Hook 'em, Horns!" hood ornaments.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
I don't know what David Letterman does with all the CDs he gets from musical guests on his talk show, but I'd like to think The Star Spangles' Bazooka!!! was the soundtrack to more than one backstage soiree with several fresh-faced CBS interns. The juxtaposition of Johnny Thunders-like sleaze with Paul Westerberg's corn-fed sensibilities suggests that the Indiana-raised host kindly asked his tryster for permission to drop the Worldwide Pants. Faulty wiring is the thread to many a relationship. Via a measure to curb arson-laced arguments, "Which Of The Two Of Us Is Gonna Burn This House Down?" (Ain't that a mouthful, Dave?) is up to code with the Dalmatians and their handlers ("Because the best thing to do for fire prevention week/Is if me and you just not speak"). Moving to a different breed of dog, track 8's opening lines flame like Michael Bolton driving a jacked NYC ladder truck in reverse ("If we can't be lovers/We can't be friends"). Later lyrics are sure to strangle the poodle with a hose ("Maybe I'll call you if I need a meal/Maybe I'll ball you if I need a cheap steal"). Fueled by a Steve Jones-style guitar octane, "I Don't Wanna Be Crazy Anymore" pays at the pumps and confesses on a cat-clawed couch ("I'm public enemy in my hometown/Parents tell their kids not to say my name out loud"). Prescribed medications in effect, "The Party" favors a less toxic approach to having a good time ("Fill the beer can with Coca-Cola/Makes you feel like a rock 'n' roller"). In the right frame of mind to meet a possible better half, perhaps the appreciative "Angela" will be the one you get to know away from the stage ("She's got my posters up on the wall/She used a box of tacks to make sure it just don't fall/And when I stare into that space/I will always see her face").
Stay tuned for my Labor Day story. It should be ready by Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Or Christmas.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Often compared to Vancouver’s other classic early punk group, D.O.A., The Subhumans were similar for good reason. Singer Brian “Wimpy-Roy” Goble and original drummer Ken “Dimwit” Montgomery were in The Skulls with D.O.A. singer Joey Shithead. The Skulls then splintered into two bands. D.O.A. and The Subhumans frequently played shows together and shared passionately strong opinions on socio-political matters. If both bands sounded kind of the same, that was strictly a blessing to the punk world. What could be better than a great political-minded punk band from Vancouver? How about two great political-minded punk bands from Vancouver? And as in-your-face as Shithead and company were in espousing their world views in song, the boldly anarchistic Subhumans took it to another level entirely! Incorrect Thoughts, the band’s 1980 debut album, relentlessly attacks on musical and lyrical fronts from the first raging strains of “Big Picture” to the final note of that tender love ballad “Let’s Go Down to Hollywood (& Shoot People)”. This is angry, explosive music that goes for the kill and never lets up. If you took the righteous indignation of The Clash, multiplied it by 100, and set it aflame on a runaway train, you’d get the seething ferocity of “The Scheme” or “Death to the Sickoids” (the band’s debut single from ‘78, ragingly reprised here). In essence, this is hardcore punk before the term really existed. Yet because it’s some of earliest hardcore known to man, it’s got just as much in common with ‘77 punk rock as it does with ‘82 hardcore. Basically it’s rock n’ roll played louder, faster, and way more angrily than it ever had been played before, and in these blazing tunes you can hear an affinity for everyone from the Avengers to The Ramones.
Like D.O.A., the Subhumans were propelled by one of the hottest & tightest rhythm sections of their time. And although Montgomery (older brother of Chuck Biscuits) did leave the band in 1979, replacement drummer Jim Imagawa was no downgrade. Imagawa and bassist Gerry “Useless” Hannah set a breakneck pace on Incorrect Thoughts, while Mike “Normal” Graham unleashes a righteous blend of melodic leads and heavy, scorching guitar. On lead vocals, Goble atones for a lack of a traditionally good singing voice with passion, conviction, and the sheer force to move mountains. The man sounds flat-out pissed, and he’s got a lot to say! While the term “anarchist punk” would be sullied in the ensuing years by several generations of really awful bands, what you hear on Incorrect Thoughts is some of the best music ever. It’s aggressive and hard-hitting, no doubt, but at the same time you’re pumping your fist, singing along, and itching to get out there and wage war against the powers that be! Whether he’s railing against new wave rock (“The Scheme”), bully jocks (“Greaser Boy”), poser punks (“Dead at Birth”), brainless sheep (“Model of Stupidity”), the mass media (“Death to the Sickoids”), or the forces that oppress (“Big Picture”), he’s at 11+ on an anger scale of 1 to 10. And the band behind him is bringing it hard! It may strike some of us as odd that the new wave bands we music geeks now romanticize are the object of derision in “The Scheme” (Goble did most definitely not get The Knack!). But there’s just no denying that it’s one of the greatest punk rock songs of the early ‘80s.
“Big Picture” opens the album with a proverbial bang. Hot on its heels are the classic anthems “We‘re Alive” and “Firing Squad”. At that point a lesser band might have shot its wad. But The Subhumans are just getting started, and the action doesn’t really hit its peak until midway through the album. The all-time classic “Death to the Sickoids”, the furious call-to-arms “New Order”, the satirical & metal-tinged “Slave to My Dick”, and the melodic sing-along “Greaser Boy” are four of the best songs the band ever did. They spearhead the album’s inspired back half, which seems to be gaining momentum even as closing track “Let’s Go Down to Hollywood (& Shoot People)” eases off the gas pedal a tad. What a rush! If you need a musical recording to get you fired up, or if you’re in a foul mood and crave some good old angry punk rock, this is the album you want! If punk rock music is about saying “Fuck you!” via song, then this is one of the punkest records ever made.
If you were actually there to see The Subhumans circa 1980-81, what an experience that must have been! Those were wild times, with many shows literally culminating in riots. The band gigged throughout Western Canada and the U.S. West Coast, playing with kindred spirits the Dead Kennedys as well as Husker Du, Black Flag, Bad Brains, X, and Minor Threat. Even after Hannah and Graham left the band in 1981, reinforcements were brought in and a second album was recorded for release on SST Records. By the time it came out, however, Goble had left to play bass for D.O.A. and the Subhumans were no more. Hannah would gain notoriety in 1983 for his role in the bombings of an environmentally unfriendly hydroelectric substation on Vancouver Island and a missile manufacturing plant near Toronto. He served five years in prison. Dormant since 1982, The Subhumans reformed in 1995 with Hannah and Goble on board for a Canadian tour. And in 2005, the band reformed for the long haul with Graham back on guitar and SNFU’s Jon Card taking over on drums. They put out a new LP in 2006 and last year re-recorded Incorrect Thoughts in its entirety due to a contractual inability to re-release the original album. I have not heard the new version, Same Thoughts, Different Day. But come on: if you’re gonna get Incorrect Thoughts, accept no imitations. Find the original album! A classic of hardcore punk and one of the best punk LPs of the early ‘80s, period, it’s worth tracking down. And if you don’t feel bad about screwing the band out of royalties, the CD Presents reissue adds two bonus tracks and comes with quite the nice booklet. Talk about a moral dilemma!
Friday, June 3, 2011
Along with Screeching Weasel, The Queers, the Beatnik Termites, Green Day, and the Mr. T. Experience, the Parasites were the cream of the crop of ‘90s pop-punk. Originally formed in New Jersey in 1985, the Parasites became more or less a one-man show when Dave “Nikki Parasite” MacKenzie relocated to Berkeley, California in the early ‘90s. Working with a revolving door of supporting players, MacKenzie recorded two albums for the indie imprint Shredder: Punch Lines and Pair. The latter was primarily comprised of songs that had originally appeared on the band’s 1990 debut Pair of Sides. For years, I insisted that the punkier Pair was by far the superior album. Although I liked Punch Lines, I contended that it was “overproduced” and sounded “like an Elton John record”. It’s easy for me to understand why I felt that way then. I was a young man – 25, 26 years of age. I was a dyed in the wool “punk rocker” with a closet full of Clash t-shirts and a bedroom floor littered with Maximum Rocknroll back issues. Punch Lines, for all of its merits, did not deliver the buzzsaw guitars and stripped-to-the-bones simplicity I craved in pop-punk music. But as the years passed and I came to value musical substance over musical style, I completely fell in love with Punch Lines. It’s not even close – Punch Lines is the best Parasites album, and to boot one of the ten greatest pop-punk albums of all-time.
Perhaps because MacKenzie played everything but drums on the album, Punch Lines has the feel of a solo record. Although the obvious influences (Descendents, Buzzcocks) contribute to the general musical approach, the album is the distinctive work of a truly unique artist. True enough: MacKenzie has always been a genre traditionalist, and no one is better at crafting simple, catchy pop-punk songs. But no other pop-punk album has ever sounded quite like Punch Lines, which derives its character from MacKenzie’s plaintive vocals and brilliantly heartrending lyrics. If Punch Lines really is a concept album, the concept is not hard to grasp: love’s a bitch! The man once told me that he wrote songs because it was a lot cheaper than paying a therapist to listen to his problems. And judging by the lyrical tone of Punch Lines, he must have suffered through some serious relationship woes prior to writing these songs. I had suffered through some serious relationship woes of my own around the time I bought the album, so it’s easy to see why Punch Lines connected with me. The record affirmed my views on love – and probably influenced them going forward.
While typical pop-punk music of the day addressed the ups and downs of teenage romance, Parasites songs spoke of far more complicated adult love. Punch Lines recounts the less pleasant aspects of grown-up relationships: the inevitable dysfunction and subsequent betrayals, the torture of loving someone who doesn’t love you back, the neurotic over-analysis of what went wrong, the dark cloud of obsession looming over new love, the agony of loss and the hole it creates in your heart, the bitter realization that what started out so promising could have ended in heartbreak and despair, and through it all, the optimism to believe that no matter how many times love fucks you over, it’s going to finally work out next time. By turns pitch dark (“Dead Roses”), hopeful (“When I’m Here With You”), cathartic (“Letdown”), stalkerish (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”), bitter (“I Don’t Believe You”), and bizarrely upbeat (“Crazy”), the relationship theme plays out with all the poignancy, humor, and high drama of a cinematic love story. If they ever make a Broadway musical out of Punch Lines, I’m first in line for tickets.
Perhaps a fair criticism of Punch Lines would be that its best tracks outshine the rest. The funny, self deprecating “Young and Stupid” is just about the greatest pop-punk tune there’s ever been. And album opener “Crazy” is simply an extraordinary song – a touching tale of two very imperfect individuals who nonetheless make a perfect match (“I met you in emergency/You rolled right by on your way back from shock therapy/I knew that you were meant for me/I loved the way you moved/Even though you moved involuntarily”). Also meriting classic status in the annals of pop-punk is the peppy and impossibly catchy “When I’m Here With You”. But while the rest of the album may suffer slightly by comparison, it's still really freaking good. The likes of “Someday”, “The Next Time”, and “Nothing At All” are solid tunes on their own and crucial components of the album as a whole. And “Letdown”, for all of its dragging instrumental bloat, is the epic closer the album needs. While not quite a “happy” ending, the song brings closure to the artist’s suffering. A page is turned, and our protagonist lives to love another day.
The optimist in me was sometimes tempted to re-program the CD so that it would end happily with “Crazy”. But deep down I knew it was pointless. Punch Lines is supposed to be a bummer – the kind of record you listen to when you’re going through some major shit and need company for your misery. You listen to this guy spill his guts about how much his love life sucks, and it makes you feel better. The album sure got me through some rough times. Today at a considerably happier point in my life, I hope to never again require its consolation. But Punch Lines will always be a favorite of mine. The 25-year-old me may have been mostly full of shit, but he had fine taste in music.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
OK, cancel some of what I said above. Songs Of Praise has been in my stash for over fifteen years, and this is the first time I've really studied the lyrics. Behind the cloud of cosmetics is a band who really gives a damn. Didn't mean to imply otherwise. Onward...
"I Don't Wanna Die For England" makes a terse, anti-war statement of not wanting to "hear the bugle call." "Sensitive" adds more heft to the Robert Smith theory ("If I say something wrong/You might start to cry/I don't wanna get you down/Don't wanna make you cry"). "Viva La Revolution" has the empowering lines ("Long live the people/Long live the scheme/Long live our hopes/Long live the dream") and endless title chants to join Jimmy Pursey and his "Borstal Breakout." Individuality is ironically endorsed in "Just Like Me." In lieu of my retraction, there are plenty of party favors. A former friend of mine once termed Pete "Dee" Davison's stringing on "Peculiar Music" as "Egyptian guitar." Well, the reissue of Songs Of Praise is on Cleopatra...Pete's bro, "Kid Dee," adds a lead vocal to his drumsticks on "Mary Whitehouse" and spouts about "pornography on the BBC." "Get Adicted" is a rousing recruiting pitch and a band theme song all in one. The last dance is saved for "Tango" ("We drank champagne/We danced again/We had laughter/And then after...").
I once saw Ozzy Osbourne wearing an Adicts T-shirt in a magazine. What would be the ratio from London oddsmakers that he's actually heard the band? 666:1, most likely.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Two of the reasons why Dirty Sheets exists: During Josh's days as skipper for the still-missed Now Wave Magazine, we exchanged numerous e-mails concerning music, sports and food -- a practice still continued on the walls of Facecrack and in other dugouts. One of the inquiries posed to Lord Rutledge: "What do you think of The Outfield?" His response: "They're great wimpy pop!" The banter hadn't been intended as a litmus test for a future DS teammate, but I now smile at the scouting report on what constituted "good" and "bad" music. My "Thrift Scores" piece in Holly Womack's Fresh Rag 'zine circa 2002 also served as Triple-A training for DS. In the review of The Outfield's debut disc, I wrote: "You might think I regard Play Deep as one of the finest one-through-nine-inning collections of WRV T-shirt rock in the record books. You'd be correct in your analysis there, southpaw." Stealing another base from FR: "A swing to the warning track demonstrates (The Outfield) have an MLB-level of craftsmanship akin to first-stringers The Police and Big Country." Go ahead and add Journey's double-play duo of "Stone In Love" and "Anytime" to the squad. Send aging "stars" "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Open Arms" to the showers.
Nine years later, Bangin' is worthy of an examination by the Veterans Committee. "Since You've Been Gone" smears the dirt of denial ("An' I know you're coming back") on the cleats of intense loneliness. If this had been struck by The Police, they would've slammed a four-bagger. "Moving Targets" has Johnny Marr-like jangle behind the plate in spots, even though it lacks Morrissey-style lyrical pitches from the mound. "Playground" swings its lumber with monkey-bar guitars and see-saw drums a la Play Deep's "All My Love" and "Say It Isn't So." Joe DiMaggio would've respected the "This isn't meant to be a backseat love affair" line in the near-power pop "Better Than Nothing," but I'm not so sure about Phil Rizzuto and Meat Loaf.
Calling Bangin' "a bat out of hell" would be a misnomer. All the same, the grip feels pretty good.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
True enough: at the time of its release, Working Class Dog seemed an unlikely candidate for enduring artistic significance. Springfield, who’d scored a top 20 hit as a teen idol pop star with 1972’s “Speak to the Sky”, had transitioned to acting after a suspected payola scandal involving his label Capitol had caused many radio stations to boycott his music. He starred as “himself” on the Saturday morning cartoon Mission: Magic! and later played Dr. Noah Drake on the hit soap General Hospital. But Working Class Dog was no opportunistic cash-in. Springfield, in fact, had already finished the album before he took the soap role. That his new-found stardom opened a few doors is hard to dispute. But even harder to dispute is that the music was more than worthy. From the jump, Working Class Dog comes off like an album that was made for the radio. And if you don’t think that’s a compliment, you know nothing about power pop music. Imbuing crunchy, high energy guitar rock with ringing melodies and razor-sharp hooks, opening track “Love Is Alright Tonite” just sounds like a hit. And it was – reaching the U.S. top 20 in late ’81. It was preceded there by two top tens off the same album – the Sammy Hagar penned “I’ve Done Everything For You” (#8) and the #1 smash “Jessie’s Girl”. The latter may be the greatest radio rock song ever recorded, and today it remains a staple of “classic” rock formats. In this current era in which commercial success is equated with well-honed mediocrity and soulless pandering to market demographics, the brilliance of Springfield’s artistry may be lost on most. But it’s not lost on me. Never one to underestimate the importance of a pleasing melody and a stick-in-your-head chorus, I consider the man an all-time great in his field.
It seems unnecessary to elaborate on “Jessie’s Girl”. Anyone with taste will concur that it’s the Mona Lisa of pop-rock songs and the Citizen Kane of top 40 hits. I saw Springfield debut it on the TV program Solid Gold, and it was truly a life-changing experience. The chorus knocked my socks off, and the guitar bridge was epic! I had my mom take me to the record store the next day, and home I went with the “Jessie’s Girl” 45 (Had this series of events never transpired, surely I’d now be a gaming enthusiast or antique collector instead of a music blogger). When a full LP arrived a few weeks later, it was no letdown. Co-produced by industry titan Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead) and featuring the work of seasoned session players like Robben Ford (George Harrison, Joni Mitchell) and Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar), Working Class Dog was a polished product in all the best ways. But it was the songs that stood out the most. Springfield wasn’t trying to change the world or revolutionize music, but he sure knew what mattered to people. Who couldn’t relate to songs about broken hearts, unrequited love, and the escape from mundane frustrations afforded by a hot date on Friday night? Not unlike ‘70s acts such as The Babys or even the great Cheap Trick, Springfield achieved a blissful marriage between high-powered arena rock and carefully crafted, melody-driven pop. Fun, energetic, and expertly targeted towards the lovelorn adolescent in all of us, his songs embody the spirit of the early ‘80s in a purely good way. And although Springfield’s romantic frustrations were not as convincing as those of a less photogenic contemporary like Joe Jackson, you just couldn’t hold his good looks against him. So what if he’d banged six chicks since lunchtime? When he got up on stage and sang “Jessie’s Girl”, we didn’t doubt for a second that he felt our pain! He was one of us – singing about the girls he couldn’t have and doing it better than it had ever been done. And the girls, they loved him even more than we fellas did.
Working Class Dog is by no means 100 percent filler-free (few albums of the time were!). But its best tracks are sheer perfection, and even its cheesy moments are not without a certain charm. Lesser known songs such as “Hole in My Heart” and the reggae inflected “Everybody’s Girl” probably could have been hits, while the main departure from the three-minute pop formula, album closer “Inside Silvia”, is oddly trippy yet quite beautiful. Springfield’s songwriting acumen, while surely the vital cog, is just one part of the awesomeness. The man’s vocal chops deserve equal billing, and they especially shine on his impassioned interpretation of Hagar’s “I’ve Done Everything For You”. The world may have first perceived of Rick Springfield as an actor who could sing, but three songs into Working Class Dog, you realized it was the other way around. If you somehow still pegged him for a flash-in-the-pan, another thirteen Top 40 hits over the next seven years would ultimately prove you way wrong.
Perhaps what I love best about Working Class Dog is that it both typifies and transcends its era. When you put the album on, it’s like you’re traveling back in time. It just feels like the early ‘80s, in all the best ways. It transports you to a more innocent age – when young couples didn’t “hook up” but actually went on dates, The Greatest American Hero was killing the Nielsen ratings, and “gaming” meant you went to the mall arcade and fed quarters into the Donkey Kong machine. But whereas most popular recordings from the same period succeed as nostalgia pieces, Working Class Dog just plain succeeds. Like anything well-constructed, its superb songs and indelible melodies have held up over the long haul. The likes of “I’ve Done Everything for You” and “Love Is Alright Tonite” sound as alive and infectious now as they did the day the album was released. Compared to “classic” power pop acts like 20/20, the Plimsouls, and the like, Rick Springfield surely polished and “mainstreamed” the three-minute pop medium for a mass audience. But that’s not always a bad thing. Some music is just meant to be massive. Can you imagine “Jessie’s Girl” as an obscure “cult” hit that only hipsters bought? The mere thought throws me into a near depression. A great pop song that doesn’t get radio airplay is like the proverbial tree falling with no one around to hear it. For a number of years in the early ‘80s, Rick Springfield gave the masses great pop songs. And the masses loved it. Dude gets my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vote!
Friday, May 6, 2011
The mid-to-late ’90s was the golden era of garage punk LPs. Even amongst a slew of truly legendary titles, the Registrators’ 1996 debut Terminal Boredom stood out as an instant classic of the genre. Had the band chosen to make another album or two just like it, no one would have complained. But like a bunch of evil geniuses toiling away in the lab in pursuit of universal domination, The Registrators had something far more unprecedented in mind for their second LP. They were poised to take punk rock into the future. And initially, I was one of the skeptics. The new wave/post-punk thing was at the time becoming trendy, and I would have preferred more of the early Damned on amphetamines primitive trash-bashing action of Terminal Boredom. I simply didn’t “get it” at first. But I got it soon enough. Given my somewhat notorious appreciation for the “melodic” side of early punk, it was probably a surprise I didn’t immediately flip for the Buzzcockian mutations of Sixteen Wires. To the band’s credit, the “modernization” of its sound was achieved not through the use of electronic instrumentation, but rather through sheer musical inventiveness and the advantageous use of advancing recording technology. While more melody-driven and far “odder” than Terminal Boredom, Sixteen Wires in no way abandoned the band’s trademark hyper speed pogo punk motif. It simply took it to the next level. And in direct contrast to the cold, dark sounds that were passing for “new wave” in the late ’90s, Sixteen Wires is just wild, crazy fun!
From the moment it kicks into action, Sixteen Wires sounds like the work of a band that’s been wearing the grooves out of the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP 24/7. You’ll swear that a young Shelley and Diggle are playing the leads and singing the harmonies! But easy as it may be to detect, this influence is just one element of many that make this record so extraordinary and distinctive. Perhaps if the ‘cocks had attempted to replicate the aggro-synth stylings of Ultravox and The Screamers with guitars, gotten hepped up on caffeine, and time traveled to 1999, they may have made a record like Sixteen Wires. Or maybe they wouldn’t have. The beauty of Sixteen Wires is that, really, no band but The Registrators could have made the album. It’s uniquely them - highlighted by Hiroshi’s crazed, wonderfully mangled English vocals, Ren’s out-of-this-world bass playing, and a generally off-kilter take on the punk rock sound that only a Japanese group could have fashioned. Somehow the band mashes together classic punk, lo-fi garage, and futuristic art-rock to create something totally fresh and legitimately “new”. The songs, while inflected with “experimental” tweaks of various sorts, are instantly likable and almost dangerously infectious. Side 1 scorchers like “School’s Lust” and “Panic Action” are as explosively catchy as anything off of Terminal Boredom, and even when the band really pushes the “weird” quotient, the results are massively enjoyable. Songs like “Pink Lipstick” and “Kiss Me Kiss Me” suggest what might happen if an army of aliens got ahold of some '70s punk recordings and started their own Martian new wave band. At times it sounds like The Registrators of old (the blazing “T.V. Hell” and “Automatic Exit” are re-records of A-sides from ’97), and at times it’s completely the opposite. The near-epic “Louder Faster” sounds like a long-lost masterpiece of English post-punk from 1980, while the magnum opus title track brings to mind the experimental side of the Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension.
It’s interesting to note that The Registrators kind of lost the plot after Sixteen Wires, their scant pre-breakup output ranging from pedestrian power pop to almost unlistenable indie rock. Much like another defining punk band of a particular era, The Clash, they had probably reached such heights of greatness that there was nowhere left to go but off the cliff. But isn’t that the sort of problem almost every band in the world wishes it had? The last time I spoke on the telephone with resident DS pundit Shawn Abnoxious, he told me The Registrators were going to save rock n’ roll. This must have been 1997, ’98 – a couple years before anyone knew what was coming in Sixteen Wires. I can only surmise that Shawn saw the future, that perhaps he’d even traveled there with The Registrators and sat in their luxury sky box. I’m reminded of the plot of that classic American film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which the very foundation of civilization surviving is predicated upon the existence of a rock band. I can truly imagine a future world in which Sixteen Wires is hailed as society’s salvation and all the little cyborg children fall at Hiroshi’s feet. Even in our more primitive early 2000s, we encountered scores of bands that attempted (mostly in vain) to emulate the modern punk sound of Sixteen Wires. If it were simply as easy as utilizing phaser guitar, choppy rhythms, discordant instrumentation, and bizarre vocal effects, this album could have been re-made a dozen times over and perhaps even improved upon. But as we well all know, that wasn’t it at all. Great music results from neither style nor techniques. It results from talent and inspiration, and The Registrators had both in abundance. Sixteen Wires is far more than merely a groundbreaking achievement. It’s simply a great album on every level. It’s fun to listen to and contains a large number of truly classic songs. Here’s a top secret known only by the reptilian hybrid men who live under ground and clandestinely control all the world’s governments: The Registrators did save rock n’ roll. Eventually, we will all be informed.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
…Which brings us to The Demons’ self-titled debut album. It’s the ultimate three dollar record. Like almost any other band even remotely attached to the mid-to-late ‘70s New York City punk scene, The Demons got signed to a major. Singer/guitarist Eliot Kidd was probably best known for having a few quotes in Please Kill Me. He was a pal of Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure (who at one point was a member of The Demons). Having gigged a lot with the likes of The Dictators, The Demons drew the attention of Mercury Records and were given the opportunity to record with Craig Leon. Leon, as an assistant to the legendary producer Richard Gottehrer, had worked with the Ramones, Blondie, Suicide, and Richard Hell. And while The Demons may have not been top tier a la the aforementioned bands, their one and only album is a really cool artifact of early New York punk.
The Demons are probably best known for the song “She’s So Tuff”, which was covered a decade ago by Tina and the Total Babes. Tina Lucchesi knows how to pick ‘em! “She’s So Tuff” was hands down one of the greatest power pop songs of the late ‘70s, and it alone justifies the purchase of the Demons’ album. If Kidd had been able to write a few more songs like “She’s So Tuff”, then perhaps The Demons would not be such an obscure band in our present memory. The closest the group came to another A-level track was album closer “I Hate You”, which is disturbingly funny and really fucking catchy in a Heartbreakers meets Real Kids sort of way. I can totally imagine Tina Lucchesi covering this one as well - so stay tuned, rock n’ rollers! The rest of the album, while not devoid of filler, delivers some really cool tracks. Opening cut “It’ll Be Alright” is a terrific mid-tempo rocker that kinda brings to mind Johnny Thunders fronting The Paul Collins Beat. Given Kidd’s connection to Thunders and Lure, it’s hardly surprising that “Bad Dreamin’” comes off like an LAMF outtake. “Ten Past One” is a very credible ballad in the fashion of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And well-done covers of “She’s a Rebel” and “I Fought the Law” further affirm Kidd’s affinity for that particular era of rock n’ roll.
Probably not a “punk” band per se, The Demons imbued their throwback rock n’ roll with enough sleaze and sloppiness to nonetheless fit the bill. The now-deceased Kidd is somewhat notorious for being in Sid Vicious’s hotel room the night Nancy Spungen died. But as a musician, he was more than worthy. You can’t really say The Demons were an influence on the glam-punk that resurged in the ‘90s (after all, who had actually heard them besides Tina Lucchesi?). But if you’re a fan of anyone from The Joneses to the Trash Brats to the Dimestore Haloes, you will most definitely recognize The Demons as some of the earliest practitioners of their style. Like a second string New York Dolls with power pop tendencies, Kidd and his mates were a fun band that must have been a good time live. They left behind just this one album, and one truly classic song in “She’s So Tuff”. In this age of Internet commerce, it’s not always easy to get a great deal on an old LP. But if there’s a shop in your proximity that deals in large quantities of used vinyl, The Demons are worth seeking out…even if you have to pay more than three dollars.
Friday, April 22, 2011
For "older guys" like KM -- who's still screaming at the age of 55 -- OFF! (yet another band named after an insecticide) are a breath of polluted air for those who sucked on intoxicants from Black Flag's vast spray can BACK IN THE DAY™. Thirty-two years after Morris' initial spasms, The First Four EPs collection recalls the nascent days of BF in more than one instance. Tense 'n' terse compositions lasting around a minute each in length. Lyrics dripping with several coats of anger and intensity. Raymond Pettibon's distinctive artwork that's as important to the band's vision as any instrumentalist. The most crucial likeness? KM's ageless voice box. From Pettibon in the First Four EP's liner notes: "Keith could've been born with a microphone in his hand, though he spits righteous spiel without for the privileged backstage or on the street. Cole Porter would have loved him for his enunciation and interpretation if he could have gotten past the shock and rush of Dimitri's, Steve's and Mario's accompaniment."
Thankfully, the "shock and rush" of Morris' supporting cast pace all 16 OFF!-erings in a running time faster than your track-star brother's 5K result from the Eastern Regionals. "Scared and soaked in sweat/How worse can this get?" shouts KM on "Panic Attack," and the pronounced fear is much worse than your bro's asthmatic teammate who left the necessary inhaler in his red-headed girlfriend's glove box. Spray-painting the band's moniker on a wall amongst spartan surroundings, "Darkness" doesn't turn off the Todd Stadium lights on its brutal truth shining in your face ("You're the problem/We're the solution"). Bet you and your Cocks High School buds would suck a schlong in order to skate a reconstituted Mount Trashmore ramp to the strains of "Upside Down" being played live. 'Til that happens, watch the vid with jealous rage and decipher this, dudes: "You wonder why I'm always shouting/You wonder why I've gotta yell/You ask me why I don't hang out/'Cause you turned this into a livin' hell." Had you and your brother taken the suggested Advanced Placement art class instead of slacking in a study hall, perhaps there would've been two scholarships to Virginia Commonwealth University at term's end. But alas, the aimlessness turned black paint into "Black Thoughts" ("I crash into a wall/No feelings at all/How far will I go/Before I hit the bottom"). While you were doing your best Tony Alva impersonations and pestering homeless veterans on the boardwalk, here's what was missed from Dr. Morris' "I Don't Belong" lecture: "Hit on Miss Liberty/Under the cherry tree/Drunk on hypocrisy/I'm standing in the shadows/And I'm pissing in the punch bowl." Next day's plans included smoking wacky weed and blasting Dave Matthews Bland bootlegs in your white Rastafarian friend's Jeep, thus the glimpses of "Poison City" went uncaptured ("No pictures/No flowers/Crumbling towers/Glamorize the fallen rubble/Stirring up all this trouble"). Since DMB kills eardrums and engines dead, you weren't able to hear Dr. Morris' heartfelt eulogy for his friend "Jeffrey Lee Pierce." Here's some final thoughts: "A river runs through his esophagus/To a swamp buried in his chest/So carry off, Jeffrey Lee/And we'll burn that Christmas tree."
Carson Daly: You're OFF! my shitlist.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
What I love about the Adolescents was that they occupied a very cool niche in punk history. They weren’t ’77 punk, and they weren’t hardcore punk. They were something perfectly in between. They had the catchy three-chord simplicity of early punk, but also a snotty attitude and ramped-up aggression that foreshadowed the arrival of hardcore. It wouldn’t be quite correct to say this band invented snotty teenage punk, but they’ve got to be considered one of the defining bands of the style. Formed in 1980 by 17-year-olds Steve Soto and Tony Cadena and featuring 16-year-old Frank Agnew on guitar, The Adolescents really were adolescents. The quick departure of original members John O’Donovan (guitar) and Peter Pan (drums) paved the way for the addition of a couple of scene veterans in ex Social Distortion players Rikk Agnew (Frank’s brother) and Casey Royer. The combination of Rikk Agnew’s skilled songwriting and Cadena’s attitude-laden, authentically teenage vocals proved hard to beat, and in short order the group powered out the classic single “Amoeba”. With its snarling vocals, ripping melodic guitar leads, and rousing sing-along chorus, it created a blueprint not just for The Adolescents but for Orange County punk as a whole. As synonymous with its time and place as “God Save the Queen” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” were to theirs, this song alone would have made legends of The Adolescents. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Adolescents (aka The Blue Album) is one of those rare debut LPs that plays like a best-of collection. In addition to “Amoeba”, songs like “Creatures”, “No Way”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Who Is Who”, and the near-epic “Kids of the Black Hole” are all bona fide classics that are still being copied today by up-and-coming punk groups who could only dream of being half this good. The group plays with the youthful abandon and slamming raw energy that are essential to this style of music, but one should not overlook the incredible skill that went into making the record. The guitar playing of the Agnew brothers- a hallmark of both The Adolescents in particular and the O.C. punk sound in general - mirrors the stylings of Johnny Thunders but kicks it up a notch. And the songwriting, largely credited to the elder Agnew, packs these hard-charging tunes with honest-to-goodness hooks! Cadena on vocals sounds so ferociously indignant that it’s almost shocking to see old video footage where he looks like a little kid (the way he sang, I always pictured a cross between Lemmy and Henry Rollins!). When people talk about all-time great vocal performances on punk rock albums, maybe they bring up Jake Burns on Inflammable Material or Jello Biafra on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or John Lydon on Never Mind the Bollocks. Rarely is Tony Cadena’s name brought up, but it damn well ought to be. From the first line of “I Hate Children” through the final raging strain of “Creatures”, he raises the standard for what “snotty” vocals are supposed to sound like.
While most adolescent punk rock is considered utterly disposable or at best charmingly juvenile, Adolescents is a remarkably enduring and transcendent recording. I was already in my mid-to-late 20s when I first heard it – long past the point where I held a “teenage” point of view. Even now, at the age of 40 and very much an average Joe, I find these songs exceptionally relevant to the human experience. If tunes like “No Way”, “L.A. Girl”, and “Creatures” articulate how fake and fickle society truly is, there’s no denying that’s truer than ever today. “I Hate Children” is still really fucking funny. And “Kids of the Black Hole”, in its candid critique of teenage hedonism run amok, comes off eerily prophetic in the context of our current culture. Most importantly, this remains some of the hottest and fiercest punk music ever committed to record. I would imagine that if you are a teenage punk struggling to find acceptance in the high school hierarchy and the world at large, cuts like “Who Is Who” and “Wrecking Crew” would become personal anthems the instant you heard them. And the great thing is that these are songs you’ll never need to “outgrow”. I listen to this album at the gym when I’m pulling heavy weight off the floor and at home when I’m cleaning the bathroom. It’s not just a classic punk LP but also one of the greatest albums of the past 30 years, period. And although there have been numerous reboots of The Adolescents franchise with varying lineups, they’ve never been able to quite recapture the magic of that first album. Then again, neither has anyone else.
Friday, April 1, 2011
I bought Defenders of the Faith the day it came out. It was probably the first album in my life that I purchased on its release day. I think that as a 12-year-old Priest fan, I was initially a little let down by Defenders of the Faith because it lacked a true “classic” song a la “Breaking the Law” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”. There was no “crossover” smash hit single on the album – which seemed odd given the emerging marketability of heavy metal music circa early 1984. But it was precisely that non-commercial quality that ultimately made Defenders a great album. As the title suggests, the record wasn’t made for the masses. It wasn’t catered to the 14-year-old girls who bought Def Leppard’s Pyromania. It was made for true fans of metal. And although Priest was only a couple of years off from selling out in the very worst way, on this album the band didn’t care jack shit about cashing in or getting on MTV. They just put the pedal to the metal and rocked. And even if there’s not one all-time classic track to be found, from start to finish Defenders is as consistently good as any album in the Priest catalog.
There’s no denying Judas Priest’s highly influential and very worthy 1970s output. Still, when I think of Judas Priest, I think of early ‘80s Priest. I think of leather and motorcycles and sold-out arenas and Rob Halford wailing away on vocals and K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton engaging in dual guitar wanking of the most epic variety. Defenders of the Faith typifies that prime era of Priest. It’s the third of the three classic albums the band released in its true heyday, and of the three it’s no doubt the hardest. The songs, while tuneful and loaded with hooks, kick ass and shake the walls. Not even the dreaded tinny ‘80s production can tame the Priest metal machine. The group hadn’t captured this level of power and aggression on record in years – and would not capture it again until 1990’s speed metal surprise Painkiller. And Halford – arguably the greatest metal singer of all-time – is in career-best form. The utter ferociousness that caused “Freewheel Burning” to tank as a single makes it a big favorite amongst hardcore fans. It flat-out rips, the band coming out of the gates with a vengeance (no pun intended). It’s merely the first half of a 1-2 punch, with “Jawbreaker” coming on strong right behind it. And although tunes like the minor hit “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” slow the pace a little, it’s the power numbers that prevail. “Rock Hard Ride Free” and “Heavy Duty” (a throwback to classic J.P. arena sing-alongs like “United” and “Take on the World”) are veritable anthems that deserve a place on any good Priest best-of collection.
If there seems to be an inherent cheesiness to Defenders of the Faith (the cover art, some of the lyrics), it’s strictly an awesome, proto Spinal Tap kind of cheesiness. This was 1984, after all. Heavy metal music was supposed to be evil. And like Turbonegro, whom they clearly inspired, Priest wasn’t funny purely by accident. I doubt that one could read the lyrics to “Love Bites” or the homoerotic sex bondage anthem “Eat Me Alive” and not think the band was trying to be humorous (one person who did not get the joke: Tipper Gore). And even if “The Sentinel” is closer lyrically to a bad imitation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” or countless Iron Maiden songs than it is to a proper parody, the band gets a pass because musically it freakin’ rocks! You could say the same about the album as a whole. Defenders is everything you wanted from a metal record in the early ‘80s. It’s accessible to the mainstream, but not overtly commercial. It’s loud, aggressive, and unapologetically cheesy. And of course it has the over-the-top operatic vocals and speed of light guitar shredding that every metalhead craves! Add in that the songs are tremendous, and you’ve got yourself a genre masterpiece. As metal music was rapidly growing in popularity, Priest would soon stumble in an effort to fit in. The use of synthesizers on Turbo was just plain pathetic, and Ram It Down was a totally phoned-in effort. But Priest’s decline is no way foreshadowed on Defenders of the Faith. A slump may have been looming, but they hit this one out of the park.
Monday, March 28, 2011
The Pursuit Of Happiness weren't an airport based in a large American city, but Toronto was the launching point of the group in 1985. Piloted by Moe Berg (guitar/vocals) -- who bore a strong resemblance to The Kid Who Had A Report Due On Space from the encyclopedia adverts -- TPOH also featured Dave Gilby (drums), Johnny Sinclair (bass) and sisters Tamara and Natasha Amabile (backing vocals) in the cabin. 1986 saw the release of the band's debut single, "I'm An Adult Now," as well as a grainy video of the song filmed on the streets of TPOH's hometown. Still an unsigned act in early 1988, the group put forth another independent 45, "Killed By Love," that failed to generate the attention of the previous wax. Before inking a deal with Chrysalis Records, the Amabile sisters parted ways with TPOH and were substituted by Kris Abbott and Leslie Stanwyck. Todd Rundgren was tapped for production of Love Junk -- the band's first LP. Would the pairing be a match made in Utopia?
TR's knob-tuning on the record more than meets Moe Berg's once-stated ambition of "crossing AC/DC with ABBA." The fellas strike their tools with the force of 21 Australian lightning bolts, while Abbott and "Not Costello" Stanwyck touch all harmonious bases of said Swedish supergroup's better half. If such a hybrid scares you, there's plenty of gold for fans of Andy Partridge, Dave Faulkner, Pat DiNizio and David Lowery to pan. Re-recorded for Love Junk and again released as a single, "I'm An Adult Now" would climb to #6 on the Billboard Alternative songs chart. No matter the take, Berg's cynical look at the expected behaviors of 18-and-overs makes it a classic in the annals of modern rock. (Oxymoron, anyone?) Sample snapshots: "I can't even look at young girls anymore/People will think I'm some kind of pervert/Adult sex is either boring or dirty/Young people can get away with murder" and "I'd sure look like a fool, dead in a ditch somewhere/With a mind full of chemicals, like some cheese-eating high school boy." "Killed By Love" was also redone for the album, and the heavier mix lifts the lines. You might want to call Cupid's Crane Service to excavate its final words from six feet under, though ("My passion was your weapon/It put a blindfold on my eyes/The last sound I heard was laughter as you buried me alive"). Yo, Moe: Is that the guitar riff from INXS' "The One Thing" in your band's "Hard To Laugh"? If so, nice appropriation, man! Double kudos for the lyric, "Everyone asks you why you're so serious/'Cause your woman's got a body that would make most women delirious." Give me a Robin Scherbatsky in a Canucks sweater who'll be faithful for a week. After that, she can cheat with Ted, Barney, Rick Moranis, Dave Stieb, the Farriss brothers and you to her black heart's content. One word of caution when "Looking For Girls" like Robin and otherwise: BEWARE! ("She might be a Catholic/She might be a nurse/She might give me a child or gonorrhea or something worse/She might be a painter or a Communist, with my luck/But that's the kind of girl you really want to fuck"). "Man's Best Friend" is not an ode to a four-legged companion, but it removes the fleas from a situation that's dogged many ("Well I guess it's no secret to any of us/How I feel about you/But to live it out vicariously through him/Is the best I can do"). The Stones-like groove of "Beautiful White" balances a sweet story that's told with somewhat of a smirk ("She's got a big grey overcoat/She just dumps on a chair/But she paid a lot for those trousers/She'll handle 'em with more care").
To quote Watson's creators: "Let's build a smarter planet." One listen to Love Junk is a good start. Even if you're a "cheese-eating high school boy."
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
As the Stiletto Boys were continually gravitating towards a power pop focused modus operandi, second album Buzzbomb Sounds (aka A Company of Wolves) was without doubt more “evolved” than its predecessor. A lot of people like it better. If Rockets and Bombs was their own Boys self-titled, then Buzzbomb Sounds was their Alternative Chartbusters. But the punk purist in me prefers the visceral thrills of Rockets and Bombs, with its bright hooks and breakneck tempos. It’s classic Stiletto Boys all the way, propelled by Casey Wolfe’s ridiculously good drumming, brother Sean’s vocal synthesis of Stiv Bators and Leonard Graves Phillips, and Eric Benner’s rocket launcher guitar sound. The material is a nice mix of oldies-but-goodies (“8-Track” and “Don’t Stop” – which will never be surpassed as the greatest Stiletto Boys song of all-time!) and newer tunes like the hyper and impossibly catchy “Killing Me”. Whether you prefer scorching rock n’ roll adrenaline (“Triple Two Stroke”, “It’s About Time”) or beautiful pop melodies (“Don’t Cry for Me”), the album is all-killer, no-filler. It’s weird to say that I “forgot” how many great Stiletto Boys songs there were. But as I listen to this disc, I find myself really taken aback by the wealth of songwriting talent they had (and no doubt still have). Remember “Sirens”? Remember “Second To None”? That shit was mint! The real bonus here is that the CD issue tacks on the 8-Track and Attitude Adjuster EPs in their entirety plus another unreleased EP, for a total of a whopping 23 tracks. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, son! In effect the disc functions as a “best-of” for the ‘90s Stiletto Boys, whereas Buzzbomb Sounds better represents the band in its Year 2000 vintage. You can’t go wrong either way.
The Stiletto Boys’ quantitative lack of output may have been a blessing in disguise. Had they kept on putting out albums, it’s possible their fans may have grown bored of their consistent brilliance. It would have been like, “Another perfect Stiletto Boys album? Ho-hum.” But now it’s been a decade, and it’s high time for a comeback. Especially with the band now citing influences outside their previous realm (Mott the Hoople, Nick Lowe, The Who, The Vapors), the work-in-progress Liberator is intriguing to consider. In the meantime, as you continue to digitalize your highly treasured ‘90s punk rock music collection, make certain that Rockets and Bombs sits atop your need-to-download list!
Friday, March 11, 2011
Rooted in the Bowie/Lou Reed/Ian Hunter strain of glam rock, informed by early ‘80s new wave, and infused with the simple hooks of classic punk and power pop, Dramarama’s sound was unlike any other band’s. John Easdale was one of the finest songwriters of his day or any other, and he was backed by a hard-rocking quintet that would have made Mott the Hoople or the ‘70s Stones proud. Part Brit-pop revivalists, part Jersey bar blasters, and part Hollywood club scene rock stars, Dramarama had the radio-ready hits and buzzworthy live act that ought to have propelled them to international fame. No matter that they didn’t – the songs hold up regardless. The Rhino best-of comp 18 Big Ones is pure gold all the way through and belongs in the collection of anyone who’s got taste. But the albums are great as well, and none are greater than Cinema Verite.
“Anything Anything (“I’ll Give You)” qualifies as a “classic” by even the most stringent application of the term. In its account of impetuous young love’s de-evolution into an acrimonious and ill-fated marriage, perhaps it qualifies as the most realistic love song ever written. Beyond that, it’s a killer rock n’ roll tune, propelled by Easdale’s impassioned vocal delivery and the fine guitar work of Peter Wood and Mr. E Boy, who go off like a new wave Thunders and Sylvain. Completely different, but equally great, is the melancholy pop tune “Scenario”, which somehow sounds uniquely Dramarama-ish even though it blatantly rips off the Psychedelic Furs. Hands down, it’s my fave Dramarama song (“Sister’s in the everglades/Mother swallows razor blades/Father makes the flags for all the Labor Day parades” - Where did he come up with this stuff?). It seems unforgivable that “Questions?” was left off the Rhino comp. It’s classic Easdale – the song’s narrator confronting an ex-girlfriend’s new man (“Does she make you buy her jewelry?/Does she speak to you in tongues?/Does she tell you about her brother/Who's got liquid in his lungs?”), his anguish conveyed not just through words but also a despairing vocal tone. The cliché about broken hearts is that they sometimes give us classic songs, and no doubt this classic song was inspired by real-life heartbreak. And if I call the guitar work “Clapton-esque”, do I mean it as a compliment? Yes! Elsewhere the band takes on jangle pop (“Transformation”), ballads (the marvelous “Emerald City”), glam rock standards (the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and the Bowie obscurity “Candidate”), and straight-up punk rock (“All I Want”), coming up aces all the while. Whether you think of Easdale as a poor man’s Paul Westerberg, a modern-day Ian Hunter, or a masculine David Bowie, no doubt it’s his growling voice and brilliant lyrics that really bring Cinema Verite to life. The men backing him are fantastic as well, and bassist Chris Carter’s no-frills production effectively marries Dramarama’s bar band roots to its pop art sensibilities.
Dramarama would record four more studio albums before calling it quits in 1994 (only to be famously reunited on a VH1 TV show a decade later). It is this writer’s humble opinion that all five pre-breakup LPs are must-owns. The Rhino comp, as good as it is, will not suffice even for the most casual fan. When you’re talking about a songwriting talent as prodigious and inimitable as John Easdale, an 18-song sampling only scratches the surface. You gotta go catalog with Dramarama. Stuck in Wonderamaland, if only for its outstanding cover of Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” (a rendition so poignant it made my cry the first five times I heard it), earns serious consideration as the very first Dramarama album you should buy. But Cinema Verite edges it out. If you're a fan of good music, you really need to own it.