Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Rod McKuen,
Beatsville

When the ancient Greeks coined the word bathos, I’m pretty sure they had Rod McKuen in mind. America’s most popular–and worst–poet of the 1960s, McKuen produced books of poetry the way Virginia opossums make babies, each and every one of them catering to the tastes of a reading public deeply suspicious of the filthy beatnik likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

But on 1959’s Beatsville Mckuen does a remarkable thing–he goes from schmaltz to shtick. While he serves up plenty of his trademark mawk along the way, McKuen–who’s obviously using Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prosody as a model-comes on like Maynard G. Krebs on a Benzedrine inhaler high, and I’ll be damned if his tongue-in-cheek observations on subterranean pads and co-existence bagel shops aren’t hilarious.

McKuen’s point varies–sometimes he’s your standard real gone Daddy-O who considers business suits and underarm deodorants a total drag; at others he’s the wistful black beret wannabe who moans, “I try to be a good beatnik but it’s hard/I don’t dig turtle neck sweaters/I can’t grow a beard/And I catch cold in sandals.”

Backed by some tastefully tasteless musical accompaniment–including a metronome and some really hep finger snaps–McKuen had me at “Every time I got torn up on sneaky Pete or high on Thunderbird wine/I wind up hitching rides to Sausalito.”

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Graded on a Curve;
Black Sabbath,
Sabbath Bloody
Sabbath

Dear Satan,

I’ve always considered you a cool guy. Lord of the Flies, Leader of the Loyal Opposition, natty dresser, boogie man of little kids and grown Puritans alike–even your horns are badass.

So why, if you don’t mind my asking, did you appoint Ozzy Osbourne your ambassador to our world of sin? I would have thought you’d do better than a drug-addled, ant-snorting, famous-for-biting-the-heads-off-small-animals shlub in tragically ill-fitting leather pants. Had you come to me for advice, dear Lucifer, I’d have recommended someone more appropriate–Jimmy Page say, or Maroon 5.

Of course it’s possible Ozzy swiped your title without your permission. Plenty of people have done so over the years, Mick Jagger included, and maybe you figured if you’re gonna cut milksop Mick a break you might as well give poor witless Ozzy a pass too.

Or–and I’m working on this assumption–you’ve let Oz get away with it because Black Sabbath is quite arguably the first and heaviest heavy metal band to ever ooze its way out of the Underworld. What’s more, they scare the shit out of lotsa people, most of ‘em parents, music critics and hippies. You must love putting the frighteners on hippies–all that peace and love shit’s enough to make you puke hellfire.

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Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Hot Rats

Frank Zappa and I have a complicated relationship. During my formative years spent smoking pot with pig farmers I was besotted by the fellow. I thought he was smart, and figured that listening to him made me smart too.

But we agreed to a temporary separation around the time of the 1979 release of Sheik Yerbouti, and split for good after that same year’s Joe’s Garage Act I. I could no longer ignore the derisive sneer of perceived intellectual and moral superiority audible in every one of his songs. That and it finally occurred to me that the mildly scatological humor I found so clever was just as clever to 12-year-olds.

There are other bands I liked then but no longer listen to now. But Zappa is the only artist I have ever wished to airbrush, Soviet-style, from my musical past. Liking him as much as I did then actually embarrasses me. And that’s a step too far, I think. There is no denying that Zappa expanded the limitations of rock’n’roll. So I have made a few tentative steps towards a rapprochement over the past several years. Why, I even went so far as to borrow my brother’s copy of 1969’s Hot Rats—an LP I must have listened to a thousand times when I was stoned—then actually played the damn thing.

And? Well, upon first listen, I was inclined to agree with Robert Christgau, whose review of Hot Rats went, “Doo-doo to you, Frank–when I want movie music I’ll listen to ‘Wonderwall.’” This was a rejoinder to Mr. Zappa’s description of his second solo LP following the breakup of the Mothers of Invention as “a movie for your ears.”

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Graded on a Curve: Darkthrone,
Transilvanian Hunger

Darkthrone vocalist Nocturno Culto sounds like Sonic Youth in dire need of a tonsillectomy. Which is fine by me, seeing as how Kim Gordon can’t sing her way out of a Chinese restaurant takeout carton and Thurston Moore’s cooler-than-thou vocals make me want to call the nearest hipster removal service. No, I’ll take Culto’s cartoonish Cookie Monster gutterals any day. He’s that enraged guy in the 12-items-or-less checkout line going full roid rage at the asshole ahead of him trying to sneak by with 13.

But what, I’ll bet you’re wondering, does Norge’s Darkthrone have to do with the East Village’s most renowned (and long defunct) art shlock band in the first place? Just this. Darkthrone’s that most unexpected of things–a Norwegian art rock death metal band.

On 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger, the duo of Culto (who sings) and Frenriz (who plays everything else) say to hell with melody in favor of a relentless metal drone. Subtle modulations in tone are the order of the day, all of the songs sound pretty much the same, and what you’re left with is a monotone wall of sound that will either bliss you out like a month in an orgone accumulator or leave you trying to squeeze your way through the dog door to get away from it. As a founding member of The Metal Machine Music Fan Club, I fall squarely into the former category.

Are there differences between the songs on Transilvanian Hunger and those on Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex? Yes, and here’s the surprise–like it or not all you NYC art rock elitists, Darkthrone’s the more avant-garde noise rock band by far. Fuck the East Village; seems Norway’s long polar nights are enough to turn your average Ansgar with a guitar into the next Glenn Branca.

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Graded on a Curve:
Gwar,
Scumdogs of the Universe

Gwar has a serious attitude problem. These interplanetary Huns arrived on our sorry excuse for a planet to kill or subjugate everyone on it because, well, we’re inferior beings and they hate us for it. But here’s what puzzles me. How is it these mutant metal barbarians first stepped foot on the shithole we call home in 1984 and we’re still alive? Is it possible they’ve developed an affection for our loathsome species?

More likely we’re only around for their amusement, and they take special delight in spitting the tender sensibilities of America’s puritanical classes on the broadsword of their disdain. Your typical fundamentalist tends to go full howler monkey over Gwar’s outre lyrics, which revolve around violence, sex, and violence, bodily functions and violence, oh, and before I forget, the rank hypocrisy of your Moral Majority types who love to condemn them for their words while doing much worse in real life.

There are some who would have it that Gwar’s a fraud, and its crew of vulgarians actually hail from earthly Richmond Virginia. Gwar would no doubt deem this a blasphemy punishable by torture and death, but it makes a certain sense–Northern Virginia has long been a melting pot for your hardcore punk and thrash metal types, and this crossbreeding has led to some real musical mutations over the years. But the stage dominators in Gwar–whose grotesque rubber outfits make ‘em look like cartoon predators from the movie of the same name–actually fit the part. Compared to Gwar, the guys in Kiss look like the briefcase-carrying corporate greedheads they really are. With Gwar, to see ‘em is to flee ‘em.

Gwar has released 14 schlock-rock classics since 1988, but my pal and Gwar fanatic Eric Berthoud swears by 1990’s Scumdogs of the Universe, and who am I to argue with an expert? With the late Oderus Urungus (earth name Dave Brockie) handling lead bellows and Flattus Maximus, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Beefcake the Mighty, and Jizmak Da Gusha crushing bones behind him, Scumdogs of the Universe is both comedy record and brutal demonstration of world domination expressly created to put we paltry humans in our place.

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Graded on a Curve: Earth, Wind & Fire,
The Best of Earth, Wind
& Fire Vol. 1

Today we remember Maurice White who passed away for years ago this week with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Of all the things I’ve loved during my tenure on this planet, it’s hard to beat Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. And not because he’s a musical genius and head honcho of one of the Seventies’ best soul/funk outfits. No, I love him because he’s the guy who sings, “Yowl!” on several occasions on the great “That’s the Way of the World.” They never fail to thrill me, those yowls, not since I was a young sprog and loved the hell out of MFSB’s “T.S.O.P.”

EWF’s songs dominated Top 40 radio when I was young, because unlike Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic they were unapologetically middle of the road. But that doesn’t mean that their songs weren’t great, just that they were more like the black equivalent of Elton John than, say, Randy Newman. As the critic Robert Christgau noted about one of their prime LPs, “Most of these songs are fun to listen to. But they’re still MOR–the only risk they take is running headlong into somebody coming down the middle of the road in the opposite direction. Like The Carpenters.”

But so what? Earth, Wind & Fire have produced their fair share of timeless songs, and if they’re slick, the slickness works. Under the direction of White, EWF’s drummer, songwriter, and vocalist, the band’s sound was—and still is—an eclectic brew of funk, jazz, gospel, rock, smooth soul, blues, folk, African music, and disco, and what made them particularly remarkable were their group vocals, and especially the vocals of Maurice White and Philip Bailey. Unrelentingly positive, their songs were a balm for the soul, and I for one think “That’s the Way of the World” is a slice of mystical brilliance and a song for the ages. All of those vocalists throwing in; it’s a sound so soulful I sprout an Afro every time I listen to it. And their horn section, the four-member Phenix Horns, also merits special attention; one listen to the opening of “Shining Star” and you know you’re in the presence of genius.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Soft Boys,
Underwater Moonlight

The Soft Boys are one of those bands that failed commercially for lack of a straight-talking high school guidance counselor. Because a straight-talking high school guidance counselor could have sat Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew down and said, “Look boys, your desire to make psychedelic rock is laudable. But it’s 1976, everybody’s wearing safety pins through their noses and screaming about anarchy, and to be perfectly blunt lads your desire to make a go of it as acid rockers makes about as much sense as pursuing careers as lamplighters. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I have an employer here who is looking for a dependable rat catcher.”

Alas, they had no one, which is why their magnum opus, 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, sold approximately 18 copies. The Soft Boys were at the right place but at the wrong time, and as the Velvet Underground will gladly inform you, timing is everything. Underwater Moonlight has gone on to become a neo-psychedelic masterpiece, but it hit the record stores well before everybody and his sister hopped aboard the paisley bandwagon just in time to enthrall a listening public looking for something completely different from post-punk. And by that time the Soft Boys were no more—the whimsical and eccentric Hitchcock having gone on to form Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, and Rew the commercially successful Katrina and the Waves.

The Soft Boys’ influences aren’t too hard to discern—The Beatles, The Byrds, Syd Barrett, and when it comes to sheer lyrical absurdity, the Bonzo Dog Band. But they are far more than the sum of these influences. Opening track “I Wanna Destroy You” is punk in attitude—less 1967 than 1976—but has a power pop heart, and is the catchiest anthem this side of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” And “Old Pervert,” which features some truly wonderful drum pummel, lots of fractured guitar, and some insane laughter, is nobody’s idea of a flower power Day-Glo acid rocker. The guitars are just too mean, and the lyrics are a million miles away from the Summer of Love. “I’m an old pervert and I hang around under the bridge/I won’t do you no harm I just wanna show what’s in my fridge,” sings a lecherous Hitchcock, before adding, “They said that I’m weird and disinfectant is all that I drink/Ah, but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don’t you think?”

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Graded on a Curve:
Poison,
Open Up and Say… Ahh!

I finished this review only to discover–much to my chagrin-that I wrote one 3 years ago. Just more proof, as any were needed, that I have the memory of a house fly. In any event, this new review is 150 times better than the old one. Besides, all self-respecting music critics should return to this hair metal masterpiece every couple of years. It’s that great.

Judging by the Punky Meadows look-alike on the cover of their 1986 debut and the twin sister of Gene Simmons on their second, these Mechanicsburg chest waxers couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be Angel or Kiss, so they went ahead and bested both of ‘em. Glam metal idols in the days before Kurt Cobain placed former hairdresser Rikki Rockett’s skyscraper ‘do on the endangered species list, Poison packed enough hair to stuff a mattress into their metal and by so doing lubed the loins of a million girls itching to steal their makeup.

Had Poison been nothing more than a pretty pooch they’d have gone the way of Cats in Boots, and poor C.C. DeVille would have had to scuttle back to Three Mile Island with his poison blue Flying V guitar beneath his legs. But Poison had the skills to pay their thousand dollar spandex bills, and come Open Up and Say… Ahh! only Guns ‘N’ Roses had more powder in their pistol.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, there was an innocence to Poison’s twist on L.A. sleaze; unlike those moody social Darwinists Guns ‘N’ Roses (welcome to the jungle!), Poison believed in the power of positive partying. No appetite for destruction for these hair teasers; like Def Leppard, all they wanted was for you to pour some sugar on ‘em and lick it off.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rush, Rush

Sounding less like a bird of prey than a castrati with a gerbil up his ass, Geddy Lee is trying to tell us something. Xanadu, subdivisions, the spirit of radio, how we’re all trees in the forest and if you happen to be a stunted one you’re shit out of luck—your guess is as good as mine. The late Neil Peart, may he rest in peace, wrote ‘em, and your average 13-year-old with a unicorn glitter notebook would have rubbed his nose on the playground gravel.

Behind Geddy, prog-metal bric a brac: 2012’s ping-ponging title track (Rush isn’t a band, it’s a kid with attention deficit disorder) boasts seven parts including a grand finale, and is less a suite than a Frankenstein monster of ill-fitting parts. As for the band’s concept albums, Geddy himself has been quoted as saying, “Even I can’t make sense of them.”

Either you love Rush or you loathe ‘em, and I loathed ‘em up until the day I realized they were a comedy act. Now I love ‘em. Geddy cracks me up every time he opens his beak. “Closer to the Heart” is my all-time favorite song.

But there was an old Rush before the new Rush, and the old Rush can only be heard on the band’s 1974’s eponymous debut. With the soon-to-be-booted John Rutsey on skins, and nary a tedious 19-minute musico-philosophical discourse on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in sight, everybody’s favorite Molson belchers made like Led Zeppelin on Beaver Tails, and while your critic types derided Rush as a turd hamburger, I like it cuz I’ll take good old-fashioned hard rock over mutant mullet metal any day.

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Graded on a Curve:
Leaf Hound,
Growers of Mushroom

Psychedelics! Hallucinogenics! LSD! Mushrooms! Peyote! STP! I couldn’t wait to take them after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I had trepidations. I was afraid they’d transport me to some far-off psychic realm and deposit me there for good, and I’d end up like Syd Barrett with Quaaludes melting in my hair, talking to my long-dead great-grandfather, the one who was dragged to death by horses. So I asked a more experienced buddy, a macrodoser who once dropped acid every day for a month, how long the trip would last. And he replied insouciantly, “Oh, anywhere from six hours to the rest of your life.” I wasn’t what you’d call reassured.

I only tripped a few times, because as it turns out I’m Woody Allen neurotic and far too fragile a psychic specimen to be messing about with my delicate brain circuitry, but had I been the Captain Trips type who knows, maybe I’d have heard Leaf Hound’s great Growers of Mushroom. Alas, I gave up hallucinogenics on the fateful night I dropped acid, then spent the next six hours down on my hands and knees looking for it.

But it’s never too late to rejoin the counterculture, which I have done by burning my draft card (okay, so it was a pay stub from work, but it’s the symbolism that matters) and checking out all the semi-obscure psychedelic bands from that time I can find. And the band I like best, by many many micrograms, is Leaf Hound. The British band only released one LP, but it’s a work of true genius. It has everything you could possibly want in an album—great vocals, great guitar, great songs, even great cowbell. I love this album and want everyone to know about it, because it’s like Owsley-quality blotter acid for your ears and guaranteed to cause you to turn on, tune in, and turn it up.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Chats,
“Get This in Ya”

Forget about AC/DC, The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, Dead Can Dance, Crime & the City Solution, Lubricated Goat, Men at Work– the Little River Band even. The Chats are the best band to ever kangaroo hop its way out of Oz, and you’ve probably never heard of them.

Rank hyperbole? For sure, especially considering The Chats have only released two EPs. But the amiable trio are winning fans and amusing people with their endearing–and self-deprecating–songs about food, darts, being sick, and other seemingly mundane aspects of day-to-day existence. They’re Australia’s answer to The Adolescents, and probably the first punk rock band to write a song about the injustice of being interrupted during a cigarette break.

The Chats owe much of the attention being paid them to their hilarious YouTube videos for songs like “Smoko,” “Pub Feed,” “Identify Theft,” and “The Clap.” Lead singer Eamon Sandwith’s combination bowl cut/mullet–he’s claiming mullet prejudice has led to his being barred from a Queensland bar–is chuckle-worthy all by its own.

Some of the fun on 2017’s “Get This in Ya” is figuring out what these dingo rustlers are talking about. “Smoko” is slang for smoke break, “nambored” pissed off. “Punt” is a mug of beer. “Fangin’ a feed” is a vivid metaphor for wolfing your food. “Golden Oak” is a brand of goon, or cheap white wine to the rest of us. “Crook” is shorthand for pretty shitty. “Maccas” is Aussi speak for McDonalds. As for “chucked down,” your guess is as good as mine.

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Graded on a Curve:
Howlin’ Wolf,
The London Howlin’
Wolf Sessions

Before we turn to a serious discussion of Chester Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf, a true story about another wolf, last name Blitzer. A friend of a friend of his cousin’s friend who lives in Blitzer’s swank neighborhood in Bethesda, MD swears come one full moon night he watched a howling Blitzer lope naked across his backyard, in pursuit of a terrified deer. This friend of a friend of a cousin’s friend assumed it was just an acid flashback, but when he turned on CNN the next day he swears he saw flecks of blood in Wolf’s beard.

As for Howlin’ Wolf, he’s only one of the greatest blues musicians to ever walk Planet Earth. The Wolf could do it all: sing, play guitar and harmonica–hell, I betcha he could have rocked the blues on the hornucopian dronepipe had somebody handed him one. Thousands of people have paid homage to Howlin’ Wolf over the years, but my favorite encomium comes from the late Cub Koda of Brownsville Station, who said, “No one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.” Howlin’ Wolf and Wolf Blitzer have a lot in common.

There are better Howlin’ Wolf albums out there, but listeners have long been drawn to 1971’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions on the basis of its who’s who cast of renowned musicians. Session attendees included Eric Clapton, long-time Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumin, Steve Winwood, sessions pianist extraordinaire Lafayette Leake, Charlie Watts, Ian Stewart, Ringo Starr, Bill Wyman, Klaus Voormann and some other guys whose names elude me at the moment.

The players’ excitement at being in the presence of a great is palpable, and they give their best as a result. Clapton’s playing is breath-taking throughout–his stinging leads on such tracks as ”Highway 49,” “Do the Do,” “Red Rooster” and “Rockin’ Daddy” are almost enough to validate all that “Clapton Is God” nonsense. Rolling Stones co-founder Ian Stewart, Lafayette Leake, and Winwood share piano duties on the sessions, but it’s Stewart who shines–his rollicking 88s lend a shakin’ shotgun shack feel to tunes like “Rockin’ Daddy” and “Do the Do.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Marie et les Garçons,
1977-1979

There are plenty of good reasons to hate the French. Their food is catastrophically overpriced, they have an army whose only tactical maneuver is charging backwards and–get this–speak a language you actually have to study if you want to understand a word they’re saying. And don’t even get me started on their punk rock.

You don’t have to be a truffle pig to sniff out a lousy French punk rock band, but a few are quite good. One of the best is Marie et les Garçons, which was formed in 1975 by five graduates of the Lycée Saint-Exupéry in Lyon. In 1978 Marie et les Garçons came to the notice of John Cale, who offered to produce the band and ultimately played on their single “Attitudes” / “Re-Bop.”which Cale released on his Spy label. They would soon find themselves opening for the likes of X-Ray Spex, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads.

Marie et les Garçons’ sound is best captured on 1977/1979, a 23-song compilation of studio and live recordings and a couple of remixes and demos. It takes some getting used to, listening to punk rock sung in the language of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, but Marie et les Garçons makes up for it with good songs and the wiry guitar sound of Erik Fitoussi and Christian Faye. And Patrick Vidal sings with conviction, or as much conviction as the member of a race of people raised on bon-bons and confit can muster. And to their credit Marie et les Garçons keep things at a brisk pace; you won’t catch these guys moping around like Charles Baudelaire.

Marie et les Garçons wears it Anglophilic influences on the sleeve of its Breton shirt–you get the Talking Heads (“Decisions ou parti pris” and “P4 N°1″); Wire (“Attitudes”); and Television (“Rien à dire,” and “Mardi soir”). Listeners will also want to check out Marie et les Garçons’ cover of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” on 1977/1979’s companion comp, 1976-1977.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
David Live

The most succinct review of David Bowie’s unspeakably mediocre live LP, 1974’s David Live, came from the mouth of Bowie’s long-time frenemy Mick Jagger. “If I got the kind of reviews that he got for that album,” quipped Bowie’s future “Dancin’ in the Streets” partner, “I would honestly never record again. Never.”

Recorded during Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby Philadelphia, David Live demonstrated just how much Bowie owed to guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, who Bowie coldly dismissed (along with the other Spiders from Mars) as he reinvented himself as plastic soul man. Bowie would later say cattily, “There’s only so much you can do with that kind of band. I wanted no more to do with that loud thing. Hurt my ears.” No mention on his part how much David Live hurts mine.

The Diamond Dogs Tour was big on gimmickry but short on quality music. Amongst the massive stage props was a bridge that could be raised and lowered by remote control, and at a Montreal show the bridge collapsed Spinal Tap fashion, with Bowie–a confirmed acrophobic–on it. A dire omen perhaps–or proof that even inanimate objects saw fit to register a protest against Bowie’s insipid new sound.

David Live wilts in comparison to Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the July 1973 Hammersmith Odeon performance released in tandem with the 1983 film Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The latter was recorded only a year and a half before the pair of Tower Theater performances documented on David Live, but the contrast is sharp. Bowie and the Spiders delivered an electrifying show, kicking things off with a punk-speed “Hang on to Yourself” and a bone-crushing “Ziggy Stardust” before closing the show with a transcendental version of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Firm, The Firm

Talk about your corporate malfeasance. If I were on the board of directors of English stuporgroup The Firm I’d recommend bankruptcy.

A collaboration between legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band drummer Chris Slade must have struck potential investors as an exciting IPO, but on their 1985 eponymous debut The Firm exhibited zero corporate synergy; instead of a shiny new product–a shiny new Jaguar, say–disappointed shareholders found themselves with a Bad Company Mach II on their hands.

And to compound their misery, Bad Company Mach II didn’t even live up to the standards of its predecessor. Not one of The Firm’s nine tracks measures up to such Bad Company Mach I classics as “Bad Company,” “Can’t Get Enough,” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Add to that the time factor; Straight Shooter was a quality deliverable in 1975; The Firm must have perplexed young listeners reared on punk, new wave and hair metal when it dropped 10 long years later. And even the old timers inclined to listen were disappointed by The Firm’s lack of anything new to bring to the party.

Split the blame between Rodgers and Page. The former’s wheelhouse is songwriting, but you can’t keep selling the same old song with only minor variations forever. Page, on the other hand, is chiefly notable for his absence–on such Bad Company Mach II numbers as “Together,” “Money Can’t Buy,” “Closer,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” and “Radioactive” he may as well be the Invisible Man.

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