Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking

If folk music scares me–and it does–English folk music really scares me; I’m still trying to recover from the traumatic consequences of inadvertently viewing a YouTube video of Pentangle performing the pro-virginity dirge “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.”

That said, I’ve always made an exception for Fairport Convention in general, and their LP 1969’s Unhalfbricking in particular. Unhalfbricking was the work of a band moving away from American influences towards the Ye Olde English-style minstrelsy, and the music they performed during said transition is some of their best.

Fairport Convention’s take on folk rock is decidedly English–as English as eel pie. And how couldn’t it be–listening to Sandy Denny, who remains arguably the best English folk singer in the history of recorded music, is like walking the Cornish cliffs of Tintagel on a lovely May morn. But–and the caveat is critical–you never get the awful sense you’ve wandered into the bucolic pagan setting of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, where you’ll be shoved into a wicker totem and burned alive, a sacrifice to a bountiful harvest, as the happy villagers sing “Sumer Is Icumen In.” (A tune I’m sure Pentangle performed all the time.)

While “lovely” best describes the songs on Unhalfbricking, you get plenty of variety: a trio of exceptional Dylan covers; one instant classic; a pair of slower numbers that creep up on you, and one Cajun-flavored rock’n’roller that sticks out, if you’ll bear the obscure allusion, like Beau Brummell at a stevedores’ convention. Oh, and there’s one simply incredible song that somehow manages to bridge the gap between the English traditional folk form and the Velvet Underground.

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Graded on a Curve:
Easy Rider, OST

Today we remember actor Peter Fonda who passed away on Friday, August 16 with a look back at the soundtrack from one of his most iconic roles, Easy Rider.

After seeing Easy Rider for the first time, I wanted nothing more than to take off across America on a chopper with a tear drop gas tank emblazoned with the red, white, and blue, smoke tons of grass and gobble lots of acid, and meet a lunatic ACLU lawyer in a gold football helmet looking to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as my first motorcycle ride also turned out to be my last, after losing control of the thing and crashing head-on into our next door neighbor’s barn. And nothing’s changed over the years; the last time I tried to ride a bicycle I decided to smoke a cigarette at the same time, and ended up toppling into some rat-infested shrubbery.

So Captain America I’m not. But I love the movie, which was all about freedom, man, freedom to wear your hair long and get stoned and do whatever the hell you wanted to do without kowtowing to the Man, man. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda) represented the outlaw biker life, which came without the shackles of job, home, and hearth, but carried its own risks; as the ACLU lawyer Hanson (Jack Nicholson) tells Billy and Captain America, their freedom makes the squares “dangerous. Buh, neh! Neh! Neh! Neh! Swamp!”

But the thing I love most about the world’s greatest hippie exploitation film is its soundtrack, the rights to which cost more than the film itself. It includes two great Steppenwolf tunes and one and a half Dylan tunes, both of which were performed by Roger McGuinn, and intersperses dope anthems with dismal songs of doom, in keeping with the movie’s groovier moments and lingering sense—what with homicidal rednecks and pigs everywhere—that things won’t end well for Billy, Captain America, and Hanson. (Spoiler alert! Shit, too late.) And when I talk about the soundtrack I’m not talking about the 2004 Deluxe Edition, but the one you could listen to in your groovy pad with its beaded doorways, day glo ceilings, and black light poster of Three Dog Night (okay, so you were one very unhip hippie; don’t beat yourself up about it).

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Graded on a Curve: Fleetwood Mac,
Kiln House

Between their start as a standard English blues band and their apotheosis as perhaps the seventies best pop group, Fleetwood Mac wandered from style to style and sideman to sideman, and in so doing put out some very intriguing albums. 1970’s Kiln House is a fine example.

Guitarist Peter Green was out. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer was in, as was (kind of) Christine McVie, who provided backing vocals and wouldn’t be considered a full member until 1971’s Future Games. Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks were all in the future.

Like the other LPs Fleetwood Mac would release during their middle period, Kiln House is a dizzyingly eclectic affair. You get a couple of rockabilly rave-ups, a country music parody, a very, very English folk rock instrumental, an engaging hard rocker in the vein of The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman” (only gnarlier!), a couple of very likable folk rock ditties, and an inspired cover of “Buddy’s Song,” which is credited to Buddy Holly’s mom Ella but is basically “Peggy Sue Got Married” with new words.

Kiln House constitutes a loving backwards look at rock ’n’ roll’s past, and as such anticipated the “rock ’n’ roll revival” that would inspire albums by the likes of John Lennon, The Band, David Bowie and a whole slew of backwards-looking English glam bands.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Welch,
French Kiss

Climb aboard my pleasure craft, ye mateys, and I’ll tell you a tale of a true Yacht Rock captain. In 1977 former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch cast off on his debut LP French Kiss, and sailed bravely into the upper reaches of the American Top 40. It was a voyage worthy of Ferdinand Magellan, or that guy who discovered America.

You don’t hear much of Welch outside of SiriusXM’s Yacht Rock Radio these days, and I have a hard time imagining an actual human being walking into a record store with the express purpose of buying French Kiss. But he was a very big deal in the late seventies, when such songs as “Sentimental Lady” and “Ebony Eyes” (featuring the immortal Juice Newton!) won Welch his admiral stripes, alongside other Yacht Rock giants as Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Pablo Cruise, who are actually four guys but who’s counting?

Where to start with Welch? Well, he’s not as much of a Yacht rocker as you might think. “Sentimental Lady” certainly falls into the category, but on the rest of French Kiss he melds hard rock riffs to disco beats and drops a lot of strings on you, and the formula works better than you think it would.

For the most part these songs are good pop fun, and as catchy as they are utterly disposable; The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau dismissed them as “aural chic” as good a soundtrack for doing your ironing as the Doobie Brothers, but I think he’s just being a meanie. I’m sure you’d have to look hard to find a Brooklyn hipster who will give French Kiss his imprimatur, but that says more about Brooklyn hipsters than it does about the album.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul Kantner,
Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra

On which Paul Kantner takes off for outer space in a bong-shaped spaceship, only to crash back to earth because the sheer number of Jefferson Starship hangers-on he’s packed on board exceed the vessel’s weight capacity. This 1983 concept album–the sequel to his 1970 (Hugo Award-nominated!) LP Blows Against the Empire–is subtitled The Empire Blows Back. At least he got the blows part right.

The album–the purported soundtrack to a novel by Kantner that actually saw the light of day in 1991–tells the completely plausible story of a S.F. band that develops telepathic amplification technology, falls afoul of the U.S. government, seeks sanctuary in the Australian outback, and finally whisks off to the safety of outer space. For those of us who flee to higher ground whenever the mummified survivors of the Jefferson Airplane congregate in a recording studio, their permanent departure is what you might call a dream scenario.

But such is not the case with everyone. You probably don’t know about it because the U.S. government is afraid to start a panic, but almost 20 years ago NASA received a mysterious transmission from Voivod 4, the planet on which the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra finally touched down.

The transmission was in the form of complaint, and specifically blamed our planet for “recklessly hurling its refuse into space, the way a fat guy might toss a half-full Slurpee cup from the driver’s side window of a rusting 1974 Ford Pinto.” It closed by threatening the human race with extinction, via a weapon it described as “a really, really big bug zapper you don’t want to stand in front of.” Needless to say this interplanetary communique caused consternation amongst the leaders of the world, all of whom agreed to blame Moldova.

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Graded on a Curve: Ramones, Ramones

It’s easy to take this the Ramones’ landmark 1976 self-titled debut too seriously. Sure, it signaled a seismic shift in rock music, exploding like an M80 in the minds of every cretinous young thing who’d had it up to here with the pompous, bloated likes of ELP, Queen, and the Eagles. And sure, this baby is often celebrated as the first real punk rock LP.

But so far as declarations of war go, Ramones is a hilarious one. On it the most famous band to ever come out of Forest Hills, Queens state their demands (they wanna be your boyfriend and they wanna sniff some glue; they don’t wanna go down to the basement and they don’t wanna walk around with you), dabble with fascism (“I’m a Nazi schatze”), and beat on the brat with a baseball bat. The Ramones weren’t the first NYC band to give voice to the inchoate yearnings of teengenerates everywhere; the Dictators got there first with 1975’s Go Girl Crazy!, and they deserve their due. 

But unlike Handsome Dick Manitoba and Company the Ramones got their yucks playing their songs at tempos that boggled the imagination; I saw the Ramones early on, without having ever heard a single note of their music, and the experience bordered on the traumatic.

The songs–which segued one into the other with nary a pause–went by at an insane, buzzsaw blur that night, obfuscating what is obvious to anyone who listens to the album now–that the Ramones mated their 160 beats per minute ferocity to an impeccable pop sense that gives many of these songs the loving feel of good bubblegum.

The Ramones won their rep by keeping their songs nasty, brutish and short. But their secret ingredient was melody; their songs are both catchy and likable, and that’s what makes Ramones sound as fresh today as it did the day it hit the streets.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mick Jagger,
Primitive Cool

How do the monied classes spend their time? Well, some of them take up fox hunting, build collections of great art, or buy yachts. Others breed thoroughbred race horses, take up philanthropy or wile away their evenings playing baccarat at the casinos in Monte-Carlo, Baden-Baden, and Macau. Yet others collect ex-wives. One thing they do not do is record solo albums. They’re far too well-bred to impose their neuroses on their lessers.

Mick Jagger is one of the exceptions. Everybody’s second favorite Rolling Stone has raked in enough money over the years to buy Dubai, but some rather unsavory nervous tic–a determination to prove he can make it out on his own? some insatiable need for attention? a desire to further pad his bank account?–keeps inducing poor Mick to release albums with his name on them. It’s an innocuous enough impulse, some would argue. To these people I would say try sitting through one.

Albums such as Jagger’s 1987 release Primitive Cool needn’t necessarily be exercises in solo self-gratification. They afford pampered lead singers of Jagger’s calibre the chance to stretch out, and explore new musical territory far from the terra firma they staked out with the bands that won them fame and fortune. Solo albums give the Jaggers of the world the opportunity to jump in on the Albanian folk song craze, bring in some pan pipers, or make that long dreamt of soul or R&B move. Or take on, god help us all, the American Songbook. Unfortunately, most of them put out albums that sound suspiciously like, but not as good as, the albums their bands put out.

Jagger tries to avoid this trap, he really does. Songs like “Say You Will,” “War Baby” and the title track sound very little like Rolling Stones songs. The problem is they suck. The demoralizing truth about Primitive Cool is that the songs that work best (“Throwaway,” “Shoot Off Your Mouth,” “Peace for the Wicked”) are the ones that adhere most closely to the tried-and-true Jagger-Richards formula.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Hammond,
So Many Roads

The critical line on John Paul Hammond–son of legendary record producer/talent scout John H. Hammond and one of the first white guys to sing the blues–has always been that he tries too hard, and that his studied attempts to sound like a 92-year-old Mississippi Delta dweller slurring the blues cross the line into condescension. Greil Marcus, perhaps the most ferocious of Hammond’s detractors, once lambasted him for his “ludicrous blackface vocals.” Robert Christgau, meanwhile, said Hammond’s “vocal style demeans his mentors.” And so on and so forth.

That said, he’s no more affected than Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, so why pick on poor minstrel John? He means well and obviously respects the artists he imitates, and actually annoys me less than Waits, whose boho shtick makes me want to shoot a beatnik. Granted, Hammond takes things too far, but that’s what makes listening to him so much fun. He growls and spits and mumbles and does everything but shout. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him sing, “My telephone keep rangin’, souuuunnnd like a long-distance cow.”

The only Hammond LP you must ever listen to is 1965’s So Many Roads, and that’s because John’s backed on the album by three members of the Hawks, who would shortly thereafter hook up with Bob Dylan and ultimately find fame as The Band. He wanted to use the entire band, but Vanguard records forced bassist Jimmy Lewis and Michael Bloomfield (who handled piano duties) down his throat. As a result, only guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and keyboardist Garth Hudson played at the sessions. Also on board was harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Band,
Islands

Well here you have it: One of the saddest goodbye presents ever bequeathed to listeners by a beloved American band. True, The Band only released 1977’s Islands to fulfill its contractual obligations to Capitol Records, but that’s small solace to the unlucky fans who plunked down good money for this lackluster and beyond collection of odds and ends. The boys in The Band may not have been big on higher education, but the least they could have done was give it the old college try, if only out of a sense of duty to their legions of faithful followers.

I love The Band as much as anybody, more than my own (imaginary) children even, but this stinkeroo is strictly nowhereville. Not only is there not a single standout track on Islands, it includes only two songs I would ever consider listening to again.

How desperate were The Band to pad this baby out? They slapped a Christmas song on it. And, as if any further proof were needed that Robbie Robertson had dried up as a songwriter, we get the crass Robertson-Rick Danko collaboration “Street Walker,” which I would call the absolute low point of The Band’s career if it weren’t for the utterly vapid title track, an instrumental that can only be described as Yacht Rock Elevator Muzak.

On the positive side, you get… not much really. “Knockin’ Lost John,” on which Robertson inexplicably handles vocal duties, is pretty good. It would sound better with just about anybody besides the weak-voiced Robertson singing it, but I suppose the Band had their reasons. And Levon Helm’s Arkansas drawl kinda sorta redeems The Band’s otherwise underwhelming cover of the Homer Banks-Willia Dean Parker original “Ain’t That a Lot of Love.” After that, pal, this is one carnival you’re better off avoiding.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Dylan

Of all the rotten, no account, double-dealing low down, plug ugly, nasty tricks ever to be perpetrated on unsuspecting record buyers, this blatant profit grab takes the cake. The story behind Bob Dylan’s absolute worst album is well known–in revenge for his jumping ship and signing with Geffen Records, Columbia Records released this feckless collection of outtakes in an attempt to squeeze the Dylan teat one last time.

1973’s Dylan is an abomination; anybody who thought Bobby D. couldn’t sink any lower than 1970’s Self Portrait was sadly mistaken. This collection of misbegotten covers stinks to high heaven, and while it’s hard to blame Dylan (he didn’t agree to their being released), I’m inclined to point the finger in his direction anyway. The man should have had the foresight to burn the tapes, or to bury them mob style somewhere in the desert outside Las Vegas where they would never be found.

If the artistic value of Dylan is null and void, it does raise an interesting question about Dylan the artist circa 1969-70. It all comes down to chronology. Most people think Dylan is made up of outtakes from Self Portrait, an album Dylan himself has said he released in a calculated attempt to disenchant fans who insisted upon viewing him as a prophet and a seer.

Bob, to an interviewer circa 1981: “And at that time I was getting the wrong kind of attention, for doing things I’d never done. So we released [Self Portrait] to get people off my back. They would not like me any more. That’s… the reason that album was put out, so people would just at that time stop buying my records, and they did.”

It was a canny strategy indeed; what better way to disabuse his legions of rabid followers than by releasing a bunch of howlingly bad covers along the lines of “The Boxer,” on which Bob sings both Simon and Garfunkel’s parts in a surreal duet with himself?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Troggs,
Best of The Troggs

You’ve heard of rock music? Well, these English trogolodytes played real rocks. Legend has it the members of The Troggs were discovered as feral children living in the vicinity of Cheddar Gorge in the mid-1950s, where they romped about naked and walked on all fours. Five years of English lessons, some rudimentary musical training, and learning how not to hoot and waggle their genitalia at the sight of females of the species later, they were ready to bring their ludicrously crude garage rock to the listening public.

Here in the US The Troggs are primarily (if not exclusively) known for the cave man stomp “Wild Thing,” but in England’s green and pleasant land they scored a fair number of hits, which is where 1967’s Best of the Troggs comes in. You may not have wanted to let these guys anywhere near a live chicken (the results were invariably bloodcurdling), but their early work holds up as a prime example of the sonic possibilities of inspired primitivism.

To the extent that the Troggs are labeled a proto-punk band, it has less to do with attitude (Reg Presley and the boys didn’t have a rebellious or mean-spirited bone in their bodies) than with their determination to prove that any rough beast could slouch its way towards the Top of the Pops. What the Troggs offer the listener are a bunch of likable songs banged out with an equally likable amateur spirit; it bears remembering that it took years to teach these lads how to use knife and fork, and their learning curve more or less ended there.

That said, they’re not exactly the neanderthals you might think, and if you’re expecting every track to be a barbaric yawp along the lines of “Wild Thing” you’re in for a disappointment. A few songs do the crunge: “From Home” features some nasty fuzz guitar and is heavy as a club, while “Gonna Make You” is all cock-sure assertion set to a badass Bo Diddley beat.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Agents of Fortune

When it comes to 1970s faux evil rock bands that didn’t have a bone of true evil in their bodies, Blue Öyster Cult comes in right behind Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath.

BÖC flirted shamelessly, tongues planted firmly in cheek, with the iconography of the dark side (they sang about S&M, made references to Martin Bormann and put Nazi jet fighters on their album covers, and let’s not forget the Patti Smith-penned “Career of Evil”) and people bought it until, like the previously mentioned bands, the boys from Long Island took it right over the top, and it became obvious that it was all a big joke and they were about as evil as Debbie Gibson. But if it was all a shuck—and it was: even the rock critic Richard Meltzer, who wrote some of the band’s songs including “Burnin’ for You,” noted, “This is really hard rock comedy”—it led to some pretty great music, culminating Agents of Fortune, which was so wildly successful Robert Christgau dubbed BÖC “the Fleetwood Mac of heavy metal.”

Formed in 1967 as The Soft White Underbelly, the band subsequently changed its name to Oaxaca, then the Stalk-Forrest Group, then and the Santos Sisters before finally settling on Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. They were the first band to employ an umlaut in its name and came up with the most instantly recognizable band logo this side of Black Flag, and were guided step by step by manager Sandy Pearlman, who got them signed, wrote a lot of the band’s lyrics, helped produce their LPs, gave them their name, etc. As for the band’s members, at the time of Agents of Fortune they included Eric Bloom on lead vocals and “stun guitar,” Albert Bouchard on drums and backing vocals, Joe Bouchard on bass and backing vocals, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, and Allen Lanier on keyboards, rhythm guitar, and backing vocals.

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Graded on a Curve:
Leo Sayer,
Endless Flight

A few observations about Leo Sayer’s big breakthrough LP, 1976’s Endless Flight:

1. The cover will scare the shit out of you. Leo looks like some kind of heretofore unknown beastie leaping from the top of a kapok tree onto a party of unsuspecting Amazonian explorers, with the intention of sodomizing the lot. “What is that ungodly shriek?” asks Explorer A. “My God,” cries Explorer B, “it’s wearing suspenders!” “Shoot it in the afro!” howls Explorer C, tossing haversack and pith helmet to the winds before disappearing into the jaguar-infested underbrush.

I can see the headline in the London Times: Expedition Set Upon By Horrifying Creature followed by the subhead Sole Survivor: “It Was Singing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” as It Tore Sir Pleatherbottom’s Guts Out!”

For a prank, I once taped a life-sized enlargement of the cover to the ceiling above my college dorm-room mate’s bed. When he awoke he let loose with a terrified scream and fled the room wearing nothing but his underpants, never to be seen again. Last I heard he was living in Harrisburg, PA, in his old bedroom in his parent’s house. Seems he’s flinchy and refuses to leave the house much, and when he does, he spends a lot of time looking uneasily into the sky.

2. Endless Flight is remarkably easy on the ears. I was prepared to despise it, but get this: even the title track, an Andrew “Worst Singer-Songwriter to Ever Come Out of LA” Gold cover, passes muster in an Elton John kinda way. And believe me when I say Andrew’s version is purest ear torture. Which makes Leo, what exactly? I’ll tell you. A pretty good interpreter of the popular song.

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Graded on a Curve:
Barry White,
Greatest Hits

You’ve got to hand it to Love Man Barry White; his lubricious bass-baritone croon could charm the panties off anything–woman, man, antelope, albacore tuna–you name it. Hell, I bet you he could have induced sexual stimulation in a rock had he set his mind to it. There’s just something about that low flame timbre of his that makes you want to shout, “Ravish me, grossly overweight and not all that physically attractive soul man!”

Back in the seventies, the greatest Barry this side of Manilow ruled the airwaves like a weapon of mass seduction. His was a late-night, dim-the-lights, bedroom sound, and Barry wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his needs; on “Love Serenade” he sings, “I wanna see you the way you came into the world/I don’t wanna feel no clothes/I don’t wanna see no panties… “ Subtle he wasn’t. Indeed, White’s erotic entreaties bordered on comedy, and the parodists have been making hay of him for years; in an episode of The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa use Barry’s croon to lull vipers.

Musically, pop music’s biggest sex addict mixed R&B, soul, and funk, and is credited with helping to usher in the disco era with 1973’s “Love Theme,” by Barry’s backing unit The Love Unlimited Orchestra, whom The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau once hilariously dismissed as “Barry’s Jackie Gleason tribute band.”

Sadly–I love the thing myself–”Love Theme” is not included on 1975’s Barry White’s Greatest Hits, which remains the one-stop shopper’s LP of choice. Barry plays the role of sexsuasier (a French word I just made up!) to the hilt, and the mood rarely deviates from the lewdly priapic. Some of the songs sweep you along on string power alone, while others are midnight slow and give Barry the opportunity to ply his patented brand of dirty talk, but they’re all as heavy as the man himself.

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Graded on a Curve:
Humble Pie,
Smokin’

I have an unwholesome relationship with Humble Pie. It may not be as unsavory as my obsession with the impossibly déclassé Grand Funk Railroad, but still. The fact is I return again and again to Steve Marriott and Humble Pie’s refried boogie like a dog chained to its vomit, seeking in vain to be sanctified. And occasionally—as on such songs as “Beckton Dumps” and “Shut Up and Don’t Interrupt Me” off 1973’ live Eat It LP—I am. But all too often—and believe me when I say I keep trying—I’m left wondering how the electrifying former frontman of the Small Faces went so wrong when the regular-sized Faces went so right.

The answer lies, I think, in the fact that while the Faces played ‘em fast and loose with an irrepressible spirit of camaraderie and fun, Marriott—who certainly had the pipes to pull it off—wanted desperately to be a testifyin’ boogie man. While Rod the Mod and Company were getting soused on stage and having fun, serious Steve was rewriting Ike and Tina Turner’s “Black Coffee” to make clear that his skin was white but his soul was black. And unlike the Faces, who had a deceptively light touch, Marriott opted to go—for the most part at least—the hard blues route. Finally, Marriott liked to stretch ‘em out live—it gave him more time to testify, brothers and sisters—as is evident on 1971’s Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. None of these things have helped Marriott’s posterity—everybody loves the Faces, but Humble Pie is more of a footnote and acquired taste for the kinds of tossers drawn to the Brit Blues likes of Savoy Brown, Blodwyn Pig, and the Groundhogs.

Yet I continue to turn to Humble Pie, attracted by Marriott’s astounding vocals, mean guitar work, and occasional ability to come up with a song that boogies as hard as the soulful “30 Days in the Hole” off 1972’s Smokin’, which demonstrates that Marriott had at least one borderline excellent boogie record in him. It was the song that would help make Smokin’ Humble Pie’s highest charting LP ever, and it’s a riff’n’roll triumph with lots of great vocals, some great bass by Greg Ridley, and the imaginative drumming of young Jerry Shirley. Opening cut “Hot ‘n’ Nasty”—which should not be confused with the great Black Oak Arkansas song of the same name—is one truly funkified number thanks to some powerhouse organ and excellent piano work. And Marriott’s vocals go where few vocals have gone before. And it just gets better and better as it goes along, with Marriott tossing in some splendid guitar as the song comes to a close. White boogie rarely sounded this good, or danceable for that matter.

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