Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Butthole Surfers, Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac

What monstrous crimes against common decency and human hearing haven’t the Butthole Surfers committed? I don’t know, but it’s a short list, and that’s what I love about them. The band from San Antonio, Texas spent much of its career producing an obscene caterwaul, causing irreparable damage to both the ears and the minds of those human beings—and I count myself one of them—who couldn’t wait to hear what outrage the Butthole Surfers would perpetrate next. Distortion, transgression, and a dedication to doing the next wrong thing—these are the qualities that set Gibby Haynes and Company apart from the competition, and made their acid-fried freak rock rodeo a must-listen, must-see for anybody interested in finding just how far a band would travel the road of outrage to reach the palace of infamy.

The band’s live shows are legendary, and their albums remain wonderfully unlistenable despite the passage of time. I put them on whenever I feel the need to remind myself that some musicians simply do not care whether you like their music or not. It’s a refreshing attitude, and one that left the band penniless for the longest time; they spent many a day foraging through trashcans for food, and collecting bottles for the deposits. And as most people know, founders Haynes (vocals, saxophone) and Paul Leary (guitar) could have had good jobs; Haynes walked away from a top-notch accounting firm to starve, and Leary was on the fast track to respectability and financial success as well. They remind me a bit of Manson Family killer Tex Watson, another bright Texas boy who took an unexpectedly permanent detour on his way to the American dream.

When it came to freaks on the 80s underground scene the Butthole Surfers had no equals; nobody even came close. It speaks multitudes, at least to me, that they traveled for a while—and I’m talking the entire band along with a female pit bull named Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad—in a tiny, Chevy Nova with “Ladykiller” painted on it and a roll of barbed wire on the front bumper. In the studio, according to Leary, the band was committed to making “the worst records possible,” and in one infamous case involving the song “Creep in the Cellar” discovered a backwards fiddle on the recording, which resulted from the studio simply taping over a country band that failed to pay its bill. The Surfers, delighted by the addition, said leave it in.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bad Company, 10 from 6

Just how dumb can you be and still make it big in the rock biz? To find the answer you need look to either Foreigner or Bad Company, and I lack the intestinal fortitude it would require to examine the former. Both bands achieved fame and fortune via songs with IQs (providing songs could have IQs) lower than that of your average ape, so there’s your answer right there. You can be dumb as a stump, and still make enough moolah to drive your Jaguar on a whim into your swimming pool, even though Jaguars don’t know how to swim.

But is dumb necessarily a bad thing? I love Bachman Turner Overdrive and they’d probably be the first three pupils eliminated in a second grade spelling bee. (Actually Slade would precede them, and I love Slade too.) There are rockers much smarter than any of the bands listed above, and their intelligence—take Rush or Bad Religion for example—just gets in their way. They’re just smart enough to be pretentious, which in turn should tip you off to exactly how stupid they really are.

So maybe dumb doesn’t necessarily translate as insufferable, as Bad Company proved during its career spent producing crudely simplistic hard rock songs that could have been performed by troglodytes playing rocks. It mattered not a whit that they were dumb, as in dumb as a thumb. Why, lead singer Paul Rodgers concedes in “Runnin’ With the Pack” that his girlfriend wants to keep him in a cage, presumably to prevent him from inadvertently doing harm to himself or others.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Doors, (s/t)

What is there left to say about Jim Morrison? Most people have long since pigeon-holed him as either the Dionysian poet/seer in tight leather pants or the poetaster who got fat and died, his perfect male beauty ruined by alcoholic bloat and a beard that would have looked right at home on the faces of any one of my old pig farmer drug buddies. In short, folks tend to be either for or agin’ him, unless, like me, you’re one of those people who think he was all of the above, and more.

Morrison is a strange case, but those were strange days, and I admire his homicidal psychodramas and weird scenes inside the gold mine because they captured what it was like to live in a sunny LA paradise in whose shadows lurked dark predators and very scary cults, one of which happened to be the Manson Family. Morrison was a flower child only in the sense that his taste in florists ran to the French poet Charles “The Flowers of Evil” Baudelaire; as he famously said, “I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos–especially activity that seems to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom.” Then again, he’s the same guy who said, “Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts.”

There are those who argue that the early Morrison got by on his model good looks, but the guy was a far better poet than, say, Patti Smith, and like Smith he was a mesmerizing performer, falling into captivating trances and flinging himself about like a man possessed, at least until demon alcohol really got its claws into him. At which point he fell into booze-soaked rambling, or face first on the stage floor, and got arrested for exposing himself in Florida, where the only thing you’re allowed to expose is the fact that you were dumb enough to move to Florida in the first place. And despite his wisecracks—“Actually I don’t remember being born,” he said, “it must have happened during one of my blackouts”—things weren’t funny any more.

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Graded on a Curve: Lonnie Donegan,
Puttin’ on the Style

Lonnie Donegan may still be far from a household name in the United States, but he’s a legend in the United Kingdom for inventing a whole new genre—skiffle—before rock’n’roll was born. Like punk, skiffle—which incorporated jazz, blues, and folk, and was usually played using homemade or improvised instruments—made playing it a viable proposition for even the poorest of the poor, and it’s cool rhythms galvanized an entire generation of U.K. youth. The Beatles, the Stones, Van Morrison, Elton John—all were skiffle fanatics before rock’n’roll hit England, and all incorporated elements of its sound into their early music.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, the guitarist and vocalist got his start playing trad jazz in the mid-1940s, but a military stint in Vienna turned him onto the new sounds being played by the American Forces radio station—sounds he would later incorporate into so-called “skiffle breaks” while he was with Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. With a washboard, a tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan and two other musicians would play American blues and folk tunes. In July 1954 he recorded a skiffle version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” and presto—a star was born. Before he knew it he was playing on the Perry Como show, and young adherents—including those proto-Beatles, the Quarrymen, got off on this new style of music. Which was ironic seeing as how down the road it was those very same Beatles, with their newfangled beat music, who muscled Donegan off the pop charts for good.

Over the ensuing decades he would have his moments—recordings in Nashville, reunion shows, a long stint as a record producer, and most importantly, an album with Van Morrison (The Skiffle Sessions—Live in Belfast 1998) which won him much overdue acclaim. But just as important—but less appreciated than his collaboration with Morrison—was the 1978 LP Puttin’ on the Style, on which the King of Skiffle played an iconoclastic handful of songs accompanied by many of the musicians he’d influenced and inspired over the years including Albert Lee, Rory Gallagher, Brian May, Ron Wood, Elton John, Nicky Hopkins, Ringo Starr, Mick Ralphs, Jim Keltner, Leo Sayer, Ray Cooper, Peter Banks, Michele Phillips, and numerous other lesser known musicians. Produced by Adam Faith, the LP wasn’t a hit, but it provides a unique look at a musician who generally kept it simple taking advantage of a full deck of musical aces—which had both its advantages and disadvantages.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Who,
Live at Leeds

Many have called the Who’s 1970 Live at Leeds the best live album of all time. Me, I’ve always scoffed. It made no difference that I’d never actually sat down and listened to it. A good rock critic doesn’t have to actually listen to an LP before passing judgment on it. He simply knows, based on gut instinct and certain arcane and occult clues, whether an album is a dud or not. In the case of Live at Leeds, there are three clues to the album being rated far greater than deserved.

The first is the LP’s inclusion of “Summertime Blues,” a song that has always given me hives and put me off my dinner of Hormel’s Chili on hot dogs, which is the impoverished rock critic’s version of pan-fried foie gras with spiced citrus purée. The second is that Live at Leeds suffers—if only in one notable case—from that early seventies affliction, song bloat. You know what I’m talking about: live albums where the bands stretch their songs to extraordinary lengths, in some cases obscene two-sided lengths, forcing the stoned listener to stand up, stagger to the stereo in a Tuinal haze, and turn the damned record over to hear the second side. Finally, there was the issue of song selection: six tunes, three of them covers, with none of the covers being particular favorites of mine. And I’ve never been a big fan of one of the originals, “Magic Bus,” either.

Which has always left me to wonder, “What’s in it for me?” And I’m not alone; in particular, Live at Leeds failed to impress those twin pillars of rock criticism, the generally unintelligible Greil Marcus, who called the music dated and uneventful and the ever-crotchety Robert Christgau, who singled out “Magic Bus” for special abuse, calling it “uncool-at-any-length.”

Besides, I’ve always been more than satisfied with the three Who LPs I consider indispensible, namely Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. As for the rest of the Who’s catalogue—including Tommy—I had no use for it. But having finally listened to the Live at Leeds, I’m flabbergasted; it may not be, as critic Nik Cohn called it, “the definitive hard-rock holocaust,” but it does rock balls, probably because the Who was the best live band in the world at the time.

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Graded on a Curve:
Thee Midniters,
In Thee Midnite Hour!

So I’m cruising down Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. on a Saturday night in a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible lowrider with “Jump, Jive, and Harmonize” by Thee Midniters cranked on the car radio, and the year is 1965 and pretty young chicas in giggling groups are cutting along the neon-reflecting sidewalks past blaring mariachi joints and shuttered pawn shops and hole-in-the-wall taquerias, the musk of perfume and booze and mota thick in the air. Radio tuned to KTYM and Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg is shouting, “We’re in the Land of a Thousand Dances!” as somebody passes me the mota and I take a hit and just when I think I can’t get any more prendido I wake up, back in 2015, and what a bummer, vato, what a royal bummer.

Because Thee Midniters, one of the first and most prominent of the Chicano rock bands to hail from East Los, kicked ass. They worked on all cylinders, covering “Gloria” and producing the immortal “Whittier Boulevard” and the wonderfully bizarre “I Found a Peanut,” the first and only song in the history of rock to underscore the potentially lethal dangers of eating stray legumes. Why, none other than the great Kasey Casem said, “They were the best band I ever hired.”

Thee Midniters were early proponents of the horn-big sound (check out the opening to “Thee Midnite Feeling” and “Love Special Delivery”) that Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears would make famous, but they didn’t suck like Chicago or BS&T because they were far too frenetic and frantic to succumb to big band bloat, thanks largely to trombonist/ arranger Romeo Trado. Thee Midniters were ravers, screamers, and shouters, and their way of playing it cool was by keeping the erotic thermostat turned way, way up. One listen to the guitar rampage by George Dominguez that is “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” should be enough to convince anybody that Thee Midniters really could, as vocalist Willie (aka “Little Willie G.”) Garcia says, “save the whole world.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Eat Skull,
Wild and Inside

Sometimes a song comes along that’s so fucking great you’d do anything for it: write its term papers, take over its paper route, agree to supply it with clean urine so it can pass a court-ordered piss test. Dinosaur Jr.’s “Freak Scene,” Pavement’s “Range Life,” Mountain Goats’ “Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” Destroyer’s “Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever”—those are but a few of my many game changers, and I’m sure you have yours: magical mystery tunes that forever change you and the way you hear music. Well, I heard a new one just yesterday—Eat Skull’s “Space Academy.”

Portland, Oregon’s Eat Skull is loosely affiliated with the nebulous genre that is being called “Shitgaze,” along with such purveyors of lo-fi scuzz as Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit, both of Columbus, Ohio. Formed in 2006 by Rob Enbom and Rod Meyer, both of Hospitals, along with bassist Scott Simmons and drummer Beren Ekine-Huett, Eat Skull put out a relatively hardcore first LP, then slowed things down on LPs two and three. It’s their third LP, 2013’s appropriately titled III, that includes “Space Academy”—an impossibly catchy combination of vaguely psychedelic melody, sublime vocals, and deafening and atonal guitars—but I actually prefer their 2009 sophomore LP, Wild and Inside. It doesn’t have a song on it as great as “Space Academy,” but it has a few that come close. And its ratio of songs that I love is higher than that of III, so Wild and Inside it is.

Wild and Inside is far more fuzzed out and lo-fi than III, which may explain why I hear the occasional echo of early Guided by Voices. Everything sounds submerged, as if they’d somehow figured out a way to record the LP at the bottom of a swimming pool—one filled with water. Opener “Stick to the Formula” is an impossibly muddy tune, but the catchy melody comes through loud and clear, as do the lines, “Stick stick stick/To the formula.” It’s a noisy tune for people who like the Carpenters, and it’s followed by the slapdash “Cooking a Way to Be Happy,” a noise-cluttered mid-tempo number that features lots of clattering of what I assume are kitchen utensils, some cool backing vocals, the whistle of a boiling teapot, and the great lines, “My town isn’t gloomy/My town isn’t sad/The only way to feel happy/Is to know what it means to feel bad.” I could be reading way too much into this one, but I wonder whether what they’re singing about cooking is meth.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sonic Youth,
“4 Tunna Brix”

I’ve never been a big Sonic Youth fan. For a long time the only song of theirs I could stomach was “Death Valley ‘69,” and then only because it was about everybody’s favorite foster child provider, Charles Manson. They were simply too humorless and NYC No Wave (as in “let’s make a pretentious and formless din!”) for my particular noise rock tastes.

It wasn’t until 1988’s Daydream Nation, that accessible masterpiece, that I finally found I could listen to them without shouting, “Write a real song! Quit being so “kool”! And don’t ever let Kim Gordon sing!” (Which she unfortunately does on “My Friend Goo” off 1990’s Goo, with hilariously horrifying results.) Indeed, one of Sonic Youth’s big problems, for me anyway, has always been their lack of a front person with even an iota of charisma. Neither Gordon nor Shelley is capable of projecting emotion; they’re machines who have placed their faith in other machines—namely their guitars—and the front man be damned.

But an even bigger problem with Sonic Youth is that they play art-noise, and that art part rankles. They’re serious about their place in the avant-garde, and one gets get the idea they spend hours at a time listening to experimental artists of the past and present, and would succumb to sheer elitist mortification if forced to listen to a Kix album. Whereas the noise bands I like (Killdozer, Cows, The Jesus Lizard, U.S. Maple) could care less. Shannon Selberg of Cows didn’t develop his extraordinary bugle skills by listening to Steve Reich, John Cage or, god forbid, Yoko Ono; he just picked the thing up and started blowing on it.

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Graded on a Curve: Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head

Chris Martin of Coldplay has his fair share of detractors, but I’m not one of them. The fact is, I’m head over heels in love with the man. And I know precisely when it happened. It was a couple of seconds into the video for “The Scientist,” when the camera pans in on Martin’s face and for an instant, just an instant, his pupils flare, like exploding stars in some far off galaxy. From that moment on I was, to quote the great Air Supply, lost in love.

Sure, Martin can be too sensitive for words, and Coldplay has released its fair share of sappy songs. As a result, Coldplay is looked down upon as a sort of poor man’s Radiohead, but you know what? Fuck Radiohead. I hate ‘em. And fuck Robert Christgau while we’re at it, for calling Coldplay “the definition of a pleasant bore—easy to tune out, impossible to care for.” He can think what he wants but I care for them, for populist reasons and because despite what anyone says they know how to induce ecstasy or, conversely, how to conjure up a catharsis of delectable melancholy.

Anyway, Coldplay has released six LPs since 2000, won shitloads of awards, and released such great tunes as “Yellow,” “Fix You,” “Speed of Sound,” and “Viva La Vida,” to say nothing of the many excellent tunes on 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, their sophomore—and best, in my opinion—album. And I’m not alone; in a BBC radio 2 poll, listeners declared—hold on to your hats, folks–A Rush of Blood the best album of ALL TIME. Personally I find this ludicrous—where are your Beatles and Stones and Stooges and Killdozer? But it goes to show you both how many fans Coldplay has and how fanatical they are. If Chris Martin decided to hold his own Nuremburg Rallies, there would be no shortage of attendees.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Jesus Lizard, Head

In the totally unfinished basement (dirt floors, ancient brick walls) of the house I grew up in, there was, in addition to a musty side room filled with forgotten potatoes in a weird hanging trough, and the main room where my brother and I liked to get drunk and shoot a .22 cat rifle at the water heater, a mysterious crawl space—or more accurately a gaping hole in the wall—in one corner that led to God knows where. Despite our curiosity my siblings and I steered well away from it, because, well, it was fucking creepy. For a long time I thought of this as the perfect example of collective sibling pussification, but now I know we had ample reason to never explore its confines. It was where David Yow lived.

Yow, of Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard fame, sounds like the kind of unhinged person who would live in a crawl space beneath an unsuspecting family’s house. Which is why I love him so. He is—along with Shannon Selberg, Al Johnson, and Matt Korvette—the most demented vocalist on the block. Yow moans, screams, hisses, snarls, warbles, slurs his words, coughs, chokes, hums, utters guttural gibberish, growls, yowls, howls, and generally disembowels his lyrics, frequently all in the same song. He is a noise rock genius, and once you’ve heard him “sing” you’ll never forget it.

Yow and bassist David Wm. Sims formed The Jesus Lizard in 1987 out of the ashes of Scratch Acid, the seminal noise rock band Kurt Cobain loved so much. Yow wasn’t originally supposed to be the singer, but serendipity struck and put him behind the microphone where, in the words of Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, he sounded “like a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth.” I find Azerrad’s description limiting—Yow does just as good an imitation of a psychopathic killer as the victim of one—but it will do. Live, Yow was every bit as demented as his vocal chords; a lunatic on stage, he was known for licking audience members’ faces, in addition to a grab bag of similarly confrontational antics.

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