Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Pink Fairies,
Finland Freakout 1971

The Pink Fairies made one of the most monstrous rackets in human history. Theirs was a sound more barbaric than the Battle for Stalingrad, more hammering than 40,000 jackhammers going at once, and fuzzier than my Aunt Edna’s chin. Drummer Russell Hunter made as big a thumping noise as the giant crushing machine—run by a grotesquely fat man named Tiny—back at the Littlestown Foundry, guitarist Paul Rudolph played all fuzz and nothing but the fuzz, and Duncan Sanderson once nearly swamped the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein (which is double-landlocked) by creating a tidal wave with his brutal booming boot-stomp of a bass.

In short, Ladbroke Grove’s finest were fucking fantastic, mayhem-makers and the kind of fun-loving Radico-Freeks who promoted anarchy, drugs, and free music for all. And who played songs with titles like “Uncle Harry’s Last Freakout” that went on forever, frazzling your eardrums and shivering your timbers with their feral, in-your-face druggy din. If you live for fuzz and feedback the way I do, The Pink Fairies are Mecca, because they didn’t make them part of their musical palate—they were the band’s entire musical palate. Making a big freaky-deaky hullaballoo was all the Pink Fairies knew how to do.

For the reasons cited above you will rarely find an album with a more appropriate title than Finland Freakout 1971. Recorded at the Ruisrock Festival in Turku, Finland—which, as we all learned in elementary school, was the site of the Åbo Bloodbath in the aftermath of the War against Sigismund—this was a typical Pink Fairies show, only FASTER, because pre-gig a Canned Heat roadie turned the Fairies onto enough speed to keep a kindergarten class wide awake and drawing perfect crayon circles within circles within circles for a full year.

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TVD Live: The Kid Congo Powers Hour at Comet Ping Pong, 4/14

How unlucky am I? I was walking down the street the other day when a black cat crossed my path. The black cat said, “Shit! Bad luck!”

Now Kid Congo Powers, on the other hand, is a lucky guy. He’s spent virtually his entire life at the Epicenter of Cool, from his teen years as a Glam Kid dancing to “All the Young Dudes” at Rodney Bingenheimer’s storied English Disco to co-founding The Gun Club with Jeffrey Lee Pierce to playing with the likes of The Cramps and The Bad Seeds. That’s quite the curriculum vitae, and a much-abbreviated version at that, so I suppose in Powers’ case its talent, not luck, at work.

The stories Powers—whose current gig is as front man of Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds—could tell! He could write a book! Here’s one about sepulchral Hollywood Sleaze King Kim Fowley. Seems Fowley showed up at a party where Kid and company were tripping. Nobody at the party liked Fowley—they considered him a stabbing pain in the cock at the best of times—so they all grabbed kitchen knives and waved them out the door, uttering mock-homicidal Manson Family type threats. Fowley decided he’d be safer going elsewhere.

Since relocating to Washington, D.C., Powers has engaged in all manner of extracurricular activities, because he’s a seemingly tireless character and bops around in his hip 50’s biker’s cap and cool ‘stache that’s every bit as tireless as he is. I’ve never met a more energized mustache. Anyway, when Powers isn’t touring or recording in Harveyville, Kansas he’s DJing here and there and everywhere, but I’m not the dancing type so my favorite fun Powers’ side activity is the occasional Kid Congo Powers Hour, wherein le Kid de la Congo leads a supergroup of stellar musicians in a set of skanky-great garage obscurities, sixties scunge-rock classics, and Gun Club and Cramps tunes.

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Graded on a Curve: Humble Pie & Nazareth, Winning Combinations

What manner of musical monster is this? Two bands—on the same LP? Lunacy! Stark raving madness! Why, it reminds of the bootleg 99-cent LPs I used to see in the cutout bins of Woolworths as a teen. You’d be transfixed by a title like Jimi Hendrix Meets Brian Auger, but if you were foolish enough to buy it you soon discovered that Hendrix was MIA and the LP included nothing but dismal D-grade outtakes by Auger. And come to the reluctant conclusion that if the two did actually meet, it was at a party at Mama Cass Elliott’s flat in Mayfair.

Overwhelmed by nostalgia, I had to check this one out. And I’ll be damned if it isn’t indeed a winning combination, the reasons being twofold: (1) Humble Pie and Nazareth aren’t so terribly far apart, sound-wise, that the combo is ridiculous, and (2) while I half-expected the LP to contain losers and obscurities, it turns out that—and I don’t mean this to sound cold—both bands each recorded maybe five great songs, and they’re all on this LP. So it’s like getting two greatest hits packages in one!

I know that Humble Pie fanatics (total number: 17) and Nazareth nuts (total number: 17) alike will keen at my saying each band only put out five great songs. And it’s true; I’m exaggerating. But Winning Combination is as good a radical distillation of ‘Umble Pie and Nazareth’s best as you’re likely to find, and each group’s bona fide greatest hits packages contain more than a few songs that I would never, in my wildest imaginings, want to actually hear.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, (s/t)

Tom Petty scares me. Always has. It’s that skull face of his. I always thought he’d be an even bigger star than he is if his face didn’t look like it should have crossbones underneath it. Yes, I suspect that Petty’s frightening apparition of a face (although he’s improved it a bit by growing hair on it) has kept him from being acknowledged for what he is: namely, a bona fide power pop genius.

Most people think of Petty as a rock’n’roller or a roots rocker or, ugh, a heartland rocker, but I say he’s a power pop genius and goddamn it, I’m right. And he’d be a power pop genius if the only song he’d ever bequeathed us is the great “American Girl,” which I put at No. 3 on my list of all-time favorite power pop smashes behind The Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” and Big Star’s “September Gurls.” But since 1976 Petty has produced a shitload of brilliant and deceptively simple-sounding songs, from “Here Comes My Girl” to “Free Fallin’” to “I Need to Know” to “Into the Great Wide Open”—and the list goes on and on.

Petty reminds me of Creedence Clearwater Revival, another great singles band that never—in my opinion, at least—got the respect it deserved. And unlike John Fogerty—who has been reduced to producing ilk of the “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” variety—or Eric Carmen for that matter, Petty just keeps pumping them out, like a machine, or an Android from the Planet Skull. The man is a marvel, a human jukebox, and as much as I love The Raspberries and Big Star—more than I’ll ever love Tom Petty, that’s for sure—there’s no denying the guy has produced as many—or more—great tunes than both those bands put together.

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Graded on a Curve:
Black Oak Arkansas, Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live

Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum is the Ryne Duren of rock. Duren was the journeyman pitcher who could throw the ball like 167 mph. His only problem? He was legally blind. Not even Coke-bottle-thick glasses helped. From 1954-65 batters suffered nervous breakdowns at his appearance, because as famed Yankee manager Casey Stengel noted, “If he hit you in the head you might be in the past tense.” It didn’t improve batters’ nerves that Duren’s first pitch generally zoomed 20 feet over the catcher’s head. You never knew if Duren was going to hit the strike zone, the third base coach, or some poor kid in the bleacher seats.

Jim Dandy’s voice, same deal. I’d call it a wild pitch, but Mangrum has no pitch, and no control of his amazing instrument whatsoever. He might hit a note, or he might hit some stoned head in the 43rd row. But that’s what I like about Black Oak Arkansas; it managed to become one of the premier live acts of the seventies with a tone-deaf singer with mighty pipes, while playing a lascivious acid-fried hillbilly boogie you have to hear to believe.

Unlike its Southern Rock brethren, BOA was a band of bona fide freaks, LSD-soaked long-hair rednecks who lived off the land commune style (to avoid a felony warrant, basically) in the hills of rural north-central Arkansas. Black Oak played a whoop-ass psycho-boogie that might include Mangrum soloing on the washboard and drummer Tommy Aldridge playing the drums with his hands on such cosmic cornpone as “Mutants of the Monster” or “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” with its monologue by Jim “Aldous Huxley in bib overalls” Dandy about the Halls of Karma and how we can all be as one if we only do enough bong hits, like the one the boys do at the beginning of unreleased 1972 studio cut “UP, UP, UP.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Alex Chilton,
Like Flies on Sherbert

When it comes to your storied—and star-crossed—careers, Alex Chilton is one hard guy to top. From a number one hit as vocalist for the Box Tops—at the tender age of 16, and on his first time inside a studio yet—to his 3-LP stint as co-founder of the brilliant (if erratic) and commercially unsuccessful power pop band Big Star, Chilton had both the chops and the genius to become a star in the glittering rock firmament.

It never happened. Sure, everybody from Michael Stipe to the Replacements loves him now. He’s an indie rock saint, and Big Star is every other band’s biggest influence. But Big Star’s was a right songs/wrong time sort of fate, and that fecklessness followed Chilton all his life. His post-Big Star years were one long unhappy tour of rock’s Stations of the Cross: addiction problems, poorly received solo albums, even a stint in New Orleans spent doing odd jobs—washing dishes and trimming trees.

I saw Chilton play once, not too long after the song “No Sex” came out, and he was wasted (I think—I was totally trashed) and took swipes at the audience, and the audience took swipes right back. I remember not particularly liking what Mr. Nasty was playing. But I was an idiot then, and I’m a different sort of idiot now. And having finally listened to Chilton’s 1979 debut solo LP Like Flies on Sherbert, I suspect the now idiot would have loved the show.

And I have Kiki Solis, the very talented bassist, baritone guitarist, and vocalist for the sublimely wonderful Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, to thank. Solis recently gave me some neighborly advice. I say neighborly although we actually live five states apart. But we both have very loud voices, and there’s no law against shouting across state lines. Anyway, Kiki’s advice was this: listen to Like Flies on Sherbert. Do it today. You could die tomorrow, following an attack of sudden onset rickets, and you would have missed out on some brilliantly fucked-up trash.

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Graded on a Curve: David Lee Roth,
Eat ‘Em and Smile

David Lee Roth was Thee Consummate Showman of the Hair Metal era. With Roth you got the whole shmeer; a natural-born ham and song and dance man, he would gladly have set himself alight and turned flaming cartwheels over the squat Michael Anthony if that’s what it took to keep Diamond Dave in the limelight. Not for nothing did the one-man parade once say, “The world’s a stage, and I want the brightest spot.”

Diamond Dave’s fashion sense may have been deplorable (I’m looking at a photo of him wearing leopard-print spandex leotards and a chest-pelt-revealing v-neck t-shirt complete with—yes, the t-shirt—suspenders), but he more than made up for it by being rock’s preeminent komiker, or comedian. Forever “on,” and with a touch of the old-school vaudevillian in him, you got the sense Roth would have been just as comfortable playing the Borscht Belt as he was playing rock’n’roll. This made him a refreshing anomaly in a genre that depleted the world’s stockpile of hair spray yet still took itself very, very seriously. Thanks to David “I don’t feel tardy” Roth, Van Halen wasn’t just the premier hair metal band—or metal band, period, for that matter—of its time; it was the funniest one (“Have you seen Junior’s grades?”) as well.

And I suppose still is, since Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2006—21 years after departing in 1985, unhappy with the band’s pop turn, adoption of keyboards and synthesizers, and increasingly “morose” (his term) sound. During the interim the Dean Martin of Rock (what else are you going to call a guy who once quipped, “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out my glass”?) released a series of increasingly less successful—grunge killed the vaudeville star—solo albums; put together a Las Vegas lounge act complete with a star-studded brass band and exotic dancers (whom Roth described as “so sweet, I bet they shit sugar”); hosted a radio show; and even worked a stint as an NYC EMT. I don’t think this was a poverty move; he probably just wanted to know how to resuscitate himself in the event of a coke-induced heart attack.

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Graded on a Curve: Pussy Galore,
Exile on Main Street

Somewhere in the interstices between adoration and desecration lies Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street. It’s hard to decide whether the noise/trash rock band’s song-by-song cover of the magnificent 1972 Rolling Stones LP is an act of veneration or demolition. Personally, I think it’s both. The Pussies’ Exile on Main Street isn’t an album—it’s a loving assassination, murder as homage, Willard slaying Kurtz in the remote jungles of Cambodia. While the arty poseurs in Sonic Youth were singing about killing your idols, Pussy Galore was out there putting the knife in.

Whether you think Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street is a disgracefully amateurish and inept piece of garbage or the high-water mark of nihilistic rock primitivism (I’m of the latter camp), you have to concede that Pussy Galore was up to more than just taking the piss. Sure, Jon Spencer et al. gleefully mangled a number of my very favorite songs beyond recognition, but I’m happy to forgive them because they reminded me that sometimes the wronger you play, the righter you are.

Punk talked a good game about anarchy, but you rarely encountered the real thing on record. This is what makes Exile on Main Street so refreshing. Its sloppy playing, no-fi recording, and chaotic, ramshackle covers are a merry “fuck you” to the dubious notion that great rock’n’roll need have anything to do with good musicianship. Pussy Galore happily reduced what may well be the greatest rock album ever to a fascinating shambles because they were snotty nihilists with a knack for outrage who didn’t give a soaring shit. And that, so far as I’m concerned, is the true spirit of rock’n’roll.

Me, I’d happily trade every slick studio LP ever recorded for Exile’s inspired (and inspiring) ineptitude, which makes Neil Young’s torn and frayed 1975 masterpiece Tonight’s the Night sound like it was produced by Boston’s Tom Scholz, the insane studio perfectionist who, or so the legend goes, once forced his drummer to play his kick drum some 9,000 times before finally giving its tenor his grudging okay.

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Graded on a Curve: The New Lost City Ramblers, American Moonshine and Prohibition Songs

Ah, Prohibition: that 13-year experiment in teetotaltarianism that proved you can’t keep a man from his true love. Take my great-uncle Brooks. He couldn’t afford the bootleg hooch that was readily available, so he took to making that abominable-tasting home brew known as bathtub gin. Where his poor family bathed, I haven’t the faintest.

One day Brooks returned home to discover his bathtub was drier than a county in Kansas. He howled, full of the grapes of wrath, and out the front door he charged. Sure enough, a neighbor recalled seeing an elderly scoundrel slip out the back door of Brooks’ house, a half-dozen newly filled bottles in his arms. Whistling. Who was the dirty palooka as would purloin a souse’s precious store of shine? Why, none other than Brooks’ own father, whose thirst was the stuff of legend. Prohibition turned brother against brother and father against son, just like the Civil War.

1919’s Volstead Act put the kibosh on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, making social reformers and Christian fundamentalists gladsome indeed. But the new prohibition left an ombibulous populace to fret over how to finagle it next fifth. The stewed and the snooted need not have sweated it. The ink was hardly dry on the Volstead Act before bootleggers and moonshiners took on the philanthropic task of ensuring no wet need ever go dry, while crime—organized, disorganized, and otherwise—skyrocketed. From 1920 until 1933, when prohibition was finally repealed, America was one ripped and roaring Republic.

And I can think of no better way to recapture the spirit of that Dark Age than to listen to The New Lost City Ramblers’ 1962 LP American Moonshine and Prohibition Songs, one great collection of tunes about the 18th Amendment’s impact on America’s alcohol-loving Southern mountain populace. Originally released by Folkways, the LP includes 17 songs from the Prohibition era, although several songs feature new lyrics.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bonzo Dog Band, Tadpoles

I am tempted to call The Bonzo Dog Band (or the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, take your pick) the greatest group in the history of rock. And this despite the fact that they only occasionally got around to playing what could be called a rock song. They were too far too busy cracking themselves up with their hilarious, brilliantly surreal, and utterly deranged wit. If Monty Python had turned to music full-time, they might—although I honestly doubt it—have been as funny as The Bonzo Dog Band.

The genre-hopping mobile insane asylum that was The Bonzo Dog Band might throw anything at you: trad jazz, oldies covers, bizarre street interviews with perplexed normals, and parodies, heaps of parodies—of thirties songs, music hall songs, fifties songs, blues songs, hard-rock songs, psychedelic songs—you name it. And they were excellent musicians—when they wanted to be—with a genius for arranging songs. Your average Bonzo tune may sound anarchic, but you can be certain it was put together with an exacting eye for detail, and every detail is in its right place.

There’s really no one to compare The Bonzo Dog Band with except Frank Zappa, and the comparison is a poor one. Zappa’s humor was sneering and juvenile; his Brit counterparts favored an intelligent and good-natured Dadaism. Just check out “The Intro and the Outro,” a parody of a band introduction that grows stranger and stranger as it goes on, with the announcer snazzily saying, “And looking very relaxed on vibes, Adolf Hitler… niiiice” and “Representing the flower people, Quasimodo, on bells.” No yellow snow here.

Formed in London in 1962 as a trad jazz band, The Bonzo Dog Band’s core line-up included the mad and brilliant Vivian “Ginger Geezer” Stanshall on trumpet and lead vocals; the equally demented Neil Innes on piano, guitar, and lead vocals; Rodney “Rhino” Desborough Slater on saxophone; Roger Ruskin Spear on tenor saxophone and assorted mad sound-producing contraptions, including the trouser press and “Theremin leg”; Dennis Cowan on drums and vocals; and the legendary “Legs” Larry Smith—the tap dancer extraordinaire who played one of rock’s few tap solos on Elton John’s “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself”—on drums.

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