What shouldn’t aging rock stars do when they feel themselves fast approaching the tipping point of total irrelevancy? Simple: make a video of themselves fopping about in an overly fey manner to that hoary old Martha and the Vandellas chestnut, “Dancing in the Street.”
Just about everybody, with the possible exception of G.G. Allin, has taken a stab at it, leading to such a glut of cover takes that a hidden codicil of the 1938 Munich Pact banned future versions of the song. Unfortunately no one thought to inform Mick Jagger or David Bowie of this fact, and the result is one of the most unintentionally hilarious videos in rock history.
It opens with a shot of Mick Jagger’s hideous yellow sneakers bopping up and down, and it’s all downhill from there. The boys are attired awfully—Bowie is wearing, for reasons known only to Bowie, a white lab coat over a camo jumper—and spend the entire video camping it up like two aging queens on methamphetamines, leaping up and down, swapping lines, standing back to back while making “dance like an Egyptian” arm gestures, and singing with their respective rock star lips about an inch apart.
Love a band? Hate a band? It often comes down to simple timing. For instance, had My War been the first music by Black Flag I ever heard, instead of their earlier EPs and singles, I would never have given them the time of day. The same is true for The Psychedelic Furs. I first heard them when they were putting out such catchy and undeniably lovely new wave songs such as “Love My Way,” “Heaven,” and “Pretty in Pink.”
Unfortunately, I disliked new wave, because in the wake of first-generation punk it sounded too wimpy, emasculated, and dance-oriented for my tastes. To paraphrase one David Bowie, “I never got it off on that new wave stuff/How bland/Too many Duran Durans.” Or to quote the great Minutemen, “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”
But had I heard the Furs around 1980, instead of, say, 1983, things would have been very different. In fact, I’d have loved them. Because 1980 was the year they released their debut LP, the eponymous and post-punk The Psychedelic Furs. Forget their melodic new wave tunes that ended up on film soundtracks and got played at every prom in the land. The Furs’ debut is a fabulous collection of droning grooves over which vocalist Richard Butler talk/sings enigmatically about who knows what to the accompaniment of guitars and one great saxophone. And to think I never heard so much as a song off it until Kid Congo Powers covered the ecstatic “We Love You” at a live show here in DC. Thank you, Kid, for your great tastes in music and your great mustache and for turning me on to The Psychedelic Furs. I owe you big time.
Steely Dan was Thee Consummate anti-garage band of the seventies. Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen didn’t just polish their LPs; they buffed, burnished, lacquered, and airbrushed them until they were as perfect as Andy Gibbs’ coif. The Kings of Studio Sheen were perfect examples of what could be done if you were willing to spend 4,000 hours creating LPs as high gloss as a Lamborghini just off the assembly line. They produced the most waxed wax this side of insane perfectionist Tom Scholz of Boston, who has been known to spend a good decade spiffing up an LP before it meets his impossibly exacting standards.
Lots of people hate Steely Dan for this—I myself, a big Dan fan, want nothing to do with anything they released after 1976’s The Royal Scam, because they finally took the whole 50,000 coats of lacquer shtick a bit too far, while also moving towards a smooth jazz/pop fusion that left me cold—but I’ll stand by their earlier LPs to the end. Over the course of four years they released five albums that boasted great melodies, brilliant lyrics, and the best studio musicians money could buy, including guitarists Rick “All-American Boy” Derringer, Elliott “Total Fucking Genius” Randall, and Larry Carlton, which is why you’ll search in vain for a mediocre guitar solo on a Steely Dan record. They had impeccable tastes in ringers.
The Steely Dan story is familiar to most; Becker and Fagen met at ultra-liberal arts Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (where I once spent a weekend so dissipated that when I left my pal Dan, a Bard student, was pissing blood), formed a band they named after a dildo from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and in 1972 put out debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, which turned them into overnight sensations thanks to its songs “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” (I remember my eighth grade English teacher, a young and pretty flower child type, playing them for the class as examples of the “groovy new poetry” being “dug” by young people).
You wanna hear a miracle? I lived for almost five-and-a-half decades without ever hearing Jailbreak, or any other Thin Lizzy album for that matter. Here vocalist/bassist and chief songwriter Phil Lynott and his Irish compatriots put out a truly tremendous LP in America’s Bicentennial Year, not to mention a parcel of other great LPs, and what was I doing? Listening to Elton John and John Denver and England Dan and John Ford Coley, any band basically with a guy named John in it. If Debbie Gibson’s middle name been John, I would have listened to her too.
I would love to be able to say I simply wasn’t into hard rock back then, but I owned albums by Bad Company, UFO (UFO? Me? Inexplicable!), Robin Trower, and Foghat, so that’s sheer bunk. But there’s no point in crying over guilty milk, and it’s never too late to make up for past mistakes, that is unless you’re Lee Harvey Oswald or that chimpanzee (name: Travis) who ripped a woman’s face off in 2009, and I’m neither of those personages. So here I am making up for atoning for my inexplicable oversight, and listening to Jailbreak which mixes tremendous twin-guitar hard rockers with sweeter fair, all of which I love with the possible exception of “Cowboy Song”—in which Lynott, a black Irishman, plays rodeo cowpoke.
But I take that back. “Cowboy Song” may start slowly, but its guitar solos are tremendous and Lynott’s vocals are impassioned (especially when he sings, “It’s okay amigo/Just let me go/Riding in the rodeo”) and the jam at song’s end is a bono fido guitar marvel. Turns out I love the damn thing! Just as I love everything about the LP, except for its cover. Too sci-fi for my decidedly earthbound tastes.
Inside of every rock critic there exists a rock star screeching like Geddy Lee to be let out. In my case said inner rock star actually escaped, and the results were… unfortunate.
I poured hot wax down my pants and shoved fish filet sandwiches and the club microphone down my pants (there wasn’t much, really, that I wouldn’t put down my pants) and was nearly beaten to death by enraged lesbians and poured pitchers of beer on my drummer Berndt’s head and climbed the rafters at the Velvet Lounge and was known to run out into the street with the microphone to serenade startled passersby, all of which made club owners very unhappy. Especially one, whom we consigned to immortality with the tune “Burn Down the Velvet Lounge.”
But not every critic’s inner rock star fails so miserably. Take the Angry Samoans, the great LA punk pioneers whose line-up included not one, but two, rock scribes in Rolling Stone writer “Metal Mike” Saunders and Creem critic Gregg Turner. You remember the Angry Samoans, right? How could you forget? They scored three Billboard No. 1 hits with their classic songs “Lights Out” (about a teen fad sweeping the nation involving poking your own eyes out with a fork), “They Saved Hitler’s Cock” (“If Hitler’s cock could choose its mate/It would ask for Sharon Tate!”), and “Get Off the Air,” their infamous jibe at Rodney Bingenheimer, former owner of Sunset Strip’s English Disco turned KROQ DJ (“8 PM, and Rodney’s on the air/He’s beating off in Joan Jett’s hair.”) What’s more, their “My Old Man’s a Fatso” scored big, and I mean REALLY big, in the hard-to-find-on-the-map nation of Berserkistan.
I’m a bad person. A repugnant person. A very sick person. Take Uriah Heep. One of the few things I know about them—and the only thing about them that interested me until very recently—was that bassist Gary Thain was electrocuted on stage at the Moody Coliseum in Dallas, Texas on September 15, 1974 and had to be carried off stage, “stiff as a board.” I love macabre stuff like that, and can fill you in on every horrible rock death ever. Take Bobby Ramirez, the drummer for Edgar Winter’s White Trash. He was beaten to death outside a Chicago bar in 1972. Why? He had long hair.
What else did I know about Uriah Heep? Well, I know (and like) “Easy Livin’,” the band’s only U.S. hit. Oh, and I know they’re obsessed by—as the title of 1972’s Demons and Wizards amply demonstrates—Fisher Kings and swords and sorcery and gallant knights charging on snorting steeds to the rescue of virginal damsels in dewy merkins in peril of having their maidenheads stolen by evil princes, which is why I never bothered to listen to them in the first place. All that Middle Ages and Middle Earth bullpucky bores me more than reality television, unlike say the decadent and decaying Roman Empire, where you could drink until you puked and never had any trouble getting a good orgy up. Oh, and the Heep’s lead singer David Byron sometimes sang like a girl, which I find off-putting, which is a friendly way of putting it.
So I’ve always kept well away from Uriah Heep, for fear that the band might be catching, although listening to their tunes now many of them sound strangely familiar, and earlier this morning I was struck with the phantom memory of buying their greatest hits (on 8-track!) in my early youth at a mall outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so perhaps I have heard some of them before. If so, they didn’t make much of an impression upon me and I couldn’t have listened to the 8-track much, although it wasn’t so bad my brother and I ran it over with his gold Dodge Duster, which was the fate we reserved for albums we considered too completely stinko to live.
You’ve got to hand it to “Ebony and Ivory.” When it comes to Pap Tunes, or Schlock Rock, or whatever you choose to call songs so sugary they’re guaranteed to give you instant cavities, 1982′s “Ebony and Ivory” rules.
It’s the cheesiest of the cheesy, the sappiest of the sappy, and best of all, it’s a song designed to foster racial harmony that really works. Believe me, at every party I’ve ever been where it was played black and white united in making a mad rush for the stereo to rip it off the turntable and toss it out the window. Thanks to its adamantine mawkishness, “Ebony and Ivory” is an equal opportunity nausea producer.
And when you look at the competition: Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” John Lennon’s “Woman,” Barry Manilow’s entire oeuvre, and every song ever recorded by Lionel Richie with the exception of the wonderful acid-inspired “Dancing on the Ceiling” (“Lionel! Get down off that ceiling this instant! Don’t you see the sign that says No Dancing on the Ceiling?”) you realize what a horrifying coup Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder pulled off. Compared to “Ebony and Ivory,” Sarin gas is relatively benign.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Gary Wright. It’s the same place where I keep my love for Sammy Johns, spotted dick (the English pudding, filthbrain), and Wolfman Jack of American Graffiti fame, on whose Saturday evening TV show The Midnight Special back in 1975 I first saw Wright singing “Dream Weaver” with a portable synthesizer hanging from a strap around his neck.
I loved “Dream Weaver,” but even as a kid I thought the “synth on a rope” concept was ridiculous, although I unhappily assumed that within a year every keyboardist in rock would be wearing one, instead of standing immobile behind his bank of keyboards where he belonged. Fortunately I was wrong, just as I was wrong about Frampton’s talking guitar soon taking over the planet, and walk-about keyboards kinda caught on, but fortunately never in a big way. Had they done so, the world would be an awful, awful place, with somebody in every band extant wearing a portable keyboard like an albatross around his neck.
I love Gary Wright every bit as much as I love “Dream Weaver,” but I’m not so blinded by adoration as to think Wright has given us much great music. Ninety percent of his solo material is mediocre mystical muzak, magic crystal revelations that are as saccharine as crystals of Sweet’N Low, and bad (as opposed to badass) ersatz funk. This is the reason I chose his Rhino Records Hi-Five EP instead of 1975’s The Dream Weaver. Why review eight or so mediocre tunes when I can review just three?
A brief history of the immortal Dream Weaver: Wright, a native of Cresskill, NJ, moved to England and wound up as vocalist/Hammond organ player for the hard rock group Spooky Tooth, which got its name from the fact that one of guitarist Luther Grosvenor’s molars would occasionally play KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty”—a song that wouldn’t be written and released for another 8 years. Wright wrote most of the songs for the Tooth’s first three LPs before leaving the band to launch a solo career.
Washington, D.C.’s Government Issue should be a household name. G.I. put out some of the best pioneering hardcore to come out of the District or anywhere else, then kept going long after the demise of the Minor Threats and most of the rest, moving away from hardcore’s constricting hard and fast rules to produce more melodic and stranger material that was great but confused their hardcore base and (for various reasons) didn’t win them the bazillion new fans they deserved either.
Government Issue was formed from the ashes of The Stab, from which vocalist John Schroeder took his stage name John Stabb. Much like fellow Washingtonians No Trend, G.I.—which from 1980 to 1989 featured a frequently changing cast of players, including such noteworthies as Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion); J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines); Pete Moffett (Burning Airlines, Wool, Braid); and Stabb, the only original member to stick it out to the bloody end—demonstrated that staying one step ahead of your fans may not be the best way to achieve rock stardom.
But as Stabb told me during the course of an interview at 4-star dive bar (it would rate 5 stars if only the little jukeboxes in the booths worked!) The Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant, “My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers. We did our own thing. GI was never about pleasing the people. We pleased ourselves. And if people were pleased by what we did, then that was just icing on the cake.”
Killdozer and Alice Donut: two bands for people with great taste that taste great together! Uniting to produce some of the greatest music ever! Talk about your coups! Why didn’t this baby win a Grammy? Because as Elvis Costello said, “Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel.” That and both bands have about a 1,000 fans, each.
Madison, Wisconsin’s Killdozer (1983-96) was renowned for its macabre sense of humor—as expressed in the hilariously morbid lyrics of vocalist/bassist Michael Gerald—and gave us such immortal songs as “Hamburger Martyr” (man murders fry cook for making bad burger after saying, “I could make a better hamburger with my asshole!”) and castration ode “The Puppy” (“My old lady’s name is Lois/I love it when sucks my dink/When we set Sonny’s balls on fire/She didn’t even blink”). And then there’s their EP “Burl,” which they dedicated “to the loving memory” of Burl Ives when he was still among the living. As for their music, it was a monstrously loud and grating blues-based noise punk with savage guitars, a big distorted bass, and the unbelievably low-pitched vocal sneer of Gerald.
As for NYC’s Alice Donut (1987-95, 2001 to NOW), they are a freaky outfit that shares Killdozer’s humorously bleak view of existence but expresses it in a less, er, Wisconsin Death Trip kinda way. They focus on the perversities of existence, as is evident from the title of their 1989 LP, Bucketfulls of Sickness and Horror in an Otherwise Meaningless Life (whose two sides are called “Side Sickness” and “Side Horror”) and such great songs as (the quite pretty) “Tiny Ugly Life” and “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn-Dixie While Listening to Metallica.”