Some bands take things too far; other bands take things to the very limits of human endurance. Such was the case with Deep Purple live. They felt they were doing their audiences a disservice if they played a song shorter than 11 minutes, and they preferred to go 20. And the English heavy metal legends weren’t just long-winded; they were loud as well. None other than the Guinness Book of World Records declared the Purple “the globe’s loudest band” following a 1972 concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre.
I have no problem with loud, but the band’s longevity is another matter. A 20-minute song inevitably turns into a horrendous jam, with lots of stoppages for the singer to utter fatuous comments and for the drummer to demonstrate his chops. Which is why Deep Purple hasn’t aged nearly as well as its contemporaries Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They didn’t have that guy at the side of the stage drawing a finger across his neck as a sign for them to shut up and move onto the next tune.
Take Long Beach 1971. It consists of four songs and goes on for almost 70 minutes, and in short is an abomination. No one not blotto on heavy downers could have survived such a show. On the band’s best albums—1971’s Fireball, 1972’s Machine Head, and 1974’s Burn—they kept things short, which is why human beings can still listen to these records with a modicum of enjoyment, if Deep Purple’s amalgam of Jon Lord’s ham-fisted organ playing, Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics, and the otherworldly vocals of first Ian Gillian and then David Coverdale are their thing.
When it comes to outlaw country, Jerry Jeff Walker is a proud representative who rarely tops anybody’s list. Chiefly noted for writing the ubiquitous “Mr. Bojangles” and for his cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” Jerry generally gets short shrift in comparison to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt. But a listen to his 1973 live LP, ¡Viva Terlingua!, demonstrates conclusively that Walker can hold his own with the best of them.
Recorded with his Lost Gonzo Band at the Luckenbach Dancehall in 1973, ¡Viva Terlingua! is a masterpiece, featuring a unique mix of “outlaw” rock, blues, and traditional Mexican music styles that makes him one of a kind amongst his outlaw compadres. The album’s wonderful mixture of covers and originals helps—there isn’t a weak cut on the damn thing, from the carefree opening track, “Getting’ By,” a rollicking country tune on which Walker sets down his easy-going philosophy of living. The solos are great, Walker is charmingly insouciant, and if this one doesn’t make you happy, I recommend you look into ECT.
His cover of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” is a slow and lovely country lament over an old man who took him under his wing when he was a kid. The desperados turn out to be drifters and domino players, and Walker hits just the right note, avoiding bathos and steering clear of the maudlin, while the band kicks out the jams on the choruses and then kicks into the overdrive at the end, taking the song out, on a rock note.
It’s silly, really. Like I’m banging my head against the wall. All these years I’ve spent trying to convince a dubious public that Madison, Wisconsin’s Killdozer was one of history’s greatest rock bands, utterly wasted. I’ve convinced no one and will continue to convince no one, not one single person, that Killdozer was the ultimate shit. What is so apparent to me, that Killdozer was a simultaneously hilarious and serious protest band that played pile driver rock at volumes designed to explode Ming vases, moves the record-playing public not a jot. They—sob!—just don’t care.
But I’m going to give it one more try. One more try, and then you’ll never have to hear me natter on about the genius of Killdozer ever again. But here, I’ll start you off with just a taste of Michael Gerald—vocalist, bassist, and songwriter extraordinaire—and his amazing talent. It’s a song called “New Pants and Shirt,” and it opens with Gerald shrieking, “Enter the 49 gates of uncleanliness!” and then, after some quiet bass, singing, “Enter the 49 gates of uncleanliness/Said she pushing up her skirt/I held my breath against her fetidness/As I gazed upon the swinish flirt.” You will not find lyrics so despicably hilarious anywhere, except in the work of Anal Cunt.
But Gerald didn’t limit himself to writing about the despicable. He wrote great songs about disaster movie director Irwin Allen, the writer Flannery O’Connor (“She wrote many books/Before death came upon her”), Earl Scheib the car-painting king, a dog named Knuckles who helps people, horrifying train accidents and grain elevator explosions, free love in Amsterdam, Ed Gein, a man with a ¾” drill bit lodged in his brain, you name it. And he sang them all from a Trotskyist perspective, one that I think he was at least semi-serious about. One of the most interesting things about Killdozer is trying to separate the sincerity from the satire, and I remain convinced Killdozer had every bit as much empathy for the common man as Bruce Springsteen. And they were never as smug about it.
I’ve always had the same issue with Rickie Lee Jones as I do with Tom Waits; to wit, I can’t escape the sense that they’re beatniks escaped from a time capsule. There’s something atavistic about their sound; hearing it, it’s impossible to escape the eerie sensation that you’re sitting in a smoky and low-ceilinged Village club, the Kettle of Fish say, surrounded by beret-wearing hipsters in goatees, of the type who click their fingers instead of applaud.
That said, I’ve always preferred Jones, if only because she doesn’t have a patch of hair sprouting from her lower lip. No, the truth is I can’t really rationalize my life-long dislike of Waits; sure, he’s written lots of great songs, but that doesn’t mean I have to like him. I don’t have to like Jones either, but I do, from her groundbreaking debut to her latest release, 2012’s The Devil You Know, on which she sings like… well, like she just swallowed a shitload of ludes, which causes her to sing very slooowwwllly, which I like a lot. No more of the beatnik affectations. Her phrasing and sudden shifts in tone are idiosyncratic, to say the least, but she doesn’t sound as rebop as she does wasted, like she brought a quart of bourbon to the studio and drank it before she sang any of the songs on this album of noteworthy standards.
Jones’ career took off with the release of her 1979 self-titled debut, which featured dozens of top-notch LA sessions players—to say nothing of Dr. John on piano and Randy Newman on synthesizers—and included the great “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Buoyed by a highly touted performance on Saturday Night Live, she soon found herself on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and her beret quickly became more famous than Joni Mitchell’s beret, which no doubt pissed off Mitchell’s beret to no end.
I don’t know what you do when you want to set your ears free to grokk nakedly in the Universal Aether, but I know what I do–turn on the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s like Miles Davis, circa Bitches Brew, minus all the annoying edge. Yes, the MO has filtered out all that nasty street that Miles insisted upon blurting all over his newfangled fusion, and left us with nothing but pure unsexed cosmos to explore.
Theirs was a carefully controlled experiment in defunkification, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest (er, make that tamest) expectations. While John McLaughlin’s guitar occasionally wanders into pure freakout territory, it’s always a freakout of the mind, rather than the balls. The Mahavishnu Orchestra threw the balls in the trash, then took up yoga. And hired a Frenchman to play violin. And an opera singer. It’s a wonder, really, that more people didn’t get hurt.
Of course, plenty of people like the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s interstellar hoo-hah, because the truth is, you never know what anybody’s going to like. Where some people hear pleasing chakra-massaging neo-jazz with an edge, I hear too little rock and too much spacy New Age hoodoo. The guy can play guitar like a God, as he proved on Miles Davis’ landmarks Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, just as Jan Luc Ponty, the French violinist I mentioned above, can play like blazes, as he demonstrated on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. But on Visions of the Emerald Beyond, whose title speaks volumes, they don’t want to rock your balls off—they want to transport you to a higher spiritual plane, or Indra’s Net, or wherever it is Gary Wright and the Buddha hang out, playing dueling keytars.
God, did I detest Duran Duran growing up. Hated them. Loathed them. Wanted to go to England and set them on fire. With a flamethrower. Burn them to a synthpop crisp. They were everything I despised; slick, synthesizer-driven, and catchy, the perfect betrayal of everything punk had set out to do.
Plus they were worked with fashion designers to perfect their look, something I’d only allow David Bowie to do. And they were even too lazy to think of a second word for their band that wasn’t the same as the first word. Come on! Get up off your ass and think of another word! Who do you want to be, Talk Talk? Robert Christgau put the New Wave supergroup in his place when he called them, “The most deplorable pop stars of the postpunk if not post-Presley era.” I’d cast my vote for the Police, but he’s on to something.
But something appalling happened over the years, at least in my case; hatred turned to a grudging neutrality, and I was finally able to appreciate their synthpop charms. Sort of. They’re still too slick by a country mile, but slick is what synthpop was—machines making perfect noises. But I can listen to them now without wanting to die, and I suspect that’s a bad thing. Have I surrendered? Or have I merely succumbed to that insidious undertow of nostalgia that so frequently turns the songs you loathed in your youth into latter-day radio sing-alongs? It’s a mystery, that nostalgia; how is it I suddenly like the hated “Hungry Like the Wolf” but will never, ever, surrender my adamantine loathing for Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock’n’Roll”?
I’ll never forget the night my brother and I—shitfaced as usual—spent hours trying to break into, rather than out of, Philadelphia’s long-abandoned Eastern Penitentiary. It was, in its way, a typical night back in those days; the two of would seek out the seediest old man bars, where the television stood on a stack of empty beer cases and no one ever ordered one of the jarred pig knuckles, or where you might see a pile of broken furniture in a dim corner, the remnants of some legendary knuckleduster.
I don’t know what any of this has to do with Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs, except that I’m glad they’re around; when I was there, the only two acts Philly was famous for were The Dead Milkmen and The Hooters—a paltry contribution to the national music scene, at best. So I’m happy to call The War on Drugs a Philly band; the city that got such negative attention for Frank Rizzo, one truly badass mob war, and the MOVE abomination deserves all the good bands it can get.
The War on Drugs were formed in Philly by Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile in 2005, with Vile jumping ship after their debut, 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues, to go solo. But Granduciel kept the faith, and The War on Drugs went places. Me, I like all of their work, but hold a special place in my heart for their debut, because it’s snazzy and snappy and puts “Coast Reprise” before “Show Me the Coast,” which makes me unaccountably happy. Both Granduciel and Vile are avowed Dylan devotees, and you can hear echoes, but they’re anything but slavish imitators.
What do you do when a rock band you love with all your heart, because its songs are smarter than those by any other band in the universe, suddenly abandons rock for smoother than silk lounge jazz? With all the cool rough edges sanded off, leaving only the clever lyrics and lots of superslick playing by superslick smooth jazz studio hacks? This is the question that confronted me in 1977, when Steely Dan released Aja. And I’ll tell you what I did. I wrote them off as a bad bet, just another LA band that disappeared into pseudo-jazz hell, never to reemerge.
Cynical and sneering, but with a soft side, Steely Dan had always employed the best studio musicians to produce its carefully crafted tunes. But they were ROCK tunes, and cool even when they were hot. “Kid Charlemagne,” “My Old School,” “Dr. Wu,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” “Reelin’ in the Years”—they put out song after great song, and were by anybody’s measure one of the best and most consistent bands of the seventies.
I don’t care that Aja got great reviews when it was released; I like rock and I like hard jazz, but if there’s one thing I can’t stomach is a lukewarm hybrid of the sort you’d expect from a recording session that included the likes of the Tom Scott contingent of LA’s jazz lite community. With Larry Carlton on guitar and Michael McDonald on backing vocals, to name just a few of the dozens of studio pros, Aja sacrificed the band’s former rock orientation for a sound as polished and edgeless as a brass egg.
Spooky Tooth: I don’t know exactly how to start this review of Spooky Two, except by saying that Spooky Tooth has always, at least in my mind, been in a dead heat with Foghat as funniest band name ever when stoned. For the longest time I didn’t know much more than that about them, other than that they featured Gary Wright, the genius who gave us the great “Dream Weaver,” on organ and vocals. Oh, and they also featured Luther Grosvenor, who would go on to change his name to Ariel Bender and play guitar for Mott the Hoople.
I always suspected them of progressive transgressions, but hey—I was wrong, at least on 1969’s Spooky Two. No neo-classical rigmarole for these guys; some gussied up vocal hoohah, yes, but you never get the idea listening to them that they think they’re slumming by playing rock’n’roll and not Modest Mussorgsky. True, they were keyboard heavy, a frequent indicator of prog proclivities, but both Wright and Mike Harrison utilized their keyboards to rock, not to roll up into a little ball in embarrassment they weren’t Wagner.
I have only one two real reasons to dislike them, the first of which is the guy who sings the high notes in the horribly titled (what a cliché!) heavy metal epic “Evil Woman,” which was written by Larry Weiss, the same guy who gave us the great “Rhinestone Cowboy.” I have never heard anything like those stratospheric vocals, and I will literally pay never to hear them again. They make TV commercial superstar Lil’ Sweet sound like a baritone. Which is a pity, because the song is a long and cool demonstration both of the band’s keyboards and guitar chops. Oh, and the second reason? The Wright-penned “Lost in My Dream,” a subpar Procol Harum song which evolves from something barely listenable to a pretentious nightmare that builds and builds, with vocals being piled on vocals while the singer goes on about how “somewhere in the frost in the sea of my mind waits my destiny.” Dude, that’s not frost; that’s Foghat! And I don’t know about you, but I fear the Dream Weaver is not far off.
The Aquarian imprimatur stamped upon the late sixties has always had its flip side. Not everybody was wearing a peace symbol or singing, “Come on people now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/And try to love one another right now.” The songs of urban dread of The Doors, the Manson Family murder spree, and Altamont all made it abundantly clear that not all was cool in the turned-on family of man. Call it the Satanic Element. And one of its chroniclers was that great but underrated band, Creedence Clearwater Revival. They sang of dark omens and of terrified flight; they were the dour prophets, as were The Doors, of the dark side of the era of peace, love, and music.
Of course, they had their lighter side—they’re the folks who gave us “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and “Down on the Corner,” after all—but when I think of them I think of their darker tunes, the ones that evoke bad juju and ask apocalyptic questions. “Who’ll Stop the Rain” sang John Fogerty, and that rain wasn’t literal, it was the precipitation of negative vibes that had washed away the innocence of a generation. Ditto the rain that fell in “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” It was uncanny and foreboding, that rain falling on a sunny day.
I love Creedence, always have, in part because they were so humble; they were never sexy, never got their proper props—all they did was write succinct and timeless songs, sort of like Tom Petty has been doing for so long. From Fogerty’s harsh growl to the band’s disciplined approach to making music—no free-form jams for these guys—they were utterly distinctive, and there was no mistaking them for anybody else.