Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Swamp Dogg,
Total Destruction
to Your Mind

Let us, dear reader, turn to the strange case of Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg. In 1970, tired of playing “second banana” and biding his time as a “jukebox” for other people’s songs while getting screwed over in the royalties department in the process, the deep soul and R&B singer decided to reinvent himself. “So,” in his own words, “I came up with the name Dogg because a dog can do anything, and anything a dog does never comes as a real surprise; if he sleeps on the sofa, shits on the rug, pisses on the drapes, chews up your slippers, humps your mother-in-law’s leg, jumps on your new clothes and licks your face, he’s never gotten out of character. You understand what he did, you curse while making allowances for him but your love for him never diminishes.”

Dogg’s reinvention, which was apparently aided by an LSD trip, allowed him to turn his attention to, in his own words again, “Sex, niggers, love, rednecks, war, peace, dead flies, home wreckers, Sly Stone, my daughters, politics, revolution and blood transfusions (just to name a few),” without ever getting out of character. Recorded at Muscle Shoals and Macon, Georgia with a bevy of incredibly talented session guys, the songs on Dogg’s 1970 debut LP Total Destruction to Your Mind are every bit as strange as the album’s cover, which shows Swamp Dogg in his underwear sitting on a pile of garbage. One of a kind he is. If you have any doubts, check out his Christmas album, which boasts the wonderful title, “An Awful Christmas and a Lousy New Year.”

No, there’s no doubt about it, Swamp Dogg is one of a kind. The very soulful “I Was Born Blue” posits a world in which Dogg is blue and the rest of the world has orange skin and green hair; “Sal-A-Faster” is, I think, a hilarious testimonial to the wonders of LSD. But who knows? As for the horn-fueled “Dust Your Color Red,” I have no idea whatsoever what Swamp Dogg is talking about, or to be more accurate, testifying about.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ron Wood,
Gimme Some Neck

If your idea of heaven would be a cross between the Rolling Stones and the Faces, then Ronnie Wood’s your man. He’s done stints in both bands after all, and while I infinitely prefer his work with the Faces (he kinda disappeared into the Stones machine, in my opinion) you can hear echoes of both bands in his 1979 solo LP Gimme Some Neck, which boasts a mix as dirty as Rod Stewart’s mind and lots of Wood’s jet engine of a guitar, the one to be heard on the immortal “Stay With Me.”

The only problem is Wood’s vocals; at best he sounds like a Dylan imitator, at worst his voice is as thin as cheap toilet paper. He’s at his best when he’s joined by the LP’s backing vocalists, who include some bloke named Mick Jagger, some other bugger named Keith Richards, and the legendary Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg. Other notables on the LP include Mick Fleetwood, Dave Mason, Charlie Watts, Bobby Keys, and former Faces’ band mate Ian McLagan, whose keyboards give such songs “We All Get Old” an indisputable Faces feel.

But as I said previously, it’s the gritty mix, reminiscent of the Faces’ best music and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, that makes this LP special. No polish here, thank you very much. Instead the best songs almost sound like demos, albeit good ones. Wood has his limitations both as a vocalist and a songwriter, but he sure knows his rock’n’roll, which means he’s well aware that it’s best left unvarnished, like a coat of primer on an old muscle car.

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Graded on a Curve: Robbie Robertson,
Robbie Robertson

Can we talk openly about Robbie Robertson for a moment? He may have been an electric guitar inspiration for Bob Dylan and the songwriting genius behind most of The Band’s best songs, but he was also an upwardly mobile snoot whose inspiration dried up and who stuck a knife in The Band’s back, putting paid to one of the world’s best groups. And for what? To work on soundtracks with Martin Scorsese, for starters, and to do a bit of acting while he was at it. To which I say big deal. This here is the fellow who wrote “The Weight,” for Christ’s sake.

By the time Robertson finally condescended to record a solo LP, which emerged in 1987, approximately 10 years had passed since the demise of The Band. But anyone who expected the self-titled album to constitute a continuum with Robertson’s work with his former cohorts was bound to be disappointed, as it was, well, an abomination. Or, to be more charitable, an experiment gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Gone were the wonderful folk-rock masterpieces that still stand amongst the premier works of Americana, replaced by a big, Anglophilic and blustering bunch of songs that had nothing to do with driving old Dixie down but everything to do with the hip crowd Robertson was hanging with, namely Peter Gabriel and Bono of U2. As Robert Christgau noted caustically at the time, “Once established as an icon of quality, [Robertson] always took himself too seriously, and age has neither mellowed him nor wised him up.”

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Graded on a Curve: New Model Army, Thunder and Consolation

You’ve got to love New Model Army. They were once introduced on Brit TV program The Tube as “the ugliest band in rock and roll,” their lead singer went by the name Slade the Leveller for years to avoid losing his unemployment benefits, and the United States refused them entry to the country on the grounds that their music was “of no artistic merit.” I love that last part. Oh, and the angry young leftists of New Model Army—they snatched their name from Thomas Fairfax’s English Revolution militia of the mid-1600s—were forced to abandon playing the song “Vengeance” on The Tube, due to its friendly lines, “I believe in justice/I believe in vengeance/I believe in getting the bastards.”

The band has switched genres the way some people switch their bedroom lights on and off, but one thing has remained the same—New Model Army are angry punters with a knack for controversy, as is demonstrated by the fact that 1993’s Love of Hopeless Causes came complete with directions on how to construct a nuclear device. 1991’s Thunder and Consolation is considered their high point—even Justin Sullivan, aka Slade the Leveller, has modestly called it “brilliant”—although I consider 1990’s The Ghost of Cain excellent as well, what with its great songs “The 51st State” and “Poison Street.”

I generally believe that rock and politics make unfortunate bedfellows, but I like New Model Army because as the album title Love of Hopeless Causes indicates, they know that in life there are winners and losers, and they understand what class they belong to. Which is not to say they’re taking their loser status lying down; they’re not. But unlike those wankers in the Clash, who were either totally naïve or incredibly cynical, New Model Army seem to have no illusions that their music can change the world.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Cure,
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

How close-minded am I? I’ll tell you. When my girlfriend asked me about The Cure I told her I wasn’t really familiar with much more than their megahits. When she went on to suggest I’d like them, I told her, “Sure, about as much as I’d like to have railroad spikes driven into my eyes.”

But love is blind—having railroad spikes driven into your eyes will do that—so I agreed solely on her behalf to give the legendarily mopey Robert Smith, who has always struck me as Morrissey minus the saving sense of ironic wit—and Company a listen. And gosh darn it if I didn’t find I liked them. They weren’t the unremitting bummer I expected, which I should have known from having heard the great “Just Like Heaven” and “Friday I’m in Love.”

Sure, Smith can be a downer. But the Cure weren’t just jauntier than I anticipated; they were also tougher. The introspective Smith may be the least likely pugilist this side of Brian Eno, but his braggadocio on “Fight,” the closing cut of 1987’s double LP Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, proves he knows his way around a pair of brass knuckles. The same goes for the king snake of a tune that is “The Snake Pit,” a savage and ponderous drone of a tune that will slither right off the stereo and bite you, as well as for the guitar-heavy opening cut “The Kiss,” on which Smith spits bile and vitriol, mostly to the effect of “I wish you were dead.” Which rhymes wonderfully with “Get your fucking voice out of my head.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Neu!, Neu! ‘75

I’ve always loved Neu!; theirs is the relentless and steady as she goes “motorik” sound of a BMW stolen by the outlaw Baader-Meinhof Gang speeding down the Autobahn, on their way to West Berlin to create mischief and mayhem.

Formed in 1971 in Düsseldorf by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, both of whom were former members of Kraftwerk, Neu! was one of the founders of Krautrock, utilizing the simplistic 4/4 motorik (i.e., “motor skill”) beat (which Dinger chose to label the “Apache beat”) to propel their songs while dispensing with all kinds of useless stuff like verses and choruses and the like. Meanwhile Rother accompanied Dinger’s drumming with a guitar-produced harmonic drone, utilizing a single chord upon which he would pile overdub upon overdub to emphasize timbral change.

Not that I know what any of that means, but I don’t have to, because I’m no musician but just a guy with ears, two of them to be exact, one of which works better than the other due to a tragic Q-tip accident. The important thing is that Neu! influenced everyone from David Bowie to John Lydon, to say nothing of Stereolab (natch) and even Oasis. The results of Neu!’s innovations were simultaneously lulling and exciting; theirs was the sound of minimal variation at high velocity.

Neu! ’75 followed 1972’s Neu! and 1973’s Neu! 2, and was significantly different from those records in so far as Dinger and Rother had begun to take divergent paths. In the end they compromised, with side one highlighting Rother’s ambient leanings and side two spotlighting Dinger’s more feral rock, which could almost be called proto-punk. The resulting LP is a Jekyll and Hyde proposition, but it works, in exactly the same way as David Bowie’s Neu!-influenced Low LP does.

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Graded on a Curve: Bright Eyes,
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

You know you’re in trouble when the most uplifting song on an LP is about a fatal airline crash. And yet in the case of the 2005 LP I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Bright Eyes’ front man Conor Oberst somehow makes it work. This album may not be a mood elevator, but it’s lovely from spiritually charged beginning to political end, thanks in part to Oberst’s excellent lyrics and thanks in part to the melodies, doleful as they often are.

Folk influenced, but with touches of musical discord, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” left me cold at first, with the exception of the airplane crash classic, “At the Bottom of Everything.” But it slowly grew on me, like fuzzy green mold on the animated corpse of Rod Stewart. Oberst may truck in depression, and his idea of a happy song may involve mass death, but he’s not taking life lying down. On “Ode to Joy” (which borrows, musically, from Beethoven), for instance, he defiantly faces down the darkness at noon, raging against the futility of war to the accompaniment of some cool guitar feedback before tossing in the great lines, “Well I could have been a famous singer/If I had someone else’s voice/But failure’s always sounded better/Let’s fuck it up boys, make some noise!” If all he’d written in his life were those last two lines, I would still love the man.

“We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” boasts a lovely melody and the vocals of Emmylou Harris, dueting with Oberst. Oberst is falling apart, what with the waitress at his favorite bar looking concerned and the drugs he’s taking giving him a “head full of pesticide.” The trumpet is great, the vocals are transcendental, and somebody else’s suffering has never sounded so good. “Lua” is another slow and lovely number, with Oberst singing in a whisper about wandering the streets of New York City thinking about a woman with a heart so heavy it has thrown out the backs of many men. Oberst is not one of them; he can, he sings, be counted on to split. Sharing a flask on the train, Oberst sings, “We might die from medication/But we sure killed all the pain.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Wild Cherry,
Wild Cherry

White folks trying to sound like black folks: that’s your condensed history of rock ’n’ roll right there. Some 60-plus years of felony vocal identity theft. It may or may not have begun with Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips, who famously said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

In any event, shortly thereafter a young Elvis Presley walked through Phillips’ door, and white singers from P.J. Proby to Michael McDonald to the Young Americans incarnation of David Bowie have been giving it their soul brother best ever since. Why, even John Denver tried to horn in on the trend, and I own a mint copy of his 12-inch club hit “Get Up Offa Grandma’s Funky Feather Bed (Geriatric Sex Machine)” to prove it. None other than James Brown called it “out of sight.” Or perhaps he said, “Get it out of sight.” I’m pretty sure there’s a difference.

All of this raises the question: Who is the biggest, baddest, blackest white singer of them all? Elvis? Janis Joplin? Mick Jagger? Gilbert O’Sullivan? I don’t know about you, but my vote goes to Rob Parissi of Mingo Junction, Ohio, population 3,454. Parissi, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the vocalist, guitarist, and chief songwriter behind Wild Cherry, the band that brought us the great “Play That Funky Music.” Parissi sounded so much like a brother he made Joe Cocker sound like Leo Sayer.

As for Wild Cherry—which swiped its name from a brand of cough drops—it played a hardcore hybrid of funk rock, soul, and disco that blew away other white competitors in the black sound appropriation sweepstakes such as the Average White Band and KC and the Sunshine Band. When it came to pure funk copyright infringement, Wild Cherry was King.

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Graded on a Curve: George Harrison,
All Things Must Pass

I have been guilty of saying mean things about George Harrison in the past, most of them having to do with the lugubrious and often wimpy tenor of the ex-Beatles solo work. But I am here today, dear members of the committee, to recant. I’ve been listening to 1970’s sprawling All Things Must Pass, and while it has its share of doleful bummers, what strikes me about it now is how hard it rocks. The most anonymous Beatle could cook when he felt like it, and on All Things Must Pass he frequently felt like it, as did co-guitarists Eric Clapton and Dave Mason, and when all is said and done I’m forced to agree with critic Mikal Gilmore, who called All Things Must Pass “the finest solo work any ex-Beatle ever produced.” And its flaws make that assessment all the more remarkable.

The studio sessions were a clusterfuck, with superstars being dragooned left and right. The line-up included the players who would soon form Derek and the Dominos as well as the members of Badfinger, to say nothing of folks like Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Ginger Baker, and Gary Wright. Why, even Phil Collins played on one track. There was also extensive overdubbing, and while the production duties were formally in the hands of the mercurial Phil Spector, Harrison has said Spector required 18 cherry brandies just to BEGIN work, leaving poor George to handle much of the production himself. In addition, Harrison’s mother was dying, and he was nurturing a burgeoning heroin addiction, evidently as a result of guilt stemming from stealing Eric Clapton’s bird.

Let me make it clear from the start; I’m not much for “My Sweet Lord,” the song the LP is probably best known for, nor am I wild about its companion piece, “Help Me Lord.” LP opener “I’d Have You Anytime,” which was co-written by Harrison and Bob Dylan, does nothing for me, nor do the run of the mill “Run of the Mill,” the milquetoast “I Live for You,” and the “I need love” sentimentality of “I Dig Love.” But I’ve changed my mind about the title track—it’s prettier than I remember—as well as about the Dylan cover “If Not For You,” a song whose laid back charms (great guitar riff, some nice harmonica by Harrison, catchy tambourine, etc.) had previously eluded me.

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Graded on a Curve: Useless Eaters,
Daily Commute

From the vaguely martial beat of their tunes to their name (in Nazi Germany, anyone who couldn’t contribute to the fascist state was labeled a “useless eater” and was in serious jeopardy of being “exterminated”), Useless Eaters are captivating in a rather suspicious way. They sound like Devo in brownshirts, which they’re not, I’m certain; their minimalism (trashy lo-fi punk rock meets cheap synthesizer, they fall in love) has absolutely nothing in common with the uniformly gargantuan inclinations of German fascism, from the gigantic building projects of Hitler-Speer to Onkel Adolf’s adoration of the grandiose sounds of Richard “Crazy Anti-Semite” Wagner (Hitler could whistle his operas from beginning to end, and could recite entire librettos from memory).

So what am I saying? I think I’m saying I like them, but with serious reservations that have everything to do with how much Useless Eaters mimic classic Devo. The band is the creation of one guy, the nomadic Jay Reatard acolyte Seth Sutton, who has worked alternately as a one-man band and with collaborating musicians. He goes it alone on 2011’s Daily Commute, released by Tic Tac Totally Records, and its influences vary from Devo to, well Devo, as well as first-generation New York punk. Sutton lays down cool guitar riffs, electronic drums, and herky-jerky rhythms, and tops them with lyrics which, when you can make them out, make clear that the personal is political and vice versa.

“How U Doing” demonstrates what the band does best, while also making clear just what a debt Useless Eaters owes to the band that wore flower pots on their heads. A cool jerk of a guitar over which Sutton does his best stop-start Mark Mothersbaugh imitation, “How U Doing” is a fevered rocker over which Sutton repeats, “How U doing to me?” He even counts off before delivering a twisted guitar solo, and in general packs a lot into 2:17.

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