Before I get to my review, a bit of stereotype slinging. About the Irish, who are oft said (you can ask anybody) to have produced the greatest drunken poets the world has ever seen. Here in the States, a drunk is a drunk is a drunk. In Ireland, if you believe the hype, every drunk is a poet and every poet is a drunk, and when the pubs close every last inebriated man, woman, and child who spills into the dimly lit street to stagger home or fall fecklessly into the filthy gutter is conjuring brilliant quatrains in their brain.
It’s obviously shite, and to the part of my lineage that is Irish (or is it Scottish, who knows?) offensive even, but I do believe the Irish harbor a romantic soul and love their whiskey as much as they love a gift for high-blown (Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, anybody?) speech. So just for argument’s sake, who is the greatest drunken Irish poet of them all? My vote goes to The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, hands down.
He may be a spent force now; it’s been years since he wrote any new songs (that we’ve heard, anyway); his voice is every bit as much a ruin as the Acropolis; and the last time I saw him perform he hung precariously onto the microphone stand like a sailor clinging to the ratlines for dear life in the face of 90 mph typhoon winds. But the fact that he continues to draw breath at all is in itself a miracle.
I have done the math, and more whiskey has passed MacGowan’s lips over the course of his lifetime than was imbibed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Jones, Malcolm Lowry, and Dylan Thomas put together. Despite this dubious achievement, he has written some of the best poetry ever set to music, and has brought more happiness to mankind than a regimen of teetotalers.
When it comes to bizarre, eccentric, and just flat-out inexplicable rock stars, it’s hard to top P.J. Proby (aka Jett Storm, aka Orville Wood, birth name James Marcus Smith), the wild Houston-born master of vocal histrionics who never made much of a dent in the American pop charts, but was (and still is) a legendary figure in English music circles. I’d heard the name, but I never thought to check Proby out until Ian Hunter, in his Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, called him, “The ace punk of all time,” adding, “His own worst enemy, so what. P.J. Proby’s the greatest—he’s a fuckin’ pirate in this world of drudge. Wherever you are P.J., the world needs you now.”
Those words were written way back in 1972, but the world still needs P.J. Proby, because if there’s one thing he isn’t, it’s predictable. Over the course his 50-plus-year career Proby has released more outrageous—a word that hardly does his schlock-ridden catalogue justice—songs than perhaps anyone in the history of rock, and he has proven over and over again that there’s nothing he won’t do for a hit, or because he just fucking feels like it.
Proby began his career in the late fifties under the name Jett Storm, but both his acting and singing careers stalled in his own country so he set his sights on England. There he changed his stage name to P.J. Proby, perhaps because England already had a Rory Storm, who in a weird coincidence also briefly adopted the stage name Jett Storm. And before long Proby found himself a bona fide pop star with a series of saccharine, string-laden hits, including overwrought versions of “Somewhere” and “Maria” from West Side Story. He also appeared on the 1964 Beatles TV special and was given a song by Lennon and McCartney that they’d intended to include on “Help!” but could never get quite right.
My favorite story about Angel, Washington, DC’s glammed-out, all-white spandex retort to Kiss, which seemed poised for superstardom in the mid-seventies (giant billboards on the Sunset Strip, selection by the readers of Circus magazine as the Best New Group of 1976, and tours of the great American arena circuit with the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, and Rush) is pure Spinal Tap.
The band, with some major financial backing from Casablanca Records mogul Neil Bogart, had developed one of the most elaborate stage shows in rock, a fantasia of smoke, magic, and mirrors that led one wag to suggest that the band might be better off staying home and sending its props on the road. One gimmick involved the band appearing magically on stage one by one in puffs of smoke, to be introduced by the face on the giant Angel logo—which none other than Ian MacKaye pointed out to me is ambigrammatic, meaning it reads the same when turned upside down as when viewed normally—that served as the band’s backdrop.
One night, as Punky Meadows, Angel’s guitarist and the most androgynous pretty boy in a band full of androgynous pretty boys, told me: “Of course, all we were doing was coming up through trapdoors from beneath the stage. Well, one night, the big talking head introduces [drummer] Mickie Jones, and Mickie isn’t there. We’re looking at each like, ‘Where the fuck’s Mickie?’ Turns out his trapdoor got stuck. And all those stoned kids in the audience are going [Meadows sucks on an imaginary joint], ‘That’s really weird, man…'”
Here’s an interesting historical tidbit: I was the geezer wot gave Foghat their name. It happened like this: we were all (the band and I) totally pissed in Rod “The Bottle” Price’s bedsit in manky Manchester, when “Lonesome Dave” Peverett rolled a J the size of John Holmes’ John Thomas and set it ablaze. It took some real hyperventilation-level huffing and puffing to get that monster going, and by this time Dave’s head was wreathed in a glorious crown of cannabis smoke, and I cried out, “Lonesome Dave’s sporting a Foghat!” And Bob’s your uncle, that’s exactly how it didn’t happen.
Anyway, I don’t know what you think about Foghat, and I don’t particularly care, because I love them. They may have been your bog-standard, no-frills British blooz and boogie rock band, all meat and potatoes but skimping a bit on the meat, but they had a great name and were likeable blokes and the punters loved them because they played an arse-walloping live set. What’s more they displayed a sense of humor, as proved by the cover of their finest LP, 1975’s Fool for the City, which depicts drummer Roger Earl fishing in a manhole in the middle of East 11th Street in New York City, looking as casual as if he were casting bait along Manchester’s own River Irk, which none other than Friedrich Engels described as “a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse.” All of which leads one to suspect that Earl had a better chance of catching a real, live fish in said sewer than he did back in grim and grimy old Manchester town.
I also have an abiding affection for Foghat because the band’s music features in the final scene of one of my all-time favorite films, Richard Linklater’s 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused. To wit, when Mitch Kramer, who has just returned home at dawn after having undergone all the requisite initiation rites and rituals (drinking beer, smoking pot, throwing a bowling ball from a moving car) of seventies teenagehood, puts on his oversized headphones, it’s the great opening of “Slow Ride” that brings a beatific smile to his face. Linklater could have chosen any song from the mid-seventies to produce that smile, but he chose Foghat, which raises my estimation of both him and them.
Some souls just weren’t made for this world. You can hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes—their shoulders simply aren’t strong enough to bear the weight of gravity, and their hearts are simply too tender, and they come and go from this our mortal coil leaving behind the sense, no matter how much they accomplished, that they were never here at all.
Such is the feeling I get from listening to guitarist/vocalist Rowland S. Howard, who obviously found life on this planet one long and painful trial. His 2009 masterpiece Pop Crimes makes reference to “this planet of perpetual sorrows,” on not one but two songs, which he must have felt was necessary to get his point—that living is a nightmare from which we cannot escape—across.
But if Howard, who passed away very shortly after the release of Pop Crimes at age 50, harbored a bleak and Baudelairian view of existence, he didn’t let it stand in the way of making lots of great music with lots of different people. His list of accomplishments is remarkably long, especially for someone who battled drug addiction for as long as he did. He began his career with Nick Cave in Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, went on to become a member of Crime & The City Solution, and finally founded Thee Immortal Souls before launching a solo career. Over the course of his too-short life he also worked with artists as diverse as Lydia Lunch, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Henry Rollins, not to mention numerous others.
The ballad of Mott the Hoople—the English glam band that gave us one of the most ecstatic moments in rock history with Ian Hunter’s “I’ve wanted to do this for years!” in “All the Young Dudes”—begins not in 1969, when the band was formed, but 3 years earlier, when one Willard Manus wrote a novel called Mott the Hoople, which rock visionary and total madman Guy “There Are Only Two Phil Spectors in the World and I Am One of Them” Stevens happened to pick up and read while in gaol for drug offenses.
We will never know what Stevens, a kind of manager, producer, and talent scout famed for his prodigious intake of mind-altering substances and eccentric behavior—his favorite method of inspiring a band in the studio was to destroy every piece of equipment in sight, or in the case of The Clash, pour beer on the piano—thought of Manus’ novel. But we do know Stevens loved its title, so much so that he saved it as a name for a truly special band. That band turned out to be Silence, which had been fecklessly wandering to and fro across the earth in search of a record contract. That is until Stevens, who worked for Island Records, saw something in them that no one else did.
That said, Stevens knew they needed molding, and he wasted no time doing it. The first thing he did after changing their name to Mott the Hoople—which nobody in Silence particularly liked—was dismiss vocalist Stan Tippins, and put out an advertisement for a new singer. The ad was answered by one Ian Hunter, a wild-haired punter who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be Bob Dylan or Sonny Bono (seriously). He auditioned by performing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him just the person Stevens was looking for, because it was the crazed producer’s goal to create a band that fused the sounds of Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
You’ve got to hand it to Elton John, the unlikely-looking Brit superstar renowned for sporting splashy spectacles; he hardly looks the part of a gun slinger, but he put out a far better concept album about America’s violent past than the Eagles ever did.
The Eagles may have looked more like outlaws in their denim and cowboy boots, but their 1972 LP Desperado was a commercial disappointment that boasted exactly two good songs—the title track and “Tequila Sunrise”—while Sir Elton Hercules John’s 1970 LP Tumbleweed Connection included a slew of good tunes, most of which remain unknown not only to the casual Elton John fan, but also to such sycophantic Captain Fantastic fanatics such as yours truly.
Tumbleweed Connection was John’s third LP, and the first to work the vein of Americana that John and “lyricist/ball and chain” Bernie Taupin were to mine over the next several LPs. Its predecessors (1969’s Empty Sky and 1970’s Elton John) were thoroughly English affairs, and followed John’s long rock & roll apprenticeship, which took him from pub pianist (at the ripe old age of 15) at the Northwood Hills Hotel to a brief stint with a band called the Corvettes to a group he formed with his friends, Bluesology, which ultimately became the backing band of legendary blues singer Long (he was 6’ 7” tall) John Baldry. After failing auditions with Gentle Giant and King Crimson, John (who was still going by his birth name, Reginald Dwight) met Taupin through an advertisement in the New Musical Express, and a partnership was born that, despite its ups and downs, continues to this very day.
Elton John—funny man? Oh, for sure. The King of Camp may be better known for his love songs, but ever since 1972 and Honky Chateau’s tongue-in-cheek “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself”—almost certainly the only song about suicide in pop culture history to come complete with a tap dance solo—Sir Elton has been peppering his LPs with satirical numbers such as “Social Disease,” with its great lines, “And I get bombed for breakfast in the morning/I get bombed for dinner time and tea/I dress in rags, smell a lot, and have a real good time/I’m a genuine example of a social disease.”
And talk about your Mad Dogs and Englishmen; he once wandered onto stage during an Iggy and the Stooges gig while wearing a gorilla suit, and almost got pummeled in the process. Oh, and casually informed Brit rock crit Charles Shaar Murray, “I’m gonna give up playing the piano. I’m gonna become a rock and roll suicide and, take my nasty out, and piddle all over the front row, just to get rid of my staid old image.”
My hero may never have gotten around to pulling a G.G. Allin on the big spenders in the front row, but he did the next best thing with “The Bitch Is Back,” the opening cut from his 1974 LP Caribou. John throws himself into the role of queen bitch with unmitigated glee, helped along by some butcher-than-usual guitar wank by Davey Johnstone, brass by the Tower of Power horn section, and backing vocals by some truly amazing female singers—Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, Jessie Mae Smith, and Dusty Springfield.
I hereby vow to make no off-color jokes about Perfect Pussy, the Syracuse, NY, noise rock quintet that has been winning plaudits from the likes of Pitchfork and Stereogum since it emerged in 2013 with the self-released demo, I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling. Nor am I going to beat around the bush (shit, so much for my vow) about what I think of Perfect Pussy’s frenzied and cacophonous forays into feedback, atonality, and dissonance. To wit, I consider Perfect Pussy the most annoying noise rock band to come our way since Sonic Youth.
Why? Because like Sonic Youth, Perfect Pussy’s music reeks of pretention. I’m talking the kind of pretention that comes of turning noise rock into Art with a capital “A,” which is an unconscionable thing to do to a genre I happen to love, and that doesn’t want to be arty but only wants to give you an earache while poking fun at anyone dumb enough to consider rock music ART. In short, Perfect Pussy has followed Sonic Youth down the primrose path of the avant-garde, and I can say that with certainty as I hear Sonic Youth in every atonal note Perfect Pussy plays.
One of the problems with the avant-garde end of the noise rock spectrum is that its purveyors tend to take themselves very, very seriously. Their earnest “product” could hardly be any more different than that created by the populist wing of noise rock, which consists largely of bands whose only agenda is to épater le bourgeois, or if not le bourgeois, the prevailing musical powers that be, as was the case with Washington, DC’s No Trend, whose only reason for existence in its early days was to piss off Georgetown’s identically attired hardcore punks by baiting them as insectile conformists. And such bands are invariably funny precisely because the bands or scenes they are reacting against are inevitably serious, and the last thing one wants to do is fight ire with ire. No, far better to turn to sarcasm and black humor, which weapons have been in the arsenal of the absurdist enemies of earnestness ever since Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu Roi.
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.