It’s not exactly a state secret, but plenty of people don’t know (and need to know) the horrifying truth; before he turned into the pop superstar who gave us such classics as “Piano Man” and “Uptown Girl,” Billy Joel was in a heavy metal duo called Attila. They released one LP, 1970’s self-titled Attila, and you will frequently find it on lists of the worst albums ever recorded. And small wonder. Attila kinda sound like a retarded Deep Purple. Lots of organ noodling by Joel, you know? And the cover! Billy looks like a New Jersey medieval knight, with hair way down to here and a mustache that is frankly offensive. Oh, and he’s surrounded by dead meat hanging from hooks. I don’t even have to listen to the album when I want a laugh; I just look at the cover.
We all make youthful mistakes, but this one is a doozy. Attila featured Joel on organ and Jon Small on drums, and Joel himself has written it off as “psychedelic bullshit.” But that’s nothing compared to the review written by one AllMusic critic, who opined, “Attila is undoubtedly is the worst album released in the history of rock’n’roll—hell, the history of recorded music itself.” No one, he adds, has ever matched “the colossal stupidity of Attila.” Me, I don’t think it’s that much stupider than most of the works of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it’s a tad less pretentious, so I’m inclined to give Attila a break. But make no mistake about it. This is an album so dumb it transcends dumb and almost becomes genius, that is if you look upon it as satire, which unfortunately Joel and Small didn’t. They were serious as a heart attack-ack-ack-ack, which seems impossible when you listen to songs like “Brain Invasion.”
As for Joel, he wisely skedaddled with Small’s wife after the LP’s release, ending the collaboration, and went on to disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that there are no second acts in American life. And good thing, too, because if Joel had stuck with Attila, he’d undoubtedly be working in the meat-packing plant where the cover shot was taken. Instead he became a balladeer and sometimes rock’n’roller, and is worth approximately $83 billion dollars. As for Small, he forgave Joel and went on to produce some of Joel’s LPs, as well as the greatest hits of Run-DMC and a concert film by the sad remnants of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The world can be a surprisingly lenient place.
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.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I don’t like Lionel Richie. I don’t like the cut of his jib, his taste in white suits, or the fact that he looks like a black John Oates. His songs pander to the lowest common denominator and the vast majority of them are pure treacle. I had a dream a while back. I was making love to a beautiful woman. Then I looked up and saw she had the head of Lionel Richie. I had to go see a shrink, who told me I had post-traumatic stress disorder. And that I wasn’t her first patient to suffer through such a terrifying experience. She directed me to a support group that meets weekly, where we can weep and pass Kleenex and rage against a universe that could allow such an abominable thing to happen in the first place.
That said, I have a confession to make. I like one Lionel Richie song. Exactly one. Not two, or three, or four. One. And it’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.” When it comes on the radio, I don’t reach desperately for the dial to find another station. Instead I sing along. I wonder what the people in my Lionel Richie support group would think. They’d probably throw me out on my ear. But what can I say? The damn song, which was released by Motown in 1986, is damned catchy, damn it.
And strange. Dancing on the ceiling? That’s some crazy hoodoo LSD type shit right there. I can’t believe the former Commodore, who works exclusively in the medium of maudlin, actually wrote the lyrics. As for the music, it’s perky instead of ballad slow, and while it will never wash the taste of “Hello,” “Three Times a Lady,” or “Easy” out of my ears, it is a trifling recompense for such dastardly drivel. Seriously, if I possessed dictatorial powers, I would sit Richie in one of those glass booths the Israelis parked Albert Eichmann in and put him on trial for crimes against music. But I lack such powers because we live in a democracy, which H.L. Mencken described as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Yeah, I know; you’re digging the outrageous outfit Captain Fantastic is sporting on the cover of 1974’s Caribou just as much as I am. I mean, Jesus. The man is not just the genius who bequeathed us the likes of “Tiny Dancer” and “Bennie and the Jets”; he’s a genuine sartorial marvel. Just check out that jacket; you’ll have to look hard—I’d start with your female rappers—to find anything that even comes close. And the glasses! I loved this guy when I was a kid; small wonder I turned out an effete and impudent fashion plate.
I still love Elton John, think he’s the shit, and if you disagree the completely over-the-top “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” should change your mind, Sugar Bear. The guy’s a god, and without him 1970s MOR would have been a far less fascinating and flamboyant place. Fuck Lou Reed—he tried to go glitter, but on Caribou and 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road John put Transformer Lou in his place without even trying. And while he was at it he called himself a bitch and a stinker and proud of it, another thing self-loathing Lou lacked the balls to do.
I’m not going to lie to you; hit-wise, Caribou isn’t the best of John’s 1970s oeuvre. In fact it’s not even close. Which raises the question; can an album with only two indispensible songs on it be called great? I say yes, and I say Caribou is the proof. It’s a curious LP, stylistically all over the place, and even includes a song where John happily sings pure gibberish. But its rewards extend beyond its two indisputable masterpieces. You’ve probably never heard most of Caribou’s songs, because they never got played on the radio, mostly because they were too weird. They’re pop, mind you, but still weird. Lyricist Bernie Taupin made sure of that. He didn’t write your normal love songs or Top 40 fare; even the hits (how tiny exactly is that tiny dancer?) were outliers on the AOR continuum.
Vancouver’s Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer)—you’ve got to love him. From his histrionic vocals—he sounds like nobody else on the planet—to his songs, which bring to mind David Bowie at his most glam, Bejar is one of a kind, and I’ve been pressing his records on people since I first heard 2006’s landmark Destroyer’s Rubies. Songs like “Looter’s Follies” and “3000 Flowers” blew me away with their big dramatic flourishes, out-of-kilter guitars, and Bejar’s sui generis vocals and enigmatic but always entrancing lyrics. “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd,” he sings on “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point,” “I cast off these couplets in honor of the void/I was here to stay/I would weather the storm/I pictured heaven on earth made of clay as your form dictated…” I have no idea what he’s talking about, but that first line always cracks me up and I want to hear more.
Destroyer has evolved from the rough sound of 1996 debut We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, growing more grandiose as Bejar’s vision has expanded. One critic said of Destroyer’s debut that it was “a concerted effort to make the recording downright inconsumable; the guitars are always out of tune, and the vocals of Fisher-Price quality.” But he soon remedied that, slickening up his sound, and has spent the years since careening from raw to slick and back again. He doesn’t seem to give a flying fuck about fan expectations; he’s got a sound in his head, and that’s that. For example, 2011’s Kaputt is jazz—and lounge-infused, which I found a letdown; the same went for 2013’s Five Spanish Songs, on which he sings in Spanish (duh), depriving me of the joy of trying to wrap my mind around the feints and flurries of his enthrallingly cryptic lyrics. Did he ask me what I thought of these stylistic about-faces? No, he did not. And I’m not happy about it.
One of Bejar’s most notable switches in direction occurred following the release of 2004’s Your Blues, on which he utilized mostly MIDI instrumentation for the backup music. As if that didn’t startle and confuse his fan base enough, he followed Your Blues with 2005’s “Notorious Lightning and Other Works,” an EP on which he rerecorded six of the songs off Your Blues using fellow British Columbians, the idiosyncratic Frog Eyes, as a backing band. Me, I think it’s a vast improvement; Your Blues was a decidedly bloodless affair, lacking in Bejar’s breathless bursts of vocal intensity, and sounded both cold and slick to me.
Foster MacKenzie III, aka Root Boy Slim, aka The Duke of Puke, is a legend you’ve likely never heard of. His long time outfit, Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band, never found much success outside of Washington, D.C., hardly the musical center of the world. Which is too bad, because the satire-loving purveyor of bad-taste blues and boogie rock was great. From his outrageous stage attire and inebriated antics to his joyously putrid outlook on life—his best song is called “Boogie ‘Til You Puke”—Root Boy Slim was one unsavory but larger than life character. From his days at Yale—he was in the same fraternity as George W. Bush—to his premature demise, Root Boy Slim made those in Root Boy cult happy. And what more can you ask of a musician?
What a storied life! From being tossed out of Bush’s fraternity for crimes against good taste during a homecoming return to Yale to his days driving an ice cream truck to his LSD-induced psychotic break—which led him to scale the fence around the White House and a diagnosis of schizophrenia—Root Boy Slim did nothing by half measures. “I used to be from DC,” he sings in one song, “But they don’t want no more of me.” It was an exaggeration, although he did manage to be barred from playing nearby College Park, Maryland, after a riot broke out at one of his shoes and spilled out onto U.S. Route 1. I don’t know about you, but I have a soft spot for performers capable of causing riots. That’s my barometer of true rock success.
It’s easy to write off Root Boy Slim as a novelty act, but his grainy vocals—think Dr. John—and the talents of his Sex Change Band made for some great tunes, funny or not. His band had chops, and he could sing the blues, and I defy anyone to listen to, say, “Mood Ring” and dismiss Slim as a mere prankster. Why, it wouldn’t sound too out of place on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. That said he was funny as hell; “My Wig Fell Off” is a hilariously self-deprecating tune, and catchy to boot.
LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver—the only electronica LP you need ever own! You can forget about all the rest of them—they blow! It’s like the Beatles, and all those bozos buying all their LPs when the only one that conceivably matters is The White Album. The same goes for 2007’s Sound of Silver, so get rid of all your other dance-punk LPs. Just toss them in the trash; they’re nothing but rubbish cluttering your bedroom!
Okay, so everything I’ve just written is wrong-headed and absurd. Sue me! Because I mean every word of it. Sound of Silver gets my vote for best electronica LP ever, and I would hold that opinion even if it was nothing but 43 minutes of “North American Scum.” Why, just the other night I was in a car with “North American Scum” playing and I couldn’t help myself; I lowered my window and screamed at the crowds thronging 14th Street here in DC, “I need ecstasy now! Who has ecstasy? I want some fucking ecstasy right this instant!”
And I’ve never even done ecstasy! LCD Soundsystem just makes me want ecstasy. Anyway, LCD Soundsystem was, as everybody knows, the brain-child of New York City’s James Murphy, who spent some time in bands, then some time as a producer, before finally striking out in the early 2000s with his own take on dance punk. More or less a one-man band, Murphy turned down a paying gig to write for Seinfeld to produce mesmerizing and hard-edged dance tracks, starting with 2002’s underground hit “Losing My Edge.” When he wasn’t doing remixes or a long promotional piece for Nike he was writing irresistible dance tunes with great and frequently funny lyrics about life on the dance floor.
The Membranes are back. Breaking a silence that dates back to 1993’s brilliant Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, the abrasive pioneering post-punk outfit—their angular songs have lots of jagged edges for you to cut yourself on—has just released a new LP. Like the band’s earlier work, 2015’s Dark Matter/Dark Energy is dissonant and angry.
How angry? Well, on what amounts to a concept album, they’re railing against nothing less than the entire Universe. Talk about going after big game. Personally, I’m happy to find myself in the company of people who find the Universe as inexcusably repellent as I do. As vocalist John Robb says so well on the Captain Beefhearteque “21st Century Man,” “I feel everything/And it disgusts me!” In short, Dark Matter/Dark Energy is less vinyl than vitriol, and to quote the Rolling Stones, I like it.
Founded in Blackpool England in 1977, the band’s only original member is Robb, who in addition to singing plays bass, strings, and keyboards. Its other members include Nick Brown (guitars, pianos, Hammond, brass), Peter Byrchmore (guitars, strings, keyboards, elbow), and Rob Haynes (drums, metal percussion). The Membranes have an amazing ability to leap from genre to genre—some industrial here, some Fall-like crank rock there, and some fantastic percussion-heavy funk (see “Space Junk”) over there. Why, they’ve even included a song—“5776 Breathing Song”—that uncomfortably reminds me of The Alan Parsons Project. (Hey, nobody’s perfect.) And in keeping with their concept, one track features a scientist explaining the secrets of the universe (see “The Multiverse Suite”).
Mudhoney is the redheaded stepchild of grunge. While its fellow bands—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden—went on to fame and fortune, Mudhoney (like Tad) got left behind, despite the fact that they were arguably the first of the grunge bands and released the great “Touch Me I’m Sick,” a song whose only competitor as greatest grunge tune ever is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But they’ve carried on, real troopers, releasing solid records that receive great reviews but inevitably fail to sell. The world, friends, is not fair.
But I never shed any tears, because I was never a grunge fan to begin with. The genre sounded atavistic to me, like a return to the Stone Age past of Grand Funk Railroad, and my tastes ran to noise rock, and bands that didn’t just play great music but put on really fucked-up live shows that bordered on the deranged. I remember hearing “Touch Me I’m Sick” for the first time in a Philly bar and thinking, “This is really something.” Then I left the bar for the stage area and Cows started a riot and I almost got crushed by a giant member of Zen Guerilla (Philly greats!) and forgot all about “Touch Me I’m Sick.”
Hell, I might not have attended the Black Cat show on July 7 at all had Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds not opened for them. I love Kid Congo Powers; he’s my kind of twisted. And his band is tight, tight, tight. But I’d heard great things about Mudhoney—they’re Mark Arm on vocals, Steve Turner on guitar, Dan Peters on drums, and Guy Maddison on bass—and was relatively enthused to see them. It would give me a chance to see if I’d be wrong about grunge all along.
My youth was haunted by the specter of the Carpenters. My younger sister suffered from a form of demonic possession that caused her to play the damnable duo around the clock, and not in the privacy of her room, but on the stereo in the living room, making their easy listening palaver impossible to avoid. I was inundated by the band that President Richard Milhous Nixon called “Young America at its best,” and there were times when I thought if I heard their version of “Please Mr. Postman” again I would go postal, for real.
How the decades change things. I now love the Carpenters, love their squeaky-clean image (which Richard hated), immaculate arrangements, and total lack of soul. Because if there was one thing they lacked, it was soul. The Carpenters made The Captain and Tennille look like Ike and Tina Turner. But who needs soul? Some of my favorite bands are seriously challenged in the soul department. Killdozer has no soul. Cows had no soul. Besides, while my sister was subsisting on an All-Carpenters diet I was doing the same with Elton John, and when it really comes down to it the only difference between the two is that the Carpenters would have never have laid a finger on “The Bitch Is Back.” Otherwise, both bands were MOR all the way.
I’m not sure what led to my religious conversion; was it their bleached version of Leon Russell’s “Superstar?” Or their anodyne take on “Rainy Days and Mondays?” It doesn’t matter. What matters is that at some point in time I had a moment of Satori; sure they were soulless, but so was Kraftwerk, and I’d sooner listen to the Carpenters’ than that gaggle of Krauts on synthesizers any day. Karen’s voice was angelic. Their melodies were magic. And despite their reputation as the easy listening band par excellence they were more hardcore than I ever gave them credit for, as is proved by the fact that Richard (who turned into a Quaalude junkie!) used to make his entrance on stage by motorcycle, while Karen pounded away at the drums. In a way, the Carpenters WERE America’s Kraftwerk; both bands were really machines that produced songs that were perfectly crafted—machine-tooled, as it were.