Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Groundhogs,
Thank Christ for the Bomb

Only two things in this world have the capacity to immediately cause my eyes to glaze over; the first is talk about politics, and the second is the phrase “British blues group.” The momentous impact that the introduction of American blues had on British musicians cannot be overestimated; John Lee Hooker and company instantly transformed a generation of skiffle-mad Brits into blues zombies, fanatical acolytes and slavish imitators of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and company. Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Long John Baldry, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and countless other bands arose to preach the blues, and there was no way to stop their spreading like kudzu.

I’ve never been a blues aficionado, but Mayall, Baldry, and their like have always haunted and taunted me, goading me into giving them a fair chance, always to my disappointment. Their chief function, so far as I can tell, was as finishing schools for a very long laundry list of future rock greats. Why, Baldry alone is responsible for fostering such neophytes as Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll, Elton John, and others. There is one British blues group, however, that I actually find intriguing, and that’s the Groundhogs. Theirs is a most inauspicious name, and I can’t say I expected much after a friend recommended I give their 1970 LP Thank Christ for the Bomb a listen. But I’ll be damned if the LP isn’t excellent, combining great musicianship with intriguing originals that frequently deviate from your basic blues template.

The Groundhogs were formed in 1963 by titular leader Tony McPhee, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, who borrowed the band name from the title of a John Lee Hooker tune. The band’s history gets a bit twisted, so suffice it to say they briefly changed their name to Herbal Mixture (reefer turn-on alert!) before changing it back to the Groundhogs, and that Thank Christ for the Bomb was the band’s third studio LP, and fourth album overall if you count the 1968 LP they recorded with John Lee Hooker. The Groundhogs were playing as a trio at the time Thank Christ for the Bomb was released, with Peter Cruickshank and Ken Pustelnik joining McPhee on drums and bass, respectively.

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Graded on a Curve:
Foo Fighters, (s/t)

Dave Grohl is the Phil Collins of alt-rock. I don’t know how else to put it. Just as Collins took over the post-Peter Gabriel Genesis and continued to play a watered down version of their best music, Grohl inherited the Nirvana formula from the late Kurt Cobain and has been playing diluted variations on it since.

Grohl and the Foo Fighters can rock out like nobody’s business, but his sound has always struck me as generic, bland even. His songs strike me as genre exercises, and his reuse of Nirvana’s patented quiet-loud-quiet-loud shtick wears thin. Worst of all, Grohl’s screamed choruses and expressions of rage sound false—imitations of Cobain’s very real expressions of angst—rather than earned. Grohl isn’t tortured and he’s not enraged—he’s just a nice, normal American guy. He’s certainly not angry or self-hating enough to blow his brains out, and by pretending he is he has never done himself any favors.

In short, Dave Grohl lacks the capacity to move me. At all. Perhaps it lies in the fact that—as not one but several people put it to me—he lacks soul. Kurt Cobain had soul to spare, so much soul in fact it killed him, but Dave Grohl is just a well-adjusted boy from Washington, D.C. When I listen to him rage away I feel like Bob Dylan, who after being branded a traitor in England responded, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” Not that I think Grohl is prevaricating. Rather, I think his skill set and time with Cobain have doomed him to forever play a kind of Nirvana Mark II, which unlike the Mark I version lacks the explosive emotional power supplied by Cobain’s nausea, disgust, and self-hatred. Grohl is the Man Who Would Be Cobain, but in reality is but a shadow successor, someone who can produce the requisite noises but can’t infuse them with the pain that Cobain—who wore his nerves outside his skin and truly had a hellhound on his trail—could evoke at will.

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Graded on a Curve:
Leaf Hound,
Growers of Mushroom

Psychedelics! Hallucinogenics! LSD! Mushrooms! Peyote! STP! I couldn’t wait to take them after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I had trepidations. I was afraid they’d transport me to some far-off psychic realm and deposit me there for good, and I’d end up like Syd Barrett with Quaaludes melting in my hair, talking to my long-dead great-grandfather, the one who was dragged to death by horses. So I asked a more experienced buddy, a macrodoser who once dropped acid every day for a month, how long the trip would last. And he replied insouciantly, “Oh, anywhere from six hours to the rest of your life.” I wasn’t what you’d call reassured.

I only tripped a few times, because as it turns out I’m Woody Allen neurotic and far too fragile a psychic specimen to be messing about with my delicate brain circuitry, but had I been the Captain Trips type who knows, maybe I’d have heard Leaf Hound’s great Growers of Mushroom. Alas, I gave up hallucinogenics on the fateful night I dropped acid, then spent the next six hours down on my hands and knees looking for it.

But it’s never too late to rejoin the counterculture, which I have done by burning my draft card (okay, so it was a pay stub from work, but it’s the symbolism that matters) and checking out all the semi-obscure psychedelic bands from that time I can find. And the band I like best, by many many micrograms, is Leaf Hound. The British band only released one LP, but it’s a work of true genius. It has everything you could possibly want in an album—great vocals, great guitar, great songs, even great cowbell. I love this album and want everyone to know about it, because it’s like Owsley-quality blotter acid for your ears and guaranteed to cause you to turn on, tune in, and turn it up.

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Graded on a Curve:
Small Faces,
Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake

I loved Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries as a kid. I especially loved the Crunchberries, those red carcinogenic balls of pure goodness that I always saved for last. But when I became a man I put away childish things—except for my GI Joe, of course; you’ve got to draw the line somewhere—and I now begin every day with a heaping earful of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. It sounds better than Cap’n C.—bigger, bouncier, crunchier, and far more Mod—and it’s more nutritious too. I pour the LP from its round cereal box sleeve onto my turntable, drop the needle on the first savory helping, and exclaim, “Here comes the Nice!”

In my ‘umble opinion the Small Faces were the most versatile of the great Mod bands. The quartet had it all; they could kick out the jams like The Yardbirds; were as fixated on British mores and bourgy social life as the Kinks; as Mod and in-your-boat-race (when they felt the yen) as the Who; and as psychedelic (on such cuts as “Afterglow” and “The Journey”) as Pink Floyd. And they combined all of these trappings—wrapping the whole shebang in some thick English accents, and even adding a weird uncle of a narrator, Stanley Unwin, to contribute some “looney links” between tracks—on their undisputed masterpiece, 1968’s concept LP Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake is both the Small Faces’ greatest and final statement, for they broke up shortly thereafter, Marriott departing to form the long-stemmed heavy blues/soul/boogie band Humble Pie, and the rest of the crew joining Jeff Beck ex-pats Rod “The Mod” Stewart and Ron Wood to form The Faces. (Notice, if you will, how it took two rooster-haired personages to fill Steve Marriott’s swank Chelsea boots.) But what a last hurrah! Unless you count 1969’s posthumously released The Autumn Stone, which you shouldn’t, as it’s a sub-par mish-mash of odds and sods that Andrew Loog Oldham cobbled together to siphon every last shilling he could from the Small Faces.

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Graded on a Curve: Metallica,
Master of Puppets

I so want to be one of the cool kids. But I can’t be one of the cool kids, because I don’t like Metallica. I don’t know why and I don’t know how and I don’t know much of anything at all, except this: Lots of people whose tastes in music I respect speak highly of Metallica, and early Metallica in particular. Whereas I must say the only Metallica song I’ve ever really listened to, “Enter Sandman,” has always struck me as absolutely fucktooth awful. It’s stiff and rigid and makes me feel claustrophobic, and based on it and it alone I would have to call Metallica one of the most tight-assed, as opposed to tight, bands in the history of rock.

I’m a firm believer in judging a band before I give them a fair shake, but in Metallica’s case I made an exception for the sake of my friends, who think I should like Metallica because they’re a seminal thrash band and broke commercial barriers and all that. So I listened to the highly recommended 1986 LP Master of Puppets, and having done so it is my expert musical opinion that Metallica probably sounds great if you’ve just snorted a big long line of crystal meth. Unfortunately I left all my crank back in 1988, and without it all I can say is that Metallica writes crappier-than-usual metal-issue lyrics, has no discernible sense of humor, and isn’t big on catchy melodies. What Metallica is big on is demonstrating its impressive chops.

It all sounds like a cold and lifeless exercise in virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake to me, the way Metallica goes from pumping out bone-crushing riffs at 1,000 mph to playing martial marching music that brings to mind the Nuremburg rallies. They might as well have called this baby Music to Invade Poland By. Oh, and I almost forgot, at least half the tunes are twice as long as they should be. Metallica holds the dubious honor of being the Grateful Dead of Thrash.

And it’s not like I can be accused of hating thrash metal per se. I really enjoy Anthrax, because their sound is less fascistic and they’ve written lots of great songs like “Caught in a Mosh” and “Antisocial” and “S.S.C./Stand and Fall” and even have a bona fide sense of humor! And they rap! Just try to imagine Metallica recording a hilarious tune like “Bud E Luv Bomb and Satan’s Lounge Band.” They’d blow black exhaust out their too-tight asses and explode like fragmentation grenades. And oh yeah, Anthrax’s lyrics actually make sense!

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Graded on a Curve:
Devo,
Q: Are We Not Men?
A: We Are Devo!

Thank God for the great state of Ohio. It produces rockers the way Utah creates cretinous little polygamist kids. Just look at Cleveland, where I once pissed into the front seat of a car that parked us in after a drunken night on The Flats. (And people ask me why I quit drinking.) Cleveland Rocks! has given us The Isley Brothers, The Raspberries, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, and Nine Inch Nails. To say nothing of that great cowboy punk, Roy Rogers.

Then there’s Kent State—which I visited once, and after careful calculations concluded it wasn’t the Ohio National Guard that murdered those four students back in 1970 but Neil Young, desperate for the subject of a protest song—which has bequeathed us perhaps the weirdest Ohio band of them all.

I’m talking, of course, about Devo, which I was lucky enough to see on their first national tour: on Thorazine. It was in a seated auditorium, and during the show lead guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh stepped from chair arm to chair arm until he was straddled directly above me, playing a very berserk solo. I repaid him by drooling on his right foot. (And people ask me why I quit doing drugs.)

Call Devo Art-Punk, New Wave, or Synthpop, just don’t call them late for De-evolution, their joke philosophy which isn’t when one considers the likes of Dick Cheney and Rascal Flatts. Some people favor the “Whip It”-era Devo, but upon listening to their music again I’m forced to concede the only Devo LP I really love (or even much like) is their 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Produced by Brian Eno (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Robert Fripp also expressed interest), the LP featured their “classic” line-up of Mark Mothersbaugh on keyboards, guitar, and lead vocals; Bob Mothersbaugh on lead guitar and backing vocals; Alan Myers on drums; Bob Casale on rhythm guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals; and Gerald V. Casale on bass, keyboards, and lead vocals.

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Graded on a Curve: Lambchop, Nixon

Have you ever loved something to death but were unable to tell anyone why? A particular mangy bong, a certain flashing array of exterior bar lights, that chimney atop the old house on the corner, your asshole boyfriend? Well that’s the case with Lambchop—the band, not the famous sock puppet sheep—and yours truly. I adore them, but I’ve always been loath to review them, because I’m afraid I lack the words to tell you just exactly what it is that makes them so goddamn great. Some things, as Samuel Beckett would have said, are Unnamable.

The Nashville-based Lambchop are singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kurt Wagner—who is never to be seen without some manner of non-baseball-related baseball cap and a graying soul patch—and a constantly shifting cast of musicians who on any given day may number as many as 14. They play an indescribable scramble of rock, funk, R&B, gospel, country, lounge music, and vintage folk that generally leaves you feeling either a lingering sense of melancholy (“Your Life as a Sequel,” “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed”) or joyously uplifted (“All Smiles and Mariachi,” “Your Fucking Sunny Day.”)

But those are just words; I love them because, because: hell, all I can say is check out “Give It (Once in a Lifetime)” from 2009’s Live at XX Merge on YouTube, and you’ll know why. (And if you don’t like it, we’re different species. You’re a wombat.) Or listen to “Garf,” which begins as a recollection of childhood only to make an abrupt left into this: “And I could be sitting/By the telephone tomorrow/To receive a call/By the overweight Garth Brooks/Who would then try to offer me/Like a hundred thousand dollars/Just for me to go the fuck away.” I laugh at the preposterousness of those words every time I hear them, but I don’t think that’s why I adore Lambchop either.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deer Tick,
Divine Providence

I spent my twenties in bars. And not high-class bars either. No, I exclusively frequented old man bars with glum duffers leaning silently over their drinks and paying no attention to the ancient television sitting atop a tower of beer cases, hole in the wall bars with big glass jars of pickled eggs dating back to the Kennedy Administration, dim dive bars with broken furniture piled in the corners, small town Maryland bars with stickers reading “The KKK is Watching You” in the urinals (for real), and best of all, a bar in a bad neighborhood in North Philly where you had to be buzzed in and which was run by a sullen bullet-headed old man who was guilty of WWII war crimes, I’m certain of it, and who put up signs prohibiting every known form of barroom amusement, including dancing, swearing, sitting on the pool table, spitting, and for all I know laughing. You could have a good time there, if you sat very still and didn’t mention the Nuremburg Trials.

I bring all this up because Providence, Rhode Island’s Deer Tick is responsible for one of the greatest bar room tunes I’ve ever heard. It’s called “Let’s All Go to the Bar,” and it captures precisely the minor league Bukowskian spirit of my younger years. It comes off their 2011 LP Divine Providence, which I like better than its predecessors because it’s raucous and high-spirited, or at least its best songs are.

And that’s no accident. The band wanted to release an LP that captured the “the raw and spontaneous kerosene blaze” of their live shows, and they’ve succeeded, for the most part. The album includes plenty of good time bordering on maybe I ought to go to rehab music, and if that bullet-headed old war criminal’s bar had had a jukebox, “Let’s All Go to the Bar” would have provided the perfect accompaniment to popping pills and drinking shots of cheap tequila. Alas, there was no jukebox. I suspect he was afraid it would tempt people to dance.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Sweetheart of the Rodeo

You’ve got to hand it to Gram Parsons; the boy had chutzpah. No sooner had the relatively unknown 21-year-old joined The Byrds in February 1968 in the wake of the departure of David “I Am the Walrus” Crosby and Michael Clarke, he managed to talk the band, including leader Roger McGuinn, into scuttling McGuinn’s plans for an ambitious double album of the history of American popular music in favor of an album of straight-up country music, or country-rock if you insist, or “Cosmic American Music” as Parsons poetically termed it.

It must have been an audacious piece of salesmanship, for no rock band—much less a pop supergroup with the psychedelic bona fides of The Byrds—had ever attempted anything so potentially suicidal from a commercial standpoint. From “Eight Miles High” to “The Christian Life”? Longhairs playing pure country honk? Why, the idea was unthinkable, risible even, although The Byrds themselves had dabbled in country before and Bob Dylan himself would make the transition soon enough.

To add authenticity, The Byrds (McGuinn on acoustic guitar, banjo, and vocals; Chris Hillman on bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and vocals; Parsons on acoustic guitar, piano and organ, and vocals; and Kevin Kelley on drums) wrangled up a crew of mostly Nashville ringers, including legendary electric guitarist Clarence White (who would die tragically in 1973, hit by a drunken driver); John “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry” Hartford on banjo, fiddle, and acoustic guitar; Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness on pedal steel guitar; Roy Husky on double bass; and Earl Poole Ball and Barry “Electric Flag” Goldberg on piano.

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Graded on a Curve:
Anti-Nowhere League, “Streets of London” EP

I never liked me no filthy UK punk. When The Sex Pistols exploded I was too transfixed by David Byrne’s stupid giant suit to pay much attention to what was going on in England. I heard and liked the Sex Pistols just fine, but my small-town isolation resulted in my missing such bands as Sham 69, The Exploited, or Chron Gen. All I heard was Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Ants, and they put me off what was happening in England for years. It was my decided opinion that any country that could produce a band that dressed like pirates had nothing to offer, and that was that was that. In short, I was a dipshit.

I’ve been making amends for my disinterest in English punk for decades now, playing catch up as it were in a desperate attempt to make up for my slavish attraction to art rock. And recently I stumbled upon a band I really love: Anti-Nowhere League. I love them because they were obscene and filthy and their lead singer was named Animal and wore a codpiece and you could tell just by looking at him that he hadn’t had a good washing since the days when his baths included a little rubber ducky.

Dirty filthy rock’n’roll—you can’t beat it. Mitch Miller said of rock, “It’s not music, it’s a disease,” and while a band like Talking Heads (or such U.S. punkers as Television, Patti Smith, or even the Ramones) weren’t anybody’s idea of contagious, Miller may have actually been spot on about Anti-Nowhere League. They WERE less a band than a mutant form of music-producing pestilence, and what’s not to love about that?

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